Bonnie Urciuoli on her book, Neoliberalizing Diversity in Liberal Arts College Life

Interview by Ilana Gershon,diversity%20in%20U.S.%20higher%20education.

Ilana Gershon: What was the moment that you realized that you had to write a book on what role diversity is now supposed to play in liberal arts education? 

Bonnie Urciuoli: It was some years after I started the actual research which itself started by accident. In the early 1990s, I had begun my teaching career at a small, expensive, and quite white liberal arts college while finishing my first book (Exposing Prejudice) about New York Puerto Rican experiences of race, class, and language. I had several students who could have been from the families and neighborhoods of the people I worked with for that book, and we talked sometimes about their take on life at the college. Then I heard about a faculty member telling incoming bilingual students in their summer course for the Higher Education Opportunity Program that their writing was poor because they thought in Spanish. As I got to know these students, we started talking about being judged in racialized ways. These conversations led to interviews about coming to the college as Puerto Rican from the Bronx or Dominican from the Heights and then being reclassified – and learning to imagine oneself – as multicultural (diverse was not yet a widespread term) and as Hispanic or Latino/a (Latinx not yet a term at all). My first attempts to write this up were unsatisfying. Then I realized that while multicultural affairs administrators (in the student life office) tried to recognize and address issues faced by students of color, the offices of institutional advancement and admissions saw students of color as a resource for promoting the college and recruiting white students. This was the late 1990s, when the college branding and marketing industry was taking off. In conversations with my dear late colleague Henry Rutz, conversations that became for me an extended informal tutorial on the commodification of higher education, I came to see how notions of “diversity” had come to index market positioning for the promotion of liberal arts education. That’s probably when I understood that the core issue of the book, which I framed using Michael Silverstein’s semiotic approach, would be how elite liberal arts institutions work images of and stories about student ‘diversity’ into their marketing, part of a larger process targeting prospective students, parents, and donors who are overwhelmingly white.

IG: I am struck how much this neoliberal notion of diversity heavily depends on a particular understanding of race as the ur-example. How does it happen that race seems to be the template shaping what diversity becomes in the hands of higher education institutions?

BU: What I call neoliberal diversity derives from an understanding of race as an inherent characteristic of person that can be counted and visualized. It builds on and departs from older notions of race. Race, as the construction evolved over centuries of chattel slavery and colonizers’ appropriation of inhabitants’ land, resources, and labor, was construed as natural, inherited, hierarchic, and physically manifest. Race in the U.S. has been bureaucratized since 1790 as countable census units. It is now most widely counted using some form of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB or ‘affirmative action’) categories Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American, White. In the 1980s, the general term for non-white in undergraduate student life (and curricula) was multicultural(ism), emphasizing positive elements of identity and history. The neoliberal angle, promoted in the 1990s by diversity trainers to obscure associations with group identity and social justice, replaced use of affirmative action and multiculturalism with diversity, signifying valued resources brought to work by individual workers and obscuring historically embedded hierarchy. As neoliberal notions of diversity moved from the corporate world into higher education, they were taken up by offices of admission and college marketers playing to prospective white students, parents, and trustees with the message that diversity, in the form of students of color, added value to (white) students’ education. College marketers may talk about “all kinds of diversity” but they need students who look like they fit those OMB categories to count and show pictures of and tell inspiring stories about on the website.

Ilana Gershon: What would you want students of color at other colleges to know about how higher education structures diversity?

Bonnie Urciuoli: As will be news to no one, the primary social function of higher education, what it actually does, is not particularly student centered. So it will also be no surprise that higher education institutions use diversity in ways that benefit their own interests (as Sara Ahmed points out in On Being Included), just as they use any term or notion (community, changemaking, find your passion – to pick a few at random from college websites) meant to shape how they are perceived. Actual education and student welfare do not top this list. Given the market ordering of higher education (like any institution and organization) under conditions of contemporary capitalism, the primary function of terms favored by marketers is going to be promotional. But linguistic/semantic ideologies direct people to expect words to have ‘real’ (fixed, universal) meaning. One hears institutional talk about valuing diversity, and one might legitimately take value and diversity at (what one assumes to be) face value. I’d like all students anywhere to understand that point. I’d particularly like students of color anywhere to be suspicious as hell about the motives of higher education administrators, marketers, or for that matter faculty who forward institutional interests or their own interests through rhetoric that plays on student identities: they are unlikely to have students’ best interests at heart.

Ilana Gershon: Why do fraternities keep holding parties with questionable themes? What is it about whiteness in the context of this neoliberal institution with its particular version of diversity that fraternities are in relationship to in these parties?

Bonnie Urciuoli: The ‘Ethnic Night’ theme party (a racialized ethnicity) that I wrote about in chapter 5 got immediate stiff blowback and, as far as I know, it was the last one that fraternity gave. Why did they give it in the first place? Since I didn’t interview the members involved, I can only go by what I heard: they had given this theme party for years, they served food and drink and played music identified with that ethnic group, and attendees dressed as members of that ethnic group. (So far as I know, this did not involve blackface, which involves dynamics beyond what I cover here.) The question remains, when students do throw such parties, why don’t they think about the racialized ethnic stereotype in relation to whiteness? My answer, condensed from that chapter, is that most students at privileged schools, especially those who are socially unmarked (what the group involved regards as a typical or modal social identity, here middle-class white), are likely to see the sphere of the social as the sphere of fun (as Chaise LaDousa has masterfully analyzed in House Signs and Collegiate Fun). Fraternity life provides that sphere as autonomous and separate from ‘official’ college control, enhanced by alcohol and enacted through transgressive play. Unmarked people, students or not, are also likely to see racial issues in terms of personal intent (certainly not structure), and if no one ‘intended’ harm then no harm was done; hence participants disassociate theme parties from racism. They also dissociate them from any notion of diversity associated with school policy which has no place in the world of student fun.

