Rachel Plotnick on her book, Power Button

Power Button

Interview by Kevin Laddapong

https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/power-button

Kevin Laddapong: In Power Button, you bring readers back to the early days of buttons and encourage readers to think about the button in a new way. You have shown the discursiveness of technological development and the complexity of how buttons are socially embedded, from calling for service to turning on the light. How did you decide which buttons to focus on, given that buttons are so ubiquitous? 

Rachel Plotnick: The ubiquity of buttons posed a big challenge for my study, and I was quickly daunted by it. As you suggest, I knew it wouldn’t be possible to write about every button that existed at the turn of the twentieth century. So, I took an approach that is often suggested in science and technology studies (STS) – which recommends that scholars “follow the actors.” In other words, I started looking to see what people called a button (for example, sometimes the ends of telegraph keys were called buttons) and how they talked about using buttons (some were pulled or turned instead of pushed). I tried not to impose my own categories of what counted as a button, but rather to use this grounded approach of seeing what emerged. Because most homes didn’t have electricity at this historical moment, button interfaces were perceived more as a novelty and that made it a bit easier. Most discussion circulated around buttons as mechanisms for control (push a button for light, an elevator, to take a picture, and so on) or as mechanisms for communication (to call a servant, trigger an alarm, honk a horn). As I began to see these categories rise to the surface, it was easier to sort and make sense of which buttons mattered for my story.

Kevin Laddapong: When many media scholars think about technology, they focus upon technologists, electricians, engineers, and other STEM figures. But the protagonists of this book tend to be “advertisers”. We see from your book that they defined the technology, told us who was eligible to push the button, and how should we perceive the buttons. Can you say more about the influences of these surprising non-STEM characters in this very scientific advancement?  

Rachel Plotnick: I think you’re right that advertisers played a large role in influencing discourse about buttons. While there were many other actors, too (such as inventors, educators, or electrical companies), the idea of pushing a button really appealed to advertisers because they could sell new technologies of industrialization and electrification as safe, non-threatening, and effortless. It’s no surprise that Kodak’s slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest” took hold so widely at the time. It came to symbolize the seductiveness of automaticity – that consumers didn’t need to be especially skilled or well-versed in picture development (or photography in general) to own and operate a camera. In this regard, buttons acted as a kind of gateway to a whole world of mechanisms and consumer products that demanded limited input from their users. Advertisers often talked about using the button as a way to connote pleasure. Though this sometimes backfired, in that people perceived pushing buttons as too hedonistic and lazy, advertisers continued to rally around the concept. We can see this fixation still at work today – from the Staples “Easy” button to Uber’s “tap for a ride.” Buttons conjure up fantasies of instant gratification that seem almost timeless.

Kevin Laddapong: One of the key themes in your book is the power momentum between button-pushers and pushed. It was convolutedly interlocked with different levels of identities, haves and have-nots, men and women, or children, and adults. How did the technology help produce these button-pushing bodies?

Rachel Plotnick: This theme really emerged – quite noticeably – through the course of my research. It was fascinating to see how many people complained about power imbalances that they felt were exacerbated by button pushing. When I say people, this usually meant people who were already socially disadvantaged or othered in some way – due to race, class, gender or a combination of those factors. Servants were used to being heralded by bell systems, but when bells became electric and were installed at every bedpost, under the dining room table, next to the sofa, and so on, then control of those servants’ bodies and their movement became increasingly discreet and ubiquitous. Their bodies were made to move throughout homes while the button-pusher could remain stationary to herald whatever (or whomever) they desired. A similar dynamic existed between employers and employees. The rise of the so-called push-button manager likely did not have to do only with buttons, as at this historical moment places of business were undergoing industrialization and new bureaucratic procedures were taking hold. Buttons functioned as another bureaucratic measure and mechanism for exerting authority. As disparities between managers and employees became greater (a separation of white-collar workers from blue collar workers or head workers from manual laborers), button pushing drew attention to these stratifications. Employees disliked that their employers could sit behind a desk and command them at a moment’s notice. I call this digital command – an effortless gesture generated with the touch of a finger. I think it is critical to acknowledge that when people pushed buttons, it always involved someone’s labor (and the physical movement of bodies) to make one’s desires appear.

Kevin Laddapong: Gathering from your book, buttons hid the messy wires, simplified the electronic circuits in one touch, most importantly, disguised the underlying labor. But now, we are living in the digital age and many physical buttons become graphics or even voice controls. Do modern-day buttons still serve class inequality and labor exploitation? What is the lesson we can learn from the development of buttons regarding these issues?

Rachel Plotnick: That’s a great question. From a technical perspective, buttons are even further removed from the actions they trigger. Digital buttons that require only a tap or a swipe seem to provide anything one desires, from a ride to a roll of toilet paper. Even emotions are “buttonized,” in a sense: we click buttons to share our feelings in social media as a primary way of interacting with others. Yet, despite these significant differences from the turn of the twentieth century, I would argue that inequality and exploitation still figure significantly into button dynamics. I think the case of Amazon provides a good example. Consumers can “push” a button for nearly any product imaginable (for awhile, Amazon even had physical Dash buttons one could affix throughout their home). While this consumption feels effortless and gratifying, it elides the power dynamics that make such pushing possible. What happens after you click “purchase”? Whose bodies have to carry out and fulfill the orders? How are those bodies treated? Paid? What power dynamics exist in the factory, the warehouse, on the streets where the packages are delivered? What are the environmental implications? And who has the luxury or privilege to order Amazon items at will in the first place? Advertisers and manufacturers have always turned to buttons as a way to sell pleasure and instant gratification, so I see an emphasis on clicking, pushing, tapping and swiping on the Internet and apps as (in many ways) a continuation of the power relationships that began more than 100 years ago. We could take this even farther and think about drone warfare as an even higher stakes example of using buttons to make some bodies expendable while others sit in their command centers; what does it mean for armchair generals to decide who lives and who dies with a push of a button?

Kregg Hetherington discusses Government of Beans

The Government of Beans

Interview by Indivar Jonnalagadda

https://www.dukeupress.edu/the-government-of-beans

Indivar Jonnalagadda: What inspired the book’s central idea of ‘agribiopolitics’, which encompasses the government of the health and welfare of both people and plants? In contrast to the 20th century theorists of biopolitics, what makes the question of nonhuman life unavoidable for contemporary anthropology?

