Birgit Meyer on her new book, Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity

Interview by Yeon-Ju Bae

Given that Ghanaian video movies provide audiovisual experiences of what the Ghanaian audience might have imagined, for example, occult forces, Satan, God, modern life styles, and so on, I was curious in the first part of the book why the visual modality seems to be more emphasized in terms of “imagination, image, and imagery”, whereas audio is more briefly mentioned. In reading chapter 3, I realized that attention to the aural modality alerts us to backchannel cues that the audience produces in watching and participating in video movies. I think this interactive and co-creative process across video technology and human viewers, and across visual and aural modalities, composes one of the important features in the Ghanaian video experience. In this sense, I wonder how you would situate the audience’s aural participation among the processes of “imagination” and “sensation”.

Thank you. You raise a very interesting point. Some readers of my book have pointed out – rightfully so – that I pay too little attention to the sound dimension of these movies. The issue, of course, is not to just say more about sound, but to reflect on the sound-image relation. In the passage in Chapter 3 to which you refer I argue that the low quality of the sound compels audiences to co-produce their own sound track. This, as you observed very well, is a central dimension of the genesis of the typical video experience. So here poor sound facilitates high level interaction of audiences with the moving images. A technical deficiency allows for higher participation! But certainly more can (and should) be said about the sound-image relation in the video experience. Sound is imperfect, but not absent. In watching movies, people look and listen (and speak, sing, shout) all at the same time. There is no neat separation between visual, aural and other modalities. They intersect in various ways. In writing the book, I used the terms audience and spectators with a critical awareness that the emphasis on the aural in the former and on the visual in the latter ideally should imply each other. The lack of a single term to describe the entanglement of the aural and the visual (let alone other sense perceptions) in film reception testifies to the difficulty of developing a thoroughly multi-sensorial approach to cinema. Maybe the term “spectaudience” might be a solution? I think that in order to critique and transcend the visual bias that is still dominant in the study of cinema and film, it may be worthwhile to think further about the work of Michel Chion, who has proposed a distinction between “visualized sound” (that is, sound the source of which is visible to viewers) and “acousmatic sound” (that is, sound the source of which remains hidden). The latter accounts for the evocation of a sense of suspense. It would be interesting to think through his distinction with regard to Ghanaian movies, where sound tends to be deficient and people make up for this lack. This would require audiovisual recordings of film shows. Alas I do not have such materials, I only have audio recordings.

The same problem of an over-determination of the visual arises with regard to approaches to the imagination, imaginaries and images. In my book, which is about the interface of film and Christianity, I explore the question how movies feed into and are fed by what people imagine, how their imagination is synchronized and how this yields shared sensations and common sense. In the Introduction I wrote: “… the ‘stuff’ to which imaginaries refer is not limited to pictures and other visual items. It is the imagination, as a visualizing faculty that – not unlike a film – represents all this ‘stuff’ as mental images.” I agree with your observation that “the visual modality seems to be more emphasized” than the aural. I do think that film and the imagination are visual by definition. However, the point is that visual does not stand by itself, but is coupled with sound, smell, taste and touch. Exactly for this reason I sought to embed the imagination into a broader frame of sensation. Fleshing out an approach to the imagination, imaginaries and images that is not limited to visual registers but opens up for speaking or singing images, smelling images, sounding images, and so on, is a major conceptual issue that deserves much more attention. I think that Hans Belting’s anthropology of images, which has inspired my sensorial and material stance to the imagination as outlined in the Introduction, may be a useful starting point to conceptualize the imagination from a new thoroughly material and sensorial angle. This is one of the theoretical projects I would like to pursue in the future. Especially for the study of religion this is an important topic. From the ways in which audiences in Southern Ghana responded to the images and often deficient sounds they witnessed on screen I learned that going to the movies was an experience in which imagination and sensation converged. So much so that the films are understood to reveal something real which is normally hidden to ordinary perception.


It was intriguing for me to encounter the folk notion of public that seems to be closely related to their notion of ethics. It seems like Ghanaian people don’t regard rumors and hearsay as “public” even though these discourses are circulating. However, if those rumors and hearsay are framed in terms of the Christian ethics in which retribution adequately takes place, then the stories involving occult, violence, and sex become “publicized” via video movie forms. Within video movies as well, if there is a scene in which actors show their intimate/private body parts, their behavior is often associated with immorality in terms of the plot flow and protagonist characteristics. I’m wondering if the Ghanaian notion of public as morality is drawn from Christianity or is rooted in Ghanaian traditions. Put in other way, how do different religions or different ethnic groups in Ghana exhibit different understandings of the relationship between public and ethics?

What I wanted to make clear is that video movies flourished under conditions of democratization and the deregulation of mass media as radio, television and film that had previously been under full state control. The change occurred around 1994. The point here is that, prior to that change, stories and rumors circulated, but were not allowed a space in the mass media around which the modern public sphere evolved. Scholars studied such narratives and performances as popular culture. After 1994, videos became one of the new outlets through which popular imaginaries that had circulated before under more clandestine conditions would become visible and audible on screen. Hitherto subdued narratives circulating via rumors could go public in the context of a new politics and aesthetic of representation of culture. What I found very interesting – and here we come to the gist of your question – is the strong emphasis on ethics. So, while as far as content and message were concerned, video movies digressed from state-cinema, they were still embedded in a longstanding ethical attitude towards film according to which moral lessons were to be learned. This attitude is certainly not limited to Christianity, but emphasized in indigenous traditions, especially in traditional storytelling, as for example Ananse stories. And even though video movies revel in picturing all sorts of transgressions, the “good” people are morally sound (and hence do not undress, consult a “fetish” priest, and so on). In this book I showed how approaches to video-movies on the part of both the producers and the “spectaudiences” are embedded in everyday or “ordinary ethics” (Michael Lambek). Since I could notice that the movies appealed to people with different ethnic backgrounds, I am sure that the expectation of the morality of entertainment is widely shared. Over the next years I will conduct a collaborative project with colleagues in Ghana in the course of which we will investigate modalities of co-existence across religious and ethnic differences in the suburb of Madina (Accra). The issue of public ethics and the morality of circulating cultural forms will certainly be a major issue.


When I read your interview with a woman who paid attention to video movie scenes in which characters of the upper class are matching the color of curtains and bed sheets depending on situation, I wondered if she were a man, would the interviewee have paid so much attention to such details. This interview excerpt brings up issues of how social differences map onto experiences of watching movies. Are there any patterns in terms of audiences’ reactions or focuses depending on gender, age, class, language, region, religion, ethnicity, and so forth? I think the class (as well as language and age) differences were described in the book. What about region—are the movies circulated in rural villages as well; if so, do the ways of watching videos in villages show any difference from those of urbanites? And are there any reactional patterns in reference to multireligious and multiethnic situations in Ghana?

