“It’s about sarees or some shit.” This sentence—probably my favorite in the dissertation—comes from a group interview with Chand Chandramohan, Diva, and Seelan Palay, the organizers of Singapore’s first all-South Asian contermporary art series, From Your Eyes to Ours. The quote shows up on page 99 for the second time in the chapter, just before the chapter’s conclusion starts. In this quote, multidisciplinary artist Chand Chandramohan summed up a series of assumptions that were routinely articulated by racially hegemonic Singaporean perceivers upon encountering the art event: that to be an Indian-Singaporean artist is to do “Indian art”—that is, to (re)produce traditional South Asian forms for Indian audiences—thus denying the possibility of their participating in contemporary art aesthetics.
Like most places existing in the wake of racialized/racializing modernity, in Singapore, to “belong” to a race is also to “possess” a language—at least ideally. Later on page 99, I note that the three co-organizers gave the title “Yes, I Speak Indian” to a visual art exhibition that occurred as part of From Your Eyes to Ours. This title acted as a form of shorthand satire, critiquing a recurrent assumption that “Indian” is a monolith, a single community that possesses and uses a single language.
Yet more than this, the organizers of From Your Eyes to Ours voiced and critiqued a deeper presupposition: that to invoke “Indian” in Singapore is to invoke not only a race, but also to legitimate Race. Referenced via the shorthand CMIO (an acronym standing for Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Other Singaporeans), Race-capital-R stands as the sum total of all the “races of Singapore,” a self-evident, totalizing structure that shapes raciolinguistic hierarchies in the present without actually being total.
Beyond its contents, page 99 exemplifies my dissertation’s broader political stakes. Page 99 presents large stretches of the interview with Chand, Diva, and Seelan as theory-work, rather than relegating it to the status of mere evidence provided by an “informant.” Like the dissertation, page 99 also doesn’t shy away from the political: from deep, close engagement with the critiques of raciolinguistic hegemony, oppression, and marginalization that were generously articulated to me by my co-theorists in Singapore. Similarly, like page 99, the dissertation confronts my own status as a raciolinguistically hegemonic perceiver, as a token of a privileged type capable of accessing prestige registers of English, elite education, and white-passing privilege—among others.
Joshua Babcock. 2022. Image and the Total Utopia: Scaling Raciolinguistic Belonging in Singapore. University of Chicago, PhD.
Jonathan DeVore: Congratulations on your new book! First of all, can you recount how you became involved in the research for the book?
Sandra Kurfürst: Thank you, Jonathan! From 2007 to 2008, I conducted one year of ethnographic research in Hanoi for my PhD thesis. At the time, I was working on public spaces in Hanoi, and regularly hung out around the Lenin Monument at Dien Bien Phu Street and Ly Thai To Garden on the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake. At the time, I met a number of young people there who regularly assembled in the late afternoon hours to perform break moves, hip-hop dance, and popping. I began conducting interviews with young b-boys from the FIT and MiNi Shock Crews and young women dancers from Big Toe Crew. I was especially fascinated by these young women, their movement repertoire, and their fashion style. Whenever they arrived at the pavilion in Ly Thai To Garden, they would change out of their school uniforms – which were white blouses and blue trousers combined with a red scarf – and switch these for belly tops, XXL T-Shirts, and shorts or joggers. Having followed hip hop culture in Vietnam for a decade, I found hip hop’s diverse dance styles an ideal topic to study, as it combines my personal passion for hip hop with my longstanding interests in the anthropology of the urban and questions of socioeconomic transformation.
Jonathan DeVore: This continuity between your research projects nicely illustrates the observation that the questions we begin with in ethnographic research are rarely the same as the questions that we arrive at in the process. Can you describe how the questions and interests that your book addresses arose, and how these may have been transformed during the course of you research? Were there any key moments in your research that affected or even shifted your focus?
Sandra Kurfürst: Hip Hop comprises four practices of MCing (rap), breaking, graffiti writing, and DJing. Initially, I planned on examining all four practices and the interrelations among actors involves in these practices. However, once I began my research into rap and dancing, I soon noticed that there are some overlaps in the communities, but that rather distinct communities of practice have evolved around each practice. Some actors in Vietnam are very active in bringing these different strands of hip hop culture together, but, so far, there are only a few events that unite these different communities of practice. Then again, I found that the community of hip hop dancing was much more diverse than I had expected. The first dancers I talked to all differentiated between diverse styles, such as breaking, popping, locking, waacking, hip hop, and house dance. That is why I reconsidered my focus and decided to write about dance. From the start, I had been fascinated with how many young women engaged in hip hop’s different dance styles. Therefore, I chose a particular gender focus. However, one eye opening moment was a conversation with a woman locker who told me: “I don’t think it’s about young women, but about people who want to enjoy their life and develop themselves (…).” And that is how I got interested in the question of youth aspirations and visions of the good life under conditions of late socialism.
Jonathan DeVore: Speaking of late socialism, one dynamic that I found interesting in the book was the gradual transition over a period of years from hip-hop as a relatively informal practice, occurring in common public spaces such as the Lenin Monument, to a set of relationships that became increasingly professionalized, involving market exchanges. Some of the dancers you describe who became more prominent, for example, were able to establish their own schools from which they derived their primary incomes. Can you tell us more about processes of class formation, differentiation, and distinction among dancers in your research? More broadly, can you relate these processes to Vietnams’ transition toward “market reform, commodification, and consumerism, while officially insisting on socialist ideology and one-party rule” (p. 10)?
Sandra Kurfürst: When I did my research on public space in Hanoi between 2007 and 2008, I also interviewed b-boys and women dancers who were regularly meeting and dancing around Ly Thai To Garden. At that time, the dancers were either still in school or had jobs, and they did not have many economic resources. In 2018, the situation seemed to have slightly changed, as most of the professional dancers participating in my research held university degrees, and had gathered experiences in working in office jobs that were unrelated to dance. Some dancers, however, decided to quit their office jobs to open their own dance studios or to work as freelancers at different dance studios. Others owned their own fashion labels and combined their self-entrepreneurism with teaching dance classes. My study is not representative, of course, but from the conversations and interviews with men and women dancers alike, I gathered that most have urban middle-class backgrounds, and many of them grew up in Hanoi. Moreover, the relevance of consumption as both a status symbol, and marker of belonging to the community of practice, was visible and tangible. Indexes of distinction were comprised of street apparel, such as the German or U. S. sports brands Adidas, Nike, Vans, and so on, as well as other commodities, like photo and video cameras. Mobility was a further asset, as many dancers regularly travelled within Vietnam or the Southeast Asia region, which again requires financial resources and time. At the same time, the proliferation of dance studios in Vietnam’s major cities that offer children’s hip hop dance classes cater to growing demands by urban middle-class parents to provide their children with physical exercise and leisure activities other than gaming.
Jonathan DeVore: I see – so, parents want their children moving around instead of just sitting in front of televisions and computers! This actually relates to another question I wanted to ask you about: Embodied movements, gestures, and actions are notoriously difficult to represent textually, in the medium of an article or book. Can you describe the difficulties you faced, and the strategies you used, in representing the different dance forms you investigate—not only in the book, but perhaps also in other media, such as fieldnotes?
Sandra Kurfürst: Thank you. This is a topic that I struggle with to this day. Certainly, audiovisual formats are an option, and I would like to further pursue the question of writing dance in the future. As for fieldnotes: After taking dance classes, I recorded my sensations and experiences as well as student-teacher interactions in voice recordings on my way home. Listening to my own voice recordings later on, I particularly noticed my own shortness of breath after having trained with one dancer, named Mai. Also, the interview situations themselves were certainly sensory events. Whenever I sat down to transcribe interview recordings, or to write my field notes, I started humming and singing songs that my interlocutors had played for me on their phones. And I found myself searching the internet for tracks and videos they had told me about. A really fascinating format, to avoid simplifications involved in just describing what I saw and how I moved, seems to be autoethnographic performance. However, what prevented me from engaging in autoethnographic performance in the book were my English language skills. The use of different literary genres to express movement in written language is really appealing to me, but I would have to do so in my own mother tongue. In my teenage years, I used to write rap lyrics. So, writing in German would be one way for me to go.
Jonathan DeVore: I can certainly appreciate this challenge! And as I read your book, I also found myself looking up YouTube videos of the songs and music videos you cited! Perhaps a final question to conclude: Are there any interests or questions that remain open for you after writing the book?
Sandra Kurfürst: I keep wondering if, at one point, I could invite the women hip hop dancers to Germany for a performance in the city of Cologne. I think that would be a great opportunity to bring them together with Cologne-based dancers. Moreover, I would really like to meet them again – but due to the pandemic, I have not returned to Vietnam since 2018. At the time, when I got to know the women dancers, they were all at the end of their 20s – an age when women in Vietnam are usually married and have children. So, one question I did not ask, but which comes up again and again, is: To what extent does leading a dancing life have an impact on women dancers’ decisions to marry and have children?
I was also very glad to find queer dancers at dance battles. However, as battles are quite ephemeral events, and the dancers were not directly related to participants in my research, I did not have a chance to talk to them. But it made me wonder if queer performance, such as the style of waacking, helps to open up spaces for the queer community in Vietnam. The LGBTQIA+ community has become more active and more visible in public space, such as with the annual Viet Pride festival. So, I was wondering if dancing, and waacking in particular, may also be a way for them to create a community as well as to gain more public awareness and acceptance.
Jonathan DeVore: Thanks so much for talking with me, Sandra, and congratulations once again on Dancing Youth. I’ll look forward to reading your next book on one of these other topics!
Shivani Nag:It would be helpful if you could first introduce the book, what led you to this book?
Leya Mathew: This was my dissertation research, at that time, there was a lot of debate about low fee private schools in India. That debate was already happening. And I am from Kerala (South India) where there was a very heated debate about state-funded schools closing down because of private schools. But the academic debate somehow did not match what I was seeing around me. A lot of it was framed in the language of school choice. The school choice literature comes from a very particular historical context in the UK and the US, where school choice makes sense. But in India, school choice makes very little sense. I mean there is this whole body of very insightful literature, but it is misaligned with what is happening. That is what led to the research.
