Elise Berman on her new book, Talking Like Children

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/talking-like-children-9780190876982

Interview by Shannon Ward

Shannon Ward: Most chapters of your book illustrated the enactment of “aged agency” through narratives that follow key events in the lives of your interlocutors, written in an accessible style and in English translation. What challenges did you face in translating your fieldnotes and transcriptions into this format?

Elise Berman: This is a great question. It was both hard and easy. I wanted to write a book that people would want to read, that would make the people I had met come alive, even while being theoretically rich. And so I did some research. As I was writing Talking Like Children, I happened upon a book called Storycraft by Jack Hart that discusses how to write narrative non-fiction. It occurred to me, then, that anthropological data is full of stories, and that ethnographies can be, and the best are, narrative non-fiction. Similarly, while teaching at UNCC the books that work best in my classes are the ones that have a strong narrative arch, characters that the students can latch on to and follow.

But the structure of narrative non-fiction that Hart describes is quite different than the way I was writing in graduate school (and I ended up wishing that I had taken a narrative non-fiction class). So, I completely rewrote my dissertation, not only to change the theory but also to change my style. One of the main points that struck me from Hart’s book was that when telling a narrative, you don’t want to give away the end in the beginning. So, for instance, in Chapter 1 when I talk about the birth of Pinla’s child, I do not initially tell the reader who got the child in the end. That is the climax, and the desire to know the result of these negotiations is what pulls readers through the text. But in the type of expository writing that I have learned, you are supposed to put the thesis in the beginning! So what I tried to do was put the theoretical thesis of each chapter in the beginning, but create narrative tension by starting with a hook and letting the story develop through the chapter without giving the ending away. I also tried to follow the other elements of Hart’s structure—beginning with action, intertwining narrative with expository information, and ending with a climax. This organization of each chapter took quite a bit of rethinking, reworking, and learning about narrative non-fiction.

But the other part of your question, about translating the fieldnotes and transcripts themselves into the dialogue, that was easy. A quote from a transcript can be written as dialogue, especially since I would have to translate it from Marshallese anyway for a transcript. What I did, instead of including symbols to indicate things like pauses or pitch, was provide that information as a narrative description. I actually found it much easier to explain this way than through symbols in a transcript. Moreover, writing this way pushed me to look closer at my videos. For narrative reasons, I wanted to be able to talk about where Rōka was looking or what Jackie did with her hand. To do that, I had to dig deeper into the recordings, and I frequently discovered relevant elements of the videos that I had left out in my previous version of the transcript.

Shannon Ward: Throughout the book, you compared age to gender, in order to theorize age as constructed and shifting. You also assert that “age is power.” Could you say more about how age intersects with gender to produce power in this ethnographic context? Relatedly, how are gender differences acquired alongside age differences, especially in childhood but also across the lifecycle?

Elise Berman: Gender differences are definitely acquired alongside age differences. The best example of this is in Chapter 6, where I talk about how Jackie has lost her former ability to run errands to men, since as she gets older she becomes subject to the “shyness” that often leads young women and men to talk in gender segregated groups. In contrast, however, Sisina, the child, is relatively bold. Her boldness is a part of learning to be not only a child who is different from an adult, but also a girl who is different from women. There are also various other aspects of gender that change across the life course that I do not discuss in the book. For example, in old age women seem to get bold once again and start playing a larger clowning role in festivals, whereas the younger women tend to be a little shyer.

This is one of the advantages, in fact, of focusing on age as a social construction. When one does, it highlights how all other categories—race, gender, class—dynamically change across the life course. So, focusing on age, in a way that I suggest has been largely (although not entirely) neglected in the social sciences, helps arguments that gender or race are not static or set in stone. It also changes the questions one might ask about the socialization of gender or race. Rather than being socialized into gender roles, people are socialized into age specific gendered modes of interaction and feeling that are constantly changing as people move across the life course.

Shannon Ward: Your book includes several stories of children who circulate between adopted families and birth families, amidst extensive controversy and discussions of adults’ morality. In these stories, you show how people, including children, use their age to affect the outcome of these exchanges. How do these Marshallese practices of adoption provide new perspectives on agency in the exchange of persons?

Elise Berman: This is another great question, and it really relates to the different forms of aged agency that exist in the RMI as a whole. Ultimately it is very hard to say no to an elder who requests something, including a child. But children and young adults have several different forms of agency, and specifically the agency of movement. Many children in the RMI have some amount of choice about where, and with whom, they live. In theory they are allowed to decide and can live with almost any relative. In practice, of course, it is much more complicated—they may not have transportation to a different relative (if that relative is on a different island), the different relative may not actually want them to stay, the parent they are leaving may be particularly powerful. Nonetheless, children’s freedom of movement changes the pattern of adoption as a whole, since adoptive children can and do move back and forth between multiple houses, including between what we would call their birth and adoptive parents. So, one part of childcare in the RMI is keeping your children happy, because if they aren’t they could (in theory) live elsewhere. People talked to me explicitly about this idea, that keeping your children with you requires keeping them happy—and that while this is particularly true of adoptive children it applies to others as well. Children’s movement is possible partly because of their age. They are not yet tied to a particular household that they care for.

Just as children can move between households, young adults can as well. One way to get away from a request for a child that you don’t want to fulfill is to move away until the child is older (one mother told me she did this: she didn’t want to give her kid away to an elder relative so when she was pregnant she moved to a different atoll). In turn, young adults also have a variety of choices available to them that are not as readily available to people in the US. Adoption is not a last resort in the RMI: it is a reasonable and expected option for single women as well as partnered ones. So I know of several women who told me that they adopted a child before they were partnered and before they had children of their own because they wanted a child. Now, this might happen in the US as well, but it is still something of an anomaly for a single woman to adopt a child. In turn, particularly given the common pattern of grandparents adopting the firstborn grandchildren, youth who have children before they are ready have a number of options open to them, options that might be offered rather than having to be sought out. Moreover, people change partners quite frequently early in relationships (when people are koba, together, but haven’t taken the step of becoming married), and this isn’t really seen as something that will negatively affect the children. Thus, women can adopt when single, and if they have a child without a partner it is not a big deal.

At the same time, however, these large families and these forms of sharing children have their own tensions, which I tried to illuminate in Chapter 1. In addition, and this is something that I didn’t write about in the book, when combined with high poverty rates this system is ripe for exploitation. There is a huge crisis of American adoptions of Marshallese children, where the ability of powerful people (including foreigners) to ask for things and get them, as well as these malleable households that shift and adapt, has led to an exorbitant number of American adoptions of Marshallese children.

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Shannon Ward: Chapter 5, in particular, addresses issues of morality and age. Marshallese ideologies assert that children refrain from lying despite risks to their own or others’ reputations, unlike adults who lie to avoid shame and protect their reputations. In other words, this ideology holds that children are able to tell the truth, especially about others’ negative actions, due to their position as nonmoral persons. Throughout the book, you also mention the importance of Christianity. Other ethnographic literature about the Pacific region has shown how Christianity is shaping notions of truth, responsibility, and evidence related to morality. Could you say more about how these ideologies of children’s truthfulness and nonmorality relate to Christianity in this ethnographic context?

Elise Berman: It is not that the children refrain from lying despite risks to their own reputation, but rather that there are no risks to children’s reputations (or so adults think; children have a different view). Since, according to adults, children are too young to have reputations, any words that they tell are not real lies. Thus the ideology is not so much that children do not tell untruths (everyone agrees that they do), but rather they do not and have no motive to tell real lies that negatively affect adults. If they do, those words are not their own and they are not responsible for them.

