Martijn Oosterbaan on his new book, Transmitting the Spirit

Cover image for Transmitting the Spirit: Religious Conversion, Media, and Urban Violence in Brazil By Martijn Oosterbaan

Interview by Jessica Rivers

Jessica Rivers: In your book, you argue convincingly that it is important to understand the Pentecostalism of Rio’s favelas as governmentality.  Based on your research, do you believe the sound practices of the evangelicals in Visionario and Roda do Vento effectively extended the reach of Pentecostal governmentality to non-evangelicals?

Martijn Oosterbaan: In the book I analyze what it means for people who live in dense favela spaces to be enveloped in the sounds emanating from churches, and the sound of carioca funk and samba music. Broadly speaking, I analyze conversion through the lens of governmentality, and not only because Pentecostalism is concerned with bodily discipline and with the government of self. Conversion in this context cannot be wholly understood without including the politics of favela life. Conversions are not definite moments of transition in a favela.  Instead, they are processes in which people come to understand themselves and their environment differently.  If we see sound practices as part and parcel of these process, we might also see that even for those who do not describe themselves as converted evangélicos these sound practices – in combination with assertive evangelization techniques – are re-ordering their perceptions of space and power in the favela. By and large, many people who are not considered evangélicos regard Pentecostal churches and church leaders as legitimate authorities within the favela – not in the least because many of these leaders (loudly) promise the possibility of salvation, prosperity, and protection to people who live in precarious situations. Approaching this question from a different angle, I argue that the sanctuary spaces of churches are extended by means of amplified church sounds and by means of gospel music. We should not see Pentecostalism as the only bundle of techniques and representations that informs governmentality but it has become a very important element of it in the context of Rio’s favelas.

Jessica Rivers: Are there instances in which the Pentecostalism you witnessed could be interpreted as operating (aspirationally) as sovereignty (p. 42)? I’m thinking, for instance, of their creation of absolute spaces and their reclamation of public spaces with the trificante exorcisms?

Martijn Oosterbaan: When we regard sovereignty as tentative form of authority grounded in physical violence, as some do, such an argument might be harder to make. There are, however, Pentecostal practices such as the performative evangelical crusades (cruzadas) that I describe in the book that are presented as rupturing moments in public favela life. These performances could be conceived as acts that aspire towards sovereignty. During these crusades, which are highly mediatized and ritualized events that involve musical performances, pastors, preachers and singers narrate the possibility of personal and collective liberation by way of the works of the Holy Spirit and the exorcism of demons. In the context of favela life such events are presented as breaching the politics of daily life, in which people are bound by the machinations of the devil, often without their own knowing. Testimonies of former drug gang members during these crusades reveal that they no longer abide by the rules of the comandos whose leaders are the informal sovereigns of the favelas but by God’s laws that grant protection in this life and salvation thereafter. These events generate exceptional moments of rupture that sustain the notion that a different life is possible. Nevertheless, Pentecostal groups do not take the informal sovereigns head on and generally do not interfere directly with their businesses.

Jessica Rivers: Your research intervenes in the conversation on the relationship between religion and violence. You argue scholars should not assume Pentecostal practices are merely soothing since, in constantly presenting Pentecostal churches as a powerful counterforce, they necessarily (re)produce their own forms of anxiety about the city as an evil place (83). Do you think this means the Pentecostalism of the favelas has a sort of hopelessness built into its strategic long-term planning? Would you go as far as to say that the manifestation of Pentecostalism described in your book, in fact, depends on seemingly continuous, otherwise uncontrollable violence?

Martijn Oosterbaan: This is a very pertinent question in this post-Olympic moment in Rio’s history. Surely I don’t mean to argue that Pentecostalism is only popular because Rio de Janeiro is witnessing uncontrollable violence, nor do I argue that the anxiety that certain Pentecostal practices and ideologies reproduce is of the same kind as the anxiety that traumatic physical violence might cause. In the context of Rio’s favelas, there are other socio-material circumstances that are enmeshed with the persuasive emotional practices of Pentecostalism (dreams of material wealth for example). Nevertheless, I do indeed argue for an understanding of its popularity in context and violence, unfortunately, is a pervasive aspect of favela life. Moreover, the testimonies that I documented and church services I attended featured many accounts of people’s experiences of urban violence. Having said that, in the book I aim to counter arguments of people who describe Pentecostalism in a reductionist fashion as making up for uncontrollable violence – a discourse that several Pentecostal churches also employ themselves. Pentecostal groups generally do not oppose the criminalized comandos directly or interfere directly with their businesses but these groups do present themselves as the only way out for those people that feel that they are in the grip of the comandos and that presentation remains a very powerful selling-point, I argue.

Jessica Rivers: It is intriguing that your informants felt conflicted about watching telenovelas and reality soaps because of their salacious content and decidedly unconflicted about watching the spectacularized violence of news programs.  Do you believe it was merely a question of genre that made them feel they could read and judge the material of (semi) fictional programming and not the selective narrative packaging that went into the nightly news?

Martijn Oosterbaan: Not merely, but genre is very influential. In the book I try to show how different modes of Pentecostal self-discipline overlap or clash with media genres. As I argue, the notion of factuality is very important in the unconflicted reception of spectacular news programs. The presentation of ‘news’ as unmediated representation of ‘how it is’ in the world distinguishes the genre from others. Producers appear to go at length to sustain the myth that ‘what you see is how it is’. Moreover, there is something quite definitive about physical violence – especially with regard to cases where people are mortally injured – and sharp distinctions between heroes, villains and victims are sustained easier in cases of spectacular urban violence than in the case of juicy soap operas (telenovelas). As I relate in the book, my Pentecostal interlocutors frequently characterized perpetrators as possessed individuals and pictured violent urban encounters as manifestations of the cosmic battle between God and the devil. The genre of the telenovela, on the other hand, hinges on moral ambivalence. Protagonists are hardly ever entirely upright and the attraction to watch telenovelas is related to the possibility to ‘watch and judge’ the behavior of the lead characters. Such a spectator-position overlaps well with certain Pentecostal discourses in church services and informal talk. Gossip (fofoca) about the behavior of neighbors or even fellow church members often revolved around the question if this or that person was ‘of God’ or not. Nevertheless, some evangelical spectators despised the moral ambivalence and argued that this was exactly how people were lead away from the straight path.

