On the 99th page of my dissertation, “The Objective Function: Science and Society in the Age of Machine Intelligence”, the first full paragraph describes how machine learning researchers go about deciding which projects they should work on. Given that the dissertation, as a whole, is concerned with understanding how machine intelligence—data-driven algorithmic techniques like machine learning, data science, and artificial intelligence—produces knowledge and constructs the authority it holds as it moves across a wide range of domains, this page seems a particularly apt representation of the whole. This page also gestures at the idiosyncrasies of fieldwork that allowed me to address these concerns, as the research lab I had found myself working in was particularly reflexive about the work they did. Without the reflexivity of my interlocutors, many of the social processes I was interested in would have likely remained hidden from my view, or at least been much more difficult to access ethnographically. The paragraph in question reads:
“In the sense that most work in machine intelligence involves applying a well-suited technique to a well-posed problem, the exercise these applied machine learning researchers undertook for their research report was merely a highly reflexive version of how machine intelligence is applied generally. Inspired by the horizontal organizational structures common in the technology industry (Scott 1975; Pfeffer and Leblebici 1977), researchers at OTH shared responsibilities and steered many business decisions through collaboration and consensus. The topic-selection process at the lab was emblematic of this. It was run by the researcher whose “turn” it was to write the next report and involved a series of whiteboard exercises in which all lab members would nominate candidates, research their potential as a topic, and then present their favored candidates to the entire team, who would then collectively winnow down the candidates to a few finalists. The report author would ultimately select the topic. The reflexivity of the process these applied machine learning researchers engaged in offers a valuable window into questions that go un-asked and assumptions that go un-examined in more mundane, less research-oriented applications of machine intelligence. The research report I participated in addressed a technique called “multi-task learning” that was first described in the late 1990s (Caruana 1997), but the technique rose to the top of the topic-selection process because it had recently found applications in industry (see McCann et al. 2018), and was more easily integrated with newer machine learning programming packages.”
What this paragraph reveals, for me at least, is that the production of knowledge through machine learning is a collaborative, practice-based process. To fully understand the role it plays in reshaping social worlds requires seeing the many ways it is shaped by organizational prerogatives and industry-specific ways of structuring work practices. But machine intelligence is also shaped by the questions researchers choose to ask, and—by extension—the questions they do not. These situated knowledges (Haraway 1988, Rouse 2002, Katell et al. 2020), I eventually conclude, contribute to the overall conservatism of machine intelligence. Contrary to the trappings they carry in popular imaginaries of technological advancement and futuristic automation, machine intelligence conserves the power of already-existing institutions and it reinscribes social relations of the past into the present and future. Machine intelligence may, on the surface, threaten the authority of powerful actors like judges, doctors, or loan officers by way of automation. But, in reality, machine intelligence preserves the power of the institutions — the courts, hospitals, and banks — that confer authority upon those actors. This is because, in selecting problems, and in addressing them, the work of machine intelligence is to ask questions that extend power, and not to challenge it.
Haraway, Donna J. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575.https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066.
Michael Katell, Meg Young, Dharma Dailey, Bernease Herman, Vivian Guetler, Aaron Tam, Corinne Binz, Daniella Raz, and P. M. Krafft. 2020. Toward Situated Interventions for Algorithmic Equity: Lessons from the Field. In Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency (FAT* ’20), January 27–30, 2020, Barcelona, Spain. ACM, New York, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.1145/3351095.3372874.
McCann, Bryan, Nitish Shirish Keskar, Caiming Xiong, and Richard Socher. 2018. “The Natural Language Decathlon: Multitask Learning as Question Answering.” ArXiv:1806.08730 [Cs, Stat], June. http://arxiv.org/abs/1806.08730.
Pfeffer, Jeffrey, and Husayin Leblebici. 1977. “Information Technology and Organizational Structure.” The Pacific Sociological Review 20 (2): 241–61.
Rouse, Joseph. 2002. How Scientific Practices Matter: Reclaiming Philosophical Naturalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Scott, W. Richard. 1975. “Organizational Structure.” Annual Review of Sociology 1 (1): 1–20.
Page 99 of my dissertation falls in the middle of the second chapter, “Historia: Social Media as a Tool for Counter-Memory.” Each chapter takes a salient concept from my fieldwork as a jumping off point, and in chapter 2 this concept is “historia.” Historia is interesting because of the ambiguity that this word creates when translated to English; it means both ‘history’ and ‘story,’ which I use as an entry point to discuss the online history making practices among Chilean trans activists at the heart of this project. As they tell stories, they make history…
Though I began with a more traditional project in mind, social media emerged unexpectedly as a central theme in my interviews, as a tool for community building and knowledge sharing, and as an archive. At the same time, as I conducted life history interviews, the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) and its aftermath seemed inescapable. Though the advent of social media and the end of the dictatorship were separated by two decades, the connection between them felt obvious to me, but in a way that took me several years to articulate.
Page 99 is dominated by two lengthy quotes from Alejandra Soto, the president of trans sex worker’s rights organization Sindicato Amanda Jofré. In these quotes, Alejandra recounts in painful detail the suspected murder of the organization’s namesake at the hands of a former member of Pinochet’s secret police, the DINA.
(from pg. 99)
Both Amanda’s subaltern position and that of her compañeras meant that, though charges were filed and evidence presented, he was ultimately cleared of all charges, understood to be de facto a more credible witness than the women he made a habit of torturing. This is especially telling given that there was another compañera present during these events whose eyewitness testimony was essentially ignored in favor of protecting a man with connections to the halls of power.
“There was another compañera there, and he told her ‘She’s suffocating. Let’s let her die and we’ll just throw her body into the Mapocho.’ And the compañera said ‘No, no, don’t throw her away.’ And she called us and we showed up with the cops, the media, and saw them carrying her outside, dead.”
“So what happened to him?” I asked, shocked at the brazenness of what I was hearing.
“He was out in a month. I mean, he was in the DINA. He had a lot of support.”
It was through becoming Facebook friends with many of my interlocutors that I was able to learn—in bits and pieces—more about the stories they told me in interviews, like the one above. As I became attuned to these traces, in classic ethnographic fashion, the connection revealed itself. I began to connect faces, names, and events, revealing small glimpses of Chile’s trans history.
Marginalized communities have long had to develop their own methods of preserving their histories. For Chile’s trans community, this has historically taken the form of oral history. In turn, this practice has become enmeshed with the open wound of thousands of murdered and disappeared political prisoners whose stories will never be known, a central focus of contemporary Chilean activism.
Though my ethnography bridges on- and offline spaces, it ultimately maps a trajectory of alternative history making practices that predate the internet. Social media is simply its most recent iteration.
Baird Campbell. 2021. “The Archive of the Self: Trans Self-Making and Social Media in Chile.” Rice University, Phd.
Katherine Chen:Your book Supercorporate, an ethnography of a multi-conglomerate steel company that you call Sangdo, argues that we can study corporations to understand the societies that they are embedded in. In this case, South Korean society has moved towards post-hierarchical organizations. Positions and differential rewards are no longer assigned based on gendered ideals or number of years of service, but rather upon collaborative teamwork conducted in the workplace and in after-hours activities. The ethnography offers the term “supercorporate ideal” as “the broader promise of corporations to realize and channel post- hierarchical forms of both interpersonal distinction and positive social interactions” (5). It argues that the human resources (HR) department had the difficult tasks of facilitating these distinctions. These distinctions include job titles tailored to reflect people’s status as they advance up the ranks Can you talk more about the decision to use this term supercorporate? What does the term build upon?
Michael Prentice: I derive “supercorporate” from the conventional term for domestic conglomerates in Korean, daegieop (literally “large corporation”). The term daegieop is defined by state regulators to designate more oversight to conglomerates of a certain size, but the term also exists at the top of a status hierarchy of cultural-economic prestige; to say one’s spouse or child works at a daegieop says something. During my fieldwork within a human resources (HR) team at the ‘Sangdo Group’ which was technically a daegieop, I was constantly made aware of the broader fields of distinction that employees and managers understood themselves to be within – the Sangdo tower literally hovered above a neighborhood of other medium and small companies. However, at the same time, employees often commented how they saw themselves far below the (imagined) prestige or power of other name-brand daegieop like Samsung or Hyundai. In this sense, I use “supercorporate” not simply as a descriptor of big company culture vis-à-vis other organizational entities, but to conceptualize the broader cultural-organizational fields of distinction (and their shifting categories) which is imminent within any analysis of local organizational action in South Korea. In the book I try to argue that the supercorporate ideal reflects an imaginary of a type of organization which might be able to provide opportunities for both individual distinction and democratic participation; whether such a corporation or organization exists that perfectly achieves both is not the point, but it always was on the horizon of possibility for workplace aspirations.
Katherine Chen: How might other readers use this supercorporate concept to understand their own organizations, especially in other societies?
Michael Prentice: The book hopefully should appeal to different scholars and fields, but one of my hopes for it and the concept of the supercorporate ideal is to draw attention (back) to the dynamics of organizational life. Understandings of conglomerate life in South Korea have long been tied to conglomerates’ historical role in the (post-)developmental state. These discussions have been pegged to political debates and issues around conglomerates’ relationships with the state, the role of owning families, and the macro-dynamics of global capitalism. These discussions have been important, but in my eyes, they have often overlooked two things: the investment in middle-class society in corporations as end points of intense educational strivings and the complex politics or inner workings of organizational life itself. Regarding the first, corporations are not just creatures of capitalism; South Korean middle-class society creates certain aura around corporate work as a legible marker of biographic success. Regarding the second, the internal dynamics of even a relatively unknown industrial conglomerate like Sangdo are extremely complex in and of themselves. Managers and employees navigate complex relationships with coworkers, teams, part-time workers, managers in factories and overseas branches, and so on – all while trying to align with broader ideals about what modern labor is supposed to be in the twentieth century. The broader uptake of South Korean cases has often been pegged to the discourse on the country’s developmental pathway which has often situated it at the ‘lagging’ end of economic trends and overshadowed by Japan and China. In my eyes, studies of South Korean organizations could drive a variety of topics at the nexus of organizational studies, anthropology, and sociology.
In reflecting since finishing the book – and especially now residing outside the US – the ambiguity or tension around what corporations are supposed to embody or do (as imagined vehicles of distinction or participation) I have found useful for thinking on other kinds of institutions, such as American universities. Culturally, American universities are intense vehicles of distinction, but are also seen as enablers of wider socio-economic participation or social mobility (erasing age-old distinctions). Many American families seem to want both – in the same ways that South Korean employees wanted to be both distinguished and to have flat relations with their co-workers. I don’t know if I’d call the American system ‘supercorporate’ in the same way, but I hope it might find uptake for other scholars who don’t just work on ‘corporate-y’ things.
