Brent Luvaas on his book, Street Style

Street Style cover

Interview by Matthew Raj Webb

https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/street-style-9780857855756

Matthew Raj Webb: Not so long ago, fashion showed up in anthropologists’ writing largely as a pejorative. Today, fashion practices, media, and industries are at the center of many important and far-reaching theoretical debates. There are even dedicated graduate programs in so called “Fashion Anthropology.” What drew you to the topic, and what does your study of street style blogging reveal about fashion as a variegated social field?

Brent Luvaas: I’ve always been interested in fashion, how people present themselves to the world around them, and the stories people tell about themselves through the clothes they wear. As the kid dressed all in black in the corner of my high school cafeteria, fashion and its relationship with identity seemed like an obvious thing to study. Even my early ethnographic work on indie music in Indonesia was as much about what bands wear as the music they play. It was only when I became interested in bloggers, however, that I made the choice to make fashion an explicit focus of my anthropological practice. I learned a lot about fashion as a variegated social field from the project, both in terms of the ways people mix and match clothes in their everyday sartorial practice and, more importantly, in terms of how fashion, as an industry, has re-structured itself in alignment with digital technologies. Blogging wasn’t just an exception to the fashion industry as usual, a way outsiders and amateurs could get in on the game. It transformed the inherent logic of the industry. Now everyone in the fashion industry has to present, market, and brand themselves the way the bloggers did. Blogging may be out of fashion now, but the impact of blogging on the industry can’t be overstated. 

Matthew Raj Webb: One of the main threads in your book concerns the tensions between global democratization of access—such as via the internet and digital cameras—and the remediation of professional/amateur distinctions, both in the field of fashion photography and within anthropology. Could you elaborate on your point of view here? From your perspective, how have new media of fashion—and anthropology—transformed or reinforced historical hierarchies of value?

Brent Luvaas: I think we have to distinguish between the methods through which hierarchies are established and performed and the hierarchies themselves. Fashion has always been about exclusivity. It’s built into its very concept. The industry depends on it, creating a model whereby the fashion elite continuously work to distinguish themselves from everyone else. When a trend reaches peak saturation, fashion moves on. Digital technologies like blogging and social media have not eliminated that elite. They have simply transformed the methods and tools people use to become that elite. There was an elite class of bloggers when I was doing my research. They have now rebranded themselves as social media influencers. Social media has become a critical part of becoming part of the fashion elite today. It is an industry requirement. We could argue that it has, to a certain limited extent, widened the scope of who can become that elite. There are today more people of color in the fashion industry than there used to be, having built a large enough following through social media to demand that the industry pay attention to them. There is also more body diversity. But the industry remains primarily skinny and white. It remains insular and exclusive. It is still a social field—like anthropology itself, I might add—where social, cultural, and economic capital are critical to achieving success.

Matthew   Raj Webb: I was captivated by Chapter 5, where you discuss bloggers’ collaborations and partnerships with fashion businesses—brand associations that you actively pursued for your own (highly successful) style blog, Urban Fieldnotes. From the point of view of street style bloggers in the mid-2010s, what did the opportunities and constraints of cultural production within the commercialized field of fashion look like? How do you think these might have changed today?

Brent Luvaas: I’ve touched a bit on this in the previous questions, but perhaps a bit of blog history is important here. There was a moment, in about 2005-2007, when blogs, run through free platforms like WordPress and Blogger, were not a commercial enterprise—at least not for the bloggers. Street style bloggers got into the game because of an abiding interest or passion. They weren’t making money from them and most people I interviewed who had blogs at that time claim it hadn’t even occurred to them that they could make money from them. But after bloggers like Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist and Tommy Ton of Jak & Jil started shooting for magazines like GQ and Vogue and getting brand partnerships with American Apparel, Burberry, and others, a new generation of bloggers emerged with the explicit intent of using their blogs to enter into the industry. They were the predecessors of today’s fashion influencers. The game began to shift, and more and more bloggers began showing up outside the shows at Fashion Week hoping to either be noticed by the photographers or capture those up-and-comers who would help them build a name for themselves as photographers. Blogging, and later social media, became a key part of how people build careers in the fashion industry. The outsiders re-wrote the rules of the fashion industry. But then, fashion has long been an industry of outsiders. This might be more of a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Matthew Raj Webb: Street Style cuts across locations like Philadelphia, New York, Boston, as well as Jakarta, Cape Town, and Athens, drawing on aspects of your auto-ethnography and para-ethnographic research. As a community of practice and cultural phenomenon the world of street style blogging is thus globally diffuse and diverse, but you nonetheless note that participants tend to share a middle-class position. How do these factors lead you to understand the value of the street as a representational idiom and context?

Brent Luvaas: As you stated in the question, street style bloggers tend to be middle class. If you want to get your work recognized, you need to be able to produce the aesthetics currently valued by the industry. To produce those aesthetics, you need expensive camera equipment. It was not unusual for bloggers I encountered to have spent upwards of $10,000 on their cameras and lenses alone. Plus, not everyone’s perspective on style gets the same amount of attention on social media. An ability to recognize and anticipate what the industry values in fashion is required, and that ability is not universally distributed. It remains the exclusive domain of a particular kind of urban, cosmopolitan, middle-class person. Despite a rhetoric of democratization, there was never an equal playing field in the street style game. Nonetheless, there is a diversity of perspective, particularly across regional and national boundaries. Street style bloggers actively sought to elucidate that diversity through their work. They highlighted their own city or nation’s distinct flavor and style. They sought to put their own city on the global fashion map, and in doing so, they practiced a form of amateur visual anthropology. Street style, then, is a global phenomenon with distinctly local characteristics. And it depends on a shared conception of the street —itself derived from western European models of urban design—as a public, highly visible space where people perform identities for others to see. Street style blogging has helped perpetuate and extend the reach of that concept. It has real, practical implications for how public spaces are conceptualized, accessed, and designed.

Matthew Raj Webb: Street Style was published in 2016, you have subsequently written about how deeply the project affected you (Luvaas 2019), stating that you remain in some ways haunted by the habitus you acquired. Could you please talk a little about what it has meant for you to leave the field given the ubiquity of fashion media and intimacy of dress politics in everyday life? Moreover, I’m curious to know your thoughts on what it feels like to age as a researcher—and human!—deeply immersed within the world of fashion?

Brent Luvaas: For those of us who do work in the digital realm in some capacity (and perhaps that is most of us these days), there is no “leaving the field.” Not really. Today, we remain linked, via Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and other platforms to the communities we study. We are (rightfully) held more accountable for what we have to say about our interlocutors. We have trouble gaining distance. That is doubly true for those of us who employ auto-ethnography as a key part of our practice. For us, we have made ourselves an explicit subject of our own work. I studied street style blogging by becoming a street style blogger. I picked up a camera, walked the streets, and learned to intuit cool the way a street style blogger does. I hung out with fashion people, got free-lance employment by the fashion industry, and became increasingly self-conscious about what I wore and when. All that messes with your head. All anthropologists are changed by the field in some way, but how do we live with these changes when we’re never really able to leave the field? I’m still wrestling with that question myself. What has become clear to me is that I need to consider before I start a new project who I will become by doing it. That is especially true as a middle-aged cis-gendered, heteronormative white guy. Some research options are off the table for me. I can no longer build a project around hanging out with twenty-something Indonesian hipsters until four in the morning every night. That would be creepy. People are not super likely to want to talk to me. I would also likely have a harder time building a following as a social media influencer than I did nine years back. Fashion has carved out greater space for people over 40 in recent years. But that space is limited, and my ability to access it even more limited. Rather than combat the youth cult of fashion and the psychological damage it could inflict on me, I’ve turned my attention to other practices of visuality, less tied to age. Lately, that has been street photography. I’ve learned a lot from street style blogging, but the biggest things I’ve gained are an appreciation for the camera as a tool of perception and an appreciation of the street as a space where culture is improvised and performed. I am taking that appreciation into my new work, moving away from the fashion industry, but still walking the same streets.  

References

Luvaas, B. 2019. “Unbecoming: The Aftereffects of Autoethnography.” Ethnography, 20(2): 245–262.

Aurora Donzelli on her book, Methods of Desire

Methods of Desire: Language

interview by Setrag Manoukian

https://uhpress.hawaii.edu/title/methods-of-desire-language-morality-and-affect-in-neoliberal-indonesia/

Setrag Manoukian: It is reductive to assign a narrow thematic focus to an expansive ethnography such as your wonderful Methods of Desire, but could one synthesize your book by suggesting that it addresses the relationship between language and political economy through an account of social interaction in Toraja?

Aurora Donzelli: This book has been long in the making and its implication with political economy is in part a function of the temporality embedded therein. Twenty years ago I was in Indonesia for a shorter period of fieldwork preluding to the yearlong sojourn I undertook sometimes later. It was late July. I was walking through the streets of Rantepao (the major town in the Toraja highlands where I would go to stock up on blank tapes and other industrial supplies) when I bumped into an acquaintance of mine. He looked quite agitated and eager to brief me about the events that were unfolding in Genoa (he knew I was Italian). The G8 summit was taking place at the Ducal Palace and the city had become the theatre of demonstrations against speculative capitalism and neoliberal globalization. A multifarious array of political subjects had gathered in Genoa to participate in what promised to be the peak of the anti-capitalist movement begun in Seattle in 1999: environmentalists, pacifists, independent media activists, antifascist militants from Italian squats and social centers (abandoned buildings turned into cultural and political hubs), grassroots Catholic organizations, social activists, Zapatistas, trade unionists, members of socialist and communist parties from all over Europe, NGO workers, British pressure groups for debt relief, German anarchists, the Trotskyist international network, via Campesina food activists, libertarians, knowledge workers self-identifying as cognitarians, direct-action groups dressed in white overalls to symbolize the new post-Fordist productive subject… My Toraja acquaintance insisted I joined him to watch the news at his neighbor’s where a parabolic antenna was broadcasting dramatic scenes of repressive violence. The counter-summit mobilization had been fiercely disbanded by unprecedented police brutality, a demonstrator was shot dead, radical groups mixed with undercover agents and neo-Nazi infiltrators vandalized banks and set cars and store fronts on fire, undisturbed, while thousands of pacifist demonstrators raising their white-painted hands were ferociously beaten up by police officers decked out in full anti-riot gear. Following a night blitz at the Diaz public school—which had been made available by the municipal authorities as dormitory for demonstrators—300 police officers brutalized and illegally detained the unarmed occupants, including several Italian and foreign journalists. The European Court of Human Rights later established that the police conduct violated human rights and was to be formally regarded as torture.  Less than two months later, the attack on the WTC and Pentagon would make these events look negligible, but clearly those days were decisive in furthering global capitalism and propelling the consolidation of neoliberal rationalities.

