William Mazzarella on his new book, The Mana of Mass Society


Interview by Elayne Oliphant

Elayne Oliphant: As you acknowledge, this is clearly a “theory book.” But I’d like to start by asking you about the powerful historical argument you also make in this text. You give a name to “a liminal period” from 1870 to 1920 in Euro-American social thought: the mana moment. At this moment, the earlier energetic settlement of the rationalist, bourgeois individual saw itself partly undone by encounters between the Global North and Global South as colonial power was consolidated. In this moment between colonial settlements, a great deal of anxiety surrounded new kinds of seemingly “volatile” publics and “vitalist cults” in arts, ethics, and religion. These anxieties induced a series of attempts to understand these energies that appeared both threatening and appealing. Mana is one of the terms that circulated widely at the time—its availability itself an expression of the encounters between the Global North and Global South—in an attempt to address the vital energies flowing in unexpected directions. Could you tell us a bit more about the mana moment as a historical moment and what signs you see that suggest we are encountering another such moment?

William Mazzarella: First of all, Elayne, let me start by thanking you for these searching and attentive questions. The greatest satisfaction for an author is to be in conversation with a reader like you, who is able to bring the text alive in new ways, who understands it as a generative provocation. So thank you for that.

I also like that you have added another settlement to the ones that I name in the book: the bourgeois settlement. This is one of my hopes for the book: that a concept like settlement will encourage readers to find their own instances in whatever terrain of social life they’re exploring. I do believe that this is a generalizable way of thinking about society and history: this tendency that we have, both in discourse and in institutional life, to impose a kind of fixity on irreducible tensions and then to try to live with the symptomatic eruptions that that imposition will necessarily produce. And we know from psychoanalysis, too, that symptomatic eruptions are perhaps the most intimate thing we have—individually and collectively. They can be debilitating and paralyzing. But if we find ways of living with them, they can also be tremendously productive, again for good or for ill. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons that, although I explicitly characterize Mana as a ‘theory book’ I actually think of it as a ‘method book.’ Sometimes people look confused when I say that!)

But to get to the center of your question: what I’m calling the mana moment, roughly the decades surrounding the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, was, in the Euro-American world, a time of tremendous energetic ferment: politically, aesthetically, architecturally, erotically, esoterically. Old empires were giving way; new ones were being born. The rapacious expansion of European colonialism, for instance in the so-called ‘scramble for Africa,’ coincided with the flourishing of an esoteric depth hermeneutics in psychology, spiritualism, and political analysis. One of the central conceits of my book is borrowed from Walter Benjamin’s eccentric historiography. Benjamin believed that potentials embedded in the past could, as it were, ‘flash up’ unpredictably in the present, become actualized in the present in entirely new ways, thus, in a single dialectical leap, changing our understanding of both the past and its relationship to our present.

These kinds of flashes often come to us intuitively: something becomes visible as a hint or a suggestion, at the corner of our field of vision. We follow it, not quite knowing why or whether it’ll turn out to have been worthwhile. Sometimes it’s a dead end. But other times, a whole series of resonances open up across time. By resonances I don’t mean ‘similarities’ in the conventional sense. I’m not saying that our moment, in the early twenty-first century is necessarily all that similar to what our ancestors were living through a hundred years or so ago. Resonances here means that the two moments seem to contain what Max Weber, following Goethe, called ‘elective affinities’: that, in this case across time, they appear to become more vividly themselves through an encounter with each other. The encounter is constitutive in that it actualizes hitherto untapped potentials.

That’s why the argument that I develop in Mana draws on some old texts in order to open up ways about talking about our present. The work I’ve undertaken will have been successful if both those old texts and our sense of our present emerge looking a bit different from that encounter.

