Ambivalent Borderlands: (Un)locating Political Potential

Organizers: Nama Khalil (University of Michigan) and Adrienne Lagman (University of Michigan)
Discussant: Nancy Postero (University of California San Diego)

“Pragmatic politics,” “politics of disappointment,” “anti-politics,” and “de-politization” are all terms used by anthropologists to speak of political processes and machinations. The unstated assumption is that something sinister lurks behind the curtain–that a gap often exists between what is said versus what is left unspoken, and that what people say they are doing must be aligned with what they are actually doing. Many current debates in this vein rely on politics being clearly and actively claimed, but, this panel asks what do politics mean when the political potential of our interloculators’ actions remain ambiguous, or when they deny politics altogether? What, then, does it mean to be political? Or rather, what does it mean to not be political? As ethnographers, how do we take our interlocutors at their words, but also step back and see where their articulations fit into larger webs of power and significance?

If, following the work of Navaro-Yashin (2002) and Žižek (2008), the political survives critique and deconstruction through people’s “fantasies” of the state, then we are only left to ponder what work goes into cynicism, ambivalence, and heteroglossia (Yurchak 2005). If, on the other hand, we look towards Rancière (2013) and Arendt (1998), the political is separated from governmental frameworks and placed in the domain of human experience; although they differ in approach, they both argue for a politics belonging to the realms of participation, collective action, creativity, and transformation. Even so, the boundaries between the “political” and the “non-political” remain fully unexplored and we’re left wondering what these pursuits actually get us (Candea 2011).

This panel examines the intricate processes involved in locating politics while leaving room for the evasion of politics entirely. We seek accounts that interrogate the political, as well as our role as ethnographers as we analyze how actors reframe, justify, and possibly make ambivalent their actions. How is the border of the political crystalized in events, routines, or language that enable or uphold its own denial? Who decides who becomes entitled to cynicism, ambivalence, or activism? How do we come to analytically parse out political consciousness from mobilization? What changing stakes, emerging technologies, or new flows of people and media have shaped where these borders lie?

We welcome papers that speak to these questions across a wide variety of geographical and ethnographic contexts and are looking for accounts that locate these processes in broader discussions of technology, art, performance/performativity, aesthetics, and power.

Please send abstracts of no more than 250 words, along with paper title and keywords, to organizers by Thursday, March 28th:

Nama Khalil, University of Michigan (
Adrienne Lagman, University of Michigan (

Arendt, H. 1998. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Candea, M. 2011. “‘Our Division of the Universe’: Making a Space for the Non-Political in the Anthropology of Politics.” Current Anthropology52(3): 309–334.
Navaro-Yashin, Y. 2002. Faces of the State: Secularism and Public Life in Turkey. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
Rancière, J. 2013. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Gabriel Rockhill, trans. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Yurchak, A. 2006. Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. In-Formation Series. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Žižek, S. 2008. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso.