Mafiacraft – An Ethnography of Deadly Silence | Deborah Puccio-Den

Deborah Puccio-Den, Mafiacraft – An Ethnography of Deadly Silence, Chicago: Hau Books, 2022, 294 p.

Compte rendu par Peter Geschiere (University of Amsterdam)

 We have already many books about the mafia, but this book’s challenging focus throws new light on how this mysterious assemblage came into being, and also on a wider issue that keeps haunting anthropology: how to do an ethnographic study of a subject that refuses to be known – to be verbalized, to be seen. Already at the start of her book Puccio-Den warns the reader that her book is not about ‘the mafia as a social fact fixed once and for all… [but] as a cognitive event shaped by silence’ (p. 2). Her topic is the long and difficult struggle since the middle of the 19th century to get this elusive phenomenon in the picture. In a sense it is more about the anti-mafia, and this proves to be a most productive focus to deepen our insight into the historical crystallization of this mafia as a ‘craft’. Indeed, the title itself – apparently suggested to her by Giovanni da Col, the founder of the HAU journal (and also of the series in which the book is published) – admirably sums up all the ambiguities her project is addressing. ‘Mafiacraft’ refers to mafia as a craft with its own rules and practices, but also to the way the anti-mafia shaped (‘crafted’) what became ‘the’ mafia; and even to the way the term itself ‘crafted’ its present-day image.  

This ‘crafting’ was such a long and hazardous process because of the central role of silence (omerta) in the reproduction of violent practices in the Sicilian countryside, and later even on a global scale. Ever since the 1860s (Italy’s national unification played a key role in this process) some observers talked about a secret association behind all the violence, but only in a vague and general sense. Others flatly denied that such a thing existed. For a long time a culturalist, folkloristic perception dominated: the mafia as a Sicilian particularity, a traditional ‘Sicilianness.’ Puccio-Den notably quotes (p. 6) the Sicilian folklorist Giuseppe Pitré who in the early 1900s characterized the mafia as ‘a Sicilian way of behaving, an attitude, a code of honour’ which forbade Sicilians to talk to the state. For Pitré there was no explicit organization behind all this. Like many others he had, moreover, a tendency to cherish this Sicillianness against the invasion of new forms of rationality from North Italy after unification. Mafiosi suspects contributed to such opaqueness by insisting that they had no clue when prosecutors were interrogating them about ‘the mafia.’ As Gerlando Alberto told the police in the 1980’s: ‘The mafia? What is the mafia? A brand of cheese?’(p. 16); thus repeating the words of another suspect a century earlier (p. 43, p. 235).

It was against such a wall of silence that especially since the 1970s a concerted anti-mafia movement emerged, intent on showing that there was coordinated action behind all the killing and blackmailing. Initially it was launched by photographers and journalists (who were often distrusted by the state), but gradually judges and lawyers became ever more deeply involved. A turning point was the 1982 Rogoni-La Torre law explicitly identifying the mafia ‘… as a criminal category and a special form of criminal association’ (p. 8). Since then, especially the work of judges like Giovanni Falcone (Puccio-Den’s hero) gave the mafia phenomenon ontological status: ‘… nowadays no one in Italy is allowed to posit that the mafia does not exist’ (p. 240).

The book is structured in two parts: the first one is called ‘Naming the mafia’, the second ‘Judging the silence’ which reflects two phases in Puccio-Den’s field work: since the middle of the 1990s she worked with the anti-mafia as a societal movement, later (especially after 2005) also with prosecutors. The first part contains beautiful chapters on more or less private initiatives to register all the violence (the German expression Mahnmal – an admonishing memorial – is appropriate here): chapter 3 on courageous photographers displaying their photos from shocking events; chapter 4 on ‘the Falcone tree’ – the Magnolia in front of judge Falcone’s house – becoming an object of veneration after the brutal attack on his life in 1992. Striking is that this more or less informal monument continued to draw a lot more visitors (and donations) than the official monument erected elsewhere in Palermo. The second part on ‘judging’ explains why these monuments mobilize such deep emotions. Chapters 6 and 7 are in many respects the turning point of the book, offering a vivid ethnographic analysis of how judge Falcone succeeded in striking a pact with Tomasso Buscetta, a mafioso who accepted to become a pentito (‘repenter’ – p. 52, 123 ff). Their collaboration was to become a crucial moment in the outlining of the mafia as a coherent organization.

 In the 1970s Buscetta ran into deep problems because he was on a collision course with the Corleone family who gradually managed to take over the mafia (also because of their connection with the US). He tried to hide in Brazil but was arrested there again in 1983 and extradited to Rome. Then, after some hesitation, he accepted to talk to judge Giovanni Falcone. One of the high points of Puccio-Den’s book is her ethnographical reading of the gradual sounding out between the two men. Crucial, in her view, was that Buscetta accepted Falcone as ‘a man of honour’ to whom he could talk. Only then was he willing to teach Falcone about the mafia. Typical was that he justified his ‘confession’ to the judge by emphasizing that not he but the Corleones had broken the rules: they had become ‘men of dishonour’ (p. 137, 166).[1] The main thing Buscetta revealed to Falcone was the grid of the Cosa Nostra organization, its hierarchies and the way it guarded its secrets. What came to be called the ‘Buscetta theorem’ thus confirmed that there was after all a unitary organization.

