Interview by Josh Reno
Josh Reno: What were your primary goals in writing this book?
Britt: Halvorson: One of my goals in writing this book was to shine light on the transforming relationships between independent national churches in Sub-Saharan Africa and American Christian churches formerly involved in colonial mission work. Humanitarian aid relationships have become one way that Christians increasingly attempt to “do good in the world” and address forms of inequality among Christians. Some characterize humanitarian aid programs as more ethical practices than previous colonial missionary work because they do not appear to interfere with the authority and sovereignty of African churches. I critically explore such programs and their claims by asking how variously positioned Christians understand their moral and political dimensions. I also look into how humanitarian sensibilities are transforming people’s practices and perceptions of global Christianity.
Another goal in writing the book was to highlight the interpretive process and diverse valuations that occur through the material work of doing Christian aid. I have encountered studies of aid that smoothed out these activities or left the impression that aid workers operated similarly to fulfill organizational missions. Through my own aid labor and relationships with Christian aid workers in Minneapolis and Antananarivo, I experienced things differently: both Malagasy and American aid workers continually debated, imagined, and reflected on what doing aid meant and how they were implicated in that process. Medical technologies like x-ray machines were not static or single things per se but accorded varying meanings and values; aid workers pursued their relationships with God and each other through their aid labor; and a variety of absent presences pervaded aid activities, from the specter of colonial missionaries to a desired holism of body-soul not found in biomedical treatment.
This insight led me to the deeper realization that Christian aid-giving is a process of religious interpretation. So I wanted to fill my account of aid with all the lived struggles and beautifully fraught moments of aid spaces. I wanted to show people “making do” among varying value systems in a kind of dynamic, improvisational ethical practice. What I mean by that is that doing aid—whether sorting donations of surgical scissors or writing reports on the uses of medical relief—shapes varying positions, critiques, interpretations, and ethical problems of global religious community. Medical supplies like syringes and bandages can operate as forms of religious mediation, much like the films, cassette sermons, monetary donations, clothing, and much more described in other anthropological studies of religion. The material and bureaucratic practices of medical aid may seem dry and dull on the surface. But, as I hope to have shown, they are the very stuff of vital questions about what it means to be an ethical Christian in the contemporary world.
Josh Reno: In your analysis, conversionary sites play a key role as a way of conceptualizing how global medical aid changes as it crosses geographical distance, converting from one culturally meaningful form to another relative to religious sites and the practices and orientations of the actors involved. Can you describe what other work this idea performs in your analysis and what made it preferable to other possible approaches?
Britt Halvorson: I’ve used the term conversionary sites to draw out how Christian aid workers actively navigate the varying value regimes present in the Minnesota-Madagascar aid alliance. These include 1) ethical ideals of solidarity and mutuality among “global Christians,” 2) professional standards of accountability in bureaucratic humanitarianism, and 3) the resource inequalities of global medical commerce. Malagasy and American Christian aid workers constantly negotiate the asymmetries and gaps among these varying value regimes. This work is a key feature of the kind of Christian aid I studied and, I think, part of what makes it a meaningful practice for individual Christians; small uncertainties of value signal the creative leaps of faith that are central to Christian commitment. I consider conversionary sites to not only be the geographically-dispersed Christian aid spaces where I did research (aid warehouses, worship services, offices, house churches) but also the distinct material activities undertaken within those spaces. Aid laborers are not only seeking to, for example, morally redeem medical discards by praying over them or by associating “junk aid” with human sinfulness. Through the material transactions of aid, Americans and Malagasy involved in the aid program are also participating in an attempt to convert the moral foundation, ways of knowing, and practices of their prior relationship with each other under colonial missions.
Conversionary sites therefore enables me to draw out these shifting values of past and present and look into “conversions” as moral relations that take shape in, and receive reinforcement from, the material activities of aid. While American Lutherans (ELCA) were formerly involved in direct, face-to-face evangelism in southern Madagascar for over a century (1888-2004), individuals previously engaged in overseas mission work are now converting their own moral practice and moral subjectivity to be in keeping with an aid-giving sensibility that ostensibly upholds Malagasy authority and sovereignty. Likewise, Malagasy Lutherans’ relationship with American Lutheran churches has shifted over the last forty years to focus partly on financial grants and in-kind aid resources that sustain church-run institutions. For both projects, “the colonial” is a negative moral force against which contemporary Christian humanitarian efforts are being defined. I find this fascinating and relevant at a time when academics, too, are taking part in decolonizing efforts. I’ve observed that, when imperialism can be embodied in the figure of the colonial missionary and “the colonial” is easily named, less scrutiny is given to the more thoroughgoing cultural practices that less obviously maintain forms of racial and political inequality.
Josh Reno: Your ethnography examines the relationship of past colonization of Madagascar and present-day medical aid relationships, specifically the complicated and contested involvement of Lutheran missionaries in both. In what ways do varying temporalities become important to your analysis? Does this idea have relevance for other studies of humanitarianism, including those not focused explicitly on religious organizations?
Britt Halverson: This question fits beautifully with what I was describing above. I argue in the book that Christian aid work is a practice in time and of time. What I mean by that is that people doing aid—whether Christian or of another religious affiliation, or ostensibly secular—are often comparing their work to other possible approaches, including past interventions and relationships. These other possibilities come to inform and define present approaches to aid-giving in complex ways. In this respect, the relationship of past and present is always “present” in aid efforts! But the pasts evoked are creative, selectively made constructions that speak to the concerns of the present. I came to think of the relationship of past and present as an historical resource that Christian aid workers variously used to define a morally upright approach to contemporary Christian humanitarianism. Some Malagasy Lutheran informants spoke of the relationship of past colonial American Lutheran missionary involvement in Madagascar as continuous with the aid program, rather than representing a sharp break with the past (as did some Americans). Additionally, other Malagasy informants referred to the colonial as an affective experience of déjà vu that called forth a subtle critique of specific qualities of the aid program.
Recognizing the varying temporalities of aid work raises several interesting issues. One is the extent to which aid itself becomes a practice of historical reinscription, of reworking the past by defining present aid efforts as distinct from the practices of the past. This has the danger of downplaying the political and economic inequalities produced by Christian aid programs, as well as the thoroughgoing and very direct ways they build on specific Christian ties produced under colonial rule. A second question is how to connect these subtle ways that aid is a practice of time to the prevailing temporalities of aid described in the broader literature. Rather than intervening in a short-term crisis, the Christian aid program I study has been oriented around the much more enduring problem of economic inequality, which has no easily discernible end point. For my research participants, this long-term involvement raised questions about whether Christian aid programs addressing economic inequality should have an end or whether they constitute important, ongoing forms of world-making. But more secular humanitarian studies have certainly benefited from attention to the varying histories informing contemporary aid work. Attending to these questions on a finer scale—as I have tried to do—would mean looking into how relations of past and present constitute part of the ethical practice of humanitarian work.
Josh Reno: Biospiritual imaginary is a key term for portions of the book that deal with part-whole metonymy and synecdoche as evidenced and enacted through bodies. What kind of work does your term biospiritual imaginary do for thinking about aid as a semiotic and linguistic practice?
Britt Halverson: I’ve used the term “biospiritual imaginaries” to illuminate how aid work connects bodies, words and material things in particular ways that can be ideologically motivated. As is true for many, I was positively influenced in my graduate training at the University of Michigan by Judy Irvine and Susan Gal’s work on language ideologies and Webb Keane’s notion of semiotic ideologies. In addition to the rich literature on mediation in the anthropology of religion, I’ve also long been interested in multidisciplinary work on materiality and religious practice emerging from religious studies and art history.
