Graham Jones on his new book, Magic’s Reason

Interview by Dalila Ozier

Dalila Ozier: In this book, you revisit your ethnographic work on French magicians in order to critically examine the ways in which both magicians and anthropologists use the magic concept. Why did you choose the theoretical framework of analogy/counter-analogy to re-analyze your ethnographic data? What methodological difficulties did you experience when developing your arguments?

Graham Jones: I had known I wanted to write about Western encounters with non-Western illusionary practices for a long time, but I was having trouble shaping it as a book project. In fact, all the archival materials were gathering dust in a file cabinet as I tried to figure out what to do with them. Then I started teaching a graduate seminar in ethnographic methods. After several years of that class, I began to see my project in a new light. Working with anthropology grad students on their research projects, I realized that one of the fundamental epistemological issues that all ethnographers all have to sort out is making the categories they use for analysis commensurable with the native categories they encounter in the field. How do we know our categories are transferrable? When do we need to invoke native categories to shake up received wisdom? The historical materials I had were a great illustration of ethnographers deploying spurious categories and then building anthropological theories atop their faulty findings. I thought it could be a great methodological object lesson. So in the beginning, I envisioned Magic’s Reason as a text for teaching ethnographic methods! I hope someone will use it for that one day.

You’re right that analogy isn’t necessarily the obvious go-to concept for dealing with this kind of epistemological issue. Metaphor is probably a much more robust category in the anthropological tradition given, for instance, the Sahlins-Obeyesekere debate or the wonderful work by George Lakoff. But analogy had several things going for it. You may laugh, but I really liked the pliability of the word itself. I encountered the work of a philosopher named Cameron Shelley who had originated a great typology of some of the specific types of analogical moves that occur in scientific argumentation: disanalogy, misanalogy, counteranalogy, and so on. These are exactly the kinds of things anthropologists do when they work with analogy in practice, and dis-metaphor, mis-metaphor, and counter-metaphor just aren’t as euphonious! But there was something else that was crucially important about analogy: Tylor identified it as the core operation of both anthropology and (occult) magic. So I wanted to trace out some of the intellectual history of how anthropologists have understood analogy as central to what they do scientifically (through the work of Marilyn Strathern and Roy Wagner for instance) and what they think people who believe in magic are doing when they engage in magical practices. This is what the title of the book means: anthropologists are using analogy to figure out the reason for magic, and magicians are using analogy as a form of reasoning. In the end, I don’t think there’s any real difference.

One of the methodological challenges I faced in developing the arguments had to do with the diagrams. My thinking about analogy was deeply influenced by the cognitive psychologist Dedre Genter. She has beautiful diagrams designed to show how people make abstractions based on similar patterns they identify in different domains—through analogy. Yet in my case, I was looking particularly at the way people make abstractions based on differences (as well as similarities) between different cultures—the dissimilarity part is really important for anthropology. It turns out that it is really difficult to diagram, at least within the visual idiom that Genter and her colleagues have perfected (Cameron, in fact comments on this). I struggled with that for a long time, and then I had an epiphany while reading Charles Sanders Peirce, grasping a very simple way to combine analogy and disanology in one diagram by drastically decreasing the amount of detail I was trying to capture. It was not necessarily a very original epiphany within the Peircean vein (spoiler: it’s a triangle), but it allowed me to create a very minimalist visual idiom for representing the argument as a whole. So much depended on properly calibrating the amount of information encoded in the illustration.

Dalila Ozier: Your book discusses how both early Western anthropologists and early Western magicians contrasted “reasonable” Western cultural practices with irrational, “primitive” Others. What was your primary goal in pointing out the connection between two Western disciplines—that is, anthropology and magical performance—that are often considered to be distinct?

Graham Jones: This is a difficult question, and strikes a surprisingly personal chord. When I was in grad school, one of my mentors was an elder Africanist who had trained under Evans-Pritchard. I admired him deeply and desperately wanted to do a reading class with him on the subject of magic. When I asked, he immediately kiboshed the idea. “You don’t work on real magic,” he said. I was crushed. And for a long time after, I doubted that there was any connection between the anthropology of “real” magic and the kind of magical entertainment I was studying. What’s more—perhaps this may date me a bit—I felt like there was a stigma in anthropology attached to doing ethnographic research in a Western context and on an entertainment practice at that. Something fun in a comfortable place. Showbiz was not “real” culture and research in Europe was not “real” ethnography, hence I could not be a “real” anthropologist. I deeply admire all the challenging cross-cultural work our colleagues do, and I really worried about the validity and value of my research.

I’m not saying that I had an axe to grind, but as I looked more deeply into the historical archive, I was very surprised to discern what looked to me like the influence of magical entertainment on anthropological theory—an influence that anthropology seems keen to suppress. I wanted to know more about how the anthropological theory of magic had been constructed with reference to magic as a form of entertainment, but also about something bigger: how authentic “culture” in the anthropological sense was historically constructed as the conceptual antithesis of phony showbiz. You asked about my goals. None of this was an explicitly formulated goal when I started out on the project. But by the time I finished, I had come to make an argument about how anthropology has traditionally constructed its objects of study through an optics of alterity that just doesn’t make sense without reference to Euro-American popular culture itself. Ultimately I was forced to conclude that occult magic simply wouldn’t have mattered so much to anthropology if entertainment magicians hadn’t made such a sensation out of debunking it.

Dalila Ozier: Early in your book, you mention the esteemed magician Robert-Houdin, who (as described in his memoirs) once performed in colonial Algeria as a way of exposing local ‘Isawa mystics as charlatans, thereby reaffirming France’s colonial hold over the Algerian state. Additionally, you discuss how some ‘Isawa mystics later traveled to Europe as theatrical performers, with their religious practices consumed by Western audiences as entertainment. How did the systemic recategorization of ‘Isawa religious practices as either spectacle or trickery (or both) contribute to the colonial project of diminishing the symbolic power of subaltern communities? How does this impact the ways in which contemporary magicians (and audiences) theorize the relationship between Western and non-Western states?

Graham Jones: Magic is a microcosm, a tiny microcosm. So is anthropology. But when we see a pattern of racist representations linking magic and anthropology, then we can begin to take it as indicative of larger structures of domination and oppression in the colonial worldview. I don’t want to overstate the cultural and historical importance of entertainment magic, but it really was a privileged site, during magic’s so-called golden age (from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries), of visualizing ethnic differences. Orientalist imagery of exotic others was omnipresent in the iconography of the era, and remains a vestigial part of modern magic’s legacy. While Euro-American magicians were making careers performing in yellow, brown, and black-face, golden-age magic also provided circumscribed, but still substantive, opportunities for East Asian, South Asian, and African performers. In some cases, East Asian illusionists were able to tour extensively in the West, competing directly with the Orientalist acts staged by white rivals. The case of the ‘Isawa is more ambiguous, because we are really talking about ritual experts hired to perform entertainment spectacles. I don’t want to reify categories like “ritual” and “spectacle”—a part of what I try to do in Magic’s Reason is, if not break down those categories, show how they are situationally conditioned by power. In any event, my basic point is that the recategorization of ‘Isawa ritual as spectacle was very easy because Orientalist associations of the global East (and global South) with mysticism, fanaticism, and the occult were such a pervasive part of golden-age magic.

A second part of your question concerns the lasting legacy of binary oppositions such as modern/primitive, rational/irrational, and so forth, that historically achieved such clear expression in both magic and anthropology. I’m reminded of a beautiful verse by the French rapper MC Solaar: “la présence d’un passé omniprésent n’est pas passé.” When the past is everywhere visible, it’s not really past, is it? As we’re doing this interview, the President of the United States has just called African countries “shitholes,” voicing neocolonial chauvinism but also mystifying a history of systematic underdevelopment. But if we just concentrate on magic itself as a microcosm, I think the issue specifically concerns the opportunities available to magicians of color in postcolonial France or in the contemporary U.S., not to mention opportunities available to women. In a genre that has been such a privileged site for visualizing differences of sex, gender, and ethnicity, how can performers who don’t fit with the image of the modern magicians as a white, European gentleman acquire credibility?

In one version of the book, I had a long section about the racism I saw directed towards one young magician of North African descent in contemporary France. For me, this example showed that, even though one form of overtly racist imagery has been more-or-less relegated to magic’s colonial past, new and, in some ways, more insidious forms of entrenched discrimination persist in the postcolonial present. Here magic was a professional microcosm for me to think about the kind of prejudice that people of color face in French workplaces. That ethnographic section didn’t make it into the final version of the book. I was constantly fighting against centrifugal, digressive tendencies to try to make the book lean and coherent. But I’m in the process of publishing it now as a standalone essay, which should be out later this year, along with a few other small pieces that I couldn’t quite fit into the confines of the book.

Dalila Ozier: Later, you discuss Robert-Houdin’s affection for the Davenport Bros., a vaudevillian performance duo that professed to have supernatural powers. Though Robert-Houdin wrote treatises debunking the Davenports as charlatans (in much the same way he did for ‘Isawa mystics), he celebrated the Davenports for their cleverness and ingenuity. What does Robert-Houdin’s differing perspectives on the ‘Isawa and the Davenports indicate about how Western thinkers alternately attach stigma and value to acts of “fakery”?

Graham Jones: The “fake” is a wellspring of cultural meaning, and I can only begin to do it justice here. On the one hand, fakery constitutes a moral affront and a metaphysical abomination. On the other hand, it is the height of ingenuity, intelligence and skill. And in many arenas of experience—magic is no exception—it is impossible to define what is “authentic” without reference and recourse to the fake. The discipline of Art History only exists because collectors needed techniques for expertly adjudicating between forgeries and originals. Robert-Houdin has a very sustained engagement with the notion of the fake, and he is very consistent in his views. At one point, he remarks that everything the magician says is a tissue of lies, and he delighted in telling some whoppers both on stage and in his autobiographical writing. Still he views the modern magician’s fakery in light of an ethical code: if deceptions are ludic and if they are sufficiently sophisticated, then they pass muster. In his autobiography, he subjects lots of different performers to this litmus test. Of course there is a kind of bigotry built into his assessment, but he effectively considers the Davenports to be worthy of respect because their stagecraft and their promotional strategies were so ingenious. Robert-Houdin depicted the ‘Isawa as the antithesis of everything he stood for as a “modern” magician. He depicted them as charlatanic impostors who used only crude legerdemain, but that assessment clearly assumes that the ‘Isawa were operating under the same ethical and metaphysical assumptions as Robert-Houdin. They were not.

Michael Taussig and others have written brilliantly about the problems and perils of thinking of ritual practices in terms of reality, sincerity, and authenticity. In the realm of ritual, artifice, illusion, mimesis and deception have a different valence than they do when exhibited as ends in themselves, or objects of enjoyment in their own right, as they are in the context of modern magic. Here we are coming to an aporia at the heart of anthropology: on the one hand, ethnographers in the nineteenth century and beyond exhibited a gleeful hubris in drawing invidious contrasts between natives’ susceptibility to believing in fake things, like the tricks of shamans or ritual experts, and their own imperviousness, as modern Westerners, to such deceptions. On the other hand, the anthropological category of culture was taking shape as the realm of real, authentic experience as opposed to the fake, ersatz arena of show business and Western popular culture. This paradox amounts to the view that non-modern people are credulous dupes, but that that’s precisely what allows them to have real culture. This view is inextricable from a tradition of anthropological research that positions occult magic as both the fakest possible thing and the very quiddity of culture. Anthropology has been trying to work itself out of this hole for a long time, and I think magic is an inescapable part of how we got to this point and what we need to do to get beyond it. My main goal in Magic’s Reason is to enhance the conversation about the connection between anthropology’s past and its future by adding some additional dimensionality based upon my own admittedly idiosyncratic engagements with one of our key concepts.

Quentin Williams on his new book, Remix Multilingualism

Remix Multilingualism

Interview by Msia Clark

Msia Clark:  In your book Remix Multilingualism, you state that you are a Hip Hop Sociolinguist. What is a Hip Hop Sociolinguist?

Quentin Williams: It´s something that I think quite accurately represents what I do in terms of my documentation of language, and its intimate link to and use in the Hip Hop community. So, the first aspect of the Hip Hop Sociolinguist is the Sociolinguistic part. A Sociolinguist is interested in the intimate use of language in society, from the perspective of linguistics. So, you use the tools of linguistics to understand how people who are formed by social structures and cultural practices use language. And you report on their practices and performances. In this case, a Hip Hop Sociolinguist is interested in how Hip Hop artists, and those who are interested in the Hip Hop culture, but also fans of the Hip Hop culture, use language, and also perform and practice multilingualism within and outside Hip Hop culture.

Msia Clark: In the book, you focus a lot on freestyle battles and freestyle rap battle space, which is kind of a very sacred space in Hip Hop. Why focus specifically so much on freestyle rap?

