Aurora Donzelli on her book, One or Two Words

One or Two Words

Interview by Nicco La Mattina

Nicco La Mattina: A principle theme running throughout One or Two Words is that of “collective belonging” and how forms of collective belonging are crafted, achieved, maintained, and transformed discursively in the Toraja highlands of Sulawesi, Indonesia. What is “collective belonging” and how is this concept developed in One or Two Words?

Aurora Donzelli: You really hit the nail on the head: that collective belonging is indeed a key and perhaps under-theorized theme in my book. One or Two Words draws on almost two decades of intermittent fieldwork in a relatively peripheral region of the Indonesian archipelago to describe how, after the collapse of Suharto’s military regime (a.k.a. New Order), individuals make use of words and things to re-imagine their position within a fast-changing multilingual nation and manufacture new forms of participation in the immediate community of consociates. Since the turn of the millennium, Indonesia has undergone a major transition from a highly centralized autocratic state to a network mode of neoliberal governance. After three plus decades under General Suharto’s authoritarian rule, the Reform Era (or Era Reformasi) has prompted substantial changes, ranging from a gradual but drastic administrative devolution to the privatization of large sectors of the country’s economy. My main goal in this book is to explore how these structural and institutional transformations are at once enabled by and reflected in the open-ended recalibration of the power relations between the national language (Bahasa Indonesia) and a multifarious variety of vernacular idioms and registers. I use the concept of collective belonging as a lens to chart out how my interlocutors in the Toraja highlands of Sulawesi craft emergent forms of membership in their daily interactions in both the local community and the post-Suharto nation-state.

But to fully answer your question, I have to make a confession. My use of “collective belonging” is an implicit attempt to suggest an alternative to “identity”—a term I generally try to avoid. My focus on collective belonging is an invitation to look at how individuals use language to variously give shape to their experience of being part of a group, which, far from being a matter of solipsistic self-representations, always entails stance-staking processes and forms of metapragmatic participation in different scales of collective membership. My reservations about “identity” are both theoretical and political. Nowadays, whenever the term is invoked, be it in scholarly debates or quotidian conversations, it has become almost cliché to add that identities are positional, fluid, and intersectional. And, yet, perhaps due to the fact that it originates from the Latin demonstrative pronoun/adjective idem (“the same”), the term seems to inherently aspire to fixity and to imply an entity that remains the same under changing circumstances and situations. Since the mid-1990s, linguistic anthropologists and ethnographers of language have shown how identities are unstable and interaction-specific configurations discursively produced through complex assemblages of multimodal semiotic practices (think, for example, of the work done by Mary Bucholtz, Kira Hall, Penny Eckert, Norma Mendoza-Denton, but also Ben Rampton, Charles Antaki, and Peter Auer, among the others). Such scholarship has enabled us to think in more sophisticated terms about “identity” and represents one of the most significant (and probably under-acknowledged) contributions offered by scholars of linguistic interaction to social theory. And yet, as the term “identity” travels outside the realm of fine-grained analyses of communicative exchange to enter into other domains and debates, some of this sophistication is flattened or even lost.

The contemporary resurge of identity politics displays what to me appears as a problematic proprietary twist and is part of a broader ideological and semiotic shift towards a possessive notion of meaning and an individualist view of the hermeneutic processes of social life. As the Italian hip hop artist Marracash has eloquently put it in his recent song cosplayer: Perché tutto è inclusivo a parte i posti esclusivi, no?/Oggi che tutti lottiamo così tanto per difendere le nostre identità/Abbiamo perso di vista quella collettiva (Because everything is inclusive except from exclusive places, right?/Now that we strive so hard to defend our identities/we have lost sight of the collective). I too have strong reservations against this cultural drift, for it seems to pivot on the model of the contractarian individual and self-contained rational subject underlying most of contemporary public discourse. As a result of these trends, the complexity of a nuanced and positional notion of identity is often reduced to a perfunctory acknowledgment. My emphasis on “collective belonging” is a product of these concerns.

Nicco La Mattina: In your book, you discuss the contestation of “tradition” or “custom” [adat] as a category in colonial, national, and local discourses of differentiation. What is the relevance of discourses about “local traditional culture” and the usage of the regional language (Toraja) in the formation and transformation of forms of sociality?

Aurora Donzelli: I appreciate your question as it underscores the historical dimension of the ethnographic account I sought to provide in my monograph. Archival work has always been a fundamental component of my approach to the study of the interface between language and social relations and speaking as a cultural practice. One or Two Words aims to explore the process whereby my Toraja interlocutors have gradually developed a sense of themselves as an indigenous community. To this end, it is essential to pay attention to historical documents and analyze the cultural politics developed during the one hundred plus years that stretch from the late Dutch colonial period (from early 1900s till the Japanese invasion of 1942), to the post-independence phase (1945-1965), to Suharto’s New Order regime (1966-1998), through the advent of the Era Reformasi. This historical perspective reveals how the production of an earlier discourse of cultural distinctiveness framed through the colonial category of customary traditions (adat) has gradually morphed (during the last two decades) into a self-reflexive cosmopolitan idiom of indigeneity. My account is thus driven by the attempt to combine the longitudinal analysis of these larger discursive formations with the fine-grained analysis of how individuals, during the course of their daily interactions, positions themselves with respect to these different and somewhat coexisting versions of ethno-linguistic distinctiveness.

As Arjun Appadurai suggested, locality should not be equated or reduced to the mere demographic and geographical dimension of a spatially bounded territory, but rather has to be understood as a form of social experience produced through the work of imagination and interaction. One or Two Words explores how people, within the highly multilingual environment of the Toraja highlands (and the Indonesian archipelago at large), enact locality (and broader forms of subjectively experienced groupness) through situated acts of discourse. By attending to concrete instances of communicative exchange, I aim to problematize simplistic sociolinguistic models based on a direct correspondence between language choice and social affiliation. Indeed, participation in a socially shared sense of belonging to a group is hardly an all-or-nothing business. The transcribed excerpts presented throughout the book show how performances of locality may at times result in proud invocations of ethno-linguistic distinctiveness, while, other times, the local language may be presented as an index of provincial backwardness. In a similar fashion, the use of Indonesian is not always and not necessarily an appeal to the higher authority of a supra-local national code. Speakers may switch to Indonesian to assert a peripheral position of metapragmatic criticism against established linguistic hierarchies and thus highlight, in a parodic key, the paradoxes of the rhetoric of development typical of the New Order.

Nicco La Mattina: You mention that the post-Suharto era is often represented as a radical rupture with the past, and yet the discursive and aesthetic forms associated with the New Order proved to be of continuing relevance to your work. How does the idea of “aesthetic crossovers” contribute to understanding the articulation of global processes in a neoliberalizing Indonesia?

Aurora Donzelli: Like my first monograph (Methods of Desire, 2019), One or Two Words revolves around the core questions that have driven my research and my thinking for several years now: To what extent structural changes may reconfigure entrenched linguistic political economies? What happens when the implicit routines informing what Harvey Sacks called “doing being ordinary” are somewhat disrupted by novel political practices and ideologies? How shall we approach from a theoretical and methodological standpoint the relationship between the given (that is, tacit procedures) and the categorical (that is, explicit paradigm shifts)? What units of analysis should we use to describe and understand the linguistic implications of events locally perceived as “reform” of the sociopolitical order? Unlike my previous book, however, the focus here is not so much on the language-mediated shifts in structures of feelings and moral reasoning, but rather on the re-articulation of the relationship between national and local languages in a country renowned for its great linguistic diversity; and on the parallel transformation of forms of political imagination in the aftermath of the collapse of an authoritarian regime.

I use the musicological concept of crossover (understood as the blending of different genres targeted at a new audience) as an allegorical framework to describe the interplay of continuity and change that characterizes present-day Indonesia. Indeed, contrary to the representation of the post-Suharto transformation as radical rupture with the past, the contemporary moment in Indonesia appears as a complex transitional phase, in which different genres and registers overlap, producing unexpected constellations of speech forms and political practices. The Toraja Highlands (and Indonesia at large) have been exposed to apparently contradictory strands of discourse: the promotion of local customs and the diffusion of transnational ideologies of democracy; the celebration of pre-capitalistic communal values and the neoliberal extension of market principles into every aspect of cultural and socio-political life; the push toward political renovation and the revival of indigenous political and linguistic practices. By focusing on the blending of continuity and change, my analysis tries to show how contemporary appeals to transnational discourses of indigeneity should be understood in relationship with (and as a challenge to) pre-existing constructions of the ‘local’ modeled on the cultural politics of colonial and developmentalist regimes. This analytical perspective reveals novel forms of empowering positionality based on a new aesthetics of “the vintage”—mediated by references to early post-colonial discourse and images—and “the peripheral,” expressed through the valorization of regional codes. While, during the New Order, the use of vernacular languages within institutional settings was stigmatized as a marker of backwardness and illiteracy, now the switch to local languages may project a trendy (at once cosmopolitan and indigenous) speaking subject.

Nicco La Mattina: You attend to the distribution and exchange of meat, meals, and cash between landowners and sharecroppers and between islanders and the diasporic community. How does the circulation of material language, cattle, and cash contribute to the production of indigeneity and the cultivation of collective belonging?

Aurora Donzelli: One or Two Words is in strict conversation with the emerging interest in linguistic materialities and the material components of signification, but also with previous studies on the intersection of speech and things (e.g., Malinowski’s Coral Gardens, Nancy Munn’s The Fame of Gawa, Webb Keane’s Signs of Recognition). The different chapters describe how—in the remote and primarily rural region of eastern Indonesia where I conducted my fieldwork—people use spoken words, digitally transmitted messages, cash, and other material things to produce novel ways of imagining the local community and the nation-state. In spite of their apparent geographic isolation, the Toraja have a long history of encounters with exogenous cultural and socio-economic forces, which can be properly understood only if we consider both the circulation of words and the exchange of things. In this perspective, the Toraja highlands should not be seen not a remote region inhabited by an ethno-linguistic and religious minority, but rather as a site of cosmopolitan intersections. By bringing together within the same analytical field linguistic and material activity, the book aims to offer an interaction-centered approach to indigeneity—a semantically and politically complex term whose minimal definition entails material and symbolic forms of attachment to a specific land, collectively imagined as homeland.

