I find myself, on page 99, in the middle of a crisis of translation. Unsurprising, given that my “in” to dissertation fieldwork resembled that of many anthropologists, who often find their place among their interlocutors as translators. In my case, working at an all-women news agency in Kurdistan, it was as a translator of a particular kind: of languages, but also of feminisms.
I first met the journalists of JINHA when I traveled to Turkey in 2013 to research the alarming crackdown on journalists, mostly radical Kurdish journalists, who were being tried on trumped-up charges of terrorist affiliation—which the Turkish state often uses to criminalize Kurdish communities by association with the Kurdish guerrilla, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). (Today, after the all-out war the Turkish state has waged on journalists since 2015, including shutting down JINHA and imprisoning its founder, the artist Zehra Doğan, those trials seem like a prelude.)
I was introduced to two journalists from the newly founded JINHA (Women’s News Agency). They were shocked that I, as a woman, was tagging along with their male colleagues rather than engaging with their all-women media project based in Diyarbakır, in Kurdistan. Soon enough I had signed on as their new English translator. It was my job to translate their stories, and with it their concept (formed through the Kurdish women’s movement) of “the world of women”—the world of everyday solidarities and resistance among women working to survive the patriarchy, often sidelined by what misogynistic journalism considered newsworthy.
It was my task to translate this world of women for “the women of the world,” and it was not easy. If I translated the news reports directly, they were illegible out of context. I grapple with this on page 99:
“Part of the problem, I realized, was present already in the Turkish-language original text (the bulk of JINHA’s output is composed in Turkish). These texts constantly had an imagined Turkish reader in mind. Of course they imagined a Kurdish reader, as well; the women who wrote them had a deep knowledge of Kurdish women’s experience, and wrote and worked out of a passion for the Kurdish women around them. But they also had a keen knowledge of the dominant group, Turkish women, whom they had seen on TV as the models of ‘womanhood’ since they were children, whom they had often grown up alongside in their urban Istanbul neighborhoods, or marched with in university. They could write equally for this audience as for Kurdish women. So in a way, the news itself was already being translated in its instance of creation into the respectability politics of state feminism, the Turkish left, and the feminisms of that context. It was into this already-tangled communication between ‘women of the world’ that I stepped, into its image of ‘womanhood’ that overrode all individual experiences to point out the shared suffering rather than the differences.”
I found myself bumping up against various intimate differences among women along class and racialized lines, which the category of woman was bridging. Over the course of my fieldwork, I absorbed JINHA’s urgency for translating the project of women’s journalism near and far, and took it upon myself to translate and select stories that I imagined might speak widely too. My dissertation ultimately argues that JINHA, through their newsmaking, crafted new kinds of women subjects, by making women speak as women, as part of an imagined community of women. As I became a translator of the world of women, I became crafted into this kind of subject myself.
Hyemin Lee: I am curious about how this book will circulate among a broader audience interested in the problem of language. You argue that the anthropological study of glossolalia should be centered around conceptualizing glossolalia as cultural semiosis. As you put it, this cultural semiosis “is said to contain, and therefore can be justified by, an ideological core of language, but in fact is produced at the ideological limits of language” (7). That is, when Korean Christians posit glossolalia as language, this is only possible because glossolalia challenges assumptions of what is fundamentally necessary about language. Thus, you offer an analytical framework that locates both glossolalia’s denotational unintelligibility and cultural intelligibility within the production of an experience of language. How would you envision your argument to be taken up by future scholars in and outside of anthropology who study and work on the problem of language?
Nick Harkness: First of all, thank you for engaging so seriously and carefully with this book. It is a great opportunity to discuss it with a linguistic anthropologist who specializes in the study of Korea! And I appreciate your crisp characterization of my attempt: “readers are presented with an analytical framework that locates both glossolalia’s denotational unintelligibility and cultural intelligibility within the production of an experience of language.” Your first question goes straight to the problem of language as an existential and practical issue for human social groups everywhere. This issue has led to two crucial insights in anthropology. The first is that language is a dynamic complex of structure, practice, and ideology—what Michael Silverstein called the “total linguistic fact.” The second is that this dynamic complex consists of different kinds of signs; some will be relatively unique to language, and others will resemble broader sociocultural processes. This book combines these two insights by situating glossolalia within a broader linguistic, communicational, and semiotic context. This meant connecting it ethnographically and historically to the specificities of language (especially Korean), and to markedly non-linguistic practices both within the churches and beyond them. Glossolalia is interesting generally because it suppresses some of the signs that are most unique to, and thought to be necessary for, language. In South Korea, glossolalia is practiced across Protestant Christian communities, well beyond the kinds of Pentecostal or Charismatic groups normally represented in the literature. And a language like Korean and a linguistic context like South Korea present a stark contrast to the residual European (heavily Anglophone) linguistic ideologies that typically shape how language is dealt with (or not dealt with) in the scholarship on glossolalia. I treat glossolalia less as a defining feature of charismatic Christianity (which of course would be the obvious comparative approach) and instead see it as a telling feature of South Korean social life in the 20th and early 21st centuries, which was given a specific shape and amplified by Christianity’s massification and diversification there. The problem of language in this model quickly becomes the problem of the social.
Hyemin Lee: Your new book reminds me of your first book, Songs of Seoul. I would like to know more about connections between your research projects. How did you come to research glossolalia? And how is glossolalia related to your first book’s fieldwork?
Nick Harkness: You’re absolutely right. The two books could be read together as a two-volume set on voice and religion in Christian South Korea. Although the specific forms and institutional centers discussed in each book differ, the populations are continuous, and so too the practices. My research in South Korea began with an empirical question about the number and relative success of South Korean singers of European-style classical (especially operatic) music on international stages. These singers led me to the Protestant churches of Seoul, especially the affluent middle and upper-class (usually Presbyterian) megachurches, where most of them sang. And my first book became a study of human artistic vocality shaped by Korean Christianity (major fieldwork in 2008-9). These same singers, and the churches more broadly, led me to study glossolalia (major fieldwork in 2013-14), because I began to notice, with surprise, how many of them, their family members, and friends, spoke in tongues or participated in Christian settings where tongues were spoken—despite their Presbyterian church affiliations and upper-class, educated identities. The first book was oriented to the relationship between registers and genres of singing and a specific kind of (generally aspirational) social voicing, and the second was oriented to the relationship between registers and genres of speech and a specific kind of (often fervent) spiritual voicing.
In the second book I drew far more widely from different Christian contexts in South Korea. For the first book, I focused on an upper-class Presbyterian megachurch of approximately 70,000 people and one of the most prestigious colleges of music. For the second, I turned my attention to the ritual and historical center of glossolalia in South Korea, the Yoido Full Gospel Church, which was established in an impoverished peri-urban settlement after the Korean War (1950-3) and over a few decades grew to claim at one point more than 800,000 people. I then followed the historical wake of the Yoido Full Gospel Church to the more upper-class populations, where glossolalia eventually became common, but far more unevenly and ambivalently practiced, often at the ritual peripheries of the church institutions. Putting these two studies together, as you suggest, reveals something far more complicated than Pentecostalism as such—instead pointing to a Korean cultural context of vocality and vocalized sociality that manifests in different musical and linguistic forms, under different Christian and related institutions, with considerable sociological and ideological fluidity and historical connection between (and beyond) them.
