Anat Rosenberg on her book, The Rise of Mass Advertising

Interview by Astrid Van den Bossche, Kings College London

Oxford University Press

Astrid Van den Bossche: One striking focus of your book is the presence and treatment—legally, culturally, and scholarly—of enchantment as a recurring, and potentially structuring, market experience. As you note, there is much debate on the (dis)enchanted status of modern life, but what led you to this focus in a history of mass advertising in Britain?

Anat Rosenberg: In truth, I did not come with this question to the research. Only after delving into the sources I realized that the tension between disenchantment and enchantment was central to the history of advertising, to ways of loving and hating it, and to its legal ordering.

When you start thinking about it, connecting advertising and enchantment might seem obvious, because there is such a huge body of literature that does just that, both in the critical tradition (think about Barthes, Baudrillard, Raymond Williams and others), and recently with more interest in the possibility that enchantment is not a danger or manipulation, but a form of agency (Jane Bennett for example, David Morgan and others). And yet I saw three gaps in this literature. First, there is almost nothing about enchantment by advertising in the first era of mass advertising in Britain, around 1840 -1914 – it has simply not been a theme for most historians of the period. Second, what you can glean from existing histories is dominated by material from the producer-end: interpretive studies of adverts and archives of businesses and advertising agencies. Additional scholarship is philosophical in nature, the Frankfurt School for example. Finally, there was nothing about the legal treatment of enchantment. 

So, my opening chapter responds to the first two gaps with a study of reception sources for advertising. I have used everything I could find: testimonies of consumers in court suits against advertisers, comments in the press, autobiographies and diaries, fiction, works of art, albums and scrapbooks. I trace what readers of adverts were looking for, how they imagined the mysteries and adventures of their world by inhabiting environments of mass advertising. Then, the rest of the book examines how law was mobilized to respond to mass advertising on the level of social ordering, and particularly how responses disavowed enchantment. That is why I argue that there was a normative project of disenchantment. While disenchantment was not a historical reality – here I side with revisionist historians, it was much more than a wavering ideology. It was an active enterprise made up of multiple legal investments across British culture, which gathered momentum despite of – or because – enchantment was such a constitutive experience of the capitalist economy.

Astrid Van den Bossche: By looking at gambling and indecency, Chapter 6 in particular pushes against the limits of discourses of modern disenchantments, and points to the consequently sketchy theorisation of enchantment. What are your key takeaways for the historical study and conceptualisation of enchantment?

Anat Rosenberg: The censorship of gambling and indecent adverts was my last hope for a significant legal conceptualization of enchantment. Until that point, I encountered disavowals. Almost everywhere, debates about advertising gravitated towards its legitimation and criticism within rationalist paradigms. I then expected debates about gambling and indecency to be the exception to the rule, because they started out by worrying about consumers’ non-rational responses to mass culture. The theory of gambling highlighted gamblers’ defiance of reason and quasi-mystical views. The theory of indecency placed primacy on the power of print to interact with receptive minds, ignite desires, and draw affective responses. However, the potential of theories of enchantment to reconceive advertising was checked, and they ended on a weak and even banal note. The legal logic and practice of censorship in fact shielded the better part of advertising from a developed discussion of enchanting appeals, and so censorious theories ultimately affirmed that adverting was compatible with a disenchanted culture.

This limited conceptualization of enchantment was not a failure of understanding, or a historical accident. It reflected a cultural commitment to modernity-as-disenchantment, which relied on law to make itself present in everyday life. In other words, what might seem sketchy or inadequate was in fact a serious effort to insist that capitalism was a disenchanting force and that modernity was a victory of reason, while a messier possibility was looming large.

From a historical perspective we could ask whether this effort was successful. The answer is complex. Despite its analytic weakness, modernity-as-disenchantment became common sense. The host of perspectives it involved in terms of the rationalities of cultural fields and the dispassionate mentality of economic life itself, were and remain dominant. Yet, all this did not preclude enchantment, it just deprived it of normative conceptual languages, which had ironic outcomes. Because enchantment was disavowed, advertising was treated like a failure: it was described as biased information, vulgar aesthetic, knowledge corrupted by exaggeration. Such attacks unwittingly liberated advertisers from rationalist inhibitions – since they were failing anyway, and finally drove professional advertisers to adopt a theory that celebrated enchantment. This theory was attractive because law had little to say about it. Professionals branded themselves as masters of the nonrational mind, a myth that has held incredible sway.

Astrid Van den Bossche: This leads us, in fact, to the other main argument of the book, which is that the boundaries between advertising and other cultural fields such as the press, the arts, and the sciences, were continuously tested, contested, and redrawn. As you point to above on the celebration of enchantment as the advertiser’s craft, advertising as we know it is the result of this boundary work. Reversely, we might imagine that advertising had a hand in shaping the cultural fields that sought to distance themselves from it.  How far could we go with this argument, in your view?

Anat Rosenberg: Pretty far, I think. Advertising developed by defying and testing cultural boundaries, as it traded and trod on the cultural authority of other fields. Legal boundary work dealt with these challenges, and created differentiations. In this process advertising functioned as a cultural scapegoat, which carried the burden of commercial corruption for other fields. The dangers of the profit motive were attributed to advertisers, who were associated with concepts of bias, vulgarity, or exaggeration, while other fields could claim to represent higher ideals of aesthetic appreciation, objective knowledge, or impartial information. Of course, no field was free from market pressures at this point, but advertising salvaged them because in the ongoing comparison they fared better.

So, the broad argument of the book is that advertising energized an entire culture to examine and explain the terms on which it lived. Its history should not be examined only from the perspective of consumption or commerce – it had a world-generating power across fields in terms of aesthetics, epistemology, and ontology.

Astrid Van den Bossche: Drawing on legal archives, from legal treatises to case reports, has allowed you to unpack the norming and legitimisation of advertising practices. What advice do you have for those who might be less familiar with these resources?

Anat Rosenberg: Law is too important to leave only to lawyers, don’t be afraid to delve into these sources. We have not seen book-length histories of advertising that work with law seriously (as far as I know), which is unfortunate because it has limited our understanding of the its history. Without the legal angle, it is hard to see the commonalities and broad implications of seemingly different areas in which advertising was being contested, challenged and shaped, from art through journalism to medicine and more.

To integrate law into our sources of cultural analysis is more straight forward than might first appear. After all, it consists of very human efforts to formulate social meanings, resolve cultural dilemmas, and frame normativity. It involves not only legislators and courts, and not only trained legal professionals but also local organizations, practices, and material environments that are part of daily pursuits, market relationships, and substate structures. Multiple actors create, adapt, and perform normativity in these environments, and attempt to formalize it within their distinct constraints and opportunities. From this perspective, law is emergent and dispersed, and often non-lawyers will have unique insight. What is more, from this perspective most resources you examine can have a legal angle, if you only ask them the question! Yes, many resources require us to develop expertise in legal fields and their history in order to fully understand them, but the knowledge is available, and worth the effort.

Astrid Van den Bossche: Much of the book celebrates audiences, their engagement, their responses, and the balancing of imagination and reason. There are no crowds or masses without attention to the particular circumstances in which consumers read their advertisements. At the same time, you point out that using reception evidence allows us to see a phenomenon at “the level of wholes,” thus theorising the effects of advertising not as the result of exposures to single images, but as the result of their accumulation. What have we missed in our histories of advertising by not attending to these wholes?

Anat Rosenberg: I love this juxtaposition between masses of people and masses of adverts, I hadn’t considered the conceptual play here!

            Yes, I argue in the book that the accumulation of adverts en masse was a historical form in its own right. It was at the forefront of cultural consciousness as all media were characterized by unprecedented advertising concentration.

When we focus on accumulation as form, we include things that otherwise look banal and have received little attention from historians. For example, one- or two-liner text adverts or unknown advertisers. As we move beyond leading advertisers and spectacular campaigns, towards the numerous and trivial, we can also move beyond the animation of the commodity, which is the most theoretically developed aspect of consumer enchantment. A focus on commodities and brands is insufficient because advertising in the long nineteenth century advertised the market, or more precisely life as a market. This was the broadest and yet very concrete imaginary that forged audiences. Hefty mixtures of adverts for commodities, second-hand goods, entertainments, services, labour and financial opportunities, politics, personal messages and more are critical, because they gave shape, feeling, and meaning to abstract ideas about market society.

A focus on accumulation as form cannot limit itself to semiotic approaches that begin with single adverts and campaigns. There have been famous studies of accumulation, like Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, but I have tried to join historical readers for walks through a variety of British passages, physical and imaginary, and see how they experienced the world with and through them. It was often fascinated (and fascinating) travel. In other words, the question of accumulation invites a study of ways of reading, where my analysis of readers of adverts joins other cultural studies of reading mass culture.

Astrid Van den Bossche: You draw on many fascinating cases that bring people’s experiences with advertising to life – is there one in particular that has stuck with you?

Anat Rosenberg: Many, but to connect to your question about the accessibility of legal resources, and my emphasis on the banal, the trophy goes to a case of an obscure businessman, which made no legal precedent or economic drama.

Arthur Lewis Pointing was the mind behind the Oriental Toilet Company, which advertised “Invisible Elevators.” The adverts urged short people to buy elevators, promising a magical transfiguration that would raise their height by up to four inches. He was in fact selling pieces of cork to place inside shoes. Within a year and a half, he sold 4,150 pairs. The trouble was that not all consumers got high; the elevators were too small, or too painful, or both. The company was not responsive and so some consumers went to the police. Pointing was charged with fraud in the Bow Street Police Court, but when the case moved to the Old Bailey it was dismissed.

There are two lessons to learn from his case. First, the testimonies showed how the power of commodity advertising played out in the lives of ordinary people. The stories revealed the extent of imagination in the reception of adverts, which continued even after the pieces of cork arrived, when consumers’ dreams of transformative science met with the simplicity of conception and with the actual smallness of size. For example, a domestic servant said she did not use mirrors and did not know whether she looked taller with the elevators. What we see here is a projection of dreams and an active avoidance of knowledge, which I have found to be a peculiar characteristic of modern enchantment. When knowledge was readily available, people had to make efforts not to know.

Second, Pointing defended himself by arguing that his adverts were just puffery, which is not enforceable in law. Puffery is an extraordinary legal doctrine. It licenses advertising by keeping advertisers immune to claims, but it also ridicules it by explaining that legal immunity reflects the fact that advertised claims are exaggerations that no reasonable person believes. This explanation is another evasion of the seriousness of enchantment. But anyway, because of the ridicule, as soon as Pointing won with his puffery defence, he rushed to the newspapers to fix the damage done to his reputation. This turn of events helps use appreciate the ridiculing effect of law, which legal scholars have not examined.

Pointing went on to become a successful seller of quack medicines with a flair for bodily transformation. He sold remedies to prevent inordinate blushing, getting too fat, and getting too lean. When he died in an asylum, his will, which was a huge $40,000–$80,000 (approximately £4.8–£9.6 million in 2020), was fittingly contested by an advertising agent!

Emily Aguiló-Pérez on her book, An American Icon in Puerto Rico

Interview by Julia Perillo

Julia Perillo: How did you get the idea for this book?

Emily Aguiló-Pérez: This was based on my doctoral dissertation, and I decided to talk about Barbie as I was studying Children’s Literature and Children’s Culture. I took a Girlhood Studies class my first semester of my PhD with my advisor, and we read some of her research about Barbie. Then in another class, we also talked about Barbie. It had never occurred to me to make Barbie my subject of research, but that semester I really thought about it. I said “I think I can research Barbie because I played with Barbie for a big chunk of my childhood,” and I went with that. So throughout my PhD I then refined and thought about these questions.

