Michele Friedner on her book, Sensory Futures

Interview by Timothy Y. Loh


Tim Loh: Congratulations on this exciting new book! Your first book, Valuing Deaf Worlds in Urban India (2015), examined the productivity and limits of deaf similitude—what you and your interlocutors called DEAF-SAME— and forms of deaf becoming as deaf people turned towards each other. Is it accurate to say that this book looks at how the state, pharmaceutical companies, and medical practitioners also strive to make deaf people the same, albeit in a different way? Can you tell us also how you moved from that earlier project to this one?

Michele Friedner: Thank you so much for your close reading and generous analysis and the making of connections here. I also look forward to seeing what you do in your cochlear implant research! I think you’re absolutely right that Sensory Futures is about sameness although there’s lots of friction and ambivalence around this sameness. There are putatively star cases and professionals constantly compare children and their mothers and the work that mothers do. The star cases and mothers also evaluate themselves in relation to others. And deaf sociality, or implanted sociality, is both encouraged and discouraged as children are supposed to hang out with hearing children instead of other deaf children. As I write, it often seems like there are biosocial refusals. There’s also constantly the spectre of the bad mother and the failed child. For the state, CI corporation, surgeons, and most/many audiologists and speech and language therapists, the goal is to create a hearing child who is close to, near to, or almost “normal” in terms of listening and spoken language. However, and beyond this, the project is also to create people and state citizens who do not need any help and support from the government and who are “independent.” These people ideally don’t have so-called deaf accents and develop “hearing brains.”

I didn’t plan to write a book about cochlear implants or to conduct research on them. However, when I returned to India in 2016, after my first book was published, I learned about state and central government programs providing deaf and hard of hearing children with cochlear implants and I became intrigued. I was also really interested because signing deaf adults want more signing deaf adults in the world and they want Indian Sign Language (ISL) to be seen as “normal.” The deaf adults I met at one particularly institute in the state of Kerala—where they were enrolled in BA programs in ISL—were really upset because at the same institute there were early intervention programs for small deaf children who had been implanted. These college students were excited about their coursework and their friendship networks, and they wanted to teach these little kids ISL but felt that the kids’ parents literally pulled them away and prevented them from seeing sign language. They were worried about the future of deafness in India. And so I decided to do research on cochlear implants in India. I was fascinated by how the state was now funding these super expensive surgeries and devices. I was also fascinated by the new expectations that seemed to be emerging—that kids born deaf could become normal—and that there was a new sensory infrastructure developing. And it’s also interesting to think about things like newborn hearing screening and attempts to develop universal screenings and what these screenings mean for the kinds of choices parents have (or not). Laura Mauldin writes about this too in a US context. I’ve talked with Mara Mills about how hearing is perhaps the most surveilled sense. What does this mean?

Tim Loh: You write a chapter about maintaining and caring for cochlear implants and the work that parents and implantees have to put in to get the devices to work and to continue to work, and the new dependencies on corporate and medical infrastructures that emerge from getting an implant. You examine the inequitable distribution of cochlear implants around the world (as you also do here) in addition to the limits of “tinkering” and “hacking” that have become central to crip technoscience. What new insights into the relationship between disability and technology do you think your book provides?

Michele Friedner: I think my book pushes us to look at how projects of normalization involving technology use can result in new and complex dependencies on device corporations. The children who do really well with cochlear implants, who learn to listen and speak and become auditorily dependent—are the most precarious and vulnerable. If their devices break, they don’t have other ways to communicate. I also think we need to pay attention to ambivalent users, sometimes users, and non-users, and the ways that individuals and families are essentially abandoned by device manufacturers. Because cochlear implants work so well for some people, it’s imperative that there are more safeguards and supports in place for maintenance. It’s an issue of sensory and social justice.

Tim Loh: One of the important concepts that you advance in this book is that of “multiple normals,” which you have also discussed elsewhere. Normality is a desired outcome for some of your interlocutors but it is also a kind of narrowing that contrains different ways of being in the world, and you argue against prescribing teleological paths for deaf people. I found especially thought-provoking your critique not only of sensory normality as advanced by cochlear implant advocates but also of the project of “becoming-disabled or becoming-deaf in terms of identity and community formation” (p. 161) as advanced by some disability and deaf advocates and scholars, which can also be teleological. Can you tell us more about what you think the stakes of this idea are?

Michele Friedner: I think that often within disability and deaf communities, there is a celebratory narrative around coming to a disabled or deaf identity that involves embracing this (new) identity and finding community and sociality. I think this narrative is just as teleological as the narrative around becoming hearing or becoming normal. I think that we need multiple ways of being disabled, deaf, and normal in the world and that we also need more robust analytic language for discussing different experiences—relating to the senses, perception, and pain, as examples. I think the move in disability studies towards crip theory really helps us to destabilize disability identity and I am not quite sure that we’ve seen a similar move in deaf studies/deaf anthropology.

Tim Loh: I was also struck by your emphasis on “total communication” as an approach, both as articulated by anthropologist Margaret Mead as well as a pedagogical method for deaf children that saw its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s but seems to have mostly fallen out of favor in many deaf educational circles. As you write in the conclusion, “Surely there are more than four ways (listening and spoken language, a bilingual-bicultural approach using sign language, cued speech, and total communication) to communicate. I see value in total communication as a philosophy that involves all of the senses and orienting to children and others more generally based on what they need and when they need it” (p. 193). Do you see this work as in some ways a reclaiming of that term?

Michele Friedner: I really love this term and what it meant for Mead—as an orientation towards openness and recognizing all signals, or at least more signals, as communicative. I also recognize that many in deaf and disabled communities have major beef with how total communication is used as a practice. In deaf schools, for example, total communication has come to mean “sim-comming” or simultaneous communication in ASL and English, which does not provide deaf children with access to a full and complete language and basically is just half and half. And in autistic education, total communication approaches have been used as an excuse not to teach autistic children language at all. While I am aware of these grave problems, I also think as a philosophy or way of orienting to other people, especially those who do not communicate the same as you do, total communication is very compelling. There has been so much exciting work lately in deaf studies on translanguaging and semiotic ideologies and on “crip linguistics,” which resonates with how I think about total communication.

Tim Loh: As with your first book, your positionality as a deaf person shaped many of the interactions you had with your interlocutors. I loved hearing about your experiences and seeing how they framed your analysis: your deaf interlocutors’ reactions when you decided to get a second implant, your interactions with your surgeon as well as with AVT (Auditory Verbal Therapy) specialists (those Ss!), and, of course, the interview you conducted with your mother. Can you say a little more about your approach to writing this very academic—yet deeply personal—book?

Michele Friedner: I struggled with how to include myself, my choices, and my family’s choices. I also struggled with writing about them in a way that does not seem banal or sentimental. And I don’t want to be one of those deaf people writing about deafness for a hearing audience; I want what I write to be interesting to deaf folks as well. I felt like I had to include myself in the book because as I noted, I chose to get implanted after doing my dissertation research with Indian Sign Language speakers and then I chose to get a second implant during the midst of this fieldwork because my hearing aid broke and my health insurance would not pay for a replacement, but it would pay for an implant! And during the research, people—surgeons, audiologists, families, children—all had questions for me about my experience with cochlear implants. And, as I discuss in the book, my speech was also adjudicated by speech and language therapists and found to be deficient.

Tim Loh: What are your hopes for Sensory Futures? Who do you hope will read it, and what work do you hope that it will do in the world?

Michele Friedner: I’d love for everyone, including my mother, surgeons, audiologists, and speech and language therapists to read it. I was excited that there were funds to make the book open access and that folks in India have been reading it. I received a very nice email from an audiologist and speech and language therapist in India who told me that while she did not agree with everything I had written, she appreciated the book. She also encouraged other practitioners to read it. I want medical anthropologists, sensory anthropologists, and deaf studies and disability studies scholars to read it—I think it’s super important to think about the ways that sense is produced, and constrained, through political economic conditions. It’s not just that the senses are culturally produced, but with the advent of new technology, senses are actually produced. I also hope the book intervenes in discussions of normalizing, normals, and normality and contributes to how we might think of normalization as narrowing or constraining. And methodologically, I hope more people will start explicitly writing about how they do research with others in inter-sensory ways!

John P. O’Regan on his book, Global English and Political Economy

Interview by Bonnie Urciuoli


Bonnie Urciuoli: Can you say a bit about how your Marx reading group led to this book.

John O’Regan: The Marx reading group came together as a result of conversations I was having with colleagues at the IOE and at other London universities in 2009-10 as the aftershocks of the global financial crisis were being felt and absorbed. The group included myself, David Block, Catherine Wallace, Siân Preece, John Gray, Melanie Cooke and Tom Morton. I had read a fair bit of Marx in my time and had a reasonable acquaintance with many of the key texts and ideas, but I had never properly sat down and read Capital (Vols. I, II and III) and Grundrisse. So, this is what we set out to do. Of great assistance to us was David Harvey and his companions to Capital and the 1973 Foreword to Grundrisse by Martin Nicolaus. At the start of this process, some of us felt more like novices than others, but it seemed to us that it was necessary to explore materialist political economy and Marx particularly when for so long everything in our fields had seemed to be about discourse and Foucault.

Throughout, we attempted to apply what we were reading not only to our areas of scholarship, but also to how the crisis and the response to it was unfolding and being experienced in the UK and in the wider world. In Capital and Grundrisse the key insight to be grasped is the ceaseless motion of capital. In Marx’s words, “Capital is not a simple relation, but a process, in whose moments it is always capital” (1973: 258). Marx presents this movement as a relation between money and commodity production, M-C-M¢, and as a speculative relationship of money itself, M-M¢, in which the M that comes out at the end of the process, M¢, has been incrementally enhanced in comparison with what went in at the beginning. The process is then endlessly repeated again and again. It was largely thanks to the discussions that we had in our group that the ceaseless motion of capital emerged as the basis for the proposition in my book that the explanation for the global dominance of English as well as its elite forms lay fundamentally with capital and not elsewhere.

Bonnie Urciuoli: A central point in your book is the free riding of English on capital circulation. Can you explain what that is and how that allows you to show how English has become hegemonic in ways that other approaches to the hegemony of English have not gotten at?

John O’Regan: To answer this question in a way that would offer the most clarity, it is necessary to work up to the free riding concept. I took the concept from my knowledge of international relations (IR) and of theories like world-systems analysis and development theory which I studied in some depth in the 1980s. In IR it is used to refer to how one state can gain benefits from another state’s actions at no cost to itself. Although I do not use it in precisely this way, free riding was a concept that came back to me when I set out to write the book knowing all along that I would start with capital circulation and Marx. It was one of those concepts that floated into my head and then took a firmer hold as I looked back at the literature on free riding and its origins in the work of Mancur Olsen. It occurred to me that free riding was an apt concept to use given that the dominant capitalisms of the world-system (as per Wallerstein’s conception) over several hundred years had been the anglophone capitalisms of first Britain and then the United States. Moreover, this was not simply a question of colonialism or formal territorial acquisition alone – that is, having empires (as use values – accumulation of land, power, mineral deposits, and so on within limits); it was far greater than that. This was about the origins of capitalism as an entire world-system involving hegemonic world-economies (as exchange values – endless accumulation of value without limits), one dominated by Britain and British capital up to 1918 and then another dominated by the US and US capital thereafter, with absolute US dominance arriving after 1945.

The details are in the book but suffice to say that colonial occupation and annexation are only partial aspects of a hegemon’s dominance. Of greater significance and global extent is the hegemon’s structural authority over global security, production, finance and knowledge, all of which the hegemon dedicates to the accumulation of capital in its own interests. Essential elements in enacting this authority are that the hegemon’s currency dominate global finance and trade and that its language become a dominant language in global commerce and diplomacy. The pound sterling gave English linguistic seignorage in the era of the British hegemony (1688-1918), the greenback does the same for English in the era of the US hegemony (1918-). By being the dominant currencies in which capital has circulated in the world-system, English has derived immense linguistic seignorage and ideological power from this fact, such that it has become the favoured language of capital and its accumulation. In a capitalist world-system that has been dominated by anglophone hegemons, that English is the dominant default language of capital and capital accumulation does not seem so surprising, yet few have looked at it in this way. Nevertheless, it is because of the reality of capital in motion that English and elite articulations of English have gained a free ride. In my book there seemed no better way to visualize this than to take Marx’s formulae for capital circulation and accumulation and to add an E for English. Hence ME-CE-M¢E and ME-M¢E are the formulae I have used to show this – while also emphasizing their symbiotic entwinement and mutual facilitation. Other approaches have looked to imperialism, colonialism and globalization theory, and some others to plain human irrationalism. But whichever perspective one favours, what best explains the spread and dominance of the forms being observed – especially the standard elite form – is the endless accumulation of capital. This is the underlying generative framework for English spread and also for its insinuation into global distinctions of class, culture and taste.

Bonnie Urciuoli: Can you address the importance of distinguishing between empire in a political sense and empire in a world economy sense? 

John O’Regan: I have sought to address this above, but in short empire is too much associated with territorial annexation and colonial rule to be a suitable referent for the exercise of structural hegemony within the capitalist world-system. In the capitalist world-system a world-economy is a multi-state system having a single division of labour (exchange based on private accumulation) in which one state is structurally dominant. A capitalist world-empire if it existed would be a single-state system. The nineteenth-century empires of Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, and so on, were not empires at all, but nation states with colonial appendages within a world-economy dominated by Britain. References to a US empire while commonplace are misleading as a description of the current US world-economy into which the rising hegemon China and all other states in the capitalist inter-state system are also incorporated.

Bonnie Urciuoli: Chapters 2 through 6 segment the history of English into 1688-1850, 1850-1914, 1918-1979, 1979-2008, and since. What dynamics did you want to capture in so doing?

John O’Regan: With this periodization I primarily wanted to capture specific broad phases of capitalism and of global capital circulation during the past 400 years, and with it how English under the hegemonies of first Britain (1688-1918) and then the United States (1918-2008) was implicated in each phase. The period 1688-1850 in Britain is the period of transition from agricultural capitalism to industrial capitalism with the increased presence of City of London capital overseas, and of relevance for global English, the rise of gentlemanly capitalism as a unifying ideology, which I explain in the book. It is also a period in which Britain moves from being a rising hegemon to being an unrivalled hegemon. The period 1850-1914 is the period of unparalleled British dominance in global manufacturing and finance. It is also the era of free trade and the classical period of capitalist imperialism; all of which gave an enormous boost to English. In this period Germany and the United States also begin to challenge the British hegemony, but Germany’s attempt ends in ruinous defeat in the first world war (1914-18). The war leaves Britain financially broken and deeply in debt, but with its capital networks still spread around the world. It is at this juncture that the United States begins the process of transitioning to become the next unrivalled hegemon, in part by building upon the networks that Britain had already established.

