Communication, Media and Performance

Alex Fattal on his book, Guerrilla Marketing

Interview by Winifred Tate

https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/G/bo29202793.html

Winifred Tate: The title, Guerrilla Marketing, evokes advertising, and in fact Amazon lists a number of similarly named advertising books. Why did you choose it?

Alex Fattal: Because it’s dense, evocative, and slippery, like the book’s contents. In a sentence, the book is an ethnographic analysis of the feedback between marketing and military strategies, how each set of experts are learning from the other in their respective efforts to conjugate furtive research, surveillance, and planning with spectacular media interventions. Guerrilla marketing, the term, references a set of trends in the private sphere to camouflage the advertisement; and as the title of my book, it references how the state is marketing a new life of consumer citizenship to guerrillas — the book’s ethnographic ground. The book documents a mashup of these worlds, which the title encapsulates.

Winifred Tate: One of the central arguments you make is that programs that are marketed by governments and consultants as humanitarian and contributing toward peace often, as in this case, involve policing, surveillance and frequent detention of targeted individuals — that is they employ a logic of militarization and ongoing warfare. Can you explain the Colombian case you examine?

Alex Fattal: The program that I studied in Colombia, the Program for Humanitarian Attention to the Demobilized (PAHD), is a special initiative of the Colombian Ministry of Defense. It began in 2003, the year after peace negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government fell apart. It was in lieu of a peace process and sought to coopt the language of peace policy by “demobilizing” fighters that were really defecting or deserting. It might strike some readers as a picky semantic difference, but one of the key claims that I make in the book is that the temporal difference between war and peace — like other modernist distinctions — matters and should not be relinquished lightly. At the level of academic critique, we see how the two bleed ineluctably into each other, but I do think there is something worthwhile in not giving into the Marshal McLuhan’s prognostication that World War III will be “a guerrilla information war.” His vision is proving increasingly prescient with the confluence of the unfolding of the Global War on Terror and the technological moment, and it’s very troubling to say the least. By theorizing what I call “brand warfare” I am trying to articulate something that is in global circulation. While it’s been interesting to share the work and hear from colleagues about how they find the concept useful in their field own sites, it’s also been disheartening because it points to a troubling tendency toward dangerous new forms of mass manipulation.

Winifred Tate: In the conclusion, you document how the Colombian government evangelizes this program, showing it off to delegates from other conflict-torn countries such as South Sudan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Somalia and others. Why did the Colombian government do this?

 Alex Fattal: It is part of Colombia’s striving to position itself on the upper rungs of a global hierarchy of security expertise and establish itself as a country that has come back from the brink of “failed state” ignominy, and therefore has knowledge to export. The pony show of the “South South Tour” (which was mostly funded by the global north) was just one piece in a wider re-narration of the nation and served as a performative intervention to create the impression of the government having “solved” the conflict — all while the war was still raging. Kimberly Theidon has aptly described this cunning temporal conflation as “pre-post conflict”. The bi-annual South South Tours were part of the Colombian government’s “mission accomplished” moment, a performance that involved the mobilization of state symbols, bureaucracies, and resources. Anybody who has been following the post-peace accord violence knows how utterly premature such triumphalist projections have been.

Winifred Tate: An important contribution you make is bringing an analysis of the intersections between the worlds of marketing and branding, and government demobilization efforts. How do these bureaucrats and consultants try to sell peace? How do you think these campaigns have contributed to the current skepticism about the peace accords in Colombia?

Alex Fattal: You are very right to point to skepticism as the other side of the coin in such strategies of affective governance. Quite simply, I think the government blew its credibility on peace initiatives during wartime to gain a military and political advantage. When it came time to persuade the Colombian public that a strikingly similar set of programs would be necessary during negotiations with the FARC in Havana from 2012 to 2016 and then during the plebiscite and implementation of the peace accord, it was much easier for the right wing to sew doubt around the motives of the pro-peace camp. It is a telling case of how the right-wing benefits from playing politics amidst a hall of mirrors, unphased by distortions and shameless in taking the non-correspondences between signifier and signified that Baudrillard poignantly highlighted when discussing consumer culture decades ago to its logical conclusion — outright disinformation.

Winifred Tate: A growing number of anthropologists are conducting ethnographic research within government and military bureaucracies. What lessons can you share for anthropologists and others who want to do this kind of research?

 Alex Fattal: Be careful. It’s a fraught field and the rules of the game are in flux. Journalists and academics are in a tough spot across the globe. Ayše Gül Altinay, among others, is being arbitrarily detained in Turkey. The translation of Guerrilla Marketing into Spanish and a few promotional events in Colombia seem to have earned me my first death threat, a picture of a man hanged and tortured that was sent to my Colombian cell phone. (It was a new SIM card and I had hardly shared the number with anyone). Institutions, like the Colombian military, that project such a powerful image of themselves publicly are often hypersensitive and don’t deal well with criticism and they have a kit of repressive tools to use as part of the brand warfare they wage to sure up their often shaky legitimacy. I did my best to convey the scope of my research and its disposition to critical analysis, but despite my best efforts to communicate openly and continually — tensions arose. Embedded ethnography tends to assume an ideological affinity between the anthropologist and her field site, but when that’s not the case things can get tricky. One of the parts of the book that I am proud of is the “Access and Ethics” section of the introduction, which digs deeper into these dynamics.

Winifred Tate: In addition to your analysis of the logic of the demobilization programs, you offer complex and fascinating glimpses into the complexity of ex-combatants’ lives through life-history excerpts in-between each analytical chapter. How do you understand the role and importance of these testimonies of lived experience?

Alex Fattal: The testimonials, which are accompanied by Lucas Ospina’s wonderful drawings, do a lot of work in the book and they have been one of the elements that has really impacted readers so far. They give the analysis another dimension by bringing the discussion down to the level of everyday life, not in a way that is illustrative of my interpretations but rather in ways the exceed the interpretative frame, allowing readers who are unfamiliar with the Colombian context to feel the intensities and trajectories of lives marked by the conflict and their many layers. The stories also open a space for readers to make connections to the chapters — the placement of each of the testimonials is not haphazard. I think the testimonials widen my otherwise narrow focus on the convergence of marketing and militarism and allow the book to be about much more at the same time. Including them also relieved some of my sense of guilt about not being able to include many other stories that I wanted to include. So many former guerrillas shared their life experiences with me and I wish I could have included their stories too. My editor, Priya Nelson, did a wonderful job gently influencing the manuscript. The one piece of advice I just couldn’t take was to cut the testimonials down further. For me, I wanted to make sure the arc of often-difficult childhoods, joining the guerrilla, life inside the FARC’s ranks, the decision to leave, and the challenges of reintegration came through; and it was hard to abbreviate that arc, especially with so many compelling stories.

Winifred Tate: Similarly, your film Limbo, centers on the recounting of one such story. What is the film about?