Methods of Desire is primarily a reflection on these transformations, which crisscross political economy, ways of speaking, and structures of feeling. Unlike the display of sheer repressive force that tinted the G8 events twenty years ago, what I describe in the book are more elusive and subtle forms of violence. Political economy is an inevitable dimension of any project that spans over several years and my ethnography’s main goal is to show how fine-grained linguistic analysis is essential for furthering our understanding of capitalism, because thinking about political economy always entails taking language into account (and vice-versa). In a narrower sense, the book explores the cultural and linguistic impact of contemporary neoliberal reforms on longstanding moral-political economy of agrarian clientelist relations in a relatively remote region of the Indonesian uplands. In a broader sense, the book analyzes how late capitalism operates by transforming our relationship to the world and to each other. I argue that specific communicative practices play a key role in this process. Think about the new metrics of desire produced through customer satisfaction surveys and the regimes of scalability created through audit protocols and quality certification standards that can be applied across different contexts to ever-greater scales. These communicative practices and textual artefacts are both the primary technology for the production of a reflexive desiring subject to be subsumed by the machine of capitalist valorization and infrastructures of resource management aimed at increasing productivity. Unlike the processes of linguistic standardization that produced national languages and enabled industrial capitalism, I argue that contemporary financial capitalism operates through a different form of discursive regimentation. The former was driven by the linguistic standardization of specific national codes, while the latter entails the production of universal templates for the pragmatic regulation of how language is to be used. The aim is no longer to streamline or enhance the production of material commodities, but the engendering of a global metalanguage for the re-articulation of desire in ways compatible with capitalism’s ever-changing needs. Industrial capitalism required technologies of linguistic standardization based on the centripetal regulation of the linguistic code (and of the production process)—a twofold endeavor clearly intertwined with nation-building processes and nation-based economies. Conversely, neoliberalism relies on the pragmatic standardization of how the code should be used: this entails the production and dissemination of highly standardized and replicable discursive protocols, meant to travel across a wide range of geographic contexts and pragmatics domains in order to optimize production and regiment people’s conduct and modes of intersubjective engagement. In this light, what makes neoliberalism so powerful and at the same time so elusive is its portability and scalability, as Aihwa Ong and Anna Tsing suggest.

Setrag Manoukian: The book describes an epochal shift taking place in Indonesia—a complete reconfiguration of the architecture of the self in conjunction with the emergence of neoliberal policies. What’s striking in this process is the rapidity with which a “method” is abandoned and a new one picked up. But the book also seems to suggest that something “endures” in this shift. Taking the long-term view how do you see Toraja’s sociality?

Aurora Donzelli: What I find most striking and intriguing about the specific locale (the Toraja highlands of Sulawesi) where I conducted my fieldwork since the late 1990s is that there haven’t been many changes in the local infrastructures or in the material lives of my interlocutors. During my most recent periods of fieldwork, I would often catch myself daydreaming that I was standing in front of a giant aquarium from where I could see myself in my early 20s in a time warp of sorts—a younger me on the other side of the glass inhabiting the exact same physical spaces, but in a parallel affective universe.  In spite of the largely unchanged material environment, I have noticed significant shifts in the linguistic structures, moral practices, and affective quality of life in the highlands. In many ways, Methods of Desire seeks to understand and give analytical shape to the profound (and yet elusive) transformations occurred in how my interlocutors of twenty plus years interact and imagine their future. The focus of my ethnographic account is the growing influence of transnational lending agencies and international non-governmental organizations in a region that has otherwise remained peripheral to capitalist production and distribution. Since the millennium, the IMF-driven implementation of governance reform in Indonesia has prompted the circulation of new ways of speaking and textual artefacts (for example, electoral and institutional mission statements, debriefing meetings, training workshops, checklists, flowcharts, and so on) that, I argue, are transforming how people desire and voice their expectations, intentions, and entitlements. The local appeal of these new discursive genres is undeniable: not only they are associated with prestigious metropolitan centers, but they also pivot on values that—as Marilyn Strathern pointed out in her seminal edited volume on audit cultures—are almost impossible to criticize in principle: a novel emphasis on self-cultivation and proactive entrepreneurialism, an emancipatory narrative of personal aspirations and individual desires, a new morality of accountability, transparency, and responsibility, and so on. Their dissemination in the highlands has been spearheaded by their promise to replace local structures of exploitative agrarian power with a narrative of individual freedom, a political regime of entrenched corruption with justice and transparency, an economy prone to food scarcity and subsistence crises with material prosperity and emotional fulfillment. I don’t find the success of these new scripts and protocols all that surprising and consider way more extraordinary the enthusiasm displayed by many academics (trained in epistemological reflexivity and critical thinking) for the bureaucratic auditing and competitive star-ratings procedures that are transforming universities into corporate enterprises.

I recently moved back to Italy—a country where the so-called “quality revolution” was late in taking root. The University where I now work—allegedly one of the oldest higher learning institutions in the world—seems pervaded by a frenzy of benchmarking practices and managerial methods aimed at measuring research and teaching outputs and enhancing performance. I find quite disconcerting how centuries-old ideologies and classical ideals of the University as a community of scholars devoted to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge are being replaced by competitive business models—in spite of the excellent scholarship published on the matter some two decades ago by Don Brenneis, Chris Shore, Marilyn Strathern, Susan Wright (among the others). In many ways, my Toraja interlocutors are far less compliant than many academics that fell for the protocols of accountability and quality assurance whereby complex social activities are measured, monitored, and competitively ranked.

If, as Aihwa Ong proposes, the complex assemblages of practices that compose neoliberalism migrate across the globe and across different sectors (from private to public, from management to politics, from the financial to the intimate), I am interested in describing what happens when these portable bundles of practices and values land in a new geographic or pragmatic environment. How tightly are they packaged? How faithfully are they replicated? Linguistic anthropological tools help understand how such bundles are assembled and how they operate; how desire is reconstructed in the wake of their implementation and, at the same time, how their implementation can be sabotaged through (often subtle and inconspicuous) micro-linguistic gestures. Methods of Desire explores how discursive genres originating from neoliberal global capitalism are both embraced and resisted in Toraja. My analysis reveals a complex dialectics of compliance and defiance. Each chapter of the book focuses on a specific pragmatic domain (from political speechmaking to household interaction, from mortuary rituals to workplace and learning environments) and discusses the ambivalent uptake of novel protocols such as electoral mission statements, fundraising auctions, service encounter scripts, customer satisfaction surveys, training workshops, flowcharts, and workflow diagrams. I highlight how Toraja highlanders articulate their skepticism at times through reflexive and explicit metapragmatic comments; other times in more subtle and indirect ways, such as through specific intonation and prosodic patterns or via unexpected variations in the participation framework associated with a specific genre.

Setrag Manoukian: Methods of desire. The title of your book sounds like an oxymoron. One associates method with planning, self-awareness, and intention, while desire relates to spontaneity, passion, the unconscious. But you convincingly show that in many ways methods structure desire. And yet, I am left wondering if this does not reproduce a certain binary misunderstanding of desire as a material that can be molded via linguistic forms. Doesn’t desire escape the methodologies that certain intentions prescribe to it? This is how I read Spinoza, in the sense that there is an immanence to the conatus that has its own economy of passions, not reducible to the stoic mandate to transform oneself.

Aurora Donzelli: You are making very good points. The title is indeed designed to oxymoronically evoke the classical opposition between Eros and Logos that the book, however, aims to problematize. Spinoza’s rejection of transcendent principles and his ontology of immanence are essential to my understanding of methods and desire. The relationship between the two could be thought in dialectical materialist terms as forming a totality of practice and theory; creativity and order; substance and form; potentiality and actuality. In elaborating (in the mid-1970s) his innovative form of semiotic materialism, Marxist scholar Ferruccio Rossi-Landi highlighted the dialectics existing between code and messages; models and tokens; communicative programs and their execution. He claimed that they exist together in reality and entertain a constant dialectical relationship, even though academic theory or common sense tend to consider them as separate, with the former treating the code in its structural abstraction and the latter approaching its products as natural and spontaneous facts. Spinoza’s immanentism and Rossi-Landi’s materialism resonate with Paul Hopper’s view of Emergent Grammar, which can be seen as an application of French post-structuralist thought to linguistic theory—a theoretical constellation that inspires my own work.

That of method is a powerful notion that has been relatively neglected by anthropologists. Its great beauty, I think, lies in its capacity to refer to a plane of immanence—something ethnomethodologists (with their idea that structures do not exist outside of social practices and with their interest in studying the methods that social actors use in interpreting their own everyday practices) have known all along. In like fashion, desire is an immanent process for the production of relations, as Deleuze pointed out. Rather than a flow to be disciplined through cultural norms and symbolic orders or a force that can be organized through language, I see desire as method, that is, as a mode of intersubjective relationality, a modality of human sociality, in which language functions as technology and infrastructure. The book describes how neoliberal discursive technologies are redesigning Toraja sociality: the entrenched forms of collective yearning (kamamaliran) that used to sustain social bonds of hierarchical reciprocity and mutual obligation are being replaced by new forms of (bourgeois) desire (aspirasi),imagined as originating in the interiority of the individual’s consciousness and congenial to the capitalist machine.

Setrag Manoukian: Finally, I would like to come back to the relationship between language and social life from a methodological point of view. Often to non-linguists the world of linguistic analysis appears as quite self-contained. How is your book engaging this situation?

Aurora Donzelli: I think that in-depth linguistic analysis is fundamental for the understanding of capitalism. The book is an invitation to linguistic anthropologists to establish a stronger dialogue with their sociocultural colleagues around the ethnographic exploration (and critique) of neoliberalism. It is only through an integrated approach that we can understand the role of language in the production of the complex forms of alienation and resistance that characterize our present moment. A close-textured analysis of linguistic interactions is also fundamental to capture the role of semiotic practices both in shaping political change and preserving the status quo. The great advantage of fine-grained linguistic analysis is that it may disclose processes that happen at levels that are not detectable at the semantic and lexical plane generally considered in cultural ethnographies. In the book, I explore the ambivalent uptake of new discursive genres as a way to shed light on how linguistic practices function both as capitalist technologies and infrastructures and as forms of resistance to the capitalist apparatus. Further, I try to show how attending to linguistic levels of analysis may provide a new way to reflect on traditional topics of anthropological theory (such as gifts and exchange theory, social change, subsistence farming and moral economy) and may contribute to refine the discussion of ethnographic tropes of Southeast Asia and Oceania (for example, debates over galactic polities and theatre states, notions of emotional restrain, opacity of mind doctrines, and so on).

