Shuting Li:In this book, you follow image-making technology’s trajectory, from Kodak film camera, home videos, to smartphone. I find that your previous works (The Archival Turn in Feminism and Adjusted Margin) focus on archives, xerography, feminism, and activist movements. Are there any connections between your previous works and this project? What did inspire you to start this project?
Kate Eichhorn: My books always look back, in some way or another, to explore questions about new and emerging media technologies. This methodology is something I adopted many years ago–back when research on digital culture was still, somewhat falsely, described as Internet research. In the mid to late 1990s, it was challenging to research digital culture because one’s research subject was in constant flux. Even our understanding of what we were researching was shifting. It now seems ridiculous that at one point I was asking myself whether I should approach my research of Geocities communities as a textual researcher or ethnographer, but here, one must remember that in 1997, much of what was happening online was text-based and rather static. These spaces held some but not all of the obvious markers of an active and dynamic community.
To find a way to investigate these emerging spaces, I started to look back to early periods of technological change, specifically to the early years of print culture. At one point, I abandoned my research on new media altogether and tried to reimagine myself as a serious book historian. Clearly, I didn’t end up pursuing that path, but in the process, I did develop a methodology that is very historically grounded. Some people describe my methodology as media archaeology, and while I appreciate media archaeology, I don’t think that is an accurate label for my work. I’m more influenced by media historians like Carolyn Marvin than I am by media archeologists, especially those associated with the German media studies tradition. This likely reflects the fact that I come to media studies through cultural studies, so I can’t easily sideline questions concerning social practices and power.
Shuting Li:Your work demonstrates how entering a digital era shapes people’s forgetting of childhood and raises concerns and questions about the erosion of the line between childhood and adulthood. Can you elaborate your argument on forgetting and why does it matter in people’s memory of childhood?
Kate Eichhorn: As I discuss in my last book, there has long been a false assumption that new media technologies threaten childhood. I’m thinking here about claims made by people like Neil Postman in The Disappearance of Childhood. Postman was writing about television culture, but the assumption that new media pose a threat to childhood is a very pervasive myth, one that has shaped practices and public policy for decades. Henry Jenkins makes this argument in much of his work on children, youth, and media.
In The End of Forgetting, I suggest that we may be witnessing something remarkably different. It’s not that childhood is threatened by digital culture, but rather than it now plays on an endless loop. Worse yet, social networks formed in childhood—for example, on social media platforms—now follow one into their adult life. A very concrete way to understand this shift is to think about the experience of leaving home to attend college. In the late 1980s or early 1990s, one still had the option to make a clean break with the past. You left for college with a few phone numbers of close friends, but you didn’t carry with you online networks going back to your elementary school years. My students now arrive in college with their social networks, some dating back to elementary school, still in place. They carry these social networks with them on various social media accounts. I wanted to explore what was at stake in this shift? What does it mean never to have the opportunity to start anew–to leave the past behind? What are the implications for one’s social identity development? Certainly, not everyone feels a burning desire to start anew, but some people do. In fact, some people’s social mobility or even survival depends on this possibility.
Shuting Li:As social media blurs the line between childhood and adulthood, users are turned into data subjects and subsumed into communicative capitalism. Can you say more on these concepts? When claiming their controls of memory, what challenges will people encounter in the digital era?
Kate Eichhorn: In The End of Forgetting, I make the argument that we can’t lose sight of the fact that young people finally have access to the media tools needed to record and broadcast images of their lives but that this isn’t necessarily because the world suddenly cares about what young people have to say. These tools are now available to children and youth because these demographics have the capacity to generate a lot of data, including the content needed to make social media sites profitable.
It’s difficult to imagine a platform like TikTok existing at all without the contributions of young people. From a capitalist perspective, this is rather brilliant—for decades, in developed economies at least, we had an entire segment of the population who weren’t producing anything at all. Social media platforms essentially found a way to exploit this untapped segment of the labor market, and to do so legally. In most developed nations, after all, there are rules about when and how many hours children can work. Social media platforms circumvent existing child labor laws. Now, all children and adolescents are legally able to be producers—that is, content producers—but they do this work for free. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we can or should compare a thirteen-year-old girl turning out content on TikTok to a child working in a factory during the industrial revolution. But I do think that the success—and by success, I mean profits—of many social media companies has rested on the capacity to turn a previously untapped segment of the labor market into producers.
Of course, long before children and teens start to produce content for a platform like TikTok, they are already generating data. Here, I would recommend another book, which I recently reviewed—Veronica Barassi’sChild Data Citizen. Barassi does a great job laying out how children, from birth, are turned into data.
Kate Eichhorn: Certainly, everyone has been producing a lot of data since the beginning of the pandemic. But the pandemic has also shown the limits of digital sociality. At the start of the pandemic, there was a false assumption that the two demographics that would likely be fine were adolescents and people in their early twenties. The assumption seemed to be that since young people spend so much time online, their lives will just continue as usual. In fact, in terms of mental health, adolescents and young adults have suffered the most. Spending all their time online, both socially and at school, has been remarkably difficult for these demographics. Interestingly, the group that seems to be coping best in the world of Zoom, at least in terms of mental health, are older adults, including senior citizens. As someone who researches youth culture and social media, what I have found more interesting about the pandemic is the extent to which it has exposed the fact that for most youth, digital interactions are ultimately a supplement but not replacement for face-to-face sociality.
Shuting Li:My last question is broad and related to the current circumstance. Owing to the pandemic, people have become much more dependent on digital technology. The use of digital technology inevitably produces more data or memory that lie beyond people’s control. Would you like to share your reflections on this shift or any thoughts on people’s forgetting in the future?
Kate Eichhorn: Certainly, everyone has been producing a lot of data since the beginning of the pandemic. But the pandemic has also shown the limits of digital sociality. At the start of the pandemic, there was a false assumption that the two demographics that would likely be fine were adolescents and people in their early twenties. The assumption seemed to be that since young people spend so much time online, their lives will just continue as usual. In fact, in terms of mental health, adolescents and young adults have suffered the most. Spending all their time online, both socially and at school, has been remarkably difficult for these demographics. Interestingly, the group that seems to be coping best in the world of Zoom, at least in terms of mental health, are older adults, including senior citizens. As someone who researches youth culture and social media, what I have found more interesting about the pandemic is the extent to which it has exposed the fact that for most youth, digital interactions are ultimately a supplement but not replacement for face-to-face sociality.
Xiao Ke: It was an absolute joy reading this provocative and rigorous book on Japanese “otaku”and manga culture, especially during the pandemic. Given that “otaku” literally means “your home,” we now might want to compare notes with “otaku” – whether seeing them as “cool” or “weird.” In doing so, perhaps we could reflect on, and better our own experiences at home. Can I make a detour to firstly ask: has anything new come up in the manga/anime market in Japan relating to the COVID-19 lockdown that you would like to share with us?
Patrick Galbraith: Thanks for inviting me to chat! I appreciate your kind words about the book, and this opportunity to exchange ideas. So, life and love in the time of COVID-19. I hesitate to make too much out of “otaku” meaning “your home,” at least when written in specific Japanese scripts, because it is in that sense more or less just a polite second-person pronoun used in certain settings and regions. It has always been my experience that stories of the basement dwelling, socially awkward geek are greatly exaggerated. I mean, Henry Jenkins was already highlighting it as a trope in his foundational contributions to fan studies in North America in the early 1990s. All it takes is a visit to a convention or an idol concert to disabuse ourselves of the stereotype. If anything, the absence of the hyper sociality of fan gatherings was a felt difference in 2020. All of us, not just “otaku,” were spending a lot more hours at home alone. We are seeing fascinating new ways of engaging online and through social media to generate shared experiences. This was all happening before, but with more time and fewer options, things exploded last year. The rise of virtual YouTubers, for example, and not only in absolute numbers, but also their broad and diverse followings outside of manga/anime fandom. That’s striking, because this form of masking, or animating a character rather than exposing yourself, is so prominent in manga/anime fan cultures in Japan, but many believed it was sort of niche or limited in appeal. Similarly, the fact that anime was trending on streaming services accessed around the world speaks to the ongoing normalization of fannish interests and lifestyles, including manga, anime and related media and material. Indeed, aren’t we all sort of being cultivated into fan audiences by streaming services and social media? Personally, I was stunned by the reaction to the manga/anime franchise Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. It was serialized in the flagship magazine Shōnen Jump from 2016 and received an initial anime adaptation of 26 episodes in 2019, but last year, as the manga completed its run, printed volumes took all the top spots on sales charts and the first animated film became the highest-grossing release in Japanese box office history. With only 26 episodes of anime released! And it’s not a standalone film by a famous director intended for all audiences, but a simple continuation of the animated series based on a relatively young manga series for boys! And it broke this record during the pandemic! The manga and anime were everywhere, on everyone’s lips. I confess that I did brave the outdoors to see the film in a theater on its opening weekend in Tokyo, and, even socially distanced and masked, the energy and excitement in the room were just incredible. Unbelievably social, sharing an experience then and there before, if you’ll forgive the analogy, going out to spread it further in the community. It really is awesome animation, both in the television series and especially the film, but there can be no doubt that the manga/anime-industrial complex, creating a steady stream of fans and fueled by their collective movement and power, exceeded all expectations in 2020. The amount and quality of anime coming out right now? Overwhelming.
Xiao Ke: Despite being a long-term on-site participant observer of Japan’s anime culture, you spent half of your book tracing historical discourses since the 1970s instead of ethnography proper: from male bishōjo (beautiful girls) fans, lolicon (those who are obsessed with Lolita figures), to the formation of the otaku label and the affect called moe (to sprout, or perhaps a response to erotic and lively cuteness). We also saw how these subculture discourses are transformed into – or how they cashed-in on – seemingly new or exotic stories in the mainstream. Why and how did you choose this archive- and discourse-centered method in writing this book? Also, in doing this, did you receive pushback from reviewers at different stages?
