Falina Enriquez discusses her new book, The Costs of the Gig Economy

Interview by Owen Kohl


Owen Kohl: Let’s start with the powerful title. Can you briefly describe the gig economy in question?

And if I could add a couple of related follow-ups: How does entrepreneurial and precarious project-based work exact costs on contemporary Brazilian artists and musicians? Are there insights that you gained in this distinct context that illuminated what you’ve seen elsewhere in related neoliberal gig economies, e.g., among adjunct professors?

Falina Enriquez: Thank you for these questions and for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to have my book included on the CaMP blog. The title is a great place to start.  The gig economy is, in some ways, particular to Recife and Brazil but in other ways, it’s relatable to those of us who are increasingly part of—or familiar with—the informal and/or temporary employment, lack of benefits, and emphasis on entrepreneurship that gig economy labor entails.

What’s particular about the gig economy in my case study is how strongly it was influenced by multiculturalism in the 2000s both in Pernambuco and in Brazil, more generally. Multiculturalism became part of federal and state-level efforts to democratize political participation, bureaucracy, cultural production, education, and other domains while also becoming part of how Brazil was branding itself domestically and to global audiences.

In Pernambuco, Recife’s municipal government began to brand the city as a multicultural place in the early 2000s and the state government strengthened these efforts, especially after 2007. The comparison of musical practices and sponsorship that I undertake in the book, however, reveals that this push for multiculturalism didn’t really democratize as much as it was supposed to. Instead, it intensified neoliberal economic policies and ideologies. The state government created a new grant-based system of sponsorship [called an edital] for artists and musicians to apply for funding. In the past, if you wanted to perform at Carnival, for example, you had to appeal to a bureaucrat or politician who had clout at a state institution in order for them to appoint or recommend you. But with multiculturalism and the bureaucratization that followed, the system ostensibly became more democratic because anyone could apply regardless of their connections to powerful people. This was more inclusive than before, and it brought more people into the scope of state sponsorship.

At the same time, musicians now had to comply with more demanding standards. They had to be more professional and entrepreneurial in order to stand out among hundreds of other applicants and to show that they could contribute to what was becoming a multicultural economy in Recife and Pernambuco. This economy boosted opportunities for musicians because there were more events where they could perform and more sponsorship [funds] to go around. But in order to take advantage of these opportunities, they had to change their modus operandi.

Musicians accustomed to getting gigs based on word of mouth and peer connections now also had to consider things like: “How am I going to write an application that describes my band in a way that will appeal to state sponsorship committees?” This alone is a demanding task. Most of the musicians I know in Recife don’t generally train to write grants while they also learn to master their instruments. Grants are also a very specialized genre that can be challenging even for people who are highly educated on formal university pathways. Many of my middle-class interlocutors don’t have university degrees and that’s even rarer among my working-class interlocutors, especially those who are elderly.

In summary, then, for musicians in Recife the emergence of the gig economy encompassed a combination of new opportunities and limitations. I think that this is also comprehensible on a broader scale. Neoliberal policies and ideologies related to entrepreneurship present some affordances and flexibility, but as other anthropologists like Ilana Gershon have also discussed, these conditions create tensions and paradoxes that affect ideas of selfhood and other more practical conditions. For example, flexibility in the sense that you aren’t permanently beholden to one company can mean more autonomy, but it also requires laborers to acquire more skills and broaden their networks in order to attract clients and make more money. Not everyone has uniform access to the kinds of resources—both financial and social—to accomplish this.

Similarly, and this is likely something fellow academics can relate to, the popularization and intensification of the gig economy and its related ideologies means that it’s harder to separate leisure time and work time. We have technologies like Zoom that enable us to work from various locations and at various times, but this also means that we are expected to be constantly productive. Among my interlocutors, this has surfaced in the increasing importance of establishing a social media presence across platforms in order to maintain and expand one’s audience. This also requires learning new skills and often, relying on other kinds of professionals like promoters to help. The book sheds light on how being a musical entrepreneur in Recife—as for other entrepreneurs around the world—means having to constantly maintain one’s productivity and expand one’s sphere of influence, so to speak.

This comes with costs like a lack of work/life balance, the production and reproduction of overlapping social inequalities, and a sense of anxiety that comes with financial insecurity, professional instability, precarity, and the need to be in survival mode. These conditions were already present in Recife in 2010 but they have become even more relevant for local musicians since 2015 due to Brazil’s recent and political crises, which have expanded neoliberal policies and ideologies.

Owen Kohl: Musical cosmopolitanism is another valuable theme that you develop. How did you see cosmopolitanism at play in the symbolic connections that artists were making across styles, continents, and eras of Brazilian history?

Falina Enriquez: Cosmopolitanism has been addressed by many scholars, but what I liked about the concept is that it fit how my interlocutors were talking about their music. They understood themselves as bridging gaps between places and people via their music.

So, for example, one of the bands that I worked with, A Roda, thought of themselves and explicitly marketed themselves as “genuinely Pernambucan.” And in many cases, they weren’t just focusing on their connection to Pernambuco, but to the historic neighborhood of Olinda, which is a city within Recife’s metropolitan area. And they pointed out how their music was informed by—and spoke to—that locality. So, they situated themselves in an extremely specific, local way. At the same time, they would describe themselves as being “the same” as Afrobeat band-influenced bands in Brooklyn like Antibalas and the Menahan Street Band that they were aware of, but none of them had ever been to Brooklyn, none of them knew these bands personally. When I would ask them to compare what bands they were most like, they wouldn’t mention their peers in Recife, in Pernambuco, or even in Brazil, which had similar sounds. Instead, they were citing these Brooklyn bands. I see the kinds of stances [that A Roda’s members took] as important aspects of their rooted cosmopolitanism. Just because they saw themselves or heard themselves as being similar to Afrobeat bands in Brooklyn, by no means did they abandon their localness. In fact, these two localities–and their aesthetic dimensions–were in perfect synchrony for them.

As a metaphor, rooted cosmopolitanism reflects how these musicians feel connected or rooted to a specific place and sensibility while also creating material and symbolic branches that link disparate and distant places and sounds. None of this means that they’re also surpassing or transcending the kinds of power dynamics that influence their lives, however. And contrary to other scholars that sometimes celebrate cosmopolitanism as a set of practices that let people transcend boundaries and identities, in this case, I’m using rooted cosmopolitanism and cosmopolitanism, more generally, to try to pinpoint the power relations that enable my interlocutors’ practices.

These power relations—and how they relate to the costs of the gig economy–are audible when you compare bands across genres and demographics. In drawing on Afrobeat music and adopting entrepreneurial practices, middle-class bands like A Roda don’t lose prestige, they gain it.

But working-class groups that play traditional music can’t do that, they can’t experiment to the same degree. They also often lack the resources to uphold the increasingly high standards of professionalism that entrepreneurial ideologies are making normative. They’re held responsible by state agencies who often are the only source of funding they have, by middle class listeners, and by other kinds of people in power to uphold tradition, and to therefore limit their experimentation while nonetheless being pushed to become more entrepreneurial. Yet, traditional groups like Maracatu Nação Cambinda Estrela, are nevertheless creating their own rooted cosmopolitanism. They perform maracatu, which has been part of Recife’s sonic landscape since at least the 19th century and are therefore part of a very localized phenomenon. At the same time, this group poetically and politically invokes pan-Africanist ideologies and Latin American forms of leftist activism, thereby recontextualizing maracatu to claim a sense of belonging to much broader regional and global movements.

Owen Kohl: Turning to a subdisciplinary interest: How does attention to issues of scale illuminate contemporary music practices and politics in Brazil?

Falina Enriquez: I drew from linguistic anthropological approaches to scale, scale-making, or scaling as they also call it, because they helped me interpret what my interlocutors are, in part, achieving through their rooted cosmopolitan practices. Scaling is a way to describe how my interlocutors are creating senses of belonging and socio-aesthetic hierarchies through their musical and metamusical practices. They make sonic connections to places, people, and time periods, and in the process imagine their world and their place(s) within it. Scale, in this sense, is both quantitative and qualitative, it is not solely spatial.

Like rooted cosmopolitanism, in the book, scale serves as both a theory and a metaphor that I use to compare different actors across the music scenes that I examine. My interlocutors, for example, musically–and otherwise–express their relationships to other kinds of past and present music from Brazil and elsewhere. And sometimes that scaling happens in qualitative terms. Musicians compare themselves—and others compare them—to other musicians and musical movements. When band members make comments that their music is better, worse, or similar to other bands, they are creating evaluative scales. This is also what’s happening when they’re claiming that their music is more or less locally rooted than other genres or styles. Such processes influence—and are influenced by–the structures of power in which they’re embedded and their access to material things like state sponsorship. So, for example, in an application for state funding if a band can show via their music, their written narratives, and other textual materials that they are as good or better than existing high-prestige bands, then they’re more likely to get sponsorship. Their ability to show this, however, is often dependent on their level of education and familiarity with the genre of grant applications, or their social and financial ability to acquire help from promoters and managers that can help them with these applications.

I employ scale and scaling in other ways throughout the book too. I draw from Arlene Dávila’s idea of upscaling [from Culture Works (2012)] to analyze how governmental and commercial actors were trying to use multiculturalism to make Recife more upscale. They wanted to make the city seem more prestigious, more cosmopolitan, and more appealing to outsiders, especially tourists from southeastern Brazil and the Global North. This kind of upscaling describes neoliberal development projects, but I also combine it with a linguistic anthropological sensibility to show how these economic developments are semiotically communicated and constructed. Governmental discourses about multiculturalism and the staging of specific kinds of musical genres at multicultural, spectacular events like Carnival make Recife into a more upscale place because they reveal its actual and potential value as a commodity. This upscaling relates to my argument that musical entrepreneurship and its intensification in Recife and Pernambuco are evidence of the kinds of encroachments, as some scholars call it, or economizations, as Wendy Brown calls it, which exacerbate the influence of market logics on all parts of our lives.

Owen Kohl: One powerful aspect of the book is your treatment of race and class as entangled aspects of musical performance. Obviously your focus is on neoliberalizing Brazil, but I think your semiotic analysis is applicable far beyond. This comes through in rich ethnographic descriptions, for example, of when government sponsors are reviewing musicians for Carnival.

Could you explain to your audience how you think about how best to capture the unfolding interconnections of race, class, and music in contemporary Brazil?

Falina Enriquez: Yeah, that’s a really complex question because it touches on all of Brazil’s history, essentially. But in terms of the book, what I wanted to reflect was the instability and mobility of race, class, and music in the kinds of unfolding events that I was experiencing. Yes, race, class, and music are definitely entangled. But that entanglement and the kinds of mobility to which I’m referring doesn’t mean that it’s a free-for-all because there are moments when the regimentation of race, class, and music becomes really clear. This issue, I believe, is relevant to many of us who are interested in teasing out the tense and contingent relations between structures of power and how they are artistically and otherwise expressed.

So, for example, the band, A Roda, draws on Afrobeat. They also cite R&B from the US and gesture towards classic Brazilian genres like bossa nova and samba, for example. They incorporate other sounds too, including drumming styles that are associated with the religious practice of Xangô [a.k.a. Candomblé]. In other words, the band plays with–and indexes–Blackness in many ways. And yet, as a whole, and mostly as individuals, the members of A Roda do not identify as Black. Nevertheless, they’re still able to play with racially marked musical elements and gain sponsorship and some prestige because they do it in a way that satisfies middle class norms and expectations.  When a middle-class band like A Roda applies for a grant from the state, they are going to be judged [by the committee evaluating them] very differently than a band that’s taking on a much more explicitly politicized Black sound like reggae, for example.

Meanwhile other bands who applied for state sponsorship and were usually ranked very low or were even disqualified by the evaluating committee often had a much more racialized, working-class kind of self-presentation. For example, some of these bands adopted visible stylistic features of U.S. hip hop, like sunglasses and baseball caps, and sounds drawing from racialized Caribbean styles, like merengue, which prompted [state sponsorship] committee members to hear that band’s music as unfit for state sponsorship. The racialization of such bands was implicitly compounded if most of their members were relatively dark-skinned. In theory, therefore, one can play with musical elements endlessly, but these elements get stabilized and standardized in relation to race and class by powerful actors. The specific interests and sensibilities of middle-class bureaucrats lead them to evaluate musicians in explicit racial and/or class-based terms. These are revealed in judgments they made during discussions about who and what sounds will be best to feature at Carnival and why.

Andrea Leone-Pizzighella on her book Discourses of Student Success

Interview by Clara Miller-Broomfield


Clara Miller-Broomfield: What led you to choose Cittadina, Umbria as the setting for your fieldwork on discourses of student success in Italian secondary schools?

Andrea Leone-Pizzighella: I chose Cittadina for a few different reasons. First and foremost, I had already established contacts there through a teacher network I was part of several years prior, and I had also done a very brief exploratory study in the schools of Cittadina (focused on the use of dialect in the classroom). Those two elements made my entry much easier than if I had needed to cold-call schools and drum up interested participants. In my experience, no matter where in the world you go as a researcher, it takes an immense amount of time, finesse, and—maybe more than anything else—luck to gain access to a school community (not to mention to three schools, as was the case with my research). I wanted to enter the schools as a researcher and not “sneak in” under the guise of English teacher, which would have undoubtedly eased my entry into the schools, but I would have also then taken on a role that isn’t conducive to the type of research I wanted to do.

Another reason for choosing Cittadina was for its manageable size and affordable cost of living. I left my husband, dog, house, and car in the U.S. while I was doing this research, and was still paying for life in the U.S. while I was doing fieldwork, so I couldn’t afford to spend tons of extra money or excessive time gathering data. I needed to be able to reach the research sites on foot, not be at the mercy of public transportation, and I needed to manage my time well in order to stay on track with my timeline, which was a single academic year. Organizationally, the small (but not too small) size of the city meant that it offered all school options (lyceum, technical, and vocational), but in a contained format, which was perfect. All of the technical subjects were housed in one building, all of the classical subjects in another, and all vocational subjects in another. A smaller city would not have offered all types of secondary school, and a larger city might have had five schools just for the technical subjects, another five for the classical subjects, and so on, which would have made it a nightmare to organize fieldwork. The size of Cittadina and the relatively central location of all the schools made it so that I wasn’t spending half of my day commuting to and from the sites, that I could track people down for interviews with relative ease, and that I had time, energy, and space for working through my data in the evenings.