As I am further learning through my new project on the relation between language and indigenous foodways among Italian neo-rural entrepreneurs and hobby farmers, objects (e.g., regional food-items, indigenous horticultural varieties, organically produced seeds, etc.) mediate forms of symbolic and material attachment and enable culturally distinctive forms of sociality. In a similar way, in Toraja, material items are key in producing forms of collective belonging and indigenous imaginings. Of special relevance is the local system of ritual gifts and counter-gifts based on the purchase, slaughtering, and exchange of pigs and buffaloes. Regulated through complex social norms, active participation in these exchanges is a sine qua non condition of belonging in the Toraja community. In this light, the Toraja gift system is a core semiotic technology for establishing the individual’s membership within a transnationally imagined local community. To be Toraja means to owe and be owed, and to be implicated in a web of interpersonal expectations that only become visible through funerals, weddings, and house-ceremonies. This powerful social logic constitutes the bedrock of the strict relationship between the Toraja dwelling in the highlands and the large diaspora who live in other Indonesian and overseas locales. Therefore if we want to fully understand the ongoing recalibration of power relations between rural peripheries and global metropoles we need to attend to the semiotic practices of exchange and translation of both words and material objects: how are vernacular idioms converted into national and transnational codes? Which types of (in-person or digitally-mediated) speech acts are needed to exchange the meat of ritually slaughtered animals?  How are ritual offerings of pigs and buffaloes translated into monetary equivalents? How is the affective labor of hospitality and social solidarity traded for payments in kind and translated into sharecropping arrangements? To understand the diasporic social connections that structure the Toraja imagined community my ethnographic account seeks to provide snapshots of the actual semiotic labor that people perform in their daily lives as they deal with a complex social grammar of reciprocal exchange.

Nicco La Mattina: In One or Two Words, as in much of your work generally, you attend to translation practices and ideologies about translation, in particular between the national Indonesian language and Toraja, a regional language. What is the role of translation in your work and in the discursive enactment of collective belonging?

Aurora Donzelli: Translation is indeed central to this book and to my work in general, which is, of course, hardly surprising for a linguistic anthropologist working in a highly multilingual environment like Indonesia. This is a very good and extensive question: let me begin by noting that the very title of the book “one or two words” is a somewhat clunky English literal translation of the Toraja expression “sang buku duang kada,” which, in turn, is an imperfect rendering of the Indonesian term “pidato” (“oration,” “public address”). So, in a way, the entire book can be read as an attempt to reflect on the cultural and ethnopramgmatic implications of this lack of direct correspondence. One of the main points that I try to make as I attend to this task is to show how translation cannot be understood as a naturalistic operation undertaken in a political vacuum. As Elinor Ochs noted in her seminal article about the practice of transcription, translation is never a neutral and straightforward endeavor. Not only any actual exercise of translation is always inflected with theoretical goals and assumptions, but translations (even when only potential and imagined) are always embedded within power-laden relations between codes and registers, which inform language ideologies and are affected by larger semiotic ideologies—a term Webb Keane coined to refer to the often implicit but always meaningful and effectual assumptions about what signs are, how they function, and how they are linked to their objects.

Translation is one of the fundamental tropes in the history of anthropology as a discipline. However, I find that, somewhat paradoxically, the linguocentric and philological bend that at times characterizes linguistic anthropological work may occlude our ability to appreciate more inclusive and extensive notions of translation, which encompass not simply translation between idioms, but also between audiences, discursive genres, semiotic modalities, cultural frameworks, pragmatic contexts, and, perhaps even more importantly, between different ideologies and practices of (in)-translatability.From a methodological standpoint, there is a common and often unspoken preference among linguistic anthropologists to prioritize monolingual work in the target language. This, of course, goes all the way back to old debates (such as the one that took place in 1939-1940 between Margaret Mead and Robert Lowie) on “native languages as fieldwork tools” and on the degree of linguistic fluency required by ethnographers. In the highly multilingual environment where I undertook my fieldwork I was often confronted with translanguaging practices whereby my interlocutors would draw upon different codes within their repertoire (Indonesian, English, Bugis, etc.), both during the course of transcription sessions and in casual conversations. Although it meant departing from the imperative of monolingual fieldwork, switching across different languages and metalanguages provided me with valuable insights into the local ideologies of translation, linguistic competence, grammaticalness, and collective belonging. One or Two Words is thus an attempt to explore notions and practices of (in)-translatability as a way to understand the political economies of language and their ongoing recalibration in an Indonesian periphery.

Beth Povinelli on her book, The Inheritance

The Inheritance

Interview by Randeep Hothi

Randeep Hothi: The Inheritance is about many things — inter alia, your family’s migration to the US, your two parents and five siblings, childhood in Louisiana, your ancestral village at the juncture between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy, trauma, melancholy, brutality, patriarchy, and (as you say in the preface) what Hortense Spillers calls the American grammar of race. At its most explicit, the book argues that, “Inheritance doesn’t come from the past. Inheritance is the place we are given in the present in a world structured to care for the existence of some and not of others.” (p. 315) Elaborating on this, you conclude The Inheritance by explaining that: “While my family’s psychic disturbances are real and undeniable, they lie within a racial and settler infrastructure that dismisses an entire host of systematic social harms. All of us travel along this infrastructure, consciously or unconsciously, willingly or with both feet on the brakes.” (p. 312)

I think of queer theoretical criticisms of biological kinship, or what you elsewhere have called the “genealogical grid” (Povinelli 2002), and wonder whether The Inheritance might be suggesting a politics of un-inheritance, insofar as this structure of care might be re-made. On the other hand, it seems that our political horizon allows some to un-inherit what others cannot (family, religion, nation, race, and so on). Does The Inheritance point to something like un-inheritance as a project?

Beth: I am not sure in hindsight either one of us will like the words un-inherit and un-inheritance. Their sounds are wrong in an unrecoverable way. But their discordant phonologies touch on, in ways that the terms disinherit and disinheriting do not, crucial issues at the center of The Inheritance and Between Gaia and Ground, both of which came out in 2021. On the surface, Between Gaia and Ground is nothing like The Inheritance. It is a theoretical intervention in how ontological claims about entangled existence are being articulated to human and more-than-human histories of colonialism. I won’t take up space summarizing the details of the argument. But one strand in Between Gaia and Ground may be useful here, namely, the contrast I draw between the way Édouard Glissant begins Poetics of Relation and the way Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari begin What is Philosophy? The latter asks what should be the proper relation between disciplines (philosophy, science, and the arts) and their productions (concepts, functions, affects). The former begins on a slave ship in the middle of the Atlantic in order to anchor a theory of Relation to the play between the specific and infinite differences that emerged from the belly of this monstrous trade, including how this place changed our concept-work. I suppose it should not surprise me how tightly connected the two books are, given they were being completed at the same time. Still, it wasn’t really until I was talking with my friend, the wonderful curator, Vivian Ziherl, that I really thought how much both books are born along by the same question—namely, how do we anchor specific inheritances to the ongoing spiraling sedimentations of the Indigenous and Black Atlantic and Pacific?

So, yes, The Inheritance stages my family’s history—the affects and narratives about our ancestral village—in order to unwork their affective, social, economic, ecological common sense. It tries to do so by articulating the stories little Elizabeth hears about her village to the racial and colonial worlds she is actually living in. The specificities of the family histories sketched in The Inheritance act as a sort of limit case. How do I frame the disturbances that rumbled through my family based on their dispossession in relation to the dispossessions they were able to take advantage of without thought? How do we tell these stories in such a way that they do not reinforce the white nativism running rampant in the US and Europe or the soft sell of DNA capitalism? It’s all too easy to reduce such stories to something like, “See we were also dispossessed.” How to produce, instead, a framework in which one feels the deep history of dispossession that marked Europe’s emergence from within its colonial actions, and yet still demonstrate how these European dispossessions are connected to the great machinery of settler capitalism? How are Europe’s dispossessed related to that slave ship whether or not they were steering it, landing on Plymouth Rock, or fleeing endless European wars. All the violence in the book is meant to stage a simple question. What do you do with violence done to you?

The great unsaid of the book is, of course, the nearly thirty-year old relation I have with my Belyuen/Karrabing family, colleagues. I mention Belyuen once in The Inheritance, near the end of Gramma’s section (“Then you died. Then Papa died. By that time, I was far away. Santa Fe, New Mexico. Belyuen, Australia”). My earliest conversations with now deceased Belyuen women were about their lands and how they “picked them up” through kinship with and descent from specific placed based therrawin (Dreamings, clan totems), and how one could come to belong to a place through mirrh (conception spirits). I have written about this in other places—especially in Labor’s Lot and The Cunning of Recognition. When they asked me where my family was from, I sketched out my family’s history, some of which you see in The Inheritance. I talked about how Povinellis and Ambrosis, like many families from the region had, and still have, clans; how I am a Simonaz Povinelli through my grandfather; and that my Gramma was a Bartolot Ambrosi. When a group of Karrabing travelled to Carisolo in 2020—Linda Yarrowin Rex Sing, Aiden Sing and I—we had a good chuckle watching the village genealogist work with me on my clan lineage. So, contrary to a critique of genealogy as such, we found a commonality in clan- and place-based forms of belonging.

But the genealogical grids that we met each other through were refracted. How to say this? Even as we found a space of shared relation to clan-based place-belonging—my family has clans too; my family belonged to land in common too; my family was dispossessed by the unfolding tsunami of European capital too—it was also easy to see that another grid disarticulated this relation, namely the racial grid of white supremacy and settled colonialism. Linda Yarrowin and I are leading a Karrabing project that emerged from our visit to Carisolo. We are calling it the “two clans” project. It tracks how my family clans and Karrabing Indigenous clans were inserted into the infrastructures of settler liberal capitalism. We aren’t thinking of it as a comparative history of abstracted forms, but a history of how these different clans maneuvered within the very different opportunities afforded to them. For example, “Povinelli” emerged as a cognomen, in the mid to late 15th century. The first clans of Povinelli, including the Simonaz, emerged at the turn of the 18th century. Family lineage and clans were important in Trentino in part because of system of semi-autonomy governance that emerged in 12th century, called the carte di regola system. In the carte system, male heads of families, cognomen and then clans, were given the power to decide who was part of the vicini and who was a stranger and thus who and how they could use common lands and smaller private gardens. When Napoleon conquered the region in the turn of the 19th century, he abrogated the carte di regola system in order to free the region of feudalism. We were freed from our common freedom so we could possess ourselves as individualized subjects and other things as purchasable objects. Of course, what happened was that others with capital swooped in and bought village lands and resources forcing villagers into intensive wage labor. Nice studies have been done showing the effects on local mortality—it plummets. By the early to mid 1900s, the Simonaz and Bartolot clans are largely gone from Carisolo, no longer able to survive within the village. They take up knife grinding. This is where The Inheritance commences.

