Blum on the publication of her new book, “I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College


Interview by Ilana Gershon

Questions for the author:

If you were stuck in an elevator with a colleague from another department, and had just been asked what your book was about, what would you tell them?

It is a critique of higher education, and of schooling in general, that shows a mismatch between the ways human beings learn in almost every context in life outside school, and the ways schools structure learning. Using understanding of human learning derived from anthropological inquiry everywhere (across time and space, as we love to specify), as well as insights from psychology and cognitive science, I explain why so many wonderful young people go through the motions of doing what they are told, in order to accomplish goals completely unrelated to learning: getting good grades, fulfilling requirements, pleasing teachers, getting credentials. It is true that these are necessary in the actual world we live in, but that doesn’t mean institutional education should be this way. Tinkering with classroom elements can help, to some extent, but it is the system overall that requires revolutionary change. It is not possible for an individual professor or teacher to solve these systemic problems. And they are wide and well known problems, leading to a tragic waste of time, energy, and money.


You are very present in this book – you talk about your educational background, how much you love learning, and quite a bit about the moments you despair as a teacher.   I would love to know more about your writerly decisions in representing yourself.  Did you see yourself as a character that you needed to describe in certain ways?  How did you decide when to insert yourself into a chapter, and when to reveal particular things about yourself and your family?

Some of the book emerged from my own efforts to figure out what I thought, but as I turned fragments of reflection and research into a book, I did make “writerly decisions” to be frank and open about the involvement of an actual, bodily, socially situated, affective human being—because all teachers have to bring their personhood to the encounter with students, who do this as well. Since one of my many aims is to demonstrate that learning cannot possibly be successful, in most cases, if it aims to be purely cognitive and purely individual, it seemed relevant to show all the ways my own biographical context shaped what and why I learned. Motivation is another of the key themes here, and until I was motivated by a need to understand all the ways students differed from me, I did not. Further, in anthropology and the human sciences generally, for at least three decades we have been explicit about the misleading pretext of disembodied “objectivity,” a view from nowhere, and efforts have been made to situate the viewer, to show that all observation is limited. Reflexive writing has been common in anthropology since the 1980s, but we might also see its roots in the psychoanalytic writings of anthropologists from much earlier.

Beyond all this, in writing this book I wanted it to feel like a story, almost a detective story, of beginning with a mystery and ending with a solution (the solution is understanding, not primarily a prescription for action). Readers tend to be sympathetic to flawed narrators, and I certainly reveal many of my own flaws. I have experienced quite a bit of fear at revealing so much cluelessness on my part, but I put my vulnerable self into the hands of readers, and rely on their compassion—just as I now hope that students can reveal their own vulnerability to teachers rather than pretending to be something they’re not. Without lacks, gaps, mistakes, there is no room for growth. Learning is one form of growth.

I also bring my family into the story because they were formative in my re-education. This is a feminist decision to reveal my relatedness, rather than to pretend that I am a self-contained all-knowing purely rational individual deriving insight only from theorists and ethnography. One of my daughters, Elena, helped edit the introduction. I did get general permission from all of them to include stories, though they did not read all of them prior to publication—and I have worried a lot about the ethics of that decision.


As a professor myself, I am very aware of how much institutional constraints shape my teaching. First, I received remarkably little training on how to teach.   Currently, I have to develop undergraduate courses that will appeal to a large enough number of students to even run, and to appeal to even more students if I want to help a graduate student have a TAship.   At the same time, there are significant institutional pressures not to spend too much time on teaching.  As you beautifully pointed out the constraints on students, I kept wondering about those on faculty.  If you were to add a chapter of ethnography with faculty members, what do you think you would focus upon?

That’s a great idea! And several people have assumed that the book was about faculty, because faculty are suffering.

I would write about fear and love, about the constraints and the changing metrics of evaluation. I do mention that in the chapter on grades and “audit culture,” “‘What Do I Have to Do to Get an A?’: The Real Skinny on Grades,” because many of the constraints on students are mirrored by constraints on faculty. As universities become more corporate, and assessment appears to be the goal rather than a means for arriving at a different goal (perhaps learning or contributing to knowledge, or becoming a well-rounded citizen), both students and faculty become adept at “the game of school.” And games can be thrown.

Marilyn Strathern has edited a book on Audit Culture: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics, and the Academy (2000). Audit culture is more developed in the UK than in the US, though in the sixteen years since that book was published, our universities have become much more similar.

Much has been written about the precarity of adjunct faculty, the adjunctification of faculty, working with no job security or benefits for poverty wages, despite having top credentials and experience. (I taught that way for six years, myself.) And this shameful employment situation is real and must be more widely known.

The economics of higher education affect all the decisions throughout every institution, from the need to have classes of a certain size to teaching loads to funding available for travel to conferences to filling empty faculty lines with personnel of a certain rank.

