Gabriele de Seta’s Postdigital China

Page 99 of my doctoral thesis Dajiangyou: Media practices of vernacular creativity in postdigital China is a messy microcosm that is yet quite representative of the whole dissertation. The page is positioned right at the beginning of the fourth chapter, in which I try to describe “contemporary China’s postdigital media ecologies” through the local tech buzzword weishidai [‘micro-era’], a historical moment

in which the Internet, fragmented, ubiquitous and personalized, disappears in the fabric of everyday life.

Even when read in isolation, this page feels as overbearing as the rest of the thesis, my writing rushing through composite terms and neologisms I deploy in order to pin down glimpses of the sociotechnical reality I thought I witnessed during my sparse months of fieldwork. The first couple of paragraphs are a really bad example of terminological proliferation in social science writing – hardly giving words any room to breathe, I propose a flurry of concepts: “technomorphology”, “weishidai”, “technological imaginary”, “postdigital”, “post-media” and “post-Internet”. Cobbling together my dissertation in a disciplinary context that emphasized ethnographic mystique over theoretical debate, the lexical flourishes offered by barely digested media theory readings made me feel sharper and safer.

My writing then moves to a couple of fieldwork impressions, but only after reframing my whole research project through a disillusioned self-reflection:

I traveled to different locations in Mainland China looking forward to collect the insights of media-savvy and enthusiastic Internet users, expecting to give voice to strong opinions on digital media and their culture. Instead, as time went on, I realized that most people I was talking to deemed my research topic to be extremely vague or not groundbreaking at all: some noticed the importance of an Internet connection only when it didn’t work, to then quickly realize they didn’t even know what they really wanted to use it for (Fig. 35); others were active content creators on different digital media platforms, yet didn’t have much to say about it: “Yes, feel free to use my photos. As for your questions, I would love to help you, but I really don’t have any opinion, I don’t want to disappoint you” (ZuoYou, May 2014, Shanghai).

Eventually, I didn’t use one any of my friend’s photos, and his opinions – even if articulated in small talk rather than formal interviews – kept informing my writing over the years. When I last saw him in Shanghai a few months ago, we spent an entire dinner talking about livestreaming apps.


Figure 35, which appears at the bottom of the page, is a composite of screengrabs from social media posts made by another friend over a six-hour span during which her VPN (Virtual Private Network) software stopped working. Unable to access Facebook, she laments “the hopelessness of not being able to connect to the Internet” through a Chinese-language post on her WeChat account. When her VPN comes back online after a few hours, she writes an English-language post on Facebook noting how “have the network the but again don’t know what to do”. Besides the evident design similarities between the two platforms, and her decision to use different languages on each of them, this constructed image evokes the pragmatic use of software to circumvent Chinese Internet censorship while also resonating with a self-aware disenchantment about the feeling of purposelessness resulting from digital media use.

The page ends with the heading of section 4.2.1, “After digital media”. I clearly remember titling this section as a nod to Mark Hobart’s volume After culture: Anthropology as radical metaphysical critique. His use of the term “after”, in turn inspired by Johannes Fabian, is echoed by Florian Kramer’s definition of “post-digital” as

a contemporary disenchantment with digital information systems and media gadgets, or a period in which our fascination with these systems and gadgets has become historical […].

If page 99 of my dissertation manages to make a point about postdigital China, I hope it is the following: after digital media, there is more digital media.

de Seta, Gabriele. 2015. Dajiangyou: Media practices of vernacular creativity in postdigital China. PhD dissertation. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong, China.

free download of dissertation available here:

Mariam Durrani’s A Study on Mobility: Pakistani-origin Muslim Youth in Higher Education

Page 98-99 of my dissertation is the introduction to the fourth chapter of my dissertation. In this chapter, I organize my analysis on specific ‘encounters’, or instantiations of contact zones as part of my method to reframe migration processes as mobility. In so doing, my work broadens anthropological scholarship about how migration as mobility connects with gendered academic aspirations and culture-making for Pakistani Muslim youth, specifically focusing on education-driven migration.

During the first few weeks at the Pakistani college campus, the scholarship students, those moving from rural areas to the posh, manicured college campus in Lahore, experienced numerous moments of culture shock. Similarly, the journey from more conservative and Muslim-practicing home environments in the outer boroughs of New York City to NYPC’s Manhattan college campus entailed a similar kind of culture shock, particularly as students ‘carry’ with them mobility imaginaries from beyond the place-bound context. To ethnographically frame these moments of cultural shock/encounter, I refer to Pratt’s concept of “contact zones” to demarcate “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination” (1992:4). Contact zones are conceptualized to understand unequal relations of power between populations. For the students in Lahore, their geographical locations of origin are positioned on the peripheries of the Pakistani state, often from areas that have experienced the weight of the war against terrorism or from rural villages that do not benefit from the state’s urban development programs and policies. For students in NYC, their immigrant status and Pakistani cultural heritage contrasted with the American public city college they attended. Moreover, as students on financial aid, their material conditions poise them as less economically privileged than their upper middle class peers. Their socioeconomic status also determines their schooling background, their family histories, and several other indices that may heighten a sense of asymmetrical social relations. By considering an ethnography of encounters – here encounters with a cosmopolitan, urban set of imaginaries – we can extend our understanding of how unequal power dynamics interactively shape culture-making across sites of difference (Faier and Rofel 2014).

In this chapter, I discuss an incident of ethnic-based harassment faced by a participant on the Lahore campus. Pashtun freshmen students frequently are seen as minority students and can be identified based on their use of Pashto and/or sartorial choices and mannerisms. In this incident, Zahid’s experience of ethnic- based harassment offers an example of the more problematic encounters that can occur where the ethno-linguistic category of ‘Pashtun’ carries an additional set of identity categories, such as less urban and less cosmopolitan. While these students are physically mobile and have moved to Lahore, the stereotypic social personae of the Pashtun student compared to the Karachi-origin urban student can create social barriers that inhibit interpersonal mobility and communicative exchanges. These kinds of contact zones highlight the rural and urban (imagined) social types that are still very much observable. The more valuable or privileged social persona of Karachi-origin students often raise class-based anxieties for the Pashto-speaking youth, and vice versa Karachi-origin students, who might very well have their own village-to-city migration, are keen to highlight their cosmopolitanism. Similarly in NYC, I track Muslim student narratives about facing racially motivated encounters which have become especially worrisome in the last few years as anti-Muslim racism increased in the America. Other vignettes in this chapter follow such stories of encounter and how the diverse student populations in Lahore and New York City interpret these moments, manage their emerging identities in relation to structural power inequities that often marginalize migrant youth within and post-college, and negotiate difference and community-building in their respective urban locales.

My larger project argues that the rural to urban migration pattern and concomitant social imaginaries remained significant for both intra- and inter-national movements, here focused on the college campus as the primary contact zone. Through student narratives regarding their mobility aspirations, I analyze emergent and locale-specific discursive and embodied practices in relation to transnational, gendered, and piety-based markers of belonging. In this, I found that these practices often reified and critiqued traditional and modern forms of patriarchy. This study shows that how migration is but one part of larger subject-making processes observable among Pakistani-origin Muslim youth, allowing a deeper understanding of how transnational Muslim youth re-fashion their social identities and professional aspirations in the contemporary political and social climate.

Durrani, Mariam. 2016. A Study on Mobility: Pakistani-origin Muslim Youth in Higher Education. Phd dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

Works Cited

Faier & Rofel. (2014). Ethnographies of Encounter. Annual Review of Anthropology, 43(1), 363–377.

Pratt. (1992). Arts of the Contact Zone. Profession: 33-40



Laura Bunting-Hudson’s The Art of the Hustle

While traditionally the neoliberal economic system has been characterized as one which militates against poor people and those that are oppressed, my research analyzes how ordinary people are using the political economy combined with resistance politics for their own advantages. This dissertation explores the political economy of rap music in Bogota, Colombia and how groups use diverse transnational business strategies in order to develop a new entertainment industry there. My work explores the social organizational strategies of multi-national rap polities, based in Bogota, as they utilize new forms of digital technology, and their street smart entrepreneurial skills to distribute popular music as well as to start horizontal business firms, in order to challenge the status quo within their communities.

On page 99, my dissertation is describing the ideology of many of the most successful rap groups in Bogota, Colombia. It illustrates the rappers counter-cultural system of values that comes from street codes one often finds in international street gangs. The rappers use these ideas in order to form a group of resistance artistic poets (rap) who believe in using the capitalistic system, forming a strong transnational network of Spanish rap elites and establishing businesses based on the groups ideology, in order to try to create societal change. In this section, I use FG Bailey’s concepts from political anthropology and Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory. Combining these theoretical frameworks allows for the ethnographic data to reveal the way that games are played by the rap polities, to demonstrate how the groups are organized, form networks, maintain those orders and the threats that rap polities encounter, in their aims at garnering fame, money and societal power. The stated goals of many of the rap polities are to challenge the current political and economic elites in Colombia whom they believe are an oligarchical regime, that unjustly take advantage of the people and resources of Colombia. The rap artists believe that by forming their own businesses, being able to create social and political solidarity around the dissemination of their messages contained within their music through mass communications networks and working hard for progressive change, Colombia can become a more equal and just nation. This dissertation showcases the rap artists quest for this kind of greater equity and justice in Bogota, Colombia.
Bunting-Hudson, Laura. 2017. The Art of the Hustle: A Study of the Rap Music Industry in Bogota, Colombia. Ph.d. diss. Teachers College, Columbia University.

Plurinationalism and Community Votes on Mining

by Katherine Fulz

In my dissertation, I examine the economy of representation about mining in Guatemala, taking “media” in its broadest sense. This includes traditional media such as newspapers and advertisements; digital and social media; performative events such as protests and community votes; and attempts at knowledge creation such as research on public health and human rights. It is impossible to extricate one form of media from another in this context, as both authors and audience freely remix and reinterpret different genres, creating novel hybrid forms in the process. These communicative forms both reflect and contest dominant discursive regimes about mining development and what it means to be Guatemalan.

Page 99 is part of a discussion of the political implications of community votes, which are organized by local communities and anti-mining activists throughout Latin America. These votes are founded on activists’ interpretations of international accords mandating the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of indigenous peoples for development projects impacting their communities. Although the votes use logistic, aesthetic, and performative elements associated with national elections, they are organized outside of—and organizers might say in opposition to—state electoral structures. The results are almost unanimously against mining development, and usually face contestation from national governments. There have been dozens of votes held throughout Latin America, usually numbering no more than a handful in each country. In Guatemala, however, there have been more than 80 votes to date, which is surprising given the comparatively low number of active mining projects in that country. Part of my goal in the chapter is to examine what it is about the Guatemalan context that makes these votes such an appealing strategy for opposing transnational development.

On page 99, I explore how the concept of plurinationalism applies to indigenous political movements in Guatemala. I argue that community votes point to a potentially transformative and plurinational political project that questions whether international accords protecting human rights are an extension of state power. The discussion of plurinationalism builds up to chapter three, which is an ethnographic account of the performance and documentation of community votes in several highland communities. Even though the votes are legally non-binding, the simultaneous performance of Guatemalan citizenship and indigenous autonomy they embody is significant in the way it disrupts dominant discourses about multiculturalism and democracy.


Fultz, Katherine. 2016. Economies of Representation: Conflict, Communications, and Mining in Guatemala. PhD diss., Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan.


Consultas comunitarias in Guatemala are exemplary of such a plurinational process: not confined to any one region, and even occasionally reflecting pan-continental aspirations, consultas go far beyond the “state within a state” model of indigenous autonomy and seek to fundamentally alter the relationship of indigenous people with the Guatemalan state.         

        In Guatemala, consultas are made possible by two parallel branches of post-war social developments: neoliberal reforms seeking to decentralize state governance and strengthen local and regional autonomy (in tandem with a push toward economic privatization); and multiculturalist reforms that recognized indigenous culture and rights, part of the shift from assimilationist policies of cultural citizenship. Consultas are some of the first concrete instances wherein indigenous groups in Guatemala have sought to reach beyond the national regulatory system and take the structures of governance into their own hands, and as such they are attempts to reformulate the relationship between indigenous rights and the oligarchical state.