Jessica Rivers: Your informants disliked and distrusted Rede Globo; were they more likely to notice the aesthetics and read its programs against the grain (like in the U.S., conservatives do with MSNBC and liberals do with FOX news)?

Martijn Oosterbaan: Certainly, but not with all the programs. Rede Globo is the biggest media-imperium of Brazil. By way of its news-programs and several of its fiction programs it has criticized and ridiculed Pentecostal churches – predominantly the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (the Igreja Universal). In the nineties, it set out to unmask the leaders of the Universal Church as greedy businessmen that employed the prosperity gospel for personal benefits. The Universal Church and several other Pentecostal churches have reacted fiercely against these accusations. They stressed that TV Globo was broadcasting lies because Globo’s leaders perceived the rise of the broadcaster Rede Record – owned by the leader of the Universal Church, Edir Macedo – as a threat to their media-hegemony. As I show in the book – many of the adherents of Pentecostal churches living in the favelas of my research attached these clashes to prevalent interpretations of Globo’s telenovelas as degenerate. In addition to the genre specific critique I just described, evangelical spectators told me that Globo’s spread of immoral content by way of its novelas was related to their support for Afro-Brazilian and Roman Catholic traditions and their dislike of evangelical values. Some even told me that Globo had made a pact with the devil to air demonic programs. Such suspicions definitively influenced people’s perceptions of Globo programs.

Jessica Rivers: You group the lived religious practices of the people who attended the Igreja Universal and Assembleia de Deus together. Did your informants ever take issue with this grouping? I was surprised to see that you did not describe the Igreja Universal as Neo-Pentecostal.  And could you elaborate on how you made that decision and what difference, if any, it makes (and to whom) to designate a church: Pentecostal, Neo-Pentecostal, Charismatic, or otherwise.

Martijn Oosterbaan: Thank you for raising these questions. I struggled with the question if I should separate or group together the people who attended the two churches but eventually decided not to distinguish the people in relation to the questions I was attempting to answer. I think we are severely mislead when we start from the assumption that because there are different churches with contrasting doctrines, people who attend different churches have fundamentally different experiences of their mediated surroundings. That can be the case for sure but it is something that can only be confirmed by research. Not long after I started, I decided not to write a ‘church ethnography’ but to explore favela spaces as shared life-worlds in which boundaries are produced in flexible fashion. In the book, I discuss the lives of people of one household and several of their family members who also lived in the favela. Many of these people frequented different Pentecostal denominations, yet quite a number of them had attended both services of the Igreja Universal and of the Assembleia de Deus, eventually picking one that suited them better (at that moment). More importantly at the time of research – people from different Pentecostal and Protestant churches generally identified with each other as evangélicos in opposition to Catholics, Umbandistas and Spiritistas. These people often share mediated spaces where Pentecostalism is broadcast. This not only meant that they heard each other’s preferred sermons or gospel music, they also regularly connected to the messages of fellow Pentecostal churches beyond church boundaries. They were shaped by their shared understanding of the dangers posed by the media that surrounded them on a daily basis (carioca funk, samba, telenovelas), so many people of both churches voiced the same suspicions and experiences regarding demonic powers. Certainly, boundaries were drawn when people disagreed with each other’s doctrinal positions at times. Nevertheless, I really wanted to foreground the shared, mediated Pentecostal life-world created in the favela space instead of the differences between people who attended churches of different denominations at the time of my research.

Jessica Rivers: You apply Gershon’s concept of media ideologies to your Pentecostal informants’ television viewing practice but not to their listening practices.  Was it a difference in the modes of consumption available to them that guided this aspect of your analysis? Did your informants find it harder to experience music critically than they did television? Could they only allow themselves to be critical of worldly media? If so, why do you think that was?

Martijn Oosterbaan: You rightly point to something that I did not spell out explicitly in the book and which is related to the fact that people generally presented music’s mediation as less intricate than the mediation of audio-visual content via television. Music itself was certainly regarded critically and Pentecostal listeners often discussed who and what could transmit spiritual force and which marvels and dangers were involved. Music as mediating technology was thus very important and people’s evaluations of music feature prominently in the book. As I explain in detail, people’s evaluations were closely related to perceived differences between music genres and the associations between genres, life-styles and communities in the favelas. In my opinion, Ilana Gershon’s concept of media ideology can be applied very well to music and the critical appraisals of evangelical listeners, and though I did not explicitly refer to her concept with regard to listening practices, I do refer to the work of Webb Keane, whose concept of semiotic ideology is very close to Gershon’s work. So why did I refer explicitly to the notion of media ideology when discussing television? In contrast to television-broadcasters, evangelical radio-broadcasters played only recognized evangelical (gospel) music, made by people who identified themselves as evangélicos. Other ‘worldly’ radio stations played no evangelical music at all – at least not music of self-identified evangélicos. Tuning in to an evangelical radio station gave the evangelical listeners a sense of ease since they did not have to worry about the possibility of hearing sinful music. Television broadcasters that broadcast evangelical programs, on the other hand, also aired worldly content. Even TV Record, the channel owned by Edir Macedo, leader of the Igreja Universal, aired programs that could be considered worldly (yet not necessarily immoral). As a consequence, television (the device) demanded much critical attention according to the people I spoke to. Evangelical programs could be followed by worldly or even demonic programs. People generally remained vigilant to see what would be aired next. The notion of media ideology helped me to describe the problems of evangelical television viewers a bit better than the concept of semiotic ideology. Television presented my evangelical interlocutors with bundles of related ideologies that included semiotic ideologies but also appraisals of the medium as it works in the context of Rio de Janeiro. And television confronted them with several questions: Which programs are available on each television channel at what moments during the day and how is each program related to Brazil’s intricate religious field? When believing that television can transmit demonic powers, which programs should be considered harmless and which not? And when they are potentially harmful, can one still watch them in an effort to test oneself as firm Christian or should one turn off the television? As I describe in the book, one Pentecostal viewer recounted how he had tried to watch an erotic television program – believing he would be able to withstand its demonic seduction – to find himself powerless in the face of its lure and then quickly turned it off.





