Noelle Molé Liston on her book, The Truth Society

The Truth Society

Interview by Jonah Rubin

Jonah Rubin: So much has been written about what media literacy scholars have termed our “information disorder” (Wardle and Derakhshan 2017). There is a general recognition that mis- and disinformation is rampant, threatening the shared epistemological foundations of many political communities. In The Truth Society, though, you don’t only focus on those who believe in conspiracy theories and misinformation. You see them as intimately connected with those who are “hyperinvested” in real science and reliable facts. Even in your opening vignette you focus not on the purveyors of untruths, but rather on the “soldiers of rationality” breaking mirrors in the public square as an anti-superstition performance. Why is it important (methodologically, theoretically, or both) for us to focus on what you call this “hyperrationalization,” an almost desperate pursuit of science, empiricism, and skepticism as well? Put otherwise, what do we miss when we exclusively train our analytic gaze on those who believe in false information?

Noelle Molé Liston:  

Danger #1: We miss not fully recognizing the implications of the onslaught of information and algorithmic underpinnings of digital consumption. Access to information has meant both a democratization of access to information, that is, at least in basic sense along with the intensified customization and subsequent siloing of information. Yet with so much information, what became eroded was a basic sense of source appraisal, especially when industries were mastering pseudoscientific ways to uphold the oil and gas industry, and various “Big” Industries like Big Pharma, Big Sugar, Big Food, etc. Therefore, we saw that scientific information also became a site of “fake news” where under the guise of science, social actors might find so-called scientific studies to support the absence of climate change or the incredible health benefits of sugar. Thus, social actors who were already habituated to see science as true, rational, and reasonable, were being seduced with paid-for sponsored “fake” science, which I would argue, worked because of this enchantment of good science, a kind of facile belief that scientific rationality could seek and produce the truth. Without interrogating or becoming skeptical about why knowledge under the label of “science” can either be manipulated or outright fabricated, we fall prey to reifying–or even deifying–science itself.

Danger #2: We become “anesthetized” to our own embodied or phenomenological ways of knowing the world and, possibly, one’s own expertise. In my exploration of the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, one interlocutor was an architect with deep knowledge of both the territory and engineering. Yet she ignored her own sense of danger when she was reassured by scientists and fellow engineers, likening it to “numbing” her other ways of knowing she had typically relied upon. Why does this happen? Immense pressure was on the public to trust science and quell the existing pre-earthquake panic, not unlike ways the American public is currently scolded to “trust the science” during the pandemic. In both instances, maintaining social order relies on a continual investment in science as simple truth, so we have to interrogate how our own trust in science might be part of a mode of control and surveillance. It’s also become quite tricky on the left, as we want to allow space for healthy scientific skepticism but not indulge pseudoscience or conspiracies. If we fail to examine our own tendencies to exalt science as “big-T” True, then we risk reproducing the very regime of hyperinvestment in science.

Jonah Rubin: One major theme of the text is the ways that new media technologies – television news, the internet, algorithms – reshape the possibilities for politics. At times, it seems like these technologies open up new possibilities for political participation and populism. Other times, it seems like the technologies become new sites for the political imagination, such as the televised presentation of a golden tapir award or the infozombies. Could you elaborate a bit on how you see the relationship between new media and politics playing out?

