Tamar Katriel on her book, Defiant Discourse

Interview by Irit Dekel

Irit Dekel: Your recent book Defiant Discourse helps readers understand the relations between speech and action, revisiting important questions concerning the performativity of language.  It does so in its critique of speech act theory by analyzing the vernacular content of activism in the case of soldierly dissent in Israel-Palestine and in reconsidering what counts as verbal action in a culture in which there is skepticism about language.

How do you problematize the notion of activism in the book?      

Tamar Katriel: I problematize activism by viewing it as a historically-situated discursive formation associated with grassroots struggles for political and social change. The term activist designates individuals or groups whose non-violent interventions in the public sphere draw on a globally recognized and ever-expanding activist repertoire. The soldierly dissent I discuss in the book is a form of discourse-centered activism that involves speaking out about morally objectionable military policies.

Irit Dekel: What are the unarticulated tensions within discourse-centered activism, which become a feature of activists’ engagement?    

Tamar Katriel: A major tension I address is between a trust in language and skepticism towards language as a social tool that is related to two contending language ideologies – a speech-as-action ideology is grounded in a performative view of speech as powerful and efficacious; and a speech vs action dualism (encapsulated in the suffragist slogan “deeds, not words”) that is language-skeptic.

Another tension has to do with competing conceptions of the notion of action that ground activist projects – between the pragmatic search for effective action in terms of tangible results, and a view of action that underscores its creative potential in challenging well-entrenched power arrangements and opening new possibilities for collective engagements. 

Participants in grassroots activism also navigate between the incremental nature of activist action and the sense that it is part of a long and sometimes globally dispersed chain of struggles, and the sense of urgency that attends their local activist engagements and the desire to see tangible results.

Finally, I also discuss the enormous tension attached to the position of the critic-from-within, which involves taking a critical stance towards hegemonic positions in the society of one’s belonging. Such activist struggles are fueled by a socially self-distancing sense of moral outrage coupled with a deep sense of commitment and caring for public life. This tension gives rise to the extremely difficult persuasive task of swaying audiences by giving voice to challenging positions they are reluctant to address.

Irit Dekel: How does the understanding of dissent, parrhesia and witnessing – developed from your works on dugri speech and Breaking the Silence – reflect the centrality of speech and action as two mutually implicated cultural categories?           

Tamar Katriel: My early work on dugri speech, Israeli straight talk, was dominated by an attempt to characterize its distinctive quality as an historically-situated cultural style. I described it as grounded in a language ideology that warrants the use of directness, even bluntness, which is taken to be the mark of courage and sincerity. This kind of directness has indeed become a major feature of Israeli identity (or mythology, as some would have it). Truth-telling in its dugri version is grounded in mutual trust. Truth-telling in dugri speech, as in the ancient Greek discursive idiom of parrhesia, as explored by Michel Foucault (2001), relates both to the dimension of factuality and to the cultural imperative to be true to oneself.

In terms of the speech-action nexus, dugri speech can be seen as maximizing language’s action-potential through a gesture of defiance. In my 1986 book, I used the lens of dugri speech to analyze Colonel Eli Geva’s public refusal to lead his troops into Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon War. In accounting for his dissent, he said that he could see children playing in the city streets when looking through his binoculars, thus linking his act of soldierly defiance to his position as a direct witness as well as to his inner sense of morality. Eli Geva’s defiant discourse threw a momentary light on the human reality of modern battlefields and made a powerful point about commanders’ personal responsibility. The act of witnessing in his case, as in the case of the contemporary Breaking the Silence veterans’ organization, involves insisting on the reality before one eyes and its moral implications, even when others cannot – or will not – see it. While Eli Geva’s was a spontaneous, individual act of defiance, Breaking the Silence is a full-fledged witnessing organization, whose founders have identified the social denial surrounding the reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories as a central impediment to the their morally-driven politics of change. Collecting and disseminating soldiers’ personal narratives as a source of counter-knowledge, they speak truth to power by giving voice to authentic, personal witnessing accounts of their military experiences as occupiers.

Irit Dekel: By focusing on defiant discourse as solidarity-oriented dissent, the book makes an important contribution to understanding political and social implications. Michael Rothberg’s The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (2019) sheds light on implication-based activism and intervention in art. Your analysis deepens our understanding of implication and complicity on (at least) two important aspects: you discuss perpetrators’ witnessing, and the moral implications of being a bystander. Second, you show how knowledge, addressivity-structure, and multiple audiences inform our understanding of the mediated space of appearance and the roles of different subjects in it. How do you perceive the category of implication? Where would you recommend further elaboration and research?

Tamar Katriel: I find the ‘etic’ category of implication useful for thinking about issues of moral responsibility in contexts of violence. The term implication seems to me broader and less judgmental than the that of ‘complicity’ and invites a consideration of degrees and types of involvement (in both spatial and temporal terms). As Rothberg points out, the notion of implication opens up new avenues for thinking about political responsibility by allowing us to go beyond the victim/perpetrator binary and the rather vague category of bystander and consider additional categories of social actors such as beneficiaries and perpetuators of     violent action.  What I think we now need are more ethnography-based thick descriptions of various ’emic’ constructions that can fall into the overarching category of implication as they play themselves out in various empirical cases (particularly as they relate to non-artistic practices, so as to complement Rothberg’s focus on artistic expression). More studies of the various ways in which people see, refuse to see or fail to see themselves linked to the perpetuation of violent practices or injurious institutional arrangements can further flesh out the notion of implication, and my book is one step in this direction. The case of Breaking the Silence witnesses is clearly one of complex implication, in Rothberg’s terms. They see themselves as victimized-victimizers, as both perpetrators of human right abuses and, simultaneously, as victims of the military system in which they operate (and the society that sustains it). In fact, implication is a central theme of their witnessing project – they acknowledge their own implication as perpetrators and point to that of their target audiences as past or potential perpetrators, as direct or indirect beneficiaries of the occupation regime, and as its immediate or long-distance perpetuators. Rather than discarding the category of bystander, as Rothberg would have us do by suggesting the more specific categories of beneficiary or perpetuator, as a linguistic anthropologist, I would ask how the term bystander is used in both vernacular and academic discourses, not how it is to be defined. Indeed, a good deal of vernacular political talk touches in one way or another on the issue of implication both directly through the use of the notion of standing by, and indirectly through the assignment (or dodging) of responsibility for violent actions. Such talk would be a good place to start asking questions about the shifting forms of implications and their discursive articulations.

Irit Dekel: I’d like to ask about the comparative promise for future research that we can draw from you writing on Communication Culture on the one hand and dugri discourse on the other hand, for studying Defiant Discourse and protest culture more generally.      

Tamar Katriel: Before studying Israeli dugri speech, I co-authored a study on the term communication as used in American speech (with Gerry Philipsen), which was titled “What We Need is Communication.” In this study, we identified a prominent American way of speaking, popularly known as “communicating” (contrasted with “just talking”). We found that the term “communication” was invoked as a solution to personal and interpersonal problems, and that people often evaluated themselves and others in terms of the quality of their communication skills. Over the years, the prevalence of this Anglo-American cultural idiom, for which Deborah Cameron (2000) proposed the term “communication culture”, has been extensively explored by scholars in Communication, Cultural Sociology and Sociolinguistics. ‘Communication culture’, which is at least partly rooted in the Western therapeutic ethos, has filtered into middle-class Israeli society in the 1980s and is currently discussed in Israeli social science research in a variety of settings, most prominently in conjunction with personal and national experience of trauma. I believe it has by now come to challenge the primacy of dugri speech as an Israeli vernacular idiom in which the speech-action nexus is foregrounded. Notably, both dugri speech and communication culture are underwritten by a language ideology in which speech is viewed as powerful action. But speaking takes very different shape and matters in very different ways in each of them. I began to address the Israeli version of ‘communication culture’ in the early 2000s by studying night-time call-in therapeutic radio programs (Katriel 2004). In that book, I juxtaposed therapeutic talk radio and dugri speech as two distinctive and alternative cultural idioms. In Defiant Discourse I updated my study of the dugri ethos as articulated in the context of discourse-centered activism. I now see dugri speech and ‘communication culture’ as two distinctive cultural codes that are central to Israeli speech culture (and perhaps beyond). As Tamar Kaneh-Shalit (2017) has argued in her study of the therapeutic setting of Israeli life-coaching, they may intertwine to create a hybrid style that combines elements of both the dugri and the communication codes. In future work, I plan to further explore how these codes may rub against each other so as to get a better handle on both local and global questions of cultural change and the role of language in it.


Cameron, D. (2000). Good to talk? Living and working in a communication culture. London: Sage Publications.

Foucault, M. (2001). Fearless Speech. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).

Kaneh-Shalit, T. (2017). The goal is not to cheer you up: Empathetic care in Israeli life  

coaching. Ethos 45(1), 98–115.

Katriel, T. (2004). Dialogic moments: From soul talks to talk radio in Israeli culture.

Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Katriel, T. & G. Philipsen (1981) ‘What we need is communication’: ‘Communication’ as a cultural category in some American speech. Communication Monographs 48, 301-317.

Rothberg, M. (2019). The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators. Redwood City,

CA: Stanford University Press.

Adam Hodges on his book, When Words Trump Politics

Cover of When Words Trump Politics by Adam Hodges


Interview by Yeon-Ju Bae

Yeon-Ju Bae: Now that the Trump presidency ended, what can we still learn from the past years, during which responsibilities were denied and realities were distorted? As we discuss the ways in which responsibilities are distributed and performed in political discourse, what would be our responsibility as members of the broader society? What did it mean for you to examine Trumpian discourse and performance? Did you encounter any difficulties in doing so? What role do you hope your book would play in the post-Trump era and beyond?

Adam Hodges: I had been teaching overseas during the 2016 campaign and when the November election was called for Trump in the United States. A majority of my students were Muslims studying at our branch campus of an American university. They planned to visit the United States for part of their studies and now those plans were put into doubt – not only due to Trump’s promise of a “Muslim ban” and subsequent executive order that limited visas for passport holders of certain Muslim-majority countries, but they also had genuine doubts about how they would be received against the backdrop of the hateful rhetoric spread by a US president.

I felt that my responsibility, as someone who studies political discourse, was to shed light on Trump’s spurious language use. I think the impetus for much of my scholarly work is a desire to better understand what seems so antithetical to my own worldview. What is the appeal of someone like Trump who strikes me and others as a transparent grifter? What gives the invidious claims of a reality TV personality enough power to put him into the White House? In writing the essays that eventually went into the book, I was trying to make sense of this new regime of language while hoping my analyses might provide others with some tools to do the same.

On one level, I was writing for anthropologists and scholars interested in political discourse; but on another level, I wanted to speak to an educated non-academic audience – the type of reader that subscribes to The Atlantic or reads The New York Times. Linguistic anthropology and related disciplines have amassed a broad array of scholarship that is directly relevant to unpacking language use in our society at this moment in time. I believe sharing that knowledge and bringing it to bear on our wider public dialogue is important. I think all scholars hold a certain responsibility to not only seek greater understandings, but to share those understandings with others outside the discipline – classroom teaching and sharing our disciplinary insights with non-specialists pursuing a liberal arts education is one way to do that.

With the book, one pitfall I hoped to avoid was to analyze Trumpian politics without inadvertently feeding them, without simply stoking the outrage. I wanted to leave readers with understanding rather than outrage. I think framing the points in each essay around scholarly concepts helps with that, at least to an extent – so as to avoid being strictly polemical pieces about Trump. At the same time, the essays are also a form of political writing. My stance isn’t hidden behind a veil of supposed neutrality. I’m a scholar writing about my own society where I seek to critique the workings of power and abuses that I see.

Whether scholarly interventions into our collective understanding of the Trump phenomenon impart lasting lessons remains to be seen. I would like to believe, as your question presupposes, that we’ve moved into a “post-Trump era.” But I think in many ways, we’re not there yet. Trump’s power is necessarily reduced by virtue of no longer being president, but he still holds sway over the Republican party. I hope my book will play a role in providing a toolkit to disarm the spurious appeal of future right-wing populists, while its focus on Trump remains but a historical case study. But the political discourse in 2024 may feel more familiar than we’d like if he runs again; and, if he doesn’t, the discourse around the election will still be shaped and framed around the legacy we inherited from his time in office.

Yeon-Ju Bae: The referentialist language ideology comes into play at different points in the book, such as the way it underpins Jane Hill’s critique of the individualist understanding of racism that you discuss in chapter 8. On the other hand, on page 28, the referentialist language ideology and truth-telling subjects appear to be the basis for democracy, which Trump doesn’t fulfill by lacking factual integrity. I was wondering if you could elaborate on how Trump performs or deforms the referentialist language ideology in creating and staging his own reality.

Adam Hodges: As Sue Gal (2005) points out, “language ideologies are never only about language;” they also “provide insights into the working of ideologies more generally.” Similarly, Hill (2008) notes that “linguistic ideologies shape and constrain discourse, and thus shape and constrain the reproduction of other kinds of ideologies.” Language ideologies enter into discourse in a way that not only serves local interactional purposes, but they also mediate between those local interactional contexts and social structures writ large – a point elaborated on by Paul Kroskrity (2004) in his discussion of language ideologies. This is a crucial point: the idea that language ideologies can serve interested political positions and bolster other types of ideologies. In addition to applying this idea to the discussion of racism, I also touch on this in chapter 10 where I discuss how judges selectively choose and ignore different language ideologies to justify judicial philosophies.

In US public discourse about racism, as Hill details, a few different language ideologies work together to reproduce the dominant racial ideology. The referentialist ideology (Silverstein 1976), which holds that the function of language is primarily to convey information, contributes to the idea that meaning resides in words themselves, so that words are viewed as “containers” of information that are “sent” from one speaker to another, as discussed by Michael Reddy (1979) in his critique of the conduit metaphor. Referentialism can bolster the dominant racial ideology in instances where racist words are uttered; the words are seen as a vehicle of racist intensions, which becomes the focus of controversies that allow discussants to isolate racism in individuals who use the words. So referentialism is often accompanied by the language ideology of personalism (Rosaldo 1981), which locates meaning in the beliefs and intentions of the speaker. Personalism can bolster the dominant racial ideology by emphasizing that speakers who utter racist words hold the beliefs and intentions of a racist. Together, these language ideologies fold nicely into the dominant racial ideology by emphasizing that racism is a matter of, to quote Hill (2008), “individual beliefs, intentions, and actions.” In other words, these language ideologies are often harnessed in public discourse about racism to reproduce the dominant racial ideology that individualizes racism while erasing its system-wide patterns of operation within society.

As you note, the language ideology of referentialism also underpins the discourse about truth telling and how factual integrity, as you say, represents a normative ideal for democratic governance. We expect our political leaders to adhere to this ideal, at least in principle even if they stray in practice; and when they do stray in practice, we expect them to engage in subsequent acts of contrition or make excuses that nevertheless reinforce a referentialist foundation for their words. Most US presidents have more or less operated by these unwritten rules of democratic discourse, but then Trump came along to seemingly create and stage his own reality by somehow operating outside what Jane Hill (2000) has termed the “discourse of truth.”

At the end of chapter 2, which you cite in your question, I focus on how Trump’s disregard for factual integrity works to “typify” a worldview. By that, I mean he paints a compelling depiction of the world that resonates with the worldview of Trumpian conservativism. In this way, his statements come to be judged by his core supporters in terms of their ideological fidelity rather than their factual fidelity, by how well they reinforce what they already believe to be true about the world – by what conforms to that preconceived worldview – regardless of the empirical veracity of the claims.

So on one level, we could say that Trump’s factually challenged statements about everything from immigration to election results perform political work by drawing from referentialism to shift or affirm what his core supporters accept as true. But on another level, the showmanship, or as Hall, Goldstein, and Ingram (2016) discuss, the “entertainment value” of his performances allow his discourse to operate on a different, even if sometimes overlapping, level that revolves around performative acts designed to impress rather than deceive per se. Marco Jacquemet (2000) makes this point in his analysis of Trumpian discourse, discerning between “lying” (which, for the purpose of our discussion here, relies on the foundation of referentialism) and “bullshitting,” which, following Harry Frankfurt’s (2005) dissection of the concept, is done without any concern for truth. From this perspective, Trump as a “bullshit artist” (the phrase Jacquemet uses in the title of his article) deforms the referentialist language ideology, to use your phrasing in the question. I think your use of the word “deforms” is an apt description here, because it really disfigures or alters the referentialist foundation of democratic discourse that drives many Trump critics mad. As I discuss in chapter 6, much of the mainstream political press’s obsession with fact-checking rests on this referentialist foundation and went into overdrive after Trump’s election in an attempt to correct the factual record and uphold the normative democratic ideals that Trump violates.

In chapter 3, I take a different approach than Jacquemet and draw from Hill’s (2000) distinction between the “discourse of truth” and the “discourse of theater” to explore how Trump’s statements during the 2016 campaign were filtered through diverging interpretive frames. The “discourse of truth,” as mentioned earlier relies on referentialism and the correspondence theory of truth whereby a politician’s statements are evaluated in terms of how they correspond to an actual state of affairs in the world. If they correspond, they are seen as true. If not, they can be deemed “lies” if, drawing from the language ideology of personalism, the speaker intends to deceive. This is the interpretive lens through which the political press and many of Trump’s critics view his statements.

But the “discourse of theater,” as Hill elaborates, draws from the poetic function of language as opposed to the referential function, dramatically enacting a “message” in the sense of a familiar theme that resonates with voters – not so much because of its informative dimensions, but because of its emotional “penetration.” My point in that chapter is that these different interpretive lenses helped create an interesting mismatch between the way Trump’s statements were often given a pass (when viewed through the discourse of theater) while Clinton’s statements led to evaluations of her as somehow more dishonest and untrustworthy than Trump (when viewed through the discourse of truth).

