Boyer and Yurchak, 2010
Dominic Boyer and Alexei Yurchak
INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHORS
Dominic Boyer, Associate Professor at Rice University, and Alexei Yurchak, Associate Professor at UC Berkeley, met with Jessica Lockrem, Graduate Student at Rice University, to discuss their article “American Stiob: Or, What Late Socialist Aesthetics of Parody Reveal About Contemporary Political Culture in the West,” published in the May 2010 volume of Cultural Anthropology. Below is a partial transcript of the discussion.
Jessica Lockrem: To begin, I was hoping you could both share some background to this article. How does this project relate to your earlier work? And, how did you come to work on this project together?
Dominic Boyer: I think the conversation first got started when, after I read Alexei’s book, I realized we had, without really knowing of each other’s work, both produced ethnographies of last socialism and late socialist ideology. We discovered each other’s work at about the same time, which was wonderful because there were a lot of parallels in terms of the phenomena we were studying, but we had developed very different analytical languages and methods to engage the phenomena. So, it was an interesting parallel discovery. I was very interested reading the chapter of Alexei’s book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More where he talks about the aesthetic responses to hypernormalization of ideology in late socialism (Yurchak 2006). The one thing that really caught my attention was stiob because it seemed so familiar to me. I saw what he was talking about in late socialism, but I also saw that there was a whole host of analogies or family resemblances to phenomena you could find in late liberal society, too. So, we began to talk about that. And, out of that came a process of questioning. How could this be the case? Can we find evidence of hypernormalization of discourse in late liberalism? If so, why? That was how it got started. Alexei, what would you add to that?
Alexei Yurchak: It’s a similar story on my side. The first thing I read by Dominic was his article “Censorship as Vocation,” (Boyer 2003) which appeared in the same issue of Comparative Studies in Society and History in 2003 as an article I wrote (Yurchak 2003). Both pieces considered some conditions under which political discourse in late socialism was produced. There were clear parallels in our concerns with mediated political discourse in that context and formal devices that were specific to its structure and circulation. Then I read Dominic’s book Spirit and System, and was really interested in the media angle of his analysis, in his focus on journalism and on how after German reunification the socialist form of media was being reinterpreted into a capitalist form of media (Boyer 2005). Then we participated in some conference panels together, which is a common route to starting a collaborative project. A joint project gradually emerged during our conversations at these conferences. Since we live in different cities, the actual writing of the paper happened partially on email and skype, but a substantive part was written when we met several times in DC and worked for hours at the Busboys and Poets café there.
Also, since you asked about the background to this piece, I’d like to add that in the 1980s, in St. Petersburg, Russia I worked closely with several informal musical and theater groups. That was before I came to the U.S. as a doctoral student in anthropology in 1990. Some of my understanding about various ironic and political strategies in late socialist context is indebted to those artists’ work and thinking.
JL: The essay states that stiob is characterized by an overidentification with the person or idea at which it is directed and that it is often impossible to tell if stiob is sincere support, ridicule, or a mixture of the two. What part does reception play in stiob? Does it matter if the audience misinterprets what is meant to be parody and critique and instead interprets it as sincerity?
DB: This is a question we’ve encountered. One reaction we came up against in the reviews of the article was the question of reception. There is a tendency to downplay the significance of these sorts of interventions by saying, “This is just an elite practice by an avant-garde group of intellectuals, and only people who are savvy and in-the-know are going to be able to respond to this, anyway.” The review process for Cultural Anthropology was extraordinarily positive and encouraging throughout, but that was one of the things that we had to respond to the most in revisions, as I recall. We needed to reframe the argument a bit on that point to make it clear that this is not something that is limited to a bohemian caste of artists.
AY: This is exactly right. This phenomenon should not be dismissed as simply an elitist practice in small informal communities of intellectuals and artists. Because, as we show, even in late socialist period when media was controlled by the state, stiob could still take place in public venues and in mass media. We thought that the examples we chose were important precisely because they managed to circulate through official state channels. It is this ability of the irony of overidentification to disseminate itself through official institutions and channels of the state that gives it particular strength.
