Patricia Spyer on her book, Orphaned Landscapes

Interview by Karen Strassler

Karen Strassler: You are writing about a moment of profound destabilization and disorientation: a religious war that has torn apart the city, and in the national context, the end of a thirty-two year dictatorship. Perhaps we could start with some of that context by way of an explanation of the title of the book. Why Orphaned Landscapes?

Patricia Spyer: The title Orphaned Landscapes operates across different registers in the book, both ethnographically and theoretically. At the same time, it is meant to highlight the general predicament of uncertainty, crisis, and rupture that animates all of them, if differently. Nationally, it designates the ‘orphaned landscapes’ and sense of “looseness at the center” left in the wake of the Suharto regime’s collapse and the withdrawal of the longstanding authoritarian leader who styled himself the father of the nation and Indonesia, by extension, as one big family (Kusno 2010: 36). As the regime unraveled, the figure of the lone child, standing apart from violence, witnessing brutality and national destruction yet safeguarding the nation’s integrity and future, proliferated. Crucial here was the oscillating position of this figure–at times literally orphaned–between belonging to the nation, on the one hand, and a detachment from authority and position beyond it, on the other.

To be sure, the broader circumstances of the regime’s end provided a significant if distant backdrop to the events I describe in Ambon. But the book also homes in closely on the Christian men and women who identified with the city’s old Dutch colonial-derived Calvinist church and their sense of waning privilege and abandonment by authority within the violence that inflected the national situation at this eastern end of the archipelago and the country’s islamicization since the 1990s or another sense of orphaned landscape. A central focus of the book is how these Protestant Ambonese responded to and attempted to shape these circumstances discursively, performatively, and especially through the street pictures. In yet another register of the book title, I argue that the Christian pictures may themselves be understood as a kind of orphaned landscape since, in many respects, they were at odds with—indeed a form of graphic protest within—the environment in which they emerged.

Karen Strassler: Can you talk about how this moment of abandonment and collapse gave rise to an intense “turn to the visual” and, in particular, to the emergence of monumental images of Christ around the city?

Patricia Spyer: While the situation in Ambon and the “turn to the visual” within the Muslim-Christian conflict of the early 2000s had its own dynamics, the uptake locally of the prevalent political discourse of transparency and the demand to bring hidden things into public view associated with the Reformasi movement that brought Suharto down was certainly an important dimension. But there were others as well, including some that were probably more salient in the context of the war carried out in Ambon in religion’s name. These include the longue durée history of the unequal recognition and visibility of Christians versus Muslims in the region. A more immediate factor was what I characterize as the “extreme perception” that emerged during the conflict as the fog of war—a formulation indebted to the nineteenth-century Prussian military general, Carl von Clausewitz—cloaked the city, presenting new challenges to seeing, knowing, and understanding what was seen, the erosion of trust in what could be apprehended, and the emergence of “anticipatory practices” that aimed at piercing wartime’s lack of clarity and heading off its myriad dangers. The sense of a pervasive blindness accompanying war’s uncertainty and murk stood out in conversations I had with Ambonese about the war, whether Christians or Muslims. Among Protestants, specifically—not the least the young male motorbike taxi-drivers who threw up the huge painted images of Jesus Christ and Christian scenes around the city—there was an overwhelming sense of not being seen and of having been abandoned to their plight, including imagined genocide at Muslim hands, by the authorities, from the national government in Jakarta to the United Nations, European Union, former Dutch colonizer, and IMF. Some even speculated—or, more often, claimed that other Christians speculated—that even God appeared oblivious and unaware of their dire predicament.

At the same time, some of the motor bikers also told me that they were driven to paint Christianity in Ambon’s streets because they knew he was here, insisting on God’s presence among them in wartime. This, I argue, was a case of protesting too much. Moreover, by bringing the Christian god into vision through monumental images at major urban crossroads, along highways, and at the entrance to Christian neighborhoods, they visualized and materialized his presence in their midst while simultaneously bringing themselves into view as Christian subjects. Given the identification of the young men with the aniconic tradition of the city’s Calvinist church, bringing the Christian god into vision was daring and experimental. And it had numerous ramifications that I describe in the book.

Equally relevant in considering Ambon’s “turn to” and valorization of the visual was the impetus given by the conflict to the spread of visual and audio-visual technologies from the national center to the beleaguered Malukan province. These enabled the production of incendiary Video Compact Disks (VCDs) and Public Service Announcements (Patricia SpyerAs) against violence aired on radio and television but also, crucially, new experiences like seeing one’s own street broadcast on national or even international television.

Karen Strassler: I’m wondering if you can comment on your book’s intervention into how we theorize images and violence. So often, the focus has been on photographs that expose violence and the conversation is about the political efficacy or failure of such images, their uncertain status as evidence, their affective potency, and whether they have the desired effect of moving people to action, desensitize the viewer, or turn violence into entertainment and spectacle. It seems to me you are working towards a very different way of approaching the relationship between violence and images. Some of the images are clearly poetic, that is, world-making responses to violence—efforts to repair and restore a Christian presence in the city, efforts to reclaim a sense of place. But the images are also very much part of the violence itself, rather than belated reflections on or reactions to it. Can you say more about how your book might help us think about violence and images in new ways?

Patricia Spyer: Indeed, part of my argument is that the immense public images put in place by the city’s Protestants were recuperative, a form of “representational redress” aimed at reinstalling the former Christian ‘look’ of the city and the hitherto taken for granted hegemony of Christians in Ambon and the neighboring islands of Central Maluku (Makhubu and Simbao 2013). When Christians described the street paintings as ‘comforting’ it is this particular efficacy that they singled out. But in many respects, beginning with the sheer monumentality and adamant presence of the images in urban space, they were violent. Towering over passers-by and traffic moving below, they forced themselves into public view making it, at least initially, impossible not to see them. So, one key dimension of the violence of these images was their scale and strident presence in the city. The large majority of the images also stood on public land, along highways and on sidewalks, that, in principle, is accessible to all. Rising up in these locations, the street art laid exclusive claim to these places for Christians while Christianizing the space around them through the Christian scenes and monumental Christ faces they portrayed. Standing, in many cases, at the gateways to Christian neighborhoods, the pictures branded and territorialized community in a city that became a zoned patchwork of Christian ‘red’ versus Muslim ‘white’ areas in wartime. These gateways, moreover, were commonly the location of neighborhood guardhouses where men gathered and rallied themselves during the conflict before heading into battle in city streets. Not surprisingly, given the defensive function of such sites, young men occasionally had themselves photographed brandishing weapons with the Christ images as backdrop.

Emergent in violence, the street art participated in and helped to produce the heightened energies and affective intensities of wartime as exemplified by the assertiveness and speed with which they rose up and spread across the city. Representationally, they installed a wholly Christian world either because they faithfully reproduced the images of the canonical Protestant calendar on which the majority of the street art was based or through their depictions of Christ overlooking an embattled city in unabashed portrayals that publicized a highly partisan view of the conflict. In short, the Christian pictures and violence were entangled and mutually constitutive in myriad ways—politically, affectively, socio-spatially, historically, and temporally since their role and how they were apprehended also evolved as the conflict went on and after the city’s official peace.

