Helena Wulff reflects on her career

Helena Wulff 2021

What article or book that you wrote are you most pleased with?  Could you talk about the story behind writing it?

It is hard to choose between an article and book – they are very different in form and content. This is why I include favorite examples of both an article, or an encyclopedia entry, and a book here.

I was delighted to be invited to write an entry on “Writing Anthropology” (2021) for The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology http://doi.org/10.29164/21writing and I am very pleased with it. In the entry, I argue for the importance of an accessible academic anthropology and acknowledge that:

Writing is key in anthropology, as one of its main modes of communication. Teaching, research, publications, and outreach all build on, or consist of, writing(…)While writing anthropology in a literary mode goes a long way back, it was not until the 1970s that writing began to be collectively acknowledged as a craft to be cultivated in the discipline. This led to a boom of experimental ethnographic writing from the 1980s, as part of the “writing culture” debate. The idea behind experimental narratives was that they might convey social life more accurately than conventional academic writing. Today, literary production and culture continue to be a source of inspiration for anthropologists, as well as a topic of study. Anthropological writing ranges from creative nonfiction to memoirs, journalism, and travel writing. Writing in such non-academic genres can be a way to make anthropological approaches and findings more widely known, and can inspire academic writing to become more accessible. 

The story behind writing the entry was that I have a longstanding interest in the anthropology of writing, in different genres, which spurred me to teach master’s courses on writing such as “Anthropological Writing Genres” and “Writing Anthropology” in my Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University. This interest was also partly the reason I did a major study of the social world of writing in Ireland published as Rhythms of Writing: An Anthropology of Irish Literature (Routledge, 2017). This is then a book I am as pleased with as the entry. As usual, also when it comes to writing as craft and career, Ireland is an eloquent ethnographic case that speaks to wider issues from a rollercoaster economy, emigration and exile to borders and postcoloniality.

Ireland is often identified as a place of creativity where these issues, and others, have been expressed through storytelling, literature, music, and dance. All are prominent in Irish life. The title of the book refers to both the rhythms of the long hours writers spend writing by themselves in the private sphere, alternating with promotion appearances in the literary public sphere, and a distinctive rhythm of an Irish literary style.

Now as Professor Emerita, I keep developing my interest in writing by researching and publishing in relation to the project “Migrant writing in Sweden.” This was included in a major interdisciplinary research program “Cosmopolitan and Vernacular Dynamics in World Literatures.” I have also ventured into auto-fiction, even creative nonfiction.

Helena home office

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

When I was doing fieldwork with American Ballet Theatre which is based in New York, they went on a one-week tour to The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Of course, I went with them in the bus and stayed in the same hotel as they did. Just like I had been doing for almost three months with them (and for almost two years with the Royal Swedish Ballet in Stockholm and The Royal Ballet in London) my days were spent watching morning class, rehearsals in the afternoon and performances at night, sometimes from the wings and sometimes from the auditorium. On the opening night at The Kennedy Center, the classical ballet Manon was performed. It was a grand occasion with Washington’s glitterati present. As I was watching from the auditorium, I was wearing a black suit with velvet collar and a crème colored top. This was when Bill Clinton was President and Hillary and Chelsea were in the auditorium raising the level of security considerably, with stern body guards talking to each other wirelessly all over the place. In the ballet world, it is customary that dignitaries who have watched a performance, are invited back stage after the performance. So Hillary came back stage, thanking the ballet director and all the dancers, shaking hands with one after another as they stood in a long line across the stage behind the closed curtain. I was standing discreetly in the background, observing. But Hillary noticed me and went up to me saying politely and with appreciation: “Thank you for the performance!”  I was dumbfounded.      

What is one of your favorite fieldwork stories to tell that you have never written about?

It was in 1982 and I was doing fieldwork for my PhD on ethnicity, friendship and youth culture in South London, England. There had been race riots in neighbouring Brixton, but things seemed to have calmed down. At least for now, at least in the streets. Having grown up in still homogeneous Sweden, I was (unlikely as it may seem now) an adult before I met a black person.

My fieldwork was going well. After the usual tentative start, I got access to a youth club, a school, a street corner, and even to some of the girls’ homes. I became a part of the daily life of the ethnically mixed group of teenage girls I was focusing on. My landlady, Beverley, who had moved to England from Jamaica with her parents when she was seven, and I became friends, spending a lot of time together. Beverley introduced me to her parents and friends, and took me to concerts and all-night blues parties. After a couple of months, I stopped noticing that I was the only white person in many contexts. But an incisive incident would remind me.   

