Noelle Molé Liston on her book, The Truth Society

The Truth Society

Interview by Jonah Rubin

https://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/9781501750793/the-truth-society/

Jonah Rubin: So much has been written about what media literacy scholars have termed our “information disorder” (Wardle and Derakhshan 2017). There is a general recognition that mis- and disinformation is rampant, threatening the shared epistemological foundations of many political communities. In The Truth Society, though, you don’t only focus on those who believe in conspiracy theories and misinformation. You see them as intimately connected with those who are “hyperinvested” in real science and reliable facts. Even in your opening vignette you focus not on the purveyors of untruths, but rather on the “soldiers of rationality” breaking mirrors in the public square as an anti-superstition performance. Why is it important (methodologically, theoretically, or both) for us to focus on what you call this “hyperrationalization,” an almost desperate pursuit of science, empiricism, and skepticism as well? Put otherwise, what do we miss when we exclusively train our analytic gaze on those who believe in false information?

Noelle Molé Liston:  

Danger #1: We miss not fully recognizing the implications of the onslaught of information and algorithmic underpinnings of digital consumption. Access to information has meant both a democratization of access to information, that is, at least in basic sense along with the intensified customization and subsequent siloing of information. Yet with so much information, what became eroded was a basic sense of source appraisal, especially when industries were mastering pseudoscientific ways to uphold the oil and gas industry, and various “Big” Industries like Big Pharma, Big Sugar, Big Food, etc. Therefore, we saw that scientific information also became a site of “fake news” where under the guise of science, social actors might find so-called scientific studies to support the absence of climate change or the incredible health benefits of sugar. Thus, social actors who were already habituated to see science as true, rational, and reasonable, were being seduced with paid-for sponsored “fake” science, which I would argue, worked because of this enchantment of good science, a kind of facile belief that scientific rationality could seek and produce the truth. Without interrogating or becoming skeptical about why knowledge under the label of “science” can either be manipulated or outright fabricated, we fall prey to reifying–or even deifying–science itself.

Danger #2: We become “anesthetized” to our own embodied or phenomenological ways of knowing the world and, possibly, one’s own expertise. In my exploration of the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, one interlocutor was an architect with deep knowledge of both the territory and engineering. Yet she ignored her own sense of danger when she was reassured by scientists and fellow engineers, likening it to “numbing” her other ways of knowing she had typically relied upon. Why does this happen? Immense pressure was on the public to trust science and quell the existing pre-earthquake panic, not unlike ways the American public is currently scolded to “trust the science” during the pandemic. In both instances, maintaining social order relies on a continual investment in science as simple truth, so we have to interrogate how our own trust in science might be part of a mode of control and surveillance. It’s also become quite tricky on the left, as we want to allow space for healthy scientific skepticism but not indulge pseudoscience or conspiracies. If we fail to examine our own tendencies to exalt science as “big-T” True, then we risk reproducing the very regime of hyperinvestment in science.

Jonah Rubin: One major theme of the text is the ways that new media technologies – television news, the internet, algorithms – reshape the possibilities for politics. At times, it seems like these technologies open up new possibilities for political participation and populism. Other times, it seems like the technologies become new sites for the political imagination, such as the televised presentation of a golden tapir award or the infozombies. Could you elaborate a bit on how you see the relationship between new media and politics playing out?

Noelle Molé Liston: The book ends with the metaphor of the mirrored window world where the media consumers believe themselves to be accessing information openly and outwardly, but instead are regurgitated only algorithmic versions of information already catered to their likes, dislikes, and political leanings. In some ways, it seems important that the originality and bite of Italy’s “Striscia La Notizia” (The News is Spreading) satirical news show and Beppe Grillo’s blog were not data-driven media, that is, there was no predetermined customization or data-mining precipitating their creation, other than usual television ratings or blog views. But they were both examples of important political interventions: the former to critique then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the latter to build a grassroots political movement of the Five Star Movement. Plus, both were art forms insofar as they were driven by the humor and creativity of political actors, navigating a climate of television censorship by the very man they were poking fun at (Berlusconi), on the one hand, and engaging in-person political action vis-a-vis online content. By contrast, the more algorithmic media such as the Five Star Movement’s web portal program known as Rousseau, might mine member data and ideas in ways unknown to users. Perhaps not surprisingly, Luigi Di Maio, one of Five Star’s leaders who served as Co-Deputy Prime Minister, was accused of being a kind of android: chosen and styled according to user preferences from Rousseau. Put differently, the algorithmic regimes of new media fundamentally operate in ways that are buried and opaque to most users, which, in turn, makes it harder to discern their effects. More recently, Italy has also seen a quite intense anti-vax movement during the pandemic, which is likely the product of social media algorithms which funnel users into their own individualized information silos and boost posts because of “engagement” not veracity. The outside world can look so deceptively beautiful even though the forest is just our own faces. Twenty-first century idiom: you can’t see the faces through the forest? 

Jonah Rubin: To me personally, one of the most productively challenging aspects of your book is your analysis of political humor. Many of us see political humor as inherently subversive, a way of mocking and therefore undermining the powerful. But in your book, especially in chapters 1 and 3, you suggest that humor can also breed a kind of political cynicism and even complicity that may reinforce hegemonic power structures. Could you tell us a bit more about your approach to the politics of humor? How should anthropologists and others study the politics of jokes, both the kinds we find funny and the kinds that may horrify us?

Noelle Molé Liston: It is true that I tend to adopt a cynical approach to political humor as my recent analysis of viral videos of Italian mayors funnily admonishing citizens to mask up effectively got laughs because they represented the “thwarted displacement of patriarchy and failed attempts, at every level of governance, to erect robust authoritarian control.” Part of this analytic, of course, is aligned with anthropological investigation of humor and satire as unintentionally bolstering entrenched power structures. It’s hard not to be so cynical when Berlusconi himself, whom I’ve argued won over Italians with his brash humor as a seemingly genuine presentation of an otherwise highly artificial political masquerader, almost had a comeback in his 2022 run for President of the Republic. (He ended up dropping out of the race). I remained concerned that “strong men” like Berlusconi and  Trump use humor to manipulate and garner support, and diffuse criticism, resulting in a destabilization of how political humorists can have, as it were, the last laugh. How can political humor outsmart the absurdist clown? How will algorithmically filtered media consumption (re)shape the humor of consumers and voters?

One strategy might be in the satire of unlikely embodiment. One of Berlusconi’s best impersonators is Sabina Guzzanti, a woman 25-years Berlsconi’s junior who dons wigs and prosthetics to perfect her impression. In this clip, she refers to herself as a woman while in costume as Berlusconi, decrying that “her” failed bid for President was sexist. She is also one of his fiercest critics, especially in her account of his post-earthquake crisis management in L’Aquila. In the US, Sarah Cooper went viral for her videos in which she would lip synch to things Trump said without physically altering her appearance, so it was his voice, but her mouth, face, and body. In both cases, the performances do different kinds of political and symbolic work because of the surprisingly mismatched genders and bodies, which results in tension, long a characteristic of great humor, between laughter and discomfort. There is something powerful and effective about the dissonance of having women, and in Cooper’s case, a woman of color, speak the words of these misogynists that straight jokes and impressions (often by straight men) cannot achieve.

Jonah Rubin: In Chapters 5 and 6, you look at the tensions between scientific prediction and public governance, particularly in the Anthropocene. Here, you focus on the trial of a group of scientists who provide reassurances to the residents of L’Aquila, urging them to stay home prior to what ultimately turns out to be a deadly earthquake. At the time, the international press overwhelmingly presented this story as an irrational attack on science. But you see it as a more profound commentary on the changing role of science in the public sphere. How do shifts in our experience of the climate and in our media landscapes affect the relationship between science, politics, and law?

Noelle Molé Liston: Indeed I argue that the idea that Italians gullibly believe scientists could predict earthquakes helped export the narrative of the trial as anti-science. However, it was more about the form of the press conference which positioned authoritative scientific reassurances to quell the rising panic in L’Aquila. As we confront more acute environmental crises, there will be greater pressure on scientists to predict and manage risk, ascertain damage and crisis management, and weigh in on policy, as we’ve seen during the pandemic. But we don’t yet have a legal framework that might hold non-scientific or even scientific failures accountable. In L’Aquila, the actual non-scientific claim was their reassurance that no big earthquake would come and people should not evacuate. The Italian judiciary tried to make a connection between an authoritative sources’ public utterances and the fatal consequence of this misinformation: the listeners’ death. By contrast, Trump alone issued massive amounts of misinformation about the dangers of Covid but it would be entirely inconceivable, I think, that our judiciary hold him accountable for the resulting deaths.  Why? Because of Trump-era politics or the American justice system, more broadly? How –and where–will the law shift to see misinformation as fatally consequential, legally punishable, or, at least, a public health crisis?

Jonah Rubin: The book centers on the ways fact and fiction are blurred during the Berlusconi and Grillo eras of Italian politics. But to me, the students in my class who read this text, and, I assume, many other readers in the United States will see strong resonances between what you describe in Italy and our own country’s experiences with President Trump and the “post-truth” era that American frequently associated with his rise to power. Of course, the balance between ethnographic specificity and comparison is as old as anthropology itself. With that caveat in mind: What do you see in your argument as particular to Italy and how do you think it applies to our recent and current experiences in the United States and around the world as well?

Noelle Molé Liston: Berlusconi as a precursor to Trump was a kind of historical instruction booklet. I often describe Berlusconi to Americans as “Trump + Bloomberg,” because Berlusconi owned his own media company, which was vital in his 1990s rise to power. However, the structure of Italian television broadcasting, where political parties divvied up news networks, was crucial in the mid-century rise of public cynicism towards television and print media. Ultimately, it sharpened a widely shared Italian assumption that any form of news has a political slant (decades before we were talking about spin). Put simply, the infrastructure of media matters. Most agree that Trump was tipped over the edge not by television masterminding like Berlusconi but because of social media manipulation. To be sure, Italy’s technopopulism of the Five Star Movement will likely expand in the US. Still, Italy seems to have suffered far less democratic backsliding than the United States, and maybe we could read this as hopeful premonition. But the US seems to have “left the chat” in terms of Italian influence. Italy’s fundamental rootedness in its unique mix of Catholic ethics, democratic social welfare, and pro-labor movements has somehow put voting rights and democratic institutions in a better place with respect to the US,with our Protestant ethic, anti-labor, and neoliberal demonization of welfare. Let’s also notice that there was no January 6th in Italy, no violent insurrection of people believing an election was stolen. Despite Italy’s international reputation as an “unstable democracy,” I’d feel more confident about proper counting of votes and the peaceful transfer of power in Italy than I would in our next US presidential election.

Jonah Rubin: This is less of a major point in your book, but on page 88, you note a common thread of political cynicism that ties together the foundational principles of media criticism – and, I would hasten to add, most media literacy education initiatives too  – and the Five Star Movement’s attacks on science and news media, which find clear echoes in other right-wing populist movements around the globe. How do you think media criticism and education might be contributing to the deterioration of a shared epistemology? And might you have any suggestions on how media criticism and education need to shift in response to populist political movements which sound disturbingly close to their foundational insights? 

Noelle Molé Liston: Just as the left needs to thread the needle in terms of science as I mentioned earlier, so, too, do well- intentioned plans for media literacy begin to sound like Trump’s refrain of referring to The New York Times as “fake news.” The problem is that people have lost an ability to discern between positioned information and misinformation. Plus, our regime of algorithmic newsfeeds just can’t handle the nuance.  Just as postmodern theories of multiple, contested truth escalated to, or were perceived as, forms of absolute moral nihilism, so, too, has some healthy epistemological skepticism quickly become a truth vacuum. It reminds me of a moment when my student said she found statistics about police violence against Blacks on a white supremacist website. Why? I asked, horrified. She said it was because she trusted their information precisely because their anti-Black positionality was overt.  We find this same mentality that makes Trump, one of the biggest liars and con-artists on the world’s stage, become trusted by his followers: the trust in manifest and easily legible opinions. What results, then, is greater trust in overtly positioned information sources like Fox News, and lesser trust in the vast majority of information mediums where the positionality is more complex, covert or semi-covert, and paradoxical. Media criticism and education needs to instruct on literacy practices where knowledge might be seen as positioned and framed, and move away from a binary of biased versus unbiased media. We also need to raise awareness about how information is algorithmically processed and customized to the user. Finally, we must recognize how corporate media regimes deliberately design decoys (eg. clickbait, customized ads) and mechanisms of addiction  (eg. the no-refresh scroll function, TikTok) to keep data surveillance and its vast monetization for the benefit of astonishingly few people in place.

