Thomas D. Zlatic and Sara Van Den Berg on Walter Ong’s Language as Hermeunetic

Language as Hermeneutic

https://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/9781501714498/language-as-hermeneutic/

Maddy Adams: You are both professors of English, and this blog is an anthropology blog. Walter Ong’s work has traveled through so many disciplines and departments: communication, rhetoric, linguistic anthropology, English, religion, history, and media studies. Clearly, Ong’s ideas have had far-reaching influence and appeal. Why do you think his work is relevant for so many different disciplines?

Sara Van Den Berg and Thomas D. Zlatic: Ong once identified his primary academic interest to be the evolution of consciousness out of unconsciousness within the context of 13.5 billion years of cosmic evolution, particularly as related to communications technology. Such a study obviously touches upon many disciplines, and while Ong resisted classification, he did reluctantly agree that his interdisciplinary work might be understood as cultural anthropology.

It is more than coincidence that two of the most seminal founders of “media ecology”—Ong and Marshal McLuhan—both earned Ph. D.s in Renaissance literature.  This gave them a broad sweep not only of eras and events in the material world but also of the “internal history” of Western culture. Ong proposed there were four stages of human communication: primary orality (in which writing is unknown), writing, print, and electronics; what we know, how we know, and how we structure society are influenced by the dominant communications media in a culture. Each communication stage promoted different psychodynamics and different orientations to space and time.  For instance, in his article in American Anthropologist he explained that post-Gutenberg cultures tended to spatialize noetic processes due to visually-based analogues for knowing (“world-as-view”), whereas oral cultures’ valorization of sound promoted a mentality in which words and ideas are happenings (“world-as-event”). Such a thesis invites further investigations in several disciplines.

Maddy Adams: You describe Ong’s notion of “secondary orality” as “the transmission of speech in electronic media; this…secondary version of orality depends on the underlying resources of literacy” (3). Could you talk a little more about this foundational concept? What might a student of linguistic anthropology have to gain from becoming familiar with this term? Continue reading

Tanja Ahlin takes the pg. 99 test

Page 99 of my thesis is so short I can quote it here in its entirety. Here it goes:

Love

My mother never told me
Love is a bottle of mango pickles
She used to put in my cotton bag
Every time I leave my home town

One day
Her season of mangoes ended
And never returned”

Hrishikesan

When I first read this, I thought well, this is certainly not representative of my thesis. After all, I didn’t spend the last several years analysing poetry to get a PhD in Indian literature. Rather, my study is about how care is ‘done’ in Indian transnational families. Specifically, I look at how nurses from Kerala, South India, who migrate abroad for work, take care of their aging parents who remain in India. I conducted ethnographic fieldwork by visiting Kerala and Oman as one of the nurses’ destination countries, and elsewhere via information and communication technologies (ICTs). I draw on material semiotics approach from Science and Technology Studies (STS) to analyse my data. According to this approach, ‘care’ is understood as something that people do within specific practices. Importantly, care includes not only people, but also non-human actors – in my case, everyday ICTs like mobile phones and webcams. However, these technologies are not only passive tools that people use for their own purposes; instead, they actively shape what care comes to mean and how it should be done to be considered good.

In my thesis, I show how adult children abroad, their parents in India, and various ICTs establish what I call transnational care collectives. The dynamic of these collectives (that is, which family members and which technologies are involved and how) depends on each family. Besides sending remittances to the parents, the main care practice within transnational care collectives is calling. But for this care to be considered good, some conditions have to be fulfilled: the calling needs to be frequent, too. Different devices shape frequent calling as a care practice differently: on the phone, people share everydayness by sharing the details of their everyday lives, while on the webcam, they can spend time together, sometimes by being silent. ICTs thus change what ‘good care’ comes to mean, but they further also influence how gender and kinship become enacted in new ways.

The care practices I describe are radically different from elder care that is normally considered good in India, such as living together and sharing food, practices which demand physical proximity. ICTs help to bridge geographic distance in some ways, but not in others; they may even bring about challenging situations and conflicting emotions. I felt my thesis didn’t quite do justice to the depth of experiences of the people I encountered in my fieldwork. By way of mitigating this, I added a poem as an introduction to each thesis chapter.