Alex Fattal: The book could have easily been twice as long, but I left some large pieces out, such as a chapter on the psychological world of ex-combatants and their dreamscapes. I decided to spin that off into a short film called Limbo, which was shot entirely in the back of a truck that I transformed into a camera obscura. The article I am writing now is about former guerrillas’ dreams and the film project as a form of ethnographic surrealism, which strives for a dialectic between the ethnographic impulse to render the familiar strange and the surrealist impulse to render the strange familiar. The film, unlike much of what has been featured from the Sensory Ethnography Lab, takes narrative seriously, while also creating a sensorial space in the back of the truck. The truck becomes a confessional, psychoanalytic space that, unlike the couch, is in constant motion. The idea is to take the viewer on an oneiric journey through one former guerrilla’s life. Like the testimonials in the book, the film shows how the aftermath of being in the war lingers, it is an aftermath that is accentuated by a form of demobilization that, as I argue, is often complicit in the remobilization of former combatants, fueling cycles of conflict and peace policy that Colombia has been in the throes of for the last thirty-five years. It’s a trend, that sadly, is continuing through the post-peace accord present.

 

 

 

 

 

Jessica Chandras takes the page 99 test

    Page 99 of my dissertation, titled Multilingual Practices, Education, and Identity in Pune, India, is a first attempt at bringing readers into an ethnographically informed composite sketch of a partially fictionalized student interlocutor. The passage is from a chapter titled “Learning English while Learning in English” and in the chapter I analyze various examples of code switching in English across classrooms in multiple schools and education levels. I generalized the student, Siddhika, from interviews, days of participant observation, and excerpts from classroom recordings that exemplify code switching practices among Hindi, Sanskrit, English, and Marathi, the regional language of the state of India where I conducted my research. The context in which the switching occurs, whether it is in the form of morning prayers, instructional directives, or transitional chatter, was important for my research and analysis. The best way I could convey all of these aspects together, I felt, was if I brought readers into the classroom with me through narrative vignettes. More importantly, I wanted to allow my interlocutors and their experiences studying in and among multiple languages to speak for themselves as much as possible. The passage below begins my third chapter on how English language code switching practices contribute to attitudes and meanings attributed to different languages.

    Pradnya Teacher leads the group of students upstairs, passing pictures of school events and motivational posters showing smiling cartoon animals telling students in English that it is good to help others and reminding them to wash their hands. The Mini KG, Junior KG, and Senior KG students stop in the hallway outside their brightly painted classrooms in the Kindergarten wing of the school. Rather than being in the school where there are so many students constantly moving around and making noise, Siddhika thinks to herself how she prefers to be at home with her aji, Marathi for grandmother, who sneakily passes sweets to Siddhika while she cooks her favorite foods. But she knows she must now start going to school like her older cousins and neighbors who carry around large books in their overstuffed backpacks. Being at school still makes her nervous though, that’s why aai, her mother, packed an extra change of clothes in her backpack today, just in case she wets her uniform again.

    The intimidating Mangal maushi, which means “aunt” and is what the students are told to call the saree-clad women who help in their classrooms, tells Siddhika to place her backpack against the wall and line up. “Warghakade tev, backpack. Linemadhye ubi raha!” Mangal maushi announces in her booming voice, as Pradnya Teacher begins the morning prayers. “Good morning students!” Pradnya Teacher shouts over the din of all the students bustling to line up in the narrow hallway. “Good morning teacher!” Siddhika shouts along with her classmates. “Don’t yell, students! Answer quietly,” Pradnya Teacher retorts, “Stand straight. Hands at your sides. And start.” Siddhika begins reciting the national anthem and then Sanskrit and English prayers that they learned on their first day of class. 

 

    Page 99 also nicely provides a window into my writing process. I eased myself out of research by drafting ethnographic vignettes from my field notes to convey what life of burgeoning multilingual students is like in India. Reflecting on this practice in the process of beginning to write my dissertation now brings a smile to my face. I remember my confidence growing by returning to my notes and making cohesive analytical excerpts emerge to begin my writing stage. As this exercise increased my momentum and enthusiasm to continue writing, the lingering traces of imposter syndrome began to disappear.

    It was after drafting this passage and getting favorable feedback from my committee that I then decided to use vignettes for prologues and epilogues in each chapter of my dissertation, honing my skill and passion for narrative writing to convey my research and analysis. My dissertation explores different avenues of multilingual life and studies in Pune, Maharashtra and after receiving constructive comments on this passage I more confidently included analyses from some unconventional methods such as map making and autoethnography throughout various chapters. I like to think that this passage is the first trial and permission I granted myself to creatively craft a dissertation that spoke to my interests in communicating my analyses, present my research experiences, and the voices of my interlocutors through thoughtful and novel ways.

Jessica Chandras. 2019. “Multilingual Practices, Education, and Identity in Pune, India.” George Washington University, Ph.d dissertation.

Jessica Chandras, Visiting Assistant Professor of Linguistic Anthropology

jessicasu87@gmail.com

Juan del Nido discusses his dissertation about Uber

Page 99 is home to one of the most linguistically precise segments of my dissertation, concerning the construction of a legal case against Uber in Buenos Aires, Argentina, by five taxi drivers’ associations on the night of the 12th of April, 2016. The case was set in a language of urgency and accusation and routed through a “writ of amparo” – an Argentine legal device designed to be expeditious and that judges have to react to quickly, lest a claimant’s fundamental rights are irreparably harmed. The right in question was the right to work, taxi drivers claimed, knowing but not explaining in that document that the temporalities of technological novelties amid a population anxious for modernity benefitted Uber, which had launched its platform at 4 pm that very same day.

This micro-anecdote, specific and dry, does more justice to Madox Ford’s test than he himself may have sought, for in a sense my entire research hinges on the events of that day. I was in Buenos Aires, my hometown, researching the political economy of the taxi industry in a 13-million strong metropolitan area largely unaware at that time of Uber’s expansion plans. The day before the 12th Uber existed only in people’s imaginations and the companies’ social media taunts; the day after was the first of an economic, political, legal and cultural conflict centered on the industry I had come to know quite well. Buenos Aires was then the latest installment of a world saga, epic and viral, but also a deviant: when authorities declared Uber’s activities illegal and ordered it to leave, Uber refused to go, claiming Uber was what “the people” wanted. As an industrial conflict turned into contempt of court, the conflict became an exceptionally fertile site for a series of infrastructural, temporal, technical and economic imaginations about what constituted progress, modernity, and political virtue. At stake in the conflict, summed up in that page, was whether an order beyond the political existed or not; how some Argentines understood what it was made of, who belonged in it and how history had drawn its lines, and ultimately, how a post-political order would grant the Argentina that the middle classes imagined as theirs a place in the world .

Juan M del Nido. 2018. “Uber in Buenos Aires: an Ethnographic of the post-political as a modality of reasoning”. 2018. Ph.d dissertation. Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester, UK. .

Chris Ball on his book, Exchanging Words

https://unmpress.com/books/exchanging-words/9780826358530

Meghanne Barker: This book moves, part by part, from within the park to outside of it, until we end up in France. How did you decide to organize it this way, rather than according to some of the main terms of inquiry, such as exchange and ritual? It seems that this tactic was designed, in some ways, to counter narratives of indigenous groups perpetually repeating or risking assimilation or annihilation. But were there aspects of your fieldwork at the Park that were then obscured by this framing – for example, giving more attention to the role of visitors from the outside?

Chris Ball: First of all, many thanks for reading the book and posing such thoughtful questions!

