Anthropology and Advertising

by Susan Lepselter

Image result for whopper virgins

I remember once going to a mall with a fellow graduate student in anthropology. It was early on, perhaps our second semester. My friend moved slowly through the department store, her eyes wide, her head turning slowly at the display of commodities. Everything had been denaturalized by our studies. The goods were an uncanny materialization of all the theory we were newly steeped in.  She picked up a lipstick and stared at it.  Use value dissolved in the air around us. Another friend made a bumper sticker for her beat up car: Reification is capitalism’s master trope. We all loved how the bumper sticker reified that sentence.

How does a thing come to life and become “transcendent,” as Marx put it, through exchange? For anthropologists, studying the social, affective and imaginative life of commodities can involve examining how people feel about the things they buy, how we value them, use them in unexpected ways, represent them, and identify with them.  Advertisers study similar public practices, feelings and ideas about the things they market. For Marx, of course, the “mystical” aspect of the commodity fetish came from how it reified the social relations of labor.  Today, it is difficult to think about a commodity without considering the life with which advertisers imbue it.

Many advertising agencies think of ethnography as an improvement over less nuanced approaches to market research.  The goals, politics, ethical concerns and commitments of the two endeavors differ. But the agencies still track a common thread: the comparative interpretation of places, people, markets, often with a colonizing echo.

Because I am interested in the affective and imaginative life of objects, I became curious about the connections between anthropology and advertising. It’s a connection that is consciously developed in the advertising industry. The industry uses tropes of ethnography, culture, difference and social context as it creates venues for commodities to enter public consciousness. You could look at the relationship between anthropology and advertising from multiple perspectives, from cultural critique to the pragmatic need to help anthropology majors envision jobs in that business. For this post, I first critically read an ad that performs an idea of cross-cultural exchange; and then I interview Jenny, an anthropologist in advertising, to understand how her industry thinks about the commodity in relation to culture.

“Cultures” and “markets” are everywhere conflated in the neoliberal world; advertising can bring that conflation to the surface of things.  Of course, anthropologists have been talking about the entangled histories of colonialism and ethnographic representation since Writing Culture rattled things up in 1986.  But we don’t always notice how discourses about culture and representation have shifted and taken up other forms in other contexts.

Take the “Whopper Virgins” campaign for Burger King, which featured a long advertising project involving cross-cultural travel to an exotic place and a subsequent story about it. Representatives from the agency (Crispin Porter and Bogusky) traveled to three geographically remote areas around the world – rural areas of Romania, Thailand and Greenland – to meet people they narrate as pre-contact, and to film the encounter.  But “pre- contact” here referred specifically to the local unfamiliarity with fast food hamburgers, The Whopper and the Big Mac.

In these three places framed as outside the modern global grid, potential consumers were considered to be pure: “virgins” who were still innocent to the taste of McDonalds and Burger King, (and therefore ultimately able to pronounce the inherent superiority of the client’s product, the Whopper. )The story of this ad expressed a dream that far transcended sales. Here taste could just be returned to the original biological sense, the natural sensing palate, stripped of habitus. The tasters were still “virgins.”

The trope of virgin land waiting to be penetrated by civilizers has circulated since at least the 1600s; of course, the idea of virgin land ignores the presence of indigenous populations and denies the land as an already-realized place. In centuries of European imagery, virginal female land is depicted as ripe for planting, fertilizing, becoming fruitful.  In the Whopper Virgins project, the older colonization narrative of conquering land merged into the story of discovering and conquering a new market.  In the ad, these locals are depicted as friendly, reciprocal, and wearing traditional clothing; they don’t know how to hold the burger, they sniff at it suspiciously, laugh, and then hesitantly take a bite. Here, an exotic innocence renews the malaise of civilization.  And so within the conceit of this story, all of these different specific places become a single place, the place of virgins, the place where one can still find authenticity, a fountain of taste. The desire for consumable difference flows through the commercial, the longing for a cultural purity that can be both apprehended in its otherness and incorporated into sameness, desired as a virgin and then deflowered.

Image result for whopper virgins

The Whopper Virgins campaign is unusual, for an ad, in this mission to a faraway place. Most campaigns play on deepening, expanding and elaborating the commodity-laden familiar—the thoughts, practices and desires of people at home. When ad agencies adapt anthropological methods to the goals of their research, they think about and theorize what culture might be.  Their references to anthropology are explicit. One agency website quotes an anthropology major who is now an ad executive: We all have to study people and know who they are, what they want and why they want it. The key is research. And when we research, that’s anthropology at its finest.

What is the structure of this connection in practical terms? I begin to approach this question by speaking with another anthropologist who has made a career in the industry. (She has asked not to use her real name; I will call her Jenny.)

After earning her PhD in anthropology and teaching for a few years a visiting professor, Jenny applied for a position that an ad agency had posted on the American Anthropological Association careers site. She sketched a brief trajectory of how the industry has changed its structure over the years to incorporate a more nuanced, interpretive understanding of culture and consumption based in part on anthropology. Once, she says, ad agencies divided their work between “account people” and “creatives.”  The account people, she explained, are oriented towards the client:

“They are Roger on Mad Men; they go golfing and drink martinis with the client – traditionally,  [like on Mad Men] that’s their image. Now it’s mountain biking and Burning Man.

“The creatives write the script and make the work. They work in teams: an art director and a copywriter. They are allowed to be unwashed, up all night, eating granola bars in the agency—making stuff. “

In the past, Jenny says, these two divisions, the “account people” and the “creatives,” comprised the agency.

“The account people would find out the assignment from the client and tell the creatives, who had to write the ad. But then –the world changed.”

Now there is a third division, people who do a specific kind of research to orient the agency’s creative work towards culture. Depending on the agency they are called planners or strategists.  The planners (as I will call them here) are not simply market researchers.  Market researchers did not interpret the latent cultural meanings of their findings; they relied on the literal, the face-value data gathered in brief focus groups and surveys. But planners don’t rely on what Jenny calls the “verbatim” messages of market data. Rather the planners research social forces and meanings that contradict or transcend the explicit answers people might supply on a form. When there’s a difference between what people say they want and what they actually buy, the planners step into that gap.  They call this dissonance “tension,” and use the contradiction to make unlikely, surprising, attention-getting and artful ads – for example, this one that does not deny, but rather intensifies, people’s anxieties about the corrosive effects of cell phones on attention and human relationships.

Jenny said, “The creatives used to hate the market researchers, who would represent the consumers. The creatives just wanted to make cool stuff. But the market researchers added this other element:” [They went beyond “let’s make a cool ad”] to ‘What do moms want?’ “

Sometimes, they found, what “moms want” contradicted not just the consumers’ explicit answers but also the creatives’ ideas, the artful conceit they wanted to execute.  And often, too, the market researchers’ data revealed other contradictions internal to the data itself: “when things test terribly but people actually love it,” Jenny said. It wasn’t enough to just create an ad strategy based on people’s explicit answers. There were what she calls “latent meanings,” positioned by broader cultural trends, which demanded that survey answers read and interpreted in its social context, on a larger scale. “When you talk to people and take their verbatim answers it leads to stupid work,” Jenny said.

“People  [interviewed after a movie] say things like ‘I wish there was no villain and it could all be princesses.’ But of course they don’t really want to go to a movie like that.” The wish to erase the villain was about something else. Traditional market researchers relied on literal survey answers, which told them more about what consumers thought they should want but not what they would actually consume.

