It doesn’t matter if Trump’s arguments don’t add up. That’s what makes them effective.

Donald Trump and his staff say a lot of things. Some of those things are lies. Some are perhaps better characterized as distortions. Some of them are simply blatant contradictions of things they have said before.

Take this past weekend: On Saturday, Trump let off a series of tweets ridiculing supporters of a recount, calling it a scam, noting Hillary Clinton’s promise to respect the outcome, and saying that “Nothing will change.” On Sunday, he asserted that there had been “millions of people who voted illegally.”

“Trump has lost the thread of his own argument,” Ezra Klein wrote in Vox, juxtaposing those statements. “Trump undermined himself.”

Klein perhaps expects that exposing internal inconsistencies weakens Trump’s statements in some way. But I think it probably won’t, because I don’t think Trump’s statements are statements at all, and we are sorely misled if we take them that way.

To begin to understand words in the “post-truth” era, we need a dose of language theory. And it helps to spend a little time with the climate denial movement.

How do facts matter when facts no longer matter?

In what we call speech act theory, John Austin suggests two ways we can take people’s speech (any instance of language, spoken or otherwise): constative utterances (assertions about the world, such as “it is raining”) and performative utterances (language that has an impact on the social world, such as “I now pronounce you married”). Judith Butler later built on this concept of performative utterances to develop her theories of gender as a performative: the belief in such things as “men” and “women” are the product of how we speak about and act out “masculinity” and “femininity” in social life.

Likewise, we all believe that such a thing as “the United States” exists only insofar as we all talk and act as though it does.

TLDR: When we speak, we don’t just describe the world. We create it.

Inconsistent statements like Donald Trump’s gnaw on many of us precisely because they refuse to refer to the reality we know and live it. They feel like incorrect constative utterances—ones that demand to be rebutted and corrected.

But what if we look at them as performative utterances? In this case, it would be like someone saying “I now pronounce you married. Marriage doesn’t exist.” The reality apparently being created doesn’t really make sense.

So if we take performative language seriously, we shouldn’t just be asking “is Trump telling the truth?” We also have to be asking, “what effect are his statements having on the world?”

Anti-knowledge in the post-truth era

The fun new jargon word for this is “agnotology,” understanding of what is not understood: ignorance, the unknown, and in particular how a kind of active non-knowledge can arise from our institutions of research. Sometimes this is simply be accidental or at least not malicious—scientists don’t think to look for what they’re not looking for, funding for research follows some priority areas and not others.

Yet on some issues in public health, science, or politics, interested parties strategically create non-knowledge. It’s not about hitting on a really persuasive argument or convincing people of an alternate reality. It’s about producing enough confusion to maintain a status quo where there’s little public pressure for action.

For example, the fossil fuel industry-backed think tank the Heartland Institute has produced reports, slideshows, and opinion essays arguing:

There’s no coherent story there. There never has been, across the movement to avoid action on climate change.

And how much action has there been on climate change?

Don’t (just) ask what words someone is saying. Ask what their words are doing.

The conclusion here isn’t that the factual content of words doesn’t and shouldn’t matter. (Remember, we create our social world: the more we all act like facts matter, the more they do matter!)

The point is that in addition to or outside of what they’re claiming about the world, we always also have to be attentive to what effects words have ON the world.


Marco Rubio doesn’t talk like a robot. He talks like a Soviet newspaper.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 8.58.15 PM

Google image search for “Marco Rubio” overlaid with my own stump speech. I’m available for hire!

One of the latest episodes in the absurd spectacle of the 2016 US Presidential race has been Marco Rubio’s repetitive speech tic. Word-for-word repetition of canned phrases in a GOP primary debate, a New Hampshire stump speech, and apparently even in micro-encounters with potential voters have apparently been enough for media types to dub him RubioBot.

Which makes sense. “Glitchy computer programming” is an analogy that resonates right now in a way that a more archaic technology (a skipping record?) might not.

But I’m here to argue for an analogy that is not only apropos, but that actually reveals something about the underlying cause of the problem. Marco Rubio’s endlessly familiar and perpetually repeating speech blocks actually sound an awful lot like official speech in the late Soviet Union.