During the last four decades, linguistic anthropology has become a highly specialized subfield. I often look back with nostalgia at the times before my time, when the disciplinary borders seemed more porous and less defined. My greatest hope for the future of linguistic anthropology rests on the possibility of developing fervid interconnections with scholars from other subfields in anthropology, as well as in the social sciences and humanities. Unfortunately, at times linguistic details and formalisms prevent or discourage such dialogues. In writing the book, I had to make difficult choices in how to present my transcriptions, sometimes reducing them or eliminating interlinear glosses and morpho-syntactic details. I hope that these choices helped produce a text accessible to a diverse readership and capable of evoking the spirit of irreverent curiosity of the multifarious multitude that gathered in Genoa twenty years ago.

Alex Fattal on his book, Shooting Cameras for Peace

interview by Camilo Ruiz Sanchez

https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780873658713

Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: It shook me to learn that the archive has almost disappeared and that what we are able to see today comes from 3% of its totality. Taking this into consideration, what would you say regarding the annihilation and destruction of archives with a strong popular character, such as the one built by Disparando Cameras para la Paz (DCP)? More concretely, what are the political effects of losing these types of archives?

Alex Fattal: I remember being on a research trip to Tumaco years ago and I stopped in a local church office that had been working with to document the violence there. They gave me a report they had written, which they had titled, “So Nobody Can Say, ‘Nothing Ever Happened Here.’ It’s determination to defy the structural constraints that erase the history of violence that the community had experienced was both admirable and a poignant reminder that such erasure is the default in communities across Colombia. Disparando Cámaras para la Paz (DCP) had the advantage of being closely connected to people who could ferry pieces of the archive around and keep pieces of it alive. Our key community partner, Corporación Social Fe y Esperanza, was constantly under threat. We left large parts of the archive with them, within a conscientious politics of keeping the archive in the community, but when the leaders needed to flee within hours because of an assassination attempt or when buildings were damaged because of the seasonal mudslides, large parts of the archive were lost forever. It’s very hard to prioritize archiving for most people who lead busy lives focused on the present and future, let alone for those living in extreme precarity and social abandon.

What are the political effects of erasure? The reproduction of what Loïc Wacquant has called the Centaur state, in which elites embody the democratic human head of the Centaur that calmly debates policy, while the torso and hooves of a horse below tramples discontent among the popular classes. Julián Gómez Delgado has argued that the recent National Strike protests portend a crack in this political formation. We’ll see. It’s been very resilient through Colombian history.

Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: In the book, you argue that DCP subverted a stereotypical perspective built by Colombian media outlets about impoverished youth affected by the Colombian armed conflict. I agree with you that the project succeeded in doing so. In this vein, I would like to know which particular aspects of the methodologies used helped the project most in subverting these stereotypes and why you think these methods and techniques prompted different narratives that contested national media outlets.

Alex Fattal: Well, it’s complex and the book tries to linger on that complexity. DCP benefited greatly from media attention even as it was frustrating to see the same tropes of helpless victimhood recycled and reapplied to children and the displaced community. It was precisely those tropes that we set out to challenge. In short, I’m not sure we really affected dominant structures of mediation in any sustained way.

What I’ve learned in working with DCP and its sister organization, the AjA Project, and being immersed in the world of participatory photography is that it’s not enough to redistribute access to technology. To really subvert a discursive formation requires taking control of the story with more concerted attention to narrative and partnering with others who want to change a particular narrative structure. Though that’s far from what we managed to do with DCP, I do think we inspired others to work with participatory media methods. A few years after I started DCP, other participatory photography projects started cropping up in different parts of the country. A rise in interest in participatory media has contributed to independent and alternative media environment in Colombia, a contribution which has since been mixed into the digital tsunami. To build on a popular Colombian adage, we contributed a few grains of sand and they are now swirling in the current media storm.

Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: I am under the impression that all the material presented was captured and created with analog technologies. What would you say are the technical and aesthetic advantages and disadvantages of working with analog photography, taking into consideration that photography has become mostly digital nowadays? 

Alex Fattal: Yes, DCP was almost entirely analog, which I think really played in its favor. The big problem with digital photography is that it appears limitless. I’m a big proponent of seeing limitations as creative opportunities and the students took the constraints of working with light sensitive paper, recycled jars, and rolls of film and transforming those supplies into inspiring images. Over the years, our different dark rooms in El Progreso were always sacred spaces where the students loved to work, loved to develop their images under the red safe lights. Jenny Fonseca who worked with DCP did a beautiful docu-animation film called FotoSensible: La Familia de Viviana about one of our students that showed how magic a space the darkroom was. When I first started DCP, I took the students to the darkroom at Universidad de los Andes and the university students each taught one of the young people from Altos de Cazucá how to develop — it was a beautiful if fleeting moment of radical cross-class collaboration.

When I went back to speak to former participants about their memories of the project, they all emphasized the pinhole photography and recalled how rumor had spread across the hills that there is a group of kids who were turning boxes, cans, and jars into cameras and how exciting that was. (Those conversations inspired me to turn a truck into a giant pinhole camera and make my most recent film, Limbo.) How do you create similar magic with digital photography? It’s hard. It’s something we’ve been thinking about a lot at the AjA Project and my sense is the answer lies in shifting the focus away from photography itself and more toward a project of which photography is but a part, thinking of it as a medium to be used creatively and strategically, combining digital and more tactile approaches.

Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: Colombia has a long-standing tradition of Participatory Action Research (PAR), which has permeated the arts; to name just a few, there is the work of Prof. Orlando Fals Borda and cinematographer Victor Gaviria. However, your text is not in dialogue with local theories, ideas, or works of artists, academics, and grassroots organizations that have used PAR in Colombia. Why? Furthermore, how do you think DCP fits or does not fit within local trajectories of PAR?

Alex Fattal: Your criticism is valid. I’m not aware of a history of PAR and photography in Colombia prior to 2001 and I was stuck on the medium specificity of photography. I wanted to keep the discussion focused on the emergent participatory photography literature in different parts of the world that now includes a large set of projects with books (though many of these are more celebratory in orientation).

Also, I’ve worked in Colombia long enough to know how large and dense the work on PAR is and didn’t think I could do it justice in a shorter text. Though I take up questions of self-representation in the literature on indigenous media in North American anthropology, I could have done more with the history of visual anthropology in Colombia, especially the work of Marta Rodriguez. Perhaps the text would have been stronger if I did that connective work, but I didn’t want to bog it down in too much academic jargon, thinking especially about readers from the community. I also figured I would leave the PAR research to people like Joanne Rappaport who has done such outstanding multi-media work on/with Orlando Fals Borda and his archive. My response is similar when thinking about Victor Gaviria and the discussions of realism in Latin American cinema, which has been a prominent thread in Latin American Film Studies; I didn’t feel equipped to deal with it succinctly and do it justice.

In the end, I was most interested in the organizational form of the national NGO — caught between the scale of international donors and practitioners, such as myself, and the local — as a mediator of the project through the years and analyzing the different iterations of the NGO and struggles within it to push back against the idea that participatory media projects are unmediated, more authentic, more real. Though they aren’t conditioned by an owner’s political agenda, and editor’s sense of what is important, or what is palatable to advertisers, as is the case with photojournalism, I’ve seen how the different backgrounds of the staff and demands of funding and reporting all influenced how the curriculum was developed, how the workshops were organized, and so on. So my engagement is with some of the literature on the anthropology of humanitarianism, but again, its done in a way so as not to be overbearing and off-putting to a broader audience.  

PAR does come into the story of the national NGO. Many of the talleristas who taught the students over the years were coming from public universities and bringing their PAR training to bear. In the text I reference this tension in DCP through the years as one in which tense conversations emerged about how much local control the project should have. Those who were coming with a PAR background (as key facilitators coming from outside the community) and urging total local control were generally coming from a left perspective and wanting to make the project more about denuncias, human rights-oriented denunciations. When that perspective began to win out, the repression on the project would increase — not surprisingly. Given the narco-paramilitarization of the area, which hasn’t abated, and given the fact that the project worked with youth who were already struggling to avoid the gangs that often operated as proxies for armed groups, I tended to find myself arguing for a more hybrid model tailored to the contradictory demands of the context. If you read the text closely, I think that comes through. The book tries to stay with the gray areas of DCP’s experience through the years by plying the boundary of insider and outsider perspectives as a case study in the niche world of participatory photography studies, which is the book’s center line.

Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: Finally, have you been able to share this book with the DCP photographers, and if so, what have their reactions been? If not, are you planning on doing so, and if yes, how?

Alex Fattal: Some of the DCP photographers helped to identify information about the photos that was lost in the archiving process and I shared preliminary selections of the images with them. But as a published book, not yet. The book was printed in the US in December of 2020 and because of the pandemic and inter-institutional difficulties, it took as a few months to get distribution in Colombia figured out. The book will be printed and distributed in Colombia starting in September 2021 with Universidad del Rosario Press.

In addition to book events in Bogotá and perhaps other cities, I’d like to do an event with the Casa de la Cultura in Soacha, where DCP had its first exhibit. I remember fighting with the mayor’s office to get the money for the busses to bring the students in for the opening and the office insisting on singing the municipal anthem; this from a local government that didn’t recognize their responsibly to provide services to the students or their families. In 20 years, much has changed. Some students have moved down the hill to apartment complexes in Soacha, some are still living in the hills. Most of the youth now have kids of their own at this point. Once the pandemic clears, I would love to distribute copies of the book in person and talk with former DCP participants about the work with the distance of time.

In digital conversations I’ve had with some of them while preparing the book or around social media discussions that I’ve seen, they seem to look at the photos the way I look at my high school yearbook, with the nostalgia surrounding a time capsule, but with the added sense of how profoundly difficult life was back then. The early 2000s, as you know and as I briefly contextualize in the book, was a very difficult period. The project served over 1,000 students through the years, I hope I can share the book with as many of them as possible. The imminent distribution in Colombia is a start.

Beyond the community itself, I would note that it’s a bilingual book (shout out to Andy Klatt and María Clemencia Ramírez for their wonderful translation) and the Colombian and Latin American audiences have always been very important to me.

Bradd Shore on his new book, Shakespeare and Social Theory

https://www.routledge.com/Shakespeare-and-Social-Theory-The-Play-of-Great-Ideas/Shore/p/book/9781032017167

Interview by Rob Shore

Rob Shore: Using the lens of social science on Shakespeare seems at once radical and—after having read the book—obvious. Tell me about how you conceived of the project and summarize the main argument you are making. 

Bradd Shore: The book was written to bring together convincingly the two most important sides of my intellectual life: (1) Shakespeare’s plays and poetry and (2) anthropologically grounded social theory.  My interest in Shakespeare began when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley back in the early 1960s.  I was an English major and had the good fortune to study with some brilliant Shakespeare scholars in Berkeley’s distinguished English Department, at the time the best place in the world for studying Renaissance English literature. 

