Making Academic Writing Unpalatable
Examining violence without sensationalizing or sanitizing
Gyanendra Pandey, Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor,
Department of History


Vol. 11 No. 1
September 2008

Return to Contents

Knowing Your Worth
Negotiation and the academic marketplace

Recommended reading

Why don’t we have, for the person who’s been at the institution for ten years whose equipment is all ratty, a refresher package?”

“I don’t think Emory should ever concede that it will lose people to better schools. I think it has long done that, has not tried to remain competitive, and sometimes I fear that it is still just trying to be good enough.”

Women and Negotiation
What can underpaid but committed faculty members do?

Book Review and Reflections
Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives by Anna Fels

Making Academic Writing Unpalatable
Examining violence without sensationalizing or sanitizing


In 1990, I delivered a talk on several U.S. campuses about an instance of Hindu-Muslim violence in Bhagalpur, north India, the year before. The incident might be described as a pogrom, a widespread and to a large extent orchestrated attack upon the Muslim minority in a district of Bihar, which spread over several weeks, left hundreds dead, and turned tens of thousands of people into refugees, hiding in camps and other comparatively protected places. It was impossible, I said, to find anything like adequate or reliable evidence: the parties to the conflict had very different, indeed completely polarized accounts, the administration had hidden and subsequently destroyed much of the evidence it collected; there were simply no neutral observers; and it was difficult even to talk or write about the violence, given its incredibly barbaric character. How do we write about such violence, I asked, without either sensationalizing it and producing a pornography of violence, or sanitizing it by reducing it to a set of abstract numbers and “underlying” causes?

The moment underlined for me how innovative academic writing must engage the risk of the “unpalatable.” That is, it must seek to open up questions, propositions, and modes of argument not normally admissible within the terms of the disciplines or discourses that we inhabit.

In response to that talk, and to my subsequent work on the violence that constituted the partition of the Indian subcontinent, I encountered two kinds of objections (although these may, in the end, have been just one). First, especially in the case of Partition, an event that occurred sixty years ago, even sympathetic colleagues questioned the focus on the violence: why not let bygones be bygones? Why dredge up the past and re-open old wounds in Indian (and Pakistani and Bangladeshi) society? Wasn’t the violence just a moment of madness, best forgotten?

Second, readers and listeners asked about both Bhagalpur and Partition: why the extraordinary detail, the barrage of disturbing, unpalatable information about what common people, ordinary folk like you and me, can do to one another—information that some found it hard to listen to or read?

At the same time, one of my colleagues remarked after hearing my 1990 talk that he liked the fact that my presentation could not easily be appropriated or hitched on to other platforms or agendas—a difficulty, I suspect, that had to do with that thicket of detail. The presentation was dense with names of places and people and debates that were unfamiliar to the audience. Part of its purpose was to suggest that these names, places, and debates—the specific location of the occurrences—could not be separated from the more general or theoretical propositions of the paper. In order to engage with these, it was necessary to engage with some of the specifics of location, to familiarize oneself with names, events, and languages that are not already one’s own.

One might put the point in terms of translation. When it comes to translation, one must not be in too much of a hurry. Words come with worlds, and sometimes their very unfamiliarity is cause for
discomfort. Words and worlds are not easily translated. And sometimes it is better not to translate them, even in our academic writings. Rather, we must present them —so far as we can—as they first appear to us, and try to convey something of their sense and implication by providing context, and examples of their organizational and situational placement, unfamiliar though these might be.

Feminist writing, queer theory, minority histories, subaltern and postcolonial studies and other oppositional scholarship has
undertaken precisely such work in recent times. For historians, one way of troubling received histories has been to re-examine the frame of national history, to think outside the box of the nation-state and outside the box of what is traditionally counted as history. One could extend the proposition to thinking outside the box of what is thought of as politics, or violence, or art.
The assertion, “This is not history,” or not “real” history, “merely supplemental” history, has long dogged feminist scholarship, subaltern studies, and minority histories, and it shows no signs of disappearing anytime soon.

A second move that has produced equally unpalatable results for the historical establishment has been to challenge the long-accepted chronology and linear movement of narrative, the terms of discourse, the fetishizing of the footnote and the “fact,” the veneration of official documents and the eyewitness account, and the simple faith in a “real” history, somewhere out there, awaiting only the diligence of the researcher. More and more historians today recognize the uncertainty of much that appears in the historical record as “fact.” In an early essay on a Hindu-Muslim riot in Banaras in 1809, the “great Banaras riots” as the British colonial description had it, I noted that the different colonial accounts of the riot, dating from 1809-1810 to the early 1900s, were not agreed even on the bare facts of the event. The identity of the parties involved, the issue(s) over which they allegedly clashed, the mode of mobilization and violence, the location and precise date of the conflict, the number of casualties—none of this was very clear. What successive writings had retailed were rumors reported as fact in earlier writings, embellished with the later writers’ own “understanding” and with additional information gained from casual conversations.

A third means of making historical writing unpalatable, or at least more messy, relates to the second: to move away from the supposedly straightforward gathering of information to provide a handy summary of the history of a people, an event, or a process. Instead, we pay attention to the interruptions in received narratives, what I call fragments, for what they tell us about the self-representation of the totalities we work with—that is, the coherence attached to particular objects of inquiry and particular historical subjects, the naturalized subjects of history, and the objects of historical inquiry. Reviewers reading my essay on the Banaras “riot” (as also my work on Partition) were able to say that the author doesn’t tell us much about what actually happened, or about its causes. In consequence, they argued, readers can take away what they like from his writing!

The assumed transparency and seamlessness of the texts we produce and work with compounds the problem. This is where the issue of the “fragment” comes in. The fragment here is not just a “bit,” the dictionary’s “piece broken off,” of a pre-constituted whole. Rather, as I have suggested elsewhere (Routine Violence: Nations, Fragments, Histories [Stanford 2006]), it is a “disturbing element, a disturbance, a rupture . . . in the self-representation of particular totalities and those who uncritically uphold them.” An outstanding example of such an interruption is found in E. Valentine Daniel’s book, Charred Lullabies (Princeton 1996), a powerful meditation on the violence Sri Lanka has lived through over the last twenty-five years. Daniel explores in detail the attempt to narrate the experience of violence and torture and stresses “the limits, the particularity, the unshareability, and the incommunicability” of its pain. “Regardless of who the witness is—the villain, the surviving victim, or you and I—” he writes, “the violent event persists like crushed glass in one’s eyes.” He reports an interview with a man who was in the crowd that killed the pantaram (or boy who makes garlands) at a village Hindu temple in 1983:

The boy was in the middle of the road. He had urinated. The crowd was going round and round him. Someone attacked him with a sword, and then “everyone” began cutting him up with knives and beating him with sticks. Someone brought a tire from the Brown and Co. garage. There was petrol. . . . [T]hey piled him on the tire and set it aflame. And can you imagine, this fellow stood up with cut-up arms and all and stood like that, for a little while, then fell back into the fire.

This was in the early days of his collection of stories about the violence, says Daniel, and he did not know what to say. “So I asked [the man] a question of absolute irrelevance to the issue at hand. Heaven knows why . . . ‘What is your goal in life?’ I asked. The reply shot right back: ‘I want a video [a VCR].’”

The fragment, then: a disturbance that has much to tell us about the histories we wish to write. An unexpected, perhaps unwelcome presence, what Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser called “an answer without a question.” An answer to a question that has not been posed: just one way of pushing at the limits of academic research—and writing.