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The Poetics of Politics: "Theirs" and "Ours" Author(s): Michael Silverstein Source: Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol.ttp : //www.jstor.org/stable /3631295 Accessed: 23- 04 - 2015 13 : 40 UTC Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/ info/about/policies/terms.jsp JSTOR is a not-for-profit ser vice that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a w id e range o f content i n a truste d di g i ta l arc hi ve. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org. University of New Mexico is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Journal of Anthropological Research. http://www.jstor.org This content downloaded from 143.106.1.138 on Thu, 23 Apr 2015 13:40:18 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions " id="pdf-obj-0-2" src="pdf-obj-0-2.jpg">

The Poetics of Politics: "Theirs" and "Ours" Author(s): Michael Silverstein Source: Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 61, No. 1 (Spring, 2005), pp. 1-24 Published by: University of New Mexico Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3631295 Accessed: 23-04-2015 13:40 UTC

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JOURNAL OF ANTHROPOLOGICALRESEARCH

(Formerly SouthwesternJournal of Anthropology)

VOLUME 61

*

NUMBER 1

*

SPRING

*

2005

THE POETICS OF POLITICS: "THEIRS" AND "OURS"

MichaelSilverstein

Department

of Anthropology,

University of Chicago,

1126East 59" St., Chicago,IL 60637-1580

Events of political communication define issues and create spaces of action that

position people with respect to them.How? Political talk is not effective in these

waysjust because it describes the world-as it is or as

it might be. In various ways,

effective talk in political events forms a diagrammatic microcosm of its targeted

field of action, linking events of political process in which it thrives with varying

degrees of compelling effectiveness. Political talk of the "factional"politics of

Indo-Fijians draws on principles we can see-and

discerning participants can

hear!--as well in our own agonistic electoral politics of recognition.

I WANTTO FOCUS

ON THE EVENT-QUALITY

of

political social action, to show that we can

study political events as the dynamicarrangement and rearrangement of people

as

subjects within structuresof actual and potential action of all sorts. I want to

illustratehow this is constituted by the "poetics," as we now analyze it, of such

political events, seen in their larger cultural frameworks.That is how people

participate in the exercise and

groups. Thatis what people pay

diffusion of what some call "power" in

human

attention to, what they try to discern, as their very

acts of participation in the political. Thus, far from being something differentfrom

"politics,"poetics, this paperargues, is the key to our understanding what people

are doing in the way of the political.

OVERCOMING THE SENSE THAT "POLITICS" IS NOT "POETIC"

Thirtyyears ago, self-styled "symbolicanthropology" (cf. Basso and Selby 1976,

based on a 1974 conferencein New Mexico) was at its height of influence, butthere

Journalof Anthropological Research, vol. 61, 2005

Copyright ?

by TheUniversity of New Mexico

1

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JOURNALOF ANTHROPOLOGICAL

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were already rumblings of a kind of revisionary--or perhapspost-McCarthyite

reversionary!-discontent among the young, especially among the younger

political left in anthropology in the wake of the practicalpolitics of the era of

Vietnam.Who could be interestedin "symbols"-especially the way some of the

leading lights presentedthem, far removed from life itself-when

muchof a practicalsort, so much going on in events-practices--of

there was so

one or another

sort that was, and is, the lived reality of sociocultural life, getting things done,

moving matters along, sometimes even to resolution.Is that not, to be sure, the

essence of politics?

So a generation of writers and more in anthropology, now themselves

occupying seniormost grades of our professional hierarchy of age-grading,

produced volume after volume with the catchy title (at least catchy for the first

time): "The poetics and politics of

...

" (A quicktitle-keyword searchin my library

catalog brings up 69 such currently catalogued in our University of Chicago

collection!) You name it; it was discovered that there is both a "poetics" and a

"politics" of it, both an aspect fit for symbolic anthropology(in which so many

young scholarsof thattime were trainedand to which they-symbolically !-made

a gesture of obeisance) and a let' s-get-down-and-dirty,politicoeconomic or other

seemingly more "real" aspect involving the application of that universal social

solvent, so-called "power."

If "poetics," in such a view, is to be understood by the analysis of symbols,

especially when they are analytically takenout of the event-contextswhere they are

experienced, then we have to add on-hence,

the "and" of the titles-some

differentkind of understanding, one that people interacting in those very contexts

did by at least implicit appeal to other kinds of frameworks:frameworks of a

"politics"of, for example, use and exchange value, dominationand resistance,

implicitly coerced though seemingly voluntarycompliance with hegemonies, etc.

"Poetics," in other words, must have been thought to deal with cultural expression

outside of the realms of the practical, of the "political." And perhaps, given

anthropologicaltheorizing of the period, that is no wonder.

