H. Keziah Conrad: One of the central arguments you make in the book is that there is something wrong with the “successful aging” model put forward in gerontology and popular discourses. Can you say more about what the successful aging model is, and why you see it as problematic?
Anna I. Corwin: The notion of successful aging emerged in the 1990s and was adopted in both research and popular discourses as an appealing alternative to previous models that described aging as a process of inevitable decline into decrepitude. It gained popularity quickly, and the past few decades have seen a tremendous outpouring of research on the topic of successful aging – research that seeks to understand how individuals can live longer and be healthier in older age.
While this might seem to many folks like an unequivocally positive move, anthropologists and critical gerontologists have shown that the research and the popular discourses on successful aging embed neoliberal cultural values and assumptions into what they are naming as science. Instead of simply measuring health outcomes (which anthropologists know can be culturally variable), the literature promotes a model of success in older age in which individuals are independent, productive, active, ageless adults. In other words, as Sarah Lamb and others have pointed out, the successful aging paradigm is promoting a model of aging that involves not aging at all.
This is problematic for two central reasons: First, this model of success implies that one can fail at aging, which itself is an absurd notion (and has extremely important implications for how one thinks about disability and personhood). It is particularly problematic when we remember that systematic oppression including environmental racism creates a landscape that disproportionately impacts Black and Brown individuals’ health outcomes throughout the lifecourse, compounding toward the end of life
Second, the successful aging model is simply not scientifically robust – not only are measures of independence, for example, not always measures of health and well-being, they also are not values or qualities seen in a number of communities (like the sisters in Catholic convents) where people are documented to experience positive health outcomes at the end of life. As I explore in the book, in the convent, where sisters experience longevity and increased physical and psychological well-being at the end of life, the nuns demonstrate precisely the opposite cultural values and practices by emphasizing interdependence and socialization into letting go, or, as in the title of the book, Embracing Age.
Keziah Conrad: Embracing Age contributes to the literature on linguistic relativity, and you argue that language shapes how we age. You also say that simply looking for different words to replace stigmatized words like “old” will not itself change the stigma attached to aging in the US. What is it about the nuns’ language practices that goes deeper in actually shaping experience?
Anna Corwin: There have been campaigns, both formal and informal, in recent years to rid English of words that stigmatize older adults: for instance, banning the terms “old” and “elderly” in favor of “older adults.” While I am, of course, completely supportive of policies that work to destigmatize aging, I’m quite skeptical of movements that target words alone. Avoiding specific words will do nothing unless we address the underlying cultural practice and social structures that create aging stigma in the first place.
In the convent, the sisters learned to treat old age as a normative part of the life course through linguistic practices that went far beyond word choice. One of the chapters in the book (Chapter 3) looks at the sisters’ prayer practices. As it turns out, prayer is more than just a way to engage with God. Prayer also is a way for the sisters to tell each other about the needs of others in the convent, to offer and provide social support, to communicate institutional ideals, and even to express ideals about aging. For example, instead of praying for intervention or direct healing from God, the sisters in the convent would pray that a sister who was suffering find “the grace to accept” what she was enduring. Through these public, intercessory prayers, all the sisters learned community values around aging, acceptance, and the value of letting go.
Another example of the way linguistic practices shaped the nuns’ attitudes and experiences of aging was the ways the sisters treated their peers who had experienced significant decline. Even when sisters had conditions such as aphasia and couldn’t speak, or had deteriorative neurological conditions and couldn’t move, they were included in meaningful everyday activities such as worship, prayer, and social activities like card games. I devote nearly an entire chapter to looking at the micro-interactional processes through which the sisters skillfully engaged peers who have declined in mutually enjoyable, meaningful everyday activities. Building on the literature on linguistic relativity, I suggest that language and experience dynamically shape each other through habitual interactions that occur over a lifetime.
Keziah Conrad: In Embracing Age you show that socialization processes occur throughout the life-course (not only in childhood), and that socialization practices are key to how the Catholic Sisters you worked with learn to age and die. What are some of these practices? How are the nuns socialized to embrace aging?
Anna Corwin: When I arrived at the convent and began to spend time with older sisters, one of the things I was struck by was the ways that aging, end-of-life, and death were embraced in the convent as normative parts of the life-course. This stood out as particularly striking as it contrasted with mainstream practices outside the convent in the rest of the Midwest and United States where elderly adults and disabled folks are often segregated from many everyday activities and spaces. In the convent, elderly sisters continued to be integrated in meaningful everyday activities, which also meant that younger sisters continued to engage with and learn with these sisters, for example, learning how to age themselves as they interacted with their older peers.
The sisters’ embrace of aging as a normal and natural part of the life course was also underscored theologically as they emphasized notions of kenosis, which included practices of letting go of individual control and desire. This occurred in prayer, everyday narratives or storytelling over meals, in care interactions, and in social interactions such as card games. For example, in prayer, instead of petitioning the divine for healing (as one might in some Protestant communities), the sisters learned to pray for acceptance, for grace, or for God to walk with them in their pain.
They also embraced the oldest members of their community in very practical ways. In the convent infirmary, instead of caring-for and other uni-directional care interactions we often see in institutional care settings, the sisters mutually engaged with and valued elderly peers in on-going, dynamic arrangements. For example, one day when I was shadowing a sister (S. Irma — all names are pseudonyms) in the infirmary, the sister provided blessings for her elderly peers. In one of the rooms, we met Sister Helen who had aphasia and whose mobility was significantly limited. Sister Irma asked Sister Helen to bless me – and to my surprise, she proceeded to place Sister Helen’s hand on my forehead and Sister Helen blessed me using words I could not decipher. Ultimately, the form of prayer, in which God is the recipient of the request for a blessing, the fact that we could not make out her words did not matter. The blessing was seen as meaningful as she was interceding on my behalf to request the blessing. In this way, Sister Helen and her peers with significant chronic conditions such as aphasia and neurological conditions that limited communication and movement were included as meaningful interlocutors in everyday practices. By engaging elderly peers with physically and/or communicatively limiting conditions in meaningful everyday activities, the sisters demonstrated that they actively valued and included all members of the community, even those who were infirm and/or disabled. All of these practices and many more served to teach the sisters how to embrace aging as they themselves grew older.
Keziah Conrad: What kind of experiences have you had sharing this work with older adults who are seeking models of how to age gracefully or successfully?
Anna Corwin: I have presented my work to public audiences and have offered 8-week workshops in my community where I introduce my research findings and invite older adults to engage with the work. In these spaces, I have seen how pervasive and appealing the mainstream model of successful aging is in the United States and I have been struck by the power and prevalence of the dual desires to avoid aging and, if one must age, to do so while maintaining independence and control over the body. The notion of embracing aging doesn’t always sound appealing to mainstream Americans and people have sometimes voiced disappointment and resentment to me that I do not offer tips to avoid aging. However, I have seen some remarkable transformations as individuals begin to notice the popular discourses of aging that surround them. Most often, the pushback I receive develops into an articulation and rejection of the stigmatizing and troublesome discourses that individuals begin to note in their everyday lives. I have witnessed many people replace old internalized practices with new, hopeful, more loving practices.
One of my hopes for this book is that it allows more people to become aware that the popular discourses of aging which stigmatize, segregate and otherwise demean older adults are not the only way to approach aging. There is tremendous diversity in how aging is understood and experienced across cultural contexts. Doing this research has filled me with a lot of hope as I have witnessed the processes through which the nuns value and integrate their aging peers and learn to embrace interdependence and the end of life as they grow older themselves.
While page 99 of my dissertation (see below) seems far from its focus on sex apps and digital media among queer men in Beirut, the connection is palpably beneath silence as an analytic of queer freedom and possibility within dense social constraints put upon queer intimacies. Silence, as the strategic offspring of constraint, suggests a struggle between violent social homophobias and the everydayness of gay sex and intimacy in Beirut. In the digital age, this queer silence is never perfectly achieved because of all the personal and sexual information queer men circulate within dense networks of sex app users who could be anyone behind the screen. Perhaps silence has never been perfectly achievable, but just a tool within liberalism for striving toward the idyllic antonym of constraint: freedom. While silence may structure queer men’s interactions within heteronormative time and space, this dissertation examines how men use sex apps and social media to bombastically announce their queer desires and arrange gay sex within the everydayness of Lebanese cultural politics and social constraints.
This research examines how, over three decades of telecommunications’ infrastructure development in Lebanon, gay sex has become more integrated into men’s everyday lives. I argue that gay sex in Beirut is not extraordinary simply because it exists against a set of marginalizing forces, but rather that it is ordinary because of its imbrication in everyday life, habits, and routines via the functions and structures of digital media, and all manners of communicating in the digital age. Via ethnography, I map the media practices, logics, meanings, categories, and debates queer men in Beirut have developed to live with one another sexually and relationally. I show how men’s engagements with sexy information – those pieces of information men circulate to describe themselves and their desires to others – has shifted the social and political conditions of queer male intimate life in Beirut. Information encompasses a set of political questions about queerness in Middle East: the degree to which men’s information ought to reproduce Lebanese cultural politics within their intimate lives or enable novel and unexpected formations to fuel new kinds of everyday intimate possibilities.
