Sheena Kalayil discusses her book, Second-Generation South Asian Britons

Interview by Kim Fernandes

https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781498580038/Second-Generation-South-Asian-Britons-Multilingualism-Heritage-Languages-and-Diasporic-Identity

Kim Fernandes: In your book, you argue that your participants (who are parents of dual heritage children and are themselves bilingual British South Asians) have a “relationship” with the Heritage Language. You intentionally use relationship as a metaphor to acknowledge the dynamic and often shifting ways in which one’s identity and the use of language are connected. For anyone who may not yet have read your book, would you be able to say a little bit more about what inspired this framing?

Sheena Kalayil: My starting point within this research was to try and find out whether people maintained their Heritage Language(s). As I began to listen to my participants talk about how they view their Heritage Languages, I began to reflect on my own experiences with Malayalam, my Heritage Language, and to realize that it was indeed a relationship. While I was talking to my participants, I also saw my own understanding of narrative inquiry shift. All of the participants – well, except for one – were older than me, by at least a little bit. They were all in what I would describe as ambitious or prestigious jobs. Their jobs all required a particular set of professional skills, and they were not going to let me write the story of their lives. They wanted to tell their life stories in their own way. So, our interviews were very much jointly constructed between us. The participants were driving the narrative of their lives, deciding what they wanted to talk about in the interview setting, and the way they were talking helped me construct this idea of having a relationship with their identity and language.

Multilingualism is very complex, and it should not be investigated through one approach. In my book, I wanted to show that monolingual interviews with participants can provide just as rich, just as useful, if not more useful, insights into the study of multilingualism and multiculturalism. In particular, I wanted to address the discourse around multiculturalism in the UK, which I think differs from US discourse in some ways. A lot of people assume that because the UK is multicultural, it will be a multilingual country. And while the multiculturalism is celebrated, it is also often considered a problem – you’re celebrated on the one hand and problematized on the other. If you’re an ethnic minority, even if you’re married to a white monolingual person, society expects your family to be multilingual, and there’s a sense of disappointment in situations where this isn’t the case.

Kim Fernandes: What inspired your choice of narrative inquiry as a method for the book? How did you work to build a narrative environment that allowed participants, as you point out, to move away from strictly linear understandings of space and time, and to instead generatively reconsider the ways in which language learning intersected with their understandings of time and space?

Sheena Kalayil: You know, in another life, I would have loved to be an anthropologist, and have done an ethnographic study. But with this study, it wasn’t the right time in my life to do that, and I wouldn’t have been the right person to be doing it. For me, a researcher has to really believe they are the only person who can be doing the study that they are doing. Being a writer, too, storytelling is important to me – and so the idea of just letting people tell their stories was very appealing to me. I began by reading about narrative research, but I came up against very canonical approaches. When I thought about them, I also thought, well, if somebody asked me those questions (say, for instance, about the one critical incident that had really got me thinking about my use of Heritage Language), I would not be able to pull out just one incident, because our lives are made up of so many incidents. I was also thinking about the ways in which we don’t really understand what’s happening when we are young, and often, you only get a sense of what happened as you grow older. So, too, there’s a retrospective building of a story. The other thing I took on board was that my participants are busy people and not everybody is comfortable with talking about themselves – so I didn’t want to start a research project which would die a quick death because people either found it too onerous to participate or I just wasn’t setting the right tone.

I quickly realized that a researcher should not just bank on the commonalities they might share with participants and assume that they are able to ask any kind of question or talk about anything. I’m not comfortable talking about a lot of my own life or family dynamics, so I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable answering certain questions. I was also aware that there were many things that I didn’t have in common with my participants. At one point, then, I decided to think of a narrative inquiry on my own terms. That is, asking people to tell their lives using interviews as my research tool and adopting a theoretical framework which respected how they chose to drive their narrative. I believe this approach allowed me to do the participants and their narratives justice. And through the messiness that arises from semi-structured interviews, I never felt like I was imposing my own research strategy or structure on the data. Instead, after transcribing the interviews and using Bakhtin’s theories of chronotopes, I was able to pick the aspects of the interview that the participants themselves were trying to highlight to me.

Kim Fernandes: At the beginning of the book, you describe an episode from the BBC radio program, Mind Your Language, where there is a particular disconnect between the topics that researchers are typically interested in when studying multilingualism and the rich everyday linguistic experiences of a range of Heritage Language speakers whose interests are typically not represented in research. You also talk about how writing this book was a way for you to center the voices of people like you that is, highly educated second-generation South Asian Britons from a range of professional backgrounds whose experiences with multiculturalism and multilingualism are often not the focus of research. Could you tell us a little bit more about what kinds of audiences you’d imagined when preparing this book?

Sheena Kalayil: I am a minority in the UK, and I’ve married outside of my linguistic, ethnic and religious community, and I have what are termed dual heritage children. So, all of these things are very close to me and my participants. But at the same time, I am very much an outsider. I wasn’t born in the UK, and I didn’t go to school here, I didn’t have that kind of formative upbringing that many of my participants did. Research that I was reading focused on particular types of South Asian communities – living in close linguistic and religious communities, working-class – because they are rich sources for research into multilingualism and cultural identity. But by focusing on those rich sources, there were a lot of people in the UK who were flying under the radar of most researchers – as I noticed from my own milieu, from my friends and this comes back to your question about who my audience is. My first audience was really myself. As a researcher of color in this country, I felt like I had a responsibility to add to the corpus through my ethnographic perspective as an insider-outsider. I felt like this allowed me to develop a different perspective on multiculturalism and multilingualism from the well-trodden research routes within existing conversations. So, the second audience for the monograph was also the academic community. However, I also firmly believe that the way I write and present the data is accessible in ways that might be of broader interest to those interested in a wide range of related issues, even if not directly as students of linguistics.

Kim Fernandes: Right now, with COVID-19, a lot of interviews are increasingly being conducted over Zoom or Skype. I noticed, though, that even prior to this moment, you’d chosen to do a combination of in-person and Skype interviews for you book. What influenced the choice of interview location, and in turn, how did that shape the nature of the narratives shared with you?

Sheena Kalayil: That’s a really interesting question. I was worried that if I insisted on in-person interviews, I would narrow the scope of my participants for a number of reasons. I had to fit interviews into my daily life and couldn’t afford to pay a substantial amount of money for travel. I didn’t want to limit my research to the area I live in, Manchester, but I wanted a breadth of the South Asian experience, linguistically and geographically in the UK. So, while it would feel absolutely normal now to set up the Zoom interview, I realized when doing my research that the two kinds of interviews were different, but it wasn’t that one was better than the other. Meeting people online, in a way, allowed me to be a more considerate interviewer: I could fit in the Skype interviews around their daily routines. I felt like online interviews allowed me to touch on things that were sensitive to people of South Asian heritage, such as love marriages, arguments with parents over raising children, and so on, while also being respectful of my participant’s space.

I do think, as well, that what the online interviews did was focus the interview very closely on the participant and their language experiences, in ways that may not have been possible with in-person interviews, and this might be a consideration for research in the future. I hope this also means that we can move away from thinking about in-person ethnographic work as the only way in which to collect putatively authentic data.

Kim Fernandes: I noticed in the book that caste only come up a couple of times, with one participant. Elsewhere, you mention status and race, and their relationship to language, but there is almost no discussion of caste as a fairly significant oppressive, hierarchical system across South Asia and South Asian diasporic communities. Can you say more about how caste did – or didn’t – come up in your own conversations, analysis and writing, particularly with regard to how it influenced participants’ relationship with language?

Sheena Kalayil: That’s a really good question, and I think it’s interesting that I haven’t been asked that before. Caste hasn’t played a major role in my life, and it wasn’t at the top of my agenda. However, when I was gathering participants for this study, I could tell from their last names about their caste – and one participant, as you mentioned, brought up her own caste. It wasn’t a question that I asked, since I wasn’t planning on asking my participants about their caste or religion. But being South Asian, of course, meant that religion did come up at some point with the participants. Given the contested nature of caste in the homeland, I felt that in the UK, caste may not have been as prominent a feature, even though there were numerous hints relating to caste and religion throughout. In future research, this is definitely something I’d like to look into.

Alex Dent discusses Digital Pirates

Cover of Digital Pirates by Alexander Sebastian Dent

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Digital Pirates: Policing Intellectual Property in Brazil

Ilana Gershon: At the heart of this book is the intellectually productive argument that intellectual property and piracy are so intertwined that not only do they mutually co-constitute each other under digital textuality, but the same people can support IP wholeheartedly in one moment and talk like pirates ten minutes later.   On the ground, IP and piracy present as sides in a debate, but you argue that understanding this debate in terms of sides is misleading. Could you explain a bit what is misleading about viewing piracy and IP as opposing perspectives and the role digital textuality plays in creating this discursive field?

Alex Dent: When I was researching and writing my last book, on Brazilian country music, I noticed that musical genres were often only taken seriously by social scientists when they were judged to be the fundamental ground of some sort of identity claim.  Were you a hard-core commercial country fan, or were you a member of the folkloric team? What I found, instead, was that the genres offered possible role-inhabitances; people crossed back and forth all the time, but that didn’t mean they didn’t fight about generic boundaries a lot.  I feel similarly here, though in a somewhat different context.  It is indeed true that there are IP maximalists out there who spend a lot of their time fighting for IP.  Along those lines, I didn’t include, in Digital Pirates, the research I did about my study of the United States Trade Representative, where I discovered that the USTR plagiarizes huge amounts of text from industry groups while entirely ignoring the pleas of public interest groups to afford foreign nations the same legal protections citizens expect here in the US; the big pharma and film industry lawyers who showed up for those hearings did, indeed, seem like pro-IP warriors (and for the record, their suits appeared to be made of some non-stick, bulletproof material).  Similarly, on the other side of things, copy-left advocates and hackers often seemed like they were categorically opposed to IP, arguing that “information wants to be free” (an anthropomorphizing if ever there was one).  But the truth is that even these warriors for one or the other position step out of line from time to time.

Even more to your question, the vast majority of us live in that space between all the time.  So it struck me that requiring there to be “positions” actually becomes a way to deliberately avoid the conversation that we need to have – which is about how arguments for and against IP get mobilized for political projects, with quite local approaches shaping that mobilization.

