Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako on Fabricating Transnational Capitalism

Fabricating Transnational Capitalism

Interview by Janet Connor

Janet Conner: Why is fashion so good for thinking about capitalism?

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Fashion as an industry has several key aspects that make it good for us to think about capitalism. Most importantly, they include the claim to aesthetic distinction, which identifies design as the key component of value; the celebration of the creative artist as the producer, obscuring design as a complex, interactive process involving many participants; the related emphasis on knowledge and expertise not only about design but also about branding, marketing and distribution; the imperative to constantly produce a seemingly new product; the historical contexts in which, for example, one finds that Italian fashion was transnational from its inception as an industry; and finally, its simultaneous production of and reaction to asymmetries in changing relations of global power.  Other industries undoubtedly have some of these features but they are especially visible in fashion.  These characteristics enabled us to to challenge what are commonly taken as the core features of capitalism (viz, the wage-labor relation, the pursuit of profit, private property and inequality).  We were able to emphasize the contingency of how various transnational capitalist projects converge that do not always reside in a narrow definition of the economic, and how the accumulation and distribution of capital emerges in those contingencies. Studying the fashion industry ethnographically led us to theorize how commodities are not the only things made in the production process, which also includes the production of dispositions, social practices, identities, and subjectivities. It further includes the production of labor power. Marxist theories generally assume that labor power is transhistorical,  pre-existing the production process, and that workers bring their labor power to the workplace with them.  We found that in tracing the fashion industry’s key characteristics, labor power is instead constituted through the specific relations of transnational collaboration.

Janet Connor: The book is split into three parts (the negotiation of value, legacies and histories, and kinship and transnational capitalism). While they overlap with the key dynamic processes of transnational capitalism that you argue for in the book, they’re not an exact match. How did you decide to organize the book in this way? And more of a stylistic question, I was wondering how you decided to write Part I together, while in the other two parts you deliberately chose not to write in one voice.

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: The organization of our ethnography emerged gradually through our discussions about what stood out in the fieldwork materials we had gathered. We had these discussions as we were doing the fieldwork and also afterwards. We agreed that several practices seemed prominent: first, in the context of a transnational relationship of production and distribution, it was clear that the various Italian and Chinese managers whom we came to know constantly asserted their own skills and knowledge in comparison with and contrast to their foreign partners, as well as sometimes in relation to others within their domestic orbits.  It was not that either side had a homogeneous view, this was not a binary contrast, but across the heterogeneity of different kinds of social relations of production, the various people involved emphasized their worth, their contribution to the value of what all agreed was Italian fashion.  This practice was prominent in all of our interviews and conversations. It led us to our argument that value is an ongoing process of negotiation rather than a sociological formula based on fixed social relationships. Nor is it simply a direct result of capitalist investments or a recent effect of global capitalism presumably unhinging what were previously more stable ways to calculate value. Rather these ongoing negotiations were an outcome of how people assert their cultural capital, including their knowledge, identities and habitus.  The negotiation of value had to be its own section.  As to historical legacies and revisionist histories, again our various interlocutors often invoked their national histories to explain to us the particularities of why and how they engaged in the fashion industry in the ways they did. Italian managers, for example, often mentioned the long history of fashion in Italy as compared to China.  Chinese managers tended to grapple with the legacies of socialism.  The prominence of historical legacies thus also caught our attention.  We both described and interpreted these legacies.  Our interpretations highlighted how Chinese managers, for example, wanted to erase the socialist past through a nostalgia for a revisionist version of pre-socialist life in China, especially in Shanghai, while Italian managers sometimes naturalized fashion taste as part of what they called Italianità.  Kinship became the third theme because it, too, has played a prominent part in the organization of fashion industry’s production and distribution relationships, though quite differently among Chinese firms and Italian firms.

These three key practices encompass the dynamic processes of capitalism we identified — privatization and the public/private division, the negotiation of value, the rearrangement of accumulation, the reconfiguration of kinship, and the outsourcing of inequality. They do so to different degrees but it made more sense to us to start from the ethnographic material and work out.

Stylistically, we thought the first section had to be one chapter as the back and forth between the interlocutors would come out most clearly in that way. Conversely, while our interlocutors sometimes invoked their historical legacies to interpret their relationships with their foreign partners, there was much more about that history that needed to be explained and interpreted in our analyses.  Similarly, while kinship was a key social relationship, its force varied among Italian and Chinese firms. To put all that needed to be explained in one chapter for these themes would have both chopped and stretched our analysis, not to mention they would have been very long chapters! 

Janet Connor: One of many important interventions in the book is your questioning the existence of a division between public and private, particularly in relation to the common equation of neoliberalization and privatization. Can you say more on how you think about the relationship between public and private?

Lifa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Our argument about the relationship between the public and private came out of our feminist approach to capitalism, as well as the history of the role of the state in capitalism.  Feminist anthropologists, historians and other feminist theorists have long argued that public and private are ideologically defined and vary historically and cross-culturally and that this division is empirically unfounded. To say this division is empirically unfounded is not to assert this division is a mere fantasy. Feminists rather argue that taking for granted the division obscures the work these ideological distinctions do to maintain gender and racial hierarchies.  As African American feminist theorists have long maintained, the private was never an attainable sphere for black women and families in the U.S., with racist consequences.  Yet, with a few notable exceptions, these insights have been consistently ignored in analyses of neoliberalism and, more generally, capitalism. The dominant vision of privatization under neoliberalism is derived from North American social arrangements and imaginaries. We developed these insights about contemporary practices of capitalism first because, as Lisa explains, in post-socialist China, it is often impossible to discern whether some Chinese companies are fully private or fully public, which is a deliberate strategy for multiple reasons. Second, as Sylvia explains, the state’s role has been central in Italian industrialization up to and including the present. In other words, there is a history of state-private enterprises that long predates neoliberalism. We found that employing feminist critiques of the public/private divide helped us to analyze the multiple meanings and practices of privatization, including the often-blurred relationships among them. We argue that instead of trying to fix a definition of the private and the public we should trace ethnographically and historically how this division in itself is made, challenged, and remade and how its ideological effects produce inequality.  

Janet Connor: The book includes a multitude of voices and viewpoints, not just from both of you but also with the chapter by Simona Segre Reinach, and in the writing style of including many rich ethnographic stories about a range of interlocutors. The style of the book seems to me to be doing several things at once. On the one hand, it’s an example of a kind of collaborative methodology, both in terms of how you do fieldwork and how you write. At the same time, the polyphonic character of the book is making an analytic intervention against conceiving of transnational capitalism as one unified thing or as having a predefined set of structural features. Could you say more about how you think about and write collaborative ethnography?

