Richard Bauman on his book, A Most Valuable Medium

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: What inspired you to study early commercial sound recordings? And what problems did these recordings present to their makers?

Dick Bauman: In hindsight, my turn to early commercial recordings seems almost overdetermined. First, the work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord on oral-formulaic composition had a profound effect on my thinking about oral poetics and performance, which have been close to the center of my scholarly interests throughout my career, from graduate school on down. A key aspect of Parry and Lord’s work focused on what happens to oral poetics with the advent of writing and print, a problem, after all, in remediation. Then, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was an opening among linguistic anthropologists to related debates concerning the correlates and effects of writing and print on verbal expression, stimulated by the work of Walter Ong, Jack Goody, Elizabeth Eisenstein, et al., and by further extension to the relationships between print culture and digital media. The term, “remediation,” of course, was coined by scholars interested in the advent of digital media. All of these issues, I should add, resonated with the strong turn toward contextualization and recontextualization that lay at the center of my work at the time with Charles Briggs and with colleagues in various working groups at the Center for Transcultural Studies.

In the late ‘90s, my involvement in the formation of the department of Communication and Culture at IU, which brought me into intellectually energizing dialogue with colleagues in media studies and public culture, led me to an interest in the advent of new media more generally and the dynamics of remediation as established expressive forms were adapted to the affordances of new communicative technologies. At around that same point, by a stroke of good fortune, Patrick Feaster appeared in a graduate class I was teaching on performance. In advance of a seminar presentation he was scheduled to deliver, Patrick distributed a CD to class members containing a sampling of spoken-word performances on early commercial sound recordings from the formative period of the mid- to late 1890s. That CD just knocked me off my chair. I realized that the performers were engaged in a formative moment in the development of a new medium, trying to devise ways of accomplishing the performance of genres that people were accustomed to experiencing in co-present, multi-sensory situations—stories, political oratory, sermons, market cries–employing technological means that relied on sound alone and allowed two and a half to four minutes to get the performance done. Moreover, sound recording separated the time and place of performance from the time and place of reception and shifted the site of performance from public to domestic space. How did they pull it off? That’s what the book is about.

Ilana Gershon: In the first chapter, you offer readers a way to distinguish between different types of publics that I personally find enormously helpful for thinking about the various forms of public address I happen to study –gathered publics, historically founded publics, and distributive publics..  This goes a step further than Michael Warner’s take on publics in a way that introduces techniques for engaging with differences between publics ethnographically.  What would you recommend anthropologists focus on to know what kinds of publics they are analyzing?

Dick Bauman:  Ever since I first encountered his work in a Center for Transcultural Studies seminar on languages and publics, I have found Warner’s work on public culture and the generation of publics energizing and provocative. In regard to chapter 2, my approach comes at the discursive constitution of publics from a perspective that is complementary to Warner’s but different in its focus and emphasis. At the risk of oversimplification, Warner is interested in the ways that publics may be constituted by the circulation of written texts, texts that are to be read. What I am concerned with in chapter two is the metapragmatics of remediation and performance, with specific reference to a particular genre, namely, political oratory. Political oratory foregrounds the rhetorical function, with a set toward the addressee. What I am trying to get at in chapter two is how, specifically, recorded forms of oratorical performance manage the addressive function, how performers interpellate receivers from whom they are removed in time and space as members of particular orders of public. Part of that problem implicates what recorded oratorical performances bring with them in the process of remediation from co-present performance to sound recording. Warner’s work, in Publics and Counterpublics (2002) takes up all of these issues to greater or lesser degrees. He notes early on that a public can be “a concrete audience” in a co-present performance, but he sets that order of public aside as outside his agenda. He also acknowledges the differential effects of genre in the discursive constitution of publics. More importantly, he attends closely to the fundamental formative importance of addressivity, at least in general. But again, we’re coming at publics from different—though complementary—perspectives. His literary perspective leads him to focus on the circulation of written texts. My interest, from the vantage point of linguistic anthropology, folklore, and media history, is on genre, performance, and remediation.

Ilana Gershon: I am struck throughout the book at the ways in which it seemed like it was an open question of the ideal life trajectory of a phonographic recording.   You stress that marketers encourage collecting, and at least for some of the recordings you mention, they could easily be seen as souvenirs or items to be collected, even when they were campaign speeches, and so might seem irrelevant after an election.  This is a striking contrast to how people seemed to treat newspapers – disposing the newspaper after they have served their daily or weekly purpose.   Could you say more about the markets being called into being using phonographs?

Dick Bauman: Great question. When early phonograph entrepreneurs turned from marketing phonographic equipment essentially for stenographic purposes to a marketing strategy that combined the sale of relatively low-priced playback machines with the promotion of ready-made recordings as the principal source of profit, they faced the problem of defining and building markets for the phonograph of a medium of entertainment. The first effort to exploit the phonograph for entertainment purposes was to place nickel-in-the-slot phonographs in public places—arcades, train and ferry terminals, hotel lobbies, and the like. The most far-reaching marketing effort, though, was to promote the shift of phonographic entertainment from public sites to domestic space, framing sound recordings as a medium of home entertainment—in fact, the first mass-medium of home entertainment. This creative commercial process demanded the cultivation of an audience-cum-market prepared to engage performance forms that they were accustomed to experiencing in live, co-present situations now in the privacy of their own homes. These promotional efforts—specifically, how record producers and performers conceived of and aligned their records of home audiences—is one of the core problems of my book. The practical answers to that problem were many. They ranged from symbolically constructing phonograph records as prestige goods, to cultivating star performers whose records were attractive enough to create a fan base who could be encouraged to collect all of the star’s recordings, to promoting certain classes of recordings, such as presidential campaign records, as having durable value as historically important collectibles. In addition, marketers emphasized the potential of the new medium to expand audiences by including women, for example, who might not have been comfortable in attending certain kinds of live performances. Yet other efforts were devoted to proclaiming the acoustic fidelity of recordings vis-á-vis live performance. The discover and analysis of these processes make up perhaps the central problem of the book.

