Cover page

Table of Contents










Methodological Approach

How to Read this Book


Organization of the Study


The First Period of Literacy in Madagascar

Second Period of Literacy

Language Engineering

Kabary as the Model for the Sermon

Expanding the Reach of the Bureaucratic State through Literacy and Class System

Determining Class Status through Literacy

The Death of King Radama and the “Dark Ages” of Literacy

Language-Mediated Nationalist Insurgencies during French Colonization, 1895

Madagascar’s First Republic

Class Struggle, Language, and Political Resistance within the Nationalist Movements of Postcolonial Madagascar

Bureaucratizing the Ideologies and Objects of Nationalism and Class Struggle

1975–1991: From Malgachization to Socialism to Structural Adjustment Liberalization

Democratic Transitions, Transitions to Democracy


On the Structure and Style of Kabary Politika

The Prototypical Kabary Politika Plan

Beyond the Event: Kabary as Social Contract

On Hasina Power: Notions of Status and Authority Informing Possibilities of Comportment and Rhetorical Strategy

Power and Sharing the Political Stage with an Exemplary Form


Postcolonial History of Political Cartooning in Urban Imerina

Rites, Membership, and Networks in the Cartooning Community

Speaking in Their Language: Code Choice, Access, and Cartooning’s Audience

Hooking the Talons in Deep: The Conditions of Political Critique as Political Action

Kabary and Cartooning Dialogics: Speaking Disorder to Order


On Being Gasy: Some Background on Fihavanana

Proverbs as Modes of Authority and as Portable Tropes across Space and Time

Cartooning’s Thwarting of Political Opinion and Social Imaginaries of Fihavanana

The Durable Exchange between Proverbs and Scripture

Aza matohatra fa mino fotsiny ihany! “Have no fear, just believe!”

Action Words and the Code of Modernity and Development




Analogical Groupings of “Fashions of Speaking” and Embodiment in Political Cartooning

Background on an Articulated Class and Ethnic Consciousness in Urban Highlands Madagascar

Theories Mapping Fashions of Speaking to Identity


To Speak Like “That”: Speaking Truth to Power, Power to “Truth”

Controlling the Code to Discipline Access to State Power

Once You Have the Appearance of a Wild Cat, You Are One: Assuring the Aesthetic Qualities of Truth in Speech

The “Local” of Language and Governance


History and State Formation

Collective Agency and Democracy

Participant Frameworks in Democratic Process and the Linguistic Market

The Accretion of Actors in Malagasy Democracy


New Directions in Ethnography is a series of contemporary, original works. Each title has been selected and developed to meet the needs of readers seeking finely grained ethnographies that treat key areas of anthropological study. What sets these books apart from other ethnographies is their form and style. They have been written with care to allow both specialists and nonspecialists to delve into theoretically sophisticated work. This objective is achieved by structuring each book so that one portion of the text is ethnographic narrative while another portion unpacks the theoretical arguments and offers some basic intellectual genealogy for the theories underpinning the work.

Each volume in New Directions in Ethnography aims to immerse readers in fundamental anthropological ideas, as well as to illuminate and engage more advanced concepts. Inasmuch, these volumes are designed to serve not only as scholarly texts, but also as teaching tools and as vibrant, innovative ethnographies that showcase some of the best that contemporary anthropology has to offer.

Published volumes

1. Turf Wars: Discourse, Diversity, and the Politics of Place
Gabriella Gahlia Modan
2. Homegirls: Language and Cultural Practice among Latina Youth Gangs
Norma Mendoza-Denton
3. Allah Made Us: Sexual Outlaws in an Islamic African City
Rudolf Pell Gaudio
4. Political Oratory and Cartooning: An Ethnography of Democratic Processes in Madagascar
Jennifer Jackson
Title page

Ho’any Anna.

Tsy tonga teto amin’ity toerana ity aho raha tsy nisy anao teo anilako, teo amin’ny fiainako, niara nizara ny rehetra tamiko. Madagasikara dia sady fonenako no fonenanao ary ity asa ity doa vokatry ny fiaraha miasatsika. Misaotra indrindra tamin’ny fitiavanao, fanohananao ary tamin’ny zavatra tsara rehetra nataonao tamin’ny fiainako. Tsy ho adinoko mandrakizay ny zavatra niarahatsika nanorina ary ity boky dia anisan ny porofo manamarina izany.


1.1 What is Politics?
2.1 Political Map of Madagascar
2.2 A 1972 political cartoon in the popular and controversial Gazety Hehy
4.1 Aimé Razafy depicts Ravalomanana’s development plans through his purchase of a personal jet, which he names Air Force One after the US president’s plane
4.2 “Route Construction. Let us start it with TIM”
4.3 Jivan’s cartoon suggests corruption in voting processes by way of cracked glass in the otherwise “transparent” voting box
5.1 As a fleeing man screams “Politics Again!” a political candidate states his platform and campaign promises while wearing a sign that says “Choose Me”
5.2 Jivan reports on the excessive spending by the majority TIM Senate and its favors to the president’s business, TIKO
5.3 Cartoon of a man awaiting amnesty after being jailed during the 2002 crisis, poking fun at Ravalomanana’s overuse of Mark 3:6, “Have no fear, just believe!”
5.4 The character stands at the divide in a road, puzzled over which way the sign marked “development” points
6.1 Cartoon depicting supporters of Ravalomanana’s ruling party, TIM, declaring their membership to the nation by stating in the exclusive second person plural, “We are the children of the father”
6.2 Graffiti painted on the retaining wall of the Hall of Law and the Rights of Man states “Merina is enough,” implying there is no need for any other ethnic group
6.3 Chinese and gasy cartoon
6.4 Cartoon suggesting the type of woman who competes in the pan-African Miss Malaika Pageant
6.5 Cartoon recreating a game show scenario with Ravalomanana and his ministers as participants
7.1 “Results Day”
8.1   The character depicts the ease of flow – from resources to legal agreements – between Malagasy officials and foreign private and public entities


Malagasy uses the Latin alphabet.

The alphabet consists of 21 letters: a, b, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, v, y, z.

The orthography maps to English phonetics, except for some vowel pronunciation.

O is pronounced /u/.

The letters i and y both represent the /i/ sound (where y is used to end a word, joined as a compound noun, it is omitted and an ‘ is used).

The affricates /fbetw02uf001/ and /fbetw02uf002/ are written tr and dr, respectively, while /ts/ and /dz/ are written ts and j.

The letter h is often silent.

All other letters have essentially their IPA values.

Mp and occasionally nt may begin a word, but they are pronounced /p, t/.

Nouns beginning with v change to b, h to k in compound nouns.


Without a community of Malagasy friends, mentors, and associates, this project would not have been successful, or even possible. Throughout the seventeen years I have been traveling and working on and off in Madagascar, my understanding of the lifeways of this island has grown from a circle of people who have welcomed me into their homes, shared meals and amazing conversation with me, taught me the language, helped me out of trouble, nursed me back to health, directed and facilitated my academic and personal explorations, and adopted me as one of their own children. My heartfelt gratitude goes to all of these people who are a part of my memory, my mind, and my heart.

Misaotra betsaka to the cartoonists, speechwriters, musicians, ministers, actors, and journalists in Antananarivo who shared their thoughts, time, patience, and focus with me. Any acknowledgment I give you here amounts to only a small token of my appreciation for all that you have given to me, and all of the ways you have taught me to think, question, care, laugh, and let go. I respect and honor all that you do to build a stronger voice for Malagasy people.

I offer sincere thanks to my government hosts who facilitated my access to the president’s office as well as invitations to work with mayoral candidates across Imerina. Thank you for letting a stranger in for a backstage glimpse.

I thank the professors at the University of Tana and the Museum of Art and Archaeology, in particular Professor Bernardin Rasolo, and most of all, Elie Rajaonarison. Thank you to my patient language trainers at home, in the market, and at the Alliance Française. Also, I extend gracious thanks to my first friends and family: Patrice, Mama i’dRodrigue, the “neighbor-children,” the shopkeepers, and Mayor Jean-Claude, all of Sambava. And, lastly, to the steadfast and true, I extend a heartfelt Misaotra i’ Hanta, i’ Alice, ary i’ Rivo, the family who gave me a home away from home.

Thank you to Esther for her diligence and perseverance in provid­ing this project with handwritten transcriptions of over 500 hours of audio and video. And to my translators, Elior, Fabrice, Johary, and Benja: I will always think of you with every idiom and proverb I stumble upon. Thank you for helping me translate the many kabary that confounded my Malagasy language skills but made your English skills shine.