My page 99:
Through Rasa, Haddad connects queer secrecy and discretion to the Arabic word ‘eib, which roughly translates as shame, but is more: it encompasses a broad moral order that structures everyday social relations. He writes, “the implication of ‘eib is kalam el-nas, what will people say, and so the word carries an element of conscientiousness, a politeness brought about by a perceived sense of communal obligation… I’ve come to realize that if worn correctly, the cloak of ‘eib is large and malleable enough to allow you to conceal many secrets and to repel intrusive questions” (Haddad 2016: 26). In Lebanon, family members and family friends know a lot about one’s life, and ask detailed, prying questions. And men have to devise plausible stories for how strangers enter their lives. To Haddad, ‘eib speaks to a queer freedom based on silence. If one does not talk about one’s queerness, families and social networks do not inquire, thereby not stirring speculation and gossip as a form of policing within a moral order. I recall one man, Khadim, in his late 30s who thought that because of his Arabness, people would not accept him if he came out, and he would lose his job as an educator. So, he, like many other men, was selective with who he told. He cultivated a feeling of security before he disclosed his sexuality by carefully raising the topic and testing reactions. He particularly chose people he trusted not to disclose his sexuality to others. He also did not want to disappoint and possibly cause physical trauma to his ailing mother, for whom he was in Lebanon to care (he received Canadian residency a few years before but never emigrated). There is a strong social obligation to remain tied to the family and to be there to support the family, through material, financial and emotional means. Khadim empties Lebanese homophobia (as Merabet [2014a] calls it) from its cultural and historical meaning, reducing it to a quality of being Arab. Discretion is not always out of fear of risk, but also sometimes an act of love and care.
Özge Korkmaz: I want to start with a general question. How would you describe this book to an anthropological audience, and do you see it as belonging to any particular theoretical genealogy or subfield?
Lauren Zentz: I must say that I have always seen myself as a theoretical nomad of sorts. That being said, I find that linguistic anthropology and especially sociolinguistics are good homes for such a type of scholar. I believe that I can say that my work is inspired by work that comes from various fields but that tends toward the ethnographic. Thus in this book, as I relay in the preface, I draw on diverse work ranging from the feminist qualitative studies of Lather and Smithies, to Mendoza-Denton’s and Heller’s crucial work that I tend to consider more typical for the field of linguistic anthropology; I draw on ethnographic work that is not really described as such from foremost political scientists like Theda Skocpol; ethnographic work that draws more on cultural anthropological writing paradigms in Graeber’s work; to work that blends genres, like Perry Gilmore’s ethnography-slash-memoir that also taps into long-held conversations across sociolinguistics as well as cognitive and theoretical linguistics. I read in media studies and general discourse analysis theory and methods, in addition to the above. In the end, then, I would say that my work is quite interdisciplinary, but this includes a heavy lean towards deeply qualitative and ethnographic work. And, as many who know me and my work would tell you without a moment’s hesitation, my work is of course deeply inspired by Jan Blommaert’s, whose work I also consider to be deeply political, deeply interdisciplinary, and both deeply sociolinguistic and linguistic anthropological.
Özge Korkmaz: Since this is an internet-based ethnography, I am curious as to how you define your field-site, and whether you struggled at times with working outside of the traditional domains of research? I ask this question recognizing that every ethnography comes with its problems about where the field-site begins and ends, so I wonder what those problems would be for students of social media.
Lauren Zentz: This was indeed a challenging question, and something that there is not a robust literature on to my knowledge, especially when it comes to incorporating online and social media communities/communications, so I did find myself really improvising and having to define things for myself. Ultimately for any ethnography, of course, this is what we want anyway – the field site needs to be defined from the ground up because life and community organization generally don’t line up with our preconceived notions of them. But I did find myself on perpetually shifting ground, I would say, for at least the first year (of two) that I was conducting data collection. In this study, I started out thinking that I would conduct a study of the leadership of the state organization of Pantsuit Republic Texas. This was a group that lived throughout the state but mostly in Austin, Dallas, and Houston. Given that we only met online on Slack, Facebook, and a group phone call website called FreeConferenceCall.com, I was of course unable to gain the trust of the people who I’d imagined would become my research participants – the eight or so members of the state board (although I was given permission to start this study from two of the leaders of the state board, who I already knew and who lived in Houston). Because I could not gain people’s trust, I simply could not do the study in the way that I had first dreamt it up. And so my field site had to shift dramatically. I stepped back, continued my secretarial duties for the state board, and then reflected on how I had gotten involved in the organization in the first place, and only then did I realize that I needed to go to the people who I already knew. These were, again, the two people from the state board who had initially authorized the study, and then people with whom I had worked in the leadership of PSR’s local counterpart, Pantsuit Republic Houston. So I went back to these folks and changed my strategy to collecting data from their Facebook posts both in and outside of both PSR and PSRH’s secret Facebook groups, as well as research interviews and field notes. I asked sixteen or so people in total to participate, and ultimately ended up with a total of eight. Of these eight, some were more available than others for various work, home, and activism related reasons, and so I collected more and less information from each depending on their individual circumstances and my relationships with them each individually.
After all of this strategy shifting, my primary source of data became Facebook. So this was primarily an online ethnography, but let’s not forget that there is not a separation between online and offline life, contrary to some early (and continuing) beliefs that online life is supposedly fake and offline life is putatively real. As with every technology, from the telegraph to the phone and the television and so on, these have all been integrated into our lives. We don’t have a TV-watching life and a non-TV watching life; we just have a life, in which we watch TV and then refer to what we’ve watched after the fact. Similarly, we have a life in which we engage on various online social media platforms via our smartphones, our tablets, our desktop and laptop computers, and so on. On these sites we engage in individual chats, group chats, secret group pages, public pages, our personal walls on which we post publicly and/or privately, and so on, and then we met with several of the people we were just talking to online and we continue the conversation or move on to different topics. I engaged with my research participants online, but I also met up with them in person, at state board meetings, local PSRH public meetings, protests and other events. So while I emphasize online data in this book, it is informed by a more holistic experience while I was acting as a member (albeit peripheral) of the leadership groups of these organizations.
Özge Korkmaz: As ethnographers, we already know that whatever it is that gives political identities their unity of meaning is not static but processual. Yet we are also pretty good at documenting the ways people strive to create a somewhat stable one that is consistent with its own facts. What does this identity-work look like in the internet? What resources and techniques are available to people?
Lauren Zentz: I actually just met with a couple of my research participants the other day – now that they had contributed to the construction of a monograph through their own words via social media posts and interviews, they wanted to a have a sort of mini book club about it. It was really fun. But the reason I bring it up is just to say that we talked about how much data I ended up collecting in this study. Over 13,000 screenshots from over 6,000 original posts. Plus interviews, plus field notes, and so on. It was so, so overwhelming. But I found that something similar to what has happened in my previous studies happened as I sorted through all the data – and even as I simply watched my participants’ posts go by on my news feed on a daily basis. What happened is that the themes started to repeat themselves. This is sort of a standard, nonformal cue for how we know we’ve finally collected enough data – the themes that we’ve seen arise through our grounded, inductive experience start to repeat themselves. So as I watched these participants “write themselves into being” (boyd 2010) – particularly as political and activist beings – over the two-ish years of posts and interactions I had with them, I started to see the themes of the narratives they were constructing, over time and across interactions, about themselves, their activist group(s), and the geopolitical formations in which they found themselves, and this is how I saw those stable and unified stories emerge over time.
Özge Korkmaz: Lastly, increasingly our lives become suffused with contradictions that emerge out of a perceived gap between ethical commitments, on one hand, and the real situation, on the other. What does the world of internet activism have to offer us in terms of contemporary configurations of morality and politics? Do you think this desire to get involved in things, especially against the background of the rise of social movements across the globe, teach us something new about politics and political systems?
Lauren Zentz: I’m really not sure that it teaches us anything new about people’s desire to get involved because I’m not sure we actually do get more involved. I don’t want this prior statement, however, to come across as contradictory with the critiques that I posit (building on others’ work) in the book regarding notions such as “slacktivism”. I do think that there is value to, as Dennis (2019) reframes the former term, “microactivism”. Let’s take, for instance, a conversation that was held in the secret PSRH group in late 2018 – so two years after the formation of these groups/after Trump’s election. Lucy, a leader in both PSRH and PSR who was very active both on and offline in these and ally organizations, wrote a post describing her metamorphosis, basically from a rather soft-spoken person with opinions she didn’t bother voicing much into a very outspoken person who was not at all shy about her beliefs and opinions, political or otherwise. After she authored this post, numerous people who participated online in the PSRH group responded that they, too, had undergone such a change. They had shifted their relationships, gotten rid of people who did not support their more outspoken selves, spoken up more to family members with whom they disagreed, and so on. And those responding to Lucy’s posts were certainly not as active offline as she was; however, their membership in this support community that had come together around a shared set of political beliefs/ideologies after the 2016 election had provided them at least one important source of social support that enabled them to stand firm in how they felt about the US’s political circumstances at the time. So in this case we see that online activities that might be derided by some as slacktivism were actually quite the contrary – they were in many senses life changing. So perhaps the growth of online activism at best has taught me that lots of people do want to get involved, and they really do care, but the burdens of regular life prevent them from doing anything more than talking online about what they care about. Face to face activism, as I witnessed it through my engagements with my research participants as well as the other leaders of these groups, is immensely time consuming, and, as I write in the book, people with families, full time jobs, and so on, quite frankly might be relieved to have a social media outlet where they can feel connected to people who feel the same as them because they certainly don’t have the time, energy, bandwidth, and so on to meet up in face to face activities and “do the work”. They instead provide and participate in a sort of critical mass of moral and ideological support that helps keep the movement moving.
