Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein takes the page 99 blog test

My dissertation looked at how media impacts community. Specifically, how does the global circulation of regular publications help create a sense of community among 8 million Jehovah’s Witnesses in more than 200 countries, and how do we know that these publications are key?

Before writing this blog, I spent a lot of time thinking about the affordances of new technologies: was I supposed to look at the page numbered 99, or the 99th page of the PDF file?

As an anthropologist, I’m not normally in the business of talking about intentions – but Ford Madox Ford died well before the age of the PDF, so I started with the page numbered 99.

Unfortunately, if I am honest, that page (page 116 of the PDF) is one of the most boring pages in the entire document. It’s the very end of chapter three, which introduces two different types of field sites: the town where I conducted primary research and the global institution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This particular page lists out physical research sites:

Additionally, I visited both Jehovah’s Witness worldwide headquarters in Brooklyn, New York and the Mexico Branch Office near Mexico City. Worldwide headquarters, collectively known as Bethel, include collections of buildings in three New York cities: Brooklyn, Paterson, and Wallkill, where a total of nearly four thousand Witnesses live and work.

So I turned to the 99th page, or page 82. That’s about halfway through this same chapter. It’s also the page where I first introduce the role of Jehovah’s Witnesses in my primary research site:

Jehovah’s Witnesses from elsewhere in Mexico first arrived in Zapotitlán in the mid-1940s and had converted approximately half the population by 1959 (Turner 1972: 90). Community members seem to get along well despite these divisions, but there are some aspects of life in which they are strongly felt. For example, most Mexican communities hold large festivals on the holiday associated with the town’s patron saint. In Zapotitlán, however, since Catholics are not a majority and adherents of other religions do not want to contribute or participate, these events are no longer held.

The page then moves into an anecdote about religious responses to the celebration of an important political anniversary in the town. It sets the scene, to be sure – but it doesn’t fully succeed at capturing the tensions between the centralized global institution and the practices of one small community. For that, you might still need to read the whole thing.

Barchas-Lichtenstein, Jena. 2013. “When the dead are resurrected, how are we going to speak to them?”: Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Use of Indigenous Languages in the Globalizing Textual Community. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of California, Los Angeles.

Leigh Chavez-Bush’s “Chefs, Cuisine, and Convergence”

My dissertation explores media networks within the Chicago culinary industry. At three fieldwork sites I conducted participant observation and employee ethnography with media producers, chefs, and software app developers at the intersections of food and media. My main theoretical focus is on how different actors experience and adapt to digital media’s impact on culinary culture. Using the concepts of hypermediacy, authenticity, and immediacy, I demonstrate the struggle emerging between these networks and highlight the very real barriers to successful collaboration prosumerism is breeding across production cultures.

Page 99, just shy of the conclusions drawn from my first ethnographic research site, is set during a food-focused audio competition. It opens with an intern commenting on the user-submitted short documentaries she remixed into a teaser for the competition’s main event, an “Audio Feast” announcing the winners:

I really respect and admire each person that submitted a piece, I feel like they put so much thought and effort into each second…that you may not know listening, but when you’re producing or editing them you discover all these things, like taking out a little silence to make the story tighter…

The Audio Feast brought in five famous chefs to represent the winning documentaries in a food event focused on dialogue rather than degustation. The awkward premise shined a light on the highly divergent perspectives, processes, and products of the participant groups. Audio producers use scripted material and careful production to simulate the authentic through hypermediation. Chefs, on the other hand, deliver authenticity through the immediacy of production, distribution, and consumption.

As the event organizers, the media experts dictated logistics, creating a counterfeit culinary environment in which the media novices, the chefs, were required to perform. The chefs found it challenging to adapt their production culture and largely defaulted to the immediacy-focused taste, temperature, and timing of their milieu, even though the audience would not eat their food. When chefs were able to sublimate their own ethos and embrace the hallmarks of new media, crafting (inedible) Instagrammable food and sharing emotionally compelling narratives, they achieved some level of audience connection. But the collaboration, on the whole, was fraught with conflict and consternation and showcased the lengths to which media novices will go to avoid media production—even at the cost of their own authenticity. Ultimately, the Audio Feast exchanged participation for exposure, allowing the chefs to sidestep media creation and prosumption while shining a light on the spoils prosumerism promises to deliver.

My dissertation draws from this example as I move through the interconnected web of the culinary community, further exposing the trajectory of a culture growing increasingly more reliant on hypermediation to discover, feel, and claim tangible human experiences. How will this change the way we eat? We can only anticipate the #flavorofthefuture.

Leigh Bush. Slow Food and Fast Fast Flows: Chefs, Cuisine, and Convergence. Ph.D. Dissertation. Indiana University, Bloomington, 2017.

 

Ulla Berg on her new book, Mobile Selves

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

 

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

Interview by Ilana Gershon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Sylvia Martin on her new book, Haunted

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

Interview by Maria Nikolaeva Lechtarova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Sareeta Amrute on her new book, Encoding Race, Encoding Class

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https://www.dukeupress.edu/encoding-race-encoding-class

Interview by Ilana Gershon

By focusing on Indian computer programmers, you are able to point out the ways in which computer programmers have racialized bodies, and how this affects their work lives.  If you happened to find yourself at a dinner party seated next to a Silicon Valley recruiter, what would you want them to know about your book?

My book takes sides. It’s not just descriptive, it’s provocative. It humanizes an incredibly cartoonified subset of laborers. Literally: I discuss cartoons satirizing Indian IT workers in European publications as part of my chapter on perceptions. I’d want her to know that coders from India don’t deserve the reputation they’ve been handed down as fast, cheap, and replaceable. These attributes are a result of the way the industry produces value, primarily by divvying coding projects up into creative and grunt parts, which are then given to different kinds of workers, often divided by race. And while engineers from India occupy director and management positions across the Silicon Plateaus, Alleys, Valleys, and Highways around the globe, this racial logic remains. Upper management coders from India elevate themselves above the uncreative grunt coders from India along the lines of urbanity, caste, and elite versus regional engineering college backgrounds. These divisions also reach service workers, packers, and cleaners who have access to few of the perks that accompany tech jobs.

The focus of your work – IT workers in companies – is different than earlier anthropological work on coders, such as Chris Kelty or Gabriella Coleman’s work.  What difference do you think it makes that the workers you focus on work for corporations?   How do the organizational structures under which people labor affect people’s philosophies of coding?

There is much to recommend anthropological focus on hacking and free software communities, since in those arenas, alternatives to the neoliberal organization of life often emerges in unexpected ways. But, I cannot teach about global IT without recognizing its corporate structure. Last year, the FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) accounted for at least 50% of all Internet traffic. One out of very two dollars spent on the Internet was spent on Amazon. Most of my students look forward to landing a job at Amazon. Like it or not, the Internet is dominated by corporations.

Within corporations, migrant programmers readily identify the contradiction between the ways that code has to move around the world and restrictions on the global movement of people. This makes them skeptical of free software movements because they simply do not go far enough. By likening code to speech, such movements unwittingly support neoconservative political ideologies that sacrifice human well- being in the name of abstract principles. Migrant programmers diagnose this gap between free software and free people, leading them to violate many principles of what is otherwise considered ‘good’ coding, such as leaving comments that explain their work to others.

You argue that one strategy that Indian IT code writers resort to is writing “inalienable” code, and thus making themselves more essential to a company in a context of temporary contracts.  Could you explain a bit what it means to write inalienable code, and what effect this strategy has on the ways that these workplaces are organized?

Inalienable code is a form of resistance. Global corporations compartmentalize temporary coders from India. “Grunts” resist by writing their code in such a way that makes that code harder to hand off to another, making them harder to replace. This is “inalienable code”. My book includes specific examples, like leaving bad comments or no comments at all, so that the coder is the only one who understand this part of the project.

Interestingly, this is widely considered poor programming. When I began conceptualizing things like this that didn’t fit the “good programming” paradigm, I tried to think of these practices in very concrete terms. They were certainly a kind of foot dragging practice, which we know from studies of factory work is a daily opposition to the ownership of time by the employer. I get a kick out of labor practices developed in the 19th century being right at home in the 21st.

“Poor programming” practices were also a means of creating a kind of wealth. These practices take the idea of knowledge work, that knowledge is capital, at its word. Thinking of aberrant coding practices as creating property and stealing time allowed me to think about the kinds of wealth coding might generate. I revisited anthropologist of the Pacific Annette Weiner’s foundational argument about inalienable wealth, in which she examined kinds of wealth that are kept back from circulation. In her scholarship, she describes wealth that, in a social scene that demands gifts and return-gifts, can be held back from these types of exchange. One of her most famous examples is a greenstone (nephrite) axe, which remained powerfully tied to the history of its victories and could only be held in trust on behalf of a group.

Now apply this concept of “inalienable” wealth to coding. The way global technology companies structure employment agreements, coders do not properly own what they write. They cannot normally exert intellectual property rights over the innovations they may make. So, they instead try to create a special relationship to this wealth by taking it out of circulation—by making it the equivalent of a jade axe buried underground, valuable because it is there not because it is freely available for exchange. Of course, these practices of making code inalienable exist in the everyday alongside the exchange of coding labor for a wage, and the free exchange of solutions to programming problems that coders post to sharing sites like Stack Overflow.

You point out many complex ways in which these programmers represent India to the German public, and a particular model of technological development to government officials in the Indian government.  But one of your imaginative arguments is pointing out that these Indian IT workers have a relationship to India as a state that calls forth a third perspective of how workers are part and parcel of state projects.  Could you explain how currently Indian IT workers overseas understand their relationship to the Indian state?

This is a fascinating question right now, and it demonstrates how coding cultures can be open ended and change over time. By and large, most programmers share a soft libertarian attitude towards governments, including their own. The government should set in motion a limited number of laws, and then get out of the way. As IT workers were understood to represent the new face of Indian business, which was higher paying, innovative and relatively free from corruption, IT workers felt themselves to be the best representative of this new, economically muscular, India. But, the turmoil on the Indian political scene in the last few years has shifted the equation. India’s government, like the United States’ government, has become more nativist in recent years. Opinion about the current state of affairs in India varies widely among Indian IT workers overseas. Some support the ongoing efforts to redefine India a normatively Hindu and are not bothered by increasing inequality, pollution, and violence against minorities. Many are deeply troubled by these developments and have begun to feel displaced, neither comfortable at home, nor in the rightist, anti-immigrant regimes in the U.S. and elsewhere.

You argue that these IT programmers are deeply ambivalent about how neoliberal logics recommend people should organize their lives.  How do they use leisure moments as moments to reclaim control over the kinds of working selves they are expected to be and as moments of experimentation?