Think for example of Clifford Geertz's notion of cultureas "an ensemble of

texts

. . .

which the anthropologist strainsto read,"knowing that each such text

"renders ordinary,everyday experiencecomprehensible by presenting it in terms

of acts and objects which have had their practical consequences removed and

reduced...

to the level of sheer appearances"(1973:452, 443). That hardly seems

reason enough to kill all the poets in the ideal Republic, even if they affordus the

occasions for emotional catharsis! (But who would experience catharsis from

"sheer appearances," we might ask!)'

It is precisely this palpably inert representationalquality of Geertzianor other

conceptualizations of the culturalthat seemed to me in 1974 [Silverstein1976], and

still seems to me to invite the counterproposal that there is also a "politics" of

culture--or a politics beyond anthropology's onetime notion of culture-that we

must take account of. This is what Sherry Ortner's (1984) practical practice

theoreticians longed to discover in their various materials. This is what gave

Bourdieu,the FrankfurtSchool, Foucaultand the post-structuralist,Nietszchean,

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THEPOETICS OF POLITICS:"THEIRS" AND "OURS" 3

or at least neo-Hegelianconjuncture its influenceand oomph-their "power," dare

we say?-in the pages of journals andin jillions if not zillions of meetingsymposia

and collections entitled "The Poetics and Politics of Whatchatmacallit."We

anthropologists, as political actors in our own society, intuit, even conceptualize

the way the world really works from our experiences in the variousinstitutions of

our own society. This same sense of the practicalpolitics of things ought to be

accordedto others, whom we purportedlystudy, as actorsin their own respective

societies. And, to the variously focused political consciousnesses, it looks like

power, perhaps even economic in some broad sense, all the way down.

But as I have been observing for thirtyyears, "politics" has a "poetics": What

is experienced as appropriate and effective "practice" is literally formed

semiotically-through signs-though not in the ways understood by

representationalapproaches such as the one Geertz was then understood to

advocate. If we really knew how to study social action, events of how people

interactone with another, we would see that "politics" is "poetics," inscribedin

relation to interpersonal,intersubjective spaces of mutual adjustment of people.

Political events, that is, events that can be analyzed in relationto a political order,

reach whatever effectiveness they have only in a semiotic-a

sign-mediated-

orderor they don't reach any effectiveness at all qua socioculturalfact.

Even terroristacts considered as part of a meaningfulpolitics-explosions,

killings, maimings, and other such horrors-are

semiotic in this sense, effective at

startling and terrorizing not (in the worst scenarioof their effectiveness) the actual

victims so much as the spectators, summonedto the event as interestedonlookers

of the spectacular at lesser and greater remove and through less and more report-

mediated,relayed consciousnessof the acts: as Althusser (1971) might have it, the

spectators are interpellated as political subjectsby the awful occurrences.Such acts

are both, as we term them, indexicallyappropriate to their preexisting contexts-

calibratedas forms interpretableonly in relationto contexts structuredin certain

ways-and

indexically effective in bringing about new contextual conditions

simply by virtueof having occurredin such-and-such form, mediated by such-and-

such signs.

Such acts are never indexically "random." Indeed, "randomness"of terrorist

occurrencescan be harnessedas a very dimensionof semiosis or meaning, because

in this way they are spatiotemporally inscribed in-interpretable, for example, by

calendarand map-a

delimitedand homogeneous, Andersoniansocial space-time

(Anderson 1983; cf. Silverstein 2000), the image of a polity-on-the-ground,

targeted for such activity. Event "randomness" as a semiotic or signal

characteristicis frame-creating no differently from any other kind of effective

signal of any other political event. It is pictorial of the space-time in which it occurs

and is inscribed so as to point to that space-time of the politically targeted

population group; understanding this involves the same interpretative act as

makingsomething of the stars,which look like dots thathave to be connectedwith

imaginary lines so as to

form constellations. Terrorist acts mediate-map

between-an understood social context for which they are frequently

exquisitely-and

devastatingly-calibrated and a

projectively transformed

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JOURNALOF ANTHROPOLOGICAL

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context thattheir very qualities, as horrific sight, sound, smell, touch, pain, death,

numerosity, intensity, etc., pictorially project into a frame of now transformed

understanding. "Ah! We [surviving victims and spectatorialsurvivors] can be

targets of this anywhere within our group's spatiotemporalenvelope of activities!"

Or even, "anywhere!"

