Jordan Kraemer’s Mobile Berlin

“It was only during the springtime seasonal harvest of white asparagus (Spargel) that the connection became more apparent between regional, eastern, and national German identities.”

In my work on the growing popularity of social and mobile media among urban, middle class Europeans in Berlin (Penn Press, forthcoming), it might seem ironic that page 99 of the dissertation treats not media or digital technology or even transnational connection, but Spargelzeit, the springtime season of white asparagus, beloved by many in Germany and northern Europe. The chapter connects (or attempts to connect) weekly shared Spargel meals among a circle of friends from eastern Germany living in Berlin to ways of being and feeling German affectively, and links affective forms of selfhood to the territorial scale of the nation. National affect, in this sense, rather than discursive identification, offers insight into a surprising finding about media practices, that some young Germans and other Europeans oriented toward transnational connections on social media read national newspapers as part of their daily online routine, after checking email and Facebook.

Yet from another angle, page 99 encapsulates the central themes wending through the manuscript, reconsidering media and place in terms of scalemaking, that is, how the local, national, or global are constructed as geographic levels through media practice. Through this approach, I argue that national selfhood is better understood not as a shift in geographic scope, from regional or provincial identities to national (or post-national) ones, but in the nature of selfhood itself, in which subjectivity became linked to the territorial order of the nation-state:

“In Berlin, eating Spargel together linked regional Saxony-Anhalt and eastern German identities to ways of being and feeling German with consequences for how belonging at the national scale was experienced and understood, online and offline.”

This fractal-like embedding of the broader analytic in a single page (while perhaps typical of a book-length project) calls to mind Joe Dumit’s “Implosion Project” exercise (Dumit 2014). Take any object, or idea or topic, and unpack all the dense connections, histories, and associations that you know about it (and don’t know), and you find, to paraphrase, how the world is in it and it’s in the world. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that an ethnographic moment seemingly unrelated to my broader questions is in fact closely entwined with them.

Joseph Dumit. 2014. “Writing the Implosion: Teaching the World One Thing at a Time.” Cultural Anthropology 29(2): 344–362. http://dx.doi.org/10.14506/ca29.2.09

https://culanth.org/articles/741-writing-the-implosion-teaching-the-world-one

 

Jordan Kraemer. 2012. “Mobile Berlin: Social Media and the New Europe.” PhD dissertation, University of California, Irvine.

Nicholas Mizer’s The Greatest Unreality

With The Greatest Unreality I set out to develop a better understanding of how players of tabletop role-playing games create, explore, and maintain shared imagined worlds. To accomplish that, I went to seven locations around the United States, got to know gamers, interviewed them, and recorded their game sessions. Throughout the entire process I made it a goal to try to consider as much of the experience of imagined worlds as possible, not shorthanding them as fictions but instead trying to describe how those worlds present themselves to players. Page 99 of my dissertation finds me right in the thick of one of the stranger places that led me: an ethnographic account of Nabonidus IV, the imagined world I encountered in Denton, Texas through a player named Liz Larsen:

In an inversion of the history of colonialism in our world, the natives of the “New World” of Nabonidus IV possess highly advanced technology relative to the Azure colonists. These natives, known as The Bleem, live in the asteroids surrounding the unnamed aqueous planet. To them, Nabonidus IV is a remote outpost, potentially useful for mining. Not long before the Azure People arrived, however, a large Bleem ship came under attack from an unknown source, marooning the survivors on the small asteroid. In appearance the Bleem resemble bipedal lorises reimagined by Jim Henson. Although Liz offered the Bleem as a potential character choice, basing their class on the dwarves of D&D, all players instead chose to play Azure People. This placed the Bleem firmly in the “other” category, and although the colonists had some contact with the Bleem before the beginning of the campaign, when the players met them in the third session the scene had all the markings of a first encounter, complete with cultural misunderstandings.  