Catherine Fennell on her new book, Last Project Standing

Interview by Janet Connor

Janet Connor: If you were at dinner with an urban planner, maybe not from Chicago but from another large American city, how would you describe your book?

Catherine Fennell: It’s a challenging question because tbbhe topic of public housing is utterly over-determined by public sentiments and an ongoing history of racism that reduce the complexity of subsidized housing in the U.S. to a particular kind of place — “the projects”. These sentiments and this history also tend to paint this particular kind of place as particularly decrepit, impoverished, and black. All this despite the fact that the vast majority of public housing projects in the U.S. provided sound housing to people who fell into a range of economic and social categories. These reductions make it difficult to appreciate the extent to which many Americans’ lives are bound up in the project of state subsidized housing. They also collapse people into place, making it near impossible to divorce the imagined decrepitude of “the projects” from the imagined depravity of their residents. These potent sentiments shape the kinds of questions that often get asked about housing projects and the kinds of debates they anchor.  And they also shape what urban planners learn to recognize as successful housing. And they shape the kinds of urban development interventions that gain traction. So I’d want to be careful about how I set up a book that was always more interested in how such sentiments gather and circulate within and beyond a housing project, than in proving particular iterations of such sentiments right or wrong.

I’d start by sketching the Chicago case: A ten, then fifteen year urban planning experiment that has demolished some 25,000 units in the city’s public housing projects, partially replaced them with smaller mixed-income developments designed to promote mainstream employment, and displaced some 75,000 Chicagoans, many of them impoverished African Americans.  I’d tell planners that this case is worth learning about even if they never pick up my book because this case guided the direction of national policy. More than that, though, it also gets at the heart of why many planners who I’ve met get into planning in the first place: to realize more inclusive cities. Then I’d tell them two more things. First, that I’ve left it to scholars better versed in policy assessment to determine whether or not Chicago’s experiment has succeeded on the terms it set out to succeed. Second, I’d emphasize that there are compelling questions to bring to an urban planning project that have little to do with assessments of success or failure.

When ethnographers show up in housing studies, academics and practitioners alike expect them to be focused on “the lived experiences” of marginalized peoples. Throughout my research, people often understood my purpose as relaying the voices of public housing residents. This focus has done so much good, yet it can reinforce the idea that housing projects have been worlds unto themselves, removed from “mainstream” social and political life. So, I’d explain to the planners that I designed my research to foreground moments in which a range of urbanites collided with a built environment in tremendous social and material flux. This included, of course, public housing residents transitioning out of one housing project on Chicago’s West Side. But it also included their new middle-income neighbors, social workers and advocates, politicians, and even people who assumed that they had nothing at all to do with public housing.  I’d tell them that focusing on people as they collided with the people and things of changing public housing, like the ferocious decay of under-maintained buildings, the unnerving loudness or silence of new neighbors, or the presumed poignancy of public housing residents’ struggles, allowed me to analyze how urbanites might become attuned to the problem of poverty and its alleviation in a “neoliberal” policy climate. This would be a climate in which state and municipal agencies step further and further away from the provision of low-income housing and related services, even as they recruit urbanites in their capacity as neighbors or simply concerned citizens to become more involved in caring for the poor.

Finally, I’d want to offer several concrete cases from my research that presented discrete problems that planners might be in a position to address. I’d do this because problems like a systemic lack of financing for maintenance, a narrow conception of who or what constitutes a legitimate household, or appropriate practices of energy consumption very much impact low-income people who are living within or seeking subsidized housing. My interlocutors leaving public housing want and need these issues addressed in a thoughtful manner, and I see no reason why anthropologists cannot contribute to that.

Janet Conner: Central to the book’s argument is the concept of sympathy, which you describe as “a communicative mechanism whose subscribers invest it with the capacity to extend feelings, qualities, and visceral states across very different entities” (p. 7). How does this concept help you think about the ways public housing residents, social workers, and other Chicagoans who appear in your book navigate housing reforms? Why should anthropologists concerned with questions of communication be interested in sympathy? 

Catherine Fennell: Sometimes it seems that you come to a concept only after pushing against others that seem perfectly plausible but that don’t quite fit the material you’re working with. Late in the process of writing my dissertation I had a conversation with Danilyn Rutherford about my hesitations concerning the analysis of my material in terms of writings on affect theory. Specifically, I was hesitant about how some of this work presented the experience of visceral intensity as something that escaped language. Was this a suggestion that such experience eludes social mediation? If not, how should an anthropologist approach the affective resonances of social and political life? Rutherford suggested that I look at the classic work on sympathy. This was an extremely helpful and generous suggestion and it ended up completely changing my thinking and writing for the book. It helped me move toward a conceptual framework that would be alive to two things. First, it allowed me to foreground the visceral intensities of fraught collisions between my interlocutors, the disappearing built environments of Modernist-Era social welfare projects, and the emerging ones of a “neoliberal” communitarianism. Second, it allowed me to track how social worlds structured by profound racial and economic discrimination realigned the people, places, and things of disappearing projects. What attracted me about the classic concept of sympathy (as articulated by thinkers like Hume, Ribot, and Frazer) is precisely its capacity to accommodate material and visceral forces alongside meaningful coordination.  I don’t consider myself a linguistic anthropologist, but I think that any anthropologist interested in communication could learn something that anchors what we now call affective experience firmly within social and political life.

Janet Connor: Your use of sympathy also allows you to weave together an analysis across many different scales that may at first seem only tenuously related, from the materiality of your interlocutors’ bodies and the buildings in which they live, to feelings of community both within and near public housing, to broader notions of citizenship. Could you explain how you think about scale in this book?

