Morgan Ames on The Charisma Machine

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On Henry Jenkins’ blog, he interview Morgan Ames about the One Laptop Per Child project.   With Jenkins’ permission, I am re-posting the interview here (but see the original here: http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2019/10/3/interview-with-morgan-j-ames-on-the-charisma-machine-the-life-death-and-legacy-of-one-laptop-per-child-part-i

Henry Jenkins: You root the OLPC project in a particular conception of the relationship between technology and childhood in the thinking of Seymour Papert. What do you see as some of the core assumptions shaping this vision of ‘the technically precocious boy”?

Morgan Ames: Nicholas Negroponte was certainly the public face of One Laptop per Child, but he readily admitted in his marathon of talks in the early days of OLPC that the very idea for the project was actually Papert’s, even though Papert was already retired when OLPC was announced. He often said that the whole project was “the life’s work of Seymour Papert.”

And when you read through all of Papert’s public writing, from the late 1960s through the early 2000s, you can clearly see that connection. Papert started writing about the liberatory potential of giving kids free access to computers not long after after he joined MIT in the 1960s. Throughout the 1970s, he was a central figure in developing the LOGO programming environment. The branch he worked on, which ended up being the dominant branch, was built around the ideals of what he called “constructionism,” as a tool for kids to use to explore mathematical and technical concepts in a grounded, playful way. He kept advocating these same views throughout the 1980s and 1990s, even as LOGO lost steam after many of the really grand utopian promises attached to it failed to materialize.

I argue that one of the reasons for this failure is that LOGO and many constructionist projects are built around a number of assumptions about childhood and technology that just aren’t true for all children — and in fact are only true for a particular set of children, mostly boys, who have a lot of support to explore technical systems.  

 

Some of this support comes from their immediate environment: they have parents who bought them a computer, who helped them figure it out, who were there to troubleshoot, who supported their technical interests. If it wasn’t a parent, it was someone else they could turn to with questions. The programmers I’ve interviewed who proudly say they are self-taught had a whole constellation of resources like this to help them along.

But some of this support also comes from the cultural messages that we hear, and often propagate, about children. Messages about boys’ supposedly “natural” interest in tinkering with machines goes back at least 100 years — there’s this great volume called The Boy Mechanic: 700 Things for Boys to Do that was published in 1913! Then there’s transistor radio culture, engineering competitions, and a whole host of technical toys specifically marketed to boys in the decades following. Amy Ogata, Susan Douglas, Ruth Oldenziel, and many other fantastic historical scholars have traced these histories in depth. With the rise of computing, this same boy-centered engineering culture gets connected to programming, displacing all of the women who had been doing that work as low-paid clerical workers around and after World War II, as Nathan Ensmenger and Mar Hicks have shown. The same boy-centered culture also defined the video game industry in the 1980s.

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From all of this, at every turn boys — and particularly white middle-class boys — are told that they belong in this culture, that they are (or can be) naturals at programming. Everyone else has to account for themselves in these worlds, and everyone else faces ostracism, harassment, and worse if they dare to stick around. It’s something I became pretty familiar with myself throughout my computer science major.

When I talk about the “technically precocious boy,” it’s both of these pieces — the specific material and social support certain kids get, but also the larger cultural messages they live with and have to make sense of in their own lives. This is what social scientists call a “social imaginary,” or a coherent and shared vision that helps define a group.

Unless projects very actively reject and counter these social imaginaries, they ride the wave of them. One Laptop per Child is one of these, just as Papert’s other projects were. Even though these projects tended to speak inclusively about “girls and boys” and “many ways of knowing,” they then turned around and extolled the virtues of video games and talked about technical tinkering in ways that wholly relied on this century of cultural messaging, which had long been incredibly exclusionary.

Henry Jenkins: Did this conception constitute a blind spot when applied, unproblematically, to childhoods lived in other parts of the world? How might we characterize the childhoods of the people who were encountering these devices in Latin America?

Morgan Ames: The biggest issue with relying on the social imaginary of the technically precocious boy is that the kids who identified with it have always made up a very small part of the population. If you think back to the youths of many of those who contributed to OLPC, who were discussing its similarities with the Commodores or Apple IIs of their childhoods — most of their peers couldn’t care less about computers. So to assume that somehow all or most kids across the Global South, or anywhere in the world, would care when this kind of passion is idiosyncratic even in places that have long had decent access to computers is a bit baffling to me.

When I’ve said as much to friends who worked on OLPC, I often heard something along the lines of, “well, those past machines maybe only appealed to some kids, but this one will have much more universal appeal!” And Papert wrote about the universal potential of computers too — he called them the “Proteus of machines,” with something to appeal to everyone. I see similar stories in movements to teach all kids to code.

But the majority of the kids I got to know in Paraguay — as well as those I met in Uruguay and Peru — just weren’t very interested in these under-powered laptops. I found that over half of kids in Paraguay would rather play with friends or spend time with their families, and didn’t find anything all that compelling about the device. The one third of students who did use their laptops much at all liked to connect to the Internet, play little games, watch videos, listen to music — pretty similar to what many kids I know in the U.S. like to do with computers. This is not to erase the cultural differences that were there, much less the legacy of imperialism still very much present across the region. But it really drives home just how wrong the assumption was that kids in the Global South would be drawn to these machines in a way that differed fundamentally from most kids in the Global North, that they’d really want to learn to program.

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Henry Jenkins: You correctly note that the metaphor of the school as a factory often results in a dismissal of teacher’s role in the educational process. Yet, the OLPC and other Media Lab projects have depended heavily upon teachers and other educators to help motivate adaption and use of these new platforms and practices. How have these two ideas been reconciled in practice?

Morgan Ames: The social imaginary of school-as-factory is a perfect foil for the social imaginary of the naturally creative child (and the technically-precocious boy as an offshoot of it). We certainly see messages all the time that portray schools with derision and contempt — in spite of a long and well-documented history of school reform, schools are often talked about as hopelessly outdated, mechanistic, and antithetical to children’s creativity. (This is not to say that I think schools are perfect as they are — I certainly dislike drill-and-test practices, for one — but they are complicated and culturally-embedded institutions, often asked to create impossibly large cultural changes with impossibly scant resources.) When One Laptop per Child, or other Media Lab projects, echo some of these sentiments, they hardly need explain themselves — the school-as-factory social imaginary readily comes to hand.

But you’re right that how schools relate to teachers, and how teachers relate to these projects, is much more complicated. In his writing Papert very clearly condemns schools, but is much more equivocal about teachers, often casting them as “co-learners” even as they are charged with steering children’s learning toward mathematical ends. Other OLPC leaders said some terrible things about teachers early on — more than one said that most teachers were drunk or absentee, for instance — but local projects, including Paraguay Educa (the local NGO in charge the OLPC project in Paraguay), conducted teacher training sessions and expected teachers to use the laptops in classrooms. At the same time, OLPC and many local OLPC projects, including Paraguay Educa’s, talked about how the most interesting things kids would do with their laptops would probably happen outside of classrooms, and that they would soon leapfrog past their teachers in ability.

I can’t fully resolve this paradox, but I can say that keeping the social imaginary of the school-as-factory alive is pretty valuable to many ed-tech projects that promise to overhaul an educational system that seems to be both in urgent need of fixing and receptive to quick technological fixes. However, it’s one thing to paint a rosy picture of the possibilities for technologically-driven educational reform without the need for teacher buy-in — but then when it comes down to actually implementing a reform effort, teachers become a necessary part of the project, because ultimately they are a necessary part of learning.

Henry Jenkins: What are some of the important differences between the schools described in the rhetoric around OLPC and the actual schools you encountered on the ground?

Morgan Ames: Negroponte exhibited some very wishful thinking in justifying the costs of the program. He’d tell governments that they should think of this as equivalent to a textbook, and put their textbook budget into this program. Amortized over five years, he said, a hundred-dollar laptop would be equivalent to the twenty dollars per year per student that Brazil, China, and other places budgeted for textbooks. But I found only one school in Paraguay that consistently used textbooks, and it was because they were sponsored by an evangelical church in Texas. If schools had any, they had some very old textbooks that were kept in the front office for teachers’ reference only. Most teachers wrote lessons on a blackboard, and students copied them into notebooks that they were responsible for buying.

Papert had a version of this analogy as well — but instead of textbooks, he equated computers with pencils. You wouldn’t give a classroom one pencil to share, he would say derisively — but even if OLPC’s XO laptop had actually been $100 rather than close to $200, that’s a far cry from a ten-cent pencil. Moreover, even ten-cent pencils were items that not all Paraguayan students could consistently afford. A good portion of Paraguay’s population are subsistence farmers and the Paraguayan school system has been underfunded for many decades now; some schools don’t have working toilets, and none provide photocopiers, paper, or even toilet paper or soap. Most classrooms did not have plugs for charging laptops or WiFi routers — the schools, with the help of local project leaders and parent volunteers, had to install those. And in some cases, the wiring that they used was mislabeled, so the plugs failed.

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Despite these rough conditions, many teachers really did care about teaching — they were not “drunk or absent entirely,” as Negroponte once claimed. But much like teachers in the U.S., they were beset from all sides by demands for their time, they were very underpaid, and many exhibited signs of burnout. Even so, some were really excited about the project, but most really didn’t have the time they would have needed to integrate a difficult-to-use laptop into their curriculum. In the book I include several vignettes from my fieldwork that describe in detail how these teachers would struggle to use laptops for lessons in spite of broken machines, uninstalled software, slow networks, and quickly-draining batteries. It’s no wonder that nearly all gave up in time.

Henry Jenkins: The Constructionist paradigm leads us to see the web and media use as “distractions” from the core OLPC mission at the same time as the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative was emphasizing the kinds of learning which could take place around games, social media, and participatory culture more generally. How would your results look if read through this different frame?

Morgan Ames: Aside from some fairly abstract discussions of the virtues of videogames, constructionism generally doesn’t really discuss media use — it seems to exist in a cultural vacuum where students encounter a Platonic (or perhaps Papertian?) ideal of a computer with nothing but LOGO, and maybe Wikipedia, on it. But the connected learning framework — which, in the spirit of cultural studies, takes children’s interests and media worlds seriously as ideal starting-points for learning — was very much on my own mind throughout my fieldwork and analysis. And I was deeply impressed by the ways some kids found innovative ways around the XO’s hardware and software limitations, and the ways that a new video or music file would spread, student to student, through schools.

The piece that was largely missing, though, was a way to bridge those interests with learning outcomes like literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking that are important for effectively navigating the world. A handful of parents and teachers had ideas about how to shape their children’s interests toward more learning-oriented ends, and I have a chapter devoted to their stories. But they were the exception, not the norm.

Moreover, I would bring a critical media studies lens to this as well, and ask just what kind of influence advertisers including Nestle, Nickelodeon, and more should have in children’s educations. These companies developed content specifically for the XO laptop that was widely popular during my fieldwork, and thus had preferential access to children via an avenue that most considered “educational.” While I love the connected learning approach of really centering children’s cultures in the learning process, I am very critical of companies’ efforts to make money off of that.

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Morgan G. Ames researches the ideological origins of inequality in the technology world, with a focus on utopianism, childhood, and learning. Her book The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child (MIT Press, 2019) draws on archival research and a seven-month ethnography in Paraguay to explore the cultural history, results, and legacy of the OLPC project — and what it tells us about the many other technology projects that draw on similar utopian ideals. Morgan is an assistant adjunct professor in the School of Information and interim associate director of research for the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at the University of California, Berkeley, where she teaches in Data Science and administers the Designated Emphasis in Science and Technology Studies.”

Herve Varenne on his new book, Educating in Life

https://www.routledge.com/Educating-in-Life-Educational-Theory-and-the-Emergence-of-New-Normals/Varenne/p/book/9781138313668

Ilana Gershon:  This book contains a wide range of ethnographic topics – how did you select what to write about and what to focus upon in these cases?

Hervé Varenne: I did not exactly “select” the ethnographies.  They were a gift from my students springing from the intersection of my interests with theirs, over the past decade.  What may be my own contribution is the organization of the book.  I intend to help make a general point about education, and about culture and, particularly the inevitable drift of any set of forms as people face the arbitrariness of the forms and educate themselves about what do next, collectively.  I always admired Marcel Mauss, and Claude Lévi-Strauss for the manner of their intellectual practice: again and again, on fundamental matters like gift-giving, the body, the classification of people, they proceeded through systematic comparison based on solid ethnographies.  The Trobriand can tell us about the Kwakiutl, and vice versa, as well as about us.  In our case, young girls from the Dominican Republic can tell us about young men venturing other people’s capital, mothers can tell us about teachers, and humans interacting with horses can tell us about everybody—particularly when one of the protagonists is voiceless, or silenced.  And all of them, together, can tell us about “education.”