            The chapter also looks at a Bros and Hoes party given by a different fraternity. The Ethnic Night party generated a strong sense of moral outrage among faculty and students; the Bros and Hoes party provoked some but much less reaction. The difference, I suspect, lies in the dynamics of play with racial markedness versus with gender markedness. In Ethnic Night (and other race/ethnic themed) parties, unmarked students play at being marked. In Bros and Hoes parties, Hoes, marked relative to Bros, are performed by actual women exaggerating (often transgressively) the terms of that markedness. Women are thus participants (perhaps even party planners), whereas race/ethnic themed parties do not (usually) include marked participants playing stereotyped versions of themselves.  One is tempted to see all this in terms of student morality, but it makes more analytic sense to consider what is indexed by the difference in markedness dynamics. White and non-white students are disconnected in ways that male and female students are not. The ‘fun’ stance grows from a secure social milieu in which people can choose who they want to be with, women along with men, though the footing is not altogether equal.  Being an insider ‘playing’ with notions of race, class, ethnicity, or sex means not taking it seriously or as subject to critique. The critical stance grows from taking an outside perspective. 

IG: What work do workshops do as the go-to genre for how institutions choose to address diversity in higher education?

BU: What I can talk about here are the diversity hiring workshops that the Dean of Faculty office required chairs of departments hiring new faculty to attend. Such workshops keep attention firmly disconnected from anything resembling actual history or group formation. They reinforce administrative authority and notions of diversity as beneficial to the institution. Institutions prefer to hire workshops from agencies that their peer institutions use (as agency websites make clear) rather than treat their own faculty as a source of expertise. A workshop’s success (again, as their websites tell you) is measured by outcome, for example, how many diversity hires the school makes after the workshop is given. Workshop messaging to faculty emphasizes how diversity hires enrich their departments, provide role models for students of color, and enhance institutional ‘excellence’: therefore, faculty must proceed with hires as directed by the workshop. The neoliberal message cannot be missed: diversity provides added value, and the more you hire, the more value you add. As to conditions and problems likely to be faced by faculty of color, or how their careers might be affected by the institution or the department – none of that comes up. Workshops also use double addressivity: their overt addressees are faculty; their covert addressees are administrators. They tell faculty what to do and they tell administrators that they recognize that the real problem is faculty who don’t know what to do; in other words, they are helping administrators discipline problem faculty. Above all, such workshops and the experts who run them base their expertise on not bringing historical/structural inequality into play in any systematic way. Their expertise is based on being able to solve problems by fixing what individuals (those problem faculty) do, not by addressing the ways in which inequalities are part of the institution. They are certainly not going to challenge the ways that institutions benefit from the same neoliberalized notions and practices that sustain their market position (and keep the workshop agencies in business).

Anat Rosenberg on her book, The Rise of Mass Advertising

Interview by Astrid Van den Bossche, Kings College London

Oxford University Press

Astrid Van den Bossche: One striking focus of your book is the presence and treatment—legally, culturally, and scholarly—of enchantment as a recurring, and potentially structuring, market experience. As you note, there is much debate on the (dis)enchanted status of modern life, but what led you to this focus in a history of mass advertising in Britain?

Anat Rosenberg: In truth, I did not come with this question to the research. Only after delving into the sources I realized that the tension between disenchantment and enchantment was central to the history of advertising, to ways of loving and hating it, and to its legal ordering.

When you start thinking about it, connecting advertising and enchantment might seem obvious, because there is such a huge body of literature that does just that, both in the critical tradition (think about Barthes, Baudrillard, Raymond Williams and others), and recently with more interest in the possibility that enchantment is not a danger or manipulation, but a form of agency (Jane Bennett for example, David Morgan and others). And yet I saw three gaps in this literature. First, there is almost nothing about enchantment by advertising in the first era of mass advertising in Britain, around 1840 -1914 – it has simply not been a theme for most historians of the period. Second, what you can glean from existing histories is dominated by material from the producer-end: interpretive studies of adverts and archives of businesses and advertising agencies. Additional scholarship is philosophical in nature, the Frankfurt School for example. Finally, there was nothing about the legal treatment of enchantment. 

So, my opening chapter responds to the first two gaps with a study of reception sources for advertising. I have used everything I could find: testimonies of consumers in court suits against advertisers, comments in the press, autobiographies and diaries, fiction, works of art, albums and scrapbooks. I trace what readers of adverts were looking for, how they imagined the mysteries and adventures of their world by inhabiting environments of mass advertising. Then, the rest of the book examines how law was mobilized to respond to mass advertising on the level of social ordering, and particularly how responses disavowed enchantment. That is why I argue that there was a normative project of disenchantment. While disenchantment was not a historical reality – here I side with revisionist historians, it was much more than a wavering ideology. It was an active enterprise made up of multiple legal investments across British culture, which gathered momentum despite of – or because – enchantment was such a constitutive experience of the capitalist economy.

Astrid Van den Bossche: By looking at gambling and indecency, Chapter 6 in particular pushes against the limits of discourses of modern disenchantments, and points to the consequently sketchy theorisation of enchantment. What are your key takeaways for the historical study and conceptualisation of enchantment?