I committed to the framing of an ethnographic narrative about how Wauja people of Brazil move from inside the Xingu Park to outside early on in my fieldwork. Although the chapter on the Atujuwa mask dance that Wauja performers debuted in France in July, 2015 is the subject of the book’s last chapter, the event happened relatively soon after I began working with the Wauja. I was invited to accompany the troupe on their journey abroad and in doing so I learned so much about Wauja people’s initiatives to engage with outsiders. I also returned to the village with many questions about how such encounters work out. From then on, I became increasingly interested in scalar study of the pragmatic means through which Wauja outreach to alters was accomplished and understood from their perspective. That meant looking locally at political discourse, communication with spirits, and out to regional exchange rituals with other Xinguans, and meetings with foreign and Brazilian NGO and government representatives. This perspective helped me to locate classical anthropological topics such as ritual and exchange as they emerged in relations of development that variously purported to target healthcare, material culture, environmental protection, and spirituality. Manuela Carneiro da Cunha had a great influence on my research by encouraging cultural analysis of how Amazonian indigenous people do development. While I ended up paying less attention to the role of visitors from the outside, the upshot was to reverse the perspective of how Euro-Americans and/or non-indigenous Brazilians encounter Amazonians by following the movements and itineraries of Wauja people as Amazonians who engage outsiders.

Meghanne Barker: In the introduction, you promise that this book will bridge the gap between two approaches to studying Amazonia, one of which uses a structuralism modeled after Saussurian semiology, the other of which adopts Peircian semiotics to focus more on everyday discourse. This seems like an ambitious task! At what point in your research or writing did you realize that this was what your project was doing? What made it seem possible, or desirable, or necessary, for you to do this?

Chris Ball: It is a tall order, and I am sure there are many ways that I fell short in this book. Again, I was influenced and encouraged by my teachers in this regard, primarily by Michael Silverstein and Sue Gal in the application of Peircean semiotics to communication, and by the wonderful opportunities I had to learn from scholars such as Carlos Fausto and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in Chicago and in Rio de Janeiro. They brought a range of perspectives to the table to be sure, but I inherited a lasting engagement with Levi-Straussian structuralism and Amazonianist (post)structuralism from these anthropologists. In addition, my training in structural linguistics at Chicago by Jerry Sadock and Amy Dahlstrom, among others such as Bruna Franchetto, prepared and required me to engage with grammatical systems in the tradition of Sapir, Bloomfield, and Saussure. I guess the ingredients were all in the mix before I left for the field, and I can see in retrospect how much the fingerprints of my teachers are left on the book. I should also say that I still believe that one of the main tasks of linguistic anthropology at least since Roman Jakobson has been to unite elements of Saussurean semiology and Peircean semiotics as they illuminate fundamental properties of language structure and function. The synthesis is ongoing, but what makes it possible, desirable, and necessary is the complementarity of studying langue as a social fact on the one hand, and parole as a site of sociocultural (re) production and transformation. This book is one entry in the collective research project into that dialectic.

Meghanne Barker: Beyond scholarly work on ritual, language, exchange, or indigenous groups in Brazil, is there another scholarly conversation into which you see this book offering an intervention that might not be obvious, immediately? If so, can you tell these readers why they should read your book?

Chris Ball: I think the outreach that the book attempts, beyond the audiences you mentioned, is to scholars and practitioners of development. I make a largely culturalist argument that ritual, discourse, and exchange influence how people from the Xingu region of Brazil engage in development projects. Understanding their cultural approaches to ritual, to trade, and to political discourse in their own communities sheds light on how and why development projects may succeed or fail. Indeed, we should even ask if the people involved define communicative success and failure in anything like the same terms. The point of view brought by linguistic anthropology can hopefully say something applicable to the realization of development in a variety of contexts.

Meghanne Barker: It is common for authors to mention their indebtedness to their interlocutors in the acknowledgments section of the book, yet you do so as your conclusion. Then you break somewhat with conventional ethnography and appeal to the reader, whom you interpellate as a probable anthropologist, to accept the status of indebtedness as requiring sustained engagement. What provoked you to conclude in such a way, with such an appeal?

Chris Ball: One of the points of my book is that Wauja people often work to sustain indebtedness and asymmetry in their exchange relations with outsiders. This leads to confusion in intercultural encounters when NGO representatives laud the successful conclusion of projects, touting the success of debts paid.  Meanwhile Wauja people may see in the same instance an undesirable foreclosure of future social relations. I tried to make that point in the body of the book, and in the conclusion, I hoped to return to the question that your first question indicated might be foreclosed by my approach to Wauja outreach; attention to the role of visitors from the outside. What I wanted to suggest, perhaps to overcome at least momentarily the act of description in the service of engagement, is how anyone who visits the Wauja from the outside, myself and my readers –you included—  is indebted to them. We should take indebtedness not as a negative however, instead we might approach it the way Wauja often do, as a positive corollary of continued relationships, of sustained engagement signaled in the promise of a return.

Sarah Mitchell takes the page 99 test

For the sake of full disclosure, I’m going to start my reflection on my Page 99 with a quick nod to the blog’s editor. When Dr. Gershon started the Page 99 series on the CaMP blog, I was acting as the blog administrator. We had chatted about the concept and structure of the series and at some point, she expressed a concern that people would start ‘gaming’ the series so that they purposely made the 99th page an exceptionally good page from their dissertation, to make it more coherent or smart-sounding. Of all people, I’m probably most susceptible to this temptation. Well, I just want to assure her and the readers of the blog that while I am particularly pleased with what my 99th page wound up being, I did not do this on purpose. I must give credit to my committee that requested further theoretical discussion at the beginning of the document after reading the first draft and thus pushed this page into its current position. If that hadn’t happened, you’d likely have read something about TIFF’s scandalous history…who wants that? Instead, my Page 99 comes from my third chapter in a section I labelled, Glamorous Work: A Geertzian Turn.

After laying out the scope of the dissertation in the introductory chapter and elaborating the key concepts in the second, this third chapter is where I place those concepts in context. I focus on a particular night in 2014 when my husband and I were conducting an interview with film director Kevin Smith and we get into trouble with the red carpet coordinator. I use this particular incident to illustrate the central social relationship of the film festival that exists between filmmakers, film audiences and the film festival organizers who act as special intermediaries between the first two groups. In this final section of the chapter, I reveal that I am purposely echoing the structure of Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” because I viewed this social relationship as akin to the one described in Geertz’s essay (1977). As I describe a few pages earlier, Geertz argues that the cockfight is play because the risks involved are ‘really real’ for the birds and only symbolically real for the bettors. But I see the inverse on the red carpet. The really real risk does not lie with the single film or even single film screening but with the filmmakers, film audiences, and subsequently, their intermediary, the film festival organizers. This page outlines this risk. As the page concludes, in terms of economic and status risk, I argue the highest risk lies with the organizers, the few that connect the many at the festival. And, in this sense, what they engage in is not ‘deep symbolism told in meaningless play, but material work performed in glamorous iconography’. As I end the chapter a few pages later, I set up the subsequent chapters where I dive further into the intricacies of this work in this context. But before moving forward, I suggest that this glamorous work is perhaps not unique to the film festival setting but extends upward through the ‘prismatic distortions’ of global mediascapes (Appadurai 1990).