Migrant programmers from India can recognize the failures of subjecthood under neoliberalism because as migrants, their precarious job status belies their vaunted position as knowledge workers. The protagonists of my book did all the things white collar workers are supposed to do to become successful—say, for example, getting up at 5 am to go jogging. Yet, jogging was not sustainable. They were working too many late nights for that. What happened next fascinated me. Rather than give up entirely, they walked in the local park. I name walking and related practices fragments of a politics of eros, because they inaugurated a conversation on the content of a good life. Such a conversation is otherwise evacuated under the logics of neoliberal survival. I’m not saying that walking is a perfect utopian practice; but, it is a moment when people practice inhabiting a world they want. Anyone familiar with India knows that the caste and class implications of walking in parks are complex. These moments of eros can just as easily flip into moments of asserting upper caste and upper class rights to urban public space. But, if we paint all overseas Indian IT workers with the same brush, that is, as classist, casteist, Hindu nationalists, we run the extreme danger of missing the progressive potential in their resistance to neoliberal work and its companions, such as a certain ways of exercising. Even more egregiously, we may miss the widest applicability of the conversation about the good life. How many of us can say that we are entirely satisfied by the way neoliberal logics govern our selves and our attachments? I think one of the most important tasks for anthropology is to interrogate the degree to which we, and others, are attached to these logics of hard work and self-improvement. For me, it is an ethical imperative to ask about the texture of a good life across class, caste, race, gender, and color divides.

Ieva Jusionyte on her new book, Savage Frontier

Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border by [Jusionyte, Ieva]

Jusionyte, Ieva. 2015. Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Interview by Ilana Gershon

What led you to study the conjunction between security and news reporting in this particular town?

I have first heard about the region encompassing parts of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay–commonly called “tri-border area” or “triple frontier”–through the media. It was portrayed as a dangerous place, a haven of organized crime, where trafficking of drugs and people, contraband, and money laundering were rampant. Having worked as a news reporter, I was aware that journalists tend to write stories that fit into larger narratives, which media organizations adjust depending on market logic as well as on their relationship with the government. We know that the media can both work as a propaganda machine, serving to uphold state ideologies, and it can be used as a watchdog on the political and economic establishment. My decision to go to the tri-border area was motivated by a wish to understand how local journalists, who live in the town about which they write, maneuver and maintain the boundary that divides illegal activities into two categories: those that can be made into news and those that must remain public secrets. Unlike reporters sent by national or international media, who come to the border looking for sensational stories and often reproduce the narrative of the violent and savage frontier, local journalists are also residents of the area, so they are directly invested in solving existing problems of crime and insecurity in their neighborhoods at the same time that they seek to depict the place as a safe destination for tourists. In the book, I show the day-to-day realities of journalists, as they balance between making news and making security, and argue that media practices in a remote border area must be understood within the historical context of state violence in the region.

How does turning to news-making as a fieldsite illuminate a distinctive connection between national identity and national security?

News-making is a key site in which national identity is produced and through which it is circulated. The idea that the press serves as a vehicle for creating nations as “imagined communities” is attributed to Benedict Anderson, and although his thesis has drawn criticism regarding the historical accuracy of his claims as they apply to Latin America, it continues to illuminate the process and the conditions of nation-building. Perhaps nowhere is this as clear as it is in the borderlands, at the edges of nation-state sovereignty, where the airwaves of one country compete against those of its neighbor’s. In the second half of the 20th century, when Argentina, Brazil, and other states in the region became concerned with national security (this was especially notable during the military regimes), the governments began paying much more attention to media broadcasters in border areas: investing in radio and television infrastructure, as a means to spread political discourses emanating from the state’s capital, was akin to defending the nation against a foreign invasion–one that was not carried out by an army of soldiers but advanced by cultural programming. In the tri-border area, this competition was between Argentine and Paraguayan media, transmitting in Spanish, and Brazilian media, transmitting in Portuguese. This battle over airwaves is still ongoing: complaints that signals from more potent Brazilian antennas were interfering with Argentine radio and television broadcasts were recurrent issues debated in town council meetings during my fieldwork–a proof that in the border region questions of national identity and national security continue to be highly contested to this day.

How do journalists’ symbiotic relationships with security forces such as police and military officers affect how crime is reported?

Security forces have a strong presence in the border area and they provide a substantial amount of news material for the local media, covering a wide range of topics, from routine crime investigations to military ceremonies and parades to large-scale intelligence operations. It is a symbiotic relationship because journalists need stories (reporters are often asked to produce half a dozen news pieces per day), while security forces want good publicity of their work and readily provide the media with interviews and press releases. However, this convenient arrangement means that journalists rarely ask difficult questions, for example, regarding police impunity, corruption, and complicity with criminal actors and organizations. Usually, crime stories are authored and authorized by the security forces, with the media serving merely as the outlet for circulating the official version of events to the public. But not all towns in the tri-border area are alike. Compared to the Argentine border town of Puerto Iguazú, where local news organizations are rather weak, do not have resources or training to do investigative journalism, and cannot protect reporters if they decided to pursue such stories, some media companies in Ciudad del Este, a larger city on the Paraguayan side of the border, have done important investigations into organized crime. Nevertheless, due to corruption that entangles politicians, business owners, law enforcement, and even the media, critical crime reporting remains severely limited in the region.

Often what is illegal is still socially acceptable, and especially in your fieldsite of a border town. How did journalists engage with this tension?  Did the medium the journalist was using – text or video – affect how they negotiated this tension?

Difference between practices that are legal or illegal and legitimate or illegitimate was very important for my attempt to understand how journalists decided what became news and what information was to remain off the record, as a public secret. Socially legitimate, albeit illegal activities, such as food contraband or smuggling of fuel, were rarely covered in the media. Journalists did not report on practices in which they (or their families, or neighbors) frequently participated. Even the tools of media production–cameras, cassettes, computers–were regularly bought in Paraguay and brought across the border into Argentina illegally, avoiding taxes and other import prohibitions. On rare occasions, when illegal and socially legitimate activities became the subject of news stories, the print media had an advantage over television and even over radio. I learnt this while working on an episode about irregular adoptions and child trafficking for an investigative television program “Proximidad”: people were more willing to share what they knew when the interaction between journalists and residents did not entail the use of cameras or voice recorders.

