David Parisi on his new book, Archaeologies of Touch

 

Archaeologies of Touch (US & Canada: use promo code MN82600 for 30% off):

https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/archaeologies-of-touch

Archaeologies of Touch (EU: use promo code for CSF18TOUCH 30% off)

http://www.combinedacademic.co.uk/archaeologies-of-touch

Interview by Carlin Wing

Carlin Wing: Archaeologies of Touch opens with an examination of contemporary haptic human-computer interfaces, then quickly jumps backward to situate haptic technology in a linear chronology that begins with electrical machines in the 1740s, and moves forward by examining the way institutional actors in the fields of psychology, engineering, computer science, and advertising address touch. With so much material to cover, it feels like a boundless topic—how did you decide what you were going to focus on? Why did you organize the book in a linear chronology?

David Parisi: Although haptics technologies are commonly associated with contemporary digital media, and virtual reality in particular, research into computer haptics began in the late 1960s (though it wasn’t called ‘Computer Haptics’ until the 1990s), as a response to Ivan Sutherland’s prompting in his 1965 address “The Ultimate Display.” And the term haptics itself retains a neologistic connotation, in spite of having a history that reaches back at least psychophysics & psychology research in the nineteenth century. So part of what I wanted to do is show that, in spite of the tone of novelty perpetually enveloping digital touch, the technology has a material and discursive history that predates the 21st century. The book’s narrative arc is organized around five successive phases of interfacing, beginning with touch’s productive interfacing with electrical machines in the 1740s, and concluding with touch’s expression in recent attempts to market digital touch technologies like vibration-enabled touchscreens. I emphasize the continuity between each phase, showing how specific instruments and experiments and were passed down from one generation of researchers to the next.

Drawing boundaries around this archive of technologized touch—deciding what was on its inside and outside—was a tricky and fraught process, especially since touch itself is such a slippery and often contested category, once you begin to push on it a bit. Ultimately I decided to try to write the history of a hegemonic and normative model of touch, one that emerged piecemeal from the exertions of researchers across three centuries, and is currently being embedded in the design of digital media interfaces, as engineers attempt to fix and standardize haptic vocabularies that will be used to communicate messages through touch (think of vibrating alerts sent from your phone or smartwatch).

Of course, any history of a concept so vast and elusive will necessarily be incomplete. But I hope that this will at least provide the groundwork for deeper investigations of the relationship between touch and media—even if it turns out there are glaring and problematic omissions from the archive that Archaeologies of Touch constructs, at least it provides a point of departure for future studies of haptic media. When I started this project (well over a decade ago!), no such foundation existed, outside of the piecemeal and fragmentary histories contained in psychology textbooks. So my hope is that this book saves anyone doing empirical or theoretical work on haptics some intellectual legwork.

Carlin Wing: Given the way your own experience motivated your attentiveness to this history of touch, how did you approach the task of representing the many individuals that appear in these archaeologies of touch? What kinds of decisions did you make regarding how to write people in the context of a book whose primary characters are the techniques, objects, and apparatuses?

David Parisi: Your point about my story centering on objects and machines over people is spot-on. There are some actual humans who take center stage in the book, but you’re right that I downplay their individual biographies to focus instead on the things they built, and the ideas they invested in their objects. My method here was strongly influenced by Hand-Georg Rheinberger’s notion of experimental systems, which de-emphasizes the importance of any one individual or any one individual experiment, in favor of locating experiments in broader networks of scientific research around a given problem. This mainly involves a question of where and how we assign agency: by focusing on techniques, objects, and apparatuses, I wanted to get at a lineage of research and thinking on touch that transcends and outlives any one individual researcher. By doing so, we can see how particular experiments and experimental techniques concretize, attaining hegemonic status in the way that touch is studied. The two-point threshold tests that Ernst Heinrich Weber first carried out in the 1820s, for example, have outlived Weber by nearly two centuries, becoming foundational for the scientific study of sensory perception later in the nineteenth century, and then carried out again by experimenters in the middle decades of the twentieth century as they tried to figure out the optimal placement of the motors and electrodes used to transmit language through touch.

But, following Rheinberger, it is not the experiment itself that matters; instead, we should focus on how the experiment constructs and implies future experimentation in the system, how it shifts the border between the known and the unknown, or between the manageable and the unmanageable. The corollary of the experiment is the instrument—and here too we consistently see similar instruments employed and adapted for the strategic stimulation of touch across the five phases of interfacing I examine in the book. This sequencing hopefully has the effect of showing how contemporary haptic interfaces, in spite of the often-repeated claims about their revolutionizing novelty, are part of a longer tradition of attempts to transform touch through technology, many of which were met with similar enthusiasm, in spite of the fact that most of these techs failed to make it much beyond the lab’s walls.

Carlin Wing: The notion of training runs through many of the chapters and is perhaps most apparent in the chapter on the Tongue of the Skin where you talk about different attempts to train people to receive patterned symbolic communication through touch. How do you think about training, specifically training the senses? Did your thinking about training change as a result of writing the book?

David Parisi: The question of training is interesting to me in these different historical periods because it highlights the context-specific disciplining of the senses in general, and of touch in particular. For instance, early psychophysics and sensory psychology research aimed at uncovering the absolute limits of human sensory perception. In order to get at these boundaries, experimenters had to hone their abilities to perceive machine-generated stimuli—they had to become so-called ‘good observers’ through repeated drilling and training in carefully-constructed laboratory conditions. Graduate school involved not only repeatedly carrying out the foundational experiments of the new discipline, but also being the subject of these same of experiments, in order to cultivate their perceptual abilities. Becoming part of the discipline entailed a bodily and sensory regimentation, in addition to gaining a particular intellectual disposition. Deborah Coon’s Standardizing the Subject and Rand Evans work on the history of psychological instruments were both helpful for me here.

In contrast, contemporary interface design aims at building machines that will be appealing to wide swaths of users hailed as consumers—so they’re much more interested in understanding how the putatively average person experiences their products. This means they’re constructing normative models of sensation and perception, and embedding those models in interfaces through the standardization control and feedback mechanisms. In practical terms, this means that someone who wants to decode the complex messages sent through the Apple Watch’s Taptic Engine has to train themselves to be sensitive to an artificial vibratory language black boxed in the design process.

As a result of writing this book, I’m far more attuned to the sort of materiality and hard calculability involved in training processes. Going into the project, I was already thinking about media as involves processes of bodily and sensory discipline (in part as a result of McLuhan, and in part due to this Marcel Mauss essay I know you and I share an enthusiasm for). But examining lab experiments, and reading accounts of gradual refinements to particular instruments and models, gave me a strong appreciation for the microphysics of training processes—the material circulations that underpin abstractions of the human body and its senses.

Carlin Wing: This book is full of compelling and charismatic objects and apparatuses — an electrified venus, Leyden jars, electric eels, electrodes for the eye, tonsil, uterus, and rectum, aesthesiometric compasses, The Apparatus for Simultaneous Touches, the Teletactor (a mechanical ear for the skin), the Vibratese apparatus, Tactile Televisions, the Argonne Remote Manipulator, the CyberGrasp and CyberForce interfaces, force feedback joysticks and game controllers, touchscreens. What do you make of the charisma of these strange objects and apparatuses? What do you want us to understand about what compelled the effort that went into make these variously extraordinary, oppressive, curious, therapeutic, banal, and magical things and about what compels you and us to consider them in turn?

David Parisi: This is a really productive and important question, because it pushes a degree of reflexivity about this project—essentially asking about the subjective aesthetic preferences of the research expressed through the selection of objects. Part of what I was trying to do especially with the images throughout the book is highlight a continuity to the technoscientific imaginary around touch—a sort of cold, mechanical, and efficient modeling of touch through these instruments. This works as a counter to our typical imagination of touch as warm, as human, and as irreducible to mechanization and electrification. And it shows us that touch, like seeing and hearing, can have its own dedicated set of machines for knowing and revealing it, for capturing, storing, transmitting, and playing back its data.

But at the same time, these so-called strange objects are the embodiment of a devotion to and passion for touch—a technoscientific imagination around touch motivated by the humanist hope that life might be made better through the technological enhancement of touch (a sense often ideated as the most human of all the senses). They are captivating objects because of their ambiguity: because they were not only technical objects, but also objects that had cultural lives, inspiring wonder and bewilderment. They were used to inflict pain, both on experimenters themselves and on their experimental subjects (the Leyden jar and the electric eel); they were thought to heal and revivify (the electrodes for the eye, tonsil, uterus, and rectum); they promised to give hearing back to the deaf and sight back to the blind (the Teletactor and tactile television); they offered to reveal tactile system’s arcane secrets (aesthesiometric compasses and the Apparatus for Simultaneous Touches); they assured us that we could reach out and feel distant objects (the Argonne Remote Manipulator), and caress objects or people that existed only in the memory of a computer (the CyberGrasp). I hope these objects spark that same complex fire of emotions in my readers that they light for me each time I try to think through and with them.

Naomi Haynes on her new book, Moving by the Spirit

https://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520294257

Interview by Jon Bialecki

Jon Bialecki: The center of your ethnography is about the Prosperity Gospel’s economy of faith and social ambition in the Copperbelt. The prosperity gospel and the Copperbelt have certain reputations, both in anthropology and the wider popular culture; and I think that one of the surprising things about your book is how you challenge the commonly held stereotypes about both of these social forms. What was it about the state of the literatures that made you feel that interventions were necessary?

