Claire Maree on her book, queerqueen

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/queerqueen-9780190869618

Laura Miller: Although there is a growing literature on queer sexualities and identities in Japan, there are fewer studies devoted to queer linguistics in the English language scholarship. Your book is very accessibly written yet is firmly planted within both of these research domains. What inspired you to work on a project that would address this research gap, yet still not require extensive knowledge of the Japanese language on the part of the reader? 

Claire Maree: I am delighted, and somewhat relieved to learn that the book is accessible to readers. As a key aspect of this research project is examining the rich social semiotics of script manipulation and design elements of popular media texts in Japan, I really wanted to be able to convey that to readers. So, I came up with a complex system of transcription symbols for the written texts, and for the script that appears in the audiovisual media as well. When combined with the conventions used for transcriptions of spoken texts, I was hoping that this would provide an insight into the layerings of meaning inscribed onto many contemporary media texts.

Language is a fundamental component of representation and performance of a wide diversity of genders and sexualities. Focusing specifically on Japan, research on conduct literature illustrates how notions about how one must (or must not) speak and communicate are overwhelming tied to gendered notions of personhood. Communicating as a successful businessperson, a caring parent, an attractive potential marriage partner are entangled with understandings of what it is to be a businessperson, a parent, a marriage partner. Moral panics that circulate around correct language use are regimented by cisgender, heteronormative, able-bodied, middle-to-upper-middle-class, urban centered ideologies of selfhood and citizenship. Subversion of these ideologies is also done with and through language. Creative use of and manipulation of language within queer communities is one such example. In this project I am interested in cultural practices that commodify such practices and mobilize them within mainstream cultural flows.

Laura Miller: You analyze the figure of the Japanese “queerqueen” through linguistic performance and media representations. For those not familiar with this term, could you describe what it means in your book?  

Claire Maree: queerqueen figures are flamboyant and creative individuals who offer wickedly acerbic commentary of popular culture and personalities. I take the term from a particular moment in contemporary Japanese culture when the so-called “queen-personality” (onē-kyara) saturated lifestyle media, and in particular the make-over genre. The term “queen” (onē) emerges from queer culture and the term entered mainstream consciousness around the turn of the millennium. Despite being touted as a “new” phenomenon, the queen-personality (onē-kyara) figure can be under understood as recycling a familiar cultural trope—that of the (sometimes) cross-dressing, (sometimes) cross-speaking figure who is a hybrid of men-who-love-men and the effeminate queer man.  

The term queerqueen is written in lowercase throughout the book. This is to avoid formulating a fixed, characterization of queerqueen and avoid it being used a static nomenclature. Rather, I aim to examine how the queerqueen has historically been inscribed into popular media texts through processes and practices of language-labour. That is, through collaborative practices such as transcription and editing. This collaborative work arranges specific linguistic stylizations to appear as authentic representation of personalities who are positioned as queerqueen figures.  These are curated as linguistic excess. The linguistic excess exceeds conventions of written and spoken Japanese—something that is both delightfully entertaining and politically subversive, and also in need of constant taming.

Laura Miller: You talk about the ways queerqueen linguistic performances are commodified and packaged. For example, there are a number of spectacular star-queens promoted by the Japanese culture industry. Can you tell us a little about one of them?   

Claire Maree: One writer and personality who has emerged as a super-star queerqueen figure in contemporary mainstream media culture is Matsuko Deluxe. Matsuko is a prolific columnist who gained mainstream popularity in the early 2000s, before transforming into the face of variety programs in the mid-2010s. The title of his collection of columns published in 2001 as I am Matsuko Deluxe is subtitled in English as “me, a sexy human-being torpedo!” In queerqueen: Linguistic Excess in Japanese Media, I analyse the late-late television show Matsuko no heya (Matsuko’s Room; Fuji Television Network, 2009-2011). Unlike the busy sets and text-on-screen style of variety shows of the same era, Matsuko’s Room is stark. The show pivots on a staged (im)politeness that is exploited for laughs. Creative censorship beeps are edited into the show in the post-production process to regiment Matsuko’s speech as excessive. Within the context of the tightly constructed “unedited” feel of the show, self-censorship inscribes limits of disclosure.

Laura Miller: How do changes in the media representations of the queerqueen personality correspond to changes in stereotypical norms of gender and sexuality?  

Claire Maree: I see these both as intertwined in non-linear ways. Part of what I argue in this book, is that sexuality, desire and gender are essential to the business of mainstream media, and that new trends and supposed booms around these are created though processes of reclassification and repackaging. How media representations may or may not map onto social change and/or legislative change, however, is a complex issue. For example, attempts to put forward legislation that “promotes understanding of LGBT people” were abandoned in May, and Japan’s Supreme Court’s Grand Bench has just this month (June, 2021) has upheld a 2015 ruling that requiring married couples to use the same surname is constitutional. My current collaborative project focuses on this issue—of how booms and the backlashes occur simultaneously as media discourses intersect with socio-cultural stereotypes in the context of political discourses, and transnational flows of discourse.

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.

Francis Cody on his book, The Light of Knowledge

http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100643370

Interview by Rachel Howard

What was your main goal in writing about literacy activists in Tamil Nadu? And how did your goals change as you learned more about the site?

I had gone to do research on literacy activism in Tamil Nadu with a deep interest in language and political economy.  My graduate education was fueled by the theoretical energy that had gathered around both questions of language ideology and postcolonial studies.  It struck me that studying a movement that promised to deliver enlightenment to the marginalized through written language would enable me to address some of the big questions about power, the materiality of language, and temporality that we were wrestling with at the time.  More specifically, knowing that Tamil is a language shaped deeply by diglossia, I went to study how learning the written variety was meant to empower people.  I sensed a paradox of sorts in a practice that required people to learn a new register of their own language in order to free themselves.  But my goals quickly changed when I realized that the difference between written and rural spoken varieties was perhaps not so important in a context where simply teaching people how to write their own name was such a major effort, and where the literacy movement had also reflected upon its own practice so much in its transition from being a revolutionary movement of sorts to becoming a partnership with government. The literacy had also become a women’s movement, somewhat unexpectedly.  So, following the lead of my interlocutors, I became much more interested in the practice of activism itself.  New and more interesting questions about writing and embodiment, as well as questions about the very practice of mobilizing rural, lower caste women, who are often thought of as the most subaltern, arose from the ethnography as a result.

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