The insistence on positions seems particularly misleading in the digital realm, where inscriptive (which is to say, durable) forms of textuality become such a common part of our quotidian existence.  One of your questions, below, asks me to talk more about cellularity and its relationship to contemporary capitalism – so I’ll hold off on that for a bit.  But the point is simply that decisions about how you are going to govern your own productions now imbricate your every move.  I write in chapter four that the novelty of contemporary digital textuality surrounds the reduction of response-time, the transcendence of space, the unification of communicative modalities in a single device, and the portability of that device. This means that durable and promulgating potentials are with you at every moment.  And the decisions you make about how you are going to circulate yourself are shaped by both IP maximalism and piracy – shaped in real-time contexts, on the fly. So we are not “taking positions” on IP. We are, in a split second, deciding what kinds of circulatory legitimacy accompanies a photograph we just received, or a blog post – or how we might anticipate this video we are currently making about our dog playing in the snow finding itself in far-flung lands.

Ilana Gershon: What does policing look like from the perspective of Brazilian piracy? 

Alex Dent: There has been lots of great stuff written on policing and its importance to contemporary capitalism.  In that ambit, Jim Holston and Teresa Caldeira have done a great job writing about how, in what might seem a paradoxical move on the surface, the turn to democratization has actually led to drastically elevated levels of policing in Brazil; what we can derive from this is the necessity of policing to neoliberal theologies.  With respect to IP, specifically, what I was anxious to do away with was the myth that policing of IP around the world is about bribes or salaries; there’s this idea among critics of IP that the only reason people would police IP in parts of the world where “licit” products are too expensive is because they are being paid.  On the pro-IP side there is this equally misleading notion that local police “just want to be right with the law.”  But the truth is a lot more complicated than either of these options.  The truth is that there are local discourses that explain policing.  In Brazil, discourses of cultural mixture are famous – in tourist brochures, of course, but even in Brazilian self-explanations of prowess in soccer, music, religion, and food (Lorand Matory and John Collins have written about this).  But what you don’t hear about very much are Brazilian anxieties about cultural inter-mixture going too far.  What you find, if you dig into the classic Brazilian book called “Rebellion in the Backcountry” (which is about a millennial movement that gets absolutely destroyed by the emerging Brazilian state in the late 1800s) is that there are localized appetites for “order” and keeping mixture under wraps.  That is what is getting ignited by IP maximalism – not some bribe. So in some ways I’m revisiting that old chestnut about the relationship between the production of locality and the production of globality – with the notion that the dialogic relation between the two must be understood according to durable structures.  It’s no coincidence that violations of IP get treated like “trash” in Brazil.  I explain why in chapter two.

Ilana Gershon:  What role does Paraguay play in Brazilians’ relationship to piracy?

Alex Dent: As a linguistic anthropologist, this was one of those spectacular fieldwork moments when you become aware of how language is a kind of flexible dialogue between historical conflicts and contemporary practices. It’s not a repository, mind you, because it’s constantly in flux. What happened was that my family started characterizing things that broke as “Paraguayan.”  I remember the first time it happened – it was a cheap alarm clock I’d bought which inexplicably failed; and I’d just underscore that the cheapness and the inexplicability are intimately related to one another! In any case, this invocation of “Paraguayan” as a descriptor seemed, in that first moment, to carry all kinds of anxieties about bordering that I hadn’t though of.  That’s when I started learning about Paraguay’s role as the place cheap goods come into Brazil, and also, about its stature in Brazilian popular culture as a place where grand promises are made that then are not delivered upon.  There is some overlap with how the US-Mexico border translates in our context – though there are important differences. But with respect to Paraguay, the history is that Paraguay invaded Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay in 1864, and after some stunning initial victories, they were absolutely routed. The war was just devastating for Paraguay, and in conventional histories, the war’s legacy was a long-lasting economic depression and cultural inferiority complex. (I’d like to note something obvious – that my Paraguayan friends inflect this story with considerably more complexity.) In any case, this phrase circulated periodically in Brazil when discussing a soccer team that started off in a promising way, but then crashed: the team was referred to as a “Paraguayan horse.” 

I ended up spending quite a bit of time in the border towns between Brazil and Paraguay, studying the ways goods traveled from Paraguay into Brazil (although I should add that the real expert, here, is Rosana Pinheiro-Machado).  And it struck me that the bordering work there – with incumbent anxieties about porosity, omnipresence, illegality, and necessity – also populated the way my interlocutors were characterizing the Internet in Brazil.  All of which is to say that, when you are trying to understand just what this thing called the Internet might be, it makes sense to consider localized approaches to time, space, and boundary.

Ilana Gershon: You talk about how Brazilians have a different relationship to cellphones than Americans or Canadians do because they had a different historical engagement with landlines.   Could you explain how these different historical trajectories made a difference in your fieldsites?

Alex Dent: When I first arrived in Brazil in 1998, I lived with a family — who subsequently became my caretakers, consultants, and very close friends – in the town of Campinas.  My Brazilian “dad” was a telecommunications engineer who taught at the local university – UNICAMP.  And in early discussions with him, I noticed that telephones were politicized in a different way fromm Canada, the US, or the UK – the three places I had lived.  I detected a kind of media ideology about telephones where — in part based on consumption of North American public culture – there was this belief that Brazil had developed incorrectly.  Phone landlines were incredibly expensive to get, and were not well disseminated among working class neighborhoods.  Phones were not a forgone conclusion in Brazilian life – they were often thought of as a necessity that was paradoxically also a luxury.  So when cell phones began to arrive, in concert with the neoliberal selling-off of the state phone companies, I heard a lot of people explain to me that Brazil had “skipped” a step; that, in some normative sense, it ought to have had cheap and widely available landlines first, and then people could have transitioned more smoothly to cell phones. I should point out that this popular argument also has a well developed academic Brazilian form in the shape of associated-dependency theory. But the point is that when Brazilians started to absorb cellular technology, their early use was often tinged with a dialogue between ravenous hunger, and a kind of shaming scold.  I heard statements such as, “Brazilians have multiple cell phones, but they are too ill-educated to have anything to say on them,” which struck me as harsh until I decoded where they were coming from, historically.

Ilana Gershon: You argue that cellularity at the heart of contemporary capitalism – could you explain what you mean by this?

Alex Dent: I’m working this up into a broader theory of neoliberal theology now; as I type, I’m writing-up five years of data collected with Joshua Bell (of the Smithsonian) and Joel Kuipers (also at GW) on the productivity of ambivalence among teenage cell phone users in Washington DC.  Part of the argument is that, contrary to the projections many adults place onto teenagers, teenagers are acutely aware of not only the joys, but also the potential harms of cellular phone use.  The productivity of this ambivalence, as I note above, in chapter four, lies in “cellular publics”; I argue that contemporary digital textuality is characterized by reduction of response time, transcendence of space, condensation of communicative modalities, and portability.  But what is significant is the trip to heaven and hell that this entails.  (I should mention someone who has written brilliantly about this in Brazil is Leticia Cesarino.) Because just as cell phones can be celebrated for their rendering work more flexible, they can also be indicted for enslaving us. We are, in the same moment, in joyful anticipation of connection, and in horror at possible over-extension. I’m using “horror” carefully, here – intending to address myself to the brilliant theorist who was Mary Shelley. This is the sublime. And the argument I’m making is that contemporary (probably not “late”!) capitalism’s balance between tremendous wealth and utter ruin finds itself mediated – in ways I think David Harvey anticipated – by way of cellularity. To put it somewhat differently, it is no coincidence that “paying it forward” and “going viral” partake of the same vectors of accrual.

Sun Sun Lim on her book, Transcendent Parenting

Interview by Kevin Laddapong

Kevin Laddapong: In Transcendent Parenting, you argue that middle-class parents in Asia have to transcend themselves bodily, virtually, and temporally because of the increasing proliferation of mobile device usage. Could you explain a bit what you mean by transcendence, and how these mobile devices might encourage the transcendence of parenting obligation, surveillance, and time?

Sun Sun Lim: Essentially, the use of technology has lubricated our lives but also intensified the parenting burden and complicated parent-child relationships. This heightened connectivity thus enables but also encourages parents to transcend the physical distance between them and their kids, to transcend every online and offline environment their children travel through, and to also transcend timeless time and parent relentlessly.

For example, parent must now manage their children’s lives through multiple platforms including apps for parent-teacher communication, and online gradebooks that provide parents with data on their children’s in-class and test performance. Parents can therefore accompany their children into the classroom virtually, and even quiz them on why their in-class performance this week paled in comparison to the last. Such connectivity between parents and teachers, while seemingly helpful, can complicate the parent-child relationship and over-involve parents in their children’s lives.

Besides these official communication channels there are messaging platforms such as WhatsApp that parents are using to communicate with teachers, as well as with other parents. While these massive chat groups can inundate their members with messages, they can be a useful resource. But these groups do not confine themselves to such instrumental communication and that parents can become too immersed in their children’s lives and allow playground politics to seep into adult interactions. My research uncovered some disputes between children that took place in school continued to be waged by their parents in the online chats, with other parents taking sides and even offering support and solidarity, solicited or otherwise. These exchanges exacerbated tensions within the group and spilled over into the parents’ and children’s face-to-face interactions as well.

Kevin Laddapong: Throughout your book, you show how parents (and schools) transcend themselves for children’s successes, a process that sometimes crosses the personal line. Is this phenomenon particular to Asian middle-class families? Will it be different from working-class families in Asia, or even middle-class families elsewhere? What are some underlying cultural ideologies driving this phenomenon?

Sun Sun Lim: This rise in digitally intensified parent-school, parent-child, parent-parent interaction has also been noted in many other urban, digitally-connected cities in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. I have shared my research with multi-national audiences across Asia and Europe and it struck a chord with parents of many nationalities because all middle-class parents are now digitally connected to their children and the family’s broader network. This connectivity, coupled with middle-class families’ aspirations for upward mobility that translate into significant investment in children and their positive development, manifests itself in transcendent parenting.  

Kevin Laddapong: Many applications in the book, such as homework and grade tracking, and group chats for parents, intensify psychological and affective pressure. It seems that you imply these had gone wrong and parents should restrain themselves from over-parenting. How should parents consider abating such stress for children growing up?

Sun Sun Lim: Parents should refrain from being too concerned with in-class performance metrics, or using them to demand more zealous participation by their children, or greater care by the teachers. Separately, some of our interviewees would message teachers over trivial matters that their children could easily have managed on their own in school. But when parents take over such tasks, they rob their children of the precious opportunity to develop their own problem-solving abilities. Resisting parental intervention in every situation is key to nurturing independence in children. 

In a parent chat groups, some parents share tips on effective tuition programmes or enrichment classes, thereby raising the parenting stakes among all the parents in the chat. Indeed, some of our interviewees admitted to feeling pressured when reading such posts, wondering if they should enrol their children in such classes to avoid disadvantaging them. Others steadfastly refused to cave in to such pressures, even if they acknowledged the benefits of being connected to other parents. Collectively therefore, we need to dial down this culture of over-sharing and constant comparison, where every post serves to redefine what it means to be a good parent.   