Naomi Haynes: When I set out to do my fieldwork on the Copperbelt, anthropology had a pretty clear view of both this region and of the prosperity gospel churches that had become very popular there.  In terms of the latter, both the prosperity gospel and Pentecostalism more generally had largely been interpreted in terms of what Joel Robbins calls “compensatory promises”: people converted to Pentecostalism because it promised things that they were (increasingly) unable to access elsewhere as the welfare state retreated and the global economy changed.  In this narrative, the Copperbelt seemed like an especially compelling case in point.  The influence of James Ferguson’s Expectations of Modernity meant this region had been fixed in the minds of many anthropologists as the paradigmatic site of neoliberal abjection, a once-thriving extraction economy that had been swiftly cut off from the promises of globalization – in other words, just the kind of place where people might be hoping for an economic miracle in the form of divine prosperity. While it was not difficult to see why people would find the promises of Pentecostalism so compelling, I didn’t feel that the hope of riches or health by itself explained this religion’s staying power; it’s one thing to sign up to a program that promises wealth, but it’s another to continue to give it time, energy, and money without getting much in return.  I was therefore sure there was more to the prosperity gospel story than just the hope of getting rich, and my fieldwork revealed this to be the case.  It turned out that Pentecostalism wasn’t so much about getting access to wealth that was otherwise unavailable, but rather about creating other modes of realizing value through personal spiritual advancement.  So, Pentecostalism wasn’t a second-best option, but a point at which people were working to produce a good life for themselves.  Similarly, life on the Copperbelt wasn’t all abjection and despair, but action, innovation, and creativity.

Jon Bialecki: Your book in large part focuses on ‘moving’ as a Zambian concept; ‘moving’ in fact is so important that it gives your book its title. I was wondering if you could say a little bit about what ‘moving’ is, and also about how it relates to the way that the Prosperity Gospel works in the Copperbelt?

Naomi Haynes: Moving (ukusela in Bemba) is a term that people on the Copperbelt use all the time to describe the way that their lives and those of others are changing positively. They say things have moved when a child completes school, when someone gets married, or when a family moves into a bigger house or purchases a used Toyota. But moving isn’t just an idiomatic way of talking about progress. On the Copperbelt, moving is a value, by which I mean it is an animating idea that structures social life. Most social relationships on the Copperbelt, including those that form in Pentecostal churches, are organized to make moving happen. Looking at moving therefore helps us understand how social life on the Copperbelt works, and perhaps especially the social life of Pentecostal churches, which have become key sites for a new religious form of moving “by the Spirit.” Pentecostal believers move by the Spirit both by realizing traditional forms of moving (houses and husbands), as well as uniquely Pentecostal forms of moving such as spiritual development or advancement in the church hierarchy.

Jon Bialecki: One of the things that struck me in reading your book is the relation between this long-running Copperbelt value of moving, and the relatively recently introduced form of prosperity-gospel Christianity. As you know, there’s been a lot of back and forth in the anthropology of Christianity about ‘rupture’ and ‘continuity,’ with scholars like Joel Robbins and Birgit Meyer emphasizing how the adoption of Pentecostal Christianity often results in a historical sense of conversion as a radical transformation, while other scholars (such as Matthew Engelke,  Liana Chua, and Mark Mosko) seeing much more social continuity, both marked and unmarked, in recently Christianized societies. I was wondering if we could read the importance of ‘moving’ here as telling us something about this debate? I suspect that this is a case that can’t be boiled down to a simple ‘nothing changes’/‘everything changes’ dichotomy.

Naomi Haynes: I get asked about rupture all the time – it’s easily the concept that people working outside of the anthropology of Christianity associate most with the anthropology of Christianity.  And there’s no question that rupture has done important analytical work, not only for the subfield, but also for the discipline as a whole.  The model of conversion as rupture has given us a new way to talk about cultural change more generally, and the most sophisticated work on rupture has always kept this larger question in view.  However, as time has gone on I think that the emphasis on rupture has sometimes given way to something more mathematical than analytical; the question has moved from how change happens to a simple accounting of what has and has not changed – whether there are more elements in the “change” or “continuity” column, in other words.  Against this latter interpretation, what I hope my work on moving demonstrates is that Christian adherence affords all kinds of creative cultural responses that structure and are structured by external forces like economics or politics.  Rather than describe Christianity in terms of rupture or continuity, then, I have found it more productive to think of Christianity as a means of “making life possible,” to borrow a turn of phrase from Achille Mbembe.  In the Copperbelt case, this means finding new ways of realizing an existing value, but in other contexts making life possible will necessarily take other forms.  The question isn’t so much whether or to what extent this represents a rupture as much as what Christian adherence does in the places where it is taken up.

Jon Bialecki: Let me follow up on your of idea of shifting from some kind of binary up-or-down judgement of ‘order/rupture,’ to instead thinking about what novel local potentialities Pentecostalism as an imported form opens up. I want to do this by asking some questions about media and performance (this is, after all, CaMP). One of the things that really caught my attention when reading your book was the aesthetics of Copperbelt Pentecostalism, and how it seemed to be at once very ordered and extremely chaotic. On one hand, especially during celebrations involving gift exchange, there seemed to be a strong emphasis on decorum and consistency, down to asking women to wearing matching dresses (a request that was even directed to the anthropologist!). On the other hand, there also seemed to be an importance in indecipherability and chaos; in this case I’m referencing the uncanny sonic anarchy that occurs during what you called ‘collective-personal prayer.’ In what ways is this in continuity with the aesthetics or communicative ideology of the Copperbelt, and in what ways is this a new situation in which Pentecostalism has allowed for some mutation, reimagination, or replacement of Copperbelt sensibilities?

Naomi Haynes: I’ve always been struck by the uniformity of the Copperbelt aesthetic as well, which I think connects to the aspirational quality of display in urban Zambia.  Every Copperbelt sitting room that I’ve ever entered, whether in a mud brick house in a shanty compound or the spacious home of a banker, is decorated according to a common template.  There’s a suite of matching sofas (however broken down), a television (which may not work), and a cabinet or set of shelves for curios.  The differences among homes are therefore differences of degree rather than kind, and this makes domestic display a key site at which moving is realized.  By comparing like with like, everyone knows where they stand relative to everyone else, and everyone can measure how well they are moving. Pentecostalism produces similar types of metrics, and indeed, one way that moving by the Spirit can be measured is in the same sorts of consumer displays that structure moving more generally.  But other religious metrics of moving are similarly organized by rank-able displays.  Those who are moving by the Spirit excel in prayer, prophecy, preaching, and singing, all gifts that presuppose an audience.  This is true even when the specificity of one’s gift is drowned out by the cacophony of collective-personal prayer that you mention. Skill in this type of prayer depends much more on facility with the form rather than on its content, and insofar as this is the case, it is a performance for others at least as much as it is a semi-private dialogue with God.  Charismatic displays like this are perhaps an especially good example of how Pentecostal characteristics like spontaneity and surprise, which have been so important in your own work, get mobilized in service of larger social projects in the Copperbelt context.  In other words, the loud, effervescent and even ecstatic prayer that always characterizes Pentecostal worship actually facilitates something that’s extremely uniform, and therefore easily measured.

Jon Bialecki: Finally, one last performance and media question! As we have discussed all through this interview, at the local level the prosperity gospel is a chance for people to solve old problems in new ways, which explains at once how in your field site it was very much Zambian, while still recognizably an iteration of global forms. We’ve also stressed how this allows for various forms of local production of social ties. But at the same time, the sort of Pan-African or internationalized large scale Prosperity Gospel events are also present in the Copperbelt – or at least present in the mediated form of video. And it seems at times that some of your informants have strong opinions about the latter instances of the prosperity gospel. I was wondering if you could give us a sense of how your informants evaluated and consumed (or perhaps didn’t consume!) these other video instantiations of the prosperity gospel, and how important the differences in mediation and performance were in their assessment.

Naomi Haynes: The Pentecostal media landscape, especially television, has grown increasingly complex in the fifteen years that I have worked in Zambia.  At last count, there were a dozen free-to-air Pentecostal television stations available on the Copperbelt.  In addition to sermons and gospel music, these channels also broadcast miracles – lots of exorcisms, as well as healings and other wondrous signs, including a famous example of a pastor who appeared to walk on air.  Of course, not all these displays are accepted as genuine, and there is a great deal of debate as to which global pastors are true servants of God and which are actually in league with Satan.  But what I think is especially interesting about Pentecostal media consumption on the Copperbelt is the way that those pastors and prophets who are regarded as authentic get worked into familiar local practices.  One thing we haven’t touched on so much in our discussion is the extent to which moving is about patronage.  Mega-pastors in places like Nigeria or South Africa, who people on the Copperbelt encounter only through television, are often appealed to as potential super-patrons.  For example, several years ago there was a rumor that Prophet T.B. Joshua of Nigeria would be appearing at a stadium in Lusaka.  Many hundreds of people turned up on the day to find the reports were untrue, and they were understandably angry.  The national news that evening featured a woman who was interviewed on the scene calling on the president to bring T.B. Joshua to Zambia; people needed him to come and bring healing and “deliverance” (the Pentecostal term for exorcism).  What struck me in this interview, apart from the request for state intervention in the matter (another interesting aspect!) was how this woman envisioned T.B. Joshua’s presence in Zambia, were he to come.  She was asking him to do the same things that all pastors do, and in this way, she was inviting him to be part of a very local provision of religious services, a provision that facilitates moving by the Spirit for my informants.  So, while believers on the Copperbelt are connected to transnational religious networks, and recognize that they are part of a global religious movement, their engagement with that is always slotted into very local concerns.

 

Daniel Fisher on his book, The Voice and Its Doubles

https://www.dukeupress.edu/the-voice-and-its-doubles

Interview by Georgia Ennis

Georgia Ennis: Throughout your book, you follow both the imaginations and instantiations of an Aboriginal voice in radio media, which ultimately unite your discussion of different musical genres and sensuous sound worlds on the radio, as well as the institutional contexts that have shaped Aboriginal media production. What are these different conceptions of the voice, and how do they interact with each other? 

Daniel Fisher: I spend some time in The Voice and its Doubles introducing GR, a remarkable vocalist who fronted the Warumpi Band, one of the first Indigenous rock bands to break into so-called mainstream airwaves in Australia. He was an electrifying performer, and many say he out-sang and out-danced the heavy hitting rock singers of his day, think Bon Scott or Mick Jagger. But when GR sang, he did so in indigenous Australian languages as often as he did in English — code-switching frequently in performance, singing and calling out the languages of his different audiences. The Warumpi Band was taking shape just as the Aboriginal media associations that I write about were gaining traction, and they were one of the first groups to be recorded and routinely played on Indigenous radio, as well as on national non-Indigenous stations. GR’s presence knocked people out, and his recordings still do. That’s the kind of voice that I focused on at first that drew me to want to think about sound, music, and radio here. Both in performance and as recorded sound it gave material form to the power and value that people so often ascribe to the voice and resonated with both the complications and the excitement that people found in the cosmopolitan worlds of contemporary northern Australia. So it was for a time a kind of paradigm for many of what Indigenous popular music could become and how it might bring together, or sing across, multiple audiences.

