Interview by Krisztina Fehérváry
Krisztina Fehérváry: Something I love about great ethnography is the classic move of introducing the reader to what seems a completely strange way of being in the world and making sense of it. You do this with the Slovene notion of the copy, the likeness, the double— not as a faded, devalued copy or reproduction, but as something unique and subversive in its own right, taking up its own space. You write that it took a long time before you began to figure this out. Can you say more about the thesis of your book, and how you came to “see” it?
Gretchen Bakke: There was something perfectly obvious about repetition as comforting and expressive from the very start, because of the way that surfaces and samenesses carried such unabashed symbolic ooomf. But then, when I would take that out of context, and try to talk about how doing something perfectly the same as something already recognizable was both a sort of accomplishment (to be proud of) and also irritant, because things aren’t supposed to be that perfect all I got was a bunch of people looking at me like I was nuts. I was going to school in America, raised in America (though a weird corner of it) (there are so many weird corners) and there was no place at that time in that place for a lack of differentiation to have symbolic and social power.
You ask below about how much the book is actually about America, and it didn’t start that way, but as I wrote I let myself relax a little bit and tried to critique the social-symbolic system that couldn’t recognize the power and effort of non-differentiation. Since The Likeness really is about imperatives that come with socio-cultural transition, I felt it was important to also write about failures of recognition, about how at important moments of communication nuanced practices of subjectivity just didn’t make it through a mesh tuned differently. I thought a lot about ‘On Alternating Sounds’ where Boas (1889) argues for misperception on the part of researchers – grounded in the ‘naturalized’ sounds of their own childhood – as constitutive of an entire theory of mind attributed to those being researched. This seems so straightforward or obvious today, yet precisely this misperception caused a lot of suffering as Slovenia was integrating into Europe because this one simple thing – that sameness can be powerful, protective, comforting; that likeness can wielded as a weapon or used as a cushion; that subjectivity can be spread elegantly across surfaces rather than found in plumbed depths – this way of being just slipped ever into misrecognition and misattribution.
Most of the book, is concerned with how this played out in Europe, but I also have a bone to pick with the intense attachment to the depth model of subjectivity in the US, and this material seemed a way to show readers, especially students, how much any set of practices that produce something like a sense of self, is not natural or true, but just as learned-via-repetition as anything else.
Krisztina Fehérváry: This is fascinating. It will also help me in a project I’ve been working on intermittently about smiling and teeth in Hungary, where the U.S. serves as a basis for comparison but is also an important model for Hungarian dental practice and norms for appearance. The “American” smile is so clearly performative, but people here hate it when I point that out. Hungarians are also getting their teeth done, perfect and white, but not for smiling, especially not that kind of smile. (As elsewhere, such commodified teeth have become a potent marker of middle-class distinction, respectability, and proper hygiene.)
Gretchen Bakke: A sweep toward sameness, as teeth transition into recognizable as having been done. Here too, there needn’t be an emphasis on difference or distinction or even meaning and intention in order for subjectivity or identity to emerge. You see this right away. Other Anthropologists too have made this point, though less so recently. When, thanks to one of the book’s reviewers, I discovered Catherine Lutz’s work (1998) and Michelle Rosaldo’s (1980, 1982) I felt such gratitude for their easy proclamations related to a broad cultural disregard for the inner or for anything like the Delphic imperative. I breathe easier today because more than anyone their work makes the point that there is nothing special about distinction as a delicate mode of individuation. There is no true I. There are lots of ways to be a someone even now today, but all the ways that don’t look like a careful cultivation of minor tweaks of a presumed to be knowable inner self (see esp. Dunn 2003, 2004, 2005), come up as jarring. Non-differentiation, a lack of originality, can be just as expressive as can the endless deployment and cultivation of tiny unique differences.
