Sarah Muir on her new book, Routine Crisis

Routine Crisis: An Ethnography of Disillusion, Muir

Interview by Kabir Tambar

Kabir Tambar: Routine Crisis is about the aftermath of the economic collapse in Argentina in 2001-2002. What is the significance of focusing your analysis not on the period that we conventionally think of as the crisis itself but more on the years that followed?

Sarah Muir: A lot of people have written about the years of the crisis itself. My aim in focusing on the post-crisis period wasn’t simply to do something different, but to ask how something like a “crisis” becomes a recognizable event, with a particular significance. The premise of the book is that an event doesn’t snap into formation once and for all; rather, an event is continually and recursively constituted through semiotic processes that we can trace. Its spatial and temporal boundaries, its internal poetic structure, its relevant contextualization, its implications and significance–none of these inhere within a particular set of developments, and all of them must be constituted in interactions and interpretations. Benjamin used the image of the tiger’s leap to describe how things from the past can suddenly leap into the present, infusing the present with new possibilities for the future. I wanted to explore that open-endedness of an event’s historical significance and political possibility in concrete, empirical detail.

Kabir Tambar: The title of your book confronts the reader with a startling paradox, and it points precisely to this unsettled nature of eventhood. While it is not difficult to imagine a situation where the routines of everyday life have come under crisis (a crisis of routine, let us say), it is much less obvious to think of crisis as something that has become routinized (hence “routine crisis”). If a crisis of routine might belong to an exceptional moment, a routine crisis carries the full weight of a normalized historical patterning. Can you discuss what is at stake in thinking of our historical moment in terms of this fraught conceptual pairing?

Sarah Muir:  At least since Marx, there has been a robust tradition of approaching capitalism as a system of perpetual crisis, in which a boom-bust logic propels things forward, with crisis serving as the means of reproducing, in somewhat altered form, the social world. What’s striking is that, in Argentina, the centrality of crisis to capitalism is not only an idea that leftist intellectuals entertain. To the contrary: Argentina has been so thoroughly constituted by over a century of repetitive economic crises that the centrality of crisis has long been a palpable, lived fact for all kinds of people. As a result, crisis has become a touchstone that people use to orient themselves as they grapple with the world around them, as they consider questions and make decisions about issues national and intimate, momentous and mundane. In this sense, crisis has become folded into the routines of daily life as the one thing you can count on. My aim was to trace both the emergence and the consequences of that paradox, one that we can now find not only in Argentina, but in many other places as well.

Kabir Tambar: One of the ways that you study this lived experience of routine crisis is through the concept of “crisis talk.” This concept seems crucial to the methodological orientation of the book as a whole. How does attention to language frame your understanding of economic collapse?

Sarah Muir:  Very early in my research, it was obvious that people talked constantly about the 2001-2002 crisis, and that this talk was surprising in two ways. First, it was extraordinarily repetitive, so much so that I quickly found I could predict how a given bit of commentary would unfold. Second, this continual chatter about the crisis didn’t diverge along familiar sociological and ideological lines; people with wildly different backgrounds and commitments talked in remarkably similar ways. Both things struck me as odd until I realized that crisis talk worked as a kind of ritual, one that knitted together particular aspects of recent history into a highly stylized narrative. This narrative worked to ground both speaker and listener in the temporal rhythm of routine crisis. What I try to do in the book is show how that ritual of crisis talk allowed routine crisis to orient economic, political, and even interpersonal practices. In other words, this talk was the site where the crisis of 2001-2002 was constituted (over and over again) as a determinate event with a particular significance. And, it was only by attending to language as a crucial mode of consequential social practice that I could start teasing apart the dynamics of the post-crisis period.

Kabir Tambar: For me, one of the most intellectually creative and generative moments in the book arises in your analysis of corruption. You argue that discourses about corruption in Argentina can be profitably analyzed through anthropological theories of witchcraft. How did you come to make this connection? What sort of work were you reading when you started to develop this formulation?

Sarah Muir:  It isn’t entirely on the surface all the way through, but Nancy Munn’s Fame of Gawa permeates my approach to all the themes I explore in the book. When I first read it, it absolutely bowled me over in the possibilities it opens up for understanding the constitution of time, space, and personhood. It gave me tools for imagining how we could take an idea like Bakhtin’s notion of chronotope and use it in detailed anthropological analysis. While I hadn’t anticipated studying corruption, the topic was omnipresent during my fieldwork. I kept coming back to the way Munn describes Gawan witchcraft as the rapacious consumption of a community’s very capacity to produce value. That notion of witchcraft sounded very much like the way Argentines talked about corruption as eroding the conditions of possibility of national belonging. And, theorizing corruption with respect to value helped me see how it was bound up with the ways Argentines dealt not only with obviously financial and economic matters, but also with political institutions and interpersonal relations.

Kabir Tambar: This endemic and diffuse problem of producing value seems also to lead to a prevalent sensibility toward history, one that you refer to as disillusion with the promises of progress and modernity. It strikes me that one might view this sensibility as entailing a withdrawal from politics. But my sense from your book is that my presumption of depoliticization might be made in haste. Can you talk about whether this historical sensibility harbors a possibility for a kind of politics or a distinctive way of relating to political activity?

Sarah Muir:  I don’t think one would be wrong to see depoliticization in the sensibility of disillusion, and there are absolutely important elements of that in the material in the book. And yet, it’s not the whole story. Even as people would proclaim themselves to be fully disillusioned and even as they would reject out of hand the notion that politics might be an arena for legitimate engagement, they also were constantly engaging with political matters. However, the upshot of those politics, whether they skewed right or left, was entirely underdetermined. Looking beyond Argentina, I’m struck by the way disillusion with institutions of various sorts can give rise to intensified demands to raze things to the ground and start anew (for example, the conversation around whether to “let Anthropology burn”) as well as to quiescent withdrawal (for example, Voltaire’s oft-cited quip about tending one’s own garden). So, disillusion doesn’t amount to depoliticization. But it does amount to relationships to politics–and to social life more broadly–that are very different from modernist accounts of history, progress, and utopia.

Merav Shohet on her book, Silence and Sacrifice

Silence and Sacrifice by Merav Shohet

Interview by Annemarie Samuels

Annemarie Samuels: When you first started considering doing ethnographic research in Vietnam, what did you want to focus on and how did this focus change during fieldwork?

Merav Shohet: I’ll be honest, I didn’t come to the study of “silence and sacrifice” directly. I first wanted to study trauma and memory, thinking that Vietnam’s civil and anticolonial war would take center stage for people. I also considered studying Vietnam’s high rates of abortion in light of its two-child family planning policy. But the more I studied Vietnamese, including the literature, memoirs, and films that came with studying language, the more the term “sacrifice” (hy sinh) caught my attention. I was always hearing or reading about it, and so became curious what hy sinh signified for people and why it was so often brought up. At the same time, I remained curious about silences surrounding memories of war, bereavement, Vietnam’s economic transitions, and sacrifice itself in the everyday, since the latter is such a familiar (often guilt-tripping) trope in the Jewish homes I was familiar with.

I found myself drawn to Đà Nẵng because of its history: this was where American troops first landed, and where so many families were split even earlier, some going north to join the Communist Revolution while others remained in place. Many emigres were deployed in Quảng Nam to liberate the South from American occupation, leaving civilian loved ones in Hanoi also exposed to American raids. They returned victorious after the wars, rejoining kin in coastal central Vietnam. I was intrigued by these reunifications, and wondered whether, how, and why they were sustained, and what role tình cảm, which I constantly heard invoked, played here.

The questions that guided my research revolved around how kinship, sacrifice, and tình cảm figure in people’s lives. Who belongs as family? If unity was even desirable, how was it achieved across so many rifts? I was especially puzzled by how people who had so recently been at war—against foreign occupation and invasion, but also against one another—seemed to have buried the past and “moved on” with the simple statement, xông rồi (it’s done). How did it come about that in so many families where brothers, sisters, and cousins had fought on opposing sides, they now appeared happy to eat and celebrate and work together? What accounted for this seemingly facile unity when I was used to rancor toward foes? How did they possibly narrate, and seem to truly believe in linear continuity with the past, given Vietnam’s many ruptures, including colonial occupation, revolution, and now the precipitous transition from communism to late socialist capitalism? What helped bind people together, and where were the fissures?

