Page 99 ends my verbatim account of broken dialogue in an anti-gentrification rally in Leimert Park, Los Angeles in 2017. This third of a page consists of three references to Marilyn Strathern’s work, only one of which is found in my list of references!
First, I make use of Strathern’s (2011) language to describe the relation between two parties brought together in a small classroom for a breakout session titled “Fighting the New White-Washing”. Strathern helps me to speak of the young activists protesting against art galleries in Boyle Heights and the elderly homeowners from Leimert Park who had gathered to hear them as “embedded in analogous moral contexts of support” without falling back on questions of ethnic or racial unity and division implicit in the context of anti-gentrification campaigning Los Angeles.
The second reference shows Strathern (1998) commenting on ownership and social relations and more or less states the obvious: both the young activists in Boyle Heights and the elderly homeowners in Leimert Park wanted to pass houses on in the family. In the historically segregated Los Angeles this simple observation ties together intimate moral obligations, expectations, and family wealth with the full weight of structural racism. This “breakout session” chapter cuts the thesis in half and connects housing questions to an ethnographic account of people doing art and culture. Thus, the second reference suggests that people’s readiness to “organize relations to one another as a matter of control” in housing also extends to artistic creations and notions of culture.
The final reference situates these social worlds into the larger network of relations in the city. Borrowing Strathern’s (1996) authority again I say that ownership was a means to cut the network, to mark boundaries, and this is how I make a full circle back to the segregated geography of Los Angeles. Built into the city the Euro-American hegemonic logic of perceiving relations meant that discussions around gentrification had the tendency to revert back to questions of ethnic or racial unity and division. Strathern’s work helps me to speak of racial hierarchy and domination in a less familiar language and page 99 is a fittingly clumsy example of this Brechtian distancing effect at work.
Strathern, M. 1996. “Cutting the Network.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2, no. 3 (1996): 517–35.
Strathern, M. 1998. Divisions of interest and languages of ownership. In: Property relations: renewing the anthropological tradition. Hann, C. M., ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Strathern, Marilyn. 2011. Binary License. Common Knowledge 17(1): 87-103.
Page 99 of my dissertation begins with a passport photograph taken of me in 2016, juxtaposed with a purikura photograph taken in the same year.
Purikura, a colloquialism for “print club” (purinto kurabu), are photo booths that allow users to take photographs, edit the photographs using a stylus and touch screen, and receive instant prints of these photographs. The term may also refer to the instant prints themselves. The image caption reads:
“Standard passport photograph of the author taken in 2016 (left), juxtaposed with a purikura photograph taken in the same year (right). The purikura photograph was taken with its default filter and editing options. Note that the author’s skin has been lightened, her curls have been smoothed, her eyes have been enlarged, and her facial and bodily features have been slimmed down.”
In the paragraph that follows the images, I propose that smartphones and Social Networking Services (SNS, the localized term for social media) such as Instagram constitute portable purikura:
“Smartphones and visual-centric SNS such as Instagram constitute portable purikura. The filters, stickers, and editing features on Instagram are not unlike those found within the process of rakugaki. Most importantly, smartphones and SNS have become enveloped in the media ecology of purikura. Manufacturers of purikura such as Makesoft offer their own smartphone apps that ease the process of saving digital copies of purikura and sharing these copies on SNS. In conversations with young women, I learned that it was not uncommon to ‘research’ potential poses and editing strategies for purikura on Instagram. This saves stress and time during the actual practice of taking purikura. The prevalence of hashtags on Instagram such as #purika pose (#purikura pōzu; #プリクラポーズ) and #purikura editing (#purikura kakō; #プリクラ加工) demonstrate reliance on user-created content as a source of information and inspiration for creativity. Purikura is becoming even more convergent.”
Page 99 embodies one central argument of my dissertation: while digital technologies offer different and “new” modes of being social, this “newness” is not always “new.” Chapter Two, where page 99 is located, demonstrates how “new” mediatic assemblages involving SNS and smartphones are extensions of past and ongoing forms of gendered socialities and economies. I draw connections between historical and contemporary forms of consumerist play among Japanese girls and women: purikura culture, instabae (Instagenic) culture, the Discover Japan tourism campaign of the 1970s, and contemporary “photogenic travel” campaigns.
