Catherine Fennell on her new book, Last Project Standing

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

Interview by Janet Connor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catherine Fennell:

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

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

 

 

 

 

Paul Manning on his new book, Love Stories

Love Stories

https://utorontopress.com/us/love-stories-4

Interview by Kamala Russell

Kamala Russell: In reading this engaging historical ethnography, there were two major themes that stood out to me, in its content,  your approach tohistorical work, and in writing a ‘teaching ethnography’: 1) self and ethics in practices involving sex, desire, and courtship, and 2) doing historical ethnography with texts about sexuality that looks at how these texts circulate.

You detail the interactive and poetic genres that support a particular form of sexual relations among the Khevsurs, today a storied poetry-spinning, horse-riding, honor-wielding people from the mountains of Georgia. You begin by describing two kind of relationships: the sts’orproba, which both is and isn’t sex, and dzmobiloba, which is both romantic and familial, but definitely not marriage. How would you characterize the difference between these and other physically restrained forms of courtship like arranged marriage or chastity promises?

Paul Manning: The wording is important here, the Khevsurs really don’t have courtship. Sts’orproba is definitely sexuality pursued in restrained form for its own sake, people believe it’s better to engage in it than the alternative. A Myth in the earlier chapter says: Before, boys and girls could only look at each other and pine, their desire was too strong and there was no way for them to express it, so they died.  God did two things: he took some desire away from sexuality (desire for persons) and displaced it onto desire for things. The other thing he did was institute a limited expression for sexual desire: sts’orproba.  So, I’ve called that “sociable sexuality”, sociable in Simmel’s sense: it is the “play form” of sexuality.  Dzmobiloba is the dangerous development of sts’orproba: sts’orproba gets serious, stops being playful, becomes something permanent that can only exist between one boy and one girl. Dzmobiloba is rivalrous with sts’orproba AND marriage, and hence is pursued with the greatest secrecy, and with great restraint. It’s not that Khevsurs never had the idea that they might like to combine sexuality with marriage, but as it stands marriage is opposed to sexuality (if by sexuality we mean expressions of desire), even though it involves what we would call sex. Generally speaking sts’orproba is opposed to sex, but only in the sense of procreation.  So, our categories (courtship, sex) all mislead.  If we are talking about other cultural forms of sexuality, I suppose courtship is understood to be preparatory to marriage, in a way that sts’orproba isn’t.  But frankly I think courtship is only one factor in our society, for example, I think it’s pretty clear that people engage in sexual relations similar to sts’orproba and dzmobiloba without really taking seriously the idea that this is going to lead to marriage, just as we  engage in sexual relations without necessarily believing commitment (something like dzmobiloba) will result.  Naturally, people might have different ideas within a single relationship.  I think our conflation of sexuality with projections of long term relationships is itself ambivalent to a desire to marry.  On the other hand, there are plenty of interesting ethnographies of how people manage to try to introduce courtship-like agency into situations where marriage is generally arranged, and so on (here I’m thinking in particular of the use of emergent literacy and love letters in Nepal (Laura Ahearn) or the use of internet cafes in Jordan (Laura Kaya))[i] as affordances to produce possibilities of agency in situations like this).  But I’m not aware of many ethnographies that deal with a form of sexuality or desire so clearly pursued for its own sake, that can’t be reduced to premarital courtship and can’t be reduced to procreative alliances. It is strange, but also familiar even if it is in an unfamiliar form –the destructive drama, betrayal, pining. .

Kamala Russell: Khevsur romantic encounters all involve individual restraint, anonymity, secrecy, privacy, public disavowal, and intimacy without the fantasy of being chosen.. Yet some partners speak of deep love. So here does sexuality walk a line between encounters kept private but that may be sites of ethical contemplation/practice (projecting an image of oneself to the world through another), and relations that are much more socially on-the-record?

Paul Manning: That is two questions in one. Desire isn’t anonymous, but all its public expressions are anonymous (poetry) or secretive, furtive, guarded, restrained, all the more so when the desire becomes so serious that it is no longer elective and playful, and becomes potentially consequential for serious adult relationships.   Dzmobiloba is the most secretive in its practices, because it is the most intense and serious expression of desire, and yet the most publicly expressed through anonymous poetry.  The restraint of desire, the restraint of open expression, secrecy, are all of a piece with the Khevsur notions of self, which revolve around freedom, autonomy, and the ethical category namusi (for both men and women, obviously related to Arabic namus [I thank my colleague Anne Meneley for explaining the ethical content of namus to me andits relations to the Khevsur ideas of self).  The poet displays her love by hiding it in plain sight, disguising egocentric desire as sociocentric praise for the lover, by suppressing her open expression of desire with her namusi. The ability to form elective relationships formed through desire and consent are obviously emblematic of this freedom and autonomy, somewhat wilful, as long as you obey the rules, you don’t care what people say.  However, with this desire other desires are born, the desire to marry one’s beloved, this is where it becomes dangerous and possibly means an end to all these freedoms.  The system is unstable, and challenges appear.  Concealment and self-regulation are all aspects of the same Khevsur notion of self, freedom and autonomy based on self-restraint and namusi, as well as being able to express one’s desire and showing respect for the other through consent.  They cannot be told not to engage in these things, they must be persuaded.  Khevsur sexuality is part of Khevsur notions of a Khevsur person as someone with concerns about their “name and shame”, with namusi, and hence freedom and autonomy, one who cannot be ordered around, particularly in areas that are free from obligation. In effect, their expressions of desire are an ethical system. Even when they are playing pretty fast and loose with the rules, all these disagreements unfold within the antinomies and possibilities of this ethical/sexual ethos.

Marriage is contracted through intermediaries, and intermediaries can spoil a marriage contract, the same intermediaries who pair up boys and girls who don’t know each other.  Because no one with proper restraint can make a move unless these intermediaries intervene.  The fact that intermediaries both create the conditions of possibility of desire and also destroy potential marriage contracts makes them the wild cards, the jokers, of the system.  The two systems are related, but the basic idea is that desire is foremost in sts’orproba, and obligation foremost in marriage, and they have to be kept apart or the whole thing goes out of control.

Kamala Russell:  So, can you say something about subjectivity or personhood in these pairs, when their concealment and regulation are not a question of restricting freedom? It strikes me there is something interesting here compared to how sexuality is usually positioned in (maybe otherwise political) discussions of subjectivity or love.

Paul Manning: So Georgians often compared these relationships to the medieval category of love called Mijnuroba, often glossed as the same as “courtly love”. The love pictured in ghazals was illicit in its character, for the member of the purdah society there existed only three possibilities to experience love, and all three of them were socially not allowed: love for a woman betrothed or married to another man, love for a courtesan, and homosexual love for a young and beautiful boy.”[ii]

This particular kind of love is much more typical of Georgian urban poetry which is heavily influenced by these traditions, where there is a different category of love, eshkhi, which is clearly borrowed from Arabic ishq, probably via Persian, a burning but unrequited desire which is both an attribute of the lover, typically likened to a nightingale, and the beloved, liked to a rose, in what is obviously a completely hackneyed trope.  The Khevsur tradition is a bit different from all these antecedents, and the crucial difference is that Khevsur sexual practices do not require that desire be completely unrequited, but they do limit its expression in every field.