Katherine Chen: The appendix describes your access to Sangdo. You were able to connect via an alumni contact, and you were placed as an intern in the HR department. You describe your placement as follows:
Team manager Jang was initially confused about what exactly I would do with the team. I was not put there as a researcher with an explicit plan that we had agreed on, nor was I particularly well qualified to do HR work. I was technically an intern, but not the typical university student studying business or economics with corporate aspirations. (In this sense, I am sure I was likely seen as a pure parachute by coworkers.) Nevertheless, on my first day, I explained to my coworkers in HR that I was an ethnographer who did research largely through observation and note-taking; everyone agreed to the basic informed consent protocol. Likewise, I explained to everyone I met that I was also working on my PhD loosely around changes in office relations, technology, and communication in large companies. (p. 172-173)
How did your role change over time and in different settings, especially as you became involved in more “informal” activities? In particular, you note how people may have felt obligated to include you in certain activities because of a perceived link with a leader, in the hopes that this inclusion would reflect well upon them and their unit. In another area, you note how your lack of familiarity with McKinsey consulting firm approach of distinct, measurable categories made it difficult to complete an assigned slide presentation on categorizations.
Michael Prentice: The original manuscript did not originally have an appendix expressly discussing methods. I was glad that one of the reviewers suggested it and my editor was supportive of its inclusion. I found it useful to discuss how the shifting contours of presence and positionality at Sangdo as well as how my own interpretive lenses were shaped before and after formal fieldwork. At the company, the various intersections of identity categories were complex: my first entrée was through an alumni connection from the US. Accompanying that formal relationship co-existed forms of implicit prestige or aura around whiteness, Americanness, maleness, English-speaking, and education credentials that underlay many different interactions. At a practical level of working on the HR team, there was a noticeable transition from an unknown outsider to an insider that came with identifying myself as a member of the HR team, not just as a PhD student. In some ways that was a condition of possibility for certain kinds of access. But South Korean organizational life is good at finding new and emerging points of distinction to draw between yourself and others. For instance, despite a few years working in a marketing company prior to my PhD, my coworkers found my PowerPoint skills to be utterly lacking compared to another teammate who was called a ‘god of PPT’. I also came into awareness about the importance of higher-end consumer goods that are expected among white-collar office workers like monogrammed shirts, Rolex watches, and various golf accoutrements. One thing I perhaps did not expect was the way that one’s interactional footing constantly shifts at different organizational interfaces: within the team, I was the youngest intern with only a few responsibilities; outside of the team I was strongly pegged to HR and my team manager vis-à-vis other departments. Travelling to other floors, you then enact the identity of someone from the ‘upstairs’ holding company meeting a subsidiary. This reflects I think the basic dynamic of much of South Korean social life where one keeps close tabs on the different vectors of difference between oneself and many others.
Katherine Chen: The book also explicates how HR shrouds distinctions among employees and units in organizational secrecy, in the interests of preserving cooperation and cohesion:
One day in March 2014, the junior member of the HR team, Ki-ho, who sat adjacent to me printed out a large A3- sized spreadsheet and laid it across his desk. He was reviewing it with team manager Jang. Down the side of the spreadsheet were the names of each of the dozen subsidiaries of the Sangdo Group. Across the top of the spreadsheet were different categories: title system, promotion length time, average salary, annual bonus range, average vacation time, amount given for weddings and funerals, and a few others…. Its leak, even if inadvertent, could have wreaked havoc over the entire workforce of Sangdo. It was the only document of its kind that compared the discrepancies around personnel policies between subsidiaries. Distinctions between subsidiaries could be largely suspected or shared among employees, but an actual elaboration of the policies themselves was largely unknown. Revealing the document could throw off union negotiations, create competitions between subsidiaries, or lead to alienation if certain subsidiaries realized they were getting a different deal from others. (59-60)
Such secrecy also included not revealing survey results that might cause embarrassment for that unit. Can you discuss more how secrecy can facilitate and obscure the development of a hierarchy based on differential resource allocations?
Michael Prentice: There are lots of aspects around secrecy and security in South Korean corporate life that I’ve written about recently; however, at the Sangdo holding company one thing that was always interesting was that employees and managers were aware of the difference between their cultural and organizational points of distinction vis-à-vis other offices (the people in the holding company certainly had more legible credentials than others), but from an information or resource point of view they were not bestowed with a panoptic view that others might have imagined they had. Holding companies in South Korea are sometimes categorized as modern versions of secretariats or control towers where the most important secretive information in a conglomerate is stored and all the power is held. At the holding company, many of the teams had just been formed and their cultural credentials outweighed their organizational powers. I describe in the book for instance how they often had to rely on handmade Excel sheets rather than powerful ERP programs for storing information. The perception of this fact – that the holding company perhaps was not as all powerful as its floor position indicated – was something that HR managers and others actively managed as they worked with individual subsidiaries. This gave me a new way of looking at fairly standard genres like an employee survey to think about what kinds of information asymmetries they were attempting to create and why people in high-up offices rely on those kinds of genres rather than others, like master plans or direct orders for instance. In some ways, then, there were always two secrets kept – one about the perceived content of various forms (which individually might be powerful) but also about the larger secret of the holding company’s (lack of) relative power at the time, at least in comparison to the image of distinction such putatively elite labor was imagined to have.
Katherine Chen: In another chapter, your book describes the phenomena of chonghoe-ggun or “meeting extortionists.” These stockholders attempt to disrupt meetings through asking questions at public meetings, in the hopes of getting pay-outs. In the US, we might characterize this question-asking as shareholder activism instead. What does their attempts to smooth over these stakeholders’ claims say about corporate capacity to deal with such public confrontations?
Michael Prentice: Shareholder activism is certainly popular and dynamic in South Korea. What I found interesting about the form of shareholder meetings is that there are many different actors who take an interest in corporate meetings who all must pass through the strange format of the shareholder meeting itself which still embodies a kind of 19th century parliamentary norm. This norm sets the conditions for a particular kind of democratic participation that are helpful for thinking about what we mean by workplace democracy. Ethnographically, I was able to see how employees changed their everyday roles to help run the event and sometimes participate in it (as actual shareholders). In this context, chonghoe-ggun are extortionists who take advantage of the right to speak that comes with an ownership share. As shareholders themselves, they can raise questions of directors and are protected by law as long as they follow the meeting rules. (This is not unprecedented in the US where Evelyn Davis used provocative outfits and colorful language for similar purposes for many decades). As I’ve researched the general phenomenon through news reports and discussions with different finance managers in South Korea, the goal of extortionists is not necessarily to gain a meaningful change in corporate oversight like an activist might but to generate enough annoyance that a company might find it easier to pay them off. What this says about broader attempts at corporate takeovers via shareholder meetings I can’t say, but I do find shareholder meetings to be a quite radical genre compared to other aspects of everyday organizational life; they break down and re-present corporations as gradated ownership interests who have protected speaking rights, not necessarily as unified entities. Even though chonghoe-ggun are disliked by many (including sincere minority shareholders), they nevertheless have a right to claim a part of the pie, so to speak, which sometimes looks like activism.
Katherine Chen: In the US, the on-going pandemic has reduced in-person contact at some organizations. Some professionals are working from home, perhaps indefinitely in the case of the tech sector. How have companies such as Sangdo fared? What are the implications for how workers grapple with ggondaeryeok (old-man power) of overwork and forced conviviality?
Michael Prentice: In the time since my fieldwork ended in 2015, lots has changed in South Korean work life. Most recently, of course, the ongoing pandemic has forced many people to work from home which was unheard of when I was there; all work was done at the office and it was almost unthinkable to take documents or computers out of the building. Even before the pandemic, though other regulations have come into effect: on gift-giving and entertainment limits with public officials (the Kim Young-Ran Act of 2016) and on maximum work time 2018 (maximum weekly working hours was capped at 52 in 2018). Yet many of the big challenges are framed in similar terms: as I discuss in the third chapter of the book, attempts at purifying offices implicitly address a male-dominated and hierarchical culture which is supposed to be an object of the past, but seems to keep hindering the progress of South Korean work culture. ‘Generation talk’ (sedaeron) in South Korea is particularly productive for explaining these where the older and outdated one is holding back the newer generation – just this past month even the chairman of the Korean Chamber of Commerce promised to get rid of “old man” culture and improve communication with a number of large corporations signing on. Given the intense concentration around corporate work, pressures around teamwork and tenure, and the way ranks are stratified in many ways, however, I don’t know if all problems can be explained by simply generational conflict. In 2019, the Workplace Harassment Act was passed and over 10,000 cases have been reported to a harassment help line since then, according to one report. I suspect the pandemic may have removed some of the more iconic forms of workplace harassment, but the dependence on digital connections may have created new issues of their own. For my next research, I am curious how new private worker messaging platforms are affording new kinds of open discussion but also leading to other kinds of interpersonal hazards.
Natalja Czarnecki: You write that inter-faith food aid organizations occupy a “border zone” in the Moscow assistance world; they do not completely self-identify as “religious” or “secular,” for example. Actors thus find it difficult to put their actions into words (Are we a business? Are we a religious organization? Do we “do” charity? Care? Public service?). How does this ambiguous kind of self-identification affect these organizations’ “messaging” and self-promotion, if at all?
Melissa Caldwell: One of the things I struggled with was trying to figure out what was “religious” and what wasn’t. My starting point was always within religious organizations, religious congregations. And yet, so many of the people I encountered, whether they were volunteers or staff who were running programs, or recipients themselves, were very quick to say there’s nothing religious about this. And it seems to me that the idea is really more about “spirituality” as connected to morals and ethics and “religious” being the institutional practices: the going to services and wearing certain things, crosses or scarves, you know, going through particular rituals. And so somehow even though religious institutions become spaces where all this other work happens, there doesn’t have to be an absolute connection between, a critical and skeptical stance toward organized religion and these religious organizations.
And so, I would encounter people who would go to church fairly regularly, that was their personal religious activity, but then participate in these other activities, these other social assistance activities with completely different religious organizations. What they were trying to do was reconcile both whatever their personal religious identity affiliation might be with their own moral ethical beliefs about how to fix problems and change the world.
It was often funny; when I would interview staff at some of these religiously affiliated, social work organizations, the staff themselves would criticize the very denominations that were employing them. In terms of, you know, the beliefs of the priests, the patriarch, the nuns, you know, whoever they were. These were criticisms about their kind of religious activities, but also praise for the social work that were happening within these denominations. And to some extent, I think this is part of a longer Russian history, where identity and faith and practice have always been kind of confused; they’re not the same things. And so people can move around, picking up the beliefs and the practices that make sense to them. And those may or may not align with the identity that they’re “supposed” to have.