Elayne Oliphant: Let’s spend a little more time with this term, “settlement.” Each chapter addresses a potentially insightful dialectic, such as that between the energies of “primitive” rituals and “civilized” publics. You then use “settlement” to describe a process by which the movement of these dialectics is halted, preventing the continuation of the ambiguities and insights their continued movement provokes. I think the term is enormously productive. It effectively points to the itch it cannot fully scratch. The settlement will have to do for now but—as in the case of Israeli construction in the West Bank for example—it is enacted in order to create a “truth on the ground” precisely because it lacks authority and legitimacy. Settlements, in other words, lack solid foundation and implicitly acknowledge their insufficiency, while also enforcing powerful effects (and affects) in the world. What prompted you to use this term and how do you see it in opposition to your “vitalist dialectics”?  

William Mazzarella: I like your invocation of settler colonial ‘truth on the ground,’ and especially how fragile and anxious that truth is. How full of contradictions, double-speak, and slips—in short, everything we call symptoms. The term ‘settlement’ came to me spontaneously as I was writing that part of Mana. But I realized as soon as it had appeared on my screen that it had this political connotation that worked perfectly for what I was trying to say. Namely, that both critical theory and the worlds it purports to clarify proceed in this way: by establishing ‘truths on the ground’ that are provisional no matter how much they claim permanence, that are violent no matter how much they claim that history and progress are on their side.

As to the second part of your question, how do I see the concept of settlement in opposition to the ‘vitalist dialectics’ that I am proposing as a kind of intellectual method? The short answer would be that I see them in generative opposition. What I am calling vitalist dialectics is a way of allowing the movement of becoming that a settlement stifles to find a generative form in thought. Unlike pure vitalism, this isn’t just about about letting things move. It is dialectical because I understand the tension between social forms and social forces to be at once generative and irreducible. It is a negative dialectic, rather than a dialectic that moves toward sublation and subsumption. A dialectic that starts by saying: “We take these tensions to be irreducible.” But also: “We understand that these tensions are what generate vital worlds.”

Elayne Oliphant: In the Introduction, you seem to offer us a way into thinking about the current moment. You acknowledge that, what Michael Taussig has called, the “mana wave called Trump” circulated as you wrote, edited, and completed the text, further prompting you to question “what powers authority? What in us responds to it? How is vital energy turned into social form” (2)? I know that W.J.T. Mitchell had a similar response to these opening words; like me, he wanted to find in it some sort of a political program. If Trump had managed to capture something incipient and translate it into tangible social form, how might those opposed to his projects similarly make use of mana to critique and undo his authority? Or, as I put it to you at the AES conference, why, generally speaking, does the left seem to really suck at capturing, inducing, or participating in vital energies? And what the hell are we going to do about it? So I want to ask you this question again, but I also want to offer you the chance to explain to me why it’s a somewhat misplaced response to your book. 

William Mazzarella: Even almost a hundred years ago, theorists like Benjamin and Wilhelm Reich, who were interested in what we could call the vital dimensions of the critique of capitalism, noted that the political right seemed to be rather better at harnessing the energies of intoxication and collective effervescence for their political projects than the left. Then, as now, it’s as if the left gets too tied up in a pedagogical urge: it thinks that if it can only explain our common situation to us well enough, then it will have succeeded in mobilizing us. But as Terry Eagleton once satirically pointed out: “Men and women engaged in conflicts do not live by theory alone; socialists have not given their lives over the generations for the tenet that the ratio of fixed to variable capital gives rise to a tendential fall-off in the rate of profit.”

At a time of political urgency like ours, we all feel that we need answers. We want to know how to think about our situation, we want to know what to do about it. We are impatient with rumination and inclined toward action. And so if we are told, as I suggest in Mana, that all social and political action and attachment depends on the activation of collective energies, then it makes sense to want to know how to separate, as it were, ‘good mana’ from ‘bad mana’—genuinely revolutionary mana from reactionary or fascist mana. This, after all, was precisely what Benjamin was trying to do in his canonical ‘Artwork’ essay, which concludes by suggesting that we distinguish between an aestheticization of politics (fascist, bad) and a politicization of aesthetics (revolutionary, good).

