Jonathan D. Hill reflects on his career

Jonathan Hill featured on BBC's "Science in Action" | Anthropology

What moment of fieldwork interaction do you still think about, amazed that you got to witness it and/or record it?

While doing fieldwork in 1981 for my doctoral dissertation, I was using my stereo cassette player and pre-amped external microphone to make audio recordings of a shamanic curing ritual in an indigenous Wakuénai (Curripaco) village. As usual, the shaman had set up his bench, hallucinogenic snuff, maraca, tobacco, and other materials facing the eastern horizon. That day was sunny and hot without a cloud in the bright blue sky. I recorded songs and took photographs all morning. The shaman looked straight up through the feathers of his maraca at exactly twelve noon, and soon a patient and several curious villagers gathered in the space behind the shaman. As the ritual progressed, the shaman repeatedly blew tobacco smoke over the heads of everyone present, including the patient, her family, the gathering of villagers, and even the visiting anthropologist and his tape recorder. After another two hours, I began to feel a kind of energy that I can only describe as exhilarating. It was a hot afternoon less than two degrees north of the Equator, yet I wasn’t sweating or even feeling hot. I hadn’t eaten since early morning but didn’t feel hungry at all. In the mid-afternoon, as the shaman sang and chased after shadow-spirits in the eastern sky, a powerful thunderstorm became visible in the distance and quickly approached the island village. But when the storm began dumping heavy rains on the manioc gardens just across the east channel of the river, it stopped approaching. The shaman was standing up and singing to the thunderclouds in a sort of antiphonal musical dialogue with flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. I had interviewed shamans, other ritual specialists, and non-specialists who claimed that powerful shamans had the ability to control weather events. Later in my fieldwork I learned that the reason shamans blow tobacco smoke over the heads of all people present is to gather up the life force of their bodies to help bring patient’s lost soul back to the world of living people. My tape recorder was also said to be pulling in the patient’s lost soul, so it was also included in the effort. I still wonder about that day, the energy I felt, and that mysterious thunderstorm.

What article or book was hardest for you to write, and why?

Probably the hardest essay for me to write was the chapter in the Cambridge History of Native Peoples of the Americas:  South America, Volume III, Part 2 (1999, “Indigenous Peoples and the Rise of Independent Nation-States in Lowland South America,” F. Salomon and S. Schwartz, editors, pp. 704-764). I had been invited to contribute a chapter on this topic but not given clear guidance on how much of lowland South America was to be covered. I realized immediately that the topic would be unmanageably huge if it were to include all of Brazil in addition to the Guyanas, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Fortunately the group of anthropologists and ethnohistorians at Universidade de São Paulo (Núcleo de História Indígena e do Indigenismo) organized by Manuela Carnheiro da Cunha agreed to cover Brazil, and the volume’s editors were kind enough to accept this division of labor. Yet that still left a huge swath of lowland South America and an incredibly diverse assortment of Indigenous peoples with a multitude of culturally specific histories. I realized then that as an ethnologist I had detailed knowledge of deep histories for a finite number of specific Indigenous regional communities but needed to find some way to connect them all into a broader, macro-level history of the profound political transformations taking place in South America as the colonial power structures began to unravel after the expulsion of the Jesuits and official abolition of indigenous slavery in 1767.  Also, the newly independent states of the 19th Century needed to be interpreted as new systems of power that used rationalist social theories of the Enlightenment to radically dehumanize Indigenous peoples and to justify the erasure of their territorial rights and cultural identities. Finding a way to write about these macro-level transformations while still being able to hear culturally specific histories in which Indigenous peoples understand themselves as the agents of their own transformations was extremely challenging.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

For me, a productive writing day cannot be measured in quantitative terms. Productive writing can only result from clear and coherent thinking. Scribbles, notes, outlines, and fragments of ideas are important prerequisites to translating complex and often ‘fuzzy’ thoughts into effective prose. It is important to think what one is going to say rather than just say whatever one happens to be thinking at any given moment. Likewise, it is essential to think what one is preparing to write rather than vice-versa.

Which class did you most enjoy teaching, and why?

I really had fun creating and teaching a graduate seminar on “Narrative Practices, Music, and Social Cognition” in Fall semester 2009. At the time I was participating in an interdisciplinary research and publication group of linguists, psychologists, philosophers, and anthropologists who were working to understand the importance of narrative practices known as folk psychological narratives in the development of human social cognition. I had just published a book on Trickster Myths, Music, and History from the Amazon (U. Illinois Press 2009) and was co-editing a major comparative study of indigenous Amazonian instrumental music (Burst of Breath, U. Nebraska Press 2011). In addition to the close fit between the topics covered in the graduate seminar and the research I was doing at the time, the graduate faculty and doctoral candidates in sociocultural and linguistic anthropology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale had reached an unprecedented level of quality and productivity. It was a time when a group of junior and senior scholars, each having their own unique research interests, were able to find common ground that allowed for openly sharing ideas and knowledge and significant intellectual growth.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an academic?

Yes. In the fall of 1989, the start of my fourth academic year at SIUC, the Chair of the Department of Anthropology suggested that it was time for me to assemble a dossier in order to be considered for an early promotion and tenure decision. My first book had come out in 1988 while I was on a postdoc fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution, where I had written the first draft of my second book. In the summer of 1989, I had been invited to participate in a research project in Colombia and to present a paper at a Wenner-Gren International Symposium in Brazil. I had been working since 1986 as a contributing editor for the Handbook of Latin American Studies, U.S. Library of Congress, and the new Editor of American Anthropologist had recently appointed me to serve on the editorial board. I felt strongly supported by the senior faculty in the Department, and their support in turn motivated me to keep expanding my professional and intellectual horizons with the knowledge that what was good for my development was also good for the faculty and students in the Department.

