Jenanne Ferguson on her book, Words Like Birds

Words Like Birds

Interview by Laura Siragusa

https://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/university-of-nebraska-press/9781496208880/

Laura Siragusa: In your rich ethnography about language practices in the Sakha Republic, Russia, you introduce the concept of  ‘ontologies of language.’ Could you expand on its significance and what does this add to current linguistic anthropological debates?

Jenanne Ferguson: Language in many speech communities is entwined with what we might call ‘spirituality’ but perhaps is more accurately ‘ontology’, in terms of how language is conceptualized as part of broader reality. Ideologies are very often rooted in deep-seated beliefs about human differences that go beyond language and extend—as other scholars have noted—to assessments and judgments about the speaker as a person, or speakers as groups of people sharing certain characteristics that their language usage is purported to index. Understanding ontologies of language means apprehending the ways that we have ‘ways of being’ in language. Ontologies of language include how ideas and beliefs regarding different aspects of human experience are linked together. It is a similar concept to what Kroskrity (2018) has recently called “language ideological assemblages”—the idea that we cannot look simply at one language ideology (like purism, or variationism) in isolation. Instead of only looking at how different language-related beliefs are interconnected, I want to try to use the “ontologies of language” to remind people that language beliefs are rhizomatic and inseparable from beliefs about other aspects of life and the nature of reality.

Laura Siragusa: In your work, you often mention the need to incorporate more the notion of ‘belief’ when discussing ‘language ideologies’. This was fascinating, as you seem to focus on a concept, which had long been put into shade. Given the complexities of the present global socio-political and economic situation, I wondered to what extent talking about ‘belief’ facilitates communication, mutual understanding, and an acceptance of difference. Could you expand on that?

Jenanne Ferguson: The study of language ideologies is absolutely essential to better understanding communication more broadly—they are, I feel, often more than ‘opinions, ideas and attitudes,’ and acknowledging the element of ‘belief’ allows us to go a little deeper in understanding why so many people unconsciously take them as fact. As mentioned above, often beliefs about language connect in constellations to so many other beliefs about the world and how it works, and who lives in that world; they are not easily separated. Remembering “belief” gives us a place to start when we want to highlight how a language ideology may be harmful, but also how much work it might take to change or shift that belief. In the U.S. right now, work is being done on raciolinguistics by scholars like Jonathan Rosa, Samy Alim, and Nelson Flores, among others, that reveals the ways that beliefs about language are inseparable from constructions of race and also how deeply-held, hierarchical beliefs about race influence the reception and judgment of language. In the Sakha context, I see how ontologies of language make strong connections between Sakha ancestry, the ije tyl (mother language)/törööbüt tyl (birth language), and speaking Sakha, which do good in that they validate the Sakha language and encourage people to learn Sakha or maintain it. However, these beliefs can also be detrimental to people who are ethnically Sakha but are Russian-dominant or Russian-only speakers. These beliefs that link language, ethnolinguistic identity and personhood go deeper than attitudes or preference, but speak to ‘being in the world,’ and often alienate Sakha who don’t speak the language—I have heard individuals state that there is ‘no such thing as a russkoiazychnyi (Russian-speaking) Sakha,’ invalidating and erasing the identities of the many who do, indeed, speak only/predominantly Russian but identify ethnically as Sakha. Understanding how these beliefs about language connect and influence aspects of people’s social and public lives is essential—as well as the fact that they are beliefs—is essential, as they can often lead to significant inequality and speaker marginalization, and also harm the broader projects of language maintenance and revitalization. Identifying these beliefs and acknowledging their entanglements as well as their reach and power is the first step in alleviating the marginalization of groups of speakers.

Laura Siragusa: I was intrigued by noticing that in your work you talk about ‘the power of language’, which is not uncommon in other contexts. In the Finnish and Karelian folkloric traditions, for example, väki is seen as a ‘power charge’ that belongs to all beings, categories of entities, and phenomena (Stark-Arola 1998). Could you tell us more about what language can do, according to Sakha speakers, and if speakers use specific strategies to avoid negative consequences?

Jenanne Ferguson: As in many speech communities, some ‘kinds’ or genres of language are more highly charged, such as the blessing poems, algys, or kes tyl ‘magic words.’ However, no word should be used lightly (tyl tyalga byraghyllybat – ‘do not throw words to the wind’), because words are seen as direct vehicles for the intent of the speaker. There’s also the general communicative norm of not wasting words—not ‘throwing them to the wind’ unless you really must say them. “Sakha do not boltat’” (chatter, in Russian), I am often told, as an explanation for communicative differences between Sakha-Russian bilinguals and solely Russian speakers. Brevity in communication is positively valued—it’s safer. By voicing something, you have let your intent out into the world—you have already made something happen, and there is now the possibility that the meaning of your words will be realized. Because many Sakha ontologies of language hold that words possess a spirit (tyl ichchite) unto themselves as well as possessing something of the speaker’s spirit, letting them out into the world is seen as something to be especially cautious about, especially when discussing negative hypotheticals. I want to stress that this is not something people treat as ‘just’ a superstition; even if people do not also profess their sincere belief in tyl ichchite, this ontology of language has been normalized in the daily lives of many urban Sakha speakers, shaping their reactions to others’ words. Once I was discussing issues of environmental damage with a friend in light of a proposed chemical plant on the Lena River. Being from a Canadian region where pollution from the oil industry was affecting fish, I was telling her about the lesions on their gills and faces. “Big growths, like this, as if their jaws extended outward an extra length,” gesturing to my own neck and face, making the shape of a large lump. My friend stopped me suddenly, eyes wide. “Don’t say that, don’t do that! Kihi tyl – okh. Ymnuom suogha!” A person’s word is an arrow—don’t forget. Don’t make those gestures, directing the words to your body like tiny arrows. Interestingly, though, if you say something negative and you do not want it to come to pass, you can use the Russian-language expression of ‘t’fu-t’fu-t’fu’ to ‘cancel’ the words, or if you have positive hopes you do not want to jinx.

Laura Siragusa To what extent are ‘language trajectories’ among Sakha speakers driven by the broader ecology or the individual’s own agency and intentionality?

Jenanne Ferguson: I think they are too deeply intertwined to really separate them out; however, I want to focus on that broader ecology for a moment. If we take agency simply as the socially mediated capacity to act (Ahearn 1999) we can only exert so much influence within a socially structured language ecology. As I discuss, many times those trajectories are shaped by the specific language ecology that a speaker finds themselves in—specific friendship groups and the dominant norms surrounding code choice within them led to certain new patterns of language acquisition or use in a speaker. Of course, their own agency to either adhere or not to those language ecological patterns makes a difference, but the specific milieu and the practices of those other speakers in those micro-ecologies also played a central role in shaping the decisions. And of course, much broader ecologies are also present—as I discuss in the book, the massive shift in the linguistic ecology of Yakutsk in the years following the end of the Soviet Union set in place new structures that shaped the urban revitalization of the language, which continue to have an effect today. Moving to Yakutsk from a Sakha-speaking village may mean you will speak Russian more often than you did within rural linguistic ecologies, but you will now have more spaces, more domains, and more people with whom to continue speaking Sakha. And you may be more likely to choose to do so now than thirty years ago, due to the way the urban linguistic ecology has developed. However, I feel it’s essential to remember that ecologies also develop the way they do as a result of speakers shaping them through ideological (or ontological) and discursive practices. Therefore, both elements—ecology and speaker agency—are deeply entwined, making it difficult to even separate which influences the other more.

Laura Siragusa: Given the strong connections between language and land that you mention, I wonder how the recent fires in the Sakha Republic are narrated by online Sakha users and if there is any specific reference to the language as endangered.

Jenanne Ferguson: I haven’t noticed a specific patterns in news coverage or social media discourse yet, though now I will analyze more closely going forward! To my knowledge, there are no linked discourses that expressly see the fate of land as affecting language; conversely, where I now live and work in Northern Nevada, there is a direct connection expressed between the fate of Numu, the Northern Paiute language, and the cui-ui (Chasmistes cujus) fish endemic to Pyramid Lake. In the late 1990s a Numu elder reflected on the diminishing fish populations and number of speakers of the language and stated that when the cui-ui disappeared so would the language (both are now seeing a resurgence)! With Sakha the ‘endangerment’ connection is not that direct. I have heard, though, that losing connection to land definitely affect specific language domains, and vice versa. This was expressed to me by several herbal healers in the Amga region, who mentioned that when young people aren’t out on the land, they don’t learn the (Sakha) names for plants. At the same time, not speaking Sakha may make it more difficult, in their opinion, to engage with the land; Sakha plant names, they said, are often much more specific than those in Russian, or Latin, as they are highly descriptive (so that a plant’s appearance becomes more distinctive and thus easy to locate). For instance, a name like kyhyl sobo tyla (‘red carp’s tongue’) for Pyrola incarnata (grushanka in Russian) is said to make the plant easier to find and remember, as it so vividly evokes the deep pink of the flower’s style sticking out like a tongue below the petals!

Liz Gunner on her book, Radio Soundings

https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/radio-soundings/032576130F53ED88EA2765200B763F9F

Interview by Louisa Meintjes

Louisa Meintjes:  In analyses about popular culture produced during apartheid, Zulu radio dramas have been summarily dismissed. You place them at the core of Radio Soundings. Could you tell us about this choice and its relation to the argument of the book?

Liz Gunner: It’s not that they’ve been summarily dismissed, more they were never even considered as cultural artefacts. Rather they were simply seen as puppet-mouthings by compliant hangers-on of the apartheid design for radio. Why did I choose the dramas? And put them at the centre of the book? Well I began to realise the more I listened to them and the more I asked people about them, that they kept coming up whenever I asked about radio and radio listening habits. They seemed to be set deep in people’s memories and were a way they could tap into certain emotions about the fascination and strain and pleasure of events that circled usually around the family. They seemed to provide sites of recognition, self-knowledge, self-exploration, ways of accessing the self, often the deep self. They were also important as narratives, journeys. So I thought – Well, they’re important if you’re going to understand how people had vibrant and creative lives in spite of the pains of apartheid. This is a point Jacob Dlamini makes very well in his book Native Nostalgia.

Louisa Meintjes: Fascinating, idiosyncratic radio personalities people the book’s chapters. Exiles Lewis Nkosi and Bloke Modisane are the most internationally renowned of them. Yet listeners are crucial to your take on the radio voice as well. Could you tell us about the thought process that led you to the balance you chose for the book among backstage personalities, broadcast voices, and avid listeners?

Liz Gunner: I felt that unless you got in to the text a sense of the listeners and how they lived their lives through the dramas you would simply be doing half the job. Certainly this was true for the dramas from within South Africa – such as the Radio Bantu, Radio Zulu, and the Ukhozi FM dramas which are in the latter part of the book. I felt that what was being produced was a sort of public, self-generated intimacy which was very sustaining. People modeled themselves on the radio personalities who had parts in the dramas, wrote the dramas and in some cases had their own programmes; they became culture icons. The broadcast voices maybe together produced a kind of meta counter-voice to the crushing views of the dominant group. I wanted to try and get a kind of balance so that what would come out was an understanding of the making of sonic worlds that were culturally dynamic and deeply sustaining. And the fact that all this was in Zulu – in the case of the people within South Africa this is very significant. So K E Masinga, Thokozani Nene, Alexius Buthelezi, all very different personalities, to name a few, could all have a place on the sonic stage of this radio world. And one must not forget amazing white sound technicians like ‘Unogwaja’. He is mentioned by Eric Ngcobo as pioneering in his playing with the psychic-sonic sound effects in the 1980s drama ‘Yiz’ Uvalo’ (In Spite of Fear.)

The exiles Nkosi and Modisane had different paths to travel – Modisane worked with the very best in BBC Radio at a time when radio drama was a queen of genres but he could never build up a faithful following in the way that the radio voices from within could – say Eric Ngcobo, or Winnie Mahlangu. This was because his plays were not serialised and also were part of a different landscape of sound. They mediated, with the powerful intimacy of radio, the tensions and excitement of a country and a situation which impinged on the British consciousness of outsider and insider, home and colony; and then increasingly, race and power and Britain’s role in the anti-apartheid struggle. His plays were more part of high culture perhaps, than the plays from within which were more within the space of popular culture. Nkosi was different again – his voice became for a while well known on the African stations which bought tapes from the transcription Centre. He became a kind of key mediator of a stream of black voices of the world, when ‘Africa was on the Rise’ as James Baldwin saw it in the 1960s. So Nkosi and Modisane were complex and important mediators but the intimacy worked very differently.

Louisa Meintjes: Through a fine series of analyses of radio dramas and their producers/authors, variously situated through the decades (1960s through the 1990s) and at different sites (from London to Durban), you write about mediated intimacy. Radio reached into domestic space and it generated global affiliations and diasporic networks, all while it served the interests of the apartheid state. You ascribe to intimacy an important role in cultivating oppositional politics by means of radio dramas. As a researcher, how did you get at intimacy? Could you share an example here of mediated intimacy? And am I being reductive in asserting that it was the possibility of oppositional politics that this mediated intimacy enabled?

Liz Gunner: I think I’ve partly answered this question, above, but let’s see. You’re absolutely right to say radio reached into domestic space and generated global affiliations and diasporic networks – you see that with the Nkosi programmes, but his had a kind of fragility; Modisane’s were firmer because he had a place within the BBC because his work as a radio dramatist was so respected, and at the time the genre was flourishing. Your question about mediated intimacy is difficult.  I think for the dramas from within, voice carried and mediated intimacies through complicated personal encounters lodged in narratives of the domestic which drew in many other things. For Nkosi, let’s say the kind of intimacy he mediated was through throwing up moments of insight into the huge dramas of race and rights being played out in America and on the African continent. The most powerful example for me is when he played through interview the voice of the African American sociologist recalling how he’d spoken in Congress as part of the civil rights struggle. Maybe you’re partly right in your last point. But there is also the question of mediated intimacy as a counter presence – this is more than oppositional politics I think.

Louisa Meintjes: You have written about song, praise poetry, theater, and literature. This book draws on your work in all those performance arenas. Were there new challenges for you in writing about performance in the medium of radio?

Liz Gunner:  Yes absolutely. There was the question of what radio ‘did’ to these other genres and kinds of cultural production. Praise poetry for instance. Did it distance them or diminish them/ ? Did it confine them? Or could you see it as an extraordinarily powerful extension of the kinds of linguistic skills and affect that these forms could draw on? How did radio make use of song and praise poetry? Especially a radio station that was not free of apartheid control. I think in the 1970s, say, there was a huge drive to record ‘live’ performances of royal praises, chiefly installations and so on. But often the effect was to present a kind of double voice – the dignity of the form surpassed its ideologically controlled usage. Performance in the medium of radio struck me as very different to theatre. New terrain – theatre of the mind – perhaps you could compare it to Grotowski’s poor theatre in some ways. But it drew on new kinds of listening resources and auditory strengths – new domains of the auditory rather than the ocular and visual. So, something very different and the whole world of listeners, producers, actors and so on had a part in this different configuring of reality.

Louisa Meintjes: Radio Studies seems to be flourishing in our current epoch of social media and AV streaming. (Thank you for your lively contribution to it!) What’s your take on the reasons for this flourish, and on its promise?

Liz Gunner: I think the physicality of sound and its ability to express the temporal and spatial in new ways is giving radio huge impetus. And it may be the way it mediates intimacy, its physicality that is giving it such pull in an era saturated with the visual. And it can do things with communities and publics in ways as yet still not properly understood.

Ben Tausig on his book, Bangkok is Ringing

Interview by Mack Hagood

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/bangkok-is-ringing-9780190847524

Mack Hagood: Bangkok is Ringing brings us into the center of the Red Shirt protests in Bangkok during 2010 and 2011—a truly historic moment in Thailand that garnered international attention. Was the movement your original object of study when you headed to Thailand as a PhD candidate? What precipitated the movement and what unfolded after you arrived?

Ben Tausig: This massive occupation, and the movement that initiated it, was not my original object of study. Although I was interested in music and politics, and although the Red Shirts had been gaining energy for a while when I began my research, the dynamics of the movement would have been impossible to predict. But on arriving, the occupation of central Bangkok was just underway, and unsettling everything, so it would have been impossible to turn away from what was going on, no less the extraordinary role of sound in the protests. So I turned towards them. And then the movement remained so active – and so central to Thai politics – for so long that it seemed wise to stick with it. Moreover, in time the Red Shirt movement began to find performative echoes in other places, especially parts of the Arab Spring, which only made it feel more relevant.

Mack Hagood: Your book explores the protest movement through sonic performance and media of sounding and listening, revealing “uneven geographies of sound” made up of smaller “sonic niches.” Please walk us through some of these actors and media and how they feed and enact a protest movement.

Ben Tausig: The book is structured like the protests themselves. It is divided into seventeen chapters that vary in length, scope, and tone, and that at different points reflect or conflict with one another. That’s exactly what it was like being inside the Red Shirt camps. They were ad hoc spaces full of internal variations of class, region, and aesthetics. And their sounds often tracked with these differences. I call the subspaces within the rallies “sonic niches” because, like ecological niches, they existed in a state of flux, as well as in profound and dependent relation to neighboring spaces. Moreover, they were highly sensitive, and it wasn’t unusual to hear one of them disappear entirely due to some small change in, say, police enforcement of a public amplification law. Political movements are typically coalitional like this, as Mouffe and Laclau remind us. The elder bookseller whose formative experience of dissent was the Marxist movements of the Vietnam War era may not have much to say to a kid from the northeast who adored billionaire former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. And it follows that the performative proletarianism of the former’s songs for life folk tunes did not always mesh well with the latter’s hip-hop. But they and their sounds found ways to coexist under the banner of a movement that they each believed would benefit them.

Mack Hagood: One of your main theoretical interventions is to dispute the common claim in sound studies that sound is unbounded and transcendent. You make a careful study of how sound is often constrained and you enlist it “to help us understand how agency caroms and fractures, how political actors often find themselves bouncing off walls rather than frictionlessly through them” (6). Can you describe how themes of constraint, blockage, patience, and persistence operate through the book in terms of sonic and political agency?