In this light, I suppose it is appropriate to end where I began, mentioning Jan Blommaert, who referred to online activities as expansions of our communicative repertoires. As he and Ondřej Prochazka wrote specifically in reference to online activism, this “knowledge activism” in online spaces must be “serious business” (Prochazka and Blommaert 2019), and as such worthy of serious consideration as an integral part of how people communicate throughout the myriad contexts of their daily lives. In this book, I hope to have given insight into how such serious business played itself out in a quite momentous shift in national, state-level, and local politics in the US.
Narges Bajoghli: What made you write this book and want to focus on the media in Afghanistan, particularly?
Wazhmah Osman: In western discourse, from Rudyard Kipling to Winston Churchill, the prevailing image of Afghans has been a stereotypical, racist, and dehumanizing one. Afghans are portrayed as savages, militant, and barbaric. These colonial tropes took on new currency after the tragic events of 9/11. There was so much misinformation about Afghan people and Afghanistan in the news, documentaries, books, and by political pundits, which resulted in acts of violence and discrimmination against people from the Muslim world including my communities. I knew I wanted to redress and challenge these problematic dominant narratives by directing the global dialogue about Afghanistan to Afghans themselves. During my pre-research trips to Afghanistan, I noticed the rapid expansion of the Afghan media sector, largely thanks to the post 9/11 international donor community’s funding and training. I also noticed how the media is at the heart of the most important national debates about women’s rights, democracy, modernity, and Islam. For countries in the global south and east, like Afghanistan, who are described as stuck in time and incapable of modernizing, showing the dynamism of cultural contestations and social movements that occur in and around media is one of the best ways to dispel the immutability and failure discourses.
Narges Bajoghli: Your research for the book is very ethnographic and embedded and impressive in its scope and access. How did you go about the research of this book, especially given how fraught your fieldsites were/are, with active war, occupation, and violence?
Wazhmah Osman: Thank you. To be honest, initially I did not want to go back to Afghanistan for my dissertation research, which this book is based on. I needed a break from Afghanistan. Post 9/11 I had been going back and forth for journalistic assignments and documentary film work. Pre 9/11 I was also going back and forth to visit my father and other family and to maintain my cultural ties and connections. Afghanistan, just like its people, is a lively and beautiful place but it has been marked by over four decades of death and destruction and lawlessness, which makes everyday life there extremely difficult and dangerous. I partially grew up in Af-Pak during the height of the Cold War. So I’m no stranger to the chaos and violence of war but the extent and extremity of it never ceases to surprise me. Sadly for Afghans in Afghanistan, it has become mundane.
But I also knew that in-depth on the ground research with local Afghans was the best way to challenge elitist and problematic views from the top and disrupt their simplistic and imperialist narratives that drum up hate, violence, and war. Also in dialogue with Faye Ginsburh, our advisor, she encouraged me to work with Afghans in Afghanistan as opposed to the diaspora in Queens NY. Going back there for my book research and fieldwork was my longest and hardest trip back. As you know, long term fieldwork and research is such a privilege but also arduous. It took a big personal toll on me. There’s the emotional challenges of returning as an expatriate to a former home that is a war-torn shell of what it used to be, being apart from loved ones, and the loss of that. More seriously and devastatingly though, I lost research subjects and interlocutors I had befriended to the violence of war. Brave media makers, human rights activists, reformers, and aid workers risk their lives on a daily basis to create a progressive and democratic society. They are regularly targeted by local and international warlords and conservative groups. I survived and have the privilege to leave and tell their stories. Many people don’t.
Narges Bajoghli: In the book, you argue that television is at the center of violence in Afghanistan–“generating it and also being targeted by it.” Yet, you argue, television is also providing a semblance of justice, debate and healing. Can you expand more on this central argument in your book and how television becomes such a site of contention?
Wazhmah Osman: Due to high illiteracy rates and limited access to computers and the internet, the dystopic state of the country, television (and radio to a lesser extent) have become a popular and powerful medium in Afghanistan. A lot of hopes, fears, and funding are funneled into it. I set out to study the impact and cultural contestations that the media is enabling. I mainly used two methodologies, content analysis of the most popular genres on Afghan television and my ethnographic research into their production and reception. While space won’t permit me to get into the details, I can say that Afghan media producers, at great risk to themselves, are providing a platform for local reform, activism, and indigenous modernities to challenge both local conservative groups and the international community that has Afghanistan in its sights. The media has opened up space crucial for private and public discussion around important national and cultural issues. I also discovered that Afghan peoples’ need for justice via more serious programming and entertainment via more fun and distracting programs are not mutually exclusive. We cannot underestimate the value of entertainment in war-torn countries like Afghanistan. The antidote to war and its atrocities is equal parts reflection and distraction. I mean look at how streaming services and media consumption have skyrocketed during the pandemic. This is not just because we were captive audiences at home. It’s because the media provides a semblance of calm and understanding of our chaotic, violent, and confusing world.
Narges Bajoghli: Although I think most American/American-based scholars and anthropologists should have an interest in this book given the decades-long American war and occupation of Afghanistan, we unfortunately know that not to be the case. We’ve talked a lot about this before, but it seems like the two places you and I study, Iran and Afghanistan, respectively, are always in the news, and have been for decades, yet all that ink spilled has not led to deeper knowledge in the Euro-American sphere, including, unfortunately in many corners of academia. How does this book speak to anthropological debates about media in general, and about media and democracy under occupation? What can this book teach us and our students who may not focus on Afghanistan as a main area of study?
Wazhmah Osman: Like you said Afghanistan, like Iran, your site of research, has occupied the public and popular imagination of Americans for decades through the news and Hollywood films. Most of that has been in relation to wars and conflict like the Soviet Invasion and Occupation of Afghanistan, the events of 9/11, War on Terror, and the US Forever War in Afghanistan. The US government and therefore the American people have been entangled in over forty years of wars and military operations in the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia). I think many Americans are confused about what their taxpayer money has been funding for so long. I wrote this book with that in mind, to cross-over into the public sphere. While of course I engage with anthropological debates about media and academic theories of media and democracy under occupation, at the same time, I tried to make it as readable and engaging as possible to general audiences as well. Thanks to whistleblowers and investigative journalists, reports of extrajudicial torture, blacksites, and rendition programs are emerging, which are forcing people to reckon with US militarism abroad. Yet at the same time, many of the proponents of media independence and human rights in Afghanistan who train and support journalists and activists are NGOs funded by the United States. In Television and the Afghan Culture Wars, I tried to provide a complete blueprint and outline for understanding the complex geopolitical situation in Afghanistan.
Narges Bajoghli: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sorts of impact do you hope it will have?
Wazhmah Osman: In addition to academics and the public, I also wrote this book for politicians and policy makers. If the US truly wants an exit strategy out of its Forever War in Afghanistan with its ensuing global refugee crisis, it is time to start supporting and centering the voices and stories for self-determination, peace, and justice. Rehashing the same dangerous stereotypes of despotism and barbarism precludes the fundamental agency, creativity and intellect of people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Far beyond the archetypal Hollywood alignment of forces of good (the US military) versus bad (Islamic extremists and terrorists), there is a wide range of people. As I describe in my book, there are many Afghan human rights activists, journalists, and media makers who risk their lives everyday working to lay the foundations for democracy and human rights. They are subjected to threats, physical attacks, and death for challenging local and international warlords. In the book I highlighted their work and organizations in an effort to expose readers to the creativity and agency of Afghan reformers as well as their pain and suffering. These activists and reformers also offer the best solutions and hope for creating a more diverse, equitable, and violence free society.
Laura Miller: Although there is a growing literature on queer sexualities and identities in Japan, there are fewer studies devoted to queer linguistics in the English language scholarship. Your book is very accessibly written yet is firmly planted within both of these research domains. What inspired you to work on a project that would address this research gap, yet still not require extensive knowledge of the Japanese language on the part of the reader?
Claire Maree: I am delighted, and somewhat relieved to learn that the book is accessible to readers. As a key aspect of this research project is examining the rich social semiotics of script manipulation and design elements of popular media texts in Japan, I really wanted to be able to convey that to readers. So, I came up with a complex system of transcription symbols for the written texts, and for the script that appears in the audiovisual media as well. When combined with the conventions used for transcriptions of spoken texts, I was hoping that this would provide an insight into the layerings of meaning inscribed onto many contemporary media texts.