These distinct influences led me to consider Christian aid as a semiotic practice with, in this particular case, notably partial, fragmentary and incomplete notions of authoritative practice. For instance, the Minneapolis aid organizations exist at the ostensible margins of authoritative Lutheranism. They are not affiliated directly with one doctrinal view of Lutheran practice, they feature Lutheran volunteers of many different denominations, and the ordinary practices of aid labor (e.g., sorting, handling, and packing medical relief) repeatedly emphasize the significance of material aid objects to Christian practice. Organizational leadership sought to discursively frame these material and embodied experiences in particular ways that supported authoritative views of Lutheran aid practice. Yet aid work often prompted serious play among laypeople concerning the relations of the medical supplies they handled to their own bodies and to unseen but imagined wholes, such as the global Christian body or the medical patient body.
Like other scholars in the anthropology of Christianity writing on ideologies, I aim to show how the interpretive work I’ve described as central to Christian aid work is always already “political” or ideological through the forms of agency, qualities and boundaries people variously draw between their words, material things, and bodies. I’ve wanted to demonstrate how aid practices are semiotic in this way, and to develop a fine-grained approach to the interesting, polyvalent ways aid work positions words, bodies and material things as communicative forms. Applying forms of linguistic and semiotic analysis to aid work can lead to new insights. The faith-based aid organizations where I did research are marginalized in their religious communities’ hierarchies of doctrinal and theological authority but are certainly not marginal to the religious experiences of laypeople. As such, aid agencies present an interesting space for tracking the creativity and multiplicity of Christian semiotic approaches and, even more, the necessarily partial and incomplete quality of a dominant Protestant Christian semiotic ideology.
Harvey Stark: What inspired you to write Last Scene Underground and what one or two main things do you hope your readers will come away with?
Roxanne Varzi: I was most inspired by the theater I saw while I was doing fieldwork in Iran, but it wasn’t until I was I was teaching visual anthropology at SOAS in London and was writing a lecture about how Jean Rouch’s documentary, Les Maitres Fous morphed into Jean Genet’s The Blacks and it occurred to me that there was a connection there that I could write about as an article in terms of how the Blacks is later interpreted in Iran by a young theater director, Hamed Taheri for a post-Revolution audience. I was interested too in what sorts of shifts happened in order to both radicalize and protect the budding theater movement in Tehran in the late 1990’s just after Mohammed Khatami’s election when the first real alternative artistic space in the Iranian public sphere began to form. Mostly I was interested in theater praxis as a political and a personal transformative art… How did practicing theater change the individual? What did it mean for notions of community and nation?
The theater being done in Iran in 2000 inspired me to think about ways that I too, as an anthropologist, could push through boundaries–disciplinary, genre, political and personal to write about resistance, creativity and hope. To that end I wrote and re-wrote this ethnographic novel about a group of young Iranian college students who form an underground avant-garde theater group and, defying censorship and using other forms of social resistance and attempt to put on a play.
I want readers to come away with a greater understanding of the complex cultural world that is Tehran. I’d also like them to question their own notions of selfhood and identity and to think about ways that we perform and practice those.
For the anthropologist reader I hope Last Scene Underground is also a meditation on the possibilities and limitations of ethnography as a genre and as a medium at this political juncture. The book mediates and channels lives through the filter of other lives, political and theoretical and disciplinary frames. It is also a political act in that it directly addresses the issue of censorship and the inability for an anthropologist like myself to write ethnography openly and hope to continue to work in Iran.
Harvey Stark: One of the most fascinating things about your work is the liminal space that exists between ethnography and fiction. How do you want your readers to understand this space?
Roxanne Varzi: Throughout my first book I used a variety of narrative voices, from the academic first person, to the essay to fiction, creating characters and events while staying within historic and ethnographic facts based on my own research. I also used passages from my ethnographic field notes and from entries quoted verbatim from either my diary or from the journals of my interlocutors. This second book experiments further with a new ethnographic form for my research findings. An ethnographic novel that is at once an act of experimentation and one that will protect my subjects and my future as an anthropologist of Iran. Writing ethnographic fiction allowed me to stay away from political specificities that might link a particular theater moment or individual to a particular political moment in time, be it 1999 (the dormitory protests in Iran) or 2009 (the green movement) while maintaining the ethnographic specificities at the heart of this theater movement.
The book has two convergent narratives that are wound around one another. There is the “fictionalized ethnographic story” and “the director’s notes” — a fictional notebook kept by a fictional theater director but with real notes that are a culmination of my research, which ranged from the people whom I interviewed and plays that I read and watched to my reflections, observations and interpretations. They assume the responsibility of the writer and anthropologist to inform the story. In short, they are partially a version of my own notes from the field but fictionalized to the degree that nothing was included that an Iranian character like the director would not he himself have known or read. They contain what as well would ordinarily be found in academic footnotes. This allows all information equal footing…nothing is hidden away underground as it were in a smaller font and easily ignored as footnotes and endnotes often are.
Throughout is a story about representation, about manufacturing knowledge and lives, censorship and the role of creativity in social change.
Harvey Stark: Can you tell us about the complex and nuanced attitudes your characters have toward religion.
Roxanne Varzi: Religion is a very personal practice that has been made public by virtue of folks living in a religious republic. I wanted to reclaim the notion of spirituality, which is the individual relationship with God and not one that is necessarily filtered through a nation-state, or even a strong religious organization.
Harvey Stark: If pressed, what one character in the novel do you most identify with?
Roxanne Varzi: Hooman, the director. The director’s notes are my notes…and I think I secretly I have wanted to write and direct plays my whole life. My first theater class was as a child in Iran… and now this year, as an anthropologist I am doing a rough reading at the AAA of my first play ever (not counting a children’s play I did as a theater director at a summer camp in the Sierras!). It feels like a very natural progression and not at all strange that it would be my field, anthropology, where I could make this happen!
Morgan Siewert: On its face, your project to analyze expressive culture among Navajo country music artists using both ethnomusicological and linguistic anthropological methods seems daunting. However, your final product is a nuanced but informative and approachable ethnography using both music and language to locate country music as a site where Navajo identity is navigated and negotiated. How would you describe your book to someone unfamiliar with how seemingly Western expressive forms are used to perform Navajo authenticity?
Kristina Jacobsen: My book is a situated story of one Anglo singing anthropologist’s journey into the rich, vivid and totalizing world that is Diné country western music and cowboy culture. Contrasting our stereotype of “cowboys and Indians,” Indian people, and Diné people in particular, have long identified as both “cowboy” and “country;” the affinity seems natural to many Diné people I know, so much so that it barely bears explaining. Country songs are often about dispossession, loss, nostalgia, tradition, relocation and the centrality of kinship and family: these same themes are themes that resonate very powerfully with my Diné interlocutors, both through the performance of country music and through participation in rodeo.
Morgan Siewert: On page 21, you write, “I understand the speaking voice as being equally central as the singing voice in illuminating the nuance of Diné politics of authenticity and belonging.” This is a succinct illustration of your use of ethnomusicology and linguistic anthropology to bridge disparate approaches to the concept of “voice.” Could you elaborate on the significance of complicating “voice” in your book?
Kristina Jacobsen: In song and in the songwriting world, there is a heavy focus on lyrics and on the text; what does the song say, what is being signified through the lyrics, what can we infer about the identity of the singer through the performance and voicing of the song, how do we shape the listener’s experience through a tightly-crafted song? This is also true in ethnomusicology and in popular music studies, where often the focus is exclusively on the lyrics of a song and where the lyrics come to stand in for/represent “the song.” In linguistic anthropology, the emphasis is also often on text, or what has been transcribed in the form of discourse analysis or ethnographic writing in the text, where prosody, poetics, and line-by-line analysis often form the primary “meat” of analysis. In contrast to this, I wanted to focus in the book on the sound of the voice itself: what do different voices sound like, when they are speaking and singing? What is the timbre or tone color of a voice, its range, its speech style, dialectal and idiolectal inflections, and how is a voice affected by the body it inhabits? How do voices have their own agency, not just symbolically and politically, but also literally, when a voice is “thrown” into a room or sounds (and affects its listeners) in a particular way, and how are voices connected to Indigenous sovereignty? Also, how can we combine our analysis of both singing and speaking, and what productive and rich overlaps might we find by combining both uses of the vocal tract within the same frame? To me, sounds matter in the world. How someone else sounds—whether over the telephone, in person, in a radio interview or on television—affects me deeply and resonates in my ears and mind long afterwards. I wanted to capture some of this affective resonance not only through my ethnographic vignettes, but also through the analytic methods and tools used in the book.