Ilana Gershon: Throughout this book, you explore instructions and instructions about instructions.   What does a focus on instructing let anthropologists know about social life?

Hervé Varenne: I became a “legitimate peripheral participant” in professional anthropology in the Fall of 1968.  Then, David Schneider asked all the new students taking the required “Systems” course that they read the first 243 page of Parsons and Shils Towards a General Theory of Action (1951).  I did not notice then what was wrong with this theory.  It took me 30 years to shape the argument developed in the book, and first articulated formally in a lecture in 1999: “action” is not based on socialization leading to shared “value orientations” or an “habitus.”  Action is based on ever renewed ignorance about what to do next in the full details of a very particular here and now when all the solutions one may have inherited or developed earlier prove somewhat inadequate.  Of importance is the reality that this ignorance is triggered by what others are doing that one now has to deal with.  Thus, we must start with the assumption that, in any scene, and at whatever scale, all participants must tell each other what they are going to do next and what the interlocutors (those who are addressed or may have an interest in overhearing) should themselves do later even as the interlocutors start stating their own, possibly contradictory, intentions and instructions.

Ilana Gershon: Your book reminded me that lately I have been telling people: revolution lies in micro-interactions.  And of course, the converse would be true as well, the lack of revolution lies in micro-interactions as well.   Although admittedly I try to avoid saying this to Marxists.  I am wondering what you think the political charge of your book is?

Herve Varenne: To the puzzlement of at least some of my students, I asked them this year to read the chapter in Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? (1901) about the “consciousness” of the working class, and particularly their lack of the consciousness Lenin deemed necessary for a true revolution in their conditions.  Most surprisingly perhaps, Lenin argued that this consciousness could only be produced by the “bourgeois intelligentsia” to which Marx and Engels belonged.  As far as I am concerned, this is an early version of the future “culture of poverty” argumentation, directly echoed by Bourdieu and Passeron when they assert that the poor always “mis-know” their conditions.  I asked my students to read Lenin (rather than Franklin Frazier or Oscar Lewis) partially because of its shock value, but also because I will also ask them to read and ponder Jacques Rancière’s many books about, very specifically, the practical consciousness of workers facing their conditions explicitly and looking for “next” political steps that might help them, in the here and now, but which also, in the long run, may lead to altogether radical changes in social structures.  In that sense, farm workers in Southern Illinois who meet to teach themselves how to speak English and develop transcriptions methods, glossaries, and so on (Kalmar 2011), are engaged in “micro-interactions” that may lead to much more.  Rancière’s rants against all those who deliberately refuse to learn from workers and the otherwise “ignorant” are, of course, but a version of Boas’ rants against those who claim knowledge of “them,” and particularly of those who claim to know what “they” need, when all such knowledge is not based on intimate association with the people in their everyday lives.  The difficulty for all revolutionaries, reformers, other do-gooders, and particularly “we,” anthropologists, is that “they” may not go where we want them to go, and that “they” may also be altogether unpleasant, if not dangerous people.  If there is any “political charge” to my work it is the hope that anthropologists will also go to the many “upstates” and “downstates” of their academic localities to listen to people they do not like and against whom they may be struggling in their own politics.

Ilana Gershon: You evocatively quote Bateson in arguing that most of education involves “people working hard at protecting themselves” in the many social contexts and infrastructures that other people have made (167).   For many people who think about education, this may be a surprising turn since the focus is on protecting oneself from one’s contexts.  How did your case studies lead you to be so concerned about protection?  When doing fieldwork, what are the moments someone might want to ask about protection?

Hervé Varenne: I entered anthropology of education by pondering the travails of McDermott’s “Rosa” as she worked hard, in collusion with her peers and teacher, at not getting caught not knowing how to read (McDermott and Tylbor 1983).  I graduated into the field in awe of Garfinkel’s statements about “passing” as that which one is trying to convince others one “really” is—against various challenges that one is precisely not that.  Whatever one’s “identity” the problem is convincing one’s most significant others that “it” is this and not that.  Garfinkel also taught me that we can “trust” that most claims will not be challenged.  After all, challenging is also hard work that may have drastic consequences.  Better to let sleeping dogs lie.  In one way or another, all the ethnographies in the book are about establishing that this, possibly dangerous or new, thing is to become an “it” of some sort for various sets of people, whether it is young girls having fun, biologists making up a lab, capitalists venturing large amount of other people’s capital, mothers taking care of children, etc.  In every case, we report on people being more or less explicitly hurt, people challenging others, people seeking protection, but also people asserting their power even when this assertion might hurt.  I am sure that the administrators of the schools Koyama bring to our attention, even as they fired other administrators and teachers, were unhappy at the resistance to something that must have seemed eminently reasonable. After all, the new curriculum was required by the State, and certified by experts as more helpful for the poor and immigrants everyone was concerned with.  Ethnomethodology confirmed for me something I had noticed and other ethnographers had mentioned.  The only way to find what may be “normal” is to observe a disruption, a moment when one or more of the people are specifically seeking protection for someone else.  But one should also remember that the ethnographic goal may not be just accounting for the normal, but also bringing out the evidence that people, everywhere and everywhen, notice stuff about their conditions, analyze causes and consequences, imagine alternate possibilities, work at convincing others, and deal with the consequences of what they have done.

Ilana Gershon: Years ago, you gave me a remarkable intellectual gift by pointing out that as long as human lack telepathy, ethnographers can never truly study learning.   All ethnographers can truly do is study telling, and people are constantly telling each other who to be and how to be.   This has shaped my fieldwork ever since.  I want to ask, once you establish that any anthropology of education is an anthropology of telling, what are the set of questions that anthropologists of education should be exploring?

Hervé Varenne: Ray McDermott and Jean Lave have been the most influential of my contemporaries on my work.  But we have kept disagreeing on the fundamental point as to whether their work is to be a constructive critique of “learning theories” or whether it should be a more radical destruction of the very possibility of, and need for, such theories.  I keep arguing that we should leave “learning” to the psychologists who believe they can measure ‘it’.  In that vein, I was disappointed when an otherwise welcome recent paper in the American Anthropologist about education and anthropology was titled “Why Don’t Anthropologists Care about Learning …” (Blum 2019).  I dare say that anthropologists should not care about learning but rather that they should care about teaching—with the understanding of course that all teachings will fail (and thus will be “culture” rather than reproduction).  Re-reading Durkheim’s and Mauss’ passing comments about children, what strikes me is that they are always talking about the adults’ effort to “impose upon the child ways of seeing…” (Durkheim [1895] 1982: 53).  The Boasians did assume that such efforts would be successful and produce particular personalities or, as we put it now, particular “identities.”  But this was more a matter of conjecture than empirical demonstration.  It is not of course that children (and older adults) proceed ex nihilo.  It is rather that anthropologists should keep noticing “monolingual” children in English producing forms like “he singed” and then being corrected by some adult “dear, it is ‘he sang’.” They should notice cases like the one Perry Gilmore recently brought  to our attention about children “inventing” a new language (2016).  The first five ethnographies in the book are what I hope more anthropologists will do and that is bring to our attention the emergence of “new normals.”  In all the  cases in the book, the accent is on attempts to transform others or their conditions through various forms of “telling” (explaining, exhorting, teaching, and so on)—even as the teller notices various failures by those told to do what the teller hoped they would do … leading of course to further resistance, imposition, and so on.  As I wrote someplace in the book, “imposition” is the compliment power pays to “resistance.”

 

References cited

Blum, Susan.  2019.  Why don’t anthropologists care about learning(or education or school)? An immodest proposal for an integrative anthropology of learning whose time has finally come American Anthropologist 121, 3: 641-654.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and and Jean-Claude Passeron.  [1970] 1977.  Reproduction in education, society and culture.  Tr. by R. Nice. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Durkheim, Emile.  [1895] 1982.  The rules of the sociological method.  Tr. by W.D. Halls New York: The Free Press.

Garfinkel, Harold.  1963.  “A conception of, and experiments with, ‘trust’ as a condition of stable concerted actions.”  In Motivation and social interaction. Edited by O.J. Harvey, 187-238. New York: The Ronald Press.

Gilmore, Perry.  2016.  Kisisi (our language): The story of Colin and Sadiki.  Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Kalmar, Tomas.  [2001] 2015.  Illegal alphabets and adult literacy: Latino migrants crossing the linguistic border.  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lenin, Ilyich Vladimir.  [1902] 1961.  What is to be done?: Burning questions of our movement.  Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude.  [1962] 1963.  Totemism.  Tr. by R. Needham Boston: Beacon Press.

Mauss, Marcel. [1923-24] 1967.  The gift.  Tr. by I. Cunnison. New York: W.W. Norton.

———-.  [1934] 1973.  Techniques of the body Economy and Society 2: 70-88.

McDermott, R. P., and Henry Tylbor.  1983.  “On the necessity of collusion in conversation.” Text 3, 3: 277-297.

Parsons, Talcott, and and Edward Shils.  1951.  Toward a general theory of action.  New York: Harper and Row.

Shalini Shanker on Beeline

BEELINE hi res cover

https://www.basicbooks.com/titles/shalini-shankar/beeline/9781549168222/

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: When did you first realize that there was such a rich research project in South Asian students’ success in U.S. spelling bees?

Shalini Shankar: What caught my attention initially was not that South Asian American spellers have won the Scripps National Spelling Bee every year since 2008, but rather, the ridiculous theories circulating in the media about why they were winning. Theories based on genetics were casually proffered, as were sloppy applications of the Asian American model minority stereotype. This was enough to make me take a closer look at the broad range factors I suspected were shaping this trend. The richness of the project was in what these extraordinary kids (not just the South Asian American ones) were doing. Their orthographic prowess was incredible, as was their stage presence in what had become a big budget media spectacle. I started to attend the National Spelling Bee and the South Asian Spelling Bee (open only to kids of South Asian parentage) in 2013 and haven’t stopped. I was delighted to witness the naming of the “Octochamps,” though was quite relieved that my book was already published and I didn’t have to figure out what to say about it on the spot.

Ilana Gershon: When and how did the fact that the competitors you were studying were South Asian become important?

Shalini Shankar: Because I was interested offering an anthropological discussion about why this streak was happening, I ended up focusing primarily on South Asian American spellers. I welcomed the chance to follow and other spellers, and they also appear in the book. Having a somewhat heterogeneous sample helped confirm some of the hypotheses I had about this group: that their parents prioritize education and competitive educational enrichment or “brain sports” above their own leisure; that this community has built an infrastructure for competition that doesn’t yet exist in other communities; and that elite spellers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds work exceedingly hard to prepare. I wish I had a team of people to talk to many more kids, but I was certainly able to delve deeply into the South Asian American phenomenon through my focus.

Ilana Gershon: Studying how children prepared for spelling bees gave you some surprising insights into how children are preparing for a future of work these days.   What did you uncover about how these competitors think about time?  About what it means to be a person who has interests or passions?

Shalini Shankar: Several things surprised and, quite frankly, stunned me. Their awareness of time management and its importance in elite spelling preparation was finely honed. It came down to how many words you could study per minute, how many times you could cycle through the entire unabridged dictionary during Bee Season, and how you managed your two minute turn on stage. I watched them become experts, which is always a fascinating process to observe. Equally important is mind management,  in not getting psyched out by how confident other people seem; not getting flustered on stage in front of thousands of people, cameras, lights, and noise; and most importantly, learning to lose. It was so interesting to me to see a prominent folk ideology from my research in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s, about failure being productive, resurface here. Knowing how likely they were to lose, they did a lot of mental work to not internalize being eliminated as failure. Rather, they saw it as a learning experience, a social experience, and one that strengthened their resolve to do better the next time. Here, concepts like “grit” and “growth mindset” proved helpful to me to connect what I was seeing to broader conversations about learning and success for kids.

Ilana Gershon: What are some of the political stakes for you in writing this book? 

