Sandra Kurfürst on her book, Dancing Youth

Interview by Jonathan DeVore

Jonathan DeVore: Congratulations on your new book! First of all, can you recount how you became involved in the research for the book?

Sandra Kurfürst: Thank you, Jonathan! From 2007 to 2008, I conducted one year of ethnographic research in Hanoi for my PhD thesis. At the time, I was working on public spaces in Hanoi, and regularly hung out around the Lenin Monument at Dien Bien Phu Street and Ly Thai To Garden on the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake. At the time, I met a number of young people there who regularly assembled in the late afternoon hours to perform break moves, hip-hop dance, and popping. I began conducting interviews with young b-boys from the FIT and MiNi Shock Crews and young women dancers from Big Toe Crew. I was especially fascinated by these young women, their movement repertoire, and their fashion style. Whenever they arrived at the pavilion in Ly Thai To Garden, they would change out of their school uniforms – which were white blouses and blue trousers combined with a red scarf – and switch these for belly tops, XXL T-Shirts, and shorts or joggers. Having followed hip hop culture in Vietnam for a decade, I found hip hop’s diverse dance styles an ideal topic to study, as it combines my personal passion for hip hop with my longstanding interests in the anthropology of the urban and questions of socioeconomic transformation.

Jonathan DeVore: This continuity between your research projects nicely illustrates the observation that the questions we begin with in ethnographic research are rarely the same as the questions that we arrive at in the process. Can you describe how the questions and interests that your book addresses arose, and how these may have been transformed during the course of you research? Were there any key moments in your research that affected or even shifted your focus?

Sandra Kurfürst: Hip Hop comprises four practices of MCing (rap), breaking, graffiti writing, and DJing. Initially, I planned on examining all four practices and the interrelations among actors involves in these practices. However, once I began my research into rap and dancing, I soon noticed that there are some overlaps in the communities, but that rather distinct communities of practice have evolved around each practice. Some actors in Vietnam are very active in bringing these different strands of hip hop culture together, but, so far, there are only a few events that unite these different communities of practice. Then again, I found that the community of hip hop dancing was much more diverse than I had expected. The first dancers I talked to all differentiated between diverse styles, such as breaking, popping, locking, waacking, hip hop, and house dance. That is why I reconsidered my focus and decided to write about dance. From the start, I had been fascinated with how many young women engaged in hip hop’s different dance styles. Therefore, I chose a particular gender focus. However, one eye opening moment was a conversation with a woman locker who told me: “I don’t think it’s about young women, but about people who want to enjoy their life and develop themselves (…).” And that is how I got interested in the question of youth aspirations and visions of the good life under conditions of late socialism.

Jonathan DeVore:  Speaking of late socialism, one dynamic that I found interesting in the book was the gradual transition over a period of years from hip-hop as a relatively informal practice, occurring in common public spaces such as the Lenin Monument, to a set of relationships that became increasingly professionalized, involving market exchanges. Some of the dancers you describe who became more prominent, for example, were able to establish their own schools from which they derived their primary incomes.  Can you tell us more about processes of class formation, differentiation, and distinction among dancers in your research? More broadly, can you relate these processes to Vietnams’ transition toward “market reform, commodification, and consumerism, while officially insisting on socialist ideology and one-party rule” (p. 10)?

Sandra Kurfürst: When I did my research on public space in Hanoi between 2007 and 2008, I also interviewed b-boys and women dancers who were regularly meeting and dancing around Ly Thai To Garden. At that time, the dancers were either still in school or had jobs, and they did not have many economic resources. In 2018, the situation seemed to have slightly changed, as most of the professional dancers participating in my research held university degrees, and had gathered experiences in working in office jobs that were unrelated to dance. Some dancers, however, decided to quit their office jobs to open their own dance studios or to work as freelancers at different dance studios. Others owned their own fashion labels and combined their self-entrepreneurism with teaching dance classes. My study is not representative, of course, but from the conversations and interviews with men and women dancers alike, I gathered that most have urban middle-class backgrounds, and many of them grew up in Hanoi. Moreover, the relevance of consumption as both a status symbol, and marker of belonging to the community of practice, was visible and tangible. Indexes of distinction were comprised of street apparel, such as the German or U. S. sports brands Adidas, Nike, Vans, and so on, as well as other commodities, like photo and video cameras. Mobility was a further asset, as many dancers regularly travelled within Vietnam or the Southeast Asia region, which again requires financial resources and time. At the same time, the proliferation of dance studios in Vietnam’s major cities that offer children’s hip hop dance classes cater to growing demands by urban middle-class parents to provide their children with physical exercise and leisure activities other than gaming.

Jonathan DeVore: I see – so, parents want their children moving around instead of just sitting in front of televisions and computers!  This actually relates to another question I wanted to ask you about:  Embodied movements, gestures, and actions are notoriously difficult to represent textually, in the medium of an article or book. Can you describe the difficulties you faced, and the strategies you used, in representing the different dance forms you investigate—not only in the book, but perhaps also in other media, such as fieldnotes?

Sandra Kurfürst: Thank you. This is a topic that I struggle with to this day. Certainly, audiovisual formats are an option, and I would like to further pursue the question of writing dance in the future. As for fieldnotes: After taking dance classes, I recorded my sensations and experiences as well as student-teacher interactions in voice recordings on my way home. Listening to my own voice recordings later on, I particularly noticed my own shortness of breath after having trained with one dancer, named Mai. Also, the interview situations themselves were certainly sensory events. Whenever I sat down to transcribe interview recordings, or to write my field notes, I started humming and singing songs that my interlocutors had played for me on their phones. And I found myself searching the internet for tracks and videos they had told me about. A really fascinating format, to avoid simplifications involved in just describing what I saw and how I moved, seems to be autoethnographic performance. However, what prevented me from engaging in autoethnographic performance in the book were my English language skills. The use of different literary genres to express movement in written language is really appealing to me, but I would have to do so in my own mother tongue. In my teenage years, I used to write rap lyrics. So, writing in German would be one way for me to go.

Jonathan DeVore: I can certainly appreciate this challenge!  And as I read your book, I also found myself looking up YouTube videos of the songs and music videos you cited!  Perhaps a final question to conclude: Are there any interests or questions that remain open for you after writing the book?

