Aurora Donzelli on her book, One or Two Words

One or Two Words

Interview by Nicco La Mattina

Nicco La Mattina: A principle theme running throughout One or Two Words is that of “collective belonging” and how forms of collective belonging are crafted, achieved, maintained, and transformed discursively in the Toraja highlands of Sulawesi, Indonesia. What is “collective belonging” and how is this concept developed in One or Two Words?

Aurora Donzelli: You really hit the nail on the head: that collective belonging is indeed a key and perhaps under-theorized theme in my book. One or Two Words draws on almost two decades of intermittent fieldwork in a relatively peripheral region of the Indonesian archipelago to describe how, after the collapse of Suharto’s military regime (a.k.a. New Order), individuals make use of words and things to re-imagine their position within a fast-changing multilingual nation and manufacture new forms of participation in the immediate community of consociates. Since the turn of the millennium, Indonesia has undergone a major transition from a highly centralized autocratic state to a network mode of neoliberal governance. After three plus decades under General Suharto’s authoritarian rule, the Reform Era (or Era Reformasi) has prompted substantial changes, ranging from a gradual but drastic administrative devolution to the privatization of large sectors of the country’s economy. My main goal in this book is to explore how these structural and institutional transformations are at once enabled by and reflected in the open-ended recalibration of the power relations between the national language (Bahasa Indonesia) and a multifarious variety of vernacular idioms and registers. I use the concept of collective belonging as a lens to chart out how my interlocutors in the Toraja highlands of Sulawesi craft emergent forms of membership in their daily interactions in both the local community and the post-Suharto nation-state.

But to fully answer your question, I have to make a confession. My use of “collective belonging” is an implicit attempt to suggest an alternative to “identity”—a term I generally try to avoid. My focus on collective belonging is an invitation to look at how individuals use language to variously give shape to their experience of being part of a group, which, far from being a matter of solipsistic self-representations, always entails stance-staking processes and forms of metapragmatic participation in different scales of collective membership. My reservations about “identity” are both theoretical and political. Nowadays, whenever the term is invoked, be it in scholarly debates or quotidian conversations, it has become almost cliché to add that identities are positional, fluid, and intersectional. And, yet, perhaps due to the fact that it originates from the Latin demonstrative pronoun/adjective idem (“the same”), the term seems to inherently aspire to fixity and to imply an entity that remains the same under changing circumstances and situations. Since the mid-1990s, linguistic anthropologists and ethnographers of language have shown how identities are unstable and interaction-specific configurations discursively produced through complex assemblages of multimodal semiotic practices (think, for example, of the work done by Mary Bucholtz, Kira Hall, Penny Eckert, Norma Mendoza-Denton, but also Ben Rampton, Charles Antaki, and Peter Auer, among the others). Such scholarship has enabled us to think in more sophisticated terms about “identity” and represents one of the most significant (and probably under-acknowledged) contributions offered by scholars of linguistic interaction to social theory. And yet, as the term “identity” travels outside the realm of fine-grained analyses of communicative exchange to enter into other domains and debates, some of this sophistication is flattened or even lost.

The contemporary resurge of identity politics displays what to me appears as a problematic proprietary twist and is part of a broader ideological and semiotic shift towards a possessive notion of meaning and an individualist view of the hermeneutic processes of social life. As the Italian hip hop artist Marracash has eloquently put it in his recent song cosplayer: Perché tutto è inclusivo a parte i posti esclusivi, no?/Oggi che tutti lottiamo così tanto per difendere le nostre identità/Abbiamo perso di vista quella collettiva (Because everything is inclusive except from exclusive places, right?/Now that we strive so hard to defend our identities/we have lost sight of the collective). I too have strong reservations against this cultural drift, for it seems to pivot on the model of the contractarian individual and self-contained rational subject underlying most of contemporary public discourse. As a result of these trends, the complexity of a nuanced and positional notion of identity is often reduced to a perfunctory acknowledgment. My emphasis on “collective belonging” is a product of these concerns.

Nicco La Mattina: In your book, you discuss the contestation of “tradition” or “custom” [adat] as a category in colonial, national, and local discourses of differentiation. What is the relevance of discourses about “local traditional culture” and the usage of the regional language (Toraja) in the formation and transformation of forms of sociality?