No amount of gratitude expressed here to my academic committee – J. Joseph Errington, David Graeber, and Bernard Bate – could measure proportionate to their contributions and commitment to my work and progress as a scholar. Their patience and confidence in this process encouraged an organic development of my ideas and my strengths to explore, analyze, synthesize, and communicate. My mind and sense of the world have been shaped and enriched by these individuals, and I have this group and the department, in general, to thank for my continued energy to pursue and develop scholarship.

Without the commitment to scholarship that the Yale University community upholds, I could not have had the financial, intellectual, and creative freedom to pursue the initial and most critical stages of this book project as I did. Lux et veritas.

My sincere thanks go to fellow scholars and friends who supported my process and helped me shape the trajectory of this research and the writing of its outcomes. My thanks for the blessings from Maurice Bloch, Kamari Clarke, Frank Cody, Hal Conklin, Girish Daswani, Naisargi Dave, Alessandro Duranti, Andrew Gilbert, Candy Goodwin, Jane Hill, Joseph Hill, Paul Kroskrity, Michael Lambek, Pier Larson, Paul Manning, Janet McIntosh, Norma Mendoza-Denton, Amira Mittermeier, Andrea Muehlebach, Alejandro Paz, Jennifer Roth-Gordon, Elinor Ochs, James Scott, Rupert Stasch, Kirsten Stoebenau, Kathryn Woolard, and Eric Worby. Also, I thank my students at the University of Toronto and at UCLA, all of whom have played a great role in inspiring new ways of thinking about my work.

Thanks to my dear friend and colleague, Sarah Vogel, for the countless brainstorming sessions we inevitably found ourselves in over morning coffee, in the backyard with Kunya and Tavy, on East Rock, or closing down Sterling Memorial Library on a Friday. I hope I have touched the heart in your work as much as you have mine.

I wish to thank the School for International Training (SIT-Tana), its director and my family, Anna Prow, and her staff for their aca­demic and personal support. This project could not have found any direction and would have faltered many times without the love and care from Anna. In Madagascar, institutional affiliation was generously extended by the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Political Science at the University of Tana, and the Museum of Art and Archaeology.

Lastly, I thank my partner in crime, Ryan Christie. Not only might the references look perfect in this book because of her great attention to detail, but the writer knows her way because of the faith and confidence this person has inspired. I thank you for your willing ear, your tireless support, and the energy you bring to the process of writing the story of people’s lives.

Financial and academic support for the beginning stages of this research was provided by the Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Research Fund (SSRC-IDRF) and post-dissertation workshop, the Yale University Center for International and Area Studies (YCIAS), the Yale University Program in Agrarian Studies, and the Yale University Department of Anthropology.

Financial and academic support for later stages of the book project was provided by the University of Toronto’s Department of Anthro­pology, and the University of California-Los Angeles Department of Anthropology. Financial support was provided by the Connaught Fund, the government of Canada’s generous Standard Research Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and start-up grants from the UCLA Dean’s Office, Division of Social Sciences. I thank, in particular, Maria DaMota for orienting me to the bureaucracy that is research funding and making research life far away so much easier.


Inona vaovao? What’s new?” he asks.

“Nothing much except it is hot. Inona vaovao?” I answer, smiling.

“Nothing, hot, yes. Are you here at the Alliance with a school group?”

“No, I am here by myself but I am working on a school project.”

“How long will you be here in Diego?”

“Probably a while. I’ve been in Tana for a while. I need a break, be by the sea.”

Jorge’s broom bumped into the edge of the stage riser where I sat, and with its thump we both noticed the resonating sound of a live microphone on the stand just to my left. I lowered my voice, worried it might be picked up by the mic and disturb those working in offices all around us. Jorge, however, stepped up onto the stage, tidied the floor on his way over, set down his broom, and pulled the microphone from its stand.

“Is this your first time in Madagascar?”

Startled that Jorge was now holding his part of the conversation through the live microphone, I hesitatingly answered in a whisper, “Um, no, I’ve been coming here since I was 19, so a long time.”

“Not a long time, you are still a baby,” Jorge suggests, as his voice carried through the seven speakers surrounding commons and the loft of offices above us.

“Well, I’m 29, but … ” I paused hoping to model with my own voice the volume we should both share.

“Do you have a husband?”

“No, not yet.” I chuckled to myself thinking of a popular song’s refrain asking the same question.

“Do your parents know you are here? They’re with you, yes?” Jorge followed up.

