Elizabeth Keating on her new book, Words Matter

Words Matter: Communicating Effectively in the New Global Office by [Keating, Elizabeth, Jarvenpaa, Sirkka L.]

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Since the book is written for a general audience, could you say a little about how you would explain the book to linguistic and media anthropologists who are considering using this in a class, and want to know what it is about.

For teachers of linguistic anthropology concerned with having an impact on students’ understanding of language and culture, especially beyond the classroom, this book links the classroom with the paid work world. Concepts and methods in linguistic anthropology are highly relevant to job skills. For one thing, there is understanding how local one’s own communication habits and expectations of others are. For another, understanding how communication really works builds better skills to repair misunderstandings. This book rather unabashedly makes a connection between learning about linguistic anthropology and becoming a more flexible, interested cross cultural communicator. One of the main points in the book is that because of technology, many people are working in virtual teams, or virtually with colleagues in other places. This results in little face-to-face time, or time to hang out and learn about others’ habits, preferences, and life stories. There’s little environmental context. Without the ability or time to learn from each other, there is a role for linguistic anthropology principles to play in generating understandings. I’m thinking of general principles like how people do things with words, that meaning is negotiated, social roles, socialization, the workings of convention in meaning, common ground and context, etc. In the book there are examples taken from engineers’ workdays, engineers trying to design things together in virtual teams, while living and working in four different continents.

The value in the classroom is the application of linguistic anthropology concepts to the engineers’ struggles with their inadequate communication model.  The book proposes a better communication model based on linguistic anthropology. We discuss how culture affects language use, with examples from the engineers and from other researchers’ work. To take a simple example, if the students have never thought about differences in question asking behavior—that it might not be felt to be appropriate in a certain group to ask a question (or only appropriate for the boss to be asking questions)– they could have unpleasant surprises at work if they assume that an absence of questions means everything is understood.

In most linguistic anthropology and media classes, students are preparing for many different types of careers, some in similar settings to the engineers. It’s useful to have a way to link linguistic anthropology to students’ desire to prepare themselves for work after university. When my co-author asked one of her graduate business research assistants to read the draft book manuscript, he said afterwards that he didn’t think he should be paid, since he learned so much. Another reader from the business world said he finally understood the reason behind his colleague’s “exasperating” behavior of not asking questions.

 

How do you think your focus on engineers in particular shaped your ethnographic exploration of cross-cultural communication?

The focus on engineers shaped our engagement with cross cultural communication in several ways. The first group of engineers we studied in Houston were suspicious of the situation thrust on them by management—that they had to work with a group of engineers across the globe who had unfamiliar habits and approaches. The engineers in Houston were already under a lot of pressure to build a state of the art energy plant under time, budget, safety, and environmental constraints. Working with engineers in another part of the world made their job even more challenging, because they had to work with them in a virtual sense, that is, they couldn’t sit side by side or cubicle to cubicle; they couldn’t see what was going on (puzzled expressions or problem sequences) and participate in so-called informal learning. The engineers they were suddenly working with were in a country where man hours were cheap and materials had always been expensive and scarce (so much so that in former times the engineers in that country could go to prison for using too much steel, they told us). But the Houston engineers lived in a country where it was the reverse: materials were cheap and people expensive. Imagine these two groups designing an energy plant together. One group is assuming a design requiring many maintenance operators, and one requiring as few operators as possible. How to become aware of the other’s habitual ways of thinking before too many hours of design work are done? There were also differences in how you show someone you respect them (by saving time or by spending time?) Although technology was making these work collaborations possible, technology was also a handicap to the engineers being able to learn about each other. This affected how we approached the topic of cross cultural communication. The space of collaboration, the technological interface of computer screens and phone sets, was uniformly absent of distinct cultural cues.

When we looked, through a linguistic anthropologist’s research-based view of language and meaning, at their attempts to better communicate, it was clear that their communication model was faulty. They professed the familiar conduit model of communication. They tried to fix problems by being “more clear and direct.”  We focused on: How could the engineers approach their collaboration with a view of language, not principally as a conduit for information, but as a tool with many other capabilities?

 

Could you say a little about the experience of writing with someone from a business school? I know of many collaborations between anthropologists and scholars from other disciplines, but this may be the first I have come across of an anthropologist authoring with someone from a business school who is not also an anthropologist (since business schools sometimes show remarkably good taste and hire anthropologists). And I am curious about how this shaped some of the challenges of writing a book together.

This is a great question.  First let me say that I gained a lot in the process. My colleague is not a specialist on language, but rather on virtual teams and management. Her focus is on how people can most efficiently achieve short and long term goals in a business profitability and creativity sense. She was focused on the practitioner aspect at all times, and fairly uninterested in the minutiae of language dear to a linguistic anthropologist’s trade. The authority of our findings in the book had to depend more on assertions linked to prior language research rather than relying on discovering the findings through a very detailed data analysis of the engineers’ conversations and documents.

My business colleague continually reminded me that business practitioners have minimal time to read added material, and they operate in the “three power point slide” framework. After experimenting with different ways to join business and linguistic anthropology goals, we decided to use the engineers as actors in the narrative to keep the content focused on situations likely to be familiar to a reader, or situations that a reader has already experienced and been frustrated by. We created the phrase “Communication Plus” (for communication plus culture) to convey to the reader that they already have a great deal of knowledge about communication in their own culture, but they have to add knowledge about culture’s influence on communication.

