James Costa on his new book, Revitalising Language in Provence

http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-111924353X.hbtml

Interview by Sandhya Narayanan

You mention from the beginning that this book is not an ethnography of language but a critical reflection on language revitalization research. Was this your plan from the very beginning? What was your approach to writing this book, starting from your original research to envisioning what the final product of this monograph would be?

 Well, the book does result from ethnographic fieldwork, but in the end this is not how the book was framed, for a number of reasons. The main reason, then, was that I was looking for ways to interpret what I was observing, and I could find no satisfactory approach. I guess at the time I needed a framework to understand what language revitalization was, what it was about, and back when I started my PhD 2006 the two main currents were either works on endangered languages and, soon afterwards Heller and Duchêne published Discourses of Endangerment. I found neither approach entirely satisfactory, so I felt that, to paraphrase Bourdieu, I needed to constitute and problematize my own object, rather than be constituted by it. Hence the largely historical parts that seek to retrace the emergence of a reflection on language revitalization in linguistics and anthropology on the one hand, and the parts that try to retrace the birth of a language movement in Southern France roughly from the 16th century onward. It was only then, I felt, that I could say something worthwhile about what people were doing with language in Occitania, from a perspective that was my own and not that of language endangerment or critical sociolinguistics in the sense of Discourses of Endangerment. Continue reading

Reflections on a Community of the Heart: Ethnographer and the people of Juchitan, Oaxaca

by Anya Royce

Bido’ xhu—Earthquakes

On September 8, 2017, a Thursday evening, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck just off the coast of Chiapas and Oaxaca.  It was the strongest on record since 1932, almost one hundred years ago.  Of all the towns in Oaxaca, Juchitán de Zaragoza, the second largest city in the state, suffered the most devastation. I could not communicate with my family for almost two days.  The city had no electricity, no services at all. I finally succeeded in messaging a niece in Oaxaca City and found that my family was safe though the three extended families were all now living in the one part of the house that seemed sound.

60% of the homes and public buildings were damaged, most rendered uninhabitable.  Many families chose to move into the street in case of further tremors.  After the second 6.1 quake, my family went to stay with friends whose house had escaped almost intact. Many private and public buildings have been razed or are scheduled for demolition.  These include some of the oldest and most cherished buildings—the Escuela Central Juchitán, the first large secondary school in the city, brought by the efforts of local hero General Heliodoro Charis Castro; the Capilla Guzebenda (Chapel of the Fishermen) a landmark beloved by the inhabitants of the 7th section; the Charis home; the list goes on as inspectors go around the city, surveying and filling out forms, weighing the value as opposed to the cost of reconstruction.  Spared and marked for restoration, thanks to the experts from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, are the parish church of San Vicente, the Casa de la Cultura, and perhaps the Palacio Municipal. Juchiteco architect Elvis Guerra has begun a project that would rebuild or build new structures that are traditional, that are in harmony with the landscape and traditions of the Isthmus Zapotec.  He has asked for my help by letting him use photographs of homes, building, and parks that I have taken in Juchitán since 1968.

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Francis Cody on his book, The Light of Knowledge

http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100643370

Interview by Rachel Howard

What was your main goal in writing about literacy activists in Tamil Nadu? And how did your goals change as you learned more about the site?

I had gone to do research on literacy activism in Tamil Nadu with a deep interest in language and political economy.  My graduate education was fueled by the theoretical energy that had gathered around both questions of language ideology and postcolonial studies.  It struck me that studying a movement that promised to deliver enlightenment to the marginalized through written language would enable me to address some of the big questions about power, the materiality of language, and temporality that we were wrestling with at the time.  More specifically, knowing that Tamil is a language shaped deeply by diglossia, I went to study how learning the written variety was meant to empower people.  I sensed a paradox of sorts in a practice that required people to learn a new register of their own language in order to free themselves.  But my goals quickly changed when I realized that the difference between written and rural spoken varieties was perhaps not so important in a context where simply teaching people how to write their own name was such a major effort, and where the literacy movement had also reflected upon its own practice so much in its transition from being a revolutionary movement of sorts to becoming a partnership with government. The literacy had also become a women’s movement, somewhat unexpectedly.  So, following the lead of my interlocutors, I became much more interested in the practice of activism itself.  New and more interesting questions about writing and embodiment, as well as questions about the very practice of mobilizing rural, lower caste women, who are often thought of as the most subaltern, arose from the ethnography as a result.

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Michael Prentice’s Ranks and Files

My dissertation explored how corporate hierarchies are embedded within genres of communication in South Korea. I conducted fieldwork in the headquarters of one of Korea’s largest domestic steel conglomerates where I followed how top managers across expert departments controlled subsidiaries through different techniques. My main theoretical focus in the dissertation was connecting things happening in the “office,” like making PowerPoints and holding meetings, with our understanding of the nature of corporate entities themselves. Following how different departments drew on documents, systems, and projects, as modes of control, I made the broader claim that organizational borders take shape around the categories and pathways traced in different genres.

