Rusty Barrett: First, for those unfamiliar with Venezuela, could you explain the term “revolutionary magic”?
Juan Luis Rodriguez: I first encountered the term revolutionary magic in one of Fernando Coronil’s interviews where he wondered whether the Bolivarian revolution would be a new iteration of what he called the magical state. Coronil argued back in the 1990s that Venezuela’s dependency on oil put the state in a mediating position between the social body of the nation and both its nature and international capital. This position made the Venezuelan state appear magical to Venezuelans because it had the possibility of carrying out grandiose projects of infrastructure and welfare policies with money that seemed to come from nowhere. The state, without taxing either its citizens or its industries, was in the position to undertake the process of making Venezuela a modern country. This magic, of course, has the downside of depending on the ups and downs of oil prices in the international market. When Chavez was elected to office in 1999, he took office at the end of a long period of economic crisis that extended from 1983 to the end of the1990s. After a few years in office, he found himself as the leader of a revolution (later he will call this turn socialism of the 21st century), and as the Venezuelan president that has managed the largest budget in the history of the country. Since roughly 2004 to the end of 2012 Venezuela received more money from oil exports than at any other time in its history. In this historical period Venezuela combined all the structural features of the magical state with all the utopian desires of a 21st century socialist. The term, revolutionary magic, then refers to the assemblages of performances, political ways of speaking, and infrastructural projects that emerge out of that combination of those factors. If the magic of the Venezuelan state in the 20th century produced a kind of modernity, in the 21st century this capacity was turned to construct a revolution. In both cases, modernity and revolution suffer from the same reliance on the state to scaffold rhetorical and performative apparatuses with an unreliable source of economic success.
Rusty Barrett: Your work is clearly situated within the discourse-based approach to culture, why did you choose that particular framework? How does this approach address concerns beyond linguistic anthropology?
Juan Luis Rodriguez: I came to learn about discourse-centered approaches to culture during my grad school years studying under Jonathan Hill and Anthony K. Webster. I still remember how reading Jonathan’s work and going to seminar with Tony grounded my work on the idea that I should go after naturally occurring instances of language use emphasizing the centrality of performance and showcasing the complexity of what people say while we do fieldwork. This was very important to me because this is what methodologically separated my work from Coronil’s who rather had the methodological gaze of a historian. I wanted to understand Venezuelan political discourse and gift-giving in the context of the magic of the state (or magical state), but I wanted to do it by paying attention to how people get folded into actual contexts of linguistic interaction where they must engage in actual political speech. The distribution of state resources and the magic of the Bolivarian revolution produced actual instances of language use. I wanted to go after that. Discourse-centered approaches, especially the branch coming down from Joel Sherzer, have always been associated with verbal play, poetics, and performance, and rightly so. I hope that my book shows how discourse-centered approaches to culture can also shed light on questions of political economy, revolution, and modernity that are often not addressed from this perspective.
Rusty Barrett: Your book emphasizes issues of translation and transduction. How are those concepts important for understanding the place of the Warao in Venezuelan politics?
Juan Luis Rodriguez: Part of the transition from what Chavez called the fourth republic into the Bolivarian revolution was a change in the kind of relationships that state institutions, and the Catholic church, had with Indigenous communities. After 1958, when dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez was deposed, Venezuelan political parties signed what was known as the Puntofijo pact and embraced representative democracy as a core ideological value. During this period, Indigenous peoples were regarded as potential constituents to be represented by appointed officials from the central government in Caracas. They were supposed to be integrated into Venezuela’s political and economic system, but that future was always imagined as a process of acculturation in which they become undifferentiated citizens who speak Spanish primarily. Their languages were supposed to disappear and, from the point of view of the State, it made sense to translate their oral traditions into Spanish making them cultural patrimony of the nation. In this way the ideals of representative democracy gave a specific directionality to the work of translation from Indigenous language to Spanish because the product of these texts was supposed to represent Indigenous peoples as future integrated citizens of a modern State. The work of the Magical State is to produce modernity, and during this period that meant pulling Indigenous peoples into the orbit of the state. The work of translation followed that logic.
This all changed with the arrival of Hugo Chávez to power. He opposed a new ideal of participatory democracy, and later socialism, to the previous ideology of political representation. This new ideology centered around the notion that people must have a degree of direct participation in the decision-making process and implementation of policies. This new ideological position was central to the writing of the new constitution in 1999. At the same time the circulation of texts and practices of translation was completely reversed. Indigenous peoples were now not supposed to be integrated as culturally and linguistically undifferentiated constituents who needed representation but as subjects who would keep these differences and participate in the democratic process themselves. The constitution, laws that affected Indigenous peoples’ lives, and the symbols of the nation, such as the national anthem, had to be translated into Indigenous languages. That reverted the flow of translation in the hope that it would give Indigenous peoples the knowledge and capacity to participate in the political life of the nation representing themselves in the process.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the Bolivarian revolution is how this process of political participation that seemed so good in paper never really took off. Instead, the nominal legal rights to participation have been contradicted with strategies of cooptation that allowed Chavez, and now Nicolas Maduro, to pose as if Indigenous peoples have achieved a degree of integration into the political decision-making process while in practices they marginalize and manipulate this participation. Indigenous peoples in Venezuela have recently faced a deterioration on the conditions of their voting rights as well as a brutal encroachment on their ancestral territories. The Bolivarian revolution has produced some of the most brutal ecological degradations in Indigenous territories through the so-called Arco Minero that only reproduces the logic of capitalist extraction that was supposed to be rejected with the arrival of the revolution.
This brings me to the place of transduction in my book. I understand transduction as the transformations, and assemblage, of signs across semiotic modalities. As I explain at the beginning of the book, the main process of transduction that I am interested in is the transformation of oil revenue into forms of political performances and political influence. Oil revenue support forms of political speech linked with ideologies of modernity and state control in Venezuela. My argument in the book is that despite the reversal on the flow of translations that correlated with a transition from representative to participatory democracy, the basic transduction of oil revenue into modernity and political control remained the same in both periods. In other words, despite rhetorical differences in ideological principles, Chavez’ revolution never really produced a systemic transformation in the structural conditions that marginalized Indigenous subjects in Venezuela. They might have more nominal rights now, but oil dependency still means those rights are principally rhetorical devices. The transduction of oil revenue into political performance and celebrated forms of modernity is an unstable structural condition subject to ups and downs of commodity markets and this means that the revolutionary gains in political participation can disappear at any moment.
Rusty Barrett: What aspects of your analysis do you feel are most useful for looking at the relationship between Indigenous communities and the state in places beyond Venezuela?
Juan Luis Rodriguez: I think my analysis is useful for understanding how the integration of Indigenous peoples into public political spheres–and the performative and communicative strategies used for that purpose–depend on kinds of ideological political project made possible by entire political-economic systems. The main goal of my book is to show how discourse-centered approaches to culture can help us accomplish that goal.
Another aspect of my analysis that I think can be useful is to bring attention to the ways in which State actors’ agendas and intentions do not determine the consequences of their actions. I tried to illustrate this point by bringing examples of political gift-giving which is in Venezuela stereotypically regarded as a form of political bribery, corruption, and coercion. I show how the gift per se does not accomplish any of this without further discursive engagement in the communities where is received. Likewise, promises of political gifts do not amount to simple deception since gift-giving and discourse form complex chains of interpretation in the Orinoco Delta. I hope these insights can served to inspire more ethnographic research into how these complex semiotic systems are developed under different political and economic conditions.
Rusty Barrett: The book provides a language-based approach to understanding political gifts and campaign promises. In what ways do you see this approach as providing insights that might be overlooked by other approaches? What would you hope scholars in other fields take away from your analysis?
Juan Luis Rodriguez: What I would hope other researchers take away from my book is the necessity to see political gift-giving and speech as interrelated. The naturalness of the correlation between gift-giving and political influence that some researchers see in patron-client relationships do not occur without the mediation of a great deal of speech. Paying attention to these patterns allow us to understand how political influence through gift-giving and political promises is an interactional achievement that we cannot take for granted. I would hope that researchers interested in these kinds of questions will take a little more seriously the fact that naturally occurring instances of language use (discourse) provide not only frames for cultural interpretation but are, more importantly, embodied practices that make political gifts feel right or not in a particular social context. Paying attention to that relationship is central to how I study politics through the lens of a discourse-centered approach to culture.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I am turning your question around because I have had two professions each of which I have loved greatly; the first of which, classical dance, has been instrumental in what I have done in the second, anthropology.
At the age of seven, I began taking ballet classes. It was a neighborhood studio but the owner/teacher had had good training, a combination of Danish (Bournonville) and the American version of Fokine. She was strict and the yearly recitals demanded a command of the technique as well as interpretation. My last year of elementary school, I began commuting to the San Francisco Ballet school in the city—a bus to the F train at the top of the Alameda, the train to SF, a bus to the ballet school for a 90-minute class, then the reverse, doing homework on the way. By high school, I was taking 5 classes a week, taught by dancers who were trained by those Russian dancers of the Diaghilev company who came to the US as teachers after the great impresario died. It was thrilling! The demand for mastery built a confidence that was empowering, never mind the chance to be a lady-in-waiting in the annual Nutcracker on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House.
Then came a pause. I had been given a full scholarship to Stanford. Ballet was still my passion but trying to do both, I decided to go to school and continue my classes at SF Ballet. For that year, I commuted to San Francisco, bicycling to the Palo Alto bus station—bus to SF then another bus to the school. At the end of the academic year, I realized I could not continue this way. My Stanford Russian instructor had Russian friends and family in New York, and I was able to rent a room in the apartment of the Makedonovs. I went to NYC with one suitcase, $400, and their address. For the next three and a half years, I lived with them, took classes at the School of American Ballet and Ballets Russes, danced with the Brooklyn Ballet and for a year with the Deutsche Operetten Teatr, and lived on the upper West Side where I spoke Russian at home and Spanish on the streets. Money was always an issue. We were paid by the performance by Brooklyn Ballet and in good times, like the Nutcracker season which also had the opera’s Hansel and Gretel, I could pay the rent and feed myself. I had odd jobs otherwise; the best was processing checks at First National City Bank on the midnight to 8 shift during my last NY year.