One summer night, Beverley took me and two of her friends to a reggae concert in Brixton. Happily chatting away, we were waiting in the crowd outside the theater. There was the familiar scent of ganja lingering in the air. Quite a few Rastas with long dreadlocks were there, wearing the bright red, yellow and green in clothing and knitted hats. “Yeah, man,” was echoing around us. We took out our tickets. That was when a black boy pushed his way towards us. Without warning, he ripped my ticket out of my hand! Before running away, he shouted: “I wouldn’t take a ticket from a black girl!” Beverley and her friends were furious. “This is why you start a riot!” Beverley burst out. They all wanted to leave with me. But I insisted that they stay for the concert. I went back on my own, upset, offended. On the subway my thoughts came rushing: Swedes never exploited blacks like the British did! Looking down at my white hands, I kept thinking the obvious: “You do not chose your parents. The color of your skin is not a choice.” Suddenly another thought came to me. It was the insight that this is what it is like, all the time, for them, for black people. They experience discrimination because of the color of their skin. The skin they cannot do anything about, that they did not chose. So this is what it is like to be black.             

Do you have to be one in order to understand someone else’s predicament? Trying to make sense of the incident, I was reminded of the discussion in anthropology about this issue. While learning about difference is a way to discover new things about yourself or your culture, what is different to you is familiar to someone else and hence might not be identified at all by others. This is a premise in anthropology. Still, it was not until I had this bodily experience of discrimination that I – in a flash – felt that I really did understand, at least something about what it can be like to black. And it might all have been a mistake: Would the black boy have taken my ticket had he known I was not British?

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

Watching dance – contemporary or ballet – then I get a sense that “this is reality” which probably is a neurological reaction, a Bourdieuan body hexis, as my body remembers what it feels like to dance.

Helena happily writing away in her home study

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

When I saw my first book Ballet across Borders: Career and Culture in the World of Dancers (Routledge, 1998) for sale at a Barnes and Noble store in New York. Though I had edited a volume on Youth Cultures (Routledge, 1995) with Vered Amit-Talai before, I had only seen it for sale at book exhibits at conferences such as of the American Anthropological Association and the European Association of Social Anthropologists. This was the first time a monograph I had authored was for sale in a commercial book store. In fact, it was not only an academic success for me, it was also a childhood dream fulfilled: to write a book. But mainly I was excited that I had exceeded any expectation I used to have about what I would be able to achieve in my career. I got a sense of being inducted into the anthropological community, into conversation with fellow academics. As I left the book store uplifted, though, I spotted the ballet director Kevin McKenzie at American Ballet Theatre, turning a corner in front of me, walking briskly in the direction of the company’s studios in Broadway, lower Manhattan. He was such a good guy, having accepted me into the daily life of his company, even allowing me to join them on the tour to Washington, D.C. I would not have been able to do my research, and write my book, without him. He epitomized my fieldwork and my past as a dancer. There he was on his way to the world I had grown up in, come back to for my research, and just left for good and – despite my true delight over having had an academic career, with so much fun and many exceptional experiences – would keep missing.

Narges Bajoghli on her book, Iran Reframed

Cover of Iran Reframed by Narges Bajoghli

Interviewed by Zehra Hashmi


Zehra Hashmi: The storytelling and narrative flow of this ethnography works beautifully, and seemingly effortlessly, allowing the argument to emerge organically and convincingly from the stories you tell. To begin, could you speak to your writing choices, specifically the innovative way you are using your interlocutors’ stories as the driving force of the book as opposed to an intervention into existing anthropological literature? What was involved in making these choices; was it primarily informed by the material you were dealing with and the subject at hand—or, put another way, if you were to write another book on something entirely different, would you choose a similar mode of storytelling and narrative construction?

Narges Bajoghli: I first wrote this manuscript as a more traditional scholarly manuscript because that’s what I thought I should do to gain acceptance in academia as a junior scholar. Yet, I had done a lot of public writing to that point, some of which engaged storytelling, and had also trained as a documentary filmmaker at NYU during my doctoral training. After turning in my traditional manuscript, my editor at Stanford University Press, Kate Wahl, encouraged me to write more in line with my previous public work and to show the anthropological, media, and social dynamics at play, rather than tell them. Hearing that from her was a relief—it felt like a green light to write the book I most wanted to read. As a first-time author and a junior scholar, the push to trust my own writing voice and to take storytelling seriously in my scholarship was exactly what I needed. So, I set about to re-write the manuscript as a whole. In doing so, I did two main things: first, I read a lot of great creative non-fiction, both longform essays and books to get ideas and inspiration for structure. And second, I storyboarded the manuscript as if I were making a film. I went back to my fieldnotes and the evidence I had provided in my more traditionally academic manuscript and drew out the stories of my main interlocutors as ones that would anchor the book.