Nonetheless, it was immediately evident that GR’s voice, replayed or perhaps remediated as recorded sound, sits beside a wide array of other highly consequential indices or avatars of the voice including statistics and marketing surveys, digital renderings of the voice on a computer screen, and the discursive figures that tether a whole range of policy and advocacy, that is, voice and voicing functions as tropes for agency and power and culture itself. It was also evident that Aboriginal media institutions were themselves kinds of media, were themselves understood as the material embodiment of a voice — and in fact had been crafted and funded as such by the advocates and architects of self-determination in recognition that the political subject of Aboriginal Australia cannot easily be reduced to the individualized, liberal subject. These all then are the ‘doubles’ of my title, the different instantiations or avatars of the voice that could generate excitement and passion as well as unease or friction, avatars that could at times haunt the sounded or spoken voice by making apparent some contradictions between liberal forms of recognition and the different forms of political subject taking shape across northern Australia.

Insofar as the doubling of the voice in sound, text, and institution allowed it portability and measure, it became subject to governmental solicitation or cultivation, and at times this led to some discomfort for my interlocutors. For my part, it seemed as important to try to understand the different kinds of interests in and listeners for such content by playing on the multivalency of ‘auditory’ and ‘audit culture’ — asking whose listening, for what, and in whose interests? It was very clear that the voice was tied into these different and at times competing or agonistic projects, and that it was enclosed in a range of ways.  This all lent exchange value within a quite specific field of cultural production. I do ultimately privilege GR’s voice, its transduction as recorded sound, and the ways it continues to move people today. But I also had to make sense of the different ways in which voice acquired a kind of abstracted value, to understand how all these different avatars of the voice moved and came to matter across a range of institutional and other domains.

Georgia Ennis: You describe three central meta-pragmatics that support indigenous media production in Australia, which you define as “giving voice, sounding black, and linking people up” (2016:4). What does it mean for Aboriginal media to “sound black,” and why does it matter for producers and listeners? How is this imperative for media connected to broader discussions about alterity, indigeneity, and transnational blackness?

Daniel Fisher: In the book I describe some generational differences in terms of what people felt that Indigenous radio ought to accomplish, and what people believe are the kinds of sounds it ought to privilege. There was a self-evident character to several of these — that it should give voice to Indigenous Australians, that it should link people up over a range of historical ruptures and contemporary distances, and that it should, as people said, sound black. With respect to this last, what is understood to sound black is both self-evident and also somewhat underdetermined in that no single sound or timbre or figure suffices, so this demand entails a kind of excess that makes it ripe for reflection, and at times contestation. This is amplified by the ways that affirming black identity in Indigenous Australian media making also has a particular history, one complicated by the pragmatics of Indigenous rights based activism, the turn from civil rights to Aboriginal rights as the ground on which to understand and pursue forms of social justice. Some of my older interlocutors, for instance, argued that to uncritically embrace a shared blackness through the consumption and valorization of afro-diasporic cultural forms was to miss or diminish the cultural singularity of Australian and Pacific Indigenous cultures by courting what they understood to be some risky logics of racialization. So even if many people I know see this character, ‘blackness,’ as something unfolding, and counter the equation ‘blackness is’ with a more contingent sense of the historical and emergent affinities between Black Pacific and Black Atlantic experiences, many also understood this as a figure that can complicate, and perhaps undercut efforts to achieve recognition as Australia’s first peoples.

I found myself amidst conversations animated then by this somewhat generationally inflected tension between people finding deeply meaningful ways to connect to Afro-diasporic musics and popular culture, but also having trouble recognizing themselves in that popular culture, and concerned about the ramifications of such identification both pragmatically, in relation to a political struggle, and existentially, in relation to senses of self, to Indigenous cultural reproduction, to the ways that one might understand one’s relationship to an affecting musical form and its power. I came to understand this imperative that radio ‘sound black’ as an impasse at which efforts to craft radio programming led to recurring discussions about what blackness meant, and how it might or might not relate to indigeneity, to sovereignty, to a community’s history and to its future.

Georgia Ennis: Readers might be surprised that in a monograph about Aboriginal Australian radio you do not write a great deal about media in Aboriginal languages. Indeed, early on you explain that for multiple reasons, “Indigenous radio often, paradoxically perhaps, lacks what might be termed appropriate ‘Aboriginal content’” (2016: 50). Rather, you focus especially on the cultural poetics of country music on Aboriginal radio. Why, and in what ways, has country music emerged as such a powerful genre for Aboriginal radio media?  

Daniel Fisher: The first place I spent serious time in Australia was both the biggest Aboriginal radio station in the country, and also one of the biggest and most prominent country music broadcasters. At the time, as I detail in the book, the families who started and ran this station were looking for funding support to amplify their educational work with respect to young Indigenous people in Queensland and northern New South Wales. This meant that they were increasingly entangled with government education agencies and the attendant oversight that comes with acquiring accreditation as an educational institution, and they were also bringing a lot of young Murri kids into the station from around the state to learn broadcasting, the history of Indigenous music and its relation to cultural activism, and the histories of their different communities. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to experience something of this education and socialization alongside of them. Learning about Australia’s intense audit culture, the ways bureaucratic rule marks cultural production in this place, and learning about country and other musics and their history in Indigenous Australia all came together in this space.

Of course Aboriginal engagements with country music have a history that exceeds the walls and political life of this institution. The genre offered a first platform for Indigenous popular musics and also a framework for some of the first Aboriginal protest musics. Jeremy Beckett’s work in the 1960s with Dougie Young, Clinton Walker’s history of the genre in South East and Central Australia, and writer Gayle Kennedy’s recollections all make clear that this was a place of radical cultural intimacy, a place for recognizing one another and giving voice in this form to a set of shared experiences — of movement, labor, dislocation and displacement — that are some of the ready-made themes of the genre as a commercial form. But there is more than simply collective effervescence in these experiences of music making and listening. First, country music is the radio genre par excellence. The genre takes shape on the airwaves, and the airwaves acquire materiality in the carriage of this genre’s musical form. As I detail in the book, if country is big in Aboriginal communities, it also has just a huge non-Indigenous Australian audience. This made it an ideal platform for many of the people I knew whose activist work was dedicated to reaching a mass audience, to making Indigenous perspectives more widely understood and appreciated. And there is more here too in the genre to do with nostalgia, loss, and urbanization. Country music doesn’t just thematize the loss of something like a rural place or a way of life, it can also thematize its own passing, so that as an affecting form country music becomes itself a site of nostalgia, it remembers itself, so to speak. So, many of my friends and interlocutors listened to this music and it took them not simply to another time or place, but also to histories of shared listening, to lives lived with records. It’s a very capacious genre. People love to talk about it, think about it, listen to it, and sing it, and some of the very great highs and rewards of this research were when they did so with me.

Georgia Ennis: Ethnographies of media often highlight production or reception, but not both. However, methodologically, your research seems to have privileged mediatization as the site of ethnographic understanding.  While you focus a great deal on production, you also consider the reception of different media forms, particularly country music. Did your fieldwork include a specific focus on reception, or did this attention emerge from your research with media producers? Has your focus on mediatization allowed you to overcome the dichotomy between production and reception, or do you see such a divide in your work?

Daniel Fisher: Mediatizaton was a central epistemological and methodological framework for the research, more significant in my thinking and questions than either pole of the production/reception dichotomy. But this isn’t to say that I didn’t find productive ways to think with or through the latter. A good deal of work before mine has made the point quite forcefully that the figure of the ‘audience’ is already troubled by its place in media institutions themselves, that media producers are themselves media consumers, and also that the divide between these two moments, as it were, can both be quite consequential ethnographically, crucial for how our interlocutors understand what media are and what they ought to do (as we see in work by Lila Abu Lughod and Faye Ginsburg, to name two prominent examples). This is to say that people have for some time been considering that dichotomy as a methodological and ethnographic question, as a feature of the domains in which they are working, a matter of interest and praxis by our interlocutors. In my work the capacity to empirically define and fix an audience did not present itself as an enormous methodological obstacle, insofar as the audience wasn’t simply something out there as an object that I must uncover, but was always around me, and on one level already there in the institutions, forms, and media artifacts themselves.

I was also spending time in places where this divide could seem minimized by a sense of relatedness between the producer and her audience. I was also moving back and forth as you suggest between sites of production and reception, that is, studios and concerts, cars and clubs and homes, and spending time with people who were themselves listening and often talking, showing with their voices both denotationally, as it were, and in performance different aspects of their listening. So as an empirical, observed phenomenon, reception or consumption or audition, that was very much a part of the world I was engaged in. On the other hand, we can say that the audience exists in part in the form itself, in its appeal, as a proposition or structuring principle. I would underscore that one needs to take care not to confuse the appeal or address of any given media artefact with its purchase, but I was nonetheless quite interested in thinking with form and with media artifacts, in asking what kinds of testimony they might give as kinds of social beings, actants, or agents. Engaging with different media artefacts in conversation with my interlocutors, and learning how to produce these artefacts alongside of them in institutions dedicated to fostering and amplifying an Aboriginal voice was also a means to listen in this way, and it led me to different conceptual questions clustering around problems of mediatization, of mediatization as the co-implication of different forms of mediation – for example, kinship’s capacity to codify or legislate relations and their implications, radio’s capacity to make kinship itself iconic of Aboriginal distinction, and of mediatization as a way of understanding how this exchange remakes radio and the voice itself.

Coleman Nye and Sherine Hamdy on their new graphic novel, Lissa

Lissa

https://utorontopress.com/us/lissa-2

Interview by Perry Sherouse

Perry Sherouse: In your article in George Marcus and Dominic Boyer’s volume on collaborations, you write that “comics – far from “dumbing down” or “simplifying” concepts, could be used to layer on more complexity – through comics, we could play with scale, time, and place.” What complexities of language and place were both of you able to convey in this format that would have been flattened or omitted in a standard, text-only account?

