Siv Lie on her book, Django Generations

Django Generations

www.djangogen.com

https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/D/bo114656860.html

Interview by Lynn M. Hooker

Lynn Hooker: First, beginning with the title, your book uses a variety of terms for your chief musical subjects–most often Manouches, Tsiganes, or Romanies, but also sometimes Sinti, Gitans, and Gypsies. How do these terms and the distinctions between them reflect some of the issues you write about?

Siv Lie: I discuss some of these terms in the “Notes and Terminology” section (pp. ix-x), but there is much more to say. The very existence of all these terms and disagreements about what they “actually” mean says a lot about both how Romanies have dealt with racialization and about how they constitute an extremely diverse array of people. The terms Tsigane, Gitan, and Gypsy are all exonyms imposed by Europeans and have become more or less commonplace synonyms for Romanies. They are used by Romanies and non-Romanies (Gadjé) alike. Whether or not they are considered pejorative depends entirely on their contexts of use, and while some Romanies refuse these terms, many use them unproblematically. I think this evolution of usage has to do both with Romanies reclaiming pejorative labels and with the conventionalization of some of these terms over time. For example, on pp. 13-14 of the book, I describe how legislation targeting nomades was a way for the government to continue to not-so-covertly racialize and disenfranchise Romanies. In 1969, this legislation was revised and nomades were renamed Gens du voyage (“Travelers”). Today, nomades has definitely fallen out of use, but many mobile Romanies in France still proudly refer to themselves as Voyageurs despite any negative connotations.

Even with decades of pan-Romani political movements and some linguistic and cultural consistencies across populations, Romanies do not constitute a unified group. I deliberately use “Romanies” instead of the more common “Roma” because Sinti (to which Manouches are closely related, if not synonymous with) tend to see themselves as quite distinct from Roma and sometimes reject a Roma-centric view of Romanies. For example, just recently I was speaking with a Manouche/Sinti friend who kept using “Sinti” to refer to all Romanies, which I understood as his way to de-center “Roma” from pan-Romani politics. It’s an interesting way to assert an ideal of pan-Romani unity while challenging the terms on which that unity has been conceived in the political sphere.

Lynn Hooker: How does the question of group naming in this case contribute to current discussions in anthropology? In ethnomusicology? How do other issues in your study contribute to current discussions in anthropology? In ethnomusicology?

Siv Lie: The naming processes I describe – as highly context-dependent and semantically malleable – relate directly to my use of “ethnorace” to explain how Romanies are understood, and in turn understand themselves, through situated and shifting lenses of “race” and “ethnicity.” When I first came across ethnorace as coined by David Theo Goldberg, I was energized by how perfectly it captured the tensions I was exploring, but I was also confused as to why it had not been taken up more widely in anthropology or ethnomusicology. I thought I must have been missing something obvious! But the more I’ve used it and developed it in the context of struggles for Manouche political recognition and economic justice, the more I’ve realized its much wider potential to better understand how social difference is made.

Ethnorace also feeds into my development of ambivalent essentialism (which I outline on pp. 6-8). The idea of strategic essentialism always seemed appropriate to the maneuvers I observed among Manouche musicians and their supporters, but it never captured the full scope of the tensions they had to deal with. Ambivalent essentialism gets at how the process of self-essentialization involves quite a bit of uncertainty and unresolvable contradiction. I often observed musicians feel quite comfortable presenting themselves in rather stereotypical ways to certain audiences while downplaying or challenging such representations in other contexts, and/or voicing real dilemmas about how they felt compelled to engage in these representations. I point to ambivalent essentialism throughout the book because it’s an apt way to account for these tensions and for the negotiations that must occur within any ethnoracially-associated music scene. I think that this book can therefore contribute to current discussions about identity politics and cultural commodification in ways that embrace contradiction without trying to resolve it.

This book engages with a range of concepts both well-established and emergent in anthropology (such as raciolinguistics/raciosemiotics, cultural citizenship, cultural expediency, colorblind racism, erasure, and so on). I try to foreground the interstices of social difference as negotiated through music and talk about music. Some similar conversations about racial politics are happening in ethnomusicology, but I see this book as encouraging ethnomusicologists to engage more robustly with current conversations in anthropology.

Lynn Hooker: I am struck by the tension you describe not only between Manouche and Gadjé (non-Romani) identity but also between Manouche and pan-Romani identity. What are the pros and cons of a broader view of Romani-ness for your interlocutors? I myself have observed some musicians and organizers, mostly in Hungary, embracing a more pan-Romani approach in some contexts; this view seems akin to the musical pluralism you discuss in chapter 3, and sometimes it appears to claim cosmopolitan-ness. But it seems from what you imply that some Manouches want to avoid the “taint” of Eastern Europe.

Siv Lie: As I alluded to earlier, some of the Manouches/Sinti I work with have mixed feelings about proclaiming a pan-Romani identity. Doing so has its advantages: it provides access to resources (social networks, logistical support, financing, publicity, and so on) as well as a certain public legibility. It also reflects aspirations to a kind of borderless cosmopolitanism, such as by using “Gypsy” instead of the conventional French terms for Romanies. This can be especially important for musicians who want to be seen simultaneously as part of a global jazz community and as ethnoracially distinctive. They want to counter the idea that they are backwards and unintelligent by playing up their creativity and cultural plurality (as Romani, French, European, and global). Of course, at the same time, cosmopolitanism can be construed negatively, and Romanies are often perceived as rootless and even threatening wanderers. For this and other reasons, Manouches/Sinti sometimes refuse ideas of pan-Romani identity. They may want to avoid politicizing their work through associations with Romani solidarity movements, or they might seek to avoid further racialization by distancing themselves from immigrant Romanies in France.

The important point here is that these stances aren’t definitive. People emphasize different allegiances depending on context, and they change their opinions over time. Such tensions are reflected in the music the book explores. For example, Alsatian jazz manouche has roots in both jazz (a practice so widespread it often gets labeled as “universal”) and Hungarian csárdás, which has specifically Romani connotations. Musicians are very selective about how they use these different legacies depending on how they want to be perceived.

Lynn Hooker: In chapter 4, there is this fascinating discourse where various speakers talk about how they can tell the difference between Manouche musicians and Gadjo musicians by sound–what you describe as ethnoracial qualia of sound. I am curious about something that you do not talk about as much, and that is the practice of jazz manouche among non-Manouche (Gadjo) players. How do the Manouche musicians you work with feel about this?

