Local Food: What Counts?


by Jennifer Meta Robinson

“Local” has emerged as one of the hottest food and cultural concepts in the United States in the past 25 years. Many people choose to buy local, read books written or published or bound locally, wear clothing made from homespun fiber or fashioned nearby, ride locally made bicycles, recreate locally, and build homes with locally sourced materials. Three-quarters of Americans say that they are highly influenced by labels that indicate food is “locally grown.” Food industry giants that regularly source from around the world, such as members of the National Restaurant Association, the largest food service trade organization, and Walmart, the largest US grocer, identify “locally grown” as a top food trend in recent years. The term’s ubiquity alone begs examination.

In a new book with co-author James R. Farmer, Selling Local:  Why Local Food Movements Matter (Indiana University Press 2017),


we report on our research over two decades that includes hundreds of interviews and site visits and thousands of surveys to understand why local matters to the people involved and how they live it.  Our focus is on people associated with farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) in the Midwest and in the central Appalachian regions, but we also range far beyond. Here is a brief glimpse.

 What Counts as Local?

Research and experience point to many appeals to local food—social, economic, and environmental factors.  But the definition remains elusive.

On the surface, localism seems to be all about proximity–what is sourced nearby has more appeal than what is transported from far away. But defining local in terms of distance turns out not to be very definitive, even among its advocates:  400 miles, within state lines, within a day’s drive?  Proximity, it turns out, is only part of how people define local.  A passionate statement by a ten-year local grower, market vendor, and CSA provider we will call Sage Goodell helps open up many of the values that define local.

We call this thing that we are doing farmer. We are working hard to create a new definition for farmer. We are working hard to replace the image of big tractors and acres of corn with an image of farm diversity, creative thinker, healthy people, healthy land, life not death, vibrant nutritious living food, good land steward, responsible caretaker of this earth. Rather than a worn-out, sick “farmer” sitting in an air-conditioned tractor spraying toxic chemicals on a field, you see a robust, energetic, inspired, loving farmer on her hands and knees hand-weeding the carrots. Rather than going to Kroger and buying lifeless, tasteless, chemical-laden produce, you go to the farmers’ market and shake hands with the person who grew your vegetables, harvesting them the day before and sharing with you the latest news on the farm. You develop a relationship with this farmer. She thinks of you as she harvests produce each week. She thinks of you at supper on market day, knowing you have gratitude as you nourish yourself with her produce. You have a relationship with the farmer that grows your food. This is the new definition of farmer.

In the process of defining her profession, Goodell articulates seven notable facets of the ideology of local.

  1. Local Is Temporal

Freshness is frequently cited as one of the most desirable qualities of local food, and Goodell references “vibrant, nutritious living food.”  Picked so recently, it may still be alive. She mentions “harvesting [produce] the day before and sharing with you the latest news on the farm.” The food she grows, like news, loses an essential quality over time. In addition, she references generational time, agricultural practices dying away with the conventional farmers while the “robust, energetic, inspired loving” next-generation farmers flourish.

  1. Local Is Healthful

Goodell describe a generational trajectory of improvement in healthfulness and sets local in opposition to conventional agriculture. She describes a shift away from conventional agricultural methods that involve “spraying toxic chemicals” for “lifeless, tasteless, chemical-laden produce” and toward intensive methods that produce healthful food, “life not death.”

  1. Local Implicates Scale

She sets the scale of “big tractors and acres of corn” and rote, straight-line work against “an image of farm diversity, creative thinker . . . on her hands and knees hand-weeding the carrots.” The artisanal, or “small batch,” scale of local conveys desirable qualities beyond proximity or nutritional content. Indeed, food grown nearby but processed at large scale can lose the value it might gain from its proximity to origin, according to the ideology of local.

  1. Local Means Accountability

Goodell contrasts the traditional supermarket experience with going “to the farmers’ market to shake hands with the person who grew your vegetables.” That tangibility, an actual touch, enacts a “relationship,” a bond of exchange, a shaking of hands that may perform a greeting, a thank-you, or a contract. 

  1. Local Implies Environmental Stewardship

Goodell describes her goal of being a “responsible caretaker of this earth,” caring for it “down in the soil on my hands and knees, in the dirt.” Local food offers practical solutions to the environmental impact of agriculture in shorter transport distances, less fuel consumption, and less pollution, and many local food farmers strive to live with a small environmental footprint.

  1. Local Fosters Systems Thinking

In another conversation, Goodell described her work as “growing nutritious food the smart way” to benefit all, because “we are all in this thing together.” Her approach to land stewardship constitutes an “intimate relationship,” a “marriage” of sorts. The integrative nature of local informs “the new definition of farmer.”

  1. Local Is Oppositional

Goodell defines her work against capitalistic norms, setting corporate agriculture with its productivity ideal to “feed the world” against localism’s values of small-scale accountability and performative competence. The rich farmer with air-conditioned tractors is demoted, and the poor one on her hands and knees is elevated. The flawless and bountiful are toxic while the small and laborious are vibrant.

Local remains rhetorically ambiguous. It’s a fiddly notion that must be puzzled out differently by different people according to the contexts in which they find themselves.  Freed from a strict spatial definition that only reductively renders the spirit of the movement, local food in its many dimensions can become an activist tool for change–it’s not just about space but also about time, health, human scale, accountability, stewardship of environmental systems, and progress. It puts people inside a system with many actors who each play an important part.  As people and goods become more far-flung from their roots, the longing for connectedness and community become more intense. Local rehumanizes.



Many thanks to Sage for sharing her brilliance.  And thanks, too, to the many other farmers and customers of local food who generously shared their worlds with us.

Thanks to Indiana University Press for their faith in the project.


Jennifer Meta Robinson, PhD, is professor of practice in the Indiana University Department of Anthropology where she studies food, communication, and pedagogy.  She lives on a 40-year local food farm in scenic Greene County, Indiana.

Falina Enriquez’s Composing Cultura

“ . . . those who align with Pernambucan discourses of cultura [culture] [. . .]  are not simply elevating themselves by excluding massively popular, commercial genres like swingueira from the category of cultura, but their ability to evaluate and define cultura is a sign and source of power” (pg. 99).

My dissertation, “Composing Cultura: Musical Democracy and Multiculturalism in Recife, Brazil,” examines how a constellation of musicians, bureaucrats, and audiences objectify and commodify local culture in Pernambuco’s capital city, Recife. The dissertation contributes to anthropological and ethnomusicological studies that analyze how musical practices are interactionally embedded in debates over power and meaning. Specifically, the dissertation argues that while participants in Recife’s state-sponsored music scene were creating new multicultural and democratic understandings of ‘culture,’ they were simultaneously reconfiguring social stratification. Page ninety-nine is part of the second chapter’s introduction. The chapter is organized around the musical rivalry between Pernambuco and the neighboring state of Bahia. It examines how members of a state agency committee and other participants in the state-sponsored music scene invoke pop music from Bahia as the antithesis of Pernambucan “cultural” music. I show how these actors interpret Bahian pop music as kitschy and disposable, but more importantly, how they discursively employ these qualities to depict its performers/consumers as lower-class and (implicitly) racially marked.  As the quotation above suggests, these discourses are important because they are themselves a sign of power and a tool for (re)producing it. When I conducted the majority of my fieldwork research from 2009-2011, many of my consultants interpreted these problematic discourses as evidence that new policies and idioms centered on socio-political inclusion were not as effective as they seemed. Yet, while these were significant concerns, they existed within a broader understanding that Brazilian society was progressing. However, now in 2016, such hopes seem even more remote. Brazilian citizens are currently coping with instability caused by corruption scandals, economic decline, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, and the new federal administration’s elimination of government ministries and programs focused on minimizing poverty, racism, and other forms of inequality. The issues I discuss on page ninety-nine and throughout the dissertation therefore seem more relevant now. Accordingly, as I develop my book project, I will focus on how musicians and other residents of Recife are negotiating the dramatic changes they have experienced during the past five years.

Falina Enriquez. “Composing Cultura: Musical Democracy and Multiculturalism in Recife, Brazil.” Phd diss, University of Chicago, 2014.


