Rachel Howard: As you note, active aging agendas “aim to encourage people to exercise control over the aging process and stave off the experience of decline and frailty through a range of ‘active’ practices, such as physical and mental activity, engagement with others, a good diet, and even cosmetic surgery and medication.” (22) Your text is a critique of the institutionalization of this concept, which is borne out by your interlocutors who seemed to shun efforts by the Italian state to recruit them in explicit projects of active aging. At the same time, many of your interlocutors found that the maintenance of a sense of utility or usefulness to their family or to the community at large was key to their maintenance of selfhood beyond their identity as an older person. How might we account for the way that state-supported efforts to promote active aging might be simultaneously shunned and taken up (perhaps in a different context), as reactive aging (25)? Is this a contradiction when it comes to an individual’s experience of aging?
Shireen Walton: Yes, and thank you for raising the question; I would say there is a certain contradiction surrounding ideas about, and practices of, what is understood to be activity. In chapter two of the book I consider some of the frameworks in which ageing has been positioned in Italy, in the EU context, as well as in the US under the rubrics of ‘active’ and ‘successful’ ageing respectively, thinking about these frameworks alongside how notions of activity are thought of and lived in practice among the people I came to know during my research in Milan. I found that a number of research participants may not necessarily ascribe to certain prescriptions of activity, but at the same time, and for a multitude of reasons, expressed their desires to be active, or rather, useful – something that the smartphone became directly implicated in. A number of older adults in their seventies I came to know were active in many socially-facing ways across the neighborhood that was the locus of my research; volunteering in local schools, running allotment clubs, co-facilitating a women’s multicultural centre, and helping out with childcare as grandparents. Through these activities, people expressed feeling useful, and derived a certain satisfaction from their ability to be engaged in such ways, on- and offline. This utility was linked to their sense of invecchiamento sano (healthy ageing), which in turn formed part of a higher or moral purpose that was seen as a core part of the meaning of one’s life. In cases where social lives were reasonably active then, calls for activity from the state, or other groups or practices linked to age were not necessarily engaged with, and could even create a sense of people being seen as, or feeling, old in ways they may not identify with. As you highlight, older age could be seen as an identity marker that a number of research participants were to some degree reacting against (though not always, and not necessarily intentionally) through their everyday lives and practices. Where age-related initiatives were notably being taken up is in the field of adult education, and specifically, digital literacy classes for older adults – something that has continued to develop online during the Covid-19 pandemic in Italy, and which we discuss in more detail in chapter seven of our collective book stemming from the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) project, The Global Smartphone.
Rachel Howard: The function of the smartphone, and its applications for communication, as a constant companion that is both personal and intensely ubiquitous, troubles the concepts of homeland and of home itself. How might the use of—and the need for—this object, suggest a shift in the concept of aging in place or active aging?
Shireen Walton: The constant companion, as I refer to the smartphone in the book, entails a number of shifts in the concept/experience of aging in place because it affects many inter-connected aspects of life, including the reworking of place, and notably, the place of home – in The Global Smartphone, we conceptualise the smartphone itself as a transportal home; a place within which we live. In my book I discuss how the smartphone accompanies people as they pass through stages of life; this may entail a loss of a sense of home through migration or displacement, or, people may experience a largely physically home-based life in older age that without digital technologies may potentially feel isolating. Or, some people may be living with both of these experiences. Being digitally connected in the home is something that has come very much to the fore during the Covid-19 pandemic, and in the varied experiences of lockdown across Italy, and across the world.
Coming back to your question, what we can say is shifting with the presence of smartphones in everyday lives is both the experience of the home, and the concept of home itself. Some research participants in Milan would engage with medical care from home through WhatsApp, sharing images of symptoms with their doctors, or they would share and receive comfort and emotional support through forms of affective communication, photo and meme-sharing. In other cases, research participants from regions such as Sicily, or countries such as Egypt, Peru, and Afghanistan, who for varied reasons are unable to regularly visit the regions and countries they were born and grew up in, and where members of their families live, have a particularly heightened experience of the smartphone as a transportal home, which facilitates their virtual presence in multiple places/spaces, and affective economies, to employ Sara Ahmed’s term. However, seeing the smartphone as a kind of mobile dwelling is not to diminish the importance of either homeland, which for some research participants remained symbolically, practically, and politically very important, or the physical home space, as a site of care, physical presence, assistance, and company. These phenomenological shifts, nevertheless, prove very significant in understanding contemporary experiences and geographies of ageing, and of living with (and without) smartphones.
Rachel Howard: The text makes ample use of the case study and visual media, like embedded video, photos, and websites. How do you see these methods amplifying each other? How do these methods enrich or challenge our understanding of digital fluency?
Shireen Walton: It’s been one of the exciting aspects of the ASSA project, and our open-access book series with UCL Press, that we have been able to incorporate photographs, embedded videos, and hyperlinks as part of our ethnographic storytelling. Via these multimodal means, readers can come to learn about the lives and experiences of number of people we carried out research with through a series of short videos linked to our blog and website, which can be viewed alongside other visual materials, such as our recently published comics on the ASSA blog, which tell a selection of fieldwork stories. This interest in interactive storytelling reflects our research participants’ own interests in engaging with smartphones, tablets, and audiovisual media for education, storytelling, and learning, and these aspects have been a keen interest and commitment of the project from the start.
Rachel Howard: It seems that being youthful may be performed in many different ways, across a range of practices as well as externally defined and internally experienced qualia, including the use of cellphones as a way of “awareness” (143) to different life-worlds not accessible to your interlocutors in their youth. The discussion of narratives in Italy regarding different age groups’ use of digital technologies at times seemed to mirror narratives in the U.S., particularly when you note, “Older people are often depicted in the media and in political debates as a vulnerable group that is susceptible to ‘fake news’, while young people, regarded as ‘digital natives’, can be presented as at risk of addiction or becoming enslaved by the device, and suffering long-term health risks.” (82) This seemed like a double bind. Is it ever possible for your older interlocutors to achieve what many seem to desire—to felicitously perform youthfulness? If so, what does that look like?
