Wazhmah Osman talks about her book, Television and the Afghan Culture Wars


Interview by Narges Bajoghli

Narges Bajoghli: What made you write this book and want to focus on the media in Afghanistan, particularly? 

Wazhmah Osman: In western discourse, from Rudyard Kipling to Winston Churchill, the prevailing image of Afghans has been a stereotypical, racist, and dehumanizing one. Afghans are portrayed as savages, militant, and barbaric. These colonial tropes took on new currency after the tragic events of 9/11. There was so much misinformation about Afghan people and Afghanistan in the news, documentaries, books, and by political pundits, which resulted in acts of violence and discrimmination against people from the Muslim world including my communities. I knew I wanted to redress and challenge these problematic dominant narratives by directing the global dialogue about Afghanistan to Afghans themselves. During my pre-research trips to Afghanistan, I noticed the rapid expansion of the Afghan media sector, largely thanks to the post 9/11 international donor community’s funding and training. I also noticed how the media is at the heart of the most important national debates about women’s rights, democracy, modernity, and Islam. For countries in the global south and east, like Afghanistan, who are described as stuck in time and incapable of modernizing, showing the dynamism of cultural contestations and social movements that occur in and around media is one of the best ways to dispel the immutability and failure discourses.

Narges Bajoghli: Your research for the book is very ethnographic and embedded and impressive in its scope and access. How did you go about the research of this book, especially given how fraught your fieldsites were/are, with active war, occupation, and violence?

Wazhmah Osman: Thank you. To be honest, initially I did not want to go back to Afghanistan for my dissertation research, which this book is based on. I needed a break from Afghanistan. Post 9/11 I had been going back and forth for journalistic assignments and documentary film work. Pre 9/11 I was also going back and forth to visit my father and other family and to maintain my cultural ties and connections. Afghanistan, just like its people, is a lively and beautiful place but it has been marked by over four decades of death and destruction and lawlessness, which makes everyday life there extremely difficult and dangerous. I partially grew up in Af-Pak during the height of the Cold War. So I’m no stranger to the chaos and violence of war but the extent and extremity of it never ceases to surprise me. Sadly for Afghans in Afghanistan, it has become mundane.

But I also knew that in-depth on the ground research with local Afghans was the best way to challenge elitist and problematic views from the top and disrupt their simplistic and imperialist narratives that drum up hate, violence, and war. Also in dialogue with Faye Ginsburh, our advisor, she encouraged me to work with Afghans in Afghanistan as opposed to the diaspora in Queens NY.  Going back there for my book research and fieldwork was my longest and hardest trip back. As you know, long term fieldwork and research is such a privilege but also arduous. It took a big personal toll on me. There’s the emotional challenges of returning as an expatriate to a former home that is a war-torn shell of what it used to be, being apart from loved ones, and the loss of that. More seriously and devastatingly though, I lost research subjects and interlocutors I had befriended to the violence of war. Brave media makers, human rights activists, reformers, and aid workers risk their lives on a daily basis to create a progressive and democratic society. They are regularly targeted by local and international warlords and conservative groups. I survived and have the privilege to leave and tell their stories. Many people don’t. 

Narges Bajoghli: In the book, you argue that television is at the center of violence in Afghanistan–“generating it and also being targeted by it.” Yet, you argue, television is also providing a semblance of justice, debate and healing. Can you expand more on this central argument in your book and how television becomes such a site of contention? 

Wazhmah Osman: Due to high illiteracy rates and limited access to computers and the internet, the dystopic state of the country, television (and radio to a lesser extent) have become a popular and powerful medium in Afghanistan. A lot of hopes, fears, and funding are funneled into it. I set out to study the impact and cultural contestations that the media is enabling. I mainly used two methodologies, content analysis of the most popular genres on Afghan television and my ethnographic research into their production and reception. While space won’t permit me to get into the details, I can say that Afghan media producers, at great risk to themselves, are providing a platform for local reform, activism, and indigenous modernities to challenge both local conservative groups and the international community that has Afghanistan in its sights. The media has opened up space crucial for private and public discussion around important national and cultural issues. I also discovered that Afghan peoples’ need for justice via more serious programming and entertainment via more fun and distracting programs are not mutually exclusive. We cannot underestimate the value of entertainment in war-torn countries like Afghanistan. The antidote to war and its atrocities is equal parts reflection and distraction. I mean look at how streaming services and media consumption have skyrocketed during the pandemic. This is not just because we were captive audiences at home. It’s because the media provides a semblance of calm and understanding of our chaotic, violent, and confusing world.

