The “quality of the whole” is uncannily revealed by the concluding paragraph on page 99 of my dissertation. It reads:
The institution I call The Migrant Center, then, is a key node of Genevan social life, expressive of an ethical horizon of hospitality. The Center’s activities bridge governmental, charitable, and civic domains, and its educational sectors offer, on the very same grounds, training in labour law for trade union delegates and elected labour court judges as well as afterschool math classes for job-seeking high schoolers. The Center’s French language learning program is thus part of a broader pedagogy of mobilization; the Migrant Center is a key translational site at which state categories and concepts of both “French” and “integration” are made commensurate with an ethics of solidarity.
I began my research in 2013 with an interest in the everyday pedagogical conditions, practices and discourses by which an official language of the state (here, French) is taught to immigrant and migrant learners. This, in a context where a then-emergent global discourse on migrant integration had constructed official, standardized language competences as the sign of successful integration into one’s host country, and where completing language tests and attending language classes were key discretionary bordering tools in the migration regimes of various European states.
Fieldwork at the institution I call The Migrant Center revealed the ways language pedagogy can become a site of mobility mediation and ethical-moral commensuration. The keywords I had come to associate with the state’s regimentation of language and cross-border movement—words like “French” and “integration”—were, at the Center, framed in the terms of solidarity. To be sure, at times, talk about French evoked historical discourses on the equalizing powers of the French language. At yet other times, however, the form and content of classroom discussions explicitly questioned the Genevan state’s monolingual logics of cross-border and social mobility. And among instructors, French held a contested status, not least because many teachers were first- and second-generation immigrants in Switzerland with their own multilingual trajectories. Their teaching, further, was unremunerated, reflective of local frameworks of volunteerism (bénévolat) which created ethical-moral substance for the Genevan polity in complex ways. As a volunteer at the school, navigating the blurry line between social critique and social reproduction became the condition of doing fieldwork.
Returning to Page 99 reminds me that perhaps teaching is a form of hospitality—one as complex as any other attempt to enact inclusion under conditions of closure. In my dissertation, I call this labour welcome work. Naming it this way has helped me to understand, somewhat long after writing, how to analytically sustain the contradictions of working at such sites of egalitarian aspiration—to situate, contextualize, and question any linguistically-premised equality, while also creating space to understand the political possibilities of hospitable relations, relationships, and practice.
Shirley Yeung. 2020. “Welcome Work: Hospitality and the Mediation of Migrant Mobility in Swiss Integration Policy.” University of Michigan Phd.
At the bottom of page 99 in my dissertation “The ‘Nobody’ Movement: Digital Activism and the Uprising of Civic Hackers in Taiwan” is a quote from the g0v (pronounced gov-zero) manifesto: Built on the spirit of the open-source community, g0v stands for freedom of speech and information transparency. We aim to use technology in the interest of the public good, allowing citizens easy access to vital information. Opening up and making data public allows the people of Taiwan to take a closer look at politics and important issues. This gives them the tools needed to evaluate their government and exert their democratic right to influence government actions.
g0v, the focus of this dissertation, is a Taiwan-based civic tech community that intervenes and subverts bureaucratic government through the technological translation of openness. Replacing the letter “o” in “government” with the number “0” to indicate the computer binary zero and one, the name “g0v” signifies both their hacker identity and the grassroots, bottom-up approach of activism. This quote on page 99 vividly encapsulates the multiplicity and equivocation of openness. Here we see openness is translated into open source technologies, freedom, transparency, public, and democracy. Openness is both the means (open source technology and open data) and the ends (civic participation and democracy). Its rich meaning provides the room for these hackers to improvise their political actions amid the changing political environment.
Later in the dissertation, I also reveal that the equivocation of openness can lead to tension and conflicts in this decentralized community especially when some participants started to connect and collaborate with hierarchical organizations such as companies, NGOs, and the government. The most renowned case is Audrey Tang, one of the most active g0v participants who was later appointed as Taiwan’s first digital minister in 2016. While Tang’s government appointment allows her to push open data and public-private collaboration further from within the government, this also leads to the institutionalization of openness and devours g0v’s political space. To tackle this community crisis, g0v participants maneuver within translations of openness in order not to be depoliticized. It is in the process of contesting openness that g0v takes a parasitic position between inside and outside, continuity and disruption, collaboration and resistance in order to keep on making politics.
The quote on page 99 is where I took an initial clue before delving into the translations of openness. As the manifesto and the idea of openness continue to appeal to young generations in Taiwan, we must continue examining how openness is conceived, discussed, practiced, and envisioned towards a techno-political future.
Mei-Chun Lee. 2020. The ‘Nobody’ Movement: Digital Activism and the Uprising of Civic Hackers in Taiwan. University of California, Davis Phd.
Hannah Carlan interviews E. Annamalai, Francis Cody, and Constantine V. Nakassis
Hannah Carlan: Bernard Bate’s posthumous book Protestant Textuality and the Tamil Modern is a major contribution to the study of political agency and nation-building, which has, through Habermas, Anderson, Taylor, Warner, and others, long privileged “the press” over “the platform” in the formation of the democratic public sphere (pp. 3–4). Bate demonstrates that this emphasis on print capitalism is both due to the difficulty of studying the unrecorded, as well as Western semiotic ideologies that privilege the denotational functions of language over its poetic ones, leading to an elision of the sensuous, affective, and embodied aspects of speech as social activity. Bate invites us to consider how communicative genres like homiletic oratory, devotional songs (bhajans), poems, and mass meetings together constituted a novel “interpellative infrastructure” of politics (p. 66). Through these practices, previously disparate groups were called into being as a singular political public at the turn of the 20th century in Tamil Nadu. Rather than reproduce the dichotomization of speech and materiality, Bate emphasizes their mutual imbrication. In the Indic context, vernacular political oratory gained semiotic value not merely from its denotational accessibility—an influence of Protestant ideologies of textuality—but from what Bate calls “poesy”: the corporeal, sonorous, musical qualities of speech that are prized in Tamil textual traditions. How might this intervention contribute to broader efforts in anthropology to theorize language and/as materiality, and how might such an approach allow us to decenter Western theories of politics and democracy?
Constantine V. Nakassis: Your brilliant first book, Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern deals with the simultaneous classicization and modernization of the Karnatic music of South India through both historical and ethnographic methods, showing how a gendered and casted form of modern subjectivity came to be articulated through a politics of voice. Your most recent book, Brought to Life by the Voice: Playback Singing and Cultural Politics in South India – equally brilliant – deals with so-called playback singing in the Tamil film industry. To start us off, I wonder if you could speak a bit about the relationship, and movement, between these two projects?
Amanda Weidman: Thank you for giving me an opportunity to reflect on this. I would say, in a general way, that in this second book I’ve gotten to do the project I paid lip service to (no pun intended!) in the first book: to explore voice as simultaneously an object of musical/sonic attention and of ideological investment, and to really grapple with the way these two scales—the bodily/sonic/material and the ideological/discursive—interplay with and inform each other. In my first book, the concern with voice remained mostly at the ideological, political level. I used the concepts ideologies of voice and politics of voice to get at the ways that voice, cultivated, framed, and staged in a particular way, became—to the exclusion and marginalization of other things—a potent signifier of Karnatic music’s classical status. The burden in that book was to try to understand how a high cultural status had been claimed and consolidated. Identifying voice as an object of ideology and politics was a way to challenge what has been reified and naturalized as South Indian classical music.
In Brought to Life by the Voice, I decided that the twin focus on voice as object of aesthetic and ideological investment was better captured by the idea of regimes of aurality and the voice, which I think gets at the way that ideologies and politics are actually produced and sustained—voice as a site where macro-level constructs are scaled down to a bodily/sensory level. I think about regimes of aurality and voice in several ways: through modes of discipline in vocal production—how singers learn to produce the supposedly right kind of sound in any context; through recurring contexts of listening and consumption, including performance contexts, as well as technological media through which voices are disseminated (and in the case of playback, the visual images/bodies with which voices are paired or associated onscreen); and through the articulated, verbalized categories that arise to describe and attribute meaning to particular voices and voice qualities. Inherent in the idea of regimes of aurality and voice is the process of regimentation, the shaping of vocal practices and vocal sound to particular culturally and historically specific ideals.
