Fang Xu on her book, Silencing Shanghai

Interview by Andy Zhenzhou Tan

Andy Zhenzhou Tan: The topic of your book – the (potential) loss of a language variety under language standardization – is of wide relevance since the rise of modern nation-states and their monoglot ideologies. What is the distinctiveness of the case of Shanghai and Shanghaihua (the Shanghai dialect) in contrast to, say, those of other regions in China and their dialects? How does this distinctiveness play out historically and in terms of the charged dynamic between the multiple social powers and groups involved? 

Fang Xu: Earlier on during the Republic of China (1912-1949), the creation of a national language and language standardization were justified by their alleged contributions to unifying and modernizing the country and its citizenry. At that time, semi-colonial Shanghai was already cosmopolitan and modern. The lingua franca of the “Paris of the East” was the Shanghai dialect, and thus the classical justification for the creation and imposition of a national language to facilitate industrialization, urbanization, and meeting the demand for a (linguistic) uniform labor force did not necessarily hold in the case of Shanghai. A reference point is Kathyrn Woolard’s work in Barcelona, where the suppressed Catalan during the Franco era (1939-1975) has been a prestigious language throughout the history, and the locals in general fare better economically than the Castilian-speaking migrants. The Shanghai dialect came into shape in a cosmopolitan city in the late 19th and early 20th century, though it is based on Songjiang county’s variation of Wu Chinese.  The origin story sets it apart from other regional dialects, for example, Cantonese. Cantonese can claim a historical, more rooted Chinese-ness that the hybrid and relatively young Shanghai dialect cannot. 

It is the power struggles between not only the state and the people, but also waves of migrants in Shanghai. Shanghai’s unique identity as a migrant city sets it apart from many Chinese cities which can easily claim a history of hundreds of years. In the early 20th century, more than 85% of the urban population was internal migrants, not to mention the segregated and separated urban jurisdiction shared (unequally) between the UK, US, France, China, and later Japan. So at the grander scale, it was the struggle between states in defining the city. In terms of who counts as a Shanghairen, it has been even more contested, based on birthplace, hukou (household registration status), urban residency, or vernacular capacity. As we know, identity claim is never solely about identification, but also about aspiration and desire for something else. Since the early 20th century, due to wars, natural disasters, and economic opportunities, there have been four waves of internal migrants who settled in Shanghai. Their political and socioeconomic conditions vary greatly, e.g., from the Baghdadi Jewish Sassoon family, known as “Rothschilds of the East,” the Soong family, Mao Zedong, and refugees from northern Jiangsu Province fleeing draught and famine in the early 20th century, to talents from across the country meeting the “two high and one low” (high in education and skill level, low in age) standard to obtain a Shanghai hukou in the early 21th century. Hence their rights to identify themselves and power to alter and influence the urban scenes politically, economically, socially, culturally, and linguistically also differ greatly. 

Andy Zhenzhou Tan: The concept “linguistic right to the city” is central to your arguments but not itself thematized. The allocation of linguistic rights and placement of blame for language injustice are complex processes. In these processes, what are your positions towards multiple parties involved? In terms of justice, how would you compare the previous diglossia system in Shanghai and the recent state-initiated collapse of it? Could you reflect on your own positionality in this matter? 

Fang Xu: During my dissertation proposal defense, a Shanghainese rap song I quote in my proposal prompted a committee member to warn me that native Shanghai people’s xenophobia motivated by their heartfelt linguistic loss might come across as KKK-like. The song was widely circulated among online communities of native Shanghai people in the early 2010s. It cried out to preserve the Shanghai dialect and Shanghai’s urban culture. This so-called “Shanghai Anthem” appropriates the melody of the Chinese national anthem “March of the Volunteers” (original lyrics in “[ ]”) and modifies the lyrics to express a growing hostility towards recent migrants to Shanghai. 

[Arise! All those who don’t want to be slaves!]

Arise! All those friends who speak Shanghai dialect!

[Let our flesh and blood forge our new Great Wall!]

Let our language become the roar of Huangpu River!

[As the Chinese people have arrived at their most dangerous time.]

As the Shanghai dialect has arrived at its most dangerous time.

[Every person is forced to expel his very last cry.]

Every Shanghairen is forced to expel his very last cry.

