Harri Englund on his new book, Gogo Breeze

Interview by Ilana Gershon


Ilana Gershon: While this book ostensibly focuses on one radio presenter, because Gogo Breeze interacts with such a broad range of the public, one has to know a tremendous amount about Zambian agriculture, legal and informal inheritance, and so on, to understand how he functions as a radio personality.  This presents a significant organizational dilemma for a monograph that will be read by non-Africanists.  How did you decide to focus on Gogo Breeze and what choices were you struggling with as you organized the book?

Harri Englund: Although he is not the owner of the radio station Breeze FM, Gogo Breeze is by far the station’s most popular personality – a household name in Zambia’s Eastern Province. Even a blind would have seen in him a fascinating subject for anthropological research. However, one of the challenges I faced was to think of ways of making my study more than a biographical account. Here I found some help in the extended-case method that I had used in my previous work. A basic point in that method is that although the anthropologist may focus on a person or an event, that focus is merely a starting point for exploring relationships and networks of variable scales.

It always surprises me how unaware anthropologists working in other world regions seem to be of this method that was developed by people such as A. L. Epstein, J. Clyde Mitchell, and Victor Turner on the basis of their work in Zambia and Malawi in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the processual and reflective issues that became prominent in anthropology more recently were, to some extent, prefigured by the extended-case method. It may be a measure of the dominance of American authors and “schools” in the post -1980s Anglophone anthropology that these methodological innovations in the discipline’s past have been forgotten.

In any case, while Gogo Breeze is based on other methods than the extended-case method alone, it made me wove issues such as agricultural policies or inheritance rules into the narratives themselves rather than devoting separate chapters to a “context.” Such a separation between contextual and analytical chapters could result in the false impression that what happens on the ground is merely an illustration of structural principles at the macro level. It was in response to Malinowski’s use of the case method as an “apt illustration” that the extended-case method got developed. The aim was to capture in the unfolding of actual relationships, conflicts, crises, and events potential for transformation and thereby to show that not everything in social life flows from some first principles. The added challenge for me was to pursue this methodology where it had never been attempted before – in the study of mass mediation and its apparent detachment from personal relationships. Although I did not develop the point in the book, the study of ritual, such as in Turner’s work, could of course offer some parallels in this regard.

Ilana Gershon: How does Gogo Breeze, the radio announcer at the heart of this book, create webs of obligations despite or because of how ethereal the utterances through radio as a medium can seem to Zambians?

Harri Englund: The topic of obligations is a prime example of how the book seeks to integrate the study of personal relationships with the interest in mass mediation. I also have other reasons for being interested in obligations as an issue in anthropological theory. One formative interest I have had ever since my graduate research in the early 1990s is the forms that liberal theory and practice have taken in Africa and in the study and critique of human rights. In so far as the so-called rights discourse has often become rather thin on the complex ways in which people are subject to cross-cutting relationships and networks, anthropology would have something to contribute from its past insights into obligations. But just as obligations (or duties) are too simplistically imagined as the flipside of rights in the rights discourse, so too have anthropologists, especially those who don’t work in Africa, tended to forget how much work there is in the discipline on the topic of obligations – or they have tended to see obligations as some Durkheimian or structural-functionalist counterpoint to “freedom” or “ethics.” The more sophisticated recent work on morality by anthropologists is much less committed to pitting freedom and obligation against each other, but reading Meyer Fortes or Max Gluckman could have led to similar recognition much earlier in that literature.