At this point, I could only manage smiles for answers, as though my silence might temper his loudness. Doors began to open and well-coiffed French ex-pats emerged from their Alliance Française offices, stared out wondering what event had just begun, and why it didn’t sound like an event even though to them it had the accoutrements of one, a stage and a microphone. Jorge put down the mic, dropped his head, and began sweeping again. I felt bad that just drawing the attention of workers was enough to signal to Jorge his transgression. But then I realized that to Jorge his only transgression was putting down his broom, not picking up the microphone.

On a typically busy Monday morning in Tana, I agreed to give an interview to Ralanto’s newspaper. Tall, lanky, always moving at 100 miles a minute, Ralanto is a journalist and cartoonist for a major daily in the city. He drew or wrote every morning while I sat at his side. I distracted him with questions and political discussions, asked him how to talk slang, pressed him to explain the stereotypes he drew in cartoons, and at the end of it all, ran his endless errands and walked him home for dinner. Ralanto graciously endured my daily visits and the awkwardness with which I developed my project and its direction. He saw the process, wide open and exposed, just like I saw his cartooning process, from the inspiration for that first drop of ink in the frame to the last swish of color and turn of phrase between his characters. If I had one minute of his voice on my tape recorder, I had a thousand. It seemed fair to give him this interview. And so we met at a busy café and I readied myself for some time of Q&A.

At the café table, Ralanto fiddled a bit in his bag and came out with a small $20 tape recorder. I wondered how we could record this interview with so much background noise, but before I could imagine much more, the recorder was pressed to my lips. Unflinchingly, Ralanto held it firmly in place and asked his first question. I was startled but tried to suppress my sudden nervousness and just go with it. After a few questions, I realized none of our fellow café patrons looked strangely at this interaction, and Ralanto was still all business with this interview. I was the only one who needed to adjust. And so I cleaned up my act and jumped in. Later, I laughed at the number of times during my days with Ralanto that I had tried to make small and off-stage my own recorder and microphones. That equipment signaled something entirely different to me than to Ralanto.

At a wedding reception for a longtime friend, I sat tangled into a pretzel over what was happening in front of me. My partner did the same. We remarked what our bodies had already noted, that it was clearly customary for wedding guests to fight for the MC’s microphone in order to sing louder than the vocalist of the DJ’s latest song choice. In time, but usually out of tune, groups of guests huddled and craned their necks to sing as close to the mic as possible, even if that meant busting speakers and creating feedback. Dru and I tried to make ourselves small, for them and for our own fear of being asked to sing next.

“Please come and sing a song for us from your country,” an older gentleman smiled out to us.

Anna and I flooded the room immediately with indirect explanations for how that was not going to happen. The old man was genuinely confused and saddened that we had nothing to share. So, too, was the host of the wedding, our adopted Malagasy mom of over ten years.

“You don’t know just one song?” they asked, joined by a growing crowd around us.

Of course we knew songs, but where we come from, one does not sing those songs into a microphone for all to hear unless one has a good voice or a good number of cocktails in one. For us, to project the voice at that volume hinged on talent, of which we had none. For the Malagasy at this wedding reception, it had nothing to do with ability. It had everything to do with sharing, sharing a song, sharing in the fun, communing through the voice. Even among strangers, the amplified voice was to communicate the spirit of a shared celebration and not so much to represent singing competencies. The only judgment of the performance came with our refusal, in effect, to collaborate in and corroborate that celebratory moment of a wedding with others. The microphone meant something so very different to us. It was a gateway to action for them, an obstacle for us.

In Madagascar, I found that if there is a microphone in sight, someone will use it. It indexes an entirely different set of contexts, structures, and protocols than one might find in, say, North America. In Madagascar, even though it projects the voice beyond the proximity of intimacy between interlocutors, it is an unmarked means of speaking. The microphone is not a contextual marker that frames an event as public at all. What kept these microphoned events not public was that in none of the three cases did the speakers engage in public address, namely the formal style of speech longstanding as a tradition in Madagascar known as kabary.