As I studied Shakespeare, I took several excellent courses in political theory.  As I read thinkers like Locke and Hume and Plato and Rousseau, I was struck by surprising overlaps between the concerns of political philosophers and Shakespeare.  Of course, Shakespeare expressed himself through drama rather than philosophical discourse. Nonetheless, I saw in Shakespeare’s work a theoretical genius paralleling his poetic and dramatic skills. 

Shakespeare’s approach to theory was not always immediately apparent in the plays.  He had found a way to embed a theoretical perspective in his plays without dislocating or disrupting the theatrical and poetic power of the drama.  I became interested in his plays as fascinating and often underappreciated reflections on many of the same issues that I would study in my later career as an anthropologist, issues like the theatrical nature of political power, the creative and procreative power of art and nature, dilemmas of sex and gender, reconciling love and marriage, life as performance, the power of ritual, the relation between language and reality, and the human effort to make meaning.  

I also wanted to understand how Shakespeare did all this by telling stories. So I began to study the literary techniques he used to manage this marriage of story-telling and theory.  Imagining Shakespeare as an anthropologist, it was as if he had figured out how to write vivid ethnography so that it reflected theoretically back on itself.  His remarkable techniques relied on new ways of imagining perspectives emerging in both early Renaissance painting and optics. 

Shakespeare and Social Theory was written to shine a light on Shakespeare as a theoretical mind through new readings of six of his plays. However, it is equally an attempt to account for his craftsmanship through studying historical changes in representing perspective that allowed Shakespeare to stage self-analyzing dramas.

Rob Shore: Your analysis reveals texts full of multiple, playful, and often deceptive meanings. Some of them are compelling and quite clear.  But others are hidden under layers of abstraction and misdirection. What methods do you use from anthropology to unpack meaning, and how did you find the process of translating those tools to literary analysis?   

Bradd Shore: Clifford Geertz famously compared the data of cultural anthropology to a text, a comparison that has been both admired and criticized over the years.  For both literature and human behavior, the text analogy points to the need for interpretation, a requirement as troublesome as it is necessary for making sense of things human. 

One of the problems an interpreter faces is that the meaning of something—the meaning affordances of its internal structure and coherence, is not the same thing as the meaning for someone, which is a process of imaginative engagement of a mind with the world.  For an anthropologist, the meaning for someone requires emic analysis, how the locals understand their world and actions: what matters to them.  The meaning of something requires etic analysis, an attempt at an objective account of the meaning-making properties inherent in an act or an object.  We struggle to do both kinds of analysis and reconcile them, but the reconciliation often proves challenging. Often anthropologists end up choosing one or the other perspective.

In approaching Shakespeare’s plays, we have no privileged window into Shakespeare’s mind and intentions.  We only have his texts and the complex patterns that he weaves with his language and play structure.  The closest we come to an emic perspective in the absence of a Shakespearean literary memoir are the social historians’ reconstructions of the culture of Shakespeare’s day and the kinds of ideas and things of interest to Elizabethan writers and artists.   

Fortunately, there is no need to read meaning into Shakespeare’s work.  We only need to read his work, carefully and repeatedly, alternating our study of the plays with a study of the evolving cultural, political, scientific, and artistic of Shakespeare’s world.  When Shakespeare wanted to make a theoretical point, he left plenty of clues in his work: clues in his choice of language, his virtuosic wordplay, his characters’ names, his way with tropes (especially metaphors), and the messages he built into his manipulation of literary and artistic conventions. Careful reading and attention to his use of irony can help uncover those patterns. 

Interpretation is built up from evidence found in these repeated patterns throughout the play.  Thus, my analyses of the plays are extensive and based on very close readings of Shakespeare’s words, accompanied by historical explications of Elizabethan culture.  A satisfying interpretation makes sense of otherwise anomalous and puzzling aspects of the text.  That sense-making looks inward to the language and structure of the play and outward to the institutions and culture of Shakespeare’s day. 

To be convincing, an interpretation does not have to be the only possible account of a play. In their miraculous richness, Shakespeare’s plays are irreducible to a single meaning. Still, some readings make more sense than others. A satisfying interpretation leaves the reader with a sense of having a light illuminate something that was always there but had eluded both sight and insight. Good interpretations produce aha moments for the reader.
 

Rob Shore: You advocate for a “close reading” approach to texts that were intended to be staged. What does that tell us about Shakespeare’s intent?

Bradd Shore: Shakespeare was both a thinker and a theatrical producer.  He understood what his primary audience wanted to see, and he gave them plays that were exciting, engaging, terrifying, funny, all the things that great theater can produce. 

I think I present enough textual evidence that my readings of the play will stand as credible interpretations of what is actually in the plays. However, these are not interpretations that Shakespeare intended for the immediate consumption of the Globe’s audience. Instead, I think they were written as look-again-readings of the texts for a more sophisticated audience. Shakespeare’s theoretical voice was intended for readers rather than viewers, by those interested in the play of great ideas rather than drama’s more immediate experience. As a result, Shakespeare wrote plays that were both compelling dramas and effective theoretical treatises.  The only other writer I know who regularly pulled off the same kind of double-dealing magic was Plato in his Socratic dialogues.

Rob Shore:In a book so concerned with double meaning and wordplay, you must have felt some pressure in coming up with a title. How did you approach the task? 

Bradd Shore: I like playful titles that encourage multiple meanings. So my initial title was Shakespeare and the Play of Great Ideas. However, my editor at Routledge found that title somewhat vague and wanted a title that would attract both social scientists and literary types.  So I agreed to the more straightforward title and was happy that the press allowed me to keep “The Play of Great Ideas” as a subtitle.

Rob Shore: If Shakespeare’s play of ideas was a reflection of a technological and cultural paradigm shift in perspective, how do you think Shakespeare would adapt his work to reflect our current moment: 24/7 digital transmedia omniscience, hyper-irony, double-talk, fake news, a deep bench of Shakespearean political figures, and all the rest? Does that reality make his texts more, less, or just differently relevant today? 

Bradd Shore: I have no idea what modern technology Shakespeare would exploit were he to write today.  But he would likely be attracted to the possibilities of modern theater and film for playing up the problems of representation and perspective. 

Shakespeare can be thought of as modern in three senses. First, he is modern in being concerned with universal themes, as relevant for today’s audiences as those of his time.  Second, he is modern in being ahead of his time.  In my book, I show how his plays anticipate psychoanalytic theory, exchange theory, modern metaphor theory, performance theory, political theory, cognitive anthropology,  Queer Theory, and structuralism in more sophisticated ways than we ever imagined. 

Finally, Shakespeare is modern in his radical interrogation of the world and his awareness of the influence of perspective on how one views reality.  While traditional critics like E.M.W. Tillyard tried to convince us that Shakespeare’s work was essentially an extension of medieval political and social thought, they overlook Shakespeare’s characteristic irony, attraction to paradox, and relentless questioning of orthodoxy.  Shakespeare and Social Theory was written to highlight the radical character of the plays.

Barney Bate’s book, Protestant Textuality and the Tamil Modern

Cover of Protestant Textuality and the Tamil Modern by Bernard Bate, Edited by E. Annamalai, Francis Cody, Malarvizhi Jayanth, and Constantine V. Nakassis

https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=33334

Hannah Carlan interviews E. Annamalai, Francis Cody, and Constantine V. Nakassis

Hannah Carlan: Bernard Bate’s posthumous book Protestant Textuality and the Tamil Modern is a major contribution to the study of political agency and nation-building, which has, through Habermas, Anderson, Taylor, Warner, and others, long privileged “the press” over “the platform” in the formation of the democratic public sphere (pp. 3–4). Bate demonstrates that this emphasis on print capitalism is both due to the difficulty of studying the unrecorded, as well as Western semiotic ideologies that privilege the denotational functions of language over its poetic ones, leading to an elision of the sensuous, affective, and embodied aspects of speech as social activity. Bate invites us to consider how communicative genres like homiletic oratory, devotional songs (bhajans), poems, and mass meetings together constituted a novel “interpellative infrastructure” of politics (p. 66). Through these practices, previously disparate groups were called into being as a singular political public at the turn of the 20th century in Tamil Nadu. Rather than reproduce the dichotomization of speech and materiality, Bate emphasizes their mutual imbrication. In the Indic context, vernacular political oratory gained semiotic value not merely from its denotational accessibility—an influence of Protestant ideologies of textuality—but from what Bate calls “poesy”: the corporeal, sonorous, musical qualities of speech that are prized in Tamil textual traditions. How might this intervention contribute to broader efforts in anthropology to theorize language and/as materiality, and how might such an approach allow us to decenter Western theories of politics and democracy? 

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Amanda Weidman on her book, Brought to Life by the Voice

Interview by Constantine Nakassis

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520377066/brought-to-life-by-the-voice

Constantine V. Nakassis: Your brilliant first book, Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern deals with the simultaneous classicization and modernization of the Karnatic music of South India through both historical and ethnographic methods, showing how a gendered and casted form of modern subjectivity came to be articulated through a politics of voice. Your most recent book, Brought to Life by the Voice: Playback Singing and Cultural Politics in South India – equally brilliant – deals with so-called playback singing in the Tamil film industry. To start us off, I wonder if you could speak a bit about the relationship, and movement, between these two projects?

Amanda Weidman: Thank you for giving me an opportunity to reflect on this. I would say, in a general way, that in this second book I’ve gotten to do the project I paid lip service to (no pun intended!) in the first book: to explore voice as simultaneously an object of musical/sonic attention and of ideological investment, and to really grapple with the way these two scales—the bodily/sonic/material and the ideological/discursive—interplay with and inform each other. In my first book, the concern with voice remained mostly at the ideological, political level. I used the concepts ideologies of voice and politics of voice to get at the ways that voice, cultivated, framed, and staged in a particular way, became—to the exclusion and marginalization of other things—a potent signifier of Karnatic music’s classical status. The burden in that book was to try to understand how a high cultural status had been claimed and consolidated. Identifying voice as an object of ideology and politics was a way to challenge what has been reified and naturalized as South Indian classical music.

In Brought to Life by the Voice, I decided that the twin focus on voice as object of aesthetic and ideological investment was better captured by the idea of regimes of aurality and the voice, which I think gets at the way that ideologies and politics are actually produced and sustained—voice as a site where macro-level constructs are scaled down to a bodily/sensory level. I think about regimes of aurality and voice in several ways: through modes of discipline in vocal production—how singers learn to produce the supposedly right kind of sound in any context; through recurring contexts of listening and consumption, including performance contexts, as well as technological media through which voices are disseminated (and in the case of playback, the visual images/bodies with which voices are paired or associated onscreen); and through the articulated, verbalized categories that arise to describe and attribute meaning to particular voices and voice qualities. Inherent in the idea of regimes of aurality and voice is the process of regimentation, the shaping of vocal practices and vocal sound to particular culturally and historically specific ideals.