Page 99 interestingly lands directly on what I called the “pig’s feet” incident. It is one of a few places in the dissertation where I discuss hoesik (sounds close to “way chic”), one of the most visible genres of corporate culture in Korea. Hoesik refers to after-hours eating and drinking between coworkers or partners. The event at hand took place between two Human Resources teams, one from the headquarters and the other from a subsidiary. We met at a famous pig’s feet restaurant off of a back alley somewhere in Seoul. I described how the event brought together two teams through conviviality and consumption in which the overt hierarchical relations between their organizations would be momentarily set aside. It was a generally gregarious time, until an abrupt moment in which a mid-ranked manager from the subsidiary team brought up work. He lamented that the headquarters team made too many requests at the last minute. Interestingly, he directed this to the junior-most member from the headquarters, Ki-ho, who was responsible for collecting files from the subsidiaries. It was a strange encounter: Ki-ho was socially subordinate (in rank) but pragmatically superior (in terms of files). In the chapter, I used this incident to discuss the tension between rank hierarchies (which are made very explicit across speech, writing, and behavior), and organizational hierarchies (which are embedded into modes of knowledge production or even occluded altogether, like in group encounters). Hoesik is normally considered a domain outside of formal work itself, but I argue it was one social genre tied to a broader reorganization of corporate relations between the headquarters and subsidiaries.

Michael M. Prentice. 2017 “Ranks and Files: Corporate Hierarchies, Genres of Management, and Shifting Control in South Korea’s Corporate World.” Phd. Dissertation, University of Michigan.

Dev Nath Pathak on his new edited volume, Culture and Politics in South Asia

CaMP Anthropology blog recognizes that information about books from some regions circulate more widely than books from other regions.   To do our part in rectifying this inequality, we asked Dev Nath Pathak to discuss the analytical interventions his new edited volume offers to our field.

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https://www.routledge.com/Culture-and-Politics-in-South-Asia-Performative-Communication/Pathak-Perera/p/book/9781138201132

by Dev Nath Pathak

Max Weber was right when he perceived the powerful role of intuitive notions in scientific pursuits. A quest for culture and politics, their interface, and hermeneutic significance, in the chequered cartography called South Asia indeed solicits unbridled intuition. Following this, it could be said that our edited volume, Culture and Politics in South Asia: Performative Communication, published by Routledge (India) is a consequence of conceptual flirting and empirical lusting. It contains several bouts of intuition provoked by the soliloquies of individual scholars as well as conversations among them. And what does it seek to know– what is South Asia, if seen through the prism that collapses the binaries of power and performance, politics and culture, structures and meanings? Indeed the binaries do not exist, and never existed, insofar as it was about what we become though our diverse performances. We become citizens as we participate in the electoral performances, we become ethnos as we participate in festivities in rites of passage, we turn objective as we perform our own empirically sound researches and we are deemed deviant as we enact the Dadaist idea of anything goes. Even though we recognise that the format in which we play our roles entails binaries of good and bad, black and white, oppressor and oppressed, and even bourgeoisie and proletariat- we are performing with the complexity of Bourdieu’s habitus. Our being and doing are too finely intertwined to be viewed in separation. Often one thought that in a controlled performance in a proscenium theatre, the power relation is indubitably clear. Was it so? The relation of the scripted and the scripting always sprang surprises on us. It is just like the relation between structure and agency in theoretical discussions in social sciences, which cannot be mistaken for a linear, zero-sum power game. It is complex and fluid, despite the institutional determinacy and structural clarity most visible. This is very much what Emile Durkheim shows, that the normal and pathological stride together. Continue reading

Brooke Duffy on her new book, (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love

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https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300218176/not-getting-paid-do-what-you-love

Interview with Ilana Gershon

In your book, you persuasively argue that the social media producers you studied are not dupes conned into promoting others’ brands, but rather are involved in a system that provides “dubious reward structures”  (221) for producing this kind of social media content.   What does your book reveal about the dubious reward structures that shape the ways in which these people labor?

On a near-daily basis, I come across media/pop culture articles that hype social media-enabled “dream jobs” and celebrate the lifestyles of  (pro) bloggers, Youtubers and Instagrammers. These individuals are the beneficiaries of the social media economy’s seemingly meritocratic talent system and its most dazzling prize: a career where you can “get paid to do what you love.” However, the cultural fascination with digital fame draws attention away from a much larger class of social media content creators who aspire to turn their talents into a lucrative, and fulfilling career. They produce creative content (often repackaged to flow across platforms) and promote themselves in earnest. But, of course, only a few achieve such staggering fame and entrepreneurial success.

The book focuses on the feminized creative industries—including beauty, fashion, styling, and design—and most of the social media producers I interviewed were young women. I learned from them that investments in time, energy, and even money serve as prerequisites for success in these fields. Certainly, it takes strategy, creative vision, and dedication to build up one’s digital brand: creating and editing content, ratcheting up followers and likes, generating “buzz.” All of these activities require sufficient leisure time: amassing—and maintaining—tens of thousands of followers is no easy feat.

Aspirants, moreover, are encouraged to attend industry events and parties (scholars describe this necessary networking as “compulsory sociality”) and participate in various kinds of instruction/training (I recently came across this how-to guide) to prepare themselves for an imagined future. There’s even a summer camp for aspiring YouTube stars! These activities require sufficient economic—and often social—capital, so it’s important to keep in mind the role that class plays in shaping content creators’ opportunities.  Time and money are necessary to stage, shoot, and edit visual content. One of my interviewees explained that while the blogosphere is “a free domain,” it requires various resources: “You’re really spending your money on clothes and your camera equipment, and I know some people hire photographers…”

Despite these preconditions of economic, social, and aesthetic capital (looking the part!), I reject the “cultural dupe” argument (that is, the argument that people are unwittingly exploited). After all, the promises of the aspirational labor system propel the activities of so many of us (in the epilogue, I draw comparisons to the work we do as scholars in the digital era). In the popular imagination, at least, any of us can vie for success.

