Kevin Laddapong: You have been researching indigenous and postcolonial politics throughout your career, and it is very interesting that your new book shifts towards the positionality of vernacular politics in the digital ecosystem. How did the internet come to engage with your attention? What inspired you to embark on this project? And were there any trajectory changes during the research and writing process?
Ronald Niezen: My first major research project after the PhD was on the international movement of Indigenous Peoples in the 1990s for The Origins of Indigenism (2003). That’s when I encountered the paradox that the people and organizations defending the rights of those with lives based on the simplest technologies were sophisticated users of the most advanced. It became clear to me that the global indigenous movement as we know it would never have existed without the connectivity and communities of the internet. This wasn’t just an outcome of the activist will to use new tools to organize and campaign, and so on; it also came from the organizational demands of the UN. Participants in annual NGO meetings, for example, had to register online, a requirement in stark contradiction with the ideals of participation.
This basic contradiction must’ve been in the back of my mind when I broadened out and began to think about online activism more broadly. It was impossible for me to think about a cutting-edge tool without at the same time considering the gaps it left, the people left behind, the impact it had on power relations, and so on.
The main trajectory change in #HumanRights came by adding state-sanctioned surveillance, disinformation, and censorship to the mix. Some aspects of online activism do look the same as they did during web 1.0 in the 1990s; but a revolution pretty clearly happened somewhere in the five years from 2005 to 2010, which is when we saw the emergence of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and the simultaneous invention of smartphones that found their way into the hands of billions of users. Not to mention new machine learning tools and AI being applied to global governance. To understand this (still unfolding) revolution required a pretty sharp change in trajectory toward the digital arms race between activists and oppressive regimes. I think we all feel the whiplash to some extent.
#HumanRights takes us on a survey on the connections between digital technologies and the politics of human rights around the world, crowdsourcing and justice investigation on Bellingcat.com; Whatsapp and resistances in Taureg communities; and digital archives and contesting politics of memories in postcolonial Namibia. How did you choose your case studies to reveal these connections?
Working with the Tuareg communities was the most straightforward. I’d maintained some contact with the peoples of the Central Sahara since my PhD research in northern Mali—they were present at the UN and I participated in a few of the annual meetings of the Tuareg Diaspora in Europe. It was there that I saw their really active, creative use of media and communication technologies. But I couldn’t go back to northern Mali. It was simply too dangerous, and still is, nearly a decade after the 2012-13 insurgency by Ansar Al-Dine and Al-Qaida (now joined by ISIS). My work in Namibia was a way to return to the field, to see how justice claims in Africa played out in the communities from which they originated. I had the luxury of research funds that allowed me to explore southern Africa inductively, go to the field and see what was happening. Once I encountered the Herero and Nama justice causes, I then did the same thing in Germany, see how the genocide claims were being leveraged there.
Bellingcat drew my interest a little differently. There was something about this organization that was edgy. Cool. Using new digital investigation methods to take on perpetrator states that were otherwise able to shelter behind the structures of the UN Security Council—that struck me as a compelling development in digital activism worthy of exploring. If I were ever to offer a panoramic view of the uses of digital technologies in activism, I’d be remiss to leave that out.
Kevin Laddapong: Throughout your book, you jump back and forth between old and new, analog and digital practices of justice claims, graffiti to digital writing, investigative journalism to forensic crowdsourcing, museum curation to Facebook page administration. Why are these linkages between traditional and digital important to your analysis?
Ronald Niezen: If we don’t consider the way older technologies are updated and combined with the new—what Marshall McLuhan called the ‘rearview mirror effect’—we get a distorted idea of the way technologies are actually being used and what their consequences are. We get drawn into the ‘shiny new thing’ way of thinking. There’s a tendency to look at the world like crows or magpies, drawn to little trinkets and baubles one can fly away with. But that isn’t how things work with human actors. People use any means at their disposal to share and leverage opinion. So, in the most extreme example, we see the ancient technology of graffiti used in conjunction with the internet, reaching both passers-by in real life and social media users online. Other aspects of activism and outreach, it seems to me, have this same quality of old and new, even in the midst of a full-blown digital revolution.
Kevin Laddapong: Concerns around fact and truth seem to be the main theme of this book. For example, you analyze how the distinction between the media use between the Malian government, global human rights claimants, and Taureg people themselves ends up creating different sets of facts and methods of truth-seeking; or you discuss how the ideological contest between the memories of Herero and Nama genocide between colonizer and colonized result in echo chambers and disputes. What would you like readers to pay attention to when they encounter similar phenomena in this post-truth era?