Yeon-Ju Bae: I was intrigued by your usage of “alternative” as it was employed to refer to the Trumpian conspiracy narratives, because the word “alternative” seems to have been commonly raised by non-hegemonic less powerful groups against the normative. While Trump occupied the White House and had the administrative power, how could his viewpoint be yet regarded as illegitimate and alternative?

Adam Hodges: That’s a fascinating question. I admittedly didn’t think through all the connotations of the word “alternative,” as you’ve laid out here. My use of that word probably says more about my own standpoint and positionality in the society I’m writing about. The resistance to Trump’s election and subsequent actions as president mobilized a large swath of the electorate, including not just the usual liberal critics but also never-Trump conservatives. This created the widely held perspective that Trump’s presidency was anything but part of the normative powers that typically run the government. So, from that perspective, many of Trump’s actions, including his embrace of fringe figures, like Alex Jones, and harmful conspiracy theories, could be said to fall outside the normative constellation of presidential behaviors and comportment.  

It’s true, as you suggest, that Trump’s occupation of the White House elevated his symbolic power, providing momentum to the propagation of what would otherwise be considered peripheral or “alternative” narratives. To the extent that Trump’s position in the White House helped to legitimize the unconventional and shift it into the realm of the conventional; then I could see how the term “alternative” would be out of place. But I think any movement of norms during his presidency remained partial and incomplete. If anything, his role and response to the events of January 6th has even elevated his status – for those other than his core base of supporters – as someone seen as an illegitimate steward of the public trust. So I think we can recognize how the office of the presidency imbued Trump with a certain amount of power while also continuing to view his actions in propagating fringe ideas as standing outside the mainstream.

Now, I realize there are many ways his ideas represent the continuation of mainstream ways of thinking and governing. The prime example is his embrace of White supremacy. As discussed earlier, Trump’s views on race and racism are a continuation of the dominant racial ideology, which perpetuates a racialized social system that shapes how privileges are awarded or denied. The only difference is that Trump’s embrace of this ideology has been more overt and explicit than what came to be expected of politicians after the civil rights era. As Ian Haney-López (2014) discusses, contemporary political discourse about race is often implicitly conveyed through “dog whistles.” Although Trump does plenty of dog whistling, he has also helped elevate the popularity of White supremacist groups and a resurgence in overt acts of racial violence. Jonathan Rosa (2020) makes a powerful argument for the way we shouldn’t necessarily see Trump as a deviation from the normal.

Another way of approaching your question is to consider the way the word “alternative” fits into the myth that Trump and his team have cultivated for him as a supposed outsider. This theme is nothing new in US politics. Nearly every politician running for national office wants to claim the status of outsider, someone representative of the metaphorical heartland and common American, who goes to Washington to serve but remains outside the entrenched power interests of the elite establishment. Trump plays this part well with his brand of populism. Perhaps the use of the word “alternative” plays into this message, as well. I’ll let you decide.

Works Cited

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism without Racists. Rowman & Littlefield.

Coates, Ta-Nahisi. 2015. Between the World and Me. Random House.

Frankfurt, Harry. 2005. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press.

Gal, Susan. 2005. “Language Ideologies Compared: Metaphors of Public/Private.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15(1): 23-37.

Hall, Kira; Donna Meryl Goldstein; and Matthew Bruce Ingram. 2016. “The Hands of Donald Trump: Entertainment, Gesture, Spectacle.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6(2): 71-100.

Haney López, Ian. 2014. Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Wrecked the Middle Class. Oxford University Press.

Hill, Jane. 2000. “‘Read My Article’: Ideological Complexity and the Overdetermination of Promising in American Presidential Politics.”  In Regimes of Language, Paul Kroskrity (ed.), 259-292. Santa Fe: School of American Research.

Hill, Jane H. 2008. The Everyday Language of White Racism. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Jacquemet, Marco. 2000. “45 as a Bullshit Artist: Straining for Charisma.” In Janet McIntosh and Norma Mendoza-Denton (eds.) Language in the Trump Era: Scandals and Emergencies, 124-136. Cambridge University Press.

Kroskrity, Paul. 2004. “Language Ideologies.”  In A. Duranti (ed.) A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, 496-517. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Reddy, Michael. 1979. “The Conduit Metaphor: A Case of Frame Conflict in Our Language About Language.”  In Metaphor and Thought, Anthony Ortony (ed.), 164-201. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rosa, Jonathan. 2020. “Communicating Crisis: Getting Back to Whose Normal?” Talking Politics: Anthropologists and Linguists Analyze the 2020 Election. Public forum hosted by the University of Chicago, University of Colorado, and Society for Linguistic Anthropology.

