Noelle Molé Liston on her book, The Truth Society

The Truth Society

Interview by Jonah Rubin

https://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/9781501750793/the-truth-society/

Jonah Rubin: So much has been written about what media literacy scholars have termed our “information disorder” (Wardle and Derakhshan 2017). There is a general recognition that mis- and disinformation is rampant, threatening the shared epistemological foundations of many political communities. In The Truth Society, though, you don’t only focus on those who believe in conspiracy theories and misinformation. You see them as intimately connected with those who are “hyperinvested” in real science and reliable facts. Even in your opening vignette you focus not on the purveyors of untruths, but rather on the “soldiers of rationality” breaking mirrors in the public square as an anti-superstition performance. Why is it important (methodologically, theoretically, or both) for us to focus on what you call this “hyperrationalization,” an almost desperate pursuit of science, empiricism, and skepticism as well? Put otherwise, what do we miss when we exclusively train our analytic gaze on those who believe in false information?

Noelle Molé Liston:  

Danger #1: We miss not fully recognizing the implications of the onslaught of information and algorithmic underpinnings of digital consumption. Access to information has meant both a democratization of access to information, that is, at least in basic sense along with the intensified customization and subsequent siloing of information. Yet with so much information, what became eroded was a basic sense of source appraisal, especially when industries were mastering pseudoscientific ways to uphold the oil and gas industry, and various “Big” Industries like Big Pharma, Big Sugar, Big Food, etc. Therefore, we saw that scientific information also became a site of “fake news” where under the guise of science, social actors might find so-called scientific studies to support the absence of climate change or the incredible health benefits of sugar. Thus, social actors who were already habituated to see science as true, rational, and reasonable, were being seduced with paid-for sponsored “fake” science, which I would argue, worked because of this enchantment of good science, a kind of facile belief that scientific rationality could seek and produce the truth. Without interrogating or becoming skeptical about why knowledge under the label of “science” can either be manipulated or outright fabricated, we fall prey to reifying–or even deifying–science itself.

Danger #2: We become “anesthetized” to our own embodied or phenomenological ways of knowing the world and, possibly, one’s own expertise. In my exploration of the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, one interlocutor was an architect with deep knowledge of both the territory and engineering. Yet she ignored her own sense of danger when she was reassured by scientists and fellow engineers, likening it to “numbing” her other ways of knowing she had typically relied upon. Why does this happen? Immense pressure was on the public to trust science and quell the existing pre-earthquake panic, not unlike ways the American public is currently scolded to “trust the science” during the pandemic. In both instances, maintaining social order relies on a continual investment in science as simple truth, so we have to interrogate how our own trust in science might be part of a mode of control and surveillance. It’s also become quite tricky on the left, as we want to allow space for healthy scientific skepticism but not indulge pseudoscience or conspiracies. If we fail to examine our own tendencies to exalt science as “big-T” True, then we risk reproducing the very regime of hyperinvestment in science.

Jonah Rubin: One major theme of the text is the ways that new media technologies – television news, the internet, algorithms – reshape the possibilities for politics. At times, it seems like these technologies open up new possibilities for political participation and populism. Other times, it seems like the technologies become new sites for the political imagination, such as the televised presentation of a golden tapir award or the infozombies. Could you elaborate a bit on how you see the relationship between new media and politics playing out?

