DANIELLA GANDOLFO IN CONVERSATION WITH JASMINE PISAPIA
BETWEEN FIELD AND PAGE
This interview is the first entry in our new series, 'Alumni Stories,' which explores the trajectories of graduate students post-graduation, as they navigate their scholarly and extra-academic life and reflect on the legacies of their training at Columbia.
In this conversation we focus on the passages from fieldwork to dissertation, and to book. How does one come up with an intuition for a topic and set of questions? How do these questions beg a certain kind of ethnographic “method” or engagement? And how does this all happen, anticipating, in some sense, the process of writing—first a dissertation, and then a book?
J: Daniella, your book The City at its Limits: Taboo, Transgression and Urban Renewal in Lima—framed as a “return home”—traces the complex affective histories of class divisions in Lima and the way these were embedded in urban space through a particular urban renewal campaign in the mid 1990s. It does this by drawing on George Bataille’s work on taboo and transgression. Your book to me is an example of the radically open possibilities of ethnography, the kinds of experimentations one can undertake with form in anthropology. Of course, the choice of a certain aesthetic or writerly practice is also driven by the topic itself, or the choice of a certain politics of representation. How do we write about transgression, about feeling, about a history that involves a personal dimension? I wanted us to begin by reading the very first pages of your book.
D: Thank you for that introduction, Jasmine. So, the first paragraph of the preface:
“In June 1996, during a research stay in Lima, an anthropologist friend of mine and I met one morning for breakfast at El Haití in Miraflores. I was sitting at my usual table in the back, the first coils of cigarette smoke rising and beginning to cloud the air, when he walked into the café. As he put down his backpack to join me, he casually tossed over the table that day’s issue of La República—a Lima newspaper of left-leaning politics and one of the very few that hadn’t buckled under the threats of Alberto Fujimori’s autocratic regime. The front page carried the picture of an old woman, her hair disheveled and her torso naked, as she trod the Plaza de Armas protesting the dissolution of the city’s cleaning agency with which she and about seven hundred other women had held jobs as street sweepers. Surrounding her were other women and several young men with wooden sticks and fists up in the air. Since most workers’ unions had been decimated during the early Fujimori years, the street sweepers’ protest was one of only a handful of labor demonstrations that year and the first one (in a string of protests that continues to this day) to demand the reversal of the government’s privatization program, which had been in full swing since 1993.”
J: Can you talk a little bit about this image of the street sweepers found in a newspaper, which seems to have been a springboard for the project? What questions did you have and what were the preconditions for this image to suddenly speak to you in the way it did at that moment?
D: That’s a great question. I remember really well when I saw that image. It was the middle of winter in Peru, in June of 1996. A classmate of mine and I were in Lima. He was doing his research in Peru as well. And I believe that following year we were going to take Michael Taussig’s course on “defacement”. I had been reading other works by Taussig, but his book Defacement hadn’t come out yet. He was working on it. The image just hit me as capturing a very important moment in the present of the city at the time, since there was little political pushback happening; it was the peak of repression under Fujimori. The mayor, Alberto Andrade, was joining the president's efforts in implementing all sorts of top-down neoliberal reforms, and they were actually rivals and enemies but completely aligned in what they wanted to do in the city and, all of a sudden, this front page appeared. La República was not the only newspaper that published photos of the street sweepers stripping in the plaza in protest. So, I intuitively knew that it was something important, that it had been a transgression that was exposing the underbelly of the polishing and beautifying efforts of the mayor in the downtown area, in the city center.
Andrade’s efforts to reclaim history, which was really a romanticized version of either colonial or early republican Lima, entailed the violent repression of what for him didn’t fit in it. And in that context, there was this moment of “pure despair,” as the woman I describe in the opening of the book later told me she had felt, followed by her disrobing.
The reaction in the plaza was very palpable; in other images that I saw of the women’s actions, the police retreated, you know, the police got scared when they saw this older woman naked and the other women who followed and also took their shirts off. They were completely discombobulated and stopped beating them and retreated to the edges of the plaza to regroup and figure out what to do. A few months later in this course on “defacement” with Taussig, we were talking about questions of the sacred in modernity and postmodernity, the sacred after the death of God, and this seemed like the perfect image from which to draw a topic for a final paper. That was the beginning of my dissertation project. Somehow the themes that I was interested in writing about all converged. They converged in the course of the program at Columbia and my various courses, but this was a very important class and the work I did for it ended up making it all the way into the book.
