Nina Sylvanus on her new book, Patterns in Circulation

Interview by Ilana Gershon

If you found yourself sharing a taxi to the AAA conference with a media anthropologist studying Chinese soap operas, how would you explain your book’s major points?

It’s funny that you mention soap operas since some of the names that are given to the (pagne) cloth that features at the heart of the book are named after (or inspired by) the characters of popular Ivorian and Latin American soap operas. A pattern called “Ricardo’s suitcase” for example is named after the hero of a Brazilian telenovela, and there are many others that broadcast images about power and politics, beauty and wealth, and romance and conflict between men and women in global West Africa. I’d probably continue to talk more about the framing and analytical connections between television, cloth, and the global-local mediations of popular culture, but let me get to the book’s major points.

In the book I take a mundane object –the pagne or the boldly patterned wrap that women wear in large parts of West Africa—to trace its origins, paths of circulation, and its technical and social production from Holland to Java, from Togo to the broader West African region, and now from China back to Africa. Drawing upon archival research and multi-sited fieldwork, the book theorizes the material economies of this iconic commodity (so-called Dutch wax cloth), born out of 19th-century Dutch colonial efforts to copy Javanese batik cloth for Southeast Asian markets, and reborn as a cultural and status marker for West African women. I think of this wax-printed cloth as a vibrant object and an assembled commodity, whose fabrication is uniquely entangled in both imperial circuits of commerce and more recent controversies over piracy and appropriation.

At the heart of this work are two metaphors. First is a visual metaphor: “pattern”–the idea of (memorable) recurring forms that we see and recognize across time and space. Secondly, there is “dense materiality” –the notion that there are properties inherent in the cloth that gives it material agency, and yet it is manipulated by its wearer and brought to life by the body. Through analysis of the cloth, my book reveals the making, unmaking and remaking of relationships between things, people, and the institutions that govern them. While the material object is at the center of the story, the book pays close attention to its various uses and to the way it extends out into different spaces: into the market, into the world of national Togolese politics, and into factory floors in Holland and China.


Chapter 3 focuses on analyzing wax cloth as a medium central to political spectacle and the formation of Togo as a nation, I was hoping you could talk a bit about the analytical implications of engaging with cloth this way.  Taking cloth to be a medium particularly well suited to the political in Togo allows you to add to Benedict Anderson’s argument about how national identity emerges, and am hoping you can talk about how using cloth makes this a specifically Togolese form of nationalism.

To answer this question is to address the chapter’s central arguments about how a material object such as cloth helped forge national identity in intimate and public terms in Togo. I have to start with the Nana Benz’s role in the representational order of the nation. The term Nana Benz refers to the powerful Togolese cloth traders who controlled the West African wax cloth trade from the 1950s to the 1990s, until political crisis, neoliberal reform and Chinese knock-offs derailed their hold on the economy. Named this way because these market ‘mothers’ used their wealth to buy the Mercedes Benz cars, which they then lent to the long time president-dictator, the Nana Benz built their financial power by controlling the circulation of cloth and embedding the cloth’s semiotic power (and their branding power) into the order of the nation. The Nana Benz made the nation both intimate and palpable, by trading on national associations in the popular pattern names they bestowed on pagne, thus enabling ordinary Togolese to partake in the narrative of nation-building through their everyday consumption of cloth.

Anderson’s argument about print capitalism is useful for considering how wax cloth (pagne) reached the masses, solidifying communal identities while registering national, ethnic, and gender differences. This is what makes cloth a particularly well-suited medium to the political and the specific brand of Togolese nationalism. The efficacy of this particular type of cloth and its association with Nana Benz-style nationalism is reflected in the common stories Togolese remember about the cloth traders, which offer insights into the way the Nana Benz (and their powerful stock in trade) captured people’s imaginations.  My analysis draws out the “dense materiality” of cloth and the way it can at once evoke sentiment and move imaginaries and bodies while grounding the political and the nation in its materiality and visibility. Because cloth provides a surface for multiple narrations and representations (the literal image layered onto the cloth for everyone to see and the bundle of unbridled meaning it generates and that is open for manipulation) it was made to work as a medium that inscribed and disseminated the political spectacle and embodied power. For instance, when the portrait of the Togolese dictator Eyadéma (in power for nearly 40 years) appeared on cloth, the fabric literally captured the body politic during political spectacles when wearing the presidential party pagne became practically obligatory.


During the course of your research, how to be a successful trader transformed to such a degree that who was or could be successful shifted dramatically.  Could you explain how trading cloth changed to such a degree during those ten years that the Nana Benz was replaced by the Nanette?