Noelle Molé Liston: The book ends with the metaphor of the mirrored window world where the media consumers believe themselves to be accessing information openly and outwardly, but instead are regurgitated only algorithmic versions of information already catered to their likes, dislikes, and political leanings. In some ways, it seems important that the originality and bite of Italy’s “Striscia La Notizia” (The News is Spreading) satirical news show and Beppe Grillo’s blog were not data-driven media, that is, there was no predetermined customization or data-mining precipitating their creation, other than usual television ratings or blog views. But they were both examples of important political interventions: the former to critique then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the latter to build a grassroots political movement of the Five Star Movement. Plus, both were art forms insofar as they were driven by the humor and creativity of political actors, navigating a climate of television censorship by the very man they were poking fun at (Berlusconi), on the one hand, and engaging in-person political action vis-a-vis online content. By contrast, the more algorithmic media such as the Five Star Movement’s web portal program known as Rousseau, might mine member data and ideas in ways unknown to users. Perhaps not surprisingly, Luigi Di Maio, one of Five Star’s leaders who served as Co-Deputy Prime Minister, was accused of being a kind of android: chosen and styled according to user preferences from Rousseau. Put differently, the algorithmic regimes of new media fundamentally operate in ways that are buried and opaque to most users, which, in turn, makes it harder to discern their effects. More recently, Italy has also seen a quite intense anti-vax movement during the pandemic, which is likely the product of social media algorithms which funnel users into their own individualized information silos and boost posts because of “engagement” not veracity. The outside world can look so deceptively beautiful even though the forest is just our own faces. Twenty-first century idiom: you can’t see the faces through the forest? 

Jonah Rubin: To me personally, one of the most productively challenging aspects of your book is your analysis of political humor. Many of us see political humor as inherently subversive, a way of mocking and therefore undermining the powerful. But in your book, especially in chapters 1 and 3, you suggest that humor can also breed a kind of political cynicism and even complicity that may reinforce hegemonic power structures. Could you tell us a bit more about your approach to the politics of humor? How should anthropologists and others study the politics of jokes, both the kinds we find funny and the kinds that may horrify us?

Noelle Molé Liston: It is true that I tend to adopt a cynical approach to political humor as my recent analysis of viral videos of Italian mayors funnily admonishing citizens to mask up effectively got laughs because they represented the “thwarted displacement of patriarchy and failed attempts, at every level of governance, to erect robust authoritarian control.” Part of this analytic, of course, is aligned with anthropological investigation of humor and satire as unintentionally bolstering entrenched power structures. It’s hard not to be so cynical when Berlusconi himself, whom I’ve argued won over Italians with his brash humor as a seemingly genuine presentation of an otherwise highly artificial political masquerader, almost had a comeback in his 2022 run for President of the Republic. (He ended up dropping out of the race). I remained concerned that “strong men” like Berlusconi and  Trump use humor to manipulate and garner support, and diffuse criticism, resulting in a destabilization of how political humorists can have, as it were, the last laugh. How can political humor outsmart the absurdist clown? How will algorithmically filtered media consumption (re)shape the humor of consumers and voters?

One strategy might be in the satire of unlikely embodiment. One of Berlusconi’s best impersonators is Sabina Guzzanti, a woman 25-years Berlsconi’s junior who dons wigs and prosthetics to perfect her impression. In this clip, she refers to herself as a woman while in costume as Berlusconi, decrying that “her” failed bid for President was sexist. She is also one of his fiercest critics, especially in her account of his post-earthquake crisis management in L’Aquila. In the US, Sarah Cooper went viral for her videos in which she would lip synch to things Trump said without physically altering her appearance, so it was his voice, but her mouth, face, and body. In both cases, the performances do different kinds of political and symbolic work because of the surprisingly mismatched genders and bodies, which results in tension, long a characteristic of great humor, between laughter and discomfort. There is something powerful and effective about the dissonance of having women, and in Cooper’s case, a woman of color, speak the words of these misogynists that straight jokes and impressions (often by straight men) cannot achieve.

Jonah Rubin: In Chapters 5 and 6, you look at the tensions between scientific prediction and public governance, particularly in the Anthropocene. Here, you focus on the trial of a group of scientists who provide reassurances to the residents of L’Aquila, urging them to stay home prior to what ultimately turns out to be a deadly earthquake. At the time, the international press overwhelmingly presented this story as an irrational attack on science. But you see it as a more profound commentary on the changing role of science in the public sphere. How do shifts in our experience of the climate and in our media landscapes affect the relationship between science, politics, and law?

