Alex Fattal on his book, Guerrilla Marketing

Interview by Winifred Tate

https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/G/bo29202793.html

Winifred Tate: The title, Guerrilla Marketing, evokes advertising, and in fact Amazon lists a number of similarly named advertising books. Why did you choose it?

Alex Fattal: Because it’s dense, evocative, and slippery, like the book’s contents. In a sentence, the book is an ethnographic analysis of the feedback between marketing and military strategies, how each set of experts are learning from the other in their respective efforts to conjugate furtive research, surveillance, and planning with spectacular media interventions. Guerrilla marketing, the term, references a set of trends in the private sphere to camouflage the advertisement; and as the title of my book, it references how the state is marketing a new life of consumer citizenship to guerrillas — the book’s ethnographic ground. The book documents a mashup of these worlds, which the title encapsulates.

Winifred Tate: One of the central arguments you make is that programs that are marketed by governments and consultants as humanitarian and contributing toward peace often, as in this case, involve policing, surveillance and frequent detention of targeted individuals — that is they employ a logic of militarization and ongoing warfare. Can you explain the Colombian case you examine?

Alex Fattal: The program that I studied in Colombia, the Program for Humanitarian Attention to the Demobilized (PAHD), is a special initiative of the Colombian Ministry of Defense. It began in 2003, the year after peace negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government fell apart. It was in lieu of a peace process and sought to coopt the language of peace policy by “demobilizing” fighters that were really defecting or deserting. It might strike some readers as a picky semantic difference, but one of the key claims that I make in the book is that the temporal difference between war and peace — like other modernist distinctions — matters and should not be relinquished lightly. At the level of academic critique, we see how the two bleed ineluctably into each other, but I do think there is something worthwhile in not giving into the Marshal McLuhan’s prognostication that World War III will be “a guerrilla information war.” His vision is proving increasingly prescient with the confluence of the unfolding of the Global War on Terror and the technological moment, and it’s very troubling to say the least. By theorizing what I call “brand warfare” I am trying to articulate something that is in global circulation. While it’s been interesting to share the work and hear from colleagues about how they find the concept useful in their field own sites, it’s also been disheartening because it points to a troubling tendency toward dangerous new forms of mass manipulation.

Winifred Tate: In the conclusion, you document how the Colombian government evangelizes this program, showing it off to delegates from other conflict-torn countries such as South Sudan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Somalia and others. Why did the Colombian government do this?

 Alex Fattal: It is part of Colombia’s striving to position itself on the upper rungs of a global hierarchy of security expertise and establish itself as a country that has come back from the brink of “failed state” ignominy, and therefore has knowledge to export. The pony show of the “South South Tour” (which was mostly funded by the global north) was just one piece in a wider re-narration of the nation and served as a performative intervention to create the impression of the government having “solved” the conflict — all while the war was still raging. Kimberly Theidon has aptly described this cunning temporal conflation as “pre-post conflict”. The bi-annual South South Tours were part of the Colombian government’s “mission accomplished” moment, a performance that involved the mobilization of state symbols, bureaucracies, and resources. Anybody who has been following the post-peace accord violence knows how utterly premature such triumphalist projections have been.

Winifred Tate: An important contribution you make is bringing an analysis of the intersections between the worlds of marketing and branding, and government demobilization efforts. How do these bureaucrats and consultants try to sell peace? How do you think these campaigns have contributed to the current skepticism about the peace accords in Colombia?

Alex Fattal: You are very right to point to skepticism as the other side of the coin in such strategies of affective governance. Quite simply, I think the government blew its credibility on peace initiatives during wartime to gain a military and political advantage. When it came time to persuade the Colombian public that a strikingly similar set of programs would be necessary during negotiations with the FARC in Havana from 2012 to 2016 and then during the plebiscite and implementation of the peace accord, it was much easier for the right wing to sew doubt around the motives of the pro-peace camp. It is a telling case of how the right-wing benefits from playing politics amidst a hall of mirrors, unphased by distortions and shameless in taking the non-correspondences between signifier and signified that Baudrillard poignantly highlighted when discussing consumer culture decades ago to its logical conclusion — outright disinformation.

Winifred Tate: A growing number of anthropologists are conducting ethnographic research within government and military bureaucracies. What lessons can you share for anthropologists and others who want to do this kind of research?