The popular reception of Khevsur love in Georgia, as I show later in the book, varies between two extremes, treating it as platonic, unrequited, chivalric, what have you unrequited love, and something so libertine that it seems to include every imaginable sex act other than the one act that is imagined to be impossible: vaginal intercourse.  Georgians often talk about a sword being placed between the lovers, and that part of the mythology of Khevsur sex hangs on a narrow thread. One ethnographer mentions it, once, and I think he made it up. It gets blown into a canonical thing, but it’s clearly from Western chivalric romance. But Khevsur love was neither of these two things, the expressions range from spending the night talking and maybe a kiss or two, and apparently, what we would call sex and what Khevsurs call “fornication”.  So, it wasn’t unrequited, the whole point of the myth is that God wanted it to be requited in a limited way. We know it expresses desire, and does so directly.  But there are enough gaps in the standard account that people can read into it what they like.  So the two most important things about it, other than it being opposed to marriage (which is what makes it sociable, there is no consequential relationship that hangs on it), is that it is self-limiting desire, desire is given expression, but also limited by self-control, by namusi, so it is an expression of desire, which is destabilizing, but also an expression of a kind of Khevsur temperament, self-control, namusi, which constitutes the Khevsur ethically and ethnically as a person.  Khevsurs are wilful individualists, free, proud, men and women, but also they are restrained, they have namusi, they are tempered like steel, as Baliauri might have put it.  Stsorproba as an ethical practice constitutes the Khevsurs as Khevsurs, rather than being some kind of weird deviant thing they engage in. It becomes a central expression of their understanding of why they are Khevsurs, and not Pshavs, not Russians; the tension between individual desire and social norms as an ethical tension is what makes a Khevsur a Khevsur and also explains their freedom and so on.

Kamala Russell: The last sections of the book are devoted to how narratives about and representations of the Khevsurs and sts’orproba circulate in film, advertising and even online message boards, a lot of which invoke sexual freedom. What do you make of the difference between the way Khevsur desire is discussed and represented in some of the mass media you detail and in the genres of love poetry you discuss in the beginning (the poetry that itself makes up part of the sts’orproba relationship)? Do you think it is significant in the contemporary moment that anonymized expressions of love and desire come to stand for a particularly feminine object that is either overwhelmingly hot and exotic, or unattainable, playing hard-to-get, and frustrating? Is there something lost in the remobilization of these stories?

Paul Manning: Yeah, that’s really important, and it has some tie ins with how the Russians imagined Georgia as an exotic, unattainable languid, possibly treacherous Oriental woman.  It lies near the centre of Russian and European orientalist representations of Georgia.  I’d say that Georgians often read sts’orproba as courtly love, but it surely isn’t that, just as they misread the context of the medieval poetry of love as being European courtly love avant la lettre when it is just really ordinary stuff in the Arabo-Persian ghazal tradition.  The main difference between Khevsur love and all these other kinds is that all these other kinds are always completely unrequited and unrequitable.  Unrequited love is basically what love poetry is about in most times and places.  Khevsurs allowed some requiting, and they sang a bit about that, but mostly they sang about break ups, betrayals and pining, because let’s face it, the best stories and love songs are not ones that are happily ever after. The best poems are the poison poems.  The other aspect is that contemporary teenagers don’t read it necessarily as being completely depraved lust nor completely courtly, but as a kind of moderate “European boyfriend-girlfriend” relationship, something else absent from Georgia.  So, there is this reading of it as a kind of sexual freedom poised between absolute libertinism and absolute courtly restraint, but there is also this reading that reads it as being basically a Georgian version of something really rather tame, a license for Georgian to be allowed to have boyfriend-girlfriend relationships and give them moderate forms of expression like kissing in public.

When I gave this stuff as an off the cuff public lecture, really an ambush lecture because I was not warned by my colleague Tamta Khalvashi I would be doing any such thing and it was in front of her students in a public museum, they displayed a visible excitement and fascination that girls could exert this kind of agency over romantic matters.  Very unlike my own students, who met this material as they do all other material, with a deadening blasé attitude.  Since they misheard some of what I was saying, and posted some things that weren’t strictly true on Facebook, a Georgian traditionalist extremist, who was an aficionado of the made-up Georgian “Khevsur martial art” of khridoli, accused me immediately of being a paid agent of the Soros foundation who was tasked with the destruction of Georgian culture. So the reception of this stuff in Georgian culture, including my own book, is always complicated.

Kamala Russell: Because it’s a historical ethnography, you’re not working with your own fieldwork, rather with ethnographers’ accounts, and otherwise mediated text. How did this influence your analytical work, and how do you think this affects how the book can be taught?

 Paul Manning: I did do some fieldwork with Pshavians, but frankly, there’s no real way I would have been able to “do fieldwork” on it had I been born generations earlier.  There are public forms of knowledge about it that everyone knows, but like any sexual practice, a greater degree of secrecy is involved than, say a public ritual.  Someone suggested that this is a problem with all ethnography but let’s face it, that’s just wrong. You can’t plunk yourself down in a circle of teenagers and ask them to talk about their sexual experiences. Ethically you will be burned at the stake, and they won’t tell you much anyway, particularly not a 50 year old man.  That’s why ethnography of sexuality is largely about public expressions of sexual identity and not sexuality in the strictest sense (I take it for granted that logically speaking sexuality involves desire before identity).  That was a problem faced by Georgian ethnographers too, and even members of the same communities don’t know what other people are doing.  The only person who could write that ethnography or do that ethnography would have to have been a member of that community, and even such a person would have problems knowing anything: it would be all gossip, inference, and that’s why poetry plays such a huge role for members and analysts alike, as the ethnomethodologists would say.  The same problems confront the ethnographer that confront any member, but they have additional problems.

It is a historical ethnography but also a linguistic anthropology ethnography that could be used in the classroom, because there aren’t a lot of those. Obviously what I keep learning as a professor is “never teach your own stuff” because it never seems to work.  I subtitled the film I discuss in the book, I’ve published the whole thing in fragments (for some reason I couldn’t save it in large chunks, but if downloaded using downloadhelper and played end to end on VLC playlist, it comes out as one film) on youtube (the first part is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXpNaNDAqb8).  There is obviously an irony in creating a book and materials to teach it and finding that you personally don’t really like to teach it, though I think that’s just part of the general rule “never teach your own stuff”.

Cited References

Ahearn, L.M., 2003. Writing desire in Nepali love letters. Language & Communication, 23(2), pp.107-122.

Kaya, L.P., 2009. Dating in a sexually segregated society: Embodied practices of online romance in Irbid, Jordan. Anthropological Quarterly, 82 (1), pp.251-278.

Kuczkiewicz-Fraś, A., 2010. The beloved and the lover–love in classical Urdu ghazal. Cracow Indological Studies, 12.

Sonia Das on her new book, Linguistic Rivalries

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/linguistic-rivalries-9780190461782?cc=us&lang=en&

Interview by Lia Siewert

Lia Siewert: Your ethnography looks at how Québec’s Franco-Anglo conflicts, or linguistic rivalries, are reproduced in the language practices of Sri Lankan and Indian Tamil-speaking communities in Montréal. How would you describe your book to someone who is not familiar with the politics of language choice in Québec?

