Michael Prentice on his book, Supercorporate

Interview by Katherine Chen

https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=31761

Katherine Chen: Your book Supercorporate, an ethnography of a multi-conglomerate steel company that you call Sangdo, argues that we can study corporations to understand the societies that they are embedded in.  In this case, South Korean society has moved towards post-hierarchical organizations.  Positions and differential rewards are no longer assigned based on gendered ideals or number of years of service, but rather upon collaborative teamwork conducted in the workplace and in after-hours activities. The ethnography offers the term “supercorporate ideal” as “the broader promise of corporations to realize and channel post- hierarchical forms of both interpersonal distinction and positive social interactions” (5).  It argues that the human resources (HR) department had the difficult tasks of facilitating these distinctions.  These distinctions include job titles tailored to reflect people’s status as they advance up the ranks Can you talk more about the decision to use this term supercorporate?  What does the term build upon?

Michael Prentice: I derive “supercorporate” from the conventional term for domestic conglomerates in Korean, daegieop (literally “large corporation”). The term daegieop is defined by state regulators to designate more oversight to conglomerates of a certain size, but the term also exists at the top of a status hierarchy of cultural-economic prestige; to say one’s spouse or child works at a daegieop says something. During my fieldwork within a human resources (HR) team at the ‘Sangdo Group’ which was technically a daegieop, I was constantly made aware of the broader fields of distinction that employees and managers understood themselves to be within – the Sangdo tower literally hovered above a neighborhood of other medium and small companies. However, at the same time, employees often commented how they saw themselves far below the (imagined) prestige or power of other name-brand daegieop like Samsung or Hyundai. In this sense, I use “supercorporate” not simply as a descriptor of big company culture vis-à-vis other organizational entities, but to conceptualize the broader cultural-organizational fields of distinction (and their shifting categories) which is imminent within any analysis of local organizational action in South Korea. In the book I try to argue that the supercorporate ideal reflects an imaginary of a type of organization which might be able to provide opportunities for both individual distinction and democratic participation; whether such a corporation or organization exists that perfectly achieves both is not the point, but it always was on the horizon of possibility for workplace aspirations.

Katherine Chen: How might other readers use this supercorporate concept to understand their own organizations, especially in other societies? 

Michael Prentice: The book hopefully should appeal to different scholars and fields, but one of my hopes for it and the concept of the supercorporate ideal is to draw attention (back) to the dynamics of organizational life. Understandings of conglomerate life in South Korea have long been tied to conglomerates’ historical role in the (post-)developmental state. These discussions have been pegged to political debates and issues around conglomerates’ relationships with the state, the role of owning families, and the macro-dynamics of global capitalism. These discussions have been important, but in my eyes, they have often overlooked two things: the investment in middle-class society in corporations as end points of intense educational strivings and the complex politics or inner workings of organizational life itself. Regarding the first, corporations are not just creatures of capitalism; South Korean middle-class society creates certain aura around corporate work as a legible marker of biographic success. Regarding the second, the internal dynamics of even a relatively unknown industrial conglomerate like Sangdo are extremely complex in and of themselves. Managers and employees navigate complex relationships with coworkers, teams, part-time workers, managers in factories and overseas branches, and so on – all while trying to align with broader ideals about what modern labor is supposed to be in the twentieth century. The broader uptake of South Korean cases has often been pegged to the discourse on the country’s developmental pathway which has often situated it at the ‘lagging’ end of economic trends and overshadowed by Japan and China. In my eyes, studies of South Korean organizations could drive a variety of topics at the nexus of organizational studies, anthropology, and sociology.

In reflecting since finishing the book – and especially now residing outside the US – the ambiguity or tension around what corporations are supposed to embody or do (as imagined vehicles of distinction or participation) I have found useful for thinking on other kinds of institutions, such as American universities. Culturally, American universities are intense vehicles of distinction, but are also seen as enablers of wider socio-economic participation or social mobility (erasing age-old distinctions). Many American families seem to want both – in the same ways that South Korean employees wanted to be both distinguished and to have flat relations with their co-workers. I don’t know if I’d call the American system ‘supercorporate’ in the same way, but I hope it might find uptake for other scholars who don’t just work on ‘corporate-y’ things.

Katherine Chen: The appendix describes your access to Sangdo.  You were able to connect via an alumni contact, and you were placed as an intern in the HR department.  You describe your placement as follows:

Team manager Jang was initially confused about what exactly I would do with the team. I was not put there as a researcher with an explicit plan that we had agreed on, nor was I particularly well qualified to do HR work. I was technically an intern, but not the typical university student studying business or economics with corporate aspirations. (In this sense, I am sure I was likely seen as a pure parachute by coworkers.) Nevertheless, on my first day, I explained to my coworkers in HR that I was an ethnographer who did research largely through observation and note-taking; everyone agreed to the basic informed consent protocol.  Likewise, I explained to everyone I met that I was also working on my PhD loosely around changes in office relations, technology, and communication in large companies. (p. 172-173)

How did your role change over time and in different settings, especially as you became involved in more “informal” activities?  In particular, you note how people may have felt obligated to include you in certain activities because of a perceived link with a leader, in the hopes that this inclusion would reflect well upon them and their unit.  In another area, you note how your lack of familiarity with McKinsey consulting firm approach of distinct, measurable categories made it difficult to complete an assigned slide presentation on categorizations.

Michael Prentice: The original manuscript did not originally have an appendix expressly discussing methods. I was glad that one of the reviewers suggested it and my editor was supportive of its inclusion. I found it useful to discuss how the shifting contours of presence and positionality at Sangdo as well as how my own interpretive lenses were shaped before and after formal fieldwork. At the company, the various intersections of identity categories were complex: my first entrée was through an alumni connection from the US. Accompanying that formal relationship co-existed forms of implicit prestige or aura around whiteness, Americanness, maleness, English-speaking, and education credentials that underlay many different interactions. At a practical level of working on the HR team, there was a noticeable transition from an unknown outsider to an insider that came with identifying myself as a member of the HR team, not just as a PhD student. In some ways that was a condition of possibility for certain kinds of access. But South Korean organizational life is good at finding new and emerging points of distinction to draw between yourself and others. For instance, despite a few years working in a marketing company prior to my PhD, my coworkers found my PowerPoint skills to be utterly lacking compared to another teammate who was called a ‘god of PPT’. I also came into awareness about the importance of higher-end consumer goods that are expected among white-collar office workers like monogrammed shirts, Rolex watches, and various golf accoutrements. One thing I perhaps did not expect was the way that one’s interactional footing constantly shifts at different organizational interfaces: within the team, I was the youngest intern with only a few responsibilities; outside of the team I was strongly pegged to HR and my team manager vis-à-vis other departments. Travelling to other floors, you then enact the identity of someone from the ‘upstairs’ holding company meeting a subsidiary. This reflects I think the basic dynamic of much of South Korean social life where one keeps close tabs on the different vectors of difference between oneself and many others.

Katherine Chen: The book also explicates how HR shrouds distinctions among employees and units in organizational secrecy, in the interests of preserving cooperation and cohesion:

One day in March 2014, the junior member of the HR team, Ki-ho, who sat adjacent to me printed out a large A3- sized spreadsheet and laid it across his desk. He was reviewing it with team manager Jang. Down the side of the spreadsheet were the names of each of the dozen subsidiaries of the Sangdo Group. Across the top of the spreadsheet were different categories: title system, promotion length time, average salary, annual bonus range, average vacation time, amount given for weddings and funerals, and a few others…. Its leak, even if inadvertent, could have wreaked havoc over the entire workforce of Sangdo. It was the only document of its kind that compared the discrepancies around personnel policies between subsidiaries. Distinctions between subsidiaries could be largely suspected or shared among employees, but an actual elaboration of the policies themselves was largely unknown. Revealing the document could throw off union negotiations, create competitions between subsidiaries, or lead to alienation if certain subsidiaries realized they were getting a different deal from others. (59-60)

Such secrecy also included not revealing survey results that might cause embarrassment for that unit.  Can you discuss more how secrecy can facilitate and obscure the development of a hierarchy based on differential resource allocations?

Michael Prentice: There are lots of aspects around secrecy and security in South Korean corporate life that I’ve written about recently; however, at the Sangdo holding company one thing that was always interesting was that employees and managers were aware of the difference between their cultural and organizational points of distinction vis-à-vis other offices (the people in the holding company certainly had more legible credentials than others), but from an information or resource point of view they were not bestowed with a panoptic view that others might have imagined they had. Holding companies in South Korea are sometimes categorized as modern versions of secretariats or control towers where the most important secretive information in a conglomerate is stored and all the power is held. At the holding company, many of the teams had just been formed and their cultural credentials outweighed their organizational powers. I describe in the book for instance how they often had to rely on handmade Excel sheets rather than powerful ERP programs for storing information. The perception of this fact – that the holding company perhaps was not as all powerful as its floor position indicated – was something that HR managers and others actively managed as they worked with individual subsidiaries. This gave me a new way of looking at fairly standard genres like an employee survey to think about what kinds of information asymmetries they were attempting to create and why people in high-up offices rely on those kinds of genres rather than others, like master plans or direct orders for instance. In some ways, then, there were always two secrets kept – one about the perceived content of various forms (which individually might be powerful) but also about the larger secret of the holding company’s (lack of) relative power at the time, at least in comparison to the image of distinction such putatively elite labor was imagined to have.

Katherine Chen: In another chapter, your book describes the phenomena of chonghoe-ggun or “meeting extortionists.” These stockholders attempt to disrupt meetings through asking questions at public meetings, in the hopes of getting pay-outs.   In the US, we might characterize this question-asking as shareholder activism instead.  What does their attempts to smooth over these stakeholders’ claims say about corporate capacity to deal with such public confrontations?

Michael Prentice: Shareholder activism is certainly popular and dynamic in South Korea. What I found interesting about the form of shareholder meetings is that there are many different actors who take an interest in corporate meetings who all must pass through the strange format of the shareholder meeting itself which still embodies a kind of 19th century parliamentary norm. This norm sets the conditions for a particular kind of democratic participation that are helpful for thinking about what we mean by workplace democracy. Ethnographically, I was able to see how employees changed their everyday roles to help run the event and sometimes participate in it (as actual shareholders). In this context, chonghoe-ggun are extortionists who take advantage of the right to speak that comes with an ownership share. As shareholders themselves, they can raise questions of directors and are protected by law as long as they follow the meeting rules. (This is not unprecedented in the US where Evelyn Davis used provocative outfits and colorful language for similar purposes for many decades). As I’ve researched the general phenomenon through news reports and discussions with different finance managers in South Korea, the goal of extortionists is not necessarily to gain a meaningful change in corporate oversight like an activist might but to generate enough annoyance that a company might find it easier to pay them off. What this says about broader attempts at corporate takeovers via shareholder meetings I can’t say, but I do find shareholder meetings to be a quite radical genre compared to other aspects of everyday organizational life; they break down and re-present corporations as gradated ownership interests who have protected speaking rights, not necessarily as unified entities. Even though chonghoe-ggun are disliked by many (including sincere minority shareholders), they nevertheless have a right to claim a part of the pie, so to speak, which sometimes looks like activism.

Katherine Chen: In the US, the on-going pandemic has reduced in-person contact at some organizations.  Some professionals are working from home, perhaps indefinitely in the case of the tech sector.  How have companies such as Sangdo fared? What are the implications for how workers grapple with ggondaeryeok (old-man power) of overwork and forced conviviality? 

Michael Prentice: In the time since my fieldwork ended in 2015, lots has changed in South Korean work life. Most recently, of course, the ongoing pandemic has forced many people to work from home which was unheard of when I was there; all work was done at the office and it was almost unthinkable to take documents or computers out of the building. Even before the pandemic, though other regulations have come into effect: on gift-giving and entertainment limits with public officials (the Kim Young-Ran Act of 2016) and on maximum work time 2018 (maximum weekly working hours was capped at 52 in 2018). Yet many of the big challenges are framed in similar terms: as I discuss in the third chapter of the book, attempts at purifying offices implicitly address a male-dominated and hierarchical culture which is supposed to be an object of the past, but seems to keep hindering the progress of South Korean work culture. ‘Generation talk’ (sedaeron) in South Korea is particularly productive for explaining these where the older and outdated one is holding back the newer generation – just this past month even the chairman of the Korean Chamber of Commerce promised to get rid of “old man” culture and improve communication with a number of large corporations signing on. Given the intense concentration around corporate work, pressures around teamwork and tenure, and the way ranks are stratified in many ways, however, I don’t know if all problems can be explained by simply generational conflict. In 2019, the Workplace Harassment Act was passed and over 10,000 cases have been reported to a harassment help line since then, according to one report. I suspect the pandemic may have removed some of the more iconic forms of workplace harassment, but the dependence on digital connections may have created new issues of their own. For my next research, I am curious how new private worker messaging platforms are affording new kinds of open discussion but also leading to other kinds of interpersonal hazards.

Melissa Caldwell on her book, Living Faithfully in an Unjust World

Interview by Natalja Czarnecki

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520285842/living-faithfully-in-an-unjust-world

Natalja Czarnecki: You write that inter-faith food aid organizations occupy a “border zone” in the Moscow assistance world; they do not completely self-identify as “religious” or “secular,” for example.  Actors thus find it difficult to put their actions into words (Are we a business? Are we a religious organization? Do we “do” charity? Care? Public service?).  How does this ambiguous kind of self-identification affect these organizations’ “messaging” and self-promotion, if at all?

Melissa Caldwell: One of the things I struggled with was trying to figure out what was “religious” and what wasn’t.  My starting point was always within religious organizations, religious congregations. And yet, so many of the people I encountered, whether they were volunteers or staff who were running programs, or recipients themselves, were very quick to say there’s nothing religious about this.  And it seems to me that the idea is really more about “spirituality” as connected to morals and ethics and “religious” being the institutional practices:  the going to services and wearing certain things, crosses or scarves, you know, going through particular rituals. And so somehow even though religious institutions become spaces where all this other work happens, there doesn’t have to be an absolute connection between, a critical and skeptical stance toward organized religion and these religious organizations.

And so, I would encounter people who would go to church fairly regularly, that was their personal religious activity, but then participate in these other activities, these other social assistance activities with completely different religious organizations. What they were trying to do was reconcile both whatever their personal religious identity affiliation might be with their own moral ethical beliefs about how to fix problems and change the world.