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Collaborative ethnography can take multiple forms and approaches.  In our case, the collaboration was grounded in our long-term engagements with China and Italy and in particular with their textile and clothing industries, and Simona with the fashion industry.  We realized that our deep sets of knowledge would enable a study of transnational capitalist relations of production and distribution, including what is often called commodity chains, that could move us beyond the methodological challenges of a sole anthropologist doing fieldwork in a single place. It further gave us an important historical depth to our study, so that we could challenge assumptions about the neo in neoliberalism. We also followed the lead of our interlocutors.  Beginning in the 1980s and increasingly in the 1990s, Italian textile and clothing firms outsourced manufacturing to lower-wage countries, including China.  China, for its part, was opening up a market economy at that time and welcomed foreign investment. Our theoretical insights that challenge the idea of capitalism as structured by a single logic or as having a singular modal form arose from our ability to carry out an ethnography that could attend to multiple experiences rather than just one side and that could demonstrate the contingencies of capitalism.  The way we organized the book to include multiple voices and viewpoints arose from our desire to highlight these analytical challenges to economistic approaches to capitalism. We offered not merely a method of data collection but a methodology for the study of cultural production that entails both methods and concepts.

Janet Connor: Comparison has long been an important analytic strategy in anthropology, and more recently anthropologists have begun to see the comparisons made by our interlocutors as an object of study. It seems to me that your book contributes to both of these strands of comparison, both with how you think of the writing as moving beyond conventional analysis and in your ethnographic examples of how the ways that your Italian and Chinese interlocutors see themselves and negotiate value through comparisons across many different scales. How are you thinking about the ways that anthropologists can study and participate in comparative work?

Yes, we tried to emphasize that we were not doing a comparative study, at least not a comparative study of Italian and Chinese capitalisms.  What we offered instead was an analysis of the co-production of Italian-Chinese transnational capitalism. Our collaborative ethnography offers an alternative to the conventional comparative method in anthropology of different cultures, one that is better suited to the modes of cultural production in the world today. We viewed our interlocutors as making comparisons but within a relationship in which they were intimately tied to one another.  That said, your point that we compare ourselves with past conventions in anthropology is well taken.  It echoes the way our Italian and Chinese interlocutors compare themselves with their national historical pasts.

Philip Seargeant on his new book The Emoji Revolution

The Emoji Revolution : How Technology is Shaping the Future of Communication - Philip Seargeant

Interview by Kevin Laddapong

Kevin Laddapong: The Emoji Revolution allows us to revisit Linguistics 101 from the perspective of how we use emoji. It is eye-opening to see how emoji can be analyzed so effectively on every level of linguistic production and expression, from phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic, narrative, or even poetic. Do you think emoji are unusual phenomenon in this regard?

Philip Seargeant: One of the aims of the book was to show how emoji are very much a part of the history of human language, and particularly the history of writing. Although they may seem a completely new phenomenon (and even, perhaps, a slightly frivolous one), in actual fact we can find direct precedents for many aspects of them throughout history – from the way they relate to other pictographic writing systems, to the way they’re used to express irony and emotional framing.

The reason behind their popularity, I think, is that they’re so flexible as a means of communication, and particularly that they allow for, if not encourage, creativity in their use. Part of this creativity is prompted by the fact that they’re a reasonable small, closed system (there are only a few thousand emoji in total), so if people want to try to express more complicated ideas they have to find inventive ways of doing so, often exploiting a range of different communicative tropes to do so.

Kevin Laddapong: One of the outstanding characters in your book is Jonathan Swift. Why is his story relevant to how people use emoji today? What do we learn about creative and playful communicative practices throughout history through your comparison?

Philip Seargeant: In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift parodies many of the scientific trends of his time, including ones concerning language. As a satirist, he takes real life ideas which are slightly ludicrous, and then exaggerates them to make them fully absurd. One of his targets is the trend for people trying to create a supposedly perfect language because they feel human language is too vague and imprecise. The solution that the scholars in the novel have come up with is to carry a vast array of objects on their backs, so that whenever they want to refer to something they simply take out the object and point to it. The idea that ‘Words are only Names for Things’ is obviously a very simplistic and misguided understanding of how language works; but it’s similar, I think, to how a lot of people probably think emoji work: that is, emoji are just pictures of objects, and that’s how we use them to communicate. But just as language is much more than words, so the way emoji are used involves a lot more than the simple pictorial representation of objects.

Kevin Laddapong: You mention the importance of language standardization and universalization in your book. Emoji are evidently the product of successful attempts at standardizing and universalizing a form of communication, yet as you point out, these attempts are dramatically different from any other attempts. Why did emoji experience such a different destiny?  What did Unicode Consortium and other actors do differently from other language regulators?

Philip Seargeant: Emoji are standardised in terms of their form because they’re a digital writing system which needs to be compatible across different platforms around the world. This is the only reason that a single body (in this case the Unicode Consortium) is able to regulate their form – and even then, the different platforms have slightly different designs for each character. This is very different situation from other languages, where the speech community itself generates new words and practices, and then a language academy can only try to regulate this after the event. It’s also worth noting that although the Unicode Consortium regulate the form of emoji, they can’t regulate the way they’re used, so there’s still variety in the meanings they accrue and patterns of usage from speech community to speech community.

Kevin Laddapong: Emoji clearly could only be possible in a context of capitalism and hyper-consumerism. Towards the end, you suggest that emoji is seamlessly fused with neoliberal practices. Apart from million-dollar Twitter emoji deals, what other aspects allow emoji to be so compatible with neoliberalism, and why do we have to be concerned about this?

Philip Seargeant: In many ways, this is part of the general business strategy of the big tech companies, who are constantly looking for ways to engage users/customers, and ensure that their products are in a continual state of development so that people feel an endless desire to keep up-to-date with them. Emoji are updated on a yearly basis, along with related innovations such as Apple’s Memoji, and thus become a attractive sales feature for new hardware, while also being a very popular resource for marketing initiatives. Again, this is unusual for what is essentially a writing system, but is, as you say, in line with a hypercapitalist society.

Kevin Laddapong: Throughout the book, you have hinted about the intervention of machines in our human interaction. Emoji have been designed, developed, and coded to be neatly merged with auto-correction and word suggestion technologies.   Are emoji part of a larger trend — how else is communication changing to accommodate the demands of digital technologies?