It is admittedly an ambitious chapter and this page highlights some of its grand assertions. But while the attempts to connect my own theory to cultural anthropology luminaries is perhaps too aspirational for a dissertation, as someone who has spent years in media pens elbowing my way into position for a clear shot of the celebrity du jour, the distance between red carpets and cockfights is not as far as one might assume.

Sarah Mitchell. 2017. Glamorous Work: An Ethnographic Study of the Toronto International Film Festival. Indiana University, Phd.

 

Lilly Irani on her book, Chasing Innovation

https://press.princeton.edu/titles/13362.html

Lilly Irani, in conversation with Christopher Kelty

(Note: Interview was transcribed, unlike many other interviews on this site which are conducted by email).

Chris Kelty: Let’s start here, because we are in Torrance, CA at a Taiwanese bakery, halfway between where you and I respectively work. You, like me, are stuck across various disciplines. Anthropology, design, media studies, south asian studies…and so on. What’s your strategy for addressing the work you do beyond the disciplines?

Lilly Irani: There’s being between the disciplines and there is speaking to people beyond the academy— to participants or, in many cases, workers themselves. I don’t mean as a public intellectual speaking to civil society, but as an ex-technology worker writing to other workers. Some of my strategy has been to lead with the stories. While writing — especially a few years in — I would fantasize that I should instead write a graphic novel called “Design: A Tragedy.” Each of my chapters is really centered around some story where people are working with the skills that they have, the hopes that they have, the social know-how and the networks that they have. They’re all doing their best, and then they run into some kind of friction or contradiction. These were moments that, for me, revealed something about the structural or institutional forces silently conditioning the supposedly creative possibilities of design and entrepreneurship.

Sometimes that contradiction doesn’t become visible until years into the project. As an ethnographer, what I get to do is hang out with a set of projects and a group of people for 5 to 10 years, and say, “Hey, you’re doing projects every 3 months or every 2 years, I can see how this goes over a long time and I can use that slow attunement to draw out—to tell a story that shows the contradiction.” Then I can theorize it at the end of the chapter. For people who are interested in the theory, they get that laid out at the end of the chapter but for those who are not, they still see a story of friction or failure they are used to naturalizing or coping with. And they see it is not all their fault, but a product of the structures in which they are embedded.

The thing I love about anthropology and the empirical is not positivism but rather the chance to attune to the erasures, erosions, and what falls through the cracks socially or theoretically. We can draw those out into a more public way and invite wider publics – our readers and our fieldwork interlocutors – to ask, “Okay, what are we going to do now?”

Chris Kelty: Imagine for me what it will look like when people in Indian academia read your book as opposed to when those in Euro/American academia read it. What do you think or what do you hope would be a discussion there that would be different—or would it be the same?

Lilly Irani: That’s a good question. I’ll talk about my hopes, and I’ll talk about what I’ve seen happen so far. I think one of my hopes was that—I felt like, when I began to write up this project, one set of reactions that I would get from academics, policy people in South Asia would say, “Oh, yeah, this thing you’re writing about is happening everywhere actually.” Actually, this didn’t happen to me just in South Asia. I had that reaction from people also working in parts of Africa and the Middle East.

There was a lot of support and enthusiasm for having another person trying to unpack what’s going on there and understand where it’s coming from all of a sudden. Academics, however, sometimes reacted by saying “Well, this doesn’t fit the ways that we’ve been doing post-colonialism in media studies or South Asia studies so far. Go to a tier-two city, or study people in rural areas and how they share media in ‘real India.’” That’s super important. But the current moment in India is one where development has become a financial opportunity for the private sector. And all kinds of authoritarian management impulses or even violence are justified in the name of innovation and progress. If we want to understand how the state organizes its actions to stimulate private sector accumulation, and in the name of development and innovation no less, we need to study the work of relatively elite middle-classes who operate in these systems.

Chris Kelty: Your book has a great historical depth to it, but not as a history of something, right? The history is there in order to set up the story of the subjectivity of the people you worked with. How do you think about the role of establishing that kind of existing subjectivity with such historical detail? Why is that important to do, rather than, say, pointing to their speech or to the things that they make, and saying, “Look. See, this is how people are right now.” What’s the value that that brings for you? Continue reading

Crystal Abidin on her book, Internet Celebrity

Jacket Image

https://books.emeraldinsight.com/page/detail/Internet-Celebrity/?k=9781787560796

Interview by Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: What do you see as the main focus and argument of this book?

Crystal Abidin: Logistically, I wanted to write a highly accessible primer text for a general audience. My original disciplinary training is in anthropology and sociology, but the bulk of research on this phenomena has come out of media and communications. Because of this, depending on the journal or the audience or the edited collection I’m writing for, I variously use terms like “microcelebrity”, “internet celebrity”, “online celebrity”, “influencer”, and so on and so forth. We all know that depending on our background and our training and our disciplinary preferences, this would mean that as we’re searching for literature, we’re going to miss out on heaps and heaps of articles or data or reviews. So, I wanted a book to kind of consolidate all these related but distinct concepts. That’s why I wanted to do this on the operational side of things.

Intellectually, I wanted to publish a text that captured the state of the industry at this very moment and share this piece quickly with a wide audience. My publisher Emerald Publishing has a series Society Now that does just this. Although I have also published a number of book chapters and journal articles, my thesis—which focused on my internet ethnography of influencer culture in Singapore—is going to take some time to be published as an academic monograph due to the processes of academic publishing and the need to update my conceptual thinking in this quickly evolving domain. So while that’s being done, I was thinking about a condensed and stripped down version of this upcoming thesis-to-book monograph. But at the same time, a lot of my newer fieldwork now involves working with industry, and I saw this as a great opportunity to combine a populist and corporate way of framing these phenomena with an academic and scholarly way of understanding and analyzing them.

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: Do you see this book as any particular kind of theoretical genealogy in anthropology? What would be the value of this work for anthropologists who maybe don’t know anything about this side of internet culture, or maybe are curious about it— how does this work speak to anthropologists specifically?

Crystal Abidin: Although my research and analysis is guided by anthropological theory, I don’t think it’s explicit in this book, because I needed to cater to the widest audience possible – it’s really primed for perhaps a large undergraduate introduction course, or anyone from the general public who can’t differentiate between a YouTuber and a meme, or the concept of virality from celebrity. But, if I were to return to my initial rhetoric in planning the chapters, then certainly I worked hard to showcase the variety of methods that I used throughout my projects. The first chapter I feel is quite similar to a traditional literature review or archival research, glazing through the phenomena. And in this text, I have organized this information as a historical overview of how we came to this idea of internet celebrity, drawing from various books and concepts across multiple disciplines. This is one of the things I struggled with in my earlier work in my doctoral studies, that if we were bounded by a discipline in terms of where we looked for journals or for books, we would miss out on a lot of the good debate developing in other industries and developing in other disciplines. So that was one thing I struggled with and one thing I needed to overcome. I was explicit throughout the whole book that I work primarily as an anthropologist and as an ethnographer but my literature review was more encompassing and generous across the disciplines.

In the second chapter, I highlight some of the key repetitive tropes that we see of internet celebrity, the qualities that they share, even though I chose specific case studies that were resonant mostly in the Asian market or during that time period. It was drawn from several long-term research projects that used traditional ethnography, participant observation, interviews, and then even digital ethnography, content analysis, media analysis, and trend watching.