Aurora Donzelli: I appreciate your question as it underscores the historical dimension of the ethnographic account I sought to provide in my monograph. Archival work has always been a fundamental component of my approach to the study of the interface between language and social relations and speaking as a cultural practice. One or Two Words aims to explore the process whereby my Toraja interlocutors have gradually developed a sense of themselves as an indigenous community. To this end, it is essential to pay attention to historical documents and analyze the cultural politics developed during the one hundred plus years that stretch from the late Dutch colonial period (from early 1900s till the Japanese invasion of 1942), to the post-independence phase (1945-1965), to Suharto’s New Order regime (1966-1998), through the advent of the Era Reformasi. This historical perspective reveals how the production of an earlier discourse of cultural distinctiveness framed through the colonial category of customary traditions (adat) has gradually morphed (during the last two decades) into a self-reflexive cosmopolitan idiom of indigeneity. My account is thus driven by the attempt to combine the longitudinal analysis of these larger discursive formations with the fine-grained analysis of how individuals, during the course of their daily interactions, positions themselves with respect to these different and somewhat coexisting versions of ethno-linguistic distinctiveness.

As Arjun Appadurai suggested, locality should not be equated or reduced to the mere demographic and geographical dimension of a spatially bounded territory, but rather has to be understood as a form of social experience produced through the work of imagination and interaction. One or Two Words explores how people, within the highly multilingual environment of the Toraja highlands (and the Indonesian archipelago at large), enact locality (and broader forms of subjectively experienced groupness) through situated acts of discourse. By attending to concrete instances of communicative exchange, I aim to problematize simplistic sociolinguistic models based on a direct correspondence between language choice and social affiliation. Indeed, participation in a socially shared sense of belonging to a group is hardly an all-or-nothing business. The transcribed excerpts presented throughout the book show how performances of locality may at times result in proud invocations of ethno-linguistic distinctiveness, while, other times, the local language may be presented as an index of provincial backwardness. In a similar fashion, the use of Indonesian is not always and not necessarily an appeal to the higher authority of a supra-local national code. Speakers may switch to Indonesian to assert a peripheral position of metapragmatic criticism against established linguistic hierarchies and thus highlight, in a parodic key, the paradoxes of the rhetoric of development typical of the New Order.

Nicco La Mattina: You mention that the post-Suharto era is often represented as a radical rupture with the past, and yet the discursive and aesthetic forms associated with the New Order proved to be of continuing relevance to your work. How does the idea of “aesthetic crossovers” contribute to understanding the articulation of global processes in a neoliberalizing Indonesia?

Aurora Donzelli: Like my first monograph (Methods of Desire, 2019), One or Two Words revolves around the core questions that have driven my research and my thinking for several years now: To what extent structural changes may reconfigure entrenched linguistic political economies? What happens when the implicit routines informing what Harvey Sacks called “doing being ordinary” are somewhat disrupted by novel political practices and ideologies? How shall we approach from a theoretical and methodological standpoint the relationship between the given (that is, tacit procedures) and the categorical (that is, explicit paradigm shifts)? What units of analysis should we use to describe and understand the linguistic implications of events locally perceived as “reform” of the sociopolitical order? Unlike my previous book, however, the focus here is not so much on the language-mediated shifts in structures of feelings and moral reasoning, but rather on the re-articulation of the relationship between national and local languages in a country renowned for its great linguistic diversity; and on the parallel transformation of forms of political imagination in the aftermath of the collapse of an authoritarian regime.

I use the musicological concept of crossover (understood as the blending of different genres targeted at a new audience) as an allegorical framework to describe the interplay of continuity and change that characterizes present-day Indonesia. Indeed, contrary to the representation of the post-Suharto transformation as radical rupture with the past, the contemporary moment in Indonesia appears as a complex transitional phase, in which different genres and registers overlap, producing unexpected constellations of speech forms and political practices. The Toraja Highlands (and Indonesia at large) have been exposed to apparently contradictory strands of discourse: the promotion of local customs and the diffusion of transnational ideologies of democracy; the celebration of pre-capitalistic communal values and the neoliberal extension of market principles into every aspect of cultural and socio-political life; the push toward political renovation and the revival of indigenous political and linguistic practices. By focusing on the blending of continuity and change, my analysis tries to show how contemporary appeals to transnational discourses of indigeneity should be understood in relationship with (and as a challenge to) pre-existing constructions of the ‘local’ modeled on the cultural politics of colonial and developmentalist regimes. This analytical perspective reveals novel forms of empowering positionality based on a new aesthetics of “the vintage”—mediated by references to early post-colonial discourse and images—and “the peripheral,” expressed through the valorization of regional codes. While, during the New Order, the use of vernacular languages within institutional settings was stigmatized as a marker of backwardness and illiteracy, now the switch to local languages may project a trendy (at once cosmopolitan and indigenous) speaking subject.

Nicco La Mattina: You attend to the distribution and exchange of meat, meals, and cash between landowners and sharecroppers and between islanders and the diasporic community. How does the circulation of material language, cattle, and cash contribute to the production of indigeneity and the cultivation of collective belonging?