Kregg Hetherington: If we think of the major investments in crop improvement that started in the late 19th century and later gave rise to the Green Revolution, then we can spot major shifts in how the relationship between human health and plant health have been conceptualized. These histories alongside the contemporary activism around people’s health around monocrops led to the idea of agribiopolitics.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, there was a vitalist tradition, where community health was being analogized to that of plants in often racial or eugenic terms. These terms also easily stretched to talking about the health of the nation. Reading that vitalist literature, I found, resonated with the present in a way that reading Foucault and others in the mid-20th century period, for example, did not. I think the mid-20th century thinkers were writing amidst the ascendancy of a liberal notion of development that focuses on human welfare primarily through economics. Thus, the notion that making better plants makes your population healthier, gets supplanted by the notion that making better plants makes your population healthier by making them less poor. However, after the success of the Green Revolution and these massive expansions of chemically-intensive monocrops, there are counter-movements which are saying that maybe there’s an inverse relationship between the health of plants and the health of people and other living things in the area. This brings the relationship between plant, human, and other life to the fore. It is a particularly weird problem in places like Paraguay where the economy is now completely invested in the well-being of a particular plant, with mixed effects on different populations.

Indivar Jonnalagadda: You argue that specific crops historically become linked with specific nationalities, languages, and ethnicities, as companion species. Could you briefly synthesize for us the relationship between language ideology and agribiopolitics in Paraguay?

Kregg Hetherington: There’s a long-term discourse in Latin America about the relationship between certain groups of indigenous people and plants. The phrase “people of the corn” is something that one has heard about for a long time. It struck me that there was something similar going on in Paraguay. For example, the idea that people are made of cassava (the main starch that rural folks eat in Paraguay) is the source of lots of joking and ways of talking. Yet, what really interested me was soybeans. When soybeans, as this incredibly aggressive monocrop, enter into Paraguay, they do so almost exclusively with Brazilian migrants as the people planting them. They immediately get associated with a fear of a larger nation next door, a fear of the takeover of Paraguayan land and sovereignty, a fear of Portuguese (a European language) supplanting Guarani (an indigenous language).

If the beans are Brazilian, as people would say directly, then what’s Paraguayan? People aren’t worried about their cassava, they’re also not worried about their corn. Instead, what they were worried about was cotton. The fact that cotton was the crop with which people identified in this sort of sovereignty-project was very interesting, because cotton was itself only introduced in the 1960s as a Green Revolution crop. The set of identifications between rural Guarani-speaking Paraguayans and cotton that had been developed by French engineers in the 60s turned the story in unexpected ways. It also forced me into a more uncomfortable kind of historical analytical space, where I had to contend with the fact that cotton itself was a settler colonial crop that had been brought into this area merely two generations ago.

Indivar Jonnalagadda: Comparing Government of Beans with your previous book Guerrilla Auditors, you very generatively shift your attention from bureaucracy to regulation more generally. Could you say a little bit about the analytic usefulness of this move?

Kregg Hetherington: I think it happened fairly organically, because in the first book I was dealing with property, and for the second book in dealing with beans I had to think about the state differently. Property, particularly in Paraguay, really is a bureaucratic construct. The cadastre in Paraguay was created in 1876 by bureaucrats calling a bunch of elites to the capital to write down what they owned. Every transaction having to do with official property transactions in Paraguay since then, makes some iterative reference to this originary document. The whole thing was very apt for a kind of post-structuralist analysis of the way that bureaucratic practices call relations into being discursively, and I was also attentive to the materiality of the documents. But the activists among whom I conducted ethnography back then kept telling me that the documents are one thing, the bigger problem is the beans. Though the beans never really entered into that story, because they didn’t fit that kind of framework. I think that’s where regulation comes in.

This is too ideal-typical, but bear with me; regulation is the moment where the state is no longer focused on itself and it is (in the Karen Barad sense) meeting the universe halfway. It’s responding to something outside of itself and it’s using whatever tools it has at hand to try to shift or change material relations. So while I’d figured out a way to talk about bureaucracy and the movement of property documents in a way that had a very nice internal structure, beans troubled that internal structure. As it turned out, that was exactly what the bureaucrats felt about the beans too. Thus, the regulatory project is a much more open sort of responsive project where they’re just trying things, knowing that the agency of the state is incredibly limited in places.

Indivar Jonnalagadda: With regards to regulation, you also offer a fundamentally communicative framework with your concept of regulatory pragmatics. Can you say a little more about it and why you foreground the “progressive unfolding” of responses between various actors?

Kregg Hetherington: Regulatory pragmatics is a way of shifting between the linguistic-pragmatic mode and what I saw as an approach to response and responsiveness in some of the STS literature. Donna Haraway, particularly, thinks about the nonhuman as something that’s capable of responding, and Karen Barad similarly talks about intra-actions. These ideas are famously philosophically difficult for certain people who are too focused on language. But I found them really useful for thinking about what regulation was doing. There’s this obvious thing that happens in any legal anthropology: you realize that anyone who’s working in a legal sphere is always dealing with the gap between the rule and the thing, or between the representation and the ground. The example that I go into some length in the book is, how do you decide if something is a “neighborhood road”? If it is a neighborhood road, then the regulations further stipulates that there should be a plant barrier against pesticide drift from fields. The amount of time that people spent arguing over whether something was a neighborhood road or not, suggested that this was a field of play that was really important. I didn’t want to stop at the gap and suggest that there’s all kinds of stuff that can happen. Instead, I wanted to say, every time people encounter the gap, things shift. That’s the place where sovereignty occurs, because judgment gets involved. So the interaction between government and farmers occurs through the choice of plant used to create the barrier between the crop and the neighbourhood road. I use these mundane examples around the species of plants used as barriers just to force a certain kind of humility about what it is that regulation can do and what a state can do.