Anna Weischselbraun’s Constituting the International Nuclear Order

My dissertation examines how the International Atomic Energy Agency, the organization responsible for verifying the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, can remain technically authoritative in its judgments despite the fact that it is often accused of being politicized. What I describe on page 99 of my dissertation is a crucial moment in the way that the IAEA conceptualized the nuclear safeguards it carried out for treaty verification (see below). This moment was precipitated by the IAEA’s failure to detect Iraq’s nuclear weapons program in the early 1990s. I argue that a significant epistemological shift was required from a fundamentally quantitative-administrative logic to a qualitative-dynamic logic in the methodological transformation from considering only the activities a state had declared to the IAEA to attempting to evaluate all of a state’s nuclear-related activities (in particular, those relevant for the development and production of nuclear weapons). And, I further argue, this shift undermined the epistemic ideology of bureaucratic objectivity through which the organization had historically come to be seen as authoritative. Epistemic ideology–based on notions of language or semiotic ideologies–is a set of assumptions and values about what knowledge is authoritative and the forms of representation that render it such. By theorizing the production of authoritative knowledge as a semiotically mediated process, I develop a framework for studying knowledge and power in the world that takes into account the epistemic norms and representational conventions that most participants remain largely unaware of. This approach goes beyond reductivist narratives that explain what happens at international organizations in terms of competing national interests, to provide an alternative understanding of the aspirations and limitations to projects of international governance.

This is a critical and significant shift in epistemic mode. The original epistemic mode of accounting for the type and quantity of nuclear material in a state, previously the bedrock of the IAEA safeguards system, becomes in this new epistemic mode only a component (if an important one) of the entire approach to nuclear verification. The detection of clandestine nuclear activity requires a larger view of the state’s activities and relies on the accumulation and synthesis of information critically related to a state’s industrial, technological, and scientific infrastructure. In this way, IAEA safeguards inspectors no longer exclusively focus on how a state might pinch off nuclear material from its safeguarded facilities when an inspector isn’t looking, but first attempt to identify the “technically plausible” paths to a nuclear weapon a state might pursue. This methodology requires the involvement of “analysts” whose expertise is constituted as language skills, subject matter familiarity, and technical knowledge, and whose work involves gathering a variety of data on industrial and scientific activities in the state that are relevant or potentially related to the development and production of a nuclear weapon. The work of analysts and the contribution they make to the evaluation of the “state as a whole” has been viewed with deep suspicion [by member states].

Anna Weischselbraun. 2016. Constituting the International Nuclear Order: Bureaucratic Objectivity at the IAEA.” Phd dissertation. University of Chicago.

When Getting Fired is a Game


Figure 1: The basic layout of Don’t Get Fired. You start as an intern at the bottom and tap your way to the illusive top.  Image from the Google Play store.


by Michael Prentice

At first glance, the mobile office survival game Don’t Get Fired seems like the 21st century version of the 1889 Parker Brothers game, Office Boy. Office Boy, a Horatio Alger story rendered child’s board game, provided anyone the fantasy of making it in society, by moving from office boy to Head of the Firm.[1] Don’t Get Fired gives iPhone and Android users the chance to experience the fantasy of modern promotion by moving from the bottom to the top (of the screen), in a 16-bit office world set in South Korea. But where Office Boy allowed a player to climb the corporate ladder by demonstrating virtue, Don’t Get Fired depicts the arbitrariness of advancement: as you diligently tap your way up from the intern’s desk to the president’s, the game punishes you. Sometime for working too hard, sometimes for working too little, and sometimes for no reason at all. You get unexpectedly canned at random, only to start the process over as an intern at a new company. (A ticker at the top of the screen reminds of how many companies you’ve been fired from.) Only a handful of players, reportedly, has ever been made it to president.[2]  A goal of the game, is, cynically, not to build skills, but to collect all the reasons not to get fired. Netizens have compiled a list of all 29 ways, which includes letting out a company secret, making a typo on a contract, or, opening a box of donuts that contains a secret bribe.[3]



Figure 1:  The Korean version advising you to resign, a choice the game makes for you. Image from the Google Play store.

The translation of a precarious youth labor market into an unwinnable survival game has made the international version of Don’t Get Fired an indie-game hit – with more than 100 million downloads.[4] But Don’t Get Fired is the international version of an original Korean version, which is titled, in Korean, My Dream is a Regular Job. The two versions (downloadable separately) are identical in graphics and game-play. The international version,is a direct translation of the original Korean text and available in 12 languages. However, by translating the game as an anywhere office space, with little localization or additional contextualization about Korea, the international version loses the deeper semiotic resonances of the original. For Korean players, the game not only mocks contemporary corporate life, it does so on a familiar landscape of meaningful signs and tropes.

Take, for instance, the original title describing a “regular job.” This marks a semantic distinction in Korean between regular and irregular, not to be conflated with full- or part-time jobs. Both regular and irregular workers may be full-time, salaried, and receive some basic benefits. But only regular workers have the opportunity to get promoted, receive a pension, and are valorized socially as symbols of personal and professional achievement. Similarly, the phrase “(don’t) get fired” in English isn’t even in the original Korean. Rather, when you do lose your job (about every few minutes or so), an alert pops up saying “Advised to Resign,” a choice the game makes for you. Firing workers is difficult under Korean labor law (not “at-will” like the US), so workers who do not fit in or perform poorly can be encouraged to quit for a variety of reasons. In both the Korean and international versions, one could be forced to resign for ordering the wrong item at lunch with the boss, one of the 29 ways to get yourself ousted.

Like a lunch snafu, the gameplay is full of recognizable tropes and figures of a distinctly Korean office life: labels of manager titles, the tending to the beck-and-call of senior workers, the sacrificing of life-milestones like marriage for work, and the imagery of “burning” passion (following a Korean idiom of working hard). Interestingly, the game’s graphics remain unchanged between versions, and international users may not recognize the Chinese character 甲 on the president’s desk. It denotes the first position in an old Chinese counting system which has become associated in Korea with the “top” and, by extension, a “person on top” (akin to uses of the “alpha” in the US). These recognizable tokens extend to game scenarios: a manager asks you to go hiking on the weekend with co-workers, forcing your choice. For Korean players, the corporate ladder is not just a matter of a cruel economy; it is a site of stark ethical conflicts that make you choose between personal freedom and collective sacrifice.

For Korean players, these have resonance with real life scenes, albeit tropically exaggerated. Participating in hiking with the boss or showing carefulness around what you order at lunch are events that evaluate your decision-making, and by extension, your fitness to work within the office collective. A minefield of these local in-group signs makes the game all too similar to a competitive and seemingly arbitrary Korean labor market. That the game mimics real life is sadly more than clever design: the developer created the game after he too was suddenly let go after four years at his own “regular” job.


[1] See Saval, Nikil (2015). Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. New York: Anchor Books. pp 35-37

[2] https://namu.wiki/w/내꿈은%20정규직

[3] http://gaming.stackexchange.com/questions/232826/what-are-all-the-reasons-to-get-fired-in-dont-get-fired

[4] The English version declares that it has over one hundred million downloads on Google Play. Users can also play the game in 12 different languages. The game is free, but has in-app purchases that allow users to build points to get ahead


Watching Putin Listen

by Kate Graber

 On the eve of a U.S. presidential election in which Russia and its presidential figurehead have loomed “yuge,” it is perhaps time for some observations about that central action figure of Russian political communication, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

A lot has been written about Putin in English, including biographies by journalists and scholars. They vary in their foci, many locating his rise to power in his personal background or connections, others locating it in the nature of the Russian people. There is also Putin’s own autobiography, which he insists is a “frank” (it’s in the freaking title of the book) and transparent view into his personhood—more on which later. Closer to CaMP anthropologists’ interests, Eliot Borenstein often writes provocatively and entertainingly about the intersections of Russian presidential and cultural politics on NYU’s Jordan Center blog. Nothing that I say here should be taken as evidence that Putin is bad or good, or that his very personal style of political communication is bad or good. As a linguistic anthropologist, I’m interested instead in the content, context, and form of what he says and the cultural significance of those features of talk.