Sonia Das: I would start off by saying that in some parts of the world, people are willing to die for their language.  In Montréal this sentiment is very much alive among the folks with whom I conducted my research. Many have participated in movements of linguistic nationalism and fought for their language rights to be recognized and protected in their home societies, in addition to Québec. I would then emphasize how especially contentious language choices are in Québec. In fact, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to state that people there always notice which language you choose to speak (or write) at any given time and with any given interlocutor.  Some people get very upset – and will tell you or show you so – if you make what they believe to be the wrong choices. At the same time, some people in Québec want nothing to do with Anglo-Franco conflicts. They would prefer to think of language as a neutral tool in the classic liberal sense and opt out of these debates altogether by speaking English exclusively, yet the law still obliges them to learn and use French for education, business, and government. There are also just as many people who are mindful of the evolving stakes of linguistic rivalries and seek to strategically display their loyalty to both their host and home societies. Upwardly mobile Indian Tamil immigrants generally fall into the first category, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees into the second, and their children span the spectrum of political allegiances. No one in Québec truly escapes the interpellating effects of a language ideology that conflates language and ethnonational identity. My book thus explores how the politics of language choice are part and parcel of belonging to a globalizing society that imagines language as the essence of cultural heritage and civic identity.

Lia Siewert: You specifically mention the “voices” you had to exclude from the book’s discussion. Which voices are you referring to? And what kinds of “future retellings and revisions” are you hoping emerge from these omissions?

Sonia Das: This is not only a book about the politics of language choice. This is also a book about the politics of doing ethnography on language choice within the context of a pro-nationalist society that nonetheless seeks to be welcoming of immigrants and refugees fleeing politically turbulent situations and worrying about having their social mobility restricted through the integration process.  As I mentioned in my first response, almost every citizen and immigrant feels strongly about language issues in Montréal, even if it is to simply assert that language occupies too much attention in public discourse.  Some people, however, cannot openly state their opinions for fear of losing their jobs, their residency, or their lives.  I am mindful of the precarious position of many of my informants who have trusted me with their stories and I exclude the voices of the most vulnerable, including undocumented immigrants, children, and Tamil-Canadians who speak critically of the government or the LTTE. I did not want this book to be about war or political conflict in order to avoid feeding into negative stereotypes about Tamil “terrorists” in Canada and also because there are already several books exploring the experiences and memories of war among refugees in Toronto that have come out at about the same time.

Also, even though I received permission from the English school board to work with children attending Tamil PELO classes, I chose to only analyze the talk of children whose parents gave me permission to include them in the transcripts. Outside of schools, I regret not being able to follow up with the Muslim and Protestant contacts that I had made, and so the book depicts a polarized division between Hindus and Catholics that is not fully representative of the diversity of the diaspora. Lastly, this book is the product of an unfortunate decision made by the Commission Scolaire de Montréal (French school board) to reject my application to conduct research at French public schools, citing the “political content” of my research as the reason for their refusal. This rejection came after almost six months of jumping through bureaucratic hoops and corresponding with teachers, principals, and government officials, and I was devastated, to say the least. One of my dissertation committee members sympathetically advised me that even this rejection counts as data, and so I started to think more reflexively about how my positionality as a biracial Indian American woman with roots in Québec and with an easily recognizable lower-class Québécois accent meant that certain doors would open for me and others would close.  The revisions that I imagine would involve someone of a different set of interests and occupying a different positionality paying attention to the diversity of these Tamil communities in ways that I could not, and the future retellings would capitalize on recent political changes in Québécois and Tamil societies to explore whether and how language choice and multilingualism are still contentious today.

Lia Siewert: Your archival research is expansive and the conclusions you draw from it are compelling; specifically, it is fascinating that Québec’s Tamil diaspora has produced ideologies and practices particular to Montréal, but drawn from texts in Sri Lanka and India. Could you elaborate on the significance of investigating Tamil use in India and Sri Lanka and the growing ideological separation of forms of Tamil in Montréal?

Sonia Das: When I shared my conclusion with my Professor of Tamil at the University of Michigan that second-generation Indian-Canadians identify as speaking Spoken Tamil and Sri Lankan-Canadians identify as speaking Written Tamil, he immediately corrected me and explained that these diglossic “registers” are the same “language.” Though I clarified my observations as language ideologies, he remained convinced that either my reasoning or my informants’ reasoning was faulty. Having studied “Written Tamil” first at the University of Michigan and “Spoken Tamil” second at the American Institute for Indian Studies in Madurai, it would have been natural for me to have confused the issues, and so I did a lot of cross-checking to make sure that this language ideology was indeed backed up by explicit metapragmatic statements as well as cultural practices institutionalized across different social domains. Also, when I presented my research in Toronto and looked into the heritage language scene there, I understood this to be truly a Montréal phenomenon. There is no recorded evidence of any other Tamil diaspora – whether situated in Europe, Australia, South Asia, Africa, or elsewhere in North America – making similar claims about their languages.  And yet, the idea that Spoken Tamil and Written Tamil are grammatically and stylistically distinct linguistic codes became widely accepted in the 19th century, precisely at a time when British, French, and other Europeans were competing to produce the most authoritative lexicographies and perfected copies of ancient Tamil texts in South Asia. This historical perspective led me to explore in the archives how Indian and Sri Lankan Tamil ideologies of language diverged through a series of ideological mediations and in relation to imperialist Anglo-Franco conflicts which, in all their idiosyncratic forms, have driven much of modern political history.

Lia Siewert: It seems like the Ministry of Education’s attention to minority language education attributes value to these languages only in the service of boosting anti-Anglo attitudes—therefore, while languages such as Tamil or Tagalog are given lip service, ultimately their success is meaningless to Québec as long as English is decentered and French is increasingly the language of social and economic mobility. How would you argue for or against this reading?

Sonia Das: Actually, it was not my intention to target Québec’s Ministry of Education as paying mere lip service to Canadian multicultural values.  The fact that you read my book in this way, however, suggests perhaps the leaking influence of two over-determined and partially overlapping interpretations of heritage language education in Québec today. The first of these is a belief that reflects the increasingly neoliberal practices of many governments (and not exclusive to Québec) that values heritage language education insofar as it creates economic and political value for the host society and enables socioeconomic mobility for citizens.  The second reading is more cynical. It claims that heritage language programs were only created in Montréal in 1978 to appease ethnic minority voters who were upset when they first learned that they would have to send their children to French and not the preferred English-medium public schools after the passage of Bill 101. Even if the Ministry had originally intended the PELO as a form of appeasement to ethnic minority voters, I would not conclude that teaching heritage languages boosted anti-Anglo attitudes, for three reasons. First, heritage language classes have been offered in English-medium schools in Montréal since the early 1980s.  Second, the accepted practice of English code-mixing with heritage languages such as Tamil increases the presence of English in French-medium schools and reinforces the status of English as a cosmopolitan language.  Third, even though the greatest number of PELO classes is in Montréal’s French-medium school system, there are neighborhoods where the only school that teaches a specific heritage language is an English-medium one. Additionally, if you were to compare Canadian heritage language programs with bilingual education programs in American and European contexts, for example, the Canadian pedagogy is arguably more expansive and robust. I live in New York City where there are a lot of bilingual schools and bilingual services but where there is no public school that could teach my children Bengali, their heritage language. So, to return to your question, although it is true that one of the Ministry of Education’s primary tasks is to promote the teaching of French and encourage the identification of children in Québec with this civic language, as opposed to English, the fact that significant government resources are being funneled to heritage language schools in an array of languages would argue against a too reductionist reading of this language policy.

