Chihab El Khachab on his book, Making Film in Egypt

Interview by Meg Morley

https://aucpress.com/product/making-film-in-egypt/https://aucpress.com/product/making-film-in-egypt/

Meg Morley: How do/would you explain the central arguments of your book to the film industry personnel with whom you worked?

Chihab El Khachab: There are some arguments about which I already talked with film personnel during and after fieldwork because they were well aware of their dynamics. In particular, we talked a lot about interpersonal relations and labour hierarchies, and how both could negatively affect one’s trajectory within the industry. I’ve had this conversation with directors as well as lighting technicians, clappers, video-assist workers, and so on. I don’t recall discussing the arguments about technology or the distinction between uncertainty and imponderability. What I would tell my interlocutors, however, is that I’m not just interested in documenting the objective constraints on their work – how much money they make, how many hours they work, what kind of tasks they execute – but also in analysing how they take charge of a process as taxing and unpredictable as filmmaking despite these constraints.

What I noticed during fieldwork is that, while filmmakers were always worried about what would happen to their film next, and whether they had the right people and tools to deal with it, they ultimately managed to get through the muddle by using certain working conventions, certain hierarchies, and certain digital technologies in a way which is rarely articulated verbally. This is important because, if this core argument were to become explicit, it would highlight the extent to which the film cannot just be made by a few workers recognized in the first few credits on screen, but in a real sense, it is the outcome of collective labour to overcome everyday failures and uncertainties in the course of production.

Meg Morley: As with any ethnography, there are a number of apparent theoretical roads not taken; to me the most apparent were the neoliberal labor practices of the film industry (for example, workers are expected to always be available and sometimes own/use their own equipment) and the classism of labor hierarchies, imagined audiences, etc. Why did you decide to focus on process, technology, and future rather than other potential options?

Chihab El Khachab: On privileging process and technology, I would say two things. First, it is a matter of narrative structure: I think that the story of the book is better told as a series of anticipations which mirror, in a way, the daily anticipations of filmmakers themselves. The overarching process of the book echoes the process of filmmaking as I have experienced it. Second, the theoretical neglect of everyday technologies and everyday orientations to the future is, I think, an important reason to centre them in the book, precisely because they are so vital to the lived experience of filmmaking. Film production cannot exist without these technological uses and future-orientations, and yet, many ethnographies of film production neglect these dimensions. To put it crudely, I wasn’t interested in writing an ethnography of neoliberalism or class disguised as an ethnography of film production, but rather, I wanted to centre the actual workers that I’ve met and the experiences that I’ve had within the book’s architecture.

Now, why avoid talking about neoliberalism and class? As you rightly point out, the book has a whole subtext precisely about capitalist exploitation – in a sense, the whole analysis of the distinction between artistic and executive workers is about how value creation ultimately relies on the exploitation of manual labour to the benefit of some labelled as artists and a handful of oligopolistic producers/distributors. However, what is happening in today’s industry is not peculiar to the neoliberal period in my view, because similar precarious working arrangements existed in the early 20th-century Egyptian film industry. What I am describing today could be read through the lens of neoliberalism, of course, but this reading would occult the longer historical pattern through which precarity, value-extraction, and exploitation go hand in hand with Egyptian capitalism.

About class, I discuss the issue very briefly in chapter 2, but the basic reason I didn’t centre it is because I don’t have a good analytical language to discuss class in an everyday working context in Egypt – neither does, in my view, the anthropological literature on Egypt. The basic problem is that the existing analytical language – whether it is broadly Marxist, Weberian, Bourdieuian – is historically unattuned to emic class distinctions in Egypt. So what is called “popular” (sha‘bi) or “middle-class” (taba’a wusta) in Cairo cannot be squared easily with a Marxist distinction between people who own the means of production and people who sell their labour-power, or even a Bourdieuian distinction between people with different degrees of economic and symbolic capital. The film industry is interesting precisely because it is a cross-class space in an emic sense, where people hailing from aristocratic or upper middle-class families coexist with people from working-class or lower middle-class backgrounds. I explain in the book that these class positions correlate with – but do not directly correspond to – rank within the industry’s labour hierarchies. In limited cases, in fact, the industry can serve as a vector of social ascension in emic terms. This is a significant observation because it could lead to a more accurate accounting, in common with reflections on other sectors, of the historical process through which class mobility happens in Egypt. This is an important project to undertake beyond the bounds of the film industry proper.

Meg Morley: Can you talk a little bit more about technology and commodity-objects as reserves? In what other ways would you like to see people apply this concept?

Chihab El Khachab: There are two basic ideas I wanted to get across in the chapter on reserves. First, I wanted to say that the actual devices used by filmmakers in their daily activity go well beyond film technologies such as state-of-the-art cameras and editing suites, because smartphones, laptops, and even paper are just as widely and effectively used by filmmakers in practice. These everyday commodities are important filmmaking technologies in their own right. Second, these commodities are not just matter for consumption in the sense in which they are understood in material culture studies, but they are active elements in a production process. This is an important nuance because approaches like object biography or consumption studies tend to detail the commodity’s past and present, whereas their use in film production implies a different orientation to a somewhat expected yet unpredictable future.

The concept of reserve, as I understand it, is an attempt to explain what happens to the everyday technologies used by filmmakers when they are not just inert objects or consumption goods, but active agents in the filmmaking process. I argue that these technologies oscillate between this passive and active role at different moments in the filmmakers’ lives, which I have tried to render by the terms commodity-object and reserve. The reserve is a moment in the life of a technological device in which it is summoned to anticipate what will happen next in film production while summoning their human user to think through the future. This technological-cum-human anticipation could well apply to many socio-technical processes – architecture, art, craftsmanship, manufacture – and I would like to see scholars apply it in contexts where everyday technologies have a strong future-orientation. It’s not enough to say that people use or consume technologies in a certain way, because these technologies are often central in shaping the projects that these people have – and I believe that the idea of technology as a reserve is one step in taking this into account.

Meg Morley: Your fieldwork was on two films conceived of by the producers as art house/film festival films. How do you think your book might have been different if one or both films you worked on were of the popular “Sobky” type?

Chihab El Khachab: The surprising answer to this question is: not very much. Before doing fieldwork, I would’ve guessed – like most people who watch films without knowing how the industry works – that the production patterns in art-house cinema would be a bit different than in commercial cinema. While there are some differences, of course, especially when it comes to how the creative crew think about the film and what marketing strategy the production company uses, the core issues in which I’ve been interested – interpersonal relations, labour hierarchies, technological use, imponderability – apply just as well and look very similar in both cases. In other words, the end product might look very different, but the process itself is quite similar.

I did spend most of my time on productions which were labelled “festival films” by their companies, but I’ve also followed some productions which were much closer to the commercial mainstream. This is because the same company that was making Décor – New Century Film Production – was also making Al-Nabatshi, Qot w-Far (Cat and Mouse), and Qodrat Gheir ‘Adeyya (Out of the Ordinary). I attended some preparations and shooting in all these films, but I didn’t write about them to avoid interrupting the book’s narrative flow. The production crew with which I worked in Décor had a long history of working with Good News, a mega-budget company from the 2000s, and all the technicians in Décor also worked on commercial films to make a living. The main difference, really, was the marketing team and the creative crew – the director, the cinematographer, the art director – who would want the film to look and be branded in a certain way. Everyone else, it seems to me, worked according to very similar patterns, which is a significant observation on its own.

Meg Morley: As someone doing research on Egyptian cultural production (in my case, raqs sharqi/belly dance), I can imagine how you moved from studying the process of filmmaking in Egypt to doing a historical ethnography of the Ministry of Culture. But for those less familiar with the arts and entertainment in Egypt, can you explain how your book project led to your current project?

Chihab El Khachab: I would say that there are two main connections. The first connection is very practical: many of the filmmakers with whom I worked have one link or another with the Ministry of Culture. Many went to the High Cinema Institute (which is part of the Academy of Arts at the Ministry of Culture), some received funding from the National Film Institute, some would go watch the regular screenings at the Opera House (where the Cairo International Film Festival is usually held). In addition to the writers and artists connected with the Ministry of Culture that I knew already, I made a sizeable network within and around the Ministry through fieldwork.

The second connection is a historical one. While the film industry was only regulated by a censorship bureau at the Ministry of Interior until 1952, President Nasser was keen on promoting the film industry as an organ of national development after independence. From 1957 onwards, especially, there were several national bodies and institutions dedicated to promoting film production, distribution, and exhibition. These bodies became nearly omnipotent after extensive nationalization policies in the 1960s, but they lost much of their power once the industry was re-privatised in the 1970s. Yet, these institutions continue to play a vital role in today’s industry – including the High Cinema Institute and the National Film Institute – which means that it is important to understand the intersections of filmmaking with the cultural state apparatus and its historical development in order to understand Egyptian film production. This is why there is a kindred spirit between my first and second projects.

Meg Morley: How did you decide on AUC Press for your book?

Chihab El Khachab: This was serendipitous in a way. Prior to finishing the manuscript, I had sent my book proposal to many university presses and, ultimately, committed the manuscript with a US-based publisher. While the book was under review, Anne Routon (who had just become the new acquisitions editor at AUC press in New York) contacted me about publishing the book and told me about AUC’s ambition to expand its research monographs list – which they since did. I told her that I was already committed to another press, but when things didn’t work out there, I decided to move back to AUC press because (a) I knew that the editor was genuinely interested in my book’s topic (which, in hindsight, seemed to have been an issue with the first publisher) and (b) the AUC press has been, with few exceptions, the major English-language publisher on anything Egyptian cinema. My book found a natural home in this list, and I’ve been very happy with the whole publishing experience at AUC press.

Ergin Bulut on his book, A Precarious Game

Interview by Xiao Xe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lilly Irani on her book, Chasing Innovation

Chasing Innovation: Making Entrepreneurial Citizens in Modern India (Princeton Studies in Culture and Technology Book 22) by [Irani, Lilly]

https://press.princeton.edu/titles/13362.html

Lilly Irani, in conversation with Christopher Kelty

(Note: Interview was transcribed, unlike many other interviews on this site which are conducted by email).

Chris Kelty: Let’s start here, because we are in Torrance, CA at a Taiwanese bakery, halfway between where you and I respectively work. You, like me, are stuck across various disciplines. Anthropology, design, media studies, south asian studies…and so on. What’s your strategy for addressing the work you do beyond the disciplines?

Lilly Irani: There’s being between the disciplines and there is speaking to people beyond the academy— to participants or, in many cases, workers themselves. I don’t mean as a public intellectual speaking to civil society, but as an ex-technology worker writing to other workers. Some of my strategy has been to lead with the stories. While writing — especially a few years in — I would fantasize that I should instead write a graphic novel called “Design: A Tragedy.” Each of my chapters is really centered around some story where people are working with the skills that they have, the hopes that they have, the social know-how and the networks that they have. They’re all doing their best, and then they run into some kind of friction or contradiction. These were moments that, for me, revealed something about the structural or institutional forces silently conditioning the supposedly creative possibilities of design and entrepreneurship.

Sometimes that contradiction doesn’t become visible until years into the project. As an ethnographer, what I get to do is hang out with a set of projects and a group of people for 5 to 10 years, and say, “Hey, you’re doing projects every 3 months or every 2 years, I can see how this goes over a long time and I can use that slow attunement to draw out—to tell a story that shows the contradiction.” Then I can theorize it at the end of the chapter. For people who are interested in the theory, they get that laid out at the end of the chapter but for those who are not, they still see a story of friction or failure they are used to naturalizing or coping with. And they see it is not all their fault, but a product of the structures in which they are embedded.

The thing I love about anthropology and the empirical is not positivism but rather the chance to attune to the erasures, erosions, and what falls through the cracks socially or theoretically. We can draw those out into a more public way and invite wider publics – our readers and our fieldwork interlocutors – to ask, “Okay, what are we going to do now?”

Chris Kelty: Imagine for me what it will look like when people in Indian academia read your book as opposed to when those in Euro/American academia read it. What do you think or what do you hope would be a discussion there that would be different—or would it be the same?

Lilly Irani: That’s a good question. I’ll talk about my hopes, and I’ll talk about what I’ve seen happen so far. I think one of my hopes was that—I felt like, when I began to write up this project, one set of reactions that I would get from academics, policy people in South Asia would say, “Oh, yeah, this thing you’re writing about is happening everywhere actually.” Actually, this didn’t happen to me just in South Asia. I had that reaction from people also working in parts of Africa and the Middle East.

There was a lot of support and enthusiasm for having another person trying to unpack what’s going on there and understand where it’s coming from all of a sudden. Academics, however, sometimes reacted by saying “Well, this doesn’t fit the ways that we’ve been doing post-colonialism in media studies or South Asia studies so far. Go to a tier-two city, or study people in rural areas and how they share media in ‘real India.’” That’s super important. But the current moment in India is one where development has become a financial opportunity for the private sector. And all kinds of authoritarian management impulses or even violence are justified in the name of innovation and progress. If we want to understand how the state organizes its actions to stimulate private sector accumulation, and in the name of development and innovation no less, we need to study the work of relatively elite middle-classes who operate in these systems.