Of course, at the same time that Napoleon is liberating us from our autonomy, he is refusing to allow Haitians to be liberated from their enslavement. The Dene political theorist Glen Coulthard puts the difference perfectly. Europe’s dispossessed become proletarianized, and as proletariats and then petite bourgeoisie my ancestors made a beeline to the lands of the Seneca. Europeans did not merely dispossess Native Americans, and other Indigenous peoples, they tried to exterminate them. As my ancestors are flocking into Seneca lands in Buffalo, New York, the first settlers are reaching Darwin having poisoned, shot, and interned a multitude of Indigenous people along the way. As my family is being inserted into whiteness, Karrabing families are struggling to survive within it. In other words, the two clans project is a sort of prologue to The Inheritance even as The Inheritance is a sort of prologue to my relation to Belyuen/Karrabing. When placed together the American grammars of race meet Australian grammars of settler colonialism.

But I want to come back to what you quoted above about the structures of care. These weren’t the actual final words of the book. The last words are, “My Gramma offered me an avenue into this insight. It took many others to force me to begin to use it.” I think these words are as crucially important as the ones that come before then. It wasn’t the responsibility of these Belyuen women to educate me. But equally, I did not educate myself. I think these two points are important for all the reasons, issues, raised in the Act III, namely—and this is hardly a new insight—at the core of settler and racial power is the amnesia, blindness, and disregard it produces for those who benefit from it. On the one hand, this structural blindness was turbo charged in my family because of the intensity of our own dispossession narratives. On the other hand, this blindness is just a typical feature of the US grammar of race.

Randeep Hothi: If you are interested in learning more, I want to direct readers to check out the full film version of The Inheritance for a limited time here. I also direct readers to check out Professor Povinelli’s podcast with New Books in Anthropology and interviews with Duke and Columbia.

And for more of this interview — go to this link.

Anna Marie Trester on her book, Employing Linguistics

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: In writing a book about how linguists get jobs outside of the academy, what kinds of misreadings or misconceptions were you trying to avoid?

Anna Marie Trester: By sharing stories that focus on moments where people really come alive in their work, I hope to give a glimpse to the multifaceted, complex, and challenging nature of the myriad worlds of work (both “outside” and inside the academy) where linguists are finding professional expression of their skills and training. I want to active dispel the misconception that working as a professor is the only kind of meaningful work for someone with a PhD in our field.

In the book, I explore the difference between working like a linguist, and working as a linguist.  Most of us won’t have the job title “linguist,” but that doesn’t mean that we won’t be addressing important challenges, and using our brains, and working with smart colleagues and collaborators.  Nor does it mean that we can’t bring specific skills and abilities that we cultivated over the course of academic study.

NB: I specifically profile some people in the book who work as linguists, but I bring focus to how they work and think like linguists within these jobs. I like to find unusual ways that our ways of thinking can show up and shape how we work (what we choose to focus on, how we frame problems, and so on).

Ilana Gershon: What aspects of people’s Phd training or experiences working as a professor proved helpful to them in these other jobs?

Each of the approximately 40 stories builds around a spark – something that I heard as a listener when the teller really came alive as they talked with me. Many of these sparks had to do with content-area knowledge, for example micro-level linguistic features like “adjacency pairs” – which knowledge comes to bear in work in conversation design work for artificial intelligence; or more macro-level questions like ensuring language access. Other north stars pointed to broad social aims like making workplaces more equitable and inclusive, looking for ways to make our field anti-racist, and confronting legacies of white supremacy and sexism. Still other linguists really shone when they talked about job-crafting (actively choosing and shaping jobs) to have more time or flexibility for family or work-life balance.   

I should mention, I was insistent on the ambiguity in the word “employing” for the title of the book because I wanted to include examples of people using linguistics outside contexts of work. There are stories of self-advocacy at the doctor’s office, or speaking up on the bus when the linguist heard hate-speech being used during the course of everyday commuting. I see value in these moments of employing linguistics as well.

Ilana Gershon:  What would you like people to know about LinkedIn as a medium?

Anna Marie Trester: That it’s a great research tool.  I was talking to a history PhD the other day who was telling me that she’s interested in UX research, but all the positions listed social science disciplines, and she wanted to know how humanists made themselves interesting to employers in this sector.  I fired up LinkedIn and popped in search terms like “history” “humanists” “user experience” and all these really interesting people with really interesting-sounding jobs returned.  Those are the people to whom she needed to bring that question. 

When it comes to LinkedIn, I find many academics to be overly focused on the profile and being found, when it is at least (if not more) about using LinkedIn to find things: conversations that you might want to join, events to attend, people to connect with, updates about your network, etc. etc.

One last thing (I can’t help myself – I love to talk about LinkedIn!) there is no better source of data for professional self-presentation. Say you’re applying to work at an organization like The Wikimedia Foundation. You can go on LinkedIn and find the linguists who work there and see how they describe their background, their experience, their current tasks.

Ilana Gershon: What should people know about how informational interviews function as a genre?

Anna Marie Trester: In the book, I use the metaphor of “charting the constellations” to make sense of all of the activities that professionals do as part of career development, activities like self-reflection and yes, the all important informational interviews. For those of you who haven’t heard the term: informational interviews are conversations with people about their work. And the bottom line is that you need to do a lot of them before you start to see patterns. Informational interviews only really become helpful in sense-making (giving you perspective and clarity) when you have much fodder for reflection and can put what you learn from these conversations into context with what they reveal to you about your own interests and curiosities. They also give you feedback on how you are likely to be understood and valued in fields of interest, which can then point you towards organizations, people, and projects that inspire you to learn more.  

Ilana Gershon:  What do you wish academic advisors knew about how their graduate students could get jobs outside of the academy?

Anna Marie Trester: I wish advisors would approach finding jobs as a research project, and frame them as such for their students. The great news is that we are very well-trained as researchers! There just are different sources of data when it comes to learning about career – alumnae being probably the most valuable one. And because it takes very little effort to keep track of all the places graduates go after they leave campus thanks to LinkedIn, I wish more professors would take a few minutes when people are graduating to make that connection (so that they can invite them back to talk to students about their work down the road).

I wish more advisors would encourage their students to take advantage of the expertise on campuses over at the career centers and alumni offices. Simply helping students formulate better questions would go such a long way. Just as one would advise someone formulating an actionable research question for a thesis or dissertation project, students need to move from “how do I find a job in industry?” to a question like “where could I find application of my research in language and gender in public policy world?” Just like a good lit review, researchers will know that they are getting somewhere when they start to get to the same source multiple ways!

Danko Šipka on his book, Lexical Layers of Identity

Lexical Layers of Identity

Author Interview by Nikolina Zenovic

Nikolina Zenovic: You have written extensively on lexicography, lexicology, and lexical conflict, particularly in the context of Slavic languages. How does Lexical Layers of Identity build from your previous work? Also, could you please summarize your main argument in Lexical Layers of Identity for readers who are less familiar with Slavic languages and linguistics?

Danko Šipka: This book is a direct product of years of my work on compiling various dictionaries and studying how the lexicons of various Slavic languages interact with their respective cultures. The main claim that I am advancing in this monograph is that the vocabulary of our first language (and then of any other languages that we speak) gives us an identity of its own, independent of a myriad of other identities that we may possess. There are three major ways in which the vocabulary of our languages assigns an identity profile to us. First, there is what I call the deep layer of identity. It concerns, among other things, the way in which our words carve out the conceptual space of our language. For example, Slavic speakers do not have to differentiate between foot and leg, hand and arm, finger and toe, skin and leather, and so on, as they can use one word for each of the aforementioned pairs of words in English. On the other hand, some Slavic languages will have four words for the English verb to go (depending on whether the action is repeated or not and whether you are going on a means of transportation or on foot). These, and many other distinctions, are deeply rooted, and the speakers and language authorities alike do not have any agency in modifying them. The second lexical layer of authority is the incorporation of the vocabulary into various cultural circles. I call it the exchange layer. This layer of identity is a result of the historical development of languages and their cultures. Slavic languages are mostly defined by borrowings from Western European languages (most notably German, French, and relatively recently English). Many of these words come from the common European Greek-Latin heritage. Some Slavic languages are additionally marked by Near Eastern words (most of which came with the mediation of the Turkish language). In this layer of identity, we are marked by the cultural circle to which we belong. Despite the anti-European sentiment in some Slavic cultures, the identity that Slavic vocabularies give us in this aspect is clearly pan-European. Finally, there is the surface lexical layer of identity, which is defined by the prevailing attitudes of the speakers toward linguistic norms. One can see how this identity can be different when comparing the English-speaking cultures, where linguistic authorities are unknown with Slavic cultures, where linguists are rock stars. While the norms of the standard varieties of English have been maintained by an army of copy editors, teachers, lexicographers, and so on, without any generals, the presence of linguistic authorities in Slavic cultures is very prominent. This prevailing attitude toward the sources of linguistic authority (whether it is the acceptance or contestation of their proposals) contributes to the linguistic profile of the speakers of Slavic languages and thus to their linguistic identity.

Nikolina Zenovic: What motivated you to pursue this project and focus specifically on lexical layers as opposed to other linguistic layers of identity?

Danko Šipka: There is a distinction in historical linguistics between internal linguistic history (those changes in a language that cannot be tied to processes in the society, for example, the fact that a language loses diphthongs, such as sounds like ou in the English word about) and external linguistic history (those changes that result from processes in the society, for example, lexical borrowing which is typically a consequence of conquest, patterns of economic dominance, and so on). The fact is that the lexicon is inextricably embedded into the fiber of the societies that use the language or languages in question. Other linguistic structures may contribute to the linguistic identity of a person (for example, the sounds of Slavic languages may sound to the speakers of non-Slavic languages like rustling leaves). However, given that the lexicon is the main interface between the language and society, it is that segment of our language that is the primary source of our linguistic identity. In my latest book titled The Geography of Words I have shown (in an accessible way and using material from various languages across the globe) that it is impossible to separate the lexicon from the non-linguistic entities to which its words refer.

Nikolina Zenovic: Lexical Layers of Identity concentrates on multiple Slavic languages. Why did you decide to focus broadly on Slavic languages rather than discuss a particular Slavic language? What advantages did this comparative approach bring to your findings?