Catherine Fennell: Again, there’s a tendency in urban studies to treat housing projects as worlds unto themselves. So, research will unfold within the walls of a public housing project, or, researchers will aggregate data collected from discrete public housing communities. This makes sense given how the tradition of community studies continues to inflect urban ethnography, and given just how much patterns of racial and economic discrimination have set public housing projects physically and socially apart from their surrounds. Yet I was interested in how “the projects” had become, as one of my interlocutors put it, “a lightning rod” for debates about the nature of collective urban and more broadly, social welfare and obligation at the very moment state agencies stepped away from welfare provision. So, I needed to find a way to work across a number of scales that I considered relevant to this problem — legislative maneuvers or media spectacles surrounding “the urban crisis,” but also everyday navigation of a changing urban built environment, everything from the discomfort surrounding the strange sociability of new neighbors to the sinking but vague sense that large scale demolition portended massive displacement. Thinking with sympathy allowed me to move across scenes and scales that all foregrounded the problem of how citizens learn to care differently for or just about one another at a moment of state divestment.  I know these shifts of perspective and scale might not sit well with readers who have a clear sense of what the “object” of a study concerning public housing should and should not be. I respect that. Yet I hope just the same my book is a contribution toward thinking about what multi-sited archival and ethnographic work might bring to urban studies and contemporary anthropology.

Janet Connor: When linguistic anthropologists think of publics, we often think of their emergence through the circulation of discourse and textual materials. You discuss publics somewhat differently, particularly focusing on the role of embodiment and emplacement. Could you elaborate on how you understand publics? How methodologically can we as anthropologists study this kind of expanded conception of a public?

Catherine Fennell:

I’ve learned so much from work within linguistic anthropology that centers on publics. Linguistic anthropologists understand that the discursive encounters from which a sense of “belonging” to a collectivity of strangers emerges have some kind of material infrastructure. In other words, that publics are discursive formations that have consequential social and material dimensions. At the same time, it seemed to me that there was even more room to think about that consequential materiality in terms of built form. It seemed to me that thinking publicity through built form might give us a stronger understanding of urban publics — collectivities of strangers who presume “the urban” as a significant frame for social and political belonging. It suspected that such an endeavor would add much to the burgeoning literature on “cities and citizenship.” Now I think that endeavor is even more important because we’re seeing assertions of political sovereignty in the United States focused on “the urban”; consider for instance the “sanctuary cities” debates or moves by some municipalities to issue their own IDs or organizing critical benefits like paid family leave. We could learn much about urban citizenship by thinking through the formation of specifically urban publics. The question of course is how to do this if you’re not going to focus exclusively on discourse, its circulations and its layering.

There’s a strand of work in political theory, geography, sociology, and anthropology that sees public spaces as key to stranger sociability and political debate. I find this work dissatisfying because it takes one genre of public space — the street, the park, the square that would be open to all regardless of “race,” status, creed and so on — as indispensable to robust democratic politics. It seems to me that this approach replicates how Habermas idealizes one historically and socially specific universe of discourse as indispensable to proper democratic politics. I wanted instead to think about how urbanites become attuned to any built form as significant to the lives that they imagine themselves to be leading in common with others. It seemed possible to chart how specific encounters are mediated in some way by built forms that prodded people to re-imagine their relations to others with whom they shared their city. I was actually inspired here by a passing remark that Habermas makes early in the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. “Publicity has changed its meaning,” he complains. “Originally a function of public opinion it has become an attribute of whatever attracts public opinion.” For him, the rise of mass media has diluted publicity’s central purpose — to support “the public” as it articulates collective opinions and critical judgments in the service of reasoned democratic governance. This is a derisive definition of publicity, but its remarkable under-specificity suggests that a range of forms, like speech but also a building, could be implicated in the communicative practices that summon people to collective meanings, commitments, and identifications. I set out in my book to sketch some of those forms.





Paul Manning on his new book, Love Stories

Love Stories

Interview by Kamala Russell

Kamala Russell: In reading this engaging historical ethnography, there were two major themes that stood out to me, in its content,  your approach tohistorical work, and in writing a ‘teaching ethnography’: 1) self and ethics in practices involving sex, desire, and courtship, and 2) doing historical ethnography with texts about sexuality that looks at how these texts circulate.

You detail the interactive and poetic genres that support a particular form of sexual relations among the Khevsurs, today a storied poetry-spinning, horse-riding, honor-wielding people from the mountains of Georgia. You begin by describing two kind of relationships: the sts’orproba, which both is and isn’t sex, and dzmobiloba, which is both romantic and familial, but definitely not marriage. How would you characterize the difference between these and other physically restrained forms of courtship like arranged marriage or chastity promises?

Paul Manning: The wording is important here, the Khevsurs really don’t have courtship. Sts’orproba is definitely sexuality pursued in restrained form for its own sake, people believe it’s better to engage in it than the alternative. A Myth in the earlier chapter says: Before, boys and girls could only look at each other and pine, their desire was too strong and there was no way for them to express it, so they died.  God did two things: he took some desire away from sexuality (desire for persons) and displaced it onto desire for things. The other thing he did was institute a limited expression for sexual desire: sts’orproba.  So, I’ve called that “sociable sexuality”, sociable in Simmel’s sense: it is the “play form” of sexuality.  Dzmobiloba is the dangerous development of sts’orproba: sts’orproba gets serious, stops being playful, becomes something permanent that can only exist between one boy and one girl. Dzmobiloba is rivalrous with sts’orproba AND marriage, and hence is pursued with the greatest secrecy, and with great restraint. It’s not that Khevsurs never had the idea that they might like to combine sexuality with marriage, but as it stands marriage is opposed to sexuality (if by sexuality we mean expressions of desire), even though it involves what we would call sex. Generally speaking sts’orproba is opposed to sex, but only in the sense of procreation.  So, our categories (courtship, sex) all mislead.  If we are talking about other cultural forms of sexuality, I suppose courtship is understood to be preparatory to marriage, in a way that sts’orproba isn’t.  But frankly I think courtship is only one factor in our society, for example, I think it’s pretty clear that people engage in sexual relations similar to sts’orproba and dzmobiloba without really taking seriously the idea that this is going to lead to marriage, just as we  engage in sexual relations without necessarily believing commitment (something like dzmobiloba) will result.  Naturally, people might have different ideas within a single relationship.  I think our conflation of sexuality with projections of long term relationships is itself ambivalent to a desire to marry.  On the other hand, there are plenty of interesting ethnographies of how people manage to try to introduce courtship-like agency into situations where marriage is generally arranged, and so on (here I’m thinking in particular of the use of emergent literacy and love letters in Nepal (Laura Ahearn) or the use of internet cafes in Jordan (Laura Kaya))[i] as affordances to produce possibilities of agency in situations like this).  But I’m not aware of many ethnographies that deal with a form of sexuality or desire so clearly pursued for its own sake, that can’t be reduced to premarital courtship and can’t be reduced to procreative alliances. It is strange, but also familiar even if it is in an unfamiliar form –the destructive drama, betrayal, pining. .

