Nicholas Emlen on his book, Language, Coffee, and Migration on an Andean-Amazonian Frontier

Language, Coffee, and Migration on an Andean-Amazonian Frontier image

https://uapress.arizona.edu/book/language-coffee-and-migration-on-an-andean-amazonian-frontier

Interview by Gaya Morris

This book is an ethnography of multilingualism in the Alto Urubamba Valley, on the Andean-Amazonian agricultural frontier of Southern Peru. Here, Indigenous Amazonian Matsigenka people and Quechua-speaking migrants (colonos) from the nearby Andean highlands live densely interconnected lives. The book explores how people from different backgrounds move between Matsigenka, Quechua, and Spanish in the many contexts of their everyday lives, as they transform the rain forest into farmland and become coffee producers for the first time.

Gaya Morris: You claim that the ethnic categories of Colono and Matsigenka “are crucial principles of difference in the local social world” but are not “empirical and analytical categories that reliably correspond to actual patterns of interaction, behavior, and language, or even to individuals” (9-10). So what role do these imaginary categories perform in processes of social differentiation and exclusion? What differences do they not mark that they are often assumed to?

Nicholas Emlen: Gaya, thank you for your interest in the book, and for your thoughtful questions.

The language ideology of the “ethnolinguistic group” has a strong hold on the way scholars talk about the social panorama of South America, and also on the way it is conceptualized on the ground. This ideology encourages us to think about Matsigenkas and Andean migrants (colonos) as clearly delineable aggregates of people. But when you look more closely at the Andean-Amazonian agricultural frontier, it becomes clear that things are a lot more complicated, and that these categories are quite negotiable and contextual.

To understand why, it helps to start by thinking about interethnic marriage, which is by now the rule rather than the exception among Matsigenka speakers in the Alto Urubamba. Most Quechua-speaking migrants to the valley are men, and many end up in unions with Matsigenka women. They either bring those women with them upriver toward the highlands, or those couples stay together in the lowlands. This makes it more difficult, in turn, for Matsigenka men to find spouses, so they travel further downriver and into the remote tributaries to start families, or to bring women back upriver. The result is an opposed system of migratory flows: men move downriver, bringing Quechua with them, while women move upriver, bringing Matsigenka with them.

As a result of this regional interplay between migration, gender, kinship, and language, many children across the Alto Urubamba frontier are growing up in trilingual households, and with a foot in both social worlds. However, this interconnectedness is quite in contrast to the region’s rigid discourse of ethnicity, which takes Matsigenkas and colonos to be distinct groups of people. It’s interesting to see how this disjuncture plays out. For instance, among one group of siblings I know, some live with their mother in a titled Matsigenka community, attend a Matsigenka-Spanish bilingual school, and get counted in the census as ethnically Matsigenka. A few of their siblings live with their father in a nearby colono settlement, attend a Quechua-Spanish bilingual school, and don’t get counted as Matsigenka in the census. With respect to exclusion, the kids living in the colono settlement find themselves treated as ethnic outsiders among their Andean peers. Meanwhile, their siblings in the Matsigenka community are treated as colono interlopers. It’s not an easy situation for anyone. The point is, these categories play out differently depending on the context of interaction, and on the perspective of the interactants.

Gaya Morris: You suggest that “recognizing the interconnectedness of Andeans and Amazonians in the Alto Urubamba is not just an academic matter; it also holds important political significance” (16). What might be the political consequences of overlooking the interconnectedness of these two regions and groups?

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Don Kulick on his book, A Death in the Rainforest

cover

https://www.workman.com/products/a-death-in-the-rainforest

Excerpted from original New Books Network podcast

https://newbooksnetwork.com/don-kulick-a-death-in-the-rainforest-how-a-language-and-a-way-of-life-came-to-an-end-in-papua-new-guinea-algonquin-books-2019/

Transcribed by Shulan Sun; Lightly edited by Ilana Gershon for clarity

Alex Golub: Now, many people who don’t study Papua New Guinea but who are involved in anthropology will know Papua New Guinea through the work of Marilyn Strathern, [or] in a slightly different way, maybe Roy Wagner. And Marilyn describes Papua New Guineans as having dividual selves or, they have this very exotic theory that their selves condense many relationships. You provide a very individualist portrait of Gapuners.  They tend to really value their autonomy and are encouraged to be self-reliant. What should people who read Strathern think – how would you recommend reconciling that with your portrayal, which seems a little bit different?

Don Kulick: I don’t really know what to do with that because I think Marilyn Strathern’s understanding of Papua New Guinea is very heavily – and I am sure that she would be the first to agree – it’s very highly based on her experience with highlanders. Now again, Papua New Guinea is a very big country, there’s lots of different cultures. It is not all the same. I also thought Marilyn was writing in a very sort of abstract way – I don’t think she will actually say that people see themselves as dividuals. That is an anthropologist’s understanding of Papua New Guineans’ sociality.

And what I see in Gapun is, certainly, people are connected to one another. I mean, sorcery is a great connector. Because, if I do something, then I don’t have to die, but maybe my nephew will die, or my sister will die. So again, we are all connected in that way and my actions will influence other people, often in ways, or sometimes in ways that go against their own self-interest. And I have an example from the book.  If somebody steals a battery that somebody managed to buy somewhere: I steal a battery and got caught. I can say that I did it, but it wasn’t me, somebody made me do it. And that is a perfectly acceptable excuse in Gapun. Which again, ties to the notion of dividuality – that we are the conduits of action, but we are not the agents of action. So, in that sense, I think that’s very similar. But again, what I saw in Gapun, from the very start, was not only how people are incredibly, incredibly individualist, it’s really all about themselves. But they are socialized to be that way. Babies are continually being socialized like “it’s not yours, it’s mine!” “Whose is it?” And, you know, I think people who even work in highlands, I am thinking of Bambi Schieffelin’s work, for example, she writes about that constant question: “who does this belong to?” That is a crucial fact for anything – in order to do anything, use, or steal, or eat, or throw it away, you have to know that. So, there’s an ownership thing that really socializes people into standing up for the rest. You know, the kroses you were mentioning earlier, the swearing, it’s all about women saying: “This was mine, you destroyed it, you screwed with it, I am pissed off at you, and I am now abusing you for it.”

So again, in this network of connectedness, individuals are continually being made. But I think that the way to reconcile this is to understand that individuals are, they are not American individuals, they are not Swedish individuals. They are individuals that emerge against a background of networks that I think Marilyn Strathern does a fantastic job describing.

Alex Golub: Yea, they are individuals, but they are very permeable.

Don Kulick: That’s a good way of putting it, exactly. They’re permeable. They’re continually being impressed by other people’s wills, by their desires, by everything. So, yes, I have had very confusing conversations with people who steal things from me in the village.  I asked a young man: “Why did you take my soap?” “Because I asked you for it and you didn’t give it to me. Therefore, you made me steal it.” “But it’s the only soap I have!” [laugh] So, again, I find this very curious. I see humor in it, but I also see that this is how people die. I mean, you always die because somebody did something to you. And it doesn’t have to be you who did it, somebody else did it. And you’re dying for that person’s wrongs.

Alex Golub: Yeah.

Don Kulick: But again, you’re the one who dies. Nobody else dies. That’s how the individual emerges. It is, again, I think this is also Marilyn Strathern’s point, it’s the individual emerges out of relationship. I see this very clearly in Gapun. I think the tonality, or the tenor of individualism is perhaps different in Gapun when compared to the highlands. But I do think that we’re all connected in the sense that we all influence one another, in ways we can’t control and don’t understand. It’s very Papua New Guinean.

Alex Golub: I think the upside of it, for some people, is that it prevents accumulation, and it prevents centralization of power. But then, the downside of it is that it prevents organization or anything getting done.

Don Kulick: Absolutely. I mean, Gapun could be a case study for that.

Alex Golub: One of the sorts of melancholy dimensions of – this melancholy situation is the “language death” that you also include in the title. Can you tell me a little bit more what it’s like to watch this language die? And it seems like of those contrarian themes in this book in addition to some of those contrarian ones you might talk about, is that you don’t have the standard take on language death – that there are these precious languages that have to be preserved that when they die, the world loses a precious bit of diversity. That’s not exactly what you’re saying, is that right?

Don Kulick: It’s not what am I saying. And I have deep respect for linguists who work with endangered languages. I really do. But, I think there are many linguists who work with endangered languages these days who go for the biodiversity trope claiming that language are endangered species, So language are like pandas and whatever other species that is now on its way out. And they claim that languages are like that. I have always found that a very difficult metaphor, not because I don’t appreciate its potential rhetorical power, because it does have some power. But I think it’s because it ignores the people who speak the languages. And I think that kind of metaphor is wrongheaded – to presume  that we should look to the natural world as ways of understanding language is an error. The natural world is exactly the place we should not look to when we want to understand a phenomenon like language death. We should be looking at, for example, the fate of the political parties, or the fate of religious movements. We should look to the social world to understand language death. Languages die because people stop speaking the language. So, the question is, how do they die? What are the dynamics that produce a population of people that stops speaking their language for various reasons? So yeah, I argue in the book against that very worthy metaphor.  I don’t think it helps us. And I think it also risks wrongheaded blame.   The last people I want to blame for losing the language, or for abandoning their language – for not speaking and not transmitting their language — are the speakers of the language, because that makes it seems as though they had a choice. It suggest they had a choice and that they decided not to. Sometimes that does happen – sometimes people do decide not to teach the language to their kids. In Gapun, no one had ever made that decision. That’s one of the things that drew me to the village in the first place – that I realized that nobody said, “we’re not gonna teach our language – we don’t like our language, [or] our language is not useful.” Nobody said that. They all said: we like our language. Their reason is, but babies don’t want to speak it. Now that, for me, is really cool, what’s going on there?

So again, these ideas that language death are all very lamentable, it is very sad. But I think the risk in focusing on the language as oppose to focusing on the speaker of the language, is that we can be very patronizing and condescending to the speaker of the language.