Also, who is communicating in these cases? There are a number of actors that one can point to that are obviously communicating back and forth. But there are all these other actors that crop up, like snakes, or the bandits who hide in the elephant grass and jump out and steal people’s motorcycles. There are all kinds of ways in which humans and nonhumans end up responding to a certain kind of regulatory entreaty with their own kind of response that then forces the regulators to go back to the drawing board.

Indivar Jonnalagadda: You describe how people often respond to your presentations on soy by wondering if eating tofu is unethical; a moment of doubt about the ethics of their eating habits that you call “Tofu moments”. You see these moments as being alive with experimental possibility for an ethics of eating well. Can you describe a significant Tofu moment of your own?

Kregg Hetherington: Ethics was not what I set out to try to theorize, but it was always part of the experience of the whole thing. The tofu moments—that still occur when I present this work about soybeans and about how destructive soybeans are—were when people in the audience who are vegetarian, suddenly get worried about the tofu. Given that the soy beans are being pre-dominantly produced in order to feed animals for meat, vegetarianism is a pretty reasonable response to the horror of soybeans. Nonetheless, there’s something great about that moment where someone starts to wonder if the decision they’ve made, is actually ethically far more complicated than they thought. That’s what I want the book to do — to encourage an opening. The moment that one feels kind of stable in a certain way of responding to a situation, is precisely the moment when you want to reach out a little bit farther.

A tofu moment for me was a specific story about fieldwork that I also describe in the book. As a white, North American, middle class person going and doing this kind of research, in places that have been historically exploited by the very kinds of financial comforts that I benefit from all the time, there’s always this question about the ethics of what research is all about. Questions about the extent to which it is extractivist or benefits from other forms of extraction on which it depends. There was one specific moment during the research, where I was hanging out with very close friends of mine, who were also my research assistants in the field. We had retreated to this posh country cottage that friends of theirs owned to reflect on the research. At a certain point during that reflection, we were approached by a police cruiser that was going around the neighborhood, and were asked to pay a bribe. This is not that uncommon a situation in Paraguay, but it’s always a little bit unclear what exactly one is paying the bribe for. But it occurred to me at that moment that we are being asked to bribe the police to secure the conditions within which this research becomes possible. This was a moment that opened up that whole set of research dynamics for me. As I think about what future research might look like in Paraguay post-COVID, I’m still troubled on the one hand by ethical commitments that I feel like I’ve made to people, and on the other hand by the difficulty of new forms of awareness of how much my own practice relies on international extractivist structures.

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako on Fabricating Transnational Capitalism

Fabricating Transnational Capitalism

Interview by Janet Connor

https://www.dukeupress.edu/fabricating-transnational-capitalism

Janet Conner: Why is fashion so good for thinking about capitalism?

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Fashion as an industry has several key aspects that make it good for us to think about capitalism. Most importantly, they include the claim to aesthetic distinction, which identifies design as the key component of value; the celebration of the creative artist as the producer, obscuring design as a complex, interactive process involving many participants; the related emphasis on knowledge and expertise not only about design but also about branding, marketing and distribution; the imperative to constantly produce a seemingly new product; the historical contexts in which, for example, one finds that Italian fashion was transnational from its inception as an industry; and finally, its simultaneous production of and reaction to asymmetries in changing relations of global power.  Other industries undoubtedly have some of these features but they are especially visible in fashion.  These characteristics enabled us to to challenge what are commonly taken as the core features of capitalism (viz, the wage-labor relation, the pursuit of profit, private property and inequality).  We were able to emphasize the contingency of how various transnational capitalist projects converge that do not always reside in a narrow definition of the economic, and how the accumulation and distribution of capital emerges in those contingencies. Studying the fashion industry ethnographically led us to theorize how commodities are not the only things made in the production process, which also includes the production of dispositions, social practices, identities, and subjectivities. It further includes the production of labor power. Marxist theories generally assume that labor power is transhistorical,  pre-existing the production process, and that workers bring their labor power to the workplace with them.  We found that in tracing the fashion industry’s key characteristics, labor power is instead constituted through the specific relations of transnational collaboration.

Janet Connor: The book is split into three parts (the negotiation of value, legacies and histories, and kinship and transnational capitalism). While they overlap with the key dynamic processes of transnational capitalism that you argue for in the book, they’re not an exact match. How did you decide to organize the book in this way? And more of a stylistic question, I was wondering how you decided to write Part I together, while in the other two parts you deliberately chose not to write in one voice.

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: The organization of our ethnography emerged gradually through our discussions about what stood out in the fieldwork materials we had gathered. We had these discussions as we were doing the fieldwork and also afterwards. We agreed that several practices seemed prominent: first, in the context of a transnational relationship of production and distribution, it was clear that the various Italian and Chinese managers whom we came to know constantly asserted their own skills and knowledge in comparison with and contrast to their foreign partners, as well as sometimes in relation to others within their domestic orbits.  It was not that either side had a homogeneous view, this was not a binary contrast, but across the heterogeneity of different kinds of social relations of production, the various people involved emphasized their worth, their contribution to the value of what all agreed was Italian fashion.  This practice was prominent in all of our interviews and conversations. It led us to our argument that value is an ongoing process of negotiation rather than a sociological formula based on fixed social relationships. Nor is it simply a direct result of capitalist investments or a recent effect of global capitalism presumably unhinging what were previously more stable ways to calculate value. Rather these ongoing negotiations were an outcome of how people assert their cultural capital, including their knowledge, identities and habitus.  The negotiation of value had to be its own section.  As to historical legacies and revisionist histories, again our various interlocutors often invoked their national histories to explain to us the particularities of why and how they engaged in the fashion industry in the ways they did. Italian managers, for example, often mentioned the long history of fashion in Italy as compared to China.  Chinese managers tended to grapple with the legacies of socialism.  The prominence of historical legacies thus also caught our attention.  We both described and interpreted these legacies.  Our interpretations highlighted how Chinese managers, for example, wanted to erase the socialist past through a nostalgia for a revisionist version of pre-socialist life in China, especially in Shanghai, while Italian managers sometimes naturalized fashion taste as part of what they called Italianità.  Kinship became the third theme because it, too, has played a prominent part in the organization of fashion industry’s production and distribution relationships, though quite differently among Chinese firms and Italian firms.