As anthropologists we know the central importance of storytelling for humans. So, in writing this book, I took all of that to heart and applied the craft of storytelling as the central tenet of the book. Since I was writing on Iran—a country that despite all the ink that’s been spilt on describing its socio-political development since the 1979 Iranian Revolution remains a deeply confusing place for most people to understand—I really wanted to engage audiences outside those who focus on Iran as an area of academic expertise. I was writing on a place that is at times both familiar to people (though mainly in stereotypes) and deeply alien; I knew the only way to cut through all of that was to center the lives of people and to have the reader follow them throughout the narrative arc of the book. 

As for whether I’d choose a similar or different mode of writing for an entirely different book, after my experience writing Iran Reframed, my answer is that I will definitely try to keep storytelling at the heart of whatever I write in the future. Not only is it more enjoyable as a writing process—even if at times much more difficult—but it helps to engage multiple audiences. I went into academia to not only speak to my colleagues, but to make what we work on available to larger audiences.

Zehra Hashmi: I am interested in how gheyr-e-khodi (insiders) works as an analytical category in the book. You show that who constitutes the gheyr-e-khodi is not fixed; a person once embraced can be shunned at a different point in time or place. But is there also a broader, over-arching shift in this insider-outsider dynamic that you are demonstrating throughout the arc of the book? I am thinking about how, on the one hand, the khodi are visibly marked through dress, while on the other hand, regime producers deliberately obscure the origins of some of their films by playing with visual markers and their own strategies for dissimulation (p. 91). Is the question of what constitutes the regime then determined by the shifting category of the gheyr-e-khodi? And more generally, could you expand upon what I read as one of the book’s central arguments about the role of internally contested meanings of the regime: how did you arrive at this argument and what does it reveal that external critiques of the regime do not?

Narges Bajoghli: What I was trying to do in the book was to show the layers of power, how it shifts, how it’s not static, and how complex it can be. Showing the shifting terrain of khodi/gheyr-e khodi was one of the main ways I attempted to do this. Oftentimes we conceive of power in ways that I don’t think captures how incredibly malleable and flexible power manifests itself in our daily lives, especially state power, and the ways that it comes through in everyday practices of dress, speech, and so on. So, even in a state like Iran that is marked by a particular kind of post-revolutionary politics, power shifts to stay alive and the markers of khodi/gheyr-e khodi are used to demarcate its realm.

Regarding your second question, the role of internally contested meanings of the regime—Iran is different than other revolutionary states of the 20th century because it did not develop a party system. Add to that the fact that the revolution was not led by a small cohort of people—so there has always been contestation over the meaning of the revolution and its legacy from its onset by its myriad participants. What this has meant as we enter into the fifth decade of the revolution is that there has not been a top-down “this is what the revolution is, period!” The internal divisions among those who are loyal to the post-revolutionary state is very much a struggle about what the legacy of this revolution will be. This has always been a live question inside Iran, even if this gets flatten for outside observers. Though these struggles spill out into domestic media, the degree of contestation behind closed doors in regime centers was constantly palpable.

Zehra Hashmi: What kind of an audience was in your mind when you wrote this book? You show that the Iranian diaspora plays an important role in the media landscape within Iran, and so even as these boundaries between audiences are not hard and fast, has the response of people in Iran differed from those in the US? Additionally, given your position and your experience, did you feel conflicting solidarities in the field, and if so how did you approach and manage these dual (or more!) pressures?

Narges Bajoghli: During fieldwork I definitely felt multiple points of tension. When I left fieldwork, I couldn’t write for a long time and had to work through the anger and frustration that often arose from what I saw. I knew I’d come under attack from various sectors—even if I didn’t know how extensive the attacks would be at the time. Just the mere fact of spending time with pro-regime actors in Iran opened me up to criticism from Iranians opposed to the state (including many in my own family and close friends circles). That I expected and I assumed that when folks read the book they’d understand what I was trying to do and why it was important to research sites of power, even for (or I’d argue, especially for) activists.

What I did not expect and couldn’t have known was the ways the U.S. government funded attacks against me. My book came out in the throes of Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign for regime change/collapse in Iran, and I was targeted by a campaign funded by the Pompeo State Department that went after Iranian American academics, journalists, and analysts. That campaign was primarily an online smear campaign with attendant attempts to discredit me as supposedly pro-regime and put my job in danger. The funding for that campaign came to an abrupt end after I hired lawyers, yet nonetheless the orbit of regime-change organizations and people around Trump/Pompeo continue their attacks. But as one of my graduate school mentors once said to me, “everything is data,” and indeed, I am keeping good notes on all of this and hope to one day write about how power and media work in the United States on issues of national security interest.

As for the primary audience for my book, my primary audience was my students and their generation of learners. Not only because our books often get assigned in college classrooms, but also because my students’ questions and curiosity as I was writing my book were front and center and I wanted to write for them to make sense of this increasingly confusing world where state power and media production are becoming harder to parse out—everywhere, not just in Iran.

Zehra Hashmi: Many of the people you introduce us to are working on memorialization projects, particularly around the Iraq-Iran war, and its resonance (or lack thereof) with the youth. In a few places, you touch on the role of Shia imagery and the figure of Imam Hussain—especially in relation to the aesthetics of loss, sacrifice, mourning, as well as remembrance itself. While political Islam may be less of a driving political force for the youth in Iran today, as you show, how does the changing political landscape map onto the symbolic and aesthetic draw of Shia imagery and its role in shaping media aesthetics and landscape, not just for the regime producers but the population at large?

Narges Bajoghli: Currently this is most present in the depictions of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general who was assassinated by the United States in January 2020 in Iraq. I show in the book how he was the central lynchpin for creating a new narrative of the Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian state as nationalists above and beyond religious in an attempt to connect with youth. Since his death, media depictions related to Soleimani (of which there have been endless renditions) have been fascinating to trace. The aesthetics of Shia imagery are central to his memorialization as an important martyr, but they are markedly different from the ways important war martyrs of the first few decades of post-revolutionary Iran were depicted. Soleimani is both couched in Shia imagery and rendered as the quintessential national hero. For regime media makers, they talk about the images they are creating of Soleimani as being very important for them because it allows them to update Shia imagery for today’s generation and to embed a nationalist “cool” into the aesthetics they felt no longer resonated. 

Janet Connor takes the page 99 test

Page 99 of my dissertation introduces the term “Swedish conditions” (Svenske tilstander), a concept circulating in the Norwegian media during my fieldwork in the capital city of Oslo. It refers to a situation where liberal immigration policies lead to dangerous urban neighborhoods with high crime rates, which is an image that some Norwegians have of neighboring Sweden. Although the term had originally been popularized by far-right politicians, it has since been taken up by people with a wide range of political beliefs, and I found that even for many of those who criticized the term, it was more often a question of whether “Swedish conditions” existed in Oslo than whether the term accurately described Sweden.

“Swedish conditions” is just one of many examples throughout the dissertation of how people in Oslo take part in a wide range of situated, perspectival scale-making practices to understand “global threats” to the traditional Norwegian welfare state and to imagine alternatives. I use the example of “Swedish conditions” to argue that a simple citizen/foreigner or host/guest dichotomy does not adequately describe situations of contemporary migration, particularly in Europe. Instead, what even counts as “foreign” or “outsider” is highly dependent on perspective, and understandings of Norwegian national identity include a distinction from a variety of interconnected yet different kinds of “foreignness.” Here, the Norwegian media sees people of non-European, primarily Muslim background, through an imagined Swedish lens.

I would not say that page 99 is representative of my dissertation as a whole. Discourses of “Swedish conditions” were instead something my interlocutors were working against, as they worked to reimagine the Norwegian welfare model as both more inclusive of an increasingly ethnically, religiously, and socioeconomically diverse citizenry, and as something that could be sustained economically without a reliance on oil production. The dissertation traces how, through their linguistic practices, seemingly opposed social actors perform a kind of similarity and coherence, valued in Norwegian understandings of egalitarian democracy, that can give them and their perspectives authority. In these attempts to achieve coherence, ways of listening become more important than ways of speaking to how my interlocutors create identities and envision a democratic future.

Janet Connor. 2021. “Making Welfare ‘Sustainable’: The Language, Politics, and Ethics of Scale-Making in a Norwegian Neighborhood.” University of Chicago Phd.

Natalia Knoblock on her book, Language of Conflict

Language of Conflict cover

Interview by Sofiya Asher


Sofiya Asher: What inspired this particular book?

Natalia Knoblock: What inspired this book? The inspiration came from speakers of the Russian and Ukrainian languages as they were destroying each other on social networks. Because of my heritage and my connection to both Russia and Ukraine, I started following the events after the revolution of 2014. I am originally Russian, and while I never lived in Ukraine, I have very close relatives there. I have visited my aunt and my cousins many times, and I have really good memories, so I feel connected not only to Russia, but also to Ukraine, at least partially. So, when the war started, I was terrified here, across the ocean, far away from the action, and really lost, not knowing what to do, trying to understand what was happening and trying to find information that seemed reliable and correct. I could not really find that because whatever I saw on official Russian channels was insane, and whatever I saw on official American channels did not make any sense either. So, I made a mistake! Now, looking back, I think it was really, really (what’s the polite word?) not smart to look for accurate information on social networks. But I thought, well, that’s what the people say, right? I would go and read what people write about the conflict. I was spending an insane amount of time following social networks, trying to figure out what was going on. Then, being a linguist, I started copying and pasting examples of crazy metaphors, neologisms, and creative language use that I saw there. I eventually accumulated a quite large collection and began thinking, wow, look at that! The topic and the content of the messages were awful, but the linguistic creativity was very impressive. Well, if you have this great material, you should do something with it, right? So, I made a few presentations at conferences, found other people who were researching similar things, and that’s how the idea for the book was born.