Quentin Williams: The way I became interested in it was when I started to document the freestyle rap battles during my fieldwork. In Club Stones, one of my fieldwork sites, there was a distinct difference made between freestyle rap battles on the street, when you´re on the corner, than it being staged in the club. And I´ve always loved freestyle rap battles because you can see the difference between emcees biting rhymes and an emcee rhyming off the top of his head. So, when I started doing the research with Suburban Menace and MobCoW (my main participants), I realized the emcees had a particular format which they´ve taken from somewhere else and my assumption was from the States. So, where you would usually freestyle on the corner in an equidistant circle and two emcees go at each other, mediated by a cipha mediator, or managed by a cipha mediator, in the club they would have a coin toss, the audience would be in front of the stage, and the cipha mediator would toss the coin in the air, and two emcees would go at each other and then at the end there would be a decision by the audience, by virtue of who would shout the loudest, for the emcee to win.

I found it quite interesting how the freestyle rap battles were organized and how different it was, but more significantly for me was the language and genre aspect. So, my question was at the beginning of the research: would the freestyle rap battles be the same as in the States, with the same American accents, with the same genre styles of introducing your rhymes and your lyrics, and with the same verbal cues as you perform, “Yoh/Yoh/Check it out/Check it out”?

I remember the first time I recorded a freestyle battle in the field, in the Club, I was stunned, because it was not like that in the States, it was completely in the local variety Kaaps (a variety of Afrikaans), and with a mixture of the prison register, Sabela, and the local movements were completely different. So, for example, an American emcee would introduce her or his freestyle rap battle through verbal cueing, “Yoh, Yoh, Yoh”, but the local emcee here in Cape Town, in the club, I found, would introduce his cipha in Kaaps like, “Yes, is ja/Is ja/Check it out/Check dit uit”. There would be code-switching between English, a version of South African English, and I found that to be just absolutely amazing.

Msia ClarkYou do a lot of self-reflection in the book. I want to talk about that. In one part of the book, you say “as an ethnographer and an outsider, my sociolinguistic class and racial background either validated me or pushed me to the margins of just observing social and linguistic interaction”. So, what does that mean?

Quentin Williams: I met my participants in the following way: I saw a poster of the show and I asked my participants could I meet you, I´d like to do research and document what you are doing. When I got to meet them, they just started doing the show, so I was at the beginning of something, I think, quite significant in terms of localizing the Hip Hop culture and then giving it a new twist. So, I was from the university and I came with some sort of symbolic resources for these emcees, but also with symbolic power because they realized I come from the university and that I could add weight to what they are doing. But at the same time, I also realized every time I would record a freestyle rap battle or a rap session or a dance competition, that usually would involve females, I would go back to watch the tape, listen to the recordings, start transcribing and then realize as a male I´m also enjoying the Hip Hop show like the other male participants in the club. More so, I also realized I´m Coloured, I share the same fraught racial history with my participants, and so, that is what I mean. I realized during my field research that I have to reflect on my own position with the Hip Hop space, and I also have to reflect on what I experience and so that´s why I thought it was necessary.

Msia Clark: One of the things you say when you first met members of the group Suburban Menace, and you introduced yourself, did you also thought it was important to talk about your taste in rap music?

Quentin Williams: Yeah. It was a test. Let me set the scene for you. I get to meet my participants. I met them at the house that they rented out. And they called the house, the Menace Mansion, which is a play on Hugh Heffner´s Playboy Mansion. I thought it was quite funny. So, we sit around the table in the kitchen and I start introducing my project and these guys are listening intensely to my pitch, and they start asking all the right questions, and then it turns to the test: “So, what kind of Hip Hop music, rap music, do you listen to? What did you grow up with?” And because we are more or less the same age, the moment I said that one of my biggest rap music influence was Tupac Shakur, and it just took off from there because we all shared a similar taste in rap music.

Msia Clark: You say that the book speaks to Black and Coloured multilingual speakers in township spaces. For those outside South Africa it is difficult to grasp identity in this country and how identity becomes raced – I want you to talk about the relationship within Hip Hop culture between Blacks and Coloureds?

