Sarah Muir on her new book, Routine Crisis

Routine Crisis: An Ethnography of Disillusion, Muir

https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/R/bo69688117.html

Interview by Kabir Tambar

Kabir Tambar: Routine Crisis is about the aftermath of the economic collapse in Argentina in 2001-2002. What is the significance of focusing your analysis not on the period that we conventionally think of as the crisis itself but more on the years that followed?

Sarah Muir: A lot of people have written about the years of the crisis itself. My aim in focusing on the post-crisis period wasn’t simply to do something different, but to ask how something like a “crisis” becomes a recognizable event, with a particular significance. The premise of the book is that an event doesn’t snap into formation once and for all; rather, an event is continually and recursively constituted through semiotic processes that we can trace. Its spatial and temporal boundaries, its internal poetic structure, its relevant contextualization, its implications and significance–none of these inhere within a particular set of developments, and all of them must be constituted in interactions and interpretations. Benjamin used the image of the tiger’s leap to describe how things from the past can suddenly leap into the present, infusing the present with new possibilities for the future. I wanted to explore that open-endedness of an event’s historical significance and political possibility in concrete, empirical detail.

Kabir Tambar: The title of your book confronts the reader with a startling paradox, and it points precisely to this unsettled nature of eventhood. While it is not difficult to imagine a situation where the routines of everyday life have come under crisis (a crisis of routine, let us say), it is much less obvious to think of crisis as something that has become routinized (hence “routine crisis”). If a crisis of routine might belong to an exceptional moment, a routine crisis carries the full weight of a normalized historical patterning. Can you discuss what is at stake in thinking of our historical moment in terms of this fraught conceptual pairing?

Sarah Muir:  At least since Marx, there has been a robust tradition of approaching capitalism as a system of perpetual crisis, in which a boom-bust logic propels things forward, with crisis serving as the means of reproducing, in somewhat altered form, the social world. What’s striking is that, in Argentina, the centrality of crisis to capitalism is not only an idea that leftist intellectuals entertain. To the contrary: Argentina has been so thoroughly constituted by over a century of repetitive economic crises that the centrality of crisis has long been a palpable, lived fact for all kinds of people. As a result, crisis has become a touchstone that people use to orient themselves as they grapple with the world around them, as they consider questions and make decisions about issues national and intimate, momentous and mundane. In this sense, crisis has become folded into the routines of daily life as the one thing you can count on. My aim was to trace both the emergence and the consequences of that paradox, one that we can now find not only in Argentina, but in many other places as well.

Kabir Tambar: One of the ways that you study this lived experience of routine crisis is through the concept of “crisis talk.” This concept seems crucial to the methodological orientation of the book as a whole. How does attention to language frame your understanding of economic collapse?

Sarah Muir:  Very early in my research, it was obvious that people talked constantly about the 2001-2002 crisis, and that this talk was surprising in two ways. First, it was extraordinarily repetitive, so much so that I quickly found I could predict how a given bit of commentary would unfold. Second, this continual chatter about the crisis didn’t diverge along familiar sociological and ideological lines; people with wildly different backgrounds and commitments talked in remarkably similar ways. Both things struck me as odd until I realized that crisis talk worked as a kind of ritual, one that knitted together particular aspects of recent history into a highly stylized narrative. This narrative worked to ground both speaker and listener in the temporal rhythm of routine crisis. What I try to do in the book is show how that ritual of crisis talk allowed routine crisis to orient economic, political, and even interpersonal practices. In other words, this talk was the site where the crisis of 2001-2002 was constituted (over and over again) as a determinate event with a particular significance. And, it was only by attending to language as a crucial mode of consequential social practice that I could start teasing apart the dynamics of the post-crisis period.

Kabir Tambar: For me, one of the most intellectually creative and generative moments in the book arises in your analysis of corruption. You argue that discourses about corruption in Argentina can be profitably analyzed through anthropological theories of witchcraft. How did you come to make this connection? What sort of work were you reading when you started to develop this formulation?

Sarah Muir:  It isn’t entirely on the surface all the way through, but Nancy Munn’s Fame of Gawa permeates my approach to all the themes I explore in the book. When I first read it, it absolutely bowled me over in the possibilities it opens up for understanding the constitution of time, space, and personhood. It gave me tools for imagining how we could take an idea like Bakhtin’s notion of chronotope and use it in detailed anthropological analysis. While I hadn’t anticipated studying corruption, the topic was omnipresent during my fieldwork. I kept coming back to the way Munn describes Gawan witchcraft as the rapacious consumption of a community’s very capacity to produce value. That notion of witchcraft sounded very much like the way Argentines talked about corruption as eroding the conditions of possibility of national belonging. And, theorizing corruption with respect to value helped me see how it was bound up with the ways Argentines dealt not only with obviously financial and economic matters, but also with political institutions and interpersonal relations.