There has been a lot of research about Barbie in general, but I haven’t seen a lot in Puerto Rico, where I am from. I defended my dissertation in 2016 and then, in 2018, I saw a call for book proposals for a Transnational Girlhoods series in Berghahn Books, the publisher that also publishes the Girls’ Studies Journal, and I said, let me try it, and then they can reject it, or  help make it better. And they actually loved the idea. So that’s how it came to be.

Julia Perillo: That’s so exciting, especially for me as a young academic. My next question is about the challenges that you faced. I can imagine that, saying, “I want to talk about Barbie, about girls, about playing and childhood” might have been surprising to a lot of people.

Emily Aguiló-Pérez: In my academic setting, thankfully there weren’t a lot of challenges in terms of the topic itself, which, if I had done it in a different place, there might have been. People could have said: “you’re gonna research Barbie? That’s not real research.” But I was lucky that I have a very supportive committee, and especially because my advisor had researched Barbie, so in that sense I feel like it wasn’t as challenging as it may have been in a different place.

I talked about a different challenge though, when I was defending my dissertation, I think I became more Puerto Rican when I moved away from Puerto Rico. Because I lived there for 26 years, and I grew up in a little bit of a conservative family, politically.  I followed who they were and their beliefs, and so I saw the U.S. as the ultimate goal and the Savior almost. Having moved away to the U.S. and learning and reading more and doing my PhD made me more Puerto Rican. And it also educated me on a lot of the atrocities that the U.S. had done to Puerto Rico and the power imbalance between the colonizer/colonized relationships. That wasn’t really taught in schools.

So for me, that was the challenge of my own political upbringing. I became pro-independence. Puerto Rico needs to be autonomous for once in their history. I started to challenge my family. Well, my attitude was challenging for some of my participants too, I think, especially when they learned about the way that I would then read some of their responses, I had to think: here’s how they grew up, especially the older generation and how they saw the U.S. and Puerto Rico. And then I would put it in that context, while at the same time thinking about that colonized experience. So in that way, I think my own beliefs, my own experiences, and then how I read and interpreted what was going on with my participants was a challenge. I think my next question is going to be more about the feminism in the work. That’s obviously something that gets whitewashed so much in the U.S., and with the dolls particularly.

Julia Perillo: Yes, I remember going to the store, and they were all blonde and blue-eyed, and even I felt that I wasn’t represented. I’m racially white, and so I would always want one specific doll. I wanted Belle from Beauty and the Beast, because she had brown hair and brown eyes. Were there ways that you found a way to relate and to talk about identity on a very practical level, when you would go into the interviews. How did you start that sort of solidarity work?

Emily Aguiló-Pérez: Well, I think what helped was thinking about my position as the researcher. In interviews, especially the group ones, I was a participant as well, and I always started by saying “I use Barbie this way.” That helped, it made the participants more comfortable. They knew I wasn’t there necessarily to judge how many Barbies they had, did they hate her or not, but rather I’m curious about what women and girls experience with the doll. Then I thought I would let them talk. But I now know this was something that was hard because, when I used to listen to the transcripts, I would start thinking: “Emily, shut up!” because sometimes I wanted to share my experiences, but I also wanted to let them talk. I think I always try to make it clear that I played with the dolls, even with the younger girls that I was interviewing. Then they were showing me their dolls, and saying, “Yeah, but there’s this other doll that’s more realistic.”

I would say: “Wait, what doll? I don’t know about this!” So it was engaging with honesty and curiosity. We were able to be in person, and so they were showing me pictures. I also brought some of my stuff, and so it felt like: “oh, we’re just getting together to talk about Barbie.” I wanted to avoid the impression that: “I’m here to ask you very specific questions that there’s a right or wrong answer to, because I didn’t want anyone to feel like that.”

Julia Perillo: Right.

Emily Aguiló-Pérez: Even when we would talk about race and body image, I know there were some conversations when we were like, “Oh my gosh, growing up, I don’t think I paid attention to this specifically.” Or someone would say: “I knew that I wanted dolls that had dark hair, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it with that lens, but now, as an adult, clearly I was tired of dolls always being blonde with blue eyes whereas some of the girls were explicitly naming it. They would say: “Why is it? Why is it that Barbie is only white and blonde?” So they were much more articulate or aware of that issue than my generation or generations before. We might have noticed it but not necessarily analyzed it.

Julia Perillo: That makes sense. I think also when I see little kids today, I feel so old. I’m 22, so I’m not that old, but I definitely knew I wanted a brown hair, brown eyed Barbie. But I am never said: “it should look like my mom, or it should look like me.” I thought a Barbie who looks a little bit like me was good enough. My mom always says to me that I didn’t love dolls that much, now I am re-thinking that. So I want to turn to my next question: what were some of the most helpful theoretical tools in linguistic anthropology for you in framing these conversations?

Emily Aguiló-Pérez: Some of what inspired me was the approach to methodology, but also how I use memory work not only as a methodology but also as a way to interpret, or analyze. Except with the three girls I spoke to that were little girls at the time of the interview, everyone else was working through memories of their own childhood, and talking as adults. But mostly, when it was about their experiences of playing, it was our childhoods, which were a long time ago. I had think about what happens when we are talking about memories. It’s not necessarily about how accurate the memories are. I think there was an example of my approach in the book when I was talking with my sisters, and my aunt and my mom –we were reminding each other of things. I focused on the meaning of those memories and how they came up. So that was a very important part, because it wasn’t just part of the methodology, but also definitely part of the analysis. A lot of Girlhood Studies scholars like Angela McCoy, Katherine Driscoll, and Miriam Forman Brunell had all worked with Barbie in some way. I wanted to include some of the scholars that were women of color, because a lot of the conversations about Barbie and Girlhood Studies has been very white, predominantly white. So I had Andrew Scull as one of my very crucial sources, and then I included a little bit of Childhood Studies and Play Theory as well. When I was doing the research as a grad student, at first I wondered: am I combining too many things? But the kind of study that I wanted to do needed to have all those different perspectives. I tried to draw from different fields, and different areas, not only Barbie studies, but also girls studies, child studies, memory, women’s studies, and all that together.

I also had Latino studies to draw from, too, because I relied on Gloria Anzaldúa, and I had some Puerto Rican women’s memoirs. When I was thinking of memories and childhoods, I included their work, as well. For me, it was so important.

With a book or a dissertation, you can’t do everything that you want to do. A lot of times when you’re working with participants especially, it really depends on how many you can get. For me what I wish I could have done or I hope that I can do in the future is to have more voices of girls who are talking about how they currently play. I mainly talked to former girls. I did appreciate the fact that I ended up with an intergenerational study, but I would really love to learn more about what girls right now like! How do they interact with Barbie? Because also, I want to hear their perspectives, which is not they’re not always highlighted, but also because what I learned with the few that I talked to was that they knew a lot about Barbie, but that also Barbie wasn’t necessarily as big for them, as it was for, say, my generation, or even the generation before.

Julia Perillo: What are your best hopes for the book? What’s your craziest dream? Let’s say a 15 year old Puerto Rican girl reads the book, what do you hope she gets from it?

Emily Aguiló-Pérez: This is a good question, because, sadly, the way that academic publishing works, sometimes this book is an expensive book if you want the hard copy. These books are mostly marketed to libraries. My hope is that it can be more accessible. I want anyone who reads it, whether it’s an academic, or a girl, to think that it isn’t wrong or right to play with dolls. It’s a very complicated doll, even with some of the people in the States who loved the doll but also hated the doll.

It’s a very fraught, complex toy, so I would like them to think about their own experiences, and be aware of how they relate to the doll, how the doll came from some of their own ideas about body image, or about femininity. Have you thought about the fact that, like Barbie, even with attempts at adding some diversity, it’s still very predominantly a white doll? So, just getting people to think about Barbie as a complicated doll more. My hope is that I can continue this work in a perhaps more accessible way, like through a podcast. That’s one thing that I have been thinking about. I would love to invite more women and girls in Puerto Rico to share their stories about Barbie, and discuss similarities and differences in their experiences, and why these exist.

Richard Bauman on his book, A Most Valuable Medium

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: What inspired you to study early commercial sound recordings? And what problems did these recordings present to their makers?

Dick Bauman: In hindsight, my turn to early commercial recordings seems almost overdetermined. First, the work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord on oral-formulaic composition had a profound effect on my thinking about oral poetics and performance, which have been close to the center of my scholarly interests throughout my career, from graduate school on down. A key aspect of Parry and Lord’s work focused on what happens to oral poetics with the advent of writing and print, a problem, after all, in remediation. Then, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was an opening among linguistic anthropologists to related debates concerning the correlates and effects of writing and print on verbal expression, stimulated by the work of Walter Ong, Jack Goody, Elizabeth Eisenstein, et al., and by further extension to the relationships between print culture and digital media. The term, “remediation,” of course, was coined by scholars interested in the advent of digital media. All of these issues, I should add, resonated with the strong turn toward contextualization and recontextualization that lay at the center of my work at the time with Charles Briggs and with colleagues in various working groups at the Center for Transcultural Studies.

In the late ‘90s, my involvement in the formation of the department of Communication and Culture at IU, which brought me into intellectually energizing dialogue with colleagues in media studies and public culture, led me to an interest in the advent of new media more generally and the dynamics of remediation as established expressive forms were adapted to the affordances of new communicative technologies. At around that same point, by a stroke of good fortune, Patrick Feaster appeared in a graduate class I was teaching on performance. In advance of a seminar presentation he was scheduled to deliver, Patrick distributed a CD to class members containing a sampling of spoken-word performances on early commercial sound recordings from the formative period of the mid- to late 1890s. That CD just knocked me off my chair. I realized that the performers were engaged in a formative moment in the development of a new medium, trying to devise ways of accomplishing the performance of genres that people were accustomed to experiencing in co-present, multi-sensory situations—stories, political oratory, sermons, market cries–employing technological means that relied on sound alone and allowed two and a half to four minutes to get the performance done. Moreover, sound recording separated the time and place of performance from the time and place of reception and shifted the site of performance from public to domestic space. How did they pull it off? That’s what the book is about.

Ilana Gershon: In the first chapter, you offer readers a way to distinguish between different types of publics that I personally find enormously helpful for thinking about the various forms of public address I happen to study –gathered publics, historically founded publics, and distributive publics..  This goes a step further than Michael Warner’s take on publics in a way that introduces techniques for engaging with differences between publics ethnographically.  What would you recommend anthropologists focus on to know what kinds of publics they are analyzing?