What I find especially concerning about the current aspirational economy is the extent to which it requires us to keep consuming and promoting—all while producing new content that ultimately benefits retail brands and platform owners. This lopsided system amounts to what Andrew Ross described as a “jackpot economy.” Model workers, Ross argued, are obliged to be “self- directed, entrepreneurial, [and] accustomed to precarious, nonstandard employment”—all in the hopes of “producing career hits.” Yet as with any jackpot, the “glittering prizes” are won by only “the lucky few.” The system succeeds both despite—and because of—profoundly highly lopsided nature.

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Roxana Moroşanu on her new book, An Ethnography of Household Energy Demand in the UK

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Interview by Ilana Gershon

http://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137593405

I was sitting in a coffee shop reading your book, and it sounds like I live in a town that allows for as many unplanned social encounters as Middleborough.   A law professor I hadn’t seen all summer came over to chat, looked at what I was reading, and raised his eyebrow in response to your title, An Ethnography of Household Energy Demand in the UK.  “Oh, this is so much more interesting than the title,” I hastened to reassure him.  “It is truly astonishing what you can learn by asking intelligent and imaginative questions about what seems to be banal.”  Could you talk a little bit about how wide a net you were able to cast in your ethnography by beginning with British households’ uses of electronic devices?

Thank you very much for such a kind defense! Studies of consumption in the Global North might often elicit reluctance at first. One might feel they already know about this – from the media, or their peers. However, when there’s an anthropologist conducting the study, the outcome will rarely address consumption alone. In this case, energy demand was a very useful entry point indeed, especially methodologically. It is such a taken for granted aspect of everyday life that in order to reach it you have to inquire about the organizing principles of everydayness. And once you are there, every detail that your interlocutors share about their routines becomes relevant, whether the first thing they do when they get home is to put the kettle on, or the fact that they wait for a specific TV program to have desert. Energy is implied in all these unobserved moments, but it’s more often a facilitator than an agent. So I widened my net to look at some other roles of energy-consuming devices, for example in supporting forms of domestic sociality, and in enacting values of togetherness and independence. It was exciting to work with families because they brought multiple perspectives on their shared domesticities, and the extra challenge for me to account for all of them in my analysis. In the end, the story that the book is telling is about human action and time, which are quite a long way away from consumption, conceptually. With regards to energy demand, I am really glad to have produced a set of suggestions for interventions that account for current configurations of values in the home, and which might be of use to policy-makers and other practitioners.

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Susan Lepselter on her new book, The Resonance of Unseen Things

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Interview by Micol Seigel

https://www.press.umich.edu/8373560/resonance_of_unseen_things

Your book isn’t easy to summarize because of the complex ways you weave your various interventions into (beautiful!) narrative, so instead of using this first question to have you describe the book, which is how this blog generally proceeds, I’m going to ask you several questions to try to convey some of the texture of your accomplishment.  I’d like to start by asking you what your research process was like.  Tell us about the time you spent in Texas and Nevada, the way you lived there, and how your relationships with people evolved, if you would.

Thank you, and I’m glad you’re taking the roundabout route – that does sound very appropriate! Many of the ethnographies I admire grow from the anthropologist’s prior relationship to a place and the people who live there.  For me, though, the way into this project was the stories. I was fascinated with uncanny abduction stories since before graduate school as texts, in mass market paperbacks and UFO magazines. There are scholars who have written brilliant and powerful books about UFO beliefs focusing completely on texts, especially in religious studies. But (not surprisingly) my own reading of these stories was challenged, and I became more aware of how irreducible and mysterious they still were to me, when I started hearing accounts of uncanny experiences told by real people in specific social contexts. In Texas I began going to a UFO Abductee Support Group, which was later called the UFO Experiencer’s support group, in the town I call Hillview in the book. This support group was, from its first meeting, a folklorist’s dream come true: a ready-made storytelling community. People sat together in a circle, and in a structure modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, testified to their disturbing, or exhilarating, inexplicable uncanny experiences. This was the first social context I’m talking about. I also attended meetings of a UFO organization called the Mutual UFO Network.  These were two overlapping communities, but they had different goals – MUFON was dedicated to the scientific study of UFOs and the Experiencer’s group was dedicated to a basically phenomenological approach to the real. I attended both local meetings and larger, national MUFON conventions, but I fell more completely into seeing through the Experiencer’s perspective through my friendships with the people there.

As friendships between regulars there deepened, the Experiencer’s group quickly exceeded its formal meeting structure (which also remained intact).

People made powerful friendships, and for me the people in these groups were in many ways more like colleagues than “interlocuters” because we were all restlessly exploring facets of the same compelling mystery. We just hung out whenever we could. Especially with my two best friends in this group, we’d sit for hours on a porch, or in a living room, or going out to eat, talking and talking, speculating, sharing ideas, dreams, weird memories, theories. I also spent a lot of time hanging out with others in the UFO community who didn’t necessarily go regularly to the support group, especially one man, who had dozens of inexplicable uncanny stories from a previous point in his life. But these conversations also drifted into politics, or society, or our families, or just the mundane stuff of life. The conspiracy theories that go along with UFO stories were braided into real experiences of hegemony and power. So my way of understanding uncanny stories shifted into a sense of their inseparability from the ordinary — a sense of how they worked to both intensify everyday experience and to offer a radical difference and departure from it. Hanging out with the folks in Texas, I often was struck by the fact that even though I was in graduate school, the most intense intellectual energy I ever experienced was on these porches or kitchens, or going out to look for UFOs, sometimes.