These three key practices encompass the dynamic processes of capitalism we identified — privatization and the public/private division, the negotiation of value, the rearrangement of accumulation, the reconfiguration of kinship, and the outsourcing of inequality. They do so to different degrees but it made more sense to us to start from the ethnographic material and work out.

Stylistically, we thought the first section had to be one chapter as the back and forth between the interlocutors would come out most clearly in that way. Conversely, while our interlocutors sometimes invoked their historical legacies to interpret their relationships with their foreign partners, there was much more about that history that needed to be explained and interpreted in our analyses.  Similarly, while kinship was a key social relationship, its force varied among Italian and Chinese firms. To put all that needed to be explained in one chapter for these themes would have both chopped and stretched our analysis, not to mention they would have been very long chapters! 

Janet Connor: One of many important interventions in the book is your questioning the existence of a division between public and private, particularly in relation to the common equation of neoliberalization and privatization. Can you say more on how you think about the relationship between public and private?

Lifa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Our argument about the relationship between the public and private came out of our feminist approach to capitalism, as well as the history of the role of the state in capitalism.  Feminist anthropologists, historians and other feminist theorists have long argued that public and private are ideologically defined and vary historically and cross-culturally and that this division is empirically unfounded. To say this division is empirically unfounded is not to assert this division is a mere fantasy. Feminists rather argue that taking for granted the division obscures the work these ideological distinctions do to maintain gender and racial hierarchies.  As African American feminist theorists have long maintained, the private was never an attainable sphere for black women and families in the U.S., with racist consequences.  Yet, with a few notable exceptions, these insights have been consistently ignored in analyses of neoliberalism and, more generally, capitalism. The dominant vision of privatization under neoliberalism is derived from North American social arrangements and imaginaries. We developed these insights about contemporary practices of capitalism first because, as Lisa explains, in post-socialist China, it is often impossible to discern whether some Chinese companies are fully private or fully public, which is a deliberate strategy for multiple reasons. Second, as Sylvia explains, the state’s role has been central in Italian industrialization up to and including the present. In other words, there is a history of state-private enterprises that long predates neoliberalism. We found that employing feminist critiques of the public/private divide helped us to analyze the multiple meanings and practices of privatization, including the often-blurred relationships among them. We argue that instead of trying to fix a definition of the private and the public we should trace ethnographically and historically how this division in itself is made, challenged, and remade and how its ideological effects produce inequality.  

Janet Connor: The book includes a multitude of voices and viewpoints, not just from both of you but also with the chapter by Simona Segre Reinach, and in the writing style of including many rich ethnographic stories about a range of interlocutors. The style of the book seems to me to be doing several things at once. On the one hand, it’s an example of a kind of collaborative methodology, both in terms of how you do fieldwork and how you write. At the same time, the polyphonic character of the book is making an analytic intervention against conceiving of transnational capitalism as one unified thing or as having a predefined set of structural features. Could you say more about how you think about and write collaborative ethnography?

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Collaborative ethnography can take multiple forms and approaches.  In our case, the collaboration was grounded in our long-term engagements with China and Italy and in particular with their textile and clothing industries, and Simona with the fashion industry.  We realized that our deep sets of knowledge would enable a study of transnational capitalist relations of production and distribution, including what is often called commodity chains, that could move us beyond the methodological challenges of a sole anthropologist doing fieldwork in a single place. It further gave us an important historical depth to our study, so that we could challenge assumptions about the neo in neoliberalism. We also followed the lead of our interlocutors.  Beginning in the 1980s and increasingly in the 1990s, Italian textile and clothing firms outsourced manufacturing to lower-wage countries, including China.  China, for its part, was opening up a market economy at that time and welcomed foreign investment. Our theoretical insights that challenge the idea of capitalism as structured by a single logic or as having a singular modal form arose from our ability to carry out an ethnography that could attend to multiple experiences rather than just one side and that could demonstrate the contingencies of capitalism.  The way we organized the book to include multiple voices and viewpoints arose from our desire to highlight these analytical challenges to economistic approaches to capitalism. We offered not merely a method of data collection but a methodology for the study of cultural production that entails both methods and concepts.

Janet Connor: Comparison has long been an important analytic strategy in anthropology, and more recently anthropologists have begun to see the comparisons made by our interlocutors as an object of study. It seems to me that your book contributes to both of these strands of comparison, both with how you think of the writing as moving beyond conventional analysis and in your ethnographic examples of how the ways that your Italian and Chinese interlocutors see themselves and negotiate value through comparisons across many different scales. How are you thinking about the ways that anthropologists can study and participate in comparative work?

Yes, we tried to emphasize that we were not doing a comparative study, at least not a comparative study of Italian and Chinese capitalisms.  What we offered instead was an analysis of the co-production of Italian-Chinese transnational capitalism. Our collaborative ethnography offers an alternative to the conventional comparative method in anthropology of different cultures, one that is better suited to the modes of cultural production in the world today. We viewed our interlocutors as making comparisons but within a relationship in which they were intimately tied to one another.  That said, your point that we compare ourselves with past conventions in anthropology is well taken.  It echoes the way our Italian and Chinese interlocutors compare themselves with their national historical pasts.

Philip Seargeant on his new book The Emoji Revolution

The Emoji Revolution : How Technology is Shaping the Future of Communication - Philip Seargeant

Interview by Kevin Laddapong

https://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/languages-linguistics/sociolinguistics/emoji-revolution-how-technology-shaping-future-communication

Kevin Laddapong: The Emoji Revolution allows us to revisit Linguistics 101 from the perspective of how we use emoji. It is eye-opening to see how emoji can be analyzed so effectively on every level of linguistic production and expression, from phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic, narrative, or even poetic. Do you think emoji are unusual phenomenon in this regard?

Philip Seargeant: One of the aims of the book was to show how emoji are very much a part of the history of human language, and particularly the history of writing. Although they may seem a completely new phenomenon (and even, perhaps, a slightly frivolous one), in actual fact we can find direct precedents for many aspects of them throughout history – from the way they relate to other pictographic writing systems, to the way they’re used to express irony and emotional framing.