Karen Strassler: You use the language of atmospherics and ambiance quite a bit in the book, and although you give rich analytic attention to particular material images, you are also thinking in broader terms about visuality or what we might call the visual dimensions of the sensed and imagined world.  What is the relationship between concrete images and a broader visual terrain of seeing and unseeing?

Patricia Spyer: My thinking about atmospherics and ambiance and the impact such elusive yet potentially powerful forces have on social life, on setting the scene in which events unfold, on inflecting and patterning action over time, emerged at the very early stages of this project. It came out of the realization that in descriptions of Ambon’s conflict, scholars, journalists, and other commentators would often resort to words like climate, atmospherics, or milieu to designate a key dimension of the violence or deploy such terms as explanatory backdrops without further specifying what was meant by them, or how what they allegedly conjured impacted events in the war-torn city. In my first writing about the violence in Ambon I tried to determine analytically what these atmospherics might be, how they came about, of what they were made, and what effects they had in the conflict and emerging violence in the city. Analytically, I specified what I called an infrastructure of the imagination comprising truths, half-truths, rumors, and hearsay, but also graffiti and slanderous language sprayed on city walls, as well as popular circulatory media forms rampant during the war like incendiary pamphlets and Video Compact Disks (VCDs) that portrayed atrocities committed by the enemy other and the victimization of the self, produced by both parties to the conflict.

In the mid-2000s when I encountered the monumental Christian street art I was not only taken by their striking demonstrative presence in a city where such public displays of piety had previously been largely absent but also by the figuring impulse behind them within the larger disfiguring momentum of the war. Over time, I came to understand Ambon’s striking street pictures as potent stakes in a world that was not only spiraling into chaos and violence but for many Protestants losing the very image that they had hitherto taken for granted. In a somewhat perverse take on poetic world-making, Christian Ambonese aimed to seize hold of a disappearing world, one that upheld their historically accumulated privileges, not the least the Christian domination of the city and provincial civil bureaucracy including prize positions like that of Maluku’s governor. Via the pictures, they recalled a world that reflected back to them its reassuring Christian contours in socio-spatial and political terms and, through these, the image the Protestants had long held of themselves. This is an embattled vision, one that looks to the past and relies on and recasts old iconographies, albeit necessarily in experimental and innovative ways.

As such, the paintings were at the very center of a concerted `’work on appearances” through which the Protestants, wittingly or unwittingly, intervened in what the French political philosopher, Jacques Rancière calls “the distribution of the sensible,” or the systematic arrangement of the self-evident facts of sense perception, comprising a delimitation of spaces and times, speech and noise, and thereby, too, of the particular place and stakes within which politics unfold (Rancière 2004). In the book, however, I am especially interested in the visual dimension of the sensible’s distribution as well as how the inherently political determination of the experiential conditions that enable and privilege particular forms of sensory perception, thought, and action while foreclosing others, can become undone and transformed.

Karen Strassler: You are looking at a variety of media in this book: paintings, posters, calendar images, video cassette discs, children’s drawings.  How do you think about the relationship between these different media forms—with their material, historical, and ideological specificities—and what you call the “work of appearances”? Maybe this would also be a moment to ask you to talk a bit about your methodology.

Patricia Spyer: My work on this project began as part of a Dutch-Indonesian research program, “Indonesia in Transition,” launched in the immediate aftermath of Suharto’s fall. My own research was part of a subproject in the program, “Indonesian Mediations,” in which I planned to explore broader questions of the mediation of violence and, subsequently, postviolence through close examination of a range of media and circulatory forms over time in Ambon City. My startled serendipitous encounter with the Christian pictures caused me to recenter the project, at least to some extent, around these novel productions. At the same time, the original focus of the project remained insofar as I analyze the street art within a larger evolving ecosystem of mediations of violence and postviolence centered on Ambon.

My methodology consisted primarily of fieldwork carried out among predominantly Christian refugees in Manado and Bitung on North Sulawesi Island in 2000 and 2001, and subsequently Ambon City and the neighboring islands for periods of up to three months between 2003 and 2011.  Besides motorbike taxi drivers, I worked with ordinary women and men, Christian as well as Muslim, media practitioners, representatives of religious institutions, humanitarian organizations, NGOs, government officials, and others in the city and beyond, including Jakarta and Yogyakarta. The book also draws on my extensive experience in the region, beginning with doctoral research in Aru, Southeast Maluku in the mid-1980s, and on an ethnographic archive of ephemera that I have built up since the late 1990s comprising photographed graffiti, posters, street banners, poetry, pro-peace Christian music CDs, my own documentation of the street art, and children’s drawings, among others.

Within the larger ecosystem of violence and postviolence related to Ambon’s conflict there are a host of media forms of diverse scale, duration, affordance, materiality, mode of address and circulatory form, ideological and historical genealogies. Some of these were closely connected or even in dialogue, most obviously, the wartime call and response of Christian and Muslim graffiti, but also less explicitly, the belligerent Christian graffiti and the street art as different modalities of articulating conquest and territorial claims. Others like the incendiary Video CDs, produced by Christians and Muslims alike, were almost identical in style and content, even if they reversed the respective identities of victim and enemy. But they circulated in very different ways—the Muslim VCDs echoing those from, say, Bosnia and Palestine, were sold openly under traffic lights on Java and on boats heading from there to Ambon. By contrast, those of the Christians bore labels with warnings to not circulate them beyond “one’s own group.” As a result, the latter spread covertly in Ambon and to Christian villages on the island as well as among Dutch Malukans if and when the VCDs made it to the Netherlands.

As for the book’s main example, the monumental Christian street art, this was directly inspired by, and often literally copied from, the globalized Christian print media of calendars, posters, and embroidered Last Supper scenes long available in Ambon. I argue that, with important implications for their efficacy and uptake, the street art remained affectively tethered to the interiors of Christian homes and stores where such print artifacts were conventional props. This is how I understand the supposedly comforting presence that Ambon’s Protestants often attributed to the huge public pictures that, to some extent, remained beholden to the their print models and their longstanding association with the intimacy and interiority of Christian homes and stores.

Another example are the children’s drawings with their paired smiling mosques and churches and peace handshakes conjoining Muslim and Christian leaders prevalent in reconciliation programs in refugee camps and countless post-peace initiatives. These drew affective and ideological potency from diverse sources of inspiration and histories ranging from the longstanding popular genre of children’s Letters to the President and the lone child-in-violence figure dating to the fraught period of Reformasi to an infamous PSA featuring a Muslim Ambonese boy, Acang, and his bosom Christian friend, Obet, that went both viral and awry in Ambon, and ended up providing the most popular names for the mutual enemies in the conflict. Equally importantly, the efficacy of the children’s drawings relied on their embodied connection to the hands and eyes of their young creators.

