Hallie Wells comments on p. 99 of her dissertation

My dissertation examines how slam poets in Madagascar have forged a novel form of public discourse that emphasizes both freedom of speech and accountability for one’s speech. This illuminates broader questