Jay Ke-Schutte on his book, Angloscene


Interview with Andrew Carruthers

Andrew Carruthers: First, please allow me to offer you a hearty congratulations on the publication of your monograph! Ethnographic richness and theoretical acumen are highlights of Angloscene, a book whose eponymous object of concern is an ideological space-time linking whiteness, English, and cosmopolitan mobilities in Afro-Chinese Beijing and beyond. Across a detailed series of Afro-Chinese encounters, the problem of translation looms large, figuring not only as part of African and Chinese subjects’ everyday equipment for living, but also as a rarefied object of critical inquiry among anthropologists and other scholars in the humanities and social sciences. I wonder if you might begin by situating the approach taken to translation in Angloscene. What is the relation between translation and personhood in the space-time configuration that you call the Angloscene? I’m particularly interested in hearing more about how your approach to translation contrasts with approaches developed in, say, so-called posthuman anthropology and media theory, a point you pursue in Chapter 4.

Jay Ke-Schutte: It has been such an enjoyable task engaging with these generous questions, especially from someone I not only regard as a colleague, but as a friend. In light of my relatively remote writing chronotope at around 3000m on the Tibetan plateau, I will do my best to do them justice. The analytic of translation, as you point out, is fairly crucial throughout the book and in many ways will be at stake in almost all the questions in our exchange. As a starting point – though I will continue to return to this theme – Angloscene was an attempt to work beyond two problematic translational a priori in Western anthropology: The first, and likely more familiar, remains a faux-romantic translational nihilism, which posits the impossibility of translation, while never accounting for how or why so many ethnographic informants undertake significant discursive labor in translating at various abstractive scales of materials for their ethnographers. The fact that translational denialists benefit from an astounding degree of translational extraction was just one of those things – as a bilingual – I had to brainwash myself into not seeing just to get through my early anthropological and ethnomusicological education in South Africa.

The second translational a priori is a more recent, peculiarly metaphysical, assertion of translation as a posthuman, non-representational, often synchronically-amorphous becoming. The contradiction of posthuman translation emerges in its reception. The retreat of its all-too-human register into a highly-mediated (and frequently classed) poetic nativism is often mistaken by posthumanists themselves as promising greater vital and ethnographic immediacy. A simple test for this genre of ethnographic writing is its translatability into languages that lie beyond the intimate affects of English or French literary genres and their shared European art worlds. As it turns out, translating the immediacy of posthuman prose, and its borrowed vitalist lexicon into another language, will often require a fairly truncated mining of the existent aesthetic literary possibilities that are available within the the target language. Thus, as with the nihilist position, posthuman translation will again entail a great deal of hidden (alienated?) translational labor.

Both of these translational ideologies undermine an engagement with language and communication as intersubjectively-mediated and indispensable social infrastructures (particularly in non-Western, multilingual settings). Such nihilist and posthumanist positions additionally presume upon fundamentally Eurocentric and monolingual assumptions regarding language and its relationship to entailed metaphors like translation and communication in mediating public life. If these terms don’t even hang together the same way in the developed, modernist societies of Asia where translational labor vis-a-the Anglosphere is a fundamental social infrastructure mediating virtually every public concern, why would we assume a one-to-one relationship between language-communication-translation and their analogues in societies where educational development, mass-literacy, and their contested meanings are still being negotiated? Here, translational nihilism and posthumanist approaches to translation play a strangely enabling role in bypassing multilingual personhood particularly in developing settings where publics are frequently being told by foreign advisors to commit to the monolingual state for their own good – despite the developed world benefiting explicitly from predominantly mother-tongue education. It is precisely these kinds of communicative chauvinisms that language activists like Neville Alexander spent their lives arguing against.

The Intervention Angloscene attempts here is to firstly draw attention to the under-explored pragmatic dimensions of translation – linguistic, cultural, and otherwise – as indispensable social process unfolding regardless of its imagined impossibility through the often alienated discursive labor of diverse subjects mutually committing to translation without the expectation of some revelatory, Adamic endpoint of semiotic sublimation. To be sure, this insight has long been latent in linguistic anthropology but often obscured by an American-centric register and narrow institutional politics that remains alienating outside of the subdiscipline. As such, Angloscene attempts both to explicate this pragmatic insight through a more accessible ethnographic language; while at the same time demonstrating that any adequate exploration of translation should place persons and personhood; their representational and reflexive communicative infrastructures; as well as as the contingencies of their historical and spatiotemporal emplacement within the frame of analysis.