Ilana Gershon on her new book, Down and Out in the New Economy

Down and Out in the New Economy


Interview by Matt Tomlinson

The topics your book takes on are complexly intertwined: how people are meant to become their own brands, how patterns of hiring and quitting are changing, and the role of new media ideologies and ecologies. One of the points that emerges in your book is that people who try to connect these strands are themselves often confused, perplexed, and frustrated by the systems and processes. So can you distil your argument into a short summary—the elevator talk or, as this case might be, the elevator blog?

Pithy summaries are indeed the goal of so many of the job-seeking performances I studied, it seems only fair that I attempt to reduce my argument down to a handful of sentences.  My book is an attempt to make the notion of a neoliberal self as rigorous as possible by using historical comparison with earlier forms of capitalism.  So I suggest that Fordist work structures relied on the metaphor that one owns oneself as though one was property.  This means that the employment contract is a moment in which you rent yourself out to an employer for a certain period of time, and get yourself back, so to speak, at the end of the day.   Many union battles were fought over how long you should rent yourself out (the 40-hour work week), or other practical conundrums created by extending this metaphor of self-as-property.  But since Reagan and Thatcher, the metaphor has changed, and under neoliberal capitalism, people imagine that they own their selves as though they are businesses – bundles of skills, assets, experiences, qualities, and relationships that must be consciously managed and continually enhanced.  The employment contract becomes metaphorically a business-to-business contract in which you as a business are providing temporary solutions to your employer’s market-specific problems.  The book is about how the hiring ritual and various aspects of workplaces have changed in response to this shift in metaphor.


You describe how your students’ questions about how they should go about getting jobs led you to write the book. Can you say more about this, and what practical critical tools you see linguistic anthropology offering to students and job-seekers?

I am so glad that you asked, because the more I studied what hiring actually involves, the more I realized that linguistic and media anthropologists teach very helpful analytical tools for being a competent job candidate.  And I also think that we could all be much more direct when faced with the question “How will this major help me get a job?” about all the ways that an anthropology degree is truly helpful preparation for specific tasks involved in looking for a job.

For example, all the workshops that I attended were openly guides for how to master a certain genre.   The instructors were teaching how to understand the way information should be presented on the page to anticipate a certain kind of reader – often an impatient one who wants clear signals that the applicant fits certain criteria, and with their own styles for interpretation.   These are readers who are also reading with other people’s assessments in mind, who are anticipating having to show a resume to someone else in their workplace with their own techniques for interpreting a genre.  And while the workshops tend to focus on one genre alone, the job seeker is supposed to be competent at a range of genres, all of which are supposed to interconnect and tell a persuasive narrative about the applicant.  This is precisely what students learn in our courses.  You learn how to become competent at new genres.  You learn how to anticipate the different ways people might interpret your own texts, at the same time that you are learning a range of different techniques for interpreting a text.  You often learn the relationships between a textual genre and a performance genre.  And, as importantly, you learn how to be persuasive about your own interpretations of a text, a skill that will come in handy when our students have to discuss with their future co-workers who they want to hire.


 Your book is written in an appealingly informal tone, but there are moments when the immense anxiety and frustration of job seekers is apparent. Was the fieldwork emotionally challenging at times? Were there folks for whom you felt you needed to intervene sympathetically in some way?

Honestly, this was the most depressing fieldwork I have ever done.   And this is proven to me all over again when I give talks.  When I talk about my previous research on how people use new media to break up with each other, I often feel like a stand-up comedian.  The stories and my informants’ take on things are just so funny.   And now, when I give a talk about hiring, people in the audience keep telling me that they feel deeply depressed after I am done.

One of the reasons it was so painful is that the white collar workers I interviewed seemed to accept the neoliberal advice that they were surrounded by. At the end of an interview, I would sometimes mention that I was a bit skeptical about some aspect, say the requirement to create a personal brand.  And invariably, the person I was interviewing would defend the advice.   By contrast, last summer, I spent a month interviewing homeless people about how they looked for jobs.  It was much more enjoyable fieldwork because so many of the people I interviewed had a healthy skepticism about the systems they were trying to navigate.