The third chapter dives deeper into case studies and I think this is where at times I extrapolate between the social media posts, some of the comments, some of the reactions from the press— this would be what an in depth digital ethnographic study or media studies content analysis would look like. Because it’s not a one-time-off study of a single viral post, but a long-term engagement as a viewer/fan/hater/follower/and so on across multiple connected internet spaces in a network, I was able to piece together a longer-term digital biography of some of these personalities.

Finally, I wanted the last chapter to be a springboard to the thesis-to-book monograph on influencers that I am finishing up. So, this chapter positioned the industry of influencers within a climate of internet celebrity at larger, and my upcoming thesis-to-book monograph will then dive in explicitly into the microcosms and social relationships on the level of the influencer as an actor. And here, I felt better able to share some of the ethnographic snippets and observations from my work—say, mapping out the structure of the industry, sharing some of the observations from vignettes or from conversations.

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: With this kind of internet-based research, the traditional anthropological framing of the “field site” becomes a bit murky. As a researcher who herself is very engaged with internet culture, how do you circumscribe the boundary of the “field site”, in this book and in your related work?

Crystal Abidin: It doesn’t come up much in this book per se, because this text is a summation of several different projects across various ideo-geographical fieldsites in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the US and Europe. If I were to really stretch it, I’d say that the data in this text is bounded by temporality – I had intentionally focused on a range of years when I was selecting case studies form my data, specifically to demonstrate the shifts across forms of celebrity – traditional or digital – that I had mapped out in the first chapter. But I also made specific decisions over which of my locational or cultural fieldsites to showcase – where possible and where the arguments could still be communicated well, I substituted many Anglo- and Euro-centric examples with ones from the Global South, in line with my research and personal ethic to promote visibility and representation of equally interesting phenomena happening elsewhere in the world that is often lost in discourses propagated by the popular media.

In my other works beyond this book, I bound or segment my fieldsites differently depending on the project or my research question. There are instances where I am studying a specific trend or viral incident, so my field is bounded chronologically by time. But if I am studying the everyday practices of a particular demographic or community of people, then I bound my field by the biographies or locations of the content producers. In other words, I adopt more anthropological approaches to study genealogies, and here my field is determined by the snowball sampling that may expand more laterally to include more and more influencers, or vertically to study up the chain (such as agencies or industry) or down the chain (that is, followers and fans). Sometimes this may mean identifying a different space altogether, such as the backend or logistical and operational systems of influencers (such as bot factories, software and infrastructure). In my more ambitious works, I may consider a larger cultural group as a phenomena,  my newest major project will focus on influencers in cultural East Asia, broadly defined as China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. In general, depending on my research question or what I am isolating as my factor of analysis, my fieldsites are scoped and bounded differently.

That said, I’m only able to do this because my very initial sampling of influencers for my traditional observation and later in my digital observation was quite large, aimed at getting an idea of the field. Some of this is really purposive sampling—for example, covering almost every role possible in the influencer industry in Singapore. Anyone you can think of, from an assistant that helps in the warehouse that’s owned by an influencer, all the way down to the parent or the loved one who is somehow implicated in their visibility. And then I am also going back and forth with the different production and circulation chains. So I am not just focusing on the influencer themselves, but also the companies that are sustaining the platforms they use. This includes policies from different social media platforms, like how Instagram deals with ads, and also regulations and provisions by third-party companies who may provide the ability for influencers to trace their metrics and do real-time analysis of their audiences. It also includes where they are congregating in discussion forums, where they are meeting in the flesh, what they are doing when they meet in the flesh— going down to these spaces and hanging out with these young people.

For example, I have recently conclude fieldwork looking at the influencer industry in the Nordic region, but because of time and resource constraints, I’m not able to replicate the very thorough and in-depth studies I’ve done, say, in Southeast Asia. Instead, I have decided to focus on the specific lateral category of influencer agencies, specifically those in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland, to constitute the ‘Nordic market’. I conduct interviews with specific people in these companies, and record observations about their daily work in the offices when I have the privilege to embed in spaces or attend events to conduct participant observation. While I no longer have the same depth as, say the project of influencers in Singapore that thoroughly investigated every possible role in the industry, this Nordic project is asking a completely different set of questions on a more macro scale.

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: Going back to the Internet Celebrity book specifically, I loved the art style used to illustrate your data. I found that to be a really interesting choice, especially given how much of internet culture, broadly speaking, centers the visual. Was there a particular motivation for using this style of art rather than a more direct representation of the data you were looking at (for example, screenshots of actual memes)? What were you hoping the audience would get out of that?

Crystal Abidin: Again, a variety of reasons—I’ll mention a conceptual one, a more intellectual one, and a pragmatic one.

Conceptually, in Internet Celebrity, one of my key arguments is that while some of the people who opt in to internet celebrity pursue this fervently and become influencers—which is what the last chapter points to, and the focus of my work that’s forthcoming– we also have a lot of internet celebrities who stumble into this or are forced into this industry, as in the case of the unwilling meme (Chapter 3, page 52) or the eyewitness viral star (Chapter 3, page 38) that circulates widely and gets mocked with racist tones of humor. So, not wanting to replicate or reignite that violence against these people, it would not feel right to republish their images in print, even if the publisher allows it, even if they have become widely circulated as memes, or even if the images are generally considered in the‘public domain. The aesthetic of it would not have been congruent with the argument I was trying to make, so I needed to be careful with that.

The second endeavor was more fun for me—to illustrate a more intellectual goal of using this art style. I was thinking about how verbally referring to a meme and explaining it with thick description, versus actually seeing the meme, are two different experiences. We consume internet celebrities via a visual form. If could could visually simulate a mere skeleton or likeness of the form, and have the readers able to guess or recall what this refers to, then this successfully demonstrates the arguments in the book that internet celebrity has a feel of templatability, a wider social memory, that cuts across different cultural pools of knowledge. It has been really fun for me to get feedback from readers who have told me, “Alright, we’re reading this in text form and this sounds familiar,” and then in the next page they flip to they see an outline and they think, “Oh yes, I know exactly the meme she’s talking about.” It also points to the difference in how we process information with our social memory. Traditionally, anthropology and ethnography has relied a lot on thick description, and very persuasive writing, and that’s a craft that I’m trying to hone. But when I do similar work in the industry, that’s not a format that’s palatable to people working in social media, working in tech companies, working with some of the biggest conglomerates in the media industry. Often, I have to present a different framing for the exact same thing I want to put across, such as relying heavily on visual aids. So, I also saw this as an experimental opportunity.

The third reason, of course, pragmatically, is dealing with the notion of public property, or copyright. Different publishers have different logistical guidelines for what constitutes an image that can be used for fair use, or for academic critique. Some of the publishers have guidelines ranging from how extensively public am image has been circulating, whether it has been deposited into the major meme or gif libraries, whether it has been reposted by reputable newspapers or online news sites of a certain leverage – and all of these guidelines are fair enough. They are all an approximation trying to estimate how public something is, and to iron out the difficulties of tracing the ownership of something that feels authorless like a meme. But again, going back to the ethic I adopt in this piece of work, something that’s put out and publicly available may not have been intentionally made so. So I brainstormed over a better method of engaging with the audience of the book, while also staying true to the intention and the ethic of the arguments I was trying to make.

