Judith T. Irvine and Susan Gal on their new book

Signs of Difference: Language and Ideology in Social Life by [Gal, Susan, Irvine, Judith T.]

https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/signs-of-difference/E69813363E4CD9927C6C8E1BD2FC3011

Interview by Hannah McElgunn

Hannah McElgunn: Signs of Difference begins with analyses that draw from long term ethnographic engagement in two very different places: Bóly, a town in Southwest Hungary, and a rural, Wolof-speaking town in Senegal. How has working together, across such seemingly different fieldsites, influenced the approach to language and social life that you present in this book?

Judith T. Irvine and Susan Gal: Our collaboration started with those unexpected parallels between our separate ethnographic projects. Reading each other’s papers and listening to each other at AAA meetings, we saw amazingly similar processes in two fieldsites that were utterly worlds apart. The happy result has been a semiotic approach to difference, an approach that is much wider than our own ethnographies but is well illustrated by them. Our book is mainly devoted to developing and explaining that approach, but it begins by showing how it applies to the two ethnographic cases.

In the German-Hungarian town in Hungary as in the Wolof-speaking town in Senegal, people were making distinctions among themselves not only through the way they spoke but also through different forms of emotional expression, clothing, houses and numerous other signs and activities. Language, social organization, geography, history, were all quite different. But in both towns, as it happened, one social category of people spoke and acted in relatively reserved, restrained ways; the other category, by contrast, seemed to be more elaborate in everything, more vivid, dramatic. These were stereotypes of difference. People oriented to these social types, often enacting them in their everyday lives. But how to understand the weird parallels between the two towns? “Restrained” vs. “elaborate” were the ways the people in our two towns characterized their own differences. But when we read fieldwork by others, we saw that although there were always overarching cultural distinctions that organized relations between contrasting sets of people and signs, those distinctions could be quite different from ours. For instance, there was: tough vs. soft in one place but in another pragmatic vs. political. To understand our own examples and others, our explanations would have to be quite abstract. And semiotic.

The book explicates step-by-step a semiotic process of differentiation, with several aspects, that encompasses all the cases. Contrast – as axis of differentiation – is the fundamental idea. Contrasts in expressive signs pointed to contrasting categories of identity; and the qualities attributed to the signs were also attributed to the people-types indexed by the signs. For those familiar with a particular cultural context, the signs of each identity seemed to cohere and to display the same qualities as the people types they point to. We turned our hand to American and historical examples: How did Yankees come to be thought different types of people than Southerners in 19th century US?  How do faculty differentiate among themselves at an American university? How did the National Rifle Association divide in the course of a crucial political battle? And how do the axes of differentiation themselves change? It was very exciting to work out how the semiotic process we propose illuminates relations between whatever culturally-specific qualities are involved.

Hannah McElgunn: As you note, C.S. Peirce hoped that “a converging, objective portrait of the world” would result from different actors continually refining the conjectures of their peers (88). This is opposed to the project you take on in this book, part of which is to detail the “construction of perspectives that are partial, conventional, and positioned” (88).  Yet, despite the fact that Peirce’s larger project differs so strikingly from yours, his semiotic theory plays a foundational role in your “Ingredients” section. How have you come to understand Peirce as useful for the analysis of social life, despite your divergence? 

Judith T. Irvine and Susan Gal: Charles Sanders Peirce has inspired a lot of linguistic anthropology in recent decades. His semiotic logic has become a touchstone. But, to be honest, only a very small part of his enormous philosophical output is generally read, and we ourselves were quite selective in what we drew from Peirce: his famous theory of signs – icon, index, symbol – and their permutations, as well as his brilliant depiction of how interpretation works. Understanding anything, he taught us, requires a series of guesses, what we call “conjectures,” one guess building on another. You start by wondering what is going on in a scene. As more signs, more information about the features of the scene become available, the earlier conjectures might be rejected, changed or strengthened; one guess becomes the basis for making another guess in a series of conjectures that are confirmed, or changed. Knowledge grows through sequential engagement with signs in scenes. We argue in the book that this is crucial for grasping communicative process and fundamentally different from other sign-theories that do not allow for change and growth of knowledge and understanding. Saussure, for instance, imagined a quite different structure, one in which any change or growth could only come from some external source; it could not be inherent in the structure itself. We also appreciated Peirce because, unlike other sign-theorists, he included all kinds of signs: material, linguistic as well as cognitive ones. Linguistic signs do not stand apart from other kinds.