Ilana Gershon: Are there productive differences between aural blackface and aural class parody?  I am struck by how much your chapter on country rubes resembles similar othering performances to the aural blackface and I was wondering what patterns you saw in the ways in which aural parodies were used to comment on identities that for some could be adopted and put down again.

Dick Bauman: I use the term “aural blackface” because the burlesque sermons I analyze in chapter 3 are indexical icons of sermon performances in blackface minstrelsy as a platform genre of popular entertainments. Blackface minstrel shows would have been the frame of reference through which listeners to the recordings heard the recorded performances. “Blackface,” or course, foregrounds the burnt-cork  “blacking up” of the mostly white performers who made up the blackface troupes. It is a visual emblem of blackface minstrelsy. “Aural blackface” switches the sensory modality from the visual to the auditory, as befits a turn to sound recording. In larger scope, the register and style of the recorded sermons served as classic signs of difference, acoustically realized. Dialect humor—Irish, rube, German, Yiddish, African American–was extremely widespread in the popular entertainments of the period I examine in the book, ca. 1895-1920, period of burgeoning immigration to the U.S. and internal migration within the U.S. Stage dialects of all kinds were aurally performed signs of social dialects heard and marked as Other in the contemporary world of the recordings I examine. They were performance registers that indexed social types and characterological figure, both in society at large and in the domain of popular entertainment, blackface minstrelsy, early vaudeville, medicine shows, and the like.

Dick Bauman:  That question requires a bit of a stretch. Let me answer by assuming that the majority of my readers will be folklorists, linguistic anthropologists, and maybe ethnomusicologists, at least open to the idea that attention to remediation and intermediality might illuminate persistent problems in their fields. After all, as I suggested in earlier answers, questions concerning orality and literacy, recontextualization, and sonic media have been around for a long time and bear on important aspects of communication in society. So, for those folks on the threshold, I have several broad suggestions to offer.

First, I would advocate for extension of remediation studies more broadly and comprehensively across media. The advent of every new medium involves remediation, yet the study of remediation in linguistic anthropology and folklore has been very selective in coverage, focusing overwhelmingly on the advent of writing and print and the development of digital media, but it’s remediation all the way down. Passing over recorded sound as a new medium, for example, as I argue in the book, gives rise to distortions and misconceptions. I should mention, though, that the still emergent field of sound studies in anthropology, energized by linguistic anthropologists and ethnomusicologists, like Steve Feld, Don Brenneis, and Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier, has opened up important new lines of inquiry and modes of analysis in the anthropological study of remediation.

            Second, I would argue that the remediation of performance forms is especially revealing insofar as performance—at least as I conceive of it—is a highly reflexive mode of communication that tends to reveal especially clearly what performance forms bring with them from prior contexts and how they manage recontextualization in a new medium.

            Third, I would advocate for close attention to form-function interrelationships, to genre (in its formal, thematic, and pragmatic aspects), participant roles and structures, and the dynamics of contextualization as existing forms are adapted to the affordances of new media. Here is where linguistic anthropology and ethnomusicology can lead the way.

            Finally, for now, anyway, I would urge linguistic anthropologists and folklorists to cultivate the skills of media historians and to apply their own anthropological, linguistic, and folkloristic skills and toolkits to historical processes of remediation. We’ve contributed a lot to the orality-literacy debates,  and I believe we have just as much to offer to the historical and ethnographic study of new media more broadly.

Deborah Puccio-Den on her book, Mafiacraft

Interview by Elliott Wiseman

Elliott Wiseman: In the introduction, you establish Mafiacraft as an inversion of witchcraft. What does the connection with witchcraft afford, and what were your intentions in rooting the book in this juxtaposition? 

Deborah Puccio-Den: Mafiacraft indicates a set of methodological and theoretical tools to describe and understand the mafia starting from the forms of struggle it has produced in Italy. The choice of this name echoes the term witchcraft, used to designate the sphere of the fight against the witches. I have often felt a certain unease at seeing mafia trials and witch trials assimilated as if these prosecutions create legal categories – ‘mafiosi’ or ‘mafia’ like ‘witches’ or ‘witchcraft’ – in order to repress elusive social phenomena and groups. This parallel is implicitly underlying many mafia studies, and was explicitly stated in a political struggle against the anti-mafia during the years of the Maxi-trial (second half of the eighties).

My unease in the face of this paradigm, witchcraft, over all these years, was not only of a moral order, but rather of a conceptual order. It seemed to me that something was not working in this scheme not only because the anti-mafia magistrates became the persecutors, and the anti-mafia struggle, instead of a movement for freedom as it has been from the beginning as a peasant movement for lands, became the expression of a liberticidal power. But also, because the ontological premise on which this association was founded contained, and still contains, a categorial error: mafia behaviors and acts were put on a par with the rituals of sorcerers about which nothing was known except the conjectures of the inquisitors. Indeed, for many years, the mafia was a conjecture or was present in the space of political or legal debate as a conjecture. But thanks to magistrates such as Falcone, there has been a huge construction of ‘mafia proof’ that no longer allows us to believe that it is an invention. Mafiacraft relies on this immense work of constructing the evidence of the mafia as a “form of criminal association” which no longer allows the mafia phenomena to be treated as conjectures or legal theories. Precisely because the starting point of Mafiacraft is the epistemological and ontological rupture provoked by the work of the anti-mafia judiciary, supported by the witnessing processes engaged and supported by so many citizens and associations, this paradigm presents itself as an inversion of witchcraft: in the latter, the process of finding the sorcerer or the person to be named as such, the witch, is endless (see James Siegel, Naming the Witch, 2005), like the attribution of precise acts to precise perpetrators; in Mafiacraft, on the contrary, the process succeeds, it fixes meaning to a signifier, it reconstitutes the link concealed by silence between a mafia act and its perpetrator(s) or instigators: the “mafiosi”. It is a work or craft to be started over each time, but it is not a work doomed to failure as in the case of the sorcerer and witchcraft.

