Constantine V. Nakassis on his new book, Doing Style: Youth and Mass Mediation in South India

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Questions for the Author:

Ilana Gershon: If you are at a brunch filled with Hollywood film scholars, and happen to be talking to two people who seemed so interested in your 30 second description of your book that they continue to nod encouragingly, how would you describe your book?

Constantine V. Nakassis: I’m sure I’d ramble on incoherently! But how would I liked to have described my book … I think I would describe it as an attempt to think about mass media expansively and ethnographically, but also dialectically. How do phenomena/processes that we may or may not think of as “mass media”—like (“fake”) brand garments, registers of language (such as “code-mixed” Tamil and English slang), television programs, films—how do they come into ongoing being as a result of the entanglements between social actors/projects that they enable? How can we think of media as the effects and preconditions of those entanglements? And how would we study that ethnographically? I try to do this in Doing Style through an analysis of what young men in urban colleges in Tamil Nadu call “style”—a Tamil word (of English origin) for youth cool that describes eye-catching and ostentatious objects and activities: speaking English, brand fashion, and commercial film “heroism,” among other things.

From there the book follows the paths of circulation of the material media that youth typify and take up as style to their sites of “production”—textile workshops, music-television studios, the Tamil film industry. I hadn’t really planned to do this when I went to the field. But I found myself trying to understand why fashion on college campuses looked the way it did, why language sounded the way it did, why films were composed the way they were. To answer that, I tried to figure out how what the youth that I was living with in dormitories were up to—namely, ‘doing style’—was connected with what garment designers, music-television VJs, films actors (among other industry personnel in each of these different domains) were doing. It later occurred to me these entanglements materialize as these media (and vice versa); that is, that this is one definition of media and mediation.

I think I’d also say (are they still listening and nodding to my ramble?) that the book is an attempt to think seriously about how linguistic anthropology—as a (sub)discipline concerned with understanding how semiotic processes (do) work in social life—might approach questions of mediation more generally, in domains that are typically not considered the purview of linguistic anthropology, namely, “language.” Hopefully a book like this can contribute to opening up the horizons of linguistic anthropology beyond simply being the sociocultural study of language (which anyway it is not, as I’ve argued elsewhere). A lot of great work is extending our (sub)discipline to allied fields (including yours, Ilana!), and I hope this book contributes to that as well.

Can you describe why it is so essential to understand the difference between brand and brandedness to grasp how style operates for Tamil college students?

While I was doing my fieldwork (2007–2009), much of young men’s fashion involved branded garments: Nike, Adidas, Puma, Diesel … But, as in much of the world, what was worn wasn’t “authentic” authorized brand goods but something else: “Chiesel” bags, hats with a Nike logo and the Reebok brand name, Microsoft Windows cargo pants, and the like. And while everyone was aware of this inauthenticity, it wasn’t a big deal. My friends were very keen on things that looked stylishly branded; at the same time, they were rather indifferent to brands and their authenticity. What to make of this?

Part of what was going on was that few students had the money to afford “original” brand garments. But more than this, it was because sociality in the college turned on bracketing forms of invidious difference among peers (caste, class, language difference, among others). So while there was an active attempt to show off and show one’s difference (i.e., do style with a cool brand design on your back or arm or leg or head or whatever), there was also a counterforce within peer groups not to show too much difference, or rather, not to show difference in a way that reinscribed modes of hierarchy (in the case, class difference). Among the youth I lived and hung out with, the putative authenticity of a brand garment could do that, and thus it could elicit all sorts of negative reactions from people. Even among those who could afford such goods, then, there was a way in which the brand was constantly hedged upon or deferred, its authenticity ignored or rationalized away, or simply not purchased. Most students seemed, then, to prefer the obviously inauthentic.

