Llerena Searle on her new book, Landscapes of Accumulation

http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/L/bo24117771.html

Interview by Liza Youngling

Liza Youngling: In Landscapes of Accumulation: Real Estate and the Neoliberal Imagination in Contemporary India, you analyze how the “India story,” which “recast Indian society as a rapidly globalizing frontier of capitalism and as a market for new buildings” (5) brings foreign investors into collaboration and conflict with Indian real estate developers.  What makes narratives such as the “India story” such a powerful, market-making force?   How does this narrative align with or diverge from other ways of representing/making markets?

Llerena Searle: I began working on this project because I was fascinated by the explicitly “global” aesthetic of the office towers, gated condominiums, and malls under construction in places like Gurgaon, a satellite of Delhi.  I wondered why developers were building glass-encased buildings rather than drawing on local architectural traditions.  I wondered why they were constructing expensive apartments in a country with an extreme housing shortage and low incomes.  To understand what was going on, I had to train myself to see buildings as financial instruments.  But I was also surprised to find that stories motivate construction.

The “India story” was my informants’ term for a collective narrative they told about India’s growth.  Developers, financiers, consultants, and others routinely referenced predictions about rising land prices, GDP, incomes, foreign investment, consumer demand, and urban populations.  This ebullient narrative positioned India as a frontier of capital expansion, and it motivated many foreign funds to begin investing in Indian real estate in order to position themselves in markets that they thought would grow well into the future.

The “India story” was so strong that fund managers often spoke of these decisions as imperatives: we have to be in India if we want to be competitive.  Indian consultants would say, our cities have to grow if we want GDP growth.  The power of the “India story” stems from its wide circulation: I trace its roots in stories told by a range of actors, from the UN to Newsweek and Goldman Sachs.  Repeated often, it becomes commonsense.  What’s more, it’s a useful story for many different people to retell: it serves a range of value projects, from attracting investors to growing market share, and it also serves to guide investors and developers as they decide what to build where.

One of the things that fascinated me about doing this research was how people in the real estate industry could transform problems – poverty, for example, which is a real impediment if you’re trying to construct and sell million dollar apartments – into advertisements for investment.  The “India story” helped people do that.  In conversations, reports, presentations, and brochures, industry members repurposed familiar modernization discourses to predict that Indian society – today “underdeveloped” – would change along a fixed trajectory, coming to resemble places like Singapore soon.  I argue that the sorting, rating, and classifying work that these discourses do is central to making an international market in Indian real estate by making Indian society seem familiar but improvable.

Indian developers, foreign financiers, consultants, and others found common ground in the “India story,” but other market-making work was more contentious.  For regulatory reasons, foreign investors had to partner with Indian developers who agglomerated land, sought government permits, and hired local consultants – necessary work for transforming Indian land into a commodity that could be invested in from abroad.  The second half of the book looks at these unstable investor-developer partnerships and conflicts over how real estate should be practiced.

Liza Youngling: Your study makes a powerful case for the value of ethnographic research in our understandings of economic life, but you also note some of the challenges you faced in “studying up” with informants that were sometimes wary to share information they saw as proprietary or who did not want to give you the time of day. What can ethnographic research tell us about how markets are created and sustained that other methods cannot? What were ethnography’s limitations, if any, in this study, and how did you fill in the gaps with other approaches?

Llerena Searle: Before I began my anthropology degree, I studied urban and economic geography.  I read a lot about gentrification and urban restructuring, but the point of view of real estate developers was, for the most part, missing from this literature.  Scholars critiqued the effects of construction industry actions but didn’t provide detailed accounts of how it worked.  In India in particular, scholars have given voice to those who have been displaced by new construction, but it seemed to me that without also documenting the voices of the powerful, scholars run the risk of attributing urban change to abstract forces like capitalism rather than to people.

I was drawn to anthropology precisely because methodologically, ethnography foregrounds people’s agency, experiences, and ideas, and enables scholars to tell fine-grained stories.  It’s a method well-suited to the continual scholarly work of reminding people that market expansion isn’t inevitable or natural and that urban spaces aren’t just the backdrop against which human dramas play out.  So, ethnographic fieldwork with real estate industry elites promised a way of opening up a key black box in explanations of urban, economic, and social change – and of pushing back against mainstream economic narratives that render economic life people-less, mechanical, or inevitable.

As you point out, doing ethnographic fieldwork for this project was challenging for a number of reasons that I lay out in my Introduction.  My positionality (as a young, white, American woman) in a field dominated by men in a patriarchal society shaped my access to my informants – as did the competitive and secretive nature of the real estate industry.  Of course all ethnographers face limits to what they can learn based on who they are and the subculture in which they are working.  This limitation (which is really just a reality of social life to which anthropologists are attuned) – and the fact that collecting ethnographic data is time-consuming and personally taxing – means that one researcher cannot do it all.  Understanding something as complex, geographically variable, and multi-faceted as the politics of land in India today will require numerous ethnographies.

That said, my main fieldwork strategy was flexibility: I talked with anyone who would talk to me, attended every event I could, and followed up every lead.  I found that if real estate developers weren’t always interested in talking candidly with me, the bankers, architects, planners, consultants, and graphic designers who worked with them often were.  I also broadened my idea of what constituted “data” beyond face-to-face interactions, using my linguistic anthropology training to combine textual and other forms of analysis.  As both the products of numerous interactions and elements in ongoing chains of communication, industry documents were not just descriptions of how real estate markets worked but attempts to create markets.  Analyzing them in conjunction with participant observation and interviews produced insights into the industry that I could not have gotten from one type of source alone.

Liza Youngling: In your chapter on constructing consumer India, you describe how macroeconomic growth projections are used to justify the development of luxury apartments, office buildings, and retail stores for an imagined “genuine resident” with “global” middle class tastes and income. When you returned to India in 2014, what was your sense of the lived experience of residents in places like Gurgaon? How did their lives align with or differ from those earlier projections of what life would be like in spaces built with an imagined ‘genuine resident” in mind? 

Llerena Searle: It’s funny you should ask this because I’m headed to India in a couple of months to investigate people’s lived experiences in these “global” landscapes.  It’s clear that the material trappings of elite urban life in India are undergoing rapid change.  While developers have built new high rise housing complexes, malls, and offices, other companies have been rushing to sell appliances, paint, furniture, tiles, and modular kitchens to Indian consumers.  An array of magazines, advertisements, and television shows model how homes should look and how people should act in them.  I’m interested in whether, and in what ways, this influx of goods and media has restructured home-making practices.

As I wrote in Landscapes of Accumulation, images of domestic life displayed in advertisements for housing and home-related goods emerged from projections about the growth of India’s “middle class” and the assumption that consumer tastes and behaviors will converge between India and the “West” over time.  So one part of the current project will be to trace out the corporate logics that animate the production and marketing of home décor.

But I’ve never been really satisfied with questions about whether daily life is really like the images that corporations produce or not.  On the one hand, I’m mindful that there’s always a gap between the images in advertisements and people’s everyday lives; analyzing the former doesn’t necessarily tell us about the latter.  Moreover, consumers are quite savvy about how fantastical advertising images are.  Yet for me, the alignment between representation and reality is not the most important question.  In Landscapes of Accumulation, I was really interested in how people use stories and images as tools for accomplishing interactional goals.  Claims about building for “genuine residents” were not statements about the builders’ expectations about actual consumers but a way of signaling to investors that they were building for end-users, not speculators, and thus that the market was sound.  Predictions about “global Indian consumers” were alibis that corporations used for expanding into India without changing their product lineup.  Housing brochures featuring emblems of luxury were attempts to position developers and their projects as prestigious; they were never straightforward predictions of what life in the housing complex would be like.

So in the new project, I’m going to be asking less about whether daily life lives up to people’s expectations based on media depictions and more about what possibilities new material cultural configurations provide to residents.  I’m interested in how producers and marketers frame new products as indexical of particular kinds of people, and I’m interested in what people do with these framings, how they position themselves in relation to them and use them in interactions to align themselves with and against other people.

