Hallie Wells comments on p. 99 of her dissertation

My dissertation examines how slam poets in Madagascar have forged a novel form of public discourse that emphasizes both freedom of speech and accountability for one’s speech. This illuminates broader questions about how speakers determine what kinds of speech are possible and appropriate in various contexts, how they perform authority, and how they anticipate and manage the consequences of their speech. Slam—a performance poetry competition created in Chicago in the 1980s—has become a popular social movement around the world, but in Madagascar it has flourished in a context that includes pre-colonial genres of verbal art that are central to everyday life and to politics. In many of these genres, public speech has long been reserved for elder men. Slam’s insistence on “free expression” thus constitutes a radical break from long-standing notions of the social roles and risks associated with public speech. Treating the concept of free speech as historically and contextually specific rather than abstract and generalizable, my dissertation shows how Malagasy slam poets balance liberal discourses of individual freedoms with notions of responsibility and accountability, dialogic authority, and embodied relationality.

The excerpt below from page 99, then, is not particularly representative of the rest of the dissertation. It’s a bit of a historical interlude that sets up some of the core issues that I examine later in the chapter, so I return to these ideas about linguistic difference and language politics but without this level of historical detail. Most significantly, this excerpt stands out because it doesn’t reference any of my own fieldwork research, or even mention slam poetry at all. Most other sections are based around ethnographic vignettes, poems, and interviews. But this historical section is critical for understanding the heft and significance of contemporary language politics—the dominance of “official” Malagasy (based on the Merina dialect), and the sociopolitical valences of French versus English. This history is critical to understanding the imbrication of language and public speech with contemporary social inequalities and political and economic networks of power.

from page 99:

[…] The British were eager to forge an alliance with the Merina Kingdom, which in turn was eager to further its control over the rest of the island. As Velomihanta Ranaivo’s (2011) history and analysis of language politics shows, the British support of the Merina Kingdom in developing formal education was structured to train the children of elites in the Highlands. She writes that the emergence of Malagasy as a codified language based on the variety used in the Highlands fits into this logic of subtle domination. It establishes the development of the monarchy via church, school, and press—the favored channels of communication and the diffusion of ideas. This domination is systematically worked from the inside using the existing machinery, which had been progressively transformed within a kingdom in full expansion since 1787, long before missionary incursion. (Ranaivo 2011: 72, my translation)

In 1835, the Merina Kingdom’s reigning monarch, Queen Ranavalona I, began a violent campaign of repressing Malagasy Christians, prompting most missionaries to leave the island and bringing an end to the U.K.-Madagascar alliance forged by her predecessor and husband, King Radama I, and to the evangelization of the country. It also likely enabled the French colonization of Madagascar in 1894: with the British gone, France saw an opportunity to invade. They struck a deal with the British in 1890, in which they ceded Zanzibar in exchange for Madagascar. From a less-than-equal partnership with a foreign power, in which Britain had the military and economic advantage over Madagascar yet recognized the sovereignty of the Malagasy Kingdom, the nation was thrust into more than 70 years of forced labor, extreme poverty and famine, massacres, violent repression, racialized debasement, and cultural and linguistic subjugation.

To speak of the linguistic context of Madagascar today, we must remember that “Malagasy,” while technically one single language, is in practice a catch-all term for a wide variety of dialects. One study found that Bara children in the South do not understand the Merina dialect (Bouwer in Larson 2009: 34), yet Larson nevertheless concludes that dialectal differences are “weak” and “never a hindrance to mutual comprehension” (idem). Larson does not provide evidence for this claim, nor does he expound on what constitutes “comprehension,” a concept I address in Chapter 3. […]

Hallie Wells. 2018. Moving Words, Managing Freedom: The Performance of Authority in Malagasy Slam Poetry. University of California, Phd.


Patrick Eisenlohr on his new book, Sounding Islam

Sounding Islam by Patrick Eisenlohr


Interview by Ben Ale-Ebrahim

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: In Sounding Islam, one of your primary arguments is that anthropologists of religion should focus more attention on the importance of sound and sonic atmospheres in the study of embodied religion. What originally motivated you to focus this project on the role of sound in religious communities?

Patrick Eisenlohr: In the recent material and media turn in the study of religion, the sonic tends to be rather marginal compared to work on the visual and visual cultures. But there is more to the focus on the sonic than merely redressing this obvious imbalance. There is, above all, the privileged link between the sonic and the emotive and affective. Saying this, I do not want to set up a binary contrast with the visual along the lines of what Jonathan Sterne has called a Christian “audio-visual litany.” But the privileged link of the sonic to the emotive and affective cannot easily be dismissed. This is because the sonic implicates the body, or to be precise, the felt-body, what is called the Leib in German, in a most comprehensive way, as sonic events can not only be registered by the hearing apparatus, but potentially the entire body, its flesh. In parts of sound studies, the sonic, vibrational phenomena that transmit energy through a medium in ways that very often extend beyond the acoustically perceivable, have been equated with affect. This ties into longstanding questions about the proverbial power of music to profoundly affect people in ways that often seem ineffable. Without attention to the sonic, the study of religion would be oddly incomplete. Finally, for anthropologists, the sonic, especially as atmospheric, is relevant for many other fields beyond religion. One only has to think of the present political moment, where powerful moods and felt currents are reshaping politics and public spheres across the world, while deliberation and appeals to enlightened self-interest seem so irrelevant in so many places.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: Throughout this book, you develop a theory of sonic atmospheres that accounts for the different socio-cultural factors that influence whether or not one’s body is likely to respond to a particular sonic stimulus, making a clear distinction between understandings of sound as affect versus atmosphere. For example, you describe how Mauritian Muslims of the Ahl-e Sunnat tradition respond to na‘t performance in a positive way, feeling as if they are transported to Medina by the sound, whereas Deobandi- or Salafi-oriented Mauritian Muslims respond to na‘t negatively and do not experience the same feelings or affective responses. Can you talk a bit more about why you chose to focus on the analytic of sonic atmospheres and how you anticipate this analytic being useful for the anthropological study of religion in other contexts?

