Violence a Long Way Back: An Interview with Angela Garcia

The November 2016 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “The Blue Years: An Ethnography of a Prison Archive,” by Angela Garcia, who is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editors Jessica Cooper and Andrés Romero conducted with Garcia about her article’s arguments and their relationship to her broader research agenda. 

Jessica Cooper and Andrés Romero: “The Blue Years” revolves around the archive of letters that came into your possession, but we were hoping that you could speak to some of the other archives mentioned in the article. You explicitly reference the daily log at the clinic as a kind of poorly constructed archive, in which you eventually come to see value. But do you consider your field notes as a type of archive? Now that your readers have encountered Eugenia and Bernadette in multiple publications (Garcia 2010, 2014), does your record of publication form a type of archive? How do these archives compare with each other in terms of aesthetics, content, and implications for theorizing the archive? In the context of your discussion of Elizabeth Povinelli’s concept of the archive, what are the differences between these types of archives? What intellectual work is accomplished by calling a collection “an archive”? And in what ways might we understand fieldwork as an embodied archival practice, in which the ethnographer accrues experiences of “being there” (Borneman and Hammoudi 2009)?

Angela Garcia: Your questions inspired me to dig up some of my old notebooks from my early fieldwork in New Mexico. They’re mostly filled with life narratives, bits of conversation, stories, and descriptions. Random thoughts, doodles and to-do lists are also scattered throughout the pages. The prose is rough and the handwriting becomes messier with time. It’s clear that I didn’t expect others to read or to value the notes when I was producing them, leaving them behind by the activity of writing them down.    

Nevertheless, one might approach them as an archive of an anthropologist building a line of inquiry, or an archive of her developing relationships with others, or even an archive of becoming an anthropologist. Field notes are traces of a previous life, which we engage in some later moment. My own field notes persist materially and are a resource for my response to you, as well for my publications. In this sense, they have potential as an archive, even if I’m the only one engaging them directly.

Beyond the written notes are embodied memories accrued by “being there.” We return to these memories, often through unexpected scenarios. Think of the recent film Moonlight. Different scenes in the film (the strung-out mother begging her son for money, the neglected child boiling water for a bath) took me back to my role as witness to and participant in certain situations that I encountered in the field. The film animated these other scenes, made me reconsider them, not on a discursive level, but in a more embodied way.

JC and AR: The prison letters with which this article grapples seem to be hinting at a kind of force that materiality has the potential to transmit and to effect in others. “The Blue Years” offers us, as readers, images of the unsettling impact that these letters and the larger archival assemblage had on you, manifesting with much greater intensity in particular moments. In fact, the archive’s material presence seems to be unbearable at times, to the point that you are unable to be in the archive’s proximity—inducing “a feeling of being observed,” or feeling “pricked” by the letters. The letters themselves seem to act on you, as you note, “as if the letters were alive.” How do we as ethnographers grapple with such uncanny experiences and/or become more openly receptive to the agency of the objects with which we form a relatedness? In terms of theory, what contribution, if any, does the literature on new materialities, such as the work of Jane Bennett (2010), make to the article? That is: do the prison letters bear a kind of thing-power entirely of their own, or should these letters be primarily engaged and interpreted from the perspective of human interlocutors?

AG: Once, a colleague commented that it must be a terrible challenge to write about the letters of people who are still alive, and that I might want to consider waiting to do so. The implications of this comment are awful, but also instructive. My colleague assumed that it is easier and more ethical to construct knowledge about objects and people when they are distanced or different from us. In the case of the prison archive, this distance and difference (the fantasy of it) collapsed when I brought the letters into my home. It wasn’t just the act of housing the actual documents, but the fact that these documents are traces of living persons and ongoing relationships.

I didn’t know beforehand that the prison archive would affect me, but it has, and in ways I’ve only started to explicitly conceptualize. Many philosophers, from Jane Bennett to Baruch Spinoza, have been helpful in trying to understand the latent sense of the archive’s vitality. But I’m more inspired by the still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi and the critical writing of John Berger, both of whom embody sustained meditation on objects as a mode of discovery and thought. I study the letters not with the ambition of making theory, but because they are objects with a story worth telling.

As objects, the prison letters are indeed powerful. Letters are meant to travel, to be opened and touched, regarded and received. They leverage materiality, as well as written words, to mobilize certain human responses: memory, guilt, affection, desire, and so on. The prison letters are striving and alive, but not in a constant or unchanging way. For the act of receiving them, of being affected by them, is always situated in some other moment or situation. This other moment informs the letter’s affective force. In the article, I try to enact how circumstance shapes the responsiveness to that which the letter seeks to animate.