It was often funny; when I would interview staff at some of these religiously affiliated, social work organizations, the staff themselves would criticize the very denominations that were employing them.  In terms of, you know, the beliefs of the priests, the patriarch, the nuns, you know, whoever they were.  These were criticisms about their kind of religious activities, but also praise for the social work that were happening within these denominations.  And to some extent, I think this is part of a longer Russian history, where identity and faith and practice have always been kind of confused; they’re not the same things. And so people can move around, picking up the beliefs and the practices that make sense to them.  And those may or may not align with the identity that they’re “supposed” to have.

Natalja Czarnecki: You describe how the Russian Orthodox Church has long constituted a mass-mediated source of ethno-nationalist authority, ideology, and identification in Russia.  Does the call to “personal acts of genuine care, kindness, and compassion” constitute a response to Russian ethno-nationalism as a communicated through, say, popular sermons of the Patriarch, if at all?  Does a gendered labor within these organizations factor into this?

Melissa Caldwell: I think the gender dimensions are really interesting and complicated. And I think that’s part of it.  Yes, there are some visible gender differences. But no, I don’t think they play out in the way we might expect them to, that it’s just women providing care and men being the officials who get criticized.  Yes, the vast majority of the clergy I encountered were male, just by virtue of the fact that when I was working with Orthodox denominations, the clergy were men and when I was working with Catholic communities, the clergy were men.  And then in the Protestant or Anglican communities, it was mixed.  And so some of the denominational differences reflected who was working in what capacity.

But in terms of staff, it was much more balanced. And in terms of volunteers, it was more balanced as well. Often women in this aid world work the direct lines of provisioning; it was more women doing that kind of work.  And also, that was partly, I think, a reflection of the Russian side of it all, where more women are in social work profession.  But on the foreigner side, at a certain point, many of the expatriates who were providing direct lines of assistance were the unemployed wives of foreign professionals. Behind the scenes, though, in other sorts of activities, there were more men.  So if their work commitments prevented them from going to the soup kitchen every day, or the clothing handout every day, behind the scenes, they were providing money and using their networks.  And on Saturdays, they were driving goods all over town.  It was much more mixed than I thought it would be. 

Do gender differences play out in the critiques?  Yes and no.  There were implicit gender critiques of Orthodoxy, such as: “The priests don’t know anything, they just go in and do their work and they don’t actually talk to the people who do know.  And they’re making all the decisions.”  So by virtue of just saying “the priests,” it was clear that it was men making decisions. And then it would be, “Well, you know, so and so who’s running the program actually knows what’s going on.”  And then usually those people were women.  But in the other denominations, the critiques were more about institutional practice versus theological interpretation.  I would have long conversations with clergy who would say, “Well, you know, the Anglican Church or the Catholic Church — These are the practices they use. But if we actually go and look at scripture, we interpret it in this way,” or “if we go to the theologians, we have something else.”  So the critiques weren’t necessarily about the person in charge so much as the institutions.  I think there’s individual clergy and volunteers who have their own ideas about whether they’re doing politically sensitive work, and whether they could be in danger of harassment from the political authorities or from their own denominational authorities.  You know, at what point are they speaking for the denomination and what point are they speaking as individuals who belong to that denomination?  And that’s where that I think it got really interesting; there were individual clergy engaging in philosophical debates that were really more about themselves and how they fit within a denomination’s structure.

My interlocutors were trying to navigate all of this.  Much of this research was done in 2012 to 2015 and at that moment, the Russian state was trying to figure out what to do with foreign people in foreign organizations.  And some of these organizations, these religious denominations and their social service organizations, were in conflict with the Russian state, either officially or unofficially.  This was in terms of how the Russian authorities were viewing their activities; you know, whether they were interpreting them as the dissidents, or the activities as destructive to the Russian nation, while other organizations had full sponsorship from the Russian state or from Moscow city authorities; they were getting funding, they were getting meetings with politicians.  There were also some organizations very much under the radar, and some definitely over the radar.

All of these interfaith organizations are working with one another, and they’re all trying to navigate who’s going to be public and who’s going to be invisible or  who’s afraid and who’s not afraid.  It often came down to whether individual organizations, the clergy who were affiliated with them, and the denominations themselves were willing to take a public stand.  Or if they felt they needed to be invisible.  So I think that was part of it; some of the clergy were much more willing to be out with whatever they were saying.  And others did not want to go on record at all.  I think part of it also had to do with, and I don’t have confirmation from anybody in the Russian government about this, but my sense is that some organizations were doing service work that was essential to the stability of Moscow as a city and to the Russian state. Because they were doing this work and weren’t causing other problems, they were allowed to exist.

Natalja Czarnecki: One of the main arguments in your book is that in contrast to stereotypes of religious organizations, the actors within faith-based groups are not doctrinal or particularly religious necessarily.  Rather, what you call a “secular theology of compassion” is what informs your interlocutors’ sense of purpose.  How does this secular theology scale itself, if at all? Is this a Russian and/or post-Soviet mode of humanitarian networking? Does it see itself as translate-able into other worlds of need and uncertainty?

Melissa Caldwell: For my fieldwork interlocutors in Moscow, many of the things they were pointing to get lumped together by anthropologists and sociologists under this category of social problems — homelessness and hunger and addiction, domestic violence, unemployment — all of those things.  And for the people with whom I worked, these were problems of everyday life: why life is not fair, and why people are working so hard.  In order to think about those problems, I found inspiration in the literature on social justice.  I wanted to think about these as not just social problems, but in terms of social justice and social action.  Of course, this was also in a particular political context in Russia, where people were starting to demonstrate against political repression from the government. 

What seemed to be most consistent was a claim that these questions of inequality and justice actually precede political systems and are somehow bigger than political ideologies. These are moral and ethical questions that go to the root of fundamentally being a good human.  That’s how they would ground those debates.  In something like neutral, abstract, moral, ethical terms, they would make reference to, “Well, the Bible says that Jesus did x and y,” or, you know, “The Catholic Church has always done X, Y, and Z to help people because that’s what you do to be a good moral person.”  My sense was that for many of my interlocutors, they were skeptical of political ideologies to a great extent as an explanatory framework.  That politics was too much tied to particular people trying to be strategic, whereas these broader moral ethical values could transcend any one political person.

In the food aid community, there did seem to be this sense that the state isn’t providing; it’s a collapse of the welfare system or the retrenchment of the welfare state.  And so social workers really felt like they had to do what the state wasn’t doing, a kind of supplementary work.  By the time I was doing this project, there was still that attitude.  I also heard people more explicitly saying, you know, “We live in the twenty-first century;  there shouldn’t be these problems anymore.”  These are bigger issues.  These aren’t just issues of socio-economic inequality in an unstable welfare system.

Natalja Czarnecki: In your chapter, “The Business of Being Kind,” you discuss some of the “compassion commodities” produced by these organizations.  You write that “Russia’s commercially oriented modes of compassion have not so much emerged alongside the country’s post-socialist capitalist economy as they have developed a critical niche within it” (159).  Can you talk about the political and communicative composition of this critical niche?  For example, is this about addressing consumers and if so, who are they?

Melissa Caldwell: I think there are several different things going on.  One is that there’s a particular sub-niche within the niche, or whatever you want to call it, that emerged with the idea of targeting a particular type of ethical consumer.  Those goods seem to be coming out of particular “development” movements, wherein many of the development organizations that went into Russia, like many other parts of the world, would ask “How do you get small businesses off the ground,” and “People need to create things to sell.”  And often those are things like arts and crafts.  And so then those get marketed and targeted for certain consumers.  Then it almost becomes that kind of fair trade sort of commodity that pops up in all the markets all around the world.  You know, you want to help the small business person, or you want to help the elderly babushka, going blind, who isselling little doilies in her apartment.  So I think that part of it definitely was targeted at a consumer who was responsive to that sort of compassion assistance, “help somebody out.”

On the other end, there was a more strategic angle.  Some goods were from corporations that had goods and needed to get rid of, for example, expired products or close-to-expired products.  A lot of the food donations would come from companies that had lots of yogurt that was going to expire within a week.  One of the big furniture companies discontinued an entire line of cribs and needed to move them.  And there were different moments in which companies could get tax benefits, or at least do something where they weren’t losing money on that stock.  

I think someplace in between that there was just the more general sense that there’s this big formal capitalist market where anything goes.  And whether people were selling as part of another sort of larger business entity or as private entrepreneurs, or not even necessarily selling, trading, and moving things through, I think that was where most of this compassion economy really existed.  I think much of that was still grounded in the socialist era informal networks where you simply circulate things; you might not need them, but somebody else does.  And so it will eventually get to where it is needed.  And likewise, you will eventually get what you need through these systems.  And I think within that particular niche, most of the people I encountered didn’t explicitly think of that as being compassion.  That was simply informal exchange or the normal way that people move things.  And so in trying to put all of these things together, that’s how I started thinking about this compassion economy.

Emily Contois and Zenia Kish discuss their edited volume, Food Instagram

https://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/?id=58mye9fd9780252044465

Until recently, if you perused the scholarship on Instagram, the app might have appeared to be a relatively benign, homogenous stepchild to its social media forebears. More visual, more commercial, less political, less weighty. Instagram was a place for diet fads and celebrity selfies, not a site for important developments like the obsessively analyzed Facebook or Twitter. While its status has begun to shift and be rendered more complex, the first book devoted to the platform, Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures (Leaver, Highfield and Abidin) was only published in 2020, a couple of years after the platform had reached one billion monthly active users. Meanwhile, those users relentlessly cultivated new media practices and relations on the platform through endogenous aesthetic conventions, emergent subjectivities, and political contestations.

Our new edited collection, Food Instagram: Identity, Influence and Negotiation (University of Illinois Press, May 31, 2022) opens up new lines of questioning about Instagram practices and relations through the medium of food. Food offers varied and delightfully visual points of entry for exploring social media practices across diverse geographies, coalescing around the central category of “food Instagram.” We identify food Instagram as not just a common subject, but a quasi-genre on the platform distinguished by a shared focus on representations of food, eating, and food-related phenomena circulated by both everyday users and industry professionals.

Reflecting the heterogeneous content of food Instagram, the book brings interdisciplinary lenses to the platform’s food images and processes of image-making, drawing on media studies, food studies, gender and sexuality studies, sociology, anthropology, art theory, political theory, and other fields. The book brokers conversations beyond academia, too, including chapters from a food journalist, feminist artists, and a food influencer, KC Hysmith, who baked, styled, and shot the cover photo. Carefully positioned, basked in natural light, shot from above, and purposefully colorful, the photo replicates the food Instagram aesthetic as it critiques it. A knife slices through a photo of “Instagrammable” cake, rendered in pink frosting upon a phone made itself of cake, visually representing the layered and deconstructionist work of the volume. In this way, the book contributes to our digital food culture as it comments on it, considering both food in media and food as medium.

When we composed our call for abstracts in 2019, we were delighted to see it travel far and wide across social media and listservs. From the dozens of submissions that we received, we crafted a collection of essays that draws together an international community of scholars, opening up conversations far beyond the US focus of much research on Instagram. Contributions feature food influencers in Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, and the US. Chefs and restaurateurs in France, Denmark, and Thailand appear in the book, while other chapters examine how Canadian and Australian farmers use the platform. Overtly political representations of food are explored in an Israeli nation-building project and in the posts of populist politicians in Brazil and Italy. Several chapters focus on regional food identities in North America, from biscuit restaurants in the US South to organic farmers in the cross-border Pacific Northwest. Food Instagram is thoroughly emplaced, rooted in locally evolving food cultures and taste politics with global implications.

As these chapters show, Instagram has become an important site for producing our mediated food system through its visual economy. From producers’ photogenic narratives about our food origins, like compassionately raised “happy meat,” to the stylings of brightly layered, extravagant “freakshakes”

in an Australian café bought by some customers only to photograph, not eat—food is consumed as much by the camera as by the mouth. As Gaby David and Laurence Allard recount in their chapter on food porn, when asking after dessert recommendations at a Parisian restaurant, the waiter replied, “Well, one is served warm and is very tasty, but the other one is more Instagrammable.” Food has always been valued for its visuality, and food porn long predates digital media. However, as a digitally networked commodity, food-related content can travel further and faster, and reach different, often broader audiences than previous food media. Everyday media users also become food content producers outside of professional spheres much more than before, altering the dynamics of food systems. Suddenly any point along the food chain could become a socially networked object accessible anywhere via the platform.

The spaces of food consumption have likewise been adapted for the camera lens, as restaurants, shops, farmers markets, and kitchens are redesigned to produce a grammable experience. By 2019, an estimated 78% of restaurants in the US used the platform, and both dishes and restaurants themselves have been redesigned to conform to Instagram aesthetics. Public appetite for continuous visual content as an extension of these spaces can lead to a convergence in aesthetic styles, as Fabio Parasecoli and Mateusz Halawa show in their edited volume, Global Brooklyn (2021), which traces the reproduction of the New York borough’s industrial hipster style across food hotspots around the world. Hashtags and geotags are additional place-making technologies on Instagram, creating meaning by both locating images geographically and linking content across space. In the world of food, they can serve to both localize and globalize food-related images, which can be seen, for example, in the use of the hashtag #foodporn. David and Allard note that although 80 percent of Instagram food posts in France are in French, the majority of hashtags are in English to intentionally engage with global users. These citational practices fuse digital and physical places, as food images index local identities while plugging into transnational networks.

Food subjects are also produced in this visual economy, and Food Instagram offers rich and provocative examples from not just the influencers and celebrities for which the app is most closely identified, but also restaurateurs alongside everyday cooks and food photographers. Representing a kind of networked star system held together by the density of their connections and followings, the influencer economy commodifies corners of food culture by driving attention and selling lifestyles. Contributor Mimi Okabe looks at how Japanese diet product companies mobilize influencers and everyday users to reproduce a hyperfeminine girl culture privileging thinness, while Tara Schuwerk and Sarah Cramer explore how wellness influencers rely on highly gendered visual conventions and questionable claims of expertise while prescribing healthy eating choices. Influence can also stir up bonds of community, such as digital practices of hospitality and communal cooking fostered during the pandemic by Black women linked by such hashtags and accounts as #blackgirlcooking and Vegan Soul Food, as examined by Robin Caldwell. Similarly, Alex Ketchum shows feminist restaurateurs adeptly blending a longer history of analog media, such as cookbooks and newsletters, with social media content like Instagram stories as a means to sustain their communities’ political commitments amidst food offerings, recipes, and event listings.