Alex Golub: You have the sentence at the end of the book where you say the speaker didn’t abandoned Tayap, Tayap abandoned them. That was such a powerful sentence and also so unexpected. What did you mean when you wrote that?

Don Kulick: Well, again, I mean that it is beyond their control, basically. I mean, I think, one of the things that linguist likes to tell us is that we can revitalize, or we can help to revitalize, and we can. Anyone who wants to get their language revitalized should have all the help that they asked for. If the villagers suddenly decide that they want to use my grammar to help them to revitalize, I would be all for it. I would give them whatever they wanted to do. But the fact is that they don’t want that. And I think that to focus on the language ignores the processes that had resulted the death of the language. And when I say that Tayap had abandoned them, I mean that the historical processes of colonialism, Christianity, capitalism, have actually resulted in a situation that their language is just out of their control. As language always is – language is always out of individual control. But this is a situation where I think the language itself – it’s gone. It’s going. And I mean that in the agentive, in the sense that the language is going. And I draw parallel there with the spirits in a rainforest. You know that my old teacher Raya said that “you know, we use to see those things in the rainforest, we use to see these – eels, crocodiles spirits, now they are not there anymore. They must have all gone.” That’s why we draw parallels to a language. Maybe you can say the same things about them.

Alex Golub: Wow, it’s heavy, I know.

Don Kulick: Yeah. But again, I hope that people, you know, when they read the book – I mean, you’ve mentioned the humor, it’s called the death in a rainforest – and death are never happy events. But I hope that it’s not a total downer [laugh].

Alex Golub: I think everyone should read Don’s book, it’s hilarious.

 

 

Marcel Danesi discusses his book on memes and pop culture

Cover Memes and the Future of Pop Culture

https://brill.com/view/title/54309

Interview by Leila Mzali

Leila Mzali: How did you initially become interested in the study of youth and pop culture? How did you realize that memes, while perhaps often dismissed as trivial, were a rich area of research?

Marcel Danesi: I have been teaching pop culture for over two decades. As a young person, I was a musician who played in all kinds of bands. I developed a “feel” for pop music, relating it to my classical training. From this, I became intellectually interested in pop culture as it is based on musical trends. In the last decade I became aware that trends no longer emerge and spread through the traditional channels and media, but that they start as meme fragments online and then migrate and grow into full-fledged movements, which, however, given the nature of cyberspace, often dissipate quickly. So, a “mainstream” musical trend may evolve out of a meme, but it tends to be short lived. The technology has changed the way pop culture is evolving.

Leila Mzali: You touch briefly on Carr’s research on the affects of technology on our brains. Some of the most notable adverse effects you described include shortened attention spans, and reduced recall. While this research is alarming, do you believe that there is anything that we stand to gain through immediate access to information? Specifically, is there anything beneficial to the ephemeral nature of meme exchange?

Marcel Danesi: Yes there is. We can access information quickly and broadly without having to go search for it physically in real space. This allows us to use more information than ever before. Te problem is that it is difficult to extract from the information meaning and relevance. And it seems that we are becoming more and more addicted to information for its own sake. This means that without a meaning-making template to assess it, the information quickly goes from memory, and this mindset may be spreading to other forms of human cognition.

Leila Mzali: You discuss a few examples of violence that were directly or indirectly linked to the Slenderman meme that rose to popularity in the 2010s.  How does this example of media’s potential impact on our brains and behavior differ from other historic examples of pop culture inciting violence (ex: Surrealist art and the Black Dahlia murders)?  In the context of Baudrillard’s hyperrealism, what do you think it is about meme culture that has arguably launched this phenomenon into overdrive?

Marcel Danesi: This is a great question for which there is no answers–since an answer can only come from a retrospective point of view. We are living in hyperreality right now, guided by technology. This likely means that what happens on a screen, such as a video game, is directive of how we perceive actions and then how we behave accordingly. We have gone through the “looking glass,” to use Lewis Carroll’s metaphor. And what is on the other side is more alluring than real life, which is chaotic, boring, and much more dangerous physically.

Leila Mzali: You note that meme culture allows for amplified access to a ‘Global Village’ and obsolesces national boundaries.  Taking into account the participatory nature of meme culture, is there a regional or national society that you find interacts with meme culture in particularly noteworthy or interesting ways?

Marcel Danesi: I am not sure. Memes that are translated soon seem to lose their value or impact. This includes interpreting images, which are subject to cultural coding.

Leila Mzali: You ultimately conclude that meme culture may be an organic and precedented transitional phase of pop culture, according to McLuhan’s media laws. As a scholar who has devoted much attention to pop culture, do you think that we stand to lose something grave by transitioning out of elements of pop culture into new elements meme culture? Considering the typically unintended consequences of reversal and obsolesce that accompanies these transitional phases of media, would you say that there is a public plea or call to action in your work?

Marcel Danesi: I do. Pop culture, as such, and as different from folk culture is a modern experiment. Ironically, it became possible to have a mass pop culture because of early technologies (recording, radio, and so on). It is now technology that may be rendering it obsolescent and ultimately obsolete. That experiment may be over, and there is likely to be another one around the corner, as technology and the marketplace form a new partnership through which artists, thinkers, musicians, etc. may find new ways to make meaning.

Sujatha Fernandes talks about her new book, Curated Stories

https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190618049.001.0001/acprof-9780190618049

Interview by Ben Ale-Ebrahim

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: What led you to first start thinking about storytelling and its relationship to political economy?

Sujatha Fernandes: I was doing research about migrant domestic workers in New York and their labor struggles. What was striking to me was that the workers were being asked to tell their stories over and over in legislative campaigns, but they didn’t feel that it made any difference to their situation. I began to look at other sites too, undocumented students, an Afghan women’s project, and I noticed how storytelling had become a key mode of operation in all of these sites. In fact, in some cases the same storytelling manuals and trainings were being used, many of them originating with the election campaign of Barack Obama. There was something about the neoliberal self-making central to the Obama presidency that was driving these storytelling campaigns. So that was how I connected the storytelling to the neoliberal moment.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: Throughout Curated Stories, you provide evidence for how the personal narrative has emerged as an important genre for the construction of hegemony in the contemporary neoliberal era. You discuss how the stories of the marginalized, more than those of political elites or dominant classes, are critical to this process (p. 13). Why are the stories of the marginalized so important to “curate”?

Sujatha Fernandes There is much scholarship that focuses on how the dominant narratives of elite intellectual and artistic production have been key in the construction of hegemony – Hollywood films, literature, monuments, museums, political speeches, and so on. I think those are important to study, but the corollary has often been a valorization of the stories of the marginalized as conversely being authentic and getting at the truth of their experience.

That valorization was burst apart by Gayatri Spivak’s essay, “Can The Subaltern Speak?” where she talks about how the voice of the subaltern is itself composed of dominant myths and tropes. Voice is a construction. In the book, I follow her and others to argue that we have to look to the ways in which the stories of the marginalized are shaped and harnessed, through trainings, workshops, and protocols, in order to understand their import. It is precisely the notion that marginalized stories are uniquely authentic that gives them their hegemonic power.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: In chapters 3, 4, and 5, you describe how neoliberal storytelling projects work to decontextualize and individualize the stories of Afghan women, domestic workers, and undocumented youth, thereby avoiding critiques of broader oppressive political and economic systems that these stories might otherwise imply. Yet, you also describe moments of resistance in each of these cases. What does resistance to neoliberal modes of storytelling look like? As scholars, do we need to look beyond the text to see resistance?

Sujatha Fernandes: In the book, I am looking at the period of the Obama administration, and during this time the resistance to neoliberal storytelling is quite small and momentary. It may involve an Afghan writer going off script to talk about the role of powerful warlords in a post-invasion Afghanistan. It might mean a storytelling trainer who deviates from asking people to tell their stories to re-elect Obama, by contemplating how Obama betrayed the immigrant rights movement by not passing immigration reform. These moments signal a breach in the system but they usually yield to the ordering of the protocol or the training.

We need to learn to read the silences and contradictions in the texts. It is also important to look beyond the text, to employ ethnography to understand how people might be subverting or deviating from the narrative they are being given. The training manuals, protocols, and stories only give us one side of the picture. They don’t show how sometimes those narratives are fiercely contested. For instance, one domestic worker in the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights campaign refused to conform to the limited protocols that required her to only talk about working conditions, hours, and pay. She argued with the advocates leading the campaign, and then in her submitted testimony she went off script to talk about labor exploitation and the global conditions of domestic work. She was not allowed to read out her testimony at the hearing. By looking beyond the text, we can see these moments of resistance.

In a Trump era, this resistance looks quite different. Migrant workers and undocumented students in groups like Movimiento Cosecha have bypassed the path of storytelling advocacy in favor of more direct action and confrontational movements that put forward radical demands. We are also seeing a return to modes of storytelling that link personal experiences to forms of structural oppression. So while the Obama campaign stories linked people’s personal lives to vague values such as hope and family, now we are seeing stories that connect the hardships in people lives directly to problems such as poverty, student debt, and medical debt.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: In chapter 6, you discuss the Misión Cultura program in Venezuela as an example of a storytelling project that challenges neoliberal ideologies by making connections between the personal narratives of individuals and “political and collective registers” (p. 161). To what extent can this project serve as a model for alternative modes of storytelling, ones that challenge neoliberalism?

Sujatha Fernandes: There are aspects of the Misión Cultura program, as well as others such as the Andean Oral History workshop in Bolivia, that could provide some fruitful ideas. These include non-linear modes for writing personal stories, where one’s life is represented in terms of spheres instead of a chronological or temporal order. In this alternative narrative model, the individual is not centered on a unitary subject as in western-style biographies, but is rather located among spheres of people and communities. These stories re-link the personal, political, and collective registers; they are shaped by participants themselves rather than being edited by others or limited by protocols; and they are located in spaces of the barrio and community-based struggles. I think that these projects might provide some generative lines for rethinking how we tell stories and for developing alternative modes of storytelling.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: What do you hope scholars and activists interested in storytelling can take away from your book? What is entailed in moving from “curated stories” to “mobilizing stories” (p. 171)?

