Jonathan Rosa on his new book, Looking Like a Language and Sounding Like a Race

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/looking-like-a-language-sounding-like-a-race-9780190634735

Interview by Jessica López-Espino

Jessica López-Espino: Let’s start with your title, what does it mean to Look Like a Language and Sound like a Race?

Jonathan Rosa: The title reflects my long-standing obsession with processes of overdetermination—how categories of identity and expressive practices become ideologically co-constituted, and how perceived boundaries between such categories are enacted interactionally, institutionally, and historically. Looking like a language and sounding like a race is about historical and contemporary forms of governance through which one is expected to fit into categories that don’t correspond to lived experience in straightforward ways. What this means is that, in everyday interactions and encounters with the state, whether in education, housing, employment, or criminal justice, one’s legibility as a subject is anchored in this dynamic of looking like a language and sounding like a race. I’m suggesting that a seemingly casual kind of interplay between people’s recognitions of race and language can also be understood an existential dilemma that is historically inherited and reproduced—and profoundly institutionally consequential.

Jessica López-Espino: You made significant efforts to examine the “contortions” that students at New Northwest High School, a key ethnographic focus of the book, believe in and enact as “emblems” of Mexicanness and Puerto Ricanness, but also show how students’ own ancestry, families, friends, relationships, and desires are often intertwined more than they may initially admit. Can you say more about what analytic tools you developed to avoid reifying or exaggerating intra- and inter-Latinx difference?  

Jonathan Rosa: I developed the notion of ethnoracial contortions because on the one hand I wanted to figure out how people were strategically enacting and constructing identities, and on the other I was interested in the ways that their strategic constructions and enactments were overdetermined. You can strategically use language in a particular way or wear particular clothing or have a particular hairstyle and that does not necessarily mean that your project of the self is going to be rendered legible within a given interactional or institutional context.

I analyze the relationship between denotational texts and interaction texts—transcripts and that which is enacted through discourse—to show how kids say all the time that Mexicans and Puerto Ricans are separate races while also regularly engaging in practices that defy that assertion. This was important for me in terms of schematizing stereotypical models of Puerto Ricanness and Mexicanness, but not reducing the analysis to particular stereotypes or presentations of self. By attending both to immediate contexts of interaction and broader historical and institutional conditions of possibility for those interactions, I attempt to avoid ethnographic essentialism, empiricism, and exceptionalism. The tendency toward privileging the pragmatic realm is particularly concerning in ethnographic analyses of race, gender, and class­ because these phenomena do not reduce to embodiment or interaction in straightforward ways.

Jessica López-Espino: In your discussion of outlaw(ed) literacies, you argue that perceptions of Latinx students as not reading are based on raciolinguistic ideologies positioning students as gangbangers and hoes who are unable to produce standardized linguistic forms. What do you think administrators, teachers, and the general public loses by maintaining these raciolinguistic ideologies about Latinx youth?

Jonathan Rosa: A major problem with discussions of language and literacy in educational contexts is the assumption that the nature of the challenge that we are facing is one of deficiency or mismatch. The deficiency narrative is that these kids lack skills all together, they have not learned academic language, they have not been exposed to particular forms of communication early enough in life to then be able to succeed later on in school and other institutional contexts. The alternative is a narrative of mismatch, where it’s not that the kids are deficient altogether, but that they are using different practices. From this perspective, the goal is to build a bridge between home and school practices, which will facilitate mainstream educational success.

In contrast, I wanted to demonstrate that the very practices these kids allegedly lack—that is, standardized language and literacy—can be recognized in their existing repertoires. If these students already demonstrate skills that we are saying they need to learn, then perhaps the problem is that various aspects of their communicative practices are illegible, distorted, or erased from mainstream institutional perspectives. I’m trying to expand the nature of the antagonism to say that this is not simply about building a bridge or scaffolding, it is about the modes of legibility and illegibility that are cultivated within and fundamental to mainstream institutions. Where’s the burden in terms of change? Is it modifying the practices of marginalized youth and communities, or is it transforming institutions that are tied to endemic histories of inequity? I want to argue that it’s about transforming institutions.