Ronald Niezen: Ah, yes. The question of truth. I had a feeling that was coming. One way or another, we’re all in a situation in which we don’t—can’t possibly—have the specialized expertise to know whether something is true or false or somewhere confusingly in between. The political anthropologist in me looks for motive: what do people stand to gain when they make a particular truth claim? I do this cynically, knowing that humans everywhere seek power. Maybe not every individual but humans as a rule. If you can get a handle on the hegemonic motives behind truth claims, you’ll get closer to what those claims actually mean, and what we stand to gain or lose by investing in them.
Kevin Laddapong: At the very end of the book, you discuss the ways that the politics of identities are intimately tied to digital human rights claims, resulting in public sympathy and victimization or naturalization of nationalism. Why is that so, and what are the great challenges regarding this moving forward?
Ronald Niezen: The dynamics of activism, public outreach, and identity follow from the near-total absence of compliance mechanisms in human rights law. Yes, there are sanctions wealthy states can impose on those who egregiously violate human rights and international law. The IMF can leverage its financial clout. In extreme cases, as in Sudan, the International Criminal Court can issue indictments. But on the whole, activist groups and organizations have very little recourse when it comes to human rights violations. The UN will receive information, complaints, and so on; it will review a state’s record of compliance; but when it comes down to it, much depends on public will, the influence on the powerful of the popular politics of shame. This means that activists are in competition with one another for public attention and sympathy. As soon as one enters into that situation, a hierarchy of victimization comes into play. Narrative plays a central part in justice claims and causes. There’s a tendency to oversimplify perpetrators and victims alike. At the same time, there’s a retreat into the group, the source of affirmation and justice. All of this is accentuated by digital technologies, especially social media platforms, that call for constant streams of collective representation.
The great challenge moving forward is liberating oneself and one’s justice cause from this trap. That involves recognizing the complexities and grey areas of perpetration. It involves being clear-eyed about public constructions of ‘ideal victims’ and who gets left out by them. And it means reaching outside the comforts and consolations of the bubbles in which we willingly enclose ourselves, partly as a buffer against the discomforts of a very quickly changing world.
Matthew Raj Webb: Not so long ago, fashion showed up in anthropologists’ writing largely as a pejorative. Today, fashion practices, media, and industries are at the center of many important and far-reaching theoretical debates. There are even dedicated graduate programs in so called “Fashion Anthropology.” What drew you to the topic, and what does your study of street style blogging reveal about fashion as a variegated social field?
Brent Luvaas: I’ve always been interested in fashion, how people present themselves to the world around them, and the stories people tell about themselves through the clothes they wear. As the kid dressed all in black in the corner of my high school cafeteria, fashion and its relationship with identity seemed like an obvious thing to study. Even my early ethnographic work on indie music in Indonesia was as much about what bands wear as the music they play. It was only when I became interested in bloggers, however, that I made the choice to make fashion an explicit focus of my anthropological practice. I learned a lot about fashion as a variegated social field from the project, both in terms of the ways people mix and match clothes in their everyday sartorial practice and, more importantly, in terms of how fashion, as an industry, has re-structured itself in alignment with digital technologies. Blogging wasn’t just an exception to the fashion industry as usual, a way outsiders and amateurs could get in on the game. It transformed the inherent logic of the industry. Now everyone in the fashion industry has to present, market, and brand themselves the way the bloggers did. Blogging may be out of fashion now, but the impact of blogging on the industry can’t be overstated.
Matthew Raj Webb: One of the main threads in your book concerns the tensions between global democratization of access—such as via the internet and digital cameras—and the remediation of professional/amateur distinctions, both in the field of fashion photography and within anthropology. Could you elaborate on your point of view here? From your perspective, how have new media of fashion—and anthropology—transformed or reinforced historical hierarchies of value?
Brent Luvaas: I think we have to distinguish between the methods through which hierarchies are established and performed and the hierarchies themselves. Fashion has always been about exclusivity. It’s built into its very concept. The industry depends on it, creating a model whereby the fashion elite continuously work to distinguish themselves from everyone else. When a trend reaches peak saturation, fashion moves on. Digital technologies like blogging and social media have not eliminated that elite. They have simply transformed the methods and tools people use to become that elite. There was an elite class of bloggers when I was doing my research. They have now rebranded themselves as social media influencers. Social media has become a critical part of becoming part of the fashion elite today. It is an industry requirement. We could argue that it has, to a certain limited extent, widened the scope of who can become that elite. There are today more people of color in the fashion industry than there used to be, having built a large enough following through social media to demand that the industry pay attention to them. There is also more body diversity. But the industry remains primarily skinny and white. It remains insular and exclusive. It is still a social field—like anthropology itself, I might add—where social, cultural, and economic capital are critical to achieving success.
Matthew Raj Webb: I was captivated by Chapter 5, where you discuss bloggers’ collaborations and partnerships with fashion businesses—brand associations that you actively pursued for your own (highly successful) style blog, Urban Fieldnotes. From the point of view of street style bloggers in the mid-2010s, what did the opportunities and constraints of cultural production within the commercialized field of fashion look like? How do you think these might have changed today?