Patrick Galbraith: Is the decision controversial? To my mind, it’s straightforward fieldwork. I touch on this a little in the introduction, but positioned in Akihabara, I was confronted with unfamiliar words and concepts. My basic field language is Japanese, but I also needed to learn this other language in order to think and speak as my informants did. Exposing those meanings and getting a sense of the language is a necessary step for the reader to enter into the field with me and see and be in the world otherwise. Moreover, these terms can be slippery and invite misunderstanding. So, right off the bat, notice how you glossed the terms bishōjo, lolicon and moe, which differs from what emerges in those first three chapters. It may not seem crucial to underscore the cuteness in bishōjo characters, or to say precisely how lolicon in this context defines Lolita figures in relation to the two-dimensional, but doing so sharpens the focus and clarifies why some manga/anime fans were labelled otaku. What about moe? You emphasized eroticism and liveliness, hedged with perhaps, but the concept is more holistically an affective response to fictional characters. There really isn’t another word for this concept specifically, which is why I spent time on it and traced the stories that people tell themselves and one another about moe and how an affective response to fictional characters makes sense in contemporary Japan. There’s a history here shaping meaning, and meaning not in the sense of definitions, but rather significance. This is why I wrote those first three chapters.
Xiao Ke: In the first three chapters, you emphasized how manga consumers are imagining a kind of queer masculinity alternative to the normative salarymen in Japan. And I was fascinated by this recurring gender-crossing theme of being seen or treated not as men: from male bishōjo manga readers (46), otaku discussions (59), to male customers in maid cafés (214). Something that caught my eye is that you introduced a writer on this theme, Itō Kimio, as “a pioneer of men’s studies” (22). You also showed us that the Japanese public has very reflexive analysis of the otaku phenomena and East Asian masculinity, not unlike media scholars. Can you say a bit more about Japan’s ‘men’ studies’ and how it might have influenced you intellectually? And to what extent have Japan’s student groups and university scholars collaborated in constructing and negotiating the otaku scene?
Patrick Galbraith: Given all that was brought under the umbrella of men’s studies in North America, I understand why that might catch your eye, but, in the context of Japan in the 1990s, danseigaku meant something very specific. It starts with the realization that there is a problem with men, specifically friction engendered by rubbing up against outdated and ossified norms. In his first major publication on the topic in 1993, Itō Kimio casts into stark relief the stubborn rigidity of middleclass masculine ideals in Japan. Things have been changing so much – think Anne Allison’s Precarious Japan – and yet there is still this notion that men need to be stable income earners, start and support families and generally be a presumed normal. These are not normal times, and normal does not work for everyone anyway. I’m reminded of Jack Halberstam’s analysis of the common sense of reproductive maturity and growing up in a capitalist society. For Itō, the problem is that those not achieving the norm or unable to escape the long shadow of hegemonic masculinity are made out to be failures and feel like losers. The phenomenon is what Lauren Berlant calls a “normativity hangover.” I’ll be blunt in saying that insistence on norms that are no longer achievable for many or even most can be fatal. The norms are toxic, leading to seething resentment and anger and potential violence toward self and others. Japan is not unique in this, as jumps off the page in Guy Standing’s global analysis of masculinity among the precariat. In contrast, one thing that really stood out in the field was how the people I met were not committed to being normal or being real men. Looking back at manga/anime fandom from the 1970s into the 1980s, there appeared to be those who opened up space to imagine and create alternatives to reality. These are the failures initially labelled otaku, specifically in context those men who failed to be putatively real men getting with supposedly real women and instead fixating on fictional girls. One does not have to believe that every single fan so labelled was exclusively oriented toward the two-dimensional to grasp that they were doing something different, something understood to be wrong or weird, and that’s why they were singled out and labelled as other, as otaku. If what these fans did was fail, then I think Halberstam is quite right that we can “fail well,” and in so failing, imagine other ways of living and moving on in the world. It starts with a sense of unease with things as they are, which can lead to a rejection of the imperative to grow up, man up or face reality. Things don’t have to be this way. Embracing alternatives, imagining and creating them together, is how we leave behind the toxic sludge that keeps us stuck in place and poisoning ourselves and one another, poisoning the world. It is also an invitation to live with fictional and real others in a more-than-human world. This is something of the broader aim of Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan. Now, there is a tendency for Japanese critics, experts and authorities on otaku to denounce and deny contemporary movements, which undercuts emergent political potential. This is especially so when it comes to issues of sex and gender, which make some older, established figures nervous. The thing is these talking heads dominate popular outlets with a discourse that establishes their identity, historical moment and objects. This is really clear in the case of Okada Toshio, who I introduce at the beginning of the Akihabara chapter. Part of the reason I adopted a different approach to thinking about otaku in terms of movement and performance is because I am opposed to closing down and policing the boundaries of a supposedly true, authentic and real identity for otaku. Reviewing popular publications by otaku experts about otaku, it turns out that their closely guarded identity is very masculine, even exclusively so, which resonates with recent and ongoing discussions of toxic masculinity in fan cultures around the world. What I saw among otaku, especially those who in Akihabara were once more distinguished as weird otaku, is the possibility of something other than a macho world in stasis or decline.
Xiao Ke: On the one hand, your book offers us a view of the uniquely lively Japanese manga history and culture. On the other hand, we read the less well-known but common stories of gentrification, state branding, censorship, policing, occupation protests and crackdowns. As you demonstrate in your ethnographic chapters on Akihabara, “[i]n the promoting and policing of ‘otaku’ in Akihabara,” “otaku” performances are “trivialized, naturalized and domesticated” (182). In dealing with imagined excess and perversion, from your experiences as an American researcher on Japan, can you say a few words about the differences, similarities and connections between Japan and the U.S.?
Patrick Galbraith: While I am originally from the United States, I cannot speculate about the vibrant and diverse fandoms that are at times there called otaku.”However, there are a few things that I can say based on my fieldwork in Akihabara, a destination for international fans of manga, anime and related media and material. Indeed, one aspect of the fieldwork was leading tours through Akihabara for visitors, who I asked for impressions afterward. Many of the Americans I encountered identified as fans of anime, but they were a little shocked by what they saw in Akihabara. Pokémon and Studio Ghibli this was not. While famous for the density of stores selling manga, anime and related media and material, and really it was the eye-catching signs and packed shelves that people loved to photograph, Akihabara was still very much colored by its past as the epicenter of adult computer gaming. That is, games where the player interacts with manga/anime-style cute girl characters in ways ranging from casual conversation to explicit sex. From computers to computer games, Akihabara had subsequently transformed into a space overflowing with bishōjo manga, anime, games, figurines, costumes, fanzines and more. People were pretty open about what they were buying and selling, even extremely explicit stuff. Things have changed a lot with growing expectation of outside scrutiny and aggressive policing, but I remember many visitors from the United States back then being more than a little concerned about the imaginary sex and public sex culture. In general, there seems to be a lot of anxiety about the prevalence of sex in manga, anime and related media and material. And it isn’t just the United States or fans who are taken aback. The recent moves to strengthen regulation of imports of erotic manga to Australia come to mind. This incident, like so many others, was triggered by watchdogs stumbling onto images of manga/anime-style cute girl characters, specifically an example of moe media called Eromanga Sensei, which is far from pornographic, but nonetheless intended to trigger a response. Attempts to ban books crossing the border appear quaint when this and so much more is readily available on the internet, and I suspect many fans around the world familiar with manga/anime aesthetics wouldn’t even bat an eye as they download or stream the likes of Eromanga Sensei, but the anxiety about manga/anime sex is notable and consequential. New legal regimes are being formed and negotiated. The late Mark McLelland, a resident of Australia, referred to this as “juridification of the imagination,” which may well inspire us to seriously reflect on issues of freedom of imagination.
Xiao Xe: Your last chapter is on maid cafés and the role-playing relationship between customer masters and maids. You seem to have a reserved stance regarding this space, and ended by citing Sara Ahmed’s “affect aliens” and posed the question: “those that do have to worry about their savings and are not as confident as King that things will work out. Where do they go?” (222) Did you leave out anything that you’d like to elaborate on but could not possibly fit into the book? Also, do you have anything to say about queer and straight female consumers – as well as laborers – of the manga/anime market in Japan?
Patrick Galbraith: My concerns are related to those who cannot get a place at the table or feel at home. Right after that line you quoted I discuss the troubling case of Katō Tomohiro, who killed seven people and wounded 10 more on the streets of Akihabara in 2008. I was right there in a nearby café typing up fieldnotes when it happened. It’s not something I’ll ever forget, and I don’t want to forget it. In the frenzied media coverage, people debated whether or not this man was an otaku, and pointed out that he visited a maid café. This was obviously not what drove Katō to commit the heinous acts he did. His despair and desperation were much more directly rooted in precarious economic and social circumstances. In Katō, I saw someone without the time or money to come to a maid café and become a regular and part of the circle. So, there’s a limit to having social support systems and platforms tied to disposable income and free time, which not everyone has, especially now. There is, however, another issue, which I raised earlier. Katō wanted a normal life, the good life, and his conviction that he could and should achieve the status of middleclass masculine normalcy turned to resentment and violence. I co-authored a study with David Slater at Sophia University, which had us in part examining the online posts Katō made from his cellphone, and what we found there was chilling. Katō kept beating himself up for being a failure, pushing others away due to a compounding sense of shame, all while blaming himself and others for his failure and loneliness. This is the swamp of toxic sludge I previously mentioned, and it sucked him right down into its depths. To get out of the death spiral, we need alternatives. We need to imagine and create them, together. And we need to find ways to open up the circle and draw others in. The incorporation of characters and roleplay does seem to help in many cases, especially when fantasy and play are social and shared. Many maid cafés have transitioned to targeting primarily tourists, which makes them less amenable to long-term relations, manga/anime connections and roleplay have become less pronounced in these establishments and smaller niche places have shut their doors due to COVID-19, but there is a lot of potential here. To your question about the diversity of staff and customers, there are many cafés in Akihabara and beyond that attract men, women and trans and queer folk, and I know people behind and in front of the counter who are gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual and a dozen other orientations besides. There is recent and forthcoming work on this and related topics, for example from Sharon Kinsella, Michelle H. S. Ho and Shunsuke Nozawa. “Cultures of animation,” to borrow a turn of phrase from Teri Silvio’s tremendous book Puppets, Gods and Brands, seem to allow for new relations to and between bodies, fictional and real.
Xiao Ke: Two related concluding questions: Beyond the context of your book, do you have any thoughts regarding how people communicate and curate imaginations in general? What are other old or new ways, other than manga/anime and character-plays, that you recognize and would group into what you propose as an “anthropology of imagination” (16)?