Noelle Molé Liston: Indeed I argue that the idea that Italians gullibly believe scientists could predict earthquakes helped export the narrative of the trial as anti-science. However, it was more about the form of the press conference which positioned authoritative scientific reassurances to quell the rising panic in L’Aquila. As we confront more acute environmental crises, there will be greater pressure on scientists to predict and manage risk, ascertain damage and crisis management, and weigh in on policy, as we’ve seen during the pandemic. But we don’t yet have a legal framework that might hold non-scientific or even scientific failures accountable. In L’Aquila, the actual non-scientific claim was their reassurance that no big earthquake would come and people should not evacuate. The Italian judiciary tried to make a connection between an authoritative sources’ public utterances and the fatal consequence of this misinformation: the listeners’ death. By contrast, Trump alone issued massive amounts of misinformation about the dangers of Covid but it would be entirely inconceivable, I think, that our judiciary hold him accountable for the resulting deaths.  Why? Because of Trump-era politics or the American justice system, more broadly? How –and where–will the law shift to see misinformation as fatally consequential, legally punishable, or, at least, a public health crisis?

Jonah Rubin: The book centers on the ways fact and fiction are blurred during the Berlusconi and Grillo eras of Italian politics. But to me, the students in my class who read this text, and, I assume, many other readers in the United States will see strong resonances between what you describe in Italy and our own country’s experiences with President Trump and the “post-truth” era that American frequently associated with his rise to power. Of course, the balance between ethnographic specificity and comparison is as old as anthropology itself. With that caveat in mind: What do you see in your argument as particular to Italy and how do you think it applies to our recent and current experiences in the United States and around the world as well?

Noelle Molé Liston: Berlusconi as a precursor to Trump was a kind of historical instruction booklet. I often describe Berlusconi to Americans as “Trump + Bloomberg,” because Berlusconi owned his own media company, which was vital in his 1990s rise to power. However, the structure of Italian television broadcasting, where political parties divvied up news networks, was crucial in the mid-century rise of public cynicism towards television and print media. Ultimately, it sharpened a widely shared Italian assumption that any form of news has a political slant (decades before we were talking about spin). Put simply, the infrastructure of media matters. Most agree that Trump was tipped over the edge not by television masterminding like Berlusconi but because of social media manipulation. To be sure, Italy’s technopopulism of the Five Star Movement will likely expand in the US. Still, Italy seems to have suffered far less democratic backsliding than the United States, and maybe we could read this as hopeful premonition. But the US seems to have “left the chat” in terms of Italian influence. Italy’s fundamental rootedness in its unique mix of Catholic ethics, democratic social welfare, and pro-labor movements has somehow put voting rights and democratic institutions in a better place with respect to the US,with our Protestant ethic, anti-labor, and neoliberal demonization of welfare. Let’s also notice that there was no January 6th in Italy, no violent insurrection of people believing an election was stolen. Despite Italy’s international reputation as an “unstable democracy,” I’d feel more confident about proper counting of votes and the peaceful transfer of power in Italy than I would in our next US presidential election.

Jonah Rubin: This is less of a major point in your book, but on page 88, you note a common thread of political cynicism that ties together the foundational principles of media criticism – and, I would hasten to add, most media literacy education initiatives too  – and the Five Star Movement’s attacks on science and news media, which find clear echoes in other right-wing populist movements around the globe. How do you think media criticism and education might be contributing to the deterioration of a shared epistemology? And might you have any suggestions on how media criticism and education need to shift in response to populist political movements which sound disturbingly close to their foundational insights? 