Chris Kelty: Your book has a great historical depth to it, but not as a history of something, right? The history is there in order to set up the story of the subjectivity of the people you worked with. How do you think about the role of establishing that kind of existing subjectivity with such historical detail? Why is that important to do, rather than, say, pointing to their speech or to the things that they make, and saying, “Look. See, this is how people are right now.” What’s the value that that brings for you? Continue reading

Ulla Berg on her new book, Mobile Selves

Mobile Selves: Race, Migration, and Belonging in Peru and the U.S. (Social Transformations in American Anthropology) by [Berg, Ulla D.]

https://nyupress.org/books/9781479803460/

Interview by Ilana Gershon

 If you were in a long customs line, like the one in the complex and evocative vignette with which you open your book, and you struck up a conversation with an immigration lawyer who happened to be just ahead of you in line, how would you describe your book?

Any migrant almost always exceeds the legal category they inhabit for US immigration purposes and this “excess” is a central concern in my book. I would probably focus on describing the communicative practices that people in my study use to navigate and fit into the legal categories available to them, including various visa categories. Lawyers are of course extremely aware of the complexities of people’s experiences when they try to construct a client’s case as compelling for any type of relief, but they also for obvious reasons need to shy away from engaging how people’s communicative practices are performative and context-dependent.

Migration is both a social and signifying practice that link the individual to the social collectivity. In contexts of migration, the migrant body is the center of these processes of signification; it is that which is read by others—for example, immigration officers, Anglo-Americans and non-migrant relatives—and that which in the most fundamental sense mediates all action upon the world. In the book at large, I discuss how the larger constraints of the migration process—and of social and racial orders more generally—constantly prompts migrants to communicate to others— U.S. immigration officials, Peruvian government officials, elite Peruvians, people in their home towns, US employers, and wider publics—an image of who they are or are expected to be and how they wish to be seen. Such images are necessarily always partial; indeed, they deny any facile claims to legibility embedded in normative and ideal-typical representations of who is a “Peruvian,” an “immigrant,” a “non-citizen,” a “refugee,” and so on. This is where the anthropological perspective is different from the legal one and could produce interesting debates!

How have biometric technologies changed people’s experiences of traveling between Peru and the United States?

Before the implementation of biometric passports and screening systems at USCIS checkpoints, it was still relatively easy for someone from Latin America to travel on someone else’s passport. In Mobile Selves, I give the example of two brothers who used the same passport to enter the US sometime in the 1990s. One of them told me: “We look like each other…and they [that is, the immigration authorities] can’t tell the difference anyway. To the gringos all cholos look the same.” But in the biometric era, not all cholos “read” the same!

Biometric technologies transform the body’s surfaces and characteristics into digital codes to be ‘read’ by a machine. But the meaning of the biometric body is always contingent upon the social and racial contexts in which it will be read and how it is tied to identity from the perspective of the social and political institutions that control the international movement of people. But of course, as many critics of biometrics have also argued, the burden of surveillance will continue to fall disproportionately on poor, marginal, and racialized communities. That is one of the problems with biometrics.

The heavier reliance on biometric identification also puts more weight on the visa interview and less on a portfolio of supporting documents. An average visa interview at the US consulate in Lima now lasts 3-5 minutes, and this opens up for all sorts of questions about the arbitrariness and the social and racial logics by which visa decisions are made, including about the issuing officer’s assumption about some people’s worthiness of a US visa over others. I think biometric technologies have intensified many people’s experience of being subjected to a controlling racial regime.

You describe how the experience of transnational migration has changed for people because of all the possible media people can now use to connect with family members back home.  Yet just because these technologies exist doesn’t mean that it is socially possible for Peruvian migrants to use them.   I was wondering if you could say a little bit about some of the social complications surrounding these technologies that make using these technologies a challenge both for those in Peru and those in the United States.

It is often assumed that just because communication technology exists, it will automatically make us feel more connected to our loved ones across time and space. But the expectation that you have to be reachable and connected at any point in time can be both exhausting, impractical, and also undesirable – we all know this from our daily lives! Such expectations were often difficult to meet both for labor migrants abroad as well as for family members in Peru, because of complicated work schedules, long workdays, little free time at their disposal, controlling employers or workplace surveillance, or limited options to connect in rural areas in Peru.

This is the main issue with celebratory accounts of the affordances that new media environments are supposed to offer for the enactment and experience of social relations across time and space. Yes, disenfranchised migrant mothers can use Skype or Facetime to check in on their children from afar, but this technologically mediated form of communication cannot substitute the intense multi-sensorial experience of being able to tug your own kid (not someone else’s) into bed at night or to be there for them if they wake up in the middle of the night after a nightmare or if something bad happens at school.

