Rob Shore: Using the lens of social science on Shakespeare seems at once radical and—after having read the book—obvious. Tell me about how you conceived of the project and summarize the main argument you are making.
Bradd Shore: The book was written to bring together convincingly the two most important sides of my intellectual life: (1) Shakespeare’s plays and poetry and (2) anthropologically grounded social theory. My interest in Shakespeare began when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley back in the early 1960s. I was an English major and had the good fortune to study with some brilliant Shakespeare scholars in Berkeley’s distinguished English Department, at the time the best place in the world for studying Renaissance English literature.
As I studied Shakespeare, I took several excellent courses in political theory. As I read thinkers like Locke and Hume and Plato and Rousseau, I was struck by surprising overlaps between the concerns of political philosophers and Shakespeare. Of course, Shakespeare expressed himself through drama rather than philosophical discourse. Nonetheless, I saw in Shakespeare’s work a theoretical genius paralleling his poetic and dramatic skills.
Shakespeare’s approach to theory was not always immediately apparent in the plays. He had found a way to embed a theoretical perspective in his plays without dislocating or disrupting the theatrical and poetic power of the drama. I became interested in his plays as fascinating and often underappreciated reflections on many of the same issues that I would study in my later career as an anthropologist, issues like the theatrical nature of political power, the creative and procreative power of art and nature, dilemmas of sex and gender, reconciling love and marriage, life as performance, the power of ritual, the relation between language and reality, and the human effort to make meaning.
I also wanted to understand how Shakespeare did all this by telling stories. So I began to study the literary techniques he used to manage this marriage of story-telling and theory. Imagining Shakespeare as an anthropologist, it was as if he had figured out how to write vivid ethnography so that it reflected theoretically back on itself. His remarkable techniques relied on new ways of imagining perspectives emerging in both early Renaissance painting and optics.
Shakespeare and Social Theory was written to shine a light on Shakespeare as a theoretical mind through new readings of six of his plays. However, it is equally an attempt to account for his craftsmanship through studying historical changes in representing perspective that allowed Shakespeare to stage self-analyzing dramas.
Rob Shore: Your analysis reveals texts full of multiple, playful, and often deceptive meanings. Some of them are compelling and quite clear. But others are hidden under layers of abstraction and misdirection. What methods do you use from anthropology to unpack meaning, and how did you find the process of translating those tools to literary analysis?
Bradd Shore: Clifford Geertz famously compared the data of cultural anthropology to a text, a comparison that has been both admired and criticized over the years. For both literature and human behavior, the text analogy points to the need for interpretation, a requirement as troublesome as it is necessary for making sense of things human.
One of the problems an interpreter faces is that the meaning of something—the meaning affordances of its internal structure and coherence, is not the same thing as the meaning for someone, which is a process of imaginative engagement of a mind with the world. For an anthropologist, the meaning for someone requires emic analysis, how the locals understand their world and actions: what matters to them. The meaning of something requires etic analysis, an attempt at an objective account of the meaning-making properties inherent in an act or an object. We struggle to do both kinds of analysis and reconcile them, but the reconciliation often proves challenging. Often anthropologists end up choosing one or the other perspective.
In approaching Shakespeare’s plays, we have no privileged window into Shakespeare’s mind and intentions. We only have his texts and the complex patterns that he weaves with his language and play structure. The closest we come to an emic perspective in the absence of a Shakespearean literary memoir are the social historians’ reconstructions of the culture of Shakespeare’s day and the kinds of ideas and things of interest to Elizabethan writers and artists.
Fortunately, there is no need to read meaning into Shakespeare’s work. We only need to read his work, carefully and repeatedly, alternating our study of the plays with a study of the evolving cultural, political, scientific, and artistic of Shakespeare’s world. When Shakespeare wanted to make a theoretical point, he left plenty of clues in his work: clues in his choice of language, his virtuosic wordplay, his characters’ names, his way with tropes (especially metaphors), and the messages he built into his manipulation of literary and artistic conventions. Careful reading and attention to his use of irony can help uncover those patterns.
Interpretation is built up from evidence found in these repeated patterns throughout the play. Thus, my analyses of the plays are extensive and based on very close readings of Shakespeare’s words, accompanied by historical explications of Elizabethan culture. A satisfying interpretation makes sense of otherwise anomalous and puzzling aspects of the text. That sense-making looks inward to the language and structure of the play and outward to the institutions and culture of Shakespeare’s day.
To be convincing, an interpretation does not have to be the only possible account of a play. In their miraculous richness, Shakespeare’s plays are irreducible to a single meaning. Still, some readings make more sense than others. A satisfying interpretation leaves the reader with a sense of having a light illuminate something that was always there but had eluded both sight and insight. Good interpretations produce aha moments for the reader.
Rob Shore: You advocate for a “close reading” approach to texts that were intended to be staged. What does that tell us about Shakespeare’s intent?
Bradd Shore: Shakespeare was both a thinker and a theatrical producer. He understood what his primary audience wanted to see, and he gave them plays that were exciting, engaging, terrifying, funny, all the things that great theater can produce.
I think I present enough textual evidence that my readings of the play will stand as credible interpretations of what is actually in the plays. However, these are not interpretations that Shakespeare intended for the immediate consumption of the Globe’s audience. Instead, I think they were written as look-again-readings of the texts for a more sophisticated audience. Shakespeare’s theoretical voice was intended for readers rather than viewers, by those interested in the play of great ideas rather than drama’s more immediate experience. As a result, Shakespeare wrote plays that were both compelling dramas and effective theoretical treatises. The only other writer I know who regularly pulled off the same kind of double-dealing magic was Plato in his Socratic dialogues.
Rob Shore:In a book so concerned with double meaning and wordplay, you must have felt some pressure in coming up with a title. How did you approach the task?
Bradd Shore: I like playful titles that encourage multiple meanings. So my initial title was Shakespeare and the Play of Great Ideas. However, my editor at Routledge found that title somewhat vague and wanted a title that would attract both social scientists and literary types. So I agreed to the more straightforward title and was happy that the press allowed me to keep “The Play of Great Ideas” as a subtitle.
Rob Shore: If Shakespeare’s play of ideas was a reflection of a technological and cultural paradigm shift in perspective, how do you think Shakespeare would adapt his work to reflect our current moment: 24/7 digital transmedia omniscience, hyper-irony, double-talk, fake news, a deep bench of Shakespearean political figures, and all the rest? Does that reality make his texts more, less, or just differently relevant today?
Bradd Shore: I have no idea what modern technology Shakespeare would exploit were he to write today. But he would likely be attracted to the possibilities of modern theater and film for playing up the problems of representation and perspective.
Shakespeare can be thought of as modern in three senses. First, he is modern in being concerned with universal themes, as relevant for today’s audiences as those of his time. Second, he is modern in being ahead of his time. In my book, I show how his plays anticipate psychoanalytic theory, exchange theory, modern metaphor theory, performance theory, political theory, cognitive anthropology, Queer Theory, and structuralism in more sophisticated ways than we ever imagined.
Finally, Shakespeare is modern in his radical interrogation of the world and his awareness of the influence of perspective on how one views reality. While traditional critics like E.M.W. Tillyard tried to convince us that Shakespeare’s work was essentially an extension of medieval political and social thought, they overlook Shakespeare’s characteristic irony, attraction to paradox, and relentless questioning of orthodoxy. Shakespeare and Social Theory was written to highlight the radical character of the plays.
Hannah Carlan interviews E. Annamalai, Francis Cody, and Constantine V. Nakassis
Hannah Carlan: Bernard Bate’s posthumous book Protestant Textuality and the Tamil Modern is a major contribution to the study of political agency and nation-building, which has, through Habermas, Anderson, Taylor, Warner, and others, long privileged “the press” over “the platform” in the formation of the democratic public sphere (pp. 3–4). Bate demonstrates that this emphasis on print capitalism is both due to the difficulty of studying the unrecorded, as well as Western semiotic ideologies that privilege the denotational functions of language over its poetic ones, leading to an elision of the sensuous, affective, and embodied aspects of speech as social activity. Bate invites us to consider how communicative genres like homiletic oratory, devotional songs (bhajans), poems, and mass meetings together constituted a novel “interpellative infrastructure” of politics (p. 66). Through these practices, previously disparate groups were called into being as a singular political public at the turn of the 20th century in Tamil Nadu. Rather than reproduce the dichotomization of speech and materiality, Bate emphasizes their mutual imbrication. In the Indic context, vernacular political oratory gained semiotic value not merely from its denotational accessibility—an influence of Protestant ideologies of textuality—but from what Bate calls “poesy”: the corporeal, sonorous, musical qualities of speech that are prized in Tamil textual traditions. How might this intervention contribute to broader efforts in anthropology to theorize language and/as materiality, and how might such an approach allow us to decenter Western theories of politics and democracy?
Constantine V. Nakassis: Your brilliant first book, Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern deals with the simultaneous classicization and modernization of the Karnatic music of South India through both historical and ethnographic methods, showing how a gendered and casted form of modern subjectivity came to be articulated through a politics of voice. Your most recent book, Brought to Life by the Voice: Playback Singing and Cultural Politics in South India – equally brilliant – deals with so-called playback singing in the Tamil film industry. To start us off, I wonder if you could speak a bit about the relationship, and movement, between these two projects?
Amanda Weidman: Thank you for giving me an opportunity to reflect on this. I would say, in a general way, that in this second book I’ve gotten to do the project I paid lip service to (no pun intended!) in the first book: to explore voice as simultaneously an object of musical/sonic attention and of ideological investment, and to really grapple with the way these two scales—the bodily/sonic/material and the ideological/discursive—interplay with and inform each other. In my first book, the concern with voice remained mostly at the ideological, political level. I used the concepts ideologies of voice and politics of voice to get at the ways that voice, cultivated, framed, and staged in a particular way, became—to the exclusion and marginalization of other things—a potent signifier of Karnatic music’s classical status. The burden in that book was to try to understand how a high cultural status had been claimed and consolidated. Identifying voice as an object of ideology and politics was a way to challenge what has been reified and naturalized as South Indian classical music.
In Brought to Life by the Voice, I decided that the twin focus on voice as object of aesthetic and ideological investment was better captured by the idea of regimes of aurality and the voice, which I think gets at the way that ideologies and politics are actually produced and sustained—voice as a site where macro-level constructs are scaled down to a bodily/sensory level. I think about regimes of aurality and voice in several ways: through modes of discipline in vocal production—how singers learn to produce the supposedly right kind of sound in any context; through recurring contexts of listening and consumption, including performance contexts, as well as technological media through which voices are disseminated (and in the case of playback, the visual images/bodies with which voices are paired or associated onscreen); and through the articulated, verbalized categories that arise to describe and attribute meaning to particular voices and voice qualities. Inherent in the idea of regimes of aurality and voice is the process of regimentation, the shaping of vocal practices and vocal sound to particular culturally and historically specific ideals.