One of the themes in your book is a running comparison between being a journalist and an ethnographer, and you managed to be both in this Argentinean border town.  You also talk a great deal about how difficult it was to move knowledge that was generally known but not openly discussed into the public sphere.   Could you discuss whether it is a different process for a journalist and for an ethnographer, and if so, how?

Anthropologists and journalists both face the challenge of making knowledge that is familiar to few available to others, but it is important to recognize that our work follows professional standards and ethics that may diverge. Journalists must protect their sources, just as ethnographers promise confidentiality and anonymity to their research participants, so from the point of view of those asking the questions and observing behavior the difference is not that obvious. Yet people who agree to disclose sensitive information, to share their private stories, see a difference between a reporter and an ethnographer. On the one hand, people are more familiar with news media as a genre of representation, and this familiarity can help build trust, although it could also undermine it–people are aware that the media sensationalizes issues. Anthropology, on the other hand, is a mystery. When I arrived to start ethnographic fieldwork, people were reluctant to talk to me about anything illegal because they did not understand what the information would be used for: Would I give it to the media, to the police, or to the government? Would the effects of making it public hurt them? With time, as research participants begin to trust the anthropologist, they are more comfortable sharing what they know. But then it is up to the anthropologist to decide what to do with this newly acquired, sometimes dangerous knowledge. Unlike journalists, who publish stories in order to draw attention to an issue, such as drug smuggling or domestic violence, in hopes that public knowledge about it would lead to changing social or political circumstances that make it possible, anthropologists often use the knowledge they gather to engage in internal theoretical debates with other scholars. This scope of our work, limited to circulating the findings within the academe, is not always clear to the people who share their lives with us, sometimes in anticipation that their knowledge could change the status quo. Of course, there are anthropologists–sometimes called engaged anthropologists or public anthropologists–who try to reach out to broader audiences, make their publications part of public debates on current issues, and push for policy changes, but this public engagement is not (or not yet) considered a defining feature of the discipline.

 

Plurinationalism and Community Votes on Mining

by Katherine Fulz

In my dissertation, I examine the economy of representation about mining in Guatemala, taking “media” in its broadest sense. This includes traditional media such as newspapers and advertisements; digital and social media; performative events such as protests and community votes; and attempts at knowledge creation such as research on public health and human rights. It is impossible to extricate one form of media from another in this context, as both authors and audience freely remix and reinterpret different genres, creating novel hybrid forms in the process. These communicative forms both reflect and contest dominant discursive regimes about mining development and what it means to be Guatemalan.

Page 99 is part of a discussion of the political implications of community votes, which are organized by local communities and anti-mining activists throughout Latin America. These votes are founded on activists’ interpretations of international accords mandating the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of indigenous peoples for development projects impacting their communities. Although the votes use logistic, aesthetic, and performative elements associated with national elections, they are organized outside of—and organizers might say in opposition to—state electoral structures. The results are almost unanimously against mining development, and usually face contestation from national governments. There have been dozens of votes held throughout Latin America, usually numbering no more than a handful in each country. In Guatemala, however, there have been more than 80 votes to date, which is surprising given the comparatively low number of active mining projects in that country. Part of my goal in the chapter is to examine what it is about the Guatemalan context that makes these votes such an appealing strategy for opposing transnational development.

On page 99, I explore how the concept of plurinationalism applies to indigenous political movements in Guatemala. I argue that community votes point to a potentially transformative and plurinational political project that questions whether international accords protecting human rights are an extension of state power. The discussion of plurinationalism builds up to chapter three, which is an ethnographic account of the performance and documentation of community votes in several highland communities. Even though the votes are legally non-binding, the simultaneous performance of Guatemalan citizenship and indigenous autonomy they embody is significant in the way it disrupts dominant discourses about multiculturalism and democracy.

 

Fultz, Katherine. 2016. Economies of Representation: Conflict, Communications, and Mining in Guatemala. PhD diss., Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan.

 

Consultas comunitarias in Guatemala are exemplary of such a plurinational process: not confined to any one region, and even occasionally reflecting pan-continental aspirations, consultas go far beyond the “state within a state” model of indigenous autonomy and seek to fundamentally alter the relationship of indigenous people with the Guatemalan state.         

        In Guatemala, consultas are made possible by two parallel branches of post-war social developments: neoliberal reforms seeking to decentralize state governance and strengthen local and regional autonomy (in tandem with a push toward economic privatization); and multiculturalist reforms that recognized indigenous culture and rights, part of the shift from assimilationist policies of cultural citizenship. Consultas are some of the first concrete instances wherein indigenous groups in Guatemala have sought to reach beyond the national regulatory system and take the structures of governance into their own hands, and as such they are attempts to reformulate the relationship between indigenous rights and the oligarchical state.

Ilana Gershon on her new book, Down and Out in the New Economy

Down and Out in the New Economy

http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/D/bo25799564.html

Interview by Matt Tomlinson

The topics your book takes on are complexly intertwined: how people are meant to become their own brands, how patterns of hiring and quitting are changing, and the role of new media ideologies and ecologies. One of the points that emerges in your book is that people who try to connect these strands are themselves often confused, perplexed, and frustrated by the systems and processes. So can you distil your argument into a short summary—the elevator talk or, as this case might be, the elevator blog?

Pithy summaries are indeed the goal of so many of the job-seeking performances I studied, it seems only fair that I attempt to reduce my argument down to a handful of sentences.  My book is an attempt to make the notion of a neoliberal self as rigorous as possible by using historical comparison with earlier forms of capitalism.  So I suggest that Fordist work structures relied on the metaphor that one owns oneself as though one was property.  This means that the employment contract is a moment in which you rent yourself out to an employer for a certain period of time, and get yourself back, so to speak, at the end of the day.   Many union battles were fought over how long you should rent yourself out (the 40-hour work week), or other practical conundrums created by extending this metaphor of self-as-property.  But since Reagan and Thatcher, the metaphor has changed, and under neoliberal capitalism, people imagine that they own their selves as though they are businesses – bundles of skills, assets, experiences, qualities, and relationships that must be consciously managed and continually enhanced.  The employment contract becomes metaphorically a business-to-business contract in which you as a business are providing temporary solutions to your employer’s market-specific problems.  The book is about how the hiring ritual and various aspects of workplaces have changed in response to this shift in metaphor.

