Jonathan Sterne on his book, Diminished Faculties

Interview by Toni Nieminen

Toni Nieminen: First, congratulations on Diminished Faculties, what a wonderful read it was! I find your form of writing very interesting. The mixing of different voices and genre-specific stances, that you flag through linguistic and stylistic means, is such a creative way to engage with the reflexivity of one’s positionality as a researcher. Two examples stand out: in chapter three you provide counterexamples to the historically and ideologically constructed, yet compulsorily imagined connection between voice and the mouth, by constructing an imaginary art exhibition (where the reader is being seduced by textually expressed sensorial nuances) and then you end the book by providing an impairment handbook to the reader rather than a conventional conclusory discussion. Both passages are brilliant. Could you elaborate on where you came up with the idea to style your book in this way, where are you drawing inspiration from? What possibilities for and limits to academic writing does such a form gesture at?

Jonathan Sterne: Thank you for reading, thank you for the kind words, and thank you for these great prompts to think more about this work. A couple general thoughts on style. Someone told me that this is in some ways very much a “full professor” book. I don’t think I could have written Diminished Faculties in my early 30s, when I wrote Audible Past; maybe someone else could have, but not me. Disability Studies has also changed a lot over the last decade and a half. There is much more work on technology and media, and some of the theoretical discussions have really taken major steps forward.

Both chapters that you mention actually began from stylistic impasses. With the help of research assistants and friends, I had collected a large body of artwork and art-adjacent representation of the voice that was in a sense beyond the mouth for Chapter 3. It was meant as part of the same project as Chapter 2, since that’s all about the dork-o-phone displacing the point of emanation for the voice. I have a few close art historian colleagues and the original plan was to write something about it all in the visual culture studies tradition. But I couldn’t come up with a good thesis. At the same time, I was really looking for a way to extend my critique of the ideology of vocal ability. So I tried a show-and-tell approach.  At first the art exhibit was a conceit, but it got more and more serious. After the first round of review, Zoe de Luca, who designed the layout, suggested I take it really seriously. A writing discipline like that always works really well for me. So, we borrowed the layout from another museum and designed the exhibit which she drew, and Darsha Hewitt re-drew. Darsha is an artist who does a lot with sound technology, but also has a drawing practice. Then I rewrote the chapter in the second person, like an exhibition guide. It was also an interesting exercise in representing accessibility in image description and the like.

The conclusion presented other interesting challenges. The original version of the book ended with Ya-Ya vomiting on me and the haiku at the end of Chapter 5. That’s how I wanted it to end, but all the reviewers wanted a conclusion. I asked friends and my social media feeds: what are the best conclusions to academic books you’ve ever read?  It was crickets! At least in my constellation of fields, conclusions aren’t a high art form. I had recently read Jenn Lena’s Entitled: Discriminatory Tastes and the Expansion of the Arts, which has a fantastic conclusion in part because it doesn’t really have an expansive introduction. I realize I was in the same situation. But while I wanted a didactic conclusion, I didn’t want it to look like a mirror function of an introduction. In my other work, I am often reading technical writing and documents, and of course there is also a tradition of workshops, workbooks, and such in gender and sexuality studies. So, I don’t know exactly how I came to the user’s guide idea, but once I did, I decided to follow it as meticulously as possible, just like in the imaginary exhibition chapter. It is in some ways the perfect didactic form for this project. I asked Darsha to illustrate because she’s skilled in technical drawing, and I liked the illustrations in the Madrona Labs software instrument manuals, which are in turn derived from the manual for the Buchla Music Easel, an early portable synthesizer. But it wound up going a whole other direction: the illustrations are all Darsha and not really modelled on either manual. I might someday have a book on obsolescence in me as I have been fascinated with the phenomenon of user manuals for new products that include instructions for disposal, so that also had to be in there.

Toni Nieminen: In the book, you argue that illness, impairment, disability, and debility are all conditioned by a divergence from medical or social norms as well as by an ideology that always prefers ability. You gesture at how this preference might be political but is more precisely orientational – that is, felt, lived, and negotiated – an argument I find convincing. However, you choose to center impairment and decenter disability in your analysis. Can you elaborate on this choice; how does it reflect your own positionality and what do you expect to either add to or play down within the social model of disability, and by extension Crip studies, by focusing on impairment?

Jonathan Sterne: I think the benefit is a) a wider net to capture aspects of debility and disability that aren’t always at the foreground elsewhere in the field and b) a more vigorously constructivist and realist account of the material and experiential dimensions of both categories like disability, debility, and impairment. I am hardly the first person to note the constructedness of impairment as a category, and yet, one still finds a lot of writing in the field that holds on to a nonconstructed basis for disability. Concepts like Tobin Siebers’ complex embodiment and Alison Kafer’s political/relational model try and synthesize the fact that things like pain are real, and that disability is ultimately tied up with cultural classification, histories of institutionalization and stigma, and politics. I am convinced by that perspective, but what often happens in practice is that ideas that used to be mapped onto disability, like “the inability to do something” are simply displaced onto impairment.

All that said, I wrote the book to sit on the shelf next to lots of books about disability. I wouldn’t want to privilege impairment or decenter disability beyond my text or as some kind of general theoretical principal or political commitment. It’s part of a massive mosaic.

To answer the me part of your question, Diminished Faculties necessarily bears the marks of my own positionality. When I began the book, I wasn’t even sure of my own place in the various orbits of impairment and disability; that status changed during writing as I went on my cancer meds, and I am now as clear as one can be about my own identifications. That’s one of the reasons why it’s written as it is: it is not a book about my trauma, my grief, my therapy (apart from speech therapy) or my own marginalization. Textually, I feel like that is space better occupied by others. As my blog shows, I’m not a terribly private person, but there’s a difference when I’m writing for a scholarly conversation. My contribution is more circumspect, intentionally. It is deliberately intellectualizing some dimensions of experience. But it also reflects my own intellectual and political biases. It took a lot to get me to the point of writing about myself for others. I was dragged back into phenomenology while shuttling in and out of consciousness in both the personal and political senses of the term. It sort of happened to me. Friends really had to encourage me to write the first part of the book; I was reluctant. And at first, I also resisted phenomenology—someone actually had to tell me to accept that this is what I was doing.

That also put me in a very good position to recursively apply the theory of disability to the theory of disability: so much writing in disability studies is resolutely affirmative regarding disability experience, and implicitly operates as if that experience is immediately available to the person having it, even as the same scholarship mounts a vigorous critique of the ideology of ability. Almost all of the great disability studies mounts a critique of the self-sufficient subject, but in the field, we still often suspect that critique when discussing categories of experience. Along with everything else, we need a place from which to interrogate the category of experience, which is one of the through-lines of Diminished Faculties. Because I’m privileged enough that (at least in this text) my experience doesn’t require an additional demand for validation, I was in a good position to experiment with that and consider the problem. That’s my job in this book. It is definitely a moment of looking inward, rather than outward. Other writers have other agendas: I don’t think it would be fair to place that particular interrogatory burden on top of Sami Schalk’s Black Disability Politics, Aimi Hamraie’s Building Access, or Michele Friedner’s Sensory Futures.  

Toni Nieminen: You argue that phenomenologists are better off thinking of experience as something conditioned by contextuality and situationality rather than universality. However, and this might sound like a conventional counterargument to such a statement, to state something about anything requires some universally-ish mediated and shared categories of experience in order for communication and interaction to take place. What is your take on this dualism, and how can impairment phenomenology be modelled and geared to support a political struggle for Disability justice (if this is even the point), which as a political movement – despite being a cluster of multiple, spatially and temporally located ones – has historically drawn upon collectively and publicly shared notions of experience?

Jonathan Sterne: I don’t think you need a universal category or agreement for communication to happen. You need some kind of alignment among positions in order for agreement about reality to happen, that someone reading me will think I mean what I think I mean. But that’s not universality. Differences in positionality also produce communication, though it may be a form of productive understanding or conflict. Disability studies is particularly fertile ground for phenomenology and for communication theory because the experiences of disability are so radically different. For instance, I have lots of shared political affinities with autistic people, but I’m pretty damn allistic, so phenomenologically, we are pretty far apart. I absolutely love Remi Yergeau’s Authoring Autism but the first time I read it I Did Not Get It. I had to work at it. Similarly, I find the writings in Deaf Studies very illuminating for my work on sound, but I have a very different experience of and relationship to my own hearing.

