Mellon Postdoctoral Research Scholar in the Humanities,
University of California, Berkeley, Department of Anthropology
January 7, 2011 Friday
In this talk I examine the threat of commodification inherent in a contemporary oral
tradition of Kazakh improvisational poetry. What does it mean for a group of poets
to “sell out,” and how does the examination of this threat illuminate an alternate
form of authority in a Central Asian political climate consistently cast as
authoritarian and as a “failed transition” to capitalist democracy? Looking at the
mutually constitutive legitimacy of poets and their sponsors, who come from the
ranks of the political‐economic elite, I argue here that as a whole, this oral tradition
exemplifies a dialogic form of leadership, one for which poets, sponsors, and
audiences advocate more generally as a model of regional and state power. Leaders
can and should be strong, but they should be accountable to the people they govern.
Here I illuminate the real value of a “people’s voice” in a climate of censorship and
repression: language and performance are not just a topic of inquiry, but rather a
helpful heuristic in the study of authority and political participation in the region.