Nazli Azergun: In your book, you describe craigslist as a precedent to current platform economy, almost as an ancestor platform that isn’t necessarily function like its current day counterparts. You also claim that craigslist is a holdout from the olden days of Web 1.0, enacting an ethics of collaboration and access––like an island in today’s gentrified ocean of Web 2.0 mentality. For those who are yet to read your book, could you tell us about the publics of craigslist? Who are these people who use craigslist today for finding a collectible item, hitching a ride, and whatnot––instead of its function-specific counterparts? Why do they prefer craigslist?
Jessa Lingel: Craigslist has always been home to a number of different publics. It’s been online since 1996, which is a very long time in the context of the Internet. In the early days, its home was the San Francisco tech scene, and the site built a reputation for finding elite tech jobs. Over the next decade, craigslist became incredibly popular, for everything from finding apartments to buying and selling used goods to getting dates. By the time I was conducting research, craigslist’s reputation had slipped somewhat, and many people associated it with seedy personals and bottom-of-the-barrel jobs. But for many folks I talked to, craigslist filled an important niche, helping them find temporary jobs, affordable used goods like cars and electronics, and places to live. All in all, I interviewed dozens of people who used craigslist. None of them only used craigslist, instead it was part of a constellation of platforms like eBay, Facebook Marketplace and others. But what still draws people to craigslist after all these years is its simplicity, as well as the fact that it’s free from ads.
Nazli Azergun: You also talk about the transition from Web1.0 mentality to a Web2.0 one, which indicates a passage from openness, collaboration, and accessibility towards exclusivity and a world of pay-per-view. What, in your opinion, has caused this transition towards a more gentrified worldwide web? What is it with craigslist that it made it through this transition mostly intact?
Jessa Lingel: If I could point to a single thing that pushed us towards a more gentrified web, it would be Facebook. I know it’s kind of passé at this point to kvetch [complain] about Facebook but it’s difficult to overstate how important Facebook is as a turning point in digital culture. It’s not like there was a clean break, where before Facebook everything was anonymous, free and open, while after Facebook, the internet became commercialized and closed off. But as Facebook became the dominant platform, other modes of being online became less appealing to users, to the point that platforms like craigslist can seem hopelessly backwards or out-of-date. Unlike a lot of platforms, craigslist never went for major platform overhauls or redesigns. Instead it stayed true to the early 1990s internet values of its founder, Craig Newmark and its CEO, Jim Buckmaster. The platform reflects their ideas of what the internet should look like, and because craigslist has been run by the same people for most of its 25-year history, it’s never had to change its appearance or values. It’s never had to gentrify.
Nazli Azergun: You state that you intentionally omitted housing-related craigslist interactions from your book as they did not raise significant tensions among users. I think this is a very significant choice. How do you read this phenomenon, this lack of tensions? What does it tell you about the current state of housing markets, housing-related racism and discrimination, and the precarity of individuals, if anything?
Jessa Lingel: No book can cover everything, and although An Internet for the People is a deep dive into craigslist, there are a number of things I didn’t cover, like the events section, the message boards and housing. I’m sure there are a lot of tensions to be uncovered about craigslist housing out there, but they didn’t pop up in my interviews. Because housing isn’t a major focus of the data I have, I can only make educated guesses about what craigslist has to show us about the current state of housing markets. One theme that surfaced repeatedly in interviews was the idea that craigslist was part of “the poor people’s internet”, meaning that it was mostly a tool for people who felt excluded from fancy platforms. In terms of jobs, this meant looking for certain kinds of work on craigslist rather than more professionalized sites like Indeed. In terms of housing, the parallel would be that for people on a certain budget, it makes more sense to look on craigslist than on Zillow or Redfin.
One thing that COVID-19 pandemic has shown us is the intense divide between rich and poor in terms of property – while buying a second home has become popular in the midst of a pandemic, millions of poor people in the US are facing eviction and housing insecurity. A platform like craigslist could, perhaps troublingly, see a boom in the use of its housing section as poor folks look to it as a platform that’s geared towards affordable, temporary housing arrangements.
Nazli Azergun: Based on your book, I get the sense that craigslist has a particular ethical orientation regarding the monetization of user data and user anonymity. It exclusively seeks transparent monetization and considers anonymity as a useful tool instead of as a dangerous way of being online. How do you situate craigslist in the current universe of discussions around user data and privacy, especially in the context of competing approaches from the likes of Facebook, which seek infinite monetization at the expense of users’ rights, and the likes of EU legislation, which aims for transparency and user protection?
Jessa Lingel: Companies like Facebook would have us believe that user privacy is dead, and that their business models are the only ones that are sustainable. In terms of platform politics and privacy, the most important thing about craigslist is that it provides an example of how a platform can be successful and profitable without exploiting user privacy and turning people into data points. I am very much in favor of federal legislation for Big Tech, but I’m not sure EU legislation really goes far enough. Living in the US, I’m impressed by the willingness of the EU to go after Big Tech when it comes to anti-trust and the Right to Be Forgotten, and the EU General Data Protection Regulation has done some work to increase literacy around cookies. But ultimately, users are mostly just given a notification that their options are either to give up their data or not use the site. In the US, I’m hopeful that legislation around anti-trust and privacy will surface, without sacrificing the important protections of CDA 230, which protects websites from being held responsible for the bad acts of individual users. I don’t think the answer to needing more robust forms of content moderation should come at the cost of user privacy or platform experimentation.
Nazli Azergun: Finally, I think your work is an important piece of Internet history and many appreciate you as a successful historian of the Internet and digital culture. Could you give some tips on how to conduct good historical research on digital culture? What are your approaches to archives and methods?
Jessa Lingel: Thanks, I’m really glad you see the book that way. The most important thing with this book was getting Craig Newmark on board. Journalists haven’t always been kind to him or craigslist in the past, and so I wasn’t entirely sure he’d want to talk to me. But he wound up being the very first person I interviewed. He was very generous with his time and put me in touch with folks who’d been involved with craigslist during its early days. From there, my challenge was making sure I could talk to a range of people who had different perspectives on craigslist, because I didn’t want to be totally beholden to Craig’s views.
Aside from getting insiders on board, the best piece of advice I could give for digital history of a particular platform is to be really expansive in the initial literature review. It took me a long time to figure out the structure of this book, and what took shape grew out of reading widely on anything and everything related to craigslist – academic work, journalism, legal scholarship, as well as how-to guides for buying and selling online, true crime novels and even erotica. After categorizing the different themes that emerged across these sources, the book’s structure started to become clearer to me. It was both a blessing and a curse that there are no other monographs out there on craigslist – it meant I had total freedom to do what I want, but it also meant that there wasn’t much to contrast with. Reading widely was essential for helping me figure out what questions I should ask about craigslist, and what questions about the internet craigslist could help me answer.
Sandhya Narayanan: One goal of your ethnography is to delve deeper into the ways that celebrity, and its close relative, fame is manufactured and circulated. Yet one opposing undercurrent throughout the book is the recognition that aspects about the lives of the so-called rich and famous should be hidden, secret, and unknowable. Could you say more about this relationship between the dissemination of revealing photos and scoops with the ways in which celebrities also manage their allure through keeping certain aspects of their life unknowable? How is the looping of fame with privacy managed similarly or differently by Latinx, male, paparazzi photographers, and white, female, celebrity reporters?
Vanessa Diaz: Thank you for this very layered question. So my research led me to understand that it’s not necessarily that the lives of celebrities should be hidden, secret, or unknowable, but rather that celebrities themselves want to be able to strategically control and monetize these disclosures. The laws that have been put in place to protect celebrity children from paparazzi imagery isn’t because celebrities do not want photos of their children in the press. Rather, it’s because the celebrities want to control the supply of those photos, which can be highly lucrative. As I explore in the book (in chapters three and seven in particular) an exclusive photos of a celebrity’s child can be hugely valuable and can yield millions of dollars. Information and imagery about celebrity lives is valuable currency, and celebrities want to retain as much control over that currency as possible. And I discuss this as relates to various forms of capital in the book as well (especially chapter seven). Regarding the last question about how fame and privacy are managed similarly or differently by Latinx, male, paparazzi photographers, and white, female, celebrity reporters, there are also interesting distinctions here. The reporters are generally seen as operating more from the inside, as part of the more formal channels of celebrity media production. And this leads to them being understood as more on the side of the celebrities. In the book, I point to several examples of celebrity-focused stories where reporters discuss paparazzi with celebrities in adversarial terms during interviews, despite the fact that the article the interview yields is peppered with and relies on paparazzi images of that celebrity! So this perpetuates and even amplifies the precarity of paparazzi who are working outside of the formal celebrity media production processes. Because of this, paparazzi don’t have to necessarily be seen as being on the side of the celebrities in large part because the celebrity narrative has been one that strategically manufactures a dynamics in which paparazzi are celebrity adversaries, rather than celebrity promoters. As I discuss in the book (particularly in chapters two and three), however, paparazzi have developed their own ethical codes to do what they can to stay on celebrities’ good sides, even if it’s outside of the formal production processes. I think the issues of visibility and invisibility that I discuss in the book are also wrapped up in these dynamics (e.g. see page 60).
Sandhya Narayanan: You point out in your ethnography the ways that rising or lesser-known celebrities rely on the coverage provided by paparazzi and celebrity reporters to launch themselves into the spotlight. Yet at some point, these reporters, especially the paparazzi, are framed as enemies who are bent on destroying the lives and careers of our most beloved celebrities. Could you say more about this shift, and the role that consumers of celebrity news and gossip (that is, people like me who enjoy reading the tabloids as they wait to pay for groceries in the checkout aisle) play in also making or breaking this transition.
