Noelle Molé Liston on her book, The Truth Society

The Truth Society

Interview by Jonah Rubin

https://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/9781501750793/the-truth-society/

Jonah Rubin: So much has been written about what media literacy scholars have termed our “information disorder” (Wardle and Derakhshan 2017). There is a general recognition that mis- and disinformation is rampant, threatening the shared epistemological foundations of many political communities. In The Truth Society, though, you don’t only focus on those who believe in conspiracy theories and misinformation. You see them as intimately connected with those who are “hyperinvested” in real science and reliable facts. Even in your opening vignette you focus not on the purveyors of untruths, but rather on the “soldiers of rationality” breaking mirrors in the public square as an anti-superstition performance. Why is it important (methodologically, theoretically, or both) for us to focus on what you call this “hyperrationalization,” an almost desperate pursuit of science, empiricism, and skepticism as well? Put otherwise, what do we miss when we exclusively train our analytic gaze on those who believe in false information?

Noelle Molé Liston:  

Danger #1: We miss not fully recognizing the implications of the onslaught of information and algorithmic underpinnings of digital consumption. Access to information has meant both a democratization of access to information, that is, at least in basic sense along with the intensified customization and subsequent siloing of information. Yet with so much information, what became eroded was a basic sense of source appraisal, especially when industries were mastering pseudoscientific ways to uphold the oil and gas industry, and various “Big” Industries like Big Pharma, Big Sugar, Big Food, etc. Therefore, we saw that scientific information also became a site of “fake news” where under the guise of science, social actors might find so-called scientific studies to support the absence of climate change or the incredible health benefits of sugar. Thus, social actors who were already habituated to see science as true, rational, and reasonable, were being seduced with paid-for sponsored “fake” science, which I would argue, worked because of this enchantment of good science, a kind of facile belief that scientific rationality could seek and produce the truth. Without interrogating or becoming skeptical about why knowledge under the label of “science” can either be manipulated or outright fabricated, we fall prey to reifying–or even deifying–science itself.

Danger #2: We become “anesthetized” to our own embodied or phenomenological ways of knowing the world and, possibly, one’s own expertise. In my exploration of the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, one interlocutor was an architect with deep knowledge of both the territory and engineering. Yet she ignored her own sense of danger when she was reassured by scientists and fellow engineers, likening it to “numbing” her other ways of knowing she had typically relied upon. Why does this happen? Immense pressure was on the public to trust science and quell the existing pre-earthquake panic, not unlike ways the American public is currently scolded to “trust the science” during the pandemic. In both instances, maintaining social order relies on a continual investment in science as simple truth, so we have to interrogate how our own trust in science might be part of a mode of control and surveillance. It’s also become quite tricky on the left, as we want to allow space for healthy scientific skepticism but not indulge pseudoscience or conspiracies. If we fail to examine our own tendencies to exalt science as “big-T” True, then we risk reproducing the very regime of hyperinvestment in science.

Jonah Rubin: One major theme of the text is the ways that new media technologies – television news, the internet, algorithms – reshape the possibilities for politics. At times, it seems like these technologies open up new possibilities for political participation and populism. Other times, it seems like the technologies become new sites for the political imagination, such as the televised presentation of a golden tapir award or the infozombies. Could you elaborate a bit on how you see the relationship between new media and politics playing out?

Noelle Molé Liston: The book ends with the metaphor of the mirrored window world where the media consumers believe themselves to be accessing information openly and outwardly, but instead are regurgitated only algorithmic versions of information already catered to their likes, dislikes, and political leanings. In some ways, it seems important that the originality and bite of Italy’s “Striscia La Notizia” (The News is Spreading) satirical news show and Beppe Grillo’s blog were not data-driven media, that is, there was no predetermined customization or data-mining precipitating their creation, other than usual television ratings or blog views. But they were both examples of important political interventions: the former to critique then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the latter to build a grassroots political movement of the Five Star Movement. Plus, both were art forms insofar as they were driven by the humor and creativity of political actors, navigating a climate of television censorship by the very man they were poking fun at (Berlusconi), on the one hand, and engaging in-person political action vis-a-vis online content. By contrast, the more algorithmic media such as the Five Star Movement’s web portal program known as Rousseau, might mine member data and ideas in ways unknown to users. Perhaps not surprisingly, Luigi Di Maio, one of Five Star’s leaders who served as Co-Deputy Prime Minister, was accused of being a kind of android: chosen and styled according to user preferences from Rousseau. Put differently, the algorithmic regimes of new media fundamentally operate in ways that are buried and opaque to most users, which, in turn, makes it harder to discern their effects. More recently, Italy has also seen a quite intense anti-vax movement during the pandemic, which is likely the product of social media algorithms which funnel users into their own individualized information silos and boost posts because of “engagement” not veracity. The outside world can look so deceptively beautiful even though the forest is just our own faces. Twenty-first century idiom: you can’t see the faces through the forest? 

Jonah Rubin: To me personally, one of the most productively challenging aspects of your book is your analysis of political humor. Many of us see political humor as inherently subversive, a way of mocking and therefore undermining the powerful. But in your book, especially in chapters 1 and 3, you suggest that humor can also breed a kind of political cynicism and even complicity that may reinforce hegemonic power structures. Could you tell us a bit more about your approach to the politics of humor? How should anthropologists and others study the politics of jokes, both the kinds we find funny and the kinds that may horrify us?

Noelle Molé Liston: It is true that I tend to adopt a cynical approach to political humor as my recent analysis of viral videos of Italian mayors funnily admonishing citizens to mask up effectively got laughs because they represented the “thwarted displacement of patriarchy and failed attempts, at every level of governance, to erect robust authoritarian control.” Part of this analytic, of course, is aligned with anthropological investigation of humor and satire as unintentionally bolstering entrenched power structures. It’s hard not to be so cynical when Berlusconi himself, whom I’ve argued won over Italians with his brash humor as a seemingly genuine presentation of an otherwise highly artificial political masquerader, almost had a comeback in his 2022 run for President of the Republic. (He ended up dropping out of the race). I remained concerned that “strong men” like Berlusconi and  Trump use humor to manipulate and garner support, and diffuse criticism, resulting in a destabilization of how political humorists can have, as it were, the last laugh. How can political humor outsmart the absurdist clown? How will algorithmically filtered media consumption (re)shape the humor of consumers and voters?