Sandra Kurfürst: I keep wondering if, at one point, I could invite the women hip hop dancers to Germany for a performance in the city of Cologne. I think that would be a great opportunity to bring them together with Cologne-based dancers. Moreover, I would really like to meet them again – but due to the pandemic, I have not returned to Vietnam since 2018. At the time, when I got to know the women dancers, they were all at the end of their 20s – an age when women in Vietnam are usually married and have children. So, one question I did not ask, but which comes up again and again, is: To what extent does leading a dancing life have an impact on women dancers’ decisions to marry and have children?

I was also very glad to find queer dancers at dance battles. However, as battles are quite ephemeral events, and the dancers were not directly related to participants in my research, I did not have a chance to talk to them. But it made me wonder if queer performance, such as the style of waacking, helps to open up spaces for the queer community in Vietnam. The LGBTQIA+ community has become more active and more visible in public space, such as with the annual Viet Pride festival. So, I was wondering if dancing, and waacking in particular, may also be a way for them to create a community as well as to gain more public awareness and acceptance.

Jonathan DeVore: Thanks so much for talking with me, Sandra, and congratulations once again on Dancing Youth.  I’ll look forward to reading your next book on one of these other topics!

Leya Mathew discusses her book, English Linguistic Imperialism from Below

Interview by Shivani Nag

Shivani Nag: It would be helpful if you could first introduce the book, what led you to this book?

Leya Mathew: This was my dissertation research, at that time, there was a lot of debate about low fee private schools in India. That debate was already happening. And I am from Kerala (South India) where there was a very heated debate about state-funded schools closing down because of private schools. But the academic debate somehow did not match what I was seeing around me. A lot of it was framed in the language of school choice. The school choice literature comes from a very particular historical context in the UK and the US, where school choice makes sense. But in India, school choice makes very little sense. I mean there is this whole body of very insightful literature, but it is misaligned with what is happening. That is what led to the research.

Shivani Nag: The book engages with aspirations for English and among parents. Like you said, your work is based in Kerala, and in the North (of India) certain stereotypes exist about English being a far more comfortable language for those who are from the South. There is a certain complexity of location in the book in terms of geography, you know the dynamics of class, caste, religion (Christianity), the nature of market, and the political leadership (Communist Party). How did you listen to and make sense of the voices emerging in your field, especially because there were also multiple things shaping these voices? Also, I found your choice of “moral aspiration” very interesting, could you share some light on that as well?

Leya Mathew You’re absolutely right, what poverty looks like in certain parts of northern India in comparison to some parts of South India can be very different. Kerala has a long history of development, it’s very contested. At the same time, the intensity of aspiration is noted by others about northern India as well. Aspiration does travel across geography but the specificity of how it manifests would of course be different.

As for moral aspiration, for the longest time the title of my book was Moral Aspiration. The current title came much, much later, after the peer review. While writing, I read Andrea Muehlebach’s The Moral Neoliberal. She’s writing about a very different context, it’s about volunteerism in Italy, but the argument she made was very striking. We assume neoliberal capitalism and its accumulative impetus to be divorced from the moral. But the moral is very central to how capitalism functions as well as to how people are making sense of what’s happening around them.

In my context, whether it was mothers or policymakers in Delhi or Kerala, their expression was very, very moral. So how do you write about a moral neoliberal with all of its contradictions? Because here, you have elites and non-elites using the moral but in very different ways and with very different effects.

When elites claim that they represent the nation, they do so on the strength of their moral claims. Those who study the middle classes have written extensively about the significance of the moral for middle class hegemonic projects. The privileged middle class comes to stand in for everybody else and their agendas come to stand in for national agendas on the basis of their moral claims. The moral becomes the basis of how resources are distributed. Those are the two aspects I was trying to emphasize with the phrase moral aspiration.

Shivani Nag: I also wanted to ask you about the debate on medium of instruction, which has often and rightfully so, connected to questions around access, the accessibility of knowledge for the marginalized and for the oppressed sections. If you look at the Thorat committee report that came out after allegations of caste-based discrimination of students at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), one of the key concerns and recommendations had to do with the language gap, non-familiarity with English and the fact that institutions were doing very little to bridge that gap. When it comes to English, different kinds of voices have emerged from within the anti-caste struggles.  There are those who see in English an opportunity to counter a certain form of caste-ist standardization in regional languages. Both English and the regional language can be alienating and disconnected from the context. And, of course, others have also pointed towards the epistemological functions of language, and thus the need for the language of the oppressed to be brought to classrooms. Given these debates, I was wondering how would you reflect on the question of language and access, especially for the oppressed castes?

Leya Mathew My current project is on higher education, so these are things that I have been thinking about. In hyper competitive spaces like the IITs and AIIMS, questions around language can function very differently. In mid or lower tier spaces, English can work very differently. There’s something about how the space is located in relation to larger structures, we need to pay attention to that. The schools that I’m looking at in the book are really on the margins of society. As for epistemology, one of the things that I struggled with a lot is, what does epistemology mean when you can access the language only in its written form? These were also personal questions. I studied in a village and then a small town growing up, and I could only write in English. I learned to speak in English a lot later, after I went to college in the city. If you take all of this into consideration, then what are the kind of pedagogic and linguistic spaces that can be negotiated and created?  Can we creates ones which are not just welcoming but which are also serious because there’s also a lot of desperate desire for learning?

Shivani Nag: I was also thinking about bell hooks in the context of race. When she talks about English, there is the sense of this being the oppressor’s language which is still needed by the oppressed to be able to talk to those in power. When it comes to languages in India, given the very complex linguistic context we have, it’s not easy for us to clearly identify which is the oppressor’s language. In the context of caste, it’s a particular form of standardized regional language which becomes the oppressor’s language. Then the colonizer’s language can, instead, become a liberating language; our context is very complex.

Leya Mathew: It gets slightly more complicated in Kerala, because the state, the Communist Party is saying exactly this. In the book I write about how the state says that we don’t want a prettified language, we want to intentionally bring the language of the oppressed into our textbooks, and they did that to some extent. But the way it functioned; it became a very perverse inclusion of the language of the oppressed.

