Morgan Ames on The Charisma Machine

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On Henry Jenkins’ blog, he interview Morgan Ames about the One Laptop Per Child project.   With Jenkins’ permission, I am re-posting the interview here (but see the original here: http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2019/10/3/interview-with-morgan-j-ames-on-the-charisma-machine-the-life-death-and-legacy-of-one-laptop-per-child-part-i

Henry Jenkins: You root the OLPC project in a particular conception of the relationship between technology and childhood in the thinking of Seymour Papert. What do you see as some of the core assumptions shaping this vision of ‘the technically precocious boy”?

Morgan Ames: Nicholas Negroponte was certainly the public face of One Laptop per Child, but he readily admitted in his marathon of talks in the early days of OLPC that the very idea for the project was actually Papert’s, even though Papert was already retired when OLPC was announced. He often said that the whole project was “the life’s work of Seymour Papert.”

And when you read through all of Papert’s public writing, from the late 1960s through the early 2000s, you can clearly see that connection. Papert started writing about the liberatory potential of giving kids free access to computers not long after after he joined MIT in the 1960s. Throughout the 1970s, he was a central figure in developing the LOGO programming environment. The branch he worked on, which ended up being the dominant branch, was built around the ideals of what he called “constructionism,” as a tool for kids to use to explore mathematical and technical concepts in a grounded, playful way. He kept advocating these same views throughout the 1980s and 1990s, even as LOGO lost steam after many of the really grand utopian promises attached to it failed to materialize.

I argue that one of the reasons for this failure is that LOGO and many constructionist projects are built around a number of assumptions about childhood and technology that just aren’t true for all children — and in fact are only true for a particular set of children, mostly boys, who have a lot of support to explore technical systems.  

 

Some of this support comes from their immediate environment: they have parents who bought them a computer, who helped them figure it out, who were there to troubleshoot, who supported their technical interests. If it wasn’t a parent, it was someone else they could turn to with questions. The programmers I’ve interviewed who proudly say they are self-taught had a whole constellation of resources like this to help them along.

But some of this support also comes from the cultural messages that we hear, and often propagate, about children. Messages about boys’ supposedly “natural” interest in tinkering with machines goes back at least 100 years — there’s this great volume called The Boy Mechanic: 700 Things for Boys to Do that was published in 1913! Then there’s transistor radio culture, engineering competitions, and a whole host of technical toys specifically marketed to boys in the decades following. Amy Ogata, Susan Douglas, Ruth Oldenziel, and many other fantastic historical scholars have traced these histories in depth. With the rise of computing, this same boy-centered engineering culture gets connected to programming, displacing all of the women who had been doing that work as low-paid clerical workers around and after World War II, as Nathan Ensmenger and Mar Hicks have shown. The same boy-centered culture also defined the video game industry in the 1980s.

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From all of this, at every turn boys — and particularly white middle-class boys — are told that they belong in this culture, that they are (or can be) naturals at programming. Everyone else has to account for themselves in these worlds, and everyone else faces ostracism, harassment, and worse if they dare to stick around. It’s something I became pretty familiar with myself throughout my computer science major.

When I talk about the “technically precocious boy,” it’s both of these pieces — the specific material and social support certain kids get, but also the larger cultural messages they live with and have to make sense of in their own lives. This is what social scientists call a “social imaginary,” or a coherent and shared vision that helps define a group.

Unless projects very actively reject and counter these social imaginaries, they ride the wave of them. One Laptop per Child is one of these, just as Papert’s other projects were. Even though these projects tended to speak inclusively about “girls and boys” and “many ways of knowing,” they then turned around and extolled the virtues of video games and talked about technical tinkering in ways that wholly relied on this century of cultural messaging, which had long been incredibly exclusionary.

Henry Jenkins: Did this conception constitute a blind spot when applied, unproblematically, to childhoods lived in other parts of the world? How might we characterize the childhoods of the people who were encountering these devices in Latin America?

Morgan Ames: The biggest issue with relying on the social imaginary of the technically precocious boy is that the kids who identified with it have always made up a very small part of the population. If you think back to the youths of many of those who contributed to OLPC, who were discussing its similarities with the Commodores or Apple IIs of their childhoods — most of their peers couldn’t care less about computers. So to assume that somehow all or most kids across the Global South, or anywhere in the world, would care when this kind of passion is idiosyncratic even in places that have long had decent access to computers is a bit baffling to me.

When I’ve said as much to friends who worked on OLPC, I often heard something along the lines of, “well, those past machines maybe only appealed to some kids, but this one will have much more universal appeal!” And Papert wrote about the universal potential of computers too — he called them the “Proteus of machines,” with something to appeal to everyone. I see similar stories in movements to teach all kids to code.

But the majority of the kids I got to know in Paraguay — as well as those I met in Uruguay and Peru — just weren’t very interested in these under-powered laptops. I found that over half of kids in Paraguay would rather play with friends or spend time with their families, and didn’t find anything all that compelling about the device. The one third of students who did use their laptops much at all liked to connect to the Internet, play little games, watch videos, listen to music — pretty similar to what many kids I know in the U.S. like to do with computers. This is not to erase the cultural differences that were there, much less the legacy of imperialism still very much present across the region. But it really drives home just how wrong the assumption was that kids in the Global South would be drawn to these machines in a way that differed fundamentally from most kids in the Global North, that they’d really want to learn to program.