Hyemin Lee: It is very intriguing to find out how glossolalia and cacophony, when combined, transform the sensory environment of the prayerful where pitch, rhythm, and tempo emerge as a new semiotic orientation to produce ritually and intersubjectively organized poetic form(s). I am very interested in this rich analysis of glossolalia focusing on sounds, perceptions, feelings, and qualitative metaphors/descriptions. One might surmise that these sensuous qualities are linked to specific prayer styles (e.g., “hard, with passion” (세게, 열정적으로) (153)) and/or an idealized image of the prayerful. Could the methodological-analytical framework of qualia be applied to analyze these sensuous dimensions of glossolalia in Korean churches. Do you think it is plausible to use qualia to analyze glossolalia in Korean churches?
Nick Harkness: The short answer is: yes! By qualia, I think you are referring to the effects of sign processes as they are experienced sensuously. And given your own excellent research on Korean traditional medicine and the semiotics of bodily relief, this is an important point of connection between our work. Attention to qualia allows us to look empirically at how large-scale semiotic processes are made to seem—to “feel”—non-semiotic, that is, to be experienced as the natural, given properties of “what there is.” Such attention helps us better understand how the divine is made sensuously present (a relatively old question), and to trace a pathway from the feeling of speech and social interaction in everyday life to the more focused, concentrated modes of spiritual interaction, of which glossolalia is a limit case. As your question indicates, though, I mention qualia only briefly. Why? The press imposed a limit of 80,000 words, and a serious treatment of qualia would have pushed it way over. I was also mindful of contemporary readers’ terminological allergies (sometimes scholars need to behave like servers in a restaurant: “are there any allergies I should be aware of?”). To riff on Malinowski’s phrase: any hint of experienced obscurity is clearly not a virtue for an academic culture so influenced by a Protestant linguistic ideology of direct, unhindered access. Personally, I agree with you that further careful, technical, empirical investigation of the qualia problem in relation to glossolalia and related practices would help reveal the “production of an experience of language” as you so nicely put it above and show semiotic processes at work beyond the more familiar ethnography-as-creative-narrative-non-fiction approach to the descriptive phenomenology of spiritual encounter.
Hyemin Lee:While reading the book, I was surprised to see many connections between glossolalia and the body, such as the idea of healing the body, human anatomy, and kinesics. The human throat’s morphological and functional openness creates a semiotic space starting from the lips (or mouth) to the tongue, to the throat, and ultimately to the heart, all of which are structurally iconic to the pathway of Word travelling through the Holy Spirit. Also, an individual’s bodily movements and gestures may connect to glossolalic practice(s). What you think about these relationships between glossolalia and the human body? Do you have any ethnographic or analytic accounts where the body played a significant role in glossolalia in Korean churches?
Nick Harkness: The sequential structure of your questions overall is wonderfully figurative of this particular question! From language (1), to continuity qua vocality (2), to qualia (3), and now to the body (4). In my earlier book, I spent a lot of energy on the body—focusing on singing technique and health makes this rather unavoidable. Here, I ask how diverse glossolalic practices were held together by the problem of language. Indeed, practitioners of glossolalia regularly foregrounded bodily sensations. But they also often emphasized other aspects, such as the explicitly social (connecting with or disconnecting from others), the overtly cognitive (such as sending or decoding denotational messages), or even the blatantly apathetic (just self-reflexively and banally participating to participate). Yet the body does make frequent, vivid appearances. More broadly, elements of Korean charismatic Christianity can be traced to shamanic practices of bodily possession and healing, while Korea’s contemporary Pentecostal form was birthed from the bodily and psychological trauma of post-war South Korea. The body is many things at once in glossolalia: a source of sound production, an organized gestural space of articulation, a porous boundary (e.g., for spiritual water, fire, air), a vehicle of spiritual encounter and transmission, epistemological center, object of divine intervention, and so on. This all varied dramatically across theological spaces and individuals. There were some relatively formalized gestures and postures of prayer that could be intensified in glossolalia. But I found the spread and diversity of their contextualized functions more revealing than the formal regularities. In the book’s appendix (speaking of the body!), which is an historical reconstruction of the invention of term “glossolalia” (die Glossolalie) in early 19th Century German theology, one can see how the problem of the body (from the movement of the tongue to entire states of bodily frenzy) was a problem from the very beginning of its modern coinage.
Hyemin Lee: Lastly, I am curious about South Korea’s socio-historical context where Korean Christianity prospered. I truly enjoyed your discussion of how glossolalia as a sociolinguistic reality has to do with South Korea’s postwar context. I would like to hear more about the recent socio-historical contexts relevant to the glossolalia’s growth. Do you think that the recent socio-economic events, such as the IMF crisis (IMF 위기) in the late 1990s and rapid globalization (e.g., the lift of overseas travel bans in 1989), also played roles in shaping today’s sociolinguistic reality of glossolalia in Korean churches?
Nick Harkness: I really appreciate ending with this question, highlighting more recent Korean history against the background of over 60 years of glossolalia, and over 130 years of Protestant vocality. I emphasize the years just before and after the Korean War, when North Korean churches came south from Pyongyang and when the Yoido Full Gospel church was established. I also emphasize the 1960s through the 1980s, the most dramatic period of Protestant church growth in terms of numbers and church size. Democratization and globalization (late 80s-90s) initiated a period of global mobility. The overseas education industry produced both widespread multi-lingual contact as well as overseas enclaves, where fervent Christianity seems to have thrived. This period led to the global Korean culture industry—Kpop and the Korean wave. It also produced a surplus of seminary graduates, who ultimately needed to go overseas for missionary work because there weren’t enough Christians at home. And the Asian financial crisis (late 90s) produced major shocks for Asian societies organized around rapid economic development. One effect of financial loss was to encourage some lay members to become more devout members. When businesses failed, some turned not only to the church, but also to church business. So yes, indeed there is a connection with the development of Christianity.
However, I am not as sure about glossolalia as such. When it comes to glossolalia specifically, I think it has probably reached its saturation point, and will probably decline. I realize this is bad for business in the Anthropology of Christianity, which tends to rely on identifying new charismatic forms and sites of practice to justify its anthropological mission. But a serious investigation of the “total linguistic fact” develops a picture somewhat different from the one generated by theories that treat charismatic Christianity as an unstoppable global capitalist cargo cult or a cybernetic machine of self-reproduction. From the point of view of the problem of language, it is hard to see how glossolalia would continue at its current rates, let alone expand, in South Korea. The Pentecostal center is decreasingly influential, the communicational contexts across Christian populations continue to shift, and the diversity of practices and ideologies at the peripheries do not suggest revival, concentration, or significant formalization there. One occasionally hears that there are more former members of the Yoido Full Gospel Church than current members (and this goes for Protestant Christians in South Korea more generally).