Although Liz had offered some general descriptions of the Bleem in the first two sessions, these details were not tied down by the players and shifted in their particulars until the characters approached the camp. The idea of kinetic expressiveness as central to their communication, however, remained consistent throughout. In early descriptions, the Bleem communicated primarily through complex facial expressions, but in the third session Liz offers a more detailed bit of color and diction:

They have some sort of flowy garments made out of like silken [pause] silken strands. Some sort of, vegetation [unclear] like imagine like if you, um, like wove [pause] spider silk into these long flowing sort of like banners and- and streamers that kind of come off of their necklaces and beads and stuff. And they kind of float around them in a [pause] way that wouldn’t really mimic Earth gravity. Um. As they move. Um. [pause] And, um, they blend in well with the terrain of the asteroid. They’re very dark and smoky colored. With like burgundy and auburn patches on their fur. Their fur’s not really made of fur, but it’s- it’s more like a- like a very thin fine quill. So they can stand it all out like a sea urchin or let it lay flat at will. You know, kind of like a- like very obvious movement. So they can kind of puff up.

Although the page doesn’t really give a sense of broader thematic points, I’m actually quite happy with how it represents the whole. Ethnography, especially the phenomenological sort of ethnography I attempt in The Greatest Unreality, depends on particulars. In the introduction, I say that “I am less concerned with what must happen or even what usually happens than with what did happen and how those it happened to make sense of it.” The way the Bleem move matters, because it happened. In our conversations about the imagined worlds of gaming Liz described the ambience of color, song, and choice diction as providing a medium that could connect the imagined world with our own, quite literally bringing that world into our own. In that process, our own world, the imagined world, and those that experience it enter into a dynamic of mutual shaping. Page 99 of my dissertation, if it’s successful, demonstrates that as ethnographers we are also exploring, creating, and connecting worlds through the use of ambience.

Nicholas Mizer, 2015. The Greatest Unreality: Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Experience of Imagined Worlds. Ph.d. dissertation, Texas A& M.

 

Plagarize, let no one else’s work evade your eyes

By Susan Blum

 

The first real glimpse American audiences got of the potential First Lady associated with presidential candidate Donald Trump exploded into a circus. As Melania Trump read a speech that had several paragraphs directly lifted from the same sort of self-introduction performed by Michelle Obama in 2008, President Obama’s former chief speechwriter recognized some of the exact wording. Chaos ensued, along with denials, protests, strange claims that the speech was not really plagiarized, claims that Melania Trump had written it herself, then admission that a “former ballerina and English major”—sexist shades echoing here—had taken the responsibility.

Along with understanding the notion of intellectual property, authorship, and citation, I think Goffman and the notion of participant roles (or production format or participation framework) helps us sort things out here. To summarize: the speechwriter is the “author,” the one who composes the text. The person giving the speech is both the “animator” and the “principal” although the “principal” is also the person seen to benefit from the speech, in this case Donald Trump. (The use of the term “surrogate” captures this distinction.) Whose words were uttered? Who profited from them? Who is responsible? What are the moral and ethical obligations that accompany each role? What are hearers’ expectations and beliefs about these roles?

Americans tend to like spontaneity as it gives evidence of an authentic self lying beneath the words that simply bubble up. Artifice, rehearsal, teleprompters, professional speechwriters—all these are seen as reducing the glimpse into the heart and soul of the speaker. Actors are masterful at portraying apparent spontaneity, as are practiced politicians.

The niceties of notions of intellectual property, citation, and providing credit for authorship, as well as the desirability of speaking authentically on her own (collapsing all participant roles) that were in some sense acknowledged when Ms. Trump initially claimed to have written her speech herself. Later, the respect for Michelle Obama was seen as explaining the error.

There is a bit of an additional irony here, as Mr. Trump has been one of the principal agents aiming to discredit Mr. Obama and to incite racist claims that he was not born in the United States. Quotation and attribution of Mrs. Obama would have had additional challenging responses at the Republican National Convention, don’t you think?

Mack Hagood’s “Sonic Technologies of the Self”

The core idea of the “page 99 test” – that a part of the work reveals the whole – proves true in my dissertation, with a bit of a twist.