Lia Siewert: What is your next project?

Sonia Das: I have two new ongoing projects.  The first, which is an extension of my first book project on Indian and Sri Lankan relations in the context of the Canadian Tamil diaspora, focuses instead on the ways in which language politics influence maritime exchanges and sociopolitical relations between post-colonial Sri Lanka and South India. I use ethnographic, archival, and linguistic methods to investigate how maritime language policies and infrastructural projects of port building and sea dredging have transformed the lived spaces and social identities in and around the Gulf of Mannar, which is a narrow body of water separating the Tamil Nadu port of Thoothukudi and Sri Lankan port of Colombo. I focus on infrastructural projects and maritime policies enacted in the aftermath of the civil war in Sri Lanka (1983-2009) and during the geopolitical race between India and China to control international shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean (2009-present). I also inquire into how language activism articulates with movements for religious, environmental, and labor rights and politicizes both sides of the coast by destabilizing trade and transport and rechanneling the flow of labor migration. Included in this research is a pilot project on the language practices and infrastructural conditions of sociability among Asian seafarers working for the global shipping industry at ports Newark and Montréal.

 

My second project is in collaboration with Dr. Sherina Feliciano-Santos at the University of South Carolina, and it focuses on our shared interests in language and racial inequality. Together, we analyze issues of free speech within police-suspect interactions by investigating the contexts in which a Driving Under the Influence (DUI) suspect’s communicative behavior, which with few exceptions is considered protected speech under the First Amendment, is construed as disorderly conduct or necessitating escalated force. Combining ethnographic fieldwork with over 900 hours of dashcam and bodycam video and audio data and case files of DUI arrests in South Carolina, we seek to identify the linguistic and contextual factors that impact how suspects’ communicative practices are interpreted and enacted upon by police officers. At a time when violence in police-suspect encounters has become a matter of great public concern, we believe that there is an urgent need for data-driven public policy that draws on the strengths of linguistic anthropology to elucidate the relationship between language, race, and criminal justice. It also seems like an opportune time for linguistic anthropologists to contribute to discussions of big data, especially in light of the normalization of surveillance in everyday social life.

Courtney Handman on her book, Critical Christianity

Interview by Dan Jorgensen

Dan Jorgensen: Critical Christianity is a book filled with ideas – it feels as though there is an argument on nearly every page. If you had to summarize the overall argument for, say, an audience of grad students, what would you say?

Courtney Handman: Overall the book looks at two main issues: how a global phenomenon like Christianity changes the kinds of social groups that people form, and how translation works within that process, using the case of Guhu-Samane experiences of Christianization to demonstrate this. So I argue that Protestant Christianities (especially in the kinds of convert cultures that are common in Papua New Guinea and across the global south) are often practiced as projects of critique, and often critiques of what get called “traditional cultures.” These kinds of critical discourses do not just produce the ideological individualism that is usually associated with Protestantism, but they also produce a very intense focus on the social groups in which Christians live, in particular an intense focus on denominations and denominational schism. Guhu-Samane Christians are extremely engaged in the arguments that have produced a number of local denominational schisms, as much as (or even more than) they are engaged in thinking about the ways that their lives have changed since they stopped being “traditional.”

Translation is an essential part of my argument not only because missionary translations are crucial sites for reifying “traditional culture,” but also because I argue for the importance of looking at translation as a form of circulation and not just as a form of comparison. An incredible amount of work looks at translations by comparing texts, languages, or cultures (and I do some of this as well). Yet what was especially important in Guhu-Samane contexts was not just this comparison, but also the fact that New Testament had circulated through a really specific network of people, institutions, and divine entities. Translation was important, then, because they produced these events of circulation and these events of circulation are often the crucial sites for Guhu-Samane Christians to form new denominations.

Dan Jorgensen: Your book looks closely at the history of the Lutheran Mission and the Summer Institute of Linguistics and their projects – to a much greater degree, in fact, than is usual in Papua New Guinea (PNG) work. Was this part of your strategy from the inception, or did your approach emerge over the course of your work in PNG?

Courtney Handman: Unsurprisingly, the answer is both yes and no. I went to graduate school wanting to work on Christianity in PNG, which was a relatively novel topic at the time. I also knew that I wanted to look at missionaries as actors who shape the way Christianity circulates locally, but didn’t have much of a sense of which missionaries. On my first trip to PNG I spent time at a Christian Bible College and it just so happened that members of SIL (what used to be called the Summer Institute of Linguistics) were teaching a class on Bible translation to the PNG students. I spent much of the time that I was sitting in on that class thinking about what a dissertation project on Bible translation might look like (and also spent much of that summer feeling very claustrophobic on the fenced-in Bible College campus). Perhaps because of this roundabout start, I was interested in translation from the get go as a process that manages to get texts in circulation. I was not especially interested in looking at the impossibilities of translation – that is something that a number of other anthropologists have already done very well – but instead at the changes that translations help produce regardless of their seeming impossibility. By the time my second short trip to PNG rolled around I was pretty well set on looking at some aspect of SIL’s work in PNG, with the hopes of working in a PNG community that was either in the process of getting a translation or had had one already produced. The Guhu-Samane community was unique for both having had an American Bible translator produce the New Testament and for having local people currently in charge of an Old Testament translation project. (The focus on the Lutherans was much more accidental, and only came about because I worked in a community that had been missionized by them, although they have become the central focus of my current research and I’m enjoying learning more about them.)

Dan Jorgensen: An even more striking feature of your work is the use you make of theological debates in Protestant Christianity. It seems clear that these are not merely sources of information or “data,” and instead play an important role in shaping some of the terms of your argument. Can you say something about how you embarked on this route, and whether it offered you any surprises along the way?

Courtney Handman: One of the most surprising and frustrating things about working on denominationalism is how little has been written about it, and how unremarkable much of what has been written is. Usually, if people talk about denominationalism they do so as proxies for other kinds of social groups. Denominations get reduced to being other names for villages or political factions, and denominational competition is usually just seen as politics by another name. In Guhu-Samane communities, there is some of that: denominations are sometimes regionally specific, and competitions among denominations can look like contests among important men. But there seemed to be more animating the denominational conflicts, and I spent a while casting around for authors who didn’t completely reduce denominations (or other religious groups) to political, economic, or geographical explanations. Richard Niebuhr wrote an important text about denominationalism that gets discussed in a wide range of disciplines. Although he is an American theologian, you can trace a scholarly genealogy from Max Weber to Ernst Troelsch to Niebuhr, so he is still within a recognizable social science orbit.