Susan Seizer’s reflections upon retirement

What article or book that you wrote are you most pleased with? Could you talk about

the story behind writing it?


Oddly enough the article I am most proud of is the first one I published, while
still a grad student: “Paradoxes of Visibility in the Field: Rites of Queer Passage in
Anthropology” (Public Culture, 1995 N1V6:73-100). Not part of my stated research on
Special Drama but rather fully within a genre of fieldwork reflections then considered
the “soft” rather than the “hard science” side of anthropology, writing this essay as soon
as I had returned to the States let me express so much about how I learned during my
first years of fieldwork in India. I wrote about the welcome, open homosociality among
women in Tamilnadu, and its flipside: how lesbianism wasn’t a recognizable “thing” at
the time. Writing about this let me muse about thinginess itself, about invisibility as a
cloak stitched of non-things that have no name, and the power of naming itself. A key
concept of linguistic anthropology, speech as action is very much in play in the Tamil
world.


In the same essay I wrote about the palpably uncomfortable continuing
existence of White & English-speaking privilege in India, a colonial legacy of 150 years of
the British Raj. This unwelcome inheritance cropped up interpersonally in deferential
treatment tinged with suspicion. I managed to not personally drown in feeling the
weight of all this on my shoulders by peppering my essay with embarrassing quotes
from famous anthropologists (Malinowski, Mayberry-Lewis, Mead) that I used as
epigrammatic subheadings. I took these from their own “softer” and more vulnerable
writings (M’s posthumous Diary, M-L’s The Savage and the Innocent, and Mead’s
Blackberry Winter). Their squeamish company helped me laugh at myself.


An unanticipated pleasure of publishing this essay is that it has turned out to
serve prospective LGBTQ ethnographers as a kind of fieldwork guide. Evidently it was
risky to write and publish such stuff if you wanted to have a career in anthropology.
Carol Breckenridge, the Editor of Public Culture at the time, had offered to publish this
piece without my having submitted it to the journal (I showed it to her to ask her advice,
as I was a student in her grad seminar). Before publishing it however she wanted to
make sure I understood the risks posed by doing so. I assured her that this did not feel
risky to me, that I had been an out lesbian for fifteen years by then and had no plans to
go back in the closet for any job where homophobia reigned. What a different time that
was, when Anthro grad students could be so cavalier about T-T job options…. What
neither Carol nor anyone else in my grad school milieu knew at the time was how
uncomfortable I was grappling with a newly acquired “identity” I had been counseled to
hide. Vision troubles in the final summer of my fieldwork landed me back home a month
early, with a spinal tap and a diagnosis of MS (multiple sclerosis) the next day. Thus
began a tailspin that has lasted now for almost thirty years. In comparison to keeping
this bit of life-changing news quiet, outing myself as a lesbian in print felt easy and
familiar, and writing a refuge. The irony is that I did write this essay in an actual closet. My first Apple computer – Grape! – sat on a desk tucked into a narrow coat closet
underneath a dramatic spiral staircase with a sexy black leather banister. Perfect.

What class did you most enjoy teaching, and why?

I really enjoyed teaching using film, which I did in pretty much every course I
have taught, to varying degrees. I use films of all types – documentary and fiction, indie
and mainstream, foreign and not – primarily to enlarge the ethnographic picture
students get through readings and lectures. Only one of my courses focused on
filmmakers as well as their films. “India Lost & Found: South Asian diasporic feminist
filmmakers” was exhilarating to teach. It allowed me to introduce Indiana students to a
region and a history about which they generally knew very little. I focused on
filmmakers from the South Asian diaspora in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., recognizing
how diasporic distance allows these filmmakers to escape the rigid censorship of the
region to offer both biting critique and fierce love to the homelands they’d left. We
watched and discussed multiple films in the oeuvres of Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair, as
well as films by other important filmmakers including Gurinder Chadha and Hanif
Kureishi. I first developed this course while a faculty member in the department of
Communication & Culture (CMCL), encouraged by my film and media studies colleagues
there.


Apart from this relatively rare pleasure (I taught India Lost & Found only four
times), the course I have enjoyed teaching most was “Stigma: Culture, Identity and the
Abject.” I feel passionate about this course. It is also probably the course for which I will
be most remembered. I taught it annually for over twenty-five years, and students from
three decades continue to contact me upon encountering something that reminds them
of the lens we developed together in this course. I approach the topic of stigma as a
compassionate rubric through which to view the lives of those who are marginalized as
“different” from the norm in some way. I draw on a wide range of material that students
generally do not encounter in other courses, from history of science texts about
conjoined twins to memoirs of carnival life, from discussions of eugenics to the attitude
of wonder fostered by cabinets of curiosity (wunderkammern). To give the best sense of
my approach, here is the course description

Cultural value systems in every society rely on sets of mutually defining terms — for example, normal/abnormal, able-bodied/disabled, free/enslaved, legal/illegal, white/non-white, heterosexual/homosexual — that largely determine local attitudes of acceptance or ostracism regarding particular categories of persons. Focusing on social stigma allows us to understand how specific cultural value systems affect our most intimate senses of self, contribute to our very notions of personhood, and inform the ways in which we communicate and engage with others in the world.

Stigma theory speaks broadly to the nature of the social relationships that create marked categories of persons, regardless of which particular attributes are devalued. In this class we look both at theory and at particular cases of stigmatized persons (individuals & groups), as attention to the particularities of a given stigma keys us in to the cultural values that create and support it. Since stigmas do (eventually!) change over time, identifying strategies that have been effective in creating such change is a primary focus of the course.

The theoretical centerpiece of this course is Erving Goffman’s 1963 study Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. We will read this text closely to appreciate Goffman’s insights, and attempt throughout the semester to update them (and the language he uses to convey his points) by applying his model to more recent historical and ethnographic case studies of stigmatized persons & groups. Our focus will be on the range and efficacy of the various strategies available for countering stigma.

Expressive arts — including written & spoken word, film/video, and performance — will be explored as popular strategies for disarming the stigmatizing gaze. We focus in particular on artists and activists whose work addresses contemporary cases of stigma. Weekly screenings of landmark films in fields including American studies, disability studies, black studies, queer studies, and gender & women’s studies supplement regular class meetings; viewing these films is a critical part of the course.

I am interested in passing the Stigma course on to anyone interested in carrying the torch. I would be happy to share syllabi and course materials I have honed for this course over the years; I changed at least some topics, films, and readings every year. The course has had many iterations: as a grad seminar, as an upper-level undergrad course, as a mixed 400/600 level, and most recently as an introductory GEN Ed course at the 200-level. In short, the rubric is malleable as well as valuable, and I hope the course will continue to be taught. DM me! (or find my syllabi on academia.edu.)

What object in your life do you make into a sentient being?

I call the lift in my bedroom Wall-E. It helps.

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

When I was a grad student at the University of Chicago, Prof. John Comaroff was Chair of the Anthropology Department. He inaugurated and taught a Professionalization Seminar in which he advised female students to wear stockings – pantyhose — when going for job talks. I consider this bad advice for at least two reasons: the advice is itself uncomfortably intimate and sexist, and pantyhose are super uncomfortable. Not a good confidence builder for fierce-feminist-yet- nevertheless-vulnerable women entering the academic job market.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your workspace?

I stole my sons’ two downstairs bedrooms to make one generous, accessible downstairs study for myself. The boys were young, 7 and 11, when we moved them upstairs to my old study and small yoga room. Now that they are teens, they like it (maybe even too much). Meanwhile, in my new downstairs study, a big picture window onto our front garden is where I look when I write.

Sonja Trifuljesko takes the page 99 test

Page 99 of my dissertation contains three paragraphs. The first one closes an argument started on the previous page, while the third opens a new subsection. The paragraph that connects the two announces the research question around which Chapter 4 revolves:

In stark opposition to the continuity displayed by the public examination stands the transformation of the Finnish doctoral landscape. Within the same two and a half decades that were marked by the turbulent changes to the higher education system in Finland, a quieter but just as radical transformation of the PhD process has been underway. The model for the transformation of Finnish doctoral education, I argue, has been the same as for the university in general: that of a scalable enterprise. In this chapter, I investigate the way in which changing university relations have (re)shaped the doctoral education landscape.

My doctoral dissertation, which draws on several years of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Helsinki, examines the effects that Finnish higher education reforms have on university sociality. These reforms, as the quoted paragraph on page 99 indicates, are based on an ideological model that combines the neoliberal emphasis on the “enterprise form” with the older principles of the “scalability design” that lies at the heart of capitalism. Fusing the two, the enterprise-cum-scalability model attempts to reduce the totality of university social life to the processes of knowledge asset enhancement (cf. Gershon 2011).

Turning higher education institutions into enhanceable collections of knowledge assets entails an approach I called “gutting and reconstructing.” Following anthropologist Anna Tsing (2012, 2015, 2017), I came to understand it as a three-step process. First, university landscapes are cleared of prior relationships. Next, newly emptied landscapes are prepared for knowledge exploitation and expropriation. Finally, university landscapes are repopulated with entities cut off from their formative ties and transplanted into the cleared and prepared new university landscapes.

Unsurprisingly, the attempts to cancel pre-existing social relationships created disturbance among university communities. Old forms of sociality have clearly been institutionally weakened. Nonetheless, they were not completely eradicated. Moreover, novel social formations started to emerge from the ruins of higher education reforms, which I followed through the mobilization endeavors of doctoral candidates. In accordance with Tsing, I conceptualize these instantiations of sociality as weeds.

To make sense of the “weeds of sociality,” I primarily drew on the seminal work of Vered Amit (2002a, 2002b). That led me to focus on the interactions between the idea and actualization of sociation, which then helped me explain why some efforts to mobilize social relations among doctoral candidates in Helsinki had been successful and others not. Moreover, Amit (2012, 2015) pointed me to look not only at exceptional but also mundane disjunctures as triggers for social mobilization. This becomes particularly conspicuous in the example of international doctoral candidates at the University of Helsinki, whose experiences bring my thesis to an end.

References:

Amit, Vered. 2002a. “Reconceptualizing Community.” In Realizing Community: Concepts, Social Relationships and Sentiments, edited by Vered Amit, 1-20. London and New York: Routledge.

Amit, Vered. 2002b. “An Anthropology Without Community?”. In The Trouble with Community: Anthropological Reflections on Movement, Identity and Collectivity, edited by A. Vered and N. Rapport, 13- 70. London: Pluto Press.

Amit, Vered. 2012. “Part I Community and Disjuncture: The Creativity and Uncertainty of Everyday Engagement.” In Community, Cosmopolitanism and the Problem of Human Commonality, edited by V. Amit and N. Rapport, 1-73. London: Pluto Press.

Amit, Vered. 2015. “Disjuncture: The Creativity of, and Breaks in, Everyday Associations and Routines.” In Thinking through Sociality: An Anthropological Interrogation of Key Concepts, edited by Vered Amit, 21- 46. New York: Berghahn Books.

Gershon, Ilana. 2011. “Neoliberal agency.” Current Anthropology 52 (4): 537-555.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2012. “On Nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales.” Common Knowledge 18 (3): 505-524.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2017. “The Buck, the Bull, and the Dream of the Stag: Some Unexpected Weeds of the Anthropocene.” Suomen Antropologi 42 (1): 3-21

Sarah Hillewaert on her book, Morality on the Margins

Morality at the Margins

Interview by Kamala Russell

Morality at the Margins: Youth, Language, and Islam in Coastal Kenya

Morality at the Margins

Interview by Kamala Russell

Morality at the Margins: Youth, Language, and Islam in Coastal Kenya

Kamala Russell: Your book is a deep investigation of the values, practices, and ambivalences that make up the everyday experience of social change. Could you tell us a bit about the focus of the book, and its argument? I’d be interested in hearing more as well about how you settled on this framing for the book, coming out of your many years of fieldwork. As someone who is at that stage, I am interested in hearing more about the process of how you dream up a book from a dissertation.