But I would focused on secure faculty at well-resourced institutions to show that there is a problem even here, as I have done with my focus on high-achieving students. Faculty arrive with love for our subject and love for the enterprise of learning, only to be confronted by a need to police our students, to cajole them into reading, to get them to care at least a little about our class, to prevent corner-cutting (including cheating and plagiarism, the topic of my previous book, My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture [Cornell 2009]), to get strong teaching evaluations, to please students while also demonstrating “rigor” to our faculty colleagues. All this has to be squeezed into some limited amount of time because at institutions of higher education at a certain level of prestige, teaching only matters for tenure if it is substandard. As all faculty know, it is publications and grants that “count”; poor teaching could derail a strong publication record, but excellent teaching can’t substitute for a weak publication record.

Faculty at most institutions now are demoralized; there is tension with administrators and trustees and students and “the public.” Faculty are exhausted from constant interaction on social media, including email, and on supporting undergraduate and sometimes graduate student participation in conferences and research—writing dozens or hundreds of letters of recommendation every year—and advising undergraduates engaged in research. Technology changes all the time and we have to keep up with that, along with the publications in our own and adjacent fields. We have to become expert at writing committee reports and filing expense reports; senior faculty evaluate junior faculty. We all apply for grants and evaluate manuscripts and participate in conferences—but the Holy Grail is peer-reviewed journal articles.

This “shadow labor,” or “shadow work” in Ivan Illich’s term, is as real in institutions supposedly devoted to the production and dissemination of knowledge as it is in more mainstream corporations, but despite the motives that got faculty there, there is a real danger that the shadow labor could overtake the important work that keeps faculty employed. Faculty get “mentored” to teach them to juggle the many balls and the constantly changing metrics of evaluation; there are excellent organizations such as the heroic Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s National Center for Faculty Development. But these are needed because it is all so hard.

I could imagine shadowing several faculty; asking them to do time-use studies; interviewing faculty in several disciplines, at various levels of employment and at diverse institutions. I actually do keep up pretty fully with the trends in faculty experience. And what I see is faculty trying to retain some degree of dignity and balance while they feel themselves assailed from all sides and running ever faster just to keep in place.


You discuss several different approaches to grading to engage more productively with the fixation students have on grades.  Which ones have you found more effective for your purposes, and why?  

People have asked what I would do to change higher education, and my responses are varied. Ultimately I think we need far fewer people getting to a much smaller but still varied form of tertiary education, but meanwhile if I could make only one change, it would be to eliminate grading.

Among many other critics of grading is Alfie Kohn, whose Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Prasie, and Other Bribes changed my life. The problem with grades is that they make the goal extrinsic to the learning experience itself. Then the grades can be sliced and diced, compared and analyzed, and like all other assessments come to be seen as objective, precise measures of what are actually diverse and complex phenomena: human beings learning multifaceted and complex subjects.

In my own classes, among students who have diligently regarded “getting good grades” as the central purpose of their young lives, I try to downplay the importance of grades. I don’t talk about them much. And I ask students to evaluate themselves. Students like rubrics, which have a downside (it feels like a recipe or formula, which reinforces the sense that grades are the goal), but I aim to have them reflect on their own purposes for learning, both in the medium context of the course as a whole and in the immediate context of the particular assignment, and them to evaluate how successful they have been at meeting their own goals. I invite them to explain why they might have fallen short of their goals (“not enough time” is by far the main explanation) and to request help for things they may not quite understand. Some students try to fool me by saying that everything is excellent, but over the course of the semester most students are pretty honest. I ask them to give themselves a grade, although I have also discussed with them by then the flattening of information that accompanies a grade. Is excellent content with flawed writing—maybe A plus C—the same as pretty good content and writing? Do they both get a B? Wouldn’t it be far more useful for the student to receive a narrative evaluation—not as justification for the grade but as helpful information for the goal of improving and learning?

I also ask students to suggest a final grade in the course, based on the cumulative record, their engagement, their learning. In very small classes, under twelve or so, I try to meet with every student several times a semester to talk about how things are going.

Most students have been very positive about this, though some resist because it is more work. An ironic solution is to give credit for the self-evaluation.

This is very unfamiliar for many of my students, who have spent at least twelve, if not fifteen, years, in pursuit of a grade bestowed by a powerful teacher. It takes most of a semester, in many cases, to explain what I’m talking about.


You end the book talking about a wonderful class that you taught, in which the students liked it so much that they would meet at lunch to talk more about linguistic anthropology.   How has teaching been for you since finishing this book? 

It’s been very hard! The semester just before the book came out was one of the worst I’ve had in a decade with regard to teaching, for a variety of reasons, but the one during which it came out was again very successful. I try to bring all my students along with my viewpoints, to show that I understand their predicament and am not focused on judging but on working with them to learn. At my previous university, University of Colorado Denver, it was not difficult to explain social class, because most of our students were first-generation college students, working nearly full-time, but at Notre Dame it is more abstract a concept. Similarly, students suffering in schooling understand the irrationality of the system instantly while those succeeding at it have a little harder time. But the strain on high-achieving students has increased so drastically in the last two decades that they readily recognize their own oppression. The widespread scourge of mental illness among college students is real and worrisome; I don’t scoff at their “helicopter parents” nor at their own thin skin. As an anthropologist I am not inclined to blame individuals for not measuring up to some abstract ideal model of liberal arts learners devoted to cultural literacy—or whatever the latest Fall from the Golden Age trope has it—but to grasp the entire sociopolitical and sociocultural context.