The reason behind their popularity, I think, is that they’re so flexible as a means of communication, and particularly that they allow for, if not encourage, creativity in their use. Part of this creativity is prompted by the fact that they’re a reasonable small, closed system (there are only a few thousand emoji in total), so if people want to try to express more complicated ideas they have to find inventive ways of doing so, often exploiting a range of different communicative tropes to do so.

Kevin Laddapong: One of the outstanding characters in your book is Jonathan Swift. Why is his story relevant to how people use emoji today? What do we learn about creative and playful communicative practices throughout history through your comparison?

Philip Seargeant: In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift parodies many of the scientific trends of his time, including ones concerning language. As a satirist, he takes real life ideas which are slightly ludicrous, and then exaggerates them to make them fully absurd. One of his targets is the trend for people trying to create a supposedly perfect language because they feel human language is too vague and imprecise. The solution that the scholars in the novel have come up with is to carry a vast array of objects on their backs, so that whenever they want to refer to something they simply take out the object and point to it. The idea that ‘Words are only Names for Things’ is obviously a very simplistic and misguided understanding of how language works; but it’s similar, I think, to how a lot of people probably think emoji work: that is, emoji are just pictures of objects, and that’s how we use them to communicate. But just as language is much more than words, so the way emoji are used involves a lot more than the simple pictorial representation of objects.

Kevin Laddapong: You mention the importance of language standardization and universalization in your book. Emoji are evidently the product of successful attempts at standardizing and universalizing a form of communication, yet as you point out, these attempts are dramatically different from any other attempts. Why did emoji experience such a different destiny?  What did Unicode Consortium and other actors do differently from other language regulators?

Philip Seargeant: Emoji are standardised in terms of their form because they’re a digital writing system which needs to be compatible across different platforms around the world. This is the only reason that a single body (in this case the Unicode Consortium) is able to regulate their form – and even then, the different platforms have slightly different designs for each character. This is very different situation from other languages, where the speech community itself generates new words and practices, and then a language academy can only try to regulate this after the event. It’s also worth noting that although the Unicode Consortium regulate the form of emoji, they can’t regulate the way they’re used, so there’s still variety in the meanings they accrue and patterns of usage from speech community to speech community.

Kevin Laddapong: Emoji clearly could only be possible in a context of capitalism and hyper-consumerism. Towards the end, you suggest that emoji is seamlessly fused with neoliberal practices. Apart from million-dollar Twitter emoji deals, what other aspects allow emoji to be so compatible with neoliberalism, and why do we have to be concerned about this?

Philip Seargeant: In many ways, this is part of the general business strategy of the big tech companies, who are constantly looking for ways to engage users/customers, and ensure that their products are in a continual state of development so that people feel an endless desire to keep up-to-date with them. Emoji are updated on a yearly basis, along with related innovations such as Apple’s Memoji, and thus become a attractive sales feature for new hardware, while also being a very popular resource for marketing initiatives. Again, this is unusual for what is essentially a writing system, but is, as you say, in line with a hypercapitalist society.

Kevin Laddapong: Throughout the book, you have hinted about the intervention of machines in our human interaction. Emoji have been designed, developed, and coded to be neatly merged with auto-correction and word suggestion technologies.   Are emoji part of a larger trend — how else is communication changing to accommodate the demands of digital technologies?

Philip Seargeant: That’s a very large topic. The simple answer is that so much of modern communication is mediated via computers, and thus digital technologies have a huge influence on how we communicate. Emoji are rather unusual in that it is the writing system itself which is regulated – and indeed owned, to a degree – by the big tech companies, and so these companies get to decide which emoji are appropriate and which aren’t, and to assign meanings to them on autopredict, and so on. But increasingly the spaces in which we communicate – be it Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, and so on – are also owned by the huge tech companies, and their business models thus influence all aspects of our communication. Not only will Gmail gives you various ‘smart reply’ options, but it is also able to scan or extract data from your messages, while what you write or post on social media is, to all intents and purposes, in the public domain, and also has to abide by the platform’s guidelines on expression. All of this means that this type of communication takes place within a very different environment from, say, a face-to-face conversation, and the specifics of this environment have an influence on both what we say and how we say it.

Amy Garey takes the page 99 test

 Page 99 of my dissertation ends with a quote from a 2019 comedy festival, “KVN is, KVN lives, KVN will continue to live!” It sums up one of the strands of this research, which examines how a popular student game came to be both banned and supported by the Soviet state, both politically subversive and ideologically conservative, both grassroots phenomenon and media spectacle. KVN, an acronym for Klub Veselykh i Nakhodchivykh, or “Club of the Cheerful and Clever,” is a Soviet-bloc team comedy competition. It began in 1961 as a televised improv show, but students across the USSR soon adopted the game in their universities, organizing interdepartmental competitions and city-wide leagues. Students grew to love KVN because comedy helped them, as octogenarian Ukrainian Eduard Chechelnitsky put it, ”get round” the censors: young people could critique the state nonreferentially, voicing sentiments no one would allow in direct speech. Most, though, simply wanted to laugh and make others laugh. While competitors made (and make) political jokes, and while many found value in a forum that let them speak truth to power, it is humor that attracted participants.

Jokes worried Soviet ideologues, though, and in 1972 officials banned KVN—at least on television. But by that time KVN had spread to schools, universities, and summer camps from Kiev to Bishkek, and people openly played throughout the fourteen-year period of the “ban.” In interviews, KVNshiki (as participants are called) stressed triumph and autonomy as they described the game: KVN is ours, they seemed to say, not the state’s.

KVN’s extra-state nature has been highlighted by the war between Russia and Ukraine. Although Ukrainians and Russians no longer compete against each other, as they had before 2014, KVN remains as popular as it ever has been in domestic Ukrainian competitions. KVN lives. That millions of young people still play a game that began as a hokey 1960s Soviet game show, despite prohibitions, despite border closures, means something, socially. A lot of KVNshiki, beyond liking to laugh, believe in the personally and politically transformative potential of comedy. Page 99 illustrates some of the ways they renew those principles in everyday practice.

Amy Garey. 2020. The People’s Laughter: War, Comedy, and the Soviet Legacy. University of California, Los Angeles, Phd.

