Neha Vora on her book, Teach for Arabia

Cover of Teach for Arabia by Neha Vora

Interview by Patrick Lewis

Patrick Lewis:  When I first came across the title of your book, two things came to mind: Betty Anderson’s (2011) history of the project of liberal education at the American University of Beirut and Talal Asad’s (2003) collection of articles on secularism and liberalism in the Arab world. How do you see your work building on or diverging from these earlier approaches to liberalism in the Arab World and why does it matter for how we imagine liberal higher education? 

Neha Vora: Betty Anderson’s work on AUB was indeed one of the texts that really resonated with me and my approach to this project! Anderson considers how a missionary and colonial institution became a central site of Arab politicization (al-Nahda as well as anti-colonial activism). She also has a very interesting section in that book where she discusses how theories of evolution were normalized through protest by medical students and instructors at AUB almost a hundred years before they became acceptable in the US academy, challenging conventional Western understandings of Islam as somehow antithetical to modernity or science. While I do consider the colonial and missionary approaches within Education City’s American branch campus, the contexts and time periods of my project and Anderson’s are of course very different. Nevertheless, she points to the way that these seemingly hegemonic projects lead to unforeseen and sometimes even contradictory outcomes, and she denaturalizes the US academy as the source of knowledge which then supposedly flows to the Middle East. In relation to Asad’s work, I am not in direct dialogue with his work on secularism – there is a chapter in the book where I discuss his earlier work in Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter to argue that anthropological ways of thinking about culture have permeated the US academy and its containment of difference. I’m not a scholar of religion but I do think that I approach liberalism with a similar spirit to Asad’s approach to secularism, liberalism, and modernity. That these are mythologies which structure world-making and not reflective of essentialized differences between societies and places. I think we are both engaged in provincializing projects but from different entry points.

Patrick Lewis:  In your discussion of recent higher education reform and Qatarization, you describe a state project to develop post-oil citizenship that envisages a gradual transition away from oil extraction toward an economy built on information technologies and services in which Qatari citizens will perform many of the ‘knowledge economy’ jobs now performed by foreigners. However, you also describe a degree of skepticism, if not outright cynicism, around this transition among locals and argue that new investments in higher education, rather than “shifting economic reliance away from petro-wealth, [are] rather sustained by it” (p. 33), and have in fact increased Qatar’s dependence on foreign academics and administrators. Are there any larger lessons here for regional or national economies attempting to transition away from extractive industries through education or technical training?

Neha Vora: I can’t really speak to lessons on how to move away from extractive industries, as these economies are shaped by much deeper and longer transnational connections and pressure from imperial powers (previously Britain and now the US). My approach to “knowledge economy” is to disentangle its rhetoric from its effects on the ground, which are in fact quite messy and oftentimes contradictory. The book discusses how local elites leverage nativism in nation building projects, of which knowledge economy is one. This is done in the name of a supposedly homogenous group of citizens, but citizens do not uniformly benefit from these projects. I try to showcase the heterogeneity of Qatari citizens and how the idea of Qatariness needs to be consistently rehearsed and performed to have any coherence. I also highlight ways that Qatari leaders produce forms of inclusion for non-citizen immigrants, who are rhetorically and legally cast as perpetual outsiders but are actually integral to the country’s future. Education City is a project that benefits non-citizens as much as citizens, and the Qatari state offers generous financial aid packages for immigrants, which are forgiven if one works a certain number of years in Qatar after graduation. Higher education is quite obviously a space where multicultural futures are being produced. Thus the “transnational Qatar” in my book title.

Patrick Lewis:  Throughout the book you work to push back against boilerplate takes in US academia on American higher education in the Gulf that promote “top-down understandings of branch campuses solely as arms of neoliberal profit or colonial replication” (p. 154). One point you return to again and again throughout the book is the generous public funding that sustains these projects and, in the context of your own experiences working at universities in both the United States and the Gulf, the relative security of your academic colleagues working in Qatar. How might the story of US branch campuses in the Gulf complicate the narrative of the neoliberal university and global higher education – a narrative that these projects are often used to buttress in US academic discourse? How have your experiences in the Gulf shaped your perception of the ‘crisis of the public university’ as it is narrated in the United States?