Patrick Eisenlohr: Thank you, I am glad you asked this question. Distinguishing atmospheres from affect is important. Unlike affect in the Deleuzian genealogy that dominates understandings of affect in anthropology, atmospheres do not categorically operate below the threshold of consciousness. They are also highly meaningful and not “autonomous” in Massumi’s sense, yet they speak to the same concerns about the movement of energy through and between bodies and the need to grasp what cannot be discursively specified as affect theory does. Atmospheres, whether sonic or in other modalities provide a bridge across the chasm that separates affect from sociocultural mediations and forms, therefore they are relevant to many other contexts that anthropologists study, far beyond what is commonly understood to be religion. To return to the example you just mentioned, sonic atmospheres, such as those generated by a voice, exert suggestions of movement on the felt-bodies of those they envelop. They do not just provoke feelings, seen from the vantage point of the neo-phenomenology of Hermann Schmitz such atmospheres themselves are feelings extended into space. But atmospheres can also be merely observed, as the Deobandis or Salafis you mentioned are likely to do, while the Ahl-e Sunnat devotee will probably be seized by them. By locating feelings outside human subjects, an analytic of atmospheres addresses the movement of energy between and through bodies, but also allows for sociocultural mediations to influence what stance subjects take to atmospheric forces, sonic or otherwise.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: I am fascinated by the spectrogram and waveform diagrams that you include in chapters five and six. You mention that you were motivated to include these partly as a result of your training in linguistic anthropology, where formal analysis is typically paired with discursive analysis. What was it like collecting these audio samples and working with this type of data? Can you talk a bit more about your methodology here?

Patrick Eisenlohr: In order to do justice to sound as a separate mode of knowledge and meaning-making, it is important to provide other forms of access to it than discourse. This is one of the main reasons why I used the spectrograms. They give a different sense of the sonic dynamics and movements that make up na‘t recitation. Like discourse, these visual representations of sonic events also have inherent limits in coming to terms with the sonic. They captures sonic movements in a very striking way, but the movements in three-dimensional space they visualize are not the same as the suggestions of movement enacted by sonic movement from a phenomenological perspective. My interlocutors directed me to the parts of na‘t recitals they found most powerful and emotionally compelling, often expressing this through metaphors of travel and spatial displacement. I decided to complement their verbal descriptions of the power of a na‘t reciter’s voice with the perspective on auditory cultures they afford with the spectrograms and the analysis of pitch, volume, timbre, and reverb the spectrograms and waveforms allow. This was inseparable from the analysis of the technologically amplified, modified and reproduced voices, since most examples of what my interlocutors considered a particularly “moving” voice also included its media-technological shaping. Comparing the verbal description and formal analysis of vocal sound in this context helped me to make sense of one through the other in ways that an exclusive focus on either verbal characterization or the formal analysis of sonic events would not have allowed.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: You discuss how media play a very important role in the reception and performance of na’t throughout this book. In chapter three, for example, you emphasize how small media like CDs, DVDs, and books work to enable transnational connections between Muslim communities in the Indian subcontinent and Mauritius. What changes have you observed over time in the way na‘t recordings are distributed and shared? Do social media outlets like Facebook and YouTube, or other internet-based platforms, play a significant role in na‘t performance communities today?

Patrick Eisenlohr: The story is quite familiar. In the late 1990s, I still encountered the use of audiocassettes with na‘t collections, which were quickly supplanted by audio-CDs in the early 2000s, and finally by mp3 files in the last ten or twelve years. A newer phenomenon is the popularity of videos of na‘t recitals. Unlike in India, cheap low-grade video CDs never really played an important role in Mauritius, DVDs were more popular, and videos streamed via the internet on mobile devices have dominated in the last 7 to 8 years. In the meantime, social media like YouTube and Facebook have come to play a huge role, performances are not just routinely recorded but now also shared online. According to what my interlocutors have told me, the visits and live performances of Indian and Pakistani na‘t khwan played a decisive role in making the genre more popular in Mauritius, not just the availability of imported cassettes and audio-CDs. These visiting na‘t khwan in turn inspired the emergence Mauritian na‘t khwan. In at least one case, a Mauritian na‘t khwan got his first training by an Indian Imam residing in Mauritius at the time. These local na‘t khwan then started to produce and circulate their own collections of na‘t recordings.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: Many of the ethnographic examples you reference in this book are drawn from your discussions with amateur na’t performers living in Mauritius, such as Shareef and Nazeer. You discuss how they learn to perform na’t, imitating previously released recordings of famous na’t khwan in order to capture their unique ler or manner of vocal expression, for example, and describing the ways in which their behavior outside of performance spaces, such as their general level of piety and their reputation in the Mauritian Muslim community, affects their reception as professional performers of this particular style of religious music. I’m curious to hear more about what happened to your interlocutors, such as Shareef and Nazeer – did they end up “making it” and becoming professional na’t khwan? When does one break the barrier between amateur and professional in the world of na’t performance?

Patrick Eisenlohr: None of my Mauritian na‘t khwan friends has become a professional in the strict sense of the word, for none of them is this their main occupation. Shareef is now the director of a primary school, Nazeer is retired, and Farhad is an Urdu teacher. Although they are justifiably proud of their na‘t recordings, they all say that they do not see themselves as a match for the Pakistani superstars. The latter are famous and make a good living from reciting na‘t. But for my Mauritian interlocutors there is also a certain ambiguity surrounding the superstars’ professional status, there is admiration for them, but there are also moral doubts about reciting na‘t for money, and not for the love of the Prophet alone. Doubts over whether such professionalism allows for the benefits a na‘t performance is supposed to bring about point to exactly the importance of perceived piety and personal reputation you have mentioned. Certainly, I heard my share of stories about what some perceived as the aloofness and the high financial demands of visiting professional na‘t khwan. Seen from such a perspective, “making it” as a professional also invites suspicions of moral corruption, and becoming a professional in the sense above may therefore be felt to be not entirely desirable.


Origins of Job Application Forms and Some Types of Job Interviews

by Ilana Gershon

Job Application Forms

The military introduced this as a widespread practice starting in 1917, when the Committee on Classification of Personnel in the Army developed forms to standardizing practices for evaluating soldiers.  Initially these forms were called application blanks, and were intended to accompany a cover letter that was supposed to be tailored to that particular company. (Thelen 1998: 64)  Prior to the resume and application blank, cover letters could be more generic, but in the 1920s, authors offering job advice began encouraging applicants to write a letter addressed specifically to that company, and ideally, to a specific named potential employer.

Thelen, Erik. 1998. “The Evolution of the Application Letter in America: 1880-1960.”  Phd Thesis. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.


Informational Interviews

The first mention of informational interviews that I can find is in 1975 – the first volume of Women’s Work suggests that women conduct informational interviews about the jobs in which they might be interested.

Behavioral Interview Questions

Tom Janz introduces this approach at a conference in 1977, but only addresses it in print in his 1982 article “Initial Comparisons of Patterned Behavior Description Interviews versus Unstructured Interviews.” in the Journal of Applied Psychology 67(5): 577-580.

Structured Interview Responses

In 1986, Tom Janz had published his book, Behavior Description Interviewing in which he recommended that people deploy the SHARE Model to structure their answers when responding to a behavioral interview.   Over time, this has morphed into at least two other acronyms that I have come across during my fieldwork – the STAR model and the PSR model.

The SHARE model:

S Describe a specific Situation.

H Identify Hindrances or challenges.

A Explain the Action that you took

R Discuss the Results or outcome

E Evaluate or summarize what you learned.


PSR Model – I found this more on the West Coast





STAR Model – I found this more in the Mid-West and on college campuses





History of U.S. Employment Centers

By Ilana Gershon

Since people weren’t using job ads to find applicants or positions until the mid-1880s, what did they turn to?  They ended up turning to intelligence offices, which managed a number of different tasks, including staffing, finding lost animals, branding animals, providing information about how commodities were doing in the marketplace, or information about commodities that are rare or unusual, and also serving as a pawn shop.  The first ad for an intelligence office I could find is James Hulme announcing in the Pennsylvania Gazette that he has successfully set one up in 1774.  By 1812, people were writing op-eds to New York City newspapers criticizing intelligence offices for placing servants and then luring them to another position by delivering tempting flyers about a new workplace to the servants’ workplace only a few days after they were placed.  From this critique, it seems clear that in 1812, both job seeker and employer paid the same amount (50 cents) to be matched.  The intelligence offices became such a problem that the NY legislature passed a law on February 4, 1822 insisting that intelligence offices required a license in an attempt to regulate them.  Other states soon followed – scurrilous intelligence offices was a concern for state legislatures for many decades, and various states experimented with ways to regulate the private employment offices.  It did take a while, however, for dictionaries to acknowledge this institution.  Webster (in 1884) defined intelligence offices as “an office or place where information may be obtained, particularly respecting servants to be hired.”

By the time the Webster dictionary started defining intelligence offices, employment bureaus which were free to the job-seeker had already been well-established.  In the 1850s, the New York YMCA branch offered services similar to intelligence offices, hoping to help the young men who were boarding at the YMCA find jobs.  In 1866, the Chicago YMCA became concerned that Civil War vets were having trouble finding jobs when they returned home, and hired a man to work full time on job placement, and in 1875, he had placed 4,000 men that year alone (Hopkins 1951).