Brent Luvaas: I’ve touched a bit on this in the previous questions, but perhaps a bit of blog history is important here. There was a moment, in about 2005-2007, when blogs, run through free platforms like WordPress and Blogger, were not a commercial enterprise—at least not for the bloggers. Street style bloggers got into the game because of an abiding interest or passion. They weren’t making money from them and most people I interviewed who had blogs at that time claim it hadn’t even occurred to them that they could make money from them. But after bloggers like Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist and Tommy Ton of Jak & Jil started shooting for magazines like GQ and Vogue and getting brand partnerships with American Apparel, Burberry, and others, a new generation of bloggers emerged with the explicit intent of using their blogs to enter into the industry. They were the predecessors of today’s fashion influencers. The game began to shift, and more and more bloggers began showing up outside the shows at Fashion Week hoping to either be noticed by the photographers or capture those up-and-comers who would help them build a name for themselves as photographers. Blogging, and later social media, became a key part of how people build careers in the fashion industry. The outsiders re-wrote the rules of the fashion industry. But then, fashion has long been an industry of outsiders. This might be more of a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Matthew Raj Webb: Street Style cuts across locations like Philadelphia, New York, Boston, as well as Jakarta, Cape Town, and Athens, drawing on aspects of your auto-ethnography and para-ethnographic research. As a community of practice and cultural phenomenon the world of street style blogging is thus globally diffuse and diverse, but you nonetheless note that participants tend to share a middle-class position. How do these factors lead you to understand the value of the street as a representational idiom and context?
Brent Luvaas: As you stated in the question, street style bloggers tend to be middle class. If you want to get your work recognized, you need to be able to produce the aesthetics currently valued by the industry. To produce those aesthetics, you need expensive camera equipment. It was not unusual for bloggers I encountered to have spent upwards of $10,000 on their cameras and lenses alone. Plus, not everyone’s perspective on style gets the same amount of attention on social media. An ability to recognize and anticipate what the industry values in fashion is required, and that ability is not universally distributed. It remains the exclusive domain of a particular kind of urban, cosmopolitan, middle-class person. Despite a rhetoric of democratization, there was never an equal playing field in the street style game. Nonetheless, there is a diversity of perspective, particularly across regional and national boundaries. Street style bloggers actively sought to elucidate that diversity through their work. They highlighted their own city or nation’s distinct flavor and style. They sought to put their own city on the global fashion map, and in doing so, they practiced a form of amateur visual anthropology. Street style, then, is a global phenomenon with distinctly local characteristics. And it depends on a shared conception of the street —itself derived from western European models of urban design—as a public, highly visible space where people perform identities for others to see. Street style blogging has helped perpetuate and extend the reach of that concept. It has real, practical implications for how public spaces are conceptualized, accessed, and designed.
Matthew Raj Webb: Street Style was published in 2016, you have subsequently written about how deeply the project affected you (Luvaas 2019), stating that you remain in some ways haunted by the habitus you acquired. Could you please talk a little about what it has meant for you to leave the field given the ubiquity of fashion media and intimacy of dress politics in everyday life? Moreover, I’m curious to know your thoughts on what it feels like to age as a researcher—and human!—deeply immersed within the world of fashion?
Brent Luvaas: For those of us who do work in the digital realm in some capacity (and perhaps that is most of us these days), there is no “leaving the field.” Not really. Today, we remain linked, via Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and other platforms to the communities we study. We are (rightfully) held more accountable for what we have to say about our interlocutors. We have trouble gaining distance. That is doubly true for those of us who employ auto-ethnography as a key part of our practice. For us, we have made ourselves an explicit subject of our own work. I studied street style blogging by becoming a street style blogger. I picked up a camera, walked the streets, and learned to intuit cool the way a street style blogger does. I hung out with fashion people, got free-lance employment by the fashion industry, and became increasingly self-conscious about what I wore and when. All that messes with your head. All anthropologists are changed by the field in some way, but how do we live with these changes when we’re never really able to leave the field? I’m still wrestling with that question myself. What has become clear to me is that I need to consider before I start a new project who I will become by doing it. That is especially true as a middle-aged cis-gendered, heteronormative white guy. Some research options are off the table for me. I can no longer build a project around hanging out with twenty-something Indonesian hipsters until four in the morning every night. That would be creepy. People are not super likely to want to talk to me. I would also likely have a harder time building a following as a social media influencer than I did nine years back. Fashion has carved out greater space for people over 40 in recent years. But that space is limited, and my ability to access it even more limited. Rather than combat the youth cult of fashion and the psychological damage it could inflict on me, I’ve turned my attention to other practices of visuality, less tied to age. Lately, that has been street photography. I’ve learned a lot from street style blogging, but the biggest things I’ve gained are an appreciation for the camera as a tool of perception and an appreciation of the street as a space where culture is improvised and performed. I am taking that appreciation into my new work, moving away from the fashion industry, but still walking the same streets.