Coleman Nye and Sherine Hamdy: One of the great things we were able to do through comics was attending to fine-grained ethnographic detail without weighing down the pace of the story. We could be very specific about, for example, what people in Egypt eat, how they dress, what their daily concerns are, what traffic is like in Cairo, but show it contextually through the images in a way that enhances and layers the dialogue and action rather than detracting from it in the heavy prose of conventional “thick description.” With images, we could also zoom in and out of different scales — from the microscopic DNA mutations, to Anna as a person, to a wider environment in which toxins impact and predispose us to different cancers — all on the same page, weaving through the connections of cellular processes, personal life histories, and social-political structures that shape how we live. We could also juxtapose times and places, as for example, we see two characters in the US and Egypt on the same page, side-by-side prepping for surgery in very different settings. This invites readers to infer the differences, and also to think through the connections between these political and medical contexts. A great thing about comics is that you don’t need exposition — the reader does a lot of the work of making connections, filling in details, and otherwise populating the spaces between the panels (gutters) for us. Anna’s use of photography let us visually depict the layering of cancer’s timelines — from her mother’s family’s cancer genealogy to her present concerns about her cancer futures — and how through the clicking of her camera, Anna struggled with the temporalities of cancer and genetics. We could also point to characters’ shifts in perspective visually through things like Facebook Feeds — how a list of Anna’s posts shows us the different concerns she’s been grappling with across time and space– concerns about the political violence putting her friends at risk, but also about her own potential of succumbing to the cancer that killed her mother. Through Anna and Layla’s friendship, we could connect broader themes, like the difficulty of making life-and-death ethical decisions, the reduction of women’s health to their reproductive viability — across the U.S. and Egyptian contexts that we depicted, rather than reifying the old divide between the “West” and “the Rest.”

Perry Sherouse: When considering how to include citations to revolutionaries in this visual format, you were careful to think about the politics of representation. How does graphic ethnofiction change the way we think about the aesthetics and politics of citation?

Sherine Hamdy and Coleman Nye: We were drawn to the potential of the graphic novel form to reach a much wider audience — and in so doing, to re-conceptualize what counts as knowledge. It was important for us to cite the work and insights of the revolutionaries which were being produced in ways not generally accepted as “scholarship” — like social political commentary on graffiti throughout the public walls of Cairo and especially in Tahrir Square. We heavily visually cite Egyptian graffiti artists and even had a full-page mural designed by Ganzeer as a way to acknowledge our indebtedness to them in our own approaches and understandings of the revolution, and to signal a wider range of what counts as intellectual contribution. The revolutionaries who were present, in the Square and the streets of Cairo fighting off tear-gas, protecting protesters from military or police violence — they too were contributing to our theories of what counts as political action. Similarly, the doctor-volunteers who set up make-shift “field hospitals” in a city not technically at war — they reconceptualized the idea of “medical neutrality” and impartiality. By having Layla work with Tahrir Doctors in the story and by interviewing real people like Drs. Amr Shebaita and Dina Shokry, getting their feedback on the story, and incorporating them in the book as characters who play themselves, we wanted to acknowledge their political action as a key intellectual contribution to the Revolution, as well as to our book. The comic form allowed us to do that in a novel and exciting way.

Perry Sherouse: What influences are most powerful for you, but are undetectable in your work? [that is, intellectually, who or what brought you to this point?]

Coleman Nye and Sherine Hamdy:  Art Spiegelman’s Maus is an obvious inspiration for its novel use of the comic form to deal with the very serious events of the Holocaust and its aftermath. Persepolis too was wonderful in that it opened a window onto the Iranian revolution through the eyes of a young girl. These influences are probably not “undetectable”! But since neither of us had grown up on comic books as kids, these works opened up the possibilities of what comics could portray and depict. We wanted to extend that work by making it really obvious how it connects to traditional academic scholarship, which is why we mapped out the connections in the appendices. It’s definitely unconventional for comic book producers to provide “teaching material” to accompany their stories, and may even be off-putting for some, in a way that it calls attention to what is ordinarily buried within the story, but we wanted Lissa to break through to academics and provide something of a bridge between the comics and academic world.

Perry Sherouse: Where and how do you write (for example, in a houseboat with a pencil, in bed with an iPad, underground cave with charcoal)? What is essential to your creative process separately, and collaboratively?

Sherine Hamdy and Coleman Nye: This was a funny project because so much of the collaborative writing took place long-distance. Sherine was on the East Coast and Coleman was on the West Coast for all of the early script-writing, which took place in chat and via Skype on a shared google doc. And toward the end, we had one artist on Mountain time and our visual editor Marc Parenteau working from Mongolia, so the coordination was nutty to say the least. But there were wonderful moments of collaborative writing and drawing: in Egypt, we talked through the plot and character design in a range of places, from street markets to meetings with medical students; in Providence, Coleman and Sarula sat in a coffee shop trying to talk/sketch the gene patenting page; and our favorite – Sherine hosted Caroline at her house for a week, while feeding her Egyptian food and modeling different facial expressions for her during the final push of art production.

 

Helena Wulff on her new book, Rhythms of Writing

Rhythms of Writing

https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/rhythms-of-writing-9781474244152/

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: When you are at a book event for an Irish author, how do you explain what an anthropologist brings to the study of Irish writing?

Helena Wulff: If this is when I first make contact, it would be a relatively short conversation as the author would be very busy talking to many people and signing books. I would just ask for an interview and contact details mentioning that I am “writing a book about Irish authors,” focussing on the questions “How come the Irish are such great writers?” and “What do they know that the rest of us don’t know?”

So it would be at the interview that I explain that I, as an anthropologist, hope to bring an understanding of the significance of the Irish history and culture to the making of an author in Ireland. Irish history is significant in Ireland because of the long and brutal British colonization which ended rather recently, in 1922. Irish people have not quite come to terms with the colonial situation yet. As this study is my second major study in Ireland – the first one was published as Dancing at the Crossroads: Memory and Mobility in Ireland (Berghahn, 2007) http://www.berghahnbooks.com/title/WulffDancing – I think I can claim a certain expertise on Ireland, and thus an awareness of its strengths but also vulnerabilities. In my capacity of an anthropologist, I thus hope to bring an understanding of the cultural context that produces these eloquent writers, and their writing as craft and career. I look at the whole process beginning with how writing is taught, how breakthroughs happen, how authors build and maintain reputations, failures in getting published, and finally how decline can occur or simply demise. Looking at the social organization of the literary world in Ireland, also in relation to a global one, I note with interest the societal impact authors have in their role as public intellectuals. The publishing industry with small boutique publishers is clearly crucial, and their connections to global conglomerates.

Ilana Gershon: Has studying how Irish writers engage with their craft affected your own writing practices? Do you write differently, or have a new range of concerns about your texts?

Helena Wulff: My interest in writing goes a long way back. Almost from the start, when I learnt to write, I have been driven by a desire to take writing as a craft seriously. But my writing would not have flourished, had I not had my doctoral training in the Department of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University under the guidance of Ulf Hannerz. In the spirit of Clifford Geertz we were taught not only to read fiction from our fields, but also to keep training our writing skills, to develop a clear sense of style – also about complicated issues.

Now my interest in writing includes both nourishing my academic writing and venturing out into other genres such as journalism and creative non-fiction. I edited a volume on this topic titled The Anthropologist as Writer: Genres and Contexts in the Twenty-First Century (2016).

In addition, I have taught two master’s courses for anthropology students on writing:  “Anthropological Writing Genres” and “Writing Anthropology Workshop,” the latter together with my Stockholm colleague Anette Nyqvist who designed it.

For me, writing is like breathing. I am a habitual writer. Having found my form, I still find it fascinating, and necessary, to keep looking for new expressions and formats, to keep developing as a writer. Like Roddy Doyle, one of the most prolific writers in my study, I don’t accept writer’s block. When I asked him in an interview, if he ever gets them, his reply was firm: “I write through them!” He just writes on, even on a bad day. So do I. Eventually it will lift, and I fly! In fact, I enjoy solving the “problems” of getting stuck. I enjoy trying and trying again and again, to finally finding a new solution to a phrasing or a structure or whatever it is that does not work just then.

Repetition as a rhetorical trick is one thing I have learnt from my engagement with Irish writers and their writings. Certainly an awareness of rhythm and tone, but even more of repetition to make a point – which I realize I just did in the section above. Another trick that I have learnt to cultivate from Irish writers, is to use my senses. It was when I was doing participant observation in an MA class in Creative writing at University College Dublin as a part of my fieldwork that the teacher Éilís Ní Dhuibhne called out to the students: “Write through your senses!“ and she went on “and consider all of them: vision, sound, smell, touch, taste!” (Wulff 2017: 54)

Deadlines are key. I am good with deadlines, I dare say. It helps to be well-organized and plan your writing time in great detail. I set aside weeks and days for writing certain pieces. (This has sometimes caused some amusement among friends when I have invited them for dinner three months ahead of time…as that is when I have space in my crowded calendar!) Colm Tóibín, another prolific writer in my study, who in addition to writing fiction to great acclaim, is a prominent public intellectual in Ireland, talked about deadlines when I met him for an interview. Contrary to many writers (and certainly academics…) who have a fear of deadlines, try to push them and risk dancing on deadlines rather than making them, Tóibín noted matter-of-factly: “Deadlines are good. They make you finish” (Wulff 2017: 31).

Ilana Gershon: I was struck by how many of the writers you spoke to will write in longhand, and how rooted this was in the sensual experience of writing with ink (54).   I am wondering if writers felt that there was a significant difference between composing in longhand, on a typewriter or computer, and if editing through these different forms was also a markedly distinct experience for them?

Helena Wulff: I was struck too by how many of the writers write in longhand! Not least in this day and age, when writing longhand seems to be a disappearing skill among young  people. These writers were born in the 1950s so they did learn longhand at school. What I also found amazing was that (with a few exceptions) one writer after another that I talked to in their homes, showed me the same kind of big blue notebooks with wide margins that were useful for making revisions. Incidentally, the notebooks made me think of the writing exercise books I used in primary school that were corrected by my teacher (after three essays without errors – you got a gold star glued into the margin!).

