Ergin Bulut on his book, A Precarious Game

Interview by Xiao Xe

https://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/9781501746536/a-precarious-game/

Xiao Ke: It was a great pleasure to read about such a fun topic, executed in a rigorous way, in your book! I was wondering if you could say more about the responsibilities and risks associated with bringing the discussion of race, gender/sex, and class intersectionality into the discussion of video game industry? Given your critique of DWYL (do-what-you-love), how did you balance serious politics and fun business while writing this book and presenting your research?

Ergin Bulut: Thank you for reading my book and asking more about it. At the beginning of this project, I was more concerned with gender as it shaped the game developers’ domestic relationships. Although I had discussed the criticism regarding sexism and racism in video games with the game developers, I had not planned to theorize the findings as I do in the book. Bringing a more intersectional perspective – even though I don’t call it as such in my book – became an option as I had to push myself thinking about love with the questions raised by the scholars that peer reviewed my manuscript. I am not sure if there are risks in this since studies of labor in media studies scholarship largely foreground the notion of love and passion without that intersectional perspective. The love for their work and the good life imagined by the game developers I researched is possible mainly because their socially celebrated glamorous work rests on various inequalities at different levels and those inequalities involve race and gender/sex. Class is obviously central to my book.

The question about serious politics and fun business is interesting because games are really intriguing and dynamic sites to explore how capitalism is changing in the information age. Theories of capitalism mostly construct work as serious business and outside the realm of emotions. The videogame industry and increasingly many other sites of work are proving this wrong. Obviously, feminist scholarship was well ahead of our time with respect to demonstrating these points. When it comes to the practicality of writing the book – not sure if this is something you are asking –  I mostly tried to be serious in terms of going to library and sitting at a desk, putting a headphone on without any music, and writing from 8 a.m. to noon. Finally, I have written this book about the videogame industry but I would not call myself an avid gamer. I do enjoy playing games here and there (I like Head Ball these days) but some games require so much time and I unfortunately do not have it. My fun time is spent more on music, friends, and my two-year-old son these days!

Xiao Ke: Something I was hoping you could say more about was the following description of the gaming industry: “a global political economy of fun where there is an international division of not only digital labor but also pleasure” (52)? In the research and writing of the book, how did you situate your position, politics, and perspective(s) in this global political economy?

Ergin Bulut: Although I am by no means an expert on his enigmatic work, Walter Benjamin, especially “Theses on the Philosophy of History” has been informative on my thinking in certain ways. He writes: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” (Thesis X) This is really mind-opening because when I look at glamorous technological devices or ludic workplaces in the Silicon Valley, I cannot but help think about the infrastructures and inequalities that sustain these spectacular worlds of production and consumption. In researching the book, I was somebody from Turkey doing field work in a high-tech workplace in the US. People were extremely nice to me, but I also find it a lot easier to conduct field work in my native language, Turkish. As far as politics is concerned, in my conversations, I politely raised the criticisms towards the video game industry but I also have to say that that “techlash” back when I was doing research wasn’t where it is today. It’s also interesting that you raise this question because I initially had signed with another publisher and things didn’t work out for me despite three positive reviews. I am very happy to have published with Cornell University Press but if I were a western academic based in a US or European institution with a different name, the editor I was in communication with would probably act differently in our email exchanges. So, when it comes to the pleasures of research, writing, and publishing, that international division of intellectual labor is also a relevant topic to think about because non-western scholars’ supposed job is mostly to research their own countries, while I was doing a different thing and critiquing the very work ethic to which intellectual workers also subscribe to. So, race, gender, and sexuality as they shape the pleasures of intellectual work unfortunately still matter a lot.

Xiao Ke: When reading about ludopolitics and precarity within the video game industry, I couldn’t help thinking about the trope of ‘love what we do’, the ‘creativity’ impulse, and the relatable immanent precarities of academia for PhD students and junior scholar. When you were doing your fieldwork, writing up your dissertation, and turning it into a book, did you think much about the resonance between two fields (video game industry and academia)? Regarding this process, is there anything you’d like to share with the (precarious) readers?

