Mark Sicoli on his book, Saying and Doing in Zapotec

Saying and Doing in Zapotec cover

Interview by Grace East

Grace East: Your book takes us on an immersive journey through the complex and varied social worlds of Lachixío, where we are invited to see how meaning, relationships, and material objects are co-constructed through linguistic and multimodal pursuits among users of Zapotec. What do you see as the books central argument or message?

Mark Sicoli: Thank you for your close interaction with this work and for your thoughtful questions. Before starting this book, I had lived in two Zapotec villages that contrasted by language use. In one, the Zapotec language was in the memory of a few elders. In the other, Zapotec-language conversations coordinated everyday life. From the one case a language could be imagined to be an individual’s knowledge, but from the other it was irreducibly something the people built together. So, when I began this project, I wanted to develop an ethnography of a language where the language’s people and what they made together told the story. This is seen in part through the book’s illustrations and transcriptions depicting daily life interactions, images and tracings of video frames, as well as access to videos for each chapter, and in part through the participatory methodologies that brought it to being. Rather than see this project as bringing together linguistic and multimodal pursuits in a juxtaposition, I aimed to exemplify a multimodal linguistics, engaging with a scale of life emergent when participants come together in the joint commitments of interaction. The focus on joint actions sets language in relations of mutual aid. In this perspective, rather than an autonomous system, any language is inherently incomplete in an evolved openness to the participation of the people and artifacts collaborating in its uses. I work with the concept of resonance to build an understanding of mutual relations built across semiotic modalities, between participants, and through iterations of action-forms across events.

Grace East: At its core, this book seems to work to answer the big question of how humans get things done together. We see variable ways in which co-creation and joint action occur, primarily from the creation and negotiation of social relationships through offers, recruitments, repairs, and resonances. Yet you make an important shift toward the second half of the book and address the ways in which joint actions leave imprints in the material world. What was your goal in drawing parallels between often abstract and intersubjective actions and those that leave material residues?

Mark Sicoli: This is in part to show that there is a certain materiality to relations we’ve conventionally come to view as abstract. For the language of joint actions this is a materiality built between local memory and future obligation and through which future obligation becomes local memory (like semiosis more generally). The book illustrates emergent orders of joint actions in which language participates, and exemplifies the affordances of Lachixío Zapotec for their achievement. While the joint actions considered are generic universals of social life (as in the chapter titles), the resources by which they are achieved are local and particular. A pair of chapters focuses on how offers and recruitments are joint actions through which people build social relationships. A second pair of chapters titled repair and resonate work with an emergent order in which human intersubjectivity is made possible by relationships built through offers and recruitments. Both critique a Cartesian concept of mind prevalent in cognitive and social science that locates mind and language within individuals and their productions. The intersubjectivity building practice of conversational repair is shown to be a way that conversations think in a minded process emergent between participants. Dialogic resonance is shown to be an inter-individual syntactic order that presents an exponentially richer stimulus for language learning and analysis than the order of the sentence. The shift you mention comes with the chapter Build which projects another emergent order from these two, one where offers and recruitments, and sequences of repair and resonance building track through multimodal interactions where participants together build material artifacts that bear traces of their dialogic history. These emergent relationships are also involved in the building of languages which similarly preexist an interaction as guiding potential and are transformed across the actual moments of their dialogic co-creation. This argument is further developed as the last chapter, Living Assemblages.

Grace East: Participatory methods and collaboration seem to be the backbone of your methodology in this book (and the fifty-hour video corpus is really an amazing testament to that!) Its such a wonderful example for newer ethnographers to model in their own project designs with community members centered as partners and collaborators. How did taking a community centered approach to research and your own long-term relationships in Lachixío shape the book? How are participatory methods a part of your overall ethical practice?

Mark Sicoli: As a book about participation in joint actions, it was important that it be made through participatory engagements. My partners chose scenes and daily life activities to film, operated cameras, and participated in locally-situated conversations about language as social action. One method we developed used video playback as a common object for focused conversations. Though what we achieved is to some degrees aspirational for participatory action research, we developed a community-engaged language documentation focused on how a language also participates in human collaborations. The beginnings of this project for me were in choosing to apply a Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics field manual task for building a multimodal corpus at my fieldsite where I had worked already for 10 years mainly focused on oral-aural modalities. I wanted to think about this task with my collaborators in Lachixío to produce a more auto-documentary corpus and extend participation to analysis. Our playback dialog method was developed to counter a tendency for extractive practice that takes materials collected with Indigenous communities to institutional settings where they are analyzed in the absence of the research subjects. Inspired by a continuum of ethnomethodological practices known at the one pole as Video Watching, where iterated collaborative viewings of untranscribed videos interactionally generate ideas for analysis, and at the other pole as Data Sessions, where the objects of joint focus also include a transcript analysis, we resituated these practices in Lachixío. The book was shaped and reshaped in the process. This last year I have been working to publish a Spanish translation of the book and have shared drafts in Lachixío, and with Indigenous and Latin American graduate students and scholars. I’m grateful to see the translation aiding a Zapotec graduate student researching everyday collaborations in kitchens and another incorporating playback dialog methods into research on Zapotec weddings.