Considering these complex social dynamics undergirded by global inequality, I disagree with scholars who diminish or even disregard the social and emotional cost of separation by proposing that polymedia environments contribute to making the absent other tangible and therefore come to constitute the other person and hence the relationship itself. For most people in my study, new technologies could alter feelings by momentarily collapsing distance and institute forms of co-presence, but at the end of the day most migrant mothers lived on in the United States mourning the prolonged separation from their children and other relatives. Along with this, the feelings of abandonment in some children towards their migrant parents extend into their adolescence and adulthood as resentments that cannot easily be undone even as a person grows up and acquires more tools to understand your parent’s actions.  Feelings such as pain, loss, suffering over separation and distance, longing, sadness, and nostalgia or the more positive ones such as love, compassion, intimacy, and belonging continued to animate the lives of migrants in affective and material ways despite the changing technologies used to produce these social and intersubjective relationships through long-distance communication.

I was wondering if you could discuss the different attitudes Peruvian migrants have towards audio-cassettes and videocassettes, and how these different media ideologies shaped the genres people use to circulate images and stories circulated between Peru and the U.S.

Absolutely. Most recent migrants are constantly preoccupied with maintaining the social bonds of kinship with family and relatives left behind via long-distance communication, remitting small amounts of money from their meager entry-level U.S. salaries, and by circulating a variety of material and media objects. In this way, they seek to remain emotionally connected and relevant in the everyday lives of their families in Peru and socially visible in the communities they left behind. For example, in Chapter 3, I evoke the concept of “remote sensing” specifically to discuss the attempts of migrant parents to “feel” and “know” their children’s lives and whereabouts from afar. This communicative, sensory, and mediated practice, which employ both aural and visual technologies, regularly plays out against dominant social norms that cast “communicative” migrants abroad in a favorable light back home as caring mothers, responsible fathers, dutiful daughters, and reliable and dependable “hijos ausentes” (that is, absent sons and daughters of their rural communities of origin). But in the context of the prolonged separation caused by migration, “remote sensing”, I suggest, amplifies rather than ameliorates the social and emotional struggles of transnational families, because participants are often not able to perform according to the roles set for them by gendered and intergenerational normative frameworks. In this way, long-distance communication, as a form of social, cultural, and affective practice, is often fraught with tension, uncertainty, and power inequalities.

Some migrants in my study preferred visual means of communication and they claimed it gave them the added effect of seeing their loved ones. There was often an assumption that you can “fake it” over the phone but you cannot conceal your true feelings when video chatting (even if all forms of communication are of course performative – also face-to-face communication whether mediated by video or not). Many migrants also “produced” videos to send to their family members – either of everyday life or special occasions such as community events or fiestas. I show in the book how video production, consumption, and circulation figure centrally in migrants’ staging of their own social visibility as “worldly” and “cosmopolitan” ex-campesinos. Participants in my study were highly invested in monitoring, selecting, and negotiating the criteria for which images of migrant life abroad could be shared with those back in Peru and what, in turn, had to be made invisible and left out of circulation to avoid rumors, tensions, and accusations within transnational families or among paisanos back home. Of course sometimes particular image objects escaped intended networks of circulation and moved beyond specific audiences. In these cases, imagery served as “visual evidence” that could complicate people’s efforts of self-fashioning. I show how such revelations have implications for the production of social cohesion within transnational migrant collectivities, and how circulating images may serve as new forms of social control and surveillance. In sum, visual and oral forms of communication have significant differences but both extend and also complicate social relations and in their own way expose the inherent tensions and ambiguities of the migrant/transnational condition of Andean Peruvians.

You published this book before Trump was elected, turning anti-immigration sentiment into an official government position. If you had a chance to talk to a room full of Trump supporters who were willing to listening respectfully to academics, what would you like them to know about your research?

Ha ha—fact-seeking Trump supporters? That seems like a hypothetical scenario at this point in time, but ok… I would probably feel compelled to first talk about the many contributions of immigrants—Latin Americans, in particular—to the US economy and society and to expel some of the many “alternative facts” about these populations circulated by the Trump administration’s propaganda machinery.

What currently counts as “immigration policy” in the US is a series of contradictory piecemeal actions, most of them based on long-lived racial anxieties and nativist ideologies, which do not add up to any coherent policy. Unfortunately, by not having a coherent immigration policy, the US has become a world leader in the undermining of human potential. Trump’s recent decision to end DACA is a text-book example of such complete lack of perspective.