Sarah Hillewaert:  The book is an ethnographic study of the everyday lives of Muslim youth living on the Indian Ocean island of Lamu (Kenya). A previously cosmopolitan center of trade and Islamic scholarship, Lamu is currently marginalized in both economic and political terms yet forms the focus of international campaigns against religious radicalization and is also at the center of touristic imaginings of the untouched and secluded. The book examines what happens when narratives of self-positioning change: what happens when signs of cosmopolitanism, respectability, and civility come to be read as indices of remoteness, backwardness, or religious radicalization? And what implications do these shifts in signification have for everyday interactions, self-fashionings, and conceptions of appropriate conduct? I explore these questions by documenting the discursive and embodied production of difference, and examine the seemingly mundane practices through which Lamu youth negotiate what it means to be a ‘good Lamu resident’ in contemporary Kenya. I specifically ask what happens when signification fails – when people are no longer sure how to read signs or when they differ in their reading of material forms as signs of, for example, either piety or social transgression. By documenting apparently mundane practices, and the ideologies that inform their evaluations, I show how easily-overlooked, fleeting moments represent some of the most vital points through which larger scale transformations touch down concretely in community life, and by which they receive local inflection and resonance.  Through its ethnographic detail, the book demonstrates the intersubjective and dialogic nature of meaning-making processes and illustrates how projects of personal cultivation function as political projects as well. In doing so, it offers a linguistic anthropological approach to discussions on ethical self-fashioning and the everyday lives of Muslim youth in Africa.

In terms of the framing of the book, the focus shifted from a more explicit attention to verbal interactions and language use to a broader semiotic approach. And this happened mostly through ongoing interactions with peers, through talks and people’s feedback to them, and through ongoing conversations with my interlocutors in Lamu. However, the ethnographic focus did not change significantly from the dissertation to the book. It was more the theoretical argument that became more nuanced, with more attention to the political significance of seemingly situated interactions and practices. I think talking about my research – writing talks and articles – made me think more about what I really wanted people to take away from my research, both theoretically and ethnographically.

Kamala Russell: What I appreciated most about the book is the way you take a very open-ended approach to this study of social change, not just treating social development and peripheralization in and of Lamu as well as instability in indices of value pessimistically, but also tracing opportunities for new kinds of fulfilment and relationships to oneself (for example, professionalism). What stuck out to me across these chapters, and particularly in the final chapter ‘The Morality of the Senses and the Senses of Morality’, was the importance of gaze and the audience. In your focus on people’s performances and negotiations of what kind of individual they are, I wondered who the imagined audience or public for this differentiation is and how does that relate to the sociopolitical changes you describe in Lamu?

Sarah Hillewaert: I appreciate you mentioning the careful deliberation and negotiation of new opportunities and perspectives that I tried to convey in the book. In doing so, I tried to move beyond discussions on the so-called ambivalences or inconsistencies that previously have been highlighted in discussions of Muslim or African youth. I wanted to convey that shifting perspectives on respectability are not a mere generational change or gap, informed by globalization, for example. And rather than talk about resistance to, for example, what people call tradition, I tried to highlight the agency in young people’s calculated inhabiting of certain norms and their deliberation of the proper mediation of others. For Lamu youth, the question is not whether you should be respectable or not, but rather what respectability should look like, given, on the one hand, the development Lamu desperately needs, and on the other, the significance of respectability to Lamu residents’ distinctive identity and the political load it carries.

And this gets me to your question. Most challenging in writing this book was conveying precisely the hyper-sensitivity to semiotic misconstrual that informs young Lamu residents’ moral self-fashionings. With this I mean that young people were very much aware that a range of differently situated people observe their everyday behavior – their peers or elders from different parts of town, for example, but also immigrants from Kenya’s mainland, government administrators, military police, and so on. They understand very well that their intended professional behavior can be misread as social transgression by some, or still overly conservative by others. And as your question points to, these presentations of self, while locally situated, carry a political significance as well. Now, the political stance implied in everyday practices is not always necessarily for non-locals to be noticed. It’s not about an explicit expression of political opinion that one hopes gets noticed. And in fact, mainland Kenyans are often oblivious to many of the nuances in everyday practices that I focus on in the book. Yet, Lamu residents observing situated behaviors can take those as signs of an individual’s political orientation as well – to what extent is an individual upholding a distinctive Lamu identity? Or to what extent are they forsaking their values to get ahead in an economy controlled by the Kenyan government?  So, a young woman critiquing local social divisions at a town meeting will do so while only speaking the local Swahili dialect and paying close attention to proper address forms and greetings, to thereby negotiate a need for change while evidently displaying her pride of her Lamu identity in an attempt to avoid critiques from local elders (or even her peers). Yet, her doing so does risk her getting perceived as backward or less educated by mainland government officials present at that gathering, for example.

Kamala Russell: Heshima is a key concept in the book. You translate this as ‘respectability’. A key argument I saw in the book is that though how respectability is embodied is hotly contested, heshima as a regime of value continues to structure the ways Lamu residents understand themselves and others. I was struck by the way that this concept seems to revolve around differentiation. Is this the only semiotic process (or the key one) that heshima participates in and if so, why might that be? Are there other means and ends than moral distinction in play?

Sarah Hillewaert: Heshima is an intensely moral value, and thus plays a central role in moral distinctions, but as I discuss in Chapter 1, this is very much linked to social class distinctions and genealogy as well. Claims to embodied respectability are often linked to social class identities as well. And this is precisely part of what is being renegotiated nowadays. The hegemonic ideology of former upper-classes – of what practices are viewed as respectable and thus indicative of higher status  –  is being challenged as the social hierarchy is being reshuffled in a context of economic and social change.

Kamala Russell: Can you say a bit more about the methodological challenges you worked with in doing your fieldwork, particularly around recording, as linguists would say, putative naturalistic interaction. Though clearly you were able to record some interviews, did you face other difficulties in producing recorded data? Did working this way affect the way you think about embodiment and non-verbal signs with relation to more typical approaches to text and context?

Sarah Hillewaert: In short: yes, but not entirely. I wasn’t able to record partially because women didn’t want their voices recorded, but also because people were quite suspicious of recordings, in light of anti-terrorism investigations led by the Kenyan and US governments. So, I often refrained from recording, and took detailed notes during interviews. But during everyday interactions, such detailed note-taking was equally difficult, since people wondered why I would be writing down things they said. That did force me to be more attentive during everyday interactions, trying to pay attention to nuances in language use that may otherwise pass me by (and that I couldn’t go back to in a recording). But I wouldn’t say that this led me to be more conscious of non-verbal aspects of interactions perse. It was a combination of things that made me be conscious of the seemingly mundane details of people’s everyday practices. First, people would comment on others’ behaviors all the time – the way someone wore a headscarf, what kind of abaya a young women wore, where someone walked at which time of day. Second, people instructed me quite explicitly on what conduct was proper, and how I ought to act within a particular context. I talk about this in the preface of the book. And third, in public, much couldn’t be expressed verbally, but rather had to be communicated in other ways. While mobile phones have changed much of this, when I was doing fieldwork many young men and women didn’t have much opportunity to interact in public. And much was communicated through subtle behavioral details – when you would go to a certain place, the route you took, the way you walked, how you wore your abaya. And older interlocutors would often reminisce about how they used to communicate with, for example, their girlfriend through subtle signs when she happened to walk by. So, it really was a combination of factors that led me to zoom in on these minute details.

Kamala Russell: Why do you think in this case it is Islamic life, and ethical life, that is the means through which the challenges of development and the political position of Lamu are being negotiated? The book has this great historical angle where you describe the disenfranchisement and marginalization of what was effectively an elite class as Lamu became more incorporated into Kenya, it seems like status reasserts itself through a politics centered on the choice of signifiers of pious value. Can you say more about what you think is the politics in play? How do you position your work and interventions with respect to work that foregrounds Islamic movements as well as individual self-cultivation?

Sarah Hillewaert: I suggest from the onset of the book that negotiations of respectable conduct are informed by tensions surrounding what it means to be from Lamu in contemporary Kenya – a question informed by objections to the Kenyan State, economic marginalization, impositions by mainland outsiders etc. And this is something that cannot be considered outside of a historical context in which coastal and island residents have distinguished themselves from the Kenyan mainland, reluctantly (or unwillingly) having been incorporated into an independent Kenya. While it’s partially a question of a majority Muslim coast not wanting to be governed by a Christian majority government, it also ties into the moral values I focus on throughout the book – notions of distinction centered around respectability, honor, civility, and cosmopolitanism that Lamu residents believe separate themselves from mainland Kenyans. These situated ideological meanings of cosmopolitanism and respectability, and the role they historically have played in developing a distinct Lamu identity form the background against which to understand the seemingly mundane projects of self-fashioning that form the focus of this book. Rather than be condemned for ignoring a particular notion of religious uprightness, young people can be critiqued for forsaken moral norms that are seen to be at the heart of a distinctive Lamu identity and that separate Lamu residents from mainland Kenyans. Like other scholars who have built on, but simultaneously critiqued the work of people like Saba Mahmood, I show that projects of individual self-cultivation are then not just directed inward, but are always informed by broader social political processes, and directed outward, to a range of differently situated others. What I find interesting about Lamu, however, is that these everyday negotiations of respectability and the working toward differently embodying respect is not part of some Islamic revival movement. This is not about becoming a better Muslim, and actively working toward properly embodying piety – and here I mean, having a clear idea of what it is you are striving toward, clear and shared understanding of what pious behaviour looks like, for example. The question is not whether one should or should not be pious or respectable, or what obstacles one needs to overcome to achieve piety. The question for Lamu youth is: what does piety or respectability look like in contemporary Lamu? It is about deliberations of the proper mediation of this moral value. 

Kamala Russell: If any of these questions don’t resonate with you, one of my favorite moments in the book was your explication of the proverb that someone who leaves their mila (tradition) is a slave. This is an interesting positioning of agency with respect to culture and I wonder if you can say more about the consequences of this way of thinking for the way we approach and teach dilemmas of structure and agency, or as linguistic anthropologists, type and token.

Sarah Hillewaert: I really like this question. And, to be honest, I hadn’t really thought of it this way. The way people in Lamu use the proverb really refers to a person’s desire to appropriate other’s practices. “If you forsake your traditions in favor of the appropriation of someone else’s you’re a slave.” So rather than seeing some form of liberation, if you will, in abandoning traditional or cultural practices for the appropriation of other habits, it is perceived as being enslaved to one’s desires in a way. In the book, I link this to the history of slavery in Eastern Africa, and slaves’ positions in Lamu society in the past. Former slaves worked their way up in Swahili societies by appropriating the habits of upper classes, in an attempt to display respectability. But in its current usage, the proverb does speak back at the idea of being “enslaved,” or held back, by traditions, and at the idea of modernization and secularization as being freed from the load of tradition. One of the young women in the book lays this out quite nicely, where she emphasizes that blindly following others’ practices desiring development or modernity is a type of enslavement. But she stresses that this also doesn’t mean blindly upholding local traditions. Rather, it is a careful consideration of which cultural practices are, in their eyes, outdated and which ones are part of their cultural and religious identity as residents of Lamu. And maybe that’s one of the things that I’d like people to take away from this book – what we can learn from paying attention to these seemingly small but incredibly significant negotiations that happen in politically marginalized communities like Lamu. It is not about resistance to outdated practices, nor about a clinging on to distinctive traditional or religious habits out of evident political protest. It is not necessarily about an outward rejection of religious norms nor a conservative preservation of them in the context of religious revival, but rather a working within –an ethnographic illustration of agency within structure that changes the structure, not abruptly, but over time.

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Author Interviews

Kamala Russell: Your book is a deep investigation of the values, practices, and ambivalences that make up the everyday experience of social change. Could you tell us a bit about the focus of the book, and its argument? I’d be interested in hearing more as well about how you settled on this framing for the book, coming out of your many years of fieldwork. As someone who is at that stage, I am interested in hearing more about the process of how you dream up a book from a dissertation.

Sarah Hillewaert:  The book is an ethnographic study of the everyday lives of Muslim youth living on the Indian Ocean island of Lamu (Kenya). A previously cosmopolitan center of trade and Islamic scholarship, Lamu is currently marginalized in both economic and political terms yet forms the focus of international campaigns against religious radicalization and is also at the center of touristic imaginings of the untouched and secluded. The book examines what happens when narratives of self-positioning change: what happens when signs of cosmopolitanism, respectability, and civility come to be read as indices of remoteness, backwardness, or religious radicalization? And what implications do these shifts in signification have for everyday interactions, self-fashionings, and conceptions of appropriate conduct? I explore these questions by documenting the discursive and embodied production of difference, and examine the seemingly mundane practices through which Lamu youth negotiate what it means to be a ‘good Lamu resident’ in contemporary Kenya. I specifically ask what happens when signification fails – when people are no longer sure how to read signs or when they differ in their reading of material forms as signs of, for example, either piety or social transgression. By documenting apparently mundane practices, and the ideologies that inform their evaluations, I show how easily-overlooked, fleeting moments represent some of the most vital points through which larger scale transformations touch down concretely in community life, and by which they receive local inflection and resonance.  Through its ethnographic detail, the book demonstrates the intersubjective and dialogic nature of meaning-making processes and illustrates how projects of personal cultivation function as political projects as well. In doing so, it offers a linguistic anthropological approach to discussions on ethical self-fashioning and the everyday lives of Muslim youth in Africa.