Ben Tausig: This theme arose from firsthand experience of the protests. They were so densely crowded that one could only ever experience them while partially or totally stuck, for example making long and arduous sojourns (we’re talking hours) across, say, 50-meter stretches of road to buy a bottle of water or find a friend. For those who know Bangkok, this feeling of being stuck is achingly familiar, because traffic is so intense and the roads so poorly accommodated to it (on this as a historical problem, see the work of Claudio Sopranzetti, who was in Bangkok at the same time, and who analyzes mobility very well). In my case, this experience suggested itself first as a metaphor for the ways that sound, as an agent of political force, is likewise beset by many stubborn obstacles. But why stop at the metaphor? After all, protest movements depend upon sound to announce themselves as totalities, to produce an affective sense of unity, and to make specific points emphatically. I began to reflect on the mundane ways that sound did not travel freely at Red Shirt events, and to consider how this lack of mobility could help us think about obstacles to political change, as well as to the performance of a desire for political change.

Mack Hagood: I was thrilled to learn about the cultural and political valences of luk thung and molam, genres of Thai music that some western readers may have encountered through reissues on the Sublime Frequencies label. You also movingly describe some musical moments involving these genres. Can you talk a bit about their history and importance in the Red Shirt movement?

Ben Tausig: Amporn Jirattikorn as well as James Mitchell have written about the political history of these genres, as has Terry Miller (in an earlier moment). Sublime Frequencies typifies a relatively new kind of “world music,” a phenomenon that has been analyzed by Portia Seddon and David Novak, among others. Briefly, decades- or even centuries-old genres circulate today in a weird and remediated fashion that requires – decidedly! – a new auditory ethics. That’s a long way of saying that most western listeners who hear mor lam and luk thung are likely to do so through media products that obscure their political valences. In what we might call hipster-colonial commerce, these genres are typically marketed and heard as psychedelic or otherwise exotic – a familiar and regrettably orientalist framing – whereas in practice they contain a rich poetics of exclusion from political power. That poetry can tell us a great deal about how people identify with rurality in Thailand, especially as a moral ground within a country that’s long been a site of unregulated, exploitative capitalist development. The Red Shirts’ use of these genres therefore necessitates a closer examination of the latent possibility of a left-wing instinct that has been unnaturally excluded, one might well say repressed, from political discourse (Communist political parties, for example, are formally illegal). The possibility of the eventual return of the left, even as a kernel, therefore cannot be ruled out after considering how mor lam and luk thung functioned for the Red Shirts. This was an exciting part of the research, and I still hold out hope for this kernel to grow, even though it is an interpretation that has not yet been borne out.

Mack Hagood: I hesitate to pursue this next line of questioning, both because it may simply be a reductive and facile cross-cultural comparison and because it may seem to signal political commitments I don’t own. However, while reading Bangkok is Ringing, I couldn’t help but think repeatedly about the political rallies of Donald Trump. There are so many similarities: a rural political movement sneered at by many among the urban and educated; a wealthy, media-savvy, populist leader who, like Tahksin, benefitted from and perpetuated neoliberalism while also railing against its social ills; a similar ecosystem that sprung up around the rallies of chanting, blaring music, homemade media, and political performativity—even the red color of the iconic MAGA hat! I have often thought that those of us working in the politics of sound, media, and affect studies should be doing a lot more work on Trumpism. What insights did the Thai example provide as you watched these events transpire in the United States? Does your sonic approach provide us ways of understanding what is happening here now?

Ben Tausig: Absolutely. Politically and economically, Thailand tends to foreshadow certain global developments, perhaps because capital is quite free to operate as it wishes there, so it bumbles into crises with less friction. That’s an undeveloped theory, but I am not the only one to notice it. And indeed, Thailand had a billionaire populist before the US did, although one could also draw comparisons to George W. Bush, who was elected at the same time as Thaksin. It is highly ironic that there is even an argument for the emergence of a leftist politics within the Red Shirts, given what a violent, autocratic neoliberal Thaksin could be (he bears some similarities to Duterte). But the fact remains that some percentage of Red Shirts joined the movement in spite of Thaksin, not because of him. One can therefore draw some meaningful connections between the Red Shirts and the American populist right, and it is worth reading Kasian Tejapira’s prescient insights from 2006. But the comparison has its limits.

Meanwhile, yes, I think sound studies can draw some narrow comparisons here. Sonically and otherwise, Trumpism cast itself as a puncture of elite spaces. The Red Shirts cast themselves in much the same way. Their occupations were provocatively staged in the wealthiest, most cosmopolitan parts of Bangkok – precisely the areas from which they as working people were excluded. They blared rustic songs, voices, and timbres in the most refined districts of the country. Some Trump supporters were likewise given, especially in the winter of 2016-17, to entering public spaces that they felt were the province of liberals, and shouting insults as a form of spatialized comeuppance against people (and, ostensibly, a system) they disliked. The comparisons stop, of course, when we consider the racial privilege at stake in the U.S. case study, not to mention the homophobia, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia that explicitly underwrote Trump’s election. But I do think there was a similar value in both instances to using sound to penetrate the spaces of a political opposition.

Mack Hagood: You have taken it upon yourself to self-produce an audio version of your book, which is available on your website. What opportunities and challenges does the audiobook format present to academia?

Ben Tausig: I’ll link self-promotionally here to a brief piece in the Journal of Popular Music Studies that came out this summer, and summarize it by saying that there are enormous opportunities right now for sound studies, as well as music studies, to imagine new kinds of critical published products that combine conventional analysis with audible material. But we also have to be very thoughtful about the economics of these ventures, given where academic publishing is today, and the pitfalls that come with shiny new objects (namely, that scholars could be asked to do even more uncompensated labor than they already perform).

Mack Hagood: Finally, is there any conversation or debate that you find most interesting in sound studies right now? Any current plans or projects that intervene in it?

Ben Tausig:  I am always drawn to deep anthropological work on sound, especially that which addresses people and spaces outside of the United States and Europe. This is a lack that I believe emerged from the early tendency in sound studies to canonize experimentalist composers as well as philosophers of sound, namely John Cage and Murray Schafer, who despite their allegedly global thinking were firmly grounded in traditions of European art music. Cage and Schafer certainly give students of sound a lot to work with, but there are also enormous presumptions in their work about sound and its relationship to nature, gender, race, and modernity. Feminist sound studies is another growth area now, and it has produced some excellent and urgent critiques of the ways that sound studies has defined noise, for example. And as a body of scholarship it comprises probably the most powerful critique of the Cagean and Schaferian traditions. Tara Rodgers and Marie Thompson are two essential thinkers here.

I do have a new project, and it is an effort to think about some of the conversations referenced just above. It is a historical study of the cosmopolitan aural and musical world of Bangkok (and elsewhere in Thailand) during the Vietnam War. The period that Benedict Anderson called “The American Era” was an era of unprecedented economic development, at the center of which was music and nightlife. I’m therefore examining the stories and legacies of musicians – Americans, Thais, Filipinos, Europeans – who were active in Thailand during those years, as well as the asymmetrical auditory relationships between U.S. soldiers and the Thai people who served them in a nascent hospitality industry, including sex workers. The project has already gotten pretty deep and it is lots of fun to combine archival research with interviews and ethnography.

Alex Fattal on his book, Guerrilla Marketing

Interview by Winifred Tate

https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/G/bo29202793.html

Winifred Tate: The title, Guerrilla Marketing, evokes advertising, and in fact Amazon lists a number of similarly named advertising books. Why did you choose it?

Alex Fattal: Because it’s dense, evocative, and slippery, like the book’s contents. In a sentence, the book is an ethnographic analysis of the feedback between marketing and military strategies, how each set of experts are learning from the other in their respective efforts to conjugate furtive research, surveillance, and planning with spectacular media interventions. Guerrilla marketing, the term, references a set of trends in the private sphere to camouflage the advertisement; and as the title of my book, it references how the state is marketing a new life of consumer citizenship to guerrillas — the book’s ethnographic ground. The book documents a mashup of these worlds, which the title encapsulates.

Winifred Tate: One of the central arguments you make is that programs that are marketed by governments and consultants as humanitarian and contributing toward peace often, as in this case, involve policing, surveillance and frequent detention of targeted individuals — that is they employ a logic of militarization and ongoing warfare. Can you explain the Colombian case you examine?

Alex Fattal: The program that I studied in Colombia, the Program for Humanitarian Attention to the Demobilized (PAHD), is a special initiative of the Colombian Ministry of Defense. It began in 2003, the year after peace negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government fell apart. It was in lieu of a peace process and sought to coopt the language of peace policy by “demobilizing” fighters that were really defecting or deserting. It might strike some readers as a picky semantic difference, but one of the key claims that I make in the book is that the temporal difference between war and peace — like other modernist distinctions — matters and should not be relinquished lightly. At the level of academic critique, we see how the two bleed ineluctably into each other, but I do think there is something worthwhile in not giving into the Marshal McLuhan’s prognostication that World War III will be “a guerrilla information war.” His vision is proving increasingly prescient with the confluence of the unfolding of the Global War on Terror and the technological moment, and it’s very troubling to say the least. By theorizing what I call “brand warfare” I am trying to articulate something that is in global circulation. While it’s been interesting to share the work and hear from colleagues about how they find the concept useful in their field own sites, it’s also been disheartening because it points to a troubling tendency toward dangerous new forms of mass manipulation.

