CaMP Anthropology Virtual Reading Group

Dear colleagues,

Many of you have been able to join us over the past few months for our new virtual reading group. We meet the last Friday of every month from 1-2pm Eastern Time to discuss recently published work with authors working at the intersection of communication, media, and performance.

Over the next few months, we will be joined by:

  • April 27th- Sonia Das
  • August 31st- Erika Hoffman-Dilloway
  • September 28th – Karin Barber
  • October 26th – Tom Gieryn

If you would like to participate in our next virtual meeting and be added to our mailing list, please email We will send you a link to our shared Dropbox folder, where you can find PDF copies of the chapters we will discuss with the authors, as well as a link to our Zoom virtual meeting room.

We hope you all can join us!

Coleman Nye and Sherine Hamdy on their new graphic novel, Lissa


Interview by Perry Sherouse

Perry Sherourse: In your article in George Marcus and Dominic Boyer’s volume on collaborations, you write that “comics – far from “dumbing down” or “simplifying” concepts, could be used to layer on more complexity – through comics, we could play with scale, time, and place.” What complexities of language and place were both of you able to convey in this format that would have been flattened or omitted in a standard, text-only account?

Coleman Nye and Sherine Hamdy: One of the great things we were able to do through comics was attending to fine-grained ethnographic detail without weighing down the pace of the story. We could be very specific about, for example, what people in Egypt eat, how they dress, what their daily concerns are, what traffic is like in Cairo, but show it contextually through the images in a way that enhances and layers the dialogue and action rather than detracting from it in the heavy prose of conventional “thick description.” With images, we could also zoom in and out of different scales — from the microscopic DNA mutations, to Anna as a person, to a wider environment in which toxins impact and predispose us to different cancers — all on the same page, weaving through the connections of cellular processes, personal life histories, and social-political structures that shape how we live. We could also juxtapose times and places, as for example, we see two characters in the US and Egypt on the same page, side-by-side prepping for surgery in very different settings. This invites readers to infer the differences, and also to think through the connections between these political and medical contexts. A great thing about comics is that you don’t need exposition — the reader does a lot of the work of making connections, filling in details, and otherwise populating the spaces between the panels (gutters) for us. Anna’s use of photography let us visually depict the layering of cancer’s timelines — from her mother’s family’s cancer genealogy to her present concerns about her cancer futures — and how through the clicking of her camera, Anna struggled with the temporalities of cancer and genetics. We could also point to characters’ shifts in perspective visually through things like Facebook Feeds — how a list of Anna’s posts shows us the different concerns she’s been grappling with across time and space– concerns about the political violence putting her friends at risk, but also about her own potential of succumbing to the cancer that killed her mother. Through Anna and Layla’s friendship, we could connect broader themes, like the difficulty of making life-and-death ethical decisions, the reduction of women’s health to their reproductive viability — across the U.S. and Egyptian contexts that we depicted, rather than reifying the old divide between the “West” and “the Rest.”

Perry Sherouse: When considering how to include citations to revolutionaries in this visual format, you were careful to think about the politics of representation. How does graphic ethnofiction change the way we think about the aesthetics and politics of citation?

Sherine Hamdy and Coleman Nye: We were drawn to the potential of the graphic novel form to reach a much wider audience — and in so doing, to re-conceptualize what counts as knowledge. It was important for us to cite the work and insights of the revolutionaries which were being produced in ways not generally accepted as “scholarship” — like social political commentary on graffiti throughout the public walls of Cairo and especially in Tahrir Square. We heavily visually cite Egyptian graffiti artists and even had a full-page mural designed by Ganzeer as a way to acknowledge our indebtedness to them in our own approaches and understandings of the revolution, and to signal a wider range of what counts as intellectual contribution. The revolutionaries who were present, in the Square and the streets of Cairo fighting off tear-gas, protecting protesters from military or police violence — they too were contributing to our theories of what counts as political action. Similarly, the doctor-volunteers who set up make-shift “field hospitals” in a city not technically at war — they reconceptualized the idea of “medical neutrality” and impartiality. By having Layla work with Tahrir Doctors in the story and by interviewing real people like Drs. Amr Shebaita and Dina Shokry, getting their feedback on the story, and incorporating them in the book as characters who play themselves, we wanted to acknowledge their political action as a key intellectual contribution to the Revolution, as well as to our book. The comic form allowed us to do that in a novel and exciting way.

Perry Sherouse: What influences are most powerful for you, but are undetectable in your work? [that is, intellectually, who or what brought you to this point?]

Coleman Nye and Sherine Hamdy:  Art Spiegelman’s Maus is an obvious inspiration for its novel use of the comic form to deal with the very serious events of the Holocaust and its aftermath. Persepolis too was wonderful in that it opened a window onto the Iranian revolution through the eyes of a young girl. These influences are probably not “undetectable”! But since neither of us had grown up on comic books as kids, these works opened up the possibilities of what comics could portray and depict. We wanted to extend that work by making it really obvious how it connects to traditional academic scholarship, which is why we mapped out the connections in the appendices. It’s definitely unconventional for comic book producers to provide “teaching material” to accompany their stories, and may even be off-putting for some, in a way that it calls attention to what is ordinarily buried within the story, but we wanted Lissa to break through to academics and provide something of a bridge between the comics and academic world.

Perry Sherouse: Where and how do you write (for example, in a houseboat with a pencil, in bed with an iPad, underground cave with charcoal)? What is essential to your creative process separately, and collaboratively?

Sherine Hamdy and Coleman Nye: This was a funny project because so much of the collaborative writing took place long-distance. Sherine was on the East Coast and Coleman was on the West Coast for all of the early script-writing, which took place in chat and via Skype on a shared google doc. And toward the end, we had one artist on Mountain time and our visual editor Marc Parenteau working from Mongolia, so the coordination was nutty to say the least. But there were wonderful moments of collaborative writing and drawing: in Egypt, we talked through the plot and character design in a range of places, from street markets to meetings with medical students; in Providence, Coleman and Sarula sat in a coffee shop trying to talk/sketch the gene patenting page; and our favorite – Sherine hosted Caroline at her house for a week, while feeding her Egyptian food and modeling different facial expressions for her during the final push of art production.


Helena Wulff on her new book, Rhythms of Writing

Rhythms of Writing

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: When you are at a book event for an Irish author, how do you explain what an anthropologist brings to the study of Irish writing?

Helena Wulff: If this is when I first make contact, it would be a relatively short conversation as the author would be very busy talking to many people and signing books. I would just ask for an interview and contact details mentioning that I am “writing a book about Irish authors,” focussing on the questions “How come the Irish are such great writers?” and “What do they know that the rest of us don’t know?”

So it would be at the interview that I explain that I, as an anthropologist, hope to bring an understanding of the significance of the Irish history and culture to the making of an author in Ireland. Irish history is significant in Ireland because of the long and brutal British colonization which ended rather recently, in 1922. Irish people have not quite come to terms with the colonial situation yet. As this study is my second major study in Ireland – the first one was published as Dancing at the Crossroads: Memory and Mobility in Ireland (Berghahn, 2007) – I think I can claim a certain expertise on Ireland, and thus an awareness of its strengths but also vulnerabilities. In my capacity of an anthropologist, I thus hope to bring an understanding of the cultural context that produces these eloquent writers, and their writing as craft and career. I look at the whole process beginning with how writing is taught, how breakthroughs happen, how authors build and maintain reputations, failures in getting published, and finally how decline can occur or simply demise. Looking at the social organization of the literary world in Ireland, also in relation to a global one, I note with interest the societal impact authors have in their role as public intellectuals. The publishing industry with small boutique publishers is clearly crucial, and their connections to global conglomerates.

Ilana Gershon: Has studying how Irish writers engage with their craft affected your own writing practices? Do you write differently, or have a new range of concerns about your texts?

Helena Wulff: My interest in writing goes a long way back. Almost from the start, when I learnt to write, I have been driven by a desire to take writing as a craft seriously. But my writing would not have flourished, had I not had my doctoral training in the Department of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University under the guidance of Ulf Hannerz. In the spirit of Clifford Geertz we were taught not only to read fiction from our fields, but also to keep training our writing skills, to develop a clear sense of style – also about complicated issues.

Now my interest in writing includes both nourishing my academic writing and venturing out into other genres such as journalism and creative non-fiction. I edited a volume on this topic titled The Anthropologist as Writer: Genres and Contexts in the Twenty-First Century (2016).

In addition, I have taught two master’s courses for anthropology students on writing:  “Anthropological Writing Genres” and “Writing Anthropology Workshop,” the latter together with my Stockholm colleague Anette Nyqvist who designed it.

