Five Questions With Alex Perullo

This week’s conversation with a Framing fellow focuses on the intersection of rights and arts in Africa.

Alex Perullo is an associate professor of anthropology and African Studies at Bryant University. In 2012 he published the book Artistic Rights: Copyright Law for East African Musicians, Artists, Writers, and Other Authors. Written in both English and Swahili it explores “the nuances of copyright law in East Africa.”

Perullo’s Framing the Global project is Flexible Enclosures: Intellectual Property Rights and the Expressive Arts in Eastern Africa. He explained how he approaches that topic, and how he enters the global through “rights,” to Rosemary Pennington.

Rosemary Pennington: What drew you to Framing the Global?

Alex Perullo: I was interested in applying to the Framing the Global project as a means to establish a dialogue between scholars from various disciplines.

Too often, scholars become entrenched in the ideas of their own field of study. I wanted to make connections with other disciplines and with scholars from other parts of the world.

Studying the global cannot be done in finite disciplines with scholars who share the same training, background, and experiences. It requires an ability to connect with a variety of ever-changing streams of knowledge. This requires a network of individuals who relate in some ways, but who are also willing to expand on each other’s ideas.

RP: What is your entry point and why did you choose it?

Marchers in Dar es Salaam protesting the death of  journalist Daudi Mwangosi by police in Iringa. Photo by John Bukuku.

Marchers in Dar es Salaam protesting the death of journalist Daudi Mwangosi by police in Iringa. Photo by John Bukuku.

AP: I chose the entry point “rights.” There is a strong argument being put forth that violence in many areas around the world is declining in part because of the strong focus on rights.

Given the global flow and movement of ideas, people, and technology in the contemporary period, rights are a vital means for individuals and communities to promote their own worldviews. The idea that people should not only promote certain rights but also protect them is a far reaching concept.

Even though we can point to many examples of violence occurring in the world today, as well as examples of injustice, there is a concomitant language about rights, justice, and civil society that appears—in many circumstances—to be expanding and reshaping social relationships.

In Africa, conversations about universal forms of rights became paramount in the post-colonial period. New governments, looking to establish new constitutions, often turned to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights for language and ideas on protecting citizens.

This early adoption of a universal rights language greatly influenced each of the next generation’s conceptions of ethics and morality in society. In addition, many people became aware that they could better protect their interests if they employed rights concepts: the right to land, natural resources, cultural heritage, and so on. It became a means to strengthen national and community identities.

Through examining the emergence of rights dialogue in Africa, my entry point provides a means to interpret the persistent conversations and debates that people arehaving over the meaning of justice and injustice.

RP: What challenges have you faced as you’ve navigated the global this way?

Outdoor performance to educate people about health issues.

Outdoor performance to educate people about health issues.

AP: The most significant challenge is being able to assemble and categorize the various ways that people in African countries speak and write about rights.

In reading daily newspapers, listening to African radio broadcasts, and speaking to individuals, I am regularly struck by the frequency with which people talk about rights-based issues. There are legal rights (copyright law, for instance); the right to shelter and access to clean water; the right to free speech; and, of course, there are controversial rights in Africa, such as restrictions on sexual orientation.

In each invocation of rights, people hold different positions on its meaning. Debates frequently emerge about ways to protect or even challenge the meaning of a particular right. For example, should journalists be allowed to condemn elected officials in print or is this considered slander? In several African countries, the criticism of elected officials has been met with violence against journalists even though many countries now guarantee and protect their rights.

Though many newspapers in Africa were once controlled by the state, Africans have now experienced the significant expansion of press freedoms where journalists regularly criticize or out corrupted officials. This shift—from state run newspapers to freedom of the press—promotes the idea that everyone should have the right to speak their opinion on important political and social issues without fear of violence.

In many places, this is a relatively new experience, significantly expanded in the age of Internet and online reporting, the international protection of journalistic liberties, and the acceptance by many people that newspapers should speak to important social issues and not be the domain of the state. Within this expansion are many interpretations of rights, which also tend to shift depending on context and the people involved.

Keeping track of these various movements and interpretations of rights, as well as that which constitutes a right, is a challenge.

RP: In her introduction to the upcoming book, Dr. Hilary Kahn writes that one of the questions scholars of the global are faced with is “How do we know its global?” How do you answer that question in your work?

AP: Since people live with the global on a daily basis, awareness of the impact that goods, resources, people, and ideas have on our everyday lives can often be difficult.

Image from Haki Elimu, which seeks to educate local populations about rights in Tanzania.

Image from Haki Elimu, which seeks to educate local populations about rights in Tanzania.

For instance, in my global anthropology classes, I ask students to talk about the ways that they may be connected to people in other parts of the world. Initially, many students take this to mean direct contact, such as “I talk to friends in Hong Kong” or “I visited Brazil last year.”

Yet, as we dig through the concept of the global, our daily routines are replete with connections between our lives and those of others.

There are news stories about people and events from around the world that arrive almost immediately in front of us; processed food products and technological goods rely on raw materials derived from international sources; seeds, which many gardeners believe originate from local or national sellers, actually come from many differentcountries; services, such as call-centers, which people may encounter on a regular basis, connect us to individuals in other countries; even computer viruses and spam take on global properties as they move to infect local computers.

The point is that, for many people, global connections may appear routine so as make them invisible even though it is striking how frequently and howoften our lives interconnect with those of people living elsewhere. Therefore, to know the global, is be aware of these movements, interactions, and experiences both in our lives and in those of others.

RP: How have your discussions on the space of global studies within the Framing the Global interdisciplinary group affected your view of your home discipline?

AP: There has not been a single impact to which I can easily point.

Instead, there have been many subtle shifts in thinking about terms, such as transnational, international, and global; expanding the possibilities of fieldwork methods to interpret the global through social media; and rethinking the boundaries that are often placed between various disciplines.

In many ways, the conversations between scholars and myself made clear that there are far

more commonalities in the work that we do. The difficulty is creating a common language that we can use to dialogue about these similarities and debate the differences.

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