This idea of the mafia as a coherent organization was definitively corroborated a few years later – in 1992, only a few months after the Court of Appeal had confirmed the conviction of the mafiosi Falcone had put on trial – by the most spectacular attack by the mafia ever, blowing up a whole highway stretch at Capaci (near Palermo) when judge Falcone and his wife were driving there on their way home, killing them on the spot (p. 84). In Puccio-Den’s analysis, the Capaci attack meant the definitive end of a vision of the mafia as just an attitude, a form of Sicilianness. Now it could no longer be denied that there was a concerted organization behind it that could be held accountable. Of course the Buscetta theorem did not bring the end of ‘the mafia.’ The terrible irony is rather that the very success of the anti-mafia at ‘responsibilization’ – at outlining the actors and the organization behind the violence – led to destructive actions of an unprecedented scale (like blowing up a whole part of a highway). Yet, the wall of silence was finally broken through – after the Falcone-Buscetta collaboration, there was no more denying that the mafia was an organization, hidden in silence but all the more effective. Puccio-Den concludes: ‘Thus, anti-mafia wording processes make the mafia exist, paradoxically, at the same time as they dissolve the mafia’s power to exist through silence’ (p. 239).

No wonder ‘silence’ has become a central theme also in Puccio-Den’s further work (see her forthcoming book Ethnographier le silence, ethnographier la nuit (Nanterre: Société d’Ethnologie). One can understand also why the comparison with ‘witchcraft’ – luckily she does not try to define this term, rather referring to the way people involved used such terms – is a theme that keeps coming back throughout the book. Her approach to ‘mafiacraft’ indeed sheds new light on this age-old anthropological theme (as on other themes of our discipline). ‘Mafiacraft’ as a drawn-out and often desperate struggle for ‘responsibilization’ – a central theme in her book (she quotes also Mary Douglas on ‘accountability’) – tells a long historical narrative of trying to grasp something hidden, that constantly seems to elude any attempt at knowing. The lesson is clear: the anti-mafia played a crucial role in creating the mafia – just as in witchcraft the accusations and rumours create the witch. But this required the switch – that Falcone and other judges made – from ‘what the mafia is’, to following in detail ‘what it does.’ It might be interesting to reflect further on whether – or to what extent – such a switch is possible for studying ‘witchcraft.’ One difference remains the concrete effects of the actions involved: acts of similar magnitude like blowing up a stretch of a highway are certainly imputed to ‘witches’ in many part of the world, but it is often more difficult to follow the chains of actions involved in such feats; and the ability to follow the traces of payments, bills and invoices (as Falcone did to map the transnational exchanges of mafiosi between Sicily and the US) can make anthropologists studying witchcraft quite jealous – one would wish that the witches left such non-equivocal traces… But still, Puccio-Den’s subtle following of how the mafia was ‘crafted’ between the anti-mafia and the actors that remained in the shade is a strong reminder of the dangers of trying to fix notions of ‘the’ witch of ‘witchcraft’ (the anthropological literature on this topic continues to be haunted by the dangers of typologies and classifications).

Another theme to pursue might be the contrast between silence and words. For Puccio-Den ‘mafiacraft’ poses the challenge ‘to make something speak that resists verbalization.’ But for ‘witchcraft’ there is often no lack of words, on the contrary. Even ‘witches’ themselves do speak. Think of the central role of witchcraft confessions, often so wordy that they can hardly be stopped – the Salem witches of 17th century Massachusetts were certainly not an exception in this respect. In this sense as well the English title of Jeanne Favret-Saada’s well-known study of witchcraft in Normandy, Deadly Words, is full of meaning.[2] Puccio-Den quotes Favret-Saada’s title in an interesting turn by relating it to deadly silences (p. 239). Yet, in my own work on Southeast Cameroun I characterized witchcraft as an overproduction of meaning, precisely because people talked so much about it – and with such gusto – that these cascades of words created a confusing kaleidoscopes of meanings.[3] Of course such differences are relative: the result is similar, in the sense of hiding what is ‘really’ going on. But further thinking through such different ways of hiding – silence and speaking – might open up further perspectives. Another challenge is of course exploring what Puccio-Den’s very original approach to studying ‘the’ mafia as a ‘cognitive event’ implies for the recent proliferation of conspiracy thinking, becoming a most urgent with for academics with the spread of social media. Clearly Mafiacraft opens up fascinating perspectives for social sciences that are increasingly at large.  

[1] Cf. the beautiful film Il Traditore by Marco Bellocchio about the Buscetta/Falcone tandem (2019).

[2] Jeanne Favret-Saada, Deadly Words – Witchcraft in the Bocage, Cambridge U.P., 1980.

[3] Peter Geschiere, The Modernity of Witchcraft – Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa, University Press of Virginia, 1997.


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