This view of children’s words as not their own and, therefore, not lies even when they are false does seem to be quite different from the ideology of language explicitly expressed in church settings, in which a much greater concern is placed on words themselves as opposed to the effect of words. In line with the literature you reference, Christianity does seem to promote a different view of words and responsibility. But this ideology, as elsewhere in the Pacific, also seems to vary with denomination. My host family was Būrotijen, which is the United Church of Christ, the original denomination of the missionaries who came in the 1800s. So, I spent most of my time at the Būrotijen church. But there are many other newer denominations. When I visited two evangelical churches—Assembly of God and Looking for Jesus—the sermon’s rhetoric was much more focused on how God tells the truth and one must always tell the truth. Since almost everyone I interacted with outside of church was Būrotijen, I can’t say for sure how this perhaps greater emphasis on words’ referential accuracy within these other churches affects behavior outside of the church.

 

Eitan Wilf on his new book, Creativity on Demand

https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/C/bo34094110.html

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: You describe how, when you explained your previous work on regimented jazz instruction to someone also attending a business innovation workshop, he asked you how you managed to get metaphorically from a famous jazz club in New York City, the Village Vanguard, to these workshops. You point out that the similar tensions in both sites exist because people are using rule-bound and structured pedagogical techniques which are meant to lead to creative improvisation that in earlier decades was believed to emerge more organically.  How do you think the business innovation workshops you attended differed from the jazz classes in the ways rules and creativity were understood?

Eitan Wilf: My interlocutors in academic jazz programs and business innovation workshops did not approach rules for generating creative results in the same way due to the historical specificity of each context. Most of my interlocutors in academic jazz programs—students, teachers, and administrators, as well as the wider public—understood the academic jazz program as a pale shadow of the vibrant urban jazz scenes of the mid-20th century, which gave rise to the masterpieces of this genre. The apprenticeship system, in which neophyte musicians learn from more experienced musicians in live performance settings, was the prevalent form of jazz training in those scenes. With the gradual disappearance of clubs and their replacement with academic programs, jazz training became more standardized, abstract, and text-mediated. Due to this history, my interlocutors in academic jazz programs viewed the structured pedagogical techniques taught in such programs as always already problematic, a form of training that indexed the music’s and their own fall from grace and the realization that, at best, such techniques can give them a glimpse of what genuine creativity in jazz is all about. In contrast, my interlocutors in business innovation workshops did not have the idea that they were born after a past golden age of creativity in the business world in relation to which their own practice could be negatively compared. Because creativity has never been a defining dimension of their ideal-typical practice, they approached the structured techniques for generating creative results that they were taught in innovation workshops with much more enthusiasm, hope, and curiosity. If they experienced any ambivalence toward those techniques, it was due to the fact that in western modernity in general creativity and rules are understood to be antithetical to one another.

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Haidy Geismar on her new book, Museum Object Lessons for the Digital Age

Museum Object Lessons for the Digital Age Cover

https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/browse-books/museum-object-lessons-for-the-digital-age

Interview by Joshua Bell

Joshua Bell: Your book is a manifesto of sorts of what the digital – as a relatively new domain – does for more traditional objects in museums, how the digital as a different constitution of relations is and isn’t unique, what the digital does (and doesn’t do) to our understanding of heritage, and how by engaging with these relations and configurations we can begin to see museums anew. Could you comment on what prompted you to write this book?

Haidy Geismar: Over the course of my research career, since starting in around 2000, almost all the practices I have been involved with in museums have migrated into the digital: collecting and archiving, discussions about property rights, community and artist interventions, and new forms of display, are all increasingly situated within digital media. I was struck however by the lack of continuity between previous practices and these new digital projects. There seemed to be an assumption that the digital provided “a way out”, particularly for the complex legacy of the ethnographic collection. My own empirical observations however, were showing how many digital projects were in fact reproducing concepts and issues that already existed.  The case of digital repatriation is a great example, which you explored in a great series of workshops that you and Kim Christen convened at the Smithsonian which was published in the collection “After the Return”. Digital repatriation burst out of the reproductive affordances of digital media and was quickly embraced as a way for museums to redeem themselves by sharing collections and supposedly giving up sovereignty or ownership over indigenous cultures. As the papers in your collection explore, this promise was not always borne out in practice. Instead the digital came to afford a continued negotiation between source communities and museums/archives, and it became yet another site of contested sovereignty, in which the history of collecting, and of colonialism, could not be forgotten. I wanted to write a book that tracked between the digital and the analogue and argued for a ethnographic perspective on the digital that placed it in a context beyond its own.

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Melissa Gregg on her new book, Counterproductive

Interview by Ilana Gershon

https://www.dukeupress.edu/counterproductive

Ilana Gershon: When did the argument for Counterproductive come to you in the process of researching and writing?

Melissa Gregg: After I came up with the title, because I didn’t want to change it! The title helped me pursue two related ideas. First, that productivity is a misplaced goal in information jobs, since work is about the mind as much as the hand. Second, that for all the talk of freedom and flexibility in the modern office, we do not appear to be thriving with the newfound ability to manage ourselves. This is unfinished business from my last book, Work’s Intimacy. I wanted to understand the origins for the types of productivity pressures expressed by the workers I had interviewed at the dawn of the smartphone era. Back then, we had no language to explain the simultaneous sense of compulsion and pleasure that came with online connectivity. The vocabulary of labor seemed totally inadequate. I had always been fascinated by self-help genres for business, so taking an auto-ethnographic approach to time management texts and tools soon revealed obvious consistencies in genre and form despite the technologies of the period. From there, the components of an analysis came together. The rituals and refrains of charismatic gurus could be placed in the broader history of religious thinking embedded in capitalism. I also came to appreciate that much bigger ideas – like life priorities and mortality – were at stake in ostensibly utilitarian “Getting Things Done” principles, just as they were underpinning many of the actions of my earlier research participants.

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John Postill on his new book, The Rise of Nerd Politics

The Rise of Nerd Politics
Interview by Angela VandenBroek
Angela VandenBroek: The Rise of Nerd Politics is a captivating description and analysis of “techpol nerds” and their “clamping” (computing, law, art, media, and politics) skills. You have described the techpol nerds as related to but not the same as other kinds of nerd categories studied by anthropologists (such as Kelty and Coleman). What led you to this analytic decision and why do you think it is important for anthropology now?
John Postill: That’s right. While Chris Kelty and Gabriella Coleman – whose pioneering work has had a major influence on mine – and other scholars have focused on computer geeks and hackers, I include other specialists under my category of “nerd politics” – a term I borrowed from the Canadian sci-fi author Cory Doctorow.
The people I’m calling “techno-political nerds”, or simply “techpol nerds”, are a highly diverse lot. To be sure, among their ranks we find geeks and hackers, but we also find tech journalists, digital artists, copyright lawyers, Pirate politicians, and even anthropologists. What all these specialists have in common is a passionate devotion to working at the intersection of technology and politics, a pro-democracy stance, a profound dislike of authoritarianism, and the belief that the fate of the internet and of democracy are inextricably entwined. They translate this passion into a huge variety of initiatives in areas such as open data activism, digital rights, popular mobilisation, and electoral politics. It follows that I regard hacker politics to be a subclass of nerd, or “clamper”, politics.
As I argue in Chapter 2, not all forms of knowledge or skillsets are born equal in the world of nerd politics. Five forms in particular (computing, law, art, media and politics, or “clamp” for short) take pride of place within this world. Even accomplished computer nerds like the NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden must rely on the expertise of others to pursue their political goals. Snowden gathered around him a team of Guardian journalists, lawyers and tech people as well as a documentary filmmaker. Yet we tend to overlook this interdisciplinary teamwork in our fascination with this supposedly lone wolf and his technological wizardry.
I arrived at this analytic decision in a roundabout way, as tends to be the case in anthropology. I started fieldwork in Barcelona, Spain, in the summer of 2010 with the intention of studying whether social media were making any substantial difference to the work of activists in that part of the world. After surveying the terrain, I became interested in the small but rambunctious digital rights scene and soon realised that it wasn’t just geeks and hackers who were active within it. In 2014 and 2015 I did comparative research on similar scenes in Indonesia, as well as secondary research on other countries. Everywhere I looked I found heterogeneous teams of nerds – not just techies – “clamping up” on corruption, fraud, online censorship, and other perceived malaises of the digital era.
 