Rosaldo, Michelle. 1981. “The Things We Do With Words: Ilongot Speech Acts and Speech Act Theory in Philosophy.”  Language in Society 11: 203-237.

Silverstein, Michael. 1976. “Shifters, Linguistic Categories, and Cultural Description.”  In Meaning in Anthropology, Keith Basso and Henry Selby (eds.), 11-55. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Smedley, Audrey. 2007, March 14-17. “The History of the Idea of Race…And Why It Matters.” Paper presented at the conference, “Race, Human Variation and Disease: Consensus and Frontiers,” sponsored by the American Anthropological Association. Warrenton, VA. https://understandingrace.org/resources/pdf/disease/smedley.pdf

Aneil Tripathy takes the Page 99 Test

I began my ethnographic study of climate finance in 2014. Climate finance is composed of financial markets purportedly geared towards investing in climate change solutions such as public transit and renewable energy.

From the beginning, I wanted to use anthropology to make sense of financial markets and how white-collar professionals working in these markets respond to climate change beyond the scientific production of climate scenarios and debates amongst economists and financiers centering on climate finance pricing. My dissertation does this through breaking down the green bond market (one of the largest markets in climate finance) into the components of data, narrative, time, work, and people. On page 99, however, I look directly at the types of academic debates around bond pricing that economists and financial scholars most often dive into when they study green bonds.

The middle of page 99 begins a section titled “Is there a Greenium?” This section looks directly at the ever present and ongoing debates around whether or not there is a pricing difference between green bonds and regular (known as vanilla (many colors in the bond market!)) bonds. Greenium is a word that a green bond analyst colleague of mine invented to label this pricing difference, at the NGO from which I center my study of climate finance. I discuss the greenium earlier in my dissertation as well, in my chapter on data. I highlight how similarly to Donald Mackenzie’s argument that derivatives pricing formulas transformed how derivatives function, debates around green bond pricing define what green bonds are (MacKenzie 2008). I later published an article with the analyst who coined the term greenium and another climate finance interlocutor, where I put my anthropological perspective on this pricing debate into conversation with their analyses of the green bond market (Harrison, Partridge, and Tripathy 2020).

My work on the greenium is a great example of the type of research I enjoy doing as an anthropologist: bringing my holistic perspective into dialogue with dominant trends in academic research around climate finance or other topics. I want to expand the conversations in this space and allow us to put climate finance markets and their purported solutions to climate change in perspective. A key task I think, given the large amount of public capital that is being spent on climate finance.

by Matteo Farinella for RIVA Illustrations

Aneil Tripathy. 2021. Assembling Green Bonds: Data, Narrative, Time, Work, and People in Climate Finance. Brandeis University PhD.

Harrison, Caroline, Candace Partridge, and Aneil Tripathy. 2020. “What’s in a Greenium: An Analysis of Pricing Methodologies and Discourse in the Green Bond Market.” The Journal of Environmental Investing 10 (1).

MacKenzie, Donald. 2008. An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets. Inside Technology. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Aneil Tripathy is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher and member of the Impact Hau team, funded by ERC consolidator grant no. 772544.

Justin Richland on his book, Cooperation without Submission

Cooperation without Submission


Interview by Hannah McElGunn

Hannah McElGunn: Cooperation Without Submission brings together cases drawn from a wide range of contexts including the US tax code, Hopi Tribal consultation engagements with the US Forest Service, and a hearing between an anonymized Tribal nation and the US Office of Federal Acknowledgement. What was the process like of piecing together the different elements of this book?

Justin Richland: Is happenstance a process? I am only half serious…but I am half. I agree with Marilyn Strathern when she argues that ethnography involves the purposeful effort to generate more data than one is cognizant of at the time one is in the field. This seems to me consistent with most anthropologists’ commitment to a kind of humanistic empiricism; to not decide in advance what data are relevant to our hypotheses, but rather to have one’s own claims be open to the observable acts and interpretations of the people with whom we engage, wherever they may lead. And so, happenstance always plays a role.

 In this case, it was a combination of happenstance but also a terrible creative block that led me to the final formation of this book. I struggled with settling on a second project, even as I was taking on projects that involved different elements of Tribal governance and often involved different Tribal nations and national organizations. I was involved in a lot of important efforts by Native Nation advocates to influence US law and policy, but none to which I felt I could give the singular attention they deserved.