Danko Šipka: Slavic languages are interesting, especially given that they relate to Slavdom, a type of identity that is different from ethnic identities of any given Slavic language. The word Slav is not exactly a household name in English-speaking cultures. A much higher name recognition is enjoyed by the subordinated concept of Russians and superordinated concept of Eastern Europeans. In the perception of an average English-speaking person, Russian culture eclipses all other Slavic cultures by the size of the country, the number of its speakers, and the prominence of Russia’s historical figures, from Ivan the Terrible to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, and cultural icons, from Pyotr Ilyich Tschaikovsky to Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. At the same time, Russians and other Slavs are typically construed as Eastern Europeans. In addition to the Slavs, the category of Eastern Europeans encompasses a diverse assembly of non-Slavic languages, such as Lithuanian, Latvian, Romanian, Albanian, Hungarian, and Estonian. This perception might have been amplified by the fact that all major Slavic nations were a part of the so-called Eastern Bloc during the 1945-1989 Cold War period. It is certainly so that each particular Slavic language gives its speakers an identity of its own. However, there are also elements of identity that Slavic languages share across the board. Focusing on Slavic languages gives us thus an opportunity to study what they have in common and what differentiates them. More importantly, it enables us to concentrate on linguistic identity by detaching it from ethnic identity of various Slavic nations. How linguistic identity is separate from the ethnic ones, can be seen in the case of Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants to the United States. There are places of high concentration of these speakers (such as Brighton Beach, New York, also known as Little Odessa, and Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, nicknamed Little Moscow), where they maintain their Russian language as a clear maker of their identity, although they are not ethnically Russians. They do have Russian and Slavic linguistic identities without Russian or Slavic ethnic identities.

Nikolina Zenovic: In your elaboration of the deep layer, you provide rich data sets detailing lexeme- and lexicon-based approaches to studies of this layer of lexical identity. The chapter “Stability and Change” notes that such deep layer analyses can be used to study dialects as well as standard languages. According to your findings, how might methodological approaches differ when studying dialects compared to other dialects or the standard language? Can analyses of the exchange or surface layers also contribute to studies of dialects?

Danko Šipka: In my book, I focused mostly on standard languages, given that the vast majority of speakers of Slavic languages command the standard language variety. This is a consequence of high-achieving educational systems in all Slavic countries. Some of the speakers of standard languages are also speakers of dialects, but many of them will be just the users of the standard language variety. In the deep layer, dialects can certainly make distinctions in the vocabulary, have different associations tied to the words, use different idioms, etc. A wealth of dialectal dictionaries and atlases in Slavic languages attest to that. For example, you can see it in this wonderful recent Macedonian atlas. For dialects, the data from this layer comes from previous language documentation and from interviewing the speakers. If the dialect in question is well-documented in previous work, the methodology of studying this layer is not substantially different than in the standard language form. If, however, there is no previous documentation, then surveys of speakers take a much more prominent role than when studying the standard language. The exchange layer is also important for dialects as they also borrow words. For example, the Kajkavian, northern Croatian dialects, contain a substantial portion of German and Hungarian loanwords. On the other hand, the Čakavian, southern Croatian dialects, have numerous Venetian borrowings. This makes these two dialects spoken next to each other mostly incomprehensible. The surface layer is about the dynamics between linguistic authorities and the general body of speakers. As such, it is less relevant for dialects, where there are no professional linguists, university professors, various bodies such as academies of sciences, and so on. Linguistic authority in dialects is much more difficult, if not impossible, to trace.

Nikolina Zenovic: Your discussion of attitudes in Chapter 12 highlights speakers’ perceptions of lexical macro maneuvers. Can you elaborate on the agency of speakers in responding to shifts in value judgments proposed by elites in this layer? What advice or methodological approaches would you further recommend to students interested in understanding speakers’ attitudes?

Danko Šipka: There is a late medieval Latin proverb, Caesar Non Supra Grammaticos – the emperor is not above grammarians. It goes back to the situation in the early 15th century when the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund unsuccessfully tried to intercede into a linguistic dispute. In Slavic languages, some grammarians would like to be emperors, but one should expand this proverb and say that the grammarians are not above the speakers. One can try to enforce certain political solutions on languages, but if the speakers find them unacceptable, they are destined to fail. This disconnect between normative enforcement and real-life has led to a rather curious situation in Croatia, involving Serbian and Croatian, the two standard language varieties that are less different than British and American English. There was a 1989 movie titled Rane (Wounds), a rather gritty drama about the underworld of the Serbian capital Belgrade. The Croatian distributor decided to subtitle the Serbian movie, as it is customary to do with other foreign languages. The result of this decision was that the viewers all around Croatia were bursting with laughter while watching a very serious movie. Most of the time, the “translation” looked like close captioning for the hearing impaired. The viewers found those funny, just like those instances where there were some differences between the two varieties – even in these cases, the words from the Serbian variety were perfectly comprehensible. Imagine having a British movie subtitled in “the American language.” Needless to say, this Croatian movie-theater subtitling was done once and never again.

For years, Slavic languages were used in authoritarian societies, first royalist and right-wing dictatorial, then communist. Accordingly, there was a top-down transmission of linguistic authority. Things have started to change some thirty years ago. It seems that speakers of Slavic languages and Slavic linguistic authorities alike are becoming increasingly aware that a top-down, authority-based model of maintaining the standard language variety needs to be replaced with a partnership, feedback-based model.

I would see this shifting landscape of how linguistic authority is transmitted as promising ground for further research. Those who are interested in the attitudes toward linguistic authority have a variety of datasets available. There are numerous newspaper columns, visual media shows, social media groups, and so on, where these attitudes are exhibited. The speakers of Slavic languages maintain a keen interest in the issues around the standard language variety. So, there are rich datasets waiting for their miners. Needless to say, surveys of the speakers and linguistic authorities alike are also a rich source of data. In that regard, there is a silver lining to this Covid 19 pandemic. We are so used to doing everything online that it is increasingly easy to survey the participants from all around the world from one’s own home using Survey Monkey, Google Forms, Microsoft Forms, and so on.

Bonnie Urciuoli reflects on her new co-edited volume, The Spanish Language in the United States

The Spanish Language in the United States: Racialization, Rootedness, and Resistance, edited By José A. Cobas, Bonnie Urciuoli, Joe Feagin, Daniel J. Delgado, has just been released by Routledge. The project was initiated by Cobas, who stressed the importance of bringing together in one edited volume, the socially rooted nature of Spanish in the U.S., how it has been racialized, and how that racialization has been resisted by its speakers. Hence the volume’s emphasis on the intersection of racialization, rootedness, and resistance in ways not previously dealt with; hence also the volume’s focus on the importance of seeing these processes in relation to the long history of U.S. relations with its Spanish-speaking periphery: its quasi-colonial relations with Mexico and its flatly colonial relations with Puerto Rico.  These concerns come out of previous collaborative writing projects. Cobas, Feagin, and Delgado, along with Maria Chávez, edited the Latino Peoples in the New America: Racialization and Resistance. Cobas and Feagin, both sociologists, have collaborated on multiple works on race and whiteness; Feagin is well known for his work on the white racial frame. With the focus on language in this volume, Cobas invited Urciuoli on board as co-editor.  

This book shows how English became the invisible background and racialized Spanish the visibly marked foreground figure, a process rooted in fifteenth century European colonial expansion and its involvement in the African slave trade. Although Spanish speakers in the U.S. come from a wide range of countries, the U.S. racialization of Spanish-speakers grows specifically from its resulting political, economic, and social relations with Mexico and Puerto Rico. This racialization is a sociohistorical process that takes place when a social group maintains a position of structural dominance (social, legal, political) over another group or groups on the basis of supposedly natural and inherited signs of inferiority. Such signs of difference may be physically visible (skin, hair, facial features), non-visible but assumed (intelligence, character), behavioral (language) and so on; in that sense, such signs of difference are racialized. Once race is assumed, any such signs may be imputed; indeed, racialized people are often assumed, in the absence of material evidence, to have a darker skin tone or a foreign accent. The privileged group uses such signs and their imputed meaning to justify the denial of belonging or participation, oppressing and containing people displaying such signs, especially through use of force. In the United States, those claiming racial privilege have defined themselves as white, and have defined the racially unprivileged in terms of the conditions through which the privileged came into contact with them: as slaves and slave descendants, indigenous people, inhabitants of what had been Spanish colonies, indentured and exploited labor. Hence the white racial frame that assumes white possession of such superior traits as an attractive phenotype, superior language, high morality, intelligence, work ethic, and restrained sexuality and fertility while subordinate racial groups have opposite and inferior traits.

This is what racialization is all about: the mismatch of historical and social reality on the one hand and powerfully held naturalized assumptions on the other. It operates not only through bright lines, but also through misrecognitions and loose alignments, ignoring some things and exaggerating or inventing others, pulling them together in affective associations that routinely overpower facts that are under people’s noses. Realities lose definition and disappear before sets of associations in which the racist gaze seeks a coherence that validates its assumption of power. If the markedness of blackness echoes a past of slavery, in which African-descended people were regarded only as appropriated labor, the markedness of colonized Puerto Ricans and Mexicans (and by extension other Western hemisphere descendants of Spanish settlement) were marked as inhabitants of extensive real estate acquired through conquest, the proper function of which was the enhancement of white U.S. wealth. What the Mexican and Puerto Rican colonial projects did was set the terms for the racialization of Spanish: speakers of Spanish are foreign, dangerous, and invasive, and so is Spanish. Puerto Ricans and Mexicans came to occupy a position of oppressed markedness just short of blackness and by association so generally do Spanish speakers, and Spanish. The realities of their former situation, the events that brought them into the U.S. orbit, the nature of their current lives, and the varieties of Spanish that they speak disappear in the face of whites’ racialized fantasies of language that play out in multiple ways including as public performance by self-styled language police. In the volume’s first chapter, Cobas and Feagin use Bourdieu’s take on the economics of linguistic exchange to examine the assumed authority and unchallenged exercise of whiteness through English and the social dynamics through which the place of Spanish is kept firmly subordinate and silenced, while keeping Anglo language power invisible behind an ideology of language standardization with Spanish accents a particular target. The remaining book chapters provide ethnographic perspectives on rootedness, racialization, and resistance.

The rootedness section opens with the historical, sociological, and language realities of U.S. Spanish in Rosina Lozano’s chapter, “The Early Political History of Spanish in the United States.” Spanish occupied colonial, indigenous, and immigrant since the U.S. began and, in some regions, long before English. Here we see the social and historical realities of Spanish political, economic, legal, and media legitimacy in contrast to white fantasies about English. In “The demography of Latino Spanish speakers in the United States,” Rogelio Sáenz and David Mamani lay out quantitative evidence for structural inequalities affecting Spanish speakers. Pointing out the sheer (and still growing) size of the U.S. Spanish-speaking population and noting their diverse nations of origin, they draw a detailed picture of social and geographical factors shaping Spanish rootedness and retention.