Mattias van Ommen takes the page 99 test

Page 99 of my dissertation contains a theoretical discussion on fantasy, situated in arguably the least ethnographic of chapters. The dissertation itself is about Japanese players of the popular online game Final Fantasy XIV. Based on participant observation in both urban Tokyo and the virtual game world, I argue that players develop “fantastic intimacy”; appreciating fantasy as separate from offline social identities, yet drawing on fantasy content to slowly build intimacy with players, which frequently culminates in offline relationships.

One example are romantic encounters between players, which many communities explicitly prohibit. However, if these occur out of serious, long-term commitments to the ludic framework of the fantasy world, these are often welcomed, and players may even organize a virtual wedding ceremony to celebrate publicly. Subsequently, groups of players also gather in the physical world, often using themed cafés to retain some visible reminders of the fantasy world which initiated their relationship.

Unfortunately, page 99 lacks ethnographic material showcasing such relationships. Perhaps the closest it gets to the actual field site is when I discuss fantasy’s potential to encourage an active relationship with the user, noting that taking active control over one’s in-game physical appearance stands in sharp contrast with offline Japanese society, where dress-codes and forms of communication are so rigidly determined, often along gender lines. Here I reference Teri Silvio’s animation theory, which plays a prominent role in how I interpret player–avatar relationships.

 Page 99 also contains a discussion of “Facebook fantasies”, where I juxtapose fantasy-themed virtual worlds against social media such as Facebook. I argue that both contain:

“carefully constructing a character profile by drawing from one’s imagination, using that character to build intimacy with others, the value of presenting an internally coherent ‘world’ or ‘character’, and measuring success by quantitative parameters such as ‘likes’, numbers of ‘friends’, or ‘levels’.”

In neither case, the profile contains a verifiable relationship to a physical referent. Yet, since interactions through social media are perceived as being closer to consensus reality, there is value in presenting virtual worlds as fantasy, since its users seem to be more conscious about the dangers of drawing a straight line to the physical world.

In sum, while page 99 contains little about the players that form the heart of the ethnography, the discussion on fantasy builds towards the core conceptual argument of fantastic intimacy.

Mattias van Ommen. 2020. Intimate Fantasies: An Ethnography of Online Video Gamers in Contemporary Japan. University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Ph.D. Dissertation.

Lauren Crossland-Marr takes the page 99 test

Re-reading page 99 of my dissertation, I’m snapped back to the mosque in Milan, Italy that I came to know so well. Where public school children convened to learn about Islam, and a first grader asked if he was no longer a Muslim because he accidentally ate pork. Where, almost every Friday, I sat in the back with my hair covered, surrounded by other women, who expertly moved their bodies to the rhythm of worship. Where I walked, day in and day out in order to enter the offices of Halal Italia.

Page 99 sits towards the end of a chapter about the community running Halal Italia. I’m drinking tea and eating pastries with an Algerian friend who mentions that the group I work with is “not really Muslim”. What my friend was alluding to is that labeling food is powerful and can create legitimate actors and legible worlds. This is especially relevant in Italy for two conceptual reasons that have empirical effects. Italy has a global reputation for “good” food, and Muslims outside of Muslim majority countries play the leading role in determining what is certifiable as halal. Through my entanglement in daily work life, I found that the established culture of made in Italy products was a powerful force in shaping values within the Italian halal industry today.

This notion of value itself is complex. And perhaps it is due to this complexity, and the limits of the ethnographic written form, that I end my dissertation with a passage from Italo Calvino’s (1972) Invisible Cities. In the book, the emperor Kublai Khan tells Marco Polo that he can describe real cities he has never seen, his cities are based on elements in which all cities should possess. However, the Khan is unable to describe any of the cities Polo has encountered. Polo responds, “I have also thought of a model city from which I derive all others… It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions… But I cannot force my operation beyond a certain limit: I would arrive at cities too probable to be real” (Calvino 1972:32).

Similarly, I show that the project of the certifier is to operate within a world that is empirically true but is also one of discourse, and like Polo’s cities, their projects are limited by, and shaped within, the food worlds they inhabit.

Calvino, Italo. 1972. Le Citta Invisibili. Turin: Einaudi.

Lauren Crossland-Marr. 2020. Consuming Local, Thinking Global: Building a Halal Industry in a World of Made in Italy. Washington University in St. Louis, Phd.

Ali Feser takes the page 99 test

On page 99, I get to the Kodak. The fixed focus, single aperture lens camera was patented 1888, and it sold for the not insignificant price of twenty-five dollars. The first Kodak product intended for use by the masses, rather than professional photographers. The Kodak was marketed to a growing class of middle-class consumers, and as advertisements suggested, it was simple enough for a woman or child to pick it up and start snapping.

There were no settings to adjust.It came preloaded with a hundred exposures. The consumer didn’t even touch the film. The tagline was literal: “You press the button, we do the rest.” She wound the key, released the shutter, and mailed the entire camera back to Kodak’s factories in Rochester for developing. Workers submerged the film in chemical baths, brought out the latent image, and fixed the molecules in place. They projected the image on emulsion coated paper, made prints, and mailed it all—photo, negatives, and camera, refueled with fresh film—back to the consumer. The Kodak system materialized an emulsive loop between mass industrial production and intimate, domestic life, but it disappeared from consumers’ view the messy, chemical labor of photography.

The simplicity of the Kodak system made it possible for ordinary people to objectify their worlds in chemical form. At the same time however, because the Kodak system attenuated users’ capacity to intervene in the photographic process, it precipitated a mass standardization of consumers’ visual habitus. The fact that there were no adjustable settings meant that the Kodak could only be used within a precise arrangement of photographer, subject, and light. Hand drawn illustrations in the instruction manuals offered normative templates for how to see the world. They simulate portraits at distances of three, six, and nine feet and the right way to photograph babies, buildings, and pets. Get to their level, hold the Kodak steady, hold it level, hold your breath and disappear, face in the direction in which the sun shines, press the button, turn the key, repeat. With every snapshot, consumers learn to see as the cameras see. They learn the difference between good pictures and bad and how to domesticate the visual conventions featured in Kodak advertisements and other mass media. Especially after the launch of the five-dollar Brownie camera in 1900, Kodak’s system would radically transform subjectivity and social life, reorganizing perception along patterns engineered by a single corporation.

