Thomas D. Zlatic and Sara Van Den Berg on Walter Ong’s Language as Hermeunetic

Language as Hermeneutic

Maddy Adams: You are both professors of English, and this blog is an anthropology blog. Walter Ong’s work has traveled through so many disciplines and departments: communication, rhetoric, linguistic anthropology, English, religion, history, and media studies. Clearly, Ong’s ideas have had far-reaching influence and appeal. Why do you think his work is relevant for so many different disciplines?

Sara Van Den Berg and Thomas D. Zlatic: Ong once identified his primary academic interest to be the evolution of consciousness out of unconsciousness within the context of 13.5 billion years of cosmic evolution, particularly as related to communications technology. Such a study obviously touches upon many disciplines, and while Ong resisted classification, he did reluctantly agree that his interdisciplinary work might be understood as cultural anthropology.

It is more than coincidence that two of the most seminal founders of “media ecology”—Ong and Marshal McLuhan—both earned Ph. D.s in Renaissance literature.  This gave them a broad sweep not only of eras and events in the material world but also of the “internal history” of Western culture. Ong proposed there were four stages of human communication: primary orality (in which writing is unknown), writing, print, and electronics; what we know, how we know, and how we structure society are influenced by the dominant communications media in a culture. Each communication stage promoted different psychodynamics and different orientations to space and time.  For instance, in his article in American Anthropologist he explained that post-Gutenberg cultures tended to spatialize noetic processes due to visually-based analogues for knowing (“world-as-view”), whereas oral cultures’ valorization of sound promoted a mentality in which words and ideas are happenings (“world-as-event”). Such a thesis invites further investigations in several disciplines.

Maddy Adams: You describe Ong’s notion of “secondary orality” as “the transmission of speech in electronic media; this…secondary version of orality depends on the underlying resources of literacy” (3). Could you talk a little more about this foundational concept? What might a student of linguistic anthropology have to gain from becoming familiar with this term? Continue reading

Tanja Ahlin takes the pg. 99 test

Page 99 of my thesis is so short I can quote it here in its entirety. Here it goes:


My mother never told me
Love is a bottle of mango pickles
She used to put in my cotton bag
Every time I leave my home town

One day
Her season of mangoes ended
And never returned”


When I first read this, I thought well, this is certainly not representative of my thesis. After all, I didn’t spend the last several years analysing poetry to get a PhD in Indian literature. Rather, my study is about how care is ‘done’ in Indian transnational families. Specifically, I look at how nurses from Kerala, South India, who migrate abroad for work, take care of their aging parents who remain in India. I conducted ethnographic fieldwork by visiting Kerala and Oman as one of the nurses’ destination countries, and elsewhere via information and communication technologies (ICTs). I draw on material semiotics approach from Science and Technology Studies (STS) to analyse my data. According to this approach, ‘care’ is understood as something that people do within specific practices. Importantly, care includes not only people, but also non-human actors – in my case, everyday ICTs like mobile phones and webcams. However, these technologies are not only passive tools that people use for their own purposes; instead, they actively shape what care comes to mean and how it should be done to be considered good.

In my thesis, I show how adult children abroad, their parents in India, and various ICTs establish what I call transnational care collectives. The dynamic of these collectives (that is, which family members and which technologies are involved and how) depends on each family. Besides sending remittances to the parents, the main care practice within transnational care collectives is calling. But for this care to be considered good, some conditions have to be fulfilled: the calling needs to be frequent, too. Different devices shape frequent calling as a care practice differently: on the phone, people share everydayness by sharing the details of their everyday lives, while on the webcam, they can spend time together, sometimes by being silent. ICTs thus change what ‘good care’ comes to mean, but they further also influence how gender and kinship become enacted in new ways.

The care practices I describe are radically different from elder care that is normally considered good in India, such as living together and sharing food, practices which demand physical proximity. ICTs help to bridge geographic distance in some ways, but not in others; they may even bring about challenging situations and conflicting emotions. I felt my thesis didn’t quite do justice to the depth of experiences of the people I encountered in my fieldwork. By way of mitigating this, I added a poem as an introduction to each thesis chapter.

I now realize that no other page in my thesis could represent its core better than page 99.

Tanja Ahlin. 2020. Care through Digital Connections: Enacting Elder Care Through Everyday Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in Indian Transnational Families.  University of Amsterdam, Phd.