Philip Seargeant: That’s a very large topic. The simple answer is that so much of modern communication is mediated via computers, and thus digital technologies have a huge influence on how we communicate. Emoji are rather unusual in that it is the writing system itself which is regulated – and indeed owned, to a degree – by the big tech companies, and so these companies get to decide which emoji are appropriate and which aren’t, and to assign meanings to them on autopredict, and so on. But increasingly the spaces in which we communicate – be it Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, and so on – are also owned by the huge tech companies, and their business models thus influence all aspects of our communication. Not only will Gmail gives you various ‘smart reply’ options, but it is also able to scan or extract data from your messages, while what you write or post on social media is, to all intents and purposes, in the public domain, and also has to abide by the platform’s guidelines on expression. All of this means that this type of communication takes place within a very different environment from, say, a face-to-face conversation, and the specifics of this environment have an influence on both what we say and how we say it.

Amy Garey takes the page 99 test

 Page 99 of my dissertation ends with a quote from a 2019 comedy festival, “KVN is, KVN lives, KVN will continue to live!” It sums up one of the strands of this research, which examines how a popular student game came to be both banned and supported by the Soviet state, both politically subversive and ideologically conservative, both grassroots phenomenon and media spectacle. KVN, an acronym for Klub Veselykh i Nakhodchivykh, or “Club of the Cheerful and Clever,” is a Soviet-bloc team comedy competition. It began in 1961 as a televised improv show, but students across the USSR soon adopted the game in their universities, organizing interdepartmental competitions and city-wide leagues. Students grew to love KVN because comedy helped them, as octogenarian Ukrainian Eduard Chechelnitsky put it, ”get round” the censors: young people could critique the state nonreferentially, voicing sentiments no one would allow in direct speech. Most, though, simply wanted to laugh and make others laugh. While competitors made (and make) political jokes, and while many found value in a forum that let them speak truth to power, it is humor that attracted participants.

Jokes worried Soviet ideologues, though, and in 1972 officials banned KVN—at least on television. But by that time KVN had spread to schools, universities, and summer camps from Kiev to Bishkek, and people openly played throughout the fourteen-year period of the “ban.” In interviews, KVNshiki (as participants are called) stressed triumph and autonomy as they described the game: KVN is ours, they seemed to say, not the state’s.

KVN’s extra-state nature has been highlighted by the war between Russia and Ukraine. Although Ukrainians and Russians no longer compete against each other, as they had before 2014, KVN remains as popular as it ever has been in domestic Ukrainian competitions. KVN lives. That millions of young people still play a game that began as a hokey 1960s Soviet game show, despite prohibitions, despite border closures, means something, socially. A lot of KVNshiki, beyond liking to laugh, believe in the personally and politically transformative potential of comedy. Page 99 illustrates some of the ways they renew those principles in everyday practice.

Amy Garey. 2020. The People’s Laughter: War, Comedy, and the Soviet Legacy. University of California, Los Angeles, Phd.

Mattias van Ommen takes the page 99 test

Page 99 of my dissertation contains a theoretical discussion on fantasy, situated in arguably the least ethnographic of chapters. The dissertation itself is about Japanese players of the popular online game Final Fantasy XIV. Based on participant observation in both urban Tokyo and the virtual game world, I argue that players develop “fantastic intimacy”; appreciating fantasy as separate from offline social identities, yet drawing on fantasy content to slowly build intimacy with players, which frequently culminates in offline relationships.

One example are romantic encounters between players, which many communities explicitly prohibit. However, if these occur out of serious, long-term commitments to the ludic framework of the fantasy world, these are often welcomed, and players may even organize a virtual wedding ceremony to celebrate publicly. Subsequently, groups of players also gather in the physical world, often using themed cafés to retain some visible reminders of the fantasy world which initiated their relationship.

Unfortunately, page 99 lacks ethnographic material showcasing such relationships. Perhaps the closest it gets to the actual field site is when I discuss fantasy’s potential to encourage an active relationship with the user, noting that taking active control over one’s in-game physical appearance stands in sharp contrast with offline Japanese society, where dress-codes and forms of communication are so rigidly determined, often along gender lines. Here I reference Teri Silvio’s animation theory, which plays a prominent role in how I interpret player–avatar relationships.

 Page 99 also contains a discussion of “Facebook fantasies”, where I juxtapose fantasy-themed virtual worlds against social media such as Facebook. I argue that both contain:

“carefully constructing a character profile by drawing from one’s imagination, using that character to build intimacy with others, the value of presenting an internally coherent ‘world’ or ‘character’, and measuring success by quantitative parameters such as ‘likes’, numbers of ‘friends’, or ‘levels’.”

In neither case, the profile contains a verifiable relationship to a physical referent. Yet, since interactions through social media are perceived as being closer to consensus reality, there is value in presenting virtual worlds as fantasy, since its users seem to be more conscious about the dangers of drawing a straight line to the physical world.

In sum, while page 99 contains little about the players that form the heart of the ethnography, the discussion on fantasy builds towards the core conceptual argument of fantastic intimacy.

Mattias van Ommen. 2020. Intimate Fantasies: An Ethnography of Online Video Gamers in Contemporary Japan. University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Ph.D. Dissertation.

Lauren Crossland-Marr takes the page 99 test

Re-reading page 99 of my dissertation, I’m snapped back to the mosque in Milan, Italy that I came to know so well. Where public school children convened to learn about Islam, and a first grader asked if he was no longer a Muslim because he accidentally ate pork. Where, almost every Friday, I sat in the back with my hair covered, surrounded by other women, who expertly moved their bodies to the rhythm of worship. Where I walked, day in and day out in order to enter the offices of Halal Italia.

Page 99 sits towards the end of a chapter about the community running Halal Italia. I’m drinking tea and eating pastries with an Algerian friend who mentions that the group I work with is “not really Muslim”. What my friend was alluding to is that labeling food is powerful and can create legitimate actors and legible worlds. This is especially relevant in Italy for two conceptual reasons that have empirical effects. Italy has a global reputation for “good” food, and Muslims outside of Muslim majority countries play the leading role in determining what is certifiable as halal. Through my entanglement in daily work life, I found that the established culture of made in Italy products was a powerful force in shaping values within the Italian halal industry today.

This notion of value itself is complex. And perhaps it is due to this complexity, and the limits of the ethnographic written form, that I end my dissertation with a passage from Italo Calvino’s (1972) Invisible Cities. In the book, the emperor Kublai Khan tells Marco Polo that he can describe real cities he has never seen, his cities are based on elements in which all cities should possess. However, the Khan is unable to describe any of the cities Polo has encountered. Polo responds, “I have also thought of a model city from which I derive all others… It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions… But I cannot force my operation beyond a certain limit: I would arrive at cities too probable to be real” (Calvino 1972:32).