Siv Lie: Gadjé make up a huge part of the performing circuit within and outside of France and are not necessarily looked down upon by Manouche musicians. In general, there is a lot of mutual respect between Manouche and Gadjo musicians. A Gadjo sound isn’t always considered bad, and not everyone claims there are significant or inherent differences between Manouche and Gadjo sounds. Musicians of various backgrounds often tell me that the most important thing is respect – for other musicians and for the music (however that is defined). Interpersonal problems tend to arise when Gadjo musicians adopt signs of “Gypsiness” and, in some cases, may exploit real or imagined connections to Manouches to further their careers. I don’t think the Manouche musicians I work with are terribly concerned about the whitewashing of an ethnoracially unique practice; those who believe in a distinctive Manouche sound will point to its inimitable qualia, and others might accuse Gadjé of cultural appropriation, but the practice still remains marketable and meaningful for them. More broadly, given the context of Romani disenfranchisement within France, there can be a sense of distrust among Manouches toward Gadjé. It’s not totalizing, but I see it crop up when some Manouche musicians do business with Gadjé and want to ensure that they’re not exploited. That said, musicians of any background tend to be on guard when maneuvering within the music industry, and rightly so!

Lynn Hooker: You started this project years ago, including identifying colorblind racism within French civic society as manifest in, for example, festivals that present jazz manouche but that try to keep Romaniesand Gens du voyage at arms’ length. (This topic is sprinkled throughout the book, but the introduction and chapters 3 and 5 deal with it in the most detail.) How have your interlocutors responded to the recent surge in anti-racist activism around the world?

Siv Lie: Like the US, France is undergoing a very fraught and necessary reckoning with deep-seated racism, energized in part by the protests of 2020. Much of the resistance to antiracist discourse stems from the idea that racism is a US problem, not a French one, and that US understandings of race and racialization are entirely inapplicable to France (so much so that in February 2021, President Macron denounced critical approaches to race supposedly imported from the US, and the minister for higher education proposed restricting research on the topic). Many groups have participated vigorously in these debates, but I haven’t had the chance to probe the issue with my interlocutors. I am really looking forward to being able to travel to France again and talk about all of this. I think aspects of this activism have probably resonated with my interlocutors, especially those who already draw parallels between their own racialization and that of African Americans (see chapters 1 and 4). I’m working to get a French translation of the book published so that it can better contribute to these discussions. For now, I’m not optimistic about any changes within the French state, but I’m glad that colorblind racism has come to the fore in public debate.

Mwenda Ntarangwi on his book, The Street is My Pulpit

Christine Chalifoux: By focusing your ethnographic attention on the hip hop artist Juliani, you were able to weave together so many important facets of life in Kenya: socioeconomic precarity, self-expression, the influence of the burgeoning youth population, and most significantly for your work, Christianity. Your ethnography especially stands out because it not only takes Christianity seriously as a subject on its own, but you engage in anthropology at home in the religious sense, too. How did your position as a fellow Christian affect the relationship you cultivated with Juliani?

Mwenda Ntarangwi: First, my focus on a single person allowed me to use Juliani as the minimum unit of analysis and work ‘backwards” to establish what made him who he is as a Christian and as a musician. I kept asking myself, “what have been the key influences in Juliani’s life that have led him to become who he is today?” It is this analysis that helped me generate the kinds of questions that allowed Juliani to reflect and share some of the experiences and incidents that shaped his identity at the time that I was carrying out an ethnography on his music and life. It also gave him a chance to identify certain individuals and incidents that had had major influences in his life. Second, as a Christian myself, I was very much aware of many of the possible blindsides of carrying out the study of a Christian artist and had to constantly keep checking on my own biases (against or towards Christianity). I remember once having a deep conversation with Juliani about some of the church members at the congregation that had been exposed as following a preacher who claimed to remove evil in their bodies by duplicitously applying potassium permanganate to look like blood. I told him that they were too gullible and followed without question the preacher’s gimmicks. Juliani shot back saying that each one of them was getting something more than what we can discern intellectually. He insisted that the congregants were not fools but rather strategic players who knew what they wanted from the preacher and were getting it. Third, I came into the ethnography with a specific bias towards Christianity, having edited another book with a focus on the social significance of Christianity in Africa, whereby I juxtaposed the rapid spread of Christianity in Africa and the corresponding expansion of social ills represented by high levels of corruption, disease, poverty, and focus on the occult. At the back of my mind, I was skeptical about any positive role Christianity was playing in Africa and was therefore interested in Juliani because he tended to challenge Christianity and especially the way it was mobilized publicly. He, for instance, challenged certain expected silences towards areas of Christianity that did not make sense such as how Christians would seldom challenge certain ideas about God, especially the idea of God’s power over everything, meanwhile many attending church and professing faith in God were languishing in poverty and abuse. Growing up in a Christian context where we did not have many opportunities to challenge certain narratives about Christianity, I was naturally drawn to Juliani’s messages that engaged critically with Christianity as he understood it. I was straddling the two worlds of curiosity toward Juliani’s challenges of Christianity and my own biases towards Christianity. I had to be very careful not to look for Juliani’s messages that would validate my own biases. Being a fellow Christian further provided a shared position from which to engage but not a shared set of interpretations that would miss the complexity of life of Christians.

Christine Chalifoux: The names of some of the hip hop groups and artists you wrote about, such as Camp Mau Mau and MajiMaji, reference powerful anti-colonial movements in East Africa. Are such references common among youth in Nairobi today? And, if so, are young people able to reconcile violent rebellion with Christianity?

Mwenda Ntarangwi: A number of young people who are politically sensitized do use references to Mau Mau and colonial experiences, especially the fact that Africans were taught the wrong type of Christianity. Their claim is similar to the one articulated immediately after independence when Kenyan political leaders claimed that Christianity made Kenyans docile, allowing colonialists to take all their land while they shut their eyes to pray. There are, however, fewer Christians who combine the political with the spiritual because they often assume that they are incompatible. It is thus quite surprising that in early 2021 well-known Christian artist and preacher Mr. Reuben Kigame talked about Jesus being a social activist and that there should not be a dichotomy between faith and living. This is quite a departure from his earlier songs in which he focused on personal piety and preparation for life after death. The Mau Mau have not been viewed mainly as violent in much of Kenya, but rather as agitators for what is rightfully owned by Kenyans. But the memory of their influences has slowly faded away. There might be some affinity between Christianity and Mau Mau in that they both seek radical change in people’s quest for a better life.

Christine Chalifoux: Basing your ethnography in the urban setting of Nairobi, you were able to avert the temptation of many anthropologists and historians of sub-Saharan Africa, which is to break up the country of study into regional ethnic groups. Despite this, readers can see how ethnic concerns continue to be at the forefront, even in the nation’s cosmopolitan capital. In Chapter 3, in particular, you write about the ways in which Christian missionaries had different conversion tactics for particular ethnic groups. Do you think a Christian identity, or ‘performing Christianity’, to use your term, allows the youth to be more amenable to a larger Kenyan nationality?