Patrick Galbraith: I wonder about communicating and curating imagination, but a pressing issue is opening spaces of imagination. Spaces at the margins, spaces in between, spaces that push against the limits of reality. Concomitantly, of immediate concern is resisting the territorialization and colonization of the imagination. I regularly find myself rereading Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, and it seems to me that his dystopian nightmare of a withering of the imagination has only become more relevant with the acceleration and intensification of new technologies. Our minds are occupied, our attention divided up and sold off. We are alert and distracted, simultaneously hyper attentive and checked out. The ceaseless march toward the cliff seems inevitable. I recall hearing someone, probably Slavoj Žižek, quip that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than a modest change in capitalism. What a stinging, scathing indictment that is, especially for anthropologists, who are committed to learning and teaching other ways of seeing and being in the world. We can do better, and perhaps that’s partly what you mean by communicating and curating imagination. As the late David Graeber so passionately argued, we can see from the ethnographic archive that things have been organized differently in other places and times. It does not have to be this way. There are already existing alternatives right here and now, and we should encourage the curiosity to seek them out and the flexibility to follow along. Back in the 1980s, Tanya Luhrmann wrote that anthropologists haven’t paid much attention to imagination, but after Arjun Appadurai’s intervention there has been so much groundbreaking scholarship contributing to the anthropology of imagination. You can look back to imagine alternatives, as Graeber does in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and Possibilities, or work through alternative modes of thinking and experiencing otherness that Ghassan Hage introduces in and as Alter-Politics. I especially like that this is not simply anti, and there’s a positivity we can get behind. Another world is possible, and it’s ours. What Teri Silvio is doing in Taiwan with cultures of animation as distinct from performance, and Eduardo Kohn presents as an ecology of selves in Upper Amazonia, are related, and the list goes on. Work like Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World is as poetic as it is provocative. Anthropology to some extent has always been about the imagination, a human imagination that does not stop at the human or human world as we know it. Embracing this legacy is our politics and our power.
Nazli Azergun: In your book, you describe craigslist as a precedent to current platform economy, almost as an ancestor platform that isn’t necessarily function like its current day counterparts. You also claim that craigslist is a holdout from the olden days of Web 1.0, enacting an ethics of collaboration and access––like an island in today’s gentrified ocean of Web 2.0 mentality. For those who are yet to read your book, could you tell us about the publics of craigslist? Who are these people who use craigslist today for finding a collectible item, hitching a ride, and whatnot––instead of its function-specific counterparts? Why do they prefer craigslist?
Jessa Lingel: Craigslist has always been home to a number of different publics. It’s been online since 1996, which is a very long time in the context of the Internet. In the early days, its home was the San Francisco tech scene, and the site built a reputation for finding elite tech jobs. Over the next decade, craigslist became incredibly popular, for everything from finding apartments to buying and selling used goods to getting dates. By the time I was conducting research, craigslist’s reputation had slipped somewhat, and many people associated it with seedy personals and bottom-of-the-barrel jobs. But for many folks I talked to, craigslist filled an important niche, helping them find temporary jobs, affordable used goods like cars and electronics, and places to live. All in all, I interviewed dozens of people who used craigslist. None of them only used craigslist, instead it was part of a constellation of platforms like eBay, Facebook Marketplace and others. But what still draws people to craigslist after all these years is its simplicity, as well as the fact that it’s free from ads.
Nazli Azergun: You also talk about the transition from Web1.0 mentality to a Web2.0 one, which indicates a passage from openness, collaboration, and accessibility towards exclusivity and a world of pay-per-view. What, in your opinion, has caused this transition towards a more gentrified worldwide web? What is it with craigslist that it made it through this transition mostly intact?
Jessa Lingel: If I could point to a single thing that pushed us towards a more gentrified web, it would be Facebook. I know it’s kind of passé at this point to kvetch [complain] about Facebook but it’s difficult to overstate how important Facebook is as a turning point in digital culture. It’s not like there was a clean break, where before Facebook everything was anonymous, free and open, while after Facebook, the internet became commercialized and closed off. But as Facebook became the dominant platform, other modes of being online became less appealing to users, to the point that platforms like craigslist can seem hopelessly backwards or out-of-date. Unlike a lot of platforms, craigslist never went for major platform overhauls or redesigns. Instead it stayed true to the early 1990s internet values of its founder, Craig Newmark and its CEO, Jim Buckmaster. The platform reflects their ideas of what the internet should look like, and because craigslist has been run by the same people for most of its 25-year history, it’s never had to change its appearance or values. It’s never had to gentrify.
Nazli Azergun: You state that you intentionally omitted housing-related craigslist interactions from your book as they did not raise significant tensions among users. I think this is a very significant choice. How do you read this phenomenon, this lack of tensions? What does it tell you about the current state of housing markets, housing-related racism and discrimination, and the precarity of individuals, if anything?
Jessa Lingel: No book can cover everything, and although An Internet for the People is a deep dive into craigslist, there are a number of things I didn’t cover, like the events section, the message boards and housing. I’m sure there are a lot of tensions to be uncovered about craigslist housing out there, but they didn’t pop up in my interviews. Because housing isn’t a major focus of the data I have, I can only make educated guesses about what craigslist has to show us about the current state of housing markets. One theme that surfaced repeatedly in interviews was the idea that craigslist was part of “the poor people’s internet”, meaning that it was mostly a tool for people who felt excluded from fancy platforms. In terms of jobs, this meant looking for certain kinds of work on craigslist rather than more professionalized sites like Indeed. In terms of housing, the parallel would be that for people on a certain budget, it makes more sense to look on craigslist than on Zillow or Redfin.
One thing that COVID-19 pandemic has shown us is the intense divide between rich and poor in terms of property – while buying a second home has become popular in the midst of a pandemic, millions of poor people in the US are facing eviction and housing insecurity. A platform like craigslist could, perhaps troublingly, see a boom in the use of its housing section as poor folks look to it as a platform that’s geared towards affordable, temporary housing arrangements.
Nazli Azergun: Based on your book, I get the sense that craigslist has a particular ethical orientation regarding the monetization of user data and user anonymity. It exclusively seeks transparent monetization and considers anonymity as a useful tool instead of as a dangerous way of being online. How do you situate craigslist in the current universe of discussions around user data and privacy, especially in the context of competing approaches from the likes of Facebook, which seek infinite monetization at the expense of users’ rights, and the likes of EU legislation, which aims for transparency and user protection?
Jessa Lingel: Companies like Facebook would have us believe that user privacy is dead, and that their business models are the only ones that are sustainable. In terms of platform politics and privacy, the most important thing about craigslist is that it provides an example of how a platform can be successful and profitable without exploiting user privacy and turning people into data points. I am very much in favor of federal legislation for Big Tech, but I’m not sure EU legislation really goes far enough. Living in the US, I’m impressed by the willingness of the EU to go after Big Tech when it comes to anti-trust and the Right to Be Forgotten, and the EU General Data Protection Regulation has done some work to increase literacy around cookies. But ultimately, users are mostly just given a notification that their options are either to give up their data or not use the site. In the US, I’m hopeful that legislation around anti-trust and privacy will surface, without sacrificing the important protections of CDA 230, which protects websites from being held responsible for the bad acts of individual users. I don’t think the answer to needing more robust forms of content moderation should come at the cost of user privacy or platform experimentation.
Nazli Azergun: Finally, I think your work is an important piece of Internet history and many appreciate you as a successful historian of the Internet and digital culture. Could you give some tips on how to conduct good historical research on digital culture? What are your approaches to archives and methods?
Jessa Lingel: Thanks, I’m really glad you see the book that way. The most important thing with this book was getting Craig Newmark on board. Journalists haven’t always been kind to him or craigslist in the past, and so I wasn’t entirely sure he’d want to talk to me. But he wound up being the very first person I interviewed. He was very generous with his time and put me in touch with folks who’d been involved with craigslist during its early days. From there, my challenge was making sure I could talk to a range of people who had different perspectives on craigslist, because I didn’t want to be totally beholden to Craig’s views.
Aside from getting insiders on board, the best piece of advice I could give for digital history of a particular platform is to be really expansive in the initial literature review. It took me a long time to figure out the structure of this book, and what took shape grew out of reading widely on anything and everything related to craigslist – academic work, journalism, legal scholarship, as well as how-to guides for buying and selling online, true crime novels and even erotica. After categorizing the different themes that emerged across these sources, the book’s structure started to become clearer to me. It was both a blessing and a curse that there are no other monographs out there on craigslist – it meant I had total freedom to do what I want, but it also meant that there wasn’t much to contrast with. Reading widely was essential for helping me figure out what questions I should ask about craigslist, and what questions about the internet craigslist could help me answer.
Sandhya Narayanan: One goal of your ethnography is to delve deeper into the ways that celebrity, and its close relative, fame is manufactured and circulated. Yet one opposing undercurrent throughout the book is the recognition that aspects about the lives of the so-called rich and famous should be hidden, secret, and unknowable. Could you say more about this relationship between the dissemination of revealing photos and scoops with the ways in which celebrities also manage their allure through keeping certain aspects of their life unknowable? How is the looping of fame with privacy managed similarly or differently by Latinx, male, paparazzi photographers, and white, female, celebrity reporters?
Vanessa Diaz: Thank you for this very layered question. So my research led me to understand that it’s not necessarily that the lives of celebrities should be hidden, secret, or unknowable, but rather that celebrities themselves want to be able to strategically control and monetize these disclosures. The laws that have been put in place to protect celebrity children from paparazzi imagery isn’t because celebrities do not want photos of their children in the press. Rather, it’s because the celebrities want to control the supply of those photos, which can be highly lucrative. As I explore in the book (in chapters three and seven in particular) an exclusive photos of a celebrity’s child can be hugely valuable and can yield millions of dollars. Information and imagery about celebrity lives is valuable currency, and celebrities want to retain as much control over that currency as possible. And I discuss this as relates to various forms of capital in the book as well (especially chapter seven). Regarding the last question about how fame and privacy are managed similarly or differently by Latinx, male, paparazzi photographers, and white, female, celebrity reporters, there are also interesting distinctions here. The reporters are generally seen as operating more from the inside, as part of the more formal channels of celebrity media production. And this leads to them being understood as more on the side of the celebrities. In the book, I point to several examples of celebrity-focused stories where reporters discuss paparazzi with celebrities in adversarial terms during interviews, despite the fact that the article the interview yields is peppered with and relies on paparazzi images of that celebrity! So this perpetuates and even amplifies the precarity of paparazzi who are working outside of the formal celebrity media production processes. Because of this, paparazzi don’t have to necessarily be seen as being on the side of the celebrities in large part because the celebrity narrative has been one that strategically manufactures a dynamics in which paparazzi are celebrity adversaries, rather than celebrity promoters. As I discuss in the book (particularly in chapters two and three), however, paparazzi have developed their own ethical codes to do what they can to stay on celebrities’ good sides, even if it’s outside of the formal production processes. I think the issues of visibility and invisibility that I discuss in the book are also wrapped up in these dynamics (e.g. see page 60).