Jessica López-Espino: Not “seeing race” in this book is not an option, as racial ideologies center how these students are understood as achieving a presumably upwardly mobile pan-ethnic category as Young Latino Professionals, or negatively as “at risk youth.” Have you faced push back from scholars interested in maintaining a “race-blind” analysis? What advice do you have for anthropologists seeking to challenge the normalization of Whiteness within their work?

Jonathan Rosa: I’ve seen different kinds of pushback. In some moments I was grappling with people who didn’t want to talk about race and figuring out how to communicate with them; in other situations, I’ve encountered people who want to talk about race but in ahistorical, essentializing ways I find troublesome. With people who didn’t want to talk about race, I had to ask what kinds of analyses and insights are made (im)possible by engaging or not engaging with race. Not attending to race allows us to imagine that contemporary societal challenges are merely pragmatic in nature such that diversifying demographics within existing institutions would somehow fundamentally transform them; if you do not attend to race then you will misunderstand the nature of inequality and exclusion. Race is central to the creation of the nation-state, mainstream institutions, and academic disciplines. If one understands the modern world as profoundly anchored in colonialism, then race must be central to one’s analysis of historical and contemporary societies. After all, race and racism emerged as justifications for the globalization of European colonialism.

With those who are interested in studying race but define it in terms of essentialized categories that are understood to be embodied in self-evident ways, it’s important to remember that central to the project of understanding race and rejecting biological racism is a conceptualization of the body as one among many sites for the articulation of race, and a very deceptive one at that. Embodied experiences must be analyzed in relation to colonial histories, so that when we take for granted the recognizability of Whiteness, Indigeneity, and Blackness, for example, that’s often based on a body-oriented mode of analysis. If these contemporary demographics as articulated within a particular societal setting are the primary focus, then I worry that the histories out of which they emerged will escape careful consideration.

Jessica López-Espino: Is there anything else you hope other anthropologists take away from your book?

Jonathan Rosa: I hope that what people take away from this book is a set of questions about governance, about how boundaries are inherited, experienced, and transgressed; I’m interested in contributing to conversations about the broader worlds these boundaries constitute, as well as the existence of alternative worlds that are not often recognized as such. To the extent that the book invites readers to entertain and recognize the possibility and ubiquity of such otherwise worlds, that’s exciting to me.

 

 

Elise Berman on her new book, Talking Like Children

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/talking-like-children-9780190876982

Interview by Shannon Ward

Shannon Ward: Most chapters of your book illustrated the enactment of “aged agency” through narratives that follow key events in the lives of your interlocutors, written in an accessible style and in English translation. What challenges did you face in translating your fieldnotes and transcriptions into this format?

Elise Berman: This is a great question. It was both hard and easy. I wanted to write a book that people would want to read, that would make the people I had met come alive, even while being theoretically rich. And so I did some research. As I was writing Talking Like Children, I happened upon a book called Storycraft by Jack Hart that discusses how to write narrative non-fiction. It occurred to me, then, that anthropological data is full of stories, and that ethnographies can be, and the best are, narrative non-fiction. Similarly, while teaching at UNCC the books that work best in my classes are the ones that have a strong narrative arch, characters that the students can latch on to and follow.

But the structure of narrative non-fiction that Hart describes is quite different than the way I was writing in graduate school (and I ended up wishing that I had taken a narrative non-fiction class). So, I completely rewrote my dissertation, not only to change the theory but also to change my style. One of the main points that struck me from Hart’s book was that when telling a narrative, you don’t want to give away the end in the beginning. So, for instance, in Chapter 1 when I talk about the birth of Pinla’s child, I do not initially tell the reader who got the child in the end. That is the climax, and the desire to know the result of these negotiations is what pulls readers through the text. But in the type of expository writing that I have learned, you are supposed to put the thesis in the beginning! So what I tried to do was put the theoretical thesis of each chapter in the beginning, but create narrative tension by starting with a hook and letting the story develop through the chapter without giving the ending away. I also tried to follow the other elements of Hart’s structure—beginning with action, intertwining narrative with expository information, and ending with a climax. This organization of each chapter took quite a bit of rethinking, reworking, and learning about narrative non-fiction.