Kabary is the ceremonial speech, the ritual speech of Imerina. It is the form of state address and provides a template for deliberation in political process. There are many types of kabary: those for funerals, weddings, reburials. The form itself has even informed other styles of speaking, from interviews to even the way a beauty pageant contestant might answer a question on stage. They are usually lengthy but some kabary are between two speakers, while others like political kabary are single speakers. The structure of the speech is so formalized, saying the first few words of the greeting is enough to signal that contextual break between what was happening before the speech and the now-public event of the speech itself. The microphone does not index that shift and does not presuppose the holder of it has any knowledge whatsoever of addressing a public. For this, private interaction remains seamlessly private even with the introduction of recording equipment or mics. In many Western communities this is just not the case. To speak through a microphone is to expose oneself, to step into a vulnerable place of inhabiting the role of orator, or at the very least, someone with an authority that will be iconic in what he or she utters through that mic. In North America, too, there is implicit knowledge that whatever comes through the mic has potentially a public life beyond the event itself, as though the mic serves as a sort of amplification of the self, whole and up for analysis and commentary by others indefinitely. Because of the ways in which this mediated speech is experienced, regardless of form or content, if it goes through a mic, it is considered more of a public practice in North America. Not ever so in central Madagascar.

In Madagascar it is the norm. In fact, speaking to an audience is and has always been assumed a part of public and private events. It is often the event itself. This ethnography is about that commonplace tradition. In particular it is about the place of amplified and mass-mediated speaking in Madagascar’s capital region, Imerina, by political orators in the town squares and Senate, and out of the satirical mouths of political cartoon caricatures reaching newsstands across the province. And it is about the very different phenomenologies of communicative action, farther reaching than a microphone, that inform local political process versus those coming from transnational notions of governance, namely Western styles of nation-building through liberal democracy. Through a myriad of social actors, those who hold the mic with very different notions about language and politics, this story takes us through the political and moral economy of the highly stylized form of oratory in Madagascar, kabary politika, and the hundred-year practice of political cartooning to reveal how these interactions through talk and talk about talk mediate sociopolitical relationships as shared material experiences, objects of ideology, and as institutionalized practice disciplining state structures and citizen subjects.

The three stories of the microphone inform how I chose to think about what binds Malagasy speakers in social interaction and enables their participation in various social and political fields. They are also allegorical to my common field experiences, and most likely common to most anthropologists. On the one hand, they are a reminder that we come into this process with a handful of preconceptions, some of them obvious enough to discount and dismiss, most so subtle they shape how we interact with people every day and approach our own work as ethnographers. On the other hand, the stories of the microphone remind us of our duty as scholars to develop, question, and revise our methods of research. Quite practically, showing up is never just enough as a field methodology. Our work requires several consistent and rather deep means for observation, participation, and measuring patterned interaction at the micro-level of everyday practice. To face our preconceptions and to order our days along the lines of solid ethnographic methods while also building relationships as acquaintances, friends, and eventually perhaps as extended family is the key to our larger project as anthropologists. These kinds of observations, encounters, and acknowledgments throw into relief our jobs as ethnographers, the methodologies we might pursue and to what extent. It reminds us that even our subtlest of approaches to observing, asking, doing, and thinking come from our own interactional ethos and relative to our own frames of categorizing and feeling our way through experience. But the market is no longer just the market once we ask a seller about something other than his fruit. A funeral is no longer a funeral if we are asked by the grieving to videotape it. A conversation is not just a conversation if we use a tape recorder. Much more is suddenly on display. Each of these shifts in the frames of otherwise formal or formalized spaces of interaction initiates in our host a reflexive awareness and throws us as researchers, all the while teaching us something. And with these lessons, we come to engage better methodologies for better reasons, more local and specific than how it all came in to start.

Methodological Approach

This ethnography in linguistic anthropology relies on data gathered during fieldwork in Madagascar between 2001 and 2005, followed by three months in Washington, DC in 2004 and 2005. Aside from this field research, I have worked in Madagascar as a social science researcher since 1994, and so much of the direction of this research comes from this longitudinal perspective on the everyday life of politics on the street that I have been privy to and that has held my interest since I was 19 years old. This project also builds from material gleaned from archival records in the United States and Madagascar, and from online mass media sources such as Malagasy newspapers and weekly online discussions between myself and many research participants.

In a similar fashion to those interactions with the microphone, I went about this research observing, collecting, and analyzing information based on an emic and interpretive approach. This meant centering on participants’ explanations and conceptualizations of theirs and others’ experiences before drafting out directions for an ethnographic project on the socially productive role of writing, talking about, performing and drawing, the speech or the cartoon. “Language acquires life and historically evolves precisely here, in concrete verbal communication, and not in the abstract linguistic system of language forms, nor in the individual psyche of speakers,” Volosinov instructs (1973: 94). And so as a linguistic anthropology researcher, my aim was to consider as much as possible the ways people interacted with one another and with political issues every day through the words or animators of their genred communicative performances.