The intersections between “old” and “new” media constitute only part of the larger story of my dissertation. While page 99 focuses on play, my dissertation also discusses themes such as intergenerational tensions regarding the (mis)use of digital technologies. My dissertation, Mediating Me: Digital Sociality and Smartphone Culture in Contemporary Japan, examines the intersections of SNS, smartphone ownership, and shifting notions of sociality and selfhood among young people in Japan. I ask: How can the digital serve as a lens for understanding change and continuity in contemporary Japan, especially with regards to gender and identity? I conducted fieldwork in Japan between August 2019 and August 2020, and remotely between August 2020 and October 2021. Through an integration of interview data, media and literary analysis, and ethnographic vignettes called “Mediations,” I emphasize that perceived norms and moral standards centering on digital embeddedness are constantly (re)negotiated. In each chapter, I examine particular user groups and moments, such as digital activism among Black Japanese youths during the global Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020. The process of (re)negotiation became especially apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, which coincided with my fieldwork. My dissertation also highlights the indispensability, promises, and ethics of digital ethnography.
While page 99 only captures one practice within the fabric of digital sociality in contemporary Japan, it highlights an important reminder: the dynamics that accompany digital sociality can be applicable to past, present, and future technologies, practices, and visualities.
Volha Verbilovich:Emergency media are cultural and temporal. In Case of Emergency develops these definitions, revealing the history and modern practices of emergency media use. Why did you choose this object of study?
Elizabeth Ellcessor:I wrote my first book [Restricted Access: Media, Disability, and the Politics of Participation, 2016] about digital media accessibility, particularly the legal and bureaucratic context for things like alternate text and accessible forms. I’ve written on closed captioning, the forms of accessibility that are fairly well known at this point, if not always implemented. But one thing I just totally left out of the book was that regulations for disability access are treated differently in emergency contexts than in normal media production. For instance, we don’t have sign language interpreters for pre-recorded hour-long dramas. However, we do have live sign language interpreters for something like a press conference about evacuation in the path of a hurricane. Right? When you have an emergency situation, the legal requirements shift. You have to have access at these moments. In my first book, I just put it in a footnote like “nothing I’m talking about applies to these other situations”. So, I had it in the back of my head anyway. One thing that really propelled it forward was when they started rolling out “text to 9-1-1 services”, initially in Vermont, and Indiana, where I was living at the time. What was interesting about that rollout was the way they promoted “text to 9-1-1” as primarily an accessibility feature. You can imagine lots of people wanting to use it, right? For example, young people who are more comfortable with text than voice calls. The ability to send a picture to 9-1-1 seems useful, the ability to send your location via text seems useful. But instead, we were seeing this real emphasis on treating text messages as if they were an assistive technology to replace phone calls. That raised many questions for me about how these lines between “access for some” versus “access for all” are being drawn. And also, how disability and accessibility were being used as, not exactly excuses, but as displacements, preventing the kinds of critiques of an emergency media system that is, in many cases, pretty far out of step with consumer technology. So, I started there with one specific case study. And I published that in the International Journal of Communicationbefore the book. And then I just started digging into it. What are other sorts of emergency media out there? How are they technologically situated? And how does that reflect certain cultural assumptions about the way the world works?
Volha Verbilovich: Thank you very much for the rich overview of the different types of emergency media: alarms, alerts, maps, 9-1-1 calls, and reports, that was really amazing to read. Speaking about access as a category and an experience, what could ethnographers and other scholars learn from the disability studies’ accounts about access?
Elizabeth Ellcessor: I think disability studies perspectives on access, or what Aimi Hamraie describes as “critical access studies”, are interesting for a range of fields. I assume that treating access as a self-evident, good thing like “oh, we need to increase access to XYZ” which also often means everything will be sort of “solved” is a techno-solutionist perspective at the best of times. But it also fails to account for access as more than just having something. When we talk about access, we often need to be talking about skills and contexts. And that often gets left out if access is talked about at all. We have scholarship that often glosses over this experience of access entirely. Film studies, for instance, have traditions of scholarship in which we talk about spectatorship or reading the film without acknowledging that how we watch the film matters and that not everyone is watching it the same way. I think it opens the door to bigger conversations if we don’t take for granted that everyone is doing this task in one way. Then it becomes easier to ask questions: what does it encompass? what has to be there? what is sort of flexible? I think it opens a lot of interesting possibilities. Access is a moment where we really see just tremendous variation.
Volha Verbilovich: Considering the limitations of access, you speak a lot about the racialized discourses, sexism, and ableism of the emergency media. How do the different types of emergency media create these discourses? Could you mention the examples you address in the book?
Elizabeth Ellcessor: I’ll talk about one I didn’t expect to write about, which was maps. Maps weren’t something that I had in mind at the beginning. It came from doing the work and talking to people about what kinds of safety technologies they were using or were familiar with. And then thinking backward from that: “oh, a lot of people are using “find my phone” to see where their family members are. A lot of college students are using Snapchat to see where their friends are and make sure everyone gets home safe at night.” So, then I started thinking about other ways that we use maps to understand issues of safety and risk, which are tied into ideas of emergency. Talking about weather maps and COVID maps grew out of that. So, there are two other ways in which we use maps to understand whether or not we’re in an emergency situation and how does that kind of graphical representation of the world influence our decision-making?
One thing about what we could think of is the rise of maps in the GPS era, seeing maps used in all kinds of apps and safety features. Uber has something where you can now ask someone to watch your ride on a map, so they know if your Uber gets waylaid. These features are really interesting. They promote a kind of ubiquity that we should always know where something is, and we should always be able to double-check and have that information available. It actually has the effect of making the lack of information interpreted as a sign of danger or emergency. So, if you become accustomed to relying on these features, know where things are, what is happening, where your friends are, and who got home, and you suddenly don’t have that? It creates a really different emotional stake than we would have had 20 years ago, and no one had this information. My mother never knew where I was at college! And it didn’t worry her because that wasn’t a sign of potential danger. But when we interviewed current college students, many of their parents are using maps to see where they are and to ensure they are okay. And when they can’t or are not where they’re supposed to be, they get phone calls because parents worry. It’s a really different mediation of risk and danger that I don’t think was on my radar before this.
Volha Verbilovich: In the book, you address the surveillance of care as a category that describes these developments. And you also reflect on the infrastructural media activism practices. To what extent do you think the infrastructural media activism could mitigate data-driven surveillance of care?
Elizabeth Ellcessor: I think that there’s a way in which we equate surveillance with care. Thinking through intentional ways to care about people in our lives without subjecting them to constant surveillance is something that we can do. And I give the example of college students seeking their friends on Snapchat. Some don’t do that, and they only text each other at a set time. So, they have moments of contact but not constant tracking. It also cuts out, in many cases, the third-party technologies that are doing the mapping and tracking. Rather than hand over your location data to Snapchat, you’re texting your friend: “I will text you at 1 am, letting you know”. So, you have some intentional moments like that. And then you also have people who are, in some cases, using mapping to highlight other kinds of needs and emergencies, taking this representational system that we’ve come to understand, and using it to map things like safe spaces, trans bathrooms, housing markets. I saw one project essentially based on the idea that the emergency was not simply COVID; the emergency was the housing crisis as rents were raised and people were struggling. Therefore, they had mapping of average rents and changes in rents in various locations as a way of signaling that something was happening. So, here’s the map that will produce some of that effect of emergency and maybe draw attention to an issue.
Volha Verbilovich: One of the key findings of your research is that emergency and emergency media are fundamentally racialized. To what extent is this argument specific to the United States cultural context?
Elizabeth Ellcessor: It’s a good question! I’m very much an Americanist. So, I certainly know the US context best. And I do think that some elements are specific to US history and the way that the legacies of slavery impact the legacies of the prison system and impact the way that we think about emergency and policing. These things are all part of the same story. I would be surprised if you don’t see similar historical dynamics playing out in other countries. The various racial or ethnic divides might look different, but I think you do see a similar kind of valuation at play in a discourse of emergency where some people are constructed as the core of the nation and the most valuable, and some people are not, whether that is a matter of ethnic minorities or immigrants or both. People who are intended to be protected by emergency systems are often those who are most privileged and centered within the given context. I use my colleague Jennifer Rubenstein’s definition of emergency in the book pretty heavily. She is a political scientist who studies international development and peacekeeping. She was writing about the emergency in the context of global human rights violations and how, in those moments, receiving aid becomes a matter of being intelligible to the institutions that provide that aid. So if you want to look into that in a more detailed way, I would absolutely recommend her work as a jumping-off point to very different contexts.