Neha Vora: One of my entry points into the language of crisis has been to ask whose crisis it is. In this way I am very much in conversation with scholars within a growing field of abolitionist university studies. The kind of nostalgia that US academic crisis narratives traffic in is one that does not acknowledge the exclusionary and violent underpinnings of the university as an institution that has been fundamentally shaped by slavery, settler colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and elitism. Simply by considering the history of the US university, it becomes impossible to separate it from US military endeavors or corporate interests. These are not new entanglements but ones that underpin the academy, so to claim a current state of crisis due to neoliberalization requires some major elisions of that history. I argue that the ability to perform those erasures is only available to a small group of elite, non-precarious (usually white and/or male) academics who have experienced the mythologies of the liberal academy as real (egalitarianism, free inquiry, and inclusion for example). Most of us who learn and labor within the US academy do not have the privilege of that experience. Yet we also replicate liberal mythologies and crisis narratives, especially in the way we view a globalizing university. But the US academy has always been global as well, in that knowledge production has always been a core facet of US imperial violence.

My experience teaching and researching in Education City allowed me to see my own investment in what I call liberal piety more clearly. The difference between an American and Qatari classroom, for example, is not one between freedom of speech and censorship but rather both are spaces in which instructors and students are constrained by particular norms and pushed to perform particular personas. Teaching about Palestine in Qatar, for example, was a rewarding experience in comparison to teaching in Texas or Pennsylvania. I also was able to see how the hierarchies and exclusions of the American academy get reproduced in the Gulf: despite being in a country where most of the people (and most of the students in Education City) are brown, I still had to navigate my (predominantly white) colleagues and superiors as a woman of color in ways that felt quite similar to what I have to do at home.

I also saw how Western administrators utilized nonliberal aspects of Qatar’s immigration and employment structure for the benefit of the “liberal” university (outsourcing custodial work, paying people from different nationalities at different scales, capitalizing on trailing spouses (almost all women) as a cheaper source of local labor, and so on). And the students schooled me quite early on some things that I had blinders to—all international students in the US are dependent on visas and have no opportunity to stay in the country after graduation without securing employment almost immediately. In Qatar, international and immigrant non-citizen students were also visa dependent, but there were more formal and informal avenues to attaining employment after graduation. In addition, the Islamophobia and racism students in Education City experienced when studying abroad in the US made Qatar feel like a much more welcoming place to live and potentially settle, despite the barriers to permanence in the Gulf. The book is not arguing that neoliberal changes are not taking place—they certainly are. But it is challenging the way that criticisms of neoliberalization reify the US home campus as one of liberalism and the Gulf as a space of illiberalism, when in fact there are many things that critics want from the university (state subsidies, resources, living wages, lower teaching load, diverse and inquisitive students) which academics in the Gulf branch campuses experience to a greater degree than those at the home campuses. On the other hand, much of what academics miss from the supposedly eroded liberalism of the neoliberal US academy is in fact the product of things we would consider rather illiberal if they happened elsewhere.

Patrick Lewis:  A significant amount of the book is devoted to exploring different subject positions in the university across differentiated axes of gender, class, race, and citizenship. It considers, inter alia, the relative positions of Qatari citizens and foreigners, as well as between international vs. ‘local expat’ students, and between South Asian migrant workers who often labor in menial jobs (or, as you describe when talking about your own experiences in chapter 5, are imagined to work in such jobs even when this is not the case) and (frequently white) experts from Europe and North America. What does a study of Education City allow us to see about difference and belonging in Qatar, that better-known journalistic and academic work on migrant labor camps for instance, perhaps obscures?

Neha Vora: Some of this I have already addressed in my previous answers. One of the things that we can see through the study of a transnational corporation in the Gulf (and these branch campuses function legally almost exactly like corporations) is that the ethno-racial hierarchy in employment, and the ability to hyper-exploit certain employees (usually low wage from the Global South), is the product of a partnership between global—often Western—consultants and Qatari leaders. In my previous book, Impossible Citizens, I detailed how it was Indian immigrants who were most often acting as the managers (and exploiters) of their less fortunate compatriots. In Teach for Arabia, I look at how larger institutions shape working and living conditions for various immigrants in the country. The journalistic and academic representations of toiling South and Southeast Asian workers in labor camps almost always put the blame for labor exploitation on Gulf governments and citizens when in fact this is a product of transnational elite cooperation.

