Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Volume 1, Issue 3. A Comment on Polletta et. al.'s New Article About How Women Interpret Stories of Sexual Assault

The Limits of Plot. Accounting for how Women Interpret Stories of Sexual Assault
by Francesca Polletta, Monica Trigoso, Britni Adams and Amanda Ebner

Comment by Anne Kane, University of Houston, Downtown

How do people read stories, and how do stories motivate action?  This problem has been central to much investigation and analysis by cultural sociologists, and is the broad orienting question of “The Limits of Plot: Accounting for how women interpret stories of sexual assault” by Francesca Polletta and her co-investigators Monica Trigoso, Britni Adams, and Amanda Ebner. There are two distinguishing features of this article. First, it is based on an empirical study of how audiences interpret stories told along different plotlines. Second, the investigation extends beyond the much theorized element of plot to what the authors claim is under -theorized in narrative analysis - character. Indeed, the authors argue that both plot and character must be studied when evaluating narrative effectiveness in encouraging audience action, and suggest a “two logics” approach to studying narratives meant to persuade. Plot and character operated according to different logics. Plots make sense in terms of previous plots, in terms of genre; characters make sense in terms of dominant ideologies and prevalent role norms. A story is believable when the character in any genre upholds dominant status expectations.

The question of narrative effectiveness is posed by the specific type of stories investigated by this study:  date or acquaintance rape stories, designed to encourage women to report being raped to the authorities. Efforts by agencies to increase the low reportage of date rape by using such stories have come under criticism for not being effective. The authors hypothesize that the time and space factor of ideology, or dominant beliefs, may be the problem, and that the portrayals of the main characters in the stories, the female rape victims, are often inconsistent with the dominant beliefs of the audience, young women. In short, while the narrative plot may resonate with readers, the character does not, and hence, the story is not effective.

According to Polletta et al, narrative plot genres transcend time and space, and are readily recognized by readers; tragedy, heroic, gothic, and rebirth are the genres used in the stories of this study. Character or protagonist portrayal – here, the rape victim – is dicey as to whether the audience will identify with, like, or sympathize with her because a reader brings time and space based beliefs to the evaluation of the protagonist.  If a reader does not positively relate on some level with the protagonist - and most important, see the victim as blameless - the former will not be predisposed to act in response to the story.

The authors tested this hypothesis with a group of 180 female university students. The women read three stories about rape, and answered questions devised to flesh out whether they found each story believable; how they judged the story’s protagonist (the rape victim); whether they identified with the protagonist; and what would they do if they were the rape victim in the story. The stories were plotted along tragic, gothic, heroic and rebirth genre lines, and the rape victims’ character flaws were portrayed as romantic idealist (tragic plot), male dominated (heroic), naïve innocent (gothic), and passive (rebirth). While at least 90% of respondents found each story realistic along plot line, identification with and sympathy for the protagonist (character) was much lower. Smaller still was the percentage of respondents who thought the protagonist would report the rape to authorities or a friend. Thus, most respondents thought the stories would be ineffective in outreach efforts to rape victims.

The “two logics” approach advocated by the authors allows for a more nuanced analysis of the readers’ responses to the stories. This approach, and the findings from the study, suggests that “respondents read along the line of genre – but only when the main characters did not defy status expectations (23).” In the tragic narrative, readers did read along plot line. However many readers viewed the victim blameworthy in trusting a man solely because he is attractive, and found her to be immature, naïve, insecure and stupid. As the victim’s fatal flaw defies dominant beliefs, or norm based status, of twenty-first century young women, 45% of readers did not identify with her.  And most (74%) did not believe victim would report her rape to authorities.

Respondents did not read the heroic according to genre: though brave in the end, the protagonist was not seen as heroic. As well, readers found her to be unfeminine in her “assertiveness.”  Her assertiveness in challenging her potential rapist was not the problem; instead, it was her assertiveness in being a loner in terms of women friends.  This contributed to her low score for character, as young college women believe that women should be loyal to and stick with girlfriends. Despite a low identification rate with the protagonist, the heroic story received the highest score, 58%, for whether the victim would report her rape.

In the rebirth story, the protagonist awakens from state of numbness brought on by rape to recognize her self-worth. Though readers viewed the protagonist as sympathetic and likable, many found her rapid transformation unrealistic. The innocent, sheltered, and reclusive protagonist in the gothic story was highly identified with by readers (69%), and 98% found the story realistic. Still, most readers did not believe she would report her rape to authorities.