[Arise! Arise! Arise!]

F-ck! F-ck! F-ck!

[Our million hearts beating as one,]

Our million hearts beating as one,

[Brave the enemy’s fire, March on!]

Get rid of all the out-siders, rid of!

[Brave the enemy’s fire, March on!]

Get rid of all the out-siders, rid of!

[March on! March on! On!]

Rid of! Rid of! Rid of!

Being a Shanghai native, it is hard for me not to lament the potential loss of the dialect. But being a Chinese national living in North America for 15+ years has made me keenly aware of the sense of exclusion manifested in urban linguistic space in Shanghai. That’s why I found it important to give voice to the migrants in Shanghai in the last empirical chapter (Ch. 5) of my book. When we think about injustice, we need to look at the positionality of the accuser and the accused, and analyze their lived experiences and their aspirations. The power dynamics experienced during my field research could be telling. I couldn’t help but notice how the dialect preservation activists acted not only in a sexist but also racist way, e.g. suppressing female activists’ voices and participations, or how some activists with somewhat self-claimed linguistic training attributed Mandarin Chinese to a contamination from the barbarian Manchurian – which is a Tungusic language belongs to Altaic family – from the Qing Dynasty. Their xenophobia in guarding the (exclusive) Shanghainese identity was apparent as they jeered and laughed at the migrants’ efforts to acquire the Shanghai dialect, suggesting the latter are climbing the social ladder by faking something they would never be able to achieve – a true insider membership. And people holding such negative opinions are oftentimes those who didn’t fare well in the last 20 years socioeconomically and can no longer afford lots of the consumption spaces or upscale residency in the inner city. So by (re)claiming their linguistic right to the city, they are wielding weapons of the weak, quoting James Scott. That said, linguistic rights to the city are tightly connected with social and economic rights to the city, and certainly beyond housing. 

Andy Zhenzhou Tan: What distinguishes the story you tell from other studies on linguistic change is the important parts accorded to urban developments, geographical and spatial conditions of social interaction, and place attachment. This is captured by the two senses – architectural and linguistic – of the word “vernacular” in your book. Can you give us a glimpse at the intricate relations between urban changes and linguistic loss in Shanghai, especially in the recent decades? 

Fang Xu: There was a common saying in Shanghai quoted in my book that connects languages and the space – public and private – where they are spoken or can be heard: “English is spoken in the Inner Ring, Mandarin is spoken in the Middle Ring, and Shanghai dialect Outer Ring”. The order also corresponds to the outwardly decrease of housing prices. Within one saying, the intricate relations are revealed between social-economic status, urban redevelopment in terms of relocating more than one million households to the periphery and throwing them into the harsh reality of urban political economy of the commercial housing market, and language. Essentially, many native Shanghainese were relocated to the periphery of urban Shanghai, or previously rural counties. The pride and esteem in living in the urban center was gone, as well as the proximity to urban amenities and the urban built environment which set Shanghai apart from the rest of the country and exemplifies (Western) modernity since the early 20th century. They lost the material base and geographical location(marker) to self-aggrandize as Shanghairen (Shanghai people). However the deprivation of privilege should be recognized as a relative one. The displacees’ Shanghai hukou still granted them access to top quality healthcare, education, pension, and a plethora of other benefits. Even these relative privileges have been lost, as internal migrants who have obtained either a Shanghai hukou or a Shanghai Resident Permit have been granted those benefits by the municipal government since the 2000s. The loss felt by native Shanghairen is the exclusive access and claim. In this context, I am trying to tell a story of long-term residents holding onto their (symbolic) ownership of the urban built environment and linguistic space as the only remaining bulwarks of their Shanghainese identity.

Andy Zhenzhou Tan:  As far as I know, your PhD training was in urban sociology. Yet you have written a monograph on a more typically linguistic anthropological/sociolinguistic topic. Despite the rare co-existence of these two disciplines in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, from whom you draw a lot in your book, we may say they have gone in quite different directions thematically and methodologically. What has been your experience of bridging urban sociology and linguistic anthropology/sociolinguistics?