Shalini Shankar: Firstly, I wanted to offer an antiracist narrative about this particular immigrant story, challenging some of the underlying assumptions of what people often chalk up to “genetic.” The mainstream media would routinely report South Asian American kids as having a “spelling gene.” Those of us who study language know that is complete nonsense! To challenge this prevalent notion, I triangulated which immigrants were winning (the children of immigrants of the 1990 Immigration Act with advanced STEM credentials, a far less heterogeneous group than first few waves of post-1965 immigrants); and the potential impact of these immigrants beyond their own communities, as Generation Z has more children of immigrants than any other post-war cohort. This allowed me to argue that this cohort of immigrants has advanced professional skills and an urgent emphasis on education that has led them to take the brain sport of competitive spelling quite seriously, and this is what has led to their success.

Secondly, I wanted to understand how childhood might be changing through the lens of this increasingly competitive activity. I was curious about how Generation Z, raised by Gen X parents, may approach competition and challenge differently than Millennials raised by Baby Boomers. The amount of time that kids used to spend studying and preparing had grown exponentially from even a decade prior. Accessing a searchable, online dictionary, staying connected with fellow word nerds on social media, and the promise of being featured on ESPN primetime were all factors that heightened the stakes of not only this contest, but what kids could do. What I observed is that age and lack of experience isn’t necessarily seen as an obstacle; kids today take on challenges that previous generations might have deferred until college or afterword. Several chapters in the book take up the question of professionalizing childhood, and why that is important for kids. If a 15-year old elite speller can become a spelling bee coach as a first year high school student by training spellers via Skype and charging whatever they want (which is the case with several spellers I followed), it complicates how we think of kids as economic actors, and how they might enter the economy differently than their struggling Millennial predecessors.

Ilana Gershon: This is a book written for a general public, and as a result, you had to make calculated choices about what you would include and how.  How do writing for academics about spelling bees differ from writing for non- academics–are there ideas you decided not to include because you were anticipating the most general audience possible?

Shalini Shankar: Unlike my previous two books Desi Land and Advertising Diversity, where I writing for readers in Anthropology and Ethnic Studies, I wasn’t sure who my readers would be here. I was very careful about choosing theoretical concepts that would resonate with non-specialists. This meant I didn’t get into the weeds about semiotic concepts that I’d otherwise have included. That said, I still offered a semiotic analysis where appropriate, just using different terminology and doing far more explanatory work. When I chose to publish this book with a trade press, I was completely unfamiliar with the process. It was a steep learning curve! There is no peer review process and you primarily work with your editor. It is really different to get feedback from a generalist rather than a specialist in your own field. I had a lot of back and forth with my editor about what kinds of claims I felt comfortable making. I think I definitely pushed past my previous limits with this book, but still stayed within the realm of plausibility. Most of all, I wanted to write a readable book that people could enjoy. I hope I’ve done that for at least some of the people who open it.

Robert Samet on his book, Deadline

https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/D/bo38871952.html

Interview by Alejandro Velasco

Alejandro Velasco: Venezuela is in the news these days, but that wasn’t always the case. For decades Venezuela seemed relatively understudied, considered “boring” and uneventful in contrast to the rest of the region. Then Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998, and academic – and media – attention gradually took off. What drew you to study Venezuela, and the media in particular?

Robert Samet: Like many people, I was initially drawn by the grassroots political project that coalesced around Hugo Chávez, but it was the extraordinary media environment that made me choose to do fieldwork in Venezuela. Before graduate school I worked in advertising. My master’s thesis dealt with terrorism preparedness campaigns in the United States, something with which I had experience. For my doctoral research, I wanted to continue working on media and democracy but in a different setting. Venezuela was perfect. It was the most diverse and arguably the freest environment for journalism in the Western Hemisphere. It was also the most polarized. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the media battles playing out in Venezuela were a precursor to what has become the new normal in much of the world.

Alejandro Velasco: As you describe in rich and dynamic detail in Deadline, the media was an early, crucial, and sometimes even literal site of political struggle in the Chavez era, not just a flashpoint but a platform for chavistas and anti-chavistas to seek to impose deeply divergent visions of the country and gain control over its future.  But your book takes a surprising turn. It focuses on a specific subset of press coverage – crime beat reporting – that at first glance seems to stand outside the fray of the larger media battles that have shaped the Chavez era. Why did you decide to focus on crime reporting, and how do you think this specific focus sheds light on broader media struggles in contexts of bitter polarization?

Robert Samet: Crime journalism was not part of the original plan. I’d intended to do participant observation with media producers on either side of Venezuela’s political divide, but after a few weeks the research stalled. It wasn’t a problem of access. Most of the news organizations were happy to open their doors, and being a gringo from a prestigious U.S. university didn’t hurt. The problem was that people kept repeating stories I’d already heard. Either the private press was part of a vast anti-Chávez conspiracy (chavistas) or the Chávez government was a corrupt dictatorship intent on ending press freedom (opposition). Back and forth. I decided to start working with crime reporters because violent crime was an issue on which there was an emerging consensus. Focusing on crime allowed me to provincialize Chávez. I could see how reporters went about the business of finding cases, gathering facts, and framing stories. I also observed how they used crime stories as a platform to mobilize grievances, apportion blame, and propose solutions. A distinct pattern emerged. After a few months of working the Caracas crime beat, I started to see a broader logic that governed the practice of journalism in Venezuela.

Alejandro Velasco: Populism is much in vogue as an explanatory device but the term is fraught, seeming at times to mean everything and nothing. One common and contradictory trope is that the press is both a catalyst for and a bulwark against populist politicians who rely on media coverage – positive or negative – to attack freedoms and staid institutions. Your book offers a refreshing and important contribution, viewing “populism” less as a political phenomenon than as a category of analysis to understand fields of cultural and political contestation. How did you arrive at populism as a theoretical framework, and what do you think Deadline adds to debates on what populism is and isn’t?

Robert Samet: Thank you! I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. Populism is a term that is frequently misused. Much of the current scholarship has adopted a top-down definition that confuses populism with the discourse of charismatic leaders. That’s one of the reasons anthropologists have largely avoided the topic. I only turned to theories of populism because I was trying to explain the mobilization of “denuncias” (denunciations) by Venezuelan journalists. Denuncias are crucial for understanding the style of journalism that came to dominate Latin America in the late twentieth century. I expected to find a large literature on the topic, but there was virtually nothing on denuncias in English or in Spanish. I had to create my own theoretical framework. Around this time, I picked up Ernesto Laclau’s book On Populist Reason and found a lucid explanation of the practices I’d observed on the crime beat. Although I have issues with some of Laclau’s normative assumptions, his work allowed me to formulate an empirically grounded analysis of the role that media plays in populist mobilization, a topic on which Laclau himself is silent. In this regard, I think that my book can serve as a roadmap for thinking about the relationship between media and populism more broadly. Instead of starting with a check list of attributes by which to quantify the relative populism of different leaders (ala the work being done by “Team Populism”) we have to start with the grievances of ordinary people and the channels through which these grievances are mobilized.

Alejandro Velasco: Venezuela is one of the world’s most violent countries, even as you also observe, there is much debate about what precisely that means, with wildly divergent statistics often thoughtlessly tossed around in leading media accounts. That leads to an important meditation that runs through Deadline, about the meanings of violence beyond figures, but also and perhaps more importantly, about larger epistemological tensions in a world where not just policy making but most decision making and reporting about it is increasingly dominated by “hard” numbers.  As someone who is not an anthropologist I’m curious: what do you think a book like Deadline – and the discipline of anthropology more broadly – has to say about how the value of ethnography and qualitative methods at a time when these tools seem increasingly to be questioned as valid or important?

Robert Samet: I’m secretly fond of numbers and spent a lot of time pouring over crime statistics. Violent crime in Venezuela is exceptionally bad by any measure. Because it was a political flashpoint the numbers were weaponized. Organizations associated with the opposition often inflated the homicide rate, while the government went to great lengths to hide it. This is a pattern with which criminologists are familiar. The solution is not better numbers. It’s better context. That is what good ethnography and good journalism have in common. That is also one of the things my book provides—a nuanced, empathetic, and policy-relevant description about struggles to control perceptions of crime. However, ethnography is much more than mere context. It is a resolutely empirical methodology, one that is far better suited to studying moments of political and socio-economic upheaval than quantitative research. As I learned in my advertising days, quantitative data is great for predicting behaviors within a closed system, but it is not particularly useful if you want to understand how individuals or groups will react to something radically new. For that you need a methodology with a stronger grounding in peoples’ lifeworlds. To return to the subject of populism for a moment, data scientists were not the ones who foresaw the current wave of upheavals. It was scholars whose research was close to the ground and whose work had an ethnographic sensibility. For anyone who wants to understand where things are headed, I’d argue ethnography is more relevant than ever.

Alejandro Velasco: You write that fieldwork for what became Deadline began in 2007, continuing through multiple research visits of different length until just recently. That means you have witnessed Venezuela arguably at the height of chavismo’s popularity and power, through Chavez’s death, through Nicolas Maduro’s first years in power, and more recently, during the country’s dramatic economic collapse. As an ethnographer, what special challenges do you feel you’ve encountered researching and writing in such a fast-changing context? And based on your research and writing on Venezuela, what has surprised you – and what has failed to surprise you – about the turn the country has taken in recent years?

Robert Samet: So much has changed over the past decade. When I started out, Venezuela was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak world. Today it is in crisis. For an ethnographer, the speed of change definitely posed a challenge, but it was compounded by the political stakes. Ever since I started working in Venezuela, the situation has been misrepresented abroad. In the United States, for example, the GOP is using Venezuela as an example of the dangers of socialism, a move that even The New York Times flagged as baldly misleading. Back in 2007, it was easy to counter partisan assertions about dictatorship, censorship, or political persecution; fast forward to the present and it’s more difficult. Take the issue of crime control. Under Chávez, the Venezuelan government rejected tough-on-crime policies as instruments of racial and socio-economic oppression. Under Maduro, it has embraced them. Tough-on-crime policies have been the hallmark of rightwing populism since the 1980s, so it’s troubling to see an ostensibly leftist movement champion tactics similar to those we see in Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro or the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte. I would not call Maduro’s punitive turn surprising—if anything, I was amazed that Chávez managed to hold out against pressure to move in this direction for so long—but it creates a real conundrum. How do you write honestly about a topic that has become the object of political football? As someone sympathetic to the plight of ordinary Venezuelans as well as the ideals of the Bolivarian Revolution, I’m acutely aware that my critiques could be used to justify brutal sanctions or to make a case for war. That’s what made this project so challenging. There is a very narrow tightrope that I’m trying to walk.

Alejandro Velasco: One of the more provocative contributions Deadline makes is identifying the multiple pressures beat reporters face in climates of intense of polarization, pressures that go well beyond a simple state versus independent media binary.  Instead you show how beat reporters are susceptible to both overt and subtle forms of manipulation by management, by colleagues and interlocutors caught up in the fray of polarization, and of course by larger political tensions as they affect daily life, the object of their reporting.  That seems to echo another recent book on the media in Chávez-era Venezuela (Naomi Schiller, Channeling the State, Duke 2018) by noting that debates about press freedom – in Venezuela and elsewhere – often miss power relations in the press itself, power relations that are compounded but also obscured when the dynamic becomes one that pits “the state” versus “the media.” What contribution do you want Deadline to make to debates about the role – and the power – of the press in society, and about how we should think about the relationship between state and the media, as seen through the eyes of beat reporters?

Robert Samet: Here in the United States we are slowly waking up to the fact that press freedom is not all it’s cracked up to be. The myth of press freedom obscures how corporate entities have been remaking the state in their image for the better part of a century. Nowhere was this vice grip on the media challenged more imaginatively than Venezuela. Deadline looks at how private interests shaped political speech. Channeling the State describes how grassroots media projects set out to democratize access to cultural production. I think that the two books are complimentary. They show, albeit from different angles, that the media is a platform on which state-making projects are staged. In this respect, Naomi and I both challenge anti-statist assumptions that became prevalent in the critical humanities and social sciences from the 1980s onward. I hope that my book encourages a new generation of students and activists to work to change the nation-state rather than formulating newer, ever more sophisticated critiques of it. Among other things, I want readers come away with a greater appreciation for limited government regulation of things like online hate speech or the circulation of deliberate falsehoods. In the United States, these have become the vehicles for white nationalism. It is time to shut them down.

