Jessica Chandras takes the page 99 test

    Page 99 of my dissertation, titled Multilingual Practices, Education, and Identity in Pune, India, is a first attempt at bringing readers into an ethnographically informed composite sketch of a partially fictionalized student interlocutor. The passage is from a chapter titled “Learning English while Learning in English” and in the chapter I analyze various examples of code switching in English across classrooms in multiple schools and education levels. I generalized the student, Siddhika, from interviews, days of participant observation, and excerpts from classroom recordings that exemplify code switching practices among Hindi, Sanskrit, English, and Marathi, the regional language of the state of India where I conducted my research. The context in which the switching occurs, whether it is in the form of morning prayers, instructional directives, or transitional chatter, was important for my research and analysis. The best way I could convey all of these aspects together, I felt, was if I brought readers into the classroom with me through narrative vignettes. More importantly, I wanted to allow my interlocutors and their experiences studying in and among multiple languages to speak for themselves as much as possible. The passage below begins my third chapter on how English language code switching practices contribute to attitudes and meanings attributed to different languages.

    Pradnya Teacher leads the group of students upstairs, passing pictures of school events and motivational posters showing smiling cartoon animals telling students in English that it is good to help others and reminding them to wash their hands. The Mini KG, Junior KG, and Senior KG students stop in the hallway outside their brightly painted classrooms in the Kindergarten wing of the school. Rather than being in the school where there are so many students constantly moving around and making noise, Siddhika thinks to herself how she prefers to be at home with her aji, Marathi for grandmother, who sneakily passes sweets to Siddhika while she cooks her favorite foods. But she knows she must now start going to school like her older cousins and neighbors who carry around large books in their overstuffed backpacks. Being at school still makes her nervous though, that’s why aai, her mother, packed an extra change of clothes in her backpack today, just in case she wets her uniform again.

    The intimidating Mangal maushi, which means “aunt” and is what the students are told to call the saree-clad women who help in their classrooms, tells Siddhika to place her backpack against the wall and line up. “Warghakade tev, backpack. Linemadhye ubi raha!” Mangal maushi announces in her booming voice, as Pradnya Teacher begins the morning prayers. “Good morning students!” Pradnya Teacher shouts over the din of all the students bustling to line up in the narrow hallway. “Good morning teacher!” Siddhika shouts along with her classmates. “Don’t yell, students! Answer quietly,” Pradnya Teacher retorts, “Stand straight. Hands at your sides. And start.” Siddhika begins reciting the national anthem and then Sanskrit and English prayers that they learned on their first day of class. 

 

    Page 99 also nicely provides a window into my writing process. I eased myself out of research by drafting ethnographic vignettes from my field notes to convey what life of burgeoning multilingual students is like in India. Reflecting on this practice in the process of beginning to write my dissertation now brings a smile to my face. I remember my confidence growing by returning to my notes and making cohesive analytical excerpts emerge to begin my writing stage. As this exercise increased my momentum and enthusiasm to continue writing, the lingering traces of imposter syndrome began to disappear.

    It was after drafting this passage and getting favorable feedback from my committee that I then decided to use vignettes for prologues and epilogues in each chapter of my dissertation, honing my skill and passion for narrative writing to convey my research and analysis. My dissertation explores different avenues of multilingual life and studies in Pune, Maharashtra and after receiving constructive comments on this passage I more confidently included analyses from some unconventional methods such as map making and autoethnography throughout various chapters. I like to think that this passage is the first trial and permission I granted myself to creatively craft a dissertation that spoke to my interests in communicating my analyses, present my research experiences, and the voices of my interlocutors through thoughtful and novel ways.

Jessica Chandras. 2019. “Multilingual Practices, Education, and Identity in Pune, India.” George Washington University, Ph.d dissertation.

Jessica Chandras, Visiting Assistant Professor of Linguistic Anthropology

jessicasu87@gmail.com

Juan del Nido discusses his dissertation about Uber

Page 99 is home to one of the most linguistically precise segments of my dissertation, concerning the construction of a legal case against Uber in Buenos Aires, Argentina, by five taxi drivers’ associations on the night of the 12th of April, 2016. The case was set in a language of urgency and accusation and routed through a “writ of amparo” – an Argentine legal device designed to be expeditious and that judges have to react to quickly, lest a claimant’s fundamental rights are irreparably harmed. The right in question was the right to work, taxi drivers claimed, knowing but not explaining in that document that the temporalities of technological novelties amid a population anxious for modernity benefitted Uber, which had launched its platform at 4 pm that very same day.

This micro-anecdote, specific and dry, does more justice to Madox Ford’s test than he himself may have sought, for in a sense my entire research hinges on the events of that day. I was in Buenos Aires, my hometown, researching the political economy of the taxi industry in a 13-million strong metropolitan area largely unaware at that time of Uber’s expansion plans. The day before the 12th Uber existed only in people’s imaginations and the companies’ social media taunts; the day after was the first of an economic, political, legal and cultural conflict centered on the industry I had come to know quite well. Buenos Aires was then the latest installment of a world saga, epic and viral, but also a deviant: when authorities declared Uber’s activities illegal and ordered it to leave, Uber refused to go, claiming Uber was what “the people” wanted. As an industrial conflict turned into contempt of court, the conflict became an exceptionally fertile site for a series of infrastructural, temporal, technical and economic imaginations about what constituted progress, modernity, and political virtue. At stake in the conflict, summed up in that page, was whether an order beyond the political existed or not; how some Argentines understood what it was made of, who belonged in it and how history had drawn its lines, and ultimately, how a post-political order would grant the Argentina that the middle classes imagined as theirs a place in the world .

Juan M del Nido. 2018. “Uber in Buenos Aires: an Ethnographic of the post-political as a modality of reasoning”. 2018. Ph.d dissertation. Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester, UK. .

Chris Ball on his book, Exchanging Words

https://unmpress.com/books/exchanging-words/9780826358530

Meghanne Barker: This book moves, part by part, from within the park to outside of it, until we end up in France. How did you decide to organize it this way, rather than according to some of the main terms of inquiry, such as exchange and ritual? It seems that this tactic was designed, in some ways, to counter narratives of indigenous groups perpetually repeating or risking assimilation or annihilation. But were there aspects of your fieldwork at the Park that were then obscured by this framing – for example, giving more attention to the role of visitors from the outside?

Chris Ball: First of all, many thanks for reading the book and posing such thoughtful questions!

I committed to the framing of an ethnographic narrative about how Wauja people of Brazil move from inside the Xingu Park to outside early on in my fieldwork. Although the chapter on the Atujuwa mask dance that Wauja performers debuted in France in July, 2015 is the subject of the book’s last chapter, the event happened relatively soon after I began working with the Wauja. I was invited to accompany the troupe on their journey abroad and in doing so I learned so much about Wauja people’s initiatives to engage with outsiders. I also returned to the village with many questions about how such encounters work out. From then on, I became increasingly interested in scalar study of the pragmatic means through which Wauja outreach to alters was accomplished and understood from their perspective. That meant looking locally at political discourse, communication with spirits, and out to regional exchange rituals with other Xinguans, and meetings with foreign and Brazilian NGO and government representatives. This perspective helped me to locate classical anthropological topics such as ritual and exchange as they emerged in relations of development that variously purported to target healthcare, material culture, environmental protection, and spirituality. Manuela Carneiro da Cunha had a great influence on my research by encouraging cultural analysis of how Amazonian indigenous people do development. While I ended up paying less attention to the role of visitors from the outside, the upshot was to reverse the perspective of how Euro-Americans and/or non-indigenous Brazilians encounter Amazonians by following the movements and itineraries of Wauja people as Amazonians who engage outsiders.