There are some obvious continuities between the two books. The city of Chennai is the center (the authorizing center of semiosis, you might say) for both Karnatic classical music and the Tamil film industry. But in moving from one to the other I shifted from looking at something that, framed as a high-cultural object, has all sorts of authorized knowledge emanating from established institutions, pedagogies, and forms of transmission, to a popular-cultural realm where meaning-making is taking place at many different sites: on screen, in the recording studios, in the postproduction process, on stage, on the street, in music reality shows, in forms of historical and current media publicity, and so on. This presented a different kind of ethnographic challenge, especially because I was exploring the cultural significance of voices that, though people have deep affective attachment to them, have been considered beyond description, anti-intellectualized both by singers themselves and by fans, and mostly ignored in scholarship on Indian cinema.
The movement between these two books also reflects the slow melding of different strains of my graduate training. In the 1990s, I was steeped in then-current thinking about the colonial production of knowledge, postcolonial theory, and the idea of modernity as a culture in itself—all reflected amply in my first book. But I was also trained in ethnomusicology and linguistic anthropology, which at that time were relatively distant from each other and focused on their respective objects: music and language. The point of connection between them was through the music-and-language strand of linguistic anthropology, which constituted the other part of my graduate training. I learned about Peircean semiotics, indexicality, iconicity, performativity, poetics and sound symbolism, and Bakhtin’s concept of voicing, but I didn’t know what to do with it all for a while. The blossoming of voice and sound as analytics and fields of study in the last two decades has really broken down these disciplinary boundaries and created many more points of connection—and has allowed us to hear so much more of what’s going on in music and language beyond what these frameworks have conditioned us to hear. Linguistic anthropology has broadened to become more attuned to questions of mediation, voice, and embodiment, and to the way linguistic and non-linguistic, and visual and aural, forms of semiosis interact. I think of my work as definitely benefitting from, and, I hope, also contributing to these developments.
Constantine V. Nakassis: One of the many interventions of this book is to rethink the metaphysical nexus that links voice, (the visual) body, and subjectivity as a natural, unified package—by pointing to a different “performative dispensation” (Mazzarella)—that of playback singing, where voice (of the singer), body (of the actress), words (of the lyricist), melody (of the music director) are all differently distributed. How has this particular case helped you think about the study of voice?
Amanda Weidman: The striking thing about playback in the Indian context is that it starts with completely different premises and ideals. Most Euro-Western theorizing about voice, as well as cultural production ranging from Hollywood cinema to popular music, starts from the assumed ideal unity of voice, body, and self—underpinning the ideology of the unified speaking subject (a construct which has come in for a lot of critique in critical theory and anthropology), as well as that of the expressive singing/musical subject (an equally powerful construct, but one that has not been interrogated nearly as much). Within this formation, the voice de-linked from a visual representation or embodiment of its source is the disorienting exception, associated with power and mastery, or with danger, excess, and deception.
Playback, as a technical practice and as a performative dispensation, starts from the opposite assumption: that the dissociation of body and voice, the division of labor between appearing and sounding, is the ideal, and that the embodiment of voice is the artifice, the strategic achievement that provokes anxieties and requires careful management and/or avoidance. One of the things that captivated me about this project is the way playback literalizes/concretizes so many of the concepts at play: production format/participant roles, performative dispensations, animation, and the distribution of the sensible. Goffman’s idea of production format and participant roles, or role fractions, as Irvine would specify, gets at the division of labor that playback sets up—not just between acting onscreen and singing offscreen, but also between singing and speaking, and between animating and authoring words and melodies. The concept of a performative dispensation, so usefully articulated by Mazzarella in terms of both permissions and prohibitions, gets at the way playback, as a cultural institution, controls (or attempts to control) who is visible, who is audible, and the meaning and effects that certain performances may have. Animation allows for a consideration of vocal acts as something other than identity or expression— toward other forms of agency and subjectivity that are enabled by different acts of voicing. And Ranciere’s concept of the distribution of the sensible allowed me to see how playback has constituted a regime of aurality/imageness by thinking about very concrete processes of distribution, ranging in scale from the mass/public level (determining what is seen/heard and what isn’t, and through which media; indexically regimenting voices and flooding the public sphere with particular ones) to the individual/embodied level (where a singer distributes her voice in her own body or how she occupies the space of the stage).
