The Left should not reject defectors from the Right: Anthropologist William Mazzarella

01 November 2020
Courtesy University of Chicago
Courtesy University of Chicago

William Mazzarella is an anthropologist at the University of Chicago. His areas of research include mass media, public culture, populism, psychoanalysis and performance. His work has explored the phenomenon of the US president Donald Trump’s appeal, and what it has to do with “attachment,” “affect” and “enjoyment.” He has worked extensively on South Asia and his books include, among others, Shoveling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in Contemporary India, and Censorship in South Asia: Cultural Regulation from Sedition to Seduction.

As Indian politics places itself on the right of the ideological spectrum, some individuals who were members of right-wing organisations, have moved towards the Left—or at least, away from the Right. Yet, others, who hail from a notably right-wing milieu, never embraced it and have become the political right’s fiercest critics. Abhimanyu Chandra, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, seeks to explore these transitions in a series of interviews, titled Converse Lens, published by The Caravan. The initial set of interviews focused on individuals who turned critical of the Right despite previous associations. In the latter part of this series, Chandra interviews experts who comment on when, why, and how some people leave right-wing settings, even as so many others do not.

Chandra spoke to Mazzarella about how people’s attachments to figures like the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and Trump can be understood as ways of organising anxiety. “If another powerful form of organising those same anxieties comes along, then that can as it were take over from the previous one.” 

Abhimanyu Chandra: Could you briefly explain what “affect” means in the social-sciences?
William Mazzarella: Let’s say you are at a political rally, or in the audience of a concert or a play, sometimes you feel that some kind of energy is moving in the crowd—you feel the collective enthusiasm, or the collective agitation, or the collective outrage, or the collective anger, or the collective joy. You feel that there is an energy moving in that space, and it is an energy that is also affecting you, that you are involved in. That would be a shorthand description of what affect is. It’s a sense of intensification that you feel, in the first instance, as a kind of a bodily response. It’s not on an intellectual plane. It is that you feel something.

There’s a crucial difference between situations where you feel something, and situations in which you feel nothing. We have all been to public events where the atmosphere is completely flat. No one feels anything; there is a general sense of indifference, apathy, inertia—an absence of affect.

Abhimanyu Chandra is a PhD student in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.

Keywords: Converse Lens William Mazzarella Narendra Modi right wing Donald Trump