While there are practical implications of this study for outreach to rape victims (or many other public programs) using stories, our concern is with the article’s contribution to theories and analysis of interpretation and meaning construction. The authors argue that when narratives are used to challenge hegemonic beliefs the limits of character may be more constraining than the limits of plot. The difficulty lies in the “fit” of the character with the plot genre because a character must behave according to time and space beliefs, values and norms in order for audiences to identify with her. Though based on one empirical study, with results that are sometimes ambiguous and contradictory, the implications for the study of narrative are suggestive: understanding an audience’s interpretation and active response to narrative must account for how and whether main characters behave according to the prevailing cultural structure, as well as how events are plotted along recognizable genre lines. The “Limits of Plot” persuades us that equal attention, theoretically and analytically, must be given to the role, and different logics, of character and plot in narrative effectiveness.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Volume 1, Issue 2. A Comment on Ostertag and Ortiz's New Article about Katrina Bloggers and Cultural Trauma

by Stephen Ostertag and David Ortiz

Comment by Ian Sheinheit

The battle over meaning” is a much-needed piece of scholarship that focuses our attention towards new emerging media’s gravity in the process of meaning contestation and cultural trauma. Much of the literature that discusses digital communication technologies (DCTs), with the exception of few exemplar pieces, lose sight of the meaning making systems present within this burgeoning media format. Ostertag and Ortiz, the authors of “The battle over meaning: Digitally mediated processes of cultural trauma and repair in the wake of hurricane Katrina”, do not make this same error.

The authors reconstruct the processes of cultural and narrative contestation within the local community of bloggers responding to Hurricane Katrina. Individuals, social groups, social movements, politicians and media actors are in a perennial struggle for the control over meaning. In the past, gripes individuals had over the construction of meaning in the mainstream media were confined to their face-to-face interactions, letters to the editor or calling into radio programs. The authors argue, with the advent of new communication technologies, individual concerns can more readily become collective. The authors maintain, first, that a particular set of individuals felt the trauma of the occurrence of Hurricane Katrina. Second, these individuals are dissatisfied (to say the least) with the mainstream media’s coverage, understanding and construction of the media event surrounding Hurricane Katrina. Unable to find accurate information or an outlet for their voice they begin to search other media channels online, including blogging. Following this they become, carrier agents, and use the capabilities of DCTs and begin to blog. On their respective blog sites, these bloggers fight for control over what they perceive as part of the accurate and necessary discussion and coverage surrounding Hurricane Katrina.

Through the process of induction the authors rightfully are led to the cultural trauma paradigm. Cultural trauma is a dynamic process in which meaning struggles are foisted upon particular members of a given society. Furthermore, as the authors state, ala Sztompka 2000, the shared perception of an occurrence is what can transform the said occurrence into a traumatic event. Cultural trauma is not a passive phenomenon. Rather, it is narrated and reinforced by members of a community that construct their collective traumatic experience over time. In this way, the Katrina bloggers are navigating two intertwined cultural traumas. One, clearly, is the trauma associated with the Hurricane itself. This occurrence turned cultural event, tore asunder the day-to-day lives of New Orleans citizens. Two, is the trauma of the misinformation and misidentification enacted by the mainstream media outlets. Once again it needs to be mentioned that cultural trauma is predicated on a collective perceiving of an event not necessarily the reality as there was diversity in the mainstream media’s coverage (Robinson 2009).

This second cultural trauma is what the authors are mostly illuminating. Through the mainstream media’s coverage, these individuals turned bloggers, perceived the social fabric of their identity and their city being torn asunder creating an impetus to blog. They then began to act as carrier agents in the struggle over the meaning of New Orleans, its citizens and its future. As carrier agents these bloggers transformed their “individual anger into shared frustrations.” Thus blogging created a community of like-minded individuals. Solidarity increased and the bloggers began to feel the trauma of Katrina and its resultant mainstream media coverage collectively.
The authors, throughout this piece, emphasize an important concept they term the duality of digital media. This concept is really useful for understanding online communities generally and bloggers specifically. Understanding that media is simultaneously an arena for meaning contestation and utilized as a tool in said contestation is a very important insight. Bloggers are deploying the technological affordances provided to them by DCTs to more effectively fight this battle over meaning. Further, the blog is often a more dynamic weapon than past forums for interaction with the mainstream media.

The authors are, however, as they state in a footnote, following from Sztompka’s notion of the duality of culture. Sztompka’s conception of culture is similar to the conception of the duality of digital media but he further emphasizes the “structuring” qualities of culture. Here I ask the authors a question: in what ways were the bloggers structured? That is, by their own past societal positions or by the structures of blogging discourse at large. The first point is to stress the privileged position that these bloggers occupied. Did, and in what ways, the bloggers’ past privileged position structure their coverage of their cultural trauma? Would a more diverse set of bloggers, with an increase in what Schudson (2005) calls multiperspectivalness, provide insights that this blogging community neglected? The second point is to highlight that critiquing the mainstream media is ubiquitous in the blogosphere. How were discourses present in this community of bloggers structured by the present discourses available? And, how were they different? These questions are, perhaps, out of the scope of this analysis, but they can attune our focus to future comparative work. While the authors argue correctly that more work needs to be done on local blogs, I would argue that more comparative work is also necessary. For example, if I found a representation of bloggers on a national blog site, such as the DailyKos, doing the same cultural work as the bloggers from the New Orleans area, with the same binaries and the same desperation and anger towards the mainstream media, would that too be considered the same type of cultural trauma?