Vanessa Diaz: A goal of the book is to really pull the curtain back on these specific dynamics that you’re highlighting in this question, precisely because they are dynamics that consumers do inevitably play a role in. It’s important to understand that this shift is largely one that is manufactured by the celebrity-industrial complex itself. And I explore why this is in the book (particularly in chapter three), where I discuss the idea of celebrity empathy, which helps us understand how media can strategically cultivate affinity with certain people while strategically denying it to others. Being pursued by paparazzi to the degree that it can be presented as an annoyance is something that demonstrates a certain status or level of celebrity. So, performing annoyance, or even anger and disgust at paparazzi signifies importance. This is a way to assert and even flex celebrity status. However, it’s important to remember that even most A-list celebrities still rely on paparazzi for exposure. So, even someone like Jennifer Aniston who claims paparazzi keep her in a state of “false imprisonment” (pg 101 in my book, chapter three), also still uses them when she needs to strategically promote things like Smart Water, for which she is a paid spokesperson (pg. 113 in my book). So if you actually put together the pieces (which is what I hope my book offers), you can see how this shift you discuss is largely a shift performed (often by professional actors!), that, again, has to do with control and capital. Consumers are looking at and buying the magazines because of the celebrities they love, or love to hate, and not because of the paparazzi. And so it’s natural that the consumption of celebrity media, which is generally meant to celebrate, support, and help consumers get to know celebrities, leads to deeper celebrity empathy and, subsequently, increased demonization of figures like the paparazzi.
Sandhya Narayanan: Your work with paparazzi photographers was based primarily in LA. Yet, wherever a celebrity goes, there you would also find a paparazzi photographer. At one point, you also mention how one of the paparazzi photographers you were close with was shooting photos in New Orleans? Given the precarious nature of their work, how were these photographers able to travel across the country? How were they able to go on assignments out of the country? And is there some informal international network of paparazzi photographers?
Vanessa Diaz: The question of travel for paparazzi is actually an important one, and one in which you can see the value a good paparazzo has. Yes, all of the paparazzi I worked with on my research were sent by their agencies to shoot specific celebrities in specific locations outside of Los Angeles, precisely because they are known to get good shots. I don’t think there is space here to fully explain the structure of paparazzi employment, which I explore in depth in chapters one and two of the book. But, essentially, most paparazzi are freelance and work for specific photo agencies who have complete control over the sales of paparazzi photos. Paparazzi rely on the agencies to give them the cut of the image sales that they are promised. Even if the paparazzi are freelance, an agency might pay for them to travel if they know it might yield valuable exclusive photos. For example, in chapter seven (pg. 222-223), you can see a beautiful photo of Angelia Jolie, Brad Pitt, and their children shot by one of my main paparazzo collaborators, Galo Ramirez, in New Orleans. He was sent there by his agency and that photo ended up being a spread in People magazine, and several other of his images ended up in other outlets. So it literally paid for the agency to send Galo to New Orleans. And, as I explore in chapter two, the paparazzi only receive a small percentage of the total of their image sales; it’s the agencies that are really profiting from these images. Another way that paparazzi end up getting to travel is instances like the one I explore in chapter two (pg. 82-83), where a celebrity, in this case the entire Kardashian family, gets paid to work with an agency to have a paparazzo come shoot their entire family vacation. This guarantees an exclusive set of photos for the magazine (which they believe will translate to sales and, thus, they can recuperate the investment), and also guarantees coverage for the family. So, again, you can see the ways in which much of the coverage of celebrities, including and perhaps especially paparazzi shots, is about offering increasing control to celebrities. And yet they still often perform the irritation with paparazzi invading their space, even when they are often specifically invited into that space. Finally, there are certainly international paparazzi as well in various locations. And various agencies will work with international paparazzi as well.
Sandhya Narayanan: An interesting aspect about celebrity media production is the way it provides some degree of inclusion for amateurs and individuals with little to no experience in celebrity media creation and production. At times, this type of amateurism is at odds with individuals who are more established in the field. But more recently, we also see the rise of cellphone technology that can let anyone take a good shot or recording. How do you think these technologies, which have the potential to allow anyone to produce celebrity news content, might affect the livelihoods of paparazzi and celebrity reporters?
Vanessa Diaz: It is definitely unique and interesting that paparazzi have been able to break into the industry without formal training prior to them entering the field. However, as I explore in chapter one in the section “Skill, Training, and the New Paps” (pg. 57), a lot of the notions about professionalism is steeped in racist tropes and stereotypes about unskilled Latinx labor. The reality is that it is a myth that anyone can do paparazzi work. That doesn’t mean that paparazzi come in knowing how to operate the incredibly expensive and complicated photography equipment. But, as Galo explains, they have intensive on the job training. Yes, smart phones make it so that anybody standing next to Justin Bieber can get a photograph and that photograph has the potential to sell. But it is an illusion that valuable shots can all just be done on cell phones. There is certainly skill required in getting the exclusive, most valuable photos. Many of the most valuable, and frankly beautiful, paparazzi images entail the paparazzo having the skill to use complicated specialized equipment, like telephoto lenses that are sometimes several feet long (there are a few good examples in chapter one in the section “(In)Visibility and the Racialized Paparazzi,” which begins on page 60, as well as elsewhere in the book). Getting these shots also requires intel, which means you have to be a part of the network and have access to information so you know where to be to get the shot.
Sandhya Narayanan: I was struck by your assertion that celebrity reporters and photographers have created some of the most culturally significant and recognizable content since the turn of the new millennia. Yet, you point out that celebrity reporters do not think of themselves as journalists, nor do the paparazzi necessarily frame their photographs as photojournalism or art. This suggests that there is something going on in the structuring of media platforms within the US. Where does celebrity media fit in relation to other types of information media within the US? How can this positioning help us understand the inequities and precarities that paparazzi photographers and female celebrity reporters face in the industry?
Vanessa Diaz: As I explain in the book, any distinction between entertainment and news media at this point in American culture is simply a function of a public imaginary—that there should be a difference between hard news and entertainment news. It appears that we are in the final days of the first reality star presidency, but perhaps not the last. And I think the Trump presidency has done a great deal to even further blur any potential distinction between hard news and entertainment news precisely because he treated political news reporters in the same fashion he and other celebrities have always treated (and disregarded, belittled, and even abused and assaulted) entertainment media producers.
In terms of celebrity reporters not always considering themselves journalists, and paparazzi not necessarily thinking of their work as photojournalism or art, I think that it is, again, an extension of this public imaginary I discussed above, which is steeped in hierarchies and cultural elitism around ideas about news. At this point, fake news has become everyday language, and we can understand celebrity media as the original fake news. Celebrities have been denying celebrity news reporting for a century, whether the reporting was true or not. What I think is different about the present moment is that celebrity news and hard news and journalism are increasingly blurring together both in terms of the subject matter of the coverage and the way the media producers are viewed and treated.
Kevin Laddapong: Reading How Artifacts Afford is very refreshing. You have proposed a way forward for analysts and practitioners to think critically about technologies through the notion of affordance. However, as you mentioned in the book, the concept has traveled widely from discipline to discipline. It sometimes is undertheorized, and sometimes overtheorized. Could you please discuss what are the watershed moments shaping how scholars have approached the concept of affordances that has led to the current analytical landscape?
I’ll start with a working definition of affordance, for those who are unfamiliar. Affordances are how the features of a technology—its technical specifications—affect the functions of a technology. This includes direct utilities (what people can do with the technology) and social outcomes (what the technology does with us).
It’s unusual for a concept tot operate so fully between and across disciplines, as ‘affordance’ has. However, as I say in the book, cross-disciplinary travels can lead to conceptual blurriness and overworking. Chapter 2 of the book provides a full intellectual history of the concept, which I’ll distil here into three general epochs
JJ Gibson introduced the concept of affordance in 1979 with his book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Gibson was an ecological psychologist who defined affordance as a relationship between organisms and environments. This was empirically derived from Gibson’s efforts to understand how WWII pilots interacted with their airplanes, and theoretically based in Gibson’s opposition to gestalt psychology (the du jour of the time). For Gibson, affordance represented an intrinsic relationship between people and objects, and his use of the term served a theoretical agenda to convey human-environment interaction as direct rather than representational
In the 1980s/1990s, Don Norman made affordance practical and tangible. Norman brought the concept to design studies with his canonical book The Design of Everyday Things. Norman positioned the designer as a psychologist, tasked with communicating to users, through design, how those objects ought to be used.
From the early 2000’s to present, with the rise of digital technologies and automation, affordance has conceptually exploded. Scholars in communication studies and other related fields have scrambled to understand a changing technological landscape and how technological developments integrate into, and affect, social life. Affordance is an effective tool in this regard due to its characteristic balance between technological determinism and radical constructivism.
In the book, I build on this history to transform an overloaded concept into an operational model. The model I present is called ‘the mechanisms and conditions framework’.
Kevin Laddapong: The book requires us to reframe the question about technologies from what to how, for whom, and under what circumstances, which bring us to the Mechanism and Condition Framework. For the blog readers, could you describe this framework, and discuss how it would lead to a different approach to the technologies around us?
Jenny Davis: The mechanisms and conditions framework shifts ‘affordance’ from a single concept to an operational model. The mechanisms of affordance address how technologies afford, and the conditions address for whom and under what circumstances?
The mechanisms map onto a series of categorical hooks: request, demand, encourage, discourage, refuse, and allow. These mechanisms are conditioned by three interrelated dimensions of perception—what someone knows about the functions of a technology, dexterity—one’s skill and capacity to operate a technology, and cultural and institutional legitimacy—how socially supported someone is in technological engagement.
The framework does two things. First, it gets outside binary renditions of human-technology relations. Technologies don’t just afford some action or not, but push and pull with varying degrees of force. This variable pushing and pulling is captured by the mechanisms of affordance (request, demand, encourage, discourage, refuse, and allow). Second, the model does away with implicit assumptions about universal subjects. Technologies function in myriad ways across circumstances and between individuals. The conditions of affordance specify how contextual factors come into play (e.g., for whom does the technology request and for whom does it demand?)
Kevin Laddapong: Another major contribution of this book is its approach to politicizing technology. How can readers use the Mechanism and Condition Framework as a strategic and critical tool for thinking about technologies in everyday lives?
Jenny Davis: The book begins with the assumption that technologies embody human values and affect social relations. This assumption overlays the mechanisms and conditions framework with a critical lens that centralizes politics and power in socio-technical systems. Centralizing politics and power creates an entry point for interrogating whose interests existing technologies represent, how those technologies (re)produce structural social patterns, and how to build new technological implements that trouble the status quo.
The mechanisms and conditions framework provides a simple vocabulary for mapping not only direct technical functions, but also flow-on social effects of technologies as they interact with diverse subjects across a range of circumstances. With the mechanisms and conditions framework, analysts and activists can hold technology makers to account for what is, while reimagining what could be.