For me, writing is like breathing. I am a habitual writer. Having found my form, I still find it fascinating, and necessary, to keep looking for new expressions and formats, to keep developing as a writer. Like Roddy Doyle, one of the most prolific writers in my study, I don’t accept writer’s block. When I asked him in an interview, if he ever gets them, his reply was firm: “I write through them!” He just writes on, even on a bad day. So do I. Eventually it will lift, and I fly! In fact, I enjoy solving the “problems” of getting stuck. I enjoy trying and trying again and again, to finally finding a new solution to a phrasing or a structure or whatever it is that does not work just then.

Repetition as a rhetorical trick is one thing I have learnt from my engagement with Irish writers and their writings. Certainly an awareness of rhythm and tone, but even more of repetition to make a point – which I realize I just did in the section above. Another trick that I have learnt to cultivate from Irish writers, is to use my senses. It was when I was doing participant observation in an MA class in Creative writing at University College Dublin as a part of my fieldwork that the teacher Éilís Ní Dhuibhne called out to the students: “Write through your senses!“ and she went on “and consider all of them: vision, sound, smell, touch, taste!” (Wulff 2017: 54)

Deadlines are key. I am good with deadlines, I dare say. It helps to be well-organized and plan your writing time in great detail. I set aside weeks and days for writing certain pieces. (This has sometimes caused some amusement among friends when I have invited them for dinner three months ahead of time…as that is when I have space in my crowded calendar!) Colm Tóibín, another prolific writer in my study, who in addition to writing fiction to great acclaim, is a prominent public intellectual in Ireland, talked about deadlines when I met him for an interview. Contrary to many writers (and certainly academics…) who have a fear of deadlines, try to push them and risk dancing on deadlines rather than making them, Tóibín noted matter-of-factly: “Deadlines are good. They make you finish” (Wulff 2017: 31).

Ilana Gershon: I was struck by how many of the writers you spoke to will write in longhand, and how rooted this was in the sensual experience of writing with ink (54).   I am wondering if writers felt that there was a significant difference between composing in longhand, on a typewriter or computer, and if editing through these different forms was also a markedly distinct experience for them?

Helena Wulff: I was struck too by how many of the writers write in longhand! Not least in this day and age, when writing longhand seems to be a disappearing skill among young  people. These writers were born in the 1950s so they did learn longhand at school. What I also found amazing was that (with a few exceptions) one writer after another that I talked to in their homes, showed me the same kind of big blue notebooks with wide margins that were useful for making revisions. Incidentally, the notebooks made me think of the writing exercise books I used in primary school that were corrected by my teacher (after three essays without errors – you got a gold star glued into the margin!).

Certainly these writers found writing longhand, and editing their longhand, more thorough than using a computer. (They did not use typewriters.) Some would edit their longhand up to two or three times before typing it on a computer. And then edit again, on the screen this time, but finding this a different, more mechanical process.

Ilana Gershon: You mention that Irish mothers were a continual theme throughout all your research projects based in Ireland.   What new insights to what it means to be or have an Irish mother did you have because authorship was your starting point this time?

Helena Wulff: There are definitely more mothers portrayed in literature than in dance in Ireland, which alerted me to consider “the Irish mother.” The portraits that often are inspired by the writers’ own mothers range from devotion to loving mothers to dismissal of neglecting mothers. It is less common to write about what it is like to be a mother, but there are fictional cases of the fright of losing a child in an accident, for example. The expectation that women will be or are mothers, which is strong in Ireland (possibly because of cultural traces of Catholicism) also came through in fiction such as in Anne Enright’s Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood (2004) which is a collection of racy essays about giving birth and being a mother. This was inspired by Enright´s experience of having her two children rather late in life and well into her marriage.   

As I got to know writers, I noticed how close they often were to their mothers. It could be the writer who invited me into his study and in particular pointed out a small painting he had right in front of his desk explaining that “my mother liked it.” Of course, it seems to be about the same to be an Irish mother as to be a Swedish or American mother, from the inside so to speak. With certain variations, mothers seem to have about the same feelings of love and worry about their children. But then the influence of mothers is very different. And here religion, or at least, again, cultural traces of religion, may be the explanation to why certain mothers have more influence than other ones. Catholicism and Judaism, for example, are of course, “inherited” through the mothers and both feature powerful mothers.

Ilana Gershon: How do you think analytical questions about translation are transformed when it is the author of the original text translating the work into a new form, such as a musical or film script?

Helena Wulff: The writers rarely did this kind of translation, especially not on their own. If they did it, it tended to be a co-production together with a script-writer, for example. The analytical questions about translation change as they move from translation between texts in different languages to explain translation between different media such as from text to film or stage. For one thing sound such as music is added. Importantly, Irish fiction is quite visual and strong on dialogue which is why it often works as film.

Ilana Gershon: How has fieldwork for this book shaped the kinds of questions you are asking in your current project on migrant writers in Sweden?

Helena Wulff: My current project is also an anthropological study of a social world of writers, but focusing on migrant writers in Sweden. I am looking at similar themes such as the making of a migrant writer’s career, learning to write, breakthroughs, reputation, the role of the publishing industry and the idea of the “migrant writer,” as well as these writers´ international impact. Contrary to contemporary Irish writers who can stand on the shoulders of the world fame of their giant predecessors such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, migrant writers in Sweden cannot claim any kinship with August Strindberg or Astrid Lindgren. So how come the work of Jonas Hassen Khemiri, successful Swedish writer of Tunisian background, is attracting attention in New York, London, Tokyo and elsewhere across the globe? Khemiri writes fiction, plays and journalism about new issues of physical appearance, terrorism and racial profiling in Sweden. It turns out that it is not contemporary Sweden that evokes interest internationally but local versions of these global issues.



 Alex E. Chávez on his new book, Sounds of Crossing

Interview by William Cotter

William Cotter: In the introduction to your book you mention that for Mexican migrants, transnational forms of music making claim space, both materially and symbolically, in the United States.  In doing so, you note that music making as a form of cultural expression serves to reconfigure the varied borders that affect migrant life. By way of introducing readers to the book, I wonder if you could tell us about how music claims space in this way, how it serves to reconfigure those borders, and how it is deployed by the communities you worked with in your book?

 Alex E. Chávez: First, we should begin by interrogating the very notion of the border as materially lived and experienced by, in this case, ethnic Mexicans—though “Mexican” certainly operates as a gloss for Latinas/os/xs writ large—and as the centerpiece in a racializing regime that currently produces migrant illegality and criminality, but which braces a generalizable otherness that fuels the United States’ relationship to Latin America as a whole. hPut bluntly, the U.S.-Mexico border as physical site fuels both primitivist fears and fantasies regarding alterity to the South—it is a contaminating threat to be contained, and Mexico figures as its most proximal menace. That boundary (as the physical limit to the nation and national culture)—as discursive, political, and cultural logics go—must be policed and its people may only be integrated in a subordinate status.

Now, let me back up a moment. I arrive at this understanding thanks to a robust legacy of scholarly work that has long written about the U.S.-Mexico border ethnographically with great theoretical acumen, for the border is not a given, but continually produced and re-inscribed. So, in order to understand how expressive culture, for instance, reconfigures the border—to use your language—we have to, once more, attend to what the border signifies, how it operates. Let me tease some of this out. Critical analyses of the U.S.-Mexico border region have understood it as a historical site of racialized violence wherein political technologies have enabled the hostile management, surveillance, and indiscriminate killing of ethnic Mexicans since the nineteenth century. And although the scholarly field of border studies and the metaphorical use of the borderlands are often conflated, they are distinct. Border studies typically examines the material conditions of the U.S.- Mexico border as a concrete physical place, largely from the perspective of the social sciences. The borderlands are used metaphorically to speak of a liminal state of in-betweenness in work in the humanities, largely cultural studies. A seminal figure in the development of the latter theoretical framework, Gloria Anzaldúa (1987), also distinguished between “a dividing line” (or border) and “the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary” (borderland). Nevertheless, while the borderlands are often considered the symbolic divides among various social groups, the former, more concrete geopolitical perspective is equally undergirded by a broader consideration of the boundary work implicit in social and cultural ideologies of difference making. One cannot fully understand the physical presence of the U.S.-Mexico border as a result of U.S. imperialism without accounting for the racial ideologies that drove westward expansion in the nineteenth century. Centered on illegality and border inventions/inspections/crossings, respectively, the contemporary work of people like Nicholas De Genova (2005) and Alejandro Lugo (2008) explores how the materiality of U.S.- Mexico border policies extends across the continental United States and subsequently shapes cultural logics that produce and restrict citizenship in everyday life, inspecting, monitoring, and surveilling what travels in and out with a critical eye toward issues of class, gender, race, and nation.