There are some obvious continuities between the two books. The city of Chennai is the center (the authorizing center of semiosis, you might say) for both Karnatic classical music and the Tamil film industry. But in moving from one to the other I shifted from looking at something that, framed as a high-cultural object, has all sorts of authorized knowledge emanating from established institutions, pedagogies, and forms of transmission, to a popular-cultural realm where meaning-making is taking place at many different sites: on screen, in the recording studios, in the postproduction process, on stage, on the street, in music reality shows, in forms of historical and current media publicity, and so on. This presented a different kind of ethnographic challenge, especially because I was exploring the cultural significance of voices that, though people have deep affective attachment to them, have been considered beyond description, anti-intellectualized both by singers themselves and by fans, and mostly ignored in scholarship on Indian cinema.
The movement between these two books also reflects the slow melding of different strains of my graduate training. In the 1990s, I was steeped in then-current thinking about the colonial production of knowledge, postcolonial theory, and the idea of modernity as a culture in itself—all reflected amply in my first book. But I was also trained in ethnomusicology and linguistic anthropology, which at that time were relatively distant from each other and focused on their respective objects: music and language. The point of connection between them was through the music-and-language strand of linguistic anthropology, which constituted the other part of my graduate training. I learned about Peircean semiotics, indexicality, iconicity, performativity, poetics and sound symbolism, and Bakhtin’s concept of voicing, but I didn’t know what to do with it all for a while. The blossoming of voice and sound as analytics and fields of study in the last two decades has really broken down these disciplinary boundaries and created many more points of connection—and has allowed us to hear so much more of what’s going on in music and language beyond what these frameworks have conditioned us to hear. Linguistic anthropology has broadened to become more attuned to questions of mediation, voice, and embodiment, and to the way linguistic and non-linguistic, and visual and aural, forms of semiosis interact. I think of my work as definitely benefitting from, and, I hope, also contributing to these developments.
Constantine V. Nakassis: One of the many interventions of this book is to rethink the metaphysical nexus that links voice, (the visual) body, and subjectivity as a natural, unified package—by pointing to a different “performative dispensation” (Mazzarella)—that of playback singing, where voice (of the singer), body (of the actress), words (of the lyricist), melody (of the music director) are all differently distributed. How has this particular case helped you think about the study of voice?
Amanda Weidman: The striking thing about playback in the Indian context is that it starts with completely different premises and ideals. Most Euro-Western theorizing about voice, as well as cultural production ranging from Hollywood cinema to popular music, starts from the assumed ideal unity of voice, body, and self—underpinning the ideology of the unified speaking subject (a construct which has come in for a lot of critique in critical theory and anthropology), as well as that of the expressive singing/musical subject (an equally powerful construct, but one that has not been interrogated nearly as much). Within this formation, the voice de-linked from a visual representation or embodiment of its source is the disorienting exception, associated with power and mastery, or with danger, excess, and deception.
Playback, as a technical practice and as a performative dispensation, starts from the opposite assumption: that the dissociation of body and voice, the division of labor between appearing and sounding, is the ideal, and that the embodiment of voice is the artifice, the strategic achievement that provokes anxieties and requires careful management and/or avoidance. One of the things that captivated me about this project is the way playback literalizes/concretizes so many of the concepts at play: production format/participant roles, performative dispensations, animation, and the distribution of the sensible. Goffman’s idea of production format and participant roles, or role fractions, as Irvine would specify, gets at the division of labor that playback sets up—not just between acting onscreen and singing offscreen, but also between singing and speaking, and between animating and authoring words and melodies. The concept of a performative dispensation, so usefully articulated by Mazzarella in terms of both permissions and prohibitions, gets at the way playback, as a cultural institution, controls (or attempts to control) who is visible, who is audible, and the meaning and effects that certain performances may have. Animation allows for a consideration of vocal acts as something other than identity or expression— toward other forms of agency and subjectivity that are enabled by different acts of voicing. And Ranciere’s concept of the distribution of the sensible allowed me to see how playback has constituted a regime of aurality/imageness by thinking about very concrete processes of distribution, ranging in scale from the mass/public level (determining what is seen/heard and what isn’t, and through which media; indexically regimenting voices and flooding the public sphere with particular ones) to the individual/embodied level (where a singer distributes her voice in her own body or how she occupies the space of the stage).
Constantine V. Nakassis:Animation, Voice (voicing), (Bring to) Life, World(ing) – these are some of the very big concepts that this book articulates in its account of playback singing and that have already come up in our discussion. And it articulates them through a set of more technical analytic concepts: ideology (a la Silverstein, Gal and Irvine), semiotic economy (a la Keane), and distribution of the sensible or regime of imageness/aurality (a la Rancière). I’m interested to hear about how the philosophical and aesthetic concept of Rancière’s and the semiotic concepts of linguistic anthropology fit together in this book?
Amanda Weidman:The title of my book comes from film sound theorist Michel Chion’s description of playback, which he tosses in offhandedly at the end of his book The Voice in Cinema: “In playback, the body confesses to being a puppet brought to life by the voice.” Chion meant this as a simple reversal of the usual relationship between body and voice, visuality and aurality, in which the body controls the voice which is seen to emanate from it. But the image of the puppet introduces all sorts of fascinating and productive ambiguities around visibility and voicing, agency and control, the animate and the inanimate. The playback singer is both the puppet—the singer of words and melodies authored by others—and the puppeteer—the backstage or offscreen voice who controls the movements and meanings of what’s onscreen. Much of playback singers’ work is about managing the fundamental duality of animation as a mechanical process of transmission/relay (the puppet role) and as a life-giving process (the puppeteer role). The attention to animation within anthropology has been so helpful in the way it has shifted the focus from the creation of an illusion of life in inanimate objects or forms, to looking at the social world and social relations and actors that various animating practices imagine and bring into being.
To me, the notion of a semiotic economy is a useful way of grounding Rancière’s concept of the distribution of the sensible. Rancière argues against both the autonomy of art and art’s submission to politics—his idea is that different “distributions of the sensible” are not automatically linked to particular political destinies. Instead, their affordances must be taken up in particular ways—there must be a process by which a distribution of the sensible becomes a basis for a politics. “A common world,” he writes, “is never simply an ethos, a shared abode, that results from the sedimentation of … intertwined acts. It is always a polemical distribution of modes of being and occupation in a space of possibilities.” Rancière is not just talking about the distribution of the sensible in terms of things experienced through the senses. The sensible is also referring to the ways that sensory things become sensible, that is, intelligible, capable of carrying meaning or making sense within particular regimes of imageness/aurality. To give one example—the idealized Tamil notion of kuralinimai—voice sweetness—attributed to the voices of certain female singers in the 1960s was not just about voice quality itself, but how certain moral attributes came to be associated with it. It also had to do with the ways a non-projected head voice was made bodiless by being detached from the body of both the onscreen actress and the body of the playback singer herself. The function of a semiotic economy is precisely this—to constitute sensory things as signs by placing them in some kind of meaningful relation to each other.
Constantine V. Nakassis: Can you say a little about how gender plays into how the sensible is distributed?
Amanda Weidman:The gendered asymmetries are quite striking. Playback began as way of managing the ways the female form would become available to be seen/heard in the public sphere through expressive and medial forms such as music, dance, and cinema, in a context where respectable femininity was defined by the careful management and often avoidance of public appearance. During its heyday, the mid 1950s through the mid 1970s, the affordances of playback’s division of labor were taken up in different gendered ways. For men, the separation of the roles of actor and singer and their symbiotic relationship was productive, generating a kind of surplus power and political potency. Star status could accrue to both the actor and the singer through the combination of one’s body and the other’s voice because they were understood to be working together, doing the same thing through two different modalities. For women, however, the separation of roles was used and interpreted differently. The assumed moral licitness of a woman singing was used to cancel out, or mitigate, the assumed immorality of a woman acting onscreen. Actress and singer were understood to be doing two fundamentally different things. Female playback singers who had risen to prominence in this period conveyed this gulf between actress and singer to me by describing themselves as “just the voice” or by stressing that their acting was “all in the throat” and they were not doing “mimicry.” I have been pondering for years how this role of being “just the voice” was constructed and inhabited, and what it meant. Rather than seeing it as a simple limiting or restriction in the service of female respectability, in the book I try to show how this role was in fact a coveted status that allowed singers to steer a path between behind the scenes anonymity and onscreen/onstage exposure.
Constantine V. Nakassis:Historically speaking, one of the stories of this book is the transition from the post-Independence period (1950s–1980s) to the post-liberalization period (1990s–2020s). How do these macro epochal moments map onto what you call the performative dispensations, or regimes, of visuality and aurality that have governed playback singing?
Amanda Weidman:In this book I’ve tried to show the historicity of playback as a cultural institution responding to and shaping the ethos of particular sociopolitical moments. Its changes and shifts reflect the different kinds of semiotic/representational economies voice has been inserted into. At its beginning in the 1940s, playback was referred to as iraval kural—borrowed or traded voice, reflecting the emphasis on the partibility of the voice and the economic/transactional understanding of the practice. As playback became set as a dispensation within India’s technocratic, developmentalist post-Independence decades and within the gender politics of the Tamil Dravidianist political context, playback singers shifted to being referred to as pinnani patakarkal—behind [the screen] singers—foregrounding the project of producing a desirable or ideal onscreen body-voice combination over the partibility of the voice as such—a change that went along with a rise in playback singers’ status. In the post-liberalization decades, neoliberal ideologies have introduced a new set of industries, desires and promises centering around the voice, and a new value placed on visibility—the laying bare of what was previously hidden, unspoken, illicit. For singers, this translates into a pressure to couple voice ever more tightly with the self, body, and intention of the singer. All those things so carefully separated and parceled out in playback’s dispensation are being recombined in different—and yet still differentially gendered—ways. Tamil cinema is caught now between contradictory trends of emulating Hollywood-style narrative film and getting rid of song sequences and other supposedly non-realistic elements, and a self-referential, semi-nostalgic, semi-parodic re-animation of older elements. This is why “afterlife” seems more apt than “death” to describe the state of playback now.
Constantine V. Nakassis: Speaking of after(-brought-to-)life (by the voice), what’s next for your research?