Fang Xu: It has not been easy to convince urban sociologists that the sonic or auditory dimension of urban life matters. There is a branch of urban sociology bridging visual sociology, but language? To the most, some human or cultural geographers. When we think about a diverse or cosmopolitan place, we imagine people from all over the world, presumably speaking different mother tongues, but forced to adopt the mainstream language of the city or society, albeit with various accents. I have been trying to argue that when urban sociologists study (im)migrants or ethnic enclaves, attention should be paid to the languages they speak; or when they talk about residential segregation based on class, race and ethnicity, as well as consumer habits and taste, language spoken/usage should have a place in the investigation. So far, the subjects in those studies predominantly speak perfect Standard American English, or whatever national or official or dominant languages in the societies in question. That is not a true depiction of those people’s everyday lived experience. Generally speaking, the urban soundscape is socially organized and organizing (Atkinson 2007). One of the defining characteristics of cities is its heterogeneity – the other two being size and density (Louis Wirth 1938). Lewis Mumford (1937-1996) also advises urbanists to pay attention to the “theatre of social action.” However, what we have read so far are in subjects’ words, but not in their own voices. My monograph Silencing Shanghai and a recent piece about the urban sonic landscape I am working on with a few cultural geographers in Europe are both attempts to put these critical insights into practice. 

I do feel this inbetween-ness in my scholarly life, as well as in my personal life, being an immigrant in the U.S., and when I go back to Shanghai and do not hear my mother tongue spoken on the streets of my hometown. However, I see the rarity of such interdisciplinarity as the strength of my work, and the direction of my future pursuit. There is also an echo between my work and my fieldsite in terms of their hybridity. Shanghai is indeed an urban laboratory in many ways different from other cities in China, but not dissimilar to other global cities. Like NYC, it is one of a kind, and deserves much more scholarly attention.

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako on Fabricating Transnational Capitalism

Fabricating Transnational Capitalism

Interview by Janet Connor

https://www.dukeupress.edu/fabricating-transnational-capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kimberly Chong on her new book, Best Practice

Best Practice

Interview by Johannes Lenhard

https://www.dukeupress.edu/best-practice

Johannes Lenhard: Your book is continuing a so far relatively short line of monographs in anthropology started by perhaps Caitlin Zaloom (Out of the Pits, 2006), Bill Maurer (Mutual Life, 2005) and Karen Ho (Liquidated, 2009) tackling the wide sector of finance. What is your specific focus and intervention in the anthropology of finance with your study of management consultants in China? 

 Kimberly Chong: Although there is an established anthropological literature on high finance, by which I mean the work and expertise of finance professionals such as investment bankers, traders, and fund managers, rather less has been said about how financial value, financial logics and financial ideologies get transposed into non-financial spheres. In Best Practice I look to provide a corrective of sorts, by examining the work of financialization practiced by management consultants in China.

My research can be divided into two parts. Firstly, my book provides a close range analysis of how labour and work has been transformed under the aegis of financialization. I am interested in the forms of evaluation that management consultants instantiate in their clients, as part of their endeavour to create ‘high performance organizations,’ and which link notions of performance to financial value. Moreover, I explore how this linkage is circumscribed by practices of organizing and managing, and how it leads to the devaluation of certain kinds of labour. As well as being poorly paid, such labour is rendered precarious and vulnerable to outsourcing. Secondly, my book examines the specific instantiation of financializing a hitherto non-financial entity. The global management consultancy in which I carried out fieldwork was parachuted into Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to prepare them for initial public offering on international stock exchanges. It has been hired to install IT systems which are designed to operationalize ‘value-based management’, that is management with the overarching objective of creating shareholder value. Yet, as I demonstrate in the book, the way in which the consultants, most of whom are actually Chinese nationals, understand their work is not in terms of evangelising the gospel of shareholder value, but rather as a dream of state capitalism. They see their work as making SOEs, and by extension China, into a paradise – a place of modernity and development, on a par with advanced Western nations. This does not necessarily represent a weakening of, or disruption to, processes of financialization, rather I show that local structures of meaning can be appropriated to enact financialization.

Johannes Lenhard:-  You position your book squarely at the intersection of the anthropological study of ethics and the economy (closely related to Max Cam); what I would want to know more about is how you think about economic ethics (as opposed to ordinary ethics or the ethic of the ethical turn for instance)? What does ethics mean in the realm of the economy? 

