On page 99 of my dissertation, Révolution Dārija? Imagining Vernacular Futures in Morocco, the reader finds themself in a Casablanca dubbing studio alongside a sound engineer and a voice actress who are in the process of dubbing a Mexican telenovela (Una Maid en Manhattan) into colloquial Moroccan Arabic (dārija):
One afternoon, I was sitting in the recording studio occupied by Adil, a cocky male sound engineer who was constantly trying to find other recording gigs on the side much to the frustration of Plug In’s administration. That day, he was scheduled to record several episodes of Maid with Asmae, the actress playing Tanya. Asmae was fun to record with, unlike some of the older actors, but even so Adil had no shame in pointing out to me how little he enjoyed his job. “What we do is boring (Ce qu’on fait est ennuyeux),” he said to me between takes, “And I can’t stand this language (mā kānḥimilsh had al-lugha)… Even the music is horrible (wa l-mūsīqā mā mūsīqā lā wālū)!”
In the middle of their hour-long recording session, Adil suddenly stopped the recording. Still looking at the screen but speaking to Asmae over the microphone, he corrected her pronunciation of the verb for ‘to marry.’ “Zuwwaj, not juwwaj!” he yelled into the mic. Putting her hands on her hips, in an expression of sass that fit with her character Tanya in Maid, Asmae countered: “But in our dārija (fī dārija diyālnā), I say ‘juwwaj’!”
“A wīlī!” (oh my goodness) Adil responded, sounding genuinely scandalized. They went back and forth a bit, but Asmae stubbornly insisted that she said juwwaj and that even though zuwwaj was closer to the word in fuṣḥa [classical Arabic], they were speaking dārija [colloquial Moroccan Arabic] and in dārija it was fine for her to say it like that.
On the one hand, Adil’s shock at Asmae’s pronunciation of the verb ‘to marry’ can be likened to the kind of shock (and humor!) Americans experience when realizing that English speakers in other countries pronounce things in surprisingly different ways (I still find it hilarious when British people pronounce the word “sloth”). This kind of surprise is not only typical of encounters between Moroccans from different regions, but also of encounters between individuals from different parts of the Arabic-speaking world (such encounters have even become a YouTube genre!).
On the other hand, Adil’s shock touches on a particularly Moroccan experience of language, which is at the heart of my dissertation. What Adil and Asmae are doing in this scene is debating the parameters of an emerging standard form of colloquial Moroccan Arabic (dārija). Together, they’re trying to imagine the contours of a cosmopolitan, un-Moroccan form of Moroccan Arabic that can plausibly be voiced by anyone, including a Puerto Rican maid in a Mexican telenovela set in New York. What they’re trying to do, in other words, is imagine a form of dārija that can be heard by other Moroccans (and by themselves) as a voice from nowhere (nowhere in particular in Morocco, and nowhere in particular in the world). No small task for a regional variety of Arabic that has the distinction of being the most stigmatized and least widely understood dialect in the Middle East and North Africa.
As I show in the larger dissertation, while self proclaimed language activists were the force behind certain top-down standardization initiatives in Morocco (see for example Centre de Promotion de la Darija), the weight and the work and the contradictions of standard language ideology often ended up being negotiated by average Moroccans in their day to day lives. This scene with Adil and Asmae is just one illustration of how ordinary Moroccans become entangled in the linguistic sensibilities of postcolonial modernity as they struggle to imagine alternative linguistic and national futures.
Kristin Gee Hickman. 2019. Révolution Dārija? Imagining Vernacular Futures in Morocco. University of Chicago Phd.
An edited excerpt from an ongoing conversation between Jennifer Deger and Zeynep Devrim Gürsel
Zeynep Devrim Gürsel:How has twenty five years of making media with Yolŋu shaped your approach to media theory?
Jennifer Deger: It’s emboldened me. I’ve become convinced that anthropologists who want to theorize media must also make it. Somehow or other. Media methods and media theory-work shouldn’t be approached as separable acts. Digital technologies not only blur once distinct boundaries between field site and home (and of course, these days, home and work in general), they allow us to disrupt stubbornly long-standing academic distinctions between research methods and research outputs. So all these years of co-creating with Yolngu has propelled me to a broader commitment to the on-going work of re-defining what scholarship can look like, sound like, and feel like. By making media, we can begin to make media theory; we can craft social analyses that refuse to be abstracted from the mediated dynamics, affordances, and digital demands that shape our lives, thoughts, and actions.
While what this experimental making might actually entail will no doubt vary wildly—from acts of archival image repatriation, to participating in WhatsApp chats with interlocutors or, in our case, designing a book as a media object, in its own right—the point remains the same. Contemporary media theorists can be—and bloody well should be—going so much further than using multimodal research methods to create works positioned as secondary or supplementary to the ‘real’ and substantive scholarly work of text-based analysis. Digital media delivers more than data; it brings a new performative potentiality to our work, a fantastically rich opportunity to work with, and respond in-kind to, the media worlds we study. That, at least, is what our book attempts.
In Phone & Spear we took enormous pleasure in creating vibrant fields of colour, pattern and story directed by a Yolŋu appreciation of remediation and remix as techniques of social enlivenment and relationship making. Whether we are working in film, exhibition or interactive art, our projects have never been simply about documentation or display—even when we are recording endangered songs and stories at the request of senior Yolŋu everything we’ve done together, from films, exhibitions and interactive artworks, has entailed forms of collaborative creative labor with a view to fostering emergent knowledges and relationships. This is the yuta [new] in yuta anthropology.
Encouraging other scholars to try working, thinking, and feeling with media as an analytic and socially-engaged strategy seems absolutely essential if we are in any way to adequately respond to the multiple and often-brutally-colliding worlds to which digital media provides form, intensity, and new potentiality. In attempting such making, we must of course bear in mind that sounds and images do not circulate as stable or unproblematically self-declaring objects of knowledge, as the photo-collages in Phone & Spear make abundantly clear. Therein lies the challenge and the responsibility that as anthropologists we are particularly well placed to recognize and respond to.
Zeynep Devrim Gürsel:What were the particular challenges of writing this book in these terms? How did the expectations or investments of your Yolŋu friends shape the process?
If making media allows us to rethink what collaborative scholarship might look like, writing a book together posed a particular set of challenges in term of voice, especially given the necessarily different and sometimes profoundly different places from which we speak—not to mention our different epistemological orientations and expectations. A specifically-situated politics of knowledge determines who can, and should, speak for Yolŋu worlds—and for what purposes. This is not an oppositional politics, nor necessarily a race based one. It’s concerned with a situated forms of knowledge and authority, driven by a profound understanding that stories and images are the means by which relational worlds must be made, affirmed, and renewed.
A language of crisis infuses so much of the contemporary anthropology of Aboriginal Australia—and for good reason I reckon. Yet, the other members of Miyarrka Media had absolutely no interest in our work figuring the intercultural and intergenerational dynamics of their lives as problematic in those terms. Likewise, they were not motivated to conceive and deliver critiques of the workings of the state, its assimilationists apparatuses, and the resulting forms of structural violence (though one might detect an oblique commentary). What we all agreed from the outset was that we would each have our own voice in the book, allowing for our own, sometimes clashing perspectives. So the key challenge to writing the book lay in finding a form that might hold all us and our varying perspectives, where we could speak collectively as one in ways that were not reductive, in ways that claimed both the playful and the optimistic, but still acknowledged the tremendous daily difficulties of life and death in these remote settlements, so far from the rhythms, values and imaginative reach of mainstream Australia.
If this was going to work at all, I knew that I had to prevent balanda [white, or non-Aboriginal] theory from pre-figuring the book and our discussions, and we achieved this by pressing almost all the references to other scholarship under the line, in the notes. I promised myself that the word ontology would not appear. But beyond that, we were stuck for a very long time in terms of finding the right form for this collective experiment.
As it turned out, the solution—to create our own collage of voice, story and images—had been right in front of our eyes the whole time in the collaged form of the photographs themselves. What I love about the form we found is that it manages to hold the lived commitments, the responsibilities, relationships of care that extend beyond fieldwork and beyond our academic lives. Our constantly shifting voices, adds, I think to the aliveness and the animating dynamic of sameness-difference that we were aiming for.
All that said, I will confess that for me it was an extremely painful and uncertain process putting together this book, a sustained sense of uncertainty and love and despair that I managed over many years. There are likely many omissions and mistakes, many ways I could have done it better. But this was what I managed. What we managed.
Zeynep Devrim Gürsel:Please tell us more about what you and your collaborators see as the difference between revealing one world to another versus bringing worlds into relationship.
Jennifer Deger: I will paraphrase Djingadjingawuy here. Talk-talk is not enough. You have to feel to know, to understand. Through feelings you connect, with your family, with the land, with the old people (ancestors). Through feelings we are marked in relationship. If we share our feelings with balanda and they share theirs in response, then we come be together. Together, but not mixed up, as Gurrumuruwuy puts it, so marvelously.
I wish Miyarrka Media were not so geographically dispersed these days and had been able to work together on this piece for you. As you know I am reluctant to become the official spokesperson for our group, exactly because of the ways it undercuts the performative ethos of the book—and I find myself falling back into the earnest, explanatory voice that the others undermine so brilliantly. However, Gurrumuruwuy has no such qualms. He sees this kind of thing as exactly my job at the moment. He is managing other relationships, expectations and curious interrogations back in Arnhem Land.