Narges Bajoghli: Although I think most American/American-based scholars and anthropologists should have an interest in this book given the decades-long American war and occupation of Afghanistan, we unfortunately know that not to be the case. We’ve talked a lot about this before, but it seems like the two places you and I study, Iran and Afghanistan, respectively, are always in the news, and have been for decades, yet all that ink spilled has not led to deeper knowledge in the Euro-American sphere, including, unfortunately in many corners of academia. How does this book speak to anthropological debates about media in general, and about media and democracy under occupation? What can this book teach us and our students who may not focus on Afghanistan as a main area of study? 

Wazhmah Osman: Like you said Afghanistan, like Iran, your site of research, has occupied the public and popular imagination of Americans for decades through the news and Hollywood films. Most of that has been in relation to wars and conflict like the Soviet Invasion and Occupation of Afghanistan, the events of 9/11, War on Terror, and the US Forever War in Afghanistan. The US government and therefore the American people have been entangled in over forty years of wars and military operations in the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia). I think many Americans are confused about what their taxpayer money has been funding for so long. I wrote this book with that in mind, to cross-over into the public sphere. While of course I engage with anthropological debates about media and academic theories of media and democracy under occupation, at the same time, I tried to make it as readable and engaging as possible to general audiences as well. Thanks to whistleblowers and investigative journalists, reports of extrajudicial torture, blacksites, and rendition programs are emerging, which are forcing people to reckon with US militarism abroad. Yet at the same time, many of the proponents of media independence and human rights in Afghanistan who train and support journalists and activists are NGOs funded by the United States. In Television and the Afghan Culture Wars, I tried to provide a complete blueprint and outline for understanding the complex geopolitical situation in Afghanistan. 

Narges Bajoghli: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sorts of impact do you hope it will have? 

Wazhmah Osman: In addition to academics and the public, I also wrote this book for politicians and policy makers. If the US truly wants an exit strategy out of its Forever War in Afghanistan with its ensuing global refugee crisis, it is time to start supporting and centering the voices and stories for self-determination, peace, and justice. Rehashing the same dangerous stereotypes of despotism and barbarism precludes the fundamental agency, creativity and intellect of people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Far beyond the archetypal Hollywood alignment of forces of good (the US military) versus bad (Islamic extremists and terrorists), there is a wide range of people. As I describe in my book, there are many Afghan human rights activists, journalists, and media makers who risk their lives everyday working to lay the foundations for democracy and human rights. They are subjected to threats, physical attacks, and death for challenging local and international warlords. In the book I highlighted their work and organizations in an effort to expose readers to the creativity and agency of Afghan reformers as well as their pain and suffering. These activists and reformers also offer the best solutions and hope for creating a more diverse, equitable, and violence free society.

Graham Jones on his new book, Magic’s Reason


Interview by Dalila Ozier

Dalila Ozier: In this book, you revisit your ethnographic work on French magicians in order to critically examine the ways in which both magicians and anthropologists use the magic concept. Why did you choose the theoretical framework of analogy/counter-analogy to re-analyze your ethnographic data? What methodological difficulties did you experience when developing your arguments?

Graham Jones: I had known I wanted to write about Western encounters with non-Western illusionary practices for a long time, but I was having trouble shaping it as a book project. In fact, all the archival materials were gathering dust in a file cabinet as I tried to figure out what to do with them. Then I started teaching a graduate seminar in ethnographic methods. After several years of that class, I began to see my project in a new light. Working with anthropology grad students on their research projects, I realized that one of the fundamental epistemological issues that all ethnographers all have to sort out is making the categories they use for analysis commensurable with the native categories they encounter in the field. How do we know our categories are transferrable? When do we need to invoke native categories to shake up received wisdom? The historical materials I had were a great illustration of ethnographers deploying spurious categories and then building anthropological theories atop their faulty findings. I thought it could be a great methodological object lesson. So in the beginning, I envisioned Magic’s Reason as a text for teaching ethnographic methods! I hope someone will use it for that one day.

You’re right that analogy isn’t necessarily the obvious go-to concept for dealing with this kind of epistemological issue. Metaphor is probably a much more robust category in the anthropological tradition given, for instance, the Sahlins-Obeyesekere debate or the wonderful work by George Lakoff. But analogy had several things going for it. You may laugh, but I really liked the pliability of the word itself. I encountered the work of a philosopher named Cameron Shelley who had originated a great typology of some of the specific types of analogical moves that occur in scientific argumentation: disanalogy, misanalogy, counteranalogy, and so on. These are exactly the kinds of things anthropologists do when they work with analogy in practice, and dis-metaphor, mis-metaphor, and counter-metaphor just aren’t as euphonious! But there was something else that was crucially important about analogy: Tylor identified it as the core operation of both anthropology and (occult) magic. So I wanted to trace out some of the intellectual history of how anthropologists have understood analogy as central to what they do scientifically (through the work of Marilyn Strathern and Roy Wagner for instance) and what they think people who believe in magic are doing when they engage in magical practices. This is what the title of the book means: anthropologists are using analogy to figure out the reason for magic, and magicians are using analogy as a form of reasoning. In the end, I don’t think there’s any real difference.

