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.

 

Charles Goodwin’s Reflections upon Retirement

SLA Interview with Charles Goodwin

Image result for charles goodwin

What article or book that you wrote are you most pleased with?  Could you talk about the story behind writing it?

While “Professional Vision” is perhaps the article that anthropologists know best, what pleases me most in my career is my work on the social life of Aphasia. With that, I (and others) have been able to change the way that people encounter and think about not only people with aphasia, but, more generally, others who differ from themselves.

The person whom I write about is my father who had a stroke in his early 60’s that left him with a three-word vocabulary: Yes, No and And. He nonetheless remained for the rest of his life an incredibly powerful speaker. Because of my interest in the embodied actions of hearers I immediately saw that while he could not speak, he understood in fine detail what others were saying. For several years I avoided taping him, because I felt I did not want to take advantage of his tragic situation for research. However, at a certain point I realized that it was incredibly important that others see what he could do, rather than assuming someone with a three word vocabulary was almost mute and incapable of complex ideas and language use. He was very enthusiastic about this. I began to videotape his daily interactions whenever I visited him. I feel that, independently of analysis, vividly showing audiences who he was actually was, and what he could do, has been incredibly important for opening people’s minds to the varieties of ways of being human. It has also been important theoretically. First, this work (and that of colleagues) opened a social, rather than psychological or neurological, perspective on aphasia, and brain damage more generally, as something manifested moment by moment in the lived world. Seeing aphasia in this light has consequences for not only the aphasic person, but also those share their lives with him or her. My mother’s life was changed by my father’s stroke at least as much as his. With our continuing state of war, aphasia and other severe consequences of injury to the brain affect not only those at the end of the life cycle, but also our soldiers who frequently return to families, as well as young spouses and partners, with a lifelong condition. Research on the social life of aphasia has led to important changes in therapy. Instead of trying to change what is a chronic condition, one can focus on patterns of interaction.

Basically my father became a powerful speaker by guiding others to produce the words he needed. This radically changed my view of human language, forcing me to see sentences, utterances, and speakers as distributed phenomena. We inhabit each other’s actions. This insight is central to my current work on co-operative action.

 

What article or book was hardest for you to write, and why?

“Action and Embodiment.” Here I show formal similarities in the work of archaeologists classifying color, and preadolescent girls playing hopscotch. The hopscotch sequence is less than 15 seconds long, but it took me years to analyze and describe it. Slowly I came to see how human action is built by bringing together different kinds of semiotic materials — language structure, prosody, gesture, embodied postures, frameworks of mutual orientation constituted through the alignment of multiple bodies, etc., and material structure in the environment, such as the hopscotch grid (or the Munsell chart for the archaeologists), sedimented history as we re-use with transformation what we have inherited from our predecessors, etc. The boundaries between the interests of linguistic anthropologists, social anthropologists and archaeologists begin to disappear. It is impossible to analyze what is occurring from any of these perspectives in isolation. It took me a long time to figure out how to conceptualize this.

 

Which class did you most enjoy teaching, and why?

My absolute joy throughout forty years of teaching has been my seminars, these are really chances to explore analysis with whole cohorts of incredibly interesting people — both students and years of visitors. I have learned so much from all of these colleagues and it has really led to important changes in my thinking (for example being introduced to biosemiotics), and the kinds of phenomena I investigate. This applies as well to those who have invited me to enter their worlds though fieldwork. I see being a professor as one moment in a long chain of intergenerational exchanges, in which I gain much from my mentors, while having my mind continuously opened by new students, while, I hope, helping to stimulate them. In the current economic and political climate it is hopeful to recognize that forms of life that are both profoundly ethical, and genuinely exciting, continue to exist, at least for the moment.

Charles Goodwin is a professor of applied linguistics at UCLA.

Please send your comments, contributions, news and announcements to SLA contributing editors Anna Babel (babel.6@osu.edu) or Ilana Gershon (igershon@indiana.edu).

Cite as: Gershon, Ilana and Charles Goodwin. 2017. “Charles Goodwin’s Reflections upon Retirement.” Anthropology News website, April 7. 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.400

Rick Parmentier’s Reflections upon Retirement

SLA interview with Rick Parmentier

Rick Parmentier
Rick Parmentier

What article or book that you wrote are you most pleased with?  Could you talk about the story behind writing it?

The principal argument of my paper “Diagrammatic Icons and Historical Processes in Belau” (American Anthropologist, 1985) was scribbled on a three-by-five card while in an ambulance taking me to the hospital after a massive injections of epinephrine. I did not know at the time that I have a fatal allergy to black hornets.  While I have never again written anything “on drugs,” I still compose all my writing in my head.

What article or book was hardest for you to write, and why?