Zeynep Devrim Gürsel:This is a book that exists in many formats. Can you explain how you collectively decided to produce it in so many formats. Also why a book about digitally worked cell phone images?
Jennifer Deger: From the outset we wanted to do both a digital and printed version of the book and this framed discussions with potential presses—along with our (expensive!) commitment to printing in full color. If you spend time with the book, you’ll see that to print in black and white would have really killed everything that mattered about this project. We’re very grateful to Goldsmiths for letting us art direct the entire project, and to Santiago Carrasquilla and Eugene Lee from Art Camp for their fantastic commitment to a design collaboration that stretched over many years.
The multiple formats allow for the work of remediation and remix to continue in ways that we find pleasurable and satisfying. We’re interested in the energy and allure that can arise in giving new form to old media—this, after all, is the foundational ethos of the images themselves. Of course, we risked losing a lot of brightness and image clarity in deciding to do a print book, but the decision to make a hold-in-your-hand book as a patterned relational object was something we all wanted.
The open access version we developed in collaboration with MIT’s Knowledge Futures Group allowed us to return to a media rich digital world of brightness, color, and added sparkle. I think that having made the book first was really important, because we worked through a lot of the curation and design challenges in that process; we found the analytic form for our ideas through the design, which then found new expression in the online design. The printed and digital “books” basically have the same content, but they are very different things. I’m a bit surprised that I prefer the printed book. That said, the online version has its own qualities and character.
And perhaps that’s the most exciting outcome of all from our shared experiment. Each time the book takes new form, it re-instantiates a commitment to remix as a technique of social enlivenment; and, of course, in this instance, as anthropological method.
We spent five years designing and assembling a printed book and now we’re sending it out into the world in forms that undo its very status as ‘book’ (see for example our promo for the online version, ‘What is a book?’). Earlier this year we were invited to contribute a keynote to Distribute 2020, so we recombined elements from the book and elsewhere to make a 30 minute video. Just last month we cheekily entered that conference “talk” into a film festival and just found out it has been accepted. And so the work of remix continues.
In the excerpts, two women in their 60s employed as Migrant Advocates in the local public school district shared why they and their families migrated to the area 50 years ago from Texas. They discussed how their families came to pick oranges or manage crews harvesting cucumbers and squash in the Florida Heartland. Because published work on the topic had discussed the movement of Tejanos to the region in the 1950s, but had not specifically identified the county in which my research was set, these interviews provide important context to understanding the role of agriculture in drawing people to the area. Agriculture continued to have a crucial role in shaping the lives of the county’s inhabitants at the time my dissertation data was collected (2014-2016).
In general, page 99 is a good reflection of what the manuscript is about—the movement or migration of peoples. At the same time, the manuscript is about more than that as I focused on how K-12 schools dealt with the movement of peoples and how the schools served linguistic, racial, ethnic, and additional groups. The reason I focused on the schools and this theme is to better understand the micro-interactional processes that socialize students toward particular identities and how these identities articulate with one another at school. Understanding how the schools reproduce inequality at the micro level can help inform approaches aiming to dissuade this social reproduction of inequality.
Rebecca: Now, what kind of work did your family do in Texas?
Maria: My father worked in ranches. They would do irrigation for the cotton. He was in charge of getting the people to pick the cotton. He did mostly field work.
He would more like, when the people would come out of from. What it was, where we lived at, there weren’t a lot of Hispanic people. There was very few. Most were white.
Rebecca: Did your parents ever talk about their grandparents or their parents?
Maria: They were born in San Antonio, Texas, too. My mother used to say they would work in fields too. In San Antonio; but, sometimes she said they would have to walk to other towns. She said sometimes it would take them three days to get where they were going. ‘They didn’t have no cars, no nothing,’ she would say.
Rebecca: Now why did you guys end up coming here in 1968?
Maria: Because my older brothers and their families were already here.
Rebecca: What brought them out here?
Maria: Picking oranges. My oldest brother came down here with another family like five or six years before we got here. My older brother. Actually, he came to Deerfield Beach. And then, from Deerfield Beach he came over here to [Central]. Well then one of my other brothers came down here. And, he stayed with him for a year or so then he went back and got my father and my mother and us ‘cause by that time were only three. My mother had ten children but the time when we came there was only three at home. Because all my other brothers and sisters were married. So, whenever we got here about two years later after we were here, when my father died, the rest of my brothers came from Texas down here.
[Maria, 61. Interview with author on July 6, 2016]
Rebecca:Okay so, you said you came here in 1970?
Ana: I think 1970, that’s when I married my husband and came this way. His parents used to do the agriculture thing, his father used to be a crew leader. They came here when he [my husband] was young ‘cause he was in school in a [Central].
Rebecca: So what year did your husband’s family come?
Ana: Well, they claim they came on the ‘60s.
Rebecca: And, they were the first Mexicanos?
Ana: Mm. And then his father brung, bring their uncle. There was another guy, he came. They, you know [woman’s name], the one that was with the school board, that run? Yeah, her family came later.
Rebecca:So, what reason did your husband’s family have to come here? What kind of work were they doing?
Ana: They were doing agriculture work. They used to travel like the other ones, you know like the other immigrants. Well, his father had a contract. And he was the contract, for those people; he’s the one that brought a lot of Hispanics and then these were from Texas. They were doing the cucumbers. And squash I think.
Jon Bialecki: I want to start this interview by saying that God Is Samoan is a great book, but it is also a surprising one. True, there are a lot of continuities with your previous work: Oceania as a region, Christianity as an ethnographic object, tensions between dialogue and monologue. And in your earlier material, you’ve also discussed contemporary and historical missionary material, for instance, in your last book, Ritual Textuality. But the turn to studying autochthonous theology, theologians, and the production and pedagogy of theological knowledge caught my attention. This was not just because this was a different kind of project from you, but also because I have a hard time thinking of any similar study. Could you say something about how you came to this project, and also a little about what fieldwork was like, since I imagine the actual field methodologies must have been quite different from your previous work as well?
Matt Tomlinson: Thanks, Jon. The project began with two failures which shaped the way everything unfolded.
The first was back in 2008-2009, when I had gone to Suva, Fiji’s capital city, to do a study of Christian institutions. Fiji had suffered its most recent coup (its fourth) late in 2006, and I had naively not realized how difficult this would make the research. For example, talking with people in the Methodist Church potentially endangered them, as the government was suspicious of politics within the church and watched its leaders closely, and a foreign researcher chatting with church leaders could get them in trouble. In addition, the Fiji Council of Churches had mysteriously shut down.
As it happened, I was living on the campus of the Pacific Theological College (PTC). PTC trains people from all over Oceania in academic theology, many of them already ordained ministers in mainline Protestant congregations. So, because research was problematic elsewhere, I spent more time actually studying PTC than I had expected to–and became fascinated. The teachers and students work in a field known as “contextual theology,” which places culture and personal experience at the heart of theological thinking.
I wanted to learn more about how contextual theologians draw on anthropological concepts of culture. I was able to get research funding to spend time at the University of Auckland’s School of Theology and church seminaries in Samoa and American Samoa. Early in the project, though, it became clear how much reading I needed to do, as I didn’t have enough grounding in theology of any sort. This was the second failure: I sat there in Auckland and thought, “How can I write about practitioners of another academic discipline when I don’t know quite what that discipline is?”
So, the project became heavily text-based: an anthropological reading of contextual theology. I did participate in daily life at the different sites, but as you can tell, the book is more of an anthropological engagement with contextual-theological thought and texts than a deep ethnography.
Jon Bialecki: Presenting your project as “an anthropological engagement with contextual-theological thought and texts” brings me to the next question I wanted to ask. As you point out in your book, some anthropologists have lately become quite interested in theology. For example, Joel Robbins recently wrote a book that outlines how theology might help anthropologists of Christianity theorize the social and cultural life of the people they study, and Khaled Furani has a new book that critiques anthropology from a theological perspective. Then there is Derrick Lemon’s omnibus-grade edited volume on what he calls “theologically engaged anthropology,” which features both anthropologists and theologians. All these books came out in the last two or so years, so one could almost say “anthropology-and-theology” is having a bit of a moment. I want to ask where you would situate your book in this literature, but I also want to sort of fold-in the larger question two subsidiary queries. First, text-heavy as it is, this is an ethnographic project; what difference does that make? And second, this is the only book to be specifically engaged with Oceania as a region and contextual-theology as a subject. How does that distinguish your work from the broader field?
Matt Tomlinson: Robbins’ work is a major influence on my own, and I’ve participated in and learned from Lemons’ project, although I’m not in the volume you mention. I haven’t read Khaled Furani’s book yet.
For God Is Samoan, a key source of inspiration was Robbins’ 2006 article on the “awkward relationship” between anthropology and theology. In it, he suggests that anthropologists might engage with theology in several ways. The first two are modest: one can study how theology helped shape anthropology’s development as a discipline, or one can treat theology as ethnographic data. The third is more ambitious: to allow theology to genuinely destabilize anthropology, to open us up to fresh theoretical transformation.
My book will probably be read as taking the second option: drawing on theology for anthropological analysis. After all, I take up theological discussions in order to make sense of Oceanic cultural dynamics, including people’s critical reevaluations of local Christian histories and their understandings of intrinsic connections between land, sea, and spiritual presence. But I’d like to think that my conversations with theologians pushed me toward the third option to an extent, too, because engaging with theologians made me rethink my core topic. In brief, I started out interested in culture and ended up interested in dialogue.
