Alex Fattal on his book, Shooting Cameras for Peace

interview by Camilo Ruiz Sanchez

Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: It shook me to learn that the archive has almost disappeared and that what we are able to see today comes from 3% of its totality. Taking this into consideration, what would you say regarding the annihilation and destruction of archives with a strong popular character, such as the one built by Disparando Cameras para la Paz (DCP)? More concretely, what are the political effects of losing these types of archives?

Alex Fattal: I remember being on a research trip to Tumaco years ago and I stopped in a local church office that had been working with to document the violence there. They gave me a report they had written, which they had titled, “So Nobody Can Say, ‘Nothing Ever Happened Here.’ It’s determination to defy the structural constraints that erase the history of violence that the community had experienced was both admirable and a poignant reminder that such erasure is the default in communities across Colombia. Disparando Cámaras para la Paz (DCP) had the advantage of being closely connected to people who could ferry pieces of the archive around and keep pieces of it alive. Our key community partner, Corporación Social Fe y Esperanza, was constantly under threat. We left large parts of the archive with them, within a conscientious politics of keeping the archive in the community, but when the leaders needed to flee within hours because of an assassination attempt or when buildings were damaged because of the seasonal mudslides, large parts of the archive were lost forever. It’s very hard to prioritize archiving for most people who lead busy lives focused on the present and future, let alone for those living in extreme precarity and social abandon.

What are the political effects of erasure? The reproduction of what Loïc Wacquant has called the Centaur state, in which elites embody the democratic human head of the Centaur that calmly debates policy, while the torso and hooves of a horse below tramples discontent among the popular classes. Julián Gómez Delgado has argued that the recent National Strike protests portend a crack in this political formation. We’ll see. It’s been very resilient through Colombian history.

Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: In the book, you argue that DCP subverted a stereotypical perspective built by Colombian media outlets about impoverished youth affected by the Colombian armed conflict. I agree with you that the project succeeded in doing so. In this vein, I would like to know which particular aspects of the methodologies used helped the project most in subverting these stereotypes and why you think these methods and techniques prompted different narratives that contested national media outlets.

Alex Fattal: Well, it’s complex and the book tries to linger on that complexity. DCP benefited greatly from media attention even as it was frustrating to see the same tropes of helpless victimhood recycled and reapplied to children and the displaced community. It was precisely those tropes that we set out to challenge. In short, I’m not sure we really affected dominant structures of mediation in any sustained way.

What I’ve learned in working with DCP and its sister organization, the AjA Project, and being immersed in the world of participatory photography is that it’s not enough to redistribute access to technology. To really subvert a discursive formation requires taking control of the story with more concerted attention to narrative and partnering with others who want to change a particular narrative structure. Though that’s far from what we managed to do with DCP, I do think we inspired others to work with participatory media methods. A few years after I started DCP, other participatory photography projects started cropping up in different parts of the country. A rise in interest in participatory media has contributed to independent and alternative media environment in Colombia, a contribution which has since been mixed into the digital tsunami. To build on a popular Colombian adage, we contributed a few grains of sand and they are now swirling in the current media storm.

Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: I am under the impression that all the material presented was captured and created with analog technologies. What would you say are the technical and aesthetic advantages and disadvantages of working with analog photography, taking into consideration that photography has become mostly digital nowadays? 

Alex Fattal: Yes, DCP was almost entirely analog, which I think really played in its favor. The big problem with digital photography is that it appears limitless. I’m a big proponent of seeing limitations as creative opportunities and the students took the constraints of working with light sensitive paper, recycled jars, and rolls of film and transforming those supplies into inspiring images. Over the years, our different dark rooms in El Progreso were always sacred spaces where the students loved to work, loved to develop their images under the red safe lights. Jenny Fonseca who worked with DCP did a beautiful docu-animation film called FotoSensible: La Familia de Viviana about one of our students that showed how magic a space the darkroom was. When I first started DCP, I took the students to the darkroom at Universidad de los Andes and the university students each taught one of the young people from Altos de Cazucá how to develop — it was a beautiful if fleeting moment of radical cross-class collaboration.

When I went back to speak to former participants about their memories of the project, they all emphasized the pinhole photography and recalled how rumor had spread across the hills that there is a group of kids who were turning boxes, cans, and jars into cameras and how exciting that was. (Those conversations inspired me to turn a truck into a giant pinhole camera and make my most recent film, Limbo.) How do you create similar magic with digital photography? It’s hard. It’s something we’ve been thinking about a lot at the AjA Project and my sense is the answer lies in shifting the focus away from photography itself and more toward a project of which photography is but a part, thinking of it as a medium to be used creatively and strategically, combining digital and more tactile approaches.

Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: Colombia has a long-standing tradition of Participatory Action Research (PAR), which has permeated the arts; to name just a few, there is the work of Prof. Orlando Fals Borda and cinematographer Victor Gaviria. However, your text is not in dialogue with local theories, ideas, or works of artists, academics, and grassroots organizations that have used PAR in Colombia. Why? Furthermore, how do you think DCP fits or does not fit within local trajectories of PAR?

Alex Fattal: Your criticism is valid. I’m not aware of a history of PAR and photography in Colombia prior to 2001 and I was stuck on the medium specificity of photography. I wanted to keep the discussion focused on the emergent participatory photography literature in different parts of the world that now includes a large set of projects with books (though many of these are more celebratory in orientation).

Also, I’ve worked in Colombia long enough to know how large and dense the work on PAR is and didn’t think I could do it justice in a shorter text. Though I take up questions of self-representation in the literature on indigenous media in North American anthropology, I could have done more with the history of visual anthropology in Colombia, especially the work of Marta Rodriguez. Perhaps the text would have been stronger if I did that connective work, but I didn’t want to bog it down in too much academic jargon, thinking especially about readers from the community. I also figured I would leave the PAR research to people like Joanne Rappaport who has done such outstanding multi-media work on/with Orlando Fals Borda and his archive. My response is similar when thinking about Victor Gaviria and the discussions of realism in Latin American cinema, which has been a prominent thread in Latin American Film Studies; I didn’t feel equipped to deal with it succinctly and do it justice.

In the end, I was most interested in the organizational form of the national NGO — caught between the scale of international donors and practitioners, such as myself, and the local — as a mediator of the project through the years and analyzing the different iterations of the NGO and struggles within it to push back against the idea that participatory media projects are unmediated, more authentic, more real. Though they aren’t conditioned by an owner’s political agenda, and editor’s sense of what is important, or what is palatable to advertisers, as is the case with photojournalism, I’ve seen how the different backgrounds of the staff and demands of funding and reporting all influenced how the curriculum was developed, how the workshops were organized, and so on. So my engagement is with some of the literature on the anthropology of humanitarianism, but again, its done in a way so as not to be overbearing and off-putting to a broader audience.  

PAR does come into the story of the national NGO. Many of the talleristas who taught the students over the years were coming from public universities and bringing their PAR training to bear. In the text I reference this tension in DCP through the years as one in which tense conversations emerged about how much local control the project should have. Those who were coming with a PAR background (as key facilitators coming from outside the community) and urging total local control were generally coming from a left perspective and wanting to make the project more about denuncias, human rights-oriented denunciations. When that perspective began to win out, the repression on the project would increase — not surprisingly. Given the narco-paramilitarization of the area, which hasn’t abated, and given the fact that the project worked with youth who were already struggling to avoid the gangs that often operated as proxies for armed groups, I tended to find myself arguing for a more hybrid model tailored to the contradictory demands of the context. If you read the text closely, I think that comes through. The book tries to stay with the gray areas of DCP’s experience through the years by plying the boundary of insider and outsider perspectives as a case study in the niche world of participatory photography studies, which is the book’s center line.

Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: Finally, have you been able to share this book with the DCP photographers, and if so, what have their reactions been? If not, are you planning on doing so, and if yes, how?

Alex Fattal: Some of the DCP photographers helped to identify information about the photos that was lost in the archiving process and I shared preliminary selections of the images with them. But as a published book, not yet. The book was printed in the US in December of 2020 and because of the pandemic and inter-institutional difficulties, it took as a few months to get distribution in Colombia figured out. The book will be printed and distributed in Colombia starting in September 2021 with Universidad del Rosario Press.

In addition to book events in Bogotá and perhaps other cities, I’d like to do an event with the Casa de la Cultura in Soacha, where DCP had its first exhibit. I remember fighting with the mayor’s office to get the money for the busses to bring the students in for the opening and the office insisting on singing the municipal anthem; this from a local government that didn’t recognize their responsibly to provide services to the students or their families. In 20 years, much has changed. Some students have moved down the hill to apartment complexes in Soacha, some are still living in the hills. Most of the youth now have kids of their own at this point. Once the pandemic clears, I would love to distribute copies of the book in person and talk with former DCP participants about the work with the distance of time.

In digital conversations I’ve had with some of them while preparing the book or around social media discussions that I’ve seen, they seem to look at the photos the way I look at my high school yearbook, with the nostalgia surrounding a time capsule, but with the added sense of how profoundly difficult life was back then. The early 2000s, as you know and as I briefly contextualize in the book, was a very difficult period. The project served over 1,000 students through the years, I hope I can share the book with as many of them as possible. The imminent distribution in Colombia is a start.

Beyond the community itself, I would note that it’s a bilingual book (shout out to Andy Klatt and María Clemencia Ramírez for their wonderful translation) and the Colombian and Latin American audiences have always been very important to me.

Caroline McKusick takes the page 99 test

I find myself, on page 99, in the middle of a crisis of translation. Unsurprising, given that my “in” to dissertation fieldwork resembled that of many anthropologists, who often find their place among their interlocutors as translators. In my case, working at an all-women news agency in Kurdistan, it was as a translator of a particular kind: of languages, but also of feminisms.

I first met the journalists of JINHA when I traveled to Turkey in 2013 to research the alarming crackdown on journalists, mostly radical Kurdish journalists, who were being tried on trumped-up charges of terrorist affiliation—which the Turkish state often uses to criminalize Kurdish communities by association with the Kurdish guerrilla, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). (Today, after the all-out war the Turkish state has waged on journalists since 2015, including shutting down JINHA and imprisoning its founder, the artist Zehra Doğan, those trials seem like a prelude.)

I was introduced to two journalists from the newly founded JINHA (Women’s News Agency). They were shocked that I, as a woman, was tagging along with their male colleagues rather than engaging with their all-women media project based in Diyarbakır, in Kurdistan. Soon enough I had signed on as their new English translator. It was my job to translate their stories, and with it their concept (formed through the Kurdish women’s movement) of “the world of women”—the world of everyday solidarities and resistance among women working to survive the patriarchy, often sidelined by what misogynistic journalism considered newsworthy.

It was my task to translate this world of women for “the women of the world,” and it was not easy. If I translated the news reports directly, they were illegible out of context. I grapple with this on page 99:

“Part of the problem, I realized, was present already in the Turkish-language original text (the bulk of JINHA’s output is composed in Turkish). These texts constantly had an imagined Turkish reader in mind. Of course they imagined a Kurdish reader, as well; the women who wrote them had a deep knowledge of Kurdish women’s experience, and wrote and worked out of a passion for the Kurdish women around them. But they also had a keen knowledge of the dominant group, Turkish women, whom they had seen on TV as the models of ‘womanhood’ since they were children, whom they had often grown up alongside in their urban Istanbul neighborhoods, or marched with in university. They could write equally for this audience as for Kurdish women. So in a way, the news itself was already being translated in its instance of creation into the respectability politics of state feminism, the Turkish left, and the feminisms of that context. It was into this already-tangled communication between ‘women of the world’ that I stepped, into its image of ‘womanhood’ that overrode all individual experiences to point out the shared suffering rather than the differences.”

I found myself bumping up against various intimate differences among women along class and racialized lines, which the category of woman was bridging. Over the course of my fieldwork, I absorbed JINHA’s urgency for translating the project of women’s journalism near and far, and took it upon myself to translate and select stories that I imagined might speak widely too. My dissertation ultimately argues that JINHA, through their newsmaking, crafted new kinds of women subjects, by making women speak as women, as part of an imagined community of women. As I became a translator of the world of women, I became crafted into this kind of subject myself.

Caroline McKusick. 2020. In the Kitchen: Kurdish Women Journalists and the Gendered Subject. University of California, Davis, Phd.

Caroline McKusick is currently Assistant Editor at Stanford University Press.

Nick Harkness on his book, Glossolalia and the Problem of Language

Interview by Hyemin Lee

Hyemin Lee: I am curious about how this book will circulate among a broader audience interested in the problem of language. You argue that the anthropological study of glossolalia should be centered around conceptualizing glossolalia as cultural semiosis. As you put it, this cultural semiosis “is said to contain, and therefore can be justified by, an ideological core of language, but in fact is produced at the ideological limits of language” (7). That is, when Korean Christians posit glossolalia as language, this is only possible because glossolalia challenges assumptions of what is fundamentally necessary about language. Thus, you offer an analytical framework that locates both glossolalia’s denotational unintelligibility and cultural intelligibility within the production of an experience of language. How would you envision your argument to be taken up by future scholars in and outside of anthropology who study and work on the problem of language?

Nick Harkness: First of all, thank you for engaging so seriously and carefully with this book. It is a great opportunity to discuss it with a linguistic anthropologist who specializes in the study of Korea! And I appreciate your crisp characterization of my attempt: “readers are presented with an analytical framework that locates both glossolalia’s denotational unintelligibility and cultural intelligibility within the production of an experience of language.” Your first question goes straight to the problem of language as an existential and practical issue for human social groups everywhere. This issue has led to two crucial insights in anthropology. The first is that language is a dynamic complex of structure, practice, and ideology—what Michael Silverstein called the “total linguistic fact.” The second is that this dynamic complex consists of different kinds of signs; some will be relatively unique to language, and others will resemble broader sociocultural processes. This book combines these two insights by situating glossolalia within a broader linguistic, communicational, and semiotic context. This meant connecting it ethnographically and historically to the specificities of language (especially Korean), and to markedly non-linguistic practices both within the churches and beyond them. Glossolalia is interesting generally because it suppresses some of the signs that are most unique to, and thought to be necessary for, language. In South Korea, glossolalia is practiced across Protestant Christian communities, well beyond the kinds of Pentecostal or Charismatic groups normally represented in the literature. And a language like Korean and a linguistic context like South Korea present a stark contrast to the residual European (heavily Anglophone) linguistic ideologies that typically shape how language is dealt with (or not dealt with) in the scholarship on glossolalia. I treat glossolalia less as a defining feature of charismatic Christianity (which of course would be the obvious comparative approach) and instead see it as a telling feature of South Korean social life in the 20th and early 21st centuries, which was given a specific shape and amplified by Christianity’s massification and diversification there. The problem of language in this model quickly becomes the problem of the social.