Alejandro Velasco: The book is at once engagingly written and theoretically rich. It also is both deeply situated in the Venezuelan experience, while resonating loudly in debates that extend well beyond Venezuela – about the craft of journalism, the meanings of populism, the work and policy of urban policing. It also strikes me as a book that makes an overarching argument, but whose chapters can also stand alone. That’s all to say, I can see it adopted in many different courses and settings – from introductory courses in Latin American culture, to political theory courses, to public policy course in urban planning, to advanced journalism seminars, and more. Can you give advice on a few ways someone wanting to incorporate Deadline might teach it productively? Or perhaps a more difficult question: How would you teach your book to undergraduates?  Are there chapters that are particularly well suited to teach independently? If read in full, are there auxiliary materials you would pair with it?

Robert Samet: Thank you! I teach at a liberal arts college and I wanted to write an ethnography that was relevant to my colleagues but also accessible to undergraduates. You’re right to observe that Deadline is constructed around a central argument, however there are also chapters and sections that stand alone. For example, I’d recommend chapters 2-4 for anyone who wants a depiction of how the stigma of criminality is stamped on the urban poor. These are the book’s most accessible chapters and I think they are conducive to undergraduate teaching. For graduate instructors who are interested in the book’s theoretical contributions, chapters 5-8 probably hold the greatest appeal. This is where I take up theories of media, democracy, populism, and representations of violence. For someone trying to explain how the Venezuelan landscape changed over the last twenty years, then the book’s first two chapters and the conclusion are probably the most important. How would I teach it? I think that Deadline is best suited for unsettling received wisdom about Venezuela and the relationship between media and democracy. I’d introduce the book by having students look for examples of how Chávez and Venezuela are portrayed by the international press. Then, I’d have them watch Kim Barley and Donnacha O’Briain’s 2003 documentary The Revolution Will Not be Televised. After that I’d dive into the book itself. I think that it pairs particularly well with journalistic accounts of Venezuela, like Jon Lee Anderson’s “Slumlord” published in The New Yorker (2013) or Frontline’s “The Hugo Chávez Show” (2008). But I think that it’s even more interesting when you pair it with contemporary discussion of social media, fake news, and ideals of journalism. In my opinion, Deadline is the best available case study of how populism operates in and through the media. It avoids the hype about new media as well as the liberal handwringing about evils of populism. I want students to come away with a nuanced understanding of a pattern that is built into the very fabric of our democracies.

 

 

Hilary Dick on Words of Passage

Cover of Words of Passage

Interview by Alejandro I. Paz

https://utpress.utexas.edu/books/dick-words-of-passage

Alejandro I. Paz: Your book follows the ways that, given the entanglements between the US and Mexican economies, Mexicans who don’t migrate still imagine what their lives might be like on the other side of the border. Why is looking at the Mexicans who don’t migrate important and how does such a study illuminate the relation between the US and Mexico?

Hilary Parsons Dick: I use the term “nonmigrant” to refer specifically to people who haven’t migrated, but who live in places with active migration pathways, like the neighborhood where I centered my ethnographic research in Mexico, in which nearly every household has a member with migration experience. In this neighborhood—and in the migrant enclave in Southern Pennsylvania where I also conducted field work—images of life “beyond here” profoundly shape people’s understandings of relationships with their family and the countries of Mexico and the United States. This reality resonates with a way Arjun Appadurai described globalization, as a process that that leads people to live their lives refracted through other possible lives they imagine they could live elsewhere. I wanted to understand how such refraction, such imagining, unfolds in practice and with ethnographic particularity. The connections nonmigrants forge with the imagined lives of migrants offer a productive vantage point from which to explore this problem.

I found that considering how Mexican nonmigrants live in the company of imagined fellows illuminates the role ideas about migration play in nation-building and, especially, the variegation of national belonging: the idea that not all people who are legally authorized to be in a territory are positioned as fully belonging to it. As the anthropology of nationalism and citizenship has shown, such variegation is a key feature of nation-building across settings. And, as studies of immigration and citizenship law in migrant-receiving countries show, including your fabulous book Latinos in Israel, imaginaries about who migrants are or can be contribute profoundly to the constitution of variegation. One of Words of Passage’s contributions is to show that migrant imaginaries also play a central role in shaping national belonging in migrant-sending countries. Certainly, this has been the case in Mexico. Since the late 19th century, migrant imaginaries have helped organize what it means to “be Mexican” in ways that are consequential to the people with whom I did my research, as I discuss later in this interview (the third question). As for how this process tells us about the relationship between Mexico and the US, scroll down to the fourth question.

Alejandro I. Paz: More than anyone else in linguistic anthropology, you have theorized migration discourse, and in your book you have expanded that term’s scope, using history, ethnography, and close readings of transcripts. How does this combination of methodologies enable you to tackle the question of how migration discourse impacts, and is adapted by, working class Uriangatenses?

Hilary Parsons Dick: One of the key things I aimed to do in Words of Passage was to theorize the “imaginary” in a way that gives it concreteness. This concept is used frequently, but often without being fully operationalized. Yet, it is a productive concept for thinking through how the variegation of national belonging is produced and enacted. As Words of Passage shows, the (re)creation of imaginaries is fundamentally a discursive one. And critical to understanding the production of imaginaries of Mexicanidad/Mexicanness is studying talk and writing about the causes and consequences of migration—or migration discourse.

The combination of methodologies highlighted in your question grows from the understanding of discourse that undergirds the book. I analyze discourse in the Foucauldian-genealogical sense and in the linguistic anthropological sense of actual language-use. This approach allows me to show how particular moments of interaction contribute to broader processes, like the variegation of national belonging. To track whether and how imaginaries produced or authorized by the state, what I call state-endorsed imaginaries, inform the lives of actual people, I needed to establish that there are enduring state-endorsed imaginaries, which people variously contribute to, adapt, reformulate, and/or resist. I also demonstrate how people achieve these ends in interaction, through producing their own imaginaries of Mexicanidad that are informed by state-endorsed imaginaries, but which also critique and revise them in ways that envision their full belonging in the country.

Equally important to examining migration discourse in Mexico historically, ethnographically, and textually is the transnational aspect of my ethnographic research. Although Words of Passage focuses on the lives of nonmigrants, the insights it offers are deeply informed by the dual-sited fieldwork I did. This research helped bring into relief how the experience of migration is different for migrants and nonmigrants—and, also, how imaginaries of national belonging are informed by and resist the framings of Mexican migrants in the US.

 Alejandro I. Paz: Class is an important aspect of this study. You encourage us to think about the interpellation of the Mexican working class. You show how interpellative processes work their way through gendered, religious, and racial dynamics. What does such a study reveal about class in general and the Mexican working class specifically?

Hilary Parsons Dick: The concept of interpellation, understood as a process of call-and-response in which one is hailed to see oneself as a member of the nation-state and variably responds, is essential to the way I theorize the production and enactment of variegated national belonging. The assertion is that imaginaries of national belonging are a form of interpellation that call to people to see themselves as being part of the nation in ways that are not uniform or egalitarian.

In Mexico, state-endorsed imaginaries of Mexicanidad have designated certain groups as simultaneously representing the true “essence” of the nation, as embodying what is means to “be Mexican,” and also the country’s central obstacles to achieving full sovereignty and economic power. These paradoxical positionings create a double bind of belonging for people identified as part of these groups. As in many other contexts, this process of designation is raced, classed, and gendered: it is indigenous people, women, and rural peasants and the urban working-class who state-endorsed imaginaries place in the double-bind. I focus on class and gender in my study because the people with whom I did my research are monolingual, Spanish-speaking mestizos who identify as working-class, but have a certain race privilege as part of the unmarked racial category in Mexico. Words of Passage shows how people who occupy the position of “working-class” respond to the state’s interpellative call, taking up some of its terms while revising others. This type of analysis is relevant to the understanding the lived experience of class—and race and gender—in Mexico. And I think one could address a very similar set of problems in any modern nation-state through the theoretical framework I lay out.

Alejandro I. Paz: You write about the importance of the foil of the US, and the ethical and moral judgments made of the US, for how Mexicans have come to conceive of national belonging. Are there moments where the imagining of life in the US is more intense for Uriagantenses, and what regulates that intensity?

Hilary Parsons Dick: The lives of nonmigrants, and their experiences of variegation, add another layer of understanding to the enduring entanglements between the US and Mexico. Migration, not only the act itself but discourse about it, has been pivotal in producing this enmeshment politically, economically, and socioculturally since the late 19th century. People in Mexican migrant communities on both sides of the border are acutely aware of this fact—a common saying I would hear was that the US economy was built by la mano de obra Mexicana, by Mexican labor. Indeed, migration politics in the US would probably look very different if the profound, positive contributions migrants make were held in the center of the discussion.

More specifically, both state-endorsed and working-class Uriangatense imaginaries of Mexicanidad are ordered around a concept of moral mobility: the idea that Mexico and its people should “progress”(be mobile) economically, but in a way that is moral, where “being moral” is understood as the opposite of “being US.” So, being Mexican has historically and contemporaneously been about not being like the United States, posited as a land of economic opportunity, but moral depravity. For working-class Uriangatenses, it is Catholic understandings of personhood and collectivity that inform what “being moral” means. Imaginaries of moral mobility, therefore, are both visions of what the “good life” is and also a form of political commentary that rejects the imperialism that marks the US’s relationships with Mexico. For working-class Uriangatenses, and also for their relations living in the United States, there are times when this ethico-moral encounter with the US is more intense. These typically correspond with moments of impending cross-border movement, whether it’s going back to Mexico or facing US-bound migration.

Alejandro I. Paz: Have you been surprised by the way the new right in the US, apotheosized in the presidency of Donald Trump, has successfully turned up the temperature on migration discourse to gain political advantage? What do you see will be some of the results of this intensification of anti-immigrant messaging and policy for working class Mexicans, and especially do you think it will reinforce or change the kinds of imaginaries that you describe?

Hilary Parsons Dick: I am not surprised that the contemporary right-wing populism in the US, and elsewhere, has been bolstered by an intensification of (anti-)migration discourse. Since the 1970s, the US Republican party has used fear mongering about migrants to boost their political fortunes—and not all migrants, but racialized groups, such as migrants from Mexico and Central America. Throughout US history, there have been periodic moral panics about the migration of racialized groups, ginned up for political advantage. Generally, these happen at times of economic contraction and restructuring, like the neoliberalization of the global economy, in which political elites make racialized migrants into scapegoats for economic woes. So, Trump and his ilk are building on long-term racial projects and political economic strategies. One way they are contributing to these processes is by using migration discourse to endeavor to re-mainstream overt racism, which became taboo in public discourse after the Civil Rights movement: a problem I am working through in my second book.

The consequences of the intensification of right-wing migration discourse has been the authorization of policy measures and practices that have created a shameful humanitarian disaster on the US-Mexico border, and within other sectors of the US deportation regime. These policies disproportionately affect migrants from Mexico and Central America. The use of anti-migrant discourse to legitimate ever-more draconian policies is a practice that has been going on since the late 20th century. Though now this ratcheting up of the ‘law-and-order’ approach to migration is happening with even more vigor and extremity, as the Trump administration disregards some of the factors that used to partially temper such crackdowns, such as compassion for children and families and a commitment to family reunification.

Given the devastating impacts of crackdown policies, I doubt that core elements of Mexican imaginaries of moral mobility—which critique the US’s imperialist stance towards its southern neighbors—will change substantially. In many ways, recent events provide fodder for their reinforcement. In addition, return migrants have consistently been positioned as important figures in Mexican state-endorsed imaginaries—as both harbingers of “progress” and as threats to state power. The mass deportations of the Obama and Trump administrations have led to a large number of return migrants who present complications for Mexican state institutions. It will be interesting to see whether/how older framings of returnees are taken up as the Mexican state manages this period of return.

At the same time, since my ethnographic research for Words of Passage ended in the mid-2000s, Mexico has undergone a dramatic transition to becoming a country of significant migrant passage and reception, as migration from Central America has increased. This transition is forcing Mexico to reckon with being a nation of immigration and not just emigration. In this, the Mexican federal government is increasingly adopting policies that mirror the US crackdown approach. This suggests that it is producing a new state-endorsed migration discourse that situates Central American migrants in ways that unfortunately mirror how Mexican migrants have been positioned in US state-endorsed migration discourse.

Jon Bialecki on his book, A Diagram for Fire

A Diagram for Fire by Jon Bialecki

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520294219/a-diagram-for-fire

Interview by Anna Eisenstein

Anna Eisenstein:   Your book identifies the miracle as the defining feature of American Charismatic Evangelicalism as manifested in Vineyard churches, and you unpack the miracle in terms a Gilles Deleuze’s “diagram”. Can you tell us what drew you to the diagram as a compelling framework for interpreting your ethnographic material, and what you hope it will bring to the study of Christianity and religion more broadly?