Kamala Russell: Khevsur romantic encounters all involve individual restraint, anonymity, secrecy, privacy, public disavowal, and intimacy without the fantasy of being chosen.. Yet some partners speak of deep love. So here does sexuality walk a line between encounters kept private but that may be sites of ethical contemplation/practice (projecting an image of oneself to the world through another), and relations that are much more socially on-the-record?

Paul Manning: That is two questions in one. Desire isn’t anonymous, but all its public expressions are anonymous (poetry) or secretive, furtive, guarded, restrained, all the more so when the desire becomes so serious that it is no longer elective and playful, and becomes potentially consequential for serious adult relationships.   Dzmobiloba is the most secretive in its practices, because it is the most intense and serious expression of desire, and yet the most publicly expressed through anonymous poetry.  The restraint of desire, the restraint of open expression, secrecy, are all of a piece with the Khevsur notions of self, which revolve around freedom, autonomy, and the ethical category namusi (for both men and women, obviously related to Arabic namus [I thank my colleague Anne Meneley for explaining the ethical content of namus to me andits relations to the Khevsur ideas of self).  The poet displays her love by hiding it in plain sight, disguising egocentric desire as sociocentric praise for the lover, by suppressing her open expression of desire with her namusi. The ability to form elective relationships formed through desire and consent are obviously emblematic of this freedom and autonomy, somewhat wilful, as long as you obey the rules, you don’t care what people say.  However, with this desire other desires are born, the desire to marry one’s beloved, this is where it becomes dangerous and possibly means an end to all these freedoms.  The system is unstable, and challenges appear.  Concealment and self-regulation are all aspects of the same Khevsur notion of self, freedom and autonomy based on self-restraint and namusi, as well as being able to express one’s desire and showing respect for the other through consent.  They cannot be told not to engage in these things, they must be persuaded.  Khevsur sexuality is part of Khevsur notions of a Khevsur person as someone with concerns about their “name and shame”, with namusi, and hence freedom and autonomy, one who cannot be ordered around, particularly in areas that are free from obligation. In effect, their expressions of desire are an ethical system. Even when they are playing pretty fast and loose with the rules, all these disagreements unfold within the antinomies and possibilities of this ethical/sexual ethos.

Marriage is contracted through intermediaries, and intermediaries can spoil a marriage contract, the same intermediaries who pair up boys and girls who don’t know each other.  Because no one with proper restraint can make a move unless these intermediaries intervene.  The fact that intermediaries both create the conditions of possibility of desire and also destroy potential marriage contracts makes them the wild cards, the jokers, of the system.  The two systems are related, but the basic idea is that desire is foremost in sts’orproba, and obligation foremost in marriage, and they have to be kept apart or the whole thing goes out of control.

Kamala Russell:  So, can you say something about subjectivity or personhood in these pairs, when their concealment and regulation are not a question of restricting freedom? It strikes me there is something interesting here compared to how sexuality is usually positioned in (maybe otherwise political) discussions of subjectivity or love.

Paul Manning: So Georgians often compared these relationships to the medieval category of love called Mijnuroba, often glossed as the same as “courtly love”. The love pictured in ghazals was illicit in its character, for the member of the purdah society there existed only three possibilities to experience love, and all three of them were socially not allowed: love for a woman betrothed or married to another man, love for a courtesan, and homosexual love for a young and beautiful boy.”[ii]

This particular kind of love is much more typical of Georgian urban poetry which is heavily influenced by these traditions, where there is a different category of love, eshkhi, which is clearly borrowed from Arabic ishq, probably via Persian, a burning but unrequited desire which is both an attribute of the lover, typically likened to a nightingale, and the beloved, liked to a rose, in what is obviously a completely hackneyed trope.  The Khevsur tradition is a bit different from all these antecedents, and the crucial difference is that Khevsur sexual practices do not require that desire be completely unrequited, but they do limit its expression in every field.

The popular reception of Khevsur love in Georgia, as I show later in the book, varies between two extremes, treating it as platonic, unrequited, chivalric, what have you unrequited love, and something so libertine that it seems to include every imaginable sex act other than the one act that is imagined to be impossible: vaginal intercourse.  Georgians often talk about a sword being placed between the lovers, and that part of the mythology of Khevsur sex hangs on a narrow thread. One ethnographer mentions it, once, and I think he made it up. It gets blown into a canonical thing, but it’s clearly from Western chivalric romance. But Khevsur love was neither of these two things, the expressions range from spending the night talking and maybe a kiss or two, and apparently, what we would call sex and what Khevsurs call “fornication”.  So, it wasn’t unrequited, the whole point of the myth is that God wanted it to be requited in a limited way. We know it expresses desire, and does so directly.  But there are enough gaps in the standard account that people can read into it what they like.  So the two most important things about it, other than it being opposed to marriage (which is what makes it sociable, there is no consequential relationship that hangs on it), is that it is self-limiting desire, desire is given expression, but also limited by self-control, by namusi, so it is an expression of desire, which is destabilizing, but also an expression of a kind of Khevsur temperament, self-control, namusi, which constitutes the Khevsur ethically and ethnically as a person.  Khevsurs are wilful individualists, free, proud, men and women, but also they are restrained, they have namusi, they are tempered like steel, as Baliauri might have put it.  Stsorproba as an ethical practice constitutes the Khevsurs as Khevsurs, rather than being some kind of weird deviant thing they engage in. It becomes a central expression of their understanding of why they are Khevsurs, and not Pshavs, not Russians; the tension between individual desire and social norms as an ethical tension is what makes a Khevsur a Khevsur and also explains their freedom and so on.