Hyemin Lee: Your new book reminds me of your first book, Songs of Seoul. I would like to know more about connections between your research projects. How did you come to research glossolalia? And how is glossolalia related to your first book’s fieldwork?

Nick Harkness: You’re absolutely right. The two books could be read together as a two-volume set on voice and religion in Christian South Korea. Although the specific forms and institutional centers discussed in each book differ, the populations are continuous, and so too the practices. My research in South Korea began with an empirical question about the number and relative success of South Korean singers of European-style classical (especially operatic) music on international stages. These singers led me to the Protestant churches of Seoul, especially the affluent middle and upper-class (usually Presbyterian) megachurches, where most of them sang. And my first book became a study of human artistic vocality shaped by Korean Christianity (major fieldwork in 2008-9). These same singers, and the churches more broadly, led me to study glossolalia (major fieldwork in 2013-14), because I began to notice, with surprise, how many of them, their family members, and friends, spoke in tongues or participated in Christian settings where tongues were spoken—despite their Presbyterian church affiliations and upper-class, educated identities. The first book was oriented to the relationship between registers and genres of singing and a specific kind of (generally aspirational) social voicing, and the second was oriented to the relationship between registers and genres of speech and a specific kind of (often fervent) spiritual voicing.

In the second book I drew far more widely from different Christian contexts in South Korea. For the first book, I focused on an upper-class Presbyterian megachurch of approximately 70,000 people and one of the most prestigious colleges of music. For the second, I turned my attention to the ritual and historical center of glossolalia in South Korea, the Yoido Full Gospel Church, which was established in an impoverished peri-urban settlement after the Korean War (1950-3) and over a few decades grew to claim at one point more than 800,000 people. I then followed the historical wake of the Yoido Full Gospel Church to the more upper-class populations, where glossolalia eventually became common, but far more unevenly and ambivalently practiced, often at the ritual peripheries of the church institutions. Putting these two studies together, as you suggest, reveals something far more complicated than Pentecostalism as such—instead pointing to a Korean cultural context of vocality and vocalized sociality that manifests in different musical and linguistic forms, under different Christian and related institutions, with considerable sociological and ideological fluidity and historical connection between (and beyond) them.

Hyemin Lee: It is very intriguing to find out how glossolalia and cacophony, when combined, transform the sensory environment of the prayerful where pitch, rhythm, and tempo emerge as a new semiotic orientation to produce ritually and intersubjectively organized poetic form(s). I am very interested in this rich analysis of glossolalia focusing on sounds, perceptions, feelings, and qualitative metaphors/descriptions. One might surmise that these sensuous qualities are linked to specific prayer styles (e.g., “hard, with passion” (세게, 열정적으로) (153)) and/or an idealized image of the prayerful. Could the methodological-analytical framework of qualia be applied to analyze these sensuous dimensions of glossolalia in Korean churches. Do you think it is plausible to use qualia to analyze glossolalia in Korean churches?

Nick Harkness: The short answer is: yes! By qualia, I think you are referring to the effects of sign processes as they are experienced sensuously. And given your own excellent research on Korean traditional medicine and the semiotics of bodily relief, this is an important point of connection between our work. Attention to qualia allows us to look empirically at how large-scale semiotic processes are made to seem—to “feel”—non-semiotic, that is, to be experienced as the natural, given properties of “what there is.” Such attention helps us better understand how the divine is made sensuously present (a relatively old question), and to trace a pathway from the feeling of speech and social interaction in everyday life to the more focused, concentrated modes of spiritual interaction, of which glossolalia is a limit case. As your question indicates, though, I mention qualia only briefly. Why? The press imposed a limit of 80,000 words, and a serious treatment of qualia would have pushed it way over. I was also mindful of contemporary readers’ terminological allergies (sometimes scholars need to behave like servers in a restaurant: “are there any allergies I should be aware of?”). To riff on Malinowski’s phrase: any hint of experienced obscurity is clearly not a virtue for an academic culture so influenced by a Protestant linguistic ideology of direct, unhindered access. Personally, I agree with you that further careful, technical, empirical investigation of the qualia problem in relation to glossolalia and related practices would help reveal the “production of an experience of language” as you so nicely put it above and show semiotic processes at work beyond the more familiar ethnography-as-creative-narrative-non-fiction approach to the descriptive phenomenology of spiritual encounter.

Hyemin Lee: While reading the book, I was surprised to see many connections between glossolalia and the body, such as the idea of healing the body, human anatomy, and kinesics. The human throat’s morphological and functional openness creates a semiotic space starting from the lips (or mouth) to the tongue, to the throat, and ultimately to the heart, all of which are structurally iconic to the pathway of Word travelling through the Holy Spirit. Also, an individual’s bodily movements and gestures may connect to glossolalic practice(s). What you think about these relationships between glossolalia and the human body? Do you have any ethnographic or analytic accounts where the body played a significant role in glossolalia in Korean churches?

Nick Harkness: The sequential structure of your questions overall is wonderfully figurative of this particular question! From language (1), to continuity qua vocality (2), to qualia (3), and now to the body (4). In my earlier book, I spent a lot of energy on the body—focusing on singing technique and health makes this rather unavoidable. Here, I ask how diverse glossolalic practices were held together by the problem of language. Indeed, practitioners of glossolalia regularly foregrounded bodily sensations. But they also often emphasized other aspects, such as the explicitly social (connecting with or disconnecting from others), the overtly cognitive (such as sending or decoding denotational messages), or even the blatantly apathetic (just self-reflexively and banally participating to participate). Yet the body does make frequent, vivid appearances. More broadly, elements of Korean charismatic Christianity can be traced to shamanic practices of bodily possession and healing, while Korea’s contemporary Pentecostal form was birthed from the bodily and psychological trauma of post-war South Korea. The body is many things at once in glossolalia: a source of sound production, an organized gestural space of articulation, a porous boundary (e.g., for spiritual water, fire, air), a vehicle of spiritual encounter and transmission, epistemological center, object of divine intervention, and so on. This all varied dramatically across theological spaces and individuals. There were some relatively formalized gestures and postures of prayer that could be intensified in glossolalia. But I found the spread and diversity of their contextualized functions more revealing than the formal regularities. In the book’s appendix (speaking of the body!), which is an historical reconstruction of the invention of term “glossolalia” (die Glossolalie) in early 19th Century German theology, one can see how the problem of the body (from the movement of the tongue to entire states of bodily frenzy) was a problem from the very beginning of its modern coinage.

Hyemin Lee: Lastly, I am curious about South Korea’s socio-historical context where Korean Christianity prospered. I truly enjoyed your discussion of how glossolalia as a sociolinguistic reality has to do with South Korea’s postwar context. I would like to hear more about the recent socio-historical contexts relevant to the glossolalia’s growth. Do you think that the recent socio-economic events, such as the IMF crisis (IMF 위기) in the late 1990s and rapid globalization (e.g., the lift of overseas travel bans in 1989), also played roles in shaping today’s sociolinguistic reality of glossolalia in Korean churches?

