This Pariah-to-Messiah Moment: John Comaroff

The Obama Moment in America reminds the Chicago anthropologist John Comaroff of the Mandela Moment in his native South Africa in the early 1990s. The whole world has embraced the Obama Moment as its own, Comaroff says, because it marks “the reentry of a pariah nation into the world” on the terms of a revived democracy.

There’s a bracing analysis here from a man who makes it his business to jar our perspective — whose definition of anthropology boils down to “critical estrangement.” Anthropology won the election, Comaroff says, only half kidding. He means not just that Barack Obama is the son of an anthropologist but has a mind to stand outside the consensus when he must.

“We’ve seen something like the the birth of a counter-Enlightenment in the Bush years,” Comaroff says. “‘Give me faith, and I’ll tell you the answer. Take my heart… as sufficient justification for the Iraq War, or for judging good and evil.’ Anthropology says: ‘Wait a moment. What do we sacrifice when we sacrifice reason?’ Digging at surfaces is the anthropological act. Anthropology as a discipline has a mantra: estrangement. Take nothing for granted. Whatever appears to you in the surfaces of everyday life is not an answer to anything; its a question about something. Obama, though trained as a legal scholar, is an organic anthropologist.”

The Obama Moment is an invitation to restore politics and a public space where nationhood “in any collective sense” almost died. President Bush’s invocation of the shopping cure after 9.11 helped define “a nation of individuals held together by a market.” The Obama Moment “reenvisions America as the sum of its differences.” The Bush years gave us “lying as a national practice,” with political impunity. “Forensic journalism” marks the path back to the estate of truth. Forensic journalism — argumentative interpretation of the evidence — is embodied differently in the Nobelist Paul Krugman of The New York Times, John Stewart of The Daily Show, and Charlie Savage, who broke the Bush “signing statement” scandal for The Boston Globe. But it will take more than a few heroes to sustain the euphoria in this unfamiliar Obama Majority. The rest is up to us.

JC: I have the audacity to hope that the return to democracy is going to be about hearing. But that, of course, throws a moral obligation on journalism. I think that the press let us down very badly over the Iraq war. I think it gave a free ride to a president who didn’t deserve a free ride, even when there were plenty of critics making very strong arguments, well-backed arguments about the falsity of the claims [justifying the war in Iraq]. They were cowards. They were self-censoring. In a democracy, no one self censors.

I have an enormous respect for forensic journalism. Forensic journalism is basically anthropology for the public: the kind of journalism that precisely takes as its obligation the probing of surfaces: why are we hearing what we are hearing, why are we being told what we are being told, who is asking the questions on our behalf. I think that journalism is the first estate, not the third or fifth or whatever, it is the first estate—the estate of truth. And it can only be the estate of truth to the extent that it represents its population. We know now that politicians don’t–they represent capital, they represent capacity to turn financial assets into votes in congress. They don’t necessarily, when they vote, represent us… But, the press is always there and always ought to be representing us.

CL: Wouldn’t Rupert Murdoch claim that he is practicing forensic journalism at Fox News?

JC: I have never heard news on Fox, I have heard representations of partial realities… We’re in the tragic situation, as Jon Stewart once said, where we get our news from Comedy Central. We certainly don’t get it from Fox.

CL: Is Jon Stewart practicing forensic journalism?

JC: Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert did a service during the Bush administration. They were really very serious people by pointing out the contradictions, the stupidities of administration speak—of regime speak. They weren’t producing the news but they were producing a forensic discomfort about it that made one think… They served notice about what it was we were not seeing by virtue of it being half-hidden by the likes of Fox and the liberal press, which didn’t do much better. A return to forensic journalism is about news analysis. It is about the relationship between the production of fact and its interrogation, after all the fact does not float free in space. The fact is as manufactured as anything else. And understanding the process of its manufacture and asking how we are being fed these kids of representations. Of course Obama must be held accountable, too. Otherwise we live in a world made totally of spin.

CL: Is it possible that Google has killed journalism?

JC: I think it is a threat to journalism. It poses the threat of trivialization, which is to say that we live in an oversupply of information and an under supply of facts and analysis.

I really think that this is a wonderful call for the universities to reassert their relevance. We have seen the trivialization of the university as an institution. Sarah Palin was talking about just cutting funding for research without knowing what that research was about. We need bridges into the recesses of knowledge; we need bridges into the reeducation of America, which has become de-schooled in fundamental ways since the 1980s. I think that the university’s own obligation is not only to policy (a cheap way of looking at the application of knowledge) but to critical analysis. Think about public culture in Germany or South Africa, some of the more enlightened states in the world, where critical analysis is a public obligation. The levels of discourse are so much higher, the notions of trying to understand what is going on in the world are so much higher. The conversations that I cannot have outside of the university in America, which are perfectly comfortable in Berlin, or perfectly comfortable in Barcelona and perfectly comfortable in Johannesburg. The vast majority of Americans have no idea what anthropology or sociology or economics really are. We have business schools, but that is something else entirely. In that sense we have lost our purchase on enlightenment: the notion that understanding the world makes it a better place. That goes back to strategic optimism about Obama. He is a truly intelligent and enquiring mind and that could bring the focus back to education because there is enormous cultural capital there.

The American empire is threatened: we are threatened by the economies of Russia and China, we are threatened by the resurgence of the Middle East and, in a sense, Europe. The notion that the American economy will triumph in the end is deeply under threat. How are we going to restore it? We are going to restore it not simply by investing money in the stock market but by investing money in human beings. That is how value is produced.

If we are to reenter the world as a positive force, a force that doesn’t presume that we can civilize others but instead learn from the civilizations of others… If we realize that the global moment is an opportunity to learn. If we understand that there are other points on the planet that are far in advance of us: in understanding the history of capitalism that we are living through; the history of democracy we are living through; the threats to world order; the identity politics that are surfacing. The moment that we begin to take those seriously is the moment we reenter the globe as equal partners, neither as dominators nor as pariahs. Domination and pariah status kill nation states, they don’t make them.

John Comaroff in conversation with Chris Lydon, November 7, 2008

Related Content