Angie Heo on her new book, The Political Lives of Saints

 

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520297982/the-political-lives-of-saints

Interview by Alice Yeh

 Alice Yeh: Talk of persecution and extinction often accompanies media coverage of Christians in the Middle East.  What intervention does your book contribute to this conversation and what assumptions are you arguing against?

Angie Heo: Without doubt, Christians in the Middle East confront horrific incidents of violence – bombings, torchings, abductions, murders – that hit the headlines on a numbingly regular basis.  These tragedies understandably lead to anxieties and fears that Christians and Christianity are on the decline in the Arab Muslim world.  The irony is that social imaginaries of persecution and extinction are also the very stuff of Christianity in current contexts.  Persecution politics rely on aesthetic tropes of martyrdom and suffering.  Rhetorics of extinction compel the collective memory of founding origins.  During my fieldwork among Egypt’s Copts, I became convinced that marginalization and violence did not so much extinguish minority traditions as they activated and reactivated them toward various political ends.

My book shows how Coptic Orthodoxy serves as a central medium for governing Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt.  I found that saints – the Virgin, martyrs, miracle-workers, mystics – invite a form-sensitive analysis of communication between Christians and Muslims.  Saints and their imagined representations touch on classic anthropological themes such as personhood and materiality, and they also build on recent debates around religion and/as media. Perhaps most of all, I saw that tracing the semiotic intricacies of divine communication afforded more empirical purchase on the linkages between religious and political mediations.  I believe this is especially important when working on saints and shrines – a topic that often appeals to romanticized pasts and other-worlds that circumvent structures of modernity.  I hope my book does justice to the ways that cultural expressions of holiness flourish and transform in relation to complex politics of authoritarianism, inequality, revolution, and bloodshed.

 Alice Yeh: I want to ask a question about the structure of the book, and its organization into three parts (relics, apparitions, icons). One effect is that, as a narrative, the book describes the increasingly sophisticated semiotic technologies by which saints are made accessible to others. Why did you organize the book this way? Do these techniques build one upon the other or do they develop in tension?

 Angie Heo: Thanks for this most thoughtful observation. I am happy to hear it because crafting my book’s organization was a source of weird obsession and pleasure; your recognition that there is a narrative structure in it is so gratifying.  When I was planning my book’s flow, I decided to focus on the religious terms of belonging to the Christian community and to the Christian-Muslim nation.  My ethnography begins with holy origins (in other words, “life-in-death”): the Coptic Church’s origins in martyrdom, through St. Mark of Alexandria and during New Year’s Eve of the 2011 uprisings.  I chose to open with the relics and how they mediate loci of divine passion, sacrifice and resurrection, ultimately, the ritual exchange of violence for justice.  My ethnography closes with holy departure (that is, “life-after-death”): the canonization of saints, through holy fools and mystics, and the creation of eternal memory.  Here, the icon is my medium of choice, and I trace how icons mediate holy personhood and the temporal dynamics of disappearance.

On the point of the book’s cumulative arc, yes, I do understand that the semiotic technologies that I describe build on each other — relics, apparitions, icons.  I am not sure that I would say that they are increasingly sophisticated, but I definitely see them as interconnected modes of reproduction and circulation.  Essentially, I wanted to move away from the idea that relics, apparitions and icons are particular types of “things” or image-objects, toward considering them more as distinctive styles of material imagination that are subject to historical transformation. These three genres of imagination involve different sensory ratios (combining the visual, tactile, auditory) with different effects on making the space and time of saints.  For all their differences, relics, apparitions and icons are also inter-related media of representing and disseminating presence that work in intimate tandem and blend into one another.  I think where you can best see this blending effect is in the transitions between my book’s three parts: between chapters 2 and 3, it is Saint Mark’s relics that operate with the Virgin’s apparitions in a political economy of territorial returns; between chapters 4 and 5, it is a dream-apparition of a Virgin that translates into a miracle icon’s power to reconfigure the public.

Your proposal that relics, apparitions, and icons develop in tension to one another is quite stimulating.  While I have devoted my energy to thinking about the continuities between these semiotic technologies, I have done much less work on considering the tensions between them. If I could write a second version of this book, with all the same fieldwork materials but another entire analysis, I would take this question up.  It would be a really interesting exercise to see how the relic-form poses a challenge to the icon-form, for example.  The arbitrary quality of what analytic direction an author chooses to pursue and not pursue is what makes scholarship feel so infinite and full of possibilities!

Alice Yeh: Can you elaborate on the paradox of “mystical publicity”? Are there non-Christian or non-religious contexts in which it manifests?

It just so happens that I am teaching a bunch of texts this quarter that trace the mystical and ascetic strands of moral personhood in other traditions.  There are Sufi mystics hiding away in Hyderabad and Delhi, “Gandhian publicity” with its ascetic management of bodily energy, and of course, the Jewish Kabbalah which appeals to an occult cosmology of knowledge and power. Reading Eastern Orthodox theological writings on the holy icon, I was completely floored by how much ink, century after century, has been spilled on the divine status of images and the fatal risks of idolatry.  When I did my fieldwork, I was also taken by the way that monks and nuns looked away from cameras when we were taking group photos, which got me reading up on holy fools and the desert anchorites – on social imaginaries of withdrawal, self-effacement, and death.  If you check out my footnotes, you may notice that I also try to link up the Orthodox tradition to ancient Greek ethics of cynicism via Sloterdijk.  My last body chapter’s epigraph is also a quote from Goffman’s “On Facework”, a classic piece whose first footnote is a fascinating orientalist reference to Chinese concepts of face and saving face.  Not incidentally, it is also an essay that motivated MacIntyre’s charge that foundational nihilism lay behind Goffman’s sociological method.

In the broadest sense, I suppose I am making a claim here about the nature of the religious / non-religious distinction within the work of concepts.  One could argue that mystical thought and practice has been a crucial resource for deconstruction and poststructuralism; I am thinking of Derrida’s disavowal of metaphysics and de Certeau’s ontological commitment to traces here.  Continental philosophy and American sociology also inherited, at least in part, a canon of core terms that have defined the status of the human, and the divine/ human limit, in religious traditions.  Secular humanism may be presumed in mass industries of celebrity and in the consumption of imagined persons.  However, the moral perils of mass popularity, such as “losing one’s self” or “turning corrupt”, also deeply resonate with the millennia-old mystical impulse to retreat and just disappear from the crowds.

Alice Yeh: One especially interesting observation is that institutionalized Christian-Muslim sectarianism is more the consequence of a shared rather than oppositional religious imaginary.  For example, you write about how Muslim eyewitnesses are crucial to authenticating a Marian apparition. How are these eyewitnesses located in the construct of “the simple people”? How do “the simple people”shape cross-confessional practices of witnessing?

Angie Heo: One of my book’s main arguments is that sectarian division is intrinsic to imaginings of Christian-Muslim nationhood.  My claim here is really directed to long-championed formulas of “nation above religion” that are based on an ideological opposition between national unity and sectarian difference.  To break past the opposition, I begin with questions of communication, or “commonness”, to expose the formal continuities between national and sectarian imaginaries. This is where I see semiotic approaches and resources in linguistic anthropology to be very helpful. In each of my chapters, I explore the question of communicative form, or what is presumed to be shared and not shared between Christians and Muslims.  When I analyzed relics and apparitions, I focused on the communicative terms of a sacred territory, whether it is imagined as a divinely blessed Holy Egypt (national) or as a church in competition with a mosque (sectarian).  When I analyzed apparitions and icons, I examined the communicative terms of a moral public, and the ways in which a collective subject comprised of both Christians and Muslims (national) create structures of communal identity and secrecy (sectarian).

