Aurora Donzelli on her book, Methods of Desire

Methods of Desire: Language

interview by Setrag Manoukian

https://uhpress.hawaii.edu/title/methods-of-desire-language-morality-and-affect-in-neoliberal-indonesia/

Setrag Manoukian: It is reductive to assign a narrow thematic focus to an expansive ethnography such as your wonderful Methods of Desire, but could one synthesize your book by suggesting that it addresses the relationship between language and political economy through an account of social interaction in Toraja?

Aurora Donzelli: This book has been long in the making and its implication with political economy is in part a function of the temporality embedded therein. Twenty years ago I was in Indonesia for a shorter period of fieldwork preluding to the yearlong sojourn I undertook sometimes later. It was late July. I was walking through the streets of Rantepao (the major town in the Toraja highlands where I would go to stock up on blank tapes and other industrial supplies) when I bumped into an acquaintance of mine. He looked quite agitated and eager to brief me about the events that were unfolding in Genoa (he knew I was Italian). The G8 summit was taking place at the Ducal Palace and the city had become the theatre of demonstrations against speculative capitalism and neoliberal globalization. A multifarious array of political subjects had gathered in Genoa to participate in what promised to be the peak of the anti-capitalist movement begun in Seattle in 1999: environmentalists, pacifists, independent media activists, antifascist militants from Italian squats and social centers (abandoned buildings turned into cultural and political hubs), grassroots Catholic organizations, social activists, Zapatistas, trade unionists, members of socialist and communist parties from all over Europe, NGO workers, British pressure groups for debt relief, German anarchists, the Trotskyist international network, via Campesina food activists, libertarians, knowledge workers self-identifying as cognitarians, direct-action groups dressed in white overalls to symbolize the new post-Fordist productive subject… My Toraja acquaintance insisted I joined him to watch the news at his neighbor’s where a parabolic antenna was broadcasting dramatic scenes of repressive violence. The counter-summit mobilization had been fiercely disbanded by unprecedented police brutality, a demonstrator was shot dead, radical groups mixed with undercover agents and neo-Nazi infiltrators vandalized banks and set cars and store fronts on fire, undisturbed, while thousands of pacifist demonstrators raising their white-painted hands were ferociously beaten up by police officers decked out in full anti-riot gear. Following a night blitz at the Diaz public school—which had been made available by the municipal authorities as dormitory for demonstrators—300 police officers brutalized and illegally detained the unarmed occupants, including several Italian and foreign journalists. The European Court of Human Rights later established that the police conduct violated human rights and was to be formally regarded as torture.  Less than two months later, the attack on the WTC and Pentagon would make these events look negligible, but clearly those days were decisive in furthering global capitalism and propelling the consolidation of neoliberal rationalities.

Methods of Desire is primarily a reflection on these transformations, which crisscross political economy, ways of speaking, and structures of feeling. Unlike the display of sheer repressive force that tinted the G8 events twenty years ago, what I describe in the book are more elusive and subtle forms of violence. Political economy is an inevitable dimension of any project that spans over several years and my ethnography’s main goal is to show how fine-grained linguistic analysis is essential for furthering our understanding of capitalism, because thinking about political economy always entails taking language into account (and vice-versa). In a narrower sense, the book explores the cultural and linguistic impact of contemporary neoliberal reforms on longstanding moral-political economy of agrarian clientelist relations in a relatively remote region of the Indonesian uplands. In a broader sense, the book analyzes how late capitalism operates by transforming our relationship to the world and to each other. I argue that specific communicative practices play a key role in this process. Think about the new metrics of desire produced through customer satisfaction surveys and the regimes of scalability created through audit protocols and quality certification standards that can be applied across different contexts to ever-greater scales. These communicative practices and textual artefacts are both the primary technology for the production of a reflexive desiring subject to be subsumed by the machine of capitalist valorization and infrastructures of resource management aimed at increasing productivity. Unlike the processes of linguistic standardization that produced national languages and enabled industrial capitalism, I argue that contemporary financial capitalism operates through a different form of discursive regimentation. The former was driven by the linguistic standardization of specific national codes, while the latter entails the production of universal templates for the pragmatic regulation of how language is to be used. The aim is no longer to streamline or enhance the production of material commodities, but the engendering of a global metalanguage for the re-articulation of desire in ways compatible with capitalism’s ever-changing needs. Industrial capitalism required technologies of linguistic standardization based on the centripetal regulation of the linguistic code (and of the production process)—a twofold endeavor clearly intertwined with nation-building processes and nation-based economies. Conversely, neoliberalism relies on the pragmatic standardization of how the code should be used: this entails the production and dissemination of highly standardized and replicable discursive protocols, meant to travel across a wide range of geographic contexts and pragmatics domains in order to optimize production and regiment people’s conduct and modes of intersubjective engagement. In this light, what makes neoliberalism so powerful and at the same time so elusive is its portability and scalability, as Aihwa Ong and Anna Tsing suggest.

