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.

Yoram Bilu on his book, With Us More Than Ever

Cover of With Us More Than Ever by Yoram Bilu


Interview by Yael Assor

Yael Assor: The book first came out in Hebrew and was then translated to English. I was wondering why did you decide to publish this book first in Hebrew, and why publish it in English at all? Are there any prominent differences between the Hebrew and English versions?

Yoram Bilu: All my books first came out in Hebrew.   Since I find it easier to write lengthy texts in my mother tongue, it would have been awkward not to look first for a local publisher.   But there is also ideology behind it.  Studying phenomena pertinent to Israeli society, I always felt obliged to give priority to local readership (papers are a different story).  This holds for this book as well, as It sheds light, among other things, on the peculiarly Israeli face of Chabad and on significant processes within Israeli society (for example, Mizrachim joining Ashkenazi-based Hasidic groups). At the same time, The messianic surge in Chabad is a golden opportunity to study fundamental issues of religious belief and experience, and this justifies publication in English (e.g. the role of culture in shaping basic cognitive processes through which the Rebbe becomes manifest).  The English version is a bit tighter. 

Yael Assor: On page 259, you write, “Believers experience the Rebbe directly and do not perceive the media that bears his image as standing between the Rebbe and themselves. The ethnographic writing of the anthropologist is a similar kind of mediator; he or she can also vanish from the reader’s consciousness.” Indeed, throughout most of the book, story after story, we read of the Rebbe’s miraculous presence, and to some extent become witnesses of his continuous presence. At the same time, your presence as the ethnographer who mediates these stories to us gets backgrounded. Can you elaborate on your choice to take up this style? Would it be correct to say that by engaging this style, your Chabbad interlocutors were right about your own contribution in disseminating the belief in the Rebbe?

Yoram Bilu: My uncritical  perspective in showering the readers with miraculous stories was not unintended. I wanted them to be immersed in the enchanted world of the Meshichistim, in the messianic ecology they constitute, which I find all-encompassing and at times overwhelming.   By doing so I myself embodied the dialectics of the mediation process.  I agree that some parts of the book can be read as if written from a credulous perspective, though others account for the miracles using social science explanatory models.  Aligning my reply with your next question, I have to qualify the “very experience-near book” designation.  While I sought to depict the inner worlds of the radical messianists, I relied on texts (probably edited thus adding more layers of mediation) more than on interviews and observations.  By doing so, I left unexplored the darker side of experiential worlds of the Meshichistim, where allegedly conflict, frustration, and doubts  also reside.  Focusing on these aspects would have called for a very different book.

Yael Assor: Relatedly, in the Introduction, the two last chapters and the Conclusion, you still take a more distant point of view, discussing your researcher position, contextualizing this study in contemporary theoretical debates and parallel phenomena. Why did you decide to still incorporate this tone in this otherwise very experience-near book?

Yoram Bilu: See above.  Also, my tone has to do with my attempt to calibrate the not-so-compatible fields of psychology and anthropology, which are my combined disciplinary background.  Note, for example, that I use theoretical models from cognitive psychology, such as dissonance reduction or signal detection, as departure points in explaining how the absent Rebbe becomes present.  My critique of these theories in the book is not designed to supplant them but rather to supplement and enrich them by staying attuned to contextual noises which these theories usually discount.  Lastly, I consider myself a modernist at heart, still viewing anthropology as a scientific project (admittedly by stretching the definition of science) and thus necessarily as a comparative one.

Yael Assor: A concept the book centrally engages is “virtual Rebbe.” You argue that “virtual” is not the opposite of “unreal,” but a different form of realness.  Can you expand on how you think this concept contributes to current discussions about “religious imagination,” a term broadly utilized to discuss non-physical dimensions of the cultural life (including subjective and intersubjective experience) of religious movements?

Yoram Bilu: Clinging to virtual worlds is in fact  at the heart of each and every religion.  The sustenance of the virtual Rebbe in messianic Chabad is in this sense just an illustration, albeit uncommon and extreme, of the horizons opened before 21st century believers in cultivating the religious imagination.  The rapid development of virtual realities through new technologies may bolster this imagination – as my book shows.  Does it mean that a contemporary believer enjoys an epistemological edge over a first century believer?   I am not so sure.  One could claim that human imagination – free floating, not bound by technology – could expand rather than curtail the religious horizons shaped by the new technologies.

