"There is a lot of intent, symbolism and meaning embedded in how groups [involved in political violence] perform and embody violence that does not necessarily send the same message as their ideological statements."
Allen Feldman is currently exploring what he calls "the mediatization of war." By that he means two tendencies that are occuring simultaneously: the degree to which the military is increasingly using advanced visual technology -- smart bombs, satellite imaging, infrared and heat sensing equipment, biometric surveillance -- to conduct war; and the "militarization of the media," a process that extends from embedded journalists in Iraq to the ubiquity of war games as part of our daily recreational culture. He contends that the mutual absorption of media and the military contributes to the "routinization" of warfare in American everyday life.
One of the reasons Feldman came to the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication was to pursue his research on the history of the human body's sensory system, visual culture and violence. He is currently editing a book based on a conference he recently co-organized related to this topic.
"The Future of War is a collection of essays from information technology people, cultural theorists, architectural theorists and artists who work with the same technology and images that the military deploys," he says.
Another current project is the write-up of research he undertook as a Senior Guggenheim fellow. From 1997-2000 Feldman conducted ethnographic fieldwork on The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a multi-year human rights inquiry that held hearings and heard public testimony from the thousands of people who experienced gross violation of human rights by the apartheid regime. "South Africa was going through a post violent stage, and the Commission was an important instrument for mediating the transition from violence to post violence in south African society."
Feldman did not always have a need to research violence. Feldman was initially drawn to the study of traditional Irish music as an extension of his own skills as a player of Appalachian and Irish traditional music, and as a music journalist in Ireland. His experience there resulted in his first book, The Northern Fiddler, an oral history study of traditional Irish music. "My research for that book took place in zones that were under control of the IRA. After I finished my oral history and music collecting each day, I found myself drinking in pubs with IRA activists. Many of them had just been released from prison, and they would tell me stories."
Listening to these stories, Feldman realized he was becoming fascinated with the struggle of perpetrators and victims alike to locate and to communicate meaning in their experiences of violence. As a result, he resumed working toward his doctorate in anthropology from The Graduate Faculty at the New School University.
The next several years saw Feldman conducting ethnographic research among Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries in Belfast, as he pursued his doctorate. Upon receiving his doctorate he was invited to teach in Budapest, Hungary, Ljubljana, Slovenia, Lund, Sweden and Cape Town, which led to his research on the South African Truth Commission.
One of the places he taught was NYU's Department of Performance Studies, where he gave seminars on what he calls the "political performance of the body." "Everybody assumes that if you want to understand why a group is involved in political violence, you look at their official ideological rationales. But there is a lot of intent, symbolism and meaning embedded in how those groups perform and embody violence that does not necessarily send the same message as their ideological statements.
Feldman's innovative field research on urban ethnic violence is at the core of his second book, Formations of Violence: the Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland, published in 1991. The book is a first hand experiential record of Belfast in the process of civil war. "Most books on these subjects look at the origins of conflict and based on this prescribe ways of ending violence, but I wanted to examine the connection between the rationales and objectives of violent action and the actual methods of enacting and reproducing violence in time and space. In this way we can understand why a violent campaign does not halt and sustains meaning despite the blatant failure to achieve its political goals."
After the publication of this book, Feldman became a policy analyst of AIDS and homelessness in NYC. While this work might seem like a departure from his work on violence, Feldman sees AIDS and homelessness as a form of social violence. "In Northern Ireland and South Africa I looked at the public health effects of violence."
Feldman says because he considers himself a medical anthropologist as well as a political anthropologist, his work on the issues of AIDS and homelessness covers both perspectives: "To what degree can we deal with public health inequity as a form of social violence and human rights violation in our communities."
Because his work combines anthropology, history, philosophy and even art history, it should be no surprise to hear that Feldman came to the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication because of its multi-disciplinarity. "We have film theorists, American studies scholars, political scientists, South Asian specialists, cultural studies theorists, architectural historians, and exhibited artists. Our students have diverse backgrounds as well."
Feldman looks forward to building connections and networks with other departments and disciplines in other parts of NYU and media studies programs in other countries, "both for enriching our own understanding of the issues of media and technology, but mostly for advancing and facilitating the education of our students, who seek out media/communication studies to understand the immediate and the concrete in their everyday life."