Interview by Anna Eisenstein
Mobile Secrets is an ethnography of youth, of mobile phone usage, and of uncertainty in a suburban neighborhood in southern Mozambique. What were your primary goals in writing this book?
When I first set out to conduct research in Inhambane, I was interested first and foremost in youth—I wanted to get a sense of what it was like to be a young person growing up in postwar postsocialist Mozambique. I hadn’t originally planned to explore this question though the study of mobile phone practices but once in the field it soon became evident to me that in order to understand young people’s realities at that particular juncture, I would have to do so through their engagement with the phone. At the time, there was much hype around the spread of mobile phones across Africa, much enthusiasm about all the ‘useful information’ that would suddenly become available to a rapidly growing number of people. I didn’t want to write a book that would directly challenge this wishful thinking with ethnographic exceptions. I wanted to write a book about the spread of mobile phones in an African context, but I also wanted to write a book that was ultimately about young people’s struggles. In the end, the question of information—though not quite the kind of useful information that these observers were excited about—proved a major concern for my young interlocutors, and became central to my analysis.
The book is an ethnography of intimacy, an exploration of the ways in which young people juggle competing demands as they attempt to craft successful, fulfilling lives. In southern Mozambique, this juggling relies on a careful manipulation of information, on a set of skills captured by the local notion of visão (vision in Portuguese). One with visão knows how to read the social landscape, while playing on the visions of others; but one with visão also knows when to look away and feign ignorance. And this is where the phone comes in as a particularly useful tool in a wider arsenal of pretense; one that includes an assortment of tricks and technologies designed to bolster invisibility and open-endedness. What the book offers, then, is an anthropological reflection on everyday life, uncertainty and truth through the lens of mobile phone practices.
You describe how southern Mozambicans organize their lives and relationships through a politics of pretense, deliberately sustaining opacity and discretion instead of treating uncertainty as something that must always be overcome. Yet the concept of “willful blindness” runs counter to many Western assumptions about the value of transparency, clarity, and full disclosure. How do the virtues of not knowing – so appreciated by your interlocutors – offer a critique to the anthropological project?
I’d say that the critique I’m offering is more a critique of Western epistemological traditions that fetishize information and of a Christian ethics that insist on the redemptive powers of transparency, than one directly leveled against our discipline. It does, however, depend on how we define the anthropological project in the first place. Harry West, who was my doctoral supervisor, wrote a wonderful book entitled Ethnographic Sorcery in which he compares the craft of the anthropologist with that of the sorcerer. Both, he says, are involved in the business of uncovering, and both, in doing so, also participate in making and remaking the world. Making sense of the workings of regimes of truth, including ones that foster and perpetuate epistemological uncertainty, and that value unknowing, seems in line with such an understanding of anthropology. In other words, it’s easy, I think, to imagine an anthropology of willful blindness. In line with other scholars who have started paying closer attention to ignorance, not as lack, but rather as a relational social practice. I do, however, hope that the book unsettles efforts at gaining analytical ascendency over the world. Certainty is not only a hope killer, it also forecloses open-endedness and constrains the anthropological imagination.
Your book documents a shift in gender dynamics, facilitated in part by the dual opportunities of communication and concealment afforded by mobile phones. You write, “A number of young women […] had come to the conclusion that they could lead more fulfilling lives by engaging in relationships with various men and had developed crafty ways to use their sexuality to their advantage,” (p. 144) remaining uncommitted instead of getting married and participating in lobolo (bridewealth) exchanges. How has that panned out for them as they have gotten older? Have the women you worked with continued to remain uncommitted? Are the broader implications of these new intimacy patterns becoming apparent?
Had you asked me this question five years ago, I wouldn’t have predicted a happy ending. I use the word happy carefully here: it’s their assessment more than mine. I’m struck by how most have settled down and paired up with serious partners with whom they are planning their future. For example, Mimi, the young woman who showed me how she used her phone to juggle a string of lovers and suitors, has been living with the same man for the past three years. They are currently building a concrete house together. Mimi still has a lover or two who give her the affection and attention she doesn’t always get from her boyfriend, and who subsidize her lifestyle, but, as she recently put it to me, she’s now opting for quality rather than quantity. Indeed, these transformations notwithstanding, suspicion and deceit continue to permeate the social fabric.
When I first started exploring the part mobile communication was playing in the redefinition of gender relations and in the negotiation of intimacy, I often heard people explain that if the phone triggered so many conflicts, it was essentially because they were “beginners”. What they meant was that, with time, they would eventually become more considerate and more careful phone users; that the phone’s potential as a tool of pretense would no longer be sabotaged by avoidable error. Most have definitely become experts by now.
Throughout the text, you invite your readers into the process of your fieldwork, detailing experiences in the field through which you came to new ethnographic insights. What fun to read! Now I’m wondering if you would reflect on the way your relationships with your interlocutors have evolved since finishing the book. While they were young adults during the time of your fieldwork, since then, they have, of course, aged. What is it like to center your research on a particular age group, since people are always growing up?
A couple of years ago, score of young people in Inhambane earnestly started buying cement and making concrete blocks. Before long, they were buying land in the suburbs and building houses. Rather sober houses, but still, these were the same young people I had heard endlessly complain about bleak prospects and frustrated aspirations. They had grown up, all right, almost overnight! I’ve known some of my interlocutors since 2001, when I first went to Inhambane, and it’s been wonderful to follow them over the years, and to see that, for many, things seem to be looking up. I’ve witnessed how cement shifted to the forefront of local preoccupations, as a material that people invest in, dream about and play with. The cement craze has even inspired popular songs, not to mention discussion streams on social media. Dj Ardilles’s song “Uma cerveja, um bloco” (one beer, one block) reminds Mozambican youth that whenever they drink a beer, they could instead be making a block. Africa is, in fact, the continent with the fastest growing cement consumption. In the book I’m currently working on, the story I wish to tell is one of transformation; of reversals and renewals. In a sense, it’s very much a story about generation. I’m concerned more specifically with aspiration, with the processes that render certain things imaginable, and with the relationship between the imagined and the material underlying such processes. My lens, this time, is cement, the thing of now.