In response to these understandable desires—desires that I too feel every day—Mana asks us to slow down and pay a different kind of attention. This is partly because I believe that there is simply no a priori way to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ mana—such that one could set up an institutional fix that would guarantee that the collective energies that emerge from whatever ritual or political form that one has devised will be reliably salutary. What Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert called “the collective forces of society”—and what I am calling “the mimetic archive”—is in this sense beyond good and evil, beyond economy. Its political potentialities are perennially emergent and cannot be guaranteed beforehand. In a mass democracy we tend all too often to act as if all we need to do is elect the right representative or devise the right kind of occasional process, and then we can sit back and watch things go well. No wonder we are so often disappointed when the great soaring hope turns out to have feet of clay. Part of the problem here, too, is that while we are quite conscious of the energies and attachments that we are bringing to the table during moments that are ritually marked off as “political”—rallies, elections, demonstrations and so on—we tend then to underestimate the mana-work that goes into the reproduction of the banality of everyday life, as well as its tight connection to the more grandly imagined dimension of life that we call ‘politics.’ This, by the way, is why I’m so fond of the kind of work that Katie Stewart and Lauren Berlant have been doing, together and separately, for some time now (be sure to check out their forthcoming book The Hundreds): it gives us a way of talking about the hinges between the most ordinary, fleeting moments and their—for want of a better word—“political” resonances, a mode in which everything is allowed to breathe.

The line that I pick up in Mana, perhaps counterintuitively, is Adorno’s aesthetic theory. I say counterintuitively, because Adorno was, if anything, utterly resistant to any kind of explicit politicization of aesthetic judgment. As far as he was concerned, the minute you subordinate aesthetic production to a political purpose, you’ve turned it into propaganda. And by turning it into propaganda, you’ve actually foreclosed the unique thing that art—as opposed to, say, pamphleteering—can do. But at another level, and this is where it links back into what I’m trying to do with Mana as an invitation to a particular kind of political thinking-feeling, at another level what Adorno prescribes for aesthetic judgment is a radical opening of the sensorium to the historical and political potentials that are embedded in the materials out of which the artworks we engage are made. An encounter with what I would call, again, “the mimetic archive.” Of course the major difference between my argument and Adorno’s is that I want to insist that this kind of engagement is in fact possible in the space of mass culture and mass publicity, not just in the esoteric preserve of autonomous art. Here I want to be quite precise: I am not in fact making a populist argument. I am not saying what so many have: that Adorno was simply a snob who didn’t recognize the revolutionary capacities of ordinary popular pleasures. Not at all. What I am saying is that Adorno actually gives us a profoundly provocative way to re-engage mass publicity, an esoteric approach, if you will, to these very exoteric cultural forms.

And that—forgive me the long and winding road!—gets us back to the question of why, at a moment of political urgency like the one we’re inhabiting now, my advice would be to slow down and pay a different kind of attention. Because it’s only by attending to what I like to think of as the esoteric resonances of exoteric public forms (or let’s say, the ‘inner’ dimensions of ‘outer’ forms) that we will be able to move toward a leftist mobilization of the mana of mass society.

Elayne Oliphant: Finally, you mentioned that you saw this text as the fruit of ongoing conversations (in your mind and in person) with two important anthropologists whose work has powerfully influenced your own: Marshall Sahlins and Michael Taussig. Given your earlier writings addressing the Frankfurt school, theories of affect, and advertising, these two scholars might not be the first two that people think of as orienting your work. Could you say a bit more about how they have influenced the questions you ask and the methods you take up, and how this book engages with them?

William Mazzarella: Yes, thanks for this question. Mana emerged in a mad frenzy of writing across two summers, 2015 and 2016. I’d never before felt capable of writing for more than about four hours at a stretch. But especially in the summer of 2015, there were long periods when it was not unusual for me to write for eight hours at a stretch, pausing only to satisfy the needs of the body. Sometimes I would find myself getting so worked up, so energized—“A certain rush of energy” indeed!—that I would have to burst up out of my chair and kind of charge around the room for a few moments. So something definitely possessed me during those months. Who knows whether that will ever happen again? While it was happening it was both exhilarating and a little frightening. It wasn’t unusual for me to think that I was writing something entirely eccentric, something so idiosyncratic that it would simply not be intelligible—would simply not resonate—with anyone else. For that reason, it was tremendously comforting, if also a little intimidating, to realize that two presences seemed to hover, one at each of my shoulders, during the writing process: Marshall Sahlins and Mick Taussig (I’m not going to tell you who was on which side!). I didn’t really question their felt presence during that time; I just drew some kind of comfort as well as some kind of provocation from it.