Why Putin? It should (but, sadly, does not) go without saying that Russian political life is far more diverse than what is broadcast by the Kremlin or captured in media coverage of “Putin’s Russia.” Personally, I am less interested in the centers of power than in what’s going on in the rest of Russia, particularly those regions well east of the Urals. There are all sorts of fascinating daily struggles in Omsk and Bratsk and Magadan that reveal more about what it is to be human—and perhaps more about power—and have little to do with what happens in Moscow. But what are you going to do? Russia’s relationship to the U.S. and its political future has increasingly been invested in the person of the president, often in laughably tangible form (again). So here we are.

Putin’s face has popped up onto my screen on a regular basis for the past 12 years, not because I was seeking it out, but just by chance, in the course of my research on minority media in Russia. For some of those years, Medvedev was president and Putin technically played second fiddle as prime minister, but somehow Putin appeared nearly nightly anyway. Now consider for a moment, if an outside researcher like me has accidentally watched that much of Putin for that long, how much more of him a Russian citizen living within Russia has seen. Television is the main medium by which contemporary Russians get their news, over radio, newspapers, or internet sources by a large margin. Most households in Russia have more than one television set, one in the living room and a second or third in the kitchen or a multi-use bedroom. Two broadcasting networks, the Rossiia network of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company and the majority-government-owned Channel One, produce most of the daily political, economic, and cultural news that Russians watch. Now, it would be easy to assume that this news is overwhelmingly positive in its portrayal of the president. It is, but Putin is not without his critics. Nor is he the only actor in Russian politics guilty of (or successful at) “media manipulation.” Let’s leave aside for a second the question of whether this is orchestrated positivity or not, and just assume that if nothing else, yes, Putin has some control over how he presents himself on television. What is it that Russian viewers then see?

On camera, Putin is unfailingly calm, cool, and collected. He is a study in controlled gestures, measured pauses, and an infamously steady (sometimes steely) gaze. Whatever you think of his positions and policies, you have to admit that the guy exudes quiet confidence.

There are some important elements of Putin’s communicative style that are so different from U.S. presidential style that you might not put them in the same framework. When Putin’s PR team circulated photographs of him riding bare-chested on horseback through Tuva, or tranquilizing and tagging an Amur tiger in Russia’s Far East, U.S. audiences were bewildered and amused. Presumably they found this brazen machismo anathema to presidential politics (which now seems ironic, given the machismo that has appeared in uses of “locker room talk” and hyper-sexualized male discourse within the soon-to-be-finally-over U.S. presidential election, and anyone suspicious of why gender norms are being used as tools of authority-building in a U.S. presidential election should read Valerie Sperling’s book on similar issues in Russia).

Some scholars and clever pundits have observed that such performances are geared not toward an international audience as much as to a domestic one. Or rather, they are geared toward a domestic audience via an international performance. Putin is showing a Russian audience that he is taken in the West as a tough guy or the ultimate action man. And it largely works. But if you look only at the action man imagery, you miss an important element of Putin’s communicative style.

In Putin’s appearances on Russian television, he spends a lot of his airtime listening.

He sits beside or behind a heavy-looking wooden table or desk, usually flanked by the Russian flag and looking official, as he speaks with one of his ministers or advisers, or occasionally a regional political actor such as the governor of one of the vast Russian state’s many provinces. You-the-viewer watch the other person talk, sometimes at great length. Sometimes you then see Putin respond, quietly and firmly, and sometimes not. Sometimes you watch the ministers waver, nervously averting their eyes or cringing under Putin’s quiet gaze. Within these variations, however, there is a solid genre of news broadcasts about Russia’s president: you always watch Putin engage in a face-to-face conversation, staged as though it were between equals, in which he primarily listens.

Is this another iteration of machismo, in that Putin comes across as the quintessential “strong, silent type”? I would argue no. He engages in what is often called “active listening,” reacting to the speaker, following his partner’s gaze and lead, occasionally nodding slightly or otherwise providing some uptake. He is paying attention. If anything this is the type of thoughtful, sustained listening stereotypically attributed to women.

You don’t have to take my word for it; you can watch an example of a Rossiia broadcast from Thursday of Putin meeting with the Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinskii. Medinskii briefs Putin on plans for the current and coming year, updating him on construction projects at the Moscow Philharmonic and Malyi Theatre and the state of funding for infrastructure. You don’t have to understand anything that’s being said in Russian to appreciate the visual details of context, gesture, and comportment. Sitting opposite one another in ornate chairs in a wood-paneled office, Putin and the minister lean forward, their hands on the table. The minister provides informational sheets; Putin appears to read or study images. The minister holds Putin’s gaze; Putin meets his eyes and nods. The minister talks; Putin listens.

Of course, there’s plenty of airtime of Putin speechifying on news programming too. He holds press conferences, gives interviews, and leads ceremonies of state. Television coverage marked the occasion of Friday’s Unity Day (a holiday celebrating the unity of varied religious traditions, ethnicities, and, yes, Crimea within a single Russian state) with Putin speaking in Moscow. But the daily news is at least as likely to include an instance of this genre of Putin in face-to-face conversation, and it is a far greater share of what Russians see their president do on a regular basis than riding bare-chested through Tuva.

What does he accomplish by having his television audience watch him listen?

When Putin published an op-ed in The New York Times in 2013 and claimed sole authorship of it, American commentators saw it as a risky or outrageous move to speak directly to the people of the U.S. But Fiona Hill correctly observed that it was also a way of demonstrating his abilities to “work with” or “communicate with people,” and to “work with information”—points of personal pride that she traced to his years in the KGB. Wherever his motivations come from and whatever is in his head, the directness of address that Putin achieved in his op-ed is also on display in his routine performance of active listening. Although the listening events are staged, the content of the conversation itself always appears spontaneous. Putin is getting this information now—and in your living room, you’re watching him digest it.

In both the U.S. and Russia (and elsewhere), heads of state are often televised in face-to-face conversation, often seated in armchairs and looking relaxed. Likely we-the-viewing-audience are supposed to be reassured that our political leaders are getting along, that they have not angrily stormed out of meetings or committed a faux pas at last night’s dinner that will accidentally result in a war. Similarly, Putin’s cordial conversations with ministers telegraph that all is well with the gears of power.

Listening like this also suggests to the audience that the president is not acting carelessly or alone, but intelligently and under good advisement. I remember commenting once to a friend in Buryatia, a political activist who opposed most of Putin’s and Medvedev’s policies, that state television news seemed to feature a lot of Putin listening. I expected him to respond cynically, perhaps by saying that Putin would do whatever he wanted anyway, or that this was just an elaborate act. “Well, he’s a very smart guy,” he said instead, “and smart guys listen.”

Hmm. I think the reason I noticed how much Russian television audiences were seeing of Putin in these interactions is that American television audiences rarely watch U.S. politicians listen. In fact, we rarely watch extended face-to-face interactions between domestic leaders of any sort. It is part of what makes televised debates so communicatively peculiar: we watch leaders who are otherwise televised talking instead listen to one another, and to the moderator or ordinary citizens in town halls, for extended stretches of time. During the U.S. presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump, social media overflowed with discussion of their respective “listening faces.” Eyebrows and lips were dissected like no one had ever seen the candidates listen before (though in fact there was plenty of material on Clinton on this point). CNN reported that Clinton had carefully crafted her “listening woman” face, as though that were surprising.

Anthropology is at its best when we excavate not only the cultural assumptions informing some weird thing those foreign-Other-type people do, but also our own unexamined expectations. My friend in Buryatia had never noticed how much time he spent watching his president listen, and I had never noticed how little I spend watching mine do anything but talk.

On the other hand, I do like talk.

Kate Graber is a linguistic anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. When not mulling over Putin’s taste in chairs, she researches minority media, language politics, materiality, and value, especially in Siberia and Mongolia.