It was also hard because I had no concrete way to intervene for the people I was interviewing in the moment, no matter how much I wanted to do so. And offering yet more advice didn’t seem like a satisfying way to go.  After all, part of the trap that job-seekers face is not only that they are surrounded by advice, some of it good and some of it crappy, but almost all of it must be said at a level of generality that isn’t helpful enough for getting a job in a complex and specific workplace.  In the end, I decided that maybe the best I could do was point out in my book the problems with standardized advice as clearly as possible.  This might help job-seekers realize they also might want to do thoughtful research about any workplace they want to enter, research (to continue my point in the previous question) that resembles ethnographic explorations of how decisions are made in a specific organization.


For linguistic anthropologists this book will resonate strongly with your previous book The Breakup 2.0. In fact, they would be great to assign as a pair to students. But I wanted you to think of this new book in terms of your work on Samoan migrants, No Family Is an Island. I want to go out on a limb here. In No Family Is an Island, you make it clear that government bureaucrats who see their systems as acultural put Samoans in the position of “being cultural,” and making culture something to be managed in particular ways. In this new book, you mention how companies are seen to have cultures, but individuals have some leeway—true, they need to have a cultural makeup that fits the company’s own, but they’re also free to craft selves as brands and decide what kind of individual culture they have, if you will. So to draw all this out: Samoan migrants are forced to be culture-bearers, whereas American job-seekers need to be culture-designers. Is this a fair comparison?

For me, this is a very unexpected comparison, but let me see if I can work with it.   Why unexpected? In my research on hiring, I was constantly baffled by what people meant when they were talking to me about company culture and making sure that those they hired were a good cultural fit.   It often sounded to me like “not a cultural fit” was a politic way to reject a job candidate you didn’t like for whatever reason, but seemed perfectly acceptable on paper.  And I never came across anyone who thought they were creating a culture of one, job-seekers and employers both understood culture to involve a group of people interacting together.

That said, I think you are pointing to a fascinating distinction in the way that culture as a classification functions on the ground when people use the concept explicitly.  In my earlier work on Samoan migrants, culture tended to refer only to one thin slice of what anthropologists mean when they talk about culture – ritual exchanges, kinship obligations, and politeness norms.  None of these were being referred to when U.S. white collar workers were talking about company culture.  Instead, they seemed, as far as I could tell, to be referring to the specific interactional practices that linguistic anthropologists study – how do you handle conflict, or manage small talk – which was then translated into Values that company employees were supposed to uphold.  No one ever clearly spelled out the link between values such as Amazon’s “bias for action” and “think big” and how employees were supposed to behave in particular situations.  This was the tacit cultural knowledge everyone in Amazon were supposed to know — how to link these values to everyday practice.  And I suppose employees could say retroactively that the people who didn’t know how to enact this tacit link were not a good “cultural fit.”  But honestly, from my analytical perspective, moving from a job at Goldman Sachs to a job at Amazon was not switching cultures in any meaningful anthropological sense.  Both Samoan migrants and U.S. white collar workers were using culture as a classification to refer to some things that anthropologists would agree are part of culture, but it was only a slice of what anthropologists might refer to should they use the term.  But the slices were different enough that I think you are right that people viewed their relationships to culture differently.  Samoan migrants did not think they were actively making their own culture while US white collar workers thought that every conscious decision they made helped them fashion a company culture.


Finally: who do you most hope will read your book?

I wrote this book for people looking for jobs, for people looking to hire, and for the career counselors who are giving advice.  I don’t like the model of the neoliberal self, and want to encourage people to refuse it.  The question is how to do this persuasively?  I turned to analyzing hiring because it is a moment of such uncertainty and anxiety that when people are being told they had to become a neoliberal self in order to get a job, they will do it for pragmatic purposes.   I hoped with this book to suggest that this was not the way to go, both because becoming a neoliberal self isn’t all that effective as a set of strategies and because it is not allowing people to be as ethical and good to each other as I hope they want to be.