But to speak more broadly to your question, there are a number of anthropologists working on religion who are engaging to one extent or another with texts written about or within religious traditions. This has a lot to do with the realization that secularism didn’t quite take hold as Weber and others had predicted, yet much of the theoretical apparatus of the social sciences assumes that religion is explainable in – and reducible to – sociological or political or economic terms. So while people across the global south have been taking up global religions, the explanations for this often don’t have much to do with the religions as such. Theological texts can be useful texts to think with and think against, even if one doesn’t use concepts in the texts in ways their authors intended, because they do assume that what people are interested in or thinking about has something to do with ideas and practices in Christianity or Islam, for example.

Dan Jorgensen: An important point that could easily get lost in substantive discussions is your perspective on events, and “event-based sociality.” Where do you think we can (or should) go with this? Can you say a little more about the prospects (and difficulties) this orientation offers for anthropologists in general?

Courtney Handman: One of the most compelling models of social groups for anthropological thinking has been nationalism, where the nationalist group is formed as an imagined unity that reaches back into the past. But social groups aren’t all organized like that, and a focus on events is just one way to make that difference clear. I see the focus on events as coming out of Melanesianist anthropology, where people like Marilyn Strathern or Roy Wagner realized a long time ago that the social groups that make up everyday life in places like Papua New Guinea are themselves outcomes of specific events of opposition or engagement. And just like other anthropologists have taken Melanesianist models of “dividual” personhood and applied them well outside Melanesia, I take this point about event-based sociality to address Protestant denominationalism and questions of linguistic circulation. If groups are organized around events, then what makes them important is their capacity to create hierarchies and differences rather than their capacity to be enduring, stable, identity-producing categories. Denominational oppositions within Protestantism seem to work the same way. Schisms can be analyzed as events of critique, where what is important for Protestants is that the denominational split is the evidence of transformation (or reformation, to use a Protestant term). What my Guhu-Samane interlocutors kept emphasizing in the histories of their experiences of Christianization is that it is the events of critique that are especially important to these histories, even if these critical events produce short-lived denominations.

I make the same point in terms of translation by emphasizing translation as linked events of circulation rather than (or in addition to) analyzing translation as the comparison between two stable languages and cultures. This is largely an extension of the kind of analyses that linguistic anthropologists do under the headings of “entextualization” and “recontextualization,” where the focus is on how people understand the process of de-linking a segment of talk or text from its context and bringing it into a new one. In that sense, the focus on events is well underway within linguistic anthropology!

 

 

Graham Jones on his new book, Magic’s Reason

http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/M/bo27351943.html

Interview by Dalila Ozier

Dalila Ozier: In this book, you revisit your ethnographic work on French magicians in order to critically examine the ways in which both magicians and anthropologists use the magic concept. Why did you choose the theoretical framework of analogy/counter-analogy to re-analyze your ethnographic data? What methodological difficulties did you experience when developing your arguments?

Graham Jones: I had known I wanted to write about Western encounters with non-Western illusionary practices for a long time, but I was having trouble shaping it as a book project. In fact, all the archival materials were gathering dust in a file cabinet as I tried to figure out what to do with them. Then I started teaching a graduate seminar in ethnographic methods. After several years of that class, I began to see my project in a new light. Working with anthropology grad students on their research projects, I realized that one of the fundamental epistemological issues that all ethnographers all have to sort out is making the categories they use for analysis commensurable with the native categories they encounter in the field. How do we know our categories are transferrable? When do we need to invoke native categories to shake up received wisdom? The historical materials I had were a great illustration of ethnographers deploying spurious categories and then building anthropological theories atop their faulty findings. I thought it could be a great methodological object lesson. So in the beginning, I envisioned Magic’s Reason as a text for teaching ethnographic methods! I hope someone will use it for that one day.

You’re right that analogy isn’t necessarily the obvious go-to concept for dealing with this kind of epistemological issue. Metaphor is probably a much more robust category in the anthropological tradition given, for instance, the Sahlins-Obeyesekere debate or the wonderful work by George Lakoff. But analogy had several things going for it. You may laugh, but I really liked the pliability of the word itself. I encountered the work of a philosopher named Cameron Shelley who had originated a great typology of some of the specific types of analogical moves that occur in scientific argumentation: disanalogy, misanalogy, counteranalogy, and so on. These are exactly the kinds of things anthropologists do when they work with analogy in practice, and dis-metaphor, mis-metaphor, and counter-metaphor just aren’t as euphonious! But there was something else that was crucially important about analogy: Tylor identified it as the core operation of both anthropology and (occult) magic. So I wanted to trace out some of the intellectual history of how anthropologists have understood analogy as central to what they do scientifically (through the work of Marilyn Strathern and Roy Wagner for instance) and what they think people who believe in magic are doing when they engage in magical practices. This is what the title of the book means: anthropologists are using analogy to figure out the reason for magic, and magicians are using analogy as a form of reasoning. In the end, I don’t think there’s any real difference.

One of the methodological challenges I faced in developing the arguments had to do with the diagrams. My thinking about analogy was deeply influenced by the cognitive psychologist Dedre Genter. She has beautiful diagrams designed to show how people make abstractions based on similar patterns they identify in different domains—through analogy. Yet in my case, I was looking particularly at the way people make abstractions based on differences (as well as similarities) between different cultures—the dissimilarity part is really important for anthropology. It turns out that it is really difficult to diagram, at least within the visual idiom that Genter and her colleagues have perfected (Cameron, in fact comments on this). I struggled with that for a long time, and then I had an epiphany while reading Charles Sanders Peirce, grasping a very simple way to combine analogy and disanology in one diagram by drastically decreasing the amount of detail I was trying to capture. It was not necessarily a very original epiphany within the Peircean vein (spoiler: it’s a triangle), but it allowed me to create a very minimalist visual idiom for representing the argument as a whole. So much depended on properly calibrating the amount of information encoded in the illustration.

Dalila Ozier: Your book discusses how both early Western anthropologists and early Western magicians contrasted “reasonable” Western cultural practices with irrational, “primitive” Others. What was your primary goal in pointing out the connection between two Western disciplines—that is, anthropology and magical performance—that are often considered to be distinct?

Graham Jones: This is a difficult question, and strikes a surprisingly personal chord. When I was in grad school, one of my mentors was an elder Africanist who had trained under Evans-Pritchard. I admired him deeply and desperately wanted to do a reading class with him on the subject of magic. When I asked, he immediately kiboshed the idea. “You don’t work on real magic,” he said. I was crushed. And for a long time after, I doubted that there was any connection between the anthropology of “real” magic and the kind of magical entertainment I was studying. What’s more—perhaps this may date me a bit—I felt like there was a stigma in anthropology attached to doing ethnographic research in a Western context and on an entertainment practice at that. Something fun in a comfortable place. Showbiz was not “real” culture and research in Europe was not “real” ethnography, hence I could not be a “real” anthropologist. I deeply admire all the challenging cross-cultural work our colleagues do, and I really worried about the validity and value of my research.