Constantine V. Nakassis:Animation, Voice (voicing), (Bring to) Life, World(ing) – these are some of the very big concepts that this book articulates in its account of playback singing and that have already come up in our discussion. And it articulates them through a set of more technical analytic concepts: ideology (a la Silverstein, Gal and Irvine), semiotic economy (a la Keane), and distribution of the sensible or regime of imageness/aurality (a la Rancière). I’m interested to hear about how the philosophical and aesthetic concept of Rancière’s and the semiotic concepts of linguistic anthropology fit together in this book?
Amanda Weidman:The title of my book comes from film sound theorist Michel Chion’s description of playback, which he tosses in offhandedly at the end of his book The Voice in Cinema: “In playback, the body confesses to being a puppet brought to life by the voice.” Chion meant this as a simple reversal of the usual relationship between body and voice, visuality and aurality, in which the body controls the voice which is seen to emanate from it. But the image of the puppet introduces all sorts of fascinating and productive ambiguities around visibility and voicing, agency and control, the animate and the inanimate. The playback singer is both the puppet—the singer of words and melodies authored by others—and the puppeteer—the backstage or offscreen voice who controls the movements and meanings of what’s onscreen. Much of playback singers’ work is about managing the fundamental duality of animation as a mechanical process of transmission/relay (the puppet role) and as a life-giving process (the puppeteer role). The attention to animation within anthropology has been so helpful in the way it has shifted the focus from the creation of an illusion of life in inanimate objects or forms, to looking at the social world and social relations and actors that various animating practices imagine and bring into being.
To me, the notion of a semiotic economy is a useful way of grounding Rancière’s concept of the distribution of the sensible. Rancière argues against both the autonomy of art and art’s submission to politics—his idea is that different “distributions of the sensible” are not automatically linked to particular political destinies. Instead, their affordances must be taken up in particular ways—there must be a process by which a distribution of the sensible becomes a basis for a politics. “A common world,” he writes, “is never simply an ethos, a shared abode, that results from the sedimentation of … intertwined acts. It is always a polemical distribution of modes of being and occupation in a space of possibilities.” Rancière is not just talking about the distribution of the sensible in terms of things experienced through the senses. The sensible is also referring to the ways that sensory things become sensible, that is, intelligible, capable of carrying meaning or making sense within particular regimes of imageness/aurality. To give one example—the idealized Tamil notion of kuralinimai—voice sweetness—attributed to the voices of certain female singers in the 1960s was not just about voice quality itself, but how certain moral attributes came to be associated with it. It also had to do with the ways a non-projected head voice was made bodiless by being detached from the body of both the onscreen actress and the body of the playback singer herself. The function of a semiotic economy is precisely this—to constitute sensory things as signs by placing them in some kind of meaningful relation to each other.
Constantine V. Nakassis: Can you say a little about how gender plays into how the sensible is distributed?
