Jessica Storey-Nagy takes the page 99 test

Page 99 of my dissertation falls in Chapter 1, “A ‘Viktator’ in the Making: Gaslighting Democracy, Telling Lies, and Evoking Histories,” which describes political culture in Hungary after 1989. In it, I introduce readers to a journalist, Noémi, who exemplifies the challenges of living and working in modern Budapest. Her words illustrate the substantial deterioration of a critical European Union value in Hungary, the freedom of the press (which falls under the EU’s “freedom of expression” value), due to the governing style of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his party, Fidesz. In Hungary today, journalists continue to navigate increasingly restrictive working conditions­ – ­and many have lost their livelihoods as a result. They are not always able or allowed to write on topics they find relevant and are often completely barred from writing about political happenings that are not sanctioned and/or approved by the government. Institutions that allow their journalists freedom of expression have nearly all been bought by friends of the government–entire staffs given a choice to stay on board and bend to Orbán’s will or to leave. Daily, journalists must adapt to and negotiate with the ever-changing political climate that the autocratic Orbán maintains.

If page 99 of my dissertation passes the quality test, and I think it does, it is because of Noémi’s willingness to share her story with me. Further, the page spotlights a central point in my dissertation, that political talk in private spaces matters and can shape meaning, can eventually influence the outcome of elections. Noémi nicely illustrates the process of meaning-making that happens in private conversation with her voiced exploration of the text “journalism” in opposition to what she calls “propaganda media.” She also uses the text “Orbán” metonymically, as an emotionally-charged symbol for Fidesz – the same way many in Hungary do.

……….

Before 2010, I think, it was like, we were all journalists, you know, and everyone had their own little biases, right wing, left wing—we all knew what the other was thinking. But ever since Orbán came into power and took over the media, and uh, they built up this propaganda media, which is like blatantly lying. It’s not biased, it’s lying. They make up stories out of thin air—so it’s not the same profession anymore. So, when I say “journalism” [now] I don’t include the propaganda media because I think that’s over now. They, they, I don’t call them “journalists” anymore…[i]n a way I sympathize with them because I come from the same group. I know how hard it is, how it’s impossible to get stories. How, what, how low paid, they are really [under] paid. And um, I know, like conditions are really harsh. Like, last week I was in [Germany] at a conference and I went to Der Spiegel’s headquarters—a shiny, huge building with like 15 stories and, whatever. And, the biggest, most read Hungarian newspaper’s office at the moment is in one room. In. a. room. So, it’s like, completely different realities. [Field Notes 10/02/2019]

The lack of material resources, Noémi noted, stemmed from “Orbán” gradually and consistently pulling funding from journalists. However, even if they did have a few material resources, journalists had to work to gather public information from a government that was not willing to practice transparency.

[Journalists] deal with ministries not answering them—legally they have to, but they don’t. …If you get sources [connected to the government], they lie…If you file a freedom of information request it will either be denied or you will be asked to pay tons of money or it will be unreadable…I swear to God they have a machine they put all these documents through that makes them unreadable before they send it to you! You get a grainy PDF that you can’t read—much worse than a scanned PDF…

……….

Noémi’s account may remind some of Russian state tactics like those outlined in Eliot Borenstein’s Plots Against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy After Socialism (2019), and it should. Orbán has been called “mini-Putin,” by Hungarians and the larger Western Press alike. He poses a real threat to the values outlined in Treaty of the European Union; values meant to prevent World War III. For those who do practice Ford Maddox Ford’s method, they should encounter an engaging story that embodies the process of democratic decline in a modern EU member-state, and hopefully, they’ll learn more here and elsewhere, because Noémi’s story is but one that’s worth reading.

Storey-Nagy, Jessica. 2022. Sovereign Voices: Politics, Identity, and Meaning-Making in Contemporary Hungary. PhD dissertation, Indiana University.