Yael Assor: Throughout the book you offer a very nuanced analysis of how the Rebbe’s presence is maintained with the help of technological means and in correspondence with contemporary world events and global trends. All this made me wonder about the role of  American neoliberal ideology in informing this dynamic. I was thus curious about your take on this: do you see such connection between American neoliberalism and the Meshichists’ manner of making the Rebbe present? 

Yoram Bilu: Yes, I do see such a connection.  After all, Chabad was reshaped in the 1940s and 1950s in America, with its epicenter in NYC.  Its technological adeptness is but one expression of adopting aspects of the American ethos and style.  In a globalized world Chabad could be viewed as a very successful transnational firm. Note that Harold Blum called Chabad an American Religion.  There are some parallels, I think (with all due differences) between Chabad’s expansion and the growing popularity of Evangelical Chrisianity in various parts of the world – and these similarities are not unrelated to a capitalist, neoliberal theology.

Tamar Kaneh-Shalit’s Positive Thinking Without a Smile

Page 99 of my dissertation provides a short glimpse of a key tension which characterizes Israeli Life Coaching as well as other projects of self-realization and therapeutic technologies. In a heading on page 99, I named this tension “from introspection to instruction” to describe coaches’ and trainees’ negotiations with the neoliberal and therapeutic notion of cultivating reflexivity and following the specific instructions of a professional authority. Scholars such as Michel Foucault, Nikolas Rose, James Faubion and others have extensively theorized how healers and experts of the soul exercise their power through the cultivation of their patients’ reflexivity. One of my contributions to this line of exploration is a focus on a local style of speech called dugri (direct speech) that entails a certain notion of caring and reshapes, in specific ways, the ethical dilemma between liberation and domination.

Dugri refers to utterances spoken in a blunt manner, as a form of criticism aimed at one’s interlocutor which symbolizes intimacy, authenticity, care, and courage. In short, dugri speakers speak their minds in a straightforward manner that is sometimes even intentionally aggressive. The logic behind dugri is that only someone who truly cares about their interlocutors will put him/herself at risk by expressing an unpopular critical view (Katriel 1986). Accordingly, this also means that smiling politely and avoiding confrontation is seen as inauthentic and careless.

The prevalence of dugri style of speech among Israeli life coaches, which encompasses making concrete assertions and determining what is right and wrong for a specific trainee, undercuts some global therapeutic notions which favor self-reflection and self-realization over such local professional calculations. In my dissertation I show how Israeli coaches and their trainees negotiate these two discourses – the global and local – as well as these two types of caring, in their effort to balance between focusing on the trainee’s abilities to be reflexive and centering around the coach’s expression of his/her authenticity as well as expert knowledge and power.

Dugri is idiosyncratically Israeli. But could such styles also be found in other cultures? Recently I had a chance to view the new Netflix documentary about the famous American life coach Anthony Robbins titled: “I am not your Guru” (which I highly recommend: https://www.netflix.com/watch/80102204?trackId=14277281&tctx=0%2C0%2C6f297f89-3322-4f91-b3ba-1ec0cb44108c-50113145). Robbins very vividly demonstrates an aggressive type of fearless speech, and I wonder – is it part of what renders coaching so popular in other places around the globe too? Are we witnessing the emergence of a new technology of selfhood which challenges the hegemony of a reflexive, psycho-therapeutic emotional style?



Katriel, Tamar

1986    Talking Straight: Dugri Speech in Israeli Sabra Culture: Cambridge University Press.


Tamar Kaneh-Shalit. 2015. Positive Thinking without a Smile: Self and Care in Israeli Life Coaching. Phd dissertation, University of Haifa.

Tamar Kaneh-Shalit, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral fellow at the department of sociology and anthropology at Ben-Gurion University. She is a psychological anthropologist who is interested in self and emotions; education and care professions; media, immigration and identity. In her current research project she studies the emergence of emotional discourse in the academic world; how universities define and practice caring for students’ emotional well-being and mental health in USA and Israel. This study is in collaboration with colleagues in Russia and Israel. You can reach her at tkaneh@gmail.com.