Dick Bauman:  Ever since I first encountered his work in a Center for Transcultural Studies seminar on languages and publics, I have found Warner’s work on public culture and the generation of publics energizing and provocative. In regard to chapter 2, my approach comes at the discursive constitution of publics from a perspective that is complementary to Warner’s but different in its focus and emphasis. At the risk of oversimplification, Warner is interested in the ways that publics may be constituted by the circulation of written texts, texts that are to be read. What I am concerned with in chapter two is the metapragmatics of remediation and performance, with specific reference to a particular genre, namely, political oratory. Political oratory foregrounds the rhetorical function, with a set toward the addressee. What I am trying to get at in chapter two is how, specifically, recorded forms of oratorical performance manage the addressive function, how performers interpellate receivers from whom they are removed in time and space as members of particular orders of public. Part of that problem implicates what recorded oratorical performances bring with them in the process of remediation from co-present performance to sound recording. Warner’s work, in Publics and Counterpublics (2002) takes up all of these issues to greater or lesser degrees. He notes early on that a public can be “a concrete audience” in a co-present performance, but he sets that order of public aside as outside his agenda. He also acknowledges the differential effects of genre in the discursive constitution of publics. More importantly, he attends closely to the fundamental formative importance of addressivity, at least in general. But again, we’re coming at publics from different—though complementary—perspectives. His literary perspective leads him to focus on the circulation of written texts. My interest, from the vantage point of linguistic anthropology, folklore, and media history, is on genre, performance, and remediation.

Ilana Gershon: I am struck throughout the book at the ways in which it seemed like it was an open question of the ideal life trajectory of a phonographic recording.   You stress that marketers encourage collecting, and at least for some of the recordings you mention, they could easily be seen as souvenirs or items to be collected, even when they were campaign speeches, and so might seem irrelevant after an election.  This is a striking contrast to how people seemed to treat newspapers – disposing the newspaper after they have served their daily or weekly purpose.   Could you say more about the markets being called into being using phonographs?

Dick Bauman: Great question. When early phonograph entrepreneurs turned from marketing phonographic equipment essentially for stenographic purposes to a marketing strategy that combined the sale of relatively low-priced playback machines with the promotion of ready-made recordings as the principal source of profit, they faced the problem of defining and building markets for the phonograph of a medium of entertainment. The first effort to exploit the phonograph for entertainment purposes was to place nickel-in-the-slot phonographs in public places—arcades, train and ferry terminals, hotel lobbies, and the like. The most far-reaching marketing effort, though, was to promote the shift of phonographic entertainment from public sites to domestic space, framing sound recordings as a medium of home entertainment—in fact, the first mass-medium of home entertainment. This creative commercial process demanded the cultivation of an audience-cum-market prepared to engage performance forms that they were accustomed to experiencing in live, co-present situations now in the privacy of their own homes. These promotional efforts—specifically, how record producers and performers conceived of and aligned their records of home audiences—is one of the core problems of my book. The practical answers to that problem were many. They ranged from symbolically constructing phonograph records as prestige goods, to cultivating star performers whose records were attractive enough to create a fan base who could be encouraged to collect all of the star’s recordings, to promoting certain classes of recordings, such as presidential campaign records, as having durable value as historically important collectibles. In addition, marketers emphasized the potential of the new medium to expand audiences by including women, for example, who might not have been comfortable in attending certain kinds of live performances. Yet other efforts were devoted to proclaiming the acoustic fidelity of recordings vis-á-vis live performance. The discover and analysis of these processes make up perhaps the central problem of the book.

Ilana Gershon: Are there productive differences between aural blackface and aural class parody?  I am struck by how much your chapter on country rubes resembles similar othering performances to the aural blackface and I was wondering what patterns you saw in the ways in which aural parodies were used to comment on identities that for some could be adopted and put down again.

Dick Bauman: I use the term “aural blackface” because the burlesque sermons I analyze in chapter 3 are indexical icons of sermon performances in blackface minstrelsy as a platform genre of popular entertainments. Blackface minstrel shows would have been the frame of reference through which listeners to the recordings heard the recorded performances. “Blackface,” or course, foregrounds the burnt-cork  “blacking up” of the mostly white performers who made up the blackface troupes. It is a visual emblem of blackface minstrelsy. “Aural blackface” switches the sensory modality from the visual to the auditory, as befits a turn to sound recording. In larger scope, the register and style of the recorded sermons served as classic signs of difference, acoustically realized. Dialect humor—Irish, rube, German, Yiddish, African American–was extremely widespread in the popular entertainments of the period I examine in the book, ca. 1895-1920, period of burgeoning immigration to the U.S. and internal migration within the U.S. Stage dialects of all kinds were aurally performed signs of social dialects heard and marked as Other in the contemporary world of the recordings I examine. They were performance registers that indexed social types and characterological figure, both in society at large and in the domain of popular entertainment, blackface minstrelsy, early vaudeville, medicine shows, and the like.

Dick Bauman:  That question requires a bit of a stretch. Let me answer by assuming that the majority of my readers will be folklorists, linguistic anthropologists, and maybe ethnomusicologists, at least open to the idea that attention to remediation and intermediality might illuminate persistent problems in their fields. After all, as I suggested in earlier answers, questions concerning orality and literacy, recontextualization, and sonic media have been around for a long time and bear on important aspects of communication in society. So, for those folks on the threshold, I have several broad suggestions to offer.

First, I would advocate for extension of remediation studies more broadly and comprehensively across media. The advent of every new medium involves remediation, yet the study of remediation in linguistic anthropology and folklore has been very selective in coverage, focusing overwhelmingly on the advent of writing and print and the development of digital media, but it’s remediation all the way down. Passing over recorded sound as a new medium, for example, as I argue in the book, gives rise to distortions and misconceptions. I should mention, though, that the still emergent field of sound studies in anthropology, energized by linguistic anthropologists and ethnomusicologists, like Steve Feld, Don Brenneis, and Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier, has opened up important new lines of inquiry and modes of analysis in the anthropological study of remediation.

            Second, I would argue that the remediation of performance forms is especially revealing insofar as performance—at least as I conceive of it—is a highly reflexive mode of communication that tends to reveal especially clearly what performance forms bring with them from prior contexts and how they manage recontextualization in a new medium.

            Third, I would advocate for close attention to form-function interrelationships, to genre (in its formal, thematic, and pragmatic aspects), participant roles and structures, and the dynamics of contextualization as existing forms are adapted to the affordances of new media. Here is where linguistic anthropology and ethnomusicology can lead the way.

            Finally, for now, anyway, I would urge linguistic anthropologists and folklorists to cultivate the skills of media historians and to apply their own anthropological, linguistic, and folkloristic skills and toolkits to historical processes of remediation. We’ve contributed a lot to the orality-literacy debates,  and I believe we have just as much to offer to the historical and ethnographic study of new media more broadly.

Shaka McGlotten on their book, Dragging: Or, in the Drag of a Queer Life

Interview with Robyn Taylor-Neu

Robyn Taylor-Neu: It’s conventional  (for this blog series) to ask about the focus and argument of the book–but Dragging seems to willfully resist reduction to a single focus or argument.  So I’ll ask instead: what does this work pivot on, for you? What’s its center of gravity, so to speak?

Shaka McGlotten: For me the center of gravity is the messy struggle of making and relating—making art, doing politics, and relating to research objects, intimate others, and disciplinarily itself.

Robyn Taylor-Neu: Could you explain the background of the research and how you came to the project?

Shaka McGlotten: As I say in the book, the project began with binge viewing of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’d never connected deeply with drag cultures, so that signaled a shift for me. I teach at a very queer school and drag, especially in its particularly quirky, out there, or monstrous iterations, played an increasingly large role in queer students’ lives. My students’ interests are always contagious. Then there was my intimate partnership with an Israeli. We’d both identified Berlin as a desirable place to live out some fantasies as creatives. So New York, where I’m based, Berlin, where we ended up for eighteen months, and Israel/Palestine, where we visited regularly became the default field sites. I think this is important to acknowledge: ethnographic field sites aren’t selected at random. We often choose them because we have some intimate connection to them.

Robyn Taylor-Neu: As you acknowledge  in the preface, your book’s form is unconventional for an academic monograph–it takes shape as a non-fiction narrative comprising three kinds of writing. You mention that works by Christopher Isherwood, Leigh Patrick Fermor, and Maggie Nelson influenced the  form… Could you say a bit about the affordances and challenges of this more literary approach?

Shaka McGlotten: Wow. Well, all writing is challenging, but this was sometimes excruciating. There is a formula to academic writing, and once you have it more or less down, you can follow that template pretty easily in my view. But I’d never been trained to write creative non-fiction, so it was really a lot of trial and error. In regards to these three writers in particular, I was interested in a kind of flatness I found in both Isherwood and Nelson. There’s nothing unnecessary about their prose. Fermor is a lot more florid—he helped me think more about the intersections of memoir and travel-writing. I’m not sure I’ve fully answered the question about affordances and challenges, though. So let me give it another go. One affordance is that I didn’t feel it necessary to always cover my theoretical ass, so to speak. Not everything had to be neatly tied up in an academic argument because the book is meant to create a series of associations and resonances that collectively affect the reader (as in fiction or creative non-fiction). The challenges—like I said, excruciating! I had to write and rewrite chapters to make sure that various threads (about the drag scenes, my intimate life, or pedagogy) came together.

Robyn Taylor-Neu: You’re reflexive about the process by which the research and book came to be, and you explicitly offer the book as “training for all of us to risky, vulnerable openness”…  I’m curious about who you mean by “us” (that is, anthropologists, social scientists, humans?) and how you would differentiate “training” and “disciplining,” since you also mention the need to “become undisciplined” (citing Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman, and Sylvia Wynter). (I should put my cards on the table here. As a PhD candidate, I’m muddling through what it means to be credible as an ethnographer and anthropologist while preserving space for genuine curiosity… when so much of the professional side of things seems like an elaborate performance of disciplinary competence.)

Shaka McGlotten: Your parenthetical hits the nail on the head. I was weaned on critical theory, and I love the possibilities for thinking that reading it provided for me. But what I don’t like is the, as you say, “elaborate performance of disciplinary competence.” I think of this sometimes as “rehearsal” too. Yes, most of us have read X, Y, Z theorists, so increasingly, when reading academic material, I think “just get to it! Get to your point!” Imagine what would happen if people cut out all of the rehearsal—books would be shorter. Now, I say all of this, but then I find books like Ana-Maurine Lara’s Queer Freedom: Black Sovereignty so beautiful—it’s a poetic work of theory in the style of something like Anzalduá’s Borderlands/La Frontera. When I think about training in risky openness/becoming undisciplined, I’m after a loosening of the reigns. I think we can still be credible and disciplined while also being open to other genres that afford us different possibilities as writers and makers, as well as the kinds of people who might engage with our work.

Robyn Taylor-Neu: Your engagements with theory are often oblique and emerge either in fragments or in the interview transcripts that you incorporate. You say that you’re not particularly invested in using theory to make claims and so forth, but could you elaborate on how you see theory and what it does for you in this work?

Shaka McGlotten: Hmmmm, I think that my previous answer gets at this somewhat. I’ve done something similar in a lot of my work. I read theory but I start with the curiosity induced by objects, or the trouble that objects pose for me. I think in terms of events, scenes, and cases as any reader of my work will note. In this way, I was very much inspired by people like Lauren Berlant and my mentor Katie Stewart. I don’t approach my writing with a theoretical apparatus in mind that I then apply to my research. Instead, the process is much more iterative, where I am trying to come to some kind of understanding informed by theory. My friend Neville Hoad calls me “ill-disciplined”! I use what I think is helpful from bodies of critical theory and then sort of move on. At least, that’s been my process in recent years, when I feel I have less to prove.

Robyn Taylor-Neu: My impression is that many of your interlocutors, as artists and activists, are versed in (or at least passingly familiar with) the writings/works that seem to shape your own thinking about the politics of drag… is this the case and, if so, how did that affect your approach in interviews?