Morgan Siewert: Important to your book’s discussion on the complexities of authenticity and voice is jaan, defined initially as “the culturally intimate […] term for a working-class rube from the ‘sticks’” (4). You define jaan several times and in diverse ways throughout the book, demonstrating what you describe as a malleability that reveals “the slippages, or cracks, between worlds” (42). As I read your book, I came to understand the jaan figure as an example of how people become metonyms for attitudes about imperfect Navajoness, for “matter out of place” (33). Through “betwixt and between” figures such as the jaan, innovation in language and the expressive arts is both stigmatized as inauthentic Navajoness as well as valorized as privileged local knowledge. I find this discussion—which ranges from the jaan to Miss Navajo to politicians—to be the most challenging aspect of your book. I came away with a sense that modalities framed as the most inauthentic are, in practice, among the most authentic icons of Navajo experience and identity. In other words, being “matter out of place” is what anchors country music as an authentic Navajo expressive art form. How would you supplement or challenge this reading?
Kristina Jacobsen: This is such a lovely and provocative question. I think your read that jaan becomes a refraction for how “imperfect Navajoness” circulates at the local level is spot-on; in my experience, these discussions of ideal Diné-ness occur almost constantly, in public and very performative spaces such as political campaigns and radio stations, but also at very intimate levels, among family members, over dinner, at the flea market, during family cattle roundups or even at the tribal veterinarian’s office. So yes, being “matter out of plaee” at some level makes something—songs or speech styles in this case—authentic in a way that is hard for others without this abjected cultural capital to touch. At the same time, the irony perhaps is that things deemed as “matter out of place,” such as country music dubbed as “rez” or “jaan,” are also profoundly in place and locally emplaced, so much so that even performing off-reservation is rarely an option for “rez bands.” So, rez country music is both matter out of place and completely sutured to place, at one and the same time. To add a bit more to this discussion: I also think that the whole idea of the jaan is a term that implies an outsider, non-Diné gaze looking in on Diné practices; in this way, jaan as a concept—in its stigmatizing and laudatory uses—sits in the crosshairs of settler colonialism, and perhaps could not even exist outside the setter colonial context and the ways in which Diné identity has been parsed, dissected, judged and quantified by Bureau of Indian Affairs Bureaucrats, anthropologists, missionaries and other entities. So, it’s the colonial gaze turned inward, with powerful repercussions. At the same time, there is innovation, both linguistic and musical, and this is one of the things I find so powerful: that even within a very narrowly constrained field of aesthetics and where the politics of authenticity almost always hold an upper hand, there are musicians, spoken word artists, poets and language users—among them Chucki Begay, Radmilla Cody, hip hop artist Def-I and improvisers like jazz trumpeter Delbert Anderson- who continue to carve their own path and express themselves assertively, gracefully, and with incredible power, through their chosen linguistic medium.
Morgan Siewert: What is your next project?
Kristina Jacobsen: My next ethnographic book project, Sing Me Back Home: Songwriting, Language Shift, and Italian Colonialism in Sardinia, focuses on country music, singer-songwriters and language shift on the island of Sardinia, Italy. As a touring country musician, singer songwriter and cultural anthropologist living in Sardinia for the past two summers, I have been captivated by the surprisingly rich Americana and country music scene. It struck me that the reasons were connected to Italian colonialism, and this led me to formulate my main question for this research: how do performances of American roots music by Sardinian musicians serve to secure a sense of connection to the island of Sardinia, and strengthen a sense of political and cultural separation from the Italian mainland on this semi-sovereign Mediterranean island?
So, in Sardinia, I have begun writing songs with Sardinian songwriters in Sardinian (“Sardo”), English and Italian as a form of participant-observation to get at questions of language, sovereignty, identity and relationships to the Italian mainland (the “Continente”). Here, the process of songwriting itself forms part of the core research methodology, where writing a song with one’s interlocutors forms a powerful point of connection as a way toward deeper intercultural knowing that is both artistic and ethnographic. The second part of this project, therefore, will focus on recording ten cowritten songs for an album that will accompany the book, where I ethnographically document how language politics play out in microcosm in the space of the recording studio, and where the music and the book text are two interdependent parts central to my analysis of both sound and politics. I will be spending my sabbatical year in Sardinia, doing twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork toward this project, and living in the mountain village of Santu Lussurgiu.
You can listen to two early “demo” recordings and cowrites for this project, here:
Interview by Ben Ale-Ebrahim
Ben Ale-Ebrahim: In Sounding Islam, one of your primary arguments is that anthropologists of religion should focus more attention on the importance of sound and sonic atmospheres in the study of embodied religion. What originally motivated you to focus this project on the role of sound in religious communities?
Patrick Eisenlohr: In the recent material and media turn in the study of religion, the sonic tends to be rather marginal compared to work on the visual and visual cultures. But there is more to the focus on the sonic than merely redressing this obvious imbalance. There is, above all, the privileged link between the sonic and the emotive and affective. Saying this, I do not want to set up a binary contrast with the visual along the lines of what Jonathan Sterne has called a Christian “audio-visual litany.” But the privileged link of the sonic to the emotive and affective cannot easily be dismissed. This is because the sonic implicates the body, or to be precise, the felt-body, what is called the Leib in German, in a most comprehensive way, as sonic events can not only be registered by the hearing apparatus, but potentially the entire body, its flesh. In parts of sound studies, the sonic, vibrational phenomena that transmit energy through a medium in ways that very often extend beyond the acoustically perceivable, have been equated with affect. This ties into longstanding questions about the proverbial power of music to profoundly affect people in ways that often seem ineffable. Without attention to the sonic, the study of religion would be oddly incomplete. Finally, for anthropologists, the sonic, especially as atmospheric, is relevant for many other fields beyond religion. One only has to think of the present political moment, where powerful moods and felt currents are reshaping politics and public spheres across the world, while deliberation and appeals to enlightened self-interest seem so irrelevant in so many places.
Ben Ale-Ebrahim: Throughout this book, you develop a theory of sonic atmospheres that accounts for the different socio-cultural factors that influence whether or not one’s body is likely to respond to a particular sonic stimulus, making a clear distinction between understandings of sound as affect versus atmosphere. For example, you describe how Mauritian Muslims of the Ahl-e Sunnat tradition respond to na‘t performance in a positive way, feeling as if they are transported to Medina by the sound, whereas Deobandi- or Salafi-oriented Mauritian Muslims respond to na‘t negatively and do not experience the same feelings or affective responses. Can you talk a bit more about why you chose to focus on the analytic of sonic atmospheres and how you anticipate this analytic being useful for the anthropological study of religion in other contexts?
Patrick Eisenlohr: Thank you, I am glad you asked this question. Distinguishing atmospheres from affect is important. Unlike affect in the Deleuzian genealogy that dominates understandings of affect in anthropology, atmospheres do not categorically operate below the threshold of consciousness. They are also highly meaningful and not “autonomous” in Massumi’s sense, yet they speak to the same concerns about the movement of energy through and between bodies and the need to grasp what cannot be discursively specified as affect theory does. Atmospheres, whether sonic or in other modalities provide a bridge across the chasm that separates affect from sociocultural mediations and forms, therefore they are relevant to many other contexts that anthropologists study, far beyond what is commonly understood to be religion. To return to the example you just mentioned, sonic atmospheres, such as those generated by a voice, exert suggestions of movement on the felt-bodies of those they envelop. They do not just provoke feelings, seen from the vantage point of the neo-phenomenology of Hermann Schmitz such atmospheres themselves are feelings extended into space. But atmospheres can also be merely observed, as the Deobandis or Salafis you mentioned are likely to do, while the Ahl-e Sunnat devotee will probably be seized by them. By locating feelings outside human subjects, an analytic of atmospheres addresses the movement of energy between and through bodies, but also allows for sociocultural mediations to influence what stance subjects take to atmospheric forces, sonic or otherwise.