The third reason I chose Cittadina was because the regional variety spoken there belongs to the family of varieties that is, for me, easiest to understand. I by no means consider myself a speaker of Cittadinese but I was able to understand much of it in a passive sense after a few weeks of exposure to it; Central Italian varieties often resemble Standard Italian enough that it’s not too complicated to identify patterns quickly. (I once heard Guadalupe Valdes refer to this phenomenon of mutual intelligibility as “a one- or two-day language,” which she herself experienced – if I remember correctly— as a Spanish speaker in Venice, where she noticed that there was quite a bit of lexical overlap between Venetian and Spanish.) I also had contacts in a few other cities, but some of these cities were either too big or too expensive to manage for a lone researcher on a PhD stipend, and some cities have a regional variety is not as mutually intelligible (for me, at least) with the variety of Italian that I speak. Cittadina ended up working out really well!

Clara Miller-Broomfield: You mention that the tripartite division of secondary education in Italy creates an inherently unequal system, despite the government’s best intentions to the contrary. How do you think your findings might have differed if you had carried out this research in the United States, where such a rigid division of secondary education does not exist?

Andrea Leone-Pizzighella: As an American student/teacher/researcher in Italy, I have been pondering the pros and cons of the U.S. system and the Italian system for about a decade and I still don’t have a clear-cut statement to provide about my point of view on their differences. Honestly, even though there isn’t often a rigid or physical division (such as a wall) between high school interest groups and student types in the United States, we’re fooling ourselves if we think that students aren’t divided at all – of course they are. We know that the (pseudo)gerrymandering of school districts and their associated very unequal funding sources (especially property taxes) mean that schools in neighboring districts may have vastly different resources and vastly different student bodies. This leads to the same outcome as we see in Italy of some schools being labeled good and others bad. Even looking at a single school in a given neighborhood in the U.S., there are school-internal divisions amongst the students because of streamed or tracked education. This division of students by ability level is the norm in the U.S., and I think some of the effects of this system are very similar to the effects of the Italian system (for example, labeling students as gifted or remedial). What I think is potentially positive however, about the U.S. system of having all of the students from a given area in the same school, is that they can be in the math class labelled gifted but in the writing class labelled remedial, and they can also experiment with lots of different elective subjects as well (IT, art, music, woodshop, psychology, ceramic, Latin, and so on). They don’t need to decide that they are a certain type in terms of their disciplinary interests until their final year of high school, and even then, there is still some wiggle room. There are exceptions, though, especially in large cities, which sometimes follow a model that resembles Italy a bit more (for example, the performing arts high school, the science high school, the Latin school, and so on). I am of course biased, but I tend to think that the focus on general education and the ability to take lots of electives is a very positive aspect of the U.S. school system.

However, to answer your question, I think that I might have found many similarities, but some important differences. One of those differences would have likely been the timeline of student identity formation. Few U.S. students need to decide in middle school what type of career they would like to pursue, unless they are headed toward a trade school. The types of divisions in Italian schools that are already apparent in the first year of upper secondary school might not appear until much later in U.S. high schools (for those following the general education model). Whether this is positive, negative, or neutral, I’m not sure, but I have the feeling that that aspect would have been much different in a U.S.-based study. The other difference I would have expected to see is in regard to the student-student and the student-teacher dynamic. Students in the U.S. often go to many different classrooms a day, and they sometimes have different classmates from one lesson to the next. This means that there is no class unit, as there is in Italian secondary schools where 20-25 students are in a classroom together all day, every day, for every subject, for five years. On the one hand, milling around to all of these different classrooms every day gives a U.S. student perhaps more options and flexibility in terms of self-presentation and identity work, whereas Italian students’ identities might solidify more quickly and stay that way for years. On the other hand, the U.S. model might leave more room for isolation and competition than the Italian model which appeared to favor cooperation and groupness, but there are positive and negative aspects to both sides of the coin here as well.

Clara Miller-Broomfield: I was struck by the fact that many of the specializations offered by vocational schools and technical institutes are associated by outsiders with a positive, even prestigious image of Italy (for example, fashion systems; tourism; food, wine and hospitality; the ‘Made in Italy’ label). During your fieldwork, with the 3Moda class in particular, did you notice an awareness from students and/or teachers of this fact despite the generally negative perception of these schools in popular discourse?

Andrea Leone-Pizzighella: The teachers are definitely aware of what it means to be in the world of fashion, since all of the discipline-specific subject teachers had spent at least a few years trying to make it in that world themselves. I think that nearly all of them (in the specific case of the 3Moda’s fashion teachers) turned to teaching when they had children because the world of fashion was either too competitive or too unstable for raising a family. In their role as teachers, they did whatever they could to leverage their professional networks for educational purposes (finding internship placements for the students, inviting guests who led workshops for the students at school, and sharing anecdotes from what they considered real life fashion work). The 3Moda students were probably less aware of what it meant to choose a career in this industry, but I noticed that some of the students came back transformed and humbled after their two-week internships where they were actually put to work on the floor of a shop (measuring, cutting, sewing), and seeing that it’s really important to get right all of the supposed minutia from class. I think that for a potentially myopic 16-year old, this has a big impact on their approach to their studies and their ability to imagine themselves as part of the fashion system, but reality inevitably hit them after graduation when the time came to market their skills and look for jobs. Not all of them graduated and not all of them have managed to break into the fashion industry.

Just as a side note, I think that the worlds of wine, tourism, and fashion are often romanticized by outsiders because their finished products are usually luxury goods, especially when marketed to non-Italians. What I think is important to highlight, though, is that the vocational school graduates are often on the shop floor in these industries and are not often customer-facing or in a managerial role. They can of course be in these roles, but this requires extra skill development on their part; I wouldn’t say that the vocational school equips them with these skills necessarily. Anthony Bourdain’s famous New Yorker article about Les Halles in New York City comes to mind: behind the elegance and glamour of one of the top-rated restaurants in one of the world’s major culinary cities lies a whole world of blue collar specializations like fry cook, butcher, porter, dishwasher. The reward for doing these jobs flawlessly is often simply… not getting fired. A lot of that type of work is thankless and disconnected from the finished product. The worlds of fashion, wine, and tourism are the same: the people who are doing the dirty and dangerous jobs like operating heavy machinery (for example, fabric presses, tractors, buses) are not the first who come to mind when we think of these industries, but they are an integral part of them despite not being able to afford to indulge in the finished products that they, themselves, are helping to create. For instance, one former student from the 3Moda works for a fashion house whose least expensive scarf is listed at 530 euros: what she earns in about half a month of work.

Clara Miller-Broomfield: You point out that the questione della lingua or “language issue” looms large in everyday discourse in Italy, and that the country’s many regional varieties or dialects are associated with technical and vocational schooling while Standard Italian is associated with the more prestigious lyceum. Do you believe that this perception could be altered by teaching these regional varieties in schools, as is done to some extent in other European countries (such as France and Spain)?

Andrea Leone-Pizzighella: This is a great question, and one that is very hard to answer. While I do indeed say this in the book (about dialect being more associated with vocational/technical students than with lyceum students), I think I should clarify here that this observation is based on my own experiences. I am sure that there are many parts of Italy where this is not the case at all, but in the three parts of Italy where I have spent the most time (Rome, Cittadina, and Verona), I have both observed this phenomenon firsthand and heard about it from contacts and friends in those areas. Every province, region, city, and neighborhood have their own very specific histories, politics, and associated language ideologies, so I can’t make sweeping claims about any realities outside of the ones I have experienced myself. Of course, many countries have undertaken very intensive language revitalization and revalorization efforts and have been, by many measures, extremely successful. However, the reasons why Galician or Catalan are taught in Spain, or why Occitan or Alsatian are taught in France, are rooted in different histories and are motivated by different causes. A few years ago, Sabina Perrino and I put together a special issue for Multilingua that lays out some of the issues with language revitalization efforts in Italy and in Europe more broadly; a lot of the work in that publication speaks directly to this issue and will paint a clearer picture of European language politics for anyone interested in this topic.

However, I’ll go out on a limb and say that teaching regional varieties in schools in Italy would probably not alter their overall standing because it would require them to be so standardized and sterilized that the end product deemed teachable enough for school would probably resemble only somewhat the way that people actually speak. A standardized orthography would need to be decided, as well as a shared pan-regional lexicon and a pan-regional pronunciation. In some regions this might be more straightforward than others, but this presents major problems for many regional varieties because so many city-specific lexical or phonological particularities would need to be erased in order to standardize the dialect on a broad enough scale that it would gain recognition as a supposedly real language. This is all a gross oversimplication, but let’s just say that I am very skeptical as to whether this would help to legitimize the ways that people actually use dialect in schools! It would essentially require inventing a new version of the regional language which, if adopted by institutions like schools, would simply risk alienating speakers of dialect considered untrained and erasing hyperlocal varieties in favor of the invented school-approved one. That said, I think teachers should nonetheless encourage students to leverage any and all of the languages they know in order to facilitate their learning, and that all languages should be treated as resources rather than as hurdles to overcome. This can, of course, be done by a single teacher without the accompaniment of a major language revalorization effort.

Clara Miller-Broomfield: As a linguistic ethnography of education, this book does an excellent job of bridging the gaps between linguistics, education studies and anthropology. If you had to explain the importance of this work to a linguist or discourse analyst without much background in anthropology, what would you say?

Andrea Leone-Pizzighella: Thank you! I think that the linguistic elements and the anthropological elements in this book really lean on and rely on each other for meaning making, but that’s not to say that you need to be an anthropologist in order to understand its significance. In fact, I think the book’s interdisciplinary framework makes it accessible to many students and scholars who work within and across any of the many fields related to education studies, education policy, cultural/linguistic anthropology, (socio)linguistics, and language policy—at least I hope it does! Applied linguists who study what I call “big L” languages in the book might be interested in the discourse that surrounds the teaching and use of these big-L languages in schools, as well as what draws people to pursue particular educational paths. Discourse analysts will likewise hopefully appreciate the book’s look at the many styles and layers of talk in the three different classrooms, whether they are interested in class stratification, didactics, youth language, or how broad societal values filter into conversations between students. There is plenty of small-D discourse and plenty of big-D Discourses (in James Gee’s sense) to analyze in this book, many of which I only hint at. In sum, I would tell anyone generally interested in linguistics, sociolinguistics, or other related fields that this book uses language as its lens in that it looks at ideologies about personhood through the lens of broadly circulating discourses, focusing on the role that words and speech play in constructing, maintaining, and undoing our social worlds.

Chihab El Khachab on his book, Making Film in Egypt

Interview by Meg Morley


Meg Morley: How do/would you explain the central arguments of your book to the film industry personnel with whom you worked?

Chihab El Khachab: There are some arguments about which I already talked with film personnel during and after fieldwork because they were well aware of their dynamics. In particular, we talked a lot about interpersonal relations and labour hierarchies, and how both could negatively affect one’s trajectory within the industry. I’ve had this conversation with directors as well as lighting technicians, clappers, video-assist workers, and so on. I don’t recall discussing the arguments about technology or the distinction between uncertainty and imponderability. What I would tell my interlocutors, however, is that I’m not just interested in documenting the objective constraints on their work – how much money they make, how many hours they work, what kind of tasks they execute – but also in analysing how they take charge of a process as taxing and unpredictable as filmmaking despite these constraints.

What I noticed during fieldwork is that, while filmmakers were always worried about what would happen to their film next, and whether they had the right people and tools to deal with it, they ultimately managed to get through the muddle by using certain working conventions, certain hierarchies, and certain digital technologies in a way which is rarely articulated verbally. This is important because, if this core argument were to become explicit, it would highlight the extent to which the film cannot just be made by a few workers recognized in the first few credits on screen, but in a real sense, it is the outcome of collective labour to overcome everyday failures and uncertainties in the course of production.

Meg Morley: As with any ethnography, there are a number of apparent theoretical roads not taken; to me the most apparent were the neoliberal labor practices of the film industry (for example, workers are expected to always be available and sometimes own/use their own equipment) and the classism of labor hierarchies, imagined audiences, etc. Why did you decide to focus on process, technology, and future rather than other potential options?

Chihab El Khachab: On privileging process and technology, I would say two things. First, it is a matter of narrative structure: I think that the story of the book is better told as a series of anticipations which mirror, in a way, the daily anticipations of filmmakers themselves. The overarching process of the book echoes the process of filmmaking as I have experienced it. Second, the theoretical neglect of everyday technologies and everyday orientations to the future is, I think, an important reason to centre them in the book, precisely because they are so vital to the lived experience of filmmaking. Film production cannot exist without these technological uses and future-orientations, and yet, many ethnographies of film production neglect these dimensions. To put it crudely, I wasn’t interested in writing an ethnography of neoliberalism or class disguised as an ethnography of film production, but rather, I wanted to centre the actual workers that I’ve met and the experiences that I’ve had within the book’s architecture.

Now, why avoid talking about neoliberalism and class? As you rightly point out, the book has a whole subtext precisely about capitalist exploitation – in a sense, the whole analysis of the distinction between artistic and executive workers is about how value creation ultimately relies on the exploitation of manual labour to the benefit of some labelled as artists and a handful of oligopolistic producers/distributors. However, what is happening in today’s industry is not peculiar to the neoliberal period in my view, because similar precarious working arrangements existed in the early 20th-century Egyptian film industry. What I am describing today could be read through the lens of neoliberalism, of course, but this reading would occult the longer historical pattern through which precarity, value-extraction, and exploitation go hand in hand with Egyptian capitalism.