Patrick Lewis:  Finally, I want to ask about this book’s different audiences and its reception in Qatar and the United States. There is certainly much in this book that would be of interest to higher educational planners in Qatar and the wider Gulf. But it also seems to me that there is a message for US academics and university administrators as well. How did you conceive of the audience for your book and how has it been received in the United States and the Gulf? Has anything about its reception surprised you?

Neha Vora: This book was difficult to write in that I wanted to find a balance between centering what goes on in the branch campuses on-the-ground through my ethnography and offering a criticism of US academia more generally. However, I did not want the ethnographic information to be operationalized just for the purpose of critique, which is always a concern in anthropology. I wanted readers (both in the Gulf and elsewhere) to really get a feel for what different actors in Education City experience and the viewpoints they have on the project. What has been most rewarding is the circulation of this text among students in Doha and hearing that it resonates with their lived experiences in the branch campuses. It was used as a core text by my colleagues at Northwestern Qatar, in a class that all students are required to take about liberal arts education. Many of the things I discuss in the book came to a head last year when Northwestern Qatar students protested the ways they were being treated by faculty and administrators, and the way lower-ranking staff members are also treated. I had a chance to engage some of these students through Zoom last week as a guest speaker in the class I mentioned, and it was a great experience.

At the same time, the reception of the book has been mixed among faculty in the branch campuses. I have received a lot of praise from some, especially faculty of color who find that I articulate some of their frustrations. But I have heard there is also a lot of resistance, with some people even refusing to read the book. I was actually disinvited from a talk at a branch campus after a dean found out I had been invited by my colleague. His reasoning was that Qatar Foundation and Qataris might be offended, which is ironic because I discuss throughout the book how Qatari culture becomes an excuse for (white) American administrators to legitimize choices that work to their benefit. My criticisms in this text are not of Qataris or Qatari culture, but of the ways that whiteness, Americanness, and transnational expertise are leveraged in (re)producing essentialized ideas of cultural and racial difference, to the detriment of both Qatari and non-Qatari students. Colleagues in the US have been receptive to the book but there is still a lot of investment in essentialized and spectacular understanding of the Arabian Peninsula, and of course these are the very understandings that end up producing the structural conditions of inclusion and exclusion in the branch campuses. I have co-authored a book with two other ethnographers of the region, Amelie Le Renard and Ahmed Kanna, which just came out this year and discusses the role of exceptionalism in knowledge production about the Gulf, called Beyond Exception.

Rachel Plotnick on her book, Power Button

Power Button

Interview by Kevin Laddapong

Kevin Laddapong: In Power Button, you bring readers back to the early days of buttons and encourage readers to think about the button in a new way. You have shown the discursiveness of technological development and the complexity of how buttons are socially embedded, from calling for service to turning on the light. How did you decide which buttons to focus on, given that buttons are so ubiquitous? 

Rachel Plotnick: The ubiquity of buttons posed a big challenge for my study, and I was quickly daunted by it. As you suggest, I knew it wouldn’t be possible to write about every button that existed at the turn of the twentieth century. So, I took an approach that is often suggested in science and technology studies (STS) – which recommends that scholars “follow the actors.” In other words, I started looking to see what people called a button (for example, sometimes the ends of telegraph keys were called buttons) and how they talked about using buttons (some were pulled or turned instead of pushed). I tried not to impose my own categories of what counted as a button, but rather to use this grounded approach of seeing what emerged. Because most homes didn’t have electricity at this historical moment, button interfaces were perceived more as a novelty and that made it a bit easier. Most discussion circulated around buttons as mechanisms for control (push a button for light, an elevator, to take a picture, and so on) or as mechanisms for communication (to call a servant, trigger an alarm, honk a horn). As I began to see these categories rise to the surface, it was easier to sort and make sense of which buttons mattered for my story.

Kevin Laddapong: When many media scholars think about technology, they focus upon technologists, electricians, engineers, and other STEM figures. But the protagonists of this book tend to be “advertisers”. We see from your book that they defined the technology, told us who was eligible to push the button, and how should we perceive the buttons. Can you say more about the influences of these surprising non-STEM characters in this very scientific advancement?  