Mwenda Ntarangwi: Ethnicity has been mobilized to define identity in Kenya for a long time to such an extent that it is the default mode of defining individuals. When this is combined with political processes that amplify ethnicity, then one can see how ethnicity becomes such a key part of the social fabric of the nation. The idea that Africans were organized around tribes was extended to Christian missionary work and colonial boundary-making processes in forming administrative areas in Kenya. This has now been assumed to be the default standard for leadership in certain locales, even in churches. There is a tendency up till today to have certain church leaders be seen as belonging while others don’t belong, and this is based on their ethnic identity and the denomination involved. The Methodist Church, for instance, remains a church associated with the Meru so much that it is almost expected that the presiding bishop of the church will be from the Meru ethnic group. It is quite telling that only the first presiding bishop of the Methodist Church was not Meru, the other five have all been Meru. Interestingly even cosmopolitan churches such as the Christ is the Answer Ministries, a Pentecostal church that was started by Canadian missionaries in 1918 in Nairobi, has been led in the last twenty years (2002-2021) by men from the Luo ethnic group. Despite these patterns of continuity in perpetuating certain ethnic ideologies, I am convinced that the Church in Kenya has the best shot as bringing about a change in ethnic identity. This is for two reasons: first, the Church is, especially in urban areas, a space where new communities are formed and many of those communities are multiethnic. When there is a critical mass of such community building, ethnic identity will no longer be the primary organizing factor in social relationships. Second, many weddings still take place in church and as more and more interethnic marriages take place the church will be an important space to demonstrate a changed social reality regarding ethnicity. Many younger people (those under 30 years of age) are not all too wedded to the idea of ethnic identity especially if they are exposed to a more multiethnic social context compared to their parents’ generation.

Christine Chalifoux: Juliani asserts that “Kenyan youth mostly recognize two tribes–the rich and the poor,” (15) a claim that foreshadows the lyrics in his music criticizing corrupt politicians. Yet, the campaigns to improve communities described in chapter 4 suggest that he embraces a neoliberal vision for the youth. Throughout the ethnography, you convincingly stress that Juliani’s music focuses on Christianity in this material world, rather than heaven and the afterlife, but there seems to be some contradictions in his vision of political economy. Does Juliani have a clear vision for a more egalitarian economy, and if so, what does it look like for him? Do you think Juliani’s faith and music have the potential for more radical forms of politics?

Mwenda Ntarangwi: For Juliani, society is not fully free until everyone has a chance to follow through with their dreams. He believes that such freedom does not come from political benevolence but that it must be constructed and demanded by the electorate. Making the right choices at the ballot box and holding leaders accountable is an important step towards achieving the kind of society Kenyans need. Juliani is also clear that no one will be given free stuff and each one has to work for the things he/she has. He believes that the youth have an opportunity to change their circumstances through honest hard work supported by the right economic and political structures. This belief is what propelled his song and movement he termed “Kama Si Sisi (if not us)” which is about the youth taking on leadership and owning property today (not tomorrow, as is the common idea that youth are leaders of tomorrow). This kind of hope is not far-fetched because, as I show in my other book on East African Hip Hop, many of the businesses revolving around popular music within East Africa were run and owned by young people. The kind of politics that Juliani espouses through his music (the politics of radical faith) has not quite caught on among many Kenyans because of the enduring assumption that politics and faith are like water and oil, they do not mix. It will take a few more years of consistently breaking such assumptions and norms to get the masses to see the value of using faith to engage with the politics of the day. But given the culture of deceit corruption and outright mudslinging, it is difficult for a Christian to be engaged in fruitful politics in Kenya today. As they say, culture will eat strategy for lunch. Unless the political culture changes to accommodate people of Christian faith, there still will be spaces where Christians will feel like outsiders in politics.

Alex Dent discusses Digital Pirates

Cover of Digital Pirates by Alexander Sebastian Dent

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Digital Pirates: Policing Intellectual Property in Brazil

Ilana Gershon: At the heart of this book is the intellectually productive argument that intellectual property and piracy are so intertwined that not only do they mutually co-constitute each other under digital textuality, but the same people can support IP wholeheartedly in one moment and talk like pirates ten minutes later.   On the ground, IP and piracy present as sides in a debate, but you argue that understanding this debate in terms of sides is misleading. Could you explain a bit what is misleading about viewing piracy and IP as opposing perspectives and the role digital textuality plays in creating this discursive field?

Alex Dent: When I was researching and writing my last book, on Brazilian country music, I noticed that musical genres were often only taken seriously by social scientists when they were judged to be the fundamental ground of some sort of identity claim.  Were you a hard-core commercial country fan, or were you a member of the folkloric team? What I found, instead, was that the genres offered possible role-inhabitances; people crossed back and forth all the time, but that didn’t mean they didn’t fight about generic boundaries a lot.  I feel similarly here, though in a somewhat different context.  It is indeed true that there are IP maximalists out there who spend a lot of their time fighting for IP.  Along those lines, I didn’t include, in Digital Pirates, the research I did about my study of the United States Trade Representative, where I discovered that the USTR plagiarizes huge amounts of text from industry groups while entirely ignoring the pleas of public interest groups to afford foreign nations the same legal protections citizens expect here in the US; the big pharma and film industry lawyers who showed up for those hearings did, indeed, seem like pro-IP warriors (and for the record, their suits appeared to be made of some non-stick, bulletproof material).  Similarly, on the other side of things, copy-left advocates and hackers often seemed like they were categorically opposed to IP, arguing that “information wants to be free” (an anthropomorphizing if ever there was one).  But the truth is that even these warriors for one or the other position step out of line from time to time.

Even more to your question, the vast majority of us live in that space between all the time.  So it struck me that requiring there to be “positions” actually becomes a way to deliberately avoid the conversation that we need to have – which is about how arguments for and against IP get mobilized for political projects, with quite local approaches shaping that mobilization.

The insistence on positions seems particularly misleading in the digital realm, where inscriptive (which is to say, durable) forms of textuality become such a common part of our quotidian existence.  One of your questions, below, asks me to talk more about cellularity and its relationship to contemporary capitalism – so I’ll hold off on that for a bit.  But the point is simply that decisions about how you are going to govern your own productions now imbricate your every move.  I write in chapter four that the novelty of contemporary digital textuality surrounds the reduction of response-time, the transcendence of space, the unification of communicative modalities in a single device, and the portability of that device. This means that durable and promulgating potentials are with you at every moment.  And the decisions you make about how you are going to circulate yourself are shaped by both IP maximalism and piracy – shaped in real-time contexts, on the fly. So we are not “taking positions” on IP. We are, in a split second, deciding what kinds of circulatory legitimacy accompanies a photograph we just received, or a blog post – or how we might anticipate this video we are currently making about our dog playing in the snow finding itself in far-flung lands.

Ilana Gershon: What does policing look like from the perspective of Brazilian piracy? 