My challenge in Gogo Breeze has been twofold. On one hand, Gogo Breeze’s self-identification as a male elder made me reflect on how important high age can be in popular culture, despite all the attention given to youth in Africa in recent academic and policy discussions. On the other hand, how does he meet the elder’s obligations toward his listeners when he is a media personality? Here the medium of radio has its particular affordances for the kind of sociality that Gogo Breeze wants to enable. The intimacy of talk radio inheres in the uses of the human voice, in the topics covered, in the language used, and in the portability and inexpensive technology of the medium itself. I call the sociality that Gogo Breeze generates “radio kinship,” and while his on-air talk is crucial to it, we must also understand the specific conditions of radio work in a place like Zambia’s predominantly rural Eastern Province. Radio journalists are not detached from their audiences, and Gogo Breeze spends much of his time outside the studio investigating the grievances his listeners have shared with him. I write about the interplay between obligations on air and off air, how this radio elder may have the last word, but also how he has to negotiate in practice the many expectations that people have of him. Despite the idioms of kinship and elderhood, obligations do not simply follow from certain structural positions but have to be negotiated and honored in specific, historically contingent relationships.

Ilana Gershon: Gogo Breeze has a markedly hierarchical view of moral market relationships and as a result, it is not self-evident who is an exploiter or the wrong-doer in a given situation.  Could you talk a bit about the moral social analyses Gogo Breeze models for his listeners when discussing financial practices?

Harri Englund: The moral-political economy of broadcasting is another key theme in the book. Media critics often see the market as antithetical to the free flow of views and information, while public broadcasting – especially in Africa and other postcolonial settings – is often seen as complicit in state and corporate power. These are important criticisms, but I want to alert my readers to a different set of issues when broadcasting is studied ethnographically in a Zambian province. Breeze FM has been run as something of a workshop with its owner at the helm, and employees such as Gogo Breeze have had the task of doing their part in generating revenue through advertising contracts or sponsored programs.

I see the station as one example of organizational forms that may follow the profit principle but are also inspired by profound moral considerations. For one thing, the owner-founder of Breeze FM subscribes to the idea of public-service broadcasting, only that he now has to make some money to sustain his vision. For another, Gogo Breeze’s evocation of kinship hierarchies is very much a part of his approach to economic grievances among his listeners. The idiom of parenting for business and state representatives is not unique to this setting, but its mediation by an elder at a privately-owned radio station does bring specific dynamics to market relations.

Here I find myself in disagreement with various versions of the “moral” or “human” economy in anthropology. A purity of domains informs the way in which David Graeber and Stephen Gudeman have continued the long-discredited habit of seeing a sharp divide between embedded and disembedded economies. I intend the “moral market” to capture some of the actual complexity in a situation where people are as interested in making money as they are in meeting their obligations toward those they regard as their dependents.

Ilana Gershon: You argue that Gogo Breeze’s off-air practices reveal a specifically Zambian distinction between intimacy and privacy – how does this distinction shape Gogo Breeze’s encounters with his audience?

Harri Englund: In the study of publics convened and mediated by mass media, Michael Warner’s notion of “stranger-sociability” has perhaps received enough endorsement by now. What I hope to contribute to that literature is a subtler sense of intimacy and privacy in the work of mediation that builds on highly personified forms of journalism. Gogo Breeze evokes intimacy with his listeners by calling them his grandchildren, by adjusting the tone of his voice to suit each occasion, and by leaving the broadcasting house to interact with his listeners. Even if he has no way of meeting in person large numbers of his listeners, so frequent is his physical presence in towns, markets, and villages that stories about him circulate widely in the province and beyond.

At the same time, not all of his intimate encounters become public. His moral authority depends on knowing when to turn off his voice recorder and what to exclude from broadcasts. It would be too simplistic to say that he is here following the usual journalistic practice of deciding on what gets air time. Privacy is a matter of respecting the boundaries that his interlocutors themselves wish to draw. By not including certain matters in his broadcasts he is not necessarily disengaging from them. In a chapter that describes a prolonged, unrecorded conversation between him and a woman complaining about a lack of access to her deceased father’s estate, I show how much work Gogo Breeze could put into investigating grievances that never went on air. However, neither he nor this woman approached their private conversation as if it was an unmediated encounter. It was precisely his moral authority as the radio grandfather than made the woman trust him with her grievances and seek advice from him. I contrast Gogo Breeze’s practice with the distinction that is drawn between listening and advice in psychotherapeutic counselling. It has arrived in Zambia particularly in the context of counselling for those infected with HIV, but its apparent reluctance to dispense advice contrasts with the ways in which Gogo Breeze combines listening and advising – and is expected to do so by his public.