One strategy might be in the satire of unlikely embodiment. One of Berlusconi’s best impersonators is Sabina Guzzanti, a woman 25-years Berlsconi’s junior who dons wigs and prosthetics to perfect her impression. In this clip, she refers to herself as a woman while in costume as Berlusconi, decrying that “her” failed bid for President was sexist. She is also one of his fiercest critics, especially in her account of his post-earthquake crisis management in L’Aquila. In the US, Sarah Cooper went viral for her videos in which she would lip synch to things Trump said without physically altering her appearance, so it was his voice, but her mouth, face, and body. In both cases, the performances do different kinds of political and symbolic work because of the surprisingly mismatched genders and bodies, which results in tension, long a characteristic of great humor, between laughter and discomfort. There is something powerful and effective about the dissonance of having women, and in Cooper’s case, a woman of color, speak the words of these misogynists that straight jokes and impressions (often by straight men) cannot achieve.

Jonah Rubin: In Chapters 5 and 6, you look at the tensions between scientific prediction and public governance, particularly in the Anthropocene. Here, you focus on the trial of a group of scientists who provide reassurances to the residents of L’Aquila, urging them to stay home prior to what ultimately turns out to be a deadly earthquake. At the time, the international press overwhelmingly presented this story as an irrational attack on science. But you see it as a more profound commentary on the changing role of science in the public sphere. How do shifts in our experience of the climate and in our media landscapes affect the relationship between science, politics, and law?

Noelle Molé Liston: Indeed I argue that the idea that Italians gullibly believe scientists could predict earthquakes helped export the narrative of the trial as anti-science. However, it was more about the form of the press conference which positioned authoritative scientific reassurances to quell the rising panic in L’Aquila. As we confront more acute environmental crises, there will be greater pressure on scientists to predict and manage risk, ascertain damage and crisis management, and weigh in on policy, as we’ve seen during the pandemic. But we don’t yet have a legal framework that might hold non-scientific or even scientific failures accountable. In L’Aquila, the actual non-scientific claim was their reassurance that no big earthquake would come and people should not evacuate. The Italian judiciary tried to make a connection between an authoritative sources’ public utterances and the fatal consequence of this misinformation: the listeners’ death. By contrast, Trump alone issued massive amounts of misinformation about the dangers of Covid but it would be entirely inconceivable, I think, that our judiciary hold him accountable for the resulting deaths.  Why? Because of Trump-era politics or the American justice system, more broadly? How –and where–will the law shift to see misinformation as fatally consequential, legally punishable, or, at least, a public health crisis?

Jonah Rubin: The book centers on the ways fact and fiction are blurred during the Berlusconi and Grillo eras of Italian politics. But to me, the students in my class who read this text, and, I assume, many other readers in the United States will see strong resonances between what you describe in Italy and our own country’s experiences with President Trump and the “post-truth” era that American frequently associated with his rise to power. Of course, the balance between ethnographic specificity and comparison is as old as anthropology itself. With that caveat in mind: What do you see in your argument as particular to Italy and how do you think it applies to our recent and current experiences in the United States and around the world as well?

Noelle Molé Liston: Berlusconi as a precursor to Trump was a kind of historical instruction booklet. I often describe Berlusconi to Americans as “Trump + Bloomberg,” because Berlusconi owned his own media company, which was vital in his 1990s rise to power. However, the structure of Italian television broadcasting, where political parties divvied up news networks, was crucial in the mid-century rise of public cynicism towards television and print media. Ultimately, it sharpened a widely shared Italian assumption that any form of news has a political slant (decades before we were talking about spin). Put simply, the infrastructure of media matters. Most agree that Trump was tipped over the edge not by television masterminding like Berlusconi but because of social media manipulation. To be sure, Italy’s technopopulism of the Five Star Movement will likely expand in the US. Still, Italy seems to have suffered far less democratic backsliding than the United States, and maybe we could read this as hopeful premonition. But the US seems to have “left the chat” in terms of Italian influence. Italy’s fundamental rootedness in its unique mix of Catholic ethics, democratic social welfare, and pro-labor movements has somehow put voting rights and democratic institutions in a better place with respect to the US,with our Protestant ethic, anti-labor, and neoliberal demonization of welfare. Let’s also notice that there was no January 6th in Italy, no violent insurrection of people believing an election was stolen. Despite Italy’s international reputation as an “unstable democracy,” I’d feel more confident about proper counting of votes and the peaceful transfer of power in Italy than I would in our next US presidential election.

Jonah Rubin: This is less of a major point in your book, but on page 88, you note a common thread of political cynicism that ties together the foundational principles of media criticism – and, I would hasten to add, most media literacy education initiatives too  – and the Five Star Movement’s attacks on science and news media, which find clear echoes in other right-wing populist movements around the globe. How do you think media criticism and education might be contributing to the deterioration of a shared epistemology? And might you have any suggestions on how media criticism and education need to shift in response to populist political movements which sound disturbingly close to their foundational insights? 

Noelle Molé Liston: Just as the left needs to thread the needle in terms of science as I mentioned earlier, so, too, do well- intentioned plans for media literacy begin to sound like Trump’s refrain of referring to The New York Times as “fake news.” The problem is that people have lost an ability to discern between positioned information and misinformation. Plus, our regime of algorithmic newsfeeds just can’t handle the nuance.  Just as postmodern theories of multiple, contested truth escalated to, or were perceived as, forms of absolute moral nihilism, so, too, has some healthy epistemological skepticism quickly become a truth vacuum. It reminds me of a moment when my student said she found statistics about police violence against Blacks on a white supremacist website. Why? I asked, horrified. She said it was because she trusted their information precisely because their anti-Black positionality was overt.  We find this same mentality that makes Trump, one of the biggest liars and con-artists on the world’s stage, become trusted by his followers: the trust in manifest and easily legible opinions. What results, then, is greater trust in overtly positioned information sources like Fox News, and lesser trust in the vast majority of information mediums where the positionality is more complex, covert or semi-covert, and paradoxical. Media criticism and education needs to instruct on literacy practices where knowledge might be seen as positioned and framed, and move away from a binary of biased versus unbiased media. We also need to raise awareness about how information is algorithmically processed and customized to the user. Finally, we must recognize how corporate media regimes deliberately design decoys (eg. clickbait, customized ads) and mechanisms of addiction  (eg. the no-refresh scroll function, TikTok) to keep data surveillance and its vast monetization for the benefit of astonishingly few people in place.