Then, in 2016, the #NoDAPL/Mni Wiconi protest the Dakota Access pipeline construction across Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s territory exploded in the news. I followed the confrontations between protesters, police and private security forces. But I also learned that the confrontations erupted when an ongoing legal battle had boiled over after a US court denied the Standing Rock Nation’s injunction to stop a federal agency from issuing a permit to complete construction. The Nation had sought the injunction because, they contended, the agency had failed to follow laws requiring meaningful Tribal consultation before issuing its permit. The U.S. countered that Tribal Nations had been consulted over a hundred times. It was this conflict that resonated with something I had experienced in my own work, and a sentiment that I had heard over and over from my Indigenous colleagues. They complained that while agency officials were often ready to hold so-called listening sessions with them, it was almost always the case that Native advocates left those meetings feeling like their concerns weren’t heard or otherwise meaningfully engaged. At the same time, despite this repeated refrain of frustration, I also learned, that many Native Nation representatives entered these meetings expecting to have their aims frustrated. And yet they undertook them anyway. This is what interested me most, and it led me to think about how Native Nation-US engagements might reflect an enduring Indigenous stance in which insisting on taking these meetings were acts of self-determination in the face of settler colonization that defied easy explanation along binaries of resistance/complicity.

It was while working through this that I recalled the words of my Hopi mentor Emory Sekaquaptewa, who once said, “In Hopi, culture teaches us cooperation without submission.” I wondered if the Native leaders’ engagements with non-native agencies and institutions are, refusals to capitulate to US settler colonialism, but enacted in a mode of provisional cooperation, rather than overt resistance. It is this possibility I explore in the book.

Hannah McElGunn: At several points in Cooperation Without Submission, you detail the way in which the United States and its agents approach Tribal norms, knowledge, and practices as objects to be evaluated or judged rather than logics of a sovereign governance system. But you also bring up a parallel distinction early on when discussing your own positionality, noting that you “deploy an Indigenous theory of sociopolitical action not as an object of analysis but as the analytic framework itself” (23). How did you seek to do this? Were there moments when the distinction felt slippery or difficult to enact?

Justin Richland: The conceit of this book is that to begin to grasp how Native Nations navigate the inherent contradictions of insisting on their sovereignty while also doing the everyday work of self-governance under conditions of settler colonialism, it necessitates taking Native actors literally at their word. That is, we ought to not only begin our analyses with the normative insights and perspectives that Native Nation officials take to their meetings with their US counterparts, but also how those norms are shaped by and shaping the unfolding interactions and institutions through which these meetings are accomplished. Only by asking after what parties to these engagements are up to when they undertake them, and the consequences (both interactionally and sociostructurally) they seem to anticipate emanating from them, can we start to get at an analysis of the Native Nation – US relations that start from the norms, knowledge and relations that Indigenous actors bring to them. In the book (and elsewhere) I have called these effects of political and legal speech activity, Indigenous juris-dictions, because I want to foreground how authority is announced and announced as enduring, in the details of rather mundane institutional discourses that seem to be about other things entirely.

We can then layer on to Indigenous juris-dictions the fact that this regulatory regime of meaningful Tribal consultation is claimed to be at the heart of official government-to-government relationships between Native Nations and the US, and the question of the meaning of “meaningful” for Native Nations party to these engagements is not just a matter of academic interest, but foundational legal consequence. Heeding the words of my Indigenous colleagues, I argue that meaningful Tribal consultation thus requires something beyond dialogue; it is a mode of engagement that is more than a “listening session.” Namely it requires engagement that takes Indigenous norms, knowledge and relations not as the data for regulatory actors to weigh, but as the measuring sticks against which regulatory decisions impacting Native interests are to be judged. This seems to be the meaning that Native actors are bringing to these consultations. Alas, too often this is not what their non-native counterparts understand these meetings to consist in, and the results are the frustrations I describe above.

You ask if this was a slippery or difficult distinction sometimes. Yes, of course, largely because writing in the usual genres of anthropological and sociolegal scholarship tracks with the same evaluative logics used by the US officials who see consultations as information gathering events, rather than as acts of governmental co-management. And so the descriptions made in this book involved normative judgments on my part, ones that treat Indigenous normativity, epistemology and relationality as objects of my inquiry. I try to foreground this inherent problem by insisting that my descriptions are necessarily imperfect, and thus open for reinterpretation by the Native people whose actions I was representing. Hopefully then the claims in this book are seen as provisional and thus always pointing beyond themselves to the ways in which Native Nations and their actors are themselves bringing their words to bear on the world.

Hannah McElGunn: Your thinking about limits, refusal, and recognition draws on work by Glen Coulthard and Audra Simpson, but also departs from it, especially from a methodological point of view. What do you think a linguistic anthropological approach can add to the wider discussion of these issues?