  • I don't mean to dwell on the grisly-alas,

a grisly too much with us in the

contemporarypolitical world, where such acts drive the political imaginary of

perpetratorsand, unfortunately, of electorates. My point in using this example is to

assertthat there is nothing in the political, not even violence, that does not need a

semiotic analysis, an analysis of what, broadlyspeaking, is the poetics of political

action. Such analysis sees that there are certain privileged sites of politically

effective action (even if, as feminist theoristslike Rosaldo and Lamphere and their

colleagues [1974] so trenchantly and correctlyobserved, all social action is shot

through with the political). Such analysis understandshow appropriate and

effective action at such sites takes its particular event-contouredforms. Such

analysis sees how such events register their effectiveness as a kind of abstractly

pictorial microcosmof the larger world they inevitably seek to reorderaround the

fact

of their occurrence.

  • I advocate an explanation of this throughexamples, so I turnto them to give

you a sense of what an analysis of the poetics of politics involves. First, "theirs";

then, "ours."Of course, "theirs"works in many respects like "ours," and "ours"

like "theirs."

INDO-FIJIAN FACTIONALISM IN AN

"OCCASIONALLY EGALITARIAN" SOCIETY

Don Brenneis (1974, 1978, 1984a, 1984b, 1987, 1988, 1990) provides us with

materialthat is extremely useful for

conceptualizing the political realm of Hindi-

speakingFiji, specifically the village of Bhatgaon in Fiji, populatedby descendents

of people recruitedto overseasindentured labor in the former English colony. This

is what

mutual

Brenneis (1987) terms an "occasionallyegalitarian community," where a

respect for independence is coupled with few mechanisms for direct,

coercive political control.In such an environment, it is interesting that conflicts of

interests do, in fact, get resolved by a kind of oscillating or dialecticalmechanism

of what we might call a negative and a positive ritualform of political action.

The positive ritualsite is easy to discern:it is the pancayat, or council of formal

presentation of grievances for one or anotherside of disputes, of clashinginterests,

of construalsof issues that find themselves in radicalconflict. The pancayat is a

formally organized oratoricaloccasion convened by those called bada admi, the

"big men," at which formal speeches on behalf

of interests are delivered, in a

rhetorically fashioned register of FijianHindi, termedshudh hindi, "sweet Hindi,"

which is, as Brenneis reports, the language of religion, oratory and public events.

Everything here leads us to understandthe pancayat as an orderly "poetic" of

communitypolitics, at which oratorical eloquence is supposed to workits effective

magic. Poetic eloquence is locally expected to be appropriate to this use.

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THEPOETICS OF POLITICS:"THEIRS" AND "OURS" 5

But how do political conflicts ripen, as it were, to the point where they must be

savored through oratorical eloquence in this positive, highly valued ritual site?

Thereis anotherkind of event, negatively valued-in fact a kind of anti-ritualform

in which and through which issues are defined in a way by gaining adherentsto a

side. Brenneis describesthis kind of event, the talanoa or men's "gossip session,"

in a charming discussion of "grog and gossip" in Bhatgaon, the community where

he did his ethnographicstudy.

Small groups of related men gather in early evening in someone's belo, a

thatch-roofed sitting house on someone's property, and "havea few," as we would

say in

our culture. They drink yaqona, locally termed "grog," the mildly

narcotic

drink that Polynesians term kava in their ceremonial life. Pleasantly relaxed,

though not drunk in any sense as the drinking proceeds, such a men's group

addresses local issues-news

of the day or week, as it were-in

a multi-party

conversation. (Talkingpolitics in a neighborhood bar should come to mind as the

nearesturban equivalent in contemporaryAmerica; see

Lindquist2002.)

Now none of this would be remarkable beyond the sociality of the occasion,

except thatthe form-the "poetics," if you will-of

the conversational activity and

the mediumin

which it occurs drawour interest. Talanoa, male gossip, is rendered

in the extreme opposite register of Fijian Hindi from the one used in the pancayat,

the ritual occasion of resolutionof issues. It is called jangli bat, "jungle talk," in

essence, and it is

specifically negatively viewed in the community, a kind of

embarrassmentof vernacular masculinity.2

But further. As

opposed to the officially prized shudh Hindi of the

speechmaker, valued for "display[ing] a good knowledge of standard Fiji Hindi, a

large Sanskritic vocabulary, and a knack for appositeparables," jangli bat and its

use in talanoa have a clear negative cachet: "men who excel in it are much

appreciated" even though-or

should we

say because?-it

"focus[es] on

stigmatizedsubjects, using a[n officially] low prestige variety of Hindi"-"at the

same time a source of shame and of rural pride"(Brenneis 1984a:492-93). Real

men get down!

In the courseof theirconversation over grog, men move in and out of episodes

of talanoa. It is scandal,potentially embarrassing and to the detrimentof someone

or some interests, that

forms the content of such talk. Who wants to have been

responsible for telling such tales? Indeed, in a surface egalitariancommunity,

pointed and explicit accusation against particular others would be very unwise,

even in an intimate group of friends and relatives.

So what we find in the transcripts of talanoa sessions that Brenneis has

provided is this. First, there is a low degree of explicit, orderly, and complete

descriptive informationvalued in our culture's expository communication.3Half-

propositions, suggestive allusions, and so forth, abound: Claims made about

doings and sayings, but not attributedto anyone as agent or actor, are the dominant

content. We would call this propertydepleted referentiality of gossip discourse.

Note on the one handhow this depletionfigurates plausible deniability for whoever

is utteringit, dishing the dirt, as it were. Note on the other handmore importantly

that this means the addressees of such discoursemust already be considerably "in

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JOURNALOF ANTHROPOLOGICAL

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the know" aboutthe scandalous doings and happenings.(See the adjacencypairs,

linked turns, 2.4 and 2.5 on Brenneis's [1984a:501] transcript,reproduced here as

Figure 1, as well as 2.8 and 2.9.)

Thereis a thresholdof knowledge thatis presupposed as an "opportunitycost"

of participation: a good ritual player, even as addressee, is someone who dominates

the news. As Brenneis observes, "The most striking feature of these [talanoa]

transcripts is how difficult it would be to reconstructthe underlying events on the

basis of the talanoa texts

themselves. . . .

[G]enerallyparticipants in talanoa

sessions must come to them with some understanding of

what is being discussed"

(Brenneis 1984a:494).

So if these sessions are not really informative, what are they? Here, a second

aspect of the form of conversation emerges. Talanoa is marked by "rhythmic and

rapid delivery," the discourse divided "into syntactic and rhythmic chunks" of

stress units, "giving a pulsing feel to the talanoa as a whole

Assonance and

....

alliterationare quite marked, and exaggerated intonation contours and volume

variation frequently occur."As well, "repetition and near repetition of words and

phrases are common, as are plays with word order"and lots of reduplicative forms

(e.g., polis-ulis = "police"), exaggerating a tendency of jangli Hindi (Brenneis

1984:494-95). The language is, in short, a poetry like

our American English rap or

hip-hop, in

which, even across speakingturns, people have to jump into the rhythm

of the talk, exercising a facility for artisticallyshaping theirown contributionto it.

The time-markerof the verbalbeat of this rhythmicdelivery is the form bole,

structurally(grammatically) the third person singularpresent of the verb "to say:"

thus, "he/she says." In talanoa this form occursso often it no longer actually means

"he/she says"; it has become what from the perspective of textual organization we

call a discourse marker,punctuating breath-group and other segments of utterance

as do like,ya know,ain' it, andso forthin vernacularAmerican English.Frequently

stressedand lengthened vis-h-vis the rest of the text-which is rapidly deliveredin

oral performance-it is a kind of phrasalmeasuring device that occurs not only in

the middle of turnsat talk, but especially at the beginnings of turnsand at the ends

of turns when its utteranceshows that the floor has now become available for

another speaker to jump in. This is shown very well in 2.12, 2.18-2.19, and 2.20-

  • 2.21 in the transcriptreproduced from Brenneis (1984a:502).

Fromthe perspective of its meaning, bole is what we terma quotativeparticle;

we might translateit "theysdy, [pause](that

...

)"

(extra stress and perhapsrising-

falling intonationon say-), with generalizedthey that has no actual denotational

antecedent, or "one he'drs [pause](that

..

.)," putting the onus for the stench being

utteredabout someone on the generalizedcommunity, as though indeedKant' s (cf.

Habermas 1989:89-140) "publicopinion" has informedof the bad tidings.

I like to thinkof this rap or word-jazzgame in the image of a jump-roperound,

where childrenhave

to jump out of and into the rhythm of the turningrope without

getting fouled up by stepping on it or by getting hit by it. It requiressome skill.

So it is rhythmicallyco-constructed stylized gab or talk that is occurring in

talanoa, not a

of what is not

good, complete, orderly,co-constructed story, but a co-construction

said, a co-constructionof what is mutuallypresupposable and hence

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THE POETICSOF POLITICS:"THEIRS" AND "OURS"

7

2.4

DD: NAU BAJELACBAG Nine o'clock approximately About nine o'clock.

HOI NA?

is no?

wasn't it?

2.5

HN:

NAU BAJE LAGBAG.

Nine o'clock approximately. About nine o'clock.

2.6

DD: DUNU KATPIN. Both totally drunk.