Grace East: One of the most exciting aspects of the text for me was how you work to uncloak the mystery of how large-scale dynamics originate at smaller interpersonal scales. In the final chapter, you highlight the place of language in collaborative world-building projects achieved through complex assemblages that connect human and nonhuman participants into living webs of causality” (207). What was the importance for you to portray the origins and outcomes of joint actions in this way? More broadly, where do you see ripple effects and resonances emerging from the minutiae of everyday interaction in other settings?

Mark Sicoli: I like your metaphor of uncloaking how action at one scale of social life affects others. Why do such connections between everyday interpersonal dynamics and the emergence and reproduction of large-scale institutions seem shrouded from attention? More scholars have focused on how large-scale social dynamics limit individual action than have engaged the question of how locally situated and everyday recurrent turns and responses build both the systems’ reproduction and possibilities for their transformation. A question in the background of the book is how can people imagine and achieve another future when there’s been a history of joint commitments to something that’s turning out badly. The first chapter begins with a translation of a dialog that initiates an intervention to reject and establish a need to reimagine an ongoing collaboration. This will require the assent and aid of the other women and men of the work detail who are already committed to the way things are going (badly). The form of the turkey corral they were building ultimately came to show material signs of the dialogic transformations that took place between them, which we examine in a later chapter. We track these transformations through multimodal assemblages that proffered moments ripe for participants to pursue another way. But because prior joint commitments to the current state of the project and to each other tilted the scale to its reproduction, the collective rejection of the ongoing collaboration only took place when its momentum was disrupted, creating space and time for the interactional work needed to unwind the tangle of prior commitments. Examples like this run throughout the book and include repairing a ritual where an overly-generous wedding gift motivated the interruption of the gift procession to resolve the social implications of the offer, a daughter introducing multiple lines of action across modalities that simultaneously complied with and rejected a gendered recruitment for water at the dinner table, the many examples of conversational repair, and the work of dialogic resonance which can transform as it replicates. When considering the wholes of world-building, these component joint actions emerge as answers to questions of how worlds are shored up and how they may be transformed. We know that at any given moment of discourse there is a world of limited possibilities. How do people rupture the membrane of limited choice presented from prior discourse to build a different world, whether that be embodied in the next conversational move, a home for a family’s turkeys, the work of reversing a language shift in process, or repairing our relations and obligations to a living ecology?

Grace East: Throughout the book, you model for us what a new kind of linguistic anthropological ethnography looks like, in which language is examined as just one piece of a multimodal ecology.” In fact, you explain that any linguistic analysis is incomplete without attention paid to the purpose-laden environment, participant assemblages, and co-occurring semiotic dimensions in which meaning is created. What do you see as the possible future(s) of the discipline through this lens and what advice would you give to aspiring ethnographers who hope to engage with such a capacious view of language and human interaction?

Mark Sicoli: Our intellectual ancestors have taught us that the boundaries of languages and disciplines are ideological, which is in part to say that what we see as pattern at one scale is creatively connected through semiotic processes to others. Where some disciplinary perspectives produce knowledge through reductionistic decontextualization, anthropological approaches to linguistics have distinguished themselves for their rather serious attention to context. But too often appeals to context are vague and mere varieties of add-ons for what is already predefined as language (often as “text”). Context as a term may be used in one breath to refer to asymmetrical power relations between participants and in another to historical era, social setting, functional purpose, or the existence of prior talk. A turn to multimodality may at first seem capacious but actually the whole of a multimodal assemblage in which we find the language of joint actions is smaller than what is often ideologically imagined for a Language. Success stories of Indigenous language revitalization through task-based learning in actual collaborations rather than by the goals and settings of traditional-grammar study makes this point well. One move for aspiring ethnographers turning to multimodality is to recognize context as one of those weak nouns that can make the very object of study disappear before our eyes. Multimodality forces us to go beyond context to the intersectional dimensions between modes of semiosis and the affordances of participants and participating objects to relate to each other and to possible futures. For me this shifted the focus to the multimodal resonances that animate living assemblages, which I show in the last chapter is related to concerns of biosemiotics, the Batesonian field becoming known for asking questions that dissolve the institutional divide between the sciences and humanities. Here I’ll point to the resonant history of anthropology where it has included concerns to integrate subfield perspectives as one way that anthropology has offered, and sometimes tended to lose, its achievements to the wider academy. In some ways though these academic developments are just catching up with Indigenous epistemologies. Perhaps an important future for anthropology is in the question of what can emerge in an ethical interrelationship of the three.