Meghanne Barker: In the introduction, you promise that this book will bridge the gap between two approaches to studying Amazonia, one of which uses a structuralism modeled after Saussurian semiology, the other of which adopts Peircian semiotics to focus more on everyday discourse. This seems like an ambitious task! At what point in your research or writing did you realize that this was what your project was doing? What made it seem possible, or desirable, or necessary, for you to do this?

Chris Ball: It is a tall order, and I am sure there are many ways that I fell short in this book. Again, I was influenced and encouraged by my teachers in this regard, primarily by Michael Silverstein and Sue Gal in the application of Peircean semiotics to communication, and by the wonderful opportunities I had to learn from scholars such as Carlos Fausto and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in Chicago and in Rio de Janeiro. They brought a range of perspectives to the table to be sure, but I inherited a lasting engagement with Levi-Straussian structuralism and Amazonianist (post)structuralism from these anthropologists. In addition, my training in structural linguistics at Chicago by Jerry Sadock and Amy Dahlstrom, among others such as Bruna Franchetto, prepared and required me to engage with grammatical systems in the tradition of Sapir, Bloomfield, and Saussure. I guess the ingredients were all in the mix before I left for the field, and I can see in retrospect how much the fingerprints of my teachers are left on the book. I should also say that I still believe that one of the main tasks of linguistic anthropology at least since Roman Jakobson has been to unite elements of Saussurean semiology and Peircean semiotics as they illuminate fundamental properties of language structure and function. The synthesis is ongoing, but what makes it possible, desirable, and necessary is the complementarity of studying langue as a social fact on the one hand, and parole as a site of sociocultural (re) production and transformation. This book is one entry in the collective research project into that dialectic.

Meghanne Barker: Beyond scholarly work on ritual, language, exchange, or indigenous groups in Brazil, is there another scholarly conversation into which you see this book offering an intervention that might not be obvious, immediately? If so, can you tell these readers why they should read your book?

Chris Ball: I think the outreach that the book attempts, beyond the audiences you mentioned, is to scholars and practitioners of development. I make a largely culturalist argument that ritual, discourse, and exchange influence how people from the Xingu region of Brazil engage in development projects. Understanding their cultural approaches to ritual, to trade, and to political discourse in their own communities sheds light on how and why development projects may succeed or fail. Indeed, we should even ask if the people involved define communicative success and failure in anything like the same terms. The point of view brought by linguistic anthropology can hopefully say something applicable to the realization of development in a variety of contexts.

Meghanne Barker: It is common for authors to mention their indebtedness to their interlocutors in the acknowledgments section of the book, yet you do so as your conclusion. Then you break somewhat with conventional ethnography and appeal to the reader, whom you interpellate as a probable anthropologist, to accept the status of indebtedness as requiring sustained engagement. What provoked you to conclude in such a way, with such an appeal?

Chris Ball: One of the points of my book is that Wauja people often work to sustain indebtedness and asymmetry in their exchange relations with outsiders. This leads to confusion in intercultural encounters when NGO representatives laud the successful conclusion of projects, touting the success of debts paid.  Meanwhile Wauja people may see in the same instance an undesirable foreclosure of future social relations. I tried to make that point in the body of the book, and in the conclusion, I hoped to return to the question that your first question indicated might be foreclosed by my approach to Wauja outreach; attention to the role of visitors from the outside. What I wanted to suggest, perhaps to overcome at least momentarily the act of description in the service of engagement, is how anyone who visits the Wauja from the outside, myself and my readers –you included—  is indebted to them. We should take indebtedness not as a negative however, instead we might approach it the way Wauja often do, as a positive corollary of continued relationships, of sustained engagement signaled in the promise of a return.

Sarah Mitchell takes the page 99 test

For the sake of full disclosure, I’m going to start my reflection on my Page 99 with a quick nod to the blog’s editor. When Dr. Gershon started the Page 99 series on the CaMP blog, I was acting as the blog administrator. We had chatted about the concept and structure of the series and at some point, she expressed a concern that people would start ‘gaming’ the series so that they purposely made the 99th page an exceptionally good page from their dissertation, to make it more coherent or smart-sounding. Of all people, I’m probably most susceptible to this temptation. Well, I just want to assure her and the readers of the blog that while I am particularly pleased with what my 99th page wound up being, I did not do this on purpose. I must give credit to my committee that requested further theoretical discussion at the beginning of the document after reading the first draft and thus pushed this page into its current position. If that hadn’t happened, you’d likely have read something about TIFF’s scandalous history…who wants that? Instead, my Page 99 comes from my third chapter in a section I labelled, Glamorous Work: A Geertzian Turn.

After laying out the scope of the dissertation in the introductory chapter and elaborating the key concepts in the second, this third chapter is where I place those concepts in context. I focus on a particular night in 2014 when my husband and I were conducting an interview with film director Kevin Smith and we get into trouble with the red carpet coordinator. I use this particular incident to illustrate the central social relationship of the film festival that exists between filmmakers, film audiences and the film festival organizers who act as special intermediaries between the first two groups. In this final section of the chapter, I reveal that I am purposely echoing the structure of Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” because I viewed this social relationship as akin to the one described in Geertz’s essay (1977). As I describe a few pages earlier, Geertz argues that the cockfight is play because the risks involved are ‘really real’ for the birds and only symbolically real for the bettors. But I see the inverse on the red carpet. The really real risk does not lie with the single film or even single film screening but with the filmmakers, film audiences, and subsequently, their intermediary, the film festival organizers. This page outlines this risk. As the page concludes, in terms of economic and status risk, I argue the highest risk lies with the organizers, the few that connect the many at the festival. And, in this sense, what they engage in is not ‘deep symbolism told in meaningless play, but material work performed in glamorous iconography’. As I end the chapter a few pages later, I set up the subsequent chapters where I dive further into the intricacies of this work in this context. But before moving forward, I suggest that this glamorous work is perhaps not unique to the film festival setting but extends upward through the ‘prismatic distortions’ of global mediascapes (Appadurai 1990).

It is admittedly an ambitious chapter and this page highlights some of its grand assertions. But while the attempts to connect my own theory to cultural anthropology luminaries is perhaps too aspirational for a dissertation, as someone who has spent years in media pens elbowing my way into position for a clear shot of the celebrity du jour, the distance between red carpets and cockfights is not as far as one might assume.

Sarah Mitchell. 2017. Glamorous Work: An Ethnographic Study of the Toronto International Film Festival. Indiana University, Phd.