I now realize that no other page in my thesis could represent its core better than page 99.

Tanja Ahlin. 2020. Care through Digital Connections: Enacting Elder Care Through Everyday Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in Indian Transnational Families.  University of Amsterdam, Phd.

Erin Gould takes the page 99 test

My dissertation entitled, “Youth Transformations in Storytelling: Transmutability, Haunting, and Fen al Hikaya in Marrakech, Morocco” discusses fen al hikaya, the famous form of oral Moroccan public allegorical storytelling, and its “revival” by youth in Marrakech, Morocco. Why do I say “revived”? Well, popular discourse in Morocco and those writing about oral storytelling in Morocco discuss this genre of performance as “disappearing,” even though young people are currently still doing storytelling performing in different areas of Marrakech. In my dissertation, I argue that this youth revitalization of storytelling practices is haunted by disappearing storytelling figures who better fit the image of a Storyteller: wise old men. At the same time, youth are contributing to storytelling performance to connect with cultural forms, while also finding storytelling to be a genre that they can transform to fit their contemporary, internationalized, and economically precarious lives.

The 99th page of dissertation is part of my fourth chapter: “Narratives of the Storyteller: The Historical Figure and His Decline in Jemaa el Fna Square,” which considers the “image” of the storyteller and how the narratives of the “historical storyteller” and the “disappearing storyteller” leave out the narratives of young storytellers in the city. In this chapter, I not only discuss the figure of the storyteller, but I contextualize the most famous center of performance in Marrakech: Jemaa el Fna Square. This square is considered the heart of Marrakech, and it is around this place that many myths concerning performance genres have arisen, including a myth that says the storytellers in the Square, through their storytelling, gave birth to the other figures in the Square, including the snake charmers, the henna artists, the musicians, the tea sellers, and the food sellers. Page 99 introduces my analysis of the “disappearing storyteller” narratives, complete with a short excerpt from an interview with a young woman storyteller, Fatima Ezzahra, in Marrakech. While this passage does not represent the whole of my argument, it is undoubtably the beginning of a larger conversation that contextualizes my research in Marrakech. Hope you enjoy.

Page 99:

The Storyteller’s Decline in the Square

______________________________________________________

“10 years ago, there were storytellers—Morocco was no exception. They told religious stories and fairy tales about Kings, heroes, and princesses. However, now there is a lot of noise in the Square, so storytellers are unable to be there…”

—Fatima Ezzahra (From fieldnotes; 3/23/2017)

______________________________________________________

Jemaa el Fna Square has been extensively documented and written about by scholars and writers, especially since the times of the French Protectorate period from 1912 to 1956 (Canetti 1978; Deverdun 1959; Peets 1988; Warnock Fernea 1980). During colonization, General Lyautey wanted to promote Moroccan design and keep traditional places intact (Rabinow 1995; Wright 1991). However in the 1950s, the government had made plans to make Jemaa el Fna Square into a car park outside of the maze of souks because it was no longer seen as popular or useful. One of the most famous stories associated with the need for a revival of the Square and surrounding souks is associated with Eleanor Roosevelt, the former first-lady of the United States. There is rumor that Eleanor Roosevelt visited Marrakech in the 1950s, and she was disappointed to see that Jemaa el Fna Square was changed so much from the times she had visited in her youth. She noted that the public square was not as lively as she remembered, but she would love to see the Square have its sprawling and lively atmosphere when she visited the next time.

Because of this conversation, King Mohammed V “saved” the Square from destruction and vowed to bring it back to its previous fairy-tale glory by the time Roosevelt returned (Minca 2006; Wagner 2015; Warnock Fernea 1980). This is one of the most famous myths outlining the potential destruction but eventual saving of the Square and performances there. However, while many Moroccans abandoned their living spaces in the medina, or old town, immediately after gaining independence in 1956, more recently foreigners have played a large role in changing the medina, just as tourism has transformed the city and its economy.