I’m no social movement scholar, but as far as I can tell, the Disability justice movement is more about shared political goals and affiliations. I think those probably come more out of shared classification, and in some cases voluntary identification. People claim disability for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they may want to; other times they may have to as a form of self-advocacy; other times they may have no choice. Still others never claim the term at all, as Alison Kafer reminds us.

I’ve moved in both worlds, and sometimes the intellectual necessities are fundamentally different. Sometimes the alignments aren’t clear until after the fact. Sometimes scholarship and activism can work in concert. In this way, disability studies is like other fields that have emerged as a response to political projects: there isn’t one ideal alignment between scholarship and activism. I wouldn’t want “immediate usefulness to activists” as a litmus test for scholarship, just as I wouldn’t want “theoretical correctness” as a litmus test for activism.

As an activist, one needs a theory of the situations in which they are operating, a theory of change, a theory of communication, and a theory of practice. These all change depending on context, positionality, prior experience, and so on. That kind of theoretical work emerges more from practice and mentorship in the first instance and can be enhanced with reading.

Sometimes scholarship can speak directly to those needs, as in action-research, or collaborative work. Sometimes the connections are orthogonal and surprising, which is also good and important. But scholarship also affords the opportunity from a retreat from some of the pressures and immediacies in which activists find themselves. At the same time, it is often more caught up with the politics of knowledge. This has been my experience touring Diminished Faculties. Because of my prior work, I’ve found myself with audiences who know almost nothing about disability or disability studies. I also find that talking about disability to disabled audiences is also an important moment for political work within the academy: it’s about transforming spaces that have historically been structured around ableism.

Toni Nieminen: Your book can be posited as an auto-ethnographic account in that your own experiences of living with cancer have shaped and enabled you to think about experience in a fragmented way, whereby change and contingency become the point of departure in experience and perception. Considering some criticisms of auto-ethnographic writing (who gets to say what, when and why), do you reserve impairment phenomenology for those living with impairments, or is it accessible also to the non-impaired? If so, how does the project change in the process? Further, and this is something you gesture towards in the concluding handbook, do you think that impairment phenomenology can be used as a research tool across disciplines?

Jonathan Sterne: This is a fantastic question! I think about this a lot. Who can and should write about impairment and disability? Anybody can. More people should. All are welcome. But as the saying goes, “nothing about us without us.” Writing about disability starts with reading work in disability studies. There is an awful lot of sanctioned ignorance among ableds, which is how you get neo-eugenic access policies and disability simulations, as well as scholarship that uses or engages with disability from an ableist frameworks. So, the first step is struggling to overcome that sanctioned ignorance.

I don’t think there should be a passport for writing about anyone, but there is a responsibility to the group you are studying, and a moral requirement of social solidarity if you are in a privileged position with respect to them. In the humanities this is often personalized around the charisma and ethos of the intellectual—as in, to be wrong is to be morally deficient. I hate that, but I also understand it. For disabled people, the emotional stakes can be amplified because the personal and political are commingled, and we are so often represented by others against our will, especially in institutional contexts. Our challenge as scholars is to resist this impulse to completely personalize position-taking, while being attentive to the fact that universities and the field of academic writing are very ableist spheres, which often crowd out and systemically exclude disabled people. Right now in universities, we have a situation where most of the claims to putative expertise on disability come from nondisabled people. We have to ask how such a fucked-up result came to pass and what it will take to transform that situation. We need to deal with this in concert with other challenges our institutions are facing around their ongoing racist, colonialist, cis-sexist, and heterosexist histories. It is perennially unfinished work.

As I mention above, I don’t use the label auto-ethnographic for Diminished Faculties, though I’m also a believer in Barthes’ “author is dead” thesis, and others will categorize me as they like and I’m fine with that. My resistance to the term is that I think all ethnography involves the position of the ethnographer (so ethnography without a reflexive turn on the ethnographer is bad ethnography). There’s also a systematicity and intentionality to ethnographic research that’s absent in Diminished Faculties. It’s a very fragmented text both in terms of subject matter and method.

Toni Nieminen: I like how you describe fatigueness not as a medical outcome but as a relational phenomenon and an act of refusal. Can this reading of fatigueness be aligned with other impairments and what does this tell us about the reality of refusal more broadly? Here, I would be particularly interested in hearing your thoughts about disabilities and impairments other than those you discuss in your book, that is, fatigueness, hearing or speaking – for example, how about neurodivergence?

Jonathan Sterne: On one level, I think there is a specificity to all disabilities (and all theory) that can’t be ignored. My training in cultural studies kicks in and I’m always tempted to say, “this is not meant as a universal theory; it’s a set of ideas that can be transported and transformed, or abandoned as needed.” Impairment theory is at best inspirational literature. Neurodivergence and fatigue are pretty different, and both fall both inside and outside the parameters of disability, depending on what we’re talking about.

At the same time, fatigue phenomenology also highlights the weight of the world that brings people to a political position of refusal more broadly. In that sense, it might help elucidate a dimension of the politics of refusal that has been generally downplayed, because of the affirmative politics of self-assertion in most texts that perform refusal. I understand the necessity and even urgency of that work. As with my comments on impairment above, my hope is that this would sit next to other texts on refusal, not supplant them.

From the disability studies side, many impairments and disabilities might also have their own possibilities for a politics of “already having refused”; or a politics that is somehow complementary to that framing. Autistic writing often comments on the absurdity of neurotypical social life; one could read refusal into that without too much effort. Depression and ADHD also have elements of refusal built into their modalities of interacting with the world. Though these are also great examples of the limits of universalizing my theory: to take an example from ADHD—and I’m writing as a neurotypical here—my sense from talking with people and reading is that a phenomenological state like hyperfocus requires its own theorization. It could be read as a kind of refusal, but maybe it’s better understood as some kind of hypercommitment?  I don’t know. I definitely hope to explore these questions in more depth.

Thanks also to Meesh Fradkin for comments on a draft of my responses.

Gaby Greenlee takes the page 99 test

Page 99 of my dissertation reflects on a detail in an elite type of garment that the Inka Empire (ca. 1476-1532 CE) fabricated in its workshops during the period before contact with Europeans. Alongside an accompanying image, it discusses a type of Inka tunic that carried significant ideological and socio-political import for the state, and comments on a design feature that broaches one of the dissertation’s main inquiries: how the Inka state conceptualized the notion of “borders” more broadly.

“…the elite tapestry workshops of the Inkas were careful to make their textile webs hermetically contained forms, with no loose threads at the selvedges (edges). However, certain Inka textiles within the category of male unkus (tunics) have another detail at the “edge” that merits further discussion. This is the zigzag form that is embroidered onto the fabric web frequently towards the bottom edge of elite unkus…”

Andean textiles are frequently discussed as metaphors of the inhabited space. The tunic referred to here seems to exhibit this capacity. According to some scholars, its checkered patterning may invoke the Inka terraces constructed on hillsides and mountainsides throughout their territory or symbolizes the storehouses they distributed across their domain. Furthermore, Inka military personnel likely wore this tunic type, thus linking it to state mechanisms that had a hand in territorial acquisition.

This page is significant to the rest of the dissertation for its interpretation of the tunic’s borders in relation to how textiles may resonate symbolically with territorial space. While the tunic is woven to be a self-contained form and adheres to strict Inka standardized practice allowing no stray threads at any of its edges, it is noteworthy that the Inka weavers disrupted the “sealed” quality by applying a zig zag embroidery to the bottom hemline. The zig zag counters the careful enclosure of the garment-aka-territorial edge. This, I suggest, speaks to an Inka notion of borders (whether territorial, spiritual, cultural) as spaces of interaction and volatility, regardless of how “contained” or integrated the matrix space may be. Throughout, my dissertation explores how the Inkas—both in the pre-contact and into the colonial period—perceived borders to be productive sites regardless of any tension, abrasion, or even hostility that accompanied encounters between oppositional factions. This also draws on ideas of relationality, for how Inka power was continually revitalized through engagement with their counterparts in, for example, spiritual, cultural, political, biological, or even supernatural realms.  

Jessica Storey-Nagy takes the page 99 test

Page 99 of my dissertation falls in Chapter 1, “A ‘Viktator’ in the Making: Gaslighting Democracy, Telling Lies, and Evoking Histories,” which describes political culture in Hungary after 1989. In it, I introduce readers to a journalist, Noémi, who exemplifies the challenges of living and working in modern Budapest. Her words illustrate the substantial deterioration of a critical European Union value in Hungary, the freedom of the press (which falls under the EU’s “freedom of expression” value), due to the governing style of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his party, Fidesz. In Hungary today, journalists continue to navigate increasingly restrictive working conditions­ – ­and many have lost their livelihoods as a result. They are not always able or allowed to write on topics they find relevant and are often completely barred from writing about political happenings that are not sanctioned and/or approved by the government. Institutions that allow their journalists freedom of expression have nearly all been bought by friends of the government–entire staffs given a choice to stay on board and bend to Orbán’s will or to leave. Daily, journalists must adapt to and negotiate with the ever-changing political climate that the autocratic Orbán maintains.