But it is true, as you say, that we have taken Peirce’s theory of signs in a different direction than he did. He wrote at a time when many of the big questions were about reaching scientific truths. We are in a different historical moment now, and in a different discipline. For us, some of the biggest questions are about perspectival framings of knowledge. What we demonstrate is how different starting points, different cultural presuppositions (ontologies) about the meanings of signs and social scenes can lead to different understandings, even if people use the same impeccable semiotic logic. It is a tribute to the power of Peirce’s theory of signs that one can rely on his insights without accepting his ultimate goals. But it is also a result of our readings of other theorists, ones who pay more attention than Peirce to the social surround in which signs are taken up. These thinkers were often more interested in understanding differing perspectives on the world. We discuss in the book what we learned from Roman Jakobson, Edward Sapir, Nelson Goodman, Erving Goffman, Raymond Williams, Gregory Bateson, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Max Gluckman; from our own age-peers, such as Michael Silverstein; and from longer ago, even Durkheim and Marx.

Hannah McElgunn: Why did you decide to organize the book around the rubric of differentiation? Were there other overarching themes that you considered?

Judith T. Irvine and Susan Gal: Well, “ideology” is also central! But let’s start with differentiation. Both of us were trained as much in linguistics as in anthropology, even psychology, so we were specially attuned to the way contrast is fundamental in human language and perception: Even figure/ground relations and category-formation rely on contrast. To have a category A implies necessarily that there is also not-A.  It was with this in mind that we approached “differentiation.” The book shows that difference is not a matter of conflict or splitting. On the contrary, it is the prerequisite for creating relationality. Even noticing similarity between two things depends on a prior perception of their difference. Does “difference” in the title mislead readers to think that we envisioned endless divisions and contestations?  We hope not, because our real interest is in differentiation as a way of making relations and comparisons. Of course, unification is also important in the book. There are detailed discussions of cases where differences are ignored in favor of some encompassing contrast or comparison.

Oddly, although comparison is a specialty of anthropology, we found it needed to be rethought: what exactly do we do – in semiotic terms – when we compare? That is another major focus of the book. And “ideology” is just as important. Or rather, what we call “ideological work.” Rather than some uniform and seamless “culture” there are multiple ways of imagining the world in even the smallest social group. Ideological work implies that people can create and see alternatives. We reject the idea that ideologies are “false consciousness;” we analyze ideological work as the interpretations and actions that stem from different perspectives on the world. These interpretations and actions are always socially consequential, and they motivate engagement with politics of all kinds. The book considers interpersonal politics, between an early American traveler and her hosts; urban politics, in how images of US cities are created; regional politics in 19th century America; national politics of 19th century French centralization; corporate and global politics in the IMF.  Aren’t these matters of vastly different scale?  Yes. And we argue that scaling is itself really an active project of comparison, made possible by differentiation. Ultimately, we think “difference” is a very useful rubric and a fitting title for the book, reminding us also of our early questions about our fieldsites, and what the people in those sites were thinking about.

Hannah McElgunn: Perspective and positionality are themes that you emphasize in this book. You show how “the same” situation can be differently construed by various actors, or even by the same actor in different moments. Similarly, you are also careful to point out the influence of your own presence upon the situations you re-present for your reader. What kind of insight does the approach to perspective you offer bring to the issue of authorial reflexivity, something with which (it seems to me) all ethnographers must reckon? 

Judith T. Irvine and Susan Gal: We are glad you asked about perspective in doing ethnography!  As in any approach that hopes to be useful to others, there are implications for method in our book, for how to go about investigating ideological work and differentiation. Where should one start and how to proceed? Our book proposes a new definition for “site” of ideological work: it is minimally a joint focus of attention. It may be an object, or a contrast, or a scene – or some other focus. We recommend finding such sites in fieldwork and using them as a centerpiece, a point of departure for mapping how different participants are attending to it, with what presuppositions and results; who further takes up the object of attention, with what interests and agendas; and what happens to those uptakes. We show in the book how enlightening it is to track a whole sequence of uptakes by different participants. That method unfurls a great deal of meaning-making, revealing the often surprising connections among sites in what we insist is a world unbounded in principle – unless people construct boundaries. This method has further implications. Serious attention to the participants’ attention requires the ethnographer to give up any pretension to a “view from nowhere.” Her view, like that of the participants, is also positioned – if differently.  And all social actors engage in analysis. Therefore, authorial humility and generosity are necessary; the ethnographer’s object of study is not the self but those other folks and their focus of attention, their interests and projects. Of course, one’s training and background as a researcher affect one’s position and view of the ethnographic scene and the choice of research questions. But the people you study are analyzing the scene too, and that’s something you want to find out about.  Plus, those people, of course, have views of you, which affect the research as well. As we argue in the book, there is no great gulf between your analyses and the ongoing analyses made by the people you are studying, though interests and frameworks will, of course, diverge. Everyone is interpreting what is going on, from their own points of view, all the time. That process of interpretation is what our book unfolds.