Jon Bialecki: My eventual turn to the diagram was fed out of a sort of “Two Crows denies it” frustration I experienced in the field. When I first began ethnographic work with the Vineyard, every time I would try to make a generalization about the practices and subjectivities that characterize this Southern California originated but now global Church movement, I would be corrected by someone who would point to an exception. If I said there was a tendency to progressive politics, some other reactionary Vineyard congregation would be named, or some other member of the Church or the prayer group I was spending time with would be brought up. If I characterized worship as ecstatic, someone would claim that it was meditative, or point out worship heavy Churches that weren’t heavily Charismatic. And so on, through every attempt to crystalize what I was seeing. But this was also an anthropological problem – or at least a problem of comparative ethnographies. At the same time, whenever I mentioned one of these hypothesized Vineyard distinctives to anthropologists who studied different Charismatic and Pentecostal groups, I would be told that there was some practice in their field-site that was similar to, or sometimes identical to, what I was finding in the Vineyard. In short, each Vineyard was unique, and yet all of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity was the same, which are not quite impossible positions to hold simultaneously, but certainly aren’t comfortable ones.

In my early published work, I tried to handle this by finding some opposition in whatever aspect of Charismatic religiosity I was writing about, and claiming that we could describe various Vineyard Churches, as well as the practices and experiences of different Vineyard believers, as some admixture between these two contrasting forces: I would write about centrifugal versus centripetal language, or sacrifice versus stewardship as different types of economic action and exchange. But this model, while a good enough working heuristic, seemed procrustean. What was worse, there could be no form of novelty, at least according to the accounts I was producing. Everything was just a little more leaning to one end or the other of a stable opposition; and even if the distance between these poles could jump discontinuously in real time, as I claimed, it was still a bit of a claustrophobic model.

But by chance I was reading about embryogenesis and about how some biologists conceive the of the relations between individuals, species, and family in certain taxonomic models. And what struck me was that, say, you could say there were identical yet abstract relations between various anatomical features in both how embryogenesis unfolds, and in how individuals and species relate to their taxonomic families, yet at the same time every particular expression could be qualitatively different in that these abstract relations could be realized to different extents, and through different material. This is how you can have all sorts of unique cats, for instance, and yet recognize all these particular individual animals as an expression of Felidae. And yet, there is also no cat or species of cat that is ‘prototypical’ of Felidae; there is no telos or ideal form, just all sorts of different expressions. The only way that a certain animal or species could serve as an exemplar is merely in the statistical sense, and not as some image of perfection. This material also led me into topology, which could e defined as the branch of mathematics which (in part) concerns itself with spatial relations, while purposefully ignoring the effect of size, or of continuous change of shape. What is nice is that you can have two homeomorphic shapes that still present themselves as radically different; the classical example for this is the way that the coffee cup and the donut (or torus) are both deformations of one another. This turn to topology was a surprise to me, because I was never really drawn to mathematics, especially with it came to anthropology. In the eighties and nineties, I was taught that the use of mathematics was just scientism, and that was bad. But topology was a kind of mathematics that escaped any quantification, so it didn’t seem vulnerable to the usual sorts of critiques of anthropological use of statistical and numerical reasoning.

Gilles Deleuze used the idea of the diagram to discuss phenomenon very similar to embryogenesis, taxonomic similarity within taxonomic models, and topology; the chief difference was that Deleuze was concerned with this sort of simultaneous fixture of relations and plasticity as it was found in social life. Perhaps the clearest example of it is Deleuze’s reading of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, where the same set of relations that constituted the prison could be found in different spaces and instances (classrooms, factories, military units, hospitals). This diagrammatic kind of reasoning suggested quite an analytic benefit if I could identify some set of relations that could still be realized in numerous, and perhaps endless, different way. That would allow me to think through the events that characterize not just the Vineyard as a movement, but also particular Vineyard churches, and even individual Vineyard believers as at once having a commonality in shared potential, and yet still be easily distinguishable in their concrete particularities. All I would have to do is identify the qualitative differences, such as speed, strength, scale, and emotional tenor, and also find the differences that resulted from the different kinds of material that was being organized in each diagrammatic expression – different vocabularies, different forms of embodiment, different modes of subjectivity, different encompassing political milieus.

Another benefit was that comparisons between cases becomes possible – we can now talk about different Charismatic and Pentecostal Christianities without homogenizing them, or falling into a kind of nominalism where the only thing that all our cases ultimately share is that for contingent historical disciplinary or intellectual reasons we decided to put them in the same basket. We can ask in what situations do certain aspects of Pentecostalism appear, disappear, or change, which means that we can jump over the abyss of seeing any form of Pentecostalism as either ‘local’ or ‘global’ – each expression is both, in as much as it is a partial realization of a swath of potential in a ‘local’ site, through the organization of local linguistic material, social material, emotional palates, on so on. And where we couldn’t identify a shared set of relations, then we could compare different diagrams, and ask if we can see one diagram as a mutation or modification of the other; what happened when diagrams changed because some abstract organizing element (such as the presence of an immanent expression of divine will, to take the Charismatic/Pentecostal case) fell away or transformed?

I hope this wasn’t too much, but it was a long and bumpy road from the sort of linguistic and psychological anthropology I was trained in to the place where I am today. The same can be said not just about the change in analytic tools, but also in what questions could and should be asked.

Anna Eisenstein:    One of the things I found surprising about your book was the relationship between miracles and the will within The Vineyard. I was wondering if you could say a bit about how the Vineyard conceptualizes the will, and how it relates to the way that miracles work in the Vineyard?

Jon Bialecki: In the Vineyard, there are three different kinds of will; human will, divine will, and demonic will. God’s will is implicit in that he is understood as having particular desideratum: he ‘wants’ things for his believers, he asks them to make sacrifices, he has plans for their lives. For Vineyard believers, God’s will is not always clearly legible, it is important to note. Vineyard believers are often unsure of what it is that God wants them to do in any particular situation, or to do in their lives in general; when it comes to careers, marital partners, or even day-to-day ethical conundrums, people find themselves uncertain. Sometimes prayer and biblical study can elucidate these issues. But just as often, after a great deal of contemplation, prayer, and study, people still find themselves unsure of what the proper way forward is. This problem of divine desire also comes hand-in-hand with a language of divine power; in prayer, preaching, and song, God’s strength is a recurrent feature. This is not just strength in the sense of power, but also in the sense of strength of emotion – God feels more, cares more, loves more than any other entity. But since He is somewhat capricious (or as they say in the Vineyard, “messy”), he does so in different ways, with different tonalities. Putting this altogether, what we have is not just the divine as some sort of architect, but as someone who passionately wills for certain ends. The strength of God’s will stands in sharp contrast to Human will, which is weak. It’s weak in the sense of not being particularly powerful when facing opposition, but its also weak in that human will lacks a certain unity. Drawing on an overtly Evangelical anthropology, the Vineyard imagines people as having multiple, conflicting desires. What is worse is that these various desires often run against individual’s own sense of what is right in this world, and of what they should be longing for.

Miracles are a way of uniting the human will, or at least of rejecting unacceptable aspects of the human will for a season or so. Miracles are signs that reveal and rearrange. The miraculous sign not only informs an individual what it is that God wills (that there be healed, that the believer do x instead of y, or whatever else) but the miraculous sign gives the individual an opportunity to effectuate that divine will by aligning their own will with God’s desires through submitting to or accepting the miracle. A person accepts healing, receives prophetic knowledge, takes up speaking in tongues, but only if they open themselves up it when the miracle occurs. It is no mistake that these miraculous abilities and events are referred to by Pentecostal and Charismatic believers as the charismatic “gifts.”

We should note that the relation of wills in the miracle scales in interesting, and complicated ways. It’s also important to keep in mind that the willful/unwilling forces that stand at variance with the divine will are understood in different ways at different times. These two aspects of the will can work together to sometimes surprising ends. When it comes to scale, the conflicting wills can sometimes be within a larger unit, such as a church, a denomination, or even a nation. This means that we can be speaking of numerous individuals with a group who have mixed wills, and thus are recursively or in a fractal-like manner mirroring the larger constituent organization. But there is also no reason why the difference in will within an organization has to be distributed this way; there can also be a subset of individuals within the group who are in harmony with the divine will, and a different subset that are running counter to it. This means that when praying about the will of collective units, it is possible for this to be articulated in particularly Manichaeans ways.  Rather than God giving us collectively as sign that we all must rework are disordered wills together, we can be given a sign that within a grouping of some sort the disorder in wills take the form of our will mirroring God’s, while our internal opponent’s wills do not.

This tendency is exacerbated by the different kind of ontological frameworks that are sometimes used to frame the will. The Vineyard, as a deeply American movement, psychologizes most things pretty quickly; this gives sermons and publications an almost ‘therapeutic’ air at times. This means that difficulties of the will can be discussed in the language found in popular psychology and counseling. But as part of a Pentecostal/Charismatic mode of religiosity, believers in the Vineyard also have access to a more throughly supernatural ontology where objects like disease or characterological tendencies can be spoken of as if they were demonic; and at times the will can literally be identified as demonic, say, when someone prays to cast out “the spirit of depression” in an attempt to eradicate the dark and self-defeating willful elements in some person. For the most part, Vineyard believers are pretty adept about shuttling between psychological and demonological frameworks, and the presence of these two frameworks, and the choice of which of them to make use of at a particular time, doesn’t have any great effects. But the capacity to segregate the unwilling or willful into a specific subset of people, and then laminate their behavior with the demonic, is an obvious and continuous danger – and as the record or religious and political demonization in American religion shows, it is a danger that other cognate forms of Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity have fallen into more than once over the past three decades.

Anna Eisenstein:    In the book’s conclusion, you reformulate E.B. Tylor’s longstanding definition of religion (“the belief in Spiritual Beings”) to propose instead that religion is the more than human — and further, you suggest that religion is fundamentally about the human capacity to change. Could you say something about the way that you conceive of change in relation to more-than-human encounters?

Jon Bialecki: Reformulations of Tylor, of course, is nothing new, and my reformulation in many ways mirrors some of these other approaches. My particular approach is undoubtably influence by Mel Spiro’s classic article “Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation.” In that essay, Spiro uses the term “superhuman beings” in the place of “spiritual beings,” because an ontology where the idea of the spiritual makes sense can’t just be assumed. Since Spiro, developments in the anthropology of religion have helped bring out hidden aspects of this definition. The first development was (ironically enough) critiques of various extant academic definitions of religion. Talal Asad is the one who made the case in our discipline when he produced a reading of Clifford Geertz’s essay on religion to convincingly argue that standard anthropological definitions of religion are colored by modernist Protestant sensibilities. This Protestant lean suffered from political as well as analytic defects: the definitions produced weren’t adequate for earlier historical religious configurations, such as medieval Catholicism, and they also suggested that contemporary religious forms that leaned in the disciplinary and thus were not ‘privatized’ (such as many forms of Islam) were somehow defective or diseased.

Many have read Asad as a nominalist (something that he specifically denies) and have taken from his argument that we can’t speak about religion as anything other than a local, western category. You see that at conferences sometimes, when people just use Asad to dismiss in the Q&A. I think that the better lesson to take from Asad is something different. We should read Asad as saying that any particular description of religion draw from historically delineated concrete expressions of religion, and not expansive underlying potentialities, is an error. In short, if we posit religious not as something that has definite elements, but as a question that can be taken up in different ways, with different degrees of importance, in other words as a field of potential, then we can acknowledge that while the definition of religion per se  is limited, the potentialities associated with religiosity is not.

Along similar lines, I would argue that Asad also teaches us that religion in general has no particular ‘use’ inherent in its (lack of) form; neither ethical subjectification, nor the creation of political orders, nor the cultivation of cognitive practices and structures, nor ‘instrumental’ uses for healing or good harvests or whatever, are the ‘purpose’ of religion. Religion can be used for anything. Further, in many specific cases, it will be the ends that religion it is used for, rather than the particular specific expressions of religiosity at hand, which will be of interest to the people who employ religion. For instance, you don’t propitiate the Gods or spirits for a harvest because you’re interested in the supernatural, but because you won’t the crops to thrive.  And this also means that we can have religion as an inchoate or unnamed presence; when the use is so important that it obscures the specific contours of wider potentiality of religion that is being invoked, then religion as a phenomenon (or magic, which is honestly indistinguishable from religion) may not have its own specific lexical item.