Sujatha Fernandes: I hope that they might cast a more critical gaze on many of the storytelling platforms that have come to dominate our lives, from Facebook to Ted talks, and the plethora of story coaching agencies, social movement and legislative storytelling models out there. But while many activists themselves have come to reject the dominant storytelling advocacy, I’m hopeful that we might be able to renew a storytelling approach, one that uses art and literary-cultural spaces and methods to convey issues of social injustice. There are strong traditions of this: farm worker movements, Latin American testimonios, and feminist consciousness-raising all used storytelling to great effect as they brought attention to class inequalities, patriarchy, and imperialism. In moving from curated stories to mobilizing stories, it is precisely this attention to the structural conditions of oppression that we must include. And this probably means rethinking the venues where stories are told – away from courtrooms, and the media, and the advocacy organizations where stories can get distorted and compressed for another agenda, toward the small activist circles and the streets where they can change minds and hearts.

 

Jessica Hardin discusses her book, Faith and the Pursuit of Health

Faith and the Pursuit of Health

https://www.rutgersuniversitypress.org/faith-and-the-pursuit-of-health/9780813592923

Courtney Handman: Can you give a brief overview of the main theoretical and ethnographic issues that you discuss in Faith and the Pursuit of Health?

Jessica Hardin: Through fieldwork I came to see the relevant questions to ask about cardiometabolic disorders in Samoa were not about diabetes or hypertension directly but instead about people’s religious lives. The book then developed around these kinds of questions: How do people make sense of sickness through their religious lives? What makes health itself a Christian pursuit? How do critical Christian practices come to bear on questions about who gets sick and why? Overall the book is an effort to understand the everyday ways I saw Pentecostals interpreting and intervening on widespread experiences of a cluster of cardiometabolic disorders from diabetes to kidney disease. Ultimately, they interpreted the rapid emergence of these disorders as evidence of the human causes of sickness, calling forward a need for salvation for individuals and the nation.

This piqued my interest because medical anthropological approaches to chronic illness have one consistent through line: structural causes, what Pentecostals saw as human created structures, are erased by enduring discourses and practices in biomedicine that reinforce notions of individual responsibility and autonomy. In Samoa, as people managed these disorders, though, they were highly aware of the environmental and structural impetus of widespread chronic disease. So what made that possible?

The book draws from medical anthropological approaches to embodiment and chronic illness with approaches in the anthropology of Christianity to conversion and critical practice to answer these questions. This analytic intersection provided me new ways to understand how Pentecostals constructed chronic illness as a Christian problem, in turn craving social pathways to change the everyday environments that they saw as causing their chronic illness. By moving these problems out of the clinic and into the church, sickness became a problem of faith, not individual will. In turn the everyday management of these disorders became linked to religious solutions, becoming actionable in ways otherwise not possible in day-to-day life.

The intersection in analytic premises in medical anthropology—that people are experts in the social causes of sickness—and the anthropology of Christianity—that Christianity is a critical practice with linguistic tools for examining human interference with God’s providence—made it possible to see how the moral pursuit of health is integral to the moral work of crafting Christian subjecthood. This argument builds on your work in Critical Christianity by examining how these critique practices are embodied. The ethnographic stories focus on how people identify that which stands in the way of a direct relationship with God by paying attention to the minutiae of bodily change.

This approach centers on how the changing qualities of the body, registered in stress and hunger or spikes in glucose or blood pressure were instructive; they revealed social causes. They were talked about and reflected upon in daily efforts to feed, heal and care for others. I call this embodied critique. Pentecostals developed a particular vocabulary for the changing body, teaching people to see the metabolic fluctuations in their bodies as evidence of fluctuations in their faith—showing the salvational logic of metabolism.

Samoa was an excellent place to explore this kind of theoretical approach because of the historical meanings associated with dynamic materialities. In Samoa, materials like food and fat move through the body and land, and in doing so, materialize in bodies the very hierarchies that direct those materials. Samoa is a place where large bodies have conventionally indicated that depth of one’s social world, indexing fecundity and the power to direct resources through the land into bodies. The large body was also a still body, one that was dignified by its inaction as this indicated the simultaneous labor of others. It was this ontological frame that led me to study Pentecostals because of the ways they articulated materialities as instructive and critical resources for understanding their changing world.

From the perspective that materials are evidentiary I began to see how the onset of widespread cardiometabolic disorders brought into question the everyday analytics that people employed as they interpreted people’s actions, and their bodies, in their day to day lives. When food and fat have historically “told” people about the depth of their relations and the landscape of rights and responsibilities, when fat became more evenly distributed and the dense foods of privilege (like sugary, fatty, salty objects) more easily available, how did people understand the meanings of bodies? Or the daily negotiating of endemic hierarchies? Or even spiritual authority?

Courtney Handman: You talk about the temporality of conversion in ways that are rather different than a lot of other anthropologists of Christianity, where conversion as an event is either not much addressed or is reported by one’s Christian interlocutor as something that happens in an instant. A lot of that analysis is rooted in your focus on Samoans’ experiences of health or illness. How does your focus on health affect the way you approach Christian temporality?

Jessica Hardin: I found myself seeing the temporalities that anthropologists of Christianity describe —the instantaneousness of conversion—and the temporalities that medical anthropologists describe—of the active creation of “befores” and “afters” related to the integration of a disease identity into one’s life. But, these temporalities came together in ways that were productive of novel social action not evident in either vein of scholarship. I started thinking about temporality in three ways as a result.

First, the intersection of conversion narratives and illness narratives—what I call embedded narratives—were stories told again and again. Their performative capacities—to create a saved identity, to create a sick role—merged in ways that affirmed the choices people made each day, offering them new ways of acting in the world. So while they were crafting a subject position—the individual speaking subject that we know from scholarship on Christians—and the person living a life changed by sickness—they were also domain shifting. In other words, by articulating an illness event as the precipitating event for conversion, pathways towards healing became evident. These pathways were otherwise difficult to parse in day-to-day life in Samoa—given those structural and environment factors that making avoiding or “controlling” diabetes, for example, feel nearly impossible. When these narrative conventions merged, the “befores” and “after” became less significant than the on-goingness of faith practices, and ultimately healing.

Healing was the second place where I saw that the temporality of instantaneousness, that we associate with Pentecostal healing. Instead I followed the accompanying temporalities that were more mundane that made the temporality of miraculous, perfect healing possible through everyday work of managing the body. This was particularly evident when studying cardiometabolic disorders like diabetes because they could not be vanquished in an instant—they ontologically challenged the notion that healing is complete and perfect. These sicknesses persisted over a lifetime. So then, how could people be healed if their diabetes persisted? When I started asking people about this paradox, they positioned healing as the unremarkable everyday work of avoiding particular foods, using money in new ways, or removing sources of stress and anger that sparked spikes in glucose or blood pressure.

Ultimately, these kinds of temporalities showed me that the instantaneous performative temporality of conversion and healing was accompanied by more invisible temporalities that were crafted by (mostly) women as they helped people come to embody a saved or healed subject position. Friends and healers taught new converted people how to speak, interpret their bodies and develop stances towards family that were seen as the source of suffering. They taught an embodied analytics—new ways of interpreting dynamic change in the body as a reflection of their faith.

The temporality of instantaneous conversion then was accompanied by the everyday work of helping people live within those worlds that were supposed to be radically different, and yet people didn’t know exactly how they should be different. The work of healing diabetes was then as much about imagining a path towards regular pharmaceutical use as texting with a group of women when stressful family situations arose or praying for one’s alcoholic father. These moments seem disconnected from diabetes, given that global discourse around diabetes focuses so heavily on diet and exercise. Yet the struggles that people associated with diabetes, the situations that needed healing were about feeling stressed and angry, dealing with the constant search for cash in an environment where opportunities to earn enough were few.

Instantaneous conversion authorized people to seek different kinds of relations, to speak differently and to use their money differently. Living with diabetes similarly required people to live in their worlds and bodies differently, eating differently, directly resources to medical care, developing physical activity routines. The work of healing was in crafting those different worlds.

Courtney Handman: What are your currently working on? How does your current work connect to Faith and the Pursuit of Health

 Recently, I’ve developed a couple of organic leads from this work. When doing this work I occasionally came across people who had undergone amputation related to diabetes and constantly met people with skin infections on their feet and lower legs related to neuropathy from diabetes. At the time I didn’t feel like I could work with people undergoing these dramatic changes because these were extraordinarily difficult transformations for people and their families to undergo. Now, I see that their experiences are often invisible in the larger literature on diabetes and certainly in diabetes interventions in Samoa. This got me thinking about the ways that health promotion, with its relentless prevention discourses, might be a driver of complications. When I did some pilot work on the topic I found that most people didn’t associate the conditions that precipitate amputation—that is skin infections or numbness—with diabetes. So, this new project takes on the question of the limitations, and potential deleterious impacts of prevention frameworks, using temporality to probe this question.

The other project I’ve just begun is working in the London Missionary Society archives, as these were the most influential missionaries in Samoa, to consider how missionaries were essential actors in creating the food systems of Samoa, crafting markets as integral to the functioning of missions. This historical angle is new to me, but I hope provides insights into some of the paradoxes involved in creating a decent meal—using Hanna Garth’s words—in Samoa today. What I’m also finding is a cultural text of conversion related to sickness, death and illness—as (at least in the late 1840s) missionaries saw these existential moments are some of the most productive for creating “sincere” conversion.

What a pleasure it is to dialogue about my book, especially with you, because your theorizing on “critical Christianity,” which helped me make sense of what I saw happening in day-to-day life in Samoa.