If you’re not a Soviet scholar, I should note first that research on Soviet politics has come a long way since Cold War-era stereotypes about brainwashed masses under totalitarian control of an all-powerful collectivist government.* In fact, the overwhelming finding has been that the average person was mostly politically disengaged, going through the motions of participating in obligatory military parades or political meetings while really more interested in the mundane issues of everyday personal life.

But you wouldn’t know that to look at Soviet texts, from newspaper articles to official speeches the reports filed on those ubiquitous political meetings, which for decades continued to repeat the firm and approved ideology of official Marxism-Leninism. So what gives?

Permit me a little detour through anthropological linguistics—it’ll be fun, I swear.

Language as a Performance, Not a Claim About the World

First and foremost, the language people use is never just a straightforward reflection of the objective world around them. Speech signifies much more than that; in particular, it is one way that we indicate whether or not we belong to the community around us.

As anthropologist Alexei Yurchak describes in his work on the late Soviet period (roughly the 1960s-1980s):

For instance, the question, “do you support the resolution?”asked during a Soviet Komsomol meeting invariably led to a unanimous raising of hands in an affirmative gesture.

Did this mean everyone in such meetings was a true believer in the Soviet program? No, of course not, Yurchak explains. Raising your hand was more than anything a way of signaling that you knew what was expected in such situations. (And really, tell me you haven’t ever raised your hand for a fairly meaningless vote in a long, boring meeting just to go along, or get the thing done with?)

In essence, Yurchak argues, the language of late Soviet life was a (seemingly) endless series of such gestures, meaningful for the social work that they did, more than the literal meanings they appeared to have.

Block Speech and the Discursive Shift

Yurchak has carefully detailed what he calls a “discursive shift” over the course of Soviet history,** or to put it in a less jargony way, a change in the predominant style of speech. While the very early years after the Revolution permitted some remarkable kinds of social and aesthetic experimentation, including with language. And early on, this was exactly what the revolutionary state wanted: new language for the new consciousness of the new kinds of citizens the Bolsheviki hoped to create.

But as time went on, the Party-State became increasingly concerned with the possibility that experimentation might go awry and develop the consciousness in the wrong direction. Yurchak again:

A 1941 practical reference book with a circulation of twenty-five thousand instructed:”Language is a tool of development and struggle…. With the help of that tool the Party arms the toilers with its great ideas that inspire one to struggle for the cause of Communism… Language, as any tool, needs to be perfected, polished, and carefully protected from whatever kind of contamination and slightest spoil” (Kondakov 1941: 14), so that it may be used “to inoculate […] the readers with concrete slogans and phrases” (ibid.:123).

(Tell me you don’t think about Rubio a little bit when you hear that description, “concrete slogans and phrases.”)

With Stalin in the lead, censors ever-more-carefully evaluated language to ensure that it met the standard of unspoiled perfection. And decisions about what kinds of language were appropriate shifted out of the public eye and into the Central Committee. This, then, was the shift: with the importance of correct speech clear, but the rules about what constituted correct speech opaque, most speakers and writers drifted toward a style of discourse that minimized experimentation and creativity, instead relying heavily on repetition of readily available set phrases and ideas from already-existing official discourse.

And imagine what happened after Stalin left the scene, leaving the position of final arbiter vacant.

In short, a speech not only could, but should be constructed entirely out of cliches. Hyper-normalized, Yurchak calls it, or “block-writing” as Central Committee speech writers put it, with one giving Yurchack this absolute gem in an interview:

“You could read these texts top to bottom and bottom to top with similar results.”

Here’s an example Yurchak gives:

1977 article in Pravda

“In the struggle between two world outlooks there can be no room for neutrality or compromise,” said the General Secretary of the CC of the CPSU comrade L. I. Brezhnev at the XXVth Party congress…
[I]mperialist propaganda is becoming more sophisticated. This imposes a high responsibility on the Soviet people…
The central task…of the party organizations should be…the further growth of the inner maturity and ideological conviction of toilers and…the propaganda of the Soviet way of life and advantages of the socialist system.

1980 book about the Komsomol

In the struggle between the two world outlooks there is no room for neutrality and compromises. With imperialist propaganda becoming more sophisticated, the political education of Soviet young people grows in importance…[t]he central task of the Komsomol…[is] the education of young people in the spirit of communist ideology, Soviet patriotism, internationalism…the active propaganda of the achievements and advantages of the socialist system.