One of the most dramatic events that fundamentally changed the nature of the regional cloth trade was the 1994 currency devaluation of the West African CFA franc: when the price of cloth doubled over night and practically turned an everyday consumer good into a luxury item. At the same time, shifts in global production, the liberalization of Togo’s political, economic and public spheres and the undoing of the old system of cloth distribution, which had granted the women traders exclusive retail rights to the (Dutch) designs, all weakened the Nana Benz’s place in the market. With the breakdown of national protections in post-Cold War Togo –amidst the crisis of the state, the unraveling of the dictatorship and national structures (Charlie Piot describes this process brilliantly in Nostalgia for the Future)– the Nana Benz’s position as entrepreneurial nationals diminished, if it wasn’t devalued all together.  So when this system fell apart, a new set of female Togolese entrepreneurs, the Nanette, began collaborating with Chinese companies to produce better and better imitations of Dutch wax, undermining the very basis of class distinction in Togo as well as throwing wax cloth production and distribution into chaos.

Over the course of a decade-long fieldwork (2000-2010), I witnessed the struggles, and in some cases the financial ruin, of the old guard of cloth entrepreneurs whose profit margins continued to decline while some Nanettes accumulated fortunes. Although the Nana Benz initially denigrated the new China prints that the Nanettes distributed to cash-constrained consumers as fakes, some of the older women entered the China trade with varying degrees of success. For the new trade required a new kind of entrepreneurial subjectivity and savvy, including the ability to operate multiple trades at the same time.  As subtle neoliberal actors, the Nanettes fashioned themselves entrepreneurially through the flexibility of cloth, moving themselves and cloth in and out of Chinese factory floors. But tinkering with cloth design, engineering copies while teaching Chinese manufacturers about the qualia of cloth — its texture, color, and smell— to enhance its sensuous and aesthetic properties is also a high-risk affair. I saw several Nanettes ruin themselves when the containers of cloth they had commissioned arrived at the port with unsellable (that is, faulty) merchandise. Navigating the fluctuations of a market where profit is made from the speed of copying and moving things transnationally, requires a distinct set of entrepreneurial dispositions. A successful Nanette not only appropriates neoliberal logics but she mobilizes an autonomous set of practices and subjectivities by constantly moving herself and cloth, cultivating close relationships with powerful port brokers, and involving herself with innovative open-source design and production.


What does the story of China’s role in Africa look like when one begins by looking at the trade relationships surrounding cloth?

The circuit of capital built in the corridor between Africa and China is often portrayed as the new axis of South-South exploitation in Western media and policy discourses. Lurking behind this new axis are often ideological fears about the decline of the West in the world and the appearance of new global empires. Simplistic descriptions of Chinese neo-colonialism fall short in accounting for the complex ways that objects enter into and make social life, history and transnational trade. Looking closely at the materiality of trade and cloth allows moving beyond clichés about new forms of colonialism to ethnographically study what Chinese investment in Africa means for the people who work and live there.

What I try to show in the book is how China-in-Africa or China-in-Togo for that matter is made through complex patterns of coproduction and cross-positioning. Nanettes traveling to China leverage considerable agency with Chinese manufacturers who depend on the women’s deep knowledge about the qualia of cloth and consumer taste. These are intimate encounters, when traders spend weeks at a time on a single factory floor and become producers of their own brands. Which does not mean that traders and consumers view the dominance of Chinese goods on local markets as unproblematic. There are many symbols, metaphors and stories that are associated with Chinese traders who dupe the population with low quality goods in the city. Yet beliefs about the aggressive business practices of Chinese traders are often contradicted by the traders’ actual practices.

I am currently in Togo to work on my new project on Chinese investments in the Lomé port (Harboring the Future) and have had time to reconnect with the China-trading women in the market. While some complain that there is no longer money to be made in Chinese cloth (partially because there is too much of it), others speak of a strengthened partnership with their Chinese manufacturers. Certainly, what this trade relationship surrounding cloth reveals is the patterning of a new phase of global capitalism–whether that is capitalism with “Chinese characteristics” à la Aihwa Ong or a new form of (last) frontier capitalism remains to be seen.


Goebel interviews Lauren Zentz on her new book

Interview by Zane Goebel

Briefly, what is this book about?

In this book I explore the history of power and human movement throughout the Indonesian archipelago in order to understand the scaling of language forms that has taken place over centuries, during colonialism and the development of the post-colonial state, and now in an Indonesia coping with the processes of ‘globalization’. I collected my data during a 2 month stay in Central Java in 2008, a 10 month stay in the 2009-10 school year, and another 2 month stay in the summer of 2013. My participants were English majors at a Christian university; I spent the 2009-10 school year teaching courses in their department ranging from Sociolinguistics to introductory speaking for first year majors. I recruited my focal participants in my Fall 2009 Sociolinguistics course. Over the course of our year together I interviewed the participants in individual and group settings, and spent time with them and other students outside of classes over dinner, coffee, church, or at their family homes.