Quentin Williams: Eight months into my fieldwork a rap show was staged at the University of the Western Cape. I invited a few Coloured emcees, my participants basically, to come to the show and perform. When they came through, members of Driemanskap were also there. And as you know Driemanskap is a famous Spaza rap group. We get to the event and they ask my participants if they would stage a freestyle rap battle with Driemanskap. There´s no incentive for it, and we find it strange for emcees to freestyle rap battle because they have no beef to settle nor are they getting paid to win a trophy. But the interesting comment that one of the Coloured emcees made was, “I don´t speak their language, so, I don´t think we can freestyle rap battle”. My reaction was one of curiosity because in other cases the Black emcee can freestyle in English, perhaps code-switch to isiXhosa or isiZulu and if you don´t have those African languages in your linguistic repertoires, that´s cool, you do your thing in Kaaps. But what struck me was the emcee was reflecting, if only temporarily, on a much more deeper problem that stems from the ultimate racial success of apartheid: the Groups Area Act of 1954 and monolingual socialization. You live in Gugulethu (a black township) and that other emcee grows up in a Coloured township. Both emcees are socialized differently linguistically, through different language, through different racial experiences. But they share racial experiences in relation to Whites and Whiteness, that´s quite clear.

It´s easy to describe white on Coloured and Black relations, but much, much more challenging to do so when it concerns Black on Black relations, and Coloured on Coloured relations. I started to critically think about the distinct differences linguistically that emcees make but also how they link it to space and also place, and of course their socialization. But these emcees make a cultural distinction that they link to race: there´s a Coloured culture, then there´s a Black culture which can be traced to ancestors and mobility, stereotypically. I´m trying to think about it more deeply and acquiring more examples and data, and so far I find that this is not only a reflection of what happens outside the Hip Hop culture and South Africa as a whole, but also inside the Hip Hop culture: that there are divisions that some Hip Hop artists make across language, say the use of a Tsotsitaal (spoken mainly by black males in the township) with English in a freestyle rap battle in Gugulethu, compared to the exclusive use of Kaaps in a Coloured township. You do get few instances of a true collaboration across these raciolinguistic barriers in a real sense.

Msia Clark: You talk about Braggadocio and in trying to play devil´s advocate, what about those that may dismiss braggadocio as just simply about materialism or promoting conflict among artists? 

Quentin Williams: That´s the prevailing idea of Braggadocio. Yes, I would completely agree that I think in early Hip Hop scholarship, what we have come to know Braggadocio to be is, yes, this idea that emcees celebrate money, make it rain in the club and brag about styles. But that I think is a particular, very unique take that USA Hip Hop has given the world. Now, if you´re saying that Braggadocio is still only about that outside USA Hip Hop, you´ve not looked at it very closely. The question we should ask, what types of Braggadocio will female emcee have or an emcee like Dope Saint Jude (a queer Hip Hop artist)? Braggadocio is gendered because it celebrating a male centred Hip Hop lifestyle. I think I´m quite clear about Braggadocio in the book, and I update the literature.

Msia Clark: It is easy to make assumptions about what Braggadocio looks like in the States and even what masculinity looks like in the States. So, one of the things you also talk about is “body rap”. You describe it as a sub-genre of local Hip Hop where the overarching theme of the lyrics is the sexualization and often denigration of women’s bodies performed for the pleasure of men. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Quentin Williams: After the event I describe in Chapter 8 about how the Hip Hop club ambience was transformed into a stripper Club ambience, I began to reread the scholarship on Hip Hop and Hip Hop sociolinguistics, feminist Hip Hop scholars to try and understand what was clear to me: the pornification of Hip Hop culture. That chapter gets into the experiences of Black and Coloured women, and expectations put on their bodies, about the sexualization of their bodies, and I thought this notion, idea and performance genre, body rap, accurately describes what was going on. I asked what does body rap do in the South African context, in the postcolonial context to the debate about female agency and voice: does it continue the sexual myth that too often frame interaction with females in Hip Hop culture or does it actually open up discussions about female agency and voice?

Note: This is a significantly shortened interview,  edited for publication, following the more than one hour audio recording published by Prof Msia Clark on her Hip Hop Africa blog, which can be found here:

Rusty Barrett on his new book, From Drag Queens to Leathermen

Cover for  From Drag Queens to Leathermen

Interview by Sandhya Narayanan

Your ethnography and analysis of language use centers on 6 subgroups in gay culture: drag quens, radical faeries, bears, circuit boys, barebackers, and leathermen. How did you decide to focus your ethnography on these six subgroups?

