Interview by Elayne Oliphant
Elayne Oliphant: As you acknowledge, this is clearly a “theory book.” But I’d like to start by asking you about the powerful historical argument you also make in this text. You give a name to “a liminal period” from 1870 to 1920 in Euro-American social thought: the mana moment. At this moment, the earlier energetic settlement of the rationalist, bourgeois individual saw itself partly undone by encounters between the Global North and Global South as colonial power was consolidated. In this moment between colonial settlements, a great deal of anxiety surrounded new kinds of seemingly “volatile” publics and “vitalist cults” in arts, ethics, and religion. These anxieties induced a series of attempts to understand these energies that appeared both threatening and appealing. Mana is one of the terms that circulated widely at the time—its availability itself an expression of the encounters between the Global North and Global South—in an attempt to address the vital energies flowing in unexpected directions. Could you tell us a bit more about the mana moment as a historical moment and what signs you see that suggest we are encountering another such moment?
William Mazzarella: First of all, Elayne, let me start by thanking you for these searching and attentive questions. The greatest satisfaction for an author is to be in conversation with a reader like you, who is able to bring the text alive in new ways, who understands it as a generative provocation. So thank you for that.
I also like that you have added another settlement to the ones that I name in the book: the bourgeois settlement. This is one of my hopes for the book: that a concept like settlement will encourage readers to find their own instances in whatever terrain of social life they’re exploring. I do believe that this is a generalizable way of thinking about society and history: this tendency that we have, both in discourse and in institutional life, to impose a kind of fixity on irreducible tensions and then to try to live with the symptomatic eruptions that that imposition will necessarily produce. And we know from psychoanalysis, too, that symptomatic eruptions are perhaps the most intimate thing we have—individually and collectively. They can be debilitating and paralyzing. But if we find ways of living with them, they can also be tremendously productive, again for good or for ill. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons that, although I explicitly characterize Mana as a ‘theory book’ I actually think of it as a ‘method book.’ Sometimes people look confused when I say that!)
But to get to the center of your question: what I’m calling the mana moment, roughly the decades surrounding the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, was, in the Euro-American world, a time of tremendous energetic ferment: politically, aesthetically, architecturally, erotically, esoterically. Old empires were giving way; new ones were being born. The rapacious expansion of European colonialism, for instance in the so-called ‘scramble for Africa,’ coincided with the flourishing of an esoteric depth hermeneutics in psychology, spiritualism, and political analysis. One of the central conceits of my book is borrowed from Walter Benjamin’s eccentric historiography. Benjamin believed that potentials embedded in the past could, as it were, ‘flash up’ unpredictably in the present, become actualized in the present in entirely new ways, thus, in a single dialectical leap, changing our understanding of both the past and its relationship to our present.
These kinds of flashes often come to us intuitively: something becomes visible as a hint or a suggestion, at the corner of our field of vision. We follow it, not quite knowing why or whether it’ll turn out to have been worthwhile. Sometimes it’s a dead end. But other times, a whole series of resonances open up across time. By resonances I don’t mean ‘similarities’ in the conventional sense. I’m not saying that our moment, in the early twenty-first century is necessarily all that similar to what our ancestors were living through a hundred years or so ago. Resonances here means that the two moments seem to contain what Max Weber, following Goethe, called ‘elective affinities’: that, in this case across time, they appear to become more vividly themselves through an encounter with each other. The encounter is constitutive in that it actualizes hitherto untapped potentials.
That’s why the argument that I develop in Mana draws on some old texts in order to open up ways about talking about our present. The work I’ve undertaken will have been successful if both those old texts and our sense of our present emerge looking a bit different from that encounter.
Elayne Oliphant: Let’s spend a little more time with this term, “settlement.” Each chapter addresses a potentially insightful dialectic, such as that between the energies of “primitive” rituals and “civilized” publics. You then use “settlement” to describe a process by which the movement of these dialectics is halted, preventing the continuation of the ambiguities and insights their continued movement provokes. I think the term is enormously productive. It effectively points to the itch it cannot fully scratch. The settlement will have to do for now but—as in the case of Israeli construction in the West Bank for example—it is enacted in order to create a “truth on the ground” precisely because it lacks authority and legitimacy. Settlements, in other words, lack solid foundation and implicitly acknowledge their insufficiency, while also enforcing powerful effects (and affects) in the world. What prompted you to use this term and how do you see it in opposition to your “vitalist dialectics”?
William Mazzarella: I like your invocation of settler colonial ‘truth on the ground,’ and especially how fragile and anxious that truth is. How full of contradictions, double-speak, and slips—in short, everything we call symptoms. The term ‘settlement’ came to me spontaneously as I was writing that part of Mana. But I realized as soon as it had appeared on my screen that it had this political connotation that worked perfectly for what I was trying to say. Namely, that both critical theory and the worlds it purports to clarify proceed in this way: by establishing ‘truths on the ground’ that are provisional no matter how much they claim permanence, that are violent no matter how much they claim that history and progress are on their side.
