The Crucial Question: An Interview with John Borneman

Othon Alexandrakis [OA], editor of the volume, Impulse to Act: A New Anthropology of Resistance and Social Justice, shares some of the exchanges that inspired it. Below is his conversation with John Borneman [JB], which considers issues of subjectivity, collectives, and the political.

OA: I’d like to start by asking about your latest research. Specifically, I want to ask how the subjective/collective figures into your thinking about secularism, and if this recent work has inspired you to reconsider the emergence of political forms?

JB: My latest research is on a secular ritual—rehabilitation—that has since the 1970s proliferated in the West, and is spreading globally as an alternative to punitive rituals. My ethnographic work on this is in Germany, and it focuses on the rehabilitation of people generally considered incorrigible, incapable of the transformation of self that the ritual demands. These people are child sex offenders. I examine how they engage in a project of self-transformation through therapy, as part, an obligatory part, of their rehab. This project follows a consistent concern of mine with political form, with the limits and possibilities within particular forms, and with the experience of these forms in everyday life.

Now, for the question of subjective and collective. Take mood, which is individual, subjective, and collective. I am working on collective mood (Stimmung) in my other research on Syrian refugees in Berlin. Although atmosphere or mood is impossible to describe succinctly, in fact very hard to put into words (and therefore difficult to make into an object of scientific inquiry), who would deny its existence? People have moods; cities and whole countries have moods. Moods change over time. How do they become internal to experience? The mood in West Berlin differed in substantial ways from that in East Berlin in the 1980s, and the mood in Berlin today is substantially different than that in the uncertain 1990s. The same dynamic goes for mood elsewhere. I am digressing here, merely to respond to your query about the subjective and collective. All experience is both subjective and informed by various collectives, though not reducible to them. I prefer the intersubjective as a concept, to insist on the relational nature of experience—with people, things, ephemeral phenomena—rather than try to identify a quality of the subject or of subjection. Even more complex, how do intersubjective relations relate to public mood?

John Borneman's recent book, Cruel Attachments: The Ritual Rehab of Child Molesters in Germany (University of Chicago Press, 2015) focuses on therapy and imprisonment in the rehabilitation of sex offenders.

John Borneman’s book, Cruel Attachments: The Ritual Rehab of Child Molesters in Germany (University of Chicago Press, 2015) focuses on therapy and imprisonment in the rehabilitation of sex offenders.

To return to my current research, the “child sex offender” is a legal and social classification, yes, a subject of the discourse of the socio-legal field. Modern states are very involved in this classificatory act. But that frame is today uninteresting, and ultimately limiting, especially given that we do not know many more basic and fundamental questions about how he—and it is usually a male offender in the West at this time—relates to children. Who are these children and how do they relate to an adult male, or to the act of abuse as it becomes defined as such. And what are the offenses that have become so accepted as abuse, what makes them transgressive? Those are questions anthropology through ethnographic fieldwork can address. And when we assume this offender can be rehabilitated through therapy, and often through temporary incarceration, as part of a rehab ritual, what kind of self transformation is assumed, feasible, or accomplished?

OA: What a fascinating and challenging project. My mind goes immediately to ethical domains, ethical valuation, and subjectivation. I am also reminded of recent work exploring the connection between ethical subjectivities, freedom and self-reflexivity. Following this along those lines, I’m wondering how the ritual of rehab, and secular rituals generally, produce actors who are not only willing but also able to take up and maintain sanctioned, qualitatively distinguishable, ethical subject positions. This project inspires further questions concerning technologies and processes of self-authoring, not to mention the ways institutionalization structures subject formation. However, perhaps I’ll ask about your consideration of “transformation” in this work. Specifically, how do you approach subjective transformation and the rehabilitation ritual?

I’d also like to ask about intersubjectivity. I agree with you that all experience is both subjective and collective. Perhaps we can put this in the context of action and transformation—what about awareness of the potential for action, and the potential of action to produce new meanings among participants? Might we say that the individual, the agentive subject participating in some forms of social action, may become aware of new intersubjectivities and that this becoming aware might emerge new understandings and further possibilities of cooperation? I’m thinking especially of the spontaneous, uncoordinated actions taken up by assemblages of actors and groups like we’ve seen in Athens and Tahrir. Can this becoming aware be productive of new social formations, collectives, and political effects?