Page 99 doesn’t include everything. There is no attention to the utopian aspirations of twentieth century social welfare capitalism; the chemoaesthetics of fascism and the historical imbrication of corporations and the imperial state; the racial politics of emulsion and fantasies of the white, American “good life”; the longue durée, ecological impacts of chemical manufacturing; or how photographs and fantasies endure and transform over time. What page 99 does capture, through a description of the Kodak system and early instruction manuals, is the moment in which Kodak began to remake the world.

Ali Feser. 2020. Reproducing Photochemical Life in the Imaging Capital of the World. University of Chicago, Phd.

Kristin Hickman takes the page 99 test

On page 99 of my dissertation, Révolution Dārija? Imagining Vernacular Futures in Morocco, the reader finds themself in a Casablanca dubbing studio alongside a sound engineer and a voice actress who are in the process of dubbing a Mexican telenovela (Una Maid en Manhattan) into colloquial Moroccan Arabic (dārija):

One afternoon, I was sitting in the recording studio occupied by Adil, a cocky male sound engineer who was constantly trying to find other recording gigs on the side much to the frustration of Plug In’s administration. That day, he was scheduled to record several episodes of Maid with Asmae, the actress playing Tanya. Asmae was fun to record with, unlike some of the older actors, but even so Adil had no shame in pointing out to me how little he enjoyed his job. “What we do is boring (Ce qu’on fait est ennuyeux),” he said to me between takes, “And I can’t stand this language (mā kānḥimilsh had al-lugha)… Even the music is horrible (wa l-mūsīqā mā mūsīqā lā wālū)!”

In the middle of their hour-long recording session, Adil suddenly stopped the recording. Still looking at the screen but speaking to Asmae over the microphone, he corrected her pronunciation of the verb for ‘to marry.’ “Zuwwaj, not juwwaj!” he yelled into the mic. Putting her hands on her hips, in an expression of sass that fit with her character Tanya in Maid, Asmae countered: “But in our dārija (fī dārija diyālnā), I say ‘juwwaj’!”

A wīlī!” (oh my goodness) Adil responded, sounding genuinely scandalized. They went back and forth a bit, but Asmae stubbornly insisted that she said juwwaj and that even though zuwwaj was closer to the word in fuṣḥa [classical Arabic], they were speaking dārija [colloquial Moroccan Arabic] and in dārija it was fine for her to say it like that.

On the one hand, Adil’s shock at Asmae’s pronunciation of the verb ‘to marry’ can be likened to the kind of shock (and humor!) Americans experience when realizing that English speakers in other countries pronounce things in surprisingly different ways (I still find it hilarious when British people pronounce the word “sloth”). This kind of surprise is not only typical of encounters between Moroccans from different regions, but also of encounters between individuals from different parts of the Arabic-speaking world (such encounters have even become a YouTube genre!).

On the other hand, Adil’s shock touches on a particularly Moroccan experience of language, which is at the heart of my dissertation. What Adil and Asmae are doing in this scene is debating the parameters of an emerging standard form of colloquial Moroccan Arabic (dārija). Together, they’re trying to imagine the contours of a cosmopolitan, un-Moroccan form of Moroccan Arabic that can plausibly be voiced by anyone, including a Puerto Rican maid in a Mexican telenovela set in New York. What they’re trying to do, in other words, is imagine a form of dārija that can be heard by other Moroccans (and by themselves) as a voice from nowhere (nowhere in particular in Morocco, and nowhere in particular in the world). No small task for a regional variety of Arabic that has the distinction of being the most stigmatized and least widely understood dialect in the Middle East and North Africa.

As I show in the larger dissertation, while self proclaimed language activists were the force behind certain top-down standardization initiatives in Morocco (see for example Centre de Promotion de la Darija), the weight and the work and the contradictions of standard language ideology often ended up being negotiated by average Moroccans in their day to day lives. This scene with Adil and Asmae is just one illustration of how ordinary Moroccans become entangled in the linguistic sensibilities of postcolonial modernity as they struggle to imagine alternative linguistic and national futures.

Kristin Gee Hickman. 2019. Révolution Dārija? Imagining Vernacular Futures in Morocco. University of Chicago Phd.

Discussing Phone and Spear

Phone & Spear

https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/phone-spear

An edited excerpt from an ongoing conversation between Jennifer Deger and Zeynep Devrim Gürsel

Zeynep Devrim Gürsel: How has twenty five years of making media with Yolŋu shaped your approach to media theory?

Jennifer Deger: It’s emboldened me. I’ve become convinced that anthropologists who want to theorize media must also make it. Somehow or other. Media methods and media theory-work shouldn’t be approached as separable acts. Digital technologies not only blur once distinct boundaries between field site and home (and of course, these days, home and work in general), they allow us to disrupt stubbornly long-standing academic distinctions between research methods and research outputs. So all these years of co-creating with Yolngu has propelled me to a broader commitment to the on-going work of re-defining what scholarship can look like, sound like, and feel like.  By making media, we can begin to make media theory; we can craft social analyses that refuse to be abstracted from the mediated dynamics, affordances, and digital demands that shape our lives, thoughts, and actions.

While what this experimental making might actually entail will no doubt vary wildly—from acts of archival image repatriation, to participating in WhatsApp chats with interlocutors or, in our case, designing a book as a media object, in its own right—the point remains the same. Contemporary media theorists can be—and bloody well should be—going so much further than using multimodal research methods to create works positioned as secondary or supplementary to the ‘real’ and substantive scholarly work of text-based analysis. Digital media delivers more than data; it brings a new performative potentiality to our work, a fantastically rich opportunity to work with, and respond in-kind to, the media worlds we study. That, at least, is what our book attempts.

In Phone & Spear we took enormous pleasure in creating vibrant fields of colour, pattern and story directed by a Yolŋu appreciation of remediation and remix as techniques of social enlivenment and relationship making. Whether we are working in film, exhibition or interactive art, our projects have never been simply about documentation or display—even when we are recording endangered songs and stories at the request of senior Yolŋu everything we’ve done together, from films, exhibitions and interactive artworks, has entailed forms of collaborative creative labor with a view to fostering emergent knowledges and relationships. This is the yuta [new] in yuta anthropology.