J: What was the final paper about?
D: I’m trying to remember what the title was. I do remember that it was my first foray into taboo and transgression, and definitely my first foray into thinking with Bataille. I was interested in how the mayor, and the city, reacted to this event, and, in general, the postwar (the aftermath of the armed conflict with the Shining Path) atmosphere of authoritarianism in Lima—how the notions of dirt, contamination and animality were deployed in order to be repressed. So, the paper alternated the story of the street sweepers’ transgressions (who were cleaning the dirt of the downtown area and, from the mayor’s perspective, had themselves become “dirt”) analyzed through the lens of Bataille, with boxed texts where I traced the contours of my own dealings with infection, via food contamination. Going back to Peru after a few years of living here, I had become resensitized to the various contaminants in the water. I got very sick. As I was undergoing rounds of antibiotics, I was working on this paper, and the issues seemed connected. I had two parallel stories woven together. It was also my first foray into experimental writing.
J: Would you say this was a first attempt at bringing a personal dimension to your research?
D: Absolutely. In hindsight, it does seem a little ridiculous to talk about stomach ailments [laughs], but it did bring to the fore for me an important aspect of the fieldwork experience. In the book, I aimed to portray fieldwork as an embodiedexperience. It isn't just about the eyes seeing or ears listening. It's a body walking down the street, eating, drinking, getting jolted, you know, a body living in a place like Lima, getting exposed to all sorts of sexist behaviors, if you're a woman…It has been important for me for there to be a multi-sensorial and bodily dimension to the depiction of fieldwork. So, it seemed excessive and embarrassing, but, at the same time, important to write about these material, affective and very visceral dimensions of the fieldwork experience.
J: There is a body in space that's being written upon as much as it is writing. The diary, I think, seems intimately connected to your idea of an embodied experience—and it has been your mode of developing a voice, of unfolding the use of the “I.” I saw your dissertation and the structure of the chapters is similar to that in the book. Your book alternates between a set of “diaries,” (one, two and three) interspersed with a set of three theoretical chapters. Many of us grapple with the question of how to give form to the immense amount of material we accumulate during fieldwork. It's such an important step. What guides this choice? Could you talk about how the idea of that structure came about: this alternating, dual, almost diptych-like juxtaposition?
D: And it is something that I continue to do and experiment with in different forms, in articles mostly and new projects. Back then, I was working in my cubicle at Lehman Library where I wrote my dissertation—pretty much the entire thing—and struggling to figure out what to do. I think I had already begun writing. You know, when you force yourself to put words on the page even if you’re going to end up tossing them. So, I was already writing in a sort of “diary” voice. But throughout the process of working through my materials and writing, I read. I made a point of reading books that I had been curious about for a while and had never gotten around to reading and also texts that I sensed could be important for inspiration but that didn’t have to do with my dissertation topic. They didn’t necessarily inform my work, theoretically or empirically.
J: Can you give a few examples?
D: I remember reading early on in my dissertation writing, La nausée by Jean-Paul Sartre. It is written in the form of a diary by the protagonist, Antoine Roquentin. That was my first exposure to a story being written like this. There was something about the immediacy of the descriptions in the story, important for the phenomenology of the book, that he was able to accomplish because it was written in the voice of a diarist—relating the story and performing a kind of immediacy, a kind of rawness or unprocessed experience, which is absolutely performative. I remember that I liked it very much. A few weeks later, after I had read Sartre, I started reading Peruvian anthropologist José María Arguedas’s El zorro de arriba, el zorro de abajo, which also happens to be written partly as a diary. (I don't know if I was perhaps searching for these books.) It alternates the fictional story of the novel with his own very personal and tragic diaries. Then one day, when I was in my cubicle, it hit me. This was the structure I wanted for the dissertation, and I remember frantically grabbing a piece of paper and sketching out, outlining the various parts that this would have. Originally, I came up with four diaries and four essays to alternate with them, which ended up being just three of each. But I pretty much stuck to that first sketch where I saw the dissertation. It became a working document. I just kept adding by hand bits and pieces, ideas, possible directions and things that each of the chapters should contain, and I stuck by that.
