interview by Setrag Manoukian
Setrag Manoukian: It is reductive to assign a narrow thematic focus to an expansive ethnography such as your wonderful Methods of Desire, but could one synthesize your book by suggesting that it addresses the relationship between language and political economy through an account of social interaction in Toraja?
Aurora Donzelli: This book has been long in the making and its implication with political economy is in part a function of the temporality embedded therein. Twenty years ago I was in Indonesia for a shorter period of fieldwork preluding to the yearlong sojourn I undertook sometimes later. It was late July. I was walking through the streets of Rantepao (the major town in the Toraja highlands where I would go to stock up on blank tapes and other industrial supplies) when I bumped into an acquaintance of mine. He looked quite agitated and eager to brief me about the events that were unfolding in Genoa (he knew I was Italian). The G8 summit was taking place at the Ducal Palace and the city had become the theatre of demonstrations against speculative capitalism and neoliberal globalization. A multifarious array of political subjects had gathered in Genoa to participate in what promised to be the peak of the anti-capitalist movement begun in Seattle in 1999: environmentalists, pacifists, independent media activists, antifascist militants from Italian squats and social centers (abandoned buildings turned into cultural and political hubs), grassroots Catholic organizations, social activists, Zapatistas, trade unionists, members of socialist and communist parties from all over Europe, NGO workers, British pressure groups for debt relief, German anarchists, the Trotskyist international network, via Campesina food activists, libertarians, knowledge workers self-identifying as cognitarians, direct-action groups dressed in white overalls to symbolize the new post-Fordist productive subject… My Toraja acquaintance insisted I joined him to watch the news at his neighbor’s where a parabolic antenna was broadcasting dramatic scenes of repressive violence. The counter-summit mobilization had been fiercely disbanded by unprecedented police brutality, a demonstrator was shot dead, radical groups mixed with undercover agents and neo-Nazi infiltrators vandalized banks and set cars and store fronts on fire, undisturbed, while thousands of pacifist demonstrators raising their white-painted hands were ferociously beaten up by police officers decked out in full anti-riot gear. Following a night blitz at the Diaz public school—which had been made available by the municipal authorities as dormitory for demonstrators—300 police officers brutalized and illegally detained the unarmed occupants, including several Italian and foreign journalists. The European Court of Human Rights later established that the police conduct violated human rights and was to be formally regarded as torture. Less than two months later, the attack on the WTC and Pentagon would make these events look negligible, but clearly those days were decisive in furthering global capitalism and propelling the consolidation of neoliberal rationalities.
Methods of Desire is primarily a reflection on these transformations, which crisscross political economy, ways of speaking, and structures of feeling. Unlike the display of sheer repressive force that tinted the G8 events twenty years ago, what I describe in the book are more elusive and subtle forms of violence. Political economy is an inevitable dimension of any project that spans over several years and my ethnography’s main goal is to show how fine-grained linguistic analysis is essential for furthering our understanding of capitalism, because thinking about political economy always entails taking language into account (and vice-versa). In a narrower sense, the book explores the cultural and linguistic impact of contemporary neoliberal reforms on longstanding moral-political economy of agrarian clientelist relations in a relatively remote region of the Indonesian uplands. In a broader sense, the book analyzes how late capitalism operates by transforming our relationship to the world and to each other. I argue that specific communicative practices play a key role in this process. Think about the new metrics of desire produced through customer satisfaction surveys and the regimes of scalability created through audit protocols and quality certification standards that can be applied across different contexts to ever-greater scales. These communicative practices and textual artefacts are both the primary technology for the production of a reflexive desiring subject to be subsumed by the machine of capitalist valorization and infrastructures of resource management aimed at increasing productivity. Unlike the processes of linguistic standardization that produced national languages and enabled industrial capitalism, I argue that contemporary financial capitalism operates through a different form of discursive regimentation. The former was driven by the linguistic standardization of specific national codes, while the latter entails the production of universal templates for the pragmatic regulation of how language is to be used. The aim is no longer to streamline or enhance the production of material commodities, but the engendering of a global metalanguage for the re-articulation of desire in ways compatible with capitalism’s ever-changing needs. Industrial capitalism required technologies of linguistic standardization based on the centripetal regulation of the linguistic code (and of the production process)—a twofold endeavor clearly intertwined with nation-building processes and nation-based economies. Conversely, neoliberalism relies on the pragmatic standardization of how the code should be used: this entails the production and dissemination of highly standardized and replicable discursive protocols, meant to travel across a wide range of geographic contexts and pragmatics domains in order to optimize production and regiment people’s conduct and modes of intersubjective engagement. In this light, what makes neoliberalism so powerful and at the same time so elusive is its portability and scalability, as Aihwa Ong and Anna Tsing suggest.