Hannah McElgunn: How on earth did you come across the connection between Hulfalvy, Crowther, and Cust, nineteenth century scholars with connections to your respective fieldsites?

Judith T. Irvine and Susan Gal: We have both been interested for a long time in the history of linguistics and of our fieldsites. In the final chapter, we wanted to think reflexively about our own positions. We decided to take our own advice, and widened our view to make our fieldsites into centerpieces and look for connections between them, across time. It turned out that our own analytical project had some interesting precedents. We found, to our surprise, that Senegal and Hungary were connected even in the 19th century, at least in the imaginations of language scholars, because both regions were peripheral to the European centers that at the time seemed to represent the pinnacles of human achievement. So, the concepts developed in the early chapters of the book enabled us to see how linguists of the past did ideological work and shaped their descriptions of others’ linguistic practices. Interestingly, the German-Hungarian scholar Hunfalvy, working on Finno-Ugric, the African and Africanist linguist Crowther, and Cust the English colonial officer fascinated by African and south Asian languages, were linked in a loose network. Reading through the proceedings of the Orientalist Congresses and through memoirs, we found evidence that Hunfalvy and Cust must have met at the Berlin Congress of 1881 and probably at an earlier one too. These congresses were great continent-wide assemblies of language scholars, yet a much smaller world than linguistics today.

These three men, and several others we focus on – Wenker, Koelle, Castrén, even Schuchardt – were relatively marginal figures in the emerging professionalization of a Europe-wide scientific linguistics. The history of that emergence is often told as a series of famous figures. Our story is different. We approach this past at an oblique angle, focusing not on the center but on the periphery. Unlike the center, all our figures worked on unwritten languages, with varied ideological agendas: to advance colonial administration, or to provide a usable past for nationalist projects, or to promote religious conversion via translations of scripture, or to map rural life for state centralization. They were faced with the deep methodological problem of transforming the analytical practices of philology, based on ancient texts, into an ethnographic linguistics based on face-to-face talk. As we argue, they extended the evidence-base of European language-study by insisting on the relevance of denigrated populations to theoretical linguistics. They were simultaneously struggling for the inclusion, in professional circles, of scholars like themselves, who studied their languages. Ironically, although they are today not much recognized, these are the scholars who enabled the upscaling of linguistics itself into a discipline that can claim universal relevance.

Yet, we note, the problems they faced are still not entirely solved. That is, the ethnographic study of talk and discourse is not yet well integrated with today’s theoretical linguistics. An important aim of our project in this book is to move in that direction.

 

Jennifer Hsieh takes the page 99 test

Jennifer Hsieh Page 99 Test

Media scholars, philosophers, and anthropologists have all written about noise—that mysterious sonic object that can be grating to the ear at the same time that it becomes a celebrated call to human action. “Let’s make some noise!” is a phrase that unleashes a liberatory self, daring the addressee to break away from the “same ol’, same ol’,” of everyday life. In other instances, noise is unwelcomed. News reports over the past few years have covered the case of US diplomats’ exposure to a high-pitched, screeching sound that may have caused neurological damage. This linkage has not yet been proven, but that has not stopped researchers from weighing in on the case.

Given the mercurial ways in which noise captures the social and political imagination, I took a radical commitment towards the empirical in my dissertation, Noise Governance and the Hearing Subject in Urban Taiwan (2017). An ethnography of environmental noise control in Taiwan, I investigated the technological and material efforts of citizens, bureaucrats, and acousticians toward incorporating hearing and listening into the social and political domain. I examined the interplay between a technocratic definition of noise and the individual experience of noise by shadowing noise inspectors to a variety of sites, including construction zones, restaurants, and apartment buildings.

At first listen, the everyday sounds of Taipei exist multiple worlds apart from the effervescent noise at protests, or the weaponized noise of political affairs. Nevertheless, these different registers exemplify ways in which noise participates in and produces social worlds. As I found in my research, the symbolic and metaphorical treatments of noise were not wholly separate from a mechanical approach to noise and, in fact, informed one another.