This is a process which reaches its apotheosis after the second great defeat of Germany along with its axis ally Japan in 1945 and is consolidated through the post-war era up to 1979. Overseas, in the pursuit of Cold War supremacy and financial domination in its world-economy, the US practised a militarized global Keynesianism through the Federal Reserve, the IMF and the World Bank. This in its own way involved the further global consolidation of English. But the period of sustained global capital expansion faltered in multiple economic shocks and high inflation in the 1970s that led to a questioning of the Keynesian economic orthodoxy which had dominated since 1945. The crises of the 1970s ushered in a new orthodoxy that claimed to be based on classical principles but was in fact nothing of the sort. Sometimes associated with the Chicago School of Milton Friedman but having its intellectual roots in the Mont Pelerin Society of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, this return to supposed classical prescriptions sounded the death knell of social contract capitalism and the birth of what became known as neoliberalism. 1979 is the watershed moment when this transition occurs, while also coinciding with China’s move to the so-called open door. This is why I took this year as a natural cut-off point for this phase of accumulation.

The period from 1979 to 2008 is the era of unbridled neoliberal capitalism and of accumulation by dispossession – that is, of the wholesale transfer of national assets from public into private hands and of wealth from South to North, and as part of that of US insistence on the opening up to the greatest possible extent the economies of the world to inward capital investment and speculation. The 1979-2008 period is distinctive because of the way the global accumulation of capital changed. Due to technological advances this became still more financialized, allowing the generation of greatly increased volumes of accumulation utilizing ever more complex financial instruments. The period was also a geopolitically significant one that included the opening up of China (1978-9) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991). These events in combination with the undimmed drive to accumulate contributed to a veritable explosion in the global demand for English (1991-2008).

The forces of financialized accumulation that were unleashed led inexorably to the 2007-8 financial crash, which I argue was largely mediated in English. The period since then I have referred to as one of endism, where no new solutions to the crisis created by unbridled accumulation are forthcoming, only a financial resetting so that the accumulation that wrought the crisis in the first place can start anew. Of course, by the 2000s, the global dominance of English and its imbrication in the structures and institutions of the US world-economy had become such unassailable givens that outside of language scholarship circles and the occasional surfacing of official angst (for example, China, France) this was barely ever questioned.

Bonnie Urciuoli: What aspects of the movement of English through the world over time do you think have been most ignored or misunderstood?

John O’Regan: A main issue was to draw attention to the fact that this was not just about the dominance of English in general, nor was it about the specific dominance of native-speaker English either. The obsessive singling out of native-speaker English by its objectors has been an unfortunate distraction in relation to discussions of global English. At the same time, this is not to deny that native-speakerism as Robert Phillipson refers to it exists. It does indeed exist and what Phillipson has to say on this is valuable and worth listening to. But a distinction needs to be made between deference to native-speaker English norms and the employment of standard English in global capitalism. Those who are globally most responsible for reproducing this form and for pursuing it are not native speakers. At the most elite levels of the capitalist world-economy, in the global financial markets, in transnational corporations and in the world’s global governance institutions, including international alternatives sponsored by the Chinese government, the lingua franca of preference for all linguistic outputs is standard English, primarily in a written or what one might call read out form, regardless of whatever other languages or forms of English are spoken and used as well. One can call it native-speakerism if one wishes to, but I feel this is to miss the point, which is the hegemonic institutionalization of standard English under the specific historical conditions of capitalism and of processes of capital accumulation in a US-dominated world-economy. The US and other nations that view themselves as members of the anglosphere naturally have an interest in this, and gain a free ride in consequence of it, but it is not native-speaker norms which are at issue, or at least not any longer; that is far too simplistic and imprecise. Rather, the capitalist world-system for specific historical reasons has selected standard English as its elite form and today it is multilingual users of this form within the elite circles of global capitalism who are most responsible for its reproduction and dissemination. That this form is also mostly indistinguishable from standard English as used in elite circles in the anglosphere and promoted by its billion-dollar ELT and testing industries is not to be denied or ignored, but to locate responsibility for this form’s continued global dominance in these circles is to miss its ongoing intersection with the functioning of the capitalist world-system as a whole.

Bonnie Urciuoli: What should analysts keep in mind about applying the notion of commodification to language?

John O’Regan: There is not much wrong with referring to language as acting like a commodity or it appearing to have been commodified if one’s interest is only to metaphorize – to say that language seems like a commodity. Having the ability to use another language is also an evident skill and to that extent it can be deemed marketable – as if it were a commodity – and at a diverse price depending on where one is in the world and the specific political and economic conditions that locally pertain between capital and labour. But that is about as far as you can go with that kind of analogy because commodities are very specific things that have peculiar properties. There are two related problems with the language commodification argument. The first is that those who have made this argument have chosen to invoke a particular theorization of capitalism as the basis of their claim. But if one really is going to deal with capitalism and how commodities function in relation to that, simply metaphorizing the commodity as being applicable to anything that is desired, or to any kind of skill, is to do a singular disservice to established theory concerning commodities under the conditions of market capitalism. It therefore appears an oversight not to look at the economic theories that have analyzed this. My own route into this for the reasons of the reading group I belonged to was to look at how Marx defined the commodity, and also at how he determined what were and were not commodities. But I could just as easily have turned to more recent economic theory and done the same. Language economists, such as François Grin, who are working from a distinctly non-Marxist perspective have long been pointing out that language is not a commodity and cannot be economically determined as such. But it seems that in the rush to commodify language this basic due diligence has been overlooked. The second problem, which ensues from the first, is that by making language a commodity the real processes of exploitation which language workers experience – such as in telephone banking, phone sex chats and other kinds of paid-for call services – are obscured because what is being sold in the exchange has been misidentified, so instead of dealing with the material underlying causes of the language worker’s exploitation – the systemic extraction of surplus value  –  the focus is instead on surface appearances. For, as I argue in the book, it is not language that is being sold in the exchange, but the language worker’s capacity to labour. This is averagely unitized and charged to the customer as labour time: ‘all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour time’ Marx tells us (1976/1867: 130). It is therefore not language that is being sold but the worker’s labour time, and it follows from this that it is the call, not language, that is the commodity.

Jessica Grieser on her book, The Black Side of the River

Interview by Anna-Marie Sprenger


Anna-Marie Sprenger: First of all, congratulations on your new book! I am curious how you came to focus on place specifically in your research of Black speakers in DC, and if you can elaborate on why place identity is an important change from traditional dialectology studies?

Jessica Grieser: That’s an interesting question because really, this study started out as one about class! I was interested in how middle class African Americans position themselves and use language differently than their neighbors from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Anacostia was a great place to look at that, because in the 2010s, Black residents from other parts of the city were moving in there, so it was starting to experience a class shift but not a racial shift. What I discovered, though, was that the story of the neighborhood really wasn’t about conflict; it was about unity and the way that people talked about the neighborhood. It’s that “way that people talk about” that is different than dialectology, or even place-based variation studies–I’m a lot less interested in exactly what language features use and more in all the practices that allow them to combine a D.C. identity, an Anacostian identity, and a Black identity in ways that turn Anacostia, and D.C., into Black space.

 Anna-Marie Sprenger: What do you feel makes the story your participants tell of Anacostia unique from other stories of change and belonging in Black space in the US?

Jessica Grieser: A lot of that is rooted in the history of Anacostia itself. Anacostia was historically a settlement of both white workers from Navy Yard across the river, and also freed slaves who had purchased the area of Hillsdale from the Freedmen’s Bureau. So it has always been a place of racial integration and also racial conflict, and yet, it has always been understood as Black place (the MLK day parade has always been there, the Anacostia Community Museum essentially was the Smithsonian’s Black History museum until 2016). So unlike many Black spaces, which are created by the ghettoization of Black communities through policy and planning, it was largely created by people choosing to be there. Anacostia is a place where you have this black history that goes back generations and generations: some of my interviewees can trace their history back to great-grandparents who were enslaved on the land that they live on now in row houses. So it’s a different kind of place. At the same time, a lot of it is the same as other Black spaces in the U.S., and that’s something I don’t want to be lost either. These ways that people stake claims on the neighborhood are generalizable and they’re the kind of things we should be listening for in all communities.

Anna-Marie Sprenger: Your book focuses on place specifically, but we could say it is also about time – the changes participants see in Anacostia take place over time, and the events that have come to define the area are linked to particular moments in the timeline of the Anacostian imaginary. Could you share your intuitions as to how sense of time is or isn’t a part of Anacostians’ place identities and the sociolinguistic variation that reflects these identities?

Jessica Grieser: I mentioned this above, but a big sense of Anacostia is its history. The fact that the neighborhood unfolded over time, the fact that the neighborhood’s demographics changed over time – for instance, Anacostia high school was a white high school and it was Ballou high school that was the black high school. Now both of them, like most of the DC public schools, are predominantly black. So those sorts of changes are the kinds of things that my participants are noticing and thinking about. When it comes to the variation itself, that isn’t necessarily something that we see changing over time, but we do see are changes in the strategies that different people use to talk about the neighborhood itself. For instance many of my older participants with the benefit of time and with the benefit of having this claim staking process in the neighborhood earlier, felt much more free to criticize the processes of gentrification more overtly. With my younger speakers, mostly in their 30s, who were the same age as the population that was moving in and gentrifying, and also the same social classes that population, the strategies that they needed to use to covertly critique gentrification were different.

Anna-Marie Sprenger: While your project takes a community of practice approach instead of a speech community approach, you extensively discuss the use of enregistered African American Language features for the construction of place identities. What do you make of speakers who maybe didn’t use enregistered AAL features, or were otherwise linguistic outliers in some way – what did you learn from them?

Jessica Grieser: So this is actually what’s really interesting about this work! One of the reasons that I conducted my quantitative analysis the way that I did, was to see if I could find patterns that were similar across speakers, even for speakers who didn’t use very many enregistered features of AAL. And the fascinating finding is that yes, even if you don’t use very many, the ones that you do use are going to be used in the same place where people who use lots and lots of these features are still likely to use lots more of these features. So I suppose what’s interesting is less about the outliers, but more that even those who might be otherwise considered outliers still show the same general pattern. In turn, that pattern tells us something about the stylistic role that these features can play and the kinds of meanings that different speakers can draw upon when they use them which gives us yet more insight into the kinds of identities that get index to buy a particular variety, and where’s that I hope or helpful beyond just studying aal. 

Anna-Marie Sprenger: Do you feel that conducting the research for this project and writing this book was itself in a way a place-making process?

Jessica Grieser: Absolutely, if for no other reason than that it reifies the significance of places that people might think of as insignificant. That’s one of the responses I’ve gotten about this book from my participants themselves, is that they didn’t always see the connections between the outer history of the neighborhood and its relationship to the rest of Washington DC, and the role of these places that they think of as everyday places in maintaining a sense of community identity. And more personally it was a place making process for me: doing this project really made DC a second home for me in a way that won’t ever go away. I feel like my own Black cultural identity strengthened significantly in the course of doing this project, and these days if people ask where I’m from, I often describe being a professor in the midwest as “I’m a just Washingtonian who is just away on business for the next thirty years!”

Ingrid Kummels on her new book, Indigenity in Real Time

Interview by Maria Eugenia Ulfe


María Eugenia Ulfe: Congratulations, Ingrid, for publishing this wonderful book. It is a beautifully written ethnography about Zapotec and Ayuujk mediamakers’ involvement across borders. I like very much this idea of Comunalidad, a communal way of life, which is contested, claimed, and reinforced even in megacities like Los Angeles. How is Comunalidad created via Indigenous media? How is Indigeneity claimed and strengthened in the urban context? What roles does it play and how does it work?

Ingrid Kummels: That’s what impressed me most, this nexus of living a communitarian lifeway called Comunalidad, being IndigenousZapotec or Ayuujk ja’ay originally from Oaxaca, Mexico—across the U.S.-Mexican border despite the illegalization of the majority of Mexican migrants in the United States, and self-determined media work. In the book, I show that ever since large numbers of Zapotec and Ayuujk people migrated without authorization, due to the cessation of the Bracero agreement between the United States and Mexico in the mid-1960s, they have exported Comunalidad to Los Angeles. That is, they have contributed to this megacity’s development through their everyday practices of organizing political meetings, sports tournaments, collective celebrations, and rituals around death—especially through their media activities.

During my ethnographic fieldwork between 2016 and 2021, I experienced the trend toward digital media which Zapotec and Ayuujk creatives and their audience/users implemented on both sides of the border to overcome immobilization and discrimination. Building on their own media histories, they harnessed radio broadcasting, the assemblage of social media content, and smartphone reporting precisely to uphold sociality and autonomy regarding Indigenous knowledges and grassroot politics—while at the same time shaping them and making them visible in a transnational setting.

That’s why I propose that Oaxacalifornia—as this communal, transnational lifeway between Mexico and the United States is also called—was, above all, “digitally made” during the Trump era. I followed self-determined internet radios, multimedia platforms, and community influencers in Mexico and the United States for whom broadcasting via Facebook Live was an important dimension of their media work for a transborder audience. In Los Angeles they focused on a broad spectrum of weekend events ranging from migrant association meetings, rosary prayer ceremonies, wakes, and fundraisers where Oaxacan cuisine and beverages are sold while live music is played and dances are performed.  

Indigenous media practices help them assert their languages, cultures, and knowledges and resist denigration in challenging times. I experienced how Zapotec and Ayuujk internet radio stations, multimedia platforms, and social media showcased migrant association meetings at a time when the Trump administration was working to disrupt community life. The many executive orders the president issued to increase deportations inhibited free movement. Nevertheless, even more community fiestas were celebrated in Los Angeles backyards or banquet halls to raise funds for villages back home or for migrants in need in the United States. Self-determined media work defined Indigeneity in their own terms from different localities at a time when the U.S. government’s political discourse was openly racist.

María Eugenia Ulfe: In your book, present and presentness are not contradictory issues. Perhaps we can call them political time interventions through technology that have an impact even on persons who are not in the same place. How do synchronic communicative spaces cross national borders between the United States and Mexico, challenging uneven media structures, economic disparities, and ethno-racial and gender hierarchies? The Indigenous people involved create the sense that time opens for futures. How can we grasp the temporality of future? What becomes immediate?

Ingrid Kummels: Indigenous mediamakers carved out a space and time for transborder communication by setting up infrastructure, broadcasting in Indigenous mother tongues as well as in Spanish and English—the languages with which second-generation descendants in the United States are most comfortable. And here is where synchronicity and time interventions come in: Comunalidad in the capitalist sectors of Los Angeles is about creating and maintaining this feeling of obligation to reciprocate and share with the Mexican village of origin and vice versa—that is, sensing and experiencing this connection in real time. In fact, fundraisers and other get-togethers in Los Angeles backyards became vibrant showcases of communitarian life, equipped with live studios.