This ethnographic story follows those writers and speakers who consider their work to address the mayoral and national levels of politics in the urban highland province of Imerina. My project was specific to these levels because mayoral elections were held during my research. More importantly, however, as home to Madagascar’s capital city of Antananarivo, Imerina is the seat of national government. It was at the heart of the election crisis in 2002 and the recent coup d’état of Ravalomanana’s government in 2009. In truth, national political context is less island-wide than it is the context of Antananarivo politics.

Throughout the research, I attended, recorded, transcribed, translated, and discussed several performance genres and their speakers: kabary politika speakers, specifically those who either perform or write this highly stylized form of oratory for the president and other prominent politicians; variety show performers known as hiragasy artists, namely those who follow the traditional service of being mediators between the political leaders and the citizenry; political cartoonists in daily newspapers; musicians and outdoor theater performers known for the political content of their work; and lastly, Christian ministers, especially those who are actively and openly involved in national politics. I sought out interaction in the social spaces where these speakers performed.

Though all of these participants inform this study, I chose to write about the daily tête-à-tête between political orators, political cartoonists, and their audiences. I chose to write about the daily interplay between oratory and cartoons for one, because kabary is spoken and performed, cartooning is written as iconic of spoken interaction. The social impact of this difference, especially in the use of proverbs, but also in handling other contexts, is quite significant. Secondly, I made this choice because the temporal unfolding of kabary politika and cartooning is daily. Of all the genres I studied during my time in the field, the people who produce these forms do so on a daily basis, as opposed to the delayed production of music lyrics, for example. The pervasiveness of daily cartoons versus the occasional release of a song, a weekly sermon, or an annual theater performance speaks to different levels of civil society engagement with the state. This parallel is significant for gauging the temporal and spatial dimensions of political talk and talk about talk between state agents and those of civil society. It also importantly illuminates the discursive nature with which agents engage particular genres at particular times, in particular places.

Lastly, and most significantly, I was motivated to focus on these two genres because these modes of sociality are typically performed and written, respectively, by members of different classes, and often ethnicities. In fact, these two genres serve as iconic indexes of class. But unlike other forms, the interaction between different class groups is intensified more so with oratory and cartooning, because their daily occurrence allows for a discursive intertextuality different than between other forms that do not occur with this frequency. In this segregation, actors in these contexts often address or speak of an audience in ways that are productive of essentialized imaginaries of community membership and solidarity. Such homogenized and stereotypical images of community, in turn, index and iconically reduce certain classes and ethnic groups that make up (or are outside) notions of community.

Following the age-old tradition of participant observation, I went to work with cartoonists and sat with them in the early morning while they drew cartoons, smoked cigarettes, and gossiped about the personal politics of those they were drawing into cartoon frames. In the afternoons I would meet with state speechwriting teams and sometimes their clients, the orators themselves, to observe and record their preparation of kabary for the president and other state representatives. I conducted interviews and guided conversations at times to help synthesize otherwise disparate material coming from people who never interact face-to-face, only through their speeches or cartoons. Other times, I collected individual narratives that illuminated expert and laymen knowledge and perception of kabary politika and political cartooning practices. These narratives also revealed understandings of how the nature and construction of these two genres in relation to one another are tied to potential for participating in democratic process and identity construction in political relations. We also discussed memories of the work of these genres’ participants during different points in recent political history, and how these genres imply and reproduce certain ideologies of class and ethnicity that are still at play today. In all, I spoke to people whose daily lives were active in the speaking to and about national politics and the public politic of the capital city, and I observed and participated in their performance events that were productive of that sphere. I paid close attention to how speakers and writers conceptualized, categorized, and materially realized their linguistic participation in a political community, and what this said about that community and local political process (Silverstein 1998: 420).

From the 2003 mayoral elections to the daily speeches of national government representatives into 2005, I reviewed written versions of their performances and referred to archived speeches that resurfaced in new speech forms. One particularly illuminating method for getting at ideologies of language was to work alongside transcribers and translators. The team would share opinions and judgments, and discuss how best to convey the substance of audio recordings we had made of events and interviews. In between trips to the National Archives of Madagascar, the national library, and the London Missionary Society archives to gain historical perspective on the role of kabary and cartooning in Madagascar’s precolonial and colonial politics, we also had regular discussions over tea each morning about speech events in popular newspapers, on television and radio. This approach to observe, participate, and talk about the materials encapsulated the shape of the performances and conversations as well as the reporting of it.