Sun Sun Lim on her book, Transcendent Parenting

Interview by Kevin Laddapong

Kevin Laddapong: In Transcendent Parenting, you argue that middle-class parents in Asia have to transcend themselves bodily, virtually, and temporally because of the increasing proliferation of mobile device usage. Could you explain a bit what you mean by transcendence, and how these mobile devices might encourage the transcendence of parenting obligation, surveillance, and time?

Sun Sun Lim: Essentially, the use of technology has lubricated our lives but also intensified the parenting burden and complicated parent-child relationships. This heightened connectivity thus enables but also encourages parents to transcend the physical distance between them and their kids, to transcend every online and offline environment their children travel through, and to also transcend timeless time and parent relentlessly.

For example, parent must now manage their children’s lives through multiple platforms including apps for parent-teacher communication, and online gradebooks that provide parents with data on their children’s in-class and test performance. Parents can therefore accompany their children into the classroom virtually, and even quiz them on why their in-class performance this week paled in comparison to the last. Such connectivity between parents and teachers, while seemingly helpful, can complicate the parent-child relationship and over-involve parents in their children’s lives.

Besides these official communication channels there are messaging platforms such as WhatsApp that parents are using to communicate with teachers, as well as with other parents. While these massive chat groups can inundate their members with messages, they can be a useful resource. But these groups do not confine themselves to such instrumental communication and that parents can become too immersed in their children’s lives and allow playground politics to seep into adult interactions. My research uncovered some disputes between children that took place in school continued to be waged by their parents in the online chats, with other parents taking sides and even offering support and solidarity, solicited or otherwise. These exchanges exacerbated tensions within the group and spilled over into the parents’ and children’s face-to-face interactions as well.

Kevin Laddapong: Throughout your book, you show how parents (and schools) transcend themselves for children’s successes, a process that sometimes crosses the personal line. Is this phenomenon particular to Asian middle-class families? Will it be different from working-class families in Asia, or even middle-class families elsewhere? What are some underlying cultural ideologies driving this phenomenon?

Sun Sun Lim: This rise in digitally intensified parent-school, parent-child, parent-parent interaction has also been noted in many other urban, digitally-connected cities in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. I have shared my research with multi-national audiences across Asia and Europe and it struck a chord with parents of many nationalities because all middle-class parents are now digitally connected to their children and the family’s broader network. This connectivity, coupled with middle-class families’ aspirations for upward mobility that translate into significant investment in children and their positive development, manifests itself in transcendent parenting.  

Kevin Laddapong: Many applications in the book, such as homework and grade tracking, and group chats for parents, intensify psychological and affective pressure. It seems that you imply these had gone wrong and parents should restrain themselves from over-parenting. How should parents consider abating such stress for children growing up?

Sun Sun Lim: Parents should refrain from being too concerned with in-class performance metrics, or using them to demand more zealous participation by their children, or greater care by the teachers. Separately, some of our interviewees would message teachers over trivial matters that their children could easily have managed on their own in school. But when parents take over such tasks, they rob their children of the precious opportunity to develop their own problem-solving abilities. Resisting parental intervention in every situation is key to nurturing independence in children. 

In a parent chat groups, some parents share tips on effective tuition programmes or enrichment classes, thereby raising the parenting stakes among all the parents in the chat. Indeed, some of our interviewees admitted to feeling pressured when reading such posts, wondering if they should enrol their children in such classes to avoid disadvantaging them. Others steadfastly refused to cave in to such pressures, even if they acknowledged the benefits of being connected to other parents. Collectively therefore, we need to dial down this culture of over-sharing and constant comparison, where every post serves to redefine what it means to be a good parent.   

The constant notifications from these apps and chats can also be tremendously stress-inducing, with working parents feeling like they have to constantly keep an eye on their children’s schedules and homework, even while performing their professional duties. Perhaps we need to set some norms around when and how such platforms should be used, and the expectations around how soon we must respond, so that parents and teachers are less overwhelmed by the constant connectivity.

Kevin Laddapong: Most of the sociological studies of the family are highly gendered and male/female divided. However, most of the informants in this book are kept gender-neutral. Gender-neutrality is a surprising analytical choice, and I was wondering if you could discuss what led you to make this decision and what consequences this had for your subsequent analysis?

Sun Sun Lim: Principally, my concerted decision to use “transcendent parenting” encompasses an aspirational dimension that aims to capture the more desired and indeed, more desirable state of shared parenting responsibilities. In societies where dual income households are becoming increasingly common, it no longer makes sense to privilege the mother’s parenting obligation, and more structures must be put in place to ensure that fathers shoulder a more equitable share of parenting responsibilities. Essentially however, given the critical role that mobile media play in the lives of families, I believe that transcendent parenting is already being experienced by both parents, even if to unequal degrees. As conceptions of the parenting duties that fathers and mothers should bear evolve, the experience and practice of transcendent parenting will alter as well. Hence my analysis was undertaken with this aspirational perspective – that inclusive language will encourage an inclusive mindset that paves the way for greater gender parity in raising children.

Kate Eichhorn on her book, The End of Forgetting

Interview by Shuting Li

https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674976696

Shuting Li: In this book, you follow image-making technology’s trajectory, from Kodak film camera, home videos, to smartphone. I find that your previous works (The Archival Turn in Feminism and Adjusted Margin) focus on archives, xerography, feminism, and activist movements. Are there any connections between your previous works and this project? What did inspire you to start this project?

Kate Eichhorn: My books always look back, in some way or another, to explore questions about new and emerging media technologies. This methodology is something I adopted many years ago–back when research on digital culture was still, somewhat falsely, described as Internet research. In the mid to late 1990s, it was challenging to research digital culture because one’s research subject was in constant flux. Even our understanding of what we were researching was shifting. It now seems ridiculous that at one point I was asking myself whether I should approach my research of Geocities communities as a textual researcher or ethnographer, but here, one must remember that in 1997, much of what was happening online was text-based and rather static. These spaces held some but not all of the obvious markers of an active and dynamic community.  

To find a way to investigate these emerging spaces, I started to look back to early periods of technological change, specifically to the early years of print culture. At one point, I abandoned my research on new media altogether and tried to reimagine myself as a serious book historian. Clearly, I didn’t end up pursuing that path, but in the process, I did develop a methodology that is very historically grounded. Some people describe my methodology as media archaeology, and while I appreciate media archaeology, I don’t think that is an accurate label for my work. I’m more influenced by media historians like Carolyn Marvin than I am by media archeologists, especially those associated with the German media studies tradition. This likely reflects the fact that I come to media studies through cultural studies, so I can’t easily sideline questions concerning social practices and power. 

Shuting Li: Your work demonstrates how entering a digital era shapes people’s forgetting of childhood and raises concerns and questions about the erosion of the line between childhood and adulthood. Can you elaborate your argument on forgetting and why does it matter in people’s memory of childhood? 

Kate Eichhorn: As I discuss in my last book, there has long been a false assumption that new media technologies threaten childhood. I’m thinking here about claims made by people like Neil Postman in The Disappearance of Childhood. Postman was writing about television culture, but the assumption that new media pose a threat to childhood is a very pervasive myth, one that has shaped practices and public policy for decades. Henry Jenkins makes this argument in much of his work on children, youth, and media.  

In The End of Forgetting, I suggest that we may be witnessing something remarkably different. It’s not that childhood is threatened by digital culture, but rather than it now plays on an endless loop. Worse yet, social networks formed in childhood—for example, on social media platforms—now follow one into their adult life. A very concrete way to understand this shift is to think about the experience of leaving home to attend college. In the late 1980s or early 1990s, one still had the option to make a clean break with the past. You left for college with a few phone numbers of close friends, but you didn’t carry with you online networks going back to your elementary school years. My students now arrive in college with their social networks, some dating back to elementary school, still in place. They carry these social networks with them on various social media accounts. I wanted to explore what was at stake in this shift? What does it mean never to have the opportunity to start anew–to leave the past behind? What are the implications for one’s social identity development?  Certainly, not everyone feels a burning desire to start anew, but some people do. In fact, some people’s social mobility or even survival depends on this possibility. 

Shuting Li: As social media blurs the line between childhood and adulthood, users are turned into data subjects and subsumed into communicative capitalism. Can you say more on these concepts? When claiming their controls of memory, what challenges will people encounter in the digital era? 

Kate Eichhorn: In The End of Forgetting, I make the argument that we can’t lose sight of the fact that young people finally have access to the media tools needed to record and broadcast images of their lives but that this isn’t necessarily because the world suddenly cares about what young people have to say. These tools are now available to children and youth because these demographics have the capacity to generate a lot of data, including the content needed to make social media sites profitable.

It’s difficult to imagine a platform like TikTok existing at all without the contributions of young people. From a capitalist perspective, this is rather brilliant—for decades, in developed economies at least, we had an entire segment of the population who weren’t producing anything at all. Social media platforms essentially found a way to exploit this untapped segment of the labor market, and to do so legally. In most developed nations, after all, there are rules about when and how many hours children can work. Social media platforms circumvent existing child labor laws. Now, all children and adolescents are legally able to be producers—that is, content producers—but they do this work for free. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we can or should compare a thirteen-year-old girl turning out content on TikTok to a child working in a factory during the industrial revolution. But I do think that the success—and by success, I mean profits—of many social media companies has rested on the capacity to turn a previously untapped segment of the labor market into producers.

Of course, long before children and teens start to produce content for a platform like TikTok, they are already generating data. Here, I would recommend another book, which I recently reviewed—Veronica Barassi’s Child Data Citizen. Barassi does a great job laying out how children, from birth, are turned into data. 

Kate Eichhorn: Certainly, everyone has been producing a lot of data since the beginning of the pandemic. But the pandemic has also shown the limits of digital sociality. At the start of the pandemic, there was a false assumption that the two demographics that would likely be fine were adolescents and people in their early twenties. The assumption seemed to be that since young people spend so much time online, their lives will just continue as usual. In fact, in terms of mental health, adolescents and young adults have suffered the most. Spending all their time online, both socially and at school, has been remarkably difficult for these demographics. Interestingly, the group that seems to be coping best in the world of Zoom, at least in terms of mental health, are older adults, including senior citizens. As someone who researches youth culture and social media, what I have found more interesting about the pandemic is the extent to which it has exposed the fact that for most youth, digital interactions are ultimately a supplement but not replacement for face-to-face sociality.

Shuting Li: My last question is broad and related to the current circumstance. Owing to the pandemic, people have become much more dependent on digital technology. The use of digital technology inevitably produces more data or memory that lie beyond people’s control. Would you like to share your reflections on this shift or any thoughts on people’s forgetting in the future?