Elliott Wiseman: Throughout the book, you draw from various kinds of evidence (photographs, legal writing, pentiti testimony, public memorials, and so on) and social scientific approaches (studies of folklore, ritual, law, religious symbology, linguistic anthropology, and more). Did you begin this project with an interdisciplinary lens, or did it arise later in the research or writing process? What inspired this approach? 

Deborah Puccio-Den: My reflection originated in anti-mafia circles as a social movement, a cultural and moral revolution, and from the very beginning it was a reflection on the anti-mafia movement’s reflection: a reflection on the way in which anti-mafia circles – which were multiple, varied, and sometimes even conflicting – tried to answer the question ‘what is the mafia’ using different media: books, plays, festive devices (in particular the feast of Santa Rosalia in Palermo), writings, photographs, tombstones… Some ten years later, the anti-mafia trials opened up a new phase of research, a series of enquiries into the judicial enquiry that, at the same time, sought to find answers to this same question coming from society: “what is the mafia?”

Mafiacraft is meant to be a material history of moral ideas, portraying the way anti-mafia claims exist in the world, finding, or not, a space in which to live, coming to fill the faults in the cognitive fabric of the mafia: namely the silences. The word mafia is written, imprinted, erased, could remain, or not, in various media that I have studied in their materiality, specificity and function. But the heterogenous nature of the materials and practices analyzed in my book does not make it any less an interdisciplinary work: Mafiacraft is therefore an anthropological project rooted in the intellectual project of judge Falcone to know what the mafia was. To answer this question, Falcone retraced mafia action from the acts, or misdeeds, that allow the mafia to exist and prosper. The Copernican revolution produced in the forms of description of the mafia from the moment it was defined on the basis of its actions, was not the fruit of researchers, but of magistrates, precisely because of their greater proximity to sources that allowed them to understand the pervasiveness and extension of mafia actions, and therefore of the mafia. Since the beginning of the 1980s, legal inquiries have been able to discover the coordinated character of mafia actions in Sicily, and in the world. When the so-called “Buscetta Theorem” prevailed, it was the result of the collaboration between the pentito Tommaso Buscetta and Giovanni Falcone, who used the “pentito” as an anthropologist uses an informant to penetrate a culture. This is the approach I currently use to explore the mafia “from the inside.”

Elliott Wiseman: One important turn in the book is the reframing of pentiti speech as indigenous discourse rather than justificatory myth. Can you say more about this reframing and its implications?  

Deborah Puccio-Den: The Sicilian pentiti were mostly members of the losing families in a war— the Second Mafia War, in the early 1980s—that represented the defeat of the Commission, the place where conflicts were traditionally solved without resorting to violence. It was a war that decimated the Sicilian mafia, killing almost a thousand people in the space of a few years, corresponding to 20% of mafia members, following an extermination plan conceived by Riina and the Corleonese clan to take control of Cosa Nostra. Pentitismo, interpreted as betrayal by mafia members and by a large part of Italian society, was justified by the justice collaborators as a gesture aimed at preserving the mafia’s ancient order. My starting point is to “take seriously” these arguments, submitting them to the same critique, no more and no less, as any other indigenous discourse. This runs counter to an entire scholarly literature in the social sciences that encourages us to consider the declarations of the pentiti as justificatory myths and, on these grounds, to reject them as fallacious.  We must be aware that the justice collaborators had no reason to justify their criminal acts; it was (and is) enough for them to provide reliable information to obtain state protection for themselves and their families. Contrary to popular opinion, rumors, and gossip about the pentiti, that constitute the material substantiating most of the anthropological studies about them, the Italian law governing the condition of Mafia collaboration (conceived by Giovanni Falcone during the Eighties and adopted after his murder, in 1992) imposes a judicial framework based on the notion of “self-incrimination’ (chiamata in correo)- that leads “collaborators with justice” to confess crimes previously unknown to the authorities. As a result, they will be charged for additional crimes, thus lengthening their jail sentences. In these circumstances, saying that mafiosi collaborate with the state for opportunistic reasons (reduction of sentence) makes no sense. Such a misleading characterization, also legitimated in academic works, could provide justification to refrain from the use of pentiti in anti-mafia investigation, undermining their credibility. It not only has the adverse consequence of disqualifying their contribution to anti-mafia judicial inquiry, but also to ethnographic survey, depriving it of access to vital information for a deep understanding of the mafia as a human experience of life, and death.

Elliott Wiseman: You describe the mafia subject as being desubjectified by the expectation of unquestioning obedience and by “an atrophying of language, at least as a means of expressing individual needs, fears, or desires” (pp. 170-171). Is there a relation between omertà and other forms of silencing and desubjectification (of racialized Others or people of marginalized genders, for example)? 

Deborah Puccio-Den: My reflection on the mafia is rooted in a previous reflection on the silence of women (Masques et dévoilements, 2002). In a study on public discourse in the 1970s, Shirley Ardener (Perceiving women, 1975) argues that, because this tended to be characteristically male-dominated and the appropriate language registers seemed “encoded” by males, women were at a disadvantage when wishing to express matters of particular concern to them. One of the contributors to her edited book, Edwin Ardener, drew on the concept of “muted group” as suggested by Charlotte Hardman to speak about women’s lack of communication skills to portray their own world in their own words. This notion of a muted group functions as an umbrella term: other groups in society may also be effectively muted. This pioneering feminist work provides a critical conceptual framework with which to view the mafia as a muted group.

As muted group, the mafia can only take form when “clothed” in cultural patterns of behavior and communication shaped by society and the state. One of these cultural patterns, in my view, is omertà, silence, shaped by the state in order to grasp an elusive language practice on its own terms, one somewhat acritically adopted by “specialists” of the mafia phenomenon, thereby carelessly falling back on conventional moral and intellectual understandings of silence. Feminist theory seems to offer possible ways forward in the particular field of research designed as mafia studies. But a distinction must be made. If we simply apply Shirley Ardener’s framework to describe the mafia as a muted group, we run the risk of remaining trapped in a binary model. Mafiacraft is rather based on the assumption that there is a strong interconnection between mafia, on the one hand, and society and the state, on the other.

