Miranda Weinberg takes the page 99 test for her dissertation

Page 99 of my dissertation, Schooling Languages: Indigeneity, Language Policy, and Language Shift in Nepal, is both representative and anomalous as part of my dissertation. In my dissertation more broadly, I investigated how an indigenous minority established a footing relative to the national majority, and within their own community. Specifically, I looked at the implementation of a language policy in Nepal that gives each community the right to basic education in their so-called mother tongue, in particular the case of the Dhimal language. Individual chapters of my dissertation are focused on different levels of scale involved in regimentation of languages in education, from national decisions to community debates over entextualizing the language in textbooks, from discourse practices in schools to interactions at home that teach children which languages they should learn. In the chapter that opens on Page 99, I followed three schools: the two government schools that had begun to teach Dhimal language by the end of my fieldwork, and a third that was seemingly ideally situated to do so but did not. I found that, while the noun phrase the state implies a coherent actor with unified goals, the state was encountered by people and institutions (such as schools) as a momentary and fragmentary phenomenon. The decisions that determined the distribution of languages in schools were more directly influenced by alignments of political party affiliations and activism by an ethnic organization than any sort of force from laws and policies.

Page 99 of my dissertation exemplifies one of my analytical priorities, which was to listen to children. Children and young people are crucial actors in the realms of schooling, enregisterment, and language shift, all issues that I was concerned with in my dissertation. Yet scholars who share these concerns frequently focus on adults without providing full attention to children’s perspectives. In the case of the vignette presented on Page 99 (see below), children’s perspectives showed that they had no problem listing Dhimal as one of their school subjects alongside others, and that they even enjoyed it. At the same time, it exemplifies challenges of conducting research with children, whose claims can be difficult to interpret.

My page 99:

On a sunny afternoon in December, near the end of my fieldwork, I asked a group of second grade students about their favorite subject:

1 MW: ani timharuko sabbhandā manparne bishaya kun ho? And what is all of your favorite subject?
2 S1: malāi manparne bishaya, malāi cahi manparne bishaya, uh, kun ho My favorite subject, uh, the subject I like, um, which is it
3 S2: malāi thāhā cha I know
4 MW: la bhanna ta? Ok, say it then
5 S3: eh bhanna lāunu na Yeah, make her say it
6 MW: la bhanna Ok, say it
7 S2: Dhimal Dhimal
8 MW: Dhimal ho? It’s Dhimal?
9 Teacher: Dhimal bhāshā, Dhimal bhāshā Dhimal language, Dhimal language
10 MW: Dhimal bhāshā ho? Timro favorite? ani Kamalko? It’s Dhimal language? Your favorite? And Kamal’s?
11 S2: bhan Say
12 Teacher: ke bhannu timile What do you say?
13 S1: malāi favorite bishaya Dhimal bhāshā ho My favorite subject is Dhimal language
14 S4: malāi pani Dhimal bhāshā Mine is Dhimal too

:                 (Group interview, 12/2/15)

 

 

On being asked what their favorite subject was, one by one, all but one of the students in the class reported that their favorite subject was Dhimal. The one exception reported that she favored GK, or General Knowledge. This exchange should certainly not be taken as a transparent reflection of students’ feelings: the teacher of the Dhimal and GK subjects was hovering over the conversation and prompting students to answer, the students knew that I frequently attended their Dhimal class, and the less confident students tended to echo the answers of the first few students to speak up.

 

Miranda Weinberg, 2018. Schooling Languages: Indigeneity, Language Policy, and Language Shift in Nepal. University of Pennsylvania, Phd. Dissertation.

 

 

Suk-Young Kim on her new book, K-Pop Live

Cover of K-pop Live by Suk-Young Kim

https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=29375

Interview by Chuyun Oh

Chuyun Oh: What were some of the questions you want to explore when you first decided to write a book on K-pop, and what aspects of K-pop drew your attention as a theatre/performance studies scholar?    

Suk-Young Kim: The primary questions I wanted to explore were twofold. How was it possible for a small country like South Korea to reinvent itself from a culturally obscure place to a a pop culture powerhouse in just two decades or so? When I came to the US for my graduate studies in the late 90s, most American students did not know anything about South Korean culture. Today, most of my undergraduate students either follow K-pop or know something about it. How was this transformation possible?

I was also concerned about our craving for liveness. K-pop’s natural habitat is YouTube and most K-pop stars and their performances can be found online. But why do fans still crave live concerts and live interaction with their idols? What is the driving force behind this constant search for a face-to-face interaction?

Chuyun Oh: Would you like to give a heads-up to your future readers about what “live” and “liveness” mean to you, and why it matters to understand K-pop today?  

Suk-Young Kim: On a primary level, liveness indicates co-presence in time and space, where performers and spectators are situated in the same venue in real time. But the way I articulate the notion of liveness in this book goes far beyond the level of co-presence. Ultimately, it is about feeling connected to a broader community and sharing affective kinship with that community to the point that it reaffirms one’s feeling of liveliness and a sense of being alive in this increasingly mediated world. K-pop presents an interesting case in point since it both manipulates such affective kinship for monetary gain while also allowing for the genuine grassroots level communities and networks to emerge in a powerful way.

Chuyun Oh: As beautifully demonstrated in your book, K-pop — including its representation, transnational circulation, and consumption — would be impossible today without hyper-sensory, mediatized technology. Still, at the same time, K-pop provides highly embodied and participatory platforms and experiences to both fans and K-pop performers. Ontologically and perhaps, aesthetically too, can you tell us a little more about how your project blurs the dichotomy between the liveliness of the body and the virtual world of the high-speed Internet?

 Suk-Young Kim: This is a terrific question. My chapter on hologram addresses this point most viscerally, but to tease out my main arguments here: K-pop as a cultural scene appears to be extravagant and excessive in its performance style, but if you look deeper into the K-Pop scene, its economy is fueled by the concept of scarcity or lack. The mediated images of K-pop idols saturate media space, and yet so few fans have seen them in close proximity. The lack of opportunities to see stars’ living bodies in real time and space is what creates constant thirst for their immediate presence, and that thirst has to be quenched by a compensating mechanism, which is to saturate our visual playing field with more and more mediated images. This constant gap between fan’s desire and the reality (to paraphrase, the gap between the real body and the mediated images of that body) is what fuels the K-pop craze.

Chuyun Oh: Digital consumerism is often driven by and thus, inseparable from personally and/or socioculturally constructed desire. Why does K-pop matter to its consumers and fans, and what would be the desire lies behind K-pop consumption to this technology-savvy generation? 

Suk-Young Kim: If I were to address this question by focusing on fan communities rather than fan-to-star dynamics, digitally savvy K-Pop fans have found ways to create a community of their own by establishing global networks online. K-pop fan clubs are extremely active online, using their participatory power to not only support their stars, but also establish kinship and share a sense of belonging that offline space does not willingly provide. Participation in online fan clubs can make fans overcome geographic distance and bring someone in Brazil and Iceland into an intimate interaction by sharing their common passion. A sense of belonging, in this case, stems from a sense of validation by others. But I would be remiss not to mention how this fan community, for some fans, is also used as a place to promote themselves and create distinction for themselves by demonstrating their close association with the stars (the so-called “fame by association”). Many K-pop fan clubs have a strict hierarchy that resembles a military organization (the longer you’ve been around and the more material support you’ve provided for their stars, the higher your status will be in fan clubs). K-pop industry navigates through this double edged fandom by promoting both hyperconsummerism and a sense of belonging.

 

Another way to address this question is to see how K-pop itself celebrates technological trendiness. K-pop creates desire for something newer, faster, smarter with their never-ceasing production line, just like smartphone companies are pressured to pump out new models that will be better than the previous version. I think being associated with the K-pop scene directly translates into performing one’s tech-savviness and trendiness.

Harri Englund on his new book, Gogo Breeze

Interview by Ilana Gershon

http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/G/bo27256361.html

Ilana Gershon: While this book ostensibly focuses on one radio presenter, because Gogo Breeze interacts with such a broad range of the public, one has to know a tremendous amount about Zambian agriculture, legal and informal inheritance, and so on, to understand how he functions as a radio personality.  This presents a significant organizational dilemma for a monograph that will be read by non-Africanists.  How did you decide to focus on Gogo Breeze and what choices were you struggling with as you organized the book?

Harri Englund: Although he is not the owner of the radio station Breeze FM, Gogo Breeze is by far the station’s most popular personality – a household name in Zambia’s Eastern Province. Even a blind would have seen in him a fascinating subject for anthropological research. However, one of the challenges I faced was to think of ways of making my study more than a biographical account. Here I found some help in the extended-case method that I had used in my previous work. A basic point in that method is that although the anthropologist may focus on a person or an event, that focus is merely a starting point for exploring relationships and networks of variable scales.

It always surprises me how unaware anthropologists working in other world regions seem to be of this method that was developed by people such as A. L. Epstein, J. Clyde Mitchell, and Victor Turner on the basis of their work in Zambia and Malawi in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the processual and reflective issues that became prominent in anthropology more recently were, to some extent, prefigured by the extended-case method. It may be a measure of the dominance of American authors and “schools” in the post -1980s Anglophone anthropology that these methodological innovations in the discipline’s past have been forgotten.

In any case, while Gogo Breeze is based on other methods than the extended-case method alone, it made me wove issues such as agricultural policies or inheritance rules into the narratives themselves rather than devoting separate chapters to a “context.” Such a separation between contextual and analytical chapters could result in the false impression that what happens on the ground is merely an illustration of structural principles at the macro level. It was in response to Malinowski’s use of the case method as an “apt illustration” that the extended-case method got developed. The aim was to capture in the unfolding of actual relationships, conflicts, crises, and events potential for transformation and thereby to show that not everything in social life flows from some first principles. The added challenge for me was to pursue this methodology where it had never been attempted before – in the study of mass mediation and its apparent detachment from personal relationships. Although I did not develop the point in the book, the study of ritual, such as in Turner’s work, could of course offer some parallels in this regard.

Ilana Gershon: How does Gogo Breeze, the radio announcer at the heart of this book, create webs of obligations despite or because of how ethereal the utterances through radio as a medium can seem to Zambians?

Harri Englund: The topic of obligations is a prime example of how the book seeks to integrate the study of personal relationships with the interest in mass mediation. I also have other reasons for being interested in obligations as an issue in anthropological theory. One formative interest I have had ever since my graduate research in the early 1990s is the forms that liberal theory and practice have taken in Africa and in the study and critique of human rights. In so far as the so-called rights discourse has often become rather thin on the complex ways in which people are subject to cross-cutting relationships and networks, anthropology would have something to contribute from its past insights into obligations. But just as obligations (or duties) are too simplistically imagined as the flipside of rights in the rights discourse, so too have anthropologists, especially those who don’t work in Africa, tended to forget how much work there is in the discipline on the topic of obligations – or they have tended to see obligations as some Durkheimian or structural-functionalist counterpoint to “freedom” or “ethics.” The more sophisticated recent work on morality by anthropologists is much less committed to pitting freedom and obligation against each other, but reading Meyer Fortes or Max Gluckman could have led to similar recognition much earlier in that literature.

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William Mazzarella on his new book, The Mana of Mass Society

http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/M/bo25265716.html

Interview by Elayne Oliphant

Elayne Oliphant: As you acknowledge, this is clearly a “theory book.” But I’d like to start by asking you about the powerful historical argument you also make in this text. You give a name to “a liminal period” from 1870 to 1920 in Euro-American social thought: the mana moment. At this moment, the earlier energetic settlement of the rationalist, bourgeois individual saw itself partly undone by encounters between the Global North and Global South as colonial power was consolidated. In this moment between colonial settlements, a great deal of anxiety surrounded new kinds of seemingly “volatile” publics and “vitalist cults” in arts, ethics, and religion. These anxieties induced a series of attempts to understand these energies that appeared both threatening and appealing. Mana is one of the terms that circulated widely at the time—its availability itself an expression of the encounters between the Global North and Global South—in an attempt to address the vital energies flowing in unexpected directions. Could you tell us a bit more about the mana moment as a historical moment and what signs you see that suggest we are encountering another such moment?

William Mazzarella: First of all, Elayne, let me start by thanking you for these searching and attentive questions. The greatest satisfaction for an author is to be in conversation with a reader like you, who is able to bring the text alive in new ways, who understands it as a generative provocation. So thank you for that.

I also like that you have added another settlement to the ones that I name in the book: the bourgeois settlement. This is one of my hopes for the book: that a concept like settlement will encourage readers to find their own instances in whatever terrain of social life they’re exploring. I do believe that this is a generalizable way of thinking about society and history: this tendency that we have, both in discourse and in institutional life, to impose a kind of fixity on irreducible tensions and then to try to live with the symptomatic eruptions that that imposition will necessarily produce. And we know from psychoanalysis, too, that symptomatic eruptions are perhaps the most intimate thing we have—individually and collectively. They can be debilitating and paralyzing. But if we find ways of living with them, they can also be tremendously productive, again for good or for ill. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons that, although I explicitly characterize Mana as a ‘theory book’ I actually think of it as a ‘method book.’ Sometimes people look confused when I say that!)

But to get to the center of your question: what I’m calling the mana moment, roughly the decades surrounding the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, was, in the Euro-American world, a time of tremendous energetic ferment: politically, aesthetically, architecturally, erotically, esoterically. Old empires were giving way; new ones were being born. The rapacious expansion of European colonialism, for instance in the so-called ‘scramble for Africa,’ coincided with the flourishing of an esoteric depth hermeneutics in psychology, spiritualism, and political analysis. One of the central conceits of my book is borrowed from Walter Benjamin’s eccentric historiography. Benjamin believed that potentials embedded in the past could, as it were, ‘flash up’ unpredictably in the present, become actualized in the present in entirely new ways, thus, in a single dialectical leap, changing our understanding of both the past and its relationship to our present.

These kinds of flashes often come to us intuitively: something becomes visible as a hint or a suggestion, at the corner of our field of vision. We follow it, not quite knowing why or whether it’ll turn out to have been worthwhile. Sometimes it’s a dead end. But other times, a whole series of resonances open up across time. By resonances I don’t mean ‘similarities’ in the conventional sense. I’m not saying that our moment, in the early twenty-first century is necessarily all that similar to what our ancestors were living through a hundred years or so ago. Resonances here means that the two moments seem to contain what Max Weber, following Goethe, called ‘elective affinities’: that, in this case across time, they appear to become more vividly themselves through an encounter with each other. The encounter is constitutive in that it actualizes hitherto untapped potentials.

That’s why the argument that I develop in Mana draws on some old texts in order to open up ways about talking about our present. The work I’ve undertaken will have been successful if both those old texts and our sense of our present emerge looking a bit different from that encounter.

Elayne Oliphant: Let’s spend a little more time with this term, “settlement.” Each chapter addresses a potentially insightful dialectic, such as that between the energies of “primitive” rituals and “civilized” publics. You then use “settlement” to describe a process by which the movement of these dialectics is halted, preventing the continuation of the ambiguities and insights their continued movement provokes. I think the term is enormously productive. It effectively points to the itch it cannot fully scratch. The settlement will have to do for now but—as in the case of Israeli construction in the West Bank for example—it is enacted in order to create a “truth on the ground” precisely because it lacks authority and legitimacy. Settlements, in other words, lack solid foundation and implicitly acknowledge their insufficiency, while also enforcing powerful effects (and affects) in the world. What prompted you to use this term and how do you see it in opposition to your “vitalist dialectics”?  

William Mazzarella: I like your invocation of settler colonial ‘truth on the ground,’ and especially how fragile and anxious that truth is. How full of contradictions, double-speak, and slips—in short, everything we call symptoms. The term ‘settlement’ came to me spontaneously as I was writing that part of Mana. But I realized as soon as it had appeared on my screen that it had this political connotation that worked perfectly for what I was trying to say. Namely, that both critical theory and the worlds it purports to clarify proceed in this way: by establishing ‘truths on the ground’ that are provisional no matter how much they claim permanence, that are violent no matter how much they claim that history and progress are on their side.

As to the second part of your question, how do I see the concept of settlement in opposition to the ‘vitalist dialectics’ that I am proposing as a kind of intellectual method? The short answer would be that I see them in generative opposition. What I am calling vitalist dialectics is a way of allowing the movement of becoming that a settlement stifles to find a generative form in thought. Unlike pure vitalism, this isn’t just about about letting things move. It is dialectical because I understand the tension between social forms and social forces to be at once generative and irreducible. It is a negative dialectic, rather than a dialectic that moves toward sublation and subsumption. A dialectic that starts by saying: “We take these tensions to be irreducible.” But also: “We understand that these tensions are what generate vital worlds.”