Certainly these writers found writing longhand, and editing their longhand, more thorough than using a computer. (They did not use typewriters.) Some would edit their longhand up to two or three times before typing it on a computer. And then edit again, on the screen this time, but finding this a different, more mechanical process.

Ilana Gershon: You mention that Irish mothers were a continual theme throughout all your research projects based in Ireland.   What new insights to what it means to be or have an Irish mother did you have because authorship was your starting point this time?

Helena Wulff: There are definitely more mothers portrayed in literature than in dance in Ireland, which alerted me to consider “the Irish mother.” The portraits that often are inspired by the writers’ own mothers range from devotion to loving mothers to dismissal of neglecting mothers. It is less common to write about what it is like to be a mother, but there are fictional cases of the fright of losing a child in an accident, for example. The expectation that women will be or are mothers, which is strong in Ireland (possibly because of cultural traces of Catholicism) also came through in fiction such as in Anne Enright’s Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood (2004) which is a collection of racy essays about giving birth and being a mother. This was inspired by Enright´s experience of having her two children rather late in life and well into her marriage.   

As I got to know writers, I noticed how close they often were to their mothers. It could be the writer who invited me into his study and in particular pointed out a small painting he had right in front of his desk explaining that “my mother liked it.” Of course, it seems to be about the same to be an Irish mother as to be a Swedish or American mother, from the inside so to speak. With certain variations, mothers seem to have about the same feelings of love and worry about their children. But then the influence of mothers is very different. And here religion, or at least, again, cultural traces of religion, may be the explanation to why certain mothers have more influence than other ones. Catholicism and Judaism, for example, are of course, “inherited” through the mothers and both feature powerful mothers.

Ilana Gershon: How do you think analytical questions about translation are transformed when it is the author of the original text translating the work into a new form, such as a musical or film script?

Helena Wulff: The writers rarely did this kind of translation, especially not on their own. If they did it, it tended to be a co-production together with a script-writer, for example. The analytical questions about translation change as they move from translation between texts in different languages to explain translation between different media such as from text to film or stage. For one thing sound such as music is added. Importantly, Irish fiction is quite visual and strong on dialogue which is why it often works as film.

Ilana Gershon: How has fieldwork for this book shaped the kinds of questions you are asking in your current project on migrant writers in Sweden?

Helena Wulff: My current project is also an anthropological study of a social world of writers, but focusing on migrant writers in Sweden. I am looking at similar themes such as the making of a migrant writer’s career, learning to write, breakthroughs, reputation, the role of the publishing industry and the idea of the “migrant writer,” as well as these writers´ international impact. Contrary to contemporary Irish writers who can stand on the shoulders of the world fame of their giant predecessors such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, migrant writers in Sweden cannot claim any kinship with August Strindberg or Astrid Lindgren. So how come the work of Jonas Hassen Khemiri, successful Swedish writer of Tunisian background, is attracting attention in New York, London, Tokyo and elsewhere across the globe? Khemiri writes fiction, plays and journalism about new issues of physical appearance, terrorism and racial profiling in Sweden. It turns out that it is not contemporary Sweden that evokes interest internationally but local versions of these global issues.

 

 

 Alex E. Chávez on his new book, Sounds of Crossing

https://www.dukeupress.edu/sounds-of-crossing

Interview by William Cotter

William Cotter: In the introduction to your book you mention that for Mexican migrants, transnational forms of music making claim space, both materially and symbolically, in the United States.  In doing so, you note that music making as a form of cultural expression serves to reconfigure the varied borders that affect migrant life. By way of introducing readers to the book, I wonder if you could tell us about how music claims space in this way, how it serves to reconfigure those borders, and how it is deployed by the communities you worked with in your book?

 Alex E. Chávez: First, we should begin by interrogating the very notion of the border as materially lived and experienced by, in this case, ethnic Mexicans—though “Mexican” certainly operates as a gloss for Latinas/os/xs writ large—and as the centerpiece in a racializing regime that currently produces migrant illegality and criminality, but which braces a generalizable otherness that fuels the United States’ relationship to Latin America as a whole. hPut bluntly, the U.S.-Mexico border as physical site fuels both primitivist fears and fantasies regarding alterity to the South—it is a contaminating threat to be contained, and Mexico figures as its most proximal menace. That boundary (as the physical limit to the nation and national culture)—as discursive, political, and cultural logics go—must be policed and its people may only be integrated in a subordinate status.

Now, let me back up a moment. I arrive at this understanding thanks to a robust legacy of scholarly work that has long written about the U.S.-Mexico border ethnographically with great theoretical acumen, for the border is not a given, but continually produced and re-inscribed. So, in order to understand how expressive culture, for instance, reconfigures the border—to use your language—we have to, once more, attend to what the border signifies, how it operates. Let me tease some of this out. Critical analyses of the U.S.-Mexico border region have understood it as a historical site of racialized violence wherein political technologies have enabled the hostile management, surveillance, and indiscriminate killing of ethnic Mexicans since the nineteenth century. And although the scholarly field of border studies and the metaphorical use of the borderlands are often conflated, they are distinct. Border studies typically examines the material conditions of the U.S.- Mexico border as a concrete physical place, largely from the perspective of the social sciences. The borderlands are used metaphorically to speak of a liminal state of in-betweenness in work in the humanities, largely cultural studies. A seminal figure in the development of the latter theoretical framework, Gloria Anzaldúa (1987), also distinguished between “a dividing line” (or border) and “the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary” (borderland). Nevertheless, while the borderlands are often considered the symbolic divides among various social groups, the former, more concrete geopolitical perspective is equally undergirded by a broader consideration of the boundary work implicit in social and cultural ideologies of difference making. One cannot fully understand the physical presence of the U.S.-Mexico border as a result of U.S. imperialism without accounting for the racial ideologies that drove westward expansion in the nineteenth century. Centered on illegality and border inventions/inspections/crossings, respectively, the contemporary work of people like Nicholas De Genova (2005) and Alejandro Lugo (2008) explores how the materiality of U.S.- Mexico border policies extends across the continental United States and subsequently shapes cultural logics that produce and restrict citizenship in everyday life, inspecting, monitoring, and surveilling what travels in and out with a critical eye toward issues of class, gender, race, and nation.

Social relations are always shifting and embedded in much broader and more complex cultural conflicts that are historical in scope, and thus the racialization of ethnic Mexicans in the United States is inseparable from the U.S.-Mexico border as a concrete physical site (of crossing and inspection) that in turn operates as an (invented) allegorical social divide in the U.S. American imagination that renders ethnic Mexicans “policeable subjects,” to quote my colleague Gilberto Rosas (2006). This critical and ethnographically grounded integration of geographic/physical and cultural/conceptual perspectives is what Robert R. Alvarez Jr. (1995) termed an “anthropology of borderlands.”

Now, returning to your question, the indignant policing of migrant bodies in everyday moments is indicative of the enduring cultural and racializing logics that restrict Mexican migrant life across the continental United States, of the ways the boundaries of the United States are intensely present in informal managements at the level of the everyday. And so, given this complex understanding of the border, part of my work attempts to understand how expressive forms speak to/relate to/grate against the structures in which they are positioned—in the case of the book, how they sound out, how the spaces convened by and through huapango arribeño performance emerge as politicized moments of congregation amid the vulnerabilities of migrant life.

William Cotter: In the book, you discuss the economic, social, and political conditions under which huapango arribeño emerged, as well as those conditions that facilitated its crossing into the United States. Can you tell us about what some of those specific economic or political conditions are?

Alex E. Chávez: I’ll start big again and tie my response to your previous question. The deepening political-economic relationship between Mexico and the United States throughout the twentieth century has only further inscribed the imagined social differences described above. Here, I refer specifically to transnational migration in the devastating wake of the Mexican Revolution; U.S. labor demands extending through World War II and the Cold War era, contractually managed through the Bracero Program (1942–1964); the era of structural adjustment in the 1980s alongside an imagined moral panic surrounding undocumented migration that resulted in heightened border militarization; the dissolution of both protectionism with regard to domestic industry and the foundations of agrarian reform law in Mexico in the 1980s; and, finally, the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) a decade later. Let me pause here.

The book begins in the 1970s, though it necessarily attends to a cursory history of huapango arribeño before that time— more as a point of reference than as a matter of focused inquiry. Seminal years considered along the way include 1982, which marks the beginning of the Mexican debt crisis; 1986, when the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed in the United States; 1994, the year of the ratification of NAFTA (the trilateral trade deal among Canada, Mexico, and the United States, which  has been one of the largest and most lucrative in recent history), in addition to a groundswell of heightened U.S.- Mexico border militarization and anti- immigrant laws across the United States; 2001, which brought the events of September 11 and the ensuing conflation of the issues of terrorism, border enforcement, and undocumented migration; and 2006,  when massive mobilizations occurred throughout the United States in support of migrant rights. NAFTA, perhaps, looms largest as a matter of economic policy with respect to apprehending intensified levels of migration from Mexico to the United States in the 1990s and into the 2000s. The crucial piece in this equation in Mexico, however, came three years earlier, in 1991, when President Salinas de Gortari rewrote agrarian reform law, ostensibly doing away with article 27 of the Mexican Constitution and bringing an end to ejido land policy (which also included subsidies, price protections, and access to basic agricultural resources), thus making it easier for portions of low- producing lands to be used for large-scale commercial agriculture. Because of this, combined with NAFTA provisions that allowed for imports of subsidized agricultural products from the United States, especially corn, it is no surprise that a Public Citizen report (2015) stated that the number of undocumented migrants in the United States increased 185 percent since NAFTA’s signing (3.9 million in 1992 to 11.1 million in 2011).

In response to the increase of Mexican migration, a number of state-level and national laws were implemented, particularly disciplinary policy measures aimed at border enforcement, which were guided by the twin strategies of territorial denial and prevention through deterrence. These include: Operation Hold- the- Line in El Paso, Texas (1993), Operation Gatekeeper in the San Diego area (1994), Operation Safeguard in central Arizona (1995), and Operation Rio Grande in South Texas (1997). The lives of the migrants that populate my book all unfolded amid these extreme circumstances.