Kevin Laddapong: In order to make a direct impact, how could public and business sectors, such as tech companies, policymakers, and the media industry appropriate the framework in practice? Would you see any benefit to having these other actors engage with the framework as well?
Jenny Davis: I tried to make the book highly accessible for the very reason that I think the framework can be beneficial to those outside of academia, like the groups you mention in this question. The stakes of technological design are too high to keep ideas about design processes and outcomes cordoned off within academic circles. Technologies have social effects. This is something we should all care about, and it is something that tech companies, policymakers, and the media industry can directly impact.
Corporate and government actors can use the framework to systematically plan how their creations will function both technically and socially, within a diverse, dynamic, and multifaceted world. Although it’s easy to criticize tech companies and governing bodies for their continued missteps, it’s also important to acknowledge how challenging it is to build something new and to imagine all the ways that new thing will affect the world and the people in it. The mechanisms and conditions framework helps put complex considerations on the ground such that social goals can be the start point, from which developers build. For example, those who develop and regulate technological systems can specify how their system will encourage autonomy and equity, and identify sub-populations for whom those social goods are refused.
The framework can also be a tool of empowerment for those who seek to hold corporate and governing bodies to account. If technologies do bad things, then everyday people can use the framework’s vocabulary to show, unambiguously, what those bad things are and how they distribute along intersecting lines of power, identity, and inequality.
Patrick Lewis: When I first came across the title of your book, two things came to mind: Betty Anderson’s (2011) history of the project of liberal education at the American University of Beirut and Talal Asad’s (2003) collection of articles on secularism and liberalism in the Arab world. How do you see your work building on or diverging from these earlier approaches to liberalism in the Arab World and why does it matter for how we imagine liberal higher education?
Neha Vora: Betty Anderson’s work on AUB was indeed one of the texts that really resonated with me and my approach to this project! Anderson considers how a missionary and colonial institution became a central site of Arab politicization (al-Nahda as well as anti-colonial activism). She also has a very interesting section in that book where she discusses how theories of evolution were normalized through protest by medical students and instructors at AUB almost a hundred years before they became acceptable in the US academy, challenging conventional Western understandings of Islam as somehow antithetical to modernity or science. While I do consider the colonial and missionary approaches within Education City’s American branch campus, the contexts and time periods of my project and Anderson’s are of course very different. Nevertheless, she points to the way that these seemingly hegemonic projects lead to unforeseen and sometimes even contradictory outcomes, and she denaturalizes the US academy as the source of knowledge which then supposedly flows to the Middle East. In relation to Asad’s work, I am not in direct dialogue with his work on secularism – there is a chapter in the book where I discuss his earlier work in Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter to argue that anthropological ways of thinking about culture have permeated the US academy and its containment of difference. I’m not a scholar of religion but I do think that I approach liberalism with a similar spirit to Asad’s approach to secularism, liberalism, and modernity. That these are mythologies which structure world-making and not reflective of essentialized differences between societies and places. I think we are both engaged in provincializing projects but from different entry points.
Patrick Lewis: In your discussion of recent higher education reform and Qatarization, you describe a state project to develop post-oil citizenship that envisages a gradual transition away from oil extraction toward an economy built on information technologies and services in which Qatari citizens will perform many of the ‘knowledge economy’ jobs now performed by foreigners. However, you also describe a degree of skepticism, if not outright cynicism, around this transition among locals and argue that new investments in higher education, rather than “shifting economic reliance away from petro-wealth, [are] rather sustained by it” (p. 33), and have in fact increased Qatar’s dependence on foreign academics and administrators. Are there any larger lessons here for regional or national economies attempting to transition away from extractive industries through education or technical training?
Neha Vora: I can’t really speak to lessons on how to move away from extractive industries, as these economies are shaped by much deeper and longer transnational connections and pressure from imperial powers (previously Britain and now the US). My approach to “knowledge economy” is to disentangle its rhetoric from its effects on the ground, which are in fact quite messy and oftentimes contradictory. The book discusses how local elites leverage nativism in nation building projects, of which knowledge economy is one. This is done in the name of a supposedly homogenous group of citizens, but citizens do not uniformly benefit from these projects. I try to showcase the heterogeneity of Qatari citizens and how the idea of Qatariness needs to be consistently rehearsed and performed to have any coherence. I also highlight ways that Qatari leaders produce forms of inclusion for non-citizen immigrants, who are rhetorically and legally cast as perpetual outsiders but are actually integral to the country’s future. Education City is a project that benefits non-citizens as much as citizens, and the Qatari state offers generous financial aid packages for immigrants, which are forgiven if one works a certain number of years in Qatar after graduation. Higher education is quite obviously a space where multicultural futures are being produced. Thus the “transnational Qatar” in my book title.
Patrick Lewis: Throughout the book you work to push back against boilerplate takes in US academia on American higher education in the Gulf that promote “top-down understandings of branch campuses solely as arms of neoliberal profit or colonial replication” (p. 154). One point you return to again and again throughout the book is the generous public funding that sustains these projects and, in the context of your own experiences working at universities in both the United States and the Gulf, the relative security of your academic colleagues working in Qatar. How might the story of US branch campuses in the Gulf complicate the narrative of the neoliberal university and global higher education – a narrative that these projects are often used to buttress in US academic discourse? How have your experiences in the Gulf shaped your perception of the ‘crisis of the public university’ as it is narrated in the United States?
Neha Vora: One of my entry points into the language of crisis has been to ask whose crisis it is. In this way I am very much in conversation with scholars within a growing field of abolitionist university studies. The kind of nostalgia that US academic crisis narratives traffic in is one that does not acknowledge the exclusionary and violent underpinnings of the university as an institution that has been fundamentally shaped by slavery, settler colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and elitism. Simply by considering the history of the US university, it becomes impossible to separate it from US military endeavors or corporate interests. These are not new entanglements but ones that underpin the academy, so to claim a current state of crisis due to neoliberalization requires some major elisions of that history. I argue that the ability to perform those erasures is only available to a small group of elite, non-precarious (usually white and/or male) academics who have experienced the mythologies of the liberal academy as real (egalitarianism, free inquiry, and inclusion for example). Most of us who learn and labor within the US academy do not have the privilege of that experience. Yet we also replicate liberal mythologies and crisis narratives, especially in the way we view a globalizing university. But the US academy has always been global as well, in that knowledge production has always been a core facet of US imperial violence.
My experience teaching and researching in Education City allowed me to see my own investment in what I call liberal piety more clearly. The difference between an American and Qatari classroom, for example, is not one between freedom of speech and censorship but rather both are spaces in which instructors and students are constrained by particular norms and pushed to perform particular personas. Teaching about Palestine in Qatar, for example, was a rewarding experience in comparison to teaching in Texas or Pennsylvania. I also was able to see how the hierarchies and exclusions of the American academy get reproduced in the Gulf: despite being in a country where most of the people (and most of the students in Education City) are brown, I still had to navigate my (predominantly white) colleagues and superiors as a woman of color in ways that felt quite similar to what I have to do at home.
I also saw how Western administrators utilized nonliberal aspects of Qatar’s immigration and employment structure for the benefit of the “liberal” university (outsourcing custodial work, paying people from different nationalities at different scales, capitalizing on trailing spouses (almost all women) as a cheaper source of local labor, and so on). And the students schooled me quite early on some things that I had blinders to—all international students in the US are dependent on visas and have no opportunity to stay in the country after graduation without securing employment almost immediately. In Qatar, international and immigrant non-citizen students were also visa dependent, but there were more formal and informal avenues to attaining employment after graduation. In addition, the Islamophobia and racism students in Education City experienced when studying abroad in the US made Qatar feel like a much more welcoming place to live and potentially settle, despite the barriers to permanence in the Gulf. The book is not arguing that neoliberal changes are not taking place—they certainly are. But it is challenging the way that criticisms of neoliberalization reify the US home campus as one of liberalism and the Gulf as a space of illiberalism, when in fact there are many things that critics want from the university (state subsidies, resources, living wages, lower teaching load, diverse and inquisitive students) which academics in the Gulf branch campuses experience to a greater degree than those at the home campuses. On the other hand, much of what academics miss from the supposedly eroded liberalism of the neoliberal US academy is in fact the product of things we would consider rather illiberal if they happened elsewhere.
Patrick Lewis: A significant amount of the book is devoted to exploring different subject positions in the university across differentiated axes of gender, class, race, and citizenship. It considers, inter alia, the relative positions of Qatari citizens and foreigners, as well as between international vs. ‘local expat’ students, and between South Asian migrant workers who often labor in menial jobs (or, as you describe when talking about your own experiences in chapter 5, are imagined to work in such jobs even when this is not the case) and (frequently white) experts from Europe and North America. What does a study of Education City allow us to see about difference and belonging in Qatar, that better-known journalistic and academic work on migrant labor camps for instance, perhaps obscures?
Neha Vora: Some of this I have already addressed in my previous answers. One of the things that we can see through the study of a transnational corporation in the Gulf (and these branch campuses function legally almost exactly like corporations) is that the ethno-racial hierarchy in employment, and the ability to hyper-exploit certain employees (usually low wage from the Global South), is the product of a partnership between global—often Western—consultants and Qatari leaders. In my previous book, Impossible Citizens, I detailed how it was Indian immigrants who were most often acting as the managers (and exploiters) of their less fortunate compatriots. In Teach for Arabia, I look at how larger institutions shape working and living conditions for various immigrants in the country. The journalistic and academic representations of toiling South and Southeast Asian workers in labor camps almost always put the blame for labor exploitation on Gulf governments and citizens when in fact this is a product of transnational elite cooperation.
Patrick Lewis: Finally, I want to ask about this book’s different audiences and its reception in Qatar and the United States. There is certainly much in this book that would be of interest to higher educational planners in Qatar and the wider Gulf. But it also seems to me that there is a message for US academics and university administrators as well. How did you conceive of the audience for your book and how has it been received in the United States and the Gulf? Has anything about its reception surprised you?