Susan Seizer’s reflections upon retirement

What article or book that you wrote are you most pleased with? Could you talk about

the story behind writing it?


Oddly enough the article I am most proud of is the first one I published, while
still a grad student: “Paradoxes of Visibility in the Field: Rites of Queer Passage in
Anthropology” (Public Culture, 1995 N1V6:73-100). Not part of my stated research on
Special Drama but rather fully within a genre of fieldwork reflections then considered
the “soft” rather than the “hard science” side of anthropology, writing this essay as soon
as I had returned to the States let me express so much about how I learned during my
first years of fieldwork in India. I wrote about the welcome, open homosociality among
women in Tamilnadu, and its flipside: how lesbianism wasn’t a recognizable “thing” at
the time. Writing about this let me muse about thinginess itself, about invisibility as a
cloak stitched of non-things that have no name, and the power of naming itself. A key
concept of linguistic anthropology, speech as action is very much in play in the Tamil
world.


In the same essay I wrote about the palpably uncomfortable continuing
existence of White & English-speaking privilege in India, a colonial legacy of 150 years of
the British Raj. This unwelcome inheritance cropped up interpersonally in deferential
treatment tinged with suspicion. I managed to not personally drown in feeling the
weight of all this on my shoulders by peppering my essay with embarrassing quotes
from famous anthropologists (Malinowski, Mayberry-Lewis, Mead) that I used as
epigrammatic subheadings. I took these from their own “softer” and more vulnerable
writings (M’s posthumous Diary, M-L’s The Savage and the Innocent, and Mead’s
Blackberry Winter). Their squeamish company helped me laugh at myself.


An unanticipated pleasure of publishing this essay is that it has turned out to
serve prospective LGBTQ ethnographers as a kind of fieldwork guide. Evidently it was
risky to write and publish such stuff if you wanted to have a career in anthropology.
Carol Breckenridge, the Editor of Public Culture at the time, had offered to publish this
piece without my having submitted it to the journal (I showed it to her to ask her advice,
as I was a student in her grad seminar). Before publishing it however she wanted to
make sure I understood the risks posed by doing so. I assured her that this did not feel
risky to me, that I had been an out lesbian for fifteen years by then and had no plans to
go back in the closet for any job where homophobia reigned. What a different time that
was, when Anthro grad students could be so cavalier about T-T job options…. What
neither Carol nor anyone else in my grad school milieu knew at the time was how
uncomfortable I was grappling with a newly acquired “identity” I had been counseled to
hide. Vision troubles in the final summer of my fieldwork landed me back home a month
early, with a spinal tap and a diagnosis of MS (multiple sclerosis) the next day. Thus
began a tailspin that has lasted now for almost thirty years. In comparison to keeping
this bit of life-changing news quiet, outing myself as a lesbian in print felt easy and
familiar, and writing a refuge. The irony is that I did write this essay in an actual closet. My first Apple computer – Grape! – sat on a desk tucked into a narrow coat closet
underneath a dramatic spiral staircase with a sexy black leather banister. Perfect.

What class did you most enjoy teaching, and why?

I really enjoyed teaching using film, which I did in pretty much every course I
have taught, to varying degrees. I use films of all types – documentary and fiction, indie
and mainstream, foreign and not – primarily to enlarge the ethnographic picture
students get through readings and lectures. Only one of my courses focused on
filmmakers as well as their films. “India Lost & Found: South Asian diasporic feminist
filmmakers” was exhilarating to teach. It allowed me to introduce Indiana students to a
region and a history about which they generally knew very little. I focused on
filmmakers from the South Asian diaspora in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., recognizing
how diasporic distance allows these filmmakers to escape the rigid censorship of the
region to offer both biting critique and fierce love to the homelands they’d left. We
watched and discussed multiple films in the oeuvres of Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair, as
well as films by other important filmmakers including Gurinder Chadha and Hanif
Kureishi. I first developed this course while a faculty member in the department of
Communication & Culture (CMCL), encouraged by my film and media studies colleagues
there.


Apart from this relatively rare pleasure (I taught India Lost & Found only four
times), the course I have enjoyed teaching most was “Stigma: Culture, Identity and the
Abject.” I feel passionate about this course. It is also probably the course for which I will
be most remembered. I taught it annually for over twenty-five years, and students from
three decades continue to contact me upon encountering something that reminds them
of the lens we developed together in this course. I approach the topic of stigma as a
compassionate rubric through which to view the lives of those who are marginalized as
“different” from the norm in some way. I draw on a wide range of material that students
generally do not encounter in other courses, from history of science texts about
conjoined twins to memoirs of carnival life, from discussions of eugenics to the attitude
of wonder fostered by cabinets of curiosity (wunderkammern). To give the best sense of
my approach, here is the course description

Cultural value systems in every society rely on sets of mutually defining terms — for example, normal/abnormal, able-bodied/disabled, free/enslaved, legal/illegal, white/non-white, heterosexual/homosexual — that largely determine local attitudes of acceptance or ostracism regarding particular categories of persons. Focusing on social stigma allows us to understand how specific cultural value systems affect our most intimate senses of self, contribute to our very notions of personhood, and inform the ways in which we communicate and engage with others in the world.

Stigma theory speaks broadly to the nature of the social relationships that create marked categories of persons, regardless of which particular attributes are devalued. In this class we look both at theory and at particular cases of stigmatized persons (individuals & groups), as attention to the particularities of a given stigma keys us in to the cultural values that create and support it. Since stigmas do (eventually!) change over time, identifying strategies that have been effective in creating such change is a primary focus of the course.