Noelle Molé Liston: The book ends with the metaphor of the mirrored window world where the media consumers believe themselves to be accessing information openly and outwardly, but instead are regurgitated only algorithmic versions of information already catered to their likes, dislikes, and political leanings. In some ways, it seems important that the originality and bite of Italy’s “Striscia La Notizia” (The News is Spreading) satirical news show and Beppe Grillo’s blog were not data-driven media, that is, there was no predetermined customization or data-mining precipitating their creation, other than usual television ratings or blog views. But they were both examples of important political interventions: the former to critique then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the latter to build a grassroots political movement of the Five Star Movement. Plus, both were art forms insofar as they were driven by the humor and creativity of political actors, navigating a climate of television censorship by the very man they were poking fun at (Berlusconi), on the one hand, and engaging in-person political action vis-a-vis online content. By contrast, the more algorithmic media such as the Five Star Movement’s web portal program known as Rousseau, might mine member data and ideas in ways unknown to users. Perhaps not surprisingly, Luigi Di Maio, one of Five Star’s leaders who served as Co-Deputy Prime Minister, was accused of being a kind of android: chosen and styled according to user preferences from Rousseau. Put differently, the algorithmic regimes of new media fundamentally operate in ways that are buried and opaque to most users, which, in turn, makes it harder to discern their effects. More recently, Italy has also seen a quite intense anti-vax movement during the pandemic, which is likely the product of social media algorithms which funnel users into their own individualized information silos and boost posts because of “engagement” not veracity. The outside world can look so deceptively beautiful even though the forest is just our own faces. Twenty-first century idiom: you can’t see the faces through the forest? 

Jonah Rubin: To me personally, one of the most productively challenging aspects of your book is your analysis of political humor. Many of us see political humor as inherently subversive, a way of mocking and therefore undermining the powerful. But in your book, especially in chapters 1 and 3, you suggest that humor can also breed a kind of political cynicism and even complicity that may reinforce hegemonic power structures. Could you tell us a bit more about your approach to the politics of humor? How should anthropologists and others study the politics of jokes, both the kinds we find funny and the kinds that may horrify us?

Noelle Molé Liston: It is true that I tend to adopt a cynical approach to political humor as my recent analysis of viral videos of Italian mayors funnily admonishing citizens to mask up effectively got laughs because they represented the “thwarted displacement of patriarchy and failed attempts, at every level of governance, to erect robust authoritarian control.” Part of this analytic, of course, is aligned with anthropological investigation of humor and satire as unintentionally bolstering entrenched power structures. It’s hard not to be so cynical when Berlusconi himself, whom I’ve argued won over Italians with his brash humor as a seemingly genuine presentation of an otherwise highly artificial political masquerader, almost had a comeback in his 2022 run for President of the Republic. (He ended up dropping out of the race). I remained concerned that “strong men” like Berlusconi and  Trump use humor to manipulate and garner support, and diffuse criticism, resulting in a destabilization of how political humorists can have, as it were, the last laugh. How can political humor outsmart the absurdist clown? How will algorithmically filtered media consumption (re)shape the humor of consumers and voters?

One strategy might be in the satire of unlikely embodiment. One of Berlusconi’s best impersonators is Sabina Guzzanti, a woman 25-years Berlsconi’s junior who dons wigs and prosthetics to perfect her impression. In this clip, she refers to herself as a woman while in costume as Berlusconi, decrying that “her” failed bid for President was sexist. She is also one of his fiercest critics, especially in her account of his post-earthquake crisis management in L’Aquila. In the US, Sarah Cooper went viral for her videos in which she would lip synch to things Trump said without physically altering her appearance, so it was his voice, but her mouth, face, and body. In both cases, the performances do different kinds of political and symbolic work because of the surprisingly mismatched genders and bodies, which results in tension, long a characteristic of great humor, between laughter and discomfort. There is something powerful and effective about the dissonance of having women, and in Cooper’s case, a woman of color, speak the words of these misogynists that straight jokes and impressions (often by straight men) cannot achieve.

Jonah Rubin: In Chapters 5 and 6, you look at the tensions between scientific prediction and public governance, particularly in the Anthropocene. Here, you focus on the trial of a group of scientists who provide reassurances to the residents of L’Aquila, urging them to stay home prior to what ultimately turns out to be a deadly earthquake. At the time, the international press overwhelmingly presented this story as an irrational attack on science. But you see it as a more profound commentary on the changing role of science in the public sphere. How do shifts in our experience of the climate and in our media landscapes affect the relationship between science, politics, and law?