Nick Harkness: I really appreciate ending with this question, highlighting more recent Korean history against the background of over 60 years of glossolalia, and over 130 years of Protestant vocality. I emphasize the years just before and after the Korean War, when North Korean churches came south from Pyongyang and when the Yoido Full Gospel church was established. I also emphasize the 1960s through the 1980s, the most dramatic period of Protestant church growth in terms of numbers and church size. Democratization and globalization (late 80s-90s) initiated a period of global mobility. The overseas education industry produced both widespread multi-lingual contact as well as overseas enclaves, where fervent Christianity seems to have thrived. This period led to the global Korean culture industry—Kpop and the Korean wave. It also produced a surplus of seminary graduates, who ultimately needed to go overseas for missionary work because there weren’t enough Christians at home. And the Asian financial crisis (late 90s) produced major shocks for Asian societies organized around rapid economic development. One effect of financial loss was to encourage some lay members to become more devout members. When businesses failed, some turned not only to the church, but also to church business. So yes, indeed there is a connection with the development of Christianity.

However, I am not as sure about glossolalia as such. When it comes to glossolalia specifically, I think it has probably reached its saturation point, and will probably decline. I realize this is bad for business in the Anthropology of Christianity, which tends to rely on identifying new charismatic forms and sites of practice to justify its anthropological mission. But a serious investigation of the “total linguistic fact” develops a picture somewhat different from the one generated by theories that treat charismatic Christianity as an unstoppable global capitalist cargo cult or a cybernetic machine of self-reproduction. From the point of view of the problem of language, it is hard to see how glossolalia would continue at its current rates, let alone expand, in South Korea. The Pentecostal center is decreasingly influential, the communicational contexts across Christian populations continue to shift, and the diversity of practices and ideologies at the peripheries do not suggest revival, concentration, or significant formalization there. One occasionally hears that there are more former members of the Yoido Full Gospel Church than current members (and this goes for Protestant Christians in South Korea more generally).

Someone might misunderstand me to be addressing the rise of religious doubt. My focus, however, is on the “dynamic synchrony” of glossolalia in South Korea—the historical dimensions at work in its contemporary diversity. Glossolalia became widespread across South Korean Protestant communities under specific historical conditions. Those conditions have changed, and it may now be a victim of its own success. Glossolalia has spread out widely and unevenly across an (aging, shrinking) Christian population, while its explicitly theological relevance wanes. I don’t think we commit any grave analytical sin by viewing the sociolinguistic fact of glossolalia in part as a socio-semiotic trend, despite its profound significance for many individuals, its undeniable scale, the very public presence of many of its most fervent practitioners, and its obvious longevity thus far. Although glossolalia has become normalized across Christian communities, there is already a strong and growing feeling of “pastness” attributed to it (speaking of qualia!)—associated especially with earlier periods of more fervent practice and growth (such as the 1980s). Who knows exactly what will happen with Korean Christianity? The contemporary political dimensions of conservative Christianity in South Korea pose more than a few questions. But it seems likely at least that widespread, fervent, explicitly Christian denotational unintelligibility—as the formalized structural negation of a core ideological principle of language, a negation that defines glossolalic practice—will become less and less culturally intelligible (or valuable).

Jacqueline Hazen takes the page 99 test

The 99th page of my dissertation, “Mediating Micronesian Futures: Potentialities and Precarity in Cultural Production Among Mobile Pacific Islanders,” marks a transition in a chapter introducing how contemporary
people from the Federated States of Micronesia engage diverse media to connect on their home
islands and further afield. The chapter’s first sections follow a ritual sound from the island of
Pohnpei, FSM as it is deployed by Pohnpeians to continue its mediating work of gathering
participants in feast houses, but also to communicate respect during Pohnpeian radio broadcasts
and to engage diverse crowds at international events on Pohnpei and abroad. Page 99 moves
from tracing this enduring Pohnpeian mediator to broadly introducing other indigenous and
incorporated technologies in Micronesians’ media worlds. Faye Ginsburg, Brian Larkin, and Lila
Abu Lughod argue that analyzing ‘media worlds’ “situates media as a social practice within…
shifting political and cultural frames,” (2002: 3). The media worlds shaped by contemporary
Micronesians span islands in the Federated States of Micronesia and places in Guam, Hawai‘i,
and the continental United States where an estimated 1 in 3 FSM citizens and their diaspora-born
children travel, work, and live as legal non-immigrants. These transnational Micronesian media
worlds enlarge the scale of the transmission and transformations of cultural knowledge and
protocol, as well as valued materials. As articulated by Epeli Hau‘ofa, the contemporary
circulation of Pacific people, valued Oceanic foods and substances, and Western materials within
the Pacific and beyond move through long-held cultural patterns of families’ reciprocal
interdependence, but now between kin at home, in motion, and in diaspora (1993; see also Peter
2000; Gershon 2007, 2012).
People on Pohnpei and among the FSM diaspora on Guam narrated how they deploy
multiple communicative modalities in their work to maintain expected kinship roles from
a distance. This section presents types of modalities deployed across contemporary
Micronesians’ networks intertwined with my interlocutors’ narratives about
communication devices’ and media platforms’ roles in facilitating valued socioeconomic
exchanges that underlie practices of interdependent care and support among kin (Hau‘ofa
2008.) Further narratives describe negotiations around connectivity and respect in
communication across social media platforms, and diverse media modalities’
incorporation in processes of documenting and transmitting culturally-significant
knowledge, forms, and performances.

Page 99 then describes hand carried letters and packages on planes, and subsequent pages
discuss Micronesians’ narratives about culturally-inflected engagement with high-frequency, CB,
and satellite radios; families’ communal mobile phones; WhatsApp and Facebook; film and
digital photography; as well as camcorders and cell phone films.

I conducted my dissertation fieldwork with islanders on Pohnpei and with FSM diaspora on
Guam, indigenous home of the Chamoru and an unincorporated U.S. territory, during periods
from 2015 to 2018. Re-reading this page in 2021 — and later chapters about Pohnpeians’
digitized participation in mortuary and other rituals from afar — underscores how highly
diasporic populations have been shaping ways to participate in their families’ life events through
mediating technologies long before many governments’ social distancing mandates in 2020
widely necessitated digitally-mediated gatherings for celebrations and mourning in order to quell
the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Jacqueline Hazen. 2020. “Mediating Micronesian Futures: Potentialities and Precarity in Cultural Production Among Mobile Pacific Islanders.” New York University Phd.

Bradd Shore on his new book, Shakespeare and Social Theory

Interview by Rob Shore

Rob Shore: Using the lens of social science on Shakespeare seems at once radical and—after having read the book—obvious. Tell me about how you conceived of the project and summarize the main argument you are making. 

Bradd Shore: The book was written to bring together convincingly the two most important sides of my intellectual life: (1) Shakespeare’s plays and poetry and (2) anthropologically grounded social theory.  My interest in Shakespeare began when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley back in the early 1960s.  I was an English major and had the good fortune to study with some brilliant Shakespeare scholars in Berkeley’s distinguished English Department, at the time the best place in the world for studying Renaissance English literature. 

As I studied Shakespeare, I took several excellent courses in political theory.  As I read thinkers like Locke and Hume and Plato and Rousseau, I was struck by surprising overlaps between the concerns of political philosophers and Shakespeare.  Of course, Shakespeare expressed himself through drama rather than philosophical discourse. Nonetheless, I saw in Shakespeare’s work a theoretical genius paralleling his poetic and dramatic skills. 