Elayne Oliphant: In the Introduction, you seem to offer us a way into thinking about the current moment. You acknowledge that, what Michael Taussig has called, the “mana wave called Trump” circulated as you wrote, edited, and completed the text, further prompting you to question “what powers authority? What in us responds to it? How is vital energy turned into social form” (2)? I know that W.J.T. Mitchell had a similar response to these opening words; like me, he wanted to find in it some sort of a political program. If Trump had managed to capture something incipient and translate it into tangible social form, how might those opposed to his projects similarly make use of mana to critique and undo his authority? Or, as I put it to you at the AES conference, why, generally speaking, does the left seem to really suck at capturing, inducing, or participating in vital energies? And what the hell are we going to do about it? So I want to ask you this question again, but I also want to offer you the chance to explain to me why it’s a somewhat misplaced response to your book. 

William Mazzarella: Even almost a hundred years ago, theorists like Benjamin and Wilhelm Reich, who were interested in what we could call the vital dimensions of the critique of capitalism, noted that the political right seemed to be rather better at harnessing the energies of intoxication and collective effervescence for their political projects than the left. Then, as now, it’s as if the left gets too tied up in a pedagogical urge: it thinks that if it can only explain our common situation to us well enough, then it will have succeeded in mobilizing us. But as Terry Eagleton once satirically pointed out: “Men and women engaged in conflicts do not live by theory alone; socialists have not given their lives over the generations for the tenet that the ratio of fixed to variable capital gives rise to a tendential fall-off in the rate of profit.”

At a time of political urgency like ours, we all feel that we need answers. We want to know how to think about our situation, we want to know what to do about it. We are impatient with rumination and inclined toward action. And so if we are told, as I suggest in Mana, that all social and political action and attachment depends on the activation of collective energies, then it makes sense to want to know how to separate, as it were, ‘good mana’ from ‘bad mana’—genuinely revolutionary mana from reactionary or fascist mana. This, after all, was precisely what Benjamin was trying to do in his canonical ‘Artwork’ essay, which concludes by suggesting that we distinguish between an aestheticization of politics (fascist, bad) and a politicization of aesthetics (revolutionary, good).

In response to these understandable desires—desires that I too feel every day—Mana asks us to slow down and pay a different kind of attention. This is partly because I believe that there is simply no a priori way to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ mana—such that one could set up an institutional fix that would guarantee that the collective energies that emerge from whatever ritual or political form that one has devised will be reliably salutary. What Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert called “the collective forces of society”—and what I am calling “the mimetic archive”—is in this sense beyond good and evil, beyond economy. Its political potentialities are perennially emergent and cannot be guaranteed beforehand. In a mass democracy we tend all too often to act as if all we need to do is elect the right representative or devise the right kind of occasional process, and then we can sit back and watch things go well. No wonder we are so often disappointed when the great soaring hope turns out to have feet of clay. Part of the problem here, too, is that while we are quite conscious of the energies and attachments that we are bringing to the table during moments that are ritually marked off as “political”—rallies, elections, demonstrations and so on—we tend then to underestimate the mana-work that goes into the reproduction of the banality of everyday life, as well as its tight connection to the more grandly imagined dimension of life that we call ‘politics.’ This, by the way, is why I’m so fond of the kind of work that Katie Stewart and Lauren Berlant have been doing, together and separately, for some time now (be sure to check out their forthcoming book The Hundreds): it gives us a way of talking about the hinges between the most ordinary, fleeting moments and their—for want of a better word—“political” resonances, a mode in which everything is allowed to breathe.

The line that I pick up in Mana, perhaps counterintuitively, is Adorno’s aesthetic theory. I say counterintuitively, because Adorno was, if anything, utterly resistant to any kind of explicit politicization of aesthetic judgment. As far as he was concerned, the minute you subordinate aesthetic production to a political purpose, you’ve turned it into propaganda. And by turning it into propaganda, you’ve actually foreclosed the unique thing that art—as opposed to, say, pamphleteering—can do. But at another level, and this is where it links back into what I’m trying to do with Mana as an invitation to a particular kind of political thinking-feeling, at another level what Adorno prescribes for aesthetic judgment is a radical opening of the sensorium to the historical and political potentials that are embedded in the materials out of which the artworks we engage are made. An encounter with what I would call, again, “the mimetic archive.” Of course the major difference between my argument and Adorno’s is that I want to insist that this kind of engagement is in fact possible in the space of mass culture and mass publicity, not just in the esoteric preserve of autonomous art. Here I want to be quite precise: I am not in fact making a populist argument. I am not saying what so many have: that Adorno was simply a snob who didn’t recognize the revolutionary capacities of ordinary popular pleasures. Not at all. What I am saying is that Adorno actually gives us a profoundly provocative way to re-engage mass publicity, an esoteric approach, if you will, to these very exoteric cultural forms.

And that—forgive me the long and winding road!—gets us back to the question of why, at a moment of political urgency like the one we’re inhabiting now, my advice would be to slow down and pay a different kind of attention. Because it’s only by attending to what I like to think of as the esoteric resonances of exoteric public forms (or let’s say, the ‘inner’ dimensions of ‘outer’ forms) that we will be able to move toward a leftist mobilization of the mana of mass society.

Elayne Oliphant: Finally, you mentioned that you saw this text as the fruit of ongoing conversations (in your mind and in person) with two important anthropologists whose work has powerfully influenced your own: Marshall Sahlins and Michael Taussig. Given your earlier writings addressing the Frankfurt school, theories of affect, and advertising, these two scholars might not be the first two that people think of as orienting your work. Could you say a bit more about how they have influenced the questions you ask and the methods you take up, and how this book engages with them?

William Mazzarella: Yes, thanks for this question. Mana emerged in a mad frenzy of writing across two summers, 2015 and 2016. I’d never before felt capable of writing for more than about four hours at a stretch. But especially in the summer of 2015, there were long periods when it was not unusual for me to write for eight hours at a stretch, pausing only to satisfy the needs of the body. Sometimes I would find myself getting so worked up, so energized—“A certain rush of energy” indeed!—that I would have to burst up out of my chair and kind of charge around the room for a few moments. So something definitely possessed me during those months. Who knows whether that will ever happen again? While it was happening it was both exhilarating and a little frightening. It wasn’t unusual for me to think that I was writing something entirely eccentric, something so idiosyncratic that it would simply not be intelligible—would simply not resonate—with anyone else. For that reason, it was tremendously comforting, if also a little intimidating, to realize that two presences seemed to hover, one at each of my shoulders, during the writing process: Marshall Sahlins and Mick Taussig (I’m not going to tell you who was on which side!). I didn’t really question their felt presence during that time; I just drew some kind of comfort as well as some kind of provocation from it.

Once the first draft was finished I felt paralyzed. The thought of sending it to anyone felt equivalent to getting undressed in the middle of the street. (It may not be immediately evident to some readers, but this is by far the most personal text I’ve ever published). So I figured that a little aversion therapy was in order: in order to get over my fear of circulation, I was going to have to send it to the two people whose opinions most terrified me—not least because they had been so reliably present, so watchful during the writing. So, along with sheepish cover notes, I sent the draft to Marshall and Mick. To my great relief, they both responded generously and kindly, with a great deal of enthusiasm.

It wasn’t really until after that had happened that I began to think about why it was Marshall and Mick who had shown up, albeit spectrally, in my office while I was writing. It now seems to me that Marshall Sahlins’ work offered me a kind of reassurance that writing this kind of a book was legitimate for an anthropologist. Specifically, I think of Marshall’s Culture and Practical Reason (1976), a book that he wrote when he was at a similar point in his life as I was when I wrote Mana, and a book that, like Mana, is a work of conceptual clarification that doubles as a sort of intellectual autobiography—a way of sorting out one’s influences, engaging in a few intimate polemics (the only polemics that really matter), and figuring out a way forward. And of course both Culture and Practical Reason and Mana, as different as their intellectual commitments in many ways are, end with analyses of marketing.

Mick Taussig has always inspired me with his willingness to think speculatively, to look, precisely, for those resonances between places and texts that open up sudden flashes of unexpected illumination. Now of course there are many points of overlap between the Mana and Mick’s books—the concern with mimesis, with Adorno and especially Benjamin, and the attempt to retrieve something vital from what is too often dismissed as the age of armchair anthropology. So, if I may invoke one of the key dialectics of my discussion in Mana, Marshall’s presence supported me at the level of form, whereas Mick’s drove me on at the level of life. 