Andrew Carruthers: From invocations of third-world solidarity (disanshijie datuanjie) at banquets, to the embrace of Seth Godin’s (2009) “Purple Cow” register among aspiring African elites in Beijing, to tense dinner table debates over freedom, you take the encounters in Afro-Chinese encounters ethnographically seriously. Would you please say a bit more about your formulation of the Afro-Chinese encounter, and how your manner of approach to encounters such as these informs Angloscene’s addressee design?

Jay Ke-Schutte: Drawing inspiration from the observations of two unconventionally-confluential thinkers, Frantz Fanon ([1952] 2008) and Erving Goffman (1983), I had previously suggested how interactions between contrasting subjects are among the most radical points of social friction and breakdown from which social insights can be drawn (Ke-Schutte 2019). Interactions, taken as dialectical in their relationship to the aspirational histories of their participants, represent a case example for the pragmatics of translation out of which the micro-interactional shifts of history (in the Foucaultian sense) might unfold. In Angloscene, I go considerably further in excavating how multilingual social encounters and non-settler colonial interactions in particular, serve as precisely the kinds of sites within which the pragmatic translational propensities discussed above become ethnographically-explicit. Such encounters also serve to reveal how what initially might seem to be emancipatory public-makings beyond a West-and-its-Others participation framework, ultimately rely on encompassing, hegemonic translational ideologies without which personhoods and their aspirational histories would otherwise be unintelligible. In this sense, the book’s various ethnographer-in-training addressees (in my view our primary and most important audience) are invited to ask where they are situated in the making of worlds and the chronotopic circumscriptions of the persons that populate them, and whether doing so is necessarily consistent with internalizing the Anglo-linguistic weaponry of genre-appropriate Western anthropological writing.

Andrew Carruthers: In your concluding chapter on liberal racisms and the Angloscene’s white space-time, you identify whiteness as a “horizon of aspiration,” one that can “operate efficiently without a Caucasian in sight” (p. 161). How do these observations on liberal subjecthood’s “invisible order” build upon and extend the book’s (and anthropology’s) recurring interest in questions of aspiration, horizons, and (un)markedness?

Jay Ke-Schutte: This is very nicely put, in that the book explicitly foregrounds English and whiteness as raciolinguistically-entailed units of commensuration for internationally-aspirational, cosmopolitan subjects who are attempting to articulate forms of emancipatory personhood in the absence of co-present White bodies. However, there is a fundamental contradiction at play in appropriating signs of English and whiteness in such scenarios – what Lauren Berlant might have called a cruel optimism (2011). The contradiction lies in how these subjects must rely on the raciolinguistic capital of English and whiteness to engender forms of unmarkedness that can be experienced without them feeling like whiteness, even while this reliance comes to ultimately compromise them and sustain the Angloscene’s ideological gravity. Here, Chinese and African students’ commitments to an ‘unmarked’ horizon of aspiration are undertaken in sharp contrast with a more dystopian icon of personhood: the raciolinguistically-marked terminal migrant. Turning the lens back toward contemporary anthropology’s own compromised disciplinary politics around intersectionality and Anglo-racialization (for the debate is truly too American-centric to be about decolonization for all), Angloscene asks whether whiteness is perhaps the cryptotype behind unmarkedness’ frequent and peculiar unattainability for non-White subjects in the presence of White bodies; or its permanent unattainability for the ‘left behind’ White subject feeling like a waste of a white skin. Working from a decidedly non-Anglo-settler-colonial interactional context, I suggest that ‘whiteness’ of a kind can be seen to engage in its own form of body-snatching. If whiteness does not in fact need white bodies, then the absurd pantomime of corrective essentialization that has taken hold as a kind of mass-panic in the American academy would seem, at best, like an astounding neo-perochial digression riding on Anglo-monolingual assumptions about the relationship between language and race; and at worst, like American academic neocolonialism through an insidious form of identity imperialism. In both cases, the insightful and rigorously examined ideas of many of the critical race and decolonial thinkers whom are frequently hashtag-cited in support of arguments they would have never made, become completely sabotaged through misappropriation in the service of a hegemony they themselves would have resisted. Thus, the concluding chapter in question reflects on the context of reception within which the initial insights of Angloscene were formulated and contested. In writing it, I attempted to capture how the early salvos of current cultural wars within the American academy were coming to engender the very assymetries and forms of power being contested.

