Charles Briggs on his book, Unlearning

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: This book is a generous and intricate homage to your mentors and those who have laid down the intellectual infrastructure that you have inherited and transformed through your prodigious talent in bringing together multiple dialogues across academic and non-academic perspectives. It is also a genre of book that is not so common – a collection of previously published essays interwoven into a new intervention. I am curious about the process: how do you choose what to include, how did you decide the order and what about the texts had to change?

Charles L. Briggs: You are too kind! To do justice to your question, I need to compose, with apologies to Derrida, an origin story for the book, in three parts, that tries to capture the reflections that engendered Unlearning.

As the Introduction attests, I have been mesmerized since I was a kid with the poetics of language. As much in dialogue with Wittgenstein as Jakobson, I have always been enthralled with how a sentence, song, or conversation brings worlds into being and opens up new space for the imagination. Poetics led me into issues of health, how healers and their patients confront forces, from microbes to spiritual pathogens to racism, using sound, bodies, and instruments. I have also been concerned with materialities and the more-than-human, with plants, spirits, and environments. (I apologize for the weak Eurocentric terms in the preceding sentences.) In Unlearning, I tried to make a major intervention into work on poetics and performance, to which I contributed, often in collaboration with Dick Bauman, starting back in the 1980s. I got the impression that this literature had been largely assimilated into intellectual infrastructures in linguistic anthropology. I thus tried to breathe new life into it, pushing its assumptions and research questions by fostering dialogues with psychoanalysis, media studies, decolonial perspectives, and work in science studies and medical anthropology.

Second, I have long pursued a dual path: immersing myself in theory from anthropology, media studies, folkloristics, and other fields, but continually feeling uncomfortable with the limits each imposes on what counts as knowledge, who gets to produce it, and how it is made. This penchant flies in the face of advice I received starting in graduate school, that scholarly success involves finding a particular disciplinary trajectory and claiming ownership. A friend once remarked: “I’m like a crab in a seawall cave: you stick your finger in, and I will bite you.” Work in science studies suggests, however, that breakthroughs often come when researchers cross boundaries so that they can identify and challenge assumptions. Such insights are not achieved by pretending to fly over boundaries that separate disciplines or juxtaposing decontextualized concepts. Advances rather follow from engaging disciplinary trajectories deeply, learning their histories, and analyzing how they produce knowledge. A major goal in Unlearning is to disrupt disciplining practices by focusing on their bases in Whiteness and colonialism and creating experiments located along disciplinary borders. Crucially, I have become more mindful of the extent to which I draw on the insights of mentors who were not trained as academics, including woodcarvers, farmers, beekeepers, and women who perform laments over relatives’ bodies. This book reports my efforts to push back against tendencies to incarcerate such perspectives within scholarly genealogies and conversations, thereby curtailing creativity and expropriating their philosophical and theoretical insights as ethnographic particulars. Even decades later, I acknowledge that I am not fully capable of appreciating their intellectual challenges.

Finally, the book’s leitmotif—unlearning—sprang from questioning how academic hierarchies rely on implicit notions of scholarly learning curves, the gradual accumulation of knowledge. During the past ten years, my graduate seminars have rather become decolonial collaborations that seek to identify how White, elite, Euro-American men became arbiters of what counts as theory—thus defining what is deemed nonknowledge, ignorance, and irrationality. Through these discussions and collaborations emerging within and beyond the academy, many sited in Latin America, I found that my unlearning curve grew steeper all the time. Demands to challenge Whiteness and racism following the murder of George Floyd in May, 2020 have greatly increased the stakes here.

Unlearning is thus a set of reflections and experiments. It takes the undisciplining and unlearning process that I had previously explored in fragmented and often implicit ways and puts it right out there, front and center. It was also high time to thank my mentors adequately. This goal, however, nearly killed the project. I had used the themes of mentorship and unlearning to weave the chapters together, but I could not force myself to write the Introduction—for three years. I had unthinkingly slipped into a scholarly rut: Introductions revolve around academic genealogies, placing what are supposed to be new ideas into trajectories provided by other scholars. This fundamental contradiction—which would have undermined what the book was trying to accomplish—had prompted massive resistance. I thus suddenly decided to turn the Introduction into a memoir, recounting my experiences with mentors starting in my childhood. Writing the Introduction then became most enjoyable.

Ilana Gershon: In this book, you are hailing folklorists and revealing new scholarly paths they might take. But some of us are unratified listeners to this hailing. I am wondering what you might want linguistic anthropologists to overhear especially as you call forth folklorists’ nascent intellectual possibilities that you would like to see more vigorously nurtured?