William Cotter: One aspect of your book that I was struck by was the depth and complexity your analysis of huapango arribeño from a musical perspective. Throughout the book, you provide the reader with musical transcriptions, lyrics, and discussions of changes in musical key or structure throughout performances. I know that you’re also a musician and composer, what do you feel your own personal perspective and experience performing and composing music adds to your analysis of the sounds of crossing that you discuss?

Alex E. Chávez: As a researcher, artist, and participant, I have consistently crossed the boundary between scholar and performer in the realms of academic research and publicly engaged work as a musician and producer. These experiences have shaped the politics of my intellectual and creative work, particularly how I’ve engaged both to theorize around the political efficacy of sound-based practices, the voice, and certain disciplinary futures. Having said this, in the depths of ethnographic research around this project I was uniquely positioned to both observe huapango arribeño—with a critical eye toward the musical, poetic, and sonic resources brought to bear in managing performance—and to perform the music myself. In fact, I came to this project first as a musician—eager to learn. And part of my process involved engaging in what ethnomusicologists refer to as bi-musicality, that is, actively performing the music being studied. This has been a critical research methodology in ethnomusicology since the days of Mantle Hood in the 1960s—he actually coined the term. He described this notion as learning music from the inside, which is of importance in apprehending not only rudimentary skills and technical know-how, but also—and perhaps most importantly—in understanding how music participates in forming and sustaining all manner of bonds of sociability, identity-based or otherwise. As a scholar of language, music, and sound, I am ultimately interested in tracing the meanings generated by vernacular performativity, or the aesthetic in social life. In the case of huapango arribeño and Sounds of Crossing, my positionality as an artist certainly shaped both my analysis and level of access.

William Cotter: A final aspect of the book that I found particularly powerful was that although you make continual connections throughout the book to enduring realities of violence against Mexican migrants in the United States, the book also offers what feels like a response to the present state of U.S. politics in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. In the epilogue, you call for a critical aurality, and an ‘urgent listening to the whole of America’. Can you talk about what you feel a critical aurality provides us, or what kinds of spaces those forms of voicing or listening may make possible?

Alex E. Chávez: A critical aurality, which I call for at the end of the book, is both a social and intellectual intervention, for it calls out broader inequalities that need to be confronted so that we may live in a more just society, while also drawing attention to how those same disparities and injustices are reproduced within the academy. In the end, the book is an exploration of the contemporary politics of Mexican migrant cultural expression manifest in the sounds and poetics of huapango arribeño. That context, however, is one that we all live in, that we are implicated in, that we all have a responsibility of standing up to, and part of that involves, as I say in the book, “an always urgent listening to the whole of America and voicing its story amid the deafening swell of a lethal white supremacy . . . We [must] listen past the chorus of “U.S.A.” and the harmony it presumes—which is braced by a chauvinistic exceptionalism that has no room for others—and lend an ear to the multitude of voices whose experiences rest at the tensive center of the verses of the American story.” That deafening chant is the same that wants to “Make America Great Again” or “Build the Wall!” And so we return to where we began this conversation, to the bordering that takes place in this country—at the levels of race, citizenship, class, gender, and so on—and the loud embodied counterveiling and self-valorizing voices (of women, Dreamers, Black lives, and children taking to the streets, for instance) who are sounding out self-determining positive projects of self-constitution and creative affirmation.

Sounds of Crossing calls attention to the embodied dimensions of performance in contexts where migrant bodies are subject to various forms of structural and cultural violence. Following these sounds is to trace how this community’s own chosen form of expression is projected out as a way of binding lives and geographies across the dense, lingering, and knotted dissonance of class, race, politics, and transnational mobility as key dimensions of the Mexican migrant experience. And so we may ask: as emergent communicative modalities, what politics of visibility, belonging, and incorrigibility do these voices acquire vis-a-vis competing/dominant/national representations of migrant personhood? In pursuit of this question over the years, my research has extended beyond the academy and into adjacent forums of publicly engaged scholarship, cultural advocacy, performance, and work with high profile institutions like Smithsonian Folkways. In my work, I continue to draw on these experiences to consider the ways Latinas/os/xs are challenged to engage and reorganize the ways that they identify as residents of the United States, transforming their soundings as aesthetic sites of democratic citizenship along the way.

Rihan Yeh on her new book, Passing

passing-cover

Interview by Héctor Beltrán

Héctor Beltrán: In your book you conceptualize the hearsay public to provide a critique of liberal notions of publicity. Can you unpack how this relationship frames your argument, and the ethnographic labor involved in making these connections?

 Rihan Yeh: Passing looks at how, in Tijuana, a middle-class public oriented towards liberal ideals of public communication both faces off against and intertwines with a popular, working-class public that takes shape through genres of hearsay: communications framed as that which “everyone knows.” For me, what’s interesting about the hearsay public is that it provides a critique of liberal publicity from within. This isn’t a social formation based on any authentically ‘other’ cultural tradition; it arises from processes of marginalization and denials of recognition that are inherent to liberally-oriented “we”s. These “we”s are always creating more “they”s out there, and the hearsay public is one – to me, very compelling – way to inhabit that position of the third person.

To see ethnographically how middle-class and popular senses of we-ness take shape in relationship to each other (as well as to the United States, via the border), you need a method that will hone in on the dialogic overtones of people’s interactions across a really wide variety of settings, from, say, checkpoint encounters to dinner-table discussions. These interactions, of course, also necessarily have to involve people not just from one urban community or socioeconomic niche, but from many, many walks of life. The ethnographic labor is in being there in all these different situations and being able to put them together—or, rather, seeing how other people put them together, on the fly, as they try to carve out a place for themselves in the city, in the nation, and in the wider world.

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Eva-Marie Dubuisson on her new book, Living Language in Kazahkstan

Living Language in Kazakhstan

http://www.upress.pitt.edu/BookDetails.aspx?bookId=36697

Interview by Meghanne Barker

Meghanne Barker: Your initial fieldwork on aitys — a performed genre of Kazakh poetry — looked at issues of politics and performance within this form that you describe as inherently dialogic. Living Language expands your study to examine Kazakhs’ relationships with ancestors not only through this poetic performance but also through other everyday blessings, bata. How did you decide that “dialogic” was the best analytic term to caption the phenomena you examine here, as opposed to, say, “intertextuality,” since both bata and aitys seem to get framed through enxtextualizing re-contextualizing processes?

Eva-Marie Dubuisson: We are always writing against a silent strawman in a way, and for me that was the presumed immutability of a conscribed or repressive environment – where overt political opposition is often met with jailing or death. In terms of my engagement with a notion of power, I want to understand not ‘how repression works,’ but ‘how change is actually possible,’ and how worlds function outside the apparatus of the state.  I wanted to write about alternative sources of authority, and in how they become present or enacted, and in that sense, it is the idea of coming into being which is singly most important for me, and that led me to a focus on dialogic emergence, which was most compelling and the best fit for what I wanted to express.

If we look at generic reproduction in the case of any one single tradition, we could certainly say that what I describe in my ethnography are instances of “intersubjective entextualization” with all its constituent uncertainty (see Silverstein and Urban 1996).  But in my analysis I am ultimately concerned not so much with the existence or  content of any one given text, but in the emergence of a particular role across a variety of contexts, traditions, and speech genres.  I am focused on the way in which ancestors are not just available for interaction, but actually moving into that space – my concern is not with the particular content of any one message, but on the quality and position of those interacting, and in roles and the emergence of ancestors as participants in interaction.  For example, in conversations, how is it that ancestors might actually participate – in what moments, in what modes and mediums of communication, in and through which interlocutors, in which contexts?  In other words, how are they ratified as participants in interaction (see Goffman 1981)?

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Meghanne Barker: What contribution do you see this focus on ancestry making to our understanding of dialogism?

Eva-Marie Dubuisson: The answer to the questions you have posed here also lies not only in the temporal and spatial dimensions, but also in the representative capacity or potential of a voice, and in its constituent parts (heteroglossia). In my work, we see a variety of speakers and collaborators bringing to life the invocation, words, and presence of ancestors in a variety of ways, and for me there are two related theoretical questions here.  First, when exactly could we say that an ancestor becomes present in those forms of social dialoguing? I examine this in the case of everyday blessings (bata, explained above), the miracle stories and prayers at shrine sites, and the performance of public poetry. But second, given the obviously multivocalic nature of various oral traditions (like bata, prayer, miracle stories, public poetry, and even statist rhetoric), what is the political work being done in any claim to monologism? Continue reading

Martijn Oosterbaan on his new book, Transmitting the Spirit

Cover image for Transmitting the Spirit: Religious Conversion, Media, and Urban Violence in Brazil By Martijn Oosterbaan

https://www.psupress.org/books/titles/978-0-271-07843-4.html

Interview by Jessica Rivers

Jessica Rivers: In your book, you argue convincingly that it is important to understand the Pentecostalism of Rio’s favelas as governmentality.  Based on your research, do you believe the sound practices of the evangelicals in Visionario and Roda do Vento effectively extended the reach of Pentecostal governmentality to non-evangelicals?

Martijn Oosterbaan: In the book I analyze what it means for people who live in dense favela spaces to be enveloped in the sounds emanating from churches, and the sound of carioca funk and samba music. Broadly speaking, I analyze conversion through the lens of governmentality, and not only because Pentecostalism is concerned with bodily discipline and with the government of self. Conversion in this context cannot be wholly understood without including the politics of favela life. Conversions are not definite moments of transition in a favela.  Instead, they are processes in which people come to understand themselves and their environment differently.  If we see sound practices as part and parcel of these process, we might also see that even for those who do not describe themselves as converted evangélicos these sound practices – in combination with assertive evangelization techniques – are re-ordering their perceptions of space and power in the favela. By and large, many people who are not considered evangélicos regard Pentecostal churches and church leaders as legitimate authorities within the favela – not in the least because many of these leaders (loudly) promise the possibility of salvation, prosperity, and protection to people who live in precarious situations. Approaching this question from a different angle, I argue that the sanctuary spaces of churches are extended by means of amplified church sounds and by means of gospel music. We should not see Pentecostalism as the only bundle of techniques and representations that informs governmentality but it has become a very important element of it in the context of Rio’s favelas.