Elliott Wiseman: Finally, how do you view the intersection between Mafiacraft and statecraft, and how would you like to see the concept of Mafiacraft applied moving forward? 

Deborah Puccio-Den: Mafiacraft will not consider society and state as separate entities, to ensure that it does not succumb to the pressure of the “state effect” to conceive the state as a “free-standing object, located outside society” (Mitchell, 2006). In Ardener’s words, the “dominant group” and the “dominant model” together form the “dominant structure.” It follows that the “muted group” and the “counterpart model” together form a muted or “subdominant structure”. Sociological and even anthropological research on the mafia tend to describe it as a “sub-culture,” and omertà as one of the main expressions of this sub-culture, a negative expression of the self, a passive resistance to the state. By locating the mafiosi in the overall ideological framework of the dominant culture, these studies miss the specific forms of agency mafiosi may deploy by the performative use of silence. Yet, silence is not here identified only with the mafia, but also with the forms of power it establishes, sometimes with the complicity of the state that makes use of the same weapon. Mafiacraft proposes a way out of the easy identification of silence with omertà, and of omertà with the Sicilian people, showing how this repertoire of action is also available, and effectively mobilized by the state. To consider the mafia as a deviance, a pathology, an anti-state as has been said, is a state-induced error itself, a state effect as Timothy Mitchell used to say, when he warned against polarizing state and society. I have therefore tried to put the focus on the interactions between the mafia and the state, interactions that involve the use of silence, codes, sign language, reading traces. But silence is not only the weapon of the people when they resist the state, it is also an instrument of oppression. I am not thinking only of the Italian state but also of other states marked by a high level of political violence where the use of silence is a technique of terror: Argentina, Chile, their art of making bodies disappear, which we can compare to the mafia technique of the lupara bianca, while with Colombia the mixture is such that we can speak of a ‘mafia state’. We know, and it is no secret, that in Italy the mafia has involved some political representatives. Some scholars consider this intrigue between mafia and politics to be a distinctive trait of the mafia. For my part, I would say that what distinguishes the mafia is the opacity of social action, which can also extend to politics (but not only). This vast zone of opacity is the field in which the tools proposed in Mafiacraft can be tested.

Shaka McGlotten on their book, Dragging: Or, in the Drag of a Queer Life

Interview with Robyn Taylor-Neu

Robyn Taylor-Neu: It’s conventional  (for this blog series) to ask about the focus and argument of the book–but Dragging seems to willfully resist reduction to a single focus or argument.  So I’ll ask instead: what does this work pivot on, for you? What’s its center of gravity, so to speak?

Shaka McGlotten: For me the center of gravity is the messy struggle of making and relating—making art, doing politics, and relating to research objects, intimate others, and disciplinarily itself.

Robyn Taylor-Neu: Could you explain the background of the research and how you came to the project?

Shaka McGlotten: As I say in the book, the project began with binge viewing of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’d never connected deeply with drag cultures, so that signaled a shift for me. I teach at a very queer school and drag, especially in its particularly quirky, out there, or monstrous iterations, played an increasingly large role in queer students’ lives. My students’ interests are always contagious. Then there was my intimate partnership with an Israeli. We’d both identified Berlin as a desirable place to live out some fantasies as creatives. So New York, where I’m based, Berlin, where we ended up for eighteen months, and Israel/Palestine, where we visited regularly became the default field sites. I think this is important to acknowledge: ethnographic field sites aren’t selected at random. We often choose them because we have some intimate connection to them.

Robyn Taylor-Neu: As you acknowledge  in the preface, your book’s form is unconventional for an academic monograph–it takes shape as a non-fiction narrative comprising three kinds of writing. You mention that works by Christopher Isherwood, Leigh Patrick Fermor, and Maggie Nelson influenced the  form… Could you say a bit about the affordances and challenges of this more literary approach?

Shaka McGlotten: Wow. Well, all writing is challenging, but this was sometimes excruciating. There is a formula to academic writing, and once you have it more or less down, you can follow that template pretty easily in my view. But I’d never been trained to write creative non-fiction, so it was really a lot of trial and error. In regards to these three writers in particular, I was interested in a kind of flatness I found in both Isherwood and Nelson. There’s nothing unnecessary about their prose. Fermor is a lot more florid—he helped me think more about the intersections of memoir and travel-writing. I’m not sure I’ve fully answered the question about affordances and challenges, though. So let me give it another go. One affordance is that I didn’t feel it necessary to always cover my theoretical ass, so to speak. Not everything had to be neatly tied up in an academic argument because the book is meant to create a series of associations and resonances that collectively affect the reader (as in fiction or creative non-fiction). The challenges—like I said, excruciating! I had to write and rewrite chapters to make sure that various threads (about the drag scenes, my intimate life, or pedagogy) came together.

Robyn Taylor-Neu: You’re reflexive about the process by which the research and book came to be, and you explicitly offer the book as “training for all of us to risky, vulnerable openness”…  I’m curious about who you mean by “us” (that is, anthropologists, social scientists, humans?) and how you would differentiate “training” and “disciplining,” since you also mention the need to “become undisciplined” (citing Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman, and Sylvia Wynter). (I should put my cards on the table here. As a PhD candidate, I’m muddling through what it means to be credible as an ethnographer and anthropologist while preserving space for genuine curiosity… when so much of the professional side of things seems like an elaborate performance of disciplinary competence.)