Liza Youngling: The last section of your book includes an analysis of the different “quality projects” of developers, investors, and architects active Indian real estate market. As you point out, “quality” is a multivalent term; it can refer to the people who are anticipated to buy luxury apartments or frequent high-end shopping malls, to the materials and workmanship used in constructing buildings, or to the integrity and trustworthiness of the parties involved in developing land and constructing buildings. After identifying the multiple ways that claims about quality operate within and help construct the Indian real estate market, do you now see “quality projects” everywhere? 

Llerena Searle: When I was doing participant observation with a European real estate investment fund, I was struck by the ways in which the fund managers discussed “quality.”  The fund’s corporate strategy in India hinged on the idea of constructing quality buildings – which they felt were lacking in India.  They told me that doing so would enable them to attract multinational tenants, charge high rents, maintain property values over time, and uphold the fund’s reputation.  They spoke as though only they could recognize or reproduce quality, but I noticed that Indian developers were also very keen to advertise their own quality, particularly through ISO and other third-party ratings and by designing and advertising their buildings as “global.”  Investigating these divergent quality projects helped me to understand how industry members attempted to create value by making claims to expertise, construction capability, trustworthiness, and other valuable traits which distinguishing themselves from competitors.

Not only were developers, investors, and others making competing claims to value, but what counted as valuable was up for grabs.  Indian real estate developers and their foreign investor-partners disagreed fundamentally about where value lay in the real estate industry – whether in land agglomeration or building construction – and what practices would lead to profits.  Thus tracing competing claims over quality allowed me to understand industry members’ attempts to construct power and authority on an uncertain terrain.  Foreign investors did not just enter the market and reshape it as they saw fit; they encountered resistance from powerful local actors with their own established modes of working.  Ultimately, there was a lot at stake in these claims: whether companies closed deals, how they shared profits, and who controlled the construction process.

But yes, since discourses about quality are means of contesting value and asserting control, they are everywhere.  I’ve been fascinated reading about discourses of suzhi in China and about labor management techniques that inculcate neoliberal governance by appealing to quality.  Perhaps quality discourses’ ubiquity stems from the neoliberal moment we live in – a corollary of proliferating rating schemes and audit cultures – or of the geographically distributed production and consumption systems in which we are enmeshed.  As I explore in the book, even as quality discourses are central to markets and market-making projects, they draw on more than economic values.  Claims about quality raise moral implications: inferior goods are morally suspect, and their producers are untrustworthy.  So, when I encounter people assessing everything from schools to restaurants in terms of quality, I wonder, what project is that assessment a part of?  What values is it invoking to do what interactional work? 

Liza Youngling: You address the fallout of the global financial crisis for the Indian real estate market (and for its foreign investors) in your conclusion. What do you see the future holding for globally financed real estate development in India and other countries that are framed as frontiers of capitalism? Is the kind of spectacular accumulation that your informants sought to create something that remains on offer in India or elsewhere?

Llerena Searle: In the conclusion, I paint a fairly bleak picture of Indian real estate markets in 2014 and particularly of the partnerships between Indian developers and foreign financiers that I traced in the book.  The Indian experience of the financial crisis differed significantly from the US experience since there was no mortgage crisis in India (most mortgages are not securitized) and Indian banks were not over-exposed to foreign credit.  However, with the global credit crisis, a lot of foreign investors tried to pull money out of Indian real estate by selling shares in Indian companies and backing out of deals.  By 2014, many of the people I had interviewed were no longer working in India or for the same companies.  A lot of projects got stalled as construction costs escalated, debt financing became expensive, and the Information Technology industry, which fueled a lot of office space construction, stagnated.  But real estate developers didn’t start to falter publicly until a few years later when Indian economic growth slowed and Indian consumers put off buying new properties.

So, on the one hand, the industry saw significant setbacks and reorganization.  On the other, the industry and the “India story” seemed quite resilient.  One prominent banker told me in 2014 that despite industry problems, the real estate “fundamentals” were sound; he punctuated our conversation with a familiar refrain about the strength of Indian economic growth and consumer demand for housing.  A fund manager insisted that India remained a good “long term” investment in part because urbanization continued unabated.  He cited a McKinsey Global Institute report which concluded that “India needs a new Chicago every year.”  These were exactly the kinds of statements that I had heard seven years earlier, at the height of the market.  Other firms found ways to transform industry distress into speculative opportunities.  For example, the private equity firm Blackstone bought up $900 million in Indian properties between 2011 and 2014.  I came away impressed by the continued power of the narratives that I describe in the book and of the developers, bankers, and politicians who circulate them.  It’s depressing that relentless work goes into making money through ecologically and socially destructive modes of urbanization, but that work continued even as the financial crisis unfolded, and it continues today.  I think that it would take more than an economic crisis to completely upend the real estate development practices that I studied.

 

Sirpa Tenhunen on her new book, A Village Goes Mobile

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https://global.oup.com/academic/product/a-village-goes-mobile-9780190630270

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: What is so fascinating about A Village Goes Mobile is how effectively you use your long historical relationship with a West Bengali village to reflect upon how the introduction and decade-long use of mobile phones affects social relationships.   Which aspects of your previous research shaped your research foci and your questions? 

Sirpa Tenhenun: My previous research in Janta focused on gender, kinship and politics, so I was inclined to continue to observe these aspects of culture and society when I started working on the appropriation of mobile phones. Without my long-term relationship with the community I might not have been able to recognize changes, and how mobile phone use, on the one hand, contributed to these changes and, on the other hand, to how mobile phone use was intertwined with changes. I, for instance, could observe how mobile phone use helped transform kinship relationships. I also witnessed how most people could accomplish more in a shorter time by being able to coordinate their activities with the help of mobile phones. However, the most significant economic change in the village since the turn of the century was not due to the use of mobile phones, but to the agricultural policies. Since farming small plots of land has become increasingly unprofitable, young men from small farms use their phones to find paid employment outside the village.

Ilana Gershon: You discuss the fact that most West Bengali villagers did not have landlines, that their only experience of telephony were the mobile phones.  This reminded me of Terry Turner’s discussion of Kayapo videos, that their makers had experienced radio and then video cameras without experiencing all the different media in-between that Euroamericans have.   How do you think this affected people’s experiences of telephony – to never have had an experience with landlines first?  

Sirpa Tenhunen: Villagers who never had an access to a landline phone experienced the ability to use mobile phones as more spectacular than those of us who have routinely been using landline phones before mobiles became available.  This does not mean that the idea of a landline phone did not at all affect how mobile phones were used: initially, when the phone density was low, mobile phones were mostly kept at home and shared by the household members.   However, villagers were able to use mobile phones more innovatively since they had not developed routines of landline phone use. For instance, they frequently used the phone’s speaker to share the phone conversations with whoever was present.

Ilana Gershon: How did the introduction of smartphones affect social organization in Janta?  Did it change gender relationships?

Sirpa Tenhunen: Smartphones were used to strengthen pre-existing identities but they also offered opportunities and technical affordances which challenged hierarchies. Contrary to their hierarchical position, educated young wives and children could become the phone use experts in their families. Low caste people were able to make identity statements simply by possessing smartphones. Digital sphere constructed through mobile telephony was first associated with male-dominated public sphere but it proved much more malleable than the public sphere outside the home from where women are still largely excluded—the great majority of women continue to be housewives despite women’s growing aspirations to be able to work outside the home. The young men pioneered the use of smartphones—if their older models were still working, they were kept in the house and used by the rest of the family, mainly by women, who usually stay at home more than men do. At the same time, few women who moved outside the home for work or study started to acquire their personal phones. Young women now also preferred smartphones, readily discussing the multiple functions of these phones and demonstrating their ability to use them. Most people stored music and films on the smartphone’s memory card from downloading shops instead of browsing the internet independently. I never saw women listening to music on their phone in public places like men do —listening to music on smartphones through the phone’s loudspeaker is used to ascertain the meaning of the public sphere as a masculine space where men can spend their leisure time. The few men and women in the village who have used their personal phones to browse the internet all had a college education. The ability to browse the internet with one’s phone was, therefore, related to one’s education and wealth rather than merely gender.