Justin Richland: Limits, refusal and the problems of recognition are central to the ways in which I am understanding how Native actors engage their non-native counterparts in US agencies and institutions funded by them. And I am indebted to the tremendously influential work of Simpson, Coulthard, and many others (including Jodi Byrd, Vine and Phil Deloria, Scott Lyons, Gerald Vizenor among others) for helping me think through how cooperation without submission could be understood in terms of refusal and problems of recognition. Standing on their shoulders has allowed me to see how refusal and recognition emerge in the details of the interactions and texts that constitute them, but in surprising and often seemingly contradictory ways. It is precisely there, methodologically, I think that linguistic anthropology gives me some purchase for understanding how engagements that might on their face seem capitulatory, are also, simultaneously, meaningful acts of push back, refusal, or limit. Linguistic anthropological methods and theories, and in particular our commitments to understanding the situated meaning of speech activity and textual forms in the details of their actual accomplishment, gives us a way of understanding how, despite (or maybe because of) the constraints imposed by certain structures of interaction and social action, social actors are nonetheless able to produce meanings and make claims that have powerful, multivalent effects, some that even have a relation of irony to each other. Thus a Hopi leader engaging US officials can in one moment refuse to share with them a sacred item of considerable esoteric significance to him and the other Hopi in the room, but then moments later reverse course, and freely pass the item around. Only by reflecting on their discursive and semiotic accomplishment can we begin to appreciate how this sequence of actions – rather than signs of hesitation or a caving to settler colonial expectations – are significant performances of Hopi political authority, and, at the same time, enactments of cultural knowledge, normative responsibilities and the inauguration of relations now interpolating the US officials with whom the object was shared. Without understanding the semiotics of these kind of actions, and the pragmatic details by which they emerge in real time, the way these acts are simultaneously signs of accommodation and coordination, can also be acts of refusal, and limit. It is this I am calling Indigenous juris-dictions of “cooperation without submission.”

Hannah McElGunn: I found some of the most interesting nuggets in this book to be the historical discursive contexts you provided for terms that have become familiar to anthropologists working with Indigenous communities who engage with the US government. I’m thinking in particular of the discursive gymnastics around Chief Justice John Marshall’s term “domestic dependent nations” that you detail in chapter two. Did you come across any surprising, unexpected, or overlooked historical details in your research for this book that have stuck with you?

Justin Richland: I’m not sure if this answers your question, but perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the work I do is recognizing how ignorant most non-natives (including me) still are about everyday Indigenous life in the US and elsewhere. The challenges posed by misrepresentations of Native peoples in our public culture are not just that they are inherently racist, or otherwise hurtful, which they certainly are. To me, what is also bad is just how much they make actual Native Nations and their lives utterly unrecognizable. So, when I was thinking about how to answer your question, my first reaction was to say how pleasantly surprising it was to me to find so many examples of Indigenous leaders responding to US settler colonial policies and laws with an enormous degree of political savvy. But then, almost immediately, I felt ashamed because one would think that after nearly three decades of working with Native Nations and their advocates, I would have gained an appreciation for the ways in which Indigenous political agency is so often overlooked in studies of Native-US relations, past and present. And yet, here I am, surprised to find out that Quanah Parker and Lone Wolf had already gone to Washington D.C. and spoke with federal officials there who warned them of what the Jerome Commission was after. Likewise, why was I surprised to find out that Cherokee leaders had hired some of the best legal minds of the day in their effort to stop Georgia from unilaterally imposing its laws on them, and even solicited the assistance of non-native allies to subject themselves to Georgia incarceration so that Chief Justice Marshall would have two different kinds of legal controversies with which to articulate the government-to-government relations between the Cherokee, Georgia and the federal government. This is all incredibly skilled legal and political maneuvering, stuff that I have seen often in my current work with Native Nations, but which is still surprising to me when I uncover it historically. And this is what makes me ashamed. I am still surprised, I think, because I continue to labor under misconceptions of Indigenous political naivete and susceptibility to US double dealing that emanate from the prejudicial and racialized views of Indigenous history that are so deeply engrained in how we learn about Native – US relations. And if someone like me, who has had the honor of working so closely with Native Nation leaders and advocates for so long, still can’t seem to throw off these misconceptions, what must it be like for others who have not had my good fortune? I fear there is still a lot of work to do to correct these enduring misunderstandings. I only hope that Cooperation Without Submission is one more small step in rectifying the norms, knowledge, and relations with which we non-natives engage Native Nations and their citizens.