It was necessary to take a prescriptive stance in the book in order to justify a practitioner’s time spent invested in reading the book. A lot of the engineers we worked with read poetry and appreciate literature and social science, but they also appreciate getting expertise in a manner they can immediately use. Business authors have no problem being prescriptive. My co-author would have been happier if the book was very short, with very short paragraphs. I felt it was necessary to have as much material about language and anthropology as possible. I am happy to say that over the course of the time writing together, my business colleague became convinced of the power of the close analysis of transcriptions of conversation, in this case conference call meetings. I became more aware of the pressures on people to perform in the constantly changing, globalized work world. Cross-disciplinary research and writing requires extra investment in time for the authors, managing differences and gaining some knowledge of the other author’s vocabulary, research goals, validation standards, methods, even what counts as a ‘finding’ or what’s cool. Similar to the engineers, we were both frustrated with each other’s practices and habits of thinking at times.

 

Are there insights you had about the interactions you observed that you were unable to write about because it would require too much specialized knowledge on the part of your readers to explain the ideas adequately?

I was not able to write about indexicality in a way that showed the importance of the concept and its ubiquity in communicative encounters. It’s a very abstract term that most people haven’t encountered before. I found that Garfinkel’s notion of ritual status degradation was very useful in analyzing what many of the engineers complained constantly about (feeling treated as non-humans by others due to the symbolic expression of respect taking a different form). Although Garfinkel meant something grander like pulling down the statue of Lenin or politically motivated imprisonment, the notion of ritual status degradation gets at the great seriousness of “small” slights like problems with greeting rituals among the engineers. No salutations in emails provoked surprising anger.

Similarly, I found that Goffman’s notion of “spoiling” identity was a useful way to analyze problems I saw the engineers experience when they disagreed about what the “right” (“good engineering”) design was, conflicts that became intractable because “wrong” was just different or unfamiliar. Writing about ritual status degradation and the spoiling of identity didn’t work well in the book, though. What worked better was a discussion about cultural differences in theories of the person (ideas about personhood that explain differences in things like greeting patterns and why the wrong pattern can be so offensive). It worked well to discuss the idea of language as action (looking beyond content of utterance and the referential function of language). I would have liked to bring more conversation analysis principles into the book.

 

Since the 1980s, anthropology has had a vexed relationship with the culture concept – often to the surprise of people outside of anthropological circles. In this book you talk about culture and cultural misunderstandings without any caveats, and I am hoping you can say a little about your embrace of culture as a strategic decision or intellectual commitment.

I’ll illustrate some of the problems you are alluding to with an anecdote which addresses your question. My co-author and I were working on an article for an engineering journal, before we began the book. She said, “okay, we have to define culture.” I stared at her, incredulous. Isn’t this the honorable work of still generations to come?, I thought. Isn’t this misdiagnosing the solution to our ignorance? She didn’t see the problem, not having been a party to the discussions anthropologists have about this (discussions as you say “to the surprise of people outside of anthropological circles”). The engineering journal reviewers also insisted on a definition, as part of their editorial job of questioning our scope. I got inspiration from Duranti’s and Keesing’s discussions about culture, and we added reference citations for Schein of MIT’s work on organizational culture,  Foucault’s work on institutions, Wolf, Bourdieu, Bateson, Parsons, Kuper, Lave, Garfinkel, and Henrietta Moore’s piece on concept-metaphors in anthropology.

A second anecdote concerns what happened each time we went to an engineering firm to introduce ourselves and get started collecting data. In the beginning of the project we were three, and we arrived on site together: a business professor, an engineering professor, and an anthropology professor. After the introductions, the engineers invariably focused all their attention on me (of course business and engineering were already quite familiar to them, but for those of us experiencing the recent assaults on the Liberal Arts, in demands for proof of our continued relevance, this was a great endorsement). The engineers said things like “yes, we really need to know about culture” and “we hope you can help us understand culture better.” They knew cultural misunderstandings were affecting their projects’ success and their job satisfaction. They had had some very frustrating and expensive experiences, but they didn’t know exactly how to learn from them. I would say my embrace of culture came from the engineers. There were particular aspects of culture more relevant to their situation, their situation being little if any face-to-face contact, lots of email correspondence (where requests and problems with responses to requests were frequent), group conference calls, expert-expert interactions, non-native English, and few, if any, shared work hours of the day. Some of these problems I’ve already mentioned. I found talking about identity an accessible way to discuss cultural influences on work collaborations. We tried to show how cultural practices that were annoying and threatened relationships (such as being too direct or being too indirect) had a moral basis. Not getting expected behaviors, as Garfinkel showed in his famous breaching experiments, results in people attributing malicious intent (people are held accountable). Being aware of the range of perspectives in human societies is a step to avoiding these ascriptions of harmful intent.

Talking on the scale of culture easily leads to overgeneralizations and oversimplifications and I’m sure they are in the book. We found that the engineers, and others we interviewed like them, have an appreciation for diversity and are aware of the inaccuracies and hardships that can stem from overgeneralization and overattribution. Embracing culture was the way I felt we could bring linguistic anthropology to a readership dealing with globalization.

 

 

 

Webb Keane on his new book, Ethical Life

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Imagine that you happen to be in a long line at the airport, and find yourself chatting with another academic, say a media scholar who studies Cuban television before and after the revolution.  How would you describe the ways your book might be useful to her?

Of course no one standing in line at the airport is talking to the people around them because they’re all absorbed in their personal devices.  But anyway, there are two ways to approach your question: first, as being about revolution, and second, as being about television.  Let’s take revolution first, and then turn to television (leaving aside the old question of whether the revolution will be televised).

Revolutions, like religious revivals and social reform movements, exemplify the fact that ethical life isn’t just about being in the flow of things or cultivating virtuous habits and embodied sensibilities.  People also have a fundamental capacity to stand apart from that flow, in highly self-conscious ways.  They can take what I call the third person stance toward ethical life.   Although this kind of stance is often associated with religious moralities, avowedly atheist revolutions show that one can cultivate a god’s eye view without God.   This is why the book devotes a chapter to the Vietnamese revolution.   Obviously all sorts of factors go into any given revolutionary movement, but Vietnamese history casts light on the distinctively ethical underpinnings of political commitment.   After all, why should urban literati like Ho Chi Minh (or, I could say to your Cuban media scholar, people from privileged backgrounds like Fidel or Che) have cared about socially distant peasants enough to deviate from their own comfortable pathways in life?   I argue that to understand Ho’s revolutionary project and its wide appeal in its early years, we have to grasp its sources in what are properly ethical concerns about harm and justice.   People like Ho could crystallize those ethical concerns as a principled and readily communicated political critique thanks to the availability of a third person perspective on their society.  From the early decades of the twentieth century, Marxist social theory and historical narratives, along with elements of Confucian and Catholic social thought, provided Vietnamese revolutionaries with a position from which the view their own world from the outside.   But that “god’s eye” position alone couldn’t make a revolution.  The Vietnamese revolutionaries understood the importance of what we call ordinary ethics, that is, the way that values like respect, dignity, social recognition, and equality are embedded in everyday habits and activities.   In light of the enormous economic , political, infrastructural, and military challenges the Vietnamese communists faced, it’s remarkable how much emphasis they placed on changing seemingly trivial norms of speech and other aspects of face-to-face interaction.  In this respect, they were trying (with greater or lesser success) to bring the third person stance to bear on the habitual and unself-conscious flow of first person experience and second person address.

As for television, like any medium, it is a vehicle for the circulation of objectifications—images, expressions, and narratives that retain some formal integrity beyond their original context.  These objectifications have historical consequences for ethical life.  They contribute to ethical self-consciousness of individuals, and the consolidation–and dissolution–of public norms more widely.   So one question to ask about television is how its impact differs from face-to-face interaction and other media like newspapers, radio, cell phones, the internet, and so forth.  What difference does it make that a given medium has the speed it does, or geographical reach, social scale, visual versus aural or tactile sensoria, one-way versus dialogic format, centralized control versus open access, the techniques of intimacy and alienation, and so forth?  These questions open up a huge set of empirical problems that extend well beyond the scope of my book.  But here are some of the distinctively ethical questions we might ask.  Your own work with teenagers has focused on one of them: is it okay to break up with someone by text message?   If not, why?  What ethical difference does it make whether your social actions are carried out in one medium or another?  If this is a question about the second person address of interaction, we can also move our attention outwards into more public and sociological scales.   Do certain media facilitate the third person stance or enhance first person subjectivity?  What difference does it make that a message is conveyed in verbally explicit form or implied by sonic or visual means?  Is it more ethically dubious to be swayed by the sound of someone’s voice than by the logic of their arguments or the authority of their institutional position?  Do certain media forms reinforce the monologic voice whereas others enable dialogism?  Television and social media notoriously escape the confines of context: what weight do we give to semiotic form and producers’ intentions when a supposedly neutral image enters a context where it’s deemed pornographic, racist, or blasphemous?  These aren’t just academic questions; they also worry teachers, parents, lovers, artists, political activists, censors, lawyers, and propagandists.  We know, for instance, that the easy transmission of sermons via cassette tapes played a critical role in fostering a new kind of public space in the run-up to the Iranian revolution.  And of course all sorts of claims have been made for the transformative effects of social media on the Arab Spring—not all of which have stood up well over time.  Is the form of a medium effective independent of its content?   Muslim preachers in Indonesia seem to think so when they hire mass media consultants from American Christian televangelists.

One of the key theoretical moves you make to fashion a more interdisciplinary conversation about ethics is expanding the notion of affordances.  Psychologists and media scholars have used this concept to discuss human interactions with the material world.  In your hands, affordances can belong to “anything at all that people can experience” because they “possess an indefinite number of combinations of properties.” (30)  Yet anchoring affordances in materiality provides a significant theoretical purchase – it has typically afforded a way to conceptualize limitations and resistances.  When a cloth can be torn but not made to radiate light, this is a way that matter matters.   In your framework, what is the grounding for resistances and limitations, for determining what is possible and impossible?

I expand on the notion of affordances by including people’s experiences of such things as emotions, cognitive biases, linguistic form, patterns of interaction, and social institutions.  But ultimately these are only available to experience because they have some material manifestation.  Although this may push the concept of affordance further than its more familiar uses, I think it’s consistent with them.

I’ve been seeking to develop a realist approach to anthropology that nonetheless retains the insights of the constructivist traditions in social thought and does not succumb to determinism.  The attraction of affordance lies in this.  It treats the components of the world as real, and as making certain things possible.  But it does not do so by claiming that the things of this world necessitate anything in particular (nor, for that matter, does the analysis depend on us claiming to have the “correct” depiction of that world).  One example I use, echoing something George Herbert Mead wrote long ago, is the chair.  A wooden chair affords sitting, but only if you’re of a certain size, shape, and flexibility.  So the affordances of the chair only exist relative to the capacities of someone who might take them up.  Moreover, the existence of chair doesn’t mean that you will sit.  You could use that chair to block a door, hold down papers, prop up an art work, hit someone over the head, burn to keep warm, hide behind, step on to reach something out of reach, or, for that matter, you could simply ignore it.  That is, affordances are summoned up in response to projects of some sort.   As new projects develop, hitherto unforeseen affordances will emerge into view.

Impossibilities have to be part of the story too: you could say that a chair will not enable you to fly.  But here’s a more relevant example in the book.  Humans cannot learn to speak a full-fledged language without first developing some cognitive capacity to infer other people’s intentions and otherwise work with what some psychologists call “Theory of Mind.”  You can’t even use first and second person pronouns unless you have a rudimentary grasp of the perspective on “I” that is momentarily granted by saying “you.”  This affords all sorts of things, including shame, prayer, novels, torture, games, and witchcraft.  It also casts doubt on certain strong claims about ethnographic difference—namely, that there are some societies where people really have no concept of interiority or intentions.   To make this claim is not to eliminate interesting differences among social realities.  Rather, it pushes us to examine them more closely, to ask, for instance, what is at stake for some societies that forcibly deny the intention-reading that they are, in fact, doing all the time.  I think there’s more ethnographically specific insight to be gained this way than by treating each cultural world as autonomous, the creation of its own heroic Promethean powers to create reality.  But this should not lead us back toward any of the familiar reductive forms of determinism.

In this book, you address the possibility that self-consciousness or reflexivity can be a necessary but not sufficient first step towards social change.  Sometimes self-awareness does not change social interactions, or only does so for a fleeting moment.  What do you think makes self-consciousness socially successful so that it shapes how others evaluate ethical behavior as well? 

This is a question about the role of ideas and values in the extremely complex social and political histories out of which they emerge and on which in turn they have their effects.  The extraordinary speed with which gay marriage has gone from being an easy political wedge issue to divide classes and regions in America to much wider acceptance than anyone expected is a fascinating case.  But I think it’s too soon for us to see clearly how this came about and what will follow.  We have more perspective on the abolition of North Atlantic slavery.  As historians have pointed out, in Britain the arguments against slavery were already well known in the seventeenth century and increasingly came to find acceptance over the course of the eighteenth.  But all sorts of other things had to happen for those ideas to induce the social changes that finally came about in the nineteenth century.  These include the great wave of popular evangelical Christianity, England’s political and economic competition with France and its ideological interest in distinguishing its moral superiority to a newly independent (and slave-owning) America, the emergence of working class identities that put pressure on the value of manual labor, and more.  These elements are heterogeneous and their conjunction is largely contingent.  So the history of ideas matters—they have to be available and they have to be plausible.  But ideas only become socially viable when all sorts of other factors come together.  Ethical concepts, social institutions, political organizations, laws, technologies, economies, and so forth have quite different logics and temporalities, and are enmeshed in distinct kinds of causality.  Explicit ethical concepts help crystallize people’s intuitions and allow them to circulate in new ways (which takes us back to the issue of media raised in your first question) but they can’t tell the whole story alone.

Explicitness has such power for enabling shared agreements about what is ethical to travel across cultural contexts in your account.   I can’t help thinking however that we are currently in a stage of capitalism when the market is viewed as the ideal spontaneous order precisely because self-awareness is irrelevant to its functioning, when algorithms are viewed as idealized ordering mechanisms, but only because, in a sense, they are seen as circumventing explicitness.  What do you think of social orders that disavow explicitness, viewing explicitness as largely irrelevant for social interactions to function?

In this context, explicitness means being able to put an ethical stance into so many words: “the voting law is unjust” or “the Dean can be trusted to say what she means.”  You do this by drawing on the ethical vocabulary that’s available in a given social location and historical moment.  (By the way, this means that particular ways of being ethical are necessarily historical: As old ethical categories disappear and new ones come into existence so to do ways of being, or not being, ethical, and new ways for people to affirm or deny one another’s ways of being ethical.  Try as I may, it’s simply not possible for me to be a virtuous Athenian or a Confucian sage today.  An ethical vocabulary is not just a set of labels for ideas or values that are already there, waiting to be named.)  What some philosophers have called “morality systems” try to stabilize ethics by codifying it.  But explicitness is just one moment in the ongoing dialectics of objectification and subjectification.  It involves stepping into what I call the third person stance, taking a distance from the first person of experience and the second person of address to see oneself and others through generic categories.   It is a kind of self-distancing that induces particular forms of self-consciousness.  For this reason, explicitness has also been held in suspicion in various ethical regimes.   We can see this in certain styles of romanticism and mysticism which treat self-consciousness as a form of inauthenticity, and celebrate being in the flow of things.  It’s a recurrent issue:  some ancient Chinese philosophers also worried that any purposeful striving to be ethical would be nullified by that very effort.  Such regimes aim—paradoxically—to actively inculcate effortless, habitual ways of being ethical.   The goal is to live entirely in the first person, as it were.   But this can be only part of the story.  On the one hand, an ethics that wholly lacks the first person stance would be unsustainable—it would have not claim on anyone.  That’s part of my argument against utilitarianism, which insist one only look at things from the objective position of the third person stance.   It’s only from the first person stance that one can really care about ethics in a fully embodied and inhabitable way.  But to insist that ethics is only one or the other—either objectification or being-in-the-moment—is to deny the fundamental motility of human life.  People cannot remain entirely present in the first person, nor is it possible to sustain the third person stance only.  We are always in motion among them.   This motility isn’t a bug—it’s a feature.

So, to turn to the rest of your question, what about this period of capitalism?  We could say that neo-liberalism expresses an ideological reaction against the third person stance of the centralized nation-state, with its blueprints and planners.  Does this make it a-ethical?  Not necessarily.  After all, there is an ethics of autonomy there.  I call this an ethics because the autonomy expressed in neo-liberalism is sometimes treated as a value in itself, beyond any instrumental justification.  We may feel it’s based on false premises or has harmful consequences, but I think we should recognize that it makes ethical claims of a sort.  They’re just not necessarily ones I would accept.  However, although none of us as human beings can, or would want to, avoid ethical judgments, in our limited role as anthropologists we should not be in the business of making ethical pronouncements ex cathedra.  Having said that, neo-liberalism does deny or ignore something very basic to ethical life as I describe it in the book, the fact that people are thoroughly enmeshed with one another in very fundamental ways.  Any form of social organization that denies this and tries to treat them as wholly independent units is empirically mistaken and, let’s say, ethically compromised.

You imaginatively move a step beyond the insight that ethics is the challenging task of living alongside other people to argue that ethics at the core is about the challenging communicative task of living alongside other people when no one has telepathy.  That is, communication is profoundly at the heart of what it means in a given historical and cultural context to be ethical.  Say that you are as persuasive as I hope you will be.   What types of research projects should people explore beginning from this insight?

If people lack telepathy, then we have to take communication very seriously.  That means that every time we want to say something about experience, affect, concepts, values, intuitions, subjectivities, we should ask how they are mediated.  But communication isn’t a simple matter of transmission, getting a self-contained message from one head to another head.  For on thing, communication takes place over time, but, as I show in my chapters on social interaction, it always loops back on itself, opening messages to revision, reframing, denial, anticipation, dissemination, and so forth.  Moreover, mediation isn’t just an empty vehicle.  It is always embodied in semiotic forms (words, images, actual bodies, spaces, places, rituals, institutional procedures, and so forth).  Semiotic forms are never entirely purpose-built—as Derrida remarked long ago, “the engineer is a myth.”  As a result, they bring with them their contingent histories, they face causal constraints and give rise to unintended consequences well beyond anyone’s communicative purposes, and they possess affordances that can point their users in unexpected new directions.

It follows that research should be very attentive to the formal and material properties of our evidence.  So much contemporary ethnography tends to be literal-minded.  And far too much of it is based on interviews.   So the first point is just to take semiotic mediation seriously.   Partly this just means paying close attention the form and not just content of communication.  In addition, it means attending to materiality, to both the qualities of media and the causal networks they’re involved in.   If you were researching the internet, for instance, you might ask both about the body’s relationship to movement viewed on a flat screen and about the infrastructure that makes that relationship possible (cyber-utopians never seem to talk about how we pay the monthly smart phone bills or the environmental costs of powering Google’s servers).   So rather than suggest new research topics, we might look at the research we are already embarked on from new angles, asking what are the constraints on people’s projects, the distinctively ethical affordances and unintended consequences to which their semiotic media can give rise?

I would pay particular attention to the interplay between what gets made explicit and what remains unsaid, either because it’s too obvious to say, too ordinary to notice, or is simply impossible to put into words.   In looking at social change, for instance, what’s the relationship between those who are articulate and passionate, on one hand, and those who are silent and indifferent, on the other?  Are the voices we hear most clearly always where the action’s at?  When they are, is this because of what they say, who’s saying it, or how they say it?  In my book, I look briefly at feminist consciousness-raising during its radical moment, in the early 1970s, before it became absorbed into mainstream therapeutic culture.  (As with my discussion of Vietnam, this example draws on the historical perspective that we lack when looking at current events).  What’s interesting is how these women, some of whom had been influenced by reading Maoism and Frankfurt School Marxism and by practical experiences in the Civil Rights movement, discovered the affordances of ordinary conversation.  Out of their conversations they created a new ethical and political vocabulary for experiences that had until then seemed idiosyncratic, pathological, or simply inchoate.  The result was what I call “historical objects,” values and concepts (sexual harassment, glass ceiling, control of one’s own body) and that can be pointed to, debated, circulated widely through the media, and institutionalized—or suppressed—in explicit norms and laws.  One could argue that new ways of being a person, of flourishing, and of identifying harm came into existence that simply did not exist before.   But history is full of projects that go nowhere: objectified values and concepts remain only theoretical unless they can enter into the flow of everyday life in some way.   To see how this pans out ethnographically requires careful attention to semiotic mediation

As the Vietnamese and feminist examples suggest, the interplay between the explicit and tacit, or the said and unsaid can be crucial to understanding how social movements pan out.  There’s a lot of ethnographic interest in these topics already but I would suggest that we need to pay special attention to the motility among first, second, and third person stances.  To repeat, the idealized third person stance—an ethics of pure principles—remains only notional unless it offers some concrete ways of being inhabitable.   But as soon as something becomes concrete—for instance new kinds of marriage, styles of child-rearing, acceptable means of making a living, or practices of ethical pedagogy– all sorts of unforeseen affordances are likely to become visible and unintended consequences likely to emerge, such as new kinds of semiotic transgression or performative failure.

Your cover is so striking, when I got the book I immediately flipped to see where the cover came from, only to discover it is one of your paintings.   Could you talk a bit about the story behind the cover – did you paint this piece intending it to be the cover?

Before entering academic life, I was an artist (I’ve never taken a college course in anthropology—maybe that’s why I’ve never grown tired of the subject).   That cover image is part of a series that I painted many years ago.  When I was finishing my second book, Christian Moderns, I decided I didn’t want to have a cover that would try to illustrate the book, both because that seemed too literal-minded, and because illustration covers often encourage certain readings of the book at the expense of others.   As it happens, an abstract painting that one of my old studio mates had given me was on the wall, and worked very well.  So for Ethical Life I thought I’d use another work by a friend.  However, none of the pieces I myself owned seemed to work.  But someone suggested I use my own painting.  The original is in blacks and greys, which seemed a bit too somber, so I invited the press to alter the color scheme.  Since my first books had been green and blue, I favored red, but that turned out to look a bit too much like bloody bandages.   At any rate, you’re welcome to read into the cover what you will!

Tamar Kaneh-Shalit’s Positive Thinking Without a Smile

Page 99 of my dissertation provides a short glimpse of a key tension which characterizes Israeli Life Coaching as well as other projects of self-realization and therapeutic technologies. In a heading on page 99, I named this tension “from introspection to instruction” to describe coaches’ and trainees’ negotiations with the neoliberal and therapeutic notion of cultivating reflexivity and following the specific instructions of a professional authority. Scholars such as Michel Foucault, Nikolas Rose, James Faubion and others have extensively theorized how healers and experts of the soul exercise their power through the cultivation of their patients’ reflexivity. One of my contributions to this line of exploration is a focus on a local style of speech called dugri (direct speech) that entails a certain notion of caring and reshapes, in specific ways, the ethical dilemma between liberation and domination.

Dugri refers to utterances spoken in a blunt manner, as a form of criticism aimed at one’s interlocutor which symbolizes intimacy, authenticity, care, and courage. In short, dugri speakers speak their minds in a straightforward manner that is sometimes even intentionally aggressive. The logic behind dugri is that only someone who truly cares about their interlocutors will put him/herself at risk by expressing an unpopular critical view (Katriel 1986). Accordingly, this also means that smiling politely and avoiding confrontation is seen as inauthentic and careless.

The prevalence of dugri style of speech among Israeli life coaches, which encompasses making concrete assertions and determining what is right and wrong for a specific trainee, undercuts some global therapeutic notions which favor self-reflection and self-realization over such local professional calculations. In my dissertation I show how Israeli coaches and their trainees negotiate these two discourses – the global and local – as well as these two types of caring, in their effort to balance between focusing on the trainee’s abilities to be reflexive and centering around the coach’s expression of his/her authenticity as well as expert knowledge and power.

Dugri is idiosyncratically Israeli. But could such styles also be found in other cultures? Recently I had a chance to view the new Netflix documentary about the famous American life coach Anthony Robbins titled: “I am not your Guru” (which I highly recommend: https://www.netflix.com/watch/80102204?trackId=14277281&tctx=0%2C0%2C6f297f89-3322-4f91-b3ba-1ec0cb44108c-50113145). Robbins very vividly demonstrates an aggressive type of fearless speech, and I wonder – is it part of what renders coaching so popular in other places around the globe too? Are we witnessing the emergence of a new technology of selfhood which challenges the hegemony of a reflexive, psycho-therapeutic emotional style?

 

Reference:

Katriel, Tamar

1986    Talking Straight: Dugri Speech in Israeli Sabra Culture: Cambridge University Press.

 

Tamar Kaneh-Shalit. 2015. Positive Thinking without a Smile: Self and Care in Israeli Life Coaching. Phd dissertation, University of Haifa.

 

Shankar on her new book, Advertising Diversity: Ad Agencies and the Creation of Asian-American Consumers

Interview by Ilana Gershon:

I have to say that it is downright inspired to look ethnographically at how advertising agencies create iconic and compelling images of Asian Americans as a racial group.  By choosing this site, you are able to reveal so much of how difficult it is to treat Asian Americans as a unified group, as well as showing in detail how the racial images we are surrounded by are constructed through the effort of convincing co-workers and clients that an ad will persuade.   And now you are looking at spelling bees as a mass-mediated event for telling a melting pot story.   Can you talk a little bit about your process for deciding on a research project and that an ethnographic site will allow you to explore the kinds of questions you want to ask?

Each of these research projects partially emerged from the one that preceded it. The advertising project grew out of my Desi Land research with South Asian American teenagers and their families in Silicon Valley. I spent a lot of time with people in their homes and many watched diasporic channels on satellite TV. I noticed ads specifically aimed at South Asians in the US. Being familiar with Indian advertising from my numerous visits, I knew these ads were different and was quite curious about who was making them. After much online research about agencies and several rounds of emails and phone calls, a few agencies welcomed me to conduct interviews. One agreed to allow me to conduct ethnographic fieldwork provided I sign a nondisclosure agreement. Thanks to the generosity of that agency, I was able to do enough research to write a book. In my survey of agencies, I found one that had developed a public relations campaign for an insurance company and called it the “South Asian Spelling Bee.” Having already observed the streak of South Asian American kids winning the National Spelling Bee, I really wanted to know more. I found it slightly simpler to set up the spelling bee research because these organizations were not creating “proprietary content” like advertisements, but rather, administering a contest. Still, because this activity is seasonal—they call it “bee season”—it took me a while to get to know spellers, families, judges, and others. I just returned from attending my fourth National Spelling Bee and finally feel like I really know people in that world. In both of these projects, there was so much to observe that my questions were either well addressed or replaced by more interesting ones.

 

African American advertising agencies were the first agencies founded to address diversity.   How do you think the strategies and solutions African American ad agencies developed has shaped what Asian American agencies do?  Or in other words, how have the specific quandaries advertisers face in addressing African Americans or Latinos shaped what it means to advertise to any racialized group, regardless of whether the solutions that originally evolved are appropriate for that particular racialized group?

You’re right that African American advertising agencies were the first agencies to address racial diversity, but what is also interesting is how many “general market” or mainstream agencies also developed in-house units to target this population. They were, and still are, called “Urban markets,” which clearly indexes the perceived socioeconomic status of African Americans with little qualification about the social and political implications of this term. What differs between African American advertising and other minority advertising is primarily representations of language and culture. While African Americans are considered to be an already “assimilated” population that nonetheless has their own specialized TV, print, and radio media through which they can be directly reached, Latinos and Asian Americans are imagined to be recent immigrants who are best reached through far more explicit means of in-language copy and overt cultural representation. What currently transcends any of these racial categories is the ongoing need for multicultural advertising to demonstrate their relevance to corporate clients who question whether ethnically specific advertising is even necessary when so many of these consumers are also reported to consume mainstream media.

 

I was struck while reading how much this is a book about cultural expertise.   This is particularly vivid when you write about how vulnerable Asian American ad executives are because their clients might dismiss their pitches once they have consulted with their co-workers.  These are co-workers who don’t know anything about advertising but who happen to have the appropriate cultural background and happen to disagree with the Asian American ad team’s starting premises about that Asian culture.  Often the Asian American ad team can’t disagree because they claim cultural authority on the same grounds as the client’s co-workers.  I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how people in this profession understand expertise in general, and how this connects to the cultural expertise that some people have in this system.

To address this question I have to reference the AMC series Mad Men. Fans of the series may recall that ad man Don Draper was a fur coat salesman before he stumbled into advertising. I think this character point remains relevant, in that many ad executives seem to have found their way into advertising despite a lack of academic training in it. While ad executives are highly skilled and their years of experience make them experts, advertising is the less scientific arm of marketing, in which ad makers rely on existing market research to develop creative concepts. Sometimes these conceits miss their mark, and this trial and error is tied to advertising’s aim of not simply selling products to people, but creating aspirational imagery to drive consumer spending. Asian American advertising additionally involves a complex set of cultural and linguistic considerations that makes arbitrating cultural expertise quite difficult. While ad executives do all they can to maintain authority over the content of their creative work, as workers for hire, they often have to bend to the will of their clients. I think this sometimes takes a toll on ad executives, especially when their clients are insensitive and in some moments, just plain racist. For the most part they seem to see this as part of the job and don’t let it define their creative aspirations.

 

You mention that advertising executives use the terms iconicity and indexicality all the time (p. 35).  What was it like to do research in a context where you and your informants seem to share similar analytical categories for understanding communicative practices (including the importance of cultural difference), and yet in practice these categories are deployed in very different ways?

I’m fairly certain they were not directly citing Peirce, but rather, using terms common in texts about advertising and visual culture more broadly. These terms appear in analytical registers used in the critical readings of art, film, television, and other visual genres. Ad executives were using these terms to create and construct meaning, rather than analyze and deconstruct it. The very deliberate process of what they thought could be iconic, or what a particular image or phrase might index to an imagined viewer, was anthropologically quite fascinating. Their use of these terms was ethnographically revealing of the intended meaning of their choices. This semiotic gap between their deployment of these concepts in their creative work and my use of them to analyze their work is something I aimed to address in my use of “assemblage.” I wanted to consider their cultural and linguistic ideologies alongside their creative work, as well as how people actually read and respond to their work. Addressing this range of semiotic possibilities allowed me to productively consider their understanding of these analytical categories alongside mine, as well as those of clients and audiences.

 

You began this research in 2008, and mention that there have been noticeable changes over the course of your four years of research.   Did you see any patterns in these changes?

When I began in 2008, Asian American ad executives were actively championing diversity but were often stymied by the lack of market research about Asian American consumers. The 2010 Census was a watershed event, in that it both documented the growing numbers of Asian Americans and Latinos while it also offered further details about the “purchasing power” of Asian Americans. While this latter group is heterogeneous and certainly not uniformly upwardly mobile, this new census data allowed Asian American ad agencies to more powerfully reiterate their rationale for of multicultural advertising and helped justify its value.

Shalini Shankar is a Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University. Advertising Diversity  is available through Duke University Press.

Magnus Pharao Hansen’s “Nahuatl Nation: Language Revitalization and Indigenous Resurgence in 21st Century Mexico”

Page 99 of my dissertation “Nahuatl Nation” does present a key aspect of the argument, namely the proposition that the Mexican state has a specific interest in playing a key role in the revitalization of its indigenous languages. By centralizing the responsibility for language maintenance and development within the state, the state is able to legitimize itself as a legitimate proprietor of indigenous semiotic resources, which it in turn uses to brand the Mexican Nation within the international market economy. The page however is not representative of the dissertation as a whole because it doesn’t include the central piece of the argument. The main argument is that indigenous languages, such as the Nahuatl language that is the focus of the dissertation, are important to their speakers, not only for the way that they enable speakers to inhabit the “indigenous slot”, or insert themselves into the Mexican national narrative. I argue that indigenous languages are primarily meaningful to their speakers and speech communities because they play a significant role in the subjective, intersubjective and social lives of speakers and in the way local indigenous communities cohere and conceptualize themselves as distinct from the national community. Page 99 and the rest of the chapter that it is a part of presents a semiotic and political critique of the current cultural politics of the Mexican Nation state and its engagements with indigenous languages. The rest of the dissertation uses historical, linguistic and ethnographic evidence to show why local revitalization projects can fulfill important social functions in the communities where they take place. This includes using the language as a medium with which to form local counter publics and shape local political movements, or as an instrument with which to attain local political goals through the strategic use of the currently popular discourses of indigeneity, language endangerment and cultural heritage management.

Pharao Hansen, Magnus. 2016. “Nahuatl Nation: Language Revitalization and Indigenous Resurgence in 21st Century Mexico.” PhD dissertation, Brown University.

Magnus Pharao Hansen
Magnus Pharao Hansen
Nahuatl Studies Blog

Elizabeth Kickham’s “Purism, Prescriptivism, and Privilege: Choctaw Language Ideologies and Their Impact on Teaching and Learning”

“Is Ford Madox Ford’s statement “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you,” accurate for the dissertation?

In short: not really.

Especially for long winded texts such as my own, titled “Purism, Prescriptivism, and Privilege: Choctaw Language Ideologies and Their Impact on Teaching and Learning (University of Oklahoma, 2015),” page ninety-nine likely occurs in an early chapter. In fact, my page ninety-nine, occurring in the methods chapter, rather dryly details survey design, contacting and consenting procedures, and interview and observation timeframes. Not only is the content of this page rather boring, it does not relate the more interesting methods substance, which, in my opinion, concerns the collaborative and reflexive nature of community-based sociolinguistic research and issues in representing voice.

This entire chapter, to my thinking, with its dry tone and disconnected content, fails to represent the work. It does illustrate, though, the challenges in writing for two audiences, as necessitated by writing a dissertation with and for a community while attempting to satisfy an academic committee. The methods chapter stands apart from the remaining content, presented in a first person ethnographic style, in which I and my consultants share voice. (In fact, the final written product is the result of collaboration and careful review, word by word, by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Language Committee.) The remaining work attempts a sensitive and critical examination of how Choctaw language ideologies impact teaching practice and learner motivation, and, ultimately, language persistence. Page ninety-nine addresses none of the ways that ideology shapes conceptions of authorization, standardization, orthography choice, and socio-linguistic authentication.

So, perhaps page ninety-nine is not as accurate a test of the quality of a dissertation as for the novel, Ford’s subject. Then again, to a non-academic audience, page ninety-nine of the dissertation, whether describing methods or actually delving into findings, may just represent the rather esoteric, sometimes unapproachable, and, let’s face it, boring nature of much academic work. Perhaps if dissertations were written as are novels, to engage the reader, page ninety-nine would be a fair test of quality. After all, when dissertations are revised for publication, the early chapters are often summarily cut. Page ninety-nine of my dissertation is fated to footnote status, where, I firmly believe it belongs.

Kickham, Elizabeth. 2015. “Purism, Prescriptivism, and Privilege: Choctaw Language Ideologies and Their Impact on Teaching and Learning.” PhD dissertation, University of Oklahoma.

Elizabeth Kickham

Elizabeth Kickham, Adjunct Professor at Oklahoma University, Norman

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

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Questions for the Author:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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