I had already done research on drag queens and circuit boys, so I set out to do research that would allow for comparisons across different subcultures. I tried to choose groups with minimal overlap with straight subcultures that were also positioned in opposition to “homonormative” gay culture. I avoided groups where marginalization within gay culture stems from displaying more (hetero)normative identities (like Gaymers, gay gang members, or gay evangelical Christians). Those groups are certainly interesting, but the questions they raise were different from the research path I had already taken. Continue reading

Linda Takamine’s Alcohol, Virtue, and the Making of Persons in Contemporary America

Page 99 tells of how Gabriel, a thoughtful Latino man in his mid-30s, stopped drinking. In his drinking days, he was a guitarist with the attendant rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. He was incarcerated after committing a felony while drunk, and came to prioritize “knowledge and truth” in sobriety. The page encapsulates a major theme within my dissertation, which is a phenomenological and semiotic analysis of how alcoholics undergo a moral transformation using Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other cultural resources. I did fieldwork with self-identified alcoholics in Austin, Texas from 2011 to 2013, inquiring into a central problem they faced during drinking and sobriety: the ethical questions “Who am I?” and “How should I live?” The page demonstrates how studying addiction illuminates the importance of the will in how Americans conceptualize and shape personhood.

When asked about when he stopped drinking, his immediate response was that it was a choice. It took almost two years for his sentence to be carried out, and in that time, he did not go to AA meetings or receive any other treatment. He never overtly identified as an alcoholic, but did not vigorously oppose it, either. He had issues with the wording of the First Step, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” He thought it should be worded, “Admitted I believed that my life was unmanageable, that I was powerless over alcohol.” I asked what the significance of “believed” was. He explained:

“You think you can only do something this way, and it’s all about how you picture it, how you perceive it. When I was drinking, I tried to stop many times. I couldn’t. But I believed that alcohol had this grip on me, and that’s not true. Alcohol was just something I used to avoid things. To avoid dealing with things I needed to deal with. The [Twelve] Steps give alcohol this magical power. I kept myself from drinking. Before AA, I didn’t drink, and that’s because I made the decision. I’m not going to drink; this is it. I made a promise to Kerrie [his wife] that I wouldn’t drink…I still remember that feeling, of making that choice, and how it impacted me, saying that. I remember saying after hangovers, never again, but not meaning it… I’m willing to say that I’m doing it under my own power, so to speak. It is what I will, so in a sense it is willpower, and that would be totally rejected in a traditional meeting, although some people say, “It’s just us making choices.” I think that it is my choice. If I did relapse, I would have to make a conscious decision to do it. I would have to put myself within access of the drink, so it’s not gonna magically fall in my lap. Even if it does, it’s not going to magically pour in my mouth.”

AA members say alcoholics stop drinking when they “hit bottom,” a situation in which they receive “the gift of desperation.” Along these lines, Gabriel “meant” his promise, given his legal troubles and questions of what kind of husband he was. To him, this feeling was crucial in stopping drinking. Given his and others’ emphasis on affect, Heidegger’s concept of mood is useful.  Whether and how we engage with things in our world depends on our mood. I combined this insight with Peircean semiotics to theorize that mood influences what interpretations of a sign vehicle become available to an interpreter. Desperate alcoholics may consider alternate interpretations of what alcohol signifies and disengage from drinking. Gabriel’s circumstances generated a mood conducive to doing that.

His deliberations continued historical debates on will. Rejecting his Jehovah’s Witnesses upbringing, he disavowed free will, calling it “a Christian invention.” He also denied that addiction determines his behavior. His formulation of choice echoes 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards, who wrote that although our wills are not free, each of our actions are free because we might have done otherwise. When Gabriel believed he could “only do something this way,” his choice was 1a) drink, or 1b) not drink, an impossible choice for him. When he “pictured” things differently, he reinterpreted his choice as 2a) avoid problems, or 2b) deal with problems, and 3a) disregard Kerrie, or 3b) keep his promises. Thus, Gabriel formulated a type of ethical personhood for himself when he reconfigured drinking and relapse into a series of choice-based actions, any point at which he could reinterpret his actions and act otherwise.

Takamine, Linda. 2017. “Alcohol, Virtue, and the Making of Persons in Contemporary America.” University of Michigan, Phd dissertation.


Julie Archambault on her new book, Mobile Secrets

Mobile Secrets

Interview by Anna Eisenstein

Mobile Secrets is an ethnography of youth, of mobile phone usage, and of uncertainty in a suburban neighborhood in southern Mozambique. What were your primary goals in writing this book? 