As to the second part of your question, how do I see the concept of settlement in opposition to the ‘vitalist dialectics’ that I am proposing as a kind of intellectual method? The short answer would be that I see them in generative opposition. What I am calling vitalist dialectics is a way of allowing the movement of becoming that a settlement stifles to find a generative form in thought. Unlike pure vitalism, this isn’t just about about letting things move. It is dialectical because I understand the tension between social forms and social forces to be at once generative and irreducible. It is a negative dialectic, rather than a dialectic that moves toward sublation and subsumption. A dialectic that starts by saying: “We take these tensions to be irreducible.” But also: “We understand that these tensions are what generate vital worlds.”
Elayne Oliphant: In the Introduction, you seem to offer us a way into thinking about the current moment. You acknowledge that, what Michael Taussig has called, the “mana wave called Trump” circulated as you wrote, edited, and completed the text, further prompting you to question “what powers authority? What in us responds to it? How is vital energy turned into social form” (2)? I know that W.J.T. Mitchell had a similar response to these opening words; like me, he wanted to find in it some sort of a political program. If Trump had managed to capture something incipient and translate it into tangible social form, how might those opposed to his projects similarly make use of mana to critique and undo his authority? Or, as I put it to you at the AES conference, why, generally speaking, does the left seem to really suck at capturing, inducing, or participating in vital energies? And what the hell are we going to do about it? So I want to ask you this question again, but I also want to offer you the chance to explain to me why it’s a somewhat misplaced response to your book.
William Mazzarella: Even almost a hundred years ago, theorists like Benjamin and Wilhelm Reich, who were interested in what we could call the vital dimensions of the critique of capitalism, noted that the political right seemed to be rather better at harnessing the energies of intoxication and collective effervescence for their political projects than the left. Then, as now, it’s as if the left gets too tied up in a pedagogical urge: it thinks that if it can only explain our common situation to us well enough, then it will have succeeded in mobilizing us. But as Terry Eagleton once satirically pointed out: “Men and women engaged in conflicts do not live by theory alone; socialists have not given their lives over the generations for the tenet that the ratio of fixed to variable capital gives rise to a tendential fall-off in the rate of profit.”
At a time of political urgency like ours, we all feel that we need answers. We want to know how to think about our situation, we want to know what to do about it. We are impatient with rumination and inclined toward action. And so if we are told, as I suggest in Mana, that all social and political action and attachment depends on the activation of collective energies, then it makes sense to want to know how to separate, as it were, ‘good mana’ from ‘bad mana’—genuinely revolutionary mana from reactionary or fascist mana. This, after all, was precisely what Benjamin was trying to do in his canonical ‘Artwork’ essay, which concludes by suggesting that we distinguish between an aestheticization of politics (fascist, bad) and a politicization of aesthetics (revolutionary, good).
In response to these understandable desires—desires that I too feel every day—Mana asks us to slow down and pay a different kind of attention. This is partly because I believe that there is simply no a priori way to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ mana—such that one could set up an institutional fix that would guarantee that the collective energies that emerge from whatever ritual or political form that one has devised will be reliably salutary. What Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert called “the collective forces of society”—and what I am calling “the mimetic archive”—is in this sense beyond good and evil, beyond economy. Its political potentialities are perennially emergent and cannot be guaranteed beforehand. In a mass democracy we tend all too often to act as if all we need to do is elect the right representative or devise the right kind of occasional process, and then we can sit back and watch things go well. No wonder we are so often disappointed when the great soaring hope turns out to have feet of clay. Part of the problem here, too, is that while we are quite conscious of the energies and attachments that we are bringing to the table during moments that are ritually marked off as “political”—rallies, elections, demonstrations and so on—we tend then to underestimate the mana-work that goes into the reproduction of the banality of everyday life, as well as its tight connection to the more grandly imagined dimension of life that we call ‘politics.’ This, by the way, is why I’m so fond of the kind of work that Katie Stewart and Lauren Berlant have been doing, together and separately, for some time now (be sure to check out their forthcoming book The Hundreds): it gives us a way of talking about the hinges between the most ordinary, fleeting moments and their—for want of a better word—“political” resonances, a mode in which everything is allowed to breathe.