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Henry Jenkins: You correctly note that the metaphor of the school as a factory often results in a dismissal of teacher’s role in the educational process. Yet, the OLPC and other Media Lab projects have depended heavily upon teachers and other educators to help motivate adaption and use of these new platforms and practices. How have these two ideas been reconciled in practice?

Morgan Ames: The social imaginary of school-as-factory is a perfect foil for the social imaginary of the naturally creative child (and the technically-precocious boy as an offshoot of it). We certainly see messages all the time that portray schools with derision and contempt — in spite of a long and well-documented history of school reform, schools are often talked about as hopelessly outdated, mechanistic, and antithetical to children’s creativity. (This is not to say that I think schools are perfect as they are — I certainly dislike drill-and-test practices, for one — but they are complicated and culturally-embedded institutions, often asked to create impossibly large cultural changes with impossibly scant resources.) When One Laptop per Child, or other Media Lab projects, echo some of these sentiments, they hardly need explain themselves — the school-as-factory social imaginary readily comes to hand.

But you’re right that how schools relate to teachers, and how teachers relate to these projects, is much more complicated. In his writing Papert very clearly condemns schools, but is much more equivocal about teachers, often casting them as “co-learners” even as they are charged with steering children’s learning toward mathematical ends. Other OLPC leaders said some terrible things about teachers early on — more than one said that most teachers were drunk or absentee, for instance — but local projects, including Paraguay Educa (the local NGO in charge the OLPC project in Paraguay), conducted teacher training sessions and expected teachers to use the laptops in classrooms. At the same time, OLPC and many local OLPC projects, including Paraguay Educa’s, talked about how the most interesting things kids would do with their laptops would probably happen outside of classrooms, and that they would soon leapfrog past their teachers in ability.

I can’t fully resolve this paradox, but I can say that keeping the social imaginary of the school-as-factory alive is pretty valuable to many ed-tech projects that promise to overhaul an educational system that seems to be both in urgent need of fixing and receptive to quick technological fixes. However, it’s one thing to paint a rosy picture of the possibilities for technologically-driven educational reform without the need for teacher buy-in — but then when it comes down to actually implementing a reform effort, teachers become a necessary part of the project, because ultimately they are a necessary part of learning.

Henry Jenkins: What are some of the important differences between the schools described in the rhetoric around OLPC and the actual schools you encountered on the ground?

Morgan Ames: Negroponte exhibited some very wishful thinking in justifying the costs of the program. He’d tell governments that they should think of this as equivalent to a textbook, and put their textbook budget into this program. Amortized over five years, he said, a hundred-dollar laptop would be equivalent to the twenty dollars per year per student that Brazil, China, and other places budgeted for textbooks. But I found only one school in Paraguay that consistently used textbooks, and it was because they were sponsored by an evangelical church in Texas. If schools had any, they had some very old textbooks that were kept in the front office for teachers’ reference only. Most teachers wrote lessons on a blackboard, and students copied them into notebooks that they were responsible for buying.

Papert had a version of this analogy as well — but instead of textbooks, he equated computers with pencils. You wouldn’t give a classroom one pencil to share, he would say derisively — but even if OLPC’s XO laptop had actually been $100 rather than close to $200, that’s a far cry from a ten-cent pencil. Moreover, even ten-cent pencils were items that not all Paraguayan students could consistently afford. A good portion of Paraguay’s population are subsistence farmers and the Paraguayan school system has been underfunded for many decades now; some schools don’t have working toilets, and none provide photocopiers, paper, or even toilet paper or soap. Most classrooms did not have plugs for charging laptops or WiFi routers — the schools, with the help of local project leaders and parent volunteers, had to install those. And in some cases, the wiring that they used was mislabeled, so the plugs failed.

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Despite these rough conditions, many teachers really did care about teaching — they were not “drunk or absent entirely,” as Negroponte once claimed. But much like teachers in the U.S., they were beset from all sides by demands for their time, they were very underpaid, and many exhibited signs of burnout. Even so, some were really excited about the project, but most really didn’t have the time they would have needed to integrate a difficult-to-use laptop into their curriculum. In the book I include several vignettes from my fieldwork that describe in detail how these teachers would struggle to use laptops for lessons in spite of broken machines, uninstalled software, slow networks, and quickly-draining batteries. It’s no wonder that nearly all gave up in time.

Henry Jenkins: The Constructionist paradigm leads us to see the web and media use as “distractions” from the core OLPC mission at the same time as the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative was emphasizing the kinds of learning which could take place around games, social media, and participatory culture more generally. How would your results look if read through this different frame?

Morgan Ames: Aside from some fairly abstract discussions of the virtues of videogames, constructionism generally doesn’t really discuss media use — it seems to exist in a cultural vacuum where students encounter a Platonic (or perhaps Papertian?) ideal of a computer with nothing but LOGO, and maybe Wikipedia, on it. But the connected learning framework — which, in the spirit of cultural studies, takes children’s interests and media worlds seriously as ideal starting-points for learning — was very much on my own mind throughout my fieldwork and analysis. And I was deeply impressed by the ways some kids found innovative ways around the XO’s hardware and software limitations, and the ways that a new video or music file would spread, student to student, through schools.

The piece that was largely missing, though, was a way to bridge those interests with learning outcomes like literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking that are important for effectively navigating the world. A handful of parents and teachers had ideas about how to shape their children’s interests toward more learning-oriented ends, and I have a chapter devoted to their stories. But they were the exception, not the norm.