Shaka McGlotten: Yes! The folks I worked with were the real experts: The Drag and Liad in particular had sophisticated understandings of queer theory, art, and politics, so these were conversations informed by shared archives. Still, we didn’t always share understandings of who was included under the rubric of drag. For example, Natali Vaxberg didn’t initially understand why I wanted to talk to her, but over the course of our discussions, she increasingly embraced the associations.

Nick Bartlett on his book, Recovering Histories

Interview with Yun Chen

Yun Chen: Recovering Histories is an ethnography of the entanglements between individuals’ lived experiences of recovering from heroin addiction and their collective narratives of reimagining laboring lives in a rapidly changing social world in post-Mao Southwestern China. You talked a little bit about how you got involved in conducting research on this topic in Gejiu in the first chapter of the book. What interested me a lot was that you initially entered this field as someone working for international NGOs carrying out HIV/AIDS prevention harm reduction projects within the public health or global health contexts. Nevertheless, instead of writing a book on heroin addiction or recovery with a focus on these institutions or interventions, you chose to really attend to the everyday lived experiences and narratives of the group of individuals with heroin-use histories with a phenomenological orientation. Could you tell us a little bit about how did you come to study heroin recovery from this angle, in what ways did your public health training/working experiences influence your approach to this topic, and what was your main goals to research on heroin/recovery/China as an anthropologist?

Nick Bartlett:. Sure! I first encountered heroin addiction discussed as a problem in China in 2002. I was working on HIV prevention projects as part of the social marketing implementer of the China-UK project at the time. While we were funding programs in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, that year I spent a lot more time in our Beijing headquarters than I did interacting with the people who were directly impacted by HIV. I think part of why I initially became interested in this population in China was due to the absence of people with drug use history from public health conferences and meetings I was attending. CDC officials generally spoke on behalf of this group. It wasn’t surprising given the stigma that people with drug use history faced in China, but left me with a lot of questions about the lives of the people identified as part of this “high risk population.”

In the mid-2000s I got more directly involved in NIDA-funded studies of heroin use in China, and later started working for the Open Society Foundation’s International Harm Reduction Development program. Working at a foundation where one of our primary mandates was to support people with drug use history to organize and advocate for their own needs was an important opportunity for me. Questionnaire-based public health research had allowed me to meet a number of people with heroin use history in different provinces, but the interviews I was doing started to feel stale and narrow in scope; I wanted to build relationships that were more open-ended and enduring. The role I had at OSF allowed me to work closely with compelling people doing amazing work.

After my third year of grad school, I moved to Gejiu, where a number of grantees were based, leaving my part-time position at the foundation. Many of the people I met in Gejiu had been recently released from compulsory detox centers and were absorbed by the task of attempting to realize a “life after drugs.” I became interested in a new set of questions: Where does the work of recovery happen exactly? How is it experienced, specifically in relation to lived experiences of individual and collective time? These were questions that didn’t seem to be asked in other contexts, but they seemed vital to trying to understand what recovery meant in this time for this group.

Yun Chen: One thing that I really appreciated about your book was that you effectively showed the readers, against a common way of talking about heroin addiction, that your interlocutors’ broader lived experiences of laboring, family life, socioeconomic shifts fundamentally shaped the ways they understood their lives under the influence of heroin as well as what would be a life after heroin. In other words, you decentered the role of the drug itself in defining the experiences of this generational group, and repositioned them within the sociohistorical contexts that they shared with their non-user contemporaries. By doing this, rather than being a prerequisite for making sense of their lives, the use of heroin became a particular condition that in various ways constrained and enabled their experiences of the world. It was a condition among many other conditions which needed to be examined through the shared histories of the collective “we.” I was wondering that when you wrote with this perspective, have you had concerns about downplaying the specific (bodily, sociocultural, political) experiences of heroin addiction and recovery that were potentially distinguished from other forms of marginality? If so, how did you balance between not essentializing people with histories of heroin use/recovery and attending to the unique experiences of this specific group in your analysis and writing?

Nick Bartlett: Great questions! I guess there are a couple points I should make in trying to answer them. First, the move to decenter the role of the drug as you put it wasn’t initially a conscious decision on my part. As I spent time with people who were committed to various projects of recovery, I became aware that even people who I knew were actively using didn’t use in my presence and rarely brought up their heroin use in our conversations. I certainly could have tried to make heroin use a more central part of the research, either by being present when people were using, or through more detailed explorations of the direct effects use of the drug had on this group’s lives. My decision not to do this perhaps says something about my commitments, and theirs, during my fieldwork. At the time, even if the absence of a certain type of attention to heroin use was a form of collusion, I felt I was learning an enormous amount from participating in other aspects of their lives, that the direction my fieldwork was taking in was allowing me to understand recent history of Gejiu—even China—in new ways.

The move to decenter the drug could be understood as pushing against the constant ways that heroin users have been represented in Chinese media. So much of people with heroin use history’s identities in China were defined by their status as “registered drug users” by the public security apparatus, “injecting drug users” by public health workers, or just “addicts” by the public. I can still remember the cookie-cutter news stories that would come out about heroin users every year on 6/26, International Day against Drug Abuse. But the reality was, many of the people I came to know, despite having been connected to heroin for over 20 years, actually hadn’t spent all that much time using heroin. Or they had used heavily early in their adult lives and then spent much of decade before I knew them bouncing in and out of state compulsory labor centers and periods of unemployment living with family members and receiving treatment at methadone clinics, where use of heroin was relatively rare. I was encountering particular sort of paradox: there wasn’t much heroin in Gejiu during my research, but there were a considerable number of so-called “heroin addicts.” In addition, members of this group were often eager to argue that they were in the process of becoming (or, in some cases, returning to) existing as a different type of person, that “drug user” or “addict” were never terms that accurately depicted who they were.

This leads us to the problem of the collective “we” that you brought up. As I was writing the book, I couldn’t escape thinking about the figures I came to know as being linked by a strong generational identity. Virtually all of the users I met were born between 1965 and 1980 and encountered the drug in the late 1980s and 1990s when heroin first began circulating in large quantities.. With time, I came to see that members of this generational cohort shared the challenges feeling they were becoming obsolescent economic actors quickly disappearing from the country’s history, and saw how recovery as intimately linked to navigating an economy that looked quick different from the one that they had entered as teenagers. In Chapter One, I argue that the figures in the group are part of what might be considered a Mannheimian generational cohort, sharing an orienting set of dramas in their youth and enduring common discursive landscape of historical problems and social imaginary and the horizon of the future. Against this common background, each of the book’s final chapters turns to a different way that an individual or small group of people with heroin use history came to answer and live the challenge of “returning to society” as they understood it. Inevitably, these later chapters grapple with evocations of “we” that take different forms; some of my interlocuters emphasized belonging to a broader community of displaced workers, others spoke of their connection to a vanguard group of grassroots civil society actors, still others as part of a cohort of unemployed idlers who had been deprived of previously existing government care. Sometimes these connections give the individuals I write about hope in achieving a “return”; for others, the collective identity they evoke is experienced as immutable and suffocating. I try to show how these fragile and shifting senses of collective life can be understood as communities of time that are linked in complicated ways with narratives and sensations of living within a broader trajectory of Chinese history.

Yun Chen: “Recovery” is another keyword appeared throughout this book. The narratives you laid out in those chapters really demonstrated the complex ways in which “recovery” was imagined, embodied, lived, and/or contested by your interlocutors. From recovering-without-hope to recovering-through-laboring, these narratives challenged existing conceptual accounts of recovery in anthropological and health literatures. In your ethnographic encounters, “recovering” was intricately linked to the idea of “returning (huigui shehui),” which in my view metaphorically presumed a status of normalcy from which one temporally diverged and was expected to get back to. Complications arose, in this case, when the status of “being normal” itself was constantly on-the-move with the flow of the rapidly changing social world. Those in recovery were thus expected (or demanded) to “return” without any clear path or anchor point. Or in other words, their labors of return seemed to have no reachable destinations. Then what might be the actions of “returning” really for when there was no place to return to? Could you elaborate more on your understandings of “returning” in this case, and what insights it might bring to future anthropological studies of addiction and recovery?

Nick Bartlett: I think that the way you formulated your understanding of “returning” in relation to “recovery” nicely articulates a key intervention that I was trying to make. As I was writing the book, I found a distinction between two Chinese terms—jiedu and huigui shehui —helpful in heightening a broader tension around the stakes of recovery. Jiedu was about the accumulation of clean time, a quantitative, empty time that could be easily measured and compared. Here, the prescribed goal of recovery isn’t a type of experience or way of living but simply the absence of the traces of an ingested substance that made you do something else. Huigui shehui, another term that could be translated as a form of “recovery” frequently brought up in China when discussing drug users but also many other vulnerable populations, emphasizes the action of moving to a previously existing state of affairs. But what is the “normal” that is presumed to exist in this collective? Especially in Gejiu, were the fabric of daily life had been changed so dramatically with the disassembling of state work units and rapid expansion of private sector, which understanding of collective life and economic roles were members of this group to attempt to achieve? While some had very clearly defined goals of what huigui meant, others claimed that huigui was impossible, or even that huigui was not a helpful way to think about recovery. I found the slogan a useful starting point to think about lived experiences of time located between the individual and shifting understandings of collective life.

Yun Chen: To account for how people with heroin use history connected their understandings of their own past, present, and future to the collective shared experiences of China’s rapidly changing society, you laid out three approaches to historicity which effectively demonstrated that there was not an overarching framework for experiences of time. Such an attempt to connect the phenomenological lived time with the historical shared time was achieved through your emphasis on narratives and narrative structure. Can you further unpack the conceptual connections between narrative and historicity as demonstrated by your ethnographic encounters, maybe in dialogue with Mattingly’s “narrative emplotment” (1998) or Carr’s “doubly practical narrative structuring” (1998)? I was also wondering, in your view, that to what extent and in what ways may this conceptual emphasis on narrative and historicity be applicable to medical anthropology topics other than addiction/recovery?

Nick Bartlett: Some people tend to be energized by how their fieldwork can facilitate making an intervention into particular conversations. I have been more motivated by trying to figure out how to write the book as a whole, how to interpret recovery as a lived experience and then connect the recovering histories that would take the reader through a particular progression. So instead of trying to articulate “this is my position on narrative or phenomenology,” I found myself returning to authors who could help me make sense of a particular dynamic that I was struggling to understand in from my relationship with the people in the book. Writings by Sara Ahmed, David Carr, Paul Ricoeur, Pierre Bourdieu and others were very helpful in attending to quite specific questions or problems that I was trying to work through based on fieldwork encounters.

I can say a bit more about Cheryl Mattingly’s narrative emplotment, since you brought it up. In her work, narrative tends to be connected to preserving hope in the face of uncertainty and pain, often in response to a grim medical diagnosis. But I was interested in exploring what seemed to be an inverted dynamic occurring in my own fieldwork. For a small number of people I came to know, the narrative that they came to repeat and lived seemed to shut down the possibility of a future different from the present, giving a finality to a story of their stories about the “dying out” associated with a broader cohort of heroin users and, by extension, their own premature obsolescence. I found Mattingly, Carr and others helped me to think about the potential devastating power narrative could have on individuals and groups.

One challenge for me was how to make the particular recovering histories presented in the individual chapters have their own internal coherence while contributing to the broader themes of the book. Given the different ways anthropologists, postcolonial scholars, and philosophers have come to take up the term, historicity had this elasticity to it that seemed to encompass and help organize the interventions I made in the book.