That is harder to change, though, even if I can analyze it. So sometimes it is frustrating to see the ways the system goes on, even though my own critique is so clear to me.

Susan Blum is a Professor of Anthropology at Notre Dame.  “I Love Learning; I Hate School” is available through Cornell University Press, 2016.


Jenanne Ferguson’s “Khanna Bardyng”

My dissertation “Khanna Bardyng? Where are you going? Rural-urban Connections and the Fluidity of Communicative Practices Among Sakha-Russian Speakers” examines the communicative choices and practices of Sakha-Russian bilingual speakers living in Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in the Russian Federation. While I’m not sure if page 99 is the best indicator of my dissertation’s quality—it does not showcase much of my own analysis at all—it does touch on a few themes that do surface throughout the work. Issues of mobility and urban-rural connections both come up on this page, which is part of a historically-focused chapter that provides the context for Sakha language usage during the early Soviet era and the changing ideologies that influenced the way it was (not) spoken in urban spaces. The “ethnic solidification” of the Stalinist period was also linguistic, in that it set in motion the growing association of Russian with the (modern, progressive, unified and Soviet) urban spaces and Sakha with the (backward, potentially nationalistic) rural spaces:

“Slezkine (1994b:444) speaks of the Great Transformation of the 1920s in the Soviet Union as a decade characterized by ‘fluidity’ and possibility. Conversely, the Retreat of the 1930s was a period of ‘solidification,’ when ethnicities and territories became even more fixed than before. From what I learned from my research participants, via stories they had heard from parents, it was also a time of even greater sedentarization. With collectivization, people became even more tied to a particular place on the land. Collectivization affected Sakha pastoralists differently, and perhaps not as severely, as Evenki or Even reindeer herders (Vitebsky 2005). Most rural Sakha were already more settled, moving only back and forth between sajylyk (summer pastures) and winter village, but an urban-rural divide was definitely beginning to be felt. People did not travel as often between city and village, I was told, because everything they needed, most significantly a job, was usually found in the village, on the farm. Due to the loss of infrastructure and subsequently further migration into the city, people once again needed to become kuoratchyttar (villagers who go to the city, to sell goods), and go to Yakutsk or larger towns. This lack of mobility between Sakha-speaking villages and an increasingly Russian-speaking city caused a hardening of communicative norms into a pattern that is still not completely broken.”

The remainder of the chapter analyses the ways in which language ideologies and communicative norms that did not favor the use of Sakha were reinforced in Yakutsk during this Soviet years, and the increasing distinctions developing between rural and urban linguistic environments which still impact how Sakha is spoken currently. From there, the rest of the dissertation then focuses on the revitalisation and revalorisation of Sakha language and culture two decades after the end of the Soviet era. I analyse the discourse surrounding language ideologies and how these ideologies are reinforced or challenged by communicative practices of speakers in Yakutsk—and how they are influenced by the increasing influx of rural Sakha speakers migrating to the city. Mobility and movement return to the fore as I discuss the relocalization of Sakha within urban speakers’ repertoires, and analyse the indexicality of code-mixing practices: speakers “move” within and between languages. I also look at movement at the level of language trajectories—how speakers move toward, or away from, different languages over their lifetimes (Wyman 2012). Understanding how a speaker’s social networks, educational history and migration patterns all shape language socialization over a life course reveals the patterns influencing the maintenance or loss of a minority language in both individuals and groups.


Jenanne Ferguson, “Khanna Bardyng? Where are you going? Rural-urban Connections and the Fluidity of Communicative Practices Among Sakha-Russian Speakers” University of Aberdeen, 2013.

contact: jenannef@unr.eduFerguson

Rodrigo Ferrari-Nunes “Spree: Shetland’s Epistemological Tradition of Music Making”


I lived for two years in Shetland, a Scottish archipelago of 23 thousand inhabitants, at latitude 60 North. One in every ten residents is a proficient fiddler. There, spreeing, making and listening to music with friends all night, unconcerned about time, is the core practice of an epistemological tradition developed over the last centuries. The website is an archive that organizes the audiovisual materials I have produced so far, drawing on hundreds of hours of performance and interview footage. Spreeing suspends divisive preconceptions of race, gender, class, culture, nationality and musical proficiency. It engenders an optimal state of flow, fostering social intimacy between newcomers and insiders through inclusive music making and storytelling.

My 99th page comes from the history and literature review conclusion. For me, it represents a refraction of the whole, touching upon some core issues. While considering relationships between identity and mobility, I argue that, among Shetland’s sociomusical inhabitants, ‘where you have been also contributes to the sense of who you are to others’. During fieldwork, I noted how life trajectories and mobilities shaped personal and social identity perceptions. As Kearney argued in his 1995 Annual Review of Anthropology article, identities develop through the ‘both-and-and[n]’ logic of growth and transformation, connection and divergence (p.558). The mutual appreciation of character, common among Shetland spreers, is only cultivated by fostering overlapping, long-term relationships – that is, lifelong friendships characterized by social support, intergenerational engagement, face-to-face dialogue, listening, and interpersonal knowledge.