Shireen Walton: It’s a good question, and it raises a key point about inter-generational relationships that I aimed to explore in the book: how is age represented alongside other identity categories, and how do people see themselves – and each other – at various ages and stage of their life? A range of popular discourses, media narratives, and advertising continues to contribute to the production of certain assumptions and stigmas concerning older and younger people and technology around the world. In Italy, while younger generations may be depicted in the media as almost tech-obsessed, older people have been viewed somewhat traditionally as outside of the tech bubble. Examples throughout the book seek to nuance these representations by illustrating the various uses of smartphones and multiple social and political purposes they serve that I came to learn about from research participants of varying ages and backgrounds. Amongst research participants in Milan in their fifties through to their seventies a number of people expressed not feeling young but, as mentioned in the first question, not necessarily identifying as old either. Their smartphone formed a kind of bridge between ages, people, places, and aspects of themselves; enabling a way of being connected in a fast-moving world of apps, chats, images, information and documents, that, alongside wider forms of social and political engagement, made some people feel in a sense younger than what their actual age was. However, as I aready mentioned, this youthfulness was not just about feeling and performing youth for the sake of it, but was notably about feeling useful – to others, to family, to the community – where utility was associated with activity and mobility, including in virtual forms. What might then be enveloped into a framework of youthfulness may involve any number of activities, such as running an allotment club, volunteering to teach Italian language classes at a local NGO, administrating a women’s choir and its lively WhatsApp group, or playing an active role in grandparenting. It may also be about carving out time for one’s self through apps for meditation and poetry, step-counting, or music. Overall in the book I try to describe a certain circle of activity, utility, privacy and sociability, that the smartphone – or rather, what people do with it – is involved in squaring, as the smartphone, and how people live and narrate their lives, calls established categories and assumptions about age(ing) into question.
Rachel Howard: To return to the ubiquity of the smartphone, I want to invite you to reflect on the way that it both mediates and changes the terms of communication practices amongst your interlocutors. Is the smartphone, in some ways, like a walker or a cane for digital communication? What new kind of communication skills does the smartphone require its user to learn? Do your interlocutors use the smartphone in ways other than originally intended, thereby shifting its function?
Shireen Walton: The smartphone entails multiple forms of communication, and these will vary depending on who is using a particular device, in a specific context, via certain kinds of digital infrastructure. Using a smartphone involves firstly learning to use it, as well as the subsequent social etiquettes, languages, apps, and communication forms that the social aspect of it entails. Chapter five of the book details a number of examples of how in some cases the smartphone amplifies existing forms of communication; where for example, audio messaging may be preferable to those who may otherwise routinely converse on the phone. In other cases, visual forms of communication such as stickers, emojis, and memes might play upon people’s creativity or reflect, say, the sense of humour between siblings or friends. On the other hand, the multiple options for communication afforded by the smartphone also draws people into experimenting with how they communicate and express care; such as the research participants who had entered into a new and unfamiliar habit of returning a meme-a-day to a friend or relative as a form of talking without talking, or communicating expressively online via stickers and memes. This circles back to your earlier question about the significance of the smartphone for ageing in place. I would say that the range of creative uses I encountered amongst older adults in Milan extends the smartphone beyond a kind of walker or a cane for digital communication. Rather, the object forms an intimate link with the person, their language(s), politics, and their social universe. For potentially bringing about confusion and anxiety as it affords connection, companionship, and mobility, the smartphone can be both a rock of support and the hard place of people’s lives, homes, and relationships.
Rusty Barrett: First, for those unfamiliar with Venezuela, could you explain the term “revolutionary magic”?
Juan Luis Rodriguez: I first encountered the term revolutionary magic in one of Fernando Coronil’s interviews where he wondered whether the Bolivarian revolution would be a new iteration of what he called the magical state. Coronil argued back in the 1990s that Venezuela’s dependency on oil put the state in a mediating position between the social body of the nation and both its nature and international capital. This position made the Venezuelan state appear magical to Venezuelans because it had the possibility of carrying out grandiose projects of infrastructure and welfare policies with money that seemed to come from nowhere. The state, without taxing either its citizens or its industries, was in the position to undertake the process of making Venezuela a modern country. This magic, of course, has the downside of depending on the ups and downs of oil prices in the international market. When Chavez was elected to office in 1999, he took office at the end of a long period of economic crisis that extended from 1983 to the end of the1990s. After a few years in office, he found himself as the leader of a revolution (later he will call this turn socialism of the 21st century), and as the Venezuelan president that has managed the largest budget in the history of the country. Since roughly 2004 to the end of 2012 Venezuela received more money from oil exports than at any other time in its history. In this historical period Venezuela combined all the structural features of the magical state with all the utopian desires of a 21st century socialist. The term, revolutionary magic, then refers to the assemblages of performances, political ways of speaking, and infrastructural projects that emerge out of that combination of those factors. If the magic of the Venezuelan state in the 20th century produced a kind of modernity, in the 21st century this capacity was turned to construct a revolution. In both cases, modernity and revolution suffer from the same reliance on the state to scaffold rhetorical and performative apparatuses with an unreliable source of economic success.
Rusty Barrett: Your work is clearly situated within the discourse-based approach to culture, why did you choose that particular framework? How does this approach address concerns beyond linguistic anthropology?
Juan Luis Rodriguez: I came to learn about discourse-centered approaches to culture during my grad school years studying under Jonathan Hill and Anthony K. Webster. I still remember how reading Jonathan’s work and going to seminar with Tony grounded my work on the idea that I should go after naturally occurring instances of language use emphasizing the centrality of performance and showcasing the complexity of what people say while we do fieldwork. This was very important to me because this is what methodologically separated my work from Coronil’s who rather had the methodological gaze of a historian. I wanted to understand Venezuelan political discourse and gift-giving in the context of the magic of the state (or magical state), but I wanted to do it by paying attention to how people get folded into actual contexts of linguistic interaction where they must engage in actual political speech. The distribution of state resources and the magic of the Bolivarian revolution produced actual instances of language use. I wanted to go after that. Discourse-centered approaches, especially the branch coming down from Joel Sherzer, have always been associated with verbal play, poetics, and performance, and rightly so. I hope that my book shows how discourse-centered approaches to culture can also shed light on questions of political economy, revolution, and modernity that are often not addressed from this perspective.
Rusty Barrett: Your book emphasizes issues of translation and transduction. How are those concepts important for understanding the place of the Warao in Venezuelan politics?
Juan Luis Rodriguez: Part of the transition from what Chavez called the fourth republic into the Bolivarian revolution was a change in the kind of relationships that state institutions, and the Catholic church, had with Indigenous communities. After 1958, when dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez was deposed, Venezuelan political parties signed what was known as the Puntofijo pact and embraced representative democracy as a core ideological value. During this period, Indigenous peoples were regarded as potential constituents to be represented by appointed officials from the central government in Caracas. They were supposed to be integrated into Venezuela’s political and economic system, but that future was always imagined as a process of acculturation in which they become undifferentiated citizens who speak Spanish primarily. Their languages were supposed to disappear and, from the point of view of the State, it made sense to translate their oral traditions into Spanish making them cultural patrimony of the nation. In this way the ideals of representative democracy gave a specific directionality to the work of translation from Indigenous language to Spanish because the product of these texts was supposed to represent Indigenous peoples as future integrated citizens of a modern State. The work of the Magical State is to produce modernity, and during this period that meant pulling Indigenous peoples into the orbit of the state. The work of translation followed that logic.