Volha Verbilovich: What was the most challenging part of doing emergency media research? How did you find ways to fix those challenges or take a lesson from them?
Elizabeth Ellcessor: I think my biggest challenge in this project was, honestly, the scope. It could have been about many different things. And it is, like you mentioned, full of many different examples. I was trying to pull together something that was broader than a simple case study. And that addressed a lot of common-sense things that people would expect from a book about the emergency. So, I wanted to ensure that some of the things that we all, in a US context, expect to be there were there while still being able to include interviews with users of these systems, with workers. We didn’t get to talk a lot about this. But I find that talking to people who work in emergency media was central to my understanding of how it functions, whether those were 9-1-1 operators, emergency managers, or scholars of disaster. Focusing on how people who are “in the weeds” with this understand it, versus how a broader culture understands it, was very helpful in finding key dynamics and pressure points. I’m obviously situated in media studies, so I’m going to write a book about media. But a crucial part of the book for me was coming to understand that media are literally mediating the circumstances between the emergency and the resources at stake. And in that process, the media systems become a kind of pressure point, they become a place where small changes have big effects and where the agency of workers can actually also have big effects. On the one hand, it should lead us to value their work, and, on the other hand, it should lead us to think more intentionally than we often do about what those jobs are, who is doing them, and how they’re valued or not valued, and how they are being changed. As we see AI technologies brought into these systems, what are we losing when we lose that expertise?
My answer left you like a glutton without food—unsatisfied. Before you could request thick ethnographic details, I handed you page 99 of Endangered Words and Invulnerable Worlds: Spatial Language and Social Relations in Cheran, Michoacan, Mexico.
The text appeared straightforward about general trends in Cheran. Still, you couldn’t shake the notion of being stranded in an ethnographic labyrinth. So, you read it and reread it. Being the scholar you are, you decided to immerse yourself in Cheran’s P’urhépecha. Only there was no rabbit hole, just the whole text—Endangered Words and Invulnerable Worlds.
In the text, you found that theoretically, I argued a spatial language-based cultural model explains many of the properties of social relations. The part-whole model is simple like a slice of pizza out of a pie, a cigar from a set, or birds of a feather flocking together. After reading the ethnographic evidence—from emic sociological characteristics affecting face-to-face communication to people ascribing behavioral patterns onto families to large-scale ritual events of greater complexity—you remembered page 99.
Nodding in deep thought, you began repeating like a mantra, “part-whole.”
Reflecting on your initial impressions, you realize what you perceived as a tortuous reading experience was a plunge into ethnographic clarity—a simplified diagram of a complex phenomenon. I saw it in your eyes and asked, “Now do you agree with my answer?”
“Yes,” said you.
…He is like that, so all Santiagos are predisposed to behave in such a manner. They are like that…
While thinking through the ways people in Cheran identify individuals as recapitulating kin or groups as possessing traits displayed by individuals, it helps to consider emic conceptualizations of kinship dynamics…the people of Cheran view individuals as intimately tied to their kin groups. The link between an individual and a family is inextricable. One cannot exist as an atom who makes herself or himself independently of background. When someone encounters an individual…others generally explain that individual’s behavior as recapitulating a family trend. It is quite common to find people explain this dynamic along the lines of “they are like that.” The “they,” generally, refers to the house ergo nuclear family, which in turn, often reflects the patrilineal lineage.
The aforementioned kin dynamics make sense when considering folk views of the town’s composition. Most people claim that they all know each other. The elderly restrict themselves by qualifying their statements along the lines of “I know those of my generation but not younger folks (of various generations).” Even this statement might be an exaggeration. Cheran has a population of over 20,000…
Niku T’arhechu T’arhesi. 2021. Endangered Worlds and Invulnerable Worlds: Spatial Language and Social Relations in Cheran, Michoacan, Mexico. University of Michigan, PhD.