Winifred Tate: In the conclusion, you document how the Colombian government evangelizes this program, showing it off to delegates from other conflict-torn countries such as South Sudan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Somalia and others. Why did the Colombian government do this?

 Alex Fattal: It is part of Colombia’s striving to position itself on the upper rungs of a global hierarchy of security expertise and establish itself as a country that has come back from the brink of “failed state” ignominy, and therefore has knowledge to export. The pony show of the “South South Tour” (which was mostly funded by the global north) was just one piece in a wider re-narration of the nation and served as a performative intervention to create the impression of the government having “solved” the conflict — all while the war was still raging. Kimberly Theidon has aptly described this cunning temporal conflation as “pre-post conflict”. The bi-annual South South Tours were part of the Colombian government’s “mission accomplished” moment, a performance that involved the mobilization of state symbols, bureaucracies, and resources. Anybody who has been following the post-peace accord violence knows how utterly premature such triumphalist projections have been.

Winifred Tate: An important contribution you make is bringing an analysis of the intersections between the worlds of marketing and branding, and government demobilization efforts. How do these bureaucrats and consultants try to sell peace? How do you think these campaigns have contributed to the current skepticism about the peace accords in Colombia?

Alex Fattal: You are very right to point to skepticism as the other side of the coin in such strategies of affective governance. Quite simply, I think the government blew its credibility on peace initiatives during wartime to gain a military and political advantage. When it came time to persuade the Colombian public that a strikingly similar set of programs would be necessary during negotiations with the FARC in Havana from 2012 to 2016 and then during the plebiscite and implementation of the peace accord, it was much easier for the right wing to sew doubt around the motives of the pro-peace camp. It is a telling case of how the right-wing benefits from playing politics amidst a hall of mirrors, unphased by distortions and shameless in taking the non-correspondences between signifier and signified that Baudrillard poignantly highlighted when discussing consumer culture decades ago to its logical conclusion — outright disinformation.

Winifred Tate: A growing number of anthropologists are conducting ethnographic research within government and military bureaucracies. What lessons can you share for anthropologists and others who want to do this kind of research?

 Alex Fattal: Be careful. It’s a fraught field and the rules of the game are in flux. Journalists and academics are in a tough spot across the globe. Ayše Gül Altinay, among others, is being arbitrarily detained in Turkey. The translation of Guerrilla Marketing into Spanish and a few promotional events in Colombia seem to have earned me my first death threat, a picture of a man hanged and tortured that was sent to my Colombian cell phone. (It was a new SIM card and I had hardly shared the number with anyone). Institutions, like the Colombian military, that project such a powerful image of themselves publicly are often hypersensitive and don’t deal well with criticism and they have a kit of repressive tools to use as part of the brand warfare they wage to sure up their often shaky legitimacy. I did my best to convey the scope of my research and its disposition to critical analysis, but despite my best efforts to communicate openly and continually — tensions arose. Embedded ethnography tends to assume an ideological affinity between the anthropologist and her field site, but when that’s not the case things can get tricky. One of the parts of the book that I am proud of is the “Access and Ethics” section of the introduction, which digs deeper into these dynamics.

Winifred Tate: In addition to your analysis of the logic of the demobilization programs, you offer complex and fascinating glimpses into the complexity of ex-combatants’ lives through life-history excerpts in-between each analytical chapter. How do you understand the role and importance of these testimonies of lived experience?

Alex Fattal: The testimonials, which are accompanied by Lucas Ospina’s wonderful drawings, do a lot of work in the book and they have been one of the elements that has really impacted readers so far. They give the analysis another dimension by bringing the discussion down to the level of everyday life, not in a way that is illustrative of my interpretations but rather in ways the exceed the interpretative frame, allowing readers who are unfamiliar with the Colombian context to feel the intensities and trajectories of lives marked by the conflict and their many layers. The stories also open a space for readers to make connections to the chapters — the placement of each of the testimonials is not haphazard. I think the testimonials widen my otherwise narrow focus on the convergence of marketing and militarism and allow the book to be about much more at the same time. Including them also relieved some of my sense of guilt about not being able to include many other stories that I wanted to include. So many former guerrillas shared their life experiences with me and I wish I could have included their stories too. My editor, Priya Nelson, did a wonderful job gently influencing the manuscript. The one piece of advice I just couldn’t take was to cut the testimonials down further. For me, I wanted to make sure the arc of often-difficult childhoods, joining the guerrilla, life inside the FARC’s ranks, the decision to leave, and the challenges of reintegration came through; and it was hard to abbreviate that arc, especially with so many compelling stories.

Winifred Tate: Similarly, your film Limbo, centers on the recounting of one such story. What is the film about?

Alex Fattal: The book could have easily been twice as long, but I left some large pieces out, such as a chapter on the psychological world of ex-combatants and their dreamscapes. I decided to spin that off into a short film called Limbo, which was shot entirely in the back of a truck that I transformed into a camera obscura. The article I am writing now is about former guerrillas’ dreams and the film project as a form of ethnographic surrealism, which strives for a dialectic between the ethnographic impulse to render the familiar strange and the surrealist impulse to render the strange familiar. The film, unlike much of what has been featured from the Sensory Ethnography Lab, takes narrative seriously, while also creating a sensorial space in the back of the truck. The truck becomes a confessional, psychoanalytic space that, unlike the couch, is in constant motion. The idea is to take the viewer on an oneiric journey through one former guerrilla’s life. Like the testimonials in the book, the film shows how the aftermath of being in the war lingers, it is an aftermath that is accentuated by a form of demobilization that, as I argue, is often complicit in the remobilization of former combatants, fueling cycles of conflict and peace policy that Colombia has been in the throes of for the last thirty-five years. It’s a trend, that sadly, is continuing through the post-peace accord present.

 

 

 

 

 

Chris Ball on his book, Exchanging Words

https://unmpress.com/books/exchanging-words/9780826358530

Meghanne Barker: This book moves, part by part, from within the park to outside of it, until we end up in France. How did you decide to organize it this way, rather than according to some of the main terms of inquiry, such as exchange and ritual? It seems that this tactic was designed, in some ways, to counter narratives of indigenous groups perpetually repeating or risking assimilation or annihilation. But were there aspects of your fieldwork at the Park that were then obscured by this framing – for example, giving more attention to the role of visitors from the outside?

Chris Ball: First of all, many thanks for reading the book and posing such thoughtful questions!

I committed to the framing of an ethnographic narrative about how Wauja people of Brazil move from inside the Xingu Park to outside early on in my fieldwork. Although the chapter on the Atujuwa mask dance that Wauja performers debuted in France in July, 2015 is the subject of the book’s last chapter, the event happened relatively soon after I began working with the Wauja. I was invited to accompany the troupe on their journey abroad and in doing so I learned so much about Wauja people’s initiatives to engage with outsiders. I also returned to the village with many questions about how such encounters work out. From then on, I became increasingly interested in scalar study of the pragmatic means through which Wauja outreach to alters was accomplished and understood from their perspective. That meant looking locally at political discourse, communication with spirits, and out to regional exchange rituals with other Xinguans, and meetings with foreign and Brazilian NGO and government representatives. This perspective helped me to locate classical anthropological topics such as ritual and exchange as they emerged in relations of development that variously purported to target healthcare, material culture, environmental protection, and spirituality. Manuela Carneiro da Cunha had a great influence on my research by encouraging cultural analysis of how Amazonian indigenous people do development. While I ended up paying less attention to the role of visitors from the outside, the upshot was to reverse the perspective of how Euro-Americans and/or non-indigenous Brazilians encounter Amazonians by following the movements and itineraries of Wauja people as Amazonians who engage outsiders.

Meghanne Barker: In the introduction, you promise that this book will bridge the gap between two approaches to studying Amazonia, one of which uses a structuralism modeled after Saussurian semiology, the other of which adopts Peircian semiotics to focus more on everyday discourse. This seems like an ambitious task! At what point in your research or writing did you realize that this was what your project was doing? What made it seem possible, or desirable, or necessary, for you to do this?

Chris Ball: It is a tall order, and I am sure there are many ways that I fell short in this book. Again, I was influenced and encouraged by my teachers in this regard, primarily by Michael Silverstein and Sue Gal in the application of Peircean semiotics to communication, and by the wonderful opportunities I had to learn from scholars such as Carlos Fausto and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in Chicago and in Rio de Janeiro. They brought a range of perspectives to the table to be sure, but I inherited a lasting engagement with Levi-Straussian structuralism and Amazonianist (post)structuralism from these anthropologists. In addition, my training in structural linguistics at Chicago by Jerry Sadock and Amy Dahlstrom, among others such as Bruna Franchetto, prepared and required me to engage with grammatical systems in the tradition of Sapir, Bloomfield, and Saussure. I guess the ingredients were all in the mix before I left for the field, and I can see in retrospect how much the fingerprints of my teachers are left on the book. I should also say that I still believe that one of the main tasks of linguistic anthropology at least since Roman Jakobson has been to unite elements of Saussurean semiology and Peircean semiotics as they illuminate fundamental properties of language structure and function. The synthesis is ongoing, but what makes it possible, desirable, and necessary is the complementarity of studying langue as a social fact on the one hand, and parole as a site of sociocultural (re) production and transformation. This book is one entry in the collective research project into that dialectic.