Ergin Bulut: I did! How can you not, right? Especially with the pandemic, the world is swiftly changing and the academia is no exception. I currently have a job and am happy that I do. I also see brilliant colleagues who are finishing their degrees and are applying for jobs with tons of accomplishments in a world that is tumultuous. What I will say will really sound cliché but I may just suggest that in addition to collective solutions that may be out there, other solutions such as self-care or care collectives might be helpful. Academia can be a really intimidating place where privileges are reproduced most of the time, especially with this masculine discourse of “do what you love.” Tenured professors will demand that you dedicate a lot of time to research, whereas graduate students as precarious workers have families to take care of, debts to pay, and state repression in countries like mine. So, preaching love from one’s comfortable space can be easy. About the practicalities of turning the dissertation into a book: dropping that “graduate student” tone in my writing took some time and I probably still have it. As far as practical advice goes, I would recommend that the precarious readers of my book and this blog may think about the practice and craft of writing. I never thought about it until after I published the book, probably because time was of essence for me as a more precarious academic back then. I will not repeat about the usefulness of writing regularly but Niko Besnier and Pablo Morales’s article “Tell the story” is really good.

Xiao Ke: Earlier in the book you wrote: “…impromptu conversations proved harder than I thought since wearing headphones while working…indicated that the developers had completely focused on work and did not want any interruption” (12) This scenario might ring true for many ethnographers in corporate settings. Do you have any advice for them? Also, what did you hope to write about but which did not end up in the book?

Ergin Bulut: I am not an anthropologist. So, you should probably tell me some advice! But my advice is really to tell yourself inside your head and “go and talk” to that person. While they may be busy at that time, they may be gracious enough to talk to you at another time. Imagine that you are writing in the library and somebody comes and wants to talk to you. It can be distracting. I never did that but now thinking about it, you may perhaps write a note and put it in front of the person and ask for an interview. Finally, I don’t think there is anything that I didn’t write but a friend once told me that there was no reference to Marx in my book. It just didn’t occur to me. Maybe he was in earlier drafts but excluding him was not intentional. His framework really shapes the entire manuscript.

Xiao Ke: You mentioned the global game industry and outsourced labor. (For instance, environmental art content produced in China; e-waste dumped and recycled in Nigeria, Ghana, and so on; Coltan from DRC…) You yourself are now based in a university in Turkey. Do you plan to continue exploring this global chain of video games? What would you like to see beyond the US context?

Ergin Bulut: I do plan to research Turkey’s emerging videogame industry and electronic sports scene. I once applied for a national grant but the government body giving the grant rejected my application claiming that it was “not scientific enough.” Just two lines, no reviews. Maybe it really wasn’t scientific, who knows! My point is that this application was also at a time when I had signed the notorious peace petition that made me a traitor in the eyes of the government. See, precarity also needs to be de-westernized and thought in relation to the state in non-western contexts! If I were to do such research, I would imagine seeing some developmental thinking that shapes the game developers’ perspective on work, technology, as well as skill development. But I have to do the research . . .  

Interviewer’s Note: I thank my classmates and professor from ANTH642 at University of Pennsylvania for reading this book with me. Many questions are drawn from their thoughts. They are Aliyah Bixby-Driesen, Andrew Carruthers, Chuan Hao (Alex) Chen, Hilah Kohen, Kristina Nielsen, and Nooshin Sadeghsamimi.

Sarah Hillewaert on her book, Morality on the Margins

Morality at the Margins

Interview by Kamala Russell

Morality at the Margins: Youth, Language, and Islam in Coastal Kenya

Morality at the Margins

Interview by Kamala Russell

Morality at the Margins: Youth, Language, and Islam in Coastal Kenya

Kamala Russell: Your book is a deep investigation of the values, practices, and ambivalences that make up the everyday experience of social change. Could you tell us a bit about the focus of the book, and its argument? I’d be interested in hearing more as well about how you settled on this framing for the book, coming out of your many years of fieldwork. As someone who is at that stage, I am interested in hearing more about the process of how you dream up a book from a dissertation.