Shivani Nag: The private-public divide in schools almost neatly translates to the English versus regional language, and the elite – non-elite private school divide to one between those students who are coming from contexts where English is almost their first language versus those for whom English would still be an imposition. Can the question of language in school can be split off from the concern for the common school system, given that our schools are so hierarchical, and divided so sharply?

Leya Mathew: Yes, it is an extremely hierarchical system. How to work with language education within this hierarchical system if you do not have the option of common schooling is something that needs to be engaged with seriously. I think the debate misses that point, you’re very right. Common schooling has been talked about from the very beginning (independence of the nation), but never been implemented. By now, we know that it will never happen. Any discussion on language education or, for that matter, anything to do with pedagogy has to take this into account. When we have this sort of hierarchical system, then what does it mean to make textbooks for the country? Or design instruction for our country? It doesn’t work. I’m sure that even within a common schooling system there would be hierarchies. But what we have are very institutionalized hierarchies which also distribute resources in very particular ways. You’re absolutely right, I think there needs to be a lot more discussion on this.

Shivani Nag: Since you brought in the question of pedagogy, there is also an imagination of the nation in textbooks. Another school ethnography around aspirations for English that I found engaging was by Shalini Advani and that book, Schooling the National Imagination, was located in the North Indian context. Given the concerns around language imposition that have again come up with the National Education Policy and the resistance from the southern states, how did the relation between language aspiration and a national identity unfold in your field?

Leya Mathew There’s a lot in Shalini’s book about how the nation is imagined, particularly through textbooks, but she also talks about how the classrooms themselves didn’t fit into that imagination because they were on the margins of society. I don’t talk about nationalism in the book but where it comes through most clearly is in the CBSC high school textbooks, the Main Course Book, where immediately, this techno-science nation emerges.

The other reason why I could not really think about nationalism in the context of my study is perhaps because the nation is implicitly Hindu, and Hindi-speaking these days. Sanjay Srivastava demonstrated some of it brilliantly in his book about the Doon School. My context was neither Hindu nor Hindi speaking. Your question makes me reflect on why nationalism did not come up as a theme for me.

There is obviously more sub-nationalism than nationalism in terms of language identities if you look at South India. For the Kerala State and for regional elites, and remember these are people who are bilingual and very comfortable with academic Malayalam and academic English, there is definitely a feeling of imposition (of Hindi), as well as mechanisms of responding and resisting. But these concerns are very distant for those who are not imagined as part of the nation to begin with.

Shivani Nag: When one tries to engage with questions around aspirations, looking at them not just in (marginalized) communities, but also in leadership, that is important.

Moving forward, I was also thinking about how the medium of instruction question in schools cannot be insulated from the question of medium of instruction in higher education. You know language diversity in school systems does not carry over to higher education. In India, higher education is even more exclusive, I think we can confidently say that at least 90% of it is in English.

Leya Mathew: And the sciences, engineering, medicine, architecture, all of that is only taught in English. Like I said, I’m studying higher education now and in a state (Gujarat) where regional-medium education is very strong. I see it unfolding in a much more complex way. These are high achievers from Gujarati-medium schools, they’ve made it to a premier college at the regional level. So those from regional language instruction may have other resources that they can mobilize. Another important factor to keep in mind is that this is also a time of increasing unemployment, when even a professional degree does not lead you to a decent job. What does the cultural capital of English mean if it just leads to a precarious labor market, so it’s complicated.

Shivani Nag: The whole idea of language and socioeconomic mobility must be getting affected in so many ways, with the decline in employment opportunities.

What were some of the major insights that emerged from your field research that perhaps also took you by some surprise? There are certain expectations that one has, I’m very interested in knowing what the surprises were.

Leya Mathew Fieldwork always surprises you. Even in my current project, I went in thinking that those from English medium schools would have everything lined up for them, and it was a big surprise to learn that English did not get you anywhere. In terms of the book, I think the most surprising part was, I thought if you were deprived and knew you were deprived, you would respond with anger. It seems very naïve now. At the Malayalam-medium school, there was a lot more hope and aspiration. It took me a long time to wrap my head around that and I remember having a lot of conversations with my supervisor about that. People’s lives always surprise us, there’s much more happening in anybody’s life than what theory can capture. And I think that’s also the interesting part of doing research.

Shivani Nag: Absolutely. The complexities, the nuances take very different kinds of shapes. I’m so glad to have had the opportunity of engaging with your work. It keeps reminding us to not be just rhetorical with research. It is important to listen to what your participants and the context is speaking.

One last question: educational research in India is focused on outcomes, achievements, certain statistical measures, how do you see the role of ethnography? When you try to convince policymakers, they want data or solutions in the form of step one, step two, step three, so if you go to them with a very rich ethnographic work, it impresses them, but it also makes it difficult for them to pick out two things that they can apply towards.

Leya Mathew Yes, policymakers want numbers and steps, but the policymakers I worked with were ethnographic in their sensibilities. Most of the people I’m writing about in the book, they were not looking for numbers. My issue was different. The issue of numbers definitely is there, I’m not discounting that, that’s definitely a hegemonic discourse. But we need to recognize that the critical is an equally hegemonic discourse. We need to hold these two hegemonic discourses together instead of pitting them against each other. It was very troubling to document how critical scholars ended up creating such violent pedagogies. Like you said earlier, one has to listen very carefully, not take anything for granted, whether it comes with the label of critical or radical, instead, really listen and observe and see what the critical turn is actually doing in the world.

In terms of what you can apply, it’s very simple, there should be a functional library, I mean people have been saying that for the longest time. But in a context where English is being understood as socialization, to remember that you also must teach how to read and write became a fresh insight. We have now come to assume language to be oracy or the ability to socialize, we forget that literacy is something that is taught and learned, not acquired. I’m not saying something new, but something that is being forgotten in a particular political economic context.

Shivani Nag: Any last comments or reflections on your journey from the field to putting it out in the form of a book?

Leya Mathew I’m grateful that it got published. I couldn’t have asked for a better series, when I read the series editors’ preface, I was very touched. I’m very, very grateful that it all came together. It’s also important to note that writing a book needs a lot of institutional support. Academic careers also, it boils down to numbers, what are your publication numbers and how does it work for NAAC and CAS. Unless there is institutional support, it’s extremely difficult.

