This post builds on the research article “Totalitarian Tears: Does the Crowd Really Mean It?,” which was published in the February 2015 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Cultural Anthropology has published numerous articles on public affect including William M. Reddy’s “Emotional Liberty: Politics and History in the Anthropology of Emotions” (1999), Jennifer Hasty’s “The Pleasures of Corruption: Desire and Discipline in Ghanaian Political Culture” (2005), Andrea Muehlebach’s “On Affective Labor In Post-Fordist Italy” (2011), Catherine Fennell’s Cultural Horizons Prize-winning “The Museum of Resilience: Raising a Sympathetic Public in Postwelfare Chicago” (2012), Christina Schwenkel’s “Post/Socialist Affect: Ruination and Reconstruction of the Nation in Urban Vietnam” (2013), Elysée Nouvet’s “Some Carry On, Some Stay in Bed: (In)convenient Affects and Agency in Neoliberal Nicaragua” (2014). See also the Field Notes series on Affect.
Cultural Anthropology has also published a wide-range of essays on liberalism including Aradhana Sharma’s “Crossbreeding Institutions, Breeding Struggle: Women's Empowerment, Neoliberal Governmentality, and State (Re)Formation in India” (2006), Tomas Matza’s “Moscow's Echo: Technologies of the Self, Publics, and Politics on the Russian Talk Show” (2009), Dominic Boyer and Alexei Yurchak’s “American Stiob: Or, What Late-Socialist Aesthetics of Parody Reveal about Contemporary Political Culture in the West” (2010), Marisol de la Cadena’s “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond “Politics”” (2010), Talal Asad’s “Thinking About the Secular Body, Pain, and Liberal Politics” (2011).
About the Author
William Mazzarella is Professor of Anthropology and Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. He writes and teaches on the political anthropology of mass publicity, with special reference to India. His books include Shoveling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in Contemporary India (Duke, 2003), Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity (Duke, 2013), and was the co-editor, with Raminder Kaur, of Censorship in South Asia: Cultural Regulation from Sedition to Seduction (Indiana, 2009). He is currently working on a project tentatively titled “The Mana of Mass Society,” which involves, at a conceptual level, a re-interpretation of classic anthropological material on magical efficacy and charismatic agency with a view to developing a new theory of mass publicity, and, at an empirical level, a historical ethnography of the Bombay advertising world of the 1960s and 1970s. Mazarella has published previously in Cultural Anthropology: "'Very Bombay': Contending with the Global in an Indian Advertising Agency" (2003), which was also awarded the Society for Cultural Anthropology's Cultural Horizons Prize in 2004, and “Branding the Mahatma: The Untimely Provocation of Gandhian Publicity" (2010).
Other Works by William Mazzarella
2006. “Internet X-Ray: E-Governance, Transparency, and the Politics of Immediation in India.” Public Culture 18, no. 3: 473–505.
2010. “The Myth of the Multitude, or, Who's Afraid of the Crowd?” Critical Inquiry 36, no. 4: 697–727.
2010. “Beautiful Balloon: The Digital Divide and the Charisma Of New Media in India.” American Ethnologist 37, no. 4:783–804.
2010. “A Torn Performative Dispensation: The Affective Politics of British Second World War Propaganda in India and the Problem of Legitimation in an Age of Mass Publics.” South Asian History and Culture 1, no. 1: 1–24.
2012. “Reality Must Improve: The Perversity Of Expertise and the Belatedness of Indian Development Television.” Global Media and Communication 8, no. 3: 215–41.
Interview with William Mazzarella
Ned Dostaler: How did you first get interested in the anthropology of mass publicity?
William Mazzarella: I don’t know. I was born that way.
ND: You write that you were "alerted to the phenomenon of the crying crowds by an article on the New York Times website." At what point and how did you decide that you'd like to write an article about the phenomenon?
WM: Pretty much right away. Like everyone else, I was initially drawn in by the images of the crying crowds. But what got me hooked, as I started googling related articles, was the insistent repetition of the question about the sincerity and/or authenticity of the tears. This kind of thing is often what draws me into a project: the sense of a symptomal point, a place where something can’t quite be directly expressed and therefore produces a repetitive insistence on a certain question or statement: the sense of a constitutive and unresolvable contradiction.