In general, the immediacy imposed by capitalist interests in the economization of time via digital instantaneity is blamed for a series of negative developments worldwide: a speeding-up of social life, economics, and politics. These wider developments exert pressure to migrate due to economic necessity. And overall, they lead to the volatility of social relations, as Paul Virilio, Hartmut Rosa, and other scholars have highlighted. In contrast, my book traces how Indigenous self-determined media set their own priorities when intervening in time. By enabling the experience of real time during a live transmission, let’s say of a basketball match in the village of origin, they take up the challenge of an uneven transnational terrain in terms of digital connectivity, infrastructure, and knowhow. At the same time, autonomous media is crucial for documenting and disseminating political ideas on the wider transborder community called Oaxacalifornia.

This digital divide is marked by several inequalities, beginning with the lack of interest on the part of major internet service providers in developing the necessary infrastructure in sparsely populated agrarian areas where they expect less profit. On the other hand, social media corporations like Facebook and Google encourage sociality to harvest and sell user data for financial profit, while they have no interest in supporting the content that media users wish to communicate and access, such as those of Indigenous knowledge systems. The state governments on both sides of the border failed to adequately regulate the media business, they failed to ensure the needs of those who are disadvantaged in the digital realm.

This was countered by self-determined media outlets run by Zapotec and Ayuujk teams. They creatively bridged the analog and digital media practices that existed in the various localities due to uneven infrastructure. Interactive user participation also enabled cross-border sociality and regular exchange of experiences. It allowed people to enjoy spending time together and engage in fervent debates over issues concerning the transnational community and beyond. The uneven transnational terrain was levelled by practitioners who combined hands-on, older and newer media formats, for example, circulating family archival material such as fiesta DVDs, both on the ground and when remediatizing them on social media.

What precisely does the future become, when it’s shaped as something you can quickly reach, only a few mouse clicks away? Examples of short-term futures concern text, sound, and images on social media pages of construction work for church compounds and modern graveyards in the Mexican hometown based on a combination of migrant money and communal labor on site. Or livestreams of family festivities like a quinceañera, a coming-of-age party, which convey not only transnational family ties, but other close bonds like those to employers in Los Angeles. Visions of a bright future are often not only projected on the Mexican hometown, but are also carried out there, not without controversy within the transnational community.

María Eugenia Ulfe: What are the possibilities that Indigenous digital media creates for gender empowerment in the case of women migrants? Maybe I should ask how digital media affects Indigenous communities in general. How does it transform social and political relations?

Ingrid Kummels: Indeed, femininities and masculinities are reshuffled in the course of migration. The labor regime to which people are subject increases gender inequality, since women are driven into care work—which even pressures them to limit the time they can spend caring for their own children; men are restricted in other ways, especially when they work in the food industry, often assuming two jobs. One of the paths to empowerment that I trace concerns how women increasingly engage as mediamakers. Internet radio reporters and social media influencers transform what used to be seen as matters restricted to the family into issues concerning the wider transnational community. Reporters and influencers brought a new angle to Indigenous cultural expressions and knowledges by visibilizing and transmitting them.

I discovered that women are particularly active as what I term community influencers. They don’t seek to influence consumer behavior regarding lifestyle. Instead, their intention is to impact cross-border community life when they post about it on social media. The book delves into how both dance moms as well as young people celebrating their quinceañera craft media events designed to promote greater gender equality; these entail regendering Indigeneity. That was the case with a Los Angeles female dance group that performed and livestreamed a sacred dance, Los Negritos, formerly considered an exclusively male affair in their hometown. Moms who accompanied their children to Zapotec dance training would act as community influencers and devise sophisticated ways of reporting on, archiving, and publishing dance and music. Users then commented on these media events in ways that reflect on both Zapotec Indigeneity and gender issues. Indigeneity is thereby regendered, in the sense that they destabilized the notion of Zapotec authenticity as primarily linked to masculinity and sacredness.

Women’s experiments with visual aesthetic styles when live broadcasting are a case in point. The photo on the book cover shows a community influencer wearing something dear to her community, the huipil, an Indigenous women’s garment of precolonial origin. At the same time, she is transmitting a group selfie, together with two participants of the dance group called Negritos colmilludos. Wearing a mask and relocating it to a Los Angeles food fair are significant in redefining Indigeneity in an increasingly re-territorialized world. The mask is an age-old medium which this current mediamaker puts at the forefront of contemporary life. Within the frame of the smartphone photo, gender issues and Indigeneity move closer together—and are visually redefined.

María Eugenia Ulfe: Last, but not least, how do you see Zapotec, Ayuujk, and other Indigenous mediamakers, in the era of artificial intelligence? Can AI open new possibilities when applied and used by many different people, including Zapotec and Ayuujk communities?

Ingrid Kummels: This is a very important question. On the one hand, artificial intelligence machines and software threaten to intensify existing imbalances that large media corporations produce in the realm of knowledges stored and published on internet. The marginalization of Indigenous knowledges is increased by search machines and chatbots, which rely on and reproduce this one knowledge category, while ignoring many others. On the other hand, Indigenous mediamakers are already reorienting this development. The book highlights examples of internet archiving and its importance to Indigenous knowledge systems, which are quite diverse. They often tend to organize wisdom in a way that transcends Cartesian dualism as well as the human-nature-supernatural divides. Self-determined mediamaking relies on people becoming chroniclers, archivists, and publishers, which is extremely important with regard to a diversity of content becoming part of IA software such as the chatbot ChatGPT—that is, it should not be mainly programmed by white males residing in the Global North. Indigenous mediamakers are also planning on creating other chatbots, Voice AIs, and the like, which rely on their mother tongues. Therefore, such AIs promise to be more useful for communities, while also enriching the multiverse of digital knowledge systems of our planet.

Amahl Bishara discusses her book, Crossing a Line

Interview by Sarah Ihmoud


Sarah Ihmoud: Crossing a Line offers a refreshing and indeed critical ethnographic approach to understanding Palestinian political expression across the fragmented social landscapes imposed by Israeli settler colonialism. How does bringing more than one distinct Palestinian geography into the analytical frame—in this context, Palestinians who carry Israeli citizenship and those subject to Israeli military occupation in the West Bank—reorient our understanding of the Palestinian present? What does this methodological approach enable us to grasp, both in terms of the performance of settler colonial violence and the performance of indigenous identities and sovereignties?

Amahl Bishara: First, Sarah, I want to say thank you for this chance to be in conversation! You’ve been a crucial interlocutor for so long. The long-dominant frame of “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” located the Palestinian national struggle primarily in the occupied territories and saw discrimination against Palestinians in Israel as a minor issue. This view serves both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Israel portrays the issue as being about security, confronting an external enemy. The Palestinian Authority, nominally in charge of the occupied territories, uses this frame to claim power and legitimacy there.

Reframing the boundaries of political discussion demonstrates how Israel’s settler colonial project is and has been unified across all historic Palestine. Looking at these two Palestinian geographies together exposes how Israel’s systems of separation multiply repression for all Palestinians. More generally, the approach moves us beyond state-centered definitions of politics, challenging methodological nationalism.

Given that Israel has controlled the West Bank since 1967, its crucial to ask: what sustains the conception, even among Palestinians, that the West Bank and Israel’s 1948 territories are separate from each other? We know that a vast system of checkpoints, walls, and other forms of closure suffocates Palestinian economies, but I show also that this system limits Palestinian politics—preventing joint protests, for example. Separation is also maintained through media, including in Palestinian news. I look at what constitutes “local” or “Palestinian” news for Palestinians in different locations.  Meanwhile, in ways both mundane and spectacular, the Palestinian Authority represses dissent and ossifies the fragmentation Israel instigated. An anthropology for liberation must be ready to both confront settler colonial violence and also take on cooptation of older paths toward liberation.

Sarah Ihmoud:Another important contribution of your book is the invitation to think with what you call Palestinians’ “political habitus”, or the embodied sense of how Palestinians perform political practice, as well as their “structures of feelings, affective orientations to the political world that are in the process of taking shape” (5) in distinct yet interrelated environments. Why is it imperative that we examine the conditions of political communication among Palestinians not only through the content of their expression, but also through the affective and intimate aspects of that expression?

Amahl Bishara: Activist Palestinians on two sides of the Green Line will agree on many foundational principles of Palestinian liberation, even as they are aware that living under Israeli sovereignty in each location presents them with different challenges. Yet, without ethnography it can be difficult to appreciate the ways in which those everyday dynamics shape political action. An Arabic-English language t-shirt that called for “one vote for each Palestinian everywhere” felt ordinary to wear in Bethlehem in the West Bank but made people uncomfortable in Jaffa near Tel Aviv during Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza. People had different reactions to stun grenades and the threat of tear gas. Also that summer I was amazed by the bravery of Palestinian protesters on two sides of the Green Line as they refused the violence of Israel’s war—but the forms the bravery took were quite different: protesters performed chants that speak to generations of Palestinian resistance inside Israel’s 1948 territories, whereas those in the occupied territories engaged in direct confrontation, throwing stones at the Israeli army in Palestinian cities and neighborhoods.

I start the book reflecting on a post-protest riff by the wonderful singer Walaa’ Sbeit, of the band 47Soul, in which he says, basically, “let’s be kind to those who left”—that is the refugees—”and kind to those who stayed”—the citizens of Israel. This addresses tensions that have existed among Palestinian communities. Israeli citizenship gives Palestinians mobility, and a level of social services. Being in the West Bank entails vulnerability to many forms of violence, but also places Palestinians there at the forefront of the Palestinian story on the world stage. It might be tempting to talk in terms of privileges, but here every privilege is also a restraint of a sort. I hope that bringing together these embodied ways of being also helps us to be as generous as possible toward people in all of these positions, as Walaa Sbeit summons us to do.

Sarah Ihmoud: You describe movement between and across borders as an important epistemic experience. In one section of the book, you note that geopolitical fragmentation and immobility are a means of eliminating Indigenous collectives. Yet, Palestinians diagnose and contest settler colonialism in and through transit. Moving us back and forth across the Green Line, your ethnography itself performs a sort of mobility that defies the geopolitical fragmentation of Israeli settler colonialism. In reading your book, I was struck by the ethnographic “passages” between chapters that give us a sense of the embodied and affective experience of crossing militarized borders and geographies as a Palestinian researcher.  Can you talk about your decision to include these passages? How might writing from the embodied space of crossing borders enable a more ethical anthropological engagement in Palestine? 

Amahl Bishara: To be on the road is to be in direct contact with the state: a road may be smooth or bumpy, safe or unsafe, direct or indirect. We encounter soldiers and police officers. To be on the road is to be in a social relationship with other passengers and even with those in other cars. To be on the road is also an affectively rich experience. The road tunes the senses, ripe with possibilities of danger, frustration, and pleasure—sometimes all at once.

If I’m interested in the kinds of fleeting collectives that might be seeds for liberation, that challenge today’s political order, what better places to explore than a bus ride for a rare children’s trip to the beach, the first time most of these young refugees have crossed the Green Line into Israel’s 1948 territories and the first time they have passed through the villages from which their families were dispossessed? Or a bus ride during which strangers have to decide how to handle soldiers’ exercise of their petty sovereignty over who will be allowed to stay on the bus?

Writing about my own mobility is a also way of recognizing the advantage with which I approach this project as a person with US and Israeli passports that give me the ability to move across the Green Line. I could go places some of my dearest friends and family members could not. Honestly, this made it very important for me to make my trips worthwhile. Likewise, in one of the passages I write about some travel that broke Israel’s apartheid laws. Maybe this is essential too.

Sarah Ihmoud: In exploring various practices on both sides of the Green Line—among them protest, commemoration, mourning and care work—you bring to the fore the paradoxical ways in which Palestinians subject to the most extreme forms of constraint are able to create space for intimacy, kinship and socialities to emerge. For example, the space of the colonial prison, while a profound site of violence, is simultaneously a space of profound connection among Palestinians across the green line. What possibilities do these emergent intimacies offer in reimagining Palestine and Palestinian liberation beyond the nation state?

Amahl Bishara: Nationalism often legitimizes state violence in the name of horizontal kinship. It can be an abstract kind of “imagined community,” as Benedict Anderson wrote those many years ago. But when people focus on concrete acts of care and nurturing, this can open them up to new dimensions of experience and help us imagine new forms of relationality. Prison confines and violates thousands today and threatens many thousands more. Yet, Palestinians have also shown that caring acts in prison and caring for prisoners can draw people together. For example, it can train attention to intrepid activists, like those on hunger strikes against administrative detention, which is Israel’s policy of imprisonment without charge, and it can create relations that challenge settler colonial policies of fragmentation.

When Palestinians make an effort to nurture creative and curious connections with each other that challenge settler colonial lines of division—not only across the walls of prison, and not only between Palestinian citizens of Israel and those in the West Bank, but also among Palestinians in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Detroit, and Chile—new visions of liberation can emerge. These visions will recognize the toll of the ongoing Nakba; they will stand against violence against women, like the Tal’at movement; they will treasure the village home as well as urban spaces. At a time when the official Palestinian nationalist movement is so hollow and repressive, this is urgently needed.

Sarah Ihmoud: While Crossing a Line is deeply situated in the Palestinian experience, your analysis names the interconnection between state violence against Black and Indigenous communities in Palestine, North America, Kashmir and beyond through the connective tissue of global racism and militarism that have taken shape through distinct settler colonial formations. Beyond the Palestinian context, what is the broader invitation of your ethnography? What does the space of Palestine offer us in thinking between and across colonial and racial projects that give rise to state violence across the globe? What does it offer us in thinking generatively about solidarities and possibilities for decolonial futures?

Amahl Bishara: Throughout the process of writing this book, I have been living and working in the Boston area. Of course there are important connections between the US and Israel as two militarized settler colonies. I’ve commemorated the ongoing Nakba of Indigenous dispossession here through the National Day of Mourning. I’ve thought about how the Black Lives Matter movement faces different threats in Baltimore, Maryland than it does in Cambridge, Massachusetts, because in the former, many more protesters are Black. We can’t be responsible participants in these movements without recognizing differences in privilege afforded by social location and geography.

Settler colonialisms and militarisms create certain subject positions, but they do not define people or movements. Whether one is studying Kashmir, Sioux territory, the Uyghur homeland, or Palestine, I hope this book is an invitation to think comparatively and connectively in a way that also rigorously attends to local practices, to embodied experiences and unfolding histories of protest. I hope it is an invitation to think in ways that challenge statist definitions of place and liberation and to bring places into relation in generative and even generous ways.

Yana Stainova on her book, Sonorous Worlds: Musical Enchantment in Venezuela

Interview by Ahona Palchoudhuri


Ahona Palchoudhuri: I’d like to begin with a particularly moving ethnographic instance from your book in which Demian – who I sometimes like to think of as the protagonist of Sonorous Worlds – shares with you the news of his grandfather’s passing and of how listening to Mozart’s Requiem allowed him to come to terms with his loss, and first shed a tear. During the course of your book, you explore through Demian what you call the “Life Behind the Music.” This isn’t life only in the sense of personal history – but instead, a musical vitality that comes alive in the experiences of wonder and enchantment that the embodied reception of music enables. What is the relation between music and life that Sonorous Worlds poses?