Anybody who has spent significant time with Copts will have likely heard the adjective “simple” (basīṭ, basīṭa) or the phrase “the simple people” (al-busaṭāʾ).  In Egypt, “simple” can be a subtle geographic reference to Upper Egypt, and in the Arab world at large, “simple” can also connote  the urban working classes (here, I must credit Abdellah Hammoudi for pointing this out to me).  During my fieldwork in both rural villages and industrial neighborhoods, I discovered that the term “the simple people” also expressed some kind of moral credibility among Copts: “Those villagers are too simple, they wouldn’t even know how to torch a church!” (chapter 6); “The Muslims who reported seeing the Virgin are simple people, unlike those who denied her who are motivated by their self-interest.” (chapter 3).

Judgments like these are curiously ambivalent.  They revealed how the quality of simpleness signified both the power to transcend sectarian identity and the guilelessness to ward off allegations of violence.  I became utterly fascinated by invocations of “the simple people”, especially since saints are also frequently praised for being simple.  If simplicity is a virtue, then I had to study the image of “the simple people” – the trustworthy public and its credible opinion – as a key protagonist in the story of making saints.

 Alice Yeh: What specific challenges or conveniences did the turn to identifying relics, apparitions, and icons as genres of mediation pose for your fieldwork?  What advice would you offer to students with related interests?

Angie Heo: I have a zillion answers running through my head, and I think it’s because I am imagining many different audiences reading this.  To students interested in materiality studies, I am committing to one brief piece of advice, for what it’s worth.  Resist taking the object for granted.  This seems like an elementary point, but I am always surprised by how often some “thing” is presumed to be a relic merely because it is a body-part of a holy figure or because it is a fragment of a lost past.  I approach relics, apparitions, and icons as genres of mediation, and not as already-given types of objects, because I see my most interesting work emerging from a curiosity in how persons and things are recognized as such in the first instance.  Like it did with numerous thinkers from Marx to Munn, this somewhat dissatisfied curiosity drove my constant doubt in my inclinations to naturalize images into “things.” And I am grateful for what the curiosity and doubt together allowed me to question and see anew.

Jonathan Rosa on his new book, Looking Like a Language and Sounding Like a Race

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/looking-like-a-language-sounding-like-a-race-9780190634735

Interview by Jessica López-Espino

Jessica López-Espino: Let’s start with your title, what does it mean to Look Like a Language and Sound like a Race?

Jonathan Rosa: The title reflects my long-standing obsession with processes of overdetermination—how categories of identity and expressive practices become ideologically co-constituted, and how perceived boundaries between such categories are enacted interactionally, institutionally, and historically. Looking like a language and sounding like a race is about historical and contemporary forms of governance through which one is expected to fit into categories that don’t correspond to lived experience in straightforward ways. What this means is that, in everyday interactions and encounters with the state, whether in education, housing, employment, or criminal justice, one’s legibility as a subject is anchored in this dynamic of looking like a language and sounding like a race. I’m suggesting that a seemingly casual kind of interplay between people’s recognitions of race and language can also be understood an existential dilemma that is historically inherited and reproduced—and profoundly institutionally consequential.

Jessica López-Espino: You made significant efforts to examine the “contortions” that students at New Northwest High School, a key ethnographic focus of the book, believe in and enact as “emblems” of Mexicanness and Puerto Ricanness, but also show how students’ own ancestry, families, friends, relationships, and desires are often intertwined more than they may initially admit. Can you say more about what analytic tools you developed to avoid reifying or exaggerating intra- and inter-Latinx difference?  

Jonathan Rosa: I developed the notion of ethnoracial contortions because on the one hand I wanted to figure out how people were strategically enacting and constructing identities, and on the other I was interested in the ways that their strategic constructions and enactments were overdetermined. You can strategically use language in a particular way or wear particular clothing or have a particular hairstyle and that does not necessarily mean that your project of the self is going to be rendered legible within a given interactional or institutional context.

I analyze the relationship between denotational texts and interaction texts—transcripts and that which is enacted through discourse—to show how kids say all the time that Mexicans and Puerto Ricans are separate races while also regularly engaging in practices that defy that assertion. This was important for me in terms of schematizing stereotypical models of Puerto Ricanness and Mexicanness, but not reducing the analysis to particular stereotypes or presentations of self. By attending both to immediate contexts of interaction and broader historical and institutional conditions of possibility for those interactions, I attempt to avoid ethnographic essentialism, empiricism, and exceptionalism. The tendency toward privileging the pragmatic realm is particularly concerning in ethnographic analyses of race, gender, and class­ because these phenomena do not reduce to embodiment or interaction in straightforward ways.

Jessica López-Espino: In your discussion of outlaw(ed) literacies, you argue that perceptions of Latinx students as not reading are based on raciolinguistic ideologies positioning students as gangbangers and hoes who are unable to produce standardized linguistic forms. What do you think administrators, teachers, and the general public loses by maintaining these raciolinguistic ideologies about Latinx youth?

Jonathan Rosa: A major problem with discussions of language and literacy in educational contexts is the assumption that the nature of the challenge that we are facing is one of deficiency or mismatch. The deficiency narrative is that these kids lack skills all together, they have not learned academic language, they have not been exposed to particular forms of communication early enough in life to then be able to succeed later on in school and other institutional contexts. The alternative is a narrative of mismatch, where it’s not that the kids are deficient altogether, but that they are using different practices. From this perspective, the goal is to build a bridge between home and school practices, which will facilitate mainstream educational success.

In contrast, I wanted to demonstrate that the very practices these kids allegedly lack—that is, standardized language and literacy—can be recognized in their existing repertoires. If these students already demonstrate skills that we are saying they need to learn, then perhaps the problem is that various aspects of their communicative practices are illegible, distorted, or erased from mainstream institutional perspectives. I’m trying to expand the nature of the antagonism to say that this is not simply about building a bridge or scaffolding, it is about the modes of legibility and illegibility that are cultivated within and fundamental to mainstream institutions. Where’s the burden in terms of change? Is it modifying the practices of marginalized youth and communities, or is it transforming institutions that are tied to endemic histories of inequity? I want to argue that it’s about transforming institutions.

Jessica López-Espino: Not “seeing race” in this book is not an option, as racial ideologies center how these students are understood as achieving a presumably upwardly mobile pan-ethnic category as Young Latino Professionals, or negatively as “at risk youth.” Have you faced push back from scholars interested in maintaining a “race-blind” analysis? What advice do you have for anthropologists seeking to challenge the normalization of Whiteness within their work?

Jonathan Rosa: I’ve seen different kinds of pushback. In some moments I was grappling with people who didn’t want to talk about race and figuring out how to communicate with them; in other situations, I’ve encountered people who want to talk about race but in ahistorical, essentializing ways I find troublesome. With people who didn’t want to talk about race, I had to ask what kinds of analyses and insights are made (im)possible by engaging or not engaging with race. Not attending to race allows us to imagine that contemporary societal challenges are merely pragmatic in nature such that diversifying demographics within existing institutions would somehow fundamentally transform them; if you do not attend to race then you will misunderstand the nature of inequality and exclusion. Race is central to the creation of the nation-state, mainstream institutions, and academic disciplines. If one understands the modern world as profoundly anchored in colonialism, then race must be central to one’s analysis of historical and contemporary societies. After all, race and racism emerged as justifications for the globalization of European colonialism.

With those who are interested in studying race but define it in terms of essentialized categories that are understood to be embodied in self-evident ways, it’s important to remember that central to the project of understanding race and rejecting biological racism is a conceptualization of the body as one among many sites for the articulation of race, and a very deceptive one at that. Embodied experiences must be analyzed in relation to colonial histories, so that when we take for granted the recognizability of Whiteness, Indigeneity, and Blackness, for example, that’s often based on a body-oriented mode of analysis. If these contemporary demographics as articulated within a particular societal setting are the primary focus, then I worry that the histories out of which they emerged will escape careful consideration.

Jessica López-Espino: Is there anything else you hope other anthropologists take away from your book?

Jonathan Rosa: I hope that what people take away from this book is a set of questions about governance, about how boundaries are inherited, experienced, and transgressed; I’m interested in contributing to conversations about the broader worlds these boundaries constitute, as well as the existence of alternative worlds that are not often recognized as such. To the extent that the book invites readers to entertain and recognize the possibility and ubiquity of such otherwise worlds, that’s exciting to me.

 

 

Elise Berman on her new book, Talking Like Children

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/talking-like-children-9780190876982

Interview by Shannon Ward

Shannon Ward: Most chapters of your book illustrated the enactment of “aged agency” through narratives that follow key events in the lives of your interlocutors, written in an accessible style and in English translation. What challenges did you face in translating your fieldnotes and transcriptions into this format?

Elise Berman: This is a great question. It was both hard and easy. I wanted to write a book that people would want to read, that would make the people I had met come alive, even while being theoretically rich. And so I did some research. As I was writing Talking Like Children, I happened upon a book called Storycraft by Jack Hart that discusses how to write narrative non-fiction. It occurred to me, then, that anthropological data is full of stories, and that ethnographies can be, and the best are, narrative non-fiction. Similarly, while teaching at UNCC the books that work best in my classes are the ones that have a strong narrative arch, characters that the students can latch on to and follow.

But the structure of narrative non-fiction that Hart describes is quite different than the way I was writing in graduate school (and I ended up wishing that I had taken a narrative non-fiction class). So, I completely rewrote my dissertation, not only to change the theory but also to change my style. One of the main points that struck me from Hart’s book was that when telling a narrative, you don’t want to give away the end in the beginning. So, for instance, in Chapter 1 when I talk about the birth of Pinla’s child, I do not initially tell the reader who got the child in the end. That is the climax, and the desire to know the result of these negotiations is what pulls readers through the text. But in the type of expository writing that I have learned, you are supposed to put the thesis in the beginning! So what I tried to do was put the theoretical thesis of each chapter in the beginning, but create narrative tension by starting with a hook and letting the story develop through the chapter without giving the ending away. I also tried to follow the other elements of Hart’s structure—beginning with action, intertwining narrative with expository information, and ending with a climax. This organization of each chapter took quite a bit of rethinking, reworking, and learning about narrative non-fiction.

But the other part of your question, about translating the fieldnotes and transcripts themselves into the dialogue, that was easy. A quote from a transcript can be written as dialogue, especially since I would have to translate it from Marshallese anyway for a transcript. What I did, instead of including symbols to indicate things like pauses or pitch, was provide that information as a narrative description. I actually found it much easier to explain this way than through symbols in a transcript. Moreover, writing this way pushed me to look closer at my videos. For narrative reasons, I wanted to be able to talk about where Rōka was looking or what Jackie did with her hand. To do that, I had to dig deeper into the recordings, and I frequently discovered relevant elements of the videos that I had left out in my previous version of the transcript.

Shannon Ward: Throughout the book, you compared age to gender, in order to theorize age as constructed and shifting. You also assert that “age is power.” Could you say more about how age intersects with gender to produce power in this ethnographic context? Relatedly, how are gender differences acquired alongside age differences, especially in childhood but also across the lifecycle?

Elise Berman: Gender differences are definitely acquired alongside age differences. The best example of this is in Chapter 6, where I talk about how Jackie has lost her former ability to run errands to men, since as she gets older she becomes subject to the “shyness” that often leads young women and men to talk in gender segregated groups. In contrast, however, Sisina, the child, is relatively bold. Her boldness is a part of learning to be not only a child who is different from an adult, but also a girl who is different from women. There are also various other aspects of gender that change across the life course that I do not discuss in the book. For example, in old age women seem to get bold once again and start playing a larger clowning role in festivals, whereas the younger women tend to be a little shyer.

This is one of the advantages, in fact, of focusing on age as a social construction. When one does, it highlights how all other categories—race, gender, class—dynamically change across the life course. So, focusing on age, in a way that I suggest has been largely (although not entirely) neglected in the social sciences, helps arguments that gender or race are not static or set in stone. It also changes the questions one might ask about the socialization of gender or race. Rather than being socialized into gender roles, people are socialized into age specific gendered modes of interaction and feeling that are constantly changing as people move across the life course.

Shannon Ward: Your book includes several stories of children who circulate between adopted families and birth families, amidst extensive controversy and discussions of adults’ morality. In these stories, you show how people, including children, use their age to affect the outcome of these exchanges. How do these Marshallese practices of adoption provide new perspectives on agency in the exchange of persons?

Elise Berman: This is another great question, and it really relates to the different forms of aged agency that exist in the RMI as a whole. Ultimately it is very hard to say no to an elder who requests something, including a child. But children and young adults have several different forms of agency, and specifically the agency of movement. Many children in the RMI have some amount of choice about where, and with whom, they live. In theory they are allowed to decide and can live with almost any relative. In practice, of course, it is much more complicated—they may not have transportation to a different relative (if that relative is on a different island), the different relative may not actually want them to stay, the parent they are leaving may be particularly powerful. Nonetheless, children’s freedom of movement changes the pattern of adoption as a whole, since adoptive children can and do move back and forth between multiple houses, including between what we would call their birth and adoptive parents. So, one part of childcare in the RMI is keeping your children happy, because if they aren’t they could (in theory) live elsewhere. People talked to me explicitly about this idea, that keeping your children with you requires keeping them happy—and that while this is particularly true of adoptive children it applies to others as well. Children’s movement is possible partly because of their age. They are not yet tied to a particular household that they care for.

Just as children can move between households, young adults can as well. One way to get away from a request for a child that you don’t want to fulfill is to move away until the child is older (one mother told me she did this: she didn’t want to give her kid away to an elder relative so when she was pregnant she moved to a different atoll). In turn, young adults also have a variety of choices available to them that are not as readily available to people in the US. Adoption is not a last resort in the RMI: it is a reasonable and expected option for single women as well as partnered ones. So I know of several women who told me that they adopted a child before they were partnered and before they had children of their own because they wanted a child. Now, this might happen in the US as well, but it is still something of an anomaly for a single woman to adopt a child. In turn, particularly given the common pattern of grandparents adopting the firstborn grandchildren, youth who have children before they are ready have a number of options open to them, options that might be offered rather than having to be sought out. Moreover, people change partners quite frequently early in relationships (when people are koba, together, but haven’t taken the step of becoming married), and this isn’t really seen as something that will negatively affect the children. Thus, women can adopt when single, and if they have a child without a partner it is not a big deal.

At the same time, however, these large families and these forms of sharing children have their own tensions, which I tried to illuminate in Chapter 1. In addition, and this is something that I didn’t write about in the book, when combined with high poverty rates this system is ripe for exploitation. There is a huge crisis of American adoptions of Marshallese children, where the ability of powerful people (including foreigners) to ask for things and get them, as well as these malleable households that shift and adapt, has led to an exorbitant number of American adoptions of Marshallese children.

­

Shannon Ward: Chapter 5, in particular, addresses issues of morality and age. Marshallese ideologies assert that children refrain from lying despite risks to their own or others’ reputations, unlike adults who lie to avoid shame and protect their reputations. In other words, this ideology holds that children are able to tell the truth, especially about others’ negative actions, due to their position as nonmoral persons. Throughout the book, you also mention the importance of Christianity. Other ethnographic literature about the Pacific region has shown how Christianity is shaping notions of truth, responsibility, and evidence related to morality. Could you say more about how these ideologies of children’s truthfulness and nonmorality relate to Christianity in this ethnographic context?

Elise Berman: It is not that the children refrain from lying despite risks to their own reputation, but rather that there are no risks to children’s reputations (or so adults think; children have a different view). Since, according to adults, children are too young to have reputations, any words that they tell are not real lies. Thus the ideology is not so much that children do not tell untruths (everyone agrees that they do), but rather they do not and have no motive to tell real lies that negatively affect adults. If they do, those words are not their own and they are not responsible for them.

This view of children’s words as not their own and, therefore, not lies even when they are false does seem to be quite different from the ideology of language explicitly expressed in church settings, in which a much greater concern is placed on words themselves as opposed to the effect of words. In line with the literature you reference, Christianity does seem to promote a different view of words and responsibility. But this ideology, as elsewhere in the Pacific, also seems to vary with denomination. My host family was Būrotijen, which is the United Church of Christ, the original denomination of the missionaries who came in the 1800s. So, I spent most of my time at the Būrotijen church. But there are many other newer denominations. When I visited two evangelical churches—Assembly of God and Looking for Jesus—the sermon’s rhetoric was much more focused on how God tells the truth and one must always tell the truth. Since almost everyone I interacted with outside of church was Būrotijen, I can’t say for sure how this perhaps greater emphasis on words’ referential accuracy within these other churches affects behavior outside of the church.

 

Eitan Wilf on his new book, Creativity on Demand

https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/C/bo34094110.html

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: You describe how, when you explained your previous work on regimented jazz instruction to someone also attending a business innovation workshop, he asked you how you managed to get metaphorically from a famous jazz club in New York City, the Village Vanguard, to these workshops. You point out that the similar tensions in both sites exist because people are using rule-bound and structured pedagogical techniques which are meant to lead to creative improvisation that in earlier decades was believed to emerge more organically.  How do you think the business innovation workshops you attended differed from the jazz classes in the ways rules and creativity were understood?

Eitan Wilf: My interlocutors in academic jazz programs and business innovation workshops did not approach rules for generating creative results in the same way due to the historical specificity of each context. Most of my interlocutors in academic jazz programs—students, teachers, and administrators, as well as the wider public—understood the academic jazz program as a pale shadow of the vibrant urban jazz scenes of the mid-20th century, which gave rise to the masterpieces of this genre. The apprenticeship system, in which neophyte musicians learn from more experienced musicians in live performance settings, was the prevalent form of jazz training in those scenes. With the gradual disappearance of clubs and their replacement with academic programs, jazz training became more standardized, abstract, and text-mediated. Due to this history, my interlocutors in academic jazz programs viewed the structured pedagogical techniques taught in such programs as always already problematic, a form of training that indexed the music’s and their own fall from grace and the realization that, at best, such techniques can give them a glimpse of what genuine creativity in jazz is all about. In contrast, my interlocutors in business innovation workshops did not have the idea that they were born after a past golden age of creativity in the business world in relation to which their own practice could be negatively compared. Because creativity has never been a defining dimension of their ideal-typical practice, they approached the structured techniques for generating creative results that they were taught in innovation workshops with much more enthusiasm, hope, and curiosity. If they experienced any ambivalence toward those techniques, it was due to the fact that in western modernity in general creativity and rules are understood to be antithetical to one another.

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Haidy Geismar on her new book, Museum Object Lessons for the Digital Age

Museum Object Lessons for the Digital Age Cover

https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/browse-books/museum-object-lessons-for-the-digital-age

Interview by Joshua Bell

Joshua Bell: Your book is a manifesto of sorts of what the digital – as a relatively new domain – does for more traditional objects in museums, how the digital as a different constitution of relations is and isn’t unique, what the digital does (and doesn’t do) to our understanding of heritage, and how by engaging with these relations and configurations we can begin to see museums anew. Could you comment on what prompted you to write this book?

Haidy Geismar: Over the course of my research career, since starting in around 2000, almost all the practices I have been involved with in museums have migrated into the digital: collecting and archiving, discussions about property rights, community and artist interventions, and new forms of display, are all increasingly situated within digital media. I was struck however by the lack of continuity between previous practices and these new digital projects. There seemed to be an assumption that the digital provided “a way out”, particularly for the complex legacy of the ethnographic collection. My own empirical observations however, were showing how many digital projects were in fact reproducing concepts and issues that already existed.  The case of digital repatriation is a great example, which you explored in a great series of workshops that you and Kim Christen convened at the Smithsonian which was published in the collection “After the Return”. Digital repatriation burst out of the reproductive affordances of digital media and was quickly embraced as a way for museums to redeem themselves by sharing collections and supposedly giving up sovereignty or ownership over indigenous cultures. As the papers in your collection explore, this promise was not always borne out in practice. Instead the digital came to afford a continued negotiation between source communities and museums/archives, and it became yet another site of contested sovereignty, in which the history of collecting, and of colonialism, could not be forgotten. I wanted to write a book that tracked between the digital and the analogue and argued for a ethnographic perspective on the digital that placed it in a context beyond its own.

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Melissa Gregg on her new book, Counterproductive

Interview by Ilana Gershon

https://www.dukeupress.edu/counterproductive

Ilana Gershon: When did the argument for Counterproductive come to you in the process of researching and writing?

Melissa Gregg: After I came up with the title, because I didn’t want to change it! The title helped me pursue two related ideas. First, that productivity is a misplaced goal in information jobs, since work is about the mind as much as the hand. Second, that for all the talk of freedom and flexibility in the modern office, we do not appear to be thriving with the newfound ability to manage ourselves. This is unfinished business from my last book, Work’s Intimacy. I wanted to understand the origins for the types of productivity pressures expressed by the workers I had interviewed at the dawn of the smartphone era. Back then, we had no language to explain the simultaneous sense of compulsion and pleasure that came with online connectivity. The vocabulary of labor seemed totally inadequate. I had always been fascinated by self-help genres for business, so taking an auto-ethnographic approach to time management texts and tools soon revealed obvious consistencies in genre and form despite the technologies of the period. From there, the components of an analysis came together. The rituals and refrains of charismatic gurus could be placed in the broader history of religious thinking embedded in capitalism. I also came to appreciate that much bigger ideas – like life priorities and mortality – were at stake in ostensibly utilitarian “Getting Things Done” principles, just as they were underpinning many of the actions of my earlier research participants.

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John Postill on his new book, The Rise of Nerd Politics

The Rise of Nerd Politics
Interview by Angela VandenBroek
Angela VandenBroek: The Rise of Nerd Politics is a captivating description and analysis of “techpol nerds” and their “clamping” (computing, law, art, media, and politics) skills. You have described the techpol nerds as related to but not the same as other kinds of nerd categories studied by anthropologists (such as Kelty and Coleman). What led you to this analytic decision and why do you think it is important for anthropology now?
John Postill: That’s right. While Chris Kelty and Gabriella Coleman – whose pioneering work has had a major influence on mine – and other scholars have focused on computer geeks and hackers, I include other specialists under my category of “nerd politics” – a term I borrowed from the Canadian sci-fi author Cory Doctorow.
The people I’m calling “techno-political nerds”, or simply “techpol nerds”, are a highly diverse lot. To be sure, among their ranks we find geeks and hackers, but we also find tech journalists, digital artists, copyright lawyers, Pirate politicians, and even anthropologists. What all these specialists have in common is a passionate devotion to working at the intersection of technology and politics, a pro-democracy stance, a profound dislike of authoritarianism, and the belief that the fate of the internet and of democracy are inextricably entwined. They translate this passion into a huge variety of initiatives in areas such as open data activism, digital rights, popular mobilisation, and electoral politics. It follows that I regard hacker politics to be a subclass of nerd, or “clamper”, politics.
As I argue in Chapter 2, not all forms of knowledge or skillsets are born equal in the world of nerd politics. Five forms in particular (computing, law, art, media and politics, or “clamp” for short) take pride of place within this world. Even accomplished computer nerds like the NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden must rely on the expertise of others to pursue their political goals. Snowden gathered around him a team of Guardian journalists, lawyers and tech people as well as a documentary filmmaker. Yet we tend to overlook this interdisciplinary teamwork in our fascination with this supposedly lone wolf and his technological wizardry.
I arrived at this analytic decision in a roundabout way, as tends to be the case in anthropology. I started fieldwork in Barcelona, Spain, in the summer of 2010 with the intention of studying whether social media were making any substantial difference to the work of activists in that part of the world. After surveying the terrain, I became interested in the small but rambunctious digital rights scene and soon realised that it wasn’t just geeks and hackers who were active within it. In 2014 and 2015 I did comparative research on similar scenes in Indonesia, as well as secondary research on other countries. Everywhere I looked I found heterogeneous teams of nerds – not just techies – “clamping up” on corruption, fraud, online censorship, and other perceived malaises of the digital era.
 
Angela VandenBroek: For this book you drew on a wide range of techpol nerds, including those in Spain, Indonesia, Iceland, Brazil, Tunisia, Taiwan, and the United States. But the 15M movement in Spain figured prominently throughout the text. What about this particular example made it such a fruitful resource for you analytically, especially in contrast to more popularly covered subjects, such as the Arab Spring uprisings or the Occupy movement?
John Postill: There was an element of sheer luck in my decision to work in Spain. In 2009, when I was still based in the UK, a friend in London sent me a link to an advert in The Economist. The Open University of Catalonia were offering a one-year fellowship to study social media and activism in Barcelona. I applied and got it. It helped that I was brought up in Spain and that my previous research was on internet activism (albeit in a very different setting: suburban Malaysia). Another stroke of luck was that in early 2011 the digital rights nerds I was working with decided to switch from internet politics to politics writ large when they helped to launch the 15M (indignados) movement, which called for “real democracy now” and led directly to the Occupy movement.
But the story doesn’t end here, as the very same Barcelona nerds, an activist group called Xnet, later launched a data activism campaign to put on trial those behind the collapse of one of Spain’s major banks, Bankia. They later wrote and performed a widely acclaimed “data theatre” play on the Bankia case, launched a nerdy political party named Partido X, and even got embroiled in the fraught data politics of the Catalan independence referendum of 2017. By retracing Xnet’s nomadic trajectory I was able to map the world of nerd politics in Spain and discern four main spaces, or “subworlds”, within it: digital rights, data activism, social protest and formal politics.
I then tested this four-cornered map in those other countries that you mention and, to my delight, it worked there, too. This enabled me to make comparisons across political cultures. For instance, while Spain’s nerds migrated en masse in 2011 from the space of digital rights to that of social protest to launch the 15M movement, their Brazilian counterparts remained fixated on a single digital-rights issue even at the height of the 2013 popular mobilisations. This paid off eventually as far as digital rights in Brazil are concerned, but arguably there was a missed opportunity for Brazilian nerds to help create something like Spain’s 15M movement and its formal political offshoots.
Spain has turned out to be an unlikely global leader in nerd politics, a massive laboratory of techno-politics and democracy. Today scores of town halls across Spain, including in major cities like Madrid and Barcelona, are in the hands of indignados, many of them steeped in nerd culture. Moreover, a party that borrowed heavily from Xnet’s techno-political tools, namely Podemos, is now Spain’s third political force and the main ally of the ruling Socialists.
Angela VandenBroek:  You have artfully debunked many perceptions of nerds in The Rise of Nerd Politics that are common both in popular media and within anthropology and related fields, including their politics, their demographics and geographic locations, their collaborations and organization, and their utopian and techno-solutionist inclinations. How do you think these prior perceptions may have hindered our understanding of techpol nerds and their movements? And, what do you think are the most important misconceptions you have identified for us to pay attention to going forward?
John Postill: The prior perceptions you refer to – about nerds being typically white, male, anglophone, geeky, techno-solutionist, and so on – originate largely in US popular culture and news media but are influential worldwide. The two paradigmatic examples are Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. These perceptions have clouded our understanding of the world of nerd politics in a number of ways, including a lack of attention to techpol nerds’ pragmatism; to their ethno-national, religious and gendered diversity; to their penchant for combining teamwork and crowdwork; to the fact that many of them work across civil society, government and the private sector divides, and so on.
Out of these misconceptions I would single out the popular fixation with hackers and their tech wizardry to the detriment of nerds from non-tech backgrounds (for example, journalism, art, humanities, politics) who are equally important to the rise of nerd politics and its increasing centrality to our political and cultural lives.
Don’t get me wrong: Assange, Snowden and other leading computer nerds have played hugely important roles, but so have lesser known individuals and groups around the globe (who may or may not possess advanced IT skills).
Angela VandenBroek: You end your book by saying, “For social scientists like me, and many readers of this book, there is also the issue of the current dominance of five kinds of knowledge (computing, law, art, media and politics) in this social world, which suggests that there is room for greater anthropological and sociological expertise in the nerd politics repertoire” (p. 254). How do you think anthropological knowledge could sit practically within the existing clamping suite? What are the tensions anthropologists may face in this space and how do you think we might overcome them through our work?
John Postill: Yes, that’s the book’s cliffhanger, a key unanswered question!
One significant contribution that anthropologists studying this topic could make to nerd politics is to continue to ask questions about who these techpol nerds (think they) are, what they have done so far, and with what actual and potential consequences. Whatever else we’re interested in, we anthropologists are always deeply interested in people, especially in our research participants. We are also interested, of course, in processes, systems, technologies, networks (whatever these are), actions and practices, but more than anything else we study people and their social relations, which these days are often digitally mediated.
Another potential contribution could be to interrogate the ontological status of some of the nerds’ favourite sociological notions. Do these notions have an empirical basis or are they simply cherished ideals and/or useful fictions? For example, when my research participants – some of them fellow researchers from other academic fields – get excited about the power of  connected multitudes or horizontal networks to bring about political change, I am among those whose job it is to sound a note of caution. What exactly is a horizontal network? Has anyone ever seen one? If so, where and when? By the same token, a team is a more tangible social entity than a so-called network, and yet the notion of team is conspicuously absent from many of the nerd narratives. These are the kinds of questions and blind spots that anthropologists are well placed to identify as the research and writing progresses. It follows that we should go about this task diplomatically (after all, we don’t necessarily want to antagonise people!).
Beyond these epistemological concerns, there is also the question of health and safety. As the world becomes more unruly, polarised, and unpredictable, anthropologists and their research participants working on nerd politics – and related topics – face greater legal and physical risks. One urgent task for anthropologists is to go beyond our liberal comfort zones and help bridge the current ideological rift between pro-democracy progressives and conservatives so that, together, we can take on the extremists and autocrats. We also need many more part-nerdships, that is, political initiatives that bring together nerds and non-nerds fighting for the social and economic rights of all citizens, including their digital rights – regardless of class, creed, or skin colour.

Sarah Shulist on her new book, Transforming Indigeneity

Transforming Indigeneity
Interview by Shannon Ward
Shannon Ward: Your book demonstrates how children in São Gabriel actively respond to discourse that frames Indigeneity as performance, by acting out Indigeneity as a set of symbols distinct from the realm of everyday life. You also explain that youth, facing the realities of urban poverty, substance abuse, and violence, often look to non-Indigenous symbols of material wealth for aspiration. Do you see any hope for mobilizing the resources necessary to give children and youth space for building their own meaningful cultural practices, as part of a shared identity as urban Indigenous youth?
Sarah Shulist: I absolutely see hope for youth to find creative ways to build “meaningful cultural practices”, and I think they definitely are doing so already. I should note that the story about “performing” Indigeneity really highlights more about what the little girl’s parents thought than what she herself was doing (because she herself was very young), which illustrates that even the adults have a complicated relationship to the balance between the symbolic form of Indigeneity and a more “lived in” one. I found that older teens and young people in their 20s were very committed to their vision of themselves as urban Indigenous people, however, and really resisted the discourses of rigid cultural “purity” that some powerful people advocated. They were creating theatre groups, developing radio programs, and starting hip-hop dance/song workshops, and in all of these they really wanted to use Indigenous stories and themes in ways that resonated with their “modern” views of themselves. This was also situated as a way of ensuring that kids would have sources of social strength that would help prevent them from becoming involved in drug trafficking and other risks. One of the most passionate young women I knew when I was there is now in her early 30s, and has become the head of a newly created municipal youth council, so her energy is being transferred forward in that context.

Shannon Ward: Your book shows the challenges of cultural and linguistic transmission in a city, when concerns about Indigeneity are often framed through discussions of land rights and when Indigenous language practices are deeply tied to the realities of everyday agricultural life. How could the generally effective political mobilization of Indigenous peoples for rural land rights (pg. 41, for example) be replicated in urban spaces?
Sarah Shulist: I think that one way to mobilize around language in urban areas would involve mobilizing more directly around language in and of itself, rather than as an extension of other rights – specifically, in this case, the right to ‘differentiated education.’ A lot of activism that has taken place around language has strategically looked for the openings provided within the legal structure of the Brazilian constitution, which makes perfect sense, but which has left the urban areas out. Now, with the recent election of a government that has promised to erase Indigenous land reserves, the risks associated with having all rights tied to these land recognitions become even more starkly clear. Language efforts can become ways of solidifying and strengthening community networks in urban areas, or across urban/rural movements, and so on. Language exists (or can exist) wherever speakers and potential speakers exist, so I have often seen the crux of urban language revitalization as based in the notion that “the community” needs to be created, rather than presumed to already be in a given place. At the same time, an aspect of Indigenous mobilization that’s happening here in Canada, and that I think is also important elsewhere, is a reminder that these cities are also built on colonized land, and that the Indigenous people living in them have a claim to ways of moving through those spaces that are often erased by separating out what “counts” as Indigenous lands as only referring to what we call “reserves” here, and “demarcated territories” there. It’s striking to look at a map of the municipality of São Gabriel and remember that the ‘seat’ of governance is the only part of it that is not considered to be Indigenous territory – this tiny island of non-Indigenous space from which everything is supposed to emanate – when of course the reasoning behind that is a purely colonial logic.
Shannon Ward: In chapter 4, your discussion of Indigenous language pedagogy, specifically, Nheengatú classes that valorize literacy over other linguistic skills, seems relevant to discussions not only of language revitalization, but of language and literacy learning more broadly. What do you think the case of Nheengatú classes in São Gabriel can tell us more generally about the acquisition of literacy, and the challenges of implementing immersion-based learning in communities that may not value linguistic diversity as an element of everyday practice?
Sarah Shulist: This is a great question, and it covers a lot of ground. I think the example of the Nheengatú classes fits within a much larger pattern of classroom-based views of ‘language’ that really emphasize not only literacy, but very particular forms of literacy. The diversity of literacy practices beyond schooled literacy have, of course, become an important topic within linguistic anthropology, and this research is part of what helped me to recognize the strength of that pull towards writing-centric ideologies in the Nheengatú classrooms. I think what I learned from the challenges facing Nheengatú language teachers was to be careful about dismissing the meaning and power behind teaching literacy. As someone trained in linguistics, I’ve definitely been influenced by the emphasis on orality, and I do think there is an important need, in language revitalization efforts, to orient toward supporting language in practice, rather than as an abstract grammatical system.  But at the same time, I think there is a lot of meaning behind the literacy practices that we can sometimes dismiss too easily. While feelings about the inferiority of Indigenous languages are obviously rooted in internalizations of colonial logics, that doesn’t make them any less real or worth challenging, and having or learning writing in the language seems to have a lot of power to challenge those beliefs. The biggest challenge of implementing immersion schools in São Gabriel, I think, is less about a devaluation of multilingualism per se and more about a strong attachment to a specific view of what formal education is for, which is to learn how to move and succeed within a non-Indigenous world. Given that, I think the potential for immersion-based learning that is happening outside of schools is important to cultivate, and there are plenty of great examples of these types of strategies from around the world that could be applied in the Amazonian context.
Shannon Ward: In chapter 7, you explain that cross-border migration is changing the linguistic ecology of São Gabriel  How might cross-border alliances of Indigenous peoples in this region develop? How could such alliances mobilize Indigenous people to hold greater agency in urban places of habitation?
Sarah Shulist: The question of cross-border migration within São Gabriel remains an ever-changing concern, and I think even in the year or so since I did the final read through of the book proofs, the dynamics of changed. Colombia has become more stable, while Venezuela’s economic and political crisis has deepened, and the results of the Brazilian election will also reshape the implications of being Indigenous in each of these three countries. I think the degree of unrest and the shifting dynamics make cross-border alliances and transnational advocacy groups into vital elements in this discussion, but in ways that I don’t think are predictable at this point.
Shannon Ward:  Brazil has recently faced several tragedies covered by international media, including the destruction of archives of Indigenous endangered languages at Brazil’s National Museum. How might this tragedy factor into future decisions surrounding the methods of language documentation and linguistic revitalization in São Gabriel?
Sarah: I think working on language revitalization requires a degree of hopefulness – an imagination about a future social world in which Indigenous peoples have the space, both metaphorical and literal, to use their languages and live in ways that are holistically their own. I have, personally, found it difficult to maintain that hopeful vision given the recent tragic losses of the museum fire, as well as the election of Bolsonaro, who has said some truly frightening things about his desire to do away with even the most basic of Indigenous land protections. I think these events call us, as academic allies, to really rethink what our goals are with respect to language revitalization. Documentation and “preservation”, as in the museum, have long been recognized as incomplete, and also, in many ways, as products of an extractive colonial ideology that puts the language down on paper and takes it away from the community in which it is used (I wrote a post about this on my own blog in the immediate aftermath of the fire: https://anthropologyas.wordpress.com/2018/09/12/on-what-was-really-lost-in-the-fire/ ).
Schools, likewise, are very expensive projects whose maintenance and value depend on constant reinvestment and buy-in from the colonial state, and the political whims of the moment really demonstrate how precarious it is to lay our hopes on this kind of a foundation. That’s my somewhat long-way-around introduction to saying that I think a lot of language documentation and revitalization, in São Gabriel in particular but also elsewhere, needs to really listen to Indigenous voices who are emphasizing radical re-imagining of what ‘language’ is and what it means to support its continued presence in their lives.  I’m thinking of Indigenous scholars like Wesley Leonard and Jenny Davis, among others, here). A lot of academics are recognizing that any authentic desire to support Indigenous languages requires us to support Indigenous people, and not shy away from the messy human realities that entails. The museum fire was somewhat less devastating to languages in the Northwest Amazon region than it was to other areas, because most of them are still spoken by at least a small number of people, and good, recent documentation exists of many of them that was not housed in the Museu Nacional. I still hope that it will be taken as a powerful reminder that we need to refocus on language as inherently embedded in its social context, and on protecting the lifeways of the people who use it.