Kimberly Chong: I carried out fieldwork during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the 2007/8 financial crisis. During that time I was disturbed by narratives, from the media and within academia, which suggested that the financial crisis was somehow causally linked to a kind of moral deviance. People were too greedy! We need more women in finance! The problem with these kinds of arguments is that they fail to recognise that the very system in which financiers are operating legitimate and circumscribe certain forms of action. As Janet Roitman has argued robustly, perhaps the financial crisis was not a crisis at all but rather the financial system working as it was intended. If that is so, then changing the people would not be the solution. Also, it would be very difficult for management consultants to do their jobs if they really thought they were perpetually creating harm, waste, or fraud. This became even clearer to me when, in another research project, I studied the decision-making of fund managers. For both management consultants and fund managers, it is important to have a belief that their actions are the right thing to do, or at the very least, have positive efficacy of sorts. I’m not saying that what they do is always right but having the belief that it is right or commendable in some way, is very important if management consultants are to stay management consultants. The way in which they claim moral righteousness or ethical legitimacy for their actions, may, of course, vary between different actors.

In terms of approach, I analyse how ethical coordinates for action are produced through systems which involve both people and things – documents, charts, IT interfaces – through which value is ascribed and produced. I show how economic value is always produced in concert with ethical values, the latter serving to legitimate the production of the former. As exemplified by the trope ‘best practice’, management consulting is the business of creating ethical injunctions through which their interventions are judged and valued, but then naturalized as value-free (in other words, ‘the best’).

Johannes Lenhard: Similar to Stein’s closely related monograph on consultants in Germany, you also have a strong focus on the idea of work. What kind of work is it that consultants are performing (also in relation to Graeber’s notion of ‘bullshit jobs’)? What’s the significance of that work particularly in the Chinese context and how do you see that work (and its impact) changing? 

Kimberly Chong: I start the book with a vignette which shows new consultants learning to face down the tricky question of what management consultants do. This is presented as almost unanswerable in part because of the rather particular nature of  management consulting which I argue is highly performative in character. By performative I mean, following the likes of Judith Butler and Michel Callon, that consultants are in the business of producing – performing – economic realities in which they can substantiate their claims to expertise, and thus the legitimacy of their interventions.

So what does that mean in practice? A lot of management consulting is about selling and instantiating systems of evaluation, or ‘performance management,’ which allow them to make claims about improving efficiency, and create imperatives to restructure, outsource or downsize. These systems generate a huge amount of work to run and maintain – there are people whose job it is to set up the system, others who monitor it, others who create policies to optimise performance within it. And for people whose performance is being measured, such systems significantly impact their experience of work which then becomes subordinated to the fulfilment of performance targets and legible measures of productivity.

Although Graeber doesn’t mention management consultants specifically, it is probably not unreasonable to say that they have fundamentally changed the nature of work, especially given the scale of their influence – there are few large organizations that haven’t hired a management consultancy at some point. Certainly, consultants have helped to produce jobs whose value is so tightly hewed to the production of certain kinds of representations – such as ‘best practice’, ‘high performance’ – that the content of these jobs becomes hollowed out of meaning.

In China the emphasis on performance marks a shift away from organizations run by principles of hierarchy and political or social connections. Many of my interlocutors told me they wanted to work in a global consultancy because they deemed it to be fairer, more meritocratic, and they explicitly linked these claims to performance management. In many ways they pose an interesting counterpart to the ‘bullshit jobs’ view; although many of them did question impact of their work on their clients, the meaning of their jobs came from the broader frames of value in which they were inscribed. As well as being more meritocratic, some Chinese consultants appreciated consulting as a way of honing their professionalism and expertise. Denigrated under socialism, expertise has been rehabilitated in the post-Mao era, and the fortifying of one’s professional capacities, even if this is done in a global company rather than domestic one, is seen as a means of contributing to the nation and China’s strength.

Johannes Lenhard:- I am also curious about documents in the consultants’ jobs. They use PowerPoint slides (both electronically and in print-outs) a lot.  How do people talk about expertise in relationship to these slides?  Were some people considered more skilled than others with PowerPoint, and how did people assess that skill? And given that these slides were so ubiquitous, how did these documents function to shape the work day and flow of information? 