Social relations are always shifting and embedded in much broader and more complex cultural conflicts that are historical in scope, and thus the racialization of ethnic Mexicans in the United States is inseparable from the U.S.-Mexico border as a concrete physical site (of crossing and inspection) that in turn operates as an (invented) allegorical social divide in the U.S. American imagination that renders ethnic Mexicans “policeable subjects,” to quote my colleague Gilberto Rosas (2006). This critical and ethnographically grounded integration of geographic/physical and cultural/conceptual perspectives is what Robert R. Alvarez Jr. (1995) termed an “anthropology of borderlands.”

Now, returning to your question, the indignant policing of migrant bodies in everyday moments is indicative of the enduring cultural and racializing logics that restrict Mexican migrant life across the continental United States, of the ways the boundaries of the United States are intensely present in informal managements at the level of the everyday. And so, given this complex understanding of the border, part of my work attempts to understand how expressive forms speak to/relate to/grate against the structures in which they are positioned—in the case of the book, how they sound out, how the spaces convened by and through huapango arribeño performance emerge as politicized moments of congregation amid the vulnerabilities of migrant life.

William Cotter: In the book, you discuss the economic, social, and political conditions under which huapango arribeño emerged, as well as those conditions that facilitated its crossing into the United States. Can you tell us about what some of those specific economic or political conditions are?

Alex E. Chávez: I’ll start big again and tie my response to your previous question. The deepening political-economic relationship between Mexico and the United States throughout the twentieth century has only further inscribed the imagined social differences described above. Here, I refer specifically to transnational migration in the devastating wake of the Mexican Revolution; U.S. labor demands extending through World War II and the Cold War era, contractually managed through the Bracero Program (1942–1964); the era of structural adjustment in the 1980s alongside an imagined moral panic surrounding undocumented migration that resulted in heightened border militarization; the dissolution of both protectionism with regard to domestic industry and the foundations of agrarian reform law in Mexico in the 1980s; and, finally, the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) a decade later. Let me pause here.

The book begins in the 1970s, though it necessarily attends to a cursory history of huapango arribeño before that time— more as a point of reference than as a matter of focused inquiry. Seminal years considered along the way include 1982, which marks the beginning of the Mexican debt crisis; 1986, when the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed in the United States; 1994, the year of the ratification of NAFTA (the trilateral trade deal among Canada, Mexico, and the United States, which  has been one of the largest and most lucrative in recent history), in addition to a groundswell of heightened U.S.- Mexico border militarization and anti- immigrant laws across the United States; 2001, which brought the events of September 11 and the ensuing conflation of the issues of terrorism, border enforcement, and undocumented migration; and 2006,  when massive mobilizations occurred throughout the United States in support of migrant rights. NAFTA, perhaps, looms largest as a matter of economic policy with respect to apprehending intensified levels of migration from Mexico to the United States in the 1990s and into the 2000s. The crucial piece in this equation in Mexico, however, came three years earlier, in 1991, when President Salinas de Gortari rewrote agrarian reform law, ostensibly doing away with article 27 of the Mexican Constitution and bringing an end to ejido land policy (which also included subsidies, price protections, and access to basic agricultural resources), thus making it easier for portions of low- producing lands to be used for large-scale commercial agriculture. Because of this, combined with NAFTA provisions that allowed for imports of subsidized agricultural products from the United States, especially corn, it is no surprise that a Public Citizen report (2015) stated that the number of undocumented migrants in the United States increased 185 percent since NAFTA’s signing (3.9 million in 1992 to 11.1 million in 2011).

In response to the increase of Mexican migration, a number of state-level and national laws were implemented, particularly disciplinary policy measures aimed at border enforcement, which were guided by the twin strategies of territorial denial and prevention through deterrence. These include: Operation Hold- the- Line in El Paso, Texas (1993), Operation Gatekeeper in the San Diego area (1994), Operation Safeguard in central Arizona (1995), and Operation Rio Grande in South Texas (1997). The lives of the migrants that populate my book all unfolded amid these extreme circumstances.

William Cotter: One aspect of your book that I was struck by was the depth and complexity your analysis of huapango arribeño from a musical perspective. Throughout the book, you provide the reader with musical transcriptions, lyrics, and discussions of changes in musical key or structure throughout performances. I know that you’re also a musician and composer, what do you feel your own personal perspective and experience performing and composing music adds to your analysis of the sounds of crossing that you discuss?

Alex E. Chávez: As a researcher, artist, and participant, I have consistently crossed the boundary between scholar and performer in the realms of academic research and publicly engaged work as a musician and producer. These experiences have shaped the politics of my intellectual and creative work, particularly how I’ve engaged both to theorize around the political efficacy of sound-based practices, the voice, and certain disciplinary futures. Having said this, in the depths of ethnographic research around this project I was uniquely positioned to both observe huapango arribeño—with a critical eye toward the musical, poetic, and sonic resources brought to bear in managing performance—and to perform the music myself. In fact, I came to this project first as a musician—eager to learn. And part of my process involved engaging in what ethnomusicologists refer to as bi-musicality, that is, actively performing the music being studied. This has been a critical research methodology in ethnomusicology since the days of Mantle Hood in the 1960s—he actually coined the term. He described this notion as learning music from the inside, which is of importance in apprehending not only rudimentary skills and technical know-how, but also—and perhaps most importantly—in understanding how music participates in forming and sustaining all manner of bonds of sociability, identity-based or otherwise. As a scholar of language, music, and sound, I am ultimately interested in tracing the meanings generated by vernacular performativity, or the aesthetic in social life. In the case of huapango arribeño and Sounds of Crossing, my positionality as an artist certainly shaped both my analysis and level of access.

William Cotter: A final aspect of the book that I found particularly powerful was that although you make continual connections throughout the book to enduring realities of violence against Mexican migrants in the United States, the book also offers what feels like a response to the present state of U.S. politics in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. In the epilogue, you call for a critical aurality, and an ‘urgent listening to the whole of America’. Can you talk about what you feel a critical aurality provides us, or what kinds of spaces those forms of voicing or listening may make possible?

Alex E. Chávez: A critical aurality, which I call for at the end of the book, is both a social and intellectual intervention, for it calls out broader inequalities that need to be confronted so that we may live in a more just society, while also drawing attention to how those same disparities and injustices are reproduced within the academy. In the end, the book is an exploration of the contemporary politics of Mexican migrant cultural expression manifest in the sounds and poetics of huapango arribeño. That context, however, is one that we all live in, that we are implicated in, that we all have a responsibility of standing up to, and part of that involves, as I say in the book, “an always urgent listening to the whole of America and voicing its story amid the deafening swell of a lethal white supremacy . . . We [must] listen past the chorus of “U.S.A.” and the harmony it presumes—which is braced by a chauvinistic exceptionalism that has no room for others—and lend an ear to the multitude of voices whose experiences rest at the tensive center of the verses of the American story.” That deafening chant is the same that wants to “Make America Great Again” or “Build the Wall!” And so we return to where we began this conversation, to the bordering that takes place in this country—at the levels of race, citizenship, class, gender, and so on—and the loud embodied counterveiling and self-valorizing voices (of women, Dreamers, Black lives, and children taking to the streets, for instance) who are sounding out self-determining positive projects of self-constitution and creative affirmation.

Sounds of Crossing calls attention to the embodied dimensions of performance in contexts where migrant bodies are subject to various forms of structural and cultural violence. Following these sounds is to trace how this community’s own chosen form of expression is projected out as a way of binding lives and geographies across the dense, lingering, and knotted dissonance of class, race, politics, and transnational mobility as key dimensions of the Mexican migrant experience. And so we may ask: as emergent communicative modalities, what politics of visibility, belonging, and incorrigibility do these voices acquire vis-a-vis competing/dominant/national representations of migrant personhood? In pursuit of this question over the years, my research has extended beyond the academy and into adjacent forums of publicly engaged scholarship, cultural advocacy, performance, and work with high profile institutions like Smithsonian Folkways. In my work, I continue to draw on these experiences to consider the ways Latinas/os/xs are challenged to engage and reorganize the ways that they identify as residents of the United States, transforming their soundings as aesthetic sites of democratic citizenship along the way.