Alana Brekelmans takes the page 99 test

Page 99 of my thesis opens with an evocative image:

‘Sleepy Cloncurry, the scene of more unfulfilled promises than any other town in Australia, clung to its horses and its camels’.

This quote from the historian Geoffrey Blainey about the mining town of Cloncurry in Outback Australia suggests an affective entanglement between place, ideology, and the more than human. Here Cloncurry is both a ‘scene’ and something agentic in its own right, something that ‘clings’: it is where the modernist and capitalist promises of taming the wilderness and striking it rich through mining remain unfulfilled, but it is also that which persists in sticky relation to these dreams through the companion species that were first brought to Australia to assist in realising those promises. Later in the page, I add to Blainey’s description:

“During the economic downturn of the 1920s and 1930s, when the price of copper fell by nearly fifty percent, most mining hubs quickly became ghost towns, houses were moved whole to new places, and settler-colonial hope for the region’s expansion remained tentative”.

And yet, through this and many cycles of boom and bust that followed, a sense of optimism—perhaps a ‘cruel optimism’ (Berlant 2011)—remained. In these precarious conditions, people did and still do build lives, wage politics, and dream of futures.  

My PhD, based on fieldwork conducted in the Cloncurry region in 2017, charts such cruel optimism and ideology in relation to narratives of place and belonging. In particular, I am interested in the affective and material afterlives of modernist narratives of ‘taming the wilderness’ and ‘closing the frontier’ in settler-colonial states. Thinking with the rubble of ghost towns, the vacant places where homes once were, changing approaches to economic development, and the introduced species that now run wild in the landscape, I suggest that settler colonial visions of closing the frontier in Outback Australia failed. I ask what that means for settler descendants living in the region today and their claims over Indigenous lands. I focus on how non-indigenous settler-descendants express and legitimate their affective and economic relationships with place in relation to contestation over land use for conservation and Native Title.

By pointing to a long history of the ‘unfulfilled promises’ of settler colonial ideology in Outback Australia, my page 99 suggests something of the problem of non-indigenous people’s belonging in settler-colonial states when that belonging has historically been predicated on ideologies that manifest in violence against indigenous lands and peoples. It also implies the question of how one might draw from new narratives and engage in new affective relationships to construct new belongings.

Works cited: Berlant, L. G. (2011). Cruel optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Alana Brekelmans. 2021. Out There, back then: chronotopes of presence and absence in Outback Australia. University of Queensland, PhD Thesis.

Kimberly Hassel takes the page 99 test

Page 99 of my dissertation begins with a passport photograph taken of me in 2016, juxtaposed with a purikura photograph taken in the same year.

Purikura, a colloquialism for “print club” (purinto kurabu), are photo booths that allow users to take photographs, edit the photographs using a stylus and touch screen, and receive instant prints of these photographs. The term may also refer to the instant prints themselves. The image caption reads:

“Standard passport photograph of the author taken in 2016 (left), juxtaposed with a purikura photograph taken in the same year (right). The purikura photograph was taken with its default filter and editing options. Note that the author’s skin has been lightened, her curls have been smoothed, her eyes have been enlarged, and her facial and bodily features have been slimmed down.”

In the paragraph that follows the images, I propose that smartphones and Social Networking Services (SNS, the localized term for social media) such as Instagram constitute portable purikura:

“Smartphones and visual-centric SNS such as Instagram constitute portable purikura. The filters, stickers, and editing features on Instagram are not unlike those found within the process of rakugaki. Most importantly, smartphones and SNS have become enveloped in the media ecology of purikura. Manufacturers of purikura such as Makesoft offer their own smartphone apps that ease the process of saving digital copies of purikura and sharing these copies on SNS. In conversations with young women, I learned that it was not uncommon to ‘research’ potential poses and editing strategies for purikura on Instagram. This saves stress and time during the actual practice of taking purikura. The prevalence of hashtags on Instagram such as #purika pose (#purikura pōzu; #プリクラポーズ) and #purikura editing (#purikura kakō; #プリクラ加工) demonstrate reliance on user-created content as a source of information and inspiration for creativity. Purikura is becoming even more convergent.”

Page 99 embodies one central argument of my dissertation: while digital technologies offer different and “new” modes of being social, this “newness” is not always “new.” Chapter Two, where page 99 is located, demonstrates how “new” mediatic assemblages involving SNS and smartphones are extensions of past and ongoing forms of gendered socialities and economies. I draw connections between historical and contemporary forms of consumerist play among Japanese girls and women: purikura culture, instabae (Instagenic) culture, the Discover Japan tourism campaign of the 1970s, and contemporary “photogenic travel” campaigns.

The intersections between “old” and “new” media constitute only part of the larger story of my dissertation. While page 99 focuses on play, my dissertation also discusses themes such as intergenerational tensions regarding the (mis)use of digital technologies. My dissertation, Mediating Me: Digital Sociality and Smartphone Culture in Contemporary Japan, examines the intersections of SNS, smartphone ownership, and shifting notions of sociality and selfhood among young people in Japan. I ask: How can the digital serve as a lens for understanding change and continuity in contemporary Japan, especially with regards to gender and identity? I conducted fieldwork in Japan between August 2019 and August 2020, and remotely between August 2020 and October 2021. Through an integration of interview data, media and literary analysis, and ethnographic vignettes called “Mediations,” I emphasize that perceived norms and moral standards centering on digital embeddedness are constantly (re)negotiated. In each chapter, I examine particular user groups and moments, such as digital activism among Black Japanese youths during the global Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020. The process of (re)negotiation became especially apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, which coincided with my fieldwork. My dissertation also highlights the indispensability, promises, and ethics of digital ethnography.  

While page 99 only captures one practice within the fabric of digital sociality in contemporary Japan, it highlights an important reminder: the dynamics that accompany digital sociality can be applicable to past, present, and future technologies, practices, and visualities.

Niku T’arhechu T’arhesi takes the page 99 test

“Yes,” I said.

My answer left you like a glutton without food—unsatisfied.  Before you could request thick ethnographic details, I handed you page 99 of Endangered Words and Invulnerable Worlds: Spatial Language and Social Relations in Cheran, Michoacan, Mexico.

The text appeared straightforward about general trends in Cheran.  Still, you couldn’t shake the notion of being stranded in an ethnographic labyrinth.  So, you read it and reread it.  Being the scholar you are, you decided to immerse yourself in Cheran’s P’urhépecha.  Only there was no rabbit hole, just the whole text—Endangered Words and Invulnerable Worlds.

In the text, you found that theoretically, I argued a spatial language-based cultural model explains many of the properties of social relations.  The part-whole model is simple like a slice of pizza out of a pie, a cigar from a set, or birds of a feather flocking together.  After reading the ethnographic evidence—from emic sociological characteristics affecting face-to-face communication to people ascribing behavioral patterns onto families to large-scale ritual events of greater complexity—you remembered page 99.

Nodding in deep thought, you began repeating like a mantra, “part-whole.”

Reflecting on your initial impressions, you realize what you perceived as a tortuous reading experience was a plunge into ethnographic clarity—a simplified diagram of a complex phenomenon. I saw it in your eyes and asked, “Now do you agree with my answer?”

“Yes,” said you.

He is like that, so all Santiagos are predisposed to behave in such a manner. They are like that… 

While thinking through the ways people in Cheran identify individuals as recapitulating kin or groups as possessing traits displayed by individuals, it helps to consider emic conceptualizations of kinship dynamics…the people of Cheran view individuals as intimately tied to their kin groups. The link between an individual and a family is inextricable. One cannot exist as an atom who makes herself or himself independently of background. When someone encounters an individual…others generally explain that individual’s behavior as recapitulating a family trend. It is quite common to find people explain this dynamic along the lines of “they are like that.” The “they,” generally, refers to the house ergo nuclear family, which in turn, often reflects the patrilineal lineage. 