The volume also shows how food subjectivities exceed familiar categories of cooks and eaters, for example by looking to farmers carefully curating their feeds to depict the idyllic origin of crops and livestock, and populist politicians connecting with their publics using posts of what contributor Sara Garcia calls “food puritanism,” identified as ostensibly authentic (traditional or comfort) foods shared without embellishment or editing. Digital platforms like Instagram thus mediate food and identity through visibility, storytelling, and networked communities in ways that can deepen connections or fragment them.

In our introduction we offer up a framework for analyzing these and other themes that locate the book at the crossroads of a number of conversations in media studies and food studies. Proposing a “feed supply chain” analysis of food Instagram, we suggest that one of the aesthetic appeals of the platform is its ability to offer the illusion of frictionless access to beautiful images, including food. We write, “The platform helps to foster the fantasy of shortened food (and image) supply chains through its aesthetics of liveness, intimacy, and authenticity” (p. 13). By examining how the platform supports a visual food ecosystem all the way from raw inputs—including everything from attractive food and photographic labor to celebrity appeal and user attention—to distribution, consumption, and waste along the feed supply chain, we push fellow scholars of media and food to integrate image analysis into broader engagement with the politics and economics of constantly feeding the feed.

For the fields of media studies and food studies, this approach provides new access points for familiar topics like celebrity, influencers, food porn, virality, identity, digital and culinary labor, and the cultures of connectivity, among others. It also invites us to bring food Instagram into other emerging interdisciplinary conversations, such as the role of social media in increasing food waste through excess consumption; the often-hidden forms of labor supporting food Instagram such as farm workers, delivery people, and content moderators whose exploitation may be exacerbated by their relative invisibility; the carbon footprint of food tourism and the vast archives of unused photographs stored in the cloud; and social media’s role in the changing political economy of both our food system and platform capitalism. Instagram has significantly shaped what, how, and why we eat. As editors, we sincerely hope that Food Instagram documents how food also shaped Instagram, as the volume charts the myriad aspects of this transformation still left open to explore.

Use promo code S22UIP to receive a 30% discount on Food Instagram: Identity, Influence & Negotiation  through the University of Illinois Press website (good through December 31, 2022)


 

Charles Briggs on his book, Unlearning

Interview by Ilana Gershon

https://upcolorado.com/utah-state-university-press/item/3998-unlearning

Ilana Gershon: This book is a generous and intricate homage to your mentors and those who have laid down the intellectual infrastructure that you have inherited and transformed through your prodigious talent in bringing together multiple dialogues across academic and non-academic perspectives. It is also a genre of book that is not so common – a collection of previously published essays interwoven into a new intervention. I am curious about the process: how do you choose what to include, how did you decide the order and what about the texts had to change?

Charles L. Briggs: You are too kind! To do justice to your question, I need to compose, with apologies to Derrida, an origin story for the book, in three parts, that tries to capture the reflections that engendered Unlearning.

As the Introduction attests, I have been mesmerized since I was a kid with the poetics of language. As much in dialogue with Wittgenstein as Jakobson, I have always been enthralled with how a sentence, song, or conversation brings worlds into being and opens up new space for the imagination. Poetics led me into issues of health, how healers and their patients confront forces, from microbes to spiritual pathogens to racism, using sound, bodies, and instruments. I have also been concerned with materialities and the more-than-human, with plants, spirits, and environments. (I apologize for the weak Eurocentric terms in the preceding sentences.) In Unlearning, I tried to make a major intervention into work on poetics and performance, to which I contributed, often in collaboration with Dick Bauman, starting back in the 1980s. I got the impression that this literature had been largely assimilated into intellectual infrastructures in linguistic anthropology. I thus tried to breathe new life into it, pushing its assumptions and research questions by fostering dialogues with psychoanalysis, media studies, decolonial perspectives, and work in science studies and medical anthropology.

Second, I have long pursued a dual path: immersing myself in theory from anthropology, media studies, folkloristics, and other fields, but continually feeling uncomfortable with the limits each imposes on what counts as knowledge, who gets to produce it, and how it is made. This penchant flies in the face of advice I received starting in graduate school, that scholarly success involves finding a particular disciplinary trajectory and claiming ownership. A friend once remarked: “I’m like a crab in a seawall cave: you stick your finger in, and I will bite you.” Work in science studies suggests, however, that breakthroughs often come when researchers cross boundaries so that they can identify and challenge assumptions. Such insights are not achieved by pretending to fly over boundaries that separate disciplines or juxtaposing decontextualized concepts. Advances rather follow from engaging disciplinary trajectories deeply, learning their histories, and analyzing how they produce knowledge. A major goal in Unlearning is to disrupt disciplining practices by focusing on their bases in Whiteness and colonialism and creating experiments located along disciplinary borders. Crucially, I have become more mindful of the extent to which I draw on the insights of mentors who were not trained as academics, including woodcarvers, farmers, beekeepers, and women who perform laments over relatives’ bodies. This book reports my efforts to push back against tendencies to incarcerate such perspectives within scholarly genealogies and conversations, thereby curtailing creativity and expropriating their philosophical and theoretical insights as ethnographic particulars. Even decades later, I acknowledge that I am not fully capable of appreciating their intellectual challenges.

Finally, the book’s leitmotif—unlearning—sprang from questioning how academic hierarchies rely on implicit notions of scholarly learning curves, the gradual accumulation of knowledge. During the past ten years, my graduate seminars have rather become decolonial collaborations that seek to identify how White, elite, Euro-American men became arbiters of what counts as theory—thus defining what is deemed nonknowledge, ignorance, and irrationality. Through these discussions and collaborations emerging within and beyond the academy, many sited in Latin America, I found that my unlearning curve grew steeper all the time. Demands to challenge Whiteness and racism following the murder of George Floyd in May, 2020 have greatly increased the stakes here.

Unlearning is thus a set of reflections and experiments. It takes the undisciplining and unlearning process that I had previously explored in fragmented and often implicit ways and puts it right out there, front and center. It was also high time to thank my mentors adequately. This goal, however, nearly killed the project. I had used the themes of mentorship and unlearning to weave the chapters together, but I could not force myself to write the Introduction—for three years. I had unthinkingly slipped into a scholarly rut: Introductions revolve around academic genealogies, placing what are supposed to be new ideas into trajectories provided by other scholars. This fundamental contradiction—which would have undermined what the book was trying to accomplish—had prompted massive resistance. I thus suddenly decided to turn the Introduction into a memoir, recounting my experiences with mentors starting in my childhood. Writing the Introduction then became most enjoyable.

Ilana Gershon: In this book, you are hailing folklorists and revealing new scholarly paths they might take. But some of us are unratified listeners to this hailing. I am wondering what you might want linguistic anthropologists to overhear especially as you call forth folklorists’ nascent intellectual possibilities that you would like to see more vigorously nurtured?

Charles L. Briggs: I find this question fascinating because it imagines the book’s potential audiences and invites me to anticipate ways that linguistic anthropologists might engage it. Rather than projecting readers as divided into two disciplinary camps, I would like to highlight several periods in which sharing modes of investigation and analysis led to some of the most creative moments for people who self-identify as linguistic anthropologists or folklorists. Franz Boas told his students that documenting folkloric texts is a fundamental component of any serious ethnographic project. He edited the Journal of American Folklore (JAF) 1908-1924 and was President of the American Folklore Society (AFS) three times. Edward Sapir, who published extensive collections of texts and illuminated their poetics, was President of the American Anthropological Association and AFS. Boas student Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men developed a sophisticated framework for analyzing cultural poetics. Her experimental ethnographic style challenged readers to think in new and complex ways. Dell Hymes’ ethnography of speaking transformed work in anthropology, folkloristics, and linguistics; he served as President of the AAA, the AFS, and the Linguistic Society of America. In 1958, Américo Paredes, a major figure in the book, pushed cultural poetics beyond a nationalistic focus on shared culture to focus on race, difference, borders, and violence. His later work examined how insensitivity to genre, performance, and multilingualism prompted White anthropologists to scientize anti-Mexican stereotypes.  Richard Bauman galvanized scholarship in a range of disciplines with the notion of performance. During his editorship (1981-1985), JAF became one of the leading venues for publishing work in linguistic anthropology. In the 1990s, Dick and I tied to push the analytic limits of poetics and performance through notions of entextualization and de- and re-contextualization.

Unfortunately, such dialogues often fell victim to disciplining processes that harden into competing scholarly identities, thereby reproducing premises and imposing limits to theory-building and ethnographic research. Rather than trying to drag linguistic anthropologists into folkloristics, Unlearning seeks to reinvigorate these conversations in such a way as to challenge scholars—whatever disciplinary identity they claim—to venture across boundaries. It poses a particular challenge to linguistic anthropology. Even as a great deal of experimental writing has emerged in social/cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropologists generally seem a bit phobic about disrupting conventional styles of scholarly writing. In the Introduction, Dear Dr. Freud, and provocations scattered throughout the book, I challenge linguistic anthropologists to shake things up, textually. The point is less to claim the mantle of experimental writing than to circumvent intellectual roadblocks that sometimes become insoluble when thinking gets forced into conventional rhetorical boxes.

Ilana Gershon: And if I can indulge in an abrupt transition to the contemporary moment, how can a study of pandemics be enhanced by an attentiveness to the analytical insights of scholars of mediatization?

Charles L. Briggs: Studying pandemics: ouch! I ended up, by accident, in the middle of a cholera epidemic in a Venezuelan rainforest in 1992, in which hundreds died. I then stumbled, unsuspectingly, into an outbreak of bat-transmitted rabies in the same area that killed scores of children and young adults. In each case, linguistic and medical profiling were woven together in fatal ways, constraining efforts by dedicated clinicians and justifying, to use Arachu Castro’s and Merrill Singer’s phrase, unhealthy health policies. After collaborating with Venezuelan public health physician Clara Mantini-Briggs to help stop the dying and counter the devastating social, political, and psychological effects of these outbreaks, Clara and I conducted years of research seeking to figure out what had happened. Clinical interactions, health education, and media coverage played crucial roles in deepening the communicative and health inequities that multiplied deaths and obscured underlying causes. I am pleased to say that Stories in the Time of Cholera is now often used to teach medical students. The concept of “communicative justice in health” developed in Tell Me Why My Children Died: Rabies, Indigenous Knowledge, and Communicative Justice—grounded in linguistic anthropology analytics and ethnographic techniques—has helped push scholars and practitioners of medical anthropology, medicine, and public health to think more seriously and critically about what they often had dismissed as mere issues of language and communication.

Then along came H1N1 (“swine flu”) in April 2009. Although the virus killed fewer people than most seasonal influenzas, it infected most people on the planet communicatively through a barrage of public health announcements and news coverage. Anthropologists analyzed H1N1 as a quintessential manifestation of the “emergency preparedness” regime that transforms health and medicine into questions of security. Although H1N1’s life as a mediated phenomenon loomed larger than its viral impact, anthropologists generally left this component out of their ethnography and analyses. In a book I co-authored with media scholar Daniel Hallin, Making Health Public, I explored how “the H1N1 pandemic” embodied communicability in complex ways. Public health officials suggested that viral circulation could only be contained if the scientific information they produced was intensively circulated and publics demonstrated their compliant reception through hand washing and other prevention measures. I was particularly interested in two effects of the massive disjunction between the two sides of H1N1 communicability. First, lay publics to this day deem the much greater prevalence of H1N1’s discursive over viral effects as evidence that journalists “hype” or “sensationalize” news of epidemic diseases. Secondly, journalists, health professionals, and laypersons alike reproduced an ideological separation between communication versus medicine. My ethnographic work suggested that U.S. journalists, health officials, clinicians, Homeland Security officials, and politicians had, through massively funded rehearsals, developed shared practices for creating discourse about biosecurity “events.” A chapter in Unlearning analyzes how these actors collaborated in constructing “the H1N1 pandemic” in just 24 hours, even before more than the scantiest scientific evidence was available. Drawing on science studies and European and Latin American media studies theory, Hallin and I analyzed this phenomenon as biomediatization. We used the concept to trace how pandemic and other discourse ideologically projects separate or even opposing media/communication and scientific/medical arenas, yet simultaneously entwines logics and practices of journalism, medicine, public health, and homeland security.

And here we are in the midst of “the big one,” the COVID-19 pandemic that seems to have brought germ thrillers to life and justified the securitization of public health. The pandemic’s mediatization would seem to be the communicable opposite of H1N1, in the sense that the circulation of media discourse and viruses have both been extraordinarily high. Would attentiveness to the mediatization of pandemics suggest, however, that a magical convergence of epidemiology and mediatization has been achieved? Seven months of intensive ethnographic work on the pandemic suggests that the situation is more complex and contradictory. Rather than playing his assigned role in the pandemic biomediatization-industrial complex, as did President Barak Obama in 2009, Donald Trump displaced the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the government’s communicable center. He rather held daily White House “Coronavirus Briefings” in which he not only sparred with top medical advisor Anthony Fauci but violated the CDC’s Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication rules one by one. Sites and processes of biomediatization multiplied and clashed as social media and conservative journalists circulated discursive forms that get stigmatized as “misinformation” and “conspiracy theories.” Moreover, patients—particularly those experiencing the “long COVID” symptoms that have proved difficult for physicians to interpret and treat—developed sites of collaborative knowledge production through social media.

I want to use Michael Silverstein’s analytics in addressing your question. The official pandemic biomediatization-industrial complex presupposes ideological models of medicine, communication, and media. In “normal” times, U.S. health communication pictures self-interested, agentive, rational individuals who consume health-related information and services. Pandemic discourse contrastively presupposes what Hallin and I called a “biomedical authority” model that constructs elite health professionals as knowledge producers and a linear, unidirectional process of converting it into “communication,” translating it into lay registers, and transmitting it to publics. However, the SARS-CoV-2 virus proved so challenging that claiming a monopoly on knowledge production and communication was near impossible: scientists and clinicians were forced to admit uncertainty and drastically revise prior conclusions, even as health officials frequently changed guidelines.   

Sustaining this ideological landscape was also complicated by a massive shift in the pragmatics of mediatization. In 2009, most U.S. residents drew primarily on television news and newspapers for H1N1 updates, arenas largely dominated by biomedical and public health professionals; only 17% said they mainly used the internet, where competing (“conspiracy theory”) explanations were more prevalent. For both H1N1 and COVID-19, health officials used “crisis and emergency risk communication” metapragmatics to channel public affects and convince laypersons that their survival depended on surrendering claims to be knowledge producers. In 2020, attempts to use a narrow, standardized metapragmatic register to shape the pragmatics of media landscapes that were being scrambled by political polarization and shifts in media technologies, practices, and economics were designed to fail. As we enter the pandemic’s third year, the official pandemic biomediatization-industrial complex seems to be losing its grip even on people who accepted masks and vaccines.