As for the potential relevance for narrative and historicity for medical anthropology, these are areas where others have done incredibly thoughtful work; I would leave it to the reader to say if the book’s approach resonates with their research or experiences. I will say I have a real fear of allowing concepts to become too rigid in my interpretations. It is so easy to lose the complexity of what happens in fieldwork encounters As I finished writing, it was quite important for me to figure out a way to allow some of the neatness of previous chapters to unravel. Examining my relationship with a close friend and collaborator where I really didn’t have a sense that I could comfortable say what his “return” related experiences were gave me the chance to question some of the way the book was structured.

Yun Chen: You talked about your 2018 visit to Gejiu in the Epilogue. I’m curious that, given the rapid changes happened to your fieldsite in these recent years, to what extent or in what ways (if at all) would you shift your focuses and/or the ways in which you approached the topic?

Nick Bartlett: It’s been difficult to not be able to go back these last years; I was hoping to be based in Yunnan this past year but wasn’t able to get visas for my family. I think in some ways I was lucky to be there in the 2000s and early 2010s. Already during that 2018 trip, there was this sense that certain kinds of collaborations that were possible earlier could no longer happen. I have felt a lot of sadness about that.

I could imagine writing more about shifting understandings of labor within the context of ongoing changes to how Gejiu city and nearby mountainside communities relate in what is an increasinglypost-mining moment for the region. I’ve also been doing some online interviews and going through archival sources to learn more about what was happening on the mountains in the Deng era as part of a special issue I am co-editing exploring the specific energies and legacies of 1980s in China. So to answer your question, I think today I would spend more time in mountainside communities trying to make sense of workers’ experiences of the current moment.

Ingrid Kummels discusses her book, Transborder Media Spaces

Interview by Alana Mazur

Alana Mazur: One of the main themes running through your book is Indigenous audiovisual media and mediatized politics. You provide an in-depth and nuanced analysis of the role of videography in connecting the Ayuujk hometown community in Tamazulapam and satellite communities in Mexico and in the United States. Could you please situate the focus and the main arguments of your research?

Ingrid Kummels: The protagonists of my book who live in Tamazulapam, Oaxaca, and Los Angeles, California, may be characterized as pioneers of media practices battling remoteness. When I set out to do my research in 2012, my intent was to explore the local media histories shaped by the Ayuujk people of the Mixe Region in Oaxaca, Mexico, and give them greater visibility. I had become aware of their autonomous endeavors concerning photography, radio, TV, and video adapted to their own language and “ways of seeing” (Berger) when in 1993 (together with Manfred Schäfer) I filmed what was perhaps the first local TV station (TV Tamix) set up autonomously in a Mexican Indigenous village, precisely in Tamazulapam del Espíritu Santo. Before that, individual villagers had engaged in sophisticated single-lens photography and radio broadcasting, which they adapted to community needs. This motivated me to revisit Tamazulapam almost 20 years later, in 2012, and update these developments from the perspective of media anthropology. But when I returned to Tama (as the village is nicknamed), I realized how pervasive migration for higher education and job opportunities had become—mainly to the United States because of the possibility of earning up to ten times more than in Mexico. At the same time, this entails immobilization since migrants are forced to cross the border without authorization. b—and above all fiestas, large community celebrations in honor of the patron saint.  

When observing and talking about village media practices it became obvious that culturally specific genres had been created such as fiesta, family rite-of-passage, and officeholder videos; these had not received much scholarly attention since they are at the intersection of politics, entertainment, and culture. Means of communications had been harnessed to facilitate community life and communal values even from afar, ranging from interpersonal cell phone calls to a veritable transnational video industry whose offerings included series of ten fiesta DVDs, which were ubiquitous not only at local markets, but also in Oaxaca City and in U.S. cities like Los Angeles. Ayuujk people had set up their own infrastructure and used mass media for practicing community politics. Migrants living in Los Angeles invested in their production in order to participate in the home village’s modernization, receive recognition as village members, and serve as political officials in the hometown. These media activities therefore contribute to political ideas about Indigenous autonomy, which is called Comunalidad in Oaxaca. Here it is important to emphasize how these practices challenge the way that Indigeneity has been constructed “from above” and as an antithesis to the modernity that media (often equated solely with mass media) allegedly embody. On the other hand, the use of media and the innovations devised by Indigenous peoples that combine storytelling, crafts, music and dance with analog and digital mass media often are not recognized as self-determined, cutting-edge developments. Nevertheless, these innovations have been achieved despite extremely adverse media structures in Mexico, where private mega media conglomerates dominate radio and TV, while alternative media are pushed into informality, against a “visual divide.”

Here is where the concept of media spaces comes in. Indigenous media makers open such spaces in multiple inventive ways when overcoming the uneven access to mass media due to racialized inequality, which is inscribed not only in the representations of Indigenous peoples but also in the contexts in which they received media training and engaged as practitioners. These are spaces that actors have been able to extend in terms of geography, practice, and imagination. Setting up their own media infrastructure, appropriating media knowledge and technology according to “one’s own” standards of professionalism, and managing transnational diffusion and marketing all form part of this endeavor.

Alana Mazur: In the introduction you mention that your ethnographic research was multi-sited and the fieldwork was conducted in Tama and Los Angeles between 2012 and 2016. What motivated you to pursue this ethnographic participatory research with Indigenous media makers in Mexico? How was this experience like for you?

Ingrid Kummels: I am a practitioner of media myself and after studying anthropology I started working as a professional filmmaker making documentaries for German TV. So, I know what it’s like to engage in filming, interact with people while doing it, and critically reflect on this work and issues of representation. I like to exchange ideas with people who have had similar experiences. To give an example: When I first met a fiesta filmmaker, I was fascinated to see that he had installed his entire store and production unit with editing equipment in his pickup: along with his son, he not only edited the films on DVD discs overnight, but also printed covers so that the next morning they could start selling DVDs to visitors during the five-day patron saint celebrations. He readily told me about arguments that can arise when “illicit” dance pairs were spotted on village videos; they had to do with transnational marriage and family life. The recording of sacred places and rituals that normally are not allowed to be viewed was considered an audiovisual transgression related to the special value attached to place and being on-site in times of deterritorialization. Women face particular challenges as both mediamakers and comuneras. These self-determined media activities therefore paved the way for negotiating novel visions of community life, gender, and Indigeneity in the twenty-first century. (See my portrayal of their work in “Ayuujk Cameras,”

Following these itinerant merchants during the month of May 2013 meant getting to know how they cultivate networks and forge alliances in many villages of the Sierra Mixe and beyond; some have more to do with commercial circuits, others with political solidarity. Mediamakers

are well informed on the different situations and aesthetic tastes of specific village audiences in their respective transnational outreach. As a result of specific migratory pathways taken, community celebrations in the home villages are pervaded by forms of transnational reciprocity. To compensate for their absence and their lack of participation in the village’s governance system called Usos y costumbres, migrants contribute with financial donations to hometown fiestas. Their sponsorships are announced publicly and above all documented in fiesta videos, which a transnational audience witnesses. These viewers participating from a distance are constantly in the mind of videographers and influence their choice of motifs, scenes, and camera settings. I moved along these networks, since mediamakers would orient me and introduce me to their colleagues and advisors. It was often through these contacts that I got to know a village for the first time, so I was immediately immersed in mediamaking there. On the spur of the moment, I would be invited to an event they were covering. While this work was delightful, I also learned about their strict professional discipline and soon was very conscious that there are no simple onlookers at a fiesta: community members have a moral obligation to participate which includes its sacralized dimension. So, in many ways, recording a fiesta is a solemn affair based on these same moral obligations.

Alana Mazur: The book provides a captivating analysis of the sociopolitical dynamics that involve diasporic movements among the Tama inhabitants across the Mexico-US border. Along the chapters, you elucidate, for instance, how remittances sent by migrant villagers to their families and “unpolitical fiesta videos” ostensibly sustain vibrant connections between the local “comunitario” and the growing “transnational village” (p.35). Through mediatization, as you conceptualize it, videographers both capture and create myriad of “media spaces” (p.391).

In this vein, could you provide a brief overview of these concepts and the processes they entail? What implications does the diffusion of Tama mediamakers’ work have on the Ayuujk ja’ay community members’ social life? Following on from that, how does Ayuujk videography constitute itself as “self-determined media,” as you suggest in the introduction (p.400)?

Ingrid Kummels: In short, transnationalism as a single field of social relations between two or more nation states due to the regular flow of people, commodities, money, and ideas across the borders is communalized by Ayuujk people. Migration, even in the many cases in which it is motivated by individual, personal interests, becomes at some stage a communal joint venture—in the more literal sense. Transnationalism scholarship has looked into the communal logics on which migration is based, but has often emphasized material, financial transfers. Nevertheless, transnational community building depends on the desire, the urge to be involved with a community. This is where self-determined media come into the picture.

As I examined the scholarship, I became aware of how transnationalism forgoes a perspective on media. On the other hand, media anthropology tended to view Video Indígena within the national container of Mexico. But in fact, the political Indigenous movement and the use of media to overcome distance in the transnational context, which includes connecting with the cross-border community in an entertaining way, are interrelated. The focus of my research is situating media use both within the contested field of Indigeneity as well as identifying it as an indispensable glue of transnationalism. There is nothing natural or matter-of-fact about maintaining a connection with one’s community of origin. In the case of Tama, reliance on self-developed media practices is key to new social arrangements between the hometown and the satellite communities that allow them to continue their communal way of life despite the restrictive border. These arrangements systematically integrate the migrating population. Many individuals participate in this endeavor due to a communal spirit. So, it is important to explore these communitarian values, Comunalidad or simply “lo communal,” as most people refer to it. It upholds the logic of owing service to a community, which at the same time is a sacralized entity worshiped in the patron saint. All of this is reflected in fiesta films and is understood by people with similar experiences who are socialized in this “way of seeing.”

Self-determined media practices are key for the creation of community connected to similar values. The hometown is one of its main motifs, since the future aspired to is projected onto this special place. Videographers are comuneros and comuneras, that is, they perform duties that influence their media practices and products. Despite being merchants and commercializing DVDs in a transnational outreach, they must also conduct themselves in a way that accommodates the values of community life (for example, not charging too much and paying the community a fee for filming); it is expected that their work portray those communal values. Moreover, they themselves have to invest in the community when needed. On the whole, they are an essential part of the transnational communal tissue.

Michele Friedner on her book, Sensory Futures

Interview by Timothy Y. Loh

Tim Loh: Congratulations on this exciting new book! Your first book, Valuing Deaf Worlds in Urban India (2015), examined the productivity and limits of deaf similitude—what you and your interlocutors called DEAF-SAME— and forms of deaf becoming as deaf people turned towards each other. Is it accurate to say that this book looks at how the state, pharmaceutical companies, and medical practitioners also strive to make deaf people the same, albeit in a different way? Can you tell us also how you moved from that earlier project to this one?

Michele Friedner: Thank you so much for your close reading and generous analysis and the making of connections here. I also look forward to seeing what you do in your cochlear implant research! I think you’re absolutely right that Sensory Futures is about sameness although there’s lots of friction and ambivalence around this sameness. There are putatively star cases and professionals constantly compare children and their mothers and the work that mothers do. The star cases and mothers also evaluate themselves in relation to others. And deaf sociality, or implanted sociality, is both encouraged and discouraged as children are supposed to hang out with hearing children instead of other deaf children. As I write, it often seems like there are biosocial refusals. There’s also constantly the spectre of the bad mother and the failed child. For the state, CI corporation, surgeons, and most/many audiologists and speech and language therapists, the goal is to create a hearing child who is close to, near to, or almost “normal” in terms of listening and spoken language. However, and beyond this, the project is also to create people and state citizens who do not need any help and support from the government and who are “independent.” These people ideally don’t have so-called deaf accents and develop “hearing brains.”