Amanda Weidman: One of the most interesting people I met while doing this project was the singer L. R. Eswari, who managed to flout the gendered normativities of playback, combining a professional life as the go-to playback singer for vamp roles in the 1960s with a successful career as a singer of commercial devotional music on the South Indian Hindu goddess Amman—the alternately benevolent and fierce mother goddess associated with subaltern religious practice. I’m thinking about a new project that would investigate the role of aural representations of and appeals to Amman in this commercial devotional music in relation to the politics of caste, class and gender in South India.
Constantine V. Nakassis: I can’t wait to see where this new project goes! And thank you so much for doing this fascinating interview about this amazing book!
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: An explicit orienting question for the book is “Why teach an entire nation English?” (4) Personally or sociologically, this “why” question had seldom dawned on me, a lucky survivor of the West-bound, future-facing, and English-mediated journey many of your informants aspired to. Nonetheless, or therefore, this question struck me as a giant elephant in the room. How did it become a question for you? What are some of the answers you explore in the book?
Eric Henry: Honestly it was not a topic I went looking for. Before I started a doctorate in anthropology I was an English teacher in China, thinking I could study Mandarin and pay off some debts at the same time. One of the things that struck me was that, with adult students, very few of them were in a situation or a job where they would actually need to use the language on a regular basis. There was a certain absurdity to it: here I was, with no formal training, teaching English to railway engineers or bureaucrats. My only qualification was that I had grown up speaking the language and the students had not. This kind of realization drove many of the foreign teachers I worked with to a kind of cynicism, but for me it prompted questions I could explore ethnographically. I realized that we naturalize this desire for English on a global scale – but most of the students did not care for the language itself, only for its capacity to shape their own futures. When I really started to listen to those students, and by this time I was back doing fieldwork, I learned that the desire to speak English is always entangled with dreams of the future: with going abroad, accumulating wealth, or just being seen as someone in control of their lives rather than being left behind by China’s burgeoning social transformations. Most of the people I talked to identified the last twenty years as the most important in all of China’s long history, a time that is radically reconfiguring relations between self and society on the one hand, and China and the world on the other. Saying “I speak English,” is therefore a powerful claim to identity under new regimes of neoliberal capitalism and globalization.
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: This ethnography of contemporary speech practices and English language learning in Northeast China, on a more ambitious scale, is also an intervention in the study of modernity. What is your approach to modernity in this book? What are some of the analytic concepts central to this approach? Why is it preferable over other approaches?
Eric Henry: I am a linguistic anthropologist, so naturally I look to language and discourse as primary constituents of social phenomena. It has always struck me that modernity is often defined in terms of specific economic, political or social metrics: rational markets, democracy, the retreat of the state and so on. In contrast, the people I worked with in Shenyang understood modernity through narratives about the changes going on around them; and the languages people used to talk about those changes seemed to have the power to launch this new state of being. I had the chance to dig into some missionary archives related to language teaching in China in the 1920s, and I was able to read some of the essays Chinese students wrote for their English teachers. They were incredible – one, by a young nursing student, imagined the development of a “moral hospital” in China, where intractable young people would be sent for moral instruction. In her story, the moral hospital struggles for legitimacy until the President of China commits his own son to their care. At that point the eyes of the world turn to the hospital and recognize the value of China’s civilization, extending to the nation an opportunity for global leadership. I realized that this young student understood her own language study in much the same terms as Chinese people today, as a way of transforming Chinese society and achieving international recognition; in other words, as a way of becoming modern. This is what I call discursive modernity – it is the ways in which modernity is constituted out of talk about the material or social changes that surround people as they navigate through new landscapes, new technologies and new forms of social position or status. I think this approach frees us from trying to measure abstract qualities such as “development” or “modernization” and focus instead on how people both experience the forces of change and locate themselves as social actors in relation to them.
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: Chapter 2 analyzes the distinct cultural geography of post-socialist China based on the paradigmatic form of the wall and what you term the moral economy of “recursive enclosure”. The cover photo of the book, showing a residential apartment complex I suppose, seems to be taken from this chapter. What is the structural place of this cultural geographical analysis in a book explicitly about speech practices? What is the limit to the claim about “distinctness”? To what extent is the moral economy of “recursive enclosure” more universal?
Eric Henry: Landscapes are always suffused with symbolic values – it is part of what I would consider a universal human process of place-making. We can see evidence of this anytime we talk about urban or rural, or when we label a place as being in a “pristine” state of nature. At the same time, I think there is something unique about China and the contemporary remnants of an imperial technology of boundary-making and enclosure. Traditional architecture in China, from temples to palaces to the peasant homestead, emphasized enclosure. Structures abutted the margins of the property and were inward-focused, with a series of increasingly private and intimate spaces marked off by walls, panels, curtains, and other boundaries. Cities and, at a larger scale, the empire itself were also enclosed by walls marking off center and periphery. These spatial configurations were designed to, as I argue, signify a kind of timeless continuity for the empire and the enduring relationship between the human and cosmological worlds. People – whether they be priests, peasants or emperors – doing similar types of rituals, in similar types of spaces, and using a common language asserted the unity and universality of the imperial state. As I argue in the book, however, in today’s China the spaces and space-making practices remain, but the types or rituals, behavior and language in each are now different. Residences, schools, factories, and offices are still surrounded by walls, with imposing gates dividing interior from exterior. But the imperial universality has been shattered into a landscape that is not only divided in terms of wealth, but also in terms of time. Some people feel like they are ahead, and others like they are being left behind.
One day in Shenyang I hopped on a minibus headed out on a rural route, just to see where it would take me. When I came back, some of my Chinese friends were amazed – how on earth could you find your way when all the people out there speak in dialect? You have to understand, a lot of people in the city speak the dialect too, but there is this feeling in urban China of a separation and distinctness from rural areas, almost as if the people living there are a different kind of citizen. The countryside is luohou, which means stagnant or backwards, and they are thought to speak the regional dialect almost exclusively. So these boundaries of enclosure symbolically mark off spaces that are oriented in multiply contingent ways to the future or to the past, and the linguistic and conversational choices people make are used to identify what kinds of spaces they are in. In rural villages you hear the dialect, in modern fantasy spaces like five-star hotels and luxury shopping malls you hear English. Space, time and language are bound together.
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: Chapter 6 asserts the significance of race, represented by the type of a white, English-speaking foreigner, in speech practices and imaginaries of modernity in contemporary China. How did you, often cast in that type by your informants, navigate doing fieldwork?
Eric Henry: Even though most people claimed that Chinese society has no racial divisions, race is an inescapable part of everyday life in China. It is implicit in the ways people endlessly discuss whose skin is dark and whose is light; darkness is associated with the countryside and agricultural labor, lightness with the city and professional employment. Ethnic minorities in China are treated as cultural relics, people who dress in distinctive costumes and manifest quaint traditions. And foreigners, in particular, are recruited into these discourses of modernization because certain racialized others (and here I fit the stereotype of the white, blue-eyed personification of modernity perfectly) represent progress and development. This did grant me a clear privilege in being able to conduct research on language schools. I could saunter in the door, walk right into the headmaster’s office and be welcomed with open arms. The Chinese scholars and linguists I know had to beg, bargain and negotiate just to get access. At the same time, however, and this is something I try to elaborate in the last chapter of my book, I had a role to play. If I’m white, I’m there to teach English, or I’m there to do business, and so many of my interviews and interactions were derailed into discussions of business opportunities or study abroad opportunities. “Let’s cooperate together and open an English school – we can get rich!” I could never be unobtrusive; if I visited a new English class, I always became the center of attention and would be dragged up to lead a pronunciation lesson or answer student questions. At the time, I thought of this fact as a hindrance to my research, but I came to realize that this is a critical element of the discourse of modernity. If crafting modern subjectivities in China is, as I’ve argued, dependent upon acquiring a new repertoire of globalized speech practices, they have to be acquired from somewhere and from someone. In effect, I was being recruited into a kind of fantasy space in which I reflected back to my interlocutors the same desire they had for the signifiers of modernity, such as wealth and mobility, in which case they could consider us co-eval or equivalent social actors. To become modern is therefore to appropriate the signifiers (racialized, linguistic, performative) of those people who already appear to be modern, and that depends upon the source of those signifiers, the foreigner, acting in the way a foreigner is expected to act. By conforming to that role I was sanctioning the activities taking place – whether it was learning a global language, or opening an academic conference or hosting a wedding – as legitimate instantiations of modernizing practice.
Maybe that is a good note to end on. In your first question you identify yourself as a “survivor of the West-bound, future-facing, and English-mediated journey” and I think that is an apt way to put it. The educational pathways we have created for students and scholars follow very constrained routes, and require a very restricted set of linguistic skills and credentials, naturally favoring certain privileged groups over others. All of this is driving a massive global language teaching industry valued at around $10 billion a year. The racialized privilege I experienced was due to an equivalence between my appearance, my language, and the presumed superiority of Western countries. We have to develop a critical reflexivity towards these naturalized assumptions and never allow them to pass unchallenged. To dismantle such regimes of inequality requires an understanding of how the desires for certain types of linguistic, social, and symbolic capital are produced and sustained on a global scale.
H. Keziah Conrad: One of the central arguments you make in the book is that there is something wrong with the “successful aging” model put forward in gerontology and popular discourses. Can you say more about what the successful aging model is, and why you see it as problematic?
Anna I. Corwin: The notion of successful aging emerged in the 1990s and was adopted in both research and popular discourses as an appealing alternative to previous models that described aging as a process of inevitable decline into decrepitude. It gained popularity quickly, and the past few decades have seen a tremendous outpouring of research on the topic of successful aging – research that seeks to understand how individuals can live longer and be healthier in older age.
While this might seem to many folks like an unequivocally positive move, anthropologists and critical gerontologists have shown that the research and the popular discourses on successful aging embed neoliberal cultural values and assumptions into what they are naming as science. Instead of simply measuring health outcomes (which anthropologists know can be culturally variable), the literature promotes a model of success in older age in which individuals are independent, productive, active, ageless adults. In other words, as Sarah Lamb and others have pointed out, the successful aging paradigm is promoting a model of aging that involves not aging at all.