One distinctive characteristic of this case is represented in the creation of the offline Rising Tide annual conference. It is here that Cultural Trauma can be transformed into Cultural Repair. The authors do a commendable job demonstrating the importance of this conference in the process of cultural repair. I want to, however, draw our attention to a quote from the data within this piece: “Oyster, of the blog Your Right Hand Thief” states that he is not sure “if the initial impression will ever be kind of re-scripted” (emphasis added pp. 198). Unfortunately, Oyster might very well be correct. Which leads me to my final set of related questions: did cultural repair extend itself beyond the small tight knit community of bloggers represented in this sample? Did the larger, very diverse (as these bloggers have pointed out), population of New Orleans experience a degree of catharsis as a result of the carrying activities of the New Orleans blogging community? Put another way, cultural repair and identity formation, for the Katrina blogosphere, is connected to their capacity to influence the mainstream media and their larger community of New Orleans residents. Clearly the bloggers influenced each other. Did the bloggers, however, perceive the construction of their narratives as altering the formal public sphere’s perception? These are questions that the authors have perhaps answered elsewhere, as this article is a portion of a larger project about the impact of new media on the aftermath of this recent catastrophic event.

Ostertag and Ortiz have contributed an excellent piece of cultural sociology. As they demonstrate, the cultural trauma paradigm is an erudite framework for understanding the cultural work necessary for New Orleans residents to cope with the coverage surrounding Hurricane Katrina. Studying the role that DCTs have in meaning and narrative contestation is of utmost importance. This newer arena potentially provides a much needed avenue for individuals and groups, of all sorts, to attempt to ‘rewrite’ the wrongs of the mainstream media, voice their own self representations and connect with like-minded individuals over innumerable topics.


The authors clearly elucidate the steps taken by a set of New Orleans bloggers in reaction to Hurricane Katrina and associated media coverage to achieve these aims. Through their piece we can follow the way in which individual anger was transformed into collective grievance. This collective trauma was narrated by a vocal group of New Orleans bloggers who wanted to take control over the meaning of Hurricane Katrina and the identity of New Orleans citizens and its future. Through this process these bloggers attempted to ‘rewrite’ the wrongs of the mainstream media’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Further, they expressed their bellicosity to rebuild with or without the help of traditional institutions. This affirmative narrative later took shape offline in the form of the Rising Tide annual conference and as cultural repair.     

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

ASA 2013: Regional Spotlight Session. Empire State of Mind: New York as a Cultural Space - A Review

The main question that this panel wished to ask: is New York City still a center for cultural innovation? Or a venue for rich people to buy art and dine out? The session participants explored this question through an analysis of the connection between cultural capital and economic capital, film, music, and the practices of the global “elite.”

Sharon Zukin says that in order to answer this primary question, we should ask the more basic question, what does culture mean in NYC? She says it is a matter of finding the balance between dreams and realities. As someone who personally moved to NYC at the age of 17, this reviewer can certainly agree with this broad representation. Although I did not move there to become an “artist,” the city in general allows for more artistic “play” with one’s lifestyle and personality, especially for the young.

Dr. Zukin looks at the question in an institutional manner. Since the mid-20th century, the balance has been shifting to culture as a commodity in NYC. What are the chances of an individual cultural producer finding a job in the market? One’s artistic creations have to be monetized and commoditized to survive in the expensive New York City real estate market.

What kind of market, then, do they situate themselves in? How has it changed over time? In fact, what is an art market? Increasingly, local successful financial firms and businesses pay for street banners, usually on lampposts, to locate people in particular areas. They wish to portray the city as the financial and cultural capital of the world, but it is a particular kind of cultural capital that is inextricably tied to financial capital.

Case in point: the promoting of Phillips Auction House sales of expensive photographs. This is not the type of independent public art/street art market that existed in New York in the past. This changes the nature of the art. Is art for institutions or for communities?

Unlike business districts, art districts in NYC are self-proclaimed only, not legally or municipally recognized. If they are successful, they are transformed into something that will eventually destroy their original meaning as rents rise. Art districts then have to move. The migration of art districts reflects antagonistic synergy between art and markets/commodification. Corporations like the Ford Foundation and government programs enhanced NYC as the cultural capital center. In the 20th century, cities as cultural centers began to be likened to ancient Athens, or Versailles. All of this is, in microcosm form, is reflective of the growing tension between what has recently become defined as the gaps between “The 99% and the 1%.”

Sujatha Teresa Fernandes explores the relationship between inequality and cultural production in her historical analysis of Hip Hop culture. It has existed throughout recent history as both a culture and as an aesthetic. In the 1970s, it represented the dislocation and marginality “slum” clearance projects created in order to make way for commercial districts. Hip hop was essentially responsible for renewal of local networks that had been disrupted. In fact, they literally reclaimed power from city by tapping into lampposts to run sounds systems.

