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?

Parmesan and the burning of the Russian border

Not long ago a friend emailed to ask what was even going on with Russia. “Why would they destroy food, of all things?”

It’s a troubling sight, even at a transoceanic distance. Russia has a wealth of such things as energy, timber, and space, but many Russians are quite poor, and most of the rest have at least memories of hunger. Even my youthful activist friends in interviews shared childhood memories of families scrimping and scraping between paychecks in the crisis years of the 1990s. Older generations remember the shortage economy, not to mention family histories of wartime disruptions, Stalin-era famine, and perhaps more. As Masha Gessen writes, the Kremlin’s wanton and joyful destruction of Spanish ham and French Brie is no joking matter in such a place. (Though of course a dark streak runs through Russian humor, as in this video of a patriot “doing his part” for the country.)

Eliot Borenstein describes the sight of food crematoria as “a grotesque parody of consumption and digestion… a perfect symbol of an overreaching state, arrogating the most basic human processes to a vast, inhuman mechanism.”

The grotesque continues. In the name of protecting the health and life of the national economy, the state now proposes to reject technologies of health and life: foreign-made condoms and bandages, X-ray machines and ultrasounds.

But it is Borenstein’s final point that I think needs elaborating, what he calls “the Putinist obsession with sovereignty,” a central dynamic in the state’s nationalist project that I have previously written about as it poses dilemmas for LGBT and feminist activists in the opposition. In that context, I explained how highly visible violence committed against LGBT Russians—from the symbolic exclusion represented by the “gay propaganda” ban to anti-gay vigilantism filmed for YouTube—was a means of constructing and revitalizing a Russian national community in opposition to the threatening (alleged) foreignness of homosexuality.

In his Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (1969), a foundational text in nationalism studies, Fredrik Barth noted that the perception of difference between ethnic, national, or cultural groups did not persist through the simple ignorance of one group about the other, nor through a lack of contact or exchange:

First, it is clear that boundaries persist despite of flow of personnel across them. In other words, categorical ethnic distinctions do not depend on an absence of mobility, contact and information, but do entail social processes of exclusion and incorporation whereby discrete categories are maintained despite changing participation and membership in the course of individual life histories. Secondly, one finds that stable, persisting, and often vitally important social relations are maintained across such boundaries, and are frequently based precisely on the dichotomized ethnic statuses. In other words, ethnic distinctions do not depend on an absence of social interaction and acceptance, but are quite to the contrary often the very foundations on which embracing social systems are built… (9-10).

National borders are dynamic things, not mere lines on a map or straighforwardly inherited beliefs. The Kremlin’s politics of destruction are not only a dramatic exercise of power—a grotesque, perhaps, not only of eating but also of political rituals of spectacular consumption like the anthropologists’ favorite potlatch. The elaborate and televised destruction of the foreign, whether it takes the form of nourishment or health or people, outlines the boundaries of the nation in fire.

Unsettling truths

Read this report on the untruth of Russia-based news coverage claiming Odesa’s Jewish community is making plans for a mass evacuation. Then let us think about the rather postmodern unsettling of truth in Ukraine today.

The Truth is Out There

It isn’t that the truth of a statement has become irrelevant, as strawman critiques claim as the basic postulate of postmodernism. Nor is it that words are simply reality–as though, because the world is known primarily through language, speaking a change immediately makes it so. Instead, the relationship between truth, statement, and time is complex. And as Putinism demonstrates, that relationship turns out to be manipulable. Continue reading

The fake

I’ve been thinking through fakes a lot over the past week as I watch media commentators and my social media friends respond to reports about an anti-Semitic letter being distributed in Donetsk. Purporting to be a letter from a pro-Russian separatist, the document demands that Jews register with the local government or risk deportation. Many responses online revolve around questions of authenticity: Is this document real or a fake? Who wrote it? Should we be worried?

Unfortunately, the last question isn’t necessarily related to the first two. Does it matter who wrote the thing? We’d like to think that if it’s a fake, then it has no power. It can be ignored. If we can prove that the authorities are not, in fact, planning to round up the local Jewish community for some yet-unnamed reason, then perhaps we don’t have to worry about pogroms and ethnic cleansings. A fake can be dismissed.

But is a fake really impotent? Even a fake document really exists, out there in the world. People read it, react to it, interpret it. The fake still carries meaning.

Continue reading

Column published

Just a quick link to a short column I published on Anthropology News.

At a rally against fascism in Moscow last autumn, a small crowd gathered within a square barricaded from the public by metal detectors and a contingent of police. Anarchist black, socialist red, and rainbow flags waved in the chill November wind. The flags looked brave, but I felt uneasy after some of us had been attacked on our way to the rally. A mob of young men all in black, faces covered with scarves and blue surgical masks, had burst into the metro station where we were meeting. Shouting slogans like “Glory to Russia!” and “Death to anti-fascists!” they beat up two activists and pushed a third onto the subway tracks. Luckily the latter was rescued before a train came, but the other two went to the hospital in ambulances.

I let myself get a bit swamped under with fellowship applications and teaching-related work, hence real lack of posts. I’ll try to get back into the swing of things after the AAA conference in Chicago next week.

On the plus side, after I gave my guest lecture to the giant intro cultural anthropology class yesterday (super exciting title: Structure, Agency, Resistance), a student stopped me on the sidewalk to tell me she really enjoyed my lecture and it was her favorite of the semester. Absolutely made my day. Thanks, anonymous student!

Objectivity and the duties of citizenship

I served on a jury a little over a year ago, which I’ve been thinking about a lot this weekend. I remember two overriding themes of the experience. First, the “training” video and all the judge’s instructions emphasized jury duty as a form of citizen service: we were there as citizens, peers of the accused, and this job was to be undertaken with great seriousness. Second, we were to be as objective as possible, making our decisions based solely on the evidence presented to us and according to the letter of the law. This second was underlined by the selection process, in which two possible jurors were dismissed because they were unlikely to be able to be impartial (one was related to a police officer, another had strongly negative feelings about alcohol intoxication).

The deliberations proceeded accordingly. As we discussed the case, we pored over the specific wording of the criminal charges, laying out the evidence in relation to the judge’s instructions. We weighed the differences between levels of doubt–what was reasonable, what was likely. We evaluated the lawyers’ success at making their cases, cross-checked against a presumption of innocence.

Over the weekend, I thought of this when I read that the jury in the Zimmerman trial had requested clarification on Florida’s manslaughter charge. I remembered the pressure to be technical and legalistic, and the lesson that the job of a juror is not to decide innocence or guilt, but to measure a lawyer’s case against the wording of a law.

This is, I think, an important distinction to keep in mind. The effect can be strange. Those making the final decision are hemmed about with restrictions–what may be considered, and what may not be. The enterprise turns on the wording of a law, or on the particular way it delimits the case one is allowed to judge. In this case, we see how a law designed to protect the person claiming self defense makes it difficult to prove murder. Such a technical view of justice and the determining of legal truth presses jurors to view as extraneous and outside the scope of the trial any other issues that in a common sense view would be readily understood as relevant. The shape of an entire night is reduced to the dynamic of the encounter in the moment before death. Context disappears. And this replacement of context with technicality is, of course, an important technique for maintaining structural racism while erasing race itself.