Meghanne Barker: Beyond scholarly work on ritual, language, exchange, or indigenous groups in Brazil, is there another scholarly conversation into which you see this book offering an intervention that might not be obvious, immediately? If so, can you tell these readers why they should read your book?

Chris Ball: I think the outreach that the book attempts, beyond the audiences you mentioned, is to scholars and practitioners of development. I make a largely culturalist argument that ritual, discourse, and exchange influence how people from the Xingu region of Brazil engage in development projects. Understanding their cultural approaches to ritual, to trade, and to political discourse in their own communities sheds light on how and why development projects may succeed or fail. Indeed, we should even ask if the people involved define communicative success and failure in anything like the same terms. The point of view brought by linguistic anthropology can hopefully say something applicable to the realization of development in a variety of contexts.

Meghanne Barker: It is common for authors to mention their indebtedness to their interlocutors in the acknowledgments section of the book, yet you do so as your conclusion. Then you break somewhat with conventional ethnography and appeal to the reader, whom you interpellate as a probable anthropologist, to accept the status of indebtedness as requiring sustained engagement. What provoked you to conclude in such a way, with such an appeal?

Chris Ball: One of the points of my book is that Wauja people often work to sustain indebtedness and asymmetry in their exchange relations with outsiders. This leads to confusion in intercultural encounters when NGO representatives laud the successful conclusion of projects, touting the success of debts paid.  Meanwhile Wauja people may see in the same instance an undesirable foreclosure of future social relations. I tried to make that point in the body of the book, and in the conclusion, I hoped to return to the question that your first question indicated might be foreclosed by my approach to Wauja outreach; attention to the role of visitors from the outside. What I wanted to suggest, perhaps to overcome at least momentarily the act of description in the service of engagement, is how anyone who visits the Wauja from the outside, myself and my readers –you included—  is indebted to them. We should take indebtedness not as a negative however, instead we might approach it the way Wauja often do, as a positive corollary of continued relationships, of sustained engagement signaled in the promise of a return.

Lilly Irani on her book, Chasing Innovation

https://press.princeton.edu/titles/13362.html

Lilly Irani, in conversation with Christopher Kelty

(Note: Interview was transcribed, unlike many other interviews on this site which are conducted by email).

Chris Kelty: Let’s start here, because we are in Torrance, CA at a Taiwanese bakery, halfway between where you and I respectively work. You, like me, are stuck across various disciplines. Anthropology, design, media studies, south asian studies…and so on. What’s your strategy for addressing the work you do beyond the disciplines?

Lilly Irani: There’s being between the disciplines and there is speaking to people beyond the academy— to participants or, in many cases, workers themselves. I don’t mean as a public intellectual speaking to civil society, but as an ex-technology worker writing to other workers. Some of my strategy has been to lead with the stories. While writing — especially a few years in — I would fantasize that I should instead write a graphic novel called “Design: A Tragedy.” Each of my chapters is really centered around some story where people are working with the skills that they have, the hopes that they have, the social know-how and the networks that they have. They’re all doing their best, and then they run into some kind of friction or contradiction. These were moments that, for me, revealed something about the structural or institutional forces silently conditioning the supposedly creative possibilities of design and entrepreneurship.

Sometimes that contradiction doesn’t become visible until years into the project. As an ethnographer, what I get to do is hang out with a set of projects and a group of people for 5 to 10 years, and say, “Hey, you’re doing projects every 3 months or every 2 years, I can see how this goes over a long time and I can use that slow attunement to draw out—to tell a story that shows the contradiction.” Then I can theorize it at the end of the chapter. For people who are interested in the theory, they get that laid out at the end of the chapter but for those who are not, they still see a story of friction or failure they are used to naturalizing or coping with. And they see it is not all their fault, but a product of the structures in which they are embedded.

The thing I love about anthropology and the empirical is not positivism but rather the chance to attune to the erasures, erosions, and what falls through the cracks socially or theoretically. We can draw those out into a more public way and invite wider publics – our readers and our fieldwork interlocutors – to ask, “Okay, what are we going to do now?”

Chris Kelty: Imagine for me what it will look like when people in Indian academia read your book as opposed to when those in Euro/American academia read it. What do you think or what do you hope would be a discussion there that would be different—or would it be the same?

Lilly Irani: That’s a good question. I’ll talk about my hopes, and I’ll talk about what I’ve seen happen so far. I think one of my hopes was that—I felt like, when I began to write up this project, one set of reactions that I would get from academics, policy people in South Asia would say, “Oh, yeah, this thing you’re writing about is happening everywhere actually.” Actually, this didn’t happen to me just in South Asia. I had that reaction from people also working in parts of Africa and the Middle East.

There was a lot of support and enthusiasm for having another person trying to unpack what’s going on there and understand where it’s coming from all of a sudden. Academics, however, sometimes reacted by saying “Well, this doesn’t fit the ways that we’ve been doing post-colonialism in media studies or South Asia studies so far. Go to a tier-two city, or study people in rural areas and how they share media in ‘real India.’” That’s super important. But the current moment in India is one where development has become a financial opportunity for the private sector. And all kinds of authoritarian management impulses or even violence are justified in the name of innovation and progress. If we want to understand how the state organizes its actions to stimulate private sector accumulation, and in the name of development and innovation no less, we need to study the work of relatively elite middle-classes who operate in these systems.

Chris Kelty: Your book has a great historical depth to it, but not as a history of something, right? The history is there in order to set up the story of the subjectivity of the people you worked with. How do you think about the role of establishing that kind of existing subjectivity with such historical detail? Why is that important to do, rather than, say, pointing to their speech or to the things that they make, and saying, “Look. See, this is how people are right now.” What’s the value that that brings for you? Continue reading

Crystal Abidin on her book, Internet Celebrity

Jacket Image

https://books.emeraldinsight.com/page/detail/Internet-Celebrity/?k=9781787560796

Interview by Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: What do you see as the main focus and argument of this book?

Crystal Abidin: Logistically, I wanted to write a highly accessible primer text for a general audience. My original disciplinary training is in anthropology and sociology, but the bulk of research on this phenomena has come out of media and communications. Because of this, depending on the journal or the audience or the edited collection I’m writing for, I variously use terms like “microcelebrity”, “internet celebrity”, “online celebrity”, “influencer”, and so on and so forth. We all know that depending on our background and our training and our disciplinary preferences, this would mean that as we’re searching for literature, we’re going to miss out on heaps and heaps of articles or data or reviews. So, I wanted a book to kind of consolidate all these related but distinct concepts. That’s why I wanted to do this on the operational side of things.

Intellectually, I wanted to publish a text that captured the state of the industry at this very moment and share this piece quickly with a wide audience. My publisher Emerald Publishing has a series Society Now that does just this. Although I have also published a number of book chapters and journal articles, my thesis—which focused on my internet ethnography of influencer culture in Singapore—is going to take some time to be published as an academic monograph due to the processes of academic publishing and the need to update my conceptual thinking in this quickly evolving domain. So while that’s being done, I was thinking about a condensed and stripped down version of this upcoming thesis-to-book monograph. But at the same time, a lot of my newer fieldwork now involves working with industry, and I saw this as a great opportunity to combine a populist and corporate way of framing these phenomena with an academic and scholarly way of understanding and analyzing them.

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: Do you see this book as any particular kind of theoretical genealogy in anthropology? What would be the value of this work for anthropologists who maybe don’t know anything about this side of internet culture, or maybe are curious about it— how does this work speak to anthropologists specifically?

Crystal Abidin: Although my research and analysis is guided by anthropological theory, I don’t think it’s explicit in this book, because I needed to cater to the widest audience possible – it’s really primed for perhaps a large undergraduate introduction course, or anyone from the general public who can’t differentiate between a YouTuber and a meme, or the concept of virality from celebrity. But, if I were to return to my initial rhetoric in planning the chapters, then certainly I worked hard to showcase the variety of methods that I used throughout my projects. The first chapter I feel is quite similar to a traditional literature review or archival research, glazing through the phenomena. And in this text, I have organized this information as a historical overview of how we came to this idea of internet celebrity, drawing from various books and concepts across multiple disciplines. This is one of the things I struggled with in my earlier work in my doctoral studies, that if we were bounded by a discipline in terms of where we looked for journals or for books, we would miss out on a lot of the good debate developing in other industries and developing in other disciplines. So that was one thing I struggled with and one thing I needed to overcome. I was explicit throughout the whole book that I work primarily as an anthropologist and as an ethnographer but my literature review was more encompassing and generous across the disciplines.

In the second chapter, I highlight some of the key repetitive tropes that we see of internet celebrity, the qualities that they share, even though I chose specific case studies that were resonant mostly in the Asian market or during that time period. It was drawn from several long-term research projects that used traditional ethnography, participant observation, interviews, and then even digital ethnography, content analysis, media analysis, and trend watching.

The third chapter dives deeper into case studies and I think this is where at times I extrapolate between the social media posts, some of the comments, some of the reactions from the press— this would be what an in depth digital ethnographic study or media studies content analysis would look like. Because it’s not a one-time-off study of a single viral post, but a long-term engagement as a viewer/fan/hater/follower/and so on across multiple connected internet spaces in a network, I was able to piece together a longer-term digital biography of some of these personalities.