Anat Rosenberg: The censorship of gambling and indecent adverts was my last hope for a significant legal conceptualization of enchantment. Until that point, I encountered disavowals. Almost everywhere, debates about advertising gravitated towards its legitimation and criticism within rationalist paradigms. I then expected debates about gambling and indecency to be the exception to the rule, because they started out by worrying about consumers’ non-rational responses to mass culture. The theory of gambling highlighted gamblers’ defiance of reason and quasi-mystical views. The theory of indecency placed primacy on the power of print to interact with receptive minds, ignite desires, and draw affective responses. However, the potential of theories of enchantment to reconceive advertising was checked, and they ended on a weak and even banal note. The legal logic and practice of censorship in fact shielded the better part of advertising from a developed discussion of enchanting appeals, and so censorious theories ultimately affirmed that adverting was compatible with a disenchanted culture.

This limited conceptualization of enchantment was not a failure of understanding, or a historical accident. It reflected a cultural commitment to modernity-as-disenchantment, which relied on law to make itself present in everyday life. In other words, what might seem sketchy or inadequate was in fact a serious effort to insist that capitalism was a disenchanting force and that modernity was a victory of reason, while a messier possibility was looming large.

From a historical perspective we could ask whether this effort was successful. The answer is complex. Despite its analytic weakness, modernity-as-disenchantment became common sense. The host of perspectives it involved in terms of the rationalities of cultural fields and the dispassionate mentality of economic life itself, were and remain dominant. Yet, all this did not preclude enchantment, it just deprived it of normative conceptual languages, which had ironic outcomes. Because enchantment was disavowed, advertising was treated like a failure: it was described as biased information, vulgar aesthetic, knowledge corrupted by exaggeration. Such attacks unwittingly liberated advertisers from rationalist inhibitions – since they were failing anyway, and finally drove professional advertisers to adopt a theory that celebrated enchantment. This theory was attractive because law had little to say about it. Professionals branded themselves as masters of the nonrational mind, a myth that has held incredible sway.

Astrid Van den Bossche: This leads us, in fact, to the other main argument of the book, which is that the boundaries between advertising and other cultural fields such as the press, the arts, and the sciences, were continuously tested, contested, and redrawn. As you point to above on the celebration of enchantment as the advertiser’s craft, advertising as we know it is the result of this boundary work. Reversely, we might imagine that advertising had a hand in shaping the cultural fields that sought to distance themselves from it.  How far could we go with this argument, in your view?

Anat Rosenberg: Pretty far, I think. Advertising developed by defying and testing cultural boundaries, as it traded and trod on the cultural authority of other fields. Legal boundary work dealt with these challenges, and created differentiations. In this process advertising functioned as a cultural scapegoat, which carried the burden of commercial corruption for other fields. The dangers of the profit motive were attributed to advertisers, who were associated with concepts of bias, vulgarity, or exaggeration, while other fields could claim to represent higher ideals of aesthetic appreciation, objective knowledge, or impartial information. Of course, no field was free from market pressures at this point, but advertising salvaged them because in the ongoing comparison they fared better.

So, the broad argument of the book is that advertising energized an entire culture to examine and explain the terms on which it lived. Its history should not be examined only from the perspective of consumption or commerce – it had a world-generating power across fields in terms of aesthetics, epistemology, and ontology.

Astrid Van den Bossche: Drawing on legal archives, from legal treatises to case reports, has allowed you to unpack the norming and legitimisation of advertising practices. What advice do you have for those who might be less familiar with these resources?

Anat Rosenberg: Law is too important to leave only to lawyers, don’t be afraid to delve into these sources. We have not seen book-length histories of advertising that work with law seriously (as far as I know), which is unfortunate because it has limited our understanding of the its history. Without the legal angle, it is hard to see the commonalities and broad implications of seemingly different areas in which advertising was being contested, challenged and shaped, from art through journalism to medicine and more.

To integrate law into our sources of cultural analysis is more straight forward than might first appear. After all, it consists of very human efforts to formulate social meanings, resolve cultural dilemmas, and frame normativity. It involves not only legislators and courts, and not only trained legal professionals but also local organizations, practices, and material environments that are part of daily pursuits, market relationships, and substate structures. Multiple actors create, adapt, and perform normativity in these environments, and attempt to formalize it within their distinct constraints and opportunities. From this perspective, law is emergent and dispersed, and often non-lawyers will have unique insight. What is more, from this perspective most resources you examine can have a legal angle, if you only ask them the question! Yes, many resources require us to develop expertise in legal fields and their history in order to fully understand them, but the knowledge is available, and worth the effort.

Astrid Van den Bossche: Much of the book celebrates audiences, their engagement, their responses, and the balancing of imagination and reason. There are no crowds or masses without attention to the particular circumstances in which consumers read their advertisements. At the same time, you point out that using reception evidence allows us to see a phenomenon at “the level of wholes,” thus theorising the effects of advertising not as the result of exposures to single images, but as the result of their accumulation. What have we missed in our histories of advertising by not attending to these wholes?

Anat Rosenberg: I love this juxtaposition between masses of people and masses of adverts, I hadn’t considered the conceptual play here!

            Yes, I argue in the book that the accumulation of adverts en masse was a historical form in its own right. It was at the forefront of cultural consciousness as all media were characterized by unprecedented advertising concentration.

When we focus on accumulation as form, we include things that otherwise look banal and have received little attention from historians. For example, one- or two-liner text adverts or unknown advertisers. As we move beyond leading advertisers and spectacular campaigns, towards the numerous and trivial, we can also move beyond the animation of the commodity, which is the most theoretically developed aspect of consumer enchantment. A focus on commodities and brands is insufficient because advertising in the long nineteenth century advertised the market, or more precisely life as a market. This was the broadest and yet very concrete imaginary that forged audiences. Hefty mixtures of adverts for commodities, second-hand goods, entertainments, services, labour and financial opportunities, politics, personal messages and more are critical, because they gave shape, feeling, and meaning to abstract ideas about market society.

