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.