The movies I studied were consciously tailored to appeal to women first, who would then make the male members of the household watch as well. This is what my filmmaker friends told me over and over again. A film that would fail to do so was doomed to flop, and this would end the business of filmmaking. The women who admired the match between curtains and bed sheets was a seamstress called Floxy who had a big atelier. She unfortunately died in childbirth not long after our interview. As she told me, she got phone-calls from her female customers when a film (often Nigerian) was on in order to copy a particular appealing dress. So she, and her customers had a keen eye and great appreciation for the new styles displayed in movies. By contrast, I myself did initially not look at movies in this manner, but was eager to discern meanings. This is what I realized in the interview with Floxy. She alerted me to a modality of looking which I had so far overlooked. Scouting for styles is one of the ways through which movie watching is embedded in everyday life. It is indeed the case that what people find remarkable in a movie very much depends on their interests and dispositions. My research mainly took place in Ghana’s capital Accra, and to some extent among Ghanaians in the Netherlands. These are multi-ethnic settings which are predominantly Christian. Unfortunately I did not accompany screenings of videos in the rural areas. Nor did I study the Kumasi film industry which uses Twi as main language (rather than English). It would have been interesting to follow the circulation and screening of Accra- and Kumasi made films in villages and across the borders of neighboring countries in detail. Alas I did not do so. And now, with the spread of television and the mobile phone and its increasing use for film viewing the days of screening movies in villages to paying audiences are a matter of the past. All the same, I do not think that the identity markers you mention are reflected in particular watching patterns. The movies are made to travel across Ghana, Africa and among people of African descent in the world. Together with Nigerian movies, they are consumed all over the continent. I would rather say that these movies actively disseminate particular images, styles and attitudes about African tradition and the modern world. They articulate visions, desires, dreams, anxieties, life styles and identities. They make people share imaginaries and sensations. They are part of performing African modernity.


You said that the “sensational forms” of Ghanaian video movies give rise to “religious real”, and I was wondering for whom it is real. It seems like the representation of reality must be considered within the context of authority at various levels. For instance, video movie directors are facing criticism from censorship officers that they are not representing what is reality; traditional chiefs think that the directors cannot accurately visualize the spiritual forces, or juju, because these are not visualizable in the first place; those viewers who know English might find protagonists’ speech artificial; directors are concerned that it might seem unrealistic to the upper class if movies depict hyper-urban lives that aren’t present in Ghana—which the lower class wants to see in the movies; and during filming, actors are acting to visualize what is invisible and inaudible in a way that they themselves don’t believe it to be real. Given that you vividly show how various representations of reality are contested, I’m curious about your thoughts in using the terms “real” and “revelation”.

Yes, this is an important issue. What is taken as real is not given, but subject to authorization processes. Competing politics and aesthetics of world-making co-exist. This is so in all cultures and societies. In Ghana the video-film industry was situated in a context of heavy contestations, as it digressed from established forms of representing culture and tradition under the aegis of state cinema. Video-movies rather surfed along with the popularity of Pentecostalism, which purports a specific take on reality as being enveloped in a spiritual war whose main operators are located in the invisible world of demons. In Southern Ghana, there was and is a broad consensus, running across differentiations in terms of ethnicity, age and education, that the spiritual is real. The video movies that form the major focus of my book echoed and affirmed this consensus. This does not mean that movies were taken to be credible under all conditions and by everyone. Even sympathetic viewers would find certain depictions more convincing than others, and dismissed others as artificial. Still one main attraction point lay in the fact that video movies transfigured stories about occult forces that were circulating in society into movies. They set out to reveal the invisible realm which the naked eye cannot penetrate. In chapter 5 I argue (inspired by the work of Achille Mbembe) that one could see video filmmakers as high priests of the imagination, who create doubles of the “real thing” that is hidden from view but whose features enter into the double. Images are not mere representations, but make what they represent somehow present. At the same time, any attempt to depict the invisible generates contestations, as is the case with the chief who also was a photographer and who insisted that the real thing could not be visualized. So, interestingly, the picturing of the invisible is a paradoxical endeavor, in that the images that reveal the “religious real” (the term was coined by Adrian Hermann) on screen may well conceal it at the same time. At the same time, and you refer to this, actors can only play the role of a witch or the devil, if they do not believe that in so doing they have to become a real witch or devil. And yet, there is a sense of danger of being affected by mimesis, reason why actors recur to prayer so as to protect themselves from being intruded by the role. There were also anxieties that, in filming certain scenes which involve occult forces, these forces could be called upon to inhabit the fake shrines and possess people staging a dance or doing incantations for the sake of shooting a movie. What I wanted to show is that video-movies are embedded in processes of world-making in which what is real is constituted through revelations that rely on authorized Christian visual regimes, but are always haunted by a sense of the ultimate impossibility of revelation. We encounter here a fundamental feature of the image: it acts as a medium of something which is not present as such. The image itself – as a medium – is real, but the question is whether that what it represents is taken as real too, or simply as fake. So I use the term “real” not in an objective or positivistic sense, but as an outcome of politics and aesthetics of figuration that are tied to broader, competing imaginaries. Revelation is a way of vesting the act of representation with a sense of truth, and a confirmation of a “Christian real”. I think that this fact that what is considered real depends on processes of producing something as real and authorizing it is a basic feature of societies, as for instance the current insecurity about the possibility of news being “fake” also shows.


The Ghanaian video movie producers started to emerge thanks to the development of video technology, yet have recently been out of business due to changes in available alternatives for audiences which include films on the internet. In a sense that Ghanaian video movies are deeply concerned not only with religious “sensational forms” and moral lessons, but also with the social life of video technologies, I wonder how the video movie directors have experimented with technological resources and limitations. And I wonder what new experiments the directors are attempting to conduct in order to compete with other alternatives in this current changed situation. Moreover, will these new creative ways of “mediation” bring about any emergent themes or values?

My research ended in 2010 and I circumscribe it as a historical ethnography. Since 2010 I have only followed the industry from some distance. In chapter 1, I trace the implications of the shift from analog to digital video, and show that this technological transition offered new opportunities for newcomers. Most of the filmmakers I followed since the early 1990s are not doing well. In 2010 some sought to remain in the business by opting for another kind of transgressive revelation: mild porn. This generated a moral outcry among the audiences (although these films, just as porn, sold to some extent). It is a difficult situation for them to survive, certainly as there are no film funds and no easily accessible loans. One reason for the problems filmmakers face is that there are non-stop older films shown on various TV channels. Also an Youtube a huge amount of Nigerian and Ghanaian movies is available for free. Nowadays it is difficult to launch a new film and make sufficient money via VCD and DVD sales to earn back the investment. Piracy is lurking. Still new producers are around. My friends in Ghana told me that watching movies on television is still a very much a social affair. People watch together in the family. In long distance busses movies are shown, too. And also in pubs. I also noted that increasingly movies are available digitally and watched on mobile phones. Lindiwe Dovey has documented this shift in African screen media very well. I have not conducted research on this new phase myself. It would be great to take this up. Maybe you want to go into this?

Colin Halverson “Individualized: an ethnography of translation in a genomics clinic”

I spent about twenty months in a genetics clinic in the urban American Midwest. I shadowed genetic counselors, worked in medical ethics, observed in the laboratories, and attended case conferences and board meetings. I also interned in Patient Education, where writers produce pamphlets on healthcare issues for patients from the general public. It is in one of my chapters that focus on this aspect of my fieldwork that page 99 falls. While Patient Education is more peripheral to my actual dissertation, the argument I develop on this page is in fact central to the monograph as a whole. My primary concern in undertaking the project was to examine how experts in a given field communicate complex information to others who lack the background knowledge to understand the information fully. Geneticists face this problem when talking to patients, just as biologists struggle to explain scientific intricacies to clinicians.

Patient Education acts as a group of specialists who ‘simplify’ complex and jargon-riddled propositions into something they consider ‘readable’ for the ‘average’ patient. Such simplification, however, is not itself a simple process. Patient Education serves as a prime site to unravel the rich local theories of language-in-practice that dominate in the hospital. Page 99 of my dissertation lands in the middle of my demonstration of how these employees of the clinic understand specific verbiage’s effects on patients’ emotions and behaviors, and in turn patients’ acquiescence to the demands of prescribed healthcare regimens. Each of my chapters analyzes a mode of translation that occurs in the clinic, examining which (types of) qualities of an object are taken to be essential for the reproduction of ‘identity’ and which (types of) qualities are either unrecognized or considered contingent. Throughout the monograph, I analyze the various gene nomenclatures used by different types of clinicians and scientists, the graphic illustrations of genetic material, and the representations of the individual patient him- or herself, among other things. In the chapter in which page 99 stands, I discuss the debates clinicians and writers have over how successfully to ‘simplify’ expert concepts like cholangiocarcinoma and whole exome sequencing.