Setrag Manoukian: The book describes an epochal shift taking place in Indonesia—a complete reconfiguration of the architecture of the self in conjunction with the emergence of neoliberal policies. What’s striking in this process is the rapidity with which a “method” is abandoned and a new one picked up. But the book also seems to suggest that something “endures” in this shift. Taking the long-term view how do you see Toraja’s sociality?
Aurora Donzelli: What I find most striking and intriguing about the specific locale (the Toraja highlands of Sulawesi) where I conducted my fieldwork since the late 1990s is that there haven’t been many changes in the local infrastructures or in the material lives of my interlocutors. During my most recent periods of fieldwork, I would often catch myself daydreaming that I was standing in front of a giant aquarium from where I could see myself in my early 20s in a time warp of sorts—a younger me on the other side of the glass inhabiting the exact same physical spaces, but in a parallel affective universe. In spite of the largely unchanged material environment, I have noticed significant shifts in the linguistic structures, moral practices, and affective quality of life in the highlands. In many ways, Methods of Desire seeks to understand and give analytical shape to the profound (and yet elusive) transformations occurred in how my interlocutors of twenty plus years interact and imagine their future. The focus of my ethnographic account is the growing influence of transnational lending agencies and international non-governmental organizations in a region that has otherwise remained peripheral to capitalist production and distribution. Since the millennium, the IMF-driven implementation of governance reform in Indonesia has prompted the circulation of new ways of speaking and textual artefacts (for example, electoral and institutional mission statements, debriefing meetings, training workshops, checklists, flowcharts, and so on) that, I argue, are transforming how people desire and voice their expectations, intentions, and entitlements. The local appeal of these new discursive genres is undeniable: not only they are associated with prestigious metropolitan centers, but they also pivot on values that—as Marilyn Strathern pointed out in her seminal edited volume on audit cultures—are almost impossible to criticize in principle: a novel emphasis on self-cultivation and proactive entrepreneurialism, an emancipatory narrative of personal aspirations and individual desires, a new morality of accountability, transparency, and responsibility, and so on. Their dissemination in the highlands has been spearheaded by their promise to replace local structures of exploitative agrarian power with a narrative of individual freedom, a political regime of entrenched corruption with justice and transparency, an economy prone to food scarcity and subsistence crises with material prosperity and emotional fulfillment. I don’t find the success of these new scripts and protocols all that surprising and consider way more extraordinary the enthusiasm displayed by many academics (trained in epistemological reflexivity and critical thinking) for the bureaucratic auditing and competitive star-ratings procedures that are transforming universities into corporate enterprises.
I recently moved back to Italy—a country where the so-called “quality revolution” was late in taking root. The University where I now work—allegedly one of the oldest higher learning institutions in the world—seems pervaded by a frenzy of benchmarking practices and managerial methods aimed at measuring research and teaching outputs and enhancing performance. I find quite disconcerting how centuries-old ideologies and classical ideals of the University as a community of scholars devoted to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge are being replaced by competitive business models—in spite of the excellent scholarship published on the matter some two decades ago by Don Brenneis, Chris Shore, Marilyn Strathern, Susan Wright (among the others). In many ways, my Toraja interlocutors are far less compliant than many academics that fell for the protocols of accountability and quality assurance whereby complex social activities are measured, monitored, and competitively ranked.
If, as Aihwa Ong proposes, the complex assemblages of practices that compose neoliberalism migrate across the globe and across different sectors (from private to public, from management to politics, from the financial to the intimate), I am interested in describing what happens when these portable bundles of practices and values land in a new geographic or pragmatic environment. How tightly are they packaged? How faithfully are they replicated? Linguistic anthropological tools help understand how such bundles are assembled and how they operate; how desire is reconstructed in the wake of their implementation and, at the same time, how their implementation can be sabotaged through (often subtle and inconspicuous) micro-linguistic gestures. Methods of Desire explores how discursive genres originating from neoliberal global capitalism are both embraced and resisted in Toraja. My analysis reveals a complex dialectics of compliance and defiance. Each chapter of the book focuses on a specific pragmatic domain (from political speechmaking to household interaction, from mortuary rituals to workplace and learning environments) and discusses the ambivalent uptake of novel protocols such as electoral mission statements, fundraising auctions, service encounter scripts, customer satisfaction surveys, training workshops, flowcharts, and workflow diagrams. I highlight how Toraja highlanders articulate their skepticism at times through reflexive and explicit metapragmatic comments; other times in more subtle and indirect ways, such as through specific intonation and prosodic patterns or via unexpected variations in the participation framework associated with a specific genre.