A focus on accumulation as form cannot limit itself to semiotic approaches that begin with single adverts and campaigns. There have been famous studies of accumulation, like Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, but I have tried to join historical readers for walks through a variety of British passages, physical and imaginary, and see how they experienced the world with and through them. It was often fascinated (and fascinating) travel. In other words, the question of accumulation invites a study of ways of reading, where my analysis of readers of adverts joins other cultural studies of reading mass culture.

Astrid Van den Bossche: You draw on many fascinating cases that bring people’s experiences with advertising to life – is there one in particular that has stuck with you?

Anat Rosenberg: Many, but to connect to your question about the accessibility of legal resources, and my emphasis on the banal, the trophy goes to a case of an obscure businessman, which made no legal precedent or economic drama.

Arthur Lewis Pointing was the mind behind the Oriental Toilet Company, which advertised “Invisible Elevators.” The adverts urged short people to buy elevators, promising a magical transfiguration that would raise their height by up to four inches. He was in fact selling pieces of cork to place inside shoes. Within a year and a half, he sold 4,150 pairs. The trouble was that not all consumers got high; the elevators were too small, or too painful, or both. The company was not responsive and so some consumers went to the police. Pointing was charged with fraud in the Bow Street Police Court, but when the case moved to the Old Bailey it was dismissed.

There are two lessons to learn from his case. First, the testimonies showed how the power of commodity advertising played out in the lives of ordinary people. The stories revealed the extent of imagination in the reception of adverts, which continued even after the pieces of cork arrived, when consumers’ dreams of transformative science met with the simplicity of conception and with the actual smallness of size. For example, a domestic servant said she did not use mirrors and did not know whether she looked taller with the elevators. What we see here is a projection of dreams and an active avoidance of knowledge, which I have found to be a peculiar characteristic of modern enchantment. When knowledge was readily available, people had to make efforts not to know.

Second, Pointing defended himself by arguing that his adverts were just puffery, which is not enforceable in law. Puffery is an extraordinary legal doctrine. It licenses advertising by keeping advertisers immune to claims, but it also ridicules it by explaining that legal immunity reflects the fact that advertised claims are exaggerations that no reasonable person believes. This explanation is another evasion of the seriousness of enchantment. But anyway, because of the ridicule, as soon as Pointing won with his puffery defence, he rushed to the newspapers to fix the damage done to his reputation. This turn of events helps use appreciate the ridiculing effect of law, which legal scholars have not examined.

Pointing went on to become a successful seller of quack medicines with a flair for bodily transformation. He sold remedies to prevent inordinate blushing, getting too fat, and getting too lean. When he died in an asylum, his will, which was a huge $40,000–$80,000 (approximately £4.8–£9.6 million in 2020), was fittingly contested by an advertising agent!

Shannon Mattern on her book, A City is not a Computer

Interview by Elliott Montpellier

Elliot Montpellier: You write that you questioned how to write about “the frustratingly capricious world of technology” in book form. With this in mind, what inspired you to bring together these pieces in book form and how does it relate to the overarching argument you’ve put forward across the chapters?

Shannon Mattern: First, thanks so much for engaging with A City Is Not a Computer and for inviting me to discuss it. A few weeks ago Alex Ketchum, a faculty member at McGill, invited me to talk about the book as part of her excellent Feminist and Accessible Publishing, Communications, and Technologies series. I framed my remarks not as a traditional “book talk,” but as a “biography of the book,” which allowed me to engage with a lot of the material “how did this bibliographic object come into existence?” questions you’re posing here. 

The ideas central to this book emerged across a decade of collaboration with Places Journal, an open-access venue for public scholarship on architecture, urbanism, and landscape. As a contributing writer, I’ve published nearly 30 long-form pieces that, because of their accessibility (in multiple senses of the term!), have reached readers in myriad fields around the world. A few years ago Places launched a new short-form book series with Princeton University Press, and I was invited to propose a book that expanded upon my existing articles. I initially wondered not only why I’d want to create a book out of material that I had deliberately made freely available online, but also why and how I would translate and transform my digital writing about timely topics into the static, enduring form of a book. 

I asked around on social media to see if such a transformation would be of use to others – and lots of folks proposed that reformatting this existing work, supplementing it with some new material, and putting these once-separate pieces and disparate issues in dialogue with each other, between the covers of a book, would constitute something new and valuable. The book form also allowed me to show, both rhetorically and materially, how our seemingly ephemeral technologies allow us to ask enduring questions. This mixture of the analog and the digital, or the fleeting and enduring, is also present in the book’s argument: I argue that what we know about cities, and the intelligence embedded and activated within them, comes in a range of material forms. 

In my contribution to Alex’s series I share several other reasons why I chose to write the book, some of which, I’ll admit, were born of frustration. First, as much as I love and feel at home with the essay form, I realize that the monograph is still the primary currency in my various fields of practice. Second, I got tired of some traditional scholars mistaking digital scholarly publications – regardless of how heavily researched and rigorously edited they might be – as mere blog posts or think pieces, simply because they’re online. And third, I was frustrated with the numerous Men With Big Ideas books, themselves super-sized think pieces unburdened with precedent or citation, about cities and technology. I think some of the most exciting work emerges through a mix of fascination and frustration, affection and annoyance.

Finally, I was excited to work with an amazing editor and staff at an exceptionally well-resourced press! 