Yana Stainova: What a wonderful question, Ahona, thank you. The way you pose it makes me think about the work of Veena Das and Stanley Cavell and I wish I could go back and expand on the concept in the book! The way that I summon the term life in the book is multifaceted. On the one hand, it describes how the specific life experiences and flights of the imagination of each of the musicians imbues a piece of music with unique meaning. This allows me to disentangle the practice of classical music in Venezuela from a narrow definition of a colonial imposition that turns players into automatons. But, as you point out, the way I think about the life behind the music goes beyond a person’s biography. I was inspired by the post-humanist philosophical tradition to which enchantment belongs that made me pay attention to the vitality of matter beyond the human which makes sound possible. As a purely physical phenomenon, a musical instrument sounds because it vibrates. The material it is made of — wood, brass, silver — begins to vibrate in response to the breath or touch of the player, setting the air around it to vibrate as well. These philosophical intuitions were elaborated on by my interlocutors, who frequently referred to their instruments as being alive, jokingly calling them a girlfriend, a best friend. They also referred to music itself as being alive, as having a life of its own. These reflections led me to think about music and life as born out of a complex and dynamic relationship between the player, the instrument, and the musical piece itself. Life, then, is about socialites and forms of communication that extend beyond the human and beyond language itself. 

Ahona Palchoudhuri: Enchantment emerges in the book as the modality in which you experience your fieldsite most intensely. But you also ask us what it might mean to deploy enchantment as a feature of one’s research design. What form of ethnographic method did enchantment offer you?

Yana Stainova: As I observed my interlocutors experience enchantment, defined as a state of being fascinated by an activity one loves, I allowed myself to experience enchantment together with them: through playing music, being touched by their music, and believing in their dreams. It was very important for me to distinguish experiences of enchantment from a momentary fascination that can subsequently be tamed, rationalized, and neatly explained. I wanted to carry this experience in the field with me as a method, theory, and modality of writing. With this, I also aimed to blur the boundaries between these activities, to acknowledge them as essentially part of one another. I have observed that much scholarship studying people in precarious situations tends to portray their lives almost entirely in the vocabulary of these larger forces they are battered by, be it as symptoms of or resistance to structural violence. What I observed through a focus on musical practices were realms of aesthetic experience and the imagination that were in excess of the structural forces that gripped the lives of residents on the urban margins. Being enchanted, for them, was a conscious choice, a desire to find respite from the violence of everyday life. Enchantment for me emerged as a philosophical orientation, one that privileges the more fragile forces of dreams, hopes, and leaps of the imagination nascent at the backdrop of structural violence.

Ahona Palchoudhuri: There’s a set of liberties that one can take or assumptions one can make about the people one has practiced music with over the years– in the sense that you have shared habits of thought, a joint grasp over mood, and know how to fill in for one another and act on each other’s behalf. One might think of this as a musical kinship of sorts. How do social and musical relationships intersect? Are there social relationships that are essentially musical? 

Yana Stainova: What distinguishes music practice within El Sistema from other classical music traditions in the West is that it is almost entirely collective. From an early age, the students take classes together with their peers, and the more experienced students teach those who are just starting. I think about the bonds and communities established in teaching through the concept of the gift. Demian, the book’s protagonist as you call him, described teaching music as “a gift of the soul, a gift that stays with this person.” Rather than a reciprocity that returns the gift to the original receiver, the teacher, I describe teaching as an impulse that propagates the sonorous gift outwards, to other students. A similar phenomenon takes place at the level of orchestral practice. El Sistema orchestras, especially the most advanced ones, rehearsed and performed as a collective almost every day over many years. The collaboration, listening, and interdependence between members of an orchestra is essential for bringing a piece of orchestral music into being. This was most clearly illustrated to me during a concert where one of the instruments did not sound due to a technical problem. This disturbed the delicate balance in an orchestra and elicited other instruments to make up for the silence. In moments when the interdependence was at its best, it led to very moving performances that left the performers in tears and evoked standing ovations from the audiences. Both the highs and lows of musical collaboration led to deep bonding and camaraderie between the musicians but also, predictably, to tensions and irritation. The latter were frequently symptoms of the hierarchical setup of an orchestra. What I found striking about these musical communities is that they encompassed musicians from different socio-economic classes and even political convictions in a deeply polarized country. Musical collaboration allowed for a community to emerge where previously there was none, where one was not possible. The artistic and aesthetic collaboration at least for a moment made differences between musicians less important.

Ahona Palchoudhuri: One might understand Sonorous Worlds as a study of where it is that one might locate the political potential of music, if not necessarily within its demonstrative engagement with dominant political forces. You show us how the aesthetic labor underlying the practice of music elicits, on its own terms, a capacity to aspire and a fight to thrive. In doing so, I think you ask a really difficult question of how it is that music affords, and even nurtures, a spectrum of political positions –some of which might even seem apolitical. How would you describe the relation between this political energy of music and the Venezuelan state, as you experienced it during your fieldwork. In what ways did these energies also remain outside the reach of the state?

Yana Stainova: Many of the musicians I spoke to at El Sistema stayed away from discussions of formal politics. They tried to convince me that music is apolitical. Of course, as an anthropologist, I found this to be impossible to get on board with. However, these conversations led me to locate the political potential of music elsewhere, spilling beyond the realm of formal politics. For example, I was able to appreciate that, as mentioned above, collective musical practices allowed people to forget, for a moment, the deeply fragmenting impact of political divisions in Venezuela and build communities beyond political divisions. I also came to see more clearly that nestled in the daily labor of classical music practices were dreams for the future that went beyond what was dictated as possible by the socioeconomic constraints these young people grew up in — poverty, everyday violence, and state repression. The labor of learning to play a musical instrument was the labor of conjuring dreams deemed impossible and slowly working towards them. The labor required of me as an anthropologist was to witness, document, and learn to believe in those dreams. Each of the musicians’ unique dreams and imaginative horizons all coexisted within a piece of music, making it impossible for the state and the institution to impose a single unified meaning on it. These “dancing energies” generated in collective music practice were unruly and spilled beyond – in excess of – imposed meanings and political categories. 

Ahona Palchoudhuri: Demian asks at some point: “I wonder what you are like when you are not an anthropologist?” What particular insights, genealogies and genealogies does anthropology lend to the study of music? 

Yana Stainova: The way you phrase that question casts it in a light I hadn’t thought of before! Previously, I had considered it in terms of whether it’s possible to switch off being an anthropologist. You are asking me to think about what the substance of being an anthropologist is for me. What anthropology has given me is a set of sensibilities that would be impossible to list now. Foremost amongst them is intellectual curiosity, a desire to remain open to different points of view and, importantly, to having my mind changed by people and ideas I encounter in the field. For example, I was born in Bulgaria on the eve of the revolutions that brought about the fall of communism. I was raised with stories about how communism violated people’s freedoms. I arrived in Venezuela with skepticism about socialist ideas. What I have learned from anthropology is to linger with, rather than attempt to resolve, differences of opinion and orientation. When I encountered interlocutors who staunchly believed in the Venezuelan socialist government, even when it was slipping into violence, I tried to remain open as to why they continued to be so committed to this idea and to try to understand how political and historical circumstances shaped people’s opinions. To exist with these differences, I relied on what we had in common: a love of music and prioritizing education. From anthropologists I admire, I have also learned about allowing oneself to be vulnerable and exploring the types of empathy and connection with others that can emerge from that state. Finally, I have been deeply influenced by anthropologists, like João Biehl, Kirin Narayan, Sienna Craig, Carole McGranahan, Katie Stewart, who are also creative writers and poets and whose attention to the beauty of language marks their scholarship. This freedom to bend genre and write in ways that are evocative of aesthetics and emotion has proved essential in thinking and writing about music, an art form that is itself “beyond words.”

Ahona Palchoudhuri: What is your next project about?

Yana Stainova: My next project is about joy. I explore this topic through fieldwork with Latinx women and queer communities of artists in East Los Angeles, some of whom are undocumented. The focus on joy emerged organically from my fieldwork. People I encountered in the field spoke of their capacity to thrive and experience joy despite — and even in response to — the injury and violence to which they are subjected in everyday life. What is particular about the joy they articulate is that it is almost always experienced and generated in community. This differs from the individualistic and neoliberal conceptions of joy that have become entrenched in contemporary culture. I study how these communal conceptions of joy and the spaces that nurture them manage to exist within and in tension with neoliberal forces. 

Valérie Robin Azevedo on her book, Los Silencios de la guerra


Interview (and translation) by Emily Fjaellon Thompson

English version below

Emily Fjaellon Thompson: Usted ha tenido un par de años muy prolíficos. En 2021, La Siniestra publicó la traducción al castellano (hecha por Alberto Gálvez Olaechea) de su libro Los silencios de la guerra: Memoria y conflicto armado en Ayacucho, Perú. Igualmente, en el mismo año, la Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá) y el Instituto Francés de Estudios Andinos (Lima) publicaron el libro Retorno de cuerpos, recorrido de almas: Exhumaciones y duelo colectivo en América Latina y España, proyecto colectivo que coordinó junto con Anne Marie Losonczy. Pensando tanto en el caso de Perú como de manera más amplia en otros países con experiencias de violencia políticas, ¿podría contarme más sobre las posibilidades de reflexionar o analizar el exceso discursivo de pasados traumáticos que menciona en sus libros?

Valérie Robin Azevedo: Esta investigación se basa en las voces de actoras y actores quechuas de las comunidades campesinas de Ocros y Huancapi (Ayacucho). Con Los silencios de la guerra busqué hurgar en las huellas del conflicto armado que enlutó al Perú a fines del siglo XX, y cuyos fantasmas siguen resurgiendo cada cierto tiempo. En este contexto de supuesto “posconflicto”, busqué entender cómo se construyen hoy las memorias de la guerra y también qué se silencia del pasado. Me interesé en lo que se muestra de la violencia, cómo y qué se escenifica en las conmemoraciones y celebraciones así como en las narraciones. También quise indagar sobre lo que a su vez ocultan estas lecturas forzosamente parciales del pasado. Este trabajo constituye por lo tanto también una etnografía de lo no dicho en la cual los secretos relacionados a la guerra con Sendero Luminoso, se trenzan entre disimulo y revelación, cual filigrana. Las dinámicas analizadas en este libro son a menudo apenas visibles en el espacio público nacional, pese a que esclarecen la pluralidad de los procesos de memoria vigentes en la sociedad peruana. Me interesé entonces en las formas inéditas, podríamos decir incluso inusuales para los sectores urbanos, mediante las cuales se rememora el periodo del conflicto armado, cuando el recuerdo se organiza recurriendo a elementos culturales locales, sea en base a fiestas patronales o carnavales, a la creación musical o los bailes, o incluso recurriendo a los sueños, visiones y apariciones de un santo milagroso y protector. Lo más importante que quizá podamos destacar finalmente de estas modalidades plurales del recordar, tanto en el accionar conmemorativo como en las narraciones y sus arreglos, es que son reveladoras de las encrucijadas en el intento de una convivencia pacífica luego de culminar la guerra. Y ofrecen vías alternativas al modelo de justicia transicional para proyectarse hacia el futuro contribuyendo a la elaboración de una verdadera mitología colectiva, ya no de fundación sino de refundación del grupo social. Esta mitología y estos rituales donde confluye la memoria no pueden reducirse a un tema de “creencias” o de “costumbres”, como algunos los ven, sino que participan más bien de la reconstrucción de lazos sociales dañados por la guerra fratricida que azotó al Perú durante la guerra y cuyas secuelas se siguen rastreando hasta el día de hoy. Por eso los procesos locales de micro-reconciliación posconflicto analizados aquí, como los trabajados a inicios de la década del 2000 por Jefrey Gamarra y Kimberly Theidon, son elementos claves a los que, tanto los actores estatales como los organismos de derechos humanos involucrados en la implementación de las políticas de reparaciones, deberían prestar más atención. Pues la significación de estas memorias, digamos alternativas y no literales, permiten pensar otras vías para la recuperación colectiva de sociedades de posguerra, paralelamente a un modelo uniformizado y globalizado de la justicia transicional que se impone de arriba para abajo (top down) […]

Emily Fjaellon Thompson: Usted identifica la época después del conflicto armado interno como una de “la efervescencia de la memoria” (47). En América Latina en general, esto también se ha denominado un “boom” de la memoria. En las casi dos décadas desde la presentación del informe final de la Comisión de la Verdad y la Reconciliación, ¿cómo ha cambiado esta “efervescencia”? ¿Usted cree que ha pasado el boom de la memoria? Y si es así, ¿qué viene después?

Valérie Robin Azevedo: La otra cara de este boom de la memoria, fenómeno globalizado con auge en los años 2000, ha sido paradójicamente – o quizá no sea tan paradójico –, una “saturación” de la memoria, como lo analizó la filósofa Régine Robin sobre ciertos usos instrumentales de la memoria de la Shoah que pudieron acabar opacando el evento mismo y sus llagas. En el Perú, luego de la dictadura fujimorista que impuso una “memoria salvadora” (Degregori) asociada a la “lucha antiterrorista” militarista, hubo un período de apertura, de mirada crítica y constructiva, hacia el pasado, a raíz del trabajo de la Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación (CVR), entre 2001 y 2003. La CVR propició la expresión de historias disímiles con una visión mucho más compleja de lo ocurrido en los Andes donde un conflicto fratricidio se superpuso al conflicto político. Se logró que voces hasta entonces silenciadas pudieran expresar su versión del conflicto armado, con sus zonas grises así como las secuelas pendientes en cuanto a violaciones a los DDHH ; a menudo calladas o sencillamente olvidadas porque atañían a un sector de la población históricamente discriminado, de provincianos, campesinos e indígenas, o sea considerados ciudadanos de segunda categoría.

Pero la apertura hacia una mirada menos maniquea del pasado después del trabajo de la CVR fue cerrándose en los años siguientes y hoy en día, a casi dos décadas de la entrega del Informe final de la CVR, el retroceso es brutal. Podemos hablar de “un pasado que no pasa” (Rousso) en el sentido de que la memoria del conflicto armado interno no solo no está apaciguada sino que resurge de forma episódica y sobre todo está siendo instrumentalizada de manera insoportable y poco respetuosa del sufrimiento de los que padecieron el conflicto en carne propia. Vivimos en cierta medida una era de “postverdad”, alimentada por los medios de comunicación (concentrados a mano de un principal consorcio) y políticos de derecha y extrema derecha, lo que resulta preocupante respecto del proceso de democratización de la sociedad peruana posterior al final de la guerra. La alusión histerizada a este pasado de violencia sirve ante todo para desacreditar al contrincante en el escenario público actual, mediante la acusación infame de “terrorista”, o “terruco, en la jerga local, y que se ha venido calificando de “terruqueo” en el Perú […] El boom de la memoria de inicios de los 2000 se volvió dos décadas después en el auge de la memoria tergiversada que sirve en realidad para fortalecer una legislación antiterrorista cada vez más dura y cada vez menos basada en el accionar violento concreto sino en la represión de ideas, enmarcada en el delito de “afiliación al terrorismo”. Eso es preocupante no solo para la democracia peruana sino porque solo contribuye a legitimar la idea enarbolada por algunos de vivir una persecución política.