Aurora Donzelli: One or Two Words is in strict conversation with the emerging interest in linguistic materialities and the material components of signification, but also with previous studies on the intersection of speech and things (e.g., Malinowski’s Coral Gardens, Nancy Munn’s The Fame of Gawa, Webb Keane’s Signs of Recognition). The different chapters describe how—in the remote and primarily rural region of eastern Indonesia where I conducted my fieldwork—people use spoken words, digitally transmitted messages, cash, and other material things to produce novel ways of imagining the local community and the nation-state. In spite of their apparent geographic isolation, the Toraja have a long history of encounters with exogenous cultural and socio-economic forces, which can be properly understood only if we consider both the circulation of words and the exchange of things. In this perspective, the Toraja highlands should not be seen not a remote region inhabited by an ethno-linguistic and religious minority, but rather as a site of cosmopolitan intersections. By bringing together within the same analytical field linguistic and material activity, the book aims to offer an interaction-centered approach to indigeneity—a semantically and politically complex term whose minimal definition entails material and symbolic forms of attachment to a specific land, collectively imagined as homeland.

As I am further learning through my new project on the relation between language and indigenous foodways among Italian neo-rural entrepreneurs and hobby farmers, objects (e.g., regional food-items, indigenous horticultural varieties, organically produced seeds, etc.) mediate forms of symbolic and material attachment and enable culturally distinctive forms of sociality. In a similar way, in Toraja, material items are key in producing forms of collective belonging and indigenous imaginings. Of special relevance is the local system of ritual gifts and counter-gifts based on the purchase, slaughtering, and exchange of pigs and buffaloes. Regulated through complex social norms, active participation in these exchanges is a sine qua non condition of belonging in the Toraja community. In this light, the Toraja gift system is a core semiotic technology for establishing the individual’s membership within a transnationally imagined local community. To be Toraja means to owe and be owed, and to be implicated in a web of interpersonal expectations that only become visible through funerals, weddings, and house-ceremonies. This powerful social logic constitutes the bedrock of the strict relationship between the Toraja dwelling in the highlands and the large diaspora who live in other Indonesian and overseas locales. Therefore if we want to fully understand the ongoing recalibration of power relations between rural peripheries and global metropoles we need to attend to the semiotic practices of exchange and translation of both words and material objects: how are vernacular idioms converted into national and transnational codes? Which types of (in-person or digitally-mediated) speech acts are needed to exchange the meat of ritually slaughtered animals?  How are ritual offerings of pigs and buffaloes translated into monetary equivalents? How is the affective labor of hospitality and social solidarity traded for payments in kind and translated into sharecropping arrangements? To understand the diasporic social connections that structure the Toraja imagined community my ethnographic account seeks to provide snapshots of the actual semiotic labor that people perform in their daily lives as they deal with a complex social grammar of reciprocal exchange.

Nicco La Mattina: In One or Two Words, as in much of your work generally, you attend to translation practices and ideologies about translation, in particular between the national Indonesian language and Toraja, a regional language. What is the role of translation in your work and in the discursive enactment of collective belonging?

Aurora Donzelli: Translation is indeed central to this book and to my work in general, which is, of course, hardly surprising for a linguistic anthropologist working in a highly multilingual environment like Indonesia. This is a very good and extensive question: let me begin by noting that the very title of the book “one or two words” is a somewhat clunky English literal translation of the Toraja expression “sang buku duang kada,” which, in turn, is an imperfect rendering of the Indonesian term “pidato” (“oration,” “public address”). So, in a way, the entire book can be read as an attempt to reflect on the cultural and ethnopramgmatic implications of this lack of direct correspondence. One of the main points that I try to make as I attend to this task is to show how translation cannot be understood as a naturalistic operation undertaken in a political vacuum. As Elinor Ochs noted in her seminal article about the practice of transcription, translation is never a neutral and straightforward endeavor. Not only any actual exercise of translation is always inflected with theoretical goals and assumptions, but translations (even when only potential and imagined) are always embedded within power-laden relations between codes and registers, which inform language ideologies and are affected by larger semiotic ideologies—a term Webb Keane coined to refer to the often implicit but always meaningful and effectual assumptions about what signs are, how they function, and how they are linked to their objects.