Also, I think because I’ve always been interested in language and food and emotion, I wanted to understand their roles in producing seeming continuity and tamping down conflict. That’s why I studied the micro dynamics of everyday eating, speaking, and affective norms, rather than focus on so-called big issues like religion, formal education, or politics and state ideology. I did this by combining the methods of linguistic and psychological anthropology, adopting the lens of language socialization to learn how children are raised and become subjectified, along with adults, to sacrifice and display tình cảm. Every 4-6 weeks, I filmed households in their everyday and ritual activities, in addition to engaging in constant participant observation (where I found that ritual pervades the everyday, in the Goffmanian as well as Geertzian senses). To further contextualize my observations and understand more about people’s psychic lives—which I saw as intersubjective rather than strictly internal—I also interviewed multiple family members repeatedly throughout the year, learning of their ongoing concerns as they unfolded over time, contextualized by their relatives’ remarks and interactions. These all brought me to the focus on silence and everyday sacrifice.

Annemarie Samuels: In your book you offer a novel understanding of the concept of sacrifice by showing how it is situated in the everyday. How did you come to understand everyday sacrifice in Vietnam? And what role does silence play in the act of sacrifice?

Merav Shohet: It’s funny, because when I first learned hy sinh translates to sacrifice, I thought of it as parallel to the terms and usages in English and other Indo-European and Semitic languages, where sacrifice is associated with bloodshed, real or symbolic, on the religious altar, as a ritual act of slaughter and offering, or in battle. This is how sacrifice has been theorized in anthropology. When I’ve presented about sacrifice in the everyday and as an ordinary practice of moral care, I’ve sometimes gotten pushback, that this is not the real meaning of sacrifice, or that hy sinh isn’t really sacrifice. I want to push back against such critiques, because in Vietnam, hy sinh does not signify ritual slaughter, but it certainly is equated with patriotic death in war; and despite state efforts to cement the connection between the term and patriotic death, people also continually talk about their parents’—and especially mothers’—sacrifices for them. In many popular representations, and in everyday speech, daughters and sons, poets, novelists, and journalists extoll (their) mothers as virtuous for giving them life (sinh) and continually suffering on loved ones’ behalf.  

I should note that in what we think of as the West, too, sacrifice has this everyday connotation, even if it’s muted in our theories. This is part of why I set out to study sacrifice in the everyday among families, to expand how we think about sacrifice in relation to ethics and sociality. Still, despite several pilot research trips prior to the long-term dissertation project, I had not realized that outside of interviews, sacrifice is relatively silent. People typically do not call attention to their own sacrifices for others. They strive to suffer in silence for the benefit of others, and for an act to count as a sacrifice—whether it’s skipping a meal, disciplining one’s feelings/body, foregoing education, love, health, or even life for the sake of someone dear—there need to be others to notice and talk about it. As in the classic anthropological sense, sacrifice is always a multi-party, intersubjective moral affair.

The silence of sacrifice is not only about who is authorized to speak about or make a spectacle of it (that is, not the person sacrificing). It’s also about the moral weight attributed to suffering or taking on hardship in silence, and retrospectively keeping silent about one’s acts of sacrifice, while cultivating a disposition to embrace silent sacrifice in the first place. In daily life, the term sacrifice is not used much, but the ethical orientation associated with it is developed through communicative and other practices. These instill the sense that mutual, but unequal social obligations between kin and other intimates are natural, ethical, expected, and necessary: discipline and small or large acts of suffering for the benefit of others are to be embraced in silence and with a smile, without resentment. This begins already in toddlerhood, with routine modes of attending to those around you, for example by greeting them according to their (fictive kin) relationship to you, using the correct body posture and reference and address terms. And this disposition to sacrifice continues to be cultivated throughout life. It’s accomplished not by proclaiming something like, “I am teaching you to sacrifice” or “you are learning to sacrifice” or “you should sacrifice more,” but by enacting sacrifice through showing tình cảm, displaying respect to those above oneself and yielding to those below. It includes tending to the ancestors regularly, by maintaining their altar and celebrating their death anniversary and other occasions, which often take quite a bit of material resources and efforts that bind the generations in long-term, ideally loving, debt relations.

I should note that sacrifice and the silences involved in it are gendered and engendering. In Vietnam’s hetero- and cis-normative social milieu, men’s public recognition and praise of women’s sacrifices interpellate and pressure them into the silent sacrifice role deemed to embody feminine virtue. There are also far greater expectations of women than of men to discipline their bodies and desires and forgo benefits and pleasures for the sake of others, especially their children, husband, and elders. Women often participate in these acts of disciplining one another, in part by censuring each other for lacking “tình cảm” if there is any hint of them being less than enthusiastic about giving generously and taking on responsibilities willingly, while praising men more for doing much less. In effect, it is people’s, and especially women’s continual striving to display tình cảm and undertake suffering silently for intimates, without complaint or dissent, that helps bind families together by preserving and narrating as virtuous and mutually beneficial the hierarchies of kinship, gender, and class.  

Annemarie Samuels: Despite tremendous yet subtle everyday efforts to keep families together, you show how sometimes people encounter the limits of love. One of the themes in your book is the friction that the demands of sacrifice may bring. Could you say a bit about the limits of tình cảm (love, care) and how people navigate these limits?

Merav Shohet: Yes, so in the previous question I may have made it sound like there is a closed system of hierarchy and reciprocity that guarantees harmonious relations, as though the different orders of hierarchy neither intersect nor conflict. The expectation/idealization is that intimates, especially those considered kin, will always feel and display tình cảm toward one another, by wanting to help and generously give when others are in need, as well as anticipate each other’s desires and provide for them through acts of care motivated by love. It could be easy enough to posit this structuralist framework and stop there, but this would be ethnographically dishonest. Relations do get messy, and not just when ethical principles come into conflict. Sacrifice and tình cảm are dynamic, not static, and people’s positionalities shift in relation to who they are interacting with and in what contexts. This means that what may look like love from some vantage points may be judged inadequate and even hurtful from another perspective.

In this respect, my ethnography is not unique to Vietnam. It points to systemic gender, class, and age inequities that we see across many contexts. In Vietnam, but likely elsewhere as well, the idealization of asymmetrical reciprocity through the valorization of (silent) sacrifice, together with the ways in which it unfolds in practice, helps explain how a status quo of inequality is often maintained, not just through relations of power and exploitation, but also through the collusion of those who love/care. One of the major ways that people navigate the troubled waters of tình cảm and the ways that women, especially, are burdened with the mandate to show tình cảm is through narrative. In telling and enacting stories in interactions with one another, people make moral claims on each other. Attending to the ways in which these stories unfold helps illuminate the ways that love and care are not so innocent and can hurt as well as help those involved. In the monograph, I recount participants’ stories of care and the conflicts embedded within them, to show how kin grapple with the limits of love or tình cảm through narrative as well as ritual acts and occasions, where people and principles come in contact, and often friction, with one another.   

Annemarie Samuels: These moments of friction may be recognized through what you call “sideshadowing narratives”, right?

Merav Shohet: Yes, so sideshadowing is a somewhat obscure term, and yet quite generative, I think, for describing those experiences when people consider multiple perspectives and possibilities, rather than stick to just one unitary and consistent way of understanding their lifeworlds. We witness how ethics unfold in ordinary life by attending to both the content and the structure and grammar of stories, as these clue us in to people’s entanglements, shifting or consistent affective and moral stances, and thus their evaluations of their own and others’ actions, thoughts, and feelings. In the face of war, reconciliation, and political-economic transformations, life was full of contradictions, moral ambiguities, and personal ambivalences.

People’s narratives, which constitute (rather than merely reflect) their experiences, likewise were not always linear and hermetic structures with a clear beginning, middle, and end, a clear resolution of events, and a clear moral stance about those involved. People did often formulate foreshadowing and backshadowing narratives, which rely on hindsight to see events in the past as foretelling and determining what is yet to come, and judging protagonists accordingly. They did so to minimize confusion, ambivalence, or uncertainty, positing the present and future as direct outcomes of the past. But other times, people left the future more open-ended, and regarded the past and present as also laden with alternate possibilities. Their sideshadowing narrations juxtaposed incommensurate realities, considered paths not taken, and contemplated what might have been or still could be, had acts and circumstances been (interpreted and) responded to in different ways. A bit more encompassing than “subjunctive narratives,” which leave events and possibilities open-ended, sideshadowing narrations rendered not just the future, but also the past open to alternative ways of unfolding, allowing me to hear silences embedded in characters’ oftentimes not fully articulated conflictual relations and frictions surrounding love and sacrifice.

Annemarie Samuels: You use the method of family-centered ethnography. What does this method add to person-centered ethnography? And how may this method help us to find out how people think of family in the first place?