Someone might misunderstand me to be addressing the rise of religious doubt. My focus, however, is on the “dynamic synchrony” of glossolalia in South Korea—the historical dimensions at work in its contemporary diversity. Glossolalia became widespread across South Korean Protestant communities under specific historical conditions. Those conditions have changed, and it may now be a victim of its own success. Glossolalia has spread out widely and unevenly across an (aging, shrinking) Christian population, while its explicitly theological relevance wanes. I don’t think we commit any grave analytical sin by viewing the sociolinguistic fact of glossolalia in part as a socio-semiotic trend, despite its profound significance for many individuals, its undeniable scale, the very public presence of many of its most fervent practitioners, and its obvious longevity thus far. Although glossolalia has become normalized across Christian communities, there is already a strong and growing feeling of “pastness” attributed to it (speaking of qualia!)—associated especially with earlier periods of more fervent practice and growth (such as the 1980s). Who knows exactly what will happen with Korean Christianity? The contemporary political dimensions of conservative Christianity in South Korea pose more than a few questions. But it seems likely at least that widespread, fervent, explicitly Christian denotationalunintelligibility—as the formalized structural negation of a core ideological principle of language, a negation that defines glossolalic practice—will become less and less culturally intelligible (or valuable).
The 99th page of my dissertation, “Mediating Micronesian Futures: Potentialities and Precarity in Cultural Production Among Mobile Pacific Islanders,” marks a transition in a chapter introducing how contemporary people from the Federated States of Micronesia engage diverse media to connect on their home islands and further afield. The chapter’s first sections follow a ritual sound from the island of Pohnpei, FSM as it is deployed by Pohnpeians to continue its mediating work of gathering participants in feast houses, but also to communicate respect during Pohnpeian radio broadcasts and to engage diverse crowds at international events on Pohnpei and abroad. Page 99 moves from tracing this enduring Pohnpeian mediator to broadly introducing other indigenous and incorporated technologies in Micronesians’ media worlds. Faye Ginsburg, Brian Larkin, and Lila Abu Lughod argue that analyzing ‘media worlds’ “situates media as a social practice within… shifting political and cultural frames,” (2002: 3). The media worlds shaped by contemporary Micronesians span islands in the Federated States of Micronesia and places in Guam, Hawai‘i, and the continental United States where an estimated 1 in 3 FSM citizens and their diaspora-born children travel, work, and live as legal non-immigrants. These transnational Micronesian media worlds enlarge the scale of the transmission and transformations of cultural knowledge and protocol, as well as valued materials. As articulated by Epeli Hau‘ofa, the contemporary circulation of Pacific people, valued Oceanic foods and substances, and Western materials within the Pacific and beyond move through long-held cultural patterns of families’ reciprocal interdependence, but now between kin at home, in motion, and in diaspora (1993; see also Peter 2000; Gershon 2007, 2012). People on Pohnpei and among the FSM diaspora on Guam narrated how they deploy multiple communicative modalities in their work to maintain expected kinship roles from a distance. This section presents types of modalities deployed across contemporary Micronesians’ networks intertwined with my interlocutors’ narratives about communication devices’ and media platforms’ roles in facilitating valued socioeconomic exchanges that underlie practices of interdependent care and support among kin (Hau‘ofa 2008.) Further narratives describe negotiations around connectivity and respect in communication across social media platforms, and diverse media modalities’ incorporation in processes of documenting and transmitting culturally-significant knowledge, forms, and performances.
Page 99 then describes hand carried letters and packages on planes, and subsequent pages discuss Micronesians’ narratives about culturally-inflected engagement with high-frequency, CB, and satellite radios; families’ communal mobile phones; WhatsApp and Facebook; film and digital photography; as well as camcorders and cell phone films.
I conducted my dissertation fieldwork with islanders on Pohnpei and with FSM diaspora on Guam, indigenous home of the Chamoru and an unincorporated U.S. territory, during periods from 2015 to 2018. Re-reading this page in 2021 — and later chapters about Pohnpeians’ digitized participation in mortuary and other rituals from afar — underscores how highly diasporic populations have been shaping ways to participate in their families’ life events through mediating technologies long before many governments’ social distancing mandates in 2020 widely necessitated digitally-mediated gatherings for celebrations and mourning in order to quell the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Jacqueline Hazen. 2020. “Mediating Micronesian Futures: Potentialities and Precarity in Cultural Production Among Mobile Pacific Islanders.” New York University Phd.
Rob Shore: Using the lens of social science on Shakespeare seems at once radical and—after having read the book—obvious. Tell me about how you conceived of the project and summarize the main argument you are making.
Bradd Shore: The book was written to bring together convincingly the two most important sides of my intellectual life: (1) Shakespeare’s plays and poetry and (2) anthropologically grounded social theory. My interest in Shakespeare began when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley back in the early 1960s. I was an English major and had the good fortune to study with some brilliant Shakespeare scholars in Berkeley’s distinguished English Department, at the time the best place in the world for studying Renaissance English literature.
As I studied Shakespeare, I took several excellent courses in political theory. As I read thinkers like Locke and Hume and Plato and Rousseau, I was struck by surprising overlaps between the concerns of political philosophers and Shakespeare. Of course, Shakespeare expressed himself through drama rather than philosophical discourse. Nonetheless, I saw in Shakespeare’s work a theoretical genius paralleling his poetic and dramatic skills.
Shakespeare’s approach to theory was not always immediately apparent in the plays. He had found a way to embed a theoretical perspective in his plays without dislocating or disrupting the theatrical and poetic power of the drama. I became interested in his plays as fascinating and often underappreciated reflections on many of the same issues that I would study in my later career as an anthropologist, issues like the theatrical nature of political power, the creative and procreative power of art and nature, dilemmas of sex and gender, reconciling love and marriage, life as performance, the power of ritual, the relation between language and reality, and the human effort to make meaning.
I also wanted to understand how Shakespeare did all this by telling stories. So I began to study the literary techniques he used to manage this marriage of story-telling and theory. Imagining Shakespeare as an anthropologist, it was as if he had figured out how to write vivid ethnography so that it reflected theoretically back on itself. His remarkable techniques relied on new ways of imagining perspectives emerging in both early Renaissance painting and optics.
Shakespeare and Social Theory was written to shine a light on Shakespeare as a theoretical mind through new readings of six of his plays. However, it is equally an attempt to account for his craftsmanship through studying historical changes in representing perspective that allowed Shakespeare to stage self-analyzing dramas.
Rob Shore: Your analysis reveals texts full of multiple, playful, and often deceptive meanings. Some of them are compelling and quite clear. But others are hidden under layers of abstraction and misdirection. What methods do you use from anthropology to unpack meaning, and how did you find the process of translating those tools to literary analysis?
Bradd Shore: Clifford Geertz famously compared the data of cultural anthropology to a text, a comparison that has been both admired and criticized over the years. For both literature and human behavior, the text analogy points to the need for interpretation, a requirement as troublesome as it is necessary for making sense of things human.