Chaim Noy on his new book, Thank you for Dying for Our Country

book cover


Interview by Lindsey Pullum

You’re in line to ride a rollercoaster and, while waiting for your turn, strike up a conversation with the family ahead of you. They have never been to Israel, but seem nice enough and press you to tell them about your latest project. You only have a few minutes before the rollercoaster comes to whisk you and the family away—how would you describe your book?

I have always been interested in national identities, specifically in Israel, and the ways people understand and perform them. In my book I look at what visitors write in visitor books in a major national Israeli site in East Jerusalem, called the Ammunition Hill National Commemoration Site. These books are interesting because, as a whole, they give a fascinating sense of how people respond to and embody national themes and narratives. I see the texts visitors write as ways of participating in the retelling of national identity. When you look closely into these succinct texts, you can see how rich they are in fact. They show different positions with regards to identity, and different things that visitors choose to respond to (and ignore). For instance, while most of the Israeli visitors address the museum and its staff, most North American tourists address the dead soldiers, and yet other visitors address God. Add to that that many visitors draw images, and the book is really highly visual, like and album that combines images and texts.

All this is even more interesting because the book is located inside a museum, and what people write in it immediately becomes part of the museum’s display. In the way the book is presented, the museum actually prompts visitors to write about certain themes and in certain ways, so it is also very interesting to study the book as a public medium. Finally, I was able not only to read visitors’ text, but also to observe visitors write them. In most cases visitors write the texts together (collaboratively), which taught me a lot about how these bits of performances of national identity are being composed. For instance, parents (usually mothers) instruct their children what to write and how to do it (“don’t write ‘I’m happy’, write ‘I’m impressed’—it’s more respectable this way”). So the entire writing scene at Ammunition Hill was fascinating for me.

Interesting you mention rollercoasters! My last article is an ethnography of rollercoaster riders, and their experience with the photographs that are taken of them while on the ride. I studied riders’ images in theme parks in Florida, which are similar in many ways to the curated environments in museums.


You have previously written two books on the Israeli backpackers’ experience. Your latest published work has focused more on museums and texts. Can you comment on your process for deciding on a research project? How did your previous research influence this latest book?

I love this question because often these decisions are not discussed in the academy. My recent book furthers my earlier interests in contemporary cultures and the consequences of tourism and travel, specifically in political contexts (though what contexts aren’t political?). In my previous book I studied backpackers’ narratives. I asked how the stories they shared with me in in-depth interviews were, in effect, storytelling performances whereby the meaning of the interview occasion itself was negotiated (as well as the identities and roles of the participants). The backpackers enthusiastically told me about extensive “libraries” of handwritten letters and documents, which they wrote to each other about their travels. These collections, located in Southeast Asia and South America, were a way of circulating travel-related information, experience and lore. I was fascinated by this, but I didn’t have the funding to study them. This, however, incited my research interest in studying what I later called ‘tourists’ texts’: the role of texts (and entextualization) in travel, and the places, practices and technologies relating to their production and circulation. Knowing I wanted to study texts within such sites, and knowing I wanted to shift from interview-based research (where I supply the provocation) to ethnographically-based research (where the museum supplies the provocation) I then chose a location that was convenient and relevant. The Ammunition Hill Memorial museum was located in the city I love: Jerusalem (where I was born and raised, and where I raise my daughters). This was a matter of access and convenience, and it also accorded with other critical studies I did on political tourism in East and West Jerusalem. On my first visit to Ammunition Hill, where I was scouting the site, the visitor book really impressed me. It was a large and imposing book, made of parchment, and part of a memorial installation in one of the museum’s most ‘sacred’ halls. The minute I saw the book I fell in love with it, and knew I was going to study it.

Language is crucial to your study of texts within the visitor’s book at Ammunition Hill Memorial museum. You analyze language ideologies in terms of handwritten texts and repeated styles of entries. Yiddish and Arabic are absent from the discussion of code-switching even though each language is spoken by certain publics in Israel (99). Is bilingual code-switching with specific regard to these two languages an aspect of your research you would have liked to include more of but couldn’t for some reason? Were Yiddish and Arabic simply not present in the visitor’s book itself?

That’s right: I would have loved to discuss Yiddish and Arabic texts in more detail in the book, yet as you indicate, the texts are mostly in Hebrew and English, with only occasional texts in Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and French. Different reasons account for the absence of Arabic and Yiddish. As for Arabic, the site is located in East Jerusalem, within walking distance from large Palestinian neighborhoods. So physically accessing the site isn’t very difficult. It’s just that the site celebrates—and embodies—the “unification of Jerusalem” as the Israeli/Zionist narrative has it, and so it is clear why Palestinian audiences wouldn’t be attracted, to say the least. Additionally, the site is frequented by Israeli soldiers (on weekdays it serves as a recruiting/drafting center), and that too is a deterrent for Palestinian visitors.

The story with Yiddish is different. I’ve heard Yiddish being spoken at the site, by Ultra-Orthodox Jewish visitors (Haredim) who live in nearby neighborhoods that have gone through demographic changes in the past two decades or so (from secular populations to religious and Ultra-Orthodox populations). Also, the Ammunition Hill Site is spacious and has plenty of shade, and the entrance is free, and this attracts nearby Ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents and their families. So Yiddish is certainly heard, but when Haredi visitors write in the visitor book they do so in Hebrew (or English). When I asked them about this, they answered that they “wanted to be understood,” indicating that they are well attuned to the spoken/hegemonic languages, and choose to use them when expressing themselves publicly. I would also say in regards to Ultra-Orthodox visitors, that they are the only visitors I’ve seen writing ‘bluff’ entries in the book. By ‘bluff’ I mean texts that are signed by fictitious authors (such as a young Haredi visitor signing on behalf of a “very famous and important Rabbi”). Some groups of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish are anti-Zionist, and not subscribing to Ammunition Hill’s national Zionist narrative (by performing bluff entries and sometimes explicitly expressing anti-Zionist sentiments), is their way of using this platform for protesting hegemony.


At one point you mention how the anticipated performance of visitors does not match the actual performance (121). This is especially present in contested entries of the Ultra-Orthodox visitors (122). You argue that the book connects visitors’ biography with Israel’s collective past and collective future (107). Were there any visitors who fell outside of the “anticipated” visitor demographic that surprised you? How does this idea of collective past/collective future relate to non-Jewish Israeli interlocutors?

I seem to have anticipated this question in my response above. I’d add that within the context of museums, specifically in the dense environments of heritage and commemoration, authenticity is a hard currency. And handwriting—embodied in visitors’ inscriptions—plays indexically right into this economy: the handwritten texts are seen as connected to the visitors who write them in an embodied and unmediated fashion, publicly authenticating and presencing their visit and their participation in national commemoration. In the Ammunition Hill visitor book, handwriting is a way of paying tribute and homage to the nation and its fallen heroes (indeed, sometimes visitors leave flowers and notes in the book, turning it into an album of sorts), which is valued for its authenticity. Indeed, as you nicely put it in the question, the book serves as a material platform that physically and viscerally connects visitors’ biographies with Israel’s collective past and future. Ultra-Orthodox visitors improvise on this ‘holy’ tie, and are the only group I’ve seen do so in this way. For other groups of visitors, including those with harsh critique of the site’s ideology (right wing ideological critique of the site, which is itself very conservative), the critique rests on this tie, not on disrupting it. Of course, the only way to learn of this disruption (untying the connection between visitor signature and who the authors actually are), is to be there and to see how texts are composed and written. These observations reveal more tensions between writing and authorship (what Goffman termed “animator” and “author”), as for instance when mothers author a text for their children to write and sign.


Most of your research was conducted in the mid-2000s. Have you seen any changes with the visitors’ book at Ammunition Hill or had any interesting follow up experiences at the site?