Starting in perhaps the late 1880s, the widespread distrust of private employment bureaus sparked an interest in having government-run employment bureaus.  The Colorado Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1887-1889 publishes the first official statement advocating for government involvement in labor exchanges (Sautter 1983: 375).  But this attempt did not succeed in the Colorado state legislature.  Instead, the first government agencies were established in Ohio in 1890, in part because the Ohio Labor Commissoner was so impressed by Parisian employment bureaus, and was able to persuade the Ohio legislature to create agencies in the state’s five biggest cities (Sautter 1983: 382).  While in Ohio, the government-run employment agencies were relatively successful, other states found it more difficult to serve a wide range of clients well.  The New York agency closed in 1906, after being open only 10 years, in part because it had devolved into only helping workers in domestic service.   At the time, there were over 800 commercial employment bureaus in the city.  Unions, meanwhile, were suspicious of these charitable and government bureaus, and believed that part of their function was to help employers easily hire strike-breakers.


Hopkins, Charles Howard. 1951. History of the Y.M.C.A in North America. New York: Association Press.

Savickas, M. L., & Baker, D. B. 2005. The History of Vocational Psychology: Antecedents, Origin, and Early Development. In W. B. Walsh & M. L. Savickas (Eds.), Contemporary topics in vocational psychology. Handbook of vocational psychology: Theory, research, and practice (pp. 15-50). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Sautter, Udo. 1983. “North American Government Labor Agencies Before World War One: A Cure for Unemployment?” Labor History 24(3): 366-393.


History of U.S. Jobs Ads

by Ilana Gershon

American newspapers carried announcements about jobs from as early as 1705.  The first job ad I found was in The Boston News-Letter, asking for a “single able man to drive a team in Boston.” (March 4, 1705; issue 98; page 4).  A few job ads appeared in every newspaper, but they were clearly outnumbered by the other ads announcing goods or land for sale, or runaway indentured laborers or slaves. In a newspaper filled with approximately 400 ads, there might be 4 ads about hiring someone.  And these ads were as likely to be ads in which the person was seeking a position as much as an employer looking to hire.  Most of the job ads until around 1750 weren’t even what we might consider proper bjob ads.  They advertised indentured servants, asking if anyone wanted to buy their time. It wasn’t until around 1825 that newspapers began to carry a substantial number of job ads.  A few years later, ads began to run for factory workers.

People tended to advertise for apprentices, cooks, maids, and wet nurses.  Women were as likely to be requested or advertise themselves as available in a newspaper ad as men, although it was always clear which jobs could be filled by women and which by men.   Around 1785, jobs ads began to discuss whether the applicant should be black or white, and black people might also be likely to advertise that they were looking for a position.  In 1790, George Washington, or at least “the family of the President of the United States” advertised that they are looking for a cook and a coachman.

Around the 1830’s, newspapers began to clump ads together – beforehand job ads would be scattered throughout the newspaper, interspersed with everything else being advertised.   Clumping was not adopted uniformly, and it wasn’t until 1856 that newspapers began to reliably have “help wanted” and “situation wanted sections.”  At some point around 1856, newspapers began to split the help wanted section based on gender – lumping ads for help-wanted females or situation-wanted females together, as well as help-wanted males or situation-wanted males.  Given how gender specific jobs were at this period, the division isn’t surprising at all.  This however didn’t happen in all newspapers at the same time, and indeed, ten years later, newspapers such as the Providence Evening Press still hadn’t adopted this way of classifying ads. Once established, this division was a practice which would continue until the Civil Rights Act legislated against it in 1964.

There are a few other things to note about what early job ads can reveal about how information about jobs circulated in those days. Until around 1795, employers did not suggest being contacted directly.   Instead applicants were supposed to ask the Postmaster about the job details, or ask the printer. After 1795, job ads often mentioned exact street addresses where named people could be approached about the job. Recommendations were occasionally asked for – sometimes employers wanted an applicant to be well-recommended, sometimes a job seeker promised that he or she came with good recommendations. While recommendations weren’t discussed much until the early 1800s, between 1800 and 1805 it became commonplace for employers to insist that servants come with good recommendations. But that was the only thing asked for – there was no mention of resumes or interviews until much much later.

Job Advice That Has Lasted Over the Years

by Ilana Gershon

Job Advice I Was Surprised to Find in the 1920s

In 1917, employers were paying for employee referrals – I had no idea that this practice has been so longstanding.  (Baer 1917).

As early as 1921, Kilduff in his job advice manual was strongly encouraging job-seekers to contact the hiring manager directly whenever possible, and circumvent the employment personnel bureau – which is what HR was called in those days.  People have been trying to get around HR since 1921!

While every job advice manual I have ever read recommends some form of networking (although the earliest mention of “networking” as a verb I can find is in 1977), this practice wasn’t very highly valued in the 1920s.  In 1921, Norman Shidle warns prospective job-seekers not to rely too heavily on their personal connections.  “The help of friends and relatives should not be ignored when you begin to seek a position, but such persons should not be relied upon as the main source of a job.” (Shidle 1921: 4)  He is concerned that depending only on one’s social network will lead people to take the job that is most conveniently available, and not the one best suited to their temperament.