Ben Ale-Ebrahim: I am fascinated by the spectrogram and waveform diagrams that you include in chapters five and six. You mention that you were motivated to include these partly as a result of your training in linguistic anthropology, where formal analysis is typically paired with discursive analysis. What was it like collecting these audio samples and working with this type of data? Can you talk a bit more about your methodology here?
Patrick Eisenlohr: In order to do justice to sound as a separate mode of knowledge and meaning-making, it is important to provide other forms of access to it than discourse. This is one of the main reasons why I used the spectrograms. They give a different sense of the sonic dynamics and movements that make up na‘t recitation. Like discourse, these visual representations of sonic events also have inherent limits in coming to terms with the sonic. They captures sonic movements in a very striking way, but the movements in three-dimensional space they visualize are not the same as the suggestions of movement enacted by sonic movement from a phenomenological perspective. My interlocutors directed me to the parts of na‘t recitals they found most powerful and emotionally compelling, often expressing this through metaphors of travel and spatial displacement. I decided to complement their verbal descriptions of the power of a na‘t reciter’s voice with the perspective on auditory cultures they afford with the spectrograms and the analysis of pitch, volume, timbre, and reverb the spectrograms and waveforms allow. This was inseparable from the analysis of the technologically amplified, modified and reproduced voices, since most examples of what my interlocutors considered a particularly “moving” voice also included its media-technological shaping. Comparing the verbal description and formal analysis of vocal sound in this context helped me to make sense of one through the other in ways that an exclusive focus on either verbal characterization or the formal analysis of sonic events would not have allowed.
Ben Ale-Ebrahim: You discuss how media play a very important role in the reception and performance of na’t throughout this book. In chapter three, for example, you emphasize how small media like CDs, DVDs, and books work to enable transnational connections between Muslim communities in the Indian subcontinent and Mauritius. What changes have you observed over time in the way na‘t recordings are distributed and shared? Do social media outlets like Facebook and YouTube, or other internet-based platforms, play a significant role in na‘t performance communities today?
Patrick Eisenlohr: The story is quite familiar. In the late 1990s, I still encountered the use of audiocassettes with na‘t collections, which were quickly supplanted by audio-CDs in the early 2000s, and finally by mp3 files in the last ten or twelve years. A newer phenomenon is the popularity of videos of na‘t recitals. Unlike in India, cheap low-grade video CDs never really played an important role in Mauritius, DVDs were more popular, and videos streamed via the internet on mobile devices have dominated in the last 7 to 8 years. In the meantime, social media like YouTube and Facebook have come to play a huge role, performances are not just routinely recorded but now also shared online. According to what my interlocutors have told me, the visits and live performances of Indian and Pakistani na‘t khwan played a decisive role in making the genre more popular in Mauritius, not just the availability of imported cassettes and audio-CDs. These visiting na‘t khwan in turn inspired the emergence Mauritian na‘t khwan. In at least one case, a Mauritian na‘t khwan got his first training by an Indian Imam residing in Mauritius at the time. These local na‘t khwan then started to produce and circulate their own collections of na‘t recordings.
Ben Ale-Ebrahim: Many of the ethnographic examples you reference in this book are drawn from your discussions with amateur na’t performers living in Mauritius, such as Shareef and Nazeer. You discuss how they learn to perform na’t, imitating previously released recordings of famous na’t khwan in order to capture their unique ler or manner of vocal expression, for example, and describing the ways in which their behavior outside of performance spaces, such as their general level of piety and their reputation in the Mauritian Muslim community, affects their reception as professional performers of this particular style of religious music. I’m curious to hear more about what happened to your interlocutors, such as Shareef and Nazeer – did they end up “making it” and becoming professional na’t khwan? When does one break the barrier between amateur and professional in the world of na’t performance?
Patrick Eisenlohr: None of my Mauritian na‘t khwan friends has become a professional in the strict sense of the word, for none of them is this their main occupation. Shareef is now the director of a primary school, Nazeer is retired, and Farhad is an Urdu teacher. Although they are justifiably proud of their na‘t recordings, they all say that they do not see themselves as a match for the Pakistani superstars. The latter are famous and make a good living from reciting na‘t. But for my Mauritian interlocutors there is also a certain ambiguity surrounding the superstars’ professional status, there is admiration for them, but there are also moral doubts about reciting na‘t for money, and not for the love of the Prophet alone. Doubts over whether such professionalism allows for the benefits a na‘t performance is supposed to bring about point to exactly the importance of perceived piety and personal reputation you have mentioned. Certainly, I heard my share of stories about what some perceived as the aloofness and the high financial demands of visiting professional na‘t khwan. Seen from such a perspective, “making it” as a professional also invites suspicions of moral corruption, and becoming a professional in the sense above may therefore be felt to be not entirely desirable.
Interview by Rebekah Cupitt
Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway’s book, Signing and Belonging in Nepal (2016) captures the ongoing and changing nature of both deaf Nepali and Nepali life in general. It especially marks the shifts in how deaf Nepalis perform their identities through sign language and the relation with the larger socio-political changes occurring during the many years she has visited Nepal. She traces the ties between the caste system and notions of ritual pollution associated with the stigma assigned to deaf people, then shows how deaf signers in Nepal used an ethnolinguistic model of deafness to address this stigma, while navigating the resonances of this model with the politics of language during the Nepali Civil War. Her book also examines how the drive for Nepal to become a modern bikas (developed) nation in the eyes of the global economy influenced interactions between hearing and deaf Nepalis. Erika ends by considering how deaf signers’ practices for framing and labeling different forms of signing may be shifting in the post-war period. I should note that during our exchange, Erika explained that although she used the d/Deaf distinction in the book at the request of the editors at Gallaudet (she had originally used local terms), in more recent works she follows the lead of deaf anthropologists who are moving away from that particular typographical distinction. The terminology used in this interview reflects that.
Rebekah Cupitt: Could you discuss how the political changes that occurred after the People’s War have further impacted signing and deaf belonging in Nepal. For instance, is there an instance of deaf signing practices from that period which is indicative of the current political situation in Nepal?
Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway: I noted in the book that, since the end of the war, the structural inequalities embedded in Nepali governance have shifted slowly and unevenly in the forging of a “new Nepal.” However, symbolic changes have occurred more readily, specifically with the grounding of nationalism in caste Hinduism becoming less overt. One obvious example of this type of change, which I discussed in the book, was the 2006 appointment of a new national anthem for the secular republic. The lyrics of Sayaun Thunga Phool Ka, or, “Made of Hundreds of Flowers,” are widely understood to signal a commitment to a form of nationalism that is explicitly multicultural and multiethnic and can be seen as an attempt to performatively call forth a not yet realized political landscape, one characterized by the inclusion that adivasi janati (indigenous) groups had struggled for in the war.
In this post-war context, then, efforts to link standard Nepali Sign Language (NSL) forms with caste-Hinduism have become a less necessary and effective way to align with explicit symbols of Nepali nationalism. In the book, I addressed how pictorial images of NSL signs served as public resources through which signers could access the cannon of lexical items understood to constitute standard Nepali Sign Language, and also as a tool through which signers were encouraged to create boundaries and linkages between a range of linguistic practices, different forms of representation of such practices, and social types. This use of the creative indexicality of images continues in the post-war period, of course, but the particulars of these practices are shifting along with the changing grounding of Nepali nationalism.