Krisztina Fehérváry: This also reminds me in some respects of what Daniel Miller (2010) called “Depth Ontology,” referring to the ideological origins of the protestant obsession with plainness, of seeing adornment as artifice. He was talking about make-up and clothes, and how in many places like Trinidad a bare, unmade-up face is just a blank, a mask, that reveals nothing about a person, while dress and make up is how a person reveals who they are. This seems related to what you are saying about kinds of performative subjectivities, although in those examples uniqueness and distinction are still important.
Gretchen Bakke: Yes, exactly, though I only figure that out at the end of the writing process (Miller is ahead of me by 10 years!). I live in Germany now, where being clean but unadorned matters a lot to attractiveness; this was not quite the case in Slovenia, where a minimization of uniqueness was more noteworthy – but how one achieved non-uniqueness was intensely dependent on context or setting. This is maybe why sub-group affiliation was such a resplendent part of everyday life in Slovenia. There was a wonderful moment, not in the book, when the first ever Miss Universe Slovenia pageant was held – the winner to be sent forward to the Miss Universe competition – and all the contestants looked the same. The one selected – the winner – was not the most beautiful or most startling, but the one who occupied the perfect middle ground; in her crowd she was the one who stood out the least. As one might imagine, Slovenia rarely does well in that global competition, which is premised upon finding unique beauty – though of course, also organized according to a pretty narrow set of (tall, skinny, young) norms. Where the country is a leader in the international scene is in activities where winning is about holding tightly to a given form. Slovenes are masterful ski jumpers and ballroom dancers.
As a scholar though, I felt like I ran into this bias for minor difference everywhere I turned. What to do about Saussure? What to do about Bourdieu? What to do about Bateson? What to do about the entire field of cybernetics? It’s always minimal difference as a mode of producing subtle distinctions that matter inordinately to meaning, communication, social order, and information (respectively). But I was interested largely in the rest of the story, the part that wasn’t that tiny ‘difference that makes a difference’ (Bateson 1972) why dispense with all the rest (the 99% as it were)? What happens if we put our minds to the non-difference that makes no-difference (as Županičič 2003 does)? For this too is a way of making and living in common social worlds.
So, I kept coming back to the question: How do working class kids get working class jobs? (Willis 1977). Not in and of itself, but as a guiding mantra? How is it that cultural change doesn’t happen, when life is characterized by change, by difference? (Even our teeth don’t look the same). Non-differentiation – or repletion of the same – is no accident. And in Slovenia there was a way in which the ‘no accident’ was made massively obvious; at times almost jokingly obvious. After all, almost everything betrays a fidelity to other things. In the end, this is why I came back to Bakhtin, who is really lurking in the book, a sort of happy ghost haunting the thing through the footnotes. (Honestly, I was thinking of Hogwarts here, how there are all these phantoms about, that have their own problems, and sometimes help out and sometimes get in the way and sometimes need help themselves, and wrote Bakhtin in like that, a diaphanous ineffable effective presence) because in Slovenia I kept finding an explicit heteroglossia, not just in words but in design, in the material world, in movement (thanks to Mauss here too (1973)[1935), in fashion, in modes of resistance, in affiliation—cultural as much as sub-cultural.
All this fidelity to form wasn’t reducible to anything easy, though when I presented the material people kept wanting there to be a facile explanatory link to specific culturezone or historyzone or ideologyzone, so that X leads to Y and we can wash our hands of the mystery of it all. What I got was a lot of ‘but isn’t it just communist aesthetics that the people haven’t managed to shake off’ or ‘isn’t it just mountain valley village people that do tend to cut off the head of anyone who sticks out’ or ‘isn’t is just a poverty of authentic cultural forms?’ Sure, yes, but also NO, not at all, never. So, the problem for me was coming up with a way to communicate how all this often-intentional stereotypy deserved more than disregard even as it courted disregard (this is the point I struggled to make in chapter 2).