The constant notifications from these apps and chats can also be tremendously stress-inducing, with working parents feeling like they have to constantly keep an eye on their children’s schedules and homework, even while performing their professional duties. Perhaps we need to set some norms around when and how such platforms should be used, and the expectations around how soon we must respond, so that parents and teachers are less overwhelmed by the constant connectivity.

Kevin Laddapong: Most of the sociological studies of the family are highly gendered and male/female divided. However, most of the informants in this book are kept gender-neutral. Gender-neutrality is a surprising analytical choice, and I was wondering if you could discuss what led you to make this decision and what consequences this had for your subsequent analysis?

Sun Sun Lim: Principally, my concerted decision to use “transcendent parenting” encompasses an aspirational dimension that aims to capture the more desired and indeed, more desirable state of shared parenting responsibilities. In societies where dual income households are becoming increasingly common, it no longer makes sense to privilege the mother’s parenting obligation, and more structures must be put in place to ensure that fathers shoulder a more equitable share of parenting responsibilities. Essentially however, given the critical role that mobile media play in the lives of families, I believe that transcendent parenting is already being experienced by both parents, even if to unequal degrees. As conceptions of the parenting duties that fathers and mothers should bear evolve, the experience and practice of transcendent parenting will alter as well. Hence my analysis was undertaken with this aspirational perspective – that inclusive language will encourage an inclusive mindset that paves the way for greater gender parity in raising children.

Kate Eichhorn on her book, The End of Forgetting

Interview by Shuting Li

https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674976696

Shuting Li: In this book, you follow image-making technology’s trajectory, from Kodak film camera, home videos, to smartphone. I find that your previous works (The Archival Turn in Feminism and Adjusted Margin) focus on archives, xerography, feminism, and activist movements. Are there any connections between your previous works and this project? What did inspire you to start this project?

Kate Eichhorn: My books always look back, in some way or another, to explore questions about new and emerging media technologies. This methodology is something I adopted many years ago–back when research on digital culture was still, somewhat falsely, described as Internet research. In the mid to late 1990s, it was challenging to research digital culture because one’s research subject was in constant flux. Even our understanding of what we were researching was shifting. It now seems ridiculous that at one point I was asking myself whether I should approach my research of Geocities communities as a textual researcher or ethnographer, but here, one must remember that in 1997, much of what was happening online was text-based and rather static. These spaces held some but not all of the obvious markers of an active and dynamic community.  

To find a way to investigate these emerging spaces, I started to look back to early periods of technological change, specifically to the early years of print culture. At one point, I abandoned my research on new media altogether and tried to reimagine myself as a serious book historian. Clearly, I didn’t end up pursuing that path, but in the process, I did develop a methodology that is very historically grounded. Some people describe my methodology as media archaeology, and while I appreciate media archaeology, I don’t think that is an accurate label for my work. I’m more influenced by media historians like Carolyn Marvin than I am by media archeologists, especially those associated with the German media studies tradition. This likely reflects the fact that I come to media studies through cultural studies, so I can’t easily sideline questions concerning social practices and power. 

Shuting Li: Your work demonstrates how entering a digital era shapes people’s forgetting of childhood and raises concerns and questions about the erosion of the line between childhood and adulthood. Can you elaborate your argument on forgetting and why does it matter in people’s memory of childhood? 

Kate Eichhorn: As I discuss in my last book, there has long been a false assumption that new media technologies threaten childhood. I’m thinking here about claims made by people like Neil Postman in The Disappearance of Childhood. Postman was writing about television culture, but the assumption that new media pose a threat to childhood is a very pervasive myth, one that has shaped practices and public policy for decades. Henry Jenkins makes this argument in much of his work on children, youth, and media.  

In The End of Forgetting, I suggest that we may be witnessing something remarkably different. It’s not that childhood is threatened by digital culture, but rather than it now plays on an endless loop. Worse yet, social networks formed in childhood—for example, on social media platforms—now follow one into their adult life. A very concrete way to understand this shift is to think about the experience of leaving home to attend college. In the late 1980s or early 1990s, one still had the option to make a clean break with the past. You left for college with a few phone numbers of close friends, but you didn’t carry with you online networks going back to your elementary school years. My students now arrive in college with their social networks, some dating back to elementary school, still in place. They carry these social networks with them on various social media accounts. I wanted to explore what was at stake in this shift? What does it mean never to have the opportunity to start anew–to leave the past behind? What are the implications for one’s social identity development?  Certainly, not everyone feels a burning desire to start anew, but some people do. In fact, some people’s social mobility or even survival depends on this possibility. 

Shuting Li: As social media blurs the line between childhood and adulthood, users are turned into data subjects and subsumed into communicative capitalism. Can you say more on these concepts? When claiming their controls of memory, what challenges will people encounter in the digital era? 

Kate Eichhorn: In The End of Forgetting, I make the argument that we can’t lose sight of the fact that young people finally have access to the media tools needed to record and broadcast images of their lives but that this isn’t necessarily because the world suddenly cares about what young people have to say. These tools are now available to children and youth because these demographics have the capacity to generate a lot of data, including the content needed to make social media sites profitable.

It’s difficult to imagine a platform like TikTok existing at all without the contributions of young people. From a capitalist perspective, this is rather brilliant—for decades, in developed economies at least, we had an entire segment of the population who weren’t producing anything at all. Social media platforms essentially found a way to exploit this untapped segment of the labor market, and to do so legally. In most developed nations, after all, there are rules about when and how many hours children can work. Social media platforms circumvent existing child labor laws. Now, all children and adolescents are legally able to be producers—that is, content producers—but they do this work for free. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we can or should compare a thirteen-year-old girl turning out content on TikTok to a child working in a factory during the industrial revolution. But I do think that the success—and by success, I mean profits—of many social media companies has rested on the capacity to turn a previously untapped segment of the labor market into producers.

Of course, long before children and teens start to produce content for a platform like TikTok, they are already generating data. Here, I would recommend another book, which I recently reviewed—Veronica Barassi’s Child Data Citizen. Barassi does a great job laying out how children, from birth, are turned into data. 

Kate Eichhorn: Certainly, everyone has been producing a lot of data since the beginning of the pandemic. But the pandemic has also shown the limits of digital sociality. At the start of the pandemic, there was a false assumption that the two demographics that would likely be fine were adolescents and people in their early twenties. The assumption seemed to be that since young people spend so much time online, their lives will just continue as usual. In fact, in terms of mental health, adolescents and young adults have suffered the most. Spending all their time online, both socially and at school, has been remarkably difficult for these demographics. Interestingly, the group that seems to be coping best in the world of Zoom, at least in terms of mental health, are older adults, including senior citizens. As someone who researches youth culture and social media, what I have found more interesting about the pandemic is the extent to which it has exposed the fact that for most youth, digital interactions are ultimately a supplement but not replacement for face-to-face sociality.

Shuting Li: My last question is broad and related to the current circumstance. Owing to the pandemic, people have become much more dependent on digital technology. The use of digital technology inevitably produces more data or memory that lie beyond people’s control. Would you like to share your reflections on this shift or any thoughts on people’s forgetting in the future?

Kate Eichhorn: Certainly, everyone has been producing a lot of data since the beginning of the pandemic. But the pandemic has also shown the limits of digital sociality. At the start of the pandemic, there was a false assumption that the two demographics that would likely be fine were adolescents and people in their early twenties. The assumption seemed to be that since young people spend so much time online, their lives will just continue as usual. In fact, in terms of mental health, adolescents and young adults have suffered the most. Spending all their time online, both socially and at school, has been remarkably difficult for these demographics. Interestingly, the group that seems to be coping best in the world of Zoom, at least in terms of mental health, are older adults, including senior citizens. As someone who researches youth culture and social media, what I have found more interesting about the pandemic is the extent to which it has exposed the fact that for most youth, digital interactions are ultimately a supplement but not replacement for face-to-face sociality.

Patrick Galbraith discusses his book, Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan

Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan

Interview by Xiao Xe

https://www.dukeupress.edu/otaku-and-the-struggle-for-imagination-in-japan

Xiao Ke: It was an absolute joy reading this provocative and rigorous book on Japanese “otaku”and manga culture, especially during the pandemic. Given that “otaku” literally means “your home,” we now might want to compare notes with “otaku” – whether seeing them as “cool” or “weird.” In doing so, perhaps we could reflect on, and better our own experiences at home. Can I make a detour to firstly ask: has anything new come up in the manga/anime market in Japan relating to the COVID-19 lockdown that you would like to share with us?

Patrick Galbraith: Thanks for inviting me to chat! I appreciate your kind words about the book, and this opportunity to exchange ideas. So, life and love in the time of COVID-19. I hesitate to make too much out of “otaku” meaning “your home,” at least when written in specific Japanese scripts, because it is in that sense more or less just a polite second-person pronoun used in certain settings and regions. It has always been my experience that stories of the basement dwelling, socially awkward geek are greatly exaggerated. I mean, Henry Jenkins was already highlighting it as a trope in his foundational contributions to fan studies in North America in the early 1990s. All it takes is a visit to a convention or an idol concert to disabuse ourselves of the stereotype. If anything, the absence of the hyper sociality of fan gatherings was a felt difference in 2020. All of us, not just “otaku,” were spending a lot more hours at home alone. We are seeing fascinating new ways of engaging online and through social media to generate shared experiences. This was all happening before, but with more time and fewer options, things exploded last year. The rise of virtual YouTubers, for example, and not only in absolute numbers, but also their broad and diverse followings outside of manga/anime fandom. That’s striking, because this form of masking, or animating a character rather than exposing yourself, is so prominent in manga/anime fan cultures in Japan, but many believed it was sort of niche or limited in appeal. Similarly, the fact that anime was trending on streaming services accessed around the world speaks to the ongoing normalization of fannish interests and lifestyles, including manga, anime and related media and material. Indeed, aren’t we all sort of being cultivated into fan audiences by streaming services and social media? Personally, I was stunned by the reaction to the manga/anime franchise Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. It was serialized in the flagship magazine Shōnen Jump from 2016 and received an initial anime adaptation of 26 episodes in 2019, but last year, as the manga completed its run, printed volumes took all the top spots on sales charts and the first animated film became the highest-grossing release in Japanese box office history. With only 26 episodes of anime released! And it’s not a standalone film by a famous director intended for all audiences, but a simple continuation of the animated series based on a relatively young manga series for boys! And it broke this record during the pandemic! The manga and anime were everywhere, on everyone’s lips. I confess that I did brave the outdoors to see the film in a theater on its opening weekend in Tokyo, and, even socially distanced and masked, the energy and excitement in the room were just incredible. Unbelievably social, sharing an experience then and there before, if you’ll forgive the analogy, going out to spread it further in the community. It really is awesome animation, both in the television series and especially the film, but there can be no doubt that the manga/anime-industrial complex, creating a steady stream of fans and fueled by their collective movement and power, exceeded all expectations in 2020. The amount and quality of anime coming out right now? Overwhelming.  