These are only a few examples that foreground the relevance and efficacy of medium specificity with respect to different circulatory forms characteristic of Ambon’s war and peace but also that of intermediality, of different media operating and circulating not only in tandem but often in interconnected, iterative ways. All of these material, ephemeral mediations of Ambon’s violence and postviolence, although some clearly more than others, formed part of the diffuse “work of appearances” that fed into and inflected the larger ambiance, unfolding, and shape of the violence and its longstanding repercussions in the city.

Karen Strassler: There has been a great deal of anthropological writing in recent decades on the ways religion always depends on mediation and on how particular media forms shape and transform religious practice and imagination. Can you talk about how this book draws on those conversations and what it contributes to conversations about religion and media?

Patricia Spyer: In the early 2000s I was involved in a series of provocative conferences focused on questions of religion and media, and religion and violence, organized by Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber. Subsequently, I spent a good deal of time, over the course of five years, first as fellow and then as Global Distinguished Professor, at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, co-directed by Faye Ginsburg and Angela Zito, and Department of Anthropology, then chaired by Fred Myers. These different venues put me at the very center of discussions and evolving work on questions of religion and media, broadly conceived, and have been fundamental to my thinking about these issues and to the book’s conceptualization.

If Orphaned Landscapes is centrally about what I call the work on appearances (as well as the work of appearances), then it is also about how appearances do not work. Exemplary of the latter were the constant adjustments made by Ambon’s street artists to the Christian print canon that most claimed to be faithfully copying in the street.  The first adjustment was their own pictorial turn involving not only an embrace of pictures but, with it, a significant departure from the aniconic tradition of the Calvinist Protestant church. To be sure, as noted above, elements of décor like calendars, along with Sunday school manuals, are a familiar component of the global Christian print repertoire found already for decades in Ambon. And despite the long history of Dutch-derived Calvinism in the area, Ambon’s Protestantism was never as adamantly aniconic as that of the former colonizers. Yet if the Christian sacred was never invisible or faceless in the city, prior to the war it was—visually at least—not a privileged focus of attention, public or otherwise.

Of course, notwithstanding Calvinism’s anti-materialist ideology, in Ambon as elsewhere, transcendence unavoidably relies on mediation which has an intrinsic, enabling role. Indeed, as Hent de Vries puts it, “without and outside of [it] . . . no religion would be able to manifest itself in the first place (de Vries 2001:28). Seen in this light, the white ‘empty’ interiors of Ambon’s Calvinist churches mediated the ideal of an allegedly transparent, direct connection to the divine. By bringing the Christian god into vision through the new medium of painting—a move driven by the desire to ensure his presence here in Ambon and to draw him close via his image–the Protestant motorbike taxi drivers helped to materialize and bring about a new relation to the Christian god.

One reason I became aware of how efficacious this move had been was because the appearance of the street pictures coincided with—and may even have prefigured—momentous shifts in religiosity and religious affiliation occurring in the city during the war and in the immediate years thereafter. At the same time that pictures of Jesus and Christian scenes began to be thrown up around the city, increasing numbers of Protestants were abandoning Ambon’s old Calvinist church in favor of newer charismatic ones, places where, as many put it, they found a closer, less hierarchical relation to God, a liturgy deemed “less stiff,’ and where emotional expression was allowed. Remarkably, as the majority of the Christian street pictures faded on city walls, a hitherto unseen image began to appear in and around Ambon. Depicting Christ as King or Christ of the Second Coming, the image publicized and emblematized the significant move on the part of many Protestants away from the distant, formalistic relation to God characteristic of Calvinism toward a more intimate, close bond that became realized in new forms of religiosity, numerous baptisms, and novel affiliations to Pentecostal churches. I argue that, at least in part, this shift and the Christ as King image exemplifying it was enabled by the diffuse urban gallery of Christian street art that laid the material ground for these profound transformations in urban religion. In sum, through a close consideration of the street art and its wartime and postwar trajectory, and the manner and specificities of the art’s mediation of the Christian divine, the book demonstrates the unavoidable, mutual constitution and codependency of religion and media.

Karen Strassler: I would love to hear you reflect a little bit about your trajectory as a scholar and the kinds of questions that have animated your work over the long term?

Patricia Spyer: I have always been interested in uncertainty, mobility, and questions of emergence and transformation where the grounds for asserting agency and authority are in question, where complicated issues of entanglement and positionality, vulnerability and exposure to circumstances prevail. Another related, longstanding focus has been on questions of mediation and circulatory media forms. This cluster of evolving interests is evident already in my first edited book, Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces (Routledge 1998), in the focus on trade in luxury artifacts like bird of paradise plumes and pearlshells and the transactional, transformative space of the undersea in The Memory of Trade: Entanglements on an Eastern Indonesian Island (Duke 2000), and in Images That Move (SAR Press 2013), co-edited with the late Mary Margaret Steedly, where the title comprises both the intransitive sense of images in motion and the transitive, affective meaning of images that move us, highlighting, in either case, issues of efficacy, affective power, and the capacity for disruption and change.

References cited

Kusno, Abidin (2010). The Appearances of Memory: Mnemonic Practices of Ahitecture and Urban Form in Indonesia. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rancière, Jacques (2004). The Politics of Aesthetics. Translated by G. Rockhill. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Spyer, Patricia (2000). The Memory of Trade: Entanglements of Modernity on an Eastern Indonesian Island. Durham: Duke University Press.

___________. (1998). Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces. London and New York: Routledge.

Spyer, Patricia and Mary Margaret Steedly, eds. (2013). Images That Move.  Santa Fe: School of Advanced Research Press.

Vries, Hent de. (2001). “In Media Res: Global Religions, Public Spheres and the Task of Contemporary Religious Studies.” In Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber, eds. Religion and Media.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 3-42.

Elliott Oring on his book, Joking Asides

Interview by Emily Bianchi

Emily Bianchi: I was wondering what brought you to write Joking Asides: The Theory, Analysis, and Aesthetics of Humor, your fifth book on jokes? I thought you might talk about your affiliations with humor studies and where it all began.

Elliott Oring: Where it all began was with my dissertation in folklore. This gets to be a long story, but I’ll try and make it short. I was crossing campus one day and encountered Richard Dorson, and Richard Dorson said, “The deadline for a Woodrow Wilson is coming up very shortly. Why don’t you put in a proposal?” I hadn’t thought about this. I wrote this lengthy proposal over the weekend to go study folklore in Israel, the kind that arose there as opposed to the kind that people brought from the various countries that they came from. It would be on something like native as opposed to imported immigrant traditions. Anyway, I wrote the grant. I got the grant.

When I got there, I found my project was wildly elaborate and undoable, and I encountered a professor there who taught in the summers here at Indiana University. He was Israeli and taught literature. He said, “You know, there’s this tradition among these old timers who were in the Palmah (which was the name of a military underground that operated in the forties) and they have this tradition called the Chizbat. You might want to look into that.” So, I looked into that. I wound up writing my dissertation on it, and that’s my first book: Israeli Humor: The Content and Structure of the Chizbat of the Palmah. I didn’t go there looking for humor, particularly.

That’s how academic careers go. You have no idea what you’re going to get caught by, but, once I was in it, I was in it. 

I developed a course that I occasionally taught called “The Ethnography of Humor.” I taught it once here [at IU] in the summer in 1977. During the class, I said, “Somebody should really look at the jokes of Sigmund Freud” because we read Freud’s book on jokes. Somebody should really look at the relationship between the jokes he uses and his own personality, his own character. Well, I wound up doing that, so that was the second book: The Jokes of Sigmund Freud: A Study in Humor and Jewish Identity. Those were the two monographs. All the other books have been collections of essays.

Emily Bianchi:The essay format worked well for this one. It allowed you ask about and examine many different aspects of jokes.

Elliot Oring: I like the essay form: you get in, you have a specific point, you try and illuminate something, and you’re not padding. You don’t have room to pad it with all sorts of stuff, you know? Then you can go on to another question. So, for me, it’s all about questions, and I still have questions. I still have a lot of questions about humor.

Emily Bianchi: Throughout Joking Asides you caution against applying a priori theory to jokes and instead promote generalizations that emerge from the studies of the materials themselves. Of the many potential ways forward you explore in these different essays, you suggest that attention to “appropriate incongruities” may be one of the most comprehensive as a broadly applicable structure of meaning that underlies humor—one step towards discovering what it is that needs to be explained in a theory of humor. What do you find compelling about appropriate incongruity theory?

Elliott Oring: To me, it’s one of the most persuasive theories for a couple of reasons. And it is persuasive. If you show me a joke, I’ll find you the incongruity, but that, in itself, is not proof. You know, one can find in anything what one is looking for.

The first thing to note is that appropriate incongruity is simply my conceptualization and terminology for an old theory of humor which is incongruity theory and sometimes called incongruity resolution theory. I can point to antecedents going back to the 17th century. John Locke, in passing, makes a comment about the difference between wit and judgment which is very much in keeping with this. The Scottish Enlightenment figures of Francis Hutcheson at the beginning of the 18th century and James Beattie at the end of the 18th century elaborated it a little more. They state, pretty much, what an incongruity theory of humor looks like. It’s gone on since then. It didn’t stop in the 18th century. It’s been revived in the 20th century and even somewhat in the 19th century. That’s the first thing: appropriate incongruity has antecedents.

Second of all, incongruity theory tells you what a joke is. It doesn’t tell you what a joke does. Many other theories explain what a joke does but not what a joke is. Take Freud’s theory (at least as Freud is often interpreted) that joking is a way to get rid of, relieve, suppressed impulses. If you want to talk that way, there are many things that could relieve those impulses, so there’s nothing particularly strange about a joke when you come to it. Many of the other theories (take superiority theory that really stems from a comment by Thomas Hobbs in the 17th century that laughter emerges from a sense of a superiority in ourselves as opposed to someone else or as opposed to our sense of ourselves in the past) describe a function, but don’t describe what humor is. Incongruity, for me, is the theory that really explains what humor is.

You know, you want to describe a hammer: it’s got a shaft, it’s got a heavy weight at the end. Whether you kill someone or build a house with it, those are its functions. But it’s not what it is, you know? So I think you need to start with what you think the phenomenon is that you’re actually dealing with. That’s the attraction to me of incongruity theory.

Emily Bianchi: You offer appropriate incongruities up as one way forward that is still in need of testing and revision. How do you think promoting and applying appropriate incongruity works towards an understanding of what jokes are and how they work, or a theory of humor?

Elliott Oring: One of the things you’ll see is that I’m constantly analyzing jokes. You can read a lot of books where they’ll give you a joke example, but they don’t really take it apart. I think if you want to move towards a theory of humor, you better be looking at the things that you’re talking about. Whether it’s jokes or other forms of humor, you have to take them apart to see how they work. Ultimately, that’s where I start. Whether my analyses of the jokes are convincing… and that’s an important part of what I’m doing. If they’re not convincing, then I’ve got a problem.

Appropriate incongruity, as I said, is not really a conceptually new idea. And in fact, rooted in it is a problem which I think I identify at the very end of this book: what constitutes appropriateness and what constitutes incongruity? So, the questions are how much different does something have to be before it’s incongruous, and what kind of connection between two things is sufficient to establish that it’s appropriate? I can’t answer that question. In other words, if appropriate incongruity is useful, it’s useful to take apart jokes. As a theoretical formulation it’s somewhat problematic because I can’t operationalize its basic terms.

In an essay that’s not in this book, I criticize the general theory of verbal humor. People are looking to get computers to be able to recognize jokes. The way they operationalize incongruity (although they don’t say it this way) is to see it as “opposition.” Opposition is a very big term in linguistics. You know, the difference between this phoneme and that phoneme. There’s voicing or absence of voicing, or this is aspirated, or this is not aspirated, so they can make charts of pluses and minuses. Linguists are very easily drawn to plus and minus formulations. But to talk about an opposition in a joke is very difficult, because everything is opposed to everything else. A subject is opposed to a predicate, a verb is opposed to a noun, an adjective is opposed to an adverb, an adult is opposed to a child. What kind of opposition becomes significant enough and salient enough to be considered the basis for a joke?

Now the fact that I can’t answer this, by the way, is, well, it’s a failing, but it’s a failing of the larger field. That’s why we’ve been talking about this stuff for 2,500 years. We don’t know the answer to it! Humor is a mystery to a great extent. All I’m trying to do is poke at it and see when it moves or if it’s dead. And you can’t always be sure. Possums, you know, look very dead, and you can poke them and they continue to lie there. So, who knows?

Scholarship is a matter of putting your two cents in. That’s really what it’s all about. And maybe sometimes you’ll put in your two cents, and you will get change because that two cents really pushed something over the top and saw something new. I’m not sure it’s going to lead to a new theory of humor unless we figure out how to operationalize it. And I’m all for getting computers to recognize what is a joke text and what is not a joke text, but, as I’ve written in another article, I’m very suspicious that they’re going be able to do it with the concepts that they’re working with at the present time.

Emily Bianchi: You are critical of some established theories of humor, using the material to point out their benefits and flaws. You also charge people to create new hypotheses and then test them. I think that this does probably come out of the format of the book as essays, but you’re trying to, like you just said, to poke the jokes and see how and when they respond. You are advocating for an approach to the scholarship by suggesting appropriate incongruity as one hypothesis that needs to be tested further, but you’ve created a few other testable hypotheses within the book as well.

Elliott Oring: First, I set out to try and answer a question, and whatever helps me answer that question in a convincing, persuasive, and hopefully testable way is what I’ll use. I use what’s available, which we should. I’m also very leery of those people who when a new theory pops up in some other field immediately apply it to their material. I understand it for a number of reasons, but really what we should be doing is seeing how well or poorly it helps to explain. You can always find something that some general statement applies to. The question is how well, how far does it extend, and where does it fail? Folklorists generally don’t take a critical point of view, especially to stuff coming from elsewhere. They’re very happy to evangelize for the latest thing coming out of linguistics or literature or philosophy, or what have you, never stopping to acknowledge that folklore provides the data to test these kinds of conceptions that are coming from every which way. Let’s see how good they are in really helping to understand what’s going on. I think that lack of criticism is a problem. 

Offering up the notion of hypotheses is old, not new. It’s gotten new because everybody seems to have forgotten that there was a time when people did talk about hypotheses, even in folklore. In the sixties and seventies, there’s a group of essays in the Journal of American Folklore, particularly, where people actually do talk about hypotheses and testing them.

Then people got into the interpretation of humor and of folklore in general which was motivated largely by a 1965 article by Alan Dundes, “The Study of Folklore in Literature and Culture: Identification and Interpretation.” Since then, people have been interpreting this stuff. But how do you know your interpretations are on point? How do you tell? How do you test whether this is what people are actually communicating when they tell a joke or tell a fairy tale or sing a song? How do you know? It might make sense. Your interpretation might put certain things together. It might be interesting. But is this what’s actually being communicated?

If folklore is to make any progress, I think, if you’ve want an interpretive approach, you have to be able to subject it to some kind of critical apparatus. Without that, we’re reading poems and interpreting them, which is fine, but that’s not what we claim to be doing in the field of folklore.

Emily Bianchi: In your chapter, “Demythologizing the Jewish Joke,” you discuss some of the potential pitfalls of a purely contextual, performance-based ethnography of speaking jokes. I am sure that linguistic anthropologists and folklorists will be interested to hear more about what you perceive to be the limitations of the ethnography of speaking for scholars of humor.

Elliott Oring: I do have a big question about the contextual, and I’ve been critical of the overly contextual because where does that lead us? All I can do is study one particular encounter between a performer and an audience and analyze its dynamics to say this is why the speaker used this phrase or introduced this story or had this aside. If it doesn’t go beyond the context that I’m reporting, where are we, and what have we learned in a more general way? What does folklore have to contribute? Are we going to simply be a field that describes the trillions and trillions of individual encounters between performers and audiences? I hope not.

We have to move to a more generalized conception of what’s going on that’s applicable beyond the particular context. That’s why I’ve often made comments about the microscopic analyses that come out of performance approaches. They remain microscopic. It’s kind of like early natural history. We’ll describe this beetle. We’ll describe that beetle. We’ll describe this beetle. We’ll have three descriptions of beetles, none of which particularly pertain to one another until somebody like Darwin comes along (and I don’t think we’re going to have a Darwin… though it would be nice) to tell us what else is going on. I think we always need to move to more general statements.

Somebody reviewed this book. It was a positive review, but finally they got to the last chapter and said, “At last, fieldwork,” because it was based on recording people. My feeling is, what is so special about field work? Yeah, we have to do it. What we study is interactions and performances, but if that’s where it stays, we don’t have a field at all. We have to use that field work to say other things. And if we’re not saying the other things but simply resting on the idea that we did field work, then that’s a fetishization of fieldwork. If we’re going to make a contribution to knowledge, what is the knowledge that we’re producing other than these little, microscopic analyses of individual performance events? So that’s my problem with context.

I want to know what’s going on when people are joking and not just joking in a specific situation but, in general, joking. And not maybe only in this culture but in a number of cultures. Is something similar happening or are they all so different that they are not comparable?

I think people have steeped themselves in the performance approach and lost sight of the larger questions that folklorists should be concerning themselves with. It’s nice to say this text was decontextualized from here and recontextualized over here, but that’s merely descriptive. It’s not explanatory and, even if it is explanatory, you say the person was trying to accomplish a certain thing within the event or within the communication, so he employed that particular text. But then where do you go? You’re stuck in that context.

I’m not against context, obviously. Communications take place in context and much humor can’t be understood without context because you’re making jokes about the context. So, I’m not against context, but ultimately it doesn’t lead to more general principles. Or, I haven’t seen it lead to more general principles which bothers me.

Emily Bianchi: This is your fifth book on humor, and you’ve characterized your interest in humor as a career long preoccupation. What about jokes do you find most compelling? You invoke many other scholars who have looked at jokes but not cracked their codes, and you say that something that you still find so compelling about jokes is that despite centuries of scholarships…

Elliott Oring: … we don’t know what the hell is going to help! Yes, it’s amazing that jokes, something so essentially despised from an academic point of view… we don’t know how they work. We don’t know. We can’t precisely define what it is that makes something humorous. We don’t understand why that if you accept the idea that it is humorous, we laugh at it. And we’re sitting here for 2,500 years and we haven’t the foggiest.

The last thing is, and this would be true of all folklorists probably who study whatever they study, they find them compelling and beautiful. I find many jokes beautiful. They are brilliant. That’s a word I could use for any number of jokes–not all jokes. You know, the conception and how they twist your mind to move from X to Y; they’re just brilliant. For the person who loves quilts, for the person who loves folk songs, for the person who loves Shaker furniture and gardening. Folklorists are compelled by the materials, first and foremost. Then they get into the people or they get into the questions surrounding the material, but the material is, I think, what draws them first. In that sense, they’re materialists, even though they would claim not to be. But if folklore is to be a serious intellectual endeavor, it cannot simply rest on folklorists’ admiration and celebration of their materials. Folklorists must ask penetrating questions and make serious attempts to answer them.

Tomas Matza on his book, Shock Therapy

Interview by Natalja Czarnecki

Tomas Matza on his book,

Natalja Czarnecki: In your ethnography of the popular “psychotherapeutic turn” in post-Soviet Russia, you write, quoting Foucault, that “subjectivity … ‘is the way in which the subject experiences himself in a game of truth’” (121). What are game(s) of truth in Putin’s Russia?

Tomas Matza: What is truth? And why the metaphor of a game? And in what contexts do such games take place? Addressing these questions is a good starting place for making a connection between psychotherapy and the sociopolitical contexts in Russia at the time I did my research (intensively from 2005-6 and then periodically until 2014).

About “truth”: My reading of Foucault’s phrase is that it reframes what truth is from a matter of empirical validity to a “grid of intelligibility”—a way of seeing that conditions perspectives on what is valid and invalid not only in terms of observation but also in terms of what is desirable or undesirable, and what is allowed and prohibited. The game that unfolds is very similar to my own understanding of politics, meaning that “games,” here, refer to the terrain, practice, and nature of struggle around legibility. Political struggle often orbits around contestations about what is true or not true.

The reason that the psychotherapeutic has been a venue for power is that it has emerged as a set of knowledge and practices by which influential definitions of personhood, of normalcy, of healthy social relations, of the non-human, and of healing (or hopelessness) circulate. These definitions are organized by experts, are founded on research infrastructures, reimbursed conditionally, and so on. When I turn to particular therapies as a way to understand who I am, what my problems are, what is important, and what I can do about it, I am engaging in a game of truth—in this case, a game of truth about a putatively healthy personhood.