Fang Xu on her book, Silencing Shanghai

Interview by Andy Zhenzhou Tan

Andy Zhenzhou Tan: The topic of your book – the (potential) loss of a language variety under language standardization – is of wide relevance since the rise of modern nation-states and their monoglot ideologies. What is the distinctiveness of the case of Shanghai and Shanghaihua (the Shanghai dialect) in contrast to, say, those of other regions in China and their dialects? How does this distinctiveness play out historically and in terms of the charged dynamic between the multiple social powers and groups involved? 

Fang Xu: Earlier on during the Republic of China (1912-1949), the creation of a national language and language standardization were justified by their alleged contributions to unifying and modernizing the country and its citizenry. At that time, semi-colonial Shanghai was already cosmopolitan and modern. The lingua franca of the “Paris of the East” was the Shanghai dialect, and thus the classical justification for the creation and imposition of a national language to facilitate industrialization, urbanization, and meeting the demand for a (linguistic) uniform labor force did not necessarily hold in the case of Shanghai. A reference point is Kathyrn Woolard’s work in Barcelona, where the suppressed Catalan during the Franco era (1939-1975) has been a prestigious language throughout the history, and the locals in general fare better economically than the Castilian-speaking migrants. The Shanghai dialect came into shape in a cosmopolitan city in the late 19th and early 20th century, though it is based on Songjiang county’s variation of Wu Chinese.  The origin story sets it apart from other regional dialects, for example, Cantonese. Cantonese can claim a historical, more rooted Chinese-ness that the hybrid and relatively young Shanghai dialect cannot. 

It is the power struggles between not only the state and the people, but also waves of migrants in Shanghai. Shanghai’s unique identity as a migrant city sets it apart from many Chinese cities which can easily claim a history of hundreds of years. In the early 20th century, more than 85% of the urban population was internal migrants, not to mention the segregated and separated urban jurisdiction shared (unequally) between the UK, US, France, China, and later Japan. So at the grander scale, it was the struggle between states in defining the city. In terms of who counts as a Shanghairen, it has been even more contested, based on birthplace, hukou (household registration status), urban residency, or vernacular capacity. As we know, identity claim is never solely about identification, but also about aspiration and desire for something else. Since the early 20th century, due to wars, natural disasters, and economic opportunities, there have been four waves of internal migrants who settled in Shanghai. Their political and socioeconomic conditions vary greatly, e.g., from the Baghdadi Jewish Sassoon family, known as “Rothschilds of the East,” the Soong family, Mao Zedong, and refugees from northern Jiangsu Province fleeing draught and famine in the early 20th century, to talents from across the country meeting the “two high and one low” (high in education and skill level, low in age) standard to obtain a Shanghai hukou in the early 21th century. Hence their rights to identify themselves and power to alter and influence the urban scenes politically, economically, socially, culturally, and linguistically also differ greatly. 

Andy Zhenzhou Tan: The concept “linguistic right to the city” is central to your arguments but not itself thematized. The allocation of linguistic rights and placement of blame for language injustice are complex processes. In these processes, what are your positions towards multiple parties involved? In terms of justice, how would you compare the previous diglossia system in Shanghai and the recent state-initiated collapse of it? Could you reflect on your own positionality in this matter? 

Fang Xu: During my dissertation proposal defense, a Shanghainese rap song I quote in my proposal prompted a committee member to warn me that native Shanghai people’s xenophobia motivated by their heartfelt linguistic loss might come across as KKK-like. The song was widely circulated among online communities of native Shanghai people in the early 2010s. It cried out to preserve the Shanghai dialect and Shanghai’s urban culture. This so-called “Shanghai Anthem” appropriates the melody of the Chinese national anthem “March of the Volunteers” (original lyrics in “[ ]”) and modifies the lyrics to express a growing hostility towards recent migrants to Shanghai. 

[Arise! All those who don’t want to be slaves!]

Arise! All those friends who speak Shanghai dialect!

[Let our flesh and blood forge our new Great Wall!]

Let our language become the roar of Huangpu River!

[As the Chinese people have arrived at their most dangerous time.]

As the Shanghai dialect has arrived at its most dangerous time.

[Every person is forced to expel his very last cry.]

Every Shanghairen is forced to expel his very last cry.

[Arise! Arise! Arise!]

F-ck! F-ck! F-ck!

[Our million hearts beating as one,]

Our million hearts beating as one,

[Brave the enemy’s fire, March on!]

Get rid of all the out-siders, rid of!

[Brave the enemy’s fire, March on!]

Get rid of all the out-siders, rid of!

[March on! March on! On!]

Rid of! Rid of! Rid of!

Being a Shanghai native, it is hard for me not to lament the potential loss of the dialect. But being a Chinese national living in North America for 15+ years has made me keenly aware of the sense of exclusion manifested in urban linguistic space in Shanghai. That’s why I found it important to give voice to the migrants in Shanghai in the last empirical chapter (Ch. 5) of my book. When we think about injustice, we need to look at the positionality of the accuser and the accused, and analyze their lived experiences and their aspirations. The power dynamics experienced during my field research could be telling. I couldn’t help but notice how the dialect preservation activists acted not only in a sexist but also racist way, e.g. suppressing female activists’ voices and participations, or how some activists with somewhat self-claimed linguistic training attributed Mandarin Chinese to a contamination from the barbarian Manchurian – which is a Tungusic language belongs to Altaic family – from the Qing Dynasty. Their xenophobia in guarding the (exclusive) Shanghainese identity was apparent as they jeered and laughed at the migrants’ efforts to acquire the Shanghai dialect, suggesting the latter are climbing the social ladder by faking something they would never be able to achieve – a true insider membership. And people holding such negative opinions are oftentimes those who didn’t fare well in the last 20 years socioeconomically and can no longer afford lots of the consumption spaces or upscale residency in the inner city. So by (re)claiming their linguistic right to the city, they are wielding weapons of the weak, quoting James Scott. That said, linguistic rights to the city are tightly connected with social and economic rights to the city, and certainly beyond housing. 