Natalja Czarnecki: You describe how the Russian Orthodox Church has long constituted a mass-mediated source of ethno-nationalist authority, ideology, and identification in Russia. Does the call to “personal acts of genuine care, kindness, and compassion” constitute a response to Russian ethno-nationalism as a communicated through, say, popular sermons of the Patriarch, if at all? Does a gendered labor within these organizations factor into this?
Melissa Caldwell: I think the gender dimensions are really interesting and complicated. And I think that’s part of it. Yes, there are some visible gender differences. But no, I don’t think they play out in the way we might expect them to, that it’s just women providing care and men being the officials who get criticized. Yes, the vast majority of the clergy I encountered were male, just by virtue of the fact that when I was working with Orthodox denominations, the clergy were men and when I was working with Catholic communities, the clergy were men. And then in the Protestant or Anglican communities, it was mixed. And so some of the denominational differences reflected who was working in what capacity.
But in terms of staff, it was much more balanced. And in terms of volunteers, it was more balanced as well. Often women in this aid world work the direct lines of provisioning; it was more women doing that kind of work. And also, that was partly, I think, a reflection of the Russian side of it all, where more women are in social work profession. But on the foreigner side, at a certain point, many of the expatriates who were providing direct lines of assistance were the unemployed wives of foreign professionals. Behind the scenes, though, in other sorts of activities, there were more men. So if their work commitments prevented them from going to the soup kitchen every day, or the clothing handout every day, behind the scenes, they were providing money and using their networks. And on Saturdays, they were driving goods all over town. It was much more mixed than I thought it would be.
Do gender differences play out in the critiques? Yes and no. There were implicit gender critiques of Orthodoxy, such as: “The priests don’t know anything, they just go in and do their work and they don’t actually talk to the people who do know. And they’re making all the decisions.” So by virtue of just saying “the priests,” it was clear that it was men making decisions. And then it would be, “Well, you know, so and so who’s running the program actually knows what’s going on.” And then usually those people were women. But in the other denominations, the critiques were more about institutional practice versus theological interpretation. I would have long conversations with clergy who would say, “Well, you know, the Anglican Church or the Catholic Church — These are the practices they use. But if we actually go and look at scripture, we interpret it in this way,” or “if we go to the theologians, we have something else.” So the critiques weren’t necessarily about the person in charge so much as the institutions. I think there’s individual clergy and volunteers who have their own ideas about whether they’re doing politically sensitive work, and whether they could be in danger of harassment from the political authorities or from their own denominational authorities. You know, at what point are they speaking for the denomination and what point are they speaking as individuals who belong to that denomination? And that’s where that I think it got really interesting; there were individual clergy engaging in philosophical debates that were really more about themselves and how they fit within a denomination’s structure.
My interlocutors were trying to navigate all of this. Much of this research was done in 2012 to 2015 and at that moment, the Russian state was trying to figure out what to do with foreign people in foreign organizations. And some of these organizations, these religious denominations and their social service organizations, were in conflict with the Russian state, either officially or unofficially. This was in terms of how the Russian authorities were viewing their activities; you know, whether they were interpreting them as the dissidents, or the activities as destructive to the Russian nation, while other organizations had full sponsorship from the Russian state or from Moscow city authorities; they were getting funding, they were getting meetings with politicians. There were also some organizations very much under the radar, and some definitely over the radar.
All of these interfaith organizations are working with one another, and they’re all trying to navigate who’s going to be public and who’s going to be invisible or who’s afraid and who’s not afraid. It often came down to whether individual organizations, the clergy who were affiliated with them, and the denominations themselves were willing to take a public stand. Or if they felt they needed to be invisible. So I think that was part of it; some of the clergy were much more willing to be out with whatever they were saying. And others did not want to go on record at all. I think part of it also had to do with, and I don’t have confirmation from anybody in the Russian government about this, but my sense is that some organizations were doing service work that was essential to the stability of Moscow as a city and to the Russian state. Because they were doing this work and weren’t causing other problems, they were allowed to exist.
Natalja Czarnecki: One of the main arguments in your book is that in contrast to stereotypes of religious organizations, the actors within faith-based groups are not doctrinal or particularly religious necessarily. Rather, what you call a “secular theology of compassion” is what informs your interlocutors’ sense of purpose. How does this secular theology scale itself, if at all? Is this a Russian and/or post-Soviet mode of humanitarian networking? Does it see itself as translate-able into other worlds of need and uncertainty?
Melissa Caldwell: For my fieldwork interlocutors in Moscow, many of the things they were pointing to get lumped together by anthropologists and sociologists under this category of social problems — homelessness and hunger and addiction, domestic violence, unemployment — all of those things. And for the people with whom I worked, these were problems of everyday life: why life is not fair, and why people are working so hard. In order to think about those problems, I found inspiration in the literature on social justice. I wanted to think about these as not just social problems, but in terms of social justice and social action. Of course, this was also in a particular political context in Russia, where people were starting to demonstrate against political repression from the government.
What seemed to be most consistent was a claim that these questions of inequality and justice actually precede political systems and are somehow bigger than political ideologies. These are moral and ethical questions that go to the root of fundamentally being a good human. That’s how they would ground those debates. In something like neutral, abstract, moral, ethical terms, they would make reference to, “Well, the Bible says that Jesus did x and y,” or, you know, “The Catholic Church has always done X, Y, and Z to help people because that’s what you do to be a good moral person.” My sense was that for many of my interlocutors, they were skeptical of political ideologies to a great extent as an explanatory framework. That politics was too much tied to particular people trying to be strategic, whereas these broader moral ethical values could transcend any one political person.
In the food aid community, there did seem to be this sense that the state isn’t providing; it’s a collapse of the welfare system or the retrenchment of the welfare state. And so social workers really felt like they had to do what the state wasn’t doing, a kind of supplementary work. By the time I was doing this project, there was still that attitude. I also heard people more explicitly saying, you know, “We live in the twenty-first century; there shouldn’t be these problems anymore.” These are bigger issues. These aren’t just issues of socio-economic inequality in an unstable welfare system.
Natalja Czarnecki: In your chapter, “The Business of Being Kind,” you discuss some of the “compassion commodities” produced by these organizations. You write that “Russia’s commercially oriented modes of compassion have not so much emerged alongside the country’s post-socialist capitalist economy as they have developed a critical niche within it” (159). Can you talk about the political and communicative composition of this critical niche? For example, is this about addressing consumers and if so, who are they?
Melissa Caldwell: I think there are several different things going on. One is that there’s a particular sub-niche within the niche, or whatever you want to call it, that emerged with the idea of targeting a particular type of ethical consumer. Those goods seem to be coming out of particular “development” movements, wherein many of the development organizations that went into Russia, like many other parts of the world, would ask “How do you get small businesses off the ground,” and “People need to create things to sell.” And often those are things like arts and crafts. And so then those get marketed and targeted for certain consumers. Then it almost becomes that kind of fair trade sort of commodity that pops up in all the markets all around the world. You know, you want to help the small business person, or you want to help the elderly babushka, going blind, who isselling little doilies in her apartment. So I think that part of it definitely was targeted at a consumer who was responsive to that sort of compassion assistance, “help somebody out.”
On the other end, there was a more strategic angle. Some goods were from corporations that had goods and needed to get rid of, for example, expired products or close-to-expired products. A lot of the food donations would come from companies that had lots of yogurt that was going to expire within a week. One of the big furniture companies discontinued an entire line of cribs and needed to move them. And there were different moments in which companies could get tax benefits, or at least do something where they weren’t losing money on that stock.
I think someplace in between that there was just the more general sense that there’s this big formal capitalist market where anything goes. And whether people were selling as part of another sort of larger business entity or as private entrepreneurs, or not even necessarily selling, trading, and moving things through, I think that was where most of this compassion economy really existed. I think much of that was still grounded in the socialist era informal networks where you simply circulate things; you might not need them, but somebody else does. And so it will eventually get to where it is needed. And likewise, you will eventually get what you need through these systems. And I think within that particular niche, most of the people I encountered didn’t explicitly think of that as being compassion. That was simply informal exchange or the normal way that people move things. And so in trying to put all of these things together, that’s how I started thinking about this compassion economy.
Until recently, if you perused the scholarship on Instagram, the app might have appeared to be a relatively benign, homogenous stepchild to its social media forebears. More visual, more commercial, less political, less weighty. Instagram was a place for diet fads and celebrity selfies, not a site for important developments like the obsessively analyzed Facebook or Twitter. While its status has begun to shift and be rendered more complex, the first book devoted to the platform, Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures (Leaver, Highfield and Abidin) was only published in 2020, a couple of years after the platform had reached one billion monthly active users. Meanwhile, those users relentlessly cultivated new media practices and relations on the platform through endogenous aesthetic conventions, emergent subjectivities, and political contestations.
Our new edited collection, Food Instagram: Identity, Influence and Negotiation (University of Illinois Press, May 31, 2022) opens up new lines of questioning about Instagram practices and relations through the medium of food. Food offers varied and delightfully visual points of entry for exploring social media practices across diverse geographies, coalescing around the central category of “food Instagram.” We identify food Instagram as not just a common subject, but a quasi-genre on the platform distinguished by a shared focus on representations of food, eating, and food-related phenomena circulated by both everyday users and industry professionals.
Reflecting the heterogeneous content of food Instagram, the book brings interdisciplinary lenses to the platform’s food images and processes of image-making, drawing on media studies, food studies, gender and sexuality studies, sociology, anthropology, art theory, political theory, and other fields. The book brokers conversations beyond academia, too, including chapters from a food journalist, feminist artists, and a food influencer, KC Hysmith, who baked, styled, and shot the cover photo. Carefully positioned, basked in natural light, shot from above, and purposefully colorful, the photo replicates the food Instagram aesthetic as it critiques it. A knife slices through a photo of “Instagrammable” cake, rendered in pink frosting upon a phone made itself of cake, visually representing the layered and deconstructionist work of the volume. In this way, the book contributes to our digital food culture as it comments on it, considering both food in media and food as medium.
When we composed our call for abstracts in 2019, we were delighted to see it travel far and wide across social media and listservs. From the dozens of submissions that we received, we crafted a collection of essays that draws together an international community of scholars, opening up conversations far beyond the US focus of much research on Instagram. Contributions feature food influencers in Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, and the US. Chefs and restaurateurs in France, Denmark, and Thailand appear in the book, while other chapters examine how Canadian and Australian farmers use the platform. Overtly political representations of food are explored in an Israeli nation-building project and in the posts of populist politicians in Brazil and Italy. Several chapters focus on regional food identities in North America, from biscuit restaurants in the US South to organic farmers in the cross-border Pacific Northwest. Food Instagram is thoroughly emplaced, rooted in locally evolving food cultures and taste politics with global implications.