Shivani Nag: The book engages with aspirations for English and among parents. Like you said, your work is based in Kerala, and in the North (of India) certain stereotypes exist about English being a far more comfortable language for those who are from the South. There is a certain complexity of location in the book in terms of geography, you know the dynamics of class, caste, religion (Christianity), the nature of market, and the political leadership (Communist Party). How did you listen to and make sense of the voices emerging in your field, especially because there were also multiple things shaping these voices? Also, I found your choice of “moral aspiration” very interesting, could you share some light on that as well?
Leya Mathew You’re absolutely right, what poverty looks like in certain parts of northern India in comparison to some parts of South India can be very different. Kerala has a long history of development, it’s very contested. At the same time, the intensity of aspiration is noted by others about northern India as well. Aspiration does travel across geography but the specificity of how it manifests would of course be different.
As for moral aspiration, for the longest time the title of my book was Moral Aspiration. The current title came much, much later, after the peer review. While writing, I read Andrea Muehlebach’s The Moral Neoliberal. She’s writing about a very different context, it’s about volunteerism in Italy, but the argument she made was very striking. We assume neoliberal capitalism and its accumulative impetus to be divorced from the moral. But the moral is very central to how capitalism functions as well as to how people are making sense of what’s happening around them.
In my context, whether it was mothers or policymakers in Delhi or Kerala, their expression was very, very moral. So how do you write about a moral neoliberal with all of its contradictions? Because here, you have elites and non-elites using the moral but in very different ways and with very different effects.
When elites claim that they represent the nation, they do so on the strength of their moral claims. Those who study the middle classes have written extensively about the significance of the moral for middle class hegemonic projects. The privileged middle class comes to stand in for everybody else and their agendas come to stand in for national agendas on the basis of their moral claims. The moral becomes the basis of how resources are distributed. Those are the two aspects I was trying to emphasize with the phrase moral aspiration.
Shivani Nag: I also wanted to ask you about the debate on medium of instruction, which has often and rightfully so, connected to questions around access, the accessibility of knowledge for the marginalized and for the oppressed sections. If you look at the Thorat committee report that came out after allegations of caste-based discrimination of students at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), one of the key concerns and recommendations had to do with the language gap, non-familiarity with English and the fact that institutions were doing very little to bridge that gap. When it comes to English, different kinds of voices have emerged from within the anti-caste struggles. There are those who see in English an opportunity to counter a certain form of caste-ist standardization in regional languages. Both English and the regional language can be alienating and disconnected from the context. And, of course, others have also pointed towards the epistemological functions of language, and thus the need for the language of the oppressed to be brought to classrooms. Given these debates, I was wondering how would you reflect on the question of language and access, especially for the oppressed castes?
Leya Mathew My current project is on higher education, so these are things that I have been thinking about. In hyper competitive spaces like the IITs and AIIMS, questions around language can function very differently. In mid or lower tier spaces, English can work very differently. There’s something about how the space is located in relation to larger structures, we need to pay attention to that. The schools that I’m looking at in the book are really on the margins of society. As for epistemology, one of the things that I struggled with a lot is, what does epistemology mean when you can access the language only in its written form? These were also personal questions. I studied in a village and then a small town growing up, and I could only write in English. I learned to speak in English a lot later, after I went to college in the city. If you take all of this into consideration, then what are the kind of pedagogic and linguistic spaces that can be negotiated and created? Can we creates ones which are not just welcoming but which are also serious because there’s also a lot of desperate desire for learning?
Shivani Nag: I was also thinking about bell hooks in the context of race. When she talks about English, there is the sense of this being the oppressor’s language which is still needed by the oppressed to be able to talk to those in power. When it comes to languages in India, given the very complex linguistic context we have, it’s not easy for us to clearly identify which is the oppressor’s language. In the context of caste, it’s a particular form of standardized regional language which becomes the oppressor’s language. Then the colonizer’s language can, instead, become a liberating language; our context is very complex.
Leya Mathew: It gets slightly more complicated in Kerala, because the state, the Communist Party is saying exactly this. In the book I write about how the state says that we don’t want a prettified language, we want to intentionally bring the language of the oppressed into our textbooks, and they did that to some extent. But the way it functioned; it became a very perverse inclusion of the language of the oppressed.
Shivani Nag:The private-public divide in schools almost neatly translates to the English versus regional language, and the elite – non-elite private school divide to one between those students who are coming from contexts where English is almost their first language versus those for whom English would still be an imposition. Can the question of language in school can be split off from the concern for the common school system, given that our schools are so hierarchical, and divided so sharply?
Leya Mathew: Yes, it is an extremely hierarchical system. How to work with language education within this hierarchical system if you do not have the option of common schooling is something that needs to be engaged with seriously. I think the debate misses that point, you’re very right. Common schooling has been talked about from the very beginning (independence of the nation), but never been implemented. By now, we know that it will never happen. Any discussion on language education or, for that matter, anything to do with pedagogy has to take this into account. When we have this sort of hierarchical system, then what does it mean to make textbooks for the country? Or design instruction for our country? It doesn’t work. I’m sure that even within a common schooling system there would be hierarchies. But what we have are very institutionalized hierarchies which also distribute resources in very particular ways. You’re absolutely right, I think there needs to be a lot more discussion on this.
Shivani Nag:Since you brought in the question of pedagogy, there is also an imagination of the nation in textbooks. Another school ethnography around aspirations for English that I found engaging was by Shalini Advani and that book, Schooling the National Imagination, was located in the North Indian context. Given the concerns around language imposition that have again come up with the National Education Policy and the resistance from the southern states, how did the relation between language aspiration and a national identity unfold in your field?
Leya Mathew There’s a lot in Shalini’s book about how the nation is imagined, particularly through textbooks, but she also talks about how the classrooms themselves didn’t fit into that imagination because they were on the margins of society. I don’t talk about nationalism in the book but where it comes through most clearly is in the CBSC high school textbooks, the Main Course Book, where immediately, this techno-science nation emerges.
The other reason why I could not really think about nationalism in the context of my study is perhaps because the nation is implicitly Hindu, and Hindi-speaking these days. Sanjay Srivastava demonstrated some of it brilliantly in his book about the Doon School. My context was neither Hindu nor Hindi speaking. Your question makes me reflect on why nationalism did not come up as a theme for me.
There is obviously more sub-nationalism than nationalism in terms of language identities if you look at South India. For the Kerala State and for regional elites, and remember these are people who are bilingual and very comfortable with academic Malayalam and academic English, there is definitely a feeling of imposition (of Hindi), as well as mechanisms of responding and resisting. But these concerns are very distant for those who are not imagined as part of the nation to begin with.
Shivani Nag:When one tries to engage with questions around aspirations, looking at them not just in (marginalized) communities, but also in leadership, that is important.
Moving forward, I was also thinking about how the medium of instruction question in schools cannot be insulated from the question of medium of instruction in higher education. You know language diversity in school systems does not carry over to higher education. In India, higher education is even more exclusive, I think we can confidently say that at least 90% of it is in English.
Leya Mathew: And the sciences, engineering, medicine, architecture, all of that is only taught in English. Like I said, I’m studying higher education now and in a state (Gujarat) where regional-medium education is very strong. I see it unfolding in a much more complex way. These are high achievers from Gujarati-medium schools, they’ve made it to a premier college at the regional level. So those from regional language instruction may have other resources that they can mobilize. Another important factor to keep in mind is that this is also a time of increasing unemployment, when even a professional degree does not lead you to a decent job. What does the cultural capital of English mean if it just leads to a precarious labor market, so it’s complicated.
Shivani Nag:The whole idea of language and socioeconomic mobility must be getting affected in so many ways, with the decline in employment opportunities.
What were some of the major insights that emerged from your field research that perhaps also took you by some surprise? There are certain expectations that one has, I’m very interested in knowing what the surprises were.
Leya Mathew Fieldwork always surprises you. Even in my current project, I went in thinking that those from English medium schools would have everything lined up for them, and it was a big surprise to learn that English did not get you anywhere. In terms of the book, I think the most surprising part was, I thought if you were deprived and knew you were deprived, you would respond with anger. It seems very naïve now. At the Malayalam-medium school, there was a lot more hope and aspiration. It took me a long time to wrap my head around that and I remember having a lot of conversations with my supervisor about that. People’s lives always surprise us, there’s much more happening in anybody’s life than what theory can capture. And I think that’s also the interesting part of doing research.
Shivani Nag: Absolutely. The complexities, the nuances take very different kinds of shapes. I’m so glad to have had the opportunity of engaging with your work. It keeps reminding us to not be just rhetorical with research. It is important to listen to what your participants and the context is speaking.
One last question: educational research in India is focused on outcomes, achievements, certain statistical measures, how do you see the role of ethnography? When you try to convince policymakers, they want data or solutions in the form of step one, step two, step three, so if you go to them with a very rich ethnographic work, it impresses them, but it also makes it difficult for them to pick out two things that they can apply towards.
Leya Mathew Yes, policymakers want numbers and steps, but the policymakers I worked with were ethnographic in their sensibilities. Most of the people I’m writing about in the book, they were not looking for numbers. My issue was different. The issue of numbers definitely is there, I’m not discounting that, that’s definitely a hegemonic discourse. But we need to recognize that the critical is an equally hegemonic discourse. We need to hold these two hegemonic discourses together instead of pitting them against each other. It was very troubling to document how critical scholars ended up creating such violent pedagogies. Like you said earlier, one has to listen very carefully, not take anything for granted, whether it comes with the label of critical or radical, instead, really listen and observe and see what the critical turn is actually doing in the world.
In terms of what you can apply, it’s very simple, there should be a functional library, I mean people have been saying that for the longest time. But in a context where English is being understood as socialization, to remember that you also must teach how to read and write became a fresh insight. We have now come to assume language to be oracy or the ability to socialize, we forget that literacy is something that is taught and learned, not acquired. I’m not saying something new, but something that is being forgotten in a particular political economic context.
Shivani Nag:Any last comments or reflections on your journey from the field to putting it out in the form of a book?
Leya Mathew I’m grateful that it got published. I couldn’t have asked for a better series, when I read the series editors’ preface, I was very touched. I’m very, very grateful that it all came together. It’s also important to note that writing a book needs a lot of institutional support. Academic careers also, it boils down to numbers, what are your publication numbers and how does it work for NAAC and CAS. Unless there is institutional support, it’s extremely difficult.