If page 99 of my dissertation passes the quality test, and I think it does, it is because of Noémi’s willingness to share her story with me. Further, the page spotlights a central point in my dissertation, that political talk in private spaces matters and can shape meaning, can eventually influence the outcome of elections. Noémi nicely illustrates the process of meaning-making that happens in private conversation with her voiced exploration of the text “journalism” in opposition to what she calls “propaganda media.” She also uses the text “Orbán” metonymically, as an emotionally-charged symbol for Fidesz – the same way many in Hungary do.


Before 2010, I think, it was like, we were all journalists, you know, and everyone had their own little biases, right wing, left wing—we all knew what the other was thinking. But ever since Orbán came into power and took over the media, and uh, they built up this propaganda media, which is like blatantly lying. It’s not biased, it’s lying. They make up stories out of thin air—so it’s not the same profession anymore. So, when I say “journalism” [now] I don’t include the propaganda media because I think that’s over now. They, they, I don’t call them “journalists” anymore…[i]n a way I sympathize with them because I come from the same group. I know how hard it is, how it’s impossible to get stories. How, what, how low paid, they are really [under] paid. And um, I know, like conditions are really harsh. Like, last week I was in [Germany] at a conference and I went to Der Spiegel’s headquarters—a shiny, huge building with like 15 stories and, whatever. And, the biggest, most read Hungarian newspaper’s office at the moment is in one room. In. a. room. So, it’s like, completely different realities. [Field Notes 10/02/2019]

The lack of material resources, Noémi noted, stemmed from “Orbán” gradually and consistently pulling funding from journalists. However, even if they did have a few material resources, journalists had to work to gather public information from a government that was not willing to practice transparency.

[Journalists] deal with ministries not answering them—legally they have to, but they don’t. …If you get sources [connected to the government], they lie…If you file a freedom of information request it will either be denied or you will be asked to pay tons of money or it will be unreadable…I swear to God they have a machine they put all these documents through that makes them unreadable before they send it to you! You get a grainy PDF that you can’t read—much worse than a scanned PDF…


Noémi’s account may remind some of Russian state tactics like those outlined in Eliot Borenstein’s Plots Against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy After Socialism (2019), and it should. Orbán has been called “mini-Putin,” by Hungarians and the larger Western Press alike. He poses a real threat to the values outlined in Treaty of the European Union; values meant to prevent World War III. For those who do practice Ford Maddox Ford’s method, they should encounter an engaging story that embodies the process of democratic decline in a modern EU member-state, and hopefully, they’ll learn more here and elsewhere, because Noémi’s story is but one that’s worth reading.

Storey-Nagy, Jessica. 2022. Sovereign Voices: Politics, Identity, and Meaning-Making in Contemporary Hungary. PhD dissertation, Indiana University.

Omotayo’s book, You Can’t Go to War Without Song

Tayo Jolaosho died on October 21, 2021, months before their book was published in July 2022. We honor their work and memory with an interview with their dissertation advisor, Dorothy Hodgson, about their insights.

Interview by Deborah Durham

Deborah Durham: First let me say how devastating it is that the author themself cannot answer these questions: their book, You Can’t Go to War Without Song, is so full of life, and promise. One thing that struck me in particular about the book was how attuned Omotayo was to the embodied dimensions of performance, from toyi-toying in the streets to discomforts and assertions in South African offices. Their accounts of embodied political activism are so powerful because of their combined intimacy and acute insight. How did Omotayo come to have such intimacy with embodiment and performance?

Dorothy Hodgson: I share your devastation.  I had the honor of serving as Tayo’s PhD advisor and mentor, and eventually their close friend. Although Tayo (who used the pronouns they/them) is no longer with us, I have the benefit of being able to cite their own words to answer some of these questions from their various application letters, personal and research statements, and other sources I have kept over the years. Their words will appear in italics.

Tayo’s extraordinary book, You Can’t Go to War Without Song, draws on their formative experiences of embodiment and performance growing up in Nigeria and later as a playwright, performer, poet, and singer at Simon’s Rock College of Bard, where they started at the age of 14. At Simon’s Rock, they studied music and integrated arts, won a national playwriting competition, and twice received the Division of the Arts prize, awarded by the faculty to recognize significant contributions to the division of Arts and Aesthetics.

In the course of my life, I have had the opportunity to experience the power and importance of the art both personally and within a process of community. Growing up in Nigeria, whereas in many other parts of Africa, the arts are not divorced from everyday life, my consciousness of and passion for the arts was nurtured. I remember how each morning my mother, my brother and I would gather to sing hymns; song and dance would also manifest in the course of our daily duties and activities, in our childhood play, in storytelling, etc. These artistic expressions served as our inheritance as members of a community.

This connection to the arts did not leave me when I came to live in the United States. In fact, it only deepened to the point of my going on to study music and integrated arts at an undergraduate level. When asked why I chose to pursue this course of study as opposed to “something more practical” my response came easily: music and performance saved my life, for me there’s nothing more practical than that. Music and performance enabled me to preserve a presence of mind, a sense of identity and functioned as catharsis for me during a traumatic period of living in a physically, sexually and emotionally abusive home. Singing songs written by others but which nonetheless told my story encouraged me and served as my resistance in that it became a source through which I could express my dissent without fear of adverse consequences. It enabled me to speak my dissent in the presence of my “guardians” but under the protection of someone else’s voice.

What Tayo called their “passion for creative expression” infused every aspect of their scholarly, professional and personal life. Some of my favorite memories are watching them start many presentations- whether their dissertation defense, a public talk, a conference panel – with song.  They would close their eyes, take a deep breath, and start singing with no accompaniment – usually one of the songs dear to the activists they worked with in South Africa. Initially, audience members would be startled, but quickly entranced and moved as Tayo demonstrated their argument – the power of performance to disrupt and shape the world.

Deborah Durham: Following through on that, Omotayo engaged with issues of women’s rights, dignity and ubuntu, and concern with inequality though a variety of expressive media – could you tell us more about their writing and work outside of conventional anthropological ethnography?

Dorothy Hodgson: All of Tayo’s work pushed – and often broke – the boundaries of
so-called conventional ethnography.  Two notable products were what they called “performance ethnography” and “digital anthropology”- explanations and examples of both are available on their still-live website.

As a performer myself, I have a unique opportunity to explore the benefits of ethnographic performance for research and dissemination, including through policy. Towards this, I developed a one-woman show based on my interviews and field notes with South African women activists. The show, “Three Women (Break The Silence),” subsequently expanded into an ensemble piece that examines what it means to find one’s voice amidst gendered repression and restrictions on women’s bodily and sexual autonomy. These themes—of harassment and consent, in particular—have risen to prominence in political debate and public discourse here in the United States and in South Africa, especially over the past two years with the resurgence of #MeToo as a worldwide movement. Being a work of theatre, Three Women highlights these concerns in non-didactic ways, seeking rather to open audiences to further dialogue and inquiry into African women’s lives and varied experiences. Following a staged reading at the renowned Market Theatre Lab in Johannesburg in 2018, the play received a touring production in three South African cities in 2019.

In addition to their powerful show, “Three Women (Break The Silence),” which I had the pleasure of seeing them perform at the 2017 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders and Sexualities at Hofstra University, Tayo was also finalizing a digital anthropology project, “The Freedom Sung Project,” which they described as: an online interactive exhibit built from a digital collection of video footage and song recordings I made during ethnographic fieldwork in South Africa. The collection includes over 120 footage hours of unedited interviews and coverage of collective rallies that countered the invisibility experienced by politically marginalized communities. The online exhibit will serve as a companion site for [my] book … and will feature snippets of interviews with activists, edited video footage documenting protests and performances, select music tracks, images, and analysis.

Deborah Durham: There is, in You Can’t Go to War, a kind of disappointment in the possibility of social movements in such situations of extreme inequality and, for many, lack of basic resources. Movements get routinized; high-level protests generate low-level disputes and tensions; South Africa remains the most unequal country in the world (in Gini coefficient) and, nationally, its infrastructure is increasingly failing everyone. How did Omotayo retain a sense of hope in the face of this?