I would give examples of the profound existential resourcefulness of most of the mobile Peruvians I came to know during my research to show Trump supporters how the drive to better oneself and the larger community is not a US invention but one that is widely shared by migrants around the world; one that cannot but make America much greater in the future than what it currently is today. Immigrants don’t take jobs, they create them. We are not parasitical on the US economy; we make this economy happen on a daily basis.

Hopefully, the Trump era will soon be reduced to a crazy minor parenthesis in modern US history, but what not only a room full of attentive Trump supporters specifically, but US whites more generally must acknowledge and work to change is how in the United States mobility is intimately tied to race and privilege (or the lack thereof). This is one of the basic points of the book that I would attempt to convey in such a situation.

Sylvia Martin on her new book, Haunted

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/haunted-9780190464462

Interview by Maria Nikolaeva Lechtarova

The integration of ethnographic detail, media theory, and analysis throughout your book creates a fluid space for critical thought, as well as enchantment with the subject matter. Writing multi-sited ethnography is a notoriously difficult task. How did you first decide that having a comparative framework was necessary for your analysis? What structuring insights guided your writing process? 

Thank you. Yes, transnational multi-sited ethnography is very challenging. Due to time and funding constraints, you can’t always spend equal amounts of time in each place (and even if you do, there’s no guarantee that you’ll come away with commensurate observations). Yet multi-sited ethnography is also rewarding, as you acquire various perspectives.

More than a comparative study, I consider this ethnography a connective study. Comparison is built into multi-sited ethnography, as George Marcus has said. Yet there are some fundamental similarities between many entertainment industries around the world, especially commercially-driven ones. So, I intended to “follow the activity” into differently located sites with their own particular histories and contexts, to discover specificities as well as commonalities and links between the industries.

Both the Hollywood and Hong Kong media industries operate at multiple scales, simultaneously, and I tried to capture that. They may present as fairly self-contained and separable from one another. Certainly in the day-to-day production process, people are often deeply immersed within their immediate environments. However, the entirety of the production activities of these two industries is not always contained within the city in which their industry is based. Sometimes filming has to occur on location, across state, national, or regional borders. Or, a production may bring in talent or money from other parts of the world. And in fact, Hollywood and Hong Kong have been directly connected to each for about a century through particular individuals, ideas, and financial investments.

The Hollywood and Hong Kong industries also share a long history of being highly commercial, and both have had to increasingly contend with China’s growing film industry – more directly than most other national film industries. Both are seeing more and more of their projects and their workers physically cross borders for economic reasons. And both have tended to be male-dominated at the studio executive level and on set.

Therefore, despite their differences, Hollywood and Hong Kong share many concerns and issues. This is why I didn’t organize the book into separate geographies; there is no pure “Hong Kong Section” or “Hollywood Section”: neither place exists in isolation. In trying to convey film and television production as a diffused, transnational practice, we move back and forth across specific sites within chapters, which combine findings from both places.

By using the concept of media assemblage as an organizational device in the writing as well as an analytical approach to understand the empirical evidence, I was able to preserve the open-endedness that I often saw. (This open-endedness includes some of the overlap between film and television production in both places, too.)

So, I refer to this book as a connective study because I explore material and thematic links between the two industrial centers, alongside the contrasts. Now, there are a couple chapters that deal primarily with one site, but even those still refer to the other site. For instance, in the chapter devoted mostly to Hollywood, I included observations of Hong Kong filmmakers working at a Los Angeles studio, partly as a way to show how in its own backyard (or, backlot), Hollywood is more transnational in its production activities than even it realizes sometimes – and reliant on Asian labor. In our contemporary globalized world, we often operate in industries or institutions that may appear very geographically contained yet are actually quite porous. As a result, place-based worker identities in the States and Hong Kong have been caught up in issues of nativism and racism in the former and localism in the latter.

Of course, there are some very significant differences between the Los Angeles-based industry and the Hong Kong-based industry, especially in regards to geopolitical and economic power, which I discuss. This is why multi-sited ethnography – from research to writing – means grappling with the tension between compartmentalization and connection. It entails shifting perspectives, or multi-sightedness. I found that people in both industries had their own reasons for emphasizing both the uniqueness of their industry and its unity with other national media industries. Figuring out the contours of this relationality has been exciting

I found your concept of “media assemblages” to be a portable tool for comparing very different media worlds. Ethnography stands as the anthropologist’s media of choice to disentangle and explicate the assemblages in field research by constructively distancing them from the spectacles of the anthropologist’s fascinations. However, if you were going to make a documentary film of this book, how would you envision it? Who would be your intended audience, and how would it compare to the audience of this book? 