Jessica Rivers: Are there instances in which the Pentecostalism you witnessed could be interpreted as operating (aspirationally) as sovereignty (p. 42)? I’m thinking, for instance, of their creation of absolute spaces and their reclamation of public spaces with the trificante exorcisms?

Martijn Oosterbaan: When we regard sovereignty as tentative form of authority grounded in physical violence, as some do, such an argument might be harder to make. There are, however, Pentecostal practices such as the performative evangelical crusades (cruzadas) that I describe in the book that are presented as rupturing moments in public favela life. These performances could be conceived as acts that aspire towards sovereignty. During these crusades, which are highly mediatized and ritualized events that involve musical performances, pastors, preachers and singers narrate the possibility of personal and collective liberation by way of the works of the Holy Spirit and the exorcism of demons. In the context of favela life such events are presented as breaching the politics of daily life, in which people are bound by the machinations of the devil, often without their own knowing. Testimonies of former drug gang members during these crusades reveal that they no longer abide by the rules of the comandos whose leaders are the informal sovereigns of the favelas but by God’s laws that grant protection in this life and salvation thereafter. These events generate exceptional moments of rupture that sustain the notion that a different life is possible. Nevertheless, Pentecostal groups do not take the informal sovereigns head on and generally do not interfere directly with their businesses.

Jessica Rivers: Your research intervenes in the conversation on the relationship between religion and violence. You argue scholars should not assume Pentecostal practices are merely soothing since, in constantly presenting Pentecostal churches as a powerful counterforce, they necessarily (re)produce their own forms of anxiety about the city as an evil place (83). Do you think this means the Pentecostalism of the favelas has a sort of hopelessness built into its strategic long-term planning? Would you go as far as to say that the manifestation of Pentecostalism described in your book, in fact, depends on seemingly continuous, otherwise uncontrollable violence?

Martijn Oosterbaan: This is a very pertinent question in this post-Olympic moment in Rio’s history. Surely I don’t mean to argue that Pentecostalism is only popular because Rio de Janeiro is witnessing uncontrollable violence, nor do I argue that the anxiety that certain Pentecostal practices and ideologies reproduce is of the same kind as the anxiety that traumatic physical violence might cause. In the context of Rio’s favelas, there are other socio-material circumstances that are enmeshed with the persuasive emotional practices of Pentecostalism (dreams of material wealth for example). Nevertheless, I do indeed argue for an understanding of its popularity in context and violence, unfortunately, is a pervasive aspect of favela life. Moreover, the testimonies that I documented and church services I attended featured many accounts of people’s experiences of urban violence. Having said that, in the book I aim to counter arguments of people who describe Pentecostalism in a reductionist fashion as making up for uncontrollable violence – a discourse that several Pentecostal churches also employ themselves. Pentecostal groups generally do not oppose the criminalized comandos directly or interfere directly with their businesses but these groups do present themselves as the only way out for those people that feel that they are in the grip of the comandos and that presentation remains a very powerful selling-point, I argue.

Jessica Rivers: It is intriguing that your informants felt conflicted about watching telenovelas and reality soaps because of their salacious content and decidedly unconflicted about watching the spectacularized violence of news programs.  Do you believe it was merely a question of genre that made them feel they could read and judge the material of (semi) fictional programming and not the selective narrative packaging that went into the nightly news?

Martijn Oosterbaan: Not merely, but genre is very influential. In the book I try to show how different modes of Pentecostal self-discipline overlap or clash with media genres. As I argue, the notion of factuality is very important in the unconflicted reception of spectacular news programs. The presentation of ‘news’ as unmediated representation of ‘how it is’ in the world distinguishes the genre from others. Producers appear to go at length to sustain the myth that ‘what you see is how it is’. Moreover, there is something quite definitive about physical violence – especially with regard to cases where people are mortally injured – and sharp distinctions between heroes, villains and victims are sustained easier in cases of spectacular urban violence than in the case of juicy soap operas (telenovelas). As I relate in the book, my Pentecostal interlocutors frequently characterized perpetrators as possessed individuals and pictured violent urban encounters as manifestations of the cosmic battle between God and the devil. The genre of the telenovela, on the other hand, hinges on moral ambivalence. Protagonists are hardly ever entirely upright and the attraction to watch telenovelas is related to the possibility to ‘watch and judge’ the behavior of the lead characters. Such a spectator-position overlaps well with certain Pentecostal discourses in church services and informal talk. Gossip (fofoca) about the behavior of neighbors or even fellow church members often revolved around the question if this or that person was ‘of God’ or not. Nevertheless, some evangelical spectators despised the moral ambivalence and argued that this was exactly how people were lead away from the straight path.

Jessica Rivers: Your informants disliked and distrusted Rede Globo; were they more likely to notice the aesthetics and read its programs against the grain (like in the U.S., conservatives do with MSNBC and liberals do with FOX news)?

Martijn Oosterbaan: Certainly, but not with all the programs. Rede Globo is the biggest media-imperium of Brazil. By way of its news-programs and several of its fiction programs it has criticized and ridiculed Pentecostal churches – predominantly the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (the Igreja Universal). In the nineties, it set out to unmask the leaders of the Universal Church as greedy businessmen that employed the prosperity gospel for personal benefits. The Universal Church and several other Pentecostal churches have reacted fiercely against these accusations. They stressed that TV Globo was broadcasting lies because Globo’s leaders perceived the rise of the broadcaster Rede Record – owned by the leader of the Universal Church, Edir Macedo – as a threat to their media-hegemony. As I show in the book – many of the adherents of Pentecostal churches living in the favelas of my research attached these clashes to prevalent interpretations of Globo’s telenovelas as degenerate. In addition to the genre specific critique I just described, evangelical spectators told me that Globo’s spread of immoral content by way of its novelas was related to their support for Afro-Brazilian and Roman Catholic traditions and their dislike of evangelical values. Some even told me that Globo had made a pact with the devil to air demonic programs. Such suspicions definitively influenced people’s perceptions of Globo programs.

Jessica Rivers: You group the lived religious practices of the people who attended the Igreja Universal and Assembleia de Deus together. Did your informants ever take issue with this grouping? I was surprised to see that you did not describe the Igreja Universal as Neo-Pentecostal.  And could you elaborate on how you made that decision and what difference, if any, it makes (and to whom) to designate a church: Pentecostal, Neo-Pentecostal, Charismatic, or otherwise.

Martijn Oosterbaan: Thank you for raising these questions. I struggled with the question if I should separate or group together the people who attended the two churches but eventually decided not to distinguish the people in relation to the questions I was attempting to answer. I think we are severely mislead when we start from the assumption that because there are different churches with contrasting doctrines, people who attend different churches have fundamentally different experiences of their mediated surroundings. That can be the case for sure but it is something that can only be confirmed by research. Not long after I started, I decided not to write a ‘church ethnography’ but to explore favela spaces as shared life-worlds in which boundaries are produced in flexible fashion. In the book, I discuss the lives of people of one household and several of their family members who also lived in the favela. Many of these people frequented different Pentecostal denominations, yet quite a number of them had attended both services of the Igreja Universal and of the Assembleia de Deus, eventually picking one that suited them better (at that moment). More importantly at the time of research – people from different Pentecostal and Protestant churches generally identified with each other as evangélicos in opposition to Catholics, Umbandistas and Spiritistas. These people often share mediated spaces where Pentecostalism is broadcast. This not only meant that they heard each other’s preferred sermons or gospel music, they also regularly connected to the messages of fellow Pentecostal churches beyond church boundaries. They were shaped by their shared understanding of the dangers posed by the media that surrounded them on a daily basis (carioca funk, samba, telenovelas), so many people of both churches voiced the same suspicions and experiences regarding demonic powers. Certainly, boundaries were drawn when people disagreed with each other’s doctrinal positions at times. Nevertheless, I really wanted to foreground the shared, mediated Pentecostal life-world created in the favela space instead of the differences between people who attended churches of different denominations at the time of my research.

Jessica Rivers: You apply Gershon’s concept of media ideologies to your Pentecostal informants’ television viewing practice but not to their listening practices.  Was it a difference in the modes of consumption available to them that guided this aspect of your analysis? Did your informants find it harder to experience music critically than they did television? Could they only allow themselves to be critical of worldly media? If so, why do you think that was?

Martijn Oosterbaan: You rightly point to something that I did not spell out explicitly in the book and which is related to the fact that people generally presented music’s mediation as less intricate than the mediation of audio-visual content via television. Music itself was certainly regarded critically and Pentecostal listeners often discussed who and what could transmit spiritual force and which marvels and dangers were involved. Music as mediating technology was thus very important and people’s evaluations of music feature prominently in the book. As I explain in detail, people’s evaluations were closely related to perceived differences between music genres and the associations between genres, life-styles and communities in the favelas. In my opinion, Ilana Gershon’s concept of media ideology can be applied very well to music and the critical appraisals of evangelical listeners, and though I did not explicitly refer to her concept with regard to listening practices, I do refer to the work of Webb Keane, whose concept of semiotic ideology is very close to Gershon’s work. So why did I refer explicitly to the notion of media ideology when discussing television? In contrast to television-broadcasters, evangelical radio-broadcasters played only recognized evangelical (gospel) music, made by people who identified themselves as evangélicos. Other ‘worldly’ radio stations played no evangelical music at all – at least not music of self-identified evangélicos. Tuning in to an evangelical radio station gave the evangelical listeners a sense of ease since they did not have to worry about the possibility of hearing sinful music. Television broadcasters that broadcast evangelical programs, on the other hand, also aired worldly content. Even TV Record, the channel owned by Edir Macedo, leader of the Igreja Universal, aired programs that could be considered worldly (yet not necessarily immoral). As a consequence, television (the device) demanded much critical attention according to the people I spoke to. Evangelical programs could be followed by worldly or even demonic programs. People generally remained vigilant to see what would be aired next. The notion of media ideology helped me to describe the problems of evangelical television viewers a bit better than the concept of semiotic ideology. Television presented my evangelical interlocutors with bundles of related ideologies that included semiotic ideologies but also appraisals of the medium as it works in the context of Rio de Janeiro. And television confronted them with several questions: Which programs are available on each television channel at what moments during the day and how is each program related to Brazil’s intricate religious field? When believing that television can transmit demonic powers, which programs should be considered harmless and which not? And when they are potentially harmful, can one still watch them in an effort to test oneself as firm Christian or should one turn off the television? As I describe in the book, one Pentecostal viewer recounted how he had tried to watch an erotic television program – believing he would be able to withstand its demonic seduction – to find himself powerless in the face of its lure and then quickly turned it off.