Britt Halvorson on her new book, Conversionary Sites

https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/C/bo28267368.html

Interview by Josh Reno

Josh Reno: What were your primary goals in writing this book?

Britt: Halvorson: One of my goals in writing this book was to shine light on the transforming relationships between independent national churches in Sub-Saharan Africa and American Christian churches formerly involved in colonial mission work. Humanitarian aid relationships have become one way that Christians increasingly attempt to “do good in the world” and address forms of inequality among Christians. Some characterize humanitarian aid programs as more ethical practices than previous colonial missionary work because they do not appear to interfere with the authority and sovereignty of African churches. I critically explore such programs and their claims by asking how variously positioned Christians understand their moral and political dimensions. I also look into how humanitarian sensibilities are transforming people’s practices and perceptions of global Christianity.

Another goal in writing the book was to highlight the interpretive process and diverse valuations that occur through the material work of doing Christian aid. I have encountered studies of aid that smoothed out these activities or left the impression that aid workers operated similarly to fulfill organizational missions. Through my own aid labor and relationships with Christian aid workers in Minneapolis and Antananarivo, I experienced things differently: both Malagasy and American aid workers continually debated, imagined, and reflected on what doing aid meant and how they were implicated in that process. Medical technologies like x-ray machines were not static or single things per se but accorded varying meanings and values; aid workers pursued their relationships with God and each other through their aid labor; and a variety of absent presences pervaded aid activities, from the specter of colonial missionaries to a desired holism of body-soul not found in biomedical treatment.

This insight led me to the deeper realization that Christian aid-giving is a process of religious interpretation. So I wanted to fill my account of aid with all the lived struggles and beautifully fraught moments of aid spaces. I wanted to show people “making do” among varying value systems in a kind of dynamic, improvisational ethical practice. What I mean by that is that doing aid—whether sorting donations of surgical scissors or writing reports on the uses of medical relief—shapes varying positions, critiques, interpretations, and ethical problems of global religious community. Medical supplies like syringes and bandages can operate as forms of religious mediation, much like the films, cassette sermons, monetary donations, clothing, and much more described in other anthropological studies of religion. The material and bureaucratic practices of medical aid may seem dry and dull on the surface. But, as I hope to have shown, they are the very stuff of vital questions about what it means to be an ethical Christian in the contemporary world.

Josh Reno: In your analysis, conversionary sites play a key role as a way of conceptualizing how global medical aid changes as it crosses geographical distance, converting from one culturally meaningful form to another relative to religious sites and the practices and orientations of the actors involved. Can you describe what other work this idea performs in your analysis and what made it preferable to other possible approaches?

Britt Halvorson: I’ve used the term conversionary sites to draw out how Christian aid workers actively navigate the varying value regimes present in the Minnesota-Madagascar aid alliance. These include 1) ethical ideals of solidarity and mutuality among “global Christians,” 2) professional standards of accountability in bureaucratic humanitarianism, and 3) the resource inequalities of global medical commerce. Malagasy and American Christian aid workers constantly negotiate the asymmetries and gaps among these varying value regimes. This work is a key feature of the kind of Christian aid I studied and, I think, part of what makes it a meaningful practice for individual Christians; small uncertainties of value signal the creative leaps of faith that are central to Christian commitment. I consider conversionary sites to not only be the geographically-dispersed Christian aid spaces where I did research (aid warehouses, worship services, offices, house churches) but also the distinct material activities undertaken within those spaces. Aid laborers are not only seeking to, for example, morally redeem medical discards by praying over them or by associating “junk aid” with human sinfulness. Through the material transactions of aid, Americans and Malagasy involved in the aid program are also participating in an attempt to convert the moral foundation, ways of knowing, and practices of their prior relationship with each other under colonial missions.

Conversionary sites therefore enables me to draw out these shifting values of past and present and look into “conversions” as moral relations that take shape in, and receive reinforcement from, the material activities of aid. While American Lutherans (ELCA) were formerly involved in direct, face-to-face evangelism in southern Madagascar for over a century (1888-2004), individuals previously engaged in overseas mission work are now converting their own moral practice and moral subjectivity to be in keeping with an aid-giving sensibility that ostensibly upholds Malagasy authority and sovereignty. Likewise, Malagasy Lutherans’ relationship with American Lutheran churches has shifted over the last forty years to focus partly on financial grants and in-kind aid resources that sustain church-run institutions. For both projects, “the colonial” is a negative moral force against which contemporary Christian humanitarian efforts are being defined. I find this fascinating and relevant at a time when academics, too, are taking part in decolonizing efforts. I’ve observed that, when imperialism can be embodied in the figure of the colonial missionary and “the colonial” is easily named, less scrutiny is given to the more thoroughgoing cultural practices that less obviously maintain forms of racial and political inequality.

Josh Reno: Your ethnography examines the relationship of past colonization of Madagascar and present-day medical aid relationships, specifically the complicated and contested involvement of Lutheran missionaries in both. In what ways do varying temporalities become important to your analysis? Does this idea have relevance for other studies of humanitarianism, including those not focused explicitly on religious organizations?


Britt Halverson: This question fits beautifully with what I was describing above. I argue in the book that Christian aid work is a practice in time and of time. What I mean by that is that people doing aid—whether Christian or of another religious affiliation, or ostensibly secular—are often comparing their work to other possible approaches, including past interventions and relationships. These other possibilities come to inform and define present approaches to aid-giving in complex ways. In this respect, the relationship of past and present is always “present” in aid efforts! But the pasts evoked are creative, selectively made constructions that speak to the concerns of the present. I came to think of the relationship of past and present as an historical resource that Christian aid workers variously used to define a morally upright approach to contemporary Christian humanitarianism. Some Malagasy Lutheran informants spoke of the relationship of past colonial American Lutheran missionary involvement in Madagascar as continuous with the aid program, rather than representing a sharp break with the past (as did some Americans). Additionally, other Malagasy informants referred to the colonial as an affective experience of déjà vu that called forth a subtle critique of specific qualities of the aid program.