Transforming my dissertation (1981) into The Sacred Remains (1985) was extremely difficult. I spent several years trying to answer a question put to me by George Stocking, Jr. during my dissertation defense: Why this particular set of signs?

What moment of fieldwork interaction do you still think about, amazed that you got to witness it and/or record it?

The powerful piece of political oratory delivered by Ngiraklang Malsol, which I was lucky to tape, was one of the highlights of my fieldwork. My students enjoy my more recent conclusion, that my original published analysis (in Lucy, ed., Reflexive Language) failed to take into account my role as the recorder of the speech. The inspiration for my rethinking the analysis is Michael Silverstein’s paper “The Secret Life of Texts” on Edward Sapir’s analysis of “Winter Bathing.”

What is one of your favorite fieldwork stories to tell?

I like to tell the story about when, back in 1979, I got lost on a mountaintop looking for megalithic ruins in the forest at Ngeremeskang, about five miles from my home village. After making five passes straight down the mountain and then back up, marking the trees with a knife, I finally intersected the path. I did leave a note at the top of the mountain, willing my library to fellow graduate student Nina Kammerer.

Which class did you most enjoy teaching, and why?

I taught an advanced seminar on cultural semiotics for about 20 years that was always fun. I only spent one session on anthropological/archaeological papers, focusing, rather, on disciplines like art history, musicology, philosophy, linguistics, and literary theory. One student told me that, many years after she took the course, she could not remember anything but that she would never forget that she took the course.

How has teaching changed for you over the years?

For the first 15 years I enjoyed giving—that is, performing—formal lectures in large lecture halls. Then I cancelled all of those courses and began teaching a series of seminars or discussion classes in which my twin goals were never to perform and never to waste class time transmitting information. In the years just prior to retirement I did add a series of PowerPoint lectures in one of my classes, inspired by the lectures of my departmental colleague Javier Urcid, who is a master of this technology.

What book do you think people would be surprised to know is on your bookshelf?

Friends who know me are not surprised to see nine bookcases filled with CDs of Renaissance and Baroque sacred music, including every choral composition of, for example, Tallis, Gibbons, Byrd, Purcell, Handel, and Bach. I have a bookcase in the living room not easily visible from the sofa that contains my large collection of books on ancient aliens, Atlantis, the Kennedy assassination, global conspiracies, and fantastic archaeology. Next to my reading chair, not surprisingly, are the works of C. S. Peirce in both the eight-volume Harvard edition and the Indiana chronological series.

What is your favorite language, and why?

My field language, Palauan, is extremely complicated (especially the verb system) and was very difficult for me to learn. But I still enjoy listening to my field tapes from 37 years ago, especially the esoteric chants that were such a challenge to master. Several years ago a native speaker attended Brandeis as an undergraduate physics major, and we enjoyed chatting most Friday afternoons. I can still speak Palauan, but only while dreaming.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Perhaps it’s not too late to go to law school and to become, like my co-editor Beth Mertz, a law professor. I am lucky to be able remember spoken language (and music) from decades past, and I enjoy carefully constructed arguments. I did once teach a course on contemporary social theory at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, in which the students were the members of the law faculty.

Richard Parmentier is a professor at Brandeis University.

William Leap’s Reflections upon Retirement

William Leap is retiring after being a professor of anthropology at American University for 46 years. Ilana Gershon asks him to reflect on his career.

What article or book that you wrote are you most pleased with?  Could you talk about the story behind writing it?

Easier than citing a single book or article, I’d prefer to talk about how I am most pleased to find how I have maintained certain consistencies of argument over several years of inquiry, despite my changes in research topics and theoretical paradigms and despite academic and broader politics.

For example, my current studies of language and sexuality have moved far from the ideas outlined in Word’s Out , but one issue addressed there still haunts my research and writing:  how do people learn to talk about same-sex desires, practices, and sexual sameness when such talk is so often assigned negative values by peers, parents, news media, political officials, officer co-workers, department chairs, and other regulatory sources.

I addressed similar regulatory questions in my earlier studies of American Indian English (AIE), when I suggested that AIE fluencies helped maintain ancestral language receptive competence in settings where ancestral language fluency (and fluent speakers) were widely despised. The parallels between AIE and the discussion in Word’s Out were not exact, but the processes of overhearing, and the ensuing accumulations and conditions of hyperdiversity were similar.

I did not pursue those parallels in Word’s Out, but I began to do that in subsequent writing, beginning with “Language socialization and silence in gay adolescence,” a revision of a (truly dreadful) article that first appeared in a special issue of The High School Journal. Thinking about gay language learning as language socialization prompted further thoughts about processes of linguistic accumulationtextual refusalaudience reception as well as the global circulations of North Atlantic gay language(s)  and their impacts on localized sexual discourse(s).