In my time in NYC, I was a regular in the standing room line at the Met for opera, dance, symphonies on those nights when I did not have a performance myself. My access to the best of opera was made easier because opera was a staple at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and we were always hired for the dance interludes. That experience took my naïve love of opera and gave it a more knowledgeable base. I shared the BAM stage with the likes of Zinka Milanov and Robert Merrill in a memorable Aida. I met artists and impresarios like Marcel Marceau, Sol Hurok, Igor Moiseyev, Jose Greco and his dancers, Ludmilla Schollar, Anatol Vilzak, Sviastoslav Richter at Carnegie Hall for his first US recital, dancers from the Kirov Ballet whose first US performance overlapped with my time in NYC—I was one of the interpreters during their stay and got to take company class with them. Many of these artists became friends and mentors. And much of what I have written about the arts, especially those performance arts, comes from watching their performances and classes and listening to them, especially when we talked about what created those performances that lifted up both performer and audience.
I left New York for San Francisco where I was a principal dancer with the San Francisco Russian Opera and Ballet Company and started teaching at the Temoff School. As is so often the case, I was injured during a rehearsal. My last performance was as Zobeide in the Fokine ballet Scheherezade. I decided to return to SI left New York for San Francisco where I was a principal dancer with the San Francisco Russian Opera and Ballet Company and teaching at the Temoff School. As is so often the case, I was injured during a rehearsal. My last performance was as Zobeide in the Fokine ballet Scheherezade. I decided to return to Stanford to finish my BA. I no longer had a scholarship, but I funded myself by teaching classes at the Temoff School in San Francisco, this time making the trips in my second-hand Volkswagen beetle. I planned to major in Comparative Literature because I had accumulated five languages. Then I took an introductory Social Anthropology class with George Spindler, one of the founders of the subfield of Anthropology and Education. He was a mesmerizing lecturer and I found the notion of listening to rather than reading about compelling. I became an Anthropology major with an outside major, Honors in Humanities. Luckily for me, the Ford Foundation had a program to fund undergraduate research over the summer. It had to be in Latin America but all topics were open. I applied to look at folk and indigenous dance in Mexico, the first month to be working with the Ballet Folclórico de Amalia Hernandez and the remainder of the summer to look at dance in Oaxaca and in Veracruz. I spent the first 3 weeks in classes and rehearsals with the Ballet Folclórico learning the repertory and the rationale for the choices of dance cultures and their restaging. The next months I traveled to Oaxaca for the annual festival of dance just outside of Oaxaca City and then to the coast of Veracruz to document dance. And that was the beginning of my work in Juchitán, Oaxaca, now in its 6th decade. I began that work first in the summer of 1968. My husband, Ronald Royce, and I were married just weeks before leaving for Mexico. Our combined fellowships allowed for few luxuries so we drove in my by-now well-broken-in Volkswagen. Ron’s grant was to investigate the state of social science research in Mexico; this was the summer of protests and strikes everywhere, much of it directed at universities, so we went to Juchitán planning a two-week stay. The car broke down on our way out of the city and was not ready to travel for another month. Despite all the unforeseen difficulties, we returned to our PhD programs determined to work in Juchitán. We spent our first full year there in 1971-72. Ron was a linguistic anthropologist working on the Isthmus Zapotec language and a brilliant photographer. I was looking at indigenous identities and the social and political strategies that supported a strong Zapotec community. Our partnership, our different projects, our different ways of seeing and listening, of being able to talk about what we saw and what it meant made us more productive—more field notes, maps, photos, questions, as well as helping us see more connections and through-lines; that second level of understanding and interpreting. Being there as a couple established us as more settled and responsible with different obligations and prerogatives. More than all those things, it was comforting to share the joys and heartaches of fieldwork.
Coming to Indiana University, I was able to satisfy my need for the performing arts as well as finding a wealth of support for my Mexico work. While based in the Anthropology department, I was invited to teach advanced technique and classical variations in the School of Music Ballet Department. More recently I have been a guest lecturer in the History of Ballet class. I was for many years the dance reviewer for the Herald-Times. The existence of great teacher-performers on the cello faculty allowed me to satisfy both a personal desire and a scholarly interest. I enrolled in cello classes with Helga Winold for three years and learned from the extended cello faculty, attending master classes and performances and informal gatherings. On some occasions, I was invited to play 2nd cello in an IU performance. In 1986, I collaborated with Thomas Binkley of Early Music, he as musical director and I as historical director for the Teatro Antico and Early Music Institute production of L’Amfiparnaso, by Orazio Vecchi (1550–1605), performed at the Creative Arts Auditorium, Indiana University. I was charged with reinventing the commedia dell’arte interludes.
In 2008, I began what has become an ongoing commitment to both teaching and research in Ireland. It was in that year that I was invited to be part of a small group at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick. Our task was to plan the next ten years of the Academy programs. In 2010 I was appointed an External Examiner in the MA Choreology program and in 2014 began working with the PhD students in the Arts Practice program. It has been an extraordinary time working with performance and performers as they situate their craft in cultural and historical contexts. With that as a base and my work on landscapes of transformation in Oaxaca, I was invited in 2015 to become a member of the UL LANDscape research group.
I am continuing to work in Oaxaca. A collaborative grant with colleagues in Juchitán will make 3D maps of the three most rural sections of the city, those that go from the settled to the wild. We will also be making 3D story maps of places in those sections that are important to the communities. For the last two years, I have been photographing the three sections. In addition, I am working on a book about ritual and especially pilgrimage in Juchitán. The latter map onto the work with the rural sections since at least three of the oldest pilgrimages originate in those sections.
What’s the story behind the publication of your first book?
Prestigio y Afiliación en una Comunidad Urbana: Juchitán, Oaxaca was first published in 1974, Translated by Carlos Guerrero. Serie de Antropología Social 37. México, D.F.: Instituto Nacional Indigenista/Secretaría de Educación Pública.
INI published a series of works on indigenous peoples and, at their request, mine was translated and published in that series. It has been republished twice, once in 1990 and then in 2016. The 2016 publication was part of a series of the 25 most important books on indigenous communities. Copies were given free to the young people in Juchitán. It has been used as a text in the Juchitán secondary schools. Any royalties go back to INI and now to the new publishers, the 2016 one located in the city of Juchitán and glad to have the income to work on projects for the community.
The book, based on my dissertation, focuses on the social, cultural, and political structures and networks in this indigenous Isthmus Zapotec community. I discuss how these shape relationships and prestige and support communal responses to change at both the local and national levels. It is the first book to address matters of tradition and change in this community. While still in the field in 1972, I had given lectures about my work to great interest on the part of the community. When I was approached by INI about a Spanish publication, I replied with an enthusiastic yes, realizing that this was an excellent way to continue the dialogue that I had begun in Juchitán. The book has not been published in English though much of its substance has been published in English in articles and chapters. As a book, it did not count toward my academic career because it was not in English. Works like mine, however, based on such a close and longterm engagement with the community, need to be available to that community and to my Mexican colleagues. I publish as much as I can in Spanish so that it is available to both. My longterm work was recognized in 2016 with the awarding of the Medalla Binniza (Medal of the Zapotec People), given by the Fundación Histórico Cultural Juchitán for distinguished scholarly contributions to the Isthmus Zapotec. It was the first time it was awarded to a non-Mexican.
What moment of fieldwork interaction do you still think about, amazed that you got to witness it?
March 23, 1997, Palm Sunday in Juchitán (my 25th year of fieldwork in Juchitán)
I was not usually in Juchitán during Holy Week so this was a chance to see the week-long celebrations from the beginning. On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, the image of San Salvador is taken from his home in the parish church of San Vicente to the home of one of the members of the community that cares for him near the Panteón Domingo de Ramos (cemetery Palm Sunday). He is received and feted with garlands of flowers, and then spends the night. The next morning he is taken to the chapel in the cemetery where he oversees the blessing of the palms. Then he is carried in a procession back to the San Vicente parish church. I had seen the Saturday preparations and had returned with Na Mavis, an aunt, to the cemetery to arrange the flowers in the family tomb and to stop by the chapel for the blessing of the palms and the beginning of the procession. We then went quickly to San Vicente to await its arrival. The following are my field notes on that arrival:
Palm Sunday 1997…the sky is electric blue, cloudless on this early morning. I was in the courtyard of San Vicente Ferrer, the parish church, just having returned from the cemetery where I helped the family arrange the armloads of flowers necessary for this day of remembrance. I waited for the arrival of the Palm Sunday procession, winding its way through the streets after distributing palms to all participants at the small chapel of the cemetery. I could hear them now, voices raised in those joyous songs welcoming Christ the King to Jerusalem. The higher-pitched voices of children rise above with cries of “Vivo Cristo Rey.” Thechurch behind me is filled with flowers, white gladiolas, dozens of them, jasmine and frangipani scattered at the feet of all the saints. The fragrance swells with the heat of fat, beeswax candles. All is ready and the crowd is dancing with anticipation. A scout returns, “They are just turning the corner!” Then, as if my ears deceive me, I hear the low, elongated notes of funeral sones. Jesús Urbieta, one of a cadre of talented young painters who died in Mexico City two days earlier, is being borne by silent comrades to rest a moment in the Casa de la Cultura where his paintings had often hung. The parish church and the Casa de la Cultura sit next to each other, separated only by a wrought-iron fence. The two processions arrive simultaneously. San Salvador, borne on the shoulders of the men who care for him, heavy garlands of frangipani hang around his neck; jasmine, frangipani blossoms, and petals of roses of Castile rain down on him, making his way sweet. The children in white shirts too big for them wave their palms. Beaming women carry huge vases of white flowers. The Glorias fill the courtyard announcing the happy arrival. Urbieta too is carried on the shoulders of his closest comrades, men who have cared for him. His coffin is heaped high with flowers of the wild–white jasmine, long, ropy palm flowers, tuberose, hibiscus, frangipani all on a bed of the healing herbs–dill and cordoncillo. Everyone brought jasmine, guie-xhuba in Zapotec, in honor of the club Urbieta had founded by that name to help young artists. Urbieta has begun his journey to his new home among the dead. Christ, in the midst of celebration, has begun his death.
Field notes, March 23, 1997
It is the visible markers that catch one’s attention especially but not exclusively in early stages of field research. The meaning behind them and the why of them take much longer to understand. One of the demands on ethnographers is to record everything, even when you have no sense of what it means or where it fits. At some point, you can see the larger meaning. While our first field research is usually a year, succeeding visits must be worked around an academic teaching schedule, broken up occasionally by sabbaticals and fellowships. Much of my field work happens in the summers. The annual cycle is exactly that—a year’s worth of activities and ritual, so you miss much of it except via WhatsApp and Facebook. Your obligations continue even when you are not there.