Andy Zhenzhou Tan: What distinguishes the story you tell from other studies on linguistic change is the important parts accorded to urban developments, geographical and spatial conditions of social interaction, and place attachment. This is captured by the two senses – architectural and linguistic – of the word “vernacular” in your book. Can you give us a glimpse at the intricate relations between urban changes and linguistic loss in Shanghai, especially in the recent decades? 

Fang Xu: There was a common saying in Shanghai quoted in my book that connects languages and the space – public and private – where they are spoken or can be heard: “English is spoken in the Inner Ring, Mandarin is spoken in the Middle Ring, and Shanghai dialect Outer Ring”. The order also corresponds to the outwardly decrease of housing prices. Within one saying, the intricate relations are revealed between social-economic status, urban redevelopment in terms of relocating more than one million households to the periphery and throwing them into the harsh reality of urban political economy of the commercial housing market, and language. Essentially, many native Shanghainese were relocated to the periphery of urban Shanghai, or previously rural counties. The pride and esteem in living in the urban center was gone, as well as the proximity to urban amenities and the urban built environment which set Shanghai apart from the rest of the country and exemplifies (Western) modernity since the early 20th century. They lost the material base and geographical location(marker) to self-aggrandize as Shanghairen (Shanghai people). However the deprivation of privilege should be recognized as a relative one. The displacees’ Shanghai hukou still granted them access to top quality healthcare, education, pension, and a plethora of other benefits. Even these relative privileges have been lost, as internal migrants who have obtained either a Shanghai hukou or a Shanghai Resident Permit have been granted those benefits by the municipal government since the 2000s. The loss felt by native Shanghairen is the exclusive access and claim. In this context, I am trying to tell a story of long-term residents holding onto their (symbolic) ownership of the urban built environment and linguistic space as the only remaining bulwarks of their Shanghainese identity.

Andy Zhenzhou Tan:  As far as I know, your PhD training was in urban sociology. Yet you have written a monograph on a more typically linguistic anthropological/sociolinguistic topic. Despite the rare co-existence of these two disciplines in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, from whom you draw a lot in your book, we may say they have gone in quite different directions thematically and methodologically. What has been your experience of bridging urban sociology and linguistic anthropology/sociolinguistics?

Fang Xu: It has not been easy to convince urban sociologists that the sonic or auditory dimension of urban life matters. There is a branch of urban sociology bridging visual sociology, but language? To the most, some human or cultural geographers. When we think about a diverse or cosmopolitan place, we imagine people from all over the world, presumably speaking different mother tongues, but forced to adopt the mainstream language of the city or society, albeit with various accents. I have been trying to argue that when urban sociologists study (im)migrants or ethnic enclaves, attention should be paid to the languages they speak; or when they talk about residential segregation based on class, race and ethnicity, as well as consumer habits and taste, language spoken/usage should have a place in the investigation. So far, the subjects in those studies predominantly speak perfect Standard American English, or whatever national or official or dominant languages in the societies in question. That is not a true depiction of those people’s everyday lived experience. Generally speaking, the urban soundscape is socially organized and organizing (Atkinson 2007). One of the defining characteristics of cities is its heterogeneity – the other two being size and density (Louis Wirth 1938). Lewis Mumford (1937-1996) also advises urbanists to pay attention to the “theatre of social action.” However, what we have read so far are in subjects’ words, but not in their own voices. My monograph Silencing Shanghai and a recent piece about the urban sonic landscape I am working on with a few cultural geographers in Europe are both attempts to put these critical insights into practice. 

I do feel this inbetween-ness in my scholarly life, as well as in my personal life, being an immigrant in the U.S., and when I go back to Shanghai and do not hear my mother tongue spoken on the streets of my hometown. However, I see the rarity of such interdisciplinarity as the strength of my work, and the direction of my future pursuit. There is also an echo between my work and my fieldsite in terms of their hybridity. Shanghai is indeed an urban laboratory in many ways different from other cities in China, but not dissimilar to other global cities. Like NYC, it is one of a kind, and deserves much more scholarly attention.

Ayala Fader on her book, Hidden Heretics

Interview by Yzza Sedrati

Yzza Sedrati:   What led you to divide the book in two? And what or who is the book in conversation with? 

Ayala Fader: Thanks Yzza! It’s great to be in conversation with you. Hidden Heretics is about a crisis of authority among ultra-Orthodox Jews, and this crisis that connects Part I and 2, though each focuses on different aspects of the crisis. Many of the same folks I spent time with thread through both parts of the book, but I wanted to lay out the technological, cultural, theological, and historical context for what the community called, “a crisis of emine (faith).” Part 1 (Chapters 2-3) accounts for the changes that digital media brought to ultra-Orthodox communities in the US. Specifically examining the affordances digital media offered those with religious and cultural questions, how rabbinic leadership responded, and how those with what I call “life-changing doubt” began to use digital media to create a heretical counterpublic to the ultra-Orthodox religious public sphere. My interlocutors explicitly connected their experiences in New York to what they saw as a parallel moment in 18th century Europe when influenced by the Enlightenment, there were similar struggles over Jewish Orthodoxy and authority sparked by a then-new technology, the printing press and the circulation of print-media, which afforded opportunities for sharing heretical ideas across time and space. In ultra-Orthodoxy today, many men with life-changing doubt even called themselves, maskilim (Jewish enlighteners), the same term used in the 18th century to refer to those with Enlightenment-influenced ideas.

The second half of the book (Chapters 4-7) turns to the arc of gendered doubting and its implications for families, friendships and marriages. These chapters analyze the everyday lives of those who described themselves as “hidden heretics” or living “double lives”: men and women who experienced life-changing doubt but decided to remain in their communities to protect those they loved. Part 2 follows the course of life-changing doubt, from secret violations of commandments, to discovery by a spouse, and even sometimes expulsion from their communities by rabbinic leadership. The course of life-changing doubt affected marriages in different ways, with women having fewer resources and options than men. I followed those living double lives as they secretly explored new ways of being with friends and lovers without ever fully embracing the secular. I also learned about the frum (religious) psychologists, who were often called in to help when someone’s double life was found out. Frum therapists often pathologized religious doubt even as they tried to help those suffering from depression and anxiety that doubting frequently dragged with it. In the final chapter, I explore how double lives impacted parenting, children and extended families, which was particularly complex and poignant.