JB: I have to take some of your terms apart to respond more precisely. First, the intersubjective is both a quality of interaction or being and a state to try to achieve. But to aim to be intersubjective is to aim for a quality that is not merely exercising agency; in fact, one often loses this quality of agency when it is instrumentalized as a form of political agency, as instrumental action. Or one sacrifices agency in order to understand the other. We must recognize the limits of this concept, and especially not romanticize political agency. Intersubjective means you are formed in an interaction with another subject, in a relation, not merely in contemplation (e.g., if I were a horse, or a brilliant philosopher), and not merely in exercising your (good) will over another.

Take a marriage, it is always an excellent example. Gregory Bateson coined the term “schizmogenesis” from his observation of marriage (including, of course, his own) to describe the intersubjective process of automatic splitting. Is being married itself an action? (This is related to the trend of looking at it as a linguistic act, as a performative.) I think that is somewhat misleading. Action is too vague of a term to specify what being married produces. It may predispose one to certain actions, but that is all. Rather, ask about the experience of marriage, which is intersubjective. How does one identify the quality of intersubjectivity in a marriage as separate from merely affirming two subjectivities in a marriage (e.g., I’m okay, you’re okay, a room of one’s own, that sort of thing)? The intersubjective quality would mean that action, to use your term, would be motivated in part by a consideration of the intent of the other subject, but it would not be reducible to a collective predisposition, nor to agreement, nor to the effects of the action. It would at a minimum require empathy to engage intersubjectively. There are other conditions, like learning from experience, like thinking, that are also, in my opinion, more urgent to inquire about before we proceed to action.

Now, to go to two specific examples. The mobilization around Tahrir Square: It was successful as a crowd action that initiated an overthrow of authority. New relations between different social groups were explored. It had a revolutionary end that was quickly subverted. When and why did it ultimately fail?

Egyptian protesters shoot fireworks as they demonstrate against President Mohamed Morsi's decree, in Tahrir Square on November 27, 2012. (Andre Pain/European Pressphoto Agency)

Egyptian protesters shoot fireworks as they demonstrate against President Mohamed Morsi’s decree, in Tahrir Square on November 27, 2012. (Andre Pain/European Pressphoto Agency)

I would say that part of its success was to create a space where Egyptian differences could be represented and articulated, and where the political apparatus (rulers, military, police) began to appreciate that gathering, as an acknowledgement of contemporary Egyptian reality, of the ability of Egyptians to mobilize and think and learn from each other. That is, the Square created a space in which to appreciate and engage intersubjectively, it facilitated a certain quality of interaction that did not efface differences (subjective and collective) but brought them to the fore. These were not new subjectivities but new qualities of interacting. Where it failed, ultimately, was in the inability to turn this crowd action into political subjects who could act together across differences, intersubjectively, to display a pragmatic cohesion needed in the face of social forces that did not want to see this transformation of the crowd into political subjects. And part of this inability was due to the inadequate conceptualization of leadership (identification with a hierarchy, willing submission to the delegation of power, etc.), leadership that was needed to speak the truth of this gathering to the political apparatus. That apparatus played with time to divide these different actors from each other, and then stepped in to shut them up. Could awareness, through anticipatory reflection, have led to success? I don’t know. That may be asking too much. But we might instead inquire, and come to an understanding, of why these new qualities of interaction could not translate in those circumstances into political power for those who initiated the mobilization.

Rehabilitation, my second example, from my research, is a subjective ritual in that it requires a transformation of the subject’s relation with itself, intersubjective in that it requires a change in the subject’s relation to others, specifically, in my research, to children for child sex offenders. Ethics, the third part of your question, enters at many levels. A rehab ritual is above all about how communities decide to protect themselves (by drawing a particular boundary between adults and children), balanced against the individual’s (the subject’s) right to enjoy certain basic freedoms (of dignity, self-definition, self-determination, fair trials, privacy, sexuality, etc.). The therapeutic treatment that child sex offenders are asked (or coerced) into is too easily relegated to an exercise in biopower, coming from outside and above, from the state. Therapy is actually also a form of empowerment, to create an opportunity for a self-transformation latent in each individual. Therapy facilitates an objectification of self, which is pretty helpful if one wants to change this self in any way. Ethics here is not simply obeying the law or adjusting to the norm. It is, again, about a quality of relating to others. Given these conditions, secular rituals of this sort are different from religious rituals only (and not always, today) in that we have experts informed by the power that “scientific” knowledge can provide and employed by governmental or proto-governmental agencies who are charged with administering them.