Kabir Tambar: This endemic and diffuse problem of producing value seems also to lead to a prevalent sensibility toward history, one that you refer to as disillusion with the promises of progress and modernity. It strikes me that one might view this sensibility as entailing a withdrawal from politics. But my sense from your book is that my presumption of depoliticization might be made in haste. Can you talk about whether this historical sensibility harbors a possibility for a kind of politics or a distinctive way of relating to political activity?

Sarah Muir:  I don’t think one would be wrong to see depoliticization in the sensibility of disillusion, and there are absolutely important elements of that in the material in the book. And yet, it’s not the whole story. Even as people would proclaim themselves to be fully disillusioned and even as they would reject out of hand the notion that politics might be an arena for legitimate engagement, they also were constantly engaging with political matters. However, the upshot of those politics, whether they skewed right or left, was entirely underdetermined. Looking beyond Argentina, I’m struck by the way disillusion with institutions of various sorts can give rise to intensified demands to raze things to the ground and start anew (for example, the conversation around whether to “let Anthropology burn”) as well as to quiescent withdrawal (for example, Voltaire’s oft-cited quip about tending one’s own garden). So, disillusion doesn’t amount to depoliticization. But it does amount to relationships to politics–and to social life more broadly–that are very different from modernist accounts of history, progress, and utopia.

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson on her dissertation

My dissertation, titled “Language Use and Global Media Circulation Among Argentine Fans of English-Language Mass Media”, explores the links between globalization, media/pop culture, and language through a study of Argentine fans of massive English language media and pop cultural franchises. I look at how Argentine fans of franchises like Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Supernatural orient to English as a semiotic resource made available through these texts—and how engagement with globally-circulating media fandoms offers a venue for working out local ideas of class status and Argentina’s position within global cultural flows (Appadurai 1996).

Page 99 (which is the PDF page 99 and the “real” page 99—I purposefully arranged my pagination in this way to avoid potential mis-matches like that) bridges two data excerpts that I use to give ethnographic detail about how orientations to subtitling vs. dubbing relate to Argentine notions of socioeconomic status. (For clarity’s sake, I’ll include the data that appears on page 98; for length’s sake I’ll leave out Excerpt 17, which essentially makes the same point as Excerpt 16).

Excerpt 15. “Las voces originales”

1 me gusta el sonido original (.) las voces originales (.) I like the original sound (.) the original voices (.)
2 el tratamiento de sonidos (.) como te dije yo había the way the sounds are (.) like I said before I’ve
3 estudiado antes (.) sé que se pierde algo pasando al studied [English] before (.) I know you lose things
4 castellano y no (.) prefiero ir no sé ir a otro cine pero translating to Spanish and no (.) I’d rather I
5 (.) ver los subtítulos (.) sí dunno go to another theatre but (.) to see the
6   subtitles (.) yeah

 

This comment frames a preference for subtitled English-language media as a result of advanced instruction in English (lines 2-3). And indeed, as I have mentioned before, most of my participants have exceptional proficiency in English, largely due to self- teaching efforts rather than a particularly strong English-language education program in Argentina’s public schools. Pointing also to discourses of “maturity” that were mentioned earlier, these statements frame preference for subtitles as a stance held by people who “know better”.

Of course, what these comments elide are the fact that access to high-quality English language education in Argentina is class-stratified. As discussed throughout this section, English language classrooms in public schools leave much to be desired, so unless one’s family has enough disposable income to pay for attendance at an instituto, there are limited resources for developing the kind of linguistic proficiency that is presumed necessary to “prefer” subtitling to dubbing. Still, commentary that explicitly invokes the role of class in preferences for linguistic mode of media consumption did come up. See, for instance, these two comments from online surveys in Excerpts 16 and 17.