J: This is encouraging for students: the sense that you can have a far-fetched idea that you think might be mad but could also become something great if you follow it through. I meant to ask, were you writing the diaries during fieldwork or were you writing them retrospectively in New York?
D: Just to clarify, I don't want to make it sound like I saw the dissertation, saw the light and never struggled with any of it [laughs]. That was absolutely not the case. In fact, I remember telling a friend, “I am in deep trouble. I came up with this amazing idea, a very ambitious idea for the dissertation, but I don't have the skill to execute it, to materialize it.” I really, truly felt I was doomed that day. He looked at me and said: “Well you know, it's an ambitious idea and you just execute it with your skill level now, from where you're at now.” And for some reason, that really helped me. It unstuck me from feeling that writing can never match our ideal. It really never does. You just do what you can do at that moment.
J: I was asking whether the diary portions were written when you were in the field or if was it written retrospectively.
D: A mix of the two. Some of the diary entries, I wrote immediately after having an experience or a conversation or after visiting some part of the city. Some passages made it straight into the dissertation and, with minimal editing, into the book. Others were more belabored: written from notes and sketches that I did while in the field but completed or edited here in New York. I would start having memories of things that had happened, interactions I had had, and I would supplement what I had written in real time. Part of my fieldwork entailed documenting spaces with photos because of the efforts to beautify the city. Painting the walls, bringing back early Republican structures or neo-Baroque detail, reconstructing the façades, cleaning up the Baroque churches. There were also events to draw people downtown as well as things that I didn't know how to fit into my dissertation or that were not obviously related to it. Small details and, you know, minor events that ended up adding up to quite a bit. I took a lot of photographs of buildings getting transformed and of spaces that had been reconstructed, and I wasn't sure what these photos were going to be used for. I didn't publish any of them, they were not very good. They were focused on preserving detail that I felt might be helpful later, and they were. I was able to describe places I had been to—in the middle of a protest or just walking down the street seeing, for example, a police deployment. I was able to describe them in the dissertation as they were at that very moment not necessarily because I had noticed those details then but because I had been taking notes and lots of photographs.
J: This reminds me of the process of the photographs in the dark room, the blowing up, or what Walter Benjamin called the optical unconscious—you later see details that you would have not been able see otherwise. It's almost like you were there in these moments, as you say, and these details were also there. Somehow you, your body in space, was probably registering them unconsciously, and you find them later through the photographs. You bring them out in writing and the photographs, however, disappear.
D: Absolutely yes, and you mentioned intuition before, and that happens at the beginning when you're developing your project, but it never ceases to be important. Throughout the research and writing process, which for me happened in tandem. I didn't have a clean-cut separation between the two.
J: I'll linger a little bit on the diaries because there is an exposure there, which came up when you talked about the body in space and so on. But you also call your diaries “fictions” at some point in the book. And those sections are also where a lot of the ethnographic descriptions and historical analyses take place as well as the personal recollections. I wanted to know if you could talk about what the stakes were for you in this exposure. I was thinking about the nakedness of the women protesting in the first image, and you have an entire chapter called “Nakedness.” Was there an ethical or political stance in the gesture of exposure of yourself through the diaries?
D: I remember having some doubts about how personal these diaries should be. At the same time, I felt pushed by this feeling that I had to be honest about how difficult it was coming home now as an anthropologist and reencountering many of the realities I had grown up in. I was shocked by how strange and new they seemed but also how painful and difficult they were to assimilate: the class tensions, for example. The racism, also. In Lima, the two are very much intertwined. They manifest through class conflict, shaming, and animosity. Of course, I had grown up with it, and it was second nature. I was always critical of racism, but I didn't really see how class and race were completely intertwined in my own life. Or if I did, I didn't know what to do about it. And I now had the advantage of distance, of having left home and coming back.