Andrew Carruthers: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1990) writes that “[T]he production of theory is in fact a very important practice that is worlding the world in a certain way” (1990, p. 7). Spivak is but one of several postcolonial thinkers who serve as theoretical interlocutors throughout your book. In Angloscene you write about your own encounters with postcolonial and critical race theory’s perceived markedness in “the evaluatory regime of the American academy” (p. 150), a regime that renders certain bodies of critical literature “dead,” “out of date,” or otherwise out of touch with “‘more complex’ realities” (p. 159). In so doing, you offer a reflexive metacommentary on the Anglosphere’s unmarked and regnant modes of theorization. I’d like to invite you to say a little bit more about this critically attuned aspect of the book, and to speculate (if you’d care to) as to the horizons of anthropology in the space-time of the Angloscene.

Jay Ke-Schutte: I am really relieved that these critical racial and postcolonial stakes of the book came through and also grateful for your concise and elegant articulation of them. Unfortunately, they still seem less easily discerned in mainstream anthropological journals – the sites where the bulk of lively disciplinary debates are meant to unfold. Consider this delightful remark from an anonymous, mainstream American anthropological journal reviewer on one of the chapters I had previously considered for submission: “This paper will fit a publication addressing the fading contingent of postcolonial theory enthusiasts; but in the main journal of sociocultural anthropology it will be a waste of space.” This fairly run-of-the-mill treatment of work citing both critical race and postcolonial theory is relatively clear evidence of outright hostility toward these theoretical genealogies, frequently gaslighting many anthropologists writing from the global South into jettisoning decolonial and postcolonial arguments as well as the contexts they understand intimately and intuitively better than many of their Euro-American readers and colleagues. Their work is frequently denigrated on the basis of their supposedly over theoretical or out-of-date content. Meanwhile, ethnographic literatures that borrow from the supposedly right kinds of theory, adopting the frustratingly generic register of the soto-voiced white liberal English native speaker are valorised as somehow clear, jargon-free, and innovative despite their absolutely formulaic presentational style – reflexively curated through adherence to quaint, trendy style-guides on how to get your paper published in X journal, absolutely dripping with patronizing pedagogical prose for the country bumpkin international researcher. International conversations on anthropology should be precisely that: international. This means that reviewers and institutional gate-keepers cannot simply brand submitted work as overly-theoretical because they are unfamiliar with the frameworks being used or decolonial readings of texts they were taught in imperialist spaces. In many ways, these particular issues of representational economy and context of reception in contemporary Anthropology stem from the antiquated genre-expectations of the discipline – what Michel-Rolph Trouillot once reffered to as anthropology’s one site, one ethnographer, one space-time problem (2003). In the genrefication of anthropology within its presumed Angloscene, any critical awareness of encompassing, competing, or hegemonic translational ideologies quickly evaporate into the predictable, all-too-Anglocentric relativisms of Euro-American Anthropological writing and its frequently reductive evaluational matrixes. From this standpoint, the horizons of anthropology seem somewhat grim until a genuine, non-Eurocentric communicative reflexivity around the translational politics of the discipline become central to its debates and institutional management.


Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Fanon, Frantz. [1952] 2008. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove.

Godin, Seth. 2009. Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable. New York: Portfolio.

Goffman, Erving. 1983. “The Interaction Order: American Sociological Association, 1982 Presidential Address.” American Sociological Review 48 (1): 1–17.

Ke-Schutte, Jay. 2019. “Aspirational Histories of Third World Cosmopolitanism: Dialectical Interactions in Afro-Chinese Beijing.” Signs and Society 7 (3). https://doi.org/10.1086/704011.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1990. The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. New York, NY: Routledge.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 2003. Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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