Elliot Montpellier: The book engages liberally across disciplines – speaking to media theory, library science, science and technology studies, urban studies, journalistic media pieces, and much more. What takeaways do you hope anthropologists, in particular, take away from this cross-disciplinary work? 

Shannon Mattern: While the book does draw on the work of anthropologists and relies in part on ethnographic methods, I really wasn’t writing for anthropologists. Most of the research was completed when I was housed in a media studies department, working regularly with designers and librarians! When the book came out, I just happened to be teaching in an anthropology department, where I was transferred to build a new program in anthropology and design. I was both flattered and amused to see various reviewers and interviewers commenting on the book’s “uniquely anthropological” insights. The book unique approach, if it has one, is really the product of a very undisciplined curiosity! 

I’ve always enjoyed being a mediator between different fields, so my primary interlocutors are the people who, like me, inhabit the interstitial spaces, or who aren’t too concerned about disciplinary boundaries. I think so-called general or lay audiences often fall into the latter category; they recognize that most of our everyday concerns – like urban transit, maintenance, public knowledge, and other themes I address in the book – are inherently overdetermined, intersectional, and uncontainable.  

That said, I hope anthropologists will find in the book some evidence of why it’s useful to read across disciplines (I’ll admit that, over the years, I’ve seen quite a bit of anthropology of media that doesn’t engage with precedent media studies research!); to combine scholarly and applied knowledge; and to recognize popular, mediated discourse as a cultural sphere; an epistemological realm, that’s its own ethnographic terrain. 

And given that anthropology as a discipline has repeatedly questioned the centrality of ethnography to its disciplinary identity, has critically engaged with the ethics and inclusivity of standard ethnographic practice (see for instance the recent exciting activity around patchwork ethnography), and has grappled with the vexed question regarding the validity of autoethnography, I hope readers might see in the book what can be gained by looking at one’s own multifarious practices, one’s personal and professional experiences, one’s teaching and civic engagement, as something approximating a retroactively accumulative auto-ethnography – as forms of knowledge production. 

Elliot Montpellier: To follow-up on that question, your methods and writing-style offer an enriching thickness, appealing to an ethnographer’s sensibilities, but you go about this in a multitude of ways. Some of these are not always privileged in anthropological interventions (let alone the training graduate students receive). Specifically, you speak to numerous community projects and engagements that catalysed or were catalysed by your writing. How do you think anthropologists open themselves up to community collaborations as part of training and knowledge production?

Shannon Mattern: These questions pertain to long-standing ethical questions about anthropologists’ involvement in, and obligations to, their field sites. There’s a whole vibrant tradition of activist anthropology we can draw on here, too. 

I’ve had several enlightening and disheartening conversations with anthropology PhD students who are eager to write about particular topics and phenomena, but who convince themselves that they’re not entitled to do so because they haven’t engaged in formally recognized ethnography. Obviously, scholars in other fields write about a whole host of topics without engaging in ethnography; there are countless other methods one can deploy in understanding the world. That said, so many of these students have years of personal experience – as students, as student leaders, as teachers, as laborers, as neighbors, as activists, as engaged citizens – that we might regard as participant observation within their own communities. Their reflection on and analysis of that experience would ideally be informed by the various critical concepts and frameworks they’ve encountered within anthropology and elsewhere. 

Plus, I don’t think it’s necessary to engage in community projects, to serve your neighbors or your city, through your role as an anthropologist or scholar. Your research might offer you insight or grant you expertise that draws you into particular service or collaborative roles; my published research on libraries and archives has led to invitations to collaborate with these institutions, to serve on boards of directors, etc. But one needn’t serve as an anthropologist, or as someone intending to mine their community for research data.

Ultimately, however, that community engagement might – and, ideally, would — inform your work as a scholar: it can shape an ethos, help you identify a wider network of stakeholders, reveal nuanced social dynamics, and so on, that you can take up in your research. The big ethical and methodological challenge is to determine whether it’s appropriate to bring that experience into your published work. This has been a relatively easy question for me, since I work with public institutions that are committed to public knowledge and transparency; the board meetings I might reference in my writing, for instance, are also publicly documented. In other cases, utilizing behind-closed-doors experiences constitutes a betrayal of trust and a breach of ethics. 

Elliot Montpellier: I’m particularly drawn to your discussion of religion in Chapter 1. The connections you draw from dashboards and technology to talismans, amulets, and users’ faith seem so apt. This is a connection that a few others have made and with all that has been going on in the tech world, I’ve seen several op-eds about the tech Gods falling back to earth, or other clickbaiting titles along these lines. What strikes you as potent about these metaphors? How does the reliance on religious metaphors as integral to critique, not reify secular-religious (or scientific-superstitious) divides, especially as religious worlds themselves are so vital in local and indigenous ways of knowing?

Shannon Mattern: The whole book is in part about the metaphors we use to understand complex sites and systems – and how those metaphors shape the way we conceive, design, build, maintain, administer, and value those sites and systems. As we now see with Elon Musk, whether we regard him as a reckless speculator, a business titan, a skilled engineer, or a divinely inspired Tech Genius determines how users and investors and regulators engage with him and his platform – which, again, because of how they’ve been metaphorized, are now regarded as one and the same. 

In the book I referenced talismans to raise questions about epistemology and belief – particularly our belief that exhaustive datafication cultivates omniscience and positivist truths. This is a central theme in the book: that these ways of knowing are inevitably entangled – and so, in order to appreciate and respond to the complexity of our cities, we have to recognize that the hard and the soft, the quantitative and the qualitative, both provide invaluable insights. 