Translation is one of the fundamental tropes in the history of anthropology as a discipline. However, I find that, somewhat paradoxically, the linguocentric and philological bend that at times characterizes linguistic anthropological work may occlude our ability to appreciate more inclusive and extensive notions of translation, which encompass not simply translation between idioms, but also between audiences, discursive genres, semiotic modalities, cultural frameworks, pragmatic contexts, and, perhaps even more importantly, between different ideologies and practices of (in)-translatability.From a methodological standpoint, there is a common and often unspoken preference among linguistic anthropologists to prioritize monolingual work in the target language. This, of course, goes all the way back to old debates (such as the one that took place in 1939-1940 between Margaret Mead and Robert Lowie) on “native languages as fieldwork tools” and on the degree of linguistic fluency required by ethnographers. In the highly multilingual environment where I undertook my fieldwork I was often confronted with translanguaging practices whereby my interlocutors would draw upon different codes within their repertoire (Indonesian, English, Bugis, etc.), both during the course of transcription sessions and in casual conversations. Although it meant departing from the imperative of monolingual fieldwork, switching across different languages and metalanguages provided me with valuable insights into the local ideologies of translation, linguistic competence, grammaticalness, and collective belonging. One or Two Words is thus an attempt to explore notions and practices of (in)-translatability as a way to understand the political economies of language and their ongoing recalibration in an Indonesian periphery.

Juan Luis Rodríguez on his book, Language and Revolutionary Magic in the Orinoco Delta

Interview by Rusty Barrett

Rusty Barrett: First, for those unfamiliar with Venezuela, could you explain the term “revolutionary magic”?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: I first encountered the term revolutionary magic in one of Fernando Coronil’s interviews where he wondered whether the Bolivarian revolution would be a new iteration of what he called the magical state. Coronil argued back in the 1990s that Venezuela’s dependency on oil put the state in a mediating position between the social body of the nation and both its nature and international capital. This position made the Venezuelan state appear magical to Venezuelans because it had the possibility of carrying out grandiose projects of infrastructure and welfare policies with money that seemed to come from nowhere. The state, without taxing either its citizens or its industries, was in the position to undertake the process of making Venezuela a modern country. This magic, of course, has the downside of depending on the ups and downs of oil prices in the international market. When Chavez was elected to office in 1999, he took office at the end of a long period of economic crisis that extended from 1983 to the end of the1990s. After a few years in office, he found himself as the leader of a revolution (later he will call this turn socialism of the 21st century), and as the Venezuelan president that has managed the largest budget in the history of the country. Since roughly 2004 to the end of 2012 Venezuela received more money from oil exports than at any other time in its history. In this historical period Venezuela combined all the structural features of the magical state with all the utopian desires of a 21st century socialist. The term, revolutionary magic, then refers to the assemblages of performances, political ways of speaking, and infrastructural projects that emerge out of that combination of those factors. If the magic of the Venezuelan state in the 20th century produced a kind of modernity, in the 21st century this capacity was turned to construct a revolution. In both cases, modernity and revolution suffer from the same reliance on the state to scaffold rhetorical and performative apparatuses with an unreliable source of economic success.          

Rusty Barrett: Your work is clearly situated within the discourse-based approach to culture, why did you choose that particular framework? How does this approach address concerns beyond linguistic anthropology?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: I came to learn about discourse-centered approaches to culture during my grad school years studying under Jonathan Hill and Anthony K. Webster. I still remember how reading Jonathan’s work and going to seminar with Tony grounded my work on the idea that I should go after naturally occurring instances of language use emphasizing the centrality of performance and showcasing the complexity of what people say while we do fieldwork. This was very important to me because this is what methodologically separated my work from Coronil’s who rather had the methodological gaze of a historian. I wanted to understand Venezuelan political discourse and gift-giving in the context of the magic of the state (or magical state), but I wanted to do it by paying attention to how people get folded into actual contexts of linguistic interaction where they must engage in actual political speech. The distribution of state resources and the magic of the Bolivarian revolution produced actual instances of language use. I wanted to go after that. Discourse-centered approaches, especially the branch coming down from Joel Sherzer, have always been associated with verbal play, poetics, and performance, and rightly so. I hope that my book shows how discourse-centered approaches to culture can also shed light on questions of political economy, revolution, and modernity that are often not addressed from this perspective.

Rusty Barrett: Your book emphasizes issues of translation and transduction. How are those concepts important for understanding the place of the Warao in Venezuelan politics?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: Part of the transition from what Chavez called the fourth republic into the Bolivarian revolution was a change in the kind of relationships that state institutions, and the Catholic church, had with Indigenous communities. After 1958, when dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez was deposed, Venezuelan political parties signed what was known as the Puntofijo pact and embraced representative democracy as a core ideological value. During this period, Indigenous peoples were regarded as potential constituents to be represented by appointed officials from the central government in Caracas. They were supposed to be integrated into Venezuela’s political and economic system, but that future was always imagined as a process of acculturation in which they become undifferentiated citizens who speak Spanish primarily. Their languages were supposed to disappear and, from the point of view of the State, it made sense to translate their oral traditions into Spanish making them cultural patrimony of the nation. In this way the ideals of representative democracy gave a specific directionality to the work of translation from Indigenous language to Spanish because the product of these texts was supposed to represent Indigenous peoples as future integrated citizens of a modern State. The work of the Magical State is to produce modernity, and during this period that meant pulling Indigenous peoples into the orbit of the state. The work of translation followed that logic.

This all changed with the arrival of Hugo Chávez to power. He opposed a new ideal of participatory democracy, and later socialism, to the previous ideology of political representation. This new ideology centered around the notion that people must have a degree of direct participation in the decision-making process and implementation of policies. This new ideological position was central to the writing of the new constitution in 1999. At the same time the circulation of texts and practices of translation was completely reversed. Indigenous peoples were now not supposed to be integrated as culturally and linguistically undifferentiated constituents who needed representation but as subjects who would keep these differences and participate in the democratic process themselves. The constitution, laws that affected Indigenous peoples’ lives, and the symbols of the nation, such as the national anthem, had to be translated into Indigenous languages. That reverted the flow of translation in the hope that it would give Indigenous peoples the knowledge and capacity to participate in the political life of the nation representing themselves in the process.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the Bolivarian revolution is how this process of political participation that seemed so good in paper never really took off. Instead, the nominal legal rights to participation have been contradicted with strategies of cooptation that allowed Chavez, and now Nicolas Maduro, to pose as if Indigenous peoples have achieved a degree of integration into the political decision-making process while in practices they marginalize and manipulate this participation. Indigenous peoples in Venezuela have recently faced a deterioration on the conditions of their voting rights as well as a brutal encroachment on their ancestral territories. The Bolivarian revolution has produced some of the most brutal ecological degradations in Indigenous territories through the so-called Arco Minero that only reproduces the logic of capitalist extraction that was supposed to be rejected with the arrival of the revolution.

This brings me to the place of transduction in my book. I understand transduction as the transformations, and assemblage, of signs across semiotic modalities. As I explain at the beginning of the book, the main process of transduction that I am interested in is the transformation of oil revenue into forms of political performances and political influence. Oil revenue support forms of political speech linked with ideologies of modernity and state control in Venezuela. My argument in the book is that despite the reversal on the flow of translations that correlated with a transition from representative to participatory democracy, the basic transduction of oil revenue into modernity and political control remained the same in both periods. In other words, despite rhetorical differences in ideological principles, Chavez’ revolution never really produced a systemic transformation in the structural conditions that marginalized Indigenous subjects in Venezuela. They might have more nominal rights now, but oil dependency still means those rights are principally rhetorical devices. The transduction of oil revenue into political performance and celebrated forms of modernity is an unstable structural condition subject to ups and downs of commodity markets and this means that the revolutionary gains in political participation can disappear at any moment.                      

Rusty Barrett: What aspects of your analysis do you feel are most useful for looking at the relationship between Indigenous communities and the state in places beyond Venezuela?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: I think my analysis is useful for understanding how the integration of Indigenous peoples into public political spheres–and the performative and communicative strategies used for that purpose–depend on kinds of ideological political project made possible by entire political-economic systems. The main goal of my book is to show how discourse-centered approaches to culture can help us accomplish that goal.

Another aspect of my analysis that I think can be useful is to bring attention to the ways in which State actors’ agendas and intentions do not determine the consequences of their actions. I tried to illustrate this point by bringing examples of political gift-giving which is in Venezuela stereotypically regarded as a form of political bribery, corruption, and coercion. I show how the gift per se does not accomplish any of this without further discursive engagement in the communities where is received. Likewise, promises of political gifts do not amount to simple deception since gift-giving and discourse form complex chains of interpretation in the Orinoco Delta. I hope these insights can served to inspire more ethnographic research into how these complex semiotic systems are developed under different political and economic conditions.   

Rusty Barrett: The book provides a language-based approach to understanding political gifts and campaign promises. In what ways do you see this approach as providing insights that might be overlooked by other approaches? What would you hope scholars in other fields take away from your analysis?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: What I would hope other researchers take away from my book is the necessity to see political gift-giving and speech as interrelated. The naturalness of the correlation between gift-giving and political influence that some researchers see in patron-client relationships do not occur without the mediation of a great deal of speech. Paying attention to these patterns allow us to understand how political influence through gift-giving and political promises is an interactional achievement that we cannot take for granted. I would hope that researchers interested in these kinds of questions will take a little more seriously the fact that naturally occurring instances of language use (discourse) provide not only frames for cultural interpretation but are, more importantly, embodied practices that make political gifts feel right or not in a particular social context. Paying attention to that relationship is central to how I study politics through the lens of a discourse-centered approach to culture.

Jonathan D. Hill reflects on his career

Jonathan Hill featured on BBC's "Science in Action" | Anthropology

What moment of fieldwork interaction do you still think about, amazed that you got to witness it and/or record it?