Moreover, I would bring a critical media studies lens to this as well, and ask just what kind of influence advertisers including Nestle, Nickelodeon, and more should have in children’s educations. These companies developed content specifically for the XO laptop that was widely popular during my fieldwork, and thus had preferential access to children via an avenue that most considered “educational.” While I love the connected learning approach of really centering children’s cultures in the learning process, I am very critical of companies’ efforts to make money off of that.

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Morgan G. Ames researches the ideological origins of inequality in the technology world, with a focus on utopianism, childhood, and learning. Her book The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child (MIT Press, 2019) draws on archival research and a seven-month ethnography in Paraguay to explore the cultural history, results, and legacy of the OLPC project — and what it tells us about the many other technology projects that draw on similar utopian ideals. Morgan is an assistant adjunct professor in the School of Information and interim associate director of research for the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at the University of California, Berkeley, where she teaches in Data Science and administers the Designated Emphasis in Science and Technology Studies.”

Ben Tausig on his book, Bangkok is Ringing

Interview by Mack Hagood

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/bangkok-is-ringing-9780190847524

Mack Hagood: Bangkok is Ringing brings us into the center of the Red Shirt protests in Bangkok during 2010 and 2011—a truly historic moment in Thailand that garnered international attention. Was the movement your original object of study when you headed to Thailand as a PhD candidate? What precipitated the movement and what unfolded after you arrived?

Ben Tausig: This massive occupation, and the movement that initiated it, was not my original object of study. Although I was interested in music and politics, and although the Red Shirts had been gaining energy for a while when I began my research, the dynamics of the movement would have been impossible to predict. But on arriving, the occupation of central Bangkok was just underway, and unsettling everything, so it would have been impossible to turn away from what was going on, no less the extraordinary role of sound in the protests. So I turned towards them. And then the movement remained so active – and so central to Thai politics – for so long that it seemed wise to stick with it. Moreover, in time the Red Shirt movement began to find performative echoes in other places, especially parts of the Arab Spring, which only made it feel more relevant.

Mack Hagood: Your book explores the protest movement through sonic performance and media of sounding and listening, revealing “uneven geographies of sound” made up of smaller “sonic niches.” Please walk us through some of these actors and media and how they feed and enact a protest movement.

Ben Tausig: The book is structured like the protests themselves. It is divided into seventeen chapters that vary in length, scope, and tone, and that at different points reflect or conflict with one another. That’s exactly what it was like being inside the Red Shirt camps. They were ad hoc spaces full of internal variations of class, region, and aesthetics. And their sounds often tracked with these differences. I call the subspaces within the rallies “sonic niches” because, like ecological niches, they existed in a state of flux, as well as in profound and dependent relation to neighboring spaces. Moreover, they were highly sensitive, and it wasn’t unusual to hear one of them disappear entirely due to some small change in, say, police enforcement of a public amplification law. Political movements are typically coalitional like this, as Mouffe and Laclau remind us. The elder bookseller whose formative experience of dissent was the Marxist movements of the Vietnam War era may not have much to say to a kid from the northeast who adored billionaire former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. And it follows that the performative proletarianism of the former’s songs for life folk tunes did not always mesh well with the latter’s hip-hop. But they and their sounds found ways to coexist under the banner of a movement that they each believed would benefit them.

Mack Hagood: One of your main theoretical interventions is to dispute the common claim in sound studies that sound is unbounded and transcendent. You make a careful study of how sound is often constrained and you enlist it “to help us understand how agency caroms and fractures, how political actors often find themselves bouncing off walls rather than frictionlessly through them” (6). Can you describe how themes of constraint, blockage, patience, and persistence operate through the book in terms of sonic and political agency?

Ben Tausig: This theme arose from firsthand experience of the protests. They were so densely crowded that one could only ever experience them while partially or totally stuck, for example making long and arduous sojourns (we’re talking hours) across, say, 50-meter stretches of road to buy a bottle of water or find a friend. For those who know Bangkok, this feeling of being stuck is achingly familiar, because traffic is so intense and the roads so poorly accommodated to it (on this as a historical problem, see the work of Claudio Sopranzetti, who was in Bangkok at the same time, and who analyzes mobility very well). In my case, this experience suggested itself first as a metaphor for the ways that sound, as an agent of political force, is likewise beset by many stubborn obstacles. But why stop at the metaphor? After all, protest movements depend upon sound to announce themselves as totalities, to produce an affective sense of unity, and to make specific points emphatically. I began to reflect on the mundane ways that sound did not travel freely at Red Shirt events, and to consider how this lack of mobility could help us think about obstacles to political change, as well as to the performance of a desire for political change.

Mack Hagood: I was thrilled to learn about the cultural and political valences of luk thung and molam, genres of Thai music that some western readers may have encountered through reissues on the Sublime Frequencies label. You also movingly describe some musical moments involving these genres. Can you talk a bit about their history and importance in the Red Shirt movement?

Ben Tausig: Amporn Jirattikorn as well as James Mitchell have written about the political history of these genres, as has Terry Miller (in an earlier moment). Sublime Frequencies typifies a relatively new kind of “world music,” a phenomenon that has been analyzed by Portia Seddon and David Novak, among others. Briefly, decades- or even centuries-old genres circulate today in a weird and remediated fashion that requires – decidedly! – a new auditory ethics. That’s a long way of saying that most western listeners who hear mor lam and luk thung are likely to do so through media products that obscure their political valences. In what we might call hipster-colonial commerce, these genres are typically marketed and heard as psychedelic or otherwise exotic – a familiar and regrettably orientalist framing – whereas in practice they contain a rich poetics of exclusion from political power. That poetry can tell us a great deal about how people identify with rurality in Thailand, especially as a moral ground within a country that’s long been a site of unregulated, exploitative capitalist development. The Red Shirts’ use of these genres therefore necessitates a closer examination of the latent possibility of a left-wing instinct that has been unnaturally excluded, one might well say repressed, from political discourse (Communist political parties, for example, are formally illegal). The possibility of the eventual return of the left, even as a kernel, therefore cannot be ruled out after considering how mor lam and luk thung functioned for the Red Shirts. This was an exciting part of the research, and I still hold out hope for this kernel to grow, even though it is an interpretation that has not yet been borne out.