Halverson, Colin.  2016. “Individualized: an ethnography of translation in a genomics clinic.” Phd dissertation. University of Chicago.


Erin Debenport on her new book, Fixing the Books: Secrecy, Literacy, and Perfectibilty in Indigenous New Mexico

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Interview by Shannon Ward

You identified commonalities in the processes of creating the San Ramon dictionary and pedagogical texts, as well as in the speech genres and cultural practices they encode.  For example, both texts are continually refined, or “perfected,” through editing meant to closely control the circulation of knowledge about certain linguistic and cultural practices. Also, both texts contain chronotopes that link authoritative knowledge about the past to present community issues and the potential future implications of cultural and linguistic loss or revival.  How do these features of the texts intersect with other socialization strategies practiced informally within families or among community members? That is, how does the use of these texts fit into broader language and cultural socialization within San Ramon?

The most visible socialization strategies that connect to ideas about perfectibility at San Ramon were approaches to childrearing and the associated transmission of knowledge. Although outside the focus of the book, I noticed that caregivers—both men and women, parents, non-parents, adults, and teenagers—felt comfortable “correcting” children, telling them to be respectful, to listen, or simply stop what they were doing if they were misbehaving. This connects to the idea that the responsibility for the transmission of knowledge is shared among all community members. Related to this, adults would often correct or comment on behavior even when the child was performing a task correctly or behaving themselves.  Once I heard a Head Start teacher say, “That’s the way, Amber. You don’t go messing up the play area when you spend time there,” almost keeping the master/apprentice “channel” open between teacher and child. A new way that texts are figuring into broader patterns of language and cultural socialization at San Ramon and the other Pueblos is through the use of Facebook. When posting about community events or commenting on tribal policies, I have noticed that the past is often invoked in this new context, as in “Make your ancestors proud and help clean up the arroyo this Saturday.” Processes of perfectibility are apparent here, too, as users craft elaborate comments, replies, and visual materials while composing Facebook posts.


The student authors of the Keiwa soap opera, As the Rez Turns, artfully employed characteristically Pueblo speech genres, extracommunity genres, and non-Native images of indigenous people to create subtle social and political critiques. How does this project differ from young people’s everyday interactions that may (or may not) similarly display multiple intertextual links? What does it suggest about changing possibilities for young people’s community-directed action?

I think the soap opera project differed in that the abstract notion of a “language dialogue” provided enough distance for participants to employ such intertextual links while discussing things like tribal politics, “tradition,” and Native identity. Usually the two “realms” are quite separate: the copious use of pop culture references and the production of intertextual links on one side and the serious work that is being an engaged community member on the other. As far as changing political possibilities, I think this is an example of how new spaces for critique are opening up almost within new forms of language circulation. I would not go so far as to say that Facebook and other platforms are singlehandedly enabling youth participation and political action, but I would say that I continue to see social critique within such spaces, spaces that are considered to be frivolous or unconnected to tribal history and values by older community members.


You argue that language revitalization projects perform culturally and linguistically meaningful work beyond preserving grammar and phonology. For example, language revitalization projects serve as metapragmatic resources for reproducing cultural practices and morality, as well as for enacting social critique (pg. 112). Participants in these programs thus tend to view them as beacons of hope for future linguistic and cultural revival, even in the absence of data proving the successful reverse of language shift (pg. 112-117). What possibilities do you envision for expanding recognition of and support for these other facets of language revitalization, in San Ramon and beyond?

I think that one potential influence of the U.S. educational system and dominant approaches to parenting in this county is that increasingly younger tribal members insist on being given credit “for trying” or for attending language classes regardless of their linguistic abilities. In such moments, youth connect attendance and participation with “being Indian” or being a good community member, invested in the future of the Pueblo. I have started to work with an additional Pueblo community, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo (not a pseudonym) in El Paso, Texas, and these kinds of connections are much more overt there than at San Ramon. Due to their distance from the other Pueblos, intense discrimination, state educational policies, and the predominance of Spanish in the region, the Southern Tiwa language was largely lost at the Pueblo. Their language program has been an incredible success, however, with the emergence of several advanced speakers who have learned the language as adults. While meetings with other Pueblos or native speakers of the language can be stressful for these learners, they often say that the fact that they are trying to learn shows that they are true Pueblo people rather than being able to speak Southern Tiwa without making any mistakes.


While Pueblo secrecy radically affected your participation in the community of San Ramon, you also harness secrecy in your ethnographic writing, for example, by focusing on cultural and linguistic knowledge production without revealing the content of this knowledge. What aspects of ethnographic methodology aided you in continually adapting to the changes and complexities of your consultants’ relationships with outsiders?  That is, how did your ethnographic training help you reconcile your initial expectations of your anthropological endeavor with the constraints (and associated possibilities) you encountered in your fieldwork, analysis, and writing?Your description—“continually adapting to the changes and complexities”—really captures my experience perfectly! Having to always revise my new and ongoing projects keeps this concern at the forefront of my thinking and research, too. I think that two parts of my ethnographic training continue to inform how I research and write in and about Pueblo communities: being introduced to the ideas of informed consent, harm, and language ideologies; and being introduced to literature on knowledge production and power. I first experienced the former when preparing my IRB, which was a surprisingly nuanced process at my graduate institution (there was a separate IRB for social sciences, so I felt guided by scholars working on comparable projects). My advisor also shared with me instances where he chose not to circulate language examples as part of a language project to which he contributed. Also, critiques of language revitalization discourses by scholars including Jane Hill, Robert Moore, Joseph Errington, and Peter Whiteley alongside work on language ideologies and literacy (especially by Paul Kroskrity and Justin Richland who have worked in Pueblo communities) really paved the way for being able to think about such projects as both objects of analysis and potential sites for conflict or collaboration. However, it was really being in the field and realizing the stakes involved with keeping secrets that led directly to the choices I eventually made in the way I presented data in the book. Lastly, works in anthropology, social theory, and science and technology studies that analyzed the ways that anthropologists produce and circulate knowledge had a tremendous effect; Bourdieu, Foucault, and Fabian were key.



Shane Greene on his new book, Punk and Revolution

Interview by Orin Starn

Can you tell us about Punk and Revolution: 7 More Interpretations of Peruvian Reality and what you set out to accomplish with the book?

 I hope the book goes down as a few things:  a novel take not just on Peru’s war with the Shining Path but, somewhat by extrapolation, the narratives that dominate understandings about “Cold War Latin America.” I’m invested in inserting some wacky anarchists into that otherwise standard tale of the “hard left” (that is, Marxist) and “hard right” alternatives that dominated the region from the 60s to the 90. I also want some sort of disruption into punk’s too comfortable location in the Anglo North Atlantic rock nexus, and all the debates about provocation, selling out, and being reborn that that typical story about punk has generated. And I guess it is something like a modest assault on academia to make it slightly less boring.  There’s also the distinct possibility I was just trying to live “rock subterráneo” vicariously and reopen old wounds about the politics of feeling out of place, something that started when I was about 13.