Emily Fjaellon Thompson: Me llamaron mucho la atención dos intervenciones que hace usted que empujan contra categorías rígidas. Primero, complica la idea del retrato normativo de una víctima “inocente” o “aceptable”. Este pensamiento es especialmente relevante con la jerga de las ONGs, las políticas de reparación y los discursos transnacionales de derechos humanos.

Valérie Robin Azevedo: El problema de estas categorías es su uso rígido y normativo que encierra a los individuos en un formato preestablecido y borra la complejidad de las experiencias vividas y de las identificaciones reduciendo la historia a binarismos simplistas. Pero recordemos que la CVR, para evitar ser tachada de “pro terrorista”, abogó por la categoría de “víctima inocente”; es decir, una víctima que se encontraba “entre dos fuegos”, lo cual ocurrió en ciertos casos aunque no siempre fue así. Este estereotipo indujo una despolitización de las afiliaciones ideológicas de las personas durante el conflicto armado y un uso estratégico de la figura de “víctima inocente” por los propios actores para no ser estigmatizados y poder recibir reparaciones. Es a raíz de la CVR que se fortalece la idea de una víctima que debe ser “pura” e “inocente” . La construcción de este prototipo de víctima emergió en un contexto de negociación política para poder implementar las reparaciones y tuvieron que sacrificarse temas claves de los DDHH; como el artículo 4 de la Ley de reparaciones que excluye a los miembros de las organizaciones subversivas y por lo tanto a sus deudos de poder contar con una reparación estatal. Eso rastrea como resultado que alguien ejecutado extrajudicialmente por agentes del Estado pero miembro de Sendero Luminoso o del MRTA no es legalmente una víctima. La imposición de la controvertida doctrina de “manos limpias” (Guillerot y Magarell) hizo que si una persona no podía demostrar su total inocencia no podía ser considerada víctima; lo que se opone al Derecho Humanitario Internacional, dicho sea de paso. Así la figura opuesta a la “víctima inocente” es precisamente el “terruco”. A más de dos décadas del fin oficial del conflicto, en el 2000, las disputas que rodean el uso y la instrumentalización de las categorías de ‘víctima’, ‘héroe’ o ‘perpetrador’ – el ‘terrorista’ o ‘terruco’ – aún ejercen un poder performativo fundamental sobre el destino de muchos ciudadanos.

En el libro enfatizo el hecho de que los senderistas son un producto de las contradicciones y desigualdades de la sociedad peruana y no personas oriundas de otro planeta, digamos. Sin duda estaban equivocados y su radicalismo es indudable, pero lo cierto es que muchos en Perú fueron inicialmente seducidos por su mensaje revolucionario; esto no significa negar las atrocidades cometidas en nombre de su ideología. Pero la performatividad del discurso sobre el “terrorismo” y el “terruqueo” genera la imposibilidad de pensar de manera distanciada y racional sobre la violencia propia y sobre la violencia de estado, como recalcó para otro contexto Talal Asad en su libro On suicide Bombing (2007). Llama también la atención que los miembros de la cúpula senderista estén en la cárcel, y que se los siga enjuiciando, pero que la mayoría de los militares responsables de atrocidades contra civiles sigan libres. Esto se extiende también a otros ámbitos como en la legislación “antiterrorista” cada vez más rígida y que se quiere aplicar a casos cada vez más numerosos; que puede llevar al encarcelamiento sin pruebas materiales y con penas de reclusión de hasta 25 años. Hay una doble moral porque solo se persigue un sector mientras el otro beneficia de la impunidad. […] Entiendo que el silencio de los organismos de defensa de los DDHH se justifica por querer seguir actuando y no ser terruqueados, no recibir amenazas o incluso ser enjuiciados. Pero al mismo tiempo es una derrota y un retroceso difícil de revertir. Piensan que evitando asumir la defensa de casos controvertidos los dejarán actuar, pero creo que es un error porque igual los van a seguir terruqueando. Me temo que esta autocensura haga que la lucha contra la impunidad se restrinja cada vez más en un contexto en el que las ideas antidemocráticas y la extrema derecha van ganando presencia y legitimidad en el espacio público peruano – ¡Bueno, como vemos que también está ocurriendo en Europa y EEUU! Con el terruqueo, no solamente se acaba deshumanizando al otro, al vencido, ex combatiente de Sendero Luminoso o el MRTA, sino a sus familiares, que acaban excluidos de la comunidad nacional, “des-ciudadanizados”, “desperuanizados” […] Hay que sacarse los anteojos limeños además. En Ayacucho hay una conciencia fuerte de cómo se está manipulando el cuco del terrorismo y el dolor de esa gente. Allí nadie olvida tampoco las tremendas masacres perpetradas no solo por Sendero Luminoso sino por las Fuerzas armadas.

Emily Fjaellon Thompson: En segundo lugar, identifica una dicotomía aún presente entre “el Perú profundo” (encarnado por los Andes) y el “Perú oficial” (encarnado por la capital costeña, Lima) (91).” Usted propone que gran parte de la antropología del siglo XX cae en esta categorización de “lo andino” como un monolito. También advierte contra el impulso opuesto, “desestimando cualquier cultura específica y descuidando las representaciones, los saberes y las prácticas sociales y religiosas características de esta región” (121). ¿Cómo podría el lente de la antropología complicar estos binarios? ¿Cómo ve su propio trabajo interviniendo en estas conversaciones?

Valérie Robin Azevedo: El conflicto armado interno fue, en efecto, un importante punto de inflexión epistemológica en cuanto a la manera de pensar y hacer la antropología en el Perú en el siglo XX; y eso tanto para la investigación universitaria nacional como internacional. Frente a este nuevo objeto de pesquisa –la guerra– que se impone en los años 1980, los paradigmas estructuralistas y culturalistas aplicados al estudio del “mundo andino” –centrados en lo religioso y más específicamente en la búsqueda de un milenarismo–, resultaron incapaces de analizar los acelerados y masivos cambios sociales que estaba viviendo el conjunto de la sociedad nacional y especialmente el campesinado desde los años 1960. Incapaces de analizar el conflicto armado interno, estos modelos teóricos fueron criticados hasta que, a inicios de los 90, surgió la crítica del “andinismo” en el marco del “deconstruccionismo” posmoderno estadunidense entonces en boga. Estallaron acalorados debates dentro de la comunidad académica de los antropólogos peruanistas. Recién a fines de los 90 y en los 2000, el retorno a los métodos eficaces de etnografía se hizo otra vez posible gracias al regreso al campo; implicó nuevos acercamientos y ofreció ricas perspectivas para renovar los temas y enfoques reflexivos de la antropología en los Andes. En el Perú, el “problema indígena” – preocupación de las reflexiones sobre la construcción de la identidad nacional desde el siglo XIX – resurgió en el contexto de la guerra, incluso cuando cierta mirada antropológica que oponía el “Occidente” y “los Andes” se hacía insostenible. El papel asignado a la antropología como disciplina que estudia las dimensiones “tradicionales” de la “cultura andina” finalmente cambió, luego de un largo proceso de conversión (Sandoval). Con la difusión de trabajos de campo de larga duración, la antropología andina en el nuevo milenio se renovó respecto de las ilusiones de un mundo andino” fantaseado, libre del esencialismo y también del posmodernismo […].

[…] Entonces, la idea es no caer en los extremos, ni la visión culturalista, utópica y que fantasea más que lee el mundo andino, ni la postura postmodernista deconstruccionista, aleccionadora desde su palestra, pero que no hace trabajo de campo o presta poca atención a lo que hacen y dicen los actores y resulta a fin de cuentas ciego a los procesos socioculturales internos que estructuran la vida social en concreto. En el ámbito del trabajo de la CVR, ciertas memorias de la guerra, demasiado alejadas del uso judicial y político que podía hacerse de ellas, fueron a menudo descuidadas por el personal enviado entonces a recoger testimonios. Las narraciones que reinterpretan el pasado en términos culturales, no pudieron acceder a la visibilidad ni obtener el mismo reconocimiento que los testimonios considerados más “verídicos” de los eventos pasados […] A partir de la segunda mitad de los años 2000 algunas de las memorias del conflicto, descabelladas desde la perspectiva judicial o de los defensores de los derechos humanos, empezaron a ser vistas como producciones valiosas que permitían comprender, de manera diferente, la forma en que las poblaciones andinas miran su pasado y logran reintegrarlo en una experiencia que tiene sentido para ellos. Y allí la antropología juega un papel clave. Por ejemplo, el bellísimo estudio de Arianna Cecconi sobre el papel de los sueños en el recordar el conflicto armado puso de relieve el uso de la experiencia onírica como modalidad cultural para la gestión del duelo, en el contexto andino donde los sueños y sus interpretaciones constituyen una actividad social importante y valorizada. Si algunos pobladores siguen sufriendo las secuelas de la guerra, el sueño donde “reciben la visita” de las almas de sus difuntos también constituye un soporte que permite apaciguarlos. Por mi parte, indagué sobre el sentido de los recuerdos de la guerra en base a relatos sobre las apariciones milagrosas y el papel heroico del santo patrón de Huancapi, presentado por sus devotos como el protector de los pueblerinos durante la guerra.

Entonces, hago mía la crítica sobre la interpretación culturalista del mundo andino y las posturas ultra-relativistas […] Sin embargo, la “deconstrucción” posmoderna plantea otros problemas. Si bien tuvo el mérito de seguir un enfoque reflexivo de la práctica de la antropología, corría el riesgo de tener efectos paralizantes para futuras investigaciones, ofreciendo pocas alternativas concretas.  Aun teniendo en cuenta las críticas postmodernas respecto de la “autoridad etnográfica”, ahora que las investigaciones etnográficas son de nuevo posibles, es clave volver a los estudios de campo. Por lo tanto, si bien es importante no adoptar un enfoque que otorgue un valor sobredimensionado a la “cultura andina” también debemos evitar caer en el extremo opuesto, desestimando cualquier especificidad cultural y descuidando las representaciones, los saberes y las prácticas sociales y religiosas características de esta región. Es precisamente lo que intenté hacer en mi trabajo sobre las memorias campesinas en Ayacucho.

English versión

Emily Fjaellon Thompson: You have had a very prolific couple of years. In 2021, La Siniestra published the Spanish translation (by Alberto Gálvez Olaechea) of your book Los silencios de la guerra: Memoria y conflicto armado en Ayacucho, Perú. In the same year, the Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá) and the French Institute of Andean Studies (Lima) published Retorno de cuerpos, recorrido de almas: Exhumaciones y duelo colectivo en América Latina y España, a collective project co-edited with Anne Marie Losonczy. Thinking about Peru and in terms of experiences of political violence more broadly, can you reflect a bit more on the discursive excess of traumatic pasts that you mention in your books?

Valérie Robin Azevedo: This research is based on the voices of Quechua actors from the peasant communities of Ocros and Huancapi in Ayacucho, Perú. With Los silencios de la guerra I explored the traces of the armed conflict that plunged Peru into mourning at the end of the 20th century, and whose ghosts continue to resurface. In this supposedly “post-conflict” context, I sought to understand both how memories of the war are constructed today and what gets silenced by the past. I was interested in the ways violence is shown through commemorations and celebrations as well as narratives. I also wanted to investigate what these necessarily partial readings of the past hide. This work therefore also constitutes an ethnography of the unsaid, where secrets related to the war are interwoven; both disguised and revealed. Despite the fact that they illuminate the plurality of valid memory processes in Peruvian society, the dynamics analyzed in this book are often barely visible in the national public sphere. I became interested in the unedited ways the armed conflict is recalled; when memory is arranged according to local cultural elements like patron saint festivities or carnivals, music, and dances. Here, this includes considering dreams, visions, and apparitions of a miraculous and protective saint. Perhaps the most important thing that we can ultimately highlight about these plural modalities of remembering, both in commemorative actions and in narratives, is that they reveal an impasse of a peaceful coexistence after the end of the war. And they offer alternatives other than the model of transitional justice by contributing to the elaboration of a truly collective mythology; not only the founding but also the “refounding” of social groups. This mythology and these rituals where memory converges cannot be reduced to a theme of “beliefs” or “customs”, as some see them. Rather, they participate in the reconstruction of social ties that were damaged by Peru’s fratricidal war and whose aftermath continues to this day. That is why local post-conflict micro-reconciliation processes (such as those from the early 2000s by Jefrey Gamarra and Kimberly Theidon) are key. Both state actors and human rights organizations who are involved in the implementation of reparations policies should pay more attention to them. The meanings of these memories, let’s say alternative and not literal, allow us to think of other methods of collective recovery in post-war societies, parallel to the standardized and globalized top-down model of transitional justice.

Emily Fjaellon Thompson: You identify the time after the internal armed conflict as an epoch of “la efervescencia de la memoria” (the effervescence of memory) (47). In Latin America in general, this has also been referred to as a memory “boom.” How has this “effervescence” changed in the nearly two decades since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report? Do you think the memory boom has passed? And if so, what comes next?

Valérie Robin Azevedo: The other side of this memory boom, a globalized phenomenon that peaked in the 2000s, has been paradoxically – or perhaps not so paradoxically – a “saturation” of memory. This has been analyzed by the philosopher Régine Robin in terms of certain instrumental uses of the memory of the Shoah that potentially overshadow the actual event and its resulting wounds. In Peru, after the Fujimori dictatorship imposed a “saving/salvage memory” (Degregori) associated with the militaristic “anti-terrorist fight”, there was a period of openness towards the past, both critical and constructive, as a result of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) between 2001 and 2003. The CVR encouraged the expression of disparate stories with a much more complex vision of what happened in the Andes, where a fratricidal conflict was superimposed on a political conflict. Voices that had been silenced until then were able to express their version of the armed conflict, with gray zones and the pending consequences of  human rights violations. These were often silenced or simply forgotten because they concerned a historically discriminated sector of the population, peasants and Indigenous people, that is, those considered second-class citizens.