Dorothy Hodgson: As anyone who met Tayo, even briefly, recognized: they were an extraordinarily smart and gifted person: an accomplished playwright, singer, and performer; a brilliant student and scholar; a compassionate, engaged ethnographer; and a joyful soul. Tayo’s fierce, joyous engagement with the world and search for hope and meaning was also tempered, at times, by despair: not just about the dire situation in South Africa, but the brutal violence of structural racism, sexism and homophobia in the United States that they witnessed and experienced as a queer person of color. Like many people, their despair was amplified by the uncertainties, restrictions, loneliness, and losses of the COVID pandemic.

In the face of these at-times overwhelming challenges, they used their gifts and skills to try to understand the deep disparities of the world and do what they could to bring change – whether through their writing, teaching, singing, yoga, or activism. And they were brave- defying convention at every turn. They actively sought embodied ways to heal, hope and change the world: through learning and excelling at capoeira, becoming certified as a yoga instructor and starting a yoga practice, and in 2020, at the height of racial justice protests amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, founding a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting healing and collective recovery for multiple marginalized individuals and communities. Tayo was also an exceptional teacher and mentor, committed to educating new generations of scholar-activists through engaged, experiential forms of teaching and learning. In all these acts, they embodied hope. I think the dedication of the book sums up the source of their hope: “For our dead, not a moment’s silence, but a lifetime of struggle.”

Stephen Chrisomalis on his book, Reckonings

Interview by Grace East

Grace East:  Reckonings whisks us away on a journey through time and space and introduces us to how people engage(d) with numbers in a huge variety of socio-historical contexts. Put simply: you seem to ask, “How are numbers used and why?” Toward the end of the book, you provide a nicely crystallized sentiment that runs throughout the text: “I see numerals as representational systems, related to practices of literacy and writing, not as computational systems” (150). Can you elaborate on this central idea and discuss a few key takeaways you hope readers will leave with after finishing this book? 

Stephen Chrisomalis: I’ve been researching the anthropology of numbers for over twenty years now and one of the things that’s been most consistent is that, whenever I talk to people about my work, regardless of their discipline or theoretical orientation, they conflate numbers and math.  And as it turns out, a lot of anthropologists got into the field in order to run as far away from mathematics as possible.  Frankly anyone who has read anything I’ve ever written knows that my work requires much more knowledge of linguistics, semiotics, and philology than it does mathematics – which should make a whole different audience run in terror.  

There is a pervasive Euro-American ideology that almost values or privileges innumeracy, as stridently argued by the mathematician John Allen Paulos. This is seen in the sort of person who is vaguely proud of not being able to calculate a tip or manage daily finances.  I see that too. But I also see the corresponding ideology that numbers exist in this strange realm of mathematics, far removed from all other pursuits, only accessible to a special type of person. But in reality, numbers are everyday things, used by everyone to manage time, to make a list, or as any sort of label for things. In other words, they act as semiotic resources for managing practical socio-cognitive problems.  In Reckonings, I show that refocusing attention on what people actually do with the numbers they’ve got, rather than focusing on them as an object of awe, is absolutely imperative for a discipline like anthropology, that still avoids the subject of numbers to a large degree.

Grace East: The ways in which language universals and particulars appear cross-linguistically serve as a frequent touchstone throughout the text. You use numbers as a specific lens through which to observe the parameters of human cognition. What is it about numbers that provides such a fitting representation of the complicated nature of identifying language universals as well as cognitive affordances and constraints? 

Stephen Chrisomalis: Like a lot of people trained in linguistics in the 90s (and earlier), I could hardly escape the massive, almost hegemonic, Chomskyan view of linguistics, which regarded universals as widespread and grounded fully in the brain. Against this, in linguistic anthropology of course we had a more culturalist view, which regarded variation as the norm and universals, if present, as generally uninteresting.  Neither of these positions (extremes, even caricatures, of course) ever appealed much to me, but they were there nonetheless in the background.  

I began my work on numbers more than twenty years ago with the insight that number has two distinct sets of representations: number words (one two three) and number symbols (123), each of which occur very widely cross-culturally. And among users of numerical notation, the two systems co-occur in the same individuals. While each system has cross-linguistic and cross-cultural patterns, their patterns, structures, and regularities are not the same.  You can’t predict the structure of a numerical notation from its users’ languages.  Nevertheless, you can say a lot about what doesn’t occur in numerical notations; there are some powerful constraints, in other words. But these can’t come from a purported universal grammar, because they aren’t the same constraints that operate on linguistic numerals, and, frankly, because numerical notation isn’t a universal, but a product of specific social, technical, and historical contexts – largely those associated with the state.  

So where do these regularities come from, if not hard-wired (a bad metaphor, if commonplace)? The key is partly that numerical notations are visual notations rather than auditory ones; their (relative) permanence and their dependence on visual processing make them different than number words.  So the brain matters, but also it matters for what purposes and for what audiences writers are constructing these representations.  That takes us back to the insight that numbers are for being seen and read, more than they are being manipulated as arithmetical objects. Once we understand that, we can incorporate activity and behavior into our analysis of why the patterns and structures that exist are there, both in number words and number symbols.

Grace East: I really enjoyed your chapters seeking to uncover why we don’t regularly use Roman numerals anymore, I think because it felt like we were along for the ride on a historical mystery quest. In these sections, you explain that the decline of Roman numerals must be accounted for based not on a retrospective conception of their utility (or lack thereof) in comparison to Western numerals, but rather an acknowledgement of the “confluence of specific economic, social, and communicative factors,” such as the invention of the printing press and increasing literacy rates (116). What about this historical quandary compelled you to look deeper for an answer? How can the lessons learned from these findings be applied more broadly, both within anthropology and outside of it?

Stephen Chrisomalis: If I were to write an article and claim that Facebook is the best of all possible social media, I would be rightly laughed out of the academy. But the claim that our current (Indo-Arabic / Western) numerals 0123456789 are the best ones possible, and that they replaced Roman numerals in Europe through a sort of survival of the fittest, is so widespread that I would say that in some sense it is the central myth about numbers. It’s this still-vital vestige of unilinear evolutionism, deeply unquestioned and surely ethnocentric, that has retained its acceptability in otherwise serious historical and social-scientific work. 

But it also makes no sense to pretend like nothing happened at all over the last five hundred years, during which many, many numerical notations – not just the Roman numerals, but dozens of systems worldwide, have ceased to be used or are retained only for vestigial purposes.  Without fetishizing modernity or treating it as a special object of anthropology, I ask, in Reckonings, if the Roman numerals were so bad, why were they retained as long as they were, and why only in the 15th and 16th centuries did they lose this purported notational contest.  This builds on classic social science – think Immanuel Wallerstein or Eric Wolf – as well as discourse analysis on the ideologies underpinning the myth – in a way that I hope complements rather than challenges the cognitive approaches I use alongside them.  

So for instance, as it turns out, no one in Western Europe seems actually to have complained about the inefficiency of Roman numerals (at least not in writing) until the late 17th century – long after they had been replaced throughout the continent.  In fact, not until the 19th century did this kind of discourse become commonplace.  The Roman numerals were replaced quietly, slowly, not by imperial fiat or by some cabal of number experts, but through the transformations in education, commerce, and literacy that accompanied mercantile capitalism between 1400 – 1600.  That’s a time period – whether we call it late medieval or early modern, I don’t care – that precious few anthropologists devote much time or energy to, which I think is a serious mistake. 

Grace East: One of my favorite takeaways from this book is that numbers are not objective abstractions, but rather socially and historically contingent human inventions and practices. To this end,  I was particularly struck by the distinction you make between numerical recording (a final representation, like a written numeral) and numerical manipulation (the tools to do arithmetic, like an abacus). Can you talk more about how you arrived at the relationship between these and how it serves to impact our ideologies and biases around computation and cognition both diachronically and synchronically?

Stephen Chrisomalis: There’s a very famous story first told by the mathematician G.H. Hardy, about a visit to his ailing friend Srinivasa Ramanujan in the hospital.  Hardy, upon arriving, recounted that he had taken a taxicab whose number was 1729, which he thought was very boring, only to be told by Ramanujan that it was very interesting indeed – the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.  This anecdote was meant to impress the reader of  the impressive intellect of Ramanujan, and while it may do so, it should also illustrate that for almost everyone else, including most mathematicians, 1729 is just the number of the cab, and its purpose is semiotic – a label, a name for the cab, whose purpose is to distinguish it from all others.  It’s not that the rest of us aren’t doing anything with 1729 – it’s just that we aren’t computing with it.   

