Deborah Puccio-Den on her book, Mafiacraft

Interview by Elliott Wiseman

Elliott Wiseman: In the introduction, you establish Mafiacraft as an inversion of witchcraft. What does the connection with witchcraft afford, and what were your intentions in rooting the book in this juxtaposition? 

Deborah Puccio-Den: Mafiacraft indicates a set of methodological and theoretical tools to describe and understand the mafia starting from the forms of struggle it has produced in Italy. The choice of this name echoes the term witchcraft, used to designate the sphere of the fight against the witches. I have often felt a certain unease at seeing mafia trials and witch trials assimilated as if these prosecutions create legal categories – ‘mafiosi’ or ‘mafia’ like ‘witches’ or ‘witchcraft’ – in order to repress elusive social phenomena and groups. This parallel is implicitly underlying many mafia studies, and was explicitly stated in a political struggle against the anti-mafia during the years of the Maxi-trial (second half of the eighties).

My unease in the face of this paradigm, witchcraft, over all these years, was not only of a moral order, but rather of a conceptual order. It seemed to me that something was not working in this scheme not only because the anti-mafia magistrates became the persecutors, and the anti-mafia struggle, instead of a movement for freedom as it has been from the beginning as a peasant movement for lands, became the expression of a liberticidal power. But also, because the ontological premise on which this association was founded contained, and still contains, a categorial error: mafia behaviors and acts were put on a par with the rituals of sorcerers about which nothing was known except the conjectures of the inquisitors. Indeed, for many years, the mafia was a conjecture or was present in the space of political or legal debate as a conjecture. But thanks to magistrates such as Falcone, there has been a huge construction of ‘mafia proof’ that no longer allows us to believe that it is an invention. Mafiacraft relies on this immense work of constructing the evidence of the mafia as a “form of criminal association” which no longer allows the mafia phenomena to be treated as conjectures or legal theories. Precisely because the starting point of Mafiacraft is the epistemological and ontological rupture provoked by the work of the anti-mafia judiciary, supported by the witnessing processes engaged and supported by so many citizens and associations, this paradigm presents itself as an inversion of witchcraft: in the latter, the process of finding the sorcerer or the person to be named as such, the witch, is endless (see James Siegel, Naming the Witch, 2005), like the attribution of precise acts to precise perpetrators; in Mafiacraft, on the contrary, the process succeeds, it fixes meaning to a signifier, it reconstitutes the link concealed by silence between a mafia act and its perpetrator(s) or instigators: the “mafiosi”. It is a work or craft to be started over each time, but it is not a work doomed to failure as in the case of the sorcerer and witchcraft.

Elliott Wiseman: Throughout the book, you draw from various kinds of evidence (photographs, legal writing, pentiti testimony, public memorials, and so on) and social scientific approaches (studies of folklore, ritual, law, religious symbology, linguistic anthropology, and more). Did you begin this project with an interdisciplinary lens, or did it arise later in the research or writing process? What inspired this approach? 

Deborah Puccio-Den: My reflection originated in anti-mafia circles as a social movement, a cultural and moral revolution, and from the very beginning it was a reflection on the anti-mafia movement’s reflection: a reflection on the way in which anti-mafia circles – which were multiple, varied, and sometimes even conflicting – tried to answer the question ‘what is the mafia’ using different media: books, plays, festive devices (in particular the feast of Santa Rosalia in Palermo), writings, photographs, tombstones… Some ten years later, the anti-mafia trials opened up a new phase of research, a series of enquiries into the judicial enquiry that, at the same time, sought to find answers to this same question coming from society: “what is the mafia?”

Mafiacraft is meant to be a material history of moral ideas, portraying the way anti-mafia claims exist in the world, finding, or not, a space in which to live, coming to fill the faults in the cognitive fabric of the mafia: namely the silences. The word mafia is written, imprinted, erased, could remain, or not, in various media that I have studied in their materiality, specificity and function. But the heterogenous nature of the materials and practices analyzed in my book does not make it any less an interdisciplinary work: Mafiacraft is therefore an anthropological project rooted in the intellectual project of judge Falcone to know what the mafia was. To answer this question, Falcone retraced mafia action from the acts, or misdeeds, that allow the mafia to exist and prosper. The Copernican revolution produced in the forms of description of the mafia from the moment it was defined on the basis of its actions, was not the fruit of researchers, but of magistrates, precisely because of their greater proximity to sources that allowed them to understand the pervasiveness and extension of mafia actions, and therefore of the mafia. Since the beginning of the 1980s, legal inquiries have been able to discover the coordinated character of mafia actions in Sicily, and in the world. When the so-called “Buscetta Theorem” prevailed, it was the result of the collaboration between the pentito Tommaso Buscetta and Giovanni Falcone, who used the “pentito” as an anthropologist uses an informant to penetrate a culture. This is the approach I currently use to explore the mafia “from the inside.”

Elliott Wiseman: One important turn in the book is the reframing of pentiti speech as indigenous discourse rather than justificatory myth. Can you say more about this reframing and its implications?  