Erin Gould takes the page 99 test

My dissertation entitled, “Youth Transformations in Storytelling: Transmutability, Haunting, and Fen al Hikaya in Marrakech, Morocco” discusses fen al hikaya, the famous form of oral Moroccan public allegorical storytelling, and its “revival” by youth in Marrakech, Morocco. Why do I say “revived”? Well, popular discourse in Morocco and those writing about oral storytelling in Morocco discuss this genre of performance as “disappearing,” even though young people are currently still doing storytelling performing in different areas of Marrakech. In my dissertation, I argue that this youth revitalization of storytelling practices is haunted by disappearing storytelling figures who better fit the image of a Storyteller: wise old men. At the same time, youth are contributing to storytelling performance to connect with cultural forms, while also finding storytelling to be a genre that they can transform to fit their contemporary, internationalized, and economically precarious lives.

The 99th page of dissertation is part of my fourth chapter: “Narratives of the Storyteller: The Historical Figure and His Decline in Jemaa el Fna Square,” which considers the “image” of the storyteller and how the narratives of the “historical storyteller” and the “disappearing storyteller” leave out the narratives of young storytellers in the city. In this chapter, I not only discuss the figure of the storyteller, but I contextualize the most famous center of performance in Marrakech: Jemaa el Fna Square. This square is considered the heart of Marrakech, and it is around this place that many myths concerning performance genres have arisen, including a myth that says the storytellers in the Square, through their storytelling, gave birth to the other figures in the Square, including the snake charmers, the henna artists, the musicians, the tea sellers, and the food sellers. Page 99 introduces my analysis of the “disappearing storyteller” narratives, complete with a short excerpt from an interview with a young woman storyteller, Fatima Ezzahra, in Marrakech. While this passage does not represent the whole of my argument, it is undoubtably the beginning of a larger conversation that contextualizes my research in Marrakech. Hope you enjoy.

Page 99:

The Storyteller’s Decline in the Square


“10 years ago, there were storytellers—Morocco was no exception. They told religious stories and fairy tales about Kings, heroes, and princesses. However, now there is a lot of noise in the Square, so storytellers are unable to be there…”

—Fatima Ezzahra (From fieldnotes; 3/23/2017)


Jemaa el Fna Square has been extensively documented and written about by scholars and writers, especially since the times of the French Protectorate period from 1912 to 1956 (Canetti 1978; Deverdun 1959; Peets 1988; Warnock Fernea 1980). During colonization, General Lyautey wanted to promote Moroccan design and keep traditional places intact (Rabinow 1995; Wright 1991). However in the 1950s, the government had made plans to make Jemaa el Fna Square into a car park outside of the maze of souks because it was no longer seen as popular or useful. One of the most famous stories associated with the need for a revival of the Square and surrounding souks is associated with Eleanor Roosevelt, the former first-lady of the United States. There is rumor that Eleanor Roosevelt visited Marrakech in the 1950s, and she was disappointed to see that Jemaa el Fna Square was changed so much from the times she had visited in her youth. She noted that the public square was not as lively as she remembered, but she would love to see the Square have its sprawling and lively atmosphere when she visited the next time.

Because of this conversation, King Mohammed V “saved” the Square from destruction and vowed to bring it back to its previous fairy-tale glory by the time Roosevelt returned (Minca 2006; Wagner 2015; Warnock Fernea 1980). This is one of the most famous myths outlining the potential destruction but eventual saving of the Square and performances there. However, while many Moroccans abandoned their living spaces in the medina, or old town, immediately after gaining independence in 1956, more recently foreigners have played a large role in changing the medina, just as tourism has transformed the city and its economy.

Erin Gould defended her dissertation in December 2019 at the University of California, Riverside, after conducting research in Morocco from 2016 to 2018. Her research on storytelling is ongoing, and until she can return for more ethnographic work, she is lecturing part-time at Chapman University in Orange, CA. She can be reached at or followed on Twitter @erin_gould4.


References Cited:

Canetti, Elias. 1978. The Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a Visit. J.A. Underwood, transl. New York: The Seabury Press.

Deverdun, Gaston. 1959. Marrakech: Des Origines à 1912. Rabat: Éditions Techniques Nord-Africaines.

Minca, Claudio. 2006. Re-inventing the “Square”: Postcolonial Geographies and Tourist Narratives in Jamaa el Fna, Marrakech. In Travels in Paradox: Remapping Tourism. C. Minca and T. Oakes, eds. Pp. 155-184. Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Peets, Leonora. 1988. Women of Marrakech: Record of a Secret Sharer 1930-1970. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rabinow, Paul. 1995. French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wagner, Lauren B. 2015. ‘Tourist Price’ and Diasporic Visitors: Negotiating the Value of Descent. Valuation Studies 3(2):119-148.

Warnock Fernea, Elizabeth. 1980. A Street in Marrakech: A Personal Encounter with the Lives of Moroccan Women. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Wright, Gwendolyn. 1991. The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Patricia G. Lange on her new book, Thanks for Watching

Thanks for Watching

Interview by Jan English-Lueck

Jan English-Lueck:  You have been writing about YouTubers, on and off screen, for over a decade.  How is this book continuing themes you have been developing for a long time and what is a departure from your previous work?