All of which to say that the problem wasn’t so much recognizing likenesses but writing them in a way such that other people could also recognize them. My battle was with an audience that was hard to convince (or rather, that was very thoroughly convinced of other things). I wanted to write about Slovenia in a way that kept true to the spirit of the place, that didn’t give away all the inside jokes, that left some of the mystery and playfulness intact so that others could ‘get it’ somehow too. I needed to bring the foreign reader into this world. My hope was that if I could surround the reader sufficiently, submerge her or him in the funny, unexpected, odd bits of everyday life in Slovenia, that then maybe some of counterintuitive (though simple) claims would be able to find some purchase.
Krisztina Fehérváry: For a book about the art of original imitation, your book is written in a style that seems strikingly original! Some colleagues and I were just discussing (again) the constraints of academic writing, and The Likeness immediately came to mind as an example of how one might break from such constraints without resorting to fiction. While the book is clearly an ethnography and a work of non-fiction, your authorial voice is playful and deeply engaging: you start with an analysis of a nonsense symbol, use humor to discuss difficult topics, and include famous people –artists, celebrities and theoreticians– as your “informants” (such as Laibach, Melania Trump and Žižek). Can you say more about your writing style?
Gretchen Bakke: At home, we called this book the ‘funny ha ha book’ (to differentiate it from the other books, because somehow writing about electrical infrastructure and now climate change which is what I do with the other half of myself never really reaches the ‘funny ha ha’ point; its obscenely serious stuff).
So, there are two problems with Slovenia for the anthropologist. First, is that nobody has heard of it, nobody cares about it, and it’s weird. This used to be the problem for every ethnographer: how to communicate the thoroughgoing strangeness of a somewhere else in a way that doesn’t get lost in translation. The classic anthropological move is to elevate/abstract this strangeness to theory, so that the cultural details serve as fodder to theoretical claims that can be understood and transacted between anthropologists who don’t really care that much about cultural specificity in the Trobriand Islands (for example). We make models of worlds and then set these loose in other worlds to see what happens. The ontological turn is this, pushing the whole discipline to try thinking as if with the amazon rainforest and its peoples. I think this motivation of data toward abstraction is really nice; it’s a funny way of building a smart disciplinary community that moves between people who cannot verify each other’s data. (Latour 1990).
My problem was that whenever I talked about Slovenia nobody believed me. It was an impossible place to make abstract claims about (for the then-me) because of the second problem, which is that it is/was insanely recognizable. Repetition in the idiom of the same meant that outsiders felt – at a gut level – like they understood it. The weirdness of the place was lost in the fact that it appeared not to be different at all.
Krisztina Fehérváry: Yes, I so get this. William Gibson has a great way of talking about British/American seeming sameness/difference: ‘mirror world’ in his novel Pattern Recognition (2003)
Gretchen Bakke: Yes exactly, what I remember most about that book is the first 8 pages or so where everything the main character is reaching for or interacting with is startling because it is the same, but not right somehow. She is in the mirror world, but of course as the book goes on, that fades. Like the ethnographer, she gets used to it all being both right and also subtly wrong. The trouble comes in trying to give the precise feeling of almost getting hit by a car because you are looking the wrong way before you cross the street to people comfortable with the ideas of cars and streets, who know these things at a pretty gut level, and for whom the ‘mirror’ doesn’t translate over; Gibson does a good job of capturing that feeling because Britain does come off as backwards to North Americans, but Slovenia didn’t even have that basic geometry of otherness going for it. I remember yelling at someone in a shop about the fact that yogurt and pudding were not the same thing (they come in identical containers in much of Europe) and just thinking while totally losing the argument; ‘this is my entire fieldwork experience rolled up in one lurid moment.’ Even though this was my central analytic concern I could not communicate the difference between two things that were so clearly the same to my interlocutor.