Hearkening back to Dr. Zukin’s talk, Hip Hop was commercialized from the very beginning, and concerned with making a living. Again, this is necessary in an expensive, commoditized art space such as New York. Dr. Fernandes’ main point here, I believe, is that because of its inextricable historical ties to the commoditized art market, despite corporate takeovers, Hip Hop can still spawn new genres concerned with sociopolitical change.

Vera Zolberg’s talk explored how cinema representation of undocumented workers humanizes them. In a set of films, including La Ciudad (The City), about Hispanic immigrants trying to work in New York; Take Out, a film about a delivery driver trying to pay off a debt to human smugglers; Man Push Cart, about a street vendor, who used to be a Pakistani rock start, now selling coffee on the streets; Chop Shop, about a Latino orphan working and living at an auto repair shop in Queens, trying to make a better life for his family; and Your Day Is My Night, about Chinese immigrants sharing a shift bed apartment, a concept most Americans can scarcely understand. In these films, we see the inherent contradiction between the affluent city vs. the city of poor immigrants. In a time when there is so much animosity towards immigrants in the United States, films that allow the audience to see them as people rather than the undefined Other is a valuable topic to explore. 

We see also the contradictory experiences of immigrants in this set of films: the enclosed space of the factory vs. open space of street vendor and delivery worker. But neither is free in the true sense of the word.
Ashley Mears’ talk explored the elite party space in the city: The culture of the Global Jet Set. What are the characteristics of leisure and consumption among international VIPs?  How do they signal their status to one another? They go to exclusive clubs that offer bottle services, in the former meatpacking district of NYC. Bottle girls bring champagne with fireworks attached to the bottles or trays that mark publicly the purchase of large bottles. Members pay table rent, which costs $1000 to $5000, and bottles are marked up 300% to 500 %. Larger sizes require more people to carry them and cause more of a “scene.”

This exclusivity is the playground of “Whales” (international capitalists), celebrities, affluent NY businessmen or tourists. The role of women in this context is to display “bodily capital”; they are models, or look like them. Expenditures are ostentation, and referred to as “stupid money.” This implies the people engaging in the practices recognize that it is ridiculous spending; it is disgusting, but still considered fun. It is often marked by conspicuous waste as well as consumption, and one-upmanship.

Why does this matter? These practices represent the de-territorialization of elite space. No matter if they engage in these practices in St. Tropez or NYC, it is always the same people, the same music, the same spending, and increases the trend of super gentrification. They can exist in a globally-dispersed bubble of experiences that are unlike those even physically occupying the space right next to them. It enhances institutional forms of power, and enables rich men to meet other rich men, meet potential investors and enhance business ties, and display status to impress future investors. It reinforces class boundaries, especially in the Meatpacking District clubs which are near public housing; local people are kept out by security guards and velvet ropes. Busboys are short and dark. Women are tall and white. The reproduction of cultural and economic differences is thus maintained.



Monday, August 19, 2013

ASA 2013: Section on Sociology of Culture Paper Session. Performance as Cultural Form - A Review

As far as cultural sociology goes, this was one of THE sessions to be at, in terms of both entertainment value and scholarship.  There were five papers given during this session and each was performed as well as their discussions of performance were interesting, though provoking, and often entertaining.  This “review” will only discuss two of the five.

As part of, what I understand to be, a larger book project, Dr. Phil Smith discusses his submission entitled: Performance and Climate Change: An Aristotelian Analysis of Culture Structures and Character in "An Inconvenient Truth"

His paper is an Aristotelian analysis, a la Rhetoric and Poetics, of the reasons for the success of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in comparison with other films on climate change (from both sides of the debate) and with Al Gore’s performance in his failed bids for president.

The larger and more timely question that Dr. Smith seems to be attempting to answer is, “why don’t people do anything about climate change?”.  His answer:  the performances aren’t good enough.  So, which performance was good enough or how do we tell a good performance?  Well, from the public buzz and sales Truth is a clear example of success.  What is key about this performance?  Smith’s answer: ethos and not logos.  The moral character and trustworthiness of the performer (which is itself a performance) is just as important as other attributes of the performance (like editing in the film format) and the logos (or actual information provided).

According to Aristotle, the main rhetorical force of a performance, even of climate change information which is itself quite compelling, is the good character of the performer of this information.  In comparison to his prior election performances, Gore was “entertaining, not wooden”.  In comparison with other performances of the climate change debate, Gore is a “character” in the first place.  He does a much better job of playing himself than he did before and of playing a character which reads as sympathetic at all in comparison to other films about climate change.  Truth is a story as much about Gore as it is about carbon dioxide levels.  Gore seems to be one of us and uses many plot and character development devices to make that performance successful.  He also leaves out everything that makes him seem privileged, which, of course, he is.