Shaka McGlotten: Your parenthetical hits the nail on the head. I was weaned on critical theory, and I love the possibilities for thinking that reading it provided for me. But what I don’t like is the, as you say, “elaborate performance of disciplinary competence.” I think of this sometimes as “rehearsal” too. Yes, most of us have read X, Y, Z theorists, so increasingly, when reading academic material, I think “just get to it! Get to your point!” Imagine what would happen if people cut out all of the rehearsal—books would be shorter. Now, I say all of this, but then I find books like Ana-Maurine Lara’s Queer Freedom: Black Sovereignty so beautiful—it’s a poetic work of theory in the style of something like Anzalduá’s Borderlands/La Frontera. When I think about training in risky openness/becoming undisciplined, I’m after a loosening of the reigns. I think we can still be credible and disciplined while also being open to other genres that afford us different possibilities as writers and makers, as well as the kinds of people who might engage with our work.

Robyn Taylor-Neu: Your engagements with theory are often oblique and emerge either in fragments or in the interview transcripts that you incorporate. You say that you’re not particularly invested in using theory to make claims and so forth, but could you elaborate on how you see theory and what it does for you in this work?

Shaka McGlotten: Hmmmm, I think that my previous answer gets at this somewhat. I’ve done something similar in a lot of my work. I read theory but I start with the curiosity induced by objects, or the trouble that objects pose for me. I think in terms of events, scenes, and cases as any reader of my work will note. In this way, I was very much inspired by people like Lauren Berlant and my mentor Katie Stewart. I don’t approach my writing with a theoretical apparatus in mind that I then apply to my research. Instead, the process is much more iterative, where I am trying to come to some kind of understanding informed by theory. My friend Neville Hoad calls me “ill-disciplined”! I use what I think is helpful from bodies of critical theory and then sort of move on. At least, that’s been my process in recent years, when I feel I have less to prove.

Robyn Taylor-Neu: My impression is that many of your interlocutors, as artists and activists, are versed in (or at least passingly familiar with) the writings/works that seem to shape your own thinking about the politics of drag… is this the case and, if so, how did that affect your approach in interviews?

Shaka McGlotten: Yes! The folks I worked with were the real experts: The Drag and Liad in particular had sophisticated understandings of queer theory, art, and politics, so these were conversations informed by shared archives. Still, we didn’t always share understandings of who was included under the rubric of drag. For example, Natali Vaxberg didn’t initially understand why I wanted to talk to her, but over the course of our discussions, she increasingly embraced the associations.

Nick Bartlett on his book, Recovering Histories

Interview with Yun Chen

Yun Chen: Recovering Histories is an ethnography of the entanglements between individuals’ lived experiences of recovering from heroin addiction and their collective narratives of reimagining laboring lives in a rapidly changing social world in post-Mao Southwestern China. You talked a little bit about how you got involved in conducting research on this topic in Gejiu in the first chapter of the book. What interested me a lot was that you initially entered this field as someone working for international NGOs carrying out HIV/AIDS prevention harm reduction projects within the public health or global health contexts. Nevertheless, instead of writing a book on heroin addiction or recovery with a focus on these institutions or interventions, you chose to really attend to the everyday lived experiences and narratives of the group of individuals with heroin-use histories with a phenomenological orientation. Could you tell us a little bit about how did you come to study heroin recovery from this angle, in what ways did your public health training/working experiences influence your approach to this topic, and what was your main goals to research on heroin/recovery/China as an anthropologist?

Nick Bartlett:. Sure! I first encountered heroin addiction discussed as a problem in China in 2002. I was working on HIV prevention projects as part of the social marketing implementer of the China-UK project at the time. While we were funding programs in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, that year I spent a lot more time in our Beijing headquarters than I did interacting with the people who were directly impacted by HIV. I think part of why I initially became interested in this population in China was due to the absence of people with drug use history from public health conferences and meetings I was attending. CDC officials generally spoke on behalf of this group. It wasn’t surprising given the stigma that people with drug use history faced in China, but left me with a lot of questions about the lives of the people identified as part of this “high risk population.”

In the mid-2000s I got more directly involved in NIDA-funded studies of heroin use in China, and later started working for the Open Society Foundation’s International Harm Reduction Development program. Working at a foundation where one of our primary mandates was to support people with drug use history to organize and advocate for their own needs was an important opportunity for me. Questionnaire-based public health research had allowed me to meet a number of people with heroin use history in different provinces, but the interviews I was doing started to feel stale and narrow in scope; I wanted to build relationships that were more open-ended and enduring. The role I had at OSF allowed me to work closely with compelling people doing amazing work.

After my third year of grad school, I moved to Gejiu, where a number of grantees were based, leaving my part-time position at the foundation. Many of the people I met in Gejiu had been recently released from compulsory detox centers and were absorbed by the task of attempting to realize a “life after drugs.” I became interested in a new set of questions: Where does the work of recovery happen exactly? How is it experienced, specifically in relation to lived experiences of individual and collective time? These were questions that didn’t seem to be asked in other contexts, but they seemed vital to trying to understand what recovery meant in this time for this group.

Yun Chen: One thing that I really appreciated about your book was that you effectively showed the readers, against a common way of talking about heroin addiction, that your interlocutors’ broader lived experiences of laboring, family life, socioeconomic shifts fundamentally shaped the ways they understood their lives under the influence of heroin as well as what would be a life after heroin. In other words, you decentered the role of the drug itself in defining the experiences of this generational group, and repositioned them within the sociohistorical contexts that they shared with their non-user contemporaries. By doing this, rather than being a prerequisite for making sense of their lives, the use of heroin became a particular condition that in various ways constrained and enabled their experiences of the world. It was a condition among many other conditions which needed to be examined through the shared histories of the collective “we.” I was wondering that when you wrote with this perspective, have you had concerns about downplaying the specific (bodily, sociocultural, political) experiences of heroin addiction and recovery that were potentially distinguished from other forms of marginality? If so, how did you balance between not essentializing people with histories of heroin use/recovery and attending to the unique experiences of this specific group in your analysis and writing?