Kamala Russell: The last sections of the book are devoted to how narratives about and representations of the Khevsurs and sts’orproba circulate in film, advertising and even online message boards, a lot of which invoke sexual freedom. What do you make of the difference between the way Khevsur desire is discussed and represented in some of the mass media you detail and in the genres of love poetry you discuss in the beginning (the poetry that itself makes up part of the sts’orproba relationship)? Do you think it is significant in the contemporary moment that anonymized expressions of love and desire come to stand for a particularly feminine object that is either overwhelmingly hot and exotic, or unattainable, playing hard-to-get, and frustrating? Is there something lost in the remobilization of these stories?

Paul Manning: Yeah, that’s really important, and it has some tie ins with how the Russians imagined Georgia as an exotic, unattainable languid, possibly treacherous Oriental woman.  It lies near the centre of Russian and European orientalist representations of Georgia.  I’d say that Georgians often read sts’orproba as courtly love, but it surely isn’t that, just as they misread the context of the medieval poetry of love as being European courtly love avant la lettre when it is just really ordinary stuff in the Arabo-Persian ghazal tradition.  The main difference between Khevsur love and all these other kinds is that all these other kinds are always completely unrequited and unrequitable.  Unrequited love is basically what love poetry is about in most times and places.  Khevsurs allowed some requiting, and they sang a bit about that, but mostly they sang about break ups, betrayals and pining, because let’s face it, the best stories and love songs are not ones that are happily ever after. The best poems are the poison poems.  The other aspect is that contemporary teenagers don’t read it necessarily as being completely depraved lust nor completely courtly, but as a kind of moderate “European boyfriend-girlfriend” relationship, something else absent from Georgia.  So, there is this reading of it as a kind of sexual freedom poised between absolute libertinism and absolute courtly restraint, but there is also this reading that reads it as being basically a Georgian version of something really rather tame, a license for Georgian to be allowed to have boyfriend-girlfriend relationships and give them moderate forms of expression like kissing in public.

When I gave this stuff as an off the cuff public lecture, really an ambush lecture because I was not warned by my colleague Tamta Khalvashi I would be doing any such thing and it was in front of her students in a public museum, they displayed a visible excitement and fascination that girls could exert this kind of agency over romantic matters.  Very unlike my own students, who met this material as they do all other material, with a deadening blasé attitude.  Since they misheard some of what I was saying, and posted some things that weren’t strictly true on Facebook, a Georgian traditionalist extremist, who was an aficionado of the made-up Georgian “Khevsur martial art” of khridoli, accused me immediately of being a paid agent of the Soros foundation who was tasked with the destruction of Georgian culture. So the reception of this stuff in Georgian culture, including my own book, is always complicated.

Kamala Russell: Because it’s a historical ethnography, you’re not working with your own fieldwork, rather with ethnographers’ accounts, and otherwise mediated text. How did this influence your analytical work, and how do you think this affects how the book can be taught?

 Paul Manning: I did do some fieldwork with Pshavians, but frankly, there’s no real way I would have been able to “do fieldwork” on it had I been born generations earlier.  There are public forms of knowledge about it that everyone knows, but like any sexual practice, a greater degree of secrecy is involved than, say a public ritual.  Someone suggested that this is a problem with all ethnography but let’s face it, that’s just wrong. You can’t plunk yourself down in a circle of teenagers and ask them to talk about their sexual experiences. Ethically you will be burned at the stake, and they won’t tell you much anyway, particularly not a 50 year old man.  That’s why ethnography of sexuality is largely about public expressions of sexual identity and not sexuality in the strictest sense (I take it for granted that logically speaking sexuality involves desire before identity).  That was a problem faced by Georgian ethnographers too, and even members of the same communities don’t know what other people are doing.  The only person who could write that ethnography or do that ethnography would have to have been a member of that community, and even such a person would have problems knowing anything: it would be all gossip, inference, and that’s why poetry plays such a huge role for members and analysts alike, as the ethnomethodologists would say.  The same problems confront the ethnographer that confront any member, but they have additional problems.

It is a historical ethnography but also a linguistic anthropology ethnography that could be used in the classroom, because there aren’t a lot of those. Obviously what I keep learning as a professor is “never teach your own stuff” because it never seems to work.  I subtitled the film I discuss in the book, I’ve published the whole thing in fragments (for some reason I couldn’t save it in large chunks, but if downloaded using downloadhelper and played end to end on VLC playlist, it comes out as one film) on youtube (the first part is here:  There is obviously an irony in creating a book and materials to teach it and finding that you personally don’t really like to teach it, though I think that’s just part of the general rule “never teach your own stuff”.

Cited References

Ahearn, L.M., 2003. Writing desire in Nepali love letters. Language & Communication, 23(2), pp.107-122.

Kaya, L.P., 2009. Dating in a sexually segregated society: Embodied practices of online romance in Irbid, Jordan. Anthropological Quarterly, 82 (1), pp.251-278.

Kuczkiewicz-Fraś, A., 2010. The beloved and the lover–love in classical Urdu ghazal. Cracow Indological Studies, 12.

Rebekah Cupitt’s “Making Difference: Deafness and video technology at work”

rebekah culpritt


Meetings – a photo of a poster hanging on the wall of the office I moved into on the first day of my PhD at KTH. I noted and documented it because it was an accurate representation of my own impression of meetings, pre-research – pre-thesis.

That a discussion of meetings takes place on page 99 of my thesis is perhaps a bit unexpected given its title, Make difference: Deafness and video technology at work. Meetings do not figure here and there are good reasons why…

My doctoral research was on how video technology and people’s (deaf and hearing) interactions with it in the course of the work of television production create distinct and fluid subjectivities. I used empirical examples to recount how these diverse subjectivities are enacted in different contexts and sometimes for specific (political) purposes. In the later chapters, I go on to illustrate how the multiple ways of being deaf, hearing, and interpreting materialise during instances where video technology is used. These instances are video *meetings*. The meeting forms a setting of sorts and is convened to carry out work. Is it an event, is it a practice, how can it be understood within the larger context of the work of television production and the organisation of the television station? It is these kinds of questions the discussion on page 99 pre-empts.