Sofiya Asher: The volume includes work by fifteen various authors with different academic and linguistic backgrounds, what were the challenges with working with such a diverse group? Based on that experience, what would your recommendation be to an editor working with a similar group of contributors?

Natalia Knoblock: Thank you. I think that’s a really good question. I’ll probably want to break it into two parts. One is recruiting people and the other is working with them during the editorial process. The recruiting stage was slightly challenging because this topic was not something that I had worked on before. I did not have a professional network where you just contact your previous collaborators, or your contacts from conferences, or specialists in the field.  I had to rely on the LinguistList. Thank goodness for that great resource! First, I advertised there and invited people to participate in a conference panel. After a successful panel at the Conference on Discourse Analysis Across Disciplines, I negotiated with a publisher and started looking for more contributors. Because the topic is so complex, I wanted a book to represent a variety of methods, a variety of [language] uses, a variety of topics. I didn’t want to have just a few chapters, so I needed to recruit more people. Then there was a lot of searching for names and programs and emailing strangers, who were really good at helping me. If they were not interested in contributing to the volume themselves, they would recommend other people. Eventually, we ended up with the group that collaborated on the book. It was a good linguistic community effort.

The second challenge was to keep it professional. Because the topic is so painful, it is not easy to write about. People should never take it lightly when they write about a country torn by war. And I feel that it was important to keep politics as far away as possible. We couldn’t leave it out completely, but my goal was to keep the volume professional and language-focused as much as possible. Linguists are people, and they have opinions, obviously. There is nothing wrong with that. We were not able to leave ideological views out completely because it’s impossible, but we tried to keep them under control. That was a big challenge.

Sofiya Asher: In the introduction (p. 7), you mentioned that the volume was created with “a goal of remaining ideologically neutral and focusing exclusively on the linguistic side of the happenings.” On the surface, it seems like an impossible task, separating language and ideology. Do you think the volume succeeded in remaining ideologically neutral while focusing on language?

Natalia Knoblock: (Smiles) I think I failed. It was a challenge to keep different people with different perspectives focused exclusively on the language and to leave ideology out. We’re studying discourse, which is interconnected with social reality, so completely disconnecting it from the war and the antagonism was not possible, even though we tried to do the best we could under the circumstances. There were times when I asked contributors to resist the urge to generalize about the population of one country or the other based on the statements of one individual or a handful of people, and external reviewers expressed the same concern. But the authors insisted on keeping their text as it was. There was a lot of back-and-forth because of that. There was also an unexpected case at the very end, when the chapters had gone through internal and external review, were revised several times, all the information was finalized, and we were in copy-editing already. There was a disagreement about the transliteration system to represent Ukrainian and Russian examples in the English-language text. Two authors objected very strongly to the suggested transliteration systems and wouldn’t agree with each other, with at least one of the objections ideologically motivated. We did find some kind of compromise. I don’t remember what we used, but we made sure that everybody was okay with whatever system we were going with.

Sofiya Asher: You mention in the introduction (p. 8) that “different authors use different terms” and that “contributors to this volume were free to choose the term they felt most fitting.”  Do you think this decision worked well based on the feedback you have received so far from the readers or reviewers?

Natalia Knoblock: Well, we have not generated much interest. I have not received either positive or negative feedback about the book and its terminology. The most loaded terms are, of course, the war, crisis, conflict, whether it’s a civil war or it is an international conflict between the two countries? I’m not sure even anthropologists and political scientists have agreed on that unanimously till this point. I felt that it would be out of my position to tell people which term to use. That is not a linguistic decision but more of an ideological decision. I didn’t feel like I could dictate to people what they should or should not believe about the situation in Ukraine.

Sofiya Asher: Now I’d like to talk about the particular chapter you have contributed to the volume. Why did you find blended names an interesting a subject of study?

Natalia Knoblock: Well, that was one of the things that I noticed during the initial stages of the conflict. I mentioned in the beginning of the interview that the inspiration for the book came from the time spent on reading insulting comments on social networks. That was one of the noticeable tendencies that I had seen there. People would take someone’s name and would blend it with an insulting word. So, I contacted a great specialist on morphological blending, Natalia Beliaeva, and asked her if she would be interested in collaborating on this. Luckily for me, she was, and we had a great time working on the chapter even though we were on different continents.