Finally, I wanted the last chapter to be a springboard to the thesis-to-book monograph on influencers that I am finishing up. So, this chapter positioned the industry of influencers within a climate of internet celebrity at larger, and my upcoming thesis-to-book monograph will then dive in explicitly into the microcosms and social relationships on the level of the influencer as an actor. And here, I felt better able to share some of the ethnographic snippets and observations from my work—say, mapping out the structure of the industry, sharing some of the observations from vignettes or from conversations.

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: With this kind of internet-based research, the traditional anthropological framing of the “field site” becomes a bit murky. As a researcher who herself is very engaged with internet culture, how do you circumscribe the boundary of the “field site”, in this book and in your related work?

Crystal Abidin: It doesn’t come up much in this book per se, because this text is a summation of several different projects across various ideo-geographical fieldsites in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the US and Europe. If I were to really stretch it, I’d say that the data in this text is bounded by temporality – I had intentionally focused on a range of years when I was selecting case studies form my data, specifically to demonstrate the shifts across forms of celebrity – traditional or digital – that I had mapped out in the first chapter. But I also made specific decisions over which of my locational or cultural fieldsites to showcase – where possible and where the arguments could still be communicated well, I substituted many Anglo- and Euro-centric examples with ones from the Global South, in line with my research and personal ethic to promote visibility and representation of equally interesting phenomena happening elsewhere in the world that is often lost in discourses propagated by the popular media.

In my other works beyond this book, I bound or segment my fieldsites differently depending on the project or my research question. There are instances where I am studying a specific trend or viral incident, so my field is bounded chronologically by time. But if I am studying the everyday practices of a particular demographic or community of people, then I bound my field by the biographies or locations of the content producers. In other words, I adopt more anthropological approaches to study genealogies, and here my field is determined by the snowball sampling that may expand more laterally to include more and more influencers, or vertically to study up the chain (such as agencies or industry) or down the chain (that is, followers and fans). Sometimes this may mean identifying a different space altogether, such as the backend or logistical and operational systems of influencers (such as bot factories, software and infrastructure). In my more ambitious works, I may consider a larger cultural group as a phenomena,  my newest major project will focus on influencers in cultural East Asia, broadly defined as China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. In general, depending on my research question or what I am isolating as my factor of analysis, my fieldsites are scoped and bounded differently.

That said, I’m only able to do this because my very initial sampling of influencers for my traditional observation and later in my digital observation was quite large, aimed at getting an idea of the field. Some of this is really purposive sampling—for example, covering almost every role possible in the influencer industry in Singapore. Anyone you can think of, from an assistant that helps in the warehouse that’s owned by an influencer, all the way down to the parent or the loved one who is somehow implicated in their visibility. And then I am also going back and forth with the different production and circulation chains. So I am not just focusing on the influencer themselves, but also the companies that are sustaining the platforms they use. This includes policies from different social media platforms, like how Instagram deals with ads, and also regulations and provisions by third-party companies who may provide the ability for influencers to trace their metrics and do real-time analysis of their audiences. It also includes where they are congregating in discussion forums, where they are meeting in the flesh, what they are doing when they meet in the flesh— going down to these spaces and hanging out with these young people.

For example, I have recently conclude fieldwork looking at the influencer industry in the Nordic region, but because of time and resource constraints, I’m not able to replicate the very thorough and in-depth studies I’ve done, say, in Southeast Asia. Instead, I have decided to focus on the specific lateral category of influencer agencies, specifically those in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland, to constitute the ‘Nordic market’. I conduct interviews with specific people in these companies, and record observations about their daily work in the offices when I have the privilege to embed in spaces or attend events to conduct participant observation. While I no longer have the same depth as, say the project of influencers in Singapore that thoroughly investigated every possible role in the industry, this Nordic project is asking a completely different set of questions on a more macro scale.

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: Going back to the Internet Celebrity book specifically, I loved the art style used to illustrate your data. I found that to be a really interesting choice, especially given how much of internet culture, broadly speaking, centers the visual. Was there a particular motivation for using this style of art rather than a more direct representation of the data you were looking at (for example, screenshots of actual memes)? What were you hoping the audience would get out of that?

Crystal Abidin: Again, a variety of reasons—I’ll mention a conceptual one, a more intellectual one, and a pragmatic one.

Conceptually, in Internet Celebrity, one of my key arguments is that while some of the people who opt in to internet celebrity pursue this fervently and become influencers—which is what the last chapter points to, and the focus of my work that’s forthcoming– we also have a lot of internet celebrities who stumble into this or are forced into this industry, as in the case of the unwilling meme (Chapter 3, page 52) or the eyewitness viral star (Chapter 3, page 38) that circulates widely and gets mocked with racist tones of humor. So, not wanting to replicate or reignite that violence against these people, it would not feel right to republish their images in print, even if the publisher allows it, even if they have become widely circulated as memes, or even if the images are generally considered in the‘public domain. The aesthetic of it would not have been congruent with the argument I was trying to make, so I needed to be careful with that.

The second endeavor was more fun for me—to illustrate a more intellectual goal of using this art style. I was thinking about how verbally referring to a meme and explaining it with thick description, versus actually seeing the meme, are two different experiences. We consume internet celebrities via a visual form. If could could visually simulate a mere skeleton or likeness of the form, and have the readers able to guess or recall what this refers to, then this successfully demonstrates the arguments in the book that internet celebrity has a feel of templatability, a wider social memory, that cuts across different cultural pools of knowledge. It has been really fun for me to get feedback from readers who have told me, “Alright, we’re reading this in text form and this sounds familiar,” and then in the next page they flip to they see an outline and they think, “Oh yes, I know exactly the meme she’s talking about.” It also points to the difference in how we process information with our social memory. Traditionally, anthropology and ethnography has relied a lot on thick description, and very persuasive writing, and that’s a craft that I’m trying to hone. But when I do similar work in the industry, that’s not a format that’s palatable to people working in social media, working in tech companies, working with some of the biggest conglomerates in the media industry. Often, I have to present a different framing for the exact same thing I want to put across, such as relying heavily on visual aids. So, I also saw this as an experimental opportunity.

The third reason, of course, pragmatically, is dealing with the notion of public property, or copyright. Different publishers have different logistical guidelines for what constitutes an image that can be used for fair use, or for academic critique. Some of the publishers have guidelines ranging from how extensively public am image has been circulating, whether it has been deposited into the major meme or gif libraries, whether it has been reposted by reputable newspapers or online news sites of a certain leverage – and all of these guidelines are fair enough. They are all an approximation trying to estimate how public something is, and to iron out the difficulties of tracing the ownership of something that feels authorless like a meme. But again, going back to the ethic I adopt in this piece of work, something that’s put out and publicly available may not have been intentionally made so. So I brainstormed over a better method of engaging with the audience of the book, while also staying true to the intention and the ethic of the arguments I was trying to make.

Mack Hagood on his new book, Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control

Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control (Sign, Storage, Transmission) by [Hagood, Mack]

https://www.dukeupress.edu/hush

Interview by Jacob Smith

Jacob Smith: Hush offers a strikingly original take on the history of devices and practices that offer control over the sonic environment. As a framework for your analysis, you coin the terms “orphic media” and “empty media”: what are these?

Mack Hagood: In its narrowest sense, the concept of orphic media refers to the ways people use audio media to create a safe space for themselves. In Greek mythology, Orpheus saves the lives of the Argonauts by neutralizing the Sirens’ song with a song of his own, pacifying the treacherous environment of the Siren Strait. Over the past sixty years or so, a number of media devices that operate on this principle have arisen: bedside machines that generate white noise or nature sounds, commercial recordings and smartphone apps that do the same, wearable devices that counteract tinnitus, noise-canceling headphones, and others. All of these technologies fight sound with sound to control one’s environment, thereby allowing the user to control her own subjective state. If we think of these disparate technologies as the products of a single industry, it generates billions of dollars by promising control over how we feel, sleep, and concentrate. But up until now, we haven’t thought of orphic mediation as a media practice—and, in fact, we haven’t thought of most of these technologies as media at all, because they don’t have “content” in a traditional sense. They are “empty media” that challenge our scholarly and lay notions of media as technologies that inform, entertain, or transmit messages. In fact, these media aren’t meant to be paid attention to at all, which is what allows them to be so effective!

Now, this might seem to be simply a quirky and overlooked product category or a lacuna in the field of media studies, but I argue that it’s much more than that. In the book, I use these technologies as a way to explore the way listening has become difficult, painful, and even paranoid in the era of the attention economy, which equates the liberal subject with controlled attention while also flooding consciousness with voices, information, enticements, and distractions, undermining any possibility of self-control. This personal, sensory conflict fuels our politics of filter bubbles, right-wing echo chambers, campus safe spaces, and other contemporary controversies around listening. Studying listening is useful because a similar reactivity and even physiology are at work when we recoil from a sound we find uncomfortable and when we recoil from a social situation or even an idea that we find uncomfortable. So, in its widest sense, the concept of orphic media is about more than sound technologies. It claims that the most fundamental purpose of all media use is not to transmit information, but rather to navigate our affective relationship to our environment. And it’s the misguided ways we try to stay in control of that relationship that drive our current conflicts.