Sarah Hillewaert:  The book is an ethnographic study of the everyday lives of Muslim youth living on the Indian Ocean island of Lamu (Kenya). A previously cosmopolitan center of trade and Islamic scholarship, Lamu is currently marginalized in both economic and political terms yet forms the focus of international campaigns against religious radicalization and is also at the center of touristic imaginings of the untouched and secluded. The book examines what happens when narratives of self-positioning change: what happens when signs of cosmopolitanism, respectability, and civility come to be read as indices of remoteness, backwardness, or religious radicalization? And what implications do these shifts in signification have for everyday interactions, self-fashionings, and conceptions of appropriate conduct? I explore these questions by documenting the discursive and embodied production of difference, and examine the seemingly mundane practices through which Lamu youth negotiate what it means to be a ‘good Lamu resident’ in contemporary Kenya. I specifically ask what happens when signification fails – when people are no longer sure how to read signs or when they differ in their reading of material forms as signs of, for example, either piety or social transgression. By documenting apparently mundane practices, and the ideologies that inform their evaluations, I show how easily-overlooked, fleeting moments represent some of the most vital points through which larger scale transformations touch down concretely in community life, and by which they receive local inflection and resonance.  Through its ethnographic detail, the book demonstrates the intersubjective and dialogic nature of meaning-making processes and illustrates how projects of personal cultivation function as political projects as well. In doing so, it offers a linguistic anthropological approach to discussions on ethical self-fashioning and the everyday lives of Muslim youth in Africa.

In terms of the framing of the book, the focus shifted from a more explicit attention to verbal interactions and language use to a broader semiotic approach. And this happened mostly through ongoing interactions with peers, through talks and people’s feedback to them, and through ongoing conversations with my interlocutors in Lamu. However, the ethnographic focus did not change significantly from the dissertation to the book. It was more the theoretical argument that became more nuanced, with more attention to the political significance of seemingly situated interactions and practices. I think talking about my research – writing talks and articles – made me think more about what I really wanted people to take away from my research, both theoretically and ethnographically.

Kamala Russell: What I appreciated most about the book is the way you take a very open-ended approach to this study of social change, not just treating social development and peripheralization in and of Lamu as well as instability in indices of value pessimistically, but also tracing opportunities for new kinds of fulfilment and relationships to oneself (for example, professionalism). What stuck out to me across these chapters, and particularly in the final chapter ‘The Morality of the Senses and the Senses of Morality’, was the importance of gaze and the audience. In your focus on people’s performances and negotiations of what kind of individual they are, I wondered who the imagined audience or public for this differentiation is and how does that relate to the sociopolitical changes you describe in Lamu?

Sarah Hillewaert: I appreciate you mentioning the careful deliberation and negotiation of new opportunities and perspectives that I tried to convey in the book. In doing so, I tried to move beyond discussions on the so-called ambivalences or inconsistencies that previously have been highlighted in discussions of Muslim or African youth. I wanted to convey that shifting perspectives on respectability are not a mere generational change or gap, informed by globalization, for example. And rather than talk about resistance to, for example, what people call tradition, I tried to highlight the agency in young people’s calculated inhabiting of certain norms and their deliberation of the proper mediation of others. For Lamu youth, the question is not whether you should be respectable or not, but rather what respectability should look like, given, on the one hand, the development Lamu desperately needs, and on the other, the significance of respectability to Lamu residents’ distinctive identity and the political load it carries.

And this gets me to your question. Most challenging in writing this book was conveying precisely the hyper-sensitivity to semiotic misconstrual that informs young Lamu residents’ moral self-fashionings. With this I mean that young people were very much aware that a range of differently situated people observe their everyday behavior – their peers or elders from different parts of town, for example, but also immigrants from Kenya’s mainland, government administrators, military police, and so on. They understand very well that their intended professional behavior can be misread as social transgression by some, or still overly conservative by others. And as your question points to, these presentations of self, while locally situated, carry a political significance as well. Now, the political stance implied in everyday practices is not always necessarily for non-locals to be noticed. It’s not about an explicit expression of political opinion that one hopes gets noticed. And in fact, mainland Kenyans are often oblivious to many of the nuances in everyday practices that I focus on in the book. Yet, Lamu residents observing situated behaviors can take those as signs of an individual’s political orientation as well – to what extent is an individual upholding a distinctive Lamu identity? Or to what extent are they forsaking their values to get ahead in an economy controlled by the Kenyan government?  So, a young woman critiquing local social divisions at a town meeting will do so while only speaking the local Swahili dialect and paying close attention to proper address forms and greetings, to thereby negotiate a need for change while evidently displaying her pride of her Lamu identity in an attempt to avoid critiques from local elders (or even her peers). Yet, her doing so does risk her getting perceived as backward or less educated by mainland government officials present at that gathering, for example.