As for the reception: on one level it’s important whether the audience interprets a political statement as parody or as sincere rhetoric. However, a stiob intervention can be successful with either of these interpretations. In some examples that we give - the Yes Men or state-socialist examples – the audience originally did not recognize the statements as parody, taking them at face value. At first this seems to be very different with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert – their acts are recognized as parody because they are on Comedy Central. However, even in the cases when stiob is initially mistaken for a sincere statement, there is always another moment later on, when that statement is recognized as parody or when the hoax is exposed. This later moment is also part of the stiob procedure. So, whether stiob is recognized as parody right away or much later on it may still be subversive. This is why at this stage we didn’t focus too much on the audience. We do talk about the audience somewhat – how many people watch Jon Stewart and Colbert, etc. But, we are more interested at this point in how looking at stiob may reveal certain principles of the dominant discourses, of socialist state or corporate media - such principles as the emphasis on the formal devices of representation rather than literal meanings, hypernormalization, performative shift, and so on.
DB: The one thing I would add is that one of the fascinating things about this is that even in the case of Colbert– Stewart it’s clear the satirical moment, but we also don’t describe Stewart as doing stiob exactly, he’s doing something different – but Colbert is more of a stiob-esque type of performer. They’ve done these studies, we mention it briefly in the paper, that over half of political conservatives who watch Colbert take him literally as a populist. They don’t think of him as a comedian. I was just teaching this in my media class and there was a student who came from a conservative family who said that her father and older brother watch Colbert and find him hilarious and they don’t think of him as being a liberal or a leftist. It’s this interesting ambiguity that stiob can inhabit that makes it so effective. It allows stiob to have a different political, critical intervention than a more literal oppositional politics would.
AY: I think that’s exactly right. The ironic procedure allows you to occupy a political position that transcends the for/against kind of binary or the leftist/rightist binary. It can step outside of this paradigm and comment on the political field as a whole, without necessarily even being sure of your own political position within it. I think that was definitely the case with state-socialist forms of stiob. For example, some of the intellectuals who were very critical of the communist state in Yugoslavia were also critical of the group Laibach. They thought that this group was overdoing its parody, that its audiences were unprepared for that level of overidentification and could misrecognize the parody, could mistake Laibach’s antifascist irony for the propaganda of fascism. But because this group was so provocative for both - state officials and counter-state intellectuals - the effects of their work were even more powerful. They showed that these two different positions, the state and its opponents, were in fact linked to each other as parts of one political field. And what Laibach was offering instead was a critique of this whole field.
JL: Do you see stiob as a progressive political force?
DB: That’s a big question, and we’ve talked about that quite a lot. It’s very hard to say. I think we are a little coy about it in the article at the end, and probably deliberately so, in part because we haven’t quite made up our minds about it yet. What we see is that the late-socialist, late-Soviet stiob contributed to a disenchantment of the authoritarian discourse in exactly the sense that Alexei just said, as a critique not just of the state but of the entire relationship between the state and the authorized opposition. The whole field of legitimated politics is what came under critique through stiob. In that sense, I think that stiob in the American or late liberal style has that potential to unsettle a certain political culture, certain forms of political communication, but probably, at this point, in relatively modest and subtle ways. It seems to have a viral character. The more we’ve been doing this project, the more instances we’ve seen that have come to light. So it does seem to me that there is a trend of some kind, but how deep it will go, how far it will develop, whether it will become the basis for a new form of oppositional politics, those are questions that I think it is a little preliminary to judge. But, I think that is certainly one of the things we are interested in. At the beginning of the project we hadn’t thought about this. We were writing this in the last years of the Bush regime, which was a very oppressive authoritative discourse and a very monopolized authoritative discourse, especially in the lead up to the war. It’s interesting now, with a new regime in place, that aspects of stiob, although their targets have changed, are still present. Because, in a certain respect, the concessions that Obama has been forced, or always intended, to make to his opponents, have further narrowed the sense of alternatives in American political culture. At the level of form anyway, there is a sense in which Obama’s “hope” discourse has been just as performative and empty of literal meaning as Bush’s “freedom” discourse. The discursive content is different to some extent with Obama, but stiob thrives on form, so that’s where we must look.
