Amy Binning takes the Page 99 test

Just clinging to the end of page 99 in my dissertation is a tentative question: “but should it really be that the presence of a model, even a very strict one, inhibits improvisation in the making process?” In this part of my dissertation I am in full swing unpacking the making process in a rather unique industrial space—a warehouse tucked into the Sonoma, California countryside that produces Tibetan Buddhist texts by the hundreds of thousands. On this and the surrounding pages I grapple with an anthropology of making that is deeply suspicious of the corresponsive capacities of machines and the stifling influence of models, both of which supposedly undermine the skill and creativity of the artisan. The making that takes place in the Sonoma bindery, however, is all at once thoroughly industrial and mechanized, governed by a strict, ritually dictated model, and enormously creative and skillful.

This particular thread about work, machines, making, and creativity is only one in my dissertation’s wider endeavor to follow the social and physical making of Tibetan sacred things across a community of Californian Nyingma Buddhists. In the months since I defended my work though, this question about making under strict parameters has lodged in my anthropological consciousness, spawning more about the nature of skill in labor, anthropology’s nostalgia for craft and its trappings, and perhaps the discipline’s broader nostalgic tendencies. These questions have taken hold of my work in a way I did not intend or expect.

What page 99 holds for me is a reminder that as authors we maintain only a measure of control over texts. The writing we deem finished may turn back toward us and accost us with the very questions we thought we were asking. This realization is not un-ironic for a dissertation about the social lives and agency of books. Page 99 of my dissertation may not encapsulate the whole especially well in terms of its arguments, but it does embody a reminder of the more central lesson my fieldwork held: that texts—even our own—have lives, power, and the chimeric ability to morph at every reading.


Amy Binning. 2019. Printing as Practice: Innovation and Imagination in the Making of Tibetan Buddhist sacred texts in California.
Cambridge University, Phd.

Steve Black on his book, Speech and Song at the Margins of Global Health

Speech and Song at the Margins of Global Health

Interview by Yeon-Ju Bae

https://www.rutgersuniversitypress.org/speech-and-song-at-the-margins-of-global-health/9780813597713

Yeon-Ju Bae: How did you become interested in the South African gospel choir group that works on HIV/AIDS activism? It looks as if your background in musical training and ethnomusicology would have played a role, but I was wondering how you came to conduct research on choir performance amid HIV/AIDS stigma, whose interests intersect the fields of linguistic, medical, and psychological anthropology with a regional focus on South Africa. Also, in what ways does your identity play a role in negotiating the fieldwork process with your research participants?

Steve Black: My fieldwork with the choir was in many ways a serendipitous leap of faith—an effort that could have easily fallen apart many times before it really began. In part, I was guided by chance. As a linguistic anthropologist-in-training, my mentors suggested studying a non-Indo-European language to enhance my comprehension of the breadth of linguistic diversity. From my background as a jazz saxophonist and ethnomusicology student, I knew that South African jazz was nearly unparalleled globally in its quality and long history, and isiZulu happened to be among the few African language courses offered at UCLA. I applied for and was fortunate to be awarded a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship for an intensive summer introductory-level isiZulu course at Ohio University led by the UCLA isiZulu instructor, Dr. Zilungile Sosibo. Unfortunately, Dr. Sosibo had trouble renewing her work visa and decided to move back to South Africa after that summer, which meant that UCLA no longer offered any isiZulu courses! I suppose I could have begun studying a different language, but instead I decided to apply for and was awarded a fellowship to be part of a Fulbright-Hays Zulu Group Project Abroad, which was an intensive summer intermediate-level language and culture study abroad in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa (near Durban, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal). This was how I established isiZulu-speaking South Africa as a general focus for my fieldwork.

After this second summer of intensive isiZulu studies, one day I was relaxing in my apartment in Los Angeles and browsing the movies available through my cable TV’s on demand function (this was pre-online streaming, back when Netflix was a service that mailed DVDs to your home!). I stumbled onto a documentary made by some American film students about the choir. From that point forward, I hoped to work with the group. This prompted me to study medical and psychological anthropology perspectives on HIV/AIDS. I felt that I needed this disciplinary expertise in order to conduct ethnographic fieldwork with the choir. In other words, the project motivated my cross-disciplinary theoretical interests rather than the other way around.

I was very fortunate to be awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, and even more fortunate that the choir agreed to allow me to conduct fieldwork with them! It is true that my musical expertise as a jazz musician helped me to engage with choir members. I occasionally participated in music-making as a saxophonist and more often as an informal sound engineer for trouble-shooting the group’s amplifiers and microphones. I was also able to sidestep questions from community members about why I was involved with the choir and present myself to most non-choir members as someone interested in Zulu gospel music. This helped to maintain the group’s non-disclosure of their HIV support group and AIDS activist functions in group members’ home communities.