Alex Dent: There has been lots of great stuff written on policing and its importance to contemporary capitalism.  In that ambit, Jim Holston and Teresa Caldeira have done a great job writing about how, in what might seem a paradoxical move on the surface, the turn to democratization has actually led to drastically elevated levels of policing in Brazil; what we can derive from this is the necessity of policing to neoliberal theologies.  With respect to IP, specifically, what I was anxious to do away with was the myth that policing of IP around the world is about bribes or salaries; there’s this idea among critics of IP that the only reason people would police IP in parts of the world where “licit” products are too expensive is because they are being paid.  On the pro-IP side there is this equally misleading notion that local police “just want to be right with the law.”  But the truth is a lot more complicated than either of these options.  The truth is that there are local discourses that explain policing.  In Brazil, discourses of cultural mixture are famous – in tourist brochures, of course, but even in Brazilian self-explanations of prowess in soccer, music, religion, and food (Lorand Matory and John Collins have written about this).  But what you don’t hear about very much are Brazilian anxieties about cultural inter-mixture going too far.  What you find, if you dig into the classic Brazilian book called “Rebellion in the Backcountry” (which is about a millennial movement that gets absolutely destroyed by the emerging Brazilian state in the late 1800s) is that there are localized appetites for “order” and keeping mixture under wraps.  That is what is getting ignited by IP maximalism – not some bribe. So in some ways I’m revisiting that old chestnut about the relationship between the production of locality and the production of globality – with the notion that the dialogic relation between the two must be understood according to durable structures.  It’s no coincidence that violations of IP get treated like “trash” in Brazil.  I explain why in chapter two.

Ilana Gershon:  What role does Paraguay play in Brazilians’ relationship to piracy?

Alex Dent: As a linguistic anthropologist, this was one of those spectacular fieldwork moments when you become aware of how language is a kind of flexible dialogue between historical conflicts and contemporary practices. It’s not a repository, mind you, because it’s constantly in flux. What happened was that my family started characterizing things that broke as “Paraguayan.”  I remember the first time it happened – it was a cheap alarm clock I’d bought which inexplicably failed; and I’d just underscore that the cheapness and the inexplicability are intimately related to one another! In any case, this invocation of “Paraguayan” as a descriptor seemed, in that first moment, to carry all kinds of anxieties about bordering that I hadn’t though of.  That’s when I started learning about Paraguay’s role as the place cheap goods come into Brazil, and also, about its stature in Brazilian popular culture as a place where grand promises are made that then are not delivered upon.  There is some overlap with how the US-Mexico border translates in our context – though there are important differences. But with respect to Paraguay, the history is that Paraguay invaded Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay in 1864, and after some stunning initial victories, they were absolutely routed. The war was just devastating for Paraguay, and in conventional histories, the war’s legacy was a long-lasting economic depression and cultural inferiority complex. (I’d like to note something obvious – that my Paraguayan friends inflect this story with considerably more complexity.) In any case, this phrase circulated periodically in Brazil when discussing a soccer team that started off in a promising way, but then crashed: the team was referred to as a “Paraguayan horse.” 

I ended up spending quite a bit of time in the border towns between Brazil and Paraguay, studying the ways goods traveled from Paraguay into Brazil (although I should add that the real expert, here, is Rosana Pinheiro-Machado).  And it struck me that the bordering work there – with incumbent anxieties about porosity, omnipresence, illegality, and necessity – also populated the way my interlocutors were characterizing the Internet in Brazil.  All of which is to say that, when you are trying to understand just what this thing called the Internet might be, it makes sense to consider localized approaches to time, space, and boundary.

Ilana Gershon: You talk about how Brazilians have a different relationship to cellphones than Americans or Canadians do because they had a different historical engagement with landlines.   Could you explain how these different historical trajectories made a difference in your fieldsites?

Alex Dent: When I first arrived in Brazil in 1998, I lived with a family — who subsequently became my caretakers, consultants, and very close friends – in the town of Campinas.  My Brazilian “dad” was a telecommunications engineer who taught at the local university – UNICAMP.  And in early discussions with him, I noticed that telephones were politicized in a different way fromm Canada, the US, or the UK – the three places I had lived.  I detected a kind of media ideology about telephones where — in part based on consumption of North American public culture – there was this belief that Brazil had developed incorrectly.  Phone landlines were incredibly expensive to get, and were not well disseminated among working class neighborhoods.  Phones were not a forgone conclusion in Brazilian life – they were often thought of as a necessity that was paradoxically also a luxury.  So when cell phones began to arrive, in concert with the neoliberal selling-off of the state phone companies, I heard a lot of people explain to me that Brazil had “skipped” a step; that, in some normative sense, it ought to have had cheap and widely available landlines first, and then people could have transitioned more smoothly to cell phones. I should point out that this popular argument also has a well developed academic Brazilian form in the shape of associated-dependency theory. But the point is that when Brazilians started to absorb cellular technology, their early use was often tinged with a dialogue between ravenous hunger, and a kind of shaming scold.  I heard statements such as, “Brazilians have multiple cell phones, but they are too ill-educated to have anything to say on them,” which struck me as harsh until I decoded where they were coming from, historically.

Ilana Gershon: You argue that cellularity at the heart of contemporary capitalism – could you explain what you mean by this?

Alex Dent: I’m working this up into a broader theory of neoliberal theology now; as I type, I’m writing-up five years of data collected with Joshua Bell (of the Smithsonian) and Joel Kuipers (also at GW) on the productivity of ambivalence among teenage cell phone users in Washington DC.  Part of the argument is that, contrary to the projections many adults place onto teenagers, teenagers are acutely aware of not only the joys, but also the potential harms of cellular phone use.  The productivity of this ambivalence, as I note above, in chapter four, lies in “cellular publics”; I argue that contemporary digital textuality is characterized by reduction of response time, transcendence of space, condensation of communicative modalities, and portability.  But what is significant is the trip to heaven and hell that this entails.  (I should mention someone who has written brilliantly about this in Brazil is Leticia Cesarino.) Because just as cell phones can be celebrated for their rendering work more flexible, they can also be indicted for enslaving us. We are, in the same moment, in joyful anticipation of connection, and in horror at possible over-extension. I’m using “horror” carefully, here – intending to address myself to the brilliant theorist who was Mary Shelley. This is the sublime. And the argument I’m making is that contemporary (probably not “late”!) capitalism’s balance between tremendous wealth and utter ruin finds itself mediated – in ways I think David Harvey anticipated – by way of cellularity. To put it somewhat differently, it is no coincidence that “paying it forward” and “going viral” partake of the same vectors of accrual.

Ruben Enrique Campos III takes the page 99 test

Destiny again. It had to be El Legendario Bombay. It had to be page 99.