In Hillview, people talked a lot about what was going on in Area 51, where the government was said to be hiding a UFO. So eventually I decided to go out there. I was bringing some conspiracy-based material from a Hillview friend to someone who lived in Rachel. This was way before social media, so this was a normal way that people with shared interests might make a connection. In Rachel I based my research in the café in town that was the center of social life there, the Little Ale’le’Inn. The owners of the café were incredibly warm and generous to me. They let me live with them in a spare room in their mobile home. I was volunteering as a waitress in the café, where I heard tons of stories. When my husband came out, we stayed in another mobile home in the neighborhood. I also traveled around Nevada, listening to stories in other places too. But in Rachel, even more than in Hillview, the focus on UFOs – because that was the identity of the town — was interspersed with the ordinary experiences of working UFO tourism or just living in a small western desert town. Here, collecting conspiracy theories and uncanny stories was braided into working with friends in a café, visiting people in the town, seeing their gardens or ranches, playing pool or making dinner, or sometimes taking care of a few people’s kids when they had to work. I was participating in some very rich talk while we were driving around the desert, or holing up during a freak hail storm, or hanging out exhausted after a day of work …all these normal, ordinary activities, filled with jokes or singing or chit chat, rode along with the heavy conspiracy talk that was central in this place. Sometimes people moved here to be in the center of American uncanny conspiracy, and like the Hillview folks, they had an intense intellectual drive and a strong desire to discuss what felt like the most urgent topics. It was obvious that a pressing sense of uncanny conspiracy expressed something in people’s actual experience of power.

It was wonderful to spend time in Rachel. It is a strong community and the people there were unbelievably generous with their time and their hospitality.

Now would you write a little bit about your writing process?  How did you sit down to compose the evocative and even haunting prose that comprises so much of Resonance?  Clearly you are working on multiple planes here, very far from the straight-up sort of formal academic statement of argument.  What is it that you hope this style of narration might accomplish alongside your academic interventions?  What are the politics, in other words, of your narrative style?

 First off, this style of writing was opened up to me by my mentor, Katie Stewart. I don’t think my kind of ethnographic writing would have been possible without her brilliant, lyrical ethnographic work, beginning back in the 1980s.

This is the main thing about my venturing away from a traditional academic style: I think the key part of writing about the social is the practice of attention you develop. Instead of sticking always to specific interview techniques, or planning to fit your data into an existing theoretical template, or making some kind of moral or political judgment about things, you just give yourself over to listening. For this book, I wanted to make it clear that I was writing about something powerful in the voices I heard, not summarize what they said. What I did was immerse myself in the feeling, form or style of people’s stories, both in my face to face encounters and later when I transcribed tape recordings of interviews or conversations.  I was and am moved and awed by the performance of their talk and I wanted to write in a way that showed it was the poetics, not just the referential content, that got to the inchoate feeling of things, and did the work of meaning making. Anthropology has for a long time explored the co-construction of the political and the poetic. The politics of conspiracy theories can be challenging, but that’s intertwined with other elements that are more implicit. So first I committed to the idea that the actual object, the data I was after here – (and stories are, in a way, material data like rocks or bones) – was not just the manifest meaning, and wasn’t something to be explained away or debunked, for example. The things that I was going to write about could be gotten to only obliquely, because actually the topic for people was not any single story or event, it was the uncanny connections between stories and what that suggested about power.  They were talking about haunting, about the way things pile up and overlap.  The people I was hanging out were themselves always noticing the way stories resonate with each other. My job was to get to the actual ethnographic object, and that object was intertextual  and poetic – it was the depth of that piled-up sense of meaning. Paraphrasing it, or translating into an academic language, representing instead of presenting it, simply didn’t let me get to the specific “it” I wanted to show. You know the expression that writing about music is like dancing about architecture? Explaining it without evoking or performing it would have been dancing about architecture. So, I tried to perform what I wanted to say, too. And that’s the style you see here.

I think the politics of this ethnographic writing stance is about not leading with an obvious politics, actually. That is a stance that’s more comfortable with writing about cultures outside our own. When we are writing about people who seem both too close but on the opposite side of something, it’s more challenging not to make it just a polemic, or not to reduce it. First, I hope my work shows that people who are stigmatized or marginalized are not outside society; what they say is an intensification of the naturalized center of things.   It’s also political, for me, to believe that people are artful and creative and intellectual in ways that aren’t marked or supported by official institutions. For example, the intensification and condensation I was hearing in this talk is what poetry does, too. This focus on the vernacular is of course at the heart of anthropology and folklore, and I think it’s an inherently political way of understanding creativity and expressive culture; it’s why I wanted from the beginning of my career to write about narrative and poetics through anthropology. I was writing this book on and off for years and years, I’m a very slow writer, and for various reasons I didn’t seek to publish it for a long time before going back to it. But although my framing and interpretations changed some, what never altered was knowing that people’s way of telling stories about the uncanny is at once an unmarked art form, a way of theorizing power, and a public affect that exceeds the story’s explicit subject matter.

 In case it isn’t yet obvious, the book engages people who have experienced alien encounters of one sort or another.  What are some of the resonances you suggest these folks’ experiences touch and evoke, especially the historical trenches they mine and the aspects of collective memory they sound?  How do history and collective memory become threads in alien encounter experience?