This spreeing tradition, notes my 99th refraction, is not ‘affixed to a set of aesthetic definitions’. Instead, it reflects ‘people’s engagement with their social relationships and the world’. Individuals who tried to define Shetland’s music tradition, pigeonholing it according to genre, playing style, repertoire, and instrumentation, failed. A shared resourcefulness principle supports the free engagement with ‘outside’ musics as creative materials. Thus, eclecticism is more common than genre chauvinism. Moreover, since 1981, the annual Shetland Folk Festival brings musics from different cultures to the isles, hosting every visiting musician with local families. According to spreeing principles, which I called Spreenciples, all participants express something personal, unique, and valid. Spreenciples­-attuned musicians continuously transpose stylistic and cultural boundaries, growing in self-defined directions.

Ferrari-Nunes, Rodrigo. 2016. Spree: Shetland’s Epistemological Tradition of Music Making. Phd dissertation, Aberdeen.

Photo May 24, 12 14 16 PM
Rodirigo Ferrari-Nunes

Alex Fattal’s “Guerrilla Marketing: Information War and the Demobilization of FARC Rebels”

Page 99 of my dissertation “Guerrilla Marketing: Information War and the Demobilization of FARC Rebels,” recounts the moment when drug lord Pablo Escobar handed himself over to Colombian authorities—political theater through and through. Escobar and his associates in the Medellín Cartel had branded themselves The Extraditables and waged a war on the state and Colombian civil society to avoid extradition to the United States. The group’s slogan was: “We Prefer a Grave in Colombia to a Jail Cell in the United States.” Part of their strategy was to turn their acts of violence into spectacular media events. This was in the late 1980s and early 1990s when live television rendered the news not only more immediate but also more urgent and unsettling. Escobar had kidnapped notable figures from political and media families (the two tend to overlap in Colombia) and used their kidnapping as a public relations strategy.On page 99, I am writing about their release. This scene is part of two historical chapters of the dissertation that contextualize the ethnography that follows. That ethnography focuses on the Colombian government’s efforts to lure individuals out of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, and the National Liberation Army (ELN)—two Marxist guerrilla groups founded in the mid-1960s—through marketing campaigns and military intelligence operations. The dissertation, and now the book, is all about the interpenetration of marketing and counterinsurgency in Colombia, a case study in the wider phenomenon of the mediatization of security in the twenty-first century.

Guerrilla Marketing is deeply interdisciplinary, threading together flourishing literatures on marketing, consumer culture, and late capitalism, on the one hand, and critical studies of the surveillance state, counterinsurgency, peace and conflict studies, and humanitarian interventions, on another. Throughout the text I develop the concept of brand warfare, which I define as a melding of the marketing nation and the counterinsurgency state. To tease this out I analyze publicity operations, such as massive campaigns urging individual rebels to defect and return home for Christmas, and their multiple targets: from individual combatants to national audiences to international imaginaries about Colombia.

Escobar’s macabre public relations antics helped to catalyze state re-formation in Colombia, prodding the government to adapt his penchant for manipulating the spectacle of war. As Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez noted, the Extraditables acted as a business brand. Writing about Escobar, García Márquez said: “No other Colombian in history has had, and has exercised such a talent as his to manipulate (condicionar) public opinion.” Page 99 is about Escobar’s theatrics. It sets the stage, so to speak, for the guerrilla marketing campaigns that I analyze in the following chapter.

* * *

Quote from page 99:

The press camped out outside of the hostages’ homes and had a field day with the liberation. In announcing their decision to free the hostages, the Extraditables claimed they wanted to “erase any doubt that we are pressuring the National Constitutional Assembly” (El Tiempo 1991). The statement was transparent in its dishonesty. In a more candid moment, when Escobar penned a handwritten letter to Maruja apologizing for the ordeal, he said, “Don’t pay attention to my press releases they’re only to apply pressure” (García Márquez 1995:126). Escobar turned himself over to the Colombian authorities the day after he freed Maruja Pachón and Pacho Santos—he had obtained his goal although the country did not yet know it.

Escobar’s public pressure, private threats, and handsome bribes worked in concert. As the special commission to formally receive Escobar in his long-awaited “subjugation” departed in two helicopters, news that the Constitutional Assembly had struck down the provision allowing for the extradition of Colombian citizens blared out of radio speakers throughout the country. García Márquez described the scene of Escobar’s “subjugation”:

He raised the pant-leg of his left leg and pulled out the pistol he carried in a harness tied to his ankle. A magnificent gem: Sig Sauer 9, with a gold monogram on the plates of the handles. Escobar didn’t take out the clip but rather he removed the bullets one by one and dropped them on the ground. It was a theatrical gesture that seemed practiced. (García Márquez 1995:164)

Fattal, Alex. 2014. “Guerrilla Marketing: Information War and the Demobiliation of FARC Rebels.” Phd diss., Harvard University.