The overarching theoretical argument I make in the introduction is about the importance of ethnographically studying religious doubt in the anthropology of religion. Attention to doubt, questioning, and failure is a recent turn and complements the study of piety. Within this, I aimed to recuperate belief into a lived religion approach, not as a private interior state, but belief as practiced intersubjectively with others. In my analysis of doubt, I defined two different kinds: the doubt that is part of and refines faith/belief and the doubt that disrupts faith, what I called “life-changing doubt.” Drawing on the experiences of those living double lives, where belief and practice were at odds, life-changing doubt presented as a continuum, from theological doubts of different kinds to doubts about the legitimacy of contemporary ultra-Orthodox social institutions and leadership. Life-changing doubt had many reasons, expressions, and implications and was experienced differently depending on gender.

Each successive chapter embeds a distinctive theoretical argument within the broader framework of doubt, integrating literatures on gendered publics, media, and ethics. I drew literatures that are less often in conversation especially in the the study of Orthodox Jews and Judaism. For example, Chapters 2, 3, and 6 all engage with religion and media scholarship to show both how media and mediation can disrupt religious authority, as well as how digital literacies can change language varieties.  Chapter 5, in contrast, tracks how a new epistemology (religious therapy) evolved among Orthodox Jews and was frequently leveraged in communal attempts to reframe life-changing doubt as a form of mental illness. Chapters 4 and 7 consider anthropology of ethics scholarship, arguing for a re-orientation to families linked through ties of obligation and affect, rather than focusing on the individual autonomous subject of philosophy. This chapter also emphasizes including children and teens in our studies of ethics, rather than the theoretically autonomous adults of much of the literature.

Yzza Sedrati: The internet/social media is continuously re-defined throughout the book, and its meaning is complicated by the fact that it is at once a medium carrying content and site of study. Can you explain what were the challenges of studying the internet and social media, and how you understand these multiple and competing meanings?

Ayala Fader:: I charted a dramatic change over a decade: rabbinic leadership’s understanding about the dangers of “the internet” (meaning all digital media) went from concern over the medium’s content to the medium itself. This distinction between content and the medium is of course an ongoing methodological and theoretical tension in ethnographic studies of digital media. Hidden Heretics addresses these tensions by considering the internet (blogs and later social media) in the broader media ecology, including print, telephony, etc., which all showed how ultra-Orthodox semiotic ideologies about media and mediation changed for leadership. In contrast, for those with life-changing doubt, digital media was a lifeline because it connected them to others in similar positions and reassured them that they were not “crazy.” Digital media offered access to forbidden bodies of knowledge such as biblical archeology and created friendships that moved to in-person meetings. The meaning of digital media then not only changed over time, but it was struggled over by different groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

My methodology emerged from the research, from my efforts to account for what I was observing and participating in, which is not unusual. If all interaction is mediated, then research that crosses among media of different kinds is critical. These are much more than methodological issues, though. They are ethical ones about access and representation, as well as competing ideas of publicity and accountability.  This has become especially pressing in the pandemic, when for so many, online ethnography or digital anthropology has been the only option. Theoretically, we may have to reconsider what constitutes fieldwork, as well as explore how the folks we work with form networks of friends, family, lovers, across spaces and technologies.

Yzza Sedrati: The second part of the book sheds light on the worlds of double-lifers. You explain that we need to look at the unofficial, intimate/private spheres to understand double life because the moral responsibility to choose between two lives invokes these different binaries. 1) Can you explain how social spheres are refracted through morality and what it means to study moral choices ethnographically? What are the different interpretations of choice for double lifers (in relation to liberalism) and for ultra-Orthodoxy?

Ayala Fader: Great questions!  Living as a hidden heretic was by default living in two different worlds simultaneously or having at least two very different lives. This separated private belief, public religious Orthodox practice, and secret experimentation that often broke Jewish law. What intrigued me most was hidden heretics’ ongoing struggles to make ethical judgements. They explicitly wanted to convince me and each other that despite the necessity for secrets and lies in the most intimate spaces of their lives, they were in fact making the most ethical choices, especially in contrast to those with similar life-changing doubts who ultimately left, what is called, “going OTD (off the derech or path).”  I built on the exciting work in the anthropology of morality and ethics, while shifting the focus from freedom to judgement and obligation, from the individual to gendered dynamics in families and among friends.

Those living double lives embraced what they termed “secular” values of pluralism, tolerance, autonomy, as lived through individual choice. For example, they wanted their children to be able to “choose” their futures, something they felt that Jewish Orthodoxy had no room for. At the same time, they didn’t want to get their children in trouble with school or with a still-religious parent. Competing ethical systems could be difficult, especially on teenagers who sometimes felt they had to protect themselves from the influence of their own parents. Similarly, I discuss the ethical dilemmas of frum (religious) therapists, who were often called on to treat those with life-changing doubt. Some therapists struggled between helping clients make choices and their own desires to see their clients remain as Orthodox Jews.

Jérôme Camal on his book, Creolized Aurality

Interview by Sara Isabel Castro Font

Sara Isabel Castro Font: In this book you explore the sounds and practices of gwoka and how they depict the multiple and contradictory political and cultural subjectivities that characterize Guadeloupe’s postcoloniality. Throughout the book, your arguments seem to center around, or circle back to, ideas about homing and fleeing. Could you explain how these concepts were useful to move beyond dominant narratives about gwoka as a site of resistance or escaping?

Jérôme Camal: So first of all, these ideas are not mine. They come from the work of Michaeline Crichlow who you may be familiar with, who has written about what she calls post-creole. I think that’s a bit debatable whether something can be post-creole. It’s a way of engaging the dynamics of creolization into the contemporary moment and contemporary political subjectivities. What I really like about this tension between freeing and homing is that it allows for this complexity of political subjectivity or political positions for a place like Guadeloupe, which is a non-sovereign nation, a place where people have this history, this specific history of colonialism rooted in plantation economies and experiences of slavery and colonialism.  At the same time, Guadeloupe has always been France. France has always had Guadeloupe, the French republic has always included this particular territory, this particular island. It means that as much as there is, and has been a need, and there continues to be a need, for Guadeloupeans to emphasize the fact that they are different from the rest of France, there is is also equally a need for them to create a space to exist within the French state. So there’s this dual movement that I try to detail in the book between, at the same time, creating and pushing back against the narratives and the position that is assigned by the colonial state, and at the same time creating the space to be able to exist within that same state.