Kate Eichhorn: Certainly, everyone has been producing a lot of data since the beginning of the pandemic. But the pandemic has also shown the limits of digital sociality. At the start of the pandemic, there was a false assumption that the two demographics that would likely be fine were adolescents and people in their early twenties. The assumption seemed to be that since young people spend so much time online, their lives will just continue as usual. In fact, in terms of mental health, adolescents and young adults have suffered the most. Spending all their time online, both socially and at school, has been remarkably difficult for these demographics. Interestingly, the group that seems to be coping best in the world of Zoom, at least in terms of mental health, are older adults, including senior citizens. As someone who researches youth culture and social media, what I have found more interesting about the pandemic is the extent to which it has exposed the fact that for most youth, digital interactions are ultimately a supplement but not replacement for face-to-face sociality.

Patrick Galbraith discusses his book, Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan

Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan

Interview by Xiao Xe

https://www.dukeupress.edu/otaku-and-the-struggle-for-imagination-in-japan

Xiao Ke: It was an absolute joy reading this provocative and rigorous book on Japanese “otaku”and manga culture, especially during the pandemic. Given that “otaku” literally means “your home,” we now might want to compare notes with “otaku” – whether seeing them as “cool” or “weird.” In doing so, perhaps we could reflect on, and better our own experiences at home. Can I make a detour to firstly ask: has anything new come up in the manga/anime market in Japan relating to the COVID-19 lockdown that you would like to share with us?

Patrick Galbraith: Thanks for inviting me to chat! I appreciate your kind words about the book, and this opportunity to exchange ideas. So, life and love in the time of COVID-19. I hesitate to make too much out of “otaku” meaning “your home,” at least when written in specific Japanese scripts, because it is in that sense more or less just a polite second-person pronoun used in certain settings and regions. It has always been my experience that stories of the basement dwelling, socially awkward geek are greatly exaggerated. I mean, Henry Jenkins was already highlighting it as a trope in his foundational contributions to fan studies in North America in the early 1990s. All it takes is a visit to a convention or an idol concert to disabuse ourselves of the stereotype. If anything, the absence of the hyper sociality of fan gatherings was a felt difference in 2020. All of us, not just “otaku,” were spending a lot more hours at home alone. We are seeing fascinating new ways of engaging online and through social media to generate shared experiences. This was all happening before, but with more time and fewer options, things exploded last year. The rise of virtual YouTubers, for example, and not only in absolute numbers, but also their broad and diverse followings outside of manga/anime fandom. That’s striking, because this form of masking, or animating a character rather than exposing yourself, is so prominent in manga/anime fan cultures in Japan, but many believed it was sort of niche or limited in appeal. Similarly, the fact that anime was trending on streaming services accessed around the world speaks to the ongoing normalization of fannish interests and lifestyles, including manga, anime and related media and material. Indeed, aren’t we all sort of being cultivated into fan audiences by streaming services and social media? Personally, I was stunned by the reaction to the manga/anime franchise Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. It was serialized in the flagship magazine Shōnen Jump from 2016 and received an initial anime adaptation of 26 episodes in 2019, but last year, as the manga completed its run, printed volumes took all the top spots on sales charts and the first animated film became the highest-grossing release in Japanese box office history. With only 26 episodes of anime released! And it’s not a standalone film by a famous director intended for all audiences, but a simple continuation of the animated series based on a relatively young manga series for boys! And it broke this record during the pandemic! The manga and anime were everywhere, on everyone’s lips. I confess that I did brave the outdoors to see the film in a theater on its opening weekend in Tokyo, and, even socially distanced and masked, the energy and excitement in the room were just incredible. Unbelievably social, sharing an experience then and there before, if you’ll forgive the analogy, going out to spread it further in the community. It really is awesome animation, both in the television series and especially the film, but there can be no doubt that the manga/anime-industrial complex, creating a steady stream of fans and fueled by their collective movement and power, exceeded all expectations in 2020. The amount and quality of anime coming out right now? Overwhelming.  

Xiao Ke: Despite being a long-term on-site participant observer of Japan’s anime culture, you spent half of your book tracing historical discourses since the 1970s instead of ethnography proper: from male bishōjo (beautiful girls) fans, lolicon (those who are obsessed with Lolita figures), to the formation of the otaku label and the affect called moe (to sprout, or perhaps a response to erotic and lively cuteness). We also saw how these subculture discourses are transformed into – or how they cashed-in on – seemingly new or exotic stories in the mainstream. Why and how did you choose this archive- and discourse-centered method in writing this book? Also, in doing this, did you receive pushback from reviewers at different stages?

Patrick Galbraith: Is the decision controversial? To my mind, it’s straightforward fieldwork. I touch on this a little in the introduction, but positioned in Akihabara, I was confronted with unfamiliar words and concepts. My basic field language is Japanese, but I also needed to learn this other language in order to think and speak as my informants did. Exposing those meanings and getting a sense of the language is a necessary step for the reader to enter into the field with me and see and be in the world otherwise. Moreover, these terms can be slippery and invite misunderstanding. So, right off the bat, notice how you glossed the terms bishōjo, lolicon and moe, which differs from what emerges in those first three chapters. It may not seem crucial to underscore the cuteness in bishōjo characters, or to say precisely how lolicon in this context defines Lolita figures in relation to the two-dimensional, but doing so sharpens the focus and clarifies why some manga/anime fans were labelled otaku. What about moe? You emphasized eroticism and liveliness, hedged with perhaps, but the concept is more holistically an affective response to fictional characters. There really isn’t another word for this concept specifically, which is why I spent time on it and traced the stories that people tell themselves and one another about moe and how an affective response to fictional characters makes sense in contemporary Japan. There’s a history here shaping meaning, and meaning not in the sense of definitions, but rather significance. This is why I wrote those first three chapters.    

Xiao Ke: In the first three chapters, you emphasized how manga consumers are imagining a kind of queer masculinity alternative to the normative salarymen in Japan. And I was fascinated by this recurring gender-crossing theme of being seen or treated not as men: from male bishōjo manga readers (46), otaku discussions (59), to male customers in maid cafés (214). Something that caught my eye is that you introduced a writer on this theme, Itō Kimio, as “a pioneer of men’s studies” (22). You also showed us that the Japanese public has very reflexive analysis of the otaku phenomena and East Asian masculinity, not unlike media scholars. Can you say a bit more about Japan’s ‘men’ studies’ and how it might have influenced you intellectually? And to what extent have Japan’s student groups and university scholars collaborated in constructing and negotiating the otaku scene?

Patrick Galbraith: Given all that was brought under the umbrella of men’s studies in North America, I understand why that might catch your eye, but, in the context of Japan in the 1990s, danseigaku meant something very specific. It starts with the realization that there is a problem with men, specifically friction engendered by rubbing up against outdated and ossified norms. In his first major publication on the topic in 1993, Itō Kimio casts into stark relief the stubborn rigidity of middleclass masculine ideals in Japan. Things have been changing so much – think Anne Allison’s Precarious Japan – and yet there is still this notion that men need to be stable income earners, start and support families and generally be a presumed normal. These are not normal times, and normal does not work for everyone anyway. I’m reminded of Jack Halberstam’s analysis of the common sense of reproductive maturity and growing up in a capitalist society. For Itō, the problem is that those not achieving the norm or unable to escape the long shadow of hegemonic masculinity are made out to be failures and feel like losers. The phenomenon is what Lauren Berlant calls a “normativity hangover.” I’ll be blunt in saying that insistence on norms that are no longer achievable for many or even most can be fatal. The norms are toxic, leading to seething resentment and anger and potential violence toward self and others. Japan is not unique in this, as jumps off the page in Guy Standing’s global analysis of masculinity among the precariat. In contrast, one thing that really stood out in the field was how the people I met were not committed to being normal or being real men. Looking back at manga/anime fandom from the 1970s into the 1980s, there appeared to be those who opened up space to imagine and create alternatives to reality. These are the failures initially labelled otaku, specifically in context those men who failed to be putatively real men getting with supposedly real women and instead fixating on fictional girls. One does not have to believe that every single fan so labelled was exclusively oriented toward the two-dimensional to grasp that they were doing something different, something understood to be wrong or weird, and that’s why they were singled out and labelled as other, as otaku. If what these fans did was fail, then I think Halberstam is quite right that we can “fail well,” and in so failing, imagine other ways of living and moving on in the world. It starts with a sense of unease with things as they are, which can lead to a rejection of the imperative to grow up, man up or face reality. Things don’t have to be this way. Embracing alternatives, imagining and creating them together, is how we leave behind the toxic sludge that keeps us stuck in place and poisoning ourselves and one another, poisoning the world. It is also an invitation to live with fictional and real others in a more-than-human world. This is something of the broader aim of Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan. Now, there is a tendency for Japanese critics, experts and authorities on otaku to denounce and deny contemporary movements, which undercuts emergent political potential. This is especially so when it comes to issues of sex and gender, which make some older, established figures nervous. The thing is these talking heads dominate popular outlets with a discourse that establishes their identity, historical moment and objects. This is really clear in the case of Okada Toshio, who I introduce at the beginning of the Akihabara chapter. Part of the reason I adopted a different approach to thinking about otaku in terms of movement and performance is because I am opposed to closing down and policing the boundaries of a supposedly true, authentic and real identity for otaku. Reviewing popular publications by otaku experts about otaku, it turns out that their closely guarded identity is very masculine, even exclusively so, which resonates with recent and ongoing discussions of toxic masculinity in fan cultures around the world. What I saw among otaku, especially those who in Akihabara were once more distinguished as weird otaku, is the possibility of something other than a macho world in stasis or decline. 

Xiao Ke: On the one hand, your book offers us a view of the uniquely lively Japanese manga history and culture. On the other hand, we read the less well-known but common stories of gentrification, state branding, censorship, policing, occupation protests and crackdowns. As you demonstrate in your ethnographic chapters on Akihabara, “[i]n the promoting and policing of ‘otaku’ in Akihabara,” “otaku” performances are “trivialized, naturalized and domesticated” (182). In dealing with imagined excess and perversion, from your experiences as an American researcher on Japan, can you say a few words about the differences, similarities and connections between Japan and the U.S.?

Patrick Galbraith: While I am originally from the United States, I cannot speculate about the vibrant and diverse fandoms that are at times there called otaku.”However, there are a few things that I can say based on my fieldwork in Akihabara, a destination for international fans of manga, anime and related media and material. Indeed, one aspect of the fieldwork was leading tours through Akihabara for visitors, who I asked for impressions afterward. Many of the Americans I encountered identified as fans of anime, but they were a little shocked by what they saw in Akihabara. Pokémon and Studio Ghibli this was not. While famous for the density of stores selling manga, anime and related media and material, and really it was the eye-catching signs and packed shelves that people loved to photograph, Akihabara was still very much colored by its past as the epicenter of adult computer gaming. That is, games where the player interacts with manga/anime-style cute girl characters in ways ranging from casual conversation to explicit sex. From computers to computer games, Akihabara had subsequently transformed into a space overflowing with bishōjo manga, anime, games, figurines, costumes, fanzines and more. People were pretty open about what they were buying and selling, even extremely explicit stuff. Things have changed a lot with growing expectation of outside scrutiny and aggressive policing, but I remember many visitors from the United States back then being more than a little concerned about the imaginary sex and public sex culture. In general, there seems to be a lot of anxiety about the prevalence of sex in manga, anime and related media and material. And it isn’t just the United States or fans who are taken aback. The recent moves to strengthen regulation of imports of erotic manga to Australia come to mind. This incident, like so many others, was triggered by watchdogs stumbling onto images of manga/anime-style cute girl characters, specifically an example of moe media called Eromanga Sensei, which is far from pornographic, but nonetheless intended to trigger a response. Attempts to ban books crossing the border appear quaint when this and so much more is readily available on the internet, and I suspect many fans around the world familiar with manga/anime aesthetics wouldn’t even bat an eye as they download or stream the likes of Eromanga Sensei, but the anxiety about manga/anime sex is notable and consequential. New legal regimes are being formed and negotiated. The late Mark McLelland, a resident of Australia, referred to this as “juridification of the imagination,” which may well inspire us to seriously reflect on issues of freedom of imagination. 