I didn’t plan to write a book about cochlear implants or to conduct research on them. However, when I returned to India in 2016, after my first book was published, I learned about state and central government programs providing deaf and hard of hearing children with cochlear implants and I became intrigued. I was also really interested because signing deaf adults want more signing deaf adults in the world and they want Indian Sign Language (ISL) to be seen as “normal.” The deaf adults I met at one particularly institute in the state of Kerala—where they were enrolled in BA programs in ISL—were really upset because at the same institute there were early intervention programs for small deaf children who had been implanted. These college students were excited about their coursework and their friendship networks, and they wanted to teach these little kids ISL but felt that the kids’ parents literally pulled them away and prevented them from seeing sign language. They were worried about the future of deafness in India. And so I decided to do research on cochlear implants in India. I was fascinated by how the state was now funding these super expensive surgeries and devices. I was also fascinated by the new expectations that seemed to be emerging—that kids born deaf could become normal—and that there was a new sensory infrastructure developing. And it’s also interesting to think about things like newborn hearing screening and attempts to develop universal screenings and what these screenings mean for the kinds of choices parents have (or not). Laura Mauldin writes about this too in a US context. I’ve talked with Mara Mills about how hearing is perhaps the most surveilled sense. What does this mean?

Tim Loh: You write a chapter about maintaining and caring for cochlear implants and the work that parents and implantees have to put in to get the devices to work and to continue to work, and the new dependencies on corporate and medical infrastructures that emerge from getting an implant. You examine the inequitable distribution of cochlear implants around the world (as you also do here) in addition to the limits of “tinkering” and “hacking” that have become central to crip technoscience. What new insights into the relationship between disability and technology do you think your book provides?

Michele Friedner: I think my book pushes us to look at how projects of normalization involving technology use can result in new and complex dependencies on device corporations. The children who do really well with cochlear implants, who learn to listen and speak and become auditorily dependent—are the most precarious and vulnerable. If their devices break, they don’t have other ways to communicate. I also think we need to pay attention to ambivalent users, sometimes users, and non-users, and the ways that individuals and families are essentially abandoned by device manufacturers. Because cochlear implants work so well for some people, it’s imperative that there are more safeguards and supports in place for maintenance. It’s an issue of sensory and social justice.

Tim Loh: One of the important concepts that you advance in this book is that of “multiple normals,” which you have also discussed elsewhere. Normality is a desired outcome for some of your interlocutors but it is also a kind of narrowing that contrains different ways of being in the world, and you argue against prescribing teleological paths for deaf people. I found especially thought-provoking your critique not only of sensory normality as advanced by cochlear implant advocates but also of the project of “becoming-disabled or becoming-deaf in terms of identity and community formation” (p. 161) as advanced by some disability and deaf advocates and scholars, which can also be teleological. Can you tell us more about what you think the stakes of this idea are?

Michele Friedner: I think that often within disability and deaf communities, there is a celebratory narrative around coming to a disabled or deaf identity that involves embracing this (new) identity and finding community and sociality. I think this narrative is just as teleological as the narrative around becoming hearing or becoming normal. I think that we need multiple ways of being disabled, deaf, and normal in the world and that we also need more robust analytic language for discussing different experiences—relating to the senses, perception, and pain, as examples. I think the move in disability studies towards crip theory really helps us to destabilize disability identity and I am not quite sure that we’ve seen a similar move in deaf studies/deaf anthropology.

Tim Loh: I was also struck by your emphasis on “total communication” as an approach, both as articulated by anthropologist Margaret Mead as well as a pedagogical method for deaf children that saw its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s but seems to have mostly fallen out of favor in many deaf educational circles. As you write in the conclusion, “Surely there are more than four ways (listening and spoken language, a bilingual-bicultural approach using sign language, cued speech, and total communication) to communicate. I see value in total communication as a philosophy that involves all of the senses and orienting to children and others more generally based on what they need and when they need it” (p. 193). Do you see this work as in some ways a reclaiming of that term?

Michele Friedner: I really love this term and what it meant for Mead—as an orientation towards openness and recognizing all signals, or at least more signals, as communicative. I also recognize that many in deaf and disabled communities have major beef with how total communication is used as a practice. In deaf schools, for example, total communication has come to mean “sim-comming” or simultaneous communication in ASL and English, which does not provide deaf children with access to a full and complete language and basically is just half and half. And in autistic education, total communication approaches have been used as an excuse not to teach autistic children language at all. While I am aware of these grave problems, I also think as a philosophy or way of orienting to other people, especially those who do not communicate the same as you do, total communication is very compelling. There has been so much exciting work lately in deaf studies on translanguaging and semiotic ideologies and on “crip linguistics,” which resonates with how I think about total communication.

Tim Loh: As with your first book, your positionality as a deaf person shaped many of the interactions you had with your interlocutors. I loved hearing about your experiences and seeing how they framed your analysis: your deaf interlocutors’ reactions when you decided to get a second implant, your interactions with your surgeon as well as with AVT (Auditory Verbal Therapy) specialists (those Ss!), and, of course, the interview you conducted with your mother. Can you say a little more about your approach to writing this very academic—yet deeply personal—book?

Michele Friedner: I struggled with how to include myself, my choices, and my family’s choices. I also struggled with writing about them in a way that does not seem banal or sentimental. And I don’t want to be one of those deaf people writing about deafness for a hearing audience; I want what I write to be interesting to deaf folks as well. I felt like I had to include myself in the book because as I noted, I chose to get implanted after doing my dissertation research with Indian Sign Language speakers and then I chose to get a second implant during the midst of this fieldwork because my hearing aid broke and my health insurance would not pay for a replacement, but it would pay for an implant! And during the research, people—surgeons, audiologists, families, children—all had questions for me about my experience with cochlear implants. And, as I discuss in the book, my speech was also adjudicated by speech and language therapists and found to be deficient.

Tim Loh: What are your hopes for Sensory Futures? Who do you hope will read it, and what work do you hope that it will do in the world?

Michele Friedner: I’d love for everyone, including my mother, surgeons, audiologists, and speech and language therapists to read it. I was excited that there were funds to make the book open access and that folks in India have been reading it. I received a very nice email from an audiologist and speech and language therapist in India who told me that while she did not agree with everything I had written, she appreciated the book. She also encouraged other practitioners to read it. I want medical anthropologists, sensory anthropologists, and deaf studies and disability studies scholars to read it—I think it’s super important to think about the ways that sense is produced, and constrained, through political economic conditions. It’s not just that the senses are culturally produced, but with the advent of new technology, senses are actually produced. I also hope the book intervenes in discussions of normalizing, normals, and normality and contributes to how we might think of normalization as narrowing or constraining. And methodologically, I hope more people will start explicitly writing about how they do research with others in inter-sensory ways!

John P. O’Regan on his book, Global English and Political Economy

Interview by Bonnie Urciuoli

Bonnie Urciuoli: Can you say a bit about how your Marx reading group led to this book.

John O’Regan: The Marx reading group came together as a result of conversations I was having with colleagues at the IOE and at other London universities in 2009-10 as the aftershocks of the global financial crisis were being felt and absorbed. The group included myself, David Block, Catherine Wallace, Siân Preece, John Gray, Melanie Cooke and Tom Morton. I had read a fair bit of Marx in my time and had a reasonable acquaintance with many of the key texts and ideas, but I had never properly sat down and read Capital (Vols. I, II and III) and Grundrisse. So, this is what we set out to do. Of great assistance to us was David Harvey and his companions to Capital and the 1973 Foreword to Grundrisse by Martin Nicolaus. At the start of this process, some of us felt more like novices than others, but it seemed to us that it was necessary to explore materialist political economy and Marx particularly when for so long everything in our fields had seemed to be about discourse and Foucault.

Throughout, we attempted to apply what we were reading not only to our areas of scholarship, but also to how the crisis and the response to it was unfolding and being experienced in the UK and in the wider world. In Capital and Grundrisse the key insight to be grasped is the ceaseless motion of capital. In Marx’s words, “Capital is not a simple relation, but a process, in whose moments it is always capital” (1973: 258). Marx presents this movement as a relation between money and commodity production, M-C-M¢, and as a speculative relationship of money itself, M-M¢, in which the M that comes out at the end of the process, M¢, has been incrementally enhanced in comparison with what went in at the beginning. The process is then endlessly repeated again and again. It was largely thanks to the discussions that we had in our group that the ceaseless motion of capital emerged as the basis for the proposition in my book that the explanation for the global dominance of English as well as its elite forms lay fundamentally with capital and not elsewhere.

Bonnie Urciuoli: A central point in your book is the free riding of English on capital circulation. Can you explain what that is and how that allows you to show how English has become hegemonic in ways that other approaches to the hegemony of English have not gotten at?

John O’Regan: To answer this question in a way that would offer the most clarity, it is necessary to work up to the free riding concept. I took the concept from my knowledge of international relations (IR) and of theories like world-systems analysis and development theory which I studied in some depth in the 1980s. In IR it is used to refer to how one state can gain benefits from another state’s actions at no cost to itself. Although I do not use it in precisely this way, free riding was a concept that came back to me when I set out to write the book knowing all along that I would start with capital circulation and Marx. It was one of those concepts that floated into my head and then took a firmer hold as I looked back at the literature on free riding and its origins in the work of Mancur Olsen. It occurred to me that free riding was an apt concept to use given that the dominant capitalisms of the world-system (as per Wallerstein’s conception) over several hundred years had been the anglophone capitalisms of first Britain and then the United States. Moreover, this was not simply a question of colonialism or formal territorial acquisition alone – that is, having empires (as use values – accumulation of land, power, mineral deposits, and so on within limits); it was far greater than that. This was about the origins of capitalism as an entire world-system involving hegemonic world-economies (as exchange values – endless accumulation of value without limits), one dominated by Britain and British capital up to 1918 and then another dominated by the US and US capital thereafter, with absolute US dominance arriving after 1945.

The details are in the book but suffice to say that colonial occupation and annexation are only partial aspects of a hegemon’s dominance. Of greater significance and global extent is the hegemon’s structural authority over global security, production, finance and knowledge, all of which the hegemon dedicates to the accumulation of capital in its own interests. Essential elements in enacting this authority are that the hegemon’s currency dominate global finance and trade and that its language become a dominant language in global commerce and diplomacy. The pound sterling gave English linguistic seignorage in the era of the British hegemony (1688-1918), the greenback does the same for English in the era of the US hegemony (1918-). By being the dominant currencies in which capital has circulated in the world-system, English has derived immense linguistic seignorage and ideological power from this fact, such that it has become the favoured language of capital and its accumulation. In a capitalist world-system that has been dominated by anglophone hegemons, that English is the dominant default language of capital and capital accumulation does not seem so surprising, yet few have looked at it in this way. Nevertheless, it is because of the reality of capital in motion that English and elite articulations of English have gained a free ride. In my book there seemed no better way to visualize this than to take Marx’s formulae for capital circulation and accumulation and to add an E for English. Hence ME-CE-M¢E and ME-M¢E are the formulae I have used to show this – while also emphasizing their symbiotic entwinement and mutual facilitation. Other approaches have looked to imperialism, colonialism and globalization theory, and some others to plain human irrationalism. But whichever perspective one favours, what best explains the spread and dominance of the forms being observed – especially the standard elite form – is the endless accumulation of capital. This is the underlying generative framework for English spread and also for its insinuation into global distinctions of class, culture and taste.