Damien Stankiewicz on his new book, Europe Un-imagined

Image result for Europe Un-Imagined: Nation and Culture at a French-German Television Channel

https://utorontopress.com/us/europe-un-imagined-2

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: You open Europe Un-Imagined by suggesting that while the television channel you studied aimed to fashion a European identity, in practice they may well have succeeded in creating more fragmentation than cohesion and might do more to make borders visible rather than to transcend them.  What led you to this argument?

Damien Stankiewicz: First, Ilana, thanks for this question and this interview! I’m so happy to have the opportunity to discuss my book with you—and I’m a big fan of the CaMP blog!

I guess I would say that it wasn’t so much that the channel was creating fragmentation as much as it wasn’t producing coherence—and I see those things as quite distinct, because one of the central aims of the book is to challenge the validity and ubiquity of Benedict Anderson’s theory of imagined community. If the channel were indeed “creating fragmentation,” one could argue that the channel demonstrates that Anderson’s theory remains intact—that it was indeed creating fragments of European belonging (national belonging, regional Alsatian belonging, and so on) in the ways Anderson stipulates, it just wasn’t able to create a larger European identity. My argument, in contrast, is that the channel’s multifarious efforts—whether to combine national identities into a European one, to create something European de novo, to draw on “Culture” in order to build culture—that these various strategic and narrative pieces never accrued into something recognizable as a coherent imagination in the way that Anderson evokes it as a shared narrative repertoire and collective mode of thinking-the-world.

Instead, I found that producers and programmers at ARTE, though all charged with the same mission statement of producing television and web media that would “bring together the people of Europe,” went about doing so in quite disparate ways, even sometimes within the same production unit and even while working on the same program. It’s possible, of course, that people working towards different goals and with different strategies, harboring uneven convictions about the power of television to create culture (much less what culture it should create) could nevertheless result in a program, format, or entire channel that would convey a coherent message or set of narratives. Indeed, media scholars and anthropologists have rarely argued that cultural producers have uniform goals or sensibilities. But at the end of the day (after eighteen months of fieldwork), it was not only my sense that things didn’t quite add up to a shared set of premises for the coalescing of a trans-European sensibility or identity among viewers—it was also the sense of those working at ARTE, who told me that the channel wasn’t achieving what it hoped to (or at least hadn’t for a number of years); that the channel was bureaucratically and/or administratively flawed; that audiences didn’t care, or no longer cared, about French-German rapprochement, much less about Europe; and that the transnational production process led to all kinds of glitches, misunderstandings, and obstacles that were to great degree insurmountable. I describe numerous examples of these glitches, misunderstandings, and what I call silences in the book.

So it isn’t that ARTE is producing fragmentation as much as the channel, largely by its own admission, runs up against all kinds of difficulties—both in terms of the array of competing ideas about what the channel should do and how, as well as sheer geographical and structural hurdles—which ultimately thwart ARTE’s efforts to produce a European imagined community in the ways its founders, seemingly emulating Anderson, had thought possible and actionable.

Ilana Gershon:  What role did audience numbers play in the kinds of audiences ARTE staffers imagined and how they understood appropriate responses to a changing media landscape?

 Damien Stankiewicz: As I describe in the last chapter of the book, transnational audiences present ARTE with a number of difficulties. France and Germany have different, somewhat incompatible methods for measuring viewership, for example. And the imprecisions of counting and comparing French and German audiences and viewer profiles led to lots of speculation as to why a particular program or film would garner strong audiences in one country but not the other. As I describe in the book, audience studies staff would often explain contrastive audience numbers through broad reference to national preferences and interests. A documentary about chocolate did well in France but not Germany because the French are more interested in chocolate than Germans. And so forth. The parsing (and ultimately, ambiguities) of audience “analysis” at ARTE was, for me, another example of the channel’s inability to conceive of itself as something other than bi-national, fragmentary, and ultimately incoherent.

At the time I was doing fieldwork, methods for measuring online streaming and downloads were still being figured out. For example, if someone clicked on a video and began watching it, but then immediately stopped the video and didn’t watch the rest of it, ARTE’s audience department didn’t know whether to count this as a “view.” And they couldn’t locate the viewer, either—so if they closed their browser and started watching again, it would be counted as an additional “view”… and so forth. During my time at ARTE, and during follow-up fieldwork in 2014, it was clear, however, that ARTE was in many ways leading the way in developing streaming and app-based viewing technologies. In part this has to do with its recognition that its viewers, who are distributed across national borders, would benefit from digital technologies that were not contingent on traditional/terrestrial networks and infrastructures—and indeed I was told that this digitalization has paid off: ARTE now has a thriving trans-European digital viewership that has greatly augmented and expanded its pre-digital, principally French-German audiences. (Interestingly, this has meant increasing use of English in ARTE’s subtitling, website, and app, which has long been anathema to a channel that was established in part to stave off the invasion of American programming into Europe.)

Ilana Gershon:  You kept observing people’s ambivalence about some forms of cultural identification at the same time that cultural stereotypes abound at the station.  What work do you think this ambivalence was doing in a television station dedicated to programming identity?

Damien Stankiewicz: I think this was one of the most fascinating aspects of my research at ARTE. Overwhelmingly, in a European borderlands where people are quite aware of the complicated, composite nature of people’s backgrounds and identities, people readily referred to each other and their way of doing or thinking about things as “typically” French or German. French-ness and German-ness remained centrally important categories and explanatory resources even as I observed that many of the stereotypes were simply not true (if in fact I counted to see if more French women at the channel wore lipstick than German women, as bizarre an exercise as that was). People were highly invested in such explanations and in the coherence of French and German stereotypical behavior, even in a context in which most staff had lived or grown up in multiple countries, spoke several languages fluently, had strong regional (Alsatian, Bavarian) attachments, and so forth.

And yet, in keeping with this complexity, a number of staff with whom I spoke were quite critical of stereotype (agreeing that it was pervasive at the channel, and problematic) and a number of folks offered quite interesting critiques of identity, which they understood to be either irrelevant or retrograde to ARTE’s mission.

This co-presence of both outright national/cultural stereotype, as well as staff who had nuanced articulations of why such stereotypical banter was unacceptable, attests to the diversity of views and sensibilities at the channel. I thought I would be able to discern a pattern, some kind of rhyme or reason, that would explain the dynamic between stereotype and refutations of objectified national culture—but it wasn’t clear to me that there was any simple relationship. I didn’t find that stereotype was principally tongue-in-cheek or used jokingly, nor did I find that only people who had lived extensively in several countries held more self-conscious views of culture or identity; ARTE was a place where both views, sensibilities, and ways of understanding social difference existed, and sometimes in the same individuals. But in the everyday life of the place, it was stereotype and national character/culture that shot through everything from birthday toasts, to sound editing sessions, departmental meetings, and even hiring and administrative decisions. And this was a puzzle I think I never fully understood.

Ilana Gershon:  French and German journalists were understood to have different reporting styles and different editing styles.  How did this affect journalists when they were trying to create transnational or European stories?

Damien Stankiewicz: This is an important question, because it helps me to clarify and nuance one of the book’s running arguments, which is that much of what was considered “French” and what was considered “German” was actually either erroneously categorized as such, or else was interchangeably so. A running argument in my book is that French-ness and German-ness at ARTE were made to be much more coherent and explanatory categories than was actually the case, if you paid close attention. (Which is why I refer to individual staff in the book as “French-identifying,” “German-identifying,” and so on according to how they self-presented or talked about themselves instead of relying on my own assessment of who they were or where they were “from.”)

But there were of course some patterns of behavior that tended to be more French or German (in the sense that they were geographically bounded/bordered). And editing styles in ARTE’s newsroom are an example where real, nationally organized differences existed: The French journalists tended to assemble stories as they went on, piecing together footage and voiceovers alongside their editors and figuring out the narrative as they worked, while the German journalists tended to first write out the story and find the footage, noting time codes and so forth, before going to the editing room.

However, as I try to be careful to specify in my discussion of these newsroom norms, though these differences were often talked about as “German” and “French” ways of editing—often made to converge with other cultural stereotype about French proclivities for loquaciousness or indecision versus Germans’ decisive, methodical organization—they should be circumscribed more narrowly in particular kinds of schooling and training. They aren’t simply “French” versus “German” ways of doing things, but have to do with how journalism is trained and learned in particular institutions in the two countries. Indeed, there were French journalists trained in Germany who assembled stories the ways the German journalists did, and vice versa. In this way, it is much more accurate to talk about French-trained journalists versus German-trained journalists than it is to talk about French-ness or German-ness in sweeping cultural stereotypical terms. As I note in the chapter, we could probably trace particular editing practices to a handful of brick-and-mortar schools of journalism in the two countries (as well as other practices in the ARTE newsroom, which escape this bifurcation, to other schools) in ways that help us to remember that national borders, identity, or “character” do not generate particular practices, but rather particular practices tend to come to be erroneously characterized as broadly national.