Patricia G. Lange: My work has oriented around empathetically exploring nuances of mediated interaction to understand the allure of interacting in digital spaces. Throughout my career, criticism of mediated interaction has persistently been very harsh—from scholars and the public. Yet, mediation is part of the human experience. My current book similarly tries to understand why vlogging (video blogging) and sharing the self through media was so important to YouTubers interested in sociality. My past and current research challenges the notion that mediated interaction is simply parasitic to and less meaningful than in person interaction. The sociality YouTubers experienced was emotional and real—both online and off. Even going back to my dissertation, I have been concerned with problematic talk and issues of online access. Back then troublesome participants were called “flamers” and today YouTubers complain about “haters”—groups that exhibit differences but also similarly produce chilling effects to participation. I have explored how digital spaces facilitate or challenge democratized participation. This book continues this passion by analyzing experiences of YouTubers who originally saw the site as a place of tremendous possibility for offering a potentially democratized space for self-expression and interaction. Thanks for Watching traces the initial excitement and eventual ensuing complications that an interconnected group of people experienced. It explores difficulties such as haters, competition brought on by monetization, and changes in content. It also analyzes technical complications such as algorithmic rankings that privilege certain types of content over quiet, social videos. The book concludes by providing advice and recommendations when conducting ethnography in digital spaces. It also provides information about what might be changed to renew a corner of YouTube for sociality, or perhaps to more ambitiously create new video sharing sites that fundamentally support interaction.

In the past, my work has centrally revolved around issues of analyzing technical identities, and how “geeks” socialize to learn and project an aura of being an expert. Thanks for Watching departs from this research program. Identity work has been important for many online studies, but other interesting rubrics exist. Inspired by Lefebvre, my book uses the lens of “rhythm analysis” to explore how temporalities, rhythms, and interactions over time shape video-mediated sociality. For example, an arrhythmia is an irregular rhythm, one which often indicates a problem. YouTubers at times experienced arrhythmias between honoring their creative pace of production and satisfying the relentless demands of audiences and algorithms. At times creators could not keep up with such requests and took a break. Disruptions in posting video content might be observed by viewers who became concerned when video making output became irregular. It could feel as if a collective was in tune with a video maker and was watching out for them. Focusing attention on such patterns leads to significant analytical insight, especially in terms of seeing such deep and widespread connections as illustrative of our increasingly “posthuman” condition. I remain circumspect about usage of this term, which has the unfortunate connotation of asserting we are no longer human. Yet, we are far from being robots or files containing a downloaded consciousness. Nevertheless, I chose to explore this rubric given that some of its characteristics can quite clearly be observed on YouTube. Collectives of interconnected people, artifacts, commercial interests, and technical operations are deeply influencing how people express the “self” in both communal and troublesome ways.

Jan English-Lueck:  You observed an actual drum circle at a YouTube meet-up in Toronto.  You then observed it is an appropriate metaphor for video sharing.  Could you tell us more about how that metaphor illuminates participatory cultures?

Continue reading

Michelle Williams takes the page 99 test

One half of page 99 of my doctoral thesis is a photo, taken at eye level of a group of Tongan students sitting cross-legged on the ground of their school courtyard in Auckland, New Zealand. They are rehearsing for an upcoming cultural festival that is the central topic of my research. I am sitting, unseen, with the students as we learn the performance item together. The movement of our bodies and voices has become synchronous over several weeks of practice and in this moment, the production of culturally-specific movement and sound is a uniting factor among myself and the student participants. However, the image also represents a key problem central to my fieldwork methodology: although membership in a music-community transcends difference in some ways, how would I bridge the spaces created by authority, power, ethnicity and age? How could I represent young people’s experiences effectively and help to bring their voices to the fore within a discipline that often excluded them? These questions were significant components in constructing my research model.

My research approach was informed by both Pacific research frameworks and recommendations from ethnomusicology, many of which overlapped in their emphases on relationships, collaboration, and reciprocity. Educational research helped me to problematize how I would represent myself to students, and was essential guidance to the shifting roles I undertook as a learner, music-community supporter and friendly teacher (the latter during the focus groups we co-created). Throughout my fieldwork I attempted to daily to bridge the spaces created by my adult authority and my privileges as a white American researcher, through shared love of popular music, my immigrant status, my Christian upbringing and the common goal of representing “our” school at the cultural festival. Although I had to concede a number of limitations, I was pleased that ultimately the experiences and viewpoints of the students were a major component of my findings, and included several “firsts” in research with Pacific youth in New Zealand.

Michelle Ladwig Williams. 2019. The ASB Polyfest: Constructing Transnational Pacific Communities of Practice in Auckland, New Zealand. University of Auckland, Phd.