As these chapters show, Instagram has become an important site for producing our mediated food system through its visual economy. From producers’ photogenic narratives about our food origins, like compassionately raised “happy meat,” to the stylings of brightly layered, extravagant “freakshakes”
in an Australian café bought by some customers only to photograph, not eat—food is consumed as much by the camera as by the mouth. As Gaby David and Laurence Allard recount in their chapter on food porn, when asking after dessert recommendations at a Parisian restaurant, the waiter replied, “Well, one is served warm and is very tasty, but the other one is more Instagrammable.” Food has always been valued for its visuality, and food porn long predates digital media. However, as a digitally networked commodity, food-related content can travel further and faster, and reach different, often broader audiences than previous food media. Everyday media users also become food content producers outside of professional spheres much more than before, altering the dynamics of food systems. Suddenly any point along the food chain could become a socially networked object accessible anywhere via the platform.
The spaces of food consumption have likewise been adapted for the camera lens, as restaurants, shops, farmers markets, and kitchens are redesigned to produce a grammable experience. By 2019, an estimated 78% of restaurants in the US used the platform, and both dishes and restaurants themselves have been redesigned to conform to Instagram aesthetics. Public appetite for continuous visual content as an extension of these spaces can lead to a convergence in aesthetic styles, as Fabio Parasecoli and Mateusz Halawa show in their edited volume, Global Brooklyn (2021), which traces the reproduction of the New York borough’s industrial hipster style across food hotspots around the world. Hashtags and geotags are additional place-making technologies on Instagram, creating meaning by both locating images geographically and linking content across space. In the world of food, they can serve to both localize and globalize food-related images, which can be seen, for example, in the use of the hashtag #foodporn. David and Allard note that although 80 percent of Instagram food posts in France are in French, the majority of hashtags are in English to intentionally engage with global users. These citational practices fuse digital and physical places, as food images index local identities while plugging into transnational networks.
Food subjects are also produced in this visual economy, and Food Instagram offers rich and provocative examples from not just the influencers and celebrities for which the app is most closely identified, but also restaurateurs alongside everyday cooks and food photographers. Representing a kind of networked star system held together by the density of their connections and followings, the influencer economy commodifies corners of food culture by driving attention and selling lifestyles. Contributor Mimi Okabe looks at how Japanese diet product companies mobilize influencers and everyday users to reproduce a hyperfeminine girl culture privileging thinness, while Tara Schuwerk and Sarah Cramer explore how wellness influencers rely on highly gendered visual conventions and questionable claims of expertise while prescribing healthy eating choices. Influence can also stir up bonds of community, such as digital practices of hospitality and communal cooking fostered during the pandemic by Black women linked by such hashtags and accounts as #blackgirlcooking and Vegan Soul Food, as examined by Robin Caldwell. Similarly, Alex Ketchum shows feminist restaurateurs adeptly blending a longer history of analog media, such as cookbooks and newsletters, with social media content like Instagram stories as a means to sustain their communities’ political commitments amidst food offerings, recipes, and event listings.
The volume also shows how food subjectivities exceed familiar categories of cooks and eaters, for example by looking to farmers carefully curating their feeds to depict the idyllic origin of crops and livestock, and populist politicians connecting with their publics using posts of what contributor Sara Garcia calls “food puritanism,” identified as ostensibly authentic (traditional or comfort) foods shared without embellishment or editing. Digital platforms like Instagram thus mediate food and identity through visibility, storytelling, and networked communities in ways that can deepen connections or fragment them.
In our introduction we offer up a framework for analyzing these and other themes that locate the book at the crossroads of a number of conversations in media studies and food studies. Proposing a “feed supply chain” analysis of food Instagram, we suggest that one of the aesthetic appeals of the platform is its ability to offer the illusion of frictionless access to beautiful images, including food. We write, “The platform helps to foster the fantasy of shortened food (and image) supply chains through its aesthetics of liveness, intimacy, and authenticity” (p. 13). By examining how the platform supports a visual food ecosystem all the way from raw inputs—including everything from attractive food and photographic labor to celebrity appeal and user attention—to distribution, consumption, and waste along the feed supply chain, we push fellow scholars of media and food to integrate image analysis into broader engagement with the politics and economics of constantly feeding the feed.
For the fields of media studies and food studies, this approach provides new access points for familiar topics like celebrity, influencers, food porn, virality, identity, digital and culinary labor, and the cultures of connectivity, among others. It also invites us to bring food Instagram into other emerging interdisciplinary conversations, such as the role of social media in increasing food waste through excess consumption; the often-hidden forms of labor supporting food Instagram such as farm workers, delivery people, and content moderators whose exploitation may be exacerbated by their relative invisibility; the carbon footprint of food tourism and the vast archives of unused photographs stored in the cloud; and social media’s role in the changing political economy of both our food system and platform capitalism. Instagram has significantly shaped what, how, and why we eat. As editors, we sincerely hope that Food Instagram documents how food also shaped Instagram, as the volume charts the myriad aspects of this transformation still left open to explore.
Ilana Gershon: This book is a generous and intricate homage to your mentors and those who have laid down the intellectual infrastructure that you have inherited and transformed through your prodigious talent in bringing together multiple dialogues across academic and non-academic perspectives. It is also a genre of book that is not so common – a collection of previously published essays interwoven into a new intervention. I am curious about the process: how do you choose what to include, how did you decide the order and what about the texts had to change?
Charles L. Briggs: You are too kind! To do justice to your question, I need to compose, with apologies to Derrida, an origin story for the book, in three parts, that tries to capture the reflections that engendered Unlearning.
As the Introduction attests, I have been mesmerized since I was a kid with the poetics of language. As much in dialogue with Wittgenstein as Jakobson, I have always been enthralled with how a sentence, song, or conversation brings worlds into being and opens up new space for the imagination. Poetics led me into issues of health, how healers and their patients confront forces, from microbes to spiritual pathogens to racism, using sound, bodies, and instruments. I have also been concerned with materialities and the more-than-human, with plants, spirits, and environments. (I apologize for the weak Eurocentric terms in the preceding sentences.) In Unlearning, I tried to make a major intervention into work on poetics and performance, to which I contributed, often in collaboration with Dick Bauman, starting back in the 1980s. I got the impression that this literature had been largely assimilated into intellectual infrastructures in linguistic anthropology. I thus tried to breathe new life into it, pushing its assumptions and research questions by fostering dialogues with psychoanalysis, media studies, decolonial perspectives, and work in science studies and medical anthropology.
Second, I have long pursued a dual path: immersing myself in theory from anthropology, media studies, folkloristics, and other fields, but continually feeling uncomfortable with the limits each imposes on what counts as knowledge, who gets to produce it, and how it is made. This penchant flies in the face of advice I received starting in graduate school, that scholarly success involves finding a particular disciplinary trajectory and claiming ownership. A friend once remarked: “I’m like a crab in a seawall cave: you stick your finger in, and I will bite you.” Work in science studies suggests, however, that breakthroughs often come when researchers cross boundaries so that they can identify and challenge assumptions. Such insights are not achieved by pretending to fly over boundaries that separate disciplines or juxtaposing decontextualized concepts. Advances rather follow from engaging disciplinary trajectories deeply, learning their histories, and analyzing how they produce knowledge. A major goal in Unlearning is to disrupt disciplining practices by focusing on their bases in Whiteness and colonialism and creating experiments located along disciplinary borders. Crucially, I have become more mindful of the extent to which I draw on the insights of mentors who were not trained as academics, including woodcarvers, farmers, beekeepers, and women who perform laments over relatives’ bodies. This book reports my efforts to push back against tendencies to incarcerate such perspectives within scholarly genealogies and conversations, thereby curtailing creativity and expropriating their philosophical and theoretical insights as ethnographic particulars. Even decades later, I acknowledge that I am not fully capable of appreciating their intellectual challenges.
Finally, the book’s leitmotif—unlearning—sprang from questioning how academic hierarchies rely on implicit notions of scholarly learning curves, the gradual accumulation of knowledge. During the past ten years, my graduate seminars have rather become decolonial collaborations that seek to identify how White, elite, Euro-American men became arbiters of what counts as theory—thus defining what is deemed nonknowledge, ignorance, and irrationality. Through these discussions and collaborations emerging within and beyond the academy, many sited in Latin America, I found that my unlearning curve grew steeper all the time. Demands to challenge Whiteness and racism following the murder of George Floyd in May, 2020 have greatly increased the stakes here.
Unlearning is thus a set of reflections and experiments. It takes the undisciplining and unlearning process that I had previously explored in fragmented and often implicit ways and puts it right out there, front and center. It was also high time to thank my mentors adequately. This goal, however, nearly killed the project. I had used the themes of mentorship and unlearning to weave the chapters together, but I could not force myself to write the Introduction—for three years. I had unthinkingly slipped into a scholarly rut: Introductions revolve around academic genealogies, placing what are supposed to be new ideas into trajectories provided by other scholars. This fundamental contradiction—which would have undermined what the book was trying to accomplish—had prompted massive resistance. I thus suddenly decided to turn the Introduction into a memoir, recounting my experiences with mentors starting in my childhood. Writing the Introduction then became most enjoyable.
Ilana Gershon: In this book, you are hailing folklorists and revealing new scholarly paths they might take. But some of us are unratified listeners to this hailing. I am wondering what you might want linguistic anthropologists to overhear especially as you call forth folklorists’ nascent intellectual possibilities that you would like to see more vigorously nurtured?
Charles L. Briggs: I find this question fascinating because it imagines the book’s potential audiences and invites me to anticipate ways that linguistic anthropologists might engage it. Rather than projecting readers as divided into two disciplinary camps, I would like to highlight several periods in which sharing modes of investigation and analysis led to some of the most creative moments for people who self-identify as linguistic anthropologists or folklorists. Franz Boas told his students that documenting folkloric texts is a fundamental component of any serious ethnographic project. He edited the Journal of American Folklore (JAF) 1908-1924 and was President of the American Folklore Society (AFS) three times. Edward Sapir, who published extensive collections of texts and illuminated their poetics, was President of the American Anthropological Association and AFS. Boas student Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men developed a sophisticated framework for analyzing cultural poetics. Her experimental ethnographic style challenged readers to think in new and complex ways. Dell Hymes’ ethnography of speaking transformed work in anthropology, folkloristics, and linguistics; he served as President of the AAA, the AFS, and the Linguistic Society of America. In 1958, Américo Paredes, a major figure in the book, pushed cultural poetics beyond a nationalistic focus on shared culture to focus on race, difference, borders, and violence. His later work examined how insensitivity to genre, performance, and multilingualism prompted White anthropologists to scientize anti-Mexican stereotypes. Richard Bauman galvanized scholarship in a range of disciplines with the notion of performance. During his editorship (1981-1985), JAF became one of the leading venues for publishing work in linguistic anthropology. In the 1990s, Dick and I tied to push the analytic limits of poetics and performance through notions of entextualization and de- and re-contextualization.
Unfortunately, such dialogues often fell victim to disciplining processes that harden into competing scholarly identities, thereby reproducing premises and imposing limits to theory-building and ethnographic research. Rather than trying to drag linguistic anthropologists into folkloristics, Unlearning seeks to reinvigorate these conversations in such a way as to challenge scholars—whatever disciplinary identity they claim—to venture across boundaries. It poses a particular challenge to linguistic anthropology. Even as a great deal of experimental writing has emerged in social/cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropologists generally seem a bit phobic about disrupting conventional styles of scholarly writing. In the Introduction, Dear Dr. Freud, and provocations scattered throughout the book, I challenge linguistic anthropologists to shake things up, textually. The point is less to claim the mantle of experimental writing than to circumvent intellectual roadblocks that sometimes become insoluble when thinking gets forced into conventional rhetorical boxes.
Ilana Gershon: And if I can indulge in an abrupt transition to the contemporary moment, how can a study of pandemics be enhanced by an attentiveness to the analytical insights of scholars of mediatization?
Charles L. Briggs: Studying pandemics: ouch! I ended up, by accident, in the middle of a cholera epidemic in a Venezuelan rainforest in 1992, in which hundreds died. I then stumbled, unsuspectingly, into an outbreak of bat-transmitted rabies in the same area that killed scores of children and young adults. In each case, linguistic and medical profiling were woven together in fatal ways, constraining efforts by dedicated clinicians and justifying, to use Arachu Castro’s and Merrill Singer’s phrase, unhealthy health policies. After collaborating with Venezuelan public health physician Clara Mantini-Briggs to help stop the dying and counter the devastating social, political, and psychological effects of these outbreaks, Clara and I conducted years of research seeking to figure out what had happened. Clinical interactions, health education, and media coverage played crucial roles in deepening the communicative and health inequities that multiplied deaths and obscured underlying causes. I am pleased to say that Stories in the Time of Cholera is now often used to teach medical students. The concept of “communicative justice in health” developed in Tell Me Why My Children Died: Rabies, Indigenous Knowledge, and Communicative Justice—grounded in linguistic anthropology analytics and ethnographic techniques—has helped push scholars and practitioners of medical anthropology, medicine, and public health to think more seriously and critically about what they often had dismissed as mere issues of language and communication.
Then along came H1N1 (“swine flu”) in April 2009. Although the virus killed fewer people than most seasonal influenzas, it infected most people on the planet communicatively through a barrage of public health announcements and news coverage. Anthropologists analyzed H1N1 as a quintessential manifestation of the “emergency preparedness” regime that transforms health and medicine into questions of security. Although H1N1’s life as a mediated phenomenon loomed larger than its viral impact, anthropologists generally left this component out of their ethnography and analyses. In a book I co-authored with media scholar Daniel Hallin, Making Health Public, I explored how “the H1N1 pandemic” embodied communicability in complex ways. Public health officials suggested that viral circulation could only be contained if the scientific information they produced was intensively circulated and publics demonstrated their compliant reception through hand washing and other prevention measures. I was particularly interested in two effects of the massive disjunction between the two sides of H1N1 communicability. First, lay publics to this day deem the much greater prevalence of H1N1’s discursive over viral effects as evidence that journalists “hype” or “sensationalize” news of epidemic diseases. Secondly, journalists, health professionals, and laypersons alike reproduced an ideological separation between communication versus medicine. My ethnographic work suggested that U.S. journalists, health officials, clinicians, Homeland Security officials, and politicians had, through massively funded rehearsals, developed shared practices for creating discourse about biosecurity “events.” A chapter in Unlearning analyzes how these actors collaborated in constructing “the H1N1 pandemic” in just 24 hours, even before more than the scantiest scientific evidence was available. Drawing on science studies and European and Latin American media studies theory, Hallin and I analyzed this phenomenon as biomediatization. We used the concept to trace how pandemic and other discourse ideologically projects separate or even opposing media/communication and scientific/medical arenas, yet simultaneously entwines logics and practices of journalism, medicine, public health, and homeland security.
And here we are in the midst of “the big one,” the COVID-19 pandemic that seems to have brought germ thrillers to life and justified the securitization of public health. The pandemic’s mediatization would seem to be the communicable opposite of H1N1, in the sense that the circulation of media discourse and viruses have both been extraordinarily high. Would attentiveness to the mediatization of pandemics suggest, however, that a magical convergence of epidemiology and mediatization has been achieved? Seven months of intensive ethnographic work on the pandemic suggests that the situation is more complex and contradictory. Rather than playing his assigned role in the pandemic biomediatization-industrial complex, as did President Barak Obama in 2009, Donald Trump displaced the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the government’s communicable center. He rather held daily White House “Coronavirus Briefings” in which he not only sparred with top medical advisor Anthony Fauci but violated the CDC’s Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication rules one by one. Sites and processes of biomediatization multiplied and clashed as social media and conservative journalists circulated discursive forms that get stigmatized as “misinformation” and “conspiracy theories.” Moreover, patients—particularly those experiencing the “long COVID” symptoms that have proved difficult for physicians to interpret and treat—developed sites of collaborative knowledge production through social media.
I want to use Michael Silverstein’s analytics in addressing your question. The official pandemic biomediatization-industrial complex presupposes ideological models of medicine, communication, and media. In “normal” times, U.S. health communication pictures self-interested, agentive, rational individuals who consume health-related information and services. Pandemic discourse contrastively presupposes what Hallin and I called a “biomedical authority” model that constructs elite health professionals as knowledge producers and a linear, unidirectional process of converting it into “communication,” translating it into lay registers, and transmitting it to publics. However, the SARS-CoV-2 virus proved so challenging that claiming a monopoly on knowledge production and communication was near impossible: scientists and clinicians were forced to admit uncertainty and drastically revise prior conclusions, even as health officials frequently changed guidelines.
Sustaining this ideological landscape was also complicated by a massive shift in the pragmatics of mediatization. In 2009, most U.S. residents drew primarily on television news and newspapers for H1N1 updates, arenas largely dominated by biomedical and public health professionals; only 17% said they mainly used the internet, where competing (“conspiracy theory”) explanations were more prevalent. For both H1N1 and COVID-19, health officials used “crisis and emergency risk communication” metapragmatics to channel public affects and convince laypersons that their survival depended on surrendering claims to be knowledge producers. In 2020, attempts to use a narrow, standardized metapragmatic register to shape the pragmatics of media landscapes that were being scrambled by political polarization and shifts in media technologies, practices, and economics were designed to fail. As we enter the pandemic’s third year, the official pandemic biomediatization-industrial complex seems to be losing its grip even on people who accepted masks and vaccines.
Given the early stage of my COVID-19 research, I cannot offer any fast and sweeping generalizations. I do hope, however, that the book’s perspectives on circulation, mediatization, coloniality, poetics and performance, and communicability might inspire readers to find new ways of documenting and analyzing the vast and complex issues of our day, given that their consequences will be felt for years to come. I also hope that my efforts to reshuffle the disciplinary deck will inspire readers to inhabit boundaries and forge new types of collaborations. Thank you, Ilana, for challenging me to rethink what I hoped to accomplish with Unlearning.
Ilana Gershon: In what sense are Proust and the other authors you discuss – Balzac, Eliot, Woolf — attuned to what linguistic anthropologists know talk can do in the world?
Michael Lucey: I think all those writers had, in their lives, a lot of practical experience of salon culture, or other kinds of social rituals (dinner parties, garden parties, receptions, visits) where talk was very formalized. And I think part of what made them great novelists was their ability to abstract themselves from their circumstances and start to think about what was going on as people talked to each other in these contexts, and in ways that might sometimes seem, to an uninformed observer or even when you are caught up in it, pointless or inane or insignificant. Then they had to think about how to write this down, and how to make it part of a novel. The work of writing these scenes of talk must have been instructive. In their different manners, Balzac, Eliot, Woolf, Proust would find ways to frame such a scene so that they could focus on its internal poetics or so that they could develop a sense of how what was going on in that scene might be linked to preceding or subsequent scenes of talk they would also compose.
Now of course they are composing these scenes of talk, as opposed to transcribing them. Maybe they include bits of language that they’ve overheard and remembered, but I think mostly their compositional effort involve finding ways to convey what they have grasped about the social poetics of talk, or the way a scene of talk can function within a narrative structure. And one thing that narrative structure could be said to be about would be tracking interdiscursivity – how one ritual scene of talking could be linked to another. Another would be the question of the indeterminacy or non-finalization of context: a narrative surrounds talk with context, but also allows the context to shift as the narrative continues. (Think of the important function of rereading in coming to understand a novel. The context has shifted the second time you read a scene, especially if you’ve read the rest of the novel by that point.)
Often people like to say that novels deal with certain cultural topics: adultery, inheritance, ambition, social mobility, some kind of historical crisis or transformation. Bakhtin, on the other hand, wrote once that “the novel can be defined as a diversity of social speech types (sometimes even diversity of languages) and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized.” It’s really good to keep that angle in mind. Probably novels are multifunctional, so no definition is going to capture all of it, but the novelists I write about seem to be interested in the artistic arrangement of speech types as part of a project of understanding large social phenomena that happen in part through language being used.
But also it’s good to remember that novelists are craftspersons who learn their craft by studying other novelists. And composing scenes of talk can be thought of as a kind of acquired skill. There’s a moment in an interview of Ali Smith by Gillian Beer where Beer asks about a dinner party scene in one of Smith’s novels, There but for the, and Smith recounts how she mapped out the table before writing the scene and adds that she had just read “Penelope Fitzgerald talking about Lawrence.” Fitzgerald says, according to Smith, that “Lawrence is good with more than three people in a room. Not very many writers can do more than three people in conversation.” (But Proust could! And Woolf!) So that set Smith to wondering if she could have a dinner party with nine people and keep up “a rhythm.” Novelists don’t necessarily need to read Goffman on frames for interaction (although maybe some of them do). They get to that idea by reading other novelists and deciding what works and what doesn’t, or how something can be made to work.