Current planning and strategizing always looks for side angles and perspectives on their material. “A woman on the survey said she would never eat a burger because she’s on a diet. That’s what she says—but then of course she would eat it.” The strategists explore that tension. Tension refers to what she again calls “latent cultural feeling.”

“You look at what people say they do not like about the product. Say, a mini-van. People say they don’t like it; that [not liking it] is not just about the car but the end of your sexy life and beginning of your being a suburban mom. Not just ‘what is the style of the car and does it have heated seats or not.’  (A campaign that tried to exploit this specific tension with irony backfired when Brooke Shields was hired to deadpan that people were having babies in order to make use of the Volkswagen’s German engineering.)

This interest in latent cultural feeling is why Jenny’s first agency tried specifically to hire an anthropologist. “The ad I answered (posted by the AAA) said they did not want anyone from the advertising world or the business world.” Concepts from anthropology get sewn into the fabric of ad strategies. She explains: “So take for example an idea of the gift, or reciprocity, from anthropology. A gift is not a gift only, it is enmeshed in a world of practices. We in anthropology think that’s obvious—but the business world thinks that’s quite a shocker.” She laughed. “You come and tell the agency: you know what, if you give someone a gift card and they can buy themselves what they want it doesn’t work as a thoughtful gift.”

“Business people,” Jenny said, “understand use value, and they understand badging. ‘Badging’ is [the process of] saying something about you. You want to save the environment and wear Tom’s shoes. If you carry an expensive [Hermes] birkin bag you are showing you are really rich – or that some man loves you a lot. Old fashioned luxury. They want us to show what things mean.

“Anthropology has always known that there is a coherent system, a link between, say your religion and what you buy. This was novel for business thinkers, because they thought of things separately, normally.” The business perspective is not necessarily attuned to the meanings of commodities, she says, but on how “they can measure the success [of the campaign]. From a cultural perspective it’s harder to measure the success except how attitudes shift.

“The way you’re taught to think in anthropology is helpful in business, because they don’t see it that [systemic] way, they are inside it, and they don’t realize how the world is changing. For example, take the secret shame people feel in sitting on the couch and watching TV. Now, instead there is a premium on getting lots done at once.

“Thinking that way is the biggest advantage that business people see in having an anthropology background,” Jenny said.

And sometimes, they focus on the global, comparative focus of anthropology. “I would get emails that said “tell me the anthropology of gum” and you can look at practices all over the world like qat in Yemen, or the betel nut. You can look at chewing as a practice comparatively. Those are fun questions.

“If you don’t want a career only looking at one thing, this lets you. And if you write a brief a certain way to go after what, for example, people are ashamed of, you can change things.”

Our conversations have made me more constantly conscious of my own — and everyone’s — part in constructing the symbolic domain of commodities. The meaning of the ad, like the meaning of any utterance, emerges through the dense histories of both the addressor and the addressee. The commodified object, that “very queer thing” concealing human relationships in the labor that made it, comes alive on both sides of the ad.

Links to Recent Blogposts about Trump’s Locker Room Talk

For those of you who are thinking about discussing the leaked video of Trump which he is labeling “locker room talk”, here are two good blogposts to spark discussion:

Deborah Cameron discusses why the fact that this is locker room talk is precisely the problem:


Ben Zimmer discusses how media outlets are handling the profanity in their stories:


Omar Victor Diop’s Project Diaspora: Self Portraits at Indiana University


*Image – Omar Victor Diop, Frederick Douglass, 2015, Inkjet print on Hahnemuhle paper, Courtesy of the MAGNIN-A Gallery   Consider four digital reenactments of significant portraits, a Moroccan Man, Frederick Douglass, Portrait of Citizen Jean-Baptiste Belley, and Juan de Pareja. … Continue reading

Elizabeth Keating on her new book, Words Matter

Words Matter: Communicating Effectively in the New Global Office by [Keating, Elizabeth, Jarvenpaa, Sirkka L.]

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Since the book is written for a general audience, could you say a little about how you would explain the book to linguistic and media anthropologists who are considering using this in a class, and want to know what it is about.

For teachers of linguistic anthropology concerned with having an impact on students’ understanding of language and culture, especially beyond the classroom, this book links the classroom with the paid work world. Concepts and methods in linguistic anthropology are highly relevant to job skills. For one thing, there is understanding how local one’s own communication habits and expectations of others are. For another, understanding how communication really works builds better skills to repair misunderstandings. This book rather unabashedly makes a connection between learning about linguistic anthropology and becoming a more flexible, interested cross cultural communicator. One of the main points in the book is that because of technology, many people are working in virtual teams, or virtually with colleagues in other places. This results in little face-to-face time, or time to hang out and learn about others’ habits, preferences, and life stories. There’s little environmental context. Without the ability or time to learn from each other, there is a role for linguistic anthropology principles to play in generating understandings. I’m thinking of general principles like how people do things with words, that meaning is negotiated, social roles, socialization, the workings of convention in meaning, common ground and context, etc. In the book there are examples taken from engineers’ workdays, engineers trying to design things together in virtual teams, while living and working in four different continents.

The value in the classroom is the application of linguistic anthropology concepts to the engineers’ struggles with their inadequate communication model.  The book proposes a better communication model based on linguistic anthropology. We discuss how culture affects language use, with examples from the engineers and from other researchers’ work. To take a simple example, if the students have never thought about differences in question asking behavior—that it might not be felt to be appropriate in a certain group to ask a question (or only appropriate for the boss to be asking questions)– they could have unpleasant surprises at work if they assume that an absence of questions means everything is understood.

In most linguistic anthropology and media classes, students are preparing for many different types of careers, some in similar settings to the engineers. It’s useful to have a way to link linguistic anthropology to students’ desire to prepare themselves for work after university. When my co-author asked one of her graduate business research assistants to read the draft book manuscript, he said afterwards that he didn’t think he should be paid, since he learned so much. Another reader from the business world said he finally understood the reason behind his colleague’s “exasperating” behavior of not asking questions.


How do you think your focus on engineers in particular shaped your ethnographic exploration of cross-cultural communication?

The focus on engineers shaped our engagement with cross cultural communication in several ways. The first group of engineers we studied in Houston were suspicious of the situation thrust on them by management—that they had to work with a group of engineers across the globe who had unfamiliar habits and approaches. The engineers in Houston were already under a lot of pressure to build a state of the art energy plant under time, budget, safety, and environmental constraints. Working with engineers in another part of the world made their job even more challenging, because they had to work with them in a virtual sense, that is, they couldn’t sit side by side or cubicle to cubicle; they couldn’t see what was going on (puzzled expressions or problem sequences) and participate in so-called informal learning. The engineers they were suddenly working with were in a country where man hours were cheap and materials had always been expensive and scarce (so much so that in former times the engineers in that country could go to prison for using too much steel, they told us). But the Houston engineers lived in a country where it was the reverse: materials were cheap and people expensive. Imagine these two groups designing an energy plant together. One group is assuming a design requiring many maintenance operators, and one requiring as few operators as possible. How to become aware of the other’s habitual ways of thinking before too many hours of design work are done? There were also differences in how you show someone you respect them (by saving time or by spending time?) Although technology was making these work collaborations possible, technology was also a handicap to the engineers being able to learn about each other. This affected how we approached the topic of cross cultural communication. The space of collaboration, the technological interface of computer screens and phone sets, was uniformly absent of distinct cultural cues.