Rihan Yeh on her new book, Passing


Interview by Héctor Beltrán

Héctor Beltrán: In your book you conceptualize the hearsay public to provide a critique of liberal notions of publicity. Can you unpack how this relationship frames your argument, and the ethnographic labor involved in making these connections?

 Rihan Yeh: Passing looks at how, in Tijuana, a middle-class public oriented towards liberal ideals of public communication both faces off against and intertwines with a popular, working-class public that takes shape through genres of hearsay: communications framed as that which “everyone knows.” For me, what’s interesting about the hearsay public is that it provides a critique of liberal publicity from within. This isn’t a social formation based on any authentically ‘other’ cultural tradition; it arises from processes of marginalization and denials of recognition that are inherent to liberally-oriented “we”s. These “we”s are always creating more “they”s out there, and the hearsay public is one – to me, very compelling – way to inhabit that position of the third person.

To see ethnographically how middle-class and popular senses of we-ness take shape in relationship to each other (as well as to the United States, via the border), you need a method that will hone in on the dialogic overtones of people’s interactions across a really wide variety of settings, from, say, checkpoint encounters to dinner-table discussions. These interactions, of course, also necessarily have to involve people not just from one urban community or socioeconomic niche, but from many, many walks of life. The ethnographic labor is in being there in all these different situations and being able to put them together—or, rather, seeing how other people put them together, on the fly, as they try to carve out a place for themselves in the city, in the nation, and in the wider world.

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Eva-Marie Dubuisson on her new book, Living Language in Kazahkstan

Living Language in Kazakhstan

Interview by Meghanne Barker

Meghanne Barker: Your initial fieldwork on aitys — a performed genre of Kazakh poetry — looked at issues of politics and performance within this form that you describe as inherently dialogic. Living Language expands your study to examine Kazakhs’ relationships with ancestors not only through this poetic performance but also through other everyday blessings, bata. How did you decide that “dialogic” was the best analytic term to caption the phenomena you examine here, as opposed to, say, “intertextuality,” since both bata and aitys seem to get framed through enxtextualizing re-contextualizing processes?

Eva-Marie Dubuisson: We are always writing against a silent strawman in a way, and for me that was the presumed immutability of a conscribed or repressive environment – where overt political opposition is often met with jailing or death. In terms of my engagement with a notion of power, I want to understand not ‘how repression works,’ but ‘how change is actually possible,’ and how worlds function outside the apparatus of the state.  I wanted to write about alternative sources of authority, and in how they become present or enacted, and in that sense, it is the idea of coming into being which is singly most important for me, and that led me to a focus on dialogic emergence, which was most compelling and the best fit for what I wanted to express.

If we look at generic reproduction in the case of any one single tradition, we could certainly say that what I describe in my ethnography are instances of “intersubjective entextualization” with all its constituent uncertainty (see Silverstein and Urban 1996).  But in my analysis I am ultimately concerned not so much with the existence or  content of any one given text, but in the emergence of a particular role across a variety of contexts, traditions, and speech genres.  I am focused on the way in which ancestors are not just available for interaction, but actually moving into that space – my concern is not with the particular content of any one message, but on the quality and position of those interacting, and in roles and the emergence of ancestors as participants in interaction.  For example, in conversations, how is it that ancestors might actually participate – in what moments, in what modes and mediums of communication, in and through which interlocutors, in which contexts?  In other words, how are they ratified as participants in interaction (see Goffman 1981)?

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Meghanne Barker: What contribution do you see this focus on ancestry making to our understanding of dialogism?

Eva-Marie Dubuisson: The answer to the questions you have posed here also lies not only in the temporal and spatial dimensions, but also in the representative capacity or potential of a voice, and in its constituent parts (heteroglossia). In my work, we see a variety of speakers and collaborators bringing to life the invocation, words, and presence of ancestors in a variety of ways, and for me there are two related theoretical questions here.  First, when exactly could we say that an ancestor becomes present in those forms of social dialoguing? I examine this in the case of everyday blessings (bata, explained above), the miracle stories and prayers at shrine sites, and the performance of public poetry. But second, given the obviously multivocalic nature of various oral traditions (like bata, prayer, miracle stories, public poetry, and even statist rhetoric), what is the political work being done in any claim to monologism? Continue reading

Martijn Oosterbaan on his new book, Transmitting the Spirit

Cover image for Transmitting the Spirit: Religious Conversion, Media, and Urban Violence in Brazil By Martijn Oosterbaan

Interview by Jessica Rivers

Jessica Rivers: In your book, you argue convincingly that it is important to understand the Pentecostalism of Rio’s favelas as governmentality.  Based on your research, do you believe the sound practices of the evangelicals in Visionario and Roda do Vento effectively extended the reach of Pentecostal governmentality to non-evangelicals?

Martijn Oosterbaan: In the book I analyze what it means for people who live in dense favela spaces to be enveloped in the sounds emanating from churches, and the sound of carioca funk and samba music. Broadly speaking, I analyze conversion through the lens of governmentality, and not only because Pentecostalism is concerned with bodily discipline and with the government of self. Conversion in this context cannot be wholly understood without including the politics of favela life. Conversions are not definite moments of transition in a favela.  Instead, they are processes in which people come to understand themselves and their environment differently.  If we see sound practices as part and parcel of these process, we might also see that even for those who do not describe themselves as converted evangélicos these sound practices – in combination with assertive evangelization techniques – are re-ordering their perceptions of space and power in the favela. By and large, many people who are not considered evangélicos regard Pentecostal churches and church leaders as legitimate authorities within the favela – not in the least because many of these leaders (loudly) promise the possibility of salvation, prosperity, and protection to people who live in precarious situations. Approaching this question from a different angle, I argue that the sanctuary spaces of churches are extended by means of amplified church sounds and by means of gospel music. We should not see Pentecostalism as the only bundle of techniques and representations that informs governmentality but it has become a very important element of it in the context of Rio’s favelas.

Jessica Rivers: Are there instances in which the Pentecostalism you witnessed could be interpreted as operating (aspirationally) as sovereignty (p. 42)? I’m thinking, for instance, of their creation of absolute spaces and their reclamation of public spaces with the trificante exorcisms?

Martijn Oosterbaan: When we regard sovereignty as tentative form of authority grounded in physical violence, as some do, such an argument might be harder to make. There are, however, Pentecostal practices such as the performative evangelical crusades (cruzadas) that I describe in the book that are presented as rupturing moments in public favela life. These performances could be conceived as acts that aspire towards sovereignty. During these crusades, which are highly mediatized and ritualized events that involve musical performances, pastors, preachers and singers narrate the possibility of personal and collective liberation by way of the works of the Holy Spirit and the exorcism of demons. In the context of favela life such events are presented as breaching the politics of daily life, in which people are bound by the machinations of the devil, often without their own knowing. Testimonies of former drug gang members during these crusades reveal that they no longer abide by the rules of the comandos whose leaders are the informal sovereigns of the favelas but by God’s laws that grant protection in this life and salvation thereafter. These events generate exceptional moments of rupture that sustain the notion that a different life is possible. Nevertheless, Pentecostal groups do not take the informal sovereigns head on and generally do not interfere directly with their businesses.

Jessica Rivers: Your research intervenes in the conversation on the relationship between religion and violence. You argue scholars should not assume Pentecostal practices are merely soothing since, in constantly presenting Pentecostal churches as a powerful counterforce, they necessarily (re)produce their own forms of anxiety about the city as an evil place (83). Do you think this means the Pentecostalism of the favelas has a sort of hopelessness built into its strategic long-term planning? Would you go as far as to say that the manifestation of Pentecostalism described in your book, in fact, depends on seemingly continuous, otherwise uncontrollable violence?

Martijn Oosterbaan: This is a very pertinent question in this post-Olympic moment in Rio’s history. Surely I don’t mean to argue that Pentecostalism is only popular because Rio de Janeiro is witnessing uncontrollable violence, nor do I argue that the anxiety that certain Pentecostal practices and ideologies reproduce is of the same kind as the anxiety that traumatic physical violence might cause. In the context of Rio’s favelas, there are other socio-material circumstances that are enmeshed with the persuasive emotional practices of Pentecostalism (dreams of material wealth for example). Nevertheless, I do indeed argue for an understanding of its popularity in context and violence, unfortunately, is a pervasive aspect of favela life. Moreover, the testimonies that I documented and church services I attended featured many accounts of people’s experiences of urban violence. Having said that, in the book I aim to counter arguments of people who describe Pentecostalism in a reductionist fashion as making up for uncontrollable violence – a discourse that several Pentecostal churches also employ themselves. Pentecostal groups generally do not oppose the criminalized comandos directly or interfere directly with their businesses but these groups do present themselves as the only way out for those people that feel that they are in the grip of the comandos and that presentation remains a very powerful selling-point, I argue.