About class, I discuss the issue very briefly in chapter 2, but the basic reason I didn’t centre it is because I don’t have a good analytical language to discuss class in an everyday working context in Egypt – neither does, in my view, the anthropological literature on Egypt. The basic problem is that the existing analytical language – whether it is broadly Marxist, Weberian, Bourdieuian – is historically unattuned to emic class distinctions in Egypt. So what is called “popular” (sha‘bi) or “middle-class” (taba’a wusta) in Cairo cannot be squared easily with a Marxist distinction between people who own the means of production and people who sell their labour-power, or even a Bourdieuian distinction between people with different degrees of economic and symbolic capital. The film industry is interesting precisely because it is a cross-class space in an emic sense, where people hailing from aristocratic or upper middle-class families coexist with people from working-class or lower middle-class backgrounds. I explain in the book that these class positions correlate with – but do not directly correspond to – rank within the industry’s labour hierarchies. In limited cases, in fact, the industry can serve as a vector of social ascension in emic terms. This is a significant observation because it could lead to a more accurate accounting, in common with reflections on other sectors, of the historical process through which class mobility happens in Egypt. This is an important project to undertake beyond the bounds of the film industry proper.

Meg Morley: Can you talk a little bit more about technology and commodity-objects as reserves? In what other ways would you like to see people apply this concept?

Chihab El Khachab: There are two basic ideas I wanted to get across in the chapter on reserves. First, I wanted to say that the actual devices used by filmmakers in their daily activity go well beyond film technologies such as state-of-the-art cameras and editing suites, because smartphones, laptops, and even paper are just as widely and effectively used by filmmakers in practice. These everyday commodities are important filmmaking technologies in their own right. Second, these commodities are not just matter for consumption in the sense in which they are understood in material culture studies, but they are active elements in a production process. This is an important nuance because approaches like object biography or consumption studies tend to detail the commodity’s past and present, whereas their use in film production implies a different orientation to a somewhat expected yet unpredictable future.

The concept of reserve, as I understand it, is an attempt to explain what happens to the everyday technologies used by filmmakers when they are not just inert objects or consumption goods, but active agents in the filmmaking process. I argue that these technologies oscillate between this passive and active role at different moments in the filmmakers’ lives, which I have tried to render by the terms commodity-object and reserve. The reserve is a moment in the life of a technological device in which it is summoned to anticipate what will happen next in film production while summoning their human user to think through the future. This technological-cum-human anticipation could well apply to many socio-technical processes – architecture, art, craftsmanship, manufacture – and I would like to see scholars apply it in contexts where everyday technologies have a strong future-orientation. It’s not enough to say that people use or consume technologies in a certain way, because these technologies are often central in shaping the projects that these people have – and I believe that the idea of technology as a reserve is one step in taking this into account.

Meg Morley: Your fieldwork was on two films conceived of by the producers as art house/film festival films. How do you think your book might have been different if one or both films you worked on were of the popular “Sobky” type?

Chihab El Khachab: The surprising answer to this question is: not very much. Before doing fieldwork, I would’ve guessed – like most people who watch films without knowing how the industry works – that the production patterns in art-house cinema would be a bit different than in commercial cinema. While there are some differences, of course, especially when it comes to how the creative crew think about the film and what marketing strategy the production company uses, the core issues in which I’ve been interested – interpersonal relations, labour hierarchies, technological use, imponderability – apply just as well and look very similar in both cases. In other words, the end product might look very different, but the process itself is quite similar.

I did spend most of my time on productions which were labelled “festival films” by their companies, but I’ve also followed some productions which were much closer to the commercial mainstream. This is because the same company that was making Décor – New Century Film Production – was also making Al-Nabatshi, Qot w-Far (Cat and Mouse), and Qodrat Gheir ‘Adeyya (Out of the Ordinary). I attended some preparations and shooting in all these films, but I didn’t write about them to avoid interrupting the book’s narrative flow. The production crew with which I worked in Décor had a long history of working with Good News, a mega-budget company from the 2000s, and all the technicians in Décor also worked on commercial films to make a living. The main difference, really, was the marketing team and the creative crew – the director, the cinematographer, the art director – who would want the film to look and be branded in a certain way. Everyone else, it seems to me, worked according to very similar patterns, which is a significant observation on its own.

Meg Morley: As someone doing research on Egyptian cultural production (in my case, raqs sharqi/belly dance), I can imagine how you moved from studying the process of filmmaking in Egypt to doing a historical ethnography of the Ministry of Culture. But for those less familiar with the arts and entertainment in Egypt, can you explain how your book project led to your current project?

Chihab El Khachab: I would say that there are two main connections. The first connection is very practical: many of the filmmakers with whom I worked have one link or another with the Ministry of Culture. Many went to the High Cinema Institute (which is part of the Academy of Arts at the Ministry of Culture), some received funding from the National Film Institute, some would go watch the regular screenings at the Opera House (where the Cairo International Film Festival is usually held). In addition to the writers and artists connected with the Ministry of Culture that I knew already, I made a sizeable network within and around the Ministry through fieldwork.

The second connection is a historical one. While the film industry was only regulated by a censorship bureau at the Ministry of Interior until 1952, President Nasser was keen on promoting the film industry as an organ of national development after independence. From 1957 onwards, especially, there were several national bodies and institutions dedicated to promoting film production, distribution, and exhibition. These bodies became nearly omnipotent after extensive nationalization policies in the 1960s, but they lost much of their power once the industry was re-privatised in the 1970s. Yet, these institutions continue to play a vital role in today’s industry – including the High Cinema Institute and the National Film Institute – which means that it is important to understand the intersections of filmmaking with the cultural state apparatus and its historical development in order to understand Egyptian film production. This is why there is a kindred spirit between my first and second projects.

Meg Morley: How did you decide on AUC Press for your book?

Chihab El Khachab: This was serendipitous in a way. Prior to finishing the manuscript, I had sent my book proposal to many university presses and, ultimately, committed the manuscript with a US-based publisher. While the book was under review, Anne Routon (who had just become the new acquisitions editor at AUC press in New York) contacted me about publishing the book and told me about AUC’s ambition to expand its research monographs list – which they since did. I told her that I was already committed to another press, but when things didn’t work out there, I decided to move back to AUC press because (a) I knew that the editor was genuinely interested in my book’s topic (which, in hindsight, seemed to have been an issue with the first publisher) and (b) the AUC press has been, with few exceptions, the major English-language publisher on anything Egyptian cinema. My book found a natural home in this list, and I’ve been very happy with the whole publishing experience at AUC press.

Ergin Bulut on his book, A Precarious Game

Interview by Xiao Xe


Xiao Ke: It was a great pleasure to read about such a fun topic, executed in a rigorous way, in your book! I was wondering if you could say more about the responsibilities and risks associated with bringing the discussion of race, gender/sex, and class intersectionality into the discussion of video game industry? Given your critique of DWYL (do-what-you-love), how did you balance serious politics and fun business while writing this book and presenting your research?

Ergin Bulut: Thank you for reading my book and asking more about it. At the beginning of this project, I was more concerned with gender as it shaped the game developers’ domestic relationships. Although I had discussed the criticism regarding sexism and racism in video games with the game developers, I had not planned to theorize the findings as I do in the book. Bringing a more intersectional perspective – even though I don’t call it as such in my book – became an option as I had to push myself thinking about love with the questions raised by the scholars that peer reviewed my manuscript. I am not sure if there are risks in this since studies of labor in media studies scholarship largely foreground the notion of love and passion without that intersectional perspective. The love for their work and the good life imagined by the game developers I researched is possible mainly because their socially celebrated glamorous work rests on various inequalities at different levels and those inequalities involve race and gender/sex. Class is obviously central to my book.

The question about serious politics and fun business is interesting because games are really intriguing and dynamic sites to explore how capitalism is changing in the information age. Theories of capitalism mostly construct work as serious business and outside the realm of emotions. The videogame industry and increasingly many other sites of work are proving this wrong. Obviously, feminist scholarship was well ahead of our time with respect to demonstrating these points. When it comes to the practicality of writing the book – not sure if this is something you are asking –  I mostly tried to be serious in terms of going to library and sitting at a desk, putting a headphone on without any music, and writing from 8 a.m. to noon. Finally, I have written this book about the videogame industry but I would not call myself an avid gamer. I do enjoy playing games here and there (I like Head Ball these days) but some games require so much time and I unfortunately do not have it. My fun time is spent more on music, friends, and my two-year-old son these days!

Xiao Ke: Something I was hoping you could say more about was the following description of the gaming industry: “a global political economy of fun where there is an international division of not only digital labor but also pleasure” (52)? In the research and writing of the book, how did you situate your position, politics, and perspective(s) in this global political economy?

Ergin Bulut: Although I am by no means an expert on his enigmatic work, Walter Benjamin, especially “Theses on the Philosophy of History” has been informative on my thinking in certain ways. He writes: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” (Thesis X) This is really mind-opening because when I look at glamorous technological devices or ludic workplaces in the Silicon Valley, I cannot but help think about the infrastructures and inequalities that sustain these spectacular worlds of production and consumption. In researching the book, I was somebody from Turkey doing field work in a high-tech workplace in the US. People were extremely nice to me, but I also find it a lot easier to conduct field work in my native language, Turkish. As far as politics is concerned, in my conversations, I politely raised the criticisms towards the video game industry but I also have to say that that “techlash” back when I was doing research wasn’t where it is today. It’s also interesting that you raise this question because I initially had signed with another publisher and things didn’t work out for me despite three positive reviews. I am very happy to have published with Cornell University Press but if I were a western academic based in a US or European institution with a different name, the editor I was in communication with would probably act differently in our email exchanges. So, when it comes to the pleasures of research, writing, and publishing, that international division of intellectual labor is also a relevant topic to think about because non-western scholars’ supposed job is mostly to research their own countries, while I was doing a different thing and critiquing the very work ethic to which intellectual workers also subscribe to. So, race, gender, and sexuality as they shape the pleasures of intellectual work unfortunately still matter a lot.

Xiao Ke: When reading about ludopolitics and precarity within the video game industry, I couldn’t help thinking about the trope of ‘love what we do’, the ‘creativity’ impulse, and the relatable immanent precarities of academia for PhD students and junior scholar. When you were doing your fieldwork, writing up your dissertation, and turning it into a book, did you think much about the resonance between two fields (video game industry and academia)? Regarding this process, is there anything you’d like to share with the (precarious) readers?

Ergin Bulut: I did! How can you not, right? Especially with the pandemic, the world is swiftly changing and the academia is no exception. I currently have a job and am happy that I do. I also see brilliant colleagues who are finishing their degrees and are applying for jobs with tons of accomplishments in a world that is tumultuous. What I will say will really sound cliché but I may just suggest that in addition to collective solutions that may be out there, other solutions such as self-care or care collectives might be helpful. Academia can be a really intimidating place where privileges are reproduced most of the time, especially with this masculine discourse of “do what you love.” Tenured professors will demand that you dedicate a lot of time to research, whereas graduate students as precarious workers have families to take care of, debts to pay, and state repression in countries like mine. So, preaching love from one’s comfortable space can be easy. About the practicalities of turning the dissertation into a book: dropping that “graduate student” tone in my writing took some time and I probably still have it. As far as practical advice goes, I would recommend that the precarious readers of my book and this blog may think about the practice and craft of writing. I never thought about it until after I published the book, probably because time was of essence for me as a more precarious academic back then. I will not repeat about the usefulness of writing regularly but Niko Besnier and Pablo Morales’s article “Tell the story” is really good.

Xiao Ke: Earlier in the book you wrote: “…impromptu conversations proved harder than I thought since wearing headphones while working…indicated that the developers had completely focused on work and did not want any interruption” (12) This scenario might ring true for many ethnographers in corporate settings. Do you have any advice for them? Also, what did you hope to write about but which did not end up in the book?

Ergin Bulut: I am not an anthropologist. So, you should probably tell me some advice! But my advice is really to tell yourself inside your head and “go and talk” to that person. While they may be busy at that time, they may be gracious enough to talk to you at another time. Imagine that you are writing in the library and somebody comes and wants to talk to you. It can be distracting. I never did that but now thinking about it, you may perhaps write a note and put it in front of the person and ask for an interview. Finally, I don’t think there is anything that I didn’t write but a friend once told me that there was no reference to Marx in my book. It just didn’t occur to me. Maybe he was in earlier drafts but excluding him was not intentional. His framework really shapes the entire manuscript.

Xiao Ke: You mentioned the global game industry and outsourced labor. (For instance, environmental art content produced in China; e-waste dumped and recycled in Nigeria, Ghana, and so on; Coltan from DRC…) You yourself are now based in a university in Turkey. Do you plan to continue exploring this global chain of video games? What would you like to see beyond the US context?

Ergin Bulut: I do plan to research Turkey’s emerging videogame industry and electronic sports scene. I once applied for a national grant but the government body giving the grant rejected my application claiming that it was “not scientific enough.” Just two lines, no reviews. Maybe it really wasn’t scientific, who knows! My point is that this application was also at a time when I had signed the notorious peace petition that made me a traitor in the eyes of the government. See, precarity also needs to be de-westernized and thought in relation to the state in non-western contexts! If I were to do such research, I would imagine seeing some developmental thinking that shapes the game developers’ perspective on work, technology, as well as skill development. But I have to do the research . . .  

Interviewer’s Note: I thank my classmates and professor from ANTH642 at University of Pennsylvania for reading this book with me. Many questions are drawn from their thoughts. They are Aliyah Bixby-Driesen, Andrew Carruthers, Chuan Hao (Alex) Chen, Hilah Kohen, Kristina Nielsen, and Nooshin Sadeghsamimi.

Patricia Spyer on her book, Orphaned Landscapes

Interview by Karen Strassler


Karen Strassler: You are writing about a moment of profound destabilization and disorientation: a religious war that has torn apart the city, and in the national context, the end of a thirty-two year dictatorship. Perhaps we could start with some of that context by way of an explanation of the title of the book. Why Orphaned Landscapes?

Patricia Spyer: The title Orphaned Landscapes operates across different registers in the book, both ethnographically and theoretically. At the same time, it is meant to highlight the general predicament of uncertainty, crisis, and rupture that animates all of them, if differently. Nationally, it designates the ‘orphaned landscapes’ and sense of “looseness at the center” left in the wake of the Suharto regime’s collapse and the withdrawal of the longstanding authoritarian leader who styled himself the father of the nation and Indonesia, by extension, as one big family (Kusno 2010: 36). As the regime unraveled, the figure of the lone child, standing apart from violence, witnessing brutality and national destruction yet safeguarding the nation’s integrity and future, proliferated. Crucial here was the oscillating position of this figure–at times literally orphaned–between belonging to the nation, on the one hand, and a detachment from authority and position beyond it, on the other.