One of the problems an interpreter faces is that the meaning of something—the meaning affordances of its internal structure and coherence, is not the same thing as the meaning for someone, which is a process of imaginative engagement of a mind with the world. For an anthropologist, the meaning for someone requires emic analysis, how the locals understand their world and actions: what matters to them. The meaning of something requires etic analysis, an attempt at an objective account of the meaning-making properties inherent in an act or an object. We struggle to do both kinds of analysis and reconcile them, but the reconciliation often proves challenging. Often anthropologists end up choosing one or the other perspective.
In approaching Shakespeare’s plays, we have no privileged window into Shakespeare’s mind and intentions. We only have his texts and the complex patterns that he weaves with his language and play structure. The closest we come to an emic perspective in the absence of a Shakespearean literary memoir are the social historians’ reconstructions of the culture of Shakespeare’s day and the kinds of ideas and things of interest to Elizabethan writers and artists.
Fortunately, there is no need to read meaning into Shakespeare’s work. We only need to read his work, carefully and repeatedly, alternating our study of the plays with a study of the evolving cultural, political, scientific, and artistic of Shakespeare’s world. When Shakespeare wanted to make a theoretical point, he left plenty of clues in his work: clues in his choice of language, his virtuosic wordplay, his characters’ names, his way with tropes (especially metaphors), and the messages he built into his manipulation of literary and artistic conventions. Careful reading and attention to his use of irony can help uncover those patterns.
Interpretation is built up from evidence found in these repeated patterns throughout the play. Thus, my analyses of the plays are extensive and based on very close readings of Shakespeare’s words, accompanied by historical explications of Elizabethan culture. A satisfying interpretation makes sense of otherwise anomalous and puzzling aspects of the text. That sense-making looks inward to the language and structure of the play and outward to the institutions and culture of Shakespeare’s day.
To be convincing, an interpretation does not have to be the only possible account of a play. In their miraculous richness, Shakespeare’s plays are irreducible to a single meaning. Still, some readings make more sense than others. A satisfying interpretation leaves the reader with a sense of having a light illuminate something that was always there but had eluded both sight and insight. Good interpretations produce aha moments for the reader.
Rob Shore: You advocate for a “close reading” approach to texts that were intended to be staged. What does that tell us about Shakespeare’s intent?
Bradd Shore: Shakespeare was both a thinker and a theatrical producer. He understood what his primary audience wanted to see, and he gave them plays that were exciting, engaging, terrifying, funny, all the things that great theater can produce.
I think I present enough textual evidence that my readings of the play will stand as credible interpretations of what is actually in the plays. However, these are not interpretations that Shakespeare intended for the immediate consumption of the Globe’s audience. Instead, I think they were written as look-again-readings of the texts for a more sophisticated audience. Shakespeare’s theoretical voice was intended for readers rather than viewers, by those interested in the play of great ideas rather than drama’s more immediate experience. As a result, Shakespeare wrote plays that were both compelling dramas and effective theoretical treatises. The only other writer I know who regularly pulled off the same kind of double-dealing magic was Plato in his Socratic dialogues.
Rob Shore:In a book so concerned with double meaning and wordplay, you must have felt some pressure in coming up with a title. How did you approach the task?
Bradd Shore: I like playful titles that encourage multiple meanings. So my initial title was Shakespeare and the Play of Great Ideas. However, my editor at Routledge found that title somewhat vague and wanted a title that would attract both social scientists and literary types. So I agreed to the more straightforward title and was happy that the press allowed me to keep “The Play of Great Ideas” as a subtitle.
Rob Shore: If Shakespeare’s play of ideas was a reflection of a technological and cultural paradigm shift in perspective, how do you think Shakespeare would adapt his work to reflect our current moment: 24/7 digital transmedia omniscience, hyper-irony, double-talk, fake news, a deep bench of Shakespearean political figures, and all the rest? Does that reality make his texts more, less, or just differently relevant today?
Bradd Shore: I have no idea what modern technology Shakespeare would exploit were he to write today. But he would likely be attracted to the possibilities of modern theater and film for playing up the problems of representation and perspective.
Shakespeare can be thought of as modern in three senses. First, he is modern in being concerned with universal themes, as relevant for today’s audiences as those of his time. Second, he is modern in being ahead of his time. In my book, I show how his plays anticipate psychoanalytic theory, exchange theory, modern metaphor theory, performance theory, political theory, cognitive anthropology, Queer Theory, and structuralism in more sophisticated ways than we ever imagined.
Finally, Shakespeare is modern in his radical interrogation of the world and his awareness of the influence of perspective on how one views reality. While traditional critics like E.M.W. Tillyard tried to convince us that Shakespeare’s work was essentially an extension of medieval political and social thought, they overlook Shakespeare’s characteristic irony, attraction to paradox, and relentless questioning of orthodoxy. Shakespeare and Social Theory was written to highlight the radical character of the plays.
The 99th page of my dissertation, “Publics of Value: Higher Education and Language Activism in Turkey and North Kurdistan,” falls midway in my second chapter, where I seek to situate my primary field site – Turkey’s first state-recognized Kurdish-language university program at Artuklu University in Mardin – within the sociolinguistic realities of public life in the city and wider province, as well as within larger shifts in the political discourses and language practices of the Kurdish movement, Turkish state institutions, and local actors. This forms part of a larger discussion, developed over the first two chapters, that considers how differently positioned actors in Mardin and beyond have come to deploy Mesopotamia as a label designating a post-national, multicultural space that differentiates itself from conventional nationalist geographic imaginaries (such as Turkey or Kurdistan) and how this category is used to confer new value on multilingualism and Mardin’s local polyglot speech communities.
The first half of page 99 concludes a longer discussion of the analytical categories of language and speech communities and the dynamic interaction between the two (Gal 1988; Silverstein 1998). The second half begins to consider how this interaction has reshaped local language regimes in Mardin in recent decades, describing how:
“In Mardin, importantly, the values of Mesopotamia have been realized in relation to a dynamic language regime that is itself a product of a specific, if shifting sociohistorical spacetime – one in which Mesopotamia has come to represent both a validation of the values of Mardin’s speech community in relation to the nationalist projects of both the Turkey and Kurdistan and, conversely, the imposition of new linguistic projects by competing institutional forces (i.e. the Kurdish movement, the Turkish state, and the predominantly English- language domains of ‘global’ higher education and transnational tourism)” (pp. 99).
Considering the page in the context of the larger dissertation, I’m quite fortunate – within the terms of the ‘page 99 test’ – that it contains an important inflection point in my analysis with clear relevance for the larger work. Looking back a year after my defense, I can’t avoid detecting what now appear to me as moments of underdeveloped tangents, misplaced emphasis, and missed opportunities for greater clarification or precision – not to mention an ever-growing number of typos (page 99 being no exception). On the other hand, page 99 contains the seeds of two interrelated insights that I consider to be, in their fully developed form, among the work’s more important contributions: The first, inspired in part by the work by Woolard (2016) and others, is that Kurdish-language activism is not reducible to a paradigm of Kurdish nationalist politics, but embraces a range of political and social meanings that require further contextualization and explanation; and the second is that my Kurdish-language activist interlocutors, rather than proponents of predefined political or linguistic projects, are agentive actors working to remake the values of the Kurdish language in public life in ways that are generative of new identities, political subjectivities, and horizons of belonging.