Alex Fattal

Alex Fattal, Assistant Professor, Penn State College of Communications
Personal Website

Magnus Pharao Hansen’s “Nahuatl Nation: Language Revitalization and Indigenous Resurgence in 21st Century Mexico”

Page 99 of my dissertation “Nahuatl Nation” does present a key aspect of the argument, namely the proposition that the Mexican state has a specific interest in playing a key role in the revitalization of its indigenous languages. By centralizing the responsibility for language maintenance and development within the state, the state is able to legitimize itself as a legitimate proprietor of indigenous semiotic resources, which it in turn uses to brand the Mexican Nation within the international market economy. The page however is not representative of the dissertation as a whole because it doesn’t include the central piece of the argument. The main argument is that indigenous languages, such as the Nahuatl language that is the focus of the dissertation, are important to their speakers, not only for the way that they enable speakers to inhabit the “indigenous slot”, or insert themselves into the Mexican national narrative. I argue that indigenous languages are primarily meaningful to their speakers and speech communities because they play a significant role in the subjective, intersubjective and social lives of speakers and in the way local indigenous communities cohere and conceptualize themselves as distinct from the national community. Page 99 and the rest of the chapter that it is a part of presents a semiotic and political critique of the current cultural politics of the Mexican Nation state and its engagements with indigenous languages. The rest of the dissertation uses historical, linguistic and ethnographic evidence to show why local revitalization projects can fulfill important social functions in the communities where they take place. This includes using the language as a medium with which to form local counter publics and shape local political movements, or as an instrument with which to attain local political goals through the strategic use of the currently popular discourses of indigeneity, language endangerment and cultural heritage management.

Pharao Hansen, Magnus. 2016. “Nahuatl Nation: Language Revitalization and Indigenous Resurgence in 21st Century Mexico.” PhD dissertation, Brown University.

Magnus Pharao Hansen
Magnus Pharao Hansen
Nahuatl Studies Blog

Elizabeth Kickham’s “Purism, Prescriptivism, and Privilege: Choctaw Language Ideologies and Their Impact on Teaching and Learning”

“Is Ford Madox Ford’s statement “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you,” accurate for the dissertation?

In short: not really.

Especially for long winded texts such as my own, titled “Purism, Prescriptivism, and Privilege: Choctaw Language Ideologies and Their Impact on Teaching and Learning (University of Oklahoma, 2015),” page ninety-nine likely occurs in an early chapter. In fact, my page ninety-nine, occurring in the methods chapter, rather dryly details survey design, contacting and consenting procedures, and interview and observation timeframes. Not only is the content of this page rather boring, it does not relate the more interesting methods substance, which, in my opinion, concerns the collaborative and reflexive nature of community-based sociolinguistic research and issues in representing voice.

This entire chapter, to my thinking, with its dry tone and disconnected content, fails to represent the work. It does illustrate, though, the challenges in writing for two audiences, as necessitated by writing a dissertation with and for a community while attempting to satisfy an academic committee. The methods chapter stands apart from the remaining content, presented in a first person ethnographic style, in which I and my consultants share voice. (In fact, the final written product is the result of collaboration and careful review, word by word, by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Language Committee.) The remaining work attempts a sensitive and critical examination of how Choctaw language ideologies impact teaching practice and learner motivation, and, ultimately, language persistence. Page ninety-nine addresses none of the ways that ideology shapes conceptions of authorization, standardization, orthography choice, and socio-linguistic authentication.

So, perhaps page ninety-nine is not as accurate a test of the quality of a dissertation as for the novel, Ford’s subject. Then again, to a non-academic audience, page ninety-nine of the dissertation, whether describing methods or actually delving into findings, may just represent the rather esoteric, sometimes unapproachable, and, let’s face it, boring nature of much academic work. Perhaps if dissertations were written as are novels, to engage the reader, page ninety-nine would be a fair test of quality. After all, when dissertations are revised for publication, the early chapters are often summarily cut. Page ninety-nine of my dissertation is fated to footnote status, where, I firmly believe it belongs.

Kickham, Elizabeth. 2015. “Purism, Prescriptivism, and Privilege: Choctaw Language Ideologies and Their Impact on Teaching and Learning.” PhD dissertation, University of Oklahoma.

Elizabeth Kickham

Elizabeth Kickham, Adjunct Professor at Oklahoma University, Norman

Constantine V. Nakassis on his new book, Doing Style: Youth and Mass Mediation in South India

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Questions for the Author:

Ilana Gershon: If you are at a brunch filled with Hollywood film scholars, and happen to be talking to two people who seemed so interested in your 30 second description of your book that they continue to nod encouragingly, how would you describe your book?

Constantine V. Nakassis: I’m sure I’d ramble on incoherently! But how would I liked to have described my book … I think I would describe it as an attempt to think about mass media expansively and ethnographically, but also dialectically. How do phenomena/processes that we may or may not think of as “mass media”—like (“fake”) brand garments, registers of language (such as “code-mixed” Tamil and English slang), television programs, films—how do they come into ongoing being as a result of the entanglements between social actors/projects that they enable? How can we think of media as the effects and preconditions of those entanglements? And how would we study that ethnographically? I try to do this in Doing Style through an analysis of what young men in urban colleges in Tamil Nadu call “style”—a Tamil word (of English origin) for youth cool that describes eye-catching and ostentatious objects and activities: speaking English, brand fashion, and commercial film “heroism,” among other things.