Mack Hagood on his new book, Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control

Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control (Sign, Storage, Transmission) by [Hagood, Mack]

https://www.dukeupress.edu/hush

Interview by Jacob Smith

Jacob Smith: Hush offers a strikingly original take on the history of devices and practices that offer control over the sonic environment. As a framework for your analysis, you coin the terms “orphic media” and “empty media”: what are these?

Mack Hagood: In its narrowest sense, the concept of orphic media refers to the ways people use audio media to create a safe space for themselves. In Greek mythology, Orpheus saves the lives of the Argonauts by neutralizing the Sirens’ song with a song of his own, pacifying the treacherous environment of the Siren Strait. Over the past sixty years or so, a number of media devices that operate on this principle have arisen: bedside machines that generate white noise or nature sounds, commercial recordings and smartphone apps that do the same, wearable devices that counteract tinnitus, noise-canceling headphones, and others. All of these technologies fight sound with sound to control one’s environment, thereby allowing the user to control her own subjective state. If we think of these disparate technologies as the products of a single industry, it generates billions of dollars by promising control over how we feel, sleep, and concentrate. But up until now, we haven’t thought of orphic mediation as a media practice—and, in fact, we haven’t thought of most of these technologies as media at all, because they don’t have “content” in a traditional sense. They are “empty media” that challenge our scholarly and lay notions of media as technologies that inform, entertain, or transmit messages. In fact, these media aren’t meant to be paid attention to at all, which is what allows them to be so effective!

Now, this might seem to be simply a quirky and overlooked product category or a lacuna in the field of media studies, but I argue that it’s much more than that. In the book, I use these technologies as a way to explore the way listening has become difficult, painful, and even paranoid in the era of the attention economy, which equates the liberal subject with controlled attention while also flooding consciousness with voices, information, enticements, and distractions, undermining any possibility of self-control. This personal, sensory conflict fuels our politics of filter bubbles, right-wing echo chambers, campus safe spaces, and other contemporary controversies around listening. Studying listening is useful because a similar reactivity and even physiology are at work when we recoil from a sound we find uncomfortable and when we recoil from a social situation or even an idea that we find uncomfortable. So, in its widest sense, the concept of orphic media is about more than sound technologies. It claims that the most fundamental purpose of all media use is not to transmit information, but rather to navigate our affective relationship to our environment. And it’s the misguided ways we try to stay in control of that relationship that drive our current conflicts.

Jacob Smith: Your first chapter concerns the use of orphic media by the sufferers of tinnitus. What is distinctive about these practices in the broader terrain of orphic media? What methodological challenges did you face when writing this chapter?

Mack Hagood: In the course of studying orphic media, I quickly realized that people with buzzing, ringing, or other putative phantom sounds in the head or ears were among the most committed users of these technologies. During my ethnographic study of tinnitus and the roles that media play in its diagnosis and treatment, I came to understand just how high the stakes of orphic media use can be. Many of us experience tinnitus to some degree or from time to time and are relatively unbothered by it, but for a small minority of people, tinnitus is a deeply disturbing experience that interferes with personal relationships and the ability to work or enjoy life. And as an invisible disability, inaudible to others, tinnitus can often be met with skepticism and impatience. Loneliness, anxiety, and depression are strongly associated with suffering from tinnitus in this way.

By visiting audiology clinics, research centers, and tinnitus support groups, as well as volunteering with the American Tinnitus Association for a number of years, I met many people with tinnitus and learned a great deal about the nature of aural suffering. And, indeed, almost everyone I met used white noise or other orphic technologies either as digital folk remedies or as prescription media, under the guidance of an audiologist or other clinician. They used media as what Foucault called “technologies of the self” that help us bear the burdens of liberty, the requirement to be free of hindrances and limitations that a liberal society places upon us.

When you ask about methodological challenges, I think perhaps you are referring to my own struggle with tinnitus during my fieldwork, which I discuss in the book. Hush is based on my dissertation and shortly after my research proposal was approved by my Ph.D. committee, I accidentally overfilled a bicycle tire at a gas station and it burst right next to my left ear, leaving me with very loud tinnitus. I was quite upset by this and now I had to begin my fieldwork on the subject of tinnitus, interviewing people about it and thinking about it every day. It was really challenging and I found myself dealing with similar anxieties and depressive feelings as my interlocutors, which not only heightened my empathy for them, but also added a visceral, lived dimension to my analysis. It made me understand the intimate relationship between fear and control, the way that refusing to accept what wasn’t freely chosen only amplifies suffering and, conversely, the way that opening oneself up to sounds we didn’t choose can actually diminish our suffering. Truly, the only way I was able to stop suffering from tinnitus was to gradually accept that it was part of my body and my experience, whether I wanted it or not. In the end, my experience and study of tinnitus was the key to understanding the impetus for all orphic media and to formulating the critique that evaluating life only in terms of the freedom to choose actually instills more fear and suffering into life. Continue reading

Inmaculada García-Sánchez on her Annual Review article

Kids in the middle

Recognizing the important role of children as cultural translators

Originally published: https://www.knowablemagazine.org/article/society/2019/kids-middle

Linguistic anthropologist Inmaculada García-Sánchez of Temple University studies child language brokers. It’s a term that might evoke an image of kids in sharply pressed business suits, but these kids are brokers in the sense that they arrange and negotiate transactions or conversations on behalf of immigrant family members and other community adults because, often, they speak the dominant language better than their elders.

Their work as language interpreters in their communities is key in business transactions, civic engagement, health care and even their own parent-teacher conferences, García-Sánchez has found. Writing in the Annual Review of Anthropology, she flips the idea that most of us have about children and caregiving. (García-Sánchez defines the term broadly as acting on the behalf of others.) In a discussion with Knowable, she says society should recognize that children are far from helpless and do more to care for others in their families and communities than we give them credit for. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Interview by Kendall Powell

Kendall Powell: Why should we pay attention to the caregiving that children do?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Giving care is a very complex process that involves many community members and resources — it is a community care network. As language interpreters, children are contributing to the smooth functioning of the institutions that serve their communities: banks, clinics, government agencies. The more we understand the role of children as caregivers and care facilitators, the better we’ll understand how caregiving truly works.

Kendall Powell: How did you get interested in studying children as translators?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: I’ve always been interested in multilingual communities, particularly immigrant communities that are undergoing rapid change linguistically and culturally. Children are at the forefront of those changes in their communities.

Child language brokering is not new — there are written accounts of children doing this in Canada and the US for their immigrant families in the late 1800s. But it has only received attention from anthropologists and sociologists since the 1990s.

There was this idea that children come by translation naturally, largely by mimicking adults.  But language translation is very complex — it contains linguistic and emotional complexity, and it involves managing everyone’s point of view. Sometimes the child is acting as an agent of an institution such as a health clinic, which adds the need to navigate the organization and a layer of social complexity. It’s not simply a natural-born thing!

Translation is really just the tip of the iceberg because it is the visible part. Children are also helping their parents compose emails or double-checking invoices for the family business.

Kendall Powell: How does child language brokering work?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: In immigrant communities, there are never enough official translators. So immigrants rely on an informal network of community members who are willing to do the interpreting. And children are playing a central role in that work.

“The idea that children are ‘helpless’ is quite modern, arriving around the time of the Industrial Revolution.”