For example, I am currently working on an article in which I analyze deaf artist Pratigya Shakya’s illustrations representing a NSL version of the new National Anthem. Shakya’s pictorial representations of signing practices entail representing signing bodies, both performing and embodying (through, for example, their clothing) the social groups which the signs individually and collectively reference. Thus, in order to recapitulate the new anthem’s explicit claim that Nepali nationalism is widely inclusive, the collected figures Shakya painted performing the signs represent a range of types in terms of social (caste, ethnic, and geographic) variation. Here then, the inclusiveness referred by the anthem is materialized in the figures performing the signs, as this group of figures collectively indexes a social persona of “diverse Nepali.”
Rebekah Cupitt: In Chapter 3 and 4, you talk in detail about signing practices and how they are lexically tied to Hindu traditions in some cases, and in the case of homesign (sign systems developed by deaf Nepali who grow up without access to NSL, see Hoffmann-Dilloway 2016:70), traditions and socio-economic origins are framed as less desirable from perspectives grounded in hegemonic Hindu nationalism. I know that your research makes for an important comment and account of deafness in Nepal but do you see your work as commenting on Nepali culture and religion through deaf eyes and the situated performance of sign language thus offering a counter-narrative of Nepali life?
Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway: While the book focuses on the practices of signers, in order to understand the political economies of their efforts to link linguistic forms to social types, it was necessary to consider scales “beyond directly observable and recordable face-to-face interactions” (Inoue 2016:153; Gal 1989). That is, it wasn’t just that I had to try to understand the ethnographic moments in which I participated within a broader social and historical context, but more specifically that I had to analyze the processes through which deaf social actors themselves understood and enacted such scalar relations (see Carr and Lempert 2016). So in that respect the book indeed seeks to highlight deaf perspectives on broader Nepali social life.
In some cases, these perspectives reproduced the hegemonic hierarchies of the state within deaf social worlds; in order to navigate the difficult period of the war, deaf leaders didn’t just work to associate NSL signing practices with the middle-hills caste-Hinduism in which Nepali nationalism was grounded. Rather, as you note, these processes also involved contrasting this cluster of practices, qualities, and affiliations with an opposed cluster that could serve as their foil (Irvine and Gal 2000). This broader project also involved work to associate homesigns with non-caste Hindu practices and qualities, in so doing replicating broader hegemonic discourses. At the same time, however, this diverse network of deaf signers did not universally share these bundles of associations. Thus, I also tried to highlight the ongoing semiotic work deaf leaders engaged in (such as leading workshops and creating images that highlighted links between signs and social qualities) in order to make these kinds of interpretive habits cohere, to some degree and for some duration.
On the other hand, the way that some signers recruited the concept of porous personhood as a tool to reduce internal hierarchy within deaf social worlds offered a counter-narrative not only of broader Nepali life but also of many enactments of ethno-linguistic models of deafness. Specifically, in some contexts, deaf people who begin to sign later in life, and whose signing shows the effects of such late-learning, may find their status as ethno-linguistically deaf challenged. Nepali signers who drew on understandings of distributed personhood to distribute linguistic competence, thus challenged not only Nepali models that would enjoin “polluted” signers to avoid contact with others, but also the internal hierarchies that can characterize the way that an ethnolinguistic model of deafness may be understood.
Rebekah Cupitt: Porous personhood as a concept is a compelling analytical device through which the social collaboration involved in becoming deaf is powerfully rendered, especially the stigma attached to it but it also forms the distinction between Nepali Sign Language signers and home-signers. Could you discuss how this notion of personhood has shifted given the decreasing focus on Hindu caste systems and the karmic model of deafness and a Nepal-wide more towards ideologies focused on development (bikas) and modernity?
Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway: In Chapter 5, I focused on The Bakery Café, a fast food chain in Kathmandu that hires and advertises the presence of deaf wait staff, as a way to think through this question. I pointed out that, since food was an especially effective medium for the transmission of pollution, hiring deaf waiters to serve in a restaurant chain was a risky proposition when the venture launched in 1997. However, I suggested that The Bakery Cafe was successful not in spite of the fact that the deaf waiters would “traditionally” have been understood to transmit pollution, but in large part because publicly accepting food from deaf servers created a way for customers to generate and display modern personas that hinged on a contrast with such “traditional” frames.
I should add that it’s possible see the Bakery Café’s hiring of deaf staff as part of a neoliberal commodification of linguistic and social variation, which might suggest that an individualizing frame would be overtaking a notion of porous personhood in that context. However, as Inoue (2016:166) notes, “the neoliberal self is produced through processes of “dividuation” as much as “individuation” (Inoue 2016:166), as persons are fractured into shifting bundles of qualities and skills. And, as Friedner (2015) describes concerning Indian businesses that attempt to extract value from deaf sociality, businesses hiring deaf workers may take advantage of the ways in which deaf signers work to share and distribute skills among themselves, saving the management some of the work of training and creating team dynamics. Similarly, in Nepal, it seems that models of deaf sociality generated in part through the concept of porous personhood have been productively exploited as deaf workers are incorporated into such work contexts. So, to address your question more specifically, my point is that these ideological frames and the embodied enactments of them have not replaced one another linearly, but have rather resonated together in complex ways.
Rebekah Cupitt: Are you able to speculate perhaps on what a focus on disability or the non-linguistic aspects of deaf culture potentially brings and/or removes from a study of deafness in Nepal? Given the strength of the ties between the ethnolinguistic model of deafness and the now less-popular Hindu nationalist movement, how might deaf personhood and belonging in Nepal appear differently should deaf identity be theoretically decoupled from language?
Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway: To think through this question I need to be clear that concepts like personhood, identity, or disability are grounded in forms of semiosis (signification or meaning making). Linguistic practices can’t be easily separated from other modes of semiosis (see Nakassis 2016). For example, though much of my book is ostensibly about Nepali Sign Language, as the set of practices that ground an ethnolinguistic framing of deafness, consider how much of my discussion focuses on modes of semiosis that are generally considered non-linguistic, such as drawings, clothing styles, or food. While linguistic practices are explicitly centered in the meta-semiotic debates I analyze in the book, many of those practices center on forging or disrupting perceptions of entanglement between these linguistic practices and other modes of meaning.
Even as I want to keep in mind that language does not function independently of other types of meaning-making, however, working in a context in which many people (such as homesigners) have not had sufficient access to linguistically mediated sociality does make clear that linguistic semiosis is a distinctive and vital form of signification. Because deaf people often suffer from being cut off from sociality when shared linguistic practices are inaccessible, it’s difficult to imagine a politics of deafness in which language plays no role. However, there seems to be a lot of scope for variation in terms of how language is ideologized in deaf framings of personhood and larger scales of belonging. For example, while communicative sociality via accessible modalities will, I think, always be central, it may not always be seen as necessary to ground Nepali understandings of deafness in the perceived use of a particular named language like Nepali Sign Language, nor to posit hard and fast distinctions between named signed languages, spoken languages, written languages, gestural practices, and homesigns (for example, Kusters and Sahasrabudhe 2018).
Rebekah Cupitt: It strikes me, on reading the later chapters in Signing and Belonging in Nepal that deaf Nepalis have unique opportunities to engage with the international deaf community beyond receiving aid, sometimes even travelling to these countries, and therefore deaf Nepalis have access that other Nepalis, especially those from the lower castes and socio-economically poor ethnic jats lack. Towards the end of the book, you discuss what it means to be deaf and how deaf identity has changed in response to the political structure of Nepal, but I wonder if you could reflect on the potential for the deaf Nepalis you know, to themselves become drivers of change and not simply respondents – either on a national, local or global front.
Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway: I closed the book by saying that, “ultimately, I hope to have shown that deaf Nepalis will not only continue to respond to local and transnational change, they will also continue to actively participate in making such change” (Hoffmann-Dilloway 2016:116). Such changes may occur in part through the relationships that deaf Nepalis forge with signers from other countries – relationships that can entail travel but which are also enacted over media like Facebook and YouTube. For example, Pratigya Shakya, the deaf artist whose work I often discussed in the book, prolifically posts videos in which he provides artful portraits of Nepali and Nepali deaf life, which he addresses to a global “Deaf World.” Other signers, like Dipawali Sharmacharya, work with international organizations to create programs to help deaf Nepalis access language, schooling, and work opportunities, while yet others, like Upendra Khanal, have been publishing linguistic analyses of NSL that can affect local and transnational framing of Nepali signing practices (e.g., Morgan, Green, and Khanal 2016). However, given that broader social constructs (including both “Nepal” and the “Deaf World”) are generated (if not in predictable or controllable ways) by the interactive engagements they mediate, all deaf Nepalis are actively engaged in collaborative and contested ways of producing, shaping, and changing their social worlds.
Carr, E. Summerson, and Michael Lempert, eds. 2016. Scale: Discourse and Dimensions of Social Life. Oakland: University of California Press
Friedner, Michele, 2015. Valuing Deaf Worlds in Urban India. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Gal, Susan. 1989. “Language and Political Economy.” Annual Review of Anthropology 18: 345–67.
Hoffmann-Dilloway, 2016. Signing and Belonging in Nepal. Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.
Inoue, Miyako. 2016. “Where Has ‘Japanese Women’s Language’ Gone?: Notes on Language and Political Economy in the Age of Control Societies.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (3): 151–77.
Irvine, Judith T. and Susan Gal, 2000. Language Ideology and Linguistic Differentiation. In Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Polities, and Identities (Paul Kroskrity, ed.): 35–84. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.
Kusters, Annelise and Sujit Sahasrabudhe, 2018. Language Ideologies on the Difference Between Gesture and Sign. Language and Communication 60: 44-63.
Morgan, Michael, Mara Green, and Upendra Khanal, 2016. Sign Language: Southern Asia. In The Sage Deaf Studies Encyclopedia (Genie Gertz and Patrick Boudreault, eds.): 815-817. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Nakassis, Constantine, 2016. Linguistic Anthropology in 2015: Not the Study of Language. American Anthropologist 118(2): 330-345
Interview by Chuyun Oh
Chuyun Oh: What were some of the questions you want to explore when you first decided to write a book on K-pop, and what aspects of K-pop drew your attention as a theatre/performance studies scholar?
Suk-Young Kim: The primary questions I wanted to explore were twofold. How was it possible for a small country like South Korea to reinvent itself from a culturally obscure place to a pop culture powerhouse in just two decades or so? When I came to the US for my graduate studies in the late 90s, most American students did not know anything about South Korean culture. Today, most of my undergraduate students either follow K-pop or know something about it. How was this transformation possible?
I was also concerned about our craving for liveness. K-pop’s natural habitat is YouTube and most K-pop stars and their performances can be found online. But why do fans still crave live concerts and live interaction with their idols? What is the driving force behind this constant search for a face-to-face interaction?
Chuyun Oh: Would you like to give a heads-up to your future readers about what “live” and “liveness” mean to you, and why it matters to understand K-pop today?
Suk-Young Kim: On a primary level, liveness indicates co-presence in time and space, where performers and spectators are situated in the same venue in real time. But the way I articulate the notion of liveness in this book goes far beyond the level of co-presence. Ultimately, it is about feeling connected to a broader community and sharing affective kinship with that community to the point that it reaffirms one’s feeling of liveliness and a sense of being alive in this increasingly mediated world. K-pop presents an interesting case in point since it both manipulates such affective kinship for monetary gain while also allowing for the genuine grassroots level communities and networks to emerge in a powerful way.
Chuyun Oh: As beautifully demonstrated in your book, K-pop — including its representation, transnational circulation, and consumption — would be impossible today without hyper-sensory, mediatized technology. Still, at the same time, K-pop provides highly embodied and participatory platforms and experiences to both fans and K-pop performers. Ontologically and perhaps, aesthetically too, can you tell us a little more about how your project blurs the dichotomy between the liveliness of the body and the virtual world of the high-speed Internet?
Suk-Young Kim: This is a terrific question. My chapter on hologram addresses this point most viscerally, but to tease out my main arguments here: K-pop as a cultural scene appears to be extravagant and excessive in its performance style, but if you look deeper into the K-Pop scene, its economy is fueled by the concept of scarcity or lack. The mediated images of K-pop idols saturate media space, and yet so few fans have seen them in close proximity. The lack of opportunities to see stars’ living bodies in real time and space is what creates constant thirst for their immediate presence, and that thirst has to be quenched by a compensating mechanism, which is to saturate our visual playing field with more and more mediated images. This constant gap between fan’s desire and the reality (to paraphrase, the gap between the real body and the mediated images of that body) is what fuels the K-pop craze.
Chuyun Oh: Digital consumerism is often driven by and thus, inseparable from personally and/or socioculturally constructed desire. Why does K-pop matter to its consumers and fans, and what would be the desire lies behind K-pop consumption to this technology-savvy generation?
Suk-Young Kim: If I were to address this question by focusing on fan communities rather than fan-to-star dynamics, digitally savvy K-Pop fans have found ways to create a community of their own by establishing global networks online. K-pop fan clubs are extremely active online, using their participatory power to not only support their stars, but also establish kinship and share a sense of belonging that offline space does not willingly provide. Participation in online fan clubs can make fans overcome geographic distance and bring someone in Brazil and Iceland into an intimate interaction by sharing their common passion. A sense of belonging, in this case, stems from a sense of validation by others. But I would be remiss not to mention how this fan community, for some fans, is also used as a place to promote themselves and create distinction for themselves by demonstrating their close association with the stars (the so-called “fame by association”). Many K-pop fan clubs have a strict hierarchy that resembles a military organization (the longer you’ve been around and the more material support you’ve provided for their stars, the higher your status will be in fan clubs). K-pop industry navigates through this double edged fandom by promoting both hyperconsummerism and a sense of belonging.
Another way to address this question is to see how K-pop itself celebrates technological trendiness. K-pop creates desire for something newer, faster, smarter with their never-ceasing production line, just like smartphone companies are pressured to pump out new models that will be better than the previous version. I think being associated with the K-pop scene directly translates into performing one’s tech-savviness and trendiness.
Interview by Ilana Gershon
Ilana Gershon: While this book ostensibly focuses on one radio presenter, because Gogo Breeze interacts with such a broad range of the public, one has to know a tremendous amount about Zambian agriculture, legal and informal inheritance, and so on, to understand how he functions as a radio personality. This presents a significant organizational dilemma for a monograph that will be read by non-Africanists. How did you decide to focus on Gogo Breeze and what choices were you struggling with as you organized the book?
Harri Englund: Although he is not the owner of the radio station Breeze FM, Gogo Breeze is by far the station’s most popular personality – a household name in Zambia’s Eastern Province. Even a blind would have seen in him a fascinating subject for anthropological research. However, one of the challenges I faced was to think of ways of making my study more than a biographical account. Here I found some help in the extended-case method that I had used in my previous work. A basic point in that method is that although the anthropologist may focus on a person or an event, that focus is merely a starting point for exploring relationships and networks of variable scales.
It always surprises me how unaware anthropologists working in other world regions seem to be of this method that was developed by people such as A. L. Epstein, J. Clyde Mitchell, and Victor Turner on the basis of their work in Zambia and Malawi in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the processual and reflective issues that became prominent in anthropology more recently were, to some extent, prefigured by the extended-case method. It may be a measure of the dominance of American authors and “schools” in the post -1980s Anglophone anthropology that these methodological innovations in the discipline’s past have been forgotten.