Jessica Rivers: It is intriguing that your informants felt conflicted about watching telenovelas and reality soaps because of their salacious content and decidedly unconflicted about watching the spectacularized violence of news programs.  Do you believe it was merely a question of genre that made them feel they could read and judge the material of (semi) fictional programming and not the selective narrative packaging that went into the nightly news?

Martijn Oosterbaan: Not merely, but genre is very influential. In the book I try to show how different modes of Pentecostal self-discipline overlap or clash with media genres. As I argue, the notion of factuality is very important in the unconflicted reception of spectacular news programs. The presentation of ‘news’ as unmediated representation of ‘how it is’ in the world distinguishes the genre from others. Producers appear to go at length to sustain the myth that ‘what you see is how it is’. Moreover, there is something quite definitive about physical violence – especially with regard to cases where people are mortally injured – and sharp distinctions between heroes, villains and victims are sustained easier in cases of spectacular urban violence than in the case of juicy soap operas (telenovelas). As I relate in the book, my Pentecostal interlocutors frequently characterized perpetrators as possessed individuals and pictured violent urban encounters as manifestations of the cosmic battle between God and the devil. The genre of the telenovela, on the other hand, hinges on moral ambivalence. Protagonists are hardly ever entirely upright and the attraction to watch telenovelas is related to the possibility to ‘watch and judge’ the behavior of the lead characters. Such a spectator-position overlaps well with certain Pentecostal discourses in church services and informal talk. Gossip (fofoca) about the behavior of neighbors or even fellow church members often revolved around the question if this or that person was ‘of God’ or not. Nevertheless, some evangelical spectators despised the moral ambivalence and argued that this was exactly how people were lead away from the straight path.

Jessica Rivers: Your informants disliked and distrusted Rede Globo; were they more likely to notice the aesthetics and read its programs against the grain (like in the U.S., conservatives do with MSNBC and liberals do with FOX news)?

Martijn Oosterbaan: Certainly, but not with all the programs. Rede Globo is the biggest media-imperium of Brazil. By way of its news-programs and several of its fiction programs it has criticized and ridiculed Pentecostal churches – predominantly the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (the Igreja Universal). In the nineties, it set out to unmask the leaders of the Universal Church as greedy businessmen that employed the prosperity gospel for personal benefits. The Universal Church and several other Pentecostal churches have reacted fiercely against these accusations. They stressed that TV Globo was broadcasting lies because Globo’s leaders perceived the rise of the broadcaster Rede Record – owned by the leader of the Universal Church, Edir Macedo – as a threat to their media-hegemony. As I show in the book – many of the adherents of Pentecostal churches living in the favelas of my research attached these clashes to prevalent interpretations of Globo’s telenovelas as degenerate. In addition to the genre specific critique I just described, evangelical spectators told me that Globo’s spread of immoral content by way of its novelas was related to their support for Afro-Brazilian and Roman Catholic traditions and their dislike of evangelical values. Some even told me that Globo had made a pact with the devil to air demonic programs. Such suspicions definitively influenced people’s perceptions of Globo programs.

Jessica Rivers: You group the lived religious practices of the people who attended the Igreja Universal and Assembleia de Deus together. Did your informants ever take issue with this grouping? I was surprised to see that you did not describe the Igreja Universal as Neo-Pentecostal.  And could you elaborate on how you made that decision and what difference, if any, it makes (and to whom) to designate a church: Pentecostal, Neo-Pentecostal, Charismatic, or otherwise.

Martijn Oosterbaan: Thank you for raising these questions. I struggled with the question if I should separate or group together the people who attended the two churches but eventually decided not to distinguish the people in relation to the questions I was attempting to answer. I think we are severely mislead when we start from the assumption that because there are different churches with contrasting doctrines, people who attend different churches have fundamentally different experiences of their mediated surroundings. That can be the case for sure but it is something that can only be confirmed by research. Not long after I started, I decided not to write a ‘church ethnography’ but to explore favela spaces as shared life-worlds in which boundaries are produced in flexible fashion. In the book, I discuss the lives of people of one household and several of their family members who also lived in the favela. Many of these people frequented different Pentecostal denominations, yet quite a number of them had attended both services of the Igreja Universal and of the Assembleia de Deus, eventually picking one that suited them better (at that moment). More importantly at the time of research – people from different Pentecostal and Protestant churches generally identified with each other as evangélicos in opposition to Catholics, Umbandistas and Spiritistas. These people often share mediated spaces where Pentecostalism is broadcast. This not only meant that they heard each other’s preferred sermons or gospel music, they also regularly connected to the messages of fellow Pentecostal churches beyond church boundaries. They were shaped by their shared understanding of the dangers posed by the media that surrounded them on a daily basis (carioca funk, samba, telenovelas), so many people of both churches voiced the same suspicions and experiences regarding demonic powers. Certainly, boundaries were drawn when people disagreed with each other’s doctrinal positions at times. Nevertheless, I really wanted to foreground the shared, mediated Pentecostal life-world created in the favela space instead of the differences between people who attended churches of different denominations at the time of my research.

Jessica Rivers: You apply Gershon’s concept of media ideologies to your Pentecostal informants’ television viewing practice but not to their listening practices.  Was it a difference in the modes of consumption available to them that guided this aspect of your analysis? Did your informants find it harder to experience music critically than they did television? Could they only allow themselves to be critical of worldly media? If so, why do you think that was?

Martijn Oosterbaan: You rightly point to something that I did not spell out explicitly in the book and which is related to the fact that people generally presented music’s mediation as less intricate than the mediation of audio-visual content via television. Music itself was certainly regarded critically and Pentecostal listeners often discussed who and what could transmit spiritual force and which marvels and dangers were involved. Music as mediating technology was thus very important and people’s evaluations of music feature prominently in the book. As I explain in detail, people’s evaluations were closely related to perceived differences between music genres and the associations between genres, life-styles and communities in the favelas. In my opinion, Ilana Gershon’s concept of media ideology can be applied very well to music and the critical appraisals of evangelical listeners, and though I did not explicitly refer to her concept with regard to listening practices, I do refer to the work of Webb Keane, whose concept of semiotic ideology is very close to Gershon’s work. So why did I refer explicitly to the notion of media ideology when discussing television? In contrast to television-broadcasters, evangelical radio-broadcasters played only recognized evangelical (gospel) music, made by people who identified themselves as evangélicos. Other ‘worldly’ radio stations played no evangelical music at all – at least not music of self-identified evangélicos. Tuning in to an evangelical radio station gave the evangelical listeners a sense of ease since they did not have to worry about the possibility of hearing sinful music. Television broadcasters that broadcast evangelical programs, on the other hand, also aired worldly content. Even TV Record, the channel owned by Edir Macedo, leader of the Igreja Universal, aired programs that could be considered worldly (yet not necessarily immoral). As a consequence, television (the device) demanded much critical attention according to the people I spoke to. Evangelical programs could be followed by worldly or even demonic programs. People generally remained vigilant to see what would be aired next. The notion of media ideology helped me to describe the problems of evangelical television viewers a bit better than the concept of semiotic ideology. Television presented my evangelical interlocutors with bundles of related ideologies that included semiotic ideologies but also appraisals of the medium as it works in the context of Rio de Janeiro. And television confronted them with several questions: Which programs are available on each television channel at what moments during the day and how is each program related to Brazil’s intricate religious field? When believing that television can transmit demonic powers, which programs should be considered harmless and which not? And when they are potentially harmful, can one still watch them in an effort to test oneself as firm Christian or should one turn off the television? As I describe in the book, one Pentecostal viewer recounted how he had tried to watch an erotic television program – believing he would be able to withstand its demonic seduction – to find himself powerless in the face of its lure and then quickly turned it off.





Catherine Fennell on her new book, Last Project Standing

Interview by Janet Connor

Janet Connor: If you were at dinner with an urban planner, maybe not from Chicago but from another large American city, how would you describe your book?