Given the early stage of my COVID-19 research, I cannot offer any fast and sweeping generalizations. I do hope, however, that the book’s perspectives on circulation, mediatization, coloniality, poetics and performance, and communicability might inspire readers to find new ways of documenting and analyzing the vast and complex issues of our day, given that their consequences will be felt for years to come. I also hope that my efforts to reshuffle the disciplinary deck will inspire readers to inhabit boundaries and forge new types of collaborations. Thank you, Ilana, for challenging me to rethink what I hoped to accomplish with Unlearning.

Florian Jaton on his book, The Constitution of Algorithms

The Constitution of Algorithms

Interview by Ilana Gershon

https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/constitution-algorithms

Ilana Gershon: This book is about the formation processes of algorithms.  What, for you, was the sociological work involved in tracing how particular algorithms come to be, and why choose this focus over the effects of algorithms in people’s lives?

Florian Jaton: When I started to be interested in the topic of algorithms in 2013, there was already a substantial, and generally quite critical, literature on the social effects of algorithms. These important works studied the ways in which algorithms acted on our lives, while also emphasizing algorithms’ opacity. This sociological movement – whose peak might have been reached with the publication of Frank Pasquale’s masterful book The Black Box Society (2015) – was very important in making algorithms matters of public concern and in generating political affects. But already by 2013, it seemed – to me at least – that continuing with this systematic denunciation of the power of algorithms could be counterproductive. I was especially concerned that algorithms were mostly considered abstract and floating entities made of distant code and obscure mathematics. How indeed to act against abstract, floating, and obscure entities? The fact that the critical depiction of algorithms did not give them much empirical thickness made, in my opinion, a much-needed collective contestation difficult to carry out.

But I then realized the problem was mainly methodological: If algorithms looked disembodied, it was because they were most often considered from afar; from the offices of critical sociologists who observed them through their “official” accounts (reports, software, academic papers) purified of the fragile scaffolding that had previously contributed to their progressive shaping. This is where my training in science and technology studies(STS) was useful, since one of their basic postulates is to consider techno-scientific devices as the products of situated and accountable practices. A possible remedy to the disarming critical discourse on algorithms seemed then to lie in a drastic change of method, privileging the anthropology of science as framed, for example, by the in situ ethnographic works of Bruno Latour, Michael Lynch and Lucy Suchman, over distant document analysis (that yet remains important). In sum, to suggest new levers of action to better contest the powerful effects of algorithms, it seemed important to document, from the inside, some of the causes of these powerful effects.

A surprising element was that this problematization resonated with the concerns of computer scientists who worked in a polytechnical school close to my university. Some of them were quite aligned with my analysis on the limits of the then-current social debates on algorithms and saw the possibility to show the daily work of algorithmic design as an opportunity to present themselves more realistically. This fortunate convergence, which did not prevent me from having critical views, allowed me to stay for two years, as a participant observer, in a computer science laboratory (that I call the “Lab”) specialized in the construction of image processing algorithms.

Ilana Gershon: What analytical translational work were you required to do when using approaches developed to understand laboratory practices and using them to illuminate the work of computer programmers and mathematicians?

Florian Jaton: This inquiry was intended to be immersive, in the continuity of the ethnographic “lab studies” that participated in the initial development of STS. And as required by this specific analytical genre, I had to become, at minimum, competent in digital image processing, if only to speak adequately about issues that mattered to my informants and colleagues. Very quickly then, it appeared essential to follow an accelerated training in analysis and linear algebra (the main mathematics involved in signal processing, along with statistics) in order to be able to express myself in acceptable terms.

This minimal theoretical equipment coupled with the classic apparatus of the ethnographer (mainly notebooks, cameras, and audio recorders) allowed me to follow the daily work of the Lab for more than two years, conscientiously writing down observations and recording work sequences. And it is probably the long-time of the investigation – made possible by a doctoral fellowship – and a certain systematics in the note-taking that has made it possible to account for some of the practical courses of action – what I call “activities” – that participate, I believe, in the development of new algorithms, considered as cultural products.

Ilana Gershon: What methodological quandaries did you have to overcome to study computer programmers?  What did you do?

Florian Jaton: To design and publish new algorithms, my colleagues at the Lab had to write symbols on numbered lists, an activity they called – not surprisingly – computer programming (or coding). Although they did not, by far, only do this – they also spent time designing databases, studying and discussing mathematical formulas, attending seminars and conferences, taking coffee breaks, and so on ­– programming was nonetheless an important part of their daily algorithmic design work. And as an ethnographer of this specific work, it was therefore important for me to accurately document these programming situations.

The problem that quickly arose was how to do it. Since the lines of code written during these situations were quite cryptic (I did not have a rigorous computer programming background at the time), it was extremely difficult to get a handle on what was going on. Also, these situations appeared to be quite engaging for the people involved, which often prevented me from interrupting them to ask questions about what they were doing. In short, during these moments that could be particularly intense, I was clearly out of place.

After discussing this methodological impasse during a weekly Lab meeting, it was collectively decided that I should attempt to design a small image-processing project that would echo other algorithmic research that was under development within the Lab. The purpose of this exercise was to force me to learn the basics of several programming languages as well as to try to apply some theoretical elements acquired during my accelerated training in signal processing (see question 2). But most importantly, this modest project also included a helping clause that allowed me to ask for assistance from Lab members whenever I was stuck in a programming impasse. This ad hoc method first allowed me to become more familiar with several programming languages, which was a prerequisite for the close analysis of their mobilization in situ. But it also made the Lab members more comfortable during the programming situations I was trying to document. Since the project was collectively designed and could, potentially, be used for future algorithms and papers, the Lab members found it relatively relevant. Finally, and most importantly, this method allowed me to better equip and document programming situations: in addition to keeping notes describing the actions of the computer scientist programming next to me, I could also record my computer monitors as well as the discussions taking place. And at the end of the eight helping sessions I needed during this small project, I obtained handwritten descriptions, video and audio recording that I could then thoroughly analyze (pending a huge transcription work).

Ilana Gershon: You point out that for mathematics to be relevant to our daily world, a cascade of translations have to occur to connect mathematical knowledge to actants people interact with regularly.  Which translations do you think are most relevant to track to understand the consequences of the coded algorithms people might encounter during any given week?

Florian Jaton: It is important to keep in mind that what algorithms generate, and what they work upon, are digital data signals that require a very specific ecology in order to circulate and, eventually, produce differences. In this sense, many translations have to be done to, for example, render commensurable the statistics of, say, a Tweet (for example, its number of likes or retweets) and the relevance of its content. We may invest meaning in algorithmic products only by loosely assuming that this post circulates like all the other posts of all the other profiles and that the (small) world constituted by all these posts and profiles is a world that has value by and for itself; it is by building this whole chain of translations – while knowing, sometimes, their incongruity. In short, many consequences of coded algorithms require an active – and anthropologically fascinating – work of putting disparate elements (desires, small screens, icons, mobile computing infrastructures, communication protocols, and so on) into equivalence. And my feeling is that we tend to get used to these small translation efforts we make, to the point that we often don’t pay attention to them anymore.

Ilana Gershon: In what sense is this an insurgent book for you?

Florian Jaton: I guess the book is insurgent, or at least politically engaged, in two ways. First, it challenges the traditional conception of algorithms, as defended for example in theoretical computer science, and which presents algorithms as computerized procedures that transform inputs into outputs to solve problems in effective ways. By accounting for the concrete processes by which new algorithms come to be constructed, the inquiry shows that the material work of problematization – which includes, among other things, the creation of referential databases called ground truths – is an integral part of algorithmic development. Roughly put, we get the algorithms of our problematizations, that themselves rely upon material elements upon which one can act.

Also, the book is an attempt to get out of the disarming critical discourse asserting that algorithms are powerful because they are abstract and inscrutable. By proposing thick description of algorithmic design activities, along with theoretical and methodological tools to conduct, maybe, further ethnographic inquiries, the book intends to show that algorithms are very material devices, designed in specific places on which it is possible to impact.

Noelle Molé Liston on her book, The Truth Society

The Truth Society

Interview by Jonah Rubin

https://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/9781501750793/the-truth-society/

Jonah Rubin: So much has been written about what media literacy scholars have termed our “information disorder” (Wardle and Derakhshan 2017). There is a general recognition that mis- and disinformation is rampant, threatening the shared epistemological foundations of many political communities. In The Truth Society, though, you don’t only focus on those who believe in conspiracy theories and misinformation. You see them as intimately connected with those who are “hyperinvested” in real science and reliable facts. Even in your opening vignette you focus not on the purveyors of untruths, but rather on the “soldiers of rationality” breaking mirrors in the public square as an anti-superstition performance. Why is it important (methodologically, theoretically, or both) for us to focus on what you call this “hyperrationalization,” an almost desperate pursuit of science, empiricism, and skepticism as well? Put otherwise, what do we miss when we exclusively train our analytic gaze on those who believe in false information?

Noelle Molé Liston:  

Danger #1: We miss not fully recognizing the implications of the onslaught of information and algorithmic underpinnings of digital consumption. Access to information has meant both a democratization of access to information, that is, at least in basic sense along with the intensified customization and subsequent siloing of information. Yet with so much information, what became eroded was a basic sense of source appraisal, especially when industries were mastering pseudoscientific ways to uphold the oil and gas industry, and various “Big” Industries like Big Pharma, Big Sugar, Big Food, etc. Therefore, we saw that scientific information also became a site of “fake news” where under the guise of science, social actors might find so-called scientific studies to support the absence of climate change or the incredible health benefits of sugar. Thus, social actors who were already habituated to see science as true, rational, and reasonable, were being seduced with paid-for sponsored “fake” science, which I would argue, worked because of this enchantment of good science, a kind of facile belief that scientific rationality could seek and produce the truth. Without interrogating or becoming skeptical about why knowledge under the label of “science” can either be manipulated or outright fabricated, we fall prey to reifying–or even deifying–science itself.

Danger #2: We become “anesthetized” to our own embodied or phenomenological ways of knowing the world and, possibly, one’s own expertise. In my exploration of the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, one interlocutor was an architect with deep knowledge of both the territory and engineering. Yet she ignored her own sense of danger when she was reassured by scientists and fellow engineers, likening it to “numbing” her other ways of knowing she had typically relied upon. Why does this happen? Immense pressure was on the public to trust science and quell the existing pre-earthquake panic, not unlike ways the American public is currently scolded to “trust the science” during the pandemic. In both instances, maintaining social order relies on a continual investment in science as simple truth, so we have to interrogate how our own trust in science might be part of a mode of control and surveillance. It’s also become quite tricky on the left, as we want to allow space for healthy scientific skepticism but not indulge pseudoscience or conspiracies. If we fail to examine our own tendencies to exalt science as “big-T” True, then we risk reproducing the very regime of hyperinvestment in science.

Jonah Rubin: One major theme of the text is the ways that new media technologies – television news, the internet, algorithms – reshape the possibilities for politics. At times, it seems like these technologies open up new possibilities for political participation and populism. Other times, it seems like the technologies become new sites for the political imagination, such as the televised presentation of a golden tapir award or the infozombies. Could you elaborate a bit on how you see the relationship between new media and politics playing out?

Noelle Molé Liston: The book ends with the metaphor of the mirrored window world where the media consumers believe themselves to be accessing information openly and outwardly, but instead are regurgitated only algorithmic versions of information already catered to their likes, dislikes, and political leanings. In some ways, it seems important that the originality and bite of Italy’s “Striscia La Notizia” (The News is Spreading) satirical news show and Beppe Grillo’s blog were not data-driven media, that is, there was no predetermined customization or data-mining precipitating their creation, other than usual television ratings or blog views. But they were both examples of important political interventions: the former to critique then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the latter to build a grassroots political movement of the Five Star Movement. Plus, both were art forms insofar as they were driven by the humor and creativity of political actors, navigating a climate of television censorship by the very man they were poking fun at (Berlusconi), on the one hand, and engaging in-person political action vis-a-vis online content. By contrast, the more algorithmic media such as the Five Star Movement’s web portal program known as Rousseau, might mine member data and ideas in ways unknown to users. Perhaps not surprisingly, Luigi Di Maio, one of Five Star’s leaders who served as Co-Deputy Prime Minister, was accused of being a kind of android: chosen and styled according to user preferences from Rousseau. Put differently, the algorithmic regimes of new media fundamentally operate in ways that are buried and opaque to most users, which, in turn, makes it harder to discern their effects. More recently, Italy has also seen a quite intense anti-vax movement during the pandemic, which is likely the product of social media algorithms which funnel users into their own individualized information silos and boost posts because of “engagement” not veracity. The outside world can look so deceptively beautiful even though the forest is just our own faces. Twenty-first century idiom: you can’t see the faces through the forest? 

Jonah Rubin: To me personally, one of the most productively challenging aspects of your book is your analysis of political humor. Many of us see political humor as inherently subversive, a way of mocking and therefore undermining the powerful. But in your book, especially in chapters 1 and 3, you suggest that humor can also breed a kind of political cynicism and even complicity that may reinforce hegemonic power structures. Could you tell us a bit more about your approach to the politics of humor? How should anthropologists and others study the politics of jokes, both the kinds we find funny and the kinds that may horrify us?

Noelle Molé Liston: It is true that I tend to adopt a cynical approach to political humor as my recent analysis of viral videos of Italian mayors funnily admonishing citizens to mask up effectively got laughs because they represented the “thwarted displacement of patriarchy and failed attempts, at every level of governance, to erect robust authoritarian control.” Part of this analytic, of course, is aligned with anthropological investigation of humor and satire as unintentionally bolstering entrenched power structures. It’s hard not to be so cynical when Berlusconi himself, whom I’ve argued won over Italians with his brash humor as a seemingly genuine presentation of an otherwise highly artificial political masquerader, almost had a comeback in his 2022 run for President of the Republic. (He ended up dropping out of the race). I remained concerned that “strong men” like Berlusconi and  Trump use humor to manipulate and garner support, and diffuse criticism, resulting in a destabilization of how political humorists can have, as it were, the last laugh. How can political humor outsmart the absurdist clown? How will algorithmically filtered media consumption (re)shape the humor of consumers and voters?