I think it was really important for me because the nationalist narrative and the narrative of resistance is so strong around gwoka, I wanted to acknowledge it and respect that particular narrative, but at the same time I wanted to show that even historically it was more complicated than that. That there has always been this tension, that outright resistance was never completely possible. Guadeloupe is a small place, so yes there was some maroon communities in Guadeloupe but they were not dominant in the way they could be in places like in Suriname, or in Guyana, or even Jamaica for that matter. So whatever resistance could take place in Guadeloupe was happening at what Michel Ralph Trouillot would call, the margins of the plantations but never completely outside of it. So it was always a site of negotiation even during the periods of slavery, between the limits that were placed on freedom and the efforts to carve out some amounts of freedom and to create, to own space in the plantation or at least in the margins of it.

Sara Isabel Castro Font: Chapter 1 analyzes the emergence of gwoka at the margins of the plantation system, and chapter 2 talks about how gwoka was taken up again in the anti-colonial activists’ project in the 1960’s. In particular, you analyze Lockel’s gwoka modènn as part of an effort to reinvent Guadeloupean culture and remake its society. These two chapters naturally delve into the tensions between racial and class solidarity that characterize the emergence and evolution of gwoka. I wonder if these tensions continue to play a role in current political projects and ideologies surrounding gwoka, or forms of cultural expression more broadly? 

Jérôme Camal: Yeah, I think so although it’s difficult because I think there’s two dynamics that makes answering this question for today and for Guadeloupe a bit more complicated. One of them is that we are dealing with a French territory. France has a very complicated, if I may want to use a euphemism, relationship to addressing race. There seems to be a set of blindspots there and French scholarship for example, struggles with real engagement with race and racism. That means that it’s not always easy to talk about these things with people even in the context of doing fieldwork.  There is not a habit like you would have in the U.S. where you could engage in these conversations easily because (especially now in the current moment) people talk about things like systemic racism, anti-blackness, and things like that, that becomes part of the popular consciousness. It’s changing but it’s not necessarily the same within France, and this includes the overseas territories.

On top of that you have a place that has been defined by complex racial categories that don’t map perfectly onto this sort of binary that is more common to the United States. So, and maybe this is also my own blindspot, I never really ask people how they would position themselves racially. The people use all kinds of ways of defining themselves and each other in terms of skin color, eye color, hair texture, and things like but it’s not just black and white, there’s a whole gradation of different racial and ethnic categories that people use. Now this being said, there are different ways – and I deal with this a little bit in chapter 4 – there is a tension that I see between the different ways of understanding the relationship to the African heritage in Guadeloupe and in gwoka. There are ways of contextualizing gwoka that will really emphasize the fact that it is a Caribbean adaptation of west African traditions and that will emphasize the roots of the music in west Africa. And then there are ways people can understand themselves through the lens of creolization as a creole society, which puts this sort of moment of creation on the plantation rather than prior to the middle passage in Africa. This entails different positionings regarding colonial history and regarding the French state as well. It’s this complicated dance between different positions that can be deployed strategically at times by different people, almost systematically, in a more rigid ideological frame. So you have people in Guadeloupe that would define themselves through the lens of Afrocentrism, and there are some people who embrace ideas that are very close to Afrocentric ideas without necessarily defining themselves as Afrocentric. You also have people who would think of themselves as Guadeloupeans first (“we’re Guadeloupeans, we’re not Africans, we’re not creole, we’re Guadeloupean and our music is Guadeloupean and what we need is this affirmation of Guadeloupean nationality”). Then there are a few who consider all this to be part of creole societies more broadly or Caribbean societies. All of these are different kind of social and racial frames in which people position themselves.

Sara Isabel Castro Font: Chapters 3-5 neatly illuminate the complex ambiguities and ambivalences that characterize how Guadeloupeans position themselves and their music vis-à-vis the French state. Chapter 3 conceptualizes creolization as a synthesis between cosmopolitanism and nationalism, and examines how musicians in Paris use gwoka as both tactics of resistance and accommodation. Chapter 4 examines how jazz ka (merging gwoka and jazz) articulates new forms of cultural and political belonging, and chapter 5 examines postnationalist strategies to create alternative forms of governance and belonging. Throughout, I was intrigued by the way you challenge the conceptual separations of nationalism, creolization, and diaspora by drawing from Glissant’s concepts of traces, opacity, and abyss. Could you speak more about how these terms help to understand the ambiguities and ambivalences that characterize Guadeloupean post-coloniality? Have you developed any of these ideas further in subsequent works?

Jérôme Camal: I’m in the middle of doing that. So first I should say that there are few people in Guadeloupe who embrace Glissant. He is not someone whose writings Guadeloupeans recognize themselves in. I’ve been told, by some of the more tolerant folks that I’ve worked with, that it’s great but it’s about Martinique, it’s not about Guadeloupe. So there’s a bit of tension in my reliance on Glissant as much as I do. For me it’s been a very, and continues to be, a very influential source of ideas, someone that I think with and through a lot, and sometimes I think against; but that is always there as a kind of guide for the research that I want to do both in terms of analytics and giving me vocabulary to think with, concepts to think with, but also in terms of ethics. If we think about the Poetics of Relation as a sort of ethics, as a way of understanding one’s position in the world and one’s relation to others, and especially for us as anthropologists, then what does it mean to take seriously Glissant’s demand? How do we make sense of that and how do we integrate it in our work?