From there the book follows the paths of circulation of the material media that youth typify and take up as style to their sites of “production”—textile workshops, music-television studios, the Tamil film industry. I hadn’t really planned to do this when I went to the field. But I found myself trying to understand why fashion on college campuses looked the way it did, why language sounded the way it did, why films were composed the way they were. To answer that, I tried to figure out how what the youth that I was living with in dormitories were up to—namely, ‘doing style’—was connected with what garment designers, music-television VJs, films actors (among other industry personnel in each of these different domains) were doing. It later occurred to me these entanglements materialize as these media (and vice versa); that is, that this is one definition of media and mediation.

I think I’d also say (are they still listening and nodding to my ramble?) that the book is an attempt to think seriously about how linguistic anthropology—as a (sub)discipline concerned with understanding how semiotic processes (do) work in social life—might approach questions of mediation more generally, in domains that are typically not considered the purview of linguistic anthropology, namely, “language.” Hopefully a book like this can contribute to opening up the horizons of linguistic anthropology beyond simply being the sociocultural study of language (which anyway it is not, as I’ve argued elsewhere). A lot of great work is extending our (sub)discipline to allied fields (including yours, Ilana!), and I hope this book contributes to that as well.

Can you describe why it is so essential to understand the difference between brand and brandedness to grasp how style operates for Tamil college students?

While I was doing my fieldwork (2007–2009), much of young men’s fashion involved branded garments: Nike, Adidas, Puma, Diesel … But, as in much of the world, what was worn wasn’t “authentic” authorized brand goods but something else: “Chiesel” bags, hats with a Nike logo and the Reebok brand name, Microsoft Windows cargo pants, and the like. And while everyone was aware of this inauthenticity, it wasn’t a big deal. My friends were very keen on things that looked stylishly branded; at the same time, they were rather indifferent to brands and their authenticity. What to make of this?

Part of what was going on was that few students had the money to afford “original” brand garments. But more than this, it was because sociality in the college turned on bracketing forms of invidious difference among peers (caste, class, language difference, among others). So while there was an active attempt to show off and show one’s difference (i.e., do style with a cool brand design on your back or arm or leg or head or whatever), there was also a counterforce within peer groups not to show too much difference, or rather, not to show difference in a way that reinscribed modes of hierarchy (in the case, class difference). Among the youth I lived and hung out with, the putative authenticity of a brand garment could do that, and thus it could elicit all sorts of negative reactions from people. Even among those who could afford such goods, then, there was a way in which the brand was constantly hedged upon or deferred, its authenticity ignored or rationalized away, or simply not purchased. Most students seemed, then, to prefer the obviously inauthentic.

Correlated with this indifference was a proliferation of “surfeit” brand goods—garments like those noted above: bags with brand names misspelled, hats that jumbled brand names and logos, but also fictive brand names and even nonsense strings of roman script that vaguely looked like something like a brand design. This distribution of aesthetic forms is obviously much more complex that “real” or “fake,” for what do you do with garments that have the ‘look’ of a brand garment, but aren’t a “copy” or a “fake” of any existing brand? In such cases (and in all cases, I end up arguing), the brand is being cited, but what is being cited isn’t necessarily a particular brand; often it is simply the idea of the brand, its brandedness.

Here, of course, the brand is obviously not irrelevant. At the same time, an analysis of such youth fashion/style can’t take the brand at face value either, precisely because these citations are doing something to the brand. They are bracketing its conditions of intelligibility, recognizability, and effectivity. And they do so in the way that all citations do, by eliciting some set of qualities out of what is being cited in such a way that puts into question the very ontological status of what is citing/cited. Put most simply, something can look like a brand without being a brand. So this likeness, this aesthetics, these qualities—to be able to talk about this we can’t just talk about brands, we also have to talk about brandedness. Every brand presupposes some aesthetics of brandedness, some qualities that make up its look and identity; but every such aesthetics—while not unrelated to the brand it subtends—exceeds that brand, just as the qualities that make up every instantiation of some identity exceed that identity. Without making this distinction, our analyses are always liable to fall back into hegemonic juridical discourses of inauthenticity, fakeness, counterfeiting, piracy, and the like. And if that happened, then we wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of youth practices of style.

You talk a great deal about the ways citation is a core social strategy among college students in Tamil Nadu, India. I was hoping you could discuss the risks involved in this social strategy – what does it look like to fail at citation, and what are the consequences of such failures?

The doing style of Tamil youth is risky business! In that way, it’s like all of social life, of course: there are so many ways to get it not-quite right, if not just plain wrong. Doing style, as with all citational practices, is no exception: it’s an achievement that’s always liable to go awry. Since doing style is all about showing off, often through transgressing forms of (adult/middle-class) propriety while backing away from what is presumed upon in showing off (namely, style itself), the failure inherent to it is either not doing it enough or doing it too much (that is, “over style,” as Tamil youth say). Not enough, you’re too much like a ‘little boy,’ a child who is afraid to buck authority, who doesn’t know anything about the world; too much and you’re arrogant, uppity, acting like a ‘big man’ (when you’re not).