Similarly, I show that the project of the certifier is to operate within a world that is empirically true but is also one of discourse, and like Polo’s cities, their projects are limited by, and shaped within, the food worlds they inhabit.

Calvino, Italo. 1972. Le Citta Invisibili. Turin: Einaudi.

Lauren Crossland-Marr. 2020. Consuming Local, Thinking Global: Building a Halal Industry in a World of Made in Italy. Washington University in St. Louis, Phd.

Ali Feser takes the page 99 test

On page 99, I get to the Kodak. The fixed focus, single aperture lens camera was patented 1888, and it sold for the not insignificant price of twenty-five dollars. The first Kodak product intended for use by the masses, rather than professional photographers. The Kodak was marketed to a growing class of middle-class consumers, and as advertisements suggested, it was simple enough for a woman or child to pick it up and start snapping.

There were no settings to adjust.It came preloaded with a hundred exposures. The consumer didn’t even touch the film. The tagline was literal: “You press the button, we do the rest.” She wound the key, released the shutter, and mailed the entire camera back to Kodak’s factories in Rochester for developing. Workers submerged the film in chemical baths, brought out the latent image, and fixed the molecules in place. They projected the image on emulsion coated paper, made prints, and mailed it all—photo, negatives, and camera, refueled with fresh film—back to the consumer. The Kodak system materialized an emulsive loop between mass industrial production and intimate, domestic life, but it disappeared from consumers’ view the messy, chemical labor of photography.

The simplicity of the Kodak system made it possible for ordinary people to objectify their worlds in chemical form. At the same time however, because the Kodak system attenuated users’ capacity to intervene in the photographic process, it precipitated a mass standardization of consumers’ visual habitus. The fact that there were no adjustable settings meant that the Kodak could only be used within a precise arrangement of photographer, subject, and light. Hand drawn illustrations in the instruction manuals offered normative templates for how to see the world. They simulate portraits at distances of three, six, and nine feet and the right way to photograph babies, buildings, and pets. Get to their level, hold the Kodak steady, hold it level, hold your breath and disappear, face in the direction in which the sun shines, press the button, turn the key, repeat. With every snapshot, consumers learn to see as the cameras see. They learn the difference between good pictures and bad and how to domesticate the visual conventions featured in Kodak advertisements and other mass media. Especially after the launch of the five-dollar Brownie camera in 1900, Kodak’s system would radically transform subjectivity and social life, reorganizing perception along patterns engineered by a single corporation.

Page 99 doesn’t include everything. There is no attention to the utopian aspirations of twentieth century social welfare capitalism; the chemoaesthetics of fascism and the historical imbrication of corporations and the imperial state; the racial politics of emulsion and fantasies of the white, American “good life”; the longue durée, ecological impacts of chemical manufacturing; or how photographs and fantasies endure and transform over time. What page 99 does capture, through a description of the Kodak system and early instruction manuals, is the moment in which Kodak began to remake the world.

Ali Feser. 2020. Reproducing Photochemical Life in the Imaging Capital of the World. University of Chicago, Phd.

Kristin Hickman takes the page 99 test

On page 99 of my dissertation, Révolution Dārija? Imagining Vernacular Futures in Morocco, the reader finds themself in a Casablanca dubbing studio alongside a sound engineer and a voice actress who are in the process of dubbing a Mexican telenovela (Una Maid en Manhattan) into colloquial Moroccan Arabic (dārija):

One afternoon, I was sitting in the recording studio occupied by Adil, a cocky male sound engineer who was constantly trying to find other recording gigs on the side much to the frustration of Plug In’s administration. That day, he was scheduled to record several episodes of Maid with Asmae, the actress playing Tanya. Asmae was fun to record with, unlike some of the older actors, but even so Adil had no shame in pointing out to me how little he enjoyed his job. “What we do is boring (Ce qu’on fait est ennuyeux),” he said to me between takes, “And I can’t stand this language (mā kānḥimilsh had al-lugha)… Even the music is horrible (wa l-mūsīqā mā mūsīqā lā wālū)!”

In the middle of their hour-long recording session, Adil suddenly stopped the recording. Still looking at the screen but speaking to Asmae over the microphone, he corrected her pronunciation of the verb for ‘to marry.’ “Zuwwaj, not juwwaj!” he yelled into the mic. Putting her hands on her hips, in an expression of sass that fit with her character Tanya in Maid, Asmae countered: “But in our dārija (fī dārija diyālnā), I say ‘juwwaj’!”

A wīlī!” (oh my goodness) Adil responded, sounding genuinely scandalized. They went back and forth a bit, but Asmae stubbornly insisted that she said juwwaj and that even though zuwwaj was closer to the word in fuṣḥa [classical Arabic], they were speaking dārija [colloquial Moroccan Arabic] and in dārija it was fine for her to say it like that.

On the one hand, Adil’s shock at Asmae’s pronunciation of the verb ‘to marry’ can be likened to the kind of shock (and humor!) Americans experience when realizing that English speakers in other countries pronounce things in surprisingly different ways (I still find it hilarious when British people pronounce the word “sloth”). This kind of surprise is not only typical of encounters between Moroccans from different regions, but also of encounters between individuals from different parts of the Arabic-speaking world (such encounters have even become a YouTube genre!).

On the other hand, Adil’s shock touches on a particularly Moroccan experience of language, which is at the heart of my dissertation. What Adil and Asmae are doing in this scene is debating the parameters of an emerging standard form of colloquial Moroccan Arabic (dārija). Together, they’re trying to imagine the contours of a cosmopolitan, un-Moroccan form of Moroccan Arabic that can plausibly be voiced by anyone, including a Puerto Rican maid in a Mexican telenovela set in New York. What they’re trying to do, in other words, is imagine a form of dārija that can be heard by other Moroccans (and by themselves) as a voice from nowhere (nowhere in particular in Morocco, and nowhere in particular in the world). No small task for a regional variety of Arabic that has the distinction of being the most stigmatized and least widely understood dialect in the Middle East and North Africa.

As I show in the larger dissertation, while self proclaimed language activists were the force behind certain top-down standardization initiatives in Morocco (see for example Centre de Promotion de la Darija), the weight and the work and the contradictions of standard language ideology often ended up being negotiated by average Moroccans in their day to day lives. This scene with Adil and Asmae is just one illustration of how ordinary Moroccans become entangled in the linguistic sensibilities of postcolonial modernity as they struggle to imagine alternative linguistic and national futures.

Kristin Gee Hickman. 2019. Révolution Dārija? Imagining Vernacular Futures in Morocco. University of Chicago Phd.