Not only do contextual theologians talk a lot about culture, they routinely call for more dialogue on any subject. Many people do this, including anthropologists. During fieldwork, I came to see how theologians draw on concepts of culture in order to motivate specific kinds of dialogue. Yet sometimes dialogue, as an ideal, seems almost utopian–the perfect method and best result in any situation. Calls for more dialogue can be almost monologic in their insistence, which has led me to try to think in new ways about the relationship between dialogism and monologism. For me, there is a deep tension between Bakhtin’s characterization of language as inherently dialogic, and the monologic ideologies authoritarian speakers tend to employ. When Donald Trump speaks, for example, he does not imagine that he lives in a world of other’s words.
One of the most interesting things about central Oceania–and something that can only be apprehended ethnographically–is how dialogic and monologic ideals coexist and indeed work together. For dialogue, there is the valorization of talanoa, open-ended and interactive conversation. For monologue, there is the speech of high chiefs and church ministers, which is meant to express unanswerable truth in a single voice.
Jon Bialecki: Mentioning Joel Robbins brings up another issue. Robbins is also well known for his calls for anthropologists to be suspicious of claims of hidden continuity in moments of purported change, and to be more open to the possibility of sharp cultural and social disruption and discontinuity. And for Robbins, the paradigmatic case of that is collective conversions to Christianity in Papua New Guinea, which often involves some rather serious transvaluations in a society. This claim regarding rupture, which echoes a similar observation that Birgit Meyer has made regarding Pentecostalism in Africa, has not gone unchallenged. Liana Chua, for instance, has suggested that there might be places where there are different intensities to change, often divided up along denominational lines. And Mark Mosko has suggested that the underlying structure of personhood and exchange goes unchanged by conversion, at least in Melanesia, though he has at times suggested this is a part of a broader pattern in the Christian structure of selfhood. Even more recently, Devaka Premawardhana has been arguing for a more fluid ethnographic sensibility, where converts in places such as Mozambique do not go through such sharp discontinuities in their commitments and practices.
Of course, flattening Christian senses of temporality into “rupture: yes or no” is perhaps a little too simple; Robbins obviously meant to make something more of an intervention in a discussion about cultural change rather than to create some hard-and-fast-rule. And you yourself have played with creating more finely patterned senses of temporality; I’m thinking here of a discussion you had elsewhere of Kierkegaardian repetition in Fijian ideas of time, especially when it comes to the interactions between Christianity and curses. So, you’re willing to play with sensibilities about continuity and change.
All this is by way of saying that what you present in God Is Samoan is something that seems to defy any easy pigeonholing into some of the preexisting camps on this issue. The theologians you engage with want to express Christianity through explicitly Oceanian metaphors and similes, and sometimes even argue for strong continuity with pre-Christian tradition. But at the same time, they seem to sense that the arrival of Christianity marked a significant break of some kind, and they also appear to be offering their theological concepts in the interest of creating further change through dialogue. Could you say something about how you see God Is Samoan fitting into – or perhaps, not fitting into – these anthropological disputes over rupture and continuity? And are there lessons here for thinking about temporality and change that could be picked up by people working outside of religion in Oceania?
Matt Tomlinson: Right, the continuity-and-change debate has motivated a lot of work in the anthropology of Christianity–but as you say, Robbins was not proposing any hard-and-fast rule, but rather (I think) calling for a new kind of culture theory which, among other things, does not overlook Christianity’s profound cultural force.
As you note, contextual theologians make claims about both continuity and rupture. Because they tend to draw on older anthropological models of culture–structural-functionalist and cognitivist ones, in which culture is a unified system of rules and relations you inherit–their goal in putting culture at the center of their theology is often to argue for deep continuity between local traditions and Christian truths. Interestingly enough, in making this move, it’s missionary Christianity that is framed as rupture, but often in a negative way. For example, missionary Bible translations are criticized for not using locally appropriate linguistic/cultural referents, and imposing less appropriate foreign ones.
My favorite example of a continuity-and-change argument in contextual theology is found in the work of Ama’amalele Tofaeono. For him, the Samoan creator Tagaloa was, in fact, the spirit of Christ, because obviously the spirit of Christ is not limited to the physical existence of Jesus. Because traditional Samoan lifeways recognized the divinity of Tagaloa, they were thoroughly Christian. What broke this system? European missionaries coming in with the model of God as essentially a white man, separate from the natural order. In taking up mission Christianity, for Tofaeono, Samoa got less Christian.
Yet the field of contextual theology itself is seen, by some of its authors, as disruptive in the positive sense of giving voice to those who would never be heard in old-fashioned systematic theology. The career (so far) of one Tongan theologian, Nasili Vaka’uta, shows a kind of push-and-pull between understandings of continuity and change in this regard. When he began his theological studies, he was interested in Bakhtin, but his supervisor encouraged him to explore his Tongan heritage as a theological resource instead. Yet this was not an easy thing to do for several reasons, as Vaka’uta points out. For one, he is not from the noble class, and only nobles are supposed to represent Tongan culture and society. In other words, it made him vulnerable to criticism from a Tongan audience. For another, writing a dissertation based on European theological sources is a safe bet for getting your degree, whereas putting forth a distinctively Tongan argument is a riskier bet. So he was also vulnerable to a non-Tongan audience. Ultimately, he has succeeded brilliantly. But asking whether his work foregrounds continuity or rupture, in either his subjects or his methods, becomes a misleading question. He does both.
Stepping back a bit, I do think it’s important to distinguish between change as an objective fact and change as ideology. This might be obvious, but it needs saying. The authors in the anthropology of Christianity get this point really well, but outside of the subdiscipline, I am often frustrated by arguments that take loss or brokenness as an obvious or natural condition of our present moment. The loss of linguistic diversity in the world, and the extinction of species, are really happening and we can count the specific losses. But so much human energy gets poured into ideologically framing things as continuation or novelty, or for that matter gain or loss, that we need to draw back and ask what gets counted as evidence for any of these processes, and why.
Jon Bialecki: Culture plays a vital role in your book – but not as an analytic; rather, local concepts of culture are the primary key that contextual theology operates. But as you just stated, this is a version of culture that is very antiquated to contemporary anthropological eyes. The power of this version of ‘culture’ is apparent throughout God Is Samoan; I think that there were only one or two theological voices that questioned it in the entire volume. The fascination that this version of culture has is not limited to either theology or Oceania, however. This image of culture seems to be all over the place – including in certain right-wing movements in Europe, though I wouldn’t want to put your theologians in the same basket as those European nativist movements! Given the breadth of this vision of culture, I was hoping that you could say something about what it is that makes it so compelling, at least in Oceania. As an anthropologist who has worked with culture as an analytic in other places, I was also hoping that you could say something about how one can work with the idea of culture without accidentally reinforcing these much more procrustean public understandings of the idea.
Matt Tomlinson: Culture theory is in an odd place in 2020, isn’t it? Some of us still think the term “culture” is worth foregrounding theoretically. For example, I often assign Ira Bashkow’s 2004 article “A Neo-Boasian Conception of Cultural Boundaries” to students because it shows the vitality and flexibility of understandings of culture before structural functionalism. Many authors are happy to use the adjective “cultural” but suspicious of the noun “culture.” And some scholars, like the host of this forum, Ilana Gershon, do what I consider culture theory but are skeptical of the term itself. Personally, I don’t mind “culture” as a noun denoting process, and am fine with any anthropological use of it that makes visible the interactive social work that goes into claiming relations of similarity and difference.
But, yeah: this is not how most contextual theologians write about culture. The culture concept many contextual theologians draw on is useful, for them, for the same reason many anthropologists distrust it: its stability. It’s a referent for which there seems to be a built-in agreement about its significance. In other words, although Samoan intellectuals may disagree about what is fa’aSamoa (the “Samoan way,” a gloss for Samoan culture), I can’t imagine anyone saying that there is no such thing as fa’aSamoa–that would seem absurd. Referring to it gives people apparent common ground, and enables speakers to make connections with other referents: God, biblical texts, church policies, and so forth. (There are connections here with the way you write about virtual Christianity with reference to Deleuze, I think.)
As I mentioned before, discussing the work of Nasili Vaka’uta–and he is one of the voices who does critique the culture concept–a model of culture gives him a position from which to make a distinctive contribution to knowledge. For him, knowing Tongan culture enables him to speak to other biblical scholars and theologians in new ways. But speaking isn’t enough, because you need to know who’s listening. And he puts the question pointedly: Can a Tongan reading of the Bible “make a difference in biblical scholarship” generally?
Jon Bialecki: Now, normally, the format here is to close the interview with a sort of ‘coming attractions’ reel, where the interviewee talks about future projects, and I don’t want to take that away from you. But I also want to stick with the theme of dialogue. So, I’ll ask the classical question this way: in what ways has the dialogue you’ve had with these Oceanian Conxtextual theologians changed the way you think, and how will this conversation shape your future projects?
Matt Tomlinson: The work for God Is Samoan, as well as more recent work I’ve been doing with Spiritualists in Australia, has led me to focus on the relationships between dialogism and monologism as ideologies and dialogue and monologue as formats. What drives me is the question of how we really engage with others’ words, especially when words are credited to extrahuman speakers or authors.
As I’ve seen and heard contextual theologians construct different kinds of dialogue, and as I’ve seen and heard Spiritualist mediums work to bring dialogues with spirits into conjunction with dialogues with human audiences, I continually want to know what the limits to these dialogues are. I don’t think it makes sense to study dialogues or dialogism without studying monologues and monologism.