The problem of racialization – in which those realities of rootedness are ignored, reconstructed, or vociferously denied – is taken up in the next section. In “What anti-Spanish Prejudice Tells Us About Whiteness,” Bonnie Urciuoli examines the racialized imagining of Spanish from the perspective of U.S. whiteness, and what that says about white beliefs about race and language. In “A Language-elsewhere: A Friendlier Linguistic Terrorism,” Michael Mena describes a terrorism “friendlier” than that of Spanish as deficient, wrong, and so on, in his description of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley program that aligns a standardized, raceless Spanish with a neoliberal skill set disconnected from indexes of students’ own social realities and only obtainable through the university. The experience and nature of racialization projected onto Spanish speakers is explored by Alessandra Rosa, Elizabeth Aranda, and Hilary Dotson in their chapter, “‘You are not Allowed to Speak Spanish! This is an American Hospital!’” in which unfair treatment connected to accent also correlates with darker skin, education level, marital status, and place of birth, converging in a racialized perception of “accent” as judgment not simply of language but of speakers themselves. In “Black Spanish, White Leanings, Trigueño Mythologies in Puerto Rico,” Michelle Ramos Pelicia and Sharon Elise shift the critical gaze from English to Spanish, deploy a critical sociolinguistic approach that illustrates Spanish’s own European colonial legacy, showing uses of Puerto Rican Spanish discourse that can bring into being and naturalize the social category of blackness.

The final section documents strategies of resistance to the racialization of Spanish. Kevin Alejandrez and Ana S.Q. Liberato, in “The Enchantment of Language Resistance in Puerto Rico,” trace the policies and legislation through which American colonial administrators from 1898 tried to instantiate English in Puerto Rican institutional life as a mechanism of control and sign of loyalty, policies and legislation that were resisted and ultimately failed. In “Subtracting Spanish and Forcing English: My Lived Experience in Texas Public Schools,” José Angel Gutiérrez describes his acquisition of a Mexican American activist consciousness from childhood in Cristal (Crystal City), Texas (home of the La Raza Unida political party which Gutiérrez co-founded) where the white teachers and administrators in the segregated school system systematically and often punitively disvalued Spanish and every other aspect of being from Mexico.

Throughout the book, readers see how racialized language ideologies (like other ideologies of race) depend on loosely affiliated notions that reinforce the perspective of privileged whites played out in attacks on Spanish speakers, oppressive language policies in business and education, even neoliberally disguised as a Spanish from nowhere with nothing to do with racial outsiders, sending the message that if one were not born white, one should learn to act white and not do things pointing to one’s racial otherness.  

Mark Sicoli on his book, Saying and Doing in Zapotec

Saying and Doing in Zapotec cover

Interview by Grace East

Grace East: Your book takes us on an immersive journey through the complex and varied social worlds of Lachixío, where we are invited to see how meaning, relationships, and material objects are co-constructed through linguistic and multimodal pursuits among users of Zapotec. What do you see as the books central argument or message?

Mark Sicoli: Thank you for your close interaction with this work and for your thoughtful questions. Before starting this book, I had lived in two Zapotec villages that contrasted by language use. In one, the Zapotec language was in the memory of a few elders. In the other, Zapotec-language conversations coordinated everyday life. From the one case a language could be imagined to be an individual’s knowledge, but from the other it was irreducibly something the people built together. So, when I began this project, I wanted to develop an ethnography of a language where the language’s people and what they made together told the story. This is seen in part through the book’s illustrations and transcriptions depicting daily life interactions, images and tracings of video frames, as well as access to videos for each chapter, and in part through the participatory methodologies that brought it to being. Rather than see this project as bringing together linguistic and multimodal pursuits in a juxtaposition, I aimed to exemplify a multimodal linguistics, engaging with a scale of life emergent when participants come together in the joint commitments of interaction. The focus on joint actions sets language in relations of mutual aid. In this perspective, rather than an autonomous system, any language is inherently incomplete in an evolved openness to the participation of the people and artifacts collaborating in its uses. I work with the concept of resonance to build an understanding of mutual relations built across semiotic modalities, between participants, and through iterations of action-forms across events.

Grace East: At its core, this book seems to work to answer the big question of how humans get things done together. We see variable ways in which co-creation and joint action occur, primarily from the creation and negotiation of social relationships through offers, recruitments, repairs, and resonances. Yet you make an important shift toward the second half of the book and address the ways in which joint actions leave imprints in the material world. What was your goal in drawing parallels between often abstract and intersubjective actions and those that leave material residues?

Mark Sicoli: This is in part to show that there is a certain materiality to relations we’ve conventionally come to view as abstract. For the language of joint actions this is a materiality built between local memory and future obligation and through which future obligation becomes local memory (like semiosis more generally). The book illustrates emergent orders of joint actions in which language participates, and exemplifies the affordances of Lachixío Zapotec for their achievement. While the joint actions considered are generic universals of social life (as in the chapter titles), the resources by which they are achieved are local and particular. A pair of chapters focuses on how offers and recruitments are joint actions through which people build social relationships. A second pair of chapters titled repair and resonate work with an emergent order in which human intersubjectivity is made possible by relationships built through offers and recruitments. Both critique a Cartesian concept of mind prevalent in cognitive and social science that locates mind and language within individuals and their productions. The intersubjectivity building practice of conversational repair is shown to be a way that conversations think in a minded process emergent between participants. Dialogic resonance is shown to be an inter-individual syntactic order that presents an exponentially richer stimulus for language learning and analysis than the order of the sentence. The shift you mention comes with the chapter Build which projects another emergent order from these two, one where offers and recruitments, and sequences of repair and resonance building track through multimodal interactions where participants together build material artifacts that bear traces of their dialogic history. These emergent relationships are also involved in the building of languages which similarly preexist an interaction as guiding potential and are transformed across the actual moments of their dialogic co-creation. This argument is further developed as the last chapter, Living Assemblages.

Grace East: Participatory methods and collaboration seem to be the backbone of your methodology in this book (and the fifty-hour video corpus is really an amazing testament to that!) Its such a wonderful example for newer ethnographers to model in their own project designs with community members centered as partners and collaborators. How did taking a community centered approach to research and your own long-term relationships in Lachixío shape the book? How are participatory methods a part of your overall ethical practice?

Mark Sicoli: As a book about participation in joint actions, it was important that it be made through participatory engagements. My partners chose scenes and daily life activities to film, operated cameras, and participated in locally-situated conversations about language as social action. One method we developed used video playback as a common object for focused conversations. Though what we achieved is to some degrees aspirational for participatory action research, we developed a community-engaged language documentation focused on how a language also participates in human collaborations. The beginnings of this project for me were in choosing to apply a Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics field manual task for building a multimodal corpus at my fieldsite where I had worked already for 10 years mainly focused on oral-aural modalities. I wanted to think about this task with my collaborators in Lachixío to produce a more auto-documentary corpus and extend participation to analysis. Our playback dialog method was developed to counter a tendency for extractive practice that takes materials collected with Indigenous communities to institutional settings where they are analyzed in the absence of the research subjects. Inspired by a continuum of ethnomethodological practices known at the one pole as Video Watching, where iterated collaborative viewings of untranscribed videos interactionally generate ideas for analysis, and at the other pole as Data Sessions, where the objects of joint focus also include a transcript analysis, we resituated these practices in Lachixío. The book was shaped and reshaped in the process. This last year I have been working to publish a Spanish translation of the book and have shared drafts in Lachixío, and with Indigenous and Latin American graduate students and scholars. I’m grateful to see the translation aiding a Zapotec graduate student researching everyday collaborations in kitchens and another incorporating playback dialog methods into research on Zapotec weddings.

Grace East: One of the most exciting aspects of the text for me was how you work to uncloak the mystery of how large-scale dynamics originate at smaller interpersonal scales. In the final chapter, you highlight the place of language in collaborative world-building projects achieved through complex assemblages that connect human and nonhuman participants into living webs of causality” (207). What was the importance for you to portray the origins and outcomes of joint actions in this way? More broadly, where do you see ripple effects and resonances emerging from the minutiae of everyday interaction in other settings?

Mark Sicoli: I like your metaphor of uncloaking how action at one scale of social life affects others. Why do such connections between everyday interpersonal dynamics and the emergence and reproduction of large-scale institutions seem shrouded from attention? More scholars have focused on how large-scale social dynamics limit individual action than have engaged the question of how locally situated and everyday recurrent turns and responses build both the systems’ reproduction and possibilities for their transformation. A question in the background of the book is how can people imagine and achieve another future when there’s been a history of joint commitments to something that’s turning out badly. The first chapter begins with a translation of a dialog that initiates an intervention to reject and establish a need to reimagine an ongoing collaboration. This will require the assent and aid of the other women and men of the work detail who are already committed to the way things are going (badly). The form of the turkey corral they were building ultimately came to show material signs of the dialogic transformations that took place between them, which we examine in a later chapter. We track these transformations through multimodal assemblages that proffered moments ripe for participants to pursue another way. But because prior joint commitments to the current state of the project and to each other tilted the scale to its reproduction, the collective rejection of the ongoing collaboration only took place when its momentum was disrupted, creating space and time for the interactional work needed to unwind the tangle of prior commitments. Examples like this run throughout the book and include repairing a ritual where an overly-generous wedding gift motivated the interruption of the gift procession to resolve the social implications of the offer, a daughter introducing multiple lines of action across modalities that simultaneously complied with and rejected a gendered recruitment for water at the dinner table, the many examples of conversational repair, and the work of dialogic resonance which can transform as it replicates. When considering the wholes of world-building, these component joint actions emerge as answers to questions of how worlds are shored up and how they may be transformed. We know that at any given moment of discourse there is a world of limited possibilities. How do people rupture the membrane of limited choice presented from prior discourse to build a different world, whether that be embodied in the next conversational move, a home for a family’s turkeys, the work of reversing a language shift in process, or repairing our relations and obligations to a living ecology?

Grace East: Throughout the book, you model for us what a new kind of linguistic anthropological ethnography looks like, in which language is examined as just one piece of a multimodal ecology.” In fact, you explain that any linguistic analysis is incomplete without attention paid to the purpose-laden environment, participant assemblages, and co-occurring semiotic dimensions in which meaning is created. What do you see as the possible future(s) of the discipline through this lens and what advice would you give to aspiring ethnographers who hope to engage with such a capacious view of language and human interaction?