Upon entering, I immediately saw why the place was called legendary. It oozed underground Hip Hop. Graffiti covered every wall. In the past, there had been a waist-high mural that wrapped around the bar featuring skeletons in fluffy rat costumes. Now most of it was covered over in aerosol paint, paint pen, postal stickers, and permanent ink throwies. The above-waist, mirrored walls were now covered over in tattered black plastic tarp, which was itself covered over in white mop paint pen tags. The tile floor was thick with dried beer and tracked-in road grime. Google Maps had not been wrong. The place had been permanently closed; but it was still quite active that night. A crew of two dozen men and a few women sat drinking beer, listening to the Chicano music of my youth. Most of the audience seemed to be in their late 30s. Their clothes were baggier than Heticko’s which was a sign of his relative youth at 25 and the changing trends of a scene. Most wore tan Dickies pants and either a plain white cotton tee-shirt, a tan khaki shirt, or a black one with La Sociedad Café printed in Old-English style font. Most wore thick löc-style sunglasses. The darkly lit scene could have passed as a sepia-toned photograph save for the glints of the deep red and thickly lined lipsticks of the women, and then there was the pop and lock dancer wearing the royal blue tracksuit and white gloves. Two beautifully maintained, chrome laden lowrider bicycles sat on the stage. Tomás, the owner of TT Caps arrived after me. He sat at the bar to chat with El Bombay’s owner. Both were in their late 50s and had invested in Hip Hop as more than a fad years prior. They had both given the youth culture space to flourish, but now had to watch as their business dried up.

My dissertation explores life in desmadre, or the overwhelming, noisy chaos that continually changes underfoot in the streets of the metropolitan valley surrounding Mexico City, the largest urban landscape within North America. I chronicle the experiences of contemporary rap artists as they move through the city, creating a Hip Hop scene in looped interconnectedness. And while my work is attuned to the Voice of these artists, it’s always grounded by my relationship to the streets and by that feeling of destiny I feel when I’m in the wrong place and the right time, when I encounter everything I need to be Hip Hop, to be ethnography. After weeks of futile attempts to find a Hip Hop scene by safe and traditional means, I found Bombay in a moment wondering aimlessly and dangerously down a dark alley in Tepito, a barrio born into its bad reputation. Following that moment, dedication and destiny launched me across the entire valley from La Paz, Iztapalapa and La Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl to Tacubaya, Colina Del Sur, and el Reclusorio Norte, all to find Hip Hop.

Ultimately, I find that by practicing their poetry and their breath control rappers learn to render the aural sensorium and echo the city itself through their bodies—from the noises of its mass transit to the acoustic registers of its ambulant vendors; from the sounds of familiar language games, poetics, and popular culture to appropriated Nahuatl vocabulary and place names. By learning to navigate through the city, flowing against its conservative logic for their own artistic and cultural purposes, rappers come to embody a difficult to explain yet deeply felt awareness of desmadre. Rather than seeing chaos as a source of frustration (to state control), as inefficient (to capitalist profit), or as unnecessary imperilment (to fearful citizens of the general public), rappers find direction and purpose in creativity and community. By engaging with others in desmadre they recognize their place, authenticate their experience, and overcome anonymity through the choral voice, hearing their own subjectivity echoed back and affirmed by others who have travelled a different route. …And so do anthropologists.

It had to be page 99. It had to be El Legendario Bombay. Desmadre again.

Ruben Enrique Campos III.  2020. Word To Desmadre: Hip Hop, Voice, and the Rhythm Of Chaos In México. University of Hawai’i, Phd.

 

Steve Black on his book, Speech and Song at the Margins of Global Health

Speech and Song at the Margins of Global Health

Interview by Yeon-Ju Bae

https://www.rutgersuniversitypress.org/speech-and-song-at-the-margins-of-global-health/9780813597713

Yeon-Ju Bae: How did you become interested in the South African gospel choir group that works on HIV/AIDS activism? It looks as if your background in musical training and ethnomusicology would have played a role, but I was wondering how you came to conduct research on choir performance amid HIV/AIDS stigma, whose interests intersect the fields of linguistic, medical, and psychological anthropology with a regional focus on South Africa. Also, in what ways does your identity play a role in negotiating the fieldwork process with your research participants?

Steve Black: My fieldwork with the choir was in many ways a serendipitous leap of faith—an effort that could have easily fallen apart many times before it really began. In part, I was guided by chance. As a linguistic anthropologist-in-training, my mentors suggested studying a non-Indo-European language to enhance my comprehension of the breadth of linguistic diversity. From my background as a jazz saxophonist and ethnomusicology student, I knew that South African jazz was nearly unparalleled globally in its quality and long history, and isiZulu happened to be among the few African language courses offered at UCLA. I applied for and was fortunate to be awarded a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship for an intensive summer introductory-level isiZulu course at Ohio University led by the UCLA isiZulu instructor, Dr. Zilungile Sosibo. Unfortunately, Dr. Sosibo had trouble renewing her work visa and decided to move back to South Africa after that summer, which meant that UCLA no longer offered any isiZulu courses! I suppose I could have begun studying a different language, but instead I decided to apply for and was awarded a fellowship to be part of a Fulbright-Hays Zulu Group Project Abroad, which was an intensive summer intermediate-level language and culture study abroad in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa (near Durban, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal). This was how I established isiZulu-speaking South Africa as a general focus for my fieldwork.

After this second summer of intensive isiZulu studies, one day I was relaxing in my apartment in Los Angeles and browsing the movies available through my cable TV’s on demand function (this was pre-online streaming, back when Netflix was a service that mailed DVDs to your home!). I stumbled onto a documentary made by some American film students about the choir. From that point forward, I hoped to work with the group. This prompted me to study medical and psychological anthropology perspectives on HIV/AIDS. I felt that I needed this disciplinary expertise in order to conduct ethnographic fieldwork with the choir. In other words, the project motivated my cross-disciplinary theoretical interests rather than the other way around.

I was very fortunate to be awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, and even more fortunate that the choir agreed to allow me to conduct fieldwork with them! It is true that my musical expertise as a jazz musician helped me to engage with choir members. I occasionally participated in music-making as a saxophonist and more often as an informal sound engineer for trouble-shooting the group’s amplifiers and microphones. I was also able to sidestep questions from community members about why I was involved with the choir and present myself to most non-choir members as someone interested in Zulu gospel music. This helped to maintain the group’s non-disclosure of their HIV support group and AIDS activist functions in group members’ home communities.