There are some obvious continuities between the two books. The city of Chennai is the center (the authorizing center of semiosis, you might say) for both Karnatic classical music and the Tamil film industry. But in moving from one to the other I shifted from looking at something that, framed as a high-cultural object, has all sorts of authorized knowledge emanating from established institutions, pedagogies, and forms of transmission, to a popular-cultural realm where meaning-making is taking place at many different sites: on screen, in the recording studios, in the postproduction process, on stage, on the street, in music reality shows, in forms of historical and current media publicity, and so on. This presented a different kind of ethnographic challenge, especially because I was exploring the cultural significance of voices that, though people have deep affective attachment to them, have been considered beyond description, anti-intellectualized both by singers themselves and by fans, and mostly ignored in scholarship on Indian cinema.

The movement between these two books also reflects the slow melding of different strains of my graduate training. In the 1990s, I was steeped in then-current thinking about the colonial production of knowledge, postcolonial theory, and the idea of modernity as a culture in itself—all reflected amply in my first book. But I was also trained in ethnomusicology and linguistic anthropology, which at that time were relatively distant from each other and focused on their respective objects: music and language. The point of connection between them was through the music-and-language strand of linguistic anthropology, which constituted the other part of my graduate training. I learned about Peircean semiotics, indexicality, iconicity, performativity, poetics and sound symbolism, and Bakhtin’s concept of voicing, but I didn’t know what to do with it all for a while. The blossoming of voice and sound as analytics and fields of study in the last two decades has really broken down these disciplinary boundaries and created many more points of connection—and has allowed us to hear so much more of what’s going on in music and language beyond what these frameworks have conditioned us to hear. Linguistic anthropology has broadened to become more attuned to questions of mediation, voice, and embodiment, and to the way linguistic and non-linguistic, and visual and aural, forms of semiosis interact. I think of my work as definitely benefitting from, and, I hope, also contributing to these developments.

Constantine V. Nakassis: One of the many interventions of this book is to rethink the metaphysical nexus that links voice, (the visual) body, and subjectivity as a natural, unified package—by pointing to a different “performative dispensation” (Mazzarella)—that of playback singing, where voice (of the singer), body (of the actress), words (of the lyricist), melody (of the music director) are all differently distributed. How has this particular case helped you think about the study of voice?

Amanda Weidman: The striking thing about playback in the Indian context is that it starts with completely different premises and ideals. Most Euro-Western theorizing about voice, as well as cultural production ranging from Hollywood cinema to popular music, starts from the assumed ideal unity of voice, body, and self—underpinning the ideology of the unified speaking subject (a construct which has come in for a lot of critique in critical theory and anthropology), as well as that of the expressive singing/musical subject (an equally powerful construct, but one that has not been interrogated nearly as much). Within this formation, the voice de-linked from a visual representation or embodiment of its source is the disorienting exception, associated with power and mastery, or with danger, excess, and deception.

Playback, as a technical practice and as a performative dispensation, starts from the opposite assumption: that the dissociation of body and voice, the division of labor between appearing and sounding, is the ideal, and that the embodiment of voice is the artifice, the strategic achievement that provokes anxieties and requires careful management and/or avoidance. One of the things that captivated me about this project is the way playback literalizes/concretizes so many of the concepts at play: production format/participant roles, performative dispensations, animation, and the distribution of the sensible. Goffman’s idea of production format and participant roles, or role fractions, as Irvine would specify, gets at the division of labor that playback sets up—not just between acting onscreen and singing offscreen, but also between singing and speaking, and between animating and authoring words and melodies. The concept of a performative dispensation, so usefully articulated by Mazzarella in terms of both permissions and prohibitions, gets at the way playback, as a cultural institution, controls (or attempts to control) who is visible, who is audible, and the meaning and effects that certain performances may have. Animation allows for a consideration of vocal acts as something other than identity or expression— toward other forms of agency and subjectivity that are enabled by different acts of voicing. And Ranciere’s concept of the distribution of the sensible allowed me to see how playback has constituted a regime of aurality/imageness by thinking about very concrete processes of distribution, ranging in scale from the mass/public level (determining what is seen/heard and what isn’t, and through which media; indexically regimenting voices and flooding the public sphere with particular ones) to the individual/embodied level (where a singer distributes her voice in her own body or how she occupies the space of the stage).

Constantine V. Nakassis:Animation, Voice (voicing), (Bring to) Life, World(ing) – these are some of the very big concepts that this book articulates in its account of playback singing and that have already come up in our discussion. And it articulates them through a set of more technical analytic concepts: ideology (a la Silverstein, Gal and Irvine), semiotic economy (a la Keane), and distribution of the sensible or regime of imageness/aurality (a la Rancière). I’m interested to hear about how the philosophical and aesthetic concept of Rancière’s and the semiotic concepts of linguistic anthropology fit together in this book?

Amanda Weidman:The title of my book comes from film sound theorist Michel Chion’s description of playback, which he tosses in offhandedly at the end of his book The Voice in Cinema: “In playback, the body confesses to being a puppet brought to life by the voice.” Chion meant this as a simple reversal of the usual relationship between body and voice, visuality and aurality, in which the body controls the voice which is seen to emanate from it. But the image of the puppet introduces all sorts of fascinating and productive ambiguities around visibility and voicing, agency and control, the animate and the inanimate. The playback singer is both the puppet—the singer of words and melodies authored by others—and the puppeteer—the backstage or offscreen voice who controls the movements and meanings of what’s onscreen. Much of playback singers’ work is about managing the fundamental duality of animation as a mechanical process of transmission/relay (the puppet role) and as a life-giving process (the puppeteer role). The attention to animation within anthropology has been so helpful in the way it has shifted the focus from the creation of an illusion of life in inanimate objects or forms, to looking at the social world and social relations and actors that various animating practices imagine and bring into being.

To me, the notion of a semiotic economy is a useful way of grounding Rancière’s concept of the distribution of the sensible. Rancière argues against both the autonomy of art and art’s submission to politics—his idea is that different “distributions of the sensible” are not automatically linked to particular political destinies. Instead, their affordances must be taken up in particular ways—there must be a process by which a distribution of the sensible becomes a basis for a politics. “A common world,” he writes, “is never simply an ethos, a shared abode, that results from the sedimentation of … intertwined acts. It is always a polemical distribution of modes of being and occupation in a space of possibilities.” Rancière is not just talking about the distribution of the sensible in terms of things experienced through the senses. The sensible is also referring to the ways that sensory things become sensible, that is, intelligible, capable of carrying meaning or making sense within particular regimes of imageness/aurality. To give one example—the idealized Tamil notion of kuralinimai—voice sweetness—attributed to the voices of certain female singers in the 1960s was not just about voice quality itself, but how certain moral attributes came to be associated with it. It also had to do with the ways a non-projected head voice was made bodiless by being detached from the body of both the onscreen actress and the body of the playback singer herself. The function of a semiotic economy is precisely this—to constitute sensory things as signs by placing them in some kind of meaningful relation to each other.

Constantine V. Nakassis: Can you say a little about how gender plays into how the sensible is distributed?

Amanda Weidman:The gendered asymmetries are quite striking. Playback began as way of managing the ways the female form would become available to be seen/heard in the public sphere through expressive and medial forms such as music, dance, and cinema, in a context where respectable femininity was defined by the careful management and often avoidance of public appearance. During its heyday, the mid 1950s through the mid 1970s, the affordances of playback’s division of labor were taken up in different gendered ways. For men, the separation of the roles of actor and singer and their symbiotic relationship was productive, generating a kind of surplus power and political potency. Star status could accrue to both the actor and the singer through the combination of one’s body and the other’s voice because they were understood to be working together, doing the same thing through two different modalities. For women, however, the separation of roles was used and interpreted differently. The assumed moral licitness of a woman singing was used to cancel out, or mitigate, the assumed immorality of a woman acting onscreen. Actress and singer were understood to be doing two fundamentally different things. Female playback singers who had risen to prominence in this period conveyed this gulf between actress and singer to me by describing themselves as “just the voice” or by stressing that their acting was “all in the throat” and they were not doing “mimicry.” I have been pondering for years how this role of being “just the voice” was constructed and inhabited, and what it meant. Rather than seeing it as a simple limiting or restriction in the service of female respectability, in the book I try to show how this role was in fact a coveted status that allowed singers to steer a path between behind the scenes anonymity and onscreen/onstage exposure.

Constantine V. Nakassis:Historically speaking, one of the stories of this book is the transition from the post-Independence period (1950s–1980s) to the post-liberalization period (1990s–2020s). How do these macro epochal moments map onto what you call the performative dispensations, or regimes, of visuality and aurality that have governed playback singing?

Amanda Weidman:In this book I’ve tried to show the historicity of playback as a cultural institution responding to and shaping the ethos of particular sociopolitical moments. Its changes and shifts reflect the different kinds of semiotic/representational economies voice has been inserted into. At its beginning in the 1940s, playback was referred to as iraval kural—borrowed or traded voice, reflecting the emphasis on the partibility of the voice and the economic/transactional understanding of the practice. As playback became set as a dispensation within India’s technocratic, developmentalist post-Independence decades and within the gender politics of the Tamil Dravidianist political context, playback singers shifted to being referred to as pinnani patakarkal—behind [the screen] singers—foregrounding the project of producing a desirable or ideal onscreen body-voice combination over the partibility of the voice as such—a change that went along with a rise in playback singers’ status. In the post-liberalization decades, neoliberal ideologies have introduced a new set of industries, desires and promises centering around the voice, and a new value placed on visibility—the laying bare of what was previously hidden, unspoken, illicit. For singers, this translates into a pressure to couple voice ever more tightly with the self, body, and intention of the singer. All those things so carefully separated and parceled out in playback’s dispensation are being recombined in different—and yet still differentially gendered—ways. Tamil cinema is caught now between contradictory trends of emulating Hollywood-style narrative film and getting rid of song sequences and other supposedly non-realistic elements, and a self-referential, semi-nostalgic, semi-parodic re-animation of older elements. This is why “afterlife” seems more apt than “death” to describe the state of playback now.

Constantine V. Nakassis: Speaking of after(-brought-to-)life (by the voice), what’s next for your research?

Amanda Weidman: One of the most interesting people I met while doing this project was the singer L. R. Eswari, who managed to flout the gendered normativities of playback, combining a professional life as the go-to playback singer for vamp roles in the 1960s with a successful career as a singer of commercial devotional music on the South Indian Hindu goddess Amman—the alternately benevolent and fierce mother goddess associated with subaltern religious practice. I’m thinking about a new project that would investigate the role of aural representations of and appeals to Amman in this commercial devotional music in relation to the politics of caste, class and gender in South India.

Constantine V. Nakassis: I can’t wait to see where this new project goes! And thank you so much for doing this fascinating interview about this amazing book!