Jacob Smith: Your first chapter concerns the use of orphic media by the sufferers of tinnitus. What is distinctive about these practices in the broader terrain of orphic media? What methodological challenges did you face when writing this chapter?

Mack Hagood: In the course of studying orphic media, I quickly realized that people with buzzing, ringing, or other putative phantom sounds in the head or ears were among the most committed users of these technologies. During my ethnographic study of tinnitus and the roles that media play in its diagnosis and treatment, I came to understand just how high the stakes of orphic media use can be. Many of us experience tinnitus to some degree or from time to time and are relatively unbothered by it, but for a small minority of people, tinnitus is a deeply disturbing experience that interferes with personal relationships and the ability to work or enjoy life. And as an invisible disability, inaudible to others, tinnitus can often be met with skepticism and impatience. Loneliness, anxiety, and depression are strongly associated with suffering from tinnitus in this way.

By visiting audiology clinics, research centers, and tinnitus support groups, as well as volunteering with the American Tinnitus Association for a number of years, I met many people with tinnitus and learned a great deal about the nature of aural suffering. And, indeed, almost everyone I met used white noise or other orphic technologies either as digital folk remedies or as prescription media, under the guidance of an audiologist or other clinician. They used media as what Foucault called “technologies of the self” that help us bear the burdens of liberty, the requirement to be free of hindrances and limitations that a liberal society places upon us.

When you ask about methodological challenges, I think perhaps you are referring to my own struggle with tinnitus during my fieldwork, which I discuss in the book. Hush is based on my dissertation and shortly after my research proposal was approved by my Ph.D. committee, I accidentally overfilled a bicycle tire at a gas station and it burst right next to my left ear, leaving me with very loud tinnitus. I was quite upset by this and now I had to begin my fieldwork on the subject of tinnitus, interviewing people about it and thinking about it every day. It was really challenging and I found myself dealing with similar anxieties and depressive feelings as my interlocutors, which not only heightened my empathy for them, but also added a visceral, lived dimension to my analysis. It made me understand the intimate relationship between fear and control, the way that refusing to accept what wasn’t freely chosen only amplifies suffering and, conversely, the way that opening oneself up to sounds we didn’t choose can actually diminish our suffering. Truly, the only way I was able to stop suffering from tinnitus was to gradually accept that it was part of my body and my experience, whether I wanted it or not. In the end, my experience and study of tinnitus was the key to understanding the impetus for all orphic media and to formulating the critique that evaluating life only in terms of the freedom to choose actually instills more fear and suffering into life. Continue reading

Jennifer Robertson on her new book, Robo sapiens japanicus

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520283206/robo-sapiens-japanicus

Interview by Daniel White

Daniel White: In addition to the variety of topics you have explored in Japan over your career, you have been researching and writing on robotics for more than a decade now. Given your work has long been noted not only for its archival rigor and ethnographic attention to detail but also for its accessibility, could you outline how you might describe this book’s main arguments to an audience full of the many roboticists you have spoken with over the years? Would you add anything else in addressing your anthropology colleagues once the interlocutors had left the room?

 Jennifer Robertson: My address to roboticists would be the same with or without anthropologists in the room, for the reasons that my book is aimed at a broad readership inside and outside of “the academy,” and that—at the risk of appearing immodest—all parties, roboticists and anthropologists included, could benefit from my observations. A key point I make several times in Robo sapiens japanicus (RSJ) is that roboticists and anthropologists researching robotics alike must guard against contributing to hyping gee-whiz robots and to exaggerating the virtues (and vices) of artificial intelligence. With perhaps the exception of iRobot’s Roomba and industrial robots already installed in factories, most robots aimed at non-military consumers are one-off prototypes and not viable, much less reliable, products. Amazing robot videos are heavily edited and speeded up, and the scenarios do not represent real-world conditions and applications.

Just this past month, articles and editorials have appeared in leading robotics journals that provide a reality check for roboticists. To summarize: overselling robot capabilities has proved to be a dangerous strategy resulting in the very recent shutting down of a number of companies whose robots were celebrated in the past several years as revolutionary household appliances. Jibo—Time magazine’s “Best Inventions of 2017”—mentioned in my book, was crowd funded on Indiegogo (for nearly $4 million) but the eponymous company never delivered their product and closed out this year. Roboticists (and, I might add, those who research, study, and write about robots) need to admit their failures and to reflect on how to learn from them.

 Daniel White: In the book you explore how “robots tend to both mirror and embody state and corporate ideologies and priorities” (p. 82). Can you discuss some of the ways these state ideologies contribute to the gendering of robots, especially considering how Japanese roboticists have long embraced theories and design strategies that explore intelligence as a necessarily embodied phenomenon?

 Jennifer Robertson: You’re asking two different questions: state/corporate ideologies and embodied intelligence. First of all, we should not assume that technology per se is liberating; technology can provide certain freedoms, but it can also be experienced as repressive and even alarming. Technology and robotics are not neutral fields. They are infused with values that transcend their usefulness and convenience. Because robots are very complex, very expensive machines, state and corporate funding is crucial for their development, and thus robots tend both to mirror and to embody state and corporate values, ideologies, and priorities which are conservative and tend to reinforce the status quo. As a sidebar note—robotics in the US is heavily supported by the Department of Defense, and today in Japan, robotics are incorporated into the lucrative weapons economy.

Embodied intelligence, as I elaborate in my book, refers to a dynamic coupling of a robot with its environment. Home/personal robots are envisioned as co-existing with humans in spaces designed for the human body, thus they should resemble humans. Among roboticists across national/cultural areas, there is a consensus that intelligence (however that is defined, and there are many working definitions) cannot exist in an abstract form but requires a material body. That material body is almost always gendered, and the gendering of robots is contingent upon what role the robot (humanoid, in this case) is imagined to assume. Since many human roles are gendered, and since most roboticists take for granted the sexual and gendered division of labor—females as homemakers occupying a domestic space, males as breadwinners occupying a public space—their robots are also gendered from the start at the design stage. In short, roboticists (the vast majority of whom are males who have neither taken classes in gender studies nor questioned the social construction of gender) inscribe and reinforce in their creations the binary sexual and gender(ed) status quo that remains for them self-evident. Even gender-neutral robots like Roomba tend to be named and gendered by their owners.

 Daniel White: You survey a number of ways that both robotics engineers and government officials imagine harmonious futures of people living intimately with robots, a notion that strikes some people both inside and outside Japan as somewhat creepy. However, particularly in your analysis of Masahiro Mori’s famous notion of the “uncanny valley,” you suggest that people exhibit a capacity to adapt rather quickly to any “eerie” feelings they may initially feel toward a robot. Can you say more about Mori’s concept and what your reading of its temporal dimensions implies for the politics of human-robot interactions in Japan and perhaps beyond?

 Jennifer Robertson: As I explain in RSJ, what is uncanny about the “uncanny valley” is how this idea has been misunderstood! Mori came up with the idea of bukimi no tani (“eerie-feeling valley”) in 1970 before the production of humanoids. In a nutshell, he proposed that a woman (he deliberately chose a female protagonist) who shook someone’s hand not knowing it was a life-like myoelectric prosthetic, would scream and freak out once she realized that what she assumed was flesh and blood was not. Mori drew a graph that hypothesized as a “valley” the shock of realizing that something one was convinced was an ordinary human was actually an animated mannequin. Subsequently, “uncanny valley” emerged as a condition to avoid in designing robots and was also appropriated by literary critics who grafted the concept onto Freud’s thesis of the uncanny (about which Mori knew nothing). As I argue, even if said woman screamed upon squeezing a prosthetic hand, she would quickly recover—in seconds. We humans encounter differently-abled, “differently” appearing bodies all the time, and quickly adapt to an enhanced “normal.” Perhaps ironically, Mori, who was a teenager during WW2, seems to have forgotten the disabled veterans in his midst, many of whom were fitted with prosthetic limbs. The literature debunking the earlier “natural law”-like acceptance of the uncanny valley hypothesis is now quite extensive.

Daniel White: In the text you skillfully weave together histories of technology, the life sciences, and art in illustrating how the boundaries between artificial and “natural” life in Japan are differently drawn. For example, in your discussion of the biologist Makoto Nishimura’s famous “proto-robot” Gakutensoku in 1928, you suggest that many scientists in Japan have long held the attitude that robots and humans exist “in a network of animate entities” (p. 13). This point seems critical to your broader discussion on how cutting-edge technologies can actually serve in the reproduction of tradition. I wonder, then, what happens to this particular cultural attitude as it comes into contact with certain globalizing aspects of robotics research and design in Japan, especially as researchers in Japan increasingly collaborate with students and researchers from abroad?

 Jennifer Robertson: Should “something” happen? The spiritual/existential orientations of individual roboticists, from Shintō’s animism and Buddhism’s moral system, to the Abrahamic monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, do not seem to affect the ways in which they collaborate in the laboratory. What inhibit “global” intersections and synergies are the constraints imposed by, to use an ever relevant phrase, the military industrial complex (aka the state). Moreover, collaboration with non-Japanese researchers (in Japanese and foreign laboratories) can yield innovations that can be applied and adapted to Japan-specific conditions and needs.

