APLA at AAA 2016: Evidence of Malfeasance

Evidence of Malfeasance

Sponsored by APLA and the American Ethnological Society

Illustration by Gustave Doré from Rabelais’ Works of François Rabelais, including the Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel. The illustration depicts occult wrongdoing of various sorts—an earlier imaginary of maleficium. [Public domain]
Thursday, November 17, 8:00 AM – 9:45 AM
Minneapolis Convention Center, Room: 200C

The globalization of both liberal, transparent selfhood and neoliberal, commodified selfhood have altered local ethical regimes around the world. But has the spread of liberal and neoliberal ethics also transformed local ways of verifying ethical breaches, i.e. what counts as evidence of malfeasance? This panel explores changes in the ways people assess wrongdoing in a variety of geographic and institutional locations. In particular, the papers focus on the semiotic and epistemological dimensions of shifting regimes of ethical evaluation.

Co-Organizers: Sarah Muir, Barnard College, Columbia University; Aaron Ansell, Virginia Tech

Chair:  Sarah Muir, Barnard College, Columbia University

Discussants:  Janet Roitman, New School for Social Research; Charlie Piot, Duke University


Impeaching Dilma: The Evidentiary Logic behind Right-Wing Allegations of Corruption
Dilma Roussef painted portrait _DDC2540” by Thierry Ehrmann. CC-BY-2.0.

Aaron Ansell, Virginia Tech

This paper argues that a distinct evidentiary logic underlies the surge of mass, right-wing opposition to Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party. Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, currently faces impeachment proceedings for unauthorized borrowing and deficit concealment, maneuvers that she claims were necessary to continue funding social programs for the poor, most notably Bolsa Família. While the legislature’s impeachment deliberations must judge only these fiscal maneuvers, the popular right-wing movements construe President Dilma’s corruption in a more complex way. Right-wing discourse links her morally degenerate character to the redistributive policies of her administration (and that of her predecessor).

In 2016, Brazil’s right-wing opposition justified the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff by using allegations of communism as a supplement to, and even a proxy for, evidence of political corruption. (Photo by Reindaldo Canato from UOL Notícias April 25, 2016.)

Combining fieldwork in Northeast Brazil (Piauí State) with analysis of mass media, I argue that right-wing models of corruption are animated by a logic of two-way validation: claims of character degeneracy verify interpretations of redistributive policy (here Bolsa Família) as tantamount to state clientelism and vote-buying, while this pejorative construal of social policy verifies the left-wing leader’s personal culpability. Furthermore, this evidentiary logic frames Bolsa Família’s successful spread as evidence of the rapid moral contamination of the poor, making the tone of the current impeachment movement more urgent and increasing the likelihood of extra-constitutional measures to oust President Dilma.

Evidentiary Excess, Evidentiary Deficit: Inflation Rates, Banal Illegitimacy, and Monetary Instability
“THE INFLATION OF ARGENTINE TOMATOES: See it in all the stores” graffiti on a building in Buenos Aires in late 2007. Photo by Sarah Muir.

Sarah Muir, Barnard College, Columbia University

Over the past several decades, theories of economic performativity have structured the interventions of central bankers as much as the analyses of academic economists and economic anthropologists. Predicated on a notion of the economy as a communicative system constituted by self-reflexive semiotic mechanisms, this approach has focused practical and analytical attention on monetary policy. Within this regime of governance, inflation rates have become key pieces of evidence in assessing economic health and political legitimacy. In this paper I examine the evidentiary play of inflation rates in contemporary Argentina, where seemingly arcane matters of statistical sampling methods and economic modeling are the topics of quotidian debate as people from all walks of life try to determine the “true” inflation rate.

“CLARIN LIES” graffiti on a building in Buenos Aires in 2008. Photo by by Guillermo Tomoyose, Creative Commons License.

Those debates are remarkable not merely for their heated accusations of technocratic malpractice and nefarious corruption, but also because they are structured by the principles of duplicity and suspicion rather than transparency and sincerity: Speakers routinely, albeit paradoxically, allege malfeasance by mobilizing bits of evidence they themselves mark as suspect. As a result, what counts as good evidence of wrongdoing is framed as an insoluble problem of representational uncertainty rather than a momentary question of factual verification. I argue that this suspicious stance toward evidence and evaluation points toward longer term histories of monetary instability and challenges theories of liberal publicity and economic performativity.