When we looked, through a linguistic anthropologist’s research-based view of language and meaning, at their attempts to better communicate, it was clear that their communication model was faulty. They professed the familiar conduit model of communication. They tried to fix problems by being “more clear and direct.”  We focused on: How could the engineers approach their collaboration with a view of language, not principally as a conduit for information, but as a tool with many other capabilities?


Could you say a little about the experience of writing with someone from a business school? I know of many collaborations between anthropologists and scholars from other disciplines, but this may be the first I have come across of an anthropologist authoring with someone from a business school who is not also an anthropologist (since business schools sometimes show remarkably good taste and hire anthropologists). And I am curious about how this shaped some of the challenges of writing a book together.

This is a great question.  First let me say that I gained a lot in the process. My colleague is not a specialist on language, but rather on virtual teams and management. Her focus is on how people can most efficiently achieve short and long term goals in a business profitability and creativity sense. She was focused on the practitioner aspect at all times, and fairly uninterested in the minutiae of language dear to a linguistic anthropologist’s trade. The authority of our findings in the book had to depend more on assertions linked to prior language research rather than relying on discovering the findings through a very detailed data analysis of the engineers’ conversations and documents.

My business colleague continually reminded me that business practitioners have minimal time to read added material, and they operate in the “three power point slide” framework. After experimenting with different ways to join business and linguistic anthropology goals, we decided to use the engineers as actors in the narrative to keep the content focused on situations likely to be familiar to a reader, or situations that a reader has already experienced and been frustrated by. We created the phrase “Communication Plus” (for communication plus culture) to convey to the reader that they already have a great deal of knowledge about communication in their own culture, but they have to add knowledge about culture’s influence on communication.

It was necessary to take a prescriptive stance in the book in order to justify a practitioner’s time spent invested in reading the book. A lot of the engineers we worked with read poetry and appreciate literature and social science, but they also appreciate getting expertise in a manner they can immediately use. Business authors have no problem being prescriptive. My co-author would have been happier if the book was very short, with very short paragraphs. I felt it was necessary to have as much material about language and anthropology as possible. I am happy to say that over the course of the time writing together, my business colleague became convinced of the power of the close analysis of transcriptions of conversation, in this case conference call meetings. I became more aware of the pressures on people to perform in the constantly changing, globalized work world. Cross-disciplinary research and writing requires extra investment in time for the authors, managing differences and gaining some knowledge of the other author’s vocabulary, research goals, validation standards, methods, even what counts as a ‘finding’ or what’s cool. Similar to the engineers, we were both frustrated with each other’s practices and habits of thinking at times.


Are there insights you had about the interactions you observed that you were unable to write about because it would require too much specialized knowledge on the part of your readers to explain the ideas adequately?

I was not able to write about indexicality in a way that showed the importance of the concept and its ubiquity in communicative encounters. It’s a very abstract term that most people haven’t encountered before. I found that Garfinkel’s notion of ritual status degradation was very useful in analyzing what many of the engineers complained constantly about (feeling treated as non-humans by others due to the symbolic expression of respect taking a different form). Although Garfinkel meant something grander like pulling down the statue of Lenin or politically motivated imprisonment, the notion of ritual status degradation gets at the great seriousness of “small” slights like problems with greeting rituals among the engineers. No salutations in emails provoked surprising anger.

Similarly, I found that Goffman’s notion of “spoiling” identity was a useful way to analyze problems I saw the engineers experience when they disagreed about what the “right” (“good engineering”) design was, conflicts that became intractable because “wrong” was just different or unfamiliar. Writing about ritual status degradation and the spoiling of identity didn’t work well in the book, though. What worked better was a discussion about cultural differences in theories of the person (ideas about personhood that explain differences in things like greeting patterns and why the wrong pattern can be so offensive). It worked well to discuss the idea of language as action (looking beyond content of utterance and the referential function of language). I would have liked to bring more conversation analysis principles into the book.


Since the 1980s, anthropology has had a vexed relationship with the culture concept – often to the surprise of people outside of anthropological circles. In this book you talk about culture and cultural misunderstandings without any caveats, and I am hoping you can say a little about your embrace of culture as a strategic decision or intellectual commitment.

I’ll illustrate some of the problems you are alluding to with an anecdote which addresses your question. My co-author and I were working on an article for an engineering journal, before we began the book. She said, “okay, we have to define culture.” I stared at her, incredulous. Isn’t this the honorable work of still generations to come?, I thought. Isn’t this misdiagnosing the solution to our ignorance? She didn’t see the problem, not having been a party to the discussions anthropologists have about this (discussions as you say “to the surprise of people outside of anthropological circles”). The engineering journal reviewers also insisted on a definition, as part of their editorial job of questioning our scope. I got inspiration from Duranti’s and Keesing’s discussions about culture, and we added reference citations for Schein of MIT’s work on organizational culture,  Foucault’s work on institutions, Wolf, Bourdieu, Bateson, Parsons, Kuper, Lave, Garfinkel, and Henrietta Moore’s piece on concept-metaphors in anthropology.

A second anecdote concerns what happened each time we went to an engineering firm to introduce ourselves and get started collecting data. In the beginning of the project we were three, and we arrived on site together: a business professor, an engineering professor, and an anthropology professor. After the introductions, the engineers invariably focused all their attention on me (of course business and engineering were already quite familiar to them, but for those of us experiencing the recent assaults on the Liberal Arts, in demands for proof of our continued relevance, this was a great endorsement). The engineers said things like “yes, we really need to know about culture” and “we hope you can help us understand culture better.” They knew cultural misunderstandings were affecting their projects’ success and their job satisfaction. They had had some very frustrating and expensive experiences, but they didn’t know exactly how to learn from them. I would say my embrace of culture came from the engineers. There were particular aspects of culture more relevant to their situation, their situation being little if any face-to-face contact, lots of email correspondence (where requests and problems with responses to requests were frequent), group conference calls, expert-expert interactions, non-native English, and few, if any, shared work hours of the day. Some of these problems I’ve already mentioned. I found talking about identity an accessible way to discuss cultural influences on work collaborations. We tried to show how cultural practices that were annoying and threatened relationships (such as being too direct or being too indirect) had a moral basis. Not getting expected behaviors, as Garfinkel showed in his famous breaching experiments, results in people attributing malicious intent (people are held accountable). Being aware of the range of perspectives in human societies is a step to avoiding these ascriptions of harmful intent.

Talking on the scale of culture easily leads to overgeneralizations and oversimplifications and I’m sure they are in the book. We found that the engineers, and others we interviewed like them, have an appreciation for diversity and are aware of the inaccuracies and hardships that can stem from overgeneralization and overattribution. Embracing culture was the way I felt we could bring linguistic anthropology to a readership dealing with globalization.




Webb Keane on his new book, Ethical Life

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Imagine that you happen to be in a long line at the airport, and find yourself chatting with another academic, say a media scholar who studies Cuban television before and after the revolution.  How would you describe the ways your book might be useful to her?

Of course no one standing in line at the airport is talking to the people around them because they’re all absorbed in their personal devices.  But anyway, there are two ways to approach your question: first, as being about revolution, and second, as being about television.  Let’s take revolution first, and then turn to television (leaving aside the old question of whether the revolution will be televised).