Xiao Ke: Despite being a long-term on-site participant observer of Japan’s anime culture, you spent half of your book tracing historical discourses since the 1970s instead of ethnography proper: from male bishōjo (beautiful girls) fans, lolicon (those who are obsessed with Lolita figures), to the formation of the otaku label and the affect called moe (to sprout, or perhaps a response to erotic and lively cuteness). We also saw how these subculture discourses are transformed into – or how they cashed-in on – seemingly new or exotic stories in the mainstream. Why and how did you choose this archive- and discourse-centered method in writing this book? Also, in doing this, did you receive pushback from reviewers at different stages?

Patrick Galbraith: Is the decision controversial? To my mind, it’s straightforward fieldwork. I touch on this a little in the introduction, but positioned in Akihabara, I was confronted with unfamiliar words and concepts. My basic field language is Japanese, but I also needed to learn this other language in order to think and speak as my informants did. Exposing those meanings and getting a sense of the language is a necessary step for the reader to enter into the field with me and see and be in the world otherwise. Moreover, these terms can be slippery and invite misunderstanding. So, right off the bat, notice how you glossed the terms bishōjo, lolicon and moe, which differs from what emerges in those first three chapters. It may not seem crucial to underscore the cuteness in bishōjo characters, or to say precisely how lolicon in this context defines Lolita figures in relation to the two-dimensional, but doing so sharpens the focus and clarifies why some manga/anime fans were labelled otaku. What about moe? You emphasized eroticism and liveliness, hedged with perhaps, but the concept is more holistically an affective response to fictional characters. There really isn’t another word for this concept specifically, which is why I spent time on it and traced the stories that people tell themselves and one another about moe and how an affective response to fictional characters makes sense in contemporary Japan. There’s a history here shaping meaning, and meaning not in the sense of definitions, but rather significance. This is why I wrote those first three chapters.    

Xiao Ke: In the first three chapters, you emphasized how manga consumers are imagining a kind of queer masculinity alternative to the normative salarymen in Japan. And I was fascinated by this recurring gender-crossing theme of being seen or treated not as men: from male bishōjo manga readers (46), otaku discussions (59), to male customers in maid cafés (214). Something that caught my eye is that you introduced a writer on this theme, Itō Kimio, as “a pioneer of men’s studies” (22). You also showed us that the Japanese public has very reflexive analysis of the otaku phenomena and East Asian masculinity, not unlike media scholars. Can you say a bit more about Japan’s ‘men’ studies’ and how it might have influenced you intellectually? And to what extent have Japan’s student groups and university scholars collaborated in constructing and negotiating the otaku scene?

Patrick Galbraith: Given all that was brought under the umbrella of men’s studies in North America, I understand why that might catch your eye, but, in the context of Japan in the 1990s, danseigaku meant something very specific. It starts with the realization that there is a problem with men, specifically friction engendered by rubbing up against outdated and ossified norms. In his first major publication on the topic in 1993, Itō Kimio casts into stark relief the stubborn rigidity of middleclass masculine ideals in Japan. Things have been changing so much – think Anne Allison’s Precarious Japan – and yet there is still this notion that men need to be stable income earners, start and support families and generally be a presumed normal. These are not normal times, and normal does not work for everyone anyway. I’m reminded of Jack Halberstam’s analysis of the common sense of reproductive maturity and growing up in a capitalist society. For Itō, the problem is that those not achieving the norm or unable to escape the long shadow of hegemonic masculinity are made out to be failures and feel like losers. The phenomenon is what Lauren Berlant calls a “normativity hangover.” I’ll be blunt in saying that insistence on norms that are no longer achievable for many or even most can be fatal. The norms are toxic, leading to seething resentment and anger and potential violence toward self and others. Japan is not unique in this, as jumps off the page in Guy Standing’s global analysis of masculinity among the precariat. In contrast, one thing that really stood out in the field was how the people I met were not committed to being normal or being real men. Looking back at manga/anime fandom from the 1970s into the 1980s, there appeared to be those who opened up space to imagine and create alternatives to reality. These are the failures initially labelled otaku, specifically in context those men who failed to be putatively real men getting with supposedly real women and instead fixating on fictional girls. One does not have to believe that every single fan so labelled was exclusively oriented toward the two-dimensional to grasp that they were doing something different, something understood to be wrong or weird, and that’s why they were singled out and labelled as other, as otaku. If what these fans did was fail, then I think Halberstam is quite right that we can “fail well,” and in so failing, imagine other ways of living and moving on in the world. It starts with a sense of unease with things as they are, which can lead to a rejection of the imperative to grow up, man up or face reality. Things don’t have to be this way. Embracing alternatives, imagining and creating them together, is how we leave behind the toxic sludge that keeps us stuck in place and poisoning ourselves and one another, poisoning the world. It is also an invitation to live with fictional and real others in a more-than-human world. This is something of the broader aim of Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan. Now, there is a tendency for Japanese critics, experts and authorities on otaku to denounce and deny contemporary movements, which undercuts emergent political potential. This is especially so when it comes to issues of sex and gender, which make some older, established figures nervous. The thing is these talking heads dominate popular outlets with a discourse that establishes their identity, historical moment and objects. This is really clear in the case of Okada Toshio, who I introduce at the beginning of the Akihabara chapter. Part of the reason I adopted a different approach to thinking about otaku in terms of movement and performance is because I am opposed to closing down and policing the boundaries of a supposedly true, authentic and real identity for otaku. Reviewing popular publications by otaku experts about otaku, it turns out that their closely guarded identity is very masculine, even exclusively so, which resonates with recent and ongoing discussions of toxic masculinity in fan cultures around the world. What I saw among otaku, especially those who in Akihabara were once more distinguished as weird otaku, is the possibility of something other than a macho world in stasis or decline. 

Xiao Ke: On the one hand, your book offers us a view of the uniquely lively Japanese manga history and culture. On the other hand, we read the less well-known but common stories of gentrification, state branding, censorship, policing, occupation protests and crackdowns. As you demonstrate in your ethnographic chapters on Akihabara, “[i]n the promoting and policing of ‘otaku’ in Akihabara,” “otaku” performances are “trivialized, naturalized and domesticated” (182). In dealing with imagined excess and perversion, from your experiences as an American researcher on Japan, can you say a few words about the differences, similarities and connections between Japan and the U.S.?

Patrick Galbraith: While I am originally from the United States, I cannot speculate about the vibrant and diverse fandoms that are at times there called otaku.”However, there are a few things that I can say based on my fieldwork in Akihabara, a destination for international fans of manga, anime and related media and material. Indeed, one aspect of the fieldwork was leading tours through Akihabara for visitors, who I asked for impressions afterward. Many of the Americans I encountered identified as fans of anime, but they were a little shocked by what they saw in Akihabara. Pokémon and Studio Ghibli this was not. While famous for the density of stores selling manga, anime and related media and material, and really it was the eye-catching signs and packed shelves that people loved to photograph, Akihabara was still very much colored by its past as the epicenter of adult computer gaming. That is, games where the player interacts with manga/anime-style cute girl characters in ways ranging from casual conversation to explicit sex. From computers to computer games, Akihabara had subsequently transformed into a space overflowing with bishōjo manga, anime, games, figurines, costumes, fanzines and more. People were pretty open about what they were buying and selling, even extremely explicit stuff. Things have changed a lot with growing expectation of outside scrutiny and aggressive policing, but I remember many visitors from the United States back then being more than a little concerned about the imaginary sex and public sex culture. In general, there seems to be a lot of anxiety about the prevalence of sex in manga, anime and related media and material. And it isn’t just the United States or fans who are taken aback. The recent moves to strengthen regulation of imports of erotic manga to Australia come to mind. This incident, like so many others, was triggered by watchdogs stumbling onto images of manga/anime-style cute girl characters, specifically an example of moe media called Eromanga Sensei, which is far from pornographic, but nonetheless intended to trigger a response. Attempts to ban books crossing the border appear quaint when this and so much more is readily available on the internet, and I suspect many fans around the world familiar with manga/anime aesthetics wouldn’t even bat an eye as they download or stream the likes of Eromanga Sensei, but the anxiety about manga/anime sex is notable and consequential. New legal regimes are being formed and negotiated. The late Mark McLelland, a resident of Australia, referred to this as “juridification of the imagination,” which may well inspire us to seriously reflect on issues of freedom of imagination. 

Xiao Xe: Your last chapter is on maid cafés and the role-playing relationship between customer masters and maids. You seem to have a reserved stance regarding this space, and ended by citing Sara Ahmed’s “affect aliens” and posed the question: “those that do have to worry about their savings and are not as confident as King that things will work out. Where do they go?” (222) Did you leave out anything that you’d like to elaborate on but could not possibly fit into the book? Also, do you have anything to say about queer and straight female consumers – as well as laborers – of the manga/anime market in Japan?

Patrick Galbraith: My concerns are related to those who cannot get a place at the table or feel at home. Right after that line you quoted I discuss the troubling case of Katō Tomohiro, who killed seven people and wounded 10 more on the streets of Akihabara in 2008. I was right there in a nearby café typing up fieldnotes when it happened. It’s not something I’ll ever forget, and I don’t want to forget it. In the frenzied media coverage, people debated whether or not this man was an otaku, and pointed out that he visited a maid café. This was obviously not what drove Katō to commit the heinous acts he did. His despair and desperation were much more directly rooted in precarious economic and social circumstances. In Katō, I saw someone without the time or money to come to a maid café and become a regular and part of the circle. So, there’s a limit to having social support systems and platforms tied to disposable income and free time, which not everyone has, especially now. There is, however, another issue, which I raised earlier. Katō wanted a normal life, the good life, and his conviction that he could and should achieve the status of middleclass masculine normalcy turned to resentment and violence. I co-authored a study with David Slater at Sophia University, which had us in part examining the online posts Katō made from his cellphone, and what we found there was chilling. Katō kept beating himself up for being a failure, pushing others away due to a compounding sense of shame, all while blaming himself and others for his failure and loneliness. This is the swamp of toxic sludge I previously mentioned, and it sucked him right down into its depths. To get out of the death spiral, we need alternatives. We need to imagine and create them, together. And we need to find ways to open up the circle and draw others in. The incorporation of characters and roleplay does seem to help in many cases, especially when fantasy and play are social and shared. Many maid cafés have transitioned to targeting primarily tourists, which makes them less amenable to long-term relations, manga/anime connections and roleplay have become less pronounced in these establishments and smaller niche places have shut their doors due to COVID-19, but there is a lot of potential here. To your question about the diversity of staff and customers, there are many cafés in Akihabara and beyond that attract men, women and trans and queer folk, and I know people behind and in front of the counter who are gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual and a dozen other orientations besides. There is recent and forthcoming work on this and related topics, for example from Sharon Kinsella, Michelle H. S. Ho and Shunsuke Nozawa. “Cultures of animation,” to borrow a turn of phrase from Teri Silvio’s tremendous book Puppets, Gods and Brands, seem to allow for new relations to and between bodies, fictional and real.

