Interview by Héctor Beltrán
Héctor Beltrán: In your book you conceptualize the hearsay public to provide a critique of liberal notions of publicity. Can you unpack how this relationship frames your argument, and the ethnographic labor involved in making these connections?
Rihan Yeh: Passing looks at how, in Tijuana, a middle-class public oriented towards liberal ideals of public communication both faces off against and intertwines with a popular, working-class public that takes shape through genres of hearsay: communications framed as that which “everyone knows.” For me, what’s interesting about the hearsay public is that it provides a critique of liberal publicity from within. This isn’t a social formation based on any authentically ‘other’ cultural tradition; it arises from processes of marginalization and denials of recognition that are inherent to liberally-oriented “we”s. These “we”s are always creating more “they”s out there, and the hearsay public is one – to me, very compelling – way to inhabit that position of the third person.
To see ethnographically how middle-class and popular senses of we-ness take shape in relationship to each other (as well as to the United States, via the border), you need a method that will hone in on the dialogic overtones of people’s interactions across a really wide variety of settings, from, say, checkpoint encounters to dinner-table discussions. These interactions, of course, also necessarily have to involve people not just from one urban community or socioeconomic niche, but from many, many walks of life. The ethnographic labor is in being there in all these different situations and being able to put them together—or, rather, seeing how other people put them together, on the fly, as they try to carve out a place for themselves in the city, in the nation, and in the wider world.