To finish on a note of thanks: I appreciate the chance for this exchange. Real dialogues can happen. But they’re hard work!
I-Lin Liu: Could you share with us what prompted you to take on this research on Japanese women’s participation in digital labor? Do you see any continuation between this book and your previous one, which focuses on commercial television and the production of television programs in Japan?
Gabriella Lukacs: The idea for the book came from a Japanese friend who told me about net idols in the early 2000s. I was completing research on Japan’s television industry then, but my friend’s enthusiasm about how the emerging digital economy would rectify gender discrimination in Japan’s labor market stayed with me. In my first two books and the book project I am currently completing about leftist media activism in Hungary, I study the intersection of gender and labor in various contexts of media production. My first project investigated how gender structured labor relations in the production of prime time television and how these power dynamics shaped the content of televisual entertainment in Japan. Continuing this research, the project that became Invisibility by Design examines how male Internet entrepreneurs harnessed women’s unpaid labor to develop Japan’s digital economy. Adopting a political economic approach, both books studied key industries in the broader domain of media production. The two projects were in dialogue in that they examined parallel phenomena. While my first book analyzed an analog medium in the wake of developments in digital media, my second book explored the ways digital media evolved as part of the analog commercial media complex in Japan. At the same time, my first book examined transformations in the commodity form (that is, how television networks derived profit from the circulation of celebrities), whereas my second book investigated the labor conditions of micro-celebrities in Japan’s digital economy. As a key structuring principle of inequality in society, gender takes central place in both projects and also in the manuscript I am currently completing. A curious commonality between Japan and Hungary is that among the OECD countries, Japan is the only country where the percentage of women in the National Assembly is lower than it is in Hungary.
I-Lin Liu: One key move in your argument of the book is to challenge the distinction between intellectual labor and affective labor proposed by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. You write that “in the past two decades, the digital economy destabilized the boundary between affective labor and intellectual labor” (pp. 17-18). Could you elaborate more on this point? Why do you think that this dichotomy will hinder our understanding of women’s digital labor in Japan?
Gabriella Lukacs: I came to think about the distinction between intellectual and affective labor when I realized that the notion of affective labor did not adequately capture the kind of labor women invested in developing and maintaining Internet-based careers. The limitations of the concept made me think whether the entrepreneurial individuals whose careers I analyzed in the book drove innovations in the realm of labor. In studying labor, a major inspiration I derive from Marx is that workers play an important role in developing the means of production even if only involuntarily. To translate this to the context of my research, individuals’ search for what they perceive as meaningful work galvanizes developments in capitalist accumulation including the ways in which labor is defined, labor relations are organized, and profit is extracted from labor.
Building on Maurizio Lazzarrato’s work, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri define immaterial labor as a productive activity that creates immaterial commodities. They identify intellectual and affective labor as the principal forms of immaterial labor and define affective labor as labor that produces or manipulates affects. Hardt and Negri represent a distinct approach to theorizing post-Fordist labor. Another prominent approach, developed by feminist scholars, builds on the theory of the social factory. Arguing that capital integrates the family and community into its formal practices of value extraction, this position sees the housewife as the paradigmatic figure of post-Fordist labor.
A key observation I derived from my research was that the figures of the intellectual worker and the housewife were integrated in new occupational identities such as the girly photographer, the net idol, the blogger, the online trader, and the cell phone novelist. Drawing on this insight, I highlight that in the past two decades, the digital economy destabilized the boundary between affective labor and intellectual labor. An example is cell phone novelists who simultaneously performed affective and intellectual labor in developing their careers. To stand out among thousands of writers, authors had to work extremely hard on improving their writing skills. That, however, was not enough. They also had to proactively promote themselves and spend countless hours corresponding with their fans so that their fans would “like” their novels. This was important because editors consulted the popularity charts of cell phone novel platforms in deciding which novels to publish in book format. Some of these books sold 2-3 million copies, which yielded huge profits to the authors from royalties. The labor of a cell phone novelist was composed of the intellectual labor of writing novels and the affective labor of promoting their work. Both types of labor were indispensable for developing a career as a cell phone novelist.
I-Lin Liu: In one of the methodological sections in your introduction you address the issue of the differences between the “virtual and the actual selves” (p. 24-27). You note that in order to maintain a suitable online persona for their digital careers, Japanese online entrepreneurs tended to disincline to discuss their family background in public or with researchers. Additionally, their public life stories often follow similar narrative convention and featured similar tropes. One issue this phenomenon poses to digital labor researchers, as you’ve pointed out, is that one cannot get a clear picture of the class background of these online entrepreneurs. Could you share with us how you solved this conundrum? Or how did you turn this disadvantage into an advantage for your research?
Gabriella Lukacs: A curious aspect of this project was how I became a part of the self-branding strategies of the entrepreneurial women I interviewed. While a few of my interlocutors were mainstream celebrities, most of my study participants were micro-celebrities who saw all forms of promotion as helpful. This was an important reason why they agreed to meet me in the first place.
I asked all my interlocutors to tell me how they developed their careers. Most of my study participants had been interviewed by journalists before I talked to them, so I was able to compare various iterations of the accounts they shared with me. The stories, of course, did not significantly diverge, but they did feature minor differences and silences about issues such as class background, for instance. My interlocutors presented the stories of their careers to me stressing that what they achieved was something that anyone could achieve. This reasoning enabled them to publish self-help books and give seminars about how to develop careers like theirs. However, the idea that “anyone can succeed in the digital economy”—I theorize in the book using Paolo Virno’s concept of “the ideology of the possible”—bugged me because it was discrepant with my perception of the people I interviewed. The women I met were very far from being “anyone.” They were extremely driven, uniquely smart, and immensely talented. So, I dug deeper into women’s stories of their careers and reread them as means of self-branding.
I-Lin Liu: Online social media platform, or infrastructure is one of the focuses of your book. One of the arguments you make is that women’s online digital labor actively contributes to the development of various major internet platforms in Japan. But you also distinguish your understanding of infrastructure or platform from infrastructure research proposed by scholars like Brian Larkin (p. 167 n4). I was wondering could you elaborate more on this point.
Gabriella Lukacs: As a science fiction fan, I have always been interested in the relationship between humans and machines. When a new gadget hits the market, I always wonder whether it was the next logical step (in which case, we could discuss innovation in terms of technological agency) or the product of innovators’ inspiration and perspiration. Technological innovation is a result of diverse factors, but it seems to me that technological agency is undertheorized in favor of the agency of individual innovators.
An aspect of infrastructure studies I find fascinating concerns the agency of machines. I did not do as much work on this topic as I could have because I felt that it would distract from the stories of women I wanted to center the book on. I derive inspiration from Gilbert Simondon’s proposition that we consider the relationship between humans and machines as one that is not structured in hierarchy. I also build on Hamano Satoshi’s work that examines online platforms in Japan. Hamano argues that platforms are developed in dialogue with other platforms as their owners compete for the same market segments. As a result, Hamano notes, Japan’s Internet has evolved into an ecosystem. Finally, there is Marc Steinberg’s excellent book about Japan’s platform economy, which I was not able to incorporate into my own work because it came out when my manuscript was already in the production phase.
In previous iterations of the manuscript, I did focus more on technological agency, but readers rightfully pointed out that the line was fuzzy between technological agency and the agency of the software developers who created online platforms. Theorizing this fuzziness would have required me to conduct more interviews with platform developers, but I did not want to complicate my argument and further delay the publication of my book. I ended up assigning this aspect of my argument to footnotes. My personal struggle with infrastructure studies concerns not only the difficulties of theorizing the relationship between human agency and machinic agency, but also the feasibility of a project. To do theoretically nuanced and ethnographically grounded work on infrastructures involves interviews with multiple groups of actants. A model for this kind of work is Bruno Latour’s Aramis, or the Love of Technology, which is a book I find immensely inspiring.
I-Lin Liu: I really enjoyed reading the close analyses you give on “girly” photographer’s work and creative writings by net idols. Behind the two readings, the driving question seems to be “how is critique of the system possible in everyday life?”. In your reading of the photography by the young women photographers, you note that, unlike the Japanese male critics who only categorized them as doing affective labor, these young photographers are reflecting on or even critiquing the Japanese society. On the contrary, while online net idols deconstruct the cute culture in their creative writings, you point out that the online idols could not develop a critique of digital labor regime, because “net idols had to reproduce notions of femininity that anchored them to values that, in turn, reinscribed their vulnerabilities and even marginality in the labor market” (p. 73). You seem to be suggesting that it is the platform and medium in which these two groups of people work that either enable or limit their potential to critique the system. This leads me to my final question: I was wondering, are there movements resisting or challenging the current digital labor regime in Japan right now? From the conclusion of your book it seems like such movement is yet to emerge. How might the media ecology, or specific designs of various social media platforms enable or hinder the possibility of the emergence of this kind of critique?
Gabriella Lukacs: I did not do research specifically on pushback against invisible labor and after I finished the book, I started a new project that took me to a new geographic area and a new topic. That being said, I think about this issue throughout the book. I use the concept of disidentification in my chapter on the so-called girly photographers. Disidentification is a concept that I borrowed from Jose Muñoz who argues that individuals assume three subject positions vis-à dominant ideologies. While some align with ideologically normative subjectivities, others refuse to embrace the normative subjectivities that dominant ideologies propose to them. Disidentification is the third mode of engagement that neither accepts assimilation nor strictly opposes it. Rather, it is a strategy to engage with dominant ideological positions in ways that aims “to transform a cultural logic from within.”