AY: I think there definitely seems to be a trend of self-identified progressives turning to this strategy. We see that with the Yes Men, we see that with Millionaires for Bush, and even with the University of California Movement for Efficient Privatization, which is using the same strategy. They all have been quite effective. But, at the same time, I would say it doesn’t mean that stiob inherently should be compared or associated with what is progressive. Because it has the potential of stepping outside of the political field and being ironic about the very way the progressive and conservative positions are defined. For example, another show, South Park, speaks to that. It equally parodies all sorts of political positions, and its authors would not call themselves progressive -- which is what they themselves recently claimed on NPR (Fresh Air, 3/24/2010). But they are not conservatives either. They simply don’t quite fit these categories. So stiob has the potential of articulating a different form of critical politics, which is important because the current conditions of the dominant corporate media don’t really allow for so-called progressive forms of politics to articulate effectively what they see as challenges to democracy. Such strategies as stiob may step in instead to offer an alternative register for effective political critique.
JL: In the essay, you write that you aim to demonstrate how the study of late socialism can offer “unique conceptual resources and crucial capacities” to anthropology of the contemporary world. Is the analytic of the post-socialist still relevant? How do you see the study of socialism relevant for today?
DB: When we were narrating the history of the paper, what we neglected to mention is that we wrote this first for the keynote for the Soyuz conference in 2008 at Berkeley. Soyuz is the post-socialist cultural studies research network, part of AAA, and there is a conference every year. We gave the keynote talk together two years ago. I think your question was really the center of our thinking at the time. The theme of that event was seeing through the critical lens of socialism. One of the things that has concerned a number of scholars of our generation who are working in this field, now that we are twenty plus years past the events of 1989-1991, is the logic of framing things in terms of postsocialist transition. This made a whole lot of sense in the 1990s and maybe even into the early 2000s. Now that we’re in the 2010s, is that still the most relevant analytic for analyzing contemporary social phenomena in Eastern Europe or in many other parts of the world? In part what we wanted to do was suggest that by returning to socialism and by suspending our sense of the polar opposition between socialism and liberalism, or socialism and capitalism, that we could begin to explore certain ways in which late socialism anticipated trends in late liberalism that we see today. For example, stiob. Or, even if the language of anticipation isn’t entirely correct, at least there is a strong family of resemblance. The question is why. And that opens up a whole field of inquiry. So, if we allow our thinking to come out from under the shadow of the Cold War and its politics of opposition we can begin to see some of these socialist and late liberal forms as having a resemblance to one another, an analogy to one another. That is a very interesting line to explore. It could be a way of re-modulating postsocialist studies in a direction that is not so much bound to the legacy of the Cold War.
AY: Dominic mentioned the Cold War, and I would like to agree and elaborate on it a bit. It is productive to think about late socialism and late liberalism, as we call them, together because of this family resemblance of certain features in them. But I think we also want to look at them from another angle -- not only from the angle of recognizing similarities and developing a comparative method for analyzing them, which is an epistemological question, but also from the angle of identifying the common roots of socialism and liberalism and their mutually entangled histories in the 20th century, which is a question of ontology. In other words, it may be productive to think about the Cold War not simply as an ideological rhetoric, which shaped our understandings of socialism, but also as a global social system, which was constitutive of both capitalism and socialism, of the so-called West and the so-called second world, and of their mutual relations. For example, as we all know, how we think about capitalism today has been very much influenced by the studies of colonialism and postcolonialism. Similarly, much can be gained if we think about capitalism and socialism not only in opposition, but together, as mutually constitutive parts of one global Cold War system. This holistic view would also involve the postcolonial or so-called third world, because it was very much drawn into that global communism/capitalism binary. I think anthropology hasn’t quite developed this perspective yet, but it will be important to do.