Noelle Molé Liston: Just as the left needs to thread the needle in terms of science as I mentioned earlier, so, too, do well- intentioned plans for media literacy begin to sound like Trump’s refrain of referring to The New York Times as “fake news.” The problem is that people have lost an ability to discern between positioned information and misinformation. Plus, our regime of algorithmic newsfeeds just can’t handle the nuance.  Just as postmodern theories of multiple, contested truth escalated to, or were perceived as, forms of absolute moral nihilism, so, too, has some healthy epistemological skepticism quickly become a truth vacuum. It reminds me of a moment when my student said she found statistics about police violence against Blacks on a white supremacist website. Why? I asked, horrified. She said it was because she trusted their information precisely because their anti-Black positionality was overt.  We find this same mentality that makes Trump, one of the biggest liars and con-artists on the world’s stage, become trusted by his followers: the trust in manifest and easily legible opinions. What results, then, is greater trust in overtly positioned information sources like Fox News, and lesser trust in the vast majority of information mediums where the positionality is more complex, covert or semi-covert, and paradoxical. Media criticism and education needs to instruct on literacy practices where knowledge might be seen as positioned and framed, and move away from a binary of biased versus unbiased media. We also need to raise awareness about how information is algorithmically processed and customized to the user. Finally, we must recognize how corporate media regimes deliberately design decoys (eg. clickbait, customized ads) and mechanisms of addiction  (eg. the no-refresh scroll function, TikTok) to keep data surveillance and its vast monetization for the benefit of astonishingly few people in place.

Shireen Walton discusses her book, Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy

Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy

Interview by Rachel Howard

Rachel Howard: As you note, active aging agendas “aim to encourage people to exercise control over the aging process and stave off the experience of decline and frailty through a range of ‘active’ practices, such as physical and mental activity, engagement with others, a good diet, and even cosmetic surgery and medication.” (22) Your text is a critique of the institutionalization of this concept, which is borne out by your interlocutors who seemed to shun efforts by the Italian state to recruit them in explicit projects of active aging. At the same time, many of your interlocutors found that the maintenance of a sense of utility or usefulness to their family or to the community at large was key to their maintenance of selfhood beyond their identity as an older person. How might we account for the way that state-supported efforts to promote active aging might be simultaneously shunned and taken up (perhaps in a different context), as reactive aging (25)? Is this a contradiction when it comes to an individual’s experience of aging?

Shireen Walton: Yes, and thank you for raising the question; I would say there is a certain contradiction surrounding ideas about, and practices of, what is understood to be activity. In chapter two of the book I consider some of the frameworks in which ageing has been positioned in Italy, in the EU context, as well as in the US under the rubrics of ‘active’ and ‘successful’ ageing respectively, thinking about these frameworks alongside how notions of activity are thought of and lived in practice among the people I came to know during my research in Milan. I found that a number of research participants may not necessarily ascribe to certain prescriptions of activity, but at the same time, and for a multitude of reasons, expressed their desires to be active, or rather, useful – something that the smartphone became directly implicated in. A number of older adults in their seventies I came to know were active in many socially-facing ways across the neighborhood that was the locus of my research; volunteering in local schools, running allotment clubs, co-facilitating a women’s multicultural centre, and helping out with childcare as grandparents. Through these activities, people expressed feeling useful, and derived a certain satisfaction from their ability to be engaged in such ways, on- and offline. This utility was linked to their sense of invecchiamento sano (healthy ageing), which in turn formed part of a higher or moral purpose that was seen as a core part of the meaning of one’s life. In cases where social lives were reasonably active then, calls for activity from the state, or other groups or practices linked to age were not necessarily engaged with, and could even create a sense of people being seen as, or feeling, old in ways they may not identify with. As you highlight, older age could be seen as an identity marker that a number of research participants were to some degree reacting against (though not always, and not necessarily intentionally) through their everyday lives and practices. Where age-related initiatives were notably being taken up is in the field of adult education, and specifically, digital literacy classes for older adults – something that has continued to develop online during the Covid-19 pandemic in Italy, and which we discuss in more detail in chapter seven of our collective book stemming from the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) project, The Global Smartphone.

Rachel Howard: The function of the smartphone, and its applications for communication, as a constant companion that is both personal and intensely ubiquitous, troubles the concepts of homeland and of home itself. How might the use of—and the need for—this object, suggest a shift in the concept of aging in place or active aging?