Neha Vora: This book was difficult to write in that I wanted to find a balance between centering what goes on in the branch campuses on-the-ground through my ethnography and offering a criticism of US academia more generally. However, I did not want the ethnographic information to be operationalized just for the purpose of critique, which is always a concern in anthropology. I wanted readers (both in the Gulf and elsewhere) to really get a feel for what different actors in Education City experience and the viewpoints they have on the project. What has been most rewarding is the circulation of this text among students in Doha and hearing that it resonates with their lived experiences in the branch campuses. It was used as a core text by my colleagues at Northwestern Qatar, in a class that all students are required to take about liberal arts education. Many of the things I discuss in the book came to a head last year when Northwestern Qatar students protested the ways they were being treated by faculty and administrators, and the way lower-ranking staff members are also treated. I had a chance to engage some of these students through Zoom last week as a guest speaker in the class I mentioned, and it was a great experience.
At the same time, the reception of the book has been mixed among faculty in the branch campuses. I have received a lot of praise from some, especially faculty of color who find that I articulate some of their frustrations. But I have heard there is also a lot of resistance, with some people even refusing to read the book. I was actually disinvited from a talk at a branch campus after a dean found out I had been invited by my colleague. His reasoning was that Qatar Foundation and Qataris might be offended, which is ironic because I discuss throughout the book how Qatari culture becomes an excuse for (white) American administrators to legitimize choices that work to their benefit. My criticisms in this text are not of Qataris or Qatari culture, but of the ways that whiteness, Americanness, and transnational expertise are leveraged in (re)producing essentialized ideas of cultural and racial difference, to the detriment of both Qatari and non-Qatari students. Colleagues in the US have been receptive to the book but there is still a lot of investment in essentialized and spectacular understanding of the Arabian Peninsula, and of course these are the very understandings that end up producing the structural conditions of inclusion and exclusion in the branch campuses. I have co-authored a book with two other ethnographers of the region, Amelie Le Renard and Ahmed Kanna, which just came out this year and discusses the role of exceptionalism in knowledge production about the Gulf, called Beyond Exception.
Kevin Laddapong: In Power Button, you bring readers back to the early days of buttons and encourage readers to think about the button in a new way. You have shown the discursiveness of technological development and the complexity of how buttons are socially embedded, from calling for service to turning on the light. How did you decide which buttons to focus on, given that buttons are so ubiquitous?
Rachel Plotnick: The ubiquity of buttons posed a big challenge for my study, and I was quickly daunted by it. As you suggest, I knew it wouldn’t be possible to write about every button that existed at the turn of the twentieth century. So, I took an approach that is often suggested in science and technology studies (STS) – which recommends that scholars “follow the actors.” In other words, I started looking to see what people called a button (for example, sometimes the ends of telegraph keys were called buttons) and how they talked about using buttons (some were pulled or turned instead of pushed). I tried not to impose my own categories of what counted as a button, but rather to use this grounded approach of seeing what emerged. Because most homes didn’t have electricity at this historical moment, button interfaces were perceived more as a novelty and that made it a bit easier. Most discussion circulated around buttons as mechanisms for control (push a button for light, an elevator, to take a picture, and so on) or as mechanisms for communication (to call a servant, trigger an alarm, honk a horn). As I began to see these categories rise to the surface, it was easier to sort and make sense of which buttons mattered for my story.
Kevin Laddapong: When many media scholars think about technology, they focus upon technologists, electricians, engineers, and other STEM figures. But the protagonists of this book tend to be “advertisers”. We see from your book that they defined the technology, told us who was eligible to push the button, and how should we perceive the buttons. Can you say more about the influences of these surprising non-STEM characters in this very scientific advancement?
Rachel Plotnick: I think you’re right that advertisers played a large role in influencing discourse about buttons. While there were many other actors, too (such as inventors, educators, or electrical companies), the idea of pushing a button really appealed to advertisers because they could sell new technologies of industrialization and electrification as safe, non-threatening, and effortless. It’s no surprise that Kodak’s slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest” took hold so widely at the time. It came to symbolize the seductiveness of automaticity – that consumers didn’t need to be especially skilled or well-versed in picture development (or photography in general) to own and operate a camera. In this regard, buttons acted as a kind of gateway to a whole world of mechanisms and consumer products that demanded limited input from their users. Advertisers often talked about using the button as a way to connote pleasure. Though this sometimes backfired, in that people perceived pushing buttons as too hedonistic and lazy, advertisers continued to rally around the concept. We can see this fixation still at work today – from the Staples “Easy” button to Uber’s “tap for a ride.” Buttons conjure up fantasies of instant gratification that seem almost timeless.
Kevin Laddapong: One of the key themes in your book is the power momentum between button-pushers and pushed. It was convolutedly interlocked with different levels of identities, haves and have-nots, men and women, or children, and adults. How did the technology help produce these button-pushing bodies?
Rachel Plotnick: This theme really emerged – quite noticeably – through the course of my research. It was fascinating to see how many people complained about power imbalances that they felt were exacerbated by button pushing. When I say people, this usually meant people who were already socially disadvantaged or othered in some way – due to race, class, gender or a combination of those factors. Servants were used to being heralded by bell systems, but when bells became electric and were installed at every bedpost, under the dining room table, next to the sofa, and so on, then control of those servants’ bodies and their movement became increasingly discreet and ubiquitous. Their bodies were made to move throughout homes while the button-pusher could remain stationary to herald whatever (or whomever) they desired. A similar dynamic existed between employers and employees. The rise of the so-called push-button manager likely did not have to do only with buttons, as at this historical moment places of business were undergoing industrialization and new bureaucratic procedures were taking hold. Buttons functioned as another bureaucratic measure and mechanism for exerting authority. As disparities between managers and employees became greater (a separation of white-collar workers from blue collar workers or head workers from manual laborers), button pushing drew attention to these stratifications. Employees disliked that their employers could sit behind a desk and command them at a moment’s notice. I call this digital command – an effortless gesture generated with the touch of a finger. I think it is critical to acknowledge that when people pushed buttons, it always involved someone’s labor (and the physical movement of bodies) to make one’s desires appear.
Kevin Laddapong: Gathering from your book, buttons hid the messy wires, simplified the electronic circuits in one touch, most importantly, disguised the underlying labor. But now, we are living in the digital age and many physical buttons become graphics or even voice controls. Do modern-day buttons still serve class inequality and labor exploitation? What is the lesson we can learn from the development of buttons regarding these issues?
Rachel Plotnick: That’s a great question. From a technical perspective, buttons are even further removed from the actions they trigger. Digital buttons that require only a tap or a swipe seem to provide anything one desires, from a ride to a roll of toilet paper. Even emotions are “buttonized,” in a sense: we click buttons to share our feelings in social media as a primary way of interacting with others. Yet, despite these significant differences from the turn of the twentieth century, I would argue that inequality and exploitation still figure significantly into button dynamics. I think the case of Amazon provides a good example. Consumers can “push” a button for nearly any product imaginable (for awhile, Amazon even had physical Dash buttons one could affix throughout their home). While this consumption feels effortless and gratifying, it elides the power dynamics that make such pushing possible. What happens after you click “purchase”? Whose bodies have to carry out and fulfill the orders? How are those bodies treated? Paid? What power dynamics exist in the factory, the warehouse, on the streets where the packages are delivered? What are the environmental implications? And who has the luxury or privilege to order Amazon items at will in the first place? Advertisers and manufacturers have always turned to buttons as a way to sell pleasure and instant gratification, so I see an emphasis on clicking, pushing, tapping and swiping on the Internet and apps as (in many ways) a continuation of the power relationships that began more than 100 years ago. We could take this even farther and think about drone warfare as an even higher stakes example of using buttons to make some bodies expendable while others sit in their command centers; what does it mean for armchair generals to decide who lives and who dies with a push of a button?
Indivar Jonnalagadda: What inspired the book’s central idea of ‘agribiopolitics’, which encompasses the government of the health and welfare of both people and plants? In contrast to the 20th century theorists of biopolitics, what makes the question of nonhuman life unavoidable for contemporary anthropology?
Kregg Hetherington: If we think of the major investments in crop improvement that started in the late 19th century and later gave rise to the Green Revolution, then we can spot major shifts in how the relationship between human health and plant health have been conceptualized. These histories alongside the contemporary activism around people’s health around monocrops led to the idea of agribiopolitics.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, there was a vitalist tradition, where community health was being analogized to that of plants in often racial or eugenic terms. These terms also easily stretched to talking about the health of the nation. Reading that vitalist literature, I found, resonated with the present in a way that reading Foucault and others in the mid-20th century period, for example, did not. I think the mid-20th century thinkers were writing amidst the ascendancy of a liberal notion of development that focuses on human welfare primarily through economics. Thus, the notion that making better plants makes your population healthier, gets supplanted by the notion that making better plants makes your population healthier by making them less poor. However, after the success of the Green Revolution and these massive expansions of chemically-intensive monocrops, there are counter-movements which are saying that maybe there’s an inverse relationship between the health of plants and the health of people and other living things in the area. This brings the relationship between plant, human, and other life to the fore. It is a particularly weird problem in places like Paraguay where the economy is now completely invested in the well-being of a particular plant, with mixed effects on different populations.
Indivar Jonnalagadda: You argue that specific crops historically become linked with specific nationalities, languages, and ethnicities, as companion species. Could you briefly synthesize for us the relationship between language ideology and agribiopolitics in Paraguay?
Kregg Hetherington: There’s a long-term discourse in Latin America about the relationship between certain groups of indigenous people and plants. The phrase “people of the corn” is something that one has heard about for a long time. It struck me that there was something similar going on in Paraguay. For example, the idea that people are made of cassava (the main starch that rural folks eat in Paraguay) is the source of lots of joking and ways of talking. Yet, what really interested me was soybeans. When soybeans, as this incredibly aggressive monocrop, enter into Paraguay, they do so almost exclusively with Brazilian migrants as the people planting them. They immediately get associated with a fear of a larger nation next door, a fear of the takeover of Paraguayan land and sovereignty, a fear of Portuguese (a European language) supplanting Guarani (an indigenous language).