This is problematic for two central reasons: First, this model of success implies that one can fail at aging, which itself is an absurd notion (and has extremely important implications for how one thinks about disability and personhood). It is particularly problematic when we remember that systematic oppression including environmental racism creates a landscape that disproportionately impacts Black and Brown individuals’ health outcomes throughout the lifecourse, compounding toward the end of life
Second, the successful aging model is simply not scientifically robust – not only are measures of independence, for example, not always measures of health and well-being, they also are not values or qualities seen in a number of communities (like the sisters in Catholic convents) where people are documented to experience positive health outcomes at the end of life. As I explore in the book, in the convent, where sisters experience longevity and increased physical and psychological well-being at the end of life, the nuns demonstrate precisely the opposite cultural values and practices by emphasizing interdependence and socialization into letting go, or, as in the title of the book, Embracing Age.
Keziah Conrad: Embracing Age contributes to the literature on linguistic relativity, and you argue that language shapes how we age. You also say that simply looking for different words to replace stigmatized words like “old” will not itself change the stigma attached to aging in the US. What is it about the nuns’ language practices that goes deeper in actually shaping experience?
Anna Corwin: There have been campaigns, both formal and informal, in recent years to rid English of words that stigmatize older adults: for instance, banning the terms “old” and “elderly” in favor of “older adults.” While I am, of course, completely supportive of policies that work to destigmatize aging, I’m quite skeptical of movements that target words alone. Avoiding specific words will do nothing unless we address the underlying cultural practice and social structures that create aging stigma in the first place.
In the convent, the sisters learned to treat old age as a normative part of the life course through linguistic practices that went far beyond word choice. One of the chapters in the book (Chapter 3) looks at the sisters’ prayer practices. As it turns out, prayer is more than just a way to engage with God. Prayer also is a way for the sisters to tell each other about the needs of others in the convent, to offer and provide social support, to communicate institutional ideals, and even to express ideals about aging. For example, instead of praying for intervention or direct healing from God, the sisters in the convent would pray that a sister who was suffering find “the grace to accept” what she was enduring. Through these public, intercessory prayers, all the sisters learned community values around aging, acceptance, and the value of letting go.
Another example of the way linguistic practices shaped the nuns’ attitudes and experiences of aging was the ways the sisters treated their peers who had experienced significant decline. Even when sisters had conditions such as aphasia and couldn’t speak, or had deteriorative neurological conditions and couldn’t move, they were included in meaningful everyday activities such as worship, prayer, and social activities like card games. I devote nearly an entire chapter to looking at the micro-interactional processes through which the sisters skillfully engaged peers who have declined in mutually enjoyable, meaningful everyday activities. Building on the literature on linguistic relativity, I suggest that language and experience dynamically shape each other through habitual interactions that occur over a lifetime.
Keziah Conrad: In Embracing Age you show that socialization processes occur throughout the life-course (not only in childhood), and that socialization practices are key to how the Catholic Sisters you worked with learn to age and die. What are some of these practices? How are the nuns socialized to embrace aging?
Anna Corwin: When I arrived at the convent and began to spend time with older sisters, one of the things I was struck by was the ways that aging, end-of-life, and death were embraced in the convent as normative parts of the life-course. This stood out as particularly striking as it contrasted with mainstream practices outside the convent in the rest of the Midwest and United States where elderly adults and disabled folks are often segregated from many everyday activities and spaces. In the convent, elderly sisters continued to be integrated in meaningful everyday activities, which also meant that younger sisters continued to engage with and learn with these sisters, for example, learning how to age themselves as they interacted with their older peers.
The sisters’ embrace of aging as a normal and natural part of the life course was also underscored theologically as they emphasized notions of kenosis, which included practices of letting go of individual control and desire. This occurred in prayer, everyday narratives or storytelling over meals, in care interactions, and in social interactions such as card games. For example, in prayer, instead of petitioning the divine for healing (as one might in some Protestant communities), the sisters learned to pray for acceptance, for grace, or for God to walk with them in their pain.
They also embraced the oldest members of their community in very practical ways. In the convent infirmary, instead of caring-for and other uni-directional care interactions we often see in institutional care settings, the sisters mutually engaged with and valued elderly peers in on-going, dynamic arrangements. For example, one day when I was shadowing a sister (S. Irma — all names are pseudonyms) in the infirmary, the sister provided blessings for her elderly peers. In one of the rooms, we met Sister Helen who had aphasia and whose mobility was significantly limited. Sister Irma asked Sister Helen to bless me – and to my surprise, she proceeded to place Sister Helen’s hand on my forehead and Sister Helen blessed me using words I could not decipher. Ultimately, the form of prayer, in which God is the recipient of the request for a blessing, the fact that we could not make out her words did not matter. The blessing was seen as meaningful as she was interceding on my behalf to request the blessing. In this way, Sister Helen and her peers with significant chronic conditions such as aphasia and neurological conditions that limited communication and movement were included as meaningful interlocutors in everyday practices. By engaging elderly peers with physically and/or communicatively limiting conditions in meaningful everyday activities, the sisters demonstrated that they actively valued and included all members of the community, even those who were infirm and/or disabled. All of these practices and many more served to teach the sisters how to embrace aging as they themselves grew older.
Keziah Conrad: What kind of experiences have you had sharing this work with older adults who are seeking models of how to age gracefully or successfully?
Anna Corwin: I have presented my work to public audiences and have offered 8-week workshops in my community where I introduce my research findings and invite older adults to engage with the work. In these spaces, I have seen how pervasive and appealing the mainstream model of successful aging is in the United States and I have been struck by the power and prevalence of the dual desires to avoid aging and, if one must age, to do so while maintaining independence and control over the body. The notion of embracing aging doesn’t always sound appealing to mainstream Americans and people have sometimes voiced disappointment and resentment to me that I do not offer tips to avoid aging. However, I have seen some remarkable transformations as individuals begin to notice the popular discourses of aging that surround them. Most often, the pushback I receive develops into an articulation and rejection of the stigmatizing and troublesome discourses that individuals begin to note in their everyday lives. I have witnessed many people replace old internalized practices with new, hopeful, more loving practices.
One of my hopes for this book is that it allows more people to become aware that the popular discourses of aging which stigmatize, segregate and otherwise demean older adults are not the only way to approach aging. There is tremendous diversity in how aging is understood and experienced across cultural contexts. Doing this research has filled me with a lot of hope as I have witnessed the processes through which the nuns value and integrate their aging peers and learn to embrace interdependence and the end of life as they grow older themselves.
Özge Korkmaz: I want to start with a general question. How would you describe this book to an anthropological audience, and do you see it as belonging to any particular theoretical genealogy or subfield?
Lauren Zentz: I must say that I have always seen myself as a theoretical nomad of sorts. That being said, I find that linguistic anthropology and especially sociolinguistics are good homes for such a type of scholar. I believe that I can say that my work is inspired by work that comes from various fields but that tends toward the ethnographic. Thus in this book, as I relay in the preface, I draw on diverse work ranging from the feminist qualitative studies of Lather and Smithies, to Mendoza-Denton’s and Heller’s crucial work that I tend to consider more typical for the field of linguistic anthropology; I draw on ethnographic work that is not really described as such from foremost political scientists like Theda Skocpol; ethnographic work that draws more on cultural anthropological writing paradigms in Graeber’s work; to work that blends genres, like Perry Gilmore’s ethnography-slash-memoir that also taps into long-held conversations across sociolinguistics as well as cognitive and theoretical linguistics. I read in media studies and general discourse analysis theory and methods, in addition to the above. In the end, then, I would say that my work is quite interdisciplinary, but this includes a heavy lean towards deeply qualitative and ethnographic work. And, as many who know me and my work would tell you without a moment’s hesitation, my work is of course deeply inspired by Jan Blommaert’s, whose work I also consider to be deeply political, deeply interdisciplinary, and both deeply sociolinguistic and linguistic anthropological.
Özge Korkmaz: Since this is an internet-based ethnography, I am curious as to how you define your field-site, and whether you struggled at times with working outside of the traditional domains of research? I ask this question recognizing that every ethnography comes with its problems about where the field-site begins and ends, so I wonder what those problems would be for students of social media.
Lauren Zentz: This was indeed a challenging question, and something that there is not a robust literature on to my knowledge, especially when it comes to incorporating online and social media communities/communications, so I did find myself really improvising and having to define things for myself. Ultimately for any ethnography, of course, this is what we want anyway – the field site needs to be defined from the ground up because life and community organization generally don’t line up with our preconceived notions of them. But I did find myself on perpetually shifting ground, I would say, for at least the first year (of two) that I was conducting data collection. In this study, I started out thinking that I would conduct a study of the leadership of the state organization of Pantsuit Republic Texas. This was a group that lived throughout the state but mostly in Austin, Dallas, and Houston. Given that we only met online on Slack, Facebook, and a group phone call website called FreeConferenceCall.com, I was of course unable to gain the trust of the people who I’d imagined would become my research participants – the eight or so members of the state board (although I was given permission to start this study from two of the leaders of the state board, who I already knew and who lived in Houston). Because I could not gain people’s trust, I simply could not do the study in the way that I had first dreamt it up. And so my field site had to shift dramatically. I stepped back, continued my secretarial duties for the state board, and then reflected on how I had gotten involved in the organization in the first place, and only then did I realize that I needed to go to the people who I already knew. These were, again, the two people from the state board who had initially authorized the study, and then people with whom I had worked in the leadership of PSR’s local counterpart, Pantsuit Republic Houston. So I went back to these folks and changed my strategy to collecting data from their Facebook posts both in and outside of both PSR and PSRH’s secret Facebook groups, as well as research interviews and field notes. I asked sixteen or so people in total to participate, and ultimately ended up with a total of eight. Of these eight, some were more available than others for various work, home, and activism related reasons, and so I collected more and less information from each depending on their individual circumstances and my relationships with them each individually.
After all of this strategy shifting, my primary source of data became Facebook. So this was primarily an online ethnography, but let’s not forget that there is not a separation between online and offline life, contrary to some early (and continuing) beliefs that online life is supposedly fake and offline life is putatively real. As with every technology, from the telegraph to the phone and the television and so on, these have all been integrated into our lives. We don’t have a TV-watching life and a non-TV watching life; we just have a life, in which we watch TV and then refer to what we’ve watched after the fact. Similarly, we have a life in which we engage on various online social media platforms via our smartphones, our tablets, our desktop and laptop computers, and so on. On these sites we engage in individual chats, group chats, secret group pages, public pages, our personal walls on which we post publicly and/or privately, and so on, and then we met with several of the people we were just talking to online and we continue the conversation or move on to different topics. I engaged with my research participants online, but I also met up with them in person, at state board meetings, local PSRH public meetings, protests and other events. So while I emphasize online data in this book, it is informed by a more holistic experience while I was acting as a member (albeit peripheral) of the leadership groups of these organizations.