Angela VandenBroek: For this book you drew on a wide range of techpol nerds, including those in Spain, Indonesia, Iceland, Brazil, Tunisia, Taiwan, and the United States. But the 15M movement in Spain figured prominently throughout the text. What about this particular example made it such a fruitful resource for you analytically, especially in contrast to more popularly covered subjects, such as the Arab Spring uprisings or the Occupy movement?
John Postill: There was an element of sheer luck in my decision to work in Spain. In 2009, when I was still based in the UK, a friend in London sent me a link to an advert in The Economist. The Open University of Catalonia were offering a one-year fellowship to study social media and activism in Barcelona. I applied and got it. It helped that I was brought up in Spain and that my previous research was on internet activism (albeit in a very different setting: suburban Malaysia). Another stroke of luck was that in early 2011 the digital rights nerds I was working with decided to switch from internet politics to politics writ large when they helped to launch the 15M (indignados) movement, which called for “real democracy now” and led directly to the Occupy movement.
But the story doesn’t end here, as the very same Barcelona nerds, an activist group called Xnet, later launched a data activism campaign to put on trial those behind the collapse of one of Spain’s major banks, Bankia. They later wrote and performed a widely acclaimed “data theatre” play on the Bankia case, launched a nerdy political party named Partido X, and even got embroiled in the fraught data politics of the Catalan independence referendum of 2017. By retracing Xnet’s nomadic trajectory I was able to map the world of nerd politics in Spain and discern four main spaces, or “subworlds”, within it: digital rights, data activism, social protest and formal politics.
I then tested this four-cornered map in those other countries that you mention and, to my delight, it worked there, too. This enabled me to make comparisons across political cultures. For instance, while Spain’s nerds migrated en masse in 2011 from the space of digital rights to that of social protest to launch the 15M movement, their Brazilian counterparts remained fixated on a single digital-rights issue even at the height of the 2013 popular mobilisations. This paid off eventually as far as digital rights in Brazil are concerned, but arguably there was a missed opportunity for Brazilian nerds to help create something like Spain’s 15M movement and its formal political offshoots.
Spain has turned out to be an unlikely global leader in nerd politics, a massive laboratory of techno-politics and democracy. Today scores of town halls across Spain, including in major cities like Madrid and Barcelona, are in the hands of indignados, many of them steeped in nerd culture. Moreover, a party that borrowed heavily from Xnet’s techno-political tools, namely Podemos, is now Spain’s third political force and the main ally of the ruling Socialists.
Angela VandenBroek:  You have artfully debunked many perceptions of nerds in The Rise of Nerd Politics that are common both in popular media and within anthropology and related fields, including their politics, their demographics and geographic locations, their collaborations and organization, and their utopian and techno-solutionist inclinations. How do you think these prior perceptions may have hindered our understanding of techpol nerds and their movements? And, what do you think are the most important misconceptions you have identified for us to pay attention to going forward?
John Postill: The prior perceptions you refer to – about nerds being typically white, male, anglophone, geeky, techno-solutionist, and so on – originate largely in US popular culture and news media but are influential worldwide. The two paradigmatic examples are Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. These perceptions have clouded our understanding of the world of nerd politics in a number of ways, including a lack of attention to techpol nerds’ pragmatism; to their ethno-national, religious and gendered diversity; to their penchant for combining teamwork and crowdwork; to the fact that many of them work across civil society, government and the private sector divides, and so on.
Out of these misconceptions I would single out the popular fixation with hackers and their tech wizardry to the detriment of nerds from non-tech backgrounds (for example, journalism, art, humanities, politics) who are equally important to the rise of nerd politics and its increasing centrality to our political and cultural lives.
Don’t get me wrong: Assange, Snowden and other leading computer nerds have played hugely important roles, but so have lesser known individuals and groups around the globe (who may or may not possess advanced IT skills).
Angela VandenBroek: You end your book by saying, “For social scientists like me, and many readers of this book, there is also the issue of the current dominance of five kinds of knowledge (computing, law, art, media and politics) in this social world, which suggests that there is room for greater anthropological and sociological expertise in the nerd politics repertoire” (p. 254). How do you think anthropological knowledge could sit practically within the existing clamping suite? What are the tensions anthropologists may face in this space and how do you think we might overcome them through our work?
John Postill: Yes, that’s the book’s cliffhanger, a key unanswered question!
One significant contribution that anthropologists studying this topic could make to nerd politics is to continue to ask questions about who these techpol nerds (think they) are, what they have done so far, and with what actual and potential consequences. Whatever else we’re interested in, we anthropologists are always deeply interested in people, especially in our research participants. We are also interested, of course, in processes, systems, technologies, networks (whatever these are), actions and practices, but more than anything else we study people and their social relations, which these days are often digitally mediated.
Another potential contribution could be to interrogate the ontological status of some of the nerds’ favourite sociological notions. Do these notions have an empirical basis or are they simply cherished ideals and/or useful fictions? For example, when my research participants – some of them fellow researchers from other academic fields – get excited about the power of  connected multitudes or horizontal networks to bring about political change, I am among those whose job it is to sound a note of caution. What exactly is a horizontal network? Has anyone ever seen one? If so, where and when? By the same token, a team is a more tangible social entity than a so-called network, and yet the notion of team is conspicuously absent from many of the nerd narratives. These are the kinds of questions and blind spots that anthropologists are well placed to identify as the research and writing progresses. It follows that we should go about this task diplomatically (after all, we don’t necessarily want to antagonise people!).
Beyond these epistemological concerns, there is also the question of health and safety. As the world becomes more unruly, polarised, and unpredictable, anthropologists and their research participants working on nerd politics – and related topics – face greater legal and physical risks. One urgent task for anthropologists is to go beyond our liberal comfort zones and help bridge the current ideological rift between pro-democracy progressives and conservatives so that, together, we can take on the extremists and autocrats. We also need many more part-nerdships, that is, political initiatives that bring together nerds and non-nerds fighting for the social and economic rights of all citizens, including their digital rights – regardless of class, creed, or skin colour.