It’s going to be hard for me to answer this succinctly, but what I can say is that the idea of the abyss, which is developed in that absolutely wonderful opening chapter to Poetics of Relation (in English I think “The Open Boat”), and in which you see Glissant identifying the middle passage as that point of entanglement from which the Poetics of Relation grew. So this is the middle passage as the point of entanglement and the starting point for what we can call a counternarrative of modernity. In that chapter, Glissant uses “nous” in French or “we” in English. There’s an ambiguity. Who does it actually describe? Who is this “we”? And as a French and White person, I read this as a sort of challenge to think about how I am caught into this. To what degree is someone like me implicated in this “we” and if so, in what ways? Obviously my ancestors did not go through the middle passage, yet as a French person it is impossible for me to completely separate myself from the history of colonialism and slavery. I am a product of that history – in different ways but as much as the people of Guadeloupe. I am completely entangled with this. My existence is a product of that. So I did not necessarily have the same immediate affective response to that history as someone who is Afro descendant would have, but I cannot ignore it altogether. For Glissant, the abyss is at the same time a rupture and a starting point for new modes of relations. And I think this for myself (as a White French citizen, American academic) an invitation to really consider my participation in these poetics of relation.

Opacity, I see it as a complementary tool to understand and to think about the limits of what this entanglement actually means. It goes back to what I was saying about the fact that I’m implicated into this history, at the same time I can never relate to it in exactly the same way as someone who is the product of that history through different family connections. This being said, opacity for Glissant is very complex. There’s a quality of it that, I think, there’s the incapacity to fully understand the Other, there’s this nature that opacity sort of protects within the Poetics of Relation; as much as we are always in contact with other people, we exist by differentiating our identities, one exists by differentiating oneself from others in these processes of relations, of exchanges. Opacity is sort of this system of protection against this irreducible core of who the person is. But that also means that there is something about ourselves that escapes us, that we are never fully aware of, and that sometimes surfaces.

As we are doing research on these questions about postcoloniality as an embodied experience, which is what I research now, or postcoloniality as a historical process, there are always going to be these things that we can never quite touch, regardless of where we are placed within these relations. So I think it’s really important that we both consider the poetics of relations of the things that implicate us together and inscribe into a longer colonial and postcolonial history, and then the things that allow for us to maintain a certain integrity about who we are; so both what brings us together and what allows us to still exist.  This is not in a melting pot, but in maintaining integrity for who we are and what we know; and also maintain a part of mystery too. This is what is poetic about the Poetics of Relations. There is something that is never quite graspable, that is never quite describable, but will always exist in this realm of what is intuitive and felt, more than understood.

I started a new project which is really a continuation of what I’ve been doing. I’m working with mostly Guadeloupean and some of the Martiniquean migrants in France mostly in and around Paris. I’m looking at how they use gwoka dancing, especially dancing, not so much music making, as a way to negotiate their position as postcolonial citizens of France and at how music and dance allow them to both maintain ties with the Antilles but also home the context of the French Republic. You can see why things like opacity would become really important because even though I am dancing alongside Guadeloupean migrants, we are experiencing kinesthetically (our bodies are moving together, we are experiencing efforts, we are literally sweating together, we are experiencing some of the same sensations in our body). That does not necessarily mean that these translations are going to have the same affective resonance for all of us, yes to some degree, but only to some degree. So this is where opacity again comes into play. I can be deeply moved by a song and having to dance to a song that celebrates those people who were lost during the middle passage or died on the planation. If it’s moving to me and it helps me sort of have an affective experience of what really is meant, but at the same time, although it is moving for me, it doesn’t have the same resonance as someone for whom we could be talking about their great grandparents. So this is where opacity again comes into play, we share these experiences both kinesthetically, and to some degree affectively, in the context of the dance, but there’s always going to be a limit to what those shared experiences are and how they translate across from one person to another.

Sara Isabel Castro Font: In various parts of the book you include reflections about your own positionality as a White French citizen and a U.S. academic and professional jazz player, which seems to be entangled as well in the post-coloniality of Guadeloupe.  What does it mean for you as French scholar trained in the US to conduct research in Guadeloupe? How do you think your social, cultural, and academic background affect your work? How did you navigate the multiple positions you held during fieldwork, not just as an academic but also as a musician?

Jérôme Camal: I came to Guadeloupe wanting to study the intersection of jazz and traditional music. So I arrived in Guadeloupe with this sort of persona that was constructed around the fact that I was a professional jazz musician, and I was coming from the United States. I think that came to define how many people within the gwoka community saw me because I was French but I was coming from the U.S. and I was performing American jazz; so that really shaped my early encounters with people. I think to some degree allowed for some conversations to happen with certain separatist activists who may not have been as open to speaking to a French person directly. I think my training in the U.S. has already been, and all the more know, as I mentioned a little bit earlier, in the U.S. there is a facility with dealing with both colonial history, postcolonial theory, and race that has given us a lot of vocabulary to deal with these things and an openness to talk about these issues. This sometimes in my conversations with people in Guadeloupe or with migrants in France can be validating. I have a vocabulary, I have a sort of openness to considering talking about racism, the experience of racism, and about the colonial heritage of France that is not yet widespread in France; so that makes our conversations easier. At the same time, how people read my body does put some limits on access. There are people who consistently refused to talk to me and it becomes a complicated dance, if I may. When I enter a dance for example, I find myself as the only white man in a group that is mostly Caribbean women with a few, if any, Caribbean men in the group. So my body stands out, how people relate to it is complicated. Oftentimes my gender is more often commented on much more than my race, my skin color, because dance spaces, especially with gwoka, are mostly female spaces. The fact that a man is actually learning to dance is commented upon and made fun of. I don’t think it’s ever provoked discomfort that I could feel, but maybe I am wrong about that. It also is impacting the reception of my work back in the U.S. where there’s a great sensitivity to issues of positionality. Of course I have to be careful to define my position when I engage with my work and present my work to American audiences.  It could be easy to dismiss what I do based on the fact that I’m a white guy — how could I possibly understand? So we’re back to these ideas from the Poetics of Relation and ideas of opacity. I think for us as anthropologists, especially in this moment when there are increased calls to decolonize the discipline, we need to not shy away from the complexity of our positions. These are things that Faye Harrison was already saying late 1980’s and early 1990’s. We should see both the limits and opportunities that different social positions in training create for us as anthropologists and know what that means for our work.  We should consider how we can ethically continue to conduct the work that we do, the politics of the work that we do, and build from that, rather than seeing it simply as only limits or disqualifying characteristics.