Özge Korkmaz: As ethnographers, we already know that whatever it is that gives political identities their unity of meaning is not static but processual. Yet we are also pretty good at documenting the ways people strive to create a somewhat stable one that is consistent with its own facts. What does this identity-work look like in the internet? What resources and techniques are available to people?
Lauren Zentz: I actually just met with a couple of my research participants the other day – now that they had contributed to the construction of a monograph through their own words via social media posts and interviews, they wanted to a have a sort of mini book club about it. It was really fun. But the reason I bring it up is just to say that we talked about how much data I ended up collecting in this study. Over 13,000 screenshots from over 6,000 original posts. Plus interviews, plus field notes, and so on. It was so, so overwhelming. But I found that something similar to what has happened in my previous studies happened as I sorted through all the data – and even as I simply watched my participants’ posts go by on my news feed on a daily basis. What happened is that the themes started to repeat themselves. This is sort of a standard, nonformal cue for how we know we’ve finally collected enough data – the themes that we’ve seen arise through our grounded, inductive experience start to repeat themselves. So as I watched these participants “write themselves into being” (boyd 2010) – particularly as political and activist beings – over the two-ish years of posts and interactions I had with them, I started to see the themes of the narratives they were constructing, over time and across interactions, about themselves, their activist group(s), and the geopolitical formations in which they found themselves, and this is how I saw those stable and unified stories emerge over time.
Özge Korkmaz: Lastly, increasingly our lives become suffused with contradictions that emerge out of a perceived gap between ethical commitments, on one hand, and the real situation, on the other. What does the world of internet activism have to offer us in terms of contemporary configurations of morality and politics? Do you think this desire to get involved in things, especially against the background of the rise of social movements across the globe, teach us something new about politics and political systems?
Lauren Zentz: I’m really not sure that it teaches us anything new about people’s desire to get involved because I’m not sure we actually do get more involved. I don’t want this prior statement, however, to come across as contradictory with the critiques that I posit (building on others’ work) in the book regarding notions such as “slacktivism”. I do think that there is value to, as Dennis (2019) reframes the former term, “microactivism”. Let’s take, for instance, a conversation that was held in the secret PSRH group in late 2018 – so two years after the formation of these groups/after Trump’s election. Lucy, a leader in both PSRH and PSR who was very active both on and offline in these and ally organizations, wrote a post describing her metamorphosis, basically from a rather soft-spoken person with opinions she didn’t bother voicing much into a very outspoken person who was not at all shy about her beliefs and opinions, political or otherwise. After she authored this post, numerous people who participated online in the PSRH group responded that they, too, had undergone such a change. They had shifted their relationships, gotten rid of people who did not support their more outspoken selves, spoken up more to family members with whom they disagreed, and so on. And those responding to Lucy’s posts were certainly not as active offline as she was; however, their membership in this support community that had come together around a shared set of political beliefs/ideologies after the 2016 election had provided them at least one important source of social support that enabled them to stand firm in how they felt about the US’s political circumstances at the time. So in this case we see that online activities that might be derided by some as slacktivism were actually quite the contrary – they were in many senses life changing. So perhaps the growth of online activism at best has taught me that lots of people do want to get involved, and they really do care, but the burdens of regular life prevent them from doing anything more than talking online about what they care about. Face to face activism, as I witnessed it through my engagements with my research participants as well as the other leaders of these groups, is immensely time consuming, and, as I write in the book, people with families, full time jobs, and so on, quite frankly might be relieved to have a social media outlet where they can feel connected to people who feel the same as them because they certainly don’t have the time, energy, bandwidth, and so on to meet up in face to face activities and “do the work”. They instead provide and participate in a sort of critical mass of moral and ideological support that helps keep the movement moving.
In this light, I suppose it is appropriate to end where I began, mentioning Jan Blommaert, who referred to online activities as expansions of our communicative repertoires. As he and Ondřej Prochazka wrote specifically in reference to online activism, this “knowledge activism” in online spaces must be “serious business” (Prochazka and Blommaert 2019), and as such worthy of serious consideration as an integral part of how people communicate throughout the myriad contexts of their daily lives. In this book, I hope to have given insight into how such serious business played itself out in a quite momentous shift in national, state-level, and local politics in the US.
Narges Bajoghli: What made you write this book and want to focus on the media in Afghanistan, particularly?
Wazhmah Osman: In western discourse, from Rudyard Kipling to Winston Churchill, the prevailing image of Afghans has been a stereotypical, racist, and dehumanizing one. Afghans are portrayed as savages, militant, and barbaric. These colonial tropes took on new currency after the tragic events of 9/11. There was so much misinformation about Afghan people and Afghanistan in the news, documentaries, books, and by political pundits, which resulted in acts of violence and discrimmination against people from the Muslim world including my communities. I knew I wanted to redress and challenge these problematic dominant narratives by directing the global dialogue about Afghanistan to Afghans themselves. During my pre-research trips to Afghanistan, I noticed the rapid expansion of the Afghan media sector, largely thanks to the post 9/11 international donor community’s funding and training. I also noticed how the media is at the heart of the most important national debates about women’s rights, democracy, modernity, and Islam. For countries in the global south and east, like Afghanistan, who are described as stuck in time and incapable of modernizing, showing the dynamism of cultural contestations and social movements that occur in and around media is one of the best ways to dispel the immutability and failure discourses.
Narges Bajoghli: Your research for the book is very ethnographic and embedded and impressive in its scope and access. How did you go about the research of this book, especially given how fraught your fieldsites were/are, with active war, occupation, and violence?
Wazhmah Osman: Thank you. To be honest, initially I did not want to go back to Afghanistan for my dissertation research, which this book is based on. I needed a break from Afghanistan. Post 9/11 I had been going back and forth for journalistic assignments and documentary film work. Pre 9/11 I was also going back and forth to visit my father and other family and to maintain my cultural ties and connections. Afghanistan, just like its people, is a lively and beautiful place but it has been marked by over four decades of death and destruction and lawlessness, which makes everyday life there extremely difficult and dangerous. I partially grew up in Af-Pak during the height of the Cold War. So I’m no stranger to the chaos and violence of war but the extent and extremity of it never ceases to surprise me. Sadly for Afghans in Afghanistan, it has become mundane.
But I also knew that in-depth on the ground research with local Afghans was the best way to challenge elitist and problematic views from the top and disrupt their simplistic and imperialist narratives that drum up hate, violence, and war. Also in dialogue with Faye Ginsburh, our advisor, she encouraged me to work with Afghans in Afghanistan as opposed to the diaspora in Queens NY. Going back there for my book research and fieldwork was my longest and hardest trip back. As you know, long term fieldwork and research is such a privilege but also arduous. It took a big personal toll on me. There’s the emotional challenges of returning as an expatriate to a former home that is a war-torn shell of what it used to be, being apart from loved ones, and the loss of that. More seriously and devastatingly though, I lost research subjects and interlocutors I had befriended to the violence of war. Brave media makers, human rights activists, reformers, and aid workers risk their lives on a daily basis to create a progressive and democratic society. They are regularly targeted by local and international warlords and conservative groups. I survived and have the privilege to leave and tell their stories. Many people don’t.
Narges Bajoghli: In the book, you argue that television is at the center of violence in Afghanistan–“generating it and also being targeted by it.” Yet, you argue, television is also providing a semblance of justice, debate and healing. Can you expand more on this central argument in your book and how television becomes such a site of contention?
Wazhmah Osman: Due to high illiteracy rates and limited access to computers and the internet, the dystopic state of the country, television (and radio to a lesser extent) have become a popular and powerful medium in Afghanistan. A lot of hopes, fears, and funding are funneled into it. I set out to study the impact and cultural contestations that the media is enabling. I mainly used two methodologies, content analysis of the most popular genres on Afghan television and my ethnographic research into their production and reception. While space won’t permit me to get into the details, I can say that Afghan media producers, at great risk to themselves, are providing a platform for local reform, activism, and indigenous modernities to challenge both local conservative groups and the international community that has Afghanistan in its sights. The media has opened up space crucial for private and public discussion around important national and cultural issues. I also discovered that Afghan peoples’ need for justice via more serious programming and entertainment via more fun and distracting programs are not mutually exclusive. We cannot underestimate the value of entertainment in war-torn countries like Afghanistan. The antidote to war and its atrocities is equal parts reflection and distraction. I mean look at how streaming services and media consumption have skyrocketed during the pandemic. This is not just because we were captive audiences at home. It’s because the media provides a semblance of calm and understanding of our chaotic, violent, and confusing world.
Narges Bajoghli: Although I think most American/American-based scholars and anthropologists should have an interest in this book given the decades-long American war and occupation of Afghanistan, we unfortunately know that not to be the case. We’ve talked a lot about this before, but it seems like the two places you and I study, Iran and Afghanistan, respectively, are always in the news, and have been for decades, yet all that ink spilled has not led to deeper knowledge in the Euro-American sphere, including, unfortunately in many corners of academia. How does this book speak to anthropological debates about media in general, and about media and democracy under occupation? What can this book teach us and our students who may not focus on Afghanistan as a main area of study?
Wazhmah Osman: Like you said Afghanistan, like Iran, your site of research, has occupied the public and popular imagination of Americans for decades through the news and Hollywood films. Most of that has been in relation to wars and conflict like the Soviet Invasion and Occupation of Afghanistan, the events of 9/11, War on Terror, and the US Forever War in Afghanistan. The US government and therefore the American people have been entangled in over forty years of wars and military operations in the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia). I think many Americans are confused about what their taxpayer money has been funding for so long. I wrote this book with that in mind, to cross-over into the public sphere. While of course I engage with anthropological debates about media and academic theories of media and democracy under occupation, at the same time, I tried to make it as readable and engaging as possible to general audiences as well. Thanks to whistleblowers and investigative journalists, reports of extrajudicial torture, blacksites, and rendition programs are emerging, which are forcing people to reckon with US militarism abroad. Yet at the same time, many of the proponents of media independence and human rights in Afghanistan who train and support journalists and activists are NGOs funded by the United States. In Television and the Afghan Culture Wars, I tried to provide a complete blueprint and outline for understanding the complex geopolitical situation in Afghanistan.
Narges Bajoghli: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sorts of impact do you hope it will have?