Punk is genre-busting music.  And this is a genre-busting ethnography.  Can you tell us about your ethnographic style here, including all that good nasty language?  Do you see your book as having lessons for other anthropologists in thinking about experimenting with our writing?

Not everyone thinks my nasty language is all that good, and some were in a position to question or kill it when they thought it too nasty, or, maybe just too “masculine” (oh, how they have overrated my masculinity). It was never really a project about challenging “political correctness” (a phrase that emerged on the radical left but has long been appropriated by the far right) and more about wondering what we can or can’t say with academic voices or how we are or are not allowed to juxtapose academic voices with other, um, less staid, voices.  The criticisms sometimes made me really rethink the nastiness (Interpretation #4) and, other times, I just snuck it back in elsewhere (because I’m sneaky). That said, even my kid knows I have a dirty mouth so probably a certain percentage of it is just how I talk anyway. But, really, the main thing was just that I wanted each of the 7 Interpretations to sound/read/look totally different. Eventually, that meant not even writing essays, which explains the Situationist-style art project (Interpretation #6) and the short story (Interpretation #7).  For that matter, there’s technically more than 7 Interpretations given all the supplemental side projects that the book is linked to on the companion website (, the zine-stuff, a music video my band did, a tee shirt I made, and so on. The idiosyncratic aspect of “just interpreting shit” (like the punk Geertz or something) makes me not really know if there’s a teachable lesson.  But in general I’m all for encouraging people to go beyond or even explicitly against the standard and dry academese we love to subject ourselves to.


Anthropologists have long had Peru as a favorite stomping ground.   But much of that scholarship has been about the rural Andes.  Your focus is on the megalopolis of Lima.  How do you see your contribution to understanding urban experience in Peru and Latin America?   And to how we understand Peru and Latin America more broadly?

There’s definitely a thing with Peru and the Andes fetish. It goes deep and straight to the heart of nationalism.  It’s hard to even think of a handful of interesting books about Lima – on any topic – much less about other Peruvian cities (Arequipa? Piura? Trujillo?) written by anthropologist (oh, but Daniella Gandolfo’s book about Lima is amaaaaaazing).  I think this was honestly more of a side effect than my real intent, that is, I ended up creating a peculiar look into one segment of Lima, basically the middle-class and up (since rock as a genre is mostly middle-class and up).  There’s some good work on hip-hop out there in countries like Cuba, Brazil, and so on.  And there’s some STS types doing interesting stuff that at least crosses into urban spaces but isn’t necessarily about “the city” or necessarily “anthropology” (thinking of Anita Chan’s book Networking Peripheries). Either way, we are overdue for some anthropologists thinking more about the multiplicity and depth of urban subcultures throughout Latin America, as well as their global inspiration in, and creative divergence from, subcultures that emerged elsewhere.  Even when anthropologists finally come out of the countryside and go to the city they seem to end up focusing on the same subaltern populations or themes, like rural-to-urban migration or historically racialized groups, and so on.  But welcome to the history of anthropology, I guess.


What do you see as your contribution to understanding the global history of punk?  And to how we think about sound and the politics of sound?

The book doesn’t talk about sound per se but I got very interested in the geopolitics of music formats, hence all the stuff about production and circulation (and piracy) of demo cassettes in Interpretation #1.  Of course, format studies are now an offshoot of sound studies. There’s something mystically beautiful and marvelously awful about the sound of Peruvian punk from the 80s.  The conditions for production (or instruments available for recording for that matter) were so bad, it is just truly wonderful.  Some contemporary Peruvian punks and hardcore types wax nostalgic about the cassette format for that reason and so they buck the global digitalization trend by recording new albums on cassette now when it seems utterly anachronistic.  The global north has its own history with cassettes but it isn’t quite the same thing.  First off, it more often connotes some sort of social intimacy or friend networks (such as: the friend who recorded album X for me; or the girlfriend who gave me the mix tape Y).  In Lima, because of the dramatically unstable political context there was a curiously ambiguous dialogue taking place between the “underground rock” economy (cassettes, fliers, art pieces, and so on) and the other “underground political” sector of Shining Path organizers and militants who were also producing art, propaganda, newspapers and other genres for the “revolution.”  Both were happening outside, and against, mainstream media circuits (and, for that matter, the state).  So, it became really dangerous for Peruvian punks at the time and many of them found that out the hard way (hence Interpretation #6).  There was a deep political risk (of death, disappearance, imprisonment, exile) built into being a Peruvian punk and producing things that were punk-like in the Peru of the time.  That, as far as I can tell, is quite unique within punk experiences writ large.


What’s your next project?

I’ve been throwing around this term “misanthropology” for the last few years and threatening to write a book about how we, the human species, are all gonna die.  And probably should. Given November 2016, seems like maybe it’s a good time to get started on that.

Local Food: What Counts?


by Jennifer Meta Robinson

“Local” has emerged as one of the hottest food and cultural concepts in the United States in the past 25 years. Many people choose to buy local, read books written or published or bound locally, wear clothing made from homespun fiber or fashioned nearby, ride locally made bicycles, recreate locally, and build homes with locally sourced materials. Three-quarters of Americans say that they are highly influenced by labels that indicate food is “locally grown.” Food industry giants that regularly source from around the world, such as members of the National Restaurant Association, the largest food service trade organization, and Walmart, the largest US grocer, identify “locally grown” as a top food trend in recent years. The term’s ubiquity alone begs examination.

In a new book with co-author James R. Farmer, Selling Local:  Why Local Food Movements Matter (Indiana University Press 2017),


we report on our research over two decades that includes hundreds of interviews and site visits and thousands of surveys to understand why local matters to the people involved and how they live it.  Our focus is on people associated with farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) in the Midwest and in the central Appalachian regions, but we also range far beyond. Here is a brief glimpse.

 What Counts as Local?

Research and experience point to many appeals to local food—social, economic, and environmental factors.  But the definition remains elusive.

On the surface, localism seems to be all about proximity–what is sourced nearby has more appeal than what is transported from far away. But defining local in terms of distance turns out not to be very definitive, even among its advocates:  400 miles, within state lines, within a day’s drive?  Proximity, it turns out, is only part of how people define local.  A passionate statement by a ten-year local grower, market vendor, and CSA provider we will call Sage Goodell helps open up many of the values that define local.

We call this thing that we are doing farmer. We are working hard to create a new definition for farmer. We are working hard to replace the image of big tractors and acres of corn with an image of farm diversity, creative thinker, healthy people, healthy land, life not death, vibrant nutritious living food, good land steward, responsible caretaker of this earth. Rather than a worn-out, sick “farmer” sitting in an air-conditioned tractor spraying toxic chemicals on a field, you see a robust, energetic, inspired, loving farmer on her hands and knees hand-weeding the carrots. Rather than going to Kroger and buying lifeless, tasteless, chemical-laden produce, you go to the farmers’ market and shake hands with the person who grew your vegetables, harvesting them the day before and sharing with you the latest news on the farm. You develop a relationship with this farmer. She thinks of you as she harvests produce each week. She thinks of you at supper on market day, knowing you have gratitude as you nourish yourself with her produce. You have a relationship with the farmer that grows your food. This is the new definition of farmer.

In the process of defining her profession, Goodell articulates seven notable facets of the ideology of local.

  1. Local Is Temporal

Freshness is frequently cited as one of the most desirable qualities of local food, and Goodell references “vibrant, nutritious living food.”  Picked so recently, it may still be alive. She mentions “harvesting [produce] the day before and sharing with you the latest news on the farm.” The food she grows, like news, loses an essential quality over time. In addition, she references generational time, agricultural practices dying away with the conventional farmers while the “robust, energetic, inspired loving” next-generation farmers flourish.