To be sure, the broader circumstances of the regime’s end provided a significant if distant backdrop to the events I describe in Ambon. But the book also homes in closely on the Christian men and women who identified with the city’s old Dutch colonial-derived Calvinist church and their sense of waning privilege and abandonment by authority within the violence that inflected the national situation at this eastern end of the archipelago and the country’s islamicization since the 1990s or another sense of orphaned landscape. A central focus of the book is how these Protestant Ambonese responded to and attempted to shape these circumstances discursively, performatively, and especially through the street pictures. In yet another register of the book title, I argue that the Christian pictures may themselves be understood as a kind of orphaned landscape since, in many respects, they were at odds with—indeed a form of graphic protest within—the environment in which they emerged.

Karen Strassler: Can you talk about how this moment of abandonment and collapse gave rise to an intense “turn to the visual” and, in particular, to the emergence of monumental images of Christ around the city?

Patricia Spyer: While the situation in Ambon and the “turn to the visual” within the Muslim-Christian conflict of the early 2000s had its own dynamics, the uptake locally of the prevalent political discourse of transparency and the demand to bring hidden things into public view associated with the Reformasi movement that brought Suharto down was certainly an important dimension. But there were others as well, including some that were probably more salient in the context of the war carried out in Ambon in religion’s name. These include the longue durée history of the unequal recognition and visibility of Christians versus Muslims in the region. A more immediate factor was what I characterize as the “extreme perception” that emerged during the conflict as the fog of war—a formulation indebted to the nineteenth-century Prussian military general, Carl von Clausewitz—cloaked the city, presenting new challenges to seeing, knowing, and understanding what was seen, the erosion of trust in what could be apprehended, and the emergence of “anticipatory practices” that aimed at piercing wartime’s lack of clarity and heading off its myriad dangers. The sense of a pervasive blindness accompanying war’s uncertainty and murk stood out in conversations I had with Ambonese about the war, whether Christians or Muslims. Among Protestants, specifically—not the least the young male motorbike taxi-drivers who threw up the huge painted images of Jesus Christ and Christian scenes around the city—there was an overwhelming sense of not being seen and of having been abandoned to their plight, including imagined genocide at Muslim hands, by the authorities, from the national government in Jakarta to the United Nations, European Union, former Dutch colonizer, and IMF. Some even speculated—or, more often, claimed that other Christians speculated—that even God appeared oblivious and unaware of their dire predicament.

At the same time, some of the motor bikers also told me that they were driven to paint Christianity in Ambon’s streets because they knew he was here, insisting on God’s presence among them in wartime. This, I argue, was a case of protesting too much. Moreover, by bringing the Christian god into vision through monumental images at major urban crossroads, along highways, and at the entrance to Christian neighborhoods, they visualized and materialized his presence in their midst while simultaneously bringing themselves into view as Christian subjects. Given the identification of the young men with the aniconic tradition of the city’s Calvinist church, bringing the Christian god into vision was daring and experimental. And it had numerous ramifications that I describe in the book.

Equally relevant in considering Ambon’s “turn to” and valorization of the visual was the impetus given by the conflict to the spread of visual and audio-visual technologies from the national center to the beleaguered Malukan province. These enabled the production of incendiary Video Compact Disks (VCDs) and Public Service Announcements (Patricia SpyerAs) against violence aired on radio and television but also, crucially, new experiences like seeing one’s own street broadcast on national or even international television.

Karen Strassler: I’m wondering if you can comment on your book’s intervention into how we theorize images and violence. So often, the focus has been on photographs that expose violence and the conversation is about the political efficacy or failure of such images, their uncertain status as evidence, their affective potency, and whether they have the desired effect of moving people to action, desensitize the viewer, or turn violence into entertainment and spectacle. It seems to me you are working towards a very different way of approaching the relationship between violence and images. Some of the images are clearly poetic, that is, world-making responses to violence—efforts to repair and restore a Christian presence in the city, efforts to reclaim a sense of place. But the images are also very much part of the violence itself, rather than belated reflections on or reactions to it. Can you say more about how your book might help us think about violence and images in new ways?

Patricia Spyer: Indeed, part of my argument is that the immense public images put in place by the city’s Protestants were recuperative, a form of “representational redress” aimed at reinstalling the former Christian ‘look’ of the city and the hitherto taken for granted hegemony of Christians in Ambon and the neighboring islands of Central Maluku (Makhubu and Simbao 2013). When Christians described the street paintings as ‘comforting’ it is this particular efficacy that they singled out. But in many respects, beginning with the sheer monumentality and adamant presence of the images in urban space, they were violent. Towering over passers-by and traffic moving below, they forced themselves into public view making it, at least initially, impossible not to see them. So, one key dimension of the violence of these images was their scale and strident presence in the city. The large majority of the images also stood on public land, along highways and on sidewalks, that, in principle, is accessible to all. Rising up in these locations, the street art laid exclusive claim to these places for Christians while Christianizing the space around them through the Christian scenes and monumental Christ faces they portrayed. Standing, in many cases, at the gateways to Christian neighborhoods, the pictures branded and territorialized community in a city that became a zoned patchwork of Christian ‘red’ versus Muslim ‘white’ areas in wartime. These gateways, moreover, were commonly the location of neighborhood guardhouses where men gathered and rallied themselves during the conflict before heading into battle in city streets. Not surprisingly, given the defensive function of such sites, young men occasionally had themselves photographed brandishing weapons with the Christ images as backdrop.

Emergent in violence, the street art participated in and helped to produce the heightened energies and affective intensities of wartime as exemplified by the assertiveness and speed with which they rose up and spread across the city. Representationally, they installed a wholly Christian world either because they faithfully reproduced the images of the canonical Protestant calendar on which the majority of the street art was based or through their depictions of Christ overlooking an embattled city in unabashed portrayals that publicized a highly partisan view of the conflict. In short, the Christian pictures and violence were entangled and mutually constitutive in myriad ways—politically, affectively, socio-spatially, historically, and temporally since their role and how they were apprehended also evolved as the conflict went on and after the city’s official peace.

Karen Strassler: You use the language of atmospherics and ambiance quite a bit in the book, and although you give rich analytic attention to particular material images, you are also thinking in broader terms about visuality or what we might call the visual dimensions of the sensed and imagined world.  What is the relationship between concrete images and a broader visual terrain of seeing and unseeing?

Patricia Spyer: My thinking about atmospherics and ambiance and the impact such elusive yet potentially powerful forces have on social life, on setting the scene in which events unfold, on inflecting and patterning action over time, emerged at the very early stages of this project. It came out of the realization that in descriptions of Ambon’s conflict, scholars, journalists, and other commentators would often resort to words like climate, atmospherics, or milieu to designate a key dimension of the violence or deploy such terms as explanatory backdrops without further specifying what was meant by them, or how what they allegedly conjured impacted events in the war-torn city. In my first writing about the violence in Ambon I tried to determine analytically what these atmospherics might be, how they came about, of what they were made, and what effects they had in the conflict and emerging violence in the city. Analytically, I specified what I called an infrastructure of the imagination comprising truths, half-truths, rumors, and hearsay, but also graffiti and slanderous language sprayed on city walls, as well as popular circulatory media forms rampant during the war like incendiary pamphlets and Video Compact Disks (VCDs) that portrayed atrocities committed by the enemy other and the victimization of the self, produced by both parties to the conflict.

In the mid-2000s when I encountered the monumental Christian street art I was not only taken by their striking demonstrative presence in a city where such public displays of piety had previously been largely absent but also by the figuring impulse behind them within the larger disfiguring momentum of the war. Over time, I came to understand Ambon’s striking street pictures as potent stakes in a world that was not only spiraling into chaos and violence but for many Protestants losing the very image that they had hitherto taken for granted. In a somewhat perverse take on poetic world-making, Christian Ambonese aimed to seize hold of a disappearing world, one that upheld their historically accumulated privileges, not the least the Christian domination of the city and provincial civil bureaucracy including prize positions like that of Maluku’s governor. Via the pictures, they recalled a world that reflected back to them its reassuring Christian contours in socio-spatial and political terms and, through these, the image the Protestants had long held of themselves. This is an embattled vision, one that looks to the past and relies on and recasts old iconographies, albeit necessarily in experimental and innovative ways.

As such, the paintings were at the very center of a concerted `’work on appearances” through which the Protestants, wittingly or unwittingly, intervened in what the French political philosopher, Jacques Rancière calls “the distribution of the sensible,” or the systematic arrangement of the self-evident facts of sense perception, comprising a delimitation of spaces and times, speech and noise, and thereby, too, of the particular place and stakes within which politics unfold (Rancière 2004). In the book, however, I am especially interested in the visual dimension of the sensible’s distribution as well as how the inherently political determination of the experiential conditions that enable and privilege particular forms of sensory perception, thought, and action while foreclosing others, can become undone and transformed.

Karen Strassler: You are looking at a variety of media in this book: paintings, posters, calendar images, video cassette discs, children’s drawings.  How do you think about the relationship between these different media forms—with their material, historical, and ideological specificities—and what you call the “work of appearances”? Maybe this would also be a moment to ask you to talk a bit about your methodology.

Patricia Spyer: My work on this project began as part of a Dutch-Indonesian research program, “Indonesia in Transition,” launched in the immediate aftermath of Suharto’s fall. My own research was part of a subproject in the program, “Indonesian Mediations,” in which I planned to explore broader questions of the mediation of violence and, subsequently, postviolence through close examination of a range of media and circulatory forms over time in Ambon City. My startled serendipitous encounter with the Christian pictures caused me to recenter the project, at least to some extent, around these novel productions. At the same time, the original focus of the project remained insofar as I analyze the street art within a larger evolving ecosystem of mediations of violence and postviolence centered on Ambon.

My methodology consisted primarily of fieldwork carried out among predominantly Christian refugees in Manado and Bitung on North Sulawesi Island in 2000 and 2001, and subsequently Ambon City and the neighboring islands for periods of up to three months between 2003 and 2011.  Besides motorbike taxi drivers, I worked with ordinary women and men, Christian as well as Muslim, media practitioners, representatives of religious institutions, humanitarian organizations, NGOs, government officials, and others in the city and beyond, including Jakarta and Yogyakarta. The book also draws on my extensive experience in the region, beginning with doctoral research in Aru, Southeast Maluku in the mid-1980s, and on an ethnographic archive of ephemera that I have built up since the late 1990s comprising photographed graffiti, posters, street banners, poetry, pro-peace Christian music CDs, my own documentation of the street art, and children’s drawings, among others.

Within the larger ecosystem of violence and postviolence related to Ambon’s conflict there are a host of media forms of diverse scale, duration, affordance, materiality, mode of address and circulatory form, ideological and historical genealogies. Some of these were closely connected or even in dialogue, most obviously, the wartime call and response of Christian and Muslim graffiti, but also less explicitly, the belligerent Christian graffiti and the street art as different modalities of articulating conquest and territorial claims. Others like the incendiary Video CDs, produced by Christians and Muslims alike, were almost identical in style and content, even if they reversed the respective identities of victim and enemy. But they circulated in very different ways—the Muslim VCDs echoing those from, say, Bosnia and Palestine, were sold openly under traffic lights on Java and on boats heading from there to Ambon. By contrast, those of the Christians bore labels with warnings to not circulate them beyond “one’s own group.” As a result, the latter spread covertly in Ambon and to Christian villages on the island as well as among Dutch Malukans if and when the VCDs made it to the Netherlands.

As for the book’s main example, the monumental Christian street art, this was directly inspired by, and often literally copied from, the globalized Christian print media of calendars, posters, and embroidered Last Supper scenes long available in Ambon. I argue that, with important implications for their efficacy and uptake, the street art remained affectively tethered to the interiors of Christian homes and stores where such print artifacts were conventional props. This is how I understand the supposedly comforting presence that Ambon’s Protestants often attributed to the huge public pictures that, to some extent, remained beholden to the their print models and their longstanding association with the intimacy and interiority of Christian homes and stores.

Another example are the children’s drawings with their paired smiling mosques and churches and peace handshakes conjoining Muslim and Christian leaders prevalent in reconciliation programs in refugee camps and countless post-peace initiatives. These drew affective and ideological potency from diverse sources of inspiration and histories ranging from the longstanding popular genre of children’s Letters to the President and the lone child-in-violence figure dating to the fraught period of Reformasi to an infamous PSA featuring a Muslim Ambonese boy, Acang, and his bosom Christian friend, Obet, that went both viral and awry in Ambon, and ended up providing the most popular names for the mutual enemies in the conflict. Equally importantly, the efficacy of the children’s drawings relied on their embodied connection to the hands and eyes of their young creators.

These are only a few examples that foreground the relevance and efficacy of medium specificity with respect to different circulatory forms characteristic of Ambon’s war and peace but also that of intermediality, of different media operating and circulating not only in tandem but often in interconnected, iterative ways. All of these material, ephemeral mediations of Ambon’s violence and postviolence, although some clearly more than others, formed part of the diffuse “work of appearances” that fed into and inflected the larger ambiance, unfolding, and shape of the violence and its longstanding repercussions in the city.

Karen Strassler: There has been a great deal of anthropological writing in recent decades on the ways religion always depends on mediation and on how particular media forms shape and transform religious practice and imagination. Can you talk about how this book draws on those conversations and what it contributes to conversations about religion and media?

Patricia Spyer: In the early 2000s I was involved in a series of provocative conferences focused on questions of religion and media, and religion and violence, organized by Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber. Subsequently, I spent a good deal of time, over the course of five years, first as fellow and then as Global Distinguished Professor, at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, co-directed by Faye Ginsburg and Angela Zito, and Department of Anthropology, then chaired by Fred Myers. These different venues put me at the very center of discussions and evolving work on questions of religion and media, broadly conceived, and have been fundamental to my thinking about these issues and to the book’s conceptualization.