Revolutions, like religious revivals and social reform movements, exemplify the fact that ethical life isn’t just about being in the flow of things or cultivating virtuous habits and embodied sensibilities.  People also have a fundamental capacity to stand apart from that flow, in highly self-conscious ways.  They can take what I call the third person stance toward ethical life.   Although this kind of stance is often associated with religious moralities, avowedly atheist revolutions show that one can cultivate a god’s eye view without God.   This is why the book devotes a chapter to the Vietnamese revolution.   Obviously all sorts of factors go into any given revolutionary movement, but Vietnamese history casts light on the distinctively ethical underpinnings of political commitment.   After all, why should urban literati like Ho Chi Minh (or, I could say to your Cuban media scholar, people from privileged backgrounds like Fidel or Che) have cared about socially distant peasants enough to deviate from their own comfortable pathways in life?   I argue that to understand Ho’s revolutionary project and its wide appeal in its early years, we have to grasp its sources in what are properly ethical concerns about harm and justice.   People like Ho could crystallize those ethical concerns as a principled and readily communicated political critique thanks to the availability of a third person perspective on their society.  From the early decades of the twentieth century, Marxist social theory and historical narratives, along with elements of Confucian and Catholic social thought, provided Vietnamese revolutionaries with a position from which the view their own world from the outside.   But that “god’s eye” position alone couldn’t make a revolution.  The Vietnamese revolutionaries understood the importance of what we call ordinary ethics, that is, the way that values like respect, dignity, social recognition, and equality are embedded in everyday habits and activities.   In light of the enormous economic , political, infrastructural, and military challenges the Vietnamese communists faced, it’s remarkable how much emphasis they placed on changing seemingly trivial norms of speech and other aspects of face-to-face interaction.  In this respect, they were trying (with greater or lesser success) to bring the third person stance to bear on the habitual and unself-conscious flow of first person experience and second person address.

As for television, like any medium, it is a vehicle for the circulation of objectifications—images, expressions, and narratives that retain some formal integrity beyond their original context.  These objectifications have historical consequences for ethical life.  They contribute to ethical self-consciousness of individuals, and the consolidation–and dissolution–of public norms more widely.   So one question to ask about television is how its impact differs from face-to-face interaction and other media like newspapers, radio, cell phones, the internet, and so forth.  What difference does it make that a given medium has the speed it does, or geographical reach, social scale, visual versus aural or tactile sensoria, one-way versus dialogic format, centralized control versus open access, the techniques of intimacy and alienation, and so forth?  These questions open up a huge set of empirical problems that extend well beyond the scope of my book.  But here are some of the distinctively ethical questions we might ask.  Your own work with teenagers has focused on one of them: is it okay to break up with someone by text message?   If not, why?  What ethical difference does it make whether your social actions are carried out in one medium or another?  If this is a question about the second person address of interaction, we can also move our attention outwards into more public and sociological scales.   Do certain media facilitate the third person stance or enhance first person subjectivity?  What difference does it make that a message is conveyed in verbally explicit form or implied by sonic or visual means?  Is it more ethically dubious to be swayed by the sound of someone’s voice than by the logic of their arguments or the authority of their institutional position?  Do certain media forms reinforce the monologic voice whereas others enable dialogism?  Television and social media notoriously escape the confines of context: what weight do we give to semiotic form and producers’ intentions when a supposedly neutral image enters a context where it’s deemed pornographic, racist, or blasphemous?  These aren’t just academic questions; they also worry teachers, parents, lovers, artists, political activists, censors, lawyers, and propagandists.  We know, for instance, that the easy transmission of sermons via cassette tapes played a critical role in fostering a new kind of public space in the run-up to the Iranian revolution.  And of course all sorts of claims have been made for the transformative effects of social media on the Arab Spring—not all of which have stood up well over time.  Is the form of a medium effective independent of its content?   Muslim preachers in Indonesia seem to think so when they hire mass media consultants from American Christian televangelists.

One of the key theoretical moves you make to fashion a more interdisciplinary conversation about ethics is expanding the notion of affordances.  Psychologists and media scholars have used this concept to discuss human interactions with the material world.  In your hands, affordances can belong to “anything at all that people can experience” because they “possess an indefinite number of combinations of properties.” (30)  Yet anchoring affordances in materiality provides a significant theoretical purchase – it has typically afforded a way to conceptualize limitations and resistances.  When a cloth can be torn but not made to radiate light, this is a way that matter matters.   In your framework, what is the grounding for resistances and limitations, for determining what is possible and impossible?

I expand on the notion of affordances by including people’s experiences of such things as emotions, cognitive biases, linguistic form, patterns of interaction, and social institutions.  But ultimately these are only available to experience because they have some material manifestation.  Although this may push the concept of affordance further than its more familiar uses, I think it’s consistent with them.

I’ve been seeking to develop a realist approach to anthropology that nonetheless retains the insights of the constructivist traditions in social thought and does not succumb to determinism.  The attraction of affordance lies in this.  It treats the components of the world as real, and as making certain things possible.  But it does not do so by claiming that the things of this world necessitate anything in particular (nor, for that matter, does the analysis depend on us claiming to have the “correct” depiction of that world).  One example I use, echoing something George Herbert Mead wrote long ago, is the chair.  A wooden chair affords sitting, but only if you’re of a certain size, shape, and flexibility.  So the affordances of the chair only exist relative to the capacities of someone who might take them up.  Moreover, the existence of chair doesn’t mean that you will sit.  You could use that chair to block a door, hold down papers, prop up an art work, hit someone over the head, burn to keep warm, hide behind, step on to reach something out of reach, or, for that matter, you could simply ignore it.  That is, affordances are summoned up in response to projects of some sort.   As new projects develop, hitherto unforeseen affordances will emerge into view.

Impossibilities have to be part of the story too: you could say that a chair will not enable you to fly.  But here’s a more relevant example in the book.  Humans cannot learn to speak a full-fledged language without first developing some cognitive capacity to infer other people’s intentions and otherwise work with what some psychologists call “Theory of Mind.”  You can’t even use first and second person pronouns unless you have a rudimentary grasp of the perspective on “I” that is momentarily granted by saying “you.”  This affords all sorts of things, including shame, prayer, novels, torture, games, and witchcraft.  It also casts doubt on certain strong claims about ethnographic difference—namely, that there are some societies where people really have no concept of interiority or intentions.   To make this claim is not to eliminate interesting differences among social realities.  Rather, it pushes us to examine them more closely, to ask, for instance, what is at stake for some societies that forcibly deny the intention-reading that they are, in fact, doing all the time.  I think there’s more ethnographically specific insight to be gained this way than by treating each cultural world as autonomous, the creation of its own heroic Promethean powers to create reality.  But this should not lead us back toward any of the familiar reductive forms of determinism.

In this book, you address the possibility that self-consciousness or reflexivity can be a necessary but not sufficient first step towards social change.  Sometimes self-awareness does not change social interactions, or only does so for a fleeting moment.  What do you think makes self-consciousness socially successful so that it shapes how others evaluate ethical behavior as well? 