Bonnie Urciuoli: Can you address the importance of distinguishing between empire in a political sense and empire in a world economy sense? 

John O’Regan: I have sought to address this above, but in short empire is too much associated with territorial annexation and colonial rule to be a suitable referent for the exercise of structural hegemony within the capitalist world-system. In the capitalist world-system a world-economy is a multi-state system having a single division of labour (exchange based on private accumulation) in which one state is structurally dominant. A capitalist world-empire if it existed would be a single-state system. The nineteenth-century empires of Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, and so on, were not empires at all, but nation states with colonial appendages within a world-economy dominated by Britain. References to a US empire while commonplace are misleading as a description of the current US world-economy into which the rising hegemon China and all other states in the capitalist inter-state system are also incorporated.

Bonnie Urciuoli: Chapters 2 through 6 segment the history of English into 1688-1850, 1850-1914, 1918-1979, 1979-2008, and since. What dynamics did you want to capture in so doing?

John O’Regan: With this periodization I primarily wanted to capture specific broad phases of capitalism and of global capital circulation during the past 400 years, and with it how English under the hegemonies of first Britain (1688-1918) and then the United States (1918-2008) was implicated in each phase. The period 1688-1850 in Britain is the period of transition from agricultural capitalism to industrial capitalism with the increased presence of City of London capital overseas, and of relevance for global English, the rise of gentlemanly capitalism as a unifying ideology, which I explain in the book. It is also a period in which Britain moves from being a rising hegemon to being an unrivalled hegemon. The period 1850-1914 is the period of unparalleled British dominance in global manufacturing and finance. It is also the era of free trade and the classical period of capitalist imperialism; all of which gave an enormous boost to English. In this period Germany and the United States also begin to challenge the British hegemony, but Germany’s attempt ends in ruinous defeat in the first world war (1914-18). The war leaves Britain financially broken and deeply in debt, but with its capital networks still spread around the world. It is at this juncture that the United States begins the process of transitioning to become the next unrivalled hegemon, in part by building upon the networks that Britain had already established.

This is a process which reaches its apotheosis after the second great defeat of Germany along with its axis ally Japan in 1945 and is consolidated through the post-war era up to 1979. Overseas, in the pursuit of Cold War supremacy and financial domination in its world-economy, the US practised a militarized global Keynesianism through the Federal Reserve, the IMF and the World Bank. This in its own way involved the further global consolidation of English. But the period of sustained global capital expansion faltered in multiple economic shocks and high inflation in the 1970s that led to a questioning of the Keynesian economic orthodoxy which had dominated since 1945. The crises of the 1970s ushered in a new orthodoxy that claimed to be based on classical principles but was in fact nothing of the sort. Sometimes associated with the Chicago School of Milton Friedman but having its intellectual roots in the Mont Pelerin Society of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, this return to supposed classical prescriptions sounded the death knell of social contract capitalism and the birth of what became known as neoliberalism. 1979 is the watershed moment when this transition occurs, while also coinciding with China’s move to the so-called open door. This is why I took this year as a natural cut-off point for this phase of accumulation.

The period from 1979 to 2008 is the era of unbridled neoliberal capitalism and of accumulation by dispossession – that is, of the wholesale transfer of national assets from public into private hands and of wealth from South to North, and as part of that of US insistence on the opening up to the greatest possible extent the economies of the world to inward capital investment and speculation. The 1979-2008 period is distinctive because of the way the global accumulation of capital changed. Due to technological advances this became still more financialized, allowing the generation of greatly increased volumes of accumulation utilizing ever more complex financial instruments. The period was also a geopolitically significant one that included the opening up of China (1978-9) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991). These events in combination with the undimmed drive to accumulate contributed to a veritable explosion in the global demand for English (1991-2008).

The forces of financialized accumulation that were unleashed led inexorably to the 2007-8 financial crash, which I argue was largely mediated in English. The period since then I have referred to as one of endism, where no new solutions to the crisis created by unbridled accumulation are forthcoming, only a financial resetting so that the accumulation that wrought the crisis in the first place can start anew. Of course, by the 2000s, the global dominance of English and its imbrication in the structures and institutions of the US world-economy had become such unassailable givens that outside of language scholarship circles and the occasional surfacing of official angst (for example, China, France) this was barely ever questioned.

Bonnie Urciuoli: What aspects of the movement of English through the world over time do you think have been most ignored or misunderstood?

John O’Regan: A main issue was to draw attention to the fact that this was not just about the dominance of English in general, nor was it about the specific dominance of native-speaker English either. The obsessive singling out of native-speaker English by its objectors has been an unfortunate distraction in relation to discussions of global English. At the same time, this is not to deny that native-speakerism as Robert Phillipson refers to it exists. It does indeed exist and what Phillipson has to say on this is valuable and worth listening to. But a distinction needs to be made between deference to native-speaker English norms and the employment of standard English in global capitalism. Those who are globally most responsible for reproducing this form and for pursuing it are not native speakers. At the most elite levels of the capitalist world-economy, in the global financial markets, in transnational corporations and in the world’s global governance institutions, including international alternatives sponsored by the Chinese government, the lingua franca of preference for all linguistic outputs is standard English, primarily in a written or what one might call read out form, regardless of whatever other languages or forms of English are spoken and used as well. One can call it native-speakerism if one wishes to, but I feel this is to miss the point, which is the hegemonic institutionalization of standard English under the specific historical conditions of capitalism and of processes of capital accumulation in a US-dominated world-economy. The US and other nations that view themselves as members of the anglosphere naturally have an interest in this, and gain a free ride in consequence of it, but it is not native-speaker norms which are at issue, or at least not any longer; that is far too simplistic and imprecise. Rather, the capitalist world-system for specific historical reasons has selected standard English as its elite form and today it is multilingual users of this form within the elite circles of global capitalism who are most responsible for its reproduction and dissemination. That this form is also mostly indistinguishable from standard English as used in elite circles in the anglosphere and promoted by its billion-dollar ELT and testing industries is not to be denied or ignored, but to locate responsibility for this form’s continued global dominance in these circles is to miss its ongoing intersection with the functioning of the capitalist world-system as a whole.

Bonnie Urciuoli: What should analysts keep in mind about applying the notion of commodification to language?

John O’Regan: There is not much wrong with referring to language as acting like a commodity or it appearing to have been commodified if one’s interest is only to metaphorize – to say that language seems like a commodity. Having the ability to use another language is also an evident skill and to that extent it can be deemed marketable – as if it were a commodity – and at a diverse price depending on where one is in the world and the specific political and economic conditions that locally pertain between capital and labour. But that is about as far as you can go with that kind of analogy because commodities are very specific things that have peculiar properties. There are two related problems with the language commodification argument. The first is that those who have made this argument have chosen to invoke a particular theorization of capitalism as the basis of their claim. But if one really is going to deal with capitalism and how commodities function in relation to that, simply metaphorizing the commodity as being applicable to anything that is desired, or to any kind of skill, is to do a singular disservice to established theory concerning commodities under the conditions of market capitalism. It therefore appears an oversight not to look at the economic theories that have analyzed this. My own route into this for the reasons of the reading group I belonged to was to look at how Marx defined the commodity, and also at how he determined what were and were not commodities. But I could just as easily have turned to more recent economic theory and done the same. Language economists, such as François Grin, who are working from a distinctly non-Marxist perspective have long been pointing out that language is not a commodity and cannot be economically determined as such. But it seems that in the rush to commodify language this basic due diligence has been overlooked. The second problem, which ensues from the first, is that by making language a commodity the real processes of exploitation which language workers experience – such as in telephone banking, phone sex chats and other kinds of paid-for call services – are obscured because what is being sold in the exchange has been misidentified, so instead of dealing with the material underlying causes of the language worker’s exploitation – the systemic extraction of surplus value  –  the focus is instead on surface appearances. For, as I argue in the book, it is not language that is being sold in the exchange, but the language worker’s capacity to labour. This is averagely unitized and charged to the customer as labour time: ‘all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour time’ Marx tells us (1976/1867: 130). It is therefore not language that is being sold but the worker’s labour time, and it follows from this that it is the call, not language, that is the commodity.

Jessica Grieser on her book, The Black Side of the River

Interview by Anna-Marie Sprenger

Anna-Marie Sprenger: First of all, congratulations on your new book! I am curious how you came to focus on place specifically in your research of Black speakers in DC, and if you can elaborate on why place identity is an important change from traditional dialectology studies?

Jessica Grieser: That’s an interesting question because really, this study started out as one about class! I was interested in how middle class African Americans position themselves and use language differently than their neighbors from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Anacostia was a great place to look at that, because in the 2010s, Black residents from other parts of the city were moving in there, so it was starting to experience a class shift but not a racial shift. What I discovered, though, was that the story of the neighborhood really wasn’t about conflict; it was about unity and the way that people talked about the neighborhood. It’s that “way that people talk about” that is different than dialectology, or even place-based variation studies–I’m a lot less interested in exactly what language features use and more in all the practices that allow them to combine a D.C. identity, an Anacostian identity, and a Black identity in ways that turn Anacostia, and D.C., into Black space.

 Anna-Marie Sprenger: What do you feel makes the story your participants tell of Anacostia unique from other stories of change and belonging in Black space in the US?

Jessica Grieser: A lot of that is rooted in the history of Anacostia itself. Anacostia was historically a settlement of both white workers from Navy Yard across the river, and also freed slaves who had purchased the area of Hillsdale from the Freedmen’s Bureau. So it has always been a place of racial integration and also racial conflict, and yet, it has always been understood as Black place (the MLK day parade has always been there, the Anacostia Community Museum essentially was the Smithsonian’s Black History museum until 2016). So unlike many Black spaces, which are created by the ghettoization of Black communities through policy and planning, it was largely created by people choosing to be there. Anacostia is a place where you have this black history that goes back generations and generations: some of my interviewees can trace their history back to great-grandparents who were enslaved on the land that they live on now in row houses. So it’s a different kind of place. At the same time, a lot of it is the same as other Black spaces in the U.S., and that’s something I don’t want to be lost either. These ways that people stake claims on the neighborhood are generalizable and they’re the kind of things we should be listening for in all communities.

Anna-Marie Sprenger: Your book focuses on place specifically, but we could say it is also about time – the changes participants see in Anacostia take place over time, and the events that have come to define the area are linked to particular moments in the timeline of the Anacostian imaginary. Could you share your intuitions as to how sense of time is or isn’t a part of Anacostians’ place identities and the sociolinguistic variation that reflects these identities?

Jessica Grieser: I mentioned this above, but a big sense of Anacostia is its history. The fact that the neighborhood unfolded over time, the fact that the neighborhood’s demographics changed over time – for instance, Anacostia high school was a white high school and it was Ballou high school that was the black high school. Now both of them, like most of the DC public schools, are predominantly black. So those sorts of changes are the kinds of things that my participants are noticing and thinking about. When it comes to the variation itself, that isn’t necessarily something that we see changing over time, but we do see are changes in the strategies that different people use to talk about the neighborhood itself. For instance many of my older participants with the benefit of time and with the benefit of having this claim staking process in the neighborhood earlier, felt much more free to criticize the processes of gentrification more overtly. With my younger speakers, mostly in their 30s, who were the same age as the population that was moving in and gentrifying, and also the same social classes that population, the strategies that they needed to use to covertly critique gentrification were different.