The theoretical centerpiece of this course is Erving Goffman’s 1963 study Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. We will read this text closely to appreciate Goffman’s insights, and attempt throughout the semester to update them (and the language he uses to convey his points) by applying his model to more recent historical and ethnographic case studies of stigmatized persons & groups. Our focus will be on the range and efficacy of the various strategies available for countering stigma.

Expressive arts — including written & spoken word, film/video, and performance — will be explored as popular strategies for disarming the stigmatizing gaze. We focus in particular on artists and activists whose work addresses contemporary cases of stigma. Weekly screenings of landmark films in fields including American studies, disability studies, black studies, queer studies, and gender & women’s studies supplement regular class meetings; viewing these films is a critical part of the course.

I am interested in passing the Stigma course on to anyone interested in carrying the torch. I would be happy to share syllabi and course materials I have honed for this course over the years; I changed at least some topics, films, and readings every year. The course has had many iterations: as a grad seminar, as an upper-level undergrad course, as a mixed 400/600 level, and most recently as an introductory GEN Ed course at the 200-level. In short, the rubric is malleable as well as valuable, and I hope the course will continue to be taught. DM me! (or find my syllabi on academia.edu.)

What object in your life do you make into a sentient being?

I call the lift in my bedroom Wall-E. It helps.

What is the worst piece of advice you have ever gotten?

When I was a grad student at the University of Chicago, Prof. John Comaroff was Chair of the Anthropology Department. He inaugurated and taught a Professionalization Seminar in which he advised female students to wear stockings – pantyhose — when going for job talks. I consider this bad advice for at least two reasons: the advice is itself uncomfortably intimate and sexist, and pantyhose are super uncomfortable. Not a good confidence builder for fierce-feminist-yet- nevertheless-vulnerable women entering the academic job market.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your workspace?

I stole my sons’ two downstairs bedrooms to make one generous, accessible downstairs study for myself. The boys were young, 7 and 11, when we moved them upstairs to my old study and small yoga room. Now that they are teens, they like it (maybe even too much). Meanwhile, in my new downstairs study, a big picture window onto our front garden is where I look when I write.

Sonja Trifuljesko takes the page 99 test

Page 99 of my dissertation contains three paragraphs. The first one closes an argument started on the previous page, while the third opens a new subsection. The paragraph that connects the two announces the research question around which Chapter 4 revolves:

In stark opposition to the continuity displayed by the public examination stands the transformation of the Finnish doctoral landscape. Within the same two and a half decades that were marked by the turbulent changes to the higher education system in Finland, a quieter but just as radical transformation of the PhD process has been underway. The model for the transformation of Finnish doctoral education, I argue, has been the same as for the university in general: that of a scalable enterprise. In this chapter, I investigate the way in which changing university relations have (re)shaped the doctoral education landscape.

My doctoral dissertation, which draws on several years of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Helsinki, examines the effects that Finnish higher education reforms have on university sociality. These reforms, as the quoted paragraph on page 99 indicates, are based on an ideological model that combines the neoliberal emphasis on the “enterprise form” with the older principles of the “scalability design” that lies at the heart of capitalism. Fusing the two, the enterprise-cum-scalability model attempts to reduce the totality of university social life to the processes of knowledge asset enhancement (cf. Gershon 2011).

Turning higher education institutions into enhanceable collections of knowledge assets entails an approach I called “gutting and reconstructing.” Following anthropologist Anna Tsing (2012, 2015, 2017), I came to understand it as a three-step process. First, university landscapes are cleared of prior relationships. Next, newly emptied landscapes are prepared for knowledge exploitation and expropriation. Finally, university landscapes are repopulated with entities cut off from their formative ties and transplanted into the cleared and prepared new university landscapes.

Unsurprisingly, the attempts to cancel pre-existing social relationships created disturbance among university communities. Old forms of sociality have clearly been institutionally weakened. Nonetheless, they were not completely eradicated. Moreover, novel social formations started to emerge from the ruins of higher education reforms, which I followed through the mobilization endeavors of doctoral candidates. In accordance with Tsing, I conceptualize these instantiations of sociality as weeds.

To make sense of the “weeds of sociality,” I primarily drew on the seminal work of Vered Amit (2002a, 2002b). That led me to focus on the interactions between the idea and actualization of sociation, which then helped me explain why some efforts to mobilize social relations among doctoral candidates in Helsinki had been successful and others not. Moreover, Amit (2012, 2015) pointed me to look not only at exceptional but also mundane disjunctures as triggers for social mobilization. This becomes particularly conspicuous in the example of international doctoral candidates at the University of Helsinki, whose experiences bring my thesis to an end.

References:

Amit, Vered. 2002a. “Reconceptualizing Community.” In Realizing Community: Concepts, Social Relationships and Sentiments, edited by Vered Amit, 1-20. London and New York: Routledge.

Amit, Vered. 2002b. “An Anthropology Without Community?”. In The Trouble with Community: Anthropological Reflections on Movement, Identity and Collectivity, edited by A. Vered and N. Rapport, 13- 70. London: Pluto Press.

Amit, Vered. 2012. “Part I Community and Disjuncture: The Creativity and Uncertainty of Everyday Engagement.” In Community, Cosmopolitanism and the Problem of Human Commonality, edited by V. Amit and N. Rapport, 1-73. London: Pluto Press.

Amit, Vered. 2015. “Disjuncture: The Creativity of, and Breaks in, Everyday Associations and Routines.” In Thinking through Sociality: An Anthropological Interrogation of Key Concepts, edited by Vered Amit, 21- 46. New York: Berghahn Books.

Gershon, Ilana. 2011. “Neoliberal agency.” Current Anthropology 52 (4): 537-555.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2012. “On Nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales.” Common Knowledge 18 (3): 505-524.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2017. “The Buck, the Bull, and the Dream of the Stag: Some Unexpected Weeds of the Anthropocene.” Suomen Antropologi 42 (1): 3-21

Sarah Hillewaert on her book, Morality on the Margins

Morality at the Margins

Interview by Kamala Russell

Morality at the Margins: Youth, Language, and Islam in Coastal Kenya

Morality at the Margins

Interview by Kamala Russell

Morality at the Margins: Youth, Language, and Islam in Coastal Kenya

Kamala Russell: Your book is a deep investigation of the values, practices, and ambivalences that make up the everyday experience of social change. Could you tell us a bit about the focus of the book, and its argument? I’d be interested in hearing more as well about how you settled on this framing for the book, coming out of your many years of fieldwork. As someone who is at that stage, I am interested in hearing more about the process of how you dream up a book from a dissertation.