Excerpt 16. “Una disposición estatal”

 

1 Hace un par de años las producciones originalmente A few years ago productions originally in English
2 en inglés solían subtitularse, ahora suelen consumirse tended to be subtitled, now they tend more to be
3 más dobladas en la televisión por cable o abierta, consumed dubbed on cable or public broadcast tv,
4 dado a una disposición estatal que buscaba el because of a government program to develop the
5 desarrollo de la industria del doblaje y favorecer dubbing industry and favor Spanish-language
6 contenido en español. Por lo general, los doblajes son content. In general, the dubs are good and faithful
7 buenos y fieles al material original, prefiero las to the original material, I prefer the subtitled
8 versiones subtituladas dado que considero que a versions because I think that sometimes certain
 9 veces ciertos significados originales pueden perderse meanings can get lost in translation. Subtitles tend
10 en la traducción. La subtitulación suele preferirse en to be preferred in higher socio-economic classes
11 estratos socio-económicos más altos (los que llegado (even among those who can understand without
12 al caso incluso pueden entender sin la necesidad de subtitles, depending on their competency in
13 requerir subtítulos, dependiendo de su competencia English), in contrast to dubbing.
14 con el inglés) al contrario del doblaje.  

Because the chapter this page appears in is focused on tracing the major ideological frameworks through which Argentineans think about the role of “English” in their country, it doesn’t capture how this plays out in the way Argentine fans of these media franchises construct their identities as fans (that’s Chapter 4), or how fans will creatively reinterpret/recontextualize/remix globally-circulating media texts in a way that feels iconically “Argentine” (that’s Chapter 5). But by and large I do feel that this section nicely represents some of the major themes of my dissertation.

One such theme is the balancing of binaristic tensions—educated vs. uneducated, monolingual vs. bilingual, local vs. global—and how these get worked out through the perception and use of language. Another key theme of my dissertation highlighted here is how media and pop culture are used to make sense of people’s everyday life experiences. The speakers in Excerpts 15 and 16 have constructed cultural narratives that legitimize or justify certain modes of media consumption as indicative of particular class or educational backgrounds—and in the case of Excerpt 16, how such narratives are perpetuated by the state! At least in a superficial way, page 99 shows a glimmer of how English-language pop culture is made (linguistically) relevant to Argentineans’ every day lives.

 Valentinsson, Mary-Caitlyn. 2019. “Language Use and Global Media Circulation Among Argentine Fans of English-Language Mass Media”. University of Arizona, Ph.D. Dissertation.

References

Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

 

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson, Ph.D is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Appalachian State University. Her work focuses on the social circulation of language, pop culture, fandom, and social media. Find her work at mcvalentinsson.com or on Twitter @DrMCV.

 

 

 

Ieva Jusionyte on her new book, Savage Frontier

Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border by [Jusionyte, Ieva]

Jusionyte, Ieva. 2015. Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Interview by Ilana Gershon

What led you to study the conjunction between security and news reporting in this particular town?

I have first heard about the region encompassing parts of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay–commonly called “tri-border area” or “triple frontier”–through the media. It was portrayed as a dangerous place, a haven of organized crime, where trafficking of drugs and people, contraband, and money laundering were rampant. Having worked as a news reporter, I was aware that journalists tend to write stories that fit into larger narratives, which media organizations adjust depending on market logic as well as on their relationship with the government. We know that the media can both work as a propaganda machine, serving to uphold state ideologies, and it can be used as a watchdog on the political and economic establishment. My decision to go to the tri-border area was motivated by a wish to understand how local journalists, who live in the town about which they write, maneuver and maintain the boundary that divides illegal activities into two categories: those that can be made into news and those that must remain public secrets. Unlike reporters sent by national or international media, who come to the border looking for sensational stories and often reproduce the narrative of the violent and savage frontier, local journalists are also residents of the area, so they are directly invested in solving existing problems of crime and insecurity in their neighborhoods at the same time that they seek to depict the place as a safe destination for tourists. In the book, I show the day-to-day realities of journalists, as they balance between making news and making security, and argue that media practices in a remote border area must be understood within the historical context of state violence in the region.

How does turning to news-making as a fieldsite illuminate a distinctive connection between national identity and national security?

News-making is a key site in which national identity is produced and through which it is circulated. The idea that the press serves as a vehicle for creating nations as “imagined communities” is attributed to Benedict Anderson, and although his thesis has drawn criticism regarding the historical accuracy of his claims as they apply to Latin America, it continues to illuminate the process and the conditions of nation-building. Perhaps nowhere is this as clear as it is in the borderlands, at the edges of nation-state sovereignty, where the airwaves of one country compete against those of its neighbor’s. In the second half of the 20th century, when Argentina, Brazil, and other states in the region became concerned with national security (this was especially notable during the military regimes), the governments began paying much more attention to media broadcasters in border areas: investing in radio and television infrastructure, as a means to spread political discourses emanating from the state’s capital, was akin to defending the nation against a foreign invasion–one that was not carried out by an army of soldiers but advanced by cultural programming. In the tri-border area, this competition was between Argentine and Paraguayan media, transmitting in Spanish, and Brazilian media, transmitting in Portuguese. This battle over airwaves is still ongoing: complaints that signals from more potent Brazilian antennas were interfering with Argentine radio and television broadcasts were recurrent issues debated in town council meetings during my fieldwork–a proof that in the border region questions of national identity and national security continue to be highly contested to this day.