 

Lilly Irani on her book, Chasing Innovation

https://press.princeton.edu/titles/13362.html

Lilly Irani, in conversation with Christopher Kelty

(Note: Interview was transcribed, unlike many other interviews on this site which are conducted by email).

Chris Kelty: Let’s start here, because we are in Torrance, CA at a Taiwanese bakery, halfway between where you and I respectively work. You, like me, are stuck across various disciplines. Anthropology, design, media studies, south asian studies…and so on. What’s your strategy for addressing the work you do beyond the disciplines?

Lilly Irani: There’s being between the disciplines and there is speaking to people beyond the academy— to participants or, in many cases, workers themselves. I don’t mean as a public intellectual speaking to civil society, but as an ex-technology worker writing to other workers. Some of my strategy has been to lead with the stories. While writing — especially a few years in — I would fantasize that I should instead write a graphic novel called “Design: A Tragedy.” Each of my chapters is really centered around some story where people are working with the skills that they have, the hopes that they have, the social know-how and the networks that they have. They’re all doing their best, and then they run into some kind of friction or contradiction. These were moments that, for me, revealed something about the structural or institutional forces silently conditioning the supposedly creative possibilities of design and entrepreneurship.

Sometimes that contradiction doesn’t become visible until years into the project. As an ethnographer, what I get to do is hang out with a set of projects and a group of people for 5 to 10 years, and say, “Hey, you’re doing projects every 3 months or every 2 years, I can see how this goes over a long time and I can use that slow attunement to draw out—to tell a story that shows the contradiction.” Then I can theorize it at the end of the chapter. For people who are interested in the theory, they get that laid out at the end of the chapter but for those who are not, they still see a story of friction or failure they are used to naturalizing or coping with. And they see it is not all their fault, but a product of the structures in which they are embedded.

The thing I love about anthropology and the empirical is not positivism but rather the chance to attune to the erasures, erosions, and what falls through the cracks socially or theoretically. We can draw those out into a more public way and invite wider publics – our readers and our fieldwork interlocutors – to ask, “Okay, what are we going to do now?”

Chris Kelty: Imagine for me what it will look like when people in Indian academia read your book as opposed to when those in Euro/American academia read it. What do you think or what do you hope would be a discussion there that would be different—or would it be the same?

Lilly Irani: That’s a good question. I’ll talk about my hopes, and I’ll talk about what I’ve seen happen so far. I think one of my hopes was that—I felt like, when I began to write up this project, one set of reactions that I would get from academics, policy people in South Asia would say, “Oh, yeah, this thing you’re writing about is happening everywhere actually.” Actually, this didn’t happen to me just in South Asia. I had that reaction from people also working in parts of Africa and the Middle East.

There was a lot of support and enthusiasm for having another person trying to unpack what’s going on there and understand where it’s coming from all of a sudden. Academics, however, sometimes reacted by saying “Well, this doesn’t fit the ways that we’ve been doing post-colonialism in media studies or South Asia studies so far. Go to a tier-two city, or study people in rural areas and how they share media in ‘real India.’” That’s super important. But the current moment in India is one where development has become a financial opportunity for the private sector. And all kinds of authoritarian management impulses or even violence are justified in the name of innovation and progress. If we want to understand how the state organizes its actions to stimulate private sector accumulation, and in the name of development and innovation no less, we need to study the work of relatively elite middle-classes who operate in these systems.

Chris Kelty: Your book has a great historical depth to it, but not as a history of something, right? The history is there in order to set up the story of the subjectivity of the people you worked with. How do you think about the role of establishing that kind of existing subjectivity with such historical detail? Why is that important to do, rather than, say, pointing to their speech or to the things that they make, and saying, “Look. See, this is how people are right now.” What’s the value that that brings for you? Continue reading

Crystal Abidin on her book, Internet Celebrity

Jacket Image

https://books.emeraldinsight.com/page/detail/Internet-Celebrity/?k=9781787560796

Interview by Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: What do you see as the main focus and argument of this book?

Crystal Abidin: Logistically, I wanted to write a highly accessible primer text for a general audience. My original disciplinary training is in anthropology and sociology, but the bulk of research on this phenomena has come out of media and communications. Because of this, depending on the journal or the audience or the edited collection I’m writing for, I variously use terms like “microcelebrity”, “internet celebrity”, “online celebrity”, “influencer”, and so on and so forth. We all know that depending on our background and our training and our disciplinary preferences, this would mean that as we’re searching for literature, we’re going to miss out on heaps and heaps of articles or data or reviews. So, I wanted a book to kind of consolidate all these related but distinct concepts. That’s why I wanted to do this on the operational side of things.

Intellectually, I wanted to publish a text that captured the state of the industry at this very moment and share this piece quickly with a wide audience. My publisher Emerald Publishing has a series Society Now that does just this. Although I have also published a number of book chapters and journal articles, my thesis—which focused on my internet ethnography of influencer culture in Singapore—is going to take some time to be published as an academic monograph due to the processes of academic publishing and the need to update my conceptual thinking in this quickly evolving domain. So while that’s being done, I was thinking about a condensed and stripped down version of this upcoming thesis-to-book monograph. But at the same time, a lot of my newer fieldwork now involves working with industry, and I saw this as a great opportunity to combine a populist and corporate way of framing these phenomena with an academic and scholarly way of understanding and analyzing them.

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: Do you see this book as any particular kind of theoretical genealogy in anthropology? What would be the value of this work for anthropologists who maybe don’t know anything about this side of internet culture, or maybe are curious about it— how does this work speak to anthropologists specifically?

Crystal Abidin: Although my research and analysis is guided by anthropological theory, I don’t think it’s explicit in this book, because I needed to cater to the widest audience possible – it’s really primed for perhaps a large undergraduate introduction course, or anyone from the general public who can’t differentiate between a YouTuber and a meme, or the concept of virality from celebrity. But, if I were to return to my initial rhetoric in planning the chapters, then certainly I worked hard to showcase the variety of methods that I used throughout my projects. The first chapter I feel is quite similar to a traditional literature review or archival research, glazing through the phenomena. And in this text, I have organized this information as a historical overview of how we came to this idea of internet celebrity, drawing from various books and concepts across multiple disciplines. This is one of the things I struggled with in my earlier work in my doctoral studies, that if we were bounded by a discipline in terms of where we looked for journals or for books, we would miss out on a lot of the good debate developing in other industries and developing in other disciplines. So that was one thing I struggled with and one thing I needed to overcome. I was explicit throughout the whole book that I work primarily as an anthropologist and as an ethnographer but my literature review was more encompassing and generous across the disciplines.

In the second chapter, I highlight some of the key repetitive tropes that we see of internet celebrity, the qualities that they share, even though I chose specific case studies that were resonant mostly in the Asian market or during that time period. It was drawn from several long-term research projects that used traditional ethnography, participant observation, interviews, and then even digital ethnography, content analysis, media analysis, and trend watching.

The third chapter dives deeper into case studies and I think this is where at times I extrapolate between the social media posts, some of the comments, some of the reactions from the press— this would be what an in depth digital ethnographic study or media studies content analysis would look like. Because it’s not a one-time-off study of a single viral post, but a long-term engagement as a viewer/fan/hater/follower/and so on across multiple connected internet spaces in a network, I was able to piece together a longer-term digital biography of some of these personalities.