One strategy might be in the satire of unlikely embodiment. One of Berlusconi’s best impersonators is Sabina Guzzanti, a woman 25-years Berlsconi’s junior who dons wigs and prosthetics to perfect her impression. In this clip, she refers to herself as a woman while in costume as Berlusconi, decrying that “her” failed bid for President was sexist. She is also one of his fiercest critics, especially in her account of his post-earthquake crisis management in L’Aquila. In the US, Sarah Cooper went viral for her videos in which she would lip synch to things Trump said without physically altering her appearance, so it was his voice, but her mouth, face, and body. In both cases, the performances do different kinds of political and symbolic work because of the surprisingly mismatched genders and bodies, which results in tension, long a characteristic of great humor, between laughter and discomfort. There is something powerful and effective about the dissonance of having women, and in Cooper’s case, a woman of color, speak the words of these misogynists that straight jokes and impressions (often by straight men) cannot achieve.

Jonah Rubin: In Chapters 5 and 6, you look at the tensions between scientific prediction and public governance, particularly in the Anthropocene. Here, you focus on the trial of a group of scientists who provide reassurances to the residents of L’Aquila, urging them to stay home prior to what ultimately turns out to be a deadly earthquake. At the time, the international press overwhelmingly presented this story as an irrational attack on science. But you see it as a more profound commentary on the changing role of science in the public sphere. How do shifts in our experience of the climate and in our media landscapes affect the relationship between science, politics, and law?

Noelle Molé Liston: Indeed I argue that the idea that Italians gullibly believe scientists could predict earthquakes helped export the narrative of the trial as anti-science. However, it was more about the form of the press conference which positioned authoritative scientific reassurances to quell the rising panic in L’Aquila. As we confront more acute environmental crises, there will be greater pressure on scientists to predict and manage risk, ascertain damage and crisis management, and weigh in on policy, as we’ve seen during the pandemic. But we don’t yet have a legal framework that might hold non-scientific or even scientific failures accountable. In L’Aquila, the actual non-scientific claim was their reassurance that no big earthquake would come and people should not evacuate. The Italian judiciary tried to make a connection between an authoritative sources’ public utterances and the fatal consequence of this misinformation: the listeners’ death. By contrast, Trump alone issued massive amounts of misinformation about the dangers of Covid but it would be entirely inconceivable, I think, that our judiciary hold him accountable for the resulting deaths.  Why? Because of Trump-era politics or the American justice system, more broadly? How –and where–will the law shift to see misinformation as fatally consequential, legally punishable, or, at least, a public health crisis?

Jonah Rubin: The book centers on the ways fact and fiction are blurred during the Berlusconi and Grillo eras of Italian politics. But to me, the students in my class who read this text, and, I assume, many other readers in the United States will see strong resonances between what you describe in Italy and our own country’s experiences with President Trump and the “post-truth” era that American frequently associated with his rise to power. Of course, the balance between ethnographic specificity and comparison is as old as anthropology itself. With that caveat in mind: What do you see in your argument as particular to Italy and how do you think it applies to our recent and current experiences in the United States and around the world as well?

Noelle Molé Liston: Berlusconi as a precursor to Trump was a kind of historical instruction booklet. I often describe Berlusconi to Americans as “Trump + Bloomberg,” because Berlusconi owned his own media company, which was vital in his 1990s rise to power. However, the structure of Italian television broadcasting, where political parties divvied up news networks, was crucial in the mid-century rise of public cynicism towards television and print media. Ultimately, it sharpened a widely shared Italian assumption that any form of news has a political slant (decades before we were talking about spin). Put simply, the infrastructure of media matters. Most agree that Trump was tipped over the edge not by television masterminding like Berlusconi but because of social media manipulation. To be sure, Italy’s technopopulism of the Five Star Movement will likely expand in the US. Still, Italy seems to have suffered far less democratic backsliding than the United States, and maybe we could read this as hopeful premonition. But the US seems to have “left the chat” in terms of Italian influence. Italy’s fundamental rootedness in its unique mix of Catholic ethics, democratic social welfare, and pro-labor movements has somehow put voting rights and democratic institutions in a better place with respect to the US,with our Protestant ethic, anti-labor, and neoliberal demonization of welfare. Let’s also notice that there was no January 6th in Italy, no violent insurrection of people believing an election was stolen. Despite Italy’s international reputation as an “unstable democracy,” I’d feel more confident about proper counting of votes and the peaceful transfer of power in Italy than I would in our next US presidential election.

Jonah Rubin: This is less of a major point in your book, but on page 88, you note a common thread of political cynicism that ties together the foundational principles of media criticism – and, I would hasten to add, most media literacy education initiatives too  – and the Five Star Movement’s attacks on science and news media, which find clear echoes in other right-wing populist movements around the globe. How do you think media criticism and education might be contributing to the deterioration of a shared epistemology? And might you have any suggestions on how media criticism and education need to shift in response to populist political movements which sound disturbingly close to their foundational insights? 

Noelle Molé Liston: Just as the left needs to thread the needle in terms of science as I mentioned earlier, so, too, do well- intentioned plans for media literacy begin to sound like Trump’s refrain of referring to The New York Times as “fake news.” The problem is that people have lost an ability to discern between positioned information and misinformation. Plus, our regime of algorithmic newsfeeds just can’t handle the nuance.  Just as postmodern theories of multiple, contested truth escalated to, or were perceived as, forms of absolute moral nihilism, so, too, has some healthy epistemological skepticism quickly become a truth vacuum. It reminds me of a moment when my student said she found statistics about police violence against Blacks on a white supremacist website. Why? I asked, horrified. She said it was because she trusted their information precisely because their anti-Black positionality was overt.  We find this same mentality that makes Trump, one of the biggest liars and con-artists on the world’s stage, become trusted by his followers: the trust in manifest and easily legible opinions. What results, then, is greater trust in overtly positioned information sources like Fox News, and lesser trust in the vast majority of information mediums where the positionality is more complex, covert or semi-covert, and paradoxical. Media criticism and education needs to instruct on literacy practices where knowledge might be seen as positioned and framed, and move away from a binary of biased versus unbiased media. We also need to raise awareness about how information is algorithmically processed and customized to the user. Finally, we must recognize how corporate media regimes deliberately design decoys (eg. clickbait, customized ads) and mechanisms of addiction  (eg. the no-refresh scroll function, TikTok) to keep data surveillance and its vast monetization for the benefit of astonishingly few people in place.

Sarah Hillewaert on her book, Morality on the Margins

Morality at the Margins

Interview by Kamala Russell

Morality at the Margins: Youth, Language, and Islam in Coastal Kenya

Morality at the Margins

Interview by Kamala Russell

Morality at the Margins: Youth, Language, and Islam in Coastal Kenya

Kamala Russell: Your book is a deep investigation of the values, practices, and ambivalences that make up the everyday experience of social change. Could you tell us a bit about the focus of the book, and its argument? I’d be interested in hearing more as well about how you settled on this framing for the book, coming out of your many years of fieldwork. As someone who is at that stage, I am interested in hearing more about the process of how you dream up a book from a dissertation.

Sarah Hillewaert:  The book is an ethnographic study of the everyday lives of Muslim youth living on the Indian Ocean island of Lamu (Kenya). A previously cosmopolitan center of trade and Islamic scholarship, Lamu is currently marginalized in both economic and political terms yet forms the focus of international campaigns against religious radicalization and is also at the center of touristic imaginings of the untouched and secluded. The book examines what happens when narratives of self-positioning change: what happens when signs of cosmopolitanism, respectability, and civility come to be read as indices of remoteness, backwardness, or religious radicalization? And what implications do these shifts in signification have for everyday interactions, self-fashionings, and conceptions of appropriate conduct? I explore these questions by documenting the discursive and embodied production of difference, and examine the seemingly mundane practices through which Lamu youth negotiate what it means to be a ‘good Lamu resident’ in contemporary Kenya. I specifically ask what happens when signification fails – when people are no longer sure how to read signs or when they differ in their reading of material forms as signs of, for example, either piety or social transgression. By documenting apparently mundane practices, and the ideologies that inform their evaluations, I show how easily-overlooked, fleeting moments represent some of the most vital points through which larger scale transformations touch down concretely in community life, and by which they receive local inflection and resonance.  Through its ethnographic detail, the book demonstrates the intersubjective and dialogic nature of meaning-making processes and illustrates how projects of personal cultivation function as political projects as well. In doing so, it offers a linguistic anthropological approach to discussions on ethical self-fashioning and the everyday lives of Muslim youth in Africa.

In terms of the framing of the book, the focus shifted from a more explicit attention to verbal interactions and language use to a broader semiotic approach. And this happened mostly through ongoing interactions with peers, through talks and people’s feedback to them, and through ongoing conversations with my interlocutors in Lamu. However, the ethnographic focus did not change significantly from the dissertation to the book. It was more the theoretical argument that became more nuanced, with more attention to the political significance of seemingly situated interactions and practices. I think talking about my research – writing talks and articles – made me think more about what I really wanted people to take away from my research, both theoretically and ethnographically.

Kamala Russell: What I appreciated most about the book is the way you take a very open-ended approach to this study of social change, not just treating social development and peripheralization in and of Lamu as well as instability in indices of value pessimistically, but also tracing opportunities for new kinds of fulfilment and relationships to oneself (for example, professionalism). What stuck out to me across these chapters, and particularly in the final chapter ‘The Morality of the Senses and the Senses of Morality’, was the importance of gaze and the audience. In your focus on people’s performances and negotiations of what kind of individual they are, I wondered who the imagined audience or public for this differentiation is and how does that relate to the sociopolitical changes you describe in Lamu?

Sarah Hillewaert: I appreciate you mentioning the careful deliberation and negotiation of new opportunities and perspectives that I tried to convey in the book. In doing so, I tried to move beyond discussions on the so-called ambivalences or inconsistencies that previously have been highlighted in discussions of Muslim or African youth. I wanted to convey that shifting perspectives on respectability are not a mere generational change or gap, informed by globalization, for example. And rather than talk about resistance to, for example, what people call tradition, I tried to highlight the agency in young people’s calculated inhabiting of certain norms and their deliberation of the proper mediation of others. For Lamu youth, the question is not whether you should be respectable or not, but rather what respectability should look like, given, on the one hand, the development Lamu desperately needs, and on the other, the significance of respectability to Lamu residents’ distinctive identity and the political load it carries.

And this gets me to your question. Most challenging in writing this book was conveying precisely the hyper-sensitivity to semiotic misconstrual that informs young Lamu residents’ moral self-fashionings. With this I mean that young people were very much aware that a range of differently situated people observe their everyday behavior – their peers or elders from different parts of town, for example, but also immigrants from Kenya’s mainland, government administrators, military police, and so on. They understand very well that their intended professional behavior can be misread as social transgression by some, or still overly conservative by others. And as your question points to, these presentations of self, while locally situated, carry a political significance as well. Now, the political stance implied in everyday practices is not always necessarily for non-locals to be noticed. It’s not about an explicit expression of political opinion that one hopes gets noticed. And in fact, mainland Kenyans are often oblivious to many of the nuances in everyday practices that I focus on in the book. Yet, Lamu residents observing situated behaviors can take those as signs of an individual’s political orientation as well – to what extent is an individual upholding a distinctive Lamu identity? Or to what extent are they forsaking their values to get ahead in an economy controlled by the Kenyan government?  So, a young woman critiquing local social divisions at a town meeting will do so while only speaking the local Swahili dialect and paying close attention to proper address forms and greetings, to thereby negotiate a need for change while evidently displaying her pride of her Lamu identity in an attempt to avoid critiques from local elders (or even her peers). Yet, her doing so does risk her getting perceived as backward or less educated by mainland government officials present at that gathering, for example.

Kamala Russell: Heshima is a key concept in the book. You translate this as ‘respectability’. A key argument I saw in the book is that though how respectability is embodied is hotly contested, heshima as a regime of value continues to structure the ways Lamu residents understand themselves and others. I was struck by the way that this concept seems to revolve around differentiation. Is this the only semiotic process (or the key one) that heshima participates in and if so, why might that be? Are there other means and ends than moral distinction in play?

Sarah Hillewaert: Heshima is an intensely moral value, and thus plays a central role in moral distinctions, but as I discuss in Chapter 1, this is very much linked to social class distinctions and genealogy as well. Claims to embodied respectability are often linked to social class identities as well. And this is precisely part of what is being renegotiated nowadays. The hegemonic ideology of former upper-classes – of what practices are viewed as respectable and thus indicative of higher status  –  is being challenged as the social hierarchy is being reshuffled in a context of economic and social change.

Kamala Russell: Can you say a bit more about the methodological challenges you worked with in doing your fieldwork, particularly around recording, as linguists would say, putative naturalistic interaction. Though clearly you were able to record some interviews, did you face other difficulties in producing recorded data? Did working this way affect the way you think about embodiment and non-verbal signs with relation to more typical approaches to text and context?

Sarah Hillewaert: In short: yes, but not entirely. I wasn’t able to record partially because women didn’t want their voices recorded, but also because people were quite suspicious of recordings, in light of anti-terrorism investigations led by the Kenyan and US governments. So, I often refrained from recording, and took detailed notes during interviews. But during everyday interactions, such detailed note-taking was equally difficult, since people wondered why I would be writing down things they said. That did force me to be more attentive during everyday interactions, trying to pay attention to nuances in language use that may otherwise pass me by (and that I couldn’t go back to in a recording). But I wouldn’t say that this led me to be more conscious of non-verbal aspects of interactions perse. It was a combination of things that made me be conscious of the seemingly mundane details of people’s everyday practices. First, people would comment on others’ behaviors all the time – the way someone wore a headscarf, what kind of abaya a young women wore, where someone walked at which time of day. Second, people instructed me quite explicitly on what conduct was proper, and how I ought to act within a particular context. I talk about this in the preface of the book. And third, in public, much couldn’t be expressed verbally, but rather had to be communicated in other ways. While mobile phones have changed much of this, when I was doing fieldwork many young men and women didn’t have much opportunity to interact in public. And much was communicated through subtle behavioral details – when you would go to a certain place, the route you took, the way you walked, how you wore your abaya. And older interlocutors would often reminisce about how they used to communicate with, for example, their girlfriend through subtle signs when she happened to walk by. So, it really was a combination of factors that led me to zoom in on these minute details.

Kamala Russell: Why do you think in this case it is Islamic life, and ethical life, that is the means through which the challenges of development and the political position of Lamu are being negotiated? The book has this great historical angle where you describe the disenfranchisement and marginalization of what was effectively an elite class as Lamu became more incorporated into Kenya, it seems like status reasserts itself through a politics centered on the choice of signifiers of pious value. Can you say more about what you think is the politics in play? How do you position your work and interventions with respect to work that foregrounds Islamic movements as well as individual self-cultivation?