Charles L. Briggs: I find this question fascinating because it imagines the book’s potential audiences and invites me to anticipate ways that linguistic anthropologists might engage it. Rather than projecting readers as divided into two disciplinary camps, I would like to highlight several periods in which sharing modes of investigation and analysis led to some of the most creative moments for people who self-identify as linguistic anthropologists or folklorists. Franz Boas told his students that documenting folkloric texts is a fundamental component of any serious ethnographic project. He edited the Journal of American Folklore (JAF) 1908-1924 and was President of the American Folklore Society (AFS) three times. Edward Sapir, who published extensive collections of texts and illuminated their poetics, was President of the American Anthropological Association and AFS. Boas student Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men developed a sophisticated framework for analyzing cultural poetics. Her experimental ethnographic style challenged readers to think in new and complex ways. Dell Hymes’ ethnography of speaking transformed work in anthropology, folkloristics, and linguistics; he served as President of the AAA, the AFS, and the Linguistic Society of America. In 1958, Américo Paredes, a major figure in the book, pushed cultural poetics beyond a nationalistic focus on shared culture to focus on race, difference, borders, and violence. His later work examined how insensitivity to genre, performance, and multilingualism prompted White anthropologists to scientize anti-Mexican stereotypes.  Richard Bauman galvanized scholarship in a range of disciplines with the notion of performance. During his editorship (1981-1985), JAF became one of the leading venues for publishing work in linguistic anthropology. In the 1990s, Dick and I tied to push the analytic limits of poetics and performance through notions of entextualization and de- and re-contextualization.

Unfortunately, such dialogues often fell victim to disciplining processes that harden into competing scholarly identities, thereby reproducing premises and imposing limits to theory-building and ethnographic research. Rather than trying to drag linguistic anthropologists into folkloristics, Unlearning seeks to reinvigorate these conversations in such a way as to challenge scholars—whatever disciplinary identity they claim—to venture across boundaries. It poses a particular challenge to linguistic anthropology. Even as a great deal of experimental writing has emerged in social/cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropologists generally seem a bit phobic about disrupting conventional styles of scholarly writing. In the Introduction, Dear Dr. Freud, and provocations scattered throughout the book, I challenge linguistic anthropologists to shake things up, textually. The point is less to claim the mantle of experimental writing than to circumvent intellectual roadblocks that sometimes become insoluble when thinking gets forced into conventional rhetorical boxes.

Ilana Gershon: And if I can indulge in an abrupt transition to the contemporary moment, how can a study of pandemics be enhanced by an attentiveness to the analytical insights of scholars of mediatization?

Charles L. Briggs: Studying pandemics: ouch! I ended up, by accident, in the middle of a cholera epidemic in a Venezuelan rainforest in 1992, in which hundreds died. I then stumbled, unsuspectingly, into an outbreak of bat-transmitted rabies in the same area that killed scores of children and young adults. In each case, linguistic and medical profiling were woven together in fatal ways, constraining efforts by dedicated clinicians and justifying, to use Arachu Castro’s and Merrill Singer’s phrase, unhealthy health policies. After collaborating with Venezuelan public health physician Clara Mantini-Briggs to help stop the dying and counter the devastating social, political, and psychological effects of these outbreaks, Clara and I conducted years of research seeking to figure out what had happened. Clinical interactions, health education, and media coverage played crucial roles in deepening the communicative and health inequities that multiplied deaths and obscured underlying causes. I am pleased to say that Stories in the Time of Cholera is now often used to teach medical students. The concept of “communicative justice in health” developed in Tell Me Why My Children Died: Rabies, Indigenous Knowledge, and Communicative Justice—grounded in linguistic anthropology analytics and ethnographic techniques—has helped push scholars and practitioners of medical anthropology, medicine, and public health to think more seriously and critically about what they often had dismissed as mere issues of language and communication.