On page 99, I delineate the interests of different stakeholders in Taiwan’s noise control system: “While government agents utilized health and environmental discourse on noise to exercise political and social control over Taiwanese subjects, individual citizens called for increased noise control as a form of civic activism to hold the government accountable for managing the people.” Continuing on, I trace the double-bind of noise control that attends to the social and political needs of both citizens and the state: “On the one hand, noise control supported environmental rights from a liberal progressive view by advocating for a healthy and safe living environment. On the other hand, these social movements were used as substitutes for continued social and political control by a regime with roots in authoritarian forms of governance. In other words, both liberal progressive and authoritarian agendas utilized environmental and public health in the service of conflicting discourses: one for civic activism in advocating for citizens’ rights; the other for the continued justification of government oversight over everyday life.” Given the divergent, contradictory accountings of noise in Taiwan, it is difficult to determine whether noise is celebrated or unwanted; instead, noise is that which keeps the conversation going, producing political subjects by way of the sounded environment. By considering the multiple agendas held by various parties around noise control in Taiwan, I examine how the object of noise remained an enduring social and political phenomenon precisely because of the way it exceeded both official and civic efforts to systematize it.

——————————————————

Hsieh, Jennifer. 2017. Noise Governance and the Hearing Subject in Urban Taiwan. Ph.D. Dissertation. Stanford University.

Jennifer Hsieh is an LSA Collegiate Fellow in Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her current book project is a study of the scientific, bureaucratic, and audiovisual practices underlying the production of environmental noise from early twentieth-century Taiwan to the present. She has previously held research fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, the Vossius Center at University of Amsterdam, and Fairbank Center at Harvard.

 

Jasmine Folz on her dissertation

Page 99 of my dissertation about free and open source software in India begins with a description of children dancing at a community centre in a Bengaluru slum. This community centre is run by the Free Software Movement of Karnataka, who invited me to spend the weekend with them in October 2016. Following the discussion of dancing I transition to a conversation I had with one of the activists, a middle class man in his 20s I call Rohit. He told me that these are the children of maids before sharing that he always felt he should be nice to maids but he had not considered their lives outside of his home. Working with these children has shifted his awareness of their lived experience and he now visits some of their homes in the slum. I then discuss the fact that although the free software activists have come together to promote free software, that this centre:

…represent[s] their significant commitment to using their mission as a technologically defined group toward social ends. The fact that the software they are using on the old PCs in the centre is free is imperative to the activists. However, the activists accept that to the students who visit the centre, the nuances of free software are almost irrelevant within the context of their need for practical help with school, exposure to the possibilities outside of their habitus, and a safe space to relax and just be kids.

I suggest this ability to downplay the groups’ stated mission can be understood as an extension of Indian middle class activism which has historically used a variety of tools to ameliorate social inequalities. The page then transitions to the next section of the chapter outlining the history of the middle classes in India during British colonial rule.

This test holds for my example. Indeed, this page epitomises much of my dissertation. Namely that free software in India is a technology which is mobilised towards social ends by a relatively elite group of practitioners attempting to improve their nation on multiple fronts. Rather than creating software, the Indian free software community spends most of its energies in the social work of evangelising to students, government, and industry. My dissertation ultimately argues for contextualising technology within political, economic, and sociological contexts as a corrective for much of STS which, despite its many valuable insights into how technology is created and understood, overly focusses on analysing circuits and flows of power all the while gliding over and around the structures that create, maintain, and reproduce power. Rather than describing how different actors are connected within networks which constantly, simultaneously reshape themselves, by showing how technology has developed and been wielded in different times and places to different political and economic ends we are better equipped to work towards mobilising technology for a different and more equitable future.

Jasmine Folz. 2019. Free and Open Source Software in India: Mobilising Technology for the National Good. University of Manchester, Phd.

Jasmine Folz is currently a senior social researcher for a small consultancy in London called Alma Economics.

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?

Nicholas Emlen: In the book, I give two main reasons why I think it’s politically important to acknowledge the interconnectedness of Andeans and Amazonians in the Alto Urubamba. The first is about recognizing the diversity, complexity, and global connectedness of Indigenous lives in South America. There’s a particular image that comes to mind when we talk about Matsigenka people and Quechua-speaking Andeans: as remote hunter-horticulturalists on the one hand, and as rural highland agropastoralists on the other. I think a different view of those people, in which they live side-by-side in the Amazon and participate together in the global coffee trade, pushes against an essentializing vision of that social panorama.