My larger concern in the article is to show how the force or vitality of the prison letters is inseparable from the kin relations that cohere in them, as well as the larger political histories of dispossession into which the archive is sutured. I see the letters as a kind of material entanglement of these relations and processes. I can’t think of the letters’ power or vitality apart from them.

JC and AR: We read the title of the “Correspondences” section as a double entendre, referring to the letters as correspondence between Eugenia and Bernadette as well as to correspondence as a mode of relation, a way of bringing things outside of the archive in. With what, then, does an archive as an entity correspond? We’re intrigued by correspondence as a mode of relation because it is something that an author can attempt to evoke for a reader, but readers also make all sorts of unruly correspondences on their own. The unknowability of evocation—is it intentional? is it not?—brings to mind the practice of curation. If an archivist is different from a hoarder or a collector, how is an archivist different from a curator? One point of distinction might be that a curator cultivates a particular image of the objects with which they work. Does an archivist? What choices did you find yourself making about which archival objects to foreground in the article (such as the letters between Eugenia and Bernadette) and which to leave to play a more understated role (such as Ashley’s drawings)?

AG: Yes, I was playing with the double meaning of correspondence—both as communication and as connection or correlation. As you point out, there are multiple registers of correspondence within the article. As the author/curator, I tried to bring a few of these correspondences into a common frame, aware that my tentative efforts may never be received as I originally intended. In a way, the academic article is vulnerable like a letter. Both strive to affect the reader, and both risk being ignored or misunderstood. It is precisely this risk that has made me more, not less, receptive to the prison archive, and more committed to the possibility of transmitting and generating new forms of correspondence through it. 

JC and AR: Your article deals, in many ways, with the question of return. The return is initially posed here as a return to the prison archive and to the field, but later the return to the field is further elaborated as a kind of analytical mode which allows for new configurations, possibilities, and insights to emerge through ethnographic knowledge. Given that this article builds on a broader body of scholarship that you have been working on for many years, we’re interested in how (and if) the notion of return has changed through time for you. As you have noted, you have lived through many returns to the field since departing from New Mexico for college: from returning after conducting dissertation fieldwork to your other returns after writing The Pastoral Clinic and beginning your new work in Mexico City (e.g., Garcia 2015). Looking back across your career, has the way you understand the spatial coming and going that constitutes return changed over time?

AG: Let’s just say that I’m pursuing different ways of thinking about return, which are beyond spatial or temporal, physiological or psychological. I don’t know why, but it’s always been the figure of the return that functions as a spur, and sometimes an obstacle, to my work.

Not long ago I was at the Mercado Sonora in Mexico City, a huge market that’s famous for magical and occult items. I was there to learn about treatments for drug addiction, but instead I was diagnosed with melancholia by the shopkeepers at every stall I wandered into. Every single stall, the same thing: melancholia, the very condition I wrote about in my very first academic article (Garcia 2008). With each diagnosis I was offered various items and rituals to rid me of it for good. But one shopkeeper—after holding my face and staring into my eyes for an uncomfortably long time—said that the best I could do was learn to be more sympathetic to it, to give it a shape other than death. I think about this encounter a lot, and have come to see that what she offered me is another account of the figure of the return—a different metric and mood of its affectivity.

JC and AR: The return is also present in your article in the case of Bernadette, who expects future exchanges to occur: letters with empty back pages are sent with the hope that they will be filled in by her correspondents (namely, her mother, Eugenia). The contents of the letters further index an anticipated physical return: Bernadette’s eventual return home. The exchanges in these prison letters rely on a futurity yet to come. Could you expand on how these letters may have served to construct a sense of an eventual return for Bernadette, and how Bernadette experienced this return after she was released? Did such a return, for Bernadette, open up a generative possibility for “new beginnings and futurity,” as it did for you? In addition to the optimism implied by the return, what are the dark sides or foreclosed possibilities that it entails?  

AG: Bernadette wrote the letters in part to remain connected to her kin, so that she could return to them once released from prison. But exactly what she might return to was like the pages deliberately left empty in her letters home: she didn’t know. Receptivity and response are never guaranteed, and yet she made space for them to occur. I don’t read this as optimism per se, but it is hopeful.


Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Borneman, John, and Abdellah Hammoudi, eds. 2009. Being There: The Fieldwork Encounter and the Making of Truth. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Garcia, Angela. 2008. “The Elegiac Addict: History, Chronicity, and the Melancholic Subject.” Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 4: 718–46.

_____. 2010. The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession along the Rio Grande. Berkeley: University of California Press.

_____. 2014. “The Promise: On the Morality of the Marginal and the Illicit.” Ethos 42, no. 1: 51–64.

_____. 2015. “Serenity: Violence, Inequality, and Recovery on the Edge of Mexico City.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 29, no. 4: 455–72.