Discussing Phone and Spear

Phone & Spear

An edited excerpt from an ongoing conversation between Jennifer Deger and Zeynep Devrim Gürsel

Zeynep Devrim Gürsel: How has twenty five years of making media with Yolŋu shaped your approach to media theory?

Jennifer Deger: It’s emboldened me. I’ve become convinced that anthropologists who want to theorize media must also make it. Somehow or other. Media methods and media theory-work shouldn’t be approached as separable acts. Digital technologies not only blur once distinct boundaries between field site and home (and of course, these days, home and work in general), they allow us to disrupt stubbornly long-standing academic distinctions between research methods and research outputs. So all these years of co-creating with Yolngu has propelled me to a broader commitment to the on-going work of re-defining what scholarship can look like, sound like, and feel like.  By making media, we can begin to make media theory; we can craft social analyses that refuse to be abstracted from the mediated dynamics, affordances, and digital demands that shape our lives, thoughts, and actions.

While what this experimental making might actually entail will no doubt vary wildly—from acts of archival image repatriation, to participating in WhatsApp chats with interlocutors or, in our case, designing a book as a media object, in its own right—the point remains the same. Contemporary media theorists can be—and bloody well should be—going so much further than using multimodal research methods to create works positioned as secondary or supplementary to the ‘real’ and substantive scholarly work of text-based analysis. Digital media delivers more than data; it brings a new performative potentiality to our work, a fantastically rich opportunity to work with, and respond in-kind to, the media worlds we study. That, at least, is what our book attempts.

In Phone & Spear we took enormous pleasure in creating vibrant fields of colour, pattern and story directed by a Yolŋu appreciation of remediation and remix as techniques of social enlivenment and relationship making. Whether we are working in film, exhibition or interactive art, our projects have never been simply about documentation or display—even when we are recording endangered songs and stories at the request of senior Yolŋu everything we’ve done together, from films, exhibitions and interactive artworks, has entailed forms of collaborative creative labor with a view to fostering emergent knowledges and relationships. This is the yuta [new] in yuta anthropology.

Encouraging other scholars to try working, thinking, and feeling with media as an analytic and socially-engaged strategy seems absolutely essential if we are in any way to adequately respond to the multiple and often-brutally-colliding worlds to which digital media provides form, intensity, and new potentiality. In attempting such making, we must of course bear in mind that sounds and images do not circulate as stable or unproblematically self-declaring objects of knowledge, as the photo-collages in Phone & Spear make abundantly clear. Therein lies the challenge and the responsibility that as anthropologists we are particularly well placed to recognize and respond to.

Zeynep Devrim Gürsel: What were the particular challenges of writing this book in these terms? How did the expectations or investments of your Yolŋu friends shape the process?

If making media allows us to rethink what collaborative scholarship might look like, writing a book together posed a particular set of challenges in term of voice, especially given the necessarily different and sometimes profoundly different places from which we speak—not to mention our different epistemological orientations and expectations. A specifically-situated politics of knowledge determines who can, and should, speak for Yolŋu worlds—and for what purposes. This is not an oppositional politics, nor necessarily a race based one. It’s concerned with a situated forms of knowledge and authority, driven by a profound understanding that stories and images are the means by which relational worlds must be made, affirmed, and renewed.

A language of crisis infuses so much of the contemporary anthropology of Aboriginal Australia—and for good reason I reckon. Yet, the other members of Miyarrka Media had absolutely no interest in our work figuring the intercultural and intergenerational dynamics of their lives as problematic in those terms. Likewise, they were not motivated to conceive and deliver critiques of the workings of the state, its assimilationists apparatuses, and the resulting forms of structural violence (though one might detect an oblique commentary). What we all agreed from the outset was that we would each have our own voice in the book, allowing for our own, sometimes clashing perspectives. So the key challenge to writing the book lay in finding a form that might hold all us and our varying perspectives, where we could speak collectively as one in ways that were not reductive, in ways that claimed both the playful and the optimistic, but still acknowledged the tremendous daily difficulties of life and death in these remote settlements, so far from the rhythms, values and imaginative reach of mainstream Australia.

If this was going to work at all, I knew that I had to prevent balanda [white, or non-Aboriginal] theory from pre-figuring the book and our discussions, and we achieved this by pressing almost all the references to other scholarship under the line, in the notes. I promised myself that the word ontology would not appear. But beyond that, we were stuck for a very long time in terms of finding the right form for this collective experiment.

As it turned out, the solution—to create our own collage of voice, story and images—had been right in front of our eyes the whole time in the collaged form of the photographs themselves. What I love about the form we found is that it manages to hold the lived commitments, the responsibilities, relationships of care that extend beyond fieldwork and beyond our academic lives. Our constantly shifting voices, adds, I think to the aliveness and the animating dynamic of sameness-difference that we were aiming for.

All that said, I will confess that for me it was an extremely painful and uncertain process putting together this book, a sustained sense of uncertainty and love and despair that I managed over many years. There are likely many omissions and mistakes, many ways I could have done it better. But this was what I managed. What we managed. 

Zeynep Devrim Gürsel: Please tell us more about what you and your collaborators see as the difference between revealing one world to another versus bringing worlds into relationship.

Jennifer Deger: I will paraphrase Djingadjingawuy here. Talk-talk is not enough. You have to feel to know, to understand. Through feelings you connect, with your family, with the land, with the old people (ancestors). Through feelings we are marked in relationship. If we share our feelings with balanda and they share theirs in response, then we come be together. Together, but not mixed up, as Gurrumuruwuy puts it, so marvelously.

I wish Miyarrka Media were not so geographically dispersed these days and had been able to work together on this piece for you. As you know I am reluctant to become the official spokesperson for our group, exactly because of the ways it undercuts the performative ethos of the book—and I find myself falling back into the earnest, explanatory voice that the others undermine so brilliantly. However, Gurrumuruwuy has no such qualms. He sees this kind of thing as exactly my job at the moment. He is managing other relationships, expectations and curious interrogations back in Arnhem Land. 

Zeynep Devrim Gürsel: This is a book that exists in many formats.  Can you explain how you collectively decided to produce it in so many formats.  Also why a book about digitally worked cell phone images?

Jennifer Deger: From the outset we wanted to do both a digital and printed version of the book and this framed discussions with potential presses—along with our (expensive!) commitment to printing in full color. If you spend time with the book, you’ll see that to print in black and white would have really killed everything that mattered about this project. We’re very grateful to Goldsmiths for letting us art direct the entire project, and to Santiago Carrasquilla and Eugene Lee from Art Camp for their fantastic commitment to a design collaboration that stretched over many years.