In any case, while Gogo Breeze is based on other methods than the extended-case method alone, it made me wove issues such as agricultural policies or inheritance rules into the narratives themselves rather than devoting separate chapters to a “context.” Such a separation between contextual and analytical chapters could result in the false impression that what happens on the ground is merely an illustration of structural principles at the macro level. It was in response to Malinowski’s use of the case method as an “apt illustration” that the extended-case method got developed. The aim was to capture in the unfolding of actual relationships, conflicts, crises, and events potential for transformation and thereby to show that not everything in social life flows from some first principles. The added challenge for me was to pursue this methodology where it had never been attempted before – in the study of mass mediation and its apparent detachment from personal relationships. Although I did not develop the point in the book, the study of ritual, such as in Turner’s work, could of course offer some parallels in this regard.
Ilana Gershon: How does Gogo Breeze, the radio announcer at the heart of this book, create webs of obligations despite or because of how ethereal the utterances through radio as a medium can seem to Zambians?
Harri Englund: The topic of obligations is a prime example of how the book seeks to integrate the study of personal relationships with the interest in mass mediation. I also have other reasons for being interested in obligations as an issue in anthropological theory. One formative interest I have had ever since my graduate research in the early 1990s is the forms that liberal theory and practice have taken in Africa and in the study and critique of human rights. In so far as the so-called rights discourse has often become rather thin on the complex ways in which people are subject to cross-cutting relationships and networks, anthropology would have something to contribute from its past insights into obligations. But just as obligations (or duties) are too simplistically imagined as the flipside of rights in the rights discourse, so too have anthropologists, especially those who don’t work in Africa, tended to forget how much work there is in the discipline on the topic of obligations – or they have tended to see obligations as some Durkheimian or structural-functionalist counterpoint to “freedom” or “ethics.” The more sophisticated recent work on morality by anthropologists is much less committed to pitting freedom and obligation against each other, but reading Meyer Fortes or Max Gluckman could have led to similar recognition much earlier in that literature.
Interview by Elayne Oliphant
Elayne Oliphant: As you acknowledge, this is clearly a “theory book.” But I’d like to start by asking you about the powerful historical argument you also make in this text. You give a name to “a liminal period” from 1870 to 1920 in Euro-American social thought: the mana moment. At this moment, the earlier energetic settlement of the rationalist, bourgeois individual saw itself partly undone by encounters between the Global North and Global South as colonial power was consolidated. In this moment between colonial settlements, a great deal of anxiety surrounded new kinds of seemingly “volatile” publics and “vitalist cults” in arts, ethics, and religion. These anxieties induced a series of attempts to understand these energies that appeared both threatening and appealing. Mana is one of the terms that circulated widely at the time—its availability itself an expression of the encounters between the Global North and Global South—in an attempt to address the vital energies flowing in unexpected directions. Could you tell us a bit more about the mana moment as a historical moment and what signs you see that suggest we are encountering another such moment?
William Mazzarella: First of all, Elayne, let me start by thanking you for these searching and attentive questions. The greatest satisfaction for an author is to be in conversation with a reader like you, who is able to bring the text alive in new ways, who understands it as a generative provocation. So thank you for that.
I also like that you have added another settlement to the ones that I name in the book: the bourgeois settlement. This is one of my hopes for the book: that a concept like settlement will encourage readers to find their own instances in whatever terrain of social life they’re exploring. I do believe that this is a generalizable way of thinking about society and history: this tendency that we have, both in discourse and in institutional life, to impose a kind of fixity on irreducible tensions and then to try to live with the symptomatic eruptions that that imposition will necessarily produce. And we know from psychoanalysis, too, that symptomatic eruptions are perhaps the most intimate thing we have—individually and collectively. They can be debilitating and paralyzing. But if we find ways of living with them, they can also be tremendously productive, again for good or for ill. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons that, although I explicitly characterize Mana as a ‘theory book’ I actually think of it as a ‘method book.’ Sometimes people look confused when I say that!)
But to get to the center of your question: what I’m calling the mana moment, roughly the decades surrounding the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, was, in the Euro-American world, a time of tremendous energetic ferment: politically, aesthetically, architecturally, erotically, esoterically. Old empires were giving way; new ones were being born. The rapacious expansion of European colonialism, for instance in the so-called ‘scramble for Africa,’ coincided with the flourishing of an esoteric depth hermeneutics in psychology, spiritualism, and political analysis. One of the central conceits of my book is borrowed from Walter Benjamin’s eccentric historiography. Benjamin believed that potentials embedded in the past could, as it were, ‘flash up’ unpredictably in the present, become actualized in the present in entirely new ways, thus, in a single dialectical leap, changing our understanding of both the past and its relationship to our present.
These kinds of flashes often come to us intuitively: something becomes visible as a hint or a suggestion, at the corner of our field of vision. We follow it, not quite knowing why or whether it’ll turn out to have been worthwhile. Sometimes it’s a dead end. But other times, a whole series of resonances open up across time. By resonances I don’t mean ‘similarities’ in the conventional sense. I’m not saying that our moment, in the early twenty-first century is necessarily all that similar to what our ancestors were living through a hundred years or so ago. Resonances here means that the two moments seem to contain what Max Weber, following Goethe, called ‘elective affinities’: that, in this case across time, they appear to become more vividly themselves through an encounter with each other. The encounter is constitutive in that it actualizes hitherto untapped potentials.
That’s why the argument that I develop in Mana draws on some old texts in order to open up ways about talking about our present. The work I’ve undertaken will have been successful if both those old texts and our sense of our present emerge looking a bit different from that encounter.
Elayne Oliphant: Let’s spend a little more time with this term, “settlement.” Each chapter addresses a potentially insightful dialectic, such as that between the energies of “primitive” rituals and “civilized” publics. You then use “settlement” to describe a process by which the movement of these dialectics is halted, preventing the continuation of the ambiguities and insights their continued movement provokes. I think the term is enormously productive. It effectively points to the itch it cannot fully scratch. The settlement will have to do for now but—as in the case of Israeli construction in the West Bank for example—it is enacted in order to create a “truth on the ground” precisely because it lacks authority and legitimacy. Settlements, in other words, lack solid foundation and implicitly acknowledge their insufficiency, while also enforcing powerful effects (and affects) in the world. What prompted you to use this term and how do you see it in opposition to your “vitalist dialectics”?
William Mazzarella: I like your invocation of settler colonial ‘truth on the ground,’ and especially how fragile and anxious that truth is. How full of contradictions, double-speak, and slips—in short, everything we call symptoms. The term ‘settlement’ came to me spontaneously as I was writing that part of Mana. But I realized as soon as it had appeared on my screen that it had this political connotation that worked perfectly for what I was trying to say. Namely, that both critical theory and the worlds it purports to clarify proceed in this way: by establishing ‘truths on the ground’ that are provisional no matter how much they claim permanence, that are violent no matter how much they claim that history and progress are on their side.
As to the second part of your question, how do I see the concept of settlement in opposition to the ‘vitalist dialectics’ that I am proposing as a kind of intellectual method? The short answer would be that I see them in generative opposition. What I am calling vitalist dialectics is a way of allowing the movement of becoming that a settlement stifles to find a generative form in thought. Unlike pure vitalism, this isn’t just about about letting things move. It is dialectical because I understand the tension between social forms and social forces to be at once generative and irreducible. It is a negative dialectic, rather than a dialectic that moves toward sublation and subsumption. A dialectic that starts by saying: “We take these tensions to be irreducible.” But also: “We understand that these tensions are what generate vital worlds.”
Elayne Oliphant: In the Introduction, you seem to offer us a way into thinking about the current moment. You acknowledge that, what Michael Taussig has called, the “mana wave called Trump” circulated as you wrote, edited, and completed the text, further prompting you to question “what powers authority? What in us responds to it? How is vital energy turned into social form” (2)? I know that W.J.T. Mitchell had a similar response to these opening words; like me, he wanted to find in it some sort of a political program. If Trump had managed to capture something incipient and translate it into tangible social form, how might those opposed to his projects similarly make use of mana to critique and undo his authority? Or, as I put it to you at the AES conference, why, generally speaking, does the left seem to really suck at capturing, inducing, or participating in vital energies? And what the hell are we going to do about it? So I want to ask you this question again, but I also want to offer you the chance to explain to me why it’s a somewhat misplaced response to your book.