 Ilana Gershon:  What were the different approaches to the culture concept that French and German staffers had, and why do you think they had such different approaches to culture?

Damien Stankiewicz: Here again is an example of the complexities of French-ness, German-ness, and Europeanness at ARTE—and which circles back to why Europe is ultimately “un-imagined” at ARTE (and perhaps why it remains largely un-imagined well beyond ARTE).

I spend a good deal of my “culture” chapter tracing the history of French and German concepts of culture, la culture, création, civilisation, Kultur, Zivilisation, and parsing these against historical differences between France and Germany in terms of such longue durée topics as courtly manners (à la Norbert Elias) and the emergence of the Ministry of Culture in France. But I argue that, while such cultural histories may clarify some of why French-identifying staff at ARTE understand “culture” in a way that skews towards the fine arts, while German-identifying staff have a broader, more anthropological sense of the word, the devil is really in the details: “French” and “German” notions of culture and Kultur are in fact inflected by other kinds of understandings—about the arts, about identity, about belonging—in ways that render these words less decisively “French” or “German”—whether in a historical or practical sense—than they might initially seem. What’s more, in the everyday workings of the channel, various staff held variously hybrid views of culture that drew unevenly on “French” versus “German” delineations (if we can argue that these exist and can be cleanly separated in any useful way). It would perhaps make things simpler, in terms of negotiation and the production of something evenly French-German, were there to exist an absolutely clean distinction between French and German notions of culture; the channel could broadcast culture theme nights or some nights and Kultur theme nights after other nights and maybe everyone would be satisfied—but it hardly breaks down this way and so cannot be negotiated in this way. The problem is that sometimes people at ARTE—and myself sometimes, too—would want to contort discursive-semantic ambiguities like this one into easily recognizable differences and categories—and I think this may be why, on some deeper level, (“national”) difference came to be misunderstood, mis-attributed, and then, because oversimplified, exacerbated.

 

 

 

 

Llerena Searle on her new book, Landscapes of Accumulation

http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/L/bo24117771.html

Interview by Liza Youngling

Liza Youngling: In Landscapes of Accumulation: Real Estate and the Neoliberal Imagination in Contemporary India, you analyze how the “India story,” which “recast Indian society as a rapidly globalizing frontier of capitalism and as a market for new buildings” (5) brings foreign investors into collaboration and conflict with Indian real estate developers.  What makes narratives such as the “India story” such a powerful, market-making force?   How does this narrative align with or diverge from other ways of representing/making markets?

Llerena Searle: I began working on this project because I was fascinated by the explicitly “global” aesthetic of the office towers, gated condominiums, and malls under construction in places like Gurgaon, a satellite of Delhi.  I wondered why developers were building glass-encased buildings rather than drawing on local architectural traditions.  I wondered why they were constructing expensive apartments in a country with an extreme housing shortage and low incomes.  To understand what was going on, I had to train myself to see buildings as financial instruments.  But I was also surprised to find that stories motivate construction.

The “India story” was my informants’ term for a collective narrative they told about India’s growth.  Developers, financiers, consultants, and others routinely referenced predictions about rising land prices, GDP, incomes, foreign investment, consumer demand, and urban populations.  This ebullient narrative positioned India as a frontier of capital expansion, and it motivated many foreign funds to begin investing in Indian real estate in order to position themselves in markets that they thought would grow well into the future.

The “India story” was so strong that fund managers often spoke of these decisions as imperatives: we have to be in India if we want to be competitive.  Indian consultants would say, our cities have to grow if we want GDP growth.  The power of the “India story” stems from its wide circulation: I trace its roots in stories told by a range of actors, from the UN to Newsweek and Goldman Sachs.  Repeated often, it becomes commonsense.  What’s more, it’s a useful story for many different people to retell: it serves a range of value projects, from attracting investors to growing market share, and it also serves to guide investors and developers as they decide what to build where.

One of the things that fascinated me about doing this research was how people in the real estate industry could transform problems – poverty, for example, which is a real impediment if you’re trying to construct and sell million dollar apartments – into advertisements for investment.  The “India story” helped people do that.  In conversations, reports, presentations, and brochures, industry members repurposed familiar modernization discourses to predict that Indian society – today “underdeveloped” – would change along a fixed trajectory, coming to resemble places like Singapore soon.  I argue that the sorting, rating, and classifying work that these discourses do is central to making an international market in Indian real estate by making Indian society seem familiar but improvable.

Indian developers, foreign financiers, consultants, and others found common ground in the “India story,” but other market-making work was more contentious.  For regulatory reasons, foreign investors had to partner with Indian developers who agglomerated land, sought government permits, and hired local consultants – necessary work for transforming Indian land into a commodity that could be invested in from abroad.  The second half of the book looks at these unstable investor-developer partnerships and conflicts over how real estate should be practiced.

Liza Youngling: Your study makes a powerful case for the value of ethnographic research in our understandings of economic life, but you also note some of the challenges you faced in “studying up” with informants that were sometimes wary to share information they saw as proprietary or who did not want to give you the time of day. What can ethnographic research tell us about how markets are created and sustained that other methods cannot? What were ethnography’s limitations, if any, in this study, and how did you fill in the gaps with other approaches?

Llerena Searle: Before I began my anthropology degree, I studied urban and economic geography.  I read a lot about gentrification and urban restructuring, but the point of view of real estate developers was, for the most part, missing from this literature.  Scholars critiqued the effects of construction industry actions but didn’t provide detailed accounts of how it worked.  In India in particular, scholars have given voice to those who have been displaced by new construction, but it seemed to me that without also documenting the voices of the powerful, scholars run the risk of attributing urban change to abstract forces like capitalism rather than to people.

I was drawn to anthropology precisely because methodologically, ethnography foregrounds people’s agency, experiences, and ideas, and enables scholars to tell fine-grained stories.  It’s a method well-suited to the continual scholarly work of reminding people that market expansion isn’t inevitable or natural and that urban spaces aren’t just the backdrop against which human dramas play out.  So, ethnographic fieldwork with real estate industry elites promised a way of opening up a key black box in explanations of urban, economic, and social change – and of pushing back against mainstream economic narratives that render economic life people-less, mechanical, or inevitable.

As you point out, doing ethnographic fieldwork for this project was challenging for a number of reasons that I lay out in my Introduction.  My positionality (as a young, white, American woman) in a field dominated by men in a patriarchal society shaped my access to my informants – as did the competitive and secretive nature of the real estate industry.  Of course all ethnographers face limits to what they can learn based on who they are and the subculture in which they are working.  This limitation (which is really just a reality of social life to which anthropologists are attuned) – and the fact that collecting ethnographic data is time-consuming and personally taxing – means that one researcher cannot do it all.  Understanding something as complex, geographically variable, and multi-faceted as the politics of land in India today will require numerous ethnographies.

That said, my main fieldwork strategy was flexibility: I talked with anyone who would talk to me, attended every event I could, and followed up every lead.  I found that if real estate developers weren’t always interested in talking candidly with me, the bankers, architects, planners, consultants, and graphic designers who worked with them often were.  I also broadened my idea of what constituted “data” beyond face-to-face interactions, using my linguistic anthropology training to combine textual and other forms of analysis.  As both the products of numerous interactions and elements in ongoing chains of communication, industry documents were not just descriptions of how real estate markets worked but attempts to create markets.  Analyzing them in conjunction with participant observation and interviews produced insights into the industry that I could not have gotten from one type of source alone.

Liza Youngling: In your chapter on constructing consumer India, you describe how macroeconomic growth projections are used to justify the development of luxury apartments, office buildings, and retail stores for an imagined “genuine resident” with “global” middle class tastes and income. When you returned to India in 2014, what was your sense of the lived experience of residents in places like Gurgaon? How did their lives align with or differ from those earlier projections of what life would be like in spaces built with an imagined ‘genuine resident” in mind? 