Erin Gould defended her dissertation in December 2019 at the University of California, Riverside, after conducting research in Morocco from 2016 to 2018. Her research on storytelling is ongoing, and until she can return for more ethnographic work, she is lecturing part-time at Chapman University in Orange, CA. She can be reached at erin.gould@email.ucr.edu or followed on Twitter @erin_gould4.

 

References Cited:

Canetti, Elias. 1978. The Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a Visit. J.A. Underwood, transl. New York: The Seabury Press.

Deverdun, Gaston. 1959. Marrakech: Des Origines à 1912. Rabat: Éditions Techniques Nord-Africaines.

Minca, Claudio. 2006. Re-inventing the “Square”: Postcolonial Geographies and Tourist Narratives in Jamaa el Fna, Marrakech. In Travels in Paradox: Remapping Tourism. C. Minca and T. Oakes, eds. Pp. 155-184. Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Peets, Leonora. 1988. Women of Marrakech: Record of a Secret Sharer 1930-1970. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rabinow, Paul. 1995. French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wagner, Lauren B. 2015. ‘Tourist Price’ and Diasporic Visitors: Negotiating the Value of Descent. Valuation Studies 3(2):119-148.

Warnock Fernea, Elizabeth. 1980. A Street in Marrakech: A Personal Encounter with the Lives of Moroccan Women. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Wright, Gwendolyn. 1991. The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Patricia G. Lange on her new book, Thanks for Watching

Thanks for Watching

https://upcolorado.com/university-press-of-colorado/item/3737-thanks-for-watching

Interview by Jan English-Lueck

Jan English-Lueck:  You have been writing about YouTubers, on and off screen, for over a decade.  How is this book continuing themes you have been developing for a long time and what is a departure from your previous work?

Patricia G. Lange: My work has oriented around empathetically exploring nuances of mediated interaction to understand the allure of interacting in digital spaces. Throughout my career, criticism of mediated interaction has persistently been very harsh—from scholars and the public. Yet, mediation is part of the human experience. My current book similarly tries to understand why vlogging (video blogging) and sharing the self through media was so important to YouTubers interested in sociality. My past and current research challenges the notion that mediated interaction is simply parasitic to and less meaningful than in person interaction. The sociality YouTubers experienced was emotional and real—both online and off. Even going back to my dissertation, I have been concerned with problematic talk and issues of online access. Back then troublesome participants were called “flamers” and today YouTubers complain about “haters”—groups that exhibit differences but also similarly produce chilling effects to participation. I have explored how digital spaces facilitate or challenge democratized participation. This book continues this passion by analyzing experiences of YouTubers who originally saw the site as a place of tremendous possibility for offering a potentially democratized space for self-expression and interaction. Thanks for Watching traces the initial excitement and eventual ensuing complications that an interconnected group of people experienced. It explores difficulties such as haters, competition brought on by monetization, and changes in content. It also analyzes technical complications such as algorithmic rankings that privilege certain types of content over quiet, social videos. The book concludes by providing advice and recommendations when conducting ethnography in digital spaces. It also provides information about what might be changed to renew a corner of YouTube for sociality, or perhaps to more ambitiously create new video sharing sites that fundamentally support interaction.

In the past, my work has centrally revolved around issues of analyzing technical identities, and how “geeks” socialize to learn and project an aura of being an expert. Thanks for Watching departs from this research program. Identity work has been important for many online studies, but other interesting rubrics exist. Inspired by Lefebvre, my book uses the lens of “rhythm analysis” to explore how temporalities, rhythms, and interactions over time shape video-mediated sociality. For example, an arrhythmia is an irregular rhythm, one which often indicates a problem. YouTubers at times experienced arrhythmias between honoring their creative pace of production and satisfying the relentless demands of audiences and algorithms. At times creators could not keep up with such requests and took a break. Disruptions in posting video content might be observed by viewers who became concerned when video making output became irregular. It could feel as if a collective was in tune with a video maker and was watching out for them. Focusing attention on such patterns leads to significant analytical insight, especially in terms of seeing such deep and widespread connections as illustrative of our increasingly “posthuman” condition. I remain circumspect about usage of this term, which has the unfortunate connotation of asserting we are no longer human. Yet, we are far from being robots or files containing a downloaded consciousness. Nevertheless, I chose to explore this rubric given that some of its characteristics can quite clearly be observed on YouTube. Collectives of interconnected people, artifacts, commercial interests, and technical operations are deeply influencing how people express the “self” in both communal and troublesome ways.