Juan del Nido on his book, Taxis vs. Uber

Cover of Taxis vs. Uber by Juan Manuel del Nido

Interview by Diego Valdivieso

Diego Valdivieso:  For those who have not had the opportunity to read your book and have a glimpse of the vicissitudes of Buenos Aires middle class, its taxi industry and how the arrival of Uber was signified and experienced by these actors, could you please summarise the main topics you cover in your work?

Juan Manuel del Nido: In late 2015 I arrived in my hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina to study the taxi industry. Everyone – taxi drivers, union leaders, the city’s middle class – was convinced that, due to the partisan and political make up of the city and the country, Uber would never arrive. But in April 2016 it did! I had by then amassed mountains of ethnographic material on taxis: their laws, governance, economy, infrastructure, sociocultural practices. As the conflict between the company and the taxi industry escalated, I noticed that a certain segment of the city’s middle class – superficially ecumenic, techno-idealist, managerially-minded, anxiously globalist, performatively cosmopolitan – set the tone that defined public debate around the conflict. In that tone, they increasingly naturalised their own reasons and logics and disavowed the reasons and logics of others – specifically, the taxi industry whose workings I had come to know quite well. They were not just political adversaries, but they and their reasons came to be pathologised, written off and explained away; in a way, they stopped counting, even if they were still there and still protesting. I decided then that this would not be a book about taxis or Uber in themselves, or about precaritisation, platform capitalism, the gig economy, but one examining what I call “post-political reasoning”: the logics, rhetoric, and affects through which people imagine, legitimize, and argue for an experience where it is hard, or impossible, to disagree in certain ways.

Diego Valdivieso:  This book may be the outcome of the only ethnographic project carried out while Uber was (crash) landing in a territory. What advantages did this unexpected event bring to your research approach? How did you realise that the unstoppable arrival of Uber was a rich area of research?

Juan Manuel del Nido: It was a truly exceptional opportunity to see abstract logics come to life in a very literal and raw way. Until late March 2016 Uber was viewed as impossible; by mid-April it was allegedly processing tens of thousands of ride requests per day. Before my eyes taxi drivers, judges, federal attorneys and city dwellers began triangulating reasons and arguments that added up to fascinating interpretations of “competition”, “monopoly”, “freedom of choice” and “market forces”, for example, or of the divide between economic and political domains. Drawing from common sense truths, cultural anxieties, urban practices, political conjunctures and other affects and logics, these triangulations would have been entirely speculative or even unpredictable just a few weeks prior. Notions like “competition”, for example, are hugely abstract and ethnographically elusive. I had just spent half a year researching the very relations such notions were reframing – those of the taxi industry, of Peronism, of city and national politics “before Uber”. This knowledge offered me a chance to make anthropological sense of how such abstract notions take concrete forms, something an ethnographer arriving to a place where Uber, or any disruption, has already happened, would struggle to do.

The book was born out of my attempt to turn that luck of being in the right place at the right time into an ethnographic opportunity that I figured others, or even myself in future endeavours, would be unlikely to have: what is it that someone who does not get to see this pivotal break happening is unlikely to capture? On a different level, I was fascinated and alarmed by the fact that, as you say, Uber’s arrival seemed unstoppable. Already anthropologists were critiquing the platform’s precarisation of working conditions, denaturalisation of labour and more, but I do not think then, or now, scholars really asked: how did this come to appear as unstoppable to a certain group of people who are familiar, and may even agree, with our long-rehearsed arguments about labour, precariousness and such? Rather than focusing on denunciation and moralisation, I think we need to produce better ethnographies of how, increasingly, certain ways of thinking – managerial, technocratic, moralised and moralising – are becoming harder to actually challenge, that is, to disagree with beyond the protected confines of our academic seminars.

Diego Valdivieso: Throughout the book you are able to tackle a particular kind of reasoning by focussing on what people see as relevant and the affects, emotions, motivations and aspirations involved in this process. Although you give us some hints, could you share your reflections on how to address ethnographically something like reasoning through logics, rhetoric and affect?