Correlated with this indifference was a proliferation of “surfeit” brand goods—garments like those noted above: bags with brand names misspelled, hats that jumbled brand names and logos, but also fictive brand names and even nonsense strings of roman script that vaguely looked like something like a brand design. This distribution of aesthetic forms is obviously much more complex that “real” or “fake,” for what do you do with garments that have the ‘look’ of a brand garment, but aren’t a “copy” or a “fake” of any existing brand? In such cases (and in all cases, I end up arguing), the brand is being cited, but what is being cited isn’t necessarily a particular brand; often it is simply the idea of the brand, its brandedness.

Here, of course, the brand is obviously not irrelevant. At the same time, an analysis of such youth fashion/style can’t take the brand at face value either, precisely because these citations are doing something to the brand. They are bracketing its conditions of intelligibility, recognizability, and effectivity. And they do so in the way that all citations do, by eliciting some set of qualities out of what is being cited in such a way that puts into question the very ontological status of what is citing/cited. Put most simply, something can look like a brand without being a brand. So this likeness, this aesthetics, these qualities—to be able to talk about this we can’t just talk about brands, we also have to talk about brandedness. Every brand presupposes some aesthetics of brandedness, some qualities that make up its look and identity; but every such aesthetics—while not unrelated to the brand it subtends—exceeds that brand, just as the qualities that make up every instantiation of some identity exceed that identity. Without making this distinction, our analyses are always liable to fall back into hegemonic juridical discourses of inauthenticity, fakeness, counterfeiting, piracy, and the like. And if that happened, then we wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of youth practices of style.

You talk a great deal about the ways citation is a core social strategy among college students in Tamil Nadu, India. I was hoping you could discuss the risks involved in this social strategy – what does it look like to fail at citation, and what are the consequences of such failures?

The doing style of Tamil youth is risky business! In that way, it’s like all of social life, of course: there are so many ways to get it not-quite right, if not just plain wrong. Doing style, as with all citational practices, is no exception: it’s an achievement that’s always liable to go awry. Since doing style is all about showing off, often through transgressing forms of (adult/middle-class) propriety while backing away from what is presumed upon in showing off (namely, style itself), the failure inherent to it is either not doing it enough or doing it too much (that is, “over style,” as Tamil youth say). Not enough, you’re too much like a ‘little boy,’ a child who is afraid to buck authority, who doesn’t know anything about the world; too much and you’re arrogant, uppity, acting like a ‘big man’ (when you’re not).

What this means in practice is that everything that is considered to be stylish among the guys I hung out with also had to be, within the ambit of their peer groups, marked as not-quite what it was/cited: like I noted above, if they wore branded garments, they’d be not-quite brands. If they spoke in English, it’d always be enveloped by Tamil. If they acted like a stylish film hero (with the same haircut, dancing the same steps, etc.), they’d change it up, ironize it. But this kind of ambivalent fine-tuning isn’t easy. Did you negate or disavow your English enough? Did you use ‘too much’? Are your dance steps too similar to the original song/video? Not similar enough?

And there are consequences to such infelicity. People gossip. They tease. They may ostracize. Or even attack you! In one of the college dormitories in which I lived, there was a relatively affluent guy who was always speaking in ‘too much’ English for everyone else’s tastes. Well, he and another student (who was a monolingual Tamil from a rural area) got into it in Tamil one night, arguing about who was going to put away some cricket equipment from a match earlier in the day. Then they started insulting each other. Then the one guy started speaking in English. Well, that “code-switch” was all about stylishly putting the other guy in his place. He found that delicate line and jumped all the way over it! And the other guy, understanding what he was “saying” (without understanding any of the denotational content of what was said) answered with a blow. He hit him with a glass mirror, which shattered when the other guy parried the blow, cutting him and drawing blood. Speaking of ‘doing things with words’!

Men can have a very different relationship to style than women, who are often criticized when they evince style in public, since it signals a desire to be seen. Men’s relationship to style as playful citation has striking parallels in your analysis to male film stars’ attempts to create successful film personas, which involve carefully interwoven citations of other films. This leads me to wonder about female film stars – how do they engage in creating successful film presences when style is so gendered?

I’m currently working on a project about the “ontology” of the film image in Tamil cinema, and one of the issues that I’ve become interested in is the question you raise here, namely, how do female film stars negotiate their screen presence? And how does that itself register in/as the film text?