Merav Shohet: This is another great question, thank you. As I noted earlier, the research drew on multiple methods. Language-centered methodologies allowed me to gain insight about the ways in which people’s affects, desires, values, actions, and so forth are mediated and constituted through embodied, communicative interactions, as well as their material environments and historical contexts. Person-centered interviews, which involve multiple, open-ended discussions with participants over a period of months, help get a sense of people’s subjective worlds, as these unfold and change over time. A family-centered ethnography extends this lens to consider not just how individuals navigate their internal and external worlds, but how it is through their situatedness within historical and social contexts, including the kin group, that ethical lives are constructed in interactions (real or imagined) with intimates and other relatives, and in relation to a past that stretches beyond individuals’ personal lives.

Quite a bit of ink has been spilled on kinship and relatedness, and I would never claim that I have an authoritative approach to the study of families. With the advent of reproductive technologies, anthropologists have moved away from thinking of families simply in terms of ‘blood’ and ‘marriage,’ or as bastions of social solidarity and harmony. More recently, anthropologists have theorized families both as the locus of care absent in institutional settings, and as sources of conflict that, along with structural inequalities under neoliberal capitalism, may be the root of social and moral breakdown. I draw on all these perspectives to denaturalize categories like the family and recognize the ways it sometimes stretches relatedness, while other times its bounds are constricted and made exclusive. In short, what family even means and to whom remains in doubt, along with how belonging is achieved, who counts as a member, of what configuration, in what context, and on what grounds.  

As an ethnographer, I was continually confronted with the problem of which set of perspectives and ethical aspirations to privilege, since often there are disagreements within the group, and even in the way a single character narrates these in different contexts. What counted as moral care in some circumstances or from some perspectives could alternately be seen as a form of discipline, violence, abandonment, or exclusion. Rather than privilege individual or unitary perspectives, I found myself attending to the plurality of voices within families, as well as to the entangled disagreements, inconsistences, contradictions, and ambivalences that people articulated (in what I discussed earlier as sideshadowing narratives). This approach allowed me to highlight members’ ethical reasoning and moral sentiments revealed in the grammar of micro- and macro-narratives, all the while refusing to reduce ethnographic insights to reductive categories of what constitutes kinship. A family-centered ethnography that closely examines social situations from the perspectives of the different stakeholders involved, without assuming their unity or conformity, I think, offers insights about care, morality, and ethics, as well as the ways that gender, class, age, political, and other hierarchies crosscut one another, patterning life in complicated and often messy and contentious ways. It reinforces, finally, the feminist insight that public ethics are to be found in the after-all-not-so-private domain of families’ always political home lives.

Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese discuss Voices of a City Market

Jacket Image

Interview by Amanda Kaminsky

Amanda Kaminsky: This book takes a highly unconventional structure. It begins and ends with a scripted dialogue among various stakeholders, while the middle takes the form of a rich collage of voices, photographs, and ethnographic details. What were your goals when setting out to write this book, and what was the process through which you arrived at its final structure?

Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese: Voices of a City Market   is an outcome of the ethnographic research we conducted in Birmingham Bull Ring Market. The book is structured in three parts, and breaks with the conventions of the traditional ethnographic monograph. Part I and Part III represent the voices of characters who engage in dialogue about the research. The characters discuss and debate aspects of the representation of the social life of the market. Part II represents the voice and action, the sound and smell, the taste and touch, of the market over four months. Curating examples of everyday practice in the market enable us to argue that the structure and form of Part II of Voices of a City Market is polyphonic, and represents the heteroglossia of the social and commercial life of the market The text allows the closest possible approximation to real life. It is polyphonic, a diversity of social speech types, a diversity of individual voices. At once a curation and a creation, the text orchestrates the heteroglossic diversity of voices through authorial framing, the speech of narrators, and the speech of characters. These are voices which are not closed or resolved, neither finalised, nor unfinalisable. They are voices that represent the human condition. 

Amanda Kaminsky: Multilingualism recurs as a theme throughout this book, both through your interlocutors’ reflections on their own language use, and through the rich descriptions of market interactions. With the exception of a few phrases in Chinese, however, this book is written in English. What challenges did you encounter representing such multilingualism on the page?

Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese: In other books (such as Multilingualism: A Critical Perspective, 2010) we represented different languages both phonetically and in different scripts. For this book, however, we decided to largely translate speech into English. Translations were checked and re-checked. Our decision was made on the basis that the book would be principally published in Anglophone countries. The multilingual/heteroglossic character of the market was one of the most salient and interesting features of the research site.

Amanda Kaminsky: I am intrigued by the character of the Entrepreneur, who appears in the first and final sections of the book to critique the ethnographic project for its lack of profitability. Where did the idea for this character come from? What do you envision the role of ethnographic research to be within a capitalist system?

Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese: The character of the Entrepreneur is important as a counterpoint to the more-or-less liberal orientation of some of the other characters. The discourse of the Entrepreneur offers resistance, which can be a vital catalyst to creativity. Ethnographic research has potential to reveal the inequalities of the capitalist system. It would be good to believe that it can make a difference, and improve people’s lives.

Amanda Kaminsky: Much of the story that unfolds throughout this book centers on a particular butcher shop within the market. As these butchers weigh mincemeat and slice pork belly for their customers, we gradually learn about their backgrounds, their senses of humor, and their hopes for the future. I’m curious about the role that meat plays in the story you tell. What insights into the modern market experience were you able to glean from focusing on butchers, rather than focusing on another industry within the market?

Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese: The butcher stall was a fascinating research site. However, a fish stall, or shoe repair stand, or tee shirt vendor, and so on, might have been equally interesting. The research told us much about the ways in which people from different backgrounds, with different languages, are able to communicate by deploying whatever semiotic resources are available to them. Commerce and trade were key imperatives in this communicative process.

Yoram Bilu on his book, With Us More Than Ever

Cover of With Us More Than Ever by Yoram Bilu

Interview by Yael Assor

Yael Assor: The book first came out in Hebrew and was then translated to English. I was wondering why did you decide to publish this book first in Hebrew, and why publish it in English at all? Are there any prominent differences between the Hebrew and English versions?

Yoram Bilu: All my books first came out in Hebrew.   Since I find it easier to write lengthy texts in my mother tongue, it would have been awkward not to look first for a local publisher.   But there is also ideology behind it.  Studying phenomena pertinent to Israeli society, I always felt obliged to give priority to local readership (papers are a different story).  This holds for this book as well, as It sheds light, among other things, on the peculiarly Israeli face of Chabad and on significant processes within Israeli society (for example, Mizrachim joining Ashkenazi-based Hasidic groups). At the same time, The messianic surge in Chabad is a golden opportunity to study fundamental issues of religious belief and experience, and this justifies publication in English (e.g. the role of culture in shaping basic cognitive processes through which the Rebbe becomes manifest).  The English version is a bit tighter. 

Yael Assor: On page 259, you write, “Believers experience the Rebbe directly and do not perceive the media that bears his image as standing between the Rebbe and themselves. The ethnographic writing of the anthropologist is a similar kind of mediator; he or she can also vanish from the reader’s consciousness.” Indeed, throughout most of the book, story after story, we read of the Rebbe’s miraculous presence, and to some extent become witnesses of his continuous presence. At the same time, your presence as the ethnographer who mediates these stories to us gets backgrounded. Can you elaborate on your choice to take up this style? Would it be correct to say that by engaging this style, your Chabbad interlocutors were right about your own contribution in disseminating the belief in the Rebbe?

Yoram Bilu: My uncritical  perspective in showering the readers with miraculous stories was not unintended. I wanted them to be immersed in the enchanted world of the Meshichistim, in the messianic ecology they constitute, which I find all-encompassing and at times overwhelming.   By doing so I myself embodied the dialectics of the mediation process.  I agree that some parts of the book can be read as if written from a credulous perspective, though others account for the miracles using social science explanatory models.  Aligning my reply with your next question, I have to qualify the “very experience-near book” designation.  While I sought to depict the inner worlds of the radical messianists, I relied on texts (probably edited thus adding more layers of mediation) more than on interviews and observations.  By doing so, I left unexplored the darker side of experiential worlds of the Meshichistim, where allegedly conflict, frustration, and doubts  also reside.  Focusing on these aspects would have called for a very different book.

Yael Assor: Relatedly, in the Introduction, the two last chapters and the Conclusion, you still take a more distant point of view, discussing your researcher position, contextualizing this study in contemporary theoretical debates and parallel phenomena. Why did you decide to still incorporate this tone in this otherwise very experience-near book?

Yoram Bilu: See above.  Also, my tone has to do with my attempt to calibrate the not-so-compatible fields of psychology and anthropology, which are my combined disciplinary background.  Note, for example, that I use theoretical models from cognitive psychology, such as dissonance reduction or signal detection, as departure points in explaining how the absent Rebbe becomes present.  My critique of these theories in the book is not designed to supplant them but rather to supplement and enrich them by staying attuned to contextual noises which these theories usually discount.  Lastly, I consider myself a modernist at heart, still viewing anthropology as a scientific project (admittedly by stretching the definition of science) and thus necessarily as a comparative one.

Yael Assor: A concept the book centrally engages is “virtual Rebbe.” You argue that “virtual” is not the opposite of “unreal,” but a different form of realness.  Can you expand on how you think this concept contributes to current discussions about “religious imagination,” a term broadly utilized to discuss non-physical dimensions of the cultural life (including subjective and intersubjective experience) of religious movements?

Yoram Bilu: Clinging to virtual worlds is in fact  at the heart of each and every religion.  The sustenance of the virtual Rebbe in messianic Chabad is in this sense just an illustration, albeit uncommon and extreme, of the horizons opened before 21st century believers in cultivating the religious imagination.  The rapid development of virtual realities through new technologies may bolster this imagination – as my book shows.  Does it mean that a contemporary believer enjoys an epistemological edge over a first century believer?   I am not so sure.  One could claim that human imagination – free floating, not bound by technology – could expand rather than curtail the religious horizons shaped by the new technologies.

Yael Assor: Throughout the book you offer a very nuanced analysis of how the Rebbe’s presence is maintained with the help of technological means and in correspondence with contemporary world events and global trends. All this made me wonder about the role of  American neoliberal ideology in informing this dynamic. I was thus curious about your take on this: do you see such connection between American neoliberalism and the Meshichists’ manner of making the Rebbe present? 

Yoram Bilu: Yes, I do see such a connection.  After all, Chabad was reshaped in the 1940s and 1950s in America, with its epicenter in NYC.  Its technological adeptness is but one expression of adopting aspects of the American ethos and style.  In a globalized world Chabad could be viewed as a very successful transnational firm. Note that Harold Blum called Chabad an American Religion.  There are some parallels, I think (with all due differences) between Chabad’s expansion and the growing popularity of Evangelical Chrisianity in various parts of the world – and these similarities are not unrelated to a capitalist, neoliberal theology.

Taxpayer’s Playlist

Filing personal tax returns, with the power of Spotify

Matti Eräsaari, University of Helsinki

Anna-Riikka Kauppinen, University of Cambridge

In May 2020, ahead of the deadline for filing personal tax returns, the Finnish Tax Administration shared a Spotify playlist called ‘Final Countdown’. Featuring songs such as Marianne Faithful’s ‘What’s the Hurry?’, ‘Let’s Get It Started’ by Black Eyed Peas, and ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, the playlist provides the soundtrack to shepherd the citizen through the painstaking journey of filing personal tax returns. This is the annual display of fiscal aptness involving an enlightened citizen who navigates one’s tax deductions for household expenses, maintenance obligations, union fees, mortgage interest, and so forth. Somewhat optimistically, the playlist also included The Beatles’s ‘We Can Work It Out’ and ‘We Are Family’ by Sister Sledge, finally ending on Elton John’s ‘I’m Still Standing’. Appearing like a sports coach on the running track, the Finnish Tax Administration accompanied the playlist with a set of inspirational slogans: “Deadline is approaching! This list will give you a kick. Come on, come on! U can do it! It shall be all right! Believe in yourself! Forward!” (English phrases italicized)

To lighten up what is generally considered as one of the most arduous, time-consuming annual bureaucratic tasks, the Finnish Tax Administration harnessed Spotify to engage with the Finnish taxpaying public. The Spotify playlist is one of the many mediums through which the Finnish Tax Administration has sought to craft an approachable public image. On Instagram and Twitter, they post tax-related memes, in addition to informing about looming deadlines, latest regulations, and answering citizens’ tax-questions. On their Soundcloud page, a series of podcasts called ‘Tax Meditation’ was recently released, featuring a calming female voice guiding the listener through the latest tax rules and advise, whilst their YouTube channel features the“Tax Whisperer”, a bearded hipster breathing tax advice with a playful smile on his face.

Avatars, Spotify playlists and happy employees – IOTA held its first Forum  on Communication | Intra-European Organisation of Tax Administrations
The Finnish Tax Whisperer

It would be hard-pressed to frame these expressions as neoliberal artefacts of bureaucratic self-fashioning (‘getting close to our customers’), because of the element of self-satire that inheres in each and every one of these examples.

So why are the Finnish Tax Administration turning into hipsters now? Lotta Björklund Larsen (2017) has shown how Sweden’s tax agency nurtures or shapes compliant taxpayers who willingly take part in maintaining a Nordic welfare state. In her analysis, this is a question of legitimacy rather than image: the wide coverage of public welfare can only be maintained for as long as the tax agency enjoys the taxpaying public’s full support. The same applies for Finland, where a recent survey revealed a whopping 98 per cent of Finns consider taxpaying important for maintaining the welfare state. Obviously such figures hardly call for the full-scale charm offensive of the Finnish Tax Administration: it is very hard to improve the agency’s high rating.

The adoption of a new, playful public image seems to rather coincide with the introduction of the agency’s new online portal, which automatizes many functions previously settled in person together with Tax Administration officials. The campaign appears to have been highly successful insofar as the portal is concerned: critique has been non-existent. But all this also coincides with wider changes that the Finnish tax authorities are tackling with: in 2017 the Finnish government passed a bill which allows Finnish citizens to own shares in Finnish businesses through nondisclosed foreign securities. At the same time, the tax authorities have, since 2019, allowed high earners to declare their tax records secret; up until 2019 the Tax Administration provided the national media with a public list of Finnish taxpayers who earned more than 100,000 euros in a year. The media, on their part, produced ranking lists of the nation’s highest earners and highest net-taxpayers, a publication appearing every November that some right-leaning quarters call the National Jealousy Day.

Finland recently published everyone's taxes on 'National Jealousy Day' |  World Economic Forum
Finns turning out for National Jealousy Day

However, since 2019, the transparency of these lists has become subject to doubt. Both changes, owning shares through non-disclosed foreign securities and making tax records secret, signal a departure from a long-standing policy of high-degree public accountability. At the same time, the public demand for the transparency of tax records remains – in 2020, Finnish newspapers did investigative work on those high-earners who declared their tax records secret, publishing separate lists of these individuals and demanding answers for their decision.

Where the Tax Administration enjoys a remarkably high public support, even the slightest threat to public accountability matters. Against this background, the Spotify playlist for filing personal tax returns, Tax Meditation and Tax Whisperer craft an image of the kind of public institution that engages in self-deprecating humour, isn’t too glamorous (for example, the ‘sports coach’ on the running track with Europe’s ‘Final Countdown’ in the background), and that could still be considered as being on the ordinary taxpayer’s side. Whether a product of an outsourced marketing consultancy or an internal PR brainstorming session, the newly released social media artefacts of the Finnish Tax Administration demonstrate the shifting dynamics and affects of state-citizen fiscal relations. In Finland where playfulness does not quite capture how citizens engage with the Tax Administration in practice (with utmost seriousness!), filing personal tax returns with the power of Spotify and engaging in meditative practice listening to Finnish tax legislation signals the newly found possibilities of digital media for shaping taxpayers.


Björklund Larsen, Lotta 2017. Shaping Taxpayers: Values in Action at the Swedish Tax Agency. New York: Berghahn.

Sheena Kalayil discusses her book, Second-Generation South Asian Britons

Interview by Kim Fernandes

Kim Fernandes: In your book, you argue that your participants (who are parents of dual heritage children and are themselves bilingual British South Asians) have a “relationship” with the Heritage Language. You intentionally use relationship as a metaphor to acknowledge the dynamic and often shifting ways in which one’s identity and the use of language are connected. For anyone who may not yet have read your book, would you be able to say a little bit more about what inspired this framing?