When I first set out to conduct research in Inhambane, I was interested first and foremost in youth—I wanted to get a sense of what it was like to be a young person growing up in postwar postsocialist Mozambique. I hadn’t originally planned to explore this question though the study of mobile phone practices but once in the field it soon became evident to me that in order to understand young people’s realities at that particular juncture, I would have to do so through their engagement with the phone. At the time, there was much hype around the spread of mobile phones across Africa, much enthusiasm about all the ‘useful information’ that would suddenly become available to a rapidly growing number of people. I didn’t want to write a book that would directly challenge this wishful thinking with ethnographic exceptions. I wanted to write a book about the spread of mobile phones in an African context, but I also wanted to write a book that was ultimately about young people’s struggles. In the end, the question of information—though not quite the kind of useful information that these observers were excited about—proved a major concern for my young interlocutors, and became central to my analysis. Continue reading

James Costa on his new book, Revitalising Language in Provence

Interview by Sandhya Narayanan

You mention from the beginning that this book is not an ethnography of language but a critical reflection on language revitalization research. Was this your plan from the very beginning? What was your approach to writing this book, starting from your original research to envisioning what the final product of this monograph would be?

 Well, the book does result from ethnographic fieldwork, but in the end this is not how the book was framed, for a number of reasons. The main reason, then, was that I was looking for ways to interpret what I was observing, and I could find no satisfactory approach. I guess at the time I needed a framework to understand what language revitalization was, what it was about, and back when I started my PhD 2006 the two main currents were either works on endangered languages and, soon afterwards Heller and Duchêne published Discourses of Endangerment. I found neither approach entirely satisfactory, so I felt that, to paraphrase Bourdieu, I needed to constitute and problematize my own object, rather than be constituted by it. Hence the largely historical parts that seek to retrace the emergence of a reflection on language revitalization in linguistics and anthropology on the one hand, and the parts that try to retrace the birth of a language movement in Southern France roughly from the 16th century onward. It was only then, I felt, that I could say something worthwhile about what people were doing with language in Occitania, from a perspective that was my own and not that of language endangerment or critical sociolinguistics in the sense of Discourses of Endangerment. Continue reading

Reflections on a Community of the Heart: Ethnographer and the people of Juchitan, Oaxaca

by Anya Royce

Bido’ xhu—Earthquakes

On September 8, 2017, a Thursday evening, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck just off the coast of Chiapas and Oaxaca.  It was the strongest on record since 1932, almost one hundred years ago.  Of all the towns in Oaxaca, Juchitán de Zaragoza, the second largest city in the state, suffered the most devastation. I could not communicate with my family for almost two days.  The city had no electricity, no services at all. I finally succeeded in messaging a niece in Oaxaca City and found that my family was safe though the three extended families were all now living in the one part of the house that seemed sound.

60% of the homes and public buildings were damaged, most rendered uninhabitable.  Many families chose to move into the street in case of further tremors.  After the second 6.1 quake, my family went to stay with friends whose house had escaped almost intact. Many private and public buildings have been razed or are scheduled for demolition.  These include some of the oldest and most cherished buildings—the Escuela Central Juchitán, the first large secondary school in the city, brought by the efforts of local hero General Heliodoro Charis Castro; the Capilla Guzebenda (Chapel of the Fishermen) a landmark beloved by the inhabitants of the 7th section; the Charis home; the list goes on as inspectors go around the city, surveying and filling out forms, weighing the value as opposed to the cost of reconstruction.  Spared and marked for restoration, thanks to the experts from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, are the parish church of San Vicente, the Casa de la Cultura, and perhaps the Palacio Municipal. Juchiteco architect Elvis Guerra has begun a project that would rebuild or build new structures that are traditional, that are in harmony with the landscape and traditions of the Isthmus Zapotec.  He has asked for my help by letting him use photographs of homes, building, and parks that I have taken in Juchitán since 1968.

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Francis Cody on his book, The Light of Knowledge

Interview by Rachel Howard

What was your main goal in writing about literacy activists in Tamil Nadu? And how did your goals change as you learned more about the site?

I had gone to do research on literacy activism in Tamil Nadu with a deep interest in language and political economy.  My graduate education was fueled by the theoretical energy that had gathered around both questions of language ideology and postcolonial studies.  It struck me that studying a movement that promised to deliver enlightenment to the marginalized through written language would enable me to address some of the big questions about power, the materiality of language, and temporality that we were wrestling with at the time.  More specifically, knowing that Tamil is a language shaped deeply by diglossia, I went to study how learning the written variety was meant to empower people.  I sensed a paradox of sorts in a practice that required people to learn a new register of their own language in order to free themselves.  But my goals quickly changed when I realized that the difference between written and rural spoken varieties was perhaps not so important in a context where simply teaching people how to write their own name was such a major effort, and where the literacy movement had also reflected upon its own practice so much in its transition from being a revolutionary movement of sorts to becoming a partnership with government. The literacy had also become a women’s movement, somewhat unexpectedly.  So, following the lead of my interlocutors, I became much more interested in the practice of activism itself.  New and more interesting questions about writing and embodiment, as well as questions about the very practice of mobilizing rural, lower caste women, who are often thought of as the most subaltern, arose from the ethnography as a result.

