Conceptualizing ‘doing’ authority: aesthetics, affects, and ethics

Discussant: Thomas Blom Hansen (Stanford University)

Chair: Nitzan Shoshan (El Collegio de Mexico)

Anick Vollebergh (Radboud University)
Naomi van Stapele (International Institute for Social Studies/ Erasmus University Rotterdam)

The rise of authoritarianism worldwide and the proliferation of new articulations, styles and theories of authority (e.g. in the field of parenting, governance, and (pious) religion) inspired this panel to explore what a grounded theory of ‘doing’ authority could look like when various anthropological research domains are brought together. The guiding questions are: How does one assert authority over others? By which material, aesthetic, affective and discursive means? How do individuals, groups or institutions claim and maintain authority, and how is such authority changed and undermined? This panel sets out to combine analytical frameworks from the anthropology of religion, state and pedagogy to study the enactments and contestations of authority across various contexts.

The anthropology of religion, and Islam in particular, has conceptualized authority as an ethical relationship in which disciplinary techniques and points of orientation allow for the shaping of a more virtuous ‘self’ (Agrama 2010, Fernando 2014, Mahmood 2005). It has also opened up avenues to study religious authority as grounded in the performance of “aesthetics of persuasion” (Meyer 2010; de Witte, de Koning and Sunier 2015), and the creative deployment of technologies, styles and expertise that straddle and blur religious/secular divides (Fader 2009, Kloos 2019).

The anthropology of the state and governance has reconceptualized institutional and bureaucratic authority as inherently contested and in need of constant re-constitution through “boundary work” (Babul 2012, Thelen, Vetters and von Benda-Beckmann 2014,) or through charisma, and the performance of imaginaries of occult and sovereign power (Aretxaga 2003, Bear 2011, Hansen and Stepputat 2006, Hansen and Verkaaik 2009). Postcolonial and feminist critiques have highlighted the way in which governmental norms of what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ authority are indexed in relation to notions of femininity and masculinity, primitivity and modernity (Butler 2008, Fernando 2010). It has also demonstrated that governance regimes comprise multiple, differentiated models and ideals of authority simultaneously, which are carefully applied to (classed, racialized etc.) subjects and spaces (Stoler 2002, Waquant 2010), with a particular focus on those subjects imagined to ‘lack’ a ‘proper’ sensibility to authority (Özyürek 2016, Shoshan 2016). For example, complex assemblages of authoritarian and violent modes of hierarchical authority are applied in Europe to non-white subjects in urban public space (Fassin 2013), while policy efforts simultaneously work on more egalitarian enactments of authority based on listening, empathy and the fostering of citizens’ participation (Carr 2011, Newman and Tonkens 2011).

Lastly, the anthropology of pedagogy, parenting and therapeutic care offers conceptual frameworks that allow an investigation of techniques of learning and teaching to ‘do authority’, including the global dissemination of neoliberal and psychologically inspired models of self-realization and leadership, and their particular emphasis on emotions and empathy (Faircloth 2013, Kaneh-Shalit 2017, Ozkan 2008). These studies show in detail how authority, as a pedagogical relationship, consists of the mutual moral and affective attunement and recalibration of the subjecthood of both ‘author’ and ‘authorized’.

We propose that bringing these different anthropological fields and approaches together yields exciting new questions. What aesthetics of persuasion undergird authoritarian discourses and regimes? What happens if we think of police-citizen interactions as pedagogical relationships oriented to the crafting of certain ethical subjects? How is religious authority performed in relation to the racialized and classed inflections of wider debates about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of authority? What convergences do we see in styles of authority across religious, governmental, informal and therapeutic domains? We invite ethnographically informed papers that seek to expand our theoretical understanding of authority, and/or apply the concepts and approaches from the fields outlined above in new ways.

If interested in participating, please send an abstract (150 words) to before 17 April.