Taking Note of Violence

Philip Luke Johnson explores the late Lee Ann Fujii’s revolutionary — and uncomfortable — theories of public violence.

Taking Note of Violence

Show Time: The Logic and Power of Violent Display by Lee Ann Fujii. 234 pages.

IN THE “INTERMISSION” chapter of her new and final book, Show Time: The Logic and Power of Violent Display, Lee Ann Fujii recounts some of the challenges of asking people to talk to her about violence in their communities and occasionally in their families. A woman in a town in Maryland that had been the scene of a lynching roughly 80 years earlier refused her requests, declaring, “I don’t know why anyone would want to write a book on violence.”

Fujii had expected that, with the passage of time, it would become easier to talk about the racist murder. Instead, she found no distance at all; the violence continued to demand an uneasy silence. This non-conversation repeats an idea that threads through Fujii’s work: that one can never observe violence from a detached position. Violence makes claims upon anyone who witnesses or studies it.

Fujii was an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a respected scholar of violence. She died unexpectedly after contracting the flu in 2018 while in the final stages of writing Show Time. Her death was a blow to the field of political science, where Fujii was esteemed for her generosity and her tireless advocacy for a more ethical and diverse academy. In a career spanning almost two decades, Fujii published a book on the Rwandan Genocide; a second book on conducting responsible, relational research; and a collection of articles on violence and studying violence.

She worked on Show Time for almost a decade, investigating genocide in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and lynching on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. She drafted and workshopped versions of the book intensively, and many of us who research violence were eagerly awaiting the final version. Fujii had shared a draft chapter of the book with my political science class at Hunter College, and my students were fascinated by her argument-in-progress. After her death, dedicated colleagues stepped in to make sure that the book made it to press.

Fujii’s own notes and drafts have never been recovered, but the most recent shared version was tracked down and lightly edited by Martha Finnemore, Fujii’s former advisor at George Washington University. This version of the book had no conclusion, so Elisabeth Jean Wood at Yale wrote an epilogue, raising the questions that Wood wishes she could have asked Fujii directly.

Show Time continues Fujii’s searching analysis of violence and atrocity. Her first book, Killing Neighbors, explores the local, intimate connections that drew ordinary Rwandans to participate in the 1994 genocide. More than an investigation of why people kill, that book examines why, on a mass scale, people turned on and killed those they had previously lived peacefully alongside. In Show Time, Fujii focuses in on “violent display” — the intentional staging of collective violence for a public audience, even at risk of negative consequences.

We should understand violent display as a performance. The book’s chapters are organized around this conceit, examining instances of “rehearsal” violence building up to the “main attraction” of violent display. In an intermission, Fujii reflects on her methods of research, while chapters on “sideshow” and “encore” consider further display around and after the main attraction.

Violent display is scripted because it is understood in terms of prior acts of violence. In talking about the lynching in Maryland, perpetrators and witnesses drew a direct link to earlier violence against Black men in the area. But the outcome is never completely determined by the script. Hardened perpetrators sometimes show mercy; bystanders sometimes shoulder their way to the front and assume leading roles. This offers a glimmer of hope in the conclusion: violence is not always powerful, never completely irresistible.

Staging a violent display can be transformative in different ways and at different scales. Fujii details a broad range of participants in violence, including spectators, bystanders, and bit-part actors. While some of the main actors recreate themselves as “new men” by staging violent displays, even seemingly removed audiences are drawn in by the performance. How far does the web of complicity reach? Tourists turned up in the Maryland town because of the lynching and, in doing so, made the event seem more important and powerful. Publicity has no strict outer limits; once word is out, the audience is difficult to circumscribe.

An audience can extend across the world. The degradation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was initially staged for a clique of direct witnesses and participants. It was only when photographs of the display were circulated that the violence reached wider audiences and eventually the global public. By Fujii’s expanded sense of complicity, those of us who took ourselves to be distant observers, merely viewing and perhaps posting images from Abu Ghraib, could be considered involved in the violence. Even at what we take to be a safe remove, violence might reach and affect us.

In a critique of the norms of good science, Fujii raised the example of sharing photos from a lynching for academic publication. While sharing these images would be good scholarly practice, making “data” freely available to the scientific community, Fujii saw a troubling complicity here. Many such photos were taken as souvenirs during public displays that reasserted white supremacy over Black bodies. Sharing these images extends the violent display and its effects. The detached scrutiny with which scholars view these images is similar to the detached scrutiny with which a crowd of curious onlookers snapped photos and pocketed souvenirs in the first place.