Rachel Plotnick: I think you’re right that advertisers played a large role in influencing discourse about buttons. While there were many other actors, too (such as inventors, educators, or electrical companies), the idea of pushing a button really appealed to advertisers because they could sell new technologies of industrialization and electrification as safe, non-threatening, and effortless. It’s no surprise that Kodak’s slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest” took hold so widely at the time. It came to symbolize the seductiveness of automaticity – that consumers didn’t need to be especially skilled or well-versed in picture development (or photography in general) to own and operate a camera. In this regard, buttons acted as a kind of gateway to a whole world of mechanisms and consumer products that demanded limited input from their users. Advertisers often talked about using the button as a way to connote pleasure. Though this sometimes backfired, in that people perceived pushing buttons as too hedonistic and lazy, advertisers continued to rally around the concept. We can see this fixation still at work today – from the Staples “Easy” button to Uber’s “tap for a ride.” Buttons conjure up fantasies of instant gratification that seem almost timeless.

Kevin Laddapong: One of the key themes in your book is the power momentum between button-pushers and pushed. It was convolutedly interlocked with different levels of identities, haves and have-nots, men and women, or children, and adults. How did the technology help produce these button-pushing bodies?

Rachel Plotnick: This theme really emerged – quite noticeably – through the course of my research. It was fascinating to see how many people complained about power imbalances that they felt were exacerbated by button pushing. When I say people, this usually meant people who were already socially disadvantaged or othered in some way – due to race, class, gender or a combination of those factors. Servants were used to being heralded by bell systems, but when bells became electric and were installed at every bedpost, under the dining room table, next to the sofa, and so on, then control of those servants’ bodies and their movement became increasingly discreet and ubiquitous. Their bodies were made to move throughout homes while the button-pusher could remain stationary to herald whatever (or whomever) they desired. A similar dynamic existed between employers and employees. The rise of the so-called push-button manager likely did not have to do only with buttons, as at this historical moment places of business were undergoing industrialization and new bureaucratic procedures were taking hold. Buttons functioned as another bureaucratic measure and mechanism for exerting authority. As disparities between managers and employees became greater (a separation of white-collar workers from blue collar workers or head workers from manual laborers), button pushing drew attention to these stratifications. Employees disliked that their employers could sit behind a desk and command them at a moment’s notice. I call this digital command – an effortless gesture generated with the touch of a finger. I think it is critical to acknowledge that when people pushed buttons, it always involved someone’s labor (and the physical movement of bodies) to make one’s desires appear.

Kevin Laddapong: Gathering from your book, buttons hid the messy wires, simplified the electronic circuits in one touch, most importantly, disguised the underlying labor. But now, we are living in the digital age and many physical buttons become graphics or even voice controls. Do modern-day buttons still serve class inequality and labor exploitation? What is the lesson we can learn from the development of buttons regarding these issues?

Rachel Plotnick: That’s a great question. From a technical perspective, buttons are even further removed from the actions they trigger. Digital buttons that require only a tap or a swipe seem to provide anything one desires, from a ride to a roll of toilet paper. Even emotions are “buttonized,” in a sense: we click buttons to share our feelings in social media as a primary way of interacting with others. Yet, despite these significant differences from the turn of the twentieth century, I would argue that inequality and exploitation still figure significantly into button dynamics. I think the case of Amazon provides a good example. Consumers can “push” a button for nearly any product imaginable (for awhile, Amazon even had physical Dash buttons one could affix throughout their home). While this consumption feels effortless and gratifying, it elides the power dynamics that make such pushing possible. What happens after you click “purchase”? Whose bodies have to carry out and fulfill the orders? How are those bodies treated? Paid? What power dynamics exist in the factory, the warehouse, on the streets where the packages are delivered? What are the environmental implications? And who has the luxury or privilege to order Amazon items at will in the first place? Advertisers and manufacturers have always turned to buttons as a way to sell pleasure and instant gratification, so I see an emphasis on clicking, pushing, tapping and swiping on the Internet and apps as (in many ways) a continuation of the power relationships that began more than 100 years ago. We could take this even farther and think about drone warfare as an even higher stakes example of using buttons to make some bodies expendable while others sit in their command centers; what does it mean for armchair generals to decide who lives and who dies with a push of a button?

Kregg Hetherington discusses Government of Beans

The Government of Beans

Interview by Indivar Jonnalagadda

Indivar Jonnalagadda: What inspired the book’s central idea of ‘agribiopolitics’, which encompasses the government of the health and welfare of both people and plants? In contrast to the 20th century theorists of biopolitics, what makes the question of nonhuman life unavoidable for contemporary anthropology?