Ilana Gershon:  What changes in gender relationships became visible through Gogo Breeze’s penchant for playing matchmaker on air?

Harri Englund: Gender relations are some of the most controversial public issues in Zambia. The current controversies have a history that extends into the colonial period, but the recent pronouncements of gender equality by governmental and non-governmental representatives have caused a great deal of counter-argument that asserts essential differences between women and men. Although Breeze FM’s progressive ethos is in principle supportive of the official rhetoric on gender equality and has seen several programs devoted to it, the station does have its own resident patriarch who enjoys playing the role of a conservative male elder. Crucially, Gogo Breeze is not this patriarch.

Female staff at the station contrast his dialogical approach with the patriarch’s habit of shouting them down, while his services as a matchmaker have made him extremely popular among both men and women. Here I show how he attends to both women and men seeking partners without moralizing on their past. The vast majority of those who send him letters and photos have been married before, or have children, and often announce their HIV status. Gogo Breeze reads out their letters on the radio and invites interested parties to meet him in the privacy of his house. Along with children’s rights, which are the subject of another chapter, gender relations appear here not only as contested but as negotiated in the social fields of obligations and hierarchies that the official rhetoric about equality may obscure.

In Zambia as elsewhere, the slogan “fifty-fifty” has asserted equality as a matter of carefully calculated balance between the sexes in most spheres of life. I had explored alternative notions of equality in my previous book about the public radio in Malawi (Human Rights and African Airwaves: Mediating Equality on the Chichewa Radio), and here I consider the meaning of liberal equality in gendered obligations from matchmaking to schooling and livelihoods. A distinction between provincial and paternal feminisms also serves to distinguish between different approaches among the station’s female presenters.

Ilana Gershon: You suggest that, unlike other Zambian radio presenters, for Gogo Breeze, free speech functions as “multivocal morality” (p. 207).  How does this shape how truth-telling is performed on his show?

Harri Englund: The question of free speech is at the heart of this book. It may be considered a quintessential liberal value, but its actual pursuit naturally presents the anthropologist with a wide variety of possibilities to explore. There can be no doubt that media entities such as Breeze FM owe their existence to the liberalization of the airwaves since the 1990s and have, as such, the freedom of expression as a part of their raison d’ȇtre. Ideologies of voice are important to consider in any study of free speech as it is actually pursued in the world. In contrast to the rhetoric about “giving voice to the voiceless,” and to the ideology of voice as an index of individual capacity, I develop the notion of multivocal morality to address Gogo Breeze’s combination of dialogue with his hierarchical demeanor as an elder. He listens and consults widely, but he also reserves to himself the last word. Radio kinship is precisely the condition within which his prerogative to have the last word cannot become a monologic statement of truth. After all, it is radio kinship cultivated at a privately owned radio station that has to generate revenue for its operations.

The moral market is, therefore, intricately linked to the pursuit of free speech in a setting where socioeconomic discrepancies are profound. I caution against adopting notions such as parrhȇsia – the frank and fearless speech popularized in anthropology by recent readings of Foucault – as the register in which free speech should be analyzed. Its origins in ancient Greece emphasize self-government among freemen as a condition of truth-telling, but I suggest that such a notion can result in a rather thin account of the social relations in which free speech and truth-telling may be pursued. I do not claim to provide “theory from the South” – I have questioned parrhȇsia as a paradigm for the study of free speech also in Finland’s recent migrant debate (American Ethnologist 45[1]). Rather, one of my objectives has been to recover liberal thought and politics as interesting to anthropologists now that the worst of the theoretical claims about “neoliberalism” are behind us. Wherever we are in the world today, we only need to look around ourselves to see the urgency of attending to truth-telling in anthropologically plausible ways.


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