Once the first draft was finished I felt paralyzed. The thought of sending it to anyone felt equivalent to getting undressed in the middle of the street. (It may not be immediately evident to some readers, but this is by far the most personal text I’ve ever published). So I figured that a little aversion therapy was in order: in order to get over my fear of circulation, I was going to have to send it to the two people whose opinions most terrified me—not least because they had been so reliably present, so watchful during the writing. So, along with sheepish cover notes, I sent the draft to Marshall and Mick. To my great relief, they both responded generously and kindly, with a great deal of enthusiasm.

It wasn’t really until after that had happened that I began to think about why it was Marshall and Mick who had shown up, albeit spectrally, in my office while I was writing. It now seems to me that Marshall Sahlins’ work offered me a kind of reassurance that writing this kind of a book was legitimate for an anthropologist. Specifically, I think of Marshall’s Culture and Practical Reason (1976), a book that he wrote when he was at a similar point in his life as I was when I wrote Mana, and a book that, like Mana, is a work of conceptual clarification that doubles as a sort of intellectual autobiography—a way of sorting out one’s influences, engaging in a few intimate polemics (the only polemics that really matter), and figuring out a way forward. And of course both Culture and Practical Reason and Mana, as different as their intellectual commitments in many ways are, end with analyses of marketing.

Mick Taussig has always inspired me with his willingness to think speculatively, to look, precisely, for those resonances between places and texts that open up sudden flashes of unexpected illumination. Now of course there are many points of overlap between the Mana and Mick’s books—the concern with mimesis, with Adorno and especially Benjamin, and the attempt to retrieve something vital from what is too often dismissed as the age of armchair anthropology. So, if I may invoke one of the key dialectics of my discussion in Mana, Marshall’s presence supported me at the level of form, whereas Mick’s drove me on at the level of life. 

Bodoh-Creed’s When Pfizer Met McDreamy

My dissertation is an examination of the role that medicine and media play in educating the American public. The research as a whole looks at four lines of media evidence including medical fictional and non-fictional television, pharmaceutical advertising, and internet health searches (also called cyberchondria). My page 99 sits squarely in the historical review of medical television, looking at the portrayal of physicians and medicine from shows in the 1960s like Ben Casey to the current spate of shows on the air now like the long running Grey’s Anatomy and House M.D.  Page 99 discussed the role of graphic medicine and realism that, while not unique to ER, was popularized by the show and it also demonstrates how physician writers cannibalize medical experiences of their own and those of colleagues around them.

[ER] thrived on intensity for the audience. The pacing was fast and the camera shots unique. In an Emmy Award winning episode of ER in the first season, titled “Love’s Labor Lost” a pregnant woman is featured having complications in the emergency room and an ER doc having to perform a caesarian section in haste. Of course chaos ensues and it is a very graphic, fast episode that was based on a real experience of a physician friend of one of the writers. (99)

Within my dissertation research, I want to stress the importance of the amount of access that I was able to obtain within medical television industry personnel. I spoke to actors, directors, executive producers, writers, physician writers and consultants, nurse advisors and consultants, product placement coordinators who organized medical equipment for set, special effects creators, and they all gave me some incredible insight into their world and also the changes in medical television over the last 50 years. The information from these key informants show the ways that physicians and nurses create the authentic medicine that is seen on screen.  They strive for accuracy as much as possible, knowing that audiences are paying attention to the jargon, the procedures, and the medical lessons of early detection, treatments, and life saving medications.

Jessica Bodoh-Creed, “When Pfizer Met McDreamy: A Classic American Love Story Between Medicine and the Media.” PhD diss, University of California, Riverside, 2013.