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: The topic of your book – the (potential) loss of a language variety under language standardization – is of wide relevance since the rise of modern nation-states and their monoglot ideologies. What is the distinctiveness of the case of Shanghai and Shanghaihua (the Shanghai dialect) in contrast to, say, those of other regions in China and their dialects? How does this distinctiveness play out historically and in terms of the charged dynamic between the multiple social powers and groups involved?
Fang Xu: Earlier on during the Republic of China (1912-1949), the creation of a national language and language standardization were justified by their alleged contributions to unifying and modernizing the country and its citizenry. At that time, semi-colonial Shanghai was already cosmopolitan and modern. The lingua franca of the “Paris of the East” was the Shanghai dialect, and thus the classical justification for the creation and imposition of a national language to facilitate industrialization, urbanization, and meeting the demand for a (linguistic) uniform labor force did not necessarily hold in the case of Shanghai. A reference point is Kathyrn Woolard’s work in Barcelona, where the suppressed Catalan during the Franco era (1939-1975) has been a prestigious language throughout the history, and the locals in general fare better economically than the Castilian-speaking migrants. The Shanghai dialect came into shape in a cosmopolitan city in the late 19th and early 20th century, though it is based on Songjiang county’s variation of Wu Chinese. The origin story sets it apart from other regional dialects, for example, Cantonese. Cantonese can claim a historical, more rooted Chinese-ness that the hybrid and relatively young Shanghai dialect cannot.
It is the power struggles between not only the state and the people, but also waves of migrants in Shanghai. Shanghai’s unique identity as a migrant city sets it apart from many Chinese cities which can easily claim a history of hundreds of years. In the early 20th century, more than 85% of the urban population was internal migrants, not to mention the segregated and separated urban jurisdiction shared (unequally) between the UK, US, France, China, and later Japan. So at the grander scale, it was the struggle between states in defining the city. In terms of who counts as a Shanghairen, it has been even more contested, based on birthplace, hukou (household registration status), urban residency, or vernacular capacity. As we know, identity claim is never solely about identification, but also about aspiration and desire for something else. Since the early 20th century, due to wars, natural disasters, and economic opportunities, there have been four waves of internal migrants who settled in Shanghai. Their political and socioeconomic conditions vary greatly, e.g., from the Baghdadi Jewish Sassoon family, known as “Rothschilds of the East,” the Soong family, Mao Zedong, and refugees from northern Jiangsu Province fleeing draught and famine in the early 20th century, to talents from across the country meeting the “two high and one low” (high in education and skill level, low in age) standard to obtain a Shanghai hukou in the early 21th century. Hence their rights to identify themselves and power to alter and influence the urban scenes politically, economically, socially, culturally, and linguistically also differ greatly.
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: The concept “linguistic right to the city” is central to your arguments but not itself thematized. The allocation of linguistic rights and placement of blame for language injustice are complex processes. In these processes, what are your positions towards multiple parties involved? In terms of justice, how would you compare the previous diglossia system in Shanghai and the recent state-initiated collapse of it? Could you reflect on your own positionality in this matter?
Fang Xu: During my dissertation proposal defense, a Shanghainese rap song I quote in my proposal prompted a committee member to warn me that native Shanghai people’s xenophobia motivated by their heartfelt linguistic loss might come across as KKK-like. The song was widely circulated among online communities of native Shanghai people in the early 2010s. It cried out to preserve the Shanghai dialect and Shanghai’s urban culture. This so-called “Shanghai Anthem” appropriates the melody of the Chinese national anthem “March of the Volunteers” (original lyrics in “[ ]”) and modifies the lyrics to express a growing hostility towards recent migrants to Shanghai.
[Arise! All those who don’t want to be slaves!]
Arise! All those friends who speak Shanghai dialect!
[Let our flesh and blood forge our new Great Wall!]
Let our language become the roar of Huangpu River!
[As the Chinese people have arrived at their most dangerous time.]
As the Shanghai dialect has arrived at its most dangerous time.
[Every person is forced to expel his very last cry.]
Every Shanghairen is forced to expel his very last cry.
[Arise! Arise! Arise!]
F-ck! F-ck! F-ck!
[Our million hearts beating as one,]
Our million hearts beating as one,
[Brave the enemy’s fire, March on!]
Get rid of all the out-siders, rid of!
[Brave the enemy’s fire, March on!]
Get rid of all the out-siders, rid of!
[March on! March on! On!]
Rid of! Rid of! Rid of!
Being a Shanghai native, it is hard for me not to lament the potential loss of the dialect. But being a Chinese national living in North America for 15+ years has made me keenly aware of the sense of exclusion manifested in urban linguistic space in Shanghai. That’s why I found it important to give voice to the migrants in Shanghai in the last empirical chapter (Ch. 5) of my book. When we think about injustice, we need to look at the positionality of the accuser and the accused, and analyze their lived experiences and their aspirations. The power dynamics experienced during my field research could be telling. I couldn’t help but notice how the dialect preservation activists acted not only in a sexist but also racist way, e.g. suppressing female activists’ voices and participations, or how some activists with somewhat self-claimed linguistic training attributed Mandarin Chinese to a contamination from the barbarian Manchurian – which is a Tungusic language belongs to Altaic family – from the Qing Dynasty. Their xenophobia in guarding the (exclusive) Shanghainese identity was apparent as they jeered and laughed at the migrants’ efforts to acquire the Shanghai dialect, suggesting the latter are climbing the social ladder by faking something they would never be able to achieve – a true insider membership. And people holding such negative opinions are oftentimes those who didn’t fare well in the last 20 years socioeconomically and can no longer afford lots of the consumption spaces or upscale residency in the inner city. So by (re)claiming their linguistic right to the city, they are wielding weapons of the weak, quoting James Scott. That said, linguistic rights to the city are tightly connected with social and economic rights to the city, and certainly beyond housing.
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: What distinguishes the story you tell from other studies on linguistic change is the important parts accorded to urban developments, geographical and spatial conditions of social interaction, and place attachment. This is captured by the two senses – architectural and linguistic – of the word “vernacular” in your book. Can you give us a glimpse at the intricate relations between urban changes and linguistic loss in Shanghai, especially in the recent decades?
Fang Xu: There was a common saying in Shanghai quoted in my book that connects languages and the space – public and private – where they are spoken or can be heard: “English is spoken in the Inner Ring, Mandarin is spoken in the Middle Ring, and Shanghai dialect Outer Ring”. The order also corresponds to the outwardly decrease of housing prices. Within one saying, the intricate relations are revealed between social-economic status, urban redevelopment in terms of relocating more than one million households to the periphery and throwing them into the harsh reality of urban political economy of the commercial housing market, and language. Essentially, many native Shanghainese were relocated to the periphery of urban Shanghai, or previously rural counties. The pride and esteem in living in the urban center was gone, as well as the proximity to urban amenities and the urban built environment which set Shanghai apart from the rest of the country and exemplifies (Western) modernity since the early 20th century. They lost the material base and geographical location(marker) to self-aggrandize as Shanghairen (Shanghai people). However the deprivation of privilege should be recognized as a relative one. The displacees’ Shanghai hukou still granted them access to top quality healthcare, education, pension, and a plethora of other benefits. Even these relative privileges have been lost, as internal migrants who have obtained either a Shanghai hukou or a Shanghai Resident Permit have been granted those benefits by the municipal government since the 2000s. The loss felt by native Shanghairen is the exclusive access and claim. In this context, I am trying to tell a story of long-term residents holding onto their (symbolic) ownership of the urban built environment and linguistic space as the only remaining bulwarks of their Shanghainese identity.
Andy Zhenzhou Tan: As far as I know, your PhD training was in urban sociology. Yet you have written a monograph on a more typically linguistic anthropological/sociolinguistic topic. Despite the rare co-existence of these two disciplines in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, from whom you draw a lot in your book, we may say they have gone in quite different directions thematically and methodologically. What has been your experience of bridging urban sociology and linguistic anthropology/sociolinguistics?
Fang Xu: It has not been easy to convince urban sociologists that the sonic or auditory dimension of urban life matters. There is a branch of urban sociology bridging visual sociology, but language? To the most, some human or cultural geographers. When we think about a diverse or cosmopolitan place, we imagine people from all over the world, presumably speaking different mother tongues, but forced to adopt the mainstream language of the city or society, albeit with various accents. I have been trying to argue that when urban sociologists study (im)migrants or ethnic enclaves, attention should be paid to the languages they speak; or when they talk about residential segregation based on class, race and ethnicity, as well as consumer habits and taste, language spoken/usage should have a place in the investigation. So far, the subjects in those studies predominantly speak perfect Standard American English, or whatever national or official or dominant languages in the societies in question. That is not a true depiction of those people’s everyday lived experience. Generally speaking, the urban soundscape is socially organized and organizing (Atkinson 2007). One of the defining characteristics of cities is its heterogeneity – the other two being size and density (Louis Wirth 1938). Lewis Mumford (1937-1996) also advises urbanists to pay attention to the “theatre of social action.” However, what we have read so far are in subjects’ words, but not in their own voices. My monograph Silencing Shanghai and a recent piece about the urban sonic landscape I am working on with a few cultural geographers in Europe are both attempts to put these critical insights into practice.
I do feel this inbetween-ness in my scholarly life, as well as in my personal life, being an immigrant in the U.S., and when I go back to Shanghai and do not hear my mother tongue spoken on the streets of my hometown. However, I see the rarity of such interdisciplinarity as the strength of my work, and the direction of my future pursuit. There is also an echo between my work and my fieldsite in terms of their hybridity. Shanghai is indeed an urban laboratory in many ways different from other cities in China, but not dissimilar to other global cities. Like NYC, it is one of a kind, and deserves much more scholarly attention.
Yzza Sedrati: What led you to divide the book in two? And what or who is the book in conversation with?