Xiao Xe: Your last chapter is on maid cafés and the role-playing relationship between customer masters and maids. You seem to have a reserved stance regarding this space, and ended by citing Sara Ahmed’s “affect aliens” and posed the question: “those that do have to worry about their savings and are not as confident as King that things will work out. Where do they go?” (222) Did you leave out anything that you’d like to elaborate on but could not possibly fit into the book? Also, do you have anything to say about queer and straight female consumers – as well as laborers – of the manga/anime market in Japan?

Patrick Galbraith: My concerns are related to those who cannot get a place at the table or feel at home. Right after that line you quoted I discuss the troubling case of Katō Tomohiro, who killed seven people and wounded 10 more on the streets of Akihabara in 2008. I was right there in a nearby café typing up fieldnotes when it happened. It’s not something I’ll ever forget, and I don’t want to forget it. In the frenzied media coverage, people debated whether or not this man was an otaku, and pointed out that he visited a maid café. This was obviously not what drove Katō to commit the heinous acts he did. His despair and desperation were much more directly rooted in precarious economic and social circumstances. In Katō, I saw someone without the time or money to come to a maid café and become a regular and part of the circle. So, there’s a limit to having social support systems and platforms tied to disposable income and free time, which not everyone has, especially now. There is, however, another issue, which I raised earlier. Katō wanted a normal life, the good life, and his conviction that he could and should achieve the status of middleclass masculine normalcy turned to resentment and violence. I co-authored a study with David Slater at Sophia University, which had us in part examining the online posts Katō made from his cellphone, and what we found there was chilling. Katō kept beating himself up for being a failure, pushing others away due to a compounding sense of shame, all while blaming himself and others for his failure and loneliness. This is the swamp of toxic sludge I previously mentioned, and it sucked him right down into its depths. To get out of the death spiral, we need alternatives. We need to imagine and create them, together. And we need to find ways to open up the circle and draw others in. The incorporation of characters and roleplay does seem to help in many cases, especially when fantasy and play are social and shared. Many maid cafés have transitioned to targeting primarily tourists, which makes them less amenable to long-term relations, manga/anime connections and roleplay have become less pronounced in these establishments and smaller niche places have shut their doors due to COVID-19, but there is a lot of potential here. To your question about the diversity of staff and customers, there are many cafés in Akihabara and beyond that attract men, women and trans and queer folk, and I know people behind and in front of the counter who are gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual and a dozen other orientations besides. There is recent and forthcoming work on this and related topics, for example from Sharon Kinsella, Michelle H. S. Ho and Shunsuke Nozawa. “Cultures of animation,” to borrow a turn of phrase from Teri Silvio’s tremendous book Puppets, Gods and Brands, seem to allow for new relations to and between bodies, fictional and real.

Xiao Ke: Two related concluding questions: Beyond the context of your book, do you have any thoughts regarding how people communicate and curate imaginations in general? What are other old or new ways, other than manga/anime and character-plays, that you recognize and would group into what you propose as an “anthropology of imagination” (16)?

Patrick Galbraith: I wonder about communicating and curating imagination, but a pressing issue is opening spaces of imagination. Spaces at the margins, spaces in between, spaces that push against the limits of reality. Concomitantly, of immediate concern is resisting the territorialization and colonization of the imagination. I regularly find myself rereading Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, and it seems to me that his dystopian nightmare of a withering of the imagination has only become more relevant with the acceleration and intensification of new technologies. Our minds are occupied, our attention divided up and sold off. We are alert and distracted, simultaneously hyper attentive and checked out. The ceaseless march toward the cliff seems inevitable. I recall hearing someone, probably Slavoj Žižek, quip that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than a modest change in capitalism. What a stinging, scathing indictment that is, especially for anthropologists, who are committed to learning and teaching other ways of seeing and being in the world. We can do better, and perhaps that’s partly what you mean by communicating and curating imagination. As the late David Graeber so passionately argued, we can see from the ethnographic archive that things have been organized differently in other places and times. It does not have to be this way. There are already existing alternatives right here and now, and we should encourage the curiosity to seek them out and the flexibility to follow along. Back in the 1980s, Tanya Luhrmann wrote that anthropologists haven’t paid much attention to imagination, but after Arjun Appadurai’s intervention there has been so much groundbreaking scholarship contributing to the anthropology of imagination. You can look back to imagine alternatives, as Graeber does in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and Possibilities, or work through alternative modes of thinking and experiencing otherness that Ghassan Hage introduces in and as Alter-Politics. I especially like that this is not simply anti, and there’s a positivity we can get behind. Another world is possible, and it’s ours. What Teri Silvio is doing in Taiwan with cultures of animation as distinct from performance, and Eduardo Kohn presents as an ecology of selves in Upper Amazonia, are related, and the list goes on. Work like Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World is as poetic as it is provocative. Anthropology to some extent has always been about the imagination, a human imagination that does not stop at the human or human world as we know it. Embracing this legacy is our politics and our power. 