Mack Hagood: I hesitate to pursue this next line of questioning, both because it may simply be a reductive and facile cross-cultural comparison and because it may seem to signal political commitments I don’t own. However, while reading Bangkok is Ringing, I couldn’t help but think repeatedly about the political rallies of Donald Trump. There are so many similarities: a rural political movement sneered at by many among the urban and educated; a wealthy, media-savvy, populist leader who, like Tahksin, benefitted from and perpetuated neoliberalism while also railing against its social ills; a similar ecosystem that sprung up around the rallies of chanting, blaring music, homemade media, and political performativity—even the red color of the iconic MAGA hat! I have often thought that those of us working in the politics of sound, media, and affect studies should be doing a lot more work on Trumpism. What insights did the Thai example provide as you watched these events transpire in the United States? Does your sonic approach provide us ways of understanding what is happening here now?

Ben Tausig: Absolutely. Politically and economically, Thailand tends to foreshadow certain global developments, perhaps because capital is quite free to operate as it wishes there, so it bumbles into crises with less friction. That’s an undeveloped theory, but I am not the only one to notice it. And indeed, Thailand had a billionaire populist before the US did, although one could also draw comparisons to George W. Bush, who was elected at the same time as Thaksin. It is highly ironic that there is even an argument for the emergence of a leftist politics within the Red Shirts, given what a violent, autocratic neoliberal Thaksin could be (he bears some similarities to Duterte). But the fact remains that some percentage of Red Shirts joined the movement in spite of Thaksin, not because of him. One can therefore draw some meaningful connections between the Red Shirts and the American populist right, and it is worth reading Kasian Tejapira’s prescient insights from 2006. But the comparison has its limits.

Meanwhile, yes, I think sound studies can draw some narrow comparisons here. Sonically and otherwise, Trumpism cast itself as a puncture of elite spaces. The Red Shirts cast themselves in much the same way. Their occupations were provocatively staged in the wealthiest, most cosmopolitan parts of Bangkok – precisely the areas from which they as working people were excluded. They blared rustic songs, voices, and timbres in the most refined districts of the country. Some Trump supporters were likewise given, especially in the winter of 2016-17, to entering public spaces that they felt were the province of liberals, and shouting insults as a form of spatialized comeuppance against people (and, ostensibly, a system) they disliked. The comparisons stop, of course, when we consider the racial privilege at stake in the U.S. case study, not to mention the homophobia, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia that explicitly underwrote Trump’s election. But I do think there was a similar value in both instances to using sound to penetrate the spaces of a political opposition.

Mack Hagood: You have taken it upon yourself to self-produce an audio version of your book, which is available on your website. What opportunities and challenges does the audiobook format present to academia?

Ben Tausig: I’ll link self-promotionally here to a brief piece in the Journal of Popular Music Studies that came out this summer, and summarize it by saying that there are enormous opportunities right now for sound studies, as well as music studies, to imagine new kinds of critical published products that combine conventional analysis with audible material. But we also have to be very thoughtful about the economics of these ventures, given where academic publishing is today, and the pitfalls that come with shiny new objects (namely, that scholars could be asked to do even more uncompensated labor than they already perform).

Mack Hagood: Finally, is there any conversation or debate that you find most interesting in sound studies right now? Any current plans or projects that intervene in it?

Ben Tausig:  I am always drawn to deep anthropological work on sound, especially that which addresses people and spaces outside of the United States and Europe. This is a lack that I believe emerged from the early tendency in sound studies to canonize experimentalist composers as well as philosophers of sound, namely John Cage and Murray Schafer, who despite their allegedly global thinking were firmly grounded in traditions of European art music. Cage and Schafer certainly give students of sound a lot to work with, but there are also enormous presumptions in their work about sound and its relationship to nature, gender, race, and modernity. Feminist sound studies is another growth area now, and it has produced some excellent and urgent critiques of the ways that sound studies has defined noise, for example. And as a body of scholarship it comprises probably the most powerful critique of the Cagean and Schaferian traditions. Tara Rodgers and Marie Thompson are two essential thinkers here.

I do have a new project, and it is an effort to think about some of the conversations referenced just above. It is a historical study of the cosmopolitan aural and musical world of Bangkok (and elsewhere in Thailand) during the Vietnam War. The period that Benedict Anderson called “The American Era” was an era of unprecedented economic development, at the center of which was music and nightlife. I’m therefore examining the stories and legacies of musicians – Americans, Thais, Filipinos, Europeans – who were active in Thailand during those years, as well as the asymmetrical auditory relationships between U.S. soldiers and the Thai people who served them in a nascent hospitality industry, including sex workers. The project has already gotten pretty deep and it is lots of fun to combine archival research with interviews and ethnography.