Sandhya Narayanan: You point out in your ethnography the ways that rising or lesser-known celebrities rely on the coverage provided by paparazzi and celebrity reporters to launch themselves into the spotlight. Yet at some point, these reporters, especially the paparazzi, are framed as enemies who are bent on destroying the lives and careers of our most beloved celebrities. Could you say more about this shift, and the role that consumers of celebrity news and gossip (that is, people like me who enjoy reading the tabloids as they wait to pay for groceries in the checkout aisle) play in also making or breaking this transition.
Vanessa Diaz: A goal of the book is to really pull the curtain back on these specific dynamics that you’re highlighting in this question, precisely because they are dynamics that consumers do inevitably play a role in. It’s important to understand that this shift is largely one that is manufactured by the celebrity-industrial complex itself. And I explore why this is in the book (particularly in chapter three), where I discuss the idea of celebrity empathy, which helps us understand how media can strategically cultivate affinity with certain people while strategically denying it to others. Being pursued by paparazzi to the degree that it can be presented as an annoyance is something that demonstrates a certain status or level of celebrity. So, performing annoyance, or even anger and disgust at paparazzi signifies importance. This is a way to assert and even flex celebrity status. However, it’s important to remember that even most A-list celebrities still rely on paparazzi for exposure. So, even someone like Jennifer Aniston who claims paparazzi keep her in a state of “false imprisonment” (pg 101 in my book, chapter three), also still uses them when she needs to strategically promote things like Smart Water, for which she is a paid spokesperson (pg. 113 in my book). So if you actually put together the pieces (which is what I hope my book offers), you can see how this shift you discuss is largely a shift performed (often by professional actors!), that, again, has to do with control and capital. Consumers are looking at and buying the magazines because of the celebrities they love, or love to hate, and not because of the paparazzi. And so it’s natural that the consumption of celebrity media, which is generally meant to celebrate, support, and help consumers get to know celebrities, leads to deeper celebrity empathy and, subsequently, increased demonization of figures like the paparazzi.
Sandhya Narayanan: Your work with paparazzi photographers was based primarily in LA. Yet, wherever a celebrity goes, there you would also find a paparazzi photographer. At one point, you also mention how one of the paparazzi photographers you were close with was shooting photos in New Orleans? Given the precarious nature of their work, how were these photographers able to travel across the country? How were they able to go on assignments out of the country? And is there some informal international network of paparazzi photographers?
Vanessa Diaz: The question of travel for paparazzi is actually an important one, and one in which you can see the value a good paparazzo has. Yes, all of the paparazzi I worked with on my research were sent by their agencies to shoot specific celebrities in specific locations outside of Los Angeles, precisely because they are known to get good shots. I don’t think there is space here to fully explain the structure of paparazzi employment, which I explore in depth in chapters one and two of the book. But, essentially, most paparazzi are freelance and work for specific photo agencies who have complete control over the sales of paparazzi photos. Paparazzi rely on the agencies to give them the cut of the image sales that they are promised. Even if the paparazzi are freelance, an agency might pay for them to travel if they know it might yield valuable exclusive photos. For example, in chapter seven (pg. 222-223), you can see a beautiful photo of Angelia Jolie, Brad Pitt, and their children shot by one of my main paparazzo collaborators, Galo Ramirez, in New Orleans. He was sent there by his agency and that photo ended up being a spread in People magazine, and several other of his images ended up in other outlets. So it literally paid for the agency to send Galo to New Orleans. And, as I explore in chapter two, the paparazzi only receive a small percentage of the total of their image sales; it’s the agencies that are really profiting from these images. Another way that paparazzi end up getting to travel is instances like the one I explore in chapter two (pg. 82-83), where a celebrity, in this case the entire Kardashian family, gets paid to work with an agency to have a paparazzo come shoot their entire family vacation. This guarantees an exclusive set of photos for the magazine (which they believe will translate to sales and, thus, they can recuperate the investment), and also guarantees coverage for the family. So, again, you can see the ways in which much of the coverage of celebrities, including and perhaps especially paparazzi shots, is about offering increasing control to celebrities. And yet they still often perform the irritation with paparazzi invading their space, even when they are often specifically invited into that space. Finally, there are certainly international paparazzi as well in various locations. And various agencies will work with international paparazzi as well.
Sandhya Narayanan: An interesting aspect about celebrity media production is the way it provides some degree of inclusion for amateurs and individuals with little to no experience in celebrity media creation and production. At times, this type of amateurism is at odds with individuals who are more established in the field. But more recently, we also see the rise of cellphone technology that can let anyone take a good shot or recording. How do you think these technologies, which have the potential to allow anyone to produce celebrity news content, might affect the livelihoods of paparazzi and celebrity reporters?
Vanessa Diaz: It is definitely unique and interesting that paparazzi have been able to break into the industry without formal training prior to them entering the field. However, as I explore in chapter one in the section “Skill, Training, and the New Paps” (pg. 57), a lot of the notions about professionalism is steeped in racist tropes and stereotypes about unskilled Latinx labor. The reality is that it is a myth that anyone can do paparazzi work. That doesn’t mean that paparazzi come in knowing how to operate the incredibly expensive and complicated photography equipment. But, as Galo explains, they have intensive on the job training. Yes, smart phones make it so that anybody standing next to Justin Bieber can get a photograph and that photograph has the potential to sell. But it is an illusion that valuable shots can all just be done on cell phones. There is certainly skill required in getting the exclusive, most valuable photos. Many of the most valuable, and frankly beautiful, paparazzi images entail the paparazzo having the skill to use complicated specialized equipment, like telephoto lenses that are sometimes several feet long (there are a few good examples in chapter one in the section “(In)Visibility and the Racialized Paparazzi,” which begins on page 60, as well as elsewhere in the book). Getting these shots also requires intel, which means you have to be a part of the network and have access to information so you know where to be to get the shot.
Sandhya Narayanan: I was struck by your assertion that celebrity reporters and photographers have created some of the most culturally significant and recognizable content since the turn of the new millennia. Yet, you point out that celebrity reporters do not think of themselves as journalists, nor do the paparazzi necessarily frame their photographs as photojournalism or art. This suggests that there is something going on in the structuring of media platforms within the US. Where does celebrity media fit in relation to other types of information media within the US? How can this positioning help us understand the inequities and precarities that paparazzi photographers and female celebrity reporters face in the industry?
Vanessa Diaz: As I explain in the book, any distinction between entertainment and news media at this point in American culture is simply a function of a public imaginary—that there should be a difference between hard news and entertainment news. It appears that we are in the final days of the first reality star presidency, but perhaps not the last. And I think the Trump presidency has done a great deal to even further blur any potential distinction between hard news and entertainment news precisely because he treated political news reporters in the same fashion he and other celebrities have always treated (and disregarded, belittled, and even abused and assaulted) entertainment media producers.
In terms of celebrity reporters not always considering themselves journalists, and paparazzi not necessarily thinking of their work as photojournalism or art, I think that it is, again, an extension of this public imaginary I discussed above, which is steeped in hierarchies and cultural elitism around ideas about news. At this point, fake news has become everyday language, and we can understand celebrity media as the original fake news. Celebrities have been denying celebrity news reporting for a century, whether the reporting was true or not. What I think is different about the present moment is that celebrity news and hard news and journalism are increasingly blurring together both in terms of the subject matter of the coverage and the way the media producers are viewed and treated.
Kevin Laddapong: Reading How Artifacts Afford is very refreshing. You have proposed a way forward for analysts and practitioners to think critically about technologies through the notion of affordance. However, as you mentioned in the book, the concept has traveled widely from discipline to discipline. It sometimes is undertheorized, and sometimes overtheorized. Could you please discuss what are the watershed moments shaping how scholars have approached the concept of affordances that has led to the current analytical landscape?
I’ll start with a working definition of affordance, for those who are unfamiliar. Affordances are how the features of a technology—its technical specifications—affect the functions of a technology. This includes direct utilities (what people can do with the technology) and social outcomes (what the technology does with us).
It’s unusual for a concept tot operate so fully between and across disciplines, as ‘affordance’ has. However, as I say in the book, cross-disciplinary travels can lead to conceptual blurriness and overworking. Chapter 2 of the book provides a full intellectual history of the concept, which I’ll distil here into three general epochs
JJ Gibson introduced the concept of affordance in 1979 with his book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Gibson was an ecological psychologist who defined affordance as a relationship between organisms and environments. This was empirically derived from Gibson’s efforts to understand how WWII pilots interacted with their airplanes, and theoretically based in Gibson’s opposition to gestalt psychology (the du jour of the time). For Gibson, affordance represented an intrinsic relationship between people and objects, and his use of the term served a theoretical agenda to convey human-environment interaction as direct rather than representational
In the 1980s/1990s, Don Norman made affordance practical and tangible. Norman brought the concept to design studies with his canonical book The Design of Everyday Things. Norman positioned the designer as a psychologist, tasked with communicating to users, through design, how those objects ought to be used.
From the early 2000’s to present, with the rise of digital technologies and automation, affordance has conceptually exploded. Scholars in communication studies and other related fields have scrambled to understand a changing technological landscape and how technological developments integrate into, and affect, social life. Affordance is an effective tool in this regard due to its characteristic balance between technological determinism and radical constructivism.
In the book, I build on this history to transform an overloaded concept into an operational model. The model I present is called ‘the mechanisms and conditions framework’.
Kevin Laddapong: The book requires us to reframe the question about technologies from what to how, for whom, and under what circumstances, which bring us to the Mechanism and Condition Framework. For the blog readers, could you describe this framework, and discuss how it would lead to a different approach to the technologies around us?