Sheena Kalayil: My starting point within this research was to try and find out whether people maintained their Heritage Language(s). As I began to listen to my participants talk about how they view their Heritage Languages, I began to reflect on my own experiences with Malayalam, my Heritage Language, and to realize that it was indeed a relationship. While I was talking to my participants, I also saw my own understanding of narrative inquiry shift. All of the participants – well, except for one – were older than me, by at least a little bit. They were all in what I would describe as ambitious or prestigious jobs. Their jobs all required a particular set of professional skills, and they were not going to let me write the story of their lives. They wanted to tell their life stories in their own way. So, our interviews were very much jointly constructed between us. The participants were driving the narrative of their lives, deciding what they wanted to talk about in the interview setting, and the way they were talking helped me construct this idea of having a relationship with their identity and language.

Multilingualism is very complex, and it should not be investigated through one approach. In my book, I wanted to show that monolingual interviews with participants can provide just as rich, just as useful, if not more useful, insights into the study of multilingualism and multiculturalism. In particular, I wanted to address the discourse around multiculturalism in the UK, which I think differs from US discourse in some ways. A lot of people assume that because the UK is multicultural, it will be a multilingual country. And while the multiculturalism is celebrated, it is also often considered a problem – you’re celebrated on the one hand and problematized on the other. If you’re an ethnic minority, even if you’re married to a white monolingual person, society expects your family to be multilingual, and there’s a sense of disappointment in situations where this isn’t the case.

Kim Fernandes: What inspired your choice of narrative inquiry as a method for the book? How did you work to build a narrative environment that allowed participants, as you point out, to move away from strictly linear understandings of space and time, and to instead generatively reconsider the ways in which language learning intersected with their understandings of time and space?

Sheena Kalayil: You know, in another life, I would have loved to be an anthropologist, and have done an ethnographic study. But with this study, it wasn’t the right time in my life to do that, and I wouldn’t have been the right person to be doing it. For me, a researcher has to really believe they are the only person who can be doing the study that they are doing. Being a writer, too, storytelling is important to me – and so the idea of just letting people tell their stories was very appealing to me. I began by reading about narrative research, but I came up against very canonical approaches. When I thought about them, I also thought, well, if somebody asked me those questions (say, for instance, about the one critical incident that had really got me thinking about my use of Heritage Language), I would not be able to pull out just one incident, because our lives are made up of so many incidents. I was also thinking about the ways in which we don’t really understand what’s happening when we are young, and often, you only get a sense of what happened as you grow older. So, too, there’s a retrospective building of a story. The other thing I took on board was that my participants are busy people and not everybody is comfortable with talking about themselves – so I didn’t want to start a research project which would die a quick death because people either found it too onerous to participate or I just wasn’t setting the right tone.

I quickly realized that a researcher should not just bank on the commonalities they might share with participants and assume that they are able to ask any kind of question or talk about anything. I’m not comfortable talking about a lot of my own life or family dynamics, so I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable answering certain questions. I was also aware that there were many things that I didn’t have in common with my participants. At one point, then, I decided to think of a narrative inquiry on my own terms. That is, asking people to tell their lives using interviews as my research tool and adopting a theoretical framework which respected how they chose to drive their narrative. I believe this approach allowed me to do the participants and their narratives justice. And through the messiness that arises from semi-structured interviews, I never felt like I was imposing my own research strategy or structure on the data. Instead, after transcribing the interviews and using Bakhtin’s theories of chronotopes, I was able to pick the aspects of the interview that the participants themselves were trying to highlight to me.

Kim Fernandes: At the beginning of the book, you describe an episode from the BBC radio program, Mind Your Language, where there is a particular disconnect between the topics that researchers are typically interested in when studying multilingualism and the rich everyday linguistic experiences of a range of Heritage Language speakers whose interests are typically not represented in research. You also talk about how writing this book was a way for you to center the voices of people like you that is, highly educated second-generation South Asian Britons from a range of professional backgrounds whose experiences with multiculturalism and multilingualism are often not the focus of research. Could you tell us a little bit more about what kinds of audiences you’d imagined when preparing this book?

Sheena Kalayil: I am a minority in the UK, and I’ve married outside of my linguistic, ethnic and religious community, and I have what are termed dual heritage children. So, all of these things are very close to me and my participants. But at the same time, I am very much an outsider. I wasn’t born in the UK, and I didn’t go to school here, I didn’t have that kind of formative upbringing that many of my participants did. Research that I was reading focused on particular types of South Asian communities – living in close linguistic and religious communities, working-class – because they are rich sources for research into multilingualism and cultural identity. But by focusing on those rich sources, there were a lot of people in the UK who were flying under the radar of most researchers – as I noticed from my own milieu, from my friends and this comes back to your question about who my audience is. My first audience was really myself. As a researcher of color in this country, I felt like I had a responsibility to add to the corpus through my ethnographic perspective as an insider-outsider. I felt like this allowed me to develop a different perspective on multiculturalism and multilingualism from the well-trodden research routes within existing conversations. So, the second audience for the monograph was also the academic community. However, I also firmly believe that the way I write and present the data is accessible in ways that might be of broader interest to those interested in a wide range of related issues, even if not directly as students of linguistics.

Kim Fernandes: Right now, with COVID-19, a lot of interviews are increasingly being conducted over Zoom or Skype. I noticed, though, that even prior to this moment, you’d chosen to do a combination of in-person and Skype interviews for you book. What influenced the choice of interview location, and in turn, how did that shape the nature of the narratives shared with you?

Sheena Kalayil: That’s a really interesting question. I was worried that if I insisted on in-person interviews, I would narrow the scope of my participants for a number of reasons. I had to fit interviews into my daily life and couldn’t afford to pay a substantial amount of money for travel. I didn’t want to limit my research to the area I live in, Manchester, but I wanted a breadth of the South Asian experience, linguistically and geographically in the UK. So, while it would feel absolutely normal now to set up the Zoom interview, I realized when doing my research that the two kinds of interviews were different, but it wasn’t that one was better than the other. Meeting people online, in a way, allowed me to be a more considerate interviewer: I could fit in the Skype interviews around their daily routines. I felt like online interviews allowed me to touch on things that were sensitive to people of South Asian heritage, such as love marriages, arguments with parents over raising children, and so on, while also being respectful of my participant’s space.

I do think, as well, that what the online interviews did was focus the interview very closely on the participant and their language experiences, in ways that may not have been possible with in-person interviews, and this might be a consideration for research in the future. I hope this also means that we can move away from thinking about in-person ethnographic work as the only way in which to collect putatively authentic data.

Kim Fernandes: I noticed in the book that caste only come up a couple of times, with one participant. Elsewhere, you mention status and race, and their relationship to language, but there is almost no discussion of caste as a fairly significant oppressive, hierarchical system across South Asia and South Asian diasporic communities. Can you say more about how caste did – or didn’t – come up in your own conversations, analysis and writing, particularly with regard to how it influenced participants’ relationship with language?

Sheena Kalayil: That’s a really good question, and I think it’s interesting that I haven’t been asked that before. Caste hasn’t played a major role in my life, and it wasn’t at the top of my agenda. However, when I was gathering participants for this study, I could tell from their last names about their caste – and one participant, as you mentioned, brought up her own caste. It wasn’t a question that I asked, since I wasn’t planning on asking my participants about their caste or religion. But being South Asian, of course, meant that religion did come up at some point with the participants. Given the contested nature of caste in the homeland, I felt that in the UK, caste may not have been as prominent a feature, even though there were numerous hints relating to caste and religion throughout. In future research, this is definitely something I’d like to look into.

Alex Dent discusses Digital Pirates

Cover of Digital Pirates by Alexander Sebastian Dent

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Digital Pirates: Policing Intellectual Property in Brazil

Ilana Gershon: At the heart of this book is the intellectually productive argument that intellectual property and piracy are so intertwined that not only do they mutually co-constitute each other under digital textuality, but the same people can support IP wholeheartedly in one moment and talk like pirates ten minutes later.   On the ground, IP and piracy present as sides in a debate, but you argue that understanding this debate in terms of sides is misleading. Could you explain a bit what is misleading about viewing piracy and IP as opposing perspectives and the role digital textuality plays in creating this discursive field?

Alex Dent: When I was researching and writing my last book, on Brazilian country music, I noticed that musical genres were often only taken seriously by social scientists when they were judged to be the fundamental ground of some sort of identity claim.  Were you a hard-core commercial country fan, or were you a member of the folkloric team? What I found, instead, was that the genres offered possible role-inhabitances; people crossed back and forth all the time, but that didn’t mean they didn’t fight about generic boundaries a lot.  I feel similarly here, though in a somewhat different context.  It is indeed true that there are IP maximalists out there who spend a lot of their time fighting for IP.  Along those lines, I didn’t include, in Digital Pirates, the research I did about my study of the United States Trade Representative, where I discovered that the USTR plagiarizes huge amounts of text from industry groups while entirely ignoring the pleas of public interest groups to afford foreign nations the same legal protections citizens expect here in the US; the big pharma and film industry lawyers who showed up for those hearings did, indeed, seem like pro-IP warriors (and for the record, their suits appeared to be made of some non-stick, bulletproof material).  Similarly, on the other side of things, copy-left advocates and hackers often seemed like they were categorically opposed to IP, arguing that “information wants to be free” (an anthropomorphizing if ever there was one).  But the truth is that even these warriors for one or the other position step out of line from time to time.