This all changed with the arrival of Hugo Chávez to power. He opposed a new ideal of participatory democracy, and later socialism, to the previous ideology of political representation. This new ideology centered around the notion that people must have a degree of direct participation in the decision-making process and implementation of policies. This new ideological position was central to the writing of the new constitution in 1999. At the same time the circulation of texts and practices of translation was completely reversed. Indigenous peoples were now not supposed to be integrated as culturally and linguistically undifferentiated constituents who needed representation but as subjects who would keep these differences and participate in the democratic process themselves. The constitution, laws that affected Indigenous peoples’ lives, and the symbols of the nation, such as the national anthem, had to be translated into Indigenous languages. That reverted the flow of translation in the hope that it would give Indigenous peoples the knowledge and capacity to participate in the political life of the nation representing themselves in the process.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the Bolivarian revolution is how this process of political participation that seemed so good in paper never really took off. Instead, the nominal legal rights to participation have been contradicted with strategies of cooptation that allowed Chavez, and now Nicolas Maduro, to pose as if Indigenous peoples have achieved a degree of integration into the political decision-making process while in practices they marginalize and manipulate this participation. Indigenous peoples in Venezuela have recently faced a deterioration on the conditions of their voting rights as well as a brutal encroachment on their ancestral territories. The Bolivarian revolution has produced some of the most brutal ecological degradations in Indigenous territories through the so-called Arco Minero that only reproduces the logic of capitalist extraction that was supposed to be rejected with the arrival of the revolution.
This brings me to the place of transduction in my book. I understand transduction as the transformations, and assemblage, of signs across semiotic modalities. As I explain at the beginning of the book, the main process of transduction that I am interested in is the transformation of oil revenue into forms of political performances and political influence. Oil revenue support forms of political speech linked with ideologies of modernity and state control in Venezuela. My argument in the book is that despite the reversal on the flow of translations that correlated with a transition from representative to participatory democracy, the basic transduction of oil revenue into modernity and political control remained the same in both periods. In other words, despite rhetorical differences in ideological principles, Chavez’ revolution never really produced a systemic transformation in the structural conditions that marginalized Indigenous subjects in Venezuela. They might have more nominal rights now, but oil dependency still means those rights are principally rhetorical devices. The transduction of oil revenue into political performance and celebrated forms of modernity is an unstable structural condition subject to ups and downs of commodity markets and this means that the revolutionary gains in political participation can disappear at any moment.
Rusty Barrett: What aspects of your analysis do you feel are most useful for looking at the relationship between Indigenous communities and the state in places beyond Venezuela?
Juan Luis Rodriguez: I think my analysis is useful for understanding how the integration of Indigenous peoples into public political spheres–and the performative and communicative strategies used for that purpose–depend on kinds of ideological political project made possible by entire political-economic systems. The main goal of my book is to show how discourse-centered approaches to culture can help us accomplish that goal.
Another aspect of my analysis that I think can be useful is to bring attention to the ways in which State actors’ agendas and intentions do not determine the consequences of their actions. I tried to illustrate this point by bringing examples of political gift-giving which is in Venezuela stereotypically regarded as a form of political bribery, corruption, and coercion. I show how the gift per se does not accomplish any of this without further discursive engagement in the communities where is received. Likewise, promises of political gifts do not amount to simple deception since gift-giving and discourse form complex chains of interpretation in the Orinoco Delta. I hope these insights can served to inspire more ethnographic research into how these complex semiotic systems are developed under different political and economic conditions.
Rusty Barrett: The book provides a language-based approach to understanding political gifts and campaign promises. In what ways do you see this approach as providing insights that might be overlooked by other approaches? What would you hope scholars in other fields take away from your analysis?
Juan Luis Rodriguez: What I would hope other researchers take away from my book is the necessity to see political gift-giving and speech as interrelated. The naturalness of the correlation between gift-giving and political influence that some researchers see in patron-client relationships do not occur without the mediation of a great deal of speech. Paying attention to these patterns allow us to understand how political influence through gift-giving and political promises is an interactional achievement that we cannot take for granted. I would hope that researchers interested in these kinds of questions will take a little more seriously the fact that naturally occurring instances of language use (discourse) provide not only frames for cultural interpretation but are, more importantly, embodied practices that make political gifts feel right or not in a particular social context. Paying attention to that relationship is central to how I study politics through the lens of a discourse-centered approach to culture.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I am turning your question around because I have had two professions each of which I have loved greatly; the first of which, classical dance, has been instrumental in what I have done in the second, anthropology.
At the age of seven, I began taking ballet classes. It was a neighborhood studio but the owner/teacher had had good training, a combination of Danish (Bournonville) and the American version of Fokine. She was strict and the yearly recitals demanded a command of the technique as well as interpretation. My last year of elementary school, I began commuting to the San Francisco Ballet school in the city—a bus to the F train at the top of the Alameda, the train to SF, a bus to the ballet school for a 90-minute class, then the reverse, doing homework on the way. By high school, I was taking 5 classes a week, taught by dancers who were trained by those Russian dancers of the Diaghilev company who came to the US as teachers after the great impresario died. It was thrilling! The demand for mastery built a confidence that was empowering, never mind the chance to be a lady-in-waiting in the annual Nutcracker on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House.
Then came a pause. I had been given a full scholarship to Stanford. Ballet was still my passion but trying to do both, I decided to go to school and continue my classes at SF Ballet. For that year, I commuted to San Francisco, bicycling to the Palo Alto bus station—bus to SF then another bus to the school. At the end of the academic year, I realized I could not continue this way. My Stanford Russian instructor had Russian friends and family in New York, and I was able to rent a room in the apartment of the Makedonovs. I went to NYC with one suitcase, $400, and their address. For the next three and a half years, I lived with them, took classes at the School of American Ballet and Ballets Russes, danced with the Brooklyn Ballet and for a year with the Deutsche Operetten Teatr, and lived on the upper West Side where I spoke Russian at home and Spanish on the streets. Money was always an issue. We were paid by the performance by Brooklyn Ballet and in good times, like the Nutcracker season which also had the opera’s Hansel and Gretel, I could pay the rent and feed myself. I had odd jobs otherwise; the best was processing checks at First National City Bank on the midnight to 8 shift during my last NY year.
In my time in NYC, I was a regular in the standing room line at the Met for opera, dance, symphonies on those nights when I did not have a performance myself. My access to the best of opera was made easier because opera was a staple at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and we were always hired for the dance interludes. That experience took my naïve love of opera and gave it a more knowledgeable base. I shared the BAM stage with the likes of Zinka Milanov and Robert Merrill in a memorable Aida. I met artists and impresarios like Marcel Marceau, Sol Hurok, Igor Moiseyev, Jose Greco and his dancers, Ludmilla Schollar, Anatol Vilzak, Sviastoslav Richter at Carnegie Hall for his first US recital, dancers from the Kirov Ballet whose first US performance overlapped with my time in NYC—I was one of the interpreters during their stay and got to take company class with them. Many of these artists became friends and mentors. And much of what I have written about the arts, especially those performance arts, comes from watching their performances and classes and listening to them, especially when we talked about what created those performances that lifted up both performer and audience.
