Ilana Gershon on her new book, Down and Out in the New Economy

Down and Out in the New Economy

Interview by Matt Tomlinson

The topics your book takes on are complexly intertwined: how people are meant to become their own brands, how patterns of hiring and quitting are changing, and the role of new media ideologies and ecologies. One of the points that emerges in your book is that people who try to connect these strands are themselves often confused, perplexed, and frustrated by the systems and processes. So can you distil your argument into a short summary—the elevator talk or, as this case might be, the elevator blog?

Pithy summaries are indeed the goal of so many of the job-seeking performances I studied, it seems only fair that I attempt to reduce my argument down to a handful of sentences.  My book is an attempt to make the notion of a neoliberal self as rigorous as possible by using historical comparison with earlier forms of capitalism.  So I suggest that Fordist work structures relied on the metaphor that one owns oneself as though one was property.  This means that the employment contract is a moment in which you rent yourself out to an employer for a certain period of time, and get yourself back, so to speak, at the end of the day.   Many union battles were fought over how long you should rent yourself out (the 40-hour work week), or other practical conundrums created by extending this metaphor of self-as-property.  But since Reagan and Thatcher, the metaphor has changed, and under neoliberal capitalism, people imagine that they own their selves as though they are businesses – bundles of skills, assets, experiences, qualities, and relationships that must be consciously managed and continually enhanced.  The employment contract becomes metaphorically a business-to-business contract in which you as a business are providing temporary solutions to your employer’s market-specific problems.  The book is about how the hiring ritual and various aspects of workplaces have changed in response to this shift in metaphor.


You describe how your students’ questions about how they should go about getting jobs led you to write the book. Can you say more about this, and what practical critical tools you see linguistic anthropology offering to students and job-seekers?

I am so glad that you asked, because the more I studied what hiring actually involves, the more I realized that linguistic and media anthropologists teach very helpful analytical tools for being a competent job candidate.  And I also think that we could all be much more direct when faced with the question “How will this major help me get a job?” about all the ways that an anthropology degree is truly helpful preparation for specific tasks involved in looking for a job.

For example, all the workshops that I attended were openly guides for how to master a certain genre.   The instructors were teaching how to understand the way information should be presented on the page to anticipate a certain kind of reader – often an impatient one who wants clear signals that the applicant fits certain criteria, and with their own styles for interpretation.   These are readers who are also reading with other people’s assessments in mind, who are anticipating having to show a resume to someone else in their workplace with their own techniques for interpreting a genre.  And while the workshops tend to focus on one genre alone, the job seeker is supposed to be competent at a range of genres, all of which are supposed to interconnect and tell a persuasive narrative about the applicant.  This is precisely what students learn in our courses.  You learn how to become competent at new genres.  You learn how to anticipate the different ways people might interpret your own texts, at the same time that you are learning a range of different techniques for interpreting a text.  You often learn the relationships between a textual genre and a performance genre.  And, as importantly, you learn how to be persuasive about your own interpretations of a text, a skill that will come in handy when our students have to discuss with their future co-workers who they want to hire.


 Your book is written in an appealingly informal tone, but there are moments when the immense anxiety and frustration of job seekers is apparent. Was the fieldwork emotionally challenging at times? Were there folks for whom you felt you needed to intervene sympathetically in some way?

Honestly, this was the most depressing fieldwork I have ever done.   And this is proven to me all over again when I give talks.  When I talk about my previous research on how people use new media to break up with each other, I often feel like a stand-up comedian.  The stories and my informants’ take on things are just so funny.   And now, when I give a talk about hiring, people in the audience keep telling me that they feel deeply depressed after I am done.

One of the reasons it was so painful is that the white collar workers I interviewed seemed to accept the neoliberal advice that they were surrounded by. At the end of an interview, I would sometimes mention that I was a bit skeptical about some aspect, say the requirement to create a personal brand.  And invariably, the person I was interviewing would defend the advice.   By contrast, last summer, I spent a month interviewing homeless people about how they looked for jobs.  It was much more enjoyable fieldwork because so many of the people I interviewed had a healthy skepticism about the systems they were trying to navigate.

It was also hard because I had no concrete way to intervene for the people I was interviewing in the moment, no matter how much I wanted to do so. And offering yet more advice didn’t seem like a satisfying way to go.  After all, part of the trap that job-seekers face is not only that they are surrounded by advice, some of it good and some of it crappy, but almost all of it must be said at a level of generality that isn’t helpful enough for getting a job in a complex and specific workplace.  In the end, I decided that maybe the best I could do was point out in my book the problems with standardized advice as clearly as possible.  This might help job-seekers realize they also might want to do thoughtful research about any workplace they want to enter, research (to continue my point in the previous question) that resembles ethnographic explorations of how decisions are made in a specific organization.


For linguistic anthropologists this book will resonate strongly with your previous book The Breakup 2.0. In fact, they would be great to assign as a pair to students. But I wanted you to think of this new book in terms of your work on Samoan migrants, No Family Is an Island. I want to go out on a limb here. In No Family Is an Island, you make it clear that government bureaucrats who see their systems as acultural put Samoans in the position of “being cultural,” and making culture something to be managed in particular ways. In this new book, you mention how companies are seen to have cultures, but individuals have some leeway—true, they need to have a cultural makeup that fits the company’s own, but they’re also free to craft selves as brands and decide what kind of individual culture they have, if you will. So to draw all this out: Samoan migrants are forced to be culture-bearers, whereas American job-seekers need to be culture-designers. Is this a fair comparison?

For me, this is a very unexpected comparison, but let me see if I can work with it.   Why unexpected? In my research on hiring, I was constantly baffled by what people meant when they were talking to me about company culture and making sure that those they hired were a good cultural fit.   It often sounded to me like “not a cultural fit” was a politic way to reject a job candidate you didn’t like for whatever reason, but seemed perfectly acceptable on paper.  And I never came across anyone who thought they were creating a culture of one, job-seekers and employers both understood culture to involve a group of people interacting together.

That said, I think you are pointing to a fascinating distinction in the way that culture as a classification functions on the ground when people use the concept explicitly.  In my earlier work on Samoan migrants, culture tended to refer only to one thin slice of what anthropologists mean when they talk about culture – ritual exchanges, kinship obligations, and politeness norms.  None of these were being referred to when U.S. white collar workers were talking about company culture.  Instead, they seemed, as far as I could tell, to be referring to the specific interactional practices that linguistic anthropologists study – how do you handle conflict, or manage small talk – which was then translated into Values that company employees were supposed to uphold.  No one ever clearly spelled out the link between values such as Amazon’s “bias for action” and “think big” and how employees were supposed to behave in particular situations.  This was the tacit cultural knowledge everyone in Amazon were supposed to know — how to link these values to everyday practice.  And I suppose employees could say retroactively that the people who didn’t know how to enact this tacit link were not a good “cultural fit.”  But honestly, from my analytical perspective, moving from a job at Goldman Sachs to a job at Amazon was not switching cultures in any meaningful anthropological sense.  Both Samoan migrants and U.S. white collar workers were using culture as a classification to refer to some things that anthropologists would agree are part of culture, but it was only a slice of what anthropologists might refer to should they use the term.  But the slices were different enough that I think you are right that people viewed their relationships to culture differently.  Samoan migrants did not think they were actively making their own culture while US white collar workers thought that every conscious decision they made helped them fashion a company culture.


Finally: who do you most hope will read your book?

I wrote this book for people looking for jobs, for people looking to hire, and for the career counselors who are giving advice.  I don’t like the model of the neoliberal self, and want to encourage people to refuse it.  The question is how to do this persuasively?  I turned to analyzing hiring because it is a moment of such uncertainty and anxiety that when people are being told they had to become a neoliberal self in order to get a job, they will do it for pragmatic purposes.   I hoped with this book to suggest that this was not the way to go, both because becoming a neoliberal self isn’t all that effective as a set of strategies and because it is not allowing people to be as ethical and good to each other as I hope they want to be.


Birgit Meyer on her new book, Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity

Interview by Yeon-Ju Bae

Given that Ghanaian video movies provide audiovisual experiences of what the Ghanaian audience might have imagined, for example, occult forces, Satan, God, modern life styles, and so on, I was curious in the first part of the book why the visual modality seems to be more emphasized in terms of “imagination, image, and imagery”, whereas audio is more briefly mentioned. In reading chapter 3, I realized that attention to the aural modality alerts us to backchannel cues that the audience produces in watching and participating in video movies. I think this interactive and co-creative process across video technology and human viewers, and across visual and aural modalities, composes one of the important features in the Ghanaian video experience. In this sense, I wonder how you would situate the audience’s aural participation among the processes of “imagination” and “sensation”.

Thank you. You raise a very interesting point. Some readers of my book have pointed out – rightfully so – that I pay too little attention to the sound dimension of these movies. The issue, of course, is not to just say more about sound, but to reflect on the sound-image relation. In the passage in Chapter 3 to which you refer I argue that the low quality of the sound compels audiences to co-produce their own sound track. This, as you observed very well, is a central dimension of the genesis of the typical video experience. So here poor sound facilitates high level interaction of audiences with the moving images. A technical deficiency allows for higher participation! But certainly more can (and should) be said about the sound-image relation in the video experience. Sound is imperfect, but not absent. In watching movies, people look and listen (and speak, sing, shout) all at the same time. There is no neat separation between visual, aural and other modalities. They intersect in various ways. In writing the book, I used the terms audience and spectators with a critical awareness that the emphasis on the aural in the former and on the visual in the latter ideally should imply each other. The lack of a single term to describe the entanglement of the aural and the visual (let alone other sense perceptions) in film reception testifies to the difficulty of developing a thoroughly multi-sensorial approach to cinema. Maybe the term “spectaudience” might be a solution? I think that in order to critique and transcend the visual bias that is still dominant in the study of cinema and film, it may be worthwhile to think further about the work of Michel Chion, who has proposed a distinction between “visualized sound” (that is, sound the source of which is visible to viewers) and “acousmatic sound” (that is, sound the source of which remains hidden). The latter accounts for the evocation of a sense of suspense. It would be interesting to think through his distinction with regard to Ghanaian movies, where sound tends to be deficient and people make up for this lack. This would require audiovisual recordings of film shows. Alas I do not have such materials, I only have audio recordings.

The same problem of an over-determination of the visual arises with regard to approaches to the imagination, imaginaries and images. In my book, which is about the interface of film and Christianity, I explore the question how movies feed into and are fed by what people imagine, how their imagination is synchronized and how this yields shared sensations and common sense. In the Introduction I wrote: “… the ‘stuff’ to which imaginaries refer is not limited to pictures and other visual items. It is the imagination, as a visualizing faculty that – not unlike a film – represents all this ‘stuff’ as mental images.” I agree with your observation that “the visual modality seems to be more emphasized” than the aural. I do think that film and the imagination are visual by definition. However, the point is that visual does not stand by itself, but is coupled with sound, smell, taste and touch. Exactly for this reason I sought to embed the imagination into a broader frame of sensation. Fleshing out an approach to the imagination, imaginaries and images that is not limited to visual registers but opens up for speaking or singing images, smelling images, sounding images, and so on, is a major conceptual issue that deserves much more attention. I think that Hans Belting’s anthropology of images, which has inspired my sensorial and material stance to the imagination as outlined in the Introduction, may be a useful starting point to conceptualize the imagination from a new thoroughly material and sensorial angle. This is one of the theoretical projects I would like to pursue in the future. Especially for the study of religion this is an important topic. From the ways in which audiences in Southern Ghana responded to the images and often deficient sounds they witnessed on screen I learned that going to the movies was an experience in which imagination and sensation converged. So much so that the films are understood to reveal something real which is normally hidden to ordinary perception.


It was intriguing for me to encounter the folk notion of public that seems to be closely related to their notion of ethics. It seems like Ghanaian people don’t regard rumors and hearsay as “public” even though these discourses are circulating. However, if those rumors and hearsay are framed in terms of the Christian ethics in which retribution adequately takes place, then the stories involving occult, violence, and sex become “publicized” via video movie forms. Within video movies as well, if there is a scene in which actors show their intimate/private body parts, their behavior is often associated with immorality in terms of the plot flow and protagonist characteristics. I’m wondering if the Ghanaian notion of public as morality is drawn from Christianity or is rooted in Ghanaian traditions. Put in other way, how do different religions or different ethnic groups in Ghana exhibit different understandings of the relationship between public and ethics?