Generally starting around age 8 or 9, children negotiate, mediate and translate for their families and other adults and for the institutions or services those adults interact with. This is something that hearing children of deaf parents also do.

Kendall Powell: How do children do this if they are also new arrivals?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: It’s a combination of factors. The rate of language acquisition in young children is going to outpace the parent — especially if they are immersed in the new language through school. It’s also important to note the availability of children. Adults in the community might be working two or three jobs, or they work three shifts of a job, so they are less available for translating help.

Kendall Powell: Isn’t that too much responsibility to put on a kid’s shoulders?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Everybody everywhere in the world recognizes that children are young, dependent and require a lot of help. But in post-industrial Western nations, we’ve sort of overdone this a bit. The idea that children are “helpless” is quite modern, arriving around the time of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle-class, nuclear family. In reality, the abilities of children, and what they should be allowed to do, varies across cultures and over time. For example, even in my mother’s generation in Spain, it was much more common for older siblings and child neighbors to do sibling or peer babysitting than it is today.

In modern times, families have become increasingly child-centric, with the idea that children shouldn’t be allowed to give care. It’s important, too, to note that the childhood that has become normalized is that of white, middle-class people. People tend to think of this “normal” childhood as what is natural and healthy. This is why they immediately characterize any work done by children as “unhealthy” and become outraged by it. But our “normal” childhood right now in the early twenty-first century isn’t necessarily better or healthier or leading to better outcomes than other types of childhood experiences.

Kendall Powell: Where is the line between what children should and should not do as caregivers, then?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: There is tension between children’s vulnerability and children’s competency as social actors. Both are very real. But for me, it’s a huge problem when child language brokering and other childhood experiences are pathologized. Yes, sometimes these situations are very extreme — such as a child translating between a parent and a doctor during an emergency. In my own studies, I have observed that in most high-stakes, stressful situations, adults recognized that child language brokering was not appropriate and they waited for an adult neighbor to help if they could.

But the vast majority of child language brokering is much more mundane and low-stakes. The child might help an adult order a pizza or fill out a permission slip for a field trip. Also, it is never just the child in these interactions, but rather a “performance team” that involves at least two adults along with the child. In my work studying child language brokering in Moroccan immigrants in Spain, I attended medical visits in which the doctor and the immigrant parent or family member followed along in the conversation and helped the child. Each person brings expertise to the team — the child knows the mainstream language, the doctor has medical knowledge, the immigrant adult has real-world knowledge.

Kendall Powell: Is child language brokering treated like any other household chore by immigrant families?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Yes! There is a lot of negotiation about this within families, just like telling your kid to mow the lawn. Some kids do it willingly and for others, it’s a huge battle. I find in my research that parents get upset when kids don’t want to do child language brokering. It is considered a contribution and seen as a larger responsibility toward the household that is good for the child’s development.

Kendall Powell: Do other positive things come from children doing child language brokering?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Shu-Sha Angie Guan, a developmental psychologist at California State University, Northridge, studied first- and second-generation immigrant college students who had done child language brokering as children. She found that the more brokering for parents that students had done, the better they developed transcultural perspectives, and students who performed more brokering for people other than parents had higher levels of empathy.

In my Moroccan immigrant study in Spain, one of the things that surprised me was how the children would do very tiny modifications in their translations in relation to racial stereotypes or misrepresentations of the Moroccan community’s culture. In one example in a pediatrician’s office, a Moroccan mother referred to spanking one of her children. The nine-year-old neighbor translated that the mother had merely reprimanded the child verbally. The children were aware of the widely circulated negative stereotypes and were inserting themselves to act as advocates and protecting their community from unwanted scrutiny. To me, children’s competency at reading the politics of the situation is mind-blowing.

Kendall Powell: What other surprises do you find with child language brokering?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: With Marjorie Orellana of UCLA, I studied Latino immigrant children in the US who were translating at their own parent-teacher conferences. There was an assumption that the kids would lie to make themselves look good in front of their parents.

But what we found was jarring. Every time I look at that data, I feel like crying. Not only were children not lying or making themselves look good, but all the praise that teachers were throwing their way was going untranslated. So parents were actually getting a worse report.

Kendall Powell: Why was that?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: One hypothesis is that children know that tooting your own horn is kind of narcissistic. So perhaps they were embarrassed to toot their own horn even via translation. Also, it could be that children pick up on the structure of teachers’ language — that teachers often use praise to soften the bad news part of the conference. Maybe they were just skipping to the meat, thinking, “The important part is that I’m doing poorly in social studies, not that I get along with my friends.”

Kendall Powell: You call children “active and competent caregivers.” What other types of care work are they doing?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: In my own research, I’ve seen that children care for each other all the time. They are usually very inclusive — we adults could learn from them. In immigrant peer networks, I’ve seen children organize games in such a way that it doesn’t matter if you just arrived in the new country or what your level of linguistic ability is. I observed children alternating songs for jumping rope between Spanish and Moroccan Arabic so that all could join in.

Kendall Powell: Does doing work like child language brokering make children more successful adults?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: I have not studied long-term outcomes, but I can tell you that when I’ve interviewed children about doing child language brokering, they feel good about working, accomplished and relaxed. They are also developing a sense of autonomy, initiative and empowerment — which ironically, are the things we all want our children to develop.

Jennifer Robertson on her new book, Robo sapiens japanicus

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520283206/robo-sapiens-japanicus

Interview by Daniel White

Daniel White: In addition to the variety of topics you have explored in Japan over your career, you have been researching and writing on robotics for more than a decade now. Given your work has long been noted not only for its archival rigor and ethnographic attention to detail but also for its accessibility, could you outline how you might describe this book’s main arguments to an audience full of the many roboticists you have spoken with over the years? Would you add anything else in addressing your anthropology colleagues once the interlocutors had left the room?

 Jennifer Robertson: My address to roboticists would be the same with or without anthropologists in the room, for the reasons that my book is aimed at a broad readership inside and outside of “the academy,” and that—at the risk of appearing immodest—all parties, roboticists and anthropologists included, could benefit from my observations. A key point I make several times in Robo sapiens japanicus (RSJ) is that roboticists and anthropologists researching robotics alike must guard against contributing to hyping gee-whiz robots and to exaggerating the virtues (and vices) of artificial intelligence. With perhaps the exception of iRobot’s Roomba and industrial robots already installed in factories, most robots aimed at non-military consumers are one-off prototypes and not viable, much less reliable, products. Amazing robot videos are heavily edited and speeded up, and the scenarios do not represent real-world conditions and applications.

Just this past month, articles and editorials have appeared in leading robotics journals that provide a reality check for roboticists. To summarize: overselling robot capabilities has proved to be a dangerous strategy resulting in the very recent shutting down of a number of companies whose robots were celebrated in the past several years as revolutionary household appliances. Jibo—Time magazine’s “Best Inventions of 2017”—mentioned in my book, was crowd funded on Indiegogo (for nearly $4 million) but the eponymous company never delivered their product and closed out this year. Roboticists (and, I might add, those who research, study, and write about robots) need to admit their failures and to reflect on how to learn from them.

