Frontline Ethnography


Impressions from Serbia, Dragan Papić – Dr. Agan

by Keith Doubt

The Politics of Exile,
by Elizabeth Dauphinee,
Routledge, 224 pp.

The subject of Elizabeth Dauphinee’s The Politics of Exile is a man who committed a war crime in Bosnia. Being a war criminal does not define who the man is, but being a war criminal is something from which the man cannot escape.

Another subject is the author and her close relation to her subject. Let’s call this autoethnography or, better, mock-autoethnography. The autoethnography reads like a novel, lingering in the liminal space between fiction and reality. Fiction becomes reality and reality fictional. The work challenges the conventional ideas of what constitutes a field in anthropological research. The author takes us to the locale where the war crime occurred — its context, culture, politics, history, agency — without entering the locale as a participant observer. The author takes us to the site of the war crime: approaching its parameters and penetrating its logos with empathy, Levinas’ philosophy, theorizing, projection, imagination, and, finally, love. The memoir reads like frontline ethnography.

At the end we learn the author loves her subject, and her love requires that she understand this man. The author does this through writing. Her love also requires that she understand what the man did, his war crime, which she hates, and she does this as a professor of political theory, as an academic.

Peter Handke in A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia sought not to analyze, not to explain, not to judge, but to understand the Serbs, the so-called aggressors as Handke says, during the genocidal war in Bosnia, a war whose aim was to erase South Slav Muslims — their lives, their homes, their mosques, their history, their cultural heritage — from Bosnia. Handke opposed the one-sided commentaries on the war in Bosnia and traveled to Serbia to report his reflections. He sought to bear witness on behalf of the people of Serbia, who had the right to be seen, to be understood.

Dauphinee shares Handke’s motivation. Dauphinee seeks an authentic understanding of the Bosnian Serb raised in Pale in the mountains above Sarajevo. She wants the relation between who the man is and what the man did to be genuine.

Handke understands the Serbian people as an un-fallen people in a fallen world. Dauphinee, in contrast, does not remove the moral filter from her view of her fallen subject. The war crime her subject committed was wrong, and Dauphinee accounts for the human agency of the subject who did the wrong. Can a human being do evil for the sake of evil itself? Socrates says no, and Dauphinee agrees. She is a philosopher. When her hero committed a heinous war crime, he was not conscious at that moment that he was doing evil. This truism convinces few, but its logic, whether delusional or real, gives coherence and substance to Dauphinee’s account.

To understand the Serbian people, Handke imagines himself as a Serb. While Dauphinee puts herself in the place of her subject, she does not presume to be her subject, to be native. She simulates participant observation from a distance. She is a knower who remains a stranger, and her subject remains ineffable.

The method is not an interview, but a dialogue where the author — her loneliness, her depression, her careerism — are as much a subject as the subject itself. The author self-mockingly recognizes her perspective as an etic one — outside and foreign — and sympathetically recognizes her subject’s perspective as an emic one — familiar and real. The humility of the author is the way in which her subject (like any good informer) resists her. “Why spend so much time thinking about something that isn’t yours, and which you can’t change?” “What can you hope to know about Bosnia?” The author’s subject asserts the unassailable privilege of a pariah who maintains the exclusive knowledge of the self, and the author both respects and defies this privilege.

The didactic lessons that the subject gives are framed in what Max Weber calls the ethical irrationality of the world. Good decisions lead to bad results, and bad decisions lead to good results. The subject tells the story of a friend who wanted to become a priest and was inducted into the army. He chose not to load his rifle. When ordered to provide cover for a young soldier retreating from enemy fire, he could not. The soldier died unguarded. The friend’s moral decision led to an immoral consequence. Such is the ethical irrationality of the world.

Stojan Sokolovic is the subject’s name. We do not know whether this name is a pseudonym. We hope that it is, but suspect that it is not. A traditional researcher might ask whether the subject was informed about the nature of the research in which he participated, its risks and its dangers, and whether he gave informed consent.

The most sage voice in this work is personified by a Serbian Orthodox priest who serves in Toronto. He was the soldier who did not load his rifle. He provides an existentially profound account of evil, an account that cannot stop itself from falling into a fatalism that leaves human agency passive. What Karl Jaspers calls metaphysical guilt binds not only the priest and the author, but the entire world to Stojan Sokolovic.

“I don’t know what this war was for,” Stojan Sokolovic laments openly and repeatedly. We learn that it is the perpetrators of genocide who are left with nothing, nothing except self-pity. Stojan pities his victims — a child, a mother, a father — who remain voiceless ghosts in a postmodern narrative, and the author does likewise.

While the narrator loves her subject, she cannot forgive him for his war crime which he narrates with blunt honesty. The author cannot exonerate her beloved. Thus the book both indicts and exonerates. Such is its psychologically confounding nature.

Jean Hatzfeld wrote three remarkable books on genocide in Rwanda: Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak and, a third, The Antelope’s Strategy: Living in Rwanda after the Genocide. Hatzfeld never upstages his subjects’ voices as he narrates the telling conversations he had with them. Dauphinee’s approach is comparable. Dauphinee and Hatzfeld make their presence felt as self-reflective persons, and in both cases their presence serves as windows to others. When speaking of the unforgiveable nature of genocide, one woman says to Hartzfeld in The Antelope’s Strategy, “They cut hard enough to break their own arms, in broad daylight. Forgiving them means nothing human. That may be the will of God, but not ours.” The survivor of the genocide in Rwanda points out that there is no human epistemology or ontology that supports forgiveness after genocide.

Dauphinee exemplifies the ultimate human relation to Stojan Sokolovic, but no matter how grateful he is for this relation, it is not what he seeks. This work with its edgy methodology is a gift that extends and deepens the already vast literature on what the war in Bosnia was and what it meant for all its participants.

Cover image 4GIVE-4GET, by Dragan Papić – Dr. Agan, via

About the Author:

Keith Doubt is Professor of Sociology at Wittenburg University. He is the author of Towards a Sociology of Schizophrenia: Humanistic Reflections (University of Toronto Press), Sociology after Bosnia and Kosovo: Recovering Justice (Rowman & Littlefield), Sociologija nakon Bosne (Buybook, Sarajevo) and Understanding Evil: Lessons from Bosnia (Fordham University Press). With Omer Hadziselimovic he is the co-editor of the interdisciplinary, bilingual journal, Duh Bosne / Spirit of Bosnia.