As an audience member to Smith’s performance of this work, I was also entertained.  But, this audience member is left with a few questions that may stem from not having actually read the work.  They follow:

  1. What is the original contribution of this work?  I am not sure if the test of performance, in this case, is that compelling.  Certainly, the overall question is…how to get people to respond to climate change.  But, if the argument is that Gore’s performance was successful…how do we measure that?  In other words, how do we test the performance argument here or has it been satisfactorily done already (with respect to Alexander’s argument in The Performance of Politics)?
  2. What of the use of Aristotle?  I am as fond of the Aristotelian character analyses as anyone who took Composition II or equivalent in undergrad, but why is using Aristotle sociologically justifiable?
  3. If we can make the case that Aristotelian analysis is compelling in a cultural sociological argument (which it seems to me is compelling in a prima facie way), is this because all of his devices and elements and characters and outcomes still seem true?  if this is so, is that because there is something inherently “human” and therefore universally understandable about these elements of narrative or is this because of Western heritage…
  4. Last, weren’t we, as an audience, also interested to see what Gore would make of his obvious humiliation after defeat?  For the same reason we all watched Armstrong on Oprah and other attempted redemption performances.  The point is how to get people to view a “successful performance” in the first place.  Is something successful because it was good and we told others to see it?  Or did we go out in droves to see it in the first place?  Don’t we like to watch a good train wreck (“a crowd of people stood and stared, they’d seen his face before…”)?  This reviewer watched Truth because it was recommended to me to watch the strange and sad, though relevant, thing that Gore was now doing with his time.  Plus, Netflix would not stop telling me I should watch it.  There was enough “buzz” already about it.  But, why did I like it?  Now here is where I think Phil Smith and Aristotle are both right on the money.
Dr. Chandra Mukerji was perhaps the most historically informative paper in the session where she discussed her submission: Politics and Performance at the Court of the Sun King.

Most present in my mind after the fact where the multitude of illustrations and designs for stage and props and engineering feats of performative wonder that were used in 17th century France in particular at the court of Louis XIV (you know, where all of your manners come from).  I would love to have a slideshow of these to show, but alas, I have not done the extensive archival and other research that Mukerji has done.  Suffice it to say, you should have been there.  The images of where people’s bodies fit into the papier mâché set piece so that the sea monster’s legs appear to move appropriately is not an image one will soon forget and makes one marvel at the infinite creative capacity of human beings, at all times and places.

But apart from the lavish performances themselves…what was being performed?  Here we have a brief and appropriate Tweet concerning her Dr. Mukerji’s work during the session: 



The most important part of the argument seemed to be that the performances functioned both to reflect the reorganization of French society around the absolutist model with all noble ties to the king and away from the church and to reinforce this process at the same time.

In the aesthetic and functional vein of political pageantry of the Medici court, the Sun King’s performances helped to tell nobles how they were supposed to act.  They were meant to achieve glory through military actions (which help the king).  This was done through the plot and character devices that harkened back to the myths of Rome.  Nobles were portrayed by and as the Olympians defeating others in the name of Olympia itself.  In one fell theatrical swoop, the church is disenfranchised as a source of other political or even ideological power and the king (Zeus) because the hot little center of the nobles’ world (though the sun was not yet though of as the center of the universe commonly, it certainly shed light on the world and when it turned its face away, only darkness could reign).

Imperial blood here became the name of the game as did any connection with the light of the king.  One of the primary punishments for nobles, in fact, during this time was banishment from court; a more severe punishment than being banished from, say, Henry VIII’s court where often nobles were just as wary as the love of the princes as their acrimony.

So, performance was a mechanism of teaching politics and proper obeisance to power, the performance of power itself in answer to the question, “from whence does power flow in French society”, a mechanism through which politics were “discussed”, a mechanism through which favor was bestowed.

To begin the end of this review, some Voltaire:  "Illusion is the first of all pleasures."  and "It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere."

Second to last, I encourage readers to see the film Vatel which explores a very great deal of the concepts and the beautiful pageantry of Dr. Mukerji’s topic.  This film is about a 16th century majordomo at a French country estate who must entertain the Sun King for various reasons that all concern the topic.  See a snapshot of the set design below.  Production included research into the engineering blueprints left behind from the period so similar to what I was treated to in the session.



And last, a question:  Mukerji uses, among other theories, figured world theory which seems to argue, in her case, that identities are formed through and behavior structured through the idea that the common view of the outside world is reality to the observer.  In her specific case, that because nobles were viewing the roles that the king would have them play in these theatrical productions that they came to embody them in everyday life.  That this is the way the new way of acting noble and the identity of the nobility came about.

I see two issues with this.  First, the consolidation of taxation seems to have played a considerable part in this as well.  The nobles were increasingly financial tied to the king.  If this were considered the primary “cause” of the decrease in revolution of society around the Church and a consolidation of absolutism in France, then the theater could be seen as a justification or merely a play by “play” of what was already becoming increasingly true, anyway.