Even more to your question, the vast majority of us live in that space between all the time.  So it struck me that requiring there to be “positions” actually becomes a way to deliberately avoid the conversation that we need to have – which is about how arguments for and against IP get mobilized for political projects, with quite local approaches shaping that mobilization.

The insistence on positions seems particularly misleading in the digital realm, where inscriptive (which is to say, durable) forms of textuality become such a common part of our quotidian existence.  One of your questions, below, asks me to talk more about cellularity and its relationship to contemporary capitalism – so I’ll hold off on that for a bit.  But the point is simply that decisions about how you are going to govern your own productions now imbricate your every move.  I write in chapter four that the novelty of contemporary digital textuality surrounds the reduction of response-time, the transcendence of space, the unification of communicative modalities in a single device, and the portability of that device. This means that durable and promulgating potentials are with you at every moment.  And the decisions you make about how you are going to circulate yourself are shaped by both IP maximalism and piracy – shaped in real-time contexts, on the fly. So we are not “taking positions” on IP. We are, in a split second, deciding what kinds of circulatory legitimacy accompanies a photograph we just received, or a blog post – or how we might anticipate this video we are currently making about our dog playing in the snow finding itself in far-flung lands.

Ilana Gershon: What does policing look like from the perspective of Brazilian piracy? 

Alex Dent: There has been lots of great stuff written on policing and its importance to contemporary capitalism.  In that ambit, Jim Holston and Teresa Caldeira have done a great job writing about how, in what might seem a paradoxical move on the surface, the turn to democratization has actually led to drastically elevated levels of policing in Brazil; what we can derive from this is the necessity of policing to neoliberal theologies.  With respect to IP, specifically, what I was anxious to do away with was the myth that policing of IP around the world is about bribes or salaries; there’s this idea among critics of IP that the only reason people would police IP in parts of the world where “licit” products are too expensive is because they are being paid.  On the pro-IP side there is this equally misleading notion that local police “just want to be right with the law.”  But the truth is a lot more complicated than either of these options.  The truth is that there are local discourses that explain policing.  In Brazil, discourses of cultural mixture are famous – in tourist brochures, of course, but even in Brazilian self-explanations of prowess in soccer, music, religion, and food (Lorand Matory and John Collins have written about this).  But what you don’t hear about very much are Brazilian anxieties about cultural inter-mixture going too far.  What you find, if you dig into the classic Brazilian book called “Rebellion in the Backcountry” (which is about a millennial movement that gets absolutely destroyed by the emerging Brazilian state in the late 1800s) is that there are localized appetites for “order” and keeping mixture under wraps.  That is what is getting ignited by IP maximalism – not some bribe. So in some ways I’m revisiting that old chestnut about the relationship between the production of locality and the production of globality – with the notion that the dialogic relation between the two must be understood according to durable structures.  It’s no coincidence that violations of IP get treated like “trash” in Brazil.  I explain why in chapter two.

Ilana Gershon:  What role does Paraguay play in Brazilians’ relationship to piracy?

Alex Dent: As a linguistic anthropologist, this was one of those spectacular fieldwork moments when you become aware of how language is a kind of flexible dialogue between historical conflicts and contemporary practices. It’s not a repository, mind you, because it’s constantly in flux. What happened was that my family started characterizing things that broke as “Paraguayan.”  I remember the first time it happened – it was a cheap alarm clock I’d bought which inexplicably failed; and I’d just underscore that the cheapness and the inexplicability are intimately related to one another! In any case, this invocation of “Paraguayan” as a descriptor seemed, in that first moment, to carry all kinds of anxieties about bordering that I hadn’t though of.  That’s when I started learning about Paraguay’s role as the place cheap goods come into Brazil, and also, about its stature in Brazilian popular culture as a place where grand promises are made that then are not delivered upon.  There is some overlap with how the US-Mexico border translates in our context – though there are important differences. But with respect to Paraguay, the history is that Paraguay invaded Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay in 1864, and after some stunning initial victories, they were absolutely routed. The war was just devastating for Paraguay, and in conventional histories, the war’s legacy was a long-lasting economic depression and cultural inferiority complex. (I’d like to note something obvious – that my Paraguayan friends inflect this story with considerably more complexity.) In any case, this phrase circulated periodically in Brazil when discussing a soccer team that started off in a promising way, but then crashed: the team was referred to as a “Paraguayan horse.” 

I ended up spending quite a bit of time in the border towns between Brazil and Paraguay, studying the ways goods traveled from Paraguay into Brazil (although I should add that the real expert, here, is Rosana Pinheiro-Machado).  And it struck me that the bordering work there – with incumbent anxieties about porosity, omnipresence, illegality, and necessity – also populated the way my interlocutors were characterizing the Internet in Brazil.  All of which is to say that, when you are trying to understand just what this thing called the Internet might be, it makes sense to consider localized approaches to time, space, and boundary.

Ilana Gershon: You talk about how Brazilians have a different relationship to cellphones than Americans or Canadians do because they had a different historical engagement with landlines.   Could you explain how these different historical trajectories made a difference in your fieldsites?

Alex Dent: When I first arrived in Brazil in 1998, I lived with a family — who subsequently became my caretakers, consultants, and very close friends – in the town of Campinas.  My Brazilian “dad” was a telecommunications engineer who taught at the local university – UNICAMP.  And in early discussions with him, I noticed that telephones were politicized in a different way fromm Canada, the US, or the UK – the three places I had lived.  I detected a kind of media ideology about telephones where — in part based on consumption of North American public culture – there was this belief that Brazil had developed incorrectly.  Phone landlines were incredibly expensive to get, and were not well disseminated among working class neighborhoods.  Phones were not a forgone conclusion in Brazilian life – they were often thought of as a necessity that was paradoxically also a luxury.  So when cell phones began to arrive, in concert with the neoliberal selling-off of the state phone companies, I heard a lot of people explain to me that Brazil had “skipped” a step; that, in some normative sense, it ought to have had cheap and widely available landlines first, and then people could have transitioned more smoothly to cell phones. I should point out that this popular argument also has a well developed academic Brazilian form in the shape of associated-dependency theory. But the point is that when Brazilians started to absorb cellular technology, their early use was often tinged with a dialogue between ravenous hunger, and a kind of shaming scold.  I heard statements such as, “Brazilians have multiple cell phones, but they are too ill-educated to have anything to say on them,” which struck me as harsh until I decoded where they were coming from, historically.

Ilana Gershon: You argue that cellularity at the heart of contemporary capitalism – could you explain what you mean by this?

Alex Dent: I’m working this up into a broader theory of neoliberal theology now; as I type, I’m writing-up five years of data collected with Joshua Bell (of the Smithsonian) and Joel Kuipers (also at GW) on the productivity of ambivalence among teenage cell phone users in Washington DC.  Part of the argument is that, contrary to the projections many adults place onto teenagers, teenagers are acutely aware of not only the joys, but also the potential harms of cellular phone use.  The productivity of this ambivalence, as I note above, in chapter four, lies in “cellular publics”; I argue that contemporary digital textuality is characterized by reduction of response time, transcendence of space, condensation of communicative modalities, and portability.  But what is significant is the trip to heaven and hell that this entails.  (I should mention someone who has written brilliantly about this in Brazil is Leticia Cesarino.) Because just as cell phones can be celebrated for their rendering work more flexible, they can also be indicted for enslaving us. We are, in the same moment, in joyful anticipation of connection, and in horror at possible over-extension. I’m using “horror” carefully, here – intending to address myself to the brilliant theorist who was Mary Shelley. This is the sublime. And the argument I’m making is that contemporary (probably not “late”!) capitalism’s balance between tremendous wealth and utter ruin finds itself mediated – in ways I think David Harvey anticipated – by way of cellularity. To put it somewhat differently, it is no coincidence that “paying it forward” and “going viral” partake of the same vectors of accrual.

Jonathan D. Hill reflects on his career

Jonathan Hill featured on BBC's "Science in Action" | Anthropology

What moment of fieldwork interaction do you still think about, amazed that you got to witness it and/or record it?