In terms of the framing of the book, the focus shifted from a more explicit attention to verbal interactions and language use to a broader semiotic approach. And this happened mostly through ongoing interactions with peers, through talks and people’s feedback to them, and through ongoing conversations with my interlocutors in Lamu. However, the ethnographic focus did not change significantly from the dissertation to the book. It was more the theoretical argument that became more nuanced, with more attention to the political significance of seemingly situated interactions and practices. I think talking about my research – writing talks and articles – made me think more about what I really wanted people to take away from my research, both theoretically and ethnographically.

Kamala Russell: What I appreciated most about the book is the way you take a very open-ended approach to this study of social change, not just treating social development and peripheralization in and of Lamu as well as instability in indices of value pessimistically, but also tracing opportunities for new kinds of fulfilment and relationships to oneself (for example, professionalism). What stuck out to me across these chapters, and particularly in the final chapter ‘The Morality of the Senses and the Senses of Morality’, was the importance of gaze and the audience. In your focus on people’s performances and negotiations of what kind of individual they are, I wondered who the imagined audience or public for this differentiation is and how does that relate to the sociopolitical changes you describe in Lamu?

Sarah Hillewaert: I appreciate you mentioning the careful deliberation and negotiation of new opportunities and perspectives that I tried to convey in the book. In doing so, I tried to move beyond discussions on the so-called ambivalences or inconsistencies that previously have been highlighted in discussions of Muslim or African youth. I wanted to convey that shifting perspectives on respectability are not a mere generational change or gap, informed by globalization, for example. And rather than talk about resistance to, for example, what people call tradition, I tried to highlight the agency in young people’s calculated inhabiting of certain norms and their deliberation of the proper mediation of others. For Lamu youth, the question is not whether you should be respectable or not, but rather what respectability should look like, given, on the one hand, the development Lamu desperately needs, and on the other, the significance of respectability to Lamu residents’ distinctive identity and the political load it carries.

And this gets me to your question. Most challenging in writing this book was conveying precisely the hyper-sensitivity to semiotic misconstrual that informs young Lamu residents’ moral self-fashionings. With this I mean that young people were very much aware that a range of differently situated people observe their everyday behavior – their peers or elders from different parts of town, for example, but also immigrants from Kenya’s mainland, government administrators, military police, and so on. They understand very well that their intended professional behavior can be misread as social transgression by some, or still overly conservative by others. And as your question points to, these presentations of self, while locally situated, carry a political significance as well. Now, the political stance implied in everyday practices is not always necessarily for non-locals to be noticed. It’s not about an explicit expression of political opinion that one hopes gets noticed. And in fact, mainland Kenyans are often oblivious to many of the nuances in everyday practices that I focus on in the book. Yet, Lamu residents observing situated behaviors can take those as signs of an individual’s political orientation as well – to what extent is an individual upholding a distinctive Lamu identity? Or to what extent are they forsaking their values to get ahead in an economy controlled by the Kenyan government?  So, a young woman critiquing local social divisions at a town meeting will do so while only speaking the local Swahili dialect and paying close attention to proper address forms and greetings, to thereby negotiate a need for change while evidently displaying her pride of her Lamu identity in an attempt to avoid critiques from local elders (or even her peers). Yet, her doing so does risk her getting perceived as backward or less educated by mainland government officials present at that gathering, for example.

Kamala Russell: Heshima is a key concept in the book. You translate this as ‘respectability’. A key argument I saw in the book is that though how respectability is embodied is hotly contested, heshima as a regime of value continues to structure the ways Lamu residents understand themselves and others. I was struck by the way that this concept seems to revolve around differentiation. Is this the only semiotic process (or the key one) that heshima participates in and if so, why might that be? Are there other means and ends than moral distinction in play?

Sarah Hillewaert: Heshima is an intensely moral value, and thus plays a central role in moral distinctions, but as I discuss in Chapter 1, this is very much linked to social class distinctions and genealogy as well. Claims to embodied respectability are often linked to social class identities as well. And this is precisely part of what is being renegotiated nowadays. The hegemonic ideology of former upper-classes – of what practices are viewed as respectable and thus indicative of higher status  –  is being challenged as the social hierarchy is being reshuffled in a context of economic and social change.

Kamala Russell: Can you say a bit more about the methodological challenges you worked with in doing your fieldwork, particularly around recording, as linguists would say, putative naturalistic interaction. Though clearly you were able to record some interviews, did you face other difficulties in producing recorded data? Did working this way affect the way you think about embodiment and non-verbal signs with relation to more typical approaches to text and context?

Sarah Hillewaert: In short: yes, but not entirely. I wasn’t able to record partially because women didn’t want their voices recorded, but also because people were quite suspicious of recordings, in light of anti-terrorism investigations led by the Kenyan and US governments. So, I often refrained from recording, and took detailed notes during interviews. But during everyday interactions, such detailed note-taking was equally difficult, since people wondered why I would be writing down things they said. That did force me to be more attentive during everyday interactions, trying to pay attention to nuances in language use that may otherwise pass me by (and that I couldn’t go back to in a recording). But I wouldn’t say that this led me to be more conscious of non-verbal aspects of interactions perse. It was a combination of things that made me be conscious of the seemingly mundane details of people’s everyday practices. First, people would comment on others’ behaviors all the time – the way someone wore a headscarf, what kind of abaya a young women wore, where someone walked at which time of day. Second, people instructed me quite explicitly on what conduct was proper, and how I ought to act within a particular context. I talk about this in the preface of the book. And third, in public, much couldn’t be expressed verbally, but rather had to be communicated in other ways. While mobile phones have changed much of this, when I was doing fieldwork many young men and women didn’t have much opportunity to interact in public. And much was communicated through subtle behavioral details – when you would go to a certain place, the route you took, the way you walked, how you wore your abaya. And older interlocutors would often reminisce about how they used to communicate with, for example, their girlfriend through subtle signs when she happened to walk by. So, it really was a combination of factors that led me to zoom in on these minute details.

Kamala Russell: Why do you think in this case it is Islamic life, and ethical life, that is the means through which the challenges of development and the political position of Lamu are being negotiated? The book has this great historical angle where you describe the disenfranchisement and marginalization of what was effectively an elite class as Lamu became more incorporated into Kenya, it seems like status reasserts itself through a politics centered on the choice of signifiers of pious value. Can you say more about what you think is the politics in play? How do you position your work and interventions with respect to work that foregrounds Islamic movements as well as individual self-cultivation?

Sarah Hillewaert: I suggest from the onset of the book that negotiations of respectable conduct are informed by tensions surrounding what it means to be from Lamu in contemporary Kenya – a question informed by objections to the Kenyan State, economic marginalization, impositions by mainland outsiders etc. And this is something that cannot be considered outside of a historical context in which coastal and island residents have distinguished themselves from the Kenyan mainland, reluctantly (or unwillingly) having been incorporated into an independent Kenya. While it’s partially a question of a majority Muslim coast not wanting to be governed by a Christian majority government, it also ties into the moral values I focus on throughout the book – notions of distinction centered around respectability, honor, civility, and cosmopolitanism that Lamu residents believe separate themselves from mainland Kenyans. These situated ideological meanings of cosmopolitanism and respectability, and the role they historically have played in developing a distinct Lamu identity form the background against which to understand the seemingly mundane projects of self-fashioning that form the focus of this book. Rather than be condemned for ignoring a particular notion of religious uprightness, young people can be critiqued for forsaken moral norms that are seen to be at the heart of a distinctive Lamu identity and that separate Lamu residents from mainland Kenyans. Like other scholars who have built on, but simultaneously critiqued the work of people like Saba Mahmood, I show that projects of individual self-cultivation are then not just directed inward, but are always informed by broader social political processes, and directed outward, to a range of differently situated others. What I find interesting about Lamu, however, is that these everyday negotiations of respectability and the working toward differently embodying respect is not part of some Islamic revival movement. This is not about becoming a better Muslim, and actively working toward properly embodying piety – and here I mean, having a clear idea of what it is you are striving toward, clear and shared understanding of what pious behaviour looks like, for example. The question is not whether one should or should not be pious or respectable, or what obstacles one needs to overcome to achieve piety. The question for Lamu youth is: what does piety or respectability look like in contemporary Lamu? It is about deliberations of the proper mediation of this moral value. 

Kamala Russell: If any of these questions don’t resonate with you, one of my favorite moments in the book was your explication of the proverb that someone who leaves their mila (tradition) is a slave. This is an interesting positioning of agency with respect to culture and I wonder if you can say more about the consequences of this way of thinking for the way we approach and teach dilemmas of structure and agency, or as linguistic anthropologists, type and token.

Sarah Hillewaert: I really like this question. And, to be honest, I hadn’t really thought of it this way. The way people in Lamu use the proverb really refers to a person’s desire to appropriate other’s practices. “If you forsake your traditions in favor of the appropriation of someone else’s you’re a slave.” So rather than seeing some form of liberation, if you will, in abandoning traditional or cultural practices for the appropriation of other habits, it is perceived as being enslaved to one’s desires in a way. In the book, I link this to the history of slavery in Eastern Africa, and slaves’ positions in Lamu society in the past. Former slaves worked their way up in Swahili societies by appropriating the habits of upper classes, in an attempt to display respectability. But in its current usage, the proverb does speak back at the idea of being “enslaved,” or held back, by traditions, and at the idea of modernization and secularization as being freed from the load of tradition. One of the young women in the book lays this out quite nicely, where she emphasizes that blindly following others’ practices desiring development or modernity is a type of enslavement. But she stresses that this also doesn’t mean blindly upholding local traditions. Rather, it is a careful consideration of which cultural practices are, in their eyes, outdated and which ones are part of their cultural and religious identity as residents of Lamu. And maybe that’s one of the things that I’d like people to take away from this book – what we can learn from paying attention to these seemingly small but incredibly significant negotiations that happen in politically marginalized communities like Lamu. It is not about resistance to outdated practices, nor about a clinging on to distinctive traditional or religious habits out of evident political protest. It is not necessarily about an outward rejection of religious norms nor a conservative preservation of them in the context of religious revival, but rather a working within –an ethnographic illustration of agency within structure that changes the structure, not abruptly, but over time.

Helena Wulff reflects on her career

Helena Wulff 2021

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

It is hard to choose between an article and book – they are very different in form and content. This is why I include favorite examples of both an article, or an encyclopedia entry, and a book here.

I was delighted to be invited to write an entry on “Writing Anthropology” (2021) for The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology http://doi.org/10.29164/21writing and I am very pleased with it. In the entry, I argue for the importance of an accessible academic anthropology and acknowledge that:

Writing is key in anthropology, as one of its main modes of communication. Teaching, research, publications, and outreach all build on, or consist of, writing(…)While writing anthropology in a literary mode goes a long way back, it was not until the 1970s that writing began to be collectively acknowledged as a craft to be cultivated in the discipline. This led to a boom of experimental ethnographic writing from the 1980s, as part of the “writing culture” debate. The idea behind experimental narratives was that they might convey social life more accurately than conventional academic writing. Today, literary production and culture continue to be a source of inspiration for anthropologists, as well as a topic of study. Anthropological writing ranges from creative nonfiction to memoirs, journalism, and travel writing. Writing in such non-academic genres can be a way to make anthropological approaches and findings more widely known, and can inspire academic writing to become more accessible. 

The story behind writing the entry was that I have a longstanding interest in the anthropology of writing, in different genres, which spurred me to teach master’s courses on writing such as “Anthropological Writing Genres” and “Writing Anthropology” in my Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University. This interest was also partly the reason I did a major study of the social world of writing in Ireland published as Rhythms of Writing: An Anthropology of Irish Literature (Routledge, 2017). This is then a book I am as pleased with as the entry. As usual, also when it comes to writing as craft and career, Ireland is an eloquent ethnographic case that speaks to wider issues from a rollercoaster economy, emigration and exile to borders and postcoloniality.

Ireland is often identified as a place of creativity where these issues, and others, have been expressed through storytelling, literature, music, and dance. All are prominent in Irish life. The title of the book refers to both the rhythms of the long hours writers spend writing by themselves in the private sphere, alternating with promotion appearances in the literary public sphere, and a distinctive rhythm of an Irish literary style.