Xiao Ke: Two related concluding questions: Beyond the context of your book, do you have any thoughts regarding how people communicate and curate imaginations in general? What are other old or new ways, other than manga/anime and character-plays, that you recognize and would group into what you propose as an “anthropology of imagination” (16)?

Patrick Galbraith: I wonder about communicating and curating imagination, but a pressing issue is opening spaces of imagination. Spaces at the margins, spaces in between, spaces that push against the limits of reality. Concomitantly, of immediate concern is resisting the territorialization and colonization of the imagination. I regularly find myself rereading Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, and it seems to me that his dystopian nightmare of a withering of the imagination has only become more relevant with the acceleration and intensification of new technologies. Our minds are occupied, our attention divided up and sold off. We are alert and distracted, simultaneously hyper attentive and checked out. The ceaseless march toward the cliff seems inevitable. I recall hearing someone, probably Slavoj Žižek, quip that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than a modest change in capitalism. What a stinging, scathing indictment that is, especially for anthropologists, who are committed to learning and teaching other ways of seeing and being in the world. We can do better, and perhaps that’s partly what you mean by communicating and curating imagination. As the late David Graeber so passionately argued, we can see from the ethnographic archive that things have been organized differently in other places and times. It does not have to be this way. There are already existing alternatives right here and now, and we should encourage the curiosity to seek them out and the flexibility to follow along. Back in the 1980s, Tanya Luhrmann wrote that anthropologists haven’t paid much attention to imagination, but after Arjun Appadurai’s intervention there has been so much groundbreaking scholarship contributing to the anthropology of imagination. You can look back to imagine alternatives, as Graeber does in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and Possibilities, or work through alternative modes of thinking and experiencing otherness that Ghassan Hage introduces in and as Alter-Politics. I especially like that this is not simply anti, and there’s a positivity we can get behind. Another world is possible, and it’s ours. What Teri Silvio is doing in Taiwan with cultures of animation as distinct from performance, and Eduardo Kohn presents as an ecology of selves in Upper Amazonia, are related, and the list goes on. Work like Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World is as poetic as it is provocative. Anthropology to some extent has always been about the imagination, a human imagination that does not stop at the human or human world as we know it. Embracing this legacy is our politics and our power. 

Jessa Lingel talks about Craigslist

Interview by Nazli Azergun

https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691188904/an-internet-for-the-people

Nazli Azergun: In your book, you describe craigslist as a precedent to current platform economy, almost as an ancestor platform that isn’t necessarily function like its current day counterparts. You also claim that craigslist is a holdout from the olden days of Web 1.0, enacting an ethics of collaboration and access––like an island in today’s gentrified ocean of Web 2.0 mentality. For those who are yet to read your book, could you tell us about the publics of craigslist? Who are these people who use craigslist today for finding a collectible item, hitching a ride, and whatnot––instead of its function-specific counterparts? Why do they prefer craigslist?

Jessa Lingel: Craigslist has always been home to a number of different publics. It’s been online since 1996, which is a very long time in the context of the Internet. In the early days, its home was the San Francisco tech scene, and the site built a reputation for finding elite tech jobs. Over the next decade, craigslist became incredibly popular, for everything from finding apartments to buying and selling used goods to getting dates. By the time I was conducting research, craigslist’s reputation had slipped somewhat, and many people associated it with seedy personals and bottom-of-the-barrel jobs. But for many folks I talked to, craigslist filled an important niche, helping them find temporary jobs, affordable used goods like cars and electronics, and places to live. All in all, I interviewed dozens of people who used craigslist.  None of them only used craigslist, instead it was part of a constellation of platforms like eBay, Facebook Marketplace and others. But what still draws people to craigslist after all these years is its simplicity, as well as the fact that it’s free from ads.

Nazli Azergun: You also talk about the transition from Web1.0 mentality to a Web2.0 one, which indicates a passage from openness, collaboration, and accessibility towards exclusivity and a world of pay-per-view. What, in your opinion, has caused this transition towards a more gentrified worldwide web? What is it with craigslist that it made it through this transition mostly intact?

Jessa Lingel: If I could point to a single thing that pushed us towards a more gentrified web, it would be Facebook. I know it’s kind of passé at this point to kvetch [complain] about Facebook but it’s difficult to overstate how important Facebook is as a turning point in digital culture. It’s not like there was a clean break, where before Facebook everything was anonymous, free and open, while after Facebook, the internet became commercialized and closed off. But as Facebook became the dominant platform, other modes of being online became less appealing to users, to the point that platforms like craigslist can seem hopelessly backwards or out-of-date. Unlike a lot of platforms, craigslist never went for major platform overhauls or redesigns. Instead it stayed true to the early 1990s internet values of its founder, Craig Newmark and its CEO, Jim Buckmaster. The platform reflects their ideas of what the internet should look like, and because craigslist has been run by the same people for most of its 25-year history, it’s never had to change its appearance or values. It’s never had to gentrify.

Nazli Azergun: You state that you intentionally omitted housing-related craigslist interactions from your book as they did not raise significant tensions among users. I think this is a very significant choice. How do you read this phenomenon, this lack of tensions? What does it tell you about the current state of housing markets, housing-related racism and discrimination, and the precarity of individuals, if anything?

Jessa Lingel: No book can cover everything, and although An Internet for the People is a deep dive into craigslist, there are a number of things I didn’t cover, like the events section, the message boards and housing.  I’m sure there are a lot of tensions to be uncovered about craigslist housing out there, but they didn’t pop up in my interviews. Because housing isn’t a major focus of the data I have, I can only make educated guesses about what craigslist has to show us about the current state of housing markets. One theme that surfaced repeatedly in interviews was the idea that craigslist was part of “the poor people’s internet”, meaning that it was mostly a tool for people who felt excluded from fancy platforms. In terms of jobs, this meant looking for certain kinds of work on craigslist rather than more professionalized sites like Indeed. In terms of housing, the parallel would be that for people on a certain budget, it makes more sense to look on craigslist than on Zillow or Redfin.

One thing that COVID-19 pandemic has shown us is the intense divide between rich and poor in terms of property – while buying a second home has become popular in the midst of a pandemic, millions of poor people in the US are facing eviction and housing insecurity. A platform like craigslist could, perhaps troublingly, see a boom in the use of its housing section as poor folks look to it as a platform that’s geared towards affordable, temporary housing arrangements.

Nazli Azergun: Based on your book, I get the sense that craigslist has a particular ethical orientation regarding the monetization of user data and user anonymity. It exclusively seeks transparent monetization and considers anonymity as a useful tool instead of as a dangerous way of being online. How do you situate craigslist in the current universe of discussions around user data and privacy, especially in the context of competing approaches from the likes of Facebook, which seek infinite monetization at the expense of users’ rights, and the likes of EU legislation, which aims for transparency and user protection?

Jessa Lingel: Companies like Facebook would have us believe that user privacy is dead, and that their business models are the only ones that are sustainable. In terms of platform politics and privacy, the most important thing about craigslist is that it provides an example of how a platform can be successful and profitable without exploiting user privacy and turning people into data points. I am very much in favor of federal legislation for Big Tech, but I’m not sure EU legislation really goes far enough. Living in the US, I’m impressed by the willingness of the EU to go after Big Tech when it comes to anti-trust and the Right to Be Forgotten, and the EU General Data Protection Regulation has done some work to increase literacy around cookies. But ultimately, users are mostly just given a notification that their options are either to give up their data or not use the site. In the US, I’m hopeful that legislation around anti-trust and privacy will surface, without sacrificing the important protections of CDA 230, which protects websites from being held responsible for the bad acts of individual users. I don’t think the answer to needing more robust forms of content moderation should come at the cost of user privacy or platform experimentation.

Nazli Azergun: Finally, I think your work is an important piece of Internet history and many appreciate you as a successful historian of the Internet and digital culture. Could you give some tips on how to conduct good historical research on digital culture? What are your approaches to archives and methods?

Jessa Lingel: Thanks, I’m really glad you see the book that way. The most important thing with this book was getting Craig Newmark on board. Journalists haven’t always been kind to him or craigslist in the past, and so I wasn’t entirely sure he’d want to talk to me. But he wound up being the very first person I interviewed. He was very generous with his time and put me in touch with folks who’d been involved with craigslist during its early days. From there, my challenge was making sure I could talk to a range of people who had different perspectives on craigslist, because I didn’t want to be totally beholden to Craig’s views.

Aside from getting insiders on board, the best piece of advice I could give for digital history of a particular platform is to be really expansive in the initial literature review. It took me a long time to figure out the structure of this book, and what took shape grew out of reading widely on anything and everything related to craigslist – academic work, journalism, legal scholarship, as well as how-to guides for buying and selling online, true crime novels and even erotica. After categorizing the different themes that emerged across these sources, the book’s structure started to become clearer to me. It was both a blessing and a curse that there are no other monographs out there on craigslist – it meant I had total freedom to do what I want, but it also meant that there wasn’t much to contrast with. Reading widely was essential for helping me figure out what questions I should ask about craigslist, and what questions about the internet craigslist could help me answer.

Vanessa Diaz on her new book, Manufacturing Celebrity

Manufacturing Celebrity: Latino Paparazzi and Women Reporters in Hollywood

Interview by Sandhya Narayanan

https://www.dukeupress.edu/manufacturing-celebrity

Sandhya Narayanan: One goal of your ethnography is to delve deeper into the ways that celebrity, and its close relative, fame is manufactured and circulated. Yet one opposing undercurrent throughout the book is the recognition that aspects about the lives of the so-called rich and famous should be hidden, secret, and unknowable.  Could you say more about this relationship between the dissemination of revealing photos and scoops with the ways in which celebrities also manage their allure through keeping certain aspects of their life unknowable?  How is the looping of fame with privacy managed similarly or differently by Latinx, male, paparazzi photographers, and white, female, celebrity reporters?