Wazhmah Osman: In addition to academics and the public, I also wrote this book for politicians and policy makers. If the US truly wants an exit strategy out of its Forever War in Afghanistan with its ensuing global refugee crisis, it is time to start supporting and centering the voices and stories for self-determination, peace, and justice. Rehashing the same dangerous stereotypes of despotism and barbarism precludes the fundamental agency, creativity and intellect of people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Far beyond the archetypal Hollywood alignment of forces of good (the US military) versus bad (Islamic extremists and terrorists), there is a wide range of people. As I describe in my book, there are many Afghan human rights activists, journalists, and media makers who risk their lives everyday working to lay the foundations for democracy and human rights. They are subjected to threats, physical attacks, and death for challenging local and international warlords. In the book I highlighted their work and organizations in an effort to expose readers to the creativity and agency of Afghan reformers as well as their pain and suffering. These activists and reformers also offer the best solutions and hope for creating a more diverse, equitable, and violence free society.
Laura Miller: Although there is a growing literature on queer sexualities and identities in Japan, there are fewer studies devoted to queer linguistics in the English language scholarship. Your book is very accessibly written yet is firmly planted within both of these research domains. What inspired you to work on a project that would address this research gap, yet still not require extensive knowledge of the Japanese language on the part of the reader?
Claire Maree: I am delighted, and somewhat relieved to learn that the book is accessible to readers. As a key aspect of this research project is examining the rich social semiotics of script manipulation and design elements of popular media texts in Japan, I really wanted to be able to convey that to readers. So, I came up with a complex system of transcription symbols for the written texts, and for the script that appears in the audiovisual media as well. When combined with the conventions used for transcriptions of spoken texts, I was hoping that this would provide an insight into the layerings of meaning inscribed onto many contemporary media texts.
Language is a fundamental component of representation and performance of a wide diversity of genders and sexualities. Focusing specifically on Japan, research on conduct literature illustrates how notions about how one must (or must not) speak and communicate are overwhelming tied to gendered notions of personhood. Communicating as a successful businessperson, a caring parent, an attractive potential marriage partner are entangled with understandings of what it is to be a businessperson, a parent, a marriage partner. Moral panics that circulate around correct language use are regimented by cisgender, heteronormative, able-bodied, middle-to-upper-middle-class, urban centered ideologies of selfhood and citizenship. Subversion of these ideologies is also done with and through language. Creative use of and manipulation of language within queer communities is one such example. In this project I am interested in cultural practices that commodify such practices and mobilize them within mainstream cultural flows.
Laura Miller:You analyze the figure of the Japanese “queerqueen” through linguistic performance and media representations. For those not familiar with this term, could you describe what it means in your book?
Claire Maree: queerqueen figures are flamboyant and creative individuals who offer wickedly acerbic commentary of popular culture and personalities. I take the term from a particular moment in contemporary Japanese culture when the so-called “queen-personality” (onē-kyara) saturated lifestyle media, and in particular the make-over genre. The term “queen” (onē) emerges from queer culture and the term entered mainstream consciousness around the turn of the millennium. Despite being touted as a “new” phenomenon, the queen-personality (onē-kyara) figure can be under understood as recycling a familiar cultural trope—that of the (sometimes) cross-dressing, (sometimes) cross-speaking figure who is a hybrid of men-who-love-men and the effeminate queer man.
The term queerqueen is written in lowercase throughout the book. This is to avoid formulating a fixed, characterization of queerqueen and avoid it being used a static nomenclature. Rather, I aim to examine how the queerqueen has historically been inscribed into popular media texts through processes and practices of language-labour. That is, through collaborative practices such as transcription and editing. This collaborative work arranges specific linguistic stylizations to appear as authentic representation of personalities who are positioned as queerqueen figures. These are curated as linguistic excess. The linguistic excess exceeds conventions of written and spoken Japanese—something that is both delightfully entertaining and politically subversive, and also in need of constant taming.
Laura Miller: You talk about the ways queerqueen linguistic performances are commodified and packaged. For example, there are a number of spectacular star-queens promoted by the Japanese culture industry. Can you tell us a little about one of them?
Claire Maree: One writer and personality who has emerged as a super-star queerqueen figure in contemporary mainstream media culture is Matsuko Deluxe. Matsuko is a prolific columnist who gained mainstream popularity in the early 2000s, before transforming into the face of variety programs in the mid-2010s. The title of his collection of columns published in 2001 as I am Matsuko Deluxe is subtitled in English as “me, a sexy human-being torpedo!” In queerqueen: Linguistic Excess in Japanese Media, I analyse the late-late television show Matsuko no heya (Matsuko’s Room; Fuji Television Network, 2009-2011). Unlike the busy sets and text-on-screen style of variety shows of the same era, Matsuko’s Room is stark. The show pivots on a staged (im)politeness that is exploited for laughs. Creative censorship beeps are edited into the show in the post-production process to regiment Matsuko’s speech as excessive. Within the context of the tightly constructed “unedited” feel of the show, self-censorship inscribes limits of disclosure.
Laura Miller:How do changes in the media representations of the queerqueen personality correspond to changes in stereotypical norms of gender and sexuality?
Claire Maree: I see these both as intertwined in non-linear ways. Part of what I argue in this book, is that sexuality, desire and gender are essential to the business of mainstream media, and that new trends and supposed booms around these are created though processes of reclassification and repackaging. How media representations may or may not map onto social change and/or legislative change, however, is a complex issue. For example, attempts to put forward legislation that “promotes understanding of LGBT people” were abandoned in May, and Japan’s Supreme Court’s Grand Bench has just this month (June, 2021) has upheld a 2015 ruling that requiring married couples to use the same surname is constitutional. My current collaborative project focuses on this issue—of how booms and the backlashes occur simultaneously as media discourses intersect with socio-cultural stereotypes in the context of political discourses, and transnational flows of discourse.
Sheng Long: In your book, you quoted a Chichewa phrase “kuphika madata” (cooking data) to analyze the global health’s quantification projects in Malawi. Can you briefly unpack what it means by cooking data? How does your ethnography of cooking data give rise to a new theorization of data?
Crystal Biruk: In the opening pages of my book, I discuss how I often heard Malawian fieldworkers use this vernacular phrase to playfully, mostly jokingly, comment on their colleagues’ job performance, invoking it to accuse them of collecting data in a sloppy or lazy way, or of outright ‘faking’ data by writing down numbers into blank spaces on the questionnaire without bothering to ask the questions of research participants. For example, fieldworkers would make this accusation if someone finished an interview more quickly than expected (which signaled, perhaps, that they skipped some questions or made up answers for expediency). In Chichewa, kuphika means to cook or cooking (as in the kitchen); a cooking pot is called mphika. The connotations of –phika signal the practices and processes of cooking food: food, not unlike data, must be prepared in a specific way and under specific conditions in order to be good or edible. We can take this analogy further by thinking of the questionnaire—with its boxes waiting to be filled in and empty household rosters yet unpopulated by names—as a kind of ‘recipe’, a means toward an effective end or desired outcome (whether a perfect key lime pie or pristine dataset!). Before collecting any data from rural households, fieldworkers attended intensive trainings, led by American or European demographers, that spanned 7-10 days and aimed to inculcate good habits (writing neatly, not missing any questions, probing for answers if respondents said, “I don’t know”, double checking the internal consistency of a completed questionnaire, etc). But most of all, fieldworkers were cautioned against “cooking data.” The Malawian fieldworkers thus appropriated this phrase from their employers (demographers), which I read as a commentary on how often and forcefully they were told “Never cook data in the field”: to accuse someone of cooking data was funny precisely because ‘cooked data’ was so feared by their bosses.
From the colonial period to the present, African fieldworkers involved in knowledge production projects ranging from censuses to global health projects have been suspected of fabricating data, and cast as a threat to data quality—these anxieties, of course, embed racist assumptions and stereotypes. Yet, this fear of human error or deliberate mucking up of data in the field relies on a taken-for-granted fundamental difference between raw and cooked data, a binary that my book (building on work by others, such as Lisa Gitelman’s important edited volume “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron) destabilizes. Demographers use the term ‘cooked data’ in two main ways. In the first sense, cooked data are raw data (say, numbers, codes, or other information written onto questionnaires by fieldworkers) that have been processed, ‘cleaned,’ and analyzed according to demographic standards and norms; this kind of cooking is necessary to ensure that data are high quality. In the second moralized sense of “cooking”, however, raw data are deformed, dirty, or made useless as a result of bad data practices, fabrication, or human error. My book contributes to conversations in critical data studies and STS by drawing on long-term ethnographic experiences within survey research projects in Malawi to closely track the social lives of data, in the process illuminating how fieldworkers improvise, reinvent and improve upon top-down standards (a form of ‘cooking’) for data collection as they implement them in the field. From some of the ethnographic vignettes and scenes in the book, I hope readers glean that making good data requires creativity, tinkering, and improvisation as much as it does harmonization and consistency. I hope that my book prompts readers to step away for a moment from arbitrating whether any given data set is good or bad, weak or strong, and toward thinking about how data are constituted by their everyday processes of production and circulation, including social and political contexts. Field research may appear to be simply the systematic collection of information from respondents, but in reality it necessitates a complex and flexible infrastructure of people, equipment, technical and logistical know-how, and so on. Seeing this firsthand can denaturalize the assumptions that data are neutral, objective, or ‘clean’.
Sheng Long: As you say in the book, you are a fieldworker among fieldworkers. Doing research about researchers and fieldworkers, how did you handle your relationship with them? Were there any conflicting moments that led to a compromise of each other?
Crystal Biruk: I am grateful to the demographers and Malawian fieldworkers who were kind enough to let an anthropologist tag along in the field (notably, ‘the field’ carries many of the same connotations for them as it does for anthropologists). I knew that in order to understand the particular cultures of science that make up projects like those I spent time with, it would be important to be part of the everyday and repetitive work of fieldwork. Most days, we woke up very early, got into minibuses or SUVs (approximately 6 fieldworkers per vehicle) and headed to rural areas of a given district in Malawi. Once we arrived to a central point near the households from which we would be collecting data that day, a Malawian field supervisor would hand out questionnaires and give each fieldworker a hand-drawn map—crafted by a fieldworker in a prior iteration of the survey—to help them find their assigned household. At the household, the fieldworker would identify their respondent and engage in the interview/questionnaire for anywhere from 1-3 hours. When finished, they would check the questionnaire for completion or internal inconsistencies and submit it to their supervisor for another check. I helped with these checks (and with other tasks in the office and the field) and, thus, became familiar with the kind of ‘assembly line’ on which statistics are manufactured. Some of the statistical claims—the numbers and percentages—that now appear in published papers in demography journals are made up of data points (say, a number written in pencil on a questionnaire page by a fieldworker) that I myself may have checked! This experience helped me come to see statistics not as abstract, free-floating numbers, but, rather, as social artifacts born of hundreds of relations and exchanges. A lot of my fieldwork involved trying my best to ‘touch’ data, to make the abstract tangible, so as to better see and understand them. The Malawian fieldworkers saw me as a novice fieldworker—I hadn’t, in the beginning, accumulated the many years of expertise and knowledge they had, as most of them spend much of the year working for projects like the ones I describe in the book. This made it harder for me, for example, to ‘check’ questionnaires (e.g., to know whether a response about how many kgs of a crop a household had grown last year was viable or not) rapidly and efficiently earlier on. I was, at the time, of a similar age to the fieldworkers, and because I was helping out in small but useful ways, it was quite easy to build rapport and trust.
