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Interview with Paul Apostolidis


Stations of the Cross: Adorno and Christian Right Radio (Duke University Press, 2000).Why has American society at the close of the 20th century furnished such fertile ground for the growth of Christian right popular culture? This book shows how evangelical conservative radio reflects &endash; and contests &endash; major contradictions of the current political economy. Public ideology and institutional tendencies clash, the book argues, in the restructuring of the welfare state, the financing of the electoral system, and the backlash against women and minorities &endash; and Christian right radio registers these frictions. Reinvigorating the intellectual tradition of the Frankfurt School, Stations of the Cross also shows how ideas derived from early Critical Theory, in particular the thought of Theodor W. Adorno, can illuminate the political and social dynamics of contemporary American culture. Stations of the Cross introduces readers to pivotal texts by Adorno on the American Christian right that have received little previous attention from scholars. The book also provides the first sustained scholarly analysis of James Dobson's Focus on the Family, one of the most powerful national organizations of the Christian right in recent years.


Public Affairs: The Politics of Sex Scandals (coedited with Professor Juliet Williams, Law & Society and Women's Studies, University of California at Santa Barbara; forthcoming from Duke University Press in 2002). In this volume, leading political, social, and cultural theorists explore the basis of the public fascination with the private affairs of public persons, especially political leaders. They read narrations of Bill Clinton's impeachment as encrypted emanations from the racial subtext of American politics; as the ambivalent response of the Christian right to contradictions of the post-Fordist political economy; as exposing the practical and conceptual impossibility of a "public sphere"; and as demonstrating both the cynical and democratic possibilities of political discourse in the era of the "spectacle." They discern in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal opportunities to rework core problematics of feminism, including the liberatory potential of the notion that "the personal is the political" and the meaning of sexual harassment. And they explore the broader relationship between sex-scandal scripts and the moral dilemmas characterizing - and legitimizing - the institutional locations of those scripts. Together, these essays demonstrate that cultural analysis in general, and the study of sex scandals in particular, open a crucial window into structural relations of power in the contemporary United States. Contributors: Paul Apostolidis, Lynn Chancer, Jodi Dean, Joshua Gamson, Theodore J. Lowi, Joshua Rothman, George Shulman, Anna Marie Smith, Jeremy Varon, and Juliet Williams.




FH:- Could you remember when you started thinking about cultural narratives?


Paul Apostolidis:- Well, in the first book, itstruck me as something that a lot of people were overlooking when they thought about the Christian Right in the United States, that political scientists especially, tended to concentrate on the really obviously political aspects of what that movement was doing, so they focused on elections, and running candidates for offices and lobbying to get legislation passed and those kinds of things, and then I thought it was very interesting how a lot of what the Christian Right broadcasts in its media, and they have a lot of their own media: magazines, radio shows, television shows, web sites. A lot of it is what you would call cultural narrative in the sense that it's more about family relations. It's about gender identity, sexual identity, and what happened was that the more I listened to it, the more I realized that narrative was a really useful concept for thinking about it. Because that was basically what happened, was that people would get on and instead of making an argument about a policy position, they would be telling a story, a very personal story, usually, and that's related to a cord of theme in Evangelical culture which is that everyone has their own personal story of salvation. How it was that they found Jesus and how it changed their life, and I began to see them all as variations on that sort of salvation story and I found it... So what I did was I, Adorno helped me to think about that narrative as a kind of aesthetic object and I used in that book the idea of a kind of dialectical relation and even in some way a negative relation between that narrative form and the social structure of power which, in that book, I defined kind of as post-Fordism. So the narrative reproduced and reenforced certain aspects of the political economy. So you could see how that narrative, even though it seemed to be about something very - quote-unquote - apolitical, was actually very politically potent. So that's how it worked in that first project


FH:- Maybe, could you remember the situation when you were studying at university, something to do with how you developed the projects?


- You mean with the Christian Right one?