Being a White American man from a middle-income family conducting fieldwork with Black low-income South Africans, many of whom are women, also deeply impacted my research, but not always in ways that might be assumed (Religious difference was also sometimes a factor—I am Jewish by heritage, and choir members are Christian—but not nearly as significant). Some group members saw me as a person with access to more resources than they had, and I did my best to live up to their expectations and contribute to the group in the ways that I could within the limits that the NSF set on how their money could be spent. While by the ethical standards of experimental scientific research my efforts might be thought of as coercion to participate in research, I do not think this is a valid interpretation in the context of ethnography. Rather, I think that the choir was doing an enormous amount to contribute to the success of my research, and that if anything the limits set by the NSF restricted me from providing reasonable forms of compensation for group member’s efforts. Also, while I was an outsider, people like me (white American researchers, doctors, and aid workers) had long been implicated in the complex webs of racialized power imbalances amid patterns of uneven global exchange and intervention, and choir members had personal experience interacting with others like me. This made initial encounters (including explanations of the research project) easier, but it also meant that it took a few months to get beyond the more restricted sorts of encounters that group members had had with other researchers and aid workers. By the end of my fieldwork, I was pleased when a choir leader made a speech to the group in which she contrasted me with other researchers, complimenting me by saying that I had “blended in” with the choir (only to an extent, of course).

Yeon-Ju Bae: You analyze the choir group that you studied as a “bio-speech community” which presents shared biomedically defined characteristics (HIV-positive status), shared ideological orientations toward biomedical models of HIV/AIDS, and shared verbal repertoires making use of biomedical terminologies and understandings. At the same time, it seems as if the group members sometimes show internal dissonance when it comes to gendered understandings of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa and to the potential misappropriation via individual access to the uneven global circulation of resources. Would you elaborate on the socioeconomic background of these precarities and their role in producing or changing dynamics in the group as a “bio-speech community”? Continue reading

Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth takes the p. 99 test

Opening to page 99 of Finding the Singing Spruce: Craft Labor, Global Forests, and Musical Instrument Makers in Appalachia, you’ll find my reflections on choosing apprenticeship as the ethnographic method that would fit my research questions exploring how craft labor was related to connections with forest landscapes in the mountain forests of West Virginia. While the page generally focuses on how I changed research topics to focus on the materials of craft as an entrance into the meaning of work and how I found makers (often locally famous and frequently interviewed) had ready-to-articulate ideas about their craft, one sentence stands out to speak to the whole of the dissertation.  

 

I found that verbal learning about the craft processes and the craft in general occurred more often in tandem with my kinesthetic, material, and temporal experience that inspired discussion not broached in our interviews.

 

Ethnographic apprenticeship is the methodological rock upon which the rest of the work unfolds, as the bulk of my argument is made through the narratives of building instruments with three makers. Learning the craft enabled me to feel the affect of the work: the compulsion to make despite adverse and anxiety-inducing economic conditions, the joy and frustration of intersubjective relationships emerging between skilled crafter and wood materials as successful instruments or dashed hopes, and living in the contradiction of the major paradoxes of musical instrument making. Working alongside makers enabled me to see how they live in the contradictory processes of bringing life to an instrument through the death of a tree and relying on the capitalist regimes of timber and factory production that elide the livelihoods and material necessities of craft makers. Working together on material objects also revealed other categories that rendered the work meaningful. Through long hours spent together in the shop, topics emerged that were not discussed in interviews guided by my research questions. Relationship building through apprenticeship revealed that religion was the main driver of meaning in work in one case and transnational connections between people and forest landscapes in another. While the presence of the forest and relationship to the materials was central in both cases, it was other relationships that foregrounded the meaning of the work. 

 

While these methods limited the scope of the dissertation, and made it difficult to speak to the extensive scale of instrument making in Appalachia, empirical discussion of the political economic context, and contrasting takes on the position of racialization and gendering, it did allow me to once explore the intricacies of the relationships between working humans and our environments, as well as position those uniquely human forms of relationship that enable us to make sense of the political, economic, and ecological webs we inhabit. 

 

Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth. 2019. Finding the Singing Spruce: Craft Labor, Global Forests, and Musical Instrument Makers in Appalachia. University of Kentucky, Phd.

Michelle Williams takes the page 99 test

One half of page 99 of my doctoral thesis is a photo, taken at eye level of a group of Tongan students sitting cross-legged on the ground of their school courtyard in Auckland, New Zealand. They are rehearsing for an upcoming cultural festival that is the central topic of my research. I am sitting, unseen, with the students as we learn the performance item together. The movement of our bodies and voices has become synchronous over several weeks of practice and in this moment, the production of culturally-specific movement and sound is a uniting factor among myself and the student participants. However, the image also represents a key problem central to my fieldwork methodology: although membership in a music-community transcends difference in some ways, how would I bridge the spaces created by authority, power, ethnicity and age? How could I represent young people’s experiences effectively and help to bring their voices to the fore within a discipline that often excluded them? These questions were significant components in constructing my research model.

My research approach was informed by both Pacific research frameworks and recommendations from ethnomusicology, many of which overlapped in their emphases on relationships, collaboration, and reciprocity. Educational research helped me to problematize how I would represent myself to students, and was essential guidance to the shifting roles I undertook as a learner, music-community supporter and friendly teacher (the latter during the focus groups we co-created). Throughout my fieldwork I attempted to daily to bridge the spaces created by my adult authority and my privileges as a white American researcher, through shared love of popular music, my immigrant status, my Christian upbringing and the common goal of representing “our” school at the cultural festival. Although I had to concede a number of limitations, I was pleased that ultimately the experiences and viewpoints of the students were a major component of my findings, and included several “firsts” in research with Pacific youth in New Zealand.

Michelle Ladwig Williams. 2019. The ASB Polyfest: Constructing Transnational Pacific Communities of Practice in Auckland, New Zealand. University of Auckland, Phd.

David Flood takes the page 99 test

My dissertation examines everyday interactions between two groups of white people in the US who to all appearances should get along but don’t, despite their sustained efforts towards solidarity and a shared musical practice. They are divided by class. One group consists of rural working-class musicians who play in an informal amateur musical circuit in western North Carolina. The other group consists of transplanted musicians from coastal cities—mostly leftist activists—who have relocated to the area to pursue what they call ‘traditional music’ (more or less, the music that the working-class white people play: bluegrass, old-time, classic country). I show that their constant disagreements and misunderstandings emerge from classed differences at the rather profound level of ethics of sociality: what they think it means to be a good relational subject, or person.

I describe in and through musical sociality the ways that divergent and even antagonistic white racial identities (or ‘whitenesses’) were co-constituted with class difference, and came to powerfully shape people’s understanding of themselves and others in everyday life and politics. This differentiation is vital to understand in order to contextualize and respond to populism and ethnonationalism. In fact, for the rural working-class white people I describe, the primary cultural ‘other’ against whom they agonistically defined their own sense of good personhood was in fact urban middle-class white people. For the middle-class white people in question, working-class lifeworlds were a space where they projected many of the desires and anxieties of life in late capitalism.

This dynamic, needless to say, has historical antecedents. As such, page 99 of my dissertation is smack in the middle of a very long history chapter that ranges from Herder and the German counter-enlightenment to the particular ways that the long history of European folklore arrived in Appalachia proper. The page concludes with a quote from Cecil Sharp, a British folklorist and revivalist who exemplified a kind of fin-de-siècle leftism, combining his anti-modernist sentiments—derived in part from the British Fabian Socialism of the day—with a racial-cultural essentialism familiar in the lineage of Herderian thought.