So how did your research in Cape Town fit into these continuities?

I revised the “language socialization paper” while in residence at the Centre for Rhetoric Studies at University of Cape Town. I heard many stories about language/sexuality socialization from people living in Cape Town’s City Center and in the nearby Coloured and Black townships, thanks to the support of the Triangle Project, a Cape Town area AIDS advocacy group. This was my introduction to the uneven inflections of language, sexuality, gender, race, and class that were reshaping sexualities as apartheid transitioned to representative democracy in the western Cape. I was tracing how those inflections impacted sexual language learning in the late apartheid period and this disclosed details of Cape Town area sexual geography. I could locate moments that language shift exposed competing loyalties between sexuality and place. The book project I am now finishing explores the not-so-secret “secret codes” linked to homosexuality before the Stonewall moment in the US, and was inspired in part by the Cape Town research, especially its demand that linguistic history engages with racial and class diversities and the material conditions that sustain them, instead of ignoring these diversities.

What article or book was hardest for you to write, and why?

Every article and book has been difficult for me to write. I grew up in a small town in North Florida in the early 1950s, so Standard English was not my first language, either for speaking or for writing. Many of the conventions of standard speech still elude me. Plus, what might fashionably be termed late-onset dyslexia ensures that revising, editing and proof-reading become time-consuming tasks. But even if writing takes much longer to complete than the assigned deadline allows, writing is still an exciting activity. Writing gives me a chance to experiment with ideas and it always leads to unexpected outcomes. I learned long ago to stop trying to create a detailed outline in advance of the first draft: I sketch out three or four intended themes, assemble some data, and see where it leads—hopefully to successful, if at times unexpected, outcomes.

 You started the Lavender Languages Conference in 1993 and are the founding co-editor of the Journal of Language & Sexuality. What motivated you to do this important organizational labor?

The Lavender Languages Conference has been creating space for conversations about language and sexuality since 1993, and it still does as, I explained elsewhere. We named this event “Lavender Languages” to avoid taking sides with people doing “lesbian/gay studies” or “queer theory,” a hot-button issue in the 1990s that probably doesn’t matter so much anymore. The phrase remains because of name recognition, but that too might change as time passes. The point is to maintain a space where people can discuss language and sexuality without fear of risk or retaliation. People already face enough of that in everyday settings, inside and outside of the classroom.

The Journal of Language & Sexuality is “indebted to queer linguistics” as an orienting theme, as my co-editor (Heiko Motschenbacher) and I explain in the journal’s mission statement. And queerness is always about messiness and irregularity. The Journal is a site where discussions of language and sexuality need not be contained within traditional disciplinary (or similar) boundaries. Our reviewers draw heavily on those criteria as they read and evaluate manuscripts, and so do the editors as we make final decisions regarding the contents for each issue.

What moment of fieldwork interaction do you still think about, amazed that you got to witness it and/or record it?

Doing linguistic fieldwork in sex clubs in the 1980 and 1990s. There were those (in anthropology and in the federal government) who said such work could not be done; and even if it were attempted, the results could not have any claim to scientific validity, and thus no impact on AIDS-related (or other) policy-making. Following ethnographic work of Ralph Bolton and Michael Clatz, I insisted that there had to be ways to conduct linguistic research in the erotic moment, a point which a group of us confirmed in the publication of Public Sex, Gay Space. For me, this meant conducting linguistic fieldwork at cruising sites, although as always, linguistic inquiry soon moved far beyond the scope of the linguistic moment.

In one instance, the cruising site data provided a basis for expert witness court testimony on behalf of a bath house which local government had designated as a health hazard and was seeking to close. My field data demonstrated that activities at this site were no more a “threat” to public health than were activities in the saunas and steam rooms in the area’s upscale health clubs and gyms, sites which local government had never attempted to raid or regulate. Why, I asked, was the category “health hazard” being applied so selectively to the health club I was defending? And whose long-term real estate investments were being secured as the uneven inflections were applied?

What piece of furniture do you most often talk to or about?

My swimming pool. This was my retirement gift to my partner and me. There are no Esther Williams-type water features or Olympics-like illuminations. This is a simple 25’x16’, cobalt blue-tiled, heated structure, providing room to float on a buoyant raft while enjoying the south Florida sun and listening to thematically appropriate CDs.

Cite as: Leap, William. 2018. “William Leap’s Reflections upon Retirement.” Anthropology News website, August 13, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.943

Bonnie Urciuoli’s Reflections on Retirement

SLA INTERVIEW WITH BONNIE URICIUOLI

August 15, 2017

Bonnie Urciuoli. Nancy L. Ford

What article or book that you wrote are you most pleased with?  Could you talk about the story behind writing it?   Or: What article or book was hardest for you to write, and why?