Gal, Susan. “The Political Economy of Code Choice.” Anthropological and Sociolinguistic Perspectives 48 (1988): 245-64.
Silverstein, Michael. “Contemporary Transformations of Local Linguistic Communities.” Annual Review of Anthropology 27, no. 1 (1998): 401-426
Woolard, Kathryn. Singular and Plural: Ideologies of Linguistic Authority in 21st Century Catalonia. Oxford University Press, 2016.
The “quality of the whole” is uncannily revealed by the concluding paragraph on page 99 of my dissertation. It reads:
The institution I call The Migrant Center, then, is a key node of Genevan social life, expressive of an ethical horizon of hospitality. The Center’s activities bridge governmental, charitable, and civic domains, and its educational sectors offer, on the very same grounds, training in labour law for trade union delegates and elected labour court judges as well as afterschool math classes for job-seeking high schoolers. The Center’s French language learning program is thus part of a broader pedagogy of mobilization; the Migrant Center is a key translational site at which state categories and concepts of both “French” and “integration” are made commensurate with an ethics of solidarity.
I began my research in 2013 with an interest in the everyday pedagogical conditions, practices and discourses by which an official language of the state (here, French) is taught to immigrant and migrant learners. This, in a context where a then-emergent global discourse on migrant integration had constructed official, standardized language competences as the sign of successful integration into one’s host country, and where completing language tests and attending language classes were key discretionary bordering tools in the migration regimes of various European states.
Fieldwork at the institution I call The Migrant Center revealed the ways language pedagogy can become a site of mobility mediation and ethical-moral commensuration. The keywords I had come to associate with the state’s regimentation of language and cross-border movement—words like “French” and “integration”—were, at the Center, framed in the terms of solidarity. To be sure, at times, talk about French evoked historical discourses on the equalizing powers of the French language. At yet other times, however, the form and content of classroom discussions explicitly questioned the Genevan state’s monolingual logics of cross-border and social mobility. And among instructors, French held a contested status, not least because many teachers were first- and second-generation immigrants in Switzerland with their own multilingual trajectories. Their teaching, further, was unremunerated, reflective of local frameworks of volunteerism (bénévolat) which created ethical-moral substance for the Genevan polity in complex ways. As a volunteer at the school, navigating the blurry line between social critique and social reproduction became the condition of doing fieldwork.
Returning to Page 99 reminds me that perhaps teaching is a form of hospitality—one as complex as any other attempt to enact inclusion under conditions of closure. In my dissertation, I call this labour welcome work. Naming it this way has helped me to understand, somewhat long after writing, how to analytically sustain the contradictions of working at such sites of egalitarian aspiration—to situate, contextualize, and question any linguistically-premised equality, while also creating space to understand the political possibilities of hospitable relations, relationships, and practice.
Shirley Yeung. 2020. “Welcome Work: Hospitality and the Mediation of Migrant Mobility in Swiss Integration Policy.” University of Michigan Phd.
At the bottom of page 99 in my dissertation “The ‘Nobody’ Movement: Digital Activism and the Uprising of Civic Hackers in Taiwan” is a quote from the g0v (pronounced gov-zero) manifesto: Built on the spirit of the open-source community, g0v stands for freedom of speech and information transparency. We aim to use technology in the interest of the public good, allowing citizens easy access to vital information. Opening up and making data public allows the people of Taiwan to take a closer look at politics and important issues. This gives them the tools needed to evaluate their government and exert their democratic right to influence government actions.
g0v, the focus of this dissertation, is a Taiwan-based civic tech community that intervenes and subverts bureaucratic government through the technological translation of openness. Replacing the letter “o” in “government” with the number “0” to indicate the computer binary zero and one, the name “g0v” signifies both their hacker identity and the grassroots, bottom-up approach of activism. This quote on page 99 vividly encapsulates the multiplicity and equivocation of openness. Here we see openness is translated into open source technologies, freedom, transparency, public, and democracy. Openness is both the means (open source technology and open data) and the ends (civic participation and democracy). Its rich meaning provides the room for these hackers to improvise their political actions amid the changing political environment.
Later in the dissertation, I also reveal that the equivocation of openness can lead to tension and conflicts in this decentralized community especially when some participants started to connect and collaborate with hierarchical organizations such as companies, NGOs, and the government. The most renowned case is Audrey Tang, one of the most active g0v participants who was later appointed as Taiwan’s first digital minister in 2016. While Tang’s government appointment allows her to push open data and public-private collaboration further from within the government, this also leads to the institutionalization of openness and devours g0v’s political space. To tackle this community crisis, g0v participants maneuver within translations of openness in order not to be depoliticized. It is in the process of contesting openness that g0v takes a parasitic position between inside and outside, continuity and disruption, collaboration and resistance in order to keep on making politics.
The quote on page 99 is where I took an initial clue before delving into the translations of openness. As the manifesto and the idea of openness continue to appeal to young generations in Taiwan, we must continue examining how openness is conceived, discussed, practiced, and envisioned towards a techno-political future.
Mei-Chun Lee. 2020. The ‘Nobody’ Movement: Digital Activism and the Uprising of Civic Hackers in Taiwan. University of California, Davis Phd.
Hannah Carlan interviews E. Annamalai, Francis Cody, and Constantine V. Nakassis
Hannah Carlan: Bernard Bate’s posthumous book Protestant Textuality and the Tamil Modern is a major contribution to the study of political agency and nation-building, which has, through Habermas, Anderson, Taylor, Warner, and others, long privileged “the press” over “the platform” in the formation of the democratic public sphere (pp. 3–4). Bate demonstrates that this emphasis on print capitalism is both due to the difficulty of studying the unrecorded, as well as Western semiotic ideologies that privilege the denotational functions of language over its poetic ones, leading to an elision of the sensuous, affective, and embodied aspects of speech as social activity. Bate invites us to consider how communicative genres like homiletic oratory, devotional songs (bhajans), poems, and mass meetings together constituted a novel “interpellative infrastructure” of politics (p. 66). Through these practices, previously disparate groups were called into being as a singular political public at the turn of the 20th century in Tamil Nadu. Rather than reproduce the dichotomization of speech and materiality, Bate emphasizes their mutual imbrication. In the Indic context, vernacular political oratory gained semiotic value not merely from its denotational accessibility—an influence of Protestant ideologies of textuality—but from what Bate calls “poesy”: the corporeal, sonorous, musical qualities of speech that are prized in Tamil textual traditions. How might this intervention contribute to broader efforts in anthropology to theorize language and/as materiality, and how might such an approach allow us to decenter Western theories of politics and democracy?
Constantine V. Nakassis: Your brilliant first book, Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern deals with the simultaneous classicization and modernization of the Karnatic music of South India through both historical and ethnographic methods, showing how a gendered and casted form of modern subjectivity came to be articulated through a politics of voice. Your most recent book, Brought to Life by the Voice: Playback Singing and Cultural Politics in South India – equally brilliant – deals with so-called playback singing in the Tamil film industry. To start us off, I wonder if you could speak a bit about the relationship, and movement, between these two projects?