Stephen C. Rea’s “Acceleration and Information: Managing South Korean Online Gaming Culture

What first strikes me about page 99 are the “%”s. I am not a quantitative social scientist, yet on this page alone there are twelve % symbols. A Command+F search reveals that there are 113 %s in the entire dissertation, meaning that page 99’s account for just over 10% of the total. In a 275 page-long document, this seems like an outlier.

The first time that I presented a draft of the chapter containing page 99 to a dissertation writing workshop, the overwhelming reaction was, “Why so many numbers?” To my peers it felt discordant not only with the rest of the dissertation, but also with the genre of ethnographic writing writ large. I remember being frustrated by their reaction, as I had spent countless hours arriving at those %s through assiduous coding of fieldnotes and running cross-tabulations. Had all of that work been in vain? Was I failing to perform the subjectivity of a “good anthropologist”?

In the larger context of the dissertation, it makes more sense (at least to me). Page 99 falls within a chapter where I draw upon data from the site(s) where I spent most of my time during fieldwork: PC bang, the South Korean variant of Internet gaming cafés. During the thousand-plus hours that I sat in plush leather chairs while my virtual self battled with digital monsters in online game dungeons, I diligently recorded the comings and goings of the cafés’ customers, noting gender, age, activity, duration, and whether the customer was alone or accompanied by others. On page 99 my analysis focuses on the correlation between age and group size. Demographics are not the meat of my dissertation; my argument concerns how Korean online gamers calibrate themselves and their play with sociotemporal expectations for “ethical” IT practices. Yet buried in all of the %s lies a hint of the dissertation’s connective tissue: “PC bang tempos also correlate with customers’ age grades and the likelihood that they will be in groups.”

For any other reader page 99 might seem as out of place as it did for my peers in the dissertation writing workshop. But for me it demonstrates ethnography-as-craft: the fieldwork that is often mundane in the moment, the scaffolding work involved in post-field data analysis, and the awkwardness of representing sociocultural processes in writing. In this sense, then, perhaps page 99 does reveal “the quality of the whole.”

Rea, Stephen C.  “Acceleration and Information: Managing South Korean Online Gaming Culture.” Phd dissertation, University of California, Irvine, 2015.

The Trouble with Page 99: Michael Scroggins takes the test

As I navigate to page 99, trouble arises. Adobe Acrobat assures me that I am on page 99 out of 329, but the number at the bottom of the page is 85. How many page 99’s can my dissertation contain? Two, it seems: one circumscribed by Acrobat’s digital scheme that assigns equal value to each page, and another circumscribed by Columbia’s traditional scheme that assigns value only to certain pages. Whose numbering scheme counts here?

My dissertation draws on two years of fieldwork in Silicon Valley Do‑It‑Yourself biology (DIYbio) laboratory. The DIYbio movement’s self‑announced goal is replacing the hierarchy of academic science with the egalitarian work of “citizen scientists.” The first page 99 contains a summary of Chapter Two, which discusses safety measures within synthetic biology, starting with the 1976 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA. The second page 99 is bisected by a section heading titled “What Kind of Scientists?” which describes the sentimental education of DIYbiologists in 2010. In the interval between 1976 and 2010 the table was set for the disruption of traditional laboratory expertise by a new form of expertise emerging from DIYbio laboratories. My dissertation describes the formation of this new expertise.

The new expertise took form materially and symbolically. A new design language regulated interactions between laboratory members and the public. The logic of human resources governed interactions among laboratory members and supplanted the laboratory apprenticeship. New literary and material technologies for witnessing experiments were instituted by a class of entrepreneurial experimenters. Publicity and hype replaced findings. Experimental safety, the concern of the 1976 Asilomar conference, came to be underwritten by the FBI’s WMD directorate and enforced through surveillance. As we navigate the contemporary scientific landscape, the trouble with page 99 reasserts itself in a new key: whose expertise counts, and when?


Michael Scroggins. “‘This is a New Thing in the World”: Design and Discontent in the Making of a “Garage” Lab.  ” Ph.d. dissertation, Columbia University, 2016.