Understanding the circulation and impact of language ideologies and aesthetics is an important aspect of the social and productive role of oratory and cartooning in mediating publics of people who act to affect political process. Working with the research team was certainly one way to see this clarified. Transgression by the fieldworker is another and should never be underestimated for revealing such phenomenologies of social interaction. But more polite ways might be outlets such as taking language courses or training in kabary. Inadvertently, both pointed me toward opportunities to observe ideologies of language and language users. Language learning is always as imbricated with ideas about language and its users as it is filled with grammar and lists of vocabulary. I turned to continual language training in both Malagasy and French to help me sharpen my knowledge and use of slang and proverbs. Additionally, I also participated weekly in kabary politika courses and attended several kabary politika competitions. My teacher, Razafy, provided instruction on how to perform kabary politika “properly.” Regardless of what appears to be negotiable at times despite major changes in governance across Madagascar’s history, being a good kabary speaker is a long-term necessity for anyone intending to hold any public office. Participating in a kabary politika course allowed me to observe informal and formal instruction; the course and annual national competitions provided informal commentary and dialogue that helped me understand beliefs and opinions of Malagasy speech, as well as those about kabary politika speaking as it contrasts to other types of speaking and other speakers. In fact, in these instructional domains of kabary, I could witness the depth of people’s beliefs and convictions regarding kabary politika to the extent that they establish national societies and map it onto a curriculum of standardized teaching and learning.

Beyond working with performers and their audiences, I also interviewed government officials and civil society organization representatives concerning laws and policies of free speech, and their efforts to build a civic education curriculum in public schools in the capital city. For several weeks I observed classroom sessions and talked with teachers, school officials, and students. I also spoke with those foreign government officials engaged in what is referred to by the US Mission as “democracy and governance” (D&G) projects in the capital and to those who contribute to larger projects in civic education and build upon what is believed to be a relatively small, formal civil society, in general.

To get involved in the social spaces of these participants also meant doing things that were not necessarily directly helpful to my research but which were integral to building a more balanced relationship with people equally interested in exploring people different than themselves. For me, this meant being interviewed about my work, my personal life, my country, and my perspective on Malagasy customs, lifeways, and, most of all, food and music. It also meant teaching a course to university students, doing impromptu radio interviews, and serving as a radio disc jockey. It also provided the means for continuing personal and professional relationships with people based on like interests and genuine desires to support and promote one another’s work in what we all believe to be creative political action through mediated performance.