Juan Manuel del Nido: I think it’s about fostering a different ethico-narrative disposition than the prevailing one, aiming to be alert to how things, affects, and rhetoric combine, catalyse or stunt each other, shaping social relations in often quite complex or even counterintuitive ways. To be clear: this is not yet another plea for seeing the world as emergent, contingent, becoming, fragmented, multiple, multifarious and so on, but rather an exhortation to ethnographers to reflect on the difference between pedantic, neurotic and often moralising literalism, on the one hand, and actual critical engagement with our interlocutors and ethnographic encounters, on the other.

For example: when the courts struggled, in technical terms, to block Uber’s services from the territory of the city of Buenos Aires, the middle class saw in that technical difficulty evidence that “economic forces” trumped “the political”. One way of addressing this ethnographically, common in anthropology today, is through a “well, actually…” disposition – a literalist deconstruction of an argument, however spurious. Such pedantic literalism increasingly passes for a kind of rigour, and even for a righteous concern with what we understand to be the truth. What I propose in Taxis vs Uber is to take these ethnographic encounters seriously, instead of literally, to produce an actual critique of how they organise knowledge and how they manage to persuade. In the case of this example, a historical distrust in the courts, the government and the union; an unreflexive, bourgeois sense of one’s own agency and what it demands of the world; and a habit of casually crossing jurisdictional borders, all fed into each other in the reasoning of a certain segment of the middle class and give us far richer insights into how it was even possible to imagine that Uber, or its relations, trumped what scholars see as the political – regardless of the technical, moral, or truth value of such a claim. However spurious, this is the reasoning that made it so hard for the taxi industry to even be heard. The capacity of a kind of reasoning to persuade does not depend on a soundness one can cross examine through a literalist sequencing, as it were, but on how affects, practices, materialities and other ethnographic features, truths in a subtler, and in the actually interesting sense of the term, give flesh to that reasoning as they buttress and propel each other. We miss these configurations if we do ethnography with militant (and increasingly, moralising) pedantry.

Diego Valdivieso:  Your book gives fundamental clues to understand the scope of non-expert reasoning and the socio-political consequences that this way of knowing can generate. Beyond the particularities that your analysis of Buenos Aires middle class and the arrival of Uber suggest, what phenomena do you think could be addressed from an approach centred on the distribution of the sensible?

Juan Manuel del Nido: I think it is an immensely generative and underexplored possibility! As Ranciere formulated it, the distribution of the sensible suggests we think of the political as the distribution of parts, roles, and voices in a society or even an epoch, a pattern of differences and proportions whose language we broadly share and where we roughly know our, and others’, part. This distribution is always unequal: parts count in different ways and some parts are there but somehow do not count. Parts, here, is not necessarily byword for class, caste, or any sort of inexorable partitioning of society, but rather particular convergences of bodies, interests, and things in the face of a social question.

Ranciere was thinking about a very big picture, political-system-kind-of-magnitude, but I kept thinking in his terms to understand how different  parts of society – unelected experts, gangs, a globalist middle class, a particular industry, an elite producing the dominant aesthetics – make up a social problem at ethnographic level: a conflict over an app, homelessness, building a house, whatever. An ethnography approached through the distribution of the sensible is one that focuses on what emerges ethnographically as being at stake, a site of contention, as disagreement in the broadest sense of the term, by looking at how voices, people, things participate in the distribution of the senses those stakes can have. What are the material or rhetorical cleavages that catalyse, hinder or shape the stakes? How do different parts consolidate themselves, seek to reframe the terms in which other can participate in the stakes, or to change what counts as a valid argument, or presence, and what counts as noise? Which voices give their tone and grammar to the whole, which ones can share a lexicon with which others and which ones are disallowed?

Political anthropologists might recognise here Jonathan Spencer’s invitation to follow disagreement in their ethnography. In that vein, in Taxis vs Uber I found the distribution of the sensible is a particularly powerful approach to examine the increasing moralisation, pathologisation and disavowal of genuine disagreement in our societies. It is increasingly difficult to disagree and remain a political equal: to disagree is to be an idiot, recalcitrant, morally toxic and be written off, or in Ranciere’s terms, to become those whose voices count as noise, “the part that has no part”. In Taxis vs Uber this was the part of the taxi industry and of whoever disagreed with Uber, but increasingly, all around us, this is the part for whoever tries to claim that a particular question, from public health to migration, from an app to climate change, could be asked in different terms, or answered otherwise.

Noah Arjomand on his book, Fixing Stories

Fixing Stories

Interview by Susan Seizer

Susan Seizer: Please briefly explain your choice of the term “fixers” and describe the work they do. One of the chapters in your book is titled, “Are Fixers Journalists?” Please explain the need for such a chapter; what are the issues at play here?