Second, to take meaning seriously in this case, where can we find data to support the idea that identities were being changed by these performances of power and through the power of performance?  How did these performances change over time?  Were there counter performances and what, precisely, did the meaning of ancient Roman characters have to the performers, the designers, the king, and the nobility that can be seen in their own words?  This reviewer recently read the book by Nell Irvin Painter called The History of White People.  The book details the specific, and society based and also racially based, reasons and ways that Europeans began to understand themselves as the inheritors of Classical culture after the dark ages.  There is specific reference to, and this is supported by other historical works, of the Frankish (re: German) nobility of France in conflict with both the Gallic peasantry and the German nobility over who is actually the inheritor of which barbarian history and those tribes’ relationships with Rome.  In this case, the understanding of that which was already noble was already defined by the Romans to be both Roman (those of the polis and with ties to the emperor) and also of the Germanic tribes because the Gauls had been brought into the Roman Empire and were therefore “civilized” by Rome and its feminine city ways by intellectuals in mostly in Germany and right about the same time.  Do these ideas provide support or do they counter Chandra Mukerji’s argument?


Questions aside, the entire session was a pleasure to attend and this reviewer, for one, was edified by the performances there.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

ASA 2013 Live Twitter Discussion

Join AJCS on Twitter for real time discussions of sessions at this year's ASA annual meeting in NYC as well as the Media Preconference at NYU.  Just go to https://twitter.com/CulturalSociol and follow our posts then post all your comments using tags #ASA13cult and tag additionally to let us know what sessions you're in.

Looking forward to seeing you all there!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Volume 1, Issue 2. A Comment on Isaac Reed's new article, “Charismatic performance: A study of Bacon’s rebellion”


Comment by John R. Hall, UC Davis

Charismatic Performance” is a most welcome achievement: it renews weberian analysis of charisma, moving the discussion away from foci on putatively innate qualities of individuals, and toward a more existential, social interactional, and dynamic account, achieved through a sort of upgraded and historicized dramaturgical approach that brings attention to the dialectic of interaction between an emergent leader and emergent followers within what Reed describes as a “charismatic community” in formation.

The project of detailing the performative aspects of charisma is important. Although, as Reed’s essay notes, Weber does not make so much of these aspects, he more than implicitly acknowledges the direction that Reed now takes. Thus, Reed continues a contemporary project of building Weberian analysis of social action, rather than reifying its structures. Reflecting on “Charismatic Performance,” it is worth asking why Weber gave more detail to transformations of charisma and their directions (e.g., office charisma). I suspect that the answer is that ideal typical transformations (e.g., rationalization and its trajectories, such as hereditary and office charisma) may have seemed more easily described than the manifold ways in which charisma is performed, which are strongly historically conditioned. Also, Weber gauged charisma as tending to be short-lived, and thus looked to its consequences.

In contrast, Reed’s analysis of Bacon’s Rebellion brings to light a number of the aspects of fresh, unfolding charisma in events that played out in the seventeenth-century Virginia colony. His account surely revises conventional historical understandings of the rebellion, and in this regard, it is a strong demonstration of the potential contributions of cultural sociology to historical analysis. Reed’s project is to construct an ideal type of charisma as performance. But clearly, as Reed recognizes, Bacon’s Rebellion cannot be taken as a “representative” case of charismatic performance. Thus, what he does is to demonstrate the capacity of his ideal type of charismatic performance to “throw into relief” aspects of a case that might otherwise be lost in the morass of historical detail. This analysis helps us to “make sense” of Bacon’s Rebellion from a particular point of view that, in the bargain, demonstrates the utility of the ideal type of charismatic performance itself.

What does demonstrating the empirical salience of the sociohistorical model (or ideal type) of charismatic performance entail? As both Weber and Reed acknowledge, charisma is always historically situated. This means that rhetoric, meanings, and actions are open both to purely historical analysis and to sociohistorical typification. Weber dealt with the range of analytic possibilities, for example in his work on the Protestant ethic, by using something of a sliding scale of ideal types – asceticism, then other-worldly vs. inner-worldly asceticism, then inner-worldly asceticism applied to work – and connecting them to historical cases that were functional equivalents of his prime case, Calvinism. In the present essay, Reed takes an alternative line of analysis, characterizing the contingent nature of charismatic performance both in its historical details during Bacon’s Rebellion and in its general features.

Where might contemporary scholars interested in weberian analysis take off from Reed’s very fruitful intervention? In the introduction to Economy and Society, Weber makes much of the point that no case will completely mirror any given ideal type, but that any case is likely to embody different ideal-typically noted dynamics. In putatively rational bureaucracy, for example, it is often possible to identify patrimonial elements. And just as we never witness a bureaucracy unleavened by other meaningful logics of action, we never see “pure” charisma on the ground. Reed thus does not claim that Bacon’s Rebellion is such an elemental phenomenon.

Yet Bacon’s rebellion might be read in relation not only to charisma but also to the dynamics of absolutist patrimonial rule, including prebendalism, and feudalism. Bacon’s aristocratic status is an important feature of this story, as Reed notes. Thus, it would be possible to pursue further the implications, for example, of Bacon’s emphasis on gallantry and honor in the preparation for battle. Is Bacon engaged in charismatic performance, but performing as a patrimonial rebel, an unruly feudal subject perhaps?