I left New York for San Francisco where I was a principal dancer with the San Francisco Russian Opera and Ballet Company and started teaching at the Temoff School. As is so often the case, I was injured during a rehearsal. My last performance was as Zobeide in the Fokine ballet Scheherezade. I decided to return to SI left New York for San Francisco where I was a principal dancer with the San Francisco Russian Opera and Ballet Company and teaching at the Temoff School. As is so often the case, I was injured during a rehearsal. My last performance was as Zobeide in the Fokine ballet Scheherezade. I decided to return to Stanford to finish my BA. I no longer had a scholarship, but I funded myself by teaching classes at the Temoff School in San Francisco, this time making the trips in my second-hand Volkswagen beetle. I planned to major in Comparative Literature because I had accumulated five languages. Then I took an introductory Social Anthropology class with George Spindler, one of the founders of the subfield of Anthropology and Education. He was a mesmerizing lecturer and I found the notion of listening to rather than reading about compelling. I became an Anthropology major with an outside major, Honors in Humanities. Luckily for me, the Ford Foundation had a program to fund undergraduate research over the summer. It had to be in Latin America but all topics were open. I applied to look at folk and indigenous dance in Mexico, the first month to be working with the Ballet Folclórico de Amalia Hernandez and the remainder of the summer to look at dance in Oaxaca and in Veracruz. I spent the first 3 weeks in classes and rehearsals with the Ballet Folclórico learning the repertory and the rationale for the choices of dance cultures and their restaging. The next months I traveled to Oaxaca for the annual festival of dance just outside of Oaxaca City and then to the coast of Veracruz to document dance. And that was the beginning of my work in Juchitán, Oaxaca, now in its 6th decade. I began that work first in the summer of 1968. My husband, Ronald Royce, and I were married just weeks before leaving for Mexico. Our combined fellowships allowed for few luxuries so we drove in my by-now well-broken-in Volkswagen. Ron’s grant was to investigate the state of social science research in Mexico; this was the summer of protests and strikes everywhere, much of it directed at universities, so we went to Juchitán planning a two-week stay. The car broke down on our way out of the city and was not ready to travel for another month. Despite all the unforeseen difficulties, we returned to our PhD programs determined to work in Juchitán. We spent our first full year there in 1971-72. Ron was a linguistic anthropologist working on the Isthmus Zapotec language and a brilliant photographer. I was looking at indigenous identities and the social and political strategies that supported a strong Zapotec community. Our partnership, our different projects, our different ways of seeing and listening, of being able to talk about what we saw and what it meant made us more productive—more field notes, maps, photos, questions, as well as helping us see more connections and through-lines; that second level of understanding and interpreting. Being there as a couple established us as more settled and responsible with different obligations and prerogatives. More than all those things, it was comforting to share the joys and heartaches of fieldwork.
Coming to Indiana University, I was able to satisfy my need for the performing arts as well as finding a wealth of support for my Mexico work. While based in the Anthropology department, I was invited to teach advanced technique and classical variations in the School of Music Ballet Department. More recently I have been a guest lecturer in the History of Ballet class. I was for many years the dance reviewer for the Herald-Times. The existence of great teacher-performers on the cello faculty allowed me to satisfy both a personal desire and a scholarly interest. I enrolled in cello classes with Helga Winold for three years and learned from the extended cello faculty, attending master classes and performances and informal gatherings. On some occasions, I was invited to play 2nd cello in an IU performance. In 1986, I collaborated with Thomas Binkley of Early Music, he as musical director and I as historical director for the Teatro Antico and Early Music Institute production of L’Amfiparnaso, by Orazio Vecchi (1550–1605), performed at the Creative Arts Auditorium, Indiana University. I was charged with reinventing the commedia dell’arte interludes.
In 2008, I began what has become an ongoing commitment to both teaching and research in Ireland. It was in that year that I was invited to be part of a small group at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick. Our task was to plan the next ten years of the Academy programs. In 2010 I was appointed an External Examiner in the MA Choreology program and in 2014 began working with the PhD students in the Arts Practice program. It has been an extraordinary time working with performance and performers as they situate their craft in cultural and historical contexts. With that as a base and my work on landscapes of transformation in Oaxaca, I was invited in 2015 to become a member of the UL LANDscape research group.
I am continuing to work in Oaxaca. A collaborative grant with colleagues in Juchitán will make 3D maps of the three most rural sections of the city, those that go from the settled to the wild. We will also be making 3D story maps of places in those sections that are important to the communities. For the last two years, I have been photographing the three sections. In addition, I am working on a book about ritual and especially pilgrimage in Juchitán. The latter map onto the work with the rural sections since at least three of the oldest pilgrimages originate in those sections.
What’s the story behind the publication of your first book?
Prestigio y Afiliación en una Comunidad Urbana: Juchitán, Oaxaca was first published in 1974, Translated by Carlos Guerrero. Serie de Antropología Social 37. México, D.F.: Instituto Nacional Indigenista/Secretaría de Educación Pública.
INI published a series of works on indigenous peoples and, at their request, mine was translated and published in that series. It has been republished twice, once in 1990 and then in 2016. The 2016 publication was part of a series of the 25 most important books on indigenous communities. Copies were given free to the young people in Juchitán. It has been used as a text in the Juchitán secondary schools. Any royalties go back to INI and now to the new publishers, the 2016 one located in the city of Juchitán and glad to have the income to work on projects for the community.
The book, based on my dissertation, focuses on the social, cultural, and political structures and networks in this indigenous Isthmus Zapotec community. I discuss how these shape relationships and prestige and support communal responses to change at both the local and national levels. It is the first book to address matters of tradition and change in this community. While still in the field in 1972, I had given lectures about my work to great interest on the part of the community. When I was approached by INI about a Spanish publication, I replied with an enthusiastic yes, realizing that this was an excellent way to continue the dialogue that I had begun in Juchitán. The book has not been published in English though much of its substance has been published in English in articles and chapters. As a book, it did not count toward my academic career because it was not in English. Works like mine, however, based on such a close and longterm engagement with the community, need to be available to that community and to my Mexican colleagues. I publish as much as I can in Spanish so that it is available to both. My longterm work was recognized in 2016 with the awarding of the Medalla Binniza (Medal of the Zapotec People), given by the Fundación Histórico Cultural Juchitán for distinguished scholarly contributions to the Isthmus Zapotec. It was the first time it was awarded to a non-Mexican.
What moment of fieldwork interaction do you still think about, amazed that you got to witness it?
