Hallie Wells comments on p. 99 of her dissertation

My dissertation examines how slam poets in Madagascar have forged a novel form of public discourse that emphasizes both freedom of speech and accountability for one’s speech. This illuminates broader questions about how speakers determine what kinds of speech are possible and appropriate in various contexts, how they perform authority, and how they anticipate and manage the consequences of their speech. Slam—a performance poetry competition created in Chicago in the 1980s—has become a popular social movement around the world, but in Madagascar it has flourished in a context that includes pre-colonial genres of verbal art that are central to everyday life and to politics. In many of these genres, public speech has long been reserved for elder men. Slam’s insistence on “free expression” thus constitutes a radical break from long-standing notions of the social roles and risks associated with public speech. Treating the concept of free speech as historically and contextually specific rather than abstract and generalizable, my dissertation shows how Malagasy slam poets balance liberal discourses of individual freedoms with notions of responsibility and accountability, dialogic authority, and embodied relationality.

The excerpt below from page 99, then, is not particularly representative of the rest of the dissertation. It’s a bit of a historical interlude that sets up some of the core issues that I examine later in the chapter, so I return to these ideas about linguistic difference and language politics but without this level of historical detail. Most significantly, this excerpt stands out because it doesn’t reference any of my own fieldwork research, or even mention slam poetry at all. Most other sections are based around ethnographic vignettes, poems, and interviews. But this historical section is critical for understanding the heft and significance of contemporary language politics—the dominance of “official” Malagasy (based on the Merina dialect), and the sociopolitical valences of French versus English. This history is critical to understanding the imbrication of language and public speech with contemporary social inequalities and political and economic networks of power.

from page 99:

[…] The British were eager to forge an alliance with the Merina Kingdom, which in turn was eager to further its control over the rest of the island. As Velomihanta Ranaivo’s (2011) history and analysis of language politics shows, the British support of the Merina Kingdom in developing formal education was structured to train the children of elites in the Highlands. She writes that the emergence of Malagasy as a codified language based on the variety used in the Highlands fits into this logic of subtle domination. It establishes the development of the monarchy via church, school, and press—the favored channels of communication and the diffusion of ideas. This domination is systematically worked from the inside using the existing machinery, which had been progressively transformed within a kingdom in full expansion since 1787, long before missionary incursion. (Ranaivo 2011: 72, my translation)

In 1835, the Merina Kingdom’s reigning monarch, Queen Ranavalona I, began a violent campaign of repressing Malagasy Christians, prompting most missionaries to leave the island and bringing an end to the U.K.-Madagascar alliance forged by her predecessor and husband, King Radama I, and to the evangelization of the country. It also likely enabled the French colonization of Madagascar in 1894: with the British gone, France saw an opportunity to invade. They struck a deal with the British in 1890, in which they ceded Zanzibar in exchange for Madagascar. From a less-than-equal partnership with a foreign power, in which Britain had the military and economic advantage over Madagascar yet recognized the sovereignty of the Malagasy Kingdom, the nation was thrust into more than 70 years of forced labor, extreme poverty and famine, massacres, violent repression, racialized debasement, and cultural and linguistic subjugation.

To speak of the linguistic context of Madagascar today, we must remember that “Malagasy,” while technically one single language, is in practice a catch-all term for a wide variety of dialects. One study found that Bara children in the South do not understand the Merina dialect (Bouwer in Larson 2009: 34), yet Larson nevertheless concludes that dialectal differences are “weak” and “never a hindrance to mutual comprehension” (idem). Larson does not provide evidence for this claim, nor does he expound on what constitutes “comprehension,” a concept I address in Chapter 3. […]

Hallie Wells. 2018. Moving Words, Managing Freedom: The Performance of Authority in Malagasy Slam Poetry. University of California, Phd.


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.

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