Jan English-Lueck:  You observed an actual drum circle at a YouTube meet-up in Toronto.  You then observed it is an appropriate metaphor for video sharing.  Could you tell us more about how that metaphor illuminates participatory cultures?

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Michelle Williams takes the page 99 test

One half of page 99 of my doctoral thesis is a photo, taken at eye level of a group of Tongan students sitting cross-legged on the ground of their school courtyard in Auckland, New Zealand. They are rehearsing for an upcoming cultural festival that is the central topic of my research. I am sitting, unseen, with the students as we learn the performance item together. The movement of our bodies and voices has become synchronous over several weeks of practice and in this moment, the production of culturally-specific movement and sound is a uniting factor among myself and the student participants. However, the image also represents a key problem central to my fieldwork methodology: although membership in a music-community transcends difference in some ways, how would I bridge the spaces created by authority, power, ethnicity and age? How could I represent young people’s experiences effectively and help to bring their voices to the fore within a discipline that often excluded them? These questions were significant components in constructing my research model.

My research approach was informed by both Pacific research frameworks and recommendations from ethnomusicology, many of which overlapped in their emphases on relationships, collaboration, and reciprocity. Educational research helped me to problematize how I would represent myself to students, and was essential guidance to the shifting roles I undertook as a learner, music-community supporter and friendly teacher (the latter during the focus groups we co-created). Throughout my fieldwork I attempted to daily to bridge the spaces created by my adult authority and my privileges as a white American researcher, through shared love of popular music, my immigrant status, my Christian upbringing and the common goal of representing “our” school at the cultural festival. Although I had to concede a number of limitations, I was pleased that ultimately the experiences and viewpoints of the students were a major component of my findings, and included several “firsts” in research with Pacific youth in New Zealand.

Michelle Ladwig Williams. 2019. The ASB Polyfest: Constructing Transnational Pacific Communities of Practice in Auckland, New Zealand. University of Auckland, Phd.

Monica Heller’s Reflections upon Retirement

Image result for monica heller

How did you discover linguistic anthropology? Why did it attract you?

I kind of sidled into it. The initial interest came from growing up in Montréal in the 60s, when everything in everyday life was about language choice, as part of navigating struggles over social difference and social inequality. Somehow it seemed obvious that all this pain and anger and fear couldn’t actually be about language itself; also, I wanted to understand how it made sense to people to take the very different positions they took, without having to assume anyone was inherently evil or insane. I discovered there was a thing called linguistics because my father, who liked hanging around bookstores, came home one day with a magazine for me that featured a cover story about Chomsky. It took me a while to figure out that generative grammar was not going to give me the tools I needed, but it was really helpful to have to figure out why. By this time, I was in college, and saw that an anthropology professor had put a course on Sociolinguistics on the books.

Back in Montréal, “sociolinguistique” was becoming a thing: it was used by academic researchers to investigate the question of the variability of French (a highly charged question in the context of linguistic minority political mobilization) and government ones to develop and implement language policy as part of the construction of Québec as a francophone quasi- or proto-nation-state (as is common in Canada, the relationship between the two spaces of production of la sociolinguistique was close). Also, my mother had gone back to university to study sociology around then, and sent me off to meet two key people she had met there: Gillian Sankoff, at the Université de Montréal, and Pierre Laporte, at the Office de la langue française.

It wasn’t until I went to grad school that I learned there was a thing called linguistic anthropology; to this day, I’ll use whatever label works. I really only use linguistic anthropology for moving around the United States. But the main lesson I retained from all of this is that there often are tools in unexpected places for addressing questions that are bugging you, so it’s a good idea to keep your eyes open. Also, people are really helpful, so you shouldn’t be afraid to knock on someone’s door, even if you’re some 18 year old whose mother took a lecture course with this person ten years earlier.