When women develop new DIY careers, they depart from the types of labor that are conventionally assigned to them in Japan’s labor market (that is, unpaid reproductive labor and precarious paid labor). But that does not mean that they en bloc reject the dominant labor subjectivities that are available to them. The types of work women pursue in Japan’s digital economy involve a significant part of feminized affective labor. At the same time, most of these women style themselves borrowing from cute culture. Yet, I demonstrate that the women I interviewed strove to transform a particular cultural logic from within. And when they realized that they would not succeed, they quit what they were doing and tried something else. That is to say, the book does not argue that women accepted their mobilization to new regimes of invisible labor. Rather, I stress that they understood the power dynamics involved, which they expressed through poetry, photography, self-help books, and cell phone novels.
In the chapters about net idols and cell phone novelists, in particular, I demonstrate that women who developed careers in Japan’s digital economy made a distinction between bad and good types of invisible labor. They understood how complex the politics of invisible labor was and were aware that owners of online platforms increasingly tapped invisible labor as a source of surplus value. They, however, also knew that invisible labor was a form of labor that was instrumental to making life livable and its commodification produced nefarious effects.
Georgia Ennis:At the center of your account are the travels and work of missionary Frederick Du Vernet, with whom you speak across time in numerous ways. How and why did Du Vernet come to be the central personage of this story of settler colonial expansion? You describe your first ‘encounter’ with Du Vernet in the text, but can you tell us more about how you came to travel with him and his many contradictions across what is today known as Canada?
Pamela Klassen: I first encountered him through reading newspaper, church newspaper articles for another book I was writing on Christianity and medicine and healing in the 20th century. And they were very unusual articles that were uncommon for an Anglican newspaper in the 1920s, in which he was basically propounding his theory of telepathic thought transference. He also had a kind of theory of media he was writing about, like the new effects of the cinema, and what this would do to young hearts and minds. By the mid-1920s, he was writing about his new theory of spiritual radio or radio mind — basically the idea that human beings can transfer their thoughts across this energy field, radio waves that God has provided for us as a means of communication. He’s coming up with this theory at a time when a few people have radios. He is doing what is a very common approach by taking a new technology and spiritualizing it. This happened with the telegraph and the telephone, with all these kinds of means of communication.
I went to the national church archive in Toronto to see if I could find out more about him. And the archivist, very kindly pointed me to a diary that he had written in 1898 when he was a missionary journalist who was travelling across Canada and visiting different missionaries and missions along the way. This diary records 11 days of his visit to the Rainy River, which was an area fairly newly settled by white settlers. It was on an Anishinaabe territory or Ojibwe territory.
It was a remarkable diary because the way he writes it, he writes often in the voice of Anishinaabe women and men he encounters. Often older women and men who were quite resistant to his presence, even their words are his perspective. It struck me as a really powerful record of Anishinaabe resistance to Canadian and Christian presence on their land. I put thae diary aside, finished the other book, and then the diary was really haunting me. Eventually I said, “You know, I wonder, maybe I should actually figure out if I can go up there and bring the diary back to where it was written.” When I did, I met with some very kind members of Rainy River First Nations, especially Art Hunter and his brother Al Hunter, and since then, I’ve been going up regularly. We now have a website where I talk about the diary. That’s been one life of my encounter with Du Vernet.
I guess one thing I would say is, it’s rightfully very challenging for a white woman to write about indigenous missionary encounters and, and indigenous sort of state relations in the Canadian context, but I also felt it was my responsibility to write about the Canadian side of that history. He was allowing me to also challenge my field of the study of religion that often looks especially at North American religion, that will often look at a man like him as someone participating in a new religious movement. But he wasn’t. He was an Anglican through and through, he was an Archbishop. He was a mainstream Christian man, but also the ideas that he came to emerged from his relationships with indigenous people across Turtle Island, across Anishinaabe and other nations. And focusing on him allowed me, as a white woman, to tell a story of white people’s responsibility for the world that we live in today.
Georgia Ennis:Themes of testimony, confession, and reconciliation, as well as the ways these genres have been understood within different linguistic and cultural traditions, are central to the book. What kind of testimony do you envision TheStory of Radio Mind providing, and what is its relationship to ongoing processes of reconciliation within Canada and other settler colonial states?
Pamela Klassen: A great question, thank you. I began writing the book before the Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation commissions’ final report came out in 2015, which was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission focused on the church-state nexus of residential schools, schools that indigenous children were often forcibly taken to, often by the police, the RCMP. They were largely paid for by the Canadian government, but run by different churches. So, you would have an Anglican or a Methodist or a Catholic school. So, the discourse of reconciliation is very much of the moment in which I wrote the book, and still present was when it came out in 2018. Now we are in 2020. And the discourse of reconciliation is clearly not sufficient. At this moment, June 2020, we’re addressing questions of the ongoing, not just legacies, but reality of colonialism and in Canada and the US and how that connects to anti-black racism and anti-indigenous racism and police brutality. Its important for scholars to have a kind of awareness of the moment in which they’re writing but also a kind of humility knowing that the things they write two years ago will have a different resonance and you can’t know what that’s going to be.
Questions of testimony and confession were really alive in the cultural moment in which I was writing, because a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is profoundly a moment of testimony. There really was not a lot of confession going on, because it was mostly indigenous survivors, telling their stories and giving their testimonies. Still, the very notion of reconciliation, which I discussed a little bit in the book, is from one kind of understanding, a profoundly Christian concept and it’s still a Christian ritual – about forgiveness and becoming, restoring your relationship with God. The fact that a state-based ritual of Reconciliation has these Christian roots I think is worth pondering.
I also like to think about what can become appropriate anthropological stories about these places, and how anthropologists were similar to missionaries in that both anthropologists and missionaries sought stories out of the indigenous people that they encountered. The anthropologist turned them into ethnography, the missionaries turned them into stories that they could package in church newspapers and missionary newspapers so that they could get more funding for their missions. The anthropologists also wanted funding from the Smithsonian, or other sources. So the whole question of “stories for cash” was something I wanted to think about. And which, of course, I’m implicated in as well.
Georgia Ennis: You close the book by reflecting on another kind of medium, the body. Yet, you consider throughout ways in which various media technologies interact with, shape, and otherwise mediate bodies or embodied relationships, from photographs and accounts that “firsted” and “lasted” Indigenous peoples out of existence, to spiritual frequencies said to have connected minds across great distances. How do you envision the interrelationship among the various forms of mediation you examine—embodied, spiritual, and technological? What effects do they have on each other? And, relatedly, do you have any thoughts on the role of digital or supposedly “new” forms of mediation, and the future of the stories you examine here?
Pamela Klassen: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I should say, I guess, that I think about – since we started our informal part of the conversation talking about midwifery, my earlier work was on midwifery and women’s experiences of childbirth, and how, in the North American context, a lot of women turn to midwifery for very different reasons. Sometimes they do it through legal means, illegal means, grey area, law, that kind of thing. And so, when I worked on that project, it was the 1990s. So, it’s a different sort of midwifery landscape than there is now. But I always really thought of myself as someone who thinks a lot about the body, gender, racialization, and these kinds of things. And then I found myself writing a book that was all kind of channeled through the body of this man who was a white Christian missionary, and sometimes I worried that I wasn’t paying enough attention to the body. Yet one of the things that I really want to want people to take away from the book is realizing that whiteness was a very active category at this time and it was a lived reality. So, when Du Vernet gets to Northern British Columbia in 1904, he was doing what the missionaries call Indian work. He was working with indigenous people who are there. But he arrives there at the same time that the railway is getting going, because they want to build a railway for all kinds of complex reasons, to this point, in Prince Rupert, because it’s got a very deep harbor and they see Prince Rupert as being the gateway to Asia, also the gateway to the north, and also a competitor to Vancouver and Victorian San Francisco. It’s the crawl of the railway, the spinal cord of colonialism. By the time he’s at the end of his life, he is doing what everybody calls “white work”, which is working with the settlers. He is aware, he talks a lot about the differences, the challenges of doing both Indian work and White work. Whiteness is a very active animating category for settler colonialism. I think people often don’t realize how freely people spoke with these racialized terms across North America in different ways, and with different differences.
One of the things I also wanted to point out is that all of these communication tools depend on matters that is drawn from the earth, the minerals in our cellphones, in our computers, stuff that makes our cellphones, and our computers. The cloud is not a cloud, its actually made out of servers that require cooling and heating, demanding vast resources to actually keep our communication systems alive. I wanted to frame and draw attention to the fact that all forms of mediation and communication have consequences for the earth and for the world, and therefore for us, and all the creatures on the earth.
Then, just to end briefly with a website I would love for people to go and look at: https://storynations.utoronto.ca/. On this site, we take the diary that I was talking about earlier, and we annotate it. We try to put it in the larger historical context of Treaty 3, in relationship between missionaries and Ojibwe in that context. We visit the community quite often to talk to them about ideas and about where to go next. So soon we’ll be trying to build curriculum resources, so people can use it on their online teaching that they have to do in the near future, both in high schools and in universities. We are doing a pilot study with indigenous youth students to get feedback from them about how this website tells the story of colonialism of indigenous presence and continuity on the land and what we learn from it. We welcome anybody to visit and learn from the website. And it was actually very interesting to write about this story in two different forms — in the book and the website. The book is done, not clear if the website will ever be done.