Dissertation available here: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/6mx5b84b

Jessica Bodoh-Creed, Adjunct Faculty, California State University, Los Angeles, Department of Anthropology. Jbodohc2@calstatela.edu



Constantine V. Nakassis on his new book, Doing Style: Youth and Mass Mediation in South India


Interview by Ilana Gershon

Questions for the Author:

Ilana Gershon: If you are at a brunch filled with Hollywood film scholars, and happen to be talking to two people who seemed so interested in your 30 second description of your book that they continue to nod encouragingly, how would you describe your book?

Constantine V. Nakassis: I’m sure I’d ramble on incoherently! But how would I liked to have described my book … I think I would describe it as an attempt to think about mass media expansively and ethnographically, but also dialectically. How do phenomena/processes that we may or may not think of as “mass media”—like (“fake”) brand garments, registers of language (such as “code-mixed” Tamil and English slang), television programs, films—how do they come into ongoing being as a result of the entanglements between social actors/projects that they enable? How can we think of media as the effects and preconditions of those entanglements? And how would we study that ethnographically? I try to do this in Doing Style through an analysis of what young men in urban colleges in Tamil Nadu call “style”—a Tamil word (of English origin) for youth cool that describes eye-catching and ostentatious objects and activities: speaking English, brand fashion, and commercial film “heroism,” among other things.

From there the book follows the paths of circulation of the material media that youth typify and take up as style to their sites of “production”—textile workshops, music-television studios, the Tamil film industry. I hadn’t really planned to do this when I went to the field. But I found myself trying to understand why fashion on college campuses looked the way it did, why language sounded the way it did, why films were composed the way they were. To answer that, I tried to figure out how what the youth that I was living with in dormitories were up to—namely, ‘doing style’—was connected with what garment designers, music-television VJs, films actors (among other industry personnel in each of these different domains) were doing. It later occurred to me these entanglements materialize as these media (and vice versa); that is, that this is one definition of media and mediation.

I think I’d also say (are they still listening and nodding to my ramble?) that the book is an attempt to think seriously about how linguistic anthropology—as a (sub)discipline concerned with understanding how semiotic processes (do) work in social life—might approach questions of mediation more generally, in domains that are typically not considered the purview of linguistic anthropology, namely, “language.” Hopefully a book like this can contribute to opening up the horizons of linguistic anthropology beyond simply being the sociocultural study of language (which anyway it is not, as I’ve argued elsewhere). A lot of great work is extending our (sub)discipline to allied fields (including yours, Ilana!), and I hope this book contributes to that as well.

Can you describe why it is so essential to understand the difference between brand and brandedness to grasp how style operates for Tamil college students?

While I was doing my fieldwork (2007–2009), much of young men’s fashion involved branded garments: Nike, Adidas, Puma, Diesel … But, as in much of the world, what was worn wasn’t “authentic” authorized brand goods but something else: “Chiesel” bags, hats with a Nike logo and the Reebok brand name, Microsoft Windows cargo pants, and the like. And while everyone was aware of this inauthenticity, it wasn’t a big deal. My friends were very keen on things that looked stylishly branded; at the same time, they were rather indifferent to brands and their authenticity. What to make of this?

Part of what was going on was that few students had the money to afford “original” brand garments. But more than this, it was because sociality in the college turned on bracketing forms of invidious difference among peers (caste, class, language difference, among others). So while there was an active attempt to show off and show one’s difference (i.e., do style with a cool brand design on your back or arm or leg or head or whatever), there was also a counterforce within peer groups not to show too much difference, or rather, not to show difference in a way that reinscribed modes of hierarchy (in the case, class difference). Among the youth I lived and hung out with, the putative authenticity of a brand garment could do that, and thus it could elicit all sorts of negative reactions from people. Even among those who could afford such goods, then, there was a way in which the brand was constantly hedged upon or deferred, its authenticity ignored or rationalized away, or simply not purchased. Most students seemed, then, to prefer the obviously inauthentic.