Why did you decide to study in the United States? What was that like?

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Susan Gal and Judith T. Irvine on their new book

Signs of Difference: Language and Ideology in Social Life by [Gal, Susan, Irvine, Judith T.]

https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/signs-of-difference/E69813363E4CD9927C6C8E1BD2FC3011

Interview by Hannah McElgunn

Hannah McElgunn: Signs of Difference begins with analyses that draw from long term ethnographic engagement in two very different places: Bóly, a town in Southwest Hungary, and a rural, Wolof-speaking town in Senegal. How has working together, across such seemingly different fieldsites, influenced the approach to language and social life that you present in this book?

Susan Gal and Judith T. Irvine: Our collaboration started with those unexpected parallels between our separate ethnographic projects. Reading each other’s papers and listening to each other at AAA meetings, we saw amazingly similar processes in two fieldsites that were utterly worlds apart. The happy result has been a semiotic approach to difference, an approach that is much wider than our own ethnographies but is well illustrated by them. Our book is mainly devoted to developing and explaining that approach, but it begins by showing how it applies to the two ethnographic cases.

In the German-Hungarian town in Hungary as in the Wolof-speaking town in Senegal, people were making distinctions among themselves not only through the way they spoke but also through different forms of emotional expression, clothing, houses and numerous other signs and activities. Language, social organization, geography, history, were all quite different. But in both towns, as it happened, one social category of people spoke and acted in relatively reserved, restrained ways; the other category, by contrast, seemed to be more elaborate in everything, more vivid, dramatic. These were stereotypes of difference. People oriented to these social types, often enacting them in their everyday lives. But how to understand the weird parallels between the two towns? “Restrained” vs. “elaborate” were the ways the people in our two towns characterized their own differences. But when we read fieldwork by others, we saw that although there were always overarching cultural distinctions that organized relations between contrasting sets of people and signs, those distinctions could be quite different from ours. For instance, there was: tough vs. soft in one place but in another pragmatic vs. political. To understand our own examples and others, our explanations would have to be quite abstract. And semiotic.

The book explicates step-by-step a semiotic process of differentiation, with several aspects, that encompasses all the cases. Contrast – as axis of differentiation – is the fundamental idea. Contrasts in expressive signs pointed to contrasting categories of identity; and the qualities attributed to the signs were also attributed to the people-types indexed by the signs. For those familiar with a particular cultural context, the signs of each identity seemed to cohere and to display the same qualities as the people types they point to. We turned our hand to American and historical examples: How did Yankees come to be thought different types of people than Southerners in 19th century US?  How do faculty differentiate among themselves at an American university? How did the National Rifle Association divide in the course of a crucial political battle? And how do the axes of differentiation themselves change? It was very exciting to work out how the semiotic process we propose illuminates relations between whatever culturally-specific qualities are involved.

Hannah McElgunn: As you note, C.S. Peirce hoped that “a converging, objective portrait of the world” would result from different actors continually refining the conjectures of their peers (88). This is opposed to the project you take on in this book, part of which is to detail the “construction of perspectives that are partial, conventional, and positioned” (88).  Yet, despite the fact that Peirce’s larger project differs so strikingly from yours, his semiotic theory plays a foundational role in your “Ingredients” section. How have you come to understand Peirce as useful for the analysis of social life, despite your divergence?  Continue reading

Jennifer Hsieh takes the page 99 test

Jennifer Hsieh Page 99 Test

Media scholars, philosophers, and anthropologists have all written about noise—that mysterious sonic object that can be grating to the ear at the same time that it becomes a celebrated call to human action. “Let’s make some noise!” is a phrase that unleashes a liberatory self, daring the addressee to break away from the “same ol’, same ol’,” of everyday life. In other instances, noise is unwelcomed. News reports over the past few years have covered the case of US diplomats’ exposure to a high-pitched, screeching sound that may have caused neurological damage. This linkage has not yet been proven, but that has not stopped researchers from weighing in on the case.

