Show Time: Posthumously published book by UTM’s Lee Ann Fujii tackles political violence

December 6, 2021

Three and a half years ago, UTM and the scholarly community tragically lost Professor Lee Ann Fujii at the age of 56. At the time, she was nearing completion of a book on what she called “violent display.” This year, Lee Ann is in a limited sense back with us, as her final book Show Time: The Logic and Power of Violent Display has been posthumously published by Cornell University Press. Thanks to the editing of Martha Finnemore, a conclusion by Elisabeth Jean Wood, and the confidence of Cornell’s editor Roger Haydon, Lee Ann’s ideas will once again make waves.

Any book about political violence is bound to be disturbing, but Show Time is perhaps more disturbing than most scholarship. Instead of offering an analytically sanitized account, Lee Ann rivets our attention on how violence is put on display. That is, perpetrators of violence, bystanders, accomplices, passersby, and a whole range of other people are involved in rendering violence visible. We do not usually like to think about the very publicness of lynching, for example, but that is what Lee Ann’s book asks us to do. Why lynch in a manner that is designed to be widely visible? Why not just engage in a less costly and more efficient killing? Hard questions, to be sure, but important ones.

To provide an answer, Show Time considers episodes of violence from Bosnia, Rwanda and the United States. Instead of treating violence as motivated by already mobilized sense of group identity, Lee Ann’s gut-wrenching depictions show how violence amounts to a social act that both reflects existing relationships and produces new ones. Show Time is just like Lee Ann’s other work: it is written with terrific clarity and with a storyteller’s sensibility. Moreover, it pulls no punches and forces us to confront uncomfortable truths.

Before she became an academic, Lee Ann was an actor. It is therefore not surprising that Show Time takes metaphors from the theatre—rehearsal, staging, main attraction, intermission, sideshow and encore—to remind the reader that a crucial aspect of violence is performative. Its significance lies in how it is carried out—i.e., in the social meanings that such acts invoke and create.

Show Time is therefore far from a typical book about political violence. Perhaps this is because Lee Ann was never a typical political scientist. Indeed, she often shared with me her thoughts about how mainstream approaches irritated her. She found that they downplayed ethical concerns, underestimated systemic racism, and fostered a narrow understanding of methodology that blinded scholars to many important aspects of politics. A deeply thoughtful and engaging scholar, she was also uninterested in pulling punches.

In her professional life at UTM, as well, Lee Ann constantly questioned received wisdom. I vividly recall several instances in which she pushed back against bureaucratic rules because they “didn’t make any sense.” Why, she wanted to know, would we do it this way when there exists a much better way to do things? Where most faculty members (myself included) often shy away from asking fundamental questions that might make ourselves or others feel uncomfortable, Lee Ann was never daunted. For this and other reasons, she inspired.

The publication of Show Time is bittersweet. It is always sweet to encounter writing as vivid, as evocative, and as capable as hers. Yet it is bitter when such writing covers such troubling content, potentially revealing dark aspects of the human condition. Furthermore, it is bitter that Lee Ann did not live to see Show Time’s publication. Yet, it is sweet to see how top-notch scholarship genuinely lives on—even after a tragic death.

Indeed, this sweetness is on display in Elisabeth Jean Wood’s important epilogue. After distilling the essence of Lee Ann’s major contributions to the scholarship, Wood poses a series of questions she would have wanted to ask Lee Ann. And this is how scholarship should work when it is at its best: a scholar offers her findings based on assiduous research and creative thinking, and her scholarly audience engages her ideas with both generosity and seriousness. While Lee Ann was taken far too early, all scholarly conversations should outlive the individuals who created them. This will certainly happen with Lee Ann’s ideas. Given that political violence—and indeed displays of violence—are currently at no risk of disappearing, Show Time will continue to provide important food for thought as we contemplate, analyze and live in our complex and sometimes fraught world.

by Edward Schatz , a professor of political science at U of T Mississauga.