What this means in practice is that everything that is considered to be stylish among the guys I hung out with also had to be, within the ambit of their peer groups, marked as not-quite what it was/cited: like I noted above, if they wore branded garments, they’d be not-quite brands. If they spoke in English, it’d always be enveloped by Tamil. If they acted like a stylish film hero (with the same haircut, dancing the same steps, etc.), they’d change it up, ironize it. But this kind of ambivalent fine-tuning isn’t easy. Did you negate or disavow your English enough? Did you use ‘too much’? Are your dance steps too similar to the original song/video? Not similar enough?

And there are consequences to such infelicity. People gossip. They tease. They may ostracize. Or even attack you! In one of the college dormitories in which I lived, there was a relatively affluent guy who was always speaking in ‘too much’ English for everyone else’s tastes. Well, he and another student (who was a monolingual Tamil from a rural area) got into it in Tamil one night, arguing about who was going to put away some cricket equipment from a match earlier in the day. Then they started insulting each other. Then the one guy started speaking in English. Well, that “code-switch” was all about stylishly putting the other guy in his place. He found that delicate line and jumped all the way over it! And the other guy, understanding what he was “saying” (without understanding any of the denotational content of what was said) answered with a blow. He hit him with a glass mirror, which shattered when the other guy parried the blow, cutting him and drawing blood. Speaking of ‘doing things with words’!

Men can have a very different relationship to style than women, who are often criticized when they evince style in public, since it signals a desire to be seen. Men’s relationship to style as playful citation has striking parallels in your analysis to male film stars’ attempts to create successful film personas, which involve carefully interwoven citations of other films. This leads me to wonder about female film stars – how do they engage in creating successful film presences when style is so gendered?

I’m currently working on a project about the “ontology” of the film image in Tamil cinema, and one of the issues that I’ve become interested in is the question you raise here, namely, how do female film stars negotiate their screen presence? And how does that itself register in/as the film text?

As you note, style is about ostentation in some theater of social interaction (on campus, in a classroom, at a bus stop, on the silver screen, etc.). It’s about the desire to be seen and about metacommunicating that desire: ‘Look at me!’ This is problematic for young women in a context where adult (male) respectability—at every level, from the family to the kin group to the caste to “Tamil culture” to the nation—is waged on the control of women’s sexuality. It’s problematic in a context (where being perceived as) giving yourself over to being seen—for example, by simply appearing in public places without “proper” comportment—is a transgressive act of sexuality.

This makes the screen a dangerous, if also exciting kind of image-space, one which commercial Tamil cinema has not hesitated much in exploiting. Indeed, with no apologies to Laura Mulvey, commercial Tamil cinema teems with scenes that open up young female bodies to a male gaze. And, as per my comments above, such actresses have historically been, and continue in certain ways to be stigmatized, characterized as “prostitutes.” So while the problem for the male film hero is how to create a film image which presences his aura on the other side of the screen, the problem for the film heroine is, in a certain sense, her excessive presence. That is, merely appearing in a film is a performative act by the actress. This is not an act in a narrative, by a character, on a screen: it is an act in a theater by an actress in the presence of those on the screen’s other sides. While this kind of presence is only achieved after years in the industry by its highest echelon of male film stars (and with high rewards), for female actresses this onscreen/offscreen presence is hard to avoid and is rather problematical. So there is obviously a major difference between heroes and heroines in Tamil cinema in how they engage the screen; and tellingly, style is not really a term used to describe the kind of presence or individuatedness cultivated by a film heroine, while it is for film heroes.

This makes the question of success a highly ambivalent one for film heroines, where they have to straddle a line between this excessive presence/sexuality and some kind of distance/respectability where they can also inhabit the protective space of the narrative, where they can act rather than simply be. And the ability to hold together this complex, fraught union is what characterizes film heroines who have had the longest “staying power” in the industry (actresses like Simran, Jyothika, and Trisha come to mind). Such actresses are able to balance between their sex appeal and their acting craft, often by leveraging their popularity to garner “good” roles for themselves. While they may not be ‘doing style’ like heroes, they are fully engaged in complex forms of doing/disavowing that is definitive of citational acts.

Could you discuss what insights on code-switching between languages analysts can gain by beginning the analysis with a focus on style instead of language?

The study of code-switching and code-mixing was founded on, even as it troubled, the assumption of a monoglot norm (i.e., the idea that we each speak with one denotational/grammatical “code”), from which code-switching/mixing was some kind of meaningful deviation. Work over the last several decades problematized this assumption by asking what are the ethnographically relevant units that constitute such meaningfulness: is it a “code”? Or is it something else? As numerous scholars have noted, for many, perhaps most, speakers who live with multiple languages there is nothing “deviant” about “code” “mixing” or “switching.” It often simply is the norm.