Shireen Walton: The constant companion, as I refer to the smartphone in the book, entails a number of shifts in the concept/experience of aging in place because it affects many inter-connected aspects of life, including the reworking of place, and notably, the place of home – in The Global Smartphone, we conceptualise the smartphone itself as a transportal home; a place within which we live. In my book I discuss how the smartphone accompanies people as they pass through stages of life; this may entail a loss of a sense of home through migration or displacement, or, people may experience a largely physically home-based life in older age that without digital technologies may potentially feel isolating. Or, some people may be living with both of these experiences. Being digitally connected in the home is something that has come very much to the fore during the Covid-19 pandemic, and in the varied experiences of lockdown across Italy, and across the world.

Coming back to your question, what we can say is shifting with the presence of smartphones in everyday lives is both the experience of the home, and the concept of home itself. Some research participants in Milan would engage with medical care from home through WhatsApp, sharing images of symptoms with their doctors, or they would share and receive comfort and emotional support through forms of affective communication, photo and meme-sharing. In other cases, research participants from regions such as Sicily, or countries such as Egypt, Peru, and Afghanistan, who for varied reasons are unable to regularly visit the regions and countries they were born and grew up in, and where members of their families live, have a particularly heightened experience of the smartphone as a transportal home, which facilitates their virtual presence in multiple places/spaces, and affective economies, to employ Sara Ahmed’s term. However, seeing the smartphone as a kind of mobile dwelling is not to diminish the importance of either homeland, which for some research participants remained symbolically, practically, and politically very important, or the physical home space, as a site of care, physical presence, assistance, and company. These phenomenological shifts, nevertheless, prove very significant in understanding contemporary experiences and geographies of ageing, and of living with (and without) smartphones.

Rachel Howard: The text makes ample use of the case study and visual media, like embedded video, photos, and websites. How do you see these methods amplifying each other? How do these methods enrich or challenge our understanding of digital fluency? 

Shireen Walton: It’s been one of the exciting aspects of the ASSA project, and our open-access book series with UCL Press, that we have been able to incorporate photographs, embedded videos, and hyperlinks as part of our ethnographic storytelling. Via these multimodal means, readers can come to learn about the lives and experiences of number of people we carried out research with through a series of short videos linked to our blog and website, which can be viewed alongside other visual materials, such as our recently published comics on the ASSA blog, which tell a selection of fieldwork stories. This interest in interactive storytelling reflects our research participants’ own interests in engaging with smartphones, tablets, and audiovisual media for education, storytelling, and learning, and these aspects have been a keen interest and commitment of the project from the start.

Rachel Howard: It seems that being youthful may be performed in many different ways, across a range of practices as well as externally defined and internally experienced qualia, including the use of cellphones as a way of “awareness” (143) to different life-worlds not accessible to your interlocutors in their youth. The discussion of narratives in Italy regarding different age groups’ use of digital technologies at times seemed to mirror narratives in the U.S., particularly when you note, “Older people are often depicted in the media and in political debates as a vulnerable group that is susceptible to ‘fake news’, while young people, regarded as ‘digital natives’, can be presented as at risk of addiction or becoming enslaved by the device, and suffering long-term health risks.” (82) This seemed like a double bind. Is it ever possible for your older interlocutors to achieve what many seem to desire—to felicitously perform youthfulness? If so, what does that look like?