 The foundational narrative of our nation is a story of freedom, but so many of our compulsively told narratives are about captivity.  Captivity was a major weapon in colonization and genocide here – the reservation, the boarding school. There was this enormously popular genre about Indians capturing whites during colonization, but the work of Pauline Turner Strong made me realize there were all these undertold, invisible captivity narratives about whites capturing Indians, as well. And I’m operating from a pretty Freudian sense of the uncanny– it reveals memories that have been partially forgotten because they’re too disturbing to recall completely. It’s an incomplete repression, a partial return. And here we see historical traumas that haven’t yet been fully dealt with. The fact that alien invasion is a story of colonization, and has tropes of terrifying assimilation or genocide, and the fact that alien abduction is a story of captivity by an invader, is pretty striking. But that wasn’t the whole thing. What happened here was that the intensity of feeling in these conversations about alien invasion and abduction, came from the poetics of conspiracy theory: that is, that something more is always going on than anything you can hear in one story. It’s the connections, the intertextual similarities, the overlaps, that seem real. So here, in these stories, all sorts of trauma become a sort of uncanny palimpsest: you get imagery from scientific racism, from Nazi medical experiments, from ecological precarity, from slavery, from the containment and genocide of Native Americans, and from the often impossible-to-speak ordinary experiences of everyday hegemony, all piled up together. The uncanny story compresses and intensifies all these histories and memories, like a poem would, and they are revealed as iterations of a common power, as a connected kind of force of history. And that sense of connection feels true to many of us both inside and outside official critical theory.

Of all the explanations for the recent presidential election out there in the blogworld/social media circuits/punditocrasphere, I find Resonance the most satisfying, even though (obviously) it wasn’t intended as such.  Could you talk about what you think your research might offer to people who are perplexed at the depth of support for the winner of that election?

When I did the bulk of my research in the 90s, the vast conspiracies, the sense of the government as evil, the intensified feelings of resentment and loss, were affects gathering at the margins of power. (This doesn’t mean that alien abductees were all working class, or that they were all conspiracy theorists — it’s much more complicated than that, of course.) And even though of course there’s a long history of American conspiratorial thought, this specific affect was at the time an emergent one. But in many ways, over the last two decades, various neoliberal effects in everyday life made the emergent affect, which I explore as something that was still on the stigmatized margins, into something more tangible, into something the center could seize on and exploit.  Using conspiracy as a perspective, inflaming it with racism, appropriating affects about power to infuse the dominant… ironically, the “they” already in power on the right and in the right wing media pounced on the inkling of a hidden “they.” I really was not surprised.

 

Ulla Berg on her new book, Mobile Selves

Mobile Selves: Race, Migration, and Belonging in Peru and the U.S. (Social Transformations in American Anthropology) by [Berg, Ulla D.]

 

https://nyupress.org/books/9781479803460/

Interview by Ilana Gershon

 If you were in a long customs line, like the one in the complex and evocative vignette with which you open your book, and you struck up a conversation with an immigration lawyer who happened to be just ahead of you in line, how would you describe your book?

Any migrant almost always exceeds the legal category they inhabit for US immigration purposes and this “excess” is a central concern in my book. I would probably focus on describing the communicative practices that people in my study use to navigate and fit into the legal categories available to them, including various visa categories. Lawyers are of course extremely aware of the complexities of people’s experiences when they try to construct a client’s case as compelling for any type of relief, but they also for obvious reasons need to shy away from engaging how people’s communicative practices are performative and context-dependent.

Migration is both a social and signifying practice that link the individual to the social collectivity. In contexts of migration, the migrant body is the center of these processes of signification; it is that which is read by others—for example, immigration officers, Anglo-Americans and non-migrant relatives—and that which in the most fundamental sense mediates all action upon the world. In the book at large, I discuss how the larger constraints of the migration process—and of social and racial orders more generally—constantly prompts migrants to communicate to others— U.S. immigration officials, Peruvian government officials, elite Peruvians, people in their home towns, US employers, and wider publics—an image of who they are or are expected to be and how they wish to be seen. Such images are necessarily always partial; indeed, they deny any facile claims to legibility embedded in normative and ideal-typical representations of who is a “Peruvian,” an “immigrant,” a “non-citizen,” a “refugee,” and so on. This is where the anthropological perspective is different from the legal one and could produce interesting debates!

How have biometric technologies changed people’s experiences of traveling between Peru and the United States?

Before the implementation of biometric passports and screening systems at USCIS checkpoints, it was still relatively easy for someone from Latin America to travel on someone else’s passport. In Mobile Selves, I give the example of two brothers who used the same passport to enter the US sometime in the 1990s. One of them told me: “We look like each other…and they [that is, the immigration authorities] can’t tell the difference anyway. To the gringos all cholos look the same.” But in the biometric era, not all cholos “read” the same!

Biometric technologies transform the body’s surfaces and characteristics into digital codes to be ‘read’ by a machine. But the meaning of the biometric body is always contingent upon the social and racial contexts in which it will be read and how it is tied to identity from the perspective of the social and political institutions that control the international movement of people. But of course, as many critics of biometrics have also argued, the burden of surveillance will continue to fall disproportionately on poor, marginal, and racialized communities. That is one of the problems with biometrics.

The heavier reliance on biometric identification also puts more weight on the visa interview and less on a portfolio of supporting documents. An average visa interview at the US consulate in Lima now lasts 3-5 minutes, and this opens up for all sorts of questions about the arbitrariness and the social and racial logics by which visa decisions are made, including about the issuing officer’s assumption about some people’s worthiness of a US visa over others. I think biometric technologies have intensified many people’s experience of being subjected to a controlling racial regime.

You describe how the experience of transnational migration has changed for people because of all the possible media people can now use to connect with family members back home.  Yet just because these technologies exist doesn’t mean that it is socially possible for Peruvian migrants to use them.   I was wondering if you could say a little bit about some of the social complications surrounding these technologies that make using these technologies a challenge both for those in Peru and those in the United States.