While doing fieldwork in 1981 for my doctoral dissertation, I was using my stereo cassette player and pre-amped external microphone to make audio recordings of a shamanic curing ritual in an indigenous Wakuénai (Curripaco) village. As usual, the shaman had set up his bench, hallucinogenic snuff, maraca, tobacco, and other materials facing the eastern horizon. That day was sunny and hot without a cloud in the bright blue sky. I recorded songs and took photographs all morning. The shaman looked straight up through the feathers of his maraca at exactly twelve noon, and soon a patient and several curious villagers gathered in the space behind the shaman. As the ritual progressed, the shaman repeatedly blew tobacco smoke over the heads of everyone present, including the patient, her family, the gathering of villagers, and even the visiting anthropologist and his tape recorder. After another two hours, I began to feel a kind of energy that I can only describe as exhilarating. It was a hot afternoon less than two degrees north of the Equator, yet I wasn’t sweating or even feeling hot. I hadn’t eaten since early morning but didn’t feel hungry at all. In the mid-afternoon, as the shaman sang and chased after shadow-spirits in the eastern sky, a powerful thunderstorm became visible in the distance and quickly approached the island village. But when the storm began dumping heavy rains on the manioc gardens just across the east channel of the river, it stopped approaching. The shaman was standing up and singing to the thunderclouds in a sort of antiphonal musical dialogue with flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. I had interviewed shamans, other ritual specialists, and non-specialists who claimed that powerful shamans had the ability to control weather events. Later in my fieldwork I learned that the reason shamans blow tobacco smoke over the heads of all people present is to gather up the life force of their bodies to help bring patient’s lost soul back to the world of living people. My tape recorder was also said to be pulling in the patient’s lost soul, so it was also included in the effort. I still wonder about that day, the energy I felt, and that mysterious thunderstorm.

What article or book was hardest for you to write, and why?

Probably the hardest essay for me to write was the chapter in the Cambridge History of Native Peoples of the Americas:  South America, Volume III, Part 2 (1999, “Indigenous Peoples and the Rise of Independent Nation-States in Lowland South America,” F. Salomon and S. Schwartz, editors, pp. 704-764). I had been invited to contribute a chapter on this topic but not given clear guidance on how much of lowland South America was to be covered. I realized immediately that the topic would be unmanageably huge if it were to include all of Brazil in addition to the Guyanas, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Fortunately the group of anthropologists and ethnohistorians at Universidade de São Paulo (Núcleo de História Indígena e do Indigenismo) organized by Manuela Carnheiro da Cunha agreed to cover Brazil, and the volume’s editors were kind enough to accept this division of labor. Yet that still left a huge swath of lowland South America and an incredibly diverse assortment of Indigenous peoples with a multitude of culturally specific histories. I realized then that as an ethnologist I had detailed knowledge of deep histories for a finite number of specific Indigenous regional communities but needed to find some way to connect them all into a broader, macro-level history of the profound political transformations taking place in South America as the colonial power structures began to unravel after the expulsion of the Jesuits and official abolition of indigenous slavery in 1767.  Also, the newly independent states of the 19th Century needed to be interpreted as new systems of power that used rationalist social theories of the Enlightenment to radically dehumanize Indigenous peoples and to justify the erasure of their territorial rights and cultural identities. Finding a way to write about these macro-level transformations while still being able to hear culturally specific histories in which Indigenous peoples understand themselves as the agents of their own transformations was extremely challenging.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

For me, a productive writing day cannot be measured in quantitative terms. Productive writing can only result from clear and coherent thinking. Scribbles, notes, outlines, and fragments of ideas are important prerequisites to translating complex and often ‘fuzzy’ thoughts into effective prose. It is important to think what one is going to say rather than just say whatever one happens to be thinking at any given moment. Likewise, it is essential to think what one is preparing to write rather than vice-versa.

Which class did you most enjoy teaching, and why?

I really had fun creating and teaching a graduate seminar on “Narrative Practices, Music, and Social Cognition” in Fall semester 2009. At the time I was participating in an interdisciplinary research and publication group of linguists, psychologists, philosophers, and anthropologists who were working to understand the importance of narrative practices known as folk psychological narratives in the development of human social cognition. I had just published a book on Trickster Myths, Music, and History from the Amazon (U. Illinois Press 2009) and was co-editing a major comparative study of indigenous Amazonian instrumental music (Burst of Breath, U. Nebraska Press 2011). In addition to the close fit between the topics covered in the graduate seminar and the research I was doing at the time, the graduate faculty and doctoral candidates in sociocultural and linguistic anthropology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale had reached an unprecedented level of quality and productivity. It was a time when a group of junior and senior scholars, each having their own unique research interests, were able to find common ground that allowed for openly sharing ideas and knowledge and significant intellectual growth.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an academic?