OA: I would like to pick up on the idea that the acting subject considers (variously) the intent of the other, or others. I’m concerned about prefiguring action, and specifically the meaning of action (political and otherwise), in analysis. I’m also concerned about over-determining ‘relations’ in the political. I brought up Athens—specifically, the riots that followed the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos in December 2008—and Tahrir Square (although, I admit, with less certainty… I may inadvertently be channeling conversations I’ve had with colleagues) as these were cases where the normative was cast as a state of exception which caused, at least among my interlocutors, an unsettling uncertainty regarding if and how they should respond to events and whether any response was in fact possible. I’m curious about these moments of uncertainty, which must certainly be more than an accounting of relations, as a form of action that is located in the subject; indeed, in subjects. Can uncertainty be a form of action? What does this form of action make legible? What does it mediate? Can entering into public spaces like Syntagma Square in Athens or Tahrir Square in Cairo be read as a resolving of uncertain action and a taking up of intersubjective action and—in a state of affairs where the normative has been deeply problematized—does that transition mark a moment of radical potential (regardless of whether or not it is realized)?

JB: To respond, first, to the question of uncertainty and the prefiguring of reality. Those are two separate points. Uncertainty is an essential quality of all interaction, of all knowledge, but I find it hard to define it as action. Yes, Tahrir Square, entering into the Square and protesting, did make apparent the uncertainty of the political gestalt of “Egypt,” and that mobilization is now an important memory, a lieu de mémoire, that Egyptians and others can hold on to, pass on, and perhaps use in the future, much like “Athenian democracy” of the 5th century BC is continually “rediscovered” to serve as a site of memory, a basis for hope. But uncertainty is constitutive of life, a principle of all action, as Sally Falk Moore has long argued, meaning that we cannot know when we act how things will turn out. In fact, our actions usually produce some perverse effects, the opposite of those intended. Victor Turner appropriated this idea in his study of ritual, ritual transformation. I think that is where we must begin, as anthropologists, with the theorization of secular ritual, which like all things social, is prefigured. I am personally very interested in freedom, the freedom to act creatively, but Marx had it right: We do not act “under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Second, I’d like to emphasize that in documenting uncertainty, anthropology has a major contribution to make. But we must work out of the empirical—that is, for us, the ethnographic—and not with the categories of political philosophers or social theorists, which tend to prestructure what we find. We used to perform the “yes, but” function for social theory, but today we are more like sheep. We tend to simply follow a theorist. Yet the political field is incredibly diverse today, and only at the most general level of systems—authoritarian, democratic, economic, educational—are we anthropologists and the philosophers talking about similar things. When it comes to action, there are two grand theoretical attempts in the last 70 years—Talcott Parsons and Pierre Bourdieu—that convinced huge numbers of intellectuals to employ specific analytical terms. Today’s theorists are picking around the edges, perhaps above all because the increased diversity of political fields does not allow for such general application of concepts.

So take Greece and Egypt, and your question of the radical potential of action in those two places. Well, for one, Greece must be immediately related to Europe to understand political action, both of the Greek elites and middle class, and of processes—de-democratization, increasing pauperization, for example, that frame action. Egypt, on the other hand, must be immediately related to Israel, for the power of the military there and its continuance of Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarianism has been enabled by American and European economic largesse, intended to keep the Arab masses politically quiet. That is what I mean by relationality and intersubjectivity, and I prefer these terms to the gloss of neoliberalism or globalization, because the “global formation” in each place looks essentially different. Interventions by local actors in the Middle East, especially in the Levant, have been so lacking in any enduring political efficacy because so much of what is political is decided by actors elsewhere who pervert local action. The same holds for Greece today, except Greece is still subject to European democratic institutions, thus Greeks are at least theoretically integral to this democratically legitimated European political field, not merely subjects of political authority. (I do not mean here to brush aside the huge problem of EU administrative bodies making decisions that are not legitimated by democratically elected officials.) The theoretical possibility of a larger democratic sphere does not exist in authoritarian Egypt without a revolution in the Egyptian political field and in that of its neighbors. The revolution began in Tahrir Square, but, as I mention above, the potential for that kind of change now is gone.