Reed takes charisma as authority or domination interchangeably, and in the introductory theoretical discussion, he emphasizes “commands” (perhaps foreshadowing the case study, where they are highly salient). Still, the question that most intrigues me after reading “Charismatic performance” is whether domination ought to figure prominently in a general sociohistorical ideal type of charisma. And even authority seems a pale index of what goes on in charismatic relationships, which I think we would often find are not about the following of orders (as they clearly are in the case of Bacon), but of a very different kind of social relationship.

Here, I find myself embracing the distinction that Reed notes, that of Reinhard Bendix, between “authority” and “leadership.” But I’m looking for an even more capacious characterization: leadership rightly implies “following,” and in the cases approximating charisma that I examined in The Ways Out: Utopian Communal Groups in an Age of Babylon (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), the term “following” does not adequately capture the character of social relationships involving charisma.

Reed notes Weber’s use of the term “charismatic community,” and rightly treats it (p. 267, ftnt. 16) as a feature of an expansionary charismatic performance. And he observes that Weber’s central discussion of the charismatic community focuses on what happens to it with what Weber encompassingly describes as “the disappearance of the personal charismatic leader” (Economy and Society [Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1978], p. 246), when the problem of routinization comes to the fore.

However, Weber makes some rather cryptic comments a few pages earlier that suggest a way of thickening our understanding of charisma, rather than reducing it to either leadership or authority, much less domination. Those terms all suggest charisma as something invested in a single individual and his or her relationships with others. But in discussing the charismatic community, Weber notes the issue of charismatic qualification of its members, suggesting that participants themselves engage in charismatic action in the absence of hierarchy: “the leader merely intervenes in general or in individual cases when he considers the members of his staff lacking in charismatic qualification for a given task” (p. 243). He goes on, “There are no established administrative organs. In their place are agents who have been provided with charismatic authority by their chief or who possess charisma on their own.” In my reading and in my observations, charisma can become a general quality of the community, for example, in activities of communion or coordinated strategic action in which individuals depend and build upon one another’s charismatic actions). It is perhaps a feature of our (and Weber’s) individualized society that we give less than full attention to the communal aspects of charisma.

The famous three bases of legitimation that Weber describes probably translate into radically different ways in which action is organized, and at least in the case of charisma, they are ones not necessarily reduced to authority or domination. Within the orb of charismatic communities, the mission (in Bacon’s case, rebellion) has a great deal to do with how charisma is performed.


Thus, we need to distinguish any given case of charismatic performance from the phenomenon of charismatic performance. Isaac Reed has offered a powerful analysis that opens up a two-fold agenda. First, there is the study of any given charismatic performance in relation to the cultural structures and dramaturgical tropes of its times. Second, comparative analysis of charismatic performances opens up the possibilities of (1) moving from various cases of charismatic performance to further clarify the general phenomenon of charismatic performance, and (2) attending to the conditions under which various aspects of charisma will come to the fore, while others are suppressed. For charisma, Weber already describes a number of structural possibilities and constraints of everyday life. With Reed’s emphasis on performance, charisma can find a new place in contemporary sociological analysis of lifeworldly social action.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

"Kano Durbar, a Nigerian ritual that presents a social drama of and for Kano residents" now available on AJCS website

by Wendy Griswold and Muhammed Bhadmus

The authors make two important contributions:
They bring politics out of the “purely” political realm.
They emphasizes the symbolic nature of place.

The authors make an important contribution to the study of the nexus of culture and politics by understanding that which is political to be that which involves power instead of only those who currently have a monopoly on the use of violence in a given territory.  They define political aesthetics as, “…the process of putting beauty (of imagery, of language, of music, of the body) in the service of some power arrangement (p. 127).”  Thus, they avoid certain problems associated with the analysis of political rituals and performances.  For instance, they argue that most studies of political rituals and performances focus on authoritarian contexts because the massive pomp and power marshaled by these regimes and because they present an easier case—one where there is a central performer/audience binary—one unified center that performs for the undifferentiated periphery or one citizen audience.

Therefore, it is not surprising that it is more likely to be nondemocratic governmental forms that rely on more dramatic rituals – that rally more aesthetic supports to their legitimacy.  This is because it is their legitimacy that is the primary question.  That is, authoritarian regimes cannot rely on the legitimacy inherent in the governmental form itself, as is the case in most democracies or as most democracies are able to claim, but on the legitimacy of the particular ruling party or specific officials.  And this legitimacy must be constantly performed and narrated, particularly without reliance on actual popular support.  They must perform the existence of this popular support instead of pointing to actual instances of popular participation.  The performance is designed to make the claim that they represent the public in particular ways and always for their own good.

Instead, Griswold and Bhadmus make a more strongly cultural argument by saying that the meaning and function of public performances and rituals cannot be imposed on cases beforehand.  In fact, to the extent that it is legal to express so openly, there will always be audience contestation over interpretation of the meaning of any public event (whether orchestrated or not).  In fact, those “in” power are not the only ones “with” power.  This should be more apparent in countries where there is not a homogenous citizenry and where the government does not maintain a monopoly over definitions of that citizenry and public performances.  By allowing their data to talk to them instead of talking over the case-study, the authors are able to illustrate, compellingly, how power is clustered in different groups and mustered in different ways. 