Page 99 is part of one of three introductory chapters that lay the groundwork for later discussions (Technology, Organisation, Meetings). Each of these chapters establishes how technology, the organisation (Swedish Television) and meetings (video meetings) are treated and framed in my analysis. In Meetings, I discuss the various conceptualisations and ways of analytically approaching meetings from a variety of perspectives. It goes without saying that the subject matter of this page mis-represents the topic of my thesis to a certain extent but it is indicative of a critical part of my research – its necessary inter-disciplinarity. As an anthropologist practising in a non-anthropological institution, this page is about how I position myself in relation to the field of research of Human-Computer Interaction. It is also about drawing from my disciplinary background and translating anthropological knowledge into a language that can be understood by computer scientists, audiologists, engineers, designers, and of course, my fellow anthropologists and social scientists.

Not only is this page about positionality but this page, and the thesis on a whole, is a proving ground. It is about me distinguishing myself from my disciplinary ancestors and previous researchers. It is about Making Difference – which is in itself, the subject and entire point of the thesis. In writing this page, and my thesis, I am carrying out the scholarly work of mimesis and alterity: showing that I am at once the same and yet distinct, different and more than… This task mirrors the ways in which the employees at Swedish Television carry out video meetings. In each video meeting, there is a sense of collaboration, of the team coming together, identifying as ‘same’, sharing the same goals and knowledge. Yet there are differences that co-exist with this sense of togetherness and belonging. Hearing colleagues acknowledge and work hard to incorporate and adapt their hearing ways of being to shared understandings of deafness and communication in sign language. Deaf colleagues accommodate and adapt to hearing ways of communication, and the interpreters vacillate between modalities of communication. The video technology, however is designed and functions purely from a hearing point of view and this affects the ways in which deafness (and hearing) are performed during video meetings.

While page 99 gives no hint at this (other than its rebellious stance against Goffman, perhaps), my thesis concludes with a challenge to all interested in technology and its design to question the normative assumptions that hide behind design decisions and utopian visions of technological futures.

Cupitt, Rebekah. 2017. “Make difference. Deafness and video technology at work” KTH, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, PhD dissertation.

Sonia Das on her new book, Linguistic Rivalries

Interview by Lia Siewert

Lia Siewert: Your ethnography looks at how Québec’s Franco-Anglo conflicts, or linguistic rivalries, are reproduced in the language practices of Sri Lankan and Indian Tamil-speaking communities in Montréal. How would you describe your book to someone who is not familiar with the politics of language choice in Québec?

Sonia Das: I would start off by saying that in some parts of the world, people are willing to die for their language.  In Montréal this sentiment is very much alive among the folks with whom I conducted my research. Many have participated in movements of linguistic nationalism and fought for their language rights to be recognized and protected in their home societies, in addition to Québec. I would then emphasize how especially contentious language choices are in Québec. In fact, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to state that people there always notice which language you choose to speak (or write) at any given time and with any given interlocutor.  Some people get very upset – and will tell you or show you so – if you make what they believe to be the wrong choices. At the same time, some people in Québec want nothing to do with Anglo-Franco conflicts. They would prefer to think of language as a neutral tool in the classic liberal sense and opt out of these debates altogether by speaking English exclusively, yet the law still obliges them to learn and use French for education, business, and government. There are also just as many people who are mindful of the evolving stakes of linguistic rivalries and seek to strategically display their loyalty to both their host and home societies. Upwardly mobile Indian Tamil immigrants generally fall into the first category, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees into the second, and their children span the spectrum of political allegiances. No one in Québec truly escapes the interpellating effects of a language ideology that conflates language and ethnonational identity. My book thus explores how the politics of language choice are part and parcel of belonging to a globalizing society that imagines language as the essence of cultural heritage and civic identity.

Lia Siewert: You specifically mention the “voices” you had to exclude from the book’s discussion. Which voices are you referring to? And what kinds of “future retellings and revisions” are you hoping emerge from these omissions?

Sonia Das: This is not only a book about the politics of language choice. This is also a book about the politics of doing ethnography on language choice within the context of a pro-nationalist society that nonetheless seeks to be welcoming of immigrants and refugees fleeing politically turbulent situations and worrying about having their social mobility restricted through the integration process.  As I mentioned in my first response, almost every citizen and immigrant feels strongly about language issues in Montréal, even if it is to simply assert that language occupies too much attention in public discourse.  Some people, however, cannot openly state their opinions for fear of losing their jobs, their residency, or their lives.  I am mindful of the precarious position of many of my informants who have trusted me with their stories and I exclude the voices of the most vulnerable, including undocumented immigrants, children, and Tamil-Canadians who speak critically of the government or the LTTE. I did not want this book to be about war or political conflict in order to avoid feeding into negative stereotypes about Tamil “terrorists” in Canada and also because there are already several books exploring the experiences and memories of war among refugees in Toronto that have come out at about the same time.

Also, even though I received permission from the English school board to work with children attending Tamil PELO classes, I chose to only analyze the talk of children whose parents gave me permission to include them in the transcripts. Outside of schools, I regret not being able to follow up with the Muslim and Protestant contacts that I had made, and so the book depicts a polarized division between Hindus and Catholics that is not fully representative of the diversity of the diaspora. Lastly, this book is the product of an unfortunate decision made by the Commission Scolaire de Montréal (French school board) to reject my application to conduct research at French public schools, citing the “political content” of my research as the reason for their refusal. This rejection came after almost six months of jumping through bureaucratic hoops and corresponding with teachers, principals, and government officials, and I was devastated, to say the least. One of my dissertation committee members sympathetically advised me that even this rejection counts as data, and so I started to think more reflexively about how my positionality as a biracial Indian American woman with roots in Québec and with an easily recognizable lower-class Québécois accent meant that certain doors would open for me and others would close.  The revisions that I imagine would involve someone of a different set of interests and occupying a different positionality paying attention to the diversity of these Tamil communities in ways that I could not, and the future retellings would capitalize on recent political changes in Québécois and Tamil societies to explore whether and how language choice and multilingualism are still contentious today.