Setrag Manoukian: The book describes an epochal shift taking place in Indonesia—a complete reconfiguration of the architecture of the self in conjunction with the emergence of neoliberal policies. What’s striking in this process is the rapidity with which a “method” is abandoned and a new one picked up. But the book also seems to suggest that something “endures” in this shift. Taking the long-term view how do you see Toraja’s sociality?

Aurora Donzelli: What I find most striking and intriguing about the specific locale (the Toraja highlands of Sulawesi) where I conducted my fieldwork since the late 1990s is that there haven’t been many changes in the local infrastructures or in the material lives of my interlocutors. During my most recent periods of fieldwork, I would often catch myself daydreaming that I was standing in front of a giant aquarium from where I could see myself in my early 20s in a time warp of sorts—a younger me on the other side of the glass inhabiting the exact same physical spaces, but in a parallel affective universe.  In spite of the largely unchanged material environment, I have noticed significant shifts in the linguistic structures, moral practices, and affective quality of life in the highlands. In many ways, Methods of Desire seeks to understand and give analytical shape to the profound (and yet elusive) transformations occurred in how my interlocutors of twenty plus years interact and imagine their future. The focus of my ethnographic account is the growing influence of transnational lending agencies and international non-governmental organizations in a region that has otherwise remained peripheral to capitalist production and distribution. Since the millennium, the IMF-driven implementation of governance reform in Indonesia has prompted the circulation of new ways of speaking and textual artefacts (for example, electoral and institutional mission statements, debriefing meetings, training workshops, checklists, flowcharts, and so on) that, I argue, are transforming how people desire and voice their expectations, intentions, and entitlements. The local appeal of these new discursive genres is undeniable: not only they are associated with prestigious metropolitan centers, but they also pivot on values that—as Marilyn Strathern pointed out in her seminal edited volume on audit cultures—are almost impossible to criticize in principle: a novel emphasis on self-cultivation and proactive entrepreneurialism, an emancipatory narrative of personal aspirations and individual desires, a new morality of accountability, transparency, and responsibility, and so on. Their dissemination in the highlands has been spearheaded by their promise to replace local structures of exploitative agrarian power with a narrative of individual freedom, a political regime of entrenched corruption with justice and transparency, an economy prone to food scarcity and subsistence crises with material prosperity and emotional fulfillment. I don’t find the success of these new scripts and protocols all that surprising and consider way more extraordinary the enthusiasm displayed by many academics (trained in epistemological reflexivity and critical thinking) for the bureaucratic auditing and competitive star-ratings procedures that are transforming universities into corporate enterprises.

I recently moved back to Italy—a country where the so-called “quality revolution” was late in taking root. The University where I now work—allegedly one of the oldest higher learning institutions in the world—seems pervaded by a frenzy of benchmarking practices and managerial methods aimed at measuring research and teaching outputs and enhancing performance. I find quite disconcerting how centuries-old ideologies and classical ideals of the University as a community of scholars devoted to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge are being replaced by competitive business models—in spite of the excellent scholarship published on the matter some two decades ago by Don Brenneis, Chris Shore, Marilyn Strathern, Susan Wright (among the others). In many ways, my Toraja interlocutors are far less compliant than many academics that fell for the protocols of accountability and quality assurance whereby complex social activities are measured, monitored, and competitively ranked.