Language is a fundamental component of representation and performance of a wide diversity of genders and sexualities. Focusing specifically on Japan, research on conduct literature illustrates how notions about how one must (or must not) speak and communicate are overwhelming tied to gendered notions of personhood. Communicating as a successful businessperson, a caring parent, an attractive potential marriage partner are entangled with understandings of what it is to be a businessperson, a parent, a marriage partner. Moral panics that circulate around correct language use are regimented by cisgender, heteronormative, able-bodied, middle-to-upper-middle-class, urban centered ideologies of selfhood and citizenship. Subversion of these ideologies is also done with and through language. Creative use of and manipulation of language within queer communities is one such example. In this project I am interested in cultural practices that commodify such practices and mobilize them within mainstream cultural flows.
Laura Miller:You analyze the figure of the Japanese “queerqueen” through linguistic performance and media representations. For those not familiar with this term, could you describe what it means in your book?
Claire Maree: queerqueen figures are flamboyant and creative individuals who offer wickedly acerbic commentary of popular culture and personalities. I take the term from a particular moment in contemporary Japanese culture when the so-called “queen-personality” (onē-kyara) saturated lifestyle media, and in particular the make-over genre. The term “queen” (onē) emerges from queer culture and the term entered mainstream consciousness around the turn of the millennium. Despite being touted as a “new” phenomenon, the queen-personality (onē-kyara) figure can be under understood as recycling a familiar cultural trope—that of the (sometimes) cross-dressing, (sometimes) cross-speaking figure who is a hybrid of men-who-love-men and the effeminate queer man.
The term queerqueen is written in lowercase throughout the book. This is to avoid formulating a fixed, characterization of queerqueen and avoid it being used a static nomenclature. Rather, I aim to examine how the queerqueen has historically been inscribed into popular media texts through processes and practices of language-labour. That is, through collaborative practices such as transcription and editing. This collaborative work arranges specific linguistic stylizations to appear as authentic representation of personalities who are positioned as queerqueen figures. These are curated as linguistic excess. The linguistic excess exceeds conventions of written and spoken Japanese—something that is both delightfully entertaining and politically subversive, and also in need of constant taming.
Laura Miller: You talk about the ways queerqueen linguistic performances are commodified and packaged. For example, there are a number of spectacular star-queens promoted by the Japanese culture industry. Can you tell us a little about one of them?
Claire Maree: One writer and personality who has emerged as a super-star queerqueen figure in contemporary mainstream media culture is Matsuko Deluxe. Matsuko is a prolific columnist who gained mainstream popularity in the early 2000s, before transforming into the face of variety programs in the mid-2010s. The title of his collection of columns published in 2001 as I am Matsuko Deluxe is subtitled in English as “me, a sexy human-being torpedo!” In queerqueen: Linguistic Excess in Japanese Media, I analyse the late-late television show Matsuko no heya (Matsuko’s Room; Fuji Television Network, 2009-2011). Unlike the busy sets and text-on-screen style of variety shows of the same era, Matsuko’s Room is stark. The show pivots on a staged (im)politeness that is exploited for laughs. Creative censorship beeps are edited into the show in the post-production process to regiment Matsuko’s speech as excessive. Within the context of the tightly constructed “unedited” feel of the show, self-censorship inscribes limits of disclosure.
Laura Miller:How do changes in the media representations of the queerqueen personality correspond to changes in stereotypical norms of gender and sexuality?
Claire Maree: I see these both as intertwined in non-linear ways. Part of what I argue in this book, is that sexuality, desire and gender are essential to the business of mainstream media, and that new trends and supposed booms around these are created though processes of reclassification and repackaging. How media representations may or may not map onto social change and/or legislative change, however, is a complex issue. For example, attempts to put forward legislation that “promotes understanding of LGBT people” were abandoned in May, and Japan’s Supreme Court’s Grand Bench has just this month (June, 2021) has upheld a 2015 ruling that requiring married couples to use the same surname is constitutional. My current collaborative project focuses on this issue—of how booms and the backlashes occur simultaneously as media discourses intersect with socio-cultural stereotypes in the context of political discourses, and transnational flows of discourse.
Sheng Long: In your book, you quoted a Chichewa phrase “kuphika madata” (cooking data) to analyze the global health’s quantification projects in Malawi. Can you briefly unpack what it means by cooking data? How does your ethnography of cooking data give rise to a new theorization of data?
Crystal Biruk: In the opening pages of my book, I discuss how I often heard Malawian fieldworkers use this vernacular phrase to playfully, mostly jokingly, comment on their colleagues’ job performance, invoking it to accuse them of collecting data in a sloppy or lazy way, or of outright ‘faking’ data by writing down numbers into blank spaces on the questionnaire without bothering to ask the questions of research participants. For example, fieldworkers would make this accusation if someone finished an interview more quickly than expected (which signaled, perhaps, that they skipped some questions or made up answers for expediency). In Chichewa, kuphika means to cook or cooking (as in the kitchen); a cooking pot is called mphika. The connotations of –phika signal the practices and processes of cooking food: food, not unlike data, must be prepared in a specific way and under specific conditions in order to be good or edible. We can take this analogy further by thinking of the questionnaire—with its boxes waiting to be filled in and empty household rosters yet unpopulated by names—as a kind of ‘recipe’, a means toward an effective end or desired outcome (whether a perfect key lime pie or pristine dataset!). Before collecting any data from rural households, fieldworkers attended intensive trainings, led by American or European demographers, that spanned 7-10 days and aimed to inculcate good habits (writing neatly, not missing any questions, probing for answers if respondents said, “I don’t know”, double checking the internal consistency of a completed questionnaire, etc). But most of all, fieldworkers were cautioned against “cooking data.” The Malawian fieldworkers thus appropriated this phrase from their employers (demographers), which I read as a commentary on how often and forcefully they were told “Never cook data in the field”: to accuse someone of cooking data was funny precisely because ‘cooked data’ was so feared by their bosses.
From the colonial period to the present, African fieldworkers involved in knowledge production projects ranging from censuses to global health projects have been suspected of fabricating data, and cast as a threat to data quality—these anxieties, of course, embed racist assumptions and stereotypes. Yet, this fear of human error or deliberate mucking up of data in the field relies on a taken-for-granted fundamental difference between raw and cooked data, a binary that my book (building on work by others, such as Lisa Gitelman’s important edited volume “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron) destabilizes. Demographers use the term ‘cooked data’ in two main ways. In the first sense, cooked data are raw data (say, numbers, codes, or other information written onto questionnaires by fieldworkers) that have been processed, ‘cleaned,’ and analyzed according to demographic standards and norms; this kind of cooking is necessary to ensure that data are high quality. In the second moralized sense of “cooking”, however, raw data are deformed, dirty, or made useless as a result of bad data practices, fabrication, or human error. My book contributes to conversations in critical data studies and STS by drawing on long-term ethnographic experiences within survey research projects in Malawi to closely track the social lives of data, in the process illuminating how fieldworkers improvise, reinvent and improve upon top-down standards (a form of ‘cooking’) for data collection as they implement them in the field. From some of the ethnographic vignettes and scenes in the book, I hope readers glean that making good data requires creativity, tinkering, and improvisation as much as it does harmonization and consistency. I hope that my book prompts readers to step away for a moment from arbitrating whether any given data set is good or bad, weak or strong, and toward thinking about how data are constituted by their everyday processes of production and circulation, including social and political contexts. Field research may appear to be simply the systematic collection of information from respondents, but in reality it necessitates a complex and flexible infrastructure of people, equipment, technical and logistical know-how, and so on. Seeing this firsthand can denaturalize the assumptions that data are neutral, objective, or ‘clean’.
Sheng Long: As you say in the book, you are a fieldworker among fieldworkers. Doing research about researchers and fieldworkers, how did you handle your relationship with them? Were there any conflicting moments that led to a compromise of each other?
Crystal Biruk: I am grateful to the demographers and Malawian fieldworkers who were kind enough to let an anthropologist tag along in the field (notably, ‘the field’ carries many of the same connotations for them as it does for anthropologists). I knew that in order to understand the particular cultures of science that make up projects like those I spent time with, it would be important to be part of the everyday and repetitive work of fieldwork. Most days, we woke up very early, got into minibuses or SUVs (approximately 6 fieldworkers per vehicle) and headed to rural areas of a given district in Malawi. Once we arrived to a central point near the households from which we would be collecting data that day, a Malawian field supervisor would hand out questionnaires and give each fieldworker a hand-drawn map—crafted by a fieldworker in a prior iteration of the survey—to help them find their assigned household. At the household, the fieldworker would identify their respondent and engage in the interview/questionnaire for anywhere from 1-3 hours. When finished, they would check the questionnaire for completion or internal inconsistencies and submit it to their supervisor for another check. I helped with these checks (and with other tasks in the office and the field) and, thus, became familiar with the kind of ‘assembly line’ on which statistics are manufactured. Some of the statistical claims—the numbers and percentages—that now appear in published papers in demography journals are made up of data points (say, a number written in pencil on a questionnaire page by a fieldworker) that I myself may have checked! This experience helped me come to see statistics not as abstract, free-floating numbers, but, rather, as social artifacts born of hundreds of relations and exchanges. A lot of my fieldwork involved trying my best to ‘touch’ data, to make the abstract tangible, so as to better see and understand them. The Malawian fieldworkers saw me as a novice fieldworker—I hadn’t, in the beginning, accumulated the many years of expertise and knowledge they had, as most of them spend much of the year working for projects like the ones I describe in the book. This made it harder for me, for example, to ‘check’ questionnaires (e.g., to know whether a response about how many kgs of a crop a household had grown last year was viable or not) rapidly and efficiently earlier on. I was, at the time, of a similar age to the fieldworkers, and because I was helping out in small but useful ways, it was quite easy to build rapport and trust.