Catherine Fennell: It’s a challenging question because tbbhe topic of public housing is utterly over-determined by public sentiments and an ongoing history of racism that reduce the complexity of subsidized housing in the U.S. to a particular kind of place — “the projects”. These sentiments and this history also tend to paint this particular kind of place as particularly decrepit, impoverished, and black. All this despite the fact that the vast majority of public housing projects in the U.S. provided sound housing to people who fell into a range of economic and social categories. These reductions make it difficult to appreciate the extent to which many Americans’ lives are bound up in the project of state subsidized housing. They also collapse people into place, making it near impossible to divorce the imagined decrepitude of “the projects” from the imagined depravity of their residents. These potent sentiments shape the kinds of questions that often get asked about housing projects and the kinds of debates they anchor.  And they also shape what urban planners learn to recognize as successful housing. And they shape the kinds of urban development interventions that gain traction. So I’d want to be careful about how I set up a book that was always more interested in how such sentiments gather and circulate within and beyond a housing project, than in proving particular iterations of such sentiments right or wrong.

I’d start by sketching the Chicago case: A ten, then fifteen year urban planning experiment that has demolished some 25,000 units in the city’s public housing projects, partially replaced them with smaller mixed-income developments designed to promote mainstream employment, and displaced some 75,000 Chicagoans, many of them impoverished African Americans.  I’d tell planners that this case is worth learning about even if they never pick up my book because this case guided the direction of national policy. More than that, though, it also gets at the heart of why many planners who I’ve met get into planning in the first place: to realize more inclusive cities. Then I’d tell them two more things. First, that I’ve left it to scholars better versed in policy assessment to determine whether or not Chicago’s experiment has succeeded on the terms it set out to succeed. Second, I’d emphasize that there are compelling questions to bring to an urban planning project that have little to do with assessments of success or failure.

When ethnographers show up in housing studies, academics and practitioners alike expect them to be focused on “the lived experiences” of marginalized peoples. Throughout my research, people often understood my purpose as relaying the voices of public housing residents. This focus has done so much good, yet it can reinforce the idea that housing projects have been worlds unto themselves, removed from “mainstream” social and political life. So, I’d explain to the planners that I designed my research to foreground moments in which a range of urbanites collided with a built environment in tremendous social and material flux. This included, of course, public housing residents transitioning out of one housing project on Chicago’s West Side. But it also included their new middle-income neighbors, social workers and advocates, politicians, and even people who assumed that they had nothing at all to do with public housing.  I’d tell them that focusing on people as they collided with the people and things of changing public housing, like the ferocious decay of under-maintained buildings, the unnerving loudness or silence of new neighbors, or the presumed poignancy of public housing residents’ struggles, allowed me to analyze how urbanites might become attuned to the problem of poverty and its alleviation in a “neoliberal” policy climate. This would be a climate in which state and municipal agencies step further and further away from the provision of low-income housing and related services, even as they recruit urbanites in their capacity as neighbors or simply concerned citizens to become more involved in caring for the poor.

Finally, I’d want to offer several concrete cases from my research that presented discrete problems that planners might be in a position to address. I’d do this because problems like a systemic lack of financing for maintenance, a narrow conception of who or what constitutes a legitimate household, or appropriate practices of energy consumption very much impact low-income people who are living within or seeking subsidized housing. My interlocutors leaving public housing want and need these issues addressed in a thoughtful manner, and I see no reason why anthropologists cannot contribute to that.

Janet Conner: Central to the book’s argument is the concept of sympathy, which you describe as “a communicative mechanism whose subscribers invest it with the capacity to extend feelings, qualities, and visceral states across very different entities” (p. 7). How does this concept help you think about the ways public housing residents, social workers, and other Chicagoans who appear in your book navigate housing reforms? Why should anthropologists concerned with questions of communication be interested in sympathy? 

Catherine Fennell: Sometimes it seems that you come to a concept only after pushing against others that seem perfectly plausible but that don’t quite fit the material you’re working with. Late in the process of writing my dissertation I had a conversation with Danilyn Rutherford about my hesitations concerning the analysis of my material in terms of writings on affect theory. Specifically, I was hesitant about how some of this work presented the experience of visceral intensity as something that escaped language. Was this a suggestion that such experience eludes social mediation? If not, how should an anthropologist approach the affective resonances of social and political life? Rutherford suggested that I look at the classic work on sympathy. This was an extremely helpful and generous suggestion and it ended up completely changing my thinking and writing for the book. It helped me move toward a conceptual framework that would be alive to two things. First, it allowed me to foreground the visceral intensities of fraught collisions between my interlocutors, the disappearing built environments of Modernist-Era social welfare projects, and the emerging ones of a “neoliberal” communitarianism. Second, it allowed me to track how social worlds structured by profound racial and economic discrimination realigned the people, places, and things of disappearing projects. What attracted me about the classic concept of sympathy (as articulated by thinkers like Hume, Ribot, and Frazer) is precisely its capacity to accommodate material and visceral forces alongside meaningful coordination.  I don’t consider myself a linguistic anthropologist, but I think that any anthropologist interested in communication could learn something that anchors what we now call affective experience firmly within social and political life.

Janet Connor: Your use of sympathy also allows you to weave together an analysis across many different scales that may at first seem only tenuously related, from the materiality of your interlocutors’ bodies and the buildings in which they live, to feelings of community both within and near public housing, to broader notions of citizenship. Could you explain how you think about scale in this book?

Catherine Fennell: Again, there’s a tendency in urban studies to treat housing projects as worlds unto themselves. So, research will unfold within the walls of a public housing project, or, researchers will aggregate data collected from discrete public housing communities. This makes sense given how the tradition of community studies continues to inflect urban ethnography, and given just how much patterns of racial and economic discrimination have set public housing projects physically and socially apart from their surrounds. Yet I was interested in how “the projects” had become, as one of my interlocutors put it, “a lightning rod” for debates about the nature of collective urban and more broadly, social welfare and obligation at the very moment state agencies stepped away from welfare provision. So, I needed to find a way to work across a number of scales that I considered relevant to this problem — legislative maneuvers or media spectacles surrounding “the urban crisis,” but also everyday navigation of a changing urban built environment, everything from the discomfort surrounding the strange sociability of new neighbors to the sinking but vague sense that large scale demolition portended massive displacement. Thinking with sympathy allowed me to move across scenes and scales that all foregrounded the problem of how citizens learn to care differently for or just about one another at a moment of state divestment.  I know these shifts of perspective and scale might not sit well with readers who have a clear sense of what the “object” of a study concerning public housing should and should not be. I respect that. Yet I hope just the same my book is a contribution toward thinking about what multi-sited archival and ethnographic work might bring to urban studies and contemporary anthropology.

Janet Connor: When linguistic anthropologists think of publics, we often think of their emergence through the circulation of discourse and textual materials. You discuss publics somewhat differently, particularly focusing on the role of embodiment and emplacement. Could you elaborate on how you understand publics? How methodologically can we as anthropologists study this kind of expanded conception of a public?

Catherine Fennell:

I’ve learned so much from work within linguistic anthropology that centers on publics. Linguistic anthropologists understand that the discursive encounters from which a sense of “belonging” to a collectivity of strangers emerges have some kind of material infrastructure. In other words, that publics are discursive formations that have consequential social and material dimensions. At the same time, it seemed to me that there was even more room to think about that consequential materiality in terms of built form. It seemed to me that thinking publicity through built form might give us a stronger understanding of urban publics — collectivities of strangers who presume “the urban” as a significant frame for social and political belonging. It suspected that such an endeavor would add much to the burgeoning literature on “cities and citizenship.” Now I think that endeavor is even more important because we’re seeing assertions of political sovereignty in the United States focused on “the urban”; consider for instance the “sanctuary cities” debates or moves by some municipalities to issue their own IDs or organizing critical benefits like paid family leave. We could learn much about urban citizenship by thinking through the formation of specifically urban publics. The question of course is how to do this if you’re not going to focus exclusively on discourse, its circulations and its layering.

There’s a strand of work in political theory, geography, sociology, and anthropology that sees public spaces as key to stranger sociability and political debate. I find this work dissatisfying because it takes one genre of public space — the street, the park, the square that would be open to all regardless of “race,” status, creed and so on — as indispensable to robust democratic politics. It seems to me that this approach replicates how Habermas idealizes one historically and socially specific universe of discourse as indispensable to proper democratic politics. I wanted instead to think about how urbanites become attuned to any built form as significant to the lives that they imagine themselves to be leading in common with others. It seemed possible to chart how specific encounters are mediated in some way by built forms that prodded people to re-imagine their relations to others with whom they shared their city. I was actually inspired here by a passing remark that Habermas makes early in the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. “Publicity has changed its meaning,” he complains. “Originally a function of public opinion it has become an attribute of whatever attracts public opinion.” For him, the rise of mass media has diluted publicity’s central purpose — to support “the public” as it articulates collective opinions and critical judgments in the service of reasoned democratic governance. This is a derisive definition of publicity, but its remarkable under-specificity suggests that a range of forms, like speech but also a building, could be implicated in the communicative practices that summon people to collective meanings, commitments, and identifications. I set out in my book to sketch some of those forms.