Sarah Hillewaert:  The book is an ethnographic study of the everyday lives of Muslim youth living on the Indian Ocean island of Lamu (Kenya). A previously cosmopolitan center of trade and Islamic scholarship, Lamu is currently marginalized in both economic and political terms yet forms the focus of international campaigns against religious radicalization and is also at the center of touristic imaginings of the untouched and secluded. The book examines what happens when narratives of self-positioning change: what happens when signs of cosmopolitanism, respectability, and civility come to be read as indices of remoteness, backwardness, or religious radicalization? And what implications do these shifts in signification have for everyday interactions, self-fashionings, and conceptions of appropriate conduct? I explore these questions by documenting the discursive and embodied production of difference, and examine the seemingly mundane practices through which Lamu youth negotiate what it means to be a ‘good Lamu resident’ in contemporary Kenya. I specifically ask what happens when signification fails – when people are no longer sure how to read signs or when they differ in their reading of material forms as signs of, for example, either piety or social transgression. By documenting apparently mundane practices, and the ideologies that inform their evaluations, I show how easily-overlooked, fleeting moments represent some of the most vital points through which larger scale transformations touch down concretely in community life, and by which they receive local inflection and resonance.  Through its ethnographic detail, the book demonstrates the intersubjective and dialogic nature of meaning-making processes and illustrates how projects of personal cultivation function as political projects as well. In doing so, it offers a linguistic anthropological approach to discussions on ethical self-fashioning and the everyday lives of Muslim youth in Africa.

In terms of the framing of the book, the focus shifted from a more explicit attention to verbal interactions and language use to a broader semiotic approach. And this happened mostly through ongoing interactions with peers, through talks and people’s feedback to them, and through ongoing conversations with my interlocutors in Lamu. However, the ethnographic focus did not change significantly from the dissertation to the book. It was more the theoretical argument that became more nuanced, with more attention to the political significance of seemingly situated interactions and practices. I think talking about my research – writing talks and articles – made me think more about what I really wanted people to take away from my research, both theoretically and ethnographically.

Kamala Russell: What I appreciated most about the book is the way you take a very open-ended approach to this study of social change, not just treating social development and peripheralization in and of Lamu as well as instability in indices of value pessimistically, but also tracing opportunities for new kinds of fulfilment and relationships to oneself (for example, professionalism). What stuck out to me across these chapters, and particularly in the final chapter ‘The Morality of the Senses and the Senses of Morality’, was the importance of gaze and the audience. In your focus on people’s performances and negotiations of what kind of individual they are, I wondered who the imagined audience or public for this differentiation is and how does that relate to the sociopolitical changes you describe in Lamu?

Sarah Hillewaert: I appreciate you mentioning the careful deliberation and negotiation of new opportunities and perspectives that I tried to convey in the book. In doing so, I tried to move beyond discussions on the so-called ambivalences or inconsistencies that previously have been highlighted in discussions of Muslim or African youth. I wanted to convey that shifting perspectives on respectability are not a mere generational change or gap, informed by globalization, for example. And rather than talk about resistance to, for example, what people call tradition, I tried to highlight the agency in young people’s calculated inhabiting of certain norms and their deliberation of the proper mediation of others. For Lamu youth, the question is not whether you should be respectable or not, but rather what respectability should look like, given, on the one hand, the development Lamu desperately needs, and on the other, the significance of respectability to Lamu residents’ distinctive identity and the political load it carries.

And this gets me to your question. Most challenging in writing this book was conveying precisely the hyper-sensitivity to semiotic misconstrual that informs young Lamu residents’ moral self-fashionings. With this I mean that young people were very much aware that a range of differently situated people observe their everyday behavior – their peers or elders from different parts of town, for example, but also immigrants from Kenya’s mainland, government administrators, military police, and so on. They understand very well that their intended professional behavior can be misread as social transgression by some, or still overly conservative by others. And as your question points to, these presentations of self, while locally situated, carry a political significance as well. Now, the political stance implied in everyday practices is not always necessarily for non-locals to be noticed. It’s not about an explicit expression of political opinion that one hopes gets noticed. And in fact, mainland Kenyans are often oblivious to many of the nuances in everyday practices that I focus on in the book. Yet, Lamu residents observing situated behaviors can take those as signs of an individual’s political orientation as well – to what extent is an individual upholding a distinctive Lamu identity? Or to what extent are they forsaking their values to get ahead in an economy controlled by the Kenyan government?  So, a young woman critiquing local social divisions at a town meeting will do so while only speaking the local Swahili dialect and paying close attention to proper address forms and greetings, to thereby negotiate a need for change while evidently displaying her pride of her Lamu identity in an attempt to avoid critiques from local elders (or even her peers). Yet, her doing so does risk her getting perceived as backward or less educated by mainland government officials present at that gathering, for example.

Kamala Russell: Heshima is a key concept in the book. You translate this as ‘respectability’. A key argument I saw in the book is that though how respectability is embodied is hotly contested, heshima as a regime of value continues to structure the ways Lamu residents understand themselves and others. I was struck by the way that this concept seems to revolve around differentiation. Is this the only semiotic process (or the key one) that heshima participates in and if so, why might that be? Are there other means and ends than moral distinction in play?

Sarah Hillewaert: Heshima is an intensely moral value, and thus plays a central role in moral distinctions, but as I discuss in Chapter 1, this is very much linked to social class distinctions and genealogy as well. Claims to embodied respectability are often linked to social class identities as well. And this is precisely part of what is being renegotiated nowadays. The hegemonic ideology of former upper-classes – of what practices are viewed as respectable and thus indicative of higher status  –  is being challenged as the social hierarchy is being reshuffled in a context of economic and social change.