Kregg Hetherington: If we think of the major investments in crop improvement that started in the late 19th century and later gave rise to the Green Revolution, then we can spot major shifts in how the relationship between human health and plant health have been conceptualized. These histories alongside the contemporary activism around people’s health around monocrops led to the idea of agribiopolitics.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, there was a vitalist tradition, where community health was being analogized to that of plants in often racial or eugenic terms. These terms also easily stretched to talking about the health of the nation. Reading that vitalist literature, I found, resonated with the present in a way that reading Foucault and others in the mid-20th century period, for example, did not. I think the mid-20th century thinkers were writing amidst the ascendancy of a liberal notion of development that focuses on human welfare primarily through economics. Thus, the notion that making better plants makes your population healthier, gets supplanted by the notion that making better plants makes your population healthier by making them less poor. However, after the success of the Green Revolution and these massive expansions of chemically-intensive monocrops, there are counter-movements which are saying that maybe there’s an inverse relationship between the health of plants and the health of people and other living things in the area. This brings the relationship between plant, human, and other life to the fore. It is a particularly weird problem in places like Paraguay where the economy is now completely invested in the well-being of a particular plant, with mixed effects on different populations.

Indivar Jonnalagadda: You argue that specific crops historically become linked with specific nationalities, languages, and ethnicities, as companion species. Could you briefly synthesize for us the relationship between language ideology and agribiopolitics in Paraguay?

Kregg Hetherington: There’s a long-term discourse in Latin America about the relationship between certain groups of indigenous people and plants. The phrase “people of the corn” is something that one has heard about for a long time. It struck me that there was something similar going on in Paraguay. For example, the idea that people are made of cassava (the main starch that rural folks eat in Paraguay) is the source of lots of joking and ways of talking. Yet, what really interested me was soybeans. When soybeans, as this incredibly aggressive monocrop, enter into Paraguay, they do so almost exclusively with Brazilian migrants as the people planting them. They immediately get associated with a fear of a larger nation next door, a fear of the takeover of Paraguayan land and sovereignty, a fear of Portuguese (a European language) supplanting Guarani (an indigenous language).

If the beans are Brazilian, as people would say directly, then what’s Paraguayan? People aren’t worried about their cassava, they’re also not worried about their corn. Instead, what they were worried about was cotton. The fact that cotton was the crop with which people identified in this sort of sovereignty-project was very interesting, because cotton was itself only introduced in the 1960s as a Green Revolution crop. The set of identifications between rural Guarani-speaking Paraguayans and cotton that had been developed by French engineers in the 60s turned the story in unexpected ways. It also forced me into a more uncomfortable kind of historical analytical space, where I had to contend with the fact that cotton itself was a settler colonial crop that had been brought into this area merely two generations ago.

Indivar Jonnalagadda: Comparing Government of Beans with your previous book Guerrilla Auditors, you very generatively shift your attention from bureaucracy to regulation more generally. Could you say a little bit about the analytic usefulness of this move?

Kregg Hetherington: I think it happened fairly organically, because in the first book I was dealing with property, and for the second book in dealing with beans I had to think about the state differently. Property, particularly in Paraguay, really is a bureaucratic construct. The cadastre in Paraguay was created in 1876 by bureaucrats calling a bunch of elites to the capital to write down what they owned. Every transaction having to do with official property transactions in Paraguay since then, makes some iterative reference to this originary document. The whole thing was very apt for a kind of post-structuralist analysis of the way that bureaucratic practices call relations into being discursively, and I was also attentive to the materiality of the documents. But the activists among whom I conducted ethnography back then kept telling me that the documents are one thing, the bigger problem is the beans. Though the beans never really entered into that story, because they didn’t fit that kind of framework. I think that’s where regulation comes in.

This is too ideal-typical, but bear with me; regulation is the moment where the state is no longer focused on itself and it is (in the Karen Barad sense) meeting the universe halfway. It’s responding to something outside of itself and it’s using whatever tools it has at hand to try to shift or change material relations. So while I’d figured out a way to talk about bureaucracy and the movement of property documents in a way that had a very nice internal structure, beans troubled that internal structure. As it turned out, that was exactly what the bureaucrats felt about the beans too. Thus, the regulatory project is a much more open sort of responsive project where they’re just trying things, knowing that the agency of the state is incredibly limited in places.