The aforementioned kin dynamics make sense when considering folk views of the town’s composition. Most people claim that they all know each other. The elderly restrict themselves by qualifying their statements along the lines of “I know those of my generation but not younger folks (of various generations).” Even this statement might be an exaggeration. Cheran has a population of over 20,000…

Niku T’arhechu T’arhesi. 2021. Endangered Worlds and Invulnerable Worlds: Spatial Language and Social Relations in Cheran, Michoacan, Mexico.  University of Michigan, PhD.

Dodom Kim takes the page 99 test

On page 99 of my dissertation, I end a section that traces a series of Chinese newspaper reports on a pregnant woman’s long-winded quest for the so-called “birth permit.” It is then followed by a new section that reflects on how the media represents her experience as a sign of bad bureaucracy.

There is very little novelty in complaining about bureaucratic red tape in China. Yet, I was compelled to create a whole dissertation chapter titled “Documentation and Its Bureaucratic Discontents” for the following three reasons. First, the pregnant woman’s story was just one example of countless media reports that raised the “documentation difficulty” issue at the time. If frustration about bureaucratic paperwork is old news, why was the media churning out this old news at that specific moment? Second, Chinese news media would normally avoid directly criticizing the Party-State government. Then how and why were the media openly criticizing the bureaucracy in these reports? Third, I wanted to understand the implications of problematizing documentation issues as specifically a bureaucratic failing. Provided that these legal documents are consequential for urban lives well beyond the realm of bureaucratic spheres, what discourse and practices does such problematization enable and/or foreclose?

Page 99 addresses the second question by underlining how the Chinese media, which strives to meet demands from both the Party-State and the commercialized media market, “assumes itself to be the mediator between the state and the public” (p. 99). Ultimately, this chapter argues that this role is one reason why the media is able to criticize the bureaucracy: by domesticating documentation practices as sites of bureaucratic reform, it creates the representation of a nation-state that is moving forward. In doing so, the media “mediates the imagination and legitimacy of the state and its bureaucracy” (p.99). 

Overall, I do not think page 99 meets Ford’s test. My dissertation traces how people speak of and handle the banal and copious evidentiary documents (for example, ID card, certificates, and permits) in their everyday lives. In doing so, it demonstrates how such documents critically condition people’s mobility and their understanding of urban citizenship in contemporary China. Even though page 99 maps out key discourses through the lens of institutionalized media, it does not leave space to consider how such institutionalized discourses might unfold in the realm of everyday speech and practices. In fact, most of what became page 99 of the dissertation was written before my extended dissertation fieldwork.

Dodom Kim. 2022. Documenting Uncertainty: Bureaucratic Evidence, Media Practice, and Migrant Citizenship in Southern China. University of Chicago, PhD.

Leah Junck takes the page 99 test

Page 99 of my dissertation is part of my methodology section and connects testing research moments to the topic at hand: the use of the dating application Tinder in Cape Town (South Africa). I recruited participants via the app itself and Page 99 is the build-up to a turning point that had me reconsidering what it means to relate via the app – whether it is with potential dates or research participants. It describes how I had initially embraced the idea of Tinder as a tool which I could use to impose myself less upon potential people, at least as compared to more traditional approaches. Rather than approaching people physically and selling my research, they could look at my research profile describing my intentions and showing a couple of pictures of me and decide whether they were really interested in an engagement.

However, I found myself confronted with two challenges. One of them was that the profile triggered much more interest than I had anticipated, forcing me to think about selection criteria. An abundance of interest to participate in an ethnographic study was not something I had previously encountered (I was used to a slow build-up of connections) and I had assumed more hesitance, especially given the occasionally surfacing swindler scandals linked to Tinder. The page in question describes how I felt accelerated but, at the same time, overwhelmed just looking at the list of ‘options’. I wrote:

Tinder does not only create the illusion of an unlimited number of possible connections (given the ‘right’ settings, appearances, and investments), but matches also carry the promise of a certain kind of experience, namely one that is inherently intimate. The idea of being ethnographically intimate with a variety of people and being able to create these experiences made me feel excited and numb, powerful, and paralysed at the same time.

But before I could figure out how to deal with this challenge, something else happened: I was indefinitely blocked from Tinder. After eight email exchanges, I still did not have an explanation as to why and was merely told to look at the community guidelines, which left me just as clueless. The experience made me ponder my premise that approaching people online was somehow less intrusive. While it is quite likely that I was banned not because of user complaints but by Tinder’s content regulators, I was still left wondering how my presence on the app had been perceived by those who had swiped left (not interested) on my profile. It also made me think about the enticing acceleration that the idea of ethnographic intimacy with a variety of people had triggered in me, mirroring the addictive swipe logic that is meant to keep users going from profile to profile rather than meaningfully engaging with their matches. The challenging-but-persistent search for meaningful experiences on Tinder is grappled with in the remainder of the dissertation.

Leah Junck. 2021. Down the Rabbit Hole: An Ethnography on Loving, Desiring and Tindering in Cape Town. University of Capetown, Phd.

Katy Highet takes the page 99 test

I wasn’t expecting my p. 99 – right in the middle of my methodology – to be particularly revealing. But as luck (or indeed Ford Madox Ford) would have it, on p. 99 we land midway through a description of my participants that speaks to the crux of my thesis:

Most of the students came from the same sub-caste, one that represents the vast majority of the population of the area around the branch. I have chosen not to disclose the name of the caste, as they are heavily concentrated in one particular area of Delhi – where my branch was located – and revealing this would make the branch potentially identifiable to those familiar with Delhi. I understand that this has scholarly implications, as my writing on this caste cannot be cross-referenced if it is kept anonymous, but this is a sacrifice that I am willing to make in the interest of protecting my participants’ anonymity. With regard to the positioning of the caste, there is great disagreement over which varna (the four main caste subdivisions) they belong to, with some claims that they descend from the Kshatriyas (second ‘highest’ caste) and other arguments that they are from the Vaishyas (the ‘third’). While their ancestral descent may be disputed, in Delhi this caste group have been labelled as OBC (Other Backward Classes) by the government as the caste is deemed socially, economically and educationally ‘backward’. Interestingly, this classification is not ubiquitous across India. In some states, this caste has been allocated ‘Scheduled Caste’ (SC) status by the government, a status reserved for the most oppressed peoples, usually those from the Dalit communities. Parallel to this, in 2008, there was civil unrest in another state of Northern India as this caste group rallied to be re-classified from OBC to SC, which would grant them further quotas for government jobs. While they may not be the most socially oppressed caste, there are widespread negative stereotypes in circulation of them as thuggish, uneducated and uncouth. There was a rumour circulating in the branch while I was there that Dominos no longer delivered pizza to that area as the delivery boys were too afraid. Although a facilitator informed me that this was not the case (Dominos were allegedly refusing to deliver as the road names were not marked clearly and they struggled to find addresses and deliver in the 30-minute timeframe that was promised by the pizza chain), the rumour was a clear indication of the types of assumptions made about this caste group (both by members and non-members). A Google search of the caste brings up links to a question posted in a forum asking why this caste is so feared in Delhi. Most of the responses chastised the caste members for being ‘unintelligent’ and only capable of responding to issues with violence, but one member of this caste took this as an opportunity to attempt to quell such stereotypes…

The aforementioned branch was one of several hundred branches of a non-profit English and employability training programme in North India and was the primary site for my ethnographic exploration of social mobility and English. Specifically, I was interested in the material, discursive and affective consequences of English speakerhood as a deeply embodied phenomenon enmeshed with wider historical processes and structures of inequality. As p. 99 suggests, caste – and its intersection with class, gender, race, colonialism – became the bedrock of my analysis.