Noelle Molé Liston: Indeed I argue that the idea that Italians gullibly believe scientists could predict earthquakes helped export the narrative of the trial as anti-science. However, it was more about the form of the press conference which positioned authoritative scientific reassurances to quell the rising panic in L’Aquila. As we confront more acute environmental crises, there will be greater pressure on scientists to predict and manage risk, ascertain damage and crisis management, and weigh in on policy, as we’ve seen during the pandemic. But we don’t yet have a legal framework that might hold non-scientific or even scientific failures accountable. In L’Aquila, the actual non-scientific claim was their reassurance that no big earthquake would come and people should not evacuate. The Italian judiciary tried to make a connection between an authoritative sources’ public utterances and the fatal consequence of this misinformation: the listeners’ death. By contrast, Trump alone issued massive amounts of misinformation about the dangers of Covid but it would be entirely inconceivable, I think, that our judiciary hold him accountable for the resulting deaths.  Why? Because of Trump-era politics or the American justice system, more broadly? How –and where–will the law shift to see misinformation as fatally consequential, legally punishable, or, at least, a public health crisis?

Jonah Rubin: The book centers on the ways fact and fiction are blurred during the Berlusconi and Grillo eras of Italian politics. But to me, the students in my class who read this text, and, I assume, many other readers in the United States will see strong resonances between what you describe in Italy and our own country’s experiences with President Trump and the “post-truth” era that American frequently associated with his rise to power. Of course, the balance between ethnographic specificity and comparison is as old as anthropology itself. With that caveat in mind: What do you see in your argument as particular to Italy and how do you think it applies to our recent and current experiences in the United States and around the world as well?

Noelle Molé Liston: Berlusconi as a precursor to Trump was a kind of historical instruction booklet. I often describe Berlusconi to Americans as “Trump + Bloomberg,” because Berlusconi owned his own media company, which was vital in his 1990s rise to power. However, the structure of Italian television broadcasting, where political parties divvied up news networks, was crucial in the mid-century rise of public cynicism towards television and print media. Ultimately, it sharpened a widely shared Italian assumption that any form of news has a political slant (decades before we were talking about spin). Put simply, the infrastructure of media matters. Most agree that Trump was tipped over the edge not by television masterminding like Berlusconi but because of social media manipulation. To be sure, Italy’s technopopulism of the Five Star Movement will likely expand in the US. Still, Italy seems to have suffered far less democratic backsliding than the United States, and maybe we could read this as hopeful premonition. But the US seems to have “left the chat” in terms of Italian influence. Italy’s fundamental rootedness in its unique mix of Catholic ethics, democratic social welfare, and pro-labor movements has somehow put voting rights and democratic institutions in a better place with respect to the US,with our Protestant ethic, anti-labor, and neoliberal demonization of welfare. Let’s also notice that there was no January 6th in Italy, no violent insurrection of people believing an election was stolen. Despite Italy’s international reputation as an “unstable democracy,” I’d feel more confident about proper counting of votes and the peaceful transfer of power in Italy than I would in our next US presidential election.

Jonah Rubin: This is less of a major point in your book, but on page 88, you note a common thread of political cynicism that ties together the foundational principles of media criticism – and, I would hasten to add, most media literacy education initiatives too  – and the Five Star Movement’s attacks on science and news media, which find clear echoes in other right-wing populist movements around the globe. How do you think media criticism and education might be contributing to the deterioration of a shared epistemology? And might you have any suggestions on how media criticism and education need to shift in response to populist political movements which sound disturbingly close to their foundational insights? 