But the opening of a less Manichean view of the past after the work of the CVR was already closing in the following years and today the setback is brutal. We can speak of “a past that does not pass” (Rousso) in the sense that the memory of the internal armed conflict is not pacified but resurfaces episodically. Above all, the suffering of those who endured the conflict in their own flesh is being exploited in an unbearable and disrespectful way. To a certain extent we live in a “post-truth” era fed by the media and right-wing and extreme right-wing politicians, which is worrying in terms of Peru’s democratization process after the war. The hysterical allusion to this violent past serves above all to discredit political opponents through the infamous accusation of “terrorist”, or “terruco”, in local jargon  […] Two decades later, the memory boom of the early 2000s has turned into a rise of distorted memory that serves to strengthen increasingly harsh anti-terrorist legislation. It is less and less based on concrete violent actions but rather on the repression of ideas, framed as the crime of “affiliation to terrorism”. […]

Emily Fjaellon Thompson: I was especially struck by two interventions you make that push against rigid boundaries. First, you complicate the idea of the normative portrait of an supposedly innocent or acceptable victim. This is especially relevant thinking with non-profit jargon, politics of reparations, and transnational human rights discourses.

Valérie Robin Azevedo: The problem with these categories is their rigid and normative use that encloses individuals in a pre-established format and erases the complexity of lived experiences and identifications, reducing history to simplistic binaries. But let us remember that to avoid being branded as “pro-terrorist”, the CVR advocated for the category of “innocent victim”; that is, a victim who was “between two fires”, which did occur in certain cases, but not always. This stereotype induced a depoliticization of people’s ideological affiliations during the armed conflict and actors themselves employed a strategic use of the “innocent victim” figure in order to not be stigmatized and be able to receive reparations. The idea of ​​a victim who must be “pure” and “innocent” is therefore strengthened as a result of the CVR. The construction of this victim prototype emerged in the context of political negotiations to implement reparations. Key human rights issues were sacrificed, such as article 4 of the Reparations Law, which excludes members of subversive organizations and therefore their relatives from being able to claim state reparations. As a result, someone extrajudicially executed by State agents but a member of Sendero Luminoso or the MRTA is not legally a victim. The imposition of the controversial “clean hands” doctrine (Guillerot and Magarell) meant that if a person could not prove their total innocence, they could not be considered a victim (which is in opposition to International Humanitarian Law, by the way). Thus, the opposite of the “innocent victim” is the “terruco”. More than two decades after the official end of the conflict in 2000, the disputes surrounding the use and instrumentalization of the categories of ‘victim’, ‘hero’ or ‘perpetrator’ – the ‘terrorist’ or ‘terruco’ – still exercise a fundamental performative power over the destiny of many citizens.

In the book I emphasize the fact that Senderistas are a product of the contradictions and inequalities of Peruvian society, not people from another planet, so to speak. No doubt they were wrong and their radicalism was unquestionable, but the truth is that many people in Peru were initially seduced by their revolutionary message. This doesn’t mean to deny the atrocities committed in the name of their ideology. But the performativity of discourse on “terrorism” and “terruqueo” generates the impossibility of thinking in a distanced and rational way about one’s own violence and about state violence, as Talal Asad emphasized in another context in his book On Suicide Bombing ( 2007). It is also noteworthy that the leaders of the Shining Path are in jail and continue to be prosecuted while most of the soldiers responsible for atrocities against civilians remain free. This also extends to other areas such as increasingly rigid “anti-terrorist” legislation, which is applied to more and more cases and can lead to imprisonment without material evidence for up to 25 years. There is a double standard because only one sector is being persecuted while the other benefits from impunity.

 I understand that the silence of human rights organizations is justified by their desire to act without being terrorized, prosecuted, or threatened. But at the same time their silence is a defeat and a setback that is difficult to reverse. These organizations think that by not defending controversial cases they will be allowed to continue their work in peace, which I think is a mistake. They will be “terrorized” regardless, and I worry that this self-censorship will further restrict the fight against impunity in a context where anti-democratic ideas and the extreme right are only gaining presence and legitimacy in the Peruvian public sphere. We can see that this is also happening in Europe and the US! With terruqueo, not only do you end up dehumanizing the other, the defeated ex-combatant of Shining Path or MRTA, but also their relatives who end up excluded from the national community, “de-citizenized” or “de-Peruvianized.”

 One must also take off their Lima glasses. In Ayacucho there is a strong awareness of how people’s pain is being manipulated by the boogeyman of terrorism. Nobody there forgets the tremendous massacres perpetrated both by Sendero Luminoso and the Armed Forces.

Emily Fjaellon Thompson: Second, you identify a still-present dichotomy between “deep Peru”,  embodied by the Andes and “official Peru”, embodied by the coastal capital of Lima (91). You argue that much of 20th century anthropology falls into categorizing “lo andino” as a monolith but also caution against the opposite impulse to dismiss any cultural specificity and neglect the representations, knowledge, and social and religious practices that are characteristic of the region (121). How might the lens of anthropology complicate these binaries? How do you see your own work intervening in these conversations?

Valérie Robin Azevedo: The internal armed conflict was, in effect, an important epistemological turning point in ways of thinking and doing anthropology in Peru in the 20th century. Faced with this new research object –war– the structuralist and culturalist paradigms applied to the study of the “Andean world,” which had focused on religion and specifically the search for a millenarianism, were unable to analyze the accelerated massive social changes that the national society (especially the peasantry since the 1960s) was experiencing. Incapable of analyzing the internal armed conflict, these theoretical models were criticized until the early 1990s, when “Andeanism” emerged within the framework of postmodern American “deconstructionism” then in vogue, and heated debates erupted within the academic community of Peruvian anthropologists. In the late 1990s and 2000s effective ethnographic methods become possible again thanks to a return to the field. This involved new approaches and rich perspectives that renewed the themes and reflexive approaches of anthropology in the Andes. In Peru, the “Indigenous problem,” concerned with the construction of national identity since the nineteenth century, resurfaced in the context of the war even when a certain anthropological view that opposed the “West” and “the Andes” rendered it unsustainable. After a long process of conversion, the role assigned to anthropology as a discipline that studies the “traditional” dimensions of “Andean culture” finally changed (Sandoval). With the spread of long-term fieldwork, Andean anthropology in the new millennium was renewed in terms of illusions of a fantasized Andean world, free from essentialism and also from postmodernism.

The idea then is to not fall into extremes; neither the culturalist, utopian vision that fantasizes more than it reads the Andean world, nor the deconstructionist postmodernist position, whose point of view is instructive but does not carry out fieldwork, provides little attention to what actors do and say, and is ultimately blind to the internal socio-cultural processes that structure social life in concrete terms. In the context of the CVR’s work, certain memories of the war that were too far removed from any judicial and political use were often neglected by the personnel sent to collect testimonies. Narratives that reinterpreted the past in cultural terms could not obtain the same recognition as “truer” testimonies

 As of the second half of the 2000s, some of the memories of the conflict – preposterous from the judicial perspective or from human rights defenders – began to be valued and enabled us to understand, in a different way, how Andean populations look at their past and manage to reintegrate it into an experience that makes sense to them. And this is where anthropology plays a key role. For example, the beautiful study by Arianna Cecconi on the role of dreams in remembering the armed conflict highlighted the use of the dreams as a cultural modality for the management of grief in the Andean context where dreams and their interpretations constitute an important and valued social activity. Some residents continue to suffer after the war and “receive a visit” from the souls of their deceased in dreams as a kind of soothing support. For my part, I inquired about the meaning of memories of the war based on stories about miraculous apparitions and the heroic role of the patron saint of Huancapi, considered by his devotees as their protector during the war.

I make my own criticism of this culturalist interpretation of the Andean world and ultra-relativist positions. However, postmodern “deconstruction” poses other problems. While it has the merit of following a thoughtful approach to anthropological practice, it risks having chilling effects on future research, offering few concrete alternatives. Even given the postmodern critique of “ethnographic authority,” a return to field studies is key now that fieldwork is possible again. Therefore, although it is important not to adopt an approach that gives excessive value to the “Andean culture”, we must also avoid falling to the opposite extreme, dismissing any cultural specificity and neglecting the characteristic social and religious representations, knowledge, and practices of the region. And this is precisely what I tried to do in my work on peasant memories in Ayacucho.

Tom Mould on his book, Overthrowing the Queen: Telling Stories of Welfare in America.

Interview by Fionnán Mac Gabhann


Fionnán Mac Gabhann: Overthrowing the Queen represents one of several objectives devised as part of a collaborative project you initiated for the purpose of addressing stereotypes and perceptions of public assistance in the United States. Could you describe the origins of this project and the collaborative efforts that lead to this book’s publication?

Tom Mould: As you know, the book is an attempt to look at all the different stories that are told about public assistance and people who receive public assistance. And so it includes the spurious legends about welfare queens but also spends equal time, if not more, on stories told by aid recipients. I do come at this topic as a folklorist, which means I pay attention to genre, narrative, performance, and context. But I’m also drawing links to a lot of other disciplines like psychology and sociology, anthropology, political science, communication, and so on. This is a question that spans more than one discipline, so I really felt that it required an interdisciplinary approach, and collaboration. There was no way this project was going to work if I wasn’t collaborating with people who spend their lives, day in and day out, working as aid providers or struggling to make ends meet as aid recipients. And then, of course, I collaborated with people who are telling these stories, doing the kind of good, strong ethnographic field work that folklorists and anthropologists are known for.

So I’ll give you the origin story. It was 2011, and I’m at a dinner party, a big organizational kind of thing with hundreds of people in attendance from across the spectrum in terms of class, race, position, and so on. I found myself talking with a woman—a fairly wealthy local community member—about the Affordable Care Act, which was being discussed and debated in the public domain at this time. The conversation was a little heated. We didn’t agree on almost anything in terms of the merit of the Affordable Care Act. I was more in favour of it, the person I was talking to was quite against it. Finally, we found one point of agreement which was that we both agreed that using the emergency room as your primary care provider was terrible for financial-economic reasons, for health reasons, for the pressure it places on institutions such as hospitals, and so on. So we could all agree on that. And I thought, “Great, I’m going to leave while we finally have something we can agree on.” And she said, “but,” and I’m thinking, “Oh no.” She continued, “You’ll never convince me that those people aren’t just going to take advantage of the system anyway.” I sceptically responded, “What people?” She proceeded to tell a story positioned in ways that I’ve heard this story told since I was a kid. The story was the classic welfare queen legend of the woman in the grocery store. And this woman told the story as something that she had seen herself and been present for in the not too distant past. She said, “I was in the grocery store the other day; I was checking out; there was a woman in front of me. She had nice clothes, jewellery, nice hair, and she had all of this food, steaks, and so on. She was buying dog food, and the woman behind the register said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, you can’t buy dog food with food stamps.” And she said, “Well, this is ridiculous.” And she kept pushing it and finally she said, “Fine,” and she marched back to the meat counter, grabbed a couple of steaks, brought them back and said, “All right, I’ll just feed my dog the steaks instead.” The narrator in this case did not say that the woman at the grocery store climbed into a Cadillac but that would be a common conclusion to the story.

I’ve heard this story so many times, but I thought it had risen to prominence during the Reagan presidency and declined in Reagan’s aftermath. I thought these stories were waning. They aren’t, they weren’t, and this project makes it quite clear that these stories are very much still being shared among friends, family, co-workers, colleagues, and so on.

So I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t get this story out of my head, I couldn’t believe it was still being told; and I was looking for a new project. I’m always interested in narrative. I had come off of a couple of other projects that were very focused on sacred narrative, but I’m also interested in how narrative is used in political spheres.

Long story short, I went and followed up with some colleagues on the Board of the Women’s Resource Center and folks I knew in the Department of Social Services. We convened a group of about nine of us who were working both in government and non-profit organizations, and said, “Hey, I heard this story. I want to do more about it. What do you think?” And people responded with, “Oh my gosh, we hear that story every time we present publicly.” So we sat around and for the next couple of months, threw out ideas for what we might do, what specific problems we wanted to address, how I could be helpful—because I’m not an economist, I’m not a policymaker, I’m a folklorist. So how can I bring my skill set to the table? After about a year of conversations and collaboration we had 10 goals or outcomes that we wanted to reach, we had an advisory board and group of people, and we had students who were signed up for a class to do some of this work.

Fionnán Mac Gabhann: In the book you describe your struggle with the question of how to write about stories of public assistance in the United States without reinforcing the very stereotypes that have caused so much damage and which you are attempting to undermine. One solution you offer is to take a performance-centered approach to analysis of stories of public assistance. How did this study benefit from folkloristic and linguistic anthropological insights on performance?

Tom Mould: Firstly, I’ll say that folklorists in general, because we pay attention to genre and process, are particularly well positioned to consider rhetorical strategies. I don’t want to critique the whole field of anthropology, but I think that sometimes the discipline has spent less time thinking about epistemology and the construction of knowledge, focusing more so on what it is rather than how it is produced. Of course, this situation has changed over time. But I think that folklorists do a really good job of thinking about how knowledge is produced, and that’s what a performance-centered approach does. It asks: who’s in the room, what are their rhetorical goals, what are their histories, what do the participants bring to the table? And with this kind of information we can understand why a particular story is being told and how we should be understanding it. A performer-centered approach also encourages us go beyond the immediate situational context, to work even further back, and to look at how a person is positioned, whether in terms of a particular role—a recipient or provider of public assistance for instance— or in terms of their own personal biographies and lived experience. Both of these moves help to bring context to the table so that we can unpack these kinds of stories.

As you know, one of the incredibly grim things that I discovered early in my fieldwork was that aid recipients replicated welfare queen legends very frequently. In fact almost every aid recipient had at least one kind of a welfare queen legend that they told. Rhetorically this makes all the sense in the world when you consider the larger social context. Aid recipients are aware that if they don’t acknowledge the welfare queen narrative and disassociate themselves from it they won’t be taken seriously because their interlocutors are already bringing that prejudicial narrative to the table.

And I’ll just add, finally, that a performance-centred approach encourages us to pay more attention to the audience and how people are responding to stories. For example, there was a wonderful moment captured by one of the students I worked with, Jessica Elizondo, who spoke with a group of conservative, white, upper middle class, older businessmen over coffee. These men were very bold in their views and stories, but you could see them sussing each other out in terms of what their positions were on welfare. Once agreement started getting shaped and formed more and more stereotypical stories were shared with that comfort that was being built. This kind of context is crucial for understanding why even self-professed liberals will sometimes share these welfare queen stories.

Fionnán Mac Gabhann: One of your major contributions to narrative scholarship in this book is your proposed reorientation of approaches to the study of legend. As you illustrate, most previous definitions of legend foreground the negotiation of truth as the essential characteristic of the genre. Contrastingly, you argue that legend is distinguished by the doubt it engenders and you advocate for a “doubt-centred approach” to the study of legend. Why have you adopted this approach, and what do you suggest are the benefits of such a reorientation?

Tom Mould: When I started this project I did an exhaustive literature review of legend and ended up with something like 84 different definitions that scholars have articulated over the years. So we haven’t settled the debate, and that’s okay. I mean, we all need an operational definition to move forward with, otherwise we’re sort of crippled intellectually. But that work really helped me realize that what makes a legend distinctive is not effort to convince someone of their truth but rather people’s expression of doubt.