Mark Sicoli: Our intellectual ancestors have taught us that the boundaries of languages and disciplines are ideological, which is in part to say that what we see as pattern at one scale is creatively connected through semiotic processes to others. Where some disciplinary perspectives produce knowledge through reductionistic decontextualization, anthropological approaches to linguistics have distinguished themselves for their rather serious attention to context. But too often appeals to context are vague and mere varieties of add-ons for what is already predefined as language (often as “text”). Context as a term may be used in one breath to refer to asymmetrical power relations between participants and in another to historical era, social setting, functional purpose, or the existence of prior talk. A turn to multimodality may at first seem capacious but actually the whole of a multimodal assemblage in which we find the language of joint actions is smaller than what is often ideologically imagined for a Language. Success stories of Indigenous language revitalization through task-based learning in actual collaborations rather than by the goals and settings of traditional-grammar study makes this point well. One move for aspiring ethnographers turning to multimodality is to recognize context as one of those weak nouns that can make the very object of study disappear before our eyes. Multimodality forces us to go beyond context to the intersectional dimensions between modes of semiosis and the affordances of participants and participating objects to relate to each other and to possible futures. For me this shifted the focus to the multimodal resonances that animate living assemblages, which I show in the last chapter is related to concerns of biosemiotics, the Batesonian field becoming known for asking questions that dissolve the institutional divide between the sciences and humanities. Here I’ll point to the resonant history of anthropology where it has included concerns to integrate subfield perspectives as one way that anthropology has offered, and sometimes tended to lose, its achievements to the wider academy. In some ways though these academic developments are just catching up with Indigenous epistemologies. Perhaps an important future for anthropology is in the question of what can emerge in an ethical interrelationship of the three.

Juan del Nido on his book, Taxis vs. Uber

Cover of Taxis vs. Uber by Juan Manuel del Nido

Interview by Diego Valdivieso

Diego Valdivieso:  For those who have not had the opportunity to read your book and have a glimpse of the vicissitudes of Buenos Aires middle class, its taxi industry and how the arrival of Uber was signified and experienced by these actors, could you please summarise the main topics you cover in your work?

Juan Manuel del Nido: In late 2015 I arrived in my hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina to study the taxi industry. Everyone – taxi drivers, union leaders, the city’s middle class – was convinced that, due to the partisan and political make up of the city and the country, Uber would never arrive. But in April 2016 it did! I had by then amassed mountains of ethnographic material on taxis: their laws, governance, economy, infrastructure, sociocultural practices. As the conflict between the company and the taxi industry escalated, I noticed that a certain segment of the city’s middle class – superficially ecumenic, techno-idealist, managerially-minded, anxiously globalist, performatively cosmopolitan – set the tone that defined public debate around the conflict. In that tone, they increasingly naturalised their own reasons and logics and disavowed the reasons and logics of others – specifically, the taxi industry whose workings I had come to know quite well. They were not just political adversaries, but they and their reasons came to be pathologised, written off and explained away; in a way, they stopped counting, even if they were still there and still protesting. I decided then that this would not be a book about taxis or Uber in themselves, or about precaritisation, platform capitalism, the gig economy, but one examining what I call “post-political reasoning”: the logics, rhetoric, and affects through which people imagine, legitimize, and argue for an experience where it is hard, or impossible, to disagree in certain ways.

Diego Valdivieso:  This book may be the outcome of the only ethnographic project carried out while Uber was (crash) landing in a territory. What advantages did this unexpected event bring to your research approach? How did you realise that the unstoppable arrival of Uber was a rich area of research?

Juan Manuel del Nido: It was a truly exceptional opportunity to see abstract logics come to life in a very literal and raw way. Until late March 2016 Uber was viewed as impossible; by mid-April it was allegedly processing tens of thousands of ride requests per day. Before my eyes taxi drivers, judges, federal attorneys and city dwellers began triangulating reasons and arguments that added up to fascinating interpretations of “competition”, “monopoly”, “freedom of choice” and “market forces”, for example, or of the divide between economic and political domains. Drawing from common sense truths, cultural anxieties, urban practices, political conjunctures and other affects and logics, these triangulations would have been entirely speculative or even unpredictable just a few weeks prior. Notions like “competition”, for example, are hugely abstract and ethnographically elusive. I had just spent half a year researching the very relations such notions were reframing – those of the taxi industry, of Peronism, of city and national politics “before Uber”. This knowledge offered me a chance to make anthropological sense of how such abstract notions take concrete forms, something an ethnographer arriving to a place where Uber, or any disruption, has already happened, would struggle to do.

The book was born out of my attempt to turn that luck of being in the right place at the right time into an ethnographic opportunity that I figured others, or even myself in future endeavours, would be unlikely to have: what is it that someone who does not get to see this pivotal break happening is unlikely to capture? On a different level, I was fascinated and alarmed by the fact that, as you say, Uber’s arrival seemed unstoppable. Already anthropologists were critiquing the platform’s precarisation of working conditions, denaturalisation of labour and more, but I do not think then, or now, scholars really asked: how did this come to appear as unstoppable to a certain group of people who are familiar, and may even agree, with our long-rehearsed arguments about labour, precariousness and such? Rather than focusing on denunciation and moralisation, I think we need to produce better ethnographies of how, increasingly, certain ways of thinking – managerial, technocratic, moralised and moralising – are becoming harder to actually challenge, that is, to disagree with beyond the protected confines of our academic seminars.

Diego Valdivieso: Throughout the book you are able to tackle a particular kind of reasoning by focussing on what people see as relevant and the affects, emotions, motivations and aspirations involved in this process. Although you give us some hints, could you share your reflections on how to address ethnographically something like reasoning through logics, rhetoric and affect?

Juan Manuel del Nido: I think it’s about fostering a different ethico-narrative disposition than the prevailing one, aiming to be alert to how things, affects, and rhetoric combine, catalyse or stunt each other, shaping social relations in often quite complex or even counterintuitive ways. To be clear: this is not yet another plea for seeing the world as emergent, contingent, becoming, fragmented, multiple, multifarious and so on, but rather an exhortation to ethnographers to reflect on the difference between pedantic, neurotic and often moralising literalism, on the one hand, and actual critical engagement with our interlocutors and ethnographic encounters, on the other.

For example: when the courts struggled, in technical terms, to block Uber’s services from the territory of the city of Buenos Aires, the middle class saw in that technical difficulty evidence that “economic forces” trumped “the political”. One way of addressing this ethnographically, common in anthropology today, is through a “well, actually…” disposition – a literalist deconstruction of an argument, however spurious. Such pedantic literalism increasingly passes for a kind of rigour, and even for a righteous concern with what we understand to be the truth. What I propose in Taxis vs Uber is to take these ethnographic encounters seriously, instead of literally, to produce an actual critique of how they organise knowledge and how they manage to persuade. In the case of this example, a historical distrust in the courts, the government and the union; an unreflexive, bourgeois sense of one’s own agency and what it demands of the world; and a habit of casually crossing jurisdictional borders, all fed into each other in the reasoning of a certain segment of the middle class and give us far richer insights into how it was even possible to imagine that Uber, or its relations, trumped what scholars see as the political – regardless of the technical, moral, or truth value of such a claim. However spurious, this is the reasoning that made it so hard for the taxi industry to even be heard. The capacity of a kind of reasoning to persuade does not depend on a soundness one can cross examine through a literalist sequencing, as it were, but on how affects, practices, materialities and other ethnographic features, truths in a subtler, and in the actually interesting sense of the term, give flesh to that reasoning as they buttress and propel each other. We miss these configurations if we do ethnography with militant (and increasingly, moralising) pedantry.

Diego Valdivieso:  Your book gives fundamental clues to understand the scope of non-expert reasoning and the socio-political consequences that this way of knowing can generate. Beyond the particularities that your analysis of Buenos Aires middle class and the arrival of Uber suggest, what phenomena do you think could be addressed from an approach centred on the distribution of the sensible?

Juan Manuel del Nido: I think it is an immensely generative and underexplored possibility! As Ranciere formulated it, the distribution of the sensible suggests we think of the political as the distribution of parts, roles, and voices in a society or even an epoch, a pattern of differences and proportions whose language we broadly share and where we roughly know our, and others’, part. This distribution is always unequal: parts count in different ways and some parts are there but somehow do not count. Parts, here, is not necessarily byword for class, caste, or any sort of inexorable partitioning of society, but rather particular convergences of bodies, interests, and things in the face of a social question.

Ranciere was thinking about a very big picture, political-system-kind-of-magnitude, but I kept thinking in his terms to understand how different  parts of society – unelected experts, gangs, a globalist middle class, a particular industry, an elite producing the dominant aesthetics – make up a social problem at ethnographic level: a conflict over an app, homelessness, building a house, whatever. An ethnography approached through the distribution of the sensible is one that focuses on what emerges ethnographically as being at stake, a site of contention, as disagreement in the broadest sense of the term, by looking at how voices, people, things participate in the distribution of the senses those stakes can have. What are the material or rhetorical cleavages that catalyse, hinder or shape the stakes? How do different parts consolidate themselves, seek to reframe the terms in which other can participate in the stakes, or to change what counts as a valid argument, or presence, and what counts as noise? Which voices give their tone and grammar to the whole, which ones can share a lexicon with which others and which ones are disallowed?

Political anthropologists might recognise here Jonathan Spencer’s invitation to follow disagreement in their ethnography. In that vein, in Taxis vs Uber I found the distribution of the sensible is a particularly powerful approach to examine the increasing moralisation, pathologisation and disavowal of genuine disagreement in our societies. It is increasingly difficult to disagree and remain a political equal: to disagree is to be an idiot, recalcitrant, morally toxic and be written off, or in Ranciere’s terms, to become those whose voices count as noise, “the part that has no part”. In Taxis vs Uber this was the part of the taxi industry and of whoever disagreed with Uber, but increasingly, all around us, this is the part for whoever tries to claim that a particular question, from public health to migration, from an app to climate change, could be asked in different terms, or answered otherwise.

Noah Arjomand on his book, Fixing Stories

Fixing Stories

Interview by Susan Seizer

Susan Seizer: Please briefly explain your choice of the term “fixers” and describe the work they do. One of the chapters in your book is titled, “Are Fixers Journalists?” Please explain the need for such a chapter; what are the issues at play here?

Noah Arjomand: Conventions vary from place to place and among print, television, and radio journalism, but in most dialects of journo lingo, a “fixer” is a guide and interpreter whom a foreign reporter hires to broker their relations with local news sources. Fixers find people, arrange and translate interviews, explain political and cultural contexts, and manage logistics and safety for their clients.

Labeling someone a “fixer” not only describes their role in journalism’s division of labor, however, but also symbolically places them in a particular position in journalism’s hierarchy, implying that they are at a level of professionalism higher that “translators” or “drivers” but lower than “producers.” Editors, reporters, and producers hem and haw over whether fixers are really journalists, and accordingly over how much they deserve a say over the selection and framing of news or public credit for the stories they help produce.

Some people interested in decolonizing journalism dislike the term “fixer.” To these critics, the label is a tool of boundary-work that denigrates local knowledge as biased and local news contributors as dispensable non-persons in order to naturalize the supremacy of supposedly more objective and professional (usually Euro-American) outsiders.

I thought it was important to use the term “fixer” in my book precisely because it serves as an emic signifier of contested inequality. Rather than taking a side in the label’s controversy by embracing more politically correct neologisms like “local partner” or “freelance producer” that symbolically reject (or perhaps obfuscate) relations of inequality, I sought to use the “fixer” label as a key to open up international journalism’s internal conflicts to readers.