Yes. My research at Ammunition Hill was completed organically in 2012, when the visitor book was removed because the museum was undergoing major renovations. The museum is currently closed and will reopen in 2017, celebrating fifty years of Israeli victory in the 1967 War and the “liberation and unification of Jerusalem” (under Israel’s annexation and occupation of East Jerusalem and the Occupied Palestinian Territories). So it’s over a decade now that I’ve been visiting the site, studying it and its visitor book (actually, visitor books: the site holds more than one book, including its “VIP visitor book” as they call it). During this time, I gained insights into the site’s language and media ideologies, as well as into visitors’ actions in that space. For example, a new commemoration hall opened recently, with a new design that is oval-shaped with the portraits of the dead soldiers. This design echoes the iconic Hall of Names at Yad Vashem (Israel’s official Holocaust memorial site), itself echoing the Tower of Faces at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. (Note the semiotics: soldiers are commemorated in a way similar to holocaust victims). At this new hall, too, a visitor book is offered, along with personal letters, diaries and artifacts belonging to the dead soldiers. By locating historical handwritten documents side by side with visitors’ handwritten texts, the site reconfirms its ideology about language, the centrality of authenticity for performing national identity, and its mode and manner of ideologically mobilizing visitors into nationalism.

Since 2011 I have been studying museum platforms in two other Jewish heritage museums (now in the United States): the National Museum of American Jewish History, in Philadelphia, and the Florida Holocaust Museum, in St. Petersburg. I am working on a comparison or juxtaposition of these museums, the different participatory (hand)writing platforms they offer, and what and how visitors compose texts there.

Anthony K. Webster on his new book, Intimate Grammars: An Ethnography of Navajo Poetry


Interview by Juan Luis Rodriguez


Sometimes we hear Navajo poets but don’t really recognize what they are saying even when they speak English to us. This is one point your book makes really clear for the reader. Can you introduce your book to us and share some insight into why is it that people so often read or listen but not really get Navajo poetry, even when it is written in what seem to be a transparent code (English)?

Many thanks for reading the book, for engaging the book, and for the kind words about the book. I think that there are profound and debilitating expectations, in the sense that Philip Deloria uses this term in Indians in Unexpected Places, about Native peoples and, in particular, Navajos, that point readers to particular kinds of understandings, particular kinds of readings. There are, to borrow from Bakhtin, “a world of other’s words” that inform our readings of Navajo poetry—often times, that world of other’s words are not Navajo words, but the ways that Navajos and Native peoples have been imagined. My book was an attempt to put the words of Navajo poets at the center of my analysis, and to try and tease out something of what they were trying to tell me. José Ortega y Gasset, in his piece on “The Difficulty of Reading,” begins—I think rather famously—by saying that, “To read, to read a book, is, like all other really human occupations, a utopian task.” Where “utopian” is really seen as a worthwhile endeavor and where to “read” is seen as full or complete understanding of a text. From this follows Ortega y Gasset’s two axioms: every utterance is deficient (not saying enough) and every utterance is exuberant (saying too much). Our expectations of Native peoples, which we (as Americans, anyway) are socialized into in a host of ways that scholars from Robert Berkhofer on have highlighted, of what, for example, Navajos can and cannot be, of what they can and cannot say, in what languages they can and cannot express themselves, feed into these deficiencies (putting in too little) and exuberances (putting in too much). And when people approach Navajo poetry, they often hear what they want to hear, see what they are predisposed to see. Like the lady tourist in Blackhorse Mitchell’s story at the end of the book. This is especially pernicious when the poems are written in Navajo English, which is sufficiently similar to be misrecognized as some kind of “failure” in writing some imagined “mainstream” English. And this, as Barbra Meek has argued in “Failing American Indian Languages,” is a persistent way of imagining Native peoples: as failures—failures to hold onto their “traditional” languages, failures to speak English “correctly,” etc. Getting beyond that, or at least creating some kind of reflexive self-awareness, means “really listening”—and that’s a capacity, according to Navajos that I have talked with about the matter, that needs to be worked on, that needs to be cultivated. My book tries to point out something of the way one might go about listening, really listening. I don’t claim, obviously, to understand exactly what Navajos have been trying to tell me, but I do hope that I’ve provided enough ethnography—that is context—to provide a glimpse, or a possible—and I hope reasonable—glimpse—to make what they are saying interpretable. I think it useful to paraphrase Ortega y Gasset here, to say that, to understand, to understand humanity (to engage, that is, in anthropology), is, like all other really human and humane occupations, a utopian task. My book is utopian in that sense. We will never completely understand each other, but the task is to try to understand our fellow human beings, what is relevant and near and meaningful to them, and to recognize our limits in so doing; when I was in graduate school—in the mid to late 90s—we called this “partial knowledge;” glimpse seems a more useful metaphor for this, and I make much of that in Explorations in Navajo Poetry and Poetics, though it recurs in this book as well. We should be careful, not just with each other, but also in not pretending we understand more than we do.  We can’t listen if we imagine we already know everything.

 You develop the idea of intimate grammars in relation to Elizabeth Povinelli and Michael Herzfeld’s work on intimacy. Yet, intimacy in your work seems a little different because it is associated at once with surveilled boundaries between self and other and felt emotional attachment to linguistic form. Can you talk a little about the tensions between these ordeals of language and the pleasures of aesthetically pleasant verbal art in creating a space of linguistic intimacy?

A long time ago, my notes tell me 3/31/98, I finished reading Michael Herzfeld’s Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State, and it lingered—lingered in the way books sometimes linger. There was something about it, this idea of things we do among ourselves that give us a sense of ourselves, but that we are often embarrassed by when others, not us (they, if you want), see it. Especially important for me was his concern with the question of iconicity, with the resemblances of something to someone. I then, much later, read Elizabeth Povinelli’s chapter on “Intimate grammars: anthropological and psychoanalytic accounts of language, gender, and desire,” and I sensed a kind of common theme there, though to be honest I have not honored Povinelli’s concern with the psychoanalytic at all and I have—like we often do—made, as you noted, of intimacy something rather different. What I was interested in was a kind of social and personal intimacy—which is more in keeping with Herzfeld’s use of the term. But Povinelli has this wonderful passage in her chapter on the uses of “he,” “she,” and “it” and the ways that “Conservative language critics” dismiss such feminist language projects; but what struck me in reading that was the persistence of such usages that violate some imagined standard English; the tenacity of such forms in use and—while not explicit in Povinelli—the possible pleasure and delight in using such “transgressive” forms.  Now it just so happens that one of the features of Navajo English is a kind of free variation with the use of the pronouns “he” and “she” (I have multiple transcripts of conversations where the speakers shift between “he” and “she” while talking about a single person)—as far as I can tell, in Navajo English the pronouns “he” and “she” do not code for gender. This was often read, of course, as “confusion” on the part of Navajos speaking English—the same kind of “confusion” as when Navajos “thought” Christians worshipped trees because they prayed to God which sounds like gad ‘juniper tree’ in Navajo. In both cases, of course, the confusion is not with Navajos, but with outside expectations—not understanding that Navajo English pronouns don’t code for gender or missing the obvious interlingual pun between English and Navajo (and the hilarity of the Christmas tree in such punning). Navajos that I know are often quite aware of this alternation of “he” and “she,” and while they may recognize it as an object of outside scrutiny, it’s also something they have a certain amount of felt attachment to, a kind of pleasurable expression of we-ness. A classic bit of intimate grammar. So there is this pleasure in the uses of linguistic forms—and other forms as well (I make note that lip-pointing for some Navajos is also a bit of intimate semiosis, something pleasurable, but also something that can be scrutinized by others)—and also the simultaneous recognition that such forms are objects of scrutiny. And of course, these linguistic forms gain such felt attachments through use, and in so using such forms, they come to feel non-arbitrary and consubstantial. Poetry is one such use of languages. These linguistic forms don’t just index an identity; they come to be feelingfully, to use Steve Feld’s term, iconic of that identity. So, intimate grammars are linguistic forms in use that may delight—give pleasure and expressive satisfaction—even under scrutiny.