  • 2.7 BOLEDUNU PIN KAT OLE BAS DONO LARAIN

HN:

Says both drunk fully says enough both fought says

Says both were quite drunk;says they fought

with each other;

PRAYA RAM Praya Ram says

BHAGJAO KADERISBOL GAYE RASILEKE

away go chased says went rope taking

says Praya Ram says scram and

chased them; they went taking

CHADKEJAMUN PED PE FASI LAGAO.CHOTU BOLE SAB CHARAWE went jamun tree on noose fastened. Chotu says all house in a rope and tied a noose on the jamun tree. Chotu says all were

CHOTKANA JAI B BAPA LOTIOJAB CHOTKANA

little fellow go says fatherreturned when little fellow

at home, and

the little guy says father is back; the little

GAI B

LEKECHURI RAPETIS CHOTKANA TO BHAGACHAR

went says taking knife chased little fellow so fled house

guy left; says

he took a knife and chased the little guy so

E. CHOTKANARAPETIS TO BHAGACHAR E.

from. Little fellow chased so fled house from.

he fled the house. He chased the little guy so he fled.

U DARWAWAT RAHA.BAS SAB RONA PITNA BOL EK

He

terrifiedwas. Enough all crying drinkingsays one

He was terrified. So everyone was crying, drinking.Says

TARAFSE CHILAIROWAI KALI YAHA BIKARI CHAR LEROYE

side from shout cry only from that side there was

there Bikarihouse at crying nothing but crying and shouting;

SUNA1.

was heard. they heard it as far away as Bikari's.

  • 2.8 TIS )ANNE HAMLOG GAWA.

DD: LONDEB

Childrensays thirtypeople we went.

The children said more

than thirty people went there.

  • 2.9 BAHUTBOLETIS IANNE KOI GAYE TIS RAHA-BOLE

HN: HA

Yes many says thirtypeople who went thirty were says Yes, many people, says, says thirty, says thirty or

TIS BATISJANNE KEBOLAT RAHA GAYEBOLE.

thirty thirty-twopeople of said had went says.

thirty-twopeople, he said, went there, says.

  • 2.10 GAYE HUAN KUCHPONC GAYENKUCH DEVIDINLOG

SN:

B

Says gone

Says

had some arrivedwent some Devidin's folks

some had arrivedas far as Devidin's house.

KEGHAR LE. KUCH NARA TALAK GAYE BIKAR1 KE GHAR KE of house to. Some ditch to went Bikariof house of Some got as far as the ditch, some only as

KO1DUI LADKEGAYE RAHA TALAK KAL1. KUCHFIR LOTAIN.

some two boys gone had to only.

Some again returned.

far as Bikari'shouse. Some went back home.

  • 2.11 DD: BOLEHUWA JATIAT BATI KALASBHUT GAYE.

Says

there going lanterns finished off went. Says all

SAB

Says that as they were going there the lights went out.

SOYGAYAKALAS. PONCAT PONCAT. gone to sleep finished. Arrivingarriving. Says all had gone to sleep. Just as they were arriving.

Figure la. Transcriptof

a segment of talanoa featuringlinked turnsof participants, and

dense use and rhythmic, end-line positioningpreference for punctuating markerbole

Reprinted from American Ethnologist 11:501-2. Used by permission of American AnthropologicalAssociation, 01984.

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JOURNALOF ANTHROPOLOGICALRESEARCH

  • 2.12 HN: HA.BOLEEKDUM GHAR ME SAKIT

Yes. Says immediately house at arrived says

Yes. Says that just as soon as they got to the house, says

VAJRA DEO NIKALGAYA.

BOLE PRAYARAM POLISME GAYA RAHA

 

Vaira Deo came out.

Says Praya

Ram police to gone had

Vajra Deo came out.

Says Praya Ram had gone to the police

POLE OLIS.

says police ....

  • 2.13 DD:

HA,

EYes,

TO .... .... then

  • 2.14 AYA RAHIN DIN

HN:

ME IBOLEADMILOG SOCIN BOLE PRAYARAM

 

Come had day in says men thought says Praya Ram

The police came today. Says people thought, says Praya Ram

NAHI RAHITTO AUR JANNELOG SOCE RAHIN KI KAHE

not was so and people thought had says that told

wasn't there, and people thought, says, that he'd

ETNAGAON KE NI ETNA DOR KE GAYERAHIN JANTA.

2.15

2.16

such village of in such run of gone had know.

never heard of

such running around in a village.

DD: KON KON MAMALARAHA?

What what

trouble was?

What was it all about?

HN:

KAHE OLE

....

Told

says ...

I've hearn

...