El Khachab’s Technology, Labor, and Mediation in the Egyptian Film Industry

My thesis is not about the link between cinema and car mechanics in Egypt, but this is what I discuss on page 99. There is still a sense in which this link touches on a core intellectual contribution that I hoped to make. The thesis examines how workers in the Egyptian film industry cope with the unforeseeable future of film production. I argue that this future is not entirely unforeseeable, as it is made to seem by interlocutors and scholars alike, but that it is managed through a hierarchical division of labor, an attention to the socio-technical process of film production, and a constant use of technological devices. In other words, when filmmakers confront such an unforeseeable problem as imagining “the film” while writing it, their responses never come out of nothing: they rely on existing hierarchies, techniques, and technologies to manage the issue.

This has little to do with car mechanics, or so it seems. Cinema carries strong expectations regarding what there is to study about it, and one imagines a cinema anthropologist to hang out with stars and directors to study their works, worldviews, and creative impulses. What I have done instead is to document the contributions of “unknown soldiers” in the film industry: set builders and production assistants, cameramen and sound engineers, grips and gaffers; workers who have more in common with craftsmen than the creative types we imagine peopling the industry. The vital insight is that each worker has a different stake in the film’s future: what it means to imagine the film is very different to a director as opposed to a gripping technician. By giving equal consideration to the director’s and the technician’s projects, however, I have tried to complicate expectations about what there is to study in “cinema”.

What remains to be studied is the historical link between cinema and other industrial crafts, for example, car repairs. The history of Egyptian cinema – and arguably, the history of cinema tout court – is predominantly written as though cinema was a series of “artworks”, without recognizing how cinema workers exist in a wider socio-technical world. It would be astonishing if the strong similarities between Egyptian craftsmen in the film industry and in the car repairs industry were a mere historical accident. Yet this comparison is seldom raised, because both activities are seldom put in the same sentence together. The comparison matters nevertheless because it breaks the stereotypical bounds between “creative” and “technical” activities, and it lets us think about what Egyptian cinema can say about Egyptian society more broadly.

Chihab El Khachab. “Technology, Labor, and Mediation in the Egyptian Film Industry.” DPhil dissertation, University of Oxford, 2017.

Lynnette Arnold’s Communicative Care Across Borders

My dissertation, “Communicative Care Across Borders: Language, Materiality, and Affect in Transnational Family Life,” explores the role of everyday communication in the lives of multigenerational transnational families living stretched between El Salvador and the United States, revealing how technologically mediated language both produces and contests the political-economic marginalization of geographically mobile populations. These families rely on regular cell-phone calls as a primary form of kin work in the face of long-term physical separation caused by restrictive immigration policies (Di Leonardo 1987), and the dissertation provides a close analysis of these cross-border conversations, informed by insights developed through multi-sited ethnographic engagement.

Page 99 is located in the middle of my methods chapter, and discusses the relationships that made this intimate investigation possible, describing how 15 years of connection had resulted in my adoption into several transnational families, signaling close affective ties despite the insurmountable gulf between our political-economic positions. As such, although page 99 is methodological, it draws attention to the primary theoretical contribution of the dissertation, the concept of communicative care.

Building on feminist approaches to care, I develop this term to highlight how mundane conversations attend to both material and affective concerns, nurturing the relational ties upon which cross-border families depend. The dissertation analyzes long-distance greetings, collaborative reminiscences, and negotiations of economic decisions, elucidating how each practice works to reproduce material connections between migrants and their relatives back home, while also providing forms of affective engagement that maintain kin ties.

In sustaining transnational family life, communicative care practices constitute a creative response to the failures of state care, but one that also reinforces the domestication and privatization of caring responsibilities. Thus, while communicative care is a means of pursuing well-being at the margins of neoliberalism, these strategies simultaneously produce forms of personhood and relationship that conform to neoliberal models. The analysis presented in the dissertation demonstrates the crucial importance of paying close attention to technologically mediated talk for understanding how the tensions of neoliberal mobility are both produced and managed.

Lynnette Arnold, “Communicative Care Across Borders: Language, Materiality, and Affect in Transnational Family Life,” Phd diss, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2016.


Di Leonardo, Micaela. “The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 12, no. 3 (1987): 440–453.


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

Interview by Yeon-Ju Bae

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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