Form Over Content: It’s a Feature, not a Bug

The essence here is that this discourse relies on certain set blocks or cliches that are then built up into something resembling a piece of writing or speech: “the struggle between the two world outlooks,” “the propaganda of the advantages of the socialist system,” “the struggle to instill in children the values we teach in our homes.”

Oh wait, that last one was a Rubioism. But it feels much the same: block writing, cliches derived or copied from tested, pre-approved phrases that ensure one’s language will be politically unobjectionable.

And that’s the point. When Rubio tells a gay, married New Hampshire resident, “I just believe marriage is between one man and one women…and if you disagree, you should have the law changed by the legislature,” it’s entirely beside the point that New Hampshire’s same-sex marriage law was, in fact, passed by a legislature. Rubio is not making a claim about the legislative history of New Hampshire marriage law; he’s issuing forth ideologically correct discourse to his people.

This is not language that is really trying to make factual claims about the world.   It’s language that creates a world of its own and signals that the speaker belongs to that world. It’s the language spoken by someone who is terrified of making a misstep. And it’s the language of someone from culture where language has been policed for ideological correctness for so long that “block writing” and block speech are practically an unconscious habit.

Rubio’s only problem is that the rest of us aren’t quite there. We have a high tolerance for the kinds of political cliches Orwell was railing about seventy years ago—but most of us at least prefer the pretense of cloaking old ideas in novel language.

Poor Rubio is not a malfunctioning robot.*** He’s just stuck in the uncanny valley between the Soviet past and (perhaps) the U.S. future.



* And in case it doesn’t go without saying, I’m also not arguing that Rubio is brainwashed, nor that he’s a Communist.

** Any Soviet scholar will immediately recognize the broadness of strokes with which I am painting this history. Apologies, but I really didn’t want to write another dissertation tonight 😦 If you have important additions or corrections, feel free to chide me in the comments.

*** My partner reminds me that despite the joke I was really hoping to figure out how to make, the word robot in fact comes from the Czech rabota (work), not the Russian rabota, as transmuted through the early science fiction of Karel Capek I’ll end with this bit from NPR about Capek’s robots:

They couldn’t love. They couldn’t have feelings. But they could do all the works that humans preferred not to do.

And what else, after all, is a presidential race?

Homophobia as part of traditional culture?

(I found this post from July in my ‘drafts’ folder, and don’t seem to have ever pressed [Post] on it for some reason. Oops! It’s kind of an important issue.)

One problem with recent English-language coverage of homophobia in Russia is the tendency to attribute anti-LGBT violence simply to “traditional attitudes,” which in the first place reinforces the religious-nationalists’ own claim to tradition and authentic Russian identity. “Tradition” is, of course, not a fact but an argument for legitimacy, one which is made from moment to moment. We establish certain practices or ideas or objects as part of “tradition” by saying so, more or less. The more people repeat the idea, take it up on their own, teach it to their children or place it in museums, the more that claim is successful [1]. But it never stops being a claim, and it’s always (at least potentially) up for debate. So in the first place, journalists are not obligated to pass along the claim that homophobia is part of “traditional” Russian culture.

In the second place, like any part of culture, “traditional” attitudes are not only able to change, but constantly do. The polling organization VTsIOM has been taking periodic surveys, and the results here are interesting:

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How should the government and society react to non-traditional [that word again!] sexual orientation? The top line (“It should be a criminal offense, including imprisonment”) was in decline from 2005 (23%) to 2007 (19%), until it shot up to 42% support in 2013. Interestingly, in 2005 the most popular answer (34%) was “The government and society shouldn’t get involved in it, this is a personal matter for each individual.” But by 2013, only 15% of respondents thought homosexuality was a private matter.

It’s a complex issue, and clearly there’s a lot going on here. But interpreting negative attitudes toward LGBT people as an expression of Russian “tradition” doesn’t really fly.

[1] Hobsbawm and Ranger’s 1983 The Invention of Tradition is of course the classic text on this subject.