Paul Manning on his new book, Love Stories

Love Stories

Interview by Kamala Russell

Kamala Russell: In reading this engaging historical ethnography, there were two major themes that stood out to me, in its content,  your approach tohistorical work, and in writing a ‘teaching ethnography’: 1) self and ethics in practices involving sex, desire, and courtship, and 2) doing historical ethnography with texts about sexuality that looks at how these texts circulate.

You detail the interactive and poetic genres that support a particular form of sexual relations among the Khevsurs, today a storied poetry-spinning, horse-riding, honor-wielding people from the mountains of Georgia. You begin by describing two kind of relationships: the sts’orproba, which both is and isn’t sex, and dzmobiloba, which is both romantic and familial, but definitely not marriage. How would you characterize the difference between these and other physically restrained forms of courtship like arranged marriage or chastity promises?

Paul Manning: The wording is important here, the Khevsurs really don’t have courtship. Sts’orproba is definitely sexuality pursued in restrained form for its own sake, people believe it’s better to engage in it than the alternative. A Myth in the earlier chapter says: Before, boys and girls could only look at each other and pine, their desire was too strong and there was no way for them to express it, so they died.  God did two things: he took some desire away from sexuality (desire for persons) and displaced it onto desire for things. The other thing he did was institute a limited expression for sexual desire: sts’orproba.  So, I’ve called that “sociable sexuality”, sociable in Simmel’s sense: it is the “play form” of sexuality.  Dzmobiloba is the dangerous development of sts’orproba: sts’orproba gets serious, stops being playful, becomes something permanent that can only exist between one boy and one girl. Dzmobiloba is rivalrous with sts’orproba AND marriage, and hence is pursued with the greatest secrecy, and with great restraint. It’s not that Khevsurs never had the idea that they might like to combine sexuality with marriage, but as it stands marriage is opposed to sexuality (if by sexuality we mean expressions of desire), even though it involves what we would call sex. Generally speaking sts’orproba is opposed to sex, but only in the sense of procreation.  So, our categories (courtship, sex) all mislead.  If we are talking about other cultural forms of sexuality, I suppose courtship is understood to be preparatory to marriage, in a way that sts’orproba isn’t.  But frankly I think courtship is only one factor in our society, for example, I think it’s pretty clear that people engage in sexual relations similar to sts’orproba and dzmobiloba without really taking seriously the idea that this is going to lead to marriage, just as we  engage in sexual relations without necessarily believing commitment (something like dzmobiloba) will result.  Naturally, people might have different ideas within a single relationship.  I think our conflation of sexuality with projections of long term relationships is itself ambivalent to a desire to marry.  On the other hand, there are plenty of interesting ethnographies of how people manage to try to introduce courtship-like agency into situations where marriage is generally arranged, and so on (here I’m thinking in particular of the use of emergent literacy and love letters in Nepal (Laura Ahearn) or the use of internet cafes in Jordan (Laura Kaya))[i] as affordances to produce possibilities of agency in situations like this).  But I’m not aware of many ethnographies that deal with a form of sexuality or desire so clearly pursued for its own sake, that can’t be reduced to premarital courtship and can’t be reduced to procreative alliances. It is strange, but also familiar even if it is in an unfamiliar form –the destructive drama, betrayal, pining. .

Kamala Russell: Khevsur romantic encounters all involve individual restraint, anonymity, secrecy, privacy, public disavowal, and intimacy without the fantasy of being chosen.. Yet some partners speak of deep love. So here does sexuality walk a line between encounters kept private but that may be sites of ethical contemplation/practice (projecting an image of oneself to the world through another), and relations that are much more socially on-the-record?

Paul Manning: That is two questions in one. Desire isn’t anonymous, but all its public expressions are anonymous (poetry) or secretive, furtive, guarded, restrained, all the more so when the desire becomes so serious that it is no longer elective and playful, and becomes potentially consequential for serious adult relationships.   Dzmobiloba is the most secretive in its practices, because it is the most intense and serious expression of desire, and yet the most publicly expressed through anonymous poetry.  The restraint of desire, the restraint of open expression, secrecy, are all of a piece with the Khevsur notions of self, which revolve around freedom, autonomy, and the ethical category namusi (for both men and women, obviously related to Arabic namus [I thank my colleague Anne Meneley for explaining the ethical content of namus to me andits relations to the Khevsur ideas of self).  The poet displays her love by hiding it in plain sight, disguising egocentric desire as sociocentric praise for the lover, by suppressing her open expression of desire with her namusi. The ability to form elective relationships formed through desire and consent are obviously emblematic of this freedom and autonomy, somewhat wilful, as long as you obey the rules, you don’t care what people say.  However, with this desire other desires are born, the desire to marry one’s beloved, this is where it becomes dangerous and possibly means an end to all these freedoms.  The system is unstable, and challenges appear.  Concealment and self-regulation are all aspects of the same Khevsur notion of self, freedom and autonomy based on self-restraint and namusi, as well as being able to express one’s desire and showing respect for the other through consent.  They cannot be told not to engage in these things, they must be persuaded.  Khevsur sexuality is part of Khevsur notions of a Khevsur person as someone with concerns about their “name and shame”, with namusi, and hence freedom and autonomy, one who cannot be ordered around, particularly in areas that are free from obligation. In effect, their expressions of desire are an ethical system. Even when they are playing pretty fast and loose with the rules, all these disagreements unfold within the antinomies and possibilities of this ethical/sexual ethos.

Marriage is contracted through intermediaries, and intermediaries can spoil a marriage contract, the same intermediaries who pair up boys and girls who don’t know each other.  Because no one with proper restraint can make a move unless these intermediaries intervene.  The fact that intermediaries both create the conditions of possibility of desire and also destroy potential marriage contracts makes them the wild cards, the jokers, of the system.  The two systems are related, but the basic idea is that desire is foremost in sts’orproba, and obligation foremost in marriage, and they have to be kept apart or the whole thing goes out of control.

Kamala Russell:  So, can you say something about subjectivity or personhood in these pairs, when their concealment and regulation are not a question of restricting freedom? It strikes me there is something interesting here compared to how sexuality is usually positioned in (maybe otherwise political) discussions of subjectivity or love.

Paul Manning: So Georgians often compared these relationships to the medieval category of love called Mijnuroba, often glossed as the same as “courtly love”. The love pictured in ghazals was illicit in its character, for the member of the purdah society there existed only three possibilities to experience love, and all three of them were socially not allowed: love for a woman betrothed or married to another man, love for a courtesan, and homosexual love for a young and beautiful boy.”[ii]

This particular kind of love is much more typical of Georgian urban poetry which is heavily influenced by these traditions, where there is a different category of love, eshkhi, which is clearly borrowed from Arabic ishq, probably via Persian, a burning but unrequited desire which is both an attribute of the lover, typically likened to a nightingale, and the beloved, liked to a rose, in what is obviously a completely hackneyed trope.  The Khevsur tradition is a bit different from all these antecedents, and the crucial difference is that Khevsur sexual practices do not require that desire be completely unrequited, but they do limit its expression in every field.

The popular reception of Khevsur love in Georgia, as I show later in the book, varies between two extremes, treating it as platonic, unrequited, chivalric, what have you unrequited love, and something so libertine that it seems to include every imaginable sex act other than the one act that is imagined to be impossible: vaginal intercourse.  Georgians often talk about a sword being placed between the lovers, and that part of the mythology of Khevsur sex hangs on a narrow thread. One ethnographer mentions it, once, and I think he made it up. It gets blown into a canonical thing, but it’s clearly from Western chivalric romance. But Khevsur love was neither of these two things, the expressions range from spending the night talking and maybe a kiss or two, and apparently, what we would call sex and what Khevsurs call “fornication”.  So, it wasn’t unrequited, the whole point of the myth is that God wanted it to be requited in a limited way. We know it expresses desire, and does so directly.  But there are enough gaps in the standard account that people can read into it what they like.  So the two most important things about it, other than it being opposed to marriage (which is what makes it sociable, there is no consequential relationship that hangs on it), is that it is self-limiting desire, desire is given expression, but also limited by self-control, by namusi, so it is an expression of desire, which is destabilizing, but also an expression of a kind of Khevsur temperament, self-control, namusi, which constitutes the Khevsur ethically and ethnically as a person.  Khevsurs are wilful individualists, free, proud, men and women, but also they are restrained, they have namusi, they are tempered like steel, as Baliauri might have put it.  Stsorproba as an ethical practice constitutes the Khevsurs as Khevsurs, rather than being some kind of weird deviant thing they engage in. It becomes a central expression of their understanding of why they are Khevsurs, and not Pshavs, not Russians; the tension between individual desire and social norms as an ethical tension is what makes a Khevsur a Khevsur and also explains their freedom and so on.