Ayala Fader: Thanks Yzza! It’s great to be in conversation with you. Hidden Heretics is about a crisis of authority among ultra-Orthodox Jews, and this crisis that connects Part I and 2, though each focuses on different aspects of the crisis. Many of the same folks I spent time with thread through both parts of the book, but I wanted to lay out the technological, cultural, theological, and historical context for what the community called, “a crisis of emine (faith).” Part 1 (Chapters 2-3) accounts for the changes that digital media brought to ultra-Orthodox communities in the US. Specifically examining the affordances digital media offered those with religious and cultural questions, how rabbinic leadership responded, and how those with what I call “life-changing doubt” began to use digital media to create a heretical counterpublic to the ultra-Orthodox religious public sphere. My interlocutors explicitly connected their experiences in New York to what they saw as a parallel moment in 18th century Europe when influenced by the Enlightenment, there were similar struggles over Jewish Orthodoxy and authority sparked by a then-new technology, the printing press and the circulation of print-media, which afforded opportunities for sharing heretical ideas across time and space. In ultra-Orthodoxy today, many men with life-changing doubt even called themselves, maskilim (Jewish enlighteners), the same term used in the 18th century to refer to those with Enlightenment-influenced ideas.
The second half of the book (Chapters 4-7) turns to the arc of gendered doubting and its implications for families, friendships and marriages. These chapters analyze the everyday lives of those who described themselves as “hidden heretics” or living “double lives”: men and women who experienced life-changing doubt but decided to remain in their communities to protect those they loved. Part 2 follows the course of life-changing doubt, from secret violations of commandments, to discovery by a spouse, and even sometimes expulsion from their communities by rabbinic leadership. The course of life-changing doubt affected marriages in different ways, with women having fewer resources and options than men. I followed those living double lives as they secretly explored new ways of being with friends and lovers without ever fully embracing the secular. I also learned about the frum (religious) psychologists, who were often called in to help when someone’s double life was found out. Frum therapists often pathologized religious doubt even as they tried to help those suffering from depression and anxiety that doubting frequently dragged with it. In the final chapter, I explore how double lives impacted parenting, children and extended families, which was particularly complex and poignant.
The overarching theoretical argument I make in the introduction is about the importance of ethnographically studying religious doubt in the anthropology of religion. Attention to doubt, questioning, and failure is a recent turn and complements the study of piety. Within this, I aimed to recuperate belief into a lived religion approach, not as a private interior state, but belief as practiced intersubjectively with others. In my analysis of doubt, I defined two different kinds: the doubt that is part of and refines faith/belief and the doubt that disrupts faith, what I called “life-changing doubt.” Drawing on the experiences of those living double lives, where belief and practice were at odds, life-changing doubt presented as a continuum, from theological doubts of different kinds to doubts about the legitimacy of contemporary ultra-Orthodox social institutions and leadership. Life-changing doubt had many reasons, expressions, and implications and was experienced differently depending on gender.
Each successive chapter embeds a distinctive theoretical argument within the broader framework of doubt, integrating literatures on gendered publics, media, and ethics. I drew literatures that are less often in conversation especially in the the study of Orthodox Jews and Judaism. For example, Chapters 2, 3, and 6 all engage with religion and media scholarship to show both how media and mediation can disrupt religious authority, as well as how digital literacies can change language varieties. Chapter 5, in contrast, tracks how a new epistemology (religious therapy) evolved among Orthodox Jews and was frequently leveraged in communal attempts to reframe life-changing doubt as a form of mental illness. Chapters 4 and 7 consider anthropology of ethics scholarship, arguing for a re-orientation to families linked through ties of obligation and affect, rather than focusing on the individual autonomous subject of philosophy. This chapter also emphasizes including children and teens in our studies of ethics, rather than the theoretically autonomous adults of much of the literature.
Yzza Sedrati: The internet/social media is continuously re-defined throughout the book, and its meaning is complicated by the fact that it is at once a medium carrying content and site of study. Can you explain what were the challenges of studying the internet and social media, and how you understand these multiple and competing meanings?
Ayala Fader:: I charted a dramatic change over a decade: rabbinic leadership’s understanding about the dangers of “the internet” (meaning all digital media) went from concern over the medium’s content to the medium itself. This distinction between content and the medium is of course an ongoing methodological and theoretical tension in ethnographic studies of digital media. Hidden Heretics addresses these tensions by considering the internet (blogs and later social media) in the broader media ecology, including print, telephony, etc., which all showed how ultra-Orthodox semiotic ideologies about media and mediation changed for leadership. In contrast, for those with life-changing doubt, digital media was a lifeline because it connected them to others in similar positions and reassured them that they were not “crazy.” Digital media offered access to forbidden bodies of knowledge such as biblical archeology and created friendships that moved to in-person meetings. The meaning of digital media then not only changed over time, but it was struggled over by different groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
My methodology emerged from the research, from my efforts to account for what I was observing and participating in, which is not unusual. If all interaction is mediated, then research that crosses among media of different kinds is critical. These are much more than methodological issues, though. They are ethical ones about access and representation, as well as competing ideas of publicity and accountability. This has become especially pressing in the pandemic, when for so many, online ethnography or digital anthropology has been the only option. Theoretically, we may have to reconsider what constitutes fieldwork, as well as explore how the folks we work with form networks of friends, family, lovers, across spaces and technologies.
Yzza Sedrati: The second part of the book sheds light on the worlds of double-lifers. You explain that we need to look at the unofficial, intimate/private spheres to understand double life because the moral responsibility to choose between two lives invokes these different binaries. 1) Can you explain how social spheres are refracted through morality and what it means to study moral choices ethnographically? What are the different interpretations of choice for double lifers (in relation to liberalism) and for ultra-Orthodoxy?
Ayala Fader: Great questions! Living as a hidden heretic was by default living in two different worlds simultaneously or having at least two very different lives. This separated private belief, public religious Orthodox practice, and secret experimentation that often broke Jewish law. What intrigued me most was hidden heretics’ ongoing struggles to make ethical judgements. They explicitly wanted to convince me and each other that despite the necessity for secrets and lies in the most intimate spaces of their lives, they were in fact making the most ethical choices, especially in contrast to those with similar life-changing doubts who ultimately left, what is called, “going OTD (off the derech or path).” I built on the exciting work in the anthropology of morality and ethics, while shifting the focus from freedom to judgement and obligation, from the individual to gendered dynamics in families and among friends.
Those living double lives embraced what they termed “secular” values of pluralism, tolerance, autonomy, as lived through individual choice. For example, they wanted their children to be able to “choose” their futures, something they felt that Jewish Orthodoxy had no room for. At the same time, they didn’t want to get their children in trouble with school or with a still-religious parent. Competing ethical systems could be difficult, especially on teenagers who sometimes felt they had to protect themselves from the influence of their own parents. Similarly, I discuss the ethical dilemmas of frum (religious) therapists, who were often called on to treat those with life-changing doubt. Some therapists struggled between helping clients make choices and their own desires to see their clients remain as Orthodox Jews.
Sara Isabel Castro Font: In this book you explore the sounds and practices of gwoka and how they depict the multiple and contradictory political and cultural subjectivities that characterize Guadeloupe’s postcoloniality. Throughout the book, your arguments seem to center around, or circle back to, ideas about homing and fleeing. Could you explain how these concepts were useful to move beyond dominant narratives about gwoka as a site of resistance or escaping?
Jérôme Camal: So first of all, these ideas are not mine. They come from the work of Michaeline Crichlow who you may be familiar with, who has written about what she calls post-creole. I think that’s a bit debatable whether something can be post-creole. It’s a way of engaging the dynamics of creolization into the contemporary moment and contemporary political subjectivities. What I really like about this tension between freeing and homing is that it allows for this complexity of political subjectivity or political positions for a place like Guadeloupe, which is a non-sovereign nation, a place where people have this history, this specific history of colonialism rooted in plantation economies and experiences of slavery and colonialism. At the same time, Guadeloupe has always been France. France has always had Guadeloupe, the French republic has always included this particular territory, this particular island. It means that as much as there is, and has been a need, and there continues to be a need, for Guadeloupeans to emphasize the fact that they are different from the rest of France, there is is also equally a need for them to create a space to exist within the French state. So there’s this dual movement that I try to detail in the book between, at the same time, creating and pushing back against the narratives and the position that is assigned by the colonial state, and at the same time creating the space to be able to exist within that same state.
I think it was really important for me because the nationalist narrative and the narrative of resistance is so strong around gwoka, I wanted to acknowledge it and respect that particular narrative, but at the same time I wanted to show that even historically it was more complicated than that. That there has always been this tension, that outright resistance was never completely possible. Guadeloupe is a small place, so yes there was some maroon communities in Guadeloupe but they were not dominant in the way they could be in places like in Suriname, or in Guyana, or even Jamaica for that matter. So whatever resistance could take place in Guadeloupe was happening at what Michel Ralph Trouillot would call, the margins of the plantations but never completely outside of it. So it was always a site of negotiation even during the periods of slavery, between the limits that were placed on freedom and the efforts to carve out some amounts of freedom and to create, to own space in the plantation or at least in the margins of it.
Sara Isabel Castro Font:Chapter 1 analyzes the emergence of gwoka at the margins of the plantation system, and chapter 2 talks about how gwoka was taken up again in the anti-colonial activists’ project in the 1960’s. In particular, you analyze Lockel’s gwoka modènn as part of an effort to reinvent Guadeloupean culture and remake its society. These two chapters naturally delve into the tensions between racial and class solidarity that characterize the emergence and evolution of gwoka. I wonder if these tensions continue to play a role in current political projects and ideologies surrounding gwoka, or forms of cultural expression more broadly?
Jérôme Camal: Yeah, I think so although it’s difficult because I think there’s two dynamics that makes answering this question for today and for Guadeloupe a bit more complicated. One of them is that we are dealing with a French territory. France has a very complicated, if I may want to use a euphemism, relationship to addressing race. There seems to be a set of blindspots there and French scholarship for example, struggles with real engagement with race and racism. That means that it’s not always easy to talk about these things with people even in the context of doing fieldwork. There is not a habit like you would have in the U.S. where you could engage in these conversations easily because (especially now in the current moment) people talk about things like systemic racism, anti-blackness, and things like that, that becomes part of the popular consciousness. It’s changing but it’s not necessarily the same within France, and this includes the overseas territories.