Amanda Weidman:The gendered asymmetries are quite striking. Playback began as way of managing the ways the female form would become available to be seen/heard in the public sphere through expressive and medial forms such as music, dance, and cinema, in a context where respectable femininity was defined by the careful management and often avoidance of public appearance. During its heyday, the mid 1950s through the mid 1970s, the affordances of playback’s division of labor were taken up in different gendered ways. For men, the separation of the roles of actor and singer and their symbiotic relationship was productive, generating a kind of surplus power and political potency. Star status could accrue to both the actor and the singer through the combination of one’s body and the other’s voice because they were understood to be working together, doing the same thing through two different modalities. For women, however, the separation of roles was used and interpreted differently. The assumed moral licitness of a woman singing was used to cancel out, or mitigate, the assumed immorality of a woman acting onscreen. Actress and singer were understood to be doing two fundamentally different things. Female playback singers who had risen to prominence in this period conveyed this gulf between actress and singer to me by describing themselves as “just the voice” or by stressing that their acting was “all in the throat” and they were not doing “mimicry.” I have been pondering for years how this role of being “just the voice” was constructed and inhabited, and what it meant. Rather than seeing it as a simple limiting or restriction in the service of female respectability, in the book I try to show how this role was in fact a coveted status that allowed singers to steer a path between behind the scenes anonymity and onscreen/onstage exposure.
Constantine V. Nakassis:Historically speaking, one of the stories of this book is the transition from the post-Independence period (1950s–1980s) to the post-liberalization period (1990s–2020s). How do these macro epochal moments map onto what you call the performative dispensations, or regimes, of visuality and aurality that have governed playback singing?
Amanda Weidman:In this book I’ve tried to show the historicity of playback as a cultural institution responding to and shaping the ethos of particular sociopolitical moments. Its changes and shifts reflect the different kinds of semiotic/representational economies voice has been inserted into. At its beginning in the 1940s, playback was referred to as iraval kural—borrowed or traded voice, reflecting the emphasis on the partibility of the voice and the economic/transactional understanding of the practice. As playback became set as a dispensation within India’s technocratic, developmentalist post-Independence decades and within the gender politics of the Tamil Dravidianist political context, playback singers shifted to being referred to as pinnani patakarkal—behind [the screen] singers—foregrounding the project of producing a desirable or ideal onscreen body-voice combination over the partibility of the voice as such—a change that went along with a rise in playback singers’ status. In the post-liberalization decades, neoliberal ideologies have introduced a new set of industries, desires and promises centering around the voice, and a new value placed on visibility—the laying bare of what was previously hidden, unspoken, illicit. For singers, this translates into a pressure to couple voice ever more tightly with the self, body, and intention of the singer. All those things so carefully separated and parceled out in playback’s dispensation are being recombined in different—and yet still differentially gendered—ways. Tamil cinema is caught now between contradictory trends of emulating Hollywood-style narrative film and getting rid of song sequences and other supposedly non-realistic elements, and a self-referential, semi-nostalgic, semi-parodic re-animation of older elements. This is why “afterlife” seems more apt than “death” to describe the state of playback now.
Constantine V. Nakassis: Speaking of after(-brought-to-)life (by the voice), what’s next for your research?
Amanda Weidman: One of the most interesting people I met while doing this project was the singer L. R. Eswari, who managed to flout the gendered normativities of playback, combining a professional life as the go-to playback singer for vamp roles in the 1960s with a successful career as a singer of commercial devotional music on the South Indian Hindu goddess Amman—the alternately benevolent and fierce mother goddess associated with subaltern religious practice. I’m thinking about a new project that would investigate the role of aural representations of and appeals to Amman in this commercial devotional music in relation to the politics of caste, class and gender in South India.
Constantine V. Nakassis: I can’t wait to see where this new project goes! And thank you so much for doing this fascinating interview about this amazing book!
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: An explicit orienting question for the book is “Why teach an entire nation English?” (4) Personally or sociologically, this “why” question had seldom dawned on me, a lucky survivor of the West-bound, future-facing, and English-mediated journey many of your informants aspired to. Nonetheless, or therefore, this question struck me as a giant elephant in the room. How did it become a question for you? What are some of the answers you explore in the book?