Ellen Basso’s haunting and brilliant piece on “Ordeals of Languages” reminds us that there are times when we do not speak; to, for example, maintain some imagined civility—when we are complicit, at times, in our own subordination. And, when like both Navajo and Navajo English, your language has been an object of scrutiny and marginalization or dismissal for a long time, there are times when you don’t use the Navajo English forms, or you don’t speak Navajo in an off-reservation town or in the presence of elders who you worry may be hypercritical of your Navajo. And then, of course, since my focus is on verbal art, on poetry, about how all of this plays out in the poetry written and performed by Navajos. What struck me is the pleasure of saying, of writing, in these intimate grammars for Navajo poets, and the courage that such acts require. Many Navajo poets, certainly not all and not always, provide ways to imagine growing intimate with languages; stigmatized and dismissed as those languages may at times be, they can be deeply feelingful (partly because of that marginalization). Laura Tohe’s poetry on the boarding school experience (which I explore in Chapter Two) evokes a way imagining Navajo and growing intimate with it. To take another example, Navajos who told me that in reading the Navajo English work of Blackhorse Mitchell they could hear their grandparents in his writing—Bakhtin, again, reminds us that our words are always already other people’s words, and sometimes, sometimes if we are lucky, we can recognize those people, we can hear the voices of particular people—grandparents or other relatives; this is yet another way of becoming intimate with languages. I think, and here I merely echo a point repeatedly made to me by my advisor Joel Sherzer years ago when I was a graduate student, one important task of the linguistic anthropologist is to look at places, in its myriad senses, where people take pleasure in their uses of languages, where they find aesthetic delight in their uses of languages.

One of my favorite poems that you analyze in the book is Blackhorse Mitchell’s Beauty of Navajoland. What strikes me about this poem is how Mitchell refuses to let visitors to the Navajo nation off the hook for ignoring what is obvious. But at the same time, his use of English words like beauty and ugly are not necessarily what others make them to be. The semantico-referential function of the poem produces a critique of oblivious tourists and, at the same time it addresses a moral and aesthetic Navajo sensibility with words that overlap but do not mean the same in Navajo English. Can you tell us more about the play of denotational vs. poetic function in this example?   

It’s a really fine poem, and Navajos that know the poem think it a strong poem—one that gets them thinking about the world as it is and, in so seeing the world as it is, it offers the possibility to change the world (which seems like what strong poems should do). In the book, I think I describe this as recognizing that poetry is not just about the world, but of the world and being of the world, poetry offers the possibility to change the world—which is what some Navajo poetry seems to be trying to do, to get people to listen and hence to think or imagine, which is the beginning of getting things and people to change—a process of restoring things from something like hóchxǫ’ (ugliness, disorder, out of control, etc.) to hozhǫ́ (beauty, harmony, order, control, etc.). There’s a sense, to paraphrase Kenneth Burke, as I am wont to do, of some Navajo poetry as equipment for living. Now in Navajo English terms like ‘beauty’ and ‘ugly’ are false friends—in the linguistic sense—with the terms in a kind of Midwestern English, call that my English. So I tell the story in the book about hearing people described as ‘ugly,’ and my Midwestern (Indiana) sensibilities (a compulsion for politeness) were jarred by that. Until, after a while, probably longer than it should have taken, I realized that ‘ugly’ was being used to describe that person as being ‘out of control’ or ‘disorderly’ and in need of a ceremony. So in talking with Mitchell about his poem, I began to realize that the ‘beauty’ in the title and refrain, which is meant as a kind of echoic mention of what a tourist said about the Navajo Nation, needed to be understood as talking about hozhǫ́—which is a kind of moral order. And in that sense, as the poem makes clear and the conversations that I had with Mitchell about the poem (several transcripts of those conversations are included in the chapter), the Navajo Nation is not beautiful, rather it is ugly or disorderly or out of control—and these are all moral terms. Conceiving of beauty as only pretty scenery misses the deeply moral component of ‘beauty’ for Mitchell and for other Navajos as well. So too with poems—seeing them as beautiful in form only—misses the moral work of such poems, their capacity to get people to really think. If all you hear is the beauty of form in a poem then you probably haven’t been really listening. Mitchell makes this point rather explicitly, I think, in the transcript in Chapter 3 when he is talking about one of his teachers congratulating him on a “great” poem, but it seems clear to Mitchell that the teacher failed to “see” what he was saying in the poem—and the poem, as Mitchell tells it, is about not wanting to be in school behind barred windows. The repetition of ‘beauty’ and its ironic use seem to highlight—in the sense of poetically foregrounding—the importance of attending to it, this concept of ‘beauty,’ in a more self-consciously reflexive way—that is to ask, am I understanding what Mitchell is saying, getting closer to an understanding on his terms (our utopian task as a sort of beautiful failure), or am I just following my habitual grooves here and understanding on my terms (that is, not really listening).

One thing that is clear from your book is that attention to details of grammatical choice can produce tremendous insight into the moral and political stances taken by Navajo poets. This is beautifully put in your analysis of optional grammatical choices in Chapter 5. Now, let me turn the tables on you and address your own grammatical choice. In your introduction, you have one of the shortest sentences I could find in your book. You wrote: “Languages are cultural.” The shortness of the sentence caught my attention and I hope I am not over reading into it. I take this shortness to be iconic of a pause in your thought, and as an invitation to pay attention to your own intimate grammar. When I read it, I thought of you packing ideas for the reader and inviting us to unpack this sentence in the course of the book. The two things I kept present at all time then were the plural form in languages and the adjective form of cultural. Would you care to elaborate on those two intimate grammatical choices?

Without pretending to know exactly what I was thinking when I wrote that, let me try and sketch out something of the context in which such an utterance might emerge. First, I think it a bit of an axiom for linguistic anthropologists—that languages are cultural. So I don’t think it particularly novel on my part. And the voices that I hear in that short phrase are multiple. Two spring to mind immediately. The aforementioned Joel Sherzer was and is fond of short little statements that seem to encapsulate a great deal without saying too much—and so there is some of that in there, I would imagine. Indeed, I may have heard him say something very similar at some point and then imagined it as my own formulation. As for the adjectival form, there is an echo of Edward Sapir in there, especially in the use of “cultural.” Sapir often talked about “cultural” as against “culture”—and I’ve found that a useful way of thinking about such matters. We do not encounter cultures so much as cultural practices and the like—or perhaps, better, people engaged—wittingly or not—in cultural practices. As for the plural marking on language, it seems to me that a key feature of our object of study—as linguistic anthropologists—is never “language” (or worse, “Language”), but particular languages within particular sociocultural and historical moments (another key feature, of course, are the human beings who use said languages). So foregrounding the pluralness of languages seems important, it gets us away from thinking that Navajos speak some bounded thing called Navajo, and that if they speak—as they do—a variety of other languages, that is somehow “unexpected” (to use again Deloria’s formulation), in need of explanation. The quickness of the phrase, as well, as I reconstruct it now, does indeed seem like an invitation for thinking—the way, for example, the short poems by Rex Lee Jim are invitations for contemplation (the way, I now suspect as well, Joel’s aphorisms were also invitations for contemplation).  And so, yes, I’d like the reader to try and make sense of “languages are cultural” as they read the book, to come to understand why that is so and what, possibly, that might mean—especially in the case of Navajo poets and poetry. One rather unfortunate tendency has been a view of languages and cultural practices as somehow separate, that languages are somehow not cultural (which leads to a host of rather silly formulations about “language and culture” or “language in culture”, etc.). But I don’t want to overstate, to infringe on your imaginative work, on your imaginative capacities, by talking too much about what it should or should not mean.

I don’t want to end this interview without talking a little about the influences in your book. Four linguistic anthropologists who recently passed away loom large in your work. Paul Friedrich, Dennis Tedlock, Keith Basso and Dell Hymes. What do they mean for your work and for the book?

In many ways, I can’t imagine my book having come into existence without the influences of Keith Basso, Paul Friedrich, Dell Hymes, and Dennis Tedlock (among others). All of them, in one way or another, took verbal art—and poetry—as important to the work of linguistic anthropology, they saw the role of actual human beings, that is individuals, as important as well to the work of linguistic anthropology, there was, in all their work, a careful attention to linguistic details that ramify and ripple across social and cultural doings, and a recognition of the pleasure and delight in the using of languages. They all saw languages in a broad and multifaceted way and, hence, eschewed a narrow vision of language. They all saw languages as a human phenomenon, deeply entangled with the lives of actual people. They all pushed back against any theory of language that removed human beings and verbal artistry from the equation. They rejected a sharp division between linguistics and anthropology, seeing the two as deeply intertwined. And each, in their way, not just through theory, but through a sensibility, a sensibility about languages and about people, influenced my own sensibility about languages and about people.