Given the mercurial ways in which noise captures the social and political imagination, I took a radical commitment towards the empirical in my dissertation, Noise Governance and the Hearing Subject in Urban Taiwan (2017). An ethnography of environmental noise control in Taiwan, I investigated the technological and material efforts of citizens, bureaucrats, and acousticians toward incorporating hearing and listening into the social and political domain. I examined the interplay between a technocratic definition of noise and the individual experience of noise by shadowing noise inspectors to a variety of sites, including construction zones, restaurants, and apartment buildings.

At first listen, the everyday sounds of Taipei exist multiple worlds apart from the effervescent noise at protests, or the weaponized noise of political affairs. Nevertheless, these different registers exemplify ways in which noise participates in and produces social worlds. As I found in my research, the symbolic and metaphorical treatments of noise were not wholly separate from a mechanical approach to noise and, in fact, informed one another.

On page 99, I delineate the interests of different stakeholders in Taiwan’s noise control system: “While government agents utilized health and environmental discourse on noise to exercise political and social control over Taiwanese subjects, individual citizens called for increased noise control as a form of civic activism to hold the government accountable for managing the people.” Continuing on, I trace the double-bind of noise control that attends to the social and political needs of both citizens and the state: “On the one hand, noise control supported environmental rights from a liberal progressive view by advocating for a healthy and safe living environment. On the other hand, these social movements were used as substitutes for continued social and political control by a regime with roots in authoritarian forms of governance. In other words, both liberal progressive and authoritarian agendas utilized environmental and public health in the service of conflicting discourses: one for civic activism in advocating for citizens’ rights; the other for the continued justification of government oversight over everyday life.” Given the divergent, contradictory accountings of noise in Taiwan, it is difficult to determine whether noise is celebrated or unwanted; instead, noise is that which keeps the conversation going, producing political subjects by way of the sounded environment. By considering the multiple agendas held by various parties around noise control in Taiwan, I examine how the object of noise remained an enduring social and political phenomenon precisely because of the way it exceeded both official and civic efforts to systematize it.

——————————————————

Hsieh, Jennifer. 2017. Noise Governance and the Hearing Subject in Urban Taiwan. Ph.D. Dissertation. Stanford University.

Jennifer Hsieh is an LSA Collegiate Fellow in Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her current book project is a study of the scientific, bureaucratic, and audiovisual practices underlying the production of environmental noise from early twentieth-century Taiwan to the present. She has previously held research fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, the Vossius Center at University of Amsterdam, and Fairbank Center at Harvard.

 

Jasmine Folz on her dissertation

Page 99 of my dissertation about free and open source software in India begins with a description of children dancing at a community centre in a Bengaluru slum. This community centre is run by the Free Software Movement of Karnataka, who invited me to spend the weekend with them in October 2016. Following the discussion of dancing I transition to a conversation I had with one of the activists, a middle class man in his 20s I call Rohit. He told me that these are the children of maids before sharing that he always felt he should be nice to maids but he had not considered their lives outside of his home. Working with these children has shifted his awareness of their lived experience and he now visits some of their homes in the slum. I then discuss the fact that although the free software activists have come together to promote free software, that this centre:

…represent[s] their significant commitment to using their mission as a technologically defined group toward social ends. The fact that the software they are using on the old PCs in the centre is free is imperative to the activists. However, the activists accept that to the students who visit the centre, the nuances of free software are almost irrelevant within the context of their need for practical help with school, exposure to the possibilities outside of their habitus, and a safe space to relax and just be kids.

I suggest this ability to downplay the groups’ stated mission can be understood as an extension of Indian middle class activism which has historically used a variety of tools to ameliorate social inequalities. The page then transitions to the next section of the chapter outlining the history of the middle classes in India during British colonial rule.