In part, one of the reasons I turned toward writing about electrical infrastructure was that I wanted a topic everyone could look out their window and see, something recognizable. Of course, it’s never that simple, because electricity is also totally magic and always also assumed to be known while remaining totally unknown except by a group of cultural insiders who can think with ‘electromagnetic forces’ while the rest of us try to make do with ‘kind of like water’. Misrecognition and ‘making do with poor substitutes’ is probably the part of communication that interests me the most, so it’s no surprise that it’s also where I have ended up with electric power systems too (Bakke 2016, 2019a).
And then came Melania Trump, and to a lesser degree Žižek, and suddenly I had my wires – which is to say, I could anchor the claims I wanted to make to something recognizable, something one can look out the window and see. If the window is a screen; if the ‘outside’ is the Internet, then there was Melania – a constant presence. And all kinds of people felt really comfortable ‘reading her’ as if she were known and knowable, but of course she isn’t; we actually know almost nothing about her except that she is very easy to make up stories about and invent subjectivities for. American reactions to her did actually realize something about her symptomatically – but that ‘something’ is a misrecognition framed as recognition. A misrecognition of a link between a legible exterior (which she has) as expressive of or in accordance with a ‘true’ interior. Of this latter, we have no evidence at all. And this is as confusing as it is tempting to Americans who are constantly trying to fill her up with something that makes sense to them, or who give up and call her the ‘Melaniabot,’ which, while still disparaging is a better read on the internal-external (non-)relationship at play. I also feel like she is battered in ways I am really uncomfortable with, so there was also a small desire to recuperate a place for Melania without arrows.
I guess, that explains the timing of the book, which was 2/3 finished when Trump was elected, but which I had stopped working on almost completely because it needed some small recognizable thing as an anchor, so that my non-Slovene readers could say ‘ah, I think I can see what you are getting at.’ Once I had that, a lot of the other biases in structuring the book came into bloom. I have experimented a lot over the years with the how of scholarly writing, and The Likeness was actually written during a period when I was interested in using Kenneth Burke’s notion of apposition as a structural guide for how to make an argument that first, isn’t critique and second, unfolds largely because of how the reader him or herself puts things together. Apposition, for Burke is “perspective by incongruity” or the eerie, slightly jarring sense of seeing the same thing from two angles, simultaneously. At the sentence level apposition creates this layering of frames by placing two terms of the same order – usually a noun and a noun phrase – side-by-side e.g. ‘My sister, the king’ or, ‘Arrhenius, the thoughtful Swede’. Rather than producing a sensation of depth (stereoscopically) or complexity (via opposition), apposition argues its case straightforwardly, by presenting the same thing from competing, and often disjunctive, vantage points (I do this even more so in 2019b). For Burke, apposition was a way out of preaching to the choir and a way out of just arguing against other people (opposition); for me, it allowed structural/formal play with doubleness in a couple of different ways.
First, every chapter argues the same point – that in Slovenia references (in word and deed) to psychic interiority are avoided – yet each uses different data to make this point, and because the data is different; the viscerality, indeed, rhw very substance of the way the point is made, is also different. I like that. Second, each chapter is constituted by two parts of the same weight, where the second part circles around to the same starting point as the first part and then proceeds differently; this isn’t perfectly accomplished, purposefully. I didn’t want to be a totally militant about form. And third, across the whole of the text there is a parallel narrative, produced by letting the footnotes take over – which thankfully the press allowed me to do. Each of these side-by-side elements of the same sort is done humorously – as Županičič (2003; 167) points out, doubleness especially when copies are in play is by its nature funny. Some of the humor of the book is produced purely by juxtaposition and the andandpersand (see Preface) is one name that can be given to this maneuver of laying weird, disparate, or identical things side-by-side. In this way The Likeness is, among other things, also a formal exposition of the ideas it proposes. Like the Slovene rejection of interiority (I know I know we aren’t supposed to say this, more on which below) that The Likeness argues for, the book also shows, structurally, how complexity can arise from skittering juxtapositions across rather in-depth probings into a story.