Kamala Russell: Can you say a bit more about the methodological challenges you worked with in doing your fieldwork, particularly around recording, as linguists would say, putative naturalistic interaction. Though clearly you were able to record some interviews, did you face other difficulties in producing recorded data? Did working this way affect the way you think about embodiment and non-verbal signs with relation to more typical approaches to text and context?

Sarah Hillewaert: In short: yes, but not entirely. I wasn’t able to record partially because women didn’t want their voices recorded, but also because people were quite suspicious of recordings, in light of anti-terrorism investigations led by the Kenyan and US governments. So, I often refrained from recording, and took detailed notes during interviews. But during everyday interactions, such detailed note-taking was equally difficult, since people wondered why I would be writing down things they said. That did force me to be more attentive during everyday interactions, trying to pay attention to nuances in language use that may otherwise pass me by (and that I couldn’t go back to in a recording). But I wouldn’t say that this led me to be more conscious of non-verbal aspects of interactions perse. It was a combination of things that made me be conscious of the seemingly mundane details of people’s everyday practices. First, people would comment on others’ behaviors all the time – the way someone wore a headscarf, what kind of abaya a young women wore, where someone walked at which time of day. Second, people instructed me quite explicitly on what conduct was proper, and how I ought to act within a particular context. I talk about this in the preface of the book. And third, in public, much couldn’t be expressed verbally, but rather had to be communicated in other ways. While mobile phones have changed much of this, when I was doing fieldwork many young men and women didn’t have much opportunity to interact in public. And much was communicated through subtle behavioral details – when you would go to a certain place, the route you took, the way you walked, how you wore your abaya. And older interlocutors would often reminisce about how they used to communicate with, for example, their girlfriend through subtle signs when she happened to walk by. So, it really was a combination of factors that led me to zoom in on these minute details.

Kamala Russell: Why do you think in this case it is Islamic life, and ethical life, that is the means through which the challenges of development and the political position of Lamu are being negotiated? The book has this great historical angle where you describe the disenfranchisement and marginalization of what was effectively an elite class as Lamu became more incorporated into Kenya, it seems like status reasserts itself through a politics centered on the choice of signifiers of pious value. Can you say more about what you think is the politics in play? How do you position your work and interventions with respect to work that foregrounds Islamic movements as well as individual self-cultivation?

Sarah Hillewaert: I suggest from the onset of the book that negotiations of respectable conduct are informed by tensions surrounding what it means to be from Lamu in contemporary Kenya – a question informed by objections to the Kenyan State, economic marginalization, impositions by mainland outsiders etc. And this is something that cannot be considered outside of a historical context in which coastal and island residents have distinguished themselves from the Kenyan mainland, reluctantly (or unwillingly) having been incorporated into an independent Kenya. While it’s partially a question of a majority Muslim coast not wanting to be governed by a Christian majority government, it also ties into the moral values I focus on throughout the book – notions of distinction centered around respectability, honor, civility, and cosmopolitanism that Lamu residents believe separate themselves from mainland Kenyans. These situated ideological meanings of cosmopolitanism and respectability, and the role they historically have played in developing a distinct Lamu identity form the background against which to understand the seemingly mundane projects of self-fashioning that form the focus of this book. Rather than be condemned for ignoring a particular notion of religious uprightness, young people can be critiqued for forsaken moral norms that are seen to be at the heart of a distinctive Lamu identity and that separate Lamu residents from mainland Kenyans. Like other scholars who have built on, but simultaneously critiqued the work of people like Saba Mahmood, I show that projects of individual self-cultivation are then not just directed inward, but are always informed by broader social political processes, and directed outward, to a range of differently situated others. What I find interesting about Lamu, however, is that these everyday negotiations of respectability and the working toward differently embodying respect is not part of some Islamic revival movement. This is not about becoming a better Muslim, and actively working toward properly embodying piety – and here I mean, having a clear idea of what it is you are striving toward, clear and shared understanding of what pious behaviour looks like, for example. The question is not whether one should or should not be pious or respectable, or what obstacles one needs to overcome to achieve piety. The question for Lamu youth is: what does piety or respectability look like in contemporary Lamu? It is about deliberations of the proper mediation of this moral value. 

Kamala Russell: If any of these questions don’t resonate with you, one of my favorite moments in the book was your explication of the proverb that someone who leaves their mila (tradition) is a slave. This is an interesting positioning of agency with respect to culture and I wonder if you can say more about the consequences of this way of thinking for the way we approach and teach dilemmas of structure and agency, or as linguistic anthropologists, type and token.

Sarah Hillewaert: I really like this question. And, to be honest, I hadn’t really thought of it this way. The way people in Lamu use the proverb really refers to a person’s desire to appropriate other’s practices. “If you forsake your traditions in favor of the appropriation of someone else’s you’re a slave.” So rather than seeing some form of liberation, if you will, in abandoning traditional or cultural practices for the appropriation of other habits, it is perceived as being enslaved to one’s desires in a way. In the book, I link this to the history of slavery in Eastern Africa, and slaves’ positions in Lamu society in the past. Former slaves worked their way up in Swahili societies by appropriating the habits of upper classes, in an attempt to display respectability. But in its current usage, the proverb does speak back at the idea of being “enslaved,” or held back, by traditions, and at the idea of modernization and secularization as being freed from the load of tradition. One of the young women in the book lays this out quite nicely, where she emphasizes that blindly following others’ practices desiring development or modernity is a type of enslavement. But she stresses that this also doesn’t mean blindly upholding local traditions. Rather, it is a careful consideration of which cultural practices are, in their eyes, outdated and which ones are part of their cultural and religious identity as residents of Lamu. And maybe that’s one of the things that I’d like people to take away from this book – what we can learn from paying attention to these seemingly small but incredibly significant negotiations that happen in politically marginalized communities like Lamu. It is not about resistance to outdated practices, nor about a clinging on to distinctive traditional or religious habits out of evident political protest. It is not necessarily about an outward rejection of religious norms nor a conservative preservation of them in the context of religious revival, but rather a working within –an ethnographic illustration of agency within structure that changes the structure, not abruptly, but over time.