One of the methodological challenges I faced in developing the arguments had to do with the diagrams. My thinking about analogy was deeply influenced by the cognitive psychologist Dedre Genter. She has beautiful diagrams designed to show how people make abstractions based on similar patterns they identify in different domains—through analogy. Yet in my case, I was looking particularly at the way people make abstractions based on differences (as well as similarities) between different cultures—the dissimilarity part is really important for anthropology. It turns out that it is really difficult to diagram, at least within the visual idiom that Genter and her colleagues have perfected (Cameron, in fact comments on this). I struggled with that for a long time, and then I had an epiphany while reading Charles Sanders Peirce, grasping a very simple way to combine analogy and disanology in one diagram by drastically decreasing the amount of detail I was trying to capture. It was not necessarily a very original epiphany within the Peircean vein (spoiler: it’s a triangle), but it allowed me to create a very minimalist visual idiom for representing the argument as a whole. So much depended on properly calibrating the amount of information encoded in the illustration.

Dalila Ozier: Your book discusses how both early Western anthropologists and early Western magicians contrasted “reasonable” Western cultural practices with irrational, “primitive” Others. What was your primary goal in pointing out the connection between two Western disciplines—that is, anthropology and magical performance—that are often considered to be distinct?

Graham Jones: This is a difficult question, and strikes a surprisingly personal chord. When I was in grad school, one of my mentors was an elder Africanist who had trained under Evans-Pritchard. I admired him deeply and desperately wanted to do a reading class with him on the subject of magic. When I asked, he immediately kiboshed the idea. “You don’t work on real magic,” he said. I was crushed. And for a long time after, I doubted that there was any connection between the anthropology of “real” magic and the kind of magical entertainment I was studying. What’s more—perhaps this may date me a bit—I felt like there was a stigma in anthropology attached to doing ethnographic research in a Western context and on an entertainment practice at that. Something fun in a comfortable place. Showbiz was not “real” culture and research in Europe was not “real” ethnography, hence I could not be a “real” anthropologist. I deeply admire all the challenging cross-cultural work our colleagues do, and I really worried about the validity and value of my research.

I’m not saying that I had an axe to grind, but as I looked more deeply into the historical archive, I was very surprised to discern what looked to me like the influence of magical entertainment on anthropological theory—an influence that anthropology seems keen to suppress. I wanted to know more about how the anthropological theory of magic had been constructed with reference to magic as a form of entertainment, but also about something bigger: how authentic “culture” in the anthropological sense was historically constructed as the conceptual antithesis of phony showbiz. You asked about my goals. None of this was an explicitly formulated goal when I started out on the project. But by the time I finished, I had come to make an argument about how anthropology has traditionally constructed its objects of study through an optics of alterity that just doesn’t make sense without reference to Euro-American popular culture itself. Ultimately I was forced to conclude that occult magic simply wouldn’t have mattered so much to anthropology if entertainment magicians hadn’t made such a sensation out of debunking it.

Dalila Ozier: Early in your book, you mention the esteemed magician Robert-Houdin, who (as described in his memoirs) once performed in colonial Algeria as a way of exposing local ‘Isawa mystics as charlatans, thereby reaffirming France’s colonial hold over the Algerian state. Additionally, you discuss how some ‘Isawa mystics later traveled to Europe as theatrical performers, with their religious practices consumed by Western audiences as entertainment. How did the systemic recategorization of ‘Isawa religious practices as either spectacle or trickery (or both) contribute to the colonial project of diminishing the symbolic power of subaltern communities? How does this impact the ways in which contemporary magicians (and audiences) theorize the relationship between Western and non-Western states?

Graham Jones: Magic is a microcosm, a tiny microcosm. So is anthropology. But when we see a pattern of racist representations linking magic and anthropology, then we can begin to take it as indicative of larger structures of domination and oppression in the colonial worldview. I don’t want to overstate the cultural and historical importance of entertainment magic, but it really was a privileged site, during magic’s so-called golden age (from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries), of visualizing ethnic differences. Orientalist imagery of exotic others was omnipresent in the iconography of the era, and remains a vestigial part of modern magic’s legacy. While Euro-American magicians were making careers performing in yellow, brown, and black-face, golden-age magic also provided circumscribed, but still substantive, opportunities for East Asian, South Asian, and African performers. In some cases, East Asian illusionists were able to tour extensively in the West, competing directly with the Orientalist acts staged by white rivals. The case of the ‘Isawa is more ambiguous, because we are really talking about ritual experts hired to perform entertainment spectacles. I don’t want to reify categories like “ritual” and “spectacle”—a part of what I try to do in Magic’s Reason is, if not break down those categories, show how they are situationally conditioned by power. In any event, my basic point is that the recategorization of ‘Isawa ritual as spectacle was very easy because Orientalist associations of the global East (and global South) with mysticism, fanaticism, and the occult were such a pervasive part of golden-age magic.