  1. Local Is Healthful

Goodell describe a generational trajectory of improvement in healthfulness and sets local in opposition to conventional agriculture. She describes a shift away from conventional agricultural methods that involve “spraying toxic chemicals” for “lifeless, tasteless, chemical-laden produce” and toward intensive methods that produce healthful food, “life not death.”

  1. Local Implicates Scale

She sets the scale of “big tractors and acres of corn” and rote, straight-line work against “an image of farm diversity, creative thinker . . . on her hands and knees hand-weeding the carrots.” The artisanal, or “small batch,” scale of local conveys desirable qualities beyond proximity or nutritional content. Indeed, food grown nearby but processed at large scale can lose the value it might gain from its proximity to origin, according to the ideology of local.

  1. Local Means Accountability

Goodell contrasts the traditional supermarket experience with going “to the farmers’ market to shake hands with the person who grew your vegetables.” That tangibility, an actual touch, enacts a “relationship,” a bond of exchange, a shaking of hands that may perform a greeting, a thank-you, or a contract. 

  1. Local Implies Environmental Stewardship

Goodell describes her goal of being a “responsible caretaker of this earth,” caring for it “down in the soil on my hands and knees, in the dirt.” Local food offers practical solutions to the environmental impact of agriculture in shorter transport distances, less fuel consumption, and less pollution, and many local food farmers strive to live with a small environmental footprint.

  1. Local Fosters Systems Thinking

In another conversation, Goodell described her work as “growing nutritious food the smart way” to benefit all, because “we are all in this thing together.” Her approach to land stewardship constitutes an “intimate relationship,” a “marriage” of sorts. The integrative nature of local informs “the new definition of farmer.”

  1. Local Is Oppositional

Goodell defines her work against capitalistic norms, setting corporate agriculture with its productivity ideal to “feed the world” against localism’s values of small-scale accountability and performative competence. The rich farmer with air-conditioned tractors is demoted, and the poor one on her hands and knees is elevated. The flawless and bountiful are toxic while the small and laborious are vibrant.

Local remains rhetorically ambiguous. It’s a fiddly notion that must be puzzled out differently by different people according to the contexts in which they find themselves.  Freed from a strict spatial definition that only reductively renders the spirit of the movement, local food in its many dimensions can become an activist tool for change–it’s not just about space but also about time, health, human scale, accountability, stewardship of environmental systems, and progress. It puts people inside a system with many actors who each play an important part.  As people and goods become more far-flung from their roots, the longing for connectedness and community become more intense. Local rehumanizes.



Many thanks to Sage for sharing her brilliance.  And thanks, too, to the many other farmers and customers of local food who generously shared their worlds with us.

Thanks to Indiana University Press for their faith in the project.


Jennifer Meta Robinson, PhD, is professor of practice in the Indiana University Department of Anthropology where she studies food, communication, and pedagogy.  She lives on a 40-year local food farm in scenic Greene County, Indiana.

Falina Enriquez’s Composing Cultura

“ . . . those who align with Pernambucan discourses of cultura [culture] [. . .]  are not simply elevating themselves by excluding massively popular, commercial genres like swingueira from the category of cultura, but their ability to evaluate and define cultura is a sign and source of power” (pg. 99).

My dissertation, “Composing Cultura: Musical Democracy and Multiculturalism in Recife, Brazil,” examines how a constellation of musicians, bureaucrats, and audiences objectify and commodify local culture in Pernambuco’s capital city, Recife. The dissertation contributes to anthropological and ethnomusicological studies that analyze how musical practices are interactionally embedded in debates over power and meaning. Specifically, the dissertation argues that while participants in Recife’s state-sponsored music scene were creating new multicultural and democratic understandings of ‘culture,’ they were simultaneously reconfiguring social stratification. Page ninety-nine is part of the second chapter’s introduction. The chapter is organized around the musical rivalry between Pernambuco and the neighboring state of Bahia. It examines how members of a state agency committee and other participants in the state-sponsored music scene invoke pop music from Bahia as the antithesis of Pernambucan “cultural” music. I show how these actors interpret Bahian pop music as kitschy and disposable, but more importantly, how they discursively employ these qualities to depict its performers/consumers as lower-class and (implicitly) racially marked.  As the quotation above suggests, these discourses are important because they are themselves a sign of power and a tool for (re)producing it. When I conducted the majority of my fieldwork research from 2009-2011, many of my consultants interpreted these problematic discourses as evidence that new policies and idioms centered on socio-political inclusion were not as effective as they seemed. Yet, while these were significant concerns, they existed within a broader understanding that Brazilian society was progressing. However, now in 2016, such hopes seem even more remote. Brazilian citizens are currently coping with instability caused by corruption scandals, economic decline, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, and the new federal administration’s elimination of government ministries and programs focused on minimizing poverty, racism, and other forms of inequality. The issues I discuss on page ninety-nine and throughout the dissertation therefore seem more relevant now. Accordingly, as I develop my book project, I will focus on how musicians and other residents of Recife are negotiating the dramatic changes they have experienced during the past five years.

Falina Enriquez. “Composing Cultura: Musical Democracy and Multiculturalism in Recife, Brazil.” Phd diss, University of Chicago, 2014.


Anna Weischselbraun’s Constituting the International Nuclear Order

My dissertation examines how the International Atomic Energy Agency, the organization responsible for verifying the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, can remain technically authoritative in its judgments despite the fact that it is often accused of being politicized. What I describe on page 99 of my dissertation is a crucial moment in the way that the IAEA conceptualized the nuclear safeguards it carried out for treaty verification (see below). This moment was precipitated by the IAEA’s failure to detect Iraq’s nuclear weapons program in the early 1990s. I argue that a significant epistemological shift was required from a fundamentally quantitative-administrative logic to a qualitative-dynamic logic in the methodological transformation from considering only the activities a state had declared to the IAEA to attempting to evaluate all of a state’s nuclear-related activities (in particular, those relevant for the development and production of nuclear weapons). And, I further argue, this shift undermined the epistemic ideology of bureaucratic objectivity through which the organization had historically come to be seen as authoritative. Epistemic ideology–based on notions of language or semiotic ideologies–is a set of assumptions and values about what knowledge is authoritative and the forms of representation that render it such. By theorizing the production of authoritative knowledge as a semiotically mediated process, I develop a framework for studying knowledge and power in the world that takes into account the epistemic norms and representational conventions that most participants remain largely unaware of. This approach goes beyond reductivist narratives that explain what happens at international organizations in terms of competing national interests, to provide an alternative understanding of the aspirations and limitations to projects of international governance.

This is a critical and significant shift in epistemic mode. The original epistemic mode of accounting for the type and quantity of nuclear material in a state, previously the bedrock of the IAEA safeguards system, becomes in this new epistemic mode only a component (if an important one) of the entire approach to nuclear verification. The detection of clandestine nuclear activity requires a larger view of the state’s activities and relies on the accumulation and synthesis of information critically related to a state’s industrial, technological, and scientific infrastructure. In this way, IAEA safeguards inspectors no longer exclusively focus on how a state might pinch off nuclear material from its safeguarded facilities when an inspector isn’t looking, but first attempt to identify the “technically plausible” paths to a nuclear weapon a state might pursue. This methodology requires the involvement of “analysts” whose expertise is constituted as language skills, subject matter familiarity, and technical knowledge, and whose work involves gathering a variety of data on industrial and scientific activities in the state that are relevant or potentially related to the development and production of a nuclear weapon. The work of analysts and the contribution they make to the evaluation of the “state as a whole” has been viewed with deep suspicion [by member states].