A lot of the blends are really new in the language. At least I, as a native speaker, had never heard them before. There is a wave, a pretty noticeable wave of publications on the discourse of hatred or hate speech in the Russian and Ukrainian conflict devoted to neologisms. One of the publications that we cite in this chapter is by S.A. Zabotinskaya. She compiled a ‘thesaurus of the Russian Ukrainian conflict’ that lists a whole lot of new words that supposedly have entered the language after the conflict started. However, if we start examining whether either of the populations use any of those words, we might find that they don’t. For example, there was a large-scale computerized analysis of textual data collected over an extended period of time by Radchenko and Arhipova, I believe. Their research question was whether verbal aggression precedes or follows major traumatic events, such as fighting outbreaks, but one of the things that they found was that a lot of the terms that have been listed in linguistic publications on the Ukrainian conflict are barely used by the population. It looks like a political figure may use a word on a website, a bot might write it on a social network, or a journalist may mention it in an article, but the words didn’t really enter the language since the population did not pick them up. So, I am not surprised that you have never read or heard ‘Potroshenko’ and some of the other blends we analyze. ‘Putler’ might be the only one in our chapter that seems to be somewhat popular. The rest could be just creations of a blogger or an activist. The fact that they did not take root in the language kind of gives me hope. If there is no deeply rooted hatred in the people, I think then there is hope for this world. I don’t know. It is still worth studying such neologisms, I believe, since they highlight the morphological resources the language affords its users.

Sofiya Asher: The corpus created for the study was based on Ukrainian and Russian media using WebBootCat by SketchEngine.   Does the tool have any adjustments for potential selection bias, such as content created by bots, frequent posters, or trolls?

Natalia Knoblock:  No, unfortunately, we had no way to distinguish quality sources from junk sources. My coauthor and I relied on this software because we ourselves could not scrape the Internet for our content, and we had to use the tool that was available. We thought that we were quite lucky that we were able to collect the datasets large enough to allow statistical analysis, even though we could not control source quality. The thing is, many users of online content lack digital literacy and critical thinking skills that would allow them to differentiate good sources from bad anyway. So, studying all the content that comes up in searches related to the conflict makes sense. It reflects what non-researchers are exposed to online, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We might have deleted some repetitions, and I think we manually cleaned the Ukrainian corpus from some of the Russian texts. But even that was not completely possible because there was a lot of code-switching. Other than that, we kept everything we found.

Sofiya Asher: Your findings in this chapter indicate that blended names are used colloquially and more negatively in Russian and Ukrainian media. Do you see any similarities in American media with regards to the use of blended names?

Natalia Knoblock:  No, I haven’t. Not because they are not there, but because I never looked. Thank you for a good idea. I might do that now. It’s possible that, you know, you find what you look for. When I was examining Trump’s Facebook comments, I studied the most frequent terms. I went with frequencies, and that may have caused me to overlook some words that were there and could have been interesting. That would be a different study and would require additional digging, but it’s a great idea.

Sofiya Asher: Let’s return to the volume. What would you like the volume’s readers to keep in mind while engaging with this work?

Natalia Knoblock: That’s a difficult question. I would like people to be sensitive to the situation that the authors describe. I would like people to give the authors slack because everybody tried to do their best whether or not it turned out as well as we hoped. I’d like the war to end. I would like people to use their creative powers for something more productive than name calling. You know, there was an old slogan, something about using energy for peaceful purposes. I wish people used their creative linguistic energy for better purposes than insulting each other. We don’t need verbal aggression; there’s too much aggression in this world already. So, let’s concentrate on something better than insults. But, of course, language specialists just record and analyze what is going on, and we should keep that in mind.

Sofiya Asher: What do you hope this volume’s contribution to the scholarship of discursive practices of conflict will be?

Natalia Knoblock: I think this volume shows a little more variety in verbal aggression strategies and techniques. I wouldn’t claim that nobody has done what we’ve done in this book, but I think some of our studies are quite innovative. For example, the attention to the use of personal names is something that scholars can continue exploring. It came up in a different book I’m working on right now. It’s also an edited collection, and it talks about morphosyntactic features of verbal aggression. One of the contributions focuses on diminutive suffixes, and it shows that diminution in reference to a person is often derogatory, unlike references to inanimate objects or animals. That could be something worthy of further research. Another point that the volume emphasizes is the interconnection of linguistic and extralinguistic factors. Language does not exist detached from society. This is not a new idea, but given some of the claims that language is some kind of special unit in your brain and it is not related to social factors – yeah, no! Overall, the main contribution is probably the variety of topics and aspects that were discussed and covered in the volume.

Sofiya Asher: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Natalia Knoblock:  I want to thank the contributors because, as I’ve mentioned, the topic is painful and not easy to work with. The authors felt the need to study the way language was evolving and to share their research. They were also understanding of my role as the editor, as the person who keeps everything together, not pushing people anywhere ideologically but just trying to ensure that the quality is there. I think it was great how the authors went through this pretty long process. Going from the initial announcement to the publication in two years is not very long for an academic publication, but still is a long time. It was two years of our lives. We were in multiple negotiations over ‘do you change this paragraph or do you not change it’ or ‘I like this paragraph, but the reviewer does not’. Well, you know what it is like with academic publications, and people were great to work with, patient and cooperative.