Kamala Russell: The last sections of the book are devoted to how narratives about and representations of the Khevsurs and sts’orproba circulate in film, advertising and even online message boards, a lot of which invoke sexual freedom. What do you make of the difference between the way Khevsur desire is discussed and represented in some of the mass media you detail and in the genres of love poetry you discuss in the beginning (the poetry that itself makes up part of the sts’orproba relationship)? Do you think it is significant in the contemporary moment that anonymized expressions of love and desire come to stand for a particularly feminine object that is either overwhelmingly hot and exotic, or unattainable, playing hard-to-get, and frustrating? Is there something lost in the remobilization of these stories?

Paul Manning: Yeah, that’s really important, and it has some tie ins with how the Russians imagined Georgia as an exotic, unattainable languid, possibly treacherous Oriental woman.  It lies near the centre of Russian and European orientalist representations of Georgia.  I’d say that Georgians often read sts’orproba as courtly love, but it surely isn’t that, just as they misread the context of the medieval poetry of love as being European courtly love avant la lettre when it is just really ordinary stuff in the Arabo-Persian ghazal tradition.  The main difference between Khevsur love and all these other kinds is that all these other kinds are always completely unrequited and unrequitable.  Unrequited love is basically what love poetry is about in most times and places.  Khevsurs allowed some requiting, and they sang a bit about that, but mostly they sang about break ups, betrayals and pining, because let’s face it, the best stories and love songs are not ones that are happily ever after. The best poems are the poison poems.  The other aspect is that contemporary teenagers don’t read it necessarily as being completely depraved lust nor completely courtly, but as a kind of moderate “European boyfriend-girlfriend” relationship, something else absent from Georgia.  So, there is this reading of it as a kind of sexual freedom poised between absolute libertinism and absolute courtly restraint, but there is also this reading that reads it as being basically a Georgian version of something really rather tame, a license for Georgian to be allowed to have boyfriend-girlfriend relationships and give them moderate forms of expression like kissing in public.

When I gave this stuff as an off the cuff public lecture, really an ambush lecture because I was not warned by my colleague Tamta Khalvashi I would be doing any such thing and it was in front of her students in a public museum, they displayed a visible excitement and fascination that girls could exert this kind of agency over romantic matters.  Very unlike my own students, who met this material as they do all other material, with a deadening blasé attitude.  Since they misheard some of what I was saying, and posted some things that weren’t strictly true on Facebook, a Georgian traditionalist extremist, who was an aficionado of the made-up Georgian “Khevsur martial art” of khridoli, accused me immediately of being a paid agent of the Soros foundation who was tasked with the destruction of Georgian culture. So the reception of this stuff in Georgian culture, including my own book, is always complicated.

Kamala Russell: Because it’s a historical ethnography, you’re not working with your own fieldwork, rather with ethnographers’ accounts, and otherwise mediated text. How did this influence your analytical work, and how do you think this affects how the book can be taught?

 Paul Manning: I did do some fieldwork with Pshavians, but frankly, there’s no real way I would have been able to “do fieldwork” on it had I been born generations earlier.  There are public forms of knowledge about it that everyone knows, but like any sexual practice, a greater degree of secrecy is involved than, say a public ritual.  Someone suggested that this is a problem with all ethnography but let’s face it, that’s just wrong. You can’t plunk yourself down in a circle of teenagers and ask them to talk about their sexual experiences. Ethically you will be burned at the stake, and they won’t tell you much anyway, particularly not a 50 year old man.  That’s why ethnography of sexuality is largely about public expressions of sexual identity and not sexuality in the strictest sense (I take it for granted that logically speaking sexuality involves desire before identity).  That was a problem faced by Georgian ethnographers too, and even members of the same communities don’t know what other people are doing.  The only person who could write that ethnography or do that ethnography would have to have been a member of that community, and even such a person would have problems knowing anything: it would be all gossip, inference, and that’s why poetry plays such a huge role for members and analysts alike, as the ethnomethodologists would say.  The same problems confront the ethnographer that confront any member, but they have additional problems.

It is a historical ethnography but also a linguistic anthropology ethnography that could be used in the classroom, because there aren’t a lot of those. Obviously what I keep learning as a professor is “never teach your own stuff” because it never seems to work.  I subtitled the film I discuss in the book, I’ve published the whole thing in fragments (for some reason I couldn’t save it in large chunks, but if downloaded using downloadhelper and played end to end on VLC playlist, it comes out as one film) on youtube (the first part is here:  There is obviously an irony in creating a book and materials to teach it and finding that you personally don’t really like to teach it, though I think that’s just part of the general rule “never teach your own stuff”.

Cited References

Ahearn, L.M., 2003. Writing desire in Nepali love letters. Language & Communication, 23(2), pp.107-122.

Kaya, L.P., 2009. Dating in a sexually segregated society: Embodied practices of online romance in Irbid, Jordan. Anthropological Quarterly, 82 (1), pp.251-278.

Kuczkiewicz-Fraś, A., 2010. The beloved and the lover–love in classical Urdu ghazal. Cracow Indological Studies, 12.

Rebekah Cupitt’s “Making Difference: Deafness and video technology at work”

rebekah culpritt


Meetings – a photo of a poster hanging on the wall of the office I moved into on the first day of my PhD at KTH. I noted and documented it because it was an accurate representation of my own impression of meetings, pre-research – pre-thesis.

That a discussion of meetings takes place on page 99 of my thesis is perhaps a bit unexpected given its title, Make difference: Deafness and video technology at work. Meetings do not figure here and there are good reasons why…

My doctoral research was on how video technology and people’s (deaf and hearing) interactions with it in the course of the work of television production create distinct and fluid subjectivities. I used empirical examples to recount how these diverse subjectivities are enacted in different contexts and sometimes for specific (political) purposes. In the later chapters, I go on to illustrate how the multiple ways of being deaf, hearing, and interpreting materialise during instances where video technology is used. These instances are video *meetings*. The meeting forms a setting of sorts and is convened to carry out work. Is it an event, is it a practice, how can it be understood within the larger context of the work of television production and the organisation of the television station? It is these kinds of questions the discussion on page 99 pre-empts.

Page 99 is part of one of three introductory chapters that lay the groundwork for later discussions (Technology, Organisation, Meetings). Each of these chapters establishes how technology, the organisation (Swedish Television) and meetings (video meetings) are treated and framed in my analysis. In Meetings, I discuss the various conceptualisations and ways of analytically approaching meetings from a variety of perspectives. It goes without saying that the subject matter of this page mis-represents the topic of my thesis to a certain extent but it is indicative of a critical part of my research – its necessary inter-disciplinarity. As an anthropologist practising in a non-anthropological institution, this page is about how I position myself in relation to the field of research of Human-Computer Interaction. It is also about drawing from my disciplinary background and translating anthropological knowledge into a language that can be understood by computer scientists, audiologists, engineers, designers, and of course, my fellow anthropologists and social scientists.

Not only is this page about positionality but this page, and the thesis on a whole, is a proving ground. It is about me distinguishing myself from my disciplinary ancestors and previous researchers. It is about Making Difference – which is in itself, the subject and entire point of the thesis. In writing this page, and my thesis, I am carrying out the scholarly work of mimesis and alterity: showing that I am at once the same and yet distinct, different and more than… This task mirrors the ways in which the employees at Swedish Television carry out video meetings. In each video meeting, there is a sense of collaboration, of the team coming together, identifying as ‘same’, sharing the same goals and knowledge. Yet there are differences that co-exist with this sense of togetherness and belonging. Hearing colleagues acknowledge and work hard to incorporate and adapt their hearing ways of being to shared understandings of deafness and communication in sign language. Deaf colleagues accommodate and adapt to hearing ways of communication, and the interpreters vacillate between modalities of communication. The video technology, however is designed and functions purely from a hearing point of view and this affects the ways in which deafness (and hearing) are performed during video meetings.

While page 99 gives no hint at this (other than its rebellious stance against Goffman, perhaps), my thesis concludes with a challenge to all interested in technology and its design to question the normative assumptions that hide behind design decisions and utopian visions of technological futures.

Cupitt, Rebekah. 2017. “Make difference. Deafness and video technology at work” KTH, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, PhD dissertation.