It is often assumed that just because communication technology exists, it will automatically make us feel more connected to our loved ones across time and space. But the expectation that you have to be reachable and connected at any point in time can be both exhausting, impractical, and also undesirable – we all know this from our daily lives! Such expectations were often difficult to meet both for labor migrants abroad as well as for family members in Peru, because of complicated work schedules, long workdays, little free time at their disposal, controlling employers or workplace surveillance, or limited options to connect in rural areas in Peru.

This is the main issue with celebratory accounts of the affordances that new media environments are supposed to offer for the enactment and experience of social relations across time and space. Yes, disenfranchised migrant mothers can use Skype or Facetime to check in on their children from afar, but this technologically mediated form of communication cannot substitute the intense multi-sensorial experience of being able to tug your own kid (not someone else’s) into bed at night or to be there for them if they wake up in the middle of the night after a nightmare or if something bad happens at school.

Considering these complex social dynamics undergirded by global inequality, I disagree with scholars who diminish or even disregard the social and emotional cost of separation by proposing that polymedia environments contribute to making the absent other tangible and therefore come to constitute the other person and hence the relationship itself. For most people in my study, new technologies could alter feelings by momentarily collapsing distance and institute forms of co-presence, but at the end of the day most migrant mothers lived on in the United States mourning the prolonged separation from their children and other relatives. Along with this, the feelings of abandonment in some children towards their migrant parents extend into their adolescence and adulthood as resentments that cannot easily be undone even as a person grows up and acquires more tools to understand your parent’s actions.  Feelings such as pain, loss, suffering over separation and distance, longing, sadness, and nostalgia or the more positive ones such as love, compassion, intimacy, and belonging continued to animate the lives of migrants in affective and material ways despite the changing technologies used to produce these social and intersubjective relationships through long-distance communication.

I was wondering if you could discuss the different attitudes Peruvian migrants have towards audio-cassettes and videocassettes, and how these different media ideologies shaped the genres people use to circulate images and stories circulated between Peru and the U.S.

Absolutely. Most recent migrants are constantly preoccupied with maintaining the social bonds of kinship with family and relatives left behind via long-distance communication, remitting small amounts of money from their meager entry-level U.S. salaries, and by circulating a variety of material and media objects. In this way, they seek to remain emotionally connected and relevant in the everyday lives of their families in Peru and socially visible in the communities they left behind. For example, in Chapter 3, I evoke the concept of “remote sensing” specifically to discuss the attempts of migrant parents to “feel” and “know” their children’s lives and whereabouts from afar. This communicative, sensory, and mediated practice, which employ both aural and visual technologies, regularly plays out against dominant social norms that cast “communicative” migrants abroad in a favorable light back home as caring mothers, responsible fathers, dutiful daughters, and reliable and dependable “hijos ausentes” (that is, absent sons and daughters of their rural communities of origin). But in the context of the prolonged separation caused by migration, “remote sensing”, I suggest, amplifies rather than ameliorates the social and emotional struggles of transnational families, because participants are often not able to perform according to the roles set for them by gendered and intergenerational normative frameworks. In this way, long-distance communication, as a form of social, cultural, and affective practice, is often fraught with tension, uncertainty, and power inequalities.

Some migrants in my study preferred visual means of communication and they claimed it gave them the added effect of seeing their loved ones. There was often an assumption that you can “fake it” over the phone but you cannot conceal your true feelings when video chatting (even if all forms of communication are of course performative – also face-to-face communication whether mediated by video or not). Many migrants also “produced” videos to send to their family members – either of everyday life or special occasions such as community events or fiestas. I show in the book how video production, consumption, and circulation figure centrally in migrants’ staging of their own social visibility as “worldly” and “cosmopolitan” ex-campesinos. Participants in my study were highly invested in monitoring, selecting, and negotiating the criteria for which images of migrant life abroad could be shared with those back in Peru and what, in turn, had to be made invisible and left out of circulation to avoid rumors, tensions, and accusations within transnational families or among paisanos back home. Of course sometimes particular image objects escaped intended networks of circulation and moved beyond specific audiences. In these cases, imagery served as “visual evidence” that could complicate people’s efforts of self-fashioning. I show how such revelations have implications for the production of social cohesion within transnational migrant collectivities, and how circulating images may serve as new forms of social control and surveillance. In sum, visual and oral forms of communication have significant differences but both extend and also complicate social relations and in their own way expose the inherent tensions and ambiguities of the migrant/transnational condition of Andean Peruvians.You published this book before Trump was elected, turning anti-immigration sentiment into an official government position. If you had a chance to talk to a room full of Trump supporters who were willing to listening respectfully to academics, what would you like them to know about your research?

Ha ha—fact-seeking Trump supporters? That seems like a hypothetical scenario at this point in time, but ok… I would probably feel compelled to first talk about the many contributions of immigrants—Latin Americans, in particular—to the US economy and society and to expel some of the many “alternative facts” about these populations circulated by the Trump administration’s propaganda machinery.

What currently counts as “immigration policy” in the US is a series of contradictory piecemeal actions, most of them based on long-lived racial anxieties and nativist ideologies, which do not add up to any coherent policy. Unfortunately, by not having a coherent immigration policy, the US has become a world leader in the undermining of human potential. Trump’s recent decision to end DACA is a text-book example of such complete lack of perspective.

I would give examples of the profound existential resourcefulness of most of the mobile Peruvians I came to know during my research to show Trump supporters how the drive to better oneself and the larger community is not a US invention but one that is widely shared by migrants around the world; one that cannot but make America much greater in the future than what it currently is today. Immigrants don’t take jobs, they create them. We are not parasitical on the US economy; we make this economy happen on a daily basis.