I would also call for caution in reacting to aggressive discourse. We all tend to remember nasty verbal attacks and to overgeneralize “that’s what Russians say”, “that’s what Ukrainians say”. In reality, it is often just one person, and the loudest voices are not always the most representative ones. So, I would encourage people to question whether the speaker talks for him/herself or for a large group, and to keep in mind that online squabbles are dominated by a small number of most radical people. I guess, that’s what I think after engaging with this content for the past several years.

Siv Lie on her book, Django Generations

Django Generations



Interview by Lynn M. Hooker

Lynn Hooker: First, beginning with the title, your book uses a variety of terms for your chief musical subjects–most often Manouches, Tsiganes, or Romanies, but also sometimes Sinti, Gitans, and Gypsies. How do these terms and the distinctions between them reflect some of the issues you write about?

Siv Lie: I discuss some of these terms in the “Notes and Terminology” section (pp. ix-x), but there is much more to say. The very existence of all these terms and disagreements about what they “actually” mean says a lot about both how Romanies have dealt with racialization and about how they constitute an extremely diverse array of people. The terms Tsigane, Gitan, and Gypsy are all exonyms imposed by Europeans and have become more or less commonplace synonyms for Romanies. They are used by Romanies and non-Romanies (Gadjé) alike. Whether or not they are considered pejorative depends entirely on their contexts of use, and while some Romanies refuse these terms, many use them unproblematically. I think this evolution of usage has to do both with Romanies reclaiming pejorative labels and with the conventionalization of some of these terms over time. For example, on pp. 13-14 of the book, I describe how legislation targeting nomades was a way for the government to continue to not-so-covertly racialize and disenfranchise Romanies. In 1969, this legislation was revised and nomades were renamed Gens du voyage (“Travelers”). Today, nomades has definitely fallen out of use, but many mobile Romanies in France still proudly refer to themselves as Voyageurs despite any negative connotations.

Even with decades of pan-Romani political movements and some linguistic and cultural consistencies across populations, Romanies do not constitute a unified group. I deliberately use “Romanies” instead of the more common “Roma” because Sinti (to which Manouches are closely related, if not synonymous with) tend to see themselves as quite distinct from Roma and sometimes reject a Roma-centric view of Romanies. For example, just recently I was speaking with a Manouche/Sinti friend who kept using “Sinti” to refer to all Romanies, which I understood as his way to de-center “Roma” from pan-Romani politics. It’s an interesting way to assert an ideal of pan-Romani unity while challenging the terms on which that unity has been conceived in the political sphere.

Lynn Hooker: How does the question of group naming in this case contribute to current discussions in anthropology? In ethnomusicology? How do other issues in your study contribute to current discussions in anthropology? In ethnomusicology?

Siv Lie: The naming processes I describe – as highly context-dependent and semantically malleable – relate directly to my use of “ethnorace” to explain how Romanies are understood, and in turn understand themselves, through situated and shifting lenses of “race” and “ethnicity.” When I first came across ethnorace as coined by David Theo Goldberg, I was energized by how perfectly it captured the tensions I was exploring, but I was also confused as to why it had not been taken up more widely in anthropology or ethnomusicology. I thought I must have been missing something obvious! But the more I’ve used it and developed it in the context of struggles for Manouche political recognition and economic justice, the more I’ve realized its much wider potential to better understand how social difference is made.

Ethnorace also feeds into my development of ambivalent essentialism (which I outline on pp. 6-8). The idea of strategic essentialism always seemed appropriate to the maneuvers I observed among Manouche musicians and their supporters, but it never captured the full scope of the tensions they had to deal with. Ambivalent essentialism gets at how the process of self-essentialization involves quite a bit of uncertainty and unresolvable contradiction. I often observed musicians feel quite comfortable presenting themselves in rather stereotypical ways to certain audiences while downplaying or challenging such representations in other contexts, and/or voicing real dilemmas about how they felt compelled to engage in these representations. I point to ambivalent essentialism throughout the book because it’s an apt way to account for these tensions and for the negotiations that must occur within any ethnoracially-associated music scene. I think that this book can therefore contribute to current discussions about identity politics and cultural commodification in ways that embrace contradiction without trying to resolve it.

This book engages with a range of concepts both well-established and emergent in anthropology (such as raciolinguistics/raciosemiotics, cultural citizenship, cultural expediency, colorblind racism, erasure, and so on). I try to foreground the interstices of social difference as negotiated through music and talk about music. Some similar conversations about racial politics are happening in ethnomusicology, but I see this book as encouraging ethnomusicologists to engage more robustly with current conversations in anthropology.