Yes. In the fall of 1989, the start of my fourth academic year at SIUC, the Chair of the Department of Anthropology suggested that it was time for me to assemble a dossier in order to be considered for an early promotion and tenure decision. My first book had come out in 1988 while I was on a postdoc fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution, where I had written the first draft of my second book. In the summer of 1989, I had been invited to participate in a research project in Colombia and to present a paper at a Wenner-Gren International Symposium in Brazil. I had been working since 1986 as a contributing editor for the Handbook of Latin American Studies, U.S. Library of Congress, and the new Editor of American Anthropologist had recently appointed me to serve on the editorial board. I felt strongly supported by the senior faculty in the Department, and their support in turn motivated me to keep expanding my professional and intellectual horizons with the knowledge that what was good for my development was also good for the faculty and students in the Department.

Pamela Klassen on her book, The Story of Radio Mind

Interview by Georgia Ennis

Georgia Ennis: At the center of your account are the travels and work of missionary Frederick Du Vernet, with whom you speak across time in numerous ways. How and why did Du Vernet come to be the central personage of this story of settler colonial expansion? You describe your first ‘encounter’ with Du Vernet in the text, but can you tell us more about how you came to travel with him and his many contradictions across what is today known as Canada?

Pamela Klassen: I first encountered him through reading newspaper, church newspaper articles for another book I was writing on Christianity and medicine and healing in the 20th century. And they were very unusual articles that were uncommon for an Anglican newspaper in the 1920s, in which he was basically propounding his theory of telepathic thought transference. He also had a kind of theory of media he was writing about, like the new effects of the cinema, and what this would do to young hearts and minds.  By the mid-1920s, he was writing about his new theory of spiritual radio or radio mind — basically the idea that human beings can transfer their thoughts across this energy field, radio waves that God has provided for us as a means of communication. He’s coming up with this theory at a time when a few people have radios. He is doing what is a very common approach by taking a new technology and spiritualizing it.  This happened with the telegraph and the telephone, with all these kinds of means of communication.

I went to the national church archive in Toronto to see if I could find out more about him. And the archivist, very kindly pointed me to a diary that he had written in 1898 when he was a missionary journalist who was travelling across Canada and visiting different missionaries and missions along the way. This diary records 11 days of his visit to the Rainy River, which was an area fairly newly settled by white settlers.  It was on an Anishinaabe territory or Ojibwe territory.

It was a remarkable diary because the way he writes it, he writes often in the voice of Anishinaabe women and men he encounters. Often older women and men who were quite resistant to his presence, even their words are his perspective. It struck me as a really powerful record of Anishinaabe resistance to Canadian and Christian presence on their land.  I put thae diary aside, finished the other book, and then the diary was really haunting me.  Eventually I said, “You know, I wonder, maybe I should actually figure out if I can go up there and bring the diary back to where it was written.” When I did, I met with some very kind members of Rainy River First Nations, especially Art Hunter and his brother Al Hunter, and since then, I’ve been going up regularly.  We now have a website where I talk about the diary. That’s been one life of my encounter with Du Vernet.

I guess one thing I would say is, it’s rightfully very challenging for a white woman to write about indigenous missionary encounters and, and indigenous sort of state relations in the Canadian context, but I also felt it was my responsibility to write about the Canadian side of that history.  He was allowing me to also challenge my field of the study of religion that often looks especially at North American religion, that will often look at a man like him as someone participating in a new religious movement. But he wasn’t. He was an Anglican through and through, he was an Archbishop. He was a mainstream Christian man, but also the ideas that he came to emerged from his relationships with indigenous people across Turtle Island, across Anishinaabe and other nations. And focusing on him allowed me, as a white woman, to tell a story of white people’s responsibility for the world that we live in today.

Georgia Ennis: Themes of testimony, confession, and reconciliation, as well as the ways these genres have been understood within different linguistic and cultural traditions, are central to the book. What kind of testimony do you envision The Story of Radio Mind providing, and what is its relationship to ongoing processes of reconciliation within Canada and other settler colonial states?

Pamela Klassen: A great question, thank you. I began writing the book before the Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation commissions’ final report came out in 2015, which was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission focused on the church-state nexus of residential schools, schools  that indigenous children were often forcibly taken to, often by the police, the RCMP.  They were largely paid for by the Canadian government, but run by different churches. So, you would have an Anglican or a Methodist or a Catholic school. So, the discourse of reconciliation is very much of the moment in which I wrote the book, and still present was when it came out in 2018. Now we are in 2020. And the discourse of reconciliation is clearly not sufficient. At this moment, June 2020, we’re addressing questions of the ongoing, not just legacies, but reality of colonialism and in Canada and the US and how that connects to anti-black racism and anti-indigenous racism and police brutality. Its important for scholars to have a kind of awareness of the moment in which they’re writing but also a kind of humility knowing that the things they write two years ago will have a different resonance and you can’t know what that’s going to be.