Baer, A. K. 1917. “How We Lifted Hiring Out of the Rut.” In Handling Men. New York: A. W. Shaw Company: 9-12.

Granovetter, Mark. Getting a Job: A Study of Contacts and Careers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Kilduff, Edward. 1921. How to Choose and Get a Better Job. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers.

Shidle, Norman. 1922. Finding your job: sound and practical business methods. New York: The Ronald Press Company.


Histories of the job ad, the resume, and so on

by Ilana Gershon

This is my application to be a member of the Society for the Study of Boring Things.  To write my book, Down and Out in the New Economy, I attended many workshops for job seekers and read many job advice manuals.   I kept wondering how and when these practices ever got started.  Some things are well-known — Mark Granovetter started the trend to favor weak ties when networking through his 1974 study, Getting a Job (which I talk about at length in my own book).   But other aspects I had no idea — where did the resume come from?  What was the first job ad in the United States?   Who first came up with the idea of behavioral interviewing or the informational interview?

In honor of Labor Day, I am posting this week everything I have uncovered about the history of hiring.   Clearly, this is a topic that needs a better and more systematic historian, and if anyone wants to do this, I will happily hand over all my primary sources.

Today — Resumes

Resumes, or curriculum vitae, might have existed in various forms in the 1910s, but were not yet a named genre. For quite a while they were called data sheets, and were not necessarily expected to accompany an application (DeKay 2003). Indeed, the resume was so far from being a widely circulated genre that in 1914, a magazine writer describing how to hire good employees, was forced to explain in detail what type of document an especially desirable applicant submitted, since the writer lacked the handy term “resume.”  He wrote: “With the letter was enclosed an abstract giving a complete history of education and business experience, including all positions held salaries received and names of firms worked for.” (Oliver 1914: 137)  The applicant was not inventing this genre out of whole cloth, 1914 was the same year that the resume as a genre was also first discussed in college business communication courses. (Popken 1999)  Job applications did not regularly contain a separate sheet of paper listing educational and vocational history labeled a resume until the late 1930s. (DeKay 2003)

In my survey of U.S. newspaper classified ads, job ads were not consistently requesting applicants’ resumes until the early 1950s – the first mention in a job ad that I found was 1952.  The mention I found was in a Washington D.C. newspaper, The Evening Star, in an ad for an automobile salesman.  The same classified section had ads for engineers or IBM machine operators, as well as cooks and all sorts of office jobs or blue-collar jobs, but none of these ads asked for a resume.  Even until the mid-1980s, most job ads didn’t request resumes up front – instead they suggested a number to call to arrange for an interview or recommending applying in person.  But by the mid-1980s, almost every ad that discussed office work or a job that might require a BA also mentioned submitting a resume.

Functional Resumes

The first mention of the functional resume can be found in 1952 – first suggested in Carl Naether’s The Business Letter: Its Principles and Problems. By 1955, 50% of the textbooks discussing resumes described functional resumes as a viable option. (DeKay 2003: 370).


DeKay, Samuel. 2003. “The Historical Evolution of a Written Genre: The Employment Resume in the United States, 1950-1999.” Phd Dissertation, Fordham University.

Oliver, H. M. 1914. “Finding the Right Man: Efficient Methods of Selecting Men to Fill Important Positions.” Business (March): 136-138.

Popken, Randall. “The Pedagogical Dissemination of a Genre: The Resume in American Business Discourse Textbooks, 1914-1939.” JAC 19 (1999): 91-116.

Thelen, Erik. 1998. “The Evolution of the Application Letter in America: 1880-1960.”  Phd Thesis. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.


Erin Yerby take the page 99 test for her dissertation

On page 99:

 “Spiritualism troubles the separation between here and there: as modern, western and mostly ‘white,’ but also because Spiritualists inhabit the problematic prejudices of modernity as uncomfortably “religious,” skirting the secular-religious divide, and adopting the very stance of the scientific observer with regard to their own bodily sensorium. The body becomes an object of observation, and simultaneously, the site of an intimate participation in one’s own affective experience. Mediumship involves, I argue, the practiced bodily technique of refusing to put images to rest, at least as properly historicized and situated pasts. The past returns as a living presence available to sensation, a revenant stutter interrupting American history in its sublimation of the dead, and making visible the ongoing entanglement of colonized bodies and spectral figures within settler-colonial imaginaries.”