If Orphaned Landscapes is centrally about what I call the work on appearances (as well as the work of appearances), then it is also about how appearances do not work. Exemplary of the latter were the constant adjustments made by Ambon’s street artists to the Christian print canon that most claimed to be faithfully copying in the street.  The first adjustment was their own pictorial turn involving not only an embrace of pictures but, with it, a significant departure from the aniconic tradition of the Calvinist Protestant church. To be sure, as noted above, elements of décor like calendars, along with Sunday school manuals, are a familiar component of the global Christian print repertoire found already for decades in Ambon. And despite the long history of Dutch-derived Calvinism in the area, Ambon’s Protestantism was never as adamantly aniconic as that of the former colonizers. Yet if the Christian sacred was never invisible or faceless in the city, prior to the war it was—visually at least—not a privileged focus of attention, public or otherwise.

Of course, notwithstanding Calvinism’s anti-materialist ideology, in Ambon as elsewhere, transcendence unavoidably relies on mediation which has an intrinsic, enabling role. Indeed, as Hent de Vries puts it, “without and outside of [it] . . . no religion would be able to manifest itself in the first place (de Vries 2001:28). Seen in this light, the white ‘empty’ interiors of Ambon’s Calvinist churches mediated the ideal of an allegedly transparent, direct connection to the divine. By bringing the Christian god into vision through the new medium of painting—a move driven by the desire to ensure his presence here in Ambon and to draw him close via his image–the Protestant motorbike taxi drivers helped to materialize and bring about a new relation to the Christian god.

One reason I became aware of how efficacious this move had been was because the appearance of the street pictures coincided with—and may even have prefigured—momentous shifts in religiosity and religious affiliation occurring in the city during the war and in the immediate years thereafter. At the same time that pictures of Jesus and Christian scenes began to be thrown up around the city, increasing numbers of Protestants were abandoning Ambon’s old Calvinist church in favor of newer charismatic ones, places where, as many put it, they found a closer, less hierarchical relation to God, a liturgy deemed “less stiff,’ and where emotional expression was allowed. Remarkably, as the majority of the Christian street pictures faded on city walls, a hitherto unseen image began to appear in and around Ambon. Depicting Christ as King or Christ of the Second Coming, the image publicized and emblematized the significant move on the part of many Protestants away from the distant, formalistic relation to God characteristic of Calvinism toward a more intimate, close bond that became realized in new forms of religiosity, numerous baptisms, and novel affiliations to Pentecostal churches. I argue that, at least in part, this shift and the Christ as King image exemplifying it was enabled by the diffuse urban gallery of Christian street art that laid the material ground for these profound transformations in urban religion. In sum, through a close consideration of the street art and its wartime and postwar trajectory, and the manner and specificities of the art’s mediation of the Christian divine, the book demonstrates the unavoidable, mutual constitution and codependency of religion and media.

Karen Strassler: I would love to hear you reflect a little bit about your trajectory as a scholar and the kinds of questions that have animated your work over the long term?

Patricia Spyer: I have always been interested in uncertainty, mobility, and questions of emergence and transformation where the grounds for asserting agency and authority are in question, where complicated issues of entanglement and positionality, vulnerability and exposure to circumstances prevail. Another related, longstanding focus has been on questions of mediation and circulatory media forms. This cluster of evolving interests is evident already in my first edited book, Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces (Routledge 1998), in the focus on trade in luxury artifacts like bird of paradise plumes and pearlshells and the transactional, transformative space of the undersea in The Memory of Trade: Entanglements on an Eastern Indonesian Island (Duke 2000), and in Images That Move (SAR Press 2013), co-edited with the late Mary Margaret Steedly, where the title comprises both the intransitive sense of images in motion and the transitive, affective meaning of images that move us, highlighting, in either case, issues of efficacy, affective power, and the capacity for disruption and change.

References cited

Kusno, Abidin (2010). The Appearances of Memory: Mnemonic Practices of Ahitecture and Urban Form in Indonesia. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rancière, Jacques (2004). The Politics of Aesthetics. Translated by G. Rockhill. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Spyer, Patricia (2000). The Memory of Trade: Entanglements of Modernity on an Eastern Indonesian Island. Durham: Duke University Press.

___________. (1998). Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces. London and New York: Routledge.

Spyer, Patricia and Mary Margaret Steedly, eds. (2013). Images That Move.  Santa Fe: School of Advanced Research Press.

Vries, Hent de. (2001). “In Media Res: Global Religions, Public Spheres and the Task of Contemporary Religious Studies.” In Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber, eds. Religion and Media.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 3-42.

Elliott Oring on his book, Joking Asides

Interview by Emily Bianchi


Emily Bianchi: I was wondering what brought you to write Joking Asides: The Theory, Analysis, and Aesthetics of Humor, your fifth book on jokes? I thought you might talk about your affiliations with humor studies and where it all began.

Elliott Oring: Where it all began was with my dissertation in folklore. This gets to be a long story, but I’ll try and make it short. I was crossing campus one day and encountered Richard Dorson, and Richard Dorson said, “The deadline for a Woodrow Wilson is coming up very shortly. Why don’t you put in a proposal?” I hadn’t thought about this. I wrote this lengthy proposal over the weekend to go study folklore in Israel, the kind that arose there as opposed to the kind that people brought from the various countries that they came from. It would be on something like native as opposed to imported immigrant traditions. Anyway, I wrote the grant. I got the grant.

When I got there, I found my project was wildly elaborate and undoable, and I encountered a professor there who taught in the summers here at Indiana University. He was Israeli and taught literature. He said, “You know, there’s this tradition among these old timers who were in the Palmah (which was the name of a military underground that operated in the forties) and they have this tradition called the Chizbat. You might want to look into that.” So, I looked into that. I wound up writing my dissertation on it, and that’s my first book: Israeli Humor: The Content and Structure of the Chizbat of the Palmah. I didn’t go there looking for humor, particularly.

That’s how academic careers go. You have no idea what you’re going to get caught by, but, once I was in it, I was in it. 

I developed a course that I occasionally taught called “The Ethnography of Humor.” I taught it once here [at IU] in the summer in 1977. During the class, I said, “Somebody should really look at the jokes of Sigmund Freud” because we read Freud’s book on jokes. Somebody should really look at the relationship between the jokes he uses and his own personality, his own character. Well, I wound up doing that, so that was the second book: The Jokes of Sigmund Freud: A Study in Humor and Jewish Identity. Those were the two monographs. All the other books have been collections of essays.

Emily Bianchi:The essay format worked well for this one. It allowed you ask about and examine many different aspects of jokes.

Elliot Oring: I like the essay form: you get in, you have a specific point, you try and illuminate something, and you’re not padding. You don’t have room to pad it with all sorts of stuff, you know? Then you can go on to another question. So, for me, it’s all about questions, and I still have questions. I still have a lot of questions about humor.

Emily Bianchi: Throughout Joking Asides you caution against applying a priori theory to jokes and instead promote generalizations that emerge from the studies of the materials themselves. Of the many potential ways forward you explore in these different essays, you suggest that attention to “appropriate incongruities” may be one of the most comprehensive as a broadly applicable structure of meaning that underlies humor—one step towards discovering what it is that needs to be explained in a theory of humor. What do you find compelling about appropriate incongruity theory?

Elliott Oring: To me, it’s one of the most persuasive theories for a couple of reasons. And it is persuasive. If you show me a joke, I’ll find you the incongruity, but that, in itself, is not proof. You know, one can find in anything what one is looking for.

The first thing to note is that appropriate incongruity is simply my conceptualization and terminology for an old theory of humor which is incongruity theory and sometimes called incongruity resolution theory. I can point to antecedents going back to the 17th century. John Locke, in passing, makes a comment about the difference between wit and judgment which is very much in keeping with this. The Scottish Enlightenment figures of Francis Hutcheson at the beginning of the 18th century and James Beattie at the end of the 18th century elaborated it a little more. They state, pretty much, what an incongruity theory of humor looks like. It’s gone on since then. It didn’t stop in the 18th century. It’s been revived in the 20th century and even somewhat in the 19th century. That’s the first thing: appropriate incongruity has antecedents.

Second of all, incongruity theory tells you what a joke is. It doesn’t tell you what a joke does. Many other theories explain what a joke does but not what a joke is. Take Freud’s theory (at least as Freud is often interpreted) that joking is a way to get rid of, relieve, suppressed impulses. If you want to talk that way, there are many things that could relieve those impulses, so there’s nothing particularly strange about a joke when you come to it. Many of the other theories (take superiority theory that really stems from a comment by Thomas Hobbs in the 17th century that laughter emerges from a sense of a superiority in ourselves as opposed to someone else or as opposed to our sense of ourselves in the past) describe a function, but don’t describe what humor is. Incongruity, for me, is the theory that really explains what humor is.

You know, you want to describe a hammer: it’s got a shaft, it’s got a heavy weight at the end. Whether you kill someone or build a house with it, those are its functions. But it’s not what it is, you know? So I think you need to start with what you think the phenomenon is that you’re actually dealing with. That’s the attraction to me of incongruity theory.

Emily Bianchi: You offer appropriate incongruities up as one way forward that is still in need of testing and revision. How do you think promoting and applying appropriate incongruity works towards an understanding of what jokes are and how they work, or a theory of humor?

Elliott Oring: One of the things you’ll see is that I’m constantly analyzing jokes. You can read a lot of books where they’ll give you a joke example, but they don’t really take it apart. I think if you want to move towards a theory of humor, you better be looking at the things that you’re talking about. Whether it’s jokes or other forms of humor, you have to take them apart to see how they work. Ultimately, that’s where I start. Whether my analyses of the jokes are convincing… and that’s an important part of what I’m doing. If they’re not convincing, then I’ve got a problem.

Appropriate incongruity, as I said, is not really a conceptually new idea. And in fact, rooted in it is a problem which I think I identify at the very end of this book: what constitutes appropriateness and what constitutes incongruity? So, the questions are how much different does something have to be before it’s incongruous, and what kind of connection between two things is sufficient to establish that it’s appropriate? I can’t answer that question. In other words, if appropriate incongruity is useful, it’s useful to take apart jokes. As a theoretical formulation it’s somewhat problematic because I can’t operationalize its basic terms.

In an essay that’s not in this book, I criticize the general theory of verbal humor. People are looking to get computers to be able to recognize jokes. The way they operationalize incongruity (although they don’t say it this way) is to see it as “opposition.” Opposition is a very big term in linguistics. You know, the difference between this phoneme and that phoneme. There’s voicing or absence of voicing, or this is aspirated, or this is not aspirated, so they can make charts of pluses and minuses. Linguists are very easily drawn to plus and minus formulations. But to talk about an opposition in a joke is very difficult, because everything is opposed to everything else. A subject is opposed to a predicate, a verb is opposed to a noun, an adjective is opposed to an adverb, an adult is opposed to a child. What kind of opposition becomes significant enough and salient enough to be considered the basis for a joke?

Now the fact that I can’t answer this, by the way, is, well, it’s a failing, but it’s a failing of the larger field. That’s why we’ve been talking about this stuff for 2,500 years. We don’t know the answer to it! Humor is a mystery to a great extent. All I’m trying to do is poke at it and see when it moves or if it’s dead. And you can’t always be sure. Possums, you know, look very dead, and you can poke them and they continue to lie there. So, who knows?

Scholarship is a matter of putting your two cents in. That’s really what it’s all about. And maybe sometimes you’ll put in your two cents, and you will get change because that two cents really pushed something over the top and saw something new. I’m not sure it’s going to lead to a new theory of humor unless we figure out how to operationalize it. And I’m all for getting computers to recognize what is a joke text and what is not a joke text, but, as I’ve written in another article, I’m very suspicious that they’re going be able to do it with the concepts that they’re working with at the present time.

Emily Bianchi: You are critical of some established theories of humor, using the material to point out their benefits and flaws. You also charge people to create new hypotheses and then test them. I think that this does probably come out of the format of the book as essays, but you’re trying to, like you just said, to poke the jokes and see how and when they respond. You are advocating for an approach to the scholarship by suggesting appropriate incongruity as one hypothesis that needs to be tested further, but you’ve created a few other testable hypotheses within the book as well.

Elliott Oring: First, I set out to try and answer a question, and whatever helps me answer that question in a convincing, persuasive, and hopefully testable way is what I’ll use. I use what’s available, which we should. I’m also very leery of those people who when a new theory pops up in some other field immediately apply it to their material. I understand it for a number of reasons, but really what we should be doing is seeing how well or poorly it helps to explain. You can always find something that some general statement applies to. The question is how well, how far does it extend, and where does it fail? Folklorists generally don’t take a critical point of view, especially to stuff coming from elsewhere. They’re very happy to evangelize for the latest thing coming out of linguistics or literature or philosophy, or what have you, never stopping to acknowledge that folklore provides the data to test these kinds of conceptions that are coming from every which way. Let’s see how good they are in really helping to understand what’s going on. I think that lack of criticism is a problem. 

Offering up the notion of hypotheses is old, not new. It’s gotten new because everybody seems to have forgotten that there was a time when people did talk about hypotheses, even in folklore. In the sixties and seventies, there’s a group of essays in the Journal of American Folklore, particularly, where people actually do talk about hypotheses and testing them.

Then people got into the interpretation of humor and of folklore in general which was motivated largely by a 1965 article by Alan Dundes, “The Study of Folklore in Literature and Culture: Identification and Interpretation.” Since then, people have been interpreting this stuff. But how do you know your interpretations are on point? How do you tell? How do you test whether this is what people are actually communicating when they tell a joke or tell a fairy tale or sing a song? How do you know? It might make sense. Your interpretation might put certain things together. It might be interesting. But is this what’s actually being communicated?

If folklore is to make any progress, I think, if you’ve want an interpretive approach, you have to be able to subject it to some kind of critical apparatus. Without that, we’re reading poems and interpreting them, which is fine, but that’s not what we claim to be doing in the field of folklore.

Emily Bianchi: In your chapter, “Demythologizing the Jewish Joke,” you discuss some of the potential pitfalls of a purely contextual, performance-based ethnography of speaking jokes. I am sure that linguistic anthropologists and folklorists will be interested to hear more about what you perceive to be the limitations of the ethnography of speaking for scholars of humor.