Nick Bartlett: Great questions! I guess there are a couple points I should make in trying to answer them. First, the move to decenter the role of the drug as you put it wasn’t initially a conscious decision on my part. As I spent time with people who were committed to various projects of recovery, I became aware that even people who I knew were actively using didn’t use in my presence and rarely brought up their heroin use in our conversations. I certainly could have tried to make heroin use a more central part of the research, either by being present when people were using, or through more detailed explorations of the direct effects use of the drug had on this group’s lives. My decision not to do this perhaps says something about my commitments, and theirs, during my fieldwork. At the time, even if the absence of a certain type of attention to heroin use was a form of collusion, I felt I was learning an enormous amount from participating in other aspects of their lives, that the direction my fieldwork was taking in was allowing me to understand recent history of Gejiu—even China—in new ways.

The move to decenter the drug could be understood as pushing against the constant ways that heroin users have been represented in Chinese media. So much of people with heroin use history’s identities in China were defined by their status as “registered drug users” by the public security apparatus, “injecting drug users” by public health workers, or just “addicts” by the public. I can still remember the cookie-cutter news stories that would come out about heroin users every year on 6/26, International Day against Drug Abuse. But the reality was, many of the people I came to know, despite having been connected to heroin for over 20 years, actually hadn’t spent all that much time using heroin. Or they had used heavily early in their adult lives and then spent much of decade before I knew them bouncing in and out of state compulsory labor centers and periods of unemployment living with family members and receiving treatment at methadone clinics, where use of heroin was relatively rare. I was encountering particular sort of paradox: there wasn’t much heroin in Gejiu during my research, but there were a considerable number of so-called “heroin addicts.” In addition, members of this group were often eager to argue that they were in the process of becoming (or, in some cases, returning to) existing as a different type of person, that “drug user” or “addict” were never terms that accurately depicted who they were.

This leads us to the problem of the collective “we” that you brought up. As I was writing the book, I couldn’t escape thinking about the figures I came to know as being linked by a strong generational identity. Virtually all of the users I met were born between 1965 and 1980 and encountered the drug in the late 1980s and 1990s when heroin first began circulating in large quantities.. With time, I came to see that members of this generational cohort shared the challenges feeling they were becoming obsolescent economic actors quickly disappearing from the country’s history, and saw how recovery as intimately linked to navigating an economy that looked quick different from the one that they had entered as teenagers. In Chapter One, I argue that the figures in the group are part of what might be considered a Mannheimian generational cohort, sharing an orienting set of dramas in their youth and enduring common discursive landscape of historical problems and social imaginary and the horizon of the future. Against this common background, each of the book’s final chapters turns to a different way that an individual or small group of people with heroin use history came to answer and live the challenge of “returning to society” as they understood it. Inevitably, these later chapters grapple with evocations of “we” that take different forms; some of my interlocuters emphasized belonging to a broader community of displaced workers, others spoke of their connection to a vanguard group of grassroots civil society actors, still others as part of a cohort of unemployed idlers who had been deprived of previously existing government care. Sometimes these connections give the individuals I write about hope in achieving a “return”; for others, the collective identity they evoke is experienced as immutable and suffocating. I try to show how these fragile and shifting senses of collective life can be understood as communities of time that are linked in complicated ways with narratives and sensations of living within a broader trajectory of Chinese history.

Yun Chen: “Recovery” is another keyword appeared throughout this book. The narratives you laid out in those chapters really demonstrated the complex ways in which “recovery” was imagined, embodied, lived, and/or contested by your interlocutors. From recovering-without-hope to recovering-through-laboring, these narratives challenged existing conceptual accounts of recovery in anthropological and health literatures. In your ethnographic encounters, “recovering” was intricately linked to the idea of “returning (huigui shehui),” which in my view metaphorically presumed a status of normalcy from which one temporally diverged and was expected to get back to. Complications arose, in this case, when the status of “being normal” itself was constantly on-the-move with the flow of the rapidly changing social world. Those in recovery were thus expected (or demanded) to “return” without any clear path or anchor point. Or in other words, their labors of return seemed to have no reachable destinations. Then what might be the actions of “returning” really for when there was no place to return to? Could you elaborate more on your understandings of “returning” in this case, and what insights it might bring to future anthropological studies of addiction and recovery?

Nick Bartlett: I think that the way you formulated your understanding of “returning” in relation to “recovery” nicely articulates a key intervention that I was trying to make. As I was writing the book, I found a distinction between two Chinese terms—jiedu and huigui shehui —helpful in heightening a broader tension around the stakes of recovery. Jiedu was about the accumulation of clean time, a quantitative, empty time that could be easily measured and compared. Here, the prescribed goal of recovery isn’t a type of experience or way of living but simply the absence of the traces of an ingested substance that made you do something else. Huigui shehui, another term that could be translated as a form of “recovery” frequently brought up in China when discussing drug users but also many other vulnerable populations, emphasizes the action of moving to a previously existing state of affairs. But what is the “normal” that is presumed to exist in this collective? Especially in Gejiu, were the fabric of daily life had been changed so dramatically with the disassembling of state work units and rapid expansion of private sector, which understanding of collective life and economic roles were members of this group to attempt to achieve? While some had very clearly defined goals of what huigui meant, others claimed that huigui was impossible, or even that huigui was not a helpful way to think about recovery. I found the slogan a useful starting point to think about lived experiences of time located between the individual and shifting understandings of collective life.

Yun Chen: To account for how people with heroin use history connected their understandings of their own past, present, and future to the collective shared experiences of China’s rapidly changing society, you laid out three approaches to historicity which effectively demonstrated that there was not an overarching framework for experiences of time. Such an attempt to connect the phenomenological lived time with the historical shared time was achieved through your emphasis on narratives and narrative structure. Can you further unpack the conceptual connections between narrative and historicity as demonstrated by your ethnographic encounters, maybe in dialogue with Mattingly’s “narrative emplotment” (1998) or Carr’s “doubly practical narrative structuring” (1998)? I was also wondering, in your view, that to what extent and in what ways may this conceptual emphasis on narrative and historicity be applicable to medical anthropology topics other than addiction/recovery?