The multiple formats allow for the work of remediation and remix to continue in ways that we find pleasurable and satisfying. We’re interested in the energy and allure that can arise in giving new form to old media—this, after all, is the foundational ethos of the images themselves. Of course, we risked losing a lot of brightness and image clarity in deciding to do a print book, but the decision to make a hold-in-your-hand book as a patterned relational object was something we all wanted. 

The open access version we developed in collaboration with MIT’s Knowledge Futures Group allowed us to return to a media rich digital world of brightness, color, and added sparkle. I think that having made the book first was really important, because we worked through a lot of the curation and design challenges in that process; we found the analytic form for our ideas through the design, which then found new expression in the online design. The printed and digital “books” basically have the same content, but they are very different things. I’m a bit surprised that I prefer the printed book. That said, the online version has its own qualities and character.

And perhaps that’s the most exciting outcome of all from our shared experiment. Each time the book takes new form, it re-instantiates a commitment to remix as a technique of social enlivenment; and, of course, in this instance, as anthropological method.

We spent five years designing and assembling a printed book and now we’re sending it out into the world in forms that undo its very status as ‘book’ (see for example our promo for the online version, ‘What is a book?’). Earlier this year we were invited to contribute a keynote to Distribute 2020, so we recombined elements from the book and elsewhere to make a 30 minute video. Just last month we cheekily entered that conference “talk” into a film festival and just found out it has been accepted. And so the work of remix continues.

Rebecca Campbell-Montalvo takes the page 99 test

Page 99 of my dissertation, Reification, Resistance, and Transformation? The Impact of Migration and Demographics on Linguistic, Racial, and Ethnic Identity and Equity in Educational Systems: An Applied Approach, contains excerpts from participant life history interviews. I conducted these particular interviews to learn more about what brought some Tejanos (Mexican Americans from Texas) to the Central Florida region known as the Florida Heartland in the mid-20th century. These excerpts are shown at the bottom of this post, and bolded sentences mark comments especially relevant to the goal of the interview.

In the excerpts, two women in their 60s employed as Migrant Advocates in the local public school district shared why they and their families migrated to the area 50 years ago from Texas. They discussed how their families came to pick oranges or manage crews harvesting cucumbers and squash in the Florida Heartland. Because published work on the topic had discussed the movement of Tejanos to the region in the 1950s, but had not specifically identified the county in which my research was set, these interviews provide important context to understanding the role of agriculture in drawing people to the area. Agriculture continued to have a crucial role in shaping the lives of the county’s inhabitants at the time my dissertation data was collected (2014-2016).

In general, page 99 is a good reflection of what the manuscript is about—the movement or migration of peoples. At the same time, the manuscript is about more than that as I focused on how K-12 schools dealt with the movement of peoples and how the schools served linguistic, racial, ethnic, and additional groups. The reason I focused on the schools and this theme is to better understand the micro-interactional processes that socialize students toward particular identities and how these identities articulate with one another at school. Understanding how the schools reproduce inequality at the micro level can help inform approaches aiming to dissuade this social reproduction of inequality.

Rebecca: Now, what kind of work did your family do in Texas?

Maria: My father worked in ranches. They would do irrigation for the cotton. He was in charge of getting the people to pick the cotton. He did mostly field work.

He would more like, when the people would come out of from. What it was, where we lived at, there weren’t a lot of Hispanic people. There was very few. Most were white.

Rebecca: Did your parents ever talk about their grandparents or their parents? 

Maria: They were born in San Antonio, Texas, too. My mother used to say they would work in fields too. In San Antonio; but, sometimes she said they would have to walk to other towns. She said sometimes it would take them three days to get where they were going. ‘They didn’t have no cars, no nothing,’ she would say.

Rebecca: Now why did you guys end up coming here in 1968?

Maria: Because my older brothers and their families were already here.

Rebecca: What brought them out here?

Maria: Picking oranges. My oldest brother came down here with another family like five or six years before we got here. My older brother. Actually, he came to Deerfield Beach. And then, from Deerfield Beach he came over here to [Central]. Well then one of my other brothers came down here. And, he stayed with him for a year or so then he went back and got my father and my mother and us ‘cause by that time were only three. My mother had ten children but the time when we came there was only three at home. Because all my other brothers and sisters were married. So, whenever we got here about two years later after we were here, when my father died, the rest of my brothers came from Texas down here.

[Maria, 61. Interview with author on July 6, 2016]

Rebecca:Okay so, you said you came here in 1970?

Ana: I think 1970, that’s when I married my husband and came this way. His parents used to do the agriculture thing, his father used to be a crew leader. They came here when he [my husband] was young ‘cause he was in school in a [Central].

Rebecca: So what year did your husband’s family come?

Ana: Well, they claim they came on the ‘60s.

Rebecca: And, they were the first Mexicanos?

Ana: Mm. And then his father brung, bring their uncle. There was another guy, he came. They, you know [woman’s name], the one that was with the school board, that run? Yeah, her family came later.

Rebecca:So, what reason did your husband’s family have to come here? What kind of work were they doing?

Ana: They were doing agriculture work. They used to travel like the other ones, you know like the other immigrants. Well, his father had a contract. And he was the contract, for those people; he’s the one that brought a lot of Hispanics and then these were from Texas. They were doing the cucumbers. And squash I think.

[Ana, 67. Interview with author on July 6, 2016]

Rebecca Campbell-Montalvo. 2016. Reification, Resistance, and Transformation? The Impact of Migration and Demographics on Linguistic, Racial, and Ethnic Identity and Equity in Educational Systems: An Applied Approach. University of South Florida, Phd.

The stable URL of my dissertation is

Matt Tomlinson on his book, God is Samoan

God Is Samoan: Dialogues between Culture and Theology in the Pacific

Interview by Jon Bialecki

Jon Bialecki: I want to start this interview by saying that God Is Samoan is a great book, but it is also a surprising one. True, there are a lot of continuities with your previous work: Oceania as a region, Christianity as an ethnographic object, tensions between dialogue and monologue. And in your earlier material, you’ve also discussed contemporary and historical missionary material, for instance, in your last book, Ritual Textuality. But the turn to studying autochthonous theology, theologians, and the production and pedagogy of theological knowledge caught my attention. This was not just because this was a different kind of project from you, but also because I have a hard time thinking of any similar study. Could you say something about how you came to this project, and also a little about what fieldwork was like, since I imagine the actual field methodologies must have been quite different from your previous work as well?

Matt Tomlinson: Thanks, Jon. The project began with two failures which shaped the way everything unfolded.