This is a question about the role of ideas and values in the extremely complex social and political histories out of which they emerge and on which in turn they have their effects.  The extraordinary speed with which gay marriage has gone from being an easy political wedge issue to divide classes and regions in America to much wider acceptance than anyone expected is a fascinating case.  But I think it’s too soon for us to see clearly how this came about and what will follow.  We have more perspective on the abolition of North Atlantic slavery.  As historians have pointed out, in Britain the arguments against slavery were already well known in the seventeenth century and increasingly came to find acceptance over the course of the eighteenth.  But all sorts of other things had to happen for those ideas to induce the social changes that finally came about in the nineteenth century.  These include the great wave of popular evangelical Christianity, England’s political and economic competition with France and its ideological interest in distinguishing its moral superiority to a newly independent (and slave-owning) America, the emergence of working class identities that put pressure on the value of manual labor, and more.  These elements are heterogeneous and their conjunction is largely contingent.  So the history of ideas matters—they have to be available and they have to be plausible.  But ideas only become socially viable when all sorts of other factors come together.  Ethical concepts, social institutions, political organizations, laws, technologies, economies, and so forth have quite different logics and temporalities, and are enmeshed in distinct kinds of causality.  Explicit ethical concepts help crystallize people’s intuitions and allow them to circulate in new ways (which takes us back to the issue of media raised in your first question) but they can’t tell the whole story alone.

Explicitness has such power for enabling shared agreements about what is ethical to travel across cultural contexts in your account.   I can’t help thinking however that we are currently in a stage of capitalism when the market is viewed as the ideal spontaneous order precisely because self-awareness is irrelevant to its functioning, when algorithms are viewed as idealized ordering mechanisms, but only because, in a sense, they are seen as circumventing explicitness.  What do you think of social orders that disavow explicitness, viewing explicitness as largely irrelevant for social interactions to function?

In this context, explicitness means being able to put an ethical stance into so many words: “the voting law is unjust” or “the Dean can be trusted to say what she means.”  You do this by drawing on the ethical vocabulary that’s available in a given social location and historical moment.  (By the way, this means that particular ways of being ethical are necessarily historical: As old ethical categories disappear and new ones come into existence so to do ways of being, or not being, ethical, and new ways for people to affirm or deny one another’s ways of being ethical.  Try as I may, it’s simply not possible for me to be a virtuous Athenian or a Confucian sage today.  An ethical vocabulary is not just a set of labels for ideas or values that are already there, waiting to be named.)  What some philosophers have called “morality systems” try to stabilize ethics by codifying it.  But explicitness is just one moment in the ongoing dialectics of objectification and subjectification.  It involves stepping into what I call the third person stance, taking a distance from the first person of experience and the second person of address to see oneself and others through generic categories.   It is a kind of self-distancing that induces particular forms of self-consciousness.  For this reason, explicitness has also been held in suspicion in various ethical regimes.   We can see this in certain styles of romanticism and mysticism which treat self-consciousness as a form of inauthenticity, and celebrate being in the flow of things.  It’s a recurrent issue:  some ancient Chinese philosophers also worried that any purposeful striving to be ethical would be nullified by that very effort.  Such regimes aim—paradoxically—to actively inculcate effortless, habitual ways of being ethical.   The goal is to live entirely in the first person, as it were.   But this can be only part of the story.  On the one hand, an ethics that wholly lacks the first person stance would be unsustainable—it would have not claim on anyone.  That’s part of my argument against utilitarianism, which insist one only look at things from the objective position of the third person stance.   It’s only from the first person stance that one can really care about ethics in a fully embodied and inhabitable way.  But to insist that ethics is only one or the other—either objectification or being-in-the-moment—is to deny the fundamental motility of human life.  People cannot remain entirely present in the first person, nor is it possible to sustain the third person stance only.  We are always in motion among them.   This motility isn’t a bug—it’s a feature.

So, to turn to the rest of your question, what about this period of capitalism?  We could say that neo-liberalism expresses an ideological reaction against the third person stance of the centralized nation-state, with its blueprints and planners.  Does this make it a-ethical?  Not necessarily.  After all, there is an ethics of autonomy there.  I call this an ethics because the autonomy expressed in neo-liberalism is sometimes treated as a value in itself, beyond any instrumental justification.  We may feel it’s based on false premises or has harmful consequences, but I think we should recognize that it makes ethical claims of a sort.  They’re just not necessarily ones I would accept.  However, although none of us as human beings can, or would want to, avoid ethical judgments, in our limited role as anthropologists we should not be in the business of making ethical pronouncements ex cathedra.  Having said that, neo-liberalism does deny or ignore something very basic to ethical life as I describe it in the book, the fact that people are thoroughly enmeshed with one another in very fundamental ways.  Any form of social organization that denies this and tries to treat them as wholly independent units is empirically mistaken and, let’s say, ethically compromised.

You imaginatively move a step beyond the insight that ethics is the challenging task of living alongside other people to argue that ethics at the core is about the challenging communicative task of living alongside other people when no one has telepathy.  That is, communication is profoundly at the heart of what it means in a given historical and cultural context to be ethical.  Say that you are as persuasive as I hope you will be.   What types of research projects should people explore beginning from this insight?

If people lack telepathy, then we have to take communication very seriously.  That means that every time we want to say something about experience, affect, concepts, values, intuitions, subjectivities, we should ask how they are mediated.  But communication isn’t a simple matter of transmission, getting a self-contained message from one head to another head.  For on thing, communication takes place over time, but, as I show in my chapters on social interaction, it always loops back on itself, opening messages to revision, reframing, denial, anticipation, dissemination, and so forth.  Moreover, mediation isn’t just an empty vehicle.  It is always embodied in semiotic forms (words, images, actual bodies, spaces, places, rituals, institutional procedures, and so forth).  Semiotic forms are never entirely purpose-built—as Derrida remarked long ago, “the engineer is a myth.”  As a result, they bring with them their contingent histories, they face causal constraints and give rise to unintended consequences well beyond anyone’s communicative purposes, and they possess affordances that can point their users in unexpected new directions.

It follows that research should be very attentive to the formal and material properties of our evidence.  So much contemporary ethnography tends to be literal-minded.  And far too much of it is based on interviews.   So the first point is just to take semiotic mediation seriously.   Partly this just means paying close attention the form and not just content of communication.  In addition, it means attending to materiality, to both the qualities of media and the causal networks they’re involved in.   If you were researching the internet, for instance, you might ask both about the body’s relationship to movement viewed on a flat screen and about the infrastructure that makes that relationship possible (cyber-utopians never seem to talk about how we pay the monthly smart phone bills or the environmental costs of powering Google’s servers).   So rather than suggest new research topics, we might look at the research we are already embarked on from new angles, asking what are the constraints on people’s projects, the distinctively ethical affordances and unintended consequences to which their semiotic media can give rise?