Vanessa Diaz: Thank you for this very layered question. So my research led me to understand that it’s not necessarily that the lives of celebrities should be hidden, secret, or unknowable, but rather that celebrities themselves want to be able to strategically control and monetize these disclosures. The laws that have been put in place to protect celebrity children from paparazzi imagery isn’t because celebrities do not want photos of their children in the press. Rather, it’s because the celebrities want to control the supply of those photos, which can be highly lucrative. As I explore in the book (in chapters three and seven in particular) an exclusive photos of a celebrity’s child can be hugely valuable and can yield millions of dollars. Information and imagery about celebrity lives is valuable currency, and celebrities want to retain as much control over that currency as possible. And I discuss this as relates to various forms of capital in the book as well (especially chapter seven).  Regarding the last question about how fame and privacy are managed similarly or differently by Latinx, male, paparazzi photographers, and white, female, celebrity reporters, there are also interesting distinctions here. The reporters are generally seen as operating more from the inside, as part of the more formal channels of celebrity media production. And this leads to them being understood as more on the side of the celebrities. In the book, I point to several examples of celebrity-focused stories where reporters discuss paparazzi with celebrities in adversarial terms during interviews, despite the fact that the article the interview yields is peppered with and relies on paparazzi images of that celebrity! So this perpetuates and even amplifies the precarity of paparazzi who are working outside of the formal celebrity media production processes. Because of this, paparazzi don’t have to necessarily be seen as being on the side of the celebrities in large part because the celebrity narrative has been one that strategically manufactures a dynamics in which paparazzi are celebrity adversaries, rather than celebrity promoters. As I discuss in the book (particularly in chapters two and three), however, paparazzi have developed their own ethical codes to do what they can to stay on celebrities’ good sides, even if it’s outside of the formal production processes. I think the issues of visibility and invisibility that I discuss in the book are also wrapped up in these dynamics (e.g. see page 60).

Sandhya Narayanan: You point out in your ethnography the ways that rising or lesser-known celebrities rely on the coverage provided by paparazzi and celebrity reporters to launch themselves into the spotlight. Yet at some point, these reporters, especially the paparazzi, are framed as enemies who are bent on destroying the lives and careers of our most beloved celebrities. Could you say more about this shift, and the role that consumers of celebrity news and gossip (that is, people like me who enjoy reading the tabloids as they wait to pay for groceries in the checkout aisle) play in also making or breaking this transition. 

Vanessa Diaz: A goal of the book is to really pull the curtain back on these specific dynamics that you’re highlighting in this question, precisely because they are dynamics that consumers do inevitably play a role in. It’s important to understand that this shift is largely one that is manufactured by the celebrity-industrial complex itself. And I explore why this is in the book (particularly in chapter three), where I discuss the idea of celebrity empathy, which helps us understand how media can strategically cultivate affinity with certain people while strategically denying it to others. Being pursued by paparazzi to the degree that it can be presented as an annoyance is something that demonstrates a certain status or level of celebrity. So, performing annoyance, or even anger and disgust at paparazzi signifies importance. This is a way to assert and even flex celebrity status. However, it’s important to remember that even most A-list celebrities still rely on paparazzi for exposure. So, even someone like Jennifer Aniston who claims paparazzi keep her in a state of “false imprisonment” (pg 101 in my book, chapter three), also still uses them when she needs to strategically promote things like Smart Water, for which she is a paid spokesperson (pg. 113 in my book). So if you actually put together the pieces (which is what I hope my book offers), you can see how this shift you discuss is largely a shift performed (often by professional actors!), that, again, has to do with control and capital. Consumers are looking at and buying the magazines because of the celebrities they love, or love to hate, and not because of the paparazzi. And so it’s natural that the consumption of celebrity media, which is generally meant to celebrate, support, and help consumers get to know celebrities, leads to deeper celebrity empathy and, subsequently, increased demonization of figures like the paparazzi.

Sandhya Narayanan: Your work with paparazzi photographers was based primarily in LA. Yet, wherever a celebrity goes, there you would also find a paparazzi photographer. At one point, you also mention how one of the paparazzi photographers you were close with was shooting photos in New Orleans? Given the precarious nature of their work, how were these photographers able to travel across the country? How were they able to go on assignments out of the country? And is there some informal international network of paparazzi photographers?

Vanessa Diaz: The question of travel for paparazzi is actually an important one, and one in which you can see the value a good paparazzo has. Yes, all of the paparazzi I worked with on my research were sent by their agencies to shoot specific celebrities in specific locations outside of Los Angeles, precisely because they are known to get good shots. I don’t think there is space here to fully explain the structure of paparazzi employment, which I explore in depth in chapters one and two of the book. But, essentially, most paparazzi are freelance and work for specific photo agencies who have complete control over the sales of paparazzi photos. Paparazzi rely on the agencies to give them the cut of the image sales that they are promised. Even if the paparazzi are freelance, an agency might pay for them to travel if they know it might yield valuable exclusive photos. For example, in chapter seven (pg. 222-223), you can see a beautiful photo of Angelia Jolie, Brad Pitt, and their children shot by one of my main paparazzo collaborators, Galo Ramirez, in New Orleans. He was sent there by his agency and that photo ended up being a spread in People magazine, and several other of his images ended up in other outlets. So it literally paid for the agency to send Galo to New Orleans. And, as I explore in chapter two, the paparazzi only receive a small percentage of the total of their image sales; it’s the agencies that are really profiting from these images. Another way that paparazzi end up getting to travel is instances like the one I explore in chapter two (pg. 82-83), where a celebrity, in this case the entire Kardashian family, gets paid to work with an agency to have a paparazzo come shoot their entire family vacation. This guarantees an exclusive set of photos for the magazine (which they believe will translate to sales and, thus, they can recuperate the investment), and also guarantees coverage for the family.  So, again, you can see the ways in which much of the coverage of celebrities, including and perhaps especially paparazzi shots, is about offering increasing control to celebrities. And yet they still often perform the irritation with paparazzi invading their space, even when they are often specifically invited into that space. Finally, there are certainly international paparazzi as well in various locations. And various agencies will work with international paparazzi as well.

Sandhya Narayanan: An interesting aspect about celebrity media production is the way it provides some degree of inclusion for amateurs and individuals with little to no experience in celebrity media creation and production. At times, this type of amateurism is at odds with individuals who are more established in the field. But more recently, we also see the rise of cellphone technology that can let anyone take a good shot or recording. How do you think these technologies, which have the potential to allow anyone to produce celebrity news content, might affect the livelihoods of paparazzi and celebrity reporters?

Vanessa Diaz: It is definitely unique and interesting that paparazzi have been able to break into the industry without formal training prior to them entering the field. However, as I explore in chapter one in the section “Skill, Training, and the New Paps” (pg. 57), a lot of the notions about professionalism is steeped in racist tropes and stereotypes about unskilled Latinx labor. The reality is that it is a myth that anyone can do paparazzi work. That doesn’t mean that paparazzi come in knowing how to operate the incredibly expensive and complicated photography equipment. But, as Galo explains, they have intensive on the job training. Yes, smart phones make it so that anybody standing next to Justin Bieber can get a photograph and that photograph has the potential to sell. But it is an illusion that valuable shots can all just be done on cell phones.  There is certainly skill required in getting the exclusive, most valuable photos. Many of the most valuable, and frankly beautiful, paparazzi images entail the paparazzo having the skill to use complicated specialized equipment, like telephoto lenses that are sometimes several feet long (there are a few good examples in chapter one in the section “(In)Visibility and the Racialized Paparazzi,” which begins on page 60, as well as elsewhere in the book). Getting these shots also requires intel, which means you have to be a part of the network and have access to information so you know where to be to get the shot.

Sandhya Narayanan: I was struck by your assertion that celebrity reporters and photographers have created some of the most culturally significant and recognizable content since the turn of the new millennia. Yet, you point out that celebrity reporters do not think of themselves as journalists, nor do the paparazzi necessarily frame their photographs as photojournalism or art. This suggests that there is something going on in the structuring of media platforms within the US. Where does celebrity media fit in relation to other types of information media within the US? How can this positioning help us understand the inequities and precarities that paparazzi photographers and female celebrity reporters face in the industry? 

Vanessa Diaz: As I explain in the book, any distinction between entertainment and news media at this point in American culture is simply a function of a public imaginary—that there should be a difference between hard news and entertainment news. It appears that we are in the final days of the first reality star presidency, but perhaps not the last. And I think the Trump presidency has done a great deal to even further blur any potential distinction between hard news and entertainment news precisely because he treated political news reporters in the same fashion he and other celebrities have always treated (and disregarded, belittled, and even abused and assaulted) entertainment media producers.

In terms of celebrity reporters not always considering themselves journalists, and paparazzi not necessarily thinking of their work as photojournalism or art, I think that it is, again, an extension of this public imaginary I discussed above, which is steeped in hierarchies and cultural elitism around ideas about news. At this point, fake news has become everyday language, and we can understand celebrity media as the original fake news. Celebrities have been denying celebrity news reporting for a century, whether the reporting was true or not. What I think is different about the present moment is that celebrity news and hard news and journalism are increasingly blurring together both in terms of the subject matter of the coverage and the way the media producers are viewed and treated.

Jenny L. Davis on her book, How Artifacts Afford: The Power and Politics of Everyday Things

How Artifacts Afford

Interview by Kevin Laddapong

https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/how-artifacts-afford

Kevin Laddapong: Reading How Artifacts Afford is very refreshing. You have proposed a way forward for analysts and practitioners to think critically about technologies through the notion of affordance. However, as you mentioned in the book, the concept has traveled widely from discipline to discipline. It sometimes is undertheorized, and sometimes overtheorized. Could you please discuss what are the watershed moments shaping how scholars have approached the concept of affordances that has led to the current analytical landscape?

I’ll start with a working definition of affordance, for those who are unfamiliar. Affordances are how the features of a technology—its technical specifications—affect the functions of a technology. This includes direct utilities (what people can do with the technology) and social outcomes (what the technology does with us).