Ilana Gershon: This book is, in a sense, about “how the experience of social reality can be communicated in a literary work such as a novel.” Could you say a bit about what this approach lets you know about the novel as a genre?
Michael Lucey: There are so many different ways of reading novels. If I want to insist (as I do) that someone like Proust or Balzac is using the novel as a way of conveying a certain experience of social reality, part of my effort has to be pedagogical, showing how to read in order to access this experience that these novels can offer – but that the novels don’t necessarily offer to all readers. I think, for instance, that many people, ones with certain kinds of entitlements, like to move through the world (both the material and the social world) without having to pay too much attention to the social forces they are encountering and interacting with. Some people aren’t allowed not to pay attention, of course. So there aren’t just novels out there in the world, there are also ways of reading novels. We could say that the novel as a genre is a social achievement, and so are ways of reading novels. The experience of social reality can only be communicated by a novel if a way of reading that is attuned to that experience can be brought to bear upon it. And of course different novels understand social reality differently. For instance, the naturalist novel (say Zola or Dreiser or Wright) is often characterized as intently focused on the inevitability of certain outcomes due to implacable social structures and to social forces that cannot be resisted. This can make them frustrating to read for some. The novelists I’m writing about seem more aligned with Bourdieu’s observation that the social world is “a space of immanent tendencies” such that “everything is not equally possible or impossible for everyone at any given moment.” They are interested in how the virtual topography of that social space might be brought home to a reader. Representing scenes of talk interdiscursively linked across time and involving a number of principal speakers also moving through time and social space is one strategy for revealing that topography. These novels suggest that there are instruments that can give us access to an otherwise virtual social topography, and a novel can be an instrument like that.
Ilana Gershon: In attending to novels with the tools linguistic anthropologists have honed, what kind of translation work did you have to do? How does having an author in the mix change the analysis?
Michael Lucey: Literary criticism has notions like text vs. subtext (“what is the subtext here?”) or denotation vs. connotation, or explicit vs. implicit forms of meaning, or style, or tone, or even intertextuality, that open onto linguistic anthropological territory, but not usually in a systematic way and not always in a way that allows you to think not only about the internal workings of a text but also about its own ongoing entextualization(s). There is also sometimes a tendency to treat literary texts as sacred aesthetic artifacts that house various mysteries; there can also be a tendency to view context as a fixed explanatory frame linked to a text’s original circumstances. So one challenge is to make sure that contextualization, entextualization, indexical presupposition and indexical entailment, speech genre and ritual as they are understood by linguistic anthropologists (along with concepts such as language ideology or metapragmatic function or indexical order) don’t get assimilated to already existing understandings in the field of literary criticism. This involves subtle shifts in how you think about the literary object of analysis and those shifts can be hard to hold onto.
Authors and narrators are a fun part of the challenge of translating linguistic anthropological concepts and methods into the study of the novel. Of course we know, in a basic sociology of literature kind of way that authors have their own situation from which they “speak.” We can also think of novelists as “in conversation” with other novelists or with writers of other kinds. As Bakhtin said, “the novel as a whole is an utterance just as rejoinders in everyday dialogue or private letters are…” But – and this is the important aspect for What Proust Heard — it is an utterance that includes other imagined utterances. Then what the concept of “narrator” adds is the idea that the entirety of a novelistic utterance can be taken to be constructed by the author as someone else’s—an imaginary someone else usually.
If you spend time with Proust’s correspondence or with biographies of him, you learn not just that he was an attentive listener, but that he was an amazing talker, and that sometimes he would find himself engaged in outlandish and excessive social interactions that included frenzied verbal exchanges that rival anything to be found in his novel. Indeed, it seems clear that he transposes some of his own social and verbal excesses into his novel – sometimes assigning them to the narrator, but sometimes also to other characters. It is as if he was experimenting with hearing himself, with trying to understand what he might have sounded like to differently attuned ears, or what something he said might sound like if said by somebody not quite like him. So his novel becomes, in part, a representation of multi-perspectival listening. If linguistic anthropology is attentive to the differences that can be discovered in different ways of saying the “same” thing, Proust’s novel is interested in something related: different ways of hearing the “same” sounds. Sometimes those sounds are linguistic ones, but they might also be musical ones, or other kinds of sound. Proust’s novel is not just an investigation of how to hear other people’s language; it also investigates why certain people hear what they do and why other people hear something else.
Ilana Gershon: You analyze narrators who track talk in ways similar to linguistic anthropologists, even exercising a talent for verbatim re-contextualizations that is a professional necessity for linguistic anthropologists. What does Proust suggest about what the consequences might be for living life with the attentiveness of a Bourdieu-loving linguistic anthropologist?
Michael Lucey: Once when I was given a talk based on some of the material that went into What Proust Heard, one of my friends in the audience said afterwards something to the effect of, “it’s enough to make you scared to ever speak again.” And it’s true that you might not exactly want to have the experience of “someone like you” listened to by someone like Proust and then finding yourself reading a novelistic transposition of “what you sound like.” In What Proust Heard in the last interlude where I’m looking at novelists other than Proust, I take up Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. That trilogy an example – quite different from Proust, but in a revelatory way – of a novelist who represents people talking in a way that is a little scary because of what she is capable of hearing in the speech of others. Definitely don’t strike up a conversation with her on a train or a plane or at a party – unless the experience of hearing yourself heard that might result from it is one you could depersonalize in a salutary kind of way. Could you manage to find it interesting to learn what people like you sound like to someone like Cusk’s narrator?
But I think on a more general level this is about learning to respect the complexity of the phenomenon of language-in-use. It might seem like novels, which take complex verbal exchanges and render them as written representations of imaginary instances of direct or indirect discourse (accompanied to varying degrees by novelistically-styled pragmatic and metapragmatic commentary) would have a tendency to over-emphasize the view that language mainly serves to communicate thoughts and feelings, or perhaps that it allows people to deceive other people in dastardly ways, or to enable the pursuit of personal or group ambition. But then you encounter a novelist like Proust, or a lesser-know novelist like Robert Pinget, whom I wrote about in my earlier book, Someone, and you see that these novelists didn’t just listen to individual speakers. They listened to worlds of talk in and through which individual speakers moved, and they found ways of writing novels to convey what that way of listening might mean. And so they can really inspire you to think: wow, I wonder if I could listen like that, and if I did, what I would hear.
Ilana Gershon: How do you engage with the psychological in What Proust Heard?
Michael Lucey: I guess I might say that novelists like Proust or Pinget, or even Cusk or Woolf, encourage an attention to the sociological side of the psychological. Concept of “psychologies” are, after all, social facts, cultural concepts that organize our listening and our processing of what we hear. So, of course, we hear “the psychological” when we listen to other people. But if we notice that other people hear the same sounds differently, then we might start to think that what we hear as psychological is, to some extent, indexical of something about us and our own positioning in culture. Proust’s novel is so often read as a deep psychological exploration of the narrator’s experience of the sensory world, the social world, and of time. And of course it is that. But it also turns out to be about the linguistic registers that make the conveyance of that experience possible and about how they interact with other registers–both proximate and distant; it is about how you acquire a register in which to register your version of psychological experience, how you came to that register, how you master it, how you address people from inside it, how you recruit people to it, and so on. There’s a way in which Proust’s novel becomes a rich occasion for thinking about the interactivity of the sociological and the psychological – an interactivity that can be investigated through a linguistic anthropological analysis. It’s perhaps the same kind of interactivity that exists between the concepts of habitus and field for Bourdieu.
Ilana Gershon: Are some literary texts more amenable to this analytical toolkit than others?
Michael Lucey: Well, I think you can always, as a reader, be listening to what a given novelist sounds like, how their novels sound, how their characters sound. Flaubert, for instance, wrote in his letters about how much he hated dialogue in novels, and critics have calculated that whereas a Balzac novel might be comprised of around 50% dialogue, Madame Bovary is only somewhere around 20%, perhaps because Flaubert found there to be something aesthetically debased about spending too much time writing dialogue. You can’t turn to Flaubert’s novel for the kind of study of language-in-use that you can find in Balzac or Proust. But Flaubert is also famous for his obsession with how his sentences sounded; he had a practice of declaiming them persistently to make sure they sounded appropriate to him, to make sure they conveyed what he wanted them to convey on some level other than the denotational one. He talked about his work in his gueuloir, gueule being a term for mouth in a very informal register, as if he had to get a mouth-feel and/or an ear-feel for his sentences before he could be satisfied with them. We might think of this practice as a one of linguistic improvisation, where the resources of a linguistic habitus are mobilized in the service of what were for Flaubert new kinds of indexical effects, as if he were aiming for utterances that could index an interplay of conflicting registers held tensely together by phonic and rhythmic effects. This is partly why Bourdieu finds Flaubert to be such a richly sociological writer, even though this might not have been Flaubert’s explicit aim. Bourdieu gives a marvelous description of what it might mean to listen closely to what Flaubert has done by “mak[ing] of writing an indissolubly formal and material search, trying to use the words which best evoke, by their very form, the intensified experience of the real that they have helped to produce in the very mind of the writer . . . oblig[ing] the reader to linger over the perceptible form of the text, with its visible and sonorous material, full of correspondences with a real that is situated simultaneously in the order of meaning and in the order of the perceptible.”
So I think you will have to choose the right tools from the toolkit, and refine them appropriately, to deal with each novel. You won’t be able to deal with Flaubert or Proust or James or Woolf or Baldwin or Morrison or Ali Smith or Marie NDiaye in the same way. But some version of the toolkit will probably always be illuminating.
My excitement quickly turned into disappointment when opening my printed thesis, “Culture on trial: an ethnographic study of the de/constructing of culture in Finnish law courts”, to page 99 to take this test. Starting with ‘Pihlajamäki’ and ending with ‘Riles’, the 99th page of my compilation thesis is part of the reference list. While the bibliography of a thesis is rarely its most exciting talking point, the page 99 does in fact provide me with a fitting point of departure to reflect on some of the core questions of the thesis. Indeed, a list of references undoubtedly draws from expertise and authority – the two qualities that are extremely central to the knowledge production practices connected to the criminal trials of my study too.
In my PhD research, I studied Finnish criminal trials that involved people from cultural minorities. I participated in thirty-eight trials, carried out five expert interviews and analysed the court decisions from 230 criminal cases. I studied the ways in which “culture” was explicitly invoked in a course of a trial and whose expertise was employed in the process. I examined, for instance, whose knowledge was employed when a court document stated that in “the Kurdish culture” verbal death threats are easily made. I found that in the studied trials no trained cultural experts, such as anthropologists, were utilised but instead informal cultural expertise played a significant role in some of the cases. Indeed, eyewitnesses and interpreters ended up acting as informal cultural experts at times which raises important questions on authority: who has the authority to make claims about cultures in trials?