Amanda Weidman: Thank you for giving me an opportunity to reflect on this. I would say, in a general way, that in this second book I’ve gotten to do the project I paid lip service to (no pun intended!) in the first book: to explore voice as simultaneously an object of musical/sonic attention and of ideological investment, and to really grapple with the way these two scales—the bodily/sonic/material and the ideological/discursive—interplay with and inform each other. In my first book, the concern with voice remained mostly at the ideological, political level. I used the concepts ideologies of voice and politics of voice to get at the ways that voice, cultivated, framed, and staged in a particular way, became—to the exclusion and marginalization of other things—a potent signifier of Karnatic music’s classical status. The burden in that book was to try to understand how a high cultural status had been claimed and consolidated. Identifying voice as an object of ideology and politics was a way to challenge what has been reified and naturalized as South Indian classical music.
In Brought to Life by the Voice, I decided that the twin focus on voice as object of aesthetic and ideological investment was better captured by the idea of regimes of aurality and the voice, which I think gets at the way that ideologies and politics are actually produced and sustained—voice as a site where macro-level constructs are scaled down to a bodily/sensory level. I think about regimes of aurality and voice in several ways: through modes of discipline in vocal production—how singers learn to produce the supposedly right kind of sound in any context; through recurring contexts of listening and consumption, including performance contexts, as well as technological media through which voices are disseminated (and in the case of playback, the visual images/bodies with which voices are paired or associated onscreen); and through the articulated, verbalized categories that arise to describe and attribute meaning to particular voices and voice qualities. Inherent in the idea of regimes of aurality and voice is the process of regimentation, the shaping of vocal practices and vocal sound to particular culturally and historically specific ideals.
There are some obvious continuities between the two books. The city of Chennai is the center (the authorizing center of semiosis, you might say) for both Karnatic classical music and the Tamil film industry. But in moving from one to the other I shifted from looking at something that, framed as a high-cultural object, has all sorts of authorized knowledge emanating from established institutions, pedagogies, and forms of transmission, to a popular-cultural realm where meaning-making is taking place at many different sites: on screen, in the recording studios, in the postproduction process, on stage, on the street, in music reality shows, in forms of historical and current media publicity, and so on. This presented a different kind of ethnographic challenge, especially because I was exploring the cultural significance of voices that, though people have deep affective attachment to them, have been considered beyond description, anti-intellectualized both by singers themselves and by fans, and mostly ignored in scholarship on Indian cinema.
The movement between these two books also reflects the slow melding of different strains of my graduate training. In the 1990s, I was steeped in then-current thinking about the colonial production of knowledge, postcolonial theory, and the idea of modernity as a culture in itself—all reflected amply in my first book. But I was also trained in ethnomusicology and linguistic anthropology, which at that time were relatively distant from each other and focused on their respective objects: music and language. The point of connection between them was through the music-and-language strand of linguistic anthropology, which constituted the other part of my graduate training. I learned about Peircean semiotics, indexicality, iconicity, performativity, poetics and sound symbolism, and Bakhtin’s concept of voicing, but I didn’t know what to do with it all for a while. The blossoming of voice and sound as analytics and fields of study in the last two decades has really broken down these disciplinary boundaries and created many more points of connection—and has allowed us to hear so much more of what’s going on in music and language beyond what these frameworks have conditioned us to hear. Linguistic anthropology has broadened to become more attuned to questions of mediation, voice, and embodiment, and to the way linguistic and non-linguistic, and visual and aural, forms of semiosis interact. I think of my work as definitely benefitting from, and, I hope, also contributing to these developments.
Constantine V. Nakassis: One of the many interventions of this book is to rethink the metaphysical nexus that links voice, (the visual) body, and subjectivity as a natural, unified package—by pointing to a different “performative dispensation” (Mazzarella)—that of playback singing, where voice (of the singer), body (of the actress), words (of the lyricist), melody (of the music director) are all differently distributed. How has this particular case helped you think about the study of voice?
Amanda Weidman: The striking thing about playback in the Indian context is that it starts with completely different premises and ideals. Most Euro-Western theorizing about voice, as well as cultural production ranging from Hollywood cinema to popular music, starts from the assumed ideal unity of voice, body, and self—underpinning the ideology of the unified speaking subject (a construct which has come in for a lot of critique in critical theory and anthropology), as well as that of the expressive singing/musical subject (an equally powerful construct, but one that has not been interrogated nearly as much). Within this formation, the voice de-linked from a visual representation or embodiment of its source is the disorienting exception, associated with power and mastery, or with danger, excess, and deception.
Playback, as a technical practice and as a performative dispensation, starts from the opposite assumption: that the dissociation of body and voice, the division of labor between appearing and sounding, is the ideal, and that the embodiment of voice is the artifice, the strategic achievement that provokes anxieties and requires careful management and/or avoidance. One of the things that captivated me about this project is the way playback literalizes/concretizes so many of the concepts at play: production format/participant roles, performative dispensations, animation, and the distribution of the sensible. Goffman’s idea of production format and participant roles, or role fractions, as Irvine would specify, gets at the division of labor that playback sets up—not just between acting onscreen and singing offscreen, but also between singing and speaking, and between animating and authoring words and melodies. The concept of a performative dispensation, so usefully articulated by Mazzarella in terms of both permissions and prohibitions, gets at the way playback, as a cultural institution, controls (or attempts to control) who is visible, who is audible, and the meaning and effects that certain performances may have. Animation allows for a consideration of vocal acts as something other than identity or expression— toward other forms of agency and subjectivity that are enabled by different acts of voicing. And Ranciere’s concept of the distribution of the sensible allowed me to see how playback has constituted a regime of aurality/imageness by thinking about very concrete processes of distribution, ranging in scale from the mass/public level (determining what is seen/heard and what isn’t, and through which media; indexically regimenting voices and flooding the public sphere with particular ones) to the individual/embodied level (where a singer distributes her voice in her own body or how she occupies the space of the stage).
Constantine V. Nakassis:Animation, Voice (voicing), (Bring to) Life, World(ing) – these are some of the very big concepts that this book articulates in its account of playback singing and that have already come up in our discussion. And it articulates them through a set of more technical analytic concepts: ideology (a la Silverstein, Gal and Irvine), semiotic economy (a la Keane), and distribution of the sensible or regime of imageness/aurality (a la Rancière). I’m interested to hear about how the philosophical and aesthetic concept of Rancière’s and the semiotic concepts of linguistic anthropology fit together in this book?
Amanda Weidman:The title of my book comes from film sound theorist Michel Chion’s description of playback, which he tosses in offhandedly at the end of his book The Voice in Cinema: “In playback, the body confesses to being a puppet brought to life by the voice.” Chion meant this as a simple reversal of the usual relationship between body and voice, visuality and aurality, in which the body controls the voice which is seen to emanate from it. But the image of the puppet introduces all sorts of fascinating and productive ambiguities around visibility and voicing, agency and control, the animate and the inanimate. The playback singer is both the puppet—the singer of words and melodies authored by others—and the puppeteer—the backstage or offscreen voice who controls the movements and meanings of what’s onscreen. Much of playback singers’ work is about managing the fundamental duality of animation as a mechanical process of transmission/relay (the puppet role) and as a life-giving process (the puppeteer role). The attention to animation within anthropology has been so helpful in the way it has shifted the focus from the creation of an illusion of life in inanimate objects or forms, to looking at the social world and social relations and actors that various animating practices imagine and bring into being.