Listening to the experiences of the students such as those described on p. 99 unearthed ambivalent feelings about their investments in English. On the one hand, they were deeply committed to pursuing a language that they had come to understand as their key to not only jobs but prestige, pride, (upward) marriage, and modernity (see also Highet 2022); on the other, there were recurrent moments of despair as they wondered whether this language framed as a resource could really live up to its promises; whether their transformation into an English speaker – a figure built upon colonial, class and caste stratification – could really help them counter their marginalisation and stigmatisation.

This is evident in the Domino’s rumour that I chose to illustrate the constant, dynamic presence of caste in these students’ lives, and which shows how the discursive ‘castelessness’, in Deshpande’s (2013) terms, of the middle classes obscures what is in practice a deeply consequential element of social organisation. In later chapters, I return to this to argue that this ideological ‘castelessness’ is a key part of what propels the discourse of social-mobility-through-English, as it reframes social mobility as an individualised pursuit, open to anyone, if only they try hard enough.

The problem, I argue later, is that these remain politically very difficult conversations to have, particularly in the current climate of rising suspicion of anything ostensibly ‘anti-national’; it is partly for this reason that I took the steps mentioned on p. 99 to protect my participants’ identities. This raises difficult questions – questions that I continue to grapple with – about the ethical and political challenges at stake in critical research and in our engagement with projects of social transformation.

References

Satish Deshpande. 2013. “Caste and Castelessness: Towards a Biography of the ‘General Category.'” Economic and Political Weekly. 48: 32–39.

Katy Highet. 2021. Becoming English speakers: a critical sociolinguistic ethnography of English, inequality and social mobility in Delhi, UCL Institute of Education. https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10122328/

—–2022. “She will control my son”: Navigating womanhood, English and social mobility in India, Journal of Sociolinguistics (early view online version available open access)

Yuliya Grinberg takes the page 99 test

At one Quantified Self event, Dave offered a particularly striking comparison between automobiles and bodies, one, he says, his father, a car aficionado, failed to fully appreciate to his own peril. His father’s failure, Dave explained, drove his own interest in digital self-monitoring. His father loved cars and, according to Dave, spent more time in the garage than with his own son. When he became older, he discovered blood in his stool, went for a colonoscopy, but never made use of the information. Eventually he died of colon cancer. ‘He understood the car in a way he never understood his body,’ Dave lamented. ‘He had such a dissociated experience with his own body … and I thought, my god, how is it that we can have sensors and devices in our cars to understand how this thing works and when it will break down, but we have so few things that we know about our body?’”

My dissertation and forthcoming manuscript focus on the promises and failures of digital connections. This work draws on two years of ethnographic fieldwork with developers of wearable computing who participate in the international forum called the Quantified Self (QS).

Pundits and critical scholars tend to interpret QS in one of two ways: as a digital trend with worrisome social effects or as a “community” of digital enthusiasts who are operating on the margins of neoliberal health policies (see Lupton, Deborah. The Quantified Self. Polity Press, 2016 and Nafus, Dawn and Neff Gina. Self-Tracking. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016). The passage I quote from page 99 of my dissertation, above, features commentary a QS participant that on the surface exemplifies this take that QS is a community of digital enthusiasts.

This popular and academic framing, however, remains disconnected from the realities of digital entrepreneurialism and the role QS has played within it. I propose to viewed QS as an “interface” in Branden Hookway’s sense (see Hookway 2014). As an interface, QS is not only a screen that brazenly puts contemporary digital enthusiasm on display. It’s a prism that constructs as it refracts digital knowledge and offers alternate perspectives on the dynamics that power wearables entrepreneurialism.