Second, a lot of urgent geopolitical problems are playing out in the Andean-Amazonian transitional zone. If we overlook the interconnectedness of those regions, we risk missing or misunderstanding those problems. A lot of these problems come from a paradox that I discuss in the book: on the one hand, the region is remote and inaccessible, so it’s a perfect place to conduct all manner of illicit activities, like cocaine production. On the other hand, it’s also very close to the Andes and to the broader Amazonian river network, which makes those illicit activities viable and lucrative—that is, its proximity also makes it a convenient place from which to distribute cocaine. That’s why today’s cocaine-producing area was also home, for instance, to the Inca resistance against the Spanish in the 16th century. In both cases, the forests of Alto Urubamba have provided refuge and cover, but also proximity and broader regional access. So it’s the in-between-ness of this region that keeps thrusting it onto the global geopolitical stage. If we only focus on the rural highlands or the remote lowlands, we won’t understand how these urgent problems are playing out at their interface. Furthermore, economies in the eastern Andean slopes like the cocaine trade, illegal logging, and hydrocarbon extraction disproportionately affect the region’s most vulnerable people, so I think it’s important to shine a light on them.

Gaya Morris: You write that when you envisioned investigating multilingualism in this region you didn’t initially anticipate studying coffee production so closely, but now when you look into a cup of coffee you can’t help but imagine the “inconceivably vast network of relationships and words” that went into making it (143). If you were to give summary or relate a few anecdotes from your fieldwork amongst coffee farmers, what part of this story would you want to share with the average coffee consumer? What would you say to someone who only buys Fair Trade coffee beans?

Nicholas Emlen: It’s true—when I first went to the Alto Urubamba Valley to learn about multilingualism, I didn’t know anything about coffee farming. But I quickly realized that in order to understand the social reality of multilingualism in the valley, I would also have to learn about coffee. That’s because almost every most interaction was connected to that economy, directly or indirectly. The reverse is also true: becoming a coffee farmer is not just about putting seeds in the soil and learning to make them grow, but also requires adopting particular linguistic registers and interactional practices in all three languages.

To give some examples: coffee farmers must absorb complex information in workshops, conducted in a technical register of Spanish, in which they sit for hours and learn about fertilizers, coffee pulpers, fermentation, and humidity. Then, to secure a buyer for their coffee at a good price, they must negotiate with merchants in tense roadside drinking and joking sessions, in Quechua; knowing how to deceive, read between the lines, and deploy a kind of dissatisfied silence are all necessary to making a good profit. To confront encroaching neighbors, farmers must file petitions in a rarified legal register of Spanish, or send non-linguistic messages, like tearing out coffee plants in the middle of the night and leaving them piled up along a property boundary. Some farmers conceal their strategies by speaking Matsigenka around merchants, or by using coded language over the radio. These are just a few of the linguistic dimensions of coffee production. My point is that becoming a successful farmer is as much a matter of adopting linguistic and communicative practices (all of which are embedded in the local social world) as it is a matter of learning agricultural techniques, narrowly defined. This is what linguistic anthropology offers in this case: a holistic analytical lens through which to understand the local practices of multilingualism and the dynamics of coffee production as a unified social system.

I’m not sure what this perspective offers to a coffee consumer. Producers in the places where I work haven’t yet achieved export-grade coffee, and systems like Fair Trade aren’t well known. But I think it’s a good practice for anyone in today’s world to be aware of (or at least curious about) where their food comes from, and to be mindful of the people and landscapes that are affected by their consumption choices. In particular, imagining how our food arrives to us through countless interpersonal interactions across the globe—this is, understanding the food system as it is mediated by language use—pushes us to acknowledge the humanity and day-to-day experiences of those who produce and distribute it.

Gaya Morris: Given that people will talk about the landscape in very different ways—such as “the domain of intersubjective relations with other-than-human entities” versus “a resource to be exploited for commercial gain” (229)—depending on the setting and the language they are speaking in (Chapter 6), would you say that language politics in the Alto Urubamba may go hand in hand with conservation?