Noah Arjomand: Conventions vary from place to place and among print, television, and radio journalism, but in most dialects of journo lingo, a “fixer” is a guide and interpreter whom a foreign reporter hires to broker their relations with local news sources. Fixers find people, arrange and translate interviews, explain political and cultural contexts, and manage logistics and safety for their clients.

Labeling someone a “fixer” not only describes their role in journalism’s division of labor, however, but also symbolically places them in a particular position in journalism’s hierarchy, implying that they are at a level of professionalism higher that “translators” or “drivers” but lower than “producers.” Editors, reporters, and producers hem and haw over whether fixers are really journalists, and accordingly over how much they deserve a say over the selection and framing of news or public credit for the stories they help produce.

Some people interested in decolonizing journalism dislike the term “fixer.” To these critics, the label is a tool of boundary-work that denigrates local knowledge as biased and local news contributors as dispensable non-persons in order to naturalize the supremacy of supposedly more objective and professional (usually Euro-American) outsiders.

I thought it was important to use the term “fixer” in my book precisely because it serves as an emic signifier of contested inequality. Rather than taking a side in the label’s controversy by embracing more politically correct neologisms like “local partner” or “freelance producer” that symbolically reject (or perhaps obfuscate) relations of inequality, I sought to use the “fixer” label as a key to open up international journalism’s internal conflicts to readers.

What are the conditions under which news contributors embrace or reject the label “fixer” for themselves or their colleagues? What do people do to convince their colleagues that they should or should not be labeled as such?

Susan Seizer: I like the ongoing focus on insiderness and outsiderness, and how these positionalities shift. Such contextual shifts are what sociologists call “fields.” Your composite female characters Elif and Nur each enter the fixer position for opposite reasons and from opposite backgrounds. How do they each use insiderness and outsiderness strategically in interaction with reporters?

Noah Arjomand: The characters Elif and Nur came from very different backgrounds. Elif was a member of Istanbul’s cosmopolitan elite, had lived abroad, and became a fixer by way of socializing with foreign journalists. When the Gezi Park protest movement broke out in 2013, Elif helped a friend of a friend with his reporting and found that fixing gave her license to connect with all different kinds of people, to escape her White Turk bubble.

Nur was the upwardly mobile daughter of a Kurdish family in the eastern city of Diyarbakir; she was working as a translator for minority rights organizations when her first client recruited her to help report on the Kurdish Movement in which she herself was an activist. Nur enjoyed fixing in large part because it afforded her the opportunity to get to know exotic international journalists and become more worldly.

Elif was a relative outsider to her sources and insider to her clients; Nur was the opposite. The two accordingly brought different cultural toolkits to their interactions with reporters and sources. Elif’s colloquial English and understanding of American and Western European perspectives allowed her to gain her clients’ trust and help them make sense of local happenings. Nur’s fluent Kurmanji and Kurdish Movement connections helped her to secure access and set sources at ease.

Yet for all their differences, both characters used fixing to chase adventure and escape conformity to the social milieux into which they were born. For Elif, adventure was meeting sources from outside of her corner of respectable society; for Nur, it was getting to know foreigners.

Sociologists who conceptualize the social world as overlapping but semi-autonomous fields with their own values and hierarchies tend to assume that participants in any field are primarily motivated to enhance their status within it. Those field theorists do a wonderful job of explaining how inequalities in cultural and social capital allow some to better conform to a field’s standards. But what I found among fixers was a non-conformist pursuit of adventure that pulled them in the opposite direction. Neither Elif not Nur had much interest in achieving high status within familiar local fields of social life (that is, to become a belle of Istanbul high society or a leader of the Kurdish Movement, respectively); instead, each took advantage of their strategic position at the intersection of local and international fields to strike out into the unknown.

Susan Seizer: Your book is organized in a creatively accessible way. You use short sections throughout the book that follow the characters you introduce, one of whom is yourself. As a reader I found it easier to enter into the historical realities you document when tied to personal lives. What influenced your choice of this format?

Noah Arjomand: I wanted to write a book that was not just for insiders to my own field. I aimed for a style that would spark and hold the interest of anyone with an interest in journalism or the region, one that would offer continued discoveries and surprises from start to finish instead of putting all my cards on the table in introductory exposition. In centering the career narratives of fixers, I sought to give readers fleshed-out characters to love and hate and follow along their journeys. Short narrative chapters are interspersed with passages of social theory that serve to provide readers the tools to understand characters’ motivations, strategies, and fates. My hope is that the book’s narrative approach also makes it easier, as you say, for the reader to enter into the historical reality, to understand how large-scale events and changes like the collapse of the Kurdish-Turkish peace movement or the rise of ISIS in Syria shaped people’s lives and conditioned who was making the news and how.