Brad Wigger on his book, Invisible Companions

Interview with Laura Murry

https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=31306

Laura Murry: Please explain the main focus and argument of your book, Invisible Companions: Encounters with Imaginary Friends, Gods, Ancestors, and Angels.

Brad Wigger: The main focus of the book is the phenomenon of children’s invisible companions and how they reflect a deeply social cognition in children. Sometimes these figures are playful, as with imaginary friends who color or dance or go to the playground with a child. Some are more serious—they study or read or keep a child safe walking home. Some are relatives who died but show up to help a child feel better when sad. Still others cross clearly into religious territory. One child said his invisible friend is the Holy Spirit, another named God, another, an angel. In these cases, the children were explicit that the friends were “real, not imaginary.”

I often use the language of, invisible friends or IFs, in the book, to include all these various forms. But I still use “imaginary” when the children themselves are clear about their “pretend friends” or “imagination friends.” Still, whether IFs are playful and imaginary or serious or come from religious sensibilities, the relationships themselves are real and often powerful for, and meaningful to, the children.

The book documents these relationships and tries to illustrate the qualities of them. In contrast to many stereotypes about children’s thinking, they reveal a highly sophisticated childhood mind full of flexibility (facilitating learning), wildness (facilitating creativity), and even logic (facilitating engagement with the world). Most of all these relationships point to a child’s ability to share a social world. What begins with eye tracking in a baby develops into pointing and language, and the ability to share intentions and purposes with others.

In this way the book is part of a newer stream in child development studies over the last 25 years, represented by figures such as Alison Gopnik, Marjorie Taylor, and Paul Harris.  Their work has begun dismantling a developmental paradigm initiated in Freud’s understanding of children but boosted and institutionalized in Piaget. That view saw children’s minds as fundamentally driven by the ID, which is irrational, egocentric, and unable to differentiate fantasy from reality until middle childhood. The task of parents and teachers is to help children become reality-focused, social, and logical. In such a paradigm the imagination is a problem to be overcome. But in the newer wave of research, the imagination is actually a vehicle for problem-solving, for understanding and cooperating with others, and for learning about the (non-fantasy) world.    

Laura Murry: You primarily used long-form interviews and theory of mind tests to generate data for your book. Please explain your methods, highlighting what questions this approach best helped you answer. One specific query I had was whether the theory of mind tests helped you show that IFs were “in-betweens,” and thus in turn, helped to suggest “a connection between a child’s relationship with an imaginary friend and a human’s relationship to religious invisible beings” (6).

Brad Wigger: Yes, interviews and ToM tests were my primary forms of research. These reflect two directions: 1) descriptive, and 2) cognitive scientific. Descriptively, I wanted to hear children’s (and parents’) stories about IFs. What are they like? Do children know imaginary friends are different from “real/visible” friends? What do children do with them? How long do they hang around? What do parents think about them? No one interview answered all the questions, but collectively, a picture began to emerge.

The interviews were generally short (we interviewed children as young as two) and open. But we always tried to establish whether a child actually had an IF. Sometimes the children walked in with a picture they’d drawn and started talking about their friends immediately. For others, we eased into the subject: “Some children have friends nobody else can see, do you have any friends like that?”

Once we confirmed the child had an IF, we conducted ToM tasks with them. I was playing off the work of Justin Barret who found that even young children could differentiate between a human or animal mind and God’s mind. Children don’t seem to just project a human mind onto God, but they can accommodate the special features of God’s mind—that God might know things people don’t. I’m a theologian by training so had been particularly interested in these findings. I wanted to replicate the study but with a twist: How would children treat the minds of IFs? In short I found that IFs were statistically more likely to know things, according to the children, than a dog or human, but less likely to know than God. IFs were “in-between.” The only other finding similar to this was a study by Nicola Knight in the Yucatan who found that children treated the arux, elf-like forest spirits, in a similar way (in-between God and animals).

When I presented these findings from the US at an international conference focused upon the cognitive science of religion, participants immediately made connections to all kinds of religious “in-betweens”: angels, spirits, jinn, ancestors, or even Santa Claus. The findings led to the opportunity to interview kids in multiple countries (Kenya, Nepal, Dominican Republic, and Malawi) from various religious backgrounds. Though I generally describe these in the book, I have published these findings in peer-reviewed empirical journals.

But I wanted a book, as a book, to tell a story (or multiple stories) about children and IFs. Not only did I hope stories would make the work more engaging, I believed a narrative approach actually reflects and respects the subject matter: more often than not IFs were characters in the stories children told me, full of plots and settings.

Not sure this answers your specific query or not—but generally religions around the world understand the cosmos as populated with all kinds of invisible figures and encourage relationships with them. Several are “in-between” a high God and humans. The ToM findings potentially demonstrate how easily even children can differentiate kinds of minds. While the IFs demonstrate how easily (at least some) children can cultivate relationships with the invisible. I can try again if this wasn’t quite helpful.

Laura Murry: I loved the question, which you returned a few times throughout the book, what if they’re real? In this context, “they” are invisible friends. To your mind, what’s at stake in this question? Can we answer it? For example, my research is in animal studies and Mayanthi Fernando recently pointed out that animal studies scholars are generally better at thinking with more-than-human animals rather than spirits, jinns, ghosts, and so on. She seems to suggest that it’s a legacy and limitation of modernist/secular regimes of thought. Is this true here? Or are the implications different?