As a kind of honorary fieldworker, I was privy to many things that happened in our long days in the field—the kinds of deviations from schedules or set plans that occur in all workplaces—but my allegiance was primarily with the fieldworkers. I think in the beginning they were a bit surprised that I kept coming back every day, and over time, they shared with me their grievances and concerns and gripes about what they called ‘living project to project,’ about the lack of employment in Malawi (most fieldworkers had skills and educational credentials that exceeded those needed to do the kind of data collection work they were engaged in), and about the difficulties of being ‘middle-men’ between foreign projects and rural Malawians. Demographers would sometimes inquire with me why the field teams hadn’t visited as many households as required in a given day, and I would have to navigate these encounters carefully. However, as a kind of ‘middle-person’ myself (between project management and the fieldworkers), I also brought suggestions or critiques from the fieldworkers—say, about the wording of a question on the questionnaire that was not working, for example—to the demographers. I reported back to them some of the challenges faced by fieldworkers, especially pertaining to their struggles in dealing with complicated situations or reluctant participants. Fieldworkers were typically too busy and exhausted from the work of fieldwork to make these suggestions or reports themselves. I thought a lot about reciprocity in doing this work, and did my best to not be ‘dead weight’ by contributing to the labor of data collection. As I built meaningful relationships with the fieldworkers around me, of course, we also became entangled in relations of mutual support and drew on our respective knowledge, networks, and resources to help each other achieve our diverse interests.
Sheng Long: Instead of being mere “respondents” in surveys, you have found that Malawians actively participated in the HIV/AIDS research. On the one hand, their cultural practices were interwoven with the research (such as the gift); On the other, they showed great comprehension of these projects, beyond the mystification of indigenous notions (such as the taboo of blood). How do anthropological methods contribute to a different understanding of the Malawians’ agency in these research projects?
Crystal Biruk: For generations, development and global health’s dominant discourse and practices have presumed African lack, neediness, backwardness, or ignorance. Jemima Pierre (2020) discusses this in great detail in her analysis of the racial vernaculars of development in Ghana. In global health worlds, when Africans refuse to participate in research or other projects, dominant explanations always rest on cultural misunderstandings. When frictions arise between health or development projects and participants, it is often assumed that they can be fixed or ameliorated by implementing more culturally sensitive protocols, translating project materials into local languages, or interfacing with locally influential figures. If researchers properly and thoroughly explain a project’s intent and secure truly informed consent, so the story goes, Africans will willingly and enthusiastically participate. In fact, informed consent is often the gold standard for arbitrating whether research is ethical or not. Yet, I found that in Malawi, even when informed consent was secured in proper fashion—that is, rural Malawians were well-informed of the particulars of participating in the survey project and heartily agreed to do so—tensions and conflicts still arose, primarily around the question of reciprocity between research projects and respondents.
In Chapter 3, I discuss how the bars of soap given by research projects to research participants as a token of thanks for their time and energy became a site of contestation and debate in the field (I also consider the historical resonances of ‘soap’ as quintessential colonial commodity). Even those who gratefully received the soap would comment on the ‘smallness’ of this gift, or suggest they deserved more for the work (using the Chichewa word for labor) they did answering questions. Many suggested they should receive money instead of soap. Further, in commenting on what they saw as lopsided and uneven relations between themselves and researchers, they sometimes accused researchers of being bloodsuckers, or sucking their blood. This accusation fits into a larger transhistorical genre that demonizes dangerous others (colonial officials, researchers, politicians, doctors) who are said to steal or accumulate blood for nefarious ends or to ‘do business.’ These accusations that researchers are something akin to vampires are easily dismissible as conspiracy theories, and often explained by reference to culture, as in “Malawians believe the strangest things” or “Rural Malawians do not understand the value or intent of research”. For me, the potential of ethnography in global health and development worlds is its ability to reveal moments of friction or conflict such as these, and to analyze them outside the narrow frame of a single encounter between one project and a population. In documenting and analyzing critiques of the soap-gift made by those who received it, I observed that participants situated present day projects in historical experiences and legacies of the extraction of data and other resources, pointing out that the benefits that researchers accrue are far greater than those they receive. At first glance, the fraught soap-for-information exchange might seem to highlight cultural tensions between ‘African’ and ‘western’ codes of giving. But upon closer examination, it becomes clear that participants conceive of research as a realm of negotiations over proper distributions of past, present, and future benefits. Rather than cultural misunderstanding or unfounded conspiracy theory, the accusation that researchers are sucking blood or the complaint that a bar of soap is a too small gift are historically informed critiques of a social and political order where some people are always giving and others are always taking. Anthropology of/in global health projects demonstrates that the dynamics that play out in any given project cannot be understood without attending to broader histories wherein data, labor, land, and other resources have been stolen amid broken promises of future gain or benefit.
Sheng Long: Following international demographic research projects, you have traced the traveling of numbers among multiple actors in hierarchical relationships. What are different forms of labor, visible or invisible, involved in the data collection, analyses, and dissemination?
Crystal Biruk: Indeed, my book tries very much to answer the deceptively simple question, What’s in a number? In so doing, I tried to think at every turn about the materiality and relationality of data, that is, about how any given data point (say, a respondent’s response to the question “How frequently do you use condoms in sexual encounters?”) only comes to exist through nested and complex relations between people, things, and ways of knowing. This is why I arranged the book roughly around what I call the life course of data, from survey design to the circulation of polished statistics in policy forums or published work. Part of my project as I wrote the book was to emphasize the invisible labor of Malawian fieldworkers, whose expertise, as discussed above, was crucial to the smooth running of research projects, yet is rarely credited or acknowledged in publications or policy that result from the data they so painstakingly collect. Since the earliest surveys and research endeavors carried out in Africa, fieldworkers have appeared in archived accounts and discourse as individuals whose ‘menial’ and ‘unskilled’ labor is necessary to field research. Yet, they are framed as instrumentalized as cogs in a larger machinery and homogenized or mentioned offhand as “native assistants” or “data collectors”. I hope my book challenges such depictions and prompts all of us, including anthropologists, to think deeply about how we know what we know, and about how to ‘cite’ and acknowledge all the labor that goes into producing knowledge.
Sheng Long: Citing James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, you similarly frame the medical projects as “seeing like a research project.” What do you observe as the major consequences of “seeing like a research project” in global heath? How do you envision your research as academic and public interventions to these issues and limitations?
Crystal Biruk: Demography, or the quantitative study of human populations, is generally a positivist science rooted in the assumption that reality can be observed, measured, and counted. The questionnaires discussed in my book are tools that aim to do just that. Whereas anthropologists are number averse and harbor suspicions of quantification as a mode of knowing and governance, demographers fetishize numbers. For Scott, seeing like a state means aspiring to make something yet unseen or unknown legible and visible: this transformation from illegible to legible always involves standardization, reduction, and abstraction. The methods used to calculate or organize or map a population or a terrain or a phenomenon always bake in assumptions about who or what is important, about who or what counts, about who or what is valuable (according to Scott, 19th century German foresters’ conception of ‘the forest’ reduced forests—as complex and diverse ecologies and relations—to metricized concepts like revenue yield). In a similar way, demographers build into the design of survey questionnaires assumptions about what is worth knowing, assumptions about what constitutes even the basic units of analysis that underlie the validity of surveys (such as ‘the household’ or ‘poverty’, concepts that, of course, may be defined or imagined differently by, say, an anthropologist!), and assumptions about what good data are. All of these determine, then, what is ‘seen’ or what it is possible to know from the tools, technologies, and epistemologies that constitute quantitative/demographic data. This is why what is seen by an anthropologist may differ from what is seen by a demographic survey project, even if they are looking at the same thing. Yet, the point of my book is not necessarily to elevate anthropological ways of knowing or seeing above other disciplinary modes of knowing. Rather, I hope that my book, in attending closely to the micro-interactions and tacit assumptions and value judgments baked into demographic datasets, might prompt all of us who make, consume, or think about data of diverse kinds to understand them as contingent and partial artifacts of social processes and normalization (‘disciplines discipline us’, as I tell my students!)
As for the consequences of seeing like a research project for global health in particular: as anthropologists and others working in critical global health studies have shown, global health (as assemblage of actors, resources, geographies, and priorities) very much prizes and desires quantitative data such as the numbers discussed in my book. Numbers travel and translate easily and carry an aura of objectivity and self-evident truth that make them a convincing stand in for reality. Yet, when we identify a problem with or through numbers, say high rates of malnutrition, it narrows our imagination of solutions or interventions for that problem. In my current work on the Global Fund’s efforts to ‘end AIDS’ in Africa, for example, I have observed that donors are interested in counting vulnerable populations (such as men who have sex with men, MSM) so as to have a denominator of ‘people at highest risk of HIV’ against which their efforts and interventions can operate. This denominator is the starting point for measuring how many vulnerable people are ‘reached,’ ‘tested,’ or ‘treated.’ Achieving impressive numbers in this regard stand in as proof of success or efficacy, yet, such metrics overlook or exclude from measurement the forms of vulnerability that impinge on, say, an LGBTI-identified person’s life in Malawi. These genres of vulnerability far exceed the viral load or HIV status of that individual. Global health is successful at demonstrating success in targeting narrow, easily quantifiable problems, but, of course, less successful at ‘seeing’ health or other problems as hopelessly entangled in complex contexts and as a product of structural or political failings. In my book, I try to move beyond the anthropological impulse to show, using ethnographic methods, what numbers get wrong or what they overlook. To do so, I examine not so much the finished numbers themselves and what they elide, but rather the criteria and metrics that underscore and determine data’s production and consumption, and measure whether or not they come to ‘count’ as data in the first place. A granular analysis of research worlds in a particular place at a particular time encourages us to more critically engage with the kinds of evidence we too often take for granted, whether inside or outside our discipline or training.