I would pay particular attention to the interplay between what gets made explicit and what remains unsaid, either because it’s too obvious to say, too ordinary to notice, or is simply impossible to put into words.   In looking at social change, for instance, what’s the relationship between those who are articulate and passionate, on one hand, and those who are silent and indifferent, on the other?  Are the voices we hear most clearly always where the action’s at?  When they are, is this because of what they say, who’s saying it, or how they say it?  In my book, I look briefly at feminist consciousness-raising during its radical moment, in the early 1970s, before it became absorbed into mainstream therapeutic culture.  (As with my discussion of Vietnam, this example draws on the historical perspective that we lack when looking at current events).  What’s interesting is how these women, some of whom had been influenced by reading Maoism and Frankfurt School Marxism and by practical experiences in the Civil Rights movement, discovered the affordances of ordinary conversation.  Out of their conversations they created a new ethical and political vocabulary for experiences that had until then seemed idiosyncratic, pathological, or simply inchoate.  The result was what I call “historical objects,” values and concepts (sexual harassment, glass ceiling, control of one’s own body) and that can be pointed to, debated, circulated widely through the media, and institutionalized—or suppressed—in explicit norms and laws.  One could argue that new ways of being a person, of flourishing, and of identifying harm came into existence that simply did not exist before.   But history is full of projects that go nowhere: objectified values and concepts remain only theoretical unless they can enter into the flow of everyday life in some way.   To see how this pans out ethnographically requires careful attention to semiotic mediation

As the Vietnamese and feminist examples suggest, the interplay between the explicit and tacit, or the said and unsaid can be crucial to understanding how social movements pan out.  There’s a lot of ethnographic interest in these topics already but I would suggest that we need to pay special attention to the motility among first, second, and third person stances.  To repeat, the idealized third person stance—an ethics of pure principles—remains only notional unless it offers some concrete ways of being inhabitable.   But as soon as something becomes concrete—for instance new kinds of marriage, styles of child-rearing, acceptable means of making a living, or practices of ethical pedagogy– all sorts of unforeseen affordances are likely to become visible and unintended consequences likely to emerge, such as new kinds of semiotic transgression or performative failure.

Your cover is so striking, when I got the book I immediately flipped to see where the cover came from, only to discover it is one of your paintings.   Could you talk a bit about the story behind the cover – did you paint this piece intending it to be the cover?

Before entering academic life, I was an artist (I’ve never taken a college course in anthropology—maybe that’s why I’ve never grown tired of the subject).   That cover image is part of a series that I painted many years ago.  When I was finishing my second book, Christian Moderns, I decided I didn’t want to have a cover that would try to illustrate the book, both because that seemed too literal-minded, and because illustration covers often encourage certain readings of the book at the expense of others.   As it happens, an abstract painting that one of my old studio mates had given me was on the wall, and worked very well.  So for Ethical Life I thought I’d use another work by a friend.  However, none of the pieces I myself owned seemed to work.  But someone suggested I use my own painting.  The original is in blacks and greys, which seemed a bit too somber, so I invited the press to alter the color scheme.  Since my first books had been green and blue, I favored red, but that turned out to look a bit too much like bloody bandages.   At any rate, you’re welcome to read into the cover what you will!

Bodoh-Creed’s When Pfizer Met McDreamy

My dissertation is an examination of the role that medicine and media play in educating the American public. The research as a whole looks at four lines of media evidence including medical fictional and non-fictional television, pharmaceutical advertising, and internet health searches (also called cyberchondria). My page 99 sits squarely in the historical review of medical television, looking at the portrayal of physicians and medicine from shows in the 1960s like Ben Casey to the current spate of shows on the air now like the long running Grey’s Anatomy and House M.D.  Page 99 discussed the role of graphic medicine and realism that, while not unique to ER, was popularized by the show and it also demonstrates how physician writers cannibalize medical experiences of their own and those of colleagues around them.

[ER] thrived on intensity for the audience. The pacing was fast and the camera shots unique. In an Emmy Award winning episode of ER in the first season, titled “Love’s Labor Lost” a pregnant woman is featured having complications in the emergency room and an ER doc having to perform a caesarian section in haste. Of course chaos ensues and it is a very graphic, fast episode that was based on a real experience of a physician friend of one of the writers. (99)

Within my dissertation research, I want to stress the importance of the amount of access that I was able to obtain within medical television industry personnel. I spoke to actors, directors, executive producers, writers, physician writers and consultants, nurse advisors and consultants, product placement coordinators who organized medical equipment for set, special effects creators, and they all gave me some incredible insight into their world and also the changes in medical television over the last 50 years. The information from these key informants show the ways that physicians and nurses create the authentic medicine that is seen on screen.  They strive for accuracy as much as possible, knowing that audiences are paying attention to the jargon, the procedures, and the medical lessons of early detection, treatments, and life saving medications.

Jessica Bodoh-Creed, “When Pfizer Met McDreamy: A Classic American Love Story Between Medicine and the Media.” PhD diss, University of California, Riverside, 2013.

Dissertation available here:

Jessica Bodoh-Creed, Adjunct Faculty, California State University, Los Angeles, Department of Anthropology.



Tamar Kaneh-Shalit’s Positive Thinking Without a Smile

Page 99 of my dissertation provides a short glimpse of a key tension which characterizes Israeli Life Coaching as well as other projects of self-realization and therapeutic technologies. In a heading on page 99, I named this tension “from introspection to instruction” to describe coaches’ and trainees’ negotiations with the neoliberal and therapeutic notion of cultivating reflexivity and following the specific instructions of a professional authority. Scholars such as Michel Foucault, Nikolas Rose, James Faubion and others have extensively theorized how healers and experts of the soul exercise their power through the cultivation of their patients’ reflexivity. One of my contributions to this line of exploration is a focus on a local style of speech called dugri (direct speech) that entails a certain notion of caring and reshapes, in specific ways, the ethical dilemma between liberation and domination.

Dugri refers to utterances spoken in a blunt manner, as a form of criticism aimed at one’s interlocutor which symbolizes intimacy, authenticity, care, and courage. In short, dugri speakers speak their minds in a straightforward manner that is sometimes even intentionally aggressive. The logic behind dugri is that only someone who truly cares about their interlocutors will put him/herself at risk by expressing an unpopular critical view (Katriel 1986). Accordingly, this also means that smiling politely and avoiding confrontation is seen as inauthentic and careless.

The prevalence of dugri style of speech among Israeli life coaches, which encompasses making concrete assertions and determining what is right and wrong for a specific trainee, undercuts some global therapeutic notions which favor self-reflection and self-realization over such local professional calculations. In my dissertation I show how Israeli coaches and their trainees negotiate these two discourses – the global and local – as well as these two types of caring, in their effort to balance between focusing on the trainee’s abilities to be reflexive and centering around the coach’s expression of his/her authenticity as well as expert knowledge and power.

Dugri is idiosyncratically Israeli. But could such styles also be found in other cultures? Recently I had a chance to view the new Netflix documentary about the famous American life coach Anthony Robbins titled: “I am not your Guru” (which I highly recommend: Robbins very vividly demonstrates an aggressive type of fearless speech, and I wonder – is it part of what renders coaching so popular in other places around the globe too? Are we witnessing the emergence of a new technology of selfhood which challenges the hegemony of a reflexive, psycho-therapeutic emotional style?



Katriel, Tamar

1986    Talking Straight: Dugri Speech in Israeli Sabra Culture: Cambridge University Press.


Tamar Kaneh-Shalit. 2015. Positive Thinking without a Smile: Self and Care in Israeli Life Coaching. Phd dissertation, University of Haifa.


Ben Peters on his new book, How Not to Network a Nation

How Not to Network a Nation

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Questions for Ben Peters

If you found yourself at a picnic with linguistic anthropologists, and one of them was sensible enough to bring tasty corn and seemed very interested when you mentioned briefly that you had written about the history of thwarted Soviet attempts to develop the internet, how would you explain your book?

Hey ling anth friends, please pass the corn!