Then along came H1N1 (“swine flu”) in April 2009. Although the virus killed fewer people than most seasonal influenzas, it infected most people on the planet communicatively through a barrage of public health announcements and news coverage. Anthropologists analyzed H1N1 as a quintessential manifestation of the “emergency preparedness” regime that transforms health and medicine into questions of security. Although H1N1’s life as a mediated phenomenon loomed larger than its viral impact, anthropologists generally left this component out of their ethnography and analyses. In a book I co-authored with media scholar Daniel Hallin, Making Health Public, I explored how “the H1N1 pandemic” embodied communicability in complex ways. Public health officials suggested that viral circulation could only be contained if the scientific information they produced was intensively circulated and publics demonstrated their compliant reception through hand washing and other prevention measures. I was particularly interested in two effects of the massive disjunction between the two sides of H1N1 communicability. First, lay publics to this day deem the much greater prevalence of H1N1’s discursive over viral effects as evidence that journalists “hype” or “sensationalize” news of epidemic diseases. Secondly, journalists, health professionals, and laypersons alike reproduced an ideological separation between communication versus medicine. My ethnographic work suggested that U.S. journalists, health officials, clinicians, Homeland Security officials, and politicians had, through massively funded rehearsals, developed shared practices for creating discourse about biosecurity “events.” A chapter in Unlearning analyzes how these actors collaborated in constructing “the H1N1 pandemic” in just 24 hours, even before more than the scantiest scientific evidence was available. Drawing on science studies and European and Latin American media studies theory, Hallin and I analyzed this phenomenon as biomediatization. We used the concept to trace how pandemic and other discourse ideologically projects separate or even opposing media/communication and scientific/medical arenas, yet simultaneously entwines logics and practices of journalism, medicine, public health, and homeland security.

And here we are in the midst of “the big one,” the COVID-19 pandemic that seems to have brought germ thrillers to life and justified the securitization of public health. The pandemic’s mediatization would seem to be the communicable opposite of H1N1, in the sense that the circulation of media discourse and viruses have both been extraordinarily high. Would attentiveness to the mediatization of pandemics suggest, however, that a magical convergence of epidemiology and mediatization has been achieved? Seven months of intensive ethnographic work on the pandemic suggests that the situation is more complex and contradictory. Rather than playing his assigned role in the pandemic biomediatization-industrial complex, as did President Barak Obama in 2009, Donald Trump displaced the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the government’s communicable center. He rather held daily White House “Coronavirus Briefings” in which he not only sparred with top medical advisor Anthony Fauci but violated the CDC’s Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication rules one by one. Sites and processes of biomediatization multiplied and clashed as social media and conservative journalists circulated discursive forms that get stigmatized as “misinformation” and “conspiracy theories.” Moreover, patients—particularly those experiencing the “long COVID” symptoms that have proved difficult for physicians to interpret and treat—developed sites of collaborative knowledge production through social media.

I want to use Michael Silverstein’s analytics in addressing your question. The official pandemic biomediatization-industrial complex presupposes ideological models of medicine, communication, and media. In “normal” times, U.S. health communication pictures self-interested, agentive, rational individuals who consume health-related information and services. Pandemic discourse contrastively presupposes what Hallin and I called a “biomedical authority” model that constructs elite health professionals as knowledge producers and a linear, unidirectional process of converting it into “communication,” translating it into lay registers, and transmitting it to publics. However, the SARS-CoV-2 virus proved so challenging that claiming a monopoly on knowledge production and communication was near impossible: scientists and clinicians were forced to admit uncertainty and drastically revise prior conclusions, even as health officials frequently changed guidelines.   

Sustaining this ideological landscape was also complicated by a massive shift in the pragmatics of mediatization. In 2009, most U.S. residents drew primarily on television news and newspapers for H1N1 updates, arenas largely dominated by biomedical and public health professionals; only 17% said they mainly used the internet, where competing (“conspiracy theory”) explanations were more prevalent. For both H1N1 and COVID-19, health officials used “crisis and emergency risk communication” metapragmatics to channel public affects and convince laypersons that their survival depended on surrendering claims to be knowledge producers. In 2020, attempts to use a narrow, standardized metapragmatic register to shape the pragmatics of media landscapes that were being scrambled by political polarization and shifts in media technologies, practices, and economics were designed to fail. As we enter the pandemic’s third year, the official pandemic biomediatization-industrial complex seems to be losing its grip even on people who accepted masks and vaccines.

Given the early stage of my COVID-19 research, I cannot offer any fast and sweeping generalizations. I do hope, however, that the book’s perspectives on circulation, mediatization, coloniality, poetics and performance, and communicability might inspire readers to find new ways of documenting and analyzing the vast and complex issues of our day, given that their consequences will be felt for years to come. I also hope that my efforts to reshuffle the disciplinary deck will inspire readers to inhabit boundaries and forge new types of collaborations. Thank you, Ilana, for challenging me to rethink what I hoped to accomplish with Unlearning.

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