On top of that you have a place that has been defined by complex racial categories that don’t map perfectly onto this sort of binary that is more common to the United States. So, and maybe this is also my own blindspot, I never really ask people how they would position themselves racially. The people use all kinds of ways of defining themselves and each other in terms of skin color, eye color, hair texture, and things like but it’s not just black and white, there’s a whole gradation of different racial and ethnic categories that people use. Now this being said, there are different ways – and I deal with this a little bit in chapter 4 – there is a tension that I see between the different ways of understanding the relationship to the African heritage in Guadeloupe and in gwoka. There are ways of contextualizing gwoka that will really emphasize the fact that it is a Caribbean adaptation of west African traditions and that will emphasize the roots of the music in west Africa. And then there are ways people can understand themselves through the lens of creolization as a creole society, which puts this sort of moment of creation on the plantation rather than prior to the middle passage in Africa. This entails different positionings regarding colonial history and regarding the French state as well. It’s this complicated dance between different positions that can be deployed strategically at times by different people, almost systematically, in a more rigid ideological frame. So you have people in Guadeloupe that would define themselves through the lens of Afrocentrism, and there are some people who embrace ideas that are very close to Afrocentric ideas without necessarily defining themselves as Afrocentric. You also have people who would think of themselves as Guadeloupeans first (“we’re Guadeloupeans, we’re not Africans, we’re not creole, we’re Guadeloupean and our music is Guadeloupean and what we need is this affirmation of Guadeloupean nationality”). Then there are a few who consider all this to be part of creole societies more broadly or Caribbean societies. All of these are different kind of social and racial frames in which people position themselves.
Sara Isabel Castro Font:Chapters 3-5 neatly illuminate the complex ambiguities and ambivalences that characterize how Guadeloupeans position themselves and their music vis-à-vis the French state. Chapter 3 conceptualizes creolization as a synthesis between cosmopolitanism and nationalism, and examines how musicians in Paris use gwoka as both tactics of resistance and accommodation. Chapter 4 examines how jazz ka (merging gwoka and jazz) articulates new forms of cultural and political belonging, and chapter 5 examines postnationalist strategies to create alternative forms of governance and belonging. Throughout, I was intrigued by the way you challenge the conceptual separations of nationalism, creolization, and diaspora by drawing from Glissant’s concepts of traces, opacity, and abyss. Could you speak more about how these terms help to understand the ambiguities and ambivalences that characterize Guadeloupean post-coloniality? Have you developed any of these ideas further in subsequent works?
Jérôme Camal: I’m in the middle of doing that. So first I should say that there are few people in Guadeloupe who embrace Glissant. He is not someone whose writings Guadeloupeans recognize themselves in. I’ve been told, by some of the more tolerant folks that I’ve worked with, that it’s great but it’s about Martinique, it’s not about Guadeloupe. So there’s a bit of tension in my reliance on Glissant as much as I do. For me it’s been a very, and continues to be, a very influential source of ideas, someone that I think with and through a lot, and sometimes I think against; but that is always there as a kind of guide for the research that I want to do both in terms of analytics and giving me vocabulary to think with, concepts to think with, but also in terms of ethics. If we think about the Poetics of Relation as a sort of ethics, as a way of understanding one’s position in the world and one’s relation to others, and especially for us as anthropologists, then what does it mean to take seriously Glissant’s demand? How do we make sense of that and how do we integrate it in our work?
It’s going to be hard for me to answer this succinctly, but what I can say is that the idea of the abyss, which is developed in that absolutely wonderful opening chapter to Poetics of Relation (in English I think “The Open Boat”), and in which you see Glissant identifying the middle passage as that point of entanglement from which the Poetics of Relation grew. So this is the middle passage as the point of entanglement and the starting point for what we can call a counternarrative of modernity. In that chapter, Glissant uses “nous” in French or “we” in English. There’s an ambiguity. Who does it actually describe? Who is this “we”? And as a French and White person, I read this as a sort of challenge to think about how I am caught into this. To what degree is someone like me implicated in this “we” and if so, in what ways? Obviously my ancestors did not go through the middle passage, yet as a French person it is impossible for me to completely separate myself from the history of colonialism and slavery. I am a product of that history – in different ways but as much as the people of Guadeloupe. I am completely entangled with this. My existence is a product of that. So I did not necessarily have the same immediate affective response to that history as someone who is Afro descendant would have, but I cannot ignore it altogether. For Glissant, the abyss is at the same time a rupture and a starting point for new modes of relations. And I think this for myself (as a White French citizen, American academic) an invitation to really consider my participation in these poetics of relation.
Opacity, I see it as a complementary tool to understand and to think about the limits of what this entanglement actually means. It goes back to what I was saying about the fact that I’m implicated into this history, at the same time I can never relate to it in exactly the same way as someone who is the product of that history through different family connections. This being said, opacity for Glissant is very complex. There’s a quality of it that, I think, there’s the incapacity to fully understand the Other, there’s this nature that opacity sort of protects within the Poetics of Relation; as much as we are always in contact with other people, we exist by differentiating our identities, one exists by differentiating oneself from others in these processes of relations, of exchanges. Opacity is sort of this system of protection against this irreducible core of who the person is. But that also means that there is something about ourselves that escapes us, that we are never fully aware of, and that sometimes surfaces.
As we are doing research on these questions about postcoloniality as an embodied experience, which is what I research now, or postcoloniality as a historical process, there are always going to be these things that we can never quite touch, regardless of where we are placed within these relations. So I think it’s really important that we both consider the poetics of relations of the things that implicate us together and inscribe into a longer colonial and postcolonial history, and then the things that allow for us to maintain a certain integrity about who we are; so both what brings us together and what allows us to still exist. This is not in a melting pot, but in maintaining integrity for who we are and what we know; and also maintain a part of mystery too. This is what is poetic about the Poetics of Relations. There is something that is never quite graspable, that is never quite describable, but will always exist in this realm of what is intuitive and felt, more than understood.
I started a new project which is really a continuation of what I’ve been doing. I’m working with mostly Guadeloupean and some of the Martiniquean migrants in France mostly in and around Paris. I’m looking at how they use gwoka dancing, especially dancing, not so much music making, as a way to negotiate their position as postcolonial citizens of France and at how music and dance allow them to both maintain ties with the Antilles but also home the context of the French Republic. You can see why things like opacity would become really important because even though I am dancing alongside Guadeloupean migrants, we are experiencing kinesthetically (our bodies are moving together, we are experiencing efforts, we are literally sweating together, we are experiencing some of the same sensations in our body). That does not necessarily mean that these translations are going to have the same affective resonance for all of us, yes to some degree, but only to some degree. So this is where opacity again comes into play. I can be deeply moved by a song and having to dance to a song that celebrates those people who were lost during the middle passage or died on the planation. If it’s moving to me and it helps me sort of have an affective experience of what really is meant, but at the same time, although it is moving for me, it doesn’t have the same resonance as someone for whom we could be talking about their great grandparents. So this is where opacity again comes into play, we share these experiences both kinesthetically, and to some degree affectively, in the context of the dance, but there’s always going to be a limit to what those shared experiences are and how they translate across from one person to another.
Sara Isabel Castro Font:In various parts of the book you include reflections about your own positionality as a White French citizen and a U.S. academic and professional jazz player, which seems to be entangled as well in the post-coloniality of Guadeloupe. What does it mean for you as French scholar trained in the US to conduct research in Guadeloupe? How do you think your social, cultural, and academic background affect your work? How did you navigate the multiple positions you held during fieldwork, not just as an academic but also as a musician?
Jérôme Camal: I came to Guadeloupe wanting to study the intersection of jazz and traditional music. So I arrived in Guadeloupe with this sort of persona that was constructed around the fact that I was a professional jazz musician, and I was coming from the United States. I think that came to define how many people within the gwoka community saw me because I was French but I was coming from the U.S. and I was performing American jazz; so that really shaped my early encounters with people. I think to some degree allowed for some conversations to happen with certain separatist activists who may not have been as open to speaking to a French person directly. I think my training in the U.S. has already been, and all the more know, as I mentioned a little bit earlier, in the U.S. there is a facility with dealing with both colonial history, postcolonial theory, and race that has given us a lot of vocabulary to deal with these things and an openness to talk about these issues. This sometimes in my conversations with people in Guadeloupe or with migrants in France can be validating. I have a vocabulary, I have a sort of openness to considering talking about racism, the experience of racism, and about the colonial heritage of France that is not yet widespread in France; so that makes our conversations easier. At the same time, how people read my body does put some limits on access. There are people who consistently refused to talk to me and it becomes a complicated dance, if I may. When I enter a dance for example, I find myself as the only white man in a group that is mostly Caribbean women with a few, if any, Caribbean men in the group. So my body stands out, how people relate to it is complicated. Oftentimes my gender is more often commented on much more than my race, my skin color, because dance spaces, especially with gwoka, are mostly female spaces. The fact that a man is actually learning to dance is commented upon and made fun of. I don’t think it’s ever provoked discomfort that I could feel, but maybe I am wrong about that. It also is impacting the reception of my work back in the U.S. where there’s a great sensitivity to issues of positionality. Of course I have to be careful to define my position when I engage with my work and present my work to American audiences. It could be easy to dismiss what I do based on the fact that I’m a white guy — how could I possibly understand? So we’re back to these ideas from the Poetics of Relation and ideas of opacity. I think for us as anthropologists, especially in this moment when there are increased calls to decolonize the discipline, we need to not shy away from the complexity of our positions. These are things that Faye Harrison was already saying late 1980’s and early 1990’s. We should see both the limits and opportunities that different social positions in training create for us as anthropologists and know what that means for our work. We should consider how we can ethically continue to conduct the work that we do, the politics of the work that we do, and build from that, rather than seeing it simply as only limits or disqualifying characteristics.
Michael Fischer: It is so great to see your book finally coming out in print: we’ve been talking about it in seminars and conferences for so long, we now have a chance to look back and appreciate what it accomplishes. First of all, how would you like to see it positioned vis-a-vis three different literatures: the literature on the anthropology of art, the literature on Middle Eastern art, and the literature on Iranian art? How would you characterize the state of these literatures and how does your book move their debates forward? In particular you make an interesting argument against the legacy Orientalism that lingers in museums and among curators.
Mazyar Lotfalian: The anthropology of art in the 1990s impacted Middle Eastern art, an older field belonging to art history and architectural history. Critical studies in architecture, semiotics studies, and ethnographic studies ushered the study of Middle Eastern art into making visual and aural fields as central as other fields of studies. This change has been gradual.