Eric Henry on his book, The Future Conditional

Interview by Andy Zhenzhou Tan

cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/9781501755163/the-future-conditional/

Andy Zhenzhou Tan: An explicit orienting question for the book is “Why teach an entire nation English?” (4) Personally or sociologically, this “why” question had seldom dawned on me, a lucky survivor of the West-bound, future-facing, and English-mediated journey many of your informants aspired to. Nonetheless, or therefore, this question struck me as a giant elephant in the room. How did it become a question for you? What are some of the answers you explore in the book?

Eric Henry: Honestly it was not a topic I went looking for. Before I started a doctorate in anthropology I was an English teacher in China, thinking I could study Mandarin and pay off some debts at the same time. One of the things that struck me was that, with adult students, very few of them were in a situation or a job where they would actually need to use the language on a regular basis. There was a certain absurdity to it: here I was, with no formal training, teaching English to railway engineers or bureaucrats. My only qualification was that I had grown up speaking the language and the students had not. This kind of realization drove many of the foreign teachers I worked with to a kind of cynicism, but for me it prompted questions I could explore ethnographically. I realized that we naturalize this desire for English on a global scale – but most of the students did not care for the language itself, only for its capacity to shape their own futures. When I really started to listen to those students, and by this time I was back doing fieldwork, I learned that the desire to speak English is always entangled with dreams of the future: with going abroad, accumulating wealth, or just being seen as someone in control of their lives rather than being left behind by China’s burgeoning social transformations. Most of the people I talked to identified the last twenty years as the most important in all of China’s long history, a time that is radically reconfiguring relations between self and society on the one hand, and China and the world on the other. Saying “I speak English,” is therefore a powerful claim to identity under new regimes of neoliberal capitalism and globalization.

Andy Zhenzhou Tan: This ethnography of contemporary speech practices and English language learning in Northeast China, on a more ambitious scale, is also an intervention in the study of modernity. What is your approach to modernity in this book? What are some of the analytic concepts central to this approach? Why is it preferable over other approaches?

Eric Henry: I am a linguistic anthropologist, so naturally I look to language and discourse as primary constituents of social phenomena. It has always struck me that modernity is often defined in terms of specific economic, political or social metrics: rational markets, democracy, the retreat of the state and so on. In contrast, the people I worked with in Shenyang understood modernity through narratives about the changes going on around them; and the languages people used to talk about those changes seemed to have the power to launch this new state of being. I had the chance to dig into some missionary archives related to language teaching in China in the 1920s, and I was able to read some of the essays Chinese students wrote for their English teachers. They were incredible – one, by a young nursing student, imagined the development of a “moral hospital” in China, where intractable young people would be sent for moral instruction. In her story, the moral hospital struggles for legitimacy until the President of China commits his own son to their care. At that point the eyes of the world turn to the hospital and recognize the value of China’s civilization, extending to the nation an opportunity for global leadership. I realized that this young student understood her own language study in much the same terms as Chinese people today, as a way of transforming Chinese society and achieving international recognition; in other words, as a way of becoming modern. This is what I call discursive modernity – it is the ways in which modernity is constituted out of talk about the material or social changes that surround people as they navigate through new landscapes, new technologies and new forms of social position or status. I think this approach frees us from trying to measure abstract qualities such as “development” or “modernization” and focus instead on how people both experience the forces of change and locate themselves as social actors in relation to them.

Andy Zhenzhou Tan: Chapter 2 analyzes the distinct cultural geography of post-socialist China based on the paradigmatic form of the wall and what you term the moral economy of “recursive enclosure”. The cover photo of the book, showing a residential apartment complex I suppose, seems to be taken from this chapter. What is the structural place of this cultural geographical analysis in a book explicitly about speech practices? What is the limit to the claim about “distinctness”? To what extent is the moral economy of “recursive enclosure” more universal?

Eric Henry: Landscapes are always suffused with symbolic values – it is part of what I would consider a universal human process of place-making. We can see evidence of this anytime we talk about urban or rural, or when we label a place as being in a “pristine” state of nature. At the same time, I think there is something unique about China and the contemporary remnants of an imperial technology of boundary-making and enclosure. Traditional architecture in China, from temples to palaces to the peasant homestead, emphasized enclosure. Structures abutted the margins of the property and were inward-focused, with a series of increasingly private and intimate spaces marked off by walls, panels, curtains, and other boundaries. Cities and, at a larger scale, the empire itself were also enclosed by walls marking off center and periphery. These spatial configurations were designed to, as I argue, signify a kind of timeless continuity for the empire and the enduring relationship between the human and cosmological worlds. People – whether they be priests, peasants or emperors – doing similar types of rituals, in similar types of spaces, and using a common language asserted the unity and universality of the imperial state. As I argue in the book, however, in today’s China the spaces and space-making practices remain, but the types or rituals, behavior and language in each are now different. Residences, schools, factories, and offices are still surrounded by walls, with imposing gates dividing interior from exterior. But the imperial universality has been shattered into a landscape that is not only divided in terms of wealth, but also in terms of time. Some people feel like they are ahead, and others like they are being left behind.

One day in Shenyang I hopped on a minibus headed out on a rural route, just to see where it would take me. When I came back, some of my Chinese friends were amazed – how on earth could you find your way when all the people out there speak in dialect? You have to understand, a lot of people in the city speak the dialect too, but there is this feeling in urban China of a separation and distinctness from rural areas, almost as if the people living there are a different kind of citizen. The countryside is luohou, which means stagnant or backwards, and they are thought to speak the regional dialect almost exclusively. So these boundaries of enclosure symbolically mark off spaces that are oriented in multiply contingent ways to the future or to the past, and the linguistic and conversational choices people make are used to identify what kinds of spaces they are in. In rural villages you hear the dialect, in modern fantasy spaces like five-star hotels and luxury shopping malls you hear English. Space, time and language are bound together.

Andy Zhenzhou Tan: Chapter 6 asserts the significance of race, represented by the type of a white, English-speaking foreigner, in speech practices and imaginaries of modernity in contemporary China. How did you, often cast in that type by your informants, navigate doing fieldwork?

Eric Henry: Even though most people claimed that Chinese society has no racial divisions, race is an inescapable part of everyday life in China. It is implicit in the ways people endlessly discuss whose skin is dark and whose is light; darkness is associated with the countryside and agricultural labor, lightness with the city and professional employment. Ethnic minorities in China are treated as cultural relics, people who dress in distinctive costumes and manifest quaint traditions. And foreigners, in particular, are recruited into these discourses of modernization because certain racialized others (and here I fit the stereotype of the white, blue-eyed personification of modernity perfectly) represent progress and development. This did grant me a clear privilege in being able to conduct research on language schools. I could saunter in the door, walk right into the headmaster’s office and be welcomed with open arms. The Chinese scholars and linguists I know had to beg, bargain and negotiate just to get access. At the same time, however, and this is something I try to elaborate in the last chapter of my book, I had a role to play. If I’m white, I’m there to teach English, or I’m there to do business, and so many of my interviews and interactions were derailed into discussions of business opportunities or study abroad opportunities. “Let’s cooperate together and open an English school – we can get rich!” I could never be unobtrusive; if I visited a new English class, I always became the center of attention and would be dragged up to lead a pronunciation lesson or answer student questions. At the time, I thought of this fact as a hindrance to my research, but I came to realize that this is a critical element of the discourse of modernity. If crafting modern subjectivities in China is, as I’ve argued, dependent upon acquiring a new repertoire of globalized speech practices, they have to be acquired from somewhere and from someone. In effect, I was being recruited into a kind of fantasy space in which I reflected back to my interlocutors the same desire they had for the signifiers of modernity, such as wealth and mobility, in which case they could consider us co-eval or equivalent social actors. To become modern is therefore to appropriate the signifiers (racialized, linguistic, performative) of those people who already appear to be modern, and that depends upon the source of those signifiers, the foreigner, acting in the way a foreigner is expected to act. By conforming to that role I was sanctioning the activities taking place – whether it was learning a global language, or opening an academic conference or hosting a wedding – as legitimate instantiations of modernizing practice.

Maybe that is a good note to end on. In your first question you identify yourself as a “survivor of the West-bound, future-facing, and English-mediated journey” and I think that is an apt way to put it. The educational pathways we have created for students and scholars follow very constrained routes, and require a very restricted set of linguistic skills and credentials, naturally favoring certain privileged groups over others. All of this is driving a massive global language teaching industry valued at around $10 billion a year. The racialized privilege I experienced was due to an equivalence between my appearance, my language, and the presumed superiority of Western countries. We have to develop a critical reflexivity towards these naturalized assumptions and never allow them to pass unchallenged. To dismantle such regimes of inequality requires an understanding of how the desires for certain types of linguistic, social, and symbolic capital are produced and sustained on a global scale.

Anna Corwin on her book, Embracing Aging

Interview by H. Keziah Conrad

https://www.rutgersuniversitypress.org/embracing-age/9781978822276

H. Keziah Conrad: One of the central arguments you make in the book is that there is something wrong with the “successful aging” model put forward in gerontology and popular discourses. Can you say more about what the successful aging model is, and why you see it as problematic?  

Anna I. Corwin: The notion of successful aging emerged in the 1990s and was adopted in both research and popular discourses as an appealing alternative to previous models that described aging as a process of inevitable decline into decrepitude. It gained popularity quickly, and the past few decades have seen a tremendous outpouring of research on the topic of successful aging – research that seeks to understand how individuals can live longer and be healthier in older age.

While this might seem to many folks like an unequivocally positive move, anthropologists and critical gerontologists have shown that the research and the popular discourses on successful aging embed neoliberal cultural values and assumptions into what they are naming as science. Instead of simply measuring health outcomes (which anthropologists know can be culturally variable), the literature promotes a model of success in older age in which individuals are independent, productive, active, ageless adults. In other words, as Sarah Lamb and others have pointed out, the successful aging paradigm is promoting a model of aging that involves not aging at all.

This is problematic for two central reasons: First, this model of success implies that one can fail at aging, which itself is an absurd notion (and has extremely important implications for how one thinks about disability and personhood). It is particularly problematic when we remember that systematic oppression including environmental racism creates a landscape that disproportionately impacts Black and Brown individuals’ health outcomes throughout the lifecourse, compounding toward the end of life

Second, the successful aging model is simply not scientifically robust – not only are measures of independence, for example, not always measures of health and well-being, they also are not values or qualities seen in a number of communities (like the sisters in Catholic convents) where people are documented to experience positive health outcomes at the end of life. As I explore in the book, in the convent, where sisters experience longevity and increased physical and psychological well-being at the end of life, the nuns demonstrate precisely the opposite cultural values and practices by emphasizing interdependence and socialization into letting go, or, as in the title of the book, Embracing Age.