To me, the notion of a semiotic economy is a useful way of grounding Rancière’s concept of the distribution of the sensible. Rancière argues against both the autonomy of art and art’s submission to politics—his idea is that different “distributions of the sensible” are not automatically linked to particular political destinies. Instead, their affordances must be taken up in particular ways—there must be a process by which a distribution of the sensible becomes a basis for a politics. “A common world,” he writes, “is never simply an ethos, a shared abode, that results from the sedimentation of … intertwined acts. It is always a polemical distribution of modes of being and occupation in a space of possibilities.” Rancière is not just talking about the distribution of the sensible in terms of things experienced through the senses. The sensible is also referring to the ways that sensory things become sensible, that is, intelligible, capable of carrying meaning or making sense within particular regimes of imageness/aurality. To give one example—the idealized Tamil notion of kuralinimai—voice sweetness—attributed to the voices of certain female singers in the 1960s was not just about voice quality itself, but how certain moral attributes came to be associated with it. It also had to do with the ways a non-projected head voice was made bodiless by being detached from the body of both the onscreen actress and the body of the playback singer herself. The function of a semiotic economy is precisely this—to constitute sensory things as signs by placing them in some kind of meaningful relation to each other.
Constantine V. Nakassis: Can you say a little about how gender plays into how the sensible is distributed?
Amanda Weidman:The gendered asymmetries are quite striking. Playback began as way of managing the ways the female form would become available to be seen/heard in the public sphere through expressive and medial forms such as music, dance, and cinema, in a context where respectable femininity was defined by the careful management and often avoidance of public appearance. During its heyday, the mid 1950s through the mid 1970s, the affordances of playback’s division of labor were taken up in different gendered ways. For men, the separation of the roles of actor and singer and their symbiotic relationship was productive, generating a kind of surplus power and political potency. Star status could accrue to both the actor and the singer through the combination of one’s body and the other’s voice because they were understood to be working together, doing the same thing through two different modalities. For women, however, the separation of roles was used and interpreted differently. The assumed moral licitness of a woman singing was used to cancel out, or mitigate, the assumed immorality of a woman acting onscreen. Actress and singer were understood to be doing two fundamentally different things. Female playback singers who had risen to prominence in this period conveyed this gulf between actress and singer to me by describing themselves as “just the voice” or by stressing that their acting was “all in the throat” and they were not doing “mimicry.” I have been pondering for years how this role of being “just the voice” was constructed and inhabited, and what it meant. Rather than seeing it as a simple limiting or restriction in the service of female respectability, in the book I try to show how this role was in fact a coveted status that allowed singers to steer a path between behind the scenes anonymity and onscreen/onstage exposure.
Constantine V. Nakassis:Historically speaking, one of the stories of this book is the transition from the post-Independence period (1950s–1980s) to the post-liberalization period (1990s–2020s). How do these macro epochal moments map onto what you call the performative dispensations, or regimes, of visuality and aurality that have governed playback singing?
Amanda Weidman:In this book I’ve tried to show the historicity of playback as a cultural institution responding to and shaping the ethos of particular sociopolitical moments. Its changes and shifts reflect the different kinds of semiotic/representational economies voice has been inserted into. At its beginning in the 1940s, playback was referred to as iraval kural—borrowed or traded voice, reflecting the emphasis on the partibility of the voice and the economic/transactional understanding of the practice. As playback became set as a dispensation within India’s technocratic, developmentalist post-Independence decades and within the gender politics of the Tamil Dravidianist political context, playback singers shifted to being referred to as pinnani patakarkal—behind [the screen] singers—foregrounding the project of producing a desirable or ideal onscreen body-voice combination over the partibility of the voice as such—a change that went along with a rise in playback singers’ status. In the post-liberalization decades, neoliberal ideologies have introduced a new set of industries, desires and promises centering around the voice, and a new value placed on visibility—the laying bare of what was previously hidden, unspoken, illicit. For singers, this translates into a pressure to couple voice ever more tightly with the self, body, and intention of the singer. All those things so carefully separated and parceled out in playback’s dispensation are being recombined in different—and yet still differentially gendered—ways. Tamil cinema is caught now between contradictory trends of emulating Hollywood-style narrative film and getting rid of song sequences and other supposedly non-realistic elements, and a self-referential, semi-nostalgic, semi-parodic re-animation of older elements. This is why “afterlife” seems more apt than “death” to describe the state of playback now.
Constantine V. Nakassis: Speaking of after(-brought-to-)life (by the voice), what’s next for your research?
Amanda Weidman: One of the most interesting people I met while doing this project was the singer L. R. Eswari, who managed to flout the gendered normativities of playback, combining a professional life as the go-to playback singer for vamp roles in the 1960s with a successful career as a singer of commercial devotional music on the South Indian Hindu goddess Amman—the alternately benevolent and fierce mother goddess associated with subaltern religious practice. I’m thinking about a new project that would investigate the role of aural representations of and appeals to Amman in this commercial devotional music in relation to the politics of caste, class and gender in South India.
Constantine V. Nakassis: I can’t wait to see where this new project goes! And thank you so much for doing this fascinating interview about this amazing book!
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: An explicit orienting question for the book is “Why teach an entire nation English?” (4) Personally or sociologically, this “why” question had seldom dawned on me, a lucky survivor of the West-bound, future-facing, and English-mediated journey many of your informants aspired to. Nonetheless, or therefore, this question struck me as a giant elephant in the room. How did it become a question for you? What are some of the answers you explore in the book?
Eric Henry: Honestly it was not a topic I went looking for. Before I started a doctorate in anthropology I was an English teacher in China, thinking I could study Mandarin and pay off some debts at the same time. One of the things that struck me was that, with adult students, very few of them were in a situation or a job where they would actually need to use the language on a regular basis. There was a certain absurdity to it: here I was, with no formal training, teaching English to railway engineers or bureaucrats. My only qualification was that I had grown up speaking the language and the students had not. This kind of realization drove many of the foreign teachers I worked with to a kind of cynicism, but for me it prompted questions I could explore ethnographically. I realized that we naturalize this desire for English on a global scale – but most of the students did not care for the language itself, only for its capacity to shape their own futures. When I really started to listen to those students, and by this time I was back doing fieldwork, I learned that the desire to speak English is always entangled with dreams of the future: with going abroad, accumulating wealth, or just being seen as someone in control of their lives rather than being left behind by China’s burgeoning social transformations. Most of the people I talked to identified the last twenty years as the most important in all of China’s long history, a time that is radically reconfiguring relations between self and society on the one hand, and China and the world on the other. Saying “I speak English,” is therefore a powerful claim to identity under new regimes of neoliberal capitalism and globalization.