March 23, 1997, Palm Sunday in Juchitán (my 25th year of fieldwork in Juchitán)
I was not usually in Juchitán during Holy Week so this was a chance to see the week-long celebrations from the beginning. On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, the image of San Salvador is taken from his home in the parish church of San Vicente to the home of one of the members of the community that cares for him near the Panteón Domingo de Ramos (cemetery Palm Sunday). He is received and feted with garlands of flowers, and then spends the night. The next morning he is taken to the chapel in the cemetery where he oversees the blessing of the palms. Then he is carried in a procession back to the San Vicente parish church. I had seen the Saturday preparations and had returned with Na Mavis, an aunt, to the cemetery to arrange the flowers in the family tomb and to stop by the chapel for the blessing of the palms and the beginning of the procession. We then went quickly to San Vicente to await its arrival. The following are my field notes on that arrival:
Palm Sunday 1997…the sky is electric blue, cloudless on this early morning. I was in the courtyard of San Vicente Ferrer, the parish church, just having returned from the cemetery where I helped the family arrange the armloads of flowers necessary for this day of remembrance. I waited for the arrival of the Palm Sunday procession, winding its way through the streets after distributing palms to all participants at the small chapel of the cemetery. I could hear them now, voices raised in those joyous songs welcoming Christ the King to Jerusalem. The higher-pitched voices of children rise above with cries of “Vivo Cristo Rey.” Thechurch behind me is filled with flowers, white gladiolas, dozens of them, jasmine and frangipani scattered at the feet of all the saints. The fragrance swells with the heat of fat, beeswax candles. All is ready and the crowd is dancing with anticipation. A scout returns, “They are just turning the corner!” Then, as if my ears deceive me, I hear the low, elongated notes of funeral sones. Jesús Urbieta, one of a cadre of talented young painters who died in Mexico City two days earlier, is being borne by silent comrades to rest a moment in the Casa de la Cultura where his paintings had often hung. The parish church and the Casa de la Cultura sit next to each other, separated only by a wrought-iron fence. The two processions arrive simultaneously. San Salvador, borne on the shoulders of the men who care for him, heavy garlands of frangipani hang around his neck; jasmine, frangipani blossoms, and petals of roses of Castile rain down on him, making his way sweet. The children in white shirts too big for them wave their palms. Beaming women carry huge vases of white flowers. The Glorias fill the courtyard announcing the happy arrival. Urbieta too is carried on the shoulders of his closest comrades, men who have cared for him. His coffin is heaped high with flowers of the wild–white jasmine, long, ropy palm flowers, tuberose, hibiscus, frangipani all on a bed of the healing herbs–dill and cordoncillo. Everyone brought jasmine, guie-xhuba in Zapotec, in honor of the club Urbieta had founded by that name to help young artists. Urbieta has begun his journey to his new home among the dead. Christ, in the midst of celebration, has begun his death.
Field notes, March 23, 1997
It is the visible markers that catch one’s attention especially but not exclusively in early stages of field research. The meaning behind them and the why of them take much longer to understand. One of the demands on ethnographers is to record everything, even when you have no sense of what it means or where it fits. At some point, you can see the larger meaning. While our first field research is usually a year, succeeding visits must be worked around an academic teaching schedule, broken up occasionally by sabbaticals and fellowships. Much of my field work happens in the summers. The annual cycle is exactly that—a year’s worth of activities and ritual, so you miss much of it except via WhatsApp and Facebook. Your obligations continue even when you are not there.
This Palm Sunday was one of those moments in the field when suddenly disparate pieces come together and make a greater sense. In this case, it was realizing the fundamental importance of notions of “wild” (gui’xhi) and “settled” (guidxi) and the transformations that happen when one moves from one state to another. Christ comes from the cemetery in the gui’xhi to the heart of the settled parish church and to his new identity as Christ the King whose death is already assured. He has begun his journey to the land of the dead. Urbieta has also begun the slow forty-day progress from the land of the living to that of the dead. Both are accompanied by those who care for them and who rain down on them the flowers of the wild that will keep their journey slow, stately, and moist.
That journey is one of transformation and while we associate journey with physical movement, in Juchitán this is not always the case. For example, Ta Feli, the healer with whom I worked, would fall regularly into trance as part of his healing sessions. When he “returned,” he would relate what he had learned when going to this other place. Similarly, when one walks a pilgrimage—and I did not do this until 2011 (another 14 years!), you often walk it in the name of another. You are transformed by being a pilgrim but so is the person for whom you walked. It is the shared terrain of being human. That shared experience of death, above all its transformative nature, became my 2011 book Becoming an Ancestor: The Isthmus Zapotec Way of Death.I am currently working on the fundamental importance of transformation in a book on ritual in Juchitán.
Which book that you wrote are you most pleased with? Could you talk about the story behind writing it?
Anthropology of the Performing Arts: Virtuosity, Artistry, and Interpretation in a Cross-Cultural Perspective. 2004. AltaMira Press. It was in this book that I could bring together the experience of my work on performance and my life as a performer, with the social and cultural implications of embodiment. I examine performance and performers in their lives on stage, in the classroom, in rehearsal and creation. It includes the voices of great performers such as Marcel Marceau, Janos Starker, Violette Verdy, Maria Callas, Bando Tamasaburo and Peter Brook reflecting on virtuosity and artistry, silence and sound, movement and stasis. It also includes performance in daily life, the artistry of trance and altered states, an examination of Tewa ritual as a native aesthetic.
Writing it made me see the bones and blood of the ethnographic enterprise. If we examine ethnography as a kind of performance requiring us to be interpreters then we see that, whatever the unique circumstances of our work, we must refine a craft, making ourselves into the most finely tuned instruments possible. And lest anyone think that this means the absence of passion, let me offer up the examples of all the great artists and performers who knew and know that the presentation of the deepest emotions requires the greatest discipline. It was one of our former colleagues, poet Yosef Koumenyaku who said that “passion without discipline is sentimentality.” My years of working with performers and as a performer made this book inevitable and collaborative. Conversations with my community of friends in the world of performance, some the best in the world, some just beginning, made it possible to see commonalities and differences, to discover the through-line that made a performance inevitable rather than predictable, to see cultural similarities and differences across genres. It was extraordinarily satisfying to see the fundamentals of staged performance genres (usually assuming a fourth wall) appear in communal performance like Tewa ritual, in the practice of trance and healing, and the ways in which we perform in everyday life. The time and place for writing much of this book was made possible by the Bogliasco Foundation where the staff and a small group of witty, serious, creative colleagues with whom to share ideas freed me from all responsibility except to write, and in the writing to find the through-lines that characterize all good stories.
How has teaching changed for you over the years?
More listening, less talking. A distinguished scholar and teacher came to watch me teach a ballet class at the SMU campus in Taos. Afterward, she said, “you were so quiet; you said hardly anything.” I answered, “I was listening to their bodies.”