This Palm Sunday was one of those moments in the field when suddenly disparate pieces come together and make a greater sense. In this case, it was realizing the fundamental importance of notions of “wild” (gui’xhi) and “settled” (guidxi) and the transformations that happen when one moves from one state to another. Christ comes from the cemetery in the gui’xhi to the heart of the settled parish church and to his new identity as Christ the King whose death is already assured. He has begun his journey to the land of the dead. Urbieta has also begun the slow forty-day progress from the land of the living to that of the dead. Both are accompanied by those who care for them and who rain down on them the flowers of the wild that will keep their journey slow, stately, and moist.
That journey is one of transformation and while we associate journey with physical movement, in Juchitán this is not always the case. For example, Ta Feli, the healer with whom I worked, would fall regularly into trance as part of his healing sessions. When he “returned,” he would relate what he had learned when going to this other place. Similarly, when one walks a pilgrimage—and I did not do this until 2011 (another 14 years!), you often walk it in the name of another. You are transformed by being a pilgrim but so is the person for whom you walked. It is the shared terrain of being human. That shared experience of death, above all its transformative nature, became my 2011 book Becoming an Ancestor: The Isthmus Zapotec Way of Death.I am currently working on the fundamental importance of transformation in a book on ritual in Juchitán.
Which book that you wrote are you most pleased with? Could you talk about the story behind writing it?
Anthropology of the Performing Arts: Virtuosity, Artistry, and Interpretation in a Cross-Cultural Perspective. 2004. AltaMira Press. It was in this book that I could bring together the experience of my work on performance and my life as a performer, with the social and cultural implications of embodiment. I examine performance and performers in their lives on stage, in the classroom, in rehearsal and creation. It includes the voices of great performers such as Marcel Marceau, Janos Starker, Violette Verdy, Maria Callas, Bando Tamasaburo and Peter Brook reflecting on virtuosity and artistry, silence and sound, movement and stasis. It also includes performance in daily life, the artistry of trance and altered states, an examination of Tewa ritual as a native aesthetic.
Writing it made me see the bones and blood of the ethnographic enterprise. If we examine ethnography as a kind of performance requiring us to be interpreters then we see that, whatever the unique circumstances of our work, we must refine a craft, making ourselves into the most finely tuned instruments possible. And lest anyone think that this means the absence of passion, let me offer up the examples of all the great artists and performers who knew and know that the presentation of the deepest emotions requires the greatest discipline. It was one of our former colleagues, poet Yosef Koumenyaku who said that “passion without discipline is sentimentality.” My years of working with performers and as a performer made this book inevitable and collaborative. Conversations with my community of friends in the world of performance, some the best in the world, some just beginning, made it possible to see commonalities and differences, to discover the through-line that made a performance inevitable rather than predictable, to see cultural similarities and differences across genres. It was extraordinarily satisfying to see the fundamentals of staged performance genres (usually assuming a fourth wall) appear in communal performance like Tewa ritual, in the practice of trance and healing, and the ways in which we perform in everyday life. The time and place for writing much of this book was made possible by the Bogliasco Foundation where the staff and a small group of witty, serious, creative colleagues with whom to share ideas freed me from all responsibility except to write, and in the writing to find the through-lines that characterize all good stories.
How has teaching changed for you over the years?
More listening, less talking. A distinguished scholar and teacher came to watch me teach a ballet class at the SMU campus in Taos. Afterward, she said, “you were so quiet; you said hardly anything.” I answered, “I was listening to their bodies.”
In my first year at IU, when I stood in the classroom in the old School of Education building, facing the 35 undergraduates in the Anthropology of Dance class, I wanted to disappear. I had never taught–at that time no one thought it might be an important part of graduate education. I suffered from an excess of information about a very narrow subject and the absence of any method for communicating it.
Parker Palmer once used a strip of paper as his only prop to deliver a masterful lecture about front stage/backstage personas. He introduced it as an example of just how high-tech Quakers ever got! In my case, imagine two funnels with the small ends coming together–I call this “Lifelong Learning” –babies, children, even teen-agers set no limits on what might be interesting to explore, try out, or learn. Our system of education is like a funnel, gradually narrowing the possibilities until our children enter a track that corresponds to their career choice (one they probably make so that we will stop hounding them). This point where the two funnels come together is the PhD or highest terminal degree. This is the point where we have a great deal of information about something that few people have any interest in and, in the process of getting it, we have stopped living a balanced, explorative life. Fortunately, there is life–and learning, after the PhD. We realize, perhaps in the process of trying to convey our passion for the field to others, that there are more skills, more areas, more challenges, and that, if we work at it, we might become knowledgeable rather than simply stuffed with information.
How do we ever get to be reasonably good teachers? I think that it is like becoming a good ethnographer–we rely on the kindness of strangers. Strangers who are our students and who, generally, respond with good will when we need help.
For us to do this requires three things. First is to acknowledge that there is a craft and that we don’t control it; second, and I take this from performing, that the audience/students matter and shape our performance. These are hard enough but the third is the greatest challenge: to acknowledge that, while we too learn in the classroom or lab or one-on-one with graduate students, we are not the main event in any learning context. We may be the facilitators, but it is not about us.
Watching colleagues whom I thought were fine teachers, I realized what they had in common. They gave students permission to bring their own personalities and experiences and passions to bear on the topic at hand. The best teachers are those who are passionate not only about their subjects but about the world in which they and the students live. We teach ways of thinking and being using our discipline as an example or point of departure and return. Given the balance of power, if we as teachers bring our egos into the mix, the students will simply disappear because we expand to take up all the space–the talking space, the thinking space, the reflecting space. Students deserve to know what we think, however, especially about topics that matter to them. And the most difficult teaching situation, at least for me, is when we feel most deeply about something. My best teaching has been setting a context in which I help students confront the subject on their own terms. And in which you resist commenting on everything from your own point of view. We know most of the disadvantages–we give up control (in the blatant form that we know it); and we must forget trying to cover everything and be selective about what is important. Acknowledging that they can learn a lot of material quite well on their own is a humbling experience. We must somehow make our own passion for the subject clear without talking about it all the time– showing, not telling. Showing makes us more vulnerable–telling lets us stay one remove from both the subject and the students.
The last class I taught before retiring was E500 the required class on theory for our social/cultural graduate students. COVID meant it was online. I asked the students to use the Canvas discussion link to post their reflections on the readings each week. Everyone posted theirs, reading and commenting on each other’s. I read them and posted my comments as well. The zoom class at the end of the week was lively, a conversation, with students commenting on the assigned readings and acknowledging each other’s and my interpretations. They were thoughtful, generous, smart, and supportive. While their research interests were varied and quite different from mine, their work and the way in which they collaborated made me realize that the field was going to be in good hands.
My teaching has included just about every context in which we share our craft and hold out the promise of discovery: undergraduate classes, graduate seminars, doctoral mentoring, our field school in Oaxaca, 30 years of MINI University lectures, Lifelong Learning seminars, coaching classical ballet variations at the Jacobs school, as an Erasmus visiting scholar in Budapest and Szeged, and as an External examiner and adjunct professor at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance.
Some final thoughts about what being a researcher and a teacher means:
*listening, hearing people into speech;
*seeing worth in every person and valuing their particular perspectives and histories;
*building collaboration and community so that learning takes advantage of unique backgrounds and experiences
*Working on the principle that both kinds of knowledge—the poetic and the practical, are necessary and reinforce each other. Irish poet Seamus Heaney elaborated this. I found it too in Juchitan in the Zapotec recognition of two kinds of knowledge, remarkably similar to Heaney‘s: binni naana—people with words and binni guendabianni—people who create light.
*Being comfortable in that middle-ground between what we know and what we might discover is essential to continued learning. Or in the words of another mentor, Sir Peter Brook: “Not knowing is not resignation…it is an opening to amazement.” From Between Two Silences: Talking with Peter Brook
As it so happens, page 99 of my dissertation is the conclusion of my first body chapter following the introduction. My dissertation, “Producing Prosperity: Language and the Labor of Development in India’s Western Himalayas,” is a linguistic ethnography of rural development work in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. This chapter, entitled “‘We Eat Their Minds’: Communicative Infrastructures of Development in Kangra,” serves as an orienting chapter for the entire dissertation. It examines the everyday communicative work of rural bureaucrats and NGO workers through which the state enacts welfare policies and programs in Kangra. I argue that rural development is itself a communicative project, one that is enacted through face-to-face meetings between villagers and development workers and which serve as the infrastructure for decision making, debate, and information dissemination. I enter this through an analysis of the pervasive narrative that rural bureaucrats and NGO workers are “mind eaters” (dimaag khaaNe aale)—people who drive others mad through excessive talking. Development officials and rural villagers alike deployed the discourse of mind eating to frame development work as what I call semiotic labor—everyday interactional projects of meaning-making. In this chapter, I delve into the language ideological assessments of development as itself a form of grueling semiotic labor—mind-eating—requiring incessant contestation over the meanings of need, deservingness, poverty, and prosperity. Semiotic labor is itself embedded in the political economy of multilingualism in Kangra, where three to five languages are commonly used in everyday life, and which are embedded in hierarchies of value. As the conclusion to my first body chapter, page 99 feels like a proper snapshot of what I hope the dissertation will demonstrate; yet, whether or not it actually does reach these conclusions is another question entirely.
This chapter has introduced the everyday labor of rural development in Kangra, which workers metapragmatically frame as “eating people’s minds.” Mind-eating, I have argued, serves as a narrative device through which to grapple with feelings of ineffectualness, and to guard against potential citizens’ claims. Workers across state and non-state institutions are themselves deeply intertwined, mutually reliant on one another’s social and material infrastructures in order to conduct their activities. Nevertheless, bureaucrats and NGO workers performatively constitute themselves as morally distinct in their everyday discourses, particularly regarding norms of exchange and extraction with beneficiaries. While the interactional nature of rural development makes state and non-state workers both reliant on forms of social and material exchange with rural women, both state and non-state bureaucrats frame their work as unidirectional, and thus incommensurable with gifts or hospitality.
Eating people’s minds entails face-to-face interactions in meetings, which involve a range of communicative practices that together I refer to as “semiotic labor.” Semiotic labor attends to the fact that development practice is talk-mediated, but involves far more than the mere dissemination of information. My interlocutors framed this primarily through discourses of awareness (jagrukta), which was both a goal and an activity that brought rural citizens into relationships of obligation with development institutions. The kinds of semiotic labor that my interlocutors performed varied across state and non-state institutions, and could be located in the format and performance of meetings, which are the primary technology through which rural development workers enact the bureaucratic and developmental imperatives of their institutions outside of their physical offices.