Nick Bartlett: Some people tend to be energized by how their fieldwork can facilitate making an intervention into particular conversations. I have been more motivated by trying to figure out how to write the book as a whole, how to interpret recovery as a lived experience and then connect the recovering histories that would take the reader through a particular progression. So instead of trying to articulate “this is my position on narrative or phenomenology,” I found myself returning to authors who could help me make sense of a particular dynamic that I was struggling to understand in from my relationship with the people in the book. Writings by Sara Ahmed, David Carr, Paul Ricoeur, Pierre Bourdieu and others were very helpful in attending to quite specific questions or problems that I was trying to work through based on fieldwork encounters.

I can say a bit more about Cheryl Mattingly’s narrative emplotment, since you brought it up. In her work, narrative tends to be connected to preserving hope in the face of uncertainty and pain, often in response to a grim medical diagnosis. But I was interested in exploring what seemed to be an inverted dynamic occurring in my own fieldwork. For a small number of people I came to know, the narrative that they came to repeat and lived seemed to shut down the possibility of a future different from the present, giving a finality to a story of their stories about the “dying out” associated with a broader cohort of heroin users and, by extension, their own premature obsolescence. I found Mattingly, Carr and others helped me to think about the potential devastating power narrative could have on individuals and groups.

One challenge for me was how to make the particular recovering histories presented in the individual chapters have their own internal coherence while contributing to the broader themes of the book. Given the different ways anthropologists, postcolonial scholars, and philosophers have come to take up the term, historicity had this elasticity to it that seemed to encompass and help organize the interventions I made in the book.

As for the potential relevance for narrative and historicity for medical anthropology, these are areas where others have done incredibly thoughtful work; I would leave it to the reader to say if the book’s approach resonates with their research or experiences. I will say I have a real fear of allowing concepts to become too rigid in my interpretations. It is so easy to lose the complexity of what happens in fieldwork encounters As I finished writing, it was quite important for me to figure out a way to allow some of the neatness of previous chapters to unravel. Examining my relationship with a close friend and collaborator where I really didn’t have a sense that I could comfortable say what his “return” related experiences were gave me the chance to question some of the way the book was structured.

Yun Chen: You talked about your 2018 visit to Gejiu in the Epilogue. I’m curious that, given the rapid changes happened to your fieldsite in these recent years, to what extent or in what ways (if at all) would you shift your focuses and/or the ways in which you approached the topic?

Nick Bartlett: It’s been difficult to not be able to go back these last years; I was hoping to be based in Yunnan this past year but wasn’t able to get visas for my family. I think in some ways I was lucky to be there in the 2000s and early 2010s. Already during that 2018 trip, there was this sense that certain kinds of collaborations that were possible earlier could no longer happen. I have felt a lot of sadness about that.

I could imagine writing more about shifting understandings of labor within the context of ongoing changes to how Gejiu city and nearby mountainside communities relate in what is an increasinglypost-mining moment for the region. I’ve also been doing some online interviews and going through archival sources to learn more about what was happening on the mountains in the Deng era as part of a special issue I am co-editing exploring the specific energies and legacies of 1980s in China. So to answer your question, I think today I would spend more time in mountainside communities trying to make sense of workers’ experiences of the current moment.

Ingrid Kummels discusses her book, Transborder Media Spaces

Interview by Alana Mazur

Alana Mazur: One of the main themes running through your book is Indigenous audiovisual media and mediatized politics. You provide an in-depth and nuanced analysis of the role of videography in connecting the Ayuujk hometown community in Tamazulapam and satellite communities in Mexico and in the United States. Could you please situate the focus and the main arguments of your research?

Ingrid Kummels: The protagonists of my book who live in Tamazulapam, Oaxaca, and Los Angeles, California, may be characterized as pioneers of media practices battling remoteness. When I set out to do my research in 2012, my intent was to explore the local media histories shaped by the Ayuujk people of the Mixe Region in Oaxaca, Mexico, and give them greater visibility. I had become aware of their autonomous endeavors concerning photography, radio, TV, and video adapted to their own language and “ways of seeing” (Berger) when in 1993 (together with Manfred Schäfer) I filmed what was perhaps the first local TV station (TV Tamix) set up autonomously in a Mexican Indigenous village, precisely in Tamazulapam del Espíritu Santo. Before that, individual villagers had engaged in sophisticated single-lens photography and radio broadcasting, which they adapted to community needs. This motivated me to revisit Tamazulapam almost 20 years later, in 2012, and update these developments from the perspective of media anthropology. But when I returned to Tama (as the village is nicknamed), I realized how pervasive migration for higher education and job opportunities had become—mainly to the United States because of the possibility of earning up to ten times more than in Mexico. At the same time, this entails immobilization since migrants are forced to cross the border without authorization. b—and above all fiestas, large community celebrations in honor of the patron saint.  

When observing and talking about village media practices it became obvious that culturally specific genres had been created such as fiesta, family rite-of-passage, and officeholder videos; these had not received much scholarly attention since they are at the intersection of politics, entertainment, and culture. Means of communications had been harnessed to facilitate community life and communal values even from afar, ranging from interpersonal cell phone calls to a veritable transnational video industry whose offerings included series of ten fiesta DVDs, which were ubiquitous not only at local markets, but also in Oaxaca City and in U.S. cities like Los Angeles. Ayuujk people had set up their own infrastructure and used mass media for practicing community politics. Migrants living in Los Angeles invested in their production in order to participate in the home village’s modernization, receive recognition as village members, and serve as political officials in the hometown. These media activities therefore contribute to political ideas about Indigenous autonomy, which is called Comunalidad in Oaxaca. Here it is important to emphasize how these practices challenge the way that Indigeneity has been constructed “from above” and as an antithesis to the modernity that media (often equated solely with mass media) allegedly embody. On the other hand, the use of media and the innovations devised by Indigenous peoples that combine storytelling, crafts, music and dance with analog and digital mass media often are not recognized as self-determined, cutting-edge developments. Nevertheless, these innovations have been achieved despite extremely adverse media structures in Mexico, where private mega media conglomerates dominate radio and TV, while alternative media are pushed into informality, against a “visual divide.”