It was later on that I read Zora Neale Hurston speaking about this in the introduction to Mules and Men as well. Coming back home to Florida to do fieldwork, she could see herself like somebody else, estranged. All of a sudden, all these normal things jump out at you as bizarre or fascinating. I struggled being there, in my own city, in my own neighborhood, in my own house! It seemed important to wrestle with those very personal conflicts as a way of being faithful to the act of writing about home.
This project, the ethnography, was about many things including the history of Lima, the processes that it was undergoing post-war, after the armed conflict, a kind of Renaissance that everybody was talking about and feeling quite proud about. But it was also about the daily, lived reality of getting reacclimated, if you'd like, which felt impossible and wrong, to the harshest aspects of Lima’s and Peru's colonial legacy. That's really how it felt for me. I didn't get any pushback from my advisors about this personal dimension, but I did fear how they would be read by my family members or friends in Peru. Actually, the book hasn't been translated into Spanish. I think I would be ready to do it now. I felt that I had engaged in an exercise of exposure, not just of my own personal life and the intimacy of my home, but of the lives of others.
J: The question of whether or not to translate into Spanish is so interesting. It’s something I have been thinking about in trying to write an article in Italian about my field site before even writing my dissertation. It is a very enriching/challenging experience but also strange because you always ask yourself, from where are you writing, and who's the audience for this? Am I actually saying things that are too obvious in a local context? And then you catch yourself thinking that this whole project also very much relies on a peculiar distance, on this coming back through a set of other lenses. Is the reverse process of mediation even possible? I was wondering about another thing when you mentioned the book. How did the book’s editors respond to that diaristic element, and did you feel like you had to defend that idea or to modulate it?
D: It was a very interesting experience. My committee members got it completely and were very supportive. My main editor also got it, but when he sent out the manuscript, I got two very different reviews. One of them was from a person who seemed fully aligned with the notion of experiment in theory and the more affective qualities of fieldwork, those embodied dimensions we were talking about, and which are so important for urban anthropology. This reviewer liked the manuscript as it was, and the second one gave a very good review and supported publication but was also very critical. The review was extremely helpful, but this doesn't mean it didn't sting. What was most revealing to me in terms of your question is how he read the diaries as a full and transparent representation of my experience in Lima and of the experience of the individuals I was writing about. With regards to the diaries, he drew conclusions about me and my interlocutors, and, in particular, about my relationship with Señora Roberta, the street sweeper, that made me realize he hadn’t really understood the performativity of the text. He had a totalizing view of what my fieldwork had been and said things about me and about Señora Roberta that made me go, Wait a minute! In the book, for example, you don't learn much about what happened before and what happened after the timeframe of the diaries. All this to say that I was alerted to the fact that readers could get carried away with the feeling that the diaries were the real thing and the total substance of my or her lived experience, as if the diaries mirrored perfectly or contained reality. This surprised me, and it prompted me to add references to the “fictio,” the “made up” and performative aspects of the diaries in the book. I don't think that they are in the dissertation in the same way. I made a point of searching for places in the diaries where there were openings to make subtle suggestions about the constructed quality of my experiences as raw, as immediate, as unmediated—suggestions that I was using the diary form, in other words, not just as a genre or a medium but as a sort of method, like it was for Sartre and Arguedas—and I used those openings to expound on the process by which these diaries had been produced with a performative intention and that my relationship with Señora Roberta exceeded them. I rewrote the acknowledgements also in part to offer an outside, to pierce the bubble of the diaries that seemed to suggest to this reader that they neatly contained the world and the situation I was describing. There was an after and an outside. And it was messy. All of those additions were inserted into the book manuscript, and were not in the dissertation.
J: Do you think that this is connected to a disciplinary position in anthropology, where there might be less consideration for a performative understanding of texts? And where there is a certain unreflected attachment to the idea of immediacy or realism? It’s also interesting to me that your research depended so much on photographs, but none of them appear in the book.