William Mazzarella: Even almost a hundred years ago, theorists like Benjamin and Wilhelm Reich, who were interested in what we could call the vital dimensions of the critique of capitalism, noted that the political right seemed to be rather better at harnessing the energies of intoxication and collective effervescence for their political projects than the left. Then, as now, it’s as if the left gets too tied up in a pedagogical urge: it thinks that if it can only explain our common situation to us well enough, then it will have succeeded in mobilizing us. But as Terry Eagleton once satirically pointed out: “Men and women engaged in conflicts do not live by theory alone; socialists have not given their lives over the generations for the tenet that the ratio of fixed to variable capital gives rise to a tendential fall-off in the rate of profit.”
At a time of political urgency like ours, we all feel that we need answers. We want to know how to think about our situation, we want to know what to do about it. We are impatient with rumination and inclined toward action. And so if we are told, as I suggest in Mana, that all social and political action and attachment depends on the activation of collective energies, then it makes sense to want to know how to separate, as it were, ‘good mana’ from ‘bad mana’—genuinely revolutionary mana from reactionary or fascist mana. This, after all, was precisely what Benjamin was trying to do in his canonical ‘Artwork’ essay, which concludes by suggesting that we distinguish between an aestheticization of politics (fascist, bad) and a politicization of aesthetics (revolutionary, good).
In response to these understandable desires—desires that I too feel every day—Mana asks us to slow down and pay a different kind of attention. This is partly because I believe that there is simply no a priori way to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ mana—such that one could set up an institutional fix that would guarantee that the collective energies that emerge from whatever ritual or political form that one has devised will be reliably salutary. What Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert called “the collective forces of society”—and what I am calling “the mimetic archive”—is in this sense beyond good and evil, beyond economy. Its political potentialities are perennially emergent and cannot be guaranteed beforehand. In a mass democracy we tend all too often to act as if all we need to do is elect the right representative or devise the right kind of occasional process, and then we can sit back and watch things go well. No wonder we are so often disappointed when the great soaring hope turns out to have feet of clay. Part of the problem here, too, is that while we are quite conscious of the energies and attachments that we are bringing to the table during moments that are ritually marked off as “political”—rallies, elections, demonstrations and so on—we tend then to underestimate the mana-work that goes into the reproduction of the banality of everyday life, as well as its tight connection to the more grandly imagined dimension of life that we call ‘politics.’ This, by the way, is why I’m so fond of the kind of work that Katie Stewart and Lauren Berlant have been doing, together and separately, for some time now (be sure to check out their forthcoming book The Hundreds): it gives us a way of talking about the hinges between the most ordinary, fleeting moments and their—for want of a better word—“political” resonances, a mode in which everything is allowed to breathe.
The line that I pick up in Mana, perhaps counterintuitively, is Adorno’s aesthetic theory. I say counterintuitively, because Adorno was, if anything, utterly resistant to any kind of explicit politicization of aesthetic judgment. As far as he was concerned, the minute you subordinate aesthetic production to a political purpose, you’ve turned it into propaganda. And by turning it into propaganda, you’ve actually foreclosed the unique thing that art—as opposed to, say, pamphleteering—can do. But at another level, and this is where it links back into what I’m trying to do with Mana as an invitation to a particular kind of political thinking-feeling, at another level what Adorno prescribes for aesthetic judgment is a radical opening of the sensorium to the historical and political potentials that are embedded in the materials out of which the artworks we engage are made. An encounter with what I would call, again, “the mimetic archive.” Of course the major difference between my argument and Adorno’s is that I want to insist that this kind of engagement is in fact possible in the space of mass culture and mass publicity, not just in the esoteric preserve of autonomous art. Here I want to be quite precise: I am not in fact making a populist argument. I am not saying what so many have: that Adorno was simply a snob who didn’t recognize the revolutionary capacities of ordinary popular pleasures. Not at all. What I am saying is that Adorno actually gives us a profoundly provocative way to re-engage mass publicity, an esoteric approach, if you will, to these very exoteric cultural forms.
And that—forgive me the long and winding road!—gets us back to the question of why, at a moment of political urgency like the one we’re inhabiting now, my advice would be to slow down and pay a different kind of attention. Because it’s only by attending to what I like to think of as the esoteric resonances of exoteric public forms (or let’s say, the ‘inner’ dimensions of ‘outer’ forms) that we will be able to move toward a leftist mobilization of the mana of mass society.
Elayne Oliphant: Finally, you mentioned that you saw this text as the fruit of ongoing conversations (in your mind and in person) with two important anthropologists whose work has powerfully influenced your own: Marshall Sahlins and Michael Taussig. Given your earlier writings addressing the Frankfurt school, theories of affect, and advertising, these two scholars might not be the first two that people think of as orienting your work. Could you say a bit more about how they have influenced the questions you ask and the methods you take up, and how this book engages with them?
William Mazzarella: Yes, thanks for this question. Mana emerged in a mad frenzy of writing across two summers, 2015 and 2016. I’d never before felt capable of writing for more than about four hours at a stretch. But especially in the summer of 2015, there were long periods when it was not unusual for me to write for eight hours at a stretch, pausing only to satisfy the needs of the body. Sometimes I would find myself getting so worked up, so energized—“A certain rush of energy” indeed!—that I would have to burst up out of my chair and kind of charge around the room for a few moments. So something definitely possessed me during those months. Who knows whether that will ever happen again? While it was happening it was both exhilarating and a little frightening. It wasn’t unusual for me to think that I was writing something entirely eccentric, something so idiosyncratic that it would simply not be intelligible—would simply not resonate—with anyone else. For that reason, it was tremendously comforting, if also a little intimidating, to realize that two presences seemed to hover, one at each of my shoulders, during the writing process: Marshall Sahlins and Mick Taussig (I’m not going to tell you who was on which side!). I didn’t really question their felt presence during that time; I just drew some kind of comfort as well as some kind of provocation from it.
Once the first draft was finished I felt paralyzed. The thought of sending it to anyone felt equivalent to getting undressed in the middle of the street. (It may not be immediately evident to some readers, but this is by far the most personal text I’ve ever published). So I figured that a little aversion therapy was in order: in order to get over my fear of circulation, I was going to have to send it to the two people whose opinions most terrified me—not least because they had been so reliably present, so watchful during the writing. So, along with sheepish cover notes, I sent the draft to Marshall and Mick. To my great relief, they both responded generously and kindly, with a great deal of enthusiasm.
It wasn’t really until after that had happened that I began to think about why it was Marshall and Mick who had shown up, albeit spectrally, in my office while I was writing. It now seems to me that Marshall Sahlins’ work offered me a kind of reassurance that writing this kind of a book was legitimate for an anthropologist. Specifically, I think of Marshall’s Culture and Practical Reason (1976), a book that he wrote when he was at a similar point in his life as I was when I wrote Mana, and a book that, like Mana, is a work of conceptual clarification that doubles as a sort of intellectual autobiography—a way of sorting out one’s influences, engaging in a few intimate polemics (the only polemics that really matter), and figuring out a way forward. And of course both Culture and Practical Reason and Mana, as different as their intellectual commitments in many ways are, end with analyses of marketing.
Mick Taussig has always inspired me with his willingness to think speculatively, to look, precisely, for those resonances between places and texts that open up sudden flashes of unexpected illumination. Now of course there are many points of overlap between the Mana and Mick’s books—the concern with mimesis, with Adorno and especially Benjamin, and the attempt to retrieve something vital from what is too often dismissed as the age of armchair anthropology. So, if I may invoke one of the key dialectics of my discussion in Mana, Marshall’s presence supported me at the level of form, whereas Mick’s drove me on at the level of life.