You describe how your students’ questions about how they should go about getting jobs led you to write the book. Can you say more about this, and what practical critical tools you see linguistic anthropology offering to students and job-seekers?

I am so glad that you asked, because the more I studied what hiring actually involves, the more I realized that linguistic and media anthropologists teach very helpful analytical tools for being a competent job candidate.  And I also think that we could all be much more direct when faced with the question “How will this major help me get a job?” about all the ways that an anthropology degree is truly helpful preparation for specific tasks involved in looking for a job.

For example, all the workshops that I attended were openly guides for how to master a certain genre.   The instructors were teaching how to understand the way information should be presented on the page to anticipate a certain kind of reader – often an impatient one who wants clear signals that the applicant fits certain criteria, and with their own styles for interpretation.   These are readers who are also reading with other people’s assessments in mind, who are anticipating having to show a resume to someone else in their workplace with their own techniques for interpreting a genre.  And while the workshops tend to focus on one genre alone, the job seeker is supposed to be competent at a range of genres, all of which are supposed to interconnect and tell a persuasive narrative about the applicant.  This is precisely what students learn in our courses.  You learn how to become competent at new genres.  You learn how to anticipate the different ways people might interpret your own texts, at the same time that you are learning a range of different techniques for interpreting a text.  You often learn the relationships between a textual genre and a performance genre.  And, as importantly, you learn how to be persuasive about your own interpretations of a text, a skill that will come in handy when our students have to discuss with their future co-workers who they want to hire.

 Your book is written in an appealingly informal tone, but there are moments when the immense anxiety and frustration of job seekers is apparent. Was the fieldwork emotionally challenging at times? Were there folks for whom you felt you needed to intervene sympathetically in some way?

Honestly, this was the most depressing fieldwork I have ever done.   And this is proven to me all over again when I give talks.  When I talk about my previous research on how people use new media to break up with each other, I often feel like a stand-up comedian.  The stories and my informants’ take on things are just so funny.   And now, when I give a talk about hiring, people in the audience keep telling me that they feel deeply depressed after I am done.

One of the reasons it was so painful is that the white collar workers I interviewed seemed to accept the neoliberal advice that they were surrounded by. At the end of an interview, I would sometimes mention that I was a bit skeptical about some aspect, say the requirement to create a personal brand.  And invariably, the person I was interviewing would defend the advice.   By contrast, last summer, I spent a month interviewing homeless people about how they looked for jobs.  It was much more enjoyable fieldwork because so many of the people I interviewed had a healthy skepticism about the systems they were trying to navigate.

It was also hard because I had no concrete way to intervene for the people I was interviewing in the moment, no matter how much I wanted to do so. And offering yet more advice didn’t seem like a satisfying way to go.  After all, part of the trap that job-seekers face is not only that they are surrounded by advice, some of it good and some of it crappy, but almost all of it must be said at a level of generality that isn’t helpful enough for getting a job in a complex and specific workplace.  In the end, I decided that maybe the best I could do was point out in my book the problems with standardized advice as clearly as possible.  This might help job-seekers realize they also might want to do thoughtful research about any workplace they want to enter, research (to continue my point in the previous question) that resembles ethnographic explorations of how decisions are made in a specific organization.

For linguistic anthropologists this book will resonate strongly with your previous book The Breakup 2.0. In fact, they would be great to assign as a pair to students. But I wanted you to think of this new book in terms of your work on Samoan migrants, No Family Is an Island. I want to go out on a limb here. In No Family Is an Island, you make it clear that government bureaucrats who see their systems as acultural put Samoans in the position of “being cultural,” and making culture something to be managed in particular ways. In this new book, you mention how companies are seen to have cultures, but individuals have some leeway—true, they need to have a cultural makeup that fits the company’s own, but they’re also free to craft selves as brands and decide what kind of individual culture they have, if you will. So to draw all this out: Samoan migrants are forced to be culture-bearers, whereas American job-seekers need to be culture-designers. Is this a fair comparison?

For me, this is a very unexpected comparison, but let me see if I can work with it.   Why unexpected? In my research on hiring, I was constantly baffled by what people meant when they were talking to me about company culture and making sure that those they hired were a good cultural fit.   It often sounded to me like “not a cultural fit” was a politic way to reject a job candidate you didn’t like for whatever reason, but seemed perfectly acceptable on paper.  And I never came across anyone who thought they were creating a culture of one, job-seekers and employers both understood culture to involve a group of people interacting together.

That said, I think you are pointing to a fascinating distinction in the way that culture as a classification functions on the ground when people use the concept explicitly.  In my earlier work on Samoan migrants, culture tended to refer only to one thin slice of what anthropologists mean when they talk about culture – ritual exchanges, kinship obligations, and politeness norms.  None of these were being referred to when U.S. white collar workers were talking about company culture.  Instead, they seemed, as far as I could tell, to be referring to the specific interactional practices that linguistic anthropologists study – how do you handle conflict, or manage small talk – which was then translated into Values that company employees were supposed to uphold.  No one ever clearly spelled out the link between values such as Amazon’s “bias for action” and “think big” and how employees were supposed to behave in particular situations.  This was the tacit cultural knowledge everyone in Amazon were supposed to know — how to link these values to everyday practice.  And I suppose employees could say retroactively that the people who didn’t know how to enact this tacit link were not a good “cultural fit.”  But honestly, from my analytical perspective, moving from a job at Goldman Sachs to a job at Amazon was not switching cultures in any meaningful anthropological sense.  Both Samoan migrants and U.S. white collar workers were using culture as a classification to refer to some things that anthropologists would agree are part of culture, but it was only a slice of what anthropologists might refer to should they use the term.  But the slices were different enough that I think you are right that people viewed their relationships to culture differently.  Samoan migrants did not think they were actively making their own culture while US white collar workers thought that every conscious decision they made helped them fashion a company culture.