There is more of course, to the ‘funny haha’ element than form. I take up humor in part in homage to a very funny place, where people were doing funny things, and taking great pleasure in comic effects. It was also a really brutal place, Yugoslavia had been amputated, the suicide rate was through the roof, and the men (most especially) and women who had had a place within communism had less of one, or none at all. It hurt to be there and live there, for them far more than me. Humor, in the book, is also a way to off-set this brutality, so that I can pull readers into mean moments, bloody ones, places that hurt or where hurt is expressed in exceptionally visceral ways. I think it’s not quite fair to drop readers into that without a cushion, something to fall on so that nothing gets broken. I know people take really different approaches to dealing with and writing the horrific, which very often characterizes parts and wholes of the fieldwork experience, humor was my way. I also left a lot of stuff out of the book, because every time I would present it to readers they were overwhelmed and just shut down. I take great care in the book to move slowly toward blood and gore, so that it has a place in the architecture of the readers mind before it arrives in fact. I’m not interested in overwhelming anyone, but also not entirely interested in making them feel comfortable.
Krisztina Fehérváry: What ethnographies or other forms of writing inspired you?
Gretchen Bakke: It’s such a funny question, because in some way all of them. Every time I manage to sit down and read an ethnography from cover-to-cover I am impressed by how it is crafted and argued. Every one is different; every author makes decisions based on the exigencies of his or her particular project. There are strong and weak moments in every text, but when reading across the arc of the whole there is always something substantive and inspiring communicated even, at times, something I don’t want to know. I taught the Management of Hate, by Nitzan Shoshan (2016) about right wing extremist youth in Berlin last winter term. I had the class read one chapter a week, so that that plus a bunch of fieldtrips was all we did, and by the end of it I felt totally overwhelmed. I didn’t want to read any more or know any more, and that always makes me think ‘this book will end, but these lives will go on; I don’t have to live with them anymore, but that escape is mine not theirs.’ I felt the same way when I read Land’s End (2014) by Tania Murray Li, a book that really made me understand global capitalism in ways that I never had before, but which is so gently, expressively dismal. And one learns so much about trees. Of Mules and Men, by Zora Neale Hurston (1935), is another fundamentally exceptional book, that explains race relations in the US by drowning in the reader in story after story of bad luck and bad luck and bad luck, until something indistinct is truly felt and in this way known. Ethnography is a method of coming to things in the bones. Not so much that something is a certain way (for me, good journalism does this) but how it is that way. Reading articles or reading a book chapter here or there doesn’t have the same effect, they are more pointed and abstract, less immersive, less slow; the gathering force of time spent inside an ethnography is what moves me, and (to my mind) the care every author takes in bringing fieldwork into words, is what grounds the discipline and enriches it.
So even though, based on The Likeness one might think that my interest is primarily with explicitly experimental work, I feel like the art of any ethnography is finding the form that gets an author’s take on a place and its people right, if that happens then it also gets the reader by the neck, by the heart, by the mind. In some cases that means really reaching with the writing toward a new form, but at other times there is no need to question or challenged form at all. Every ethnography is a kind of brutal seduction. Beautiful, bounteous, overflowing, overwhelming. I wish I could read more of them, but honestly these days I almost only read the ones I teach, which means crafting courses such that I get the chance to delve into books, stories, places, and peoples that are unknown to me.
Krisztina Fehérváry: Many ethnographers these days (with good reason) are skittish about positing any kind of shared “culture,” and some recent anthropological turns allow for ignoring the effects of patterned human behavior and ideologies altogether. You make a strong case for seeing it in a variety of places, norms and social life: from how people dress to how mental illness is expressed. Can you say more of how such a thing comes together, and at the same time works across difference? Is there something unique about Slovenia that allows for identifying such culture or subjectivity on a national scale?