While speakers in Kangra are members of a multilingual society and have diverse linguistic repertoires, they differ in their ideological and practical usage of the primary languages in Kangra: Pahari [Kangri] and Hindi. Whereas state bureaucrats tend to use Hindi, and NGO workers Pahari, they nevertheless share a common language ideological framework through which they cultivate a sense of moral conduct. This framework associates language not solely with communicative ends but also with affective consequences. By speaking (or claiming to speak) in Pahari with rural villagers, public servants cast themselves as both practically efficient and morally inclusive. Their actual use of languages, registers, and conversational strategies, as I will show in the next chapters, are not peripheral to the logics of developmental governance in Kangra, but instead are central to the constitution and circulation of ideas of need, deservingness, and prosperity that become the contested ideological ground upon which decisions about policy are made and maintained.
Dodom Kim: Rules, Papers, Status examines migration, legal citizenship, and the question of belonging in contemporary Italy. Instead of the migrant-carrying vessels attempting to enter the Italian water–one of the favorite European border spectacles in international media–your book focuses on how people encounter immigration bureaucracy, ambiguous laws, and complex documents in an advice center for migrants ran by a trade union. What led you to this perhaps less thrilling and even frustratingly mundane site for your ethnographic research?
Anna Tuckett: The standard imagery employed by the media perpetuates the myth that the majority of so called illegal migrants cross nation states’ borders illegally. In reality, however, the vast majority of migrants enter destination countries legally (usually with some kind of visa) but become illegal due to restrictive legal and bureaucratic regimes. My book explores these processes of legalisation and illegalisation at the sites where they occur: police stations, bureaucratic offices and advice centres, among others. This focus on the everyday workings of immigration law insider borders aims both to remedy the lopsided view of immigration that the border spectacle produces and to shine a light on the real causes of putative illegal migration
Dodom Kim: Your book pays a special attention to how people handle documents, and how such practices are embedded in what you call the documentation regime—one aspect of the migration infrastructure that conditions how people move within and across nation-state borders (p.4). What inspired you to focus on documents in your research? What were the methodological challenges and gains of ethnographically engaging with this specific form of media?
Anna Tuckett: Documents are integral to experiences of migration. Passports, permits, visas, and other kinds of paperwork fundamentally shape migrants’ lives. While such documents are ostensibly used to remove ambiguity – someone either having the right to remain or not, for example – by tracing the social life of documents we learn about their essentially unstable and uncertain nature.
Methodologically, focusing on documents in the Italian context was both unavoidable and essential to my research. As the material artefacts of immigration processes, examining documents enabled me to learn the complex machinations of Italian immigration bureaucracy. For example, to renew a work permit one needs to submit paperwork relating to employment, income, housing, and family arrangements. Focusing on these detailed documentary practices enabled me to see the gaps that often exist between people’s paperwork and their real-life circumstances. This insight helped me to form some of the book’s central conclusions. Firstly, that migrants must carefully navigate the documentation regime in order to become legal or to hold on to legal status, including the production of false paperwork. Secondly, that the immigration bureaucracy relies upon this gap between paperwork and real life circumstances in order to function.
Dodom Kim: Your attention on documents must have made you quite conscious about your own documentary practices as an anthropologist. On this note, could you tell us why you decided to begin each chapter (except Chapter 1) with extracts from fieldnotes?
Anna Tuckett: The vignettes which open each chapter are designed to bring the bureaucratic and legal processes to life for the reader. Understanding the significance of different documents, documentary practices and how they relate to individuals cases was a large part of my fieldwork. Much like an anthropologist in a different setting might need to understand the ins and outs of, for example, a ritual, in my setting I needed to understand the legal and bureaucratic processes of the Italian immigration system. Equally, the reader needs to become familiar with details on Italian immigration law and bureaucracy in order to understand the book’s arguments and analysis. Introducing each chapter with a vignette was a way to bring these technical (and perhaps rather dry!) details to life.
Dodom Kim: Throughout the book, you show how culturally savvy people strategically maneuver and exploit the convoluted bureaucratic systems and policies. At the same time, you rigorously remind the readers that it is not necessarily a form of empowerment: the upsetting irony is that the more one becomes adept to the cultural practice, the riskier it might be to secure a legal citizenship. Is there something particular about Italian bureaucracy that creates this irony, or is it something to be found in other EU member states as well? Or does this irony have to do with some sort of fundamental limitation that modern law and bureaucracy imposes? In short, what do you think the irony’s broader implication might be beyond Italy?
Anna Tuckett: This is a great question and one which I grappled with throughout writing Rules, Paper, Status. As you say, in my book I argue that migrants need to have insider knowledge in order to successfully navigate the Italian immigration bureaucracy. Migrants’ strategies of navigation, I argue, fit into broader rule-bending practices that are prevalent in Italy, which are rooted in the dominant discursive construction of the Italian state and bureaucracy as inefficient and corrupt, and the accompanying expectation that its rules should therefore be bent. It is through their encounters with the Italian bureaucracy, I argue, that migrants come to participate in the production and reproduction of this collectively shared imagined state and become ‘cultural citizens’ (Ong et al. 1996). In the Italian bureaucratic context, however, prevalent rule-breaking is accompanied by strict compliance with proceduralism in relation to paperwork. Paper trails must be authentic even if false and successfully navigating the immigration bureaucracy requires expertise in the management of documents. Given the documented nature of migrants’ lives, however, rule-bending in one application could create problems in others; even skillful rule-bending can be highly risky for migrants. As a host of ethnographic case studies in my book highlight, developing cultural citizenship can therefore, paradoxically, also result in migrants’ risking the attainment of actual juridical citizenship or other forms of secure legal status.
While there are certain elements of this argument which are particular to the Italian context, I think that the paradox does have broader implications. It highlights the inherent uncertainties within categories employed by modern law and bureaucracy, such as ‘citizen’ and ‘migrant’ and ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’, which documents and paperwork are designed to unambiguously define. Documents, however, do not hold the truth that will indicate someone’s rightful membership or not. Rather, they highlight the arbitrariness and ambiguities within the laws that produce these simultaneous processes of inclusion and exclusion.
Dodom Kim: With the COVID-19 pandemic, so much of the documentation regime around the world have been undergoing vast changes. Borders have been shut more tightly in many places, while those that remain open ask for a whole slew of novel documents (such as PCR test results, vaccine records, and so on). During this extraordinary time when there is heightened interest in international movement and documentary controls, what would you like the readers to get out of reading your book?
Anna Tuckett: As you say, the ongoing pandemic has resulted in restrictions on our movement, the closing of borders and the necessity to produce new and ever-changing documents in order to travel. For those of us lucky enough to hold what my respondents called ‘powerful passports’, these shifts have been experienced as an abrupt disruption to the flow and ease of movement previously enjoyed. While the stakes are still much higher for most of my respondents in the book, the past year has given many more of us a taste of what it feels like when border regimes directly impact and impede everyday life. The new and changing documentary requirements for travel also give us direct insights into the kinds of anxieties, uncertainties and frustrations that are produced by documentation regimes and already experienced by much of the world’s population.
Amy Garey: How does migration influence literacy practices?
Kate Vieira: Unfortunately, lots of the discourse in the U.S. and elsewhere around migration and literacy frames migrants as having literacy problems, whether in their home language and/or in English. What I hoped to do with this book was to take what we know about the history of writing–that writing is a technology that at its core is about communicating across distance–to reframe this deficit-based discussion to show how, in fact, migration drives sophisticated literacy learning. Essentially, when people who love one another are distanced, as this past year has so painfully emphasized, they find new ways to communicate. The migrant families with whom I was privileged to work revealed how they innovated, learned, and taught each other new practices of writing. Such practices were family based, rhetorically informed, economically savvy, emotionally astute, and technologically aware and deserve recognition as such. I’m so grateful to the participants who shared their stories with me.
Amy Garey: This may well be the only ethnographic project comparing Brazil and Latvia. What advantages did this project’s comparative approach bring to your research questions?
Kate Vieira: Hahaha. Well, in the book I speak about two reasons for working in Brazil and Latvia–one autobiographical (I had community ties in both places and speak the languages spoken there) and the other methodological (the community in Brazil had very little out migration, whereas in Latvia the community that hosted me was experiencing mass outmigration).
One of the cornerstones of ethnographic studies of literacy is that context matters. Seen this way, literacy is not a skill, but is a practice shaped by people and power relationships. So I was curious about what migration-driven literacy practices looked like in these very different communities. In Latvia, migration-driven literacy learning had a longer history in which the state played a big role: The Soviet Union had driven internal migration for some time, so people came to current migration-driven literacy practices through the lens of previous letter writing, for example. In Brazil, I really focused on economic issues shaping literacy–like the price and accessibility of certain communication technologies like laptops. For me, the comparison helped me to see the way a fundamental part of writing–its use by people to communicate across distance–is shaped by historical events, global inequities, as well as family and personal histories.
And one final note: I chose to research in these communities because I love the people who live there. And we should always research from love.
Amy Garey: You wrote of the ways that writing, in imagining a conversation with a loved one, can make an absent relative in some sense present. Do you think that the way the lockdown has influenced everyday use of videoconferencing applications will change this text-based process of imagining? Will Zoom alter incentives for family members to become literate?
Kate Vieira: Well, I’d say that logging on to Zoom is a literacy practice, even though the audio and visual forms of meaning making are emphasized more than the textual forms. I mean, we still access Zoom via a keyboard or touchpad on a phone, make use of the chat function to send snarky comments to classmates / colleagues, and have to navigate an array of profoundly textual sign-ins, often sent to us via email (the “mail” of course referencing the older transnational literacy institution of the postal system). So on the one hand, you can’t really extract the textual from the audio/visual on Zoom. And on the other hand, lots of literacy scholars would say that audio-visual meaning making is also a literacy, even when it doesn’t include the textual.
So I think what we’ve seen in the pandemic is a version of what migrant families have been doing for ages: teaching and helping our loved ones access new forms of literacy so we can feel close even though we are physically not in the same space.
I’d say the salient differences in processes of imagining loved ones primarily via the textual or via the audio-visual are particular to people, their place, their time, their family or community practices, their access or lack thereof to certain kinds of literacies, and so on: For example, in the book, some people said that they appreciated letters more than video chats, because letters felt more meaningful. But that doesn’t mean that letters are fundamentally more meaningful to everyone: One woman described writing the exact same letter to three potential boyfriends and just changing the name! So how particular communication technologies mean to particular people, how we feel about writing a letter versus a text versus sending a Marco Polo–that has to do with larger personal and social valences of that particular literacy technology.
Amy Garey: The book described the advantages migrants gained by acquiring literacy in foreign languages like English and German. Could you speak a little more about the social effects of gaining literacy skills for those who remained in their home countries?