The line that I pick up in Mana, perhaps counterintuitively, is Adorno’s aesthetic theory. I say counterintuitively, because Adorno was, if anything, utterly resistant to any kind of explicit politicization of aesthetic judgment. As far as he was concerned, the minute you subordinate aesthetic production to a political purpose, you’ve turned it into propaganda. And by turning it into propaganda, you’ve actually foreclosed the unique thing that art—as opposed to, say, pamphleteering—can do. But at another level, and this is where it links back into what I’m trying to do with Mana as an invitation to a particular kind of political thinking-feeling, at another level what Adorno prescribes for aesthetic judgment is a radical opening of the sensorium to the historical and political potentials that are embedded in the materials out of which the artworks we engage are made. An encounter with what I would call, again, “the mimetic archive.” Of course the major difference between my argument and Adorno’s is that I want to insist that this kind of engagement is in fact possible in the space of mass culture and mass publicity, not just in the esoteric preserve of autonomous art. Here I want to be quite precise: I am not in fact making a populist argument. I am not saying what so many have: that Adorno was simply a snob who didn’t recognize the revolutionary capacities of ordinary popular pleasures. Not at all. What I am saying is that Adorno actually gives us a profoundly provocative way to re-engage mass publicity, an esoteric approach, if you will, to these very exoteric cultural forms.
And that—forgive me the long and winding road!—gets us back to the question of why, at a moment of political urgency like the one we’re inhabiting now, my advice would be to slow down and pay a different kind of attention. Because it’s only by attending to what I like to think of as the esoteric resonances of exoteric public forms (or let’s say, the ‘inner’ dimensions of ‘outer’ forms) that we will be able to move toward a leftist mobilization of the mana of mass society.
Elayne Oliphant: Finally, you mentioned that you saw this text as the fruit of ongoing conversations (in your mind and in person) with two important anthropologists whose work has powerfully influenced your own: Marshall Sahlins and Michael Taussig. Given your earlier writings addressing the Frankfurt school, theories of affect, and advertising, these two scholars might not be the first two that people think of as orienting your work. Could you say a bit more about how they have influenced the questions you ask and the methods you take up, and how this book engages with them?
William Mazzarella: Yes, thanks for this question. Mana emerged in a mad frenzy of writing across two summers, 2015 and 2016. I’d never before felt capable of writing for more than about four hours at a stretch. But especially in the summer of 2015, there were long periods when it was not unusual for me to write for eight hours at a stretch, pausing only to satisfy the needs of the body. Sometimes I would find myself getting so worked up, so energized—“A certain rush of energy” indeed!—that I would have to burst up out of my chair and kind of charge around the room for a few moments. So something definitely possessed me during those months. Who knows whether that will ever happen again? While it was happening it was both exhilarating and a little frightening. It wasn’t unusual for me to think that I was writing something entirely eccentric, something so idiosyncratic that it would simply not be intelligible—would simply not resonate—with anyone else. For that reason, it was tremendously comforting, if also a little intimidating, to realize that two presences seemed to hover, one at each of my shoulders, during the writing process: Marshall Sahlins and Mick Taussig (I’m not going to tell you who was on which side!). I didn’t really question their felt presence during that time; I just drew some kind of comfort as well as some kind of provocation from it.
Once the first draft was finished I felt paralyzed. The thought of sending it to anyone felt equivalent to getting undressed in the middle of the street. (It may not be immediately evident to some readers, but this is by far the most personal text I’ve ever published). So I figured that a little aversion therapy was in order: in order to get over my fear of circulation, I was going to have to send it to the two people whose opinions most terrified me—not least because they had been so reliably present, so watchful during the writing. So, along with sheepish cover notes, I sent the draft to Marshall and Mick. To my great relief, they both responded generously and kindly, with a great deal of enthusiasm.
It wasn’t really until after that had happened that I began to think about why it was Marshall and Mick who had shown up, albeit spectrally, in my office while I was writing. It now seems to me that Marshall Sahlins’ work offered me a kind of reassurance that writing this kind of a book was legitimate for an anthropologist. Specifically, I think of Marshall’s Culture and Practical Reason (1976), a book that he wrote when he was at a similar point in his life as I was when I wrote Mana, and a book that, like Mana, is a work of conceptual clarification that doubles as a sort of intellectual autobiography—a way of sorting out one’s influences, engaging in a few intimate polemics (the only polemics that really matter), and figuring out a way forward. And of course both Culture and Practical Reason and Mana, as different as their intellectual commitments in many ways are, end with analyses of marketing.
Mick Taussig has always inspired me with his willingness to think speculatively, to look, precisely, for those resonances between places and texts that open up sudden flashes of unexpected illumination. Now of course there are many points of overlap between the Mana and Mick’s books—the concern with mimesis, with Adorno and especially Benjamin, and the attempt to retrieve something vital from what is too often dismissed as the age of armchair anthropology. So, if I may invoke one of the key dialectics of my discussion in Mana, Marshall’s presence supported me at the level of form, whereas Mick’s drove me on at the level of life.