Creating composite characters allowed me to keep names and backstories down to a memorable number while including the most illuminating vignettes and high-stakes adventures. Composites also provided the benefit of better protecting the anonymity of my interlocutors, whom I describe doing and saying things that could get them in trouble with their colleagues or with violent state or non-state organizations.

I found, not entirely expectedly, that the process of creating composite character narratives offered not just literary benefits to the reader but also analytical benefits to me. To determine which real-life fixers and reporters to combine, I developed a method for systematically thinking through similarities and differences in the sequences of their careers, which I describe in a methodological appendix. Some key insights—including about the aforementioned boundary-work with which journalists differentiate “fixers” from “producers”—came to me not during my fieldwork, but in the laborious process of creating and interrogating composite narratives.

I subjected myself to the same analysis: the “Noah” who appears on the pages of Fixing Stories is a composite, not indexical to me the author. Explicitly comparing myself to my research participants helped me to make sense of and reflect critically on the limits of my access as a researcher, my experience as a participant-observer working as both a reporter and fixer, and ultimately my own motivations and adventure-seeking.

Susan Seizer: As a cultural anthropologist I find it useful to hear your frank discussion of the key role of fixers as locals who provide entrée. Anthros used to call such people their primary informants or key informants, while they more recently use the terms collaborators or interlocutors. Whatever term we use, such people made my being an anthropologist possible, and I feel I owe them everything. We maintain ongoing relationships as ethnographic family. Do you anticipate maintaining relationships with any of those you worked with in the field beyond this project?

Noah Arjomand: You’ve hit the nail on the head in comparing fixers to “key informants,” “collaborators,” or I might add “indigenous research assistants.” All fields of knowledge production across cultural differences rely on analogous processes of mediation, on brokers who can help outsiders gain access to and make sense of local realities.

Anthropologists and journalists have a shared history of erasing these contributors from their accounts. Their mediation complicated claims of objectivity and unfettered access, and authors’ need for their services belied the myth of the intrepid (White) adventurer going native. First in anthropology and more recently in journalism, though, there has been a shift from erasure toward acknowledgement of these local brokers as an ethical imperative and toward considering them as partners in knowledge production. Many reporters now think about their relationships with fixers as something like mutual apprenticeships rather than as series of extractive transactions. Some prominent international correspondents started their careers as fixers.

Complicating this move toward acknowledgement and methodological transparency is the fact that some of these mediators want to remain in the safety of the shadows, to maintain a kind of strategic ambiguity about whose side they are on. Recognized affiliation with an ethnographer or reporter can be a source of both power and harm for a local broker. A fixer might not want their name on a report critical of the Turkish president or a Syrian militia.

As for my relationships with research participants, I certainly feel a debt of gratitude toward people who gave me their time and opened up to me about their triumphs and shames and fears and aspirations, especially because as media producers they were doubtless aware of the potential for me to represent them in an unflattering light or even put them in danger. As compared to ethnographers who study subaltern groups from positions of relative privilege, though, I have been much less able to reciprocally express my gratitude through material aid or service. I offered one Syrian refugee-turned-fixer help applying to graduate school and have done sundry minor favors from childcare to covering beer tabs for other journalists. But by and large, I continue to need them more than they need me, to take more than I can give. Several read my book and gave helpful feedback; one even copy-edited my writing in close detail, saying she couldn’t help herself. Just the other day I wrote to a couple research participants asking for recommendations of journalists in London who might serve as discussants for a talk I have coming up there. One or two of them might even write a review of the book, if I’m lucky. Most of my interlocutors also lead such busy professional lives that I don’t share the experience of many ethnographers of feeling guiltily compelled to continually respond to calls and messages from bored and needy “fieldwork kin” aggrieved that they don’t keep in touch. My collaborators have moved on to their next story.

David Sutton on his book, Bigger Fish to Fry

Bigger Fish to Fry: A Theory of Cooking as Risk, with Greek Examples

Interview by Ariana Gunderson

Ariana Gunderson: You write that “cooking involves a code and its instantiations,” (Sutton 2021, 15). Do you consider the code of cooking to be analogous to linguistic codes? If so, how?