As you note, style is about ostentation in some theater of social interaction (on campus, in a classroom, at a bus stop, on the silver screen, etc.). It’s about the desire to be seen and about metacommunicating that desire: ‘Look at me!’ This is problematic for young women in a context where adult (male) respectability—at every level, from the family to the kin group to the caste to “Tamil culture” to the nation—is waged on the control of women’s sexuality. It’s problematic in a context (where being perceived as) giving yourself over to being seen—for example, by simply appearing in public places without “proper” comportment—is a transgressive act of sexuality.

This makes the screen a dangerous, if also exciting kind of image-space, one which commercial Tamil cinema has not hesitated much in exploiting. Indeed, with no apologies to Laura Mulvey, commercial Tamil cinema teems with scenes that open up young female bodies to a male gaze. And, as per my comments above, such actresses have historically been, and continue in certain ways to be stigmatized, characterized as “prostitutes.” So while the problem for the male film hero is how to create a film image which presences his aura on the other side of the screen, the problem for the film heroine is, in a certain sense, her excessive presence. That is, merely appearing in a film is a performative act by the actress. This is not an act in a narrative, by a character, on a screen: it is an act in a theater by an actress in the presence of those on the screen’s other sides. While this kind of presence is only achieved after years in the industry by its highest echelon of male film stars (and with high rewards), for female actresses this onscreen/offscreen presence is hard to avoid and is rather problematical. So there is obviously a major difference between heroes and heroines in Tamil cinema in how they engage the screen; and tellingly, style is not really a term used to describe the kind of presence or individuatedness cultivated by a film heroine, while it is for film heroes.

This makes the question of success a highly ambivalent one for film heroines, where they have to straddle a line between this excessive presence/sexuality and some kind of distance/respectability where they can also inhabit the protective space of the narrative, where they can act rather than simply be. And the ability to hold together this complex, fraught union is what characterizes film heroines who have had the longest “staying power” in the industry (actresses like Simran, Jyothika, and Trisha come to mind). Such actresses are able to balance between their sex appeal and their acting craft, often by leveraging their popularity to garner “good” roles for themselves. While they may not be ‘doing style’ like heroes, they are fully engaged in complex forms of doing/disavowing that is definitive of citational acts.

Could you discuss what insights on code-switching between languages analysts can gain by beginning the analysis with a focus on style instead of language?

The study of code-switching and code-mixing was founded on, even as it troubled, the assumption of a monoglot norm (i.e., the idea that we each speak with one denotational/grammatical “code”), from which code-switching/mixing was some kind of meaningful deviation. Work over the last several decades problematized this assumption by asking what are the ethnographically relevant units that constitute such meaningfulness: is it a “code”? Or is it something else? As numerous scholars have noted, for many, perhaps most, speakers who live with multiple languages there is nothing “deviant” about “code” “mixing” or “switching.” It often simply is the norm.

But what my own ethnographic materials raised with respect to this literature is that it isn’t just the question of what is being switched (Is it a code? a register? a style? a repertoire?). It’s also the question, what is a “switch”? What is a “mix”? What was interesting to me was how, in the ethnographic cases that I looked at, doing style by “mixing” English and Tamil itself turned on—that is, its pragmatic effects and how it unfolded interactionally was a function of—the ambiguity about when something was “English” or not. It isn’t always entirely clear for parties to an interaction where one “code” (or register or repertoire or style) ends and another begins. Indeed, as I try to show, that is precisely what is under negotiation when one tries to dress up one’s Tamil by accessorizing it with some English. This isn’t to say that Tamil speakers don’t have judgments as to code identity, or that the question of what “language” (or register, style, repertoire) is being spoken isn’t or doesn’t become clear at certain moments in an interaction. Rather, it is to say that this is an open empirical question. And thus the questions of what a “code” (or “language,” or register, etc.) is and what a “switch” or “mix” is are open analytic and theoretical questions as well.