Sarah Shulist on her new book, Transforming Indigeneity

Transforming Indigeneity
Interview by Shannon Ward
Shannon Ward: Your book demonstrates how children in São Gabriel actively respond to discourse that frames Indigeneity as performance, by acting out Indigeneity as a set of symbols distinct from the realm of everyday life. You also explain that youth, facing the realities of urban poverty, substance abuse, and violence, often look to non-Indigenous symbols of material wealth for aspiration. Do you see any hope for mobilizing the resources necessary to give children and youth space for building their own meaningful cultural practices, as part of a shared identity as urban Indigenous youth?
Sarah Shulist: I absolutely see hope for youth to find creative ways to build “meaningful cultural practices”, and I think they definitely are doing so already. I should note that the story about “performing” Indigeneity really highlights more about what the little girl’s parents thought than what she herself was doing (because she herself was very young), which illustrates that even the adults have a complicated relationship to the balance between the symbolic form of Indigeneity and a more “lived in” one. I found that older teens and young people in their 20s were very committed to their vision of themselves as urban Indigenous people, however, and really resisted the discourses of rigid cultural “purity” that some powerful people advocated. They were creating theatre groups, developing radio programs, and starting hip-hop dance/song workshops, and in all of these they really wanted to use Indigenous stories and themes in ways that resonated with their “modern” views of themselves. This was also situated as a way of ensuring that kids would have sources of social strength that would help prevent them from becoming involved in drug trafficking and other risks. One of the most passionate young women I knew when I was there is now in her early 30s, and has become the head of a newly created municipal youth council, so her energy is being transferred forward in that context.

Shannon Ward: Your book shows the challenges of cultural and linguistic transmission in a city, when concerns about Indigeneity are often framed through discussions of land rights and when Indigenous language practices are deeply tied to the realities of everyday agricultural life. How could the generally effective political mobilization of Indigenous peoples for rural land rights (pg. 41, for example) be replicated in urban spaces?
Sarah Shulist: I think that one way to mobilize around language in urban areas would involve mobilizing more directly around language in and of itself, rather than as an extension of other rights – specifically, in this case, the right to ‘differentiated education.’ A lot of activism that has taken place around language has strategically looked for the openings provided within the legal structure of the Brazilian constitution, which makes perfect sense, but which has left the urban areas out. Now, with the recent election of a government that has promised to erase Indigenous land reserves, the risks associated with having all rights tied to these land recognitions become even more starkly clear. Language efforts can become ways of solidifying and strengthening community networks in urban areas, or across urban/rural movements, and so on. Language exists (or can exist) wherever speakers and potential speakers exist, so I have often seen the crux of urban language revitalization as based in the notion that “the community” needs to be created, rather than presumed to already be in a given place. At the same time, an aspect of Indigenous mobilization that’s happening here in Canada, and that I think is also important elsewhere, is a reminder that these cities are also built on colonized land, and that the Indigenous people living in them have a claim to ways of moving through those spaces that are often erased by separating out what “counts” as Indigenous lands as only referring to what we call “reserves” here, and “demarcated territories” there. It’s striking to look at a map of the municipality of São Gabriel and remember that the ‘seat’ of governance is the only part of it that is not considered to be Indigenous territory – this tiny island of non-Indigenous space from which everything is supposed to emanate – when of course the reasoning behind that is a purely colonial logic.
Shannon Ward: In chapter 4, your discussion of Indigenous language pedagogy, specifically, Nheengatú classes that valorize literacy over other linguistic skills, seems relevant to discussions not only of language revitalization, but of language and literacy learning more broadly. What do you think the case of Nheengatú classes in São Gabriel can tell us more generally about the acquisition of literacy, and the challenges of implementing immersion-based learning in communities that may not value linguistic diversity as an element of everyday practice?
Sarah Shulist: This is a great question, and it covers a lot of ground. I think the example of the Nheengatú classes fits within a much larger pattern of classroom-based views of ‘language’ that really emphasize not only literacy, but very particular forms of literacy. The diversity of literacy practices beyond schooled literacy have, of course, become an important topic within linguistic anthropology, and this research is part of what helped me to recognize the strength of that pull towards writing-centric ideologies in the Nheengatú classrooms. I think what I learned from the challenges facing Nheengatú language teachers was to be careful about dismissing the meaning and power behind teaching literacy. As someone trained in linguistics, I’ve definitely been influenced by the emphasis on orality, and I do think there is an important need, in language revitalization efforts, to orient toward supporting language in practice, rather than as an abstract grammatical system.  But at the same time, I think there is a lot of meaning behind the literacy practices that we can sometimes dismiss too easily. While feelings about the inferiority of Indigenous languages are obviously rooted in internalizations of colonial logics, that doesn’t make them any less real or worth challenging, and having or learning writing in the language seems to have a lot of power to challenge those beliefs. The biggest challenge of implementing immersion schools in São Gabriel, I think, is less about a devaluation of multilingualism per se and more about a strong attachment to a specific view of what formal education is for, which is to learn how to move and succeed within a non-Indigenous world. Given that, I think the potential for immersion-based learning that is happening outside of schools is important to cultivate, and there are plenty of great examples of these types of strategies from around the world that could be applied in the Amazonian context.
Shannon Ward: In chapter 7, you explain that cross-border migration is changing the linguistic ecology of São Gabriel  How might cross-border alliances of Indigenous peoples in this region develop? How could such alliances mobilize Indigenous people to hold greater agency in urban places of habitation?
Sarah Shulist: The question of cross-border migration within São Gabriel remains an ever-changing concern, and I think even in the year or so since I did the final read through of the book proofs, the dynamics of changed. Colombia has become more stable, while Venezuela’s economic and political crisis has deepened, and the results of the Brazilian election will also reshape the implications of being Indigenous in each of these three countries. I think the degree of unrest and the shifting dynamics make cross-border alliances and transnational advocacy groups into vital elements in this discussion, but in ways that I don’t think are predictable at this point.
Shannon Ward:  Brazil has recently faced several tragedies covered by international media, including the destruction of archives of Indigenous endangered languages at Brazil’s National Museum. How might this tragedy factor into future decisions surrounding the methods of language documentation and linguistic revitalization in São Gabriel?
Sarah: I think working on language revitalization requires a degree of hopefulness – an imagination about a future social world in which Indigenous peoples have the space, both metaphorical and literal, to use their languages and live in ways that are holistically their own. I have, personally, found it difficult to maintain that hopeful vision given the recent tragic losses of the museum fire, as well as the election of Bolsonaro, who has said some truly frightening things about his desire to do away with even the most basic of Indigenous land protections. I think these events call us, as academic allies, to really rethink what our goals are with respect to language revitalization. Documentation and “preservation”, as in the museum, have long been recognized as incomplete, and also, in many ways, as products of an extractive colonial ideology that puts the language down on paper and takes it away from the community in which it is used (I wrote a post about this on my own blog in the immediate aftermath of the fire: https://anthropologyas.wordpress.com/2018/09/12/on-what-was-really-lost-in-the-fire/ ).
Schools, likewise, are very expensive projects whose maintenance and value depend on constant reinvestment and buy-in from the colonial state, and the political whims of the moment really demonstrate how precarious it is to lay our hopes on this kind of a foundation. That’s my somewhat long-way-around introduction to saying that I think a lot of language documentation and revitalization, in São Gabriel in particular but also elsewhere, needs to really listen to Indigenous voices who are emphasizing radical re-imagining of what ‘language’ is and what it means to support its continued presence in their lives.  I’m thinking of Indigenous scholars like Wesley Leonard and Jenny Davis, among others, here). A lot of academics are recognizing that any authentic desire to support Indigenous languages requires us to support Indigenous people, and not shy away from the messy human realities that entails. The museum fire was somewhat less devastating to languages in the Northwest Amazon region than it was to other areas, because most of them are still spoken by at least a small number of people, and good, recent documentation exists of many of them that was not housed in the Museu Nacional. I still hope that it will be taken as a powerful reminder that we need to refocus on language as inherently embedded in its social context, and on protecting the lifeways of the people who use it.