Angela Reyes and Stanton Wortham talk about their new book

Discourse Analysis beyond the Speech Event: 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

https://www.routledge.com/Discourse-Analysis-beyond-the-Speech-Event-1st-Edition/Wortham-Reyes/p/book/9780415839501

Interview by Alex McGrath

Alex McGrath: Your book very concisely addresses an issue in discourse analysis – that of the lack of a concrete method for analyzing social action unfolding throughout discourse, that is, beyond the single, discrete speech event. Why do you think the discrete speech event came to be the privileged site of analysis for discourse analysis and linguistic anthropology in general?

Angela Reyes and Stanton Wortham: A comprehensive, scholarly answer to that question would require quite a bit of historical work – for example, tracing the development and influence of Hymesian taxonomies that privilege the “speech event” as a coherent unit of analysis. But here we can offer a few observations and speculations. First, it’s important to see that we are describing a traditional approach to discourse analysis that analyzes either discrete non-recurring events, or recurrent types of events. There is a lot of work that claims to describe the structure of discursive events, where the analyst intends to analyze a type of event that allegedly recurs in similar form across time and space. Much of that work is of course useful, and there are in fact types of events that recur and deserve analysis. But we are after a different unit of analysis, a chain of linked events that are not the same from one to the next, but across which signs move and actions are accomplished.

It also makes analytic sense to start with analyzing a discrete event, before one goes on to analyzing a pathway across linked events. As we point out in the book, it is usually appropriate to start by analyzing a single event. One cannot simultaneously analyze lots of events, and you have to start somewhere. If the pathway of linked events is to be the object of analysis, then at some point you have to analyze each of the events that makes up the pathway. So we are not against analyzing discrete events. For studying some social phenomena, however, you need to go beyond this to analyze linked events.

Part of the history that led to a focus on discrete events was technological, we imagine. The tape recorder was a crucial technology which allowed people to record interaction and then play it back repeatedly for analysis. There have been recording devices before, but inexpensive, portable tape recorders democratized access to interaction. This made it easy to find an interesting event, to transcribe it, and to focus on its discursive structure. And there were also traditions of studying canonical events, likes certain kinds of narratives, which led people to focus on high visibility events that were discrete.

Alex McGrath: To what extent do you think the infrastructures of new media shape discourse, and to what extent do you think this should be something that the discourse analyst is aware of? I’m thinking of things like comment threads or the limited social information retrievable from a given speaker on a platform like Youtube, for instance, or the ways that old threads of discourse can resurface years later and become active again. Is this really just a matter of new media discourse having a different space-time envelope than face-to-face communication, or is there something else crucially different about the ways that new media discourse develops that the discourse analyst must account for?

 Angela Reyes and Stanton Wortham: The general principles about indexicality, metapragmatic regimentation, and the like remain the same across contexts. But it is clearly true that different media and different contexts will have varying structures and affordances that are distinctive. You will not be able to do compelling discourse analysis of a particular medium or a particular context, like the social media contexts that you mention, without knowing about the affordances of the kinds of specific features that you describe.

With respect to social media, it is worth pointing out that contemporary work has begun to show how you cannot make a clear distinction between the dimensions of social processes that take place through social media and those that take place through other channels. In his analyses of mediatization, Asif Agha argues convincingly that we cannot see “media” as a separable domain with its own organization and principles. Instead, there are social processes that are ongoing: social identification, commodification, and others. In the contemporary world significant pieces of these processes take place through media of various kinds. And we have to understand the affordances of those media in order to understand how these processes work. But we are not analyzing media as a discrete site or media processes as discrete processes. Recent analyses by Elaine Chun, Jan Blommaert, and others offer nice empirical examples of this.

 Alex McGrath: Does Discourse Analysis Beyond the Speech Event provide a vocabulary for describing how stereotypes and prevailing ideologies can be contested, or rendered unstable? Could you talk for a bit about how your method accounts for how people exercise agency or resist dominant ideologies and representations?

 Angela Reyes and Stanton Wortham: We would like to think that our methodology can be applied to study processes of the kind that you are describing. It is not intended to be suited for only one theoretical perspective or other with respect to questions like power and agency. It is important to note that the cross-event perspective which we are drawing on, and applying methodologically, does have something to say about the idea of agency. There was a distinction between structure and agency that was important several decades ago, and subsequent discussions of ”structuration,” which allegedly resolved the issue. A cross-event perspective, as it has been developed over a couple of decades now, tries to move beyond this conversation. Unexpected, emergent patterns cannot always be attributed to a human individual’s action. In fact, there are reasons to be concerned about the Enlightenment perspective that imagines autonomous individuals who issue agentive changes into the world that spring from their intentions alone. The analysis of unexpected patterns is crucial. It is equally crucial not to reduce people to structures or stereotypes, thus removing what is often called their agency. But from our perspective emergence and unexpected patterns derive from chains of linked events, events which are never solely constituted by one individual.

 Alex McGrath: How would the discourse analyst account for unfolding discourse in which multiple channels of semiosis are key in establishing pathways, or co-constitutive with other semiotic channels in solidifying indexicals? Cases in which, for example, a color becomes a salient indexical along with certain formal linguistic features, strengthening pathways and shaping alignments, as in Norma Mendoza-Denton’s account of high school cliques in Homegirls: Language and Cultural Practice Among Latina Youth Gangs (2008).

 Angela Reyes and Stanton Wortham: That is an excellent point and example. It is absolutely the case that sometimes crucial indexical signs come in various media — visual, auditory, and so on. Obviously, in order to study multimedia signs we need recording instruments that give us access to them for analytic purposes. That means video, at least, in addition to voice and text. The analytic framework we offer in the book is flexible enough to include indexical signs from multiple different modalities. But the logistical challenges in recording and then analyzing signs from multiple modalities are substantial.

Another important issue your question raises is what counts as a sign (linguistic or otherwise) in the first place. Our approach is committed to tracing what is attended to as a sign, so what participants orient to is absolutely key. Researchers could have all of the recording equipment in the world, but we should not be romanced into believing that these technologies bring us closer to an unmediated truth about some reality. As analysts, we need to privilege participant perspectives: what they attend to as a meaningful sign in the world, rather than what we researchers believe these to be.

 Alex McGrath: Lastly, were there any challenges or surprises to writing a methods book? Did the development of this project differ from your previous projects in any significant ways?

 Angela Reyes and Stanton Wortham: When one writes a dissertation, and subsequently has to do empirical projects, one realizes that methods are critical. Theories and conceptual speculations are a dime a dozen. People make them up all the time, and they publish them, and you can always make up your own or find relevant ones out there. But having a systematic method is absolutely crucial to moving forward, and the method has to have a certain level of systematicity and validity in order to be worthwhile. With respect to the practicalities of getting academic work done in the real world, methods have a crucial place. With this in mind, we wanted to make the book useful to people doing empirical research. Thus we focused on a couple of key examples and tried to work through them systematically. We also tried to offer systematic guidelines, overviews, and procedures. We wanted to make complex concepts clear but not simplistic, so that people from various disciplines at various stages could see the full methodological value of linguistic anthropological theories of discourse. We hope that our approach is useful to others in their research.

 

Isabel Laack on her book, Aztec Religion and Art of Writing

Cover Aztec Religion and Art of Writing

https://brill.com/view/title/54201

Patawee Promsen: Throughout the book, you choose to use the term Nahua instead of Aztec, as it is the term they call themselves and it includes the larger ethnic groups in the area. I wonder, however, why you chose to use the term Aztec instead of Nahua for the book title? Are there any implications in doing so?

Isabel Laack: Words do not carry any inherent, objective meaning; we use words to communicate our ideas about reality and thus construct this reality. In academic thinking, we strive for clarity in our communication and analyze the meanings commonly associated with terms in their social and political contexts, contexts in which some people have more power to shape reality as others.

The term “Aztec” was coined by Europeans in the 19th century to name the mainly Nahuatl-speaking ethnic groups that formed the “Aztec empire” in the century before the Spanish conquest. Throughout my book, I preferred the Indigenous term “Nahua” because of two reasons: first, to emphasize the cultural traits shared by the people using this language, and second, to raise awareness for the political asymmetries reflected in our European interpretations of the Indigenous cultures of Mexico—including our powers to name them.

Having said that, it is the term “Aztec” that is most commonly used in American popular discourse; and it is also used in academic discourse to distinguish the pre-colonial “Aztecs” from the colonial and contemporary “Nahuas”. When you choose a title for a book, you need to name your subject and approach as clearly and concisely as possible. At the same time, you need to include the terms most probably used by your potential readers, to catch their attention and to be found when they search for literature in internet search engines or academic databases. Consequently, I decided to include the catchy if problematic “Aztec” in the main title but also the more speaking “Nahua” in the subtitle.

Patawee Promsen:. Can you share more about how you have come to be interested in this research topic, especially Nahua pictorial writing? 

Isabel Laack: My fascination for Indigenous American cultures was first stirred in high school in the context of the 500th anniversary of the European conquest of America in 1992, when my history teacher taught us to critically reflect on European colonialism. Later, I was privileged to learn more about Indigenous Americans in my university studies of religion and anthropology. These studies were inspired by the wish to better understand their ways of living as well as the injustice initiated by my European ancestors through conquest, colonization, and suppression.

My academic interest in the specifics of Nahua pictorial writing and its correlation with (religious) cosmovision was raised primarily through the books written by art historian Elizabeth H. Boone.  I was deeply touched by the beauty of Aztec and Mixtec painting, intrigued with this form of visual communication, and inspired by Boone’s impetus to overcome Eurocentric biases in our attempts to understand how this form of communication works.

Patawee Promsen: While some scholars tend to treat oral tradition as a primary source of understanding Nahua culture, your book suggests that pictorial writing is equally important, and its role is not limited to just a device for serving orality. In what ways that considering both oral and written literature as being inextricably interwoven will add to a more understanding of the indigenous historiographical genres?

Isabel Laack: The main thrust of my argument is to overcome the interpretative limitations produced by using European systems of communication as the (only) reference point for analyzing Indigenous oral and written genres.

