What can be an anthropological view on politicians not really governing, legislating or administrating states but rather playing theatrical roles or even worse poker games among them through the media ?

Recent incidents related to the World's financial crisis and especially the European debt crisis, bring serious evidences that the ''political scene'' is mostly theatrical. Anthropology has contributed much on  theatrical rituals , what's about the new politico-theatrical ones ?

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Nikos, do you have any particular approaches in mind? I, of course, instantly think of V. Turner's "social drama" approach, in which social and political conflict are explicitly likened to theater. As in a play, something is needed to set the play in motion, a breach of shared values. The ensuing conflict escalates until (1) the issue is resolved and renewed solidarity ritually celebrated or (2) the breach proves irreparable and things fall apart. 

At the level of broad outlines, this sort of framework is easy to apply, for example, to the role of Greece in the current Eurozone financial crisis. A nation-state defaulting on its debts is the breach. As the plot thickens, battles rage over who is at fault and what should be done. The likely outcomes appear to be a chastened Greece restored to responsible membership in the European community or an irreparable breach in which Greece leaves the Eurozone and returns to its own currency—all of which is only the start of a wider breach that may come to include Spain, Italy.....leading ultimately to the collapse of European regionalism and, possibly, the crashing of the global economic order on the way.

The devil, of course, is in the details. And here the anthropologist would have to know a lot more about who's who and the distribution of interests and conflicts in Europe than this anthropologist does. Being on the spot, as it were, can you give us a hand with this?

I suppose the question is, "Whose hubris? Whose nemesis?" Global finance? Europe? Greece? Particular politicians? What of the populace that enjoyed the modern equivalent of bread and circuses (a Roman image, not Greek, I know)? 


Or does each of these players have its own hubris? And a corresponding nemesis? Is it all one big thing? Or a sudden convergence, with lots of different bad habits hitting a tipping point?



A 'nomad' is someone who shares (responsibilities) - fascinating. Geertz' Theatre State has for a long time been how nationality is experienced in countries in the south where there is no workable control over financial operations: that situation is now being shared everywhere. Arguably, all this is pushing toward forms of (initially) global financial regulation that will hasten the emergence of civil institutions - a world (theatre?) state of a kind.
As I recall, what Geertz had in mind was the pomp and circumstance that surrounded Southeast Asian kings who were regarded as incarnations of Hindu deities, a rather different kind of theater from the Saturday Night Live or Yes Minister comedy to which we are becoming accustomed: don't know whether to laugh or cry as opposed to collective effervescence or deep catharsis. Theater is one of those lovely metaphors that become more interesting when we try to figure out what sort of play is in question.
The point of comparison is that in Java as in these other settings the amount of huff and puff is inversely related to the actual leverage the politicians have. That is, if we accept Geertz' argument.
In the nightmare of the dark 
All the dogs of Europe bark, 
And the living nations wait, 
Each sequestered in its hate;
After the "bluff" an agreement looks like coming ... So it was an ingenious "bluff"! Or it was simply an ordered "bluff" from the big players, not the pappets!

Huon,is that your own poem? If so, congratulations.

No, sorry; WH Auden! (1939)


Puppet theatre. Nomads. I can see the theatrical state versus a realisable political agency, but I am less convinced that, even if various constituents have more leverage and gain more (the agencies, the hedge funds) that they are the real agents 'holding the strings'.

Dear all,

First time around. My name is Filippo and I am a University College London anthropology graduate.

Nikos, I am very interested in the topic you raised as it was the subject of my dissertation. I am Italian as you might have understood. At parliament and during press conferences, Berlusconi used to refer to the "puppet theatre of politics" in moments of dissatisfaction (he never hid his state of feeling, when sad, depressed, joyful or annoyed).

The issue I tackled, however (and I think this might sound too desecrating for the ones the most politically involved), is based on what we, as people (living in the West?) see as serious and what else we consider as playful. I strongly suggest Richard Sennett's 'The Fall of Public Man' on this topic, especially his genealogy of the separation between 'true self' and 'staged self'. The point of interest for us, I think, is the dualistic separation between reality and fiction. Generally speaking, we attach the notions of seriousness and realism to political actors, while fiction is relegated to 'separate spheres', as Vic Turner and Erwin Goffman theorized. So the move I think we need to do is to rethink the reasons why we would find it hard to prove that theater and politics go together. Because they clearly do, remember Nixon's Watergate speech, or recently Obama's joke about Sarkozy's baby at the recent G20?