Kate Vieira: Oh, interesting. This is a great question and something my study didn’t address. My sense was there was social capital attached to knowing multiple languages–but I focused more on what these languages meant for peoples’ sense of where they might go, so I don’t want to speculate too much here.
Amy Garey: Noting that many American students practice literacy skills when communicating with relatives abroad, you advocated “love-based critical literacy” pedagogies that incorporate students’ existing digital writing habits. Does SMS-based reading and writing, though, help individuals attain functional literacy (for example, comparing viewpoints in an editorial)?
Kate Vieira: This is a great question because it brings up a really foundational issue of what literacy is and why we teach it. In my home field of composition and rhetoric, we have often focused on teaching literacy for the purposes you outline in your question–to intervene in democratic institutions via, for example, comparing viewpoints in an editorial and other kinds of really important public uses of literacy.
Does an SMS help people do this? Not necessarily. But then again, neither necessarily does a traditional essay. There is no one genre or type of writing that has the corner on critical thinking or, for that matter, political engagement. I think they provide different kinds of opportunities for doing different kinds of work. And certainly there are plenty of essays that exhibit minimal critical thinking and simply rehash harmful ideologies–so the question for me is always not about the genre per se, but what we hope to do with it, whose interests we are serving.
I also want to point out that there is good research in social studies and literacy education, for example, about moving beyond debate to help students develop civic agency. And there is also important work on love as critical in socially just and specifically anti-racist educational projects.
What I’d say from the perspective of this book, though, is that if we as educators overlook two fundamental motivations for practicing literacy–for love and money–then we will miss so much of how literacy means in students’ lives, and we will therefore likely miss out on authentic opportunities to think and learn with students as fellow human beings. Which for me is what the larger literacy educational project is all about: How do we make meaning together? And what can this meaning do for us, our communities, the wider world?
Maybe the answer to these questions is in comparing and contrasting views in an editorial and maybe it’s in sending an SMS or maybe it’s writing a poem–it really depends on the moment, the people, our historical context, and what we want to accomplish together with the act of writing.
Congratulation to Kate Vieira — her book won The Edward B. Fry Book Award from the Literacy Research Association (2020), and the Advancement of Knowledge Award from the Conference on College Composition and Communication (2021).
Kevin Laddapong: You have been researching indigenous and postcolonial politics throughout your career, and it is very interesting that your new book shifts towards the positionality of vernacular politics in the digital ecosystem. How did the internet come to engage with your attention? What inspired you to embark on this project? And were there any trajectory changes during the research and writing process?
Ronald Niezen: My first major research project after the PhD was on the international movement of Indigenous Peoples in the 1990s for The Origins of Indigenism (2003). That’s when I encountered the paradox that the people and organizations defending the rights of those with lives based on the simplest technologies were sophisticated users of the most advanced. It became clear to me that the global indigenous movement as we know it would never have existed without the connectivity and communities of the internet. This wasn’t just an outcome of the activist will to use new tools to organize and campaign, and so on; it also came from the organizational demands of the UN. Participants in annual NGO meetings, for example, had to register online, a requirement in stark contradiction with the ideals of participation.
This basic contradiction must’ve been in the back of my mind when I broadened out and began to think about online activism more broadly. It was impossible for me to think about a cutting-edge tool without at the same time considering the gaps it left, the people left behind, the impact it had on power relations, and so on.
The main trajectory change in #HumanRights came by adding state-sanctioned surveillance, disinformation, and censorship to the mix. Some aspects of online activism do look the same as they did during web 1.0 in the 1990s; but a revolution pretty clearly happened somewhere in the five years from 2005 to 2010, which is when we saw the emergence of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and the simultaneous invention of smartphones that found their way into the hands of billions of users. Not to mention new machine learning tools and AI being applied to global governance. To understand this (still unfolding) revolution required a pretty sharp change in trajectory toward the digital arms race between activists and oppressive regimes. I think we all feel the whiplash to some extent.
#HumanRights takes us on a survey on the connections between digital technologies and the politics of human rights around the world, crowdsourcing and justice investigation on Bellingcat.com; Whatsapp and resistances in Taureg communities; and digital archives and contesting politics of memories in postcolonial Namibia. How did you choose your case studies to reveal these connections?
Working with the Tuareg communities was the most straightforward. I’d maintained some contact with the peoples of the Central Sahara since my PhD research in northern Mali—they were present at the UN and I participated in a few of the annual meetings of the Tuareg Diaspora in Europe. It was there that I saw their really active, creative use of media and communication technologies. But I couldn’t go back to northern Mali. It was simply too dangerous, and still is, nearly a decade after the 2012-13 insurgency by Ansar Al-Dine and Al-Qaida (now joined by ISIS). My work in Namibia was a way to return to the field, to see how justice claims in Africa played out in the communities from which they originated. I had the luxury of research funds that allowed me to explore southern Africa inductively, go to the field and see what was happening. Once I encountered the Herero and Nama justice causes, I then did the same thing in Germany, see how the genocide claims were being leveraged there.
Bellingcat drew my interest a little differently. There was something about this organization that was edgy. Cool. Using new digital investigation methods to take on perpetrator states that were otherwise able to shelter behind the structures of the UN Security Council—that struck me as a compelling development in digital activism worthy of exploring. If I were ever to offer a panoramic view of the uses of digital technologies in activism, I’d be remiss to leave that out.
Kevin Laddapong: Throughout your book, you jump back and forth between old and new, analog and digital practices of justice claims, graffiti to digital writing, investigative journalism to forensic crowdsourcing, museum curation to Facebook page administration. Why are these linkages between traditional and digital important to your analysis?
Ronald Niezen: If we don’t consider the way older technologies are updated and combined with the new—what Marshall McLuhan called the ‘rearview mirror effect’—we get a distorted idea of the way technologies are actually being used and what their consequences are. We get drawn into the ‘shiny new thing’ way of thinking. There’s a tendency to look at the world like crows or magpies, drawn to little trinkets and baubles one can fly away with. But that isn’t how things work with human actors. People use any means at their disposal to share and leverage opinion. So, in the most extreme example, we see the ancient technology of graffiti used in conjunction with the internet, reaching both passers-by in real life and social media users online. Other aspects of activism and outreach, it seems to me, have this same quality of old and new, even in the midst of a full-blown digital revolution.
Kevin Laddapong: Concerns around fact and truth seem to be the main theme of this book. For example, you analyze how the distinction between the media use between the Malian government, global human rights claimants, and Taureg people themselves ends up creating different sets of facts and methods of truth-seeking; or you discuss how the ideological contest between the memories of Herero and Nama genocide between colonizer and colonized result in echo chambers and disputes. What would you like readers to pay attention to when they encounter similar phenomena in this post-truth era?
Ronald Niezen: Ah, yes. The question of truth. I had a feeling that was coming. One way or another, we’re all in a situation in which we don’t—can’t possibly—have the specialized expertise to know whether something is true or false or somewhere confusingly in between. The political anthropologist in me looks for motive: what do people stand to gain when they make a particular truth claim? I do this cynically, knowing that humans everywhere seek power. Maybe not every individual but humans as a rule. If you can get a handle on the hegemonic motives behind truth claims, you’ll get closer to what those claims actually mean, and what we stand to gain or lose by investing in them.
Kevin Laddapong: At the very end of the book, you discuss the ways that the politics of identities are intimately tied to digital human rights claims, resulting in public sympathy and victimization or naturalization of nationalism. Why is that so, and what are the great challenges regarding this moving forward?
Ronald Niezen: The dynamics of activism, public outreach, and identity follow from the near-total absence of compliance mechanisms in human rights law. Yes, there are sanctions wealthy states can impose on those who egregiously violate human rights and international law. The IMF can leverage its financial clout. In extreme cases, as in Sudan, the International Criminal Court can issue indictments. But on the whole, activist groups and organizations have very little recourse when it comes to human rights violations. The UN will receive information, complaints, and so on; it will review a state’s record of compliance; but when it comes down to it, much depends on public will, the influence on the powerful of the popular politics of shame. This means that activists are in competition with one another for public attention and sympathy. As soon as one enters into that situation, a hierarchy of victimization comes into play. Narrative plays a central part in justice claims and causes. There’s a tendency to oversimplify perpetrators and victims alike. At the same time, there’s a retreat into the group, the source of affirmation and justice. All of this is accentuated by digital technologies, especially social media platforms, that call for constant streams of collective representation.
The great challenge moving forward is liberating oneself and one’s justice cause from this trap. That involves recognizing the complexities and grey areas of perpetration. It involves being clear-eyed about public constructions of ‘ideal victims’ and who gets left out by them. And it means reaching outside the comforts and consolations of the bubbles in which we willingly enclose ourselves, partly as a buffer against the discomforts of a very quickly changing world.
Matthew Raj Webb: Not so long ago, fashion showed up in anthropologists’ writing largely as a pejorative. Today, fashion practices, media, and industries are at the center of many important and far-reaching theoretical debates. There are even dedicated graduate programs in so called “Fashion Anthropology.” What drew you to the topic, and what does your study of street style blogging reveal about fashion as a variegated social field?
Brent Luvaas: I’ve always been interested in fashion, how people present themselves to the world around them, and the stories people tell about themselves through the clothes they wear. As the kid dressed all in black in the corner of my high school cafeteria, fashion and its relationship with identity seemed like an obvious thing to study. Even my early ethnographic work on indie music in Indonesia was as much about what bands wear as the music they play. It was only when I became interested in bloggers, however, that I made the choice to make fashion an explicit focus of my anthropological practice. I learned a lot about fashion as a variegated social field from the project, both in terms of the ways people mix and match clothes in their everyday sartorial practice and, more importantly, in terms of how fashion, as an industry, has re-structured itself in alignment with digital technologies. Blogging wasn’t just an exception to the fashion industry as usual, a way outsiders and amateurs could get in on the game. It transformed the inherent logic of the industry. Now everyone in the fashion industry has to present, market, and brand themselves the way the bloggers did. Blogging may be out of fashion now, but the impact of blogging on the industry can’t be overstated.
Matthew Raj Webb: One of the main threads in your book concerns the tensions between global democratization of access—such as via the internet and digital cameras—and the remediation of professional/amateur distinctions, both in the field of fashion photography and within anthropology. Could you elaborate on your point of view here? From your perspective, how have new media of fashion—and anthropology—transformed or reinforced historical hierarchies of value?