What I wanted to make clear is that video movies flourished under conditions of democratization and the deregulation of mass media as radio, television and film that had previously been under full state control. The change occurred around 1994. The point here is that, prior to that change, stories and rumors circulated, but were not allowed a space in the mass media around which the modern public sphere evolved. Scholars studied such narratives and performances as popular culture. After 1994, videos became one of the new outlets through which popular imaginaries that had circulated before under more clandestine conditions would become visible and audible on screen. Hitherto subdued narratives circulating via rumors could go public in the context of a new politics and aesthetic of representation of culture. What I found very interesting – and here we come to the gist of your question – is the strong emphasis on ethics. So, while as far as content and message were concerned, video movies digressed from state-cinema, they were still embedded in a longstanding ethical attitude towards film according to which moral lessons were to be learned. This attitude is certainly not limited to Christianity, but emphasized in indigenous traditions, especially in traditional storytelling, as for example Ananse stories. And even though video movies revel in picturing all sorts of transgressions, the “good” people are morally sound (and hence do not undress, consult a “fetish” priest, and so on). In this book I showed how approaches to video-movies on the part of both the producers and the “spectaudiences” are embedded in everyday or “ordinary ethics” (Michael Lambek). Since I could notice that the movies appealed to people with different ethnic backgrounds, I am sure that the expectation of the morality of entertainment is widely shared. Over the next years I will conduct a collaborative project with colleagues in Ghana in the course of which we will investigate modalities of co-existence across religious and ethnic differences in the suburb of Madina (Accra). The issue of public ethics and the morality of circulating cultural forms will certainly be a major issue.


When I read your interview with a woman who paid attention to video movie scenes in which characters of the upper class are matching the color of curtains and bed sheets depending on situation, I wondered if she were a man, would the interviewee have paid so much attention to such details. This interview excerpt brings up issues of how social differences map onto experiences of watching movies. Are there any patterns in terms of audiences’ reactions or focuses depending on gender, age, class, language, region, religion, ethnicity, and so forth? I think the class (as well as language and age) differences were described in the book. What about region—are the movies circulated in rural villages as well; if so, do the ways of watching videos in villages show any difference from those of urbanites? And are there any reactional patterns in reference to multireligious and multiethnic situations in Ghana?

The movies I studied were consciously tailored to appeal to women first, who would then make the male members of the household watch as well. This is what my filmmaker friends told me over and over again. A film that would fail to do so was doomed to flop, and this would end the business of filmmaking. The women who admired the match between curtains and bed sheets was a seamstress called Floxy who had a big atelier. She unfortunately died in childbirth not long after our interview. As she told me, she got phone-calls from her female customers when a film (often Nigerian) was on in order to copy a particular appealing dress. So she, and her customers had a keen eye and great appreciation for the new styles displayed in movies. By contrast, I myself did initially not look at movies in this manner, but was eager to discern meanings. This is what I realized in the interview with Floxy. She alerted me to a modality of looking which I had so far overlooked. Scouting for styles is one of the ways through which movie watching is embedded in everyday life. It is indeed the case that what people find remarkable in a movie very much depends on their interests and dispositions. My research mainly took place in Ghana’s capital Accra, and to some extent among Ghanaians in the Netherlands. These are multi-ethnic settings which are predominantly Christian. Unfortunately I did not accompany screenings of videos in the rural areas. Nor did I study the Kumasi film industry which uses Twi as main language (rather than English). It would have been interesting to follow the circulation and screening of Accra- and Kumasi made films in villages and across the borders of neighboring countries in detail. Alas I did not do so. And now, with the spread of television and the mobile phone and its increasing use for film viewing the days of screening movies in villages to paying audiences are a matter of the past. All the same, I do not think that the identity markers you mention are reflected in particular watching patterns. The movies are made to travel across Ghana, Africa and among people of African descent in the world. Together with Nigerian movies, they are consumed all over the continent. I would rather say that these movies actively disseminate particular images, styles and attitudes about African tradition and the modern world. They articulate visions, desires, dreams, anxieties, life styles and identities. They make people share imaginaries and sensations. They are part of performing African modernity.


You said that the “sensational forms” of Ghanaian video movies give rise to “religious real”, and I was wondering for whom it is real. It seems like the representation of reality must be considered within the context of authority at various levels. For instance, video movie directors are facing criticism from censorship officers that they are not representing what is reality; traditional chiefs think that the directors cannot accurately visualize the spiritual forces, or juju, because these are not visualizable in the first place; those viewers who know English might find protagonists’ speech artificial; directors are concerned that it might seem unrealistic to the upper class if movies depict hyper-urban lives that aren’t present in Ghana—which the lower class wants to see in the movies; and during filming, actors are acting to visualize what is invisible and inaudible in a way that they themselves don’t believe it to be real. Given that you vividly show how various representations of reality are contested, I’m curious about your thoughts in using the terms “real” and “revelation”.

Yes, this is an important issue. What is taken as real is not given, but subject to authorization processes. Competing politics and aesthetics of world-making co-exist. This is so in all cultures and societies. In Ghana the video-film industry was situated in a context of heavy contestations, as it digressed from established forms of representing culture and tradition under the aegis of state cinema. Video-movies rather surfed along with the popularity of Pentecostalism, which purports a specific take on reality as being enveloped in a spiritual war whose main operators are located in the invisible world of demons. In Southern Ghana, there was and is a broad consensus, running across differentiations in terms of ethnicity, age and education, that the spiritual is real. The video movies that form the major focus of my book echoed and affirmed this consensus. This does not mean that movies were taken to be credible under all conditions and by everyone. Even sympathetic viewers would find certain depictions more convincing than others, and dismissed others as artificial. Still one main attraction point lay in the fact that video movies transfigured stories about occult forces that were circulating in society into movies. They set out to reveal the invisible realm which the naked eye cannot penetrate. In chapter 5 I argue (inspired by the work of Achille Mbembe) that one could see video filmmakers as high priests of the imagination, who create doubles of the “real thing” that is hidden from view but whose features enter into the double. Images are not mere representations, but make what they represent somehow present. At the same time, any attempt to depict the invisible generates contestations, as is the case with the chief who also was a photographer and who insisted that the real thing could not be visualized. So, interestingly, the picturing of the invisible is a paradoxical endeavor, in that the images that reveal the “religious real” (the term was coined by Adrian Hermann) on screen may well conceal it at the same time. At the same time, and you refer to this, actors can only play the role of a witch or the devil, if they do not believe that in so doing they have to become a real witch or devil. And yet, there is a sense of danger of being affected by mimesis, reason why actors recur to prayer so as to protect themselves from being intruded by the role. There were also anxieties that, in filming certain scenes which involve occult forces, these forces could be called upon to inhabit the fake shrines and possess people staging a dance or doing incantations for the sake of shooting a movie. What I wanted to show is that video-movies are embedded in processes of world-making in which what is real is constituted through revelations that rely on authorized Christian visual regimes, but are always haunted by a sense of the ultimate impossibility of revelation. We encounter here a fundamental feature of the image: it acts as a medium of something which is not present as such. The image itself – as a medium – is real, but the question is whether that what it represents is taken as real too, or simply as fake. So I use the term “real” not in an objective or positivistic sense, but as an outcome of politics and aesthetics of figuration that are tied to broader, competing imaginaries. Revelation is a way of vesting the act of representation with a sense of truth, and a confirmation of a “Christian real”. I think that this fact that what is considered real depends on processes of producing something as real and authorizing it is a basic feature of societies, as for instance the current insecurity about the possibility of news being “fake” also shows.


The Ghanaian video movie producers started to emerge thanks to the development of video technology, yet have recently been out of business due to changes in available alternatives for audiences which include films on the internet. In a sense that Ghanaian video movies are deeply concerned not only with religious “sensational forms” and moral lessons, but also with the social life of video technologies, I wonder how the video movie directors have experimented with technological resources and limitations. And I wonder what new experiments the directors are attempting to conduct in order to compete with other alternatives in this current changed situation. Moreover, will these new creative ways of “mediation” bring about any emergent themes or values?

My research ended in 2010 and I circumscribe it as a historical ethnography. Since 2010 I have only followed the industry from some distance. In chapter 1, I trace the implications of the shift from analog to digital video, and show that this technological transition offered new opportunities for newcomers. Most of the filmmakers I followed since the early 1990s are not doing well. In 2010 some sought to remain in the business by opting for another kind of transgressive revelation: mild porn. This generated a moral outcry among the audiences (although these films, just as porn, sold to some extent). It is a difficult situation for them to survive, certainly as there are no film funds and no easily accessible loans. One reason for the problems filmmakers face is that there are non-stop older films shown on various TV channels. Also an Youtube a huge amount of Nigerian and Ghanaian movies is available for free. Nowadays it is difficult to launch a new film and make sufficient money via VCD and DVD sales to earn back the investment. Piracy is lurking. Still new producers are around. My friends in Ghana told me that watching movies on television is still a very much a social affair. People watch together in the family. In long distance busses movies are shown, too. And also in pubs. I also noted that increasingly movies are available digitally and watched on mobile phones. Lindiwe Dovey has documented this shift in African screen media very well. I have not conducted research on this new phase myself. It would be great to take this up. Maybe you want to go into this?

Erin Debenport on her new book, Fixing the Books: Secrecy, Literacy, and Perfectibilty in Indigenous New Mexico

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Interview by Shannon Ward

You identified commonalities in the processes of creating the San Ramon dictionary and pedagogical texts, as well as in the speech genres and cultural practices they encode.  For example, both texts are continually refined, or “perfected,” through editing meant to closely control the circulation of knowledge about certain linguistic and cultural practices. Also, both texts contain chronotopes that link authoritative knowledge about the past to present community issues and the potential future implications of cultural and linguistic loss or revival.  How do these features of the texts intersect with other socialization strategies practiced informally within families or among community members? That is, how does the use of these texts fit into broader language and cultural socialization within San Ramon?

The most visible socialization strategies that connect to ideas about perfectibility at San Ramon were approaches to childrearing and the associated transmission of knowledge. Although outside the focus of the book, I noticed that caregivers—both men and women, parents, non-parents, adults, and teenagers—felt comfortable “correcting” children, telling them to be respectful, to listen, or simply stop what they were doing if they were misbehaving. This connects to the idea that the responsibility for the transmission of knowledge is shared among all community members. Related to this, adults would often correct or comment on behavior even when the child was performing a task correctly or behaving themselves.  Once I heard a Head Start teacher say, “That’s the way, Amber. You don’t go messing up the play area when you spend time there,” almost keeping the master/apprentice “channel” open between teacher and child. A new way that texts are figuring into broader patterns of language and cultural socialization at San Ramon and the other Pueblos is through the use of Facebook. When posting about community events or commenting on tribal policies, I have noticed that the past is often invoked in this new context, as in “Make your ancestors proud and help clean up the arroyo this Saturday.” Processes of perfectibility are apparent here, too, as users craft elaborate comments, replies, and visual materials while composing Facebook posts.


The student authors of the Keiwa soap opera, As the Rez Turns, artfully employed characteristically Pueblo speech genres, extracommunity genres, and non-Native images of indigenous people to create subtle social and political critiques. How does this project differ from young people’s everyday interactions that may (or may not) similarly display multiple intertextual links? What does it suggest about changing possibilities for young people’s community-directed action?

I think the soap opera project differed in that the abstract notion of a “language dialogue” provided enough distance for participants to employ such intertextual links while discussing things like tribal politics, “tradition,” and Native identity. Usually the two “realms” are quite separate: the copious use of pop culture references and the production of intertextual links on one side and the serious work that is being an engaged community member on the other. As far as changing political possibilities, I think this is an example of how new spaces for critique are opening up almost within new forms of language circulation. I would not go so far as to say that Facebook and other platforms are singlehandedly enabling youth participation and political action, but I would say that I continue to see social critique within such spaces, spaces that are considered to be frivolous or unconnected to tribal history and values by older community members.