Britt Halvorson on her new book, Conversionary Sites

https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/C/bo28267368.html

Interview by Josh Reno

Josh Reno: What were your primary goals in writing this book?

Britt: Halvorson: One of my goals in writing this book was to shine light on the transforming relationships between independent national churches in Sub-Saharan Africa and American Christian churches formerly involved in colonial mission work. Humanitarian aid relationships have become one way that Christians increasingly attempt to “do good in the world” and address forms of inequality among Christians. Some characterize humanitarian aid programs as more ethical practices than previous colonial missionary work because they do not appear to interfere with the authority and sovereignty of African churches. I critically explore such programs and their claims by asking how variously positioned Christians understand their moral and political dimensions. I also look into how humanitarian sensibilities are transforming people’s practices and perceptions of global Christianity.

Another goal in writing the book was to highlight the interpretive process and diverse valuations that occur through the material work of doing Christian aid. I have encountered studies of aid that smoothed out these activities or left the impression that aid workers operated similarly to fulfill organizational missions. Through my own aid labor and relationships with Christian aid workers in Minneapolis and Antananarivo, I experienced things differently: both Malagasy and American aid workers continually debated, imagined, and reflected on what doing aid meant and how they were implicated in that process. Medical technologies like x-ray machines were not static or single things per se but accorded varying meanings and values; aid workers pursued their relationships with God and each other through their aid labor; and a variety of absent presences pervaded aid activities, from the specter of colonial missionaries to a desired holism of body-soul not found in biomedical treatment.

This insight led me to the deeper realization that Christian aid-giving is a process of religious interpretation. So I wanted to fill my account of aid with all the lived struggles and beautifully fraught moments of aid spaces. I wanted to show people “making do” among varying value systems in a kind of dynamic, improvisational ethical practice. What I mean by that is that doing aid—whether sorting donations of surgical scissors or writing reports on the uses of medical relief—shapes varying positions, critiques, interpretations, and ethical problems of global religious community. Medical supplies like syringes and bandages can operate as forms of religious mediation, much like the films, cassette sermons, monetary donations, clothing, and much more described in other anthropological studies of religion. The material and bureaucratic practices of medical aid may seem dry and dull on the surface. But, as I hope to have shown, they are the very stuff of vital questions about what it means to be an ethical Christian in the contemporary world.

Josh Reno: In your analysis, conversionary sites play a key role as a way of conceptualizing how global medical aid changes as it crosses geographical distance, converting from one culturally meaningful form to another relative to religious sites and the practices and orientations of the actors involved. Can you describe what other work this idea performs in your analysis and what made it preferable to other possible approaches?

Britt Halvorson: I’ve used the term conversionary sites to draw out how Christian aid workers actively navigate the varying value regimes present in the Minnesota-Madagascar aid alliance. These include 1) ethical ideals of solidarity and mutuality among “global Christians,” 2) professional standards of accountability in bureaucratic humanitarianism, and 3) the resource inequalities of global medical commerce. Malagasy and American Christian aid workers constantly negotiate the asymmetries and gaps among these varying value regimes. This work is a key feature of the kind of Christian aid I studied and, I think, part of what makes it a meaningful practice for individual Christians; small uncertainties of value signal the creative leaps of faith that are central to Christian commitment. I consider conversionary sites to not only be the geographically-dispersed Christian aid spaces where I did research (aid warehouses, worship services, offices, house churches) but also the distinct material activities undertaken within those spaces. Aid laborers are not only seeking to, for example, morally redeem medical discards by praying over them or by associating “junk aid” with human sinfulness. Through the material transactions of aid, Americans and Malagasy involved in the aid program are also participating in an attempt to convert the moral foundation, ways of knowing, and practices of their prior relationship with each other under colonial missions.

Conversionary sites therefore enables me to draw out these shifting values of past and present and look into “conversions” as moral relations that take shape in, and receive reinforcement from, the material activities of aid. While American Lutherans (ELCA) were formerly involved in direct, face-to-face evangelism in southern Madagascar for over a century (1888-2004), individuals previously engaged in overseas mission work are now converting their own moral practice and moral subjectivity to be in keeping with an aid-giving sensibility that ostensibly upholds Malagasy authority and sovereignty. Likewise, Malagasy Lutherans’ relationship with American Lutheran churches has shifted over the last forty years to focus partly on financial grants and in-kind aid resources that sustain church-run institutions. For both projects, “the colonial” is a negative moral force against which contemporary Christian humanitarian efforts are being defined. I find this fascinating and relevant at a time when academics, too, are taking part in decolonizing efforts. I’ve observed that, when imperialism can be embodied in the figure of the colonial missionary and “the colonial” is easily named, less scrutiny is given to the more thoroughgoing cultural practices that less obviously maintain forms of racial and political inequality.

Josh Reno: Your ethnography examines the relationship of past colonization of Madagascar and present-day medical aid relationships, specifically the complicated and contested involvement of Lutheran missionaries in both. In what ways do varying temporalities become important to your analysis? Does this idea have relevance for other studies of humanitarianism, including those not focused explicitly on religious organizations?


Britt Halverson: This question fits beautifully with what I was describing above. I argue in the book that Christian aid work is a practice in time and of time. What I mean by that is that people doing aid—whether Christian or of another religious affiliation, or ostensibly secular—are often comparing their work to other possible approaches, including past interventions and relationships. These other possibilities come to inform and define present approaches to aid-giving in complex ways. In this respect, the relationship of past and present is always “present” in aid efforts! But the pasts evoked are creative, selectively made constructions that speak to the concerns of the present. I came to think of the relationship of past and present as an historical resource that Christian aid workers variously used to define a morally upright approach to contemporary Christian humanitarianism. Some Malagasy Lutheran informants spoke of the relationship of past colonial American Lutheran missionary involvement in Madagascar as continuous with the aid program, rather than representing a sharp break with the past (as did some Americans). Additionally, other Malagasy informants referred to the colonial as an affective experience of déjà vu that called forth a subtle critique of specific qualities of the aid program.

Recognizing the varying temporalities of aid work raises several interesting issues. One is the extent to which aid itself becomes a practice of historical reinscription, of reworking the past by defining present aid efforts as distinct from the practices of the past. This has the danger of downplaying the political and economic inequalities produced by Christian aid programs, as well as the thoroughgoing and very direct ways they build on specific Christian ties produced under colonial rule. A second question is how to connect these subtle ways that aid is a practice of time to the prevailing temporalities of aid described in the broader literature. Rather than intervening in a short-term crisis, the Christian aid program I study has been oriented around the much more enduring problem of economic inequality, which has no easily discernible end point. For my research participants, this long-term involvement raised questions about whether Christian aid programs addressing economic inequality should have an end or whether they constitute important, ongoing forms of world-making. But more secular humanitarian studies have certainly benefited from attention to the varying histories informing contemporary aid work. Attending to these questions on a finer scale—as I have tried to do—would mean looking into how relations of past and present constitute part of the ethical practice of humanitarian work.