The other innovation in the anthropology of religion is work done on the materiality of religion. This work has often focused on the relation between signification and a necessary material substrate, with attention paid to how various forms of religious semiotics either act to deny or double down on this materiality. But what has not been caught by most readings of this literature is that there seems to be no particularly mode of materiality that is specific to religion. Religion can operate with the minimal materiality necessary for human life (bodies, thought, and speech), or it can demand tremendous material outlay in the way of diverse offices, regular rituals, structures and the like. A single prayer or a chain of Cathedrals; it just depends on what is chosen. (All this is why Spiro’s definition has to be reformulated – if we are dealing with potential and variation, we have to have something more expansive than ‘superhuman beings,’ and we need something that can also include not just practice, but the materiality – with materiality meant in the sense of different specific materials that can have different effects, rather than having materiality as some fungible physical supplement to signification).

So this is where I finally get to answering your question. This leaves religion as basically having no form, being beholden to no particular mode of materiality, and having no one proper location in any particular instance of sociality. As such, depending on how its expressed, it can serve to decelerate social and individual change by tying change to various temporally and economically costly practices, or it can serve as a catalyst for change by inserting a randomizing or disruptive element into any social practice, for any conceivable end. I imagine most forms of religiosity do both at the same time, shifting the social terrain in different ways; this was certainly true of the Vineyard, which at once opened up believers to surprise, but at the same time constrained surprise through a series of ethical and epistemological practice that limited what could be thought of as actually being ‘divine.’

Anna Eisenstein:  Throughout the book, you provide examples of how your research participants hoped and prayed that you might come to share their faith. How have your informants responded to your work, and perhaps specifically, your explanation of the miracle, the Holy Spirit, and demons as fundamentally social phenomena?

Jon Bialecki: You’re right; I think that many Vineyard believers hoped that I would be moved enough to join them in their religious commitments; by the same light, there was also a fear among some that this was an endeavor designed to make either what it was that the people I worked with believed look bad – or alternately to disparage the believers themselves. However, there was never really any strongly felt awkward social pressure from my informants for me to join. I suspect that one reason is that, like Vineyard believers in general, many of the people I was spending time with were pretty highly educated. A lot of them were familiar with the dissertation as a genre, and knew how graduate research worked. Once, they even used this knowledge as a weapon against me. During a discussion in a Bible Study group I was focusing on, I asked whether they had any preference for what their individual pseudonyms would be in my dissertation, and each person wanted to pick the actual names of other people in the group, knowing exactly how it would vitiate the work that pseudonyms are suppose to do! On top of this wider but somewhat defuse familiarity with some of the mechanics of academia, I also benefited from a group of Vineyard intellectuals. Here, I’m speaking of the Society for Vineyard Scholars, which is an annually meeting organization for theological scholars, some of whom are professional theologians or pastors, and others whose interest in theology is an avocation. The SVS has been a good sounding board for some of my questions about Vineyard theology, and it’s helped me meet some great conversation partners. But its also allowed me to articulate some of my thoughts through mobilizing and analyzing some of the theological concerns that are important for the Vineyard

But I think the relatively warm reception – or at least the lack of an angry or dismissive response – is also due to something else. I think that on the whole those informants who have troubled themselves to read the book have been happy with the depiction. To them, it doesn’t come across as a dismissal of the miraculous as a social phenomenon, but a meditation on the social dynamics and learned epistemological constraints that shapes both the miraculous as they experience, and the Vineyard movement as a whole. In other worlds, my book is about how the Vineyard varies, and all the different ways that God acts in the world through the Vineyard. And I think that while that isn’t the only reading of my book, it is a fair one. This isn’t particular to me alone – there are a lot of Pentecostal and Charismatic people who love Tanya Luhrmann’s book When God Talks Back, seeing in not as a psychological reductionist account, but rather a discussion of how God uses our psychology and capacity to train ourselves.

I really want to thank you for these questions, Anna. Given the narrow and limited audience for academic books, it’s always a kindness when someone just acknowledges that a book exists; but to be given questions this sharp and to the book’s point is a joy!

Jenanne Ferguson on her book, Words Like Birds

Words Like Birds

Interview by Laura Siragusa

https://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/university-of-nebraska-press/9781496208880/

Laura Siragusa: In your rich ethnography about language practices in the Sakha Republic, Russia, you introduce the concept of  ‘ontologies of language.’ Could you expand on its significance and what does this add to current linguistic anthropological debates?

Jenanne Ferguson: Language in many speech communities is entwined with what we might call ‘spirituality’ but perhaps is more accurately ‘ontology’, in terms of how language is conceptualized as part of broader reality. Ideologies are very often rooted in deep-seated beliefs about human differences that go beyond language and extend—as other scholars have noted—to assessments and judgments about the speaker as a person, or speakers as groups of people sharing certain characteristics that their language usage is purported to index. Understanding ontologies of language means apprehending the ways that we have ‘ways of being’ in language. Ontologies of language include how ideas and beliefs regarding different aspects of human experience are linked together. It is a similar concept to what Kroskrity (2018) has recently called “language ideological assemblages”—the idea that we cannot look simply at one language ideology (like purism, or variationism) in isolation. Instead of only looking at how different language-related beliefs are interconnected, I want to try to use the “ontologies of language” to remind people that language beliefs are rhizomatic and inseparable from beliefs about other aspects of life and the nature of reality.

Laura Siragusa: In your work, you often mention the need to incorporate more the notion of ‘belief’ when discussing ‘language ideologies’. This was fascinating, as you seem to focus on a concept, which had long been put into shade. Given the complexities of the present global socio-political and economic situation, I wondered to what extent talking about ‘belief’ facilitates communication, mutual understanding, and an acceptance of difference. Could you expand on that?

Jenanne Ferguson: The study of language ideologies is absolutely essential to better understanding communication more broadly—they are, I feel, often more than ‘opinions, ideas and attitudes,’ and acknowledging the element of ‘belief’ allows us to go a little deeper in understanding why so many people unconsciously take them as fact. As mentioned above, often beliefs about language connect in constellations to so many other beliefs about the world and how it works, and who lives in that world; they are not easily separated. Remembering “belief” gives us a place to start when we want to highlight how a language ideology may be harmful, but also how much work it might take to change or shift that belief. In the U.S. right now, work is being done on raciolinguistics by scholars like Jonathan Rosa, Samy Alim, and Nelson Flores, among others, that reveals the ways that beliefs about language are inseparable from constructions of race and also how deeply-held, hierarchical beliefs about race influence the reception and judgment of language. In the Sakha context, I see how ontologies of language make strong connections between Sakha ancestry, the ije tyl (mother language)/törööbüt tyl (birth language), and speaking Sakha, which do good in that they validate the Sakha language and encourage people to learn Sakha or maintain it. However, these beliefs can also be detrimental to people who are ethnically Sakha but are Russian-dominant or Russian-only speakers. These beliefs that link language, ethnolinguistic identity and personhood go deeper than attitudes or preference, but speak to ‘being in the world,’ and often alienate Sakha who don’t speak the language—I have heard individuals state that there is ‘no such thing as a russkoiazychnyi (Russian-speaking) Sakha,’ invalidating and erasing the identities of the many who do, indeed, speak only/predominantly Russian but identify ethnically as Sakha. Understanding how these beliefs about language connect and influence aspects of people’s social and public lives is essential—as well as the fact that they are beliefs—is essential, as they can often lead to significant inequality and speaker marginalization, and also harm the broader projects of language maintenance and revitalization. Identifying these beliefs and acknowledging their entanglements as well as their reach and power is the first step in alleviating the marginalization of groups of speakers.

Laura Siragusa: I was intrigued by noticing that in your work you talk about ‘the power of language’, which is not uncommon in other contexts. In the Finnish and Karelian folkloric traditions, for example, väki is seen as a ‘power charge’ that belongs to all beings, categories of entities, and phenomena (Stark-Arola 1998). Could you tell us more about what language can do, according to Sakha speakers, and if speakers use specific strategies to avoid negative consequences?

Jenanne Ferguson: As in many speech communities, some ‘kinds’ or genres of language are more highly charged, such as the blessing poems, algys, or kes tyl ‘magic words.’ However, no word should be used lightly (tyl tyalga byraghyllybat – ‘do not throw words to the wind’), because words are seen as direct vehicles for the intent of the speaker. There’s also the general communicative norm of not wasting words—not ‘throwing them to the wind’ unless you really must say them. “Sakha do not boltat’” (chatter, in Russian), I am often told, as an explanation for communicative differences between Sakha-Russian bilinguals and solely Russian speakers. Brevity in communication is positively valued—it’s safer. By voicing something, you have let your intent out into the world—you have already made something happen, and there is now the possibility that the meaning of your words will be realized. Because many Sakha ontologies of language hold that words possess a spirit (tyl ichchite) unto themselves as well as possessing something of the speaker’s spirit, letting them out into the world is seen as something to be especially cautious about, especially when discussing negative hypotheticals. I want to stress that this is not something people treat as ‘just’ a superstition; even if people do not also profess their sincere belief in tyl ichchite, this ontology of language has been normalized in the daily lives of many urban Sakha speakers, shaping their reactions to others’ words. Once I was discussing issues of environmental damage with a friend in light of a proposed chemical plant on the Lena River. Being from a Canadian region where pollution from the oil industry was affecting fish, I was telling her about the lesions on their gills and faces. “Big growths, like this, as if their jaws extended outward an extra length,” gesturing to my own neck and face, making the shape of a large lump. My friend stopped me suddenly, eyes wide. “Don’t say that, don’t do that! Kihi tyl – okh. Ymnuom suogha!” A person’s word is an arrow—don’t forget. Don’t make those gestures, directing the words to your body like tiny arrows. Interestingly, though, if you say something negative and you do not want it to come to pass, you can use the Russian-language expression of ‘t’fu-t’fu-t’fu’ to ‘cancel’ the words, or if you have positive hopes you do not want to jinx.

Laura Siragusa To what extent are ‘language trajectories’ among Sakha speakers driven by the broader ecology or the individual’s own agency and intentionality?

Jenanne Ferguson: I think they are too deeply intertwined to really separate them out; however, I want to focus on that broader ecology for a moment. If we take agency simply as the socially mediated capacity to act (Ahearn 1999) we can only exert so much influence within a socially structured language ecology. As I discuss, many times those trajectories are shaped by the specific language ecology that a speaker finds themselves in—specific friendship groups and the dominant norms surrounding code choice within them led to certain new patterns of language acquisition or use in a speaker. Of course, their own agency to either adhere or not to those language ecological patterns makes a difference, but the specific milieu and the practices of those other speakers in those micro-ecologies also played a central role in shaping the decisions. And of course, much broader ecologies are also present—as I discuss in the book, the massive shift in the linguistic ecology of Yakutsk in the years following the end of the Soviet Union set in place new structures that shaped the urban revitalization of the language, which continue to have an effect today. Moving to Yakutsk from a Sakha-speaking village may mean you will speak Russian more often than you did within rural linguistic ecologies, but you will now have more spaces, more domains, and more people with whom to continue speaking Sakha. And you may be more likely to choose to do so now than thirty years ago, due to the way the urban linguistic ecology has developed. However, I feel it’s essential to remember that ecologies also develop the way they do as a result of speakers shaping them through ideological (or ontological) and discursive practices. Therefore, both elements—ecology and speaker agency—are deeply entwined, making it difficult to even separate which influences the other more.

Laura Siragusa: Given the strong connections between language and land that you mention, I wonder how the recent fires in the Sakha Republic are narrated by online Sakha users and if there is any specific reference to the language as endangered.

Jenanne Ferguson: I haven’t noticed a specific patterns in news coverage or social media discourse yet, though now I will analyze more closely going forward! To my knowledge, there are no linked discourses that expressly see the fate of land as affecting language; conversely, where I now live and work in Northern Nevada, there is a direct connection expressed between the fate of Numu, the Northern Paiute language, and the cui-ui (Chasmistes cujus) fish endemic to Pyramid Lake. In the late 1990s a Numu elder reflected on the diminishing fish populations and number of speakers of the language and stated that when the cui-ui disappeared so would the language (both are now seeing a resurgence)! With Sakha the ‘endangerment’ connection is not that direct. I have heard, though, that losing connection to land definitely affect specific language domains, and vice versa. This was expressed to me by several herbal healers in the Amga region, who mentioned that when young people aren’t out on the land, they don’t learn the (Sakha) names for plants. At the same time, not speaking Sakha may make it more difficult, in their opinion, to engage with the land; Sakha plant names, they said, are often much more specific than those in Russian, or Latin, as they are highly descriptive (so that a plant’s appearance becomes more distinctive and thus easy to locate). For instance, a name like kyhyl sobo tyla (‘red carp’s tongue’) for Pyrola incarnata (grushanka in Russian) is said to make the plant easier to find and remember, as it so vividly evokes the deep pink of the flower’s style sticking out like a tongue below the petals!