The other upshot for me from starting with style is that by refusing to privilege “language” as distinct from other kinds of media, we can start to appreciate the cross-medial relations brought together by style. (This intermediality is something linguistic anthropologists have broached through notions of register and enregisterment as well, of course.) As I said above, part of what I hope this book does is to open up the question of what linguistic anthropology might be. To my mind, whatever it is, linguistic anthropology is not just the study of “language.” Indeed, by studying the limits of the language construct and elucidating those semiotic properties/processes of language that are not unique to it, linguistic anthropology has much to say much about media in general. Moreover, it is that expansive horizon, I think, that has allowed linguistic anthropology to apprehend how “language,” in fact, works. For me, then, a focus on style allows us to return back to the question of language through the lens of other media, to point out certain features of (linguistic) semiosis that are, in certain respects, indifferent to “language” as such—such as style—even as they are constitutive of it.

What would anthropologists of media do differently if they took citationality seriously when they studied audiences and/or users?

“Audience” and related analytics, such as “reception,” are problematic categories when it comes to media; not all media constitute those whose activities come to be mediated by, or even oriented to, such media as audiences (or even as “users”); some media have “audiences,” some don’t. (If we think of brands, or garments, as a kind of medium do they have an “audience”?) And even for media like film which may constitute an audience, their social life extends way beyond those audiences. Indeed, the way in which fractions of film circulate in Tamil Nadu—as dialogues, gestures, haircuts taken up by youth to do style (among other things)—exceeds the notion of a film “audience” or its “reception.” They might be on the other side of the screen, but they are not simply on the receiving end! This is not a problem that only I have identified; many have raised such issues.

But the larger question I have tried to pose in Doing Style is a slightly different one. What is the form of the relationship between different social actors, projects, and sites vis-à-vis the media that form the basis of that relationship? How does such an entanglement come to be? And how does it come to be such that we can even talk of a medium or a media object like a film or a garment? With regards to my ethnographic materials, the notion of citationality was a useful way for me to think about the form of such relationships. For example, one way in which a film hero and a college youth are connected is the way in which each cites some social other, be it the other side of the screen (the way in which film heroes do style in anticipation of youth’s own citations of them) or the way in which heroes cite other actors, such that actors and youth cite in aligned/related ways, commonly oriented to some other more stylish entity, the apotheosis of which is the so-called King of Style, Rajinikanth, the top hero in the industry for over thirty years.

What is interesting to me is how, by being part of an overlapping economy of style (as constituted by these interlocked modalities of citation), the felicity conditions on both youth and heroes doing style come to constrain and enable each other. This is what I mean by entanglement: that the relationship between a film hero and what we might otherwise misleadlingly call his “audience” is one where each hems in and exceeds the other. This is managed through and created by citational practices, practices which reflexively repeat and differ from what they cite, which forge connections between, while also holding apart, the act/subject of citing and the cited.

What I came to realize is that such entanglements, these citationalities, they take form as media objects: as the textuality of a film, the weave and design of a garment, the lexical and poetic organization of speech. Media are the effect and precondition of such relations They are their realization. Scholars of “new” or digital media have sometimes called this “interactivity.” But what I hope Doing Style shows is that interactivity is not peculiar to new or digital media, but is a common semiotic feature of all media, insofar as they are media. And further, that many (perhaps all?) media unfold by the reflexivity of processes of mediation to their mediality, to their interactivity. Citationality is an inherently reflexive semiotic phenomenon. So if media are interactive, that interactivity is driven by the reflexive organization of mediation, by citationality. And citationality, as noted above, is never guaranteed. It is liable to all sorts of surprises. Attending to citationality, then, forces us to attend to the prosaic fragility of media and mediation, and to the reflexivity of processes of mediation to their own open-endedness.

Constantine V. Nakassis is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology of the University of Chicago. He received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Anthropology in 2010. His interests include linguistic anthropology, semiotics, media studies and film theory, intellectual property law, and youth culture. His regional focus is Tamil Nadu, India. 

Doing Style: Youth and Mass Mediation in South India. University of Chicago Press, 2016.