Now as Professor Emerita, I keep developing my interest in writing by researching and publishing in relation to the project “Migrant writing in Sweden.” This was included in a major interdisciplinary research program “Cosmopolitan and Vernacular Dynamics in World Literatures.” I have also ventured into auto-fiction, even creative nonfiction.

Helena home office

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

When I was doing fieldwork with American Ballet Theatre which is based in New York, they went on a one-week tour to The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Of course, I went with them in the bus and stayed in the same hotel as they did. Just like I had been doing for almost three months with them (and for almost two years with the Royal Swedish Ballet in Stockholm and The Royal Ballet in London) my days were spent watching morning class, rehearsals in the afternoon and performances at night, sometimes from the wings and sometimes from the auditorium. On the opening night at The Kennedy Center, the classical ballet Manon was performed. It was a grand occasion with Washington’s glitterati present. As I was watching from the auditorium, I was wearing a black suit with velvet collar and a crème colored top. This was when Bill Clinton was President and Hillary and Chelsea were in the auditorium raising the level of security considerably, with stern body guards talking to each other wirelessly all over the place. In the ballet world, it is customary that dignitaries who have watched a performance, are invited back stage after the performance. So Hillary came back stage, thanking the ballet director and all the dancers, shaking hands with one after another as they stood in a long line across the stage behind the closed curtain. I was standing discreetly in the background, observing. But Hillary noticed me and went up to me saying politely and with appreciation: “Thank you for the performance!”  I was dumbfounded.      

What is one of your favorite fieldwork stories to tell that you have never written about?

It was in 1982 and I was doing fieldwork for my PhD on ethnicity, friendship and youth culture in South London, England. There had been race riots in neighbouring Brixton, but things seemed to have calmed down. At least for now, at least in the streets. Having grown up in still homogeneous Sweden, I was (unlikely as it may seem now) an adult before I met a black person.

My fieldwork was going well. After the usual tentative start, I got access to a youth club, a school, a street corner, and even to some of the girls’ homes. I became a part of the daily life of the ethnically mixed group of teenage girls I was focusing on. My landlady, Beverley, who had moved to England from Jamaica with her parents when she was seven, and I became friends, spending a lot of time together. Beverley introduced me to her parents and friends, and took me to concerts and all-night blues parties. After a couple of months, I stopped noticing that I was the only white person in many contexts. But an incisive incident would remind me.   

One summer night, Beverley took me and two of her friends to a reggae concert in Brixton. Happily chatting away, we were waiting in the crowd outside the theater. There was the familiar scent of ganja lingering in the air. Quite a few Rastas with long dreadlocks were there, wearing the bright red, yellow and green in clothing and knitted hats. “Yeah, man,” was echoing around us. We took out our tickets. That was when a black boy pushed his way towards us. Without warning, he ripped my ticket out of my hand! Before running away, he shouted: “I wouldn’t take a ticket from a black girl!” Beverley and her friends were furious. “This is why you start a riot!” Beverley burst out. They all wanted to leave with me. But I insisted that they stay for the concert. I went back on my own, upset, offended. On the subway my thoughts came rushing: Swedes never exploited blacks like the British did! Looking down at my white hands, I kept thinking the obvious: “You do not chose your parents. The color of your skin is not a choice.” Suddenly another thought came to me. It was the insight that this is what it is like, all the time, for them, for black people. They experience discrimination because of the color of their skin. The skin they cannot do anything about, that they did not chose. So this is what it is like to be black.             

Do you have to be one in order to understand someone else’s predicament? Trying to make sense of the incident, I was reminded of the discussion in anthropology about this issue. While learning about difference is a way to discover new things about yourself or your culture, what is different to you is familiar to someone else and hence might not be identified at all by others. This is a premise in anthropology. Still, it was not until I had this bodily experience of discrimination that I – in a flash – felt that I really did understand, at least something about what it can be like to black. And it might all have been a mistake: Would the black boy have taken my ticket had he known I was not British?

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

Watching dance – contemporary or ballet – then I get a sense that “this is reality” which probably is a neurological reaction, a Bourdieuan body hexis, as my body remembers what it feels like to dance.

Helena happily writing away in her home study

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an academic?

When I saw my first book Ballet across Borders: Career and Culture in the World of Dancers (Routledge, 1998) for sale at a Barnes and Noble store in New York. Though I had edited a volume on Youth Cultures (Routledge, 1995) with Vered Amit-Talai before, I had only seen it for sale at book exhibits at conferences such as of the American Anthropological Association and the European Association of Social Anthropologists. This was the first time a monograph I had authored was for sale in a commercial book store. In fact, it was not only an academic success for me, it was also a childhood dream fulfilled: to write a book. But mainly I was excited that I had exceeded any expectation I used to have about what I would be able to achieve in my career. I got a sense of being inducted into the anthropological community, into conversation with fellow academics. As I left the book store uplifted, though, I spotted the ballet director Kevin McKenzie at American Ballet Theatre, turning a corner in front of me, walking briskly in the direction of the company’s studios in Broadway, lower Manhattan. He was such a good guy, having accepted me into the daily life of his company, even allowing me to join them on the tour to Washington, D.C. I would not have been able to do my research, and write my book, without him. He epitomized my fieldwork and my past as a dancer. There he was on his way to the world I had grown up in, come back to for my research, and just left for good and – despite my true delight over having had an academic career, with so much fun and many exceptional experiences – would keep missing.

Narges Bajoghli on her book, Iran Reframed

Cover of Iran Reframed by Narges Bajoghli

Interviewed by Zehra Hashmi

https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=29666

Zehra Hashmi: The storytelling and narrative flow of this ethnography works beautifully, and seemingly effortlessly, allowing the argument to emerge organically and convincingly from the stories you tell. To begin, could you speak to your writing choices, specifically the innovative way you are using your interlocutors’ stories as the driving force of the book as opposed to an intervention into existing anthropological literature? What was involved in making these choices; was it primarily informed by the material you were dealing with and the subject at hand—or, put another way, if you were to write another book on something entirely different, would you choose a similar mode of storytelling and narrative construction?

Narges Bajoghli: I first wrote this manuscript as a more traditional scholarly manuscript because that’s what I thought I should do to gain acceptance in academia as a junior scholar. Yet, I had done a lot of public writing to that point, some of which engaged storytelling, and had also trained as a documentary filmmaker at NYU during my doctoral training. After turning in my traditional manuscript, my editor at Stanford University Press, Kate Wahl, encouraged me to write more in line with my previous public work and to show the anthropological, media, and social dynamics at play, rather than tell them. Hearing that from her was a relief—it felt like a green light to write the book I most wanted to read. As a first-time author and a junior scholar, the push to trust my own writing voice and to take storytelling seriously in my scholarship was exactly what I needed. So, I set about to re-write the manuscript as a whole. In doing so, I did two main things: first, I read a lot of great creative non-fiction, both longform essays and books to get ideas and inspiration for structure. And second, I storyboarded the manuscript as if I were making a film. I went back to my fieldnotes and the evidence I had provided in my more traditionally academic manuscript and drew out the stories of my main interlocutors as ones that would anchor the book.

As anthropologists we know the central importance of storytelling for humans. So, in writing this book, I took all of that to heart and applied the craft of storytelling as the central tenet of the book. Since I was writing on Iran—a country that despite all the ink that’s been spilt on describing its socio-political development since the 1979 Iranian Revolution remains a deeply confusing place for most people to understand—I really wanted to engage audiences outside those who focus on Iran as an area of academic expertise. I was writing on a place that is at times both familiar to people (though mainly in stereotypes) and deeply alien; I knew the only way to cut through all of that was to center the lives of people and to have the reader follow them throughout the narrative arc of the book. 

As for whether I’d choose a similar or different mode of writing for an entirely different book, after my experience writing Iran Reframed, my answer is that I will definitely try to keep storytelling at the heart of whatever I write in the future. Not only is it more enjoyable as a writing process—even if at times much more difficult—but it helps to engage multiple audiences. I went into academia to not only speak to my colleagues, but to make what we work on available to larger audiences.

Zehra Hashmi: I am interested in how gheyr-e-khodi (insiders) works as an analytical category in the book. You show that who constitutes the gheyr-e-khodi is not fixed; a person once embraced can be shunned at a different point in time or place. But is there also a broader, over-arching shift in this insider-outsider dynamic that you are demonstrating throughout the arc of the book? I am thinking about how, on the one hand, the khodi are visibly marked through dress, while on the other hand, regime producers deliberately obscure the origins of some of their films by playing with visual markers and their own strategies for dissimulation (p. 91). Is the question of what constitutes the regime then determined by the shifting category of the gheyr-e-khodi? And more generally, could you expand upon what I read as one of the book’s central arguments about the role of internally contested meanings of the regime: how did you arrive at this argument and what does it reveal that external critiques of the regime do not?

Narges Bajoghli: What I was trying to do in the book was to show the layers of power, how it shifts, how it’s not static, and how complex it can be. Showing the shifting terrain of khodi/gheyr-e khodi was one of the main ways I attempted to do this. Oftentimes we conceive of power in ways that I don’t think captures how incredibly malleable and flexible power manifests itself in our daily lives, especially state power, and the ways that it comes through in everyday practices of dress, speech, and so on. So, even in a state like Iran that is marked by a particular kind of post-revolutionary politics, power shifts to stay alive and the markers of khodi/gheyr-e khodi are used to demarcate its realm.

Regarding your second question, the role of internally contested meanings of the regime—Iran is different than other revolutionary states of the 20th century because it did not develop a party system. Add to that the fact that the revolution was not led by a small cohort of people—so there has always been contestation over the meaning of the revolution and its legacy from its onset by its myriad participants. What this has meant as we enter into the fifth decade of the revolution is that there has not been a top-down “this is what the revolution is, period!” The internal divisions among those who are loyal to the post-revolutionary state is very much a struggle about what the legacy of this revolution will be. This has always been a live question inside Iran, even if this gets flatten for outside observers. Though these struggles spill out into domestic media, the degree of contestation behind closed doors in regime centers was constantly palpable.

Zehra Hashmi: What kind of an audience was in your mind when you wrote this book? You show that the Iranian diaspora plays an important role in the media landscape within Iran, and so even as these boundaries between audiences are not hard and fast, has the response of people in Iran differed from those in the US? Additionally, given your position and your experience, did you feel conflicting solidarities in the field, and if so how did you approach and manage these dual (or more!) pressures?

Narges Bajoghli: During fieldwork I definitely felt multiple points of tension. When I left fieldwork, I couldn’t write for a long time and had to work through the anger and frustration that often arose from what I saw. I knew I’d come under attack from various sectors—even if I didn’t know how extensive the attacks would be at the time. Just the mere fact of spending time with pro-regime actors in Iran opened me up to criticism from Iranians opposed to the state (including many in my own family and close friends circles). That I expected and I assumed that when folks read the book they’d understand what I was trying to do and why it was important to research sites of power, even for (or I’d argue, especially for) activists.

What I did not expect and couldn’t have known was the ways the U.S. government funded attacks against me. My book came out in the throes of Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign for regime change/collapse in Iran, and I was targeted by a campaign funded by the Pompeo State Department that went after Iranian American academics, journalists, and analysts. That campaign was primarily an online smear campaign with attendant attempts to discredit me as supposedly pro-regime and put my job in danger. The funding for that campaign came to an abrupt end after I hired lawyers, yet nonetheless the orbit of regime-change organizations and people around Trump/Pompeo continue their attacks. But as one of my graduate school mentors once said to me, “everything is data,” and indeed, I am keeping good notes on all of this and hope to one day write about how power and media work in the United States on issues of national security interest.

As for the primary audience for my book, my primary audience was my students and their generation of learners. Not only because our books often get assigned in college classrooms, but also because my students’ questions and curiosity as I was writing my book were front and center and I wanted to write for them to make sense of this increasingly confusing world where state power and media production are becoming harder to parse out—everywhere, not just in Iran.

Zehra Hashmi: Many of the people you introduce us to are working on memorialization projects, particularly around the Iraq-Iran war, and its resonance (or lack thereof) with the youth. In a few places, you touch on the role of Shia imagery and the figure of Imam Hussain—especially in relation to the aesthetics of loss, sacrifice, mourning, as well as remembrance itself. While political Islam may be less of a driving political force for the youth in Iran today, as you show, how does the changing political landscape map onto the symbolic and aesthetic draw of Shia imagery and its role in shaping media aesthetics and landscape, not just for the regime producers but the population at large?