If, as Aihwa Ong proposes, the complex assemblages of practices that compose neoliberalism migrate across the globe and across different sectors (from private to public, from management to politics, from the financial to the intimate), I am interested in describing what happens when these portable bundles of practices and values land in a new geographic or pragmatic environment. How tightly are they packaged? How faithfully are they replicated? Linguistic anthropological tools help understand how such bundles are assembled and how they operate; how desire is reconstructed in the wake of their implementation and, at the same time, how their implementation can be sabotaged through (often subtle and inconspicuous) micro-linguistic gestures. Methods of Desire explores how discursive genres originating from neoliberal global capitalism are both embraced and resisted in Toraja. My analysis reveals a complex dialectics of compliance and defiance. Each chapter of the book focuses on a specific pragmatic domain (from political speechmaking to household interaction, from mortuary rituals to workplace and learning environments) and discusses the ambivalent uptake of novel protocols such as electoral mission statements, fundraising auctions, service encounter scripts, customer satisfaction surveys, training workshops, flowcharts, and workflow diagrams. I highlight how Toraja highlanders articulate their skepticism at times through reflexive and explicit metapragmatic comments; other times in more subtle and indirect ways, such as through specific intonation and prosodic patterns or via unexpected variations in the participation framework associated with a specific genre.

Setrag Manoukian: Methods of desire. The title of your book sounds like an oxymoron. One associates method with planning, self-awareness, and intention, while desire relates to spontaneity, passion, the unconscious. But you convincingly show that in many ways methods structure desire. And yet, I am left wondering if this does not reproduce a certain binary misunderstanding of desire as a material that can be molded via linguistic forms. Doesn’t desire escape the methodologies that certain intentions prescribe to it? This is how I read Spinoza, in the sense that there is an immanence to the conatus that has its own economy of passions, not reducible to the stoic mandate to transform oneself.

Aurora Donzelli: You are making very good points. The title is indeed designed to oxymoronically evoke the classical opposition between Eros and Logos that the book, however, aims to problematize. Spinoza’s rejection of transcendent principles and his ontology of immanence are essential to my understanding of methods and desire. The relationship between the two could be thought in dialectical materialist terms as forming a totality of practice and theory; creativity and order; substance and form; potentiality and actuality. In elaborating (in the mid-1970s) his innovative form of semiotic materialism, Marxist scholar Ferruccio Rossi-Landi highlighted the dialectics existing between code and messages; models and tokens; communicative programs and their execution. He claimed that they exist together in reality and entertain a constant dialectical relationship, even though academic theory or common sense tend to consider them as separate, with the former treating the code in its structural abstraction and the latter approaching its products as natural and spontaneous facts. Spinoza’s immanentism and Rossi-Landi’s materialism resonate with Paul Hopper’s view of Emergent Grammar, which can be seen as an application of French post-structuralist thought to linguistic theory—a theoretical constellation that inspires my own work.

That of method is a powerful notion that has been relatively neglected by anthropologists. Its great beauty, I think, lies in its capacity to refer to a plane of immanence—something ethnomethodologists (with their idea that structures do not exist outside of social practices and with their interest in studying the methods that social actors use in interpreting their own everyday practices) have known all along. In like fashion, desire is an immanent process for the production of relations, as Deleuze pointed out. Rather than a flow to be disciplined through cultural norms and symbolic orders or a force that can be organized through language, I see desire as method, that is, as a mode of intersubjective relationality, a modality of human sociality, in which language functions as technology and infrastructure. The book describes how neoliberal discursive technologies are redesigning Toraja sociality: the entrenched forms of collective yearning (kamamaliran) that used to sustain social bonds of hierarchical reciprocity and mutual obligation are being replaced by new forms of (bourgeois) desire (aspirasi),imagined as originating in the interiority of the individual’s consciousness and congenial to the capitalist machine.

Setrag Manoukian: Finally, I would like to come back to the relationship between language and social life from a methodological point of view. Often to non-linguists the world of linguistic analysis appears as quite self-contained. How is your book engaging this situation?

