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. 

Susan Lepselter on her new book, The Resonance of Unseen Things

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Interview by Micol Seigel

https://www.press.umich.edu/8373560/resonance_of_unseen_things

Your book isn’t easy to summarize because of the complex ways you weave your various interventions into (beautiful!) narrative, so instead of using this first question to have you describe the book, which is how this blog generally proceeds, I’m going to ask you several questions to try to convey some of the texture of your accomplishment.  I’d like to start by asking you what your research process was like.  Tell us about the time you spent in Texas and Nevada, the way you lived there, and how your relationships with people evolved, if you would.

Thank you, and I’m glad you’re taking the roundabout route – that does sound very appropriate! Many of the ethnographies I admire grow from the anthropologist’s prior relationship to a place and the people who live there.  For me, though, the way into this project was the stories. I was fascinated with uncanny abduction stories since before graduate school as texts, in mass market paperbacks and UFO magazines. There are scholars who have written brilliant and powerful books about UFO beliefs focusing completely on texts, especially in religious studies. But (not surprisingly) my own reading of these stories was challenged, and I became more aware of how irreducible and mysterious they still were to me, when I started hearing accounts of uncanny experiences told by real people in specific social contexts. In Texas I began going to a UFO Abductee Support Group, which was later called the UFO Experiencer’s support group, in the town I call Hillview in the book. This support group was, from its first meeting, a folklorist’s dream come true: a ready-made storytelling community. People sat together in a circle, and in a structure modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, testified to their disturbing, or exhilarating, inexplicable uncanny experiences. This was the first social context I’m talking about. I also attended meetings of a UFO organization called the Mutual UFO Network.  These were two overlapping communities, but they had different goals – MUFON was dedicated to the scientific study of UFOs and the Experiencer’s group was dedicated to a basically phenomenological approach to the real. I attended both local meetings and larger, national MUFON conventions, but I fell more completely into seeing through the Experiencer’s perspective through my friendships with the people there.

As friendships between regulars there deepened, the Experiencer’s group quickly exceeded its formal meeting structure (which also remained intact).

People made powerful friendships, and for me the people in these groups were in many ways more like colleagues than “interlocuters” because we were all restlessly exploring facets of the same compelling mystery. We just hung out whenever we could. Especially with my two best friends in this group, we’d sit for hours on a porch, or in a living room, or going out to eat, talking and talking, speculating, sharing ideas, dreams, weird memories, theories. I also spent a lot of time hanging out with others in the UFO community who didn’t necessarily go regularly to the support group, especially one man, who had dozens of inexplicable uncanny stories from a previous point in his life. But these conversations also drifted into politics, or society, or our families, or just the mundane stuff of life. The conspiracy theories that go along with UFO stories were braided into real experiences of hegemony and power. So my way of understanding uncanny stories shifted into a sense of their inseparability from the ordinary — a sense of how they worked to both intensify everyday experience and to offer a radical difference and departure from it. Hanging out with the folks in Texas, I often was struck by the fact that even though I was in graduate school, the most intense intellectual energy I ever experienced was on these porches or kitchens, or going out to look for UFOs, sometimes.

In Hillview, people talked a lot about what was going on in Area 51, where the government was said to be hiding a UFO. So eventually I decided to go out there. I was bringing some conspiracy-based material from a Hillview friend to someone who lived in Rachel. This was way before social media, so this was a normal way that people with shared interests might make a connection. In Rachel I based my research in the café in town that was the center of social life there, the Little Ale’le’Inn. The owners of the café were incredibly warm and generous to me. They let me live with them in a spare room in their mobile home. I was volunteering as a waitress in the café, where I heard tons of stories. When my husband came out, we stayed in another mobile home in the neighborhood. I also traveled around Nevada, listening to stories in other places too. But in Rachel, even more than in Hillview, the focus on UFOs – because that was the identity of the town — was interspersed with the ordinary experiences of working UFO tourism or just living in a small western desert town. Here, collecting conspiracy theories and uncanny stories was braided into working with friends in a café, visiting people in the town, seeing their gardens or ranches, playing pool or making dinner, or sometimes taking care of a few people’s kids when they had to work. I was participating in some very rich talk while we were driving around the desert, or holing up during a freak hail storm, or hanging out exhausted after a day of work …all these normal, ordinary activities, filled with jokes or singing or chit chat, rode along with the heavy conspiracy talk that was central in this place. Sometimes people moved here to be in the center of American uncanny conspiracy, and like the Hillview folks, they had an intense intellectual drive and a strong desire to discuss what felt like the most urgent topics. It was obvious that a pressing sense of uncanny conspiracy expressed something in people’s actual experience of power.