Questions of testimony and confession were really alive in the cultural moment in which I was writing, because a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is profoundly a moment of testimony. There really was not a lot of confession going on, because it was mostly indigenous survivors, telling their stories and giving their testimonies. Still, the very notion of reconciliation, which I discussed a little bit in the book, is from one kind of understanding, a profoundly Christian concept and it’s still a Christian ritual – about forgiveness and becoming, restoring your relationship with God. The fact that a state-based ritual of Reconciliation has these Christian roots I think is worth pondering.

I also like to think about what can become appropriate anthropological stories about these places, and how anthropologists were similar to missionaries in that both anthropologists and missionaries sought stories out of the indigenous people that they encountered. The anthropologist turned them into ethnography, the missionaries turned them into stories that they could package in church newspapers and missionary newspapers so that they could get more funding for their missions. The anthropologists also wanted funding from the Smithsonian, or other sources. So the whole question of “stories for cash” was something I wanted to think about. And which, of course, I’m implicated in as well.

Georgia Ennis: You close the book by reflecting on another kind of medium, the body. Yet, you consider throughout ways in which various media technologies interact with, shape, and otherwise mediate bodies or embodied relationships, from photographs and accounts that “firsted” and “lasted” Indigenous peoples out of existence, to spiritual frequencies said to have connected minds across great distances. How do you envision the interrelationship among the various forms of mediation you examine—embodied, spiritual, and technological? What effects do they have on each other? And, relatedly, do you have any thoughts on the role of digital or supposedly “new” forms of mediation, and the future of the stories you examine here?

Pamela Klassen: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I should say, I guess, that I think about – since we started our informal part of the conversation talking about midwifery, my earlier work was on midwifery and women’s experiences of childbirth, and how, in the North American context, a lot of women turn to midwifery for very different reasons. Sometimes they do it through legal means, illegal means, grey area, law, that kind of thing. And so, when I worked on that project, it was the 1990s. So, it’s a different sort of midwifery landscape than there is now. But I always really thought of myself as someone who thinks a lot about the body, gender, racialization, and these kinds of things. And then I found myself writing a book that was all kind of channeled through the body of this man who was a white Christian missionary, and sometimes I worried that I wasn’t paying enough attention to the body. Yet one of the things that I really want to want people to take away from the book is realizing that whiteness was a very active category at this time and it was a lived reality. So, when Du Vernet gets to Northern British Columbia in 1904, he was doing what the missionaries call Indian work. He was working with indigenous people who are there. But he arrives there at the same time that the railway is getting going, because they want to build a railway for all kinds of complex reasons, to this point, in Prince Rupert, because it’s got a very deep harbor and they see Prince Rupert as being the gateway to Asia, also the gateway to the north, and also a competitor to Vancouver and Victorian San Francisco. It’s the crawl of the railway, the spinal cord of colonialism.  By the time he’s at the end of his life, he is doing what everybody calls “white work”, which is working with the settlers. He is aware, he talks a lot about the differences, the challenges of doing both Indian work and White work. Whiteness is a very active animating category for settler colonialism. I think people often don’t realize how freely people spoke with these racialized terms across North America in different ways, and with different differences.

One of the things I also wanted to point out is that all of these communication tools depend on matters that is drawn from the earth, the minerals in our cellphones, in our computers, stuff that makes our cellphones, and our computers.  The cloud is not a cloud, its actually made out of servers that require cooling and heating, demanding vast resources to actually keep our communication systems alive. I wanted to frame and draw attention to the fact that all forms of mediation and communication have consequences for the earth and for the world, and therefore for us, and all the creatures on the earth.

Then, just to end briefly with a website I would love for people to go and look at:   On this site, we take the diary that I was talking about earlier, and we annotate it. We try to put it in the larger historical context of Treaty 3, in relationship between missionaries and Ojibwe in that context.  We visit the community quite often to talk to them about ideas and about where to go next.  So soon we’ll be trying to build curriculum resources, so people can use it on their online teaching that they have to do in the near future, both in high schools and in universities.  We are doing a pilot study with indigenous youth students to get feedback from them about how this website tells the story of colonialism of indigenous presence and continuity on the land and what we learn from it. We welcome anybody  to visit and learn from the website. And it was actually very interesting to write about this story in two different forms — in the book and the website. The book is done, not clear if the website will ever be done.