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Edited by expert scholars, this volume explores the 'imposter' through empirical cases, including click farms, bikers, business leaders and fraudulent scientists, providing insights into the social relations and cultural forms from which they emerge.
On 10 December each year, Swedish national television (SVT) broadcasts live coverage of the Nobel Banquet. This four-and-a-half-hour extravaganza allows us to witness the assembly of the great and the good, celebrities, statesmen and royalty alongside the Nobel laureates and their families, attired in all their finery – some 1,300 guests in all. We watch them parading, dining, talking to one another and even, after the dinner, dancing. We hear the acceptance speeches and we are treated throughout to detailed expert commentary on what they are eating (there are interviews with the chefs and tastings with culinary experts) and what they are wearing (experts in high couture tell us how to appreciate the fashion on display).
The elaborate display of pageantry at the Nobel Banquet reinforces a sense of difference between those present and those watching from the outside. The message is that these guests are entitled to be there; they radiate a sense of privilege simply by being part of an exclusive occasion. For us onlookers, the question can arise: how might we become part of this? Short of actually becoming worthy of an invitation, how could one get into the banquet? What would it take to gatecrash this auspicious occasion? How could one imposter as one of these privileged few? Indeed, are imposters already present at the banquet, and how could one tell?
Distinctions between insiders and outsiders are made and sustained everywhere. During a meeting of our research group a casual discussion about the Nobel Banquet gradually morphed into a broader discussion. We found ourselves able to generate an apparently endless stream of idiosyncratic examples of impostering and of settings populated by imposters and gatecrashers. We quickly came to realise that impostering raises far more general and more pressing and significant issues than the example of the Nobel dinner with which we began, and takes us far beyond the questions of identity and belonging in which these discussions are often couched. From these conversations we set out to consider how the ubiquity of this troublesome figure might help us rethink some of social theory's core preoccupations.
The imposter is everywhere. The cases discussed in this volume attest to the richness and variety of examples of impostering. Our preoccupation with impostering derives not only from the seeming ubiquity of the imposter but also from a long-standing fascination with the relations between appearance and reality.
‘Our friends have been suggesting for quite a long time that we visit this wonderful city. […] They have a famous cathedral there, Salisbury Cathedral. […] It's famous for its clock. It's one of the oldest working clocks in the world.’
These words are from an interview with two Russian men on Russian state television news (Russia Today, RT) on 7 March 2018 (Figure 1.1). Their appearance followed an incident on 4 March 2018, when Salisbury resident Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were rushed to hospital. The authorities found traces of Novichok A-234, a nerve agent, at the scene. The two Russian men were subsequently named as suspects by British police and their faces splashed all over the news (Figure 1.2). The UK government took the bold step of accusing the Russian government of attempted murder and expelling several Russian diplomats. Then suddenly the two suspects appeared on TV. The interviewer asked them why they were in Salisbury and if they worked for the Russian Intelligence Services to which their cryptic reply was “Do you?”. When pressed about their actual profession they offered, “If we tell you about our business, this will affect the people we work with.”
The episode is intriguing because it prompts a whole series of openended questions about the identities and activities involved. An imposter is commonly understood as a person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others. Who, then, are the imposters here? Skripal was said to be a former Russian agent who worked as a double agent for the UK's intelligence services and had since been pretending to lead a normal life in exile. The two suspects, according to investigative journalism website Bellingcat (2018), were trained Russian spies only pretending to be tourists. And the RT journalist conducting the interview may have been a Russian propagandist merely posing as a hard-hitting interviewer.
In other circumstances, we might expect the imposters to be exposed, their transgressions punished, and normality restored. Yet what is especially compelling about this example is that the set of activities, accusations, suspicions, counter-claims and questions – which we shall collectively term ‘impostering’ – does not easily resolve. If the poisoning had been carried out differently, it may have looked like an accident, but the perpetrators chose to use a nerve agent to which only Russian intelligence services had access.
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