Finally: who do you most hope will read your book?

I wrote this book for people looking for jobs, for people looking to hire, and for the career counselors who are giving advice.  I don’t like the model of the neoliberal self, and want to encourage people to refuse it.  The question is how to do this persuasively?  I turned to analyzing hiring because it is a moment of such uncertainty and anxiety that when people are being told they had to become a neoliberal self in order to get a job, they will do it for pragmatic purposes.   I hoped with this book to suggest that this was not the way to go, both because becoming a neoliberal self isn’t all that effective as a set of strategies and because it is not allowing people to be as ethical and good to each other as I hope they want to be.

 

Lynnette Arnold’s Communicative Care Across Borders

My dissertation, “Communicative Care Across Borders: Language, Materiality, and Affect in Transnational Family Life,” explores the role of everyday communication in the lives of multigenerational transnational families living stretched between El Salvador and the United States, revealing how technologically mediated language both produces and contests the political-economic marginalization of geographically mobile populations. These families rely on regular cell-phone calls as a primary form of kin work in the face of long-term physical separation caused by restrictive immigration policies (Di Leonardo 1987), and the dissertation provides a close analysis of these cross-border conversations, informed by insights developed through multi-sited ethnographic engagement.

Page 99 is located in the middle of my methods chapter, and discusses the relationships that made this intimate investigation possible, describing how 15 years of connection had resulted in my adoption into several transnational families, signaling close affective ties despite the insurmountable gulf between our political-economic positions. As such, although page 99 is methodological, it draws attention to the primary theoretical contribution of the dissertation, the concept of communicative care.

Building on feminist approaches to care, I develop this term to highlight how mundane conversations attend to both material and affective concerns, nurturing the relational ties upon which cross-border families depend. The dissertation analyzes long-distance greetings, collaborative reminiscences, and negotiations of economic decisions, elucidating how each practice works to reproduce material connections between migrants and their relatives back home, while also providing forms of affective engagement that maintain kin ties.

In sustaining transnational family life, communicative care practices constitute a creative response to the failures of state care, but one that also reinforces the domestication and privatization of caring responsibilities. Thus, while communicative care is a means of pursuing well-being at the margins of neoliberalism, these strategies simultaneously produce forms of personhood and relationship that conform to neoliberal models. The analysis presented in the dissertation demonstrates the crucial importance of paying close attention to technologically mediated talk for understanding how the tensions of neoliberal mobility are both produced and managed.

Lynnette Arnold, “Communicative Care Across Borders: Language, Materiality, and Affect in Transnational Family Life,” Phd diss, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2016.

Bibliography

Di Leonardo, Micaela. “The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 12, no. 3 (1987): 440–453.

 

Birgit Meyer on her new book, Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity

http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520287686

Interview by Yeon-Ju Bae

Given that Ghanaian video movies provide audiovisual experiences of what the Ghanaian audience might have imagined, for example, occult forces, Satan, God, modern life styles, and so on, I was curious in the first part of the book why the visual modality seems to be more emphasized in terms of “imagination, image, and imagery”, whereas audio is more briefly mentioned. In reading chapter 3, I realized that attention to the aural modality alerts us to backchannel cues that the audience produces in watching and participating in video movies. I think this interactive and co-creative process across video technology and human viewers, and across visual and aural modalities, composes one of the important features in the Ghanaian video experience. In this sense, I wonder how you would situate the audience’s aural participation among the processes of “imagination” and “sensation”.

Thank you. You raise a very interesting point. Some readers of my book have pointed out – rightfully so – that I pay too little attention to the sound dimension of these movies. The issue, of course, is not to just say more about sound, but to reflect on the sound-image relation. In the passage in Chapter 3 to which you refer I argue that the low quality of the sound compels audiences to co-produce their own sound track. This, as you observed very well, is a central dimension of the genesis of the typical video experience. So here poor sound facilitates high level interaction of audiences with the moving images. A technical deficiency allows for higher participation! But certainly more can (and should) be said about the sound-image relation in the video experience. Sound is imperfect, but not absent. In watching movies, people look and listen (and speak, sing, shout) all at the same time. There is no neat separation between visual, aural and other modalities. They intersect in various ways. In writing the book, I used the terms audience and spectators with a critical awareness that the emphasis on the aural in the former and on the visual in the latter ideally should imply each other. The lack of a single term to describe the entanglement of the aural and the visual (let alone other sense perceptions) in film reception testifies to the difficulty of developing a thoroughly multi-sensorial approach to cinema. Maybe the term “spectaudience” might be a solution? I think that in order to critique and transcend the visual bias that is still dominant in the study of cinema and film, it may be worthwhile to think further about the work of Michel Chion, who has proposed a distinction between “visualized sound” (that is, sound the source of which is visible to viewers) and “acousmatic sound” (that is, sound the source of which remains hidden). The latter accounts for the evocation of a sense of suspense. It would be interesting to think through his distinction with regard to Ghanaian movies, where sound tends to be deficient and people make up for this lack. This would require audiovisual recordings of film shows. Alas I do not have such materials, I only have audio recordings.

