Interview by Grace East
Grace East: Your book takes us on an immersive journey through the complex and varied social worlds of Lachixío, where we are invited to see how meaning, relationships, and material objects are co-constructed through linguistic and multimodal pursuits among users of Zapotec. What do you see as the book’s central argument or message?
Mark Sicoli: Thank you for your close interaction with this work and for your thoughtful questions. Before starting this book, I had lived in two Zapotec villages that contrasted by language use. In one, the Zapotec language was in the memory of a few elders. In the other, Zapotec-language conversations coordinated everyday life. From the one case a language could be imagined to be an individual’s knowledge, but from the other it was irreducibly something the people built together. So, when I began this project, I wanted to develop an ethnography of a language where the language’s people and what they made together told the story. This is seen in part through the book’s illustrations and transcriptions depicting daily life interactions, images and tracings of video frames, as well as access to videos for each chapter, and in part through the participatory methodologies that brought it to being. Rather than see this project as bringing together linguistic and multimodal pursuits in a juxtaposition, I aimed to exemplify a multimodal linguistics, engaging with a scale of life emergent when participants come together in the joint commitments of interaction. The focus on joint actions sets language in relations of mutual aid. In this perspective, rather than an autonomous system, any language is inherently incomplete in an evolved openness to the participation of the people and artifacts collaborating in its uses. I work with the concept of resonance to build an understanding of mutual relations built across semiotic modalities, between participants, and through iterations of action-forms across events.
Grace East: At its core, this book seems to work to answer the big question of how humans get things done together. We see variable ways in which co-creation and joint action occur, primarily from the creation and negotiation of social relationships through offers, recruitments, repairs, and resonances. Yet you make an important shift toward the second half of the book and address the ways in which joint actions leave imprints in the material world. What was your goal in drawing parallels between often abstract and intersubjective actions and those that leave material residues?
Mark Sicoli: This is in part to show that there is a certain materiality to relations we’ve conventionally come to view as abstract. For the language of joint actions this is a materiality built between local memory and future obligation and through which future obligation becomes local memory (like semiosis more generally). The book illustrates emergent orders of joint actions in which language participates, and exemplifies the affordances of Lachixío Zapotec for their achievement. While the joint actions considered are generic universals of social life (as in the chapter titles), the resources by which they are achieved are local and particular. A pair of chapters focuses on how offers and recruitments are joint actions through which people build social relationships. A second pair of chapters titled repair and resonate work with an emergent order in which human intersubjectivity is made possible by relationships built through offers and recruitments. Both critique a Cartesian concept of mind prevalent in cognitive and social science that locates mind and language within individuals and their productions. The intersubjectivity building practice of conversational repair is shown to be a way that conversations think in a minded process emergent between participants. Dialogic resonance is shown to be an inter-individual syntactic order that presents an exponentially richer stimulus for language learning and analysis than the order of the sentence. The shift you mention comes with the chapter Build which projects another emergent order from these two, one where offers and recruitments, and sequences of repair and resonance building track through multimodal interactions where participants together build material artifacts that bear traces of their dialogic history. These emergent relationships are also involved in the building of languages which similarly preexist an interaction as guiding potential and are transformed across the actual moments of their dialogic co-creation. This argument is further developed as the last chapter, Living Assemblages.
Grace East: Participatory methods and collaboration seem to be the backbone of your methodology in this book (and the fifty-hour video corpus is really an amazing testament to that!) It’s such a wonderful example for newer ethnographers to model in their own project designs with community members centered as partners and collaborators. How did taking a community centered approach to research and your own long-term relationships in Lachixío shape the book? How are participatory methods a part of your overall ethical practice?
Mark Sicoli: As a book about participation in joint actions, it was important that it be made through participatory engagements. My partners chose scenes and daily life activities to film, operated cameras, and participated in locally-situated conversations about language as social action. One method we developed used video playback as a common object for focused conversations. Though what we achieved is to some degrees aspirational for participatory action research, we developed a community-engaged language documentation focused on how a language also participates in human collaborations. The beginnings of this project for me were in choosing to apply a Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics field manual task for building a multimodal corpus at my fieldsite where I had worked already for 10 years mainly focused on oral-aural modalities. I wanted to think about this task with my collaborators in Lachixío to produce a more auto-documentary corpus and extend participation to analysis. Our playback dialog method was developed to counter a tendency for extractive practice that takes materials collected with Indigenous communities to institutional settings where they are analyzed in the absence of the research subjects. Inspired by a continuum of ethnomethodological practices known at the one pole as Video Watching, where iterated collaborative viewings of untranscribed videos interactionally generate ideas for analysis, and at the other pole as Data Sessions, where the objects of joint focus also include a transcript analysis, we resituated these practices in Lachixío. The book was shaped and reshaped in the process. This last year I have been working to publish a Spanish translation of the book and have shared drafts in Lachixío, and with Indigenous and Latin American graduate students and scholars. I’m grateful to see the translation aiding a Zapotec graduate student researching everyday collaborations in kitchens and another incorporating playback dialog methods into research on Zapotec weddings.
Grace East: One of the most exciting aspects of the text for me was how you work to uncloak the mystery of how large-scale dynamics originate at smaller interpersonal scales. In the final chapter, you highlight “the place of language in collaborative world-building projects achieved through complex assemblages that connect human and nonhuman participants into living webs of causality” (207). What was the importance for you to portray the origins and outcomes of joint actions in this way? More broadly, where do you see ripple effects and resonances emerging from the minutiae of everyday interaction in other settings?
Mark Sicoli: I like your metaphor of uncloaking how action at one scale of social life affects others. Why do such connections between everyday interpersonal dynamics and the emergence and reproduction of large-scale institutions seem shrouded from attention? More scholars have focused on how large-scale social dynamics limit individual action than have engaged the question of how locally situated and everyday recurrent turns and responses build both the systems’ reproduction and possibilities for their transformation. A question in the background of the book is how can people imagine and achieve another future when there’s been a history of joint commitments to something that’s turning out badly. The first chapter begins with a translation of a dialog that initiates an intervention to reject and establish a need to reimagine an ongoing collaboration. This will require the assent and aid of the other women and men of the work detail who are already committed to the way things are going (badly). The form of the turkey corral they were building ultimately came to show material signs of the dialogic transformations that took place between them, which we examine in a later chapter. We track these transformations through multimodal assemblages that proffered moments ripe for participants to pursue another way. But because prior joint commitments to the current state of the project and to each other tilted the scale to its reproduction, the collective rejection of the ongoing collaboration only took place when its momentum was disrupted, creating space and time for the interactional work needed to unwind the tangle of prior commitments. Examples like this run throughout the book and include repairing a ritual where an overly-generous wedding gift motivated the interruption of the gift procession to resolve the social implications of the offer, a daughter introducing multiple lines of action across modalities that simultaneously complied with and rejected a gendered recruitment for water at the dinner table, the many examples of conversational repair, and the work of dialogic resonance which can transform as it replicates. When considering the wholes of world-building, these component joint actions emerge as answers to questions of how worlds are shored up and how they may be transformed. We know that at any given moment of discourse there is a world of limited possibilities. How do people rupture the membrane of limited choice presented from prior discourse to build a different world, whether that be embodied in the next conversational move, a home for a family’s turkeys, the work of reversing a language shift in process, or repairing our relations and obligations to a living ecology?
Grace East: Throughout the book, you model for us what a new kind of linguistic anthropological ethnography looks like, in which language is examined as just one piece of a “multimodal ecology.” In fact, you explain that any linguistic analysis is incomplete without attention paid to the purpose-laden environment, participant assemblages, and co-occurring semiotic dimensions in which meaning is created. What do you see as the possible future(s) of the discipline through this lens and what advice would you give to aspiring ethnographers who hope to engage with such a capacious view of language and human interaction?
Mark Sicoli: Our intellectual ancestors have taught us that the boundaries of languages and disciplines are ideological, which is in part to say that what we see as pattern at one scale is creatively connected through semiotic processes to others. Where some disciplinary perspectives produce knowledge through reductionistic decontextualization, anthropological approaches to linguistics have distinguished themselves for their rather serious attention to context. But too often appeals to context are vague and mere varieties of add-ons for what is already predefined as language (often as “text”). Context as a term may be used in one breath to refer to asymmetrical power relations between participants and in another to historical era, social setting, functional purpose, or the existence of prior talk. A turn to multimodality may at first seem capacious but actually the whole of a multimodal assemblage in which we find the language of joint actions is smaller than what is often ideologically imagined for a Language. Success stories of Indigenous language revitalization through task-based learning in actual collaborations rather than by the goals and settings of traditional-grammar study makes this point well. One move for aspiring ethnographers turning to multimodality is to recognize context as one of those weak nouns that can make the very object of study disappear before our eyes. Multimodality forces us to go beyond context to the intersectional dimensions between modes of semiosis and the affordances of participants and participating objects to relate to each other and to possible futures. For me this shifted the focus to the multimodal resonances that animate living assemblages, which I show in the last chapter is related to concerns of biosemiotics, the Batesonian field becoming known for asking questions that dissolve the institutional divide between the sciences and humanities. Here I’ll point to the resonant history of anthropology where it has included concerns to integrate subfield perspectives as one way that anthropology has offered, and sometimes tended to lose, its achievements to the wider academy. In some ways though these academic developments are just catching up with Indigenous epistemologies. Perhaps an important future for anthropology is in the question of what can emerge in an ethical interrelationship of the three.