Luvaas, B. 2019. “Unbecoming: The Aftereffects of Autoethnography.” Ethnography, 20(2): 245–262.
Setrag Manoukian: It is reductive to assign a narrow thematic focus to an expansive ethnography such as your wonderful Methods of Desire, but could one synthesize your book by suggesting that it addresses the relationship between language and political economy through an account of social interaction in Toraja?
Aurora Donzelli: This book has been long in the making and its implication with political economy is in part a function of the temporality embedded therein. Twenty years ago I was in Indonesia for a shorter period of fieldwork preluding to the yearlong sojourn I undertook sometimes later. It was late July. I was walking through the streets of Rantepao (the major town in the Toraja highlands where I would go to stock up on blank tapes and other industrial supplies) when I bumped into an acquaintance of mine. He looked quite agitated and eager to brief me about the events that were unfolding in Genoa (he knew I was Italian). The G8 summit was taking place at the Ducal Palace and the city had become the theatre of demonstrations against speculative capitalism and neoliberal globalization. A multifarious array of political subjects had gathered in Genoa to participate in what promised to be the peak of the anti-capitalist movement begun in Seattle in 1999: environmentalists, pacifists, independent media activists, antifascist militants from Italian squats and social centers (abandoned buildings turned into cultural and political hubs), grassroots Catholic organizations, social activists, Zapatistas, trade unionists, members of socialist and communist parties from all over Europe, NGO workers, British pressure groups for debt relief, German anarchists, the Trotskyist international network, via Campesina food activists, libertarians, knowledge workers self-identifying as cognitarians, direct-action groups dressed in white overalls to symbolize the new post-Fordist productive subject… My Toraja acquaintance insisted I joined him to watch the news at his neighbor’s where a parabolic antenna was broadcasting dramatic scenes of repressive violence. The counter-summit mobilization had been fiercely disbanded by unprecedented police brutality, a demonstrator was shot dead, radical groups mixed with undercover agents and neo-Nazi infiltrators vandalized banks and set cars and store fronts on fire, undisturbed, while thousands of pacifist demonstrators raising their white-painted hands were ferociously beaten up by police officers decked out in full anti-riot gear. Following a night blitz at the Diaz public school—which had been made available by the municipal authorities as dormitory for demonstrators—300 police officers brutalized and illegally detained the unarmed occupants, including several Italian and foreign journalists. The European Court of Human Rights later established that the police conduct violated human rights and was to be formally regarded as torture. Less than two months later, the attack on the WTC and Pentagon would make these events look negligible, but clearly those days were decisive in furthering global capitalism and propelling the consolidation of neoliberal rationalities.
Methods of Desire is primarily a reflection on these transformations, which crisscross political economy, ways of speaking, and structures of feeling. Unlike the display of sheer repressive force that tinted the G8 events twenty years ago, what I describe in the book are more elusive and subtle forms of violence. Political economy is an inevitable dimension of any project that spans over several years and my ethnography’s main goal is to show how fine-grained linguistic analysis is essential for furthering our understanding of capitalism, because thinking about political economy always entails taking language into account (and vice-versa). In a narrower sense, the book explores the cultural and linguistic impact of contemporary neoliberal reforms on longstanding moral-political economy of agrarian clientelist relations in a relatively remote region of the Indonesian uplands. In a broader sense, the book analyzes how late capitalism operates by transforming our relationship to the world and to each other. I argue that specific communicative practices play a key role in this process. Think about the new metrics of desire produced through customer satisfaction surveys and the regimes of scalability created through audit protocols and quality certification standards that can be applied across different contexts to ever-greater scales. These communicative practices and textual artefacts are both the primary technology for the production of a reflexive desiring subject to be subsumed by the machine of capitalist valorization and infrastructures of resource management aimed at increasing productivity. Unlike the processes of linguistic standardization that produced national languages and enabled industrial capitalism, I argue that contemporary financial capitalism operates through a different form of discursive regimentation. The former was driven by the linguistic standardization of specific national codes, while the latter entails the production of universal templates for the pragmaticregulation of how language is to be used. The aim is no longer to streamline or enhance the production of material commodities, but the engendering of a global metalanguage for the re-articulation of desire in ways compatible with capitalism’s ever-changing needs. Industrial capitalism required technologies of linguistic standardization based on the centripetal regulation of the linguistic code (and of the production process)—a twofold endeavor clearly intertwined with nation-building processes and nation-based economies. Conversely, neoliberalism relies on the pragmatic standardization of how the code should beused: this entails the production and dissemination of highly standardized and replicable discursive protocols, meant to travel across a wide range of geographic contexts and pragmatics domains in order to optimize production and regiment people’s conduct and modes of intersubjective engagement. In this light, what makes neoliberalism so powerful and at the same time so elusive is its portability and scalability, as Aihwa Ong and Anna Tsing suggest.