If the beans are Brazilian, as people would say directly, then what’s Paraguayan? People aren’t worried about their cassava, they’re also not worried about their corn. Instead, what they were worried about was cotton. The fact that cotton was the crop with which people identified in this sort of sovereignty-project was very interesting, because cotton was itself only introduced in the 1960s as a Green Revolution crop. The set of identifications between rural Guarani-speaking Paraguayans and cotton that had been developed by French engineers in the 60s turned the story in unexpected ways. It also forced me into a more uncomfortable kind of historical analytical space, where I had to contend with the fact that cotton itself was a settler colonial crop that had been brought into this area merely two generations ago.
Indivar Jonnalagadda: Comparing Government of Beans with your previous book Guerrilla Auditors, you very generatively shift your attention from bureaucracy to regulation more generally. Could you say a little bit about the analytic usefulness of this move?
Kregg Hetherington: I think it happened fairly organically, because in the first book I was dealing with property, and for the second book in dealing with beans I had to think about the state differently. Property, particularly in Paraguay, really is a bureaucratic construct. The cadastre in Paraguay was created in 1876 by bureaucrats calling a bunch of elites to the capital to write down what they owned. Every transaction having to do with official property transactions in Paraguay since then, makes some iterative reference to this originary document. The whole thing was very apt for a kind of post-structuralist analysis of the way that bureaucratic practices call relations into being discursively, and I was also attentive to the materiality of the documents. But the activists among whom I conducted ethnography back then kept telling me that the documents are one thing, the bigger problem is the beans. Though the beans never really entered into that story, because they didn’t fit that kind of framework. I think that’s where regulation comes in.
This is too ideal-typical, but bear with me; regulation is the moment where the state is no longer focused on itself and it is (in the Karen Barad sense) meeting the universe halfway. It’s responding to something outside of itself and it’s using whatever tools it has at hand to try to shift or change material relations. So while I’d figured out a way to talk about bureaucracy and the movement of property documents in a way that had a very nice internal structure, beans troubled that internal structure. As it turned out, that was exactly what the bureaucrats felt about the beans too. Thus, the regulatory project is a much more open sort of responsive project where they’re just trying things, knowing that the agency of the state is incredibly limited in places.
Indivar Jonnalagadda: With regards to regulation, you also offer a fundamentally communicative framework with your concept of regulatory pragmatics. Can you say a little more about it and why you foreground the “progressive unfolding” of responses between various actors?
Kregg Hetherington: Regulatory pragmatics is a way of shifting between the linguistic-pragmatic mode and what I saw as an approach to response and responsiveness in some of the STS literature. Donna Haraway, particularly, thinks about the nonhuman as something that’s capable of responding, and Karen Barad similarly talks about intra-actions. These ideas are famously philosophically difficult for certain people who are too focused on language. But I found them really useful for thinking about what regulation was doing. There’s this obvious thing that happens in any legal anthropology: you realize that anyone who’s working in a legal sphere is always dealing with the gap between the rule and the thing, or between the representation and the ground. The example that I go into some length in the book is, how do you decide if something is a “neighborhood road”? If it is a neighborhood road, then the regulations further stipulates that there should be a plant barrier against pesticide drift from fields. The amount of time that people spent arguing over whether something was a neighborhood road or not, suggested that this was a field of play that was really important. I didn’t want to stop at the gap and suggest that there’s all kinds of stuff that can happen. Instead, I wanted to say, every time people encounter the gap, things shift. That’s the place where sovereignty occurs, because judgment gets involved. So the interaction between government and farmers occurs through the choice of plant used to create the barrier between the crop and the neighbourhood road. I use these mundane examples around the species of plants used as barriers just to force a certain kind of humility about what it is that regulation can do and what a state can do.
Also, who is communicating in these cases? There are a number of actors that one can point to that are obviously communicating back and forth. But there are all these other actors that crop up, like snakes, or the bandits who hide in the elephant grass and jump out and steal people’s motorcycles. There are all kinds of ways in which humans and nonhumans end up responding to a certain kind of regulatory entreaty with their own kind of response that then forces the regulators to go back to the drawing board.
Indivar Jonnalagadda: You describe how people often respond to your presentations on soy by wondering if eating tofu is unethical; a moment of doubt about the ethics of their eating habits that you call “Tofu moments”. You see these moments as being alive with experimental possibility for an ethics of eating well. Can you describe a significant Tofu moment of your own?
Kregg Hetherington: Ethics was not what I set out to try to theorize, but it was always part of the experience of the whole thing. The tofu moments—that still occur when I present this work about soybeans and about how destructive soybeans are—were when people in the audience who are vegetarian, suddenly get worried about the tofu. Given that the soy beans are being pre-dominantly produced in order to feed animals for meat, vegetarianism is a pretty reasonable response to the horror of soybeans. Nonetheless, there’s something great about that moment where someone starts to wonder if the decision they’ve made, is actually ethically far more complicated than they thought. That’s what I want the book to do — to encourage an opening. The moment that one feels kind of stable in a certain way of responding to a situation, is precisely the moment when you want to reach out a little bit farther.
A tofu moment for me was a specific story about fieldwork that I also describe in the book. As a white, North American, middle class person going and doing this kind of research, in places that have been historically exploited by the very kinds of financial comforts that I benefit from all the time, there’s always this question about the ethics of what research is all about. Questions about the extent to which it is extractivist or benefits from other forms of extraction on which it depends. There was one specific moment during the research, where I was hanging out with very close friends of mine, who were also my research assistants in the field. We had retreated to this posh country cottage that friends of theirs owned to reflect on the research. At a certain point during that reflection, we were approached by a police cruiser that was going around the neighborhood, and were asked to pay a bribe. This is not that uncommon a situation in Paraguay, but it’s always a little bit unclear what exactly one is paying the bribe for. But it occurred to me at that moment that we are being asked to bribe the police to secure the conditions within which this research becomes possible. This was a moment that opened up that whole set of research dynamics for me. As I think about what future research might look like in Paraguay post-COVID, I’m still troubled on the one hand by ethical commitments that I feel like I’ve made to people, and on the other hand by the difficulty of new forms of awareness of how much my own practice relies on international extractivist structures.
Janet Conner: Why is fashion so good for thinking about capitalism?
Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Fashion as an industry has several key aspects that make it good for us to think about capitalism. Most importantly, they include the claim to aesthetic distinction, which identifies design as the key component of value; the celebration of the creative artist as the producer, obscuring design as a complex, interactive process involving many participants; the related emphasis on knowledge and expertise not only about design but also about branding, marketing and distribution; the imperative to constantly produce a seemingly new product; the historical contexts in which, for example, one finds that Italian fashion was transnational from its inception as an industry; and finally, its simultaneous production of and reaction to asymmetries in changing relations of global power. Other industries undoubtedly have some of these features but they are especially visible in fashion. These characteristics enabled us to to challenge what are commonly taken as the core features of capitalism (viz, the wage-labor relation, the pursuit of profit, private property and inequality). We were able to emphasize the contingency of how various transnational capitalist projects converge that do not always reside in a narrow definition of the economic, and how the accumulation and distribution of capital emerges in those contingencies. Studying the fashion industry ethnographically led us to theorize how commodities are not the only things made in the production process, which also includes the production of dispositions, social practices, identities, and subjectivities. It further includes the production of labor power. Marxist theories generally assume that labor power is transhistorical, pre-existing the production process, and that workers bring their labor power to the workplace with them. We found that in tracing the fashion industry’s key characteristics, labor power is instead constituted through the specific relations of transnational collaboration.
Janet Connor: The book is split into three parts (the negotiation of value, legacies and histories, and kinship and transnational capitalism). While they overlap with the key dynamic processes of transnational capitalism that you argue for in the book, they’re not an exact match. How did you decide to organize the book in this way? And more of a stylistic question, I was wondering how you decided to write Part I together, while in the other two parts you deliberately chose not to write in one voice.
Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: The organization of our ethnography emerged gradually through our discussions about what stood out in the fieldwork materials we had gathered. We had these discussions as we were doing the fieldwork and also afterwards. We agreed that several practices seemed prominent: first, in the context of a transnational relationship of production and distribution, it was clear that the various Italian and Chinese managers whom we came to know constantly asserted their own skills and knowledge in comparison with and contrast to their foreign partners, as well as sometimes in relation to others within their domestic orbits. It was not that either side had a homogeneous view, this was not a binary contrast, but across the heterogeneity of different kinds of social relations of production, the various people involved emphasized their worth, their contribution to the value of what all agreed was Italian fashion. This practice was prominent in all of our interviews and conversations. It led us to our argument that value is an ongoing process of negotiation rather than a sociological formula based on fixed social relationships. Nor is it simply a direct result of capitalist investments or a recent effect of global capitalism presumably unhinging what were previously more stable ways to calculate value. Rather these ongoing negotiations were an outcome of how people assert their cultural capital, including their knowledge, identities and habitus. The negotiation of value had to be its own section. As to historical legacies and revisionist histories, again our various interlocutors often invoked their national histories to explain to us the particularities of why and how they engaged in the fashion industry in the ways they did. Italian managers, for example, often mentioned the long history of fashion in Italy as compared to China. Chinese managers tended to grapple with the legacies of socialism. The prominence of historical legacies thus also caught our attention. We both described and interpreted these legacies. Our interpretations highlighted how Chinese managers, for example, wanted to erase the socialist past through a nostalgia for a revisionist version of pre-socialist life in China, especially in Shanghai, while Italian managers sometimes naturalized fashion taste as part of what they called Italianità. Kinship became the third theme because it, too, has played a prominent part in the organization of fashion industry’s production and distribution relationships, though quite differently among Chinese firms and Italian firms.
These three key practices encompass the dynamic processes of capitalism we identified — privatization and the public/private division, the negotiation of value, the rearrangement of accumulation, the reconfiguration of kinship, and the outsourcing of inequality. They do so to different degrees but it made more sense to us to start from the ethnographic material and work out.
Stylistically, we thought the first section had to be one chapter as the back and forth between the interlocutors would come out most clearly in that way. Conversely, while our interlocutors sometimes invoked their historical legacies to interpret their relationships with their foreign partners, there was much more about that history that needed to be explained and interpreted in our analyses. Similarly, while kinship was a key social relationship, its force varied among Italian and Chinese firms. To put all that needed to be explained in one chapter for these themes would have both chopped and stretched our analysis, not to mention they would have been very long chapters!