Shireen Walton: It’s a good question, and it raises a key point about inter-generational relationships that I aimed to explore in the book: how is age represented alongside other identity categories, and how do people see themselves – and each other – at various ages and stage of their life? A range of popular discourses, media narratives, and advertising continues to contribute to the production of certain assumptions and stigmas concerning older and younger people and technology around the world. In Italy, while younger generations may be depicted in the media as almost tech-obsessed, older people have been viewed somewhat traditionally as outside of the tech bubble. Examples throughout the book seek to nuance these representations by illustrating the various uses of smartphones and multiple social and political purposes they serve that I came to learn about from research participants of varying ages and backgrounds. Amongst research participants in Milan in their fifties through to their seventies a number of people expressed not feeling young but, as mentioned in the first question, not necessarily identifying as old either. Their smartphone formed a kind of bridge between ages, people, places, and aspects of themselves; enabling a way of being connected in a fast-moving world of apps, chats, images, information and documents, that, alongside wider forms of social and political engagement, made some people feel in a sense younger than what their actual age was. However, as I aready mentioned, this youthfulness was not just about feeling and performing youth for the sake of it, but was notably about feeling useful – to others, to family, to the community where utility was associated with activity and mobility, including in virtual forms. What might then be enveloped into a framework of youthfulness may involve any number of activities, such as running an allotment club, volunteering to teach Italian language classes at a local NGO, administrating a women’s choir and its lively WhatsApp group, or playing an active role in grandparenting. It may also be about carving out time for one’s self through apps for meditation and poetry, step-counting, or music. Overall in the book I try to describe a certain circle of activity, utility, privacy and sociability, that the smartphone – or rather, what people do with it – is involved in squaring, as the smartphone, and how people live and narrate their lives, calls established categories and assumptions about age(ing) into question.

Rachel Howard: To return to the ubiquity of the smartphone, I want to invite you to reflect on the way that it both mediates and changes the terms of communication practices amongst your interlocutors. Is the smartphone, in some ways, like a walker or a cane for digital communication? What new kind of communication skills does the smartphone require its user to learn? Do your interlocutors use the smartphone in ways other than originally intended, thereby shifting its function?

Shireen Walton: The smartphone entails multiple forms of communication, and these will vary depending on who is using a particular device, in a specific context, via certain kinds of digital infrastructure. Using a smartphone involves firstly learning to use it, as well as the subsequent social etiquettes, languages, apps, and communication forms that the social aspect of it entails. Chapter five of the book details a number of examples of how in some cases the smartphone amplifies existing forms of communication; where for example, audio messaging may be preferable to those who may otherwise routinely converse on the phone. In other cases, visual forms of communication such as stickers, emojis, and memes might play upon people’s creativity or reflect, say, the sense of humour between siblings or friends. On the other hand, the multiple options for communication afforded by the smartphone also draws people into experimenting with how they communicate and express care; such as the research participants who had entered into a new and unfamiliar habit of returning a meme-a-day to a friend or relative as a form of talking without talking, or communicating expressively online via stickers and memes. This circles back to your earlier question about the significance of the smartphone for ageing in place. I would say that the range of creative uses I encountered amongst older adults in Milan extends the smartphone beyond a kind of walker or a cane for digital communication. Rather, the object forms an intimate link with the person, their language(s), politics, and their social universe. For potentially bringing about confusion and anxiety as it affords connection, companionship, and mobility, the smartphone can be both a rock of support and the hard place of people’s lives, homes, and relationships.

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako on Fabricating Transnational Capitalism

Fabricating Transnational Capitalism

Interview by Janet Connor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lauren Crossland-Marr takes the page 99 test

Re-reading page 99 of my dissertation, I’m snapped back to the mosque in Milan, Italy that I came to know so well. Where public school children convened to learn about Islam, and a first grader asked if he was no longer a Muslim because he accidentally ate pork. Where, almost every Friday, I sat in the back with my hair covered, surrounded by other women, who expertly moved their bodies to the rhythm of worship. Where I walked, day in and day out in order to enter the offices of Halal Italia.

Page 99 sits towards the end of a chapter about the community running Halal Italia. I’m drinking tea and eating pastries with an Algerian friend who mentions that the group I work with is “not really Muslim”. What my friend was alluding to is that labeling food is powerful and can create legitimate actors and legible worlds. This is especially relevant in Italy for two conceptual reasons that have empirical effects. Italy has a global reputation for “good” food, and Muslims outside of Muslim majority countries play the leading role in determining what is certifiable as halal. Through my entanglement in daily work life, I found that the established culture of made in Italy products was a powerful force in shaping values within the Italian halal industry today.