Making this book into a documentary is a great idea! I’d focus on my finding about the intersection of religion and media production. Some people are surprised to hear that Hollywood studios skip “unlucky” 13 in their numbered sound stages, one studio having even kept a psychic on its payroll (confirming industry hype about “the magic of moviemaking”!). And folks in Hollywood are intrigued to hear about incense burning on Hong Kong film sets to ensure an auspicious shoot, as well as astrological forecasting. Meanwhile, they themselves may collect St. Clare of Assisi icons (she’s the patron saint of television) to help them through the various challenges of filming – the social and emotional risks as well as physical and financial ones. For instance, when filming a death scene in either industry, concerns about mortality can trouble the cast and crew, immersed as they are in these stylized settings.

Why this particular focus? The assumption that there is an absence of religion in the culture of industrial production remains quite strong among people I talk to in both the U.S. and East Asia (especially the United States). The assumption is fueled by economic rationalization and the Enlightenment narrative of a steady march towards scientific reason. Sometimes people see its presence, but they don’t think about its implications.

Anthropologists know that modernity doesn’t mean the loss of mysticism. And people who study performance or religion know that there is a long history of the two being intertwined. But a public anthropology film that shows actors reading Scripture on set or producers budgeting for the hoih geng lai (“opening lens”) ceremony would help general audiences see that “modern” and technologically sophisticated workplaces are not free of religion and spiritual expressions, especially in industries that hinge on so much uncertainty and insecurity. Anthropologists have a lot to offer in helping people to question received categories. Despite the presumed secularity of commercial media environments, actually, expressions of religion and the supernatural are enfolded, sometimes expected, in the very spaces and practices of these businesses. They can even guide work decisions, such as when and where to film.

Hopefully such a film would generate more conversations about the precarious conditions of media labor, and the experience of contemporary work in general. It would make evident to people that we do indeed draw from a variety of cultural elements to make our labor more meaningful, to legitimize decisions, and to protect ourselves as we work, even (especially) in bureaucratic or mechanized settings. The question could then be raised: what other professional workspaces and activities commonly considered secular are actually influenced by, or inclusive of, expressions of formal or informal religion as well as the supernatural? Trading floors? Science labs? Our understanding of managerial accountability and decision-making may then take on another dimension.

This becomes particularly relevant as we consider the implications of automated labor and robot replacements, especially in an industry that increasingly relies upon computer-generated images and digital doubles to enhance or replace the human form. We should think deeply about what it is that human beings bring to the workplace. In addition to the particular skills or talents we offer, people harbor foibles and fears, inspirations and intuitions; these are not mutually exclusive. Our memories of past experiences and anticipations of future events shape our productive capabilities. Our cosmologies – the way we think about the universe whether we’re atheists or adherents – also play a role in formulating our outlook and our decision-making in the workplace (explicitly stated or not). Although corporations and labor management often discourage you from bringing the totality of who you are to work, and some people become quite successful at partitioning themselves (with recent advances in robotics likely to intensify the pressure to do so), not everyone can accomplish this, nor, perhaps, should we always strive to.

In your chapter on “Affective Labor” you illuminate the critical emotive aspects of film production that often take backstage to the “effects” of film reception. How does industry folklore of criminal involvement and encounters with death during the production process circulate publicly?

The industry folklore of those things has frequently circulated through broadcast and print media and rumors in both places. There is a history of organized crime in both industries, especially in Hollywood in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Gangsters such as Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky remain part of the American popular culture landscape, inspiring books and movies. Years ago the Hong Kong actor, director, and producer Philip Chan, who actually used to be a police superintendent prior to joining the film and TV industry, spoke to Hong Kong and British media about triads in the Hong Kong entertainment world. But you don’t hear too much in the news today about organized crime in the Hollywood or Hong Kong film/TV industries.

It’s also worth mentioning that literally a century ago Hollywood became a magnet for drug dealing and use. News reports and rumors of drug use (some legal, some not) among silent film stars contributed to Hollywood’s early reputation as an immoral environment. Over the years, complicated issues of accountability and ethics arose for actors in particular, a few of whom have in interviews and memoirs referred to being “offered” certain substances by production members or management to help their job performance, whether it be for energy, recovery, weight loss, and so on, somewhat similar to athletes and U.S. combat pilots. Manipulating the corporeal and emotional potentials of its workers – even creating a distracted worker – became a tactic of those who manage affective laborers.