JL: Can you tell us something about the collaborative process of this paper?
DB: I will just make one comment about the collaborative process that I found interesting. I’ve done some collaborative papers with other people before, but this by far was the most fine-grained and intimate collaboration I’ve ever done with another scholar. In part, because of Alexei’s profound linguistic sensibility both in English and in Russian, we spent a lot of time talking about words, words and sentences and what they mean, exactly, and what the different shades of meaning were down to the level of a sentence. So there is a level of precision through having gone over this material again and again and again that is actually quite nice. And, I hope the crafting makes it feel refined and not wooden. I think it does, but we’ll have to see how people receive it.
AY: It was great. I didn’t really have an experience of collaborative projects. Dominic has done several. I haven’t before. I really, really enjoyed it. It was also very productive for me, for both of us I hope, because we clearly tend to see different, slightly different angles of the problem, which is inevitable. And Dominic, thank you also for introducing me to Busboys and Poets. The culmination of the project took place there on the day Obama won the election.
DB: Ironically, where we were writing this was the sort of epicenter of the Obama movement in Washington, D.C. It is this really wonderful place and very much a hotbed of progressive politics. So, it was interesting and maybe not incidental that we were writing it there.
JL: Has this project opened up any new questions for future projects?
DB: I think it will, certainly. We’ve been thinking as we were assembling the material for what’s actually a very long article, with great thanks to Kim and Mike Fortun by the way, for being willing to publish such a long article. We kept thinking that there are so many cases. There is certainly a lot of stiob material here that we are not covering at all, both on the socialist and the contemporary Western side. So, one thing we’ve thought about is expanding the analysis and going more deeply into some of these other cases to see what, especially on the Western side, is the reach of this. Just to answer the question you asked before: Is this a progressive political force? Was American stiob just a reaction to the particular monopolization of dominant discourse that is characteristic, say, of the Bush II years? That’s one way of thinking about it. But, then we’ve also been talking about extending our analysis to another phenomenon, actually another late Soviet concept, svoi - which means “of our circle” -- and which had a particular resonance during the late Soviet period. Svoi was a particular sense of political subjectivity, if you will, a sense of selfhood that rejects precisely this opposition between authoritative state discourse and authorized opposition, which I think we are familiar with here as what has been termed the “South Park mentality.” Svoi interestingly shades into the arguments concerning political apathy and political cynicism that have been generated by Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason and by the responses to Sloterdijk in political theory and political anthropology. And, this would help to address the reception issue, too. That stiob as a particular practice of parody needs something like svoi, a particular political sensibility to operate. It depends on it. One thing we’ve been thinking about is whether we would like to take the analysis in that direction. Does that sound right Alexei? Because I know we haven’t really talked about this a lot. That is, we’ve talked about svoi a lot, but we haven’t really formed a plan for how we’re going to tackle it.
AY: Yes. As you said in the beginning, there are different ways in which we might see an extension of the project. One of them is what we spoke about in response to the previous question - whether the analysis of socialism and postsocialism is relevant today and relevant to the analysis of liberalism. That aspect can be extended further, and we think about moving the project in various directions from that angle. But also what Dominic was just talking about in terms of thinking about political subjectivities, which are emerging in late modernity and which don’t want to be seen as either oppositional or conformist but are trying to locate an external space. It would be too simplistic to discard this attitude as simply cynicism or irresponsible apathy, because usually it engages directly and provocatively with various political positions. Heroes of South Park may be an illustration of that. So, we may think further about what are these new forms of political engagement that seem to be emerging and how new genres of ironic provocation may relate to politics.
