By Robert Desjarlais and Khalil Habrih, co-authors of Traces of Violence: Writings on the Disaster in Paris, France
Our new book, Traces of Violence: Writings on the Disaster in Paris, France, offers a unique collaborative inquiry into various forms and aftereffects of political violence in Paris, France. We first met in the spring of 2017, while we were in engaged in separate but related ethnographic research studies in Paris. Within a few months’ time Khalil had fully joined in on the writing of a book that Robert had already started, on traces of violence. In drawing from our respective research efforts in the city, from reflections on “the disaster” of the violent attacks that occurred in Paris the night of November 13, 2015, to explorations of the wounding histories of police and colonial violence in Paris and elsewhere, we write in ways that engage with these complicated terrains of violence from distinct but interrelated perspectives. The writing proceeds in interwoven ways, with distinct texts essayed by the two authors working in dialogue with one another, and with some passages serving as “interruptions” to the main texts found in each chapter.
What emerges from this joint effort is an intensive inquiry into processes and reverberations of violence, phenomena of importance to so many in today’s world. With this palimpsest of a heterogeneous text we write in a spirit of relation, amity, and co-composition.
To give some sense of how this collaborative work has unfolded, we share several excerpted passages from the book that speak to the collaborative engagements involved – a dialogue of passages, if you will.
Habrih: His gaze, I thought, contrasted with French common sense. Robert seemed open to debate and, I sensed, would not be vexed if I formulated a critique. I suggested that were he to reorient his concepts toward a sense of the plural and overlapping histories inscribed in the city of Paris he might be able to tune into the ways in which the materiality of such histories produced plural and overlapping affective realities.
Desjarlais: For some time I wrote on my own, spinning strands of writing that slowly formed into uneven bundles of thought. Only later did Khalil join me in this endeavor; this took the writing into new domains of thought and perception. As Khalil and I walked in drifting ways through a series of neighborhoods in north Paris, we talked of the histories, wounds, and spectral hauntings embedded there. These excursions led to further conversations together and further researches into the formations of violence. Such interruptive engagements were most welcome. I had come to realize that I could not grasp the force of violence on my own; my political subjectivity and interpretive frameworks were tied to certain perspectives and a skewed regard of the city. Another voice was needed. Other histories of violence and wounding had to be inscribed, such that the writing became more dialogic and multistranded, and the thought otherwise.
Habrih: After wandering together in the north of Paris, in July 2017, Robert invited me to join him on an ethnographic and conceptual exploration of traces of violence. I came with questions of method and epistemology, with historical and ethnographic texts, which I had assembled during fieldwork on police presence in the Goutte d’Or between 2015 and 2017.
Desjarlais: Khalil wanted me to see otherwise, to know of other histories of violence, and through this looking and listening the geographies of pain and displacement might appear as traces in writing. “Je tenais à ce qu’il voit cela,” Khalil wrote, referring to contemporary and historical events that had unfolded in the space we traversed. I sought, in turn, to understand the complicated histories informing Khalil’s research, life and those of others, including the welfare of Algerian families who had moved to France during and after the French-Algerian war. These emergent perceptions took form through walking, and talking, drifting through places and words and histories; as we walked and spoke of what we encountered I picked up embodied perceptions of the marked terrains that Khalil and others have traversed.
Habrih: This did not come without additional self-questioning. Who was I to intervene in a text? Did I represent a collective voice? Was Robert in control of the terms of our relationship? Looking back on my hesitations and unease, I think I was concerned with two things. One was the symbolic position I would be given within Robert’s work. I did not want to be an informant or a consultant. I was wary of becoming a peculiar and lonely voice among ghosts; one that claimed to bring Others to the table. I did not want to find myself becoming “his native,” captured in writing as an object of anthropological taxidermy. The other concern was that I was still learning and I could see my perceptions, analyses, and sensibilities evolve. These shifts resonated through my experience of authorship. Finding stability in my position as a writer did not rely exclusively on my ability to write, however; it relied on an ethical gesture. Rather than pursue the illusion of textual equality, Robert encouraged me to pursue doctoral studies and work toward the institutional conditions for my writing to be read with his, and conversely.
Desjarlais: I realize the risk of taking Khalil Habrih as a “research subject” of sorts, using their words and text as an anthropological resource, shearing language into data and evidence to document the suffering of postcolonial subjects. If care is not taken, any words inscribed could provoke another cut into the skein of wounds Khalil knows and writes about, including the lacerations of social science research on supposedly “exotic” beings living in faraway places. And so I write tentatively, hesitantly, wary of documenting Khalil’s life, wanting the writing instead to be the tangible trace of our thoughts and words together as we traversed north Paris that day—and as we later came to write in dialogic, intersecting ways, without wounding.
Habrih: Robert Desjarlais and I did not perceive the same phenomena, we did not apprehend the disaster in the same ways. But we thought to look at ruins, to excavate what they could teach us, and to look again. Our perceptions changed and we reconsidered our methods in light of our ongoing dialogue. Significantly, we were both forced to properly understand the positions and perspectives from which we spoke. Our collaboration is a situated perspective on a set of concepts, phenomena, and materialities, a collection of shadows (esquisses) enhanced by our will to write and think with mutual respect and amity.