Jenny Davis: The mechanisms and conditions framework shifts ‘affordance’ from a single concept to an operational model. The mechanisms of affordance address how technologies afford, and the conditions address for whom and under what circumstances?
The mechanisms map onto a series of categorical hooks: request, demand, encourage, discourage, refuse, and allow. These mechanisms are conditioned by three interrelated dimensions of perception—what someone knows about the functions of a technology, dexterity—one’s skill and capacity to operate a technology, and cultural and institutional legitimacy—how socially supported someone is in technological engagement.
The framework does two things. First, it gets outside binary renditions of human-technology relations. Technologies don’t just afford some action or not, but push and pull with varying degrees of force. This variable pushing and pulling is captured by the mechanisms of affordance (request, demand, encourage, discourage, refuse, and allow). Second, the model does away with implicit assumptions about universal subjects. Technologies function in myriad ways across circumstances and between individuals. The conditions of affordance specify how contextual factors come into play (e.g., for whom does the technology request and for whom does it demand?)
Kevin Laddapong: Another major contribution of this book is its approach to politicizing technology. How can readers use the Mechanism and Condition Framework as a strategic and critical tool for thinking about technologies in everyday lives?
Jenny Davis: The book begins with the assumption that technologies embody human values and affect social relations. This assumption overlays the mechanisms and conditions framework with a critical lens that centralizes politics and power in socio-technical systems. Centralizing politics and power creates an entry point for interrogating whose interests existing technologies represent, how those technologies (re)produce structural social patterns, and how to build new technological implements that trouble the status quo.
The mechanisms and conditions framework provides a simple vocabulary for mapping not only direct technical functions, but also flow-on social effects of technologies as they interact with diverse subjects across a range of circumstances. With the mechanisms and conditions framework, analysts and activists can hold technology makers to account for what is, while reimagining what could be.
Kevin Laddapong: In order to make a direct impact, how could public and business sectors, such as tech companies, policymakers, and the media industry appropriate the framework in practice? Would you see any benefit to having these other actors engage with the framework as well?
Jenny Davis: I tried to make the book highly accessible for the very reason that I think the framework can be beneficial to those outside of academia, like the groups you mention in this question. The stakes of technological design are too high to keep ideas about design processes and outcomes cordoned off within academic circles. Technologies have social effects. This is something we should all care about, and it is something that tech companies, policymakers, and the media industry can directly impact.
Corporate and government actors can use the framework to systematically plan how their creations will function both technically and socially, within a diverse, dynamic, and multifaceted world. Although it’s easy to criticize tech companies and governing bodies for their continued missteps, it’s also important to acknowledge how challenging it is to build something new and to imagine all the ways that new thing will affect the world and the people in it. The mechanisms and conditions framework helps put complex considerations on the ground such that social goals can be the start point, from which developers build. For example, those who develop and regulate technological systems can specify how their system will encourage autonomy and equity, and identify sub-populations for whom those social goods are refused.
The framework can also be a tool of empowerment for those who seek to hold corporate and governing bodies to account. If technologies do bad things, then everyday people can use the framework’s vocabulary to show, unambiguously, what those bad things are and how they distribute along intersecting lines of power, identity, and inequality.
Patrick Lewis: When I first came across the title of your book, two things came to mind: Betty Anderson’s (2011) history of the project of liberal education at the American University of Beirut and Talal Asad’s (2003) collection of articles on secularism and liberalism in the Arab world. How do you see your work building on or diverging from these earlier approaches to liberalism in the Arab World and why does it matter for how we imagine liberal higher education?
Neha Vora: Betty Anderson’s work on AUB was indeed one of the texts that really resonated with me and my approach to this project! Anderson considers how a missionary and colonial institution became a central site of Arab politicization (al-Nahda as well as anti-colonial activism). She also has a very interesting section in that book where she discusses how theories of evolution were normalized through protest by medical students and instructors at AUB almost a hundred years before they became acceptable in the US academy, challenging conventional Western understandings of Islam as somehow antithetical to modernity or science. While I do consider the colonial and missionary approaches within Education City’s American branch campus, the contexts and time periods of my project and Anderson’s are of course very different. Nevertheless, she points to the way that these seemingly hegemonic projects lead to unforeseen and sometimes even contradictory outcomes, and she denaturalizes the US academy as the source of knowledge which then supposedly flows to the Middle East. In relation to Asad’s work, I am not in direct dialogue with his work on secularism – there is a chapter in the book where I discuss his earlier work in Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter to argue that anthropological ways of thinking about culture have permeated the US academy and its containment of difference. I’m not a scholar of religion but I do think that I approach liberalism with a similar spirit to Asad’s approach to secularism, liberalism, and modernity. That these are mythologies which structure world-making and not reflective of essentialized differences between societies and places. I think we are both engaged in provincializing projects but from different entry points.
Patrick Lewis: In your discussion of recent higher education reform and Qatarization, you describe a state project to develop post-oil citizenship that envisages a gradual transition away from oil extraction toward an economy built on information technologies and services in which Qatari citizens will perform many of the ‘knowledge economy’ jobs now performed by foreigners. However, you also describe a degree of skepticism, if not outright cynicism, around this transition among locals and argue that new investments in higher education, rather than “shifting economic reliance away from petro-wealth, [are] rather sustained by it” (p. 33), and have in fact increased Qatar’s dependence on foreign academics and administrators. Are there any larger lessons here for regional or national economies attempting to transition away from extractive industries through education or technical training?
Neha Vora: I can’t really speak to lessons on how to move away from extractive industries, as these economies are shaped by much deeper and longer transnational connections and pressure from imperial powers (previously Britain and now the US). My approach to “knowledge economy” is to disentangle its rhetoric from its effects on the ground, which are in fact quite messy and oftentimes contradictory. The book discusses how local elites leverage nativism in nation building projects, of which knowledge economy is one. This is done in the name of a supposedly homogenous group of citizens, but citizens do not uniformly benefit from these projects. I try to showcase the heterogeneity of Qatari citizens and how the idea of Qatariness needs to be consistently rehearsed and performed to have any coherence. I also highlight ways that Qatari leaders produce forms of inclusion for non-citizen immigrants, who are rhetorically and legally cast as perpetual outsiders but are actually integral to the country’s future. Education City is a project that benefits non-citizens as much as citizens, and the Qatari state offers generous financial aid packages for immigrants, which are forgiven if one works a certain number of years in Qatar after graduation. Higher education is quite obviously a space where multicultural futures are being produced. Thus the “transnational Qatar” in my book title.
Patrick Lewis: Throughout the book you work to push back against boilerplate takes in US academia on American higher education in the Gulf that promote “top-down understandings of branch campuses solely as arms of neoliberal profit or colonial replication” (p. 154). One point you return to again and again throughout the book is the generous public funding that sustains these projects and, in the context of your own experiences working at universities in both the United States and the Gulf, the relative security of your academic colleagues working in Qatar. How might the story of US branch campuses in the Gulf complicate the narrative of the neoliberal university and global higher education – a narrative that these projects are often used to buttress in US academic discourse? How have your experiences in the Gulf shaped your perception of the ‘crisis of the public university’ as it is narrated in the United States?
Neha Vora: One of my entry points into the language of crisis has been to ask whose crisis it is. In this way I am very much in conversation with scholars within a growing field of abolitionist university studies. The kind of nostalgia that US academic crisis narratives traffic in is one that does not acknowledge the exclusionary and violent underpinnings of the university as an institution that has been fundamentally shaped by slavery, settler colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and elitism. Simply by considering the history of the US university, it becomes impossible to separate it from US military endeavors or corporate interests. These are not new entanglements but ones that underpin the academy, so to claim a current state of crisis due to neoliberalization requires some major elisions of that history. I argue that the ability to perform those erasures is only available to a small group of elite, non-precarious (usually white and/or male) academics who have experienced the mythologies of the liberal academy as real (egalitarianism, free inquiry, and inclusion for example). Most of us who learn and labor within the US academy do not have the privilege of that experience. Yet we also replicate liberal mythologies and crisis narratives, especially in the way we view a globalizing university. But the US academy has always been global as well, in that knowledge production has always been a core facet of US imperial violence.
My experience teaching and researching in Education City allowed me to see my own investment in what I call liberal piety more clearly. The difference between an American and Qatari classroom, for example, is not one between freedom of speech and censorship but rather both are spaces in which instructors and students are constrained by particular norms and pushed to perform particular personas. Teaching about Palestine in Qatar, for example, was a rewarding experience in comparison to teaching in Texas or Pennsylvania. I also was able to see how the hierarchies and exclusions of the American academy get reproduced in the Gulf: despite being in a country where most of the people (and most of the students in Education City) are brown, I still had to navigate my (predominantly white) colleagues and superiors as a woman of color in ways that felt quite similar to what I have to do at home.
I also saw how Western administrators utilized nonliberal aspects of Qatar’s immigration and employment structure for the benefit of the “liberal” university (outsourcing custodial work, paying people from different nationalities at different scales, capitalizing on trailing spouses (almost all women) as a cheaper source of local labor, and so on). And the students schooled me quite early on some things that I had blinders to—all international students in the US are dependent on visas and have no opportunity to stay in the country after graduation without securing employment almost immediately. In Qatar, international and immigrant non-citizen students were also visa dependent, but there were more formal and informal avenues to attaining employment after graduation. In addition, the Islamophobia and racism students in Education City experienced when studying abroad in the US made Qatar feel like a much more welcoming place to live and potentially settle, despite the barriers to permanence in the Gulf. The book is not arguing that neoliberal changes are not taking place—they certainly are. But it is challenging the way that criticisms of neoliberalization reify the US home campus as one of liberalism and the Gulf as a space of illiberalism, when in fact there are many things that critics want from the university (state subsidies, resources, living wages, lower teaching load, diverse and inquisitive students) which academics in the Gulf branch campuses experience to a greater degree than those at the home campuses. On the other hand, much of what academics miss from the supposedly eroded liberalism of the neoliberal US academy is in fact the product of things we would consider rather illiberal if they happened elsewhere.
Patrick Lewis: A significant amount of the book is devoted to exploring different subject positions in the university across differentiated axes of gender, class, race, and citizenship. It considers, inter alia, the relative positions of Qatari citizens and foreigners, as well as between international vs. ‘local expat’ students, and between South Asian migrant workers who often labor in menial jobs (or, as you describe when talking about your own experiences in chapter 5, are imagined to work in such jobs even when this is not the case) and (frequently white) experts from Europe and North America. What does a study of Education City allow us to see about difference and belonging in Qatar, that better-known journalistic and academic work on migrant labor camps for instance, perhaps obscures?