Elliott Oring: I do have a big question about the contextual, and I’ve been critical of the overly contextual because where does that lead us? All I can do is study one particular encounter between a performer and an audience and analyze its dynamics to say this is why the speaker used this phrase or introduced this story or had this aside. If it doesn’t go beyond the context that I’m reporting, where are we, and what have we learned in a more general way? What does folklore have to contribute? Are we going to simply be a field that describes the trillions and trillions of individual encounters between performers and audiences? I hope not.

We have to move to a more generalized conception of what’s going on that’s applicable beyond the particular context. That’s why I’ve often made comments about the microscopic analyses that come out of performance approaches. They remain microscopic. It’s kind of like early natural history. We’ll describe this beetle. We’ll describe that beetle. We’ll describe this beetle. We’ll have three descriptions of beetles, none of which particularly pertain to one another until somebody like Darwin comes along (and I don’t think we’re going to have a Darwin… though it would be nice) to tell us what else is going on. I think we always need to move to more general statements.

Somebody reviewed this book. It was a positive review, but finally they got to the last chapter and said, “At last, fieldwork,” because it was based on recording people. My feeling is, what is so special about field work? Yeah, we have to do it. What we study is interactions and performances, but if that’s where it stays, we don’t have a field at all. We have to use that field work to say other things. And if we’re not saying the other things but simply resting on the idea that we did field work, then that’s a fetishization of fieldwork. If we’re going to make a contribution to knowledge, what is the knowledge that we’re producing other than these little, microscopic analyses of individual performance events? So that’s my problem with context.

I want to know what’s going on when people are joking and not just joking in a specific situation but, in general, joking. And not maybe only in this culture but in a number of cultures. Is something similar happening or are they all so different that they are not comparable?

I think people have steeped themselves in the performance approach and lost sight of the larger questions that folklorists should be concerning themselves with. It’s nice to say this text was decontextualized from here and recontextualized over here, but that’s merely descriptive. It’s not explanatory and, even if it is explanatory, you say the person was trying to accomplish a certain thing within the event or within the communication, so he employed that particular text. But then where do you go? You’re stuck in that context.

I’m not against context, obviously. Communications take place in context and much humor can’t be understood without context because you’re making jokes about the context. So, I’m not against context, but ultimately it doesn’t lead to more general principles. Or, I haven’t seen it lead to more general principles which bothers me.

Emily Bianchi: This is your fifth book on humor, and you’ve characterized your interest in humor as a career long preoccupation. What about jokes do you find most compelling? You invoke many other scholars who have looked at jokes but not cracked their codes, and you say that something that you still find so compelling about jokes is that despite centuries of scholarships…

Elliott Oring: … we don’t know what the hell is going to help! Yes, it’s amazing that jokes, something so essentially despised from an academic point of view… we don’t know how they work. We don’t know. We can’t precisely define what it is that makes something humorous. We don’t understand why that if you accept the idea that it is humorous, we laugh at it. And we’re sitting here for 2,500 years and we haven’t the foggiest.

The last thing is, and this would be true of all folklorists probably who study whatever they study, they find them compelling and beautiful. I find many jokes beautiful. They are brilliant. That’s a word I could use for any number of jokes–not all jokes. You know, the conception and how they twist your mind to move from X to Y; they’re just brilliant. For the person who loves quilts, for the person who loves folk songs, for the person who loves Shaker furniture and gardening. Folklorists are compelled by the materials, first and foremost. Then they get into the people or they get into the questions surrounding the material, but the material is, I think, what draws them first. In that sense, they’re materialists, even though they would claim not to be. But if folklore is to be a serious intellectual endeavor, it cannot simply rest on folklorists’ admiration and celebration of their materials. Folklorists must ask penetrating questions and make serious attempts to answer them.

Tomas Matza on his book, Shock Therapy

Interview by Natalja Czarnecki


Tomas Matza on his book,

Natalja Czarnecki: In your ethnography of the popular “psychotherapeutic turn” in post-Soviet Russia, you write, quoting Foucault, that “subjectivity … ‘is the way in which the subject experiences himself in a game of truth’” (121). What are game(s) of truth in Putin’s Russia?

Tomas Matza: What is truth? And why the metaphor of a game? And in what contexts do such games take place? Addressing these questions is a good starting place for making a connection between psychotherapy and the sociopolitical contexts in Russia at the time I did my research (intensively from 2005-6 and then periodically until 2014).

About “truth”: My reading of Foucault’s phrase is that it reframes what truth is from a matter of empirical validity to a “grid of intelligibility”—a way of seeing that conditions perspectives on what is valid and invalid not only in terms of observation but also in terms of what is desirable or undesirable, and what is allowed and prohibited. The game that unfolds is very similar to my own understanding of politics, meaning that “games,” here, refer to the terrain, practice, and nature of struggle around legibility. Political struggle often orbits around contestations about what is true or not true.

The reason that the psychotherapeutic has been a venue for power is that it has emerged as a set of knowledge and practices by which influential definitions of personhood, of normalcy, of healthy social relations, of the non-human, and of healing (or hopelessness) circulate. These definitions are organized by experts, are founded on research infrastructures, reimbursed conditionally, and so on. When I turn to particular therapies as a way to understand who I am, what my problems are, what is important, and what I can do about it, I am engaging in a game of truth—in this case, a game of truth about a putatively healthy personhood.

In my book, I focus a lot on this connection between power and therapy. I found several important forces shaping the emergent “games of truth” about the self in Russia. I saw an interesting tension between the drift of Putin’s politics of self—which were then (and continue to be) organized around heteropatriarchal gender relations and patriotism—and those associated with market capitalism, entrepreneurialism, and middle-class self-cultivation. That is, Putin, and through his affiliation with the Orthodox Church, was generally not supportive of the kinds of liberal individualism and loosely feminist orientations that one finds in many contemporary Western ethnopsychologies (see, for example, Lynn Layton’s work). For this reason, I saw a political tension between Putinism and what these psychologists working in Saint Petersburg in the first decade of the 2000s were espousing. While not necessarily feminist, they were certainly transgressing a traditional gendering around emotionality in Russia. Through the investment in a humanistic psychological self-inquiry, they were also developing, to build on Julia Lerner’s work, a postsocialist emotional style. So that would be one game of truth, whose touchstones were: nation; a binary sex-gender system; (de)pathologization of homosexuality; the pro-natalism; and the moral panic around children to stem the demographic crisis.

The conservative values of Putinism were also accompanied by the ongoing corruption of the ruling class (see Schimpfössl), and a diminution of social supports seen in many neoliberalizing contexts. In that sense, there was a close alliance between conservative values, social disinvestment, and capitalist accumulation.

Turning to the role of market society played in the games of truth: capitalist culture contains many ideas about selfhood: life is a career; time is money; invest in your future; be your best self; it’s up to you; change starts with yourself. Such phrases were circulating in Russia in the early 2000s with relative novelty. And they are not exactly homologous with the politics of self and the social under Putin. Crucially, as therapists looking to start their own services in commercial contexts tried to advertise services, they oriented towards what kinds of services they thought the client population would want, or what the client population in fact did want. As one of my most helpful research participants, Tatiana Georgievna, told a group of psychology graduate students, “We are creating a market [for services] where one does not exist.” It was really interesting to move ethnographically around these commercial contexts. The range of things many psychologists were doing were certainly articulated with forms of capitalist individualism. But—and here is the tension I mentioned above—they were also playing a range of other “games,” to extend Foucault’s metaphor—including thinking critically about what kind of society they wanted to live in, how to (re)build sociality and what kind of a society a future Russia would be.

Natalja Czarnecki: In your interlocutors’ idealization of democratic sociality and belonging, what are some of their models of success, if any? Are these models geopolitical in definition and scale? Secular? Otherwise imagined?

Tomas Matza: The first thing that the phrase “models of success” prompts in my mind is that success for all the folks I got to know was not really very concretized. At least it would not rise to the level of a model. Let me use here a couple of examples of their seminars (which were being offered at the time of my research). One, which I talked a lot about in the book, was “managing [one’s own] emotions and behavior.” In this case, the model would be a specific kind of self-reflection and emotional awareness (or intelligence) that would manifest in a few ways. One, it would help young people to become more emotionally mature, to understand their reactions, and, in a kind of CBT sort of way, therefore learn how to mitigate their reactions to the world in supposedly more healthful ways. For example, a key selling point of ReGeneration was to tell parent/clients that they would be able to help their children to be “better”—along the same lines as, say, a Knowles course in the U.S. where, through character development, behavior is improved. If we think of models of success in socio-scalar terms, then the scale in this example is the person and the family. But they also had other programs that were a bit less family-centric and more focused on the child-client’s social milieu. Another camp was centered on friendship: how to make lasting, authentic friendships; and, again, what kinds of self-work might lead to better social relationships.

Your question is probing at something that I would say I was also really interested in—which is what broader sociopolitical significance might these kinds of programs have had? What sorts of visions of a good Russian society did these efforts, even if implicitly, indicate? Or, in your terms, what sorts of models did this “idealization of democratic sociality and belonging” imply? Perhaps I wasn’t asking (or listening) in the right ways, but I did not find this very clearly articulated. (Or, perhaps my wrong turn was to have expected my interlocutors to speak of their work in terms of a well-articulated political platform!) There may be something possibly specific to postsocialist Russia about this sort of “political indeterminacy” (see Yurchak), but there is also something that may be more generally true about people anywhere on the planet working in the mental health fields: their purview is more likely to be the personal and the inter-personal, not the political-economic.

Nonetheless, it is possible for anthropologists like me to draw out political implications of particular practices. One that I found pertained to the game of truth mentioned earlier. Even if only implicit, the work they were doing on selfhood and sociality were in some ways generatively critical of Putinist social tendencies such as heteropatriarchy, selfishness, corruption, intolerance. In that sense, I found in their work a kind of liberal-progressive kernel.

Natalja Czarnecki: Energiia (energy), dusha (soul), and garmoniia (harmony) are elements that your interlocutors invoke as “idioms of psychosociality.” You write that these idioms are politico-ethical in practice (194). In this politico-ethical work, did psychologists consider psychosociality a potential site of scalable norm-making or as something else?

Tomas Matza: I think this one depends on which person you asked. For instance, one psychotherapist whom I call Vitya Markov in the book would probably agree with the idea that psychosociality at least aspires to be a scalable form of norm-making. So, the more people you encounter as clients and help both with personal issues and with social relationships, the more people you reach. It also wasn’t just a one-person-at-a-time thing. Vitya’s organization had also set up a hotline (telefonnoe doverie) where anybody could call in and get confidential psychological advice. Others, like Tatiana, were towards the end of my fieldwork in negotiations with the federal government to organize trainings on tolerance. And staffers from ReGeneration went on to do trainings in team building for Russians working for multi-national corporations. Finally, probably the most visible site for “scalable norm-making” would have to be the psychologist and lawyer, Mikhail Labkovsky. At the time of my research, Labkovsky’s show, For Adults About Adults (Vzroslym o vzroslykh) on the radio station Echo of Moscow was being broadcast across the country. Labkovsky was especially interesting because of the creative and interesting ways that he articulated self-work with a wide range of social norms, ranging from the mundane (pick up the garbage in the dvor (shared courtyard); restore collective concern about shared spaces such as apartment entryways), to the more expansively political (participate as citizens in the political process; organize to cooperatively manage housing).

On the municipal side of things, other colleagues were working to establish a holistic care system comprised of in-school psychologists along with a central organizing institution (the PPMS network). So here PPMS staff would make rounds around the municipality to hold trainings for teachers on psychological counseling/diagnostics, as well as to collect information about children who were really struggling at school or at home and needed the extra attention of PPMS’ psychology staff. The idea of “scalable norm-making” in municipal services isn’t quite the right phrase, but it isn’t wrong either. I say this because, like a lot of clinical social workers in places like the US, the effort is reparative more so than prospective. Put in other terms, these professionals are largely playing defense in the face of the wide range of suffering that is produced by economic inequity, discrimination, domestic abuse, and other sorts of issues that, in the case of my fieldwork, young people in X region were encountering. I remember a phrase that Olya, a social worker in a psychoneurological clinic (PND) told me. She said that she and others at the PND were working with those “needed by nobody” (nikomu ne nuzhnyi). Olya was referring to the clientele of the PND, many of whom were experiencing severe kinds of mental illness. But the phrase is also apt for describing the many small tragedies of those living on the margins of gentrification. What is the scalable norm-making here? I suppose the restoration of a kind of basic humanity to young people neglected or caught up in the public housing cycle of the Dedski dom, as well as the provision of some basic level of care and concern.

Natalja Czarnecki: Callers to Labkovsky’s radio show ask him, for help with problems related to family life and/or personal issues. You write that there is something distinctly post-Soviet about these mass-mediated personal disclosures (198). Can you say more about the post-Soviet nature of this desire for publicized self-help? What might the post-Soviet turn to psychotherapeutic expertise tell us about democratic be(long)ing and authority in an age of authoritarian politics and precarious care in neoliberal states?

Tomas Matza: I think, first, about a person I call Inna, who described to me the feeling of being in the first psychological training in the 1990s. She talked about switching from the formal you when addressing non-intimates in the training to the informal you. And she described a feeling that sounded, to me, almost like intoxication that related to experiencing that kind of intense, fast-tracked stranger intimacy. Having myself participated in a lot of group therapy contexts, I could really identify with what Inna told me. It is exciting to find that level of authenticity in a social milieu when otherwise often we are going through our days, making chit-chat, and just getting by under a mask. There is something that is certainly beyond just Russia with this “desire for publicized ‘self-help.’” So I am speculating that many participants in the therapeutic process share a desire for self-work in the company of others. And in the U.S., too, we find lots of examples of mass mediated expressions of self-work in the company of (many) others. Think about all the radio and TV shows devoted to self-help, the giant Tony Robbins seminars of the 1990s and early 2000s. Drawing on a bit of Durkheim here, this kind of collective effervescence is an extremely powerful social force that certainly exists all around the world.