In Sonic Technologies of the Self, I examined the history and present of what I have come to call “orphic media,” devices used to fabricate a preferred sense of space through sound. Like Orpheus, who protected himself and his fellow Argonauts from the Sirens’ fatal song by playing his lyre, orphic media users fight sound with sound to remix their social-spatial entanglements. Examples of orphic media include noise-canceling headphones, white noise generators, and digital apps that create the sounds of waterfalls and bird-filled forests.

Orphic media give the lie to any simple equivalence between “media” and “communication technology.” Rather than facilitating communication, orphic media are often used to generate a simulation of silence so that the user can sleep, concentrate, or relax on their own. In orphic media use, sound becomes a technology of the self, creating a space in which users can be the self they think they are supposed to be. As a rule, this is a better-sleeping, more-efficient self that can meet the demands of a neoliberal economy by severing sonic ties to others.

But on page 99, I discuss an exception to this sleep/concentration binary, one that shows this rule is neither natural nor technologically determined. This page concerns a pioneer of orphic media—an audio producer, photographer, and marketer named Irv Teibel, who put all of his skills to use in a series of records called environments (1969-79).

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A bit of a snake-oil salesman, Teibel was the first to create field recordings such as “Psychologically Ultimate Seashore,” and “Wind in the Trees” and market them as self-improvement tools. Teibel’s records, however, had a countercultural, communitarian vibe and were pitched as technologies to fight noise pollution, induce “mental trips,” and get people together:

Through his textual and pictorial framing of manipulated natural soundscapes, Irv Teibel succeeded in fabricating spaces of possibility through mediated sound. These spaces of possibility could be the outdoor imaginaries of lone listeners, but they could also be spaces of interpersonal connection and exploration—liminal spaces where ego boundaries could be weakened and transgressed, be it through talk therapy, encounter groups, or sex (99).

In today’s headphone/earbud culture personalized sound bubbles predominate, but Teibel’s work reminds us of other social-spatial possibilities for mediated sound.

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Mack Hagood. 2013. Sonic Technologies of the Self: Mediating Sound, Space, and Sociality. Phd dissertation, Indiana University.

Joseph Grim Feinberg’s “Loving Authentic Folklore in Post-Folkloric Slovakia”

At the top of p. 99, as on almost every other page in my dissertation, I come upon the word “authentic.” The dissertation is about a movement to “return to authentic folklore” in contemporary Slovakia. It’s about what such a “return” might mean, but also what it doesn’t mean.

“So it’s about nationalism, right?” I’m typically asked when I begin to describe my work. Well, sure it is, what isn’t? But it’s not simply about nationalism.

This movement isn’t especially interested in returning to the most authentically Slovak kinds of folklore. Its partisans are relatively unenthusiastic about the shepherd’s flute or the fujara, which are often considered most purely Slovak of musical instruments. They are much more moved by the danceable rhythms of Romani string bands. They aren’t so interested in unearthing an authentic Slovak identity that can be politically mobilized; they’re more interested in experiencing a lost popular entity that mobilizes them onto the dance floor. This is an entity that they identify with wistfully, but never completely, because they believe that it is irrevocably tied to a past that can never be fully revived.

The authentic folk that they invoke is apolitical. Which of course means that it is just as much mixed up in politics as everything else. It is mixed up in a political world that, in the neoliberal and “post-communist” age has closed off large areas of social life, including folklore, from political efficacy.

Which brings me to the second noteworthy point about this page. It is the only page in my dissertation where there appears the name of the neo-fascist politician Marian Kotleba. I observed, here, that folklore enthusiasts in Slovakia were not talking about nationalism and fascism—or about internationalism and anti-fascism. But I reflected, then, that when politics are unuttered and undefined, they remain wide open to those who are willing to break back into the political sphere and speak. And will anyone be prepared to speak against them when they come?

It was five years ago when I saw and thought this in the field. Looking back, that appears as another age. This March, Kotleba’s party gained fourteen seats in the Slovak parliament. Folklore, banished from respectable politics, is re-politicized as an instrument of hate—against the same Romani minority that has been central to the life of Slovak folklore.

This story calls for a coda.

Joseph Grim Feinberg. 2014. “Where There Are No Spectators: Loving Authentic Folklore in Post-Folkloric Slovakia.” Ph.d. diss., University of Chicago.