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Michael Prentice’s Ranks and Files

My dissertation explored how corporate hierarchies are embedded within genres of communication in South Korea. I conducted fieldwork in the headquarters of one of Korea’s largest domestic steel conglomerates where I followed how top managers across expert departments controlled subsidiaries through different techniques. My main theoretical focus in the dissertation was connecting things happening in the “office,” like making PowerPoints and holding meetings, with our understanding of the nature of corporate entities themselves. Following how different departments drew on documents, systems, and projects, as modes of control, I made the broader claim that organizational borders take shape around the categories and pathways traced in different genres.

Page 99 interestingly lands directly on what I called the “pig’s feet” incident. It is one of a few places in the dissertation where I discuss hoesik (sounds close to “way chic”), one of the most visible genres of corporate culture in Korea. Hoesik refers to after-hours eating and drinking between coworkers or partners. The event at hand took place between two Human Resources teams, one from the headquarters and the other from a subsidiary. We met at a famous pig’s feet restaurant off of a back alley somewhere in Seoul. I described how the event brought together two teams through conviviality and consumption in which the overt hierarchical relations between their organizations would be momentarily set aside. It was a generally gregarious time, until an abrupt moment in which a mid-ranked manager from the subsidiary team brought up work. He lamented that the headquarters team made too many requests at the last minute. Interestingly, he directed this to the junior-most member from the headquarters, Ki-ho, who was responsible for collecting files from the subsidiaries. It was a strange encounter: Ki-ho was socially subordinate (in rank) but pragmatically superior (in terms of files). In the chapter, I used this incident to discuss the tension between rank hierarchies (which are made very explicit across speech, writing, and behavior), and organizational hierarchies (which are embedded into modes of knowledge production or even occluded altogether, like in group encounters). Hoesik is normally considered a domain outside of formal work itself, but I argue it was one social genre tied to a broader reorganization of corporate relations between the headquarters and subsidiaries.

Michael M. Prentice. 2017 “Ranks and Files: Corporate Hierarchies, Genres of Management, and Shifting Control in South Korea’s Corporate World.” Phd. Dissertation, University of Michigan.

Dev Nath Pathak on his new edited volume, Culture and Politics in South Asia

CaMP Anthropology blog recognizes that information about books from some regions circulate more widely than books from other regions.   To do our part in rectifying this inequality, we asked Dev Nath Pathak to discuss the analytical interventions his new edited volume offers to our field.

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by Dev Nath Pathak

Max Weber was right when he perceived the powerful role of intuitive notions in scientific pursuits. A quest for culture and politics, their interface, and hermeneutic significance, in the chequered cartography called South Asia indeed solicits unbridled intuition. Following this, it could be said that our edited volume, Culture and Politics in South Asia: Performative Communication, published by Routledge (India) is a consequence of conceptual flirting and empirical lusting. It contains several bouts of intuition provoked by the soliloquies of individual scholars as well as conversations among them. And what does it seek to know– what is South Asia, if seen through the prism that collapses the binaries of power and performance, politics and culture, structures and meanings? Indeed the binaries do not exist, and never existed, insofar as it was about what we become though our diverse performances. We become citizens as we participate in the electoral performances, we become ethnos as we participate in festivities in rites of passage, we turn objective as we perform our own empirically sound researches and we are deemed deviant as we enact the Dadaist idea of anything goes. Even though we recognise that the format in which we play our roles entails binaries of good and bad, black and white, oppressor and oppressed, and even bourgeoisie and proletariat- we are performing with the complexity of Bourdieu’s habitus. Our being and doing are too finely intertwined to be viewed in separation. Often one thought that in a controlled performance in a proscenium theatre, the power relation is indubitably clear. Was it so? The relation of the scripted and the scripting always sprang surprises on us. It is just like the relation between structure and agency in theoretical discussions in social sciences, which cannot be mistaken for a linear, zero-sum power game. It is complex and fluid, despite the institutional determinacy and structural clarity most visible. This is very much what Emile Durkheim shows, that the normal and pathological stride together. Continue reading