Elliot Montpellier:Your overarching argument makes the case for greater critical engagement with the hype of the technological present (and pasts). In Chapter 2, you discuss how the slowness of public consultation, deliberation, community input, participation, and so forth was integral to the friction that derailed the Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto. And you make the broader case throughout the book that the myriad situated and public knowledges that animate cities comprise the alternative vision to the city as computer. Across the book, I found myself thinking about housing, public and active transport advocacy, each anchored in the urban realm you discuss. Advocates have remarked on how bureaucratic and cultural processes (especially community meetings) have been wielded against communities seeking to enact change toward more embodied ways of interacting in urban worlds. (Similarly, one could argue the same thing about activism around climate change, reparations, land back, and so on) A very broad question, but how might communities (and their academic collaborators) work to ensure that participatory methods aren’t co-opted to reinforce negative majoritarian principles?

Shannon Mattern: One of the case studies I discuss in the book – Sidewalk Labs’ proposed design for a “smart city” development in Toronto – prompted me to address these very questions. So, in 2020, I published an article about the risks of co-opting the aesthetics of participatory design, of using superficial “civic engagement” as a smokescreen for fait accompli planning. I realized then that this question had underlain a lot of my research for the past 20 years. The first article I published was about how the public was conceived in a public design process for an ambitious “public” library. I wouldn’t have told you 20 years ago that I was embarking on a longitudinal ethnographic study of participatory planning processes – but when I looked back on my years of academic research and my observations, as both an engaged citizen and as collaborator, of various participatory design projects, that’s kind of what I was doing, without knowing it! 

So, what’s to be done about this co-optation? A whole bunch of things: making sure we aren’t simply hiring community engagement consultants who regard “participation” as a list of obligations (which is what ESG and LEED have become), making sure we have trusted community-based liaisons involved, making sure we’ve engaged in an inclusive campaign of public education, making sure our methods of community engagement are themselves designed in consultation with community members, and triangulating a variety of methods and deploying a variety of media – each of which will resonate differently with different members of the community. Organizations like the Creative Reaction Lab, the Center for Urban Pedagogy, Colloqate, Measure, and lots of digital and environmental justice collectives have been designing processes that take these factors into consideration. 

Elliot Montpellier: One response to the question above–that I read in the book–was your focus on public infrastructure and knowledge institutions as part of a vital infrastructural network. What role can anthropologists play in supporting these infrastructures?

Shannon Mattern: I’d love to see more ethnographies in public libraries and archives. Dan Green’s The Promise of Access: Technology, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Hope is a great example of what one can learn about our misplaced faith in technology – and its profound, long-term impact on policy – by hanging out in libraries for years.  

As I write this, Twitter is imploding, and lots of folks are migrating over to Mastodon, which is prompting some to consider – perhaps for the first time – the danger of allowing an egomaniacal oligarch to control a platform that’s effectively become a critical public resource; the potential for public, federated alternatives; and what new infrastructural topologies and imaginaries this moment of crisis might make possible. Gabriella Coleman’s, Joan Donovan’s, and Sarah T. Roberts’ ethnographic work can shed a lot of light on what’s happening at Twitter – as a cautionary tale. And Christina Dunbar-Hester and Greta Byrum’s ethnographic and policy work can help us understand what’s possible – and what risks arise – when communities design networks that reflect their values. 

I also wish academics – including anthropologists – would be more reflexive about the infrastructures they rely on, often unthinkingly, to do their own work. Are our prestigious journals published by rapacious corporate publishers? Do we depend on research databases and software owned by extractivist organizations that are deeply entangled with surveillance capitalism? (Sara Lamdan’s new Data Cartels: The Companies that Control and Monopolize Our Information has a lot to say about this). Are we locked into teaching platforms that deploy a bunch of algorithmic “cop shit” that cultivates adversarial relationships with our students and monetizes their data? Are we relying on infrastructures that construct knowledge as a scarce capitalist good? 

Last semester, in my final teaching semester at The New School – which I’m leaving in part because the institution’s own infrastructures contradict its professed politics – I taught a class called “Redesigning the Academy,” where I invited students to turn an ethnographic eye to these very questions – to ask why academic things are built the way they are, who those structures serve, and how we might do things differently. All of us need to ask those questions much more frequently – and then muster up the will, and demand the resources, to actually do things differently

Emily Aguiló-Pérez on her book, An American Icon in Puerto Rico

Interview by Julia Perillo

Julia Perillo: How did you get the idea for this book?

Emily Aguiló-Pérez: This was based on my doctoral dissertation, and I decided to talk about Barbie as I was studying Children’s Literature and Children’s Culture. I took a Girlhood Studies class my first semester of my PhD with my advisor, and we read some of her research about Barbie. Then in another class, we also talked about Barbie. It had never occurred to me to make Barbie my subject of research, but that semester I really thought about it. I said “I think I can research Barbie because I played with Barbie for a big chunk of my childhood,” and I went with that. So throughout my PhD I then refined and thought about these questions.

There has been a lot of research about Barbie in general, but I haven’t seen a lot in Puerto Rico, where I am from. I defended my dissertation in 2016 and then, in 2018, I saw a call for book proposals for a Transnational Girlhoods series in Berghahn Books, the publisher that also publishes the Girls’ Studies Journal, and I said, let me try it, and then they can reject it, or  help make it better. And they actually loved the idea. So that’s how it came to be.

Julia Perillo: That’s so exciting, especially for me as a young academic. My next question is about the challenges that you faced. I can imagine that, saying, “I want to talk about Barbie, about girls, about playing and childhood” might have been surprising to a lot of people.