The linkage between written numbers and arithmetic is a historically contingent one, dependent on widespread literacy and formal education and a social system that relies heavily on recorded computation.  Most people historically who have had formal arithmetic education have separated the process of calculation – often with beads, boards, or other devices  from the writing of results.  There isn’t anything like Roman numeral ‘pen and paper’ calculation – although, for the record, I know of no fewer than five independent scholarly attempts over the past century to show how the Romans might have calculated using Roman numerals. But we know perfectly well how the Romans calculated – with the pebble-board abacus, just as the suan pan and soroban are still widely taught and used in China and Japan, respectively.  The use of material engagement through these devices is ideologized as backward, although there is considerable evidence in the cognitive science literature for the inscription of abacus arithmetic in East Asia into powerful mental models – that is, algorithms.  

What’s different about pen and paper is that your results (and your errors) have some permanence and can be scrutinized (by a teacher or supervisor), that makes it useful in a particular socioeconomic setting.   The form factor of pen and paper (or chalk and board) arithmetic produces not simply a result but a means to a result, a written record.  But in most historical settings, computation and recording have been separate activities, and so I want to make readers aware that this linkage is neither necessary nor inevitable.

Constantine Nakassis on his book, Onscreen/Offscreen

Interview by Chris Ball

Christopher Ball: Onscreen/Offscreen tracks Tamil film of the first decade and a half of the 2000s through analysis of different feature films, including interviews with actors, directors, and audience members, and ethnography of filmmaking and reception. This approach shows the intertextuality that ties together Tamil cinema, in spite of its own internal divisions between “class” and “mass,” “film” and “cinema.” At the same time, Chapters 1 to 4 deal, in turn, with the narrative figures “the hero,” “the heroine,” “the fool/jester,” and lastly “the auteur/director.” Can you say something about how as an author you discerned the presentation of your analysis and your interaction with, and presentation of, these characters?

Constantine V. Nakassis: Thanks for this question, Chris and for engaging with the book! This book is based on my work on the Tamil cinema of South India dating back to my very first fieldwork as a graduate student almost twenty years ago. But I didn’t want to write an ethnography of the industry per se. Rather, I had certain theoretical issues – for example, about the ontology of the image, its performativity, about spectatorship, the production format of images, realism – that I wanted to explore and elaborate on in each chapter of the book via the ethnographic analysis of a particular film or set of films. I also think having worked on Tamil cinema for an extended time gave me a longitudinal perspective that was invaluable in shaping how the book developed and how I came to think about its internal organization. From my first work in the early and mid 2000s to my dissertation work in the late 2000s to post-PhD work in the 2010s, I repeatedly encountered claims and desires for a “new” realist (“class”) cinema – and the announcement that it had (almost!) arrived – coupled with a lament about the untimely performativity of fantastical images of the industry’s larger-than-life “mass” heroes; as I came to realize, this ambivalence was a constitutive feature of the political field of images, despite whatever real changes there were across this time period (and before). Why and to what effects?

This question helped frame the book, specifically splitting it into two parts: the first (“Presence/Representation”) primarily concerning the presence of images and the second (“Representation/Presence”) their representationality. Each of those two parts then split into two chapters: Chapter 1 focusing on the performative presence of images of so-called mass heroes and Chapter 2 of heroines and dancers (whose presence manifests as a kind of negative, sexualizing stigma), and Chapters 3 and 4 focusing on attempts in the industry to create representationalist images, either in the mode of parody (of heroes) or realist, director-anchored films. But if Part I focuses on the insistent presence of the image, and how this traverses onscreen and offscreen (the image spilling beyond the screen, but also the social getting introjected into the film text), each of the cases also feature a countermovement, where such images get framed representationally by their directors, causing an interesting kind of friction internal to the image. Part II, by contrast, explores how filmmakers and other stakeholders to the image attempt to bracket and denude the image’s performativity, often by putting the hero under (narrative) erasure. But even in doing so, a certain kind of performativity bubbles through the citational frame. How is that managed? And to what ends?

While I didn’t know that the book would take this form when I was doing my fieldwork, I did know that there were certain incidents, or films, or industry dynamics that came up in my research that I wanted to understand and unpack: like in what became Chapter 1, where a slap in a film scene caused an uproar among fans because it involved a junior actor playing a character who slaps another character played by a huge hero-star, Ajith Kumar; or, in Chapter 3, the first full-on spoof in the industry, Thamizh Padam (‘Tamil Film’) or, in Chapter 4, the outcrop of small-budget “realist” films in the 2000s; or, in Chapter 2, the fact that most heroine-actresses in postmillennial Tamil cinema are not considered ethnolinguistically Tamil. As I worked through these various incidents and films and dynamics, I saw how they spoke to certain theoretical issues that I kept circling around; in particular, this issue of representationality and performativity. 

This had another effect, which is that certain characters – the hero, heroine, the comedian, the director – came to the fore in each chapter. This wasn’t by design, but it had to do with the fact that each of these characters is a critical node on which semiotic dynamics/achievements like representationality/performativity are themselves reflexively centered in the Tamil cinema: the hero and heroine as sites of (positive and negative) plenitude and performative presence, the comedian as piercing that plenitude with parodic self-reflexive humor, and the director as an alternate site of authority over filmic and cinematic semiosis. Here, too, emerged something else that became a central preoccupation of the book, the question of who or what is responsible for the image (a Goffmanian question of the politics of the production format). In certain moments we see the actors – those animating heroes and heroines and comedians – held responsible for the images in which they appear (as presencing them in some way); but at other moments, it is the opposite, where the director holds the burden for the image (as representing their vision or agenda or whatever). So how and when does one or the other (or both or neither) happen? And what follows from this? 

Chris Ball: As you were just saying, the play of representation and performativity is a central theme of Onscreen/Offscreen. In attempting to bring together linguistic anthropology and film studies, you wade into territory that is often characterized by a rejection of “linguistic” or “representationalist” accounts of filmic or other image texts. How did the framing of realist representation and performative presence as distinct but connected, indeed complexing mutually implicating, allow you to reframe such divisions or disciplinary impasses?

Constantine V. Nakassis: Yeah, it’s true that American cinema and media studies, but also visual and media anthropology, often pit “language” (or “representation”) and “image” against each other; and along this axis of difference (as Susan Gal and Judy Irvine put it) a whole host of other contrasts cluster: logic/affect, mediated/immediate, aural/visual, sensuous/abstract, and so on and so forth. In film studies, I think that this had to do with the limits and failures of structuralism, which invested so deeply in the notion of a “film language.” There is something so ironic in this, of course, since what such structuralisms-beyond-language did was to take what is unique about language and then ask how it could be used to illuminate other semiotic systems. But the whole thing was bound to fail, definitionally! In film studies, scholars like Christian Metz realized this contradiction at the very outset, but they gave it a try anyway and working through the failures pushed into new territory (for example, by coming to think with Benveniste on enunciation) that interestingly resonated with what was going on in linguistic anthropology (not that anyone realized this at the time, since they weren’t reading each other’s work).

In any case, and by contrast, in the US, this failure became a reason to throw the semiotic baby out with the semiological bathwater. But for me, the very division of image versus language is misguided from the outset; it’s a semiotic ideology, as Webb Keane calls it. The more interesting move, it seems to me, is to treat semiotic ideologies (like this one) as ethnographic components of how people experience semiosis, and thus how semiosis itself unfolds. If seen in this way, then we can start to ask, well, how and under what conditions does a film image represent and seem to stand apart from what it represents? And when does it performatively presence and act? When does the image seem to reach through the screen into the events of its happening and presence itself? And when is that possibility blocked, and the image and screen are kept “within” themselves via some proverbial fourth wall? Tamil cinema is rife with these performative perforations; but it’s also filled with realist representations too! And my point in the book is that an image isn’t necessarily one or the other but may be one or the other depending on the point of view, or maybe both at one and the same time, or at different times, and so on and so forth. And here is where things get interesting for me. Because what I found in the cases I looked at is that the image harbors both potentialities and tendencies, each brimming out of the screen, each in dialogue with the other, sometimes amplifying, sometimes dampening each other. So, there is a tussle and a multiplicity – a dialogism, indeed, a politics (and in the Tamil case, where actors often form populist political parties, a real electoral politics) – internal to the image. Yet when we try to study this, we realize that whatever is “inside” the image is the effect of semiotic processes (of entextualization and contextualization, in our technical jargon) that take place in a sort of constitutive “outside” to the image.