While doing fieldwork in 1981 for my doctoral dissertation, I was using my stereo cassette player and pre-amped external microphone to make audio recordings of a shamanic curing ritual in an indigenous Wakuénai (Curripaco) village. As usual, the shaman had set up his bench, hallucinogenic snuff, maraca, tobacco, and other materials facing the eastern horizon. That day was sunny and hot without a cloud in the bright blue sky. I recorded songs and took photographs all morning. The shaman looked straight up through the feathers of his maraca at exactly twelve noon, and soon a patient and several curious villagers gathered in the space behind the shaman. As the ritual progressed, the shaman repeatedly blew tobacco smoke over the heads of everyone present, including the patient, her family, the gathering of villagers, and even the visiting anthropologist and his tape recorder. After another two hours, I began to feel a kind of energy that I can only describe as exhilarating. It was a hot afternoon less than two degrees north of the Equator, yet I wasn’t sweating or even feeling hot. I hadn’t eaten since early morning but didn’t feel hungry at all. In the mid-afternoon, as the shaman sang and chased after shadow-spirits in the eastern sky, a powerful thunderstorm became visible in the distance and quickly approached the island village. But when the storm began dumping heavy rains on the manioc gardens just across the east channel of the river, it stopped approaching. The shaman was standing up and singing to the thunderclouds in a sort of antiphonal musical dialogue with flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. I had interviewed shamans, other ritual specialists, and non-specialists who claimed that powerful shamans had the ability to control weather events. Later in my fieldwork I learned that the reason shamans blow tobacco smoke over the heads of all people present is to gather up the life force of their bodies to help bring patient’s lost soul back to the world of living people. My tape recorder was also said to be pulling in the patient’s lost soul, so it was also included in the effort. I still wonder about that day, the energy I felt, and that mysterious thunderstorm.

What article or book was hardest for you to write, and why?

Probably the hardest essay for me to write was the chapter in the Cambridge History of Native Peoples of the Americas:  South America, Volume III, Part 2 (1999, “Indigenous Peoples and the Rise of Independent Nation-States in Lowland South America,” F. Salomon and S. Schwartz, editors, pp. 704-764). I had been invited to contribute a chapter on this topic but not given clear guidance on how much of lowland South America was to be covered. I realized immediately that the topic would be unmanageably huge if it were to include all of Brazil in addition to the Guyanas, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Fortunately the group of anthropologists and ethnohistorians at Universidade de São Paulo (Núcleo de História Indígena e do Indigenismo) organized by Manuela Carnheiro da Cunha agreed to cover Brazil, and the volume’s editors were kind enough to accept this division of labor. Yet that still left a huge swath of lowland South America and an incredibly diverse assortment of Indigenous peoples with a multitude of culturally specific histories. I realized then that as an ethnologist I had detailed knowledge of deep histories for a finite number of specific Indigenous regional communities but needed to find some way to connect them all into a broader, macro-level history of the profound political transformations taking place in South America as the colonial power structures began to unravel after the expulsion of the Jesuits and official abolition of indigenous slavery in 1767.  Also, the newly independent states of the 19th Century needed to be interpreted as new systems of power that used rationalist social theories of the Enlightenment to radically dehumanize Indigenous peoples and to justify the erasure of their territorial rights and cultural identities. Finding a way to write about these macro-level transformations while still being able to hear culturally specific histories in which Indigenous peoples understand themselves as the agents of their own transformations was extremely challenging.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

For me, a productive writing day cannot be measured in quantitative terms. Productive writing can only result from clear and coherent thinking. Scribbles, notes, outlines, and fragments of ideas are important prerequisites to translating complex and often ‘fuzzy’ thoughts into effective prose. It is important to think what one is going to say rather than just say whatever one happens to be thinking at any given moment. Likewise, it is essential to think what one is preparing to write rather than vice-versa.

Which class did you most enjoy teaching, and why?

I really had fun creating and teaching a graduate seminar on “Narrative Practices, Music, and Social Cognition” in Fall semester 2009. At the time I was participating in an interdisciplinary research and publication group of linguists, psychologists, philosophers, and anthropologists who were working to understand the importance of narrative practices known as folk psychological narratives in the development of human social cognition. I had just published a book on Trickster Myths, Music, and History from the Amazon (U. Illinois Press 2009) and was co-editing a major comparative study of indigenous Amazonian instrumental music (Burst of Breath, U. Nebraska Press 2011). In addition to the close fit between the topics covered in the graduate seminar and the research I was doing at the time, the graduate faculty and doctoral candidates in sociocultural and linguistic anthropology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale had reached an unprecedented level of quality and productivity. It was a time when a group of junior and senior scholars, each having their own unique research interests, were able to find common ground that allowed for openly sharing ideas and knowledge and significant intellectual growth.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an academic?

Yes. In the fall of 1989, the start of my fourth academic year at SIUC, the Chair of the Department of Anthropology suggested that it was time for me to assemble a dossier in order to be considered for an early promotion and tenure decision. My first book had come out in 1988 while I was on a postdoc fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution, where I had written the first draft of my second book. In the summer of 1989, I had been invited to participate in a research project in Colombia and to present a paper at a Wenner-Gren International Symposium in Brazil. I had been working since 1986 as a contributing editor for the Handbook of Latin American Studies, U.S. Library of Congress, and the new Editor of American Anthropologist had recently appointed me to serve on the editorial board. I felt strongly supported by the senior faculty in the Department, and their support in turn motivated me to keep expanding my professional and intellectual horizons with the knowledge that what was good for my development was also good for the faculty and students in the Department.

Sun Sun Lim on her book, Transcendent Parenting

Interview by Kevin Laddapong

Kevin Laddapong: In Transcendent Parenting, you argue that middle-class parents in Asia have to transcend themselves bodily, virtually, and temporally because of the increasing proliferation of mobile device usage. Could you explain a bit what you mean by transcendence, and how these mobile devices might encourage the transcendence of parenting obligation, surveillance, and time?

Sun Sun Lim: Essentially, the use of technology has lubricated our lives but also intensified the parenting burden and complicated parent-child relationships. This heightened connectivity thus enables but also encourages parents to transcend the physical distance between them and their kids, to transcend every online and offline environment their children travel through, and to also transcend timeless time and parent relentlessly.

For example, parent must now manage their children’s lives through multiple platforms including apps for parent-teacher communication, and online gradebooks that provide parents with data on their children’s in-class and test performance. Parents can therefore accompany their children into the classroom virtually, and even quiz them on why their in-class performance this week paled in comparison to the last. Such connectivity between parents and teachers, while seemingly helpful, can complicate the parent-child relationship and over-involve parents in their children’s lives.

Besides these official communication channels there are messaging platforms such as WhatsApp that parents are using to communicate with teachers, as well as with other parents. While these massive chat groups can inundate their members with messages, they can be a useful resource. But these groups do not confine themselves to such instrumental communication and that parents can become too immersed in their children’s lives and allow playground politics to seep into adult interactions. My research uncovered some disputes between children that took place in school continued to be waged by their parents in the online chats, with other parents taking sides and even offering support and solidarity, solicited or otherwise. These exchanges exacerbated tensions within the group and spilled over into the parents’ and children’s face-to-face interactions as well.

Kevin Laddapong: Throughout your book, you show how parents (and schools) transcend themselves for children’s successes, a process that sometimes crosses the personal line. Is this phenomenon particular to Asian middle-class families? Will it be different from working-class families in Asia, or even middle-class families elsewhere? What are some underlying cultural ideologies driving this phenomenon?

Sun Sun Lim: This rise in digitally intensified parent-school, parent-child, parent-parent interaction has also been noted in many other urban, digitally-connected cities in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. I have shared my research with multi-national audiences across Asia and Europe and it struck a chord with parents of many nationalities because all middle-class parents are now digitally connected to their children and the family’s broader network. This connectivity, coupled with middle-class families’ aspirations for upward mobility that translate into significant investment in children and their positive development, manifests itself in transcendent parenting.  

Kevin Laddapong: Many applications in the book, such as homework and grade tracking, and group chats for parents, intensify psychological and affective pressure. It seems that you imply these had gone wrong and parents should restrain themselves from over-parenting. How should parents consider abating such stress for children growing up?

Sun Sun Lim: Parents should refrain from being too concerned with in-class performance metrics, or using them to demand more zealous participation by their children, or greater care by the teachers. Separately, some of our interviewees would message teachers over trivial matters that their children could easily have managed on their own in school. But when parents take over such tasks, they rob their children of the precious opportunity to develop their own problem-solving abilities. Resisting parental intervention in every situation is key to nurturing independence in children. 