A second part of your question concerns the lasting legacy of binary oppositions such as modern/primitive, rational/irrational, and so forth, that historically achieved such clear expression in both magic and anthropology. I’m reminded of a beautiful verse by the French rapper MC Solaar: “la présence d’un passé omniprésent n’est pas passé.” When the past is everywhere visible, it’s not really past, is it? As we’re doing this interview, the President of the United States has just called African countries “shitholes,” voicing neocolonial chauvinism but also mystifying a history of systematic underdevelopment. But if we just concentrate on magic itself as a microcosm, I think the issue specifically concerns the opportunities available to magicians of color in postcolonial France or in the contemporary U.S., not to mention opportunities available to women. In a genre that has been such a privileged site for visualizing differences of sex, gender, and ethnicity, how can performers who don’t fit with the image of the modern magicians as a white, European gentleman acquire credibility?

In one version of the book, I had a long section about the racism I saw directed towards one young magician of North African descent in contemporary France. For me, this example showed that, even though one form of overtly racist imagery has been more-or-less relegated to magic’s colonial past, new and, in some ways, more insidious forms of entrenched discrimination persist in the postcolonial present. Here magic was a professional microcosm for me to think about the kind of prejudice that people of color face in French workplaces. That ethnographic section didn’t make it into the final version of the book. I was constantly fighting against centrifugal, digressive tendencies to try to make the book lean and coherent. But I’m in the process of publishing it now as a standalone essay, which should be out later this year, along with a few other small pieces that I couldn’t quite fit into the confines of the book.

Dalila Ozier: Later, you discuss Robert-Houdin’s affection for the Davenport Bros., a vaudevillian performance duo that professed to have supernatural powers. Though Robert-Houdin wrote treatises debunking the Davenports as charlatans (in much the same way he did for ‘Isawa mystics), he celebrated the Davenports for their cleverness and ingenuity. What does Robert-Houdin’s differing perspectives on the ‘Isawa and the Davenports indicate about how Western thinkers alternately attach stigma and value to acts of “fakery”?

Graham Jones: The “fake” is a wellspring of cultural meaning, and I can only begin to do it justice here. On the one hand, fakery constitutes a moral affront and a metaphysical abomination. On the other hand, it is the height of ingenuity, intelligence and skill. And in many arenas of experience—magic is no exception—it is impossible to define what is “authentic” without reference and recourse to the fake. The discipline of Art History only exists because collectors needed techniques for expertly adjudicating between forgeries and originals. Robert-Houdin has a very sustained engagement with the notion of the fake, and he is very consistent in his views. At one point, he remarks that everything the magician says is a tissue of lies, and he delighted in telling some whoppers both on stage and in his autobiographical writing. Still he views the modern magician’s fakery in light of an ethical code: if deceptions are ludic and if they are sufficiently sophisticated, then they pass muster. In his autobiography, he subjects lots of different performers to this litmus test. Of course there is a kind of bigotry built into his assessment, but he effectively considers the Davenports to be worthy of respect because their stagecraft and their promotional strategies were so ingenious. Robert-Houdin depicted the ‘Isawa as the antithesis of everything he stood for as a “modern” magician. He depicted them as charlatanic impostors who used only crude legerdemain, but that assessment clearly assumes that the ‘Isawa were operating under the same ethical and metaphysical assumptions as Robert-Houdin. They were not.

Michael Taussig and others have written brilliantly about the problems and perils of thinking of ritual practices in terms of reality, sincerity, and authenticity. In the realm of ritual, artifice, illusion, mimesis and deception have a different valence than they do when exhibited as ends in themselves, or objects of enjoyment in their own right, as they are in the context of modern magic. Here we are coming to an aporia at the heart of anthropology: on the one hand, ethnographers in the nineteenth century and beyond exhibited a gleeful hubris in drawing invidious contrasts between natives’ susceptibility to believing in fake things, like the tricks of shamans or ritual experts, and their own imperviousness, as modern Westerners, to such deceptions. On the other hand, the anthropological category of culture was taking shape as the realm of real, authentic experience as opposed to the fake, ersatz arena of show business and Western popular culture. This paradox amounts to the view that non-modern people are credulous dupes, but that that’s precisely what allows them to have real culture. This view is inextricable from a tradition of anthropological research that positions occult magic as both the fakest possible thing and the very quiddity of culture. Anthropology has been trying to work itself out of this hole for a long time, and I think magic is an inescapable part of how we got to this point and what we need to do to get beyond it. My main goal in Magic’s Reason is to enhance the conversation about the connection between anthropology’s past and its future by adding some additional dimensionality based upon my own admittedly idiosyncratic engagements with one of our key concepts.