These two questions have the same answer, “Skills and Selves in the New Workplace,” published in AE in 2008. It took years and I sweated blood writing and rewriting and rewriting it, probably because I tried to pack way too much into each draft. I had long been thinking about how the word skill got thrown around as a count noun denoting some kind of plug-in. I was also having an extension on my house built by a very skilled contractor working pretty much by himself. By ‘skilled’ I mean he had been doing this work for decades and knew exactly what he was doing. I wanted to contrast this with the idea of workers and students as future workers imagined as bundles of skills like Lego pieces or Tinkertoys. What kind of corporate ethos comes up with the notion that ‘skills’ as the (supposed) outcome of workshops on ‘leadership’ or ‘communication’ could discursively parallel ‘skill’ as the (concrete) result of years of experience? Who was making money off this? Nor was I thrilled at how students were getting inculcated with this, especially students of color. (Diversity skills? Really?) After starting a draft in 2002, I played with it until 2004 when I figured I might as well send it in and get some useful feedback which I did (including “you’re going where with this now?”). It took a few more revisions over a few more years, not to mention a lot of help (big shout-out to Chaise LaDousa, Ilana Gershon, Virginia Dominguez, and the AE reviewers), to get it over the final hump. But the article was one of the most productive things I ever did, pulling together many many threads for me and apparently for quite a few other people as well.

What is one of your favorite fieldwork stories to tell?

During my first fieldwork on the Lower East Side in Manhattan in 1978–79, I spent a lot of time being a sort of fictive aunt to kids on the block where I did most of my research. I tutored and taught arts and crafts and took kids on various outings. Taking a bunch of 8-10 year old boys to and from Yankee Stadium by subway was some experience—amazing how five or six boys can seem like a dozen. Still, bleacher seats cost $1.50 and you could bring your own food and maybe see a Reggie Jackson home run.

Which class did you most enjoy teaching, and why?

I’ve enjoyed them all but my favorites were Phonetics/phonologySemiotics, and US Discourses: Gender and Technology. All of them, in different ways, allowed students to see the familiar or taken-for-granted in different and creative ways plus Semiotics gave many students excuses to write about college branding and analyze the hell out of their experience as tour guides. And Gender and Technology gave me all kinds of excuses to talk about Barbie, Disney, the Mercury program, tail fins on cars, two-tone refrigerators, and being a middle-class American kid in the 1950s.

How has teaching changed for you over the years?

I’ve always enjoyed teaching but I think I’ve especially enjoyed it over the past decade, when my research and teaching came together, even in my introductory courses, in all kinds of surprising and productive ways. The longer I’ve taught the more I’ve seen my students as co-participants in some kind of enterprise I’m not sure I can define. OK, not all of them and not in every class and maybe more in my 200-level and up classes that get a lot of repeaters. But I think I’ve become more aware of what I can learn from the process of teaching—talking with students, reading their stuff.  Can I take this opportunity for a big shout-out to my students? They have just been so much fun.

Over the years, who has been your favorite politician to teach with (or against)?

I got a lot of use out of John Boehner when he chaired the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in the 2000s. I could always count on him to issue statements clearly illustrating a model of education that had zip to do with liberal arts values.

What book do you think people would be surprised to know is on your bookshelf?

There are a couple of authors I dearly love that probably qualify as guilty pleasures (“you read them?”): Angela Thirkell and Georgette Heyer. I suppose they are considered lightweight romance authors with iffy politics. But they also create detailed worlds that are interesting and amusing. Adjacent on my bookshelves are the complete (and often re-read) works of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett (the latter thanks to Ilana) which actually wouldn’t surprise anyone who really knows me.

Do you speak for your pets, and if so, when or how?

I don’t have a lot of luck speaking for my (currently three) cats, though I try. Mostly I voice for them things like “of course we can put that vet bill on my VISA card” or “I’m so sorry I threw up on your shoe.” It so doesn’t work. For starters they expect me to pay their credit card bills.

What is your favorite curse word?

The f-word. It may be unoriginal and overused but it certainly works for me, especially when I’m screaming at the political news.

What is the worst piece of advice you have ever gotten?

The worst advice (received in the mid 1980s) was to change my research area to a topic that would serve me better on the job market by fitting established categories of anthropological research. I thanked the people who offered the advice and completely ignored it.

Bonnie Urciuoli is a professor of anthropology at Hamilton College.

Ilana Gershon curated this article.

Cite as: Gershon, Ilana. 2017. “Bonnie Urciuoli’s Reflections upon Retirement.” Anthropology News website, August 15, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.533