You argue that language revitalization projects perform culturally and linguistically meaningful work beyond preserving grammar and phonology. For example, language revitalization projects serve as metapragmatic resources for reproducing cultural practices and morality, as well as for enacting social critique (pg. 112). Participants in these programs thus tend to view them as beacons of hope for future linguistic and cultural revival, even in the absence of data proving the successful reverse of language shift (pg. 112-117). What possibilities do you envision for expanding recognition of and support for these other facets of language revitalization, in San Ramon and beyond?

I think that one potential influence of the U.S. educational system and dominant approaches to parenting in this county is that increasingly younger tribal members insist on being given credit “for trying” or for attending language classes regardless of their linguistic abilities. In such moments, youth connect attendance and participation with “being Indian” or being a good community member, invested in the future of the Pueblo. I have started to work with an additional Pueblo community, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo (not a pseudonym) in El Paso, Texas, and these kinds of connections are much more overt there than at San Ramon. Due to their distance from the other Pueblos, intense discrimination, state educational policies, and the predominance of Spanish in the region, the Southern Tiwa language was largely lost at the Pueblo. Their language program has been an incredible success, however, with the emergence of several advanced speakers who have learned the language as adults. While meetings with other Pueblos or native speakers of the language can be stressful for these learners, they often say that the fact that they are trying to learn shows that they are true Pueblo people rather than being able to speak Southern Tiwa without making any mistakes.


While Pueblo secrecy radically affected your participation in the community of San Ramon, you also harness secrecy in your ethnographic writing, for example, by focusing on cultural and linguistic knowledge production without revealing the content of this knowledge. What aspects of ethnographic methodology aided you in continually adapting to the changes and complexities of your consultants’ relationships with outsiders?  That is, how did your ethnographic training help you reconcile your initial expectations of your anthropological endeavor with the constraints (and associated possibilities) you encountered in your fieldwork, analysis, and writing?Your description—“continually adapting to the changes and complexities”—really captures my experience perfectly! Having to always revise my new and ongoing projects keeps this concern at the forefront of my thinking and research, too. I think that two parts of my ethnographic training continue to inform how I research and write in and about Pueblo communities: being introduced to the ideas of informed consent, harm, and language ideologies; and being introduced to literature on knowledge production and power. I first experienced the former when preparing my IRB, which was a surprisingly nuanced process at my graduate institution (there was a separate IRB for social sciences, so I felt guided by scholars working on comparable projects). My advisor also shared with me instances where he chose not to circulate language examples as part of a language project to which he contributed. Also, critiques of language revitalization discourses by scholars including Jane Hill, Robert Moore, Joseph Errington, and Peter Whiteley alongside work on language ideologies and literacy (especially by Paul Kroskrity and Justin Richland who have worked in Pueblo communities) really paved the way for being able to think about such projects as both objects of analysis and potential sites for conflict or collaboration. However, it was really being in the field and realizing the stakes involved with keeping secrets that led directly to the choices I eventually made in the way I presented data in the book. Lastly, works in anthropology, social theory, and science and technology studies that analyzed the ways that anthropologists produce and circulate knowledge had a tremendous effect; Bourdieu, Foucault, and Fabian were key.



Shane Greene on his new book, Punk and Revolution

Interview by Orin Starn

Can you tell us about Punk and Revolution: 7 More Interpretations of Peruvian Reality and what you set out to accomplish with the book?

 I hope the book goes down as a few things:  a novel take not just on Peru’s war with the Shining Path but, somewhat by extrapolation, the narratives that dominate understandings about “Cold War Latin America.” I’m invested in inserting some wacky anarchists into that otherwise standard tale of the “hard left” (that is, Marxist) and “hard right” alternatives that dominated the region from the 60s to the 90. I also want some sort of disruption into punk’s too comfortable location in the Anglo North Atlantic rock nexus, and all the debates about provocation, selling out, and being reborn that that typical story about punk has generated. And I guess it is something like a modest assault on academia to make it slightly less boring.  There’s also the distinct possibility I was just trying to live “rock subterráneo” vicariously and reopen old wounds about the politics of feeling out of place, something that started when I was about 13.


Punk is genre-busting music.  And this is a genre-busting ethnography.  Can you tell us about your ethnographic style here, including all that good nasty language?  Do you see your book as having lessons for other anthropologists in thinking about experimenting with our writing?

Not everyone thinks my nasty language is all that good, and some were in a position to question or kill it when they thought it too nasty, or, maybe just too “masculine” (oh, how they have overrated my masculinity). It was never really a project about challenging “political correctness” (a phrase that emerged on the radical left but has long been appropriated by the far right) and more about wondering what we can or can’t say with academic voices or how we are or are not allowed to juxtapose academic voices with other, um, less staid, voices.  The criticisms sometimes made me really rethink the nastiness (Interpretation #4) and, other times, I just snuck it back in elsewhere (because I’m sneaky). That said, even my kid knows I have a dirty mouth so probably a certain percentage of it is just how I talk anyway. But, really, the main thing was just that I wanted each of the 7 Interpretations to sound/read/look totally different. Eventually, that meant not even writing essays, which explains the Situationist-style art project (Interpretation #6) and the short story (Interpretation #7).  For that matter, there’s technically more than 7 Interpretations given all the supplemental side projects that the book is linked to on the companion website (, the zine-stuff, a music video my band did, a tee shirt I made, and so on. The idiosyncratic aspect of “just interpreting shit” (like the punk Geertz or something) makes me not really know if there’s a teachable lesson.  But in general I’m all for encouraging people to go beyond or even explicitly against the standard and dry academese we love to subject ourselves to.


Anthropologists have long had Peru as a favorite stomping ground.   But much of that scholarship has been about the rural Andes.  Your focus is on the megalopolis of Lima.  How do you see your contribution to understanding urban experience in Peru and Latin America?   And to how we understand Peru and Latin America more broadly?

There’s definitely a thing with Peru and the Andes fetish. It goes deep and straight to the heart of nationalism.  It’s hard to even think of a handful of interesting books about Lima – on any topic – much less about other Peruvian cities (Arequipa? Piura? Trujillo?) written by anthropologist (oh, but Daniella Gandolfo’s book about Lima is amaaaaaazing).  I think this was honestly more of a side effect than my real intent, that is, I ended up creating a peculiar look into one segment of Lima, basically the middle-class and up (since rock as a genre is mostly middle-class and up).  There’s some good work on hip-hop out there in countries like Cuba, Brazil, and so on.  And there’s some STS types doing interesting stuff that at least crosses into urban spaces but isn’t necessarily about “the city” or necessarily “anthropology” (thinking of Anita Chan’s book Networking Peripheries). Either way, we are overdue for some anthropologists thinking more about the multiplicity and depth of urban subcultures throughout Latin America, as well as their global inspiration in, and creative divergence from, subcultures that emerged elsewhere.  Even when anthropologists finally come out of the countryside and go to the city they seem to end up focusing on the same subaltern populations or themes, like rural-to-urban migration or historically racialized groups, and so on.  But welcome to the history of anthropology, I guess.


What do you see as your contribution to understanding the global history of punk?  And to how we think about sound and the politics of sound?

The book doesn’t talk about sound per se but I got very interested in the geopolitics of music formats, hence all the stuff about production and circulation (and piracy) of demo cassettes in Interpretation #1.  Of course, format studies are now an offshoot of sound studies. There’s something mystically beautiful and marvelously awful about the sound of Peruvian punk from the 80s.  The conditions for production (or instruments available for recording for that matter) were so bad, it is just truly wonderful.  Some contemporary Peruvian punks and hardcore types wax nostalgic about the cassette format for that reason and so they buck the global digitalization trend by recording new albums on cassette now when it seems utterly anachronistic.  The global north has its own history with cassettes but it isn’t quite the same thing.  First off, it more often connotes some sort of social intimacy or friend networks (such as: the friend who recorded album X for me; or the girlfriend who gave me the mix tape Y).  In Lima, because of the dramatically unstable political context there was a curiously ambiguous dialogue taking place between the “underground rock” economy (cassettes, fliers, art pieces, and so on) and the other “underground political” sector of Shining Path organizers and militants who were also producing art, propaganda, newspapers and other genres for the “revolution.”  Both were happening outside, and against, mainstream media circuits (and, for that matter, the state).  So, it became really dangerous for Peruvian punks at the time and many of them found that out the hard way (hence Interpretation #6).  There was a deep political risk (of death, disappearance, imprisonment, exile) built into being a Peruvian punk and producing things that were punk-like in the Peru of the time.  That, as far as I can tell, is quite unique within punk experiences writ large.


What’s your next project?

I’ve been throwing around this term “misanthropology” for the last few years and threatening to write a book about how we, the human species, are all gonna die.  And probably should. Given November 2016, seems like maybe it’s a good time to get started on that.

Chaim Noy on his new book, Thank you for Dying for Our Country

book cover


Interview by Lindsey Pullum

You’re in line to ride a rollercoaster and, while waiting for your turn, strike up a conversation with the family ahead of you. They have never been to Israel, but seem nice enough and press you to tell them about your latest project. You only have a few minutes before the rollercoaster comes to whisk you and the family away—how would you describe your book?

I have always been interested in national identities, specifically in Israel, and the ways people understand and perform them. In my book I look at what visitors write in visitor books in a major national Israeli site in East Jerusalem, called the Ammunition Hill National Commemoration Site. These books are interesting because, as a whole, they give a fascinating sense of how people respond to and embody national themes and narratives. I see the texts visitors write as ways of participating in the retelling of national identity. When you look closely into these succinct texts, you can see how rich they are in fact. They show different positions with regards to identity, and different things that visitors choose to respond to (and ignore). For instance, while most of the Israeli visitors address the museum and its staff, most North American tourists address the dead soldiers, and yet other visitors address God. Add to that that many visitors draw images, and the book is really highly visual, like and album that combines images and texts.

All this is even more interesting because the book is located inside a museum, and what people write in it immediately becomes part of the museum’s display. In the way the book is presented, the museum actually prompts visitors to write about certain themes and in certain ways, so it is also very interesting to study the book as a public medium. Finally, I was able not only to read visitors’ text, but also to observe visitors write them. In most cases visitors write the texts together (collaboratively), which taught me a lot about how these bits of performances of national identity are being composed. For instance, parents (usually mothers) instruct their children what to write and how to do it (“don’t write ‘I’m happy’, write ‘I’m impressed’—it’s more respectable this way”). So the entire writing scene at Ammunition Hill was fascinating for me.

Interesting you mention rollercoasters! My last article is an ethnography of rollercoaster riders, and their experience with the photographs that are taken of them while on the ride. I studied riders’ images in theme parks in Florida, which are similar in many ways to the curated environments in museums.


You have previously written two books on the Israeli backpackers’ experience. Your latest published work has focused more on museums and texts. Can you comment on your process for deciding on a research project? How did your previous research influence this latest book?

I love this question because often these decisions are not discussed in the academy. My recent book furthers my earlier interests in contemporary cultures and the consequences of tourism and travel, specifically in political contexts (though what contexts aren’t political?). In my previous book I studied backpackers’ narratives. I asked how the stories they shared with me in in-depth interviews were, in effect, storytelling performances whereby the meaning of the interview occasion itself was negotiated (as well as the identities and roles of the participants). The backpackers enthusiastically told me about extensive “libraries” of handwritten letters and documents, which they wrote to each other about their travels. These collections, located in Southeast Asia and South America, were a way of circulating travel-related information, experience and lore. I was fascinated by this, but I didn’t have the funding to study them. This, however, incited my research interest in studying what I later called ‘tourists’ texts’: the role of texts (and entextualization) in travel, and the places, practices and technologies relating to their production and circulation. Knowing I wanted to study texts within such sites, and knowing I wanted to shift from interview-based research (where I supply the provocation) to ethnographically-based research (where the museum supplies the provocation) I then chose a location that was convenient and relevant. The Ammunition Hill Memorial museum was located in the city I love: Jerusalem (where I was born and raised, and where I raise my daughters). This was a matter of access and convenience, and it also accorded with other critical studies I did on political tourism in East and West Jerusalem. On my first visit to Ammunition Hill, where I was scouting the site, the visitor book really impressed me. It was a large and imposing book, made of parchment, and part of a memorial installation in one of the museum’s most ‘sacred’ halls. The minute I saw the book I fell in love with it, and knew I was going to study it.