David Sutton: This question is really at the heart of what I was trying to do in this book. Because when I started studying cooking, I was very far from a structuralist perspective, and was much more drawn to approaches to cooking as embodied sociomaterial practice. Much of my work on cooking that was based on my video ethnography, especially in Secrets from the Greek Kitchen, focused on skill, tool use, the kitchen as environment, and other concepts that I adopted from people like Tim Ingold and Jean Lave. But what kept nagging at me was that cooking clearly wasn’t just emergent. We don’t just start out with a random set of ingredients and see what bubbles up; we set out to make something. So the whole dialectic between structure and practice that was so much of my graduate training seemed relevant again, and especially in the form that Sahlins writes about, since his approach is all about understanding the riskiness of all practice. And of course he was drawing from and modifying the linguistic-derived approach Lévi-Strauss. And then of course there was Mary Douglas’s work on food categories. So I think that at first I believed that these new approaches were what I needed to understand cooking, but the book is really about reconciling a dynamic structuralism with a more embodied phenomenology.

Ariana Gunderson: Might we consider recipe-writing a process of entextualization? Is the moment of recipe inscription a risky one?

David Sutton: On the one hand I have long felt that the moment of entextualization of recipes has tended to be problematic, a claiming of authorship that has often privileged male chefs over “anonymous” female cooks, a point made by Luce Giard, among others. And this appropriation of power often occurs in the process of inscription, whereas oral transmission is still controlled by ordinary women. So it’s risky from the point of view of who gets credit and who gets forgotten. It’s also risky in the sense that a recipe is always a “moment in time,” as Jacques Pepin puts it, the freezing of a process, which is the opposite of an approach attuned to contingency. So inscription is also translation, a translation of an assemblage of experiences; it is doubly risky. Perhaps triply so because in many culinary memoirs the moment of writing down the recipe from an older relative almost always presages impending death. At the same time, I think that the written recipe has a function, at least as a memory jog. Although the more I think about it, I realize that on Kalymnos this function is served by other people, mostly women that share the matrilocal kitchen space, and who constantly remind each other of the ingredients, proportions, and tricks that are involved in each dish.

Ariana Gunderson: Your research has been rooted in Kalymnos for decades, enabling you to examine long-term change and continuity in this new book. What do you see as the connection between an extended period of study and paying attention to small scale change?

David Sutton: I’ve always admired long-term fieldwork and the insights that come from it; I think it provides insight into continuity and change, or “changing continuities” as my mother, Constance Sutton, described it based on her long-term engagement with Barbados. Given that my initial fieldwork on Kalymnos was about historical consciousness, it’s also been interesting to see how ideas about the past change over time, and especially how small-scale change can lead to bigger changes. But small-scale change is important in other ways, in that you can see it happening ethnographically much more clearly than you can see a change, let’s say, from so-called traditional to modern world views. So I’m suggesting that focusing on something like cooking allows us to see the process of change (and continuity) in action, rather than comparing how things were at two points in time and making assumptions about what happened in between.  

I’ve noticed how many social theorists use the metaphor of recipes to talk about various social processes, though as with my comments above, I think the idea of the recipe can be problematic. On the other hand, I like to think about how much of the activity of cooking is similar to anthropology: attention to detail, participant sensing, focus on parts and wholes. Making cooking more explicit as part of our research can illuminate a lot of the social processes that we are interested in.

Ariana Gunderson: In an autoethnographic interlude, you describe recreating your late father’s spinach casserole in search of his voice. This calls up Annie Hauck-Lawson’s use of the concept of food voice to assert agency and the real-world impact of non-verbal, edible communication. Can you speak to how you find the concept of food voice useful in your ethnographic work?

David Sutton: I’ve always liked Hauck-Lawson’s concept of food voice because it can both extend and stand in for other ways that people express themselves. In Greece food voice is expressed at least in part through smell as neighbors pay attention to, and comment upon, the smell of what’s cooking next door. But I think I was most directly influenced by Carole Counihan’s slightly modified use of food voice, or what she calls “food centered life histories.” Especially in her book A Tortilla is Like Life, she uses the concept to get at the very distinct personalities, and distinct life trajectories, of the Mexicana women in southern Colorado that she was studying. I tried to do a bit of that in my previous book Secrets from the Greek Kitchen. In a way I feel like food voice does some of the work for me at the micro-level that gustemology does at the collective level. Both are about exploring peoples’—individual and collective—food-centered world views. I feel that the best ethnography moves between these two levels.  

Ariana Gunderson: Did writing Bigger Fish to Fry change how you cook? Do you hope it will change the way readers cook?