I personally analyzed Berlusconi's theatrical performance as it helps thinking of what politics in the end is. Geertz, Turner, Schieffelin, Fabian, but also Navaro-Yashin, Lawrence Rosen ("Bargaining for Reality") and most crucially Michael Taussig (The Magic of the State) and Michael Herzfield on Greek villagers propose incredibly useful insights. Herzfeld introduces the idea of performance of manhood, meaning "being good at being a man". This turns back to the idea that there is no "before" and "after" being a man; the notion of self is based on constant readjustment and repetition. Now, I think it is the very notion of integrated self that prevents us from considering political reality as a carefully staged scene. Thinking that there is a 'deep' sense to the self, separates the field of the 'superficial', the stagedness of behaviors, and consequentially everything that 'looks' performed is divested of a meaningful sense.

Berlusconi was for me a very interesting case because he both staged himself and his anti-self. He knew well what sort of satirical observations people and opponents addressed him, how to mimic them and send them back to sender. All while staging the Berlusconi everybody expected him to be: playful, embarrassing, a womanizer and, as they he calls himself "the great communicator".

The picture on a global scale gets more and more confused due to our difficulty in understanding what is real and what is less real. I remain convinced that essentially things have not changed with the new media. The point is to see how can our embedded cosmology change in order to deconstruct the seriousness/playfulness divide, which is causing a lot of difficulty in understanding political performances as both theater and reality.


I got carried away I know...hope this will provoke some other ideas though.

Filippo's wonderful post persuaded me to lurk on this thread no more. I recall a culture show on Arte long ago where Alain Robbe-Grillet was being quizzed about a film he wrote, Last Year In Marienbad. A man tries to persuade Delphine Seyrig that they were together at the same spa hotel a year ago. A bunch of intellectuals and journalists tried to get him to explain the rather elusive story. Then one of them cried "I know! They were ghosts who had been killed there before!" Robbe-Grillet said, "I find it interesting that you all need to know what really happened."

These men were heirs to a rupture between fact and fiction that has a precise date, 1840, when William Whewell published The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, founded upon their history in which he coined the word 'scientist'. He proposed that scientific truth could only be arrived at by putting the maximum distance between observer and observed. Comte's general book on positivism was written in 1844, but the English-speakers pioneered a gulf between fact and fiction that took hold less strongly elsewhere, even if it was universally influential.

Edgar Allan Poe fought this trend desperately. He considered fiction to be a higher calling than mere fact-gathering. After all, God makes things up. He played hoaxes, rather like Sokal's not long ago, of which the most notorious was a newspaper article announcing the first Atlantic crossing in a hot-air balloon.

My point is that this rupture is now being healed or at least muddied. Since the 80s it has become increasingly untenable to draw a hard line between fact and fiction. And in my view the greatest social theorist of all time was Shakespeare. Only the positivist theologians would deny that life is a game and the world its theatre. I would ask the die-hard realists, what makes you think that Berlusconi is special?

Fillipo, allow me to add my compliments to Keith's and add a book to your bibliography. Frances Fitzgerald was a journalist writing about the Vietnam War. In Fire in the Lake she suggests that th tragedy of the war was due in part to Americans and Vietnamese having diametrically opposed ideas about seriousness. The Americans, she said, see seriousness in Shakespear's terms, "To thine own self be true." The Vietnamese, she said, see seriousness in Confucian terms, as fulfilling the obligations incumbent on one's social role regardless of personal feelings. To them, "To thine own self be true" is a recipe for chaos.

This account of cultural difference can, of course, be criticized as stereotyping orientalism. One can point out large segments of American culture, e.g., the military and quasi-military corporate subcultures in which role performance is rated a higher value than doing your own thing. In critiques of theater and film, the question of whether the actor should become the role or maintain some distance from it is a live issue. Celebrity depends in large part on maintaining enough separation so that going to see, for example, John Gielgud's Hamlet was supposed to be something special, different from other Hamlets.

Anyway, the topic is a rich and fertile one. The energy and fresh thought you bring to it is very refreshing as well.

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