(Between messy bites) I think my interest in the Soviet internet story owes a sideways debt to the fact I’m from deep corn country, USA. Coming from a small college town in the Midwest licenses one not only to know their corn (delicious!) but to appreciate life removed from the urban centers of global action. This appreciation once struck me as a 20-year-old service volunteer living in a small city called Balakovo along the Volga river in the post-industrial rust belt of Russia. There I realized not all “middle of nowheres” are similar (Ian Frazier’s delightful and meditative masterpieces The Great Plains  and Travels in Siberia make this point). In addition to the earnest people, the agricultural base, and scenic landscape I was used to back in Iowa, Balakovo, a former secret Soviet city, had decaying military-industrial factories for the cosmonaut industries, an enormous hydroelectric dam, a line of nuclear reactors looming on the horizon, and much else. Where did this outsized industrial infrastructure come from?  I remember wondering on the edge of an enormous dammed reservoir: who first thought it a good idea to plan so much electrical power in out-of-the-way Balakovo, and why?

(Holding up half-eaten corn cob) I have since recognized that the big ag corn industry in the US—and perhaps even all advanced modernity in its debt to large institutions—participates in the basic question behind the Soviet internet book: why do some institutions organize our lives and others not?  Why, in particular, wasn’t there a Soviet internet? Given its failure was neither inevitable nor natural, what was the story of the Soviet scientists and leaders that planned to network the nation with computers anyway? Who were these cyberneticists?   What did they want when they started to imagine  networking the planned economy with computers in an ambitious project called the All-State Automated System ( or OGAS for short)? And why, despite thirty years of attempts at the height of the cold war tech race, did this outsized informational network infrastructure for the Soviet people not take root?

(Hint: my answers are not censorship cultures, technological backwardness, or inefficient hierarchical states.)

Throughout the book, you explain that while many cyberneticists modeled their national network projects after the human mind, the projects were quite different, in part because how they understood this metaphor varied so much. Could you explain some of the differences?

(Sets corn cob down in order to focus.) Sure thing. There are many brain-computer metaphors—and none of them are right. I think the twentieth-century pedestaled the wrong image of the ideal computing processor: the ideal computing processor is not the human brain. (Moreover this towering intellectual hubris—or what brains think about themselves—builds naturally on a troubling early modern vaulting of western individualism.) Cybernetics, after World War II, enabled strong neural-computer network analogies to be at work in Warren McCulloch’s influence on Paul Baran’s distributed network design at RAND, in Stafford Beer’s influence on Allende’s Cybersyn network in Chile, and in (as I detail in the book) Viktor Glushkov’s influence on the OGAS Project in the Soviet Union. Each had different consequences in different places: to put it in a nutshell, the ARPANET designers imagined their nation as a single distributed brain of users, while the OGAS Project designers (not entirely unlike Beer in Chile) imagined their network as a nervous system for layering onto their nation as an economic industrial body of workers, with the state as the brain. To suggest that the first American computer network was modeled after an imagination of a national brain and the Soviet networks were after a national body not only rehearses the mid-century emerging information and industrial cold war economic differences—but it also obscures the on-the-ground story of both. I suspect linguist anthropologists have much to teach me here in particular: I think the biggest difference lies not in the metaphors but in the distance between all those brain-computer metaphors and the embodied practices of building and institutionalizing computer networks. No national network projects resemble the human mind in practice.

Economists and economic cybernetics play a much larger role in the book that I imagined when I first started reading. It left me wondering: what kind of dilemmas do economists have to solve when they don’t presume that the market is the best way to distribute goods and determine value?

They stump up against some of the hardest dilemmas I know. In all semiotic-material discourse (of which the economy is of course just one mode), every evaluation is also an executable fabrication that itself acts on other evaluations. And among the resulting chains of operations, in which there are many dilemmas, the ones that matter most in this book do not fall along the cold war economic liberal language of private markets versus public states. (Hannah Arendt, for example, nudges my conclusion to deconstruct and begin rebuilding network discourse beyond the tired cold war triumphalism around markets, liberty, and commerce.) As you note, I spend a couple chapters developing how economic relations did not work as planned in the Soviet context: continuous and partial reform among battling schools of thought, nonlinear command and control dynamics, informal power networks, vertical bargaining, and other sources of organizational dissonance. I dub all this, borrowing from McCulloch and David Stark’s language, “heterarchy.” In a heterarchy, every node is subject to competing regimes of evaluation and the resulting logics by which value is determined cannot be described or mapped onto simple two-dimensional models (markets, hierarchies, and so on). Perhaps our behavior can be mapped onto a higher order in n-dimensional spaces, suggests McCulloch, or perhaps not at all. How we determine value is a complex measure of how modern humans interact, and indeed how any actor responds to contradictory demands (do I write, prepare for class, go for a walk, or have another piece of corn?) reveals more than our negotiated compromises to that contradiction.

Back to the Soviet case: it is no surprising revelation that the on-the-ground practical relations for determining and planning values in the Soviet planned economy did not function as they promised to on paper. Still, this mundane fact had consequences in at least two directions: it frustrated the rationalizing impulses of technocratic economic reform attempts such as the OGAS Project. It also ensured that economic bureaucracies could actively resist reforms because they were free to pursue their institutional self-interest in the status quo. The Soviet network story is thus an uneasy mix of technological genius and futuristic foresight leavened with mutinous ministries and institutional infighting. Or, to restate the book hook, while the US ARPANET took shape thanks to state funding and collaborative research environments, the Soviet contemporary projects broke against the rock of unregulated competition among self-interested institutions and bureaucrats. The first global computer networks took shape thanks to cooperative capitalists, not competitive socialists.

As your story unfolds about why the Soviets never developed a national computer network, another deep irony emerges – that a system built around centralization consistently over time ended up undercutting any possibility of a centralized computer network.   You suggest that this is a story about the tensions between belief and practice, between a system that was touted as a centralized and well-regulated bureaucracy and in practice a complicated mixture of differently structured hierarchies. Could you discuss the tensions between Soviet centralization and Soviet bureaucratic fiefdoms that lie behind your history of non-events?

That’s a beautiful question central to the project—one that I’d like to tweak in two ways as a way of responding.

First, commonplace understanding of the Soviet state as centralized and well-regulated is empirically wrong. Let’s think instead of the Soviet state as trying to turn a complex field of decentralized fiefdoms into a single field of decentralized fiefdoms. Even the Politburo rarely endorsed totalizing centralization, and certainly none of the Soviet network projects in the book call for fully centralized networks. With the exception of one short-lived radial network proposal, all of the proposed Soviet network projects between 1959 and 1989 interestingly resemble decentralized pyramids (just like the official economic plan at the time).

These network still recognized a central command in Moscow while also permitting real-time remote access between any two authorized nodes on the national network. This is a key corrective (especially in light of the romance of flat organizational networks in the west): in both principle and practice, the Soviet Union was not too top-down or rigidly hierarchical.  And in administrative practice, it was too messy and pernicious.

Second, the book is a negative history of real events, not a hypothetical history of non-events (although it does color the vision of a futuristic electronic socialism that never was). The reason I think this re-characterization matters is because I am openly interested in helping normalize the study of failed projects among scholars of human relations, complex institutions, media studies, and their adjunct interests.

Or as the book puts it,

contingent histories also help focus public debate better than do popular histories of technology that parade about hackers, geniuses, and geeks marching to the Whiggish beats of technological progress. In negative histories failures, even epic breakdowns, are normal. Astonishing genius, imaginative foresight, and peerless technical wizardry are not enough to change the world. This is one of the lessons of the OGAS experience. Its story places the conventional concepts of technological successes and failures on the wobbly foundations of the accidents of history. The historical record is a cemetery overgrown in short-lived technological futures: stepping of its beaten paths leads us to slow down and take stock before we rush to crown the next generation of technologists as agents of change. (197)

Perhaps the hard moral of the story is this: no one sensitive to the suffering all around us cannot want to reform the world for the better. Yet, in the multivariable calculus of social reform, the only thing more certain than our desire to change the world (and media and language are among those ways) is to admit that there is no guarantee that any given effort ever will.