In a parent chat groups, some parents share tips on effective tuition programmes or enrichment classes, thereby raising the parenting stakes among all the parents in the chat. Indeed, some of our interviewees admitted to feeling pressured when reading such posts, wondering if they should enrol their children in such classes to avoid disadvantaging them. Others steadfastly refused to cave in to such pressures, even if they acknowledged the benefits of being connected to other parents. Collectively therefore, we need to dial down this culture of over-sharing and constant comparison, where every post serves to redefine what it means to be a good parent.   

The constant notifications from these apps and chats can also be tremendously stress-inducing, with working parents feeling like they have to constantly keep an eye on their children’s schedules and homework, even while performing their professional duties. Perhaps we need to set some norms around when and how such platforms should be used, and the expectations around how soon we must respond, so that parents and teachers are less overwhelmed by the constant connectivity.

Kevin Laddapong: Most of the sociological studies of the family are highly gendered and male/female divided. However, most of the informants in this book are kept gender-neutral. Gender-neutrality is a surprising analytical choice, and I was wondering if you could discuss what led you to make this decision and what consequences this had for your subsequent analysis?

Sun Sun Lim: Principally, my concerted decision to use “transcendent parenting” encompasses an aspirational dimension that aims to capture the more desired and indeed, more desirable state of shared parenting responsibilities. In societies where dual income households are becoming increasingly common, it no longer makes sense to privilege the mother’s parenting obligation, and more structures must be put in place to ensure that fathers shoulder a more equitable share of parenting responsibilities. Essentially however, given the critical role that mobile media play in the lives of families, I believe that transcendent parenting is already being experienced by both parents, even if to unequal degrees. As conceptions of the parenting duties that fathers and mothers should bear evolve, the experience and practice of transcendent parenting will alter as well. Hence my analysis was undertaken with this aspirational perspective – that inclusive language will encourage an inclusive mindset that paves the way for greater gender parity in raising children.

Kate Eichhorn on her book, The End of Forgetting

Interview by Shuting Li

Shuting Li: In this book, you follow image-making technology’s trajectory, from Kodak film camera, home videos, to smartphone. I find that your previous works (The Archival Turn in Feminism and Adjusted Margin) focus on archives, xerography, feminism, and activist movements. Are there any connections between your previous works and this project? What did inspire you to start this project?

Kate Eichhorn: My books always look back, in some way or another, to explore questions about new and emerging media technologies. This methodology is something I adopted many years ago–back when research on digital culture was still, somewhat falsely, described as Internet research. In the mid to late 1990s, it was challenging to research digital culture because one’s research subject was in constant flux. Even our understanding of what we were researching was shifting. It now seems ridiculous that at one point I was asking myself whether I should approach my research of Geocities communities as a textual researcher or ethnographer, but here, one must remember that in 1997, much of what was happening online was text-based and rather static. These spaces held some but not all of the obvious markers of an active and dynamic community.  

To find a way to investigate these emerging spaces, I started to look back to early periods of technological change, specifically to the early years of print culture. At one point, I abandoned my research on new media altogether and tried to reimagine myself as a serious book historian. Clearly, I didn’t end up pursuing that path, but in the process, I did develop a methodology that is very historically grounded. Some people describe my methodology as media archaeology, and while I appreciate media archaeology, I don’t think that is an accurate label for my work. I’m more influenced by media historians like Carolyn Marvin than I am by media archeologists, especially those associated with the German media studies tradition. This likely reflects the fact that I come to media studies through cultural studies, so I can’t easily sideline questions concerning social practices and power. 

Shuting Li: Your work demonstrates how entering a digital era shapes people’s forgetting of childhood and raises concerns and questions about the erosion of the line between childhood and adulthood. Can you elaborate your argument on forgetting and why does it matter in people’s memory of childhood? 

Kate Eichhorn: As I discuss in my last book, there has long been a false assumption that new media technologies threaten childhood. I’m thinking here about claims made by people like Neil Postman in The Disappearance of Childhood. Postman was writing about television culture, but the assumption that new media pose a threat to childhood is a very pervasive myth, one that has shaped practices and public policy for decades. Henry Jenkins makes this argument in much of his work on children, youth, and media.  

In The End of Forgetting, I suggest that we may be witnessing something remarkably different. It’s not that childhood is threatened by digital culture, but rather than it now plays on an endless loop. Worse yet, social networks formed in childhood—for example, on social media platforms—now follow one into their adult life. A very concrete way to understand this shift is to think about the experience of leaving home to attend college. In the late 1980s or early 1990s, one still had the option to make a clean break with the past. You left for college with a few phone numbers of close friends, but you didn’t carry with you online networks going back to your elementary school years. My students now arrive in college with their social networks, some dating back to elementary school, still in place. They carry these social networks with them on various social media accounts. I wanted to explore what was at stake in this shift? What does it mean never to have the opportunity to start anew–to leave the past behind? What are the implications for one’s social identity development?  Certainly, not everyone feels a burning desire to start anew, but some people do. In fact, some people’s social mobility or even survival depends on this possibility. 

Shuting Li: As social media blurs the line between childhood and adulthood, users are turned into data subjects and subsumed into communicative capitalism. Can you say more on these concepts? When claiming their controls of memory, what challenges will people encounter in the digital era? 

Kate Eichhorn: In The End of Forgetting, I make the argument that we can’t lose sight of the fact that young people finally have access to the media tools needed to record and broadcast images of their lives but that this isn’t necessarily because the world suddenly cares about what young people have to say. These tools are now available to children and youth because these demographics have the capacity to generate a lot of data, including the content needed to make social media sites profitable.

It’s difficult to imagine a platform like TikTok existing at all without the contributions of young people. From a capitalist perspective, this is rather brilliant—for decades, in developed economies at least, we had an entire segment of the population who weren’t producing anything at all. Social media platforms essentially found a way to exploit this untapped segment of the labor market, and to do so legally. In most developed nations, after all, there are rules about when and how many hours children can work. Social media platforms circumvent existing child labor laws. Now, all children and adolescents are legally able to be producers—that is, content producers—but they do this work for free. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we can or should compare a thirteen-year-old girl turning out content on TikTok to a child working in a factory during the industrial revolution. But I do think that the success—and by success, I mean profits—of many social media companies has rested on the capacity to turn a previously untapped segment of the labor market into producers.

Of course, long before children and teens start to produce content for a platform like TikTok, they are already generating data. Here, I would recommend another book, which I recently reviewed—Veronica Barassi’s Child Data Citizen. Barassi does a great job laying out how children, from birth, are turned into data. 

Kate Eichhorn: Certainly, everyone has been producing a lot of data since the beginning of the pandemic. But the pandemic has also shown the limits of digital sociality. At the start of the pandemic, there was a false assumption that the two demographics that would likely be fine were adolescents and people in their early twenties. The assumption seemed to be that since young people spend so much time online, their lives will just continue as usual. In fact, in terms of mental health, adolescents and young adults have suffered the most. Spending all their time online, both socially and at school, has been remarkably difficult for these demographics. Interestingly, the group that seems to be coping best in the world of Zoom, at least in terms of mental health, are older adults, including senior citizens. As someone who researches youth culture and social media, what I have found more interesting about the pandemic is the extent to which it has exposed the fact that for most youth, digital interactions are ultimately a supplement but not replacement for face-to-face sociality.

Shuting Li: My last question is broad and related to the current circumstance. Owing to the pandemic, people have become much more dependent on digital technology. The use of digital technology inevitably produces more data or memory that lie beyond people’s control. Would you like to share your reflections on this shift or any thoughts on people’s forgetting in the future?

Kate Eichhorn: Certainly, everyone has been producing a lot of data since the beginning of the pandemic. But the pandemic has also shown the limits of digital sociality. At the start of the pandemic, there was a false assumption that the two demographics that would likely be fine were adolescents and people in their early twenties. The assumption seemed to be that since young people spend so much time online, their lives will just continue as usual. In fact, in terms of mental health, adolescents and young adults have suffered the most. Spending all their time online, both socially and at school, has been remarkably difficult for these demographics. Interestingly, the group that seems to be coping best in the world of Zoom, at least in terms of mental health, are older adults, including senior citizens. As someone who researches youth culture and social media, what I have found more interesting about the pandemic is the extent to which it has exposed the fact that for most youth, digital interactions are ultimately a supplement but not replacement for face-to-face sociality.