Gaya Morris: Can you tell us a bit about what led you to this project? How did you first find yourself in Sri Lanka and what led you to conceptualizing a project about the linguistic dimensions of ethnic conflict? And I’m also curious about why you chose schools as your primary fieldsite, and why you chose to work with girls, in particular.
Christina Davis: I became interested in doing research in Sri Lanka through my six years of experience studying Tamil in Tamil Nadu, India and at the University of Michigan with Professor K. Karunakaran. I went to Sri Lanka in January 2007 on a Sinhala language grant from the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies. Tamil-speaking (Tamil and Muslim) educators, parents, and students were enthusiastic about my project on Tamil language practices, in part because of the status of Tamil as a minority language. I was intrigued by the idea that the organization of government schools in South Asia presupposes ways of ordering difference that can emphasize particular models of linguistic, ethnic, religious, caste, and class difference. This topic is highly relevant to Sri Lanka as language and education policies were part of the complex causes of the ethnic conflict and the civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE (1983–2009). In the late 1990s and early 2000s the government instituted trilingual educational reforms meant to increase ethnic integration and national cohesion. I wanted to study how youth, in their interactions inside and outside of schools, made sense of and reconfigured linguistic and ethnic difference in relation to these programs. I did my primary fieldwork from 2007 to 2008, during the last phase of the war, when ethnic differences, as mobilized around language, were in particularly sharp relief. I also returned to Sri Lanka in 2011, three years after the end of the war.
While I wanted to focus on schools, I was very intent on observing and recording students’ and teachers’ interactions outside school as well. The book begins in educational institutions and expands to look at talk in homes, neighborhoods, on the street, and on the bus. I did my research at two schools in Kandy, Sri Lanka: Hindu college, a mixed-gender Tamil-medium school and Girls’ College, a girls’ multilingual school. It can be easier and more comfortable for a woman to work at a girls’ school, but I gained valuable insight from my research with the grade 11 boys at Hindu College. As I detail in chapter 5, because they felt awkward walking around town with me after school, I asked them to record their own speech using my mp3 recorder. I analyzed these recordings with the help of a Tamil research assistant who knew the school and who had grown in Kandy. These data gave me important insights about how they monitored their linguistic and social behavior outside school. While in school their speech was regimented to be Tamil only, outside school they navigated a Sinhala- majority urban setting, where the very act of speaking Tamil could be considered inappropriate or offensive and might even be seen as a security threat. I show how they were able to create different kinds of interactional spaces to which others were not privy: in classrooms, outside school, in groups, and traveling alone.
Gaya Morris: You write in chapter 1 that you strove to study the interplay of linguistic ideology and linguistic practice. Could you tell us a bit about the challenges or insights that you came to in striving to account for both and how you balanced these two aspects in your ethnographic account of why people speak certain forms of Tamil, Sinhala, or English in certain contexts? And, how did you deal with the incongruities of practice and ideology?Continue reading →
What do you see as the main focus and argument of this book?
My main aim in the book is to develop a theoretical framework for understanding the place of quality in contemporary capitalism. The book explores how colonial industries—and the forms of labor and organization that emerged within them—endure not only the formal end of empire but also changes in financial markets, technologies, and the climate itself. I argue that it is the pursuit of quality, as much as the pursuit of economic profit, that perpetuates colonial forms of marginalization and environmental degradation, including the plantation, into the present. Another key intervention of the book is to show how quality matters even at the bottom end of the global market. I illustrate how a push to shift from plantation-based to smallholder tea production has undermined the efforts of plantation workers to organize and secure both consistent wages and non-monetary benefits such as housing and healthcare. Paradoxically, laborers find themselves defending the colonially rooted plantation as an institution. They do this by asserting their ability to coax quality out of marginal plants and marginal lands. I hope to show in the book how the ideas of quality work to hold the plantation together, not just as a form of land tenure but as a more tentacular and spatially non-contiguous form of accumulation.
At one point you said that quality means many different things for different people, and that quality is far from a high-brow concern (178). I am wondering, how do you decide which qualities to focus on in this book? Why do you choose to focus on the quality of the relatively low-cost CTC tea, for example?
I didn’t start with quality as the focus of the project at all. This attention came later, while I was working through materials I collected in the Indian Tea Association archives. Over and over again, quality appeared as the object of analysis for industrial scientists, engineers, bureaucrats, and regulators. This made me think about what I knew about contemporary food studies, in which a great deal of wonderful work had been done about foods that were considered good in the sense of both refined or desirable taste and good in the sense of having been ethically or responsibly produced. What was evident in the industrial archive for tea was that quality was something that was actively being worked on—something that had to be produced—in the colonial project of Indian tea production. From that perspective, quality was not a more-or-less-than proposition. No tea—not even CTC—would have been considered as having less quality. Its qualities would just be understood differently. This led me to think not about what quality is—as in, how different consumer or producer groups imagine and sustain it—but what quality does—as in, how consumers, producers, and, crucially for my argument, the players in-between such as scientists, tasters, and brokers—work with quality. What I noticed was that these industrial doings-with-quality collapsed three different dimensions: the quality of bodies (particularly those of tea plantation workers); the qualities of materials (tea itself, but also soil and water and milk); and the qualities of markets.
Given that insight—that quality in the world of Indian tea is always already considered to be actively there—CTC turned out to be a better case study in some ways that higher-end single origin teas like Darjeeling or Assam. The misconception that I wanted to counter was that cheap things are cheap because they require less work, or because they possess less of something that other similar but more expensive things have. It turns out that CTC, the low-cost, dark, tannic basis of most Indian chai, is pored over, debated, and considered just as intensively as Darjeeling. More importantly, the CTC plantations of the Dooars, where part of my fieldwork took place, have been the site of perhaps the most intensive recent mass experiments on the quality of bodies, markets, and materials in all of Northeast India.
I am really inspired by the way you incorporate feminist STS scholars’ perspective in your book, it provides a refreshing way to think about the interaction between nature, market, and bodies. Can you comment a bit on how this perspective informed your project in and beyond this book?
I worked on Tasting Qualities concurrently with a School for Advanced Research-funded volume, How Nature Works, which I co-edited with Alex Blanchette of Tufts University. The group that contributed to that volume was collectively interested in seeing how the feminist conversation on more-than-human worlds might be enriched by feminist critiques of late capitalist labor. Again and again, work by scholars like Karen Barad, Michelle Murphy, Annemarie Mol, Heather Paxson, and so many others provided a lens for attending to tea’s material qualities alongside the gendered dynamics of production and questions of value, which I had begun to explore in my first book on Darjeeling tea. Since the Tasting Qualities project was about finding a way of thinking about capitalism and colonialism that challenged facile, linear understandings of commodity chains, this work was crucial. Analytically, I allowed me to put the sensory side of quality on an equal footing with the economic side. I should say also that this work also helped me think through the role of masculinity and expertise in producing quality.
In your book, you discussed how words, things, and senses intertwined with one another in tea brokerage business by focusing on how the communicative infrastructure, as a kind of fixed capital, created the grounds for the construction, circulation, and maintenance of qualities of tea. You also move between “historical and ethnographic registers, as well as between auctions, archives, plantations, and the offices of private and public operators in the industry” (19). Can you elaborate on how such communicative infrastructures are changed or reproduced by this shift of spaces, temporalities, and desires?
In 2009, I came to Nilhat House in Kolkata, India’s oldest and largest tea auction center, to ask how organic or fair-trade teas were compared by expert brokers to conventional teas. International certifications like fair trade and organic, it turned out, did not matter to the how the tea brokers at Nilhat House did their work, so I began to train my attention on how valuation was done more generally. I observed brokers tasting tea and selling tea in live outcry auctions much as they had been for the past 150 years. But a few months after I arrived in Kolkata, new government policies and corporate reforms began to change how Indian tea was traded. Specifically, the Tea Board of India, the government bureaucracy regulating the trade, initiated a major effort designed to control the cost of mass-market tea in India. Among other things, that effort featured a move from live outcry auctions to online, digital auctioning.
The form of those proposed digital auctions has shifted over the years, but the attempts to realize that reform gave me a good window into the communicative infrastructures that I’m concerned with in the book, namely, those that comprise the system of classifying and pricing tea. Numbers are one part of this infrastructure. Both lot and warehouse numbers used to delineate between different kinds of tea and the numbers that signify prospective—and then actual—prices travel back and forth among the spaces you mentioned. Those travels are archived in the ledgers of the companies that sell tea at auction and (until fairly recently) helped finance plantations by offering advances on prospective sales. Ethnographically, I observed how brokers coax quality out of those numbers through a complex choreography on the auction floor.
Words are also, of course, key to this communicative infrastructure, but the words I was interested in actually do not travel as extensively as the numbers. Before Indian teas are auctioned, brokers evaluate them using a glossary of some 150 English words. This glossary was devised at the end of the British colonial period by industrial chemists who aimed to subject the aesthetic judgments of brokers to experimental scrutiny. Like other vocabularies for describing commodities, these teawords performatively reproduce gendered and classed distinctions, but they do much more. When they circulate among brokers and managers, teawords subject plantation conditions to experimental adjustment. In the book, I study this experimental work by drawing on theory from linguistic anthropology and work in STS on processes of qualification in commodity circulation.