Sharp writes about white Appalachian settlers of northern European descent, from whom he spent several years of World War I collecting putatively British folk songs:

“That the illiterate may nevertheless reach a high level of culture will surprise only those who imagine that education and cultivation are convertible terms.  The reason, I take it, why these mountain people, albeit unlettered, have acquired so many of the essentials of culture is partly to be attributed to the large amount of leisure they enjoy, without which, of course, no cultural development is possible, but chiefly to the fact that they have one and all entered at birth into the full enjoyment of their racial heritage.  Their language, wisdom, manners, and the many graces of life that are theirs, are merely racial attributes which have been gradually acquired and accumulated in past centuries and handed down… It must be remembered, also, that in their daily lives they are immune from that continuous grinding, mental pressure, due to the attempt to ‘make a living,’ from which nearly all of us in the modern world suffer.  In this respect, at any rate, they have the advantage over those who habitually spend the greater part of every day in preparing to live, in acquiring the technique of life, rather than in its enjoyment” (Sharp, 1917: 24).

As I show in the rest of the work, this danger—the re-inscription of white racial virtue—remains a stubborn peril of a white middle-class leftism that is unreflexive about and uninterested in class difference. Whether it’s contemporary white middle-class leftists purifying their own whiteness by ascribing the evils of racism or white supremacy solely to working-class voters, or folkloric paeans to the virtuous agrarian whites of the heartland: class is the spectre that haunts white liberalism.

 

Flood, David. 2017. Classed Cultural Ethics: Understanding Class Difference in the Contemporary US through Traditional Musical Performance and Radical Leftism. University of Virginia, PhD Dissertation.

Citations:

Sharp, Cecil J. 1917. English Folk Songs From the Southern Appalachians, Comprising 122 Songs and Ballads, and 323 Tunes. New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s sons.

 

 

 

Kristina Jacobsen on her new book, The Sound of Navajo Country

jacobsen-cover

https://www.uncpress.org/book/9781469631868/the-sound-of-navajo-country/?title_id=3849

Morgan Siewert: On its face, your project to analyze expressive culture among Navajo country music artists using both ethnomusicological and linguistic anthropological methods seems daunting. However, your final product is a nuanced but informative and approachable ethnography using both music and language to locate country music as a site where Navajo identity is navigated and negotiated. How would you describe your book to someone unfamiliar with how seemingly Western expressive forms are used to perform Navajo authenticity?

Kristina Jacobsen: My book is a situated story of one Anglo singing anthropologist’s journey into the rich, vivid and totalizing world that is Diné country western music and cowboy culture. Contrasting our stereotype of “cowboys and Indians,” Indian people, and Diné people in particular, have long identified as both “cowboy” and “country;” the affinity seems natural to many Diné people I know, so much so that it barely bears explaining. Country songs are often about dispossession, loss, nostalgia, tradition, relocation and the centrality of kinship and family: these same themes are themes that resonate very powerfully with my Diné interlocutors, both through the performance of country music and through participation in rodeo.

Morgan Siewert: On page 21, you write, “I understand the speaking voice as being equally central as the singing voice in illuminating the nuance of Diné politics of authenticity and belonging.” This is a succinct illustration of your use of ethnomusicology and linguistic anthropology to bridge disparate approaches to the concept of “voice.” Could you elaborate on the significance of complicating “voice” in your book?

Kristina Jacobsen:  In song and in the songwriting world, there is a heavy focus on lyrics and on the text; what does the song say, what is being signified through the lyrics, what can we infer about the identity of the singer through the performance and voicing of the song, how do we shape the listener’s experience through a tightly-crafted song? This is also true in ethnomusicology and in popular music studies, where often the focus is exclusively on the lyrics of a song and where the lyrics come to stand in for/represent “the song.” In linguistic anthropology, the emphasis is also often on text, or what has been transcribed in the form of discourse analysis or ethnographic writing in the text, where prosody, poetics, and line-by-line analysis often form the primary “meat” of analysis. In contrast to this, I wanted to focus in the book on the sound of the voice itself: what do different voices sound like, when they are speaking and singing? What is the timbre or tone color of a voice, its range, its speech style, dialectal and idiolectal inflections, and how is a voice affected by the body it inhabits? How do voices have their own agency, not just symbolically and politically, but also literally, when a voice is “thrown” into a room or sounds (and affects its listeners) in a particular way, and how are voices connected to Indigenous sovereignty? Also, how can we combine our analysis of both singing and speaking, and what productive and rich overlaps might we find by combining both uses of the vocal tract within the same frame? To me, sounds matter in the world. How someone else sounds—whether over the telephone, in person, in a radio interview or on television—affects me deeply and resonates in my ears and mind long afterwards. I wanted to capture some of this affective resonance not only through my ethnographic vignettes, but also through the analytic methods and tools used in the book.

Morgan Siewert: Important to your book’s discussion on the complexities of authenticity and voice is jaan, defined initially as “the culturally intimate […] term for a working-class rube from the ‘sticks’” (4). You define jaan several times and in diverse ways throughout the book, demonstrating what you describe as a malleability that reveals “the slippages, or cracks, between worlds” (42). As I read your book, I came to understand the jaan figure as an example of how people become metonyms for attitudes about imperfect Navajoness, for “matter out of place” (33). Through “betwixt and between” figures such as the jaan, innovation in language and the expressive arts is both stigmatized as inauthentic Navajoness as well as valorized as privileged local knowledge. I find this discussion—which ranges from the jaan to Miss Navajo to politicians—to be the most challenging aspect of your book. I came away with a sense that modalities framed as the most inauthentic are, in practice, among the most authentic icons of Navajo experience and identity. In other words, being “matter out of place” is what anchors country music as an authentic Navajo expressive art form. How would you supplement or challenge this reading?

Kristina Jacobsen: This is such a lovely and provocative question. I think your read that jaan becomes a refraction for how “imperfect Navajoness” circulates at the local level is spot-on; in my experience, these discussions of ideal Diné-ness occur almost constantly, in public and very performative spaces such as political campaigns and radio stations, but also at very intimate levels, among family members, over dinner, at the flea market, during family cattle roundups or even at the tribal veterinarian’s office. So yes, being “matter out of plaee” at some level makes something—songs or speech styles in this case—authentic in a way that is hard for others without this abjected cultural capital to touch. At the same time, the irony perhaps is that things deemed as “matter out of place,” such as country music dubbed as “rez” or “jaan,” are also profoundly in place and locally emplaced, so much so that even performing off-reservation is rarely an option for “rez bands.” So, rez country music is both matter out of place and completely sutured to place, at one and the same time. To add a bit more to this discussion: I also think that the whole idea of the jaan is a term that implies an outsider, non-Diné gaze looking in on Diné practices; in this way, jaan as a concept—in its stigmatizing and laudatory uses—sits in the crosshairs of settler colonialism, and perhaps could not even exist outside the setter colonial context and the ways in which Diné identity has been parsed, dissected, judged and quantified by Bureau of Indian Affairs Bureaucrats, anthropologists, missionaries and other entities. So, it’s the colonial gaze turned inward, with powerful repercussions. At the same time, there is innovation, both linguistic and musical, and this is one of the things I find so powerful: that even within a very narrowly constrained field of aesthetics and where the politics of authenticity almost always hold an upper hand, there are musicians, spoken word artists, poets and language users—among them Chucki Begay, Radmilla Cody, hip hop artist Def-I and improvisers like jazz trumpeter Delbert Anderson- who continue to carve their own path and express themselves assertively, gracefully, and with incredible power, through their chosen linguistic medium.

Morgan Siewert: What is your next project?

Kristina Jacobsen: My next ethnographic book project, Sing Me Back Home: Songwriting, Language Shift, and Italian Colonialism in Sardinia, focuses on country music, singer-songwriters and language shift on the island of Sardinia, Italy. As a touring country musician, singer songwriter and cultural anthropologist living in Sardinia for the past two summers, I have been captivated by the surprisingly rich Americana and country music scene. It struck me that the reasons were connected to Italian colonialism, and this led me to formulate my main question for this research: how do performances of American roots music by Sardinian musicians serve to secure a sense of connection to the island of Sardinia, and strengthen a sense of political and cultural separation from the Italian mainland on this semi-sovereign Mediterranean island?

So, in Sardinia, I have begun writing songs with Sardinian songwriters in Sardinian (“Sardo”), English and Italian as a form of participant-observation to get at questions of language, sovereignty, identity and relationships to the Italian mainland (the “Continente”). Here, the process of songwriting itself forms part of the core research methodology, where writing a song with one’s interlocutors forms a powerful point of connection as a way toward deeper intercultural knowing that is both artistic and ethnographic. The second part of this project, therefore, will focus on recording ten cowritten songs for an album that will accompany the book, where I ethnographically document how language politics play out in microcosm in the space of the recording studio, and where the music and the book text are two interdependent parts central to my analysis of both sound and politics. I will be spending my sabbatical year in Sardinia, doing twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork toward this project, and living in the mountain village of Santu Lussurgiu.

 You can listen to two early “demo” recordings and cowrites for this project, here:

Suk-Young Kim on her new book, K-Pop Live

Cover of K-pop Live by Suk-Young Kim

https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=29375

Interview by Chuyun Oh

Chuyun Oh: What were some of the questions you want to explore when you first decided to write a book on K-pop, and what aspects of K-pop drew your attention as a theatre/performance studies scholar?    

Suk-Young Kim: The primary questions I wanted to explore were twofold. How was it possible for a small country like South Korea to reinvent itself from a culturally obscure place to a pop culture powerhouse in just two decades or so? When I came to the US for my graduate studies in the late 90s, most American students did not know anything about South Korean culture. Today, most of my undergraduate students either follow K-pop or know something about it. How was this transformation possible?

I was also concerned about our craving for liveness. K-pop’s natural habitat is YouTube and most K-pop stars and their performances can be found online. But why do fans still crave live concerts and live interaction with their idols? What is the driving force behind this constant search for a face-to-face interaction?

Chuyun Oh: Would you like to give a heads-up to your future readers about what “live” and “liveness” mean to you, and why it matters to understand K-pop today?  

Suk-Young Kim: On a primary level, liveness indicates co-presence in time and space, where performers and spectators are situated in the same venue in real time. But the way I articulate the notion of liveness in this book goes far beyond the level of co-presence. Ultimately, it is about feeling connected to a broader community and sharing affective kinship with that community to the point that it reaffirms one’s feeling of liveliness and a sense of being alive in this increasingly mediated world. K-pop presents an interesting case in point since it both manipulates such affective kinship for monetary gain while also allowing for the genuine grassroots level communities and networks to emerge in a powerful way.

Chuyun Oh: As beautifully demonstrated in your book, K-pop — including its representation, transnational circulation, and consumption — would be impossible today without hyper-sensory, mediatized technology. Still, at the same time, K-pop provides highly embodied and participatory platforms and experiences to both fans and K-pop performers. Ontologically and perhaps, aesthetically too, can you tell us a little more about how your project blurs the dichotomy between the liveliness of the body and the virtual world of the high-speed Internet?

 Suk-Young Kim: This is a terrific question. My chapter on hologram addresses this point most viscerally, but to tease out my main arguments here: K-pop as a cultural scene appears to be extravagant and excessive in its performance style, but if you look deeper into the K-Pop scene, its economy is fueled by the concept of scarcity or lack. The mediated images of K-pop idols saturate media space, and yet so few fans have seen them in close proximity. The lack of opportunities to see stars’ living bodies in real time and space is what creates constant thirst for their immediate presence, and that thirst has to be quenched by a compensating mechanism, which is to saturate our visual playing field with more and more mediated images. This constant gap between fan’s desire and the reality (to paraphrase, the gap between the real body and the mediated images of that body) is what fuels the K-pop craze.

Chuyun Oh: Digital consumerism is often driven by and thus, inseparable from personally and/or socioculturally constructed desire. Why does K-pop matter to its consumers and fans, and what would be the desire lies behind K-pop consumption to this technology-savvy generation? 

Suk-Young Kim: If I were to address this question by focusing on fan communities rather than fan-to-star dynamics, digitally savvy K-Pop fans have found ways to create a community of their own by establishing global networks online. K-pop fan clubs are extremely active online, using their participatory power to not only support their stars, but also establish kinship and share a sense of belonging that offline space does not willingly provide. Participation in online fan clubs can make fans overcome geographic distance and bring someone in Brazil and Iceland into an intimate interaction by sharing their common passion. A sense of belonging, in this case, stems from a sense of validation by others. But I would be remiss not to mention how this fan community, for some fans, is also used as a place to promote themselves and create distinction for themselves by demonstrating their close association with the stars (the so-called “fame by association”). Many K-pop fan clubs have a strict hierarchy that resembles a military organization (the longer you’ve been around and the more material support you’ve provided for their stars, the higher your status will be in fan clubs). K-pop industry navigates through this double edged fandom by promoting both hyperconsummerism and a sense of belonging.

 

Another way to address this question is to see how K-pop itself celebrates technological trendiness. K-pop creates desire for something newer, faster, smarter with their never-ceasing production line, just like smartphone companies are pressured to pump out new models that will be better than the previous version. I think being associated with the K-pop scene directly translates into performing one’s tech-savviness and trendiness.