Setrag Manoukian: The book describes an epochal shift taking place in Indonesia—a complete reconfiguration of the architecture of the self in conjunction with the emergence of neoliberal policies. What’s striking in this process is the rapidity with which a “method” is abandoned and a new one picked up. But the book also seems to suggest that something “endures” in this shift. Taking the long-term view how do you see Toraja’s sociality?
Aurora Donzelli: What I find most striking and intriguing about the specific locale (the Toraja highlands of Sulawesi) where I conducted my fieldwork since the late 1990s is that there haven’t been many changes in the local infrastructures or in the material lives of my interlocutors. During my most recent periods of fieldwork, I would often catch myself daydreaming that I was standing in front of a giant aquarium from where I could see myself in my early 20s in a time warp of sorts—a younger me on the other side of the glass inhabiting the exact same physical spaces, but in a parallel affective universe. In spite of the largely unchanged material environment, I have noticed significant shifts in the linguistic structures, moral practices, and affective quality of life in the highlands. In many ways, Methods of Desire seeks to understand and give analytical shape to the profound (and yet elusive) transformations occurred in how my interlocutors of twenty plus years interact and imagine their future. The focus of my ethnographic account is the growing influence of transnational lending agencies and international non-governmental organizations in a region that has otherwise remained peripheral to capitalist production and distribution. Since the millennium, the IMF-driven implementation of governance reform in Indonesia has prompted the circulation of new ways of speaking and textual artefacts (for example, electoral and institutional mission statements, debriefing meetings, training workshops, checklists, flowcharts, and so on) that, I argue, are transforming how people desire and voice their expectations, intentions, and entitlements. The local appeal of these new discursive genres is undeniable: not only they are associated with prestigious metropolitan centers, but they also pivot on values that—as Marilyn Strathern pointed out in her seminal edited volume on audit cultures—are almost impossible to criticize in principle: a novel emphasis on self-cultivation and proactive entrepreneurialism, an emancipatory narrative of personal aspirations and individual desires, a new morality of accountability, transparency, and responsibility, and so on. Their dissemination in the highlands has been spearheaded by their promise to replace local structures of exploitative agrarian power with a narrative of individual freedom, a political regime of entrenched corruption with justice and transparency, an economy prone to food scarcity and subsistence crises with material prosperity and emotional fulfillment. I don’t find the success of these new scripts and protocols all that surprising and consider way more extraordinary the enthusiasm displayed by many academics (trained in epistemological reflexivity and critical thinking) for the bureaucratic auditing and competitive star-ratings procedures that are transforming universities into corporate enterprises.
I recently moved back to Italy—a country where the so-called “quality revolution” was late in taking root. The University where I now work—allegedly one of the oldest higher learning institutions in the world—seems pervaded by a frenzy of benchmarking practices and managerial methods aimed at measuring research and teaching outputs and enhancing performance. I find quite disconcerting how centuries-old ideologies and classical ideals of the University as a community of scholars devoted to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge are being replaced by competitive business models—in spite of the excellent scholarship published on the matter some two decades ago by Don Brenneis, Chris Shore, Marilyn Strathern, Susan Wright (among the others). In many ways, my Toraja interlocutors are far less compliant than many academics that fell for the protocols of accountability and quality assurance whereby complex social activities are measured, monitored, and competitively ranked.
If, as Aihwa Ong proposes, the complex assemblages of practices that compose neoliberalism migrate across the globe and across different sectors (from private to public, from management to politics, from the financial to the intimate), I am interested in describing what happens when these portable bundles of practices and values land in a new geographic or pragmatic environment. How tightly are they packaged? How faithfully are they replicated? Linguistic anthropological tools help understand how such bundles are assembled and how they operate; how desire is reconstructed in the wake of their implementation and, at the same time, how their implementation can be sabotaged through (often subtle and inconspicuous) micro-linguistic gestures. Methods of Desire explores how discursive genres originating from neoliberal global capitalism are both embraced and resisted in Toraja. My analysis reveals a complex dialectics of compliance and defiance. Each chapter of the book focuses on a specific pragmatic domain (from political speechmaking to household interaction, from mortuary rituals to workplace and learning environments) and discusses the ambivalent uptake of novel protocols such as electoral mission statements, fundraising auctions, service encounter scripts, customer satisfaction surveys, training workshops, flowcharts, and workflow diagrams. I highlight how Toraja highlanders articulate their skepticism at times through reflexive and explicit metapragmatic comments; other times in more subtle and indirect ways, such as through specific intonation and prosodic patterns or via unexpected variations in the participation framework associated with a specific genre.