Kamala Russell: Heshima is a key concept in the book. You translate this as ‘respectability’. A key argument I saw in the book is that though how respectability is embodied is hotly contested, heshima as a regime of value continues to structure the ways Lamu residents understand themselves and others. I was struck by the way that this concept seems to revolve around differentiation. Is this the only semiotic process (or the key one) that heshima participates in and if so, why might that be? Are there other means and ends than moral distinction in play?

Sarah Hillewaert: Heshima is an intensely moral value, and thus plays a central role in moral distinctions, but as I discuss in Chapter 1, this is very much linked to social class distinctions and genealogy as well. Claims to embodied respectability are often linked to social class identities as well. And this is precisely part of what is being renegotiated nowadays. The hegemonic ideology of former upper-classes – of what practices are viewed as respectable and thus indicative of higher status  –  is being challenged as the social hierarchy is being reshuffled in a context of economic and social change.

Kamala Russell: Can you say a bit more about the methodological challenges you worked with in doing your fieldwork, particularly around recording, as linguists would say, putative naturalistic interaction. Though clearly you were able to record some interviews, did you face other difficulties in producing recorded data? Did working this way affect the way you think about embodiment and non-verbal signs with relation to more typical approaches to text and context?

Sarah Hillewaert: In short: yes, but not entirely. I wasn’t able to record partially because women didn’t want their voices recorded, but also because people were quite suspicious of recordings, in light of anti-terrorism investigations led by the Kenyan and US governments. So, I often refrained from recording, and took detailed notes during interviews. But during everyday interactions, such detailed note-taking was equally difficult, since people wondered why I would be writing down things they said. That did force me to be more attentive during everyday interactions, trying to pay attention to nuances in language use that may otherwise pass me by (and that I couldn’t go back to in a recording). But I wouldn’t say that this led me to be more conscious of non-verbal aspects of interactions perse. It was a combination of things that made me be conscious of the seemingly mundane details of people’s everyday practices. First, people would comment on others’ behaviors all the time – the way someone wore a headscarf, what kind of abaya a young women wore, where someone walked at which time of day. Second, people instructed me quite explicitly on what conduct was proper, and how I ought to act within a particular context. I talk about this in the preface of the book. And third, in public, much couldn’t be expressed verbally, but rather had to be communicated in other ways. While mobile phones have changed much of this, when I was doing fieldwork many young men and women didn’t have much opportunity to interact in public. And much was communicated through subtle behavioral details – when you would go to a certain place, the route you took, the way you walked, how you wore your abaya. And older interlocutors would often reminisce about how they used to communicate with, for example, their girlfriend through subtle signs when she happened to walk by. So, it really was a combination of factors that led me to zoom in on these minute details.

Kamala Russell: Why do you think in this case it is Islamic life, and ethical life, that is the means through which the challenges of development and the political position of Lamu are being negotiated? The book has this great historical angle where you describe the disenfranchisement and marginalization of what was effectively an elite class as Lamu became more incorporated into Kenya, it seems like status reasserts itself through a politics centered on the choice of signifiers of pious value. Can you say more about what you think is the politics in play? How do you position your work and interventions with respect to work that foregrounds Islamic movements as well as individual self-cultivation?

Sarah Hillewaert: I suggest from the onset of the book that negotiations of respectable conduct are informed by tensions surrounding what it means to be from Lamu in contemporary Kenya – a question informed by objections to the Kenyan State, economic marginalization, impositions by mainland outsiders etc. And this is something that cannot be considered outside of a historical context in which coastal and island residents have distinguished themselves from the Kenyan mainland, reluctantly (or unwillingly) having been incorporated into an independent Kenya. While it’s partially a question of a majority Muslim coast not wanting to be governed by a Christian majority government, it also ties into the moral values I focus on throughout the book – notions of distinction centered around respectability, honor, civility, and cosmopolitanism that Lamu residents believe separate themselves from mainland Kenyans. These situated ideological meanings of cosmopolitanism and respectability, and the role they historically have played in developing a distinct Lamu identity form the background against which to understand the seemingly mundane projects of self-fashioning that form the focus of this book. Rather than be condemned for ignoring a particular notion of religious uprightness, young people can be critiqued for forsaken moral norms that are seen to be at the heart of a distinctive Lamu identity and that separate Lamu residents from mainland Kenyans. Like other scholars who have built on, but simultaneously critiqued the work of people like Saba Mahmood, I show that projects of individual self-cultivation are then not just directed inward, but are always informed by broader social political processes, and directed outward, to a range of differently situated others. What I find interesting about Lamu, however, is that these everyday negotiations of respectability and the working toward differently embodying respect is not part of some Islamic revival movement. This is not about becoming a better Muslim, and actively working toward properly embodying piety – and here I mean, having a clear idea of what it is you are striving toward, clear and shared understanding of what pious behaviour looks like, for example. The question is not whether one should or should not be pious or respectable, or what obstacles one needs to overcome to achieve piety. The question for Lamu youth is: what does piety or respectability look like in contemporary Lamu? It is about deliberations of the proper mediation of this moral value. 

Kamala Russell: If any of these questions don’t resonate with you, one of my favorite moments in the book was your explication of the proverb that someone who leaves their mila (tradition) is a slave. This is an interesting positioning of agency with respect to culture and I wonder if you can say more about the consequences of this way of thinking for the way we approach and teach dilemmas of structure and agency, or as linguistic anthropologists, type and token.

Sarah Hillewaert: I really like this question. And, to be honest, I hadn’t really thought of it this way. The way people in Lamu use the proverb really refers to a person’s desire to appropriate other’s practices. “If you forsake your traditions in favor of the appropriation of someone else’s you’re a slave.” So rather than seeing some form of liberation, if you will, in abandoning traditional or cultural practices for the appropriation of other habits, it is perceived as being enslaved to one’s desires in a way. In the book, I link this to the history of slavery in Eastern Africa, and slaves’ positions in Lamu society in the past. Former slaves worked their way up in Swahili societies by appropriating the habits of upper classes, in an attempt to display respectability. But in its current usage, the proverb does speak back at the idea of being “enslaved,” or held back, by traditions, and at the idea of modernization and secularization as being freed from the load of tradition. One of the young women in the book lays this out quite nicely, where she emphasizes that blindly following others’ practices desiring development or modernity is a type of enslavement. But she stresses that this also doesn’t mean blindly upholding local traditions. Rather, it is a careful consideration of which cultural practices are, in their eyes, outdated and which ones are part of their cultural and religious identity as residents of Lamu. And maybe that’s one of the things that I’d like people to take away from this book – what we can learn from paying attention to these seemingly small but incredibly significant negotiations that happen in politically marginalized communities like Lamu. It is not about resistance to outdated practices, nor about a clinging on to distinctive traditional or religious habits out of evident political protest. It is not necessarily about an outward rejection of religious norms nor a conservative preservation of them in the context of religious revival, but rather a working within –an ethnographic illustration of agency within structure that changes the structure, not abruptly, but over time.

  • Post
  • Block

Status & visibility

VisibilityPublicPublishMay 2, 2022 9:00 amPost FormatGalleryImageQuoteStandardStatusStick to the top of the blogPending reviewAuthorsedmitchell|Enable AMPMove to trash6 Revisions

URL Slug

The last part of the URL. Read about permalinks(opens in a new tab)

VIEW POST

https://campanthropology.org/2022/05/02/sarah-hillewaert/(opens in a new tab)

Categories

Author Interviews

Kamala Russell: Your book is a deep investigation of the values, practices, and ambivalences that make up the everyday experience of social change. Could you tell us a bit about the focus of the book, and its argument? I’d be interested in hearing more as well about how you settled on this framing for the book, coming out of your many years of fieldwork. As someone who is at that stage, I am interested in hearing more about the process of how you dream up a book from a dissertation.