It’s unusual for a concept tot operate so fully between and across disciplines, as ‘affordance’ has. However, as I say in the book, cross-disciplinary travels can lead to conceptual blurriness and overworking.  Chapter 2 of the book provides a full intellectual history of the concept, which I’ll distil here into three general epochs

JJ Gibson introduced the concept of affordance in 1979 with his book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Gibson was an ecological psychologist who defined affordance as a relationship between organisms and environments. This was empirically derived from Gibson’s efforts to understand how WWII pilots interacted with their airplanes, and theoretically based in Gibson’s opposition to gestalt psychology (the du jour of the time). For Gibson, affordance represented an intrinsic relationship between people and objects, and his use of the term served a theoretical agenda to convey human-environment interaction as direct rather than representational

In the 1980s/1990s, Don Norman made affordance practical and tangible. Norman brought the concept to design studies with his canonical book The Design of Everyday Things. Norman positioned the designer as a psychologist, tasked with communicating to users, through design, how those objects ought to be used.

From the early 2000’s to present, with the rise of digital technologies and automation, affordance has conceptually exploded. Scholars in communication studies and other related fields have scrambled to understand a changing technological landscape and how technological developments integrate into, and affect, social life. Affordance is an effective tool in this regard due to its characteristic balance between technological determinism and radical constructivism.

In the book, I build on this history to transform an overloaded concept into an operational model. The model I present is called ‘the mechanisms and conditions framework’.      

Kevin Laddapong: The book requires us to reframe the question about technologies from what to how, for whom, and under what circumstances, which bring us to the Mechanism and Condition Framework.  For the blog readers, could you describe this framework, and discuss how it would lead to a different approach to the technologies around us?

Jenny Davis: The mechanisms and conditions framework shifts ‘affordance’ from a single concept to an operational model. The mechanisms of affordance address how technologies afford, and the conditions address for whom and under what circumstances?

The mechanisms map onto a series of categorical hooks: request, demand, encourage, discourage, refuse, and allow. These mechanisms are conditioned by three interrelated dimensions of perception—what someone knows about the functions of a technology, dexterity—one’s skill and capacity to operate a technology, and cultural and institutional legitimacy—how socially supported someone is in technological engagement.

The framework does two things. First, it gets outside binary renditions of human-technology relations. Technologies don’t just afford some action or not, but push and pull with varying degrees of force. This variable pushing and pulling is captured by the mechanisms of affordance (request, demand, encourage, discourage, refuse, and allow). Second, the model does away with implicit assumptions about universal subjects. Technologies function in myriad ways across circumstances and between individuals. The conditions of affordance specify how contextual factors come into play (e.g., for whom does the technology request and for whom does it demand?) 

Kevin Laddapong: Another major contribution of this book is its approach to politicizing technology. How can readers use the Mechanism and Condition Framework as a strategic and critical tool for thinking about technologies in everyday lives?

Jenny Davis: The book begins with the assumption that technologies embody human values and affect social relations. This assumption overlays the mechanisms and conditions framework with a critical lens that centralizes politics and power in socio-technical systems. Centralizing politics and power creates an entry point for interrogating whose interests existing technologies represent, how those technologies (re)produce structural social patterns, and how to build new technological implements that trouble the status quo.

The mechanisms and conditions framework provides a simple vocabulary for mapping not only direct technical functions, but also flow-on social effects of technologies as they interact with diverse subjects across a range of circumstances. With the mechanisms and conditions framework, analysts and activists can hold technology makers to account for what is, while reimagining what could be.

Kevin Laddapong: In order to make a direct impact, how could public and business sectors, such as tech companies, policymakers, and the media industry appropriate the framework in practice? Would you see any benefit to having these other actors engage with the framework as well?

Jenny Davis: I tried to make the book highly accessible for the very reason that I think the framework can be beneficial to those outside of academia, like the groups you mention in this question. The stakes of technological design are too high to keep ideas about design processes and outcomes cordoned off within academic circles.  Technologies have social effects. This is something we should all care about, and it is something that tech companies, policymakers, and the media industry can directly impact.

Corporate and government actors can use the framework to systematically plan how their creations will function both technically and socially, within a diverse, dynamic, and multifaceted world. Although it’s easy to criticize tech companies and governing bodies for their continued missteps, it’s also important to acknowledge how challenging it is to build something new and to imagine all the ways that new thing will affect the world and the people in it. The mechanisms and conditions framework helps put complex considerations on the ground such that social goals can be the start point, from which developers build. For example, those who develop and regulate technological systems can specify how their system will encourage autonomy and equity, and identify sub-populations for whom those social goods are refused.

The framework can also be a tool of empowerment for those who seek to hold corporate and governing bodies to account. If technologies do bad things, then everyday people can use the framework’s vocabulary to show, unambiguously, what those bad things are and how they distribute along intersecting lines of power, identity, and inequality.

Neha Vora on her book, Teach for Arabia

Cover of Teach for Arabia by Neha Vora

Interview by Patrick Lewis

https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=27908


Patrick Lewis:  When I first came across the title of your book, two things came to mind: Betty Anderson’s (2011) history of the project of liberal education at the American University of Beirut and Talal Asad’s (2003) collection of articles on secularism and liberalism in the Arab world. How do you see your work building on or diverging from these earlier approaches to liberalism in the Arab World and why does it matter for how we imagine liberal higher education? 

Neha Vora: Betty Anderson’s work on AUB was indeed one of the texts that really resonated with me and my approach to this project! Anderson considers how a missionary and colonial institution became a central site of Arab politicization (al-Nahda as well as anti-colonial activism). She also has a very interesting section in that book where she discusses how theories of evolution were normalized through protest by medical students and instructors at AUB almost a hundred years before they became acceptable in the US academy, challenging conventional Western understandings of Islam as somehow antithetical to modernity or science. While I do consider the colonial and missionary approaches within Education City’s American branch campus, the contexts and time periods of my project and Anderson’s are of course very different. Nevertheless, she points to the way that these seemingly hegemonic projects lead to unforeseen and sometimes even contradictory outcomes, and she denaturalizes the US academy as the source of knowledge which then supposedly flows to the Middle East. In relation to Asad’s work, I am not in direct dialogue with his work on secularism – there is a chapter in the book where I discuss his earlier work in Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter to argue that anthropological ways of thinking about culture have permeated the US academy and its containment of difference. I’m not a scholar of religion but I do think that I approach liberalism with a similar spirit to Asad’s approach to secularism, liberalism, and modernity. That these are mythologies which structure world-making and not reflective of essentialized differences between societies and places. I think we are both engaged in provincializing projects but from different entry points.

Patrick Lewis:  In your discussion of recent higher education reform and Qatarization, you describe a state project to develop post-oil citizenship that envisages a gradual transition away from oil extraction toward an economy built on information technologies and services in which Qatari citizens will perform many of the ‘knowledge economy’ jobs now performed by foreigners. However, you also describe a degree of skepticism, if not outright cynicism, around this transition among locals and argue that new investments in higher education, rather than “shifting economic reliance away from petro-wealth, [are] rather sustained by it” (p. 33), and have in fact increased Qatar’s dependence on foreign academics and administrators. Are there any larger lessons here for regional or national economies attempting to transition away from extractive industries through education or technical training?

Neha Vora: I can’t really speak to lessons on how to move away from extractive industries, as these economies are shaped by much deeper and longer transnational connections and pressure from imperial powers (previously Britain and now the US). My approach to “knowledge economy” is to disentangle its rhetoric from its effects on the ground, which are in fact quite messy and oftentimes contradictory. The book discusses how local elites leverage nativism in nation building projects, of which knowledge economy is one. This is done in the name of a supposedly homogenous group of citizens, but citizens do not uniformly benefit from these projects. I try to showcase the heterogeneity of Qatari citizens and how the idea of Qatariness needs to be consistently rehearsed and performed to have any coherence. I also highlight ways that Qatari leaders produce forms of inclusion for non-citizen immigrants, who are rhetorically and legally cast as perpetual outsiders but are actually integral to the country’s future. Education City is a project that benefits non-citizens as much as citizens, and the Qatari state offers generous financial aid packages for immigrants, which are forgiven if one works a certain number of years in Qatar after graduation. Higher education is quite obviously a space where multicultural futures are being produced. Thus the “transnational Qatar” in my book title.

Patrick Lewis:  Throughout the book you work to push back against boilerplate takes in US academia on American higher education in the Gulf that promote “top-down understandings of branch campuses solely as arms of neoliberal profit or colonial replication” (p. 154). One point you return to again and again throughout the book is the generous public funding that sustains these projects and, in the context of your own experiences working at universities in both the United States and the Gulf, the relative security of your academic colleagues working in Qatar. How might the story of US branch campuses in the Gulf complicate the narrative of the neoliberal university and global higher education – a narrative that these projects are often used to buttress in US academic discourse? How have your experiences in the Gulf shaped your perception of the ‘crisis of the public university’ as it is narrated in the United States?

Neha Vora: One of my entry points into the language of crisis has been to ask whose crisis it is. In this way I am very much in conversation with scholars within a growing field of abolitionist university studies. The kind of nostalgia that US academic crisis narratives traffic in is one that does not acknowledge the exclusionary and violent underpinnings of the university as an institution that has been fundamentally shaped by slavery, settler colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and elitism. Simply by considering the history of the US university, it becomes impossible to separate it from US military endeavors or corporate interests. These are not new entanglements but ones that underpin the academy, so to claim a current state of crisis due to neoliberalization requires some major elisions of that history. I argue that the ability to perform those erasures is only available to a small group of elite, non-precarious (usually white and/or male) academics who have experienced the mythologies of the liberal academy as real (egalitarianism, free inquiry, and inclusion for example). Most of us who learn and labor within the US academy do not have the privilege of that experience. Yet we also replicate liberal mythologies and crisis narratives, especially in the way we view a globalizing university. But the US academy has always been global as well, in that knowledge production has always been a core facet of US imperial violence.

My experience teaching and researching in Education City allowed me to see my own investment in what I call liberal piety more clearly. The difference between an American and Qatari classroom, for example, is not one between freedom of speech and censorship but rather both are spaces in which instructors and students are constrained by particular norms and pushed to perform particular personas. Teaching about Palestine in Qatar, for example, was a rewarding experience in comparison to teaching in Texas or Pennsylvania. I also was able to see how the hierarchies and exclusions of the American academy get reproduced in the Gulf: despite being in a country where most of the people (and most of the students in Education City) are brown, I still had to navigate my (predominantly white) colleagues and superiors as a woman of color in ways that felt quite similar to what I have to do at home.