Narges Bajoghli: Currently this is most present in the depictions of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general who was assassinated by the United States in January 2020 in Iraq. I show in the book how he was the central lynchpin for creating a new narrative of the Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian state as nationalists above and beyond religious in an attempt to connect with youth. Since his death, media depictions related to Soleimani (of which there have been endless renditions) have been fascinating to trace. The aesthetics of Shia imagery are central to his memorialization as an important martyr, but they are markedly different from the ways important war martyrs of the first few decades of post-revolutionary Iran were depicted. Soleimani is both couched in Shia imagery and rendered as the quintessential national hero. For regime media makers, they talk about the images they are creating of Soleimani as being very important for them because it allows them to update Shia imagery for today’s generation and to embed a nationalist “cool” into the aesthetics they felt no longer resonated. 

Janet Connor takes the page 99 test

Page 99 of my dissertation introduces the term “Swedish conditions” (Svenske tilstander), a concept circulating in the Norwegian media during my fieldwork in the capital city of Oslo. It refers to a situation where liberal immigration policies lead to dangerous urban neighborhoods with high crime rates, which is an image that some Norwegians have of neighboring Sweden. Although the term had originally been popularized by far-right politicians, it has since been taken up by people with a wide range of political beliefs, and I found that even for many of those who criticized the term, it was more often a question of whether “Swedish conditions” existed in Oslo than whether the term accurately described Sweden.

“Swedish conditions” is just one of many examples throughout the dissertation of how people in Oslo take part in a wide range of situated, perspectival scale-making practices to understand “global threats” to the traditional Norwegian welfare state and to imagine alternatives. I use the example of “Swedish conditions” to argue that a simple citizen/foreigner or host/guest dichotomy does not adequately describe situations of contemporary migration, particularly in Europe. Instead, what even counts as “foreign” or “outsider” is highly dependent on perspective, and understandings of Norwegian national identity include a distinction from a variety of interconnected yet different kinds of “foreignness.” Here, the Norwegian media sees people of non-European, primarily Muslim background, through an imagined Swedish lens.

I would not say that page 99 is representative of my dissertation as a whole. Discourses of “Swedish conditions” were instead something my interlocutors were working against, as they worked to reimagine the Norwegian welfare model as both more inclusive of an increasingly ethnically, religiously, and socioeconomically diverse citizenry, and as something that could be sustained economically without a reliance on oil production. The dissertation traces how, through their linguistic practices, seemingly opposed social actors perform a kind of similarity and coherence, valued in Norwegian understandings of egalitarian democracy, that can give them and their perspectives authority. In these attempts to achieve coherence, ways of listening become more important than ways of speaking to how my interlocutors create identities and envision a democratic future.

Janet Connor. 2021. “Making Welfare ‘Sustainable’: The Language, Politics, and Ethics of Scale-Making in a Norwegian Neighborhood.” University of Chicago Phd.

Natalia Knoblock on her book, Language of Conflict

Language of Conflict cover

Interview by Sofiya Asher

https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/language-of-conflict-9781350098626/

Sofiya Asher: What inspired this particular book?

Natalia Knoblock: What inspired this book? The inspiration came from speakers of the Russian and Ukrainian languages as they were destroying each other on social networks. Because of my heritage and my connection to both Russia and Ukraine, I started following the events after the revolution of 2014. I am originally Russian, and while I never lived in Ukraine, I have very close relatives there. I have visited my aunt and my cousins many times, and I have really good memories, so I feel connected not only to Russia, but also to Ukraine, at least partially. So, when the war started, I was terrified here, across the ocean, far away from the action, and really lost, not knowing what to do, trying to understand what was happening and trying to find information that seemed reliable and correct. I could not really find that because whatever I saw on official Russian channels was insane, and whatever I saw on official American channels did not make any sense either. So, I made a mistake! Now, looking back, I think it was really, really (what’s the polite word?) not smart to look for accurate information on social networks. But I thought, well, that’s what the people say, right? I would go and read what people write about the conflict. I was spending an insane amount of time following social networks, trying to figure out what was going on. Then, being a linguist, I started copying and pasting examples of crazy metaphors, neologisms, and creative language use that I saw there. I eventually accumulated a quite large collection and began thinking, wow, look at that! The topic and the content of the messages were awful, but the linguistic creativity was very impressive. Well, if you have this great material, you should do something with it, right? So, I made a few presentations at conferences, found other people who were researching similar things, and that’s how the idea for the book was born.

Sofiya Asher: The volume includes work by fifteen various authors with different academic and linguistic backgrounds, what were the challenges with working with such a diverse group? Based on that experience, what would your recommendation be to an editor working with a similar group of contributors?

Natalia Knoblock: Thank you. I think that’s a really good question. I’ll probably want to break it into two parts. One is recruiting people and the other is working with them during the editorial process. The recruiting stage was slightly challenging because this topic was not something that I had worked on before. I did not have a professional network where you just contact your previous collaborators, or your contacts from conferences, or specialists in the field.  I had to rely on the LinguistList. Thank goodness for that great resource! First, I advertised there and invited people to participate in a conference panel. After a successful panel at the Conference on Discourse Analysis Across Disciplines, I negotiated with a publisher and started looking for more contributors. Because the topic is so complex, I wanted a book to represent a variety of methods, a variety of [language] uses, a variety of topics. I didn’t want to have just a few chapters, so I needed to recruit more people. Then there was a lot of searching for names and programs and emailing strangers, who were really good at helping me. If they were not interested in contributing to the volume themselves, they would recommend other people. Eventually, we ended up with the group that collaborated on the book. It was a good linguistic community effort.

The second challenge was to keep it professional. Because the topic is so painful, it is not easy to write about. People should never take it lightly when they write about a country torn by war. And I feel that it was important to keep politics as far away as possible. We couldn’t leave it out completely, but my goal was to keep the volume professional and language-focused as much as possible. Linguists are people, and they have opinions, obviously. There is nothing wrong with that. We were not able to leave ideological views out completely because it’s impossible, but we tried to keep them under control. That was a big challenge.

Sofiya Asher: In the introduction (p. 7), you mentioned that the volume was created with “a goal of remaining ideologically neutral and focusing exclusively on the linguistic side of the happenings.” On the surface, it seems like an impossible task, separating language and ideology. Do you think the volume succeeded in remaining ideologically neutral while focusing on language?

Natalia Knoblock: (Smiles) I think I failed. It was a challenge to keep different people with different perspectives focused exclusively on the language and to leave ideology out. We’re studying discourse, which is interconnected with social reality, so completely disconnecting it from the war and the antagonism was not possible, even though we tried to do the best we could under the circumstances. There were times when I asked contributors to resist the urge to generalize about the population of one country or the other based on the statements of one individual or a handful of people, and external reviewers expressed the same concern. But the authors insisted on keeping their text as it was. There was a lot of back-and-forth because of that. There was also an unexpected case at the very end, when the chapters had gone through internal and external review, were revised several times, all the information was finalized, and we were in copy-editing already. There was a disagreement about the transliteration system to represent Ukrainian and Russian examples in the English-language text. Two authors objected very strongly to the suggested transliteration systems and wouldn’t agree with each other, with at least one of the objections ideologically motivated. We did find some kind of compromise. I don’t remember what we used, but we made sure that everybody was okay with whatever system we were going with.

Sofiya Asher: You mention in the introduction (p. 8) that “different authors use different terms” and that “contributors to this volume were free to choose the term they felt most fitting.”  Do you think this decision worked well based on the feedback you have received so far from the readers or reviewers?

Natalia Knoblock: Well, we have not generated much interest. I have not received either positive or negative feedback about the book and its terminology. The most loaded terms are, of course, the war, crisis, conflict, whether it’s a civil war or it is an international conflict between the two countries? I’m not sure even anthropologists and political scientists have agreed on that unanimously till this point. I felt that it would be out of my position to tell people which term to use. That is not a linguistic decision but more of an ideological decision. I didn’t feel like I could dictate to people what they should or should not believe about the situation in Ukraine.

Sofiya Asher: Now I’d like to talk about the particular chapter you have contributed to the volume. Why did you find blended names an interesting a subject of study?

Natalia Knoblock: Well, that was one of the things that I noticed during the initial stages of the conflict. I mentioned in the beginning of the interview that the inspiration for the book came from the time spent on reading insulting comments on social networks. That was one of the noticeable tendencies that I had seen there. People would take someone’s name and would blend it with an insulting word. So, I contacted a great specialist on morphological blending, Natalia Beliaeva, and asked her if she would be interested in collaborating on this. Luckily for me, she was, and we had a great time working on the chapter even though we were on different continents.

A lot of the blends are really new in the language. At least I, as a native speaker, had never heard them before. There is a wave, a pretty noticeable wave of publications on the discourse of hatred or hate speech in the Russian and Ukrainian conflict devoted to neologisms. One of the publications that we cite in this chapter is by S.A. Zabotinskaya. She compiled a ‘thesaurus of the Russian Ukrainian conflict’ that lists a whole lot of new words that supposedly have entered the language after the conflict started. However, if we start examining whether either of the populations use any of those words, we might find that they don’t. For example, there was a large-scale computerized analysis of textual data collected over an extended period of time by Radchenko and Arhipova, I believe. Their research question was whether verbal aggression precedes or follows major traumatic events, such as fighting outbreaks, but one of the things that they found was that a lot of the terms that have been listed in linguistic publications on the Ukrainian conflict are barely used by the population. It looks like a political figure may use a word on a website, a bot might write it on a social network, or a journalist may mention it in an article, but the words didn’t really enter the language since the population did not pick them up. So, I am not surprised that you have never read or heard ‘Potroshenko’ and some of the other blends we analyze. ‘Putler’ might be the only one in our chapter that seems to be somewhat popular. The rest could be just creations of a blogger or an activist. The fact that they did not take root in the language kind of gives me hope. If there is no deeply rooted hatred in the people, I think then there is hope for this world. I don’t know. It is still worth studying such neologisms, I believe, since they highlight the morphological resources the language affords its users.

Sofiya Asher: The corpus created for the study was based on Ukrainian and Russian media using WebBootCat by SketchEngine.   Does the tool have any adjustments for potential selection bias, such as content created by bots, frequent posters, or trolls?

Natalia Knoblock:  No, unfortunately, we had no way to distinguish quality sources from junk sources. My coauthor and I relied on this software because we ourselves could not scrape the Internet for our content, and we had to use the tool that was available. We thought that we were quite lucky that we were able to collect the datasets large enough to allow statistical analysis, even though we could not control source quality. The thing is, many users of online content lack digital literacy and critical thinking skills that would allow them to differentiate good sources from bad anyway. So, studying all the content that comes up in searches related to the conflict makes sense. It reflects what non-researchers are exposed to online, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We might have deleted some repetitions, and I think we manually cleaned the Ukrainian corpus from some of the Russian texts. But even that was not completely possible because there was a lot of code-switching. Other than that, we kept everything we found.

Sofiya Asher: Your findings in this chapter indicate that blended names are used colloquially and more negatively in Russian and Ukrainian media. Do you see any similarities in American media with regards to the use of blended names?

Natalia Knoblock:  No, I haven’t. Not because they are not there, but because I never looked. Thank you for a good idea. I might do that now. It’s possible that, you know, you find what you look for. When I was examining Trump’s Facebook comments, I studied the most frequent terms. I went with frequencies, and that may have caused me to overlook some words that were there and could have been interesting. That would be a different study and would require additional digging, but it’s a great idea.

Sofiya Asher: Let’s return to the volume. What would you like the volume’s readers to keep in mind while engaging with this work?

Natalia Knoblock: That’s a difficult question. I would like people to be sensitive to the situation that the authors describe. I would like people to give the authors slack because everybody tried to do their best whether or not it turned out as well as we hoped. I’d like the war to end. I would like people to use their creative powers for something more productive than name calling. You know, there was an old slogan, something about using energy for peaceful purposes. I wish people used their creative linguistic energy for better purposes than insulting each other. We don’t need verbal aggression; there’s too much aggression in this world already. So, let’s concentrate on something better than insults. But, of course, language specialists just record and analyze what is going on, and we should keep that in mind.

Sofiya Asher: What do you hope this volume’s contribution to the scholarship of discursive practices of conflict will be?