HA.BO

ILOGKE

U KAR

Yes. Says they of says he done

Yes. Says of them, says he did

DIN ILOG DOR KI GAYIN TO DEKHINPRAYA RAM APNE GAYA.

 

had they run of went

something. They fled

  • 2.17 DD:

PRAYARAM BATIS ....

Praya Ram said ..

2,18

HN:

DD:

B

 

NAHI.

not.

over there.

  • 2.20 HN: HA.

Yes.

 

DD:

B

so saw Praya Ram self went.

running so he saw Praya Ram himself go.

BOLE ...

says ....

BIKARIBOLET RAHA.

Bikari said had.

LBikari had said.

  • 2.19 BAHUT GUSSAN BOLAT RAHA TUMLOGCELLE IAOBOLE

U

Says very angry said had you(pl) leave go says.

Says he said, very angrily, for them to leave at once.

KARl ...

He

FIR ROHIT RAHA PRAYARAM OLEKA

says again cried had Praya Ram says what doing.

Says they cried again; Praya Ram says what are you ... doing?

BATAWATRAHA BESWAGAYA RAHA BOLELATCHMI UDHAR SE AWE

said had Beswa gone had says Latchmi there from came

He said Beswa had gone; says Latchmi had not come from

  • 2.21 CELLE JAO NAHI TO CHURI-URIMAR DIBOLE EKDUM

Says leave go not then knife hit give says totally

Says leave at once or I'll hit you with my knife. Says

PAGALENHEI NAHI?

crazy are not?

they're totally mad, aren't they?

  • 2.22 HN: HA.

Yes.

Figure lb. Transcript of a segment of talanoa featuring linked turnsof participants, and dense use and rhythmic,end-line positioningpreference for punctuatingmarker bole

Reprinted from American Ethnologist 11:501-2. Used by permission of American AnthropologicalAssociation, 01984.

This content downloaded from 143.106.1.138 on Thu, 23 Apr 2015 13:40:18 UTC

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

THEPOETICS OF POLITICS: "THEIRS" AND "OURS" 9

not in need of actualelaboration. That is

the discourse form, whateverthe empirical

actuality of some participant'sknowing or not knowing. To participateyou mustbe

able to indicate by your own co-constructionthat you are already in the know; to

participate is to register a mutual alignment with the guy who has alreadyspoken,

taking up the story to-hand from the perspective emerging in the intersubjective

space of co-construction.

Participationis, in short, a figuration or trope of likeness-of-alignment to the

way some scandal is being formulated. In short, one's collusion-to use the

negative word for collaboration-in

fashioning an emergently group-based

accountis a sign that points to (the technical language is: indexes) the very coming

into being of a potentialpolitical faction in respect of some issue or situation.

Talanoais

the negative ritual among small groups of men where political interests

about particular issues come into being, necessitating, as they persist and ripen-

or fester, to use a disease image-the eventualconstitution of a pancayat, the ritual

event for airing the social wound and cleansing it.

Small-scale egalitarianpolitics--even "occasionallyegalitarian" politics-is

factional politics, the spectralcoming-into-being of which causes official anxiety

andthe searchfor remedies.4 Talanoaanalyzed as an event of social action, with its

characteristic poetic form of participation,gives us the key to how faction about

particular issues comes discursively into being. It may be officially negatively

valued and hence denied as part of

notion that "mendon't gossip," for

the political process-in our own society, the

example-but it is the very first engine-stroke

in the reciprocatingsystem that is the mechanism in place for the politics of

Bhatgaon and other such communities.Talanoa as an event

is a ritualmicrocosm

of the macro-socialform of politicalfaction, which can come into being as men are

drawn into co-constructing a

far-from-disinterestedaccount of

something

indexically bespeaking strong community interest.

THE ELECTORAL POLITICS OF "MESSAGE"

IN OUR MASS DEMOCRACY

So much for "their" politics. Is it possible to see that our politics, too, is a poetics

of

social action, partly mediated by language and similar communicative

modalities?

Our own political institutionsare ideologically centeredon a mass electoral

process, recentlyhumming away in high gear (as of

late October,2004). Electoral

politics at the centerof mass democracy is not all of politics by any means. In fact,

to judge by participationrates, electoral politics may be decreasingly centralto the

totality of politics operating in this country, as elsewhere. For the enfranchised

electorate even in the United States increasinglyrecognizes that other forms of

politics may be of more overall significance in the total politicalprocess. To many,

for example, politics is just business carried on by other means, to paraphrase

Clausewitz(or am I thinking of Calvin Coolidge?).Politics in such a model is just

a business tolerated and legitimated by an otherwise indifferent public, who

mind-and who tend to-their own business, knowing that there's an official top

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10

JOURNALOF ANTHROPOLOGICAL

RESEARCH

business in the capital thatworks just like theirs.5 But electoral politics is the most

interestingpart of our politics; it's public spectacle in what we call the public

sphere, sometimesindeed perhaps intendedto distractfrom the businessthat seems

actually to be at hand.And so electoral politics centrally commandsour attention,

as scholarsinterested in the anthropology of communicationin the public sphere,

though a proper treatmentof all of the different phases and components of the

political is, of course, necessary,just as for Bhatgaon.

Our particular kind of electoral politics operatesthrough a spectacularpoetics

of "message," as I see it. Here, I want to elaborateon what I mean by "message,"

and why

I

think that as

anthropological analysts of

American political

communicationwe ought to be concernedwith it. More importantly, I think we

must account for why politicians are concerned with it. I would contend that

"message" driveselectoral politics in our country in the minutiae, the actualities, of

its day-to-day process, which can be followed at any stage of an electoral

campaign, such as that for U.S. president in 2004.

And it is not just political candidateswho become enculturatedto "message":

The very addresseesof their communication-we, the potential electoratein the

public sphere-also learnhow to listen to and look at politicalcommunication, and

thus we learn what to hear and see, always over the shoulders of media

commentatorsand shapers of "message." We have to appreciate, then, how

political speech in the multi-layeredjumble of the mass media is like articulate

noise shoutedinto a chasm, a canyon. If it doesn't just dissipate and disappear, it

echoes in particular ways as it is picked up and selectively repeated and

interpretativelyreshaped by

sphere. Politicaldiscourse is

a mediatingpress and other institutionsin the public

interdiscursive; it engages otherdiscourse and images

circulatingamong a public that,every once in a while, will stop its distractednon-

interestand will want to "know,"Who was that who said that?6

Navigating oneself or being piloted into a position where a public wants to

know-where

the public pays attentionto-the

sociological "whom" doing the

talking has a technicalterm among the professionals, it turnsout. It is called getting

"on message." Of course, if one does get "on message," there is also the problem

of staying thereas well so long as it is doing wonderful things in opinionpolls and

at

the ballot box, or its

touch-screen equivalent. What this means is that we must

analyze the phenomenon thatthe professionals refer to with theirterm "message."

Trying to see how the insider's, indeed connoisseur's view of how political

discoursecounts-and can be shaped so that it counts-gives us some insight into

the nature of our own political process. This I have tried to

nontechnical book, Talking Politics (Silverstein 2003). In it, I

do

in

a little,

take Abraham

Lincoln and George W. Bush as exemplary and contrastingpresidential instances

of being "on message," each in their respective eras of political communication.

SEMIOTICS AND THE HISTORY OF OUR BRAND OF POLITICS

"Message" turnsout to be the kind of social fact that can be studiedin the field of

semiotics, the systematicstudy of how all phenomenacan be understoodas signs

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THEPOETICS OF POLITICS:"THEIRS" AND "OURS" 11

of and for things in implicit as well as explicit events of communication.For

example, with all due allowance for the differenceof how at first one might think

of political personae and consumer goods-and-services, we must see that in our

own days, "message" is being professionally shaped as an analogue to "brand,"

however "message" was shaped in an earlier period.

"Brand,"remember, is not a physical, psychophysical(perceptual), or other

concretefact about productscirculating as commoditieson the frankermarkets of

consumerism. It is that abstract, yet organized set of meaning-images that

implicitly surroundsthe product or service because of stimulatedassociations-

perhaps what Raymond Williams (the twentieth-century British Marxist literary

critic) might well have been gesturing at with the phrase "structuresof feeling."

"Brand" implies potential stories, the most important being how people, as

potential and actual consumers,project culturalvalues onto the commodity so as to

organize their relationship of use of that commodity. How does this happen?By

shaping and contextualizing the product or service in a complex of signs designed

to induce that potentialstory-eventually automatically-once one sees or thinks

of the product or service. Message, just like brand, is dynamic and differential,

always changing in relationto its field of competition,yet at any moment it is a

structuredfact of associations with a degree of coherence, changing as new

construalsof the product/candidate re-constructthe product/candidate.

"Brand" is, as the professionals say, "value added" to the mere physical,

psychophysical, etc., "stuff"' or "service" that packaging, advertising, and

distribution professionalstry to shape by all kinds of semiotic design. What color

shouldthe product be? Whatcolor shouldthe packagingfeature, or the background

be against which the product is displayed, or on which an image

of it is displayed?

What typeface should appear on the package? Such mattersare endlessly thought

about in the way of shaping "brand" semiotics, even more spectacularly in

coordinated branding rollout campaigns and other mass-marketingdevelopments.