Eric Henry: Honestly it was not a topic I went looking for. Before I started a doctorate in anthropology I was an English teacher in China, thinking I could study Mandarin and pay off some debts at the same time. One of the things that struck me was that, with adult students, very few of them were in a situation or a job where they would actually need to use the language on a regular basis. There was a certain absurdity to it: here I was, with no formal training, teaching English to railway engineers or bureaucrats. My only qualification was that I had grown up speaking the language and the students had not. This kind of realization drove many of the foreign teachers I worked with to a kind of cynicism, but for me it prompted questions I could explore ethnographically. I realized that we naturalize this desire for English on a global scale – but most of the students did not care for the language itself, only for its capacity to shape their own futures. When I really started to listen to those students, and by this time I was back doing fieldwork, I learned that the desire to speak English is always entangled with dreams of the future: with going abroad, accumulating wealth, or just being seen as someone in control of their lives rather than being left behind by China’s burgeoning social transformations. Most of the people I talked to identified the last twenty years as the most important in all of China’s long history, a time that is radically reconfiguring relations between self and society on the one hand, and China and the world on the other. Saying “I speak English,” is therefore a powerful claim to identity under new regimes of neoliberal capitalism and globalization.
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: This ethnography of contemporary speech practices and English language learning in Northeast China, on a more ambitious scale, is also an intervention in the study of modernity. What is your approach to modernity in this book? What are some of the analytic concepts central to this approach? Why is it preferable over other approaches?
Eric Henry: I am a linguistic anthropologist, so naturally I look to language and discourse as primary constituents of social phenomena. It has always struck me that modernity is often defined in terms of specific economic, political or social metrics: rational markets, democracy, the retreat of the state and so on. In contrast, the people I worked with in Shenyang understood modernity through narratives about the changes going on around them; and the languages people used to talk about those changes seemed to have the power to launch this new state of being. I had the chance to dig into some missionary archives related to language teaching in China in the 1920s, and I was able to read some of the essays Chinese students wrote for their English teachers. They were incredible – one, by a young nursing student, imagined the development of a “moral hospital” in China, where intractable young people would be sent for moral instruction. In her story, the moral hospital struggles for legitimacy until the President of China commits his own son to their care. At that point the eyes of the world turn to the hospital and recognize the value of China’s civilization, extending to the nation an opportunity for global leadership. I realized that this young student understood her own language study in much the same terms as Chinese people today, as a way of transforming Chinese society and achieving international recognition; in other words, as a way of becoming modern. This is what I call discursive modernity – it is the ways in which modernity is constituted out of talk about the material or social changes that surround people as they navigate through new landscapes, new technologies and new forms of social position or status. I think this approach frees us from trying to measure abstract qualities such as “development” or “modernization” and focus instead on how people both experience the forces of change and locate themselves as social actors in relation to them.
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: Chapter 2 analyzes the distinct cultural geography of post-socialist China based on the paradigmatic form of the wall and what you term the moral economy of “recursive enclosure”. The cover photo of the book, showing a residential apartment complex I suppose, seems to be taken from this chapter. What is the structural place of this cultural geographical analysis in a book explicitly about speech practices? What is the limit to the claim about “distinctness”? To what extent is the moral economy of “recursive enclosure” more universal?
Eric Henry: Landscapes are always suffused with symbolic values – it is part of what I would consider a universal human process of place-making. We can see evidence of this anytime we talk about urban or rural, or when we label a place as being in a “pristine” state of nature. At the same time, I think there is something unique about China and the contemporary remnants of an imperial technology of boundary-making and enclosure. Traditional architecture in China, from temples to palaces to the peasant homestead, emphasized enclosure. Structures abutted the margins of the property and were inward-focused, with a series of increasingly private and intimate spaces marked off by walls, panels, curtains, and other boundaries. Cities and, at a larger scale, the empire itself were also enclosed by walls marking off center and periphery. These spatial configurations were designed to, as I argue, signify a kind of timeless continuity for the empire and the enduring relationship between the human and cosmological worlds. People – whether they be priests, peasants or emperors – doing similar types of rituals, in similar types of spaces, and using a common language asserted the unity and universality of the imperial state. As I argue in the book, however, in today’s China the spaces and space-making practices remain, but the types or rituals, behavior and language in each are now different. Residences, schools, factories, and offices are still surrounded by walls, with imposing gates dividing interior from exterior. But the imperial universality has been shattered into a landscape that is not only divided in terms of wealth, but also in terms of time. Some people feel like they are ahead, and others like they are being left behind.