 Alex Fattal: Be careful. It’s a fraught field and the rules of the game are in flux. Journalists and academics are in a tough spot across the globe. Ayše Gül Altinay, among others, is being arbitrarily detained in Turkey. The translation of Guerrilla Marketing into Spanish and a few promotional events in Colombia seem to have earned me my first death threat, a picture of a man hanged and tortured that was sent to my Colombian cell phone. (It was a new SIM card and I had hardly shared the number with anyone). Institutions, like the Colombian military, that project such a powerful image of themselves publicly are often hypersensitive and don’t deal well with criticism and they have a kit of repressive tools to use as part of the brand warfare they wage to sure up their often shaky legitimacy. I did my best to convey the scope of my research and its disposition to critical analysis, but despite my best efforts to communicate openly and continually — tensions arose. Embedded ethnography tends to assume an ideological affinity between the anthropologist and her field site, but when that’s not the case things can get tricky. One of the parts of the book that I am proud of is the “Access and Ethics” section of the introduction, which digs deeper into these dynamics.

Winifred Tate: In addition to your analysis of the logic of the demobilization programs, you offer complex and fascinating glimpses into the complexity of ex-combatants’ lives through life-history excerpts in-between each analytical chapter. How do you understand the role and importance of these testimonies of lived experience?

Alex Fattal: The testimonials, which are accompanied by Lucas Ospina’s wonderful drawings, do a lot of work in the book and they have been one of the elements that has really impacted readers so far. They give the analysis another dimension by bringing the discussion down to the level of everyday life, not in a way that is illustrative of my interpretations but rather in ways the exceed the interpretative frame, allowing readers who are unfamiliar with the Colombian context to feel the intensities and trajectories of lives marked by the conflict and their many layers. The stories also open a space for readers to make connections to the chapters — the placement of each of the testimonials is not haphazard. I think the testimonials widen my otherwise narrow focus on the convergence of marketing and militarism and allow the book to be about much more at the same time. Including them also relieved some of my sense of guilt about not being able to include many other stories that I wanted to include. So many former guerrillas shared their life experiences with me and I wish I could have included their stories too. My editor, Priya Nelson, did a wonderful job gently influencing the manuscript. The one piece of advice I just couldn’t take was to cut the testimonials down further. For me, I wanted to make sure the arc of often-difficult childhoods, joining the guerrilla, life inside the FARC’s ranks, the decision to leave, and the challenges of reintegration came through; and it was hard to abbreviate that arc, especially with so many compelling stories.

Winifred Tate: Similarly, your film Limbo, centers on the recounting of one such story. What is the film about?

Alex Fattal: The book could have easily been twice as long, but I left some large pieces out, such as a chapter on the psychological world of ex-combatants and their dreamscapes. I decided to spin that off into a short film called Limbo, which was shot entirely in the back of a truck that I transformed into a camera obscura. The article I am writing now is about former guerrillas’ dreams and the film project as a form of ethnographic surrealism, which strives for a dialectic between the ethnographic impulse to render the familiar strange and the surrealist impulse to render the strange familiar. The film, unlike much of what has been featured from the Sensory Ethnography Lab, takes narrative seriously, while also creating a sensorial space in the back of the truck. The truck becomes a confessional, psychoanalytic space that, unlike the couch, is in constant motion. The idea is to take the viewer on an oneiric journey through one former guerrilla’s life. Like the testimonials in the book, the film shows how the aftermath of being in the war lingers, it is an aftermath that is accentuated by a form of demobilization that, as I argue, is often complicit in the remobilization of former combatants, fueling cycles of conflict and peace policy that Colombia has been in the throes of for the last thirty-five years. It’s a trend, that sadly, is continuing through the post-peace accord present.

 

 

 

 

 

Laura Bunting-Hudson’s The Art of the Hustle

While traditionally the neoliberal economic system has been characterized as one which militates against poor people and those that are oppressed, my research analyzes how ordinary people are using the political economy combined with resistance politics for their own advantages. This dissertation explores the political economy of rap music in Bogota, Colombia and how groups use diverse transnational business strategies in order to develop a new entertainment industry there. My work explores the social organizational strategies of multi-national rap polities, based in Bogota, as they utilize new forms of digital technology, and their street smart entrepreneurial skills to distribute popular music as well as to start horizontal business firms, in order to challenge the status quo within their communities.

On page 99, my dissertation is describing the ideology of many of the most successful rap groups in Bogota, Colombia. It illustrates the rappers counter-cultural system of values that comes from street codes one often finds in international street gangs. The rappers use these ideas in order to form a group of resistance artistic poets (rap) who believe in using the capitalistic system, forming a strong transnational network of Spanish rap elites and establishing businesses based on the groups ideology, in order to try to create societal change. In this section, I use FG Bailey’s concepts from political anthropology and Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory. Combining these theoretical frameworks allows for the ethnographic data to reveal the way that games are played by the rap polities, to demonstrate how the groups are organized, form networks, maintain those orders and the threats that rap polities encounter, in their aims at garnering fame, money and societal power. The stated goals of many of the rap polities are to challenge the current political and economic elites in Colombia whom they believe are an oligarchical regime, that unjustly take advantage of the people and resources of Colombia. The rap artists believe that by forming their own businesses, being able to create social and political solidarity around the dissemination of their messages contained within their music through mass communications networks and working hard for progressive change, Colombia can become a more equal and just nation. This dissertation showcases the rap artists quest for this kind of greater equity and justice in Bogota, Colombia.
Bunting-Hudson, Laura. 2017. The Art of the Hustle: A Study of the Rap Music Industry in Bogota, Colombia. Ph.d. diss. Teachers College, Columbia University.