 Daniel White: Your ethnographic writing style has been incredibly consistent over the years, characterized, as you describe, by a “reticulate aesthetics” that is “eclectic, genre-crossing, discipline-crossing,” and held together by a coherence that “comes from the interlaced elements and not via the superimposition of a particular theoretical edifice” (p. 31). Given your own training in art and art history, as well as your illustration of how roboticists integrate artistic elements from manga, anime, and theater into their own design practices, were you ever tempted to experiment in terms of ethnographic design, such as by incorporating some of your own artwork? Could you discuss what role you see for artistic experimentation in today’s practices of ethnographic writing and the communication of anthropological research?  

 Jennifer Robertson: I see myself as creative in identifying and demonstrating montage-like linkages that generate a new awareness or interpretation of events and socio-cultural phenomena. That I am able to do so is because I have accessed and amassed over decades of rigorous, interdisciplinary research, lots of ethnographic, historical, literary, image-based, and musical data and media that are instrumental in crafting comprehensive backstories and generating manifold “dots” to connect. Among these data and media are artworks that evocatively address and redress the role(s) of technology in society. Thus, in RSJ, I refer to the work of Japanese feminist artist Miwa Yanagi (specifically, her photography series Elevator Girls, 1994-1999) and Korean-American artist Nam June Paik’s Robot K-456 (1964-1982). I do not simply include artworks as self-evident or as mere illustrations, but as a non-textual mode of interrogating, in this case, social applications of robotics and human-robot interactions. I did include one of my own collages in a recent article (“Looking Ahead by Going Back.” Anthropology News website, July 18, 2018) to illustrate Prime Minister Abe’s imagination of the future Japanese extended family, including its robot members. The bottom line for me (or my “approach”) is my fiduciary responsibilities as a scholar. I have always initiated a research project based on my experience or fathoming of rhetorical, expressive, local dynamics that intersect in ways to form distinctive patterns which inform the structure and content of a book or article. I do believe that there is a lot more that anthropologists can do to experiment with various literary strategies in crafting their ethnographies to create more dimensionality and texture in their description and (re)presentation of local phenomena. These include montage—my own use of which was informed by John Dos Passos, whose U.S.A. trilogy (1938) I read while writing my doctoral dissertation—as well as various typefaces and fonts, popular lyrics, and a variety of images from which information is extracted, to name a few. Reading more literature and less social science is critical in learning how to craft an ethnography!

 Jennifer Robertson is Professor of Anthropology and the History of Art at the University of Michigan. Robo sapiens japanicus is available from the University of California Press.

Katherine Verdery on her book, My Life as a Spy

https://www.dukeupress.edu/my-life-as-a-spy

Interview by Tim Gitzen

Tim Gitzen: You describe this book—and the process of reading your police file and writing the book—as part memoir. This is evident even in the title, My Life as a Spy. Can you unpack this title a bit more by way of introducing your book to our readers?

Katherine Verdery: The title came to me right after I began to read my file, and it stayed until the very end.  Most of my other book titles have had more than one iteration.  Originally I had “Spy” in quotation marks, but the press preferred it without.  That’s a significant change, since the quote marks made it clear that I was standing aside from that description even as I wrote it, but their argument was that it would make more interesting to leave open the question of whether or not I was “actually” a spy, helping to draw the reader along.

Tim Gitzen: One of the most striking aspects of the book is your incredible attention to detail, and I think much of that is owed to your impressive fieldnotes. From an archival standpoint, I’m interested in your fieldnote-taking and storing process, but I also want to ask about why you decided to write the book the way you did. Here I’m thinking about not only the structure of the book but also how you write each chapter, carefully weaving the police file, your fieldnotes from that time, narrative, and analysis together.

Katherine Verdery: The structure changed several times.  Initially it was in 3 parts with a Prologue and Epilogue: Fieldwork under Surveillance I, 1970s; Fieldwork under Surveillance II, 1980s; and Inside the Mechanisms of Surveillance.  Then I added the “Excursus” before Part III, to record some of my reactions to reading the file, but that left an awkward structure, so I put 1 and 2 into a new Part I (Research under Surveillance), divided the final chapter into two and made them Part II (Inside the Mechanisms of Surveillance), and separated the new Parts with the Excursus.  This gave it a symmetrical structure that I liked, a structure that also reflected my experience through time.

As for weaving the various bits of each chapter together (each one containing interviews, field notes, narrative, analysis, and parts of the file itself), I wanted the experience of reading it to be somewhat like my own process of doing it as a research project: you get bits from the file, it’s paired with narrative contextualization in the time of reading that file, then increasingly with analysis.  In a way, I wrote it to defy the organization of the file itself, which was chaotic and non-chronological.  The way I put things together helped me relate better to the self that was in that file.

When I was doing fieldwork in the 1970s and 1980s, I kept detailed fieldnotes—initially handwritten, then typed—and when I was working on the book I also kept more summary notes of the conversations I had with people.  Unlike my usual fieldnotes, these are dashed off by hand and unindexed, and whereas my usual fieldnotes are typed, used pseudonyms for people, were written in a kind of shorthand, and exist sometimes as a computer file, these final notes are scattered, handwritten, and pretty illegible.  Since the officers seem to have had little difficulty in deciphering my shorthand, I cannot claim that my actual field notes are well protected.  I will probably destroy the notes from this last “research” (2008-2016).

Tim Gitzen: You talk about the mixture of feelings and thoughts you had about confronting or seeking out informants from the file and even some of the Securitate officers. You mention how determined you were to talk to them about their experiences, part investigation but also part cathartic. Can you say more about this experience and your strategies for seeking these individuals out and writing about what they had to say?

Katherine Verdery: First, let me respond to your word “strategies.”  This project took on a life of its own.  It did not begin with a research proposal for funding: it began with my being handed this mass of paper about which I knew absolutely nothing.  I did not “plan” this project, and “strategy” becomes an appropriate word only for my efforts to find the three officers I met at the end.  Much of the time I was just feeling my way.

The two principal informers I interviewed were opposite in that one had already revealed her informing to me even before I had the file, whereas it took me a long time to figure out the other.  With the first one, our conversations helped us to re-experience those moments in our friendship but also to show me what effects her encounters with the police had had on her.  I think her aim in agreeing to talk about it was to exculpate herself as much as possible while still being believable and showing what the whole experience was like for her.  Even now, she cannot think of herself as an informer.

With the second informer, my motivations were somewhat different.  I found myself furious with him as I read his notes—so intrusive, so revelatory, so contrary to the spirit of what I thought our relationship was about.  Basically, I wanted to tell him off.  But I forced myself to start the conversation in a neutral mode, and it quickly became interesting as he described the process of his recruitment and his ambivalent relation to the officer he served.  When we finished, we both felt huge relief—he because he had been able to explain himself and apologize, I because his account was very illuminating and I was grateful for the length of time he took with me.

I should note that I did not tape record either interview but took notes by hand as we spoke.  The idea of tape recording was still too sensitive for people raised in that society.

Tim Gitzen: Perhaps one of the more surprising parts of the book is your candid discussion of sex and sexuality during fieldwork and how this was being monitored and even leveraged by the Securitate. In this era of the Me Too movement, I was hoping you could speak more to your strategy in writing and including these discussions in the book, the choices you made and reasons for making them.

Katherine Verdery: Here the word “strategy” is appropriate.  Reading my file, I realized how unbelievably irresponsible I had been in the use of my body, and as the book progressed I began to see it as possibly a book about research methodology.  Precisely because such works rarely talk about sex in the field, I thought it might be useful for students to hear what choices I made and why they were mainly a bad idea.  It’s too easy for young people heading off to the field to put their sexual behavior in some compartment other than that of their work, yet it can have significant effects on the people who become implicated in it.  So my reason for including that stuff was pedagogical.  At this point in my life, I don’t have to maintain my dignity any more, so I thought I might just try to be useful to future researchers.  But to the extent that I also saw this book as a record of my experiences in the field, that material was quite important to them.

Tim Gitzen: Throughout the book you allude to resonances the Securitate practices and your experiences have with contemporary security and surveillance practices. What are some of those connections? How do the logics, practices, and experiences you describe in your book speak to the broader security/surveillance-assemblage today? And what advice would you give those either working on topics of surveillance or faced with the possibility of their own secret police file?

Katherine Verdery: The resemblances are not particularly strong, if you think of Securitate surveillance practices as mainly “labor intensive,” whereas what we are experiencing now are “capital-“ or “technology intensive.”  The former relies on making tremendous use of human relationships, the latter does not.  It is a significant difference.  I think the logics and the costs of the two styles are highly divergent.  The main thing my experience shares with today’s is that both means of surveillance produce a much greater amount of information than can be meaningfully mined—more so in the case of high-tech surveillance.  It’s the only thing that keeps me from wanting to slit my wrists.

As for people facing their own secret police file, one of the people I quote in my book is a Romanian historian, Radu Ioanid, who writes, “I don’t advise anyone to confront their Securitate file. It is an absolutely personal decision, difficult and not without consequences.  For me, at least, reading my file was traumatic.”  I can say from experience that a person standing on the threshold of reading their surveillance file has absolutely no clue what it will do to them.  This book took me longer to write than any of the other seven books I’ve published, because arriving at a sense of clarity was so hard-won.  Anyone thinking of doing this should read my book first!