Hopefully, the Trump era will soon be reduced to a crazy minor parenthesis in modern US history, but what not only a room full of attentive Trump supporters specifically, but US whites more generally must acknowledge and work to change is how in the United States mobility is intimately tied to race and privilege (or the lack thereof). This is one of the basic points of the book that I would attempt to convey in such a situation.

 

 

 

Jennifer Roth-Gordon on her new book, Race and the Brazilian Body

Race and the Brazilian Body: Blackness, Whiteness, and Everyday Language in Rio de Janeiro by [Roth-Gordon, Jennifer]

http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520293809

Interview by Ilana Gershon

If you were at a wedding, and the person at your table happened to be a scholar of African-American experiences of the Jim Crow South who wanted to know a bit about your book, what would you say?

Can the person sitting next to the Jim Crow scholar at our table be someone who witnessed the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville? I think I might open by saying to them that I study race relations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a context which is both very similar and very different from the ones that they are immersed in. My book is an investigation into how we can watch people draw on and perpetuate racial hierarchy in daily conversations and interactions, in a national context where noticing racial difference is (and has long been) taboo. These racial ideas – about the superiority of whiteness and the inferiority of blackness – are the same ideas that were legalized in the Jim Crow South and that white people marched to uphold just a few weeks ago, in defense of statues meant to keep nonwhite people “in their place.” I can point to very little that changes, over time or across national boundaries, in the civilized/uncivilized and upstanding/dangerous distinctions between what whiteness and nonwhiteness are thought to represent.

Brazil also suffers from incredibly high levels of structural racism that almost always exceed statistics from the present-day U.S. (from racial gaps in education levels, income, and where people live, to what scholars have called a black genocide of thousands of Afro-descended youth killed by police each year). Despite these national similarities, Brazil has long used incidents like Charlottesville (such as the Civil War, lynchings, the LA riots and Rodney King beating, Ferguson, and so on) to define themselves in contrast to the violent history and aggressive nature of race relations in the U.S. Though they are now more aware of racism than ever before, many Brazilians continue to take pride in their reputation for racial mixture and racial tolerance. While most would admit that Brazil is not (and has never been) a “racial democracy,” there is a strong belief that inequality in Brazil is socioeconomic, rather than racial.

My book seeks to explain the “comfortable racial contradiction” that surrounds Rio residents with signs of blackness and whiteness but discourages them from describing what they see in racial terms. It’s not a contradiction that is “comfortable” for all, but I argue that this contradiction is surprisingly easy to live within, even as it may be hard to unravel and explain – in the same way that we now have to contemplate what it means to live in a “colorblind” America that has people on both ends of the political spectrum loudly proclaiming that race matters. I study how racial ideology allows us to live in societies that promote themselves as tolerant and equal, even as we are daily surrounded by (and participating in) profoundly racially unequal and unjust circumstances. Laws and torches are not the only ways to maintain white supremacy, and swastika-flag bearers are not the only ones who keep systems of racial hierarchy in place.

You argue that Rio residents are in the position of being able to claim to be racially tolerant while still re-inscribing racial hierarchies in practice.  Do you have an especially apt example of this dynamic?

My intention is to better understand race, and more specifically whiteness, by disentangling the obvious relevance of phenotype from the often unacknowledged significance of embodied practices. As I describe, medium brown-skinned bodies can be read as “black” in Rio when they take up slang associated with favelas (shantyowns). These same bodies can be read as “white” when they occupy exclusive private spaces like social clubs and demonstrate “proper” restraint and decorum. Drawing on everyday interactions, I show how Rio residents unavoidably draw on widespread and well known racial discourses to make their bodies interpretable, and to interpret others, as they interact in both comfortable private spaces amongst “equals” and as they cross the city’s well-established race and class borders.

In the book, I discuss an especially interesting situation in which a phenotypically “brown” youth who I call Bola started spending time hanging out in the housing project/favela where I was conducting research. He was raised in the white middle class, and he was splitting his time between studying for college-entrance exams with his friends from his private high school and hanging out on the streets with darker-skinned peers in Cruzada who were not on the same life path. He adapted a very different speech style with these youth. I played recordings of his speech for outside listeners (non-participants), including his own mother. Her response offered an excellent example of this simultaneously racially tolerant and racially hierarchical reaction. She was not upset that her son chose to associate closely with darker-skinned people in spaces that were considered dangerous. But she was horrified by his language in these conversations, which evoked the blackness and criminality associated with the favela: “É uma tristeza isso aqui! Meu Deus do céu! Que diálogo horroroso isso! [Eu rio] Não, eu acho! Não vou dar crédito a isso aqui . . . Que bando de marginal!” (How sad this is! Oh my God! What a horrible dialogue! [I laugh] No, I think so! I won’t give credit to this . . . It sounds like a group of marginals [criminals]!) It was not people who were visibly and audibly black that worried her but rather others’ ability to read the signs of blackness off of her son’s body (and the fact that these signs undid the possibilities of his whiteness).

In Brazil, neither light skin nor ancestry guarantees or is required for racial whiteness, which is helpful for phenotypically darker members of the middle class like Bola, but this makes the constant display of the bodily techniques associated with whiteness all the more important.

How are notions of whiteness in Brazil different than in the United States?  How might this explain the differences between being a Brazilian playboy and a U.S. wigger? 