Finally, I wanted the last chapter to be a springboard to the thesis-to-book monograph on influencers that I am finishing up. So, this chapter positioned the industry of influencers within a climate of internet celebrity at larger, and my upcoming thesis-to-book monograph will then dive in explicitly into the microcosms and social relationships on the level of the influencer as an actor. And here, I felt better able to share some of the ethnographic snippets and observations from my work—say, mapping out the structure of the industry, sharing some of the observations from vignettes or from conversations.

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: With this kind of internet-based research, the traditional anthropological framing of the “field site” becomes a bit murky. As a researcher who herself is very engaged with internet culture, how do you circumscribe the boundary of the “field site”, in this book and in your related work?

Crystal Abidin: It doesn’t come up much in this book per se, because this text is a summation of several different projects across various ideo-geographical fieldsites in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the US and Europe. If I were to really stretch it, I’d say that the data in this text is bounded by temporality – I had intentionally focused on a range of years when I was selecting case studies form my data, specifically to demonstrate the shifts across forms of celebrity – traditional or digital – that I had mapped out in the first chapter. But I also made specific decisions over which of my locational or cultural fieldsites to showcase – where possible and where the arguments could still be communicated well, I substituted many Anglo- and Euro-centric examples with ones from the Global South, in line with my research and personal ethic to promote visibility and representation of equally interesting phenomena happening elsewhere in the world that is often lost in discourses propagated by the popular media.

In my other works beyond this book, I bound or segment my fieldsites differently depending on the project or my research question. There are instances where I am studying a specific trend or viral incident, so my field is bounded chronologically by time. But if I am studying the everyday practices of a particular demographic or community of people, then I bound my field by the biographies or locations of the content producers. In other words, I adopt more anthropological approaches to study genealogies, and here my field is determined by the snowball sampling that may expand more laterally to include more and more influencers, or vertically to study up the chain (such as agencies or industry) or down the chain (that is, followers and fans). Sometimes this may mean identifying a different space altogether, such as the backend or logistical and operational systems of influencers (such as bot factories, software and infrastructure). In my more ambitious works, I may consider a larger cultural group as a phenomena,  my newest major project will focus on influencers in cultural East Asia, broadly defined as China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. In general, depending on my research question or what I am isolating as my factor of analysis, my fieldsites are scoped and bounded differently.

That said, I’m only able to do this because my very initial sampling of influencers for my traditional observation and later in my digital observation was quite large, aimed at getting an idea of the field. Some of this is really purposive sampling—for example, covering almost every role possible in the influencer industry in Singapore. Anyone you can think of, from an assistant that helps in the warehouse that’s owned by an influencer, all the way down to the parent or the loved one who is somehow implicated in their visibility. And then I am also going back and forth with the different production and circulation chains. So I am not just focusing on the influencer themselves, but also the companies that are sustaining the platforms they use. This includes policies from different social media platforms, like how Instagram deals with ads, and also regulations and provisions by third-party companies who may provide the ability for influencers to trace their metrics and do real-time analysis of their audiences. It also includes where they are congregating in discussion forums, where they are meeting in the flesh, what they are doing when they meet in the flesh— going down to these spaces and hanging out with these young people.

For example, I have recently conclude fieldwork looking at the influencer industry in the Nordic region, but because of time and resource constraints, I’m not able to replicate the very thorough and in-depth studies I’ve done, say, in Southeast Asia. Instead, I have decided to focus on the specific lateral category of influencer agencies, specifically those in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland, to constitute the ‘Nordic market’. I conduct interviews with specific people in these companies, and record observations about their daily work in the offices when I have the privilege to embed in spaces or attend events to conduct participant observation. While I no longer have the same depth as, say the project of influencers in Singapore that thoroughly investigated every possible role in the industry, this Nordic project is asking a completely different set of questions on a more macro scale.

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson: Going back to the Internet Celebrity book specifically, I loved the art style used to illustrate your data. I found that to be a really interesting choice, especially given how much of internet culture, broadly speaking, centers the visual. Was there a particular motivation for using this style of art rather than a more direct representation of the data you were looking at (for example, screenshots of actual memes)? What were you hoping the audience would get out of that?

Crystal Abidin: Again, a variety of reasons—I’ll mention a conceptual one, a more intellectual one, and a pragmatic one.

Conceptually, in Internet Celebrity, one of my key arguments is that while some of the people who opt in to internet celebrity pursue this fervently and become influencers—which is what the last chapter points to, and the focus of my work that’s forthcoming– we also have a lot of internet celebrities who stumble into this or are forced into this industry, as in the case of the unwilling meme (Chapter 3, page 52) or the eyewitness viral star (Chapter 3, page 38) that circulates widely and gets mocked with racist tones of humor. So, not wanting to replicate or reignite that violence against these people, it would not feel right to republish their images in print, even if the publisher allows it, even if they have become widely circulated as memes, or even if the images are generally considered in the‘public domain. The aesthetic of it would not have been congruent with the argument I was trying to make, so I needed to be careful with that.

The second endeavor was more fun for me—to illustrate a more intellectual goal of using this art style. I was thinking about how verbally referring to a meme and explaining it with thick description, versus actually seeing the meme, are two different experiences. We consume internet celebrities via a visual form. If could could visually simulate a mere skeleton or likeness of the form, and have the readers able to guess or recall what this refers to, then this successfully demonstrates the arguments in the book that internet celebrity has a feel of templatability, a wider social memory, that cuts across different cultural pools of knowledge. It has been really fun for me to get feedback from readers who have told me, “Alright, we’re reading this in text form and this sounds familiar,” and then in the next page they flip to they see an outline and they think, “Oh yes, I know exactly the meme she’s talking about.” It also points to the difference in how we process information with our social memory. Traditionally, anthropology and ethnography has relied a lot on thick description, and very persuasive writing, and that’s a craft that I’m trying to hone. But when I do similar work in the industry, that’s not a format that’s palatable to people working in social media, working in tech companies, working with some of the biggest conglomerates in the media industry. Often, I have to present a different framing for the exact same thing I want to put across, such as relying heavily on visual aids. So, I also saw this as an experimental opportunity.

The third reason, of course, pragmatically, is dealing with the notion of public property, or copyright. Different publishers have different logistical guidelines for what constitutes an image that can be used for fair use, or for academic critique. Some of the publishers have guidelines ranging from how extensively public am image has been circulating, whether it has been deposited into the major meme or gif libraries, whether it has been reposted by reputable newspapers or online news sites of a certain leverage – and all of these guidelines are fair enough. They are all an approximation trying to estimate how public something is, and to iron out the difficulties of tracing the ownership of something that feels authorless like a meme. But again, going back to the ethic I adopt in this piece of work, something that’s put out and publicly available may not have been intentionally made so. So I brainstormed over a better method of engaging with the audience of the book, while also staying true to the intention and the ethic of the arguments I was trying to make.