D: That’s another thing that Arguedas’s work helped me with because he dealt with lots of criticism in his attempts to write about the Peruvian Andean social world in a way that would have an impact on the reader, not only for the sake of realism but to move them, transmitting to them what he had felt growing up in the places he wrote about. That he would try to do this through writing was a decision he made with various outcomes driven by his politics. But when his experiments in realism worked for the public, academics got upset. They would say “that reality doesn’t really exist anywhere” while contemporary fiction writers thought he wasn’t experimental enough. He really struggled because he straddled the two worlds of social science and literary writing and didn’t feel fully accepted in either one. This question of capturing the real through artifice, through performance… I took my cue from him. In the book manuscript I also added more detail about this, about my engagement with an Arguedian way of dealing with truth and artifice and the tension between the two. The diaries were the most obvious carriers of this tension. Although, it appears in the essays as well.
J: Well, maybe those theoretical chapters are also in their own way performative. So José María Arguedas, but also Bataille are your two companions in describing the place and they are adduced for different reasons. You now talked about Arguedas in relation to writing about this space in particular through experiments with realism and maybe we could say a few words about Bataille and that tension involved in thinking about a very specific localized set of places and questions and incorporating a theoretical articulation coming from a completely different place, a European context. How did you negotiate that? And why did Bataille seem to have the answer to the questions you were asking then?
D: Just a quick remark about what you said just now, that the essays are performative. I loved the structure I adopted for the work. As I said, I came up with it and stuck with it because I thought it worked. But I do remember feeling reassured that the diaries would be alternated with more academic essays—as you just said, as a way of demonstrating a certain expected mastery, especially over the historical materials I was writing about. And so, if the diary seemed playful and experimental and maybe a little too personal or crazy, there were the essays to back me up, to give some legitimacy to the text, which is always something that you worry about when you’re writing your dissertation or first book-length text but also when having to be evaluated by a whole committee.
So, Bataille. As I went through the program, taking classes with Mick Taussig, Rosalind Morris, and others, I made a point to supplement those courses with others that included texts by Bataille and by the thinkers and writers that had influenced him. As my project came into focus towards the end, that became for me an important goal. I wanted to read what he had been reading, what had been informing that particular perspective, not just Bataille but the whole Collège de Sociologie crowd. An important part of this was that in the late 1990s and early 2000s Peruvians were experiencing a similar political disappointment, undergoing a similar process of questioning liberal democracy as Bataille describes was happening in France, in Europe, in the interwar years. Fujimori was in power. He had staged a coup d’état with military backing in 1992, and he took power with huge popular support. I saw traces there of the disillusionment with democracy, wanting an Iron Fist type of ruler, as well as echoes of the social and political atmosphere Bataille was writing about, so it didn’t feel forced. On the other hand, I did not want to stay with a flat, structural functionalist reading of the cleanup of Lima after the war. In urban anthropology dealing with processes of urban renewal like the one I was writing about, the go-to person is Mary Douglas. In many cases, the very forceful structural functionalist impetus of Purity and Danger falls away and it becomes naturalized, tacitly and seamlessly absorbed into the ethnography. I didn't want that. I wanted something that allowed me to look not just at the rejection of “dirt” and the kinds of stigmatization that were definitely happening in Lima at the time, but also at the attraction to those things that were being repressed or expelled. I wanted a more complicated perspective on Lima’s discursive relationship with dirt and disorder through history. I wanted a focus not just on taboo but also on transgression. Bataille helped me do this. I do remember speaking with Rosalind Morris about better contextualizing my reliance on the Collège de Sociologie, my bringing this European eye to interpret what was going on in Lima. It was a matter of drawing out the anthropology that is at the heart of their work, much of which came from the Americas anyway, and finding analogous elements and applications in the political atmospheres in which their work and mine had been produced.
J: I feel like the idea of analogous elements that “resonate” is how you’re introducing Bataille in the theoretical aspects and idea of juxtaposition of materials and of chapters… One starts to hear the echoes of the theory resonating with ethnographic materials. I think it is one of the biggest challenges when faced with having to bring together and weave together ethnographic materials and conceptual analysis. As we close our conversation here Daniella, I was going to simply ask if you have other remaining thoughts about the passage from this the dissertation to the book that you would like to share with students working on their dissertations or postgraduates on their book manuscript. Maybe about how you were able, in the end, to convince the University of Chicago Press that this was the structure you intended. Did you feel you needed to compromise something or not? How did that play out?