This is a beautifully written book about bureaucracy, one in which you even manage to make a bureaucratic meeting, and the fact that two people happened to be absent, suspenseful. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your writing strategies for making compelling some topics that at first glance might seem like good insomniac aids. How do you make bureaucracy and its genres compelling?

(Setting down now finished corn cob.) Thanks! That means a lot. Writing is one of my favorite demons. Bureaucracy, because it (like computing programming) is made out of writing that is meant to be executed but never really read, often deadens its observers to the real fertility and force of the written word. Perhaps students and scholars of mind-numbingly dull technical systems should indulge in great stylists in English and other languages as temporary antidotes against the occupational hazard that is prose pollution. Outside of my own awe for language (which I take up more directly in my brand new edited volume Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture, which Princeton published last week on the 40th anniversary of Raymond Williams’ Keywords), I don’t have any sure-fire strategies, although the normal ones will probably do: I recommend reading voraciously and strategically, slavishly imitating and scrupulously doubting the masters, writing for the smart and interested eighth grader, and then rewriting with an ear tuned to the cadence of language. Of course I rarely manage to pull all that off, but it’s a good thing to try and a better thing to have sympathetic readers to share it with.

Thanks for the picnic!

Benjamin Peters is the author of How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet  (MIT 2016) and editor of Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture (Princeton 2016). He is assistant professor of  Communication at the University of Tulsa and an affiliated faculty at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Work site: Tweet at him @bjpeters.


Jordan Kraemer’s Mobile Berlin

“It was only during the springtime seasonal harvest of white asparagus (Spargel) that the connection became more apparent between regional, eastern, and national German identities.”

In my work on the growing popularity of social and mobile media among urban, middle class Europeans in Berlin (Penn Press, forthcoming), it might seem ironic that page 99 of the dissertation treats not media or digital technology or even transnational connection, but Spargelzeit, the springtime season of white asparagus, beloved by many in Germany and northern Europe. The chapter connects (or attempts to connect) weekly shared Spargel meals among a circle of friends from eastern Germany living in Berlin to ways of being and feeling German affectively, and links affective forms of selfhood to the territorial scale of the nation. National affect, in this sense, rather than discursive identification, offers insight into a surprising finding about media practices, that some young Germans and other Europeans oriented toward transnational connections on social media read national newspapers as part of their daily online routine, after checking email and Facebook.

Yet from another angle, page 99 encapsulates the central themes wending through the manuscript, reconsidering media and place in terms of scalemaking, that is, how the local, national, or global are constructed as geographic levels through media practice. Through this approach, I argue that national selfhood is better understood not as a shift in geographic scope, from regional or provincial identities to national (or post-national) ones, but in the nature of selfhood itself, in which subjectivity became linked to the territorial order of the nation-state:

“In Berlin, eating Spargel together linked regional Saxony-Anhalt and eastern German identities to ways of being and feeling German with consequences for how belonging at the national scale was experienced and understood, online and offline.”

This fractal-like embedding of the broader analytic in a single page (while perhaps typical of a book-length project) calls to mind Joe Dumit’s “Implosion Project” exercise (Dumit 2014). Take any object, or idea or topic, and unpack all the dense connections, histories, and associations that you know about it (and don’t know), and you find, to paraphrase, how the world is in it and it’s in the world. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that an ethnographic moment seemingly unrelated to my broader questions is in fact closely entwined with them.

Joseph Dumit. 2014. “Writing the Implosion: Teaching the World One Thing at a Time.” Cultural Anthropology 29(2): 344–362.


Jordan Kraemer. 2012. “Mobile Berlin: Social Media and the New Europe.” PhD dissertation, University of California, Irvine.

Nicholas Mizer’s The Greatest Unreality

With The Greatest Unreality I set out to develop a better understanding of how players of tabletop role-playing games create, explore, and maintain shared imagined worlds. To accomplish that, I went to seven locations around the United States, got to know gamers, interviewed them, and recorded their game sessions. Throughout the entire process I made it a goal to try to consider as much of the experience of imagined worlds as possible, not shorthanding them as fictions but instead trying to describe how those worlds present themselves to players. Page 99 of my dissertation finds me right in the thick of one of the stranger places that led me: an ethnographic account of Nabonidus IV, the imagined world I encountered in Denton, Texas through a player named Liz Larsen:

In an inversion of the history of colonialism in our world, the natives of the “New World” of Nabonidus IV possess highly advanced technology relative to the Azure colonists. These natives, known as The Bleem, live in the asteroids surrounding the unnamed aqueous planet. To them, Nabonidus IV is a remote outpost, potentially useful for mining. Not long before the Azure People arrived, however, a large Bleem ship came under attack from an unknown source, marooning the survivors on the small asteroid. In appearance the Bleem resemble bipedal lorises reimagined by Jim Henson. Although Liz offered the Bleem as a potential character choice, basing their class on the dwarves of D&D, all players instead chose to play Azure People. This placed the Bleem firmly in the “other” category, and although the colonists had some contact with the Bleem before the beginning of the campaign, when the players met them in the third session the scene had all the markings of a first encounter, complete with cultural misunderstandings.  

Although Liz had offered some general descriptions of the Bleem in the first two sessions, these details were not tied down by the players and shifted in their particulars until the characters approached the camp. The idea of kinetic expressiveness as central to their communication, however, remained consistent throughout. In early descriptions, the Bleem communicated primarily through complex facial expressions, but in the third session Liz offers a more detailed bit of color and diction:

They have some sort of flowy garments made out of like silken [pause] silken strands. Some sort of, vegetation [unclear] like imagine like if you, um, like wove [pause] spider silk into these long flowing sort of like banners and- and streamers that kind of come off of their necklaces and beads and stuff. And they kind of float around them in a [pause] way that wouldn’t really mimic Earth gravity. Um. As they move. Um. [pause] And, um, they blend in well with the terrain of the asteroid. They’re very dark and smoky colored. With like burgundy and auburn patches on their fur. Their fur’s not really made of fur, but it’s- it’s more like a- like a very thin fine quill. So they can stand it all out like a sea urchin or let it lay flat at will. You know, kind of like a- like very obvious movement. So they can kind of puff up.

Although the page doesn’t really give a sense of broader thematic points, I’m actually quite happy with how it represents the whole. Ethnography, especially the phenomenological sort of ethnography I attempt in The Greatest Unreality, depends on particulars. In the introduction, I say that “I am less concerned with what must happen or even what usually happens than with what did happen and how those it happened to make sense of it.” The way the Bleem move matters, because it happened. In our conversations about the imagined worlds of gaming Liz described the ambience of color, song, and choice diction as providing a medium that could connect the imagined world with our own, quite literally bringing that world into our own. In that process, our own world, the imagined world, and those that experience it enter into a dynamic of mutual shaping. Page 99 of my dissertation, if it’s successful, demonstrates that as ethnographers we are also exploring, creating, and connecting worlds through the use of ambience.

Nicholas Mizer, 2015. The Greatest Unreality: Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Experience of Imagined Worlds. Ph.d. dissertation, Texas A& M.