It was wonderful to spend time in Rachel. It is a strong community and the people there were unbelievably generous with their time and their hospitality.

Now would you write a little bit about your writing process?  How did you sit down to compose the evocative and even haunting prose that comprises so much of Resonance?  Clearly you are working on multiple planes here, very far from the straight-up sort of formal academic statement of argument.  What is it that you hope this style of narration might accomplish alongside your academic interventions?  What are the politics, in other words, of your narrative style?

 First off, this style of writing was opened up to me by my mentor, Katie Stewart. I don’t think my kind of ethnographic writing would have been possible without her brilliant, lyrical ethnographic work, beginning back in the 1980s.

This is the main thing about my venturing away from a traditional academic style: I think the key part of writing about the social is the practice of attention you develop. Instead of sticking always to specific interview techniques, or planning to fit your data into an existing theoretical template, or making some kind of moral or political judgment about things, you just give yourself over to listening. For this book, I wanted to make it clear that I was writing about something powerful in the voices I heard, not summarize what they said. What I did was immerse myself in the feeling, form or style of people’s stories, both in my face to face encounters and later when I transcribed tape recordings of interviews or conversations.  I was and am moved and awed by the performance of their talk and I wanted to write in a way that showed it was the poetics, not just the referential content, that got to the inchoate feeling of things, and did the work of meaning making. Anthropology has for a long time explored the co-construction of the political and the poetic. The politics of conspiracy theories can be challenging, but that’s intertwined with other elements that are more implicit. So first I committed to the idea that the actual object, the data I was after here – (and stories are, in a way, material data like rocks or bones) – was not just the manifest meaning, and wasn’t something to be explained away or debunked, for example. The things that I was going to write about could be gotten to only obliquely, because actually the topic for people was not any single story or event, it was the uncanny connections between stories and what that suggested about power.  They were talking about haunting, about the way things pile up and overlap.  The people I was hanging out were themselves always noticing the way stories resonate with each other. My job was to get to the actual ethnographic object, and that object was intertextual  and poetic – it was the depth of that piled-up sense of meaning. Paraphrasing it, or translating into an academic language, representing instead of presenting it, simply didn’t let me get to the specific “it” I wanted to show. You know the expression that writing about music is like dancing about architecture? Explaining it without evoking or performing it would have been dancing about architecture. So, I tried to perform what I wanted to say, too. And that’s the style you see here.

I think the politics of this ethnographic writing stance is about not leading with an obvious politics, actually. That is a stance that’s more comfortable with writing about cultures outside our own. When we are writing about people who seem both too close but on the opposite side of something, it’s more challenging not to make it just a polemic, or not to reduce it. First, I hope my work shows that people who are stigmatized or marginalized are not outside society; what they say is an intensification of the naturalized center of things.   It’s also political, for me, to believe that people are artful and creative and intellectual in ways that aren’t marked or supported by official institutions. For example, the intensification and condensation I was hearing in this talk is what poetry does, too. This focus on the vernacular is of course at the heart of anthropology and folklore, and I think it’s an inherently political way of understanding creativity and expressive culture; it’s why I wanted from the beginning of my career to write about narrative and poetics through anthropology. I was writing this book on and off for years and years, I’m a very slow writer, and for various reasons I didn’t seek to publish it for a long time before going back to it. But although my framing and interpretations changed some, what never altered was knowing that people’s way of telling stories about the uncanny is at once an unmarked art form, a way of theorizing power, and a public affect that exceeds the story’s explicit subject matter.

 In case it isn’t yet obvious, the book engages people who have experienced alien encounters of one sort or another.  What are some of the resonances you suggest these folks’ experiences touch and evoke, especially the historical trenches they mine and the aspects of collective memory they sound?  How do history and collective memory become threads in alien encounter experience?