Ilana Gershon:  What kinds of social relationships or circulation of knowledge changed because phones made it common to have a one-to-one or dyadic conversation, which might have been difficult to achieve before the advent of mobile phones?

Sirpa Tenhunen: Within the sphere of politics, mobile phones provided a channel to contact opposition political leaders discreetly. The use of mobile technology amplified multiplicity by strengthening clandestine political activities and alternative discourses. Women’s increasing access to a mobile phone influenced their relationships with men, but—more crucially— it influenced the kinship code of conduct and kinship hierarchies within families and between kin groups. I observed how phones offered women a channel to express unconventional ideas and exert their will through networking. For instance, a mother could advise her daughter over the phone to not to obey the mother-in-law whose demands were excessive. Thanks to phones, young wives were able to stay in constant touch with their natal families which was unheard of in the past.

Ilana Gershon: One of your findings that I found startling was that mobile phones had contributed to a marked decline in village-level leaders’ power.  Could you explain why this is the case?

Sirpa Tenhunen: Mobile telephony was a crucial factor in the rise of the opposition in West Bengal, where the Communist Party had been in power largely through its network of local village leaders from 1977 until 2011. In 2010 opposition activists related to me how mobile phones help them secretly mobilize against the ruling party. Political activists used phones more to organize party meetings and offer political patronage than to organize spontaneous demonstrations and support. The parties’ power used to be largely derived from their role as arbitrators of disputes: any person who feels that he or she has suffered an injustice can call a village meeting, led by local political leaders, during which a solution will be negotiated between the disputing parties. Thanks to mobile phones, patronage could now increasingly be sought from opposition leaders and from outside the village. When I visited the village in 2013, I found that after the end of CPI(M) rule in the village in 2011, not a single general village meeting had been held to solve local problems and disputes. Mobile phone use had helped amplify translocal political networks thereby reducing the power of local village leaders.  Phone use for political purposes built on earlier political patterns and meanings, but it made politics faster, more heterogeneous, and translocal.

Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein takes the page 99 blog test

My dissertation looked at how media impacts community. Specifically, how does the global circulation of regular publications help create a sense of community among 8 million Jehovah’s Witnesses in more than 200 countries, and how do we know that these publications are key?

Before writing this blog, I spent a lot of time thinking about the affordances of new technologies: was I supposed to look at the page numbered 99, or the 99th page of the PDF file?

As an anthropologist, I’m not normally in the business of talking about intentions – but Ford Madox Ford died well before the age of the PDF, so I started with the page numbered 99.

Unfortunately, if I am honest, that page (page 116 of the PDF) is one of the most boring pages in the entire document. It’s the very end of chapter three, which introduces two different types of field sites: the town where I conducted primary research and the global institution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This particular page lists out physical research sites:

Additionally, I visited both Jehovah’s Witness worldwide headquarters in Brooklyn, New York and the Mexico Branch Office near Mexico City. Worldwide headquarters, collectively known as Bethel, include collections of buildings in three New York cities: Brooklyn, Paterson, and Wallkill, where a total of nearly four thousand Witnesses live and work.

So I turned to the 99th page, or page 82. That’s about halfway through this same chapter. It’s also the page where I first introduce the role of Jehovah’s Witnesses in my primary research site:

Jehovah’s Witnesses from elsewhere in Mexico first arrived in Zapotitlán in the mid-1940s and had converted approximately half the population by 1959 (Turner 1972: 90). Community members seem to get along well despite these divisions, but there are some aspects of life in which they are strongly felt. For example, most Mexican communities hold large festivals on the holiday associated with the town’s patron saint. In Zapotitlán, however, since Catholics are not a majority and adherents of other religions do not want to contribute or participate, these events are no longer held.

The page then moves into an anecdote about religious responses to the celebration of an important political anniversary in the town. It sets the scene, to be sure – but it doesn’t fully succeed at capturing the tensions between the centralized global institution and the practices of one small community. For that, you might still need to read the whole thing.

Barchas-Lichtenstein, Jena. 2013. “When the dead are resurrected, how are we going to speak to them?”: Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Use of Indigenous Languages in the Globalizing Textual Community. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of California, Los Angeles.

Gil Hizi flips to page 99 of his dissertation

My dissertation deals with pedagogic programs for self-improvement in a city called Jinan, northeast China. I focus on workshops that cultivate interpersonal “soft” skills, namely emotional expression, communication, and public speaking. Through the work of various state and market actors, these type of pedagogies have expanded in recent years from the middle-class culture of big metropolises to wider urban China. The crux of my work delineates the ideal of the person that is promulgated through these pedagogies and the ways it is enacted in workshop exercises. In short, soft skills in China offer an imagined avenue for self-transformation and social mobility that supposedly traverses more rigid factors such as background, educational credentials, and social capital.

Page 99 concludes a section where I introduce Aisong, 33, who joined interactive workshops offered by a local psychology club. During a short time, Aisong became a dominant participant and a poignant voice of expertise in the club. Despite his lack of prior experience in psychology, he expressed his goal of becoming a “master teacher” (dashi), and complemented his verbal performances with a new appearance: traditional suits, hair gel, a hairband, a Buddhist bracelet, and a fan in his hand. While undertaking this journey, Aisong maintained his blue-collar technician job. Like many other workshop participants I met, he was not pursuing self-improvement as merely a hobby or self-help method, but he was also not undertaking a new profession. I raise this point on page 99:

Unlike the visions of scholars of soft skills and immaterial labour, Aisong’s affinity to soft skills was not a response to direct demands of an enterprise. Yet, being both fascinated by and anxious regarding the potentialities of the market, Aisong was motivated to experiment with new modes of self-assertion while heralding new values.

Many self-improvers in urban China meticulously pursue self-improvement through a vision of entrepreneurship and market success, while also celebrating “doing what I love” and “becoming a better person”. They illustrate an intriguing coalition between a market-driven impetus for self-development and a moral cultivation of the person as a whole.

Anxieties about one’s competence in a changing world lead individuals as Aisong to envision new channels for professional success and social influence (the “master teacher” encompasses both), as well as to experience an untapped potential to become more competent. By practicing soft skills in an interactive workshop where he affects other participants through his speech and gestures, Aisong could achieve these goals ephemerally.

Hizi, Gil. 2018. “The Affective Medium and Ideal Person in Pedagogies of ‘Soft Skills’ in Contemporary China”. Ph.D. Dissertation. Sydney University.

 

David Parisi on his new book, Archaeologies of Touch

 

Archaeologies of Touch (US & Canada: use promo code MN82600 for 30% off):

https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/archaeologies-of-touch

Archaeologies of Touch (EU: use promo code for CSF18TOUCH 30% off)

http://www.combinedacademic.co.uk/archaeologies-of-touch

Interview by Carlin Wing

Carlin Wing: Archaeologies of Touch opens with an examination of contemporary haptic human-computer interfaces, then quickly jumps backward to situate haptic technology in a linear chronology that begins with electrical machines in the 1740s, and moves forward by examining the way institutional actors in the fields of psychology, engineering, computer science, and advertising address touch. With so much material to cover, it feels like a boundless topic—how did you decide what you were going to focus on? Why did you organize the book in a linear chronology?

David Parisi: Although haptics technologies are commonly associated with contemporary digital media, and virtual reality in particular, research into computer haptics began in the late 1960s (though it wasn’t called ‘Computer Haptics’ until the 1990s), as a response to Ivan Sutherland’s prompting in his 1965 address “The Ultimate Display.” And the term haptics itself retains a neologistic connotation, in spite of having a history that reaches back at least psychophysics & psychology research in the nineteenth century. So part of what I wanted to do is show that, in spite of the tone of novelty perpetually enveloping digital touch, the technology has a material and discursive history that predates the 21st century. The book’s narrative arc is organized around five successive phases of interfacing, beginning with touch’s productive interfacing with electrical machines in the 1740s, and concluding with touch’s expression in recent attempts to market digital touch technologies like vibration-enabled touchscreens. I emphasize the continuity between each phase, showing how specific instruments and experiments and were passed down from one generation of researchers to the next.

Drawing boundaries around this archive of technologized touch—deciding what was on its inside and outside—was a tricky and fraught process, especially since touch itself is such a slippery and often contested category, once you begin to push on it a bit. Ultimately I decided to try to write the history of a hegemonic and normative model of touch, one that emerged piecemeal from the exertions of researchers across three centuries, and is currently being embedded in the design of digital media interfaces, as engineers attempt to fix and standardize haptic vocabularies that will be used to communicate messages through touch (think of vibrating alerts sent from your phone or smartwatch).

Of course, any history of a concept so vast and elusive will necessarily be incomplete. But I hope that this will at least provide the groundwork for deeper investigations of the relationship between touch and media—even if it turns out there are glaring and problematic omissions from the archive that Archaeologies of Touch constructs, at least it provides a point of departure for future studies of haptic media. When I started this project (well over a decade ago!), no such foundation existed, outside of the piecemeal and fragmentary histories contained in psychology textbooks. So my hope is that this book saves anyone doing empirical or theoretical work on haptics some intellectual legwork.

Carlin Wing: Given the way your own experience motivated your attentiveness to this history of touch, how did you approach the task of representing the many individuals that appear in these archaeologies of touch? What kinds of decisions did you make regarding how to write people in the context of a book whose primary characters are the techniques, objects, and apparatuses?

David Parisi: Your point about my story centering on objects and machines over people is spot-on. There are some actual humans who take center stage in the book, but you’re right that I downplay their individual biographies to focus instead on the things they built, and the ideas they invested in their objects. My method here was strongly influenced by Hand-Georg Rheinberger’s notion of experimental systems, which de-emphasizes the importance of any one individual or any one individual experiment, in favor of locating experiments in broader networks of scientific research around a given problem. This mainly involves a question of where and how we assign agency: by focusing on techniques, objects, and apparatuses, I wanted to get at a lineage of research and thinking on touch that transcends and outlives any one individual researcher. By doing so, we can see how particular experiments and experimental techniques concretize, attaining hegemonic status in the way that touch is studied. The two-point threshold tests that Ernst Heinrich Weber first carried out in the 1820s, for example, have outlived Weber by nearly two centuries, becoming foundational for the scientific study of sensory perception later in the nineteenth century, and then carried out again by experimenters in the middle decades of the twentieth century as they tried to figure out the optimal placement of the motors and electrodes used to transmit language through touch.

But, following Rheinberger, it is not the experiment itself that matters; instead, we should focus on how the experiment constructs and implies future experimentation in the system, how it shifts the border between the known and the unknown, or between the manageable and the unmanageable. The corollary of the experiment is the instrument—and here too we consistently see similar instruments employed and adapted for the strategic stimulation of touch across the five phases of interfacing I examine in the book. This sequencing hopefully has the effect of showing how contemporary haptic interfaces, in spite of the often-repeated claims about their revolutionizing novelty, are part of a longer tradition of attempts to transform touch through technology, many of which were met with similar enthusiasm, in spite of the fact that most of these techs failed to make it much beyond the lab’s walls.

Carlin Wing: The notion of training runs through many of the chapters and is perhaps most apparent in the chapter on the Tongue of the Skin where you talk about different attempts to train people to receive patterned symbolic communication through touch. How do you think about training, specifically training the senses? Did your thinking about training change as a result of writing the book?

David Parisi: The question of training is interesting to me in these different historical periods because it highlights the context-specific disciplining of the senses in general, and of touch in particular. For instance, early psychophysics and sensory psychology research aimed at uncovering the absolute limits of human sensory perception. In order to get at these boundaries, experimenters had to hone their abilities to perceive machine-generated stimuli—they had to become so-called ‘good observers’ through repeated drilling and training in carefully-constructed laboratory conditions. Graduate school involved not only repeatedly carrying out the foundational experiments of the new discipline, but also being the subject of these same of experiments, in order to cultivate their perceptual abilities. Becoming part of the discipline entailed a bodily and sensory regimentation, in addition to gaining a particular intellectual disposition. Deborah Coon’s Standardizing the Subject and Rand Evans work on the history of psychological instruments were both helpful for me here.

In contrast, contemporary interface design aims at building machines that will be appealing to wide swaths of users hailed as consumers—so they’re much more interested in understanding how the putatively average person experiences their products. This means they’re constructing normative models of sensation and perception, and embedding those models in interfaces through the standardization control and feedback mechanisms. In practical terms, this means that someone who wants to decode the complex messages sent through the Apple Watch’s Taptic Engine has to train themselves to be sensitive to an artificial vibratory language black boxed in the design process.

As a result of writing this book, I’m far more attuned to the sort of materiality and hard calculability involved in training processes. Going into the project, I was already thinking about media as involves processes of bodily and sensory discipline (in part as a result of McLuhan, and in part due to this Marcel Mauss essay I know you and I share an enthusiasm for). But examining lab experiments, and reading accounts of gradual refinements to particular instruments and models, gave me a strong appreciation for the microphysics of training processes—the material circulations that underpin abstractions of the human body and its senses.

Carlin Wing: This book is full of compelling and charismatic objects and apparatuses — an electrified venus, Leyden jars, electric eels, electrodes for the eye, tonsil, uterus, and rectum, aesthesiometric compasses, The Apparatus for Simultaneous Touches, the Teletactor (a mechanical ear for the skin), the Vibratese apparatus, Tactile Televisions, the Argonne Remote Manipulator, the CyberGrasp and CyberForce interfaces, force feedback joysticks and game controllers, touchscreens. What do you make of the charisma of these strange objects and apparatuses? What do you want us to understand about what compelled the effort that went into make these variously extraordinary, oppressive, curious, therapeutic, banal, and magical things and about what compels you and us to consider them in turn?

David Parisi: This is a really productive and important question, because it pushes a degree of reflexivity about this project—essentially asking about the subjective aesthetic preferences of the research expressed through the selection of objects. Part of what I was trying to do especially with the images throughout the book is highlight a continuity to the technoscientific imaginary around touch—a sort of cold, mechanical, and efficient modeling of touch through these instruments. This works as a counter to our typical imagination of touch as warm, as human, and as irreducible to mechanization and electrification. And it shows us that touch, like seeing and hearing, can have its own dedicated set of machines for knowing and revealing it, for capturing, storing, transmitting, and playing back its data.

But at the same time, these so-called strange objects are the embodiment of a devotion to and passion for touch—a technoscientific imagination around touch motivated by the humanist hope that life might be made better through the technological enhancement of touch (a sense often ideated as the most human of all the senses). They are captivating objects because of their ambiguity: because they were not only technical objects, but also objects that had cultural lives, inspiring wonder and bewilderment. They were used to inflict pain, both on experimenters themselves and on their experimental subjects (the Leyden jar and the electric eel); they were thought to heal and revivify (the electrodes for the eye, tonsil, uterus, and rectum); they promised to give hearing back to the deaf and sight back to the blind (the Teletactor and tactile television); they offered to reveal tactile system’s arcane secrets (aesthesiometric compasses and the Apparatus for Simultaneous Touches); they assured us that we could reach out and feel distant objects (the Argonne Remote Manipulator), and caress objects or people that existed only in the memory of a computer (the CyberGrasp). I hope these objects spark that same complex fire of emotions in my readers that they light for me each time I try to think through and with them.