Brent Luvaas: I think we have to distinguish between the methods through which hierarchies are established and performed and the hierarchies themselves. Fashion has always been about exclusivity. It’s built into its very concept. The industry depends on it, creating a model whereby the fashion elite continuously work to distinguish themselves from everyone else. When a trend reaches peak saturation, fashion moves on. Digital technologies like blogging and social media have not eliminated that elite. They have simply transformed the methods and tools people use to become that elite. There was an elite class of bloggers when I was doing my research. They have now rebranded themselves as social media influencers. Social media has become a critical part of becoming part of the fashion elite today. It is an industry requirement. We could argue that it has, to a certain limited extent, widened the scope of who can become that elite. There are today more people of color in the fashion industry than there used to be, having built a large enough following through social media to demand that the industry pay attention to them. There is also more body diversity. But the industry remains primarily skinny and white. It remains insular and exclusive. It is still a social field—like anthropology itself, I might add—where social, cultural, and economic capital are critical to achieving success.
Matthew Raj Webb: I was captivated by Chapter 5, where you discuss bloggers’ collaborations and partnerships with fashion businesses—brand associations that you actively pursued for your own (highly successful) style blog, Urban Fieldnotes. From the point of view of street style bloggers in the mid-2010s, what did the opportunities and constraints of cultural production within the commercialized field of fashion look like? How do you think these might have changed today?
Brent Luvaas: I’ve touched a bit on this in the previous questions, but perhaps a bit of blog history is important here. There was a moment, in about 2005-2007, when blogs, run through free platforms like WordPress and Blogger, were not a commercial enterprise—at least not for the bloggers. Street style bloggers got into the game because of an abiding interest or passion. They weren’t making money from them and most people I interviewed who had blogs at that time claim it hadn’t even occurred to them that they could make money from them. But after bloggers like Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist and Tommy Ton of Jak & Jil started shooting for magazines like GQ and Vogue and getting brand partnerships with American Apparel, Burberry, and others, a new generation of bloggers emerged with the explicit intent of using their blogs to enter into the industry. They were the predecessors of today’s fashion influencers. The game began to shift, and more and more bloggers began showing up outside the shows at Fashion Week hoping to either be noticed by the photographers or capture those up-and-comers who would help them build a name for themselves as photographers. Blogging, and later social media, became a key part of how people build careers in the fashion industry. The outsiders re-wrote the rules of the fashion industry. But then, fashion has long been an industry of outsiders. This might be more of a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Matthew Raj Webb: Street Style cuts across locations like Philadelphia, New York, Boston, as well as Jakarta, Cape Town, and Athens, drawing on aspects of your auto-ethnography and para-ethnographic research. As a community of practice and cultural phenomenon the world of street style blogging is thus globally diffuse and diverse, but you nonetheless note that participants tend to share a middle-class position. How do these factors lead you to understand the value of the street as a representational idiom and context?
Brent Luvaas: As you stated in the question, street style bloggers tend to be middle class. If you want to get your work recognized, you need to be able to produce the aesthetics currently valued by the industry. To produce those aesthetics, you need expensive camera equipment. It was not unusual for bloggers I encountered to have spent upwards of $10,000 on their cameras and lenses alone. Plus, not everyone’s perspective on style gets the same amount of attention on social media. An ability to recognize and anticipate what the industry values in fashion is required, and that ability is not universally distributed. It remains the exclusive domain of a particular kind of urban, cosmopolitan, middle-class person. Despite a rhetoric of democratization, there was never an equal playing field in the street style game. Nonetheless, there is a diversity of perspective, particularly across regional and national boundaries. Street style bloggers actively sought to elucidate that diversity through their work. They highlighted their own city or nation’s distinct flavor and style. They sought to put their own city on the global fashion map, and in doing so, they practiced a form of amateur visual anthropology. Street style, then, is a global phenomenon with distinctly local characteristics. And it depends on a shared conception of the street —itself derived from western European models of urban design—as a public, highly visible space where people perform identities for others to see. Street style blogging has helped perpetuate and extend the reach of that concept. It has real, practical implications for how public spaces are conceptualized, accessed, and designed.
Matthew Raj Webb: Street Style was published in 2016, you have subsequently written about how deeply the project affected you (Luvaas 2019), stating that you remain in some ways haunted by the habitus you acquired. Could you please talk a little about what it has meant for you to leave the field given the ubiquity of fashion media and intimacy of dress politics in everyday life? Moreover, I’m curious to know your thoughts on what it feels like to age as a researcher—and human!—deeply immersed within the world of fashion?
Brent Luvaas: For those of us who do work in the digital realm in some capacity (and perhaps that is most of us these days), there is no “leaving the field.” Not really. Today, we remain linked, via Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and other platforms to the communities we study. We are (rightfully) held more accountable for what we have to say about our interlocutors. We have trouble gaining distance. That is doubly true for those of us who employ auto-ethnography as a key part of our practice. For us, we have made ourselves an explicit subject of our own work. I studied street style blogging by becoming a street style blogger. I picked up a camera, walked the streets, and learned to intuit cool the way a street style blogger does. I hung out with fashion people, got free-lance employment by the fashion industry, and became increasingly self-conscious about what I wore and when. All that messes with your head. All anthropologists are changed by the field in some way, but how do we live with these changes when we’re never really able to leave the field? I’m still wrestling with that question myself. What has become clear to me is that I need to consider before I start a new project who I will become by doing it. That is especially true as a middle-aged cis-gendered, heteronormative white guy. Some research options are off the table for me. I can no longer build a project around hanging out with twenty-something Indonesian hipsters until four in the morning every night. That would be creepy. People are not super likely to want to talk to me. I would also likely have a harder time building a following as a social media influencer than I did nine years back. Fashion has carved out greater space for people over 40 in recent years. But that space is limited, and my ability to access it even more limited. Rather than combat the youth cult of fashion and the psychological damage it could inflict on me, I’ve turned my attention to other practices of visuality, less tied to age. Lately, that has been street photography. I’ve learned a lot from street style blogging, but the biggest things I’ve gained are an appreciation for the camera as a tool of perception and an appreciation of the street as a space where culture is improvised and performed. I am taking that appreciation into my new work, moving away from the fashion industry, but still walking the same streets.
Luvaas, B. 2019. “Unbecoming: The Aftereffects of Autoethnography.” Ethnography, 20(2): 245–262.
Setrag Manoukian: It is reductive to assign a narrow thematic focus to an expansive ethnography such as your wonderful Methods of Desire, but could one synthesize your book by suggesting that it addresses the relationship between language and political economy through an account of social interaction in Toraja?
Aurora Donzelli: This book has been long in the making and its implication with political economy is in part a function of the temporality embedded therein. Twenty years ago I was in Indonesia for a shorter period of fieldwork preluding to the yearlong sojourn I undertook sometimes later. It was late July. I was walking through the streets of Rantepao (the major town in the Toraja highlands where I would go to stock up on blank tapes and other industrial supplies) when I bumped into an acquaintance of mine. He looked quite agitated and eager to brief me about the events that were unfolding in Genoa (he knew I was Italian). The G8 summit was taking place at the Ducal Palace and the city had become the theatre of demonstrations against speculative capitalism and neoliberal globalization. A multifarious array of political subjects had gathered in Genoa to participate in what promised to be the peak of the anti-capitalist movement begun in Seattle in 1999: environmentalists, pacifists, independent media activists, antifascist militants from Italian squats and social centers (abandoned buildings turned into cultural and political hubs), grassroots Catholic organizations, social activists, Zapatistas, trade unionists, members of socialist and communist parties from all over Europe, NGO workers, British pressure groups for debt relief, German anarchists, the Trotskyist international network, via Campesina food activists, libertarians, knowledge workers self-identifying as cognitarians, direct-action groups dressed in white overalls to symbolize the new post-Fordist productive subject… My Toraja acquaintance insisted I joined him to watch the news at his neighbor’s where a parabolic antenna was broadcasting dramatic scenes of repressive violence. The counter-summit mobilization had been fiercely disbanded by unprecedented police brutality, a demonstrator was shot dead, radical groups mixed with undercover agents and neo-Nazi infiltrators vandalized banks and set cars and store fronts on fire, undisturbed, while thousands of pacifist demonstrators raising their white-painted hands were ferociously beaten up by police officers decked out in full anti-riot gear. Following a night blitz at the Diaz public school—which had been made available by the municipal authorities as dormitory for demonstrators—300 police officers brutalized and illegally detained the unarmed occupants, including several Italian and foreign journalists. The European Court of Human Rights later established that the police conduct violated human rights and was to be formally regarded as torture. Less than two months later, the attack on the WTC and Pentagon would make these events look negligible, but clearly those days were decisive in furthering global capitalism and propelling the consolidation of neoliberal rationalities.
Methods of Desire is primarily a reflection on these transformations, which crisscross political economy, ways of speaking, and structures of feeling. Unlike the display of sheer repressive force that tinted the G8 events twenty years ago, what I describe in the book are more elusive and subtle forms of violence. Political economy is an inevitable dimension of any project that spans over several years and my ethnography’s main goal is to show how fine-grained linguistic analysis is essential for furthering our understanding of capitalism, because thinking about political economy always entails taking language into account (and vice-versa). In a narrower sense, the book explores the cultural and linguistic impact of contemporary neoliberal reforms on longstanding moral-political economy of agrarian clientelist relations in a relatively remote region of the Indonesian uplands. In a broader sense, the book analyzes how late capitalism operates by transforming our relationship to the world and to each other. I argue that specific communicative practices play a key role in this process. Think about the new metrics of desire produced through customer satisfaction surveys and the regimes of scalability created through audit protocols and quality certification standards that can be applied across different contexts to ever-greater scales. These communicative practices and textual artefacts are both the primary technology for the production of a reflexive desiring subject to be subsumed by the machine of capitalist valorization and infrastructures of resource management aimed at increasing productivity. Unlike the processes of linguistic standardization that produced national languages and enabled industrial capitalism, I argue that contemporary financial capitalism operates through a different form of discursive regimentation. The former was driven by the linguistic standardization of specific national codes, while the latter entails the production of universal templates for the pragmaticregulation of how language is to be used. The aim is no longer to streamline or enhance the production of material commodities, but the engendering of a global metalanguage for the re-articulation of desire in ways compatible with capitalism’s ever-changing needs. Industrial capitalism required technologies of linguistic standardization based on the centripetal regulation of the linguistic code (and of the production process)—a twofold endeavor clearly intertwined with nation-building processes and nation-based economies. Conversely, neoliberalism relies on the pragmatic standardization of how the code should beused: this entails the production and dissemination of highly standardized and replicable discursive protocols, meant to travel across a wide range of geographic contexts and pragmatics domains in order to optimize production and regiment people’s conduct and modes of intersubjective engagement. In this light, what makes neoliberalism so powerful and at the same time so elusive is its portability and scalability, as Aihwa Ong and Anna Tsing suggest.