If we look at the few surviving manuscripts written in traditional Aztec and Mixtec writing, we might be tempted to see them as very limited forms of communication—comparing them implicitly or explicitly to the long texts written in the history of Europe in alphabetical writing. Assuming that the Nahuas nonetheless had extensive cultural and historical knowledge, the only possible inference is: There must have been a strong oral tradition complementing the written records. And indeed, colonial sources evidently speak of a rich and elaborate oral tradition including all kinds of media and performative acts.

Nevertheless, trying to understand pictorial writing in its own right—not compared to alphabetical writing—opens our minds to realize that there might be layers of meaning communicated in this system that work beyond verbally expressed thinking. Then, we also realize that the Nahua combination of oral and written traditions is much more complex than previously assumed. Engaging in this way with Indigenous forms of communication teaches us very much about the many human possibilities of making sense of our lives in this world.

Patawee Promsen: Your book offers a fascinating idea of a “material turn” in the study of religion. In the conclusion part, you suggest that Nahua pictography challenges the idea that “thoughts are best expressed linguistically” (p.356). I wonder if you could explain more of why not only phonographic/alphabetical but also pictorial writing can reflect critical thinking?

Isabel Laack: Let me answer this question in two parts, discussing first the material turn and second my interpretation of pictorial writing.

1) Because of its origin and history, the Western academic study of religion is strongly shaped by Christian, Protestant ideas and has, thus far, mainly focused on analyzing the belief systems and theologies, that is, cognitively and verbally expressed interpretations of the world. In the last decades, some scholars of religion have turned their attention away from exclusively examining elite discourses to consider what most ordinary people do with their religion in their daily lives. Thus, scholars have come to realize that religion is lived with all the human senses and the body, not only cognitively but also emotionally, performatively, and in interaction with material and sensory media, such as artifacts and objects, music and sounds, images and colors, smells and food. Scholars promoting the material turn and the aesthetic turn in the study of religion attempt to better understand these ways of religiously making sense of the world, ways going beyond using words.

2) You mention a part of my key argument about Nahua pictorial writing, which challenges the idea that thoughts are best expressed linguistically. In this argument, I refer to the theory of embodied metaphors by cognitive linguist George P. Lakoff and philosopher Mark L. Johnson. In a nutshell, they argue that even our most critical and abstract thinking—such as philosophical thinking—is fundamentally shaped by the ways we perceive our environment through our bodies. A simple example for this is the conception of time as a linear movement in space. According to Lakoff and Johnson, we cannot think abstractly and critically without using embodied metaphors like this. In my book, I applied this argument to pictorial writing by showing its potential to visualize embodied metaphors in images and signs and thus to enable “readers” to understand them and to give them tools to critically reflect on the ideas expressed in the painting.

Patawee Promsen: One of the most important arguments from your book is that semiotic theories are developed differently in different cultures so that it will be a misinterpretation if we use Western knowledge to get the Non-Western’s sense of reality. Can you say more about how deconstructing Western idea of semiotics would be helpful to understand the Nahua’s linguistic theory and their sense of reality?

Isabel Laack: When we engage with people from a culture different to our own, maybe even from an earlier time in history, we might realize that they have a different perspective on the world, a different cosmovision, a different sense of reality. I intentionally use the term “sense of reality” to emphasize the sensorily, bodily aspects of our perception and (performative) interpretations of reality. Furthermore, humans in the many cultures of the world have developed different sign systems for communication, for example language, facial expression and body movements, ritualized acts, images, and scripts. Some of these sign systems, such as phonographic scripts, are secondary sign systems representing a primary sign system such as language.

A “semiotic theory” is an implicit or explicitly voiced theory about the relationship between the signs of a specific sign system and reality. As such, these theories mirror the more general sense of reality of the culture in question. We can use semiotic theories from our own culture to interpret a sign system from a different culture, but this does not tell us much about their sense of reality or their own ideas about the relationship between the signs and reality.

The problem with many Western engagements with people from other cultures is an attitude to essentially assume that Western ontology, interpretation of the world, or sense of reality is objectively true, whereas those of other cultures—if they happen to be different—are not. Sometimes, we need to deconstruct objectifying ideologies (such as Western logocentrism) in order to open our minds for the truth that might be lying in other senses of reality.

Patawee Promsen: You mentioned in your book that religion is not “solely the creation of the scholar’s study” (p.11). In your opinion, how does this study help challenge the Western science knowledge of religion? And how would it help overcome the ethnocentric and intellectualist biases?

Isabel Laack: First, I would like to explain why I quoted J.Z. Smith in my introduction. In the study of religion as in other humanities, cultural studies, and philosophies, there has been an ongoing debate about the ontological status of academic concepts. With his statement “religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study,” J.Z. Smith argued against objectifying philosophies assuming that the concept of religion as used by academic scholars of religion mirrors categories objectively present in extra-linguistic reality.

My epistemological standpoint regarding the ontological status of academic concepts is more moderate and influenced by the embodied critical realism of Lakoff and Johnson. I believe that a reality exists outside the human imagination, with which we interact bodily and socially. This reality includes both the physical, material reality of our natural environment as well as the social reality formed by what we and other human beings do. Thus, human beings factually do things, things that we in our culture and historical time have decided to denote as religion. The category religion itself, however, does not objectively exist in extra-linguistic reality. We could also use a different concept to name some things people do or debate endlessly what religion is and what it is not, argue about the contents and boundaries of this category. Accordingly, there have been many different suggestions for defining religion. In the end, it is a matter of communicating our ideas about reality.

In my study of the Nahuas, I attempted to show that some common associations with the Western concept of religion do impede our possibilities of understanding how the Nahuas perceived and interpreted reality. I do not claim that all Nahuas perceived reality the same way, but I think they shared some foundational beliefs. Neither do I claim that I come in any way close to how any Nahua 500 years ago might have felt and thought. However, I do claim that if we read the surviving sources of Nahua communication attentively and reflect on the history of European projections, some interpretations of a more general Nahua sense of reality make more sense than others.

Many things the Nahuas did and communicated about their thoughts are very different from European culture. Academic theories about religion, as they are strongly shaped by European ways of seeing the world, might not be adequate tools to understand these things. Consequently, studying Nahua ways of seeing the world and acting in it challenges aspects of these academic theories believed to be cross-culturally applicable and universally true.

Cited References

Boone, Elizabeth H., and Walter D. Mignolo, eds. 1994. Writing Without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Boone, Elizabeth H. 2000. Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztec and Mixtec. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Boone, Elizabeth H. 2007. Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate. Joe R. and Teresa Long Series in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press: page xi.

 

Teri Silvio on her new book, Puppets, Gods, and Brands

https://uhpress.hawaii.edu/product/puppets-gods-and-brands-theorizing-the-age-of-animation-from-taiwan/

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: What first led you to start thinking about animation?

Teri Silvio:  Well, I started off by studying drama, and I wrote my dissertation on Taiwanese Opera.  Taiwanese Opera is a genre in which women play all of the leading roles, both male and female, and the vast majority of fans are also women.  I chose it because I was interested in how cross-gender performance works in contexts where it’s a long-standing historical tradition, rather than consciously feminist experimentation.  I was writing up my project proposal around the time Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter were published, and basically, I was curious whether drag could still be considered “subversive” when it was what your mother and grandmother watched.  (The answer, in case you’re wondering, is yes and no — Taiwanese women who grew up watching this genre tended to already think of gender primarily as a kind of habitus, but they didn’t think that had anything to do with why men had more power in Taiwanese society.)  Anyway, when I started working at a research institute in Taiwan, I had to come up with a new project.  At temple festivals I had noticed that there were often two stages, one showing the opera, and another showing puppetry, which was a genre that was performed and watched primarily by older men.  Also, I had seen some of the Pili puppetry series on television, and was amazed by it.  It looked like someone had decided to remake Tsui Hark’s swordsman fantasy films using puppets — there were all kinds of wild special effects, and theme songs, along with the romanticization of brotherhood you get in the swordsman genre, I just loved it at first sight.  So I decided to do a project on puppetry and its relationship to masculinity.  I was curious why drama and puppetry were so gendered in Taiwan.  I found out pretty quickly that after puppetry was adapted to television, and then to digital video, women had started to become fans.  In fact, the most active fans of the Pili series were women.  One of the activities that women fans of Pili enjoyed was cosplay, and I started going to cons and interviewing the (mostly) women I found who were cosplaying puppet characters.  I started asking them the questions I’d asked opera actresses and fans — Do you identify with the character you’re dressed as?  How do you get into character?   And I would get these puzzled looks, or long descriptions of buying bolts of cloth and sewing costumes, but nothing about embodiment or psychological identification.  When I asked people how they felt in costume, they’d say things like, “It’s like the character is with me,” but never “I feel like I am the character.” So that’s when I started to realize that there was an important, if elusive, difference between puppet characters and characters embodied by actors, and I started to think about puppetry as something more than just a variation on theatrical performance, that puppetry did something other than construct identities.  And from there I started thinking about animation in the broader sense, what it means to bring objects to life.

Ilana Gershon: In your book, animation functions in the way that media or language functions for some analysts.  Not every group understands what media or language does in the same way – Japanese approaches to cell phones are different than American approaches because of their media ideologies.  What is a Taiwanese take on animation?

Teri Silvio:  Different cultures have what I call different modes of animation — ideas about what kind of objects can be animated, what aspects of personhood can be projected into them, and how that can be done.  These ideas are grounded in specific cosmologies, ideas about the nature of humanity and the nature of the non-human world, how they came into being, and the differences between them.  Almost all anthropological studies of puppetry discuss its ritual functions.  But I think the book that was most helpful for me was Scott Cutler Shershow’s book, Puppets and “Popular” Culture.  Shershow looks at the theological grounding of puppetry in Western culture from Plato’s allegory of the cave to Jim Henson’s Muppets.  He looks not just at puppetry practices, but at how puppetry has been used as a trope, and finds that despite changes in the moral values of puppetry in Western discourse, it is almost always seen as a version of “playing God,” as a re-enactment of Genesis.    In contrast, many scholars working on Japanese manga and anime, especially those writing about the works of Miyazaki Hayao and Oshii Mamoru, have noted how Japanese animation reflects Shinto animist ideas about all kinds of objects having spirits or souls.