Mediumship is an always-present encounter with ephemeral images and affects that  reveals the intimate way pasts are congealed in the body. An encounter, in other words, with something at the limits of what we neatly designate the social or culture, that gets into the body—a spectral remnant within experience that exceeds experience. How to think about such encounters was Mauss’ problem, it seems to me, in calling for a study of the techniques of the body, and in making the far-reaching claim that even the most metaphysical of our practices—mystical states— are “at bottom […] techniques of the body.” And then we might follow Nietzsche’s claim that philosophy has always concerned the body, or rather a misunderstanding of the body. It is as if thought has abstracted itself from its most fundamental encounter—a missed encounter with the body, from which thought arises. The body is thought’s otherness—its condition, as Deleuze and Guattari say: thought has its condition in the non-thought of the body, “its tiredness and waiting.” More precisely, the claim I am making here is that mediumship presents us with time in the body, the past sensed (in the body) as an animate and figural sliver of the present: living images of the dead. This dissertation explores modern Spiritualist mediumship as giving shape to a specifically modern sensorium, wherein the body appears as the primary, or primordeal, media of spiritual presences.

The section in which I discuss this, which includes p.99, explores the problematic relation of “dead” images to history, drawing upon Chakrabarty’s post-colonial critique of historicism as the conversion of the “plural” life-worlds of non-western others to a “bit of the past.” I propose here that the problem of history, or historicism, turns upon its relation to images—and the power of images which theological iconoclasm so deeply confronts. For Protestant reformer Calvin, the only safe, non-idolatrous images—those that cannot be confused with a living body, or entrance a living body into an ecstatic identification with itself—are images sequestered to pastness: that is, effectively de-animated and rendered dead, through their enclosure within an historical context. If historicism also names a way of writing we are comfortable with, and even, following a Marxian post-structuralist vein, is said to make for responsible, ideologically weary scholarship, mustn’t we also ask ourselves if such writing sequesters ideas and images to a dead zone, eliding (and thus missing) the full sense of their force in the now of the present?

Enfolded in a modern dialectic of proximity and distance, the medium’s quasi-scientistic re-making of the body into an instrument of observation is her means of drawing near the overlooked sensations affecting a body that have elided history—the many animate spectral shapes of the past. North American Spiritualist mediumship, I am saying, puts in relief the iconoclastic distinction between dead and living images by placing the body at the center of a sensory engagement with the past: not as a history of dead images, but as an erotics of plural entanglements with the living-dead. In its performed refusal of history, mediumship dialectically adheres to, yet refuses, the deadening of external images which iconoclastic prohibition demands. In making the body the locus or house of living images, mediumship expresses an immanence between presence and past, the body and the image.

Erin Yerby. 2017. Spectral Bodies of Evidence: The Body as Medium in American Spiritualism. Columbia University, Phd dissertation.




Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2000. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. 2001. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mauss, Marcel. 1973. “Techniques of the Body.” Economy and Society, 2:1, 70-88.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2003. The Genealogy of Morals. New York: Dover.

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway on her new book, Signing and Belonging in Nepal


Interview by Rebekah Cupitt

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway’s book, Signing and Belonging in Nepal (2016) captures the ongoing and changing nature of both deaf Nepali and Nepali life in general. It especially marks the shifts in how deaf Nepalis perform their identities through sign language and the relation with the larger socio-political changes occurring during the many years she has visited Nepal. She traces the ties between the caste system and notions of ritual pollution associated with the stigma assigned to deaf people, then shows how deaf signers in Nepal used an ethnolinguistic model of deafness to address this stigma, while navigating the resonances of this model with the politics of language during the Nepali Civil War. Her book also examines how the drive for Nepal to become a modern bikas (developed) nation in the eyes of the global economy influenced interactions between hearing and deaf Nepalis. Erika ends by considering how deaf signers’ practices for framing and labeling different forms of signing may be shifting in the post-war period.  I should note that during our exchange, Erika explained that although she used the d/Deaf distinction in the book at the request of the editors at Gallaudet (she had originally used local terms), in more recent works she follows the lead of deaf anthropologists who are moving away from that particular typographical distinction. The terminology used in this interview reflects that.

 Rebekah Cupitt: Could you discuss how the political changes that occurred after the People’s War have further impacted signing and deaf belonging in Nepal. For instance, is there an instance of deaf signing practices from that period which is indicative of the current political situation in Nepal?

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway: I noted in the book that, since the end of the war, the structural inequalities embedded in Nepali governance have shifted slowly and unevenly in the forging of a “new Nepal.” However, symbolic changes have occurred more readily, specifically with the grounding of nationalism in caste Hinduism becoming less overt. One obvious example of this type of change, which I discussed in the book, was the 2006 appointment of a new national anthem for the secular republic. The lyrics of Sayaun Thunga Phool Ka, or, “Made of Hundreds of Flowers,” are widely understood to signal a commitment to a form of nationalism that is explicitly multicultural and multiethnic and can be seen as an attempt to performatively call forth a not yet realized political landscape, one characterized by the inclusion that adivasi janati (indigenous) groups had struggled for in the war.

In this post-war context, then, efforts to link standard Nepali Sign Language (NSL) forms with caste-Hinduism have become a less necessary and effective way to align with explicit symbols of Nepali nationalism. In the book, I addressed how pictorial images of NSL signs served as public resources through which signers could access the cannon of lexical items understood to constitute standard Nepali Sign Language, and also as a tool through which signers were encouraged to create boundaries and linkages between a range of linguistic practices, different forms of representation of such practices, and social types. This use of the creative indexicality of images continues in the post-war period, of course, but the particulars of these practices are shifting along with the changing grounding of Nepali nationalism.