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Author Interviews

Kamala Russell: Your book is a deep investigation of the values, practices, and ambivalences that make up the everyday experience of social change. Could you tell us a bit about the focus of the book, and its argument? I’d be interested in hearing more as well about how you settled on this framing for the book, coming out of your many years of fieldwork. As someone who is at that stage, I am interested in hearing more about the process of how you dream up a book from a dissertation.

Sarah Hillewaert:  The book is an ethnographic study of the everyday lives of Muslim youth living on the Indian Ocean island of Lamu (Kenya). A previously cosmopolitan center of trade and Islamic scholarship, Lamu is currently marginalized in both economic and political terms yet forms the focus of international campaigns against religious radicalization and is also at the center of touristic imaginings of the untouched and secluded. The book examines what happens when narratives of self-positioning change: what happens when signs of cosmopolitanism, respectability, and civility come to be read as indices of remoteness, backwardness, or religious radicalization? And what implications do these shifts in signification have for everyday interactions, self-fashionings, and conceptions of appropriate conduct? I explore these questions by documenting the discursive and embodied production of difference, and examine the seemingly mundane practices through which Lamu youth negotiate what it means to be a ‘good Lamu resident’ in contemporary Kenya. I specifically ask what happens when signification fails – when people are no longer sure how to read signs or when they differ in their reading of material forms as signs of, for example, either piety or social transgression. By documenting apparently mundane practices, and the ideologies that inform their evaluations, I show how easily-overlooked, fleeting moments represent some of the most vital points through which larger scale transformations touch down concretely in community life, and by which they receive local inflection and resonance.  Through its ethnographic detail, the book demonstrates the intersubjective and dialogic nature of meaning-making processes and illustrates how projects of personal cultivation function as political projects as well. In doing so, it offers a linguistic anthropological approach to discussions on ethical self-fashioning and the everyday lives of Muslim youth in Africa.

In terms of the framing of the book, the focus shifted from a more explicit attention to verbal interactions and language use to a broader semiotic approach. And this happened mostly through ongoing interactions with peers, through talks and people’s feedback to them, and through ongoing conversations with my interlocutors in Lamu. However, the ethnographic focus did not change significantly from the dissertation to the book. It was more the theoretical argument that became more nuanced, with more attention to the political significance of seemingly situated interactions and practices. I think talking about my research – writing talks and articles – made me think more about what I really wanted people to take away from my research, both theoretically and ethnographically.

Kamala Russell: What I appreciated most about the book is the way you take a very open-ended approach to this study of social change, not just treating social development and peripheralization in and of Lamu as well as instability in indices of value pessimistically, but also tracing opportunities for new kinds of fulfilment and relationships to oneself (for example, professionalism). What stuck out to me across these chapters, and particularly in the final chapter ‘The Morality of the Senses and the Senses of Morality’, was the importance of gaze and the audience. In your focus on people’s performances and negotiations of what kind of individual they are, I wondered who the imagined audience or public for this differentiation is and how does that relate to the sociopolitical changes you describe in Lamu?

Sarah Hillewaert: I appreciate you mentioning the careful deliberation and negotiation of new opportunities and perspectives that I tried to convey in the book. In doing so, I tried to move beyond discussions on the so-called ambivalences or inconsistencies that previously have been highlighted in discussions of Muslim or African youth. I wanted to convey that shifting perspectives on respectability are not a mere generational change or gap, informed by globalization, for example. And rather than talk about resistance to, for example, what people call tradition, I tried to highlight the agency in young people’s calculated inhabiting of certain norms and their deliberation of the proper mediation of others. For Lamu youth, the question is not whether you should be respectable or not, but rather what respectability should look like, given, on the one hand, the development Lamu desperately needs, and on the other, the significance of respectability to Lamu residents’ distinctive identity and the political load it carries.

And this gets me to your question. Most challenging in writing this book was conveying precisely the hyper-sensitivity to semiotic misconstrual that informs young Lamu residents’ moral self-fashionings. With this I mean that young people were very much aware that a range of differently situated people observe their everyday behavior – their peers or elders from different parts of town, for example, but also immigrants from Kenya’s mainland, government administrators, military police, and so on. They understand very well that their intended professional behavior can be misread as social transgression by some, or still overly conservative by others. And as your question points to, these presentations of self, while locally situated, carry a political significance as well. Now, the political stance implied in everyday practices is not always necessarily for non-locals to be noticed. It’s not about an explicit expression of political opinion that one hopes gets noticed. And in fact, mainland Kenyans are often oblivious to many of the nuances in everyday practices that I focus on in the book. Yet, Lamu residents observing situated behaviors can take those as signs of an individual’s political orientation as well – to what extent is an individual upholding a distinctive Lamu identity? Or to what extent are they forsaking their values to get ahead in an economy controlled by the Kenyan government?  So, a young woman critiquing local social divisions at a town meeting will do so while only speaking the local Swahili dialect and paying close attention to proper address forms and greetings, to thereby negotiate a need for change while evidently displaying her pride of her Lamu identity in an attempt to avoid critiques from local elders (or even her peers). Yet, her doing so does risk her getting perceived as backward or less educated by mainland government officials present at that gathering, for example.

Kamala Russell: Heshima is a key concept in the book. You translate this as ‘respectability’. A key argument I saw in the book is that though how respectability is embodied is hotly contested, heshima as a regime of value continues to structure the ways Lamu residents understand themselves and others. I was struck by the way that this concept seems to revolve around differentiation. Is this the only semiotic process (or the key one) that heshima participates in and if so, why might that be? Are there other means and ends than moral distinction in play?

Sarah Hillewaert: Heshima is an intensely moral value, and thus plays a central role in moral distinctions, but as I discuss in Chapter 1, this is very much linked to social class distinctions and genealogy as well. Claims to embodied respectability are often linked to social class identities as well. And this is precisely part of what is being renegotiated nowadays. The hegemonic ideology of former upper-classes – of what practices are viewed as respectable and thus indicative of higher status  –  is being challenged as the social hierarchy is being reshuffled in a context of economic and social change.