Indivar Jonnalagadda: With regards to regulation, you also offer a fundamentally communicative framework with your concept of regulatory pragmatics. Can you say a little more about it and why you foreground the “progressive unfolding” of responses between various actors?

Kregg Hetherington: Regulatory pragmatics is a way of shifting between the linguistic-pragmatic mode and what I saw as an approach to response and responsiveness in some of the STS literature. Donna Haraway, particularly, thinks about the nonhuman as something that’s capable of responding, and Karen Barad similarly talks about intra-actions. These ideas are famously philosophically difficult for certain people who are too focused on language. But I found them really useful for thinking about what regulation was doing. There’s this obvious thing that happens in any legal anthropology: you realize that anyone who’s working in a legal sphere is always dealing with the gap between the rule and the thing, or between the representation and the ground. The example that I go into some length in the book is, how do you decide if something is a “neighborhood road”? If it is a neighborhood road, then the regulations further stipulates that there should be a plant barrier against pesticide drift from fields. The amount of time that people spent arguing over whether something was a neighborhood road or not, suggested that this was a field of play that was really important. I didn’t want to stop at the gap and suggest that there’s all kinds of stuff that can happen. Instead, I wanted to say, every time people encounter the gap, things shift. That’s the place where sovereignty occurs, because judgment gets involved. So the interaction between government and farmers occurs through the choice of plant used to create the barrier between the crop and the neighbourhood road. I use these mundane examples around the species of plants used as barriers just to force a certain kind of humility about what it is that regulation can do and what a state can do.

Also, who is communicating in these cases? There are a number of actors that one can point to that are obviously communicating back and forth. But there are all these other actors that crop up, like snakes, or the bandits who hide in the elephant grass and jump out and steal people’s motorcycles. There are all kinds of ways in which humans and nonhumans end up responding to a certain kind of regulatory entreaty with their own kind of response that then forces the regulators to go back to the drawing board.

Indivar Jonnalagadda: You describe how people often respond to your presentations on soy by wondering if eating tofu is unethical; a moment of doubt about the ethics of their eating habits that you call “Tofu moments”. You see these moments as being alive with experimental possibility for an ethics of eating well. Can you describe a significant Tofu moment of your own?

Kregg Hetherington: Ethics was not what I set out to try to theorize, but it was always part of the experience of the whole thing. The tofu moments—that still occur when I present this work about soybeans and about how destructive soybeans are—were when people in the audience who are vegetarian, suddenly get worried about the tofu. Given that the soy beans are being pre-dominantly produced in order to feed animals for meat, vegetarianism is a pretty reasonable response to the horror of soybeans. Nonetheless, there’s something great about that moment where someone starts to wonder if the decision they’ve made, is actually ethically far more complicated than they thought. That’s what I want the book to do — to encourage an opening. The moment that one feels kind of stable in a certain way of responding to a situation, is precisely the moment when you want to reach out a little bit farther.

A tofu moment for me was a specific story about fieldwork that I also describe in the book. As a white, North American, middle class person going and doing this kind of research, in places that have been historically exploited by the very kinds of financial comforts that I benefit from all the time, there’s always this question about the ethics of what research is all about. Questions about the extent to which it is extractivist or benefits from other forms of extraction on which it depends. There was one specific moment during the research, where I was hanging out with very close friends of mine, who were also my research assistants in the field. We had retreated to this posh country cottage that friends of theirs owned to reflect on the research. At a certain point during that reflection, we were approached by a police cruiser that was going around the neighborhood, and were asked to pay a bribe. This is not that uncommon a situation in Paraguay, but it’s always a little bit unclear what exactly one is paying the bribe for. But it occurred to me at that moment that we are being asked to bribe the police to secure the conditions within which this research becomes possible. This was a moment that opened up that whole set of research dynamics for me. As I think about what future research might look like in Paraguay post-COVID, I’m still troubled on the one hand by ethical commitments that I feel like I’ve made to people, and on the other hand by the difficulty of new forms of awareness of how much my own practice relies on international extractivist structures.

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako on Fabricating Transnational Capitalism

Fabricating Transnational Capitalism

Interview by Janet Connor

Janet Conner: Why is fashion so good for thinking about capitalism?