Sarah Hillewaert: I suggest from the onset of the book that negotiations of respectable conduct are informed by tensions surrounding what it means to be from Lamu in contemporary Kenya – a question informed by objections to the Kenyan State, economic marginalization, impositions by mainland outsiders etc. And this is something that cannot be considered outside of a historical context in which coastal and island residents have distinguished themselves from the Kenyan mainland, reluctantly (or unwillingly) having been incorporated into an independent Kenya. While it’s partially a question of a majority Muslim coast not wanting to be governed by a Christian majority government, it also ties into the moral values I focus on throughout the book – notions of distinction centered around respectability, honor, civility, and cosmopolitanism that Lamu residents believe separate themselves from mainland Kenyans. These situated ideological meanings of cosmopolitanism and respectability, and the role they historically have played in developing a distinct Lamu identity form the background against which to understand the seemingly mundane projects of self-fashioning that form the focus of this book. Rather than be condemned for ignoring a particular notion of religious uprightness, young people can be critiqued for forsaken moral norms that are seen to be at the heart of a distinctive Lamu identity and that separate Lamu residents from mainland Kenyans. Like other scholars who have built on, but simultaneously critiqued the work of people like Saba Mahmood, I show that projects of individual self-cultivation are then not just directed inward, but are always informed by broader social political processes, and directed outward, to a range of differently situated others. What I find interesting about Lamu, however, is that these everyday negotiations of respectability and the working toward differently embodying respect is not part of some Islamic revival movement. This is not about becoming a better Muslim, and actively working toward properly embodying piety – and here I mean, having a clear idea of what it is you are striving toward, clear and shared understanding of what pious behaviour looks like, for example. The question is not whether one should or should not be pious or respectable, or what obstacles one needs to overcome to achieve piety. The question for Lamu youth is: what does piety or respectability look like in contemporary Lamu? It is about deliberations of the proper mediation of this moral value. 

Kamala Russell: If any of these questions don’t resonate with you, one of my favorite moments in the book was your explication of the proverb that someone who leaves their mila (tradition) is a slave. This is an interesting positioning of agency with respect to culture and I wonder if you can say more about the consequences of this way of thinking for the way we approach and teach dilemmas of structure and agency, or as linguistic anthropologists, type and token.

Sarah Hillewaert: I really like this question. And, to be honest, I hadn’t really thought of it this way. The way people in Lamu use the proverb really refers to a person’s desire to appropriate other’s practices. “If you forsake your traditions in favor of the appropriation of someone else’s you’re a slave.” So rather than seeing some form of liberation, if you will, in abandoning traditional or cultural practices for the appropriation of other habits, it is perceived as being enslaved to one’s desires in a way. In the book, I link this to the history of slavery in Eastern Africa, and slaves’ positions in Lamu society in the past. Former slaves worked their way up in Swahili societies by appropriating the habits of upper classes, in an attempt to display respectability. But in its current usage, the proverb does speak back at the idea of being “enslaved,” or held back, by traditions, and at the idea of modernization and secularization as being freed from the load of tradition. One of the young women in the book lays this out quite nicely, where she emphasizes that blindly following others’ practices desiring development or modernity is a type of enslavement. But she stresses that this also doesn’t mean blindly upholding local traditions. Rather, it is a careful consideration of which cultural practices are, in their eyes, outdated and which ones are part of their cultural and religious identity as residents of Lamu. And maybe that’s one of the things that I’d like people to take away from this book – what we can learn from paying attention to these seemingly small but incredibly significant negotiations that happen in politically marginalized communities like Lamu. It is not about resistance to outdated practices, nor about a clinging on to distinctive traditional or religious habits out of evident political protest. It is not necessarily about an outward rejection of religious norms nor a conservative preservation of them in the context of religious revival, but rather a working within –an ethnographic illustration of agency within structure that changes the structure, not abruptly, but over time.

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Author Interviews

Kamala Russell: Your book is a deep investigation of the values, practices, and ambivalences that make up the everyday experience of social change. Could you tell us a bit about the focus of the book, and its argument? I’d be interested in hearing more as well about how you settled on this framing for the book, coming out of your many years of fieldwork. As someone who is at that stage, I am interested in hearing more about the process of how you dream up a book from a dissertation.

Sarah Hillewaert:  The book is an ethnographic study of the everyday lives of Muslim youth living on the Indian Ocean island of Lamu (Kenya). A previously cosmopolitan center of trade and Islamic scholarship, Lamu is currently marginalized in both economic and political terms yet forms the focus of international campaigns against religious radicalization and is also at the center of touristic imaginings of the untouched and secluded. The book examines what happens when narratives of self-positioning change: what happens when signs of cosmopolitanism, respectability, and civility come to be read as indices of remoteness, backwardness, or religious radicalization? And what implications do these shifts in signification have for everyday interactions, self-fashionings, and conceptions of appropriate conduct? I explore these questions by documenting the discursive and embodied production of difference, and examine the seemingly mundane practices through which Lamu youth negotiate what it means to be a ‘good Lamu resident’ in contemporary Kenya. I specifically ask what happens when signification fails – when people are no longer sure how to read signs or when they differ in their reading of material forms as signs of, for example, either piety or social transgression. By documenting apparently mundane practices, and the ideologies that inform their evaluations, I show how easily-overlooked, fleeting moments represent some of the most vital points through which larger scale transformations touch down concretely in community life, and by which they receive local inflection and resonance.  Through its ethnographic detail, the book demonstrates the intersubjective and dialogic nature of meaning-making processes and illustrates how projects of personal cultivation function as political projects as well. In doing so, it offers a linguistic anthropological approach to discussions on ethical self-fashioning and the everyday lives of Muslim youth in Africa.

In terms of the framing of the book, the focus shifted from a more explicit attention to verbal interactions and language use to a broader semiotic approach. And this happened mostly through ongoing interactions with peers, through talks and people’s feedback to them, and through ongoing conversations with my interlocutors in Lamu. However, the ethnographic focus did not change significantly from the dissertation to the book. It was more the theoretical argument that became more nuanced, with more attention to the political significance of seemingly situated interactions and practices. I think talking about my research – writing talks and articles – made me think more about what I really wanted people to take away from my research, both theoretically and ethnographically.

Kamala Russell: What I appreciated most about the book is the way you take a very open-ended approach to this study of social change, not just treating social development and peripheralization in and of Lamu as well as instability in indices of value pessimistically, but also tracing opportunities for new kinds of fulfilment and relationships to oneself (for example, professionalism). What stuck out to me across these chapters, and particularly in the final chapter ‘The Morality of the Senses and the Senses of Morality’, was the importance of gaze and the audience. In your focus on people’s performances and negotiations of what kind of individual they are, I wondered who the imagined audience or public for this differentiation is and how does that relate to the sociopolitical changes you describe in Lamu?

Sarah Hillewaert: I appreciate you mentioning the careful deliberation and negotiation of new opportunities and perspectives that I tried to convey in the book. In doing so, I tried to move beyond discussions on the so-called ambivalences or inconsistencies that previously have been highlighted in discussions of Muslim or African youth. I wanted to convey that shifting perspectives on respectability are not a mere generational change or gap, informed by globalization, for example. And rather than talk about resistance to, for example, what people call tradition, I tried to highlight the agency in young people’s calculated inhabiting of certain norms and their deliberation of the proper mediation of others. For Lamu youth, the question is not whether you should be respectable or not, but rather what respectability should look like, given, on the one hand, the development Lamu desperately needs, and on the other, the significance of respectability to Lamu residents’ distinctive identity and the political load it carries.

And this gets me to your question. Most challenging in writing this book was conveying precisely the hyper-sensitivity to semiotic misconstrual that informs young Lamu residents’ moral self-fashionings. With this I mean that young people were very much aware that a range of differently situated people observe their everyday behavior – their peers or elders from different parts of town, for example, but also immigrants from Kenya’s mainland, government administrators, military police, and so on. They understand very well that their intended professional behavior can be misread as social transgression by some, or still overly conservative by others. And as your question points to, these presentations of self, while locally situated, carry a political significance as well. Now, the political stance implied in everyday practices is not always necessarily for non-locals to be noticed. It’s not about an explicit expression of political opinion that one hopes gets noticed. And in fact, mainland Kenyans are often oblivious to many of the nuances in everyday practices that I focus on in the book. Yet, Lamu residents observing situated behaviors can take those as signs of an individual’s political orientation as well – to what extent is an individual upholding a distinctive Lamu identity? Or to what extent are they forsaking their values to get ahead in an economy controlled by the Kenyan government?  So, a young woman critiquing local social divisions at a town meeting will do so while only speaking the local Swahili dialect and paying close attention to proper address forms and greetings, to thereby negotiate a need for change while evidently displaying her pride of her Lamu identity in an attempt to avoid critiques from local elders (or even her peers). Yet, her doing so does risk her getting perceived as backward or less educated by mainland government officials present at that gathering, for example.

Kamala Russell: Heshima is a key concept in the book. You translate this as ‘respectability’. A key argument I saw in the book is that though how respectability is embodied is hotly contested, heshima as a regime of value continues to structure the ways Lamu residents understand themselves and others. I was struck by the way that this concept seems to revolve around differentiation. Is this the only semiotic process (or the key one) that heshima participates in and if so, why might that be? Are there other means and ends than moral distinction in play?

Sarah Hillewaert: Heshima is an intensely moral value, and thus plays a central role in moral distinctions, but as I discuss in Chapter 1, this is very much linked to social class distinctions and genealogy as well. Claims to embodied respectability are often linked to social class identities as well. And this is precisely part of what is being renegotiated nowadays. The hegemonic ideology of former upper-classes – of what practices are viewed as respectable and thus indicative of higher status  –  is being challenged as the social hierarchy is being reshuffled in a context of economic and social change.

Kamala Russell: Can you say a bit more about the methodological challenges you worked with in doing your fieldwork, particularly around recording, as linguists would say, putative naturalistic interaction. Though clearly you were able to record some interviews, did you face other difficulties in producing recorded data? Did working this way affect the way you think about embodiment and non-verbal signs with relation to more typical approaches to text and context?

Sarah Hillewaert: In short: yes, but not entirely. I wasn’t able to record partially because women didn’t want their voices recorded, but also because people were quite suspicious of recordings, in light of anti-terrorism investigations led by the Kenyan and US governments. So, I often refrained from recording, and took detailed notes during interviews. But during everyday interactions, such detailed note-taking was equally difficult, since people wondered why I would be writing down things they said. That did force me to be more attentive during everyday interactions, trying to pay attention to nuances in language use that may otherwise pass me by (and that I couldn’t go back to in a recording). But I wouldn’t say that this led me to be more conscious of non-verbal aspects of interactions perse. It was a combination of things that made me be conscious of the seemingly mundane details of people’s everyday practices. First, people would comment on others’ behaviors all the time – the way someone wore a headscarf, what kind of abaya a young women wore, where someone walked at which time of day. Second, people instructed me quite explicitly on what conduct was proper, and how I ought to act within a particular context. I talk about this in the preface of the book. And third, in public, much couldn’t be expressed verbally, but rather had to be communicated in other ways. While mobile phones have changed much of this, when I was doing fieldwork many young men and women didn’t have much opportunity to interact in public. And much was communicated through subtle behavioral details – when you would go to a certain place, the route you took, the way you walked, how you wore your abaya. And older interlocutors would often reminisce about how they used to communicate with, for example, their girlfriend through subtle signs when she happened to walk by. So, it really was a combination of factors that led me to zoom in on these minute details.

Kamala Russell: Why do you think in this case it is Islamic life, and ethical life, that is the means through which the challenges of development and the political position of Lamu are being negotiated? The book has this great historical angle where you describe the disenfranchisement and marginalization of what was effectively an elite class as Lamu became more incorporated into Kenya, it seems like status reasserts itself through a politics centered on the choice of signifiers of pious value. Can you say more about what you think is the politics in play? How do you position your work and interventions with respect to work that foregrounds Islamic movements as well as individual self-cultivation?

Sarah Hillewaert: I suggest from the onset of the book that negotiations of respectable conduct are informed by tensions surrounding what it means to be from Lamu in contemporary Kenya – a question informed by objections to the Kenyan State, economic marginalization, impositions by mainland outsiders etc. And this is something that cannot be considered outside of a historical context in which coastal and island residents have distinguished themselves from the Kenyan mainland, reluctantly (or unwillingly) having been incorporated into an independent Kenya. While it’s partially a question of a majority Muslim coast not wanting to be governed by a Christian majority government, it also ties into the moral values I focus on throughout the book – notions of distinction centered around respectability, honor, civility, and cosmopolitanism that Lamu residents believe separate themselves from mainland Kenyans. These situated ideological meanings of cosmopolitanism and respectability, and the role they historically have played in developing a distinct Lamu identity form the background against which to understand the seemingly mundane projects of self-fashioning that form the focus of this book. Rather than be condemned for ignoring a particular notion of religious uprightness, young people can be critiqued for forsaken moral norms that are seen to be at the heart of a distinctive Lamu identity and that separate Lamu residents from mainland Kenyans. Like other scholars who have built on, but simultaneously critiqued the work of people like Saba Mahmood, I show that projects of individual self-cultivation are then not just directed inward, but are always informed by broader social political processes, and directed outward, to a range of differently situated others. What I find interesting about Lamu, however, is that these everyday negotiations of respectability and the working toward differently embodying respect is not part of some Islamic revival movement. This is not about becoming a better Muslim, and actively working toward properly embodying piety – and here I mean, having a clear idea of what it is you are striving toward, clear and shared understanding of what pious behaviour looks like, for example. The question is not whether one should or should not be pious or respectable, or what obstacles one needs to overcome to achieve piety. The question for Lamu youth is: what does piety or respectability look like in contemporary Lamu? It is about deliberations of the proper mediation of this moral value. 

Kamala Russell: If any of these questions don’t resonate with you, one of my favorite moments in the book was your explication of the proverb that someone who leaves their mila (tradition) is a slave. This is an interesting positioning of agency with respect to culture and I wonder if you can say more about the consequences of this way of thinking for the way we approach and teach dilemmas of structure and agency, or as linguistic anthropologists, type and token.