Llerena Searle: It’s funny you should ask this because I’m headed to India in a couple of months to investigate people’s lived experiences in these “global” landscapes.  It’s clear that the material trappings of elite urban life in India are undergoing rapid change.  While developers have built new high rise housing complexes, malls, and offices, other companies have been rushing to sell appliances, paint, furniture, tiles, and modular kitchens to Indian consumers.  An array of magazines, advertisements, and television shows model how homes should look and how people should act in them.  I’m interested in whether, and in what ways, this influx of goods and media has restructured home-making practices.

As I wrote in Landscapes of Accumulation, images of domestic life displayed in advertisements for housing and home-related goods emerged from projections about the growth of India’s “middle class” and the assumption that consumer tastes and behaviors will converge between India and the “West” over time.  So one part of the current project will be to trace out the corporate logics that animate the production and marketing of home décor.

But I’ve never been really satisfied with questions about whether daily life is really like the images that corporations produce or not.  On the one hand, I’m mindful that there’s always a gap between the images in advertisements and people’s everyday lives; analyzing the former doesn’t necessarily tell us about the latter.  Moreover, consumers are quite savvy about how fantastical advertising images are.  Yet for me, the alignment between representation and reality is not the most important question.  In Landscapes of Accumulation, I was really interested in how people use stories and images as tools for accomplishing interactional goals.  Claims about building for “genuine residents” were not statements about the builders’ expectations about actual consumers but a way of signaling to investors that they were building for end-users, not speculators, and thus that the market was sound.  Predictions about “global Indian consumers” were alibis that corporations used for expanding into India without changing their product lineup.  Housing brochures featuring emblems of luxury were attempts to position developers and their projects as prestigious; they were never straightforward predictions of what life in the housing complex would be like.

So in the new project, I’m going to be asking less about whether daily life lives up to people’s expectations based on media depictions and more about what possibilities new material cultural configurations provide to residents.  I’m interested in how producers and marketers frame new products as indexical of particular kinds of people, and I’m interested in what people do with these framings, how they position themselves in relation to them and use them in interactions to align themselves with and against other people.

Liza Youngling: The last section of your book includes an analysis of the different “quality projects” of developers, investors, and architects active Indian real estate market. As you point out, “quality” is a multivalent term; it can refer to the people who are anticipated to buy luxury apartments or frequent high-end shopping malls, to the materials and workmanship used in constructing buildings, or to the integrity and trustworthiness of the parties involved in developing land and constructing buildings. After identifying the multiple ways that claims about quality operate within and help construct the Indian real estate market, do you now see “quality projects” everywhere? 

Llerena Searle: When I was doing participant observation with a European real estate investment fund, I was struck by the ways in which the fund managers discussed “quality.”  The fund’s corporate strategy in India hinged on the idea of constructing quality buildings – which they felt were lacking in India.  They told me that doing so would enable them to attract multinational tenants, charge high rents, maintain property values over time, and uphold the fund’s reputation.  They spoke as though only they could recognize or reproduce quality, but I noticed that Indian developers were also very keen to advertise their own quality, particularly through ISO and other third-party ratings and by designing and advertising their buildings as “global.”  Investigating these divergent quality projects helped me to understand how industry members attempted to create value by making claims to expertise, construction capability, trustworthiness, and other valuable traits which distinguishing themselves from competitors.

Not only were developers, investors, and others making competing claims to value, but what counted as valuable was up for grabs.  Indian real estate developers and their foreign investor-partners disagreed fundamentally about where value lay in the real estate industry – whether in land agglomeration or building construction – and what practices would lead to profits.  Thus tracing competing claims over quality allowed me to understand industry members’ attempts to construct power and authority on an uncertain terrain.  Foreign investors did not just enter the market and reshape it as they saw fit; they encountered resistance from powerful local actors with their own established modes of working.  Ultimately, there was a lot at stake in these claims: whether companies closed deals, how they shared profits, and who controlled the construction process.

But yes, since discourses about quality are means of contesting value and asserting control, they are everywhere.  I’ve been fascinated reading about discourses of suzhi in China and about labor management techniques that inculcate neoliberal governance by appealing to quality.  Perhaps quality discourses’ ubiquity stems from the neoliberal moment we live in – a corollary of proliferating rating schemes and audit cultures – or of the geographically distributed production and consumption systems in which we are enmeshed.  As I explore in the book, even as quality discourses are central to markets and market-making projects, they draw on more than economic values.  Claims about quality raise moral implications: inferior goods are morally suspect, and their producers are untrustworthy.  So, when I encounter people assessing everything from schools to restaurants in terms of quality, I wonder, what project is that assessment a part of?  What values is it invoking to do what interactional work? 

Liza Youngling: You address the fallout of the global financial crisis for the Indian real estate market (and for its foreign investors) in your conclusion. What do you see the future holding for globally financed real estate development in India and other countries that are framed as frontiers of capitalism? Is the kind of spectacular accumulation that your informants sought to create something that remains on offer in India or elsewhere?

Llerena Searle: In the conclusion, I paint a fairly bleak picture of Indian real estate markets in 2014 and particularly of the partnerships between Indian developers and foreign financiers that I traced in the book.  The Indian experience of the financial crisis differed significantly from the US experience since there was no mortgage crisis in India (most mortgages are not securitized) and Indian banks were not over-exposed to foreign credit.  However, with the global credit crisis, a lot of foreign investors tried to pull money out of Indian real estate by selling shares in Indian companies and backing out of deals.  By 2014, many of the people I had interviewed were no longer working in India or for the same companies.  A lot of projects got stalled as construction costs escalated, debt financing became expensive, and the Information Technology industry, which fueled a lot of office space construction, stagnated.  But real estate developers didn’t start to falter publicly until a few years later when Indian economic growth slowed and Indian consumers put off buying new properties.

So, on the one hand, the industry saw significant setbacks and reorganization.  On the other, the industry and the “India story” seemed quite resilient.  One prominent banker told me in 2014 that despite industry problems, the real estate “fundamentals” were sound; he punctuated our conversation with a familiar refrain about the strength of Indian economic growth and consumer demand for housing.  A fund manager insisted that India remained a good “long term” investment in part because urbanization continued unabated.  He cited a McKinsey Global Institute report which concluded that “India needs a new Chicago every year.”  These were exactly the kinds of statements that I had heard seven years earlier, at the height of the market.  Other firms found ways to transform industry distress into speculative opportunities.  For example, the private equity firm Blackstone bought up $900 million in Indian properties between 2011 and 2014.  I came away impressed by the continued power of the narratives that I describe in the book and of the developers, bankers, and politicians who circulate them.  It’s depressing that relentless work goes into making money through ecologically and socially destructive modes of urbanization, but that work continued even as the financial crisis unfolded, and it continues today.  I think that it would take more than an economic crisis to completely upend the real estate development practices that I studied.

 

Sirpa Tenhunen on her new book, A Village Goes Mobile

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https://global.oup.com/academic/product/a-village-goes-mobile-9780190630270

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: What is so fascinating about A Village Goes Mobile is how effectively you use your long historical relationship with a West Bengali village to reflect upon how the introduction and decade-long use of mobile phones affects social relationships.   Which aspects of your previous research shaped your research foci and your questions? 

Sirpa Tenhenun: My previous research in Janta focused on gender, kinship and politics, so I was inclined to continue to observe these aspects of culture and society when I started working on the appropriation of mobile phones. Without my long-term relationship with the community I might not have been able to recognize changes, and how mobile phone use, on the one hand, contributed to these changes and, on the other hand, to how mobile phone use was intertwined with changes. I, for instance, could observe how mobile phone use helped transform kinship relationships. I also witnessed how most people could accomplish more in a shorter time by being able to coordinate their activities with the help of mobile phones. However, the most significant economic change in the village since the turn of the century was not due to the use of mobile phones, but to the agricultural policies. Since farming small plots of land has become increasingly unprofitable, young men from small farms use their phones to find paid employment outside the village.

Ilana Gershon: You discuss the fact that most West Bengali villagers did not have landlines, that their only experience of telephony were the mobile phones.  This reminded me of Terry Turner’s discussion of Kayapo videos, that their makers had experienced radio and then video cameras without experiencing all the different media in-between that Euroamericans have.   How do you think this affected people’s experiences of telephony – to never have had an experience with landlines first?  

Sirpa Tenhunen: Villagers who never had an access to a landline phone experienced the ability to use mobile phones as more spectacular than those of us who have routinely been using landline phones before mobiles became available.  This does not mean that the idea of a landline phone did not at all affect how mobile phones were used: initially, when the phone density was low, mobile phones were mostly kept at home and shared by the household members.   However, villagers were able to use mobile phones more innovatively since they had not developed routines of landline phone use. For instance, they frequently used the phone’s speaker to share the phone conversations with whoever was present.