Aurora Donzelli: I think that in-depth linguistic analysis is fundamental for the understanding of capitalism. The book is an invitation to linguistic anthropologists to establish a stronger dialogue with their sociocultural colleagues around the ethnographic exploration (and critique) of neoliberalism. It is only through an integrated approach that we can understand the role of language in the production of the complex forms of alienation and resistance that characterize our present moment. A close-textured analysis of linguistic interactions is also fundamental to capture the role of semiotic practices both in shaping political change and preserving the status quo. The great advantage of fine-grained linguistic analysis is that it may disclose processes that happen at levels that are not detectable at the semantic and lexical plane generally considered in cultural ethnographies. In the book, I explore the ambivalent uptake of new discursive genres as a way to shed light on how linguistic practices function both as capitalist technologies and infrastructures and as forms of resistance to the capitalist apparatus. Further, I try to show how attending to linguistic levels of analysis may provide a new way to reflect on traditional topics of anthropological theory (such as gifts and exchange theory, social change, subsistence farming and moral economy) and may contribute to refine the discussion of ethnographic tropes of Southeast Asia and Oceania (for example, debates over galactic polities and theatre states, notions of emotional restrain, opacity of mind doctrines, and so on).

During the last four decades, linguistic anthropology has become a highly specialized subfield. I often look back with nostalgia at the times before my time, when the disciplinary borders seemed more porous and less defined. My greatest hope for the future of linguistic anthropology rests on the possibility of developing fervid interconnections with scholars from other subfields in anthropology, as well as in the social sciences and humanities. Unfortunately, at times linguistic details and formalisms prevent or discourage such dialogues. In writing the book, I had to make difficult choices in how to present my transcriptions, sometimes reducing them or eliminating interlinear glosses and morpho-syntactic details. I hope that these choices helped produce a text accessible to a diverse readership and capable of evoking the spirit of irreverent curiosity of the multifarious multitude that gathered in Genoa twenty years ago.

Nathan Wendte takes the page 99 test

I was intrigued to hear about the “page 99 test,” according to which, the quality of a dissertation can be judged on the content of page 99. As a jaded recent PhD graduate, I have a thing or two to say about the dissertation as a genre, and this test seemed like a good springboard for such a discussion. So first, I present a screenshot of what I believe to be the heart of my dissertation’s page 99:

I have to say, I was less repulsed by this excerpt than I initially feared I would be. The paragraph comes towards the beginning of my methodology chapter where I am introducing the reader to nexus analysis (Scollon and Scollon 2004), a combination of ethnographic and discourse analytical procedures aimed at understanding social practices. In my case, the social practice was ethnolinguistic labelling among Creoles of the Gulf South (Wendte 2020). It is fair to say that this is an important paragraph–clearly defining these terms sets the stage for their operationalization in the remainder of the dissertation. But when performing the test, should we be evaluating the content itself or its characteristics (organization, clarity, and so on)? If we are to evaluate the content, then no, I would have to say that page 99 is not representative of the whole dissertation. Put simply, you still have no idea what it is about based on this page. But if we are evaluating the characteristics of the content (its quality, if you like), then I would humbly hope that it is representative of the whole dissertation. The opacity of the dissertation as a genre meant that I went to a lot of trouble trying to keep it readable and accessible. Page 99 bears some of the fingerprints of this heavy editing process, and I am proud to see them there.

References

Scollon, Ron, and Suzie Wong Scollon. 2004. Nexus Analysis: Discourse and the Emerging Internet. London ; New York: Routledge.


Wendte, Nathan A. 2020. “A Tale of Two Triangles: Ethnolinguistic Identity among Gulf South Creoles.” PhD, New Orleans, LA: Tulane University.

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.

 

Herve Varenne on his new book, Educating in Life

https://www.routledge.com/Educating-in-Life-Educational-Theory-and-the-Emergence-of-New-Normals/Varenne/p/book/9781138313668

Ilana Gershon:  This book contains a wide range of ethnographic topics – how did you select what to write about and what to focus upon in these cases?