Janet Connor: One of many important interventions in the book is your questioning the existence of a division between public and private, particularly in relation to the common equation of neoliberalization and privatization. Can you say more on how you think about the relationship between public and private?
Lifa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Our argument about the relationship between the public and private came out of our feminist approach to capitalism, as well as the history of the role of the state in capitalism. Feminist anthropologists, historians and other feminist theorists have long argued that public and private are ideologically defined and vary historically and cross-culturally and that this division is empirically unfounded. To say this division is empirically unfounded is not to assert this division is a mere fantasy. Feminists rather argue that taking for granted the division obscures the work these ideological distinctions do to maintain gender and racial hierarchies. As African American feminist theorists have long maintained, the private was never an attainable sphere for black women and families in the U.S., with racist consequences. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, these insights have been consistently ignored in analyses of neoliberalism and, more generally, capitalism. The dominant vision of privatization under neoliberalism is derived from North American social arrangements and imaginaries. We developed these insights about contemporary practices of capitalism first because, as Lisa explains, in post-socialist China, it is often impossible to discern whether some Chinese companies are fully private or fully public, which is a deliberate strategy for multiple reasons. Second, as Sylvia explains, the state’s role has been central in Italian industrialization up to and including the present. In other words, there is a history of state-private enterprises that long predates neoliberalism. We found that employing feminist critiques of the public/private divide helped us to analyze the multiple meanings and practices of privatization, including the often-blurred relationships among them. We argue that instead of trying to fix a definition of the private and the public we should trace ethnographically and historically how this division in itself is made, challenged, and remade and how its ideological effects produce inequality.
Janet Connor: The book includes a multitude of voices and viewpoints, not just from both of you but also with the chapter by Simona Segre Reinach, and in the writing style of including many rich ethnographic stories about a range of interlocutors. The style of the book seems to me to be doing several things at once. On the one hand, it’s an example of a kind of collaborative methodology, both in terms of how you do fieldwork and how you write. At the same time, the polyphonic character of the book is making an analytic intervention against conceiving of transnational capitalism as one unified thing or as having a predefined set of structural features. Could you say more about how you think about and write collaborative ethnography?
Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Collaborative ethnography can take multiple forms and approaches. In our case, the collaboration was grounded in our long-term engagements with China and Italy and in particular with their textile and clothing industries, and Simona with the fashion industry. We realized that our deep sets of knowledge would enable a study of transnational capitalist relations of production and distribution, including what is often called commodity chains, that could move us beyond the methodological challenges of a sole anthropologist doing fieldwork in a single place. It further gave us an important historical depth to our study, so that we could challenge assumptions about the neo in neoliberalism. We also followed the lead of our interlocutors. Beginning in the 1980s and increasingly in the 1990s, Italian textile and clothing firms outsourced manufacturing to lower-wage countries, including China. China, for its part, was opening up a market economy at that time and welcomed foreign investment. Our theoretical insights that challenge the idea of capitalism as structured by a single logic or as having a singular modal form arose from our ability to carry out an ethnography that could attend to multiple experiences rather than just one side and that could demonstrate the contingencies of capitalism. The way we organized the book to include multiple voices and viewpoints arose from our desire to highlight these analytical challenges to economistic approaches to capitalism. We offered not merely a method of data collection but a methodology for the study of cultural production that entails both methods and concepts.
Janet Connor: Comparison has long been an important analytic strategy in anthropology, and more recently anthropologists have begun to see the comparisons made by our interlocutors as an object of study. It seems to me that your book contributes to both of these strands of comparison, both with how you think of the writing as moving beyond conventional analysis and in your ethnographic examples of how the ways that your Italian and Chinese interlocutors see themselves and negotiate value through comparisons across many different scales. How are you thinking about the ways that anthropologists can study and participate in comparative work?
Yes, we tried to emphasize that we were not doing a comparative study, at least not a comparative study of Italian and Chinese capitalisms. What we offered instead was an analysis of the co-production of Italian-Chinese transnational capitalism. Our collaborative ethnography offers an alternative to the conventional comparative method in anthropology of different cultures, one that is better suited to the modes of cultural production in the world today. We viewed our interlocutors as making comparisons but within a relationship in which they were intimately tied to one another. That said, your point that we compare ourselves with past conventions in anthropology is well taken. It echoes the way our Italian and Chinese interlocutors compare themselves with their national historical pasts.
Kevin Laddapong: The Emoji Revolution allows us to revisit Linguistics 101 from the perspective of how we use emoji. It is eye-opening to see how emoji can be analyzed so effectively on every level of linguistic production and expression, from phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic, narrative, or even poetic. Do you think emoji are unusual phenomenon in this regard?
Philip Seargeant: One of the aims of the book was to show how emoji are very much a part of the history of human language, and particularly the history of writing. Although they may seem a completely new phenomenon (and even, perhaps, a slightly frivolous one), in actual fact we can find direct precedents for many aspects of them throughout history – from the way they relate to other pictographic writing systems, to the way they’re used to express irony and emotional framing.
The reason behind their popularity, I think, is that they’re so flexible as a means of communication, and particularly that they allow for, if not encourage, creativity in their use. Part of this creativity is prompted by the fact that they’re a reasonable small, closed system (there are only a few thousand emoji in total), so if people want to try to express more complicated ideas they have to find inventive ways of doing so, often exploiting a range of different communicative tropes to do so.
Kevin Laddapong: One of the outstanding characters in your book is Jonathan Swift. Why is his story relevant to how people use emoji today? What do we learn about creative and playful communicative practices throughout history through your comparison?
Philip Seargeant: In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift parodies many of the scientific trends of his time, including ones concerning language. As a satirist, he takes real life ideas which are slightly ludicrous, and then exaggerates them to make them fully absurd. One of his targets is the trend for people trying to create a supposedly perfect language because they feel human language is too vague and imprecise. The solution that the scholars in the novel have come up with is to carry a vast array of objects on their backs, so that whenever they want to refer to something they simply take out the object and point to it. The idea that ‘Words are only Names for Things’ is obviously a very simplistic and misguided understanding of how language works; but it’s similar, I think, to how a lot of people probably think emoji work: that is, emoji are just pictures of objects, and that’s how we use them to communicate. But just as language is much more than words, so the way emoji are used involves a lot more than the simple pictorial representation of objects.
Kevin Laddapong: You mention the importance of language standardization and universalization in your book. Emoji are evidently the product of successful attempts at standardizing and universalizing a form of communication, yet as you point out, these attempts are dramatically different from any other attempts. Why did emoji experience such a different destiny? What did Unicode Consortium and other actors do differently from other language regulators?
Philip Seargeant: Emoji are standardised in terms of their form because they’re a digital writing system which needs to be compatible across different platforms around the world. This is the only reason that a single body (in this case the Unicode Consortium) is able to regulate their form – and even then, the different platforms have slightly different designs for each character. This is very different situation from other languages, where the speech community itself generates new words and practices, and then a language academy can only try to regulate this after the event. It’s also worth noting that although the Unicode Consortium regulate the form of emoji, they can’t regulate the way they’re used, so there’s still variety in the meanings they accrue and patterns of usage from speech community to speech community.
Kevin Laddapong: Emoji clearly could only be possible in a context of capitalism and hyper-consumerism. Towards the end, you suggest that emoji is seamlessly fused with neoliberal practices. Apart from million-dollar Twitter emoji deals, what other aspects allow emoji to be so compatible with neoliberalism, and why do we have to be concerned about this?
Philip Seargeant: In many ways, this is part of the general business strategy of the big tech companies, who are constantly looking for ways to engage users/customers, and ensure that their products are in a continual state of development so that people feel an endless desire to keep up-to-date with them. Emoji are updated on a yearly basis, along with related innovations such as Apple’s Memoji, and thus become a attractive sales feature for new hardware, while also being a very popular resource for marketing initiatives. Again, this is unusual for what is essentially a writing system, but is, as you say, in line with a hypercapitalist society.
Kevin Laddapong: Throughout the book, you have hinted about the intervention of machines in our human interaction. Emoji have been designed, developed, and coded to be neatly merged with auto-correction and word suggestion technologies. Are emoji part of a larger trend — how else is communication changing to accommodate the demands of digital technologies?
Philip Seargeant: That’s a very large topic. The simple answer is that so much of modern communication is mediated via computers, and thus digital technologies have a huge influence on how we communicate. Emoji are rather unusual in that it is the writing system itself which is regulated – and indeed owned, to a degree – by the big tech companies, and so these companies get to decide which emoji are appropriate and which aren’t, and to assign meanings to them on autopredict, and so on. But increasingly the spaces in which we communicate – be it Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, and so on – are also owned by the huge tech companies, and their business models thus influence all aspects of our communication. Not only will Gmail gives you various ‘smart reply’ options, but it is also able to scan or extract data from your messages, while what you write or post on social media is, to all intents and purposes, in the public domain, and also has to abide by the platform’s guidelines on expression. All of this means that this type of communication takes place within a very different environment from, say, a face-to-face conversation, and the specifics of this environment have an influence on both what we say and how we say it.
An edited excerpt from an ongoing conversation between Jennifer Deger and Zeynep Devrim Gürsel
Zeynep Devrim Gürsel:How has twenty five years of making media with Yolŋu shaped your approach to media theory?
Jennifer Deger: It’s emboldened me. I’ve become convinced that anthropologists who want to theorize media must also make it. Somehow or other. Media methods and media theory-work shouldn’t be approached as separable acts. Digital technologies not only blur once distinct boundaries between field site and home (and of course, these days, home and work in general), they allow us to disrupt stubbornly long-standing academic distinctions between research methods and research outputs. So all these years of co-creating with Yolngu has propelled me to a broader commitment to the on-going work of re-defining what scholarship can look like, sound like, and feel like. By making media, we can begin to make media theory; we can craft social analyses that refuse to be abstracted from the mediated dynamics, affordances, and digital demands that shape our lives, thoughts, and actions.
While what this experimental making might actually entail will no doubt vary wildly—from acts of archival image repatriation, to participating in WhatsApp chats with interlocutors or, in our case, designing a book as a media object, in its own right—the point remains the same. Contemporary media theorists can be—and bloody well should be—going so much further than using multimodal research methods to create works positioned as secondary or supplementary to the ‘real’ and substantive scholarly work of text-based analysis. Digital media delivers more than data; it brings a new performative potentiality to our work, a fantastically rich opportunity to work with, and respond in-kind to, the media worlds we study. That, at least, is what our book attempts.