But what my own ethnographic materials raised with respect to this literature is that it isn’t just the question of what is being switched (Is it a code? a register? a style? a repertoire?). It’s also the question, what is a “switch”? What is a “mix”? What was interesting to me was how, in the ethnographic cases that I looked at, doing style by “mixing” English and Tamil itself turned on—that is, its pragmatic effects and how it unfolded interactionally was a function of—the ambiguity about when something was “English” or not. It isn’t always entirely clear for parties to an interaction where one “code” (or register or repertoire or style) ends and another begins. Indeed, as I try to show, that is precisely what is under negotiation when one tries to dress up one’s Tamil by accessorizing it with some English. This isn’t to say that Tamil speakers don’t have judgments as to code identity, or that the question of what “language” (or register, style, repertoire) is being spoken isn’t or doesn’t become clear at certain moments in an interaction. Rather, it is to say that this is an open empirical question. And thus the questions of what a “code” (or “language,” or register, etc.) is and what a “switch” or “mix” is are open analytic and theoretical questions as well.

The other upshot for me from starting with style is that by refusing to privilege “language” as distinct from other kinds of media, we can start to appreciate the cross-medial relations brought together by style. (This intermediality is something linguistic anthropologists have broached through notions of register and enregisterment as well, of course.) As I said above, part of what I hope this book does is to open up the question of what linguistic anthropology might be. To my mind, whatever it is, linguistic anthropology is not just the study of “language.” Indeed, by studying the limits of the language construct and elucidating those semiotic properties/processes of language that are not unique to it, linguistic anthropology has much to say much about media in general. Moreover, it is that expansive horizon, I think, that has allowed linguistic anthropology to apprehend how “language,” in fact, works. For me, then, a focus on style allows us to return back to the question of language through the lens of other media, to point out certain features of (linguistic) semiosis that are, in certain respects, indifferent to “language” as such—such as style—even as they are constitutive of it.

What would anthropologists of media do differently if they took citationality seriously when they studied audiences and/or users?

“Audience” and related analytics, such as “reception,” are problematic categories when it comes to media; not all media constitute those whose activities come to be mediated by, or even oriented to, such media as audiences (or even as “users”); some media have “audiences,” some don’t. (If we think of brands, or garments, as a kind of medium do they have an “audience”?) And even for media like film which may constitute an audience, their social life extends way beyond those audiences. Indeed, the way in which fractions of film circulate in Tamil Nadu—as dialogues, gestures, haircuts taken up by youth to do style (among other things)—exceeds the notion of a film “audience” or its “reception.” They might be on the other side of the screen, but they are not simply on the receiving end! This is not a problem that only I have identified; many have raised such issues.

But the larger question I have tried to pose in Doing Style is a slightly different one. What is the form of the relationship between different social actors, projects, and sites vis-à-vis the media that form the basis of that relationship? How does such an entanglement come to be? And how does it come to be such that we can even talk of a medium or a media object like a film or a garment? With regards to my ethnographic materials, the notion of citationality was a useful way for me to think about the form of such relationships. For example, one way in which a film hero and a college youth are connected is the way in which each cites some social other, be it the other side of the screen (the way in which film heroes do style in anticipation of youth’s own citations of them) or the way in which heroes cite other actors, such that actors and youth cite in aligned/related ways, commonly oriented to some other more stylish entity, the apotheosis of which is the so-called King of Style, Rajinikanth, the top hero in the industry for over thirty years.

What is interesting to me is how, by being part of an overlapping economy of style (as constituted by these interlocked modalities of citation), the felicity conditions on both youth and heroes doing style come to constrain and enable each other. This is what I mean by entanglement: that the relationship between a film hero and what we might otherwise misleadlingly call his “audience” is one where each hems in and exceeds the other. This is managed through and created by citational practices, practices which reflexively repeat and differ from what they cite, which forge connections between, while also holding apart, the act/subject of citing and the cited.

What I came to realize is that such entanglements, these citationalities, they take form as media objects: as the textuality of a film, the weave and design of a garment, the lexical and poetic organization of speech. Media are the effect and precondition of such relations They are their realization. Scholars of “new” or digital media have sometimes called this “interactivity.” But what I hope Doing Style shows is that interactivity is not peculiar to new or digital media, but is a common semiotic feature of all media, insofar as they are media. And further, that many (perhaps all?) media unfold by the reflexivity of processes of mediation to their mediality, to their interactivity. Citationality is an inherently reflexive semiotic phenomenon. So if media are interactive, that interactivity is driven by the reflexive organization of mediation, by citationality. And citationality, as noted above, is never guaranteed. It is liable to all sorts of surprises. Attending to citationality, then, forces us to attend to the prosaic fragility of media and mediation, and to the reflexivity of processes of mediation to their own open-endedness.

Constantine V. Nakassis is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology of the University of Chicago. He received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Anthropology in 2010. His interests include linguistic anthropology, semiotics, media studies and film theory, intellectual property law, and youth culture. His regional focus is Tamil Nadu, India. 

Doing Style: Youth and Mass Mediation in South India. University of Chicago Press, 2016.