Language is crucial to your study of texts within the visitor’s book at Ammunition Hill Memorial museum. You analyze language ideologies in terms of handwritten texts and repeated styles of entries. Yiddish and Arabic are absent from the discussion of code-switching even though each language is spoken by certain publics in Israel (99). Is bilingual code-switching with specific regard to these two languages an aspect of your research you would have liked to include more of but couldn’t for some reason? Were Yiddish and Arabic simply not present in the visitor’s book itself?

That’s right: I would have loved to discuss Yiddish and Arabic texts in more detail in the book, yet as you indicate, the texts are mostly in Hebrew and English, with only occasional texts in Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and French. Different reasons account for the absence of Arabic and Yiddish. As for Arabic, the site is located in East Jerusalem, within walking distance from large Palestinian neighborhoods. So physically accessing the site isn’t very difficult. It’s just that the site celebrates—and embodies—the “unification of Jerusalem” as the Israeli/Zionist narrative has it, and so it is clear why Palestinian audiences wouldn’t be attracted, to say the least. Additionally, the site is frequented by Israeli soldiers (on weekdays it serves as a recruiting/drafting center), and that too is a deterrent for Palestinian visitors.

The story with Yiddish is different. I’ve heard Yiddish being spoken at the site, by Ultra-Orthodox Jewish visitors (Haredim) who live in nearby neighborhoods that have gone through demographic changes in the past two decades or so (from secular populations to religious and Ultra-Orthodox populations). Also, the Ammunition Hill Site is spacious and has plenty of shade, and the entrance is free, and this attracts nearby Ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents and their families. So Yiddish is certainly heard, but when Haredi visitors write in the visitor book they do so in Hebrew (or English). When I asked them about this, they answered that they “wanted to be understood,” indicating that they are well attuned to the spoken/hegemonic languages, and choose to use them when expressing themselves publicly. I would also say in regards to Ultra-Orthodox visitors, that they are the only visitors I’ve seen writing ‘bluff’ entries in the book. By ‘bluff’ I mean texts that are signed by fictitious authors (such as a young Haredi visitor signing on behalf of a “very famous and important Rabbi”). Some groups of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish are anti-Zionist, and not subscribing to Ammunition Hill’s national Zionist narrative (by performing bluff entries and sometimes explicitly expressing anti-Zionist sentiments), is their way of using this platform for protesting hegemony.


At one point you mention how the anticipated performance of visitors does not match the actual performance (121). This is especially present in contested entries of the Ultra-Orthodox visitors (122). You argue that the book connects visitors’ biography with Israel’s collective past and collective future (107). Were there any visitors who fell outside of the “anticipated” visitor demographic that surprised you? How does this idea of collective past/collective future relate to non-Jewish Israeli interlocutors?

I seem to have anticipated this question in my response above. I’d add that within the context of museums, specifically in the dense environments of heritage and commemoration, authenticity is a hard currency. And handwriting—embodied in visitors’ inscriptions—plays indexically right into this economy: the handwritten texts are seen as connected to the visitors who write them in an embodied and unmediated fashion, publicly authenticating and presencing their visit and their participation in national commemoration. In the Ammunition Hill visitor book, handwriting is a way of paying tribute and homage to the nation and its fallen heroes (indeed, sometimes visitors leave flowers and notes in the book, turning it into an album of sorts), which is valued for its authenticity. Indeed, as you nicely put it in the question, the book serves as a material platform that physically and viscerally connects visitors’ biographies with Israel’s collective past and future. Ultra-Orthodox visitors improvise on this ‘holy’ tie, and are the only group I’ve seen do so in this way. For other groups of visitors, including those with harsh critique of the site’s ideology (right wing ideological critique of the site, which is itself very conservative), the critique rests on this tie, not on disrupting it. Of course, the only way to learn of this disruption (untying the connection between visitor signature and who the authors actually are), is to be there and to see how texts are composed and written. These observations reveal more tensions between writing and authorship (what Goffman termed “animator” and “author”), as for instance when mothers author a text for their children to write and sign.


Most of your research was conducted in the mid-2000s. Have you seen any changes with the visitors’ book at Ammunition Hill or had any interesting follow up experiences at the site?

Yes. My research at Ammunition Hill was completed organically in 2012, when the visitor book was removed because the museum was undergoing major renovations. The museum is currently closed and will reopen in 2017, celebrating fifty years of Israeli victory in the 1967 War and the “liberation and unification of Jerusalem” (under Israel’s annexation and occupation of East Jerusalem and the Occupied Palestinian Territories). So it’s over a decade now that I’ve been visiting the site, studying it and its visitor book (actually, visitor books: the site holds more than one book, including its “VIP visitor book” as they call it). During this time, I gained insights into the site’s language and media ideologies, as well as into visitors’ actions in that space. For example, a new commemoration hall opened recently, with a new design that is oval-shaped with the portraits of the dead soldiers. This design echoes the iconic Hall of Names at Yad Vashem (Israel’s official Holocaust memorial site), itself echoing the Tower of Faces at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. (Note the semiotics: soldiers are commemorated in a way similar to holocaust victims). At this new hall, too, a visitor book is offered, along with personal letters, diaries and artifacts belonging to the dead soldiers. By locating historical handwritten documents side by side with visitors’ handwritten texts, the site reconfirms its ideology about language, the centrality of authenticity for performing national identity, and its mode and manner of ideologically mobilizing visitors into nationalism.

Since 2011 I have been studying museum platforms in two other Jewish heritage museums (now in the United States): the National Museum of American Jewish History, in Philadelphia, and the Florida Holocaust Museum, in St. Petersburg. I am working on a comparison or juxtaposition of these museums, the different participatory (hand)writing platforms they offer, and what and how visitors compose texts there.

Elizabeth Keating on her new book, Words Matter

Words Matter: Communicating Effectively in the New Global Office by [Keating, Elizabeth, Jarvenpaa, Sirkka L.]

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Since the book is written for a general audience, could you say a little about how you would explain the book to linguistic and media anthropologists who are considering using this in a class, and want to know what it is about.

For teachers of linguistic anthropology concerned with having an impact on students’ understanding of language and culture, especially beyond the classroom, this book links the classroom with the paid work world. Concepts and methods in linguistic anthropology are highly relevant to job skills. For one thing, there is understanding how local one’s own communication habits and expectations of others are. For another, understanding how communication really works builds better skills to repair misunderstandings. This book rather unabashedly makes a connection between learning about linguistic anthropology and becoming a more flexible, interested cross cultural communicator. One of the main points in the book is that because of technology, many people are working in virtual teams, or virtually with colleagues in other places. This results in little face-to-face time, or time to hang out and learn about others’ habits, preferences, and life stories. There’s little environmental context. Without the ability or time to learn from each other, there is a role for linguistic anthropology principles to play in generating understandings. I’m thinking of general principles like how people do things with words, that meaning is negotiated, social roles, socialization, the workings of convention in meaning, common ground and context, etc. In the book there are examples taken from engineers’ workdays, engineers trying to design things together in virtual teams, while living and working in four different continents.

The value in the classroom is the application of linguistic anthropology concepts to the engineers’ struggles with their inadequate communication model.  The book proposes a better communication model based on linguistic anthropology. We discuss how culture affects language use, with examples from the engineers and from other researchers’ work. To take a simple example, if the students have never thought about differences in question asking behavior—that it might not be felt to be appropriate in a certain group to ask a question (or only appropriate for the boss to be asking questions)– they could have unpleasant surprises at work if they assume that an absence of questions means everything is understood.

In most linguistic anthropology and media classes, students are preparing for many different types of careers, some in similar settings to the engineers. It’s useful to have a way to link linguistic anthropology to students’ desire to prepare themselves for work after university. When my co-author asked one of her graduate business research assistants to read the draft book manuscript, he said afterwards that he didn’t think he should be paid, since he learned so much. Another reader from the business world said he finally understood the reason behind his colleague’s “exasperating” behavior of not asking questions.


How do you think your focus on engineers in particular shaped your ethnographic exploration of cross-cultural communication?

The focus on engineers shaped our engagement with cross cultural communication in several ways. The first group of engineers we studied in Houston were suspicious of the situation thrust on them by management—that they had to work with a group of engineers across the globe who had unfamiliar habits and approaches. The engineers in Houston were already under a lot of pressure to build a state of the art energy plant under time, budget, safety, and environmental constraints. Working with engineers in another part of the world made their job even more challenging, because they had to work with them in a virtual sense, that is, they couldn’t sit side by side or cubicle to cubicle; they couldn’t see what was going on (puzzled expressions or problem sequences) and participate in so-called informal learning. The engineers they were suddenly working with were in a country where man hours were cheap and materials had always been expensive and scarce (so much so that in former times the engineers in that country could go to prison for using too much steel, they told us). But the Houston engineers lived in a country where it was the reverse: materials were cheap and people expensive. Imagine these two groups designing an energy plant together. One group is assuming a design requiring many maintenance operators, and one requiring as few operators as possible. How to become aware of the other’s habitual ways of thinking before too many hours of design work are done? There were also differences in how you show someone you respect them (by saving time or by spending time?) Although technology was making these work collaborations possible, technology was also a handicap to the engineers being able to learn about each other. This affected how we approached the topic of cross cultural communication. The space of collaboration, the technological interface of computer screens and phone sets, was uniformly absent of distinct cultural cues.

When we looked, through a linguistic anthropologist’s research-based view of language and meaning, at their attempts to better communicate, it was clear that their communication model was faulty. They professed the familiar conduit model of communication. They tried to fix problems by being “more clear and direct.”  We focused on: How could the engineers approach their collaboration with a view of language, not principally as a conduit for information, but as a tool with many other capabilities?


Could you say a little about the experience of writing with someone from a business school? I know of many collaborations between anthropologists and scholars from other disciplines, but this may be the first I have come across of an anthropologist authoring with someone from a business school who is not also an anthropologist (since business schools sometimes show remarkably good taste and hire anthropologists). And I am curious about how this shaped some of the challenges of writing a book together.

This is a great question.  First let me say that I gained a lot in the process. My colleague is not a specialist on language, but rather on virtual teams and management. Her focus is on how people can most efficiently achieve short and long term goals in a business profitability and creativity sense. She was focused on the practitioner aspect at all times, and fairly uninterested in the minutiae of language dear to a linguistic anthropologist’s trade. The authority of our findings in the book had to depend more on assertions linked to prior language research rather than relying on discovering the findings through a very detailed data analysis of the engineers’ conversations and documents.

My business colleague continually reminded me that business practitioners have minimal time to read added material, and they operate in the “three power point slide” framework. After experimenting with different ways to join business and linguistic anthropology goals, we decided to use the engineers as actors in the narrative to keep the content focused on situations likely to be familiar to a reader, or situations that a reader has already experienced and been frustrated by. We created the phrase “Communication Plus” (for communication plus culture) to convey to the reader that they already have a great deal of knowledge about communication in their own culture, but they have to add knowledge about culture’s influence on communication.

It was necessary to take a prescriptive stance in the book in order to justify a practitioner’s time spent invested in reading the book. A lot of the engineers we worked with read poetry and appreciate literature and social science, but they also appreciate getting expertise in a manner they can immediately use. Business authors have no problem being prescriptive. My co-author would have been happier if the book was very short, with very short paragraphs. I felt it was necessary to have as much material about language and anthropology as possible. I am happy to say that over the course of the time writing together, my business colleague became convinced of the power of the close analysis of transcriptions of conversation, in this case conference call meetings. I became more aware of the pressures on people to perform in the constantly changing, globalized work world. Cross-disciplinary research and writing requires extra investment in time for the authors, managing differences and gaining some knowledge of the other author’s vocabulary, research goals, validation standards, methods, even what counts as a ‘finding’ or what’s cool. Similar to the engineers, we were both frustrated with each other’s practices and habits of thinking at times.