I found that QS primarily attracted digital professionals like Dave who, since the forum’s inception in 2007, have taken on the bulk of the labor associated with organizing and managing QS as an enthusiast community. In these settings technologists do not just approach QS as a cultural found object. They enfold QS into narratives of digital representation that obscure from view the way they vary their positions on data depending on context and audience and how they knowingly operate in the gaps in knowledge, in the spaces between certainty and truth (see Grinberg 2021).

I also evaluate the way the language of enthusiasm that shapes QS as a community disguises the transactional nature of this forum. For technologists navigating an increasingly flexible and insecure work environment, QS offers vital opportunities for networking, reputation-building, and credentialing. In this capacity, QS also acts as one of a growing cadre of contemporary mechanisms that continues to press worker sociality and desire into service of tech-capitalism. Ultimately, this project focuses attention on the way seemingly masculinized innovation that is moved by rational actors is in fact shaped by feminized free and affective labor. While the digital connections and forms of community QS represents are reputed to be enduring and strong, the ties it fosters are revealed as fleeting and strained.


Yuliya Grinberg. 2019. Sensored: The Quantified Self, Self-Tracking, and the Limits of Digital Transparency, 2019, Columbia University. PhD dissertation. https://anthropology.columbia.edu/content/self-tracking-digital-transparency

Cat Tebaldi takes the page 99 test for her dissertation

My dissertation looked at how far-right narratives circulate through the ensemble of alternatives to public schools that conservative and far-right groups use to educate— homeschools,  far-right online courses, social media and femininity guidebooks. It asks how female submission and white male heroism are transformed into facts, and how they are taught through creative and supposedly natural pedagogy.

My Page 99 discusses how the far-right take up left-wing critiques of public schools and alternative pedagogical practices, investing them with ideologies of a putative natural order which sustains inequality. It begins like this:

The far-right shares with the left an opposition to standardized testing, which it uses to characterize equality as dull bureaucracy, corporate cultural marxism, or trans-totalitarianism. It also borrows from many progressive alternatives to standardized testing; the white nationalist Ayla Stewart advocates nature and arts centered methods of teaching we commonly associate with the left and celebrates Waldorf schools for love of culture (no prizes for guessing whose). Waldorf schools are valued for their German origins and embrace of theories of a spiritual Rassenkampf or an inner racial evolution (Staudemeier 1998). However, the far right also embrace nature based learning, celebrating sending their little boys out for sticks and exploring bugs and leaves – this is the kind of active, discovery based, real life curriculum father of democratic education Dewey or my hippie brother would love. In natural pedagogy, playful childhood is deeply entangled with beliefs about human nature and the natural world in a deep pedagogy of inequality. For White nationalists parents, nature is a celebration of the natural order, including differences of age, but also race and gender, while Christians call for nature as god’s ordered liberty — both frame nature as building hierarchy and masculinity. Outdoor education has long been a pedagogy of desirable forms of white manhood, originating out of anxieties of middle class white weakness in the face of industrialization and the increased swarthiness of immigrants (Bederman 1998). Early school reformers thought young affluent boys needed a period of “wild” education to give them a virility that could withstand the decadence and effeminacy of civilization, something echoed in current discussion of “the war on boys” in public schools, which are dumbing down, demasculinizing, eating away at boys’ virility in ways Victorians would understand.

 This comes from my second findings chapter, where  the right transforms the ideal woman I analyze in chapter one into nature’s teacher, a sacred loving mother who is threatened by – or who battles- bureaucratic, egalitarian public schools. It looks at how femininity and family shape anti-school discourses that animate right-wing anti-state politics and far-right conspiracies as they teach their children to be “nature’s aristocracy.” In some ways I don’t think it is representative of my dissertation; there are no bad sex jokes or semiotics. Also, the focus is more on the pedagogies and ideologies of home education rather than on homeschool media as the public, politicized performance of national motherhood.

While it has less of my angry (auto)ethnographic writing, finally, it reflects how my work draws on my own experience — a seemingly left-wing family moving rightward– and with the broader question of how porous the borders between left and right can be. How do these movements and overlaps happen? Is it a question of shared practices, tastes? of shared critiques? Or, more troublingly, of shared ideals of gender and tradition?