David Sutton: I think it did and I hope it does. One of my targets in the book is the idea of culinary perfectionism, what John Finn calls “culinary fascism.” It’s the idea that there is one right way to do some kitchen task, or one best recipe for any dish. I think there are a lot of lingering problematic assumptions in this approach to cooking, which can lead to things like molecular gastronomists claiming to separate old wives’ tales from scientific truths about cooking. My focus on risk and contingency, I hope, challenges the idea of perfection: in other words, I suggest that, like the Kalymnians, we should imagine good cooking as managing contingencies (material, sensory and social), rather than achieving perfection. Also, I think that the idea that I develop from Sahlins that every reproduction is also a transformation suggests a greater willingness to accept and enjoy the differences and similarities when we cook a familiar dish. I think that if we think about what makes cooking cooking in terms not of a product but of a process of confronting all the contingencies that arise both in and out of the space of the kitchen, and developing our own tricks to deal with these contingencies, to improvise, we might develop a healthier, more equanimous attitude, rather than the more dichotomous one of success versus failure, which can lead to stress and frustration.   

Cheryl Yin takes the page 99 test

Growing up in Long Beach, CA, surrounded by the Cambodian diaspora, Khmer (Cambodian) honorific registers were the bane of my existence. As a child, I could not differentiate between si (“eat,” informal) and nyam (“eat,” neutral), or even anh (“I/me,” informal) and knyom (“I/me,” neutral). To me, these words were synonyms, interchangeable with one another, without regard to context, mood, or positionality. Because I could neither handle the criticisms nor the laughter from Cambodian American adults whenever I used the wrong word, I decided to stop speaking Khmer at the tender age of five. Around the same time, I was about to start kindergarten and could not differentiate between “mushroom” and “bathroom” in English either. Fearing I would be unable to express a desperate need to relieve myself in school, rather than an urgent need to use fungi, my family sat me down and made me practice saying “bathroom” over and over again. Eventually I learned the difference between “mushroom” and “bathroom,” but I was never given the same guidance with Khmer honorific registers.

I attempted to overcome my fear of Khmer in my 20s, studying the language and selecting it as the topic of my dissertation “Khmer Honorifics: Re-emergence and Change After the Khmer Rouge.” Page 99 of my dissertation is located in “Chapter 2: How Not to Talk to Monks,” a chapter centered around an honorific register dedicated to Buddhist monks in Cambodia. With current trends, it seems that not knowing how to speak to monks in the monk honorific register is becoming the norm and this page highlights two possible strategies for navigating Khmer honorifics. On the top half of the page, I am ending a sub-section about monk avoidance as one strategy Cambodians may employ to evade speaking to monks, especially if they feel their fluency in the monk honorific register is lacking. “[Cambodians] would rather hide and run away from [monks] than use the ‘wrong’ register” (page 99). The last half of page 99 is also the beginning of a new section about using the ordinary register with monks. Cambodians may preface a conversation with monks by apologizing, stating that they do not have command of the monk honorific register, and asking if it is alright if they continue to speak to the monk in the ordinary register. “Instead of running away, these Khmer-speakers hope that the monks will be forgiving of this flaw” (page 99).

The anxiety Cambodians encounter when in the presence of monks parallels my anxiety as a child. One page prior, I shared a discussion with the Venerable Bunchea, a Cambodian monk who was in residence at a Buddhist temple in Brooklyn, NY, about Cambodians and their (lack of) fluency in the monk honorific register. Throughout our interaction, whenever I caught myself saying knyom (“I/me,” neutral), I quickly self-corrected myself by saying knyom gana (“I/me,” with monks). The Venerable Bunchea even interrupted me several times by sternly saying “Gana!” whenever I absentmindedly said chas (“yes,” female) to remind me that I ought to use gana (“yes,” with monks) while talking to him. Like other Cambodians who make similar linguistic slippages, I felt like a failure. Should I run away the next time I encounter a monk as some Cambodians do to avoid embarrassment?

When I asked the Venerable Bunchea which of the two strategies discussed on page 99 he preferred (having Cambodians run away from him versus speaking to him, but apologizing for any mistakes made), he answered with:

When we’re afraid of one another, and are scared to talk to each other, scared of being wrong… we continue to be scared… In Khmer we say, “If you’re scared, get closer.” If you’re scared, get closer. That’s how we learn. (page 98)

Re-visiting page 99 reminded me that I was not alone in my fears of the Khmer language—even native Khmer-speakers shudder in the presence of monks. While I did run away from Khmer as a young child due to my linguistic errors, just as Cambodians today run away from monks, I have gotten closer to it as an adult, even turning it into the topic of my dissertation. Mistakes will be made, judgements and criticisms abound, but it happens to the best of us. The fate of the Buddhist monk honorific register rests in the hands of contemporary Cambodians: will they get closer to monks or will they walk away?

Cheryl Yin. 2021. Khmer Honorifics: Re-emergence and Change After the Khmer Rouge. University of Michigan. Phd.