Are there insights you had about the interactions you observed that you were unable to write about because it would require too much specialized knowledge on the part of your readers to explain the ideas adequately?

I was not able to write about indexicality in a way that showed the importance of the concept and its ubiquity in communicative encounters. It’s a very abstract term that most people haven’t encountered before. I found that Garfinkel’s notion of ritual status degradation was very useful in analyzing what many of the engineers complained constantly about (feeling treated as non-humans by others due to the symbolic expression of respect taking a different form). Although Garfinkel meant something grander like pulling down the statue of Lenin or politically motivated imprisonment, the notion of ritual status degradation gets at the great seriousness of “small” slights like problems with greeting rituals among the engineers. No salutations in emails provoked surprising anger.

Similarly, I found that Goffman’s notion of “spoiling” identity was a useful way to analyze problems I saw the engineers experience when they disagreed about what the “right” (“good engineering”) design was, conflicts that became intractable because “wrong” was just different or unfamiliar. Writing about ritual status degradation and the spoiling of identity didn’t work well in the book, though. What worked better was a discussion about cultural differences in theories of the person (ideas about personhood that explain differences in things like greeting patterns and why the wrong pattern can be so offensive). It worked well to discuss the idea of language as action (looking beyond content of utterance and the referential function of language). I would have liked to bring more conversation analysis principles into the book.


Since the 1980s, anthropology has had a vexed relationship with the culture concept – often to the surprise of people outside of anthropological circles. In this book you talk about culture and cultural misunderstandings without any caveats, and I am hoping you can say a little about your embrace of culture as a strategic decision or intellectual commitment.

I’ll illustrate some of the problems you are alluding to with an anecdote which addresses your question. My co-author and I were working on an article for an engineering journal, before we began the book. She said, “okay, we have to define culture.” I stared at her, incredulous. Isn’t this the honorable work of still generations to come?, I thought. Isn’t this misdiagnosing the solution to our ignorance? She didn’t see the problem, not having been a party to the discussions anthropologists have about this (discussions as you say “to the surprise of people outside of anthropological circles”). The engineering journal reviewers also insisted on a definition, as part of their editorial job of questioning our scope. I got inspiration from Duranti’s and Keesing’s discussions about culture, and we added reference citations for Schein of MIT’s work on organizational culture,  Foucault’s work on institutions, Wolf, Bourdieu, Bateson, Parsons, Kuper, Lave, Garfinkel, and Henrietta Moore’s piece on concept-metaphors in anthropology.

A second anecdote concerns what happened each time we went to an engineering firm to introduce ourselves and get started collecting data. In the beginning of the project we were three, and we arrived on site together: a business professor, an engineering professor, and an anthropology professor. After the introductions, the engineers invariably focused all their attention on me (of course business and engineering were already quite familiar to them, but for those of us experiencing the recent assaults on the Liberal Arts, in demands for proof of our continued relevance, this was a great endorsement). The engineers said things like “yes, we really need to know about culture” and “we hope you can help us understand culture better.” They knew cultural misunderstandings were affecting their projects’ success and their job satisfaction. They had had some very frustrating and expensive experiences, but they didn’t know exactly how to learn from them. I would say my embrace of culture came from the engineers. There were particular aspects of culture more relevant to their situation, their situation being little if any face-to-face contact, lots of email correspondence (where requests and problems with responses to requests were frequent), group conference calls, expert-expert interactions, non-native English, and few, if any, shared work hours of the day. Some of these problems I’ve already mentioned. I found talking about identity an accessible way to discuss cultural influences on work collaborations. We tried to show how cultural practices that were annoying and threatened relationships (such as being too direct or being too indirect) had a moral basis. Not getting expected behaviors, as Garfinkel showed in his famous breaching experiments, results in people attributing malicious intent (people are held accountable). Being aware of the range of perspectives in human societies is a step to avoiding these ascriptions of harmful intent.

Talking on the scale of culture easily leads to overgeneralizations and oversimplifications and I’m sure they are in the book. We found that the engineers, and others we interviewed like them, have an appreciation for diversity and are aware of the inaccuracies and hardships that can stem from overgeneralization and overattribution. Embracing culture was the way I felt we could bring linguistic anthropology to a readership dealing with globalization.




Webb Keane on his new book, Ethical Life

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Imagine that you happen to be in a long line at the airport, and find yourself chatting with another academic, say a media scholar who studies Cuban television before and after the revolution.  How would you describe the ways your book might be useful to her?

Of course no one standing in line at the airport is talking to the people around them because they’re all absorbed in their personal devices.  But anyway, there are two ways to approach your question: first, as being about revolution, and second, as being about television.  Let’s take revolution first, and then turn to television (leaving aside the old question of whether the revolution will be televised).

Revolutions, like religious revivals and social reform movements, exemplify the fact that ethical life isn’t just about being in the flow of things or cultivating virtuous habits and embodied sensibilities.  People also have a fundamental capacity to stand apart from that flow, in highly self-conscious ways.  They can take what I call the third person stance toward ethical life.   Although this kind of stance is often associated with religious moralities, avowedly atheist revolutions show that one can cultivate a god’s eye view without God.   This is why the book devotes a chapter to the Vietnamese revolution.   Obviously all sorts of factors go into any given revolutionary movement, but Vietnamese history casts light on the distinctively ethical underpinnings of political commitment.   After all, why should urban literati like Ho Chi Minh (or, I could say to your Cuban media scholar, people from privileged backgrounds like Fidel or Che) have cared about socially distant peasants enough to deviate from their own comfortable pathways in life?   I argue that to understand Ho’s revolutionary project and its wide appeal in its early years, we have to grasp its sources in what are properly ethical concerns about harm and justice.   People like Ho could crystallize those ethical concerns as a principled and readily communicated political critique thanks to the availability of a third person perspective on their society.  From the early decades of the twentieth century, Marxist social theory and historical narratives, along with elements of Confucian and Catholic social thought, provided Vietnamese revolutionaries with a position from which the view their own world from the outside.   But that “god’s eye” position alone couldn’t make a revolution.  The Vietnamese revolutionaries understood the importance of what we call ordinary ethics, that is, the way that values like respect, dignity, social recognition, and equality are embedded in everyday habits and activities.   In light of the enormous economic , political, infrastructural, and military challenges the Vietnamese communists faced, it’s remarkable how much emphasis they placed on changing seemingly trivial norms of speech and other aspects of face-to-face interaction.  In this respect, they were trying (with greater or lesser success) to bring the third person stance to bear on the habitual and unself-conscious flow of first person experience and second person address.

As for television, like any medium, it is a vehicle for the circulation of objectifications—images, expressions, and narratives that retain some formal integrity beyond their original context.  These objectifications have historical consequences for ethical life.  They contribute to ethical self-consciousness of individuals, and the consolidation–and dissolution–of public norms more widely.   So one question to ask about television is how its impact differs from face-to-face interaction and other media like newspapers, radio, cell phones, the internet, and so forth.  What difference does it make that a given medium has the speed it does, or geographical reach, social scale, visual versus aural or tactile sensoria, one-way versus dialogic format, centralized control versus open access, the techniques of intimacy and alienation, and so forth?  These questions open up a huge set of empirical problems that extend well beyond the scope of my book.  But here are some of the distinctively ethical questions we might ask.  Your own work with teenagers has focused on one of them: is it okay to break up with someone by text message?   If not, why?  What ethical difference does it make whether your social actions are carried out in one medium or another?  If this is a question about the second person address of interaction, we can also move our attention outwards into more public and sociological scales.   Do certain media facilitate the third person stance or enhance first person subjectivity?  What difference does it make that a message is conveyed in verbally explicit form or implied by sonic or visual means?  Is it more ethically dubious to be swayed by the sound of someone’s voice than by the logic of their arguments or the authority of their institutional position?  Do certain media forms reinforce the monologic voice whereas others enable dialogism?  Television and social media notoriously escape the confines of context: what weight do we give to semiotic form and producers’ intentions when a supposedly neutral image enters a context where it’s deemed pornographic, racist, or blasphemous?  These aren’t just academic questions; they also worry teachers, parents, lovers, artists, political activists, censors, lawyers, and propagandists.  We know, for instance, that the easy transmission of sermons via cassette tapes played a critical role in fostering a new kind of public space in the run-up to the Iranian revolution.  And of course all sorts of claims have been made for the transformative effects of social media on the Arab Spring—not all of which have stood up well over time.  Is the form of a medium effective independent of its content?   Muslim preachers in Indonesia seem to think so when they hire mass media consultants from American Christian televangelists.

One of the key theoretical moves you make to fashion a more interdisciplinary conversation about ethics is expanding the notion of affordances.  Psychologists and media scholars have used this concept to discuss human interactions with the material world.  In your hands, affordances can belong to “anything at all that people can experience” because they “possess an indefinite number of combinations of properties.” (30)  Yet anchoring affordances in materiality provides a significant theoretical purchase – it has typically afforded a way to conceptualize limitations and resistances.  When a cloth can be torn but not made to radiate light, this is a way that matter matters.   In your framework, what is the grounding for resistances and limitations, for determining what is possible and impossible?

I expand on the notion of affordances by including people’s experiences of such things as emotions, cognitive biases, linguistic form, patterns of interaction, and social institutions.  But ultimately these are only available to experience because they have some material manifestation.  Although this may push the concept of affordance further than its more familiar uses, I think it’s consistent with them.

I’ve been seeking to develop a realist approach to anthropology that nonetheless retains the insights of the constructivist traditions in social thought and does not succumb to determinism.  The attraction of affordance lies in this.  It treats the components of the world as real, and as making certain things possible.  But it does not do so by claiming that the things of this world necessitate anything in particular (nor, for that matter, does the analysis depend on us claiming to have the “correct” depiction of that world).  One example I use, echoing something George Herbert Mead wrote long ago, is the chair.  A wooden chair affords sitting, but only if you’re of a certain size, shape, and flexibility.  So the affordances of the chair only exist relative to the capacities of someone who might take them up.  Moreover, the existence of chair doesn’t mean that you will sit.  You could use that chair to block a door, hold down papers, prop up an art work, hit someone over the head, burn to keep warm, hide behind, step on to reach something out of reach, or, for that matter, you could simply ignore it.  That is, affordances are summoned up in response to projects of some sort.   As new projects develop, hitherto unforeseen affordances will emerge into view.

Impossibilities have to be part of the story too: you could say that a chair will not enable you to fly.  But here’s a more relevant example in the book.  Humans cannot learn to speak a full-fledged language without first developing some cognitive capacity to infer other people’s intentions and otherwise work with what some psychologists call “Theory of Mind.”  You can’t even use first and second person pronouns unless you have a rudimentary grasp of the perspective on “I” that is momentarily granted by saying “you.”  This affords all sorts of things, including shame, prayer, novels, torture, games, and witchcraft.  It also casts doubt on certain strong claims about ethnographic difference—namely, that there are some societies where people really have no concept of interiority or intentions.   To make this claim is not to eliminate interesting differences among social realities.  Rather, it pushes us to examine them more closely, to ask, for instance, what is at stake for some societies that forcibly deny the intention-reading that they are, in fact, doing all the time.  I think there’s more ethnographically specific insight to be gained this way than by treating each cultural world as autonomous, the creation of its own heroic Promethean powers to create reality.  But this should not lead us back toward any of the familiar reductive forms of determinism.

In this book, you address the possibility that self-consciousness or reflexivity can be a necessary but not sufficient first step towards social change.  Sometimes self-awareness does not change social interactions, or only does so for a fleeting moment.  What do you think makes self-consciousness socially successful so that it shapes how others evaluate ethical behavior as well? 