Obviously, Tedlock wrote a blurb for the back of my book and so there is a kind of directness about his influence on the book. But, Tedlock’s The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation should still be required reading in linguistic anthropology. His concerns with translation, with the sounds of language (including ideophony), with questions of performance, and with the cadence, the rhythm, of talk, all inform my own ways of thinking about Navajo poetry. There are also a couple of lovely articles—can we say that about academic articles?—that are really quite thoughtful in their explorations of sound, translation and of poetics; “Toward a Poetics of Polyphony and Translatability” and “Written in Sound: Translating the Multiple Voices of the Zuni Storyteller.” Though I don’t cite them in the book, I’m sure that they have influenced my thinking in a variety of ways. And, of course, Tedlock’s concern with the dialogic emergence of culture and the importance of the dialogic in anthropological writing has certainly influenced my own work as well.

Friedrich’s work was also hugely influential on my thinking, especially a couple of essays from the 1979 book Language, Context, and the Imagination (a title which comes close to summarizing some of my interests as well)—“The Symbol and Its Relative non-Arbitrariness” and “Poetic Language and the Imagination: A Reformulation of the Sapir Hypothesis”—as well, of course, as his later book The Language Parallax: Linguistic Relativism and Poetic Indeterminacy. Friedrich’s view that poetic language is a crucial site for understanding linguistic relativity really lurks in a number of chapters in the book—and I make it a bit more explicit in a review essay I did for Journal of Linguistic Anthropology and a piece in Semiotica (both published in 2015). Friedrich argues in his non-arbitrariness piece that one reason to see the symbol as relatively non-arbitrary is the “subjective intuition of the speaker,” and that lurks in my sense of the felt attachments to linguistic forms in my formulation of intimate grammars.

Hymes’ influence—especially In Vain I Tried to Tell You: Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics—on my work is, I think, rather obvious. Paul Kroskrity and I edited a volume from Indiana University Press on The Legacy of Dell Hymes: Ethnopoetics, Narrative Inequality, and Voice, that gives a bit more than a hint as well about that influence. But, a kind of careful attention to expressive devices, which occupies much of the discussion of Chapter 5, is influenced by Hymes—I think particularly of “How to Talk Like a Bear in Takelma.”  More prominently, I think is Hymes’ concern with narrative inequality (much of that collected in his Ethnography, Linguistics, and Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice), the places where a variety of ways of speaking can be and are marginalized and devalued, becomes a lens to think through, for example, the reactions to and misreadings of the writings of Blackhorse Mitchell (witness the reviews of his book Miracle Hill that I discuss in Chapter 3). Ethnopoetics, this attempt to understand, in that utopian way I spoke about earlier, locally meaningful and feelingful ways of organizing discourse—poetry here—is really central to the project of this book. And, for Hymes and Tedlock and Friedrich and Basso as well, that meant attending to linguistic form—often linguistic forms that were marginalized or ignored in certain narrower visions of languages (forms like puns, expressive devices, ideophony, etc.)—and the kinds of felt satisfaction in using such forms. Poetic forms don’t exist in a vacuum, hermetically sealed from the world. They are fully implicated in wider fields of meaning—and those are often about perduring structurings of inequality; what gets counted as poetry and what gets excluded are not neutral endeavors. There’s a wonderful piece that ties much of this together, “Tonkawa Poetics: John Rush Buffalo’s ‘Coyote and Eagle’s Daughter’”, from a volume edited by Joel Sherzer and Anthony Woodbury, Native American Discourse: Rhetoric and Poetics (which turns 30 next year)—and that piece is also a defense of a particular way of conceiving of languages and the work of anthropology, a tradition he traces through Boas, Sapir, Whorf and Hoijer. A defense well worth continually making, I would add. It’s a tradition I see myself in as well.

Basso’s influence can be seen in a variety of places in the book (some of which I have already suggested). Certainly my interpretations of the portraits of tourist encounters that frame the book are read, in part, through the lens of Basso’s Portraits of the Whiteman. There is, again, his sensitivity to the aesthetic delight of linguistic form, the pleasures in saying, for example, Western Apache place-names. The importance of attending to the insights of those you work with and to acknowledge those insights. Blackhorse Mitchell’s influence on my thinking, I hope, is evident throughout much of Intimate Grammars. I came of age in graduate school in the mid to late 90s, and Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache came out in 1996 (though some of the chapters had been published prior) and has, for a long time now, seemed like a model of how to practice a certain kind of linguistic anthropology—a linguistic anthropology, as I suggested earlier, of attending to people and to linguistic details, “that linguistics and ethnography are integral parts of the same basic enterprise,” which, in shorthand, is that utopian task of understanding our fellow human beings and the cultural worlds in which they and we live.

Anthropology and Advertising

by Susan Lepselter

Image result for whopper virgins

I remember once going to a mall with a fellow graduate student in anthropology. It was early on, perhaps our second semester. My friend moved slowly through the department store, her eyes wide, her head turning slowly at the display of commodities. Everything had been denaturalized by our studies. The goods were an uncanny materialization of all the theory we were newly steeped in.  She picked up a lipstick and stared at it.  Use value dissolved in the air around us. Another friend made a bumper sticker for her beat up car: Reification is capitalism’s master trope. We all loved how the bumper sticker reified that sentence.

How does a thing come to life and become “transcendent,” as Marx put it, through exchange? For anthropologists, studying the social, affective and imaginative life of commodities can involve examining how people feel about the things they buy, how we value them, use them in unexpected ways, represent them, and identify with them.  Advertisers study similar public practices, feelings and ideas about the things they market. For Marx, of course, the “mystical” aspect of the commodity fetish came from how it reified the social relations of labor.  Today, it is difficult to think about a commodity without considering the life with which advertisers imbue it.

Many advertising agencies think of ethnography as an improvement over less nuanced approaches to market research.  The goals, politics, ethical concerns and commitments of the two endeavors differ. But the agencies still track a common thread: the comparative interpretation of places, people, markets, often with a colonizing echo.

Because I am interested in the affective and imaginative life of objects, I became curious about the connections between anthropology and advertising. It’s a connection that is consciously developed in the advertising industry. The industry uses tropes of ethnography, culture, difference and social context as it creates venues for commodities to enter public consciousness. You could look at the relationship between anthropology and advertising from multiple perspectives, from cultural critique to the pragmatic need to help anthropology majors envision jobs in that business. For this post, I first critically read an ad that performs an idea of cross-cultural exchange; and then I interview Jenny, an anthropologist in advertising, to understand how her industry thinks about the commodity in relation to culture.

“Cultures” and “markets” are everywhere conflated in the neoliberal world; advertising can bring that conflation to the surface of things.  Of course, anthropologists have been talking about the entangled histories of colonialism and ethnographic representation since Writing Culture rattled things up in 1986.  But we don’t always notice how discourses about culture and representation have shifted and taken up other forms in other contexts.

Take the “Whopper Virgins” campaign for Burger King, which featured a long advertising project involving cross-cultural travel to an exotic place and a subsequent story about it. Representatives from the agency (Crispin Porter and Bogusky) traveled to three geographically remote areas around the world – rural areas of Romania, Thailand and Greenland – to meet people they narrate as pre-contact, and to film the encounter.  But “pre- contact” here referred specifically to the local unfamiliarity with fast food hamburgers, The Whopper and the Big Mac.

In these three places framed as outside the modern global grid, potential consumers were considered to be pure: “virgins” who were still innocent to the taste of McDonalds and Burger King, (and therefore ultimately able to pronounce the inherent superiority of the client’s product, the Whopper. )The story of this ad expressed a dream that far transcended sales. Here taste could just be returned to the original biological sense, the natural sensing palate, stripped of habitus. The tasters were still “virgins.”