But the other part of your question, about translating the fieldnotes and transcripts themselves into the dialogue, that was easy. A quote from a transcript can be written as dialogue, especially since I would have to translate it from Marshallese anyway for a transcript. What I did, instead of including symbols to indicate things like pauses or pitch, was provide that information as a narrative description. I actually found it much easier to explain this way than through symbols in a transcript. Moreover, writing this way pushed me to look closer at my videos. For narrative reasons, I wanted to be able to talk about where Rōka was looking or what Jackie did with her hand. To do that, I had to dig deeper into the recordings, and I frequently discovered relevant elements of the videos that I had left out in my previous version of the transcript.

Shannon Ward: Throughout the book, you compared age to gender, in order to theorize age as constructed and shifting. You also assert that “age is power.” Could you say more about how age intersects with gender to produce power in this ethnographic context? Relatedly, how are gender differences acquired alongside age differences, especially in childhood but also across the lifecycle?

Elise Berman: Gender differences are definitely acquired alongside age differences. The best example of this is in Chapter 6, where I talk about how Jackie has lost her former ability to run errands to men, since as she gets older she becomes subject to the “shyness” that often leads young women and men to talk in gender segregated groups. In contrast, however, Sisina, the child, is relatively bold. Her boldness is a part of learning to be not only a child who is different from an adult, but also a girl who is different from women. There are also various other aspects of gender that change across the life course that I do not discuss in the book. For example, in old age women seem to get bold once again and start playing a larger clowning role in festivals, whereas the younger women tend to be a little shyer.

This is one of the advantages, in fact, of focusing on age as a social construction. When one does, it highlights how all other categories—race, gender, class—dynamically change across the life course. So, focusing on age, in a way that I suggest has been largely (although not entirely) neglected in the social sciences, helps arguments that gender or race are not static or set in stone. It also changes the questions one might ask about the socialization of gender or race. Rather than being socialized into gender roles, people are socialized into age specific gendered modes of interaction and feeling that are constantly changing as people move across the life course.

Shannon Ward: Your book includes several stories of children who circulate between adopted families and birth families, amidst extensive controversy and discussions of adults’ morality. In these stories, you show how people, including children, use their age to affect the outcome of these exchanges. How do these Marshallese practices of adoption provide new perspectives on agency in the exchange of persons?

Elise Berman: This is another great question, and it really relates to the different forms of aged agency that exist in the RMI as a whole. Ultimately it is very hard to say no to an elder who requests something, including a child. But children and young adults have several different forms of agency, and specifically the agency of movement. Many children in the RMI have some amount of choice about where, and with whom, they live. In theory they are allowed to decide and can live with almost any relative. In practice, of course, it is much more complicated—they may not have transportation to a different relative (if that relative is on a different island), the different relative may not actually want them to stay, the parent they are leaving may be particularly powerful. Nonetheless, children’s freedom of movement changes the pattern of adoption as a whole, since adoptive children can and do move back and forth between multiple houses, including between what we would call their birth and adoptive parents. So, one part of childcare in the RMI is keeping your children happy, because if they aren’t they could (in theory) live elsewhere. People talked to me explicitly about this idea, that keeping your children with you requires keeping them happy—and that while this is particularly true of adoptive children it applies to others as well. Children’s movement is possible partly because of their age. They are not yet tied to a particular household that they care for.

Just as children can move between households, young adults can as well. One way to get away from a request for a child that you don’t want to fulfill is to move away until the child is older (one mother told me she did this: she didn’t want to give her kid away to an elder relative so when she was pregnant she moved to a different atoll). In turn, young adults also have a variety of choices available to them that are not as readily available to people in the US. Adoption is not a last resort in the RMI: it is a reasonable and expected option for single women as well as partnered ones. So I know of several women who told me that they adopted a child before they were partnered and before they had children of their own because they wanted a child. Now, this might happen in the US as well, but it is still something of an anomaly for a single woman to adopt a child. In turn, particularly given the common pattern of grandparents adopting the firstborn grandchildren, youth who have children before they are ready have a number of options open to them, options that might be offered rather than having to be sought out. Moreover, people change partners quite frequently early in relationships (when people are koba, together, but haven’t taken the step of becoming married), and this isn’t really seen as something that will negatively affect the children. Thus, women can adopt when single, and if they have a child without a partner it is not a big deal.