Shakespeare’s approach to theory was not always immediately apparent in the plays.  He had found a way to embed a theoretical perspective in his plays without dislocating or disrupting the theatrical and poetic power of the drama.  I became interested in his plays as fascinating and often underappreciated reflections on many of the same issues that I would study in my later career as an anthropologist, issues like the theatrical nature of political power, the creative and procreative power of art and nature, dilemmas of sex and gender, reconciling love and marriage, life as performance, the power of ritual, the relation between language and reality, and the human effort to make meaning.  

I also wanted to understand how Shakespeare did all this by telling stories. So I began to study the literary techniques he used to manage this marriage of story-telling and theory.  Imagining Shakespeare as an anthropologist, it was as if he had figured out how to write vivid ethnography so that it reflected theoretically back on itself.  His remarkable techniques relied on new ways of imagining perspectives emerging in both early Renaissance painting and optics. 

Shakespeare and Social Theory was written to shine a light on Shakespeare as a theoretical mind through new readings of six of his plays. However, it is equally an attempt to account for his craftsmanship through studying historical changes in representing perspective that allowed Shakespeare to stage self-analyzing dramas.

Rob Shore: Your analysis reveals texts full of multiple, playful, and often deceptive meanings. Some of them are compelling and quite clear.  But others are hidden under layers of abstraction and misdirection. What methods do you use from anthropology to unpack meaning, and how did you find the process of translating those tools to literary analysis?   

Bradd Shore: Clifford Geertz famously compared the data of cultural anthropology to a text, a comparison that has been both admired and criticized over the years.  For both literature and human behavior, the text analogy points to the need for interpretation, a requirement as troublesome as it is necessary for making sense of things human. 

One of the problems an interpreter faces is that the meaning of something—the meaning affordances of its internal structure and coherence, is not the same thing as the meaning for someone, which is a process of imaginative engagement of a mind with the world.  For an anthropologist, the meaning for someone requires emic analysis, how the locals understand their world and actions: what matters to them.  The meaning of something requires etic analysis, an attempt at an objective account of the meaning-making properties inherent in an act or an object.  We struggle to do both kinds of analysis and reconcile them, but the reconciliation often proves challenging. Often anthropologists end up choosing one or the other perspective.

In approaching Shakespeare’s plays, we have no privileged window into Shakespeare’s mind and intentions.  We only have his texts and the complex patterns that he weaves with his language and play structure.  The closest we come to an emic perspective in the absence of a Shakespearean literary memoir are the social historians’ reconstructions of the culture of Shakespeare’s day and the kinds of ideas and things of interest to Elizabethan writers and artists.   

Fortunately, there is no need to read meaning into Shakespeare’s work.  We only need to read his work, carefully and repeatedly, alternating our study of the plays with a study of the evolving cultural, political, scientific, and artistic of Shakespeare’s world.  When Shakespeare wanted to make a theoretical point, he left plenty of clues in his work: clues in his choice of language, his virtuosic wordplay, his characters’ names, his way with tropes (especially metaphors), and the messages he built into his manipulation of literary and artistic conventions. Careful reading and attention to his use of irony can help uncover those patterns. 

Interpretation is built up from evidence found in these repeated patterns throughout the play.  Thus, my analyses of the plays are extensive and based on very close readings of Shakespeare’s words, accompanied by historical explications of Elizabethan culture.  A satisfying interpretation makes sense of otherwise anomalous and puzzling aspects of the text.  That sense-making looks inward to the language and structure of the play and outward to the institutions and culture of Shakespeare’s day. 

To be convincing, an interpretation does not have to be the only possible account of a play. In their miraculous richness, Shakespeare’s plays are irreducible to a single meaning. Still, some readings make more sense than others. A satisfying interpretation leaves the reader with a sense of having a light illuminate something that was always there but had eluded both sight and insight. Good interpretations produce aha moments for the reader.

Rob Shore: You advocate for a “close reading” approach to texts that were intended to be staged. What does that tell us about Shakespeare’s intent?

Bradd Shore: Shakespeare was both a thinker and a theatrical producer.  He understood what his primary audience wanted to see, and he gave them plays that were exciting, engaging, terrifying, funny, all the things that great theater can produce. 

I think I present enough textual evidence that my readings of the play will stand as credible interpretations of what is actually in the plays. However, these are not interpretations that Shakespeare intended for the immediate consumption of the Globe’s audience. Instead, I think they were written as look-again-readings of the texts for a more sophisticated audience. Shakespeare’s theoretical voice was intended for readers rather than viewers, by those interested in the play of great ideas rather than drama’s more immediate experience. As a result, Shakespeare wrote plays that were both compelling dramas and effective theoretical treatises.  The only other writer I know who regularly pulled off the same kind of double-dealing magic was Plato in his Socratic dialogues.

Rob Shore:In a book so concerned with double meaning and wordplay, you must have felt some pressure in coming up with a title. How did you approach the task? 

Bradd Shore: I like playful titles that encourage multiple meanings. So my initial title was Shakespeare and the Play of Great Ideas. However, my editor at Routledge found that title somewhat vague and wanted a title that would attract both social scientists and literary types.  So I agreed to the more straightforward title and was happy that the press allowed me to keep “The Play of Great Ideas” as a subtitle.

Rob Shore: If Shakespeare’s play of ideas was a reflection of a technological and cultural paradigm shift in perspective, how do you think Shakespeare would adapt his work to reflect our current moment: 24/7 digital transmedia omniscience, hyper-irony, double-talk, fake news, a deep bench of Shakespearean political figures, and all the rest? Does that reality make his texts more, less, or just differently relevant today? 

Bradd Shore: I have no idea what modern technology Shakespeare would exploit were he to write today.  But he would likely be attracted to the possibilities of modern theater and film for playing up the problems of representation and perspective. 

Shakespeare can be thought of as modern in three senses. First, he is modern in being concerned with universal themes, as relevant for today’s audiences as those of his time.  Second, he is modern in being ahead of his time.  In my book, I show how his plays anticipate psychoanalytic theory, exchange theory, modern metaphor theory, performance theory, political theory, cognitive anthropology,  Queer Theory, and structuralism in more sophisticated ways than we ever imagined. 

Finally, Shakespeare is modern in his radical interrogation of the world and his awareness of the influence of perspective on how one views reality.  While traditional critics like E.M.W. Tillyard tried to convince us that Shakespeare’s work was essentially an extension of medieval political and social thought, they overlook Shakespeare’s characteristic irony, attraction to paradox, and relentless questioning of orthodoxy.  Shakespeare and Social Theory was written to highlight the radical character of the plays.

Patrick Lewis takes the page 99 test

The 99th page of my dissertation, “Publics of Value: Higher Education and Language Activism in Turkey and North Kurdistan,” falls midway in my second chapter, where I seek to situate my primary field site – Turkey’s first state-recognized Kurdish-language university program at Artuklu University in Mardin – within the sociolinguistic realities of public life in the city and wider province, as well as within larger shifts in the political discourses and language practices of the Kurdish movement, Turkish state institutions, and local actors. This forms part of a larger discussion, developed over the first two chapters, that considers how differently positioned actors in Mardin and beyond have come to deploy Mesopotamia as a label designating a post-national, multicultural space that differentiates itself from conventional nationalist geographic imaginaries (such as Turkey or Kurdistan) and how this category is used to confer new value on multilingualism and Mardin’s local polyglot speech communities.