In my book, I focus a lot on this connection between power and therapy. I found several important forces shaping the emergent “games of truth” about the self in Russia. I saw an interesting tension between the drift of Putin’s politics of self—which were then (and continue to be) organized around heteropatriarchal gender relations and patriotism—and those associated with market capitalism, entrepreneurialism, and middle-class self-cultivation. That is, Putin, and through his affiliation with the Orthodox Church, was generally not supportive of the kinds of liberal individualism and loosely feminist orientations that one finds in many contemporary Western ethnopsychologies (see, for example, Lynn Layton’s work). For this reason, I saw a political tension between Putinism and what these psychologists working in Saint Petersburg in the first decade of the 2000s were espousing. While not necessarily feminist, they were certainly transgressing a traditional gendering around emotionality in Russia. Through the investment in a humanistic psychological self-inquiry, they were also developing, to build on Julia Lerner’s work, a postsocialist emotional style. So that would be one game of truth, whose touchstones were: nation; a binary sex-gender system; (de)pathologization of homosexuality; the pro-natalism; and the moral panic around children to stem the demographic crisis.

The conservative values of Putinism were also accompanied by the ongoing corruption of the ruling class (see Schimpfössl), and a diminution of social supports seen in many neoliberalizing contexts. In that sense, there was a close alliance between conservative values, social disinvestment, and capitalist accumulation.

Turning to the role of market society played in the games of truth: capitalist culture contains many ideas about selfhood: life is a career; time is money; invest in your future; be your best self; it’s up to you; change starts with yourself. Such phrases were circulating in Russia in the early 2000s with relative novelty. And they are not exactly homologous with the politics of self and the social under Putin. Crucially, as therapists looking to start their own services in commercial contexts tried to advertise services, they oriented towards what kinds of services they thought the client population would want, or what the client population in fact did want. As one of my most helpful research participants, Tatiana Georgievna, told a group of psychology graduate students, “We are creating a market [for services] where one does not exist.” It was really interesting to move ethnographically around these commercial contexts. The range of things many psychologists were doing were certainly articulated with forms of capitalist individualism. But—and here is the tension I mentioned above—they were also playing a range of other “games,” to extend Foucault’s metaphor—including thinking critically about what kind of society they wanted to live in, how to (re)build sociality and what kind of a society a future Russia would be.

Natalja Czarnecki: In your interlocutors’ idealization of democratic sociality and belonging, what are some of their models of success, if any? Are these models geopolitical in definition and scale? Secular? Otherwise imagined?

Tomas Matza: The first thing that the phrase “models of success” prompts in my mind is that success for all the folks I got to know was not really very concretized. At least it would not rise to the level of a model. Let me use here a couple of examples of their seminars (which were being offered at the time of my research). One, which I talked a lot about in the book, was “managing [one’s own] emotions and behavior.” In this case, the model would be a specific kind of self-reflection and emotional awareness (or intelligence) that would manifest in a few ways. One, it would help young people to become more emotionally mature, to understand their reactions, and, in a kind of CBT sort of way, therefore learn how to mitigate their reactions to the world in supposedly more healthful ways. For example, a key selling point of ReGeneration was to tell parent/clients that they would be able to help their children to be “better”—along the same lines as, say, a Knowles course in the U.S. where, through character development, behavior is improved. If we think of models of success in socio-scalar terms, then the scale in this example is the person and the family. But they also had other programs that were a bit less family-centric and more focused on the child-client’s social milieu. Another camp was centered on friendship: how to make lasting, authentic friendships; and, again, what kinds of self-work might lead to better social relationships.

Your question is probing at something that I would say I was also really interested in—which is what broader sociopolitical significance might these kinds of programs have had? What sorts of visions of a good Russian society did these efforts, even if implicitly, indicate? Or, in your terms, what sorts of models did this “idealization of democratic sociality and belonging” imply? Perhaps I wasn’t asking (or listening) in the right ways, but I did not find this very clearly articulated. (Or, perhaps my wrong turn was to have expected my interlocutors to speak of their work in terms of a well-articulated political platform!) There may be something possibly specific to postsocialist Russia about this sort of “political indeterminacy” (see Yurchak), but there is also something that may be more generally true about people anywhere on the planet working in the mental health fields: their purview is more likely to be the personal and the inter-personal, not the political-economic.

Nonetheless, it is possible for anthropologists like me to draw out political implications of particular practices. One that I found pertained to the game of truth mentioned earlier. Even if only implicit, the work they were doing on selfhood and sociality were in some ways generatively critical of Putinist social tendencies such as heteropatriarchy, selfishness, corruption, intolerance. In that sense, I found in their work a kind of liberal-progressive kernel.

Natalja Czarnecki: Energiia (energy), dusha (soul), and garmoniia (harmony) are elements that your interlocutors invoke as “idioms of psychosociality.” You write that these idioms are politico-ethical in practice (194). In this politico-ethical work, did psychologists consider psychosociality a potential site of scalable norm-making or as something else?

Tomas Matza: I think this one depends on which person you asked. For instance, one psychotherapist whom I call Vitya Markov in the book would probably agree with the idea that psychosociality at least aspires to be a scalable form of norm-making. So, the more people you encounter as clients and help both with personal issues and with social relationships, the more people you reach. It also wasn’t just a one-person-at-a-time thing. Vitya’s organization had also set up a hotline (telefonnoe doverie) where anybody could call in and get confidential psychological advice. Others, like Tatiana, were towards the end of my fieldwork in negotiations with the federal government to organize trainings on tolerance. And staffers from ReGeneration went on to do trainings in team building for Russians working for multi-national corporations. Finally, probably the most visible site for “scalable norm-making” would have to be the psychologist and lawyer, Mikhail Labkovsky. At the time of my research, Labkovsky’s show, For Adults About Adults (Vzroslym o vzroslykh) on the radio station Echo of Moscow was being broadcast across the country. Labkovsky was especially interesting because of the creative and interesting ways that he articulated self-work with a wide range of social norms, ranging from the mundane (pick up the garbage in the dvor (shared courtyard); restore collective concern about shared spaces such as apartment entryways), to the more expansively political (participate as citizens in the political process; organize to cooperatively manage housing).

On the municipal side of things, other colleagues were working to establish a holistic care system comprised of in-school psychologists along with a central organizing institution (the PPMS network). So here PPMS staff would make rounds around the municipality to hold trainings for teachers on psychological counseling/diagnostics, as well as to collect information about children who were really struggling at school or at home and needed the extra attention of PPMS’ psychology staff. The idea of “scalable norm-making” in municipal services isn’t quite the right phrase, but it isn’t wrong either. I say this because, like a lot of clinical social workers in places like the US, the effort is reparative more so than prospective. Put in other terms, these professionals are largely playing defense in the face of the wide range of suffering that is produced by economic inequity, discrimination, domestic abuse, and other sorts of issues that, in the case of my fieldwork, young people in X region were encountering. I remember a phrase that Olya, a social worker in a psychoneurological clinic (PND) told me. She said that she and others at the PND were working with those “needed by nobody” (nikomu ne nuzhnyi). Olya was referring to the clientele of the PND, many of whom were experiencing severe kinds of mental illness. But the phrase is also apt for describing the many small tragedies of those living on the margins of gentrification. What is the scalable norm-making here? I suppose the restoration of a kind of basic humanity to young people neglected or caught up in the public housing cycle of the Dedski dom, as well as the provision of some basic level of care and concern.

