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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John, Keith


I am simply fascinated by the punctuality of your comments, but more importantly charmed by your ease in drawing literary elements that do not pertain to anthropological research in order to enrich anthropological research. Nikos's thread is clearly based on the anthropological assumption, I feel, that there is a folk understanding to be clarified and questioned. And this folk conception is that "omg how's that I feel like thinking that politicians are acting while they should take care of our democracies?" sort of feeling. Even my father thinks that politics is both theater and serious stuff. The point I would really like to make is that this ambivalence does not make politicians less real or serious. But as a counter-mirror reflex, I see that while this observation makes sense, it carries with itself a logical uncertainty. For everyday intuition says yes, politics and theatre, why not, while critical thinking and social science terminology and concerns bitterly smile at this metaphorical attempt. The issue at hand here, as you John and Keith have clearly exposed, is that fact and fiction are ultimately a fictional separation. But why is that in a subject like anthropology (contrarily to literature) people get stiff in front of such reasoning, or at least they require a logical argumentation? It seems to me that this topic, for as exciting as it might sound, results from a literary difficulty encountered by anthropology in thinking its own assumptions. In cases such as these I can still feel the incompleteness of the literary turn and the smell of science still staining the discipline.

Any thought on this, or am I just being up too late?


John McCreery said:

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.

Fillipo, I am charmed by the compliments. Less so by the proposition that "fact and fiction are ultimately a fictional separation." I might go as far as fact and fiction are both social constructions. That does not, however, make them both fictional. Facts are grounds for action, in sport, law, and engineering, even at times religion. Fictions are not. They may suggest a view of things that—only if accepted as fact—might lead to action. They do not warrant action, in and of themselves. 

The questions that arise given this distinction have to do with whether propositions asserted as facts are, in fact, fictions, "let's pretend" statements that, depending on context may be tactful, jokes,  spin (in a PR sense), or outright lies. The outrage implicit in accusing a modern politician of "playing" politics or "acting" (theatrically) instead of "acting" (properly) is appropriate when the politician is pretending to do something, knowing full well that it will not happen or does not accord with reality. 

But, reverting to something I said in response to Nikos earlier, this is a very different sense of "theater" from that displayed in traditional theater states, in which ritual and court ceremonial were held to embody cosmic truths, the most basic facts of all, at least to those concerned about their performance. "Political theater" in that sense relates to what we now mean by "political theater" in a way that recalls what Marx said about revolutions: they come around the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. 


The reason why academic anthropologists get nervous when confronted with the notion that social life is a game or theatre where fiction and fact are imbricated in each other is that, in order to justify a place in the universities, they had to pretend to be scientists.

An undergraduate essay was usually based on treating an ethnography like E-P's The Nuer as something outside contemporary world history (the British were bombing them at the time of his fieldwork, so the Nuer made him camp outside their settlements) and as unquestionable fact, all you need to write an essay on the Nuer.

For a number of years I taught a course, Voices from the Third World. Its premise was that the biggest thing that happened in the twentieth century was that peoples forced into world society during the nineteenth century by Western imperialism struggled to find their own independent relationship to it in the twentieth through an anti-colonial revolution. I was aware that my own anthropological training made me ill-prepared to discuss this and I wanted to teach students to make their own connection to this history. The problem is that anthropologists had not studied the anti-colonial revolution as such (with rare exceptions like Eric Wolf and David Lan) and the people involved directly in it were not usually themselves anthropologists. They wrote histories, political tracts, novels and autobiographies. So how to teach anthropology through this material?

The students were immediately anxious. The novels I asked them to read by Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie were fictions. Their authors made them up! How could a student know if what was in them was true or not (meaning that what is in ethnographies is taken for gospel truth)? What is the relationship betyween a work of fiction and the world it depicts? You can ask the same question of an ethnography, but students were not encouraged to be critical then. I developed a method for describing the world evoked by the novel to be analyzed in its own terms. If development is about making a better world, works of fiction can show us the different ways writers make up worlds in microcosm. And this method could be applied to ethnographies by way of comparison.

The main point is that I told the students that they had to learn to use their own critical judgment and could not read ethnographies as if they were the result of scientific experiments. In other words, this approach to anthropology was commonplace in the humanities, but discouraged in academic anthropology. Fortunately the movement begun by Clifford and Marcus's Writing Culture (1986 -- they just celebrated their 25th anniversity at Duke) had opened up such a critical space within anthropology. But it was hard to get the message across, harder still for the students to practise it. But they enjoyed the lectures, with movie clips and all kinds of cool stuff.

One more anecdote. Around 1950 UNESCO was recruiting anthropologists for a book on race. Levi-Strauss and several prominent Americans took part, but the British abstained. Their reason was that anthropology was a scientific discourse and should not engage with "controversial" topics. This political legacy also had to be overcome and may not have been. Perhaps that is another reason why the public hears so little from anthropologists these days.

Bravo, Nikos: for inventing this thread, for provoking such luminous contributions, including from newcomers like Filippo and Michelangelo, for introducing these brilliant literary remarks, for supporting my opinion of Shakespeare and for bringing the drama of contemporary Europe into such sharp relief.

There is no conspiracy behind the euro crisis. It is a Sophoclean tragedy in which the main actors can do nothing else than bring on their own demise. The Oedipus of this story is the German people who have been rightly demonised by many Greeks for their duplicity, self-righteousness and neocolonialism. The Germans will come round eventually and bring their considerable resources fully behind trying to save the eurozone. But they will fail because this is not a debt crisis; it's a currency crisis. The euro was invented as a central bank single currency at a time when money was becoming something else, a global distributed network of mutliple issuers of a great variety of specialised monetary instruments, not just governments and banks. And the real act of hubris was the Maastricht treaty of 1992, not long after the collapse of the Soviet empire persuaded many people in the West that capitalist markets had won the Cold War. This meant that politics was no longer relevant and could be made to follow market imperatives, with the immediate result of handing over the Russian economy to gangsters and the long-term result of priming Europe for this debacle.

Nikos, I do agree with the idea that political scientists do need a theatrical twist, but as a man of skepticism, I believe that there is not just space for the anthropologist, surely not for the academic anthropologist. I am sure that political scientists are much more accustomed to the paradox of acting for the sake of 'realizing', and that this is actually a prerequisite, as I think we know, in order to be a politician. Or maybe we Italians are just convinced that anyone occupying a position of power is a liar.

The nerve of the discussion we're having is based on the assumption that we all believe in the idea of democracy and that this idea is somehow sacred. Paradoxically, I think that acknowledging the theatre of politics brings you closer to your duties as a citizen demanding transparency and fairness. Interestingly enough, looking at the discrepancy between, say, Italy and the UK, I see Italian citizens having a more pragmatic attitude towards politics, while the English seem to me to be more 'idealist'. This is precisely due to the fact that Italians look at the UK as an example of "state control democracy" while they see Italy as a genuine democracy which hasn't found honest politicians as yet --yes, a non-performer, an intrinsically good guy.

So our perspective on democracy as, say, Southern Europeans, is based on the conviction that there should be a democracy somewhere somehow, as soon as people get their civil sense back in shape. Western Europe is now learning from the Berlusconi's so-called 'soft authoritarianism' that it is easier to bring reform in the name of democracy rather than through democracy. And what this democracy is, sorry, but I know not. What seems to me, however, is that the idea of democracy is proving to be strong enough to recruit forces in defense of it, while the parts involved are clashing against each other, i.e. the Occupy movements against bankers (both advocating the need to maintain democracy--but they're talking past each other??), and the same with the dichotomy Berlusconi-Monti. Berlusconi did not want to step down as he had the 'mandate of the people', while Monti asserts his capacity of bringing the situation 'back to normal'. I think we all believed in democracy as a processual element, and not as a 'bottom line'. This has to do with our philosophical foundations, and for as radical as we think we are, our tendency (especially as learned people) would always be to resort to the safe bottom line.

Theatre and play, as I intend them in its relation with politics, is much closer to the idea of democracy than seriousness and transparency, as democracy is intrinsically performed and processual. Democracy is a bit like cheating, as unfortunately it is based on the notion of 'representation'; isn't theatre based on that idea too? Just that we all believe that bottom line is democracy, even if the bottom line is the people. The parallel between democracy and theatre could not be more fruitful than in a time like this, so to unveil the aura of stability and essentialism we attached to the idea of democracy. If we're having the economic problems we're having, it's because we practically and philosophically believed in the stability of an idea. Practically, with consumerism and financial markets; philosophically, with the idea that democracy 'is the way'.

Theatre, again, is a good metaphor for anthropologists as much as for anybody else. The point of confusion is, however, based on the fact that one is supposed to be real and the other fictional. I push the notion a little bit further--probably democracy developed the way it did because public engagement is everyday performance (in the street, with colleagues, with friends) that people don't want to take up in moments of privacy. As privacy increased, public engagement as performance decreased, democracy as a concept arose so to establish that 'performing' ought to be for another, separate, imaginative field.

In actual fact, performance is the core of politics. But as we hold on to the idea of democracy, and democracy is the suspension of performance to favor 'objective' representation, fiction has no space of appearing in the domain of hard core reality. And I think that is one of the many successful tricks that are not necessarily wrong, but that will soon be subject to philosophical revision.

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