Nicholas Emlen: Certainly. Chapter 6 of the book is about the amazingly diverse conceptualizations of the landscape that people draw on as they move between ideologically-regimented contexts of speech. For instance, during the community agricultural workshops that I mentioned earlier (which are conducted in Spanish), people discuss the chemical properties of the soil, and how to clear and burn a plot of forest safely. By contrast, in Matsigenka myth narrations (which take place among family members in the home), the very same people talk about the landscape as a place of interactions with dangerous spirits. In these contexts, people invoke very different ideas about the land, as well as different kinds of social commitments (i.e. to the community versus the family), visions of history, and even what kinds of beings exist in the world. In this way, changing patterns of land use are linked with the local dynamics of language use.

Environmental conservation is yet another way to talk about the landscape. It is associated with different social commitments (in the case, to all of humanity), and with different ideas about what the forest is, what purpose it serves, and who is entitled to have opinions about its future. I suppose this is one of the challenges facing conservationists in the Alto Urubamba: inserting a new conceptualization of the landscape, along with all of its potentially conflicting ideological associations, into an already crowded field of day-to-day landscape experiences.

Gaya Morris: In framing your book as a “time capsule,” you allow that “much of what (you) describe will be outdated” (36). Are there any significant changes or events that have taken place in the region since your fieldwork in 2009-2012 that readers should be aware of? Any that might cause you to revise any part of your analysis?

Nicholas Emlen: All fieldwork is a snapshot of a fleeting moment in time. This is particularly true of fieldwork in a place like the Andean-Amazonian frontier, where the transformation from remote forest, to frontier settlement, and to middle-class urban center can happen in just a few decades. I have a friend in a frontier settlement who transformed a small, remote piece of forest into a fruit patch; from a fruit patch into a fish farm; and from a fish farm into a discoteca. All of this happened in about 25 years. I have tried to keep in mind this extraordinary pace of change as I wrote the book. So, looking back on it now, I think the analysis is a good representation of what the place was like in 2009-2012. But indeed, a great many things have changed since then.

I most recently visited the Alto Urubamba in November 2019, to present my book to the communities where I conduct my fieldwork, and to start some new projects. During that visit, I had the interesting experience of reviewing the final proofs for the book while I was staying in those very same communities. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on what has changed, and what has not. One big change is that there’s now electricity in Yokiri, the community where I lived for nearly a year, and there’s now even patchy cell phone reception in some places. Here is a photo of a soccer game in Yokiri in November 2019, under the new electrical lines that were built a couple of years before:

IMG_7631

This new connectivity has transformed the valley’s communicative life. For instance, most of my Matsigenka and Andean migrant friends are now on Facebook, which allows them to communicate with each other more easily. As a result, the system of public radio communication I discuss in chapter 4 of the book has basically disappeared by now. Facebook has also presented the valley’s residents with a dramatically new landscape of information. This includes memes about the differences between cats and dogs, but also content regarding relationships, religion, and national politics. Unfortunately, this change has also brought more insidious material into the lives of Matsigenkas and colonos, including conspiracy theories, fake news, and outright scams. A view of the region both before and after the arrival of social media presents some interesting longitudinal possibilities, and I’ve just begun a new project that explores the place of these communicative transformations in the chaotic frontier society as it expands ever further in the forest.

The region has also faced some economic headwinds in recent years, which has had pretty alarming consequences for people there. Corruption is even more widespread than it was before, and the cocaine trade has become more assertive and institutionalized. Heavily armed smugglers now trespass through remote parts of Matsigenka communities on well-established paths, and community members avoid those places, fearing for their lives. Prostitution, crime, and alcoholism have all become more prevalent since the fieldwork that led to this book. So, one concern I’ve had is that the book isn’t dark enough. Don’t get me wrong, it’s already very dark, particularly in the parts about the cocaine trade—but there’s something a little more apocalyptic in the air at the moment, which I don’t want to miss. I want to be sure I’ve struck the right balance between emphasizing the kindness and decency of the people that I know in the valley, and drawing attention to the ongoing geopolitical catastrophe that they endure—and which we all must reckon with, if a relatively intact Amazon rain forest is indeed crucial to our survival on this planet. Striking that balance is a real challenge.

Part of my concern might also be the result of how I’ve changed as a person since I first visited the valley in 2009. I think that now, as a father and a husband, I’m more viscerally affected by the dark aspects of frontier life than I was as a young fieldworker in my 20s. Anthropologists who engage with the same communities over the course of decades, or who are members of those communities, always witness changes in those places. What might be less obvious is how the anthropologists themselves also change.

 

Author bio:

Nicholas Q. Emlen is a postdoctoral researcher at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics, and at the DFG Center for Advanced Studies “Words, Bones, Genes, Tools,” University of Tübingen.

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.