What are the conditions under which news contributors embrace or reject the label “fixer” for themselves or their colleagues? What do people do to convince their colleagues that they should or should not be labeled as such?

Susan Seizer: I like the ongoing focus on insiderness and outsiderness, and how these positionalities shift. Such contextual shifts are what sociologists call “fields.” Your composite female characters Elif and Nur each enter the fixer position for opposite reasons and from opposite backgrounds. How do they each use insiderness and outsiderness strategically in interaction with reporters?

Noah Arjomand: The characters Elif and Nur came from very different backgrounds. Elif was a member of Istanbul’s cosmopolitan elite, had lived abroad, and became a fixer by way of socializing with foreign journalists. When the Gezi Park protest movement broke out in 2013, Elif helped a friend of a friend with his reporting and found that fixing gave her license to connect with all different kinds of people, to escape her White Turk bubble.

Nur was the upwardly mobile daughter of a Kurdish family in the eastern city of Diyarbakir; she was working as a translator for minority rights organizations when her first client recruited her to help report on the Kurdish Movement in which she herself was an activist. Nur enjoyed fixing in large part because it afforded her the opportunity to get to know exotic international journalists and become more worldly.

Elif was a relative outsider to her sources and insider to her clients; Nur was the opposite. The two accordingly brought different cultural toolkits to their interactions with reporters and sources. Elif’s colloquial English and understanding of American and Western European perspectives allowed her to gain her clients’ trust and help them make sense of local happenings. Nur’s fluent Kurmanji and Kurdish Movement connections helped her to secure access and set sources at ease.

Yet for all their differences, both characters used fixing to chase adventure and escape conformity to the social milieux into which they were born. For Elif, adventure was meeting sources from outside of her corner of respectable society; for Nur, it was getting to know foreigners.

Sociologists who conceptualize the social world as overlapping but semi-autonomous fields with their own values and hierarchies tend to assume that participants in any field are primarily motivated to enhance their status within it. Those field theorists do a wonderful job of explaining how inequalities in cultural and social capital allow some to better conform to a field’s standards. But what I found among fixers was a non-conformist pursuit of adventure that pulled them in the opposite direction. Neither Elif not Nur had much interest in achieving high status within familiar local fields of social life (that is, to become a belle of Istanbul high society or a leader of the Kurdish Movement, respectively); instead, each took advantage of their strategic position at the intersection of local and international fields to strike out into the unknown.

Susan Seizer: Your book is organized in a creatively accessible way. You use short sections throughout the book that follow the characters you introduce, one of whom is yourself. As a reader I found it easier to enter into the historical realities you document when tied to personal lives. What influenced your choice of this format?

Noah Arjomand: I wanted to write a book that was not just for insiders to my own field. I aimed for a style that would spark and hold the interest of anyone with an interest in journalism or the region, one that would offer continued discoveries and surprises from start to finish instead of putting all my cards on the table in introductory exposition. In centering the career narratives of fixers, I sought to give readers fleshed-out characters to love and hate and follow along their journeys. Short narrative chapters are interspersed with passages of social theory that serve to provide readers the tools to understand characters’ motivations, strategies, and fates. My hope is that the book’s narrative approach also makes it easier, as you say, for the reader to enter into the historical reality, to understand how large-scale events and changes like the collapse of the Kurdish-Turkish peace movement or the rise of ISIS in Syria shaped people’s lives and conditioned who was making the news and how.

Creating composite characters allowed me to keep names and backstories down to a memorable number while including the most illuminating vignettes and high-stakes adventures. Composites also provided the benefit of better protecting the anonymity of my interlocutors, whom I describe doing and saying things that could get them in trouble with their colleagues or with violent state or non-state organizations.

I found, not entirely expectedly, that the process of creating composite character narratives offered not just literary benefits to the reader but also analytical benefits to me. To determine which real-life fixers and reporters to combine, I developed a method for systematically thinking through similarities and differences in the sequences of their careers, which I describe in a methodological appendix. Some key insights—including about the aforementioned boundary-work with which journalists differentiate “fixers” from “producers”—came to me not during my fieldwork, but in the laborious process of creating and interrogating composite narratives.

I subjected myself to the same analysis: the “Noah” who appears on the pages of Fixing Stories is a composite, not indexical to me the author. Explicitly comparing myself to my research participants helped me to make sense of and reflect critically on the limits of my access as a researcher, my experience as a participant-observer working as both a reporter and fixer, and ultimately my own motivations and adventure-seeking.

Susan Seizer: As a cultural anthropologist I find it useful to hear your frank discussion of the key role of fixers as locals who provide entrée. Anthros used to call such people their primary informants or key informants, while they more recently use the terms collaborators or interlocutors. Whatever term we use, such people made my being an anthropologist possible, and I feel I owe them everything. We maintain ongoing relationships as ethnographic family. Do you anticipate maintaining relationships with any of those you worked with in the field beyond this project?

Noah Arjomand: You’ve hit the nail on the head in comparing fixers to “key informants,” “collaborators,” or I might add “indigenous research assistants.” All fields of knowledge production across cultural differences rely on analogous processes of mediation, on brokers who can help outsiders gain access to and make sense of local realities.

Anthropologists and journalists have a shared history of erasing these contributors from their accounts. Their mediation complicated claims of objectivity and unfettered access, and authors’ need for their services belied the myth of the intrepid (White) adventurer going native. First in anthropology and more recently in journalism, though, there has been a shift from erasure toward acknowledgement of these local brokers as an ethical imperative and toward considering them as partners in knowledge production. Many reporters now think about their relationships with fixers as something like mutual apprenticeships rather than as series of extractive transactions. Some prominent international correspondents started their careers as fixers.

Complicating this move toward acknowledgement and methodological transparency is the fact that some of these mediators want to remain in the safety of the shadows, to maintain a kind of strategic ambiguity about whose side they are on. Recognized affiliation with an ethnographer or reporter can be a source of both power and harm for a local broker. A fixer might not want their name on a report critical of the Turkish president or a Syrian militia.

As for my relationships with research participants, I certainly feel a debt of gratitude toward people who gave me their time and opened up to me about their triumphs and shames and fears and aspirations, especially because as media producers they were doubtless aware of the potential for me to represent them in an unflattering light or even put them in danger. As compared to ethnographers who study subaltern groups from positions of relative privilege, though, I have been much less able to reciprocally express my gratitude through material aid or service. I offered one Syrian refugee-turned-fixer help applying to graduate school and have done sundry minor favors from childcare to covering beer tabs for other journalists. But by and large, I continue to need them more than they need me, to take more than I can give. Several read my book and gave helpful feedback; one even copy-edited my writing in close detail, saying she couldn’t help herself. Just the other day I wrote to a couple research participants asking for recommendations of journalists in London who might serve as discussants for a talk I have coming up there. One or two of them might even write a review of the book, if I’m lucky. Most of my interlocutors also lead such busy professional lives that I don’t share the experience of many ethnographers of feeling guiltily compelled to continually respond to calls and messages from bored and needy “fieldwork kin” aggrieved that they don’t keep in touch. My collaborators have moved on to their next story.

David Sutton on his book, Bigger Fish to Fry

Bigger Fish to Fry: A Theory of Cooking as Risk, with Greek Examples

Interview by Ariana Gunderson

Ariana Gunderson: You write that “cooking involves a code and its instantiations,” (Sutton 2021, 15). Do you consider the code of cooking to be analogous to linguistic codes? If so, how?

David Sutton: This question is really at the heart of what I was trying to do in this book. Because when I started studying cooking, I was very far from a structuralist perspective, and was much more drawn to approaches to cooking as embodied sociomaterial practice. Much of my work on cooking that was based on my video ethnography, especially in Secrets from the Greek Kitchen, focused on skill, tool use, the kitchen as environment, and other concepts that I adopted from people like Tim Ingold and Jean Lave. But what kept nagging at me was that cooking clearly wasn’t just emergent. We don’t just start out with a random set of ingredients and see what bubbles up; we set out to make something. So the whole dialectic between structure and practice that was so much of my graduate training seemed relevant again, and especially in the form that Sahlins writes about, since his approach is all about understanding the riskiness of all practice. And of course he was drawing from and modifying the linguistic-derived approach Lévi-Strauss. And then of course there was Mary Douglas’s work on food categories. So I think that at first I believed that these new approaches were what I needed to understand cooking, but the book is really about reconciling a dynamic structuralism with a more embodied phenomenology.

Ariana Gunderson: Might we consider recipe-writing a process of entextualization? Is the moment of recipe inscription a risky one?

David Sutton: On the one hand I have long felt that the moment of entextualization of recipes has tended to be problematic, a claiming of authorship that has often privileged male chefs over “anonymous” female cooks, a point made by Luce Giard, among others. And this appropriation of power often occurs in the process of inscription, whereas oral transmission is still controlled by ordinary women. So it’s risky from the point of view of who gets credit and who gets forgotten. It’s also risky in the sense that a recipe is always a “moment in time,” as Jacques Pepin puts it, the freezing of a process, which is the opposite of an approach attuned to contingency. So inscription is also translation, a translation of an assemblage of experiences; it is doubly risky. Perhaps triply so because in many culinary memoirs the moment of writing down the recipe from an older relative almost always presages impending death. At the same time, I think that the written recipe has a function, at least as a memory jog. Although the more I think about it, I realize that on Kalymnos this function is served by other people, mostly women that share the matrilocal kitchen space, and who constantly remind each other of the ingredients, proportions, and tricks that are involved in each dish.

Ariana Gunderson: Your research has been rooted in Kalymnos for decades, enabling you to examine long-term change and continuity in this new book. What do you see as the connection between an extended period of study and paying attention to small scale change?

David Sutton: I’ve always admired long-term fieldwork and the insights that come from it; I think it provides insight into continuity and change, or “changing continuities” as my mother, Constance Sutton, described it based on her long-term engagement with Barbados. Given that my initial fieldwork on Kalymnos was about historical consciousness, it’s also been interesting to see how ideas about the past change over time, and especially how small-scale change can lead to bigger changes. But small-scale change is important in other ways, in that you can see it happening ethnographically much more clearly than you can see a change, let’s say, from so-called traditional to modern world views. So I’m suggesting that focusing on something like cooking allows us to see the process of change (and continuity) in action, rather than comparing how things were at two points in time and making assumptions about what happened in between.  

I’ve noticed how many social theorists use the metaphor of recipes to talk about various social processes, though as with my comments above, I think the idea of the recipe can be problematic. On the other hand, I like to think about how much of the activity of cooking is similar to anthropology: attention to detail, participant sensing, focus on parts and wholes. Making cooking more explicit as part of our research can illuminate a lot of the social processes that we are interested in.