This is a question about the role of ideas and values in the extremely complex social and political histories out of which they emerge and on which in turn they have their effects.  The extraordinary speed with which gay marriage has gone from being an easy political wedge issue to divide classes and regions in America to much wider acceptance than anyone expected is a fascinating case.  But I think it’s too soon for us to see clearly how this came about and what will follow.  We have more perspective on the abolition of North Atlantic slavery.  As historians have pointed out, in Britain the arguments against slavery were already well known in the seventeenth century and increasingly came to find acceptance over the course of the eighteenth.  But all sorts of other things had to happen for those ideas to induce the social changes that finally came about in the nineteenth century.  These include the great wave of popular evangelical Christianity, England’s political and economic competition with France and its ideological interest in distinguishing its moral superiority to a newly independent (and slave-owning) America, the emergence of working class identities that put pressure on the value of manual labor, and more.  These elements are heterogeneous and their conjunction is largely contingent.  So the history of ideas matters—they have to be available and they have to be plausible.  But ideas only become socially viable when all sorts of other factors come together.  Ethical concepts, social institutions, political organizations, laws, technologies, economies, and so forth have quite different logics and temporalities, and are enmeshed in distinct kinds of causality.  Explicit ethical concepts help crystallize people’s intuitions and allow them to circulate in new ways (which takes us back to the issue of media raised in your first question) but they can’t tell the whole story alone.

Explicitness has such power for enabling shared agreements about what is ethical to travel across cultural contexts in your account.   I can’t help thinking however that we are currently in a stage of capitalism when the market is viewed as the ideal spontaneous order precisely because self-awareness is irrelevant to its functioning, when algorithms are viewed as idealized ordering mechanisms, but only because, in a sense, they are seen as circumventing explicitness.  What do you think of social orders that disavow explicitness, viewing explicitness as largely irrelevant for social interactions to function?

In this context, explicitness means being able to put an ethical stance into so many words: “the voting law is unjust” or “the Dean can be trusted to say what she means.”  You do this by drawing on the ethical vocabulary that’s available in a given social location and historical moment.  (By the way, this means that particular ways of being ethical are necessarily historical: As old ethical categories disappear and new ones come into existence so to do ways of being, or not being, ethical, and new ways for people to affirm or deny one another’s ways of being ethical.  Try as I may, it’s simply not possible for me to be a virtuous Athenian or a Confucian sage today.  An ethical vocabulary is not just a set of labels for ideas or values that are already there, waiting to be named.)  What some philosophers have called “morality systems” try to stabilize ethics by codifying it.  But explicitness is just one moment in the ongoing dialectics of objectification and subjectification.  It involves stepping into what I call the third person stance, taking a distance from the first person of experience and the second person of address to see oneself and others through generic categories.   It is a kind of self-distancing that induces particular forms of self-consciousness.  For this reason, explicitness has also been held in suspicion in various ethical regimes.   We can see this in certain styles of romanticism and mysticism which treat self-consciousness as a form of inauthenticity, and celebrate being in the flow of things.  It’s a recurrent issue:  some ancient Chinese philosophers also worried that any purposeful striving to be ethical would be nullified by that very effort.  Such regimes aim—paradoxically—to actively inculcate effortless, habitual ways of being ethical.   The goal is to live entirely in the first person, as it were.   But this can be only part of the story.  On the one hand, an ethics that wholly lacks the first person stance would be unsustainable—it would have not claim on anyone.  That’s part of my argument against utilitarianism, which insist one only look at things from the objective position of the third person stance.   It’s only from the first person stance that one can really care about ethics in a fully embodied and inhabitable way.  But to insist that ethics is only one or the other—either objectification or being-in-the-moment—is to deny the fundamental motility of human life.  People cannot remain entirely present in the first person, nor is it possible to sustain the third person stance only.  We are always in motion among them.   This motility isn’t a bug—it’s a feature.

So, to turn to the rest of your question, what about this period of capitalism?  We could say that neo-liberalism expresses an ideological reaction against the third person stance of the centralized nation-state, with its blueprints and planners.  Does this make it a-ethical?  Not necessarily.  After all, there is an ethics of autonomy there.  I call this an ethics because the autonomy expressed in neo-liberalism is sometimes treated as a value in itself, beyond any instrumental justification.  We may feel it’s based on false premises or has harmful consequences, but I think we should recognize that it makes ethical claims of a sort.  They’re just not necessarily ones I would accept.  However, although none of us as human beings can, or would want to, avoid ethical judgments, in our limited role as anthropologists we should not be in the business of making ethical pronouncements ex cathedra.  Having said that, neo-liberalism does deny or ignore something very basic to ethical life as I describe it in the book, the fact that people are thoroughly enmeshed with one another in very fundamental ways.  Any form of social organization that denies this and tries to treat them as wholly independent units is empirically mistaken and, let’s say, ethically compromised.

You imaginatively move a step beyond the insight that ethics is the challenging task of living alongside other people to argue that ethics at the core is about the challenging communicative task of living alongside other people when no one has telepathy.  That is, communication is profoundly at the heart of what it means in a given historical and cultural context to be ethical.  Say that you are as persuasive as I hope you will be.   What types of research projects should people explore beginning from this insight?

If people lack telepathy, then we have to take communication very seriously.  That means that every time we want to say something about experience, affect, concepts, values, intuitions, subjectivities, we should ask how they are mediated.  But communication isn’t a simple matter of transmission, getting a self-contained message from one head to another head.  For on thing, communication takes place over time, but, as I show in my chapters on social interaction, it always loops back on itself, opening messages to revision, reframing, denial, anticipation, dissemination, and so forth.  Moreover, mediation isn’t just an empty vehicle.  It is always embodied in semiotic forms (words, images, actual bodies, spaces, places, rituals, institutional procedures, and so forth).  Semiotic forms are never entirely purpose-built—as Derrida remarked long ago, “the engineer is a myth.”  As a result, they bring with them their contingent histories, they face causal constraints and give rise to unintended consequences well beyond anyone’s communicative purposes, and they possess affordances that can point their users in unexpected new directions.

It follows that research should be very attentive to the formal and material properties of our evidence.  So much contemporary ethnography tends to be literal-minded.  And far too much of it is based on interviews.   So the first point is just to take semiotic mediation seriously.   Partly this just means paying close attention the form and not just content of communication.  In addition, it means attending to materiality, to both the qualities of media and the causal networks they’re involved in.   If you were researching the internet, for instance, you might ask both about the body’s relationship to movement viewed on a flat screen and about the infrastructure that makes that relationship possible (cyber-utopians never seem to talk about how we pay the monthly smart phone bills or the environmental costs of powering Google’s servers).   So rather than suggest new research topics, we might look at the research we are already embarked on from new angles, asking what are the constraints on people’s projects, the distinctively ethical affordances and unintended consequences to which their semiotic media can give rise?

I would pay particular attention to the interplay between what gets made explicit and what remains unsaid, either because it’s too obvious to say, too ordinary to notice, or is simply impossible to put into words.   In looking at social change, for instance, what’s the relationship between those who are articulate and passionate, on one hand, and those who are silent and indifferent, on the other?  Are the voices we hear most clearly always where the action’s at?  When they are, is this because of what they say, who’s saying it, or how they say it?  In my book, I look briefly at feminist consciousness-raising during its radical moment, in the early 1970s, before it became absorbed into mainstream therapeutic culture.  (As with my discussion of Vietnam, this example draws on the historical perspective that we lack when looking at current events).  What’s interesting is how these women, some of whom had been influenced by reading Maoism and Frankfurt School Marxism and by practical experiences in the Civil Rights movement, discovered the affordances of ordinary conversation.  Out of their conversations they created a new ethical and political vocabulary for experiences that had until then seemed idiosyncratic, pathological, or simply inchoate.  The result was what I call “historical objects,” values and concepts (sexual harassment, glass ceiling, control of one’s own body) and that can be pointed to, debated, circulated widely through the media, and institutionalized—or suppressed—in explicit norms and laws.  One could argue that new ways of being a person, of flourishing, and of identifying harm came into existence that simply did not exist before.   But history is full of projects that go nowhere: objectified values and concepts remain only theoretical unless they can enter into the flow of everyday life in some way.   To see how this pans out ethnographically requires careful attention to semiotic mediation

As the Vietnamese and feminist examples suggest, the interplay between the explicit and tacit, or the said and unsaid can be crucial to understanding how social movements pan out.  There’s a lot of ethnographic interest in these topics already but I would suggest that we need to pay special attention to the motility among first, second, and third person stances.  To repeat, the idealized third person stance—an ethics of pure principles—remains only notional unless it offers some concrete ways of being inhabitable.   But as soon as something becomes concrete—for instance new kinds of marriage, styles of child-rearing, acceptable means of making a living, or practices of ethical pedagogy– all sorts of unforeseen affordances are likely to become visible and unintended consequences likely to emerge, such as new kinds of semiotic transgression or performative failure.

Your cover is so striking, when I got the book I immediately flipped to see where the cover came from, only to discover it is one of your paintings.   Could you talk a bit about the story behind the cover – did you paint this piece intending it to be the cover?

Before entering academic life, I was an artist (I’ve never taken a college course in anthropology—maybe that’s why I’ve never grown tired of the subject).   That cover image is part of a series that I painted many years ago.  When I was finishing my second book, Christian Moderns, I decided I didn’t want to have a cover that would try to illustrate the book, both because that seemed too literal-minded, and because illustration covers often encourage certain readings of the book at the expense of others.   As it happens, an abstract painting that one of my old studio mates had given me was on the wall, and worked very well.  So for Ethical Life I thought I’d use another work by a friend.  However, none of the pieces I myself owned seemed to work.  But someone suggested I use my own painting.  The original is in blacks and greys, which seemed a bit too somber, so I invited the press to alter the color scheme.  Since my first books had been green and blue, I favored red, but that turned out to look a bit too much like bloody bandages.   At any rate, you’re welcome to read into the cover what you will!

Ben Peters on his new book, How Not to Network a Nation

How Not to Network a Nation

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Questions for Ben Peters

If you found yourself at a picnic with linguistic anthropologists, and one of them was sensible enough to bring tasty corn and seemed very interested when you mentioned briefly that you had written about the history of thwarted Soviet attempts to develop the internet, how would you explain your book?

Hey ling anth friends, please pass the corn!

(Between messy bites) I think my interest in the Soviet internet story owes a sideways debt to the fact I’m from deep corn country, USA. Coming from a small college town in the Midwest licenses one not only to know their corn (delicious!) but to appreciate life removed from the urban centers of global action. This appreciation once struck me as a 20-year-old service volunteer living in a small city called Balakovo along the Volga river in the post-industrial rust belt of Russia. There I realized not all “middle of nowheres” are similar (Ian Frazier’s delightful and meditative masterpieces The Great Plains  and Travels in Siberia make this point). In addition to the earnest people, the agricultural base, and scenic landscape I was used to back in Iowa, Balakovo, a former secret Soviet city, had decaying military-industrial factories for the cosmonaut industries, an enormous hydroelectric dam, a line of nuclear reactors looming on the horizon, and much else. Where did this outsized industrial infrastructure come from?  I remember wondering on the edge of an enormous dammed reservoir: who first thought it a good idea to plan so much electrical power in out-of-the-way Balakovo, and why?

(Holding up half-eaten corn cob) I have since recognized that the big ag corn industry in the US—and perhaps even all advanced modernity in its debt to large institutions—participates in the basic question behind the Soviet internet book: why do some institutions organize our lives and others not?  Why, in particular, wasn’t there a Soviet internet? Given its failure was neither inevitable nor natural, what was the story of the Soviet scientists and leaders that planned to network the nation with computers anyway? Who were these cyberneticists?   What did they want when they started to imagine  networking the planned economy with computers in an ambitious project called the All-State Automated System ( or OGAS for short)? And why, despite thirty years of attempts at the height of the cold war tech race, did this outsized informational network infrastructure for the Soviet people not take root?

(Hint: my answers are not censorship cultures, technological backwardness, or inefficient hierarchical states.)

Throughout the book, you explain that while many cyberneticists modeled their national network projects after the human mind, the projects were quite different, in part because how they understood this metaphor varied so much. Could you explain some of the differences?