Recognizing the varying temporalities of aid work raises several interesting issues. One is the extent to which aid itself becomes a practice of historical reinscription, of reworking the past by defining present aid efforts as distinct from the practices of the past. This has the danger of downplaying the political and economic inequalities produced by Christian aid programs, as well as the thoroughgoing and very direct ways they build on specific Christian ties produced under colonial rule. A second question is how to connect these subtle ways that aid is a practice of time to the prevailing temporalities of aid described in the broader literature. Rather than intervening in a short-term crisis, the Christian aid program I study has been oriented around the much more enduring problem of economic inequality, which has no easily discernible end point. For my research participants, this long-term involvement raised questions about whether Christian aid programs addressing economic inequality should have an end or whether they constitute important, ongoing forms of world-making. But more secular humanitarian studies have certainly benefited from attention to the varying histories informing contemporary aid work. Attending to these questions on a finer scale—as I have tried to do—would mean looking into how relations of past and present constitute part of the ethical practice of humanitarian work.

Josh Reno: Biospiritual imaginary is a key term for portions of the book that deal with part-whole metonymy and synecdoche as evidenced and enacted through bodies. What kind of work does your term biospiritual imaginary do for thinking about aid as a semiotic and linguistic practice?

Britt Halverson: I’ve used the term “biospiritual imaginaries” to illuminate how aid work connects bodies, words and material things in particular ways that can be ideologically motivated. As is true for many, I was positively influenced in my graduate training at the University of Michigan by Judy Irvine and Susan Gal’s work on language ideologies and Webb Keane’s notion of semiotic ideologies. In addition to the rich literature on mediation in the anthropology of religion, I’ve also long been interested in multidisciplinary work on materiality and religious practice emerging from religious studies and art history.

These distinct influences led me to consider Christian aid as a semiotic practice with, in this particular case, notably partial, fragmentary and incomplete notions of authoritative practice. For instance, the Minneapolis aid organizations exist at the ostensible margins of authoritative Lutheranism. They are not affiliated directly with one doctrinal view of Lutheran practice, they feature Lutheran volunteers of many different denominations, and the ordinary practices of aid labor (e.g., sorting, handling, and packing medical relief) repeatedly emphasize the significance of material aid objects to Christian practice. Organizational leadership sought to discursively frame these material and embodied experiences in particular ways that supported authoritative views of Lutheran aid practice. Yet aid work often prompted serious play among laypeople concerning the relations of the medical supplies they handled to their own bodies and to unseen but imagined wholes, such as the global Christian body or the medical patient body.

Like other scholars in the anthropology of Christianity writing on ideologies, I aim to show how the interpretive work I’ve described as central to Christian aid work is always already “political” or ideological through the forms of agency, qualities and boundaries people variously draw between their words, material things, and bodies. I’ve wanted to demonstrate how aid practices are semiotic in this way, and to develop a fine-grained approach to the interesting, polyvalent ways aid work positions words, bodies and material things as communicative forms. Applying forms of linguistic and semiotic analysis to aid work can lead to new insights. The faith-based aid organizations where I did research are marginalized in their religious communities’ hierarchies of doctrinal and theological authority but are certainly not marginal to the religious experiences of laypeople. As such, aid agencies present an interesting space for tracking the creativity and multiplicity of Christian semiotic approaches and, even more, the necessarily partial and incomplete quality of a dominant Protestant Christian semiotic ideology.

 

 

 

 

Roxanne Varzi on her ethnographic novel, Last Man Underground

Cover of Last Scene Underground by Roxanne Varzi

https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=25983

Harvey Stark: What inspired you to write Last Scene Underground and what one or two main things do you hope your readers will come away with?

Roxanne Varzi: I was most inspired by the theater I saw while I was doing fieldwork in Iran, but it wasn’t until I was I was teaching visual anthropology at SOAS in London and was writing a lecture about how Jean Rouch’s documentary, Les Maitres Fous morphed into Jean Genet’s The Blacks and it occurred to me that there was a  connection there that I could write about as an article in terms of how the Blacks is later interpreted in Iran by a young theater director, Hamed Taheri for a post-Revolution audience. I was interested too in what sorts of shifts happened in order to both radicalize and protect the budding theater movement in Tehran in the late 1990’s just after Mohammed Khatami’s election when the first real alternative artistic space in the Iranian public sphere began to form. Mostly I was interested in theater praxis as a political and a personal transformative art… How did practicing theater change the individual?  What did it mean for notions of community and nation?

The theater being done in Iran in 2000 inspired me to think about ways that I too, as an anthropologist, could push through boundaries–disciplinary, genre, political and personal to write about resistance, creativity and hope. To that end I wrote and re-wrote this ethnographic novel about a group of young Iranian college students who form an underground avant-garde theater group and, defying censorship and using other forms of social resistance and attempt to put on a play.

I want readers to come away with a greater understanding of the complex cultural world that is Tehran. I’d also like them to question their own notions of selfhood and identity and to think about ways that we perform and practice those.

For the anthropologist reader I hope Last Scene Underground is also a meditation on the possibilities and limitations of ethnography as a genre and as a medium at this political juncture. The book mediates and channels lives through the filter of other lives, political and theoretical and disciplinary frames.  It is also a political act in that it directly addresses the issue of censorship and the inability for an anthropologist like myself to write ethnography openly and hope to continue to work in Iran.

Harvey Stark: One of the most fascinating things about your work is the liminal space that exists between ethnography and fiction. How do you want your readers to understand this space?

Roxanne Varzi: Throughout my first book I used a variety of narrative voices, from the academic first person, to the essay to fiction, creating characters and events while staying within historic and ethnographic facts based on my own research. I also used passages from my ethnographic field notes and from entries quoted verbatim from either my diary or from the journals of my interlocutors. This second book experiments further with a new ethnographic form for my research findings. An ethnographic novel that is at once an act of experimentation and one that will protect my subjects and my future as an anthropologist of Iran. Writing ethnographic fiction allowed me to stay away from political specificities that might link a particular theater moment or individual to a particular political moment in time, be it 1999 (the dormitory protests in Iran) or 2009 (the green movement) while maintaining the ethnographic specificities at the heart of this theater movement.

The book has two convergent narratives that are wound around one another.  There is the “fictionalized ethnographic story” and “the director’s notes” — a fictional notebook kept by a fictional theater director but with real notes that are a culmination of my research, which ranged from the people whom I interviewed and plays that I read and watched to my reflections, observations and interpretations. They assume the responsibility of the writer and anthropologist to inform the story. In short, they are partially a version of my own notes from the field but fictionalized to the degree that nothing was included that an Iranian character like the director would not he himself have known or read.  They contain what as well would ordinarily be found in academic footnotes.  This allows all information equal footing…nothing is hidden away underground as it were in a smaller font and easily ignored as footnotes and endnotes often are.

Throughout is a story about representation, about manufacturing knowledge and lives, censorship and the role of creativity in social change.

Harvey Stark: Can you tell us about the complex and nuanced attitudes your characters have toward religion. 

Roxanne Varzi: Religion is a very personal practice that has been made public by virtue of folks living in a religious republic. I wanted to reclaim the notion of spirituality, which is the individual relationship with God and not one that is necessarily filtered through a nation-state, or even a strong religious organization.

Harvey Stark: If pressed, what one character in the novel do you most identify with?

 Roxanne Varzi: Hooman, the director. The director’s notes are my notes…and I think I secretly I have wanted to write and direct plays my whole life. My first theater class was as a child in Iran… and now this year, as an anthropologist I am doing a rough reading at the AAA of my first play ever (not counting a children’s play I did as a theater director at a summer camp in the Sierras!). It feels like a very natural progression and not at all strange that it would be my field, anthropology, where I could make this happen!