Setrag Manoukian: Methods of desire. The title of your book sounds like an oxymoron. One associates method with planning, self-awareness, and intention, while desire relates to spontaneity, passion, the unconscious. But you convincingly show that in many ways methods structure desire. And yet, I am left wondering if this does not reproduce a certain binary misunderstanding of desire as a material that can be molded via linguistic forms. Doesn’t desire escape the methodologies that certain intentions prescribe to it?This is how I read Spinoza, in the sense that there is an immanence to the conatus that has its own economy of passions, not reducible to the stoic mandate to transform oneself.
Aurora Donzelli: You are making very good points. The title is indeed designed to oxymoronically evoke the classical opposition between Eros and Logos that the book, however, aims to problematize. Spinoza’s rejection of transcendent principles and his ontology of immanence are essential to my understanding of methods and desire. The relationship between the two could be thought in dialectical materialist terms as forming a totality of practice and theory; creativity and order; substance and form; potentiality and actuality. In elaborating (in the mid-1970s) his innovative form of semiotic materialism, Marxist scholar Ferruccio Rossi-Landi highlighted the dialectics existing between code and messages; models and tokens; communicative programs and their execution. He claimed that they exist togetherin reality and entertain a constant dialectical relationship, even though academic theory or common sense tend to consider them as separate, with the former treating the code in its structural abstraction and the latter approaching its products as natural and spontaneous facts. Spinoza’s immanentism and Rossi-Landi’s materialism resonate with Paul Hopper’s view of Emergent Grammar, which can be seen as an application of French post-structuralist thought to linguistic theory—a theoretical constellation that inspires my own work.
That of method is a powerful notion that has been relatively neglected by anthropologists. Its great beauty, I think, lies in its capacity to refer to a plane of immanence—something ethnomethodologists (with their idea that structures do not exist outside of social practices and with their interest in studying the methods that social actors use in interpreting their own everyday practices) have known all along. In like fashion, desire is an immanent process for the production of relations, as Deleuze pointed out. Rather than a flow to be disciplined through cultural norms and symbolic orders or a force that can be organized through language, I see desire as method, that is, as a mode of intersubjective relationality, a modality of human sociality, in which language functions as technology and infrastructure. The book describes how neoliberal discursive technologies are redesigning Toraja sociality: the entrenched forms of collective yearning (kamamaliran) that used to sustain social bonds of hierarchical reciprocity and mutual obligation are being replaced by new forms of (bourgeois) desire (aspirasi),imagined as originating in the interiority of the individual’s consciousness and congenial to the capitalist machine.
Setrag Manoukian: Finally, I would like to come back to the relationship between language and social life from a methodological point of view. Often to non-linguists the world of linguistic analysis appears as quite self-contained. How is your book engaging this situation?
Aurora Donzelli: I think that in-depth linguistic analysis is fundamental for the understanding of capitalism. The book is an invitation to linguistic anthropologists to establish a stronger dialogue with their sociocultural colleagues around the ethnographic exploration (and critique) of neoliberalism. It is only through an integrated approach that we can understand the role of language in the production of the complex forms of alienation and resistance that characterize our present moment. A close-textured analysis of linguistic interactions is also fundamental to capture the role of semiotic practices both in shaping political change and preserving the status quo. The great advantage of fine-grained linguistic analysis is that it may disclose processes that happen at levels that are not detectable at the semantic and lexical plane generally considered in cultural ethnographies. In the book, I explore the ambivalent uptake of new discursive genres as a way to shed light on how linguistic practices function both as capitalist technologies and infrastructures and as forms of resistance to the capitalist apparatus. Further, I try to show how attending to linguistic levels of analysis may provide a new way to reflect on traditional topics of anthropological theory (such as gifts and exchange theory, social change, subsistence farming and moral economy) and may contribute to refine the discussion of ethnographic tropes of Southeast Asia and Oceania (for example, debates over galactic polities and theatre states, notions of emotional restrain, opacity of mind doctrines, and so on).
During the last four decades, linguistic anthropology has become a highly specialized subfield. I often look back with nostalgia at the times before my time, when the disciplinary borders seemed more porous and less defined. My greatest hope for the future of linguistic anthropology rests on the possibility of developing fervid interconnections with scholars from other subfields in anthropology, as well as in the social sciences and humanities. Unfortunately, at times linguistic details and formalisms prevent or discourage such dialogues. In writing the book, I had to make difficult choices in how to present my transcriptions, sometimes reducing them or eliminating interlinear glosses and morpho-syntactic details. I hope that these choices helped produce a text accessible to a diverse readership and capable of evoking the spirit of irreverent curiosity of the multifarious multitude that gathered in Genoa twenty years ago.
Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: It shook me to learn that the archive has almost disappeared and that what we are able to see today comes from 3% of its totality. Taking this into consideration, what would you say regarding the annihilation and destruction of archives with a strong popular character, such as the one built by Disparando Cameras para la Paz (DCP)? More concretely, what are the political effects of losing these types of archives?
Alex Fattal: I remember being on a research trip to Tumaco years ago and I stopped in a local church office that had been working with to document the violence there. They gave me a report they had written, which they had titled, “So Nobody Can Say, ‘Nothing Ever Happened Here.’ It’s determination to defy the structural constraints that erase the history of violence that the community had experienced was both admirable and a poignant reminder that such erasure is the default in communities across Colombia. Disparando Cámaras para la Paz (DCP) had the advantage of being closely connected to people who could ferry pieces of the archive around and keep pieces of it alive. Our key community partner, Corporación Social Fe y Esperanza, was constantly under threat. We left large parts of the archive with them, within a conscientious politics of keeping the archive in the community, but when the leaders needed to flee within hours because of an assassination attempt or when buildings were damaged because of the seasonal mudslides, large parts of the archive were lost forever. It’s very hard to prioritize archiving for most people who lead busy lives focused on the present and future, let alone for those living in extreme precarity and social abandon.
What are the political effects of erasure? The reproduction of what Loïc Wacquant has called the Centaur state, in which elites embody the democratic human head of the Centaur that calmly debates policy, while the torso and hooves of a horse below tramples discontent among the popular classes. Julián Gómez Delgado has argued that the recent National Strike protests portend a crack in this political formation. We’ll see. It’s been very resilient through Colombian history.
Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: In the book, you argue that DCP subverted a stereotypical perspective built by Colombian media outlets about impoverished youth affected by the Colombian armed conflict. I agree with you that the project succeeded in doing so. In this vein, I would like to know which particular aspects of the methodologies used helped the project most in subverting these stereotypes and why you think these methods and techniques prompted different narratives that contested national media outlets.
Alex Fattal: Well, it’s complex and the book tries to linger on that complexity. DCP benefited greatly from media attention even as it was frustrating to see the same tropes of helpless victimhood recycled and reapplied to children and the displaced community. It was precisely those tropes that we set out to challenge. In short, I’m not sure we really affected dominant structures of mediation in any sustained way.
What I’ve learned in working with DCP and its sister organization, the AjA Project, and being immersed in the world of participatory photography is that it’s not enough to redistribute access to technology. To really subvert a discursive formation requires taking control of the story with more concerted attention to narrative and partnering with others who want to change a particular narrative structure. Though that’s far from what we managed to do with DCP, I do think we inspired others to work with participatory media methods. A few years after I started DCP, other participatory photography projects started cropping up in different parts of the country. A rise in interest in participatory media has contributed to independent and alternative media environment in Colombia, a contribution which has since been mixed into the digital tsunami. To build on a popular Colombian adage, we contributed a few grains of sand and they are now swirling in the current media storm.
Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: I am under the impression that all the material presented was captured and created with analog technologies. What would you say are the technical and aesthetic advantages and disadvantages of working with analog photography, taking into consideration that photography has become mostly digital nowadays?
Alex Fattal: Yes, DCP was almost entirely analog, which I think really played in its favor. The big problem with digital photography is that it appears limitless. I’m a big proponent of seeing limitations as creative opportunities and the students took the constraints of working with light sensitive paper, recycled jars, and rolls of film and transforming those supplies into inspiring images. Over the years, our different dark rooms in El Progreso were always sacred spaces where the students loved to work, loved to develop their images under the red safe lights. Jenny Fonseca who worked with DCP did a beautiful docu-animation film called FotoSensible: La Familia de Viviana about one of our students that showed how magic a space the darkroom was. When I first started DCP, I took the students to the darkroom at Universidad de los Andes and the university students each taught one of the young people from Altos de Cazucá how to develop — it was a beautiful if fleeting moment of radical cross-class collaboration.
When I went back to speak to former participants about their memories of the project, they all emphasized the pinhole photography and recalled how rumor had spread across the hills that there is a group of kids who were turning boxes, cans, and jars into cameras and how exciting that was. (Those conversations inspired me to turn a truck into a giant pinhole camera and make my most recent film, Limbo.) How do you create similar magic with digital photography? It’s hard. It’s something we’ve been thinking about a lot at the AjA Project and my sense is the answer lies in shifting the focus away from photography itself and more toward a project of which photography is but a part, thinking of it as a medium to be used creatively and strategically, combining digital and more tactile approaches.
Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: Colombia has a long-standing tradition of Participatory Action Research (PAR), which has permeated the arts; to name just a few, there is the work of Prof. Orlando Fals Borda and cinematographer Victor Gaviria. However, your text is not in dialogue with local theories, ideas, or works of artists, academics, and grassroots organizations that have used PAR in Colombia. Why? Furthermore, how do you think DCP fits or does not fit within local trajectories of PAR?
Alex Fattal: Your criticism is valid. I’m not aware of a history of PAR and photography in Colombia prior to 2001 and I was stuck on the medium specificity of photography. I wanted to keep the discussion focused on the emergent participatory photography literature in different parts of the world that now includes a large set of projects with books (though many of these are more celebratory in orientation).
Also, I’ve worked in Colombia long enough to know how large and dense the work on PAR is and didn’t think I could do it justice in a shorter text. Though I take up questions of self-representation in the literature on indigenous media in North American anthropology, I could have done more with the history of visual anthropology in Colombia, especially the work of Marta Rodriguez. Perhaps the text would have been stronger if I did that connective work, but I didn’t want to bog it down in too much academic jargon, thinking especially about readers from the community. I also figured I would leave the PAR research to people like Joanne Rappaport who has done such outstanding multi-media work on/with Orlando Fals Borda and his archive. My response is similar when thinking about Victor Gaviria and the discussions of realism in Latin American cinema, which has been a prominent thread in Latin American Film Studies; I didn’t feel equipped to deal with it succinctly and do it justice.
In the end, I was most interested in the organizational form of the national NGO — caught between the scale of international donors and practitioners, such as myself, and the local — as a mediator of the project through the years and analyzing the different iterations of the NGO and struggles within it to push back against the idea that participatory media projects are unmediated, more authentic, more real. Though they aren’t conditioned by an owner’s political agenda, and editor’s sense of what is important, or what is palatable to advertisers, as is the case with photojournalism, I’ve seen how the different backgrounds of the staff and demands of funding and reporting all influenced how the curriculum was developed, how the workshops were organized, and so on. So my engagement is with some of the literature on the anthropology of humanitarianism, but again, its done in a way so as not to be overbearing and off-putting to a broader audience.
PAR does come into the story of the national NGO. Many of the talleristas who taught the students over the years were coming from public universities and bringing their PAR training to bear. In the text I reference this tension in DCP through the years as one in which tense conversations emerged about how much local control the project should have. Those who were coming with a PAR background (as key facilitators coming from outside the community) and urging total local control were generally coming from a left perspective and wanting to make the project more about denuncias, human rights-oriented denunciations. When that perspective began to win out, the repression on the project would increase — not surprisingly. Given the narco-paramilitarization of the area, which hasn’t abated, and given the fact that the project worked with youth who were already struggling to avoid the gangs that often operated as proxies for armed groups, I tended to find myself arguing for a more hybrid model tailored to the contradictory demands of the context. If you read the text closely, I think that comes through. The book tries to stay with the gray areas of DCP’s experience through the years by plying the boundary of insider and outsider perspectives as a case study in the niche world of participatory photography studies, which is the book’s center line.
Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: Finally, have you been able to share this book with the DCP photographers, and if so, what have their reactions been? If not, are you planning on doing so, and if yes, how?
Alex Fattal: Some of the DCP photographers helped to identify information about the photos that was lost in the archiving process and I shared preliminary selections of the images with them. But as a published book, not yet. The book was printed in the US in December of 2020 and because of the pandemic and inter-institutional difficulties, it took as a few months to get distribution in Colombia figured out. The book will be printed and distributed in Colombia starting in September 2021 with Universidad del Rosario Press.
In addition to book events in Bogotá and perhaps other cities, I’d like to do an event with the Casa de la Cultura in Soacha, where DCP had its first exhibit. I remember fighting with the mayor’s office to get the money for the busses to bring the students in for the opening and the office insisting on singing the municipal anthem; this from a local government that didn’t recognize their responsibly to provide services to the students or their families. In 20 years, much has changed. Some students have moved down the hill to apartment complexes in Soacha, some are still living in the hills. Most of the youth now have kids of their own at this point. Once the pandemic clears, I would love to distribute copies of the book in person and talk with former DCP participants about the work with the distance of time.
In digital conversations I’ve had with some of them while preparing the book or around social media discussions that I’ve seen, they seem to look at the photos the way I look at my high school yearbook, with the nostalgia surrounding a time capsule, but with the added sense of how profoundly difficult life was back then. The early 2000s, as you know and as I briefly contextualize in the book, was a very difficult period. The project served over 1,000 students through the years, I hope I can share the book with as many of them as possible. The imminent distribution in Colombia is a start.
Beyond the community itself, I would note that it’s a bilingual book (shout out to Andy Klatt and María Clemencia Ramírez for their wonderful translation) and the Colombian and Latin American audiences have always been very important to me.