Josh Reno: Biospiritual imaginary is a key term for portions of the book that deal with part-whole metonymy and synecdoche as evidenced and enacted through bodies. What kind of work does your term biospiritual imaginary do for thinking about aid as a semiotic and linguistic practice?

Britt Halverson: I’ve used the term “biospiritual imaginaries” to illuminate how aid work connects bodies, words and material things in particular ways that can be ideologically motivated. As is true for many, I was positively influenced in my graduate training at the University of Michigan by Judy Irvine and Susan Gal’s work on language ideologies and Webb Keane’s notion of semiotic ideologies. In addition to the rich literature on mediation in the anthropology of religion, I’ve also long been interested in multidisciplinary work on materiality and religious practice emerging from religious studies and art history.

These distinct influences led me to consider Christian aid as a semiotic practice with, in this particular case, notably partial, fragmentary and incomplete notions of authoritative practice. For instance, the Minneapolis aid organizations exist at the ostensible margins of authoritative Lutheranism. They are not affiliated directly with one doctrinal view of Lutheran practice, they feature Lutheran volunteers of many different denominations, and the ordinary practices of aid labor (e.g., sorting, handling, and packing medical relief) repeatedly emphasize the significance of material aid objects to Christian practice. Organizational leadership sought to discursively frame these material and embodied experiences in particular ways that supported authoritative views of Lutheran aid practice. Yet aid work often prompted serious play among laypeople concerning the relations of the medical supplies they handled to their own bodies and to unseen but imagined wholes, such as the global Christian body or the medical patient body.

Like other scholars in the anthropology of Christianity writing on ideologies, I aim to show how the interpretive work I’ve described as central to Christian aid work is always already “political” or ideological through the forms of agency, qualities and boundaries people variously draw between their words, material things, and bodies. I’ve wanted to demonstrate how aid practices are semiotic in this way, and to develop a fine-grained approach to the interesting, polyvalent ways aid work positions words, bodies and material things as communicative forms. Applying forms of linguistic and semiotic analysis to aid work can lead to new insights. The faith-based aid organizations where I did research are marginalized in their religious communities’ hierarchies of doctrinal and theological authority but are certainly not marginal to the religious experiences of laypeople. As such, aid agencies present an interesting space for tracking the creativity and multiplicity of Christian semiotic approaches and, even more, the necessarily partial and incomplete quality of a dominant Protestant Christian semiotic ideology.

 

 

 

 

Roxanne Varzi on her ethnographic novel, Last Man Underground

Cover of Last Scene Underground by Roxanne Varzi

https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=25983

Harvey Stark: What inspired you to write Last Scene Underground and what one or two main things do you hope your readers will come away with?

Roxanne Varzi: I was most inspired by the theater I saw while I was doing fieldwork in Iran, but it wasn’t until I was I was teaching visual anthropology at SOAS in London and was writing a lecture about how Jean Rouch’s documentary, Les Maitres Fous morphed into Jean Genet’s The Blacks and it occurred to me that there was a  connection there that I could write about as an article in terms of how the Blacks is later interpreted in Iran by a young theater director, Hamed Taheri for a post-Revolution audience. I was interested too in what sorts of shifts happened in order to both radicalize and protect the budding theater movement in Tehran in the late 1990’s just after Mohammed Khatami’s election when the first real alternative artistic space in the Iranian public sphere began to form. Mostly I was interested in theater praxis as a political and a personal transformative art… How did practicing theater change the individual?  What did it mean for notions of community and nation?

The theater being done in Iran in 2000 inspired me to think about ways that I too, as an anthropologist, could push through boundaries–disciplinary, genre, political and personal to write about resistance, creativity and hope. To that end I wrote and re-wrote this ethnographic novel about a group of young Iranian college students who form an underground avant-garde theater group and, defying censorship and using other forms of social resistance and attempt to put on a play.

I want readers to come away with a greater understanding of the complex cultural world that is Tehran. I’d also like them to question their own notions of selfhood and identity and to think about ways that we perform and practice those.

For the anthropologist reader I hope Last Scene Underground is also a meditation on the possibilities and limitations of ethnography as a genre and as a medium at this political juncture. The book mediates and channels lives through the filter of other lives, political and theoretical and disciplinary frames.  It is also a political act in that it directly addresses the issue of censorship and the inability for an anthropologist like myself to write ethnography openly and hope to continue to work in Iran.

Harvey Stark: One of the most fascinating things about your work is the liminal space that exists between ethnography and fiction. How do you want your readers to understand this space?

Roxanne Varzi: Throughout my first book I used a variety of narrative voices, from the academic first person, to the essay to fiction, creating characters and events while staying within historic and ethnographic facts based on my own research. I also used passages from my ethnographic field notes and from entries quoted verbatim from either my diary or from the journals of my interlocutors. This second book experiments further with a new ethnographic form for my research findings. An ethnographic novel that is at once an act of experimentation and one that will protect my subjects and my future as an anthropologist of Iran. Writing ethnographic fiction allowed me to stay away from political specificities that might link a particular theater moment or individual to a particular political moment in time, be it 1999 (the dormitory protests in Iran) or 2009 (the green movement) while maintaining the ethnographic specificities at the heart of this theater movement.

The book has two convergent narratives that are wound around one another.  There is the “fictionalized ethnographic story” and “the director’s notes” — a fictional notebook kept by a fictional theater director but with real notes that are a culmination of my research, which ranged from the people whom I interviewed and plays that I read and watched to my reflections, observations and interpretations. They assume the responsibility of the writer and anthropologist to inform the story. In short, they are partially a version of my own notes from the field but fictionalized to the degree that nothing was included that an Iranian character like the director would not he himself have known or read.  They contain what as well would ordinarily be found in academic footnotes.  This allows all information equal footing…nothing is hidden away underground as it were in a smaller font and easily ignored as footnotes and endnotes often are.

Throughout is a story about representation, about manufacturing knowledge and lives, censorship and the role of creativity in social change.

Harvey Stark: Can you tell us about the complex and nuanced attitudes your characters have toward religion. 

Roxanne Varzi: Religion is a very personal practice that has been made public by virtue of folks living in a religious republic. I wanted to reclaim the notion of spirituality, which is the individual relationship with God and not one that is necessarily filtered through a nation-state, or even a strong religious organization.

Harvey Stark: If pressed, what one character in the novel do you most identify with?

 Roxanne Varzi: Hooman, the director. The director’s notes are my notes…and I think I secretly I have wanted to write and direct plays my whole life. My first theater class was as a child in Iran… and now this year, as an anthropologist I am doing a rough reading at the AAA of my first play ever (not counting a children’s play I did as a theater director at a summer camp in the Sierras!). It feels like a very natural progression and not at all strange that it would be my field, anthropology, where I could make this happen!

 

 

Kristina Jacobsen on her new book, The Sound of Navajo Country

jacobsen-cover

https://www.uncpress.org/book/9781469631868/the-sound-of-navajo-country/?title_id=3849

Morgan Siewert: On its face, your project to analyze expressive culture among Navajo country music artists using both ethnomusicological and linguistic anthropological methods seems daunting. However, your final product is a nuanced but informative and approachable ethnography using both music and language to locate country music as a site where Navajo identity is navigated and negotiated. How would you describe your book to someone unfamiliar with how seemingly Western expressive forms are used to perform Navajo authenticity?