In Phone & Spear we took enormous pleasure in creating vibrant fields of colour, pattern and story directed by a Yolŋu appreciation of remediation and remix as techniques of social enlivenment and relationship making. Whether we are working in film, exhibition or interactive art, our projects have never been simply about documentation or display—even when we are recording endangered songs and stories at the request of senior Yolŋu everything we’ve done together, from films, exhibitions and interactive artworks, has entailed forms of collaborative creative labor with a view to fostering emergent knowledges and relationships. This is the yuta [new] in yuta anthropology.
Encouraging other scholars to try working, thinking, and feeling with media as an analytic and socially-engaged strategy seems absolutely essential if we are in any way to adequately respond to the multiple and often-brutally-colliding worlds to which digital media provides form, intensity, and new potentiality. In attempting such making, we must of course bear in mind that sounds and images do not circulate as stable or unproblematically self-declaring objects of knowledge, as the photo-collages in Phone & Spear make abundantly clear. Therein lies the challenge and the responsibility that as anthropologists we are particularly well placed to recognize and respond to.
Zeynep Devrim Gürsel:What were the particular challenges of writing this book in these terms? How did the expectations or investments of your Yolŋu friends shape the process?
If making media allows us to rethink what collaborative scholarship might look like, writing a book together posed a particular set of challenges in term of voice, especially given the necessarily different and sometimes profoundly different places from which we speak—not to mention our different epistemological orientations and expectations. A specifically-situated politics of knowledge determines who can, and should, speak for Yolŋu worlds—and for what purposes. This is not an oppositional politics, nor necessarily a race based one. It’s concerned with a situated forms of knowledge and authority, driven by a profound understanding that stories and images are the means by which relational worlds must be made, affirmed, and renewed.
A language of crisis infuses so much of the contemporary anthropology of Aboriginal Australia—and for good reason I reckon. Yet, the other members of Miyarrka Media had absolutely no interest in our work figuring the intercultural and intergenerational dynamics of their lives as problematic in those terms. Likewise, they were not motivated to conceive and deliver critiques of the workings of the state, its assimilationists apparatuses, and the resulting forms of structural violence (though one might detect an oblique commentary). What we all agreed from the outset was that we would each have our own voice in the book, allowing for our own, sometimes clashing perspectives. So the key challenge to writing the book lay in finding a form that might hold all us and our varying perspectives, where we could speak collectively as one in ways that were not reductive, in ways that claimed both the playful and the optimistic, but still acknowledged the tremendous daily difficulties of life and death in these remote settlements, so far from the rhythms, values and imaginative reach of mainstream Australia.
If this was going to work at all, I knew that I had to prevent balanda [white, or non-Aboriginal] theory from pre-figuring the book and our discussions, and we achieved this by pressing almost all the references to other scholarship under the line, in the notes. I promised myself that the word ontology would not appear. But beyond that, we were stuck for a very long time in terms of finding the right form for this collective experiment.
As it turned out, the solution—to create our own collage of voice, story and images—had been right in front of our eyes the whole time in the collaged form of the photographs themselves. What I love about the form we found is that it manages to hold the lived commitments, the responsibilities, relationships of care that extend beyond fieldwork and beyond our academic lives. Our constantly shifting voices, adds, I think to the aliveness and the animating dynamic of sameness-difference that we were aiming for.
All that said, I will confess that for me it was an extremely painful and uncertain process putting together this book, a sustained sense of uncertainty and love and despair that I managed over many years. There are likely many omissions and mistakes, many ways I could have done it better. But this was what I managed. What we managed.
Zeynep Devrim Gürsel:Please tell us more about what you and your collaborators see as the difference between revealing one world to another versus bringing worlds into relationship.
Jennifer Deger: I will paraphrase Djingadjingawuy here. Talk-talk is not enough. You have to feel to know, to understand. Through feelings you connect, with your family, with the land, with the old people (ancestors). Through feelings we are marked in relationship. If we share our feelings with balanda and they share theirs in response, then we come be together. Together, but not mixed up, as Gurrumuruwuy puts it, so marvelously.
I wish Miyarrka Media were not so geographically dispersed these days and had been able to work together on this piece for you. As you know I am reluctant to become the official spokesperson for our group, exactly because of the ways it undercuts the performative ethos of the book—and I find myself falling back into the earnest, explanatory voice that the others undermine so brilliantly. However, Gurrumuruwuy has no such qualms. He sees this kind of thing as exactly my job at the moment. He is managing other relationships, expectations and curious interrogations back in Arnhem Land.
Zeynep Devrim Gürsel:This is a book that exists in many formats. Can you explain how you collectively decided to produce it in so many formats. Also why a book about digitally worked cell phone images?
Jennifer Deger: From the outset we wanted to do both a digital and printed version of the book and this framed discussions with potential presses—along with our (expensive!) commitment to printing in full color. If you spend time with the book, you’ll see that to print in black and white would have really killed everything that mattered about this project. We’re very grateful to Goldsmiths for letting us art direct the entire project, and to Santiago Carrasquilla and Eugene Lee from Art Camp for their fantastic commitment to a design collaboration that stretched over many years.
The multiple formats allow for the work of remediation and remix to continue in ways that we find pleasurable and satisfying. We’re interested in the energy and allure that can arise in giving new form to old media—this, after all, is the foundational ethos of the images themselves. Of course, we risked losing a lot of brightness and image clarity in deciding to do a print book, but the decision to make a hold-in-your-hand book as a patterned relational object was something we all wanted.
The open access version we developed in collaboration with MIT’s Knowledge Futures Group allowed us to return to a media rich digital world of brightness, color, and added sparkle. I think that having made the book first was really important, because we worked through a lot of the curation and design challenges in that process; we found the analytic form for our ideas through the design, which then found new expression in the online design. The printed and digital “books” basically have the same content, but they are very different things. I’m a bit surprised that I prefer the printed book. That said, the online version has its own qualities and character.
And perhaps that’s the most exciting outcome of all from our shared experiment. Each time the book takes new form, it re-instantiates a commitment to remix as a technique of social enlivenment; and, of course, in this instance, as anthropological method.
We spent five years designing and assembling a printed book and now we’re sending it out into the world in forms that undo its very status as ‘book’ (see for example our promo for the online version, ‘What is a book?’). Earlier this year we were invited to contribute a keynote to Distribute 2020, so we recombined elements from the book and elsewhere to make a 30 minute video. Just last month we cheekily entered that conference “talk” into a film festival and just found out it has been accepted. And so the work of remix continues.
Jon Bialecki: I want to start this interview by saying that God Is Samoan is a great book, but it is also a surprising one. True, there are a lot of continuities with your previous work: Oceania as a region, Christianity as an ethnographic object, tensions between dialogue and monologue. And in your earlier material, you’ve also discussed contemporary and historical missionary material, for instance, in your last book, Ritual Textuality. But the turn to studying autochthonous theology, theologians, and the production and pedagogy of theological knowledge caught my attention. This was not just because this was a different kind of project from you, but also because I have a hard time thinking of any similar study. Could you say something about how you came to this project, and also a little about what fieldwork was like, since I imagine the actual field methodologies must have been quite different from your previous work as well?
Matt Tomlinson: Thanks, Jon. The project began with two failures which shaped the way everything unfolded.
The first was back in 2008-2009, when I had gone to Suva, Fiji’s capital city, to do a study of Christian institutions. Fiji had suffered its most recent coup (its fourth) late in 2006, and I had naively not realized how difficult this would make the research. For example, talking with people in the Methodist Church potentially endangered them, as the government was suspicious of politics within the church and watched its leaders closely, and a foreign researcher chatting with church leaders could get them in trouble. In addition, the Fiji Council of Churches had mysteriously shut down.
As it happened, I was living on the campus of the Pacific Theological College (PTC). PTC trains people from all over Oceania in academic theology, many of them already ordained ministers in mainline Protestant congregations. So, because research was problematic elsewhere, I spent more time actually studying PTC than I had expected to–and became fascinated. The teachers and students work in a field known as “contextual theology,” which places culture and personal experience at the heart of theological thinking.
I wanted to learn more about how contextual theologians draw on anthropological concepts of culture. I was able to get research funding to spend time at the University of Auckland’s School of Theology and church seminaries in Samoa and American Samoa. Early in the project, though, it became clear how much reading I needed to do, as I didn’t have enough grounding in theology of any sort. This was the second failure: I sat there in Auckland and thought, “How can I write about practitioners of another academic discipline when I don’t know quite what that discipline is?”
So, the project became heavily text-based: an anthropological reading of contextual theology. I did participate in daily life at the different sites, but as you can tell, the book is more of an anthropological engagement with contextual-theological thought and texts than a deep ethnography.
Jon Bialecki: Presenting your project as “an anthropological engagement with contextual-theological thought and texts” brings me to the next question I wanted to ask. As you point out in your book, some anthropologists have lately become quite interested in theology. For example, Joel Robbins recently wrote a book that outlines how theology might help anthropologists of Christianity theorize the social and cultural life of the people they study, and Khaled Furani has a new book that critiques anthropology from a theological perspective. Then there is Derrick Lemon’s omnibus-grade edited volume on what he calls “theologically engaged anthropology,” which features both anthropologists and theologians. All these books came out in the last two or so years, so one could almost say “anthropology-and-theology” is having a bit of a moment. I want to ask where you would situate your book in this literature, but I also want to sort of fold-in the larger question two subsidiary queries. First, text-heavy as it is, this is an ethnographic project; what difference does that make? And second, this is the only book to be specifically engaged with Oceania as a region and contextual-theology as a subject. How does that distinguish your work from the broader field?
Matt Tomlinson: Robbins’ work is a major influence on my own, and I’ve participated in and learned from Lemons’ project, although I’m not in the volume you mention. I haven’t read Khaled Furani’s book yet.
For God Is Samoan, a key source of inspiration was Robbins’ 2006 article on the “awkward relationship” between anthropology and theology. In it, he suggests that anthropologists might engage with theology in several ways. The first two are modest: one can study how theology helped shape anthropology’s development as a discipline, or one can treat theology as ethnographic data. The third is more ambitious: to allow theology to genuinely destabilize anthropology, to open us up to fresh theoretical transformation.