Noelle Molé Liston: Just as the left needs to thread the needle in terms of science as I mentioned earlier, so, too, do well- intentioned plans for media literacy begin to sound like Trump’s refrain of referring to The New York Times as “fake news.” The problem is that people have lost an ability to discern between positioned information and misinformation. Plus, our regime of algorithmic newsfeeds just can’t handle the nuance.  Just as postmodern theories of multiple, contested truth escalated to, or were perceived as, forms of absolute moral nihilism, so, too, has some healthy epistemological skepticism quickly become a truth vacuum. It reminds me of a moment when my student said she found statistics about police violence against Blacks on a white supremacist website. Why? I asked, horrified. She said it was because she trusted their information precisely because their anti-Black positionality was overt.  We find this same mentality that makes Trump, one of the biggest liars and con-artists on the world’s stage, become trusted by his followers: the trust in manifest and easily legible opinions. What results, then, is greater trust in overtly positioned information sources like Fox News, and lesser trust in the vast majority of information mediums where the positionality is more complex, covert or semi-covert, and paradoxical. Media criticism and education needs to instruct on literacy practices where knowledge might be seen as positioned and framed, and move away from a binary of biased versus unbiased media. We also need to raise awareness about how information is algorithmically processed and customized to the user. Finally, we must recognize how corporate media regimes deliberately design decoys (eg. clickbait, customized ads) and mechanisms of addiction  (eg. the no-refresh scroll function, TikTok) to keep data surveillance and its vast monetization for the benefit of astonishingly few people in place.

Adam Hodges on his book, When Words Trump Politics

Cover of When Words Trump Politics by Adam Hodges

Interview by Yeon-Ju Bae

Yeon-Ju Bae: Now that the Trump presidency ended, what can we still learn from the past years, during which responsibilities were denied and realities were distorted? As we discuss the ways in which responsibilities are distributed and performed in political discourse, what would be our responsibility as members of the broader society? What did it mean for you to examine Trumpian discourse and performance? Did you encounter any difficulties in doing so? What role do you hope your book would play in the post-Trump era and beyond?

Adam Hodges: I had been teaching overseas during the 2016 campaign and when the November election was called for Trump in the United States. A majority of my students were Muslims studying at our branch campus of an American university. They planned to visit the United States for part of their studies and now those plans were put into doubt – not only due to Trump’s promise of a “Muslim ban” and subsequent executive order that limited visas for passport holders of certain Muslim-majority countries, but they also had genuine doubts about how they would be received against the backdrop of the hateful rhetoric spread by a US president.

I felt that my responsibility, as someone who studies political discourse, was to shed light on Trump’s spurious language use. I think the impetus for much of my scholarly work is a desire to better understand what seems so antithetical to my own worldview. What is the appeal of someone like Trump who strikes me and others as a transparent grifter? What gives the invidious claims of a reality TV personality enough power to put him into the White House? In writing the essays that eventually went into the book, I was trying to make sense of this new regime of language while hoping my analyses might provide others with some tools to do the same.

On one level, I was writing for anthropologists and scholars interested in political discourse; but on another level, I wanted to speak to an educated non-academic audience – the type of reader that subscribes to The Atlantic or reads The New York Times. Linguistic anthropology and related disciplines have amassed a broad array of scholarship that is directly relevant to unpacking language use in our society at this moment in time. I believe sharing that knowledge and bringing it to bear on our wider public dialogue is important. I think all scholars hold a certain responsibility to not only seek greater understandings, but to share those understandings with others outside the discipline – classroom teaching and sharing our disciplinary insights with non-specialists pursuing a liberal arts education is one way to do that.

With the book, one pitfall I hoped to avoid was to analyze Trumpian politics without inadvertently feeding them, without simply stoking the outrage. I wanted to leave readers with understanding rather than outrage. I think framing the points in each essay around scholarly concepts helps with that, at least to an extent – so as to avoid being strictly polemical pieces about Trump. At the same time, the essays are also a form of political writing. My stance isn’t hidden behind a veil of supposed neutrality. I’m a scholar writing about my own society where I seek to critique the workings of power and abuses that I see.