What I found in Taiwan was that practices of investing things with agency tended to focus on a specific type of object, the ang-a, which is an anthropomorphic figurine, usually small.  Puppets are the paradigmatic form of ang-a, but statues of gods which are made for worship are also called “just ang-a” before they are ritually animated.  Chinese folk religion is very human-centric, and investing material objects with human qualities has to start with the object being given physical human qualities — faces and bodies.  Animated animal characters in Taiwan, whether they are deities or logo characters, are almost always anthropomorphized.

Another important aspect of the religious grounding of animation in Taiwan comes from the way that religious icons have genealogies.  New icons of a particular deity usually contain incense ash from the burner of an older icon, so there is a kind of contagious magic at work, with substance being passed down from “original” to “divided” icons.  The proliferation of icons is seen as evidence of that god’s efficacy, and also as how that god comes to have more presence and power in people’s lives.  One of my arguments is that, while people do not think that puppet or manga characters are ontologically similar to gods, they do see the relationship between popular culture characters and their many tie-in products as being similar to the relationship between gods and their icons, and there’s a lot of overlap between the vocabulary and practices of Chinese folk religion and those of Taiwanese puppetry and manga/anime fandoms.

Ilana Gershon: With Hong Kong protests happening in the background, along with such a complex legacy of various colonialisms in East Asia, I was wondering if you could speak to how easily some forms and aesthetics seem to travel in this region, despite or maybe because of the regional politics.

Teri Silvio:  The markets in cultural products throughout East Asia are heavily influenced by two major producers, Japan and the United States, and domestic content producers are constantly struggling to break through their hegemony (the PRC is a special case here, where import of foreign cultural products are strictly limited by the state, but even there American and Japanese influence is felt).  This has more directly to do with American control over distribution networks that was set up after World War II, and a concerted push by Japan to establish similar distribution networks throughout Asia starting in the late 1980s (which has been documented in detail by Koichi Iwabuchi and others).  The degree to which different countries’ products dominate local markets varies, not only by country, but also by generation and by industry (for instance, in Taiwan, American, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and local bands are all competitive in the popular music market, but over 90% of the comic books on sale in Taiwan are translations of Japanese manga). So what popular culture is available, and what is mainstream, is largely determined by government policy and corporate strategy. The historical experience of colonialism is more a factor in terms of how cultural products are received in different countries.  So for instance, Japanese cultural products are less controversial in Taiwan than in Korea or China, where there are frequent boycotts of Japanese products, and this has to do not only with the differences in how the Japanese administered different territories under their control in the early twentieth century, but also in how the colonial era took on different meanings in light of what came after.

In this context, Iwabuchi and others have argued that one reason Japan has succeeded in exporting so much of their popular culture throughout East Asia is the way that they create the sense of “cultural proximity,” the idea that contemporary Japan represents a kind of modernity different from that represented by Hollywood and other American products, a modernity that is less alien and more easily imagined as achievable.  But the idea of cultural proximity can be a double-edged sword, especially if it is too explicit, since it can recall imperial Japan’s “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” ideology.

In the book, I am more interested in what globalization looks like if we focus on animation genres, rather than performed, or live action ones.  On the one hand, I look at how the Pili International Multimedia Company has tried to market their video puppetry overseas, trying out different models, with their most successful attempt at globalization happening when they cooperate with a Japanese animation creator.  I argue that Pili crosses borders best when it presents a vision of what globalization might look like if it were motivated by traditional Chinese structures and concerns, and that the use of “traditional” genres and media creates a different kind of trans-East Asian cultural proximity from that created by idol dramas.  So I note that, while the Pili company’s attempts to be “the Disney of Taiwan” largely failed, the fandom spread quite rapidly, through shared practices that might be thought of as “folk culture,” such as the collective re-creation of a wide variety of versions of the characters in different media, and the proliferation of ang-a.  While the cultural proximity of idol dramas tries to make an end run around historical trauma by focusing on shared modernity, Taiwanese video puppetry makes an end run around the traumas of colonial and post-colonial modernity by focusing on aesthetics, practices, and ideologies that unite the pre-modern past and the post-modern present.

Ilana Gershon: You argue that men and women have different relationships to various forms of animation.  In what ways and how is this shaped by overarching labor issues?

Teri Silvio: I look at this mainly in the chapter on cosplay, which is primarily an activity for women fans of puppetry, manga, and anime.  I ask why cosplay is so appealing to young women, and not to men.  I work from the basic premise that cosplay is one of many forms of play that function as a sort of safe, enjoyable place to practice skills and forms of sociality that are necessary in the less safe and enjoyable spaces, especially at work.  Cosplay is, at the surface level, a kind of performance.  And most cosplayers are working in the pink collar sector (as secretaries, kindergarten teachers, salespeople, and so on).   In the 1980s, Arlie Hochschild worked with flight attendants, and found that they think of their work in pretty classic Goffmanian terms – they saw their main work skills as performances of self, impression management, controlling the moods of passengers by controlling their own mood and embodiment.  So one could see cosplay as a play form of the emotional labor that these women have to do in their jobs.  But cosplay only started in the 1990s, and to find out why it became popular when it did, we need to look more closely at what has changed in pink collar labor.  The Italian Autonomists are probably the theorists who have tried to outline what’s going on with post-industrial labor most thoroughly.  While their idea of “immaterial labor” can be useful, and they do note gendered divisions of labor within that category (basically, men do programming, women do caretaking), the way they think about digital technology tends to help us understand what’s changing in men’s work, but cover up what’s happening in pink collar work.  One of the big differences between the women cosplayers I interviewed and their mothers is how much of the work of emotional labor they do online, as opposed to in person.  Taiwan has one of the world’s highest cellphone ownership and internet penetration rates, and young people here spend huge amounts of time on social networking platforms, online chat groups, cellphone messaging, and so on. Emotional work that their mothers did through embodiment, they have to do via online avatars or personae created through text and image, that is, through animation.  But at the same time, of course, there are still lots of situations where they do have to do embodied performances of gender.  So I think that one of the reasons why cosplay has replaced other forms of embodied play at this point in time is because it lets women play with how to negotiate performance and animation – how to communicate through the body without having to enter into a role, how to use their bodies as puppets instead of as outward manifestations of some inner essence.

Ilana Gershon: You suggest that animation can be the basis for a new form of political activism.  How would this work?

Teri Silvio: If only I knew – I’d go out and do it!  You should probably ask John Bell, because he’s been doing amazing political puppetry and thinking about how to use puppets for activism for so long.  But I do see a lot of potential for getting out of the traps of identity politics if we start thinking of identity as something that’s created through animation, through the collective projection of aspects of our selves outward, rather than as the interiorization of roles. It might help us let go of the idea that our identities are something we possess, and other people’s identities are something we have no stake in or responsibility for. Since I finished the book, I have seen some intriguing examples of people using what I would call animation practices in political activism.  I was on a fabulous  conference panel recently (thanks to Laurel Kendall for organizing it), and one of the papers was by Moumita Sen, who talked about a group of leftist activists in West Bengal who have been trying to create Adivasi (indigenous) solidarity by remaking a demon into a god.  They made statues of this new god with dark skin and muscular bodies, combining traditional Hindu iconography with the iconography of the working-class hero.    And I’ve seen the image of a cute cartoon pig in lots of graffiti from the Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protests.  At first I thought it was McDull, the protagonist of a series of anime who is a little boy pig being raised by his overworked mother in the city, and who is affectionately seen as a symbol of Hong Kong identity.  But it isn’t; apparently it’s a sort of emoji character from a messaging service that the young protesters are using.  Which is in some ways more interesting, because emoji characters are more open than anime characters (although the categories overlap, as some anime characters have their own emoji series), they primarily represent states of mind, what they say about identity is there, but secondary.  Anyway, I’m really hoping I can do some more work on the use of emoji characters soon, because I’m really intrigued by how they circulate and can give people a sense of a collective mood, or set of moods, emerging from the chaos of online discourse.

 

Morgan Ames on The Charisma Machine

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On Henry Jenkins’ blog, he interview Morgan Ames about the One Laptop Per Child project.   With Jenkins’ permission, I am re-posting the interview here (but see the original here: http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2019/10/3/interview-with-morgan-j-ames-on-the-charisma-machine-the-life-death-and-legacy-of-one-laptop-per-child-part-i

Henry Jenkins: You root the OLPC project in a particular conception of the relationship between technology and childhood in the thinking of Seymour Papert. What do you see as some of the core assumptions shaping this vision of ‘the technically precocious boy”?

Morgan Ames: Nicholas Negroponte was certainly the public face of One Laptop per Child, but he readily admitted in his marathon of talks in the early days of OLPC that the very idea for the project was actually Papert’s, even though Papert was already retired when OLPC was announced. He often said that the whole project was “the life’s work of Seymour Papert.”

And when you read through all of Papert’s public writing, from the late 1960s through the early 2000s, you can clearly see that connection. Papert started writing about the liberatory potential of giving kids free access to computers not long after after he joined MIT in the 1960s. Throughout the 1970s, he was a central figure in developing the LOGO programming environment. The branch he worked on, which ended up being the dominant branch, was built around the ideals of what he called “constructionism,” as a tool for kids to use to explore mathematical and technical concepts in a grounded, playful way. He kept advocating these same views throughout the 1980s and 1990s, even as LOGO lost steam after many of the really grand utopian promises attached to it failed to materialize.

I argue that one of the reasons for this failure is that LOGO and many constructionist projects are built around a number of assumptions about childhood and technology that just aren’t true for all children — and in fact are only true for a particular set of children, mostly boys, who have a lot of support to explore technical systems.  

 

Some of this support comes from their immediate environment: they have parents who bought them a computer, who helped them figure it out, who were there to troubleshoot, who supported their technical interests. If it wasn’t a parent, it was someone else they could turn to with questions. The programmers I’ve interviewed who proudly say they are self-taught had a whole constellation of resources like this to help them along.