And this raised a further question for me: what kind of a thing is an image such that this is the case? And if this “is” – a question of “ontology” – is political, which it is (claims about “what is”are THE site of the political, aren’t they?!), then these semiotic questions take us directly into what I discuss in the book as an “ontological politics of the image.” Hence, to return to your question (sorry for the long tangent!), the book tries to provide a way thinking about cinema that allows us to get beyond the stale oppositions of image versus language, or of “film language.” Hopefully, this will resonate with folks in film and visual studies, and put them in touch with linguistic anthropology, and vice versa. It always struck me as a shame that there hasn’t been any meaningful traffic between these fields (since, at least, Sol Worth and Christian Metz), especially since both deal with the most complex of problems of meaning and each has developed incredibly sophisticated semiotic approaches to them. The book is trying to create that dialogue.

Chris Ball: I’d like to ask more about your concept of the “ontological politics of the image” and its potential links to debates in anthropology at large. You introduce the concept in the Introduction by questioning the givenness of the image as object, and by suggesting a pragmatic approach to the multiplicity of the image’s construction in varying sociohistorical and cultural contexts. The cross-cultural stability of the image, if we can hold on to something concrete, lies in its existence as a “political fact,” such that for filmmakers, critics, and viewers alike, in Chicago or Madurai, “Contestations about what an image is, is the very nature of images.” 

Constantine V. Nakassis: Right, exactly, and this connects up with what we were just talking about, this question of whether and when an image is a performative act or a realist representation; these, of course, are just two very simplified ways of talking about the heterogenous being of images; as we were saying, they are dimensions or potentialities or tendencies that get actualized in particular contexts in particular ways. And if such actualization is up for grabs, as I found it to be, then we need to be attending to the “ontological politics” (this being Annemarie Mol’s phrase) that condition the being and becoming of images. This, it seems to me, is the nature of images as we find them: stakeholders to images (makers, audiences, various institutions, including various organs the state; in India, e.g., the Censor Board) contest and shape what images come to be, what they should (or should not) be, and so on. So, there is a kind of semiotic relativity at the heart of the question of being. And this itself requires that we take a particular ontological position, a semiotic realism (as you yourself have argued in other contexts) that insists on the reality of generals – in this case, semiotic-cum-social facts – but sees them as (the outcomes of) dynamic processes. 

Chris Ball: So how does your approach to the contested construction of images and the possible multiplicity of their ontological status connect to wider trends in anthropological theory? I’m thinking about the Ontological Turn, obviously, but also about the general (post-)post-structuralist, post-colonial, post-modern, post-human, and so on, engagements with multiplicity, fractures, and frictions between worlds? What is your stake with this book in such conversations?

CVN: In this book, much more so than those trends in anthropological theory (e.g., the Ontological Turn), my discussion is in a direct conversation with the foundational film critic and theorist André Bazin and his “ontology of the photographic image.” This has and continues to be a central issue in film studies. So, my aim, in addressing the question of what an image is, is to reformulate the question of being through a pragmatist approach to semiosis, but also with attention to the open horizons of possibility, and relativity, as I was saying before, that ethnographic theory at its best can provide. To do so, then, I am thinking with, but also against, Bazin to ask, how can we reconceptualize the so-called “ontology of the photographic image” processually and ethnographically, from a disciplinary perch (linguistic anthropology) and empirical archive (commercial Tamil cinema) that has been very peripheral to these discussions? 

Of course, the so-called Ontological Turn, among other movements in anthropology, has also tried to decenter certain philosophical positions that also animate the (Bazinian) questions in film studies (i.e., there are common touchstones). And insofar as this is the case, there is a resonance there. (And, certainly, my uptake of Mol’s phrase also connects this work to actor network theory and Latour, if indirectly.) But there are also major differences between what I am doing and the Ontological Turn. For example, there is a kind of relativism in the Ontological Turn that I find problematic. And, as you’ve pointed out in a recent paper at the 2022 AAAs, (semiotic) relativity is not the same as (cultural/ontological) relativism. In fact, a comparative account of the relativity of languages or images (or physical processes, for that matter) demonstrates that there are general properties that undercut the strong relativism in certain versions of the Ontological Turn. Indeed, the fact of the multiple ontic tendencies within images that we were discussing a moment ago implies a set of processes that traverse “worlds” or what not; as I argue in the book, it implies a politics of being that produces that very ontic multiplicity.

It’s worth underlining that an ontology is an account or theory (-logy) of being (ōn, ont-); it is a claim on being. And to say an account – or theory or claim – is to imply a plurality (hence the political aspect!): ontologies and modes of being (in a dialectical relation, of course). But it’s a mistake, in my opinion, to think that for every “world” (or every “culture” or “epoch”) there an ontology (or “worldview”), or that for every medium there is a different mode of being, like analogue versus digital images, as some people have suggested in visual studies. And again, this is because the multiplicity of being is intrinsic or internal, and yet also distributed, extimate. It’s not a pluralism, and that’s because being is a dynamic political fact. 

Another implication of this is that while this book is about the Tamil cinema of South India, with a real serious consideration of its particularities, ultimately through theorizing those particularities the story is about much broader features, relations, and processes of images (and semiosis more generally), whether in film or otherwise, whether in Tamil Nadu or elsewhere. 

Chris Ball: You talk about realism throughout the book but approach it most directly in Chapter 4. You end up mostly agreeing with Bazin on cinematic realism, though you qualify that it is not because of an indexical trace of light between reality and (celluloid) film, but rather because the connection to the real is political. Realism is an achievement, an effect rather than a cause in this formulation. I’m struck by the similarity of this move to that which linguistic anthropology has been articulating with respect to language for a long time. Rather than starting with the assumption of language as an ontological object that is given, analysts have turned increasingly to articulate how multimodal communicative practices and their politics, together with their (metapragmatic) frames of interpretation, effectively yield familiar domains we label as grammar, or discourse, or language writ large. Does that analogy make sense, and did you think about that sort of cross modal iconicity, either taking a set of analytic tools from one domain such as linguistic anthropology to another like film studies, or claiming that language and image are after all similar, in writing the book?

Constantine V. Nakassis: Yes, it definitely makes sense! I am a linguistic anthropologist and Onscreen/Offscreen is a book of linguistic anthropology. In the book I call this a “linguistic anthropology of cinema,” and some amount of discussion is devoted to explaining what that phrase means. So, in one sense, I am treating cinema in ways similar to how linguistic anthropologists have approached “language,” and precisely how you characterize it. Part of what that means is transferring advances and tools made in one domain (“language”/discourse) to another (film/cinema). 

But I’m not sure if we should see this as an analogy, as if cinema was like language (or discourse), and thus one can extend linguistic anthropology outwards, as if its center was always and only language. Part of my discomfort with this way of stating it is that I don’t see my work as an application of linguistic anthropological tools to something else that is not proper to the field, as much as I see this as linguistic anthropology, period. And part of the reason I insist on this is because to not so insist (and to take the book as an application) would reinscribe a certain center of linguistic anthropology as the study of “language” “in” …, and then you can fill in the blank with all those substantives that we are familiar with (“culture,” “society,” “interaction,” “use/practice,” or whatever). Doing this recapitulates a picture of language—a formalist, referentialist, structuralist vision of language as autonomous, sui generis “system”—that the very move of adding the “in culture/society/interaction” is meant to deconstruct! So, part of what I try to show in Onscreen/Offscreen, and in other work, is why this is ultimately an unproductive gesture. Of course, it’s not untrue historically, since much of the field has been concerned with language in culture, society, and so on. But, as I’ve tried to argue, even when this seems to be the case, what we are studying in such cases is not language as such, but rather the limits of the very construct of language to capture semiosis in (and across) its contexts of happening; and further, that by pushing through language we open up all sorts of interesting horizons beyond where we started. And those horizons are what ground us (even if we always start from where we came). Hence my claim that Onscreen/Offscreen is a book of linguistic anthropology even though – and maybe especially because – what I am focused on is cinema (and not language, or speech, in films). 