Paul Apostolidis:- - I listen to the radio a lot and I tape recorded about 80 hours of um of radio broadcasts and then listened to them and gradually it seemed as though there were certain patterns - not all of them fit into these patterns - but there were sort of general, some of them had these kind of relationships to each other. So an example that was... There were narratives of where there was a certain kind of Christian professional, someone who had a claim to professional expertise and scientific authority, and they would be saying that... For instance, a very well known Christian Right leader James Dobson, who is head of this organization Focus on the Family, talks about - he's a kind of psychologist and he claims medical authority, and scientific authority, and the authority of having an advanced degree. It didn't matter whether he and his guest were talking about homosexuals, or whether they were talking about children with developmental problems, it was always really kind of a story about him and the scientist as someone who could bring that professional knowledge to bear in a way that exemplified Christian compassion. Compassion was a very strong theme but at the same time you could see them erecting this binary system where it wasn't really about compassion. It was about stigmatizing an outsider figure and stimulating fear of that outsider so there were both dynamics going on and the same time and the narrative was a way to knit together those two contradictory elements. So then the analysist said why, you know, why... What explains this contradiction in the narrative that's where Adorno was so helpful was that you know Adorno's basic thesis about art , which he did not have about mass culture, but I think that actually that for me his theory about works of art was more useful here. If you accept the premise that even an artifact of mass culture can have a certain distinctive aesthetic structure which I think this did, because it was a religious narrative, then there's that possibility that it may reflect and reenforce but perhaps also contest or negate the social totality in which it has come into existence. So I said OK, "What are the ways in which this clash of the compassionate doctor and the moral authoritarian who sets up these, these identity binaries reflect something about the culture more broadly?" Look at the U.S. system, look at the way that health care is not a right, but there are millions of people with no health care and it grows more and more. There's a way that in society right now, you know, professional assistance for people who need some sort of medical or psychological care, is binarised into a group of insiders and a group of outsiders. And the people, the leaders, political leaders have an ideology that while we're all one big community, here in America, and we care about each other, but the institutions contradict the dominant ideology. So that's the relations between contradictions in the sphere of society as a whole, and contradictions on the level of the aesthetic characteristics of the narrative. So in that way when you analyze narrative, you get a critical perspective and an insight into how society is structured in ways that then invite a critical response, I would say.


FH:- Yeah. That's right.


Paul Apostolidis:- - We developed an interview, a list of questions, and I always went with the native Spanish speaker, my Spanish is pretty good, but it's not a hundred percent, you know, and so... I was very lucky. I had a wonderful Mexican student who was at the college, a foreign student, and she was just incredibly smart and responsible and mature, and came with me for all the interviews and. So we developed a list of questions. There were twelve basic questions with a whole variety of potential follow-up questions and there were three main categories of questions. One was "Tell us about your immigration experiences", one was "Tell us about your working experiences", and one was "Tell us about your involvement in the union, in the strike, in the leadership core". We asked people questions like, you know "What does leadership mean for you?", "What do you think a good leader - What are the qualities of a good leader?" and could they tell us the story of the strike, so it was interesting to hear what was their role. And then with immigration we asked people, you know, things like, what they missed most about Mexico. We asked them to tell us the story of how they came across the border. And people were very willing to go into some detail about the kinds of, you know, obstacles and dangers that they encountered.


FH: you didn't ask them for their life stories? like "Could you tell me your life story?"


Paul Apostolidis:- As much as we could. I mean, we were a little bit confined by time. I mean I couldn't do a full scale ethnographic study and my intention was never to do genuine ethnography because it was just beyond my capability. To do that, you have to go live with the community, and watch how people relate to each other, in a variety of different contexts, and ask questions several times, to get different answers. My intention was more kind of critical theory, was more having these conversations and then again, you know, finding some way to link that to a sociological analysis of the power relations in which they were situated. But I would characterize not just on the basis of what they said, but of what I would observe in other ways too. That's what I was talking about at the end of the session today.