Keziah Conrad: Embracing Age contributes to the literature on linguistic relativity, and you argue that language shapes how we age. You also say that simply looking for different words to replace stigmatized words like “old” will not itself change the stigma attached to aging in the US. What is it about the nuns’ language practices that goes deeper in actually shaping experience? 

Anna Corwin: There have been campaigns, both formal and informal, in recent years to rid English of words that stigmatize older adults: for instance, banning the terms “old” and “elderly” in favor of “older adults.”  While I am, of course, completely supportive of policies that work to destigmatize aging, I’m quite skeptical of movements that target words alone. Avoiding specific words will do nothing unless we address the underlying cultural practice and social structures that create aging stigma in the first place.

In the convent, the sisters learned to treat old age as a normative part of the life course through linguistic practices that went far beyond word choice. One of the chapters in the book (Chapter 3) looks at the sisters’ prayer practices. As it turns out, prayer is more than just a way to engage with God. Prayer also is a way for the sisters to tell each other about the needs of others in the convent, to offer and provide social support, to communicate institutional ideals, and even to express ideals about aging. For example, instead of praying for intervention or direct healing from God, the sisters in the convent would pray that a sister who was suffering find “the grace to accept” what she was enduring. Through these public, intercessory prayers, all the sisters learned community values around aging, acceptance, and the value of letting go.

Another example of the way linguistic practices shaped the nuns’ attitudes and experiences of aging was the ways the sisters treated their peers who had experienced significant decline. Even when sisters had conditions such as aphasia and couldn’t speak, or had deteriorative neurological conditions and couldn’t move, they were included in meaningful everyday activities such as worship, prayer, and social activities like card games. I devote nearly an entire chapter to looking at the micro-interactional processes through which the sisters skillfully engaged peers who have declined in mutually enjoyable, meaningful everyday activities.  Building on the literature on linguistic relativity, I suggest that language and experience dynamically shape each other through habitual interactions that occur over a lifetime.

Keziah Conrad: In Embracing Age you show that socialization processes occur throughout the life-course (not only in childhood), and that socialization practices are key to how the Catholic Sisters you worked with learn to age and die. What are some of these practices? How are the nuns socialized to embrace aging?  

Anna Corwin: When I arrived at the convent and began to spend time with older sisters, one of the things I was struck by was the ways that aging, end-of-life, and death were embraced in the convent as normative parts of the life-course. This stood out as particularly striking as it contrasted with mainstream practices outside the convent in the rest of the Midwest and United States where elderly adults and disabled folks are often segregated from many everyday activities and spaces. In the convent, elderly sisters continued to be integrated in meaningful everyday activities, which also meant that younger sisters continued to engage with and learn with these sisters, for example, learning how to age themselves as they interacted with their older peers.

The sisters’ embrace of aging as a normal and natural part of the life course was also underscored theologically as they emphasized notions of kenosis, which included practices of letting go of individual control and desire. This occurred in prayer, everyday narratives or storytelling over meals, in care interactions, and in social interactions such as card games. For example, in prayer, instead of petitioning the divine for healing (as one might in some Protestant communities), the sisters learned to pray for acceptance, for grace, or for God to walk with them in their pain.

They also embraced the oldest members of their community in very practical ways. In the convent infirmary, instead of caring-for and other uni-directional care interactions we often see in institutional care settings, the sisters mutually engaged with and valued elderly peers in on-going, dynamic arrangements.  For example, one day when I was shadowing a sister (S. Irma — all names are pseudonyms) in the infirmary, the sister provided blessings for her elderly peers. In one of the rooms, we met Sister Helen who had aphasia and whose mobility was significantly limited. Sister Irma asked Sister Helen to bless me – and to my surprise, she proceeded to place Sister Helen’s hand on my forehead and Sister Helen blessed me using words I could not decipher.  Ultimately, the form of prayer, in which God is the recipient of the request for a blessing, the fact that we could not make out her words did not matter. The blessing was seen as meaningful as she was interceding on my behalf to request the blessing. In this way, Sister Helen and her peers with significant chronic conditions such as aphasia and neurological conditions that limited communication and movement were included as meaningful interlocutors in everyday practices. By engaging elderly peers with physically and/or communicatively limiting conditions in meaningful everyday activities, the sisters demonstrated that they actively valued and included all members of the community, even those who were infirm and/or disabled. All of these practices and many more served to teach the sisters how to embrace aging as they themselves grew older.

Keziah Conrad: What kind of experiences have you had sharing this work with older adults who are seeking models of how to age gracefully or successfully?

Anna Corwin: I have presented my work to public audiences and have offered 8-week workshops in my community where I introduce my research findings and invite older adults to engage with the work. In these spaces, I have seen how pervasive and appealing the mainstream model of successful aging is in the United States and I have been struck by the power and prevalence of the dual desires to avoid aging and, if one must age, to do so while maintaining independence and control over the body. The notion of embracing aging doesn’t always sound appealing to mainstream Americans and people have sometimes voiced disappointment and resentment to me that I do not offer tips to avoid aging. However, I have seen some remarkable transformations as individuals begin to notice the popular discourses of aging that surround them. Most often, the pushback I receive develops into an articulation and rejection of the stigmatizing and troublesome discourses that individuals begin to note in their everyday lives. I have witnessed many people replace old internalized practices with new, hopeful, more loving practices.

One of my hopes for this book is that it allows more people to become aware that the popular discourses of aging which stigmatize, segregate and otherwise demean older adults are not the only way to approach aging. There is tremendous diversity in how aging is understood and experienced across cultural contexts. Doing this research has filled me with a lot of hope as I have witnessed the processes through which the nuns value and integrate their aging peers and learn to embrace interdependence and the end of life as they grow older themselves.


Lauren Zentz on her book, Narrating Stance, Morality, and Political Identity

Interview by Özge Korkmaz

https://www.routledge.com/Narrating-Stance-Morality-and-Political-Identity-Building-a-Movement/Zentz/p/book/9780367776411

Özge Korkmaz: I want to start with a general question. How would you describe this book to an anthropological audience, and do you see it as belonging to any particular theoretical genealogy or subfield?

Lauren Zentz: I must say that I have always seen myself as a theoretical nomad of sorts. That being said, I find that linguistic anthropology and especially sociolinguistics are good homes for such a type of scholar. I believe that I can say that my work is inspired by work that comes from various fields but that tends toward the ethnographic. Thus in this book, as I relay in the preface, I draw on diverse work ranging from the feminist qualitative studies of Lather and Smithies, to Mendoza-Denton’s and Heller’s crucial work that I tend to consider more typical for the field of linguistic anthropology; I draw on ethnographic work that is not really described as such from foremost political scientists like Theda Skocpol; ethnographic work that draws more on cultural anthropological writing paradigms in Graeber’s work; to work that blends genres, like Perry Gilmore’s ethnography-slash-memoir that also taps into long-held conversations across sociolinguistics as well as cognitive and theoretical linguistics. I read in media studies and general discourse analysis theory and methods, in addition to the above. In the end, then, I would say that my work is quite interdisciplinary, but this includes a heavy lean towards deeply qualitative and ethnographic work. And, as many who know me and my work would tell you without a moment’s hesitation, my work is of course deeply inspired by Jan Blommaert’s, whose work I also consider to be deeply political, deeply interdisciplinary, and both deeply sociolinguistic and linguistic anthropological.

Özge Korkmaz: Since this is an internet-based ethnography, I am curious as to how you define your field-site, and whether you struggled at times with working outside of the traditional domains of research? I ask this question recognizing that every ethnography comes with its problems about where the field-site begins and ends, so I wonder what those problems would be for students of social media.

Lauren Zentz: This was indeed a challenging question, and something that there is not a robust literature on to my knowledge, especially when it comes to incorporating online and social media communities/communications, so I did find myself really improvising and having to define things for myself. Ultimately for any ethnography, of course, this is what we want anyway – the field site needs to be defined from the ground up because life and community organization generally don’t line up with our preconceived notions of them. But I did find myself on perpetually shifting ground, I would say, for at least the first year (of two) that I was conducting data collection. In this study, I started out thinking that I would conduct a study of the leadership of the state organization of Pantsuit Republic Texas. This was a group that lived throughout the state but mostly in Austin, Dallas, and Houston. Given that we only met online on Slack, Facebook, and a group phone call website called FreeConferenceCall.com, I was of course unable to gain the trust of the people who I’d imagined would become my research participants – the eight or so members of the state board (although I was given permission to start this study from two of the leaders of the state board, who I already knew and who lived in Houston). Because I could not gain people’s trust, I simply could not do the study in the way that I had first dreamt it up. And so my field site had to shift dramatically. I stepped back, continued my secretarial duties for the state board, and then reflected on how I had gotten involved in the organization in the first place, and only then did I realize that I needed to go to the people who I already knew. These were, again, the two people from the state board who had initially authorized the study, and then people with whom I had worked in the leadership of PSR’s local counterpart, Pantsuit Republic Houston. So I went back to these folks and changed my strategy to collecting data from their Facebook posts both in and outside of both PSR and PSRH’s secret Facebook groups, as well as research interviews and field notes. I asked sixteen or so people in total to participate, and ultimately ended up with a total of eight. Of these eight, some were more available than others for various work, home, and activism related reasons, and so I collected more and less information from each depending on their individual circumstances and my relationships with them each individually.

After all of this strategy shifting, my primary source of data became Facebook. So this was primarily an online ethnography, but let’s not forget that there is not a separation between online and offline life, contrary to some early (and continuing) beliefs that online life is supposedly fake and offline life is putatively real. As with every technology, from the telegraph to the phone and the television and so on, these have all been integrated into our lives. We don’t have a TV-watching life and a non-TV watching life; we just have a life, in which we watch TV and then refer to what we’ve watched after the fact. Similarly, we have a life in which we engage on various online social media platforms via our smartphones, our tablets, our desktop and laptop computers, and so on. On these sites we engage in individual chats, group chats, secret group pages, public pages, our personal walls on which we post publicly and/or privately, and so on, and then we met with several of the people we were just talking to online and we continue the conversation or move on to different topics. I engaged with my research participants online, but I also met up with them in person, at state board meetings, local PSRH public meetings, protests and other events. So while I emphasize online data in this book, it is informed by a more holistic experience while I was acting as a member (albeit peripheral) of the leadership groups of these organizations.

Özge Korkmaz: As ethnographers, we already know that whatever it is that gives political identities their unity of meaning is not static but processual. Yet we are also pretty good at documenting the ways people strive to create a somewhat stable one that is consistent with its own facts. What does this identity-work look like in the internet? What resources and techniques are available to people?