Ilana Gershon: How did the introduction of smartphones affect social organization in Janta?  Did it change gender relationships?

Sirpa Tenhunen: Smartphones were used to strengthen pre-existing identities but they also offered opportunities and technical affordances which challenged hierarchies. Contrary to their hierarchical position, educated young wives and children could become the phone use experts in their families. Low caste people were able to make identity statements simply by possessing smartphones. Digital sphere constructed through mobile telephony was first associated with male-dominated public sphere but it proved much more malleable than the public sphere outside the home from where women are still largely excluded—the great majority of women continue to be housewives despite women’s growing aspirations to be able to work outside the home. The young men pioneered the use of smartphones—if their older models were still working, they were kept in the house and used by the rest of the family, mainly by women, who usually stay at home more than men do. At the same time, few women who moved outside the home for work or study started to acquire their personal phones. Young women now also preferred smartphones, readily discussing the multiple functions of these phones and demonstrating their ability to use them. Most people stored music and films on the smartphone’s memory card from downloading shops instead of browsing the internet independently. I never saw women listening to music on their phone in public places like men do —listening to music on smartphones through the phone’s loudspeaker is used to ascertain the meaning of the public sphere as a masculine space where men can spend their leisure time. The few men and women in the village who have used their personal phones to browse the internet all had a college education. The ability to browse the internet with one’s phone was, therefore, related to one’s education and wealth rather than merely gender.

Ilana Gershon:  What kinds of social relationships or circulation of knowledge changed because phones made it common to have a one-to-one or dyadic conversation, which might have been difficult to achieve before the advent of mobile phones?

Sirpa Tenhunen: Within the sphere of politics, mobile phones provided a channel to contact opposition political leaders discreetly. The use of mobile technology amplified multiplicity by strengthening clandestine political activities and alternative discourses. Women’s increasing access to a mobile phone influenced their relationships with men, but—more crucially— it influenced the kinship code of conduct and kinship hierarchies within families and between kin groups. I observed how phones offered women a channel to express unconventional ideas and exert their will through networking. For instance, a mother could advise her daughter over the phone to not to obey the mother-in-law whose demands were excessive. Thanks to phones, young wives were able to stay in constant touch with their natal families which was unheard of in the past.

Ilana Gershon: One of your findings that I found startling was that mobile phones had contributed to a marked decline in village-level leaders’ power.  Could you explain why this is the case?

Sirpa Tenhunen: Mobile telephony was a crucial factor in the rise of the opposition in West Bengal, where the Communist Party had been in power largely through its network of local village leaders from 1977 until 2011. In 2010 opposition activists related to me how mobile phones help them secretly mobilize against the ruling party. Political activists used phones more to organize party meetings and offer political patronage than to organize spontaneous demonstrations and support. The parties’ power used to be largely derived from their role as arbitrators of disputes: any person who feels that he or she has suffered an injustice can call a village meeting, led by local political leaders, during which a solution will be negotiated between the disputing parties. Thanks to mobile phones, patronage could now increasingly be sought from opposition leaders and from outside the village. When I visited the village in 2013, I found that after the end of CPI(M) rule in the village in 2011, not a single general village meeting had been held to solve local problems and disputes. Mobile phone use had helped amplify translocal political networks thereby reducing the power of local village leaders.  Phone use for political purposes built on earlier political patterns and meanings, but it made politics faster, more heterogeneous, and translocal.

Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein takes the page 99 blog test

My dissertation looked at how media impacts community. Specifically, how does the global circulation of regular publications help create a sense of community among 8 million Jehovah’s Witnesses in more than 200 countries, and how do we know that these publications are key?

Before writing this blog, I spent a lot of time thinking about the affordances of new technologies: was I supposed to look at the page numbered 99, or the 99th page of the PDF file?

As an anthropologist, I’m not normally in the business of talking about intentions – but Ford Madox Ford died well before the age of the PDF, so I started with the page numbered 99.

Unfortunately, if I am honest, that page (page 116 of the PDF) is one of the most boring pages in the entire document. It’s the very end of chapter three, which introduces two different types of field sites: the town where I conducted primary research and the global institution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This particular page lists out physical research sites:

Additionally, I visited both Jehovah’s Witness worldwide headquarters in Brooklyn, New York and the Mexico Branch Office near Mexico City. Worldwide headquarters, collectively known as Bethel, include collections of buildings in three New York cities: Brooklyn, Paterson, and Wallkill, where a total of nearly four thousand Witnesses live and work.

So I turned to the 99th page, or page 82. That’s about halfway through this same chapter. It’s also the page where I first introduce the role of Jehovah’s Witnesses in my primary research site:

Jehovah’s Witnesses from elsewhere in Mexico first arrived in Zapotitlán in the mid-1940s and had converted approximately half the population by 1959 (Turner 1972: 90). Community members seem to get along well despite these divisions, but there are some aspects of life in which they are strongly felt. For example, most Mexican communities hold large festivals on the holiday associated with the town’s patron saint. In Zapotitlán, however, since Catholics are not a majority and adherents of other religions do not want to contribute or participate, these events are no longer held.

The page then moves into an anecdote about religious responses to the celebration of an important political anniversary in the town. It sets the scene, to be sure – but it doesn’t fully succeed at capturing the tensions between the centralized global institution and the practices of one small community. For that, you might still need to read the whole thing.

Barchas-Lichtenstein, Jena. 2013. “When the dead are resurrected, how are we going to speak to them?”: Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Use of Indigenous Languages in the Globalizing Textual Community. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of California, Los Angeles.

Gil Hizi flips to page 99 of his dissertation

My dissertation deals with pedagogic programs for self-improvement in a city called Jinan, northeast China. I focus on workshops that cultivate interpersonal “soft” skills, namely emotional expression, communication, and public speaking. Through the work of various state and market actors, these type of pedagogies have expanded in recent years from the middle-class culture of big metropolises to wider urban China. The crux of my work delineates the ideal of the person that is promulgated through these pedagogies and the ways it is enacted in workshop exercises. In short, soft skills in China offer an imagined avenue for self-transformation and social mobility that supposedly traverses more rigid factors such as background, educational credentials, and social capital.

Page 99 concludes a section where I introduce Aisong, 33, who joined interactive workshops offered by a local psychology club. During a short time, Aisong became a dominant participant and a poignant voice of expertise in the club. Despite his lack of prior experience in psychology, he expressed his goal of becoming a “master teacher” (dashi), and complemented his verbal performances with a new appearance: traditional suits, hair gel, a hairband, a Buddhist bracelet, and a fan in his hand. While undertaking this journey, Aisong maintained his blue-collar technician job. Like many other workshop participants I met, he was not pursuing self-improvement as merely a hobby or self-help method, but he was also not undertaking a new profession. I raise this point on page 99:

Unlike the visions of scholars of soft skills and immaterial labour, Aisong’s affinity to soft skills was not a response to direct demands of an enterprise. Yet, being both fascinated by and anxious regarding the potentialities of the market, Aisong was motivated to experiment with new modes of self-assertion while heralding new values.

Many self-improvers in urban China meticulously pursue self-improvement through a vision of entrepreneurship and market success, while also celebrating “doing what I love” and “becoming a better person”. They illustrate an intriguing coalition between a market-driven impetus for self-development and a moral cultivation of the person as a whole.

Anxieties about one’s competence in a changing world lead individuals as Aisong to envision new channels for professional success and social influence (the “master teacher” encompasses both), as well as to experience an untapped potential to become more competent. By practicing soft skills in an interactive workshop where he affects other participants through his speech and gestures, Aisong could achieve these goals ephemerally.

Hizi, Gil. 2018. “The Affective Medium and Ideal Person in Pedagogies of ‘Soft Skills’ in Contemporary China”. Ph.D. Dissertation. Sydney University.

 

David Parisi on his new book, Archaeologies of Touch

 

Archaeologies of Touch (US & Canada: use promo code MN82600 for 30% off):

https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/archaeologies-of-touch

Archaeologies of Touch (EU: use promo code for CSF18TOUCH 30% off)

http://www.combinedacademic.co.uk/archaeologies-of-touch

Interview by Carlin Wing

Carlin Wing: Archaeologies of Touch opens with an examination of contemporary haptic human-computer interfaces, then quickly jumps backward to situate haptic technology in a linear chronology that begins with electrical machines in the 1740s, and moves forward by examining the way institutional actors in the fields of psychology, engineering, computer science, and advertising address touch. With so much material to cover, it feels like a boundless topic—how did you decide what you were going to focus on? Why did you organize the book in a linear chronology?