In this book I first discuss the theoretical concepts I used to interpret my data, then I explore the history of power and migration throughout the archipelago. I relate this history then to the development of Indonesian as a national language, and to contemporary use and ‘loss’ of Javanese, the primary local language of Central Java. Finally I discuss the overwhelming presence of English in Indonesia, and how the ‘state project’ generally relies on and resists English and its presence in the country. In all, this is an examination of how these three languages fit within the national project, and how the state continues to try to influence the ways in which they are used and the ways in which they are tied to the national, local, and global identities of their citizens.

Which field(s) do you think your book engages with the most?

This book engages with the fields of Sociolinguistics, Linguistic Anthropology, and Applied Linguistics. I’ve been a lifelong ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, and so I prefer to reach across disciplinary boundaries as much as possible in trying to gain a holistic picture of my research context. It is in this sense that I find it useful to rely on the label of Applied Linguist, as through this title I feel less beholden to any one field, and I feel like I can drive my work toward my long-term end goal of improving societies through education, language learning, and intercultural exchange. I am also not a fully ‘pedigreed’ Linguistic Anthropologist, and so it is possible that a reader from the field of Linguistic Anthropology will find my work ‘not anthropological enough.’ And so again, the application of the Applied Linguist label, I feel, allows me more freedom to take my work in whatever directions I feel interested in for the purposes of the project at hand and for my own long-term goals.

Who have been the main scholars that have inspired you as you have written this book?

I have most strongly latched onto in my work the writings of Jan Blommaert, Alastair Pennycook, and Monica Heller for theory, and onto Anthropologists of Education for my methods, namely through foundational coursework with Perry Gilmore for Discourse Analysis, with Norma González for general field methods, and with Richard Ruíz for Language Policy studies.

Besides the normal suspects of Linguistic Anthropologists, Applied Linguistics folk and Indonesianists, who do you see as your main readership?

This is clearly a book for graduate students and professionals in the field. I hope that readers will take away from this book the importance of situating our work within deeper historical contexts. Part of this importance for me comes from the desire to explain that Indonesia’s current historical context is not the way it is simply because of the development of the nation-state in reaction to European colonialism. Many of Indonesia’s current sociolinguistic facts are due to human currents and power dynamics that have been going on for far longer. Those deeper historical dynamics are possibly much more evident on islands farther away from Indonesia’s political and cultural ‘centers’ like the islands of Java and Sumatra. It is probable that in Java we in fact see some of the consequences of colonialism and statification as much more influential in contemporary life, or at least that we see them quite differently across contexts within this one expansive country.

What do you think were your best strategies to help you get this book completed?

For me the answer was keeping a schedule. I’m no proponent of one size fits all solutions, but for me, having a life outside of my work is a serious key to maintaining sanity. During summer writing periods I would keep a regular 8-5ish work schedule with exercise before or after (or in the middle if I was getting antsy) work time, and I would take regular work breaks consisting of a walk outside (100 degree Fahrenheit heat be damned!). During semesters, I would limit teaching work to teaching days, and I would keep the other days of the week as research-only days. Tasks like grading were reserved for times when I was too tired to do much thought-intensive work.

As you wrote the book and reflected on your research methodologies, did anything strike you as something in need of change?

For me the biggest thing was adding the historical component. As I began writing my book I just felt that this was an empty story without that. So I spent a lot of time during the writing process digging into historical accounts of how Indonesia has come to be. Another important thing to me was taking time to problematize terms that earlier I did not have the time nor the experience to problematize; words such as ‘globalization’ and ‘translanguaging’/’polylanguaging’/etc. For the former I reached across disciplinary boundaries to see how other fields approach this term, and for the latter I took more time to delve into writings on these topics, from across linguistic fields.

Has this book motivated you to start the next book/project? If so, then can you tell us a little about your new work.

I’m not sure if writing a book inspires anyone to write another one! But I will admit that having written a first book makes me feel more confident in having a go at another one. That being said, I am currently reminded daily that having this experience under my belt does not make a second project go any faster or smoother. I have moved on to two new projects – neither in Indonesia – and starting from scratch is simply starting from scratch, no matter whether it’s your first, third, or fifth research project. It all just takes lots of time, reading, data collection (and revision and revision and revision), note taking, and patience.


Ieva Jusionyte on her new book, Savage Frontier

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

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

Interview by Ilana Gershon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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