I also saw how Western administrators utilized nonliberal aspects of Qatar’s immigration and employment structure for the benefit of the “liberal” university (outsourcing custodial work, paying people from different nationalities at different scales, capitalizing on trailing spouses (almost all women) as a cheaper source of local labor, and so on). And the students schooled me quite early on some things that I had blinders to—all international students in the US are dependent on visas and have no opportunity to stay in the country after graduation without securing employment almost immediately. In Qatar, international and immigrant non-citizen students were also visa dependent, but there were more formal and informal avenues to attaining employment after graduation. In addition, the Islamophobia and racism students in Education City experienced when studying abroad in the US made Qatar feel like a much more welcoming place to live and potentially settle, despite the barriers to permanence in the Gulf. The book is not arguing that neoliberal changes are not taking place—they certainly are. But it is challenging the way that criticisms of neoliberalization reify the US home campus as one of liberalism and the Gulf as a space of illiberalism, when in fact there are many things that critics want from the university (state subsidies, resources, living wages, lower teaching load, diverse and inquisitive students) which academics in the Gulf branch campuses experience to a greater degree than those at the home campuses. On the other hand, much of what academics miss from the supposedly eroded liberalism of the neoliberal US academy is in fact the product of things we would consider rather illiberal if they happened elsewhere.

Patrick Lewis:  A significant amount of the book is devoted to exploring different subject positions in the university across differentiated axes of gender, class, race, and citizenship. It considers, inter alia, the relative positions of Qatari citizens and foreigners, as well as between international vs. ‘local expat’ students, and between South Asian migrant workers who often labor in menial jobs (or, as you describe when talking about your own experiences in chapter 5, are imagined to work in such jobs even when this is not the case) and (frequently white) experts from Europe and North America. What does a study of Education City allow us to see about difference and belonging in Qatar, that better-known journalistic and academic work on migrant labor camps for instance, perhaps obscures?

Neha Vora: Some of this I have already addressed in my previous answers. One of the things that we can see through the study of a transnational corporation in the Gulf (and these branch campuses function legally almost exactly like corporations) is that the ethno-racial hierarchy in employment, and the ability to hyper-exploit certain employees (usually low wage from the Global South), is the product of a partnership between global—often Western—consultants and Qatari leaders. In my previous book, Impossible Citizens, I detailed how it was Indian immigrants who were most often acting as the managers (and exploiters) of their less fortunate compatriots. In Teach for Arabia, I look at how larger institutions shape working and living conditions for various immigrants in the country. The journalistic and academic representations of toiling South and Southeast Asian workers in labor camps almost always put the blame for labor exploitation on Gulf governments and citizens when in fact this is a product of transnational elite cooperation.

Patrick Lewis:  Finally, I want to ask about this book’s different audiences and its reception in Qatar and the United States. There is certainly much in this book that would be of interest to higher educational planners in Qatar and the wider Gulf. But it also seems to me that there is a message for US academics and university administrators as well. How did you conceive of the audience for your book and how has it been received in the United States and the Gulf? Has anything about its reception surprised you?

Neha Vora: This book was difficult to write in that I wanted to find a balance between centering what goes on in the branch campuses on-the-ground through my ethnography and offering a criticism of US academia more generally. However, I did not want the ethnographic information to be operationalized just for the purpose of critique, which is always a concern in anthropology. I wanted readers (both in the Gulf and elsewhere) to really get a feel for what different actors in Education City experience and the viewpoints they have on the project. What has been most rewarding is the circulation of this text among students in Doha and hearing that it resonates with their lived experiences in the branch campuses. It was used as a core text by my colleagues at Northwestern Qatar, in a class that all students are required to take about liberal arts education. Many of the things I discuss in the book came to a head last year when Northwestern Qatar students protested the ways they were being treated by faculty and administrators, and the way lower-ranking staff members are also treated. I had a chance to engage some of these students through Zoom last week as a guest speaker in the class I mentioned, and it was a great experience.

At the same time, the reception of the book has been mixed among faculty in the branch campuses. I have received a lot of praise from some, especially faculty of color who find that I articulate some of their frustrations. But I have heard there is also a lot of resistance, with some people even refusing to read the book. I was actually disinvited from a talk at a branch campus after a dean found out I had been invited by my colleague. His reasoning was that Qatar Foundation and Qataris might be offended, which is ironic because I discuss throughout the book how Qatari culture becomes an excuse for (white) American administrators to legitimize choices that work to their benefit. My criticisms in this text are not of Qataris or Qatari culture, but of the ways that whiteness, Americanness, and transnational expertise are leveraged in (re)producing essentialized ideas of cultural and racial difference, to the detriment of both Qatari and non-Qatari students. Colleagues in the US have been receptive to the book but there is still a lot of investment in essentialized and spectacular understanding of the Arabian Peninsula, and of course these are the very understandings that end up producing the structural conditions of inclusion and exclusion in the branch campuses. I have co-authored a book with two other ethnographers of the region, Amelie Le Renard and Ahmed Kanna, which just came out this year and discusses the role of exceptionalism in knowledge production about the Gulf, called Beyond Exception.

Rachel Plotnick on her book, Power Button

Power Button

Interview by Kevin Laddapong

https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/power-button

Kevin Laddapong: In Power Button, you bring readers back to the early days of buttons and encourage readers to think about the button in a new way. You have shown the discursiveness of technological development and the complexity of how buttons are socially embedded, from calling for service to turning on the light. How did you decide which buttons to focus on, given that buttons are so ubiquitous? 

Rachel Plotnick: The ubiquity of buttons posed a big challenge for my study, and I was quickly daunted by it. As you suggest, I knew it wouldn’t be possible to write about every button that existed at the turn of the twentieth century. So, I took an approach that is often suggested in science and technology studies (STS) – which recommends that scholars “follow the actors.” In other words, I started looking to see what people called a button (for example, sometimes the ends of telegraph keys were called buttons) and how they talked about using buttons (some were pulled or turned instead of pushed). I tried not to impose my own categories of what counted as a button, but rather to use this grounded approach of seeing what emerged. Because most homes didn’t have electricity at this historical moment, button interfaces were perceived more as a novelty and that made it a bit easier. Most discussion circulated around buttons as mechanisms for control (push a button for light, an elevator, to take a picture, and so on) or as mechanisms for communication (to call a servant, trigger an alarm, honk a horn). As I began to see these categories rise to the surface, it was easier to sort and make sense of which buttons mattered for my story.

Kevin Laddapong: When many media scholars think about technology, they focus upon technologists, electricians, engineers, and other STEM figures. But the protagonists of this book tend to be “advertisers”. We see from your book that they defined the technology, told us who was eligible to push the button, and how should we perceive the buttons. Can you say more about the influences of these surprising non-STEM characters in this very scientific advancement?  

Rachel Plotnick: I think you’re right that advertisers played a large role in influencing discourse about buttons. While there were many other actors, too (such as inventors, educators, or electrical companies), the idea of pushing a button really appealed to advertisers because they could sell new technologies of industrialization and electrification as safe, non-threatening, and effortless. It’s no surprise that Kodak’s slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest” took hold so widely at the time. It came to symbolize the seductiveness of automaticity – that consumers didn’t need to be especially skilled or well-versed in picture development (or photography in general) to own and operate a camera. In this regard, buttons acted as a kind of gateway to a whole world of mechanisms and consumer products that demanded limited input from their users. Advertisers often talked about using the button as a way to connote pleasure. Though this sometimes backfired, in that people perceived pushing buttons as too hedonistic and lazy, advertisers continued to rally around the concept. We can see this fixation still at work today – from the Staples “Easy” button to Uber’s “tap for a ride.” Buttons conjure up fantasies of instant gratification that seem almost timeless.

Kevin Laddapong: One of the key themes in your book is the power momentum between button-pushers and pushed. It was convolutedly interlocked with different levels of identities, haves and have-nots, men and women, or children, and adults. How did the technology help produce these button-pushing bodies?

Rachel Plotnick: This theme really emerged – quite noticeably – through the course of my research. It was fascinating to see how many people complained about power imbalances that they felt were exacerbated by button pushing. When I say people, this usually meant people who were already socially disadvantaged or othered in some way – due to race, class, gender or a combination of those factors. Servants were used to being heralded by bell systems, but when bells became electric and were installed at every bedpost, under the dining room table, next to the sofa, and so on, then control of those servants’ bodies and their movement became increasingly discreet and ubiquitous. Their bodies were made to move throughout homes while the button-pusher could remain stationary to herald whatever (or whomever) they desired. A similar dynamic existed between employers and employees. The rise of the so-called push-button manager likely did not have to do only with buttons, as at this historical moment places of business were undergoing industrialization and new bureaucratic procedures were taking hold. Buttons functioned as another bureaucratic measure and mechanism for exerting authority. As disparities between managers and employees became greater (a separation of white-collar workers from blue collar workers or head workers from manual laborers), button pushing drew attention to these stratifications. Employees disliked that their employers could sit behind a desk and command them at a moment’s notice. I call this digital command – an effortless gesture generated with the touch of a finger. I think it is critical to acknowledge that when people pushed buttons, it always involved someone’s labor (and the physical movement of bodies) to make one’s desires appear.

Kevin Laddapong: Gathering from your book, buttons hid the messy wires, simplified the electronic circuits in one touch, most importantly, disguised the underlying labor. But now, we are living in the digital age and many physical buttons become graphics or even voice controls. Do modern-day buttons still serve class inequality and labor exploitation? What is the lesson we can learn from the development of buttons regarding these issues?

Rachel Plotnick: That’s a great question. From a technical perspective, buttons are even further removed from the actions they trigger. Digital buttons that require only a tap or a swipe seem to provide anything one desires, from a ride to a roll of toilet paper. Even emotions are “buttonized,” in a sense: we click buttons to share our feelings in social media as a primary way of interacting with others. Yet, despite these significant differences from the turn of the twentieth century, I would argue that inequality and exploitation still figure significantly into button dynamics. I think the case of Amazon provides a good example. Consumers can “push” a button for nearly any product imaginable (for awhile, Amazon even had physical Dash buttons one could affix throughout their home). While this consumption feels effortless and gratifying, it elides the power dynamics that make such pushing possible. What happens after you click “purchase”? Whose bodies have to carry out and fulfill the orders? How are those bodies treated? Paid? What power dynamics exist in the factory, the warehouse, on the streets where the packages are delivered? What are the environmental implications? And who has the luxury or privilege to order Amazon items at will in the first place? Advertisers and manufacturers have always turned to buttons as a way to sell pleasure and instant gratification, so I see an emphasis on clicking, pushing, tapping and swiping on the Internet and apps as (in many ways) a continuation of the power relationships that began more than 100 years ago. We could take this even farther and think about drone warfare as an even higher stakes example of using buttons to make some bodies expendable while others sit in their command centers; what does it mean for armchair generals to decide who lives and who dies with a push of a button?