Hervé Varenne: I did not exactly “select” the ethnographies.  They were a gift from my students springing from the intersection of my interests with theirs, over the past decade.  What may be my own contribution is the organization of the book.  I intend to help make a general point about education, and about culture and, particularly the inevitable drift of any set of forms as people face the arbitrariness of the forms and educate themselves about what do next, collectively.  I always admired Marcel Mauss, and Claude Lévi-Strauss for the manner of their intellectual practice: again and again, on fundamental matters like gift-giving, the body, the classification of people, they proceeded through systematic comparison based on solid ethnographies.  The Trobriand can tell us about the Kwakiutl, and vice versa, as well as about us.  In our case, young girls from the Dominican Republic can tell us about young men venturing other people’s capital, mothers can tell us about teachers, and humans interacting with horses can tell us about everybody—particularly when one of the protagonists is voiceless, or silenced.  And all of them, together, can tell us about “education.”

Ilana Gershon: Throughout this book, you explore instructions and instructions about instructions.   What does a focus on instructing let anthropologists know about social life?

Hervé Varenne: I became a “legitimate peripheral participant” in professional anthropology in the Fall of 1968.  Then, David Schneider asked all the new students taking the required “Systems” course that they read the first 243 page of Parsons and Shils Towards a General Theory of Action (1951).  I did not notice then what was wrong with this theory.  It took me 30 years to shape the argument developed in the book, and first articulated formally in a lecture in 1999: “action” is not based on socialization leading to shared “value orientations” or an “habitus.”  Action is based on ever renewed ignorance about what to do next in the full details of a very particular here and now when all the solutions one may have inherited or developed earlier prove somewhat inadequate.  Of importance is the reality that this ignorance is triggered by what others are doing that one now has to deal with.  Thus, we must start with the assumption that, in any scene, and at whatever scale, all participants must tell each other what they are going to do next and what the interlocutors (those who are addressed or may have an interest in overhearing) should themselves do later even as the interlocutors start stating their own, possibly contradictory, intentions and instructions.

Ilana Gershon: Your book reminded me that lately I have been telling people: revolution lies in micro-interactions.  And of course, the converse would be true as well, the lack of revolution lies in micro-interactions as well.   Although admittedly I try to avoid saying this to Marxists.  I am wondering what you think the political charge of your book is?

Herve Varenne: To the puzzlement of at least some of my students, I asked them this year to read the chapter in Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? (1901) about the “consciousness” of the working class, and particularly their lack of the consciousness Lenin deemed necessary for a true revolution in their conditions.  Most surprisingly perhaps, Lenin argued that this consciousness could only be produced by the “bourgeois intelligentsia” to which Marx and Engels belonged.  As far as I am concerned, this is an early version of the future “culture of poverty” argumentation, directly echoed by Bourdieu and Passeron when they assert that the poor always “mis-know” their conditions.  I asked my students to read Lenin (rather than Franklin Frazier or Oscar Lewis) partially because of its shock value, but also because I will also ask them to read and ponder Jacques Rancière’s many books about, very specifically, the practical consciousness of workers facing their conditions explicitly and looking for “next” political steps that might help them, in the here and now, but which also, in the long run, may lead to altogether radical changes in social structures.  In that sense, farm workers in Southern Illinois who meet to teach themselves how to speak English and develop transcriptions methods, glossaries, and so on (Kalmar 2011), are engaged in “micro-interactions” that may lead to much more.  Rancière’s rants against all those who deliberately refuse to learn from workers and the otherwise “ignorant” are, of course, but a version of Boas’ rants against those who claim knowledge of “them,” and particularly of those who claim to know what “they” need, when all such knowledge is not based on intimate association with the people in their everyday lives.  The difficulty for all revolutionaries, reformers, other do-gooders, and particularly “we,” anthropologists, is that “they” may not go where we want them to go, and that “they” may also be altogether unpleasant, if not dangerous people.  If there is any “political charge” to my work it is the hope that anthropologists will also go to the many “upstates” and “downstates” of their academic localities to listen to people they do not like and against whom they may be struggling in their own politics.