Mack Hagood on his new book, Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control

Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control (Sign, Storage, Transmission) by [Hagood, Mack]

https://www.dukeupress.edu/hush

Interview by Jacob Smith

Jacob Smith: Hush offers a strikingly original take on the history of devices and practices that offer control over the sonic environment. As a framework for your analysis, you coin the terms “orphic media” and “empty media”: what are these?

Mack Hagood: In its narrowest sense, the concept of orphic media refers to the ways people use audio media to create a safe space for themselves. In Greek mythology, Orpheus saves the lives of the Argonauts by neutralizing the Sirens’ song with a song of his own, pacifying the treacherous environment of the Siren Strait. Over the past sixty years or so, a number of media devices that operate on this principle have arisen: bedside machines that generate white noise or nature sounds, commercial recordings and smartphone apps that do the same, wearable devices that counteract tinnitus, noise-canceling headphones, and others. All of these technologies fight sound with sound to control one’s environment, thereby allowing the user to control her own subjective state. If we think of these disparate technologies as the products of a single industry, it generates billions of dollars by promising control over how we feel, sleep, and concentrate. But up until now, we haven’t thought of orphic mediation as a media practice—and, in fact, we haven’t thought of most of these technologies as media at all, because they don’t have “content” in a traditional sense. They are “empty media” that challenge our scholarly and lay notions of media as technologies that inform, entertain, or transmit messages. In fact, these media aren’t meant to be paid attention to at all, which is what allows them to be so effective!

Now, this might seem to be simply a quirky and overlooked product category or a lacuna in the field of media studies, but I argue that it’s much more than that. In the book, I use these technologies as a way to explore the way listening has become difficult, painful, and even paranoid in the era of the attention economy, which equates the liberal subject with controlled attention while also flooding consciousness with voices, information, enticements, and distractions, undermining any possibility of self-control. This personal, sensory conflict fuels our politics of filter bubbles, right-wing echo chambers, campus safe spaces, and other contemporary controversies around listening. Studying listening is useful because a similar reactivity and even physiology are at work when we recoil from a sound we find uncomfortable and when we recoil from a social situation or even an idea that we find uncomfortable. So, in its widest sense, the concept of orphic media is about more than sound technologies. It claims that the most fundamental purpose of all media use is not to transmit information, but rather to navigate our affective relationship to our environment. And it’s the misguided ways we try to stay in control of that relationship that drive our current conflicts.

Jacob Smith: Your first chapter concerns the use of orphic media by the sufferers of tinnitus. What is distinctive about these practices in the broader terrain of orphic media? What methodological challenges did you face when writing this chapter?

Mack Hagood: In the course of studying orphic media, I quickly realized that people with buzzing, ringing, or other putative phantom sounds in the head or ears were among the most committed users of these technologies. During my ethnographic study of tinnitus and the roles that media play in its diagnosis and treatment, I came to understand just how high the stakes of orphic media use can be. Many of us experience tinnitus to some degree or from time to time and are relatively unbothered by it, but for a small minority of people, tinnitus is a deeply disturbing experience that interferes with personal relationships and the ability to work or enjoy life. And as an invisible disability, inaudible to others, tinnitus can often be met with skepticism and impatience. Loneliness, anxiety, and depression are strongly associated with suffering from tinnitus in this way.

By visiting audiology clinics, research centers, and tinnitus support groups, as well as volunteering with the American Tinnitus Association for a number of years, I met many people with tinnitus and learned a great deal about the nature of aural suffering. And, indeed, almost everyone I met used white noise or other orphic technologies either as digital folk remedies or as prescription media, under the guidance of an audiologist or other clinician. They used media as what Foucault called “technologies of the self” that help us bear the burdens of liberty, the requirement to be free of hindrances and limitations that a liberal society places upon us.

When you ask about methodological challenges, I think perhaps you are referring to my own struggle with tinnitus during my fieldwork, which I discuss in the book. Hush is based on my dissertation and shortly after my research proposal was approved by my Ph.D. committee, I accidentally overfilled a bicycle tire at a gas station and it burst right next to my left ear, leaving me with very loud tinnitus. I was quite upset by this and now I had to begin my fieldwork on the subject of tinnitus, interviewing people about it and thinking about it every day. It was really challenging and I found myself dealing with similar anxieties and depressive feelings as my interlocutors, which not only heightened my empathy for them, but also added a visceral, lived dimension to my analysis. It made me understand the intimate relationship between fear and control, the way that refusing to accept what wasn’t freely chosen only amplifies suffering and, conversely, the way that opening oneself up to sounds we didn’t choose can actually diminish our suffering. Truly, the only way I was able to stop suffering from tinnitus was to gradually accept that it was part of my body and my experience, whether I wanted it or not. In the end, my experience and study of tinnitus was the key to understanding the impetus for all orphic media and to formulating the critique that evaluating life only in terms of the freedom to choose actually instills more fear and suffering into life. Continue reading

Inmaculada García-Sánchez on her Annual Review article

Kids in the middle

Recognizing the important role of children as cultural translators

Originally published: https://www.knowablemagazine.org/article/society/2019/kids-middle

Linguistic anthropologist Inmaculada García-Sánchez of Temple University studies child language brokers. It’s a term that might evoke an image of kids in sharply pressed business suits, but these kids are brokers in the sense that they arrange and negotiate transactions or conversations on behalf of immigrant family members and other community adults because, often, they speak the dominant language better than their elders.

Their work as language interpreters in their communities is key in business transactions, civic engagement, health care and even their own parent-teacher conferences, García-Sánchez has found. Writing in the Annual Review of Anthropology, she flips the idea that most of us have about children and caregiving. (García-Sánchez defines the term broadly as acting on the behalf of others.) In a discussion with Knowable, she says society should recognize that children are far from helpless and do more to care for others in their families and communities than we give them credit for. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Interview by Kendall Powell

Kendall Powell: Why should we pay attention to the caregiving that children do?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Giving care is a very complex process that involves many community members and resources — it is a community care network. As language interpreters, children are contributing to the smooth functioning of the institutions that serve their communities: banks, clinics, government agencies. The more we understand the role of children as caregivers and care facilitators, the better we’ll understand how caregiving truly works.

Kendall Powell: How did you get interested in studying children as translators?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: I’ve always been interested in multilingual communities, particularly immigrant communities that are undergoing rapid change linguistically and culturally. Children are at the forefront of those changes in their communities.

Child language brokering is not new — there are written accounts of children doing this in Canada and the US for their immigrant families in the late 1800s. But it has only received attention from anthropologists and sociologists since the 1990s.

There was this idea that children come by translation naturally, largely by mimicking adults.  But language translation is very complex — it contains linguistic and emotional complexity, and it involves managing everyone’s point of view. Sometimes the child is acting as an agent of an institution such as a health clinic, which adds the need to navigate the organization and a layer of social complexity. It’s not simply a natural-born thing!

Translation is really just the tip of the iceberg because it is the visible part. Children are also helping their parents compose emails or double-checking invoices for the family business.

Kendall Powell: How does child language brokering work?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: In immigrant communities, there are never enough official translators. So immigrants rely on an informal network of community members who are willing to do the interpreting. And children are playing a central role in that work.

“The idea that children are ‘helpless’ is quite modern, arriving around the time of the Industrial Revolution.”