Lia Siewert: Your archival research is expansive and the conclusions you draw from it are compelling; specifically, it is fascinating that Québec’s Tamil diaspora has produced ideologies and practices particular to Montréal, but drawn from texts in Sri Lanka and India. Could you elaborate on the significance of investigating Tamil use in India and Sri Lanka and the growing ideological separation of forms of Tamil in Montréal?

Sonia Das: When I shared my conclusion with my Professor of Tamil at the University of Michigan that second-generation Indian-Canadians identify as speaking Spoken Tamil and Sri Lankan-Canadians identify as speaking Written Tamil, he immediately corrected me and explained that these diglossic “registers” are the same “language.” Though I clarified my observations as language ideologies, he remained convinced that either my reasoning or my informants’ reasoning was faulty. Having studied “Written Tamil” first at the University of Michigan and “Spoken Tamil” second at the American Institute for Indian Studies in Madurai, it would have been natural for me to have confused the issues, and so I did a lot of cross-checking to make sure that this language ideology was indeed backed up by explicit metapragmatic statements as well as cultural practices institutionalized across different social domains. Also, when I presented my research in Toronto and looked into the heritage language scene there, I understood this to be truly a Montréal phenomenon. There is no recorded evidence of any other Tamil diaspora – whether situated in Europe, Australia, South Asia, Africa, or elsewhere in North America – making similar claims about their languages.  And yet, the idea that Spoken Tamil and Written Tamil are grammatically and stylistically distinct linguistic codes became widely accepted in the 19th century, precisely at a time when British, French, and other Europeans were competing to produce the most authoritative lexicographies and perfected copies of ancient Tamil texts in South Asia. This historical perspective led me to explore in the archives how Indian and Sri Lankan Tamil ideologies of language diverged through a series of ideological mediations and in relation to imperialist Anglo-Franco conflicts which, in all their idiosyncratic forms, have driven much of modern political history.

Lia Siewert: It seems like the Ministry of Education’s attention to minority language education attributes value to these languages only in the service of boosting anti-Anglo attitudes—therefore, while languages such as Tamil or Tagalog are given lip service, ultimately their success is meaningless to Québec as long as English is decentered and French is increasingly the language of social and economic mobility. How would you argue for or against this reading?

Sonia Das: Actually, it was not my intention to target Québec’s Ministry of Education as paying mere lip service to Canadian multicultural values.  The fact that you read my book in this way, however, suggests perhaps the leaking influence of two over-determined and partially overlapping interpretations of heritage language education in Québec today. The first of these is a belief that reflects the increasingly neoliberal practices of many governments (and not exclusive to Québec) that values heritage language education insofar as it creates economic and political value for the host society and enables socioeconomic mobility for citizens.  The second reading is more cynical. It claims that heritage language programs were only created in Montréal in 1978 to appease ethnic minority voters who were upset when they first learned that they would have to send their children to French and not the preferred English-medium public schools after the passage of Bill 101. Even if the Ministry had originally intended the PELO as a form of appeasement to ethnic minority voters, I would not conclude that teaching heritage languages boosted anti-Anglo attitudes, for three reasons. First, heritage language classes have been offered in English-medium schools in Montréal since the early 1980s.  Second, the accepted practice of English code-mixing with heritage languages such as Tamil increases the presence of English in French-medium schools and reinforces the status of English as a cosmopolitan language.  Third, even though the greatest number of PELO classes is in Montréal’s French-medium school system, there are neighborhoods where the only school that teaches a specific heritage language is an English-medium one. Additionally, if you were to compare Canadian heritage language programs with bilingual education programs in American and European contexts, for example, the Canadian pedagogy is arguably more expansive and robust. I live in New York City where there are a lot of bilingual schools and bilingual services but where there is no public school that could teach my children Bengali, their heritage language. So, to return to your question, although it is true that one of the Ministry of Education’s primary tasks is to promote the teaching of French and encourage the identification of children in Québec with this civic language, as opposed to English, the fact that significant government resources are being funneled to heritage language schools in an array of languages would argue against a too reductionist reading of this language policy.

Lia Siewert: What is your next project?

Sonia Das: I have two new ongoing projects.  The first, which is an extension of my first book project on Indian and Sri Lankan relations in the context of the Canadian Tamil diaspora, focuses instead on the ways in which language politics influence maritime exchanges and sociopolitical relations between post-colonial Sri Lanka and South India. I use ethnographic, archival, and linguistic methods to investigate how maritime language policies and infrastructural projects of port building and sea dredging have transformed the lived spaces and social identities in and around the Gulf of Mannar, which is a narrow body of water separating the Tamil Nadu port of Thoothukudi and Sri Lankan port of Colombo. I focus on infrastructural projects and maritime policies enacted in the aftermath of the civil war in Sri Lanka (1983-2009) and during the geopolitical race between India and China to control international shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean (2009-present). I also inquire into how language activism articulates with movements for religious, environmental, and labor rights and politicizes both sides of the coast by destabilizing trade and transport and rechanneling the flow of labor migration. Included in this research is a pilot project on the language practices and infrastructural conditions of sociability among Asian seafarers working for the global shipping industry at ports Newark and Montréal.


My second project is in collaboration with Dr. Sherina Feliciano-Santos at the University of South Carolina, and it focuses on our shared interests in language and racial inequality. Together, we analyze issues of free speech within police-suspect interactions by investigating the contexts in which a Driving Under the Influence (DUI) suspect’s communicative behavior, which with few exceptions is considered protected speech under the First Amendment, is construed as disorderly conduct or necessitating escalated force. Combining ethnographic fieldwork with over 900 hours of dashcam and bodycam video and audio data and case files of DUI arrests in South Carolina, we seek to identify the linguistic and contextual factors that impact how suspects’ communicative practices are interpreted and enacted upon by police officers. At a time when violence in police-suspect encounters has become a matter of great public concern, we believe that there is an urgent need for data-driven public policy that draws on the strengths of linguistic anthropology to elucidate the relationship between language, race, and criminal justice. It also seems like an opportune time for linguistic anthropologists to contribute to discussions of big data, especially in light of the normalization of surveillance in everyday social life.