I’m not saying that I had an axe to grind, but as I looked more deeply into the historical archive, I was very surprised to discern what looked to me like the influence of magical entertainment on anthropological theory—an influence that anthropology seems keen to suppress. I wanted to know more about how the anthropological theory of magic had been constructed with reference to magic as a form of entertainment, but also about something bigger: how authentic “culture” in the anthropological sense was historically constructed as the conceptual antithesis of phony showbiz. You asked about my goals. None of this was an explicitly formulated goal when I started out on the project. But by the time I finished, I had come to make an argument about how anthropology has traditionally constructed its objects of study through an optics of alterity that just doesn’t make sense without reference to Euro-American popular culture itself. Ultimately I was forced to conclude that occult magic simply wouldn’t have mattered so much to anthropology if entertainment magicians hadn’t made such a sensation out of debunking it.

Dalila Ozier: Early in your book, you mention the esteemed magician Robert-Houdin, who (as described in his memoirs) once performed in colonial Algeria as a way of exposing local ‘Isawa mystics as charlatans, thereby reaffirming France’s colonial hold over the Algerian state. Additionally, you discuss how some ‘Isawa mystics later traveled to Europe as theatrical performers, with their religious practices consumed by Western audiences as entertainment. How did the systemic recategorization of ‘Isawa religious practices as either spectacle or trickery (or both) contribute to the colonial project of diminishing the symbolic power of subaltern communities? How does this impact the ways in which contemporary magicians (and audiences) theorize the relationship between Western and non-Western states?

Graham Jones: Magic is a microcosm, a tiny microcosm. So is anthropology. But when we see a pattern of racist representations linking magic and anthropology, then we can begin to take it as indicative of larger structures of domination and oppression in the colonial worldview. I don’t want to overstate the cultural and historical importance of entertainment magic, but it really was a privileged site, during magic’s so-called golden age (from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries), of visualizing ethnic differences. Orientalist imagery of exotic others was omnipresent in the iconography of the era, and remains a vestigial part of modern magic’s legacy. While Euro-American magicians were making careers performing in yellow, brown, and black-face, golden-age magic also provided circumscribed, but still substantive, opportunities for East Asian, South Asian, and African performers. In some cases, East Asian illusionists were able to tour extensively in the West, competing directly with the Orientalist acts staged by white rivals. The case of the ‘Isawa is more ambiguous, because we are really talking about ritual experts hired to perform entertainment spectacles. I don’t want to reify categories like “ritual” and “spectacle”—a part of what I try to do in Magic’s Reason is, if not break down those categories, show how they are situationally conditioned by power. In any event, my basic point is that the recategorization of ‘Isawa ritual as spectacle was very easy because Orientalist associations of the global East (and global South) with mysticism, fanaticism, and the occult were such a pervasive part of golden-age magic.

A second part of your question concerns the lasting legacy of binary oppositions such as modern/primitive, rational/irrational, and so forth, that historically achieved such clear expression in both magic and anthropology. I’m reminded of a beautiful verse by the French rapper MC Solaar: “la présence d’un passé omniprésent n’est pas passé.” When the past is everywhere visible, it’s not really past, is it? As we’re doing this interview, the President of the United States has just called African countries “shitholes,” voicing neocolonial chauvinism but also mystifying a history of systematic underdevelopment. But if we just concentrate on magic itself as a microcosm, I think the issue specifically concerns the opportunities available to magicians of color in postcolonial France or in the contemporary U.S., not to mention opportunities available to women. In a genre that has been such a privileged site for visualizing differences of sex, gender, and ethnicity, how can performers who don’t fit with the image of the modern magicians as a white, European gentleman acquire credibility?

In one version of the book, I had a long section about the racism I saw directed towards one young magician of North African descent in contemporary France. For me, this example showed that, even though one form of overtly racist imagery has been more-or-less relegated to magic’s colonial past, new and, in some ways, more insidious forms of entrenched discrimination persist in the postcolonial present. Here magic was a professional microcosm for me to think about the kind of prejudice that people of color face in French workplaces. That ethnographic section didn’t make it into the final version of the book. I was constantly fighting against centrifugal, digressive tendencies to try to make the book lean and coherent. But I’m in the process of publishing it now as a standalone essay, which should be out later this year, along with a few other small pieces that I couldn’t quite fit into the confines of the book.

Dalila Ozier: Later, you discuss Robert-Houdin’s affection for the Davenport Bros., a vaudevillian performance duo that professed to have supernatural powers. Though Robert-Houdin wrote treatises debunking the Davenports as charlatans (in much the same way he did for ‘Isawa mystics), he celebrated the Davenports for their cleverness and ingenuity. What does Robert-Houdin’s differing perspectives on the ‘Isawa and the Davenports indicate about how Western thinkers alternately attach stigma and value to acts of “fakery”?

Graham Jones: The “fake” is a wellspring of cultural meaning, and I can only begin to do it justice here. On the one hand, fakery constitutes a moral affront and a metaphysical abomination. On the other hand, it is the height of ingenuity, intelligence and skill. And in many arenas of experience—magic is no exception—it is impossible to define what is “authentic” without reference and recourse to the fake. The discipline of Art History only exists because collectors needed techniques for expertly adjudicating between forgeries and originals. Robert-Houdin has a very sustained engagement with the notion of the fake, and he is very consistent in his views. At one point, he remarks that everything the magician says is a tissue of lies, and he delighted in telling some whoppers both on stage and in his autobiographical writing. Still he views the modern magician’s fakery in light of an ethical code: if deceptions are ludic and if they are sufficiently sophisticated, then they pass muster. In his autobiography, he subjects lots of different performers to this litmus test. Of course there is a kind of bigotry built into his assessment, but he effectively considers the Davenports to be worthy of respect because their stagecraft and their promotional strategies were so ingenious. Robert-Houdin depicted the ‘Isawa as the antithesis of everything he stood for as a “modern” magician. He depicted them as charlatanic impostors who used only crude legerdemain, but that assessment clearly assumes that the ‘Isawa were operating under the same ethical and metaphysical assumptions as Robert-Houdin. They were not.

Michael Taussig and others have written brilliantly about the problems and perils of thinking of ritual practices in terms of reality, sincerity, and authenticity. In the realm of ritual, artifice, illusion, mimesis and deception have a different valence than they do when exhibited as ends in themselves, or objects of enjoyment in their own right, as they are in the context of modern magic. Here we are coming to an aporia at the heart of anthropology: on the one hand, ethnographers in the nineteenth century and beyond exhibited a gleeful hubris in drawing invidious contrasts between natives’ susceptibility to believing in fake things, like the tricks of shamans or ritual experts, and their own imperviousness, as modern Westerners, to such deceptions. On the other hand, the anthropological category of culture was taking shape as the realm of real, authentic experience as opposed to the fake, ersatz arena of show business and Western popular culture. This paradox amounts to the view that non-modern people are credulous dupes, but that that’s precisely what allows them to have real culture. This view is inextricable from a tradition of anthropological research that positions occult magic as both the fakest possible thing and the very quiddity of culture. Anthropology has been trying to work itself out of this hole for a long time, and I think magic is an inescapable part of how we got to this point and what we need to do to get beyond it. My main goal in Magic’s Reason is to enhance the conversation about the connection between anthropology’s past and its future by adding some additional dimensionality based upon my own admittedly idiosyncratic engagements with one of our key concepts.