 Daniel White: In the book you explore how “robots tend to both mirror and embody state and corporate ideologies and priorities” (p. 82). Can you discuss some of the ways these state ideologies contribute to the gendering of robots, especially considering how Japanese roboticists have long embraced theories and design strategies that explore intelligence as a necessarily embodied phenomenon?

 Jennifer Robertson: You’re asking two different questions: state/corporate ideologies and embodied intelligence. First of all, we should not assume that technology per se is liberating; technology can provide certain freedoms, but it can also be experienced as repressive and even alarming. Technology and robotics are not neutral fields. They are infused with values that transcend their usefulness and convenience. Because robots are very complex, very expensive machines, state and corporate funding is crucial for their development, and thus robots tend both to mirror and to embody state and corporate values, ideologies, and priorities which are conservative and tend to reinforce the status quo. As a sidebar note—robotics in the US is heavily supported by the Department of Defense, and today in Japan, robotics are incorporated into the lucrative weapons economy.

Embodied intelligence, as I elaborate in my book, refers to a dynamic coupling of a robot with its environment. Home/personal robots are envisioned as co-existing with humans in spaces designed for the human body, thus they should resemble humans. Among roboticists across national/cultural areas, there is a consensus that intelligence (however that is defined, and there are many working definitions) cannot exist in an abstract form but requires a material body. That material body is almost always gendered, and the gendering of robots is contingent upon what role the robot (humanoid, in this case) is imagined to assume. Since many human roles are gendered, and since most roboticists take for granted the sexual and gendered division of labor—females as homemakers occupying a domestic space, males as breadwinners occupying a public space—their robots are also gendered from the start at the design stage. In short, roboticists (the vast majority of whom are males who have neither taken classes in gender studies nor questioned the social construction of gender) inscribe and reinforce in their creations the binary sexual and gender(ed) status quo that remains for them self-evident. Even gender-neutral robots like Roomba tend to be named and gendered by their owners.

 Daniel White: You survey a number of ways that both robotics engineers and government officials imagine harmonious futures of people living intimately with robots, a notion that strikes some people both inside and outside Japan as somewhat creepy. However, particularly in your analysis of Masahiro Mori’s famous notion of the “uncanny valley,” you suggest that people exhibit a capacity to adapt rather quickly to any “eerie” feelings they may initially feel toward a robot. Can you say more about Mori’s concept and what your reading of its temporal dimensions implies for the politics of human-robot interactions in Japan and perhaps beyond?

 Jennifer Robertson: As I explain in RSJ, what is uncanny about the “uncanny valley” is how this idea has been misunderstood! Mori came up with the idea of bukimi no tani (“eerie-feeling valley”) in 1970 before the production of humanoids. In a nutshell, he proposed that a woman (he deliberately chose a female protagonist) who shook someone’s hand not knowing it was a life-like myoelectric prosthetic, would scream and freak out once she realized that what she assumed was flesh and blood was not. Mori drew a graph that hypothesized as a “valley” the shock of realizing that something one was convinced was an ordinary human was actually an animated mannequin. Subsequently, “uncanny valley” emerged as a condition to avoid in designing robots and was also appropriated by literary critics who grafted the concept onto Freud’s thesis of the uncanny (about which Mori knew nothing). As I argue, even if said woman screamed upon squeezing a prosthetic hand, she would quickly recover—in seconds. We humans encounter differently-abled, “differently” appearing bodies all the time, and quickly adapt to an enhanced “normal.” Perhaps ironically, Mori, who was a teenager during WW2, seems to have forgotten the disabled veterans in his midst, many of whom were fitted with prosthetic limbs. The literature debunking the earlier “natural law”-like acceptance of the uncanny valley hypothesis is now quite extensive.

Daniel White: In the text you skillfully weave together histories of technology, the life sciences, and art in illustrating how the boundaries between artificial and “natural” life in Japan are differently drawn. For example, in your discussion of the biologist Makoto Nishimura’s famous “proto-robot” Gakutensoku in 1928, you suggest that many scientists in Japan have long held the attitude that robots and humans exist “in a network of animate entities” (p. 13). This point seems critical to your broader discussion on how cutting-edge technologies can actually serve in the reproduction of tradition. I wonder, then, what happens to this particular cultural attitude as it comes into contact with certain globalizing aspects of robotics research and design in Japan, especially as researchers in Japan increasingly collaborate with students and researchers from abroad?

 Jennifer Robertson: Should “something” happen? The spiritual/existential orientations of individual roboticists, from Shintō’s animism and Buddhism’s moral system, to the Abrahamic monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, do not seem to affect the ways in which they collaborate in the laboratory. What inhibit “global” intersections and synergies are the constraints imposed by, to use an ever relevant phrase, the military industrial complex (aka the state). Moreover, collaboration with non-Japanese researchers (in Japanese and foreign laboratories) can yield innovations that can be applied and adapted to Japan-specific conditions and needs.

 Daniel White: Your ethnographic writing style has been incredibly consistent over the years, characterized, as you describe, by a “reticulate aesthetics” that is “eclectic, genre-crossing, discipline-crossing,” and held together by a coherence that “comes from the interlaced elements and not via the superimposition of a particular theoretical edifice” (p. 31). Given your own training in art and art history, as well as your illustration of how roboticists integrate artistic elements from manga, anime, and theater into their own design practices, were you ever tempted to experiment in terms of ethnographic design, such as by incorporating some of your own artwork? Could you discuss what role you see for artistic experimentation in today’s practices of ethnographic writing and the communication of anthropological research?  

 Jennifer Robertson: I see myself as creative in identifying and demonstrating montage-like linkages that generate a new awareness or interpretation of events and socio-cultural phenomena. That I am able to do so is because I have accessed and amassed over decades of rigorous, interdisciplinary research, lots of ethnographic, historical, literary, image-based, and musical data and media that are instrumental in crafting comprehensive backstories and generating manifold “dots” to connect. Among these data and media are artworks that evocatively address and redress the role(s) of technology in society. Thus, in RSJ, I refer to the work of Japanese feminist artist Miwa Yanagi (specifically, her photography series Elevator Girls, 1994-1999) and Korean-American artist Nam June Paik’s Robot K-456 (1964-1982). I do not simply include artworks as self-evident or as mere illustrations, but as a non-textual mode of interrogating, in this case, social applications of robotics and human-robot interactions. I did include one of my own collages in a recent article (“Looking Ahead by Going Back.” Anthropology News website, July 18, 2018) to illustrate Prime Minister Abe’s imagination of the future Japanese extended family, including its robot members. The bottom line for me (or my “approach”) is my fiduciary responsibilities as a scholar. I have always initiated a research project based on my experience or fathoming of rhetorical, expressive, local dynamics that intersect in ways to form distinctive patterns which inform the structure and content of a book or article. I do believe that there is a lot more that anthropologists can do to experiment with various literary strategies in crafting their ethnographies to create more dimensionality and texture in their description and (re)presentation of local phenomena. These include montage—my own use of which was informed by John Dos Passos, whose U.S.A. trilogy (1938) I read while writing my doctoral dissertation—as well as various typefaces and fonts, popular lyrics, and a variety of images from which information is extracted, to name a few. Reading more literature and less social science is critical in learning how to craft an ethnography!

 Jennifer Robertson is Professor of Anthropology and the History of Art at the University of Michigan. Robo sapiens japanicus is available from the University of California Press.