Anna Weischselbraun. 2016. Constituting the International Nuclear Order: Bureaucratic Objectivity at the IAEA.” Phd dissertation. University of Chicago.

When Getting Fired is a Game


Figure 1: The basic layout of Don’t Get Fired. You start as an intern at the bottom and tap your way to the illusive top.  Image from the Google Play store.


by Michael Prentice

At first glance, the mobile office survival game Don’t Get Fired seems like the 21st century version of the 1889 Parker Brothers game, Office Boy. Office Boy, a Horatio Alger story rendered child’s board game, provided anyone the fantasy of making it in society, by moving from office boy to Head of the Firm.[1] Don’t Get Fired gives iPhone and Android users the chance to experience the fantasy of modern promotion by moving from the bottom to the top (of the screen), in a 16-bit office world set in South Korea. But where Office Boy allowed a player to climb the corporate ladder by demonstrating virtue, Don’t Get Fired depicts the arbitrariness of advancement: as you diligently tap your way up from the intern’s desk to the president’s, the game punishes you. Sometime for working too hard, sometimes for working too little, and sometimes for no reason at all. You get unexpectedly canned at random, only to start the process over as an intern at a new company. (A ticker at the top of the screen reminds of how many companies you’ve been fired from.) Only a handful of players, reportedly, has ever been made it to president.[2]  A goal of the game, is, cynically, not to build skills, but to collect all the reasons not to get fired. Netizens have compiled a list of all 29 ways, which includes letting out a company secret, making a typo on a contract, or, opening a box of donuts that contains a secret bribe.[3]



Figure 1:  The Korean version advising you to resign, a choice the game makes for you. Image from the Google Play store.

The translation of a precarious youth labor market into an unwinnable survival game has made the international version of Don’t Get Fired an indie-game hit – with more than 100 million downloads.[4] But Don’t Get Fired is the international version of an original Korean version, which is titled, in Korean, My Dream is a Regular Job. The two versions (downloadable separately) are identical in graphics and game-play. The international version,is a direct translation of the original Korean text and available in 12 languages. However, by translating the game as an anywhere office space, with little localization or additional contextualization about Korea, the international version loses the deeper semiotic resonances of the original. For Korean players, the game not only mocks contemporary corporate life, it does so on a familiar landscape of meaningful signs and tropes.

Take, for instance, the original title describing a “regular job.” This marks a semantic distinction in Korean between regular and irregular, not to be conflated with full- or part-time jobs. Both regular and irregular workers may be full-time, salaried, and receive some basic benefits. But only regular workers have the opportunity to get promoted, receive a pension, and are valorized socially as symbols of personal and professional achievement. Similarly, the phrase “(don’t) get fired” in English isn’t even in the original Korean. Rather, when you do lose your job (about every few minutes or so), an alert pops up saying “Advised to Resign,” a choice the game makes for you. Firing workers is difficult under Korean labor law (not “at-will” like the US), so workers who do not fit in or perform poorly can be encouraged to quit for a variety of reasons. In both the Korean and international versions, one could be forced to resign for ordering the wrong item at lunch with the boss, one of the 29 ways to get yourself ousted.

Like a lunch snafu, the gameplay is full of recognizable tropes and figures of a distinctly Korean office life: labels of manager titles, the tending to the beck-and-call of senior workers, the sacrificing of life-milestones like marriage for work, and the imagery of “burning” passion (following a Korean idiom of working hard). Interestingly, the game’s graphics remain unchanged between versions, and international users may not recognize the Chinese character 甲 on the president’s desk. It denotes the first position in an old Chinese counting system which has become associated in Korea with the “top” and, by extension, a “person on top” (akin to uses of the “alpha” in the US). These recognizable tokens extend to game scenarios: a manager asks you to go hiking on the weekend with co-workers, forcing your choice. For Korean players, the corporate ladder is not just a matter of a cruel economy; it is a site of stark ethical conflicts that make you choose between personal freedom and collective sacrifice.

For Korean players, these have resonance with real life scenes, albeit tropically exaggerated. Participating in hiking with the boss or showing carefulness around what you order at lunch are events that evaluate your decision-making, and by extension, your fitness to work within the office collective. A minefield of these local in-group signs makes the game all too similar to a competitive and seemingly arbitrary Korean labor market. That the game mimics real life is sadly more than clever design: the developer created the game after he too was suddenly let go after four years at his own “regular” job.


[1] See Saval, Nikil (2015). Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. New York: Anchor Books. pp 35-37



[4] The English version declares that it has over one hundred million downloads on Google Play. Users can also play the game in 12 different languages. The game is free, but has in-app purchases that allow users to build points to get ahead


Watching Putin Listen

by Kate Graber

 On the eve of a U.S. presidential election in which Russia and its presidential figurehead have loomed “yuge,” it is perhaps time for some observations about that central action figure of Russian political communication, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

A lot has been written about Putin in English, including biographies by journalists and scholars. They vary in their foci, many locating his rise to power in his personal background or connections, others locating it in the nature of the Russian people. There is also Putin’s own autobiography, which he insists is a “frank” (it’s in the freaking title of the book) and transparent view into his personhood—more on which later. Closer to CaMP anthropologists’ interests, Eliot Borenstein often writes provocatively and entertainingly about the intersections of Russian presidential and cultural politics on NYU’s Jordan Center blog. Nothing that I say here should be taken as evidence that Putin is bad or good, or that his very personal style of political communication is bad or good. As a linguistic anthropologist, I’m interested instead in the content, context, and form of what he says and the cultural significance of those features of talk.

Why Putin? It should (but, sadly, does not) go without saying that Russian political life is far more diverse than what is broadcast by the Kremlin or captured in media coverage of “Putin’s Russia.” Personally, I am less interested in the centers of power than in what’s going on in the rest of Russia, particularly those regions well east of the Urals. There are all sorts of fascinating daily struggles in Omsk and Bratsk and Magadan that reveal more about what it is to be human—and perhaps more about power—and have little to do with what happens in Moscow. But what are you going to do? Russia’s relationship to the U.S. and its political future has increasingly been invested in the person of the president, often in laughably tangible form (again). So here we are.

Putin’s face has popped up onto my screen on a regular basis for the past 12 years, not because I was seeking it out, but just by chance, in the course of my research on minority media in Russia. For some of those years, Medvedev was president and Putin technically played second fiddle as prime minister, but somehow Putin appeared nearly nightly anyway. Now consider for a moment, if an outside researcher like me has accidentally watched that much of Putin for that long, how much more of him a Russian citizen living within Russia has seen. Television is the main medium by which contemporary Russians get their news, over radio, newspapers, or internet sources by a large margin. Most households in Russia have more than one television set, one in the living room and a second or third in the kitchen or a multi-use bedroom. Two broadcasting networks, the Rossiia network of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company and the majority-government-owned Channel One, produce most of the daily political, economic, and cultural news that Russians watch. Now, it would be easy to assume that this news is overwhelmingly positive in its portrayal of the president. It is, but Putin is not without his critics. Nor is he the only actor in Russian politics guilty of (or successful at) “media manipulation.” Let’s leave aside for a second the question of whether this is orchestrated positivity or not, and just assume that if nothing else, yes, Putin has some control over how he presents himself on television. What is it that Russian viewers then see?

On camera, Putin is unfailingly calm, cool, and collected. He is a study in controlled gestures, measured pauses, and an infamously steady (sometimes steely) gaze. Whatever you think of his positions and policies, you have to admit that the guy exudes quiet confidence.