Generally starting around age 8 or 9, children negotiate, mediate and translate for their families and other adults and for the institutions or services those adults interact with. This is something that hearing children of deaf parents also do.

Kendall Powell: How do children do this if they are also new arrivals?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: It’s a combination of factors. The rate of language acquisition in young children is going to outpace the parent — especially if they are immersed in the new language through school. It’s also important to note the availability of children. Adults in the community might be working two or three jobs, or they work three shifts of a job, so they are less available for translating help.

Kendall Powell: Isn’t that too much responsibility to put on a kid’s shoulders?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Everybody everywhere in the world recognizes that children are young, dependent and require a lot of help. But in post-industrial Western nations, we’ve sort of overdone this a bit. The idea that children are “helpless” is quite modern, arriving around the time of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle-class, nuclear family. In reality, the abilities of children, and what they should be allowed to do, varies across cultures and over time. For example, even in my mother’s generation in Spain, it was much more common for older siblings and child neighbors to do sibling or peer babysitting than it is today.

In modern times, families have become increasingly child-centric, with the idea that children shouldn’t be allowed to give care. It’s important, too, to note that the childhood that has become normalized is that of white, middle-class people. People tend to think of this “normal” childhood as what is natural and healthy. This is why they immediately characterize any work done by children as “unhealthy” and become outraged by it. But our “normal” childhood right now in the early twenty-first century isn’t necessarily better or healthier or leading to better outcomes than other types of childhood experiences.

Kendall Powell: Where is the line between what children should and should not do as caregivers, then?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: There is tension between children’s vulnerability and children’s competency as social actors. Both are very real. But for me, it’s a huge problem when child language brokering and other childhood experiences are pathologized. Yes, sometimes these situations are very extreme — such as a child translating between a parent and a doctor during an emergency. In my own studies, I have observed that in most high-stakes, stressful situations, adults recognized that child language brokering was not appropriate and they waited for an adult neighbor to help if they could.

But the vast majority of child language brokering is much more mundane and low-stakes. The child might help an adult order a pizza or fill out a permission slip for a field trip. Also, it is never just the child in these interactions, but rather a “performance team” that involves at least two adults along with the child. In my work studying child language brokering in Moroccan immigrants in Spain, I attended medical visits in which the doctor and the immigrant parent or family member followed along in the conversation and helped the child. Each person brings expertise to the team — the child knows the mainstream language, the doctor has medical knowledge, the immigrant adult has real-world knowledge.

Kendall Powell: Is child language brokering treated like any other household chore by immigrant families?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Yes! There is a lot of negotiation about this within families, just like telling your kid to mow the lawn. Some kids do it willingly and for others, it’s a huge battle. I find in my research that parents get upset when kids don’t want to do child language brokering. It is considered a contribution and seen as a larger responsibility toward the household that is good for the child’s development.

Kendall Powell: Do other positive things come from children doing child language brokering?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Shu-Sha Angie Guan, a developmental psychologist at California State University, Northridge, studied first- and second-generation immigrant college students who had done child language brokering as children. She found that the more brokering for parents that students had done, the better they developed transcultural perspectives, and students who performed more brokering for people other than parents had higher levels of empathy.

In my Moroccan immigrant study in Spain, one of the things that surprised me was how the children would do very tiny modifications in their translations in relation to racial stereotypes or misrepresentations of the Moroccan community’s culture. In one example in a pediatrician’s office, a Moroccan mother referred to spanking one of her children. The nine-year-old neighbor translated that the mother had merely reprimanded the child verbally. The children were aware of the widely circulated negative stereotypes and were inserting themselves to act as advocates and protecting their community from unwanted scrutiny. To me, children’s competency at reading the politics of the situation is mind-blowing.

Kendall Powell: What other surprises do you find with child language brokering?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: With Marjorie Orellana of UCLA, I studied Latino immigrant children in the US who were translating at their own parent-teacher conferences. There was an assumption that the kids would lie to make themselves look good in front of their parents.

But what we found was jarring. Every time I look at that data, I feel like crying. Not only were children not lying or making themselves look good, but all the praise that teachers were throwing their way was going untranslated. So parents were actually getting a worse report.

Kendall Powell: Why was that?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: One hypothesis is that children know that tooting your own horn is kind of narcissistic. So perhaps they were embarrassed to toot their own horn even via translation. Also, it could be that children pick up on the structure of teachers’ language — that teachers often use praise to soften the bad news part of the conference. Maybe they were just skipping to the meat, thinking, “The important part is that I’m doing poorly in social studies, not that I get along with my friends.”

Kendall Powell: You call children “active and competent caregivers.” What other types of care work are they doing?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: In my own research, I’ve seen that children care for each other all the time. They are usually very inclusive — we adults could learn from them. In immigrant peer networks, I’ve seen children organize games in such a way that it doesn’t matter if you just arrived in the new country or what your level of linguistic ability is. I observed children alternating songs for jumping rope between Spanish and Moroccan Arabic so that all could join in.

Kendall Powell: Does doing work like child language brokering make children more successful adults?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: I have not studied long-term outcomes, but I can tell you that when I’ve interviewed children about doing child language brokering, they feel good about working, accomplished and relaxed. They are also developing a sense of autonomy, initiative and empowerment — which ironically, are the things we all want our children to develop.

Jennifer Robertson on her new book, Robo sapiens japanicus

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520283206/robo-sapiens-japanicus

Interview by Daniel White

Daniel White: In addition to the variety of topics you have explored in Japan over your career, you have been researching and writing on robotics for more than a decade now. Given your work has long been noted not only for its archival rigor and ethnographic attention to detail but also for its accessibility, could you outline how you might describe this book’s main arguments to an audience full of the many roboticists you have spoken with over the years? Would you add anything else in addressing your anthropology colleagues once the interlocutors had left the room?

 Jennifer Robertson: My address to roboticists would be the same with or without anthropologists in the room, for the reasons that my book is aimed at a broad readership inside and outside of “the academy,” and that—at the risk of appearing immodest—all parties, roboticists and anthropologists included, could benefit from my observations. A key point I make several times in Robo sapiens japanicus (RSJ) is that roboticists and anthropologists researching robotics alike must guard against contributing to hyping gee-whiz robots and to exaggerating the virtues (and vices) of artificial intelligence. With perhaps the exception of iRobot’s Roomba and industrial robots already installed in factories, most robots aimed at non-military consumers are one-off prototypes and not viable, much less reliable, products. Amazing robot videos are heavily edited and speeded up, and the scenarios do not represent real-world conditions and applications.

Just this past month, articles and editorials have appeared in leading robotics journals that provide a reality check for roboticists. To summarize: overselling robot capabilities has proved to be a dangerous strategy resulting in the very recent shutting down of a number of companies whose robots were celebrated in the past several years as revolutionary household appliances. Jibo—Time magazine’s “Best Inventions of 2017”—mentioned in my book, was crowd funded on Indiegogo (for nearly $4 million) but the eponymous company never delivered their product and closed out this year. Roboticists (and, I might add, those who research, study, and write about robots) need to admit their failures and to reflect on how to learn from them.