For example, I am currently working on an article in which I analyze deaf artist Pratigya Shakya’s illustrations representing a NSL version of the new National Anthem. Shakya’s pictorial representations of signing practices entail representing signing bodies, both performing and embodying (through, for example, their clothing) the social groups which the signs individually and collectively reference. Thus, in order to recapitulate the new anthem’s explicit claim that Nepali nationalism is widely inclusive, the collected figures Shakya painted performing the signs represent a range of types in terms of social (caste, ethnic, and geographic) variation. Here then, the inclusiveness referred by the anthem is materialized in the figures performing the signs, as this group of figures collectively indexes a social persona of “diverse Nepali.”

Rebekah Cupitt: In Chapter 3 and 4, you talk in detail about signing practices and how they are lexically tied to Hindu traditions in some cases, and in the case of homesign (sign systems developed by deaf Nepali who grow up without access to NSL, see Hoffmann-Dilloway 2016:70), traditions and socio-economic origins are framed as less desirable from perspectives grounded in hegemonic Hindu nationalism. I know that your research makes for an important comment and account of deafness in Nepal but do you see your work as commenting on Nepali culture and religion through deaf eyes and the situated performance of sign language thus offering a counter-narrative of Nepali life?

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway: While the book focuses on the practices of signers, in order to understand the political economies of their efforts to link linguistic forms to social types, it was necessary to consider scales “beyond directly observable and recordable face-to-face interactions” (Inoue 2016:153; Gal 1989). That is, it wasn’t just that I had to try to understand the ethnographic moments in which I participated within a broader social and historical context, but more specifically that I had to analyze the processes through which deaf social actors themselves understood and enacted such scalar relations (see Carr and Lempert 2016). So in that respect the book indeed seeks to highlight deaf perspectives on broader Nepali social life.

In some cases, these perspectives reproduced the hegemonic hierarchies of the state within deaf social worlds; in order to navigate the difficult period of the war, deaf leaders didn’t just work to associate NSL signing practices with the middle-hills caste-Hinduism in which Nepali nationalism was grounded. Rather, as you note, these processes also involved contrasting this cluster of practices, qualities, and affiliations with an opposed cluster that could serve as their foil (Irvine and Gal 2000). This broader project also involved work to associate homesigns with non-caste Hindu practices and qualities, in so doing replicating broader hegemonic discourses. At the same time, however, this diverse network of deaf signers did not universally share these bundles of associations. Thus, I also tried to highlight the ongoing semiotic work deaf leaders engaged in (such as leading workshops and creating images that highlighted links between signs and social qualities) in order to make these kinds of interpretive habits cohere, to some degree and for some duration.

On the other hand, the way that some signers recruited the concept of porous personhood as a tool to reduce internal hierarchy within deaf social worlds offered a counter-narrative not only of broader Nepali life but also of many enactments of ethno-linguistic models of deafness. Specifically, in some contexts, deaf people who begin to sign later in life, and whose signing shows the effects of such late-learning, may find their status as ethno-linguistically deaf challenged. Nepali signers who drew on understandings of distributed personhood to distribute linguistic competence, thus challenged not only Nepali models that would enjoin “polluted” signers to avoid contact with others, but also the internal hierarchies that can characterize the way that an ethnolinguistic model of deafness may be understood.

Rebekah Cupitt: Porous personhood as a concept is a compelling analytical device through which the social collaboration involved in becoming deaf is powerfully rendered, especially the stigma attached to it but it also forms the distinction between Nepali Sign Language signers and home-signers. Could you discuss how this notion of personhood has shifted given the decreasing focus on Hindu caste systems and the karmic model of deafness and a Nepal-wide more towards ideologies focused on development (bikas) and modernity?

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway: In Chapter 5, I focused on The Bakery Café, a fast food chain in Kathmandu that hires and advertises the presence of deaf wait staff, as a way to think through this question. I pointed out that, since food was an especially effective medium for the transmission of pollution, hiring deaf waiters to serve in a restaurant chain was a risky proposition when the venture launched in 1997. However, I suggested that The Bakery Cafe was successful not in spite of the fact that the deaf waiters would “traditionally” have been understood to transmit pollution, but in large part because publicly accepting food from deaf servers created a way for customers to generate and display modern personas that hinged on a contrast with such “traditional” frames.

I should add that it’s possible see the Bakery Café’s hiring of deaf staff as part of a neoliberal commodification of linguistic and social variation, which might suggest that an individualizing frame would be overtaking a notion of porous personhood in that context. However, as Inoue (2016:166) notes, “the neoliberal self is produced through processes of “dividuation” as much as “individuation” (Inoue 2016:166), as persons are fractured into shifting bundles of qualities and skills. And, as Friedner (2015) describes concerning Indian businesses that attempt to extract value from deaf sociality, businesses hiring deaf workers may take advantage of the ways in which deaf signers work to share and distribute skills among themselves, saving the management some of the work of training and creating team dynamics. Similarly, in Nepal, it seems that models of deaf sociality generated in part through the concept of porous personhood have been productively exploited as deaf workers are incorporated into such work contexts. So, to address your question more specifically, my point is that these ideological frames and the embodied enactments of them have not replaced one another linearly, but have rather resonated together in complex ways.