Whether scholarly interventions into our collective understanding of the Trump phenomenon impart lasting lessons remains to be seen. I would like to believe, as your question presupposes, that we’ve moved into a “post-Trump era.” But I think in many ways, we’re not there yet. Trump’s power is necessarily reduced by virtue of no longer being president, but he still holds sway over the Republican party. I hope my book will play a role in providing a toolkit to disarm the spurious appeal of future right-wing populists, while its focus on Trump remains but a historical case study. But the political discourse in 2024 may feel more familiar than we’d like if he runs again; and, if he doesn’t, the discourse around the election will still be shaped and framed around the legacy we inherited from his time in office.

Yeon-Ju Bae: The referentialist language ideology comes into play at different points in the book, such as the way it underpins Jane Hill’s critique of the individualist understanding of racism that you discuss in chapter 8. On the other hand, on page 28, the referentialist language ideology and truth-telling subjects appear to be the basis for democracy, which Trump doesn’t fulfill by lacking factual integrity. I was wondering if you could elaborate on how Trump performs or deforms the referentialist language ideology in creating and staging his own reality.

Adam Hodges: As Sue Gal (2005) points out, “language ideologies are never only about language;” they also “provide insights into the working of ideologies more generally.” Similarly, Hill (2008) notes that “linguistic ideologies shape and constrain discourse, and thus shape and constrain the reproduction of other kinds of ideologies.” Language ideologies enter into discourse in a way that not only serves local interactional purposes, but they also mediate between those local interactional contexts and social structures writ large – a point elaborated on by Paul Kroskrity (2004) in his discussion of language ideologies. This is a crucial point: the idea that language ideologies can serve interested political positions and bolster other types of ideologies. In addition to applying this idea to the discussion of racism, I also touch on this in chapter 10 where I discuss how judges selectively choose and ignore different language ideologies to justify judicial philosophies.

In US public discourse about racism, as Hill details, a few different language ideologies work together to reproduce the dominant racial ideology. The referentialist ideology (Silverstein 1976), which holds that the function of language is primarily to convey information, contributes to the idea that meaning resides in words themselves, so that words are viewed as “containers” of information that are “sent” from one speaker to another, as discussed by Michael Reddy (1979) in his critique of the conduit metaphor. Referentialism can bolster the dominant racial ideology in instances where racist words are uttered; the words are seen as a vehicle of racist intensions, which becomes the focus of controversies that allow discussants to isolate racism in individuals who use the words. So referentialism is often accompanied by the language ideology of personalism (Rosaldo 1981), which locates meaning in the beliefs and intentions of the speaker. Personalism can bolster the dominant racial ideology by emphasizing that speakers who utter racist words hold the beliefs and intentions of a racist. Together, these language ideologies fold nicely into the dominant racial ideology by emphasizing that racism is a matter of, to quote Hill (2008), “individual beliefs, intentions, and actions.” In other words, these language ideologies are often harnessed in public discourse about racism to reproduce the dominant racial ideology that individualizes racism while erasing its system-wide patterns of operation within society.

As you note, the language ideology of referentialism also underpins the discourse about truth telling and how factual integrity, as you say, represents a normative ideal for democratic governance. We expect our political leaders to adhere to this ideal, at least in principle even if they stray in practice; and when they do stray in practice, we expect them to engage in subsequent acts of contrition or make excuses that nevertheless reinforce a referentialist foundation for their words. Most US presidents have more or less operated by these unwritten rules of democratic discourse, but then Trump came along to seemingly create and stage his own reality by somehow operating outside what Jane Hill (2000) has termed the “discourse of truth.”

At the end of chapter 2, which you cite in your question, I focus on how Trump’s disregard for factual integrity works to “typify” a worldview. By that, I mean he paints a compelling depiction of the world that resonates with the worldview of Trumpian conservativism. In this way, his statements come to be judged by his core supporters in terms of their ideological fidelity rather than their factual fidelity, by how well they reinforce what they already believe to be true about the world – by what conforms to that preconceived worldview – regardless of the empirical veracity of the claims.