 Daniel White: In the book you explore how “robots tend to both mirror and embody state and corporate ideologies and priorities” (p. 82). Can you discuss some of the ways these state ideologies contribute to the gendering of robots, especially considering how Japanese roboticists have long embraced theories and design strategies that explore intelligence as a necessarily embodied phenomenon?

 Jennifer Robertson: You’re asking two different questions: state/corporate ideologies and embodied intelligence. First of all, we should not assume that technology per se is liberating; technology can provide certain freedoms, but it can also be experienced as repressive and even alarming. Technology and robotics are not neutral fields. They are infused with values that transcend their usefulness and convenience. Because robots are very complex, very expensive machines, state and corporate funding is crucial for their development, and thus robots tend both to mirror and to embody state and corporate values, ideologies, and priorities which are conservative and tend to reinforce the status quo. As a sidebar note—robotics in the US is heavily supported by the Department of Defense, and today in Japan, robotics are incorporated into the lucrative weapons economy.

Embodied intelligence, as I elaborate in my book, refers to a dynamic coupling of a robot with its environment. Home/personal robots are envisioned as co-existing with humans in spaces designed for the human body, thus they should resemble humans. Among roboticists across national/cultural areas, there is a consensus that intelligence (however that is defined, and there are many working definitions) cannot exist in an abstract form but requires a material body. That material body is almost always gendered, and the gendering of robots is contingent upon what role the robot (humanoid, in this case) is imagined to assume. Since many human roles are gendered, and since most roboticists take for granted the sexual and gendered division of labor—females as homemakers occupying a domestic space, males as breadwinners occupying a public space—their robots are also gendered from the start at the design stage. In short, roboticists (the vast majority of whom are males who have neither taken classes in gender studies nor questioned the social construction of gender) inscribe and reinforce in their creations the binary sexual and gender(ed) status quo that remains for them self-evident. Even gender-neutral robots like Roomba tend to be named and gendered by their owners.

 Daniel White: You survey a number of ways that both robotics engineers and government officials imagine harmonious futures of people living intimately with robots, a notion that strikes some people both inside and outside Japan as somewhat creepy. However, particularly in your analysis of Masahiro Mori’s famous notion of the “uncanny valley,” you suggest that people exhibit a capacity to adapt rather quickly to any “eerie” feelings they may initially feel toward a robot. Can you say more about Mori’s concept and what your reading of its temporal dimensions implies for the politics of human-robot interactions in Japan and perhaps beyond?

 Jennifer Robertson: As I explain in RSJ, what is uncanny about the “uncanny valley” is how this idea has been misunderstood! Mori came up with the idea of bukimi no tani (“eerie-feeling valley”) in 1970 before the production of humanoids. In a nutshell, he proposed that a woman (he deliberately chose a female protagonist) who shook someone’s hand not knowing it was a life-like myoelectric prosthetic, would scream and freak out once she realized that what she assumed was flesh and blood was not. Mori drew a graph that hypothesized as a “valley” the shock of realizing that something one was convinced was an ordinary human was actually an animated mannequin. Subsequently, “uncanny valley” emerged as a condition to avoid in designing robots and was also appropriated by literary critics who grafted the concept onto Freud’s thesis of the uncanny (about which Mori knew nothing). As I argue, even if said woman screamed upon squeezing a prosthetic hand, she would quickly recover—in seconds. We humans encounter differently-abled, “differently” appearing bodies all the time, and quickly adapt to an enhanced “normal.” Perhaps ironically, Mori, who was a teenager during WW2, seems to have forgotten the disabled veterans in his midst, many of whom were fitted with prosthetic limbs. The literature debunking the earlier “natural law”-like acceptance of the uncanny valley hypothesis is now quite extensive.

Daniel White: In the text you skillfully weave together histories of technology, the life sciences, and art in illustrating how the boundaries between artificial and “natural” life in Japan are differently drawn. For example, in your discussion of the biologist Makoto Nishimura’s famous “proto-robot” Gakutensoku in 1928, you suggest that many scientists in Japan have long held the attitude that robots and humans exist “in a network of animate entities” (p. 13). This point seems critical to your broader discussion on how cutting-edge technologies can actually serve in the reproduction of tradition. I wonder, then, what happens to this particular cultural attitude as it comes into contact with certain globalizing aspects of robotics research and design in Japan, especially as researchers in Japan increasingly collaborate with students and researchers from abroad?

 Jennifer Robertson: Should “something” happen? The spiritual/existential orientations of individual roboticists, from Shintō’s animism and Buddhism’s moral system, to the Abrahamic monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, do not seem to affect the ways in which they collaborate in the laboratory. What inhibit “global” intersections and synergies are the constraints imposed by, to use an ever relevant phrase, the military industrial complex (aka the state). Moreover, collaboration with non-Japanese researchers (in Japanese and foreign laboratories) can yield innovations that can be applied and adapted to Japan-specific conditions and needs.

 Daniel White: Your ethnographic writing style has been incredibly consistent over the years, characterized, as you describe, by a “reticulate aesthetics” that is “eclectic, genre-crossing, discipline-crossing,” and held together by a coherence that “comes from the interlaced elements and not via the superimposition of a particular theoretical edifice” (p. 31). Given your own training in art and art history, as well as your illustration of how roboticists integrate artistic elements from manga, anime, and theater into their own design practices, were you ever tempted to experiment in terms of ethnographic design, such as by incorporating some of your own artwork? Could you discuss what role you see for artistic experimentation in today’s practices of ethnographic writing and the communication of anthropological research?  

 Jennifer Robertson: I see myself as creative in identifying and demonstrating montage-like linkages that generate a new awareness or interpretation of events and socio-cultural phenomena. That I am able to do so is because I have accessed and amassed over decades of rigorous, interdisciplinary research, lots of ethnographic, historical, literary, image-based, and musical data and media that are instrumental in crafting comprehensive backstories and generating manifold “dots” to connect. Among these data and media are artworks that evocatively address and redress the role(s) of technology in society. Thus, in RSJ, I refer to the work of Japanese feminist artist Miwa Yanagi (specifically, her photography series Elevator Girls, 1994-1999) and Korean-American artist Nam June Paik’s Robot K-456 (1964-1982). I do not simply include artworks as self-evident or as mere illustrations, but as a non-textual mode of interrogating, in this case, social applications of robotics and human-robot interactions. I did include one of my own collages in a recent article (“Looking Ahead by Going Back.” Anthropology News website, July 18, 2018) to illustrate Prime Minister Abe’s imagination of the future Japanese extended family, including its robot members. The bottom line for me (or my “approach”) is my fiduciary responsibilities as a scholar. I have always initiated a research project based on my experience or fathoming of rhetorical, expressive, local dynamics that intersect in ways to form distinctive patterns which inform the structure and content of a book or article. I do believe that there is a lot more that anthropologists can do to experiment with various literary strategies in crafting their ethnographies to create more dimensionality and texture in their description and (re)presentation of local phenomena. These include montage—my own use of which was informed by John Dos Passos, whose U.S.A. trilogy (1938) I read while writing my doctoral dissertation—as well as various typefaces and fonts, popular lyrics, and a variety of images from which information is extracted, to name a few. Reading more literature and less social science is critical in learning how to craft an ethnography!