Emily Aguiló-Pérez: In my academic setting, thankfully there weren’t a lot of challenges in terms of the topic itself, which, if I had done it in a different place, there might have been. People could have said: “you’re gonna research Barbie? That’s not real research.” But I was lucky that I have a very supportive committee, and especially because my advisor had researched Barbie, so in that sense I feel like it wasn’t as challenging as it may have been in a different place.

I talked about a different challenge though, when I was defending my dissertation, I think I became more Puerto Rican when I moved away from Puerto Rico. Because I lived there for 26 years, and I grew up in a little bit of a conservative family, politically.  I followed who they were and their beliefs, and so I saw the U.S. as the ultimate goal and the Savior almost. Having moved away to the U.S. and learning and reading more and doing my PhD made me more Puerto Rican. And it also educated me on a lot of the atrocities that the U.S. had done to Puerto Rico and the power imbalance between the colonizer/colonized relationships. That wasn’t really taught in schools.

So for me, that was the challenge of my own political upbringing. I became pro-independence. Puerto Rico needs to be autonomous for once in their history. I started to challenge my family. Well, my attitude was challenging for some of my participants too, I think, especially when they learned about the way that I would then read some of their responses, I had to think: here’s how they grew up, especially the older generation and how they saw the U.S. and Puerto Rico. And then I would put it in that context, while at the same time thinking about that colonized experience. So in that way, I think my own beliefs, my own experiences, and then how I read and interpreted what was going on with my participants was a challenge. I think my next question is going to be more about the feminism in the work. That’s obviously something that gets whitewashed so much in the U.S., and with the dolls particularly.

Julia Perillo: Yes, I remember going to the store, and they were all blonde and blue-eyed, and even I felt that I wasn’t represented. I’m racially white, and so I would always want one specific doll. I wanted Belle from Beauty and the Beast, because she had brown hair and brown eyes. Were there ways that you found a way to relate and to talk about identity on a very practical level, when you would go into the interviews. How did you start that sort of solidarity work?

Emily Aguiló-Pérez: Well, I think what helped was thinking about my position as the researcher. In interviews, especially the group ones, I was a participant as well, and I always started by saying “I use Barbie this way.” That helped, it made the participants more comfortable. They knew I wasn’t there necessarily to judge how many Barbies they had, did they hate her or not, but rather I’m curious about what women and girls experience with the doll. Then I thought I would let them talk. But I now know this was something that was hard because, when I used to listen to the transcripts, I would start thinking: “Emily, shut up!” because sometimes I wanted to share my experiences, but I also wanted to let them talk. I think I always try to make it clear that I played with the dolls, even with the younger girls that I was interviewing. Then they were showing me their dolls, and saying, “Yeah, but there’s this other doll that’s more realistic.”

I would say: “Wait, what doll? I don’t know about this!” So it was engaging with honesty and curiosity. We were able to be in person, and so they were showing me pictures. I also brought some of my stuff, and so it felt like: “oh, we’re just getting together to talk about Barbie.” I wanted to avoid the impression that: “I’m here to ask you very specific questions that there’s a right or wrong answer to, because I didn’t want anyone to feel like that.”

Julia Perillo: Right.

Emily Aguiló-Pérez: Even when we would talk about race and body image, I know there were some conversations when we were like, “Oh my gosh, growing up, I don’t think I paid attention to this specifically.” Or someone would say: “I knew that I wanted dolls that had dark hair, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it with that lens, but now, as an adult, clearly I was tired of dolls always being blonde with blue eyes whereas some of the girls were explicitly naming it. They would say: “Why is it? Why is it that Barbie is only white and blonde?” So they were much more articulate or aware of that issue than my generation or generations before. We might have noticed it but not necessarily analyzed it.

Julia Perillo: That makes sense. I think also when I see little kids today, I feel so old. I’m 22, so I’m not that old, but I definitely knew I wanted a brown hair, brown eyed Barbie. But I am never said: “it should look like my mom, or it should look like me.” I thought a Barbie who looks a little bit like me was good enough. My mom always says to me that I didn’t love dolls that much, now I am re-thinking that. So I want to turn to my next question: what were some of the most helpful theoretical tools in linguistic anthropology for you in framing these conversations?

Emily Aguiló-Pérez: Some of what inspired me was the approach to methodology, but also how I use memory work not only as a methodology but also as a way to interpret, or analyze. Except with the three girls I spoke to that were little girls at the time of the interview, everyone else was working through memories of their own childhood, and talking as adults. But mostly, when it was about their experiences of playing, it was our childhoods, which were a long time ago. I had think about what happens when we are talking about memories. It’s not necessarily about how accurate the memories are. I think there was an example of my approach in the book when I was talking with my sisters, and my aunt and my mom –we were reminding each other of things. I focused on the meaning of those memories and how they came up. So that was a very important part, because it wasn’t just part of the methodology, but also definitely part of the analysis. A lot of Girlhood Studies scholars like Angela McCoy, Katherine Driscoll, and Miriam Forman Brunell had all worked with Barbie in some way. I wanted to include some of the scholars that were women of color, because a lot of the conversations about Barbie and Girlhood Studies has been very white, predominantly white. So I had Andrew Scull as one of my very crucial sources, and then I included a little bit of Childhood Studies and Play Theory as well. When I was doing the research as a grad student, at first I wondered: am I combining too many things? But the kind of study that I wanted to do needed to have all those different perspectives. I tried to draw from different fields, and different areas, not only Barbie studies, but also girls studies, child studies, memory, women’s studies, and all that together.

I also had Latino studies to draw from, too, because I relied on Gloria Anzaldúa, and I had some Puerto Rican women’s memoirs. When I was thinking of memories and childhoods, I included their work, as well. For me, it was so important.