Here is where the concept of media spaces comes in. Indigenous media makers open such spaces in multiple inventive ways when overcoming the uneven access to mass media due to racialized inequality, which is inscribed not only in the representations of Indigenous peoples but also in the contexts in which they received media training and engaged as practitioners. These are spaces that actors have been able to extend in terms of geography, practice, and imagination. Setting up their own media infrastructure, appropriating media knowledge and technology according to “one’s own” standards of professionalism, and managing transnational diffusion and marketing all form part of this endeavor.

Alana Mazur: In the introduction you mention that your ethnographic research was multi-sited and the fieldwork was conducted in Tama and Los Angeles between 2012 and 2016. What motivated you to pursue this ethnographic participatory research with Indigenous media makers in Mexico? How was this experience like for you?

Ingrid Kummels: I am a practitioner of media myself and after studying anthropology I started working as a professional filmmaker making documentaries for German TV. So, I know what it’s like to engage in filming, interact with people while doing it, and critically reflect on this work and issues of representation. I like to exchange ideas with people who have had similar experiences. To give an example: When I first met a fiesta filmmaker, I was fascinated to see that he had installed his entire store and production unit with editing equipment in his pickup: along with his son, he not only edited the films on DVD discs overnight, but also printed covers so that the next morning they could start selling DVDs to visitors during the five-day patron saint celebrations. He readily told me about arguments that can arise when “illicit” dance pairs were spotted on village videos; they had to do with transnational marriage and family life. The recording of sacred places and rituals that normally are not allowed to be viewed was considered an audiovisual transgression related to the special value attached to place and being on-site in times of deterritorialization. Women face particular challenges as both mediamakers and comuneras. These self-determined media activities therefore paved the way for negotiating novel visions of community life, gender, and Indigeneity in the twenty-first century. (See my portrayal of their work in “Ayuujk Cameras,”

Following these itinerant merchants during the month of May 2013 meant getting to know how they cultivate networks and forge alliances in many villages of the Sierra Mixe and beyond; some have more to do with commercial circuits, others with political solidarity. Mediamakers

are well informed on the different situations and aesthetic tastes of specific village audiences in their respective transnational outreach. As a result of specific migratory pathways taken, community celebrations in the home villages are pervaded by forms of transnational reciprocity. To compensate for their absence and their lack of participation in the village’s governance system called Usos y costumbres, migrants contribute with financial donations to hometown fiestas. Their sponsorships are announced publicly and above all documented in fiesta videos, which a transnational audience witnesses. These viewers participating from a distance are constantly in the mind of videographers and influence their choice of motifs, scenes, and camera settings. I moved along these networks, since mediamakers would orient me and introduce me to their colleagues and advisors. It was often through these contacts that I got to know a village for the first time, so I was immediately immersed in mediamaking there. On the spur of the moment, I would be invited to an event they were covering. While this work was delightful, I also learned about their strict professional discipline and soon was very conscious that there are no simple onlookers at a fiesta: community members have a moral obligation to participate which includes its sacralized dimension. So, in many ways, recording a fiesta is a solemn affair based on these same moral obligations.

Alana Mazur: The book provides a captivating analysis of the sociopolitical dynamics that involve diasporic movements among the Tama inhabitants across the Mexico-US border. Along the chapters, you elucidate, for instance, how remittances sent by migrant villagers to their families and “unpolitical fiesta videos” ostensibly sustain vibrant connections between the local “comunitario” and the growing “transnational village” (p.35). Through mediatization, as you conceptualize it, videographers both capture and create myriad of “media spaces” (p.391).

In this vein, could you provide a brief overview of these concepts and the processes they entail? What implications does the diffusion of Tama mediamakers’ work have on the Ayuujk ja’ay community members’ social life? Following on from that, how does Ayuujk videography constitute itself as “self-determined media,” as you suggest in the introduction (p.400)?

Ingrid Kummels: In short, transnationalism as a single field of social relations between two or more nation states due to the regular flow of people, commodities, money, and ideas across the borders is communalized by Ayuujk people. Migration, even in the many cases in which it is motivated by individual, personal interests, becomes at some stage a communal joint venture—in the more literal sense. Transnationalism scholarship has looked into the communal logics on which migration is based, but has often emphasized material, financial transfers. Nevertheless, transnational community building depends on the desire, the urge to be involved with a community. This is where self-determined media come into the picture.

As I examined the scholarship, I became aware of how transnationalism forgoes a perspective on media. On the other hand, media anthropology tended to view Video Indígena within the national container of Mexico. But in fact, the political Indigenous movement and the use of media to overcome distance in the transnational context, which includes connecting with the cross-border community in an entertaining way, are interrelated. The focus of my research is situating media use both within the contested field of Indigeneity as well as identifying it as an indispensable glue of transnationalism. There is nothing natural or matter-of-fact about maintaining a connection with one’s community of origin. In the case of Tama, reliance on self-developed media practices is key to new social arrangements between the hometown and the satellite communities that allow them to continue their communal way of life despite the restrictive border. These arrangements systematically integrate the migrating population. Many individuals participate in this endeavor due to a communal spirit. So, it is important to explore these communitarian values, Comunalidad or simply “lo communal,” as most people refer to it. It upholds the logic of owing service to a community, which at the same time is a sacralized entity worshiped in the patron saint. All of this is reflected in fiesta films and is understood by people with similar experiences who are socialized in this “way of seeing.”

Self-determined media practices are key for the creation of community connected to similar values. The hometown is one of its main motifs, since the future aspired to is projected onto this special place. Videographers are comuneros and comuneras, that is, they perform duties that influence their media practices and products. Despite being merchants and commercializing DVDs in a transnational outreach, they must also conduct themselves in a way that accommodates the values of community life (for example, not charging too much and paying the community a fee for filming); it is expected that their work portray those communal values. Moreover, they themselves have to invest in the community when needed. On the whole, they are an essential part of the transnational communal tissue.