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Fashion as an industry has several key aspects that make it good for us to think about capitalism. Most importantly, they include the claim to aesthetic distinction, which identifies design as the key component of value; the celebration of the creative artist as the producer, obscuring design as a complex, interactive process involving many participants; the related emphasis on knowledge and expertise not only about design but also about branding, marketing and distribution; the imperative to constantly produce a seemingly new product; the historical contexts in which, for example, one finds that Italian fashion was transnational from its inception as an industry; and finally, its simultaneous production of and reaction to asymmetries in changing relations of global power.  Other industries undoubtedly have some of these features but they are especially visible in fashion.  These characteristics enabled us to to challenge what are commonly taken as the core features of capitalism (viz, the wage-labor relation, the pursuit of profit, private property and inequality).  We were able to emphasize the contingency of how various transnational capitalist projects converge that do not always reside in a narrow definition of the economic, and how the accumulation and distribution of capital emerges in those contingencies. Studying the fashion industry ethnographically led us to theorize how commodities are not the only things made in the production process, which also includes the production of dispositions, social practices, identities, and subjectivities. It further includes the production of labor power. Marxist theories generally assume that labor power is transhistorical,  pre-existing the production process, and that workers bring their labor power to the workplace with them.  We found that in tracing the fashion industry’s key characteristics, labor power is instead constituted through the specific relations of transnational collaboration.

Janet Connor: The book is split into three parts (the negotiation of value, legacies and histories, and kinship and transnational capitalism). While they overlap with the key dynamic processes of transnational capitalism that you argue for in the book, they’re not an exact match. How did you decide to organize the book in this way? And more of a stylistic question, I was wondering how you decided to write Part I together, while in the other two parts you deliberately chose not to write in one voice.

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: The organization of our ethnography emerged gradually through our discussions about what stood out in the fieldwork materials we had gathered. We had these discussions as we were doing the fieldwork and also afterwards. We agreed that several practices seemed prominent: first, in the context of a transnational relationship of production and distribution, it was clear that the various Italian and Chinese managers whom we came to know constantly asserted their own skills and knowledge in comparison with and contrast to their foreign partners, as well as sometimes in relation to others within their domestic orbits.  It was not that either side had a homogeneous view, this was not a binary contrast, but across the heterogeneity of different kinds of social relations of production, the various people involved emphasized their worth, their contribution to the value of what all agreed was Italian fashion.  This practice was prominent in all of our interviews and conversations. It led us to our argument that value is an ongoing process of negotiation rather than a sociological formula based on fixed social relationships. Nor is it simply a direct result of capitalist investments or a recent effect of global capitalism presumably unhinging what were previously more stable ways to calculate value. Rather these ongoing negotiations were an outcome of how people assert their cultural capital, including their knowledge, identities and habitus.  The negotiation of value had to be its own section.  As to historical legacies and revisionist histories, again our various interlocutors often invoked their national histories to explain to us the particularities of why and how they engaged in the fashion industry in the ways they did. Italian managers, for example, often mentioned the long history of fashion in Italy as compared to China.  Chinese managers tended to grapple with the legacies of socialism.  The prominence of historical legacies thus also caught our attention.  We both described and interpreted these legacies.  Our interpretations highlighted how Chinese managers, for example, wanted to erase the socialist past through a nostalgia for a revisionist version of pre-socialist life in China, especially in Shanghai, while Italian managers sometimes naturalized fashion taste as part of what they called Italianità.  Kinship became the third theme because it, too, has played a prominent part in the organization of fashion industry’s production and distribution relationships, though quite differently among Chinese firms and Italian firms.

These three key practices encompass the dynamic processes of capitalism we identified — privatization and the public/private division, the negotiation of value, the rearrangement of accumulation, the reconfiguration of kinship, and the outsourcing of inequality. They do so to different degrees but it made more sense to us to start from the ethnographic material and work out.

Stylistically, we thought the first section had to be one chapter as the back and forth between the interlocutors would come out most clearly in that way. Conversely, while our interlocutors sometimes invoked their historical legacies to interpret their relationships with their foreign partners, there was much more about that history that needed to be explained and interpreted in our analyses.  Similarly, while kinship was a key social relationship, its force varied among Italian and Chinese firms. To put all that needed to be explained in one chapter for these themes would have both chopped and stretched our analysis, not to mention they would have been very long chapters! 

Janet Connor: One of many important interventions in the book is your questioning the existence of a division between public and private, particularly in relation to the common equation of neoliberalization and privatization. Can you say more on how you think about the relationship between public and private?