Historical context matters, too, though. What I tried to listen closely to in my research is how people having these early therapeutic encounters in the company of others described the significance of the experience. For Inna it was the shift from formality to informality, and the possibility to speak about herself in intimate terms with people she didn’t know well—things that she felt were not available to her in the late-Soviet period. For Vitya it was the problem of late-Soviet surveillance of therapeutic settings. For Tatiana it meant the creation of a context in which psychological work with children could happen in non-governmental contexts. What I detected in these statements were expressions of frustration with the constraints of the Soviet past when it came to practicing or consuming psychology. So I would explain the desire for stranger sociality, for self-help in the company of others (at least among particular groups), in very distinctly historical terms as well as a more general desire for collective effervescence. As I try to write in the book, this is what makes this form of care postsocialist.

I am currently struggling through a longer meditation on what I am calling “care in the gap” and in that piece I am making the case that there is also a politics to my interpretive move. I would say that it reflects my ambivalent embrace of liberal progressivism, as well as an interest in figuring out how people “make do” politically in their daily lives; how they work to do something beneficial, but don’t always succeed; how they work to balance livelihood and self-interest with care for others. I say ambivalent because I think that the liberal progressive politics of incrementalism is also often the politics of stasis, or worse, a sly reproduction of social inequities. I see that. But I also see the way that the hermeneutics of suspicion as articulated in a lot of critical anthropology risks committing forms of analytic violence against interlocutors; proposes textually a kind of political purity that is probably inconsistent with the way that most people live; and ultimately produces a kind of future pessimism. In the context of Russian sociality and the process of personal growth, I always come back to the psychologists I got to know. They strove to care for others in less-than-ideal circumstances. They worked to, and in many cases, did provide people looking to survive and thrive in a changing society some measure of support. If we are thinking about the problems of authoritarianism and precarity under austerity, then these efforts of mutuality are certainly an important counterforce, and worth taking seriously in our work.

Robert W. Gehl and Sean T. Lawson on Social Engineering

Interview by Emma Briant


Emma Briant: Cambridge Analytica often pitched their methods as a contemporary digital marketing firm – if you were sat next to Alexander Nix at a dinner party, how would you convince him your book explains what’s really going on?

Robert W. Gehl: First of all, should we even trust that the dinner party is actually not a cover for some nefarious Nix scheme? Wasn’t Nix famous for such tricks? I’d be worried about what Nix is trying to convince me of! And given his duplicity – such as his claim to a German audience in 2017 that Cambridge Analytica got their data through legitimate means – is it even possible to convince him of anything?

Sean T. Lawson: I think I’d start by agreeing with the general premise: Cambridge Analytica was a contemporary digital marketing firm, not unlike many others. And therein lies the issue. The unique combination of big data, machine learning, and microtargeted messages that CA and so many others are adopting is an innovation, but one with potentially negative impacts.

Robert W. Gehl: Agreed. I think I would point to your work, Emma, among others –   whistleblowers such as Kaiser and Wylie, journalists such as Cadwalldr. Based on that work, we can say we already know what’s going on. What we need to do is further theorize it and look for points of pressure to fix the problems of manipulative communication. I think that’s the approach that all of us – you, us, people like Joan Donovan – are taking now.

Sean T. Lawson: I also don’t know that we’d claim that Social Engineeering accounts for the entirety of what’s “really going on.” What we’re doing is offering another way of thinking about what’s going on, one that we hope helps to connect the disparate contemporary pieces – like CA, but also Russian interference operations – with one another and with a broader, historical context.

Emma Briant: You post the question of how “crowdmasters, phreaks, hackers and trolls created” a new form of manipulative communication.  But how new is it really? You trace a long history, so what is new and distinct in what you see today?

Sean T. Lawson: Trying to sort out what is new and unique in the contemporary moment was one of our main goals for the book. As you note, many of the practices we see today have been part of public relations, propaganda, marketing, or hacking for a long time. Part of our frustration was that so much of the current discourse treats what’s happening with Cambridge Analytica or the Russians as unprecedented. It’s not. But it’s also not just “the same old thing,” either. So, we think what’s new here is, first, the unique combination of new methods of data gathering, analysis, and targeting that have the goal of allowing social engineers to have societal-level impacts by engaging people at the individual or small-group level. Second, we think the ability to shift fluidly and quickly between the interpersonal and mass forms of social engineering in a given campaign is also an innovation.

Robert W. Gehl: Right – that fusion of interpersonal con artistry techniques with mass societal engineering desires is what’s new. That’s what we mean by “masspersonal social engineering.” This concept is a subset of recent “masspersonal communication” theory that suggests that the old mass/interpersonal divide means far less in the digital age. When a tweet @ someone can also be a public performance in front of thousands, and when an interpersonal interaction could be recorded and posted online, it’s harder and harder to draw the line between interpersonal and mass communication. Likewise, it’s hard to draw the line between interpersonal con artistry and mass propaganda.

Emma Briant: Scholars use a lot of different terms to describe the practices your book aims to help us understand.  You avoid using the term contemporary propaganda or influence and instead discuss manipulative communication.  Can you explain your choices? 

Robert W. Gehl: We’re reacting somewhat to conceptual confusion happening right now. For example, Benkler, Faris, and Roberts’s excellent book Network Propagandadoes a fine job tracing how disinformation flows through right-wing media, but one thing they do is specifically bracket off interpersonal con artistry as not-propaganda. This makes sense due to the history of propaganda, but not as much sense when we start to think how manipulation might be both highly targeted at individuals at one moment, and then scaled up to a population level the next moment.

Sean T. Lawson: We chose “social engineering” over those other terms for a couple of reasons. First, we wanted one term to cover this combination of both the interpersonal and mass forms of manipulation that we were seeing come together. A few other scholars and security researchers had floated the term “social engineering,” which we thought was clever. But the more we talked about it, the more we became convinced that it wasn’t just a clever one-off but that there was really something to the use of that term that not only described both aspects of what we were seeing but did so in a new and interesting way. Second, we also felt like propaganda or influence did not fully account for the active and malicious manipulation of what we were trying to describe. Propaganda, to us, implies spreading biased information promoting one’s own side. Influence, though it can be malicious, is ubiquitous and mostly innocuous. We think that social engineering better captures the active attempt at using communication to manipulate a target in a malicious way.

Robert W. Gehl: As for other terms, etymologically, “influence” comes from astrology, meaning a fluid coming from the stars that shapes our lives. I personally prefer “manipulation” – coming from the late Latin manipulare, leading by the hand. I think of it as a more human-centric and less metaphysical capacity to shape environments. This links up well with “social engineering” – engineering comes from gin, a trap, net, or snare (including verbal traps and snares) and reflects the desire to practically apply knowledge to shape a situation.

Emma Briant: Your approach bringing together histories of hacking and deception is truly original.  Was there a Eureka moment when you felt this idea coming together? Can you explain how the idea emerged from each of your work and unique perspectives coming together?

Sean T. Lawson: At the time, both of us were working together at the University of Utah and talked about our respective projects regularly. Rob had just published a book about the dark web and was well into a new project originally just focused on the history of hacker social engineering. I was just finishing up a book on cybersecurity discourse in the United States. At the end of that book, I argued that political warfare, propaganda, and disinformation were more the reality of cyber conflict than the as-yet hypothetical “cyber Pearl Harbor” infrastructure attacks that get so much attention. But the attempt at precise targeting and en masse seemed new and my initial efforts to explain it using analogies to the so-called “precision revolution” and airpower in the U.S. military felt unsatisfactory.

Robert W. Gehl: For me, I have long been intrigued by the concept of engineering – as I mentioned above, it contains the term gin (snare, trap). I was initially thinking of looking at the genealogy of software engineering – I had been collecting material on that since my first book. But in the course of writing Weaving the Dark Web, I came across people talking in hacker forums about “social engineering” and was hooked. I thought of social engineering to be a pejorative term for government programs, not as a fancy way of saying con artistry. So I dug into hacker social engineering. My initial plan was to write about hacker social engineering only, but in conversations with Sean, he convinced me that the more important move would be to trace both the older social engineering of the early 20th century with the hacker conception. In turn, I convinced him to join the project and bring his cyberwar discourse expertise to bear on it.

Sean T. Lawson: So, really through ongoing discussion of our respective projects at the time, we came to realize that there was overlap between hacking and propaganda techniques. As we looked around, we didn’t see anyone else taking that approach, so we decided to see what would happen if we did. We think that the result is a valuable new way of thinking about the relationships between these practices.

Emma Briant: How optimistic are you about our future in this age of masspersonal social engineering? Can we escape its grasp long enough to hack the system and build something better?

Robert W. Gehl: I love this question, because my current research addresses it head-on. I’ve been a longstanding advocate of quitting corporate social media, since its whole purpose is to have us produce ourselves as consumers through profiling and then deliver our profiled selves to advertisers. Facebook/Meta makes for a fine vehicle for masspersonal social engineering! But instead of advocating quitting social media – since it does give people a great deal of pleasure – I’ve been studying ethical alternatives, like Mastodon. If we’re looking for people who are hacking the system, look to the people coding Mastodon and the rest of the fediverse. You’ll note rather quickly that targeted advertising is not part of that system! And that helps make is less attractive to the sort of manipulations we’re talking about.

Sean T. Lawson: We can hack the system to make something better. We talk about options for that at the end of the book. However, I’m not optimistic that we will. That is what is so frustrating about this situation. Sensible privacy and data collection regulations would go a long way to thwarting the use of big data in masspersonal social engineering. Addressing the problem of dark money and front groups in politics is also essential. Doing more to shore up our cybersecurity to make the penetration and theft of information that can subsequently be weaponized is also possible and essential. Unfortunately, at the moment, we’re not seeing nearly enough progress in each of these areas. Too many actors, from corporations to social media platforms to marketing firms to politicians who rely on them have an interest in continuing to allow masspersonal social engineering to take place.

Robert W. Gehl: We joke that Sean is Eeyore. But I am afraid he’s right. I’m looking at home-grown, ethical FOSS solutions but they are not going to do the job on their own. Global regulations of what you, Emma, aptly call the “influence industry” have to happen.

Sandra Kurfürst on her book, Dancing Youth

Interview by Jonathan DeVore


Jonathan DeVore: Congratulations on your new book! First of all, can you recount how you became involved in the research for the book?

Sandra Kurfürst: Thank you, Jonathan! From 2007 to 2008, I conducted one year of ethnographic research in Hanoi for my PhD thesis. At the time, I was working on public spaces in Hanoi, and regularly hung out around the Lenin Monument at Dien Bien Phu Street and Ly Thai To Garden on the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake. At the time, I met a number of young people there who regularly assembled in the late afternoon hours to perform break moves, hip-hop dance, and popping. I began conducting interviews with young b-boys from the FIT and MiNi Shock Crews and young women dancers from Big Toe Crew. I was especially fascinated by these young women, their movement repertoire, and their fashion style. Whenever they arrived at the pavilion in Ly Thai To Garden, they would change out of their school uniforms – which were white blouses and blue trousers combined with a red scarf – and switch these for belly tops, XXL T-Shirts, and shorts or joggers. Having followed hip hop culture in Vietnam for a decade, I found hip hop’s diverse dance styles an ideal topic to study, as it combines my personal passion for hip hop with my longstanding interests in the anthropology of the urban and questions of socioeconomic transformation.

Jonathan DeVore: This continuity between your research projects nicely illustrates the observation that the questions we begin with in ethnographic research are rarely the same as the questions that we arrive at in the process. Can you describe how the questions and interests that your book addresses arose, and how these may have been transformed during the course of you research? Were there any key moments in your research that affected or even shifted your focus?

Sandra Kurfürst: Hip Hop comprises four practices of MCing (rap), breaking, graffiti writing, and DJing. Initially, I planned on examining all four practices and the interrelations among actors involves in these practices. However, once I began my research into rap and dancing, I soon noticed that there are some overlaps in the communities, but that rather distinct communities of practice have evolved around each practice. Some actors in Vietnam are very active in bringing these different strands of hip hop culture together, but, so far, there are only a few events that unite these different communities of practice. Then again, I found that the community of hip hop dancing was much more diverse than I had expected. The first dancers I talked to all differentiated between diverse styles, such as breaking, popping, locking, waacking, hip hop, and house dance. That is why I reconsidered my focus and decided to write about dance. From the start, I had been fascinated with how many young women engaged in hip hop’s different dance styles. Therefore, I chose a particular gender focus. However, one eye opening moment was a conversation with a woman locker who told me: “I don’t think it’s about young women, but about people who want to enjoy their life and develop themselves (…).” And that is how I got interested in the question of youth aspirations and visions of the good life under conditions of late socialism.

Jonathan DeVore:  Speaking of late socialism, one dynamic that I found interesting in the book was the gradual transition over a period of years from hip-hop as a relatively informal practice, occurring in common public spaces such as the Lenin Monument, to a set of relationships that became increasingly professionalized, involving market exchanges. Some of the dancers you describe who became more prominent, for example, were able to establish their own schools from which they derived their primary incomes.  Can you tell us more about processes of class formation, differentiation, and distinction among dancers in your research? More broadly, can you relate these processes to Vietnams’ transition toward “market reform, commodification, and consumerism, while officially insisting on socialist ideology and one-party rule” (p. 10)?

Sandra Kurfürst: When I did my research on public space in Hanoi between 2007 and 2008, I also interviewed b-boys and women dancers who were regularly meeting and dancing around Ly Thai To Garden. At that time, the dancers were either still in school or had jobs, and they did not have many economic resources. In 2018, the situation seemed to have slightly changed, as most of the professional dancers participating in my research held university degrees, and had gathered experiences in working in office jobs that were unrelated to dance. Some dancers, however, decided to quit their office jobs to open their own dance studios or to work as freelancers at different dance studios. Others owned their own fashion labels and combined their self-entrepreneurism with teaching dance classes. My study is not representative, of course, but from the conversations and interviews with men and women dancers alike, I gathered that most have urban middle-class backgrounds, and many of them grew up in Hanoi. Moreover, the relevance of consumption as both a status symbol, and marker of belonging to the community of practice, was visible and tangible. Indexes of distinction were comprised of street apparel, such as the German or U. S. sports brands Adidas, Nike, Vans, and so on, as well as other commodities, like photo and video cameras. Mobility was a further asset, as many dancers regularly travelled within Vietnam or the Southeast Asia region, which again requires financial resources and time. At the same time, the proliferation of dance studios in Vietnam’s major cities that offer children’s hip hop dance classes cater to growing demands by urban middle-class parents to provide their children with physical exercise and leisure activities other than gaming.