Sarah Hillewaert:  The book is an ethnographic study of the everyday lives of Muslim youth living on the Indian Ocean island of Lamu (Kenya). A previously cosmopolitan center of trade and Islamic scholarship, Lamu is currently marginalized in both economic and political terms yet forms the focus of international campaigns against religious radicalization and is also at the center of touristic imaginings of the untouched and secluded. The book examines what happens when narratives of self-positioning change: what happens when signs of cosmopolitanism, respectability, and civility come to be read as indices of remoteness, backwardness, or religious radicalization? And what implications do these shifts in signification have for everyday interactions, self-fashionings, and conceptions of appropriate conduct? I explore these questions by documenting the discursive and embodied production of difference, and examine the seemingly mundane practices through which Lamu youth negotiate what it means to be a ‘good Lamu resident’ in contemporary Kenya. I specifically ask what happens when signification fails – when people are no longer sure how to read signs or when they differ in their reading of material forms as signs of, for example, either piety or social transgression. By documenting apparently mundane practices, and the ideologies that inform their evaluations, I show how easily-overlooked, fleeting moments represent some of the most vital points through which larger scale transformations touch down concretely in community life, and by which they receive local inflection and resonance.  Through its ethnographic detail, the book demonstrates the intersubjective and dialogic nature of meaning-making processes and illustrates how projects of personal cultivation function as political projects as well. In doing so, it offers a linguistic anthropological approach to discussions on ethical self-fashioning and the everyday lives of Muslim youth in Africa.

In terms of the framing of the book, the focus shifted from a more explicit attention to verbal interactions and language use to a broader semiotic approach. And this happened mostly through ongoing interactions with peers, through talks and people’s feedback to them, and through ongoing conversations with my interlocutors in Lamu. However, the ethnographic focus did not change significantly from the dissertation to the book. It was more the theoretical argument that became more nuanced, with more attention to the political significance of seemingly situated interactions and practices. I think talking about my research – writing talks and articles – made me think more about what I really wanted people to take away from my research, both theoretically and ethnographically.

Kamala Russell: What I appreciated most about the book is the way you take a very open-ended approach to this study of social change, not just treating social development and peripheralization in and of Lamu as well as instability in indices of value pessimistically, but also tracing opportunities for new kinds of fulfilment and relationships to oneself (for example, professionalism). What stuck out to me across these chapters, and particularly in the final chapter ‘The Morality of the Senses and the Senses of Morality’, was the importance of gaze and the audience. In your focus on people’s performances and negotiations of what kind of individual they are, I wondered who the imagined audience or public for this differentiation is and how does that relate to the sociopolitical changes you describe in Lamu?

Sarah Hillewaert: I appreciate you mentioning the careful deliberation and negotiation of new opportunities and perspectives that I tried to convey in the book. In doing so, I tried to move beyond discussions on the so-called ambivalences or inconsistencies that previously have been highlighted in discussions of Muslim or African youth. I wanted to convey that shifting perspectives on respectability are not a mere generational change or gap, informed by globalization, for example. And rather than talk about resistance to, for example, what people call tradition, I tried to highlight the agency in young people’s calculated inhabiting of certain norms and their deliberation of the proper mediation of others. For Lamu youth, the question is not whether you should be respectable or not, but rather what respectability should look like, given, on the one hand, the development Lamu desperately needs, and on the other, the significance of respectability to Lamu residents’ distinctive identity and the political load it carries.