Deborah Puccio-Den: The Sicilian pentiti were mostly members of the losing families in a war— the Second Mafia War, in the early 1980s—that represented the defeat of the Commission, the place where conflicts were traditionally solved without resorting to violence. It was a war that decimated the Sicilian mafia, killing almost a thousand people in the space of a few years, corresponding to 20% of mafia members, following an extermination plan conceived by Riina and the Corleonese clan to take control of Cosa Nostra. Pentitismo, interpreted as betrayal by mafia members and by a large part of Italian society, was justified by the justice collaborators as a gesture aimed at preserving the mafia’s ancient order. My starting point is to “take seriously” these arguments, submitting them to the same critique, no more and no less, as any other indigenous discourse. This runs counter to an entire scholarly literature in the social sciences that encourages us to consider the declarations of the pentiti as justificatory myths and, on these grounds, to reject them as fallacious.  We must be aware that the justice collaborators had no reason to justify their criminal acts; it was (and is) enough for them to provide reliable information to obtain state protection for themselves and their families. Contrary to popular opinion, rumors, and gossip about the pentiti, that constitute the material substantiating most of the anthropological studies about them, the Italian law governing the condition of Mafia collaboration (conceived by Giovanni Falcone during the Eighties and adopted after his murder, in 1992) imposes a judicial framework based on the notion of “self-incrimination’ (chiamata in correo)- that leads “collaborators with justice” to confess crimes previously unknown to the authorities. As a result, they will be charged for additional crimes, thus lengthening their jail sentences. In these circumstances, saying that mafiosi collaborate with the state for opportunistic reasons (reduction of sentence) makes no sense. Such a misleading characterization, also legitimated in academic works, could provide justification to refrain from the use of pentiti in anti-mafia investigation, undermining their credibility. It not only has the adverse consequence of disqualifying their contribution to anti-mafia judicial inquiry, but also to ethnographic survey, depriving it of access to vital information for a deep understanding of the mafia as a human experience of life, and death.

Elliott Wiseman: You describe the mafia subject as being desubjectified by the expectation of unquestioning obedience and by “an atrophying of language, at least as a means of expressing individual needs, fears, or desires” (pp. 170-171). Is there a relation between omertà and other forms of silencing and desubjectification (of racialized Others or people of marginalized genders, for example)? 

Deborah Puccio-Den: My reflection on the mafia is rooted in a previous reflection on the silence of women (Masques et dévoilements, 2002). In a study on public discourse in the 1970s, Shirley Ardener (Perceiving women, 1975) argues that, because this tended to be characteristically male-dominated and the appropriate language registers seemed “encoded” by males, women were at a disadvantage when wishing to express matters of particular concern to them. One of the contributors to her edited book, Edwin Ardener, drew on the concept of “muted group” as suggested by Charlotte Hardman to speak about women’s lack of communication skills to portray their own world in their own words. This notion of a muted group functions as an umbrella term: other groups in society may also be effectively muted. This pioneering feminist work provides a critical conceptual framework with which to view the mafia as a muted group.

As muted group, the mafia can only take form when “clothed” in cultural patterns of behavior and communication shaped by society and the state. One of these cultural patterns, in my view, is omertà, silence, shaped by the state in order to grasp an elusive language practice on its own terms, one somewhat acritically adopted by “specialists” of the mafia phenomenon, thereby carelessly falling back on conventional moral and intellectual understandings of silence. Feminist theory seems to offer possible ways forward in the particular field of research designed as mafia studies. But a distinction must be made. If we simply apply Shirley Ardener’s framework to describe the mafia as a muted group, we run the risk of remaining trapped in a binary model. Mafiacraft is rather based on the assumption that there is a strong interconnection between mafia, on the one hand, and society and the state, on the other.

Elliott Wiseman: Finally, how do you view the intersection between Mafiacraft and statecraft, and how would you like to see the concept of Mafiacraft applied moving forward? 

Deborah Puccio-Den: Mafiacraft will not consider society and state as separate entities, to ensure that it does not succumb to the pressure of the “state effect” to conceive the state as a “free-standing object, located outside society” (Mitchell, 2006). In Ardener’s words, the “dominant group” and the “dominant model” together form the “dominant structure.” It follows that the “muted group” and the “counterpart model” together form a muted or “subdominant structure”. Sociological and even anthropological research on the mafia tend to describe it as a “sub-culture,” and omertà as one of the main expressions of this sub-culture, a negative expression of the self, a passive resistance to the state. By locating the mafiosi in the overall ideological framework of the dominant culture, these studies miss the specific forms of agency mafiosi may deploy by the performative use of silence. Yet, silence is not here identified only with the mafia, but also with the forms of power it establishes, sometimes with the complicity of the state that makes use of the same weapon. Mafiacraft proposes a way out of the easy identification of silence with omertà, and of omertà with the Sicilian people, showing how this repertoire of action is also available, and effectively mobilized by the state. To consider the mafia as a deviance, a pathology, an anti-state as has been said, is a state-induced error itself, a state effect as Timothy Mitchell used to say, when he warned against polarizing state and society. I have therefore tried to put the focus on the interactions between the mafia and the state, interactions that involve the use of silence, codes, sign language, reading traces. But silence is not only the weapon of the people when they resist the state, it is also an instrument of oppression. I am not thinking only of the Italian state but also of other states marked by a high level of political violence where the use of silence is a technique of terror: Argentina, Chile, their art of making bodies disappear, which we can compare to the mafia technique of the lupara bianca, while with Colombia the mixture is such that we can speak of a ‘mafia state’. We know, and it is no secret, that in Italy the mafia has involved some political representatives. Some scholars consider this intrigue between mafia and politics to be a distinctive trait of the mafia. For my part, I would say that what distinguishes the mafia is the opacity of social action, which can also extend to politics (but not only). This vast zone of opacity is the field in which the tools proposed in Mafiacraft can be tested.

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