Being a White American man from a middle-income family conducting fieldwork with Black low-income South Africans, many of whom are women, also deeply impacted my research, but not always in ways that might be assumed (Religious difference was also sometimes a factor—I am Jewish by heritage, and choir members are Christian—but not nearly as significant). Some group members saw me as a person with access to more resources than they had, and I did my best to live up to their expectations and contribute to the group in the ways that I could within the limits that the NSF set on how their money could be spent. While by the ethical standards of experimental scientific research my efforts might be thought of as coercion to participate in research, I do not think this is a valid interpretation in the context of ethnography. Rather, I think that the choir was doing an enormous amount to contribute to the success of my research, and that if anything the limits set by the NSF restricted me from providing reasonable forms of compensation for group member’s efforts. Also, while I was an outsider, people like me (white American researchers, doctors, and aid workers) had long been implicated in the complex webs of racialized power imbalances amid patterns of uneven global exchange and intervention, and choir members had personal experience interacting with others like me. This made initial encounters (including explanations of the research project) easier, but it also meant that it took a few months to get beyond the more restricted sorts of encounters that group members had had with other researchers and aid workers. By the end of my fieldwork, I was pleased when a choir leader made a speech to the group in which she contrasted me with other researchers, complimenting me by saying that I had “blended in” with the choir (only to an extent, of course).

Yeon-Ju Bae: You analyze the choir group that you studied as a “bio-speech community” which presents shared biomedically defined characteristics (HIV-positive status), shared ideological orientations toward biomedical models of HIV/AIDS, and shared verbal repertoires making use of biomedical terminologies and understandings. At the same time, it seems as if the group members sometimes show internal dissonance when it comes to gendered understandings of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa and to the potential misappropriation via individual access to the uneven global circulation of resources. Would you elaborate on the socioeconomic background of these precarities and their role in producing or changing dynamics in the group as a “bio-speech community”? Continue reading

Hanwool Choe takes the page 99 test

My dissertation is about instant messages among Korean family(-in-law) members. I particularly focus on how families make strategic use of everyday photo-/video-sharing to construct and perform their familial identities, in relation to power and solidarity dynamics, while virtually interacting with each other. My study illuminates how technological affordances and multi-modalities contribute to making meanings and creating family via instant messages.

Page 99 of my dissertation is a part of Chapter 4 — it is the first data analysis chapter — where I examine how people use language and visuals to make meanings, especially when they share everyday photos and videos with or without captions. After introducing my analytical focus of Chapter 4 (Section 4.1), on page 99, I introduce the very first example of Section 4.2. When photos and videos are sent with captions: I first describe what is happening in an example that follows, as seen below.

4.2.1. Kihong at his great-grandfather’s birthday

In Sara’s family-in-law chatroom, Sara, her husband (Insung), his younger brother (Inseok), and his mother are present. One day, Sara sends two videos of her son, Kihong, that she recorded at her grandfather’s birthday party (that is, Kihong’s maternal great grandfather’s birthday). In the videos, Kihong was sitting next to his maternal great grandparents. While family members were singing the birthday song, Kihong was clapping and trying to sing along. Then, he blew out the birthday candles on his great grandfather’s cake, and the family was laughing. In the following interaction, Sara and her mother-in-law (that is., mother of Insung and Inseok) interact with each other.

After the description above, the excerpted instant messages begin. Two out of four instant messages are displayed in page 99. Those two messages are sent by Sara. She posts two videos (line 1) and then gives detailed captions of the videos (line 2). The rest of the messages, appearing in page 100, are sent by her mother-in-law and her brother-in-law, respectively, in response to the videos.

I would say page 99 of my dissertation is not representative of my dissertation because it merely shows a part of the example, which is one of many examples of my dissertation. If someone only reads page 99, I think it would be very hard for them to tell something about my dissertation. Possibly, they may not be able to know whether page 99 is a part of someone’s dissertation (!). My analysis starts in the next page. There, I show how 1) Sara’s captions provide focused attention and 2) the video receivers use her captions as guideposts to follow for meaning-making. I note the sender’s focused attention directs receiver participation toward a certain frame (following Goffman’s 1974 sense of frame, a definition of what is going on), from which meanings are gradually developed. This example presents how mutual participation between a sender and receivers accomplish making meanings.

Choe, H. (2020). Instant messaging in Korean families: Creating family through the interplay of photos, videos, and text. PhD Dissertation. Georgetown University.

Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Harvard University Press.

Hanwool Choe received her PhD in Linguistics at Georgetown University in May 2020. As a discourse analyst, she is primarily interested in digital communication, language & food, multimodal interaction, and life stories. Her publications have appeared in journals such as Language in Society, Discourse Studies, and Journal of Pragmatics.