In my first year at IU, when I stood in the classroom in the old School of Education building, facing the 35 undergraduates in the Anthropology of Dance class, I wanted to disappear. I had never taught–at that time no one thought it might be an important part of graduate education. I suffered from an excess of information about a very narrow subject and the absence of any method for communicating it.
Parker Palmer once used a strip of paper as his only prop to deliver a masterful lecture about front stage/backstage personas. He introduced it as an example of just how high-tech Quakers ever got! In my case, imagine two funnels with the small ends coming together–I call this “Lifelong Learning” –babies, children, even teen-agers set no limits on what might be interesting to explore, try out, or learn. Our system of education is like a funnel, gradually narrowing the possibilities until our children enter a track that corresponds to their career choice (one they probably make so that we will stop hounding them). This point where the two funnels come together is the PhD or highest terminal degree. This is the point where we have a great deal of information about something that few people have any interest in and, in the process of getting it, we have stopped living a balanced, explorative life. Fortunately, there is life–and learning, after the PhD. We realize, perhaps in the process of trying to convey our passion for the field to others, that there are more skills, more areas, more challenges, and that, if we work at it, we might become knowledgeable rather than simply stuffed with information.
How do we ever get to be reasonably good teachers? I think that it is like becoming a good ethnographer–we rely on the kindness of strangers. Strangers who are our students and who, generally, respond with good will when we need help.
For us to do this requires three things. First is to acknowledge that there is a craft and that we don’t control it; second, and I take this from performing, that the audience/students matter and shape our performance. These are hard enough but the third is the greatest challenge: to acknowledge that, while we too learn in the classroom or lab or one-on-one with graduate students, we are not the main event in any learning context. We may be the facilitators, but it is not about us.
Watching colleagues whom I thought were fine teachers, I realized what they had in common. They gave students permission to bring their own personalities and experiences and passions to bear on the topic at hand. The best teachers are those who are passionate not only about their subjects but about the world in which they and the students live. We teach ways of thinking and being using our discipline as an example or point of departure and return. Given the balance of power, if we as teachers bring our egos into the mix, the students will simply disappear because we expand to take up all the space–the talking space, the thinking space, the reflecting space. Students deserve to know what we think, however, especially about topics that matter to them. And the most difficult teaching situation, at least for me, is when we feel most deeply about something. My best teaching has been setting a context in which I help students confront the subject on their own terms. And in which you resist commenting on everything from your own point of view. We know most of the disadvantages–we give up control (in the blatant form that we know it); and we must forget trying to cover everything and be selective about what is important. Acknowledging that they can learn a lot of material quite well on their own is a humbling experience. We must somehow make our own passion for the subject clear without talking about it all the time– showing, not telling. Showing makes us more vulnerable–telling lets us stay one remove from both the subject and the students.
The last class I taught before retiring was E500 the required class on theory for our social/cultural graduate students. COVID meant it was online. I asked the students to use the Canvas discussion link to post their reflections on the readings each week. Everyone posted theirs, reading and commenting on each other’s. I read them and posted my comments as well. The zoom class at the end of the week was lively, a conversation, with students commenting on the assigned readings and acknowledging each other’s and my interpretations. They were thoughtful, generous, smart, and supportive. While their research interests were varied and quite different from mine, their work and the way in which they collaborated made me realize that the field was going to be in good hands.
My teaching has included just about every context in which we share our craft and hold out the promise of discovery: undergraduate classes, graduate seminars, doctoral mentoring, our field school in Oaxaca, 30 years of MINI University lectures, Lifelong Learning seminars, coaching classical ballet variations at the Jacobs school, as an Erasmus visiting scholar in Budapest and Szeged, and as an External examiner and adjunct professor at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance.
Some final thoughts about what being a researcher and a teacher means:
*listening, hearing people into speech;
*seeing worth in every person and valuing their particular perspectives and histories;
*building collaboration and community so that learning takes advantage of unique backgrounds and experiences
*Working on the principle that both kinds of knowledge—the poetic and the practical, are necessary and reinforce each other. Irish poet Seamus Heaney elaborated this. I found it too in Juchitan in the Zapotec recognition of two kinds of knowledge, remarkably similar to Heaney‘s: binni naana—people with words and binni guendabianni—people who create light.
*Being comfortable in that middle-ground between what we know and what we might discover is essential to continued learning. Or in the words of another mentor, Sir Peter Brook: “Not knowing is not resignation…it is an opening to amazement.” From Between Two Silences: Talking with Peter Brook
As it so happens, page 99 of my dissertation is the conclusion of my first body chapter following the introduction. My dissertation, “Producing Prosperity: Language and the Labor of Development in India’s Western Himalayas,” is a linguistic ethnography of rural development work in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. This chapter, entitled “‘We Eat Their Minds’: Communicative Infrastructures of Development in Kangra,” serves as an orienting chapter for the entire dissertation. It examines the everyday communicative work of rural bureaucrats and NGO workers through which the state enacts welfare policies and programs in Kangra. I argue that rural development is itself a communicative project, one that is enacted through face-to-face meetings between villagers and development workers and which serve as the infrastructure for decision making, debate, and information dissemination. I enter this through an analysis of the pervasive narrative that rural bureaucrats and NGO workers are “mind eaters” (dimaag khaaNe aale)—people who drive others mad through excessive talking. Development officials and rural villagers alike deployed the discourse of mind eating to frame development work as what I call semiotic labor—everyday interactional projects of meaning-making. In this chapter, I delve into the language ideological assessments of development as itself a form of grueling semiotic labor—mind-eating—requiring incessant contestation over the meanings of need, deservingness, poverty, and prosperity. Semiotic labor is itself embedded in the political economy of multilingualism in Kangra, where three to five languages are commonly used in everyday life, and which are embedded in hierarchies of value. As the conclusion to my first body chapter, page 99 feels like a proper snapshot of what I hope the dissertation will demonstrate; yet, whether or not it actually does reach these conclusions is another question entirely.
This chapter has introduced the everyday labor of rural development in Kangra, which workers metapragmatically frame as “eating people’s minds.” Mind-eating, I have argued, serves as a narrative device through which to grapple with feelings of ineffectualness, and to guard against potential citizens’ claims. Workers across state and non-state institutions are themselves deeply intertwined, mutually reliant on one another’s social and material infrastructures in order to conduct their activities. Nevertheless, bureaucrats and NGO workers performatively constitute themselves as morally distinct in their everyday discourses, particularly regarding norms of exchange and extraction with beneficiaries. While the interactional nature of rural development makes state and non-state workers both reliant on forms of social and material exchange with rural women, both state and non-state bureaucrats frame their work as unidirectional, and thus incommensurable with gifts or hospitality.