Neha Vora: Some of this I have already addressed in my previous answers. One of the things that we can see through the study of a transnational corporation in the Gulf (and these branch campuses function legally almost exactly like corporations) is that the ethno-racial hierarchy in employment, and the ability to hyper-exploit certain employees (usually low wage from the Global South), is the product of a partnership between global—often Western—consultants and Qatari leaders. In my previous book, Impossible Citizens, I detailed how it was Indian immigrants who were most often acting as the managers (and exploiters) of their less fortunate compatriots. In Teach for Arabia, I look at how larger institutions shape working and living conditions for various immigrants in the country. The journalistic and academic representations of toiling South and Southeast Asian workers in labor camps almost always put the blame for labor exploitation on Gulf governments and citizens when in fact this is a product of transnational elite cooperation.
Patrick Lewis: Finally, I want to ask about this book’s different audiences and its reception in Qatar and the United States. There is certainly much in this book that would be of interest to higher educational planners in Qatar and the wider Gulf. But it also seems to me that there is a message for US academics and university administrators as well. How did you conceive of the audience for your book and how has it been received in the United States and the Gulf? Has anything about its reception surprised you?
Neha Vora: This book was difficult to write in that I wanted to find a balance between centering what goes on in the branch campuses on-the-ground through my ethnography and offering a criticism of US academia more generally. However, I did not want the ethnographic information to be operationalized just for the purpose of critique, which is always a concern in anthropology. I wanted readers (both in the Gulf and elsewhere) to really get a feel for what different actors in Education City experience and the viewpoints they have on the project. What has been most rewarding is the circulation of this text among students in Doha and hearing that it resonates with their lived experiences in the branch campuses. It was used as a core text by my colleagues at Northwestern Qatar, in a class that all students are required to take about liberal arts education. Many of the things I discuss in the book came to a head last year when Northwestern Qatar students protested the ways they were being treated by faculty and administrators, and the way lower-ranking staff members are also treated. I had a chance to engage some of these students through Zoom last week as a guest speaker in the class I mentioned, and it was a great experience.
At the same time, the reception of the book has been mixed among faculty in the branch campuses. I have received a lot of praise from some, especially faculty of color who find that I articulate some of their frustrations. But I have heard there is also a lot of resistance, with some people even refusing to read the book. I was actually disinvited from a talk at a branch campus after a dean found out I had been invited by my colleague. His reasoning was that Qatar Foundation and Qataris might be offended, which is ironic because I discuss throughout the book how Qatari culture becomes an excuse for (white) American administrators to legitimize choices that work to their benefit. My criticisms in this text are not of Qataris or Qatari culture, but of the ways that whiteness, Americanness, and transnational expertise are leveraged in (re)producing essentialized ideas of cultural and racial difference, to the detriment of both Qatari and non-Qatari students. Colleagues in the US have been receptive to the book but there is still a lot of investment in essentialized and spectacular understanding of the Arabian Peninsula, and of course these are the very understandings that end up producing the structural conditions of inclusion and exclusion in the branch campuses. I have co-authored a book with two other ethnographers of the region, Amelie Le Renard and Ahmed Kanna, which just came out this year and discusses the role of exceptionalism in knowledge production about the Gulf, called Beyond Exception.
Kevin Laddapong: In Power Button, you bring readers back to the early days of buttons and encourage readers to think about the button in a new way. You have shown the discursiveness of technological development and the complexity of how buttons are socially embedded, from calling for service to turning on the light. How did you decide which buttons to focus on, given that buttons are so ubiquitous?
Rachel Plotnick: The ubiquity of buttons posed a big challenge for my study, and I was quickly daunted by it. As you suggest, I knew it wouldn’t be possible to write about every button that existed at the turn of the twentieth century. So, I took an approach that is often suggested in science and technology studies (STS) – which recommends that scholars “follow the actors.” In other words, I started looking to see what people called a button (for example, sometimes the ends of telegraph keys were called buttons) and how they talked about using buttons (some were pulled or turned instead of pushed). I tried not to impose my own categories of what counted as a button, but rather to use this grounded approach of seeing what emerged. Because most homes didn’t have electricity at this historical moment, button interfaces were perceived more as a novelty and that made it a bit easier. Most discussion circulated around buttons as mechanisms for control (push a button for light, an elevator, to take a picture, and so on) or as mechanisms for communication (to call a servant, trigger an alarm, honk a horn). As I began to see these categories rise to the surface, it was easier to sort and make sense of which buttons mattered for my story.
Kevin Laddapong: When many media scholars think about technology, they focus upon technologists, electricians, engineers, and other STEM figures. But the protagonists of this book tend to be “advertisers”. We see from your book that they defined the technology, told us who was eligible to push the button, and how should we perceive the buttons. Can you say more about the influences of these surprising non-STEM characters in this very scientific advancement?
Rachel Plotnick: I think you’re right that advertisers played a large role in influencing discourse about buttons. While there were many other actors, too (such as inventors, educators, or electrical companies), the idea of pushing a button really appealed to advertisers because they could sell new technologies of industrialization and electrification as safe, non-threatening, and effortless. It’s no surprise that Kodak’s slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest” took hold so widely at the time. It came to symbolize the seductiveness of automaticity – that consumers didn’t need to be especially skilled or well-versed in picture development (or photography in general) to own and operate a camera. In this regard, buttons acted as a kind of gateway to a whole world of mechanisms and consumer products that demanded limited input from their users. Advertisers often talked about using the button as a way to connote pleasure. Though this sometimes backfired, in that people perceived pushing buttons as too hedonistic and lazy, advertisers continued to rally around the concept. We can see this fixation still at work today – from the Staples “Easy” button to Uber’s “tap for a ride.” Buttons conjure up fantasies of instant gratification that seem almost timeless.
Kevin Laddapong: One of the key themes in your book is the power momentum between button-pushers and pushed. It was convolutedly interlocked with different levels of identities, haves and have-nots, men and women, or children, and adults. How did the technology help produce these button-pushing bodies?
Rachel Plotnick: This theme really emerged – quite noticeably – through the course of my research. It was fascinating to see how many people complained about power imbalances that they felt were exacerbated by button pushing. When I say people, this usually meant people who were already socially disadvantaged or othered in some way – due to race, class, gender or a combination of those factors. Servants were used to being heralded by bell systems, but when bells became electric and were installed at every bedpost, under the dining room table, next to the sofa, and so on, then control of those servants’ bodies and their movement became increasingly discreet and ubiquitous. Their bodies were made to move throughout homes while the button-pusher could remain stationary to herald whatever (or whomever) they desired. A similar dynamic existed between employers and employees. The rise of the so-called push-button manager likely did not have to do only with buttons, as at this historical moment places of business were undergoing industrialization and new bureaucratic procedures were taking hold. Buttons functioned as another bureaucratic measure and mechanism for exerting authority. As disparities between managers and employees became greater (a separation of white-collar workers from blue collar workers or head workers from manual laborers), button pushing drew attention to these stratifications. Employees disliked that their employers could sit behind a desk and command them at a moment’s notice. I call this digital command – an effortless gesture generated with the touch of a finger. I think it is critical to acknowledge that when people pushed buttons, it always involved someone’s labor (and the physical movement of bodies) to make one’s desires appear.
Kevin Laddapong: Gathering from your book, buttons hid the messy wires, simplified the electronic circuits in one touch, most importantly, disguised the underlying labor. But now, we are living in the digital age and many physical buttons become graphics or even voice controls. Do modern-day buttons still serve class inequality and labor exploitation? What is the lesson we can learn from the development of buttons regarding these issues?
Rachel Plotnick: That’s a great question. From a technical perspective, buttons are even further removed from the actions they trigger. Digital buttons that require only a tap or a swipe seem to provide anything one desires, from a ride to a roll of toilet paper. Even emotions are “buttonized,” in a sense: we click buttons to share our feelings in social media as a primary way of interacting with others. Yet, despite these significant differences from the turn of the twentieth century, I would argue that inequality and exploitation still figure significantly into button dynamics. I think the case of Amazon provides a good example. Consumers can “push” a button for nearly any product imaginable (for awhile, Amazon even had physical Dash buttons one could affix throughout their home). While this consumption feels effortless and gratifying, it elides the power dynamics that make such pushing possible. What happens after you click “purchase”? Whose bodies have to carry out and fulfill the orders? How are those bodies treated? Paid? What power dynamics exist in the factory, the warehouse, on the streets where the packages are delivered? What are the environmental implications? And who has the luxury or privilege to order Amazon items at will in the first place? Advertisers and manufacturers have always turned to buttons as a way to sell pleasure and instant gratification, so I see an emphasis on clicking, pushing, tapping and swiping on the Internet and apps as (in many ways) a continuation of the power relationships that began more than 100 years ago. We could take this even farther and think about drone warfare as an even higher stakes example of using buttons to make some bodies expendable while others sit in their command centers; what does it mean for armchair generals to decide who lives and who dies with a push of a button?
Indivar Jonnalagadda: What inspired the book’s central idea of ‘agribiopolitics’, which encompasses the government of the health and welfare of both people and plants? In contrast to the 20th century theorists of biopolitics, what makes the question of nonhuman life unavoidable for contemporary anthropology?
Kregg Hetherington: If we think of the major investments in crop improvement that started in the late 19th century and later gave rise to the Green Revolution, then we can spot major shifts in how the relationship between human health and plant health have been conceptualized. These histories alongside the contemporary activism around people’s health around monocrops led to the idea of agribiopolitics.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, there was a vitalist tradition, where community health was being analogized to that of plants in often racial or eugenic terms. These terms also easily stretched to talking about the health of the nation. Reading that vitalist literature, I found, resonated with the present in a way that reading Foucault and others in the mid-20th century period, for example, did not. I think the mid-20th century thinkers were writing amidst the ascendancy of a liberal notion of development that focuses on human welfare primarily through economics. Thus, the notion that making better plants makes your population healthier, gets supplanted by the notion that making better plants makes your population healthier by making them less poor. However, after the success of the Green Revolution and these massive expansions of chemically-intensive monocrops, there are counter-movements which are saying that maybe there’s an inverse relationship between the health of plants and the health of people and other living things in the area. This brings the relationship between plant, human, and other life to the fore. It is a particularly weird problem in places like Paraguay where the economy is now completely invested in the well-being of a particular plant, with mixed effects on different populations.