Quentin Williams on his new book, Remix Multilingualism

Remix Multilingualism

https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/remix-multilingualism-9781472591135/

Interview by Msia Clark

Msia Clark:  In your book Remix Multilingualism, you state that you are a Hip Hop Sociolinguist. What is a Hip Hop Sociolinguist?

Quentin Williams: It´s something that I think quite accurately represents what I do in terms of my documentation of language, and its intimate link to and use in the Hip Hop community. So, the first aspect of the Hip Hop Sociolinguist is the Sociolinguistic part. A Sociolinguist is interested in the intimate use of language in society, from the perspective of linguistics. So, you use the tools of linguistics to understand how people who are formed by social structures and cultural practices use language. And you report on their practices and performances. In this case, a Hip Hop Sociolinguist is interested in how Hip Hop artists, and those who are interested in the Hip Hop culture, but also fans of the Hip Hop culture, use language, and also perform and practice multilingualism within and outside Hip Hop culture.

Msia Clark: In the book, you focus a lot on freestyle battles and freestyle rap battle space, which is kind of a very sacred space in Hip Hop. Why focus specifically so much on freestyle rap?

Quentin Williams: The way I became interested in it was when I started to document the freestyle rap battles during my fieldwork. In Club Stones, one of my fieldwork sites, there was a distinct difference made between freestyle rap battles on the street, when you´re on the corner, than it being staged in the club. And I´ve always loved freestyle rap battles because you can see the difference between emcees biting rhymes and an emcee rhyming off the top of his head. So, when I started doing the research with Suburban Menace and MobCoW (my main participants), I realized the emcees had a particular format which they´ve taken from somewhere else and my assumption was from the States. So, where you would usually freestyle on the corner in an equidistant circle and two emcees go at each other, mediated by a cipha mediator, or managed by a cipha mediator, in the club they would have a coin toss, the audience would be in front of the stage, and the cipha mediator would toss the coin in the air, and two emcees would go at each other and then at the end there would be a decision by the audience, by virtue of who would shout the loudest, for the emcee to win.

I found it quite interesting how the freestyle rap battles were organized and how different it was, but more significantly for me was the language and genre aspect. So, my question was at the beginning of the research: would the freestyle rap battles be the same as in the States, with the same American accents, with the same genre styles of introducing your rhymes and your lyrics, and with the same verbal cues as you perform, “Yoh/Yoh/Check it out/Check it out”?

I remember the first time I recorded a freestyle battle in the field, in the Club, I was stunned, because it was not like that in the States, it was completely in the local variety Kaaps (a variety of Afrikaans), and with a mixture of the prison register, Sabela, and the local movements were completely different. So, for example, an American emcee would introduce her or his freestyle rap battle through verbal cueing, “Yoh, Yoh, Yoh”, but the local emcee here in Cape Town, in the club, I found, would introduce his cipha in Kaaps like, “Yes, is ja/Is ja/Check it out/Check dit uit”. There would be code-switching between English, a version of South African English, and I found that to be just absolutely amazing.

Msia ClarkYou do a lot of self-reflection in the book. I want to talk about that. In one part of the book, you say “as an ethnographer and an outsider, my sociolinguistic class and racial background either validated me or pushed me to the margins of just observing social and linguistic interaction”. So, what does that mean?

Quentin Williams: I met my participants in the following way: I saw a poster of the show and I asked my participants could I meet you, I´d like to do research and document what you are doing. When I got to meet them, they just started doing the show, so I was at the beginning of something, I think, quite significant in terms of localizing the Hip Hop culture and then giving it a new twist. So, I was from the university and I came with some sort of symbolic resources for these emcees, but also with symbolic power because they realized I come from the university and that I could add weight to what they are doing. But at the same time, I also realized every time I would record a freestyle rap battle or a rap session or a dance competition, that usually would involve females, I would go back to watch the tape, listen to the recordings, start transcribing and then realize as a male I´m also enjoying the Hip Hop show like the other male participants in the club. More so, I also realized I´m Coloured, I share the same fraught racial history with my participants, and so, that is what I mean. I realized during my field research that I have to reflect on my own position with the Hip Hop space, and I also have to reflect on what I experience and so that´s why I thought it was necessary.

Msia Clark: One of the things you say when you first met members of the group Suburban Menace, and you introduced yourself, did you also thought it was important to talk about your taste in rap music?

Quentin Williams: Yeah. It was a test. Let me set the scene for you. I get to meet my participants. I met them at the house that they rented out. And they called the house, the Menace Mansion, which is a play on Hugh Heffner´s Playboy Mansion. I thought it was quite funny. So, we sit around the table in the kitchen and I start introducing my project and these guys are listening intensely to my pitch, and they start asking all the right questions, and then it turns to the test: “So, what kind of Hip Hop music, rap music, do you listen to? What did you grow up with?” And because we are more or less the same age, the moment I said that one of my biggest rap music influence was Tupac Shakur, and it just took off from there because we all shared a similar taste in rap music.

Msia Clark: You say that the book speaks to Black and Coloured multilingual speakers in township spaces. For those outside South Africa it is difficult to grasp identity in this country and how identity becomes raced – I want you to talk about the relationship within Hip Hop culture between Blacks and Coloureds?

Quentin Williams: Eight months into my fieldwork a rap show was staged at the University of the Western Cape. I invited a few Coloured emcees, my participants basically, to come to the show and perform. When they came through, members of Driemanskap were also there. And as you know Driemanskap is a famous Spaza rap group. We get to the event and they ask my participants if they would stage a freestyle rap battle with Driemanskap. There´s no incentive for it, and we find it strange for emcees to freestyle rap battle because they have no beef to settle nor are they getting paid to win a trophy. But the interesting comment that one of the Coloured emcees made was, “I don´t speak their language, so, I don´t think we can freestyle rap battle”. My reaction was one of curiosity because in other cases the Black emcee can freestyle in English, perhaps code-switch to isiXhosa or isiZulu and if you don´t have those African languages in your linguistic repertoires, that´s cool, you do your thing in Kaaps. But what struck me was the emcee was reflecting, if only temporarily, on a much more deeper problem that stems from the ultimate racial success of apartheid: the Groups Area Act of 1954 and monolingual socialization. You live in Gugulethu (a black township) and that other emcee grows up in a Coloured township. Both emcees are socialized differently linguistically, through different language, through different racial experiences. But they share racial experiences in relation to Whites and Whiteness, that´s quite clear.

It´s easy to describe white on Coloured and Black relations, but much, much more challenging to do so when it concerns Black on Black relations, and Coloured on Coloured relations. I started to critically think about the distinct differences linguistically that emcees make but also how they link it to space and also place, and of course their socialization. But these emcees make a cultural distinction that they link to race: there´s a Coloured culture, then there´s a Black culture which can be traced to ancestors and mobility, stereotypically. I´m trying to think about it more deeply and acquiring more examples and data, and so far I find that this is not only a reflection of what happens outside the Hip Hop culture and South Africa as a whole, but also inside the Hip Hop culture: that there are divisions that some Hip Hop artists make across language, say the use of a Tsotsitaal (spoken mainly by black males in the township) with English in a freestyle rap battle in Gugulethu, compared to the exclusive use of Kaaps in a Coloured township. You do get few instances of a true collaboration across these raciolinguistic barriers in a real sense.

