Bo Kyeong Seo Awarded the 2020 Cultural Horizons Prize

The Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA) is happy to announce that the 2020 winner of the annual Cultural Horizons Prize is Bo Kyeong Seo (Yonsei University) for her article, “Populist Becoming: The Red Shirt Movement and Political Affliction in Thailand.”

For more than twenty-five years, the SCA has been distinguished by having the largest graduate student membership of any section of the AAA. Recognizing that doctoral students are among the most experimentally minded—and often among the best-read—of ethnographic writers, the SCA created the Cultural Horizons Prize, which is awarded by a jury of doctoral students for the best article appearing in the previous year of Cultural Anthropology.

This year’s jurors were:

Thomas Thornton (Johns Hopkins University)

Mary Pena (University of Michigan)

Deniz Coral (University of Minnesota)

In recognizing Seo’s article, the jurors write:

Upending contemporary media discourses of populism as a stain on liberal democracy, Bo Kyeong Seo’s article, “Populist Becoming: The Red Shirt Movement and Political Affliction in Thailand,” provides an incisive account of the more ambivalent relationship between populism and democracy articulated within the Red Shirt movement in Thailand. Instead of taking the people as a given, monolithic category constituted by a faceless crowd, Seo grounds her ethnography in a “microhistory” that reminds us of the chasm between political rhetoric and lived reality by showing us in plush style how political subjectivities are not just determined by populist orders but also constituted within them. Seo compellingly links a singular life with the shifting contours of a political milieu, illuminating how ways of being are forged and lived out in the spacetime of mass mobilization. While the government and bureaucratic elite continuously attempt to de-humanize the Red Shirts, Seo shows that everyday routines, such as preparing or distributing food, become an affective political action of being with people and caring for others as fellow humans. Such ordinary actions, Seo demonstrates, materialize people’s political-democratic demands on the ground.

While Seo makes critical contributions to ongoing theoretical work on the nation-state, populism, social movements, and affect, her evocative ethnographic writing locates a “political affliction,” which entwines an array of affective registers—from joy or affection to rage and loss—as indicating populism’s contested subject positions, rather than treating them as outgrowths of underpinning and controlling structural problems. As Seo shows, demos, then, goes beyond the discourses of political institutions and becomes the embodiment of togetherness in a movement, even if the people constituting the demos become estranged and disappointed by it. In this regard, “populist becoming” reveals a multiplication of subject positions through multi-faceted practices and struggles, creating and undoing the demos, rather than fixing it to political discourses as master tropes that shape ready-made political subjectivities.

At a time of growing political discontent in the midst of a global health crisis and mass movement for racial justice, one of the strongest points of Seo’s article lies in how her ethnography of a “singularity” shows forms of solidarity, mutuality, and care that emerge to enact a radical vision of being-in-relation or togetherness. Ultimately, Seo presents us with ethnography that manifests care through its narration, as it opens space for populism to emerge from everyday generosity and struggle.

Submitted by Zeynep Gürsel (Rutgers) and Karen Strassler (Queens College-CUNY Graduate Center), Cultural Horizons Prize Co-Chairs