Gitelman, Lisa, ed. 2013. “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron. Boston:MIT Press.
Pierre, Jemima. 2020. “The racial vernaculars of development: A view from West Africa.” American Anthropologist 122(1):86-98.
Janina Fenigsen: You’ve written a fascinating account of the 2016 US tour of the Algerian theater troupe Istijmam, which was sponsored by the Center Stage program of the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. How did you come to be involved with this tour? More broadly, what led you to study Arab Algerian theater after writing a first book on Berber/Amazigh music (Berber Culture on the World Stage: From Village to Video)?
Jane Goodman: As I discuss in the book, Algeria underwent a very difficult period in the 1990s, referred to as the “Dark Decade.” That period of conflict escalated during my doctoral research, when I was working in a Kabyle Berber mountain village. I had to leave Algeria at the end of 1993, when it became unsafe for me to remain and unsafe for the village to continue hosting me. When I was ready to return to Algeria in 2008, I was not given permission by the US Fulbright program to go back to the Kabyle region, as it was still considered too dangerous. I had good research and personal connections in the western city of Oran, and it was among the safest areas of the country. For those reasons, I decided to change regions. At the same time, in my earlier research (both ethnographic and archival) I had noticed that Algerians had long been practicing amateur theater, and I was curious about what contemporary theater troupes were doing. Oran is the city where Algeria’s renowned playwright, the late Abdelkader Alloula, had been based (and where he was tragically assassinated in 1994). I was fortunate to have had a personal introduction to the Istijmam Culturelle theater troupe, which included several members of Alloula’s family and was working in his legacy. Istijmam was only in its second year of existence at the time, but they were already invested in working in an experimental or laboratory mode. The actors were open to me being present for their rigorous daily rehearsals. To them, my engagement was another way for them to experience other disciplinary perspectives and approaches. During my stay in Oran in 2008-2009, I also carried out research with several other troupes (which I’ve written about elsewhere). Fast forward a couple of years: I saw an announcement flash by on email that the Center Stage program of the US State Department was inviting nominations of music and theater troupes from Algeria and Tanzania, the program’s featured countries in 2016. I nominated Istijmam, and when they were accepted, I knew instantly that I wanted to write about the tour. The book unfolds very much in relation to the tour itself: I take up the play Apples that they presented, the historical context of the early 1990s when the play was written, the actors’ engagement with the play some 25 years later, and the genre of the Algerian “halqa” or marketplace theater that inspired both the playwright Alloula and the troupe. I also write about our process as we translated the play from Arabic to English, and, of course, about the various encounters that took place with a range of US audiences on the tour itself.
Janina Fenigsen: You discuss the scenarios of cultural exchange encounters as heavily scripted genres that create “a sense among participants that they have seen it all before”—both comfort and constraint—while noting the potential for a space of critique to open up. You also say that to the members of the troupe, the tour was somewhat disappointing. To what extent and in what ways in their engagements with American publics were they able to break out of the script? Was this particular script more difficult to shake off than those of their other tours? Did they feel that they were able to open up a space of critique at all? if so, in what ways?
Jane Goodman: In the book, I developed the idea of scenarios of cultural exchange from Diana Taylor’s work on scenarios as repertoires of scripted encounters that tend to unfold in similar ways time and time again. I saw this tour as situated within a decades-old scenario of cultural exchange and cultural diplomacy through the arts, which has been informing artistic exchange since at least the early 20th century (and even earlier, if we want to include the worlds’ fairs). As a form of “soft diplomacy,” these exchanges are based on the premise that encounters at the interpersonal level can “scale up” to become signs of good will between nations. The Center Stage program, formed under President George W. Bush, was envisioned as a way to provide a softer, friendlier view of America to countries where populations did not necessarily see the US in a positive light. Yet the scenario of cultural exchange entails a familiar repertoire of encounters or social roles through which the tours are structured, such as meet-and-greet events, classroom visits, workshops, or panel discussions. It relies on all participants knowing the script. Whereas the tours are structured around valorizing cultural difference, in fact, as genres of encounter they are deeply familiar. Although the cultural content itself may be different, the encounters through which a cultural exchange tour unfolds are similar worldwide. If they weren’t, it would not be possible to orchestrate a tour like this successfully. So this is the paradox I take up in the book: Cultural exchange tours are organized around a premise of cultural difference, but in fact they require deep familiarity on all sides with the performances associated with genres of encounter.
As to whether this script was more difficult to “shake off” than some of their other tours, I think that Istijmam felt that they were on display as cultural others more in the United States than they had felt during their work in Europe. In Europe, they were involved in producing an original work with troupes from France and Germany. Participants from the three countries were co-eval: they were all working together in a process of co-creation. But, in the US, Algerians were framed as representing Algerian culture and Algerian theater, but the Americans were not framed as representing American culture or American theater (with one happy exception). Instead, the Americans were, by and large, consuming what the Algerians had to offer, whether it was the play or, especially, the workshops. This was often frustrating for the actors.
Janina Fenigsen: You point to this disparity in part through the term “celebratory otherness.” There is a rich irony at the heart of the “celebratory otherness” that you describe as underpinning the paradigm of cultural exchange. While in the Center Stage promotional materials for the US audiences the untranslated language tokens of halqa and goual emphasize and evoke the folklorized otherness, the traditions and rehearsal discipline of Brecht’s and Grotowski’s “poor theater” that are at the heart of Istijmam’s practice seem to be erased. How does it work for the members of the troupe themselves? Do they view their blending of Algerian street theater and European performance principles and philosophy as an example of a cultural encounter in its own right? As an evidence of shared human experience? Something else?
Jane Goodman: I drew the term celebratory otherness from Rupert Stasch to refer to the ways figures of cultural difference become marked as folklorized forms of pleasurable consumption. Artistic traditions such as music and theater are among the most common ways that figures of celebratory otherness circulate globally. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong about enjoying other artistic traditions. But celebratory otherness tends to erase more problematic forms of difference. US audiences could see Istijmam’s colorful dress and joyful music making in the streets of New York, but they did not see the difficulty one member had in obtaining a visa to the US. They did not see the behind the scenes labor that the troupe engaged in to be able to create theater with little support in Algeria. The troupe members did seek to make Algerian theatrical traditions known in the United States, and they did want to talk about these traditions with US audiences. At the same time, however, they wanted to learn about what US troupes were doing. This was where the encounters in the US fell short. The Algerians were the only ones understood to be sharing culture. This made the exchange unequal and incommensurate and is part of what contributed to their being cast in terms of celebratory otherness. Celebratory otherness is one of the systemic, historically shaped ways that the global north has viewed the global south. This is not to say that this was the only way the troupe was seen, but it was certainly part of it, as it is part of the wider scenario of cultural exchange through the arts.
As for Istijmam’s blending of Algerian street theater and European performance principles and philosophy, you are right to suggest that the troupe members also viewed this as an encounter. I write about the ways that their rehearsals in Algeria brought together the space of halqa, or improvisational marketplace performance, with Brechtian principles of identification and distanciation. They saw both of these as evoking a similar kind of space, an example of shared human experience if you will. To them (as well as to the playwright Alloula), Algerian halqa-style performance had been operating for centuries through performance techniques that Brecht, much later, would term identification and distantiation. That is, the street performer would go into and out of multiple roles, identifying with one character and that moving out of that character to go into another. Istijmam adopted this style of performance in their own work, with each actor playing multiple roles. They also brought to halqa theater the embodied discipline they drew from the work of Jerzy Grotowski, which very much influences their brand of physical theater.
Janina Fenigsen: How might the Istijmam actors script the tour and cultural exchange events it involved if given an opportunity? How would you?
Jane Goodman: I imagine Istijmam’s ideal tour as consisting of similar kinds of engagements (performances, workshops, theatrical exchanges), but the balance of activities would have been different. On the tour itself, the performances of the play, followed by audience talk-backs, went well on the whole. Certainly the play would have remained a central part of any tour. But the actors and I would have liked more conversation around it. If the scheduling could have been done in reverse, such that Istijmam would have first presented the play, and then gone into a classroom presentation able to talk with students about it, that would have made for a richer exchange. We all understood that scheduling constraints made this impossible. In fact, even at my own university, the conversations and panel discussions came first, and the play was the last item on the agenda, due to scheduling and travel needs. The exchanges with theater troupes could have been done differently. What performance theorists call emergence – that sense of unexpected, creative novelty that performance can generate – is part of what the actors were looking for. The closest engagement that featured a balanced, two-way, emergent cultural exchange came with the Hartbeat Ensemble, as I write about. Here, the troupes co-created improvisational scenes and participated together in a panel discussion on theater in times in crisis. But it was a brief encounter. The actors would have loved to return and spend focused time with a theater troupe in the US to develop a truly cross-cultural co-creation, as they had done in Europe.
Janina Fenigsen: I view your book as an excellent teaching resource, even more so when paired with the video of the play and guided by your notes that collate the text with the portions of the video. What kind of student audience would you envision for the book? What would you like the students to get out of its reading?
Jane Goodman: I wrote the book with my students in mind. I regularly teach about performance in North Africa and the Middle East, and my students come alive when they see video of the material we’re discussing. Usually I have to do my own searches to find audiovisual support for what we’re reading about. I wanted to include this material in the book itself, so from the beginning I envisioned a multimedia project. The e-version of the book includes embedded hyperlinks where readers can go directly to the specific video they are reading about. Readers of the hard copy can find these links on the book’s website . The website also includes two performances of Istijmam’s play Apples, around which the book is based. For a full multimedia experience, instructors can screen and discuss the play (60 minutes)and then have students read the book and view the associated videos. The website also provides more information about the troupe and the six actors, and it includes ancillary footage both from the tour and from the rehearsal residency the troupe and I held in Algeria in the month before the tour.
Another reason I wanted to do this project is because I felt that students could relate to it. Much of the ethnography took place among students just like them in the United States. Universities are among my field sites: the book engages with students from the University of New Hampshire, Sarah Lawrence College, Yale University, the University of St. Joseph, and Indiana University. Students today have almost all experienced performances by travelling groups from abroad. Students can also relate to the six Algerian actors, who, like them, are young people with similar hopes and aspirations. I anticipate that future student readers will recognize themselves (as participants or audience members) and their own institutions (as hosts) in cultural exchange tours like this one. My hope is that readers will come to a deeper understanding of some of the systemic global imbalances that underpin cultural exchange and cultural diplomacy through the arts (despite the very best of intentions on all sides), and to reflect on their own positionalities within a broader global arts community.