Costa on Welker and Puig

Though little united the speakers but subject, this week’s event with Marina Welker and Sergio Puig went remarkably smoothly. It did take some time to get off the ground. Little or nothing in Puig’s talk could not be found in his paper, and Welker spent an inordinate amount of time discussing her methods. Still, there was a sense that the two were speaking at cross purposes much of the time. Puig was as exclusively interested in top-down solutions – the ‘moral’ TPP carve-out to which he continually referred – as Welker was in cultural context and public opinion. There was also something a bit glum in the subnarrative espoused by Puig, a decline-and-fall story in which tobacco companies continually co-opt the mechanisms which are meant to hold them accountable, but what else do we have? Somewhat analogously, attempts to hold Welker to a rigorous narrative of economic recomposition in Indonesia were largely frustrated. We were left, from her end, with a series of vignettes, often homeyer versions of Puig’s transnational narrative reiterating the same moral: if you are a big corporation, it pays to get the little guy to represent you in court. Solicitations of a counterproject from either speaker met, if not deaf ears, ears with “it’s not that simple” consistently lurking between them.

              One thing Welker did – perhaps unsurprisingly given her methods but no less worthily of praise for that – was break down the particular relationships which she had perceived between superstructural discourse and everyday belief into apt descriptions, usually to the effect that the relationship was quite loose. But this also ended up privileging the main subject of her argument, the doxa enforced by cigarette company writ, making vague if widespread notions about Indonesian cultural patrimony seem far more entrenched than, for example, any version of Islam. Although she contested the notion that NGO money was or would be behind any possible widespread change, she did not offer any other strong counternarrative or even rigorous historicization of “kretek cultural nationalism,” although she did historicize the real growing situation of farmers. Puig, meanwhile, reiterated the same fallacy found in his paper, to the effect that PMI’s octopus-like litigation history, not the selling of cigarettes, made it morally reprehensible, which cannot be something that he really believes. This contributed to a trend in the latter middle part of the discussion in which Welker and Puig batted back and forth truisms about international corporations – they tend to be foreign-owned, for instance, and they also tend to hide this fact with appeals to the folksy or traditional – often to the exclusion of answering thoroughly questions asking them to elaborate or explain whence these facts and why they matter, including one each from Profs. Brewster and Stern and several from students (Sam, Helen, Tessa).

              As a result, the presentation ended on a down note, with another reiteration of Puig’s oddly apocalyptic narrative about regulatory co-optation: that things are always getting worse now, but perhaps in the next mode of production we will have a really big carve-out which will fix things for good. Welker, more sanguine, hedged over charges of neoliberalism affined to her focus upon the individual will and the little guy, but offered a continuous, if perhaps far too sanguine, narrative for the future emphasizing small changes and a beneficial regime of gradually introduced cosmopolitanism even if exploitation of the vulnerable, she admitted, may be worsening. Puig ended on a note of national-governmental determination but offered no framework according to which governments might make the ‘right’ choice (indeed any choice relevant to Puig’s moral assumptions) or – though this is a low blow – the scale on which one decides who constitutes a government authorized to make such a choice and how consensus will be reached.

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