Juan del Nido discusses his dissertation about Uber

Page 99 is home to one of the most linguistically precise segments of my dissertation, concerning the construction of a legal case against Uber in Buenos Aires, Argentina, by five taxi drivers’ associations on the night of the 12th of April, 2016. The case was set in a language of urgency and accusation and routed through a “writ of amparo” – an Argentine legal device designed to be expeditious and that judges have to react to quickly, lest a claimant’s fundamental rights are irreparably harmed. The right in question was the right to work, taxi drivers claimed, knowing but not explaining in that document that the temporalities of technological novelties amid a population anxious for modernity benefitted Uber, which had launched its platform at 4 pm that very same day.

This micro-anecdote, specific and dry, does more justice to Madox Ford’s test than he himself may have sought, for in a sense my entire research hinges on the events of that day. I was in Buenos Aires, my hometown, researching the political economy of the taxi industry in a 13-million strong metropolitan area largely unaware at that time of Uber’s expansion plans. The day before the 12th Uber existed only in people’s imaginations and the companies’ social media taunts; the day after was the first of an economic, political, legal and cultural conflict centered on the industry I had come to know quite well. Buenos Aires was then the latest installment of a world saga, epic and viral, but also a deviant: when authorities declared Uber’s activities illegal and ordered it to leave, Uber refused to go, claiming Uber was what “the people” wanted. As an industrial conflict turned into contempt of court, the conflict became an exceptionally fertile site for a series of infrastructural, temporal, technical and economic imaginations about what constituted progress, modernity, and political virtue. At stake in the conflict, summed up in that page, was whether an order beyond the political existed or not; how some Argentines understood what it was made of, who belonged in it and how history had drawn its lines, and ultimately, how a post-political order would grant the Argentina that the middle classes imagined as theirs a place in the world .

Juan M del Nido. 2018. “Uber in Buenos Aires: an Ethnographic of the post-political as a modality of reasoning”. 2018. Ph.d dissertation. Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester, UK. .

John Postill on his new book, The Rise of Nerd Politics

The Rise of Nerd Politics
Interview by Angela VandenBroek
Angela VandenBroek: The Rise of Nerd Politics is a captivating description and analysis of “techpol nerds” and their “clamping” (computing, law, art, media, and politics) skills. You have described the techpol nerds as related to but not the same as other kinds of nerd categories studied by anthropologists (such as Kelty and Coleman). What led you to this analytic decision and why do you think it is important for anthropology now?
John Postill: That’s right. While Chris Kelty and Gabriella Coleman – whose pioneering work has had a major influence on mine – and other scholars have focused on computer geeks and hackers, I include other specialists under my category of “nerd politics” – a term I borrowed from the Canadian sci-fi author Cory Doctorow.
The people I’m calling “techno-political nerds”, or simply “techpol nerds”, are a highly diverse lot. To be sure, among their ranks we find geeks and hackers, but we also find tech journalists, digital artists, copyright lawyers, Pirate politicians, and even anthropologists. What all these specialists have in common is a passionate devotion to working at the intersection of technology and politics, a pro-democracy stance, a profound dislike of authoritarianism, and the belief that the fate of the internet and of democracy are inextricably entwined. They translate this passion into a huge variety of initiatives in areas such as open data activism, digital rights, popular mobilisation, and electoral politics. It follows that I regard hacker politics to be a subclass of nerd, or “clamper”, politics.
As I argue in Chapter 2, not all forms of knowledge or skillsets are born equal in the world of nerd politics. Five forms in particular (computing, law, art, media and politics, or “clamp” for short) take pride of place within this world. Even accomplished computer nerds like the NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden must rely on the expertise of others to pursue their political goals. Snowden gathered around him a team of Guardian journalists, lawyers and tech people as well as a documentary filmmaker. Yet we tend to overlook this interdisciplinary teamwork in our fascination with this supposedly lone wolf and his technological wizardry.
I arrived at this analytic decision in a roundabout way, as tends to be the case in anthropology. I started fieldwork in Barcelona, Spain, in the summer of 2010 with the intention of studying whether social media were making any substantial difference to the work of activists in that part of the world. After surveying the terrain, I became interested in the small but rambunctious digital rights scene and soon realised that it wasn’t just geeks and hackers who were active within it. In 2014 and 2015 I did comparative research on similar scenes in Indonesia, as well as secondary research on other countries. Everywhere I looked I found heterogeneous teams of nerds – not just techies – “clamping up” on corruption, fraud, online censorship, and other perceived malaises of the digital era.
 