I need to be really clear here because I’ve published some articles on this subject before this book came out and it’s really easy for folks to misinterpret what I’m arguing. Many people have said, “I can’t believe you are suggesting that we should be doubting all the people we talk to,” and I said, “No, no, no, the doubt is not our own.” The goal with a doubt-centered approach to legend is to look to see where audiences and participants are doubting, not to bring our own doubt to the table—my gosh, I can’t think of anything worse, and yet we do it all the time. I mean, when you actually think about what folklorists study as legend, it’s things we doubt, it’s things we think aren’t true. So, actually, maybe paradoxically, ironically, a doubt-centered approach actually helps us get away from that bias. And so, if somebody is making an argument for something that’s true and nobody doubts it, then it is just news or then it is just fact. We don’t call that legend, it’s not part of the legend process of debate, discussion, and belief. But the minute somebody starts to doubt it, then it becomes legend.

I’ll give you an example. When various folks on the right were claiming that Barack Obama couldn’t be President because he wasn’t a US citizen you had the birther movement—people who question the validity of Obama’s birth certificate—claiming that the story that Obama was born in Hawaii was a story to be doubted. The story that he is secretly a Muslim born in Kenya was the story to be believed, from this group’s perspective. So for them, the first was legend, the second fact. Then you had others—the mainstream media and investigative journalists, for example—for whom the reverse was true, where the story of not being a citizen or a Christian was the legend. So paying attention to where people are doubting is a crucial move here.

And doubt is not just the other side of truth. One of the things I found in this work was that people would often accept as true, let’s say, that an event had happened at a particular point in time but they doubted the degree to which these kinds of instances were common or generalizable. If you took a truth-centered approach to the same exact stories you wouldn’t necessarily recognize that people were actively trying to convince you the story was generalizable. The same goes for an interpretation. Many people think “Oh, the story speaks for itself.” Well, a lot of our research shows that it doesn’t. There is great open-endedness to narrative; stories require interpretation.

The doubt-centered approach I took highlighted a whole series of rhetorical strategies that would not have been identified with other varieties of analysis focused on how people are establishing credibility. So, that’s part of the argument. There are other benefits to a doubt-centered approach, however. One of the biggest ones being that it is emic; it encourages us to consider how people within the community are interpreting the narrative. It also brings more focus on audience interpretation and audience reception, which I think folklorist have not done as great of a job at as we could, in terms of analysis.

Fionnán Mac Gabhann: You published three monographs prior to Overthrowing the Queen, all of which revolve around oral narrative: Choctaw Prophecy: A Legacy for the Future (2003), Choctaw Tales (2004), and Still, the Small Voice: Revelation, Personal Narrative, and the Mormon Folk Tradition (2011). How does Overthrowing the Queen compare and contrast with these previous works?

Tom Mould: With Choctaw Tales I was following very much in traditional folklore footsteps by setting out to record the local traditions and stories. This was a book that community members wanted. In fact they sort of said, “You can write your Choctaw prophecy book but you have got to give us Choctaw Tales.” Part of the reason why they wanted Choctaw Tales was that they are still incredibly stigmatized and discriminated against in their home state of Mississippi. People still don’t understand who they are, what their traditions are, what their stories are, the depth, and richness, and beauty of their culture. So this is kind of a classic Boasian moment: go in, identify that, write about it, and let the work speak for itself. I think that was an implicit move behind both Choctaw Tales and Choctaw Prophecy.

When I first started working with Latter-day Saints people kept saying, “Are you coming to expose us? Are you coming to pile on?” When the book was published people were pleasantly surprised. Having a non-member write emically was ground-breaking for so many of them because they were not used to that. That wasn’t an explicit mission of mine, but in all of my work I certainly aim to present an honest, accurate, fair, and also empathetic view. If we really take cultural relativism at its face value then there is something to value here and the question becomes, what is it?

To get to your question. I had been focused on sacred narratives. I had been focused on stories that were grounded within a particular community and which bound folks together. I can’t say that welfare legends bind people together, certainly not the non-recipients. Even among aid recipients, there’s some recognition of shared plight in this narrative tradition, but it’s not the kind of community building or cohesive kind of tradition that folklorists often study.

So when I came to the welfare project I was interested in exploring more explicitly the possibility of putting my social conscience into my work. Every folklorist is going to be different and no folklorist should be obligated to do anything of this sort. But I felt compelled to do this, especially after studying the narrative traditions of a church whose leaders took political stances against things like same-sex marriage that ran counter to my own views. So when the story of “the welfare queen” was told to me at this dinner party, it landed in my lap at a time when I was thinking, as a folklorist, what if I brought my study of narrative and applied it to what I was doing in my off time, in terms of social justice and in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion work? Could that be a happy marriage? I would argue that it has been, and I also appreciate that there are going to be folklorists who don’t see it fitting within the parameters that they’ve often operated under. I just think it’s a missed opportunity if we don’t explore this also. I think our tent is big enough for both.


Mould, Tom. 2018. “A Doubt-Centred Approach to Contemporary Legend and Fake News.” Journal of American Folklore 131(522): 413-420.

Stevie Suan on his book, Anime’s Identity

Interview by Wendy Goldberg


Wendy Goldberg: How fixed is Japan’s perceived cultural dominance for anime? How could cultural dominance spring back along the node of transnationalism? I’m thinking, for example, of how American culture has been a dominant node of popular culture globally by absorbing other cultural materials. Your discussion here shows how anime remains supposedly Japanese in American and other country’s consumption of anime and manga (whereas before, especially in the US, Japanese origins had been suppressed. Now, its Japanese-ness became a selling point to consumers). This works well within your discussion of local/global. In other words, do you see how another culture (nation-state) could begin to dominate among these transnational networks?

Stevie Suan: These dynamics, are, as you’ve pointed out, very complex. I think part of the difficulty is that a lot of cultural analysis starts from the national context and endeavors to break free of it by exposing the transnational. But, in the book I try to foreground the transnational as the point of departure—that anime is always already transnational.

However, this transnationality is usually shunted into a national framework. So, for anime, although this is probably an unpopular position, I see the broader nation branding of anime as effectively claiming anime as Japanese culture despite anime’s decades long global visibility and transnational production. Yes, the idea that anime is Japanese predates the nation-branding campaigns, and yes, the campaigns are horrendously ineffective in making any actual improvements to the abusive work conditions of workers in the industry. But there has been a shift in the past few decades towards accepting anime as part of what counts “officially” as “Japanese culture,” a rise that directly coincides with the inclusion of anime in nation branding, both domestically and externally.

This is the “soft power” at work, making anime a symbol for Japan both inside and outside of Japan, which creates the image that anime, even outside of Japan, is always already Japanese. These campaigns, which in my view are often most effective in partly-privately, partly-publicly funded industry showcase events like the aptly named “AnimeJapan,” that tend to tie anime to Japan (in this case directly in the name). The result is a defining of anime in relation to Japan, where, as the event’s tagline states, “everything anime is here.”

Because of this consistent tying of anime to Japan, the transnationality of anime becomes a point of contention. Works that are openly transnational (for instance, with productions that advertise as partially done in China, or by a Chinese studio) get scrutinized as “not really anime,” or “not anime enough.” This is despite the fact that most anime, unbeknownst to most viewers, are actually transnationally produced.

What might best evince the effectiveness of this branding is how something similar does not happen with, say, Dreamworks animations. I doubt many would question the authenticity of a Dreamworks film because part of the production occurred in India, for example. But for anime, websites in both Japanese and English stress how they define anime as “animation produced in Japan.” The perceived importance of Japan for anime is so prominent that companies from China go through great lengths to either found studios in Tokyo or make sure the anime is dubbed into Japanese to “authenticate” these works as “real anime” because “everything anime is here (Japan).”

So, with the rise in fans across Asia of anime, and the fact that there are already skilled animators there who work on anime anyway, it should be no surprise that there are increasing numbers of anime that are produced almost entirely outside of Japan. These are also transnationally produced, with some so-called “Chinese anime” actually having parts of the production done in Japan and Korea. This is also not uncommon for games like Genshin Impact, produced mainly in China but with animation sequences done in Japan, featuring anime voice actors (who speak in Japanese), and advertising itself as an “anime-style” game.

The question remains if anime will go on to be equated with a broader “East Asian” aesthetic, if Japanese nation branding will continue to claim anime effectively, or if anime could be seen as something more global and transcultural. So, the aim of the book was to develop ways to assess the transnational operations at play in anime, to trace the different forms of globality and how to address them.

These appear in tandem as distinctive types of globality for anime: 1) the tensions of the internal-external (domestic-foreign) dichotomy of anime as a (local) Japanese media with a global presence; 2) a centralized transnationality with Tokyo as the privileged point in a transnational network of cultural production; 3) a decentralized transnationality, where anime is produced by referential reiteration of conventionalized components in various locales, which enables a more heterarchical network of connection across borders and has a transcultural potentiality that may be radically divorced from nationality. Each affords a very different notion of spatiality, of conceptualizing and ordering space, and our relation to that space.

Anime seen from this perspective, as performatively constituted through citations of reiterated components, would produce a very different geography when tracing the paths of its enactment. “Chinese anime” would then be part of a broader transcultural media-form that is anime, linking it with so-called “anime proper.” I think there is far more potential there, where media-form is radically distanced from the national. Alternative organizations of space, regionality, and conceptions of cultural production would then come into view, which I try to outline in the book.

For me, this is a more promising avenue of pursuit than to categorically allocate out nationalized notions of aesthetics. The latter approach risks restaging national literatures and cinemas debates, except this time every country needs an animation style. I’d rather challenge those notions and experiment with what a transnational, transcultural view of culture might conjure up—I wanted to explore how to chart or sketch how a regularly occurring transnational context and geography might look like, and how to read for it.

With that in mind, one of the aims of the book was to radically get away from notions of origin, to focus on what sustains something instead of focusing on origination; to move away from two completely divided segments that come into contact and instead focus on the tensions of hybridity, even in areas where it is not often recognized like anime, in order to trouble the claiming of something through the national. Instead, I wanted bring into view potential formations of transcultural commonality.

Wendy Goldberg: Could you argue that this model of citation is also a model already at work and in force in other popular cultural forms? That is, in how we consume, cite, and reconfigure pop culture properties? Is anime an especially fungible set of texts?  Does the speed of production (made possible through these putatively invisible transnational productions) make anime a special case of citation?

Stevie Suan I definitely think that citational practices can operate similarly in all sorts of cultural forms. Manga operates very similarly, and part of its appeal, as has been noted by a number of scholars, is the consistency of its media-form. This allows for readers to gain literacy and for artists to gain fluency very quickly. Because manga does not require as much financial investment and number of laborers to produce, this may be partly why many of its stylistic elements have spread throughout the world in the past few decades.

Genre media is another good example where citations are so important. You want the shadowy lighting and the down-on-their-luck detectives to be a film noir. There is a lot of sophistication in these operations, as it’s not easy to reproduce effectively. And the specific combinations of citations can link in distinct directions, make unexpected connections, or sustain common assemblages.

With that in mind, I think that anime is a particularly rich site for that because it wears its citationality so openly. There is a staggering amount of anime produced each year and so much of it very blatantly resembles prior iterations. Fans (casual and more dedicated) actively search out anime precisely because it looks, sounds, and has many similar narratives—they want more of the same.

Another important aspect is that operations of citation tend to link across iterations. Because of the way anime’s production has developed historically from cel animation practices where individual layers are produced by different people in disparate places, these citations are employed on multiple layers in multiple places.

It also allows for a coordination across the complexity of this production network as everyone is “sharing” a certain degree of understanding of citations. In turn, this helps with the rapid speed of production across the transnational locations of the various studios that produce anime. In this way, anime’s citations constitute a multilayered transnational image that is composited into a single frame, making the very images themselves transnational cultural products.

 Wendy Goldberg: As you have noted, visual and narrative citation dominates what we call anime but citation also comes through performance, in the seemingly moving figures these images and stories create. Can you talk more about the modes of performance (embodied and figurative) you describe and how that helped you think about anime’s differentiation?

Stevie Suan: When I encountered Donald Crafton’s typology of embodied and figurative acting in animation, I was elated because I finally found terminology to articulate the distinction in different types of performance I was sensing. For Crafton, “embodied acting” places the emphasis on the uniqueness of movement as an externalization of an interior. In my view, the actor thus presents an individualized character, one where outside and inside are cleanly divided. This is roughly analogous to method acting and what is famous on screen in Hollywood films. It makes its way to animation via Walt Disney, who invokes this mode of animated character acting which, to this day, is often seen as “the gold standard” for quality performance in animation globally.

But figurative acting involves preexisting movements that the actor must follow. These codified expressions are then employed in combination to express a character. And different actors and different characters can perform the same expression, usually in different situations, but sometimes even right next to one another. There is an overt engagement with repetition, with referencing prior iterations, citing them to reenact them with as little deviation as possible.

So, there is an emphasis here on the externality of the expression, of it performed on the character from prior iterations on other bodies, rather than something sourced from within. Figurative acting is found across the world (from Ballet to Kathakali) and in various types of animation (from Betty Boop to the Simpsons), and employed frequently in anime.

But one aspect that Crafton does not expand on is the implications for the type of characters produced by these two modes of acting. I started to wonder if perhaps each mode of acting affords a very different way of conceptualizing the self more broadly. Embodied acting only comes into prominence in modernity, and certainly emphasizes a very specific notion of individualism and strictly dividing inside and outside. Disney—which is still so invested in embodied acting—is a massive globally influential media, evincing how important embodied acting still is to our global conception of self.

But then, what type of selfhood does figurative acting afford? Anime may be one of the few types of media, especially in animation, that can claim a similar degree of global influence to Disney. And working through repetition, or rather, citation and combination, each anime character is somehow pre-individual (built from codes that exist prior to the character) and trans-individual (each code is cited across bodies). In this sense, anime’s characters are not individual-characters but particular-characters, where the distinction is produced through the specific combinations, and can involve a radical interconnectedness and lack of closure.

But as Crafton notes, and as I try to further develop, in truth neither mode of acting is entirely separable from the other. Figurative acting is, like all attempts to repeat, only possible through difference; and embodied acting’s gestures are usually involving some codified element to be legible (even unique smiles resemble other smiles).

With the expansion of neoliberalism, these two modes come into connection in contemporary lifestyle performance. Here, the interiority of the self is supposedly made externally visible through the purchase and wearing/using of various fashions and commodities, thus making one into an individualist neoliberal subject—aligning with the individualism invoked by embodied acting.

But in its operations, the individual is only made legible through mass-produced, external objects. In this sense, the combination of those external objects becomes inseparable from the performance of self, aligning with the operations of figurative acting. With lifestyle a globally prominent expression of self, in some ways, it makes sense that Disney (which tends towards embodied acting) and anime (which tends towards figurative acting) are two of the most dominant types of animation globally in this historical moment.