Kristina Jacobsen: My book is a situated story of one Anglo singing anthropologist’s journey into the rich, vivid and totalizing world that is Diné country western music and cowboy culture. Contrasting our stereotype of “cowboys and Indians,” Indian people, and Diné people in particular, have long identified as both “cowboy” and “country;” the affinity seems natural to many Diné people I know, so much so that it barely bears explaining. Country songs are often about dispossession, loss, nostalgia, tradition, relocation and the centrality of kinship and family: these same themes are themes that resonate very powerfully with my Diné interlocutors, both through the performance of country music and through participation in rodeo.

Morgan Siewert: On page 21, you write, “I understand the speaking voice as being equally central as the singing voice in illuminating the nuance of Diné politics of authenticity and belonging.” This is a succinct illustration of your use of ethnomusicology and linguistic anthropology to bridge disparate approaches to the concept of “voice.” Could you elaborate on the significance of complicating “voice” in your book?

Kristina Jacobsen:  In song and in the songwriting world, there is a heavy focus on lyrics and on the text; what does the song say, what is being signified through the lyrics, what can we infer about the identity of the singer through the performance and voicing of the song, how do we shape the listener’s experience through a tightly-crafted song? This is also true in ethnomusicology and in popular music studies, where often the focus is exclusively on the lyrics of a song and where the lyrics come to stand in for/represent “the song.” In linguistic anthropology, the emphasis is also often on text, or what has been transcribed in the form of discourse analysis or ethnographic writing in the text, where prosody, poetics, and line-by-line analysis often form the primary “meat” of analysis. In contrast to this, I wanted to focus in the book on the sound of the voice itself: what do different voices sound like, when they are speaking and singing? What is the timbre or tone color of a voice, its range, its speech style, dialectal and idiolectal inflections, and how is a voice affected by the body it inhabits? How do voices have their own agency, not just symbolically and politically, but also literally, when a voice is “thrown” into a room or sounds (and affects its listeners) in a particular way, and how are voices connected to Indigenous sovereignty? Also, how can we combine our analysis of both singing and speaking, and what productive and rich overlaps might we find by combining both uses of the vocal tract within the same frame? To me, sounds matter in the world. How someone else sounds—whether over the telephone, in person, in a radio interview or on television—affects me deeply and resonates in my ears and mind long afterwards. I wanted to capture some of this affective resonance not only through my ethnographic vignettes, but also through the analytic methods and tools used in the book.

Morgan Siewert: Important to your book’s discussion on the complexities of authenticity and voice is jaan, defined initially as “the culturally intimate […] term for a working-class rube from the ‘sticks’” (4). You define jaan several times and in diverse ways throughout the book, demonstrating what you describe as a malleability that reveals “the slippages, or cracks, between worlds” (42). As I read your book, I came to understand the jaan figure as an example of how people become metonyms for attitudes about imperfect Navajoness, for “matter out of place” (33). Through “betwixt and between” figures such as the jaan, innovation in language and the expressive arts is both stigmatized as inauthentic Navajoness as well as valorized as privileged local knowledge. I find this discussion—which ranges from the jaan to Miss Navajo to politicians—to be the most challenging aspect of your book. I came away with a sense that modalities framed as the most inauthentic are, in practice, among the most authentic icons of Navajo experience and identity. In other words, being “matter out of place” is what anchors country music as an authentic Navajo expressive art form. How would you supplement or challenge this reading?

Kristina Jacobsen: This is such a lovely and provocative question. I think your read that jaan becomes a refraction for how “imperfect Navajoness” circulates at the local level is spot-on; in my experience, these discussions of ideal Diné-ness occur almost constantly, in public and very performative spaces such as political campaigns and radio stations, but also at very intimate levels, among family members, over dinner, at the flea market, during family cattle roundups or even at the tribal veterinarian’s office. So yes, being “matter out of plaee” at some level makes something—songs or speech styles in this case—authentic in a way that is hard for others without this abjected cultural capital to touch. At the same time, the irony perhaps is that things deemed as “matter out of place,” such as country music dubbed as “rez” or “jaan,” are also profoundly in place and locally emplaced, so much so that even performing off-reservation is rarely an option for “rez bands.” So, rez country music is both matter out of place and completely sutured to place, at one and the same time. To add a bit more to this discussion: I also think that the whole idea of the jaan is a term that implies an outsider, non-Diné gaze looking in on Diné practices; in this way, jaan as a concept—in its stigmatizing and laudatory uses—sits in the crosshairs of settler colonialism, and perhaps could not even exist outside the setter colonial context and the ways in which Diné identity has been parsed, dissected, judged and quantified by Bureau of Indian Affairs Bureaucrats, anthropologists, missionaries and other entities. So, it’s the colonial gaze turned inward, with powerful repercussions. At the same time, there is innovation, both linguistic and musical, and this is one of the things I find so powerful: that even within a very narrowly constrained field of aesthetics and where the politics of authenticity almost always hold an upper hand, there are musicians, spoken word artists, poets and language users—among them Chucki Begay, Radmilla Cody, hip hop artist Def-I and improvisers like jazz trumpeter Delbert Anderson- who continue to carve their own path and express themselves assertively, gracefully, and with incredible power, through their chosen linguistic medium.

Morgan Siewert: What is your next project?

Kristina Jacobsen: My next ethnographic book project, Sing Me Back Home: Songwriting, Language Shift, and Italian Colonialism in Sardinia, focuses on country music, singer-songwriters and language shift on the island of Sardinia, Italy. As a touring country musician, singer songwriter and cultural anthropologist living in Sardinia for the past two summers, I have been captivated by the surprisingly rich Americana and country music scene. It struck me that the reasons were connected to Italian colonialism, and this led me to formulate my main question for this research: how do performances of American roots music by Sardinian musicians serve to secure a sense of connection to the island of Sardinia, and strengthen a sense of political and cultural separation from the Italian mainland on this semi-sovereign Mediterranean island?

So, in Sardinia, I have begun writing songs with Sardinian songwriters in Sardinian (“Sardo”), English and Italian as a form of participant-observation to get at questions of language, sovereignty, identity and relationships to the Italian mainland (the “Continente”). Here, the process of songwriting itself forms part of the core research methodology, where writing a song with one’s interlocutors forms a powerful point of connection as a way toward deeper intercultural knowing that is both artistic and ethnographic. The second part of this project, therefore, will focus on recording ten cowritten songs for an album that will accompany the book, where I ethnographically document how language politics play out in microcosm in the space of the recording studio, and where the music and the book text are two interdependent parts central to my analysis of both sound and politics. I will be spending my sabbatical year in Sardinia, doing twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork toward this project, and living in the mountain village of Santu Lussurgiu.

 You can listen to two early “demo” recordings and cowrites for this project, here:

Patrick Eisenlohr on his new book, Sounding Islam

Sounding Islam by Patrick Eisenlohr

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520298712/sounding-islam

Interview by Ben Ale-Ebrahim

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: In Sounding Islam, one of your primary arguments is that anthropologists of religion should focus more attention on the importance of sound and sonic atmospheres in the study of embodied religion. What originally motivated you to focus this project on the role of sound in religious communities?