Ariana Gunderson: In an autoethnographic interlude, you describe recreating your late father’s spinach casserole in search of his voice. This calls up Annie Hauck-Lawson’s use of the concept of food voice to assert agency and the real-world impact of non-verbal, edible communication. Can you speak to how you find the concept of food voice useful in your ethnographic work?

David Sutton: I’ve always liked Hauck-Lawson’s concept of food voice because it can both extend and stand in for other ways that people express themselves. In Greece food voice is expressed at least in part through smell as neighbors pay attention to, and comment upon, the smell of what’s cooking next door. But I think I was most directly influenced by Carole Counihan’s slightly modified use of food voice, or what she calls “food centered life histories.” Especially in her book A Tortilla is Like Life, she uses the concept to get at the very distinct personalities, and distinct life trajectories, of the Mexicana women in southern Colorado that she was studying. I tried to do a bit of that in my previous book Secrets from the Greek Kitchen. In a way I feel like food voice does some of the work for me at the micro-level that gustemology does at the collective level. Both are about exploring peoples’—individual and collective—food-centered world views. I feel that the best ethnography moves between these two levels.  

Ariana Gunderson: Did writing Bigger Fish to Fry change how you cook? Do you hope it will change the way readers cook?

David Sutton: I think it did and I hope it does. One of my targets in the book is the idea of culinary perfectionism, what John Finn calls “culinary fascism.” It’s the idea that there is one right way to do some kitchen task, or one best recipe for any dish. I think there are a lot of lingering problematic assumptions in this approach to cooking, which can lead to things like molecular gastronomists claiming to separate old wives’ tales from scientific truths about cooking. My focus on risk and contingency, I hope, challenges the idea of perfection: in other words, I suggest that, like the Kalymnians, we should imagine good cooking as managing contingencies (material, sensory and social), rather than achieving perfection. Also, I think that the idea that I develop from Sahlins that every reproduction is also a transformation suggests a greater willingness to accept and enjoy the differences and similarities when we cook a familiar dish. I think that if we think about what makes cooking cooking in terms not of a product but of a process of confronting all the contingencies that arise both in and out of the space of the kitchen, and developing our own tricks to deal with these contingencies, to improvise, we might develop a healthier, more equanimous attitude, rather than the more dichotomous one of success versus failure, which can lead to stress and frustration.   

Julia Ticona on her book, Left to Our Own Devices

Ilana Gershon: If you found yourself talking to a voice actor in a coffee shop about your book, how would you explain what it was about?

Julia Ticona: They’d likely have more to tell me than I’d have to tell them! After asking a few too many questions about their gigs and the tech they use, I would simply say that Left to Our Own Devices is about how workers like them use digital technologies to make a living. Over the past few decades, we’ve all become more aware about the pressures toward more and more precarious work. In the recovery from the Great Recession, as jobs returned, we saw stark differences in the quality of these jobs, they were part-time, with few benefits, unstable schedules, and came with titles like contractor, temporary worker and seasonal associate. In reality, these changes have been brewing since the 1970s. What I show in the book is the way that digital technologies, especially smartphones, have quietly become the hidden infrastructure that facilitates these new kinds of work.

For the landscapers, retail workers, and freelance writers I interviewed, digital technologies were central to their abilities to navigate precarious labor markets. Across social classes, these workers all constructed what I call “digital hustles” that were creative and resourceful responses to insecure labor markets. The digital hustle is a complex project that requires a vast amount of unpaid labor to coordinate schedules, maintain their clients and cultivate new forms of income, maintain their connectivity, and comply with the rules of online and workplace norms. I also found that while the deft and savvy use of digital technologies was an economic imperative for workers across many different types of labor markets – their practices weren’t only oriented toward the market, they were also oriented toward the self. Precarious workers’ digital technologies also played an important role in their construction of identity and dignity. From promptly answering text messages from clients to adeptly finding internet when your data runs out, executing a successful digital hustle proved that they were good at their jobs.

Digital technologies are important to these workers’ ability to survive, but it’s also important to point out that this doesn’t mean we can give everyone a phone and call it a day. Digital technologies in precarious work gave me a window to understand the cracks in a system where individuals are being literally left to their own devices to deal with economic insecurity. These technologies are so consequential because we’re relying on them to solve social problems they were never meant to solve. More access and more phones aren’t going to be the thing that saves us, a social safety net that is either completely or mostly decoupled from work might be…but also, yes please let’s also have the phones and internet too.

Ilana Gershon: How do you think your methodology affected what you were able to learn?

Julia Ticona: The book is based on 100 in-depth ethnographic interviews with high and low wage precarious workers that I conducted in four different cities in the US. Ethnographic interviewing is an interviewing technique as well as a way of understanding interviews as a unique kind of social interaction. This method draws on traditions in both sociology (my home discipline), and anthropology. It encourages me to understand interviewees’ answers, not as straight-forward reporting of what happens when they use their technologies to hustle for work, but meaningful accounts that can tell me about the larger cultural frames that people use to make sense of their work and their lives. More concretely, when I’d ask people to tell me stories about a time when a coworker used their technologies in a way that annoyed them, I interpreted these answers for what they could tell me about how the interviewee understood certain activities as trespassing the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate tech use in their specific context, not as evidence of what their colleagues were doing at work. As a result, this method is particularly good at understanding interviewees’ use of cultural expectations to make sense of their own lives but has limitations in that I wasn’t able to observe these interactions as they unfolded in context.

In-depth interviews – and to an extent, many other qualitative methods – are shaped by the ways interviewees interpret us and our role in the context of the interview. As a researcher, I participate in my interviewees’ process of meaning-making, and how what they understand shapes what they decide to tell me in ways that go far beyond shallower understandings of “trust” and “rapport” – which is how these issues are often addressed in qualitative methods training. There’s a long tradition of White ladies like me studying marginalized people, and several of my interviewees referenced the complicated legacies of this tradition. There is no space outside of these tensions, no method or research design that can “solve” for these legacies and differences in power. For me, grappling with this serves as a productive limit to my ability to claim knowledge about any person or social process, and a reminder that I share expertise with the participants in this and all research projects.

Ilana Gershon: Your book complicates more simplistic accounts of the digital divide, exploring how people experienced forms of predictable instability in terms of digital access.  How were people’s experiences of work affected by the kinds of digital access they had?

Julia Ticona: More recently, the story researchers have been telling about the digital divide recently is that it’s not really about access, because the costs of connectivity have come down and more people are accessing the internet on their phones. This has led many social scientific researchers to study other important kinds of inequalities – in skills, participation, motivations – but I’m really not done studying access. There’s a lot more critical work to be done on what we’ve called the “first level” of the digital divide.

In chapter 2, I detail the ways that low-wage workers face forms of what Louise Seamster and Raphaël Charron-Chénier have called “predatory inclusion.” These forms of inclusion happen all over the economy, wherever people are blocked from accessing something necessary – housing, student loans, and in the case of my research – the internet. Predatory inclusion happens when internet and mobile providers – who excluded people from access for many years – facilitate access for these populations on terms that cancel out the benefits of inclusion, like when they offer phone leasing programs that seem to make phones more affordable by breaking up the huge up-front cost over time, but actually end up charging people more than the price of a phone if they had been able to pay for it all at once up front.  Whether we see it in the student loan crisis or in paying for a smartphone, these are forms of exploitation of the poor. The book makes the argument that it’s not only exclusion from access that creates social inequalities – but inclusion too.

Ilana Gershon: What does comparing low wage and high wage workers’ use of digital technologies let you know about class divides in the contemporary United States?

Julia Ticona: One of the things I wanted to do with the book was to shift the perspective from thinking about digital inequalities to primarily one of thinking about the problems that come from exclusion to thinking about the terms on which people are included into connectivity. This wasn’t only because more and more people are including themselves into these networks, but also because it makes it much more clear that this is an issue that doesn’t only affect those who struggle with connectivity, but also those who hardly ever have to think about it. I wanted to tell a story about the shared experiences that precarity engenders, while also attending to the vast differences in the contexts where people find themselves and the resources they have to cope with precarity’s consequences. One of the most striking places I saw this sense of “shared, but different” was when I asked people – usually at the end of an interview – about their current phone & internet plan, and if they liked it. Everyone knew their provider – T-Mobile, Verizon, and so on – and I’d ask casually if they knew how much their bill was – nearly every high wage worker I interviewed wasn’t quite sure how much they paid and gave me a ballpark, while most of the low-wage workers not only told me about the plan they currently had and exactly how much it cost, but also the companies they were considering switching to and their prices. Comparing the experiences of workers across class allowed me to examine the role of privilege, not only the role of constraint, in shaping people’s relationship to their work and their technologies.  This is increasingly important, otherwise we’re left thinking that anyone with a cell phone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Our current system of connectivity is set up to allow some of us to ignore or forget the privileges we have that set us up for success with our technologies and our work, this forgetfulness is a moral hazard of living in precarious times and one I hope that comparative research like mine can help push back against.

Ilana Gershon: How do people’s class position affect what counts as a digital skill and the kinds of skills people develop to navigate contemporary work?

Julia Ticona: In some of the more celebratory accounts of the gig economy – the high wage workers I interviewed – freelance IT consultants, creative directors, and communication strategists – seem to be the winners of the new economy. Their intellectual and creative skills are in high demand, they’re adept at using technology to do their jobs and market themselves, and they enjoy freedom and flexibility of independent work. But, when we compare high and low wage workers, what I found was that it was the context of their work, rather than any special individual skill, that go a long way to explain their success. In chapter 3, I talk about an interview I did with a highly paid government contractor who openly searched LinkedIn for new jobs while in the office because she knew that if anyone saw her, they wouldn’t even blink because she also needed to network for her current project. Meanwhile, I talked with a retail worker in a consumer electronics store who was encouraged to use her personal phone to look up pricing for customers because the store’s desktops were hopelessly outdated. She needed to fill in some required paperwork and was using her phone behind the front desk and her manager saw her and thought she was ignoring a customer and passing the time on her phone and gave her a stern warning about it.

I show the ways the institutions of high-wage gig work allowed high-wage workers to exercise the so-called skills that were punished in low-wage workplaces. Instead of skills, I offer the idea of “digital privilege” to point out that the very same skills in the hands of individuals in different classed institutional arrangements, are received in very different ways. It’s this privilege, not skills, that made their digital hustles look smooth and seamless. Constraint and hurdles to access aren’t the only things that shape digital inequalities, privilege does also, and only understanding one side of that equation leaves out some important parts to our understanding of these phenomenon.