The first half of page 99 concludes a longer discussion of the analytical categories of language and speech communities and the dynamic interaction between the two (Gal 1988; Silverstein 1998). The second half begins to consider how this interaction has reshaped local language regimes in Mardin in recent decades, describing how:

“In Mardin, importantly, the values of Mesopotamia have been realized in relation to a dynamic language regime that is itself a product of a specific, if shifting sociohistorical spacetime – one in which Mesopotamia has come to represent both a validation of the values of Mardin’s speech community in relation to the nationalist projects of both the Turkey and Kurdistan and, conversely, the imposition of new linguistic projects by competing institutional forces (i.e. the Kurdish movement, the Turkish state, and the predominantly English- language domains of ‘global’ higher education and transnational tourism)” (pp. 99).

Considering the page in the context of the larger dissertation, I’m quite fortunate – within the terms of the ‘page 99 test’ – that it contains an important inflection point in my analysis with clear relevance for the larger work. Looking back a year after my defense, I can’t avoid detecting what now appear to me as moments of underdeveloped tangents, misplaced emphasis, and missed opportunities for greater clarification or precision – not to mention an ever-growing number of typos (page 99 being no exception). On the other hand, page 99 contains the seeds of two interrelated insights that I consider to be, in their fully developed form, among the work’s more important contributions: The first, inspired in part by the work by Woolard (2016) and others, is that Kurdish-language activism is not reducible to a paradigm of Kurdish nationalist politics, but embraces a range of political and social meanings that require further contextualization and explanation; and the second is that my Kurdish-language activist interlocutors, rather than proponents of predefined political or linguistic projects, are agentive actors working to remake the values of the Kurdish language in public life in ways that are generative of new identities, political subjectivities, and horizons of belonging. 


Gal, Susan. “The Political Economy of Code Choice.” Anthropological and Sociolinguistic Perspectives 48 (1988): 245-64.

Silverstein, Michael. “Contemporary Transformations of Local Linguistic Communities.” Annual Review of Anthropology 27, no. 1 (1998): 401-426

Woolard, Kathryn. Singular and Plural: Ideologies of Linguistic Authority in 21st Century Catalonia. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Shirley Yeung takes the page 99 test

The “quality of the whole” is uncannily revealed by the concluding paragraph on page 99 of my dissertation. It reads:

The institution I call The Migrant Center, then, is a key node of Genevan social life, expressive of an ethical horizon of hospitality. The Center’s activities bridge governmental, charitable, and civic domains, and its educational sectors offer, on the very same grounds, training in labour law for trade union delegates and elected labour court judges as well as afterschool math classes for job-seeking high schoolers. The Center’s French language learning program is thus part of a broader pedagogy of mobilization; the Migrant Center is a key translational site at which state categories and concepts of both “French” and “integration” are made commensurate with an ethics of solidarity.

I began my research in 2013 with an interest in the everyday pedagogical conditions, practices and discourses by which an official language of the state (here, French) is taught to immigrant and migrant learners. This, in a context where a then-emergent global discourse on migrant integration had constructed official, standardized language competences as the sign of successful integration into one’s host country, and where completing language tests and attending language classes were key discretionary bordering tools in the migration regimes of various European states.

Fieldwork at the institution I call The Migrant Center revealed the ways language pedagogy can become a site of mobility mediation and ethical-moral commensuration. The keywords I had come to associate with the state’s regimentation of language and cross-border movement—words like “French” and “integration”—were, at the Center, framed in the terms of solidarity. To be sure, at times, talk about French evoked historical discourses on the equalizing powers of the French language. At yet other times, however, the form and content of classroom discussions explicitly questioned the Genevan state’s monolingual logics of cross-border and social mobility. And among instructors, French held a contested status, not least because many teachers were first- and second-generation immigrants in Switzerland with their own multilingual trajectories. Their teaching, further, was unremunerated, reflective of local frameworks of volunteerism (bénévolat) which created ethical-moral substance for the Genevan polity in complex ways. As a volunteer at the school, navigating the blurry line between social critique and social reproduction became the condition of doing fieldwork.

Returning to Page 99 reminds me that perhaps teaching is a form of hospitality—one as complex as any other attempt to enact inclusion under conditions of closure. In my dissertation, I call this labour welcome work. Naming it this way has helped me to understand, somewhat long after writing, how to analytically sustain the contradictions of working at such sites of egalitarian aspiration—to situate, contextualize, and question any linguistically-premised equality, while also creating space to understand the political possibilities of hospitable relations, relationships, and practice.  

Shirley Yeung. 2020. “Welcome Work: Hospitality and the Mediation of Migrant Mobility in Swiss Integration Policy.” University of Michigan Phd.

Mei-Chun Lee takes the page 99 test

At the bottom of page 99 in my dissertation “The ‘Nobody’ Movement: Digital Activism and the Uprising of Civic Hackers in Taiwan” is a quote from the g0v (pronounced gov-zero) manifesto: Built on the spirit of the open-source community, g0v stands for freedom of speech and information transparency. We aim to use technology in the interest of the public good, allowing citizens easy access to vital information. Opening up and making data public allows the people of Taiwan to take a closer look at politics and important issues. This gives them the tools needed to evaluate their government and exert their democratic right to influence government actions.

g0v, the focus of this dissertation, is a Taiwan-based civic tech community that intervenes and subverts bureaucratic government through the technological translation of openness. Replacing the letter “o” in “government” with the number “0” to indicate the computer binary zero and one, the name “g0v” signifies both their hacker identity and the grassroots, bottom-up approach of activism. This quote on page 99 vividly encapsulates the multiplicity and equivocation of openness. Here we see openness is translated into open source technologies, freedom, transparency, public, and democracy. Openness is both the means (open source technology and open data) and the ends (civic participation and democracy). Its rich meaning provides the room for these hackers to improvise their political actions amid the changing political environment.

Later in the dissertation, I also reveal that the equivocation of openness can lead to tension and conflicts in this decentralized community especially when some participants started to connect and collaborate with hierarchical organizations such as companies, NGOs, and the government. The most renowned case is Audrey Tang, one of the most active g0v participants who was later appointed as Taiwan’s first digital minister in 2016. While Tang’s government appointment allows her to push open data and public-private collaboration further from within the government, this also leads to the institutionalization of openness and devours g0v’s political space. To tackle this community crisis, g0v participants maneuver within translations of openness in order not to be depoliticized. It is in the process of contesting openness that g0v takes a parasitic position between inside and outside, continuity and disruption, collaboration and resistance in order to keep on making politics.

The quote on page 99 is where I took an initial clue before delving into the translations of openness. As the manifesto and the idea of openness continue to appeal to young generations in Taiwan, we must continue examining how openness is conceived, discussed, practiced, and envisioned towards a techno-political future.

Mei-Chun Lee. 2020. The ‘Nobody’ Movement: Digital Activism and the Uprising of Civic Hackers in Taiwan. University of California, Davis Phd.