Indivar Jonnalagadda: You argue that specific crops historically become linked with specific nationalities, languages, and ethnicities, as companion species. Could you briefly synthesize for us the relationship between language ideology and agribiopolitics in Paraguay?
Kregg Hetherington: There’s a long-term discourse in Latin America about the relationship between certain groups of indigenous people and plants. The phrase “people of the corn” is something that one has heard about for a long time. It struck me that there was something similar going on in Paraguay. For example, the idea that people are made of cassava (the main starch that rural folks eat in Paraguay) is the source of lots of joking and ways of talking. Yet, what really interested me was soybeans. When soybeans, as this incredibly aggressive monocrop, enter into Paraguay, they do so almost exclusively with Brazilian migrants as the people planting them. They immediately get associated with a fear of a larger nation next door, a fear of the takeover of Paraguayan land and sovereignty, a fear of Portuguese (a European language) supplanting Guarani (an indigenous language).
If the beans are Brazilian, as people would say directly, then what’s Paraguayan? People aren’t worried about their cassava, they’re also not worried about their corn. Instead, what they were worried about was cotton. The fact that cotton was the crop with which people identified in this sort of sovereignty-project was very interesting, because cotton was itself only introduced in the 1960s as a Green Revolution crop. The set of identifications between rural Guarani-speaking Paraguayans and cotton that had been developed by French engineers in the 60s turned the story in unexpected ways. It also forced me into a more uncomfortable kind of historical analytical space, where I had to contend with the fact that cotton itself was a settler colonial crop that had been brought into this area merely two generations ago.
Indivar Jonnalagadda: Comparing Government of Beans with your previous book Guerrilla Auditors, you very generatively shift your attention from bureaucracy to regulation more generally. Could you say a little bit about the analytic usefulness of this move?
Kregg Hetherington: I think it happened fairly organically, because in the first book I was dealing with property, and for the second book in dealing with beans I had to think about the state differently. Property, particularly in Paraguay, really is a bureaucratic construct. The cadastre in Paraguay was created in 1876 by bureaucrats calling a bunch of elites to the capital to write down what they owned. Every transaction having to do with official property transactions in Paraguay since then, makes some iterative reference to this originary document. The whole thing was very apt for a kind of post-structuralist analysis of the way that bureaucratic practices call relations into being discursively, and I was also attentive to the materiality of the documents. But the activists among whom I conducted ethnography back then kept telling me that the documents are one thing, the bigger problem is the beans. Though the beans never really entered into that story, because they didn’t fit that kind of framework. I think that’s where regulation comes in.
This is too ideal-typical, but bear with me; regulation is the moment where the state is no longer focused on itself and it is (in the Karen Barad sense) meeting the universe halfway. It’s responding to something outside of itself and it’s using whatever tools it has at hand to try to shift or change material relations. So while I’d figured out a way to talk about bureaucracy and the movement of property documents in a way that had a very nice internal structure, beans troubled that internal structure. As it turned out, that was exactly what the bureaucrats felt about the beans too. Thus, the regulatory project is a much more open sort of responsive project where they’re just trying things, knowing that the agency of the state is incredibly limited in places.
Indivar Jonnalagadda: With regards to regulation, you also offer a fundamentally communicative framework with your concept of regulatory pragmatics. Can you say a little more about it and why you foreground the “progressive unfolding” of responses between various actors?
Kregg Hetherington: Regulatory pragmatics is a way of shifting between the linguistic-pragmatic mode and what I saw as an approach to response and responsiveness in some of the STS literature. Donna Haraway, particularly, thinks about the nonhuman as something that’s capable of responding, and Karen Barad similarly talks about intra-actions. These ideas are famously philosophically difficult for certain people who are too focused on language. But I found them really useful for thinking about what regulation was doing. There’s this obvious thing that happens in any legal anthropology: you realize that anyone who’s working in a legal sphere is always dealing with the gap between the rule and the thing, or between the representation and the ground. The example that I go into some length in the book is, how do you decide if something is a “neighborhood road”? If it is a neighborhood road, then the regulations further stipulates that there should be a plant barrier against pesticide drift from fields. The amount of time that people spent arguing over whether something was a neighborhood road or not, suggested that this was a field of play that was really important. I didn’t want to stop at the gap and suggest that there’s all kinds of stuff that can happen. Instead, I wanted to say, every time people encounter the gap, things shift. That’s the place where sovereignty occurs, because judgment gets involved. So the interaction between government and farmers occurs through the choice of plant used to create the barrier between the crop and the neighbourhood road. I use these mundane examples around the species of plants used as barriers just to force a certain kind of humility about what it is that regulation can do and what a state can do.
Also, who is communicating in these cases? There are a number of actors that one can point to that are obviously communicating back and forth. But there are all these other actors that crop up, like snakes, or the bandits who hide in the elephant grass and jump out and steal people’s motorcycles. There are all kinds of ways in which humans and nonhumans end up responding to a certain kind of regulatory entreaty with their own kind of response that then forces the regulators to go back to the drawing board.
Indivar Jonnalagadda: You describe how people often respond to your presentations on soy by wondering if eating tofu is unethical; a moment of doubt about the ethics of their eating habits that you call “Tofu moments”. You see these moments as being alive with experimental possibility for an ethics of eating well. Can you describe a significant Tofu moment of your own?
Kregg Hetherington: Ethics was not what I set out to try to theorize, but it was always part of the experience of the whole thing. The tofu moments—that still occur when I present this work about soybeans and about how destructive soybeans are—were when people in the audience who are vegetarian, suddenly get worried about the tofu. Given that the soy beans are being pre-dominantly produced in order to feed animals for meat, vegetarianism is a pretty reasonable response to the horror of soybeans. Nonetheless, there’s something great about that moment where someone starts to wonder if the decision they’ve made, is actually ethically far more complicated than they thought. That’s what I want the book to do — to encourage an opening. The moment that one feels kind of stable in a certain way of responding to a situation, is precisely the moment when you want to reach out a little bit farther.
A tofu moment for me was a specific story about fieldwork that I also describe in the book. As a white, North American, middle class person going and doing this kind of research, in places that have been historically exploited by the very kinds of financial comforts that I benefit from all the time, there’s always this question about the ethics of what research is all about. Questions about the extent to which it is extractivist or benefits from other forms of extraction on which it depends. There was one specific moment during the research, where I was hanging out with very close friends of mine, who were also my research assistants in the field. We had retreated to this posh country cottage that friends of theirs owned to reflect on the research. At a certain point during that reflection, we were approached by a police cruiser that was going around the neighborhood, and were asked to pay a bribe. This is not that uncommon a situation in Paraguay, but it’s always a little bit unclear what exactly one is paying the bribe for. But it occurred to me at that moment that we are being asked to bribe the police to secure the conditions within which this research becomes possible. This was a moment that opened up that whole set of research dynamics for me. As I think about what future research might look like in Paraguay post-COVID, I’m still troubled on the one hand by ethical commitments that I feel like I’ve made to people, and on the other hand by the difficulty of new forms of awareness of how much my own practice relies on international extractivist structures.
Janet Conner: Why is fashion so good for thinking about capitalism?
Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Fashion as an industry has several key aspects that make it good for us to think about capitalism. Most importantly, they include the claim to aesthetic distinction, which identifies design as the key component of value; the celebration of the creative artist as the producer, obscuring design as a complex, interactive process involving many participants; the related emphasis on knowledge and expertise not only about design but also about branding, marketing and distribution; the imperative to constantly produce a seemingly new product; the historical contexts in which, for example, one finds that Italian fashion was transnational from its inception as an industry; and finally, its simultaneous production of and reaction to asymmetries in changing relations of global power. Other industries undoubtedly have some of these features but they are especially visible in fashion. These characteristics enabled us to to challenge what are commonly taken as the core features of capitalism (viz, the wage-labor relation, the pursuit of profit, private property and inequality). We were able to emphasize the contingency of how various transnational capitalist projects converge that do not always reside in a narrow definition of the economic, and how the accumulation and distribution of capital emerges in those contingencies. Studying the fashion industry ethnographically led us to theorize how commodities are not the only things made in the production process, which also includes the production of dispositions, social practices, identities, and subjectivities. It further includes the production of labor power. Marxist theories generally assume that labor power is transhistorical, pre-existing the production process, and that workers bring their labor power to the workplace with them. We found that in tracing the fashion industry’s key characteristics, labor power is instead constituted through the specific relations of transnational collaboration.
Janet Connor: The book is split into three parts (the negotiation of value, legacies and histories, and kinship and transnational capitalism). While they overlap with the key dynamic processes of transnational capitalism that you argue for in the book, they’re not an exact match. How did you decide to organize the book in this way? And more of a stylistic question, I was wondering how you decided to write Part I together, while in the other two parts you deliberately chose not to write in one voice.
Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: The organization of our ethnography emerged gradually through our discussions about what stood out in the fieldwork materials we had gathered. We had these discussions as we were doing the fieldwork and also afterwards. We agreed that several practices seemed prominent: first, in the context of a transnational relationship of production and distribution, it was clear that the various Italian and Chinese managers whom we came to know constantly asserted their own skills and knowledge in comparison with and contrast to their foreign partners, as well as sometimes in relation to others within their domestic orbits. It was not that either side had a homogeneous view, this was not a binary contrast, but across the heterogeneity of different kinds of social relations of production, the various people involved emphasized their worth, their contribution to the value of what all agreed was Italian fashion. This practice was prominent in all of our interviews and conversations. It led us to our argument that value is an ongoing process of negotiation rather than a sociological formula based on fixed social relationships. Nor is it simply a direct result of capitalist investments or a recent effect of global capitalism presumably unhinging what were previously more stable ways to calculate value. Rather these ongoing negotiations were an outcome of how people assert their cultural capital, including their knowledge, identities and habitus. The negotiation of value had to be its own section. As to historical legacies and revisionist histories, again our various interlocutors often invoked their national histories to explain to us the particularities of why and how they engaged in the fashion industry in the ways they did. Italian managers, for example, often mentioned the long history of fashion in Italy as compared to China. Chinese managers tended to grapple with the legacies of socialism. The prominence of historical legacies thus also caught our attention. We both described and interpreted these legacies. Our interpretations highlighted how Chinese managers, for example, wanted to erase the socialist past through a nostalgia for a revisionist version of pre-socialist life in China, especially in Shanghai, while Italian managers sometimes naturalized fashion taste as part of what they called Italianità. Kinship became the third theme because it, too, has played a prominent part in the organization of fashion industry’s production and distribution relationships, though quite differently among Chinese firms and Italian firms.