David Parisi: Although haptics technologies are commonly associated with contemporary digital media, and virtual reality in particular, research into computer haptics began in the late 1960s (though it wasn’t called ‘Computer Haptics’ until the 1990s), as a response to Ivan Sutherland’s prompting in his 1965 address “The Ultimate Display.” And the term haptics itself retains a neologistic connotation, in spite of having a history that reaches back at least psychophysics & psychology research in the nineteenth century. So part of what I wanted to do is show that, in spite of the tone of novelty perpetually enveloping digital touch, the technology has a material and discursive history that predates the 21st century. The book’s narrative arc is organized around five successive phases of interfacing, beginning with touch’s productive interfacing with electrical machines in the 1740s, and concluding with touch’s expression in recent attempts to market digital touch technologies like vibration-enabled touchscreens. I emphasize the continuity between each phase, showing how specific instruments and experiments and were passed down from one generation of researchers to the next.

Drawing boundaries around this archive of technologized touch—deciding what was on its inside and outside—was a tricky and fraught process, especially since touch itself is such a slippery and often contested category, once you begin to push on it a bit. Ultimately I decided to try to write the history of a hegemonic and normative model of touch, one that emerged piecemeal from the exertions of researchers across three centuries, and is currently being embedded in the design of digital media interfaces, as engineers attempt to fix and standardize haptic vocabularies that will be used to communicate messages through touch (think of vibrating alerts sent from your phone or smartwatch).

Of course, any history of a concept so vast and elusive will necessarily be incomplete. But I hope that this will at least provide the groundwork for deeper investigations of the relationship between touch and media—even if it turns out there are glaring and problematic omissions from the archive that Archaeologies of Touch constructs, at least it provides a point of departure for future studies of haptic media. When I started this project (well over a decade ago!), no such foundation existed, outside of the piecemeal and fragmentary histories contained in psychology textbooks. So my hope is that this book saves anyone doing empirical or theoretical work on haptics some intellectual legwork.

Carlin Wing: Given the way your own experience motivated your attentiveness to this history of touch, how did you approach the task of representing the many individuals that appear in these archaeologies of touch? What kinds of decisions did you make regarding how to write people in the context of a book whose primary characters are the techniques, objects, and apparatuses?

David Parisi: Your point about my story centering on objects and machines over people is spot-on. There are some actual humans who take center stage in the book, but you’re right that I downplay their individual biographies to focus instead on the things they built, and the ideas they invested in their objects. My method here was strongly influenced by Hand-Georg Rheinberger’s notion of experimental systems, which de-emphasizes the importance of any one individual or any one individual experiment, in favor of locating experiments in broader networks of scientific research around a given problem. This mainly involves a question of where and how we assign agency: by focusing on techniques, objects, and apparatuses, I wanted to get at a lineage of research and thinking on touch that transcends and outlives any one individual researcher. By doing so, we can see how particular experiments and experimental techniques concretize, attaining hegemonic status in the way that touch is studied. The two-point threshold tests that Ernst Heinrich Weber first carried out in the 1820s, for example, have outlived Weber by nearly two centuries, becoming foundational for the scientific study of sensory perception later in the nineteenth century, and then carried out again by experimenters in the middle decades of the twentieth century as they tried to figure out the optimal placement of the motors and electrodes used to transmit language through touch.

But, following Rheinberger, it is not the experiment itself that matters; instead, we should focus on how the experiment constructs and implies future experimentation in the system, how it shifts the border between the known and the unknown, or between the manageable and the unmanageable. The corollary of the experiment is the instrument—and here too we consistently see similar instruments employed and adapted for the strategic stimulation of touch across the five phases of interfacing I examine in the book. This sequencing hopefully has the effect of showing how contemporary haptic interfaces, in spite of the often-repeated claims about their revolutionizing novelty, are part of a longer tradition of attempts to transform touch through technology, many of which were met with similar enthusiasm, in spite of the fact that most of these techs failed to make it much beyond the lab’s walls.

Carlin Wing: The notion of training runs through many of the chapters and is perhaps most apparent in the chapter on the Tongue of the Skin where you talk about different attempts to train people to receive patterned symbolic communication through touch. How do you think about training, specifically training the senses? Did your thinking about training change as a result of writing the book?

David Parisi: The question of training is interesting to me in these different historical periods because it highlights the context-specific disciplining of the senses in general, and of touch in particular. For instance, early psychophysics and sensory psychology research aimed at uncovering the absolute limits of human sensory perception. In order to get at these boundaries, experimenters had to hone their abilities to perceive machine-generated stimuli—they had to become so-called ‘good observers’ through repeated drilling and training in carefully-constructed laboratory conditions. Graduate school involved not only repeatedly carrying out the foundational experiments of the new discipline, but also being the subject of these same of experiments, in order to cultivate their perceptual abilities. Becoming part of the discipline entailed a bodily and sensory regimentation, in addition to gaining a particular intellectual disposition. Deborah Coon’s Standardizing the Subject and Rand Evans work on the history of psychological instruments were both helpful for me here.

In contrast, contemporary interface design aims at building machines that will be appealing to wide swaths of users hailed as consumers—so they’re much more interested in understanding how the putatively average person experiences their products. This means they’re constructing normative models of sensation and perception, and embedding those models in interfaces through the standardization control and feedback mechanisms. In practical terms, this means that someone who wants to decode the complex messages sent through the Apple Watch’s Taptic Engine has to train themselves to be sensitive to an artificial vibratory language black boxed in the design process.

As a result of writing this book, I’m far more attuned to the sort of materiality and hard calculability involved in training processes. Going into the project, I was already thinking about media as involves processes of bodily and sensory discipline (in part as a result of McLuhan, and in part due to this Marcel Mauss essay I know you and I share an enthusiasm for). But examining lab experiments, and reading accounts of gradual refinements to particular instruments and models, gave me a strong appreciation for the microphysics of training processes—the material circulations that underpin abstractions of the human body and its senses.

Carlin Wing: This book is full of compelling and charismatic objects and apparatuses — an electrified venus, Leyden jars, electric eels, electrodes for the eye, tonsil, uterus, and rectum, aesthesiometric compasses, The Apparatus for Simultaneous Touches, the Teletactor (a mechanical ear for the skin), the Vibratese apparatus, Tactile Televisions, the Argonne Remote Manipulator, the CyberGrasp and CyberForce interfaces, force feedback joysticks and game controllers, touchscreens. What do you make of the charisma of these strange objects and apparatuses? What do you want us to understand about what compelled the effort that went into make these variously extraordinary, oppressive, curious, therapeutic, banal, and magical things and about what compels you and us to consider them in turn?

David Parisi: This is a really productive and important question, because it pushes a degree of reflexivity about this project—essentially asking about the subjective aesthetic preferences of the research expressed through the selection of objects. Part of what I was trying to do especially with the images throughout the book is highlight a continuity to the technoscientific imaginary around touch—a sort of cold, mechanical, and efficient modeling of touch through these instruments. This works as a counter to our typical imagination of touch as warm, as human, and as irreducible to mechanization and electrification. And it shows us that touch, like seeing and hearing, can have its own dedicated set of machines for knowing and revealing it, for capturing, storing, transmitting, and playing back its data.

But at the same time, these so-called strange objects are the embodiment of a devotion to and passion for touch—a technoscientific imagination around touch motivated by the humanist hope that life might be made better through the technological enhancement of touch (a sense often ideated as the most human of all the senses). They are captivating objects because of their ambiguity: because they were not only technical objects, but also objects that had cultural lives, inspiring wonder and bewilderment. They were used to inflict pain, both on experimenters themselves and on their experimental subjects (the Leyden jar and the electric eel); they were thought to heal and revivify (the electrodes for the eye, tonsil, uterus, and rectum); they promised to give hearing back to the deaf and sight back to the blind (the Teletactor and tactile television); they offered to reveal tactile system’s arcane secrets (aesthesiometric compasses and the Apparatus for Simultaneous Touches); they assured us that we could reach out and feel distant objects (the Argonne Remote Manipulator), and caress objects or people that existed only in the memory of a computer (the CyberGrasp). I hope these objects spark that same complex fire of emotions in my readers that they light for me each time I try to think through and with them.