Barney Bate’s book, Protestant Textuality and the Tamil Modern

Cover of Protestant Textuality and the Tamil Modern by Bernard Bate, Edited by E. Annamalai, Francis Cody, Malarvizhi Jayanth, and Constantine V. Nakassis

Hannah Carlan interviews E. Annamalai, Francis Cody, and Constantine V. Nakassis

Hannah Carlan: Bernard Bate’s posthumous book Protestant Textuality and the Tamil Modern is a major contribution to the study of political agency and nation-building, which has, through Habermas, Anderson, Taylor, Warner, and others, long privileged “the press” over “the platform” in the formation of the democratic public sphere (pp. 3–4). Bate demonstrates that this emphasis on print capitalism is both due to the difficulty of studying the unrecorded, as well as Western semiotic ideologies that privilege the denotational functions of language over its poetic ones, leading to an elision of the sensuous, affective, and embodied aspects of speech as social activity. Bate invites us to consider how communicative genres like homiletic oratory, devotional songs (bhajans), poems, and mass meetings together constituted a novel “interpellative infrastructure” of politics (p. 66). Through these practices, previously disparate groups were called into being as a singular political public at the turn of the 20th century in Tamil Nadu. Rather than reproduce the dichotomization of speech and materiality, Bate emphasizes their mutual imbrication. In the Indic context, vernacular political oratory gained semiotic value not merely from its denotational accessibility—an influence of Protestant ideologies of textuality—but from what Bate calls “poesy”: the corporeal, sonorous, musical qualities of speech that are prized in Tamil textual traditions. How might this intervention contribute to broader efforts in anthropology to theorize language and/as materiality, and how might such an approach allow us to decenter Western theories of politics and democracy? 

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Amanda Weidman on her book, Brought to Life by the Voice

Interview by Constantine Nakassis

Constantine V. Nakassis: Your brilliant first book, Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern deals with the simultaneous classicization and modernization of the Karnatic music of South India through both historical and ethnographic methods, showing how a gendered and casted form of modern subjectivity came to be articulated through a politics of voice. Your most recent book, Brought to Life by the Voice: Playback Singing and Cultural Politics in South India – equally brilliant – deals with so-called playback singing in the Tamil film industry. To start us off, I wonder if you could speak a bit about the relationship, and movement, between these two projects?

Amanda Weidman: Thank you for giving me an opportunity to reflect on this. I would say, in a general way, that in this second book I’ve gotten to do the project I paid lip service to (no pun intended!) in the first book: to explore voice as simultaneously an object of musical/sonic attention and of ideological investment, and to really grapple with the way these two scales—the bodily/sonic/material and the ideological/discursive—interplay with and inform each other. In my first book, the concern with voice remained mostly at the ideological, political level. I used the concepts ideologies of voice and politics of voice to get at the ways that voice, cultivated, framed, and staged in a particular way, became—to the exclusion and marginalization of other things—a potent signifier of Karnatic music’s classical status. The burden in that book was to try to understand how a high cultural status had been claimed and consolidated. Identifying voice as an object of ideology and politics was a way to challenge what has been reified and naturalized as South Indian classical music.

In Brought to Life by the Voice, I decided that the twin focus on voice as object of aesthetic and ideological investment was better captured by the idea of regimes of aurality and the voice, which I think gets at the way that ideologies and politics are actually produced and sustained—voice as a site where macro-level constructs are scaled down to a bodily/sensory level. I think about regimes of aurality and voice in several ways: through modes of discipline in vocal production—how singers learn to produce the supposedly right kind of sound in any context; through recurring contexts of listening and consumption, including performance contexts, as well as technological media through which voices are disseminated (and in the case of playback, the visual images/bodies with which voices are paired or associated onscreen); and through the articulated, verbalized categories that arise to describe and attribute meaning to particular voices and voice qualities. Inherent in the idea of regimes of aurality and voice is the process of regimentation, the shaping of vocal practices and vocal sound to particular culturally and historically specific ideals.

There are some obvious continuities between the two books. The city of Chennai is the center (the authorizing center of semiosis, you might say) for both Karnatic classical music and the Tamil film industry. But in moving from one to the other I shifted from looking at something that, framed as a high-cultural object, has all sorts of authorized knowledge emanating from established institutions, pedagogies, and forms of transmission, to a popular-cultural realm where meaning-making is taking place at many different sites: on screen, in the recording studios, in the postproduction process, on stage, on the street, in music reality shows, in forms of historical and current media publicity, and so on. This presented a different kind of ethnographic challenge, especially because I was exploring the cultural significance of voices that, though people have deep affective attachment to them, have been considered beyond description, anti-intellectualized both by singers themselves and by fans, and mostly ignored in scholarship on Indian cinema.

The movement between these two books also reflects the slow melding of different strains of my graduate training. In the 1990s, I was steeped in then-current thinking about the colonial production of knowledge, postcolonial theory, and the idea of modernity as a culture in itself—all reflected amply in my first book. But I was also trained in ethnomusicology and linguistic anthropology, which at that time were relatively distant from each other and focused on their respective objects: music and language. The point of connection between them was through the music-and-language strand of linguistic anthropology, which constituted the other part of my graduate training. I learned about Peircean semiotics, indexicality, iconicity, performativity, poetics and sound symbolism, and Bakhtin’s concept of voicing, but I didn’t know what to do with it all for a while. The blossoming of voice and sound as analytics and fields of study in the last two decades has really broken down these disciplinary boundaries and created many more points of connection—and has allowed us to hear so much more of what’s going on in music and language beyond what these frameworks have conditioned us to hear. Linguistic anthropology has broadened to become more attuned to questions of mediation, voice, and embodiment, and to the way linguistic and non-linguistic, and visual and aural, forms of semiosis interact. I think of my work as definitely benefitting from, and, I hope, also contributing to these developments.

Constantine V. Nakassis: One of the many interventions of this book is to rethink the metaphysical nexus that links voice, (the visual) body, and subjectivity as a natural, unified package—by pointing to a different “performative dispensation” (Mazzarella)—that of playback singing, where voice (of the singer), body (of the actress), words (of the lyricist), melody (of the music director) are all differently distributed. How has this particular case helped you think about the study of voice?

Amanda Weidman: The striking thing about playback in the Indian context is that it starts with completely different premises and ideals. Most Euro-Western theorizing about voice, as well as cultural production ranging from Hollywood cinema to popular music, starts from the assumed ideal unity of voice, body, and self—underpinning the ideology of the unified speaking subject (a construct which has come in for a lot of critique in critical theory and anthropology), as well as that of the expressive singing/musical subject (an equally powerful construct, but one that has not been interrogated nearly as much). Within this formation, the voice de-linked from a visual representation or embodiment of its source is the disorienting exception, associated with power and mastery, or with danger, excess, and deception.

Playback, as a technical practice and as a performative dispensation, starts from the opposite assumption: that the dissociation of body and voice, the division of labor between appearing and sounding, is the ideal, and that the embodiment of voice is the artifice, the strategic achievement that provokes anxieties and requires careful management and/or avoidance. One of the things that captivated me about this project is the way playback literalizes/concretizes so many of the concepts at play: production format/participant roles, performative dispensations, animation, and the distribution of the sensible. Goffman’s idea of production format and participant roles, or role fractions, as Irvine would specify, gets at the division of labor that playback sets up—not just between acting onscreen and singing offscreen, but also between singing and speaking, and between animating and authoring words and melodies. The concept of a performative dispensation, so usefully articulated by Mazzarella in terms of both permissions and prohibitions, gets at the way playback, as a cultural institution, controls (or attempts to control) who is visible, who is audible, and the meaning and effects that certain performances may have. Animation allows for a consideration of vocal acts as something other than identity or expression— toward other forms of agency and subjectivity that are enabled by different acts of voicing. And Ranciere’s concept of the distribution of the sensible allowed me to see how playback has constituted a regime of aurality/imageness by thinking about very concrete processes of distribution, ranging in scale from the mass/public level (determining what is seen/heard and what isn’t, and through which media; indexically regimenting voices and flooding the public sphere with particular ones) to the individual/embodied level (where a singer distributes her voice in her own body or how she occupies the space of the stage).