 

 

 

 

Catherine Fennell on her new book, Last Project Standing

https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/last-project-standing

Interview by Janet Connor

Janet Connor: If you were at dinner with an urban planner, maybe not from Chicago but from another large American city, how would you describe your book?

Catherine Fennell: It’s a challenging question because tbbhe topic of public housing is utterly over-determined by public sentiments and an ongoing history of racism that reduce the complexity of subsidized housing in the U.S. to a particular kind of place — “the projects”. These sentiments and this history also tend to paint this particular kind of place as particularly decrepit, impoverished, and black. All this despite the fact that the vast majority of public housing projects in the U.S. provided sound housing to people who fell into a range of economic and social categories. These reductions make it difficult to appreciate the extent to which many Americans’ lives are bound up in the project of state subsidized housing. They also collapse people into place, making it near impossible to divorce the imagined decrepitude of “the projects” from the imagined depravity of their residents. These potent sentiments shape the kinds of questions that often get asked about housing projects and the kinds of debates they anchor.  And they also shape what urban planners learn to recognize as successful housing. And they shape the kinds of urban development interventions that gain traction. So I’d want to be careful about how I set up a book that was always more interested in how such sentiments gather and circulate within and beyond a housing project, than in proving particular iterations of such sentiments right or wrong.

I’d start by sketching the Chicago case: A ten, then fifteen year urban planning experiment that has demolished some 25,000 units in the city’s public housing projects, partially replaced them with smaller mixed-income developments designed to promote mainstream employment, and displaced some 75,000 Chicagoans, many of them impoverished African Americans.  I’d tell planners that this case is worth learning about even if they never pick up my book because this case guided the direction of national policy. More than that, though, it also gets at the heart of why many planners who I’ve met get into planning in the first place: to realize more inclusive cities. Then I’d tell them two more things. First, that I’ve left it to scholars better versed in policy assessment to determine whether or not Chicago’s experiment has succeeded on the terms it set out to succeed. Second, I’d emphasize that there are compelling questions to bring to an urban planning project that have little to do with assessments of success or failure.

When ethnographers show up in housing studies, academics and practitioners alike expect them to be focused on “the lived experiences” of marginalized peoples. Throughout my research, people often understood my purpose as relaying the voices of public housing residents. This focus has done so much good, yet it can reinforce the idea that housing projects have been worlds unto themselves, removed from “mainstream” social and political life. So, I’d explain to the planners that I designed my research to foreground moments in which a range of urbanites collided with a built environment in tremendous social and material flux. This included, of course, public housing residents transitioning out of one housing project on Chicago’s West Side. But it also included their new middle-income neighbors, social workers and advocates, politicians, and even people who assumed that they had nothing at all to do with public housing.  I’d tell them that focusing on people as they collided with the people and things of changing public housing, like the ferocious decay of under-maintained buildings, the unnerving loudness or silence of new neighbors, or the presumed poignancy of public housing residents’ struggles, allowed me to analyze how urbanites might become attuned to the problem of poverty and its alleviation in a “neoliberal” policy climate. This would be a climate in which state and municipal agencies step further and further away from the provision of low-income housing and related services, even as they recruit urbanites in their capacity as neighbors or simply concerned citizens to become more involved in caring for the poor.

Finally, I’d want to offer several concrete cases from my research that presented discrete problems that planners might be in a position to address. I’d do this because problems like a systemic lack of financing for maintenance, a narrow conception of who or what constitutes a legitimate household, or appropriate practices of energy consumption very much impact low-income people who are living within or seeking subsidized housing. My interlocutors leaving public housing want and need these issues addressed in a thoughtful manner, and I see no reason why anthropologists cannot contribute to that.

Janet Conner: Central to the book’s argument is the concept of sympathy, which you describe as “a communicative mechanism whose subscribers invest it with the capacity to extend feelings, qualities, and visceral states across very different entities” (p. 7). How does this concept help you think about the ways public housing residents, social workers, and other Chicagoans who appear in your book navigate housing reforms? Why should anthropologists concerned with questions of communication be interested in sympathy? 

Catherine Fennell: Sometimes it seems that you come to a concept only after pushing against others that seem perfectly plausible but that don’t quite fit the material you’re working with. Late in the process of writing my dissertation I had a conversation with Danilyn Rutherford about my hesitations concerning the analysis of my material in terms of writings on affect theory. Specifically, I was hesitant about how some of this work presented the experience of visceral intensity as something that escaped language. Was this a suggestion that such experience eludes social mediation? If not, how should an anthropologist approach the affective resonances of social and political life? Rutherford suggested that I look at the classic work on sympathy. This was an extremely helpful and generous suggestion and it ended up completely changing my thinking and writing for the book. It helped me move toward a conceptual framework that would be alive to two things. First, it allowed me to foreground the visceral intensities of fraught collisions between my interlocutors, the disappearing built environments of Modernist-Era social welfare projects, and the emerging ones of a “neoliberal” communitarianism. Second, it allowed me to track how social worlds structured by profound racial and economic discrimination realigned the people, places, and things of disappearing projects. What attracted me about the classic concept of sympathy (as articulated by thinkers like Hume, Ribot, and Frazer) is precisely its capacity to accommodate material and visceral forces alongside meaningful coordination.  I don’t consider myself a linguistic anthropologist, but I think that any anthropologist interested in communication could learn something that anchors what we now call affective experience firmly within social and political life.

Janet Connor: Your use of sympathy also allows you to weave together an analysis across many different scales that may at first seem only tenuously related, from the materiality of your interlocutors’ bodies and the buildings in which they live, to feelings of community both within and near public housing, to broader notions of citizenship. Could you explain how you think about scale in this book?

Catherine Fennell: Again, there’s a tendency in urban studies to treat housing projects as worlds unto themselves. So, research will unfold within the walls of a public housing project, or, researchers will aggregate data collected from discrete public housing communities. This makes sense given how the tradition of community studies continues to inflect urban ethnography, and given just how much patterns of racial and economic discrimination have set public housing projects physically and socially apart from their surrounds. Yet I was interested in how “the projects” had become, as one of my interlocutors put it, “a lightning rod” for debates about the nature of collective urban and more broadly, social welfare and obligation at the very moment state agencies stepped away from welfare provision. So, I needed to find a way to work across a number of scales that I considered relevant to this problem — legislative maneuvers or media spectacles surrounding “the urban crisis,” but also everyday navigation of a changing urban built environment, everything from the discomfort surrounding the strange sociability of new neighbors to the sinking but vague sense that large scale demolition portended massive displacement. Thinking with sympathy allowed me to move across scenes and scales that all foregrounded the problem of how citizens learn to care differently for or just about one another at a moment of state divestment.  I know these shifts of perspective and scale might not sit well with readers who have a clear sense of what the “object” of a study concerning public housing should and should not be. I respect that. Yet I hope just the same my book is a contribution toward thinking about what multi-sited archival and ethnographic work might bring to urban studies and contemporary anthropology.

Janet Connor: When linguistic anthropologists think of publics, we often think of their emergence through the circulation of discourse and textual materials. You discuss publics somewhat differently, particularly focusing on the role of embodiment and emplacement. Could you elaborate on how you understand publics? How methodologically can we as anthropologists study this kind of expanded conception of a public?

Catherine Fennell:

I’ve learned so much from work within linguistic anthropology that centers on publics. Linguistic anthropologists understand that the discursive encounters from which a sense of “belonging” to a collectivity of strangers emerges have some kind of material infrastructure. In other words, that publics are discursive formations that have consequential social and material dimensions. At the same time, it seemed to me that there was even more room to think about that consequential materiality in terms of built form. It seemed to me that thinking publicity through built form might give us a stronger understanding of urban publics — collectivities of strangers who presume “the urban” as a significant frame for social and political belonging. It suspected that such an endeavor would add much to the burgeoning literature on “cities and citizenship.” Now I think that endeavor is even more important because we’re seeing assertions of political sovereignty in the United States focused on “the urban”; consider for instance the “sanctuary cities” debates or moves by some municipalities to issue their own IDs or organizing critical benefits like paid family leave. We could learn much about urban citizenship by thinking through the formation of specifically urban publics. The question of course is how to do this if you’re not going to focus exclusively on discourse, its circulations and its layering.

There’s a strand of work in political theory, geography, sociology, and anthropology that sees public spaces as key to stranger sociability and political debate. I find this work dissatisfying because it takes one genre of public space — the street, the park, the square that would be open to all regardless of “race,” status, creed and so on — as indispensable to robust democratic politics. It seems to me that this approach replicates how Habermas idealizes one historically and socially specific universe of discourse as indispensable to proper democratic politics. I wanted instead to think about how urbanites become attuned to any built form as significant to the lives that they imagine themselves to be leading in common with others. It seemed possible to chart how specific encounters are mediated in some way by built forms that prodded people to re-imagine their relations to others with whom they shared their city. I was actually inspired here by a passing remark that Habermas makes early in the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. “Publicity has changed its meaning,” he complains. “Originally a function of public opinion it has become an attribute of whatever attracts public opinion.” For him, the rise of mass media has diluted publicity’s central purpose — to support “the public” as it articulates collective opinions and critical judgments in the service of reasoned democratic governance. This is a derisive definition of publicity, but its remarkable under-specificity suggests that a range of forms, like speech but also a building, could be implicated in the communicative practices that summon people to collective meanings, commitments, and identifications. I set out in my book to sketch some of those forms.