In my thesis, I argue that anthropologists could have made welcome contributions to the “culture talk” of Finnish trials. Whether anthropologists want to offer their expertise in such cases, however, is another matter. Considering the ease with which “culture” becomes part of the everyday legal language in court, it is quite ironic how uneasy several anthropologists become when asked to participate in these discussions. Much of the international scholarship on cultural expertise stresses the dissatisfaction of anthropologists whose reflective accounts on cultural identities tend to be turned into stereotypes in legal argumentation (Hoehne, 2016; Loperena, 2020). My study suggests, however, that cultures are discussed in trials with or without the experts’ involvement and that involving trained cultural experts might help in steering the conversations on cultures into more informed directions. Perhaps anthropologists, then, could claim increased authority over culture in court in Finland – and elsewhere – in the future.
Cooke, T. (2021). Culture on trial: an ethnographic study of the de/constructing of culture in Finnish law courts. University of Oulu, PhD.
Hoehne, M. V. (2016). The strategic use of epistemological positions in a power-laden arena: Anthropological expertise in asylum cases in the UK. International Journal of Law in Context, 12(3), 253–271.
Loperena, C. A. (2020). Adjudicating indigeneity: Anthropological testimony in the inter-American court of human rights. American Anthropologist, 122(3), 595–605.
Ilana Gershon: This book is about the formation processes of algorithms. What, for you, was the sociological work involved in tracing how particular algorithms come to be, and why choose this focus over the effects of algorithms in people’s lives?
Florian Jaton: When I started to be interested in the topic of algorithms in 2013, there was already a substantial, and generally quite critical, literature on the social effects of algorithms. These important works studied the ways in which algorithms acted on our lives, while also emphasizing algorithms’ opacity. This sociological movement – whose peak might have been reached with the publication of Frank Pasquale’s masterful book The Black Box Society (2015) – was very important in making algorithms matters of public concern and in generating political affects. But already by 2013, it seemed – to me at least – that continuing with this systematic denunciation of the power of algorithms could be counterproductive. I was especially concerned that algorithms were mostly considered abstract and floating entities made of distant code and obscure mathematics. How indeed to act against abstract, floating, and obscure entities? The fact that the critical depiction of algorithms did not give them much empirical thickness made, in my opinion, a much-needed collective contestation difficult to carry out.
But I then realized the problem was mainly methodological: If algorithms looked disembodied, it was because they were most often considered from afar; from the offices of critical sociologists who observed them through their “official” accounts (reports, software, academic papers) purified of the fragile scaffolding that had previously contributed to their progressive shaping. This is where my training in science and technology studies(STS) was useful, since one of their basic postulates is to consider techno-scientific devices as the products of situated and accountable practices. A possible remedy to the disarming critical discourse on algorithms seemed then to lie in a drastic change of method, privileging the anthropology of science as framed, for example, by the in situ ethnographic works of Bruno Latour, Michael Lynch and Lucy Suchman, over distant document analysis (that yet remains important). In sum, to suggest new levers of action to better contest the powerful effects of algorithms, it seemed important to document, from the inside, some of the causes of these powerful effects.
A surprising element was that this problematization resonated with the concerns of computer scientists who worked in a polytechnical school close to my university. Some of them were quite aligned with my analysis on the limits of the then-current social debates on algorithms and saw the possibility to show the daily work of algorithmic design as an opportunity to present themselves more realistically. This fortunate convergence, which did not prevent me from having critical views, allowed me to stay for two years, as a participant observer, in a computer science laboratory (that I call the “Lab”) specialized in the construction of image processing algorithms.
Ilana Gershon: What analytical translational work were you required to do when using approaches developed to understand laboratory practices and using them to illuminate the work of computer programmers and mathematicians?
Florian Jaton: This inquiry was intended to be immersive, in the continuity of the ethnographic “lab studies” that participated in the initial development of STS. And as required by this specific analytical genre, I had to become, at minimum, competent in digital image processing, if only to speak adequately about issues that mattered to my informants and colleagues. Very quickly then, it appeared essential to follow an accelerated training in analysis and linear algebra (the main mathematics involved in signal processing, along with statistics) in order to be able to express myself in acceptable terms.
This minimal theoretical equipment coupled with the classic apparatus of the ethnographer (mainly notebooks, cameras, and audio recorders) allowed me to follow the daily work of the Lab for more than two years, conscientiously writing down observations and recording work sequences. And it is probably the long-time of the investigation – made possible by a doctoral fellowship – and a certain systematics in the note-taking that has made it possible to account for some of the practical courses of action – what I call “activities” – that participate, I believe, in the development of new algorithms, considered as cultural products.
Ilana Gershon: What methodological quandaries did you have to overcome to study computer programmers? What did you do?
Florian Jaton: To design and publish new algorithms, my colleagues at the Lab had to write symbols on numbered lists, an activity they called – not surprisingly – computer programming (or coding). Although they did not, by far, only do this – they also spent time designing databases, studying and discussing mathematical formulas, attending seminars and conferences, taking coffee breaks, and so on – programming was nonetheless an important part of their daily algorithmic design work. And as an ethnographer of this specific work, it was therefore important for me to accurately document these programming situations.
The problem that quickly arose was how to do it. Since the lines of code written during these situations were quite cryptic (I did not have a rigorous computer programming background at the time), it was extremely difficult to get a handle on what was going on. Also, these situations appeared to be quite engaging for the people involved, which often prevented me from interrupting them to ask questions about what they were doing. In short, during these moments that could be particularly intense, I was clearly out of place.
After discussing this methodological impasse during a weekly Lab meeting, it was collectively decided that I should attempt to design a small image-processing project that would echo other algorithmic research that was under development within the Lab. The purpose of this exercise was to force me to learn the basics of several programming languages as well as to try to apply some theoretical elements acquired during my accelerated training in signal processing (see question 2). But most importantly, this modest project also included a helping clause that allowed me to ask for assistance from Lab members whenever I was stuck in a programming impasse. This ad hoc method first allowed me to become more familiar with several programming languages, which was a prerequisite for the close analysis of their mobilization in situ. But it also made the Lab members more comfortable during the programming situations I was trying to document. Since the project was collectively designed and could, potentially, be used for future algorithms and papers, the Lab members found it relatively relevant. Finally, and most importantly, this method allowed me to better equip and document programming situations: in addition to keeping notes describing the actions of the computer scientist programming next to me, I could also record my computer monitors as well as the discussions taking place. And at the end of the eight helping sessions I needed during this small project, I obtained handwritten descriptions, video and audio recording that I could then thoroughly analyze (pending a huge transcription work).
Ilana Gershon: You point out that for mathematics to be relevant to our daily world, a cascade of translations have to occur to connect mathematical knowledge to actants people interact with regularly. Which translations do you think are most relevant to track to understand the consequences of the coded algorithms people might encounter during any given week?
Florian Jaton: It is important to keep in mind that what algorithms generate, and what they work upon, are digital data signals that require a very specific ecology in order to circulate and, eventually, produce differences. In this sense, many translations have to be done to, for example, render commensurable the statistics of, say, a Tweet (for example, its number of likes or retweets) and the relevance of its content. We may invest meaning in algorithmic products only by loosely assuming that this post circulates like all the other posts of all the other profiles and that the (small) world constituted by all these posts and profiles is a world that has value by and for itself; it is by building this whole chain of translations – while knowing, sometimes, their incongruity. In short, many consequences of coded algorithms require an active – and anthropologically fascinating – work of putting disparate elements (desires, small screens, icons, mobile computing infrastructures, communication protocols, and so on) into equivalence. And my feeling is that we tend to get used to these small translation efforts we make, to the point that we often don’t pay attention to them anymore.
Ilana Gershon: In what sense is this an insurgent book for you?
Florian Jaton: I guess the book is insurgent, or at least politically engaged, in two ways. First, it challenges the traditional conception of algorithms, as defended for example in theoretical computer science, and which presents algorithms as computerized procedures that transform inputs into outputs to solve problems in effective ways. By accounting for the concrete processes by which new algorithms come to be constructed, the inquiry shows that the material work of problematization – which includes, among other things, the creation of referential databases called ground truths – is an integral part of algorithmic development. Roughly put, we get the algorithms of our problematizations, that themselves rely upon material elements upon which one can act.
Also, the book is an attempt to get out of the disarming critical discourse asserting that algorithms are powerful because they are abstract and inscrutable. By proposing thick description of algorithmic design activities, along with theoretical and methodological tools to conduct, maybe, further ethnographic inquiries, the book intends to show that algorithms are very material devices, designed in specific places on which it is possible to impact.
Jonah Rubin: So much has been written about what media literacy scholars have termed our “information disorder” (Wardle and Derakhshan 2017). There is a general recognition that mis- and disinformation is rampant, threatening the shared epistemological foundations of many political communities. In The Truth Society, though, you don’t only focus on those who believe in conspiracy theories and misinformation. You see them as intimately connected with those who are “hyperinvested” in real science and reliable facts. Even in your opening vignette you focus not on the purveyors of untruths, but rather on the “soldiers of rationality” breaking mirrors in the public square as an anti-superstition performance. Why is it important (methodologically, theoretically, or both) for us to focus on what you call this “hyperrationalization,” an almost desperate pursuit of science, empiricism, and skepticism as well? Put otherwise, what do we miss when we exclusively train our analytic gaze on those who believe in false information?
Noelle Molé Liston:
Danger #1: We miss not fully recognizing the implications of the onslaught of information and algorithmic underpinnings of digital consumption. Access to information has meant both a democratization of access to information, that is, at least in basic sense along with the intensified customization and subsequent siloing of information. Yet with so much information, what became eroded was a basic sense of source appraisal, especially when industries were mastering pseudoscientific ways to uphold the oil and gas industry, and various “Big” Industries like Big Pharma, Big Sugar, Big Food, etc. Therefore, we saw that scientific information also became a site of “fake news” where under the guise of science, social actors might find so-called scientific studies to support the absence of climate change or the incredible health benefits of sugar. Thus, social actors who were already habituated to see science as true, rational, and reasonable, were being seduced with paid-for sponsored “fake” science, which I would argue, worked because of this enchantment of good science, a kind of facile belief that scientific rationality could seek and produce the truth. Without interrogating or becoming skeptical about why knowledge under the label of “science” can either be manipulated or outright fabricated, we fall prey to reifying–or even deifying–science itself.