Correlated with this indifference was a proliferation of “surfeit” brand goods—garments like those noted above: bags with brand names misspelled, hats that jumbled brand names and logos, but also fictive brand names and even nonsense strings of roman script that vaguely looked like something like a brand design. This distribution of aesthetic forms is obviously much more complex that “real” or “fake,” for what do you do with garments that have the ‘look’ of a brand garment, but aren’t a “copy” or a “fake” of any existing brand? In such cases (and in all cases, I end up arguing), the brand is being cited, but what is being cited isn’t necessarily a particular brand; often it is simply the idea of the brand, its brandedness.

Here, of course, the brand is obviously not irrelevant. At the same time, an analysis of such youth fashion/style can’t take the brand at face value either, precisely because these citations are doing something to the brand. They are bracketing its conditions of intelligibility, recognizability, and effectivity. And they do so in the way that all citations do, by eliciting some set of qualities out of what is being cited in such a way that puts into question the very ontological status of what is citing/cited. Put most simply, something can look like a brand without being a brand. So this likeness, this aesthetics, these qualities—to be able to talk about this we can’t just talk about brands, we also have to talk about brandedness. Every brand presupposes some aesthetics of brandedness, some qualities that make up its look and identity; but every such aesthetics—while not unrelated to the brand it subtends—exceeds that brand, just as the qualities that make up every instantiation of some identity exceed that identity. Without making this distinction, our analyses are always liable to fall back into hegemonic juridical discourses of inauthenticity, fakeness, counterfeiting, piracy, and the like. And if that happened, then we wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of youth practices of style.

You talk a great deal about the ways citation is a core social strategy among college students in Tamil Nadu, India. I was hoping you could discuss the risks involved in this social strategy – what does it look like to fail at citation, and what are the consequences of such failures?

The doing style of Tamil youth is risky business! In that way, it’s like all of social life, of course: there are so many ways to get it not-quite right, if not just plain wrong. Doing style, as with all citational practices, is no exception: it’s an achievement that’s always liable to go awry. Since doing style is all about showing off, often through transgressing forms of (adult/middle-class) propriety while backing away from what is presumed upon in showing off (namely, style itself), the failure inherent to it is either not doing it enough or doing it too much (that is, “over style,” as Tamil youth say). Not enough, you’re too much like a ‘little boy,’ a child who is afraid to buck authority, who doesn’t know anything about the world; too much and you’re arrogant, uppity, acting like a ‘big man’ (when you’re not).

What this means in practice is that everything that is considered to be stylish among the guys I hung out with also had to be, within the ambit of their peer groups, marked as not-quite what it was/cited: like I noted above, if they wore branded garments, they’d be not-quite brands. If they spoke in English, it’d always be enveloped by Tamil. If they acted like a stylish film hero (with the same haircut, dancing the same steps, etc.), they’d change it up, ironize it. But this kind of ambivalent fine-tuning isn’t easy. Did you negate or disavow your English enough? Did you use ‘too much’? Are your dance steps too similar to the original song/video? Not similar enough?

And there are consequences to such infelicity. People gossip. They tease. They may ostracize. Or even attack you! In one of the college dormitories in which I lived, there was a relatively affluent guy who was always speaking in ‘too much’ English for everyone else’s tastes. Well, he and another student (who was a monolingual Tamil from a rural area) got into it in Tamil one night, arguing about who was going to put away some cricket equipment from a match earlier in the day. Then they started insulting each other. Then the one guy started speaking in English. Well, that “code-switch” was all about stylishly putting the other guy in his place. He found that delicate line and jumped all the way over it! And the other guy, understanding what he was “saying” (without understanding any of the denotational content of what was said) answered with a blow. He hit him with a glass mirror, which shattered when the other guy parried the blow, cutting him and drawing blood. Speaking of ‘doing things with words’!

Men can have a very different relationship to style than women, who are often criticized when they evince style in public, since it signals a desire to be seen. Men’s relationship to style as playful citation has striking parallels in your analysis to male film stars’ attempts to create successful film personas, which involve carefully interwoven citations of other films. This leads me to wonder about female film stars – how do they engage in creating successful film presences when style is so gendered?