Natalja Czarnecki: Callers to Labkovsky’s radio show ask him, for help with problems related to family life and/or personal issues. You write that there is something distinctly post-Soviet about these mass-mediated personal disclosures (198). Can you say more about the post-Soviet nature of this desire for publicized self-help? What might the post-Soviet turn to psychotherapeutic expertise tell us about democratic be(long)ing and authority in an age of authoritarian politics and precarious care in neoliberal states?

Tomas Matza: I think, first, about a person I call Inna, who described to me the feeling of being in the first psychological training in the 1990s. She talked about switching from the formal you when addressing non-intimates in the training to the informal you. And she described a feeling that sounded, to me, almost like intoxication that related to experiencing that kind of intense, fast-tracked stranger intimacy. Having myself participated in a lot of group therapy contexts, I could really identify with what Inna told me. It is exciting to find that level of authenticity in a social milieu when otherwise often we are going through our days, making chit-chat, and just getting by under a mask. There is something that is certainly beyond just Russia with this “desire for publicized ‘self-help.’” So I am speculating that many participants in the therapeutic process share a desire for self-work in the company of others. And in the U.S., too, we find lots of examples of mass mediated expressions of self-work in the company of (many) others. Think about all the radio and TV shows devoted to self-help, the giant Tony Robbins seminars of the 1990s and early 2000s. Drawing on a bit of Durkheim here, this kind of collective effervescence is an extremely powerful social force that certainly exists all around the world.

Historical context matters, too, though. What I tried to listen closely to in my research is how people having these early therapeutic encounters in the company of others described the significance of the experience. For Inna it was the shift from formality to informality, and the possibility to speak about herself in intimate terms with people she didn’t know well—things that she felt were not available to her in the late-Soviet period. For Vitya it was the problem of late-Soviet surveillance of therapeutic settings. For Tatiana it meant the creation of a context in which psychological work with children could happen in non-governmental contexts. What I detected in these statements were expressions of frustration with the constraints of the Soviet past when it came to practicing or consuming psychology. So I would explain the desire for stranger sociality, for self-help in the company of others (at least among particular groups), in very distinctly historical terms as well as a more general desire for collective effervescence. As I try to write in the book, this is what makes this form of care postsocialist.

I am currently struggling through a longer meditation on what I am calling “care in the gap” and in that piece I am making the case that there is also a politics to my interpretive move. I would say that it reflects my ambivalent embrace of liberal progressivism, as well as an interest in figuring out how people “make do” politically in their daily lives; how they work to do something beneficial, but don’t always succeed; how they work to balance livelihood and self-interest with care for others. I say ambivalent because I think that the liberal progressive politics of incrementalism is also often the politics of stasis, or worse, a sly reproduction of social inequities. I see that. But I also see the way that the hermeneutics of suspicion as articulated in a lot of critical anthropology risks committing forms of analytic violence against interlocutors; proposes textually a kind of political purity that is probably inconsistent with the way that most people live; and ultimately produces a kind of future pessimism. In the context of Russian sociality and the process of personal growth, I always come back to the psychologists I got to know. They strove to care for others in less-than-ideal circumstances. They worked to, and in many cases, did provide people looking to survive and thrive in a changing society some measure of support. If we are thinking about the problems of authoritarianism and precarity under austerity, then these efforts of mutuality are certainly an important counterforce, and worth taking seriously in our work.

Robert W. Gehl and Sean T. Lawson on Social Engineering

Interview by Emma Briant

Emma Briant: Cambridge Analytica often pitched their methods as a contemporary digital marketing firm – if you were sat next to Alexander Nix at a dinner party, how would you convince him your book explains what’s really going on?

Robert W. Gehl: First of all, should we even trust that the dinner party is actually not a cover for some nefarious Nix scheme? Wasn’t Nix famous for such tricks? I’d be worried about what Nix is trying to convince me of! And given his duplicity – such as his claim to a German audience in 2017 that Cambridge Analytica got their data through legitimate means – is it even possible to convince him of anything?

Sean T. Lawson: I think I’d start by agreeing with the general premise: Cambridge Analytica was a contemporary digital marketing firm, not unlike many others. And therein lies the issue. The unique combination of big data, machine learning, and microtargeted messages that CA and so many others are adopting is an innovation, but one with potentially negative impacts.

Robert W. Gehl: Agreed. I think I would point to your work, Emma, among others –   whistleblowers such as Kaiser and Wylie, journalists such as Cadwalldr. Based on that work, we can say we already know what’s going on. What we need to do is further theorize it and look for points of pressure to fix the problems of manipulative communication. I think that’s the approach that all of us – you, us, people like Joan Donovan – are taking now.

Sean T. Lawson: I also don’t know that we’d claim that Social Engineeering accounts for the entirety of what’s “really going on.” What we’re doing is offering another way of thinking about what’s going on, one that we hope helps to connect the disparate contemporary pieces – like CA, but also Russian interference operations – with one another and with a broader, historical context.

Emma Briant: You post the question of how “crowdmasters, phreaks, hackers and trolls created” a new form of manipulative communication.  But how new is it really? You trace a long history, so what is new and distinct in what you see today?

Sean T. Lawson: Trying to sort out what is new and unique in the contemporary moment was one of our main goals for the book. As you note, many of the practices we see today have been part of public relations, propaganda, marketing, or hacking for a long time. Part of our frustration was that so much of the current discourse treats what’s happening with Cambridge Analytica or the Russians as unprecedented. It’s not. But it’s also not just “the same old thing,” either. So, we think what’s new here is, first, the unique combination of new methods of data gathering, analysis, and targeting that have the goal of allowing social engineers to have societal-level impacts by engaging people at the individual or small-group level. Second, we think the ability to shift fluidly and quickly between the interpersonal and mass forms of social engineering in a given campaign is also an innovation.

Robert W. Gehl: Right – that fusion of interpersonal con artistry techniques with mass societal engineering desires is what’s new. That’s what we mean by “masspersonal social engineering.” This concept is a subset of recent “masspersonal communication” theory that suggests that the old mass/interpersonal divide means far less in the digital age. When a tweet @ someone can also be a public performance in front of thousands, and when an interpersonal interaction could be recorded and posted online, it’s harder and harder to draw the line between interpersonal and mass communication. Likewise, it’s hard to draw the line between interpersonal con artistry and mass propaganda.

Emma Briant: Scholars use a lot of different terms to describe the practices your book aims to help us understand.  You avoid using the term contemporary propaganda or influence and instead discuss manipulative communication.  Can you explain your choices? 

Robert W. Gehl: We’re reacting somewhat to conceptual confusion happening right now. For example, Benkler, Faris, and Roberts’s excellent book Network Propagandadoes a fine job tracing how disinformation flows through right-wing media, but one thing they do is specifically bracket off interpersonal con artistry as not-propaganda. This makes sense due to the history of propaganda, but not as much sense when we start to think how manipulation might be both highly targeted at individuals at one moment, and then scaled up to a population level the next moment.