Eating people’s minds entails face-to-face interactions in meetings, which involve a range of communicative practices that together I refer to as “semiotic labor.” Semiotic labor attends to the fact that development practice is talk-mediated, but involves far more than the mere dissemination of information. My interlocutors framed this primarily through discourses of awareness (jagrukta), which was both a goal and an activity that brought rural citizens into relationships of obligation with development institutions. The kinds of semiotic labor that my interlocutors performed varied across state and non-state institutions, and could be located in the format and performance of meetings, which are the primary technology through which rural development workers enact the bureaucratic and developmental imperatives of their institutions outside of their physical offices.
While speakers in Kangra are members of a multilingual society and have diverse linguistic repertoires, they differ in their ideological and practical usage of the primary languages in Kangra: Pahari [Kangri] and Hindi. Whereas state bureaucrats tend to use Hindi, and NGO workers Pahari, they nevertheless share a common language ideological framework through which they cultivate a sense of moral conduct. This framework associates language not solely with communicative ends but also with affective consequences. By speaking (or claiming to speak) in Pahari with rural villagers, public servants cast themselves as both practically efficient and morally inclusive. Their actual use of languages, registers, and conversational strategies, as I will show in the next chapters, are not peripheral to the logics of developmental governance in Kangra, but instead are central to the constitution and circulation of ideas of need, deservingness, and prosperity that become the contested ideological ground upon which decisions about policy are made and maintained.
Dodom Kim: Rules, Papers, Status examines migration, legal citizenship, and the question of belonging in contemporary Italy. Instead of the migrant-carrying vessels attempting to enter the Italian water–one of the favorite European border spectacles in international media–your book focuses on how people encounter immigration bureaucracy, ambiguous laws, and complex documents in an advice center for migrants ran by a trade union. What led you to this perhaps less thrilling and even frustratingly mundane site for your ethnographic research?
Anna Tuckett: The standard imagery employed by the media perpetuates the myth that the majority of so called illegal migrants cross nation states’ borders illegally. In reality, however, the vast majority of migrants enter destination countries legally (usually with some kind of visa) but become illegal due to restrictive legal and bureaucratic regimes. My book explores these processes of legalisation and illegalisation at the sites where they occur: police stations, bureaucratic offices and advice centres, among others. This focus on the everyday workings of immigration law insider borders aims both to remedy the lopsided view of immigration that the border spectacle produces and to shine a light on the real causes of putative illegal migration
Dodom Kim: Your book pays a special attention to how people handle documents, and how such practices are embedded in what you call the documentation regime—one aspect of the migration infrastructure that conditions how people move within and across nation-state borders (p.4). What inspired you to focus on documents in your research? What were the methodological challenges and gains of ethnographically engaging with this specific form of media?
Anna Tuckett: Documents are integral to experiences of migration. Passports, permits, visas, and other kinds of paperwork fundamentally shape migrants’ lives. While such documents are ostensibly used to remove ambiguity – someone either having the right to remain or not, for example – by tracing the social life of documents we learn about their essentially unstable and uncertain nature.
Methodologically, focusing on documents in the Italian context was both unavoidable and essential to my research. As the material artefacts of immigration processes, examining documents enabled me to learn the complex machinations of Italian immigration bureaucracy. For example, to renew a work permit one needs to submit paperwork relating to employment, income, housing, and family arrangements. Focusing on these detailed documentary practices enabled me to see the gaps that often exist between people’s paperwork and their real-life circumstances. This insight helped me to form some of the book’s central conclusions. Firstly, that migrants must carefully navigate the documentation regime in order to become legal or to hold on to legal status, including the production of false paperwork. Secondly, that the immigration bureaucracy relies upon this gap between paperwork and real life circumstances in order to function.
Dodom Kim: Your attention on documents must have made you quite conscious about your own documentary practices as an anthropologist. On this note, could you tell us why you decided to begin each chapter (except Chapter 1) with extracts from fieldnotes?
Anna Tuckett: The vignettes which open each chapter are designed to bring the bureaucratic and legal processes to life for the reader. Understanding the significance of different documents, documentary practices and how they relate to individuals cases was a large part of my fieldwork. Much like an anthropologist in a different setting might need to understand the ins and outs of, for example, a ritual, in my setting I needed to understand the legal and bureaucratic processes of the Italian immigration system. Equally, the reader needs to become familiar with details on Italian immigration law and bureaucracy in order to understand the book’s arguments and analysis. Introducing each chapter with a vignette was a way to bring these technical (and perhaps rather dry!) details to life.
Dodom Kim: Throughout the book, you show how culturally savvy people strategically maneuver and exploit the convoluted bureaucratic systems and policies. At the same time, you rigorously remind the readers that it is not necessarily a form of empowerment: the upsetting irony is that the more one becomes adept to the cultural practice, the riskier it might be to secure a legal citizenship. Is there something particular about Italian bureaucracy that creates this irony, or is it something to be found in other EU member states as well? Or does this irony have to do with some sort of fundamental limitation that modern law and bureaucracy imposes? In short, what do you think the irony’s broader implication might be beyond Italy?
Anna Tuckett: This is a great question and one which I grappled with throughout writing Rules, Paper, Status. As you say, in my book I argue that migrants need to have insider knowledge in order to successfully navigate the Italian immigration bureaucracy. Migrants’ strategies of navigation, I argue, fit into broader rule-bending practices that are prevalent in Italy, which are rooted in the dominant discursive construction of the Italian state and bureaucracy as inefficient and corrupt, and the accompanying expectation that its rules should therefore be bent. It is through their encounters with the Italian bureaucracy, I argue, that migrants come to participate in the production and reproduction of this collectively shared imagined state and become ‘cultural citizens’ (Ong et al. 1996). In the Italian bureaucratic context, however, prevalent rule-breaking is accompanied by strict compliance with proceduralism in relation to paperwork. Paper trails must be authentic even if false and successfully navigating the immigration bureaucracy requires expertise in the management of documents. Given the documented nature of migrants’ lives, however, rule-bending in one application could create problems in others; even skillful rule-bending can be highly risky for migrants. As a host of ethnographic case studies in my book highlight, developing cultural citizenship can therefore, paradoxically, also result in migrants’ risking the attainment of actual juridical citizenship or other forms of secure legal status.
While there are certain elements of this argument which are particular to the Italian context, I think that the paradox does have broader implications. It highlights the inherent uncertainties within categories employed by modern law and bureaucracy, such as ‘citizen’ and ‘migrant’ and ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’, which documents and paperwork are designed to unambiguously define. Documents, however, do not hold the truth that will indicate someone’s rightful membership or not. Rather, they highlight the arbitrariness and ambiguities within the laws that produce these simultaneous processes of inclusion and exclusion.