Danger #2: We become “anesthetized” to our own embodied or phenomenological ways of knowing the world and, possibly, one’s own expertise. In my exploration of the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, one interlocutor was an architect with deep knowledge of both the territory and engineering. Yet she ignored her own sense of danger when she was reassured by scientists and fellow engineers, likening it to “numbing” her other ways of knowing she had typically relied upon. Why does this happen? Immense pressure was on the public to trust science and quell the existing pre-earthquake panic, not unlike ways the American public is currently scolded to “trust the science” during the pandemic. In both instances, maintaining social order relies on a continual investment in science as simple truth, so we have to interrogate how our own trust in science might be part of a mode of control and surveillance. It’s also become quite tricky on the left, as we want to allow space for healthy scientific skepticism but not indulge pseudoscience or conspiracies. If we fail to examine our own tendencies to exalt science as “big-T” True, then we risk reproducing the very regime of hyperinvestment in science.
Jonah Rubin: One major theme of the text is the ways that new media technologies – television news, the internet, algorithms – reshape the possibilities for politics. At times, it seems like these technologies open up new possibilities for political participation and populism. Other times, it seems like the technologies become new sites for the political imagination, such as the televised presentation of a golden tapir award or the infozombies. Could you elaborate a bit on how you see the relationship between new media and politics playing out?
Noelle Molé Liston: The book ends with the metaphor of the mirrored window world where the media consumers believe themselves to be accessing information openly and outwardly, but instead are regurgitated only algorithmic versions of information already catered to their likes, dislikes, and political leanings. In some ways, it seems important that the originality and bite of Italy’s “Striscia La Notizia” (The News is Spreading) satirical news show and Beppe Grillo’s blog were not data-driven media, that is, there was no predetermined customization or data-mining precipitating their creation, other than usual television ratings or blog views. But they were both examples of important political interventions: the former to critique then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the latter to build a grassroots political movement of the Five Star Movement. Plus, both were art forms insofar as they were driven by the humor and creativity of political actors, navigating a climate of television censorship by the very man they were poking fun at (Berlusconi), on the one hand, and engaging in-person political action vis-a-vis online content. By contrast, the more algorithmic media such as the Five Star Movement’s web portal program known as Rousseau, might mine member data and ideas in ways unknown to users. Perhaps not surprisingly, Luigi Di Maio, one of Five Star’s leaders who served as Co-Deputy Prime Minister, was accused of being a kind of android: chosen and styled according to user preferences from Rousseau. Put differently, the algorithmic regimes of new media fundamentally operate in ways that are buried and opaque to most users, which, in turn, makes it harder to discern their effects. More recently, Italy has also seen a quite intense anti-vax movement during the pandemic, which is likely the product of social media algorithms which funnel users into their own individualized information silos and boost posts because of “engagement” not veracity. The outside world can look so deceptively beautiful even though the forest is just our own faces. Twenty-first century idiom: you can’t see the faces through the forest?
Jonah Rubin: To me personally, one of the most productively challenging aspects of your book is your analysis of political humor. Many of us see political humor as inherently subversive, a way of mocking and therefore undermining the powerful. But in your book, especially in chapters 1 and 3, you suggest that humor can also breed a kind of political cynicism and even complicity that may reinforce hegemonic power structures. Could you tell us a bit more about your approach to the politics of humor? How should anthropologists and others study the politics of jokes, both the kinds we find funny and the kinds that may horrify us?
Noelle Molé Liston: It is true that I tend to adopt a cynical approach to political humor as my recent analysis of viral videos of Italian mayors funnily admonishing citizens to mask up effectively got laughs because they represented the “thwarted displacement of patriarchy and failed attempts, at every level of governance, to erect robust authoritarian control.” Part of this analytic, of course, is aligned with anthropological investigation of humor and satire as unintentionally bolstering entrenched power structures. It’s hard not to be so cynical when Berlusconi himself, whom I’ve argued won over Italians with his brash humor as a seemingly genuine presentation of an otherwise highly artificial political masquerader, almost had a comeback in his 2022 run for President of the Republic. (He ended up dropping out of the race). I remained concerned that “strong men” like Berlusconi and Trump use humor to manipulate and garner support, and diffuse criticism, resulting in a destabilization of how political humorists can have, as it were, the last laugh. How can political humor outsmart the absurdist clown? How will algorithmically filtered media consumption (re)shape the humor of consumers and voters?
One strategy might be in the satire of unlikely embodiment. One of Berlusconi’s best impersonators is Sabina Guzzanti, a woman 25-years Berlsconi’s junior who dons wigs and prosthetics to perfect her impression. In this clip, she refers to herself as a woman while in costume as Berlusconi, decrying that “her” failed bid for President was sexist. She is also one of his fiercest critics, especially in her account of his post-earthquake crisis management in L’Aquila. In the US, Sarah Cooper went viral for her videos in which she would lip synch to things Trump said without physically altering her appearance, so it was his voice, but her mouth, face, and body. In both cases, the performances do different kinds of political and symbolic work because of the surprisingly mismatched genders and bodies, which results in tension, long a characteristic of great humor, between laughter and discomfort. There is something powerful and effective about the dissonance of having women, and in Cooper’s case, a woman of color, speak the words of these misogynists that straight jokes and impressions (often by straight men) cannot achieve.
Jonah Rubin: In Chapters 5 and 6, you look at the tensions between scientific prediction and public governance, particularly in the Anthropocene. Here, you focus on the trial of a group of scientists who provide reassurances to the residents of L’Aquila, urging them to stay home prior to what ultimately turns out to be a deadly earthquake. At the time, the international press overwhelmingly presented this story as an irrational attack on science. But you see it as a more profound commentary on the changing role of science in the public sphere. How do shifts in our experience of the climate and in our media landscapes affect the relationship between science, politics, and law?
Noelle Molé Liston: Indeed I argue that the idea that Italians gullibly believe scientists could predict earthquakes helped export the narrative of the trial as anti-science. However, it was more about the form of the press conference which positioned authoritative scientific reassurances to quell the rising panic in L’Aquila. As we confront more acute environmental crises, there will be greater pressure on scientists to predict and manage risk, ascertain damage and crisis management, and weigh in on policy, as we’ve seen during the pandemic. But we don’t yet have a legal framework that might hold non-scientific or even scientific failures accountable. In L’Aquila, the actual non-scientific claim was their reassurance that no big earthquake would come and people should not evacuate. The Italian judiciary tried to make a connection between an authoritative sources’ public utterances and the fatal consequence of this misinformation: the listeners’ death. By contrast, Trump alone issued massive amounts of misinformation about the dangers of Covid but it would be entirely inconceivable, I think, that our judiciary hold him accountable for the resulting deaths. Why? Because of Trump-era politics or the American justice system, more broadly? How –and where–will the law shift to see misinformation as fatally consequential, legally punishable, or, at least, a public health crisis?
Jonah Rubin: The book centers on the ways fact and fiction are blurred during the Berlusconi and Grillo eras of Italian politics. But to me, the students in my class who read this text, and, I assume, many other readers in the United States will see strong resonances between what you describe in Italy and our own country’s experiences with President Trump and the “post-truth” era that American frequently associated with his rise to power. Of course, the balance between ethnographic specificity and comparison is as old as anthropology itself. With that caveat in mind: What do you see in your argument as particular to Italy and how do you think it applies to our recent and current experiences in the United States and around the world as well?
Noelle Molé Liston: Berlusconi as a precursor to Trump was a kind of historical instruction booklet. I often describe Berlusconi to Americans as “Trump + Bloomberg,” because Berlusconi owned his own media company, which was vital in his 1990s rise to power. However, the structure of Italian television broadcasting, where political parties divvied up news networks, was crucial in the mid-century rise of public cynicism towards television and print media. Ultimately, it sharpened a widely shared Italian assumption that any form of news has a political slant (decades before we were talking about spin). Put simply, the infrastructure of media matters. Most agree that Trump was tipped over the edge not by television masterminding like Berlusconi but because of social media manipulation. To be sure, Italy’s technopopulism of the Five Star Movement will likely expand in the US. Still, Italy seems to have suffered far less democratic backsliding than the United States, and maybe we could read this as hopeful premonition. But the US seems to have “left the chat” in terms of Italian influence. Italy’s fundamental rootedness in its unique mix of Catholic ethics, democratic social welfare, and pro-labor movements has somehow put voting rights and democratic institutions in a better place with respect to the US,with our Protestant ethic, anti-labor, and neoliberal demonization of welfare. Let’s also notice that there was no January 6th in Italy, no violent insurrection of people believing an election was stolen. Despite Italy’s international reputation as an “unstable democracy,” I’d feel more confident about proper counting of votes and the peaceful transfer of power in Italy than I would in our next US presidential election.
Jonah Rubin: This is less of a major point in your book, but on page 88, you note a common thread of political cynicism that ties together the foundational principles of media criticism – and, I would hasten to add, most media literacy education initiatives too – and the Five Star Movement’s attacks on science and news media, which find clear echoes in other right-wing populist movements around the globe. How do you think media criticism and education might be contributing to the deterioration of a shared epistemology? And might you have any suggestions on how media criticism and education need to shift in response to populist political movements which sound disturbingly close to their foundational insights?
Noelle Molé Liston: Just as the left needs to thread the needle in terms of science as I mentioned earlier, so, too, do well- intentioned plans for media literacy begin to sound like Trump’s refrain of referring to The New York Times as “fake news.” The problem is that people have lost an ability to discern between positioned information and misinformation. Plus, our regime of algorithmic newsfeeds just can’t handle the nuance. Just as postmodern theories of multiple, contested truth escalated to, or were perceived as, forms of absolute moral nihilism, so, too, has some healthy epistemological skepticism quickly become a truth vacuum. It reminds me of a moment when my student said she found statistics about police violence against Blacks on a white supremacist website. Why? I asked, horrified. She said it was because she trusted their information precisely because their anti-Black positionality was overt. We find this same mentality that makes Trump, one of the biggest liars and con-artists on the world’s stage, become trusted by his followers: the trust in manifest and easily legible opinions. What results, then, is greater trust in overtly positioned information sources like Fox News, and lesser trust in the vast majority of information mediums where the positionality is more complex, covert or semi-covert, and paradoxical. Media criticism and education needs to instruct on literacy practices where knowledge might be seen as positioned and framed, and move away from a binary of biased versus unbiased media. We also need to raise awareness about how information is algorithmically processed and customized to the user. Finally, we must recognize how corporate media regimes deliberately design decoys (eg. clickbait, customized ads) and mechanisms of addiction (eg. the no-refresh scroll function, TikTok) to keep data surveillance and its vast monetization for the benefit of astonishingly few people in place.