This notion of value itself is complex. And perhaps it is due to this complexity, and the limits of the ethnographic written form, that I end my dissertation with a passage from Italo Calvino’s (1972) Invisible Cities. In the book, the emperor Kublai Khan tells Marco Polo that he can describe real cities he has never seen, his cities are based on elements in which all cities should possess. However, the Khan is unable to describe any of the cities Polo has encountered. Polo responds, “I have also thought of a model city from which I derive all others… It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions… But I cannot force my operation beyond a certain limit: I would arrive at cities too probable to be real” (Calvino 1972:32).

Similarly, I show that the project of the certifier is to operate within a world that is empirically true but is also one of discourse, and like Polo’s cities, their projects are limited by, and shaped within, the food worlds they inhabit.

Calvino, Italo. 1972. Le Citta Invisibili. Turin: Einaudi.

Lauren Crossland-Marr. 2020. Consuming Local, Thinking Global: Building a Halal Industry in a World of Made in Italy. Washington University in St. Louis, Phd.

Sabina Perrino on her book, Narrating Migration

Narrating Migration : Intimacies of Exclusion in Northern Italy book cover

https://www.routledge.com/Narrating-Migration-Intimacies-of-Exclusion-in-Northern-Italy-1st-Edition/Perrino/p/book/9781138584679

Interview by Daniela Narvaez

Daniela Narvaez: In your book, you reflect on your own experiences as a way of discovering intimacies of exclusion. You start by sharing with your audience that you conducted many interviews in several hospitals as part of a project regarding Senegalese ethnomedicine in West Africa. From this experience you had the opportunity to interview participants who, like yourself, spoke standardized Italian and Venetan. Can you please share more with us about your decision to turn your attention to Italians and their narratives? What led you to start thinking about narrations and their relationship to racialized ideologies?

Sabina Perrino: First of all, I would like to thank you for these lovely questions. In the early 2000s, I was studying the fate of Senegalese ethnomedical practices both in Senegal and in Northern Italy. I was interested in examining how Senegalese ethnomedical practices were adapting to or changing in transnational contexts such as Italy. Ultimately, my goal was to compare them with the ones that Senegalese migrants had available back in Senegal, before migrating to Italy. However, when I started to collect data in northern Italian hospitals and elsewhere, I immediately realized that there was another important ideological layer that needed to be studied: how northern Italian doctors, nurses and ordinary people were reacting to the arrival not only of Senegalese migrants to Italy, but of migrants and refugees’ arrival more generally. Besides sharing stories of migrants’ behavior in hospitals and of the use of their medicine together with Western biomedical cures, northern Italian participants started to share stories about their own anxieties around the changes that the Italian society had undergone since the 1970s when new migratory flows started to enter Italy. Many of my collaborators shared stories about their resistance to these new waves of migrants, often made racialized remarks, and, overall, enacted strong ethnonationalist stances. After my dissertation was completed, I then realized that it was the appropriate time to turn my attention to Italians and to listen to their stories to study these ideological shifts in Italian society. It was the early 2000s when I started to collect these stories, a moment in which, coincidentally, right-wing political parties, such as the Lega Nord (Northern League), were just at the beginning of their path of success across the country.

Daniela Narvaez: In your book, you have shown that through various initiatives, such as using Venetan in public signage, the creation of grammars, dictionaries, folktale- and proverb-themed books, among other efforts, Venetan has been recently linguistically revitalized. However, you also illustrate that this revitalization is not an isolated effort but has been transformed into a political emblem of regional group membership. You explain that “language revitalization initiatives in Veneto have gone hand in hand with the enactment of exclusionary stances concerning migrant groups and other people who are believed not to be fluent in the local language”. What are the challenges and consequences of regional language revitalization in these situations where language is being promoted among their speakers on the one hand, but on the other is being used as a political tool that creates intimacies of exclusion? How do you see your book speaking to the current political moment worldwide in which, as you point out, exclusionary stances and negative stereotypes about migrants circulate at a fast pace? Continue reading