DB: There are quite a lot of directions in which this could be developed. Also, I would say, one thing that we haven’t really talked about, but that is also part of the framework of the paper is a deeper analysis of the conditions of modern ideology themselves, especially late liberal ideology. I think both of us have worked for a long time on socialist ideology and how it operated and what its distinctive discursive features are. But, moving into the space of late liberalism, which is dominant in many parts of the world, including where we are now, seems to me to be an opportunity. And one of the things I am very excited about is to what extent you can use the analysis of late socialist ideology as a fairly unique analytic lens for understanding contemporary late liberalism. I see that as part of the broader spirit motivating the whole project and that is something that I would like to think about too. In other words, the argument that we make at the end: It’s not just the conditions of mass mediation, those are necessary but not sufficient to explain phenomena like stiob and svoi. There is something more and it’s something about what happens to ideology itself. Alexei, in his book, has a very nice discussion of the causes, the origins, of hypernormalization in late socialism, the discussion of Lefort’s Paradox, and so forth (Yurchak 2006). I’m wondering to what extent we can develop what here are just a few ideas into some sort of more sustained critique of the problem of form in modern ideology. I think that’s another long-term goal for the project.
And, I think that the ways in which stiob has been taken up by the progressive movement and that could be an interesting long-term trend to study too. There’s something a little dark and a little unsettling about stiob, which makes it not such an obvious ally for progressive politics. And, maybe the Colbert example is a good one. You sort of feel, “I know what his politics are … or do I?” I’m laughing with him, but it sort of unsettles me. Like when you’re tapping your foot along to a Laibach song, it’s a little unsettling. Are they really neofascists? Or are they doing a neofascistic performance to show us something about those politics when they are taken to their aesthetic and spectacle-laden extremes. I think that’s something that’s part of what is part of the unique texture of this political moment. There is such a familiarity with the forms of stiob. They are mass-mediated already. They are generic in a certain sense. People are aware of them. So, to inhabit these caricatures is in some sense to be very familiar. But, there is a kind of de-familiarization that occurs through stiob, too, that is provocative, but maybe not always in intentional ways. That’s what I find interesting. It’s not quite clear what it means, or what broader purpose it would have, if any. And, I’m almost a little loathe to define stiob’s purpose because obscuring literal meaning is what stiob is so good at doing. It seems to me that part of stiob’s strength is not being able to be pinned down into a category or into a commitment.
2003 Censorship as a Vocation: The Institutions, Practices, and Cultural Logic of Media Control in the German Democratic Republic. Comparative Studies in Society and History 45(3):511-545.
2005 Spirit and System: Media, Intellectuals and the Dialectic in Modern German Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
1988 Critique Of Cynical Reason. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
2003 Soviet Hegemony of Form. Comparative Studies in Society and History, v. 45, n. 3, 480-510.
2006 Everything was Forever Until it Was No More. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Dominic Boyer is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Rice University and a Visiting Professor at the Goethe University Frankfurt. He is the author of Spirit and System: Media, Intellectuals, and the Dialectic in Modern German Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2005) and Understanding Media: A Popular Philosophy (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2007) and has written widely on the intersections of media and knowledge. In addition to his interest in American stiob and svoi, he is currently engaged in two parallel research projects. The first focuses on digital media and the transformation of news journalism in Europe and the United States. The second is a collaborative project with Cymene Howe that investigates the politics of wind power development in southern Mexico and that explores energopolitics as an alternative genealogy of modern state formation to biopolitics.
Alexei Yurchak is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and core faculty member in the Department of Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton, 2006), which won the “AAASS Vucinich Book Prize for the most important contribution to Russian, Eurasian, and East European studies in any discipline of the humanities or social sciences.” He is working on a book about the history and present of the embalmed Lenin’s body, the peculiar biomedical science that developed around this project, and the concept of Leninist sovereignty that gave it impetus. He is also working on a book about experimental artistic scenes in Russia at the time the Soviet Union was imploding, between the late 1980s and the early 1990s.