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: This ethnography of contemporary speech practices and English language learning in Northeast China, on a more ambitious scale, is also an intervention in the study of modernity. What is your approach to modernity in this book? What are some of the analytic concepts central to this approach? Why is it preferable over other approaches?
Eric Henry: I am a linguistic anthropologist, so naturally I look to language and discourse as primary constituents of social phenomena. It has always struck me that modernity is often defined in terms of specific economic, political or social metrics: rational markets, democracy, the retreat of the state and so on. In contrast, the people I worked with in Shenyang understood modernity through narratives about the changes going on around them; and the languages people used to talk about those changes seemed to have the power to launch this new state of being. I had the chance to dig into some missionary archives related to language teaching in China in the 1920s, and I was able to read some of the essays Chinese students wrote for their English teachers. They were incredible – one, by a young nursing student, imagined the development of a “moral hospital” in China, where intractable young people would be sent for moral instruction. In her story, the moral hospital struggles for legitimacy until the President of China commits his own son to their care. At that point the eyes of the world turn to the hospital and recognize the value of China’s civilization, extending to the nation an opportunity for global leadership. I realized that this young student understood her own language study in much the same terms as Chinese people today, as a way of transforming Chinese society and achieving international recognition; in other words, as a way of becoming modern. This is what I call discursive modernity – it is the ways in which modernity is constituted out of talk about the material or social changes that surround people as they navigate through new landscapes, new technologies and new forms of social position or status. I think this approach frees us from trying to measure abstract qualities such as “development” or “modernization” and focus instead on how people both experience the forces of change and locate themselves as social actors in relation to them.
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: Chapter 2 analyzes the distinct cultural geography of post-socialist China based on the paradigmatic form of the wall and what you term the moral economy of “recursive enclosure”. The cover photo of the book, showing a residential apartment complex I suppose, seems to be taken from this chapter. What is the structural place of this cultural geographical analysis in a book explicitly about speech practices? What is the limit to the claim about “distinctness”? To what extent is the moral economy of “recursive enclosure” more universal?
Eric Henry: Landscapes are always suffused with symbolic values – it is part of what I would consider a universal human process of place-making. We can see evidence of this anytime we talk about urban or rural, or when we label a place as being in a “pristine” state of nature. At the same time, I think there is something unique about China and the contemporary remnants of an imperial technology of boundary-making and enclosure. Traditional architecture in China, from temples to palaces to the peasant homestead, emphasized enclosure. Structures abutted the margins of the property and were inward-focused, with a series of increasingly private and intimate spaces marked off by walls, panels, curtains, and other boundaries. Cities and, at a larger scale, the empire itself were also enclosed by walls marking off center and periphery. These spatial configurations were designed to, as I argue, signify a kind of timeless continuity for the empire and the enduring relationship between the human and cosmological worlds. People – whether they be priests, peasants or emperors – doing similar types of rituals, in similar types of spaces, and using a common language asserted the unity and universality of the imperial state. As I argue in the book, however, in today’s China the spaces and space-making practices remain, but the types or rituals, behavior and language in each are now different. Residences, schools, factories, and offices are still surrounded by walls, with imposing gates dividing interior from exterior. But the imperial universality has been shattered into a landscape that is not only divided in terms of wealth, but also in terms of time. Some people feel like they are ahead, and others like they are being left behind.
One day in Shenyang I hopped on a minibus headed out on a rural route, just to see where it would take me. When I came back, some of my Chinese friends were amazed – how on earth could you find your way when all the people out there speak in dialect? You have to understand, a lot of people in the city speak the dialect too, but there is this feeling in urban China of a separation and distinctness from rural areas, almost as if the people living there are a different kind of citizen. The countryside is luohou, which means stagnant or backwards, and they are thought to speak the regional dialect almost exclusively. So these boundaries of enclosure symbolically mark off spaces that are oriented in multiply contingent ways to the future or to the past, and the linguistic and conversational choices people make are used to identify what kinds of spaces they are in. In rural villages you hear the dialect, in modern fantasy spaces like five-star hotels and luxury shopping malls you hear English. Space, time and language are bound together.
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: Chapter 6 asserts the significance of race, represented by the type of a white, English-speaking foreigner, in speech practices and imaginaries of modernity in contemporary China. How did you, often cast in that type by your informants, navigate doing fieldwork?
Eric Henry: Even though most people claimed that Chinese society has no racial divisions, race is an inescapable part of everyday life in China. It is implicit in the ways people endlessly discuss whose skin is dark and whose is light; darkness is associated with the countryside and agricultural labor, lightness with the city and professional employment. Ethnic minorities in China are treated as cultural relics, people who dress in distinctive costumes and manifest quaint traditions. And foreigners, in particular, are recruited into these discourses of modernization because certain racialized others (and here I fit the stereotype of the white, blue-eyed personification of modernity perfectly) represent progress and development. This did grant me a clear privilege in being able to conduct research on language schools. I could saunter in the door, walk right into the headmaster’s office and be welcomed with open arms. The Chinese scholars and linguists I know had to beg, bargain and negotiate just to get access. At the same time, however, and this is something I try to elaborate in the last chapter of my book, I had a role to play. If I’m white, I’m there to teach English, or I’m there to do business, and so many of my interviews and interactions were derailed into discussions of business opportunities or study abroad opportunities. “Let’s cooperate together and open an English school – we can get rich!” I could never be unobtrusive; if I visited a new English class, I always became the center of attention and would be dragged up to lead a pronunciation lesson or answer student questions. At the time, I thought of this fact as a hindrance to my research, but I came to realize that this is a critical element of the discourse of modernity. If crafting modern subjectivities in China is, as I’ve argued, dependent upon acquiring a new repertoire of globalized speech practices, they have to be acquired from somewhere and from someone. In effect, I was being recruited into a kind of fantasy space in which I reflected back to my interlocutors the same desire they had for the signifiers of modernity, such as wealth and mobility, in which case they could consider us co-eval or equivalent social actors. To become modern is therefore to appropriate the signifiers (racialized, linguistic, performative) of those people who already appear to be modern, and that depends upon the source of those signifiers, the foreigner, acting in the way a foreigner is expected to act. By conforming to that role I was sanctioning the activities taking place – whether it was learning a global language, or opening an academic conference or hosting a wedding – as legitimate instantiations of modernizing practice.
Maybe that is a good note to end on. In your first question you identify yourself as a “survivor of the West-bound, future-facing, and English-mediated journey” and I think that is an apt way to put it. The educational pathways we have created for students and scholars follow very constrained routes, and require a very restricted set of linguistic skills and credentials, naturally favoring certain privileged groups over others. All of this is driving a massive global language teaching industry valued at around $10 billion a year. The racialized privilege I experienced was due to an equivalence between my appearance, my language, and the presumed superiority of Western countries. We have to develop a critical reflexivity towards these naturalized assumptions and never allow them to pass unchallenged. To dismantle such regimes of inequality requires an understanding of how the desires for certain types of linguistic, social, and symbolic capital are produced and sustained on a global scale.