Setrag Manoukian: The book describes an epochal shift taking place in Indonesia—a complete reconfiguration of the architecture of the self in conjunction with the emergence of neoliberal policies. What’s striking in this process is the rapidity with which a “method” is abandoned and a new one picked up. But the book also seems to suggest that something “endures” in this shift. Taking the long-term view how do you see Toraja’s sociality?
Aurora Donzelli: What I find most striking and intriguing about the specific locale (the Toraja highlands of Sulawesi) where I conducted my fieldwork since the late 1990s is that there haven’t been many changes in the local infrastructures or in the material lives of my interlocutors. During my most recent periods of fieldwork, I would often catch myself daydreaming that I was standing in front of a giant aquarium from where I could see myself in my early 20s in a time warp of sorts—a younger me on the other side of the glass inhabiting the exact same physical spaces, but in a parallel affective universe. In spite of the largely unchanged material environment, I have noticed significant shifts in the linguistic structures, moral practices, and affective quality of life in the highlands. In many ways, Methods of Desire seeks to understand and give analytical shape to the profound (and yet elusive) transformations occurred in how my interlocutors of twenty plus years interact and imagine their future. The focus of my ethnographic account is the growing influence of transnational lending agencies and international non-governmental organizations in a region that has otherwise remained peripheral to capitalist production and distribution. Since the millennium, the IMF-driven implementation of governance reform in Indonesia has prompted the circulation of new ways of speaking and textual artefacts (for example, electoral and institutional mission statements, debriefing meetings, training workshops, checklists, flowcharts, and so on) that, I argue, are transforming how people desire and voice their expectations, intentions, and entitlements. The local appeal of these new discursive genres is undeniable: not only they are associated with prestigious metropolitan centers, but they also pivot on values that—as Marilyn Strathern pointed out in her seminal edited volume on audit cultures—are almost impossible to criticize in principle: a novel emphasis on self-cultivation and proactive entrepreneurialism, an emancipatory narrative of personal aspirations and individual desires, a new morality of accountability, transparency, and responsibility, and so on. Their dissemination in the highlands has been spearheaded by their promise to replace local structures of exploitative agrarian power with a narrative of individual freedom, a political regime of entrenched corruption with justice and transparency, an economy prone to food scarcity and subsistence crises with material prosperity and emotional fulfillment. I don’t find the success of these new scripts and protocols all that surprising and consider way more extraordinary the enthusiasm displayed by many academics (trained in epistemological reflexivity and critical thinking) for the bureaucratic auditing and competitive star-ratings procedures that are transforming universities into corporate enterprises.
I recently moved back to Italy—a country where the so-called “quality revolution” was late in taking root. The University where I now work—allegedly one of the oldest higher learning institutions in the world—seems pervaded by a frenzy of benchmarking practices and managerial methods aimed at measuring research and teaching outputs and enhancing performance. I find quite disconcerting how centuries-old ideologies and classical ideals of the University as a community of scholars devoted to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge are being replaced by competitive business models—in spite of the excellent scholarship published on the matter some two decades ago by Don Brenneis, Chris Shore, Marilyn Strathern, Susan Wright (among the others). In many ways, my Toraja interlocutors are far less compliant than many academics that fell for the protocols of accountability and quality assurance whereby complex social activities are measured, monitored, and competitively ranked.
If, as Aihwa Ong proposes, the complex assemblages of practices that compose neoliberalism migrate across the globe and across different sectors (from private to public, from management to politics, from the financial to the intimate), I am interested in describing what happens when these portable bundles of practices and values land in a new geographic or pragmatic environment. How tightly are they packaged? How faithfully are they replicated? Linguistic anthropological tools help understand how such bundles are assembled and how they operate; how desire is reconstructed in the wake of their implementation and, at the same time, how their implementation can be sabotaged through (often subtle and inconspicuous) micro-linguistic gestures. Methods of Desire explores how discursive genres originating from neoliberal global capitalism are both embraced and resisted in Toraja. My analysis reveals a complex dialectics of compliance and defiance. Each chapter of the book focuses on a specific pragmatic domain (from political speechmaking to household interaction, from mortuary rituals to workplace and learning environments) and discusses the ambivalent uptake of novel protocols such as electoral mission statements, fundraising auctions, service encounter scripts, customer satisfaction surveys, training workshops, flowcharts, and workflow diagrams. I highlight how Toraja highlanders articulate their skepticism at times through reflexive and explicit metapragmatic comments; other times in more subtle and indirect ways, such as through specific intonation and prosodic patterns or via unexpected variations in the participation framework associated with a specific genre.
Setrag Manoukian: Methods of desire. The title of your book sounds like an oxymoron. One associates method with planning, self-awareness, and intention, while desire relates to spontaneity, passion, the unconscious. But you convincingly show that in many ways methods structure desire. And yet, I am left wondering if this does not reproduce a certain binary misunderstanding of desire as a material that can be molded via linguistic forms. Doesn’t desire escape the methodologies that certain intentions prescribe to it?This is how I read Spinoza, in the sense that there is an immanence to the conatus that has its own economy of passions, not reducible to the stoic mandate to transform oneself.
Aurora Donzelli: You are making very good points. The title is indeed designed to oxymoronically evoke the classical opposition between Eros and Logos that the book, however, aims to problematize. Spinoza’s rejection of transcendent principles and his ontology of immanence are essential to my understanding of methods and desire. The relationship between the two could be thought in dialectical materialist terms as forming a totality of practice and theory; creativity and order; substance and form; potentiality and actuality. In elaborating (in the mid-1970s) his innovative form of semiotic materialism, Marxist scholar Ferruccio Rossi-Landi highlighted the dialectics existing between code and messages; models and tokens; communicative programs and their execution. He claimed that they exist togetherin reality and entertain a constant dialectical relationship, even though academic theory or common sense tend to consider them as separate, with the former treating the code in its structural abstraction and the latter approaching its products as natural and spontaneous facts. Spinoza’s immanentism and Rossi-Landi’s materialism resonate with Paul Hopper’s view of Emergent Grammar, which can be seen as an application of French post-structuralist thought to linguistic theory—a theoretical constellation that inspires my own work.
That of method is a powerful notion that has been relatively neglected by anthropologists. Its great beauty, I think, lies in its capacity to refer to a plane of immanence—something ethnomethodologists (with their idea that structures do not exist outside of social practices and with their interest in studying the methods that social actors use in interpreting their own everyday practices) have known all along. In like fashion, desire is an immanent process for the production of relations, as Deleuze pointed out. Rather than a flow to be disciplined through cultural norms and symbolic orders or a force that can be organized through language, I see desire as method, that is, as a mode of intersubjective relationality, a modality of human sociality, in which language functions as technology and infrastructure. The book describes how neoliberal discursive technologies are redesigning Toraja sociality: the entrenched forms of collective yearning (kamamaliran) that used to sustain social bonds of hierarchical reciprocity and mutual obligation are being replaced by new forms of (bourgeois) desire (aspirasi),imagined as originating in the interiority of the individual’s consciousness and congenial to the capitalist machine.
Setrag Manoukian: Finally, I would like to come back to the relationship between language and social life from a methodological point of view. Often to non-linguists the world of linguistic analysis appears as quite self-contained. How is your book engaging this situation?
Aurora Donzelli: I think that in-depth linguistic analysis is fundamental for the understanding of capitalism. The book is an invitation to linguistic anthropologists to establish a stronger dialogue with their sociocultural colleagues around the ethnographic exploration (and critique) of neoliberalism. It is only through an integrated approach that we can understand the role of language in the production of the complex forms of alienation and resistance that characterize our present moment. A close-textured analysis of linguistic interactions is also fundamental to capture the role of semiotic practices both in shaping political change and preserving the status quo. The great advantage of fine-grained linguistic analysis is that it may disclose processes that happen at levels that are not detectable at the semantic and lexical plane generally considered in cultural ethnographies. In the book, I explore the ambivalent uptake of new discursive genres as a way to shed light on how linguistic practices function both as capitalist technologies and infrastructures and as forms of resistance to the capitalist apparatus. Further, I try to show how attending to linguistic levels of analysis may provide a new way to reflect on traditional topics of anthropological theory (such as gifts and exchange theory, social change, subsistence farming and moral economy) and may contribute to refine the discussion of ethnographic tropes of Southeast Asia and Oceania (for example, debates over galactic polities and theatre states, notions of emotional restrain, opacity of mind doctrines, and so on).
During the last four decades, linguistic anthropology has become a highly specialized subfield. I often look back with nostalgia at the times before my time, when the disciplinary borders seemed more porous and less defined. My greatest hope for the future of linguistic anthropology rests on the possibility of developing fervid interconnections with scholars from other subfields in anthropology, as well as in the social sciences and humanities. Unfortunately, at times linguistic details and formalisms prevent or discourage such dialogues. In writing the book, I had to make difficult choices in how to present my transcriptions, sometimes reducing them or eliminating interlinear glosses and morpho-syntactic details. I hope that these choices helped produce a text accessible to a diverse readership and capable of evoking the spirit of irreverent curiosity of the multifarious multitude that gathered in Genoa twenty years ago.
Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: It shook me to learn that the archive has almost disappeared and that what we are able to see today comes from 3% of its totality. Taking this into consideration, what would you say regarding the annihilation and destruction of archives with a strong popular character, such as the one built by Disparando Cameras para la Paz (DCP)? More concretely, what are the political effects of losing these types of archives?
Alex Fattal: I remember being on a research trip to Tumaco years ago and I stopped in a local church office that had been working with to document the violence there. They gave me a report they had written, which they had titled, “So Nobody Can Say, ‘Nothing Ever Happened Here.’ It’s determination to defy the structural constraints that erase the history of violence that the community had experienced was both admirable and a poignant reminder that such erasure is the default in communities across Colombia. Disparando Cámaras para la Paz (DCP) had the advantage of being closely connected to people who could ferry pieces of the archive around and keep pieces of it alive. Our key community partner, Corporación Social Fe y Esperanza, was constantly under threat. We left large parts of the archive with them, within a conscientious politics of keeping the archive in the community, but when the leaders needed to flee within hours because of an assassination attempt or when buildings were damaged because of the seasonal mudslides, large parts of the archive were lost forever. It’s very hard to prioritize archiving for most people who lead busy lives focused on the present and future, let alone for those living in extreme precarity and social abandon.
What are the political effects of erasure? The reproduction of what Loïc Wacquant has called the Centaur state, in which elites embody the democratic human head of the Centaur that calmly debates policy, while the torso and hooves of a horse below tramples discontent among the popular classes. Julián Gómez Delgado has argued that the recent National Strike protests portend a crack in this political formation. We’ll see. It’s been very resilient through Colombian history.
Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: In the book, you argue that DCP subverted a stereotypical perspective built by Colombian media outlets about impoverished youth affected by the Colombian armed conflict. I agree with you that the project succeeded in doing so. In this vein, I would like to know which particular aspects of the methodologies used helped the project most in subverting these stereotypes and why you think these methods and techniques prompted different narratives that contested national media outlets.
Alex Fattal: Well, it’s complex and the book tries to linger on that complexity. DCP benefited greatly from media attention even as it was frustrating to see the same tropes of helpless victimhood recycled and reapplied to children and the displaced community. It was precisely those tropes that we set out to challenge. In short, I’m not sure we really affected dominant structures of mediation in any sustained way.
What I’ve learned in working with DCP and its sister organization, the AjA Project, and being immersed in the world of participatory photography is that it’s not enough to redistribute access to technology. To really subvert a discursive formation requires taking control of the story with more concerted attention to narrative and partnering with others who want to change a particular narrative structure. Though that’s far from what we managed to do with DCP, I do think we inspired others to work with participatory media methods. A few years after I started DCP, other participatory photography projects started cropping up in different parts of the country. A rise in interest in participatory media has contributed to independent and alternative media environment in Colombia, a contribution which has since been mixed into the digital tsunami. To build on a popular Colombian adage, we contributed a few grains of sand and they are now swirling in the current media storm.
Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: I am under the impression that all the material presented was captured and created with analog technologies. What would you say are the technical and aesthetic advantages and disadvantages of working with analog photography, taking into consideration that photography has become mostly digital nowadays?
Alex Fattal: Yes, DCP was almost entirely analog, which I think really played in its favor. The big problem with digital photography is that it appears limitless. I’m a big proponent of seeing limitations as creative opportunities and the students took the constraints of working with light sensitive paper, recycled jars, and rolls of film and transforming those supplies into inspiring images. Over the years, our different dark rooms in El Progreso were always sacred spaces where the students loved to work, loved to develop their images under the red safe lights. Jenny Fonseca who worked with DCP did a beautiful docu-animation film called FotoSensible: La Familia de Viviana about one of our students that showed how magic a space the darkroom was. When I first started DCP, I took the students to the darkroom at Universidad de los Andes and the university students each taught one of the young people from Altos de Cazucá how to develop — it was a beautiful if fleeting moment of radical cross-class collaboration.
When I went back to speak to former participants about their memories of the project, they all emphasized the pinhole photography and recalled how rumor had spread across the hills that there is a group of kids who were turning boxes, cans, and jars into cameras and how exciting that was. (Those conversations inspired me to turn a truck into a giant pinhole camera and make my most recent film, Limbo.) How do you create similar magic with digital photography? It’s hard. It’s something we’ve been thinking about a lot at the AjA Project and my sense is the answer lies in shifting the focus away from photography itself and more toward a project of which photography is but a part, thinking of it as a medium to be used creatively and strategically, combining digital and more tactile approaches.
Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: Colombia has a long-standing tradition of Participatory Action Research (PAR), which has permeated the arts; to name just a few, there is the work of Prof. Orlando Fals Borda and cinematographer Victor Gaviria. However, your text is not in dialogue with local theories, ideas, or works of artists, academics, and grassroots organizations that have used PAR in Colombia. Why? Furthermore, how do you think DCP fits or does not fit within local trajectories of PAR?
Alex Fattal: Your criticism is valid. I’m not aware of a history of PAR and photography in Colombia prior to 2001 and I was stuck on the medium specificity of photography. I wanted to keep the discussion focused on the emergent participatory photography literature in different parts of the world that now includes a large set of projects with books (though many of these are more celebratory in orientation).
Also, I’ve worked in Colombia long enough to know how large and dense the work on PAR is and didn’t think I could do it justice in a shorter text. Though I take up questions of self-representation in the literature on indigenous media in North American anthropology, I could have done more with the history of visual anthropology in Colombia, especially the work of Marta Rodriguez. Perhaps the text would have been stronger if I did that connective work, but I didn’t want to bog it down in too much academic jargon, thinking especially about readers from the community. I also figured I would leave the PAR research to people like Joanne Rappaport who has done such outstanding multi-media work on/with Orlando Fals Borda and his archive. My response is similar when thinking about Victor Gaviria and the discussions of realism in Latin American cinema, which has been a prominent thread in Latin American Film Studies; I didn’t feel equipped to deal with it succinctly and do it justice.
In the end, I was most interested in the organizational form of the national NGO — caught between the scale of international donors and practitioners, such as myself, and the local — as a mediator of the project through the years and analyzing the different iterations of the NGO and struggles within it to push back against the idea that participatory media projects are unmediated, more authentic, more real. Though they aren’t conditioned by an owner’s political agenda, and editor’s sense of what is important, or what is palatable to advertisers, as is the case with photojournalism, I’ve seen how the different backgrounds of the staff and demands of funding and reporting all influenced how the curriculum was developed, how the workshops were organized, and so on. So my engagement is with some of the literature on the anthropology of humanitarianism, but again, its done in a way so as not to be overbearing and off-putting to a broader audience.
PAR does come into the story of the national NGO. Many of the talleristas who taught the students over the years were coming from public universities and bringing their PAR training to bear. In the text I reference this tension in DCP through the years as one in which tense conversations emerged about how much local control the project should have. Those who were coming with a PAR background (as key facilitators coming from outside the community) and urging total local control were generally coming from a left perspective and wanting to make the project more about denuncias, human rights-oriented denunciations. When that perspective began to win out, the repression on the project would increase — not surprisingly. Given the narco-paramilitarization of the area, which hasn’t abated, and given the fact that the project worked with youth who were already struggling to avoid the gangs that often operated as proxies for armed groups, I tended to find myself arguing for a more hybrid model tailored to the contradictory demands of the context. If you read the text closely, I think that comes through. The book tries to stay with the gray areas of DCP’s experience through the years by plying the boundary of insider and outsider perspectives as a case study in the niche world of participatory photography studies, which is the book’s center line.
Camilo Ruiz Sanchez: Finally, have you been able to share this book with the DCP photographers, and if so, what have their reactions been? If not, are you planning on doing so, and if yes, how?
Alex Fattal: Some of the DCP photographers helped to identify information about the photos that was lost in the archiving process and I shared preliminary selections of the images with them. But as a published book, not yet. The book was printed in the US in December of 2020 and because of the pandemic and inter-institutional difficulties, it took as a few months to get distribution in Colombia figured out. The book will be printed and distributed in Colombia starting in September 2021 with Universidad del Rosario Press.
In addition to book events in Bogotá and perhaps other cities, I’d like to do an event with the Casa de la Cultura in Soacha, where DCP had its first exhibit. I remember fighting with the mayor’s office to get the money for the busses to bring the students in for the opening and the office insisting on singing the municipal anthem; this from a local government that didn’t recognize their responsibly to provide services to the students or their families. In 20 years, much has changed. Some students have moved down the hill to apartment complexes in Soacha, some are still living in the hills. Most of the youth now have kids of their own at this point. Once the pandemic clears, I would love to distribute copies of the book in person and talk with former DCP participants about the work with the distance of time.
In digital conversations I’ve had with some of them while preparing the book or around social media discussions that I’ve seen, they seem to look at the photos the way I look at my high school yearbook, with the nostalgia surrounding a time capsule, but with the added sense of how profoundly difficult life was back then. The early 2000s, as you know and as I briefly contextualize in the book, was a very difficult period. The project served over 1,000 students through the years, I hope I can share the book with as many of them as possible. The imminent distribution in Colombia is a start.
Beyond the community itself, I would note that it’s a bilingual book (shout out to Andy Klatt and María Clemencia Ramírez for their wonderful translation) and the Colombian and Latin American audiences have always been very important to me.
I find myself, on page 99, in the middle of a crisis of translation. Unsurprising, given that my “in” to dissertation fieldwork resembled that of many anthropologists, who often find their place among their interlocutors as translators. In my case, working at an all-women news agency in Kurdistan, it was as a translator of a particular kind: of languages, but also of feminisms.
I first met the journalists of JINHA when I traveled to Turkey in 2013 to research the alarming crackdown on journalists, mostly radical Kurdish journalists, who were being tried on trumped-up charges of terrorist affiliation—which the Turkish state often uses to criminalize Kurdish communities by association with the Kurdish guerrilla, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). (Today, after the all-out war the Turkish state has waged on journalists since 2015, including shutting down JINHA and imprisoning its founder, the artist Zehra Doğan, those trials seem like a prelude.)
I was introduced to two journalists from the newly founded JINHA (Women’s News Agency). They were shocked that I, as a woman, was tagging along with their male colleagues rather than engaging with their all-women media project based in Diyarbakır, in Kurdistan. Soon enough I had signed on as their new English translator. It was my job to translate their stories, and with it their concept (formed through the Kurdish women’s movement) of “the world of women”—the world of everyday solidarities and resistance among women working to survive the patriarchy, often sidelined by what misogynistic journalism considered newsworthy.
It was my task to translate this world of women for “the women of the world,” and it was not easy. If I translated the news reports directly, they were illegible out of context. I grapple with this on page 99:
“Part of the problem, I realized, was present already in the Turkish-language original text (the bulk of JINHA’s output is composed in Turkish). These texts constantly had an imagined Turkish reader in mind. Of course they imagined a Kurdish reader, as well; the women who wrote them had a deep knowledge of Kurdish women’s experience, and wrote and worked out of a passion for the Kurdish women around them. But they also had a keen knowledge of the dominant group, Turkish women, whom they had seen on TV as the models of ‘womanhood’ since they were children, whom they had often grown up alongside in their urban Istanbul neighborhoods, or marched with in university. They could write equally for this audience as for Kurdish women. So in a way, the news itself was already being translated in its instance of creation into the respectability politics of state feminism, the Turkish left, and the feminisms of that context. It was into this already-tangled communication between ‘women of the world’ that I stepped, into its image of ‘womanhood’ that overrode all individual experiences to point out the shared suffering rather than the differences.”
I found myself bumping up against various intimate differences among women along class and racialized lines, which the category of woman was bridging. Over the course of my fieldwork, I absorbed JINHA’s urgency for translating the project of women’s journalism near and far, and took it upon myself to translate and select stories that I imagined might speak widely too. My dissertation ultimately argues that JINHA, through their newsmaking, crafted new kinds of women subjects, by making women speak as women, as part of an imagined community of women. As I became a translator of the world of women, I became crafted into this kind of subject myself.