This test holds for my example. Indeed, this page epitomises much of my dissertation. Namely that free software in India is a technology which is mobilised towards social ends by a relatively elite group of practitioners attempting to improve their nation on multiple fronts. Rather than creating software, the Indian free software community spends most of its energies in the social work of evangelising to students, government, and industry. My dissertation ultimately argues for contextualising technology within political, economic, and sociological contexts as a corrective for much of STS which, despite its many valuable insights into how technology is created and understood, overly focusses on analysing circuits and flows of power all the while gliding over and around the structures that create, maintain, and reproduce power. Rather than describing how different actors are connected within networks which constantly, simultaneously reshape themselves, by showing how technology has developed and been wielded in different times and places to different political and economic ends we are better equipped to work towards mobilising technology for a different and more equitable future.

Jasmine Folz. 2019. Free and Open Source Software in India: Mobilising Technology for the National Good. University of Manchester, Phd.

Jasmine Folz is currently a senior social researcher for a small consultancy in London called Alma Economics.

Nicholas Emlen on his book, Language, Coffee, and Migration on an Andean-Amazonian Frontier

Language, Coffee, and Migration on an Andean-Amazonian Frontier image

https://uapress.arizona.edu/book/language-coffee-and-migration-on-an-andean-amazonian-frontier

Interview by Gaya Morris

This book is an ethnography of multilingualism in the Alto Urubamba Valley, on the Andean-Amazonian agricultural frontier of Southern Peru. Here, Indigenous Amazonian Matsigenka people and Quechua-speaking migrants (colonos) from the nearby Andean highlands live densely interconnected lives. The book explores how people from different backgrounds move between Matsigenka, Quechua, and Spanish in the many contexts of their everyday lives, as they transform the rain forest into farmland and become coffee producers for the first time.

Gaya Morris: You claim that the ethnic categories of Colono and Matsigenka “are crucial principles of difference in the local social world” but are not “empirical and analytical categories that reliably correspond to actual patterns of interaction, behavior, and language, or even to individuals” (9-10). So what role do these imaginary categories perform in processes of social differentiation and exclusion? What differences do they not mark that they are often assumed to?

Nicholas Emlen: Gaya, thank you for your interest in the book, and for your thoughtful questions.

The language ideology of the “ethnolinguistic group” has a strong hold on the way scholars talk about the social panorama of South America, and also on the way it is conceptualized on the ground. This ideology encourages us to think about Matsigenkas and Andean migrants (colonos) as clearly delineable aggregates of people. But when you look more closely at the Andean-Amazonian agricultural frontier, it becomes clear that things are a lot more complicated, and that these categories are quite negotiable and contextual.

To understand why, it helps to start by thinking about interethnic marriage, which is by now the rule rather than the exception among Matsigenka speakers in the Alto Urubamba. Most Quechua-speaking migrants to the valley are men, and many end up in unions with Matsigenka women. They either bring those women with them upriver toward the highlands, or those couples stay together in the lowlands. This makes it more difficult, in turn, for Matsigenka men to find spouses, so they travel further downriver and into the remote tributaries to start families, or to bring women back upriver. The result is an opposed system of migratory flows: men move downriver, bringing Quechua with them, while women move upriver, bringing Matsigenka with them.

As a result of this regional interplay between migration, gender, kinship, and language, many children across the Alto Urubamba frontier are growing up in trilingual households, and with a foot in both social worlds. However, this interconnectedness is quite in contrast to the region’s rigid discourse of ethnicity, which takes Matsigenkas and colonos to be distinct groups of people. It’s interesting to see how this disjuncture plays out. For instance, among one group of siblings I know, some live with their mother in a titled Matsigenka community, attend a Matsigenka-Spanish bilingual school, and get counted in the census as ethnically Matsigenka. A few of their siblings live with their father in a nearby colono settlement, attend a Quechua-Spanish bilingual school, and don’t get counted as Matsigenka in the census. With respect to exclusion, the kids living in the colono settlement find themselves treated as ethnic outsiders among their Andean peers. Meanwhile, their siblings in the Matsigenka community are treated as colono interlopers. It’s not an easy situation for anyone. The point is, these categories play out differently depending on the context of interaction, and on the perspective of the interactants.

Gaya Morris: You suggest that “recognizing the interconnectedness of Andeans and Amazonians in the Alto Urubamba is not just an academic matter; it also holds important political significance” (16). What might be the political consequences of overlooking the interconnectedness of these two regions and groups?

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