Imaginaries of racism

Map of areas covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, via

Map of areas covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, via

Juxtaposed with ongoing discussion (online, at least) of chef-personality Paula Deen, today’s SCOTUS decision striking down part of the Voting Rights Act raises certain questions about racism and geography in the public imaginary.

A common theme in many responses to and defenses of Deen–on public trial for a raft of racist utterances–is reference to her Southernness. These comments take the form: ‘What do you expect from a white woman raised in the South? It’s just backwards down there.’ Or alternately, ‘She left the South. She should have learned better by now.’ Continue reading

Madonna -not- on the hook for 333,000,000 rubles

There’s been a suit running against Madonna in connection with her concert in St. Petersburg earlier this year. She was charged with violating a recently-passed law against propagating homosexuality. The case was just heard and found in her favor. (Here in English.) This more or less accords with what I’ve been hearing anecdotally about the law: it’s on the books, but cases so far have been few and largely unsuccessful.

But as I read the linked article, what I found striking is the claims made by the plaintiffs (in agreement with the law and its justification) that Madonna was threatening the traditional family by promoting immorality. In a certain way, isn’t this…precisely true? Madonna first became famous (slash infamous) as a symbol of modern female sexuality. Her image, even her stage name, are directly opposed to the demure maternal femininity of “traditional values.” To the extent that Madonna is celebrated by feminists (and certainly there are plenty of feminist critiques of her, as well), it is because she expressed a certain freedom and unabashed sexuality. Which is to say, celebrated because she transgressed “traditional” morality.

The RFE/RL post I linked above makes fun of the case, as we often like to do with court cases in Russia. And it would be exceedingly hard to make such a case–plenty of dissertations are written about suggestive evidence that pop culture influences values, but it’s extremely hard to prove one way or the other, particularly to the standard required by a court of law. Still, I wanted to suggest that it’s not absurd to take seriously the influence of a pop figure like Madonna, and that bringing a case against her is, in a way, taking her quite seriously.

Back in Russia!

Ok, summer break is over and I’ll be posting updates again. I arrived late on Friday and have been settling in, working on getting my registration, orienting to my new neighborhood and so on. And behold, what do we see in the English-language news?

Pussy Riot! (Ex: here, and here, and here)

Exciting stuff for sure. I’m developing some thoughts and will try to have a post up tomorrow about the media coverage, as well as some ideas about what the Pussy Riot affair shows about politics in Russia. For now, a few photos to establish a sense of place. Continue reading

So fun! So quirky!

Screen grab from Instagram

I followed a link from Navalny‘s Twitter feed to see this. On the left, an image of an opposition protester placing a sprig of white flowers into the uniform of a Russian OMON officer (think SWAT teams, riot police). On the right, Navalny’s tweet: “OMON, in shock, fighting off the flowers they’re being given.”

It’s a cool picture, likely conjuring up memories of other protesters fighting the power of other states with flowers. The immediate context here is an ongoing protest in Astrakhan, where a mayoral candidate has been on hunger strike to draw attention to falsification and corruption in local elections. He’s looking very thin, according to recent reports. Activists in the broader movement For Honest Elections have been working hard to draw more attention to the situation.

But what struck me was the odd juxtaposition of this image and its social context with the framing produced by Instagram:

Somehow, “fun & quirky” seems a bit inadequate here. Of course, I very much doubt the programmers and designers (slash newly-minted-billionaires?) of Instagram expected this juxtaposition: their idea was to create a fun, easy interface for photo sharing. Most likely they envisioned people snapping pics at parties, while hanging out with friends, while playing with their kids, and so on. These kinds of assumptions about users and their lives shape the way software is designed.

Earlier, I talked a bit about the logistics of using digital social networks when researching actual social networks that don’t overlap–a task which is complicated by assumptions made by designers and programmers who, like Mark Zuckerburg, don’t understand why someone might need to keep different social identities distinct from one another. When you start with the assumption that your networking software will be used for “quirky fun,” you may not stop to consider what kinds of policies related to privacy, use of personal data, or anonymity and use of psuedonyms might be needed by political protesters in an authoritarian state.

It’s also curious thinking about the claim that using a photo filter transforms a photo into a memory–a subject for another day, really. But I somehow doubt that fading the color on this photo played much of a role in transforming this moment into a memory for the woman giving flowers to riot police.