I’m currently working on a project about the “ontology” of the film image in Tamil cinema, and one of the issues that I’ve become interested in is the question you raise here, namely, how do female film stars negotiate their screen presence? And how does that itself register in/as the film text?

As you note, style is about ostentation in some theater of social interaction (on campus, in a classroom, at a bus stop, on the silver screen, etc.). It’s about the desire to be seen and about metacommunicating that desire: ‘Look at me!’ This is problematic for young women in a context where adult (male) respectability—at every level, from the family to the kin group to the caste to “Tamil culture” to the nation—is waged on the control of women’s sexuality. It’s problematic in a context (where being perceived as) giving yourself over to being seen—for example, by simply appearing in public places without “proper” comportment—is a transgressive act of sexuality.

This makes the screen a dangerous, if also exciting kind of image-space, one which commercial Tamil cinema has not hesitated much in exploiting. Indeed, with no apologies to Laura Mulvey, commercial Tamil cinema teems with scenes that open up young female bodies to a male gaze. And, as per my comments above, such actresses have historically been, and continue in certain ways to be stigmatized, characterized as “prostitutes.” So while the problem for the male film hero is how to create a film image which presences his aura on the other side of the screen, the problem for the film heroine is, in a certain sense, her excessive presence. That is, merely appearing in a film is a performative act by the actress. This is not an act in a narrative, by a character, on a screen: it is an act in a theater by an actress in the presence of those on the screen’s other sides. While this kind of presence is only achieved after years in the industry by its highest echelon of male film stars (and with high rewards), for female actresses this onscreen/offscreen presence is hard to avoid and is rather problematical. So there is obviously a major difference between heroes and heroines in Tamil cinema in how they engage the screen; and tellingly, style is not really a term used to describe the kind of presence or individuatedness cultivated by a film heroine, while it is for film heroes.

This makes the question of success a highly ambivalent one for film heroines, where they have to straddle a line between this excessive presence/sexuality and some kind of distance/respectability where they can also inhabit the protective space of the narrative, where they can act rather than simply be. And the ability to hold together this complex, fraught union is what characterizes film heroines who have had the longest “staying power” in the industry (actresses like Simran, Jyothika, and Trisha come to mind). Such actresses are able to balance between their sex appeal and their acting craft, often by leveraging their popularity to garner “good” roles for themselves. While they may not be ‘doing style’ like heroes, they are fully engaged in complex forms of doing/disavowing that is definitive of citational acts.

Could you discuss what insights on code-switching between languages analysts can gain by beginning the analysis with a focus on style instead of language?

The study of code-switching and code-mixing was founded on, even as it troubled, the assumption of a monoglot norm (i.e., the idea that we each speak with one denotational/grammatical “code”), from which code-switching/mixing was some kind of meaningful deviation. Work over the last several decades problematized this assumption by asking what are the ethnographically relevant units that constitute such meaningfulness: is it a “code”? Or is it something else? As numerous scholars have noted, for many, perhaps most, speakers who live with multiple languages there is nothing “deviant” about “code” “mixing” or “switching.” It often simply is the norm.

But what my own ethnographic materials raised with respect to this literature is that it isn’t just the question of what is being switched (Is it a code? a register? a style? a repertoire?). It’s also the question, what is a “switch”? What is a “mix”? What was interesting to me was how, in the ethnographic cases that I looked at, doing style by “mixing” English and Tamil itself turned on—that is, its pragmatic effects and how it unfolded interactionally was a function of—the ambiguity about when something was “English” or not. It isn’t always entirely clear for parties to an interaction where one “code” (or register or repertoire or style) ends and another begins. Indeed, as I try to show, that is precisely what is under negotiation when one tries to dress up one’s Tamil by accessorizing it with some English. This isn’t to say that Tamil speakers don’t have judgments as to code identity, or that the question of what “language” (or register, style, repertoire) is being spoken isn’t or doesn’t become clear at certain moments in an interaction. Rather, it is to say that this is an open empirical question. And thus the questions of what a “code” (or “language,” or register, etc.) is and what a “switch” or “mix” is are open analytic and theoretical questions as well.