And this gets me to your question. Most challenging in writing this book was conveying precisely the hyper-sensitivity to semiotic misconstrual that informs young Lamu residents’ moral self-fashionings. With this I mean that young people were very much aware that a range of differently situated people observe their everyday behavior – their peers or elders from different parts of town, for example, but also immigrants from Kenya’s mainland, government administrators, military police, and so on. They understand very well that their intended professional behavior can be misread as social transgression by some, or still overly conservative by others. And as your question points to, these presentations of self, while locally situated, carry a political significance as well. Now, the political stance implied in everyday practices is not always necessarily for non-locals to be noticed. It’s not about an explicit expression of political opinion that one hopes gets noticed. And in fact, mainland Kenyans are often oblivious to many of the nuances in everyday practices that I focus on in the book. Yet, Lamu residents observing situated behaviors can take those as signs of an individual’s political orientation as well – to what extent is an individual upholding a distinctive Lamu identity? Or to what extent are they forsaking their values to get ahead in an economy controlled by the Kenyan government?  So, a young woman critiquing local social divisions at a town meeting will do so while only speaking the local Swahili dialect and paying close attention to proper address forms and greetings, to thereby negotiate a need for change while evidently displaying her pride of her Lamu identity in an attempt to avoid critiques from local elders (or even her peers). Yet, her doing so does risk her getting perceived as backward or less educated by mainland government officials present at that gathering, for example.

Kamala Russell: Heshima is a key concept in the book. You translate this as ‘respectability’. A key argument I saw in the book is that though how respectability is embodied is hotly contested, heshima as a regime of value continues to structure the ways Lamu residents understand themselves and others. I was struck by the way that this concept seems to revolve around differentiation. Is this the only semiotic process (or the key one) that heshima participates in and if so, why might that be? Are there other means and ends than moral distinction in play?

Sarah Hillewaert: Heshima is an intensely moral value, and thus plays a central role in moral distinctions, but as I discuss in Chapter 1, this is very much linked to social class distinctions and genealogy as well. Claims to embodied respectability are often linked to social class identities as well. And this is precisely part of what is being renegotiated nowadays. The hegemonic ideology of former upper-classes – of what practices are viewed as respectable and thus indicative of higher status  –  is being challenged as the social hierarchy is being reshuffled in a context of economic and social change.

Kamala Russell: Can you say a bit more about the methodological challenges you worked with in doing your fieldwork, particularly around recording, as linguists would say, putative naturalistic interaction. Though clearly you were able to record some interviews, did you face other difficulties in producing recorded data? Did working this way affect the way you think about embodiment and non-verbal signs with relation to more typical approaches to text and context?

Sarah Hillewaert: In short: yes, but not entirely. I wasn’t able to record partially because women didn’t want their voices recorded, but also because people were quite suspicious of recordings, in light of anti-terrorism investigations led by the Kenyan and US governments. So, I often refrained from recording, and took detailed notes during interviews. But during everyday interactions, such detailed note-taking was equally difficult, since people wondered why I would be writing down things they said. That did force me to be more attentive during everyday interactions, trying to pay attention to nuances in language use that may otherwise pass me by (and that I couldn’t go back to in a recording). But I wouldn’t say that this led me to be more conscious of non-verbal aspects of interactions perse. It was a combination of things that made me be conscious of the seemingly mundane details of people’s everyday practices. First, people would comment on others’ behaviors all the time – the way someone wore a headscarf, what kind of abaya a young women wore, where someone walked at which time of day. Second, people instructed me quite explicitly on what conduct was proper, and how I ought to act within a particular context. I talk about this in the preface of the book. And third, in public, much couldn’t be expressed verbally, but rather had to be communicated in other ways. While mobile phones have changed much of this, when I was doing fieldwork many young men and women didn’t have much opportunity to interact in public. And much was communicated through subtle behavioral details – when you would go to a certain place, the route you took, the way you walked, how you wore your abaya. And older interlocutors would often reminisce about how they used to communicate with, for example, their girlfriend through subtle signs when she happened to walk by. So, it really was a combination of factors that led me to zoom in on these minute details.

Kamala Russell: Why do you think in this case it is Islamic life, and ethical life, that is the means through which the challenges of development and the political position of Lamu are being negotiated? The book has this great historical angle where you describe the disenfranchisement and marginalization of what was effectively an elite class as Lamu became more incorporated into Kenya, it seems like status reasserts itself through a politics centered on the choice of signifiers of pious value. Can you say more about what you think is the politics in play? How do you position your work and interventions with respect to work that foregrounds Islamic movements as well as individual self-cultivation?