One day in Shenyang I hopped on a minibus headed out on a rural route, just to see where it would take me. When I came back, some of my Chinese friends were amazed – how on earth could you find your way when all the people out there speak in dialect? You have to understand, a lot of people in the city speak the dialect too, but there is this feeling in urban China of a separation and distinctness from rural areas, almost as if the people living there are a different kind of citizen. The countryside is luohou, which means stagnant or backwards, and they are thought to speak the regional dialect almost exclusively. So these boundaries of enclosure symbolically mark off spaces that are oriented in multiply contingent ways to the future or to the past, and the linguistic and conversational choices people make are used to identify what kinds of spaces they are in. In rural villages you hear the dialect, in modern fantasy spaces like five-star hotels and luxury shopping malls you hear English. Space, time and language are bound together.
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: Chapter 6 asserts the significance of race, represented by the type of a white, English-speaking foreigner, in speech practices and imaginaries of modernity in contemporary China. How did you, often cast in that type by your informants, navigate doing fieldwork?
Eric Henry: Even though most people claimed that Chinese society has no racial divisions, race is an inescapable part of everyday life in China. It is implicit in the ways people endlessly discuss whose skin is dark and whose is light; darkness is associated with the countryside and agricultural labor, lightness with the city and professional employment. Ethnic minorities in China are treated as cultural relics, people who dress in distinctive costumes and manifest quaint traditions. And foreigners, in particular, are recruited into these discourses of modernization because certain racialized others (and here I fit the stereotype of the white, blue-eyed personification of modernity perfectly) represent progress and development. This did grant me a clear privilege in being able to conduct research on language schools. I could saunter in the door, walk right into the headmaster’s office and be welcomed with open arms. The Chinese scholars and linguists I know had to beg, bargain and negotiate just to get access. At the same time, however, and this is something I try to elaborate in the last chapter of my book, I had a role to play. If I’m white, I’m there to teach English, or I’m there to do business, and so many of my interviews and interactions were derailed into discussions of business opportunities or study abroad opportunities. “Let’s cooperate together and open an English school – we can get rich!” I could never be unobtrusive; if I visited a new English class, I always became the center of attention and would be dragged up to lead a pronunciation lesson or answer student questions. At the time, I thought of this fact as a hindrance to my research, but I came to realize that this is a critical element of the discourse of modernity. If crafting modern subjectivities in China is, as I’ve argued, dependent upon acquiring a new repertoire of globalized speech practices, they have to be acquired from somewhere and from someone. In effect, I was being recruited into a kind of fantasy space in which I reflected back to my interlocutors the same desire they had for the signifiers of modernity, such as wealth and mobility, in which case they could consider us co-eval or equivalent social actors. To become modern is therefore to appropriate the signifiers (racialized, linguistic, performative) of those people who already appear to be modern, and that depends upon the source of those signifiers, the foreigner, acting in the way a foreigner is expected to act. By conforming to that role I was sanctioning the activities taking place – whether it was learning a global language, or opening an academic conference or hosting a wedding – as legitimate instantiations of modernizing practice.
Maybe that is a good note to end on. In your first question you identify yourself as a “survivor of the West-bound, future-facing, and English-mediated journey” and I think that is an apt way to put it. The educational pathways we have created for students and scholars follow very constrained routes, and require a very restricted set of linguistic skills and credentials, naturally favoring certain privileged groups over others. All of this is driving a massive global language teaching industry valued at around $10 billion a year. The racialized privilege I experienced was due to an equivalence between my appearance, my language, and the presumed superiority of Western countries. We have to develop a critical reflexivity towards these naturalized assumptions and never allow them to pass unchallenged. To dismantle such regimes of inequality requires an understanding of how the desires for certain types of linguistic, social, and symbolic capital are produced and sustained on a global scale.