As a kind of honorary fieldworker, I was privy to many things that happened in our long days in the field—the kinds of deviations from schedules or set plans that occur in all workplaces—but my allegiance was primarily with the fieldworkers. I think in the beginning they were a bit surprised that I kept coming back every day, and over time, they shared with me their grievances and concerns and gripes about what they called ‘living project to project,’ about the lack of employment in Malawi (most fieldworkers had skills and educational credentials that exceeded those needed to do the kind of data collection work they were engaged in), and about the difficulties of being ‘middle-men’ between foreign projects and rural Malawians. Demographers would sometimes inquire with me why the field teams hadn’t visited as many households as required in a given day, and I would have to navigate these encounters carefully. However, as a kind of ‘middle-person’ myself (between project management and the fieldworkers), I also brought suggestions or critiques from the fieldworkers—say, about the wording of a question on the questionnaire that was not working, for example—to the demographers. I reported back to them some of the challenges faced by fieldworkers, especially pertaining to their struggles in dealing with complicated situations or reluctant participants. Fieldworkers were typically too busy and exhausted from the work of fieldwork to make these suggestions or reports themselves. I thought a lot about reciprocity in doing this work, and did my best to not be ‘dead weight’ by contributing to the labor of data collection. As I built meaningful relationships with the fieldworkers around me, of course, we also became entangled in relations of mutual support and drew on our respective knowledge, networks, and resources to help each other achieve our diverse interests.
Sheng Long: Instead of being mere “respondents” in surveys, you have found that Malawians actively participated in the HIV/AIDS research. On the one hand, their cultural practices were interwoven with the research (such as the gift); On the other, they showed great comprehension of these projects, beyond the mystification of indigenous notions (such as the taboo of blood). How do anthropological methods contribute to a different understanding of the Malawians’ agency in these research projects?
Crystal Biruk: For generations, development and global health’s dominant discourse and practices have presumed African lack, neediness, backwardness, or ignorance. Jemima Pierre (2020) discusses this in great detail in her analysis of the racial vernaculars of development in Ghana. In global health worlds, when Africans refuse to participate in research or other projects, dominant explanations always rest on cultural misunderstandings. When frictions arise between health or development projects and participants, it is often assumed that they can be fixed or ameliorated by implementing more culturally sensitive protocols, translating project materials into local languages, or interfacing with locally influential figures. If researchers properly and thoroughly explain a project’s intent and secure truly informed consent, so the story goes, Africans will willingly and enthusiastically participate. In fact, informed consent is often the gold standard for arbitrating whether research is ethical or not. Yet, I found that in Malawi, even when informed consent was secured in proper fashion—that is, rural Malawians were well-informed of the particulars of participating in the survey project and heartily agreed to do so—tensions and conflicts still arose, primarily around the question of reciprocity between research projects and respondents.
In Chapter 3, I discuss how the bars of soap given by research projects to research participants as a token of thanks for their time and energy became a site of contestation and debate in the field (I also consider the historical resonances of ‘soap’ as quintessential colonial commodity). Even those who gratefully received the soap would comment on the ‘smallness’ of this gift, or suggest they deserved more for the work (using the Chichewa word for labor) they did answering questions. Many suggested they should receive money instead of soap. Further, in commenting on what they saw as lopsided and uneven relations between themselves and researchers, they sometimes accused researchers of being bloodsuckers, or sucking their blood. This accusation fits into a larger transhistorical genre that demonizes dangerous others (colonial officials, researchers, politicians, doctors) who are said to steal or accumulate blood for nefarious ends or to ‘do business.’ These accusations that researchers are something akin to vampires are easily dismissible as conspiracy theories, and often explained by reference to culture, as in “Malawians believe the strangest things” or “Rural Malawians do not understand the value or intent of research”. For me, the potential of ethnography in global health and development worlds is its ability to reveal moments of friction or conflict such as these, and to analyze them outside the narrow frame of a single encounter between one project and a population. In documenting and analyzing critiques of the soap-gift made by those who received it, I observed that participants situated present day projects in historical experiences and legacies of the extraction of data and other resources, pointing out that the benefits that researchers accrue are far greater than those they receive. At first glance, the fraught soap-for-information exchange might seem to highlight cultural tensions between ‘African’ and ‘western’ codes of giving. But upon closer examination, it becomes clear that participants conceive of research as a realm of negotiations over proper distributions of past, present, and future benefits. Rather than cultural misunderstanding or unfounded conspiracy theory, the accusation that researchers are sucking blood or the complaint that a bar of soap is a too small gift are historically informed critiques of a social and political order where some people are always giving and others are always taking. Anthropology of/in global health projects demonstrates that the dynamics that play out in any given project cannot be understood without attending to broader histories wherein data, labor, land, and other resources have been stolen amid broken promises of future gain or benefit.
Sheng Long: Following international demographic research projects, you have traced the traveling of numbers among multiple actors in hierarchical relationships. What are different forms of labor, visible or invisible, involved in the data collection, analyses, and dissemination?
Crystal Biruk: Indeed, my book tries very much to answer the deceptively simple question, What’s in a number? In so doing, I tried to think at every turn about the materiality and relationality of data, that is, about how any given data point (say, a respondent’s response to the question “How frequently do you use condoms in sexual encounters?”) only comes to exist through nested and complex relations between people, things, and ways of knowing. This is why I arranged the book roughly around what I call the life course of data, from survey design to the circulation of polished statistics in policy forums or published work. Part of my project as I wrote the book was to emphasize the invisible labor of Malawian fieldworkers, whose expertise, as discussed above, was crucial to the smooth running of research projects, yet is rarely credited or acknowledged in publications or policy that result from the data they so painstakingly collect. Since the earliest surveys and research endeavors carried out in Africa, fieldworkers have appeared in archived accounts and discourse as individuals whose ‘menial’ and ‘unskilled’ labor is necessary to field research. Yet, they are framed as instrumentalized as cogs in a larger machinery and homogenized or mentioned offhand as “native assistants” or “data collectors”. I hope my book challenges such depictions and prompts all of us, including anthropologists, to think deeply about how we know what we know, and about how to ‘cite’ and acknowledge all the labor that goes into producing knowledge.
Sheng Long: Citing James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, you similarly frame the medical projects as “seeing like a research project.” What do you observe as the major consequences of “seeing like a research project” in global heath? How do you envision your research as academic and public interventions to these issues and limitations?
Crystal Biruk: Demography, or the quantitative study of human populations, is generally a positivist science rooted in the assumption that reality can be observed, measured, and counted. The questionnaires discussed in my book are tools that aim to do just that. Whereas anthropologists are number averse and harbor suspicions of quantification as a mode of knowing and governance, demographers fetishize numbers. For Scott, seeing like a state means aspiring to make something yet unseen or unknown legible and visible: this transformation from illegible to legible always involves standardization, reduction, and abstraction. The methods used to calculate or organize or map a population or a terrain or a phenomenon always bake in assumptions about who or what is important, about who or what counts, about who or what is valuable (according to Scott, 19th century German foresters’ conception of ‘the forest’ reduced forests—as complex and diverse ecologies and relations—to metricized concepts like revenue yield). In a similar way, demographers build into the design of survey questionnaires assumptions about what is worth knowing, assumptions about what constitutes even the basic units of analysis that underlie the validity of surveys (such as ‘the household’ or ‘poverty’, concepts that, of course, may be defined or imagined differently by, say, an anthropologist!), and assumptions about what good data are. All of these determine, then, what is ‘seen’ or what it is possible to know from the tools, technologies, and epistemologies that constitute quantitative/demographic data. This is why what is seen by an anthropologist may differ from what is seen by a demographic survey project, even if they are looking at the same thing. Yet, the point of my book is not necessarily to elevate anthropological ways of knowing or seeing above other disciplinary modes of knowing. Rather, I hope that my book, in attending closely to the micro-interactions and tacit assumptions and value judgments baked into demographic datasets, might prompt all of us who make, consume, or think about data of diverse kinds to understand them as contingent and partial artifacts of social processes and normalization (‘disciplines discipline us’, as I tell my students!)