Angela VandenBroek: For this book you drew on a wide range of techpol nerds, including those in Spain, Indonesia, Iceland, Brazil, Tunisia, Taiwan, and the United States. But the 15M movement in Spain figured prominently throughout the text. What about this particular example made it such a fruitful resource for you analytically, especially in contrast to more popularly covered subjects, such as the Arab Spring uprisings or the Occupy movement?
John Postill: There was an element of sheer luck in my decision to work in Spain. In 2009, when I was still based in the UK, a friend in London sent me a link to an advert in The Economist. The Open University of Catalonia were offering a one-year fellowship to study social media and activism in Barcelona. I applied and got it. It helped that I was brought up in Spain and that my previous research was on internet activism (albeit in a very different setting: suburban Malaysia). Another stroke of luck was that in early 2011 the digital rights nerds I was working with decided to switch from internet politics to politics writ large when they helped to launch the 15M (indignados) movement, which called for “real democracy now” and led directly to the Occupy movement.
But the story doesn’t end here, as the very same Barcelona nerds, an activist group called Xnet, later launched a data activism campaign to put on trial those behind the collapse of one of Spain’s major banks, Bankia. They later wrote and performed a widely acclaimed “data theatre” play on the Bankia case, launched a nerdy political party named Partido X, and even got embroiled in the fraught data politics of the Catalan independence referendum of 2017. By retracing Xnet’s nomadic trajectory I was able to map the world of nerd politics in Spain and discern four main spaces, or “subworlds”, within it: digital rights, data activism, social protest and formal politics.
I then tested this four-cornered map in those other countries that you mention and, to my delight, it worked there, too. This enabled me to make comparisons across political cultures. For instance, while Spain’s nerds migrated en masse in 2011 from the space of digital rights to that of social protest to launch the 15M movement, their Brazilian counterparts remained fixated on a single digital-rights issue even at the height of the 2013 popular mobilisations. This paid off eventually as far as digital rights in Brazil are concerned, but arguably there was a missed opportunity for Brazilian nerds to help create something like Spain’s 15M movement and its formal political offshoots.
Spain has turned out to be an unlikely global leader in nerd politics, a massive laboratory of techno-politics and democracy. Today scores of town halls across Spain, including in major cities like Madrid and Barcelona, are in the hands of indignados, many of them steeped in nerd culture. Moreover, a party that borrowed heavily from Xnet’s techno-political tools, namely Podemos, is now Spain’s third political force and the main ally of the ruling Socialists.
Angela VandenBroek:  You have artfully debunked many perceptions of nerds in The Rise of Nerd Politics that are common both in popular media and within anthropology and related fields, including their politics, their demographics and geographic locations, their collaborations and organization, and their utopian and techno-solutionist inclinations. How do you think these prior perceptions may have hindered our understanding of techpol nerds and their movements? And, what do you think are the most important misconceptions you have identified for us to pay attention to going forward?
John Postill: The prior perceptions you refer to – about nerds being typically white, male, anglophone, geeky, techno-solutionist, and so on – originate largely in US popular culture and news media but are influential worldwide. The two paradigmatic examples are Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. These perceptions have clouded our understanding of the world of nerd politics in a number of ways, including a lack of attention to techpol nerds’ pragmatism; to their ethno-national, religious and gendered diversity; to their penchant for combining teamwork and crowdwork; to the fact that many of them work across civil society, government and the private sector divides, and so on.
Out of these misconceptions I would single out the popular fixation with hackers and their tech wizardry to the detriment of nerds from non-tech backgrounds (for example, journalism, art, humanities, politics) who are equally important to the rise of nerd politics and its increasing centrality to our political and cultural lives.
Don’t get me wrong: Assange, Snowden and other leading computer nerds have played hugely important roles, but so have lesser known individuals and groups around the globe (who may or may not possess advanced IT skills).
Angela VandenBroek: You end your book by saying, “For social scientists like me, and many readers of this book, there is also the issue of the current dominance of five kinds of knowledge (computing, law, art, media and politics) in this social world, which suggests that there is room for greater anthropological and sociological expertise in the nerd politics repertoire” (p. 254). How do you think anthropological knowledge could sit practically within the existing clamping suite? What are the tensions anthropologists may face in this space and how do you think we might overcome them through our work?
John Postill: Yes, that’s the book’s cliffhanger, a key unanswered question!
One significant contribution that anthropologists studying this topic could make to nerd politics is to continue to ask questions about who these techpol nerds (think they) are, what they have done so far, and with what actual and potential consequences. Whatever else we’re interested in, we anthropologists are always deeply interested in people, especially in our research participants. We are also interested, of course, in processes, systems, technologies, networks (whatever these are), actions and practices, but more than anything else we study people and their social relations, which these days are often digitally mediated.
Another potential contribution could be to interrogate the ontological status of some of the nerds’ favourite sociological notions. Do these notions have an empirical basis or are they simply cherished ideals and/or useful fictions? For example, when my research participants – some of them fellow researchers from other academic fields – get excited about the power of  connected multitudes or horizontal networks to bring about political change, I am among those whose job it is to sound a note of caution. What exactly is a horizontal network? Has anyone ever seen one? If so, where and when? By the same token, a team is a more tangible social entity than a so-called network, and yet the notion of team is conspicuously absent from many of the nerd narratives. These are the kinds of questions and blind spots that anthropologists are well placed to identify as the research and writing progresses. It follows that we should go about this task diplomatically (after all, we don’t necessarily want to antagonise people!).
Beyond these epistemological concerns, there is also the question of health and safety. As the world becomes more unruly, polarised, and unpredictable, anthropologists and their research participants working on nerd politics – and related topics – face greater legal and physical risks. One urgent task for anthropologists is to go beyond our liberal comfort zones and help bridge the current ideological rift between pro-democracy progressives and conservatives so that, together, we can take on the extremists and autocrats. We also need many more part-nerdships, that is, political initiatives that bring together nerds and non-nerds fighting for the social and economic rights of all citizens, including their digital rights – regardless of class, creed, or skin colour.

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

http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/M/bo25265716.html

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. 