Anna-Marie Sprenger: While your project takes a community of practice approach instead of a speech community approach, you extensively discuss the use of enregistered African American Language features for the construction of place identities. What do you make of speakers who maybe didn’t use enregistered AAL features, or were otherwise linguistic outliers in some way – what did you learn from them?

Jessica Grieser: So this is actually what’s really interesting about this work! One of the reasons that I conducted my quantitative analysis the way that I did, was to see if I could find patterns that were similar across speakers, even for speakers who didn’t use very many enregistered features of AAL. And the fascinating finding is that yes, even if you don’t use very many, the ones that you do use are going to be used in the same place where people who use lots and lots of these features are still likely to use lots more of these features. So I suppose what’s interesting is less about the outliers, but more that even those who might be otherwise considered outliers still show the same general pattern. In turn, that pattern tells us something about the stylistic role that these features can play and the kinds of meanings that different speakers can draw upon when they use them which gives us yet more insight into the kinds of identities that get index to buy a particular variety, and where’s that I hope or helpful beyond just studying aal. 

Anna-Marie Sprenger: Do you feel that conducting the research for this project and writing this book was itself in a way a place-making process?

Jessica Grieser: Absolutely, if for no other reason than that it reifies the significance of places that people might think of as insignificant. That’s one of the responses I’ve gotten about this book from my participants themselves, is that they didn’t always see the connections between the outer history of the neighborhood and its relationship to the rest of Washington DC, and the role of these places that they think of as everyday places in maintaining a sense of community identity. And more personally it was a place making process for me: doing this project really made DC a second home for me in a way that won’t ever go away. I feel like my own Black cultural identity strengthened significantly in the course of doing this project, and these days if people ask where I’m from, I often describe being a professor in the midwest as “I’m a just Washingtonian who is just away on business for the next thirty years!”

Ingrid Kummels on her new book, Indigenity in Real Time

Interview by Maria Eugenia Ulfe

María Eugenia Ulfe: Congratulations, Ingrid, for publishing this wonderful book. It is a beautifully written ethnography about Zapotec and Ayuujk mediamakers’ involvement across borders. I like very much this idea of Comunalidad, a communal way of life, which is contested, claimed, and reinforced even in megacities like Los Angeles. How is Comunalidad created via Indigenous media? How is Indigeneity claimed and strengthened in the urban context? What roles does it play and how does it work?

Ingrid Kummels: That’s what impressed me most, this nexus of living a communitarian lifeway called Comunalidad, being IndigenousZapotec or Ayuujk ja’ay originally from Oaxaca, Mexico—across the U.S.-Mexican border despite the illegalization of the majority of Mexican migrants in the United States, and self-determined media work. In the book, I show that ever since large numbers of Zapotec and Ayuujk people migrated without authorization, due to the cessation of the Bracero agreement between the United States and Mexico in the mid-1960s, they have exported Comunalidad to Los Angeles. That is, they have contributed to this megacity’s development through their everyday practices of organizing political meetings, sports tournaments, collective celebrations, and rituals around death—especially through their media activities.

During my ethnographic fieldwork between 2016 and 2021, I experienced the trend toward digital media which Zapotec and Ayuujk creatives and their audience/users implemented on both sides of the border to overcome immobilization and discrimination. Building on their own media histories, they harnessed radio broadcasting, the assemblage of social media content, and smartphone reporting precisely to uphold sociality and autonomy regarding Indigenous knowledges and grassroot politics—while at the same time shaping them and making them visible in a transnational setting.

That’s why I propose that Oaxacalifornia—as this communal, transnational lifeway between Mexico and the United States is also called—was, above all, “digitally made” during the Trump era. I followed self-determined internet radios, multimedia platforms, and community influencers in Mexico and the United States for whom broadcasting via Facebook Live was an important dimension of their media work for a transborder audience. In Los Angeles they focused on a broad spectrum of weekend events ranging from migrant association meetings, rosary prayer ceremonies, wakes, and fundraisers where Oaxacan cuisine and beverages are sold while live music is played and dances are performed.  

Indigenous media practices help them assert their languages, cultures, and knowledges and resist denigration in challenging times. I experienced how Zapotec and Ayuujk internet radio stations, multimedia platforms, and social media showcased migrant association meetings at a time when the Trump administration was working to disrupt community life. The many executive orders the president issued to increase deportations inhibited free movement. Nevertheless, even more community fiestas were celebrated in Los Angeles backyards or banquet halls to raise funds for villages back home or for migrants in need in the United States. Self-determined media work defined Indigeneity in their own terms from different localities at a time when the U.S. government’s political discourse was openly racist.

María Eugenia Ulfe: In your book, present and presentness are not contradictory issues. Perhaps we can call them political time interventions through technology that have an impact even on persons who are not in the same place. How do synchronic communicative spaces cross national borders between the United States and Mexico, challenging uneven media structures, economic disparities, and ethno-racial and gender hierarchies? The Indigenous people involved create the sense that time opens for futures. How can we grasp the temporality of future? What becomes immediate?

Ingrid Kummels: Indigenous mediamakers carved out a space and time for transborder communication by setting up infrastructure, broadcasting in Indigenous mother tongues as well as in Spanish and English—the languages with which second-generation descendants in the United States are most comfortable. And here is where synchronicity and time interventions come in: Comunalidad in the capitalist sectors of Los Angeles is about creating and maintaining this feeling of obligation to reciprocate and share with the Mexican village of origin and vice versa—that is, sensing and experiencing this connection in real time. In fact, fundraisers and other get-togethers in Los Angeles backyards became vibrant showcases of communitarian life, equipped with live studios.

In general, the immediacy imposed by capitalist interests in the economization of time via digital instantaneity is blamed for a series of negative developments worldwide: a speeding-up of social life, economics, and politics. These wider developments exert pressure to migrate due to economic necessity. And overall, they lead to the volatility of social relations, as Paul Virilio, Hartmut Rosa, and other scholars have highlighted. In contrast, my book traces how Indigenous self-determined media set their own priorities when intervening in time. By enabling the experience of real time during a live transmission, let’s say of a basketball match in the village of origin, they take up the challenge of an uneven transnational terrain in terms of digital connectivity, infrastructure, and knowhow. At the same time, autonomous media is crucial for documenting and disseminating political ideas on the wider transborder community called Oaxacalifornia.

This digital divide is marked by several inequalities, beginning with the lack of interest on the part of major internet service providers in developing the necessary infrastructure in sparsely populated agrarian areas where they expect less profit. On the other hand, social media corporations like Facebook and Google encourage sociality to harvest and sell user data for financial profit, while they have no interest in supporting the content that media users wish to communicate and access, such as those of Indigenous knowledge systems. The state governments on both sides of the border failed to adequately regulate the media business, they failed to ensure the needs of those who are disadvantaged in the digital realm.

This was countered by self-determined media outlets run by Zapotec and Ayuujk teams. They creatively bridged the analog and digital media practices that existed in the various localities due to uneven infrastructure. Interactive user participation also enabled cross-border sociality and regular exchange of experiences. It allowed people to enjoy spending time together and engage in fervent debates over issues concerning the transnational community and beyond. The uneven transnational terrain was levelled by practitioners who combined hands-on, older and newer media formats, for example, circulating family archival material such as fiesta DVDs, both on the ground and when remediatizing them on social media.

What precisely does the future become, when it’s shaped as something you can quickly reach, only a few mouse clicks away? Examples of short-term futures concern text, sound, and images on social media pages of construction work for church compounds and modern graveyards in the Mexican hometown based on a combination of migrant money and communal labor on site. Or livestreams of family festivities like a quinceañera, a coming-of-age party, which convey not only transnational family ties, but other close bonds like those to employers in Los Angeles. Visions of a bright future are often not only projected on the Mexican hometown, but are also carried out there, not without controversy within the transnational community.

María Eugenia Ulfe: What are the possibilities that Indigenous digital media creates for gender empowerment in the case of women migrants? Maybe I should ask how digital media affects Indigenous communities in general. How does it transform social and political relations?

Ingrid Kummels: Indeed, femininities and masculinities are reshuffled in the course of migration. The labor regime to which people are subject increases gender inequality, since women are driven into care work—which even pressures them to limit the time they can spend caring for their own children; men are restricted in other ways, especially when they work in the food industry, often assuming two jobs. One of the paths to empowerment that I trace concerns how women increasingly engage as mediamakers. Internet radio reporters and social media influencers transform what used to be seen as matters restricted to the family into issues concerning the wider transnational community. Reporters and influencers brought a new angle to Indigenous cultural expressions and knowledges by visibilizing and transmitting them.

I discovered that women are particularly active as what I term community influencers. They don’t seek to influence consumer behavior regarding lifestyle. Instead, their intention is to impact cross-border community life when they post about it on social media. The book delves into how both dance moms as well as young people celebrating their quinceañera craft media events designed to promote greater gender equality; these entail regendering Indigeneity. That was the case with a Los Angeles female dance group that performed and livestreamed a sacred dance, Los Negritos, formerly considered an exclusively male affair in their hometown. Moms who accompanied their children to Zapotec dance training would act as community influencers and devise sophisticated ways of reporting on, archiving, and publishing dance and music. Users then commented on these media events in ways that reflect on both Zapotec Indigeneity and gender issues. Indigeneity is thereby regendered, in the sense that they destabilized the notion of Zapotec authenticity as primarily linked to masculinity and sacredness.

Women’s experiments with visual aesthetic styles when live broadcasting are a case in point. The photo on the book cover shows a community influencer wearing something dear to her community, the huipil, an Indigenous women’s garment of precolonial origin. At the same time, she is transmitting a group selfie, together with two participants of the dance group called Negritos colmilludos. Wearing a mask and relocating it to a Los Angeles food fair are significant in redefining Indigeneity in an increasingly re-territorialized world. The mask is an age-old medium which this current mediamaker puts at the forefront of contemporary life. Within the frame of the smartphone photo, gender issues and Indigeneity move closer together—and are visually redefined.

María Eugenia Ulfe: Last, but not least, how do you see Zapotec, Ayuujk, and other Indigenous mediamakers, in the era of artificial intelligence? Can AI open new possibilities when applied and used by many different people, including Zapotec and Ayuujk communities?

Ingrid Kummels: This is a very important question. On the one hand, artificial intelligence machines and software threaten to intensify existing imbalances that large media corporations produce in the realm of knowledges stored and published on internet. The marginalization of Indigenous knowledges is increased by search machines and chatbots, which rely on and reproduce this one knowledge category, while ignoring many others. On the other hand, Indigenous mediamakers are already reorienting this development. The book highlights examples of internet archiving and its importance to Indigenous knowledge systems, which are quite diverse. They often tend to organize wisdom in a way that transcends Cartesian dualism as well as the human-nature-supernatural divides. Self-determined mediamaking relies on people becoming chroniclers, archivists, and publishers, which is extremely important with regard to a diversity of content becoming part of IA software such as the chatbot ChatGPT—that is, it should not be mainly programmed by white males residing in the Global North. Indigenous mediamakers are also planning on creating other chatbots, Voice AIs, and the like, which rely on their mother tongues. Therefore, such AIs promise to be more useful for communities, while also enriching the multiverse of digital knowledge systems of our planet.