In a previous article on ethical research, Fujii wrote, “Wrestling with ethical dilemmas is the price we pay for the privileges we enjoy.” Although she offered numerous examples of responsible practices for examining violence, she gave little indication that the wrestling ever ends. Even if we value an ethic of care over aloof science, the dilemmas will reappear.

One particular figure from Rwanda prompts her most challenging reflections on complicity. In her book on relational research, Fujii calls him “the man with the black notebook.” (He even scores an entry in the index of this book — although, in keeping with his haunting presence, not all references to him in the book are listed under the index entry.) This man was a confessed genocidaire, whom Fujii interviewed twice in prison during her research for Killing Neighbors.

The man brought the notebook to his second interview with Fujii. Throughout the conversation, he recorded his own notes in the book — mirroring Fujii’s technique of keeping handwritten notes during interviews. Fujii felt that this turned the interview into a “contest of wills” in which he largely succeeded in usurping control of the conversation. She was upset and decided not to hold further interviews with him. Reflecting on the exchange, she recognizes the notebook as an attempt to reclaim some dignity in a highly unequal power setting.

Fujii is troubled as much by her reaction as by the notetaking. She reflects that her resentment stemmed from the fact that this man did not behave in accordance with her expectations about proper research. Only one side of the interview is supposed to observe, to keep notes. As researchers, as witnesses, as supposed bystanders, we can observe violence, but it is not supposed to observe us back. Fujii often wrote about the curiosity she attracted in Rwanda and the rumors that followed her. When the incarcerated genocidaire reciprocated Fujii’s close attention, she found the interaction unsettling.

Five years later, she found that he had been released, and she visited him in his home. He again proved troubling. As Fujii and her translator sat down to speak with him, he gathered some papers and started taking notes. The man appeared angry, evading her questions. When she asked if he would like to offer questions instead, he pointed out that she had written a book, advanced her career, and presumably earned some money. Meanwhile, the people she interviewed were still in or recently released from prison and living in poverty. “What do you plan to do for […] us?” he asks.

Payments to research participants are often prohibited in academic projects, given that incentivizing participation can be seen as a form of manipulation. Fujii reminds him that she was clear from the beginning about being unable to compensate anyone for participating in her research. He counters that “[a]ssistance is not payment.” He only drops the subject when Fujii points out that the Rwandan government would shut the project down if she was seen to be rewarding these men. The rigid control of the authoritarian regime is the only point upon which they concur.

The man’s claims are troubling because they are warranted. Even though Fujii fastidiously sought consent and explained the terms of participation to the people she interviewed, she recognized that these interactions entailed a degree of reciprocity, even if it could not involve direct reimbursement. In pursuing her research, Fujii put herself in a position, a relation, where a confessed killer could make a reasonable claim upon her. While ethical dilemmas are the price to pay for being able to remain a detached observer of violence, this is a personal price and in no way pays the debt accrued in working closely with people directly involved in violence. In studying the genocide, Fujii benefited from it. In observing violence, we take something from it. The man with the black notebook offers a reminder that violence can take something back from the supposedly outside observer. No amount of distance can remove us from the complicity imposed by witnessing violence.

Fujii offers no simple resolutions to the challenges posed by the genocidaire. Given that she seems to think any such neat resolution would be impossible, it is remarkable that she discusses her interactions with him to the extent that she does. Her willingness to do so highlights her commitment to uncomfortable honesty and self-reflection. She made these values, rather than scientific detachment and supposed objectivity, the basis of her investigation of violence.

Fujii leaves us with a complete yet unfinished collection of works. We have her nuanced analyses of collective and often intimate violence. We have her advocacy for more ethical, self-reflective research and for a more diverse academy. We also have the troubling threads that weave across her work, which we can only wish we’d had the time to ask Fujii more about. Instead, she leaves us with this challenge: that even the most brilliant and sensitive scholar of violence wrestled with her lack of remove, that the most careful theorist of violence, willing to pay the price for the privilege of conducting her research, left behind unpaid debts to the main actors — the killers and perpetrators.


Philip Luke Johnson is a lecturer at Princeton University. He researches crime and violence in the Americas.

LARB Contributor

Philip Luke Johnson is a lecturer in writing at Princeton University. He holds a doctorate in political science from the City University of New York, and researches crime and violence in the Americas.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!