Lauren Zentz: I actually just met with a couple of my research participants the other day – now that they had contributed to the construction of a monograph through their own words via social media posts and interviews, they wanted to a have a sort of mini book club about it. It was really fun. But the reason I bring it up is just to say that we talked about how much data I ended up collecting in this study. Over 13,000 screenshots from over 6,000 original posts. Plus interviews, plus field notes, and so on. It was so, so overwhelming. But I found that something similar to what has happened in my previous studies happened as I sorted through all the data – and even as I simply watched my participants’ posts go by on my news feed on a daily basis. What happened is that the themes started to repeat themselves. This is sort of a standard, nonformal cue for how we know we’ve finally collected enough data – the themes that we’ve seen arise through our grounded, inductive experience start to repeat themselves. So as I watched these participants “write themselves into being” (boyd 2010) – particularly as political and activist beings – over the two-ish years of posts and interactions I had with them, I started to see the themes of the narratives they were constructing, over time and across interactions, about themselves, their activist group(s), and the geopolitical formations in which they found themselves, and this is how I saw those stable and unified stories emerge over time.

Özge Korkmaz: Lastly, increasingly our lives become suffused with contradictions that emerge out of a perceived gap between ethical commitments, on one hand, and the real situation, on the other. What does the world of internet activism have to offer us in terms of contemporary configurations of morality and politics? Do you think this desire to get involved in things, especially against the background of the rise of social movements across the globe, teach us something new about politics and political systems?

Lauren Zentz: I’m really not sure that it teaches us anything new about people’s desire to get involved because I’m not sure we actually do get more involved. I don’t want this prior statement, however, to come across as contradictory with the critiques that I posit (building on others’ work) in the book regarding notions such as “slacktivism”. I do think that there is value to, as Dennis (2019) reframes the former term, “microactivism”. Let’s take, for instance, a conversation that was held in the secret PSRH group in late 2018 – so two years after the formation of these groups/after Trump’s election. Lucy, a leader in both PSRH and PSR who was very active both on and offline in these and ally organizations, wrote a post describing her metamorphosis, basically from a rather soft-spoken person with opinions she didn’t bother voicing much into a very outspoken person who was not at all shy about her beliefs and opinions, political or otherwise. After she authored this post, numerous people who participated online in the PSRH group responded that they, too, had undergone such a change. They had shifted their relationships, gotten rid of people who did not support their more outspoken selves, spoken up more to family members with whom they disagreed, and so on. And those responding to Lucy’s posts were certainly not as active offline as she was; however, their membership in this support community that had come together around a shared set of political beliefs/ideologies after the 2016 election had provided them at least one important source of social support that enabled them to stand firm in how they felt about the US’s political circumstances at the time. So in this case we see that online activities that might be derided by some as slacktivism were actually quite the contrary – they were in many senses life changing. So perhaps the growth of online activism at best has taught me that lots of people do want to get involved, and they really do care, but the burdens of regular life prevent them from doing anything more than talking online about what they care about. Face to face activism, as I witnessed it through my engagements with my research participants as well as the other leaders of these groups, is immensely time consuming, and, as I write in the book, people with families, full time jobs, and so on, quite frankly might be relieved to have a social media outlet where they can feel connected to people who feel the same as them because they certainly don’t have the time, energy, bandwidth, and so on to meet up in face to face activities and “do the work”. They instead provide and participate in a sort of critical mass of moral and ideological support that helps keep the movement moving.

In this light, I suppose it is appropriate to end where I began, mentioning Jan Blommaert, who referred to online activities as expansions of our communicative repertoires. As he and Ondřej Prochazka wrote specifically in reference to online activism, this “knowledge activism” in online spaces must be “serious business” (Prochazka and Blommaert 2019), and as such worthy of serious consideration as an integral part of how people communicate throughout the myriad contexts of their daily lives. In this book, I hope to have given insight into how such serious business played itself out in a quite momentous shift in national, state-level, and local politics in the US.

Wazhmah Osman talks about her book, Television and the Afghan Culture Wars

https://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/29bgf5br9780252043550.html

Interview by Narges Bajoghli

Narges Bajoghli: What made you write this book and want to focus on the media in Afghanistan, particularly? 

Wazhmah Osman: In western discourse, from Rudyard Kipling to Winston Churchill, the prevailing image of Afghans has been a stereotypical, racist, and dehumanizing one. Afghans are portrayed as savages, militant, and barbaric. These colonial tropes took on new currency after the tragic events of 9/11. There was so much misinformation about Afghan people and Afghanistan in the news, documentaries, books, and by political pundits, which resulted in acts of violence and discrimmination against people from the Muslim world including my communities. I knew I wanted to redress and challenge these problematic dominant narratives by directing the global dialogue about Afghanistan to Afghans themselves. During my pre-research trips to Afghanistan, I noticed the rapid expansion of the Afghan media sector, largely thanks to the post 9/11 international donor community’s funding and training. I also noticed how the media is at the heart of the most important national debates about women’s rights, democracy, modernity, and Islam. For countries in the global south and east, like Afghanistan, who are described as stuck in time and incapable of modernizing, showing the dynamism of cultural contestations and social movements that occur in and around media is one of the best ways to dispel the immutability and failure discourses.

Narges Bajoghli: Your research for the book is very ethnographic and embedded and impressive in its scope and access. How did you go about the research of this book, especially given how fraught your fieldsites were/are, with active war, occupation, and violence?

Wazhmah Osman: Thank you. To be honest, initially I did not want to go back to Afghanistan for my dissertation research, which this book is based on. I needed a break from Afghanistan. Post 9/11 I had been going back and forth for journalistic assignments and documentary film work. Pre 9/11 I was also going back and forth to visit my father and other family and to maintain my cultural ties and connections. Afghanistan, just like its people, is a lively and beautiful place but it has been marked by over four decades of death and destruction and lawlessness, which makes everyday life there extremely difficult and dangerous. I partially grew up in Af-Pak during the height of the Cold War. So I’m no stranger to the chaos and violence of war but the extent and extremity of it never ceases to surprise me. Sadly for Afghans in Afghanistan, it has become mundane.

But I also knew that in-depth on the ground research with local Afghans was the best way to challenge elitist and problematic views from the top and disrupt their simplistic and imperialist narratives that drum up hate, violence, and war. Also in dialogue with Faye Ginsburh, our advisor, she encouraged me to work with Afghans in Afghanistan as opposed to the diaspora in Queens NY.  Going back there for my book research and fieldwork was my longest and hardest trip back. As you know, long term fieldwork and research is such a privilege but also arduous. It took a big personal toll on me. There’s the emotional challenges of returning as an expatriate to a former home that is a war-torn shell of what it used to be, being apart from loved ones, and the loss of that. More seriously and devastatingly though, I lost research subjects and interlocutors I had befriended to the violence of war. Brave media makers, human rights activists, reformers, and aid workers risk their lives on a daily basis to create a progressive and democratic society. They are regularly targeted by local and international warlords and conservative groups. I survived and have the privilege to leave and tell their stories. Many people don’t. 

Narges Bajoghli: In the book, you argue that television is at the center of violence in Afghanistan–“generating it and also being targeted by it.” Yet, you argue, television is also providing a semblance of justice, debate and healing. Can you expand more on this central argument in your book and how television becomes such a site of contention? 

Wazhmah Osman: Due to high illiteracy rates and limited access to computers and the internet, the dystopic state of the country, television (and radio to a lesser extent) have become a popular and powerful medium in Afghanistan. A lot of hopes, fears, and funding are funneled into it. I set out to study the impact and cultural contestations that the media is enabling. I mainly used two methodologies, content analysis of the most popular genres on Afghan television and my ethnographic research into their production and reception. While space won’t permit me to get into the details, I can say that Afghan media producers, at great risk to themselves, are providing a platform for local reform, activism, and indigenous modernities to challenge both local conservative groups and the international community that has Afghanistan in its sights. The media has opened up space crucial for private and public discussion around important national and cultural issues. I also discovered that Afghan peoples’ need for justice via more serious programming and entertainment via more fun and distracting programs are not mutually exclusive. We cannot underestimate the value of entertainment in war-torn countries like Afghanistan. The antidote to war and its atrocities is equal parts reflection and distraction. I mean look at how streaming services and media consumption have skyrocketed during the pandemic. This is not just because we were captive audiences at home. It’s because the media provides a semblance of calm and understanding of our chaotic, violent, and confusing world.

Narges Bajoghli: Although I think most American/American-based scholars and anthropologists should have an interest in this book given the decades-long American war and occupation of Afghanistan, we unfortunately know that not to be the case. We’ve talked a lot about this before, but it seems like the two places you and I study, Iran and Afghanistan, respectively, are always in the news, and have been for decades, yet all that ink spilled has not led to deeper knowledge in the Euro-American sphere, including, unfortunately in many corners of academia. How does this book speak to anthropological debates about media in general, and about media and democracy under occupation? What can this book teach us and our students who may not focus on Afghanistan as a main area of study? 

Wazhmah Osman: Like you said Afghanistan, like Iran, your site of research, has occupied the public and popular imagination of Americans for decades through the news and Hollywood films. Most of that has been in relation to wars and conflict like the Soviet Invasion and Occupation of Afghanistan, the events of 9/11, War on Terror, and the US Forever War in Afghanistan. The US government and therefore the American people have been entangled in over forty years of wars and military operations in the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia). I think many Americans are confused about what their taxpayer money has been funding for so long. I wrote this book with that in mind, to cross-over into the public sphere. While of course I engage with anthropological debates about media and academic theories of media and democracy under occupation, at the same time, I tried to make it as readable and engaging as possible to general audiences as well. Thanks to whistleblowers and investigative journalists, reports of extrajudicial torture, blacksites, and rendition programs are emerging, which are forcing people to reckon with US militarism abroad. Yet at the same time, many of the proponents of media independence and human rights in Afghanistan who train and support journalists and activists are NGOs funded by the United States. In Television and the Afghan Culture Wars, I tried to provide a complete blueprint and outline for understanding the complex geopolitical situation in Afghanistan. 

Narges Bajoghli: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sorts of impact do you hope it will have? 

Wazhmah Osman: In addition to academics and the public, I also wrote this book for politicians and policy makers. If the US truly wants an exit strategy out of its Forever War in Afghanistan with its ensuing global refugee crisis, it is time to start supporting and centering the voices and stories for self-determination, peace, and justice. Rehashing the same dangerous stereotypes of despotism and barbarism precludes the fundamental agency, creativity and intellect of people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Far beyond the archetypal Hollywood alignment of forces of good (the US military) versus bad (Islamic extremists and terrorists), there is a wide range of people. As I describe in my book, there are many Afghan human rights activists, journalists, and media makers who risk their lives everyday working to lay the foundations for democracy and human rights. They are subjected to threats, physical attacks, and death for challenging local and international warlords. In the book I highlighted their work and organizations in an effort to expose readers to the creativity and agency of Afghan reformers as well as their pain and suffering. These activists and reformers also offer the best solutions and hope for creating a more diverse, equitable, and violence free society.