So on one level, we could say that Trump’s factually challenged statements about everything from immigration to election results perform political work by drawing from referentialism to shift or affirm what his core supporters accept as true. But on another level, the showmanship, or as Hall, Goldstein, and Ingram (2016) discuss, the “entertainment value” of his performances allow his discourse to operate on a different, even if sometimes overlapping, level that revolves around performative acts designed to impress rather than deceive per se. Marco Jacquemet (2000) makes this point in his analysis of Trumpian discourse, discerning between “lying” (which, for the purpose of our discussion here, relies on the foundation of referentialism) and “bullshitting,” which, following Harry Frankfurt’s (2005) dissection of the concept, is done without any concern for truth. From this perspective, Trump as a “bullshit artist” (the phrase Jacquemet uses in the title of his article) deforms the referentialist language ideology, to use your phrasing in the question. I think your use of the word “deforms” is an apt description here, because it really disfigures or alters the referentialist foundation of democratic discourse that drives many Trump critics mad. As I discuss in chapter 6, much of the mainstream political press’s obsession with fact-checking rests on this referentialist foundation and went into overdrive after Trump’s election in an attempt to correct the factual record and uphold the normative democratic ideals that Trump violates.

In chapter 3, I take a different approach than Jacquemet and draw from Hill’s (2000) distinction between the “discourse of truth” and the “discourse of theater” to explore how Trump’s statements during the 2016 campaign were filtered through diverging interpretive frames. The “discourse of truth,” as mentioned earlier relies on referentialism and the correspondence theory of truth whereby a politician’s statements are evaluated in terms of how they correspond to an actual state of affairs in the world. If they correspond, they are seen as true. If not, they can be deemed “lies” if, drawing from the language ideology of personalism, the speaker intends to deceive. This is the interpretive lens through which the political press and many of Trump’s critics view his statements.

But the “discourse of theater,” as Hill elaborates, draws from the poetic function of language as opposed to the referential function, dramatically enacting a “message” in the sense of a familiar theme that resonates with voters – not so much because of its informative dimensions, but because of its emotional “penetration.” My point in that chapter is that these different interpretive lenses helped create an interesting mismatch between the way Trump’s statements were often given a pass (when viewed through the discourse of theater) while Clinton’s statements led to evaluations of her as somehow more dishonest and untrustworthy than Trump (when viewed through the discourse of truth).

Yeon-Ju Bae: I was intrigued by your usage of “alternative” as it was employed to refer to the Trumpian conspiracy narratives, because the word “alternative” seems to have been commonly raised by non-hegemonic less powerful groups against the normative. While Trump occupied the White House and had the administrative power, how could his viewpoint be yet regarded as illegitimate and alternative?

Adam Hodges: That’s a fascinating question. I admittedly didn’t think through all the connotations of the word “alternative,” as you’ve laid out here. My use of that word probably says more about my own standpoint and positionality in the society I’m writing about. The resistance to Trump’s election and subsequent actions as president mobilized a large swath of the electorate, including not just the usual liberal critics but also never-Trump conservatives. This created the widely held perspective that Trump’s presidency was anything but part of the normative powers that typically run the government. So, from that perspective, many of Trump’s actions, including his embrace of fringe figures, like Alex Jones, and harmful conspiracy theories, could be said to fall outside the normative constellation of presidential behaviors and comportment.  

It’s true, as you suggest, that Trump’s occupation of the White House elevated his symbolic power, providing momentum to the propagation of what would otherwise be considered peripheral or “alternative” narratives. To the extent that Trump’s position in the White House helped to legitimize the unconventional and shift it into the realm of the conventional; then I could see how the term “alternative” would be out of place. But I think any movement of norms during his presidency remained partial and incomplete. If anything, his role and response to the events of January 6th has even elevated his status – for those other than his core base of supporters – as someone seen as an illegitimate steward of the public trust. So I think we can recognize how the office of the presidency imbued Trump with a certain amount of power while also continuing to view his actions in propagating fringe ideas as standing outside the mainstream.