How do journalists’ symbiotic relationships with security forces such as police and military officers affect how crime is reported?

Security forces have a strong presence in the border area and they provide a substantial amount of news material for the local media, covering a wide range of topics, from routine crime investigations to military ceremonies and parades to large-scale intelligence operations. It is a symbiotic relationship because journalists need stories (reporters are often asked to produce half a dozen news pieces per day), while security forces want good publicity of their work and readily provide the media with interviews and press releases. However, this convenient arrangement means that journalists rarely ask difficult questions, for example, regarding police impunity, corruption, and complicity with criminal actors and organizations. Usually, crime stories are authored and authorized by the security forces, with the media serving merely as the outlet for circulating the official version of events to the public. But not all towns in the tri-border area are alike. Compared to the Argentine border town of Puerto Iguazú, where local news organizations are rather weak, do not have resources or training to do investigative journalism, and cannot protect reporters if they decided to pursue such stories, some media companies in Ciudad del Este, a larger city on the Paraguayan side of the border, have done important investigations into organized crime. Nevertheless, due to corruption that entangles politicians, business owners, law enforcement, and even the media, critical crime reporting remains severely limited in the region.

Often what is illegal is still socially acceptable, and especially in your fieldsite of a border town. How did journalists engage with this tension?  Did the medium the journalist was using – text or video – affect how they negotiated this tension?

Difference between practices that are legal or illegal and legitimate or illegitimate was very important for my attempt to understand how journalists decided what became news and what information was to remain off the record, as a public secret. Socially legitimate, albeit illegal activities, such as food contraband or smuggling of fuel, were rarely covered in the media. Journalists did not report on practices in which they (or their families, or neighbors) frequently participated. Even the tools of media production–cameras, cassettes, computers–were regularly bought in Paraguay and brought across the border into Argentina illegally, avoiding taxes and other import prohibitions. On rare occasions, when illegal and socially legitimate activities became the subject of news stories, the print media had an advantage over television and even over radio. I learnt this while working on an episode about irregular adoptions and child trafficking for an investigative television program “Proximidad”: people were more willing to share what they knew when the interaction between journalists and residents did not entail the use of cameras or voice recorders.

One of the themes in your book is a running comparison between being a journalist and an ethnographer, and you managed to be both in this Argentinean border town.  You also talk a great deal about how difficult it was to move knowledge that was generally known but not openly discussed into the public sphere.   Could you discuss whether it is a different process for a journalist and for an ethnographer, and if so, how?

Anthropologists and journalists both face the challenge of making knowledge that is familiar to few available to others, but it is important to recognize that our work follows professional standards and ethics that may diverge. Journalists must protect their sources, just as ethnographers promise confidentiality and anonymity to their research participants, so from the point of view of those asking the questions and observing behavior the difference is not that obvious. Yet people who agree to disclose sensitive information, to share their private stories, see a difference between a reporter and an ethnographer. On the one hand, people are more familiar with news media as a genre of representation, and this familiarity can help build trust, although it could also undermine it–people are aware that the media sensationalizes issues. Anthropology, on the other hand, is a mystery. When I arrived to start ethnographic fieldwork, people were reluctant to talk to me about anything illegal because they did not understand what the information would be used for: Would I give it to the media, to the police, or to the government? Would the effects of making it public hurt them? With time, as research participants begin to trust the anthropologist, they are more comfortable sharing what they know. But then it is up to the anthropologist to decide what to do with this newly acquired, sometimes dangerous knowledge. Unlike journalists, who publish stories in order to draw attention to an issue, such as drug smuggling or domestic violence, in hopes that public knowledge about it would lead to changing social or political circumstances that make it possible, anthropologists often use the knowledge they gather to engage in internal theoretical debates with other scholars. This scope of our work, limited to circulating the findings within the academe, is not always clear to the people who share their lives with us, sometimes in anticipation that their knowledge could change the status quo. Of course, there are anthropologists–sometimes called engaged anthropologists or public anthropologists–who try to reach out to broader audiences, make their publications part of public debates on current issues, and push for policy changes, but this public engagement is not (or not yet) considered a defining feature of the discipline.