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Department of Social Anthropology


CUSAS Seminar with Dr Elliot Prasse-Freeman (National University of Singapore)

Cartoons, Curses, and Coups: Interpellation from Below in a Rights-less Burma

How are political cartoons similar to occult cursing ceremonies, and what can both tell us about acts of resistance in a context where resistors lack rights to secure their interventions? The talk develops Judith Butler’s conception of catachresis and applies it to Burmese political cartoons, exploring how they stage elite Burmese subjects mishearing everyday speech. These cartoons present the mishearing as resulting in interpellations that are framed as emerging from elites' own anxieties: they not only interpret the misheard words as an accusation levelled at them, but by so doing, they betray their shame about having committed the accused transgression. The talk then shows how catachresis applies to activist-led occult cursing rituals which hail spirits to come judge the rightful owners of stolen land. While appearing aggressive and confrontational, these rituals actually rely on similar logics to the cartoons: by mediatizing and circulating the events, protesters seek to create a field of joint attention in which state elites are not only interpellated, but come to realize they are being interpellated. Catachresis occurs when the elite entertains this alternative domain of power as implicating him (rather than dismissing the curse as a desperate tactic). The article concludes by reflecting on the necessity of such manoeuvres in the context of despotic power, examining the profusion of cursing ceremonies in the on-going anti-coup protests on the streets (and paddy fields) of Myanmar today, which act as part of a general refusal of the military-state’s attempt to monopolize the symbolic realm.


Dr Elliott Prasse-Freeman received his PhD from the Department of Anthropology at Yale University. Dr Prasse-Freeman has conducted long-term fieldwork in Myanmar, where he studies activism, contentious politics, ethnic conflict, governmentality, political economic dislocation, and subaltern political thought. He teaches, inter alia, courses on Sociolinguistics and the Political Economy of Southeast Asia. His research interests include Political Mobilization, Subaltern Political Thought, Post-sovereign Politics, Human Rights Regimes, Biopolitics, Political Economic Dislocation, Migration, Law and Society.

Please register for this event:

Thursday, 25 February, 2021 - 15:00 to 16:30
Event location: 
Online - please register