Now, I realize there are many ways his ideas represent the continuation of mainstream ways of thinking and governing. The prime example is his embrace of White supremacy. As discussed earlier, Trump’s views on race and racism are a continuation of the dominant racial ideology, which perpetuates a racialized social system that shapes how privileges are awarded or denied. The only difference is that Trump’s embrace of this ideology has been more overt and explicit than what came to be expected of politicians after the civil rights era. As Ian Haney-López (2014) discusses, contemporary political discourse about race is often implicitly conveyed through “dog whistles.” Although Trump does plenty of dog whistling, he has also helped elevate the popularity of White supremacist groups and a resurgence in overt acts of racial violence. Jonathan Rosa (2020) makes a powerful argument for the way we shouldn’t necessarily see Trump as a deviation from the normal.

Another way of approaching your question is to consider the way the word “alternative” fits into the myth that Trump and his team have cultivated for him as a supposed outsider. This theme is nothing new in US politics. Nearly every politician running for national office wants to claim the status of outsider, someone representative of the metaphorical heartland and common American, who goes to Washington to serve but remains outside the entrenched power interests of the elite establishment. Trump plays this part well with his brand of populism. Perhaps the use of the word “alternative” plays into this message, as well. I’ll let you decide.

Works Cited

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism without Racists. Rowman & Littlefield.

Coates, Ta-Nahisi. 2015. Between the World and Me. Random House.

Frankfurt, Harry. 2005. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press.

Gal, Susan. 2005. “Language Ideologies Compared: Metaphors of Public/Private.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15(1): 23-37.

Hall, Kira; Donna Meryl Goldstein; and Matthew Bruce Ingram. 2016. “The Hands of Donald Trump: Entertainment, Gesture, Spectacle.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6(2): 71-100.

Haney López, Ian. 2014. Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Wrecked the Middle Class. Oxford University Press.

Hill, Jane. 2000. “‘Read My Article’: Ideological Complexity and the Overdetermination of Promising in American Presidential Politics.”  In Regimes of Language, Paul Kroskrity (ed.), 259-292. Santa Fe: School of American Research.

Hill, Jane H. 2008. The Everyday Language of White Racism. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Jacquemet, Marco. 2000. “45 as a Bullshit Artist: Straining for Charisma.” In Janet McIntosh and Norma Mendoza-Denton (eds.) Language in the Trump Era: Scandals and Emergencies, 124-136. Cambridge University Press.

Kroskrity, Paul. 2004. “Language Ideologies.”  In A. Duranti (ed.) A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, 496-517. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Reddy, Michael. 1979. “The Conduit Metaphor: A Case of Frame Conflict in Our Language About Language.”  In Metaphor and Thought, Anthony Ortony (ed.), 164-201. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rosa, Jonathan. 2020. “Communicating Crisis: Getting Back to Whose Normal?” Talking Politics: Anthropologists and Linguists Analyze the 2020 Election. Public forum hosted by the University of Chicago, University of Colorado, and Society for Linguistic Anthropology.

Rosaldo, Michelle. 1981. “The Things We Do With Words: Ilongot Speech Acts and Speech Act Theory in Philosophy.”  Language in Society 11: 203-237.

Silverstein, Michael. 1976. “Shifters, Linguistic Categories, and Cultural Description.”  In Meaning in Anthropology, Keith Basso and Henry Selby (eds.), 11-55. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Smedley, Audrey. 2007, March 14-17. “The History of the Idea of Race…And Why It Matters.” Paper presented at the conference, “Race, Human Variation and Disease: Consensus and Frontiers,” sponsored by the American Anthropological Association. Warrenton, VA.

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

Interview by Elayne Oliphant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bbImage result

Interview by Micol Seigel

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?