The trope of virgin land waiting to be penetrated by civilizers has circulated since at least the 1600s; of course, the idea of virgin land ignores the presence of indigenous populations and denies the land as an already-realized place. In centuries of European imagery, virginal female land is depicted as ripe for planting, fertilizing, becoming fruitful.  In the Whopper Virgins project, the older colonization narrative of conquering land merged into the story of discovering and conquering a new market.  In the ad, these locals are depicted as friendly, reciprocal, and wearing traditional clothing; they don’t know how to hold the burger, they sniff at it suspiciously, laugh, and then hesitantly take a bite. Here, an exotic innocence renews the malaise of civilization.  And so within the conceit of this story, all of these different specific places become a single place, the place of virgins, the place where one can still find authenticity, a fountain of taste. The desire for consumable difference flows through the commercial, the longing for a cultural purity that can be both apprehended in its otherness and incorporated into sameness, desired as a virgin and then deflowered.

Image result for whopper virgins

The Whopper Virgins campaign is unusual, for an ad, in this mission to a faraway place. Most campaigns play on deepening, expanding and elaborating the commodity-laden familiar—the thoughts, practices and desires of people at home. When ad agencies adapt anthropological methods to the goals of their research, they think about and theorize what culture might be.  Their references to anthropology are explicit. One agency website quotes an anthropology major who is now an ad executive: We all have to study people and know who they are, what they want and why they want it. The key is research. And when we research, that’s anthropology at its finest. http://current360.com/anthropology-advertising-study-people/

What is the structure of this connection in practical terms? I begin to approach this question by speaking with another anthropologist who has made a career in the industry. (She has asked not to use her real name; I will call her Jenny.)

After earning her PhD in anthropology and teaching for a few years a visiting professor, Jenny applied for a position that an ad agency had posted on the American Anthropological Association careers site. She sketched a brief trajectory of how the industry has changed its structure over the years to incorporate a more nuanced, interpretive understanding of culture and consumption based in part on anthropology. Once, she says, ad agencies divided their work between “account people” and “creatives.”  The account people, she explained, are oriented towards the client:

“They are Roger on Mad Men; they go golfing and drink martinis with the client – traditionally,  [like on Mad Men] that’s their image. Now it’s mountain biking and Burning Man.

“The creatives write the script and make the work. They work in teams: an art director and a copywriter. They are allowed to be unwashed, up all night, eating granola bars in the agency—making stuff. “

In the past, Jenny says, these two divisions, the “account people” and the “creatives,” comprised the agency.

“The account people would find out the assignment from the client and tell the creatives, who had to write the ad. But then –the world changed.”

Now there is a third division, people who do a specific kind of research to orient the agency’s creative work towards culture. Depending on the agency they are called planners or strategists.  The planners (as I will call them here) are not simply market researchers.  Market researchers did not interpret the latent cultural meanings of their findings; they relied on the literal, the face-value data gathered in brief focus groups and surveys. But planners don’t rely on what Jenny calls the “verbatim” messages of market data. Rather the planners research social forces and meanings that contradict or transcend the explicit answers people might supply on a form. When there’s a difference between what people say they want and what they actually buy, the planners step into that gap.  They call this dissonance “tension,” and use the contradiction to make unlikely, surprising, attention-getting and artful ads – for example, this one that does not deny, but rather intensifies, people’s anxieties about the corrosive effects of cell phones on attention and human relationships.


Jenny said, “The creatives used to hate the market researchers, who would represent the consumers. The creatives just wanted to make cool stuff. But the market researchers added this other element:” [They went beyond “let’s make a cool ad”] to ‘What do moms want?’ “

Sometimes, they found, what “moms want” contradicted not just the consumers’ explicit answers but also the creatives’ ideas, the artful conceit they wanted to execute.  And often, too, the market researchers’ data revealed other contradictions internal to the data itself: “when things test terribly but people actually love it,” Jenny said. It wasn’t enough to just create an ad strategy based on people’s explicit answers. There were what she calls “latent meanings,” positioned by broader cultural trends, which demanded that survey answers read and interpreted in its social context, on a larger scale. “When you talk to people and take their verbatim answers it leads to stupid work,” Jenny said.

“People  [interviewed after a movie] say things like ‘I wish there was no villain and it could all be princesses.’ But of course they don’t really want to go to a movie like that.” The wish to erase the villain was about something else. Traditional market researchers relied on literal survey answers, which told them more about what consumers thought they should want but not what they would actually consume.

Current planning and strategizing always looks for side angles and perspectives on their material. “A woman on the survey said she would never eat a burger because she’s on a diet. That’s what she says—but then of course she would eat it.” The strategists explore that tension. Tension refers to what she again calls “latent cultural feeling.”

“You look at what people say they do not like about the product. Say, a mini-van. People say they don’t like it; that [not liking it] is not just about the car but the end of your sexy life and beginning of your being a suburban mom. Not just ‘what is the style of the car and does it have heated seats or not.’  (A campaign that tried to exploit this specific tension with irony backfired when Brooke Shields was hired to deadpan that people were having babies in order to make use of the Volkswagen’s German engineering.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDZSxFLcMVg

This interest in latent cultural feeling is why Jenny’s first agency tried specifically to hire an anthropologist. “The ad I answered (posted by the AAA) said they did not want anyone from the advertising world or the business world.” Concepts from anthropology get sewn into the fabric of ad strategies. She explains: “So take for example an idea of the gift, or reciprocity, from anthropology. A gift is not a gift only, it is enmeshed in a world of practices. We in anthropology think that’s obvious—but the business world thinks that’s quite a shocker.” She laughed. “You come and tell the agency: you know what, if you give someone a gift card and they can buy themselves what they want it doesn’t work as a thoughtful gift.”

“Business people,” Jenny said, “understand use value, and they understand badging. ‘Badging’ is [the process of] saying something about you. You want to save the environment and wear Tom’s shoes. If you carry an expensive [Hermes] birkin bag you are showing you are really rich – or that some man loves you a lot. Old fashioned luxury. They want us to show what things mean.

“Anthropology has always known that there is a coherent system, a link between, say your religion and what you buy. This was novel for business thinkers, because they thought of things separately, normally.” The business perspective is not necessarily attuned to the meanings of commodities, she says, but on how “they can measure the success [of the campaign]. From a cultural perspective it’s harder to measure the success except how attitudes shift.

“The way you’re taught to think in anthropology is helpful in business, because they don’t see it that [systemic] way, they are inside it, and they don’t realize how the world is changing. For example, take the secret shame people feel in sitting on the couch and watching TV. Now, instead there is a premium on getting lots done at once.

“Thinking that way is the biggest advantage that business people see in having an anthropology background,” Jenny said.

And sometimes, they focus on the global, comparative focus of anthropology. “I would get emails that said “tell me the anthropology of gum” and you can look at practices all over the world like qat in Yemen, or the betel nut. You can look at chewing as a practice comparatively. Those are fun questions.

“If you don’t want a career only looking at one thing, this lets you. And if you write a brief a certain way to go after what, for example, people are ashamed of, you can change things.”

Our conversations have made me more constantly conscious of my own — and everyone’s — part in constructing the symbolic domain of commodities. The meaning of the ad, like the meaning of any utterance, emerges through the dense histories of both the addressor and the addressee. The commodified object, that “very queer thing” concealing human relationships in the labor that made it, comes alive on both sides of the ad.

Links to Recent Blogposts about Trump’s Locker Room Talk

For those of you who are thinking about discussing the leaked video of Trump which he is labeling “locker room talk”, here are two good blogposts to spark discussion:

Deborah Cameron discusses why the fact that this is locker room talk is precisely the problem:



Ben Zimmer discusses how media outlets are handling the profanity in their stories:



Omar Victor Diop’s Project Diaspora: Self Portraits at Indiana University

*Image – Omar Victor Diop, Frederick Douglass, 2015, Inkjet print on Hahnemuhle paper, Courtesy of the MAGNIN-A Gallery   Consider four digital reenactments of significant portraits, a Moroccan Man, Frederick Douglass, Portrait of Citizen Jean-Baptiste Belley, and Juan de Pareja. … Continue reading