The first was back in 2008-2009, when I had gone to Suva, Fiji’s capital city, to do a study of Christian institutions. Fiji had suffered its most recent coup (its fourth) late in 2006, and I had naively not realized how difficult this would make the research. For example, talking with people in the Methodist Church potentially endangered them, as the government was suspicious of politics within the church and watched its leaders closely, and a foreign researcher chatting with church leaders could get them in trouble. In addition, the Fiji Council of Churches had mysteriously shut down.

As it happened, I was living on the campus of the Pacific Theological College (PTC). PTC trains people from all over Oceania in academic theology, many of them already ordained ministers in mainline Protestant congregations. So, because research was problematic elsewhere, I spent more time actually studying PTC than I had expected to–and became fascinated. The teachers and students work in a field known as “contextual theology,” which places culture and personal experience at the heart of theological thinking.

I wanted to learn more about how contextual theologians draw on anthropological concepts of culture. I was able to get research funding to spend time at the University of Auckland’s School of Theology and church seminaries in Samoa and American Samoa. Early in the project, though, it became clear how much reading I needed to do, as I didn’t have enough grounding in theology of any sort. This was the second failure: I sat there in Auckland and thought, “How can I write about practitioners of another academic discipline when I don’t know quite what that discipline is?”

So, the project became heavily text-based: an anthropological reading of contextual theology. I did participate in daily life at the different sites, but as you can tell, the book is more of an anthropological engagement with contextual-theological thought and texts than a deep ethnography.

Jon Bialecki: Presenting your project as “an anthropological engagement with contextual-theological thought and texts” brings me to the next question I wanted to ask. As you point out in your book, some anthropologists have lately become quite interested in theology. For example, Joel Robbins recently wrote a book that outlines how theology might help anthropologists of Christianity theorize the social and cultural life of the people they study, and Khaled Furani has a new book that critiques anthropology from a theological perspective. Then there is Derrick Lemon’s omnibus-grade edited volume on what he calls “theologically engaged anthropology,” which features both anthropologists and theologians. All these books came out in the last two or so years, so one could almost say “anthropology-and-theology” is having a bit of a moment. I want to ask where you would situate your book in this literature, but I also want to sort of fold-in the larger question two subsidiary queries. First, text-heavy as it is, this is an ethnographic project; what difference does that make? And second, this is the only book to be specifically engaged with Oceania as a region and contextual-theology as a subject. How does that distinguish your work from the broader field?

Matt Tomlinson: Robbins’ work is a major influence on my own, and I’ve participated in and learned from Lemons’ project, although I’m not in the volume you mention. I haven’t read Khaled Furani’s book yet.

For God Is Samoan, a key source of inspiration was Robbins’ 2006 article on the “awkward relationship” between anthropology and theology. In it, he suggests that anthropologists might engage with theology in several ways. The first two are modest: one can study how theology helped shape anthropology’s development as a discipline, or one can treat theology as ethnographic data. The third is more ambitious: to allow theology to genuinely destabilize anthropology, to open us up to fresh theoretical transformation.

My book will probably be read as taking the second option: drawing on theology for anthropological analysis. After all, I take up theological discussions in order to make sense of Oceanic cultural dynamics, including people’s critical reevaluations of local Christian histories and their understandings of intrinsic connections between land, sea, and spiritual presence. But I’d like to think that my conversations with theologians pushed me toward the third option to an extent, too, because engaging with theologians made me rethink my core topic. In brief, I started out interested in culture and ended up interested in dialogue.

Not only do contextual theologians talk a lot about culture, they routinely call for more dialogue on any subject. Many people do this, including anthropologists. During fieldwork, I came to see how theologians draw on concepts of culture in order to motivate specific kinds of dialogue. Yet sometimes dialogue, as an ideal, seems almost utopian–the perfect method and best result in any situation. Calls for more dialogue can be almost monologic in their insistence, which has led me to try to think in new ways about the relationship between dialogism and monologism. For me, there is a deep tension between Bakhtin’s characterization of language as inherently dialogic, and the monologic ideologies authoritarian speakers tend to employ. When Donald Trump speaks, for example, he does not imagine that he lives in a world of other’s words.

One of the most interesting things about central Oceania–and something that can only be apprehended ethnographically–is how dialogic and monologic ideals coexist and indeed work together. For dialogue, there is the valorization of talanoa, open-ended and interactive conversation. For monologue, there is the speech of high chiefs and church ministers, which is meant to express unanswerable truth in a single voice.

Jon Bialecki: Mentioning Joel Robbins brings up another issue. Robbins is also well known for his calls for anthropologists to be suspicious of claims of hidden continuity in moments of purported change, and to be more open to the possibility of sharp cultural and social disruption and discontinuity. And for Robbins, the paradigmatic case of that is collective conversions to Christianity in Papua New Guinea, which often involves some rather serious transvaluations in a society. This claim regarding rupture, which echoes a similar observation that Birgit Meyer has made regarding Pentecostalism in Africa, has not gone unchallenged. Liana Chua, for instance, has suggested that there might be places where there are different intensities to change, often divided up along denominational lines. And Mark Mosko has suggested that the underlying structure of personhood and exchange goes unchanged by conversion, at least in Melanesia, though he has at times suggested this is a part of a broader pattern in the Christian structure of selfhood. Even more recently, Devaka Premawardhana has been arguing for a more fluid ethnographic sensibility, where converts in places such as Mozambique do not go through such sharp discontinuities in their commitments and practices.

Of course, flattening Christian senses of temporality into “rupture: yes or no” is perhaps a little too simple; Robbins obviously meant to make something more of an intervention in a discussion about cultural change rather than to create some hard-and-fast-rule. And you yourself have played with creating more finely patterned senses of temporality; I’m thinking here of a discussion you had elsewhere of Kierkegaardian repetition in Fijian ideas of time, especially when it comes to the interactions between Christianity and curses. So, you’re willing to play with sensibilities about continuity and change.

All this is by way of saying that what you present in God Is Samoan is something that seems to defy any easy pigeonholing into some of the preexisting camps on this issue. The theologians you engage with want to express Christianity through explicitly Oceanian metaphors and similes, and sometimes even argue for strong continuity with pre-Christian tradition. But at the same time, they seem to sense that the arrival of Christianity marked a significant break of some kind, and they also appear to be offering their theological concepts in the interest of creating further change through dialogue. Could you say something about how you see God Is Samoan fitting into – or perhaps, not fitting into – these anthropological disputes over rupture and continuity? And are there lessons here for thinking about temporality and change that could be picked up by people working outside of religion in Oceania?