Naomi Haynes on her new book, Moving by the Spirit

https://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520294257

Interview by Jon Bialecki

Jon Bialecki: The center of your ethnography is about the Prosperity Gospel’s economy of faith and social ambition in the Copperbelt. The prosperity gospel and the Copperbelt have certain reputations, both in anthropology and the wider popular culture; and I think that one of the surprising things about your book is how you challenge the commonly held stereotypes about both of these social forms. What was it about the state of the literatures that made you feel that interventions were necessary?

Naomi Haynes: When I set out to do my fieldwork on the Copperbelt, anthropology had a pretty clear view of both this region and of the prosperity gospel churches that had become very popular there.  In terms of the latter, both the prosperity gospel and Pentecostalism more generally had largely been interpreted in terms of what Joel Robbins calls “compensatory promises”: people converted to Pentecostalism because it promised things that they were (increasingly) unable to access elsewhere as the welfare state retreated and the global economy changed.  In this narrative, the Copperbelt seemed like an especially compelling case in point.  The influence of James Ferguson’s Expectations of Modernity meant this region had been fixed in the minds of many anthropologists as the paradigmatic site of neoliberal abjection, a once-thriving extraction economy that had been swiftly cut off from the promises of globalization – in other words, just the kind of place where people might be hoping for an economic miracle in the form of divine prosperity. While it was not difficult to see why people would find the promises of Pentecostalism so compelling, I didn’t feel that the hope of riches or health by itself explained this religion’s staying power; it’s one thing to sign up to a program that promises wealth, but it’s another to continue to give it time, energy, and money without getting much in return.  I was therefore sure there was more to the prosperity gospel story than just the hope of getting rich, and my fieldwork revealed this to be the case.  It turned out that Pentecostalism wasn’t so much about getting access to wealth that was otherwise unavailable, but rather about creating other modes of realizing value through personal spiritual advancement.  So, Pentecostalism wasn’t a second-best option, but a point at which people were working to produce a good life for themselves.  Similarly, life on the Copperbelt wasn’t all abjection and despair, but action, innovation, and creativity.

Jon Bialecki: Your book in large part focuses on ‘moving’ as a Zambian concept; ‘moving’ in fact is so important that it gives your book its title. I was wondering if you could say a little bit about what ‘moving’ is, and also about how it relates to the way that the Prosperity Gospel works in the Copperbelt?

Naomi Haynes: Moving (ukusela in Bemba) is a term that people on the Copperbelt use all the time to describe the way that their lives and those of others are changing positively. They say things have moved when a child completes school, when someone gets married, or when a family moves into a bigger house or purchases a used Toyota. But moving isn’t just an idiomatic way of talking about progress. On the Copperbelt, moving is a value, by which I mean it is an animating idea that structures social life. Most social relationships on the Copperbelt, including those that form in Pentecostal churches, are organized to make moving happen. Looking at moving therefore helps us understand how social life on the Copperbelt works, and perhaps especially the social life of Pentecostal churches, which have become key sites for a new religious form of moving “by the Spirit.” Pentecostal believers move by the Spirit both by realizing traditional forms of moving (houses and husbands), as well as uniquely Pentecostal forms of moving such as spiritual development or advancement in the church hierarchy.

Jon Bialecki: One of the things that struck me in reading your book is the relation between this long-running Copperbelt value of moving, and the relatively recently introduced form of prosperity-gospel Christianity. As you know, there’s been a lot of back and forth in the anthropology of Christianity about ‘rupture’ and ‘continuity,’ with scholars like Joel Robbins and Birgit Meyer emphasizing how the adoption of Pentecostal Christianity often results in a historical sense of conversion as a radical transformation, while other scholars (such as Matthew Engelke,  Liana Chua, and Mark Mosko) seeing much more social continuity, both marked and unmarked, in recently Christianized societies. I was wondering if we could read the importance of ‘moving’ here as telling us something about this debate? I suspect that this is a case that can’t be boiled down to a simple ‘nothing changes’/‘everything changes’ dichotomy.

Naomi Haynes: I get asked about rupture all the time – it’s easily the concept that people working outside of the anthropology of Christianity associate most with the anthropology of Christianity.  And there’s no question that rupture has done important analytical work, not only for the subfield, but also for the discipline as a whole.  The model of conversion as rupture has given us a new way to talk about cultural change more generally, and the most sophisticated work on rupture has always kept this larger question in view.  However, as time has gone on I think that the emphasis on rupture has sometimes given way to something more mathematical than analytical; the question has moved from how change happens to a simple accounting of what has and has not changed – whether there are more elements in the “change” or “continuity” column, in other words.  Against this latter interpretation, what I hope my work on moving demonstrates is that Christian adherence affords all kinds of creative cultural responses that structure and are structured by external forces like economics or politics.  Rather than describe Christianity in terms of rupture or continuity, then, I have found it more productive to think of Christianity as a means of “making life possible,” to borrow a turn of phrase from Achille Mbembe.  In the Copperbelt case, this means finding new ways of realizing an existing value, but in other contexts making life possible will necessarily take other forms.  The question isn’t so much whether or to what extent this represents a rupture as much as what Christian adherence does in the places where it is taken up.

Jon Bialecki: Let me follow up on your of idea of shifting from some kind of binary up-or-down judgement of ‘order/rupture,’ to instead thinking about what novel local potentialities Pentecostalism as an imported form opens up. I want to do this by asking some questions about media and performance (this is, after all, CaMP). One of the things that really caught my attention when reading your book was the aesthetics of Copperbelt Pentecostalism, and how it seemed to be at once very ordered and extremely chaotic. On one hand, especially during celebrations involving gift exchange, there seemed to be a strong emphasis on decorum and consistency, down to asking women to wearing matching dresses (a request that was even directed to the anthropologist!). On the other hand, there also seemed to be an importance in indecipherability and chaos; in this case I’m referencing the uncanny sonic anarchy that occurs during what you called ‘collective-personal prayer.’ In what ways is this in continuity with the aesthetics or communicative ideology of the Copperbelt, and in what ways is this a new situation in which Pentecostalism has allowed for some mutation, reimagination, or replacement of Copperbelt sensibilities?

Naomi Haynes: I’ve always been struck by the uniformity of the Copperbelt aesthetic as well, which I think connects to the aspirational quality of display in urban Zambia.  Every Copperbelt sitting room that I’ve ever entered, whether in a mud brick house in a shanty compound or the spacious home of a banker, is decorated according to a common template.  There’s a suite of matching sofas (however broken down), a television (which may not work), and a cabinet or set of shelves for curios.  The differences among homes are therefore differences of degree rather than kind, and this makes domestic display a key site at which moving is realized.  By comparing like with like, everyone knows where they stand relative to everyone else, and everyone can measure how well they are moving. Pentecostalism produces similar types of metrics, and indeed, one way that moving by the Spirit can be measured is in the same sorts of consumer displays that structure moving more generally.  But other religious metrics of moving are similarly organized by rank-able displays.  Those who are moving by the Spirit excel in prayer, prophecy, preaching, and singing, all gifts that presuppose an audience.  This is true even when the specificity of one’s gift is drowned out by the cacophony of collective-personal prayer that you mention. Skill in this type of prayer depends much more on facility with the form rather than on its content, and insofar as this is the case, it is a performance for others at least as much as it is a semi-private dialogue with God.  Charismatic displays like this are perhaps an especially good example of how Pentecostal characteristics like spontaneity and surprise, which have been so important in your own work, get mobilized in service of larger social projects in the Copperbelt context.  In other words, the loud, effervescent and even ecstatic prayer that always characterizes Pentecostal worship actually facilitates something that’s extremely uniform, and therefore easily measured.