At the same time, however, these large families and these forms of sharing children have their own tensions, which I tried to illuminate in Chapter 1. In addition, and this is something that I didn’t write about in the book, when combined with high poverty rates this system is ripe for exploitation. There is a huge crisis of American adoptions of Marshallese children, where the ability of powerful people (including foreigners) to ask for things and get them, as well as these malleable households that shift and adapt, has led to an exorbitant number of American adoptions of Marshallese children.

­

Shannon Ward: Chapter 5, in particular, addresses issues of morality and age. Marshallese ideologies assert that children refrain from lying despite risks to their own or others’ reputations, unlike adults who lie to avoid shame and protect their reputations. In other words, this ideology holds that children are able to tell the truth, especially about others’ negative actions, due to their position as nonmoral persons. Throughout the book, you also mention the importance of Christianity. Other ethnographic literature about the Pacific region has shown how Christianity is shaping notions of truth, responsibility, and evidence related to morality. Could you say more about how these ideologies of children’s truthfulness and nonmorality relate to Christianity in this ethnographic context?

Elise Berman: It is not that the children refrain from lying despite risks to their own reputation, but rather that there are no risks to children’s reputations (or so adults think; children have a different view). Since, according to adults, children are too young to have reputations, any words that they tell are not real lies. Thus the ideology is not so much that children do not tell untruths (everyone agrees that they do), but rather they do not and have no motive to tell real lies that negatively affect adults. If they do, those words are not their own and they are not responsible for them.

This view of children’s words as not their own and, therefore, not lies even when they are false does seem to be quite different from the ideology of language explicitly expressed in church settings, in which a much greater concern is placed on words themselves as opposed to the effect of words. In line with the literature you reference, Christianity does seem to promote a different view of words and responsibility. But this ideology, as elsewhere in the Pacific, also seems to vary with denomination. My host family was Būrotijen, which is the United Church of Christ, the original denomination of the missionaries who came in the 1800s. So, I spent most of my time at the Būrotijen church. But there are many other newer denominations. When I visited two evangelical churches—Assembly of God and Looking for Jesus—the sermon’s rhetoric was much more focused on how God tells the truth and one must always tell the truth. Since almost everyone I interacted with outside of church was Būrotijen, I can’t say for sure how this perhaps greater emphasis on words’ referential accuracy within these other churches affects behavior outside of the church.

 

Eitan Wilf on his new book, Creativity on Demand

https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/C/bo34094110.html

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: You describe how, when you explained your previous work on regimented jazz instruction to someone also attending a business innovation workshop, he asked you how you managed to get metaphorically from a famous jazz club in New York City, the Village Vanguard, to these workshops. You point out that the similar tensions in both sites exist because people are using rule-bound and structured pedagogical techniques which are meant to lead to creative improvisation that in earlier decades was believed to emerge more organically.  How do you think the business innovation workshops you attended differed from the jazz classes in the ways rules and creativity were understood?

Eitan Wilf: My interlocutors in academic jazz programs and business innovation workshops did not approach rules for generating creative results in the same way due to the historical specificity of each context. Most of my interlocutors in academic jazz programs—students, teachers, and administrators, as well as the wider public—understood the academic jazz program as a pale shadow of the vibrant urban jazz scenes of the mid-20th century, which gave rise to the masterpieces of this genre. The apprenticeship system, in which neophyte musicians learn from more experienced musicians in live performance settings, was the prevalent form of jazz training in those scenes. With the gradual disappearance of clubs and their replacement with academic programs, jazz training became more standardized, abstract, and text-mediated. Due to this history, my interlocutors in academic jazz programs viewed the structured pedagogical techniques taught in such programs as always already problematic, a form of training that indexed the music’s and their own fall from grace and the realization that, at best, such techniques can give them a glimpse of what genuine creativity in jazz is all about. In contrast, my interlocutors in business innovation workshops did not have the idea that they were born after a past golden age of creativity in the business world in relation to which their own practice could be negatively compared. Because creativity has never been a defining dimension of their ideal-typical practice, they approached the structured techniques for generating creative results that they were taught in innovation workshops with much more enthusiasm, hope, and curiosity. If they experienced any ambivalence toward those techniques, it was due to the fact that in western modernity in general creativity and rules are understood to be antithetical to one another.

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