Watching Putin Listen

by Kate Graber

 On the eve of a U.S. presidential election in which Russia and its presidential figurehead have loomed “yuge,” it is perhaps time for some observations about that central action figure of Russian political communication, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

A lot has been written about Putin in English, including biographies by journalists and scholars. They vary in their foci, many locating his rise to power in his personal background or connections, others locating it in the nature of the Russian people. There is also Putin’s own autobiography, which he insists is a “frank” (it’s in the freaking title of the book) and transparent view into his personhood—more on which later. Closer to CaMP anthropologists’ interests, Eliot Borenstein often writes provocatively and entertainingly about the intersections of Russian presidential and cultural politics on NYU’s Jordan Center blog. Nothing that I say here should be taken as evidence that Putin is bad or good, or that his very personal style of political communication is bad or good. As a linguistic anthropologist, I’m interested instead in the content, context, and form of what he says and the cultural significance of those features of talk.

Why Putin? It should (but, sadly, does not) go without saying that Russian political life is far more diverse than what is broadcast by the Kremlin or captured in media coverage of “Putin’s Russia.” Personally, I am less interested in the centers of power than in what’s going on in the rest of Russia, particularly those regions well east of the Urals. There are all sorts of fascinating daily struggles in Omsk and Bratsk and Magadan that reveal more about what it is to be human—and perhaps more about power—and have little to do with what happens in Moscow. But what are you going to do? Russia’s relationship to the U.S. and its political future has increasingly been invested in the person of the president, often in laughably tangible form (again). So here we are.

Putin’s face has popped up onto my screen on a regular basis for the past 12 years, not because I was seeking it out, but just by chance, in the course of my research on minority media in Russia. For some of those years, Medvedev was president and Putin technically played second fiddle as prime minister, but somehow Putin appeared nearly nightly anyway. Now consider for a moment, if an outside researcher like me has accidentally watched that much of Putin for that long, how much more of him a Russian citizen living within Russia has seen. Television is the main medium by which contemporary Russians get their news, over radio, newspapers, or internet sources by a large margin. Most households in Russia have more than one television set, one in the living room and a second or third in the kitchen or a multi-use bedroom. Two broadcasting networks, the Rossiia network of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company and the majority-government-owned Channel One, produce most of the daily political, economic, and cultural news that Russians watch. Now, it would be easy to assume that this news is overwhelmingly positive in its portrayal of the president. It is, but Putin is not without his critics. Nor is he the only actor in Russian politics guilty of (or successful at) “media manipulation.” Let’s leave aside for a second the question of whether this is orchestrated positivity or not, and just assume that if nothing else, yes, Putin has some control over how he presents himself on television. What is it that Russian viewers then see?

On camera, Putin is unfailingly calm, cool, and collected. He is a study in controlled gestures, measured pauses, and an infamously steady (sometimes steely) gaze. Whatever you think of his positions and policies, you have to admit that the guy exudes quiet confidence.

There are some important elements of Putin’s communicative style that are so different from U.S. presidential style that you might not put them in the same framework. When Putin’s PR team circulated photographs of him riding bare-chested on horseback through Tuva, or tranquilizing and tagging an Amur tiger in Russia’s Far East, U.S. audiences were bewildered and amused. Presumably they found this brazen machismo anathema to presidential politics (which now seems ironic, given the machismo that has appeared in uses of “locker room talk” and hyper-sexualized male discourse within the soon-to-be-finally-over U.S. presidential election, and anyone suspicious of why gender norms are being used as tools of authority-building in a U.S. presidential election should read Valerie Sperling’s book on similar issues in Russia).

Some scholars and clever pundits have observed that such performances are geared not toward an international audience as much as to a domestic one. Or rather, they are geared toward a domestic audience via an international performance. Putin is showing a Russian audience that he is taken in the West as a tough guy or the ultimate action man. And it largely works. But if you look only at the action man imagery, you miss an important element of Putin’s communicative style.

In Putin’s appearances on Russian television, he spends a lot of his airtime listening.

He sits beside or behind a heavy-looking wooden table or desk, usually flanked by the Russian flag and looking official, as he speaks with one of his ministers or advisers, or occasionally a regional political actor such as the governor of one of the vast Russian state’s many provinces. You-the-viewer watch the other person talk, sometimes at great length. Sometimes you then see Putin respond, quietly and firmly, and sometimes not. Sometimes you watch the ministers waver, nervously averting their eyes or cringing under Putin’s quiet gaze. Within these variations, however, there is a solid genre of news broadcasts about Russia’s president: you always watch Putin engage in a face-to-face conversation, staged as though it were between equals, in which he primarily listens.

Is this another iteration of machismo, in that Putin comes across as the quintessential “strong, silent type”? I would argue no. He engages in what is often called “active listening,” reacting to the speaker, following his partner’s gaze and lead, occasionally nodding slightly or otherwise providing some uptake. He is paying attention. If anything this is the type of thoughtful, sustained listening stereotypically attributed to women.

You don’t have to take my word for it; you can watch an example of a Rossiia broadcast from Thursday of Putin meeting with the Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinskii. Medinskii briefs Putin on plans for the current and coming year, updating him on construction projects at the Moscow Philharmonic and Malyi Theatre and the state of funding for infrastructure. You don’t have to understand anything that’s being said in Russian to appreciate the visual details of context, gesture, and comportment. Sitting opposite one another in ornate chairs in a wood-paneled office, Putin and the minister lean forward, their hands on the table. The minister provides informational sheets; Putin appears to read or study images. The minister holds Putin’s gaze; Putin meets his eyes and nods. The minister talks; Putin listens.

Of course, there’s plenty of airtime of Putin speechifying on news programming too. He holds press conferences, gives interviews, and leads ceremonies of state. Television coverage marked the occasion of Friday’s Unity Day (a holiday celebrating the unity of varied religious traditions, ethnicities, and, yes, Crimea within a single Russian state) with Putin speaking in Moscow. But the daily news is at least as likely to include an instance of this genre of Putin in face-to-face conversation, and it is a far greater share of what Russians see their president do on a regular basis than riding bare-chested through Tuva.