The other upshot for me from starting with style is that by refusing to privilege “language” as distinct from other kinds of media, we can start to appreciate the cross-medial relations brought together by style. (This intermediality is something linguistic anthropologists have broached through notions of register and enregisterment as well, of course.) As I said above, part of what I hope this book does is to open up the question of what linguistic anthropology might be. To my mind, whatever it is, linguistic anthropology is not just the study of “language.” Indeed, by studying the limits of the language construct and elucidating those semiotic properties/processes of language that are not unique to it, linguistic anthropology has much to say much about media in general. Moreover, it is that expansive horizon, I think, that has allowed linguistic anthropology to apprehend how “language,” in fact, works. For me, then, a focus on style allows us to return back to the question of language through the lens of other media, to point out certain features of (linguistic) semiosis that are, in certain respects, indifferent to “language” as such—such as style—even as they are constitutive of it.

What would anthropologists of media do differently if they took citationality seriously when they studied audiences and/or users?

“Audience” and related analytics, such as “reception,” are problematic categories when it comes to media; not all media constitute those whose activities come to be mediated by, or even oriented to, such media as audiences (or even as “users”); some media have “audiences,” some don’t. (If we think of brands, or garments, as a kind of medium do they have an “audience”?) And even for media like film which may constitute an audience, their social life extends way beyond those audiences. Indeed, the way in which fractions of film circulate in Tamil Nadu—as dialogues, gestures, haircuts taken up by youth to do style (among other things)—exceeds the notion of a film “audience” or its “reception.” They might be on the other side of the screen, but they are not simply on the receiving end! This is not a problem that only I have identified; many have raised such issues.

But the larger question I have tried to pose in Doing Style is a slightly different one. What is the form of the relationship between different social actors, projects, and sites vis-à-vis the media that form the basis of that relationship? How does such an entanglement come to be? And how does it come to be such that we can even talk of a medium or a media object like a film or a garment? With regards to my ethnographic materials, the notion of citationality was a useful way for me to think about the form of such relationships. For example, one way in which a film hero and a college youth are connected is the way in which each cites some social other, be it the other side of the screen (the way in which film heroes do style in anticipation of youth’s own citations of them) or the way in which heroes cite other actors, such that actors and youth cite in aligned/related ways, commonly oriented to some other more stylish entity, the apotheosis of which is the so-called King of Style, Rajinikanth, the top hero in the industry for over thirty years.

What is interesting to me is how, by being part of an overlapping economy of style (as constituted by these interlocked modalities of citation), the felicity conditions on both youth and heroes doing style come to constrain and enable each other. This is what I mean by entanglement: that the relationship between a film hero and what we might otherwise misleadlingly call his “audience” is one where each hems in and exceeds the other. This is managed through and created by citational practices, practices which reflexively repeat and differ from what they cite, which forge connections between, while also holding apart, the act/subject of citing and the cited.

What I came to realize is that such entanglements, these citationalities, they take form as media objects: as the textuality of a film, the weave and design of a garment, the lexical and poetic organization of speech. Media are the effect and precondition of such relations They are their realization. Scholars of “new” or digital media have sometimes called this “interactivity.” But what I hope Doing Style shows is that interactivity is not peculiar to new or digital media, but is a common semiotic feature of all media, insofar as they are media. And further, that many (perhaps all?) media unfold by the reflexivity of processes of mediation to their mediality, to their interactivity. Citationality is an inherently reflexive semiotic phenomenon. So if media are interactive, that interactivity is driven by the reflexive organization of mediation, by citationality. And citationality, as noted above, is never guaranteed. It is liable to all sorts of surprises. Attending to citationality, then, forces us to attend to the prosaic fragility of media and mediation, and to the reflexivity of processes of mediation to their own open-endedness.

Constantine V. Nakassis is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology of the University of Chicago. He received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Anthropology in 2010. His interests include linguistic anthropology, semiotics, media studies and film theory, intellectual property law, and youth culture. His regional focus is Tamil Nadu, India. 

Doing Style: Youth and Mass Mediation in South India. University of Chicago Press, 2016.