Natalia Knoblock: I think this volume shows a little more variety in verbal aggression strategies and techniques. I wouldn’t claim that nobody has done what we’ve done in this book, but I think some of our studies are quite innovative. For example, the attention to the use of personal names is something that scholars can continue exploring. It came up in a different book I’m working on right now. It’s also an edited collection, and it talks about morphosyntactic features of verbal aggression. One of the contributions focuses on diminutive suffixes, and it shows that diminution in reference to a person is often derogatory, unlike references to inanimate objects or animals. That could be something worthy of further research. Another point that the volume emphasizes is the interconnection of linguistic and extralinguistic factors. Language does not exist detached from society. This is not a new idea, but given some of the claims that language is some kind of special unit in your brain and it is not related to social factors – yeah, no! Overall, the main contribution is probably the variety of topics and aspects that were discussed and covered in the volume.

Sofiya Asher: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Natalia Knoblock:  I want to thank the contributors because, as I’ve mentioned, the topic is painful and not easy to work with. The authors felt the need to study the way language was evolving and to share their research. They were also understanding of my role as the editor, as the person who keeps everything together, not pushing people anywhere ideologically but just trying to ensure that the quality is there. I think it was great how the authors went through this pretty long process. Going from the initial announcement to the publication in two years is not very long for an academic publication, but still is a long time. It was two years of our lives. We were in multiple negotiations over ‘do you change this paragraph or do you not change it’ or ‘I like this paragraph, but the reviewer does not’. Well, you know what it is like with academic publications, and people were great to work with, patient and cooperative.

I would also call for caution in reacting to aggressive discourse. We all tend to remember nasty verbal attacks and to overgeneralize “that’s what Russians say”, “that’s what Ukrainians say”. In reality, it is often just one person, and the loudest voices are not always the most representative ones. So, I would encourage people to question whether the speaker talks for him/herself or for a large group, and to keep in mind that online squabbles are dominated by a small number of most radical people. I guess, that’s what I think after engaging with this content for the past several years.

Siv Lie on her book, Django Generations

Django Generations

www.djangogen.com

https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/D/bo114656860.html

Interview by Lynn M. Hooker

Lynn Hooker: First, beginning with the title, your book uses a variety of terms for your chief musical subjects–most often Manouches, Tsiganes, or Romanies, but also sometimes Sinti, Gitans, and Gypsies. How do these terms and the distinctions between them reflect some of the issues you write about?

Siv Lie: I discuss some of these terms in the “Notes and Terminology” section (pp. ix-x), but there is much more to say. The very existence of all these terms and disagreements about what they “actually” mean says a lot about both how Romanies have dealt with racialization and about how they constitute an extremely diverse array of people. The terms Tsigane, Gitan, and Gypsy are all exonyms imposed by Europeans and have become more or less commonplace synonyms for Romanies. They are used by Romanies and non-Romanies (Gadjé) alike. Whether or not they are considered pejorative depends entirely on their contexts of use, and while some Romanies refuse these terms, many use them unproblematically. I think this evolution of usage has to do both with Romanies reclaiming pejorative labels and with the conventionalization of some of these terms over time. For example, on pp. 13-14 of the book, I describe how legislation targeting nomades was a way for the government to continue to not-so-covertly racialize and disenfranchise Romanies. In 1969, this legislation was revised and nomades were renamed Gens du voyage (“Travelers”). Today, nomades has definitely fallen out of use, but many mobile Romanies in France still proudly refer to themselves as Voyageurs despite any negative connotations.

Even with decades of pan-Romani political movements and some linguistic and cultural consistencies across populations, Romanies do not constitute a unified group. I deliberately use “Romanies” instead of the more common “Roma” because Sinti (to which Manouches are closely related, if not synonymous with) tend to see themselves as quite distinct from Roma and sometimes reject a Roma-centric view of Romanies. For example, just recently I was speaking with a Manouche/Sinti friend who kept using “Sinti” to refer to all Romanies, which I understood as his way to de-center “Roma” from pan-Romani politics. It’s an interesting way to assert an ideal of pan-Romani unity while challenging the terms on which that unity has been conceived in the political sphere.

Lynn Hooker: How does the question of group naming in this case contribute to current discussions in anthropology? In ethnomusicology? How do other issues in your study contribute to current discussions in anthropology? In ethnomusicology?

Siv Lie: The naming processes I describe – as highly context-dependent and semantically malleable – relate directly to my use of “ethnorace” to explain how Romanies are understood, and in turn understand themselves, through situated and shifting lenses of “race” and “ethnicity.” When I first came across ethnorace as coined by David Theo Goldberg, I was energized by how perfectly it captured the tensions I was exploring, but I was also confused as to why it had not been taken up more widely in anthropology or ethnomusicology. I thought I must have been missing something obvious! But the more I’ve used it and developed it in the context of struggles for Manouche political recognition and economic justice, the more I’ve realized its much wider potential to better understand how social difference is made.

Ethnorace also feeds into my development of ambivalent essentialism (which I outline on pp. 6-8). The idea of strategic essentialism always seemed appropriate to the maneuvers I observed among Manouche musicians and their supporters, but it never captured the full scope of the tensions they had to deal with. Ambivalent essentialism gets at how the process of self-essentialization involves quite a bit of uncertainty and unresolvable contradiction. I often observed musicians feel quite comfortable presenting themselves in rather stereotypical ways to certain audiences while downplaying or challenging such representations in other contexts, and/or voicing real dilemmas about how they felt compelled to engage in these representations. I point to ambivalent essentialism throughout the book because it’s an apt way to account for these tensions and for the negotiations that must occur within any ethnoracially-associated music scene. I think that this book can therefore contribute to current discussions about identity politics and cultural commodification in ways that embrace contradiction without trying to resolve it.

This book engages with a range of concepts both well-established and emergent in anthropology (such as raciolinguistics/raciosemiotics, cultural citizenship, cultural expediency, colorblind racism, erasure, and so on). I try to foreground the interstices of social difference as negotiated through music and talk about music. Some similar conversations about racial politics are happening in ethnomusicology, but I see this book as encouraging ethnomusicologists to engage more robustly with current conversations in anthropology.

Lynn Hooker: I am struck by the tension you describe not only between Manouche and Gadjé (non-Romani) identity but also between Manouche and pan-Romani identity. What are the pros and cons of a broader view of Romani-ness for your interlocutors? I myself have observed some musicians and organizers, mostly in Hungary, embracing a more pan-Romani approach in some contexts; this view seems akin to the musical pluralism you discuss in chapter 3, and sometimes it appears to claim cosmopolitan-ness. But it seems from what you imply that some Manouches want to avoid the “taint” of Eastern Europe.

Siv Lie: As I alluded to earlier, some of the Manouches/Sinti I work with have mixed feelings about proclaiming a pan-Romani identity. Doing so has its advantages: it provides access to resources (social networks, logistical support, financing, publicity, and so on) as well as a certain public legibility. It also reflects aspirations to a kind of borderless cosmopolitanism, such as by using “Gypsy” instead of the conventional French terms for Romanies. This can be especially important for musicians who want to be seen simultaneously as part of a global jazz community and as ethnoracially distinctive. They want to counter the idea that they are backwards and unintelligent by playing up their creativity and cultural plurality (as Romani, French, European, and global). Of course, at the same time, cosmopolitanism can be construed negatively, and Romanies are often perceived as rootless and even threatening wanderers. For this and other reasons, Manouches/Sinti sometimes refuse ideas of pan-Romani identity. They may want to avoid politicizing their work through associations with Romani solidarity movements, or they might seek to avoid further racialization by distancing themselves from immigrant Romanies in France.

The important point here is that these stances aren’t definitive. People emphasize different allegiances depending on context, and they change their opinions over time. Such tensions are reflected in the music the book explores. For example, Alsatian jazz manouche has roots in both jazz (a practice so widespread it often gets labeled as “universal”) and Hungarian csárdás, which has specifically Romani connotations. Musicians are very selective about how they use these different legacies depending on how they want to be perceived.

Lynn Hooker: In chapter 4, there is this fascinating discourse where various speakers talk about how they can tell the difference between Manouche musicians and Gadjo musicians by sound–what you describe as ethnoracial qualia of sound. I am curious about something that you do not talk about as much, and that is the practice of jazz manouche among non-Manouche (Gadjo) players. How do the Manouche musicians you work with feel about this?

Siv Lie: Gadjé make up a huge part of the performing circuit within and outside of France and are not necessarily looked down upon by Manouche musicians. In general, there is a lot of mutual respect between Manouche and Gadjo musicians. A Gadjo sound isn’t always considered bad, and not everyone claims there are significant or inherent differences between Manouche and Gadjo sounds. Musicians of various backgrounds often tell me that the most important thing is respect – for other musicians and for the music (however that is defined). Interpersonal problems tend to arise when Gadjo musicians adopt signs of “Gypsiness” and, in some cases, may exploit real or imagined connections to Manouches to further their careers. I don’t think the Manouche musicians I work with are terribly concerned about the whitewashing of an ethnoracially unique practice; those who believe in a distinctive Manouche sound will point to its inimitable qualia, and others might accuse Gadjé of cultural appropriation, but the practice still remains marketable and meaningful for them. More broadly, given the context of Romani disenfranchisement within France, there can be a sense of distrust among Manouches toward Gadjé. It’s not totalizing, but I see it crop up when some Manouche musicians do business with Gadjé and want to ensure that they’re not exploited. That said, musicians of any background tend to be on guard when maneuvering within the music industry, and rightly so!

Lynn Hooker: You started this project years ago, including identifying colorblind racism within French civic society as manifest in, for example, festivals that present jazz manouche but that try to keep Romaniesand Gens du voyage at arms’ length. (This topic is sprinkled throughout the book, but the introduction and chapters 3 and 5 deal with it in the most detail.) How have your interlocutors responded to the recent surge in anti-racist activism around the world?

Siv Lie: Like the US, France is undergoing a very fraught and necessary reckoning with deep-seated racism, energized in part by the protests of 2020. Much of the resistance to antiracist discourse stems from the idea that racism is a US problem, not a French one, and that US understandings of race and racialization are entirely inapplicable to France (so much so that in February 2021, President Macron denounced critical approaches to race supposedly imported from the US, and the minister for higher education proposed restricting research on the topic). Many groups have participated vigorously in these debates, but I haven’t had the chance to probe the issue with my interlocutors. I am really looking forward to being able to travel to France again and talk about all of this. I think aspects of this activism have probably resonated with my interlocutors, especially those who already draw parallels between their own racialization and that of African Americans (see chapters 1 and 4). I’m working to get a French translation of the book published so that it can better contribute to these discussions. For now, I’m not optimistic about any changes within the French state, but I’m glad that colorblind racism has come to the fore in public debate.

Aurora Donzelli on her book, One or Two Words

One or Two Words

Interview by Nicco La Mattina

https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/O/bo68162961.html

Nicco La Mattina: A principle theme running throughout One or Two Words is that of “collective belonging” and how forms of collective belonging are crafted, achieved, maintained, and transformed discursively in the Toraja highlands of Sulawesi, Indonesia. What is “collective belonging” and how is this concept developed in One or Two Words?

Aurora Donzelli: You really hit the nail on the head: that collective belonging is indeed a key and perhaps under-theorized theme in my book. One or Two Words draws on almost two decades of intermittent fieldwork in a relatively peripheral region of the Indonesian archipelago to describe how, after the collapse of Suharto’s military regime (a.k.a. New Order), individuals make use of words and things to re-imagine their position within a fast-changing multilingual nation and manufacture new forms of participation in the immediate community of consociates. Since the turn of the millennium, Indonesia has undergone a major transition from a highly centralized autocratic state to a network mode of neoliberal governance. After three plus decades under General Suharto’s authoritarian rule, the Reform Era (or Era Reformasi) has prompted substantial changes, ranging from a gradual but drastic administrative devolution to the privatization of large sectors of the country’s economy. My main goal in this book is to explore how these structural and institutional transformations are at once enabled by and reflected in the open-ended recalibration of the power relations between the national language (Bahasa Indonesia) and a multifarious variety of vernacular idioms and registers. I use the concept of collective belonging as a lens to chart out how my interlocutors in the Toraja highlands of Sulawesi craft emergent forms of membership in their daily interactions in both the local community and the post-Suharto nation-state.