With a book or a dissertation, you can’t do everything that you want to do. A lot of times when you’re working with participants especially, it really depends on how many you can get. For me what I wish I could have done or I hope that I can do in the future is to have more voices of girls who are talking about how they currently play. I mainly talked to former girls. I did appreciate the fact that I ended up with an intergenerational study, but I would really love to learn more about what girls right now like! How do they interact with Barbie? Because also, I want to hear their perspectives, which is not they’re not always highlighted, but also because what I learned with the few that I talked to was that they knew a lot about Barbie, but that also Barbie wasn’t necessarily as big for them, as it was for, say, my generation, or even the generation before.

Julia Perillo: What are your best hopes for the book? What’s your craziest dream? Let’s say a 15 year old Puerto Rican girl reads the book, what do you hope she gets from it?

Emily Aguiló-Pérez: This is a good question, because, sadly, the way that academic publishing works, sometimes this book is an expensive book if you want the hard copy. These books are mostly marketed to libraries. My hope is that it can be more accessible. I want anyone who reads it, whether it’s an academic, or a girl, to think that it isn’t wrong or right to play with dolls. It’s a very complicated doll, even with some of the people in the States who loved the doll but also hated the doll.

It’s a very fraught, complex toy, so I would like them to think about their own experiences, and be aware of how they relate to the doll, how the doll came from some of their own ideas about body image, or about femininity. Have you thought about the fact that, like Barbie, even with attempts at adding some diversity, it’s still very predominantly a white doll? So, just getting people to think about Barbie as a complicated doll more. My hope is that I can continue this work in a perhaps more accessible way, like through a podcast. That’s one thing that I have been thinking about. I would love to invite more women and girls in Puerto Rico to share their stories about Barbie, and discuss similarities and differences in their experiences, and why these exist.

Mathias Levi Toft Kristiansen takes the page 99 test

My dissertation is about how middle-class people in the United States economize their everyday life to get economic security. Ethnographically, I focus on two groups of Americans who participate in network marketing. Network marketing is a form of sales in which participants earn money by selling products to customers and recruiting new salespeople to their networks. Network marketing companies primarily attract college-educated Americans who get involved through their social ties: friends, family, co-workers, and their local communities. I found that mundane aspects of network marketers’ daily life – social encounters, routines, and modes of self-representation – became saturated with a capitalist economic logic. They financialized social relationships, imagined “smarter” ways of making money, such as income without working and told confessional life stories as a sales pitch. They did this as a response to a large-scale economic restructuring from post-war regulated capitalism to neoliberal capitalism that has created intense economic insecurity and inequality for many people in the United States. 

Page 99 of my dissertation is part of chapter 4 and is actually representative of the dissertation. On page 99, I focus on a widespread convention among the network marketers with whom I spend time. They presented personal stories to audiences of potential customers as a marketing convention called “testimonies”. These stories followed a rags-to-riches style script, in which the marketers recounted how they struggled physically, financially and emotionally before becoming network marketers. They claimed that their struggles were resolved after participating in network marketing because of the healing effects of dietary supplements they consumed and sold and the income they had earned.

I argue that such practices manifest the expansion of market activity into increased spheres of American’s everyday life so that everyday life becomes a transactional site of buying and selling goods and services. New aspects of everyday life are becoming included and even necessary for market transaction under neoliberal capitalism. Those new aspects include personal stories and traumatic experiences, so that “how I feel and felt,” “what happened to me,” “how I view the world,” and “what my upbringing and family looks like” are becoming instruments for selling.

Page 99

The network marketers’ testimonies were often very confessional and sometimes evoked strong emotional reactions as they teared up and sobbed telling them. They talked openly about their struggles, weaknesses, and tragedies. Some of the marketers’ testimonies also included recounting experiences of depression, death of family members, cancer affecting their children, and suicidal thoughts.

 At the “Sip and Freedom Parties”, Rick and Susan would sometimes video record and live-stream the testimonies on Facebook. When this happened, the stories became public material within their sales and social networks to comment on and for other marketers to share as a way to sell products or recruit new customers. The online circulation of other marketers’ testimonies (without asking for consent) in NatureRise’s chat rooms or to potential customers was a common practice among the marketers I came to know.

Furthermore, NatureRise itself produced hundreds of testimonies with marketers, which they made publicly available on a YouTube channel during my research. Some of those videos were professionally made and featured the testimonies of many of the top income earners. The videos followed Paige’s story structure, described earlier in this chapter. For example, one video featured Elizabeth, a white NatureRise top earner who had trained the San Francisco marketers I knew at the NatureRise University event in Nevada. The video was produced by NatureRise and appeared on Elizabeth’s public YouTube channel.

It began by showing Elizabeth sitting in her living room. She had long blonde hair and wore a floral dress. Her fingernails were painted maroon and matched the flowers on her dress and the curtains behind her. Elizabeth smiled, as she began speaking and looked down at her hands and said: “So, growing up on a family farm in North Dakota.” She paused, looked up, and smiled: “So, where do I start?” she said and laughed. “So many stories…”. 

The scene shifted to a rural setting: a white farm building in the middle of a vast green pasture. The sun was setting, and mellow piano music played as Elizabeth narrated: “My grandpa and grandma actually paid us to milk cows and feed calves at a young age.” A photo of Elizabeth as a child appeared. She was smiling at the camera as she stood next to a cow. “At a young age, they really wanted to instill in us that hard work ethic, you know, is what you are rewarded for,” Elizabeth went on.

Mathias Levi Toft Kristiansen. The Greatest Scam: Network Marketing and the Economization of Everyday Life in the United States. University of Gothenburg, Phd 2022.