Sean T. Lawson: We chose “social engineering” over those other terms for a couple of reasons. First, we wanted one term to cover this combination of both the interpersonal and mass forms of manipulation that we were seeing come together. A few other scholars and security researchers had floated the term “social engineering,” which we thought was clever. But the more we talked about it, the more we became convinced that it wasn’t just a clever one-off but that there was really something to the use of that term that not only described both aspects of what we were seeing but did so in a new and interesting way. Second, we also felt like propaganda or influence did not fully account for the active and malicious manipulation of what we were trying to describe. Propaganda, to us, implies spreading biased information promoting one’s own side. Influence, though it can be malicious, is ubiquitous and mostly innocuous. We think that social engineering better captures the active attempt at using communication to manipulate a target in a malicious way.

Robert W. Gehl: As for other terms, etymologically, “influence” comes from astrology, meaning a fluid coming from the stars that shapes our lives. I personally prefer “manipulation” – coming from the late Latin manipulare, leading by the hand. I think of it as a more human-centric and less metaphysical capacity to shape environments. This links up well with “social engineering” – engineering comes from gin, a trap, net, or snare (including verbal traps and snares) and reflects the desire to practically apply knowledge to shape a situation.

Emma Briant: Your approach bringing together histories of hacking and deception is truly original.  Was there a Eureka moment when you felt this idea coming together? Can you explain how the idea emerged from each of your work and unique perspectives coming together?

Sean T. Lawson: At the time, both of us were working together at the University of Utah and talked about our respective projects regularly. Rob had just published a book about the dark web and was well into a new project originally just focused on the history of hacker social engineering. I was just finishing up a book on cybersecurity discourse in the United States. At the end of that book, I argued that political warfare, propaganda, and disinformation were more the reality of cyber conflict than the as-yet hypothetical “cyber Pearl Harbor” infrastructure attacks that get so much attention. But the attempt at precise targeting and en masse seemed new and my initial efforts to explain it using analogies to the so-called “precision revolution” and airpower in the U.S. military felt unsatisfactory.

Robert W. Gehl: For me, I have long been intrigued by the concept of engineering – as I mentioned above, it contains the term gin (snare, trap). I was initially thinking of looking at the genealogy of software engineering – I had been collecting material on that since my first book. But in the course of writing Weaving the Dark Web, I came across people talking in hacker forums about “social engineering” and was hooked. I thought of social engineering to be a pejorative term for government programs, not as a fancy way of saying con artistry. So I dug into hacker social engineering. My initial plan was to write about hacker social engineering only, but in conversations with Sean, he convinced me that the more important move would be to trace both the older social engineering of the early 20th century with the hacker conception. In turn, I convinced him to join the project and bring his cyberwar discourse expertise to bear on it.

Sean T. Lawson: So, really through ongoing discussion of our respective projects at the time, we came to realize that there was overlap between hacking and propaganda techniques. As we looked around, we didn’t see anyone else taking that approach, so we decided to see what would happen if we did. We think that the result is a valuable new way of thinking about the relationships between these practices.

Emma Briant: How optimistic are you about our future in this age of masspersonal social engineering? Can we escape its grasp long enough to hack the system and build something better?

Robert W. Gehl: I love this question, because my current research addresses it head-on. I’ve been a longstanding advocate of quitting corporate social media, since its whole purpose is to have us produce ourselves as consumers through profiling and then deliver our profiled selves to advertisers. Facebook/Meta makes for a fine vehicle for masspersonal social engineering! But instead of advocating quitting social media – since it does give people a great deal of pleasure – I’ve been studying ethical alternatives, like Mastodon. If we’re looking for people who are hacking the system, look to the people coding Mastodon and the rest of the fediverse. You’ll note rather quickly that targeted advertising is not part of that system! And that helps make is less attractive to the sort of manipulations we’re talking about.

Sean T. Lawson: We can hack the system to make something better. We talk about options for that at the end of the book. However, I’m not optimistic that we will. That is what is so frustrating about this situation. Sensible privacy and data collection regulations would go a long way to thwarting the use of big data in masspersonal social engineering. Addressing the problem of dark money and front groups in politics is also essential. Doing more to shore up our cybersecurity to make the penetration and theft of information that can subsequently be weaponized is also possible and essential. Unfortunately, at the moment, we’re not seeing nearly enough progress in each of these areas. Too many actors, from corporations to social media platforms to marketing firms to politicians who rely on them have an interest in continuing to allow masspersonal social engineering to take place.

Robert W. Gehl: We joke that Sean is Eeyore. But I am afraid he’s right. I’m looking at home-grown, ethical FOSS solutions but they are not going to do the job on their own. Global regulations of what you, Emma, aptly call the “influence industry” have to happen.

Joshua Babcock takes the page 99 test

“It’s about sarees or some shit.” This sentence—probably my favorite in the dissertation—comes from a group interview with Chand Chandramohan, Diva, and Seelan Palay, the organizers of Singapore’s first all-South Asian contermporary art series, From Your Eyes to Ours. The quote shows up on page 99 for the second time in the chapter, just before the chapter’s conclusion starts. In this quote, multidisciplinary artist Chand Chandramohan summed up a series of assumptions that were routinely articulated by racially hegemonic Singaporean perceivers upon encountering the art event: that to be an Indian-Singaporean artist is to do “Indian art”—that is, to (re)produce traditional South Asian forms for Indian audiences—thus denying the possibility of their participating in contemporary art aesthetics.

Like most places existing in the wake of racialized/racializing modernity, in Singapore, to “belong” to a race is also to “possess” a language—at least ideally. Later on page 99, I note that the three co-organizers gave the title “Yes, I Speak Indian” to a visual art exhibition that occurred as part of From Your Eyes to Ours. This title acted as a form of shorthand satire, critiquing a recurrent assumption that “Indian” is a monolith, a single community that possesses and uses a single language.

Yet more than this, the organizers of From Your Eyes to Ours voiced and critiqued a deeper presupposition: that to invoke “Indian” in Singapore is to invoke not only a race, but also to legitimate Race. Referenced via the shorthand CMIO (an acronym standing for Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Other Singaporeans), Race-capital-R stands as the sum total of all the “races of Singapore,” a self-evident, totalizing structure that shapes raciolinguistic hierarchies in the present without actually being total.

Beyond its contents, page 99 exemplifies my dissertation’s broader political stakes. Page 99 presents large stretches of the interview with Chand, Diva, and Seelan as theory-work, rather than relegating it to the status of mere evidence provided by an “informant.” Like the dissertation, page 99 also doesn’t shy away from the political: from deep, close engagement with the critiques of raciolinguistic hegemony, oppression, and marginalization that were generously articulated to me by my co-theorists in Singapore. Similarly, like page 99, the dissertation confronts my own status as a raciolinguistically hegemonic perceiver, as a token of a privileged type capable of accessing prestige registers of English, elite education, and white-passing privilege—among others.

Joshua Babcock. 2022. Image and the Total Utopia: Scaling Raciolinguistic Belonging in Singapore. University of Chicago, PhD.