Kimberly Chong: One cannot overstate the importance of PowerPoint! It was the main medium of written communication, not just with clients, but also within the consultancy. This meant that everyone developed their skill in using PowerPoint– support staff like HR, as well as consultants. Moreover, the legitimacy of one’s expertise was tightly linked to the use of PowerPoint, and this included my own expertise – in the book I mention how I had to present my own pitches for access and research collaboration through PowerPoint. So yes it was ubiquitous. At the same time, some PowerPoints are more important than others, an obvious example is the proposals for new business, which are very slick. Although within academia it’s fashionable to talk down PowerPoint, my time in consulting has meant I have seen what can be achieved with this technology. Or rather despite this technology. PowerPoint is not a graphic design software, which makes it very hard to make visually spectacular documents. It was not uncommon to have slide decks with over one hundred overlaid images – tiny arrows, shapes, lines – which would comprise intricate diagrams, flow charts, graphical representations. This is meticulous work and requires painstaking attention to detail.

One might wonder how useful it is to have highly educated employees spending so much time doing what is essentially intricate formatting work. However, these documents were crucial to performing and enacting economic realities. As I show in the book, PowerPoint diagrams such as ‘Change Tracking Map’ constitute a kind of epistemological intervention through which consultants substantiate certain claims about their expertise. Other PowerPoints play an important role in training consultants and socialising them into particular ideas of their own control and potency in conditions of uncertainty. For example, in training they are exposed to slides that contain charts and graphs which model the delicate matter of client relations in a pseudo-scientific manner.

Johannes Lenhard: Finishing with a methodological question, let’s talk about elites. You had issues with access which is nothing new when ‘studying up.’ Continuing an ongoing debate re-invigorated by among others Souleles, what were your specific issues with accessing your informants? What did you do about them and what were you still not able to do and study? 

Kimberly Chong: There were many challenges. I networked tirelessly for six months before I obtained access to a global management consultancy and my problems didn’t end once I had my entry pass. As all ethnographers of organizations know, access has to be continually negotiated and renegotiated during fieldwork, and at all levels of the hierarchy. Second, there was the challenge of studying an extremely large organization, which at the time, had over 4000 employees in its China arm. Third, how do you get people to talk to you in an environment where confidentiality is highly prized and where people come and go all the time (as consultants ‘roll on and off’ client projects)? I felt strongly that I needed ‘legitimacy’ – a position within the organization that allowed my interlocutors to make sense of me, and thus feel comfortable talking to me about their work.

The way I managed these multiple challenges was by collaborating with the consultancy. I become a member of its Human Capital Strategy Programme which was described to me as an initiative of ‘corporate culture’, hence certain employees felt that, as an anthropologist, I’d be well suited to joining. But this did not solve all my problems. Although I was able to obtain access to their ‘client sites’ which is where consultants actually spend most of their time, I was never allowed to speak to their clients and ask them what they thought about the interventions that were being prescribed to them. This was perhaps inevitable, given I was dependent on the management consultancy, and thus would not be allowed to do anything that could potentially compromise their relationship with clients. But having restricted or partial access is, to some extent, the same for all anthropological research. We can never have as much access as I we would like, and often one’s positionality has a big effect on what we can see and participate in. I don’t see this as a problem, as long we are clear about this in our writing.

Lastly, I want to mention something that isn’t often written about and that is the pace of fieldwork when your interlocutors are very busy people working under intense pressure. Because I could almost blend in with my interlocutors – I was a similar age, ethnicity, and educational background – I did. At one point I had worked four months with not one day off, like many management consultants do, and was still writing fieldnotes in the evening. In the end I paid the price with my own health – both in terms of physical and mental health. Looking back, I realise that in some ways the ethnographic method isn’t suited to this kind of fieldsite, and this is something that we should be cognisant of, and we should modify our methods accordingly. For me, I think taking regular breaks from the field, and not feeling like I should stay as long as possible, would have been helpful.

 

 

 

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.

Gil Hizi is a lecturer of Anthropology and an Australian Anthropological Society’s postdoctoral fellow at the University of Sydney. Gil’s work focuses on the expansion of person-centred pedagogies in urban China, mostly in regard to changing conceptions of personhood and the affective aspects of contemporary self-cultivation. He has published his research findings in Asian Studies Review, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, Asian Anthropology, Continuum, and China: An International Journal. You can reach him by email at gil.hizi@sydney.edu.au.