In fact, the more one starts thinking about it, the more one realizes that

"message"early on became the real organizingprinciple of this kind of electoral

politics in which we live.7 It is not the official political history of this country-

remember, the one told to us from the time we had an elementary school civics

class-but

the history of communication that needs yet to be understood.

Communicative reality constitutedand still constitutesthe only real experience of

electoral political process anyone has. Our polity, our way of people's organizing

themselves and reorganizing themselves into social groups with power over

property,money, people, services, beliefs, etc.-and people's access to them-all

this emerges from this amazing semiotic power to communicate.

Think of what you may have learnedof American political campaigns of 50,

100, 150, even 200

years ago, and of how much is now submerged in retrospected

interpretativereconstructions, labelings-"readings" is the fancy literary term-of

them as occasions when "America" (catch the anthropomorphicprojection!)

decided on a certain policy issue, or endorsed a certain moral principle, as a

collectivity thathas "spoken"through the mediumof electoral politics. Then zoom

down to the more microscopic level and discover how nonsensical are such

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JOURNALOF ANTHROPOLOGICAL

RESEARCH

interpretations, how completely a function of ideological blinders one uses for

looking from afar. When we look closely and comprehensively, we find that

politics way-back-when was a free-for-allof local political clubs that put on drink-

lubricated spectacles of one or another sort-"infotainments" of their day?-

galvanizingvery local,

socioeconomic identity and interest groups to the work of

causing ballot boxes to be filled in one or another way, with all the consequences

that has for governing and being governed. Floating among all this activity are

emergent political slogans, catchwords, and other poetic extractions from

discourse by a

candidateand by people who, narrating abouta candidate, construe

a candidate's persona, making it projectible into the public's sensibilities, or

perhaps anxieties.

For an electoral candidatethese particular semiotic flotsam become what we

term emblems of identity that can be deployed to remindthe folks of who-that is,

of course, sociologically speaking, what-the

political figure is. What are the

figure's definingqualitative dimensionalities?It is strategically essentialto inhabit

the semiotic space defined by these emblems of one's own making, and constantly

to use them as the building blocks of one's spectacular availability, that is,

availabilitythrough spectacle, all the while evading the constructions prepared and

put forth by one's opponents.

What matters to any candidate's "message" is the way one manages and

controls,i.e., dominates, the agdn, the sometimes unpleasantprimary competitions

and general elections that set competitors one against anotherin a pyramidical

trajectorythrough a regular season, then playoffs or quarter-finals, then semi-

finals, and finally the championship. Note the trickle-down effects here, evidenced

by the recentintensification of the significance of the early stages of the process in

contemporary times. Even local primaries have taken on the character of

increasingly vicious competitions, requiring competitors to show their stuff

early--especially

to attractfunders/investors-so as to impress(scare off?) would-

be competitors at the next level.

But what impresses? It is not analytic claims aboutwhat is trueand false. This

would require merely expository subtlety in factual and declarative

representational uses of language to describe what has been, what is, and what

might be. It is not candidates' positions on issues, the clear "oughts" and "must

be's" of a plan of action, in and for theirown sake. It is aboutwhose emblems-of-

identity will come to be used to wrap aroundeach of the agonistoi, the

competitors,

as the process moves forward to something like a presidential or similarly

structuredelection. Thatis what impresses. Emblemsof identity are potentsigns of

who-and-whatone is. In the agbn they work relationallyby contrast;hence, they

differentiatecharacters whom an electorate really does wantto identifyby contrast.

Such emblems position people, allowing a public to identify them in a structural

space of

relative possible social identities.Such a space providesrelative places for

them to stand in our-the

electorate's-imaginations, defined thus publicly as

personalitiesby processes either they or their opponentshave controlled(note in

such control the figurationof winning

and losing).

"Tippecanoeand Tyler, too!" for

example: A memorial or mnemonic from

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THEPOETICS OF POLITICS: "THEIRS" AND "OURS" 13

1840, because the Whigs had just learned how to use JacksonianDemocratic

sloganeering, a watershed of "message" politics, to their own candidate's

"message"advantage in drunken rally afterdrunken rally. Place, as

in Tippecanoe,

near present-dayLafayette, Indiana, where United States troops defeated some

desperate Native Americans in the push West, became a part of William Henry

Harrison's persona on the political stage, as it had been for "Old Hickory," General

Jackson, the Democrat whose

emblem from battle was a Southernhardwood of

defined geographicallocality.

(Too bad for

fragile health that he died within a month of

the party that Harrisonwas in such

his inauguration.)

The ways people have circulated such messages directly and by creating

artifactslike handbills, direct-mail letters, or e-mai