Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series: Zsuzsa Gille "Politics and Materiality: European Capitalism with a Human Face?" Response by Ned Prutzer

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

posted under by Roman Friedman
[On February 22, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the latest installment in its 2015-2016 Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series, "Politics and Materiality: European Capitalism with a Human Face?" The speaker was Zsuzsa Gille, Associate Professor of Sociology. Below Ned Prutzer's (Institute of Communications Research) response to the lecture.]

On the Politics of Materiality
Written by Ned Prutzer (Institute of Communications Research)

The recent Unit for Criticism Distinguished Faculty Lecture on February 22 featured Professor Zsuzsa Gille from the Department of Sociology. Gille’s work responds to the lack of attention toward materiality in the social sciences. As she explained at the beginning of her talk, drawn from her upcoming book, careful attention to materiality highlights how the physical object-world is organized and spatially constituted.

Professor Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi began his introduction of Gille’s work by describing how he, Gille, and Professor Emanuel Rota, the respondent for the talk, first met around their shared knowledge of Marx. He credited her expertise in thinking relationally across scales to her early engagement with Marxism. He noted that her multi-scalar approach is evident in her first co-authored book, Global Ethnography: Forces, Connections, and Imaginations in a Postmodern World (which argues that “global institutions could only become comprehensible through a thick description of local contexts”), and in her focus on waste in her second book, From the Cult of Waste to the Trash Heap of History: The Politics of Waste in Socialist and Postsocialist Hungary. Gille began her talk by acknowledging the Unit for Criticism as a co-author of her latest monograph since many Unit events over the years had inspired and informed her work. Without these events she said she would never have written the kind of book she did. 

She began her analysis with a series of images that brought out the differences in perspective between the European Union and Hungary in their respective visions of the EU. While most images of the EU produced by the EU were grand depictions of unity and idealism, images of the EU emerging from Hungary emphasized frictions and tensions. The Hungarian images effectively capture the internal debates surrounding EU policy within the country. To illustrate, Gille examined the frictions evident in three case studies from Hungary involving the regulation of food and waste products. To her, each case revolves around “unique materials heavy with national symbolism.”

A grand, ethereal image of EU unity discussed in Gille’s lecture

The first case study dealt with a 2004 Hungary government ban on the sale and use of paprika due to the presence of aflatoxin, a carcinogenic fungus, in the spice. The ban on paprika, a staple of Hungarian cuisine and an important cultural symbol, created a furor in the country. The government attributed the contamination to the illegal mixing of higher-grade Hungarian paprika with imported paprika from the tropics (Brazil and Spain), since aflatoxin cannot survive in Hungarian conditions. Despite notoriously strict EU regulations on food, the contamination occurred because Brazilian and Spanish peppers became cheaper in the EU economic system. The Hungarian government suspended imports, but the EU refused Hungary’s request to test imported peppers as a potential solution to the problem.

The second controversy, also related to food, was a German and Austrian boycott targeting foie gras that extended broadly to include all poultry from Hungary, resulting in the suspension of production and a significant loss of income for Hungarians.

The third case study was the red mud disaster, involving a wave of red mud flooding three villages in Hungary, when the wall of the reservoir where it was held breached. The disaster resulted in 10 casualties from drowning and burn wounds. Red mud is a by-product of aluminum processing that is highly alkaline. Under state socialism, before the EU, it was considered hazardous waste in Hungary, but since Western European red mud, which was used as the benchmark, has a significantly lower pH level, red mud was not deemed a hazardous material under EU regulations. As in the paprika case, the EU rejected the Hungarian government's requests to classify red mud as hazardous.

Gille read these three case studies, not as a condemnation of the EU’s ability to ensure security, or as a critique of deregulation in general. Rather, she sees them as raising questions about who gets regulated, who makes regulatory decisions, and how. The EU’s denial of locally-based regulations makes higher-level regulations necessary. Thus, transformations in the material production of goods occur through the imposition of standards that may not have been arrived at by the local community or the laborers being impacted by the decision.

In framing her research through Actor-Network Theory (ANT), Gille argued that these issues come down to a question of which scale’s socio-material assemblage wins out in these local contestations. Actor-network theorists, for instance, would contend this research conveys how the nonhuman is mobilized by the human in pursuit of a human goal and then asserts its own politics. But ANT, according to Gille, only gets at the micro-scale, and given the amount of friction between scales that Gille’s research reveals, she distances her work from this theoretical perspective. ANT's flat topology, to Gille, is a research agenda designed to continually prove its own modus operandi.  

In contrast, Gille contends that social research needs to situate big dynamics and global flows while avoiding a reduction of their specificity. The alternative perspective that Gille proposes is, in her own words, to “politicize the material!” This means making issues surrounding materiality explicitly political and advocating for transparency and accountability from the global actors involved in these issues. Gille remarks that it is not best to continue seeing the game as rigged, as many Hungarians do, but rather to rework it as a means of better attending to these concerns.

In his response, Emanuel Rota applauded Gille’s book. He went as far as to call it “fantastic” multiple times while recognizing his divergent views on the EU. He details his points of disagreement in depth within his own Kritik blog post. The Q&A portion of the talk picked up on these remarks in large part, particularly about how the East-West narrative in Gille’s research pertained more to how it was co-opted by the right, rather than being used as a totalizing narrative. To this end, there was also some commentary on the image of the EU (see above) and how it reveals that the EU can be considered to have an “off-the-ground” perspective, a vision not necessarily sufficiently attuned to local, material circumstances that comprise it and often come into conflict with it.

Similarly, in Gille’s estimation, the nation-state is still a pertinent unit of analysis. Historically, for ethnographers, the nation-state has been the most important unit by which the population airs its grievances. The important distinction within Gille’s research, however, is between the dissolution of the modern nation-state (something that the EU shows in its macro-scale, united vision) and the domination and subsumption of the modern nation-state within such a vision.


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