In the book, you made some provocative and, like you said in the book, seemingly counterintuitive suggestions. One of such suggestions is that tea bags that are created by blending different varieties of tea offers a certain kind of regularity and consistency of flavor and texture, and it is this kind of blended-ness that enables the quality of tea endure (chapter 2). Reading this, I couldn’t help but thinking about other blended flavors, and wondering how they too came to be seen as singular despite the fact that the ingredients are highly variable. Can you talk a bit about how do you see different actors in the tea industry shaped this kind of oxymoronic “consistency in variability”?
Tea brokers, who are also professional tea tasters, evaluate teas knowing full well that they will not be consumed by themselves. Nearly all tea that passes through Nilhat House will wind up in a blend, so what brokers provide to the market is a sense of what a particular tea’s qualities might offer to a blender, from color to cost. Blenders do their work behind very tightly closed doors, so it was not easy for me to observe that process in action. What was more interesting to me was the way in which brokers’ messages about individual lots of tea reverberated back to plantation managers and growers, either through direct contact with brokers or through interventions by tea scientists. Growers can now select clonal varieties of teas that—under the right environmental conditions—will have particular qualities that some blenders may desire.
Blending has a fascinating history. As I suggest in the book, the process of tea blending was bound up with a whole host of British colonial anxieties about health, race, and class. That blended tea from Indian plantations would become such an important component of British consumptive life was far from a foregone conclusion. In the debates about blending for the British market, as well as in contemporary debates about whether smallholder-grown tea can compete with plantation-grown tea, it is the prospect of blending that matters as much as anything. Frustratingly for anyone who understands the inequalities and injustices they embody, plantations remain the industry’s benchmark platform for providing blendable quality teas to the mass-market.
Jon Bialecki: The Stranger at the Feast stands out for numerous reasons. First, it reads like one of those classical ethnographies that have no seams, being all of one piece. But at the same time, it’s also far from monological; without engaging in any representational trickery, you allow your research assistants and friends in the field to have their own voice, and the book even gives them space to engage in their own counter-ethnography of the West.
But perhaps because of my background as an academic, or perhaps because this open-access monograph came out as a part of the University of California Press’s Anthropology of Christianity series, what stood out was how this book read like a fun-house inverted reflection of the anthropology of Christianity literature. Now, there has been a raft of books arguing for Eastern Orthodoxy as an autonomous and valuable ethnographic object in its own right. But rather than just militate for the importance of including Eastern Orthodoxy, Stranger takes analytic tropes from the more Protestant- and Pentecostal-oriented anthropology of Christianity, such as mediation and presence, and makes them strange.
So, starting there, I was hoping we could begin the conversation by contrasting the path Stranger lays out by breaking with the kind of bog-standard discussions of mediation we’ve seen in so many other ethnographies of Christian groups. How does mediation work in Stranger, and in what ways does the discussion of mediation both follow and depart from how this problem has been treated by in other ethnographies of Christian groups?
Tom Boylston: One of the basic arguments of the book is that Orthodox practice in Zege has transformed in all sorts of ways but the key constant has been that there must be mediation – both in the sense of intermediaries who intercede between humanity and God, and in the sense of material media of sacred presence. And that insistence on mediation is formulated in opposition to Protestantism and to secular government practices – Zege hasn’t seen a lot of Protestant conversion yet but it’s been happening in other parts of what’s thought of as canonical Orthodox territory. So, I think lay and clerical Orthodox Christians are engaged in their own sophisticated critique of Protestantism and secularism, both of which are understood as projects of immediacy. For example, both Protestants and the state have been critical of the Orthodox practice that you don’t work the fields on Saints’ days. This undermines the saintly mediation of the relationship between people and land; in advocating a direct, unmediated relationship between people and land, it tries to break down a complex relational religious ecology. So Orthodox Christians often describe Protestantism and secularism as equally anti-religious forces.
This starts to give you a hint of what it means to insist on mediation as a basic religious principle. You must have intercession, so salvation is always relational. There’s a huge emphasis on performing religious acts on other’s behalf, which can mean praying to a saint for someone (so mediating to a mediator), or carrying jerrycans full of holy water for your sick neighbour. And mediation means that religious practice is ecological – it is built into your relationship with the land, and the calendar, and your own body – because you have saints’ days, and fasting days, and working days, and corresponding spaces mapped out between church, forest, and fields. Maybe this helps to understand why the book feels quite continuous – it’s describing a system that extends far beyond explicitly religious events into every part of life.
How this relates to the anthropology of Christianity (which is my own background) – I honestly think Orthodox Christians and anthropologists of Christianity alike are perceiving contemporary world orders as projects of immediacy – and lots of anthropologists and media scholars have pointed out the irony that the desire for immediate experience is produced by increasingly complex technological mediation. And anthropologists like Birgit Meyer, Matthew Engelke, Webb Keane, Patrick Eisenlohr, and others, have picked apart this quest for immediacy and shown the complex and conflicted relationships with the material world that come out of the intertwined projects of missionary religion, globalization, and colonialism.
This work has been foundational for me, but I would suggest that the Orthodox critique of immediacy is different in important ways from the scholarly critique. For most anthropologists of religion and media, certainly working on Protestant traditions, the starting point is: obviously God and spirits are not actually present to the senses – given this, how do people go about creating or learning to perceive divine presence? This logic participates (albeit critically) in the project of immediacy. Because it starts from an empty-box cosmology, where material stuff is just there and the question is how we animate it and make it seem alive. The desire for unmediated contact with reality is born out of a severance between consciousness and the world (and William Mazzarella has shown how this is just as true of a certain type of academic affect theory as for Protestantism). I don’t think that’s where Orthodox Christians in Zege are starting from.
So what if, rather than asking how we animate the world with the tools of semiotics, we were to ask how we deal with a world that is obviously already filled with divine presence? Here mediation becomes not a way of realizing an absent God, but of keeping divinity at bay to some extent – to keep humanity at a respectful distance from God, although God is omnipresent.
Ultimately, I think mediation does both things simultaneously – it realizes connection with the other but also keeps them at bay. And this is why mediation is so closely connected with prohibition and discipline in Zege. You have to work through these spatio-temporal structures of distance and proximity, which tie the people, land, and church together, but in a hierarchical way that’s full of distinctions and intermediaries.
And the final point is that this is a historical thing. It’s not a perennial ritual structure but one that’s been defined in response to other things, that’s been subject to attempts at capture and seizure, that people have had to work out what matters and have emphasized different aspects of the mediation structure at different times (whether it’s fasting, sacrifice, priests, institutional authority, control of land) but the core point has been that there must be mediation, and that to oppose mediation, as Protestants are thought to do, is to attack religion in general.
Jon Bialecki: It’s interesting that you close by stressing the historically situated and dialectical nature of the Zege interest in religious mediation. In some moments in the 20th century and earlier, hierarchy and mediation were deeply integrated with issues of land-tenure, caste, mortuary feasting, and pre-secularist governmentality. At times, Strangers reads as a very British anthropological book that has an eye trained on how social organization gives birth to a cultural imaginary. But reading Strangers in such a way would do violence to both the ethnography and the argument of the book, as you show that in the absence of these social-organizational forms, the mediation-focused, hyper-hierarchical religious imagination does not fade away or slide into egalitarian forms. Instead, unmoored from these earlier modes of governance and ritual practices, this particular Zege religious imagination actually goes into overdrive. Could you say a little about how this hierarchical, mediatic imagination can exist apart from its original social conditions, and something about the new forms that it takes – and, hence, also about the new work that it does?
Tom Boylston: Well, I don’t think religious practice in Zege has been unmoored from anything, because fasting as a practice has been such a strong mooring. And the deep resilience of fasting is one of the most important points of the book. Fasting is a Protean practice – it can be a form of submission to authority or, as Caroline Walker Bynum showed, a way of circumventing it. You can perform it whether you are devout or completely unobservant in every other part of your life. You don’t have to make any particular proclamation in order to fast, but you can use it for very personal acts of atonement and faith. It’s dictated by this fairly rigid calendar (which has also been resilient), and yet fasting is still full of possibility and creativity. There’s also very widespread loyalty to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in its broadest sense, and regardless of the individuals who happen to occupy any particular position.
But yes, over the 20th century there has been massive upheaval, especially in the socialist and post-socialist reforms. During the DERG period there was very significant land reform and the church lost most of its landholdings, but the practice of Christianity remained intact or even grew at the grassroots level. Then in the current period there has been a continuing process of political secularization and public religious revival at the same time. But I think one of the things that changed in Zege was that the elite class that had developed around the monasteries – not the clergy themselves, but landholder-church officials – was disempowered, and so was a lot of the semi-formal ritual activity that sustained them. This includes funeral feasts, which were massive occasions for distributing food and reinforcing hierarchy, but have now been recast as wasteful and immoral. I think that an emphasis on religious mediation – and on religious hierarchy – is a way of maintaining a sphere of life that is not determined by secular governmentality. But to be recognized as legitimate it has to proceed through authorized structures – the Church and its doctrinal practices. Fasting and liturgical practice aren’t anti-government in particular, but they do mark out a certain limit to secular authority.
Jon Bialecki: I think that this brings us to the issues that sit at the (literal) center of the book: slavery, caste, and a class of deadly (sometimes) nonhuman entities called buda. What stood out to me in the book was the complex and ambivalent nature that these three deeply imbricated phenomena had to hierarchy and mediation. They could be seen as expressions of hierarchy’s logic, as means of support for the now vitiated prior social institutions that supported and benefited from hierarchy, and corrosive agents that dissolved hierarchy and hierarchy pre-twentieth-century social infrastructure. Especially slavery and buda seemed to at once be particularly well suited to think through hierarchy in both positive and negative modes. Could you say something about the shared histories of these categories, and their relation to the hierarchical and mediatic Zege imagination and sociality?