Literature on Iranian art has had a similar trajectory. I think the international fame of Iranian cinema had the most impact on visual studies. It became more accessible for the academic visual studies departments to imagine Iranian films as a legitimate material culture to understand Muslim culture. By now, a few academic hires claim Iranian cinema as their field.
Ethnography as a method of understanding visual culture has been lagging behind critical studies. My effort is threefold. To develop what it means to do ethnographic studies of visual culture. To situate visual anthropology within a media ecology that avoids studying art in isolation. And to theorize and understand to role of technology in the production and circulation of art.
Orientalism, or the contemporary version, neo-Orientalism in visual representation, has continued, especially after 911. I present a framework that goes beyond Orientalism and situates the work of art on a performative ground. Two additional concepts I use, after Rancière, are dissensus and heterology. They help us understand the work of art not in terms of what they try to oppose and replace but how they try to neutralize, say, the Orientalist effect. The focus of the study would be the heterogeneity of forms and performativity of acts.
Michael Fischer: You are one of the few anthropologists to have been able to go to Iran every year from 2001 to 2019. One of the features of the book is that it bridges Iran and Iranians in the diaspora rather than grounding itself in either one or the other. It also bridges the worlds of performance art, museums, galleries, biennales or major art shows, and new media. Usually commentaries situate the art either in Iran or in the international arena, but you seem to refuse that dichotomy, so how do you see the field of action that you are addressing?
Mazyar Lotfalain: Yes, I think this is precisely the contribution that the book is trying to make, a broader understanding of ecologies of mediation rather than focusing narrowly on technological devices. The production of work of art is distributed across spatial and political boundaries. Iranian art projects that are conceived and produced in New York and Tehran are both similar and different. The nuances and essential details come to light by ethnographic engagements.
There is excellent work emerging under the category of the Iranian diaspora. However, there is a sense that Iranian diaspora means spatially things that happen outside Iran. This perception has been reinforced by increased difficulty in traveling to Iran.
My yearly trip to Iran had a cumulative effect ethnographically speaking. I was able to rethink my writing frame many times, which defined my book sections; the book is event-driven, sort of a bottom-up approach. During the time of political polarization, we need to use ethnography creatively.
Michael Fischer: You draw on several key theorists to help orient readers, but you seem to push the arguments they make beyond where they left them. Can you say more about what in your field of attention stimulated you to go beyond where they had left things. As I read the book, you draw particularly on W.T.C. Mitchell, Jacques Rancière, and Henry Jenkins, all of whom seem to be operating very much within a European or Euro-American frame. How does the cross-continental Iranian focus challenge them or maybe extend their lines of thought? I’m particularly interested in your notions of circulation and secondary appropriation across art forms as a kind of transformative politics, analogous to the way, perhaps, that the velocity of money and capital changes their force or social role.
Mazyar Lotfalain: I have used several western theorists, as you mention, who have tried to explain visual cultures through theories of images, aesthetics, politics, and the role of technology. I was interested in W.T.C. Mitchell’s concept of images as not just representational but things that come to life by human interaction. Rancière helped me understand the role of politics in visual culture as both police and dissensus. Jenkins shows the role of new media technology as a convergent modality where one work becomes the base for another; this illustrates digital technology well. I would caution, after Rancière, that the convergent modality remains within the politics of policing versus dissensus.
The process is certainly not the application of one theorist to my existing data. Still, to work with ethnographic material and borrow what works best to understand them is the work of translation. In addition, cultural interpretation in this work is tuned to the hermeneutics of Iranian culture, not within its national boundary but in a vast spatial-temporal-political that exists.
The expansion of Iranian art sales in Dubai, Beirut, Berlin, New York, and the Tehran art market caused the supply of Iranian art to increase by the mid-2000s. The increase in the velocity of exchange in art (just like money) means that art is exchanged into more hands. Iranian art is circulating at a rapid rate. I want to get to what you are asking, the value of political interest, which is not separate from the money interest. Iranian art entered the world of politics in the West and Iran. Many museum venues, art galleries, and media events invested in Iranian art as “the better side of Iranians” to appropriate art as an expression of resistance. There are layers of values that are attached to this political interest. What I talk about in the book as a poetic space is where the real transformative power lies. If the artists and others who create critical works join forces, their works can take advantage of this opportunity and bring about potential political changes.
Michael Fischer: Rancière’s notion of politics as dissensus as opposed to policing seems to be quite productive in your work. You argue that the underground in Iran is not to be understood as analogous to samizdat in Russia, and indeed that it is not so much oppositional as neutralizing easy oppositions, and instead moves the field of what is possible to say or do beyond the ambiguities of the security state. Can you give an example or two?
Mazyar Lotfalain: In the book, I talk about the work of Neshat, whose work well exemplifies the production of dissensus. Her initial work mainly focused on women, veils, and calligraphy, all possible signifiers of the Orientalist discourse. In these early works, she tried to subvert them. The veil didn’t turn into a sign of weakness, and the calligraphy represented feminist poetry. Circulation of these images, one might argue, has one value, that of Orientalist discourse. The circulation generated diverse debate among Iranians, in both diaspora and Iran, about their potential as a critical discourse, including Orientalist intent. The formation of dissensus among the Iranian artists has been productive. What Rancière calls heterology in political art replaces the Orientalist lens. Heterology refers to the distribution of the sensible meaning of art as a performative network that makes the political art fulfills its potential instead of the message of any element.
Michael Fischer: Say something about how the cafe-and-gallery spaces in Tehran have evolved over the past twenty years, as Iran first liberalized under Khatami, and even under Ahmadinejad, and how conservative politics is now affecting things. And say something about how these spaces are in tension with the art-markets that promote commodification.
Mazyar Lotfalain: The so-called liberalization of the public space started with Khatami, although the architect was Rafsanjani towards the end of the Iran/Iraq war. Cafe houses sprang up first in Tehran and then spread to other cities in the 2000s. They were a marker of the wealth of the middle class at the time and the opening of the political space. A number of the cafe houses were combined cafe galleries, which oriented the young population towards art, broadly understood. Interestingly, the families of renowned literary authors owned several cafe galleries. These changes in public spaces continued during the Ahmadinejad administration as well, although there was more restriction. The art market, cafe houses, galleries, and the government sanction through censorship shaped the aesthetic sensibilities – this has been the dialectic of aesthetic and culture-making (farhang-sazi).
The opening of cafes and galleries has continued today. Two factors affected their livelihood. First, the sanctions on Iran and the drop in oil prices impacted the number of Iranians who frequented them. Secondly, the pandemic caused many of them to close down. For instance, cafe 78, a pioneering cafe gallery, closed down in 2021. Since its inception, in 2003, this place has become an educational and aesthetic space for young Tehranis. With the inauguration of a unified conservative government, we are yet to see the outcome of this sea change for the art world in Iran.
Michael Fischer: Can you also describe the changing populations of arts students over the last two decades, and maybe the ways in which their training is changing.
Mazyar Lotfalain: As I mentioned, the liberalization of the late 1990s accompanied a widening of the middle class. The consumption among the middle class increased. As I discuss in the book, art education outside universities, which existed before, was even more sought for social activity. There was a gender component in it as well. It became more acceptable for the families to have their male children to pursue art education. Families began to see art as a potentially viable career direction. There was a clear connection to the art market. Art students learn from the maters outside the universities. In a way, art education has happened outside universities which the government controls. Social space for art education is different than, say, engineering in this way.
Michael Fischer: Do you want to draw attention to particular art projects that illustrate most sharply the arguments in your book. I’m thinking of maybe Sohrab Kashani and Azadeh Akhlaghi as key examples among those we have not yet mentioned.
Mazyar Lotfalain: he two projects, one by Sohrab Kashani and the other by Azadeh Akhlaghi, are significant for a few reasons. These projects, at the outset, are made transnational that connects Iran and its diaspora. Kashani’s project works on the practice and politics of communication through technology. Akhlaghi’s project activates the past through staged images of a contested history of Iran and its diaspora.
Kashani in Super Sohrab incarnated in himself with Superman-like attire. Super Sohrab goes to many places (especially in Europe) and tries to establish person-to-person communication between himself and through their networks by his standards, to establish a people-to-people conversation. He has also collaborated with an art professor, Jon Rubin of Carnegie Melon University, on three projects similar to Super Sohrab: Kubideh Kitchen, Portals, and The Foreigner. All of these involve Iranians and Americans using technology or food to experience cultural tastes from each other, precisely the exchanges that governments have prevented. These are great examples of how aesthetics and politics combine.
Akhlaghi, through staged photography, provokes the truth about the events of the past. Historical images that have been taken out of circulation, often hidden or disappeared, reappear, staged, and real for people. They lose their ambiguity or anonymity, and people may recognize them as real voices or as having a sense of reality. One of her staged images is that of the champion wrestler, Takhati. It has reportedly been used in an annual memorial of his death in place of, or as, a real photograph of him. Akhlaghi’s staged photos have even been used in the media without reference to the artist, presented as real. There is a sly game or dance between artistic ambiguity and the discursive hegemonies re-curated by the media or by Takhati’s supporters.
I refer to this emergent change in the ‘distribution of the sensible’ throughout the book, after Jacques Rancière’s work on aesthetics and politics. Rancière connects aesthetics to politics, where people’s political participation relies on their perceptions and senses of visibility/invisibility, inclusion/exclusion. These modes are regulated by the distribution of the sensible, a regime that makes what is visible and invisible possible. Rancière distinguishes between police and politics: police maintain the distribution of social classes while politics challenges that status quo. Politics is a way for the excluded to disturb established power. The two phenomenological changes (Islam and digital technology) are challenging the established regime of the sensible. What Iranian artists show us in transnational space and the realm of aesthetics and politics is emblematic of this sea change.
I think that not only Iranian artists but generally artists from the Muslim cultures have been producing works when politics of representation challenge the regime of visibility/invisibility. In this context, the tension between police and politics generates a fertile ground for political art.
Michael Fischer: Finally, do you want to say something about the writing strategy that the book adopts. I find the way you use your own first-person experiences not only to guide the reader in the ethnographic examples, but also to explain the theoretical concepts, to be extremely inviting especially for use in the classroom.