Brazil is both proud of its history promoting miscegenation and racial mixture and deeply ashamed of its status as a “mongrel” nation that lacks the culture, civilization, and modernity associated with racial whiteness. Across Latin America and the Caribbean, individuals, families, and nation-states have long struggled to acquire and display whiteness, harboring both implicit and explicit fears that they will never shed their associations with nonwhiteness, which includes both African and indigenous heredity. Whiteness suggests decorum, respectability, and civilized control. But the presumed lack of racial purity in Brazil – what has been called “virtual whiteness” or the implication that one is “branco por procuração” (white by proxy) – means that one’s whiteness is always vulnerable. I find this racial anxiety productive in suggesting that critical whiteness scholars should question the presumed “normalcy” and stability of whiteness, even in the United States. In particular, I am intrigued by the cultural and linguistic work that people (of different racial backgrounds) do to associate themselves with whiteness, in order to benefit from racial privilege. (Though people like the rappers and rap fans I worked with could also choose to explicitly reject the push for racial whitening or assimilation.) In the book, I examine three social and racial imperatives that uphold Brazilian racial hierarchy: (1) the need to display whiteness, (2) the desire to avoid blackness, and (3) the obligation to remain racially “cordial.” I believe that the United States shares with Brazil this orientation towards whiteness and away from blackness, though ideologies of racial purity clearly differ. In Brazil, the ideal national color is “moreno” or brown.

Because of the ambivalence surrounding racial purity, the Brazilian “playboy” is a term rappers use to call out the desire of privileged male youth to flaunt their racial whiteness (without necessarily identifying as white). By contrast, the U.S. wigger is a term used for white-identified male youth who flaunt their dangerous and “inappropriate” connections to blackness. Both terms help illustrate the main argument of my book: The amount of whiteness or blackness a body displays is determined not only through observations of phenotypical features, but also through careful attention paid to cultural and linguistic practices.

One of your fieldwork strategies that turns out to be very productive is playing recordings of people’s speech across class lines and analyzing people’s reactions.   You often mention that the Brazilians you encountered seemed intent on not discussing or openly acknowledging race.  How did this technique function in a context where people actively avoided discussing precisely what you were interested in studying?   Is there a specific response someone had to a decontextualized snippet of conversation that you especially like to analyze?

My favorite “decontextualized snippet” to play wound up being one in which a favela youth recounted a time that he felt he was going to be robbed. Just as cultural anthropologist Teresa Caldeira has found in São Paulo, “talk of crime” is a very productive narrative genre in Rio. But rather than responding by producing their own “near robbery” experiences (which they all undoubtedly had and liked to share), middle-class listeners reacted very viscerally to the speech that they had just heard. Though the story was about a favela youth’s own vulnerability and near-victim status, all they could hear was the voice of a criminal. Their reactions to the non-standard speech that he used (all of which they associated with gíria or slang) beautifully illustrated the enregisterment of slang, as specific linguistic features were grouped together to point directly to “dangerous” city spaces and the persona of a “bandido” (bandit or criminal). Though the actual bodies of the speakers could only be imagined, foundational ties were being stitched together between perceived linguistic disorder, the breaking of laws, and blackness. In less directed conversations and without concrete examples that triggered emotional reactions of fear and disdain, members of the middle class were more likely to speak in general terms about the links between standard speech, education, and socioeconomic class. Rio residents rarely mention race explicitly, and this technique of metalinguistic interviewing allowed me to show how they continue to draw on an implicit racial logic that links whiteness to bodily and linguistic control, cultural refinement, and law and order while connecting blackness to a lack of rationality and intellect, violence, and dangerous disarray.

How did being part of a mixed family in the field, since you have two adopted children who read as black in Brazil (and in the US as well), offer you a useful lens for understanding how race is socially constructed?   And how do all your children deal with the transitions of moving between two such differentially racialized contexts?

I’ve studied race in Rio since 1995, but the year I spent living in Rio with my three children in tow (in 2014) was an eye-opener in understanding the huge differences between color and race and between brownness and blackness. Though they went to a private school with hundreds of children, many of whom would not be considered white in the U.S., my two African American children stuck out due to their phenotypical blackness. At the same time, I could watch how they were treated very differently from the darker-skinned people who did occupy the same private, middle-class spaces (as minimum-wage workers who cleaned, served as security guards, and so on). Rather than attributing that merely to a difference of socioeconomic class (as many Brazilians, and even North Americans, would assume), I had to expand my understanding of race beyond phenotypical markers. My children did not cease being black and people did not turn off their awareness of race just because of their class status. This led me to question why two of my three children didn’t receive more of a reaction when they entered such white spaces. On the one hand, I would argue that they have acquired the right “racial sensibilities” (as Ann Stoler calls them), but, at the same time, structural racism gets pretty glaring when you are in its limelight. When we are at a “casa de festa” (private party space) with dozens of other children, none of them dark-skinned, and another mother comes up to ask me if I am the mother of the “girl in the green dress,” it becomes clear that there is a sophisticated “not noticing” of race that is going on. Rather than merely benefiting from socioeconomic similarity, my daughter was being read as both black and white. This has euphemistically been referred to as being a “negro de alma branca” (a black person with a white soul).

My children have struggled with their own noticing of racial difference (“why are most of the street kids black?”) and the occasionally loud noticing of racial difference by other young children not yet trained in the racial etiquette of tolerance or colorblindness (“your skin is black!”). But cycling back to my answer to your first question, the structural racism they live in and the white supremacist ideologies that they must live with have produced similar life lessons in racial inequality in both contexts. This simultaneous similarity and difference has long made Brazil a productive foil for the study of U.S. race relations.