Gabriele de Seta’s Postdigital China

Page 99 of my doctoral thesis Dajiangyou: Media practices of vernacular creativity in postdigital China is a messy microcosm that is yet quite representative of the whole dissertation. The page is positioned right at the beginning of the fourth chapter, in which I try to describe “contemporary China’s postdigital media ecologies” through the local tech buzzword weishidai [‘micro-era’], a historical moment

in which the Internet, fragmented, ubiquitous and personalized, disappears in the fabric of everyday life.

Even when read in isolation, this page feels as overbearing as the rest of the thesis, my writing rushing through composite terms and neologisms I deploy in order to pin down glimpses of the sociotechnical reality I thought I witnessed during my sparse months of fieldwork. The first couple of paragraphs are a really bad example of terminological proliferation in social science writing – hardly giving words any room to breathe, I propose a flurry of concepts: “technomorphology”, “weishidai”, “technological imaginary”, “postdigital”, “post-media” and “post-Internet”. Cobbling together my dissertation in a disciplinary context that emphasized ethnographic mystique over theoretical debate, the lexical flourishes offered by barely digested media theory readings made me feel sharper and safer.

My writing then moves to a couple of fieldwork impressions, but only after reframing my whole research project through a disillusioned self-reflection:

I traveled to different locations in Mainland China looking forward to collect the insights of media-savvy and enthusiastic Internet users, expecting to give voice to strong opinions on digital media and their culture. Instead, as time went on, I realized that most people I was talking to deemed my research topic to be extremely vague or not groundbreaking at all: some noticed the importance of an Internet connection only when it didn’t work, to then quickly realize they didn’t even know what they really wanted to use it for (Fig. 35); others were active content creators on different digital media platforms, yet didn’t have much to say about it: “Yes, feel free to use my photos. As for your questions, I would love to help you, but I really don’t have any opinion, I don’t want to disappoint you” (ZuoYou, May 2014, Shanghai).

Eventually, I didn’t use one any of my friend’s photos, and his opinions – even if articulated in small talk rather than formal interviews – kept informing my writing over the years. When I last saw him in Shanghai a few months ago, we spent an entire dinner talking about livestreaming apps.

gabriele.04.boredom

Figure 35, which appears at the bottom of the page, is a composite of screengrabs from social media posts made by another friend over a six-hour span during which her VPN (Virtual Private Network) software stopped working. Unable to access Facebook, she laments “the hopelessness of not being able to connect to the Internet” through a Chinese-language post on her WeChat account. When her VPN comes back online after a few hours, she writes an English-language post on Facebook noting how “have the network the but again don’t know what to do”. Besides the evident design similarities between the two platforms, and her decision to use different languages on each of them, this constructed image evokes the pragmatic use of software to circumvent Chinese Internet censorship while also resonating with a self-aware disenchantment about the feeling of purposelessness resulting from digital media use.

The page ends with the heading of section 4.2.1, “After digital media”. I clearly remember titling this section as a nod to Mark Hobart’s volume After culture: Anthropology as radical metaphysical critique. His use of the term “after”, in turn inspired by Johannes Fabian, is echoed by Florian Kramer’s definition of “post-digital” as

a contemporary disenchantment with digital information systems and media gadgets, or a period in which our fascination with these systems and gadgets has become historical […].

If page 99 of my dissertation manages to make a point about postdigital China, I hope it is the following: after digital media, there is more digital media.

de Seta, Gabriele. 2015. Dajiangyou: Media practices of vernacular creativity in postdigital China. PhD dissertation. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong, China.

free download of dissertation available here: https://www.academia.edu/25790317/Dajiangyou_Media_practices_of_vernacular_creativity_in_postdigital_China

Gabriele de Seta is a media anthropologist. He holds a PhD in Sociology from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan. His research work, grounded on ethnographic engagement across multiple sites, focuses on digital media practices and vernacular creativity in China and Taiwan. He is also interested in experimental music scenes, internet art, and collaborative intersections between anthropology and art practice. You can reach him at notsaved@live.com. More information is available on his website http://paranom.asia.