Mazyar Lotfalain: I wanted to give a phenomenological sense of the events through my experiences. The book did not have an outline at the outset. The events that I engaged with, ethnographically, from 2003 to 2015 became chapters. There is a temporal limitation to writing about a phenomenon that is taking shape right before your eyes. The book is not about everything. But there is a depth that this writing strategy affords.
You mention the possibility of using the book as a teaching tool. Each chapter provides critical tools to discuss an event. For instance, the chapter on digital activism will give an in-depth understanding of “convergent mode of production,” however, the internet tools have evolved ever since 2009 that I wrote that chapter. Readers need to apply the conceptual frame to today’s events. I found this writing style interesting in that it acknowledges the temporal structure and yet gives a fuller picture of the event at that historical moment. This way of anchoring leaves opens the possibility of going back and generating new interpretations.
On the 99th page of my dissertation, “The Objective Function: Science and Society in the Age of Machine Intelligence”, the first full paragraph describes how machine learning researchers go about deciding which projects they should work on. Given that the dissertation, as a whole, is concerned with understanding how machine intelligence—data-driven algorithmic techniques like machine learning, data science, and artificial intelligence—produces knowledge and constructs the authority it holds as it moves across a wide range of domains, this page seems a particularly apt representation of the whole. This page also gestures at the idiosyncrasies of fieldwork that allowed me to address these concerns, as the research lab I had found myself working in was particularly reflexive about the work they did. Without the reflexivity of my interlocutors, many of the social processes I was interested in would have likely remained hidden from my view, or at least been much more difficult to access ethnographically. The paragraph in question reads:
“In the sense that most work in machine intelligence involves applying a well-suited technique to a well-posed problem, the exercise these applied machine learning researchers undertook for their research report was merely a highly reflexive version of how machine intelligence is applied generally. Inspired by the horizontal organizational structures common in the technology industry (Scott 1975; Pfeffer and Leblebici 1977), researchers at OTH shared responsibilities and steered many business decisions through collaboration and consensus. The topic-selection process at the lab was emblematic of this. It was run by the researcher whose “turn” it was to write the next report and involved a series of whiteboard exercises in which all lab members would nominate candidates, research their potential as a topic, and then present their favored candidates to the entire team, who would then collectively winnow down the candidates to a few finalists. The report author would ultimately select the topic. The reflexivity of the process these applied machine learning researchers engaged in offers a valuable window into questions that go un-asked and assumptions that go un-examined in more mundane, less research-oriented applications of machine intelligence. The research report I participated in addressed a technique called “multi-task learning” that was first described in the late 1990s (Caruana 1997), but the technique rose to the top of the topic-selection process because it had recently found applications in industry (see McCann et al. 2018), and was more easily integrated with newer machine learning programming packages.”
What this paragraph reveals, for me at least, is that the production of knowledge through machine learning is a collaborative, practice-based process. To fully understand the role it plays in reshaping social worlds requires seeing the many ways it is shaped by organizational prerogatives and industry-specific ways of structuring work practices. But machine intelligence is also shaped by the questions researchers choose to ask, and—by extension—the questions they do not. These situated knowledges (Haraway 1988, Rouse 2002, Katell et al. 2020), I eventually conclude, contribute to the overall conservatism of machine intelligence. Contrary to the trappings they carry in popular imaginaries of technological advancement and futuristic automation, machine intelligence conserves the power of already-existing institutions and it reinscribes social relations of the past into the present and future. Machine intelligence may, on the surface, threaten the authority of powerful actors like judges, doctors, or loan officers by way of automation. But, in reality, machine intelligence preserves the power of the institutions — the courts, hospitals, and banks — that confer authority upon those actors. This is because, in selecting problems, and in addressing them, the work of machine intelligence is to ask questions that extend power, and not to challenge it.
Haraway, Donna J. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575.https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066.
Michael Katell, Meg Young, Dharma Dailey, Bernease Herman, Vivian Guetler, Aaron Tam, Corinne Binz, Daniella Raz, and P. M. Krafft. 2020. Toward Situated Interventions for Algorithmic Equity: Lessons from the Field. In Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency (FAT* ’20), January 27–30, 2020, Barcelona, Spain. ACM, New York, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.1145/3351095.3372874.
McCann, Bryan, Nitish Shirish Keskar, Caiming Xiong, and Richard Socher. 2018. “The Natural Language Decathlon: Multitask Learning as Question Answering.” ArXiv:1806.08730 [Cs, Stat], June. http://arxiv.org/abs/1806.08730.
Pfeffer, Jeffrey, and Husayin Leblebici. 1977. “Information Technology and Organizational Structure.” The Pacific Sociological Review 20 (2): 241–61.
Rouse, Joseph. 2002. How Scientific Practices Matter: Reclaiming Philosophical Naturalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Scott, W. Richard. 1975. “Organizational Structure.” Annual Review of Sociology 1 (1): 1–20.
Page 99 of my dissertation falls in the middle of the second chapter, “Historia: Social Media as a Tool for Counter-Memory.” Each chapter takes a salient concept from my fieldwork as a jumping off point, and in chapter 2 this concept is “historia.” Historia is interesting because of the ambiguity that this word creates when translated to English; it means both ‘history’ and ‘story,’ which I use as an entry point to discuss the online history making practices among Chilean trans activists at the heart of this project. As they tell stories, they make history…
Though I began with a more traditional project in mind, social media emerged unexpectedly as a central theme in my interviews, as a tool for community building and knowledge sharing, and as an archive. At the same time, as I conducted life history interviews, the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) and its aftermath seemed inescapable. Though the advent of social media and the end of the dictatorship were separated by two decades, the connection between them felt obvious to me, but in a way that took me several years to articulate.
Page 99 is dominated by two lengthy quotes from Alejandra Soto, the president of trans sex worker’s rights organization Sindicato Amanda Jofré. In these quotes, Alejandra recounts in painful detail the suspected murder of the organization’s namesake at the hands of a former member of Pinochet’s secret police, the DINA.
(from pg. 99)
Both Amanda’s subaltern position and that of her compañeras meant that, though charges were filed and evidence presented, he was ultimately cleared of all charges, understood to be de facto a more credible witness than the women he made a habit of torturing. This is especially telling given that there was another compañera present during these events whose eyewitness testimony was essentially ignored in favor of protecting a man with connections to the halls of power.
“There was another compañera there, and he told her ‘She’s suffocating. Let’s let her die and we’ll just throw her body into the Mapocho.’ And the compañera said ‘No, no, don’t throw her away.’ And she called us and we showed up with the cops, the media, and saw them carrying her outside, dead.”
“So what happened to him?” I asked, shocked at the brazenness of what I was hearing.
“He was out in a month. I mean, he was in the DINA. He had a lot of support.”
It was through becoming Facebook friends with many of my interlocutors that I was able to learn—in bits and pieces—more about the stories they told me in interviews, like the one above. As I became attuned to these traces, in classic ethnographic fashion, the connection revealed itself. I began to connect faces, names, and events, revealing small glimpses of Chile’s trans history.
Marginalized communities have long had to develop their own methods of preserving their histories. For Chile’s trans community, this has historically taken the form of oral history. In turn, this practice has become enmeshed with the open wound of thousands of murdered and disappeared political prisoners whose stories will never be known, a central focus of contemporary Chilean activism.
Though my ethnography bridges on- and offline spaces, it ultimately maps a trajectory of alternative history making practices that predate the internet. Social media is simply its most recent iteration.
Baird Campbell. 2021. “The Archive of the Self: Trans Self-Making and Social Media in Chile.” Rice University, Phd.
Katherine Chen:Your book Supercorporate, an ethnography of a multi-conglomerate steel company that you call Sangdo, argues that we can study corporations to understand the societies that they are embedded in. In this case, South Korean society has moved towards post-hierarchical organizations. Positions and differential rewards are no longer assigned based on gendered ideals or number of years of service, but rather upon collaborative teamwork conducted in the workplace and in after-hours activities. The ethnography offers the term “supercorporate ideal” as “the broader promise of corporations to realize and channel post- hierarchical forms of both interpersonal distinction and positive social interactions” (5). It argues that the human resources (HR) department had the difficult tasks of facilitating these distinctions. These distinctions include job titles tailored to reflect people’s status as they advance up the ranks Can you talk more about the decision to use this term supercorporate? What does the term build upon?
Michael Prentice: I derive “supercorporate” from the conventional term for domestic conglomerates in Korean, daegieop (literally “large corporation”). The term daegieop is defined by state regulators to designate more oversight to conglomerates of a certain size, but the term also exists at the top of a status hierarchy of cultural-economic prestige; to say one’s spouse or child works at a daegieop says something. During my fieldwork within a human resources (HR) team at the ‘Sangdo Group’ which was technically a daegieop, I was constantly made aware of the broader fields of distinction that employees and managers understood themselves to be within – the Sangdo tower literally hovered above a neighborhood of other medium and small companies. However, at the same time, employees often commented how they saw themselves far below the (imagined) prestige or power of other name-brand daegieop like Samsung or Hyundai. In this sense, I use “supercorporate” not simply as a descriptor of big company culture vis-à-vis other organizational entities, but to conceptualize the broader cultural-organizational fields of distinction (and their shifting categories) which is imminent within any analysis of local organizational action in South Korea. In the book I try to argue that the supercorporate ideal reflects an imaginary of a type of organization which might be able to provide opportunities for both individual distinction and democratic participation; whether such a corporation or organization exists that perfectly achieves both is not the point, but it always was on the horizon of possibility for workplace aspirations.
Katherine Chen: How might other readers use this supercorporate concept to understand their own organizations, especially in other societies?