Lynn Hooker: I am struck by the tension you describe not only between Manouche and Gadjé (non-Romani) identity but also between Manouche and pan-Romani identity. What are the pros and cons of a broader view of Romani-ness for your interlocutors? I myself have observed some musicians and organizers, mostly in Hungary, embracing a more pan-Romani approach in some contexts; this view seems akin to the musical pluralism you discuss in chapter 3, and sometimes it appears to claim cosmopolitan-ness. But it seems from what you imply that some Manouches want to avoid the “taint” of Eastern Europe.

Siv Lie: As I alluded to earlier, some of the Manouches/Sinti I work with have mixed feelings about proclaiming a pan-Romani identity. Doing so has its advantages: it provides access to resources (social networks, logistical support, financing, publicity, and so on) as well as a certain public legibility. It also reflects aspirations to a kind of borderless cosmopolitanism, such as by using “Gypsy” instead of the conventional French terms for Romanies. This can be especially important for musicians who want to be seen simultaneously as part of a global jazz community and as ethnoracially distinctive. They want to counter the idea that they are backwards and unintelligent by playing up their creativity and cultural plurality (as Romani, French, European, and global). Of course, at the same time, cosmopolitanism can be construed negatively, and Romanies are often perceived as rootless and even threatening wanderers. For this and other reasons, Manouches/Sinti sometimes refuse ideas of pan-Romani identity. They may want to avoid politicizing their work through associations with Romani solidarity movements, or they might seek to avoid further racialization by distancing themselves from immigrant Romanies in France.

The important point here is that these stances aren’t definitive. People emphasize different allegiances depending on context, and they change their opinions over time. Such tensions are reflected in the music the book explores. For example, Alsatian jazz manouche has roots in both jazz (a practice so widespread it often gets labeled as “universal”) and Hungarian csárdás, which has specifically Romani connotations. Musicians are very selective about how they use these different legacies depending on how they want to be perceived.

Lynn Hooker: In chapter 4, there is this fascinating discourse where various speakers talk about how they can tell the difference between Manouche musicians and Gadjo musicians by sound–what you describe as ethnoracial qualia of sound. I am curious about something that you do not talk about as much, and that is the practice of jazz manouche among non-Manouche (Gadjo) players. How do the Manouche musicians you work with feel about this?

Siv Lie: Gadjé make up a huge part of the performing circuit within and outside of France and are not necessarily looked down upon by Manouche musicians. In general, there is a lot of mutual respect between Manouche and Gadjo musicians. A Gadjo sound isn’t always considered bad, and not everyone claims there are significant or inherent differences between Manouche and Gadjo sounds. Musicians of various backgrounds often tell me that the most important thing is respect – for other musicians and for the music (however that is defined). Interpersonal problems tend to arise when Gadjo musicians adopt signs of “Gypsiness” and, in some cases, may exploit real or imagined connections to Manouches to further their careers. I don’t think the Manouche musicians I work with are terribly concerned about the whitewashing of an ethnoracially unique practice; those who believe in a distinctive Manouche sound will point to its inimitable qualia, and others might accuse Gadjé of cultural appropriation, but the practice still remains marketable and meaningful for them. More broadly, given the context of Romani disenfranchisement within France, there can be a sense of distrust among Manouches toward Gadjé. It’s not totalizing, but I see it crop up when some Manouche musicians do business with Gadjé and want to ensure that they’re not exploited. That said, musicians of any background tend to be on guard when maneuvering within the music industry, and rightly so!

Lynn Hooker: You started this project years ago, including identifying colorblind racism within French civic society as manifest in, for example, festivals that present jazz manouche but that try to keep Romaniesand Gens du voyage at arms’ length. (This topic is sprinkled throughout the book, but the introduction and chapters 3 and 5 deal with it in the most detail.) How have your interlocutors responded to the recent surge in anti-racist activism around the world?

Siv Lie: Like the US, France is undergoing a very fraught and necessary reckoning with deep-seated racism, energized in part by the protests of 2020. Much of the resistance to antiracist discourse stems from the idea that racism is a US problem, not a French one, and that US understandings of race and racialization are entirely inapplicable to France (so much so that in February 2021, President Macron denounced critical approaches to race supposedly imported from the US, and the minister for higher education proposed restricting research on the topic). Many groups have participated vigorously in these debates, but I haven’t had the chance to probe the issue with my interlocutors. I am really looking forward to being able to travel to France again and talk about all of this. I think aspects of this activism have probably resonated with my interlocutors, especially those who already draw parallels between their own racialization and that of African Americans (see chapters 1 and 4). I’m working to get a French translation of the book published so that it can better contribute to these discussions. For now, I’m not optimistic about any changes within the French state, but I’m glad that colorblind racism has come to the fore in public debate.