The Illusions and Disillusions of Electoral Processes in Northeast Brazil (part one)
A candidate and several of his associates approach a young family in their home to appeal for their votes in the upcoming election (Photo by Jorge Mattar Villela.)

Ana Claudia Marques, Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil

This is the first part of a two-part paper that rethinks a basic consensus in Brazilian political thought (and public opinion) related to the “electoral game” in the nation’s small towns. Now taken as common sense, this thesis views the electoral process though the concept of coronelismo (“bossism” or “clientelism”) as accompanied by (metaphoric) images of a corral of saddled electors.

Candidate and his associates eat lunch at an elector’s home during the campaign season (Photo by Jorge Mattar Villela.)

In part one of this presentation, we examine the emergence of another image that has complemented this one, that of a store counter in which the circulation of votes is commodified. Based on fieldwork conducted in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, we explore the significance of this commodity metaphor as it reshapes politicians’ and ordinary people’s concerns about those encounters in which they negotiate political allegiance. Specifically, we examine the emergence of new criteria and standards of evidence by which rural Brazilians evaluate certain instances of these negotiations as “vote-buying.”

The Illusions and Disillusions of Electoral Processes in Northeast Brazil (part two)
Candidate and his associate stirring pots over a wood-burning stove in an elector’s kitchen (Photo by Jorge Mattar Villela.)

Jorge Villela, Universidade Federal de São Carlos, Brazil

This is the second part of a two-part paper that rethinks a basic consensus in Brazilian political thought (and public opinion) related to the “electoral game” in the nation’s small towns. Based on our fieldwork in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, we explore further the encounters between electors and candidates for office. During their visits to electors’ houses, these candidates both conflate themselves with, and distinguish themselves from, those electors whose votes they solicit. At the same time, electors resort to their own games of identification to extract the maximum resources available from the candidates. In this game of disguises, both parties are mutually persuasive because each mobilizes evidence of empathy.

Candidate eating in an elector’s house (Photo by Jorge Mattar Villela.)

We employ the concept of dark empathy (Bubandt and Willerslev 2015) as an evidentiary form in order to show how these two parties seduce one-another through what each assumes is unilateral illusion and one-way trickery. We argue that this play of illusions makes it impossible to grasp electoral relations as either commodity transactions or traditional clientelism. Instead, we submit that the work of likening and distinguishing oneself to another constitutes the elementary electoral task in small town Brazilian politics. We conclude by evaluating local reflections on this game in relation to democratic ideals and families’ life possibilities.

The Rule of Affect? Indian Legal Journalism in Digital Space-Times
Judicial Observation Gone Viral: NDTV debate show discussion of Delhi High Court bail order equating student politics with infected body.

Francis Cody, University of Toronto, Canada

Drawing on recent court cases that have become major media events in India, this paper examines attributions of wrongdoing in statements made by judges to shed light on a broader structural transformation taking place in the sphere of politico-legal publicity. Obiter dicta are statements made in passing by judges when considering a case, distinguished in common law traditions from the binding principle, or ratio decidendi that is established by a judgment. Such para-textual observations have long been included in written judgments to establish a persuasive framework within which to interpret the point of law at stake. But the globalization of technologies of legal reporting, enabling a more “immediate” experience of court proceedings, has greatly amplified the rhetorical significance of both officially written comments made in passing as well as their oral counterparts in the courtroom. As decontextualized fragments of judicial discourse increasingly define the public life of legal proceedings, a renewed division of epistemic labor has emerged: affectively saturated social commentaries made by judges, unfiltered by the mediation of legal order, frame questions of malfeasance for the news consuming public, whereas the world of legal reasoning appealing to precedents and constitutional principles appears to many as an anachronism. A number of recent media trials raise difficult questions about practices of rational deliberation and ideals of transparency in a public sphere that is increasingly defined by digitally mediated space-time compressions.

Cartoon from Puck by Joseph Keppler and Bernard Gillam. The cartoon shows Theodore Roosevelt carrying a club of “honest legislation” to defeat special interests. [public domain]

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