Michael Prentice: The book hopefully should appeal to different scholars and fields, but one of my hopes for it and the concept of the supercorporate ideal is to draw attention (back) to the dynamics of organizational life. Understandings of conglomerate life in South Korea have long been tied to conglomerates’ historical role in the (post-)developmental state. These discussions have been pegged to political debates and issues around conglomerates’ relationships with the state, the role of owning families, and the macro-dynamics of global capitalism. These discussions have been important, but in my eyes, they have often overlooked two things: the investment in middle-class society in corporations as end points of intense educational strivings and the complex politics or inner workings of organizational life itself. Regarding the first, corporations are not just creatures of capitalism; South Korean middle-class society creates certain aura around corporate work as a legible marker of biographic success. Regarding the second, the internal dynamics of even a relatively unknown industrial conglomerate like Sangdo are extremely complex in and of themselves. Managers and employees navigate complex relationships with coworkers, teams, part-time workers, managers in factories and overseas branches, and so on – all while trying to align with broader ideals about what modern labor is supposed to be in the twentieth century. The broader uptake of South Korean cases has often been pegged to the discourse on the country’s developmental pathway which has often situated it at the ‘lagging’ end of economic trends and overshadowed by Japan and China. In my eyes, studies of South Korean organizations could drive a variety of topics at the nexus of organizational studies, anthropology, and sociology.
In reflecting since finishing the book – and especially now residing outside the US – the ambiguity or tension around what corporations are supposed to embody or do (as imagined vehicles of distinction or participation) I have found useful for thinking on other kinds of institutions, such as American universities. Culturally, American universities are intense vehicles of distinction, but are also seen as enablers of wider socio-economic participation or social mobility (erasing age-old distinctions). Many American families seem to want both – in the same ways that South Korean employees wanted to be both distinguished and to have flat relations with their co-workers. I don’t know if I’d call the American system ‘supercorporate’ in the same way, but I hope it might find uptake for other scholars who don’t just work on ‘corporate-y’ things.
Katherine Chen: The appendix describes your access to Sangdo. You were able to connect via an alumni contact, and you were placed as an intern in the HR department. You describe your placement as follows:
Team manager Jang was initially confused about what exactly I would do with the team. I was not put there as a researcher with an explicit plan that we had agreed on, nor was I particularly well qualified to do HR work. I was technically an intern, but not the typical university student studying business or economics with corporate aspirations. (In this sense, I am sure I was likely seen as a pure parachute by coworkers.) Nevertheless, on my first day, I explained to my coworkers in HR that I was an ethnographer who did research largely through observation and note-taking; everyone agreed to the basic informed consent protocol. Likewise, I explained to everyone I met that I was also working on my PhD loosely around changes in office relations, technology, and communication in large companies. (p. 172-173)
How did your role change over time and in different settings, especially as you became involved in more “informal” activities? In particular, you note how people may have felt obligated to include you in certain activities because of a perceived link with a leader, in the hopes that this inclusion would reflect well upon them and their unit. In another area, you note how your lack of familiarity with McKinsey consulting firm approach of distinct, measurable categories made it difficult to complete an assigned slide presentation on categorizations.
Michael Prentice: The original manuscript did not originally have an appendix expressly discussing methods. I was glad that one of the reviewers suggested it and my editor was supportive of its inclusion. I found it useful to discuss how the shifting contours of presence and positionality at Sangdo as well as how my own interpretive lenses were shaped before and after formal fieldwork. At the company, the various intersections of identity categories were complex: my first entrée was through an alumni connection from the US. Accompanying that formal relationship co-existed forms of implicit prestige or aura around whiteness, Americanness, maleness, English-speaking, and education credentials that underlay many different interactions. At a practical level of working on the HR team, there was a noticeable transition from an unknown outsider to an insider that came with identifying myself as a member of the HR team, not just as a PhD student. In some ways that was a condition of possibility for certain kinds of access. But South Korean organizational life is good at finding new and emerging points of distinction to draw between yourself and others. For instance, despite a few years working in a marketing company prior to my PhD, my coworkers found my PowerPoint skills to be utterly lacking compared to another teammate who was called a ‘god of PPT’. I also came into awareness about the importance of higher-end consumer goods that are expected among white-collar office workers like monogrammed shirts, Rolex watches, and various golf accoutrements. One thing I perhaps did not expect was the way that one’s interactional footing constantly shifts at different organizational interfaces: within the team, I was the youngest intern with only a few responsibilities; outside of the team I was strongly pegged to HR and my team manager vis-à-vis other departments. Travelling to other floors, you then enact the identity of someone from the ‘upstairs’ holding company meeting a subsidiary. This reflects I think the basic dynamic of much of South Korean social life where one keeps close tabs on the different vectors of difference between oneself and many others.
Katherine Chen: The book also explicates how HR shrouds distinctions among employees and units in organizational secrecy, in the interests of preserving cooperation and cohesion:
One day in March 2014, the junior member of the HR team, Ki-ho, who sat adjacent to me printed out a large A3- sized spreadsheet and laid it across his desk. He was reviewing it with team manager Jang. Down the side of the spreadsheet were the names of each of the dozen subsidiaries of the Sangdo Group. Across the top of the spreadsheet were different categories: title system, promotion length time, average salary, annual bonus range, average vacation time, amount given for weddings and funerals, and a few others…. Its leak, even if inadvertent, could have wreaked havoc over the entire workforce of Sangdo. It was the only document of its kind that compared the discrepancies around personnel policies between subsidiaries. Distinctions between subsidiaries could be largely suspected or shared among employees, but an actual elaboration of the policies themselves was largely unknown. Revealing the document could throw off union negotiations, create competitions between subsidiaries, or lead to alienation if certain subsidiaries realized they were getting a different deal from others. (59-60)
Such secrecy also included not revealing survey results that might cause embarrassment for that unit. Can you discuss more how secrecy can facilitate and obscure the development of a hierarchy based on differential resource allocations?
Michael Prentice: There are lots of aspects around secrecy and security in South Korean corporate life that I’ve written about recently; however, at the Sangdo holding company one thing that was always interesting was that employees and managers were aware of the difference between their cultural and organizational points of distinction vis-à-vis other offices (the people in the holding company certainly had more legible credentials than others), but from an information or resource point of view they were not bestowed with a panoptic view that others might have imagined they had. Holding companies in South Korea are sometimes categorized as modern versions of secretariats or control towers where the most important secretive information in a conglomerate is stored and all the power is held. At the holding company, many of the teams had just been formed and their cultural credentials outweighed their organizational powers. I describe in the book for instance how they often had to rely on handmade Excel sheets rather than powerful ERP programs for storing information. The perception of this fact – that the holding company perhaps was not as all powerful as its floor position indicated – was something that HR managers and others actively managed as they worked with individual subsidiaries. This gave me a new way of looking at fairly standard genres like an employee survey to think about what kinds of information asymmetries they were attempting to create and why people in high-up offices rely on those kinds of genres rather than others, like master plans or direct orders for instance. In some ways, then, there were always two secrets kept – one about the perceived content of various forms (which individually might be powerful) but also about the larger secret of the holding company’s (lack of) relative power at the time, at least in comparison to the image of distinction such putatively elite labor was imagined to have.
Katherine Chen: In another chapter, your book describes the phenomena of chonghoe-ggun or “meeting extortionists.” These stockholders attempt to disrupt meetings through asking questions at public meetings, in the hopes of getting pay-outs. In the US, we might characterize this question-asking as shareholder activism instead. What does their attempts to smooth over these stakeholders’ claims say about corporate capacity to deal with such public confrontations?
Michael Prentice: Shareholder activism is certainly popular and dynamic in South Korea. What I found interesting about the form of shareholder meetings is that there are many different actors who take an interest in corporate meetings who all must pass through the strange format of the shareholder meeting itself which still embodies a kind of 19th century parliamentary norm. This norm sets the conditions for a particular kind of democratic participation that are helpful for thinking about what we mean by workplace democracy. Ethnographically, I was able to see how employees changed their everyday roles to help run the event and sometimes participate in it (as actual shareholders). In this context, chonghoe-ggun are extortionists who take advantage of the right to speak that comes with an ownership share. As shareholders themselves, they can raise questions of directors and are protected by law as long as they follow the meeting rules. (This is not unprecedented in the US where Evelyn Davis used provocative outfits and colorful language for similar purposes for many decades). As I’ve researched the general phenomenon through news reports and discussions with different finance managers in South Korea, the goal of extortionists is not necessarily to gain a meaningful change in corporate oversight like an activist might but to generate enough annoyance that a company might find it easier to pay them off. What this says about broader attempts at corporate takeovers via shareholder meetings I can’t say, but I do find shareholder meetings to be a quite radical genre compared to other aspects of everyday organizational life; they break down and re-present corporations as gradated ownership interests who have protected speaking rights, not necessarily as unified entities. Even though chonghoe-ggun are disliked by many (including sincere minority shareholders), they nevertheless have a right to claim a part of the pie, so to speak, which sometimes looks like activism.
Katherine Chen: In the US, the on-going pandemic has reduced in-person contact at some organizations. Some professionals are working from home, perhaps indefinitely in the case of the tech sector. How have companies such as Sangdo fared? What are the implications for how workers grapple with ggondaeryeok (old-man power) of overwork and forced conviviality?
Michael Prentice: In the time since my fieldwork ended in 2015, lots has changed in South Korean work life. Most recently, of course, the ongoing pandemic has forced many people to work from home which was unheard of when I was there; all work was done at the office and it was almost unthinkable to take documents or computers out of the building. Even before the pandemic, though other regulations have come into effect: on gift-giving and entertainment limits with public officials (the Kim Young-Ran Act of 2016) and on maximum work time 2018 (maximum weekly working hours was capped at 52 in 2018). Yet many of the big challenges are framed in similar terms: as I discuss in the third chapter of the book, attempts at purifying offices implicitly address a male-dominated and hierarchical culture which is supposed to be an object of the past, but seems to keep hindering the progress of South Korean work culture. ‘Generation talk’ (sedaeron) in South Korea is particularly productive for explaining these where the older and outdated one is holding back the newer generation – just this past month even the chairman of the Korean Chamber of Commerce promised to get rid of “old man” culture and improve communication with a number of large corporations signing on. Given the intense concentration around corporate work, pressures around teamwork and tenure, and the way ranks are stratified in many ways, however, I don’t know if all problems can be explained by simply generational conflict. In 2019, the Workplace Harassment Act was passed and over 10,000 cases have been reported to a harassment help line since then, according to one report. I suspect the pandemic may have removed some of the more iconic forms of workplace harassment, but the dependence on digital connections may have created new issues of their own. For my next research, I am curious how new private worker messaging platforms are affording new kinds of open discussion but also leading to other kinds of interpersonal hazards.