Sarah Hillewaert: I really like this question. And, to be honest, I hadn’t really thought of it this way. The way people in Lamu use the proverb really refers to a person’s desire to appropriate other’s practices. “If you forsake your traditions in favor of the appropriation of someone else’s you’re a slave.” So rather than seeing some form of liberation, if you will, in abandoning traditional or cultural practices for the appropriation of other habits, it is perceived as being enslaved to one’s desires in a way. In the book, I link this to the history of slavery in Eastern Africa, and slaves’ positions in Lamu society in the past. Former slaves worked their way up in Swahili societies by appropriating the habits of upper classes, in an attempt to display respectability. But in its current usage, the proverb does speak back at the idea of being “enslaved,” or held back, by traditions, and at the idea of modernization and secularization as being freed from the load of tradition. One of the young women in the book lays this out quite nicely, where she emphasizes that blindly following others’ practices desiring development or modernity is a type of enslavement. But she stresses that this also doesn’t mean blindly upholding local traditions. Rather, it is a careful consideration of which cultural practices are, in their eyes, outdated and which ones are part of their cultural and religious identity as residents of Lamu. And maybe that’s one of the things that I’d like people to take away from this book – what we can learn from paying attention to these seemingly small but incredibly significant negotiations that happen in politically marginalized communities like Lamu. It is not about resistance to outdated practices, nor about a clinging on to distinctive traditional or religious habits out of evident political protest. It is not necessarily about an outward rejection of religious norms nor a conservative preservation of them in the context of religious revival, but rather a working within –an ethnographic illustration of agency within structure that changes the structure, not abruptly, but over time.

Narges Bajoghli on her book, Iran Reframed

Cover of Iran Reframed by Narges Bajoghli

Interviewed by Zehra Hashmi

https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=29666

Zehra Hashmi: The storytelling and narrative flow of this ethnography works beautifully, and seemingly effortlessly, allowing the argument to emerge organically and convincingly from the stories you tell. To begin, could you speak to your writing choices, specifically the innovative way you are using your interlocutors’ stories as the driving force of the book as opposed to an intervention into existing anthropological literature? What was involved in making these choices; was it primarily informed by the material you were dealing with and the subject at hand—or, put another way, if you were to write another book on something entirely different, would you choose a similar mode of storytelling and narrative construction?

Narges Bajoghli: I first wrote this manuscript as a more traditional scholarly manuscript because that’s what I thought I should do to gain acceptance in academia as a junior scholar. Yet, I had done a lot of public writing to that point, some of which engaged storytelling, and had also trained as a documentary filmmaker at NYU during my doctoral training. After turning in my traditional manuscript, my editor at Stanford University Press, Kate Wahl, encouraged me to write more in line with my previous public work and to show the anthropological, media, and social dynamics at play, rather than tell them. Hearing that from her was a relief—it felt like a green light to write the book I most wanted to read. As a first-time author and a junior scholar, the push to trust my own writing voice and to take storytelling seriously in my scholarship was exactly what I needed. So, I set about to re-write the manuscript as a whole. In doing so, I did two main things: first, I read a lot of great creative non-fiction, both longform essays and books to get ideas and inspiration for structure. And second, I storyboarded the manuscript as if I were making a film. I went back to my fieldnotes and the evidence I had provided in my more traditionally academic manuscript and drew out the stories of my main interlocutors as ones that would anchor the book.

As anthropologists we know the central importance of storytelling for humans. So, in writing this book, I took all of that to heart and applied the craft of storytelling as the central tenet of the book. Since I was writing on Iran—a country that despite all the ink that’s been spilt on describing its socio-political development since the 1979 Iranian Revolution remains a deeply confusing place for most people to understand—I really wanted to engage audiences outside those who focus on Iran as an area of academic expertise. I was writing on a place that is at times both familiar to people (though mainly in stereotypes) and deeply alien; I knew the only way to cut through all of that was to center the lives of people and to have the reader follow them throughout the narrative arc of the book. 

As for whether I’d choose a similar or different mode of writing for an entirely different book, after my experience writing Iran Reframed, my answer is that I will definitely try to keep storytelling at the heart of whatever I write in the future. Not only is it more enjoyable as a writing process—even if at times much more difficult—but it helps to engage multiple audiences. I went into academia to not only speak to my colleagues, but to make what we work on available to larger audiences.

Zehra Hashmi: I am interested in how gheyr-e-khodi (insiders) works as an analytical category in the book. You show that who constitutes the gheyr-e-khodi is not fixed; a person once embraced can be shunned at a different point in time or place. But is there also a broader, over-arching shift in this insider-outsider dynamic that you are demonstrating throughout the arc of the book? I am thinking about how, on the one hand, the khodi are visibly marked through dress, while on the other hand, regime producers deliberately obscure the origins of some of their films by playing with visual markers and their own strategies for dissimulation (p. 91). Is the question of what constitutes the regime then determined by the shifting category of the gheyr-e-khodi? And more generally, could you expand upon what I read as one of the book’s central arguments about the role of internally contested meanings of the regime: how did you arrive at this argument and what does it reveal that external critiques of the regime do not?

Narges Bajoghli: What I was trying to do in the book was to show the layers of power, how it shifts, how it’s not static, and how complex it can be. Showing the shifting terrain of khodi/gheyr-e khodi was one of the main ways I attempted to do this. Oftentimes we conceive of power in ways that I don’t think captures how incredibly malleable and flexible power manifests itself in our daily lives, especially state power, and the ways that it comes through in everyday practices of dress, speech, and so on. So, even in a state like Iran that is marked by a particular kind of post-revolutionary politics, power shifts to stay alive and the markers of khodi/gheyr-e khodi are used to demarcate its realm.

Regarding your second question, the role of internally contested meanings of the regime—Iran is different than other revolutionary states of the 20th century because it did not develop a party system. Add to that the fact that the revolution was not led by a small cohort of people—so there has always been contestation over the meaning of the revolution and its legacy from its onset by its myriad participants. What this has meant as we enter into the fifth decade of the revolution is that there has not been a top-down “this is what the revolution is, period!” The internal divisions among those who are loyal to the post-revolutionary state is very much a struggle about what the legacy of this revolution will be. This has always been a live question inside Iran, even if this gets flatten for outside observers. Though these struggles spill out into domestic media, the degree of contestation behind closed doors in regime centers was constantly palpable.

Zehra Hashmi: What kind of an audience was in your mind when you wrote this book? You show that the Iranian diaspora plays an important role in the media landscape within Iran, and so even as these boundaries between audiences are not hard and fast, has the response of people in Iran differed from those in the US? Additionally, given your position and your experience, did you feel conflicting solidarities in the field, and if so how did you approach and manage these dual (or more!) pressures?

Narges Bajoghli: During fieldwork I definitely felt multiple points of tension. When I left fieldwork, I couldn’t write for a long time and had to work through the anger and frustration that often arose from what I saw. I knew I’d come under attack from various sectors—even if I didn’t know how extensive the attacks would be at the time. Just the mere fact of spending time with pro-regime actors in Iran opened me up to criticism from Iranians opposed to the state (including many in my own family and close friends circles). That I expected and I assumed that when folks read the book they’d understand what I was trying to do and why it was important to research sites of power, even for (or I’d argue, especially for) activists.

What I did not expect and couldn’t have known was the ways the U.S. government funded attacks against me. My book came out in the throes of Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign for regime change/collapse in Iran, and I was targeted by a campaign funded by the Pompeo State Department that went after Iranian American academics, journalists, and analysts. That campaign was primarily an online smear campaign with attendant attempts to discredit me as supposedly pro-regime and put my job in danger. The funding for that campaign came to an abrupt end after I hired lawyers, yet nonetheless the orbit of regime-change organizations and people around Trump/Pompeo continue their attacks. But as one of my graduate school mentors once said to me, “everything is data,” and indeed, I am keeping good notes on all of this and hope to one day write about how power and media work in the United States on issues of national security interest.

As for the primary audience for my book, my primary audience was my students and their generation of learners. Not only because our books often get assigned in college classrooms, but also because my students’ questions and curiosity as I was writing my book were front and center and I wanted to write for them to make sense of this increasingly confusing world where state power and media production are becoming harder to parse out—everywhere, not just in Iran.

Zehra Hashmi: Many of the people you introduce us to are working on memorialization projects, particularly around the Iraq-Iran war, and its resonance (or lack thereof) with the youth. In a few places, you touch on the role of Shia imagery and the figure of Imam Hussain—especially in relation to the aesthetics of loss, sacrifice, mourning, as well as remembrance itself. While political Islam may be less of a driving political force for the youth in Iran today, as you show, how does the changing political landscape map onto the symbolic and aesthetic draw of Shia imagery and its role in shaping media aesthetics and landscape, not just for the regime producers but the population at large?

Narges Bajoghli: Currently this is most present in the depictions of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general who was assassinated by the United States in January 2020 in Iraq. I show in the book how he was the central lynchpin for creating a new narrative of the Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian state as nationalists above and beyond religious in an attempt to connect with youth. Since his death, media depictions related to Soleimani (of which there have been endless renditions) have been fascinating to trace. The aesthetics of Shia imagery are central to his memorialization as an important martyr, but they are markedly different from the ways important war martyrs of the first few decades of post-revolutionary Iran were depicted. Soleimani is both couched in Shia imagery and rendered as the quintessential national hero. For regime media makers, they talk about the images they are creating of Soleimani as being very important for them because it allows them to update Shia imagery for today’s generation and to embed a nationalist “cool” into the aesthetics they felt no longer resonated. 

Natalia Knoblock on her book, Language of Conflict

Language of Conflict cover

Interview by Sofiya Asher

https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/language-of-conflict-9781350098626/

Sofiya Asher: What inspired this particular book?

Natalia Knoblock: What inspired this book? The inspiration came from speakers of the Russian and Ukrainian languages as they were destroying each other on social networks. Because of my heritage and my connection to both Russia and Ukraine, I started following the events after the revolution of 2014. I am originally Russian, and while I never lived in Ukraine, I have very close relatives there. I have visited my aunt and my cousins many times, and I have really good memories, so I feel connected not only to Russia, but also to Ukraine, at least partially. So, when the war started, I was terrified here, across the ocean, far away from the action, and really lost, not knowing what to do, trying to understand what was happening and trying to find information that seemed reliable and correct. I could not really find that because whatever I saw on official Russian channels was insane, and whatever I saw on official American channels did not make any sense either. So, I made a mistake! Now, looking back, I think it was really, really (what’s the polite word?) not smart to look for accurate information on social networks. But I thought, well, that’s what the people say, right? I would go and read what people write about the conflict. I was spending an insane amount of time following social networks, trying to figure out what was going on. Then, being a linguist, I started copying and pasting examples of crazy metaphors, neologisms, and creative language use that I saw there. I eventually accumulated a quite large collection and began thinking, wow, look at that! The topic and the content of the messages were awful, but the linguistic creativity was very impressive. Well, if you have this great material, you should do something with it, right? So, I made a few presentations at conferences, found other people who were researching similar things, and that’s how the idea for the book was born.

Sofiya Asher: The volume includes work by fifteen various authors with different academic and linguistic backgrounds, what were the challenges with working with such a diverse group? Based on that experience, what would your recommendation be to an editor working with a similar group of contributors?

Natalia Knoblock: Thank you. I think that’s a really good question. I’ll probably want to break it into two parts. One is recruiting people and the other is working with them during the editorial process. The recruiting stage was slightly challenging because this topic was not something that I had worked on before. I did not have a professional network where you just contact your previous collaborators, or your contacts from conferences, or specialists in the field.  I had to rely on the LinguistList. Thank goodness for that great resource! First, I advertised there and invited people to participate in a conference panel. After a successful panel at the Conference on Discourse Analysis Across Disciplines, I negotiated with a publisher and started looking for more contributors. Because the topic is so complex, I wanted a book to represent a variety of methods, a variety of [language] uses, a variety of topics. I didn’t want to have just a few chapters, so I needed to recruit more people. Then there was a lot of searching for names and programs and emailing strangers, who were really good at helping me. If they were not interested in contributing to the volume themselves, they would recommend other people. Eventually, we ended up with the group that collaborated on the book. It was a good linguistic community effort.

The second challenge was to keep it professional. Because the topic is so painful, it is not easy to write about. People should never take it lightly when they write about a country torn by war. And I feel that it was important to keep politics as far away as possible. We couldn’t leave it out completely, but my goal was to keep the volume professional and language-focused as much as possible. Linguists are people, and they have opinions, obviously. There is nothing wrong with that. We were not able to leave ideological views out completely because it’s impossible, but we tried to keep them under control. That was a big challenge.

Sofiya Asher: In the introduction (p. 7), you mentioned that the volume was created with “a goal of remaining ideologically neutral and focusing exclusively on the linguistic side of the happenings.” On the surface, it seems like an impossible task, separating language and ideology. Do you think the volume succeeded in remaining ideologically neutral while focusing on language?

Natalia Knoblock: (Smiles) I think I failed. It was a challenge to keep different people with different perspectives focused exclusively on the language and to leave ideology out. We’re studying discourse, which is interconnected with social reality, so completely disconnecting it from the war and the antagonism was not possible, even though we tried to do the best we could under the circumstances. There were times when I asked contributors to resist the urge to generalize about the population of one country or the other based on the statements of one individual or a handful of people, and external reviewers expressed the same concern. But the authors insisted on keeping their text as it was. There was a lot of back-and-forth because of that. There was also an unexpected case at the very end, when the chapters had gone through internal and external review, were revised several times, all the information was finalized, and we were in copy-editing already. There was a disagreement about the transliteration system to represent Ukrainian and Russian examples in the English-language text. Two authors objected very strongly to the suggested transliteration systems and wouldn’t agree with each other, with at least one of the objections ideologically motivated. We did find some kind of compromise. I don’t remember what we used, but we made sure that everybody was okay with whatever system we were going with.

Sofiya Asher: You mention in the introduction (p. 8) that “different authors use different terms” and that “contributors to this volume were free to choose the term they felt most fitting.”  Do you think this decision worked well based on the feedback you have received so far from the readers or reviewers?

Natalia Knoblock: Well, we have not generated much interest. I have not received either positive or negative feedback about the book and its terminology. The most loaded terms are, of course, the war, crisis, conflict, whether it’s a civil war or it is an international conflict between the two countries? I’m not sure even anthropologists and political scientists have agreed on that unanimously till this point. I felt that it would be out of my position to tell people which term to use. That is not a linguistic decision but more of an ideological decision. I didn’t feel like I could dictate to people what they should or should not believe about the situation in Ukraine.

Sofiya Asher: Now I’d like to talk about the particular chapter you have contributed to the volume. Why did you find blended names an interesting a subject of study?

Natalia Knoblock: Well, that was one of the things that I noticed during the initial stages of the conflict. I mentioned in the beginning of the interview that the inspiration for the book came from the time spent on reading insulting comments on social networks. That was one of the noticeable tendencies that I had seen there. People would take someone’s name and would blend it with an insulting word. So, I contacted a great specialist on morphological blending, Natalia Beliaeva, and asked her if she would be interested in collaborating on this. Luckily for me, she was, and we had a great time working on the chapter even though we were on different continents.