But to fully answer your question, I have to make a confession. My use of “collective belonging” is an implicit attempt to suggest an alternative to “identity”—a term I generally try to avoid. My focus on collective belonging is an invitation to look at how individuals use language to variously give shape to their experience of being part of a group, which, far from being a matter of solipsistic self-representations, always entails stance-staking processes and forms of metapragmatic participation in different scales of collective membership. My reservations about “identity” are both theoretical and political. Nowadays, whenever the term is invoked, be it in scholarly debates or quotidian conversations, it has become almost cliché to add that identities are positional, fluid, and intersectional. And, yet, perhaps due to the fact that it originates from the Latin demonstrative pronoun/adjective idem (“the same”), the term seems to inherently aspire to fixity and to imply an entity that remains the same under changing circumstances and situations. Since the mid-1990s, linguistic anthropologists and ethnographers of language have shown how identities are unstable and interaction-specific configurations discursively produced through complex assemblages of multimodal semiotic practices (think, for example, of the work done by Mary Bucholtz, Kira Hall, Penny Eckert, Norma Mendoza-Denton, but also Ben Rampton, Charles Antaki, and Peter Auer, among the others). Such scholarship has enabled us to think in more sophisticated terms about “identity” and represents one of the most significant (and probably under-acknowledged) contributions offered by scholars of linguistic interaction to social theory. And yet, as the term “identity” travels outside the realm of fine-grained analyses of communicative exchange to enter into other domains and debates, some of this sophistication is flattened or even lost.

The contemporary resurge of identity politics displays what to me appears as a problematic proprietary twist and is part of a broader ideological and semiotic shift towards a possessive notion of meaning and an individualist view of the hermeneutic processes of social life. As the Italian hip hop artist Marracash has eloquently put it in his recent song cosplayer: Perché tutto è inclusivo a parte i posti esclusivi, no?/Oggi che tutti lottiamo così tanto per difendere le nostre identità/Abbiamo perso di vista quella collettiva (Because everything is inclusive except from exclusive places, right?/Now that we strive so hard to defend our identities/we have lost sight of the collective). I too have strong reservations against this cultural drift, for it seems to pivot on the model of the contractarian individual and self-contained rational subject underlying most of contemporary public discourse. As a result of these trends, the complexity of a nuanced and positional notion of identity is often reduced to a perfunctory acknowledgment. My emphasis on “collective belonging” is a product of these concerns.

Nicco La Mattina: In your book, you discuss the contestation of “tradition” or “custom” [adat] as a category in colonial, national, and local discourses of differentiation. What is the relevance of discourses about “local traditional culture” and the usage of the regional language (Toraja) in the formation and transformation of forms of sociality?

Aurora Donzelli: I appreciate your question as it underscores the historical dimension of the ethnographic account I sought to provide in my monograph. Archival work has always been a fundamental component of my approach to the study of the interface between language and social relations and speaking as a cultural practice. One or Two Words aims to explore the process whereby my Toraja interlocutors have gradually developed a sense of themselves as an indigenous community. To this end, it is essential to pay attention to historical documents and analyze the cultural politics developed during the one hundred plus years that stretch from the late Dutch colonial period (from early 1900s till the Japanese invasion of 1942), to the post-independence phase (1945-1965), to Suharto’s New Order regime (1966-1998), through the advent of the Era Reformasi. This historical perspective reveals how the production of an earlier discourse of cultural distinctiveness framed through the colonial category of customary traditions (adat) has gradually morphed (during the last two decades) into a self-reflexive cosmopolitan idiom of indigeneity. My account is thus driven by the attempt to combine the longitudinal analysis of these larger discursive formations with the fine-grained analysis of how individuals, during the course of their daily interactions, positions themselves with respect to these different and somewhat coexisting versions of ethno-linguistic distinctiveness.

As Arjun Appadurai suggested, locality should not be equated or reduced to the mere demographic and geographical dimension of a spatially bounded territory, but rather has to be understood as a form of social experience produced through the work of imagination and interaction. One or Two Words explores how people, within the highly multilingual environment of the Toraja highlands (and the Indonesian archipelago at large), enact locality (and broader forms of subjectively experienced groupness) through situated acts of discourse. By attending to concrete instances of communicative exchange, I aim to problematize simplistic sociolinguistic models based on a direct correspondence between language choice and social affiliation. Indeed, participation in a socially shared sense of belonging to a group is hardly an all-or-nothing business. The transcribed excerpts presented throughout the book show how performances of locality may at times result in proud invocations of ethno-linguistic distinctiveness, while, other times, the local language may be presented as an index of provincial backwardness. In a similar fashion, the use of Indonesian is not always and not necessarily an appeal to the higher authority of a supra-local national code. Speakers may switch to Indonesian to assert a peripheral position of metapragmatic criticism against established linguistic hierarchies and thus highlight, in a parodic key, the paradoxes of the rhetoric of development typical of the New Order.

Nicco La Mattina: You mention that the post-Suharto era is often represented as a radical rupture with the past, and yet the discursive and aesthetic forms associated with the New Order proved to be of continuing relevance to your work. How does the idea of “aesthetic crossovers” contribute to understanding the articulation of global processes in a neoliberalizing Indonesia?

Aurora Donzelli: Like my first monograph (Methods of Desire, 2019), One or Two Words revolves around the core questions that have driven my research and my thinking for several years now: To what extent structural changes may reconfigure entrenched linguistic political economies? What happens when the implicit routines informing what Harvey Sacks called “doing being ordinary” are somewhat disrupted by novel political practices and ideologies? How shall we approach from a theoretical and methodological standpoint the relationship between the given (that is, tacit procedures) and the categorical (that is, explicit paradigm shifts)? What units of analysis should we use to describe and understand the linguistic implications of events locally perceived as “reform” of the sociopolitical order? Unlike my previous book, however, the focus here is not so much on the language-mediated shifts in structures of feelings and moral reasoning, but rather on the re-articulation of the relationship between national and local languages in a country renowned for its great linguistic diversity; and on the parallel transformation of forms of political imagination in the aftermath of the collapse of an authoritarian regime.

I use the musicological concept of crossover (understood as the blending of different genres targeted at a new audience) as an allegorical framework to describe the interplay of continuity and change that characterizes present-day Indonesia. Indeed, contrary to the representation of the post-Suharto transformation as radical rupture with the past, the contemporary moment in Indonesia appears as a complex transitional phase, in which different genres and registers overlap, producing unexpected constellations of speech forms and political practices. The Toraja Highlands (and Indonesia at large) have been exposed to apparently contradictory strands of discourse: the promotion of local customs and the diffusion of transnational ideologies of democracy; the celebration of pre-capitalistic communal values and the neoliberal extension of market principles into every aspect of cultural and socio-political life; the push toward political renovation and the revival of indigenous political and linguistic practices. By focusing on the blending of continuity and change, my analysis tries to show how contemporary appeals to transnational discourses of indigeneity should be understood in relationship with (and as a challenge to) pre-existing constructions of the ‘local’ modeled on the cultural politics of colonial and developmentalist regimes. This analytical perspective reveals novel forms of empowering positionality based on a new aesthetics of “the vintage”—mediated by references to early post-colonial discourse and images—and “the peripheral,” expressed through the valorization of regional codes. While, during the New Order, the use of vernacular languages within institutional settings was stigmatized as a marker of backwardness and illiteracy, now the switch to local languages may project a trendy (at once cosmopolitan and indigenous) speaking subject.

Nicco La Mattina: You attend to the distribution and exchange of meat, meals, and cash between landowners and sharecroppers and between islanders and the diasporic community. How does the circulation of material language, cattle, and cash contribute to the production of indigeneity and the cultivation of collective belonging?

Aurora Donzelli: One or Two Words is in strict conversation with the emerging interest in linguistic materialities and the material components of signification, but also with previous studies on the intersection of speech and things (e.g., Malinowski’s Coral Gardens, Nancy Munn’s The Fame of Gawa, Webb Keane’s Signs of Recognition). The different chapters describe how—in the remote and primarily rural region of eastern Indonesia where I conducted my fieldwork—people use spoken words, digitally transmitted messages, cash, and other material things to produce novel ways of imagining the local community and the nation-state. In spite of their apparent geographic isolation, the Toraja have a long history of encounters with exogenous cultural and socio-economic forces, which can be properly understood only if we consider both the circulation of words and the exchange of things. In this perspective, the Toraja highlands should not be seen not a remote region inhabited by an ethno-linguistic and religious minority, but rather as a site of cosmopolitan intersections. By bringing together within the same analytical field linguistic and material activity, the book aims to offer an interaction-centered approach to indigeneity—a semantically and politically complex term whose minimal definition entails material and symbolic forms of attachment to a specific land, collectively imagined as homeland.

As I am further learning through my new project on the relation between language and indigenous foodways among Italian neo-rural entrepreneurs and hobby farmers, objects (e.g., regional food-items, indigenous horticultural varieties, organically produced seeds, etc.) mediate forms of symbolic and material attachment and enable culturally distinctive forms of sociality. In a similar way, in Toraja, material items are key in producing forms of collective belonging and indigenous imaginings. Of special relevance is the local system of ritual gifts and counter-gifts based on the purchase, slaughtering, and exchange of pigs and buffaloes. Regulated through complex social norms, active participation in these exchanges is a sine qua non condition of belonging in the Toraja community. In this light, the Toraja gift system is a core semiotic technology for establishing the individual’s membership within a transnationally imagined local community. To be Toraja means to owe and be owed, and to be implicated in a web of interpersonal expectations that only become visible through funerals, weddings, and house-ceremonies. This powerful social logic constitutes the bedrock of the strict relationship between the Toraja dwelling in the highlands and the large diaspora who live in other Indonesian and overseas locales. Therefore if we want to fully understand the ongoing recalibration of power relations between rural peripheries and global metropoles we need to attend to the semiotic practices of exchange and translation of both words and material objects: how are vernacular idioms converted into national and transnational codes? Which types of (in-person or digitally-mediated) speech acts are needed to exchange the meat of ritually slaughtered animals?  How are ritual offerings of pigs and buffaloes translated into monetary equivalents? How is the affective labor of hospitality and social solidarity traded for payments in kind and translated into sharecropping arrangements? To understand the diasporic social connections that structure the Toraja imagined community my ethnographic account seeks to provide snapshots of the actual semiotic labor that people perform in their daily lives as they deal with a complex social grammar of reciprocal exchange.

Nicco La Mattina: In One or Two Words, as in much of your work generally, you attend to translation practices and ideologies about translation, in particular between the national Indonesian language and Toraja, a regional language. What is the role of translation in your work and in the discursive enactment of collective belonging?

Aurora Donzelli: Translation is indeed central to this book and to my work in general, which is, of course, hardly surprising for a linguistic anthropologist working in a highly multilingual environment like Indonesia. This is a very good and extensive question: let me begin by noting that the very title of the book “one or two words” is a somewhat clunky English literal translation of the Toraja expression “sang buku duang kada,” which, in turn, is an imperfect rendering of the Indonesian term “pidato” (“oration,” “public address”). So, in a way, the entire book can be read as an attempt to reflect on the cultural and ethnopramgmatic implications of this lack of direct correspondence. One of the main points that I try to make as I attend to this task is to show how translation cannot be understood as a naturalistic operation undertaken in a political vacuum. As Elinor Ochs noted in her seminal article about the practice of transcription, translation is never a neutral and straightforward endeavor. Not only any actual exercise of translation is always inflected with theoretical goals and assumptions, but translations (even when only potential and imagined) are always embedded within power-laden relations between codes and registers, which inform language ideologies and are affected by larger semiotic ideologies—a term Webb Keane coined to refer to the often implicit but always meaningful and effectual assumptions about what signs are, how they function, and how they are linked to their objects.

Translation is one of the fundamental tropes in the history of anthropology as a discipline. However, I find that, somewhat paradoxically, the linguocentric and philological bend that at times characterizes linguistic anthropological work may occlude our ability to appreciate more inclusive and extensive notions of translation, which encompass not simply translation between idioms, but also between audiences, discursive genres, semiotic modalities, cultural frameworks, pragmatic contexts, and, perhaps even more importantly, between different ideologies and practices of (in)-translatability.From a methodological standpoint, there is a common and often unspoken preference among linguistic anthropologists to prioritize monolingual work in the target language. This, of course, goes all the way back to old debates (such as the one that took place in 1939-1940 between Margaret Mead and Robert Lowie) on “native languages as fieldwork tools” and on the degree of linguistic fluency required by ethnographers. In the highly multilingual environment where I undertook my fieldwork I was often confronted with translanguaging practices whereby my interlocutors would draw upon different codes within their repertoire (Indonesian, English, Bugis, etc.), both during the course of transcription sessions and in casual conversations. Although it meant departing from the imperative of monolingual fieldwork, switching across different languages and metalanguages provided me with valuable insights into the local ideologies of translation, linguistic competence, grammaticalness, and collective belonging. One or Two Words is thus an attempt to explore notions and practices of (in)-translatability as a way to understand the political economies of language and their ongoing recalibration in an Indonesian periphery.