Encouraging other scholars to try working, thinking, and feeling with media as an analytic and socially-engaged strategy seems absolutely essential if we are in any way to adequately respond to the multiple and often-brutally-colliding worlds to which digital media provides form, intensity, and new potentiality. In attempting such making, we must of course bear in mind that sounds and images do not circulate as stable or unproblematically self-declaring objects of knowledge, as the photo-collages in Phone & Spear make abundantly clear. Therein lies the challenge and the responsibility that as anthropologists we are particularly well placed to recognize and respond to.

Zeynep Devrim Gürsel: What were the particular challenges of writing this book in these terms? How did the expectations or investments of your Yolŋu friends shape the process?

If making media allows us to rethink what collaborative scholarship might look like, writing a book together posed a particular set of challenges in term of voice, especially given the necessarily different and sometimes profoundly different places from which we speak—not to mention our different epistemological orientations and expectations. A specifically-situated politics of knowledge determines who can, and should, speak for Yolŋu worlds—and for what purposes. This is not an oppositional politics, nor necessarily a race based one. It’s concerned with a situated forms of knowledge and authority, driven by a profound understanding that stories and images are the means by which relational worlds must be made, affirmed, and renewed.

A language of crisis infuses so much of the contemporary anthropology of Aboriginal Australia—and for good reason I reckon. Yet, the other members of Miyarrka Media had absolutely no interest in our work figuring the intercultural and intergenerational dynamics of their lives as problematic in those terms. Likewise, they were not motivated to conceive and deliver critiques of the workings of the state, its assimilationists apparatuses, and the resulting forms of structural violence (though one might detect an oblique commentary). What we all agreed from the outset was that we would each have our own voice in the book, allowing for our own, sometimes clashing perspectives. So the key challenge to writing the book lay in finding a form that might hold all us and our varying perspectives, where we could speak collectively as one in ways that were not reductive, in ways that claimed both the playful and the optimistic, but still acknowledged the tremendous daily difficulties of life and death in these remote settlements, so far from the rhythms, values and imaginative reach of mainstream Australia.

If this was going to work at all, I knew that I had to prevent balanda [white, or non-Aboriginal] theory from pre-figuring the book and our discussions, and we achieved this by pressing almost all the references to other scholarship under the line, in the notes. I promised myself that the word ontology would not appear. But beyond that, we were stuck for a very long time in terms of finding the right form for this collective experiment.

As it turned out, the solution—to create our own collage of voice, story and images—had been right in front of our eyes the whole time in the collaged form of the photographs themselves. What I love about the form we found is that it manages to hold the lived commitments, the responsibilities, relationships of care that extend beyond fieldwork and beyond our academic lives. Our constantly shifting voices, adds, I think to the aliveness and the animating dynamic of sameness-difference that we were aiming for.

All that said, I will confess that for me it was an extremely painful and uncertain process putting together this book, a sustained sense of uncertainty and love and despair that I managed over many years. There are likely many omissions and mistakes, many ways I could have done it better. But this was what I managed. What we managed. 

Zeynep Devrim Gürsel: Please tell us more about what you and your collaborators see as the difference between revealing one world to another versus bringing worlds into relationship.

Jennifer Deger: I will paraphrase Djingadjingawuy here. Talk-talk is not enough. You have to feel to know, to understand. Through feelings you connect, with your family, with the land, with the old people (ancestors). Through feelings we are marked in relationship. If we share our feelings with balanda and they share theirs in response, then we come be together. Together, but not mixed up, as Gurrumuruwuy puts it, so marvelously.

I wish Miyarrka Media were not so geographically dispersed these days and had been able to work together on this piece for you. As you know I am reluctant to become the official spokesperson for our group, exactly because of the ways it undercuts the performative ethos of the book—and I find myself falling back into the earnest, explanatory voice that the others undermine so brilliantly. However, Gurrumuruwuy has no such qualms. He sees this kind of thing as exactly my job at the moment. He is managing other relationships, expectations and curious interrogations back in Arnhem Land. 

Zeynep Devrim Gürsel: This is a book that exists in many formats.  Can you explain how you collectively decided to produce it in so many formats.  Also why a book about digitally worked cell phone images?

Jennifer Deger: From the outset we wanted to do both a digital and printed version of the book and this framed discussions with potential presses—along with our (expensive!) commitment to printing in full color. If you spend time with the book, you’ll see that to print in black and white would have really killed everything that mattered about this project. We’re very grateful to Goldsmiths for letting us art direct the entire project, and to Santiago Carrasquilla and Eugene Lee from Art Camp for their fantastic commitment to a design collaboration that stretched over many years.

The multiple formats allow for the work of remediation and remix to continue in ways that we find pleasurable and satisfying. We’re interested in the energy and allure that can arise in giving new form to old media—this, after all, is the foundational ethos of the images themselves. Of course, we risked losing a lot of brightness and image clarity in deciding to do a print book, but the decision to make a hold-in-your-hand book as a patterned relational object was something we all wanted. 

The open access version we developed in collaboration with MIT’s Knowledge Futures Group allowed us to return to a media rich digital world of brightness, color, and added sparkle. I think that having made the book first was really important, because we worked through a lot of the curation and design challenges in that process; we found the analytic form for our ideas through the design, which then found new expression in the online design. The printed and digital “books” basically have the same content, but they are very different things. I’m a bit surprised that I prefer the printed book. That said, the online version has its own qualities and character.

And perhaps that’s the most exciting outcome of all from our shared experiment. Each time the book takes new form, it re-instantiates a commitment to remix as a technique of social enlivenment; and, of course, in this instance, as anthropological method.

We spent five years designing and assembling a printed book and now we’re sending it out into the world in forms that undo its very status as ‘book’ (see for example our promo for the online version, ‘What is a book?’). Earlier this year we were invited to contribute a keynote to Distribute 2020, so we recombined elements from the book and elsewhere to make a 30 minute video. Just last month we cheekily entered that conference “talk” into a film festival and just found out it has been accepted. And so the work of remix continues.