OA: The purpose of the volume is, in large part, to examine the contribution anthropology can make at this time when, as you put it, the political field has become so incredibly diverse. The imperative to remember our anthropological “first principles,” in terms of theory (keystone texts) and practice (ethnographic fieldwork), comes up again and again throughout the volume. Your suggestion that we must not lose touch with the empirical echoes this point. My interest in “uncertainty” relates to locating and describing sites where we might ground the critical “yes, but” questions anthropology used to contribute more regularly—sites where people are in the process of creating something at odds with what appears to be normal and inevitable (although these are not the only sites from where anthropology can intervene). Perhaps this is better framed in terms of methodology. Is it possible to identify emerging, divergent, political forms in the field? I’m especially interested in the question of identifying “the political” on the ground.

JB: You have identified a crucial question. For starters, one cannot assume one knows where the political is. And political theorists and philosophers tend to assume they know this. These theorists have not been very predictive in the last 40 years, and I think they have often led anthropologists astray. We need not predictive, as ethnographers, though I would think what we document can lead to anticipatory reflections indexical of the future. The list of the failures of social theory is long. It was not able to predict Solidarity in Poland, nor Gorbachev’s coming to power and Perestroika’s effects, nor Putin’s czarist turn. The sudden regime collapse and reinstallation in Egypt was also not predicted. And what of the corruption and depravity of the class of European political leaders since the end of the Cold War? Also, in that self-congratulatory moment, not predicted. Much of what passes for political theory today is clever conceptual play, renaming old things, or using charismatic authority to elide substantive arguments. Part of the problem is that many widely cited theorists are also corrupt, constantly traveling, from university to university, which reduces their experiential insights to interactions with other intellectuals and students. They travel, understandably, to live well; most have several homes and their children get into the best schools and universities. Unless one is clairvoyant and can intuit the future, to identify a new political field takes time and focus on a particular place, at least initially. It takes submission to a place and community. And that is ethnographic work.

The Love Parade began in Berlin but in later years was held in other cities, after increasing friction with local residents and accusations it had lost touch with its non-commercial, political roots.

The Love Parade began in Berlin but in later years was held in other cities, after increasing friction with local residents and accusations it had lost touch with its non-commercial, political roots.

Let me offer a concrete example about epistemology from my own work, without intending to set this up as modular. My point about epistemology is very simple, something shared by many anthropologists. The question is how one comes to know changes in the political field. How does one locate oneself to learn something? For a decade I followed a yearly demo, called the “Love Parade” in Berlin, not because it was the main site of my research at the time or because I enjoyed participating, but because I’ve always believed in looking at things that do not fit into the questions I am pursuing, including things that my research at the time cannot address. So after nine years, I published an article (co-written with a student, who also observed the Love Parade, just not as long as I had), based on observations over nine years. In the article, we made several conclusions about the political field that are still anticipatory of the present. For example, that a politics of affect has replaced one of rational argument, that traditional politics are rejected without subverting or inverting any order, that there is a refusal to delegate authority, instead locating it in an inner religiosity, and that as the public sphere is emptied of its traditional politics it was being domesticated through the use of a traditional feminine symbolic (not hierarchical, embracing inclusion).

These conclusions were informed by the past, and by political theory, of course. But that theory was not predictive. It allowed me, once I observed a parade that called itself a political demonstration but was actually neither political nor a demo in the traditional sense, to sharpen my sense of what was dissolving in the old political field—the sense of an oppositional politics, the belief in delegation—and then to bring in relief what was emergent in the political field in Germany.

Recommended Citation

Alexandrakis, Othon, and John Borneman. The Crucial Question. Interview. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review Online, 23 January 2017,

unknownDr. Othon Alexandrakis is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at York University. His teaching, publications, and research focus on: citizenship, migration, emergent and contested identities, governance, cities, Greece and Europe. His broader academic interests include ethnographic methods and writing, theory, NGOs, discourse publics, and memory.


285569339_1280x720Dr. John Borneman is Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University. His most recent book, Cruel Attachments: The Ritual Rehab of Child Molesters in Germany (University of Chicago Press, 2015) focuses on therapy and imprisonment in the rehabilitation of sex offenders. His next project is concerned with xenophobia and social solidarity.

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