Sujatha Fernandes talks about her new book, Curated Stories

https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190618049.001.0001/acprof-9780190618049

Interview by Ben Ale-Ebrahim

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: What led you to first start thinking about storytelling and its relationship to political economy?

Sujatha Fernandes: I was doing research about migrant domestic workers in New York and their labor struggles. What was striking to me was that the workers were being asked to tell their stories over and over in legislative campaigns, but they didn’t feel that it made any difference to their situation. I began to look at other sites too, undocumented students, an Afghan women’s project, and I noticed how storytelling had become a key mode of operation in all of these sites. In fact, in some cases the same storytelling manuals and trainings were being used, many of them originating with the election campaign of Barack Obama. There was something about the neoliberal self-making central to the Obama presidency that was driving these storytelling campaigns. So that was how I connected the storytelling to the neoliberal moment.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: Throughout Curated Stories, you provide evidence for how the personal narrative has emerged as an important genre for the construction of hegemony in the contemporary neoliberal era. You discuss how the stories of the marginalized, more than those of political elites or dominant classes, are critical to this process (p. 13). Why are the stories of the marginalized so important to “curate”?

Sujatha Fernandes There is much scholarship that focuses on how the dominant narratives of elite intellectual and artistic production have been key in the construction of hegemony – Hollywood films, literature, monuments, museums, political speeches, and so on. I think those are important to study, but the corollary has often been a valorization of the stories of the marginalized as conversely being authentic and getting at the truth of their experience.

That valorization was burst apart by Gayatri Spivak’s essay, “Can The Subaltern Speak?” where she talks about how the voice of the subaltern is itself composed of dominant myths and tropes. Voice is a construction. In the book, I follow her and others to argue that we have to look to the ways in which the stories of the marginalized are shaped and harnessed, through trainings, workshops, and protocols, in order to understand their import. It is precisely the notion that marginalized stories are uniquely authentic that gives them their hegemonic power.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: In chapters 3, 4, and 5, you describe how neoliberal storytelling projects work to decontextualize and individualize the stories of Afghan women, domestic workers, and undocumented youth, thereby avoiding critiques of broader oppressive political and economic systems that these stories might otherwise imply. Yet, you also describe moments of resistance in each of these cases. What does resistance to neoliberal modes of storytelling look like? As scholars, do we need to look beyond the text to see resistance?

Sujatha Fernandes: In the book, I am looking at the period of the Obama administration, and during this time the resistance to neoliberal storytelling is quite small and momentary. It may involve an Afghan writer going off script to talk about the role of powerful warlords in a post-invasion Afghanistan. It might mean a storytelling trainer who deviates from asking people to tell their stories to re-elect Obama, by contemplating how Obama betrayed the immigrant rights movement by not passing immigration reform. These moments signal a breach in the system but they usually yield to the ordering of the protocol or the training.

We need to learn to read the silences and contradictions in the texts. It is also important to look beyond the text, to employ ethnography to understand how people might be subverting or deviating from the narrative they are being given. The training manuals, protocols, and stories only give us one side of the picture. They don’t show how sometimes those narratives are fiercely contested. For instance, one domestic worker in the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights campaign refused to conform to the limited protocols that required her to only talk about working conditions, hours, and pay. She argued with the advocates leading the campaign, and then in her submitted testimony she went off script to talk about labor exploitation and the global conditions of domestic work. She was not allowed to read out her testimony at the hearing. By looking beyond the text, we can see these moments of resistance.

In a Trump era, this resistance looks quite different. Migrant workers and undocumented students in groups like Movimiento Cosecha have bypassed the path of storytelling advocacy in favor of more direct action and confrontational movements that put forward radical demands. We are also seeing a return to modes of storytelling that link personal experiences to forms of structural oppression. So while the Obama campaign stories linked people’s personal lives to vague values such as hope and family, now we are seeing stories that connect the hardships in people lives directly to problems such as poverty, student debt, and medical debt.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: In chapter 6, you discuss the Misión Cultura program in Venezuela as an example of a storytelling project that challenges neoliberal ideologies by making connections between the personal narratives of individuals and “political and collective registers” (p. 161). To what extent can this project serve as a model for alternative modes of storytelling, ones that challenge neoliberalism?

Sujatha Fernandes: There are aspects of the Misión Cultura program, as well as others such as the Andean Oral History workshop in Bolivia, that could provide some fruitful ideas. These include non-linear modes for writing personal stories, where one’s life is represented in terms of spheres instead of a chronological or temporal order. In this alternative narrative model, the individual is not centered on a unitary subject as in western-style biographies, but is rather located among spheres of people and communities. These stories re-link the personal, political, and collective registers; they are shaped by participants themselves rather than being edited by others or limited by protocols; and they are located in spaces of the barrio and community-based struggles. I think that these projects might provide some generative lines for rethinking how we tell stories and for developing alternative modes of storytelling.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: What do you hope scholars and activists interested in storytelling can take away from your book? What is entailed in moving from “curated stories” to “mobilizing stories” (p. 171)?

Sujatha Fernandes: I hope that they might cast a more critical gaze on many of the storytelling platforms that have come to dominate our lives, from Facebook to Ted talks, and the plethora of story coaching agencies, social movement and legislative storytelling models out there. But while many activists themselves have come to reject the dominant storytelling advocacy, I’m hopeful that we might be able to renew a storytelling approach, one that uses art and literary-cultural spaces and methods to convey issues of social injustice. There are strong traditions of this: farm worker movements, Latin American testimonios, and feminist consciousness-raising all used storytelling to great effect as they brought attention to class inequalities, patriarchy, and imperialism. In moving from curated stories to mobilizing stories, it is precisely this attention to the structural conditions of oppression that we must include. And this probably means rethinking the venues where stories are told – away from courtrooms, and the media, and the advocacy organizations where stories can get distorted and compressed for another agenda, toward the small activist circles and the streets where they can change minds and hearts.

 

Angela Reyes and Stanton Wortham talk about their new book

Discourse Analysis beyond the Speech Event: 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

https://www.routledge.com/Discourse-Analysis-beyond-the-Speech-Event-1st-Edition/Wortham-Reyes/p/book/9780415839501

Interview by Alex McGrath

Alex McGrath: Your book very concisely addresses an issue in discourse analysis – that of the lack of a concrete method for analyzing social action unfolding throughout discourse, that is, beyond the single, discrete speech event. Why do you think the discrete speech event came to be the privileged site of analysis for discourse analysis and linguistic anthropology in general?

Angela Reyes and Stanton Wortham: A comprehensive, scholarly answer to that question would require quite a bit of historical work – for example, tracing the development and influence of Hymesian taxonomies that privilege the “speech event” as a coherent unit of analysis. But here we can offer a few observations and speculations. First, it’s important to see that we are describing a traditional approach to discourse analysis that analyzes either discrete non-recurring events, or recurrent types of events. There is a lot of work that claims to describe the structure of discursive events, where the analyst intends to analyze a type of event that allegedly recurs in similar form across time and space. Much of that work is of course useful, and there are in fact types of events that recur and deserve analysis. But we are after a different unit of analysis, a chain of linked events that are not the same from one to the next, but across which signs move and actions are accomplished.

It also makes analytic sense to start with analyzing a discrete event, before one goes on to analyzing a pathway across linked events. As we point out in the book, it is usually appropriate to start by analyzing a single event. One cannot simultaneously analyze lots of events, and you have to start somewhere. If the pathway of linked events is to be the object of analysis, then at some point you have to analyze each of the events that makes up the pathway. So we are not against analyzing discrete events. For studying some social phenomena, however, you need to go beyond this to analyze linked events.

Part of the history that led to a focus on discrete events was technological, we imagine. The tape recorder was a crucial technology which allowed people to record interaction and then play it back repeatedly for analysis. There have been recording devices before, but inexpensive, portable tape recorders democratized access to interaction. This made it easy to find an interesting event, to transcribe it, and to focus on its discursive structure. And there were also traditions of studying canonical events, likes certain kinds of narratives, which led people to focus on high visibility events that were discrete.

Alex McGrath: To what extent do you think the infrastructures of new media shape discourse, and to what extent do you think this should be something that the discourse analyst is aware of? I’m thinking of things like comment threads or the limited social information retrievable from a given speaker on a platform like Youtube, for instance, or the ways that old threads of discourse can resurface years later and become active again. Is this really just a matter of new media discourse having a different space-time envelope than face-to-face communication, or is there something else crucially different about the ways that new media discourse develops that the discourse analyst must account for?

 Angela Reyes and Stanton Wortham: The general principles about indexicality, metapragmatic regimentation, and the like remain the same across contexts. But it is clearly true that different media and different contexts will have varying structures and affordances that are distinctive. You will not be able to do compelling discourse analysis of a particular medium or a particular context, like the social media contexts that you mention, without knowing about the affordances of the kinds of specific features that you describe.

With respect to social media, it is worth pointing out that contemporary work has begun to show how you cannot make a clear distinction between the dimensions of social processes that take place through social media and those that take place through other channels. In his analyses of mediatization, Asif Agha argues convincingly that we cannot see “media” as a separable domain with its own organization and principles. Instead, there are social processes that are ongoing: social identification, commodification, and others. In the contemporary world significant pieces of these processes take place through media of various kinds. And we have to understand the affordances of those media in order to understand how these processes work. But we are not analyzing media as a discrete site or media processes as discrete processes. Recent analyses by Elaine Chun, Jan Blommaert, and others offer nice empirical examples of this.

 Alex McGrath: Does Discourse Analysis Beyond the Speech Event provide a vocabulary for describing how stereotypes and prevailing ideologies can be contested, or rendered unstable? Could you talk for a bit about how your method accounts for how people exercise agency or resist dominant ideologies and representations?

 Angela Reyes and Stanton Wortham: We would like to think that our methodology can be applied to study processes of the kind that you are describing. It is not intended to be suited for only one theoretical perspective or other with respect to questions like power and agency. It is important to note that the cross-event perspective which we are drawing on, and applying methodologically, does have something to say about the idea of agency. There was a distinction between structure and agency that was important several decades ago, and subsequent discussions of ”structuration,” which allegedly resolved the issue. A cross-event perspective, as it has been developed over a couple of decades now, tries to move beyond this conversation. Unexpected, emergent patterns cannot always be attributed to a human individual’s action. In fact, there are reasons to be concerned about the Enlightenment perspective that imagines autonomous individuals who issue agentive changes into the world that spring from their intentions alone. The analysis of unexpected patterns is crucial. It is equally crucial not to reduce people to structures or stereotypes, thus removing what is often called their agency. But from our perspective emergence and unexpected patterns derive from chains of linked events, events which are never solely constituted by one individual.

 Alex McGrath: How would the discourse analyst account for unfolding discourse in which multiple channels of semiosis are key in establishing pathways, or co-constitutive with other semiotic channels in solidifying indexicals? Cases in which, for example, a color becomes a salient indexical along with certain formal linguistic features, strengthening pathways and shaping alignments, as in Norma Mendoza-Denton’s account of high school cliques in Homegirls: Language and Cultural Practice Among Latina Youth Gangs (2008).

 Angela Reyes and Stanton Wortham: That is an excellent point and example. It is absolutely the case that sometimes crucial indexical signs come in various media — visual, auditory, and so on. Obviously, in order to study multimedia signs we need recording instruments that give us access to them for analytic purposes. That means video, at least, in addition to voice and text. The analytic framework we offer in the book is flexible enough to include indexical signs from multiple different modalities. But the logistical challenges in recording and then analyzing signs from multiple modalities are substantial.

Another important issue your question raises is what counts as a sign (linguistic or otherwise) in the first place. Our approach is committed to tracing what is attended to as a sign, so what participants orient to is absolutely key. Researchers could have all of the recording equipment in the world, but we should not be romanced into believing that these technologies bring us closer to an unmediated truth about some reality. As analysts, we need to privilege participant perspectives: what they attend to as a meaningful sign in the world, rather than what we researchers believe these to be.

 Alex McGrath: Lastly, were there any challenges or surprises to writing a methods book? Did the development of this project differ from your previous projects in any significant ways?

 Angela Reyes and Stanton Wortham: When one writes a dissertation, and subsequently has to do empirical projects, one realizes that methods are critical. Theories and conceptual speculations are a dime a dozen. People make them up all the time, and they publish them, and you can always make up your own or find relevant ones out there. But having a systematic method is absolutely crucial to moving forward, and the method has to have a certain level of systematicity and validity in order to be worthwhile. With respect to the practicalities of getting academic work done in the real world, methods have a crucial place. With this in mind, we wanted to make the book useful to people doing empirical research. Thus we focused on a couple of key examples and tried to work through them systematically. We also tried to offer systematic guidelines, overviews, and procedures. We wanted to make complex concepts clear but not simplistic, so that people from various disciplines at various stages could see the full methodological value of linguistic anthropological theories of discourse. We hope that our approach is useful to others in their research.

 

Carrie Clanton takes the page 99 test

My PhD thesis, Uncanny Others: Hauntology, Ethnography, Media, started out as an ethnographic study of people who pursue ghosts as a hobby in the U.K. As a visual anthropologist, I was interested that the methodologies of ghosthunters mirror the work of some anthropologists who have taken up media; both aspire to use audio-visual recording media in an almost scientific fashion to “capture” their respective, and at times elusive, Other.

Page 99 of my thesis falls in the middle of a fieldwork narrative in which I am establishing ghosthunters as a metaphor to critique how anthropologists have tended to incorporate media into their work. In the excerpt below I am detailing a commercial ghosthunting weekend (GhostCon), organized by a group called Ghost Research Foundation International (GRFI), that I attended in Nottingham; I had encountered events such as water-divining and séances, each accompanied by rigourous pseudo-scientific methodology and audio-visual recording equipment, as well as by more esoteric tools such spirit mediums:

I am surprised at this most unscientific way to gain knowledge—is this what GRFI means by its research “evolving”? To what degree have ghost hunters really taken up science, and where does this merging of science with so-called New Age practices fit in? I had recently been told by a ghosthunter, who also happened to be a physicist, that sometimes a good medium is needed to get results. He was referring to his use of quality recording equipment to capture supposed voices of the dead; but at GhostCon, and at quite a few other ghost hunts I attend, a living, psychic medium seems to be an accepted and indeed sought-after piece of “equipment” to have around, and somehow not at all contrary to the scientifically based methods also being employed.

A break from my PhD to have two babies (and subsequently too many middle-of-the night readings of Derrida) saw me return to academia in the field of cultural studies and focus in on the concept of hauntology. I ultimately argued that media is hauntological in nature—it is able to freeze and manipulate time–to evoke and conjure other people, times, and places–offering a potentially critical approach to representation that differs from traditional ethnography.

Few anthropologists today would aspire to the sort of wholesale salvage and archival tasks originally touted as the great promise of media recording devices in the field. But few have embraced media and its uncanny temporality as a way of producing cultural representations that are more on par with James Clifford’s notion of surreal anthropology than the outputs suggested by the early manuals on visual anthropology–and their very similar counterparts, the how-to guides for ghosthunting that I encountered in my fieldwork.

Carrie Clanton completed her PhD at the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London in 2017. She lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is currently writing a monograph about soundtracks. 

Carrie Clanton. 2017. Uncanny Others: Hauntology, Ethnography, Media. Goldsmiths College, University of London. Phd dissertation.

 

Teri Silvio on her new book, Puppets, Gods, and Brands

https://uhpress.hawaii.edu/product/puppets-gods-and-brands-theorizing-the-age-of-animation-from-taiwan/

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: What first led you to start thinking about animation?

Teri Silvio:  Well, I started off by studying drama, and I wrote my dissertation on Taiwanese Opera.  Taiwanese Opera is a genre in which women play all of the leading roles, both male and female, and the vast majority of fans are also women.  I chose it because I was interested in how cross-gender performance works in contexts where it’s a long-standing historical tradition, rather than consciously feminist experimentation.  I was writing up my project proposal around the time Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter were published, and basically, I was curious whether drag could still be considered “subversive” when it was what your mother and grandmother watched.  (The answer, in case you’re wondering, is yes and no — Taiwanese women who grew up watching this genre tended to already think of gender primarily as a kind of habitus, but they didn’t think that had anything to do with why men had more power in Taiwanese society.)  Anyway, when I started working at a research institute in Taiwan, I had to come up with a new project.  At temple festivals I had noticed that there were often two stages, one showing the opera, and another showing puppetry, which was a genre that was performed and watched primarily by older men.  Also, I had seen some of the Pili puppetry series on television, and was amazed by it.  It looked like someone had decided to remake Tsui Hark’s swordsman fantasy films using puppets — there were all kinds of wild special effects, and theme songs, along with the romanticization of brotherhood you get in the swordsman genre, I just loved it at first sight.  So I decided to do a project on puppetry and its relationship to masculinity.  I was curious why drama and puppetry were so gendered in Taiwan.  I found out pretty quickly that after puppetry was adapted to television, and then to digital video, women had started to become fans.  In fact, the most active fans of the Pili series were women.  One of the activities that women fans of Pili enjoyed was cosplay, and I started going to cons and interviewing the (mostly) women I found who were cosplaying puppet characters.  I started asking them the questions I’d asked opera actresses and fans — Do you identify with the character you’re dressed as?  How do you get into character?   And I would get these puzzled looks, or long descriptions of buying bolts of cloth and sewing costumes, but nothing about embodiment or psychological identification.  When I asked people how they felt in costume, they’d say things like, “It’s like the character is with me,” but never “I feel like I am the character.” So that’s when I started to realize that there was an important, if elusive, difference between puppet characters and characters embodied by actors, and I started to think about puppetry as something more than just a variation on theatrical performance, that puppetry did something other than construct identities.  And from there I started thinking about animation in the broader sense, what it means to bring objects to life.

Ilana Gershon: In your book, animation functions in the way that media or language functions for some analysts.  Not every group understands what media or language does in the same way – Japanese approaches to cell phones are different than American approaches because of their media ideologies.  What is a Taiwanese take on animation?

Teri Silvio:  Different cultures have what I call different modes of animation — ideas about what kind of objects can be animated, what aspects of personhood can be projected into them, and how that can be done.  These ideas are grounded in specific cosmologies, ideas about the nature of humanity and the nature of the non-human world, how they came into being, and the differences between them.  Almost all anthropological studies of puppetry discuss its ritual functions.  But I think the book that was most helpful for me was Scott Cutler Shershow’s book, Puppets and “Popular” Culture.  Shershow looks at the theological grounding of puppetry in Western culture from Plato’s allegory of the cave to Jim Henson’s Muppets.  He looks not just at puppetry practices, but at how puppetry has been used as a trope, and finds that despite changes in the moral values of puppetry in Western discourse, it is almost always seen as a version of “playing God,” as a re-enactment of Genesis.    In contrast, many scholars working on Japanese manga and anime, especially those writing about the works of Miyazaki Hayao and Oshii Mamoru, have noted how Japanese animation reflects Shinto animist ideas about all kinds of objects having spirits or souls.

What I found in Taiwan was that practices of investing things with agency tended to focus on a specific type of object, the ang-a, which is an anthropomorphic figurine, usually small.  Puppets are the paradigmatic form of ang-a, but statues of gods which are made for worship are also called “just ang-a” before they are ritually animated.  Chinese folk religion is very human-centric, and investing material objects with human qualities has to start with the object being given physical human qualities — faces and bodies.  Animated animal characters in Taiwan, whether they are deities or logo characters, are almost always anthropomorphized.

Another important aspect of the religious grounding of animation in Taiwan comes from the way that religious icons have genealogies.  New icons of a particular deity usually contain incense ash from the burner of an older icon, so there is a kind of contagious magic at work, with substance being passed down from “original” to “divided” icons.  The proliferation of icons is seen as evidence of that god’s efficacy, and also as how that god comes to have more presence and power in people’s lives.  One of my arguments is that, while people do not think that puppet or manga characters are ontologically similar to gods, they do see the relationship between popular culture characters and their many tie-in products as being similar to the relationship between gods and their icons, and there’s a lot of overlap between the vocabulary and practices of Chinese folk religion and those of Taiwanese puppetry and manga/anime fandoms.

Ilana Gershon: With Hong Kong protests happening in the background, along with such a complex legacy of various colonialisms in East Asia, I was wondering if you could speak to how easily some forms and aesthetics seem to travel in this region, despite or maybe because of the regional politics.

Teri Silvio:  The markets in cultural products throughout East Asia are heavily influenced by two major producers, Japan and the United States, and domestic content producers are constantly struggling to break through their hegemony (the PRC is a special case here, where import of foreign cultural products are strictly limited by the state, but even there American and Japanese influence is felt).  This has more directly to do with American control over distribution networks that was set up after World War II, and a concerted push by Japan to establish similar distribution networks throughout Asia starting in the late 1980s (which has been documented in detail by Koichi Iwabuchi and others).  The degree to which different countries’ products dominate local markets varies, not only by country, but also by generation and by industry (for instance, in Taiwan, American, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and local bands are all competitive in the popular music market, but over 90% of the comic books on sale in Taiwan are translations of Japanese manga). So what popular culture is available, and what is mainstream, is largely determined by government policy and corporate strategy. The historical experience of colonialism is more a factor in terms of how cultural products are received in different countries.  So for instance, Japanese cultural products are less controversial in Taiwan than in Korea or China, where there are frequent boycotts of Japanese products, and this has to do not only with the differences in how the Japanese administered different territories under their control in the early twentieth century, but also in how the colonial era took on different meanings in light of what came after.

In this context, Iwabuchi and others have argued that one reason Japan has succeeded in exporting so much of their popular culture throughout East Asia is the way that they create the sense of “cultural proximity,” the idea that contemporary Japan represents a kind of modernity different from that represented by Hollywood and other American products, a modernity that is less alien and more easily imagined as achievable.  But the idea of cultural proximity can be a double-edged sword, especially if it is too explicit, since it can recall imperial Japan’s “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” ideology.

In the book, I am more interested in what globalization looks like if we focus on animation genres, rather than performed, or live action ones.  On the one hand, I look at how the Pili International Multimedia Company has tried to market their video puppetry overseas, trying out different models, with their most successful attempt at globalization happening when they cooperate with a Japanese animation creator.  I argue that Pili crosses borders best when it presents a vision of what globalization might look like if it were motivated by traditional Chinese structures and concerns, and that the use of “traditional” genres and media creates a different kind of trans-East Asian cultural proximity from that created by idol dramas.  So I note that, while the Pili company’s attempts to be “the Disney of Taiwan” largely failed, the fandom spread quite rapidly, through shared practices that might be thought of as “folk culture,” such as the collective re-creation of a wide variety of versions of the characters in different media, and the proliferation of ang-a.  While the cultural proximity of idol dramas tries to make an end run around historical trauma by focusing on shared modernity, Taiwanese video puppetry makes an end run around the traumas of colonial and post-colonial modernity by focusing on aesthetics, practices, and ideologies that unite the pre-modern past and the post-modern present.

Ilana Gershon: You argue that men and women have different relationships to various forms of animation.  In what ways and how is this shaped by overarching labor issues?

Teri Silvio: I look at this mainly in the chapter on cosplay, which is primarily an activity for women fans of puppetry, manga, and anime.  I ask why cosplay is so appealing to young women, and not to men.  I work from the basic premise that cosplay is one of many forms of play that function as a sort of safe, enjoyable place to practice skills and forms of sociality that are necessary in the less safe and enjoyable spaces, especially at work.  Cosplay is, at the surface level, a kind of performance.  And most cosplayers are working in the pink collar sector (as secretaries, kindergarten teachers, salespeople, and so on).   In the 1980s, Arlie Hochschild worked with flight attendants, and found that they think of their work in pretty classic Goffmanian terms – they saw their main work skills as performances of self, impression management, controlling the moods of passengers by controlling their own mood and embodiment.  So one could see cosplay as a play form of the emotional labor that these women have to do in their jobs.  But cosplay only started in the 1990s, and to find out why it became popular when it did, we need to look more closely at what has changed in pink collar labor.  The Italian Autonomists are probably the theorists who have tried to outline what’s going on with post-industrial labor most thoroughly.  While their idea of “immaterial labor” can be useful, and they do note gendered divisions of labor within that category (basically, men do programming, women do caretaking), the way they think about digital technology tends to help us understand what’s changing in men’s work, but cover up what’s happening in pink collar work.  One of the big differences between the women cosplayers I interviewed and their mothers is how much of the work of emotional labor they do online, as opposed to in person.  Taiwan has one of the world’s highest cellphone ownership and internet penetration rates, and young people here spend huge amounts of time on social networking platforms, online chat groups, cellphone messaging, and so on. Emotional work that their mothers did through embodiment, they have to do via online avatars or personae created through text and image, that is, through animation.  But at the same time, of course, there are still lots of situations where they do have to do embodied performances of gender.  So I think that one of the reasons why cosplay has replaced other forms of embodied play at this point in time is because it lets women play with how to negotiate performance and animation – how to communicate through the body without having to enter into a role, how to use their bodies as puppets instead of as outward manifestations of some inner essence.

Ilana Gershon: You suggest that animation can be the basis for a new form of political activism.  How would this work?

Teri Silvio: If only I knew – I’d go out and do it!  You should probably ask John Bell, because he’s been doing amazing political puppetry and thinking about how to use puppets for activism for so long.  But I do see a lot of potential for getting out of the traps of identity politics if we start thinking of identity as something that’s created through animation, through the collective projection of aspects of our selves outward, rather than as the interiorization of roles. It might help us let go of the idea that our identities are something we possess, and other people’s identities are something we have no stake in or responsibility for. Since I finished the book, I have seen some intriguing examples of people using what I would call animation practices in political activism.  I was on a fabulous  conference panel recently (thanks to Laurel Kendall for organizing it), and one of the papers was by Moumita Sen, who talked about a group of leftist activists in West Bengal who have been trying to create Adivasi (indigenous) solidarity by remaking a demon into a god.  They made statues of this new god with dark skin and muscular bodies, combining traditional Hindu iconography with the iconography of the working-class hero.    And I’ve seen the image of a cute cartoon pig in lots of graffiti from the Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protests.  At first I thought it was McDull, the protagonist of a series of anime who is a little boy pig being raised by his overworked mother in the city, and who is affectionately seen as a symbol of Hong Kong identity.  But it isn’t; apparently it’s a sort of emoji character from a messaging service that the young protesters are using.  Which is in some ways more interesting, because emoji characters are more open than anime characters (although the categories overlap, as some anime characters have their own emoji series), they primarily represent states of mind, what they say about identity is there, but secondary.  Anyway, I’m really hoping I can do some more work on the use of emoji characters soon, because I’m really intrigued by how they circulate and can give people a sense of a collective mood, or set of moods, emerging from the chaos of online discourse.

 

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson on her dissertation

My dissertation, titled “Language Use and Global Media Circulation Among Argentine Fans of English-Language Mass Media”, explores the links between globalization, media/pop culture, and language through a study of Argentine fans of massive English language media and pop cultural franchises. I look at how Argentine fans of franchises like Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Supernatural orient to English as a semiotic resource made available through these texts—and how engagement with globally-circulating media fandoms offers a venue for working out local ideas of class status and Argentina’s position within global cultural flows (Appadurai 1996).

Page 99 (which is the PDF page 99 and the “real” page 99—I purposefully arranged my pagination in this way to avoid potential mis-matches like that) bridges two data excerpts that I use to give ethnographic detail about how orientations to subtitling vs. dubbing relate to Argentine notions of socioeconomic status. (For clarity’s sake, I’ll include the data that appears on page 98; for length’s sake I’ll leave out Excerpt 17, which essentially makes the same point as Excerpt 16).

Excerpt 15. “Las voces originales”

1 me gusta el sonido original (.) las voces originales (.) I like the original sound (.) the original voices (.)
2 el tratamiento de sonidos (.) como te dije yo había the way the sounds are (.) like I said before I’ve
3 estudiado antes (.) sé que se pierde algo pasando al studied [English] before (.) I know you lose things
4 castellano y no (.) prefiero ir no sé ir a otro cine pero translating to Spanish and no (.) I’d rather I
5 (.) ver los subtítulos (.) sí dunno go to another theatre but (.) to see the
6   subtitles (.) yeah

 

This comment frames a preference for subtitled English-language media as a result of advanced instruction in English (lines 2-3). And indeed, as I have mentioned before, most of my participants have exceptional proficiency in English, largely due to self- teaching efforts rather than a particularly strong English-language education program in Argentina’s public schools. Pointing also to discourses of “maturity” that were mentioned earlier, these statements frame preference for subtitles as a stance held by people who “know better”.

Of course, what these comments elide are the fact that access to high-quality English language education in Argentina is class-stratified. As discussed throughout this section, English language classrooms in public schools leave much to be desired, so unless one’s family has enough disposable income to pay for attendance at an instituto, there are limited resources for developing the kind of linguistic proficiency that is presumed necessary to “prefer” subtitling to dubbing. Still, commentary that explicitly invokes the role of class in preferences for linguistic mode of media consumption did come up. See, for instance, these two comments from online surveys in Excerpts 16 and 17.

Excerpt 16. “Una disposición estatal”

 

1 Hace un par de años las producciones originalmente A few years ago productions originally in English
2 en inglés solían subtitularse, ahora suelen consumirse tended to be subtitled, now they tend more to be
3 más dobladas en la televisión por cable o abierta, consumed dubbed on cable or public broadcast tv,
4 dado a una disposición estatal que buscaba el because of a government program to develop the
5 desarrollo de la industria del doblaje y favorecer dubbing industry and favor Spanish-language
6 contenido en español. Por lo general, los doblajes son content. In general, the dubs are good and faithful
7 buenos y fieles al material original, prefiero las to the original material, I prefer the subtitled
8 versiones subtituladas dado que considero que a versions because I think that sometimes certain
 9 veces ciertos significados originales pueden perderse meanings can get lost in translation. Subtitles tend
10 en la traducción. La subtitulación suele preferirse en to be preferred in higher socio-economic classes
11 estratos socio-económicos más altos (los que llegado (even among those who can understand without
12 al caso incluso pueden entender sin la necesidad de subtitles, depending on their competency in
13 requerir subtítulos, dependiendo de su competencia English), in contrast to dubbing.
14 con el inglés) al contrario del doblaje.  

Because the chapter this page appears in is focused on tracing the major ideological frameworks through which Argentineans think about the role of “English” in their country, it doesn’t capture how this plays out in the way Argentine fans of these media franchises construct their identities as fans (that’s Chapter 4), or how fans will creatively reinterpret/recontextualize/remix globally-circulating media texts in a way that feels iconically “Argentine” (that’s Chapter 5). But by and large I do feel that this section nicely represents some of the major themes of my dissertation.

One such theme is the balancing of binaristic tensions—educated vs. uneducated, monolingual vs. bilingual, local vs. global—and how these get worked out through the perception and use of language. Another key theme of my dissertation highlighted here is how media and pop culture are used to make sense of people’s everyday life experiences. The speakers in Excerpts 15 and 16 have constructed cultural narratives that legitimize or justify certain modes of media consumption as indicative of particular class or educational backgrounds—and in the case of Excerpt 16, how such narratives are perpetuated by the state! At least in a superficial way, page 99 shows a glimmer of how English-language pop culture is made (linguistically) relevant to Argentineans’ every day lives.

 Valentinsson, Mary-Caitlyn. 2019. “Language Use and Global Media Circulation Among Argentine Fans of English-Language Mass Media”. University of Arizona, Ph.D. Dissertation.

References

Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

 

Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson, Ph.D is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Appalachian State University. Her work focuses on the social circulation of language, pop culture, fandom, and social media. Find her work at mcvalentinsson.com or on Twitter @DrMCV.

 

 

 

Robert Samet on his book, Deadline

https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/D/bo38871952.html

Interview by Alejandro Velasco

Alejandro Velasco: Venezuela is in the news these days, but that wasn’t always the case. For decades Venezuela seemed relatively understudied, considered “boring” and uneventful in contrast to the rest of the region. Then Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998, and academic – and media – attention gradually took off. What drew you to study Venezuela, and the media in particular?

Robert Samet: Like many people, I was initially drawn by the grassroots political project that coalesced around Hugo Chávez, but it was the extraordinary media environment that made me choose to do fieldwork in Venezuela. Before graduate school I worked in advertising. My master’s thesis dealt with terrorism preparedness campaigns in the United States, something with which I had experience. For my doctoral research, I wanted to continue working on media and democracy but in a different setting. Venezuela was perfect. It was the most diverse and arguably the freest environment for journalism in the Western Hemisphere. It was also the most polarized. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the media battles playing out in Venezuela were a precursor to what has become the new normal in much of the world.

Alejandro Velasco: As you describe in rich and dynamic detail in Deadline, the media was an early, crucial, and sometimes even literal site of political struggle in the Chavez era, not just a flashpoint but a platform for chavistas and anti-chavistas to seek to impose deeply divergent visions of the country and gain control over its future.  But your book takes a surprising turn. It focuses on a specific subset of press coverage – crime beat reporting – that at first glance seems to stand outside the fray of the larger media battles that have shaped the Chavez era. Why did you decide to focus on crime reporting, and how do you think this specific focus sheds light on broader media struggles in contexts of bitter polarization?

Robert Samet: Crime journalism was not part of the original plan. I’d intended to do participant observation with media producers on either side of Venezuela’s political divide, but after a few weeks the research stalled. It wasn’t a problem of access. Most of the news organizations were happy to open their doors, and being a gringo from a prestigious U.S. university didn’t hurt. The problem was that people kept repeating stories I’d already heard. Either the private press was part of a vast anti-Chávez conspiracy (chavistas) or the Chávez government was a corrupt dictatorship intent on ending press freedom (opposition). Back and forth. I decided to start working with crime reporters because violent crime was an issue on which there was an emerging consensus. Focusing on crime allowed me to provincialize Chávez. I could see how reporters went about the business of finding cases, gathering facts, and framing stories. I also observed how they used crime stories as a platform to mobilize grievances, apportion blame, and propose solutions. A distinct pattern emerged. After a few months of working the Caracas crime beat, I started to see a broader logic that governed the practice of journalism in Venezuela.

Alejandro Velasco: Populism is much in vogue as an explanatory device but the term is fraught, seeming at times to mean everything and nothing. One common and contradictory trope is that the press is both a catalyst for and a bulwark against populist politicians who rely on media coverage – positive or negative – to attack freedoms and staid institutions. Your book offers a refreshing and important contribution, viewing “populism” less as a political phenomenon than as a category of analysis to understand fields of cultural and political contestation. How did you arrive at populism as a theoretical framework, and what do you think Deadline adds to debates on what populism is and isn’t?

Robert Samet: Thank you! I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. Populism is a term that is frequently misused. Much of the current scholarship has adopted a top-down definition that confuses populism with the discourse of charismatic leaders. That’s one of the reasons anthropologists have largely avoided the topic. I only turned to theories of populism because I was trying to explain the mobilization of “denuncias” (denunciations) by Venezuelan journalists. Denuncias are crucial for understanding the style of journalism that came to dominate Latin America in the late twentieth century. I expected to find a large literature on the topic, but there was virtually nothing on denuncias in English or in Spanish. I had to create my own theoretical framework. Around this time, I picked up Ernesto Laclau’s book On Populist Reason and found a lucid explanation of the practices I’d observed on the crime beat. Although I have issues with some of Laclau’s normative assumptions, his work allowed me to formulate an empirically grounded analysis of the role that media plays in populist mobilization, a topic on which Laclau himself is silent. In this regard, I think that my book can serve as a roadmap for thinking about the relationship between media and populism more broadly. Instead of starting with a check list of attributes by which to quantify the relative populism of different leaders (ala the work being done by “Team Populism”) we have to start with the grievances of ordinary people and the channels through which these grievances are mobilized.

Alejandro Velasco: Venezuela is one of the world’s most violent countries, even as you also observe, there is much debate about what precisely that means, with wildly divergent statistics often thoughtlessly tossed around in leading media accounts. That leads to an important meditation that runs through Deadline, about the meanings of violence beyond figures, but also and perhaps more importantly, about larger epistemological tensions in a world where not just policy making but most decision making and reporting about it is increasingly dominated by “hard” numbers.  As someone who is not an anthropologist I’m curious: what do you think a book like Deadline – and the discipline of anthropology more broadly – has to say about how the value of ethnography and qualitative methods at a time when these tools seem increasingly to be questioned as valid or important?

Robert Samet: I’m secretly fond of numbers and spent a lot of time pouring over crime statistics. Violent crime in Venezuela is exceptionally bad by any measure. Because it was a political flashpoint the numbers were weaponized. Organizations associated with the opposition often inflated the homicide rate, while the government went to great lengths to hide it. This is a pattern with which criminologists are familiar. The solution is not better numbers. It’s better context. That is what good ethnography and good journalism have in common. That is also one of the things my book provides—a nuanced, empathetic, and policy-relevant description about struggles to control perceptions of crime. However, ethnography is much more than mere context. It is a resolutely empirical methodology, one that is far better suited to studying moments of political and socio-economic upheaval than quantitative research. As I learned in my advertising days, quantitative data is great for predicting behaviors within a closed system, but it is not particularly useful if you want to understand how individuals or groups will react to something radically new. For that you need a methodology with a stronger grounding in peoples’ lifeworlds. To return to the subject of populism for a moment, data scientists were not the ones who foresaw the current wave of upheavals. It was scholars whose research was close to the ground and whose work had an ethnographic sensibility. For anyone who wants to understand where things are headed, I’d argue ethnography is more relevant than ever.

Alejandro Velasco: You write that fieldwork for what became Deadline began in 2007, continuing through multiple research visits of different length until just recently. That means you have witnessed Venezuela arguably at the height of chavismo’s popularity and power, through Chavez’s death, through Nicolas Maduro’s first years in power, and more recently, during the country’s dramatic economic collapse. As an ethnographer, what special challenges do you feel you’ve encountered researching and writing in such a fast-changing context? And based on your research and writing on Venezuela, what has surprised you – and what has failed to surprise you – about the turn the country has taken in recent years?

Robert Samet: So much has changed over the past decade. When I started out, Venezuela was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak world. Today it is in crisis. For an ethnographer, the speed of change definitely posed a challenge, but it was compounded by the political stakes. Ever since I started working in Venezuela, the situation has been misrepresented abroad. In the United States, for example, the GOP is using Venezuela as an example of the dangers of socialism, a move that even The New York Times flagged as baldly misleading. Back in 2007, it was easy to counter partisan assertions about dictatorship, censorship, or political persecution; fast forward to the present and it’s more difficult. Take the issue of crime control. Under Chávez, the Venezuelan government rejected tough-on-crime policies as instruments of racial and socio-economic oppression. Under Maduro, it has embraced them. Tough-on-crime policies have been the hallmark of rightwing populism since the 1980s, so it’s troubling to see an ostensibly leftist movement champion tactics similar to those we see in Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro or the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte. I would not call Maduro’s punitive turn surprising—if anything, I was amazed that Chávez managed to hold out against pressure to move in this direction for so long—but it creates a real conundrum. How do you write honestly about a topic that has become the object of political football? As someone sympathetic to the plight of ordinary Venezuelans as well as the ideals of the Bolivarian Revolution, I’m acutely aware that my critiques could be used to justify brutal sanctions or to make a case for war. That’s what made this project so challenging. There is a very narrow tightrope that I’m trying to walk.

Alejandro Velasco: One of the more provocative contributions Deadline makes is identifying the multiple pressures beat reporters face in climates of intense of polarization, pressures that go well beyond a simple state versus independent media binary.  Instead you show how beat reporters are susceptible to both overt and subtle forms of manipulation by management, by colleagues and interlocutors caught up in the fray of polarization, and of course by larger political tensions as they affect daily life, the object of their reporting.  That seems to echo another recent book on the media in Chávez-era Venezuela (Naomi Schiller, Channeling the State, Duke 2018) by noting that debates about press freedom – in Venezuela and elsewhere – often miss power relations in the press itself, power relations that are compounded but also obscured when the dynamic becomes one that pits “the state” versus “the media.” What contribution do you want Deadline to make to debates about the role – and the power – of the press in society, and about how we should think about the relationship between state and the media, as seen through the eyes of beat reporters?

Robert Samet: Here in the United States we are slowly waking up to the fact that press freedom is not all it’s cracked up to be. The myth of press freedom obscures how corporate entities have been remaking the state in their image for the better part of a century. Nowhere was this vice grip on the media challenged more imaginatively than Venezuela. Deadline looks at how private interests shaped political speech. Channeling the State describes how grassroots media projects set out to democratize access to cultural production. I think that the two books are complimentary. They show, albeit from different angles, that the media is a platform on which state-making projects are staged. In this respect, Naomi and I both challenge anti-statist assumptions that became prevalent in the critical humanities and social sciences from the 1980s onward. I hope that my book encourages a new generation of students and activists to work to change the nation-state rather than formulating newer, ever more sophisticated critiques of it. Among other things, I want readers come away with a greater appreciation for limited government regulation of things like online hate speech or the circulation of deliberate falsehoods. In the United States, these have become the vehicles for white nationalism. It is time to shut them down.

Alejandro Velasco: The book is at once engagingly written and theoretically rich. It also is both deeply situated in the Venezuelan experience, while resonating loudly in debates that extend well beyond Venezuela – about the craft of journalism, the meanings of populism, the work and policy of urban policing. It also strikes me as a book that makes an overarching argument, but whose chapters can also stand alone. That’s all to say, I can see it adopted in many different courses and settings – from introductory courses in Latin American culture, to political theory courses, to public policy course in urban planning, to advanced journalism seminars, and more. Can you give advice on a few ways someone wanting to incorporate Deadline might teach it productively? Or perhaps a more difficult question: How would you teach your book to undergraduates?  Are there chapters that are particularly well suited to teach independently? If read in full, are there auxiliary materials you would pair with it?

Robert Samet: Thank you! I teach at a liberal arts college and I wanted to write an ethnography that was relevant to my colleagues but also accessible to undergraduates. You’re right to observe that Deadline is constructed around a central argument, however there are also chapters and sections that stand alone. For example, I’d recommend chapters 2-4 for anyone who wants a depiction of how the stigma of criminality is stamped on the urban poor. These are the book’s most accessible chapters and I think they are conducive to undergraduate teaching. For graduate instructors who are interested in the book’s theoretical contributions, chapters 5-8 probably hold the greatest appeal. This is where I take up theories of media, democracy, populism, and representations of violence. For someone trying to explain how the Venezuelan landscape changed over the last twenty years, then the book’s first two chapters and the conclusion are probably the most important. How would I teach it? I think that Deadline is best suited for unsettling received wisdom about Venezuela and the relationship between media and democracy. I’d introduce the book by having students look for examples of how Chávez and Venezuela are portrayed by the international press. Then, I’d have them watch Kim Barley and Donnacha O’Briain’s 2003 documentary The Revolution Will Not be Televised. After that I’d dive into the book itself. I think that it pairs particularly well with journalistic accounts of Venezuela, like Jon Lee Anderson’s “Slumlord” published in The New Yorker (2013) or Frontline’s “The Hugo Chávez Show” (2008). But I think that it’s even more interesting when you pair it with contemporary discussion of social media, fake news, and ideals of journalism. In my opinion, Deadline is the best available case study of how populism operates in and through the media. It avoids the hype about new media as well as the liberal handwringing about evils of populism. I want students to come away with a nuanced understanding of a pattern that is built into the very fabric of our democracies.

 

 

Devin Proctor’s page 99 test

My dissertation, On Being Non-Human: Otherkin Identification and Virtual Space, is based on five years of ethnographic engagement examining identity construction and social practice among the Otherkin, a group of several thousand people who self-identify as intrinsically other-than-human. Otherkin recognize their bodies as biologically human, but their inner selves as non-human (such as wolves, dragons, elves). Because the group meets almost exclusively in Internet spaces, the dissertation follows the Otherkin across platforms—Second Life, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, and Reddit—to trace how digital technologies can be used to mitigate the misfit between their bodies and identities.

Page 99 appears near the end of Chapter One and contains the transition from one large section to another in a discussion delineating “Otherkinity” as a term and an identity category. Here it is, without edits:

***

It is possible that other-than-human-ness has been an intrinsic facet of humanity from our very beginnings—images of human shape-shifting can be seen in the Lascaux cave paintings, created roughly 17,000 years ago (Henneberg and Saniotis 2016). If this experience of other-than-human-ness has, indeed, been occurring all over the world throughout history, it stands to logic that it did not simply stop due to Western modernity and post-enlightenment science. Yet, aside from the Otherkin (and children, as mentioned above) we have seen no large scale non-human identity category in Western, industrialized nations. A possible reason other-than-human experience has not been recorded on a larger scale in the West is that people did not have a name for it. When observed elsewhere, we have simply referred the myriad other-than-human experiences with the umbrella term animism. This same type of animism in Western contexts has not been available as a way to be a human (Hacking 1995, 2006). And now it is: it is called Otherkinity.

An Otherkin is a Kind of Human

As much as Otherkinity is a felt, experienced, embodied state of being, it is also socially constructed. I mean this in the sense that it is a category of identity based around a culturally constructed set of criteria, like being obese, or a woman, or mentally ill. Philosopher Ian Hacking calls these “human kinds,” by which he means “classifications that could be used to formulate general truths about people; generalizations sufficiently strong that they seem like laws about people, their actions, or their sentiments” (Hacking 1995, 352; see also Goffman 1963).

***

This passage might seem, at first, a poor representation of the work, since it mentions nothing of the Internet and contains absolutely no ethnographic content or even a citation to an actual anthropologist. On a more theoretical level, however, it speaks to one of the dissertation’s foundational assertions: that our identities as humans are just as culturally constructed as they are biologically designated. While this dual formation can be seen quite clearly in the case of my interlocutors, I would argue that it is true for us all. The tension between cultural and biological human identity underpins political arguments about which bathrooms we can use and the relationship between DNA testing and membership in particular ethnic groups. Indeed, one of the main arguments that I put forth in the dissertation as a whole is that the Otherkin represent a larger shift in body-understanding from a Cartesian bounded vessel to something more plastic and negotiable, epitomized in growing numbers of people identifying as trans* fluid, nonbinary, and neurodiverse. The term I offer for this wider phenomenon is open-bodied identification. Further, I argue that our increasing interaction in and with Internet spaces—as a technologically-mediated form of animism—helps to foster this open-bodiedness by extending the indexical relationship between our bodies and our identities.

 

Proctor, Devin. 2019. “On Being Non-Human: Otherkin Identification and Virtual Space” Ph.D. diss. The George Washington University.

Devin Proctor can be contacted here: dproctor@gwu.edu

Cited References

Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Simon & Schuster.

Hacking, Ian. 1995. “The Looping Effects of Human Kinds.” In Causal Cognition: A Multidisciplinary Debate, edited by D. Sperber, D. Premack, and A. J. Premack, 351–94. Symposia of the Fyssen Foundation. New York, NY, US: Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press.

———. 2006. “Making Up People.” London Review of Books, August 17, 2006. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n16/ian-hacking/making-up-people.

Henneberg, Maciej, and Arthur Saniotis. 2016. The Dynamic Human. Bentham Science Publishers. https://doi.org/10.2174/97816810823561160101.

Sarah Mitchell takes the page 99 test

For the sake of full disclosure, I’m going to start my reflection on my Page 99 with a quick nod to the blog’s editor. When Dr. Gershon started the Page 99 series on the CaMP blog, I was acting as the blog administrator. We had chatted about the concept and structure of the series and at some point, she expressed a concern that people would start ‘gaming’ the series so that they purposely made the 99th page an exceptionally good page from their dissertation, to make it more coherent or smart-sounding. Of all people, I’m probably most susceptible to this temptation. Well, I just want to assure her and the readers of the blog that while I am particularly pleased with what my 99th page wound up being, I did not do this on purpose. I must give credit to my committee that requested further theoretical discussion at the beginning of the document after reading the first draft and thus pushed this page into its current position. If that hadn’t happened, you’d likely have read something about TIFF’s scandalous history…who wants that? Instead, my Page 99 comes from my third chapter in a section I labelled, Glamorous Work: A Geertzian Turn.

After laying out the scope of the dissertation in the introductory chapter and elaborating the key concepts in the second, this third chapter is where I place those concepts in context. I focus on a particular night in 2014 when my husband and I were conducting an interview with film director Kevin Smith and we get into trouble with the red carpet coordinator. I use this particular incident to illustrate the central social relationship of the film festival that exists between filmmakers, film audiences and the film festival organizers who act as special intermediaries between the first two groups. In this final section of the chapter, I reveal that I am purposely echoing the structure of Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” because I viewed this social relationship as akin to the one described in Geertz’s essay (1977). As I describe a few pages earlier, Geertz argues that the cockfight is play because the risks involved are ‘really real’ for the birds and only symbolically real for the bettors. But I see the inverse on the red carpet. The really real risk does not lie with the single film or even single film screening but with the filmmakers, film audiences, and subsequently, their intermediary, the film festival organizers. This page outlines this risk. As the page concludes, in terms of economic and status risk, I argue the highest risk lies with the organizers, the few that connect the many at the festival. And, in this sense, what they engage in is not ‘deep symbolism told in meaningless play, but material work performed in glamorous iconography’. As I end the chapter a few pages later, I set up the subsequent chapters where I dive further into the intricacies of this work in this context. But before moving forward, I suggest that this glamorous work is perhaps not unique to the film festival setting but extends upward through the ‘prismatic distortions’ of global mediascapes (Appadurai 1990).

It is admittedly an ambitious chapter and this page highlights some of its grand assertions. But while the attempts to connect my own theory to cultural anthropology luminaries is perhaps too aspirational for a dissertation, as someone who has spent years in media pens elbowing my way into position for a clear shot of the celebrity du jour, the distance between red carpets and cockfights is not as far as one might assume.

Sarah Mitchell. 2017. Glamorous Work: An Ethnographic Study of the Toronto International Film Festival. Indiana University, Phd.

 

Mack Hagood on his new book, Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control

Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control (Sign, Storage, Transmission) by [Hagood, Mack]

https://www.dukeupress.edu/hush

Interview by Jacob Smith

Jacob Smith: Hush offers a strikingly original take on the history of devices and practices that offer control over the sonic environment. As a framework for your analysis, you coin the terms “orphic media” and “empty media”: what are these?

Mack Hagood: In its narrowest sense, the concept of orphic media refers to the ways people use audio media to create a safe space for themselves. In Greek mythology, Orpheus saves the lives of the Argonauts by neutralizing the Sirens’ song with a song of his own, pacifying the treacherous environment of the Siren Strait. Over the past sixty years or so, a number of media devices that operate on this principle have arisen: bedside machines that generate white noise or nature sounds, commercial recordings and smartphone apps that do the same, wearable devices that counteract tinnitus, noise-canceling headphones, and others. All of these technologies fight sound with sound to control one’s environment, thereby allowing the user to control her own subjective state. If we think of these disparate technologies as the products of a single industry, it generates billions of dollars by promising control over how we feel, sleep, and concentrate. But up until now, we haven’t thought of orphic mediation as a media practice—and, in fact, we haven’t thought of most of these technologies as media at all, because they don’t have “content” in a traditional sense. They are “empty media” that challenge our scholarly and lay notions of media as technologies that inform, entertain, or transmit messages. In fact, these media aren’t meant to be paid attention to at all, which is what allows them to be so effective!

Now, this might seem to be simply a quirky and overlooked product category or a lacuna in the field of media studies, but I argue that it’s much more than that. In the book, I use these technologies as a way to explore the way listening has become difficult, painful, and even paranoid in the era of the attention economy, which equates the liberal subject with controlled attention while also flooding consciousness with voices, information, enticements, and distractions, undermining any possibility of self-control. This personal, sensory conflict fuels our politics of filter bubbles, right-wing echo chambers, campus safe spaces, and other contemporary controversies around listening. Studying listening is useful because a similar reactivity and even physiology are at work when we recoil from a sound we find uncomfortable and when we recoil from a social situation or even an idea that we find uncomfortable. So, in its widest sense, the concept of orphic media is about more than sound technologies. It claims that the most fundamental purpose of all media use is not to transmit information, but rather to navigate our affective relationship to our environment. And it’s the misguided ways we try to stay in control of that relationship that drive our current conflicts.

Jacob Smith: Your first chapter concerns the use of orphic media by the sufferers of tinnitus. What is distinctive about these practices in the broader terrain of orphic media? What methodological challenges did you face when writing this chapter?

Mack Hagood: In the course of studying orphic media, I quickly realized that people with buzzing, ringing, or other putative phantom sounds in the head or ears were among the most committed users of these technologies. During my ethnographic study of tinnitus and the roles that media play in its diagnosis and treatment, I came to understand just how high the stakes of orphic media use can be. Many of us experience tinnitus to some degree or from time to time and are relatively unbothered by it, but for a small minority of people, tinnitus is a deeply disturbing experience that interferes with personal relationships and the ability to work or enjoy life. And as an invisible disability, inaudible to others, tinnitus can often be met with skepticism and impatience. Loneliness, anxiety, and depression are strongly associated with suffering from tinnitus in this way.

By visiting audiology clinics, research centers, and tinnitus support groups, as well as volunteering with the American Tinnitus Association for a number of years, I met many people with tinnitus and learned a great deal about the nature of aural suffering. And, indeed, almost everyone I met used white noise or other orphic technologies either as digital folk remedies or as prescription media, under the guidance of an audiologist or other clinician. They used media as what Foucault called “technologies of the self” that help us bear the burdens of liberty, the requirement to be free of hindrances and limitations that a liberal society places upon us.

When you ask about methodological challenges, I think perhaps you are referring to my own struggle with tinnitus during my fieldwork, which I discuss in the book. Hush is based on my dissertation and shortly after my research proposal was approved by my Ph.D. committee, I accidentally overfilled a bicycle tire at a gas station and it burst right next to my left ear, leaving me with very loud tinnitus. I was quite upset by this and now I had to begin my fieldwork on the subject of tinnitus, interviewing people about it and thinking about it every day. It was really challenging and I found myself dealing with similar anxieties and depressive feelings as my interlocutors, which not only heightened my empathy for them, but also added a visceral, lived dimension to my analysis. It made me understand the intimate relationship between fear and control, the way that refusing to accept what wasn’t freely chosen only amplifies suffering and, conversely, the way that opening oneself up to sounds we didn’t choose can actually diminish our suffering. Truly, the only way I was able to stop suffering from tinnitus was to gradually accept that it was part of my body and my experience, whether I wanted it or not. In the end, my experience and study of tinnitus was the key to understanding the impetus for all orphic media and to formulating the critique that evaluating life only in terms of the freedom to choose actually instills more fear and suffering into life. Continue reading

Harri Englund on his new book, Gogo Breeze

Interview by Ilana Gershon

http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/G/bo27256361.html

Ilana Gershon: While this book ostensibly focuses on one radio presenter, because Gogo Breeze interacts with such a broad range of the public, one has to know a tremendous amount about Zambian agriculture, legal and informal inheritance, and so on, to understand how he functions as a radio personality.  This presents a significant organizational dilemma for a monograph that will be read by non-Africanists.  How did you decide to focus on Gogo Breeze and what choices were you struggling with as you organized the book?

Harri Englund: Although he is not the owner of the radio station Breeze FM, Gogo Breeze is by far the station’s most popular personality – a household name in Zambia’s Eastern Province. Even a blind would have seen in him a fascinating subject for anthropological research. However, one of the challenges I faced was to think of ways of making my study more than a biographical account. Here I found some help in the extended-case method that I had used in my previous work. A basic point in that method is that although the anthropologist may focus on a person or an event, that focus is merely a starting point for exploring relationships and networks of variable scales.

It always surprises me how unaware anthropologists working in other world regions seem to be of this method that was developed by people such as A. L. Epstein, J. Clyde Mitchell, and Victor Turner on the basis of their work in Zambia and Malawi in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the processual and reflective issues that became prominent in anthropology more recently were, to some extent, prefigured by the extended-case method. It may be a measure of the dominance of American authors and “schools” in the post -1980s Anglophone anthropology that these methodological innovations in the discipline’s past have been forgotten.

In any case, while Gogo Breeze is based on other methods than the extended-case method alone, it made me wove issues such as agricultural policies or inheritance rules into the narratives themselves rather than devoting separate chapters to a “context.” Such a separation between contextual and analytical chapters could result in the false impression that what happens on the ground is merely an illustration of structural principles at the macro level. It was in response to Malinowski’s use of the case method as an “apt illustration” that the extended-case method got developed. The aim was to capture in the unfolding of actual relationships, conflicts, crises, and events potential for transformation and thereby to show that not everything in social life flows from some first principles. The added challenge for me was to pursue this methodology where it had never been attempted before – in the study of mass mediation and its apparent detachment from personal relationships. Although I did not develop the point in the book, the study of ritual, such as in Turner’s work, could of course offer some parallels in this regard.

Ilana Gershon: How does Gogo Breeze, the radio announcer at the heart of this book, create webs of obligations despite or because of how ethereal the utterances through radio as a medium can seem to Zambians?

Harri Englund: The topic of obligations is a prime example of how the book seeks to integrate the study of personal relationships with the interest in mass mediation. I also have other reasons for being interested in obligations as an issue in anthropological theory. One formative interest I have had ever since my graduate research in the early 1990s is the forms that liberal theory and practice have taken in Africa and in the study and critique of human rights. In so far as the so-called rights discourse has often become rather thin on the complex ways in which people are subject to cross-cutting relationships and networks, anthropology would have something to contribute from its past insights into obligations. But just as obligations (or duties) are too simplistically imagined as the flipside of rights in the rights discourse, so too have anthropologists, especially those who don’t work in Africa, tended to forget how much work there is in the discipline on the topic of obligations – or they have tended to see obligations as some Durkheimian or structural-functionalist counterpoint to “freedom” or “ethics.” The more sophisticated recent work on morality by anthropologists is much less committed to pitting freedom and obligation against each other, but reading Meyer Fortes or Max Gluckman could have led to similar recognition much earlier in that literature.

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