(Sets corn cob down in order to focus.) Sure thing. There are many brain-computer metaphors—and none of them are right. I think the twentieth-century pedestaled the wrong image of the ideal computing processor: the ideal computing processor is not the human brain. (Moreover this towering intellectual hubris—or what brains think about themselves—builds naturally on a troubling early modern vaulting of western individualism.) Cybernetics, after World War II, enabled strong neural-computer network analogies to be at work in Warren McCulloch’s influence on Paul Baran’s distributed network design at RAND, in Stafford Beer’s influence on Allende’s Cybersyn network in Chile, and in (as I detail in the book) Viktor Glushkov’s influence on the OGAS Project in the Soviet Union. Each had different consequences in different places: to put it in a nutshell, the ARPANET designers imagined their nation as a single distributed brain of users, while the OGAS Project designers (not entirely unlike Beer in Chile) imagined their network as a nervous system for layering onto their nation as an economic industrial body of workers, with the state as the brain. To suggest that the first American computer network was modeled after an imagination of a national brain and the Soviet networks were after a national body not only rehearses the mid-century emerging information and industrial cold war economic differences—but it also obscures the on-the-ground story of both. I suspect linguist anthropologists have much to teach me here in particular: I think the biggest difference lies not in the metaphors but in the distance between all those brain-computer metaphors and the embodied practices of building and institutionalizing computer networks. No national network projects resemble the human mind in practice.

Economists and economic cybernetics play a much larger role in the book that I imagined when I first started reading. It left me wondering: what kind of dilemmas do economists have to solve when they don’t presume that the market is the best way to distribute goods and determine value?

They stump up against some of the hardest dilemmas I know. In all semiotic-material discourse (of which the economy is of course just one mode), every evaluation is also an executable fabrication that itself acts on other evaluations. And among the resulting chains of operations, in which there are many dilemmas, the ones that matter most in this book do not fall along the cold war economic liberal language of private markets versus public states. (Hannah Arendt, for example, nudges my conclusion to deconstruct and begin rebuilding network discourse beyond the tired cold war triumphalism around markets, liberty, and commerce.) As you note, I spend a couple chapters developing how economic relations did not work as planned in the Soviet context: continuous and partial reform among battling schools of thought, nonlinear command and control dynamics, informal power networks, vertical bargaining, and other sources of organizational dissonance. I dub all this, borrowing from McCulloch and David Stark’s language, “heterarchy.” In a heterarchy, every node is subject to competing regimes of evaluation and the resulting logics by which value is determined cannot be described or mapped onto simple two-dimensional models (markets, hierarchies, and so on). Perhaps our behavior can be mapped onto a higher order in n-dimensional spaces, suggests McCulloch, or perhaps not at all. How we determine value is a complex measure of how modern humans interact, and indeed how any actor responds to contradictory demands (do I write, prepare for class, go for a walk, or have another piece of corn?) reveals more than our negotiated compromises to that contradiction.

Back to the Soviet case: it is no surprising revelation that the on-the-ground practical relations for determining and planning values in the Soviet planned economy did not function as they promised to on paper. Still, this mundane fact had consequences in at least two directions: it frustrated the rationalizing impulses of technocratic economic reform attempts such as the OGAS Project. It also ensured that economic bureaucracies could actively resist reforms because they were free to pursue their institutional self-interest in the status quo. The Soviet network story is thus an uneasy mix of technological genius and futuristic foresight leavened with mutinous ministries and institutional infighting. Or, to restate the book hook, while the US ARPANET took shape thanks to state funding and collaborative research environments, the Soviet contemporary projects broke against the rock of unregulated competition among self-interested institutions and bureaucrats. The first global computer networks took shape thanks to cooperative capitalists, not competitive socialists.

As your story unfolds about why the Soviets never developed a national computer network, another deep irony emerges – that a system built around centralization consistently over time ended up undercutting any possibility of a centralized computer network.   You suggest that this is a story about the tensions between belief and practice, between a system that was touted as a centralized and well-regulated bureaucracy and in practice a complicated mixture of differently structured hierarchies. Could you discuss the tensions between Soviet centralization and Soviet bureaucratic fiefdoms that lie behind your history of non-events?

That’s a beautiful question central to the project—one that I’d like to tweak in two ways as a way of responding.

First, commonplace understanding of the Soviet state as centralized and well-regulated is empirically wrong. Let’s think instead of the Soviet state as trying to turn a complex field of decentralized fiefdoms into a single field of decentralized fiefdoms. Even the Politburo rarely endorsed totalizing centralization, and certainly none of the Soviet network projects in the book call for fully centralized networks. With the exception of one short-lived radial network proposal, all of the proposed Soviet network projects between 1959 and 1989 interestingly resemble decentralized pyramids (just like the official economic plan at the time).

These network still recognized a central command in Moscow while also permitting real-time remote access between any two authorized nodes on the national network. This is a key corrective (especially in light of the romance of flat organizational networks in the west): in both principle and practice, the Soviet Union was not too top-down or rigidly hierarchical.  And in administrative practice, it was too messy and pernicious.

Second, the book is a negative history of real events, not a hypothetical history of non-events (although it does color the vision of a futuristic electronic socialism that never was). The reason I think this re-characterization matters is because I am openly interested in helping normalize the study of failed projects among scholars of human relations, complex institutions, media studies, and their adjunct interests.

Or as the book puts it,

contingent histories also help focus public debate better than do popular histories of technology that parade about hackers, geniuses, and geeks marching to the Whiggish beats of technological progress. In negative histories failures, even epic breakdowns, are normal. Astonishing genius, imaginative foresight, and peerless technical wizardry are not enough to change the world. This is one of the lessons of the OGAS experience. Its story places the conventional concepts of technological successes and failures on the wobbly foundations of the accidents of history. The historical record is a cemetery overgrown in short-lived technological futures: stepping of its beaten paths leads us to slow down and take stock before we rush to crown the next generation of technologists as agents of change. (197)

Perhaps the hard moral of the story is this: no one sensitive to the suffering all around us cannot want to reform the world for the better. Yet, in the multivariable calculus of social reform, the only thing more certain than our desire to change the world (and media and language are among those ways) is to admit that there is no guarantee that any given effort ever will.

This is a beautifully written book about bureaucracy, one in which you even manage to make a bureaucratic meeting, and the fact that two people happened to be absent, suspenseful. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your writing strategies for making compelling some topics that at first glance might seem like good insomniac aids. How do you make bureaucracy and its genres compelling?

(Setting down now finished corn cob.) Thanks! That means a lot. Writing is one of my favorite demons. Bureaucracy, because it (like computing programming) is made out of writing that is meant to be executed but never really read, often deadens its observers to the real fertility and force of the written word. Perhaps students and scholars of mind-numbingly dull technical systems should indulge in great stylists in English and other languages as temporary antidotes against the occupational hazard that is prose pollution. Outside of my own awe for language (which I take up more directly in my brand new edited volume Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture, which Princeton published last week on the 40th anniversary of Raymond Williams’ Keywords), I don’t have any sure-fire strategies, although the normal ones will probably do: I recommend reading voraciously and strategically, slavishly imitating and scrupulously doubting the masters, writing for the smart and interested eighth grader, and then rewriting with an ear tuned to the cadence of language. Of course I rarely manage to pull all that off, but it’s a good thing to try and a better thing to have sympathetic readers to share it with.

Thanks for the picnic!

Benjamin Peters is the author of How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet  (MIT 2016) and editor of Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture (Princeton 2016). He is assistant professor of  Communication at the University of Tulsa and an affiliated faculty at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Work site: Tweet at him @bjpeters.


Shankar on her new book, Advertising Diversity: Ad Agencies and the Creation of Asian-American Consumers

Interview by Ilana Gershon:

I have to say that it is downright inspired to look ethnographically at how advertising agencies create iconic and compelling images of Asian Americans as a racial group.  By choosing this site, you are able to reveal so much of how difficult it is to treat Asian Americans as a unified group, as well as showing in detail how the racial images we are surrounded by are constructed through the effort of convincing co-workers and clients that an ad will persuade.   And now you are looking at spelling bees as a mass-mediated event for telling a melting pot story.   Can you talk a little bit about your process for deciding on a research project and that an ethnographic site will allow you to explore the kinds of questions you want to ask?

Each of these research projects partially emerged from the one that preceded it. The advertising project grew out of my Desi Land research with South Asian American teenagers and their families in Silicon Valley. I spent a lot of time with people in their homes and many watched diasporic channels on satellite TV. I noticed ads specifically aimed at South Asians in the US. Being familiar with Indian advertising from my numerous visits, I knew these ads were different and was quite curious about who was making them. After much online research about agencies and several rounds of emails and phone calls, a few agencies welcomed me to conduct interviews. One agreed to allow me to conduct ethnographic fieldwork provided I sign a nondisclosure agreement. Thanks to the generosity of that agency, I was able to do enough research to write a book. In my survey of agencies, I found one that had developed a public relations campaign for an insurance company and called it the “South Asian Spelling Bee.” Having already observed the streak of South Asian American kids winning the National Spelling Bee, I really wanted to know more. I found it slightly simpler to set up the spelling bee research because these organizations were not creating “proprietary content” like advertisements, but rather, administering a contest. Still, because this activity is seasonal—they call it “bee season”—it took me a while to get to know spellers, families, judges, and others. I just returned from attending my fourth National Spelling Bee and finally feel like I really know people in that world. In both of these projects, there was so much to observe that my questions were either well addressed or replaced by more interesting ones.


African American advertising agencies were the first agencies founded to address diversity.   How do you think the strategies and solutions African American ad agencies developed has shaped what Asian American agencies do?  Or in other words, how have the specific quandaries advertisers face in addressing African Americans or Latinos shaped what it means to advertise to any racialized group, regardless of whether the solutions that originally evolved are appropriate for that particular racialized group?

You’re right that African American advertising agencies were the first agencies to address racial diversity, but what is also interesting is how many “general market” or mainstream agencies also developed in-house units to target this population. They were, and still are, called “Urban markets,” which clearly indexes the perceived socioeconomic status of African Americans with little qualification about the social and political implications of this term. What differs between African American advertising and other minority advertising is primarily representations of language and culture. While African Americans are considered to be an already “assimilated” population that nonetheless has their own specialized TV, print, and radio media through which they can be directly reached, Latinos and Asian Americans are imagined to be recent immigrants who are best reached through far more explicit means of in-language copy and overt cultural representation. What currently transcends any of these racial categories is the ongoing need for multicultural advertising to demonstrate their relevance to corporate clients who question whether ethnically specific advertising is even necessary when so many of these consumers are also reported to consume mainstream media.


I was struck while reading how much this is a book about cultural expertise.   This is particularly vivid when you write about how vulnerable Asian American ad executives are because their clients might dismiss their pitches once they have consulted with their co-workers.  These are co-workers who don’t know anything about advertising but who happen to have the appropriate cultural background and happen to disagree with the Asian American ad team’s starting premises about that Asian culture.  Often the Asian American ad team can’t disagree because they claim cultural authority on the same grounds as the client’s co-workers.  I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how people in this profession understand expertise in general, and how this connects to the cultural expertise that some people have in this system.

To address this question I have to reference the AMC series Mad Men. Fans of the series may recall that ad man Don Draper was a fur coat salesman before he stumbled into advertising. I think this character point remains relevant, in that many ad executives seem to have found their way into advertising despite a lack of academic training in it. While ad executives are highly skilled and their years of experience make them experts, advertising is the less scientific arm of marketing, in which ad makers rely on existing market research to develop creative concepts. Sometimes these conceits miss their mark, and this trial and error is tied to advertising’s aim of not simply selling products to people, but creating aspirational imagery to drive consumer spending. Asian American advertising additionally involves a complex set of cultural and linguistic considerations that makes arbitrating cultural expertise quite difficult. While ad executives do all they can to maintain authority over the content of their creative work, as workers for hire, they often have to bend to the will of their clients. I think this sometimes takes a toll on ad executives, especially when their clients are insensitive and in some moments, just plain racist. For the most part they seem to see this as part of the job and don’t let it define their creative aspirations.