Where I find similarities with both my dissertation and my current research interest is in the interrogations of nature and naturalization, as sites for positive experiences of terrible ideas—here how inequality is re-semiotized as individualism, as desirable forms of masculinity, pleasant childhoods or iconoclastic knowledge. My current project, granola nazis and neoliberal mystics, looks at this re-semiotization of hierarchy in the world of spiritual and natural wellness, sites where fascist forms of personhood are shaped, circulated, and sold in online courses like the vibe mindset where you “manifest your desired reality”. This is what really matters to me in research on right wing semiotics, how it makes inequality into meaning, desire, fun.

Also, I really hated arcadia nature camp and that year everyone was a lumbersexual.

Catherine Tebaldi. 2022. “Alt-Education: Gender, language, and education across the right.” University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Phd dissertation.

Ashlee Dauphinais takes the page 99 test

My dissertation has been a deeply personal project from the beginning. It would make sense, then, that page 99 finds me in the middle of a section titled “My Role as Researcher” in the middle of Chapter 2—Methodology. The beginning of the page reads:

“[I] was able to participate in and co-construct relationships in a natural manner, sharing personal stories from my own diagnosis and life experiences, speeding along the process of developing relationships with participants.”

My dissertation examines the linguistic and social practices of women in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with an intersex chromosomal condition known as Turner Syndrome. I share the same intersex embodiment as my participants, being diagnosed at age 10. I was initially hesitant to be overly personal in this section, afraid of engaging in excessive “naval gazing”. Without this disclosure, however, a huge methodological part of my work would be missing. During sixteen months of in-person fieldwork and five years of virtual fieldwork, I developed close friendships with many of my collaborators, which occasionally resulted in my professional and personal worlds colliding. What would it mean for me to be a publicly disclosed intersex scholar? Will people think less of me for including such personal details in my work? Am I letting my own personal experiences color my interpretation? On page 99, I cite Galey Modan and her 2016 article about ethnographer-informant relationships:

“Virtual ethnography and incorporating new media technology also allows for an intermingling of personal and professional worlds, blurring boundaries and intensifying processes that were already part of ethnographic processes (Modan, 2016)”.

This blurring of boundaries is something that I continue to ponder, especially as Modan notes that social media may have the power to “balance out power relations, because it can provide informants the opportunity to turn the gaze on us when we’re not aware of them. As someone who works in both virtual and in-person spaces with active online participants, I certainly feel the need to ensure my work does justice by them.

As I re-read the final words of the page, I begin to shift uncomfortably in my seat:

“Factors that continuously presented themselves as important markers of distinction throughout my research included: holding citizenship of the United States, being categorized as white or light-skinned, having resources and connections from large universities and governmental institutions within the United States and Brazil, being a multilingual native English speaker, my capacity for domestic and international travel…”

Seeing my laundry list of demographic attributes laid bare, especially without the further contextualization, makes me wonder if the fears embedded in the questions above are all-too-true. Laid bare like this, it reads a bit like census data. I admit, I initially hoped that page 99 would contain some lovely ethnographic prose and thick description of the women I worked with. I feel it is fitting, though, that page 99 would ultimately reveal the intimate, personal nature of my dissertation, and push me to continue to reflect on my place within this larger community of Turner Syndrome women that I find myself in, both personally and professionally.

References

Modan, Gabriella. (2016). Writing the Relationship: Ethnographer-Informant Interactions in the New Media Era. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 26(1), 98–107.

Ashlee Dauphinais Civitello completed her PhD in Hispanic Linguistics in 2021. She is an Assistant Professor of Spanish Linguistics in the Department of Foreign Languages & Literature at the University of Nebraska Omaha. She is currently preparing a book manuscript that builds upon her dissertation titled Butterfly Warriors: Language and the Intersex Body in Brazil.