Ilana Gershon: You evocatively quote Bateson in arguing that most of education involves “people working hard at protecting themselves” in the many social contexts and infrastructures that other people have made (167).   For many people who think about education, this may be a surprising turn since the focus is on protecting oneself from one’s contexts.  How did your case studies lead you to be so concerned about protection?  When doing fieldwork, what are the moments someone might want to ask about protection?

Hervé Varenne: I entered anthropology of education by pondering the travails of McDermott’s “Rosa” as she worked hard, in collusion with her peers and teacher, at not getting caught not knowing how to read (McDermott and Tylbor 1983).  I graduated into the field in awe of Garfinkel’s statements about “passing” as that which one is trying to convince others one “really” is—against various challenges that one is precisely not that.  Whatever one’s “identity” the problem is convincing one’s most significant others that “it” is this and not that.  Garfinkel also taught me that we can “trust” that most claims will not be challenged.  After all, challenging is also hard work that may have drastic consequences.  Better to let sleeping dogs lie.  In one way or another, all the ethnographies in the book are about establishing that this, possibly dangerous or new, thing is to become an “it” of some sort for various sets of people, whether it is young girls having fun, biologists making up a lab, capitalists venturing large amount of other people’s capital, mothers taking care of children, etc.  In every case, we report on people being more or less explicitly hurt, people challenging others, people seeking protection, but also people asserting their power even when this assertion might hurt.  I am sure that the administrators of the schools Koyama bring to our attention, even as they fired other administrators and teachers, were unhappy at the resistance to something that must have seemed eminently reasonable. After all, the new curriculum was required by the State, and certified by experts as more helpful for the poor and immigrants everyone was concerned with.  Ethnomethodology confirmed for me something I had noticed and other ethnographers had mentioned.  The only way to find what may be “normal” is to observe a disruption, a moment when one or more of the people are specifically seeking protection for someone else.  But one should also remember that the ethnographic goal may not be just accounting for the normal, but also bringing out the evidence that people, everywhere and everywhen, notice stuff about their conditions, analyze causes and consequences, imagine alternate possibilities, work at convincing others, and deal with the consequences of what they have done.

Ilana Gershon: Years ago, you gave me a remarkable intellectual gift by pointing out that as long as human lack telepathy, ethnographers can never truly study learning.   All ethnographers can truly do is study telling, and people are constantly telling each other who to be and how to be.   This has shaped my fieldwork ever since.  I want to ask, once you establish that any anthropology of education is an anthropology of telling, what are the set of questions that anthropologists of education should be exploring?

Hervé Varenne: Ray McDermott and Jean Lave have been the most influential of my contemporaries on my work.  But we have kept disagreeing on the fundamental point as to whether their work is to be a constructive critique of “learning theories” or whether it should be a more radical destruction of the very possibility of, and need for, such theories.  I keep arguing that we should leave “learning” to the psychologists who believe they can measure ‘it’.  In that vein, I was disappointed when an otherwise welcome recent paper in the American Anthropologist about education and anthropology was titled “Why Don’t Anthropologists Care about Learning …” (Blum 2019).  I dare say that anthropologists should not care about learning but rather that they should care about teaching—with the understanding of course that all teachings will fail (and thus will be “culture” rather than reproduction).  Re-reading Durkheim’s and Mauss’ passing comments about children, what strikes me is that they are always talking about the adults’ effort to “impose upon the child ways of seeing…” (Durkheim [1895] 1982: 53).  The Boasians did assume that such efforts would be successful and produce particular personalities or, as we put it now, particular “identities.”  But this was more a matter of conjecture than empirical demonstration.  It is not of course that children (and older adults) proceed ex nihilo.  It is rather that anthropologists should keep noticing “monolingual” children in English producing forms like “he singed” and then being corrected by some adult “dear, it is ‘he sang’.” They should notice cases like the one Perry Gilmore recently brought  to our attention about children “inventing” a new language (2016).  The first five ethnographies in the book are what I hope more anthropologists will do and that is bring to our attention the emergence of “new normals.”  In all the  cases in the book, the accent is on attempts to transform others or their conditions through various forms of “telling” (explaining, exhorting, teaching, and so on)—even as the teller notices various failures by those told to do what the teller hoped they would do … leading of course to further resistance, imposition, and so on.  As I wrote someplace in the book, “imposition” is the compliment power pays to “resistance.”