But some of this support also comes from the cultural messages that we hear, and often propagate, about children. Messages about boys’ supposedly “natural” interest in tinkering with machines goes back at least 100 years — there’s this great volume called The Boy Mechanic: 700 Things for Boys to Do that was published in 1913! Then there’s transistor radio culture, engineering competitions, and a whole host of technical toys specifically marketed to boys in the decades following. Amy Ogata, Susan Douglas, Ruth Oldenziel, and many other fantastic historical scholars have traced these histories in depth. With the rise of computing, this same boy-centered engineering culture gets connected to programming, displacing all of the women who had been doing that work as low-paid clerical workers around and after World War II, as Nathan Ensmenger and Mar Hicks have shown. The same boy-centered culture also defined the video game industry in the 1980s.

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From all of this, at every turn boys — and particularly white middle-class boys — are told that they belong in this culture, that they are (or can be) naturals at programming. Everyone else has to account for themselves in these worlds, and everyone else faces ostracism, harassment, and worse if they dare to stick around. It’s something I became pretty familiar with myself throughout my computer science major.

When I talk about the “technically precocious boy,” it’s both of these pieces — the specific material and social support certain kids get, but also the larger cultural messages they live with and have to make sense of in their own lives. This is what social scientists call a “social imaginary,” or a coherent and shared vision that helps define a group.

Unless projects very actively reject and counter these social imaginaries, they ride the wave of them. One Laptop per Child is one of these, just as Papert’s other projects were. Even though these projects tended to speak inclusively about “girls and boys” and “many ways of knowing,” they then turned around and extolled the virtues of video games and talked about technical tinkering in ways that wholly relied on this century of cultural messaging, which had long been incredibly exclusionary.

Henry Jenkins: Did this conception constitute a blind spot when applied, unproblematically, to childhoods lived in other parts of the world? How might we characterize the childhoods of the people who were encountering these devices in Latin America?

Morgan Ames: The biggest issue with relying on the social imaginary of the technically precocious boy is that the kids who identified with it have always made up a very small part of the population. If you think back to the youths of many of those who contributed to OLPC, who were discussing its similarities with the Commodores or Apple IIs of their childhoods — most of their peers couldn’t care less about computers. So to assume that somehow all or most kids across the Global South, or anywhere in the world, would care when this kind of passion is idiosyncratic even in places that have long had decent access to computers is a bit baffling to me.

When I’ve said as much to friends who worked on OLPC, I often heard something along the lines of, “well, those past machines maybe only appealed to some kids, but this one will have much more universal appeal!” And Papert wrote about the universal potential of computers too — he called them the “Proteus of machines,” with something to appeal to everyone. I see similar stories in movements to teach all kids to code.

But the majority of the kids I got to know in Paraguay — as well as those I met in Uruguay and Peru — just weren’t very interested in these under-powered laptops. I found that over half of kids in Paraguay would rather play with friends or spend time with their families, and didn’t find anything all that compelling about the device. The one third of students who did use their laptops much at all liked to connect to the Internet, play little games, watch videos, listen to music — pretty similar to what many kids I know in the U.S. like to do with computers. This is not to erase the cultural differences that were there, much less the legacy of imperialism still very much present across the region. But it really drives home just how wrong the assumption was that kids in the Global South would be drawn to these machines in a way that differed fundamentally from most kids in the Global North, that they’d really want to learn to program.

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Henry Jenkins: You correctly note that the metaphor of the school as a factory often results in a dismissal of teacher’s role in the educational process. Yet, the OLPC and other Media Lab projects have depended heavily upon teachers and other educators to help motivate adaption and use of these new platforms and practices. How have these two ideas been reconciled in practice?

Morgan Ames: The social imaginary of school-as-factory is a perfect foil for the social imaginary of the naturally creative child (and the technically-precocious boy as an offshoot of it). We certainly see messages all the time that portray schools with derision and contempt — in spite of a long and well-documented history of school reform, schools are often talked about as hopelessly outdated, mechanistic, and antithetical to children’s creativity. (This is not to say that I think schools are perfect as they are — I certainly dislike drill-and-test practices, for one — but they are complicated and culturally-embedded institutions, often asked to create impossibly large cultural changes with impossibly scant resources.) When One Laptop per Child, or other Media Lab projects, echo some of these sentiments, they hardly need explain themselves — the school-as-factory social imaginary readily comes to hand.

But you’re right that how schools relate to teachers, and how teachers relate to these projects, is much more complicated. In his writing Papert very clearly condemns schools, but is much more equivocal about teachers, often casting them as “co-learners” even as they are charged with steering children’s learning toward mathematical ends. Other OLPC leaders said some terrible things about teachers early on — more than one said that most teachers were drunk or absentee, for instance — but local projects, including Paraguay Educa (the local NGO in charge the OLPC project in Paraguay), conducted teacher training sessions and expected teachers to use the laptops in classrooms. At the same time, OLPC and many local OLPC projects, including Paraguay Educa’s, talked about how the most interesting things kids would do with their laptops would probably happen outside of classrooms, and that they would soon leapfrog past their teachers in ability.

I can’t fully resolve this paradox, but I can say that keeping the social imaginary of the school-as-factory alive is pretty valuable to many ed-tech projects that promise to overhaul an educational system that seems to be both in urgent need of fixing and receptive to quick technological fixes. However, it’s one thing to paint a rosy picture of the possibilities for technologically-driven educational reform without the need for teacher buy-in — but then when it comes down to actually implementing a reform effort, teachers become a necessary part of the project, because ultimately they are a necessary part of learning.

Henry Jenkins: What are some of the important differences between the schools described in the rhetoric around OLPC and the actual schools you encountered on the ground?

Morgan Ames: Negroponte exhibited some very wishful thinking in justifying the costs of the program. He’d tell governments that they should think of this as equivalent to a textbook, and put their textbook budget into this program. Amortized over five years, he said, a hundred-dollar laptop would be equivalent to the twenty dollars per year per student that Brazil, China, and other places budgeted for textbooks. But I found only one school in Paraguay that consistently used textbooks, and it was because they were sponsored by an evangelical church in Texas. If schools had any, they had some very old textbooks that were kept in the front office for teachers’ reference only. Most teachers wrote lessons on a blackboard, and students copied them into notebooks that they were responsible for buying.

Papert had a version of this analogy as well — but instead of textbooks, he equated computers with pencils. You wouldn’t give a classroom one pencil to share, he would say derisively — but even if OLPC’s XO laptop had actually been $100 rather than close to $200, that’s a far cry from a ten-cent pencil. Moreover, even ten-cent pencils were items that not all Paraguayan students could consistently afford. A good portion of Paraguay’s population are subsistence farmers and the Paraguayan school system has been underfunded for many decades now; some schools don’t have working toilets, and none provide photocopiers, paper, or even toilet paper or soap. Most classrooms did not have plugs for charging laptops or WiFi routers — the schools, with the help of local project leaders and parent volunteers, had to install those. And in some cases, the wiring that they used was mislabeled, so the plugs failed.

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Despite these rough conditions, many teachers really did care about teaching — they were not “drunk or absent entirely,” as Negroponte once claimed. But much like teachers in the U.S., they were beset from all sides by demands for their time, they were very underpaid, and many exhibited signs of burnout. Even so, some were really excited about the project, but most really didn’t have the time they would have needed to integrate a difficult-to-use laptop into their curriculum. In the book I include several vignettes from my fieldwork that describe in detail how these teachers would struggle to use laptops for lessons in spite of broken machines, uninstalled software, slow networks, and quickly-draining batteries. It’s no wonder that nearly all gave up in time.

Henry Jenkins: The Constructionist paradigm leads us to see the web and media use as “distractions” from the core OLPC mission at the same time as the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative was emphasizing the kinds of learning which could take place around games, social media, and participatory culture more generally. How would your results look if read through this different frame?

Morgan Ames: Aside from some fairly abstract discussions of the virtues of videogames, constructionism generally doesn’t really discuss media use — it seems to exist in a cultural vacuum where students encounter a Platonic (or perhaps Papertian?) ideal of a computer with nothing but LOGO, and maybe Wikipedia, on it. But the connected learning framework — which, in the spirit of cultural studies, takes children’s interests and media worlds seriously as ideal starting-points for learning — was very much on my own mind throughout my fieldwork and analysis. And I was deeply impressed by the ways some kids found innovative ways around the XO’s hardware and software limitations, and the ways that a new video or music file would spread, student to student, through schools.

The piece that was largely missing, though, was a way to bridge those interests with learning outcomes like literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking that are important for effectively navigating the world. A handful of parents and teachers had ideas about how to shape their children’s interests toward more learning-oriented ends, and I have a chapter devoted to their stories. But they were the exception, not the norm.

Moreover, I would bring a critical media studies lens to this as well, and ask just what kind of influence advertisers including Nestle, Nickelodeon, and more should have in children’s educations. These companies developed content specifically for the XO laptop that was widely popular during my fieldwork, and thus had preferential access to children via an avenue that most considered “educational.” While I love the connected learning approach of really centering children’s cultures in the learning process, I am very critical of companies’ efforts to make money off of that.

__________

Morgan G. Ames researches the ideological origins of inequality in the technology world, with a focus on utopianism, childhood, and learning. Her book The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child (MIT Press, 2019) draws on archival research and a seven-month ethnography in Paraguay to explore the cultural history, results, and legacy of the OLPC project — and what it tells us about the many other technology projects that draw on similar utopian ideals. Morgan is an assistant adjunct professor in the School of Information and interim associate director of research for the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at the University of California, Berkeley, where she teaches in Data Science and administers the Designated Emphasis in Science and Technology Studies.”

Herve Varenne on his new book, Educating in Life

https://www.routledge.com/Educating-in-Life-Educational-Theory-and-the-Emergence-of-New-Normals/Varenne/p/book/9781138313668

Ilana Gershon:  This book contains a wide range of ethnographic topics – how did you select what to write about and what to focus upon in these cases?