There are some important elements of Putin’s communicative style that are so different from U.S. presidential style that you might not put them in the same framework. When Putin’s PR team circulated photographs of him riding bare-chested on horseback through Tuva, or tranquilizing and tagging an Amur tiger in Russia’s Far East, U.S. audiences were bewildered and amused. Presumably they found this brazen machismo anathema to presidential politics (which now seems ironic, given the machismo that has appeared in uses of “locker room talk” and hyper-sexualized male discourse within the soon-to-be-finally-over U.S. presidential election, and anyone suspicious of why gender norms are being used as tools of authority-building in a U.S. presidential election should read Valerie Sperling’s book on similar issues in Russia).

Some scholars and clever pundits have observed that such performances are geared not toward an international audience as much as to a domestic one. Or rather, they are geared toward a domestic audience via an international performance. Putin is showing a Russian audience that he is taken in the West as a tough guy or the ultimate action man. And it largely works. But if you look only at the action man imagery, you miss an important element of Putin’s communicative style.

In Putin’s appearances on Russian television, he spends a lot of his airtime listening.

He sits beside or behind a heavy-looking wooden table or desk, usually flanked by the Russian flag and looking official, as he speaks with one of his ministers or advisers, or occasionally a regional political actor such as the governor of one of the vast Russian state’s many provinces. You-the-viewer watch the other person talk, sometimes at great length. Sometimes you then see Putin respond, quietly and firmly, and sometimes not. Sometimes you watch the ministers waver, nervously averting their eyes or cringing under Putin’s quiet gaze. Within these variations, however, there is a solid genre of news broadcasts about Russia’s president: you always watch Putin engage in a face-to-face conversation, staged as though it were between equals, in which he primarily listens.

Is this another iteration of machismo, in that Putin comes across as the quintessential “strong, silent type”? I would argue no. He engages in what is often called “active listening,” reacting to the speaker, following his partner’s gaze and lead, occasionally nodding slightly or otherwise providing some uptake. He is paying attention. If anything this is the type of thoughtful, sustained listening stereotypically attributed to women.

You don’t have to take my word for it; you can watch an example of a Rossiia broadcast from Thursday of Putin meeting with the Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinskii. Medinskii briefs Putin on plans for the current and coming year, updating him on construction projects at the Moscow Philharmonic and Malyi Theatre and the state of funding for infrastructure. You don’t have to understand anything that’s being said in Russian to appreciate the visual details of context, gesture, and comportment. Sitting opposite one another in ornate chairs in a wood-paneled office, Putin and the minister lean forward, their hands on the table. The minister provides informational sheets; Putin appears to read or study images. The minister holds Putin’s gaze; Putin meets his eyes and nods. The minister talks; Putin listens.

Of course, there’s plenty of airtime of Putin speechifying on news programming too. He holds press conferences, gives interviews, and leads ceremonies of state. Television coverage marked the occasion of Friday’s Unity Day (a holiday celebrating the unity of varied religious traditions, ethnicities, and, yes, Crimea within a single Russian state) with Putin speaking in Moscow. But the daily news is at least as likely to include an instance of this genre of Putin in face-to-face conversation, and it is a far greater share of what Russians see their president do on a regular basis than riding bare-chested through Tuva.

What does he accomplish by having his television audience watch him listen?

When Putin published an op-ed in The New York Times in 2013 and claimed sole authorship of it, American commentators saw it as a risky or outrageous move to speak directly to the people of the U.S. But Fiona Hill correctly observed that it was also a way of demonstrating his abilities to “work with” or “communicate with people,” and to “work with information”—points of personal pride that she traced to his years in the KGB. Wherever his motivations come from and whatever is in his head, the directness of address that Putin achieved in his op-ed is also on display in his routine performance of active listening. Although the listening events are staged, the content of the conversation itself always appears spontaneous. Putin is getting this information now—and in your living room, you’re watching him digest it.

In both the U.S. and Russia (and elsewhere), heads of state are often televised in face-to-face conversation, often seated in armchairs and looking relaxed. Likely we-the-viewing-audience are supposed to be reassured that our political leaders are getting along, that they have not angrily stormed out of meetings or committed a faux pas at last night’s dinner that will accidentally result in a war. Similarly, Putin’s cordial conversations with ministers telegraph that all is well with the gears of power.

Listening like this also suggests to the audience that the president is not acting carelessly or alone, but intelligently and under good advisement. I remember commenting once to a friend in Buryatia, a political activist who opposed most of Putin’s and Medvedev’s policies, that state television news seemed to feature a lot of Putin listening. I expected him to respond cynically, perhaps by saying that Putin would do whatever he wanted anyway, or that this was just an elaborate act. “Well, he’s a very smart guy,” he said instead, “and smart guys listen.”

Hmm. I think the reason I noticed how much Russian television audiences were seeing of Putin in these interactions is that American television audiences rarely watch U.S. politicians listen. In fact, we rarely watch extended face-to-face interactions between domestic leaders of any sort. It is part of what makes televised debates so communicatively peculiar: we watch leaders who are otherwise televised talking instead listen to one another, and to the moderator or ordinary citizens in town halls, for extended stretches of time. During the U.S. presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump, social media overflowed with discussion of their respective “listening faces.” Eyebrows and lips were dissected like no one had ever seen the candidates listen before (though in fact there was plenty of material on Clinton on this point). CNN reported that Clinton had carefully crafted her “listening woman” face, as though that were surprising.

Anthropology is at its best when we excavate not only the cultural assumptions informing some weird thing those foreign-Other-type people do, but also our own unexamined expectations. My friend in Buryatia had never noticed how much time he spent watching his president listen, and I had never noticed how little I spend watching mine do anything but talk.

On the other hand, I do like talk.

Kate Graber is a linguistic anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. When not mulling over Putin’s taste in chairs, she researches minority media, language politics, materiality, and value, especially in Siberia and Mongolia.


Chaim Noy on his new book, Thank you for Dying for Our Country

book cover


Interview by Lindsey Pullum

You’re in line to ride a rollercoaster and, while waiting for your turn, strike up a conversation with the family ahead of you. They have never been to Israel, but seem nice enough and press you to tell them about your latest project. You only have a few minutes before the rollercoaster comes to whisk you and the family away—how would you describe your book?

I have always been interested in national identities, specifically in Israel, and the ways people understand and perform them. In my book I look at what visitors write in visitor books in a major national Israeli site in East Jerusalem, called the Ammunition Hill National Commemoration Site. These books are interesting because, as a whole, they give a fascinating sense of how people respond to and embody national themes and narratives. I see the texts visitors write as ways of participating in the retelling of national identity. When you look closely into these succinct texts, you can see how rich they are in fact. They show different positions with regards to identity, and different things that visitors choose to respond to (and ignore). For instance, while most of the Israeli visitors address the museum and its staff, most North American tourists address the dead soldiers, and yet other visitors address God. Add to that that many visitors draw images, and the book is really highly visual, like and album that combines images and texts.

All this is even more interesting because the book is located inside a museum, and what people write in it immediately becomes part of the museum’s display. In the way the book is presented, the museum actually prompts visitors to write about certain themes and in certain ways, so it is also very interesting to study the book as a public medium. Finally, I was able not only to read visitors’ text, but also to observe visitors write them. In most cases visitors write the texts together (collaboratively), which taught me a lot about how these bits of performances of national identity are being composed. For instance, parents (usually mothers) instruct their children what to write and how to do it (“don’t write ‘I’m happy’, write ‘I’m impressed’—it’s more respectable this way”). So the entire writing scene at Ammunition Hill was fascinating for me.