Liz Gunner on her book, Radio Soundings

https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/radio-soundings/032576130F53ED88EA2765200B763F9F

Interview by Louisa Meintjes

Louisa Meintjes:  In analyses about popular culture produced during apartheid, Zulu radio dramas have been summarily dismissed. You place them at the core of Radio Soundings. Could you tell us about this choice and its relation to the argument of the book?

Liz Gunner: It’s not that they’ve been summarily dismissed, more they were never even considered as cultural artefacts. Rather they were simply seen as puppet-mouthings by compliant hangers-on of the apartheid design for radio. Why did I choose the dramas? And put them at the centre of the book? Well I began to realise the more I listened to them and the more I asked people about them, that they kept coming up whenever I asked about radio and radio listening habits. They seemed to be set deep in people’s memories and were a way they could tap into certain emotions about the fascination and strain and pleasure of events that circled usually around the family. They seemed to provide sites of recognition, self-knowledge, self-exploration, ways of accessing the self, often the deep self. They were also important as narratives, journeys. So I thought – Well, they’re important if you’re going to understand how people had vibrant and creative lives in spite of the pains of apartheid. This is a point Jacob Dlamini makes very well in his book Native Nostalgia.

Louisa Meintjes: Fascinating, idiosyncratic radio personalities people the book’s chapters. Exiles Lewis Nkosi and Bloke Modisane are the most internationally renowned of them. Yet listeners are crucial to your take on the radio voice as well. Could you tell us about the thought process that led you to the balance you chose for the book among backstage personalities, broadcast voices, and avid listeners?

Liz Gunner: I felt that unless you got in to the text a sense of the listeners and how they lived their lives through the dramas you would simply be doing half the job. Certainly this was true for the dramas from within South Africa – such as the Radio Bantu, Radio Zulu, and the Ukhozi FM dramas which are in the latter part of the book. I felt that what was being produced was a sort of public, self-generated intimacy which was very sustaining. People modeled themselves on the radio personalities who had parts in the dramas, wrote the dramas and in some cases had their own programmes; they became culture icons. The broadcast voices maybe together produced a kind of meta counter-voice to the crushing views of the dominant group. I wanted to try and get a kind of balance so that what would come out was an understanding of the making of sonic worlds that were culturally dynamic and deeply sustaining. And the fact that all this was in Zulu – in the case of the people within South Africa this is very significant. So K E Masinga, Thokozani Nene, Alexius Buthelezi, all very different personalities, to name a few, could all have a place on the sonic stage of this radio world. And one must not forget amazing white sound technicians like ‘Unogwaja’. He is mentioned by Eric Ngcobo as pioneering in his playing with the psychic-sonic sound effects in the 1980s drama ‘Yiz’ Uvalo’ (In Spite of Fear.)

The exiles Nkosi and Modisane had different paths to travel – Modisane worked with the very best in BBC Radio at a time when radio drama was a queen of genres but he could never build up a faithful following in the way that the radio voices from within could – say Eric Ngcobo, or Winnie Mahlangu. This was because his plays were not serialised and also were part of a different landscape of sound. They mediated, with the powerful intimacy of radio, the tensions and excitement of a country and a situation which impinged on the British consciousness of outsider and insider, home and colony; and then increasingly, race and power and Britain’s role in the anti-apartheid struggle. His plays were more part of high culture perhaps, than the plays from within which were more within the space of popular culture. Nkosi was different again – his voice became for a while well known on the African stations which bought tapes from the transcription Centre. He became a kind of key mediator of a stream of black voices of the world, when ‘Africa was on the Rise’ as James Baldwin saw it in the 1960s. So Nkosi and Modisane were complex and important mediators but the intimacy worked very differently.

Louisa Meintjes: Through a fine series of analyses of radio dramas and their producers/authors, variously situated through the decades (1960s through the 1990s) and at different sites (from London to Durban), you write about mediated intimacy. Radio reached into domestic space and it generated global affiliations and diasporic networks, all while it served the interests of the apartheid state. You ascribe to intimacy an important role in cultivating oppositional politics by means of radio dramas. As a researcher, how did you get at intimacy? Could you share an example here of mediated intimacy? And am I being reductive in asserting that it was the possibility of oppositional politics that this mediated intimacy enabled?

Liz Gunner: I think I’ve partly answered this question, above, but let’s see. You’re absolutely right to say radio reached into domestic space and generated global affiliations and diasporic networks – you see that with the Nkosi programmes, but his had a kind of fragility; Modisane’s were firmer because he had a place within the BBC because his work as a radio dramatist was so respected, and at the time the genre was flourishing. Your question about mediated intimacy is difficult.  I think for the dramas from within, voice carried and mediated intimacies through complicated personal encounters lodged in narratives of the domestic which drew in many other things. For Nkosi, let’s say the kind of intimacy he mediated was through throwing up moments of insight into the huge dramas of race and rights being played out in America and on the African continent. The most powerful example for me is when he played through interview the voice of the African American sociologist recalling how he’d spoken in Congress as part of the civil rights struggle. Maybe you’re partly right in your last point. But there is also the question of mediated intimacy as a counter presence – this is more than oppositional politics I think.

Louisa Meintjes: You have written about song, praise poetry, theater, and literature. This book draws on your work in all those performance arenas. Were there new challenges for you in writing about performance in the medium of radio?

Liz Gunner:  Yes absolutely. There was the question of what radio ‘did’ to these other genres and kinds of cultural production. Praise poetry for instance. Did it distance them or diminish them/ ? Did it confine them? Or could you see it as an extraordinarily powerful extension of the kinds of linguistic skills and affect that these forms could draw on? How did radio make use of song and praise poetry? Especially a radio station that was not free of apartheid control. I think in the 1970s, say, there was a huge drive to record ‘live’ performances of royal praises, chiefly installations and so on. But often the effect was to present a kind of double voice – the dignity of the form surpassed its ideologically controlled usage. Performance in the medium of radio struck me as very different to theatre. New terrain – theatre of the mind – perhaps you could compare it to Grotowski’s poor theatre in some ways. But it drew on new kinds of listening resources and auditory strengths – new domains of the auditory rather than the ocular and visual. So, something very different and the whole world of listeners, producers, actors and so on had a part in this different configuring of reality.

Louisa Meintjes: Radio Studies seems to be flourishing in our current epoch of social media and AV streaming. (Thank you for your lively contribution to it!) What’s your take on the reasons for this flourish, and on its promise?

Liz Gunner: I think the physicality of sound and its ability to express the temporal and spatial in new ways is giving radio huge impetus. And it may be the way it mediates intimacy, its physicality that is giving it such pull in an era saturated with the visual. And it can do things with communities and publics in ways as yet still not properly understood.

Ben Tausig on his book, Bangkok is Ringing

Interview by Mack Hagood

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/bangkok-is-ringing-9780190847524

Mack Hagood: Bangkok is Ringing brings us into the center of the Red Shirt protests in Bangkok during 2010 and 2011—a truly historic moment in Thailand that garnered international attention. Was the movement your original object of study when you headed to Thailand as a PhD candidate? What precipitated the movement and what unfolded after you arrived?

Ben Tausig: This massive occupation, and the movement that initiated it, was not my original object of study. Although I was interested in music and politics, and although the Red Shirts had been gaining energy for a while when I began my research, the dynamics of the movement would have been impossible to predict. But on arriving, the occupation of central Bangkok was just underway, and unsettling everything, so it would have been impossible to turn away from what was going on, no less the extraordinary role of sound in the protests. So I turned towards them. And then the movement remained so active – and so central to Thai politics – for so long that it seemed wise to stick with it. Moreover, in time the Red Shirt movement began to find performative echoes in other places, especially parts of the Arab Spring, which only made it feel more relevant.

Mack Hagood: Your book explores the protest movement through sonic performance and media of sounding and listening, revealing “uneven geographies of sound” made up of smaller “sonic niches.” Please walk us through some of these actors and media and how they feed and enact a protest movement.

Ben Tausig: The book is structured like the protests themselves. It is divided into seventeen chapters that vary in length, scope, and tone, and that at different points reflect or conflict with one another. That’s exactly what it was like being inside the Red Shirt camps. They were ad hoc spaces full of internal variations of class, region, and aesthetics. And their sounds often tracked with these differences. I call the subspaces within the rallies “sonic niches” because, like ecological niches, they existed in a state of flux, as well as in profound and dependent relation to neighboring spaces. Moreover, they were highly sensitive, and it wasn’t unusual to hear one of them disappear entirely due to some small change in, say, police enforcement of a public amplification law. Political movements are typically coalitional like this, as Mouffe and Laclau remind us. The elder bookseller whose formative experience of dissent was the Marxist movements of the Vietnam War era may not have much to say to a kid from the northeast who adored billionaire former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. And it follows that the performative proletarianism of the former’s songs for life folk tunes did not always mesh well with the latter’s hip-hop. But they and their sounds found ways to coexist under the banner of a movement that they each believed would benefit them.

Mack Hagood: One of your main theoretical interventions is to dispute the common claim in sound studies that sound is unbounded and transcendent. You make a careful study of how sound is often constrained and you enlist it “to help us understand how agency caroms and fractures, how political actors often find themselves bouncing off walls rather than frictionlessly through them” (6). Can you describe how themes of constraint, blockage, patience, and persistence operate through the book in terms of sonic and political agency?

Ben Tausig: This theme arose from firsthand experience of the protests. They were so densely crowded that one could only ever experience them while partially or totally stuck, for example making long and arduous sojourns (we’re talking hours) across, say, 50-meter stretches of road to buy a bottle of water or find a friend. For those who know Bangkok, this feeling of being stuck is achingly familiar, because traffic is so intense and the roads so poorly accommodated to it (on this as a historical problem, see the work of Claudio Sopranzetti, who was in Bangkok at the same time, and who analyzes mobility very well). In my case, this experience suggested itself first as a metaphor for the ways that sound, as an agent of political force, is likewise beset by many stubborn obstacles. But why stop at the metaphor? After all, protest movements depend upon sound to announce themselves as totalities, to produce an affective sense of unity, and to make specific points emphatically. I began to reflect on the mundane ways that sound did not travel freely at Red Shirt events, and to consider how this lack of mobility could help us think about obstacles to political change, as well as to the performance of a desire for political change.

Mack Hagood: I was thrilled to learn about the cultural and political valences of luk thung and molam, genres of Thai music that some western readers may have encountered through reissues on the Sublime Frequencies label. You also movingly describe some musical moments involving these genres. Can you talk a bit about their history and importance in the Red Shirt movement?

Ben Tausig: Amporn Jirattikorn as well as James Mitchell have written about the political history of these genres, as has Terry Miller (in an earlier moment). Sublime Frequencies typifies a relatively new kind of “world music,” a phenomenon that has been analyzed by Portia Seddon and David Novak, among others. Briefly, decades- or even centuries-old genres circulate today in a weird and remediated fashion that requires – decidedly! – a new auditory ethics. That’s a long way of saying that most western listeners who hear mor lam and luk thung are likely to do so through media products that obscure their political valences. In what we might call hipster-colonial commerce, these genres are typically marketed and heard as psychedelic or otherwise exotic – a familiar and regrettably orientalist framing – whereas in practice they contain a rich poetics of exclusion from political power. That poetry can tell us a great deal about how people identify with rurality in Thailand, especially as a moral ground within a country that’s long been a site of unregulated, exploitative capitalist development. The Red Shirts’ use of these genres therefore necessitates a closer examination of the latent possibility of a left-wing instinct that has been unnaturally excluded, one might well say repressed, from political discourse (Communist political parties, for example, are formally illegal). The possibility of the eventual return of the left, even as a kernel, therefore cannot be ruled out after considering how mor lam and luk thung functioned for the Red Shirts. This was an exciting part of the research, and I still hold out hope for this kernel to grow, even though it is an interpretation that has not yet been borne out.