The authors show that nowhere is this more important to understand than in studies of nation-building.  While the authors agree that nation-building, the creation of an “imagined community”, is achieved through collective identity narration and re-narration in performances and rituals.  But, past studies have often chosen, on the basis of an understanding of performances as having a primarily legitimating function, mostly those cases where there is little (in actuality or in ability) contestation over interpretation and where an imagined community had already been established.  This results in post hoc selection of cases with an undivided authority.  But if interpretations vary and most societies are not defined by an undifferentiated mass of bodies that naturally flock to participate in rituals whose aim is to legitimate the unquestioned authority, then other cases ought to be selected.  This is precisely what Griswold and Bhadmus do.

In fact, in countries where collective identity is divided and/or highly contentious and where power is either seen as shaky or provisional (often the same place), public performances are often successful not because of their claim to represent the imagined community or bolster the legitimacy of a popular leader, but because they are able to organize the performance around a unifying and highly potent aesthetic element.  In the case of Kano, the authors argue that this element is place.  In successful aesthetic politics it is not always the political element that creates solidarity, but the nature of the aesthetic elements that can create solidarity through affectation.  Hence, they argue not for an analysis of the aesthetics of politics; it is the politics of aesthetics – the inherently political nature of the aesthetic—that is important.

Place is an important symbolic container of performances because it has the potential to draw upon various identities and affective processes and is therefore capable of crossing the boundaries distinguishing groups from one another to create a more cohesive solidarity-making experience for participants and audience.

The article also includes a succinct summary of the historical context of Kano (tied to the Biafra conflict) which many readers will find useful to understanding the importance of Kano as a place of symbolic and political significance.  Kano is a large city in northern Nigeria which has been a hot center of conflict for many years between different ethnic-linguistic and religious groups.  Griswold and Bhadmus also provide a concise map of political, demographic, and economic tensions that plague the region and come to a point in the overpopulated and underemployed city.

The Durbar is a twice a year spectacle in Kano associated with Muslim holidays and revolve around a salute to the Emir.  The history of the Durbar is one of colonial legacy and the salutation to the Emir, the authors point out, is an odd one because he holds not legal or constitutional but only religious power.  Despite the fact that these are not obviously solidarity-rallying meaning-points for the events, it is extremely popular among all groups.  This is the conundrum that Griswold and Bhadmus attempt to solve—why is such a symbolically contaminated spectacle able to achieve such successful performance-audience fusion?

Many scholars studying ritual and performance in post-colonial nations focus on the authenticity of culture.  They make the argument that returning to local cultural roots is part of the answer to solving the crises of post-colonial nations.  But, these scholars merely become responsible for a politics of naming and division by saying that this and not that element is “pre-colonial”.  In fact, it does not matter whether or not a local cultural spectacle or ritual is pre- or post-colonial or in fact imperial in its origins.  It only matters that it resonates with the current local population in order to be successful and that, in cases of general identity formation based on local life, the symbolic meaning of festivals of space has the potential to muster more a more inclusive fusion.  All traditions are invented.

In this case, the political ritual spectacle of the Kano Durbar is able to resonate with its audience because it utilizes both cognitive and emotional elements, because those elements speak to an inclusive localness of Kano and not of Nigeria, Islam, African or otherwise, and because the performers (the bodies in motion) represent the not-undifferentiated masses of Kano and the local powers of Kano.  In fact, these local powers (the Emir) is seen, in the course of the ritual procession, to make local demands of national government thereby drawing lines of distinction between the local and the national and creating a more universal local identity that is not associated only with being Muslim.

Most importantly, as their interview data show, though the spectacle is highly scripted, it resonates with audience because it is perceived not as a drama, but as reality.  In fact, the performance is not understood in terms of its historical authenticity, but for the realness—the immediate authenticity—that is perceived by the audience.  It is understood as a pageant of real local culture and the reality of living local Kano lives.  This means that the performance is understood as largely apolitical and therefore not very divisive (though there are critiques).  The audience is able to consume politics through the entertaining aesthetics of that which is perceived to be local reality.

On a final note:
It is often difficult to write a significant qualitative journal article that discusses the politics and history of a place far from the common knowledge of the readership.  The authors do an impeccable job of sailing between the horns of multiple practical dilemmas.  Readers will particularly enjoy the tendency for the authors to clearly define the specificity of the concepts they are using and the terms of the theoretical and methodological dilemmas they are resolving.

Questions for comments:
Is it possible that the success of the spectacle in fusing with the audience and in creating a more inclusive local identity that crosses ethnic, religious, political, and economic lines is the product of the specific local charisma of the Emir?

Is it possible that local character can, that a definition of “us”, is only possible as the result of the generally condemned violence by the Boko Haram?  That is, does identity form more easily through ritual when faced with adversity?