My book will probably be read as taking the second option: drawing on theology for anthropological analysis. After all, I take up theological discussions in order to make sense of Oceanic cultural dynamics, including people’s critical reevaluations of local Christian histories and their understandings of intrinsic connections between land, sea, and spiritual presence. But I’d like to think that my conversations with theologians pushed me toward the third option to an extent, too, because engaging with theologians made me rethink my core topic. In brief, I started out interested in culture and ended up interested in dialogue.
Not only do contextual theologians talk a lot about culture, they routinely call for more dialogue on any subject. Many people do this, including anthropologists. During fieldwork, I came to see how theologians draw on concepts of culture in order to motivate specific kinds of dialogue. Yet sometimes dialogue, as an ideal, seems almost utopian–the perfect method and best result in any situation. Calls for more dialogue can be almost monologic in their insistence, which has led me to try to think in new ways about the relationship between dialogism and monologism. For me, there is a deep tension between Bakhtin’s characterization of language as inherently dialogic, and the monologic ideologies authoritarian speakers tend to employ. When Donald Trump speaks, for example, he does not imagine that he lives in a world of other’s words.
One of the most interesting things about central Oceania–and something that can only be apprehended ethnographically–is how dialogic and monologic ideals coexist and indeed work together. For dialogue, there is the valorization of talanoa, open-ended and interactive conversation. For monologue, there is the speech of high chiefs and church ministers, which is meant to express unanswerable truth in a single voice.
Jon Bialecki: Mentioning Joel Robbins brings up another issue. Robbins is also well known for his calls for anthropologists to be suspicious of claims of hidden continuity in moments of purported change, and to be more open to the possibility of sharp cultural and social disruption and discontinuity. And for Robbins, the paradigmatic case of that is collective conversions to Christianity in Papua New Guinea, which often involves some rather serious transvaluations in a society. This claim regarding rupture, which echoes a similar observation that Birgit Meyer has made regarding Pentecostalism in Africa, has not gone unchallenged. Liana Chua, for instance, has suggested that there might be places where there are different intensities to change, often divided up along denominational lines. And Mark Mosko has suggested that the underlying structure of personhood and exchange goes unchanged by conversion, at least in Melanesia, though he has at times suggested this is a part of a broader pattern in the Christian structure of selfhood. Even more recently, Devaka Premawardhana has been arguing for a more fluid ethnographic sensibility, where converts in places such as Mozambique do not go through such sharp discontinuities in their commitments and practices.
Of course, flattening Christian senses of temporality into “rupture: yes or no” is perhaps a little too simple; Robbins obviously meant to make something more of an intervention in a discussion about cultural change rather than to create some hard-and-fast-rule. And you yourself have played with creating more finely patterned senses of temporality; I’m thinking here of a discussion you had elsewhere of Kierkegaardian repetition in Fijian ideas of time, especially when it comes to the interactions between Christianity and curses. So, you’re willing to play with sensibilities about continuity and change.
All this is by way of saying that what you present in God Is Samoan is something that seems to defy any easy pigeonholing into some of the preexisting camps on this issue. The theologians you engage with want to express Christianity through explicitly Oceanian metaphors and similes, and sometimes even argue for strong continuity with pre-Christian tradition. But at the same time, they seem to sense that the arrival of Christianity marked a significant break of some kind, and they also appear to be offering their theological concepts in the interest of creating further change through dialogue. Could you say something about how you see God Is Samoan fitting into – or perhaps, not fitting into – these anthropological disputes over rupture and continuity? And are there lessons here for thinking about temporality and change that could be picked up by people working outside of religion in Oceania?
Matt Tomlinson: Right, the continuity-and-change debate has motivated a lot of work in the anthropology of Christianity–but as you say, Robbins was not proposing any hard-and-fast rule, but rather (I think) calling for a new kind of culture theory which, among other things, does not overlook Christianity’s profound cultural force.
As you note, contextual theologians make claims about both continuity and rupture. Because they tend to draw on older anthropological models of culture–structural-functionalist and cognitivist ones, in which culture is a unified system of rules and relations you inherit–their goal in putting culture at the center of their theology is often to argue for deep continuity between local traditions and Christian truths. Interestingly enough, in making this move, it’s missionary Christianity that is framed as rupture, but often in a negative way. For example, missionary Bible translations are criticized for not using locally appropriate linguistic/cultural referents, and imposing less appropriate foreign ones.
My favorite example of a continuity-and-change argument in contextual theology is found in the work of Ama’amalele Tofaeono. For him, the Samoan creator Tagaloa was, in fact, the spirit of Christ, because obviously the spirit of Christ is not limited to the physical existence of Jesus. Because traditional Samoan lifeways recognized the divinity of Tagaloa, they were thoroughly Christian. What broke this system? European missionaries coming in with the model of God as essentially a white man, separate from the natural order. In taking up mission Christianity, for Tofaeono, Samoa got less Christian.
Yet the field of contextual theology itself is seen, by some of its authors, as disruptive in the positive sense of giving voice to those who would never be heard in old-fashioned systematic theology. The career (so far) of one Tongan theologian, Nasili Vaka’uta, shows a kind of push-and-pull between understandings of continuity and change in this regard. When he began his theological studies, he was interested in Bakhtin, but his supervisor encouraged him to explore his Tongan heritage as a theological resource instead. Yet this was not an easy thing to do for several reasons, as Vaka’uta points out. For one, he is not from the noble class, and only nobles are supposed to represent Tongan culture and society. In other words, it made him vulnerable to criticism from a Tongan audience. For another, writing a dissertation based on European theological sources is a safe bet for getting your degree, whereas putting forth a distinctively Tongan argument is a riskier bet. So he was also vulnerable to a non-Tongan audience. Ultimately, he has succeeded brilliantly. But asking whether his work foregrounds continuity or rupture, in either his subjects or his methods, becomes a misleading question. He does both.
Stepping back a bit, I do think it’s important to distinguish between change as an objective fact and change as ideology. This might be obvious, but it needs saying. The authors in the anthropology of Christianity get this point really well, but outside of the subdiscipline, I am often frustrated by arguments that take loss or brokenness as an obvious or natural condition of our present moment. The loss of linguistic diversity in the world, and the extinction of species, are really happening and we can count the specific losses. But so much human energy gets poured into ideologically framing things as continuation or novelty, or for that matter gain or loss, that we need to draw back and ask what gets counted as evidence for any of these processes, and why.
Jon Bialecki: Culture plays a vital role in your book – but not as an analytic; rather, local concepts of culture are the primary key that contextual theology operates. But as you just stated, this is a version of culture that is very antiquated to contemporary anthropological eyes. The power of this version of ‘culture’ is apparent throughout God Is Samoan; I think that there were only one or two theological voices that questioned it in the entire volume. The fascination that this version of culture has is not limited to either theology or Oceania, however. This image of culture seems to be all over the place – including in certain right-wing movements in Europe, though I wouldn’t want to put your theologians in the same basket as those European nativist movements! Given the breadth of this vision of culture, I was hoping that you could say something about what it is that makes it so compelling, at least in Oceania. As an anthropologist who has worked with culture as an analytic in other places, I was also hoping that you could say something about how one can work with the idea of culture without accidentally reinforcing these much more procrustean public understandings of the idea.
Matt Tomlinson: Culture theory is in an odd place in 2020, isn’t it? Some of us still think the term “culture” is worth foregrounding theoretically. For example, I often assign Ira Bashkow’s 2004 article “A Neo-Boasian Conception of Cultural Boundaries” to students because it shows the vitality and flexibility of understandings of culture before structural functionalism. Many authors are happy to use the adjective “cultural” but suspicious of the noun “culture.” And some scholars, like the host of this forum, Ilana Gershon, do what I consider culture theory but are skeptical of the term itself. Personally, I don’t mind “culture” as a noun denoting process, and am fine with any anthropological use of it that makes visible the interactive social work that goes into claiming relations of similarity and difference.
But, yeah: this is not how most contextual theologians write about culture. The culture concept many contextual theologians draw on is useful, for them, for the same reason many anthropologists distrust it: its stability. It’s a referent for which there seems to be a built-in agreement about its significance. In other words, although Samoan intellectuals may disagree about what is fa’aSamoa (the “Samoan way,” a gloss for Samoan culture), I can’t imagine anyone saying that there is no such thing as fa’aSamoa–that would seem absurd. Referring to it gives people apparent common ground, and enables speakers to make connections with other referents: God, biblical texts, church policies, and so forth. (There are connections here with the way you write about virtual Christianity with reference to Deleuze, I think.)
As I mentioned before, discussing the work of Nasili Vaka’uta–and he is one of the voices who does critique the culture concept–a model of culture gives him a position from which to make a distinctive contribution to knowledge. For him, knowing Tongan culture enables him to speak to other biblical scholars and theologians in new ways. But speaking isn’t enough, because you need to know who’s listening. And he puts the question pointedly: Can a Tongan reading of the Bible “make a difference in biblical scholarship” generally?
Jon Bialecki: Now, normally, the format here is to close the interview with a sort of ‘coming attractions’ reel, where the interviewee talks about future projects, and I don’t want to take that away from you. But I also want to stick with the theme of dialogue. So, I’ll ask the classical question this way: in what ways has the dialogue you’ve had with these Oceanian Conxtextual theologians changed the way you think, and how will this conversation shape your future projects?
Matt Tomlinson: The work for God Is Samoan, as well as more recent work I’ve been doing with Spiritualists in Australia, has led me to focus on the relationships between dialogism and monologism as ideologies and dialogue and monologue as formats. What drives me is the question of how we really engage with others’ words, especially when words are credited to extrahuman speakers or authors.
As I’ve seen and heard contextual theologians construct different kinds of dialogue, and as I’ve seen and heard Spiritualist mediums work to bring dialogues with spirits into conjunction with dialogues with human audiences, I continually want to know what the limits to these dialogues are. I don’t think it makes sense to study dialogues or dialogism without studying monologues and monologism.
To finish on a note of thanks: I appreciate the chance for this exchange. Real dialogues can happen. But they’re hard work!