Setrag Manoukian: Methods of desire. The title of your book sounds like an oxymoron. One associates method with planning, self-awareness, and intention, while desire relates to spontaneity, passion, the unconscious. But you convincingly show that in many ways methods structure desire. And yet, I am left wondering if this does not reproduce a certain binary misunderstanding of desire as a material that can be molded via linguistic forms. Doesn’t desire escape the methodologies that certain intentions prescribe to it? This is how I read Spinoza, in the sense that there is an immanence to the conatus that has its own economy of passions, not reducible to the stoic mandate to transform oneself.
Aurora Donzelli: You are making very good points. The title is indeed designed to oxymoronically evoke the classical opposition between Eros and Logos that the book, however, aims to problematize. Spinoza’s rejection of transcendent principles and his ontology of immanence are essential to my understanding of methods and desire. The relationship between the two could be thought in dialectical materialist terms as forming a totality of practice and theory; creativity and order; substance and form; potentiality and actuality. In elaborating (in the mid-1970s) his innovative form of semiotic materialism, Marxist scholar Ferruccio Rossi-Landi highlighted the dialectics existing between code and messages; models and tokens; communicative programs and their execution. He claimed that they exist together in reality and entertain a constant dialectical relationship, even though academic theory or common sense tend to consider them as separate, with the former treating the code in its structural abstraction and the latter approaching its products as natural and spontaneous facts. Spinoza’s immanentism and Rossi-Landi’s materialism resonate with Paul Hopper’s view of Emergent Grammar, which can be seen as an application of French post-structuralist thought to linguistic theory—a theoretical constellation that inspires my own work.
That of method is a powerful notion that has been relatively neglected by anthropologists. Its great beauty, I think, lies in its capacity to refer to a plane of immanence—something ethnomethodologists (with their idea that structures do not exist outside of social practices and with their interest in studying the methods that social actors use in interpreting their own everyday practices) have known all along. In like fashion, desire is an immanent process for the production of relations, as Deleuze pointed out. Rather than a flow to be disciplined through cultural norms and symbolic orders or a force that can be organized through language, I see desire as method, that is, as a mode of intersubjective relationality, a modality of human sociality, in which language functions as technology and infrastructure. The book describes how neoliberal discursive technologies are redesigning Toraja sociality: the entrenched forms of collective yearning (kamamaliran) that used to sustain social bonds of hierarchical reciprocity and mutual obligation are being replaced by new forms of (bourgeois) desire (aspirasi),imagined as originating in the interiority of the individual’s consciousness and congenial to the capitalist machine.
Setrag Manoukian: Finally, I would like to come back to the relationship between language and social life from a methodological point of view. Often to non-linguists the world of linguistic analysis appears as quite self-contained. How is your book engaging this situation?
Aurora Donzelli: I think that in-depth linguistic analysis is fundamental for the understanding of capitalism. The book is an invitation to linguistic anthropologists to establish a stronger dialogue with their sociocultural colleagues around the ethnographic exploration (and critique) of neoliberalism. It is only through an integrated approach that we can understand the role of language in the production of the complex forms of alienation and resistance that characterize our present moment. A close-textured analysis of linguistic interactions is also fundamental to capture the role of semiotic practices both in shaping political change and preserving the status quo. The great advantage of fine-grained linguistic analysis is that it may disclose processes that happen at levels that are not detectable at the semantic and lexical plane generally considered in cultural ethnographies. In the book, I explore the ambivalent uptake of new discursive genres as a way to shed light on how linguistic practices function both as capitalist technologies and infrastructures and as forms of resistance to the capitalist apparatus. Further, I try to show how attending to linguistic levels of analysis may provide a new way to reflect on traditional topics of anthropological theory (such as gifts and exchange theory, social change, subsistence farming and moral economy) and may contribute to refine the discussion of ethnographic tropes of Southeast Asia and Oceania (for example, debates over galactic polities and theatre states, notions of emotional restrain, opacity of mind doctrines, and so on).
During the last four decades, linguistic anthropology has become a highly specialized subfield. I often look back with nostalgia at the times before my time, when the disciplinary borders seemed more porous and less defined. My greatest hope for the future of linguistic anthropology rests on the possibility of developing fervid interconnections with scholars from other subfields in anthropology, as well as in the social sciences and humanities. Unfortunately, at times linguistic details and formalisms prevent or discourage such dialogues. In writing the book, I had to make difficult choices in how to present my transcriptions, sometimes reducing them or eliminating interlinear glosses and morpho-syntactic details. I hope that these choices helped produce a text accessible to a diverse readership and capable of evoking the spirit of irreverent curiosity of the multifarious multitude that gathered in Genoa twenty years ago.