The same problem of an over-determination of the visual arises with regard to approaches to the imagination, imaginaries and images. In my book, which is about the interface of film and Christianity, I explore the question how movies feed into and are fed by what people imagine, how their imagination is synchronized and how this yields shared sensations and common sense. In the Introduction I wrote: “… the ‘stuff’ to which imaginaries refer is not limited to pictures and other visual items. It is the imagination, as a visualizing faculty that – not unlike a film – represents all this ‘stuff’ as mental images.” I agree with your observation that “the visual modality seems to be more emphasized” than the aural. I do think that film and the imagination are visual by definition. However, the point is that visual does not stand by itself, but is coupled with sound, smell, taste and touch. Exactly for this reason I sought to embed the imagination into a broader frame of sensation. Fleshing out an approach to the imagination, imaginaries and images that is not limited to visual registers but opens up for speaking or singing images, smelling images, sounding images, and so on, is a major conceptual issue that deserves much more attention. I think that Hans Belting’s anthropology of images, which has inspired my sensorial and material stance to the imagination as outlined in the Introduction, may be a useful starting point to conceptualize the imagination from a new thoroughly material and sensorial angle. This is one of the theoretical projects I would like to pursue in the future. Especially for the study of religion this is an important topic. From the ways in which audiences in Southern Ghana responded to the images and often deficient sounds they witnessed on screen I learned that going to the movies was an experience in which imagination and sensation converged. So much so that the films are understood to reveal something real which is normally hidden to ordinary perception.

 

It was intriguing for me to encounter the folk notion of public that seems to be closely related to their notion of ethics. It seems like Ghanaian people don’t regard rumors and hearsay as “public” even though these discourses are circulating. However, if those rumors and hearsay are framed in terms of the Christian ethics in which retribution adequately takes place, then the stories involving occult, violence, and sex become “publicized” via video movie forms. Within video movies as well, if there is a scene in which actors show their intimate/private body parts, their behavior is often associated with immorality in terms of the plot flow and protagonist characteristics. I’m wondering if the Ghanaian notion of public as morality is drawn from Christianity or is rooted in Ghanaian traditions. Put in other way, how do different religions or different ethnic groups in Ghana exhibit different understandings of the relationship between public and ethics?

What I wanted to make clear is that video movies flourished under conditions of democratization and the deregulation of mass media as radio, television and film that had previously been under full state control. The change occurred around 1994. The point here is that, prior to that change, stories and rumors circulated, but were not allowed a space in the mass media around which the modern public sphere evolved. Scholars studied such narratives and performances as popular culture. After 1994, videos became one of the new outlets through which popular imaginaries that had circulated before under more clandestine conditions would become visible and audible on screen. Hitherto subdued narratives circulating via rumors could go public in the context of a new politics and aesthetic of representation of culture. What I found very interesting – and here we come to the gist of your question – is the strong emphasis on ethics. So, while as far as content and message were concerned, video movies digressed from state-cinema, they were still embedded in a longstanding ethical attitude towards film according to which moral lessons were to be learned. This attitude is certainly not limited to Christianity, but emphasized in indigenous traditions, especially in traditional storytelling, as for example Ananse stories. And even though video movies revel in picturing all sorts of transgressions, the “good” people are morally sound (and hence do not undress, consult a “fetish” priest, and so on). In this book I showed how approaches to video-movies on the part of both the producers and the “spectaudiences” are embedded in everyday or “ordinary ethics” (Michael Lambek). Since I could notice that the movies appealed to people with different ethnic backgrounds, I am sure that the expectation of the morality of entertainment is widely shared. Over the next years I will conduct a collaborative project with colleagues in Ghana in the course of which we will investigate modalities of co-existence across religious and ethnic differences in the suburb of Madina (Accra). The issue of public ethics and the morality of circulating cultural forms will certainly be a major issue.

 

When I read your interview with a woman who paid attention to video movie scenes in which characters of the upper class are matching the color of curtains and bed sheets depending on situation, I wondered if she were a man, would the interviewee have paid so much attention to such details. This interview excerpt brings up issues of how social differences map onto experiences of watching movies. Are there any patterns in terms of audiences’ reactions or focuses depending on gender, age, class, language, region, religion, ethnicity, and so forth? I think the class (as well as language and age) differences were described in the book. What about region—are the movies circulated in rural villages as well; if so, do the ways of watching videos in villages show any difference from those of urbanites? And are there any reactional patterns in reference to multireligious and multiethnic situations in Ghana?

The movies I studied were consciously tailored to appeal to women first, who would then make the male members of the household watch as well. This is what my filmmaker friends told me over and over again. A film that would fail to do so was doomed to flop, and this would end the business of filmmaking. The women who admired the match between curtains and bed sheets was a seamstress called Floxy who had a big atelier. She unfortunately died in childbirth not long after our interview. As she told me, she got phone-calls from her female customers when a film (often Nigerian) was on in order to copy a particular appealing dress. So she, and her customers had a keen eye and great appreciation for the new styles displayed in movies. By contrast, I myself did initially not look at movies in this manner, but was eager to discern meanings. This is what I realized in the interview with Floxy. She alerted me to a modality of looking which I had so far overlooked. Scouting for styles is one of the ways through which movie watching is embedded in everyday life. It is indeed the case that what people find remarkable in a movie very much depends on their interests and dispositions. My research mainly took place in Ghana’s capital Accra, and to some extent among Ghanaians in the Netherlands. These are multi-ethnic settings which are predominantly Christian. Unfortunately I did not accompany screenings of videos in the rural areas. Nor did I study the Kumasi film industry which uses Twi as main language (rather than English). It would have been interesting to follow the circulation and screening of Accra- and Kumasi made films in villages and across the borders of neighboring countries in detail. Alas I did not do so. And now, with the spread of television and the mobile phone and its increasing use for film viewing the days of screening movies in villages to paying audiences are a matter of the past. All the same, I do not think that the identity markers you mention are reflected in particular watching patterns. The movies are made to travel across Ghana, Africa and among people of African descent in the world. Together with Nigerian movies, they are consumed all over the continent. I would rather say that these movies actively disseminate particular images, styles and attitudes about African tradition and the modern world. They articulate visions, desires, dreams, anxieties, life styles and identities. They make people share imaginaries and sensations. They are part of performing African modernity.