As for the consequences of seeing like a research project for global health in particular: as anthropologists and others working in critical global health studies have shown, global health (as assemblage of actors, resources, geographies, and priorities) very much prizes and desires quantitative data such as the numbers discussed in my book. Numbers travel and translate easily and carry an aura of objectivity and self-evident truth that make them a convincing stand in for reality. Yet, when we identify a problem with or through numbers, say high rates of malnutrition, it narrows our imagination of solutions or interventions for that problem. In my current work on the Global Fund’s efforts to ‘end AIDS’ in Africa, for example, I have observed that donors are interested in counting vulnerable populations (such as men who have sex with men, MSM) so as to have a denominator of ‘people at highest risk of HIV’ against which their efforts and interventions can operate. This denominator is the starting point for measuring how many vulnerable people are ‘reached,’ ‘tested,’ or ‘treated.’ Achieving impressive numbers in this regard stand in as proof of success or efficacy, yet, such metrics overlook or exclude from measurement the forms of vulnerability that impinge on, say, an LGBTI-identified person’s life in Malawi. These genres of vulnerability far exceed the viral load or HIV status of that individual. Global health is successful at demonstrating success in targeting narrow, easily quantifiable problems, but, of course, less successful at ‘seeing’ health or other problems as hopelessly entangled in complex contexts and as a product of structural or political failings. In my book, I try to move beyond the anthropological impulse to show, using ethnographic methods, what numbers get wrong or what they overlook. To do so, I examine not so much the finished numbers themselves and what they elide, but rather the criteria and metrics that underscore and determine data’s production and consumption, and measure whether or not they come to ‘count’ as data in the first place. A granular analysis of research worlds in a particular place at a particular time encourages us to more critically engage with the kinds of evidence we too often take for granted, whether inside or outside our discipline or training.
Gitelman, Lisa, ed. 2013. “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron. Boston:MIT Press.
Pierre, Jemima. 2020. “The racial vernaculars of development: A view from West Africa.” American Anthropologist 122(1):86-98.
Janina Fenigsen: You’ve written a fascinating account of the 2016 US tour of the Algerian theater troupe Istijmam, which was sponsored by the Center Stage program of the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. How did you come to be involved with this tour? More broadly, what led you to study Arab Algerian theater after writing a first book on Berber/Amazigh music (Berber Culture on the World Stage: From Village to Video)?
Jane Goodman: As I discuss in the book, Algeria underwent a very difficult period in the 1990s, referred to as the “Dark Decade.” That period of conflict escalated during my doctoral research, when I was working in a Kabyle Berber mountain village. I had to leave Algeria at the end of 1993, when it became unsafe for me to remain and unsafe for the village to continue hosting me. When I was ready to return to Algeria in 2008, I was not given permission by the US Fulbright program to go back to the Kabyle region, as it was still considered too dangerous. I had good research and personal connections in the western city of Oran, and it was among the safest areas of the country. For those reasons, I decided to change regions. At the same time, in my earlier research (both ethnographic and archival) I had noticed that Algerians had long been practicing amateur theater, and I was curious about what contemporary theater troupes were doing. Oran is the city where Algeria’s renowned playwright, the late Abdelkader Alloula, had been based (and where he was tragically assassinated in 1994). I was fortunate to have had a personal introduction to the Istijmam Culturelle theater troupe, which included several members of Alloula’s family and was working in his legacy. Istijmam was only in its second year of existence at the time, but they were already invested in working in an experimental or laboratory mode. The actors were open to me being present for their rigorous daily rehearsals. To them, my engagement was another way for them to experience other disciplinary perspectives and approaches. During my stay in Oran in 2008-2009, I also carried out research with several other troupes (which I’ve written about elsewhere). Fast forward a couple of years: I saw an announcement flash by on email that the Center Stage program of the US State Department was inviting nominations of music and theater troupes from Algeria and Tanzania, the program’s featured countries in 2016. I nominated Istijmam, and when they were accepted, I knew instantly that I wanted to write about the tour. The book unfolds very much in relation to the tour itself: I take up the play Apples that they presented, the historical context of the early 1990s when the play was written, the actors’ engagement with the play some 25 years later, and the genre of the Algerian “halqa” or marketplace theater that inspired both the playwright Alloula and the troupe. I also write about our process as we translated the play from Arabic to English, and, of course, about the various encounters that took place with a range of US audiences on the tour itself.
Janina Fenigsen: You discuss the scenarios of cultural exchange encounters as heavily scripted genres that create “a sense among participants that they have seen it all before”—both comfort and constraint—while noting the potential for a space of critique to open up. You also say that to the members of the troupe, the tour was somewhat disappointing. To what extent and in what ways in their engagements with American publics were they able to break out of the script? Was this particular script more difficult to shake off than those of their other tours? Did they feel that they were able to open up a space of critique at all? if so, in what ways?
Jane Goodman: In the book, I developed the idea of scenarios of cultural exchange from Diana Taylor’s work on scenarios as repertoires of scripted encounters that tend to unfold in similar ways time and time again. I saw this tour as situated within a decades-old scenario of cultural exchange and cultural diplomacy through the arts, which has been informing artistic exchange since at least the early 20th century (and even earlier, if we want to include the worlds’ fairs). As a form of “soft diplomacy,” these exchanges are based on the premise that encounters at the interpersonal level can “scale up” to become signs of good will between nations. The Center Stage program, formed under President George W. Bush, was envisioned as a way to provide a softer, friendlier view of America to countries where populations did not necessarily see the US in a positive light. Yet the scenario of cultural exchange entails a familiar repertoire of encounters or social roles through which the tours are structured, such as meet-and-greet events, classroom visits, workshops, or panel discussions. It relies on all participants knowing the script. Whereas the tours are structured around valorizing cultural difference, in fact, as genres of encounter they are deeply familiar. Although the cultural content itself may be different, the encounters through which a cultural exchange tour unfolds are similar worldwide. If they weren’t, it would not be possible to orchestrate a tour like this successfully. So this is the paradox I take up in the book: Cultural exchange tours are organized around a premise of cultural difference, but in fact they require deep familiarity on all sides with the performances associated with genres of encounter.
As to whether this script was more difficult to “shake off” than some of their other tours, I think that Istijmam felt that they were on display as cultural others more in the United States than they had felt during their work in Europe. In Europe, they were involved in producing an original work with troupes from France and Germany. Participants from the three countries were co-eval: they were all working together in a process of co-creation. But, in the US, Algerians were framed as representing Algerian culture and Algerian theater, but the Americans were not framed as representing American culture or American theater (with one happy exception). Instead, the Americans were, by and large, consuming what the Algerians had to offer, whether it was the play or, especially, the workshops. This was often frustrating for the actors.
Janina Fenigsen: You point to this disparity in part through the term “celebratory otherness.” There is a rich irony at the heart of the “celebratory otherness” that you describe as underpinning the paradigm of cultural exchange. While in the Center Stage promotional materials for the US audiences the untranslated language tokens of halqa and goual emphasize and evoke the folklorized otherness, the traditions and rehearsal discipline of Brecht’s and Grotowski’s “poor theater” that are at the heart of Istijmam’s practice seem to be erased. How does it work for the members of the troupe themselves? Do they view their blending of Algerian street theater and European performance principles and philosophy as an example of a cultural encounter in its own right? As an evidence of shared human experience? Something else?
Jane Goodman: I drew the term celebratory otherness from Rupert Stasch to refer to the ways figures of cultural difference become marked as folklorized forms of pleasurable consumption. Artistic traditions such as music and theater are among the most common ways that figures of celebratory otherness circulate globally. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong about enjoying other artistic traditions. But celebratory otherness tends to erase more problematic forms of difference. US audiences could see Istijmam’s colorful dress and joyful music making in the streets of New York, but they did not see the difficulty one member had in obtaining a visa to the US. They did not see the behind the scenes labor that the troupe engaged in to be able to create theater with little support in Algeria. The troupe members did seek to make Algerian theatrical traditions known in the United States, and they did want to talk about these traditions with US audiences. At the same time, however, they wanted to learn about what US troupes were doing. This was where the encounters in the US fell short. The Algerians were the only ones understood to be sharing culture. This made the exchange unequal and incommensurate and is part of what contributed to their being cast in terms of celebratory otherness. Celebratory otherness is one of the systemic, historically shaped ways that the global north has viewed the global south. This is not to say that this was the only way the troupe was seen, but it was certainly part of it, as it is part of the wider scenario of cultural exchange through the arts.
As for Istijmam’s blending of Algerian street theater and European performance principles and philosophy, you are right to suggest that the troupe members also viewed this as an encounter. I write about the ways that their rehearsals in Algeria brought together the space of halqa, or improvisational marketplace performance, with Brechtian principles of identification and distanciation. They saw both of these as evoking a similar kind of space, an example of shared human experience if you will. To them (as well as to the playwright Alloula), Algerian halqa-style performance had been operating for centuries through performance techniques that Brecht, much later, would term identification and distantiation. That is, the street performer would go into and out of multiple roles, identifying with one character and that moving out of that character to go into another. Istijmam adopted this style of performance in their own work, with each actor playing multiple roles. They also brought to halqa theater the embodied discipline they drew from the work of Jerzy Grotowski, which very much influences their brand of physical theater.