Constantine V. Nakassis:Animation, Voice (voicing), (Bring to) Life, World(ing) – these are some of the very big concepts that this book articulates in its account of playback singing and that have already come up in our discussion. And it articulates them through a set of more technical analytic concepts: ideology (a la Silverstein, Gal and Irvine), semiotic economy (a la Keane), and distribution of the sensible or regime of imageness/aurality (a la Rancière). I’m interested to hear about how the philosophical and aesthetic concept of Rancière’s and the semiotic concepts of linguistic anthropology fit together in this book?

Amanda Weidman:The title of my book comes from film sound theorist Michel Chion’s description of playback, which he tosses in offhandedly at the end of his book The Voice in Cinema: “In playback, the body confesses to being a puppet brought to life by the voice.” Chion meant this as a simple reversal of the usual relationship between body and voice, visuality and aurality, in which the body controls the voice which is seen to emanate from it. But the image of the puppet introduces all sorts of fascinating and productive ambiguities around visibility and voicing, agency and control, the animate and the inanimate. The playback singer is both the puppet—the singer of words and melodies authored by others—and the puppeteer—the backstage or offscreen voice who controls the movements and meanings of what’s onscreen. Much of playback singers’ work is about managing the fundamental duality of animation as a mechanical process of transmission/relay (the puppet role) and as a life-giving process (the puppeteer role). The attention to animation within anthropology has been so helpful in the way it has shifted the focus from the creation of an illusion of life in inanimate objects or forms, to looking at the social world and social relations and actors that various animating practices imagine and bring into being.

To me, the notion of a semiotic economy is a useful way of grounding Rancière’s concept of the distribution of the sensible. Rancière argues against both the autonomy of art and art’s submission to politics—his idea is that different “distributions of the sensible” are not automatically linked to particular political destinies. Instead, their affordances must be taken up in particular ways—there must be a process by which a distribution of the sensible becomes a basis for a politics. “A common world,” he writes, “is never simply an ethos, a shared abode, that results from the sedimentation of … intertwined acts. It is always a polemical distribution of modes of being and occupation in a space of possibilities.” Rancière is not just talking about the distribution of the sensible in terms of things experienced through the senses. The sensible is also referring to the ways that sensory things become sensible, that is, intelligible, capable of carrying meaning or making sense within particular regimes of imageness/aurality. To give one example—the idealized Tamil notion of kuralinimai—voice sweetness—attributed to the voices of certain female singers in the 1960s was not just about voice quality itself, but how certain moral attributes came to be associated with it. It also had to do with the ways a non-projected head voice was made bodiless by being detached from the body of both the onscreen actress and the body of the playback singer herself. The function of a semiotic economy is precisely this—to constitute sensory things as signs by placing them in some kind of meaningful relation to each other.

Constantine V. Nakassis: Can you say a little about how gender plays into how the sensible is distributed?

Amanda Weidman:The gendered asymmetries are quite striking. Playback began as way of managing the ways the female form would become available to be seen/heard in the public sphere through expressive and medial forms such as music, dance, and cinema, in a context where respectable femininity was defined by the careful management and often avoidance of public appearance. During its heyday, the mid 1950s through the mid 1970s, the affordances of playback’s division of labor were taken up in different gendered ways. For men, the separation of the roles of actor and singer and their symbiotic relationship was productive, generating a kind of surplus power and political potency. Star status could accrue to both the actor and the singer through the combination of one’s body and the other’s voice because they were understood to be working together, doing the same thing through two different modalities. For women, however, the separation of roles was used and interpreted differently. The assumed moral licitness of a woman singing was used to cancel out, or mitigate, the assumed immorality of a woman acting onscreen. Actress and singer were understood to be doing two fundamentally different things. Female playback singers who had risen to prominence in this period conveyed this gulf between actress and singer to me by describing themselves as “just the voice” or by stressing that their acting was “all in the throat” and they were not doing “mimicry.” I have been pondering for years how this role of being “just the voice” was constructed and inhabited, and what it meant. Rather than seeing it as a simple limiting or restriction in the service of female respectability, in the book I try to show how this role was in fact a coveted status that allowed singers to steer a path between behind the scenes anonymity and onscreen/onstage exposure.

Constantine V. Nakassis:Historically speaking, one of the stories of this book is the transition from the post-Independence period (1950s–1980s) to the post-liberalization period (1990s–2020s). How do these macro epochal moments map onto what you call the performative dispensations, or regimes, of visuality and aurality that have governed playback singing?

Amanda Weidman:In this book I’ve tried to show the historicity of playback as a cultural institution responding to and shaping the ethos of particular sociopolitical moments. Its changes and shifts reflect the different kinds of semiotic/representational economies voice has been inserted into. At its beginning in the 1940s, playback was referred to as iraval kural—borrowed or traded voice, reflecting the emphasis on the partibility of the voice and the economic/transactional understanding of the practice. As playback became set as a dispensation within India’s technocratic, developmentalist post-Independence decades and within the gender politics of the Tamil Dravidianist political context, playback singers shifted to being referred to as pinnani patakarkal—behind [the screen] singers—foregrounding the project of producing a desirable or ideal onscreen body-voice combination over the partibility of the voice as such—a change that went along with a rise in playback singers’ status. In the post-liberalization decades, neoliberal ideologies have introduced a new set of industries, desires and promises centering around the voice, and a new value placed on visibility—the laying bare of what was previously hidden, unspoken, illicit. For singers, this translates into a pressure to couple voice ever more tightly with the self, body, and intention of the singer. All those things so carefully separated and parceled out in playback’s dispensation are being recombined in different—and yet still differentially gendered—ways. Tamil cinema is caught now between contradictory trends of emulating Hollywood-style narrative film and getting rid of song sequences and other supposedly non-realistic elements, and a self-referential, semi-nostalgic, semi-parodic re-animation of older elements. This is why “afterlife” seems more apt than “death” to describe the state of playback now.

Constantine V. Nakassis: Speaking of after(-brought-to-)life (by the voice), what’s next for your research?

Amanda Weidman: One of the most interesting people I met while doing this project was the singer L. R. Eswari, who managed to flout the gendered normativities of playback, combining a professional life as the go-to playback singer for vamp roles in the 1960s with a successful career as a singer of commercial devotional music on the South Indian Hindu goddess Amman—the alternately benevolent and fierce mother goddess associated with subaltern religious practice. I’m thinking about a new project that would investigate the role of aural representations of and appeals to Amman in this commercial devotional music in relation to the politics of caste, class and gender in South India.

Constantine V. Nakassis: I can’t wait to see where this new project goes! And thank you so much for doing this fascinating interview about this amazing book!