These three key practices encompass the dynamic processes of capitalism we identified — privatization and the public/private division, the negotiation of value, the rearrangement of accumulation, the reconfiguration of kinship, and the outsourcing of inequality. They do so to different degrees but it made more sense to us to start from the ethnographic material and work out.
Stylistically, we thought the first section had to be one chapter as the back and forth between the interlocutors would come out most clearly in that way. Conversely, while our interlocutors sometimes invoked their historical legacies to interpret their relationships with their foreign partners, there was much more about that history that needed to be explained and interpreted in our analyses. Similarly, while kinship was a key social relationship, its force varied among Italian and Chinese firms. To put all that needed to be explained in one chapter for these themes would have both chopped and stretched our analysis, not to mention they would have been very long chapters!
Janet Connor: One of many important interventions in the book is your questioning the existence of a division between public and private, particularly in relation to the common equation of neoliberalization and privatization. Can you say more on how you think about the relationship between public and private?
Lifa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Our argument about the relationship between the public and private came out of our feminist approach to capitalism, as well as the history of the role of the state in capitalism. Feminist anthropologists, historians and other feminist theorists have long argued that public and private are ideologically defined and vary historically and cross-culturally and that this division is empirically unfounded. To say this division is empirically unfounded is not to assert this division is a mere fantasy. Feminists rather argue that taking for granted the division obscures the work these ideological distinctions do to maintain gender and racial hierarchies. As African American feminist theorists have long maintained, the private was never an attainable sphere for black women and families in the U.S., with racist consequences. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, these insights have been consistently ignored in analyses of neoliberalism and, more generally, capitalism. The dominant vision of privatization under neoliberalism is derived from North American social arrangements and imaginaries. We developed these insights about contemporary practices of capitalism first because, as Lisa explains, in post-socialist China, it is often impossible to discern whether some Chinese companies are fully private or fully public, which is a deliberate strategy for multiple reasons. Second, as Sylvia explains, the state’s role has been central in Italian industrialization up to and including the present. In other words, there is a history of state-private enterprises that long predates neoliberalism. We found that employing feminist critiques of the public/private divide helped us to analyze the multiple meanings and practices of privatization, including the often-blurred relationships among them. We argue that instead of trying to fix a definition of the private and the public we should trace ethnographically and historically how this division in itself is made, challenged, and remade and how its ideological effects produce inequality.
Janet Connor: The book includes a multitude of voices and viewpoints, not just from both of you but also with the chapter by Simona Segre Reinach, and in the writing style of including many rich ethnographic stories about a range of interlocutors. The style of the book seems to me to be doing several things at once. On the one hand, it’s an example of a kind of collaborative methodology, both in terms of how you do fieldwork and how you write. At the same time, the polyphonic character of the book is making an analytic intervention against conceiving of transnational capitalism as one unified thing or as having a predefined set of structural features. Could you say more about how you think about and write collaborative ethnography?
Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Collaborative ethnography can take multiple forms and approaches. In our case, the collaboration was grounded in our long-term engagements with China and Italy and in particular with their textile and clothing industries, and Simona with the fashion industry. We realized that our deep sets of knowledge would enable a study of transnational capitalist relations of production and distribution, including what is often called commodity chains, that could move us beyond the methodological challenges of a sole anthropologist doing fieldwork in a single place. It further gave us an important historical depth to our study, so that we could challenge assumptions about the neo in neoliberalism. We also followed the lead of our interlocutors. Beginning in the 1980s and increasingly in the 1990s, Italian textile and clothing firms outsourced manufacturing to lower-wage countries, including China. China, for its part, was opening up a market economy at that time and welcomed foreign investment. Our theoretical insights that challenge the idea of capitalism as structured by a single logic or as having a singular modal form arose from our ability to carry out an ethnography that could attend to multiple experiences rather than just one side and that could demonstrate the contingencies of capitalism. The way we organized the book to include multiple voices and viewpoints arose from our desire to highlight these analytical challenges to economistic approaches to capitalism. We offered not merely a method of data collection but a methodology for the study of cultural production that entails both methods and concepts.
Janet Connor: Comparison has long been an important analytic strategy in anthropology, and more recently anthropologists have begun to see the comparisons made by our interlocutors as an object of study. It seems to me that your book contributes to both of these strands of comparison, both with how you think of the writing as moving beyond conventional analysis and in your ethnographic examples of how the ways that your Italian and Chinese interlocutors see themselves and negotiate value through comparisons across many different scales. How are you thinking about the ways that anthropologists can study and participate in comparative work?
Yes, we tried to emphasize that we were not doing a comparative study, at least not a comparative study of Italian and Chinese capitalisms. What we offered instead was an analysis of the co-production of Italian-Chinese transnational capitalism. Our collaborative ethnography offers an alternative to the conventional comparative method in anthropology of different cultures, one that is better suited to the modes of cultural production in the world today. We viewed our interlocutors as making comparisons but within a relationship in which they were intimately tied to one another. That said, your point that we compare ourselves with past conventions in anthropology is well taken. It echoes the way our Italian and Chinese interlocutors compare themselves with their national historical pasts.
Kevin Laddapong: The Emoji Revolution allows us to revisit Linguistics 101 from the perspective of how we use emoji. It is eye-opening to see how emoji can be analyzed so effectively on every level of linguistic production and expression, from phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic, narrative, or even poetic. Do you think emoji are unusual phenomenon in this regard?
Philip Seargeant: One of the aims of the book was to show how emoji are very much a part of the history of human language, and particularly the history of writing. Although they may seem a completely new phenomenon (and even, perhaps, a slightly frivolous one), in actual fact we can find direct precedents for many aspects of them throughout history – from the way they relate to other pictographic writing systems, to the way they’re used to express irony and emotional framing.
The reason behind their popularity, I think, is that they’re so flexible as a means of communication, and particularly that they allow for, if not encourage, creativity in their use. Part of this creativity is prompted by the fact that they’re a reasonable small, closed system (there are only a few thousand emoji in total), so if people want to try to express more complicated ideas they have to find inventive ways of doing so, often exploiting a range of different communicative tropes to do so.
Kevin Laddapong: One of the outstanding characters in your book is Jonathan Swift. Why is his story relevant to how people use emoji today? What do we learn about creative and playful communicative practices throughout history through your comparison?
Philip Seargeant: In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift parodies many of the scientific trends of his time, including ones concerning language. As a satirist, he takes real life ideas which are slightly ludicrous, and then exaggerates them to make them fully absurd. One of his targets is the trend for people trying to create a supposedly perfect language because they feel human language is too vague and imprecise. The solution that the scholars in the novel have come up with is to carry a vast array of objects on their backs, so that whenever they want to refer to something they simply take out the object and point to it. The idea that ‘Words are only Names for Things’ is obviously a very simplistic and misguided understanding of how language works; but it’s similar, I think, to how a lot of people probably think emoji work: that is, emoji are just pictures of objects, and that’s how we use them to communicate. But just as language is much more than words, so the way emoji are used involves a lot more than the simple pictorial representation of objects.
Kevin Laddapong: You mention the importance of language standardization and universalization in your book. Emoji are evidently the product of successful attempts at standardizing and universalizing a form of communication, yet as you point out, these attempts are dramatically different from any other attempts. Why did emoji experience such a different destiny? What did Unicode Consortium and other actors do differently from other language regulators?
Philip Seargeant: Emoji are standardised in terms of their form because they’re a digital writing system which needs to be compatible across different platforms around the world. This is the only reason that a single body (in this case the Unicode Consortium) is able to regulate their form – and even then, the different platforms have slightly different designs for each character. This is very different situation from other languages, where the speech community itself generates new words and practices, and then a language academy can only try to regulate this after the event. It’s also worth noting that although the Unicode Consortium regulate the form of emoji, they can’t regulate the way they’re used, so there’s still variety in the meanings they accrue and patterns of usage from speech community to speech community.
Kevin Laddapong: Emoji clearly could only be possible in a context of capitalism and hyper-consumerism. Towards the end, you suggest that emoji is seamlessly fused with neoliberal practices. Apart from million-dollar Twitter emoji deals, what other aspects allow emoji to be so compatible with neoliberalism, and why do we have to be concerned about this?
Philip Seargeant: In many ways, this is part of the general business strategy of the big tech companies, who are constantly looking for ways to engage users/customers, and ensure that their products are in a continual state of development so that people feel an endless desire to keep up-to-date with them. Emoji are updated on a yearly basis, along with related innovations such as Apple’s Memoji, and thus become a attractive sales feature for new hardware, while also being a very popular resource for marketing initiatives. Again, this is unusual for what is essentially a writing system, but is, as you say, in line with a hypercapitalist society.
Kevin Laddapong: Throughout the book, you have hinted about the intervention of machines in our human interaction. Emoji have been designed, developed, and coded to be neatly merged with auto-correction and word suggestion technologies. Are emoji part of a larger trend — how else is communication changing to accommodate the demands of digital technologies?
Philip Seargeant: That’s a very large topic. The simple answer is that so much of modern communication is mediated via computers, and thus digital technologies have a huge influence on how we communicate. Emoji are rather unusual in that it is the writing system itself which is regulated – and indeed owned, to a degree – by the big tech companies, and so these companies get to decide which emoji are appropriate and which aren’t, and to assign meanings to them on autopredict, and so on. But increasingly the spaces in which we communicate – be it Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, and so on – are also owned by the huge tech companies, and their business models thus influence all aspects of our communication. Not only will Gmail gives you various ‘smart reply’ options, but it is also able to scan or extract data from your messages, while what you write or post on social media is, to all intents and purposes, in the public domain, and also has to abide by the platform’s guidelines on expression. All of this means that this type of communication takes place within a very different environment from, say, a face-to-face conversation, and the specifics of this environment have an influence on both what we say and how we say it.