Tom Boylston: I don’t think I would describe the relationship between slavers and slaves as hierarchical, because hierarchy implies commensurability, and slavery completely denies it. I think the same is true of many of the stigmatized artisan groups living in Zege and elsewhere, and the stigma still exists even though slavery ended in the 1930s. This is probably true of most hierarchies – there is ranked inclusion, but then there is always a point of exclusion, of those against whom the hierarchy defines itself. These exclusions are totally contradictory to Christian universalism, but they continue to coexist at different levels.
The best way to understand it might be through feeding, which is both inclusive and hierarchical. It creates a bond between us, but through the figure of parent and child, host and guest, or Christ as bread of heaven and humanity. It is hierarchy as care as well as power. And there is attenuated food sharing across religious boundaries – Christians and Muslims will share food but not meat or alcohol. But stigmatized identities are those you refuse all commensality with. I try to show in the book how this refusal is accompanied by a projection of violent greed toward the stigmatized person: that they have no land, they desire what you have and will try to take it from you instead of following the proper channels of feeding and receiving.
By tracing different levels of mediation – through food, marriage, and the Eucharist, for example, we can see how hierarchy is not monolithic, but plays out in multiple, overlapping ways through material and relational practices.
Jon Bialecki: The observation you just made, viewing hierarchy more as a process or imminent mode of ordering, rather than as a structure, seems to really come to the fore in the final section of the book. The introduction of electricity to Zege, which occurred only a few years before you began your fieldwork there, opened up what, to your interlocutors, was new media technologies, including the internet and social media. And concomitant with that was a very particular imaginative orientation to the broader world. This process was also accelerated by the expansion of tourism as a local industry, and also by widely circulated news of anti-Christian violence in Libya and South Africa. But even these new possibilities and orientations didn’t mark a break with hierarchy and a conscious elaboration of mediation, causing something more along the lines of mutations and expansions rather than any weakening of the hierarchical imperative. How do new media, and a changing orientation to the extra-Ethiopian world, change senses of belonging, attachment, and position, while still being animated by a particularly Ethiopian-Orthodox logic?
Tom Boylston: Facebook, for example, was very important for maintaining contact with loved ones who had traveled to the Dubai or Saudi to work. A lot of these connections were maintained through religious idioms – posting images of saints or churches or prayers, as kind of figures of connection – as beings and practices that protect and bind us regardless of physical space.
One point that has been hammered home by the literature on religion and media is that religious communication, like any other communication, is dependent on material media and infrastructures. And a question that occurred to me was whether, from this perspective, communication with God or saints was any different to mediated communication among humans. If you approach it from the perspective of presence, this question is hard to answer, because prayer, like using Facebook or Skype, is a way of making absent others present. And I wonder if the Protestant-influenced, presence-focused literature on mediation thinks of religious communication maybe too much like a telephone to God.
But if we think about examples like the one above and ask what it means to post a picture of a saint on Facebook, and whether this resembles the veneration of an icon, we see that the saint is not acting as a human other, as a co-partner in conversation, but precisely as an intermediary whose love and protection we both seek out. So rather than think of saints and their images as producing presence, I prefer to think of them as augmenting the communicative network. Just as observing a saintly day of rest loops the saint into stewardship of the land, so posting a saint’s image loops the saint into our social relationship as kin who are separated from one another but are expressing concern and co-belonging over large distances. And so when we share other images, for example of our countrymen being murdered far from home, these are also framed within the aegis of saints and prayers.
This certainly might raise interesting theological questions – about whether digital images should be venerated, or about whether they can be sanctified. But in practical terms I don’t think those questions are very prominent. It’s always struck me that, for regular Orthodox Christians, one of the most obvious uses for a cellphone – or a bus, or any technology that extends space and time – is to carry images of saints. Saints have a spatial and temporal expansiveness that superficially resembles that of media technology, but is quite different.
Jon Bialecki: The interests in emergent technologies and concomitant conceptual invention just discussed also seem to be informing what I understand to be your next project. Could you say a little about what you are working on now, and also about how this new project might be connected to the theoretical concerns that informed Strangers at the Feast?
Tom Boylston: First I want to thank you for the time and thought you have put into this. It means a lot.
I don’t completely know what the next project is going to look like, but for various life reasons I’m going to be looking at video games. Which seems like a departure from Orthodox Christianity, but it picks up on two themes that have been very important to me. One is what it’s like to inhabit a world immersed in lively images, and the other is the kinds of body disciplines that go along with such a world and link bodies and images together. So I’m interested in emerging discourses of game addiction, and trying to understand what it means to abstain in an always-on society. I’m also interested in how game makers and players describe and work through different kinds of trauma through the distinctive kind of image-practice that video games offer.
If it’s all right with you, I’d like to just finish with a reflection on fasting that might be inchoate in the book but has shaped my thinking – about anthropology and about life – ever since. In the North Atlantic capitalist world, a lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea of fasting. There are endless studies about how fasting must be harmful for pregnant women (Orthodox Christian women are quite capable of figuring out how much food they need, and if they have too little it’s generally not because they’re choosing to fast). A lot of people are tempted to read fasting through what they know about Ethiopia, which is its history of famines, and I think this is deeply the wrong way to go about it. In the UK, where I live, people understand dieting and going to the gym but tend to be freaked out by the idea of regular, communal (and often quite mild) self-denial. In the UK, even our ascetic practices are forms of consumption, and the idea of deliberate non-consumption is seen as something verging on illness. And I would put this down to political-economic reasons, on the slow closing down of shared spaces that aren’t dependent on purchasing something. I don’t want to romanticize it but I do want to emphasize that culture is not just a set of interpretable symbols that can be made meaningful. It is a set of effective techniques for achieving something in the world, and often this achievement – this real, technical knowledge – is operative at the level of collective subjectivity. I suggest that fasting is a technique of collective attention that resists commodification or any other kind of reduction in really important ways. And, as Ephraim Isaac has pointed out, it is a mistake to think of fasting as world-hating or world denying. This would be to fall into the fallacy of immediacy – you refuse food, therefore you must hate your body. But think of this in terms of attention, and you can see that fasting only makes you more aware of your body and its needs and desires. Fasting can be a way of drawing attention to spiritual others, but only through the body itself.
Jon Bialecki: There is a lot to this book. It contains reflections on the history of the discipline of anthropology and the unpacking of some of the unstated assumptions and ironies of geology. And most striking to my mind are the carefully crafted sketches of Scottish and English communities who either take up, or foreclose, the issue of deep time as an integral part of what collectively constitutes them aesthetically, economically, and at times even existentially. But I think that for many of the readers of CaMP, what might stand out is how the people you’ve worked with have learned to read and imagine the landscape around them.
The Bahktinian idea of the chronotype, introduced to our discipline through linguistic anthropology, seems to play a large role in your thinking on this matter. I was wondering if you could say what work the chronotype does when thinking about deep time and how the concept of deep time might extend, question, or transform the traditional way that the chronotype is understood and used in anthropology?
Richard Irvine: So the anthropological potential of the chronotope as a way of thinking about landscape is something that’s pretty well known through Tim Ingold’s work, but the possibilities of the concept also came to life for me when reading the work of linguistic anthropologists such as Asif Agha, and really thinking about the way that temporal norms are shaped. What this opened up for me is the political agency of the ways we encapsulate time. That becomes pretty important if we’re thinking about how the Geological Time Scale generalises and globalises a particular moment of encounter in Imperial Britain. Deep time is mapped in relation to Britain’s coal measures, and the names of the periods around the Carboniferous reference the geography of Wales and Devon. So, not to sound too facetious, but there’s likely a bit of Imperial Britain beneath you wherever you are.
When it comes to engaging with the chronotope, the place I do this most obviously is in Chapter 3, where I talk about the idyll. Bakhtin describes the chronotope of the idyll as a “sealed off segment of nature’s space”. And I ask, well, what underlies the English idyll? What are the conditions of existence that make this idyll possible? This is something that’s being asked with particular urgency right now in forcing a recognition of Colonial history. But I’m also asking it materially, because the idyll not only rests on but relies on its underlying geology.
That relationship tends to be an extractive relationship, delving into resources formed in our geological history and paying the consequences of that extraction forward into the planetary future. But the ‘sealing off’ that Bakhtin describes – a sealing off that I think characterises our present idyllic mode of consumption more widely – often means that those actions in the present are bracketed off from the geological history they’re situated in. This is what I describe in the book as the “extraction from deep time”.
Jon Bialecki: Your answer brings us to one of the most recurrent themes in the book: the “extraction from deep time.” In both the ethnographic and theoretical portions of your book, you document numerous ways that this foreclosing of both geological history and geological futures occurs. What stands out to me is that this denial, this bracketing, seems to have certain kind of cunning to it – even when people seem to be actively trying to think about deep time, such as imagining a post-human world, you identify them as engaging in this bracketing, too. Could you say something about how this bracketing operates, even when people are trying to deny any claim to escape deep time, and also – if this isn’t cheating by asking two questions at once – whether this bracketing is a kind of blindness, bad faith, or perhaps some combination of the two, or perhaps even something entirely different? Continue reading →