How to Read this Book

As you read the text, whether you are a scholar, student, professional, or have somehow stumbled into an academic text for the sake of some off-the-wall edification about an off-the-beaten-path place, keep in mind what we do as linguistic anthropologists, in particular as ethnographers of speaking/communication/communicative interaction/social interaction or all of its variants. We generally leave behind the classroom, the textbooks, the grande no-fat no-whip soy lattes, the complacent gaze at familiarity that comes from being completely “at home” in a place, and we head for places that look, feel, sound, smell different. Even if this is within our same home country, the subtle suddenly appears more obvious. We engage deeply and over a long period of time with people in their everyday lives in order to observe language in its context of action. We yearn to know how people use words, gestures, grunts, and even silence and to what effect; what they think and say about those acts and the people who do them; and how this all changes over time, space, or other context. These everyday micro-practices – little acts of talking, writing speeches, drawing cartoons, talking about doing these things, interacting with one another at the dinner table, buying rice at the marketplace – may appear as stand-alone practices by separate individuals; however, each of these tells us something about patterns of social life over time and across populations. The patterns are what is key. Each choice in word, tone, prosody, order, the way someone might recall or reenact a story, hearkens to those patterns. These are ways of doing things that are shared among communities of speakers, point to something beyond the speech act itself, and they generally sit just below the threshold of awareness. But they are there, very much there, and they “mean” something out there in the world they reflect and shape. In fact, this is generally where meaning in language is located, somewhere other than the linguistic act itself. Syntax no longer means just word order in a sentence but an index of social discrimination. Phonemes are no longer minimal units of sound but sound patterns that point to a river or mountain that creates just enough physical distance between speakers to account for an accent or dialect difference. And out of this difference grows evaluations about who says what and how. Each of these individual moments in the everyday reflects these patterns while also tugging on them just a bit, sometimes a lot, to the extent that either they reinforce situations and the social roles in them, or they change. And we have to be there, long enough and with a steady handle on the social, historical, and political forces that prevail, to reckon with the ways in which these patterned micro-practices come together as shared, tacit understandings of ways of doing and being that combine to shape macro-orders, such as institutions, laws, belief systems, and language itself. It is a constant trip between the everyday and the over-the-long-term, from the individual speech to the institutionalization of, say, class hierarchies, the reproduction of some standard of speaking across multiple contexts over time – in other words what happens right here and now with some larger issue or institution out there we might otherwise think of as a black box, a “they,” the work of some invisible hand. We bring the practice of words into abstract social categories and constructs such as colonialism, gender, the state, and civil society, to activate them, unpacking and reframing them not as things but as existing insomuch as they manifest through practice. We make these connections between micro-practices and macro-institutional orders so that nothing gets away without an explanation of its creation, its shape, its reproduction, its growth, its death through social change. For all of these reasons linguistic anthropology, particularly through its ethnography, to my mind, is both methodologically and theoretically grounded to go after both realms of human activity – from chunks of the obvious to the grains of the subtle – and to show their connection and the ways in which they articulate with various social, cultural, and political dynamics. It heads straight for the voices of the everyday to see the ways in which their talk and talk about talk coalesce otherwise disparate signs to produce new signs that look like, point to, and symbolize grander, momentous frameworks for organizing experience. And we locate the character and movement of power embodied, the power to create, to constrain, to convince, to erase as predicated on this continual discursive production and reproduction of signs culminating in the semiosocial matrix in which we all live. In a sense, we show our readers how the rabbit got put in the hat in the first place, exposing the location of the seeming illusiveness of power as embedded in the semiotic practice of social actors. Doing things this way, that is, reading social phenomena as founded in practice and ideologies about those practices and the people who do them, allows us not only to describe what is going on across a broader scale of social life, but to show to what end and what is at stake that things are the way they are.

In this spirit, I strive to keep the life, character, and voice of people active, alert, and driving this ethnography. I take this approach for one, because it honors the genre and the people who were so very selfless and giving to this study; but it also reveals rather than conceals the analytical process, which then supports the position of all readers as learners. Though the book does engage directly with advanced concepts in anthropology, each is defined and given ground and a genealogy within a review of relevant literature situated inside and following the ethnographic narrative. Unpacking these concepts, it is my hope, fortifies the ethnographic analysis but also serves as an organized means for teaching and synthesizing broader concerns to anthropology beyond the specifics of this single ethnography. Also, this method of presenting information allows such foundational and advanced concepts to be rooted in examples of everyday life rather than isolated in their own chapters where they risk remaining abstract. For those learners who are students, this models an academics that is accessible and iterative and an ethnographic method for reading with an anthropological eye beyond the classroom. I encourage you to do just that. Though it may seem like a lonely outpost far away in the Indian Ocean with an oratorical tradition more exotic than pragmatic, the island of Madagascar and all it has to teach us is much closer to our own everyday lives in the Western world than we think.


Silverstein, Michael. 1998. “Contemporary Transformations of Local Linguistic Communities.” Annual Review of Anthropology. 27: 401–26.

Volosinov, V. N. 1973. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. New York: Seminar Press.




It was called the Umbrella Revolution, mostly by international press and campaign observers typically keen to capture the essence of any political event in the Third World as revolution.1 Hundreds of thousands of colorful umbrellas, rib to rib, undulating as a wash across the parks and plazas of Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital city, lined the dirt roads headed to city center. Under them: young people, even very young people, many not so young, and even more of the old, and rather old. For days and then months, these umbrellas sheltered from the harsh equatorial sun an enormous multitude of regular people who hit the streets for over seven months in an outcry over corrupt national elections. This post-election crisis, which lasted from December 2001 until June 2002, nearly thrust Madagascar into civil war as the presidential incumbent, Didier Ratsiraka, and mayor of the capital city, Marc Ravalomanana, vied for victory and threatened run-offs. To the Malagasy, the wash of umbrellas marked not a revolution but a familiar crisis followed by a populist awakening, what the Malagasy proverb aptly refers to as the moment when sleeping locusts rise. Look out, it says, for the sleeping locusts awake! Tandremo raha mifohaza ny valalabemandry!