Msia Clark: You talk about Braggadocio and in trying to play devil´s advocate, what about those that may dismiss braggadocio as just simply about materialism or promoting conflict among artists? 

Quentin Williams: That´s the prevailing idea of Braggadocio. Yes, I would completely agree that I think in early Hip Hop scholarship, what we have come to know Braggadocio to be is, yes, this idea that emcees celebrate money, make it rain in the club and brag about styles. But that I think is a particular, very unique take that USA Hip Hop has given the world. Now, if you´re saying that Braggadocio is still only about that outside USA Hip Hop, you´ve not looked at it very closely. The question we should ask, what types of Braggadocio will female emcee have or an emcee like Dope Saint Jude (a queer Hip Hop artist)? Braggadocio is gendered because it celebrating a male centred Hip Hop lifestyle. I think I´m quite clear about Braggadocio in the book, and I update the literature.

Msia Clark: It is easy to make assumptions about what Braggadocio looks like in the States and even what masculinity looks like in the States. So, one of the things you also talk about is “body rap”. You describe it as a sub-genre of local Hip Hop where the overarching theme of the lyrics is the sexualization and often denigration of women’s bodies performed for the pleasure of men. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Quentin Williams: After the event I describe in Chapter 8 about how the Hip Hop club ambience was transformed into a stripper Club ambience, I began to reread the scholarship on Hip Hop and Hip Hop sociolinguistics, feminist Hip Hop scholars to try and understand what was clear to me: the pornification of Hip Hop culture. That chapter gets into the experiences of Black and Coloured women, and expectations put on their bodies, about the sexualization of their bodies, and I thought this notion, idea and performance genre, body rap, accurately describes what was going on. I asked what does body rap do in the South African context, in the postcolonial context to the debate about female agency and voice: does it continue the sexual myth that too often frame interaction with females in Hip Hop culture or does it actually open up discussions about female agency and voice?

Note: This is a significantly shortened interview,  edited for publication, following the more than one hour audio recording published by Prof Msia Clark on her Hip Hop Africa blog, which can be found here: https://hiphopafrican.com/2018/01/01/hhap-episode-18-quentin-williams-on-multilingualism-hip-hop-in-south-africa/.

Rusty Barrett on his new book, From Drag Queens to Leathermen

Cover for  From Drag Queens to Leathermen

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/from-drag-queens-to-leathermen-9780195390186

Interview by Sandhya Narayanan

Your ethnography and analysis of language use centers on 6 subgroups in gay culture: drag quens, radical faeries, bears, circuit boys, barebackers, and leathermen. How did you decide to focus your ethnography on these six subgroups?

I had already done research on drag queens and circuit boys, so I set out to do research that would allow for comparisons across different subcultures. I tried to choose groups with minimal overlap with straight subcultures that were also positioned in opposition to “homonormative” gay culture. I avoided groups where marginalization within gay culture stems from displaying more (hetero)normative identities (like Gaymers, gay gang members, or gay evangelical Christians). Those groups are certainly interesting, but the questions they raise were different from the research path I had already taken. Continue reading

Julie Archambault on her new book, Mobile Secrets

Mobile Secrets

http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/M/bo25681045.html

Interview by Anna Eisenstein

Mobile Secrets is an ethnography of youth, of mobile phone usage, and of uncertainty in a suburban neighborhood in southern Mozambique. What were your primary goals in writing this book? 

When I first set out to conduct research in Inhambane, I was interested first and foremost in youth—I wanted to get a sense of what it was like to be a young person growing up in postwar postsocialist Mozambique. I hadn’t originally planned to explore this question though the study of mobile phone practices but once in the field it soon became evident to me that in order to understand young people’s realities at that particular juncture, I would have to do so through their engagement with the phone. At the time, there was much hype around the spread of mobile phones across Africa, much enthusiasm about all the ‘useful information’ that would suddenly become available to a rapidly growing number of people. I didn’t want to write a book that would directly challenge this wishful thinking with ethnographic exceptions. I wanted to write a book about the spread of mobile phones in an African context, but I also wanted to write a book that was ultimately about young people’s struggles. In the end, the question of information—though not quite the kind of useful information that these observers were excited about—proved a major concern for my young interlocutors, and became central to my analysis. Continue reading

James Costa on his new book, Revitalising Language in Provence

http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-111924353X.hbtml

Interview by Sandhya Narayanan

You mention from the beginning that this book is not an ethnography of language but a critical reflection on language revitalization research. Was this your plan from the very beginning? What was your approach to writing this book, starting from your original research to envisioning what the final product of this monograph would be?

 Well, the book does result from ethnographic fieldwork, but in the end this is not how the book was framed, for a number of reasons. The main reason, then, was that I was looking for ways to interpret what I was observing, and I could find no satisfactory approach. I guess at the time I needed a framework to understand what language revitalization was, what it was about, and back when I started my PhD 2006 the two main currents were either works on endangered languages and, soon afterwards Heller and Duchêne published Discourses of Endangerment. I found neither approach entirely satisfactory, so I felt that, to paraphrase Bourdieu, I needed to constitute and problematize my own object, rather than be constituted by it. Hence the largely historical parts that seek to retrace the emergence of a reflection on language revitalization in linguistics and anthropology on the one hand, and the parts that try to retrace the birth of a language movement in Southern France roughly from the 16th century onward. It was only then, I felt, that I could say something worthwhile about what people were doing with language in Occitania, from a perspective that was my own and not that of language endangerment or critical sociolinguistics in the sense of Discourses of Endangerment. Continue reading

Francis Cody on his book, The Light of Knowledge

http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100643370

Interview by Rachel Howard

What was your main goal in writing about literacy activists in Tamil Nadu? And how did your goals change as you learned more about the site?

I had gone to do research on literacy activism in Tamil Nadu with a deep interest in language and political economy.  My graduate education was fueled by the theoretical energy that had gathered around both questions of language ideology and postcolonial studies.  It struck me that studying a movement that promised to deliver enlightenment to the marginalized through written language would enable me to address some of the big questions about power, the materiality of language, and temporality that we were wrestling with at the time.  More specifically, knowing that Tamil is a language shaped deeply by diglossia, I went to study how learning the written variety was meant to empower people.  I sensed a paradox of sorts in a practice that required people to learn a new register of their own language in order to free themselves.  But my goals quickly changed when I realized that the difference between written and rural spoken varieties was perhaps not so important in a context where simply teaching people how to write their own name was such a major effort, and where the literacy movement had also reflected upon its own practice so much in its transition from being a revolutionary movement of sorts to becoming a partnership with government. The literacy had also become a women’s movement, somewhat unexpectedly.  So, following the lead of my interlocutors, I became much more interested in the practice of activism itself.  New and more interesting questions about writing and embodiment, as well as questions about the very practice of mobilizing rural, lower caste women, who are often thought of as the most subaltern, arose from the ethnography as a result.

Continue reading