But interestingly, what this also means is that this is a book that is not only about cinema. Rather, as you point out, and as I was saying earlier, it is trying to get at certain semiotic dynamics that are not medium-specific. I have come to realize that thinking in terms of medium specificity is a cul-de-sac. It is, at best, self-limiting and, at worst, reductive and essentialist. It may be productive for disciplinary political projects (to zone off some domain of study, say, language for linguistics, film for film studies, and so on and so forth), but intellectually it narrows thought. So I am absolutely not interested in purifying the (film) image and trying to define its uniqueness, or definitional specificity. That would just reproduce the very problematic, blinkered mode of inquiry that linguistic anthropology, in its critique of that very form of thinking as concerns language (focusing on what makes it peculiar and unique: its essence as a system for denotation), has rendered unstable and untenable. So, in moving outwards from the yoke of language to images, my aim is not to suggest that we rest there and call it a day. Rather, I would endorse Peirce’s metaphor for scientific inquiry as walking through a bog. We must plant our feet somewhere, but only to always have to pick up and move, for if we stand content too long in one place, we sink. We have to move forward and explore, in this case, looking for what traverses what has been categorized as film and language. Now, I don’t mean to collapse each to the other, or to deny that there may be specificities; rather, my aim is to open up a clearing for thought in ways that propel us forward and make connections with other fields. 

For me, this general attitude toward inquiry implies an open vision for the field, for a linguistic anthropology of …, where that ellipsis is to be filled with as many possible possessors of the genitive that we can find, from cinema to spam filters to painting to ethics to cryptocurrency to … . It can all be linguistic anthropology. And it is: our wonderful colleagues are already pursuing all these things and more! So, that ellipsis is an invitation for us to open up and for others to find their way in. From my point of view, we should be pitching a big tent, not policing the borders or redoubling on the centers. This book is an effort to that end. 

Onscreen/Offscreen is open access and available here.

Alana Brekelmans takes the page 99 test

Page 99 of my thesis opens with an evocative image:

‘Sleepy Cloncurry, the scene of more unfulfilled promises than any other town in Australia, clung to its horses and its camels’.

This quote from the historian Geoffrey Blainey about the mining town of Cloncurry in Outback Australia suggests an affective entanglement between place, ideology, and the more than human. Here Cloncurry is both a ‘scene’ and something agentic in its own right, something that ‘clings’: it is where the modernist and capitalist promises of taming the wilderness and striking it rich through mining remain unfulfilled, but it is also that which persists in sticky relation to these dreams through the companion species that were first brought to Australia to assist in realising those promises. Later in the page, I add to Blainey’s description:

“During the economic downturn of the 1920s and 1930s, when the price of copper fell by nearly fifty percent, most mining hubs quickly became ghost towns, houses were moved whole to new places, and settler-colonial hope for the region’s expansion remained tentative”.

And yet, through this and many cycles of boom and bust that followed, a sense of optimism—perhaps a ‘cruel optimism’ (Berlant 2011)—remained. In these precarious conditions, people did and still do build lives, wage politics, and dream of futures.  

My PhD, based on fieldwork conducted in the Cloncurry region in 2017, charts such cruel optimism and ideology in relation to narratives of place and belonging. In particular, I am interested in the affective and material afterlives of modernist narratives of ‘taming the wilderness’ and ‘closing the frontier’ in settler-colonial states. Thinking with the rubble of ghost towns, the vacant places where homes once were, changing approaches to economic development, and the introduced species that now run wild in the landscape, I suggest that settler colonial visions of closing the frontier in Outback Australia failed. I ask what that means for settler descendants living in the region today and their claims over Indigenous lands. I focus on how non-indigenous settler-descendants express and legitimate their affective and economic relationships with place in relation to contestation over land use for conservation and Native Title.

By pointing to a long history of the ‘unfulfilled promises’ of settler colonial ideology in Outback Australia, my page 99 suggests something of the problem of non-indigenous people’s belonging in settler-colonial states when that belonging has historically been predicated on ideologies that manifest in violence against indigenous lands and peoples. It also implies the question of how one might draw from new narratives and engage in new affective relationships to construct new belongings.

Works cited: Berlant, L. G. (2011). Cruel optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Alana Brekelmans. 2021. Out There, back then: chronotopes of presence and absence in Outback Australia. University of Queensland, PhD Thesis.

Lindsey Clouse on her book, Stigmatized on Screen

Interview by Jeremy A. Rud

Jeremy Rud: Linguists have long called out the language attitudes that perpetuate the myth that racialized, regional, and gendered dialects are supposedly bad English. What does your book add to this discussion? How does your work expand or complicate our understanding of English language variation in the United States?

Lindsey Clouse: My research shows how deeply entrenched these language attitudes are in popular culture, and how they, in fact, have become shortcuts for characterization in film. If a character speaks with a stereotypical blue collar Southern dialect, for instance, it signals to the audience that this character is uneducated and probably racist and/or misogynist. We see an example of this in Four Christmases (2008), in which the main character’s father and brothers are loud, drunk, and misogynist, and all speak blue collar Southern dialects despite the film taking place in San Francisco. The main character himself is smart and likable and, naturally, speaks so-called standard English. And because the U.S. is still very segregated, many Americans are exposed to these stigmatized dialects primarily or exclusively through the media they consume, so it’s no surprise that these language attitudes persist when mainstream film is perpetuating them constantly.

It’s also important to note that the dialects we hear in movies are not, for the most part, true to life. Instead, Hollywood has created mediated versions of these dialects that draw upon their most well-known features, a process known as iconization. The movie version of Black English, for instance, tends to overuse features like habitual be (as in “He be late,” meaning “He is frequently late,” not “He is late right now”) and omit features like questions with no subject-auxiliary inversion (as in “What that is?”). Thus the Hollywood version of Black English doesn’t represent real speech particularly well, though most non-Black audiences perceive it as authentic.

Jeremy Rud: After systematically analyzing nearly 500 films, yet devoting individual chapters to only five dialect groups, what conclusions can you draw about intersectionality from the data set? What is the relationship between visual and oral/aural representations of diversity in contemporary American film?

Lindsey Clouse: First, although improvements are slowly being made, Hollywood still has a serious diversity problem. In the 493 films I examined, women make up less than a quarter of protagonists, Black women make up only 1.4% of protagonists, and Latinx characters make up only 1.5%. And perhaps even more concerningly, there are no queer protagonists at all. And these are the top-grossing films of the last 20 years—the films that are getting seen by the most moviegoers. The stories that Hollywood is telling are still by and large the stories of White, cishet men. Characters with intersectional identities are almost nonexistent in the most popular films and when they do appear, they rarely have major roles.

Some films do make obvious efforts to include visual diversity, but linguistic diversity is completely absent. Shazam! (2019), for instance, features a diverse coalition of orphans-turned-superheroes (though the protagonist is an able-bodied White male), yet these low-income inner-city kids all somehow speak “standard” English. We see something similar in The Matrix franchise and a number of other big-budget franchises including, I’m sad to say, Star Trek.

Speaking a stigmatized dialect will relegate you to a very narrowly defined set of roles in film. Black English, for example, is used almost exclusively by comedic and criminal characters and minor characters with small parts. Will Smith code-switches into Black English to deliver jokes in films like the Men in Black and Bad Boys franchises, and when playing a criminal in films such as Suicide Squad (2016), but uses “standard” English for serious roles such as I Am Legend (2007) and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006). With very few exceptions, Hollywood simply does not allow serious protagonists or even serious secondary characters to use stigmatized dialects.

Jeremy Rud: What was one unexpected result of your analysis? What most shocked, surprised, or inspired you? Considering each film’s linguistic representations of minorities, what films do you now appreciate more and what films soured on you and why?

Lindsey Clouse: I was expecting stereotypes to be present in the data, but I was surprised by just how prevalent they turned out to be. For instance, almost a quarter of Spanish-accented and Spanish-influenced English speakers in the filmset are inmates, ex-cons, or criminals. I was also caught off guard by the link between grammar and morality in White Southern speakers. White Southern-speaking characters who use “nonstandard” grammar features are almost twice as likely to be bad people in their films, to engage in unambiguously immoral behaviors like murder, rape, adultery, and so on without showing remorse or being redeemed. And this is a trope separate from the stereotypically racist Southern character; White Southern speakers who use supposedly nonstandard grammar are only slightly more likely to be racist than those who use the grammar of the dominant culture.

I was also pretty horrified by the amount of blackvoice and other kinds of mockery that show up in these films. Mainstream Hollywood clearly still considers it acceptable for White standard speakers to use mock versions of stigmatized accents and dialects to mock or harass those speakers or simply to make jokes or elicit a laugh. The Other Guys (2010) contains several scenes in which Will Ferrell’s character flashes back to the time he spent working as a pimp in college, and in these flashbacks he uses Mock Black English, because the stereotype of the pimp is that of a flamboyant Black man, and filmmakers apparently consider it funny to see this White man behave in this way.