 The foundational narrative of our nation is a story of freedom, but so many of our compulsively told narratives are about captivity.  Captivity was a major weapon in colonization and genocide here – the reservation, the boarding school. There was this enormously popular genre about Indians capturing whites during colonization, but the work of Pauline Turner Strong made me realize there were all these undertold, invisible captivity narratives about whites capturing Indians, as well. And I’m operating from a pretty Freudian sense of the uncanny– it reveals memories that have been partially forgotten because they’re too disturbing to recall completely. It’s an incomplete repression, a partial return. And here we see historical traumas that haven’t yet been fully dealt with. The fact that alien invasion is a story of colonization, and has tropes of terrifying assimilation or genocide, and the fact that alien abduction is a story of captivity by an invader, is pretty striking. But that wasn’t the whole thing. What happened here was that the intensity of feeling in these conversations about alien invasion and abduction, came from the poetics of conspiracy theory: that is, that something more is always going on than anything you can hear in one story. It’s the connections, the intertextual similarities, the overlaps, that seem real. So here, in these stories, all sorts of trauma become a sort of uncanny palimpsest: you get imagery from scientific racism, from Nazi medical experiments, from ecological precarity, from slavery, from the containment and genocide of Native Americans, and from the often impossible-to-speak ordinary experiences of everyday hegemony, all piled up together. The uncanny story compresses and intensifies all these histories and memories, like a poem would, and they are revealed as iterations of a common power, as a connected kind of force of history. And that sense of connection feels true to many of us both inside and outside official critical theory.

Of all the explanations for the recent presidential election out there in the blogworld/social media circuits/punditocrasphere, I find Resonance the most satisfying, even though (obviously) it wasn’t intended as such.  Could you talk about what you think your research might offer to people who are perplexed at the depth of support for the winner of that election?

When I did the bulk of my research in the 90s, the vast conspiracies, the sense of the government as evil, the intensified feelings of resentment and loss, were affects gathering at the margins of power. (This doesn’t mean that alien abductees were all working class, or that they were all conspiracy theorists — it’s much more complicated than that, of course.) And even though of course there’s a long history of American conspiratorial thought, this specific affect was at the time an emergent one. But in many ways, over the last two decades, various neoliberal effects in everyday life made the emergent affect, which I explore as something that was still on the stigmatized margins, into something more tangible, into something the center could seize on and exploit.  Using conspiracy as a perspective, inflaming it with racism, appropriating affects about power to infuse the dominant… ironically, the “they” already in power on the right and in the right wing media pounced on the inkling of a hidden “they.” I really was not surprised.

 

Plagarize, let no one else’s work evade your eyes

By Susan Blum

 

The first real glimpse American audiences got of the potential First Lady associated with presidential candidate Donald Trump exploded into a circus. As Melania Trump read a speech that had several paragraphs directly lifted from the same sort of self-introduction performed by Michelle Obama in 2008, President Obama’s former chief speechwriter recognized some of the exact wording. Chaos ensued, along with denials, protests, strange claims that the speech was not really plagiarized, claims that Melania Trump had written it herself, then admission that a “former ballerina and English major”—sexist shades echoing here—had taken the responsibility.

Along with understanding the notion of intellectual property, authorship, and citation, I think Goffman and the notion of participant roles (or production format or participation framework) helps us sort things out here. To summarize: the speechwriter is the “author,” the one who composes the text. The person giving the speech is both the “animator” and the “principal” although the “principal” is also the person seen to benefit from the speech, in this case Donald Trump. (The use of the term “surrogate” captures this distinction.) Whose words were uttered? Who profited from them? Who is responsible? What are the moral and ethical obligations that accompany each role? What are hearers’ expectations and beliefs about these roles?

Americans tend to like spontaneity as it gives evidence of an authentic self lying beneath the words that simply bubble up. Artifice, rehearsal, teleprompters, professional speechwriters—all these are seen as reducing the glimpse into the heart and soul of the speaker. Actors are masterful at portraying apparent spontaneity, as are practiced politicians.

The niceties of notions of intellectual property, citation, and providing credit for authorship, as well as the desirability of speaking authentically on her own (collapsing all participant roles) that were in some sense acknowledged when Ms. Trump initially claimed to have written her speech herself. Later, the respect for Michelle Obama was seen as explaining the error.

There is a bit of an additional irony here, as Mr. Trump has been one of the principal agents aiming to discredit Mr. Obama and to incite racist claims that he was not born in the United States. Quotation and attribution of Mrs. Obama would have had additional challenging responses at the Republican National Convention, don’t you think?