Jon Bialecki: Finally, one last performance and media question! As we have discussed all through this interview, at the local level the prosperity gospel is a chance for people to solve old problems in new ways, which explains at once how in your field site it was very much Zambian, while still recognizably an iteration of global forms. We’ve also stressed how this allows for various forms of local production of social ties. But at the same time, the sort of Pan-African or internationalized large scale Prosperity Gospel events are also present in the Copperbelt – or at least present in the mediated form of video. And it seems at times that some of your informants have strong opinions about the latter instances of the prosperity gospel. I was wondering if you could give us a sense of how your informants evaluated and consumed (or perhaps didn’t consume!) these other video instantiations of the prosperity gospel, and how important the differences in mediation and performance were in their assessment.

Naomi Haynes: The Pentecostal media landscape, especially television, has grown increasingly complex in the fifteen years that I have worked in Zambia.  At last count, there were a dozen free-to-air Pentecostal television stations available on the Copperbelt.  In addition to sermons and gospel music, these channels also broadcast miracles – lots of exorcisms, as well as healings and other wondrous signs, including a famous example of a pastor who appeared to walk on air.  Of course, not all these displays are accepted as genuine, and there is a great deal of debate as to which global pastors are true servants of God and which are actually in league with Satan.  But what I think is especially interesting about Pentecostal media consumption on the Copperbelt is the way that those pastors and prophets who are regarded as authentic get worked into familiar local practices.  One thing we haven’t touched on so much in our discussion is the extent to which moving is about patronage.  Mega-pastors in places like Nigeria or South Africa, who people on the Copperbelt encounter only through television, are often appealed to as potential super-patrons.  For example, several years ago there was a rumor that Prophet T.B. Joshua of Nigeria would be appearing at a stadium in Lusaka.  Many hundreds of people turned up on the day to find the reports were untrue, and they were understandably angry.  The national news that evening featured a woman who was interviewed on the scene calling on the president to bring T.B. Joshua to Zambia; people needed him to come and bring healing and “deliverance” (the Pentecostal term for exorcism).  What struck me in this interview, apart from the request for state intervention in the matter (another interesting aspect!) was how this woman envisioned T.B. Joshua’s presence in Zambia, were he to come.  She was asking him to do the same things that all pastors do, and in this way, she was inviting him to be part of a very local provision of religious services, a provision that facilitates moving by the Spirit for my informants.  So, while believers on the Copperbelt are connected to transnational religious networks, and recognize that they are part of a global religious movement, their engagement with that is always slotted into very local concerns.

 

Deborah A. Jones’ “Afterlives & Other Lives: Semiosis and History in 21st Century Ukraine”

Page 99 of my dissertation falls toward the beginning of a monster chapter exploring my rural interlocutors’ fight for land rights, encounters with the legal system, and conceptions of “rule of law” on the eve of the 2013–2014 Maidan Revolution. “Western ‘rule of law’ initiatives [via international development programs],” I wrote, “reinforced the impression that Ukraine was a place, and Ukrainians a people, that lacked order. Likewise, they suggested that there were other places, and peoples, that had already achieved good governance, and could be looked to as models or even drawn upon [politically] to enforce accountability in Ukraine.”

On the one hand, page 99 is entirely representative of my larger ethnography, which finds that many of the ideals of Ukraine’s revolution and reform movement—national sovereignty; government accountability; equality before the law; freedom of movement across borders; increased opportunity at home—did not merely reverberate in the countryside, but were often closely tied to agrarian experience. On the other hand, the chapter to which page 99 belongs (“Fields”) is somewhat of an outlier in the dissertation as a whole, which tracks how semiotic processes, particularly iconicity and interdiscursivity, were linking up certain rural things with particular political commitments or social types, and driving specific readings of the past, valuations of the present, and expectations for the future. (For example, the chapter prior, “Soil,” probes my interlocutors’ belief that their country’s reserves of fertile black earth should make it a wealthy export economy—and prove why a devastating famine decades earlier was engineered by Moscow; the chapter following, “Beetles,” untangles why, for a time, pro-Russian separatists were referred to by the name of a notorious agricultural pest, and what this had to do with fears of fascism, both historical and contemporary.)

On the other, other hand, page 99’s concern with “rule of law”—who can claim it, who is presumed not to have it, what/who is believed to be preventing it, what the concept itself presupposes about how language, especially legal language, works—is right in line with my dissertation’s biggest question: how do people develop strong senses of what, or who, is bringing their country forward, and what, or who, is holding it back? How do people come to imagine other, better lives for themselves, and how do they come to perceive fellow citizens, family members, once-friends as Others whose values and aspirations are incompatible with, even undermine, their own?

Leigh Chavez-Bush’s “Chefs, Cuisine, and Convergence”

My dissertation explores media networks within the Chicago culinary industry. At three fieldwork sites I conducted participant observation and employee ethnography with media producers, chefs, and software app developers at the intersections of food and media. My main theoretical focus is on how different actors experience and adapt to digital media’s impact on culinary culture. Using the concepts of hypermediacy, authenticity, and immediacy, I demonstrate the struggle emerging between these networks and highlight the very real barriers to successful collaboration prosumerism is breeding across production cultures.

Page 99, just shy of the conclusions drawn from my first ethnographic research site, is set during a food-focused audio competition. It opens with an intern commenting on the user-submitted short documentaries she remixed into a teaser for the competition’s main event, an “Audio Feast” announcing the winners:

I really respect and admire each person that submitted a piece, I feel like they put so much thought and effort into each second…that you may not know listening, but when you’re producing or editing them you discover all these things, like taking out a little silence to make the story tighter…

The Audio Feast brought in five famous chefs to represent the winning documentaries in a food event focused on dialogue rather than degustation. The awkward premise shined a light on the highly divergent perspectives, processes, and products of the participant groups. Audio producers use scripted material and careful production to simulate the authentic through hypermediation. Chefs, on the other hand, deliver authenticity through the immediacy of production, distribution, and consumption.

As the event organizers, the media experts dictated logistics, creating a counterfeit culinary environment in which the media novices, the chefs, were required to perform. The chefs found it challenging to adapt their production culture and largely defaulted to the immediacy-focused taste, temperature, and timing of their milieu, even though the audience would not eat their food. When chefs were able to sublimate their own ethos and embrace the hallmarks of new media, crafting (inedible) Instagrammable food and sharing emotionally compelling narratives, they achieved some level of audience connection. But the collaboration, on the whole, was fraught with conflict and consternation and showcased the lengths to which media novices will go to avoid media production—even at the cost of their own authenticity. Ultimately, the Audio Feast exchanged participation for exposure, allowing the chefs to sidestep media creation and prosumption while shining a light on the spoils prosumerism promises to deliver.

My dissertation draws from this example as I move through the interconnected web of the culinary community, further exposing the trajectory of a culture growing increasingly more reliant on hypermediation to discover, feel, and claim tangible human experiences. How will this change the way we eat? We can only anticipate the #flavorofthefuture.

Leigh Bush. Slow Food and Fast Fast Flows: Chefs, Cuisine, and Convergence. Ph.D. Dissertation. Indiana University, Bloomington, 2017.

 

Daniel Fisher on his book, The Voice and Its Doubles

https://www.dukeupress.edu/the-voice-and-its-doubles

Interview by Georgia Ennis

Georgia Ennis: Throughout your book, you follow both the imaginations and instantiations of an Aboriginal voice in radio media, which ultimately unite your discussion of different musical genres and sensuous sound worlds on the radio, as well as the institutional contexts that have shaped Aboriginal media production. What are these different conceptions of the voice, and how do they interact with each other? 

Daniel Fisher: I spend some time in The Voice and its Doubles introducing GR, a remarkable vocalist who fronted the Warumpi Band, one of the first Indigenous rock bands to break into so-called mainstream airwaves in Australia. He was an electrifying performer, and many say he out-sang and out-danced the heavy hitting rock singers of his day, think Bon Scott or Mick Jagger. But when GR sang, he did so in indigenous Australian languages as often as he did in English — code-switching frequently in performance, singing and calling out the languages of his different audiences. The Warumpi Band was taking shape just as the Aboriginal media associations that I write about were gaining traction, and they were one of the first groups to be recorded and routinely played on Indigenous radio, as well as on national non-Indigenous stations. GR’s presence knocked people out, and his recordings still do. That’s the kind of voice that I focused on at first that drew me to want to think about sound, music, and radio here. Both in performance and as recorded sound it gave material form to the power and value that people so often ascribe to the voice and resonated with both the complications and the excitement that people found in the cosmopolitan worlds of contemporary northern Australia. So it was for a time a kind of paradigm for many of what Indigenous popular music could become and how it might bring together, or sing across, multiple audiences.

Nonetheless, it was immediately evident that GR’s voice, replayed or perhaps remediated as recorded sound, sits beside a wide array of other highly consequential indices or avatars of the voice including statistics and marketing surveys, digital renderings of the voice on a computer screen, and the discursive figures that tether a whole range of policy and advocacy, that is, voice and voicing functions as tropes for agency and power and culture itself. It was also evident that Aboriginal media institutions were themselves kinds of media, were themselves understood as the material embodiment of a voice — and in fact had been crafted and funded as such by the advocates and architects of self-determination in recognition that the political subject of Aboriginal Australia cannot easily be reduced to the individualized, liberal subject. These all then are the ‘doubles’ of my title, the different instantiations or avatars of the voice that could generate excitement and passion as well as unease or friction, avatars that could at times haunt the sounded or spoken voice by making apparent some contradictions between liberal forms of recognition and the different forms of political subject taking shape across northern Australia.

Insofar as the doubling of the voice in sound, text, and institution allowed it portability and measure, it became subject to governmental solicitation or cultivation, and at times this led to some discomfort for my interlocutors. For my part, it seemed as important to try to understand the different kinds of interests in and listeners for such content by playing on the multivalency of ‘auditory’ and ‘audit culture’ — asking whose listening, for what, and in whose interests? It was very clear that the voice was tied into these different and at times competing or agonistic projects, and that it was enclosed in a range of ways.  This all lent exchange value within a quite specific field of cultural production. I do ultimately privilege GR’s voice, its transduction as recorded sound, and the ways it continues to move people today. But I also had to make sense of the different ways in which voice acquired a kind of abstracted value, to understand how all these different avatars of the voice moved and came to matter across a range of institutional and other domains.

Georgia Ennis: You describe three central meta-pragmatics that support indigenous media production in Australia, which you define as “giving voice, sounding black, and linking people up” (2016:4). What does it mean for Aboriginal media to “sound black,” and why does it matter for producers and listeners? How is this imperative for media connected to broader discussions about alterity, indigeneity, and transnational blackness?

Daniel Fisher: In the book I describe some generational differences in terms of what people felt that Indigenous radio ought to accomplish, and what people believe are the kinds of sounds it ought to privilege. There was a self-evident character to several of these — that it should give voice to Indigenous Australians, that it should link people up over a range of historical ruptures and contemporary distances, and that it should, as people said, sound black. With respect to this last, what is understood to sound black is both self-evident and also somewhat underdetermined in that no single sound or timbre or figure suffices, so this demand entails a kind of excess that makes it ripe for reflection, and at times contestation. This is amplified by the ways that affirming black identity in Indigenous Australian media making also has a particular history, one complicated by the pragmatics of Indigenous rights based activism, the turn from civil rights to Aboriginal rights as the ground on which to understand and pursue forms of social justice. Some of my older interlocutors, for instance, argued that to uncritically embrace a shared blackness through the consumption and valorization of afro-diasporic cultural forms was to miss or diminish the cultural singularity of Australian and Pacific Indigenous cultures by courting what they understood to be some risky logics of racialization. So even if many people I know see this character, ‘blackness,’ as something unfolding, and counter the equation ‘blackness is’ with a more contingent sense of the historical and emergent affinities between Black Pacific and Black Atlantic experiences, many also understood this as a figure that can complicate, and perhaps undercut efforts to achieve recognition as Australia’s first peoples.

I found myself amidst conversations animated then by this somewhat generationally inflected tension between people finding deeply meaningful ways to connect to Afro-diasporic musics and popular culture, but also having trouble recognizing themselves in that popular culture, and concerned about the ramifications of such identification both pragmatically, in relation to a political struggle, and existentially, in relation to senses of self, to Indigenous cultural reproduction, to the ways that one might understand one’s relationship to an affecting musical form and its power. I came to understand this imperative that radio ‘sound black’ as an impasse at which efforts to craft radio programming led to recurring discussions about what blackness meant, and how it might or might not relate to indigeneity, to sovereignty, to a community’s history and to its future.

Georgia Ennis: Readers might be surprised that in a monograph about Aboriginal Australian radio you do not write a great deal about media in Aboriginal languages. Indeed, early on you explain that for multiple reasons, “Indigenous radio often, paradoxically perhaps, lacks what might be termed appropriate ‘Aboriginal content’” (2016: 50). Rather, you focus especially on the cultural poetics of country music on Aboriginal radio. Why, and in what ways, has country music emerged as such a powerful genre for Aboriginal radio media?  

Daniel Fisher: The first place I spent serious time in Australia was both the biggest Aboriginal radio station in the country, and also one of the biggest and most prominent country music broadcasters. At the time, as I detail in the book, the families who started and ran this station were looking for funding support to amplify their educational work with respect to young Indigenous people in Queensland and northern New South Wales. This meant that they were increasingly entangled with government education agencies and the attendant oversight that comes with acquiring accreditation as an educational institution, and they were also bringing a lot of young Murri kids into the station from around the state to learn broadcasting, the history of Indigenous music and its relation to cultural activism, and the histories of their different communities. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to experience something of this education and socialization alongside of them. Learning about Australia’s intense audit culture, the ways bureaucratic rule marks cultural production in this place, and learning about country and other musics and their history in Indigenous Australia all came together in this space.

Of course Aboriginal engagements with country music have a history that exceeds the walls and political life of this institution. The genre offered a first platform for Indigenous popular musics and also a framework for some of the first Aboriginal protest musics. Jeremy Beckett’s work in the 1960s with Dougie Young, Clinton Walker’s history of the genre in South East and Central Australia, and writer Gayle Kennedy’s recollections all make clear that this was a place of radical cultural intimacy, a place for recognizing one another and giving voice in this form to a set of shared experiences — of movement, labor, dislocation and displacement — that are some of the ready-made themes of the genre as a commercial form. But there is more than simply collective effervescence in these experiences of music making and listening. First, country music is the radio genre par excellence. The genre takes shape on the airwaves, and the airwaves acquire materiality in the carriage of this genre’s musical form. As I detail in the book, if country is big in Aboriginal communities, it also has just a huge non-Indigenous Australian audience. This made it an ideal platform for many of the people I knew whose activist work was dedicated to reaching a mass audience, to making Indigenous perspectives more widely understood and appreciated. And there is more here too in the genre to do with nostalgia, loss, and urbanization. Country music doesn’t just thematize the loss of something like a rural place or a way of life, it can also thematize its own passing, so that as an affecting form country music becomes itself a site of nostalgia, it remembers itself, so to speak. So, many of my friends and interlocutors listened to this music and it took them not simply to another time or place, but also to histories of shared listening, to lives lived with records. It’s a very capacious genre. People love to talk about it, think about it, listen to it, and sing it, and some of the very great highs and rewards of this research were when they did so with me.

Georgia Ennis: Ethnographies of media often highlight production or reception, but not both. However, methodologically, your research seems to have privileged mediatization as the site of ethnographic understanding.  While you focus a great deal on production, you also consider the reception of different media forms, particularly country music. Did your fieldwork include a specific focus on reception, or did this attention emerge from your research with media producers? Has your focus on mediatization allowed you to overcome the dichotomy between production and reception, or do you see such a divide in your work?