There is also a running gag in a series of Adam Sandler films in which Rob Schneider plays a character of another race—East Asian, South Asian, indigenous Hawai’ian, indigenous North American—complete with yellowface or brownface make-up and a correspondingly exaggerated accent and stereotypical characterization. For instance, his indigenous Hawai’ian character, Ula of 50 First Dates (2004), is constantly drunk or high, has numerous children, and is riddled with injuries and scars from his absurd and buffoonish behavior, and his accented English is peppered with gibberish that is meant to represent the Hawai’ian language. Characters like this are shockingly common in the filmset.

I’ve developed a lot of appreciation for those filmmakers who pay attention to language and use it in thoughtful ways. So many filmmakers rely on these stale and inaccurate tropes: White Southern speakers are taken to be backward rednecks; women who use gendered speech patterns are vapid and self-absorbed; Spanish speakers are either drug dealers or maids; and so on. After seeing hundreds of examples like this, those films that subvert the tropes or that use language for more subtle and interesting types of characterization really stand out. Legally Blonde (2001) and Freaky Friday (2003) come to mind as examples that defy the tropes about gendered speech patterns. Straight Outta Compton (2015) is the rare film in which a majority of characters use Black English both authentically and consistently. And over 13% of total Spanish and Spanish-accented English speakers in the entire filmset appear in one film, Coco (2017), which actually presents a rich diversity of characterization of these speakers and is also just a beautiful, gorgeously animated film.

And of course I have to mention the filmography of Quentin Tarantino, who always makes interesting choices with language and who never goes for the easy joke. Django Unchained (2012) was the film that originally started me on this project; the character of Django may be the only serious Black English-speaking action hero in modern film, and the secondary hero, King Schultz, has a German accent—another total anomaly in American movies.

Jeremy Rud: Who should read this book? What do you want academics to take away? What do you want filmmakers to take away?

Lindsey Clouse: The book is designed to be accessible to non-linguists, so anyone with an interest in American English dialects and the unconscious biases that we attach to them should read it, as well as anyone who enjoys thinking critically about popular media.

I hope that academics will take away from this book that although we might think and talk about institutionalized prejudice and unconscious biases all the time, we might not notice the degree to which popular media are reinforcing these things, and they’re particularly easy for middle class White people to overlook. And you can point to a few recent films that have had some success, like Moonlight (2016) or Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) (both of which are incredible and you should watch them) and say, look, Hollywood is working on fixing its diversity and intersectionality problem. But then look at what’s playing at your local theater right now and you will still see a long list of films starring straight, White standard English speakers.

To any filmmakers who read this book, I would ask just that you think a little harder about language in your films. Just as the cishet White male doesn’t have to be the default, nor does supposedly standard English have to be the default. Ask yourself: what kinds of messages is my movie sending about people who speak a certain way? And, can I make a better and more interesting film by making more thoughtful, nuanced choices with language?

Tero Frestadius takes the page 99 test for his dissertation

Page 99 ends my verbatim account of broken dialogue in an anti-gentrification rally in Leimert Park, Los
Angeles in 2017. This third of a page consists of three references to Marilyn Strathern’s work, only one of
which is found in my list of references!

First, I make use of Strathern’s (2011) language to describe the relation between two parties brought together in a small classroom for a breakout session titled “Fighting the New White-Washing”. Strathern helps me to speak of the young activists protesting against art galleries in Boyle Heights and the elderly homeowners from Leimert Park who had gathered to hear them as “embedded in analogous moral contexts of support” without falling back on questions of ethnic or racial unity and division implicit in the context of anti-gentrification campaigning Los Angeles.

The second reference shows Strathern (1998) commenting on ownership and social relations and more or less states the obvious: both the young activists in Boyle Heights and the elderly homeowners in Leimert Park wanted to pass houses on in the family. In the historically segregated Los Angeles this simple observation ties together intimate moral obligations, expectations, and family wealth with the full weight of structural racism. This “breakout session” chapter cuts the thesis in half and connects housing questions to an ethnographic account of people doing art and culture. Thus, the second reference suggests that people’s readiness to “organize relations to one another as a matter of control” in housing also extends to artistic creations and notions of culture.

The final reference situates these social worlds into the larger network of relations in the city. Borrowing
Strathern’s (1996) authority again I say that ownership was a means to cut the network, to mark boundaries, and this is how I make a full circle back to the segregated geography of Los Angeles. Built into the city the Euro-American hegemonic logic of perceiving relations meant that discussions around gentrification had the tendency to revert back to questions of ethnic or racial unity and division.
Strathern’s work helps me to speak of racial hierarchy and domination in a less familiar language and page 99 is a fittingly clumsy example of this Brechtian distancing effect at work.

Strathern, M. 1996. “Cutting the Network.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2, no. 3 (1996):

Strathern, M. 1998. Divisions of interest and languages of ownership. In: Property relations: renewing the
anthropological tradition
. Hann, C. M., ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Strathern, Marilyn. 2011. Binary License. Common Knowledge 17(1): 87-103.

Kimberly Hassel takes the page 99 test

Page 99 of my dissertation begins with a passport photograph taken of me in 2016, juxtaposed with a purikura photograph taken in the same year.

Purikura, a colloquialism for “print club” (purinto kurabu), are photo booths that allow users to take photographs, edit the photographs using a stylus and touch screen, and receive instant prints of these photographs. The term may also refer to the instant prints themselves. The image caption reads:

“Standard passport photograph of the author taken in 2016 (left), juxtaposed with a purikura photograph taken in the same year (right). The purikura photograph was taken with its default filter and editing options. Note that the author’s skin has been lightened, her curls have been smoothed, her eyes have been enlarged, and her facial and bodily features have been slimmed down.”

In the paragraph that follows the images, I propose that smartphones and Social Networking Services (SNS, the localized term for social media) such as Instagram constitute portable purikura:

“Smartphones and visual-centric SNS such as Instagram constitute portable purikura. The filters, stickers, and editing features on Instagram are not unlike those found within the process of rakugaki. Most importantly, smartphones and SNS have become enveloped in the media ecology of purikura. Manufacturers of purikura such as Makesoft offer their own smartphone apps that ease the process of saving digital copies of purikura and sharing these copies on SNS. In conversations with young women, I learned that it was not uncommon to ‘research’ potential poses and editing strategies for purikura on Instagram. This saves stress and time during the actual practice of taking purikura. The prevalence of hashtags on Instagram such as #purika pose (#purikura pōzu; #プリクラポーズ) and #purikura editing (#purikura kakō; #プリクラ加工) demonstrate reliance on user-created content as a source of information and inspiration for creativity. Purikura is becoming even more convergent.”

Page 99 embodies one central argument of my dissertation: while digital technologies offer different and “new” modes of being social, this “newness” is not always “new.” Chapter Two, where page 99 is located, demonstrates how “new” mediatic assemblages involving SNS and smartphones are extensions of past and ongoing forms of gendered socialities and economies. I draw connections between historical and contemporary forms of consumerist play among Japanese girls and women: purikura culture, instabae (Instagenic) culture, the Discover Japan tourism campaign of the 1970s, and contemporary “photogenic travel” campaigns.

The intersections between “old” and “new” media constitute only part of the larger story of my dissertation. While page 99 focuses on play, my dissertation also discusses themes such as intergenerational tensions regarding the (mis)use of digital technologies. My dissertation, Mediating Me: Digital Sociality and Smartphone Culture in Contemporary Japan, examines the intersections of SNS, smartphone ownership, and shifting notions of sociality and selfhood among young people in Japan. I ask: How can the digital serve as a lens for understanding change and continuity in contemporary Japan, especially with regards to gender and identity? I conducted fieldwork in Japan between August 2019 and August 2020, and remotely between August 2020 and October 2021. Through an integration of interview data, media and literary analysis, and ethnographic vignettes called “Mediations,” I emphasize that perceived norms and moral standards centering on digital embeddedness are constantly (re)negotiated. In each chapter, I examine particular user groups and moments, such as digital activism among Black Japanese youths during the global Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020. The process of (re)negotiation became especially apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, which coincided with my fieldwork. My dissertation also highlights the indispensability, promises, and ethics of digital ethnography.  

While page 99 only captures one practice within the fabric of digital sociality in contemporary Japan, it highlights an important reminder: the dynamics that accompany digital sociality can be applicable to past, present, and future technologies, practices, and visualities.