Brad Wigger: That’s great to connect the issues you point to in the Fernando essay [which I didn’t know] and her analysis of the limits of secular frame (or immanent frame) via the work of Charles Taylor. He does a brilliant job of detailing the development and limitations of the modernist, secular, disenchanted, “subtraction story”: take away the irrationalities and superstition of religion, animism, and anything “more,” and we will finally become grown up and enlightened. It’s essentially the same argument Freud made, both about young children and humanity in general—children and early humans are dominated by fantasy and irrationality blinding them to reality. Taylor shows the ways in which this story has become so much the assumption in modern thought—the unquestioned water we swim in—that it’s becomes a closed circle, a syllogism: of course the gods aren’t real because there isn’t anything else.  

The connection to my research is that because Freud’s analysis of childhood was deeply flawed, as mentioned, this opens the door to the possibility that his analysis (as representative of the immanent frame) of religion is flawed as well. Because children are less formed in this frame, and more “porous” (Taylor) to a sense of more, perhaps they are more open to the “presences” that Auden says “we are lived by” and “pretend to understand.”

Though I work and teach in a religious context, I too feel the cross-pressures of secular thought and a sense of transcendence, a tension that can only be lived with if we take both science and religion seriously, as I do. But both good religion and good science work hard to stay open and resist a closed system.   

I first wrote out my “what if they’re real” question in Nepal in the hills of the Himalayas surrounded by Hindu temples and Buddhas and shrines to gods and goddesses in every direction—anything but a secular frame. The context helped raise the question and perhaps the possibility that my own sense of reality is too small. The fact that we have no way to definitively answer the question suggests that living in this tension is our best hope of staying open.

Laura Murry: On this note, I was also most interested in cases where imaginary friends took on more-than-human forms either by being animals or by being many things, by being “protean” or “shape shifters” as you put it, as in the case of Jeff/Jeffette. What is the significance of this finding? Does it change our understandings of the human mind, childhood development, and social imagination? 

Brad Wigger: Yes, I think the shape-shifting friends were some of the most fascinating. My first experience with an IF was through my daughter and her imaginary friend, Crystal. As far as I knew Crystal was more or less the same throughout the time she was around. So when I heard about friends who took on different genders or species, I was surprised. For example, a three-year-old girl’s IF was Lucy. And Lucy was sometimes a “mom” but could also be a rabbit, lion, tiger, mouse, or a zebra. But whatever form, it was always Lucy.

This led me into thinking about the paradoxical relationship between continuity and difference, essence and change.  The human mind has to hold together both. Essences give us stability, the sense of an enduring identity for example, either of other people, things, or even ourselves (but also leads to essentialism, stereotypes, reductionisms of many kinds). 

But these shape-shifters also led me to the role of proteanism in studies of animal behavior—the role of unpredictability in the survival of a species. Rabbits run erratically, as do most species who are prey. Fish and ducks will scatter, lizards fake convulsions, etc. Unpredictability and strange behavior make these more difficult to catch. In humans, proteanism shows up in sports, or arts, our dreams at night yielding surprising moves, novel creations, or scientific breakthroughs. I speculate in the book that the wild side of the imagination and especially childhood imaginative play enhance mental flexibility, or cognitive plasticity, crucial to learning and dealing with an everchanging world of physical and social environments. Children are better able to face the unexpected, improvise, problem solve, and learn. Again, this is a reversal of the emphasis upon becoming “reality focused” in earlier developmental paradigms. 

Laura Murry: You theorize imagination as a “phenomenon [that] points to something fundamental about human knowing, its originality in the creaturely world, our original knowing” (179). That is, you highlight the role of imagination in the human evolutionary process. At the same time, you ask questions about the relationship of imaginary friends and religious beings. Yet you reject the idea that religious beings are–to put crudely–imaginary friends writ large. Please explain your thinking on this subject. 

Brad Wigger: I think there are two parts to your question. First, I do a quick summary of the role of the imagination in the unique aspects of human knowing. I wrote a whole other book called, “Original Knowing,” charting this out in more detail. I follow the case made by primatologist, Michael Tomasello, who has persuasively argued that joint attention and joint goals in humans—the deeply social nature of human knowing—are fundamental to the difference between, say, fishing for termites in a mound and building a rocket ship, writing a novel, or creating a financial system. The capacity to coordinate my goals or purposes with yours, and vice versa, I’m suggesting, is an act of the imagination, a social imagination.

Second, concerning the relationship between imaginary friends and religious beings, certainly many cognitive scientists feel that IFs of any sort are “nothing but” a by-product of our hyper-social minds that are so ready to attribute mind everywhere that we attribute minds to trees and mountains (as in animism) or to the invisible source of the cosmos (a creator god) and figures in-between (angels and ancestors). This is an updated version of Freud’s critique of religion as fueled by psychological processes.

And they could be right. This is part of the tension of living in the modern, immanent frame with a sense that there could be “more,” some suspicion that the world as we know it is not the whole picture. That “more” is neither provable nor disprovable. I’m just not willing to reduce the gods to a psychological process any more than I would reduce the sky out my window to nothing but a human projection. In the book I explore the dilemma through the question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

In the end, I think what imaginary friends and religious beings have in common is the cognitive capacity for meaningful relationships with invisible beings (if not invisible worlds). In the book I playfully turn the question around: Perhaps we are God’s imaginary friends, born of a desire for relationship, and that’s what makes us real.