Daniel Fisher: Mediatizaton was a central epistemological and methodological framework for the research, more significant in my thinking and questions than either pole of the production/reception dichotomy. But this isn’t to say that I didn’t find productive ways to think with or through the latter. A good deal of work before mine has made the point quite forcefully that the figure of the ‘audience’ is already troubled by its place in media institutions themselves, that media producers are themselves media consumers, and also that the divide between these two moments, as it were, can both be quite consequential ethnographically, crucial for how our interlocutors understand what media are and what they ought to do (as we see in work by Lila Abu Lughod and Faye Ginsburg, to name two prominent examples). This is to say that people have for some time been considering that dichotomy as a methodological and ethnographic question, as a feature of the domains in which they are working, a matter of interest and praxis by our interlocutors. In my work the capacity to empirically define and fix an audience did not present itself as an enormous methodological obstacle, insofar as the audience wasn’t simply something out there as an object that I must uncover, but was always around me, and on one level already there in the institutions, forms, and media artifacts themselves.

I was also spending time in places where this divide could seem minimized by a sense of relatedness between the producer and her audience. I was also moving back and forth as you suggest between sites of production and reception, that is, studios and concerts, cars and clubs and homes, and spending time with people who were themselves listening and often talking, showing with their voices both denotationally, as it were, and in performance different aspects of their listening. So as an empirical, observed phenomenon, reception or consumption or audition, that was very much a part of the world I was engaged in. On the other hand, we can say that the audience exists in part in the form itself, in its appeal, as a proposition or structuring principle. I would underscore that one needs to take care not to confuse the appeal or address of any given media artefact with its purchase, but I was nonetheless quite interested in thinking with form and with media artifacts, in asking what kinds of testimony they might give as kinds of social beings, actants, or agents. Engaging with different media artefacts in conversation with my interlocutors, and learning how to produce these artefacts alongside of them in institutions dedicated to fostering and amplifying an Aboriginal voice was also a means to listen in this way, and it led me to different conceptual questions clustering around problems of mediatization, of mediatization as the co-implication of different forms of mediation – for example, kinship’s capacity to codify or legislate relations and their implications, radio’s capacity to make kinship itself iconic of Aboriginal distinction, and of mediatization as a way of understanding how this exchange remakes radio and the voice itself.

Coleman Nye and Sherine Hamdy on their new graphic novel, Lissa

Lissa

https://utorontopress.com/us/lissa-2

Interview by Perry Sherouse

Perry Sherouse: In your article in George Marcus and Dominic Boyer’s volume on collaborations, you write that “comics – far from “dumbing down” or “simplifying” concepts, could be used to layer on more complexity – through comics, we could play with scale, time, and place.” What complexities of language and place were both of you able to convey in this format that would have been flattened or omitted in a standard, text-only account?

Coleman Nye and Sherine Hamdy: One of the great things we were able to do through comics was attending to fine-grained ethnographic detail without weighing down the pace of the story. We could be very specific about, for example, what people in Egypt eat, how they dress, what their daily concerns are, what traffic is like in Cairo, but show it contextually through the images in a way that enhances and layers the dialogue and action rather than detracting from it in the heavy prose of conventional “thick description.” With images, we could also zoom in and out of different scales — from the microscopic DNA mutations, to Anna as a person, to a wider environment in which toxins impact and predispose us to different cancers — all on the same page, weaving through the connections of cellular processes, personal life histories, and social-political structures that shape how we live. We could also juxtapose times and places, as for example, we see two characters in the US and Egypt on the same page, side-by-side prepping for surgery in very different settings. This invites readers to infer the differences, and also to think through the connections between these political and medical contexts. A great thing about comics is that you don’t need exposition — the reader does a lot of the work of making connections, filling in details, and otherwise populating the spaces between the panels (gutters) for us. Anna’s use of photography let us visually depict the layering of cancer’s timelines — from her mother’s family’s cancer genealogy to her present concerns about her cancer futures — and how through the clicking of her camera, Anna struggled with the temporalities of cancer and genetics. We could also point to characters’ shifts in perspective visually through things like Facebook Feeds — how a list of Anna’s posts shows us the different concerns she’s been grappling with across time and space– concerns about the political violence putting her friends at risk, but also about her own potential of succumbing to the cancer that killed her mother. Through Anna and Layla’s friendship, we could connect broader themes, like the difficulty of making life-and-death ethical decisions, the reduction of women’s health to their reproductive viability — across the U.S. and Egyptian contexts that we depicted, rather than reifying the old divide between the “West” and “the Rest.”

Perry Sherouse: When considering how to include citations to revolutionaries in this visual format, you were careful to think about the politics of representation. How does graphic ethnofiction change the way we think about the aesthetics and politics of citation?

Sherine Hamdy and Coleman Nye: We were drawn to the potential of the graphic novel form to reach a much wider audience — and in so doing, to re-conceptualize what counts as knowledge. It was important for us to cite the work and insights of the revolutionaries which were being produced in ways not generally accepted as “scholarship” — like social political commentary on graffiti throughout the public walls of Cairo and especially in Tahrir Square. We heavily visually cite Egyptian graffiti artists and even had a full-page mural designed by Ganzeer as a way to acknowledge our indebtedness to them in our own approaches and understandings of the revolution, and to signal a wider range of what counts as intellectual contribution. The revolutionaries who were present, in the Square and the streets of Cairo fighting off tear-gas, protecting protesters from military or police violence — they too were contributing to our theories of what counts as political action. Similarly, the doctor-volunteers who set up make-shift “field hospitals” in a city not technically at war — they reconceptualized the idea of “medical neutrality” and impartiality. By having Layla work with Tahrir Doctors in the story and by interviewing real people like Drs. Amr Shebaita and Dina Shokry, getting their feedback on the story, and incorporating them in the book as characters who play themselves, we wanted to acknowledge their political action as a key intellectual contribution to the Revolution, as well as to our book. The comic form allowed us to do that in a novel and exciting way.

Perry Sherouse: What influences are most powerful for you, but are undetectable in your work? [that is, intellectually, who or what brought you to this point?]

Coleman Nye and Sherine Hamdy:  Art Spiegelman’s Maus is an obvious inspiration for its novel use of the comic form to deal with the very serious events of the Holocaust and its aftermath. Persepolis too was wonderful in that it opened a window onto the Iranian revolution through the eyes of a young girl. These influences are probably not “undetectable”! But since neither of us had grown up on comic books as kids, these works opened up the possibilities of what comics could portray and depict. We wanted to extend that work by making it really obvious how it connects to traditional academic scholarship, which is why we mapped out the connections in the appendices. It’s definitely unconventional for comic book producers to provide “teaching material” to accompany their stories, and may even be off-putting for some, in a way that it calls attention to what is ordinarily buried within the story, but we wanted Lissa to break through to academics and provide something of a bridge between the comics and academic world.

Perry Sherouse: Where and how do you write (for example, in a houseboat with a pencil, in bed with an iPad, underground cave with charcoal)? What is essential to your creative process separately, and collaboratively?

Sherine Hamdy and Coleman Nye: This was a funny project because so much of the collaborative writing took place long-distance. Sherine was on the East Coast and Coleman was on the West Coast for all of the early script-writing, which took place in chat and via Skype on a shared google doc. And toward the end, we had one artist on Mountain time and our visual editor Marc Parenteau working from Mongolia, so the coordination was nutty to say the least. But there were wonderful moments of collaborative writing and drawing: in Egypt, we talked through the plot and character design in a range of places, from street markets to meetings with medical students; in Providence, Coleman and Sarula sat in a coffee shop trying to talk/sketch the gene patenting page; and our favorite – Sherine hosted Caroline at her house for a week, while feeding her Egyptian food and modeling different facial expressions for her during the final push of art production.