Matt Tomlinson: Right, the continuity-and-change debate has motivated a lot of work in the anthropology of Christianity–but as you say, Robbins was not proposing any hard-and-fast rule, but rather (I think) calling for a new kind of culture theory which, among other things, does not overlook Christianity’s profound cultural force.

As you note, contextual theologians make claims about both continuity and rupture. Because they tend to draw on older anthropological models of culture–structural-functionalist and cognitivist ones, in which culture is a unified system of rules and relations you inherit–their goal in putting culture at the center of their theology is often to argue for deep continuity between local traditions and Christian truths. Interestingly enough, in making this move, it’s missionary Christianity that is framed as rupture, but often in a negative way. For example, missionary Bible translations are criticized for not using locally appropriate linguistic/cultural referents, and imposing less appropriate foreign ones.

My favorite example of a continuity-and-change argument in contextual theology is found in the work of Ama’amalele Tofaeono. For him, the Samoan creator Tagaloa was, in fact, the spirit of Christ, because obviously the spirit of Christ is not limited to the physical existence of Jesus. Because traditional Samoan lifeways recognized the divinity of Tagaloa, they were thoroughly Christian. What broke this system? European missionaries coming in with the model of God as essentially a white man, separate from the natural order. In taking up mission Christianity, for Tofaeono, Samoa got less Christian.

Yet the field of contextual theology itself is seen, by some of its authors, as disruptive in the positive sense of giving voice to those who would never be heard in old-fashioned systematic theology. The career (so far) of one Tongan theologian, Nasili Vaka’uta, shows a kind of push-and-pull between understandings of continuity and change in this regard. When he began his theological studies, he was interested in Bakhtin, but his supervisor encouraged him to explore his Tongan heritage as a theological resource instead. Yet this was not an easy thing to do for several reasons, as Vaka’uta points out. For one, he is not from the noble class, and only nobles are supposed to represent Tongan culture and society. In other words, it made him vulnerable to criticism from a Tongan audience. For another, writing a dissertation based on European theological sources is a safe bet for getting your degree, whereas putting forth a distinctively Tongan argument is a riskier bet. So he was also vulnerable to a non-Tongan audience. Ultimately, he has succeeded brilliantly. But asking whether his work foregrounds continuity or rupture, in either his subjects or his methods, becomes a misleading question. He does both.

Stepping back a bit, I do think it’s important to distinguish between change as an objective fact and change as ideology. This might be obvious, but it needs saying. The authors in the anthropology of Christianity get this point really well, but outside of the subdiscipline, I am often frustrated by arguments that take loss or brokenness as an obvious or natural condition of our present moment. The loss of linguistic diversity in the world, and the extinction of species, are really happening and we can count the specific losses. But so much human energy gets poured into ideologically framing things as continuation or novelty, or for that matter gain or loss, that we need to draw back and ask what gets counted as evidence for any of these processes, and why.

Jon Bialecki: Culture plays a vital role in your book – but not as an analytic; rather, local concepts of culture are the primary key that contextual theology operates. But as you just stated, this is a version of culture that is very antiquated to contemporary anthropological eyes. The power of this version of ‘culture’ is apparent throughout God Is Samoan; I think that there were only one or two theological voices that questioned it in the entire volume. The fascination that this version of culture has is not limited to either theology or Oceania, however. This image of culture seems to be all over the place – including in certain right-wing movements in Europe, though I wouldn’t want to put your theologians in the same basket as those European nativist movements! Given the breadth of this vision of culture, I was hoping that you could say something about what it is that makes it so compelling, at least in Oceania. As an anthropologist who has worked with culture as an analytic in other places, I was also hoping that you could say something about how one can work with the idea of culture without accidentally reinforcing these much more procrustean public understandings of the idea.

Matt Tomlinson: Culture theory is in an odd place in 2020, isn’t it? Some of us still think the term “culture” is worth foregrounding theoretically. For example, I often assign Ira Bashkow’s 2004 article “A Neo-Boasian Conception of Cultural Boundaries” to students because it shows the vitality and flexibility of understandings of culture before structural functionalism. Many authors are happy to use the adjective “cultural” but suspicious of the noun “culture.” And some scholars, like the host of this forum, Ilana Gershon, do what I consider culture theory but are skeptical of the term itself. Personally, I don’t mind “culture” as a noun denoting process, and am fine with any anthropological use of it that makes visible the interactive social work that goes into claiming relations of similarity and difference.

But, yeah: this is not how most contextual theologians write about culture. The culture concept many contextual theologians draw on is useful, for them, for the same reason many anthropologists distrust it: its stability. It’s a referent for which there seems to be a built-in agreement about its significance. In other words, although Samoan intellectuals may disagree about what is fa’aSamoa (the “Samoan way,” a gloss for Samoan culture), I can’t imagine anyone saying that there is no such thing as fa’aSamoa–that would seem absurd. Referring to it gives people apparent common ground, and enables speakers to make connections with other referents: God, biblical texts, church policies, and so forth. (There are connections here with the way you write about virtual Christianity with reference to Deleuze, I think.)

As I mentioned before, discussing the work of Nasili Vaka’uta–and he is one of the voices who does critique the culture concept–a model of culture gives him a position from which to make a distinctive contribution to knowledge. For him, knowing Tongan culture enables him to speak to other biblical scholars and theologians in new ways. But speaking isn’t enough, because you need to know who’s listening. And he puts the question pointedly: Can a Tongan reading of the Bible “make a difference in biblical scholarship” generally?

Jon Bialecki: Now, normally, the format here is to close the interview with a sort of ‘coming attractions’ reel, where the interviewee talks about future projects, and I don’t want to take that away from you. But I also want to stick with the theme of dialogue. So, I’ll ask the classical question this way: in what ways has the dialogue you’ve had with these Oceanian Conxtextual theologians changed the way you think, and how will this conversation shape your future projects?

Matt Tomlinson: The work for God Is Samoan, as well as more recent work I’ve been doing with Spiritualists in Australia, has led me to focus on the relationships between dialogism and monologism as ideologies and dialogue and monologue as formats. What drives me is the question of how we really engage with others’ words, especially when words are credited to extrahuman speakers or authors.

As I’ve seen and heard contextual theologians construct different kinds of dialogue, and as I’ve seen and heard Spiritualist mediums work to bring dialogues with spirits into conjunction with dialogues with human audiences, I continually want to know what the limits to these dialogues are. I don’t think it makes sense to study dialogues or dialogism without studying monologues and monologism.

To finish on a note of thanks: I appreciate the chance for this exchange. Real dialogues can happen. But they’re hard work!