 Jennifer Robertson is Professor of Anthropology and the History of Art at the University of Michigan. Robo sapiens japanicus is available from the University of California Press.

Katherine Verdery on her book, My Life as a Spy

https://www.dukeupress.edu/my-life-as-a-spy

Interview by Tim Gitzen

Tim Gitzen: You describe this book—and the process of reading your police file and writing the book—as part memoir. This is evident even in the title, My Life as a Spy. Can you unpack this title a bit more by way of introducing your book to our readers?

Katherine Verdery: The title came to me right after I began to read my file, and it stayed until the very end.  Most of my other book titles have had more than one iteration.  Originally I had “Spy” in quotation marks, but the press preferred it without.  That’s a significant change, since the quote marks made it clear that I was standing aside from that description even as I wrote it, but their argument was that it would make more interesting to leave open the question of whether or not I was “actually” a spy, helping to draw the reader along.

Tim Gitzen: One of the most striking aspects of the book is your incredible attention to detail, and I think much of that is owed to your impressive fieldnotes. From an archival standpoint, I’m interested in your fieldnote-taking and storing process, but I also want to ask about why you decided to write the book the way you did. Here I’m thinking about not only the structure of the book but also how you write each chapter, carefully weaving the police file, your fieldnotes from that time, narrative, and analysis together.

Katherine Verdery: The structure changed several times.  Initially it was in 3 parts with a Prologue and Epilogue: Fieldwork under Surveillance I, 1970s; Fieldwork under Surveillance II, 1980s; and Inside the Mechanisms of Surveillance.  Then I added the “Excursus” before Part III, to record some of my reactions to reading the file, but that left an awkward structure, so I put 1 and 2 into a new Part I (Research under Surveillance), divided the final chapter into two and made them Part II (Inside the Mechanisms of Surveillance), and separated the new Parts with the Excursus.  This gave it a symmetrical structure that I liked, a structure that also reflected my experience through time.

As for weaving the various bits of each chapter together (each one containing interviews, field notes, narrative, analysis, and parts of the file itself), I wanted the experience of reading it to be somewhat like my own process of doing it as a research project: you get bits from the file, it’s paired with narrative contextualization in the time of reading that file, then increasingly with analysis.  In a way, I wrote it to defy the organization of the file itself, which was chaotic and non-chronological.  The way I put things together helped me relate better to the self that was in that file.

When I was doing fieldwork in the 1970s and 1980s, I kept detailed fieldnotes—initially handwritten, then typed—and when I was working on the book I also kept more summary notes of the conversations I had with people.  Unlike my usual fieldnotes, these are dashed off by hand and unindexed, and whereas my usual fieldnotes are typed, used pseudonyms for people, were written in a kind of shorthand, and exist sometimes as a computer file, these final notes are scattered, handwritten, and pretty illegible.  Since the officers seem to have had little difficulty in deciphering my shorthand, I cannot claim that my actual field notes are well protected.  I will probably destroy the notes from this last “research” (2008-2016).

Tim Gitzen: You talk about the mixture of feelings and thoughts you had about confronting or seeking out informants from the file and even some of the Securitate officers. You mention how determined you were to talk to them about their experiences, part investigation but also part cathartic. Can you say more about this experience and your strategies for seeking these individuals out and writing about what they had to say?

Katherine Verdery: First, let me respond to your word “strategies.”  This project took on a life of its own.  It did not begin with a research proposal for funding: it began with my being handed this mass of paper about which I knew absolutely nothing.  I did not “plan” this project, and “strategy” becomes an appropriate word only for my efforts to find the three officers I met at the end.  Much of the time I was just feeling my way.

The two principal informers I interviewed were opposite in that one had already revealed her informing to me even before I had the file, whereas it took me a long time to figure out the other.  With the first one, our conversations helped us to re-experience those moments in our friendship but also to show me what effects her encounters with the police had had on her.  I think her aim in agreeing to talk about it was to exculpate herself as much as possible while still being believable and showing what the whole experience was like for her.  Even now, she cannot think of herself as an informer.

With the second informer, my motivations were somewhat different.  I found myself furious with him as I read his notes—so intrusive, so revelatory, so contrary to the spirit of what I thought our relationship was about.  Basically, I wanted to tell him off.  But I forced myself to start the conversation in a neutral mode, and it quickly became interesting as he described the process of his recruitment and his ambivalent relation to the officer he served.  When we finished, we both felt huge relief—he because he had been able to explain himself and apologize, I because his account was very illuminating and I was grateful for the length of time he took with me.

I should note that I did not tape record either interview but took notes by hand as we spoke.  The idea of tape recording was still too sensitive for people raised in that society.

Tim Gitzen: Perhaps one of the more surprising parts of the book is your candid discussion of sex and sexuality during fieldwork and how this was being monitored and even leveraged by the Securitate. In this era of the Me Too movement, I was hoping you could speak more to your strategy in writing and including these discussions in the book, the choices you made and reasons for making them.

Katherine Verdery: Here the word “strategy” is appropriate.  Reading my file, I realized how unbelievably irresponsible I had been in the use of my body, and as the book progressed I began to see it as possibly a book about research methodology.  Precisely because such works rarely talk about sex in the field, I thought it might be useful for students to hear what choices I made and why they were mainly a bad idea.  It’s too easy for young people heading off to the field to put their sexual behavior in some compartment other than that of their work, yet it can have significant effects on the people who become implicated in it.  So my reason for including that stuff was pedagogical.  At this point in my life, I don’t have to maintain my dignity any more, so I thought I might just try to be useful to future researchers.  But to the extent that I also saw this book as a record of my experiences in the field, that material was quite important to them.

Tim Gitzen: Throughout the book you allude to resonances the Securitate practices and your experiences have with contemporary security and surveillance practices. What are some of those connections? How do the logics, practices, and experiences you describe in your book speak to the broader security/surveillance-assemblage today? And what advice would you give those either working on topics of surveillance or faced with the possibility of their own secret police file?

Katherine Verdery: The resemblances are not particularly strong, if you think of Securitate surveillance practices as mainly “labor intensive,” whereas what we are experiencing now are “capital-“ or “technology intensive.”  The former relies on making tremendous use of human relationships, the latter does not.  It is a significant difference.  I think the logics and the costs of the two styles are highly divergent.  The main thing my experience shares with today’s is that both means of surveillance produce a much greater amount of information than can be meaningfully mined—more so in the case of high-tech surveillance.  It’s the only thing that keeps me from wanting to slit my wrists.

As for people facing their own secret police file, one of the people I quote in my book is a Romanian historian, Radu Ioanid, who writes, “I don’t advise anyone to confront their Securitate file. It is an absolutely personal decision, difficult and not without consequences.  For me, at least, reading my file was traumatic.”  I can say from experience that a person standing on the threshold of reading their surveillance file has absolutely no clue what it will do to them.  This book took me longer to write than any of the other seven books I’ve published, because arriving at a sense of clarity was so hard-won.  Anyone thinking of doing this should read my book first!