Alex Fattal’s “Guerrilla Marketing: Information War and the Demobilization of FARC Rebels”

Page 99 of my dissertation “Guerrilla Marketing: Information War and the Demobilization of FARC Rebels,” recounts the moment when drug lord Pablo Escobar handed himself over to Colombian authorities—political theater through and through. Escobar and his associates in the Medellín Cartel had branded themselves The Extraditables and waged a war on the state and Colombian civil society to avoid extradition to the United States. The group’s slogan was: “We Prefer a Grave in Colombia to a Jail Cell in the United States.” Part of their strategy was to turn their acts of violence into spectacular media events. This was in the late 1980s and early 1990s when live television rendered the news not only more immediate but also more urgent and unsettling. Escobar had kidnapped notable figures from political and media families (the two tend to overlap in Colombia) and used their kidnapping as a public relations strategy.On page 99, I am writing about their release. This scene is part of two historical chapters of the dissertation that contextualize the ethnography that follows. That ethnography focuses on the Colombian government’s efforts to lure individuals out of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, and the National Liberation Army (ELN)—two Marxist guerrilla groups founded in the mid-1960s—through marketing campaigns and military intelligence operations. The dissertation, and now the book, is all about the interpenetration of marketing and counterinsurgency in Colombia, a case study in the wider phenomenon of the mediatization of security in the twenty-first century.

Guerrilla Marketing is deeply interdisciplinary, threading together flourishing literatures on marketing, consumer culture, and late capitalism, on the one hand, and critical studies of the surveillance state, counterinsurgency, peace and conflict studies, and humanitarian interventions, on another. Throughout the text I develop the concept of brand warfare, which I define as a melding of the marketing nation and the counterinsurgency state. To tease this out I analyze publicity operations, such as massive campaigns urging individual rebels to defect and return home for Christmas, and their multiple targets: from individual combatants to national audiences to international imaginaries about Colombia.

Escobar’s macabre public relations antics helped to catalyze state re-formation in Colombia, prodding the government to adapt his penchant for manipulating the spectacle of war. As Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez noted, the Extraditables acted as a business brand. Writing about Escobar, García Márquez said: “No other Colombian in history has had, and has exercised such a talent as his to manipulate (condicionar) public opinion.” Page 99 is about Escobar’s theatrics. It sets the stage, so to speak, for the guerrilla marketing campaigns that I analyze in the following chapter.

* * *

Quote from page 99:

The press camped out outside of the hostages’ homes and had a field day with the liberation. In announcing their decision to free the hostages, the Extraditables claimed they wanted to “erase any doubt that we are pressuring the National Constitutional Assembly” (El Tiempo 1991). The statement was transparent in its dishonesty. In a more candid moment, when Escobar penned a handwritten letter to Maruja apologizing for the ordeal, he said, “Don’t pay attention to my press releases they’re only to apply pressure” (García Márquez 1995:126). Escobar turned himself over to the Colombian authorities the day after he freed Maruja Pachón and Pacho Santos—he had obtained his goal although the country did not yet know it.

Escobar’s public pressure, private threats, and handsome bribes worked in concert. As the special commission to formally receive Escobar in his long-awaited “subjugation” departed in two helicopters, news that the Constitutional Assembly had struck down the provision allowing for the extradition of Colombian citizens blared out of radio speakers throughout the country. García Márquez described the scene of Escobar’s “subjugation”:

He raised the pant-leg of his left leg and pulled out the pistol he carried in a harness tied to his ankle. A magnificent gem: Sig Sauer 9, with a gold monogram on the plates of the handles. Escobar didn’t take out the clip but rather he removed the bullets one by one and dropped them on the ground. It was a theatrical gesture that seemed practiced. (García Márquez 1995:164)

Fattal, Alex. 2014. “Guerrilla Marketing: Information War and the Demobiliation of FARC Rebels.” PhD diss., Harvard University.

Alex is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego. His scholarship and creative work focuses on representations of the Colombian armed conflict and the fitful efforts to build a lasting peace to that South American nation. He brings an interdisciplinary perspective to his work, combining socio-cultural anthropology, media studies, and the documentary arts. You can contact Alex at afattal@ucsd.edu.

Alex’s dissertation has been turned into a book, Guerrilla Marketing: Counterinsurgency and Capitalism in Colombia (2018), University of Chicago Press.

Alex Fattal

Alex Fattal, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, UCSD
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