 

References cited

Blum, Susan.  2019.  Why don’t anthropologists care about learning(or education or school)? An immodest proposal for an integrative anthropology of learning whose time has finally come American Anthropologist 121, 3: 641-654.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and and Jean-Claude Passeron.  [1970] 1977.  Reproduction in education, society and culture.  Tr. by R. Nice. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Durkheim, Emile.  [1895] 1982.  The rules of the sociological method.  Tr. by W.D. Halls New York: The Free Press.

Garfinkel, Harold.  1963.  “A conception of, and experiments with, ‘trust’ as a condition of stable concerted actions.”  In Motivation and social interaction. Edited by O.J. Harvey, 187-238. New York: The Ronald Press.

Gilmore, Perry.  2016.  Kisisi (our language): The story of Colin and Sadiki.  Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Kalmar, Tomas.  [2001] 2015.  Illegal alphabets and adult literacy: Latino migrants crossing the linguistic border.  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lenin, Ilyich Vladimir.  [1902] 1961.  What is to be done?: Burning questions of our movement.  Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude.  [1962] 1963.  Totemism.  Tr. by R. Needham Boston: Beacon Press.

Mauss, Marcel. [1923-24] 1967.  The gift.  Tr. by I. Cunnison. New York: W.W. Norton.

———-.  [1934] 1973.  Techniques of the body Economy and Society 2: 70-88.

McDermott, R. P., and Henry Tylbor.  1983.  “On the necessity of collusion in conversation.” Text 3, 3: 277-297.

Parsons, Talcott, and and Edward Shils.  1951.  Toward a general theory of action.  New York: Harper and Row.

Roxana Moroşanu on her new book, An Ethnography of Household Energy Demand in the UK

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Interview by Ilana Gershon

http://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137593405

I was sitting in a coffee shop reading your book, and it sounds like I live in a town that allows for as many unplanned social encounters as Middleborough.   A law professor I hadn’t seen all summer came over to chat, looked at what I was reading, and raised his eyebrow in response to your title, An Ethnography of Household Energy Demand in the UK.  “Oh, this is so much more interesting than the title,” I hastened to reassure him.  “It is truly astonishing what you can learn by asking intelligent and imaginative questions about what seems to be banal.”  Could you talk a little bit about how wide a net you were able to cast in your ethnography by beginning with British households’ uses of electronic devices?

Thank you very much for such a kind defense! Studies of consumption in the Global North might often elicit reluctance at first. One might feel they already know about this – from the media, or their peers. However, when there’s an anthropologist conducting the study, the outcome will rarely address consumption alone. In this case, energy demand was a very useful entry point indeed, especially methodologically. It is such a taken for granted aspect of everyday life that in order to reach it you have to inquire about the organizing principles of everydayness. And once you are there, every detail that your interlocutors share about their routines becomes relevant, whether the first thing they do when they get home is to put the kettle on, or the fact that they wait for a specific TV program to have desert. Energy is implied in all these unobserved moments, but it’s more often a facilitator than an agent. So I widened my net to look at some other roles of energy-consuming devices, for example in supporting forms of domestic sociality, and in enacting values of togetherness and independence. It was exciting to work with families because they brought multiple perspectives on their shared domesticities, and the extra challenge for me to account for all of them in my analysis. In the end, the story that the book is telling is about human action and time, which are quite a long way away from consumption, conceptually. With regards to energy demand, I am really glad to have produced a set of suggestions for interventions that account for current configurations of values in the home, and which might be of use to policy-makers and other practitioners.

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Anthropological Methodology is the Biggest Star at the Oscars this Year

By Sarah Mitchell For the past few years, my husband and I have tried to see all the films nominated for the best picture Academy Award category as well as some of the other films nominated in the various categories … Continue reading