Kamala Russell: Can you say a bit more about the methodological challenges you worked with in doing your fieldwork, particularly around recording, as linguists would say, putative naturalistic interaction. Though clearly you were able to record some interviews, did you face other difficulties in producing recorded data? Did working this way affect the way you think about embodiment and non-verbal signs with relation to more typical approaches to text and context?

Sarah Hillewaert: In short: yes, but not entirely. I wasn’t able to record partially because women didn’t want their voices recorded, but also because people were quite suspicious of recordings, in light of anti-terrorism investigations led by the Kenyan and US governments. So, I often refrained from recording, and took detailed notes during interviews. But during everyday interactions, such detailed note-taking was equally difficult, since people wondered why I would be writing down things they said. That did force me to be more attentive during everyday interactions, trying to pay attention to nuances in language use that may otherwise pass me by (and that I couldn’t go back to in a recording). But I wouldn’t say that this led me to be more conscious of non-verbal aspects of interactions perse. It was a combination of things that made me be conscious of the seemingly mundane details of people’s everyday practices. First, people would comment on others’ behaviors all the time – the way someone wore a headscarf, what kind of abaya a young women wore, where someone walked at which time of day. Second, people instructed me quite explicitly on what conduct was proper, and how I ought to act within a particular context. I talk about this in the preface of the book. And third, in public, much couldn’t be expressed verbally, but rather had to be communicated in other ways. While mobile phones have changed much of this, when I was doing fieldwork many young men and women didn’t have much opportunity to interact in public. And much was communicated through subtle behavioral details – when you would go to a certain place, the route you took, the way you walked, how you wore your abaya. And older interlocutors would often reminisce about how they used to communicate with, for example, their girlfriend through subtle signs when she happened to walk by. So, it really was a combination of factors that led me to zoom in on these minute details.

Kamala Russell: Why do you think in this case it is Islamic life, and ethical life, that is the means through which the challenges of development and the political position of Lamu are being negotiated? The book has this great historical angle where you describe the disenfranchisement and marginalization of what was effectively an elite class as Lamu became more incorporated into Kenya, it seems like status reasserts itself through a politics centered on the choice of signifiers of pious value. Can you say more about what you think is the politics in play? How do you position your work and interventions with respect to work that foregrounds Islamic movements as well as individual self-cultivation?

Sarah Hillewaert: I suggest from the onset of the book that negotiations of respectable conduct are informed by tensions surrounding what it means to be from Lamu in contemporary Kenya – a question informed by objections to the Kenyan State, economic marginalization, impositions by mainland outsiders etc. And this is something that cannot be considered outside of a historical context in which coastal and island residents have distinguished themselves from the Kenyan mainland, reluctantly (or unwillingly) having been incorporated into an independent Kenya. While it’s partially a question of a majority Muslim coast not wanting to be governed by a Christian majority government, it also ties into the moral values I focus on throughout the book – notions of distinction centered around respectability, honor, civility, and cosmopolitanism that Lamu residents believe separate themselves from mainland Kenyans. These situated ideological meanings of cosmopolitanism and respectability, and the role they historically have played in developing a distinct Lamu identity form the background against which to understand the seemingly mundane projects of self-fashioning that form the focus of this book. Rather than be condemned for ignoring a particular notion of religious uprightness, young people can be critiqued for forsaken moral norms that are seen to be at the heart of a distinctive Lamu identity and that separate Lamu residents from mainland Kenyans. Like other scholars who have built on, but simultaneously critiqued the work of people like Saba Mahmood, I show that projects of individual self-cultivation are then not just directed inward, but are always informed by broader social political processes, and directed outward, to a range of differently situated others. What I find interesting about Lamu, however, is that these everyday negotiations of respectability and the working toward differently embodying respect is not part of some Islamic revival movement. This is not about becoming a better Muslim, and actively working toward properly embodying piety – and here I mean, having a clear idea of what it is you are striving toward, clear and shared understanding of what pious behaviour looks like, for example. The question is not whether one should or should not be pious or respectable, or what obstacles one needs to overcome to achieve piety. The question for Lamu youth is: what does piety or respectability look like in contemporary Lamu? It is about deliberations of the proper mediation of this moral value. 

Kamala Russell: If any of these questions don’t resonate with you, one of my favorite moments in the book was your explication of the proverb that someone who leaves their mila (tradition) is a slave. This is an interesting positioning of agency with respect to culture and I wonder if you can say more about the consequences of this way of thinking for the way we approach and teach dilemmas of structure and agency, or as linguistic anthropologists, type and token.

Sarah Hillewaert: I really like this question. And, to be honest, I hadn’t really thought of it this way. The way people in Lamu use the proverb really refers to a person’s desire to appropriate other’s practices. “If you forsake your traditions in favor of the appropriation of someone else’s you’re a slave.” So rather than seeing some form of liberation, if you will, in abandoning traditional or cultural practices for the appropriation of other habits, it is perceived as being enslaved to one’s desires in a way. In the book, I link this to the history of slavery in Eastern Africa, and slaves’ positions in Lamu society in the past. Former slaves worked their way up in Swahili societies by appropriating the habits of upper classes, in an attempt to display respectability. But in its current usage, the proverb does speak back at the idea of being “enslaved,” or held back, by traditions, and at the idea of modernization and secularization as being freed from the load of tradition. One of the young women in the book lays this out quite nicely, where she emphasizes that blindly following others’ practices desiring development or modernity is a type of enslavement. But she stresses that this also doesn’t mean blindly upholding local traditions. Rather, it is a careful consideration of which cultural practices are, in their eyes, outdated and which ones are part of their cultural and religious identity as residents of Lamu. And maybe that’s one of the things that I’d like people to take away from this book – what we can learn from paying attention to these seemingly small but incredibly significant negotiations that happen in politically marginalized communities like Lamu. It is not about resistance to outdated practices, nor about a clinging on to distinctive traditional or religious habits out of evident political protest. It is not necessarily about an outward rejection of religious norms nor a conservative preservation of them in the context of religious revival, but rather a working within –an ethnographic illustration of agency within structure that changes the structure, not abruptly, but over time.