What does he accomplish by having his television audience watch him listen?

When Putin published an op-ed in The New York Times in 2013 and claimed sole authorship of it, American commentators saw it as a risky or outrageous move to speak directly to the people of the U.S. But Fiona Hill correctly observed that it was also a way of demonstrating his abilities to “work with” or “communicate with people,” and to “work with information”—points of personal pride that she traced to his years in the KGB. Wherever his motivations come from and whatever is in his head, the directness of address that Putin achieved in his op-ed is also on display in his routine performance of active listening. Although the listening events are staged, the content of the conversation itself always appears spontaneous. Putin is getting this information now—and in your living room, you’re watching him digest it.

In both the U.S. and Russia (and elsewhere), heads of state are often televised in face-to-face conversation, often seated in armchairs and looking relaxed. Likely we-the-viewing-audience are supposed to be reassured that our political leaders are getting along, that they have not angrily stormed out of meetings or committed a faux pas at last night’s dinner that will accidentally result in a war. Similarly, Putin’s cordial conversations with ministers telegraph that all is well with the gears of power.

Listening like this also suggests to the audience that the president is not acting carelessly or alone, but intelligently and under good advisement. I remember commenting once to a friend in Buryatia, a political activist who opposed most of Putin’s and Medvedev’s policies, that state television news seemed to feature a lot of Putin listening. I expected him to respond cynically, perhaps by saying that Putin would do whatever he wanted anyway, or that this was just an elaborate act. “Well, he’s a very smart guy,” he said instead, “and smart guys listen.”

Hmm. I think the reason I noticed how much Russian television audiences were seeing of Putin in these interactions is that American television audiences rarely watch U.S. politicians listen. In fact, we rarely watch extended face-to-face interactions between domestic leaders of any sort. It is part of what makes televised debates so communicatively peculiar: we watch leaders who are otherwise televised talking instead listen to one another, and to the moderator or ordinary citizens in town halls, for extended stretches of time. During the U.S. presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump, social media overflowed with discussion of their respective “listening faces.” Eyebrows and lips were dissected like no one had ever seen the candidates listen before (though in fact there was plenty of material on Clinton on this point). CNN reported that Clinton had carefully crafted her “listening woman” face, as though that were surprising.

Anthropology is at its best when we excavate not only the cultural assumptions informing some weird thing those foreign-Other-type people do, but also our own unexamined expectations. My friend in Buryatia had never noticed how much time he spent watching his president listen, and I had never noticed how little I spend watching mine do anything but talk.

On the other hand, I do like talk.

Kate Graber is a linguistic anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. When not mulling over Putin’s taste in chairs, she researches minority media, language politics, materiality, and value, especially in Siberia and Mongolia.

 

Joseph Grim Feinberg’s “Loving Authentic Folklore in Post-Folkloric Slovakia”

At the top of p. 99, as on almost every other page in my dissertation, I come upon the word “authentic.” The dissertation is about a movement to “return to authentic folklore” in contemporary Slovakia. It’s about what such a “return” might mean, but also what it doesn’t mean.

“So it’s about nationalism, right?” I’m typically asked when I begin to describe my work. Well, sure it is, what isn’t? But it’s not simply about nationalism.

This movement isn’t especially interested in returning to the most authentically Slovak kinds of folklore. Its partisans are relatively unenthusiastic about the shepherd’s flute or the fujara, which are often considered most purely Slovak of musical instruments. They are much more moved by the danceable rhythms of Romani string bands. They aren’t so interested in unearthing an authentic Slovak identity that can be politically mobilized; they’re more interested in experiencing a lost popular entity that mobilizes them onto the dance floor. This is an entity that they identify with wistfully, but never completely, because they believe that it is irrevocably tied to a past that can never be fully revived.

The authentic folk that they invoke is apolitical. Which of course means that it is just as much mixed up in politics as everything else. It is mixed up in a political world that, in the neoliberal and “post-communist” age has closed off large areas of social life, including folklore, from political efficacy.

Which brings me to the second noteworthy point about this page. It is the only page in my dissertation where there appears the name of the neo-fascist politician Marian Kotleba. I observed, here, that folklore enthusiasts in Slovakia were not talking about nationalism and fascism—or about internationalism and anti-fascism. But I reflected, then, that when politics are unuttered and undefined, they remain wide open to those who are willing to break back into the political sphere and speak. And will anyone be prepared to speak against them when they come?

It was five years ago when I saw and thought this in the field. Looking back, that appears as another age. This March, Kotleba’s party gained fourteen seats in the Slovak parliament. Folklore, banished from respectable politics, is re-politicized as an instrument of hate—against the same Romani minority that has been central to the life of Slovak folklore.

This story calls for a coda.

Joseph Grim Feinberg. 2014. “Where There Are No Spectators: Loving Authentic Folklore in Post-Folkloric Slovakia.” Ph.d. diss., University of Chicago.

Joseph Grim Feinberg is a research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy, Czech Academy of Sciences, in Prague. His research addresses the aesthetics of authenticity, the politics of performance, and the relationship between populism, nationalism, and internationalism in East-Central Europe. His book The Paradox of Authenticity: Folklore Performance in Post-Communist Slovakia was published in 2018 by the University of Wisconsin Press. You can reach him at feinberg@flu.cas.cz.