Interesting you mention rollercoasters! My last article is an ethnography of rollercoaster riders, and their experience with the photographs that are taken of them while on the ride. I studied riders’ images in theme parks in Florida, which are similar in many ways to the curated environments in museums.


You have previously written two books on the Israeli backpackers’ experience. Your latest published work has focused more on museums and texts. Can you comment on your process for deciding on a research project? How did your previous research influence this latest book?

I love this question because often these decisions are not discussed in the academy. My recent book furthers my earlier interests in contemporary cultures and the consequences of tourism and travel, specifically in political contexts (though what contexts aren’t political?). In my previous book I studied backpackers’ narratives. I asked how the stories they shared with me in in-depth interviews were, in effect, storytelling performances whereby the meaning of the interview occasion itself was negotiated (as well as the identities and roles of the participants). The backpackers enthusiastically told me about extensive “libraries” of handwritten letters and documents, which they wrote to each other about their travels. These collections, located in Southeast Asia and South America, were a way of circulating travel-related information, experience and lore. I was fascinated by this, but I didn’t have the funding to study them. This, however, incited my research interest in studying what I later called ‘tourists’ texts’: the role of texts (and entextualization) in travel, and the places, practices and technologies relating to their production and circulation. Knowing I wanted to study texts within such sites, and knowing I wanted to shift from interview-based research (where I supply the provocation) to ethnographically-based research (where the museum supplies the provocation) I then chose a location that was convenient and relevant. The Ammunition Hill Memorial museum was located in the city I love: Jerusalem (where I was born and raised, and where I raise my daughters). This was a matter of access and convenience, and it also accorded with other critical studies I did on political tourism in East and West Jerusalem. On my first visit to Ammunition Hill, where I was scouting the site, the visitor book really impressed me. It was a large and imposing book, made of parchment, and part of a memorial installation in one of the museum’s most ‘sacred’ halls. The minute I saw the book I fell in love with it, and knew I was going to study it.

Language is crucial to your study of texts within the visitor’s book at Ammunition Hill Memorial museum. You analyze language ideologies in terms of handwritten texts and repeated styles of entries. Yiddish and Arabic are absent from the discussion of code-switching even though each language is spoken by certain publics in Israel (99). Is bilingual code-switching with specific regard to these two languages an aspect of your research you would have liked to include more of but couldn’t for some reason? Were Yiddish and Arabic simply not present in the visitor’s book itself?

That’s right: I would have loved to discuss Yiddish and Arabic texts in more detail in the book, yet as you indicate, the texts are mostly in Hebrew and English, with only occasional texts in Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and French. Different reasons account for the absence of Arabic and Yiddish. As for Arabic, the site is located in East Jerusalem, within walking distance from large Palestinian neighborhoods. So physically accessing the site isn’t very difficult. It’s just that the site celebrates—and embodies—the “unification of Jerusalem” as the Israeli/Zionist narrative has it, and so it is clear why Palestinian audiences wouldn’t be attracted, to say the least. Additionally, the site is frequented by Israeli soldiers (on weekdays it serves as a recruiting/drafting center), and that too is a deterrent for Palestinian visitors.

The story with Yiddish is different. I’ve heard Yiddish being spoken at the site, by Ultra-Orthodox Jewish visitors (Haredim) who live in nearby neighborhoods that have gone through demographic changes in the past two decades or so (from secular populations to religious and Ultra-Orthodox populations). Also, the Ammunition Hill Site is spacious and has plenty of shade, and the entrance is free, and this attracts nearby Ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents and their families. So Yiddish is certainly heard, but when Haredi visitors write in the visitor book they do so in Hebrew (or English). When I asked them about this, they answered that they “wanted to be understood,” indicating that they are well attuned to the spoken/hegemonic languages, and choose to use them when expressing themselves publicly. I would also say in regards to Ultra-Orthodox visitors, that they are the only visitors I’ve seen writing ‘bluff’ entries in the book. By ‘bluff’ I mean texts that are signed by fictitious authors (such as a young Haredi visitor signing on behalf of a “very famous and important Rabbi”). Some groups of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish are anti-Zionist, and not subscribing to Ammunition Hill’s national Zionist narrative (by performing bluff entries and sometimes explicitly expressing anti-Zionist sentiments), is their way of using this platform for protesting hegemony.


At one point you mention how the anticipated performance of visitors does not match the actual performance (121). This is especially present in contested entries of the Ultra-Orthodox visitors (122). You argue that the book connects visitors’ biography with Israel’s collective past and collective future (107). Were there any visitors who fell outside of the “anticipated” visitor demographic that surprised you? How does this idea of collective past/collective future relate to non-Jewish Israeli interlocutors?

I seem to have anticipated this question in my response above. I’d add that within the context of museums, specifically in the dense environments of heritage and commemoration, authenticity is a hard currency. And handwriting—embodied in visitors’ inscriptions—plays indexically right into this economy: the handwritten texts are seen as connected to the visitors who write them in an embodied and unmediated fashion, publicly authenticating and presencing their visit and their participation in national commemoration. In the Ammunition Hill visitor book, handwriting is a way of paying tribute and homage to the nation and its fallen heroes (indeed, sometimes visitors leave flowers and notes in the book, turning it into an album of sorts), which is valued for its authenticity. Indeed, as you nicely put it in the question, the book serves as a material platform that physically and viscerally connects visitors’ biographies with Israel’s collective past and future. Ultra-Orthodox visitors improvise on this ‘holy’ tie, and are the only group I’ve seen do so in this way. For other groups of visitors, including those with harsh critique of the site’s ideology (right wing ideological critique of the site, which is itself very conservative), the critique rests on this tie, not on disrupting it. Of course, the only way to learn of this disruption (untying the connection between visitor signature and who the authors actually are), is to be there and to see how texts are composed and written. These observations reveal more tensions between writing and authorship (what Goffman termed “animator” and “author”), as for instance when mothers author a text for their children to write and sign.


Most of your research was conducted in the mid-2000s. Have you seen any changes with the visitors’ book at Ammunition Hill or had any interesting follow up experiences at the site?

Yes. My research at Ammunition Hill was completed organically in 2012, when the visitor book was removed because the museum was undergoing major renovations. The museum is currently closed and will reopen in 2017, celebrating fifty years of Israeli victory in the 1967 War and the “liberation and unification of Jerusalem” (under Israel’s annexation and occupation of East Jerusalem and the Occupied Palestinian Territories). So it’s over a decade now that I’ve been visiting the site, studying it and its visitor book (actually, visitor books: the site holds more than one book, including its “VIP visitor book” as they call it). During this time, I gained insights into the site’s language and media ideologies, as well as into visitors’ actions in that space. For example, a new commemoration hall opened recently, with a new design that is oval-shaped with the portraits of the dead soldiers. This design echoes the iconic Hall of Names at Yad Vashem (Israel’s official Holocaust memorial site), itself echoing the Tower of Faces at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. (Note the semiotics: soldiers are commemorated in a way similar to holocaust victims). At this new hall, too, a visitor book is offered, along with personal letters, diaries and artifacts belonging to the dead soldiers. By locating historical handwritten documents side by side with visitors’ handwritten texts, the site reconfirms its ideology about language, the centrality of authenticity for performing national identity, and its mode and manner of ideologically mobilizing visitors into nationalism.

Since 2011 I have been studying museum platforms in two other Jewish heritage museums (now in the United States): the National Museum of American Jewish History, in Philadelphia, and the Florida Holocaust Museum, in St. Petersburg. I am working on a comparison or juxtaposition of these museums, the different participatory (hand)writing platforms they offer, and what and how visitors compose texts there.