Gretchen Bakke: This was really hard for me, because I agree strongly that cultures are not isolates and never ‘purely’ anything, and yet nevertheless know that cultural particularity exists. You have this wonderful moment in Politics in Color and Concrete (2013) when you talk about how these Socialist block apartment buildings built upon the most inspiring elements of modernist architecture failed to take into account that people are different sizes and that families grow and shrink over time. Cement interior walls that can’t be moved, and by this very material unacceptance force families to adapt themselves in all kinds of awkward and pissed-off ways to “utopian” living spaces. Here, in the relationship between adaptation to the particularities of what is unmovable shared by a bunch of people in the same way is a place where we can talk about culture – not as some sort of pure geist or spirit entity that infects people with a common language or a shared natural/political environment, but rather as something that is made as groups navigate similar problems together (Borneman 1992 is great with this).
Krisztina Fehérváry Yes, agreed! In looking at how two quite different Germanys (east and west) emerged over four decades, he shows how shared ‘culture’ of sorts is produced by particular laws, regulations, boundaries, requirements, school systems, taxation codes and so on that you are pushed around and shaped by in virtue of your passport and the ‘position’ (age, gender, sexuality, race) you hold within that political-legal-economic system.
Gretchen Bakke: And also, he has this point that it’s not what happens in the lifetime of particular generations that matters but how they as a generation decide to deal with it, which takes a lot of force out of environment and happenstance and gives culture and community a place to become something (a movement? an identity?) together – but not exactly in a collective effervesce way. The time scale is way larger than just a protest movement, or a pandemic, or a war.
Such that though some problems are common to all people, like sex or hierarchy or living in groups, but how they solve these problems are virtually limitless (McKinnon 2005). Marylin Strathern has a book subtitled “relatives are always a surprise” (2005) and I laugh every time I think of it, because, yeah isn’t that the truth. Yes, precisely such a human universal is nevertheless dealt with in radically was differently in different places and times.
Krisztina Fehérváry: That’s hilarious. I’ve also noted that the place where we are most likely to encounter people who do not share our politics, our “tastes”, is among family. Trump sure brought this out! How many of us have parents, aunts, brothers, cousins, who voted for him (even relatives who are immigrants, Filipino, Jewish, and so on)?
Gretchen Bakke: Right, and that gets to the fact there are also problems specific to specific people at specific times and times, like the appeal of that Bullshitter (see The Likeness chapter 4) or, more substantively, like a wall in socialist housing block that can’t be moved even though now you’ve got three kids, or your widowed asthmatic mom has just moved in. And these sorts of problems also create communities of complaint, and desire, and solution and I’d put culture there. Not belonging to everyone in a given community in any kind of absolute way, but in a constant swirling process of being made, altered, shared, and rejected by people inhabiting common environments, and drawing upon a certain miscellany of available forms. And even though some forms in certain places predominate – like doubling in Slovenia – that doesn’t mean that everyone shares that approach, just that its available to everyone – a shared palette to paint with – and in Slovenia that palette had a set of predominate colors that were different than those of even their closest European neighbors. The book of course is actually about socio-cultural transformation, or how that palette changes as groups of people move around, or consume different media, rely on different objects or skill sets, confront different problems, or grow up and old. When is that change easy? When hard? And when ferociously rejected? For the most part in Slovenia the process of changing into Europeans (recognizable as such) was easy, but on this one point, related to the authentic performance of a known inner-self, it was not easy. Heels were dug in in all sorts of different ways, and this rejection of a new color to paint the self with was a way into the larger story of how it is to change, and also how it is to be the same. In The Likeness I really try to be empathetic to both processes as they tangle into one another, to give the reader something of Slovenia even as I brow beat them about other ferociously normative modes of contemporary subjectivity by means of which judgement is so often, so cruelly passed.
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–. (2016) The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between America and Our Energy Future, Bloomsbury.
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 The place he articulates this most clearly is Daniel Miller. Stuff, chapter 2. With the completely hysterical sentence on the first page: “My clothing shows that I am sexy, or Slovenian, or smart, or all three” (2010:12) (How really could it be otherwise?!)