You mention that advertising executives use the terms iconicity and indexicality all the time (p. 35).  What was it like to do research in a context where you and your informants seem to share similar analytical categories for understanding communicative practices (including the importance of cultural difference), and yet in practice these categories are deployed in very different ways?

I’m fairly certain they were not directly citing Peirce, but rather, using terms common in texts about advertising and visual culture more broadly. These terms appear in analytical registers used in the critical readings of art, film, television, and other visual genres. Ad executives were using these terms to create and construct meaning, rather than analyze and deconstruct it. The very deliberate process of what they thought could be iconic, or what a particular image or phrase might index to an imagined viewer, was anthropologically quite fascinating. Their use of these terms was ethnographically revealing of the intended meaning of their choices. This semiotic gap between their deployment of these concepts in their creative work and my use of them to analyze their work is something I aimed to address in my use of “assemblage.” I wanted to consider their cultural and linguistic ideologies alongside their creative work, as well as how people actually read and respond to their work. Addressing this range of semiotic possibilities allowed me to productively consider their understanding of these analytical categories alongside mine, as well as those of clients and audiences.


You began this research in 2008, and mention that there have been noticeable changes over the course of your four years of research.   Did you see any patterns in these changes?

When I began in 2008, Asian American ad executives were actively championing diversity but were often stymied by the lack of market research about Asian American consumers. The 2010 Census was a watershed event, in that it both documented the growing numbers of Asian Americans and Latinos while it also offered further details about the “purchasing power” of Asian Americans. While this latter group is heterogeneous and certainly not uniformly upwardly mobile, this new census data allowed Asian American ad agencies to more powerfully reiterate their rationale for of multicultural advertising and helped justify its value.

Shalini Shankar is a Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University. Advertising Diversity  is available through Duke University Press.

Blum on the publication of her new book, “I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College


Interview by Ilana Gershon

Questions for the author:

If you were stuck in an elevator with a colleague from another department, and had just been asked what your book was about, what would you tell them?

It is a critique of higher education, and of schooling in general, that shows a mismatch between the ways human beings learn in almost every context in life outside school, and the ways schools structure learning. Using understanding of human learning derived from anthropological inquiry everywhere (across time and space, as we love to specify), as well as insights from psychology and cognitive science, I explain why so many wonderful young people go through the motions of doing what they are told, in order to accomplish goals completely unrelated to learning: getting good grades, fulfilling requirements, pleasing teachers, getting credentials. It is true that these are necessary in the actual world we live in, but that doesn’t mean institutional education should be this way. Tinkering with classroom elements can help, to some extent, but it is the system overall that requires revolutionary change. It is not possible for an individual professor or teacher to solve these systemic problems. And they are wide and well known problems, leading to a tragic waste of time, energy, and money.


You are very present in this book – you talk about your educational background, how much you love learning, and quite a bit about the moments you despair as a teacher.   I would love to know more about your writerly decisions in representing yourself.  Did you see yourself as a character that you needed to describe in certain ways?  How did you decide when to insert yourself into a chapter, and when to reveal particular things about yourself and your family?

Some of the book emerged from my own efforts to figure out what I thought, but as I turned fragments of reflection and research into a book, I did make “writerly decisions” to be frank and open about the involvement of an actual, bodily, socially situated, affective human being—because all teachers have to bring their personhood to the encounter with students, who do this as well. Since one of my many aims is to demonstrate that learning cannot possibly be successful, in most cases, if it aims to be purely cognitive and purely individual, it seemed relevant to show all the ways my own biographical context shaped what and why I learned. Motivation is another of the key themes here, and until I was motivated by a need to understand all the ways students differed from me, I did not. Further, in anthropology and the human sciences generally, for at least three decades we have been explicit about the misleading pretext of disembodied “objectivity,” a view from nowhere, and efforts have been made to situate the viewer, to show that all observation is limited. Reflexive writing has been common in anthropology since the 1980s, but we might also see its roots in the psychoanalytic writings of anthropologists from much earlier.

Beyond all this, in writing this book I wanted it to feel like a story, almost a detective story, of beginning with a mystery and ending with a solution (the solution is understanding, not primarily a prescription for action). Readers tend to be sympathetic to flawed narrators, and I certainly reveal many of my own flaws. I have experienced quite a bit of fear at revealing so much cluelessness on my part, but I put my vulnerable self into the hands of readers, and rely on their compassion—just as I now hope that students can reveal their own vulnerability to teachers rather than pretending to be something they’re not. Without lacks, gaps, mistakes, there is no room for growth. Learning is one form of growth.

I also bring my family into the story because they were formative in my re-education. This is a feminist decision to reveal my relatedness, rather than to pretend that I am a self-contained all-knowing purely rational individual deriving insight only from theorists and ethnography. One of my daughters, Elena, helped edit the introduction. I did get general permission from all of them to include stories, though they did not read all of them prior to publication—and I have worried a lot about the ethics of that decision.


As a professor myself, I am very aware of how much institutional constraints shape my teaching. First, I received remarkably little training on how to teach.   Currently, I have to develop undergraduate courses that will appeal to a large enough number of students to even run, and to appeal to even more students if I want to help a graduate student have a TAship.   At the same time, there are significant institutional pressures not to spend too much time on teaching.  As you beautifully pointed out the constraints on students, I kept wondering about those on faculty.  If you were to add a chapter of ethnography with faculty members, what do you think you would focus upon?

That’s a great idea! And several people have assumed that the book was about faculty, because faculty are suffering.

I would write about fear and love, about the constraints and the changing metrics of evaluation. I do mention that in the chapter on grades and “audit culture,” “‘What Do I Have to Do to Get an A?’: The Real Skinny on Grades,” because many of the constraints on students are mirrored by constraints on faculty. As universities become more corporate, and assessment appears to be the goal rather than a means for arriving at a different goal (perhaps learning or contributing to knowledge, or becoming a well-rounded citizen), both students and faculty become adept at “the game of school.” And games can be thrown.

Marilyn Strathern has edited a book on Audit Culture: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics, and the Academy (2000). Audit culture is more developed in the UK than in the US, though in the sixteen years since that book was published, our universities have become much more similar.

Much has been written about the precarity of adjunct faculty, the adjunctification of faculty, working with no job security or benefits for poverty wages, despite having top credentials and experience. (I taught that way for six years, myself.) And this shameful employment situation is real and must be more widely known.

The economics of higher education affect all the decisions throughout every institution, from the need to have classes of a certain size to teaching loads to funding available for travel to conferences to filling empty faculty lines with personnel of a certain rank.

But I would focused on secure faculty at well-resourced institutions to show that there is a problem even here, as I have done with my focus on high-achieving students. Faculty arrive with love for our subject and love for the enterprise of learning, only to be confronted by a need to police our students, to cajole them into reading, to get them to care at least a little about our class, to prevent corner-cutting (including cheating and plagiarism, the topic of my previous book, My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture [Cornell 2009]), to get strong teaching evaluations, to please students while also demonstrating “rigor” to our faculty colleagues. All this has to be squeezed into some limited amount of time because at institutions of higher education at a certain level of prestige, teaching only matters for tenure if it is substandard. As all faculty know, it is publications and grants that “count”; poor teaching could derail a strong publication record, but excellent teaching can’t substitute for a weak publication record.

Faculty at most institutions now are demoralized; there is tension with administrators and trustees and students and “the public.” Faculty are exhausted from constant interaction on social media, including email, and on supporting undergraduate and sometimes graduate student participation in conferences and research—writing dozens or hundreds of letters of recommendation every year—and advising undergraduates engaged in research. Technology changes all the time and we have to keep up with that, along with the publications in our own and adjacent fields. We have to become expert at writing committee reports and filing expense reports; senior faculty evaluate junior faculty. We all apply for grants and evaluate manuscripts and participate in conferences—but the Holy Grail is peer-reviewed journal articles.

This “shadow labor,” or “shadow work” in Ivan Illich’s term, is as real in institutions supposedly devoted to the production and dissemination of knowledge as it is in more mainstream corporations, but despite the motives that got faculty there, there is a real danger that the shadow labor could overtake the important work that keeps faculty employed. Faculty get “mentored” to teach them to juggle the many balls and the constantly changing metrics of evaluation; there are excellent organizations such as the heroic Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s National Center for Faculty Development. But these are needed because it is all so hard.

I could imagine shadowing several faculty; asking them to do time-use studies; interviewing faculty in several disciplines, at various levels of employment and at diverse institutions. I actually do keep up pretty fully with the trends in faculty experience. And what I see is faculty trying to retain some degree of dignity and balance while they feel themselves assailed from all sides and running ever faster just to keep in place.


You discuss several different approaches to grading to engage more productively with the fixation students have on grades.  Which ones have you found more effective for your purposes, and why?  

People have asked what I would do to change higher education, and my responses are varied. Ultimately I think we need far fewer people getting to a much smaller but still varied form of tertiary education, but meanwhile if I could make only one change, it would be to eliminate grading.

Among many other critics of grading is Alfie Kohn, whose Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Prasie, and Other Bribes changed my life. The problem with grades is that they make the goal extrinsic to the learning experience itself. Then the grades can be sliced and diced, compared and analyzed, and like all other assessments come to be seen as objective, precise measures of what are actually diverse and complex phenomena: human beings learning multifaceted and complex subjects.

In my own classes, among students who have diligently regarded “getting good grades” as the central purpose of their young lives, I try to downplay the importance of grades. I don’t talk about them much. And I ask students to evaluate themselves. Students like rubrics, which have a downside (it feels like a recipe or formula, which reinforces the sense that grades are the goal), but I aim to have them reflect on their own purposes for learning, both in the medium context of the course as a whole and in the immediate context of the particular assignment, and them to evaluate how successful they have been at meeting their own goals. I invite them to explain why they might have fallen short of their goals (“not enough time” is by far the main explanation) and to request help for things they may not quite understand. Some students try to fool me by saying that everything is excellent, but over the course of the semester most students are pretty honest. I ask them to give themselves a grade, although I have also discussed with them by then the flattening of information that accompanies a grade. Is excellent content with flawed writing—maybe A plus C—the same as pretty good content and writing? Do they both get a B? Wouldn’t it be far more useful for the student to receive a narrative evaluation—not as justification for the grade but as helpful information for the goal of improving and learning?

I also ask students to suggest a final grade in the course, based on the cumulative record, their engagement, their learning. In very small classes, under twelve or so, I try to meet with every student several times a semester to talk about how things are going.

Most students have been very positive about this, though some resist because it is more work. An ironic solution is to give credit for the self-evaluation.

This is very unfamiliar for many of my students, who have spent at least twelve, if not fifteen, years, in pursuit of a grade bestowed by a powerful teacher. It takes most of a semester, in many cases, to explain what I’m talking about.


You end the book talking about a wonderful class that you taught, in which the students liked it so much that they would meet at lunch to talk more about linguistic anthropology.   How has teaching been for you since finishing this book? 

It’s been very hard! The semester just before the book came out was one of the worst I’ve had in a decade with regard to teaching, for a variety of reasons, but the one during which it came out was again very successful. I try to bring all my students along with my viewpoints, to show that I understand their predicament and am not focused on judging but on working with them to learn. At my previous university, University of Colorado Denver, it was not difficult to explain social class, because most of our students were first-generation college students, working nearly full-time, but at Notre Dame it is more abstract a concept. Similarly, students suffering in schooling understand the irrationality of the system instantly while those succeeding at it have a little harder time. But the strain on high-achieving students has increased so drastically in the last two decades that they readily recognize their own oppression. The widespread scourge of mental illness among college students is real and worrisome; I don’t scoff at their “helicopter parents” nor at their own thin skin. As an anthropologist I am not inclined to blame individuals for not measuring up to some abstract ideal model of liberal arts learners devoted to cultural literacy—or whatever the latest Fall from the Golden Age trope has it—but to grasp the entire sociopolitical and sociocultural context.

That is harder to change, though, even if I can analyze it. So sometimes it is frustrating to see the ways the system goes on, even though my own critique is so clear to me.

Susan Blum is a Professor of Anthropology at Notre Dame.  “I Love Learning; I Hate School” is available through Cornell University Press, 2016.