Sarah Hillewaert: I suggest from the onset of the book that negotiations of respectable conduct are informed by tensions surrounding what it means to be from Lamu in contemporary Kenya – a question informed by objections to the Kenyan State, economic marginalization, impositions by mainland outsiders etc. And this is something that cannot be considered outside of a historical context in which coastal and island residents have distinguished themselves from the Kenyan mainland, reluctantly (or unwillingly) having been incorporated into an independent Kenya. While it’s partially a question of a majority Muslim coast not wanting to be governed by a Christian majority government, it also ties into the moral values I focus on throughout the book – notions of distinction centered around respectability, honor, civility, and cosmopolitanism that Lamu residents believe separate themselves from mainland Kenyans. These situated ideological meanings of cosmopolitanism and respectability, and the role they historically have played in developing a distinct Lamu identity form the background against which to understand the seemingly mundane projects of self-fashioning that form the focus of this book. Rather than be condemned for ignoring a particular notion of religious uprightness, young people can be critiqued for forsaken moral norms that are seen to be at the heart of a distinctive Lamu identity and that separate Lamu residents from mainland Kenyans. Like other scholars who have built on, but simultaneously critiqued the work of people like Saba Mahmood, I show that projects of individual self-cultivation are then not just directed inward, but are always informed by broader social political processes, and directed outward, to a range of differently situated others. What I find interesting about Lamu, however, is that these everyday negotiations of respectability and the working toward differently embodying respect is not part of some Islamic revival movement. This is not about becoming a better Muslim, and actively working toward properly embodying piety – and here I mean, having a clear idea of what it is you are striving toward, clear and shared understanding of what pious behaviour looks like, for example. The question is not whether one should or should not be pious or respectable, or what obstacles one needs to overcome to achieve piety. The question for Lamu youth is: what does piety or respectability look like in contemporary Lamu? It is about deliberations of the proper mediation of this moral value. 

Kamala Russell: If any of these questions don’t resonate with you, one of my favorite moments in the book was your explication of the proverb that someone who leaves their mila (tradition) is a slave. This is an interesting positioning of agency with respect to culture and I wonder if you can say more about the consequences of this way of thinking for the way we approach and teach dilemmas of structure and agency, or as linguistic anthropologists, type and token.

Sarah Hillewaert: I really like this question. And, to be honest, I hadn’t really thought of it this way. The way people in Lamu use the proverb really refers to a person’s desire to appropriate other’s practices. “If you forsake your traditions in favor of the appropriation of someone else’s you’re a slave.” So rather than seeing some form of liberation, if you will, in abandoning traditional or cultural practices for the appropriation of other habits, it is perceived as being enslaved to one’s desires in a way. In the book, I link this to the history of slavery in Eastern Africa, and slaves’ positions in Lamu society in the past. Former slaves worked their way up in Swahili societies by appropriating the habits of upper classes, in an attempt to display respectability. But in its current usage, the proverb does speak back at the idea of being “enslaved,” or held back, by traditions, and at the idea of modernization and secularization as being freed from the load of tradition. One of the young women in the book lays this out quite nicely, where she emphasizes that blindly following others’ practices desiring development or modernity is a type of enslavement. But she stresses that this also doesn’t mean blindly upholding local traditions. Rather, it is a careful consideration of which cultural practices are, in their eyes, outdated and which ones are part of their cultural and religious identity as residents of Lamu. And maybe that’s one of the things that I’d like people to take away from this book – what we can learn from paying attention to these seemingly small but incredibly significant negotiations that happen in politically marginalized communities like Lamu. It is not about resistance to outdated practices, nor about a clinging on to distinctive traditional or religious habits out of evident political protest. It is not necessarily about an outward rejection of religious norms nor a conservative preservation of them in the context of religious revival, but rather a working within –an ethnographic illustration of agency within structure that changes the structure, not abruptly, but over time.

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

h

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.

Continue reading