Janina Fenigsen: How might the Istijmam actors script the tour and cultural exchange events it involved if given an opportunity? How would you?
Jane Goodman: I imagine Istijmam’s ideal tour as consisting of similar kinds of engagements (performances, workshops, theatrical exchanges), but the balance of activities would have been different. On the tour itself, the performances of the play, followed by audience talk-backs, went well on the whole. Certainly the play would have remained a central part of any tour. But the actors and I would have liked more conversation around it. If the scheduling could have been done in reverse, such that Istijmam would have first presented the play, and then gone into a classroom presentation able to talk with students about it, that would have made for a richer exchange. We all understood that scheduling constraints made this impossible. In fact, even at my own university, the conversations and panel discussions came first, and the play was the last item on the agenda, due to scheduling and travel needs. The exchanges with theater troupes could have been done differently. What performance theorists call emergence – that sense of unexpected, creative novelty that performance can generate – is part of what the actors were looking for. The closest engagement that featured a balanced, two-way, emergent cultural exchange came with the Hartbeat Ensemble, as I write about. Here, the troupes co-created improvisational scenes and participated together in a panel discussion on theater in times in crisis. But it was a brief encounter. The actors would have loved to return and spend focused time with a theater troupe in the US to develop a truly cross-cultural co-creation, as they had done in Europe.
Janina Fenigsen: I view your book as an excellent teaching resource, even more so when paired with the video of the play and guided by your notes that collate the text with the portions of the video. What kind of student audience would you envision for the book? What would you like the students to get out of its reading?
Jane Goodman: I wrote the book with my students in mind. I regularly teach about performance in North Africa and the Middle East, and my students come alive when they see video of the material we’re discussing. Usually I have to do my own searches to find audiovisual support for what we’re reading about. I wanted to include this material in the book itself, so from the beginning I envisioned a multimedia project. The e-version of the book includes embedded hyperlinks where readers can go directly to the specific video they are reading about. Readers of the hard copy can find these links on the book’s website . The website also includes two performances of Istijmam’s play Apples, around which the book is based. For a full multimedia experience, instructors can screen and discuss the play (60 minutes)and then have students read the book and view the associated videos. The website also provides more information about the troupe and the six actors, and it includes ancillary footage both from the tour and from the rehearsal residency the troupe and I held in Algeria in the month before the tour.
Another reason I wanted to do this project is because I felt that students could relate to it. Much of the ethnography took place among students just like them in the United States. Universities are among my field sites: the book engages with students from the University of New Hampshire, Sarah Lawrence College, Yale University, the University of St. Joseph, and Indiana University. Students today have almost all experienced performances by travelling groups from abroad. Students can also relate to the six Algerian actors, who, like them, are young people with similar hopes and aspirations. I anticipate that future student readers will recognize themselves (as participants or audience members) and their own institutions (as hosts) in cultural exchange tours like this one. My hope is that readers will come to a deeper understanding of some of the systemic global imbalances that underpin cultural exchange and cultural diplomacy through the arts (despite the very best of intentions on all sides), and to reflect on their own positionalities within a broader global arts community.
Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: “Language Policy in Business: Discourse, Ideology and Practice” is one of the first critical sociolinguistic studies on minority language policy in private companies. Why did you decide to explore corporate policies as a site for language policy definition, appropriation and implementation? And why is corporate policy an important arena for debates about, and struggles over, language revitalisation movements in present-day Europe?
Elisabeth Barakos: So, I have always been interested in the everyday politics of minority languages. It all started out with an internship at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, where I worked for the European Charter for Minority Languages – my first touching point with language policy, so to speak. Bilingual Wales in the UK has historically been characterised by language decline and marginalisation vis-à-vis the dominant majority language English. Whilst ample scholarship documents the use of Welsh in education, little do we (still) know about the world of work and the field of the economy more widely. The private sector has been one that struck a chord with me since this has been a space where the use of Welsh is (largely) voluntary, unlike the public sector that is legally obliged to provide a bilingual service. In that sense, I was interested to look at, and explain, what was happening in the field of business in terms of bilingualism. That’s when I also learnt that what I was observing connected to politics and the economy more broadly, and wider structural processes of linguistic inequality and historical domination.
Returning to your question over why corporate language policy is important: I guess the answer lies in the fact that the economic sphere touches on largely every social aspect of life. Private sector businesses in Wales thus serve as a unique and highly relevant terrain in which to investigate opportunities for bilingual practices. Likewise, bilingualism in business raises inherent questions over language rights as well as equality of opportunity, perception and treatment of Welsh vis-à-vis English. And crucially, it also ties to issues of identity, nationalism, culture and belonging.
Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: This monograph clearly demonstrates that language policy has a life beyond the written official document as it is debated, negotiated and implemented by a wide array of social actors in specific socio-political, economic and historical contexts. In order to study language policy as a process, you have proposed a discursive and critical-sociolinguistic approach to the practices, ideologies, and discourses in the promotion of bilingualism in businesses. Could you describe your approach to language policy in context for the blog readers?
Elisabeth Barakos: Yes, so my point of departure has been to move away from text-centred approaches to language policy towards an understanding of language policy as a discursive process that engages people’s discourses, ideologies and practices. A focus on policy-as-text has been quite central in the field of language policy studies and discourse studies more widely at the time. Via my readings of critical sociolinguistic, linguistic anthropological and ethnographic work, I learnt that every text has a context, a history and a dialogic relationship with the social. So looking at policy documents alone didn’t quite do the job for me. Combing texts with data on language policy agents (e.g. business representatives), their views, practices and experiences on the ground and attending to questions of how language ideology surfaces in text, discourse and practice, made much more sense to better grasp what’s at stake in bilingual Wales, for whom, and with which tangible consequences. In that sense, a discursive approach to language policy offers a multi-method and multi-perspective way into analysing minority language communities.
What I am trying to say is that language policy has a life beyond the text. It has a past, present and future we need to consider analytically. How, then, can we do that? By engaging with the people who create, distribute and consume policy, and by situating language policy within its social structure and historical context.
Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: Sociolinguists actively participate in an on-going conversation about language issues involving many different people and organisations with different socio-political and economic interests. I would like to know in what ways you have established relations with Welsh universities and governmental bodies and how your research has been received so far. In terms of researcher positionality, I am curious to hear more about you negotiated your positioning as a researcher who does not speak Welsh with informants during your fieldwork. What did these collaborations and negotiations reveal about bilingualism in Wales?
Elisabeth Barakos: Yes, so at the heart of Language Policy in Business is the premise that language is a focal point for articulating and living out power relationships and that language policy processes are never apolitical. Different voices articulate different claims over language. As to your question how my research has been received so far? I can’t speak for everyone but I hope that policy makers, businesses and scholars working on (minority) language policy have found value in the type of research that I do. To give you an example, the North Wales Economic Ambition Board has integrated my work on Welsh in the workplace into their Regional Skills & Employment Plan. My ongoing connections with the Welsh Language Commissioner’s office have also opened further doors to continuing research, which I really appreciate.
Further to your question about my own researcher positionality: well, yes, I have written this book and carried out this research, knowingly that I am not Welsh and Welsh-speaking; nor am I British. I am a multilingual with a vested interest in how minority communities negotiate discourses, ideologies and practices surrounding language. So, if you want, I took some kind of outsider perspective on what’s going on “inside the Welsh bubble” (as one of my research participants used to call it). At heart, I always made sure I revealed my background and motivations for doing this research, despite being a non-Welsh speaker, and my participants trusted me with their insights, concerns and worries and shared their experiences and practices.
With the book, I tried to tell a story about Welsh-speaking people’s experiences of their use of the language in the world of work. For what it’s worth, I can only offer one slice of this experience and reality, and my story is certainly not without its limitations.
Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: I really appreciated the multi-layered analysis of the promotion of bilingualism in post-devolution Wales. Based on your corpus of national and corporate policies, how has the concept of bilingualism evolved over time? Which different discourses construct “a truly bilingual Wales” and with what social consequences?
Elisabeth Barakos: Thanks for this question. So, the idea has been since the Welsh devolution in 1999, and probably much earlier, to plan for a truly bilingual Wales, premised on the notion of treating Welsh and English on the basis of equality and on offering a language choice. There is nothing wrong with this ambition. What I could observe though was that many policy discourses and people’s practices turned this principle of choice into a parallel monolingualism, or what Monica Heller has labelled double monolingualism, a homogeneous co-existence of two linguistic systems. Also, what I found was that ‘bilingual services’ and ‘choice’ were often mere policy rhetoric or used as part of corporate branding and PR, whilst the reality showed a consistent lack of active offer for Welsh services and lack of opportunities for its usage. So, say, if you go into a bank in Wales, you may have to actively demand a Welsh language service, that is, ask for a Welsh or bilingual form, rather than being offered it naturally, as you would in English. We can see this classic reproduction of the policy-practice gap here, with English still functioning as the default language.
Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà: You close the book with a recent social media campaign to share the benefits of using Welsh in businesses within the broader Cymraeg 2050 strategy to reach 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050. What do you think the future holds for language policy in post-Brexit Wales? Which issues and questions remain open for future research about language policy in minority language contexts from a critical perspective?
Elisabeth Barakos: What I observe is that the notion of linguistic equality and parity of status between Welsh and English remains central. The government’s new strategy Cymraeg2050 is ambitious, if not ideologically vested with fixing speaker numbers, and again, commodifying language. Much work still needs to be done to carve out more spaces for the Welsh language to be recognized, valued and treated with the same respect as English on a daily basis. I am privileged to continue this strand of research as part of a new international project “L’égalité linguistique en temps de transformations politique / Linguistic equality in times of political transformation”, together with colleagues in Canada and Catalonia, Spain. We live in unsettling and troubling times. Brexit and the endemic Corona pandemic have brought new issues to light for Welsh language policy matters and re-shifted priorities for planning for a bilingual Wales. With Brexit, will the Welsh language further decline due to the loss of vital funding programs that used to create sustainable employment for Welsh speakers (such as in agriculture or tourism)? With the pandemic, how do Covid-19 related restrictions affect Welsh-speaking communities? In that sense, critical language scholars need to grapple with what these political, social and health crises will do to languages and their speakers, and what language policy processes can do to alleviate crisis moments and preserve the future of the Welsh language in a multilingual, post-pandemic and post-Brexit Wales.
I was intrigued to hear about the “page 99 test,” according to which, the quality of a dissertation can be judged on the content of page 99. As a jaded recent PhD graduate, I have a thing or two to say about the dissertation as a genre, and this test seemed like a good springboard for such a discussion. So first, I present a screenshot of what I believe to be the heart of my dissertation’s page 99:
I have to say, I was less repulsed by this excerpt than I initially feared I would be. The paragraph comes towards the beginning of my methodology chapter where I am introducing the reader to nexus analysis (Scollon and Scollon 2004), a combination of ethnographic and discourse analytical procedures aimed at understanding social practices. In my case, the social practice was ethnolinguistic labelling among Creoles of the Gulf South (Wendte 2020). It is fair to say that this is an important paragraph–clearly defining these terms sets the stage for their operationalization in the remainder of the dissertation. But when performing the test, should we be evaluating the content itself or its characteristics (organization, clarity, and so on)? If we are to evaluate the content, then no, I would have to say that page 99 is not representative of the whole dissertation. Put simply, you still have no idea what it is about based on this page. But if we are evaluating the characteristics of the content (its quality, if you like), then I would humbly hope that it is representative of the whole dissertation. The opacity of the dissertation as a genre meant that I went to a lot of trouble trying to keep it readable and accessible. Page 99 bears some of the fingerprints of this heavy editing process, and I am proud to see them there.
Scollon, Ron, and Suzie Wong Scollon. 2004. Nexus Analysis: Discourse and the Emerging Internet. London ; New York: Routledge.
Wendte, Nathan A. 2020. “A Tale of Two Triangles: Ethnolinguistic Identity among Gulf South Creoles.” PhD, New Orleans, LA: Tulane University.
Kabir Tambar: Routine Crisis is about the aftermath of the economic collapse in Argentina in 2001-2002. What is the significance of focusing your analysis not on the period that we conventionally think of as the crisis itself but more on the years that followed?
Sarah Muir: A lot of people have written about the years of the crisis itself. My aim in focusing on the post-crisis period wasn’t simply to do something different, but to ask how something like a “crisis” becomes a recognizable event, with a particular significance. The premise of the book is that an event doesn’t snap into formation once and for all; rather, an event is continually and recursively constituted through semiotic processes that we can trace. Its spatial and temporal boundaries, its internal poetic structure, its relevant contextualization, its implications and significance–none of these inhere within a particular set of developments, and all of them must be constituted in interactions and interpretations. Benjamin used the image of the tiger’s leap to describe how things from the past can suddenly leap into the present, infusing the present with new possibilities for the future. I wanted to explore that open-endedness of an event’s historical significance and political possibility in concrete, empirical detail.
Kabir Tambar: The title of your book confronts the reader with a startling paradox, and it points precisely to this unsettled nature of eventhood. While it is not difficult to imagine a situation where the routines of everyday life have come under crisis (a crisis of routine, let us say), it is much less obvious to think of crisis as something that has become routinized (hence “routine crisis”). If a crisis of routine might belong to an exceptional moment, a routine crisis carries the full weight of a normalized historical patterning. Can you discuss what is at stake in thinking of our historical moment in terms of this fraught conceptual pairing?
Sarah Muir: At least since Marx, there has been a robust tradition of approaching capitalism as a system of perpetual crisis, in which a boom-bust logic propels things forward, with crisis serving as the means of reproducing, in somewhat altered form, the social world. What’s striking is that, in Argentina, the centrality of crisis to capitalism is not only an idea that leftist intellectuals entertain. To the contrary: Argentina has been so thoroughly constituted by over a century of repetitive economic crises that the centrality of crisis has long been a palpable, lived fact for all kinds of people. As a result, crisis has become a touchstone that people use to orient themselves as they grapple with the world around them, as they consider questions and make decisions about issues national and intimate, momentous and mundane. In this sense, crisis has become folded into the routines of daily life as the one thing you can count on. My aim was to trace both the emergence and the consequences of that paradox, one that we can now find not only in Argentina, but in many other places as well.
Kabir Tambar: One of the ways that you study this lived experience of routine crisis is through the concept of “crisis talk.” This concept seems crucial to the methodological orientation of the book as a whole. How does attention to language frame your understanding of economic collapse?
Sarah Muir: Very early in my research, it was obvious that people talked constantly about the 2001-2002 crisis, and that this talk was surprising in two ways. First, it was extraordinarily repetitive, so much so that I quickly found I could predict how a given bit of commentary would unfold. Second, this continual chatter about the crisis didn’t diverge along familiar sociological and ideological lines; people with wildly different backgrounds and commitments talked in remarkably similar ways. Both things struck me as odd until I realized that crisis talk worked as a kind of ritual, one that knitted together particular aspects of recent history into a highly stylized narrative. This narrative worked to ground both speaker and listener in the temporal rhythm of routine crisis. What I try to do in the book is show how that ritual of crisis talk allowed routine crisis to orient economic, political, and even interpersonal practices. In other words, this talk was the site where the crisis of 2001-2002 was constituted (over and over again) as a determinate event with a particular significance. And, it was only by attending to language as a crucial mode of consequential social practice that I could start teasing apart the dynamics of the post-crisis period.
Kabir Tambar: For me, one of the most intellectually creative and generative moments in the book arises in your analysis of corruption. You argue that discourses about corruption in Argentina can be profitably analyzed through anthropological theories of witchcraft. How did you come to make this connection? What sort of work were you reading when you started to develop this formulation?
Sarah Muir: It isn’t entirely on the surface all the way through, but Nancy Munn’s Fame of Gawa permeates my approach to all the themes I explore in the book. When I first read it, it absolutely bowled me over in the possibilities it opens up for understanding the constitution of time, space, and personhood. It gave me tools for imagining how we could take an idea like Bakhtin’s notion of chronotope and use it in detailed anthropological analysis. While I hadn’t anticipated studying corruption, the topic was omnipresent during my fieldwork. I kept coming back to the way Munn describes Gawan witchcraft as the rapacious consumption of a community’s very capacity to produce value. That notion of witchcraft sounded very much like the way Argentines talked about corruption as eroding the conditions of possibility of national belonging. And, theorizing corruption with respect to value helped me see how it was bound up with the ways Argentines dealt not only with obviously financial and economic matters, but also with political institutions and interpersonal relations.
Kabir Tambar: This endemic and diffuse problem of producing value seems also to lead to a prevalent sensibility toward history, one that you refer to as disillusion with the promises of progress and modernity. It strikes me that one might view this sensibility as entailing a withdrawal from politics. But my sense from your book is that my presumption of depoliticization might be made in haste. Can you talk about whether this historical sensibility harbors a possibility for a kind of politics or a distinctive way of relating to political activity?
Sarah Muir: I don’t think one would be wrong to see depoliticization in the sensibility of disillusion, and there are absolutely important elements of that in the material in the book. And yet, it’s not the whole story. Even as people would proclaim themselves to be fully disillusioned and even as they would reject out of hand the notion that politics might be an arena for legitimate engagement, they also were constantly engaging with political matters. However, the upshot of those politics, whether they skewed right or left, was entirely underdetermined. Looking beyond Argentina, I’m struck by the way disillusion with institutions of various sorts can give rise to intensified demands to raze things to the ground and start anew (for example, the conversation around whether to “let Anthropology burn”) as well as to quiescent withdrawal (for example, Voltaire’s oft-cited quip about tending one’s own garden). So, disillusion doesn’t amount to depoliticization. But it does amount to relationships to politics–and to social life more broadly–that are very different from modernist accounts of history, progress, and utopia.