 

You said that the “sensational forms” of Ghanaian video movies give rise to “religious real”, and I was wondering for whom it is real. It seems like the representation of reality must be considered within the context of authority at various levels. For instance, video movie directors are facing criticism from censorship officers that they are not representing what is reality; traditional chiefs think that the directors cannot accurately visualize the spiritual forces, or juju, because these are not visualizable in the first place; those viewers who know English might find protagonists’ speech artificial; directors are concerned that it might seem unrealistic to the upper class if movies depict hyper-urban lives that aren’t present in Ghana—which the lower class wants to see in the movies; and during filming, actors are acting to visualize what is invisible and inaudible in a way that they themselves don’t believe it to be real. Given that you vividly show how various representations of reality are contested, I’m curious about your thoughts in using the terms “real” and “revelation”.

Yes, this is an important issue. What is taken as real is not given, but subject to authorization processes. Competing politics and aesthetics of world-making co-exist. This is so in all cultures and societies. In Ghana the video-film industry was situated in a context of heavy contestations, as it digressed from established forms of representing culture and tradition under the aegis of state cinema. Video-movies rather surfed along with the popularity of Pentecostalism, which purports a specific take on reality as being enveloped in a spiritual war whose main operators are located in the invisible world of demons. In Southern Ghana, there was and is a broad consensus, running across differentiations in terms of ethnicity, age and education, that the spiritual is real. The video movies that form the major focus of my book echoed and affirmed this consensus. This does not mean that movies were taken to be credible under all conditions and by everyone. Even sympathetic viewers would find certain depictions more convincing than others, and dismissed others as artificial. Still one main attraction point lay in the fact that video movies transfigured stories about occult forces that were circulating in society into movies. They set out to reveal the invisible realm which the naked eye cannot penetrate. In chapter 5 I argue (inspired by the work of Achille Mbembe) that one could see video filmmakers as high priests of the imagination, who create doubles of the “real thing” that is hidden from view but whose features enter into the double. Images are not mere representations, but make what they represent somehow present. At the same time, any attempt to depict the invisible generates contestations, as is the case with the chief who also was a photographer and who insisted that the real thing could not be visualized. So, interestingly, the picturing of the invisible is a paradoxical endeavor, in that the images that reveal the “religious real” (the term was coined by Adrian Hermann) on screen may well conceal it at the same time. At the same time, and you refer to this, actors can only play the role of a witch or the devil, if they do not believe that in so doing they have to become a real witch or devil. And yet, there is a sense of danger of being affected by mimesis, reason why actors recur to prayer so as to protect themselves from being intruded by the role. There were also anxieties that, in filming certain scenes which involve occult forces, these forces could be called upon to inhabit the fake shrines and possess people staging a dance or doing incantations for the sake of shooting a movie. What I wanted to show is that video-movies are embedded in processes of world-making in which what is real is constituted through revelations that rely on authorized Christian visual regimes, but are always haunted by a sense of the ultimate impossibility of revelation. We encounter here a fundamental feature of the image: it acts as a medium of something which is not present as such. The image itself – as a medium – is real, but the question is whether that what it represents is taken as real too, or simply as fake. So I use the term “real” not in an objective or positivistic sense, but as an outcome of politics and aesthetics of figuration that are tied to broader, competing imaginaries. Revelation is a way of vesting the act of representation with a sense of truth, and a confirmation of a “Christian real”. I think that this fact that what is considered real depends on processes of producing something as real and authorizing it is a basic feature of societies, as for instance the current insecurity about the possibility of news being “fake” also shows.

 

The Ghanaian video movie producers started to emerge thanks to the development of video technology, yet have recently been out of business due to changes in available alternatives for audiences which include films on the internet. In a sense that Ghanaian video movies are deeply concerned not only with religious “sensational forms” and moral lessons, but also with the social life of video technologies, I wonder how the video movie directors have experimented with technological resources and limitations. And I wonder what new experiments the directors are attempting to conduct in order to compete with other alternatives in this current changed situation. Moreover, will these new creative ways of “mediation” bring about any emergent themes or values?

My research ended in 2010 and I circumscribe it as a historical ethnography. Since 2010 I have only followed the industry from some distance. In chapter 1, I trace the implications of the shift from analog to digital video, and show that this technological transition offered new opportunities for newcomers. Most of the filmmakers I followed since the early 1990s are not doing well. In 2010 some sought to remain in the business by opting for another kind of transgressive revelation: mild porn. This generated a moral outcry among the audiences (although these films, just as porn, sold to some extent). It is a difficult situation for them to survive, certainly as there are no film funds and no easily accessible loans. One reason for the problems filmmakers face is that there are non-stop older films shown on various TV channels. Also an Youtube a huge amount of Nigerian and Ghanaian movies is available for free. Nowadays it is difficult to launch a new film and make sufficient money via VCD and DVD sales to earn back the investment. Piracy is lurking. Still new producers are around. My friends in Ghana told me that watching movies on television is still a very much a social affair. People watch together in the family. In long distance busses movies are shown, too. And also in pubs. I also noted that increasingly movies are available digitally and watched on mobile phones. Lindiwe Dovey has documented this shift in African screen media very well. I have not conducted research on this new phase myself. It would be great to take this up. Maybe you want to go into this?