Other kinds of illegal activities are regularly reported in the media, such as managers embezzling money from actors. Especially in Hollywood, there’s a lot of contract litigation that gets covered by the trade publications and entertainment media. Other forms of potentially illegal activity, such as discrimination and sexual harassment or abuse on film/TV sets, may publicly surface through reportage of law suits, interviews, and now blogs, social media, and leaks, more so in the U.S. than Hong Kong. The amount of unpaid labor in Hollywood via internships has also come under recent legal and media scrutiny.

As for fatalities, news of accidents on set in Hong Kong circulates in print media. The drowning death of a cameraman on a Jackie Chan film a few years ago in Hong Kong (which was a US/China/HK co-production) was reported around the world because of the big names involved on the film. Accidents during filming on Hollywood projects typically appear in Hollywood trade publications as well as American mainstream media. Regarding the very recent death of stuntman Jon Bernecker on the set of the American TV show The Walking Dead, I was glad to see that the L.A. Times included quotes from OSHA about the lack of workplace protections in its coverage. This kind of context and scrutiny by journalists in both places is needed, especially for productions that film on location, where safety is not always so rigorously followed and rushed schedules can lead to very dangerous mistakes.

You weave together a complex, composite image of the Hong Kong and Hollywood film industries by analyzing their overlapping cinematic and occult histories, as well as their common mode of expression – the camera. I enjoyed peeking through the aperture of your ethnography to consider the space of film production as having its own supernatural gaze – one that shouldn’t be met head on, like that of an onstage actor. What were media workers’ relationships to image-capturing technologies in their lives offset, and how did they differ from their professional roles as mediators between worlds? 

When they’re working, they don’t have a lot of time off-set, in Hollywood or in Hong Kong. Between projects, the relationship to those technologies operated for many of them on a continuum. Film and TV are visual mediums. In both sites, it is in many media workers’ best professional interests to be familiar with how their work looks on-camera (depending on their job: their set design, their direction, their lighting, their angles, their bodies, and so on), as well as the latest developments in camera technologies. Many technical personnel in particular devoted some time off the set to these technologies, so it’s a pretty consistent relationship.

Lots of media workers, even extras, wardrobe assistants, and set designers, often described locations or scenery they observed in their downtime with an eye to how they might look on camera. With smart phones, now “everyone” is a photographer or filmmaker and nothing is too esoteric to be captured and curated. Yet industry members striving to remain employed and competitive have for many, many decades been professionally primed to evaluate all the world as a potential film location, to assess any and all surroundings as a possible backdrop. Offset, they are still mediating between worlds: their private and professional ones.

 

 

Adam Sargent’s “Building Modern India”

My dissertation explores the politics and semiotics of labor in India’s modernizing construction industry.  I conducted fieldwork on a few key sites in the greater Delhi region where I attended to the ways workers, subcontractors and engineers understood their own and others’ productive activities.  Drawing on linguistic anthropology I treat these understandings of productive activity as what I call ideologies of labor, to highlight the ways in which labor is not a pre-given category of action but rather something that is created through acts of framing productive activity.  By analyzing how actors talked about, remunerated and recorded construction work I argue that production was shaped by tensions and translations between divergent ideologies of labor.

Page 99 falls in a chapter that illustrates one such tension in ideologies of labor based on fieldwork at a construction skill-training center in Faridabad.  As I explain earlier in the chapter students and administrators at the center understood the very same productive activities in divergent ways.  For administrators activities like carrying bricks were part of ‘practical’ training that would help students in their future careers as construction site supervisors. Students had quite a different understanding of this same activity, as for them brick carrying was considered ‘labor work’ and had the potential to transform them in a downwardly mobile direction into a laborer.  Thus while administrators attempted to strip activities like carrying bricks of their associations with labor, students often reframed these activities through humor.  Some students would refer to students who were carrying bricks as “laborers” which, as I point out on page 99, both construed the action of carrying bricks as “labor work” and not “practical” while also expressing an anxiety that engaging in such action would transform the actor into a laborer. The humor expressed a particular ideology of labor that was in opposition to that articulated by administrators. The remainder of the dissertation builds on this approach in analyzing production on a self-described “modern” construction site in Delhi.  I argue that the practices of audit and accounting that marked the site as “modern” depended on the productive translations used by subcontractors and others to articulate divergent ideologies of labor to one another.

Adam Sargent. 2017. “Building Modern India: Transformations of Labor in the Indian Construction Industry.” University of Chicago, Phd.