Mack Hagood: I hesitate to pursue this next line of questioning, both because it may simply be a reductive and facile cross-cultural comparison and because it may seem to signal political commitments I don’t own. However, while reading Bangkok is Ringing, I couldn’t help but think repeatedly about the political rallies of Donald Trump. There are so many similarities: a rural political movement sneered at by many among the urban and educated; a wealthy, media-savvy, populist leader who, like Tahksin, benefitted from and perpetuated neoliberalism while also railing against its social ills; a similar ecosystem that sprung up around the rallies of chanting, blaring music, homemade media, and political performativity—even the red color of the iconic MAGA hat! I have often thought that those of us working in the politics of sound, media, and affect studies should be doing a lot more work on Trumpism. What insights did the Thai example provide as you watched these events transpire in the United States? Does your sonic approach provide us ways of understanding what is happening here now?

Ben Tausig: Absolutely. Politically and economically, Thailand tends to foreshadow certain global developments, perhaps because capital is quite free to operate as it wishes there, so it bumbles into crises with less friction. That’s an undeveloped theory, but I am not the only one to notice it. And indeed, Thailand had a billionaire populist before the US did, although one could also draw comparisons to George W. Bush, who was elected at the same time as Thaksin. It is highly ironic that there is even an argument for the emergence of a leftist politics within the Red Shirts, given what a violent, autocratic neoliberal Thaksin could be (he bears some similarities to Duterte). But the fact remains that some percentage of Red Shirts joined the movement in spite of Thaksin, not because of him. One can therefore draw some meaningful connections between the Red Shirts and the American populist right, and it is worth reading Kasian Tejapira’s prescient insights from 2006. But the comparison has its limits.

Meanwhile, yes, I think sound studies can draw some narrow comparisons here. Sonically and otherwise, Trumpism cast itself as a puncture of elite spaces. The Red Shirts cast themselves in much the same way. Their occupations were provocatively staged in the wealthiest, most cosmopolitan parts of Bangkok – precisely the areas from which they as working people were excluded. They blared rustic songs, voices, and timbres in the most refined districts of the country. Some Trump supporters were likewise given, especially in the winter of 2016-17, to entering public spaces that they felt were the province of liberals, and shouting insults as a form of spatialized comeuppance against people (and, ostensibly, a system) they disliked. The comparisons stop, of course, when we consider the racial privilege at stake in the U.S. case study, not to mention the homophobia, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia that explicitly underwrote Trump’s election. But I do think there was a similar value in both instances to using sound to penetrate the spaces of a political opposition.

Mack Hagood: You have taken it upon yourself to self-produce an audio version of your book, which is available on your website. What opportunities and challenges does the audiobook format present to academia?

Ben Tausig: I’ll link self-promotionally here to a brief piece in the Journal of Popular Music Studies that came out this summer, and summarize it by saying that there are enormous opportunities right now for sound studies, as well as music studies, to imagine new kinds of critical published products that combine conventional analysis with audible material. But we also have to be very thoughtful about the economics of these ventures, given where academic publishing is today, and the pitfalls that come with shiny new objects (namely, that scholars could be asked to do even more uncompensated labor than they already perform).

Mack Hagood: Finally, is there any conversation or debate that you find most interesting in sound studies right now? Any current plans or projects that intervene in it?

Ben Tausig:  I am always drawn to deep anthropological work on sound, especially that which addresses people and spaces outside of the United States and Europe. This is a lack that I believe emerged from the early tendency in sound studies to canonize experimentalist composers as well as philosophers of sound, namely John Cage and Murray Schafer, who despite their allegedly global thinking were firmly grounded in traditions of European art music. Cage and Schafer certainly give students of sound a lot to work with, but there are also enormous presumptions in their work about sound and its relationship to nature, gender, race, and modernity. Feminist sound studies is another growth area now, and it has produced some excellent and urgent critiques of the ways that sound studies has defined noise, for example. And as a body of scholarship it comprises probably the most powerful critique of the Cagean and Schaferian traditions. Tara Rodgers and Marie Thompson are two essential thinkers here.

I do have a new project, and it is an effort to think about some of the conversations referenced just above. It is a historical study of the cosmopolitan aural and musical world of Bangkok (and elsewhere in Thailand) during the Vietnam War. The period that Benedict Anderson called “The American Era” was an era of unprecedented economic development, at the center of which was music and nightlife. I’m therefore examining the stories and legacies of musicians – Americans, Thais, Filipinos, Europeans – who were active in Thailand during those years, as well as the asymmetrical auditory relationships between U.S. soldiers and the Thai people who served them in a nascent hospitality industry, including sex workers. The project has already gotten pretty deep and it is lots of fun to combine archival research with interviews and ethnography.

Alex Fattal on his book, Guerrilla Marketing

Interview by Winifred Tate

https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/G/bo29202793.html

Winifred Tate: The title, Guerrilla Marketing, evokes advertising, and in fact Amazon lists a number of similarly named advertising books. Why did you choose it?

Alex Fattal: Because it’s dense, evocative, and slippery, like the book’s contents. In a sentence, the book is an ethnographic analysis of the feedback between marketing and military strategies, how each set of experts are learning from the other in their respective efforts to conjugate furtive research, surveillance, and planning with spectacular media interventions. Guerrilla marketing, the term, references a set of trends in the private sphere to camouflage the advertisement; and as the title of my book, it references how the state is marketing a new life of consumer citizenship to guerrillas — the book’s ethnographic ground. The book documents a mashup of these worlds, which the title encapsulates.

Winifred Tate: One of the central arguments you make is that programs that are marketed by governments and consultants as humanitarian and contributing toward peace often, as in this case, involve policing, surveillance and frequent detention of targeted individuals — that is they employ a logic of militarization and ongoing warfare. Can you explain the Colombian case you examine?

Alex Fattal: The program that I studied in Colombia, the Program for Humanitarian Attention to the Demobilized (PAHD), is a special initiative of the Colombian Ministry of Defense. It began in 2003, the year after peace negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government fell apart. It was in lieu of a peace process and sought to coopt the language of peace policy by “demobilizing” fighters that were really defecting or deserting. It might strike some readers as a picky semantic difference, but one of the key claims that I make in the book is that the temporal difference between war and peace — like other modernist distinctions — matters and should not be relinquished lightly. At the level of academic critique, we see how the two bleed ineluctably into each other, but I do think there is something worthwhile in not giving into the Marshal McLuhan’s prognostication that World War III will be “a guerrilla information war.” His vision is proving increasingly prescient with the confluence of the unfolding of the Global War on Terror and the technological moment, and it’s very troubling to say the least. By theorizing what I call “brand warfare” I am trying to articulate something that is in global circulation. While it’s been interesting to share the work and hear from colleagues about how they find the concept useful in their field own sites, it’s also been disheartening because it points to a troubling tendency toward dangerous new forms of mass manipulation.

Winifred Tate: In the conclusion, you document how the Colombian government evangelizes this program, showing it off to delegates from other conflict-torn countries such as South Sudan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Somalia and others. Why did the Colombian government do this?

 Alex Fattal: It is part of Colombia’s striving to position itself on the upper rungs of a global hierarchy of security expertise and establish itself as a country that has come back from the brink of “failed state” ignominy, and therefore has knowledge to export. The pony show of the “South South Tour” (which was mostly funded by the global north) was just one piece in a wider re-narration of the nation and served as a performative intervention to create the impression of the government having “solved” the conflict — all while the war was still raging. Kimberly Theidon has aptly described this cunning temporal conflation as “pre-post conflict”. The bi-annual South South Tours were part of the Colombian government’s “mission accomplished” moment, a performance that involved the mobilization of state symbols, bureaucracies, and resources. Anybody who has been following the post-peace accord violence knows how utterly premature such triumphalist projections have been.

Winifred Tate: An important contribution you make is bringing an analysis of the intersections between the worlds of marketing and branding, and government demobilization efforts. How do these bureaucrats and consultants try to sell peace? How do you think these campaigns have contributed to the current skepticism about the peace accords in Colombia?

Alex Fattal: You are very right to point to skepticism as the other side of the coin in such strategies of affective governance. Quite simply, I think the government blew its credibility on peace initiatives during wartime to gain a military and political advantage. When it came time to persuade the Colombian public that a strikingly similar set of programs would be necessary during negotiations with the FARC in Havana from 2012 to 2016 and then during the plebiscite and implementation of the peace accord, it was much easier for the right wing to sew doubt around the motives of the pro-peace camp. It is a telling case of how the right-wing benefits from playing politics amidst a hall of mirrors, unphased by distortions and shameless in taking the non-correspondences between signifier and signified that Baudrillard poignantly highlighted when discussing consumer culture decades ago to its logical conclusion — outright disinformation.

Winifred Tate: A growing number of anthropologists are conducting ethnographic research within government and military bureaucracies. What lessons can you share for anthropologists and others who want to do this kind of research?

 Alex Fattal: Be careful. It’s a fraught field and the rules of the game are in flux. Journalists and academics are in a tough spot across the globe. Ayše Gül Altinay, among others, is being arbitrarily detained in Turkey. The translation of Guerrilla Marketing into Spanish and a few promotional events in Colombia seem to have earned me my first death threat, a picture of a man hanged and tortured that was sent to my Colombian cell phone. (It was a new SIM card and I had hardly shared the number with anyone). Institutions, like the Colombian military, that project such a powerful image of themselves publicly are often hypersensitive and don’t deal well with criticism and they have a kit of repressive tools to use as part of the brand warfare they wage to sure up their often shaky legitimacy. I did my best to convey the scope of my research and its disposition to critical analysis, but despite my best efforts to communicate openly and continually — tensions arose. Embedded ethnography tends to assume an ideological affinity between the anthropologist and her field site, but when that’s not the case things can get tricky. One of the parts of the book that I am proud of is the “Access and Ethics” section of the introduction, which digs deeper into these dynamics.

Winifred Tate: In addition to your analysis of the logic of the demobilization programs, you offer complex and fascinating glimpses into the complexity of ex-combatants’ lives through life-history excerpts in-between each analytical chapter. How do you understand the role and importance of these testimonies of lived experience?

Alex Fattal: The testimonials, which are accompanied by Lucas Ospina’s wonderful drawings, do a lot of work in the book and they have been one of the elements that has really impacted readers so far. They give the analysis another dimension by bringing the discussion down to the level of everyday life, not in a way that is illustrative of my interpretations but rather in ways the exceed the interpretative frame, allowing readers who are unfamiliar with the Colombian context to feel the intensities and trajectories of lives marked by the conflict and their many layers. The stories also open a space for readers to make connections to the chapters — the placement of each of the testimonials is not haphazard. I think the testimonials widen my otherwise narrow focus on the convergence of marketing and militarism and allow the book to be about much more at the same time. Including them also relieved some of my sense of guilt about not being able to include many other stories that I wanted to include. So many former guerrillas shared their life experiences with me and I wish I could have included their stories too. My editor, Priya Nelson, did a wonderful job gently influencing the manuscript. The one piece of advice I just couldn’t take was to cut the testimonials down further. For me, I wanted to make sure the arc of often-difficult childhoods, joining the guerrilla, life inside the FARC’s ranks, the decision to leave, and the challenges of reintegration came through; and it was hard to abbreviate that arc, especially with so many compelling stories.

Winifred Tate: Similarly, your film Limbo, centers on the recounting of one such story. What is the film about?

Alex Fattal: The book could have easily been twice as long, but I left some large pieces out, such as a chapter on the psychological world of ex-combatants and their dreamscapes. I decided to spin that off into a short film called Limbo, which was shot entirely in the back of a truck that I transformed into a camera obscura. The article I am writing now is about former guerrillas’ dreams and the film project as a form of ethnographic surrealism, which strives for a dialectic between the ethnographic impulse to render the familiar strange and the surrealist impulse to render the strange familiar. The film, unlike much of what has been featured from the Sensory Ethnography Lab, takes narrative seriously, while also creating a sensorial space in the back of the truck. The truck becomes a confessional, psychoanalytic space that, unlike the couch, is in constant motion. The idea is to take the viewer on an oneiric journey through one former guerrilla’s life. Like the testimonials in the book, the film shows how the aftermath of being in the war lingers, it is an aftermath that is accentuated by a form of demobilization that, as I argue, is often complicit in the remobilization of former combatants, fueling cycles of conflict and peace policy that Colombia has been in the throes of for the last thirty-five years. It’s a trend, that sadly, is continuing through the post-peace accord present.