Wendy Goldberg: Can you talk more about the final paragraph in Chapter 6 about hyperindividualism as “isolating” and how “figurative acting may appear to be a potential alternative to the dominant individualism of embodied acting” (pp. 236-7). I’m also struck by your statement that figurative performance can be “as exclusionary as it is participatory, and figurative modes of expression are still bound by the processes of citation and the power dynamics at play within them” (p. 237). There seemed to be a lot to unpack here in terms of power (both participation and access) so was there more you wanted to explore here?

Stevie Suan: Yes, there was so much more I wanted to write! I wanted to underscored how hyperindividualism can be isolating because the individual, with its strict divisions between the internal and external, has become the de facto unit of the social under neoliberalism. This becomes apparent in embodied acting, when the movements and gestures emphasize distinction and uniqueness. In the extreme, the resultant character’s self can appear totally disassociated from anything external. It becomes isolated because it is purposefully unrecognizable or illegible, appearing unrelated to anything, slipping into modes of isolating hyperindividualism.

But on the other side of the spectrum, figurative acting operates as repeating codes with a minimization of distinction between iterations. Here citations are openly shared across bodies, so inside and outside don’t work in the same way as in embodied acting.

In regards to figurative acting’s participatory elements, viewers and performers must share, and acknowledge that sharing, of the codes even if not explicitly—otherwise the performance is not as effective. But this also means that there will be those who do not understand, who are not trained in performing or learning the codes. Furthermore, there may develop systems of authorities on who is and isn’t allowed to perform (and perhaps even read) those codes.

For anime, this is seen as Japan/Japanese culture: the figurative acting codes are authenticated by their relation to Japan/Japanese culture, and those who perform it outside of Japan are seen as inauthentic or “merely imitating” (despite the fact that that’s how figurative acting even in Japan operates). And those who view/read those codes outside of Japan are simply accessing, not engaging in an exchange with Japanese culture. So, there are exclusionary tendencies that can occur.

This includes the politics of citation, as who and what is cited by whom can have important effects. Because figurative acting depends on prior iterations, if a code is not regularly cited, it loses visibility and becomes illegible. Thus, those who are authenticated to perform or engage have a lot of power to acknowledge or disavow certain codes through their own citational practices (or lack thereof). In the context of transnational production, if an anime largely animated in China innovates on an expression, due to the current understanding of anime as Japanese, if it is not cited within an anime that is perceived as Japanese, it may become a derided deviation, rather than an addition to the repertoire.

The other issue is the conservativism in expression. Because the figurative acting codes operate through citation, they tend towards minimizing difference. This can become stale and rigid very quickly. But more importantly, it is also about subjugating oneself to the pre-existing codes. You must contort and conform oneself to the prescribed pattern. It is very difficult for an individual, even those with authoritative status, to make any substantial changes because they are so decentralized. It has to be a massive movement of repeating (or ceasing) to affect any substantial shifts, for better or for worse.

And while I have focused on the potential pitfalls here, it is also important to acknowledge the constructive potentials. Figurative acting could also be very inclusive. Technically, anyone from anywhere can perform the codes. Indeed, the rigidity towards maintaining the code and the decentralized network of citations that sustains figurative acting is here a double-edged sword: as long as the codified element is reiterated within the limits of its preexisting range of expression, it is technically a felicitous performance; furthermore, it is hard to pin-down and control or own definitively.

This could facilitate a radical openness to accepting a diversity of performers, and indeed, as I show throughout the book, anime’s figurative acting codes are performed regularly by people outside of Japan. Additionally, there is also the capacity to expand beyond the current repertoire and include more and more codes. As long as it gets repeated regularly, almost anything could become a figurative acting code.

I think there is a lot of potential to be explored in figurative acting as an alternative to individualism for performing the self, but it is also important to acknowledge its own limitations, and to think across and through the two modes of acting, to expose how they function in the world, and the far-ranging implications of their operations.

Laura Goldblatt and Richard Handler on their book, The American Stamp

Interview by Pauline Turner Strong


Pauline Strong: Congratulations on the publication of your book! I very much enjoyed reading it and I look forward to sharing it with students. To begin our conversation, I’d like to hear what drew each of you to the topic of the cultural history and iconography of US postage stamps.

Richard Handler:  Like many children of my era (b. 1950), I collected stamps as a child, and like some of those people, I returned to stamps in my 40s, working on my collection more or less seriously since then.  It’s easy to immerse oneself in various obsessions of collecting that do not require a lot of creative analysis. I certainly did that (it’s a hobby, after all!), but also, as an anthropologist who studies nationalism, I thought some over the years about the iconographic content of US stamps. (I also collect French and French colonial stamps, but that’s another story.)

There is a particularly striking US stamp, featuring the Sicangu (Brulé) Lakota chief, Hollow Horn Bear and issued in 1923, that has always held my attention.

That stamp gave me ideas for a more extended analysis of Native Americans on US stamps, but I felt I didn’t have the necessary expertise in American studies or Indigenous studies to carry out such a project on my own.

As we explain in the acknowledgments section of our book, Laura and I met when she was finishing her dissertation (in the English department) on Manifest Destiny, conquest narratives, and the closing of the American putative frontier. As we got to know one another (talking about how her work intersected with mine, on nationalism), I got to talking with her about my idea for a paper about Hollow Horn Bear and Indians more generally on US postage stamps.

Laura Goldblatt: I found this topic very interesting for the reasons Richard mentions, but also because I continue to be drawn to questions of state messaging or propaganda. In this regard, postage stamps seemed so ripe for exploration: tiny pictorial messages, designed to travel broadly in their delivery of other messages, that end up in the intimate spaces of the home. And, while senders can control what they send and to some degree what stamps they choose, receivers don’t get to reject delivery because they don’t like the image on their parcel. And neither has any control of what happens as their missives move through the mail. It made me think about government messaging in new ways, as far more multifaceted than the term propaganda implies, but also as completely banal and woven into the fabric of the quotidian.

With that in mind, I also became interested in collectors because I wanted to know how people interacted with stamps, what they did with them, and how these instrumentalized objects could be used for non-instrumental purposes. Stamp collecting is more Richard’s ken, but I nonetheless became intrigued by how different collecting communities—Confederate collectors, Third Reich collectors, and so—described their interests, how they responded to changing political climates, and how they understood stamps’ meanings. Though the casual stamp user is different from these specialist groups, they, too, express opinions about stamps’ designs, have stamp preferences, see the images on their letters, and so on. In fact, the COVID pandemic really underscored how crucial the USPS–and home delivery in particular–remains to the US body politic.

These interests eventually superseded the reservations we both felt about diving into a topic with very little existing academic scholarship on it.

Richard Handler: So we took the plunge, starting with some shorter pieces and then committing ourselves to the book about five years ago.

Polly Strong: One of the main themes of The American Stamp is how the creation, circulation, and collecting of postage stamps contributed to the construction of citizenship during the second half of the 19th century and the entire 20th century. This is a very long timespan to consider! Would you each give an example of a notable change in the social use of stamps over this century and a half?  

Laura Goldblatt: For me, I think the most notable change is from the idea of postage stamps as representing the nation, to postage stamps being indicative of various consumer preferences. For instance, prior to 1893, when you wanted to mail a parcel, you had very limited options of imagery. You either selected the stamp with the exact postage for the item you wanted to send, or some combination of stamps to equal the correct postage—though again, you didn’t have multiple choices for one-cent, two-cent, half-cent stamps: there was just one of those varieties.

But then, in 1893, the Post Office released a set of stamps alongside the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The stamps were sold at the fair itself, where you could also have them postmarked and then keep them as souvenirs. These stamps depicted a variety of images from the narratives of Columbus’s voyages to the Americas.

These were the first commemorative stamps: stamps produced to mark a particular occasion or person and available only for limited time. With the Columbian series, the Post Office realized there was money to be made from such commemorative issues, and more and more were produced over time.

People don’t mail letters as much as they once did, but when they do, they have a wide variety of stamps to choose from, all in the same denomination. The last time I went to the post office, I was able to buy stamps commemorating the 50th anniversary of Title IX, two sheets of stamps from the Black Heritage series—Edmonia Lewis and August Wilson

—and a sheet of stamps dedicated to Shel Silverstein. That is to say, I was able to choose which stamps best represented my values and priorities, rather than solely national values or priorities. I think that’s a really big change in how we understand citizenship and the government’s relationship to citizens. 

Richard: Piggybacking on what Laura said, before the Columbian commemorative stamps, most US stamps feature what we called “dead heads”: the great men (and they were men) of American history. These supposedly definitive stamps were, unlike commemoratives, meant to stay in circulation for many years. For example, most people mailing a letter in the 1940s would have used the three-cent Thomas Jefferson stamp from the Presidential definitive series of 1938.

This type of stamp remained dominant until the post-WW-II period, when commemorative stamps really took off, with more and more new stamps being released, placed on sale, and then withdrawn every year. 

As Laura said, commemorative stamps became a vehicle of consumer choice. But something else was happening: as various kinds of multiculturalism became politically more salient in the last third of the 20th century, the post office found it ever more difficult to produce sets of dead-head stamps that represented the nation in all its diversity. A consequence of this, we argue, is that a different iconography came to the fore for the representation of the nation in definitive stamp series. Instead of featuring representative persons, these stamps featured iconic objects like flags, scenic views, and nostalgic items of material culture. It’s as if on the eve of the 21st century, the post office stalled out on the iconographic recognition of a truly diverse America.

Polly Strong: This brings us to another major theme of the book: collecting. Richard, how was your research on stamp collecting influenced by your previous research on collecting and display at Colonial Williamsburg? Laura, could you comment more on how consumer demand and economic imperatives have shaped postal iconography? What do you make of the marketing of stamps for national, religious, and secular holidays?

Richard Handler: Your question suggests another chapter to be written, comparing genres of collecting. We focused on two aspects of stamp collecting: the creation (over time) of a system that defines collectible objects and assigns values to them; and the ways in which individual collectors interact with that system. One of the striking things about stamp collecting that is not true of all genres of collecting is the high degree to which the average collector, with very little financial investment, can interact with the larger system to create collectible objects—for example, by sending letters to oneself, stamped with interesting stamps, which will be returned, postmarked. I’m not sure what the analogue to this would be in the art or museum worlds. That’s the next paper to write!

Laura Goldblatt: Richard mentioned the post-WW II explosion of commemorative stamps. Looking at the pattern of new commemorative issues since then, it seems clear that the post office has responded to the increasing number of requests for stamps coming from various demographic and interest groups not by articulating a new or revised model of ideal citizenship but simply by producing stamps for each group. I mentioned the Black Heritage Series, which is a response to those who want Black culture celebrated on US stamps. But what are we to make of the 1995 Civil War commemorative series, which honors both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, Frederick Douglass and “Stonewall” Jackson?

Rather than make a political decision about how to commemorate the Civil War—a decision that might lead to the depiction of only Union actors, and thereby offend Lost Cause warriors—the post office treated both Confederate and Union figures as equals. Similarly, the advent of special stamps for Christmas in 1962 was not hindered by critics who worried about the separation of church and state, but led instead, over time, to stamps for Hanukkah (1996), Kwanzaa (1997), and Eid (2001).

This is the kind of consumer logic we see at the grocery store: do you like one brand of milk or another? But the fact is that Confederates are not the same as Union soldiers, nor is honoring various religious holidays the same as refusing in principle to honor any. In sum, the US stamps program has come to instantiate a consumer logic: letting the market decide instead of deciding that some political positions ought not to be celebrated by the state.

Polly Strong: I really appreciate hearing about the new directions your research could take now that the book is published. I’d like to close by asking each of you about the collaboration that gave rise to this book. Richard, in addition to your single-authored books and edited volumes, you have co-authored an unusual number of publications for an anthropologist, including The Fiction of Culture (with Daniel Segal); Schneider on Schneider (with David Schneider); The New History in an Old Museum (with Eric Gable); and now The American Stamp. Why has collaborative work been so compelling to you? Laura, in addition to The American Stamp you have been working on a single-authored monograph, After Destiny: Propaganda, Settler Colonialism, and Community, and you have published both single authored and co-authored articles. What do you see as the rewards and risks of collaborative work as an early career scholar?    

Richard Handler: The simplest and in some sense truest answer I can give is that writing with a co-author is more fun than writing alone! Perhaps fun isn’t quite the right word; to put it slightly differently, co-authoring is a social experience in a way that solo writing (which is also, of course, a social experience) is not. Co-authoring means you have someone to talk to about the work that is important to you; and co-authoring only works well if you enjoy talking to your co-author about your shared project.

Beyond fun, I am a person who is conscious of my scholarly limitations: what I’m good at and not so good at, what I know and what I don’t know. Co-authoring is a sensible response to one’s limitations; it allows writers to share in each other’s expertise. It also allows for quick and engaged feedback, as when you call up your co-author and say, “I can’t figure this out, can you help me,” or “I can’t make this paragraph come out right; will you see what you can do with it.”

A final thought: egalitarian co-authoring requires both a strong ego (you have to be willing to write your fair share) and a lack of ego, in the sense of allowing the other person’s ideas and writing to change yours. 

Laura Goldblatt: I’d echo Richard in the list of rewards. I often think of all writing and thought as collaborative. Even my single-authored publications and research grew out of a series of rich conversations with others, and aid that included reading and commenting on drafts. Co-authorship makes those collaborations visible. I also just really like co-writing. I largely decided to go to graduate school because of how thrilling—really!—I found class discussions about rich and complicated ideas as an undergraduate. Co-writing takes that process beyond the classroom.

In terms of risks, co-authorship often isn’t legible to others as legitimate scholarly work, which is a problem as an early-career academic. It can also make it difficult for peers and search committees to glean what my expertise is separate from that of my co-authors. But still, the benefits for me far outweigh those risks. I’ve learned as much about scholarly and professional praxis from Richard as I have about stamps, which is a kind of mentorship I think we could all gain from.

Laura Goldblatt is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Virginia, where Richard Handler is Professor of Anthropology and Global Studies.

List of Illustrations

  1. Cover, The American Stamp, 2023, https://cup.columbia.edu/book/the-american-stamp/9780231208246
  2. Hollow Horn Bear, 1923, https://postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibition/the-american-indian-in-postage-stamps-profiles-in-leadership-the-paths-of-great-sioux-2
  3. Columbian Exposition issue: Landing of Columbus, 1893, https://postalmuseum.si.edu/object/npm_1980.2493.1609
  4. Black Heritage series: August Wilson, 2021, https://uspsblog.com/celebrating-black-heritage/
  5. Presidential series: Thomas Jefferson, 1938, https://postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibition/about-us-stamps-bureau-period-1894-1939-definitive-issues/presidential-series-1938
  6. Civil War commemorative series, 1995, https://www.amazon.com/Civil-Sheet-Twenty-Different-Stamps/dp/B008G3G2RI