Hervé Varenne: I did not exactly “select” the ethnographies.  They were a gift from my students springing from the intersection of my interests with theirs, over the past decade.  What may be my own contribution is the organization of the book.  I intend to help make a general point about education, and about culture and, particularly the inevitable drift of any set of forms as people face the arbitrariness of the forms and educate themselves about what do next, collectively.  I always admired Marcel Mauss, and Claude Lévi-Strauss for the manner of their intellectual practice: again and again, on fundamental matters like gift-giving, the body, the classification of people, they proceeded through systematic comparison based on solid ethnographies.  The Trobriand can tell us about the Kwakiutl, and vice versa, as well as about us.  In our case, young girls from the Dominican Republic can tell us about young men venturing other people’s capital, mothers can tell us about teachers, and humans interacting with horses can tell us about everybody—particularly when one of the protagonists is voiceless, or silenced.  And all of them, together, can tell us about “education.”

Ilana Gershon: Throughout this book, you explore instructions and instructions about instructions.   What does a focus on instructing let anthropologists know about social life?

Hervé Varenne: I became a “legitimate peripheral participant” in professional anthropology in the Fall of 1968.  Then, David Schneider asked all the new students taking the required “Systems” course that they read the first 243 page of Parsons and Shils Towards a General Theory of Action (1951).  I did not notice then what was wrong with this theory.  It took me 30 years to shape the argument developed in the book, and first articulated formally in a lecture in 1999: “action” is not based on socialization leading to shared “value orientations” or an “habitus.”  Action is based on ever renewed ignorance about what to do next in the full details of a very particular here and now when all the solutions one may have inherited or developed earlier prove somewhat inadequate.  Of importance is the reality that this ignorance is triggered by what others are doing that one now has to deal with.  Thus, we must start with the assumption that, in any scene, and at whatever scale, all participants must tell each other what they are going to do next and what the interlocutors (those who are addressed or may have an interest in overhearing) should themselves do later even as the interlocutors start stating their own, possibly contradictory, intentions and instructions.

Ilana Gershon: Your book reminded me that lately I have been telling people: revolution lies in micro-interactions.  And of course, the converse would be true as well, the lack of revolution lies in micro-interactions as well.   Although admittedly I try to avoid saying this to Marxists.  I am wondering what you think the political charge of your book is?

Herve Varenne: To the puzzlement of at least some of my students, I asked them this year to read the chapter in Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? (1901) about the “consciousness” of the working class, and particularly their lack of the consciousness Lenin deemed necessary for a true revolution in their conditions.  Most surprisingly perhaps, Lenin argued that this consciousness could only be produced by the “bourgeois intelligentsia” to which Marx and Engels belonged.  As far as I am concerned, this is an early version of the future “culture of poverty” argumentation, directly echoed by Bourdieu and Passeron when they assert that the poor always “mis-know” their conditions.  I asked my students to read Lenin (rather than Franklin Frazier or Oscar Lewis) partially because of its shock value, but also because I will also ask them to read and ponder Jacques Rancière’s many books about, very specifically, the practical consciousness of workers facing their conditions explicitly and looking for “next” political steps that might help them, in the here and now, but which also, in the long run, may lead to altogether radical changes in social structures.  In that sense, farm workers in Southern Illinois who meet to teach themselves how to speak English and develop transcriptions methods, glossaries, and so on (Kalmar 2011), are engaged in “micro-interactions” that may lead to much more.  Rancière’s rants against all those who deliberately refuse to learn from workers and the otherwise “ignorant” are, of course, but a version of Boas’ rants against those who claim knowledge of “them,” and particularly of those who claim to know what “they” need, when all such knowledge is not based on intimate association with the people in their everyday lives.  The difficulty for all revolutionaries, reformers, other do-gooders, and particularly “we,” anthropologists, is that “they” may not go where we want them to go, and that “they” may also be altogether unpleasant, if not dangerous people.  If there is any “political charge” to my work it is the hope that anthropologists will also go to the many “upstates” and “downstates” of their academic localities to listen to people they do not like and against whom they may be struggling in their own politics.

Ilana Gershon: You evocatively quote Bateson in arguing that most of education involves “people working hard at protecting themselves” in the many social contexts and infrastructures that other people have made (167).   For many people who think about education, this may be a surprising turn since the focus is on protecting oneself from one’s contexts.  How did your case studies lead you to be so concerned about protection?  When doing fieldwork, what are the moments someone might want to ask about protection?

Hervé Varenne: I entered anthropology of education by pondering the travails of McDermott’s “Rosa” as she worked hard, in collusion with her peers and teacher, at not getting caught not knowing how to read (McDermott and Tylbor 1983).  I graduated into the field in awe of Garfinkel’s statements about “passing” as that which one is trying to convince others one “really” is—against various challenges that one is precisely not that.  Whatever one’s “identity” the problem is convincing one’s most significant others that “it” is this and not that.  Garfinkel also taught me that we can “trust” that most claims will not be challenged.  After all, challenging is also hard work that may have drastic consequences.  Better to let sleeping dogs lie.  In one way or another, all the ethnographies in the book are about establishing that this, possibly dangerous or new, thing is to become an “it” of some sort for various sets of people, whether it is young girls having fun, biologists making up a lab, capitalists venturing large amount of other people’s capital, mothers taking care of children, etc.  In every case, we report on people being more or less explicitly hurt, people challenging others, people seeking protection, but also people asserting their power even when this assertion might hurt.  I am sure that the administrators of the schools Koyama bring to our attention, even as they fired other administrators and teachers, were unhappy at the resistance to something that must have seemed eminently reasonable. After all, the new curriculum was required by the State, and certified by experts as more helpful for the poor and immigrants everyone was concerned with.  Ethnomethodology confirmed for me something I had noticed and other ethnographers had mentioned.  The only way to find what may be “normal” is to observe a disruption, a moment when one or more of the people are specifically seeking protection for someone else.  But one should also remember that the ethnographic goal may not be just accounting for the normal, but also bringing out the evidence that people, everywhere and everywhen, notice stuff about their conditions, analyze causes and consequences, imagine alternate possibilities, work at convincing others, and deal with the consequences of what they have done.

Ilana Gershon: Years ago, you gave me a remarkable intellectual gift by pointing out that as long as human lack telepathy, ethnographers can never truly study learning.   All ethnographers can truly do is study telling, and people are constantly telling each other who to be and how to be.   This has shaped my fieldwork ever since.  I want to ask, once you establish that any anthropology of education is an anthropology of telling, what are the set of questions that anthropologists of education should be exploring?

Hervé Varenne: Ray McDermott and Jean Lave have been the most influential of my contemporaries on my work.  But we have kept disagreeing on the fundamental point as to whether their work is to be a constructive critique of “learning theories” or whether it should be a more radical destruction of the very possibility of, and need for, such theories.  I keep arguing that we should leave “learning” to the psychologists who believe they can measure ‘it’.  In that vein, I was disappointed when an otherwise welcome recent paper in the American Anthropologist about education and anthropology was titled “Why Don’t Anthropologists Care about Learning …” (Blum 2019).  I dare say that anthropologists should not care about learning but rather that they should care about teaching—with the understanding of course that all teachings will fail (and thus will be “culture” rather than reproduction).  Re-reading Durkheim’s and Mauss’ passing comments about children, what strikes me is that they are always talking about the adults’ effort to “impose upon the child ways of seeing…” (Durkheim [1895] 1982: 53).  The Boasians did assume that such efforts would be successful and produce particular personalities or, as we put it now, particular “identities.”  But this was more a matter of conjecture than empirical demonstration.  It is not of course that children (and older adults) proceed ex nihilo.  It is rather that anthropologists should keep noticing “monolingual” children in English producing forms like “he singed” and then being corrected by some adult “dear, it is ‘he sang’.” They should notice cases like the one Perry Gilmore recently brought  to our attention about children “inventing” a new language (2016).  The first five ethnographies in the book are what I hope more anthropologists will do and that is bring to our attention the emergence of “new normals.”  In all the  cases in the book, the accent is on attempts to transform others or their conditions through various forms of “telling” (explaining, exhorting, teaching, and so on)—even as the teller notices various failures by those told to do what the teller hoped they would do … leading of course to further resistance, imposition, and so on.  As I wrote someplace in the book, “imposition” is the compliment power pays to “resistance.”

 

References cited

Blum, Susan.  2019.  Why don’t anthropologists care about learning(or education or school)? An immodest proposal for an integrative anthropology of learning whose time has finally come American Anthropologist 121, 3: 641-654.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and and Jean-Claude Passeron.  [1970] 1977.  Reproduction in education, society and culture.  Tr. by R. Nice. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Durkheim, Emile.  [1895] 1982.  The rules of the sociological method.  Tr. by W.D. Halls New York: The Free Press.

Garfinkel, Harold.  1963.  “A conception of, and experiments with, ‘trust’ as a condition of stable concerted actions.”  In Motivation and social interaction. Edited by O.J. Harvey, 187-238. New York: The Ronald Press.

Gilmore, Perry.  2016.  Kisisi (our language): The story of Colin and Sadiki.  Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Kalmar, Tomas.  [2001] 2015.  Illegal alphabets and adult literacy: Latino migrants crossing the linguistic border.  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lenin, Ilyich Vladimir.  [1902] 1961.  What is to be done?: Burning questions of our movement.  Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude.  [1962] 1963.  Totemism.  Tr. by R. Needham Boston: Beacon Press.

Mauss, Marcel. [1923-24] 1967.  The gift.  Tr. by I. Cunnison. New York: W.W. Norton.

———-.  [1934] 1973.  Techniques of the body Economy and Society 2: 70-88.

McDermott, R. P., and Henry Tylbor.  1983.  “On the necessity of collusion in conversation.” Text 3, 3: 277-297.

Parsons, Talcott, and and Edward Shils.  1951.  Toward a general theory of action.  New York: Harper and Row.