Rebekah Cupitt: Are you able to speculate perhaps on what a focus on disability or the non-linguistic aspects of deaf culture potentially brings and/or removes from a study of deafness in Nepal? Given the strength of the ties between the ethnolinguistic model of deafness and the now less-popular Hindu nationalist movement, how might deaf personhood and belonging in Nepal appear differently should deaf identity be theoretically decoupled from language? 

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway: To think through this question I need to be clear that concepts like personhood, identity, or disability are grounded in forms of semiosis (signification or meaning making). Linguistic practices can’t be easily separated from other modes of semiosis (see Nakassis 2016). For example, though much of my book is ostensibly about Nepali Sign Language, as the set of practices that ground an ethnolinguistic framing of deafness, consider how much of my discussion focuses on modes of semiosis that are generally considered non-linguistic, such as drawings, clothing styles, or food. While linguistic practices are explicitly centered in the meta-semiotic debates I analyze in the book, many of those practices center on forging or disrupting perceptions of entanglement between these linguistic practices and other modes of meaning.

Even as I want to keep in mind that language does not function independently of other types of meaning-making, however, working in a context in which many people (such as homesigners) have not had sufficient access to linguistically mediated sociality does make clear that linguistic semiosis is a distinctive and vital form of signification. Because deaf people often suffer from being cut off from sociality when shared linguistic practices are inaccessible, it’s difficult to imagine a politics of deafness in which language plays no role. However, there seems to be a lot of scope for variation in terms of how language is ideologized in deaf framings of personhood and larger scales of belonging. For example, while communicative sociality via accessible modalities will, I think, always be central, it may not always be seen as necessary to ground Nepali understandings of deafness in the perceived use of a particular named language like Nepali Sign Language, nor to posit hard and fast distinctions between named signed languages, spoken languages, written languages, gestural practices, and homesigns (for example, Kusters and Sahasrabudhe 2018).

Rebekah Cupitt: It strikes me, on reading the later chapters in Signing and Belonging in Nepal that deaf Nepalis have unique opportunities to engage with the international deaf community beyond receiving aid, sometimes even travelling to these countries, and therefore deaf Nepalis have access that other Nepalis, especially those from the lower castes and socio-economically poor ethnic jats lack. Towards the end of the book, you discuss what it means to be deaf and how deaf identity has changed in response to the political structure of Nepal, but I wonder if you could reflect on the potential for the deaf Nepalis you know, to themselves become drivers of change and not simply respondents – either on a national, local or global front.

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway: I closed the book by saying that, “ultimately, I hope to have shown that deaf Nepalis will not only continue to respond to local and transnational change, they will also continue to actively participate in making such change” (Hoffmann-Dilloway 2016:116). Such changes may occur in part through the relationships that deaf Nepalis forge with signers from other countries – relationships that can entail travel but which are also enacted over media like Facebook and YouTube. For example, Pratigya Shakya, the deaf artist whose work I often discussed in the book, prolifically posts videos in which he provides artful portraits of Nepali and Nepali deaf life, which he addresses to a global “Deaf World.” Other signers, like Dipawali Sharmacharya, work with international organizations to create programs to help deaf Nepalis access language, schooling, and work opportunities, while yet others, like Upendra Khanal, have been publishing linguistic analyses of NSL that can affect local and transnational framing of Nepali signing practices (e.g., Morgan, Green, and Khanal 2016). However, given that broader social constructs (including both “Nepal” and the “Deaf World”) are generated (if not in predictable or controllable ways) by the interactive engagements they mediate, all deaf Nepalis are actively engaged in collaborative and contested ways of producing, shaping, and changing their social worlds.


Carr, E. Summerson, and Michael Lempert, eds. 2016. Scale: Discourse and Dimensions of Social Life. Oakland: University of California Press

Friedner, Michele, 2015. Valuing Deaf Worlds in Urban India. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Gal, Susan. 1989. “Language and Political Economy.” Annual Review of Anthropology 18: 345–67.

Hoffmann-Dilloway, 2016. Signing and Belonging in Nepal. Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

Inoue, Miyako. 2016. “Where Has ‘Japanese Women’s Language’ Gone?: Notes on Language and Political Economy in the Age of Control Societies.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (3): 151–77.

Irvine, Judith T. and Susan Gal, 2000. Language Ideology and Linguistic Differentiation. In Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Polities, and Identities (Paul Kroskrity, ed.): 35–84. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Kusters, Annelise and Sujit Sahasrabudhe, 2018. Language Ideologies on the Difference Between Gesture and Sign. Language and Communication 60: 44-63.

Morgan, Michael, Mara Green, and Upendra Khanal, 2016. Sign Language: Southern Asia. In The Sage Deaf Studies Encyclopedia (Genie Gertz and Patrick Boudreault, eds.): 815-817. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Nakassis, Constantine, 2016. Linguistic Anthropology in 2015: Not the Study of Language.  American Anthropologist 118(2): 330-345

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.