Dodom Kim: With the COVID-19 pandemic, so much of the documentation regime around the world have been undergoing vast changes. Borders have been shut more tightly in many places, while those that remain open ask for a whole slew of novel documents (such as PCR test results, vaccine records, and so on). During this extraordinary time when there is heightened interest in international movement and documentary controls, what would you like the readers to get out of reading your book?
Anna Tuckett: As you say, the ongoing pandemic has resulted in restrictions on our movement, the closing of borders and the necessity to produce new and ever-changing documents in order to travel. For those of us lucky enough to hold what my respondents called ‘powerful passports’, these shifts have been experienced as an abrupt disruption to the flow and ease of movement previously enjoyed. While the stakes are still much higher for most of my respondents in the book, the past year has given many more of us a taste of what it feels like when border regimes directly impact and impede everyday life. The new and changing documentary requirements for travel also give us direct insights into the kinds of anxieties, uncertainties and frustrations that are produced by documentation regimes and already experienced by much of the world’s population.
Amy Garey: How does migration influence literacy practices?
Kate Vieira: Unfortunately, lots of the discourse in the U.S. and elsewhere around migration and literacy frames migrants as having literacy problems, whether in their home language and/or in English. What I hoped to do with this book was to take what we know about the history of writing–that writing is a technology that at its core is about communicating across distance–to reframe this deficit-based discussion to show how, in fact, migration drives sophisticated literacy learning. Essentially, when people who love one another are distanced, as this past year has so painfully emphasized, they find new ways to communicate. The migrant families with whom I was privileged to work revealed how they innovated, learned, and taught each other new practices of writing. Such practices were family based, rhetorically informed, economically savvy, emotionally astute, and technologically aware and deserve recognition as such. I’m so grateful to the participants who shared their stories with me.
Amy Garey: This may well be the only ethnographic project comparing Brazil and Latvia. What advantages did this project’s comparative approach bring to your research questions?
Kate Vieira: Hahaha. Well, in the book I speak about two reasons for working in Brazil and Latvia–one autobiographical (I had community ties in both places and speak the languages spoken there) and the other methodological (the community in Brazil had very little out migration, whereas in Latvia the community that hosted me was experiencing mass outmigration).
One of the cornerstones of ethnographic studies of literacy is that context matters. Seen this way, literacy is not a skill, but is a practice shaped by people and power relationships. So I was curious about what migration-driven literacy practices looked like in these very different communities. In Latvia, migration-driven literacy learning had a longer history in which the state played a big role: The Soviet Union had driven internal migration for some time, so people came to current migration-driven literacy practices through the lens of previous letter writing, for example. In Brazil, I really focused on economic issues shaping literacy–like the price and accessibility of certain communication technologies like laptops. For me, the comparison helped me to see the way a fundamental part of writing–its use by people to communicate across distance–is shaped by historical events, global inequities, as well as family and personal histories.
And one final note: I chose to research in these communities because I love the people who live there. And we should always research from love.
Amy Garey: You wrote of the ways that writing, in imagining a conversation with a loved one, can make an absent relative in some sense present. Do you think that the way the lockdown has influenced everyday use of videoconferencing applications will change this text-based process of imagining? Will Zoom alter incentives for family members to become literate?
Kate Vieira: Well, I’d say that logging on to Zoom is a literacy practice, even though the audio and visual forms of meaning making are emphasized more than the textual forms. I mean, we still access Zoom via a keyboard or touchpad on a phone, make use of the chat function to send snarky comments to classmates / colleagues, and have to navigate an array of profoundly textual sign-ins, often sent to us via email (the “mail” of course referencing the older transnational literacy institution of the postal system). So on the one hand, you can’t really extract the textual from the audio/visual on Zoom. And on the other hand, lots of literacy scholars would say that audio-visual meaning making is also a literacy, even when it doesn’t include the textual.
So I think what we’ve seen in the pandemic is a version of what migrant families have been doing for ages: teaching and helping our loved ones access new forms of literacy so we can feel close even though we are physically not in the same space.
I’d say the salient differences in processes of imagining loved ones primarily via the textual or via the audio-visual are particular to people, their place, their time, their family or community practices, their access or lack thereof to certain kinds of literacies, and so on: For example, in the book, some people said that they appreciated letters more than video chats, because letters felt more meaningful. But that doesn’t mean that letters are fundamentally more meaningful to everyone: One woman described writing the exact same letter to three potential boyfriends and just changing the name! So how particular communication technologies mean to particular people, how we feel about writing a letter versus a text versus sending a Marco Polo–that has to do with larger personal and social valences of that particular literacy technology.
Amy Garey: The book described the advantages migrants gained by acquiring literacy in foreign languages like English and German. Could you speak a little more about the social effects of gaining literacy skills for those who remained in their home countries?
Kate Vieira: Oh, interesting. This is a great question and something my study didn’t address. My sense was there was social capital attached to knowing multiple languages–but I focused more on what these languages meant for peoples’ sense of where they might go, so I don’t want to speculate too much here.
Amy Garey: Noting that many American students practice literacy skills when communicating with relatives abroad, you advocated “love-based critical literacy” pedagogies that incorporate students’ existing digital writing habits. Does SMS-based reading and writing, though, help individuals attain functional literacy (for example, comparing viewpoints in an editorial)?
Kate Vieira: This is a great question because it brings up a really foundational issue of what literacy is and why we teach it. In my home field of composition and rhetoric, we have often focused on teaching literacy for the purposes you outline in your question–to intervene in democratic institutions via, for example, comparing viewpoints in an editorial and other kinds of really important public uses of literacy.
Does an SMS help people do this? Not necessarily. But then again, neither necessarily does a traditional essay. There is no one genre or type of writing that has the corner on critical thinking or, for that matter, political engagement. I think they provide different kinds of opportunities for doing different kinds of work. And certainly there are plenty of essays that exhibit minimal critical thinking and simply rehash harmful ideologies–so the question for me is always not about the genre per se, but what we hope to do with it, whose interests we are serving.
I also want to point out that there is good research in social studies and literacy education, for example, about moving beyond debate to help students develop civic agency. And there is also important work on love as critical in socially just and specifically anti-racist educational projects.
What I’d say from the perspective of this book, though, is that if we as educators overlook two fundamental motivations for practicing literacy–for love and money–then we will miss so much of how literacy means in students’ lives, and we will therefore likely miss out on authentic opportunities to think and learn with students as fellow human beings. Which for me is what the larger literacy educational project is all about: How do we make meaning together? And what can this meaning do for us, our communities, the wider world?
Maybe the answer to these questions is in comparing and contrasting views in an editorial and maybe it’s in sending an SMS or maybe it’s writing a poem–it really depends on the moment, the people, our historical context, and what we want to accomplish together with the act of writing.
Congratulation to Kate Vieira — her book won The Edward B. Fry Book Award from the Literacy Research Association (2020), and the Advancement of Knowledge Award from the Conference on College Composition and Communication (2021).