Patrick Eisenlohr: In the recent material and media turn in the study of religion, the sonic tends to be rather marginal compared to work on the visual and visual cultures. But there is more to the focus on the sonic than merely redressing this obvious imbalance. There is, above all, the privileged link between the sonic and the emotive and affective. Saying this, I do not want to set up a binary contrast with the visual along the lines of what Jonathan Sterne has called a Christian “audio-visual litany.” But the privileged link of the sonic to the emotive and affective cannot easily be dismissed. This is because the sonic implicates the body, or to be precise, the felt-body, what is called the Leib in German, in a most comprehensive way, as sonic events can not only be registered by the hearing apparatus, but potentially the entire body, its flesh. In parts of sound studies, the sonic, vibrational phenomena that transmit energy through a medium in ways that very often extend beyond the acoustically perceivable, have been equated with affect. This ties into longstanding questions about the proverbial power of music to profoundly affect people in ways that often seem ineffable. Without attention to the sonic, the study of religion would be oddly incomplete. Finally, for anthropologists, the sonic, especially as atmospheric, is relevant for many other fields beyond religion. One only has to think of the present political moment, where powerful moods and felt currents are reshaping politics and public spheres across the world, while deliberation and appeals to enlightened self-interest seem so irrelevant in so many places.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: Throughout this book, you develop a theory of sonic atmospheres that accounts for the different socio-cultural factors that influence whether or not one’s body is likely to respond to a particular sonic stimulus, making a clear distinction between understandings of sound as affect versus atmosphere. For example, you describe how Mauritian Muslims of the Ahl-e Sunnat tradition respond to na‘t performance in a positive way, feeling as if they are transported to Medina by the sound, whereas Deobandi- or Salafi-oriented Mauritian Muslims respond to na‘t negatively and do not experience the same feelings or affective responses. Can you talk a bit more about why you chose to focus on the analytic of sonic atmospheres and how you anticipate this analytic being useful for the anthropological study of religion in other contexts?

Patrick Eisenlohr: Thank you, I am glad you asked this question. Distinguishing atmospheres from affect is important. Unlike affect in the Deleuzian genealogy that dominates understandings of affect in anthropology, atmospheres do not categorically operate below the threshold of consciousness. They are also highly meaningful and not “autonomous” in Massumi’s sense, yet they speak to the same concerns about the movement of energy through and between bodies and the need to grasp what cannot be discursively specified as affect theory does. Atmospheres, whether sonic or in other modalities provide a bridge across the chasm that separates affect from sociocultural mediations and forms, therefore they are relevant to many other contexts that anthropologists study, far beyond what is commonly understood to be religion. To return to the example you just mentioned, sonic atmospheres, such as those generated by a voice, exert suggestions of movement on the felt-bodies of those they envelop. They do not just provoke feelings, seen from the vantage point of the neo-phenomenology of Hermann Schmitz such atmospheres themselves are feelings extended into space. But atmospheres can also be merely observed, as the Deobandis or Salafis you mentioned are likely to do, while the Ahl-e Sunnat devotee will probably be seized by them. By locating feelings outside human subjects, an analytic of atmospheres addresses the movement of energy between and through bodies, but also allows for sociocultural mediations to influence what stance subjects take to atmospheric forces, sonic or otherwise.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: I am fascinated by the spectrogram and waveform diagrams that you include in chapters five and six. You mention that you were motivated to include these partly as a result of your training in linguistic anthropology, where formal analysis is typically paired with discursive analysis. What was it like collecting these audio samples and working with this type of data? Can you talk a bit more about your methodology here?

Patrick Eisenlohr: In order to do justice to sound as a separate mode of knowledge and meaning-making, it is important to provide other forms of access to it than discourse. This is one of the main reasons why I used the spectrograms. They give a different sense of the sonic dynamics and movements that make up na‘t recitation. Like discourse, these visual representations of sonic events also have inherent limits in coming to terms with the sonic. They captures sonic movements in a very striking way, but the movements in three-dimensional space they visualize are not the same as the suggestions of movement enacted by sonic movement from a phenomenological perspective. My interlocutors directed me to the parts of na‘t recitals they found most powerful and emotionally compelling, often expressing this through metaphors of travel and spatial displacement. I decided to complement their verbal descriptions of the power of a na‘t reciter’s voice with the perspective on auditory cultures they afford with the spectrograms and the analysis of pitch, volume, timbre, and reverb the spectrograms and waveforms allow. This was inseparable from the analysis of the technologically amplified, modified and reproduced voices, since most examples of what my interlocutors considered a particularly “moving” voice also included its media-technological shaping. Comparing the verbal description and formal analysis of vocal sound in this context helped me to make sense of one through the other in ways that an exclusive focus on either verbal characterization or the formal analysis of sonic events would not have allowed.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: You discuss how media play a very important role in the reception and performance of na’t throughout this book. In chapter three, for example, you emphasize how small media like CDs, DVDs, and books work to enable transnational connections between Muslim communities in the Indian subcontinent and Mauritius. What changes have you observed over time in the way na‘t recordings are distributed and shared? Do social media outlets like Facebook and YouTube, or other internet-based platforms, play a significant role in na‘t performance communities today?

Patrick Eisenlohr: The story is quite familiar. In the late 1990s, I still encountered the use of audiocassettes with na‘t collections, which were quickly supplanted by audio-CDs in the early 2000s, and finally by mp3 files in the last ten or twelve years. A newer phenomenon is the popularity of videos of na‘t recitals. Unlike in India, cheap low-grade video CDs never really played an important role in Mauritius, DVDs were more popular, and videos streamed via the internet on mobile devices have dominated in the last 7 to 8 years. In the meantime, social media like YouTube and Facebook have come to play a huge role, performances are not just routinely recorded but now also shared online. According to what my interlocutors have told me, the visits and live performances of Indian and Pakistani na‘t khwan played a decisive role in making the genre more popular in Mauritius, not just the availability of imported cassettes and audio-CDs. These visiting na‘t khwan in turn inspired the emergence Mauritian na‘t khwan. In at least one case, a Mauritian na‘t khwan got his first training by an Indian Imam residing in Mauritius at the time. These local na‘t khwan then started to produce and circulate their own collections of na‘t recordings.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: Many of the ethnographic examples you reference in this book are drawn from your discussions with amateur na’t performers living in Mauritius, such as Shareef and Nazeer. You discuss how they learn to perform na’t, imitating previously released recordings of famous na’t khwan in order to capture their unique ler or manner of vocal expression, for example, and describing the ways in which their behavior outside of performance spaces, such as their general level of piety and their reputation in the Mauritian Muslim community, affects their reception as professional performers of this particular style of religious music. I’m curious to hear more about what happened to your interlocutors, such as Shareef and Nazeer – did they end up “making it” and becoming professional na’t khwan? When does one break the barrier between amateur and professional in the world of na’t performance?

Patrick Eisenlohr: None of my Mauritian na‘t khwan friends has become a professional in the strict sense of the word, for none of them is this their main occupation. Shareef is now the director of a primary school, Nazeer is retired, and Farhad is an Urdu teacher. Although they are justifiably proud of their na‘t recordings, they all say that they do not see themselves as a match for the Pakistani superstars. The latter are famous and make a good living from reciting na‘t. But for my Mauritian interlocutors there is also a certain ambiguity surrounding the superstars’ professional status, there is admiration for them, but there are also moral doubts about reciting na‘t for money, and not for the love of the Prophet alone. Doubts over whether such professionalism allows for the benefits a na‘t performance is supposed to bring about point to exactly the importance of perceived piety and personal reputation you have mentioned. Certainly, I heard my share of stories about what some perceived as the aloofness and the high financial demands of visiting professional na‘t khwan. Seen from such a perspective, “making it” as a professional also invites suspicions of moral corruption, and becoming a professional in the sense above may therefore be felt to be not entirely desirable.