ND: I would be interested in hearing some of your thoughts about the relationship between ethnographic observation (in its broadest conception), space, and scale. The main body of data you draw upon—that is, where you draw your ethnographic observations from—is a digital archive of articles and blogs that you created following the assassination of Kim Jong-il. The space you are exploring is not located in a specific geographical locality but rather within narratives floating around in virtual space. In the section of the article on methodology, you poignantly ask the question, “But where, really, is my field?” and reply by stating that the “essay is not about North Korea. It is, rather, about how a set of narratives and images, popularly identified as North Korea, activate and trouble the liberal imagination in particularly acute ways.” Much of the theory you draw upon speaks about the imagination of the liberal subject, who is located neither here nor there yet simultaneously everywhere. How do you think through and with these tensions?
WM: Perhaps we sometimes tend to exaggerate the degree to which anthropology conducted in mass-mediated spaces has disarticulated representation and discourse from place. Of course things travel differently now, and anthropologists are able to enter into all kinds of new spatial relations to their data and their informants. But I think we should keep in mind that representation—including the thing we used to call “culture”—has always been as much about producing a sense of virtual space as it has been about anchoring emplaced embodiment. Whether we are talking about the Internet or the spirit world, we have always been both virtual and actual. The interesting question, then, becomes what are the medial mechanisms and practices—and by “media” I mean not just the usual suspects, but also language, ritual, tools—through which the virtual is actualized and the actual is, in turn, revirtualized.
North Korea stands, in our public cultural field, for the last frontier of actually existing Stalinism. Its putatively total isolation implies not only a place to which we don’t have access, but also a place that remains insulated within its own geographical boundaries. As such, it is perhaps also not surprising that the figure of North Korea should be particularly fascinating to anthropologists, whose stock in trade has always been to tell us what is “really” happening on the ground. Part of my effort in “Totalitarian Tears” was to resist that impulse as rigorously as I could, even if my disciplinary superego did twitch from time to time. It seemed important to use the occasion of the fascination with the North Korean tears to think about why we keep thinking that “being there” is going to give us the truth of the matter.
ND: North Korea and their leader have come into the public spotlight once again with the release of the political satire film The Interview. Would you like to say anything about public response to the release of the film?
WM: I haven’t seen the film. In fact, I’ve kind of been actively resisting seeing the film. Why? I suppose I was put off by the predictable bravado around discourses of free speech and so forth that started surrounding the film as soon as the question of its possible cancellation started being mooted. As I’ve argued in my book on film censorship, Censorium, I don’t think we’re going to get very far in understanding censorship if we restrict ourselves to questions of speech and its silencing. And of course the idea that this film is really a work of “political satire” is the standard way through which projects like that can be justified once they come under fire. If I do get round to seeing The Interview—and now you’ve got me thinking that I really should!—I guess I’d be interested in seeing where the line of “comedy” gets drawn vis-à-vis images of “North Korean” totalitarianism. How does the film organize the relationship between what must be taken seriously and what we are encouraged to think is funny? As Žižek has been saying for many years, it is an elementary mistake of liberal discourse to think that totalitarianism cannot withstand laughter. In fact, that’s a really interesting area of investigation: how authority organizes and manages comedy.
ND: Can you say something about what you are currently working on?
WM: The overall rubric for what I’m working on now is “The Mana of Mass Publicity.” As we were discussing earlier, I’ve always been into what I sometimes call the political anthropology of mass publicity. Most recently, I’ve become interested in activating a conversation between critical theory and classic anthropological conceptions of magical and spiritual efficacy. This is not as fanciful as it might sound. Around the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries—basically, before anthropology became professionalized in its Malinowskian guise as a fieldwork-based project of knowledge production—ethnologists, sociologists, psychologists, and scholars of comparative religion were all, in various ways, ruminating on how to understand what happens when people get together in groups and start getting excited. Some of them were talking about “primitive” ritual, some of them were talking about magic and shamanism, some of them were talking about urban/industrial crowds. For a while, the Polynesian term mana seemed to point to the potentiation of collective energies in ways that crossed back and forth—often highly ambivalently—across the division between the “primitive” and the “modern.” Right now, I’m trying to think all this through my ongoing research on advertising practice in India, and its shifting relation, over the past fifty years or so, to understandings of democracy, public affect, and charismatic leadership. But who knows how it will all unfold?
New York Times slideshow with photos of the crying crowds.
Two videos of the crying crowds in North Korea following the death of premier Kim Jong-il.