Lifa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Our argument about the relationship between the public and private came out of our feminist approach to capitalism, as well as the history of the role of the state in capitalism.  Feminist anthropologists, historians and other feminist theorists have long argued that public and private are ideologically defined and vary historically and cross-culturally and that this division is empirically unfounded. To say this division is empirically unfounded is not to assert this division is a mere fantasy. Feminists rather argue that taking for granted the division obscures the work these ideological distinctions do to maintain gender and racial hierarchies.  As African American feminist theorists have long maintained, the private was never an attainable sphere for black women and families in the U.S., with racist consequences.  Yet, with a few notable exceptions, these insights have been consistently ignored in analyses of neoliberalism and, more generally, capitalism. The dominant vision of privatization under neoliberalism is derived from North American social arrangements and imaginaries. We developed these insights about contemporary practices of capitalism first because, as Lisa explains, in post-socialist China, it is often impossible to discern whether some Chinese companies are fully private or fully public, which is a deliberate strategy for multiple reasons. Second, as Sylvia explains, the state’s role has been central in Italian industrialization up to and including the present. In other words, there is a history of state-private enterprises that long predates neoliberalism. We found that employing feminist critiques of the public/private divide helped us to analyze the multiple meanings and practices of privatization, including the often-blurred relationships among them. We argue that instead of trying to fix a definition of the private and the public we should trace ethnographically and historically how this division in itself is made, challenged, and remade and how its ideological effects produce inequality.  

Janet Connor: The book includes a multitude of voices and viewpoints, not just from both of you but also with the chapter by Simona Segre Reinach, and in the writing style of including many rich ethnographic stories about a range of interlocutors. The style of the book seems to me to be doing several things at once. On the one hand, it’s an example of a kind of collaborative methodology, both in terms of how you do fieldwork and how you write. At the same time, the polyphonic character of the book is making an analytic intervention against conceiving of transnational capitalism as one unified thing or as having a predefined set of structural features. Could you say more about how you think about and write collaborative ethnography?

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Collaborative ethnography can take multiple forms and approaches.  In our case, the collaboration was grounded in our long-term engagements with China and Italy and in particular with their textile and clothing industries, and Simona with the fashion industry.  We realized that our deep sets of knowledge would enable a study of transnational capitalist relations of production and distribution, including what is often called commodity chains, that could move us beyond the methodological challenges of a sole anthropologist doing fieldwork in a single place. It further gave us an important historical depth to our study, so that we could challenge assumptions about the neo in neoliberalism. We also followed the lead of our interlocutors.  Beginning in the 1980s and increasingly in the 1990s, Italian textile and clothing firms outsourced manufacturing to lower-wage countries, including China.  China, for its part, was opening up a market economy at that time and welcomed foreign investment. Our theoretical insights that challenge the idea of capitalism as structured by a single logic or as having a singular modal form arose from our ability to carry out an ethnography that could attend to multiple experiences rather than just one side and that could demonstrate the contingencies of capitalism.  The way we organized the book to include multiple voices and viewpoints arose from our desire to highlight these analytical challenges to economistic approaches to capitalism. We offered not merely a method of data collection but a methodology for the study of cultural production that entails both methods and concepts.

Janet Connor: Comparison has long been an important analytic strategy in anthropology, and more recently anthropologists have begun to see the comparisons made by our interlocutors as an object of study. It seems to me that your book contributes to both of these strands of comparison, both with how you think of the writing as moving beyond conventional analysis and in your ethnographic examples of how the ways that your Italian and Chinese interlocutors see themselves and negotiate value through comparisons across many different scales. How are you thinking about the ways that anthropologists can study and participate in comparative work?

Yes, we tried to emphasize that we were not doing a comparative study, at least not a comparative study of Italian and Chinese capitalisms.  What we offered instead was an analysis of the co-production of Italian-Chinese transnational capitalism. Our collaborative ethnography offers an alternative to the conventional comparative method in anthropology of different cultures, one that is better suited to the modes of cultural production in the world today. We viewed our interlocutors as making comparisons but within a relationship in which they were intimately tied to one another.  That said, your point that we compare ourselves with past conventions in anthropology is well taken.  It echoes the way our Italian and Chinese interlocutors compare themselves with their national historical pasts.