D: I was very lucky. I didn’t have to compromise very much, you know. The toughest thing I faced was that second review. I want to mention the fact that I wrote my dissertation right before the GSAS tightened the timeline within which students had to finish by also restricting eligibility for funding to a seven year limit. I’m not going to say that not having something like that in place was a good idea either because you could go on like nine, ten, eleven, twelve years, and as you know you can hold onto a piece of writing too long. But the reason I mention this is that the advice I got as a graduate student when I was writing was very different from what I think most graduate students writing dissertations are receiving today. The members of my committee said “this is your chance to write the book of your dreams,” and I was directly and indirectly encouraged to write my dissertation as a book. It did take longer. It was not just me, there was a group of graduate students who were working under the same kind of guidance. By the time we defended, even if it took us longer to write the dissertation, the text was pretty book-like. We all published it fairly quickly. When you say you didn’t see many structural changes comparing the dissertation to the book, it is because there weren’t extensive revisions. They were still intense and difficult because I had to work through some problems. But the dissertation was pretty close. I do feel that I wrote it as a book.
In my view, the kind of work that you need to do to turn a dissertation into a book is either done before you graduate, and it takes you longer to do perhaps, or it's done after. But the work has to be done. In my case, I did it before. When I was in my first year teaching full time, I had the luxury of dedicating myself to thinking through some interesting problems as opposed to having to restructure or reconceive or introduce a new chapter and things like that, which I didn't have to do. Different time constraints shape the kinds of writing that you can do.
 In particular, the articles by George Bataille, “The Notion of Expenditure,” “The Psychological Structure of Fascism,” and "Attraction and Repulsion II” in Visions of Excess and in The College of Sociology 1937-1939.
 The article is based on fieldwork in the city of Taranto in southern Italy, in particular its contaminated cemetery located next to Europe’s largest steel factory. It became a chapter for a book in Italian: Pisapia, Jasmine. “Visioni di polvere. Lutto, lavoro e bonifica nel cimitero di Taranto” in Il Ritmo dell’Esperienza: Nove Casi Etnografici per Ripensare l’Etnografia dei Conflitti Ambientali, Valentina Bonifacio, Rita Vianello (eds.) Cooperativa Libraria Editrice Università di Padova, 2020.
 Other key works by George Bataille were Erotism and The Accursed Share, vols. I and III.
Arguedas, José María. El zorro de arriba, el zorro de abajo. Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1971.
Bataille, George. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Minneapolois: University of Minnesota Press, 1985
______ . Erotism: Death and Sensuality . San Francisco: City Lights, 1986.
______ . The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy . New York: Zone Books, 1991.
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Praeger, 1966.
Gandolfo, Daniella. The City at Its Limits. Taboo, Transgression, and Urban Renewal in Lima. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
_______. “Formless: a Day at Lima's Office of Formalization.” Cultural Anthropology 28.2 (2013): 278-298.
_______. “Lumpen Politics? A Day in ‘El Hueco’. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 60.3 (2018): 511-538.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men  New York: HarperCollins, 2008].
Pisapia, Jasmine. “Visioni di polvere. Lutto, lavoro e bonifica nel cimitero di Taranto” in Il Ritmo dell’Esperienza: Nove Casi Etnografici per Ripensare l’Etnografia dei Conflitti Ambientali, Valentina Bonifacio, Rita Vianello (eds.) Cooperativa Libraria Editrice Università di Padova, 2020.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. La nausée. Paris : Gallimard, 1938.
Taussig, Michael. Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
DANIELLA GANDOLFO is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Department at Wesleyan University. In addition to her book, The City at its Limits: Taboo, Transgression, and Urban Renewal in Lima, she is the author of numerous articles on questions of urbanity, taboo and transgression, risk-taking, animal and self-sacrifice, the crowd and the aesthetics of so-called urban renewal. Recent publications include “Investigations of a Guinea Pig” in Social Text and “In ‘The Pit’: Architecture and the Power of the Tellurian in Lima” in the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology.
Read more about Professor Gandolfo's work here.
JASMINE PISAPIA is completing her dissertation on the inheritance of poison and the legacies of industrial toxicity in Taranto, Italy. She is the recipient of an SSHRCC postdoctoral fellowship, which she will take up at McGill University in January 2022. Read more about Jasmine Pisapia's work here.