Jonathan DeVore: I see – so, parents want their children moving around instead of just sitting in front of televisions and computers!  This actually relates to another question I wanted to ask you about:  Embodied movements, gestures, and actions are notoriously difficult to represent textually, in the medium of an article or book. Can you describe the difficulties you faced, and the strategies you used, in representing the different dance forms you investigate—not only in the book, but perhaps also in other media, such as fieldnotes?

Sandra Kurfürst: Thank you. This is a topic that I struggle with to this day. Certainly, audiovisual formats are an option, and I would like to further pursue the question of writing dance in the future. As for fieldnotes: After taking dance classes, I recorded my sensations and experiences as well as student-teacher interactions in voice recordings on my way home. Listening to my own voice recordings later on, I particularly noticed my own shortness of breath after having trained with one dancer, named Mai. Also, the interview situations themselves were certainly sensory events. Whenever I sat down to transcribe interview recordings, or to write my field notes, I started humming and singing songs that my interlocutors had played for me on their phones. And I found myself searching the internet for tracks and videos they had told me about. A really fascinating format, to avoid simplifications involved in just describing what I saw and how I moved, seems to be autoethnographic performance. However, what prevented me from engaging in autoethnographic performance in the book were my English language skills. The use of different literary genres to express movement in written language is really appealing to me, but I would have to do so in my own mother tongue. In my teenage years, I used to write rap lyrics. So, writing in German would be one way for me to go.

Jonathan DeVore: I can certainly appreciate this challenge!  And as I read your book, I also found myself looking up YouTube videos of the songs and music videos you cited!  Perhaps a final question to conclude: Are there any interests or questions that remain open for you after writing the book?

Sandra Kurfürst: I keep wondering if, at one point, I could invite the women hip hop dancers to Germany for a performance in the city of Cologne. I think that would be a great opportunity to bring them together with Cologne-based dancers. Moreover, I would really like to meet them again – but due to the pandemic, I have not returned to Vietnam since 2018. At the time, when I got to know the women dancers, they were all at the end of their 20s – an age when women in Vietnam are usually married and have children. So, one question I did not ask, but which comes up again and again, is: To what extent does leading a dancing life have an impact on women dancers’ decisions to marry and have children?

I was also very glad to find queer dancers at dance battles. However, as battles are quite ephemeral events, and the dancers were not directly related to participants in my research, I did not have a chance to talk to them. But it made me wonder if queer performance, such as the style of waacking, helps to open up spaces for the queer community in Vietnam. The LGBTQIA+ community has become more active and more visible in public space, such as with the annual Viet Pride festival. So, I was wondering if dancing, and waacking in particular, may also be a way for them to create a community as well as to gain more public awareness and acceptance.

Jonathan DeVore: Thanks so much for talking with me, Sandra, and congratulations once again on Dancing Youth.  I’ll look forward to reading your next book on one of these other topics!

Leya Mathew discusses her book, English Linguistic Imperialism from Below


Interview by Shivani Nag

Shivani Nag: It would be helpful if you could first introduce the book, what led you to this book?

Leya Mathew: This was my dissertation research, at that time, there was a lot of debate about low fee private schools in India. That debate was already happening. And I am from Kerala (South India) where there was a very heated debate about state-funded schools closing down because of private schools. But the academic debate somehow did not match what I was seeing around me. A lot of it was framed in the language of school choice. The school choice literature comes from a very particular historical context in the UK and the US, where school choice makes sense. But in India, school choice makes very little sense. I mean there is this whole body of very insightful literature, but it is misaligned with what is happening. That is what led to the research.

Shivani Nag: The book engages with aspirations for English and among parents. Like you said, your work is based in Kerala, and in the North (of India) certain stereotypes exist about English being a far more comfortable language for those who are from the South. There is a certain complexity of location in the book in terms of geography, you know the dynamics of class, caste, religion (Christianity), the nature of market, and the political leadership (Communist Party). How did you listen to and make sense of the voices emerging in your field, especially because there were also multiple things shaping these voices? Also, I found your choice of “moral aspiration” very interesting, could you share some light on that as well?

Leya Mathew You’re absolutely right, what poverty looks like in certain parts of northern India in comparison to some parts of South India can be very different. Kerala has a long history of development, it’s very contested. At the same time, the intensity of aspiration is noted by others about northern India as well. Aspiration does travel across geography but the specificity of how it manifests would of course be different.

As for moral aspiration, for the longest time the title of my book was Moral Aspiration. The current title came much, much later, after the peer review. While writing, I read Andrea Muehlebach’s The Moral Neoliberal. She’s writing about a very different context, it’s about volunteerism in Italy, but the argument she made was very striking. We assume neoliberal capitalism and its accumulative impetus to be divorced from the moral. But the moral is very central to how capitalism functions as well as to how people are making sense of what’s happening around them.

In my context, whether it was mothers or policymakers in Delhi or Kerala, their expression was very, very moral. So how do you write about a moral neoliberal with all of its contradictions? Because here, you have elites and non-elites using the moral but in very different ways and with very different effects.

When elites claim that they represent the nation, they do so on the strength of their moral claims. Those who study the middle classes have written extensively about the significance of the moral for middle class hegemonic projects. The privileged middle class comes to stand in for everybody else and their agendas come to stand in for national agendas on the basis of their moral claims. The moral becomes the basis of how resources are distributed. Those are the two aspects I was trying to emphasize with the phrase moral aspiration.

Shivani Nag: I also wanted to ask you about the debate on medium of instruction, which has often and rightfully so, connected to questions around access, the accessibility of knowledge for the marginalized and for the oppressed sections. If you look at the Thorat committee report that came out after allegations of caste-based discrimination of students at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), one of the key concerns and recommendations had to do with the language gap, non-familiarity with English and the fact that institutions were doing very little to bridge that gap. When it comes to English, different kinds of voices have emerged from within the anti-caste struggles.  There are those who see in English an opportunity to counter a certain form of caste-ist standardization in regional languages. Both English and the regional language can be alienating and disconnected from the context. And, of course, others have also pointed towards the epistemological functions of language, and thus the need for the language of the oppressed to be brought to classrooms. Given these debates, I was wondering how would you reflect on the question of language and access, especially for the oppressed castes?

Leya Mathew My current project is on higher education, so these are things that I have been thinking about. In hyper competitive spaces like the IITs and AIIMS, questions around language can function very differently. In mid or lower tier spaces, English can work very differently. There’s something about how the space is located in relation to larger structures, we need to pay attention to that. The schools that I’m looking at in the book are really on the margins of society. As for epistemology, one of the things that I struggled with a lot is, what does epistemology mean when you can access the language only in its written form? These were also personal questions. I studied in a village and then a small town growing up, and I could only write in English. I learned to speak in English a lot later, after I went to college in the city. If you take all of this into consideration, then what are the kind of pedagogic and linguistic spaces that can be negotiated and created?  Can we creates ones which are not just welcoming but which are also serious because there’s also a lot of desperate desire for learning?

Shivani Nag: I was also thinking about bell hooks in the context of race. When she talks about English, there is the sense of this being the oppressor’s language which is still needed by the oppressed to be able to talk to those in power. When it comes to languages in India, given the very complex linguistic context we have, it’s not easy for us to clearly identify which is the oppressor’s language. In the context of caste, it’s a particular form of standardized regional language which becomes the oppressor’s language. Then the colonizer’s language can, instead, become a liberating language; our context is very complex.

Leya Mathew: It gets slightly more complicated in Kerala, because the state, the Communist Party is saying exactly this. In the book I write about how the state says that we don’t want a prettified language, we want to intentionally bring the language of the oppressed into our textbooks, and they did that to some extent. But the way it functioned; it became a very perverse inclusion of the language of the oppressed.

Shivani Nag: The private-public divide in schools almost neatly translates to the English versus regional language, and the elite – non-elite private school divide to one between those students who are coming from contexts where English is almost their first language versus those for whom English would still be an imposition. Can the question of language in school can be split off from the concern for the common school system, given that our schools are so hierarchical, and divided so sharply?

Leya Mathew: Yes, it is an extremely hierarchical system. How to work with language education within this hierarchical system if you do not have the option of common schooling is something that needs to be engaged with seriously. I think the debate misses that point, you’re very right. Common schooling has been talked about from the very beginning (independence of the nation), but never been implemented. By now, we know that it will never happen. Any discussion on language education or, for that matter, anything to do with pedagogy has to take this into account. When we have this sort of hierarchical system, then what does it mean to make textbooks for the country? Or design instruction for our country? It doesn’t work. I’m sure that even within a common schooling system there would be hierarchies. But what we have are very institutionalized hierarchies which also distribute resources in very particular ways. You’re absolutely right, I think there needs to be a lot more discussion on this.

Shivani Nag: Since you brought in the question of pedagogy, there is also an imagination of the nation in textbooks. Another school ethnography around aspirations for English that I found engaging was by Shalini Advani and that book, Schooling the National Imagination, was located in the North Indian context. Given the concerns around language imposition that have again come up with the National Education Policy and the resistance from the southern states, how did the relation between language aspiration and a national identity unfold in your field?

Leya Mathew There’s a lot in Shalini’s book about how the nation is imagined, particularly through textbooks, but she also talks about how the classrooms themselves didn’t fit into that imagination because they were on the margins of society. I don’t talk about nationalism in the book but where it comes through most clearly is in the CBSC high school textbooks, the Main Course Book, where immediately, this techno-science nation emerges.

The other reason why I could not really think about nationalism in the context of my study is perhaps because the nation is implicitly Hindu, and Hindi-speaking these days. Sanjay Srivastava demonstrated some of it brilliantly in his book about the Doon School. My context was neither Hindu nor Hindi speaking. Your question makes me reflect on why nationalism did not come up as a theme for me.

There is obviously more sub-nationalism than nationalism in terms of language identities if you look at South India. For the Kerala State and for regional elites, and remember these are people who are bilingual and very comfortable with academic Malayalam and academic English, there is definitely a feeling of imposition (of Hindi), as well as mechanisms of responding and resisting. But these concerns are very distant for those who are not imagined as part of the nation to begin with.

Shivani Nag: When one tries to engage with questions around aspirations, looking at them not just in (marginalized) communities, but also in leadership, that is important.

Moving forward, I was also thinking about how the medium of instruction question in schools cannot be insulated from the question of medium of instruction in higher education. You know language diversity in school systems does not carry over to higher education. In India, higher education is even more exclusive, I think we can confidently say that at least 90% of it is in English.

Leya Mathew: And the sciences, engineering, medicine, architecture, all of that is only taught in English. Like I said, I’m studying higher education now and in a state (Gujarat) where regional-medium education is very strong. I see it unfolding in a much more complex way. These are high achievers from Gujarati-medium schools, they’ve made it to a premier college at the regional level. So those from regional language instruction may have other resources that they can mobilize. Another important factor to keep in mind is that this is also a time of increasing unemployment, when even a professional degree does not lead you to a decent job. What does the cultural capital of English mean if it just leads to a precarious labor market, so it’s complicated.

Shivani Nag: The whole idea of language and socioeconomic mobility must be getting affected in so many ways, with the decline in employment opportunities.

What were some of the major insights that emerged from your field research that perhaps also took you by some surprise? There are certain expectations that one has, I’m very interested in knowing what the surprises were.

Leya Mathew Fieldwork always surprises you. Even in my current project, I went in thinking that those from English medium schools would have everything lined up for them, and it was a big surprise to learn that English did not get you anywhere. In terms of the book, I think the most surprising part was, I thought if you were deprived and knew you were deprived, you would respond with anger. It seems very naïve now. At the Malayalam-medium school, there was a lot more hope and aspiration. It took me a long time to wrap my head around that and I remember having a lot of conversations with my supervisor about that. People’s lives always surprise us, there’s much more happening in anybody’s life than what theory can capture. And I think that’s also the interesting part of doing research.

Shivani Nag: Absolutely. The complexities, the nuances take very different kinds of shapes. I’m so glad to have had the opportunity of engaging with your work. It keeps reminding us to not be just rhetorical with research. It is important to listen to what your participants and the context is speaking.

One last question: educational research in India is focused on outcomes, achievements, certain statistical measures, how do you see the role of ethnography? When you try to convince policymakers, they want data or solutions in the form of step one, step two, step three, so if you go to them with a very rich ethnographic work, it impresses them, but it also makes it difficult for them to pick out two things that they can apply towards.

Leya Mathew Yes, policymakers want numbers and steps, but the policymakers I worked with were ethnographic in their sensibilities. Most of the people I’m writing about in the book, they were not looking for numbers. My issue was different. The issue of numbers definitely is there, I’m not discounting that, that’s definitely a hegemonic discourse. But we need to recognize that the critical is an equally hegemonic discourse. We need to hold these two hegemonic discourses together instead of pitting them against each other. It was very troubling to document how critical scholars ended up creating such violent pedagogies. Like you said earlier, one has to listen very carefully, not take anything for granted, whether it comes with the label of critical or radical, instead, really listen and observe and see what the critical turn is actually doing in the world.

In terms of what you can apply, it’s very simple, there should be a functional library, I mean people have been saying that for the longest time. But in a context where English is being understood as socialization, to remember that you also must teach how to read and write became a fresh insight. We have now come to assume language to be oracy or the ability to socialize, we forget that literacy is something that is taught and learned, not acquired. I’m not saying something new, but something that is being forgotten in a particular political economic context.

Shivani Nag: Any last comments or reflections on your journey from the field to putting it out in the form of a book?

Leya Mathew I’m grateful that it got published. I couldn’t have asked for a better series, when I read the series editors’ preface, I was very touched. I’m very, very grateful that it all came together. It’s also important to note that writing a book needs a lot of institutional support. Academic careers also, it boils down to numbers, what are your publication numbers and how does it work for NAAC and CAS. Unless there is institutional support, it’s extremely difficult.