A lot of the blends are really new in the language. At least I, as a native speaker, had never heard them before. There is a wave, a pretty noticeable wave of publications on the discourse of hatred or hate speech in the Russian and Ukrainian conflict devoted to neologisms. One of the publications that we cite in this chapter is by S.A. Zabotinskaya. She compiled a ‘thesaurus of the Russian Ukrainian conflict’ that lists a whole lot of new words that supposedly have entered the language after the conflict started. However, if we start examining whether either of the populations use any of those words, we might find that they don’t. For example, there was a large-scale computerized analysis of textual data collected over an extended period of time by Radchenko and Arhipova, I believe. Their research question was whether verbal aggression precedes or follows major traumatic events, such as fighting outbreaks, but one of the things that they found was that a lot of the terms that have been listed in linguistic publications on the Ukrainian conflict are barely used by the population. It looks like a political figure may use a word on a website, a bot might write it on a social network, or a journalist may mention it in an article, but the words didn’t really enter the language since the population did not pick them up. So, I am not surprised that you have never read or heard ‘Potroshenko’ and some of the other blends we analyze. ‘Putler’ might be the only one in our chapter that seems to be somewhat popular. The rest could be just creations of a blogger or an activist. The fact that they did not take root in the language kind of gives me hope. If there is no deeply rooted hatred in the people, I think then there is hope for this world. I don’t know. It is still worth studying such neologisms, I believe, since they highlight the morphological resources the language affords its users.

Sofiya Asher: The corpus created for the study was based on Ukrainian and Russian media using WebBootCat by SketchEngine.   Does the tool have any adjustments for potential selection bias, such as content created by bots, frequent posters, or trolls?

Natalia Knoblock:  No, unfortunately, we had no way to distinguish quality sources from junk sources. My coauthor and I relied on this software because we ourselves could not scrape the Internet for our content, and we had to use the tool that was available. We thought that we were quite lucky that we were able to collect the datasets large enough to allow statistical analysis, even though we could not control source quality. The thing is, many users of online content lack digital literacy and critical thinking skills that would allow them to differentiate good sources from bad anyway. So, studying all the content that comes up in searches related to the conflict makes sense. It reflects what non-researchers are exposed to online, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We might have deleted some repetitions, and I think we manually cleaned the Ukrainian corpus from some of the Russian texts. But even that was not completely possible because there was a lot of code-switching. Other than that, we kept everything we found.

Sofiya Asher: Your findings in this chapter indicate that blended names are used colloquially and more negatively in Russian and Ukrainian media. Do you see any similarities in American media with regards to the use of blended names?

Natalia Knoblock:  No, I haven’t. Not because they are not there, but because I never looked. Thank you for a good idea. I might do that now. It’s possible that, you know, you find what you look for. When I was examining Trump’s Facebook comments, I studied the most frequent terms. I went with frequencies, and that may have caused me to overlook some words that were there and could have been interesting. That would be a different study and would require additional digging, but it’s a great idea.

Sofiya Asher: Let’s return to the volume. What would you like the volume’s readers to keep in mind while engaging with this work?

Natalia Knoblock: That’s a difficult question. I would like people to be sensitive to the situation that the authors describe. I would like people to give the authors slack because everybody tried to do their best whether or not it turned out as well as we hoped. I’d like the war to end. I would like people to use their creative powers for something more productive than name calling. You know, there was an old slogan, something about using energy for peaceful purposes. I wish people used their creative linguistic energy for better purposes than insulting each other. We don’t need verbal aggression; there’s too much aggression in this world already. So, let’s concentrate on something better than insults. But, of course, language specialists just record and analyze what is going on, and we should keep that in mind.

Sofiya Asher: What do you hope this volume’s contribution to the scholarship of discursive practices of conflict will be?

Natalia Knoblock: I think this volume shows a little more variety in verbal aggression strategies and techniques. I wouldn’t claim that nobody has done what we’ve done in this book, but I think some of our studies are quite innovative. For example, the attention to the use of personal names is something that scholars can continue exploring. It came up in a different book I’m working on right now. It’s also an edited collection, and it talks about morphosyntactic features of verbal aggression. One of the contributions focuses on diminutive suffixes, and it shows that diminution in reference to a person is often derogatory, unlike references to inanimate objects or animals. That could be something worthy of further research. Another point that the volume emphasizes is the interconnection of linguistic and extralinguistic factors. Language does not exist detached from society. This is not a new idea, but given some of the claims that language is some kind of special unit in your brain and it is not related to social factors – yeah, no! Overall, the main contribution is probably the variety of topics and aspects that were discussed and covered in the volume.

Sofiya Asher: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Natalia Knoblock:  I want to thank the contributors because, as I’ve mentioned, the topic is painful and not easy to work with. The authors felt the need to study the way language was evolving and to share their research. They were also understanding of my role as the editor, as the person who keeps everything together, not pushing people anywhere ideologically but just trying to ensure that the quality is there. I think it was great how the authors went through this pretty long process. Going from the initial announcement to the publication in two years is not very long for an academic publication, but still is a long time. It was two years of our lives. We were in multiple negotiations over ‘do you change this paragraph or do you not change it’ or ‘I like this paragraph, but the reviewer does not’. Well, you know what it is like with academic publications, and people were great to work with, patient and cooperative.

I would also call for caution in reacting to aggressive discourse. We all tend to remember nasty verbal attacks and to overgeneralize “that’s what Russians say”, “that’s what Ukrainians say”. In reality, it is often just one person, and the loudest voices are not always the most representative ones. So, I would encourage people to question whether the speaker talks for him/herself or for a large group, and to keep in mind that online squabbles are dominated by a small number of most radical people. I guess, that’s what I think after engaging with this content for the past several years.

Siv Lie on her book, Django Generations

Django Generations

www.djangogen.com

https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/D/bo114656860.html

Interview by Lynn M. Hooker

Lynn Hooker: First, beginning with the title, your book uses a variety of terms for your chief musical subjects–most often Manouches, Tsiganes, or Romanies, but also sometimes Sinti, Gitans, and Gypsies. How do these terms and the distinctions between them reflect some of the issues you write about?

Siv Lie: I discuss some of these terms in the “Notes and Terminology” section (pp. ix-x), but there is much more to say. The very existence of all these terms and disagreements about what they “actually” mean says a lot about both how Romanies have dealt with racialization and about how they constitute an extremely diverse array of people. The terms Tsigane, Gitan, and Gypsy are all exonyms imposed by Europeans and have become more or less commonplace synonyms for Romanies. They are used by Romanies and non-Romanies (Gadjé) alike. Whether or not they are considered pejorative depends entirely on their contexts of use, and while some Romanies refuse these terms, many use them unproblematically. I think this evolution of usage has to do both with Romanies reclaiming pejorative labels and with the conventionalization of some of these terms over time. For example, on pp. 13-14 of the book, I describe how legislation targeting nomades was a way for the government to continue to not-so-covertly racialize and disenfranchise Romanies. In 1969, this legislation was revised and nomades were renamed Gens du voyage (“Travelers”). Today, nomades has definitely fallen out of use, but many mobile Romanies in France still proudly refer to themselves as Voyageurs despite any negative connotations.

Even with decades of pan-Romani political movements and some linguistic and cultural consistencies across populations, Romanies do not constitute a unified group. I deliberately use “Romanies” instead of the more common “Roma” because Sinti (to which Manouches are closely related, if not synonymous with) tend to see themselves as quite distinct from Roma and sometimes reject a Roma-centric view of Romanies. For example, just recently I was speaking with a Manouche/Sinti friend who kept using “Sinti” to refer to all Romanies, which I understood as his way to de-center “Roma” from pan-Romani politics. It’s an interesting way to assert an ideal of pan-Romani unity while challenging the terms on which that unity has been conceived in the political sphere.

Lynn Hooker: How does the question of group naming in this case contribute to current discussions in anthropology? In ethnomusicology? How do other issues in your study contribute to current discussions in anthropology? In ethnomusicology?

Siv Lie: The naming processes I describe – as highly context-dependent and semantically malleable – relate directly to my use of “ethnorace” to explain how Romanies are understood, and in turn understand themselves, through situated and shifting lenses of “race” and “ethnicity.” When I first came across ethnorace as coined by David Theo Goldberg, I was energized by how perfectly it captured the tensions I was exploring, but I was also confused as to why it had not been taken up more widely in anthropology or ethnomusicology. I thought I must have been missing something obvious! But the more I’ve used it and developed it in the context of struggles for Manouche political recognition and economic justice, the more I’ve realized its much wider potential to better understand how social difference is made.

Ethnorace also feeds into my development of ambivalent essentialism (which I outline on pp. 6-8). The idea of strategic essentialism always seemed appropriate to the maneuvers I observed among Manouche musicians and their supporters, but it never captured the full scope of the tensions they had to deal with. Ambivalent essentialism gets at how the process of self-essentialization involves quite a bit of uncertainty and unresolvable contradiction. I often observed musicians feel quite comfortable presenting themselves in rather stereotypical ways to certain audiences while downplaying or challenging such representations in other contexts, and/or voicing real dilemmas about how they felt compelled to engage in these representations. I point to ambivalent essentialism throughout the book because it’s an apt way to account for these tensions and for the negotiations that must occur within any ethnoracially-associated music scene. I think that this book can therefore contribute to current discussions about identity politics and cultural commodification in ways that embrace contradiction without trying to resolve it.

This book engages with a range of concepts both well-established and emergent in anthropology (such as raciolinguistics/raciosemiotics, cultural citizenship, cultural expediency, colorblind racism, erasure, and so on). I try to foreground the interstices of social difference as negotiated through music and talk about music. Some similar conversations about racial politics are happening in ethnomusicology, but I see this book as encouraging ethnomusicologists to engage more robustly with current conversations in anthropology.

Lynn Hooker: I am struck by the tension you describe not only between Manouche and Gadjé (non-Romani) identity but also between Manouche and pan-Romani identity. What are the pros and cons of a broader view of Romani-ness for your interlocutors? I myself have observed some musicians and organizers, mostly in Hungary, embracing a more pan-Romani approach in some contexts; this view seems akin to the musical pluralism you discuss in chapter 3, and sometimes it appears to claim cosmopolitan-ness. But it seems from what you imply that some Manouches want to avoid the “taint” of Eastern Europe.

Siv Lie: As I alluded to earlier, some of the Manouches/Sinti I work with have mixed feelings about proclaiming a pan-Romani identity. Doing so has its advantages: it provides access to resources (social networks, logistical support, financing, publicity, and so on) as well as a certain public legibility. It also reflects aspirations to a kind of borderless cosmopolitanism, such as by using “Gypsy” instead of the conventional French terms for Romanies. This can be especially important for musicians who want to be seen simultaneously as part of a global jazz community and as ethnoracially distinctive. They want to counter the idea that they are backwards and unintelligent by playing up their creativity and cultural plurality (as Romani, French, European, and global). Of course, at the same time, cosmopolitanism can be construed negatively, and Romanies are often perceived as rootless and even threatening wanderers. For this and other reasons, Manouches/Sinti sometimes refuse ideas of pan-Romani identity. They may want to avoid politicizing their work through associations with Romani solidarity movements, or they might seek to avoid further racialization by distancing themselves from immigrant Romanies in France.

The important point here is that these stances aren’t definitive. People emphasize different allegiances depending on context, and they change their opinions over time. Such tensions are reflected in the music the book explores. For example, Alsatian jazz manouche has roots in both jazz (a practice so widespread it often gets labeled as “universal”) and Hungarian csárdás, which has specifically Romani connotations. Musicians are very selective about how they use these different legacies depending on how they want to be perceived.

Lynn Hooker: In chapter 4, there is this fascinating discourse where various speakers talk about how they can tell the difference between Manouche musicians and Gadjo musicians by sound–what you describe as ethnoracial qualia of sound. I am curious about something that you do not talk about as much, and that is the practice of jazz manouche among non-Manouche (Gadjo) players. How do the Manouche musicians you work with feel about this?

Siv Lie: Gadjé make up a huge part of the performing circuit within and outside of France and are not necessarily looked down upon by Manouche musicians. In general, there is a lot of mutual respect between Manouche and Gadjo musicians. A Gadjo sound isn’t always considered bad, and not everyone claims there are significant or inherent differences between Manouche and Gadjo sounds. Musicians of various backgrounds often tell me that the most important thing is respect – for other musicians and for the music (however that is defined). Interpersonal problems tend to arise when Gadjo musicians adopt signs of “Gypsiness” and, in some cases, may exploit real or imagined connections to Manouches to further their careers. I don’t think the Manouche musicians I work with are terribly concerned about the whitewashing of an ethnoracially unique practice; those who believe in a distinctive Manouche sound will point to its inimitable qualia, and others might accuse Gadjé of cultural appropriation, but the practice still remains marketable and meaningful for them. More broadly, given the context of Romani disenfranchisement within France, there can be a sense of distrust among Manouches toward Gadjé. It’s not totalizing, but I see it crop up when some Manouche musicians do business with Gadjé and want to ensure that they’re not exploited. That said, musicians of any background tend to be on guard when maneuvering within the music industry, and rightly so!

Lynn Hooker: You started this project years ago, including identifying colorblind racism within French civic society as manifest in, for example, festivals that present jazz manouche but that try to keep Romaniesand Gens du voyage at arms’ length. (This topic is sprinkled throughout the book, but the introduction and chapters 3 and 5 deal with it in the most detail.) How have your interlocutors responded to the recent surge in anti-racist activism around the world?

Siv Lie: Like the US, France is undergoing a very fraught and necessary reckoning with deep-seated racism, energized in part by the protests of 2020. Much of the resistance to antiracist discourse stems from the idea that racism is a US problem, not a French one, and that US understandings of race and racialization are entirely inapplicable to France (so much so that in February 2021, President Macron denounced critical approaches to race supposedly imported from the US, and the minister for higher education proposed restricting research on the topic). Many groups have participated vigorously in these debates, but I haven’t had the chance to probe the issue with my interlocutors. I am really looking forward to being able to travel to France again and talk about all of this. I think aspects of this activism have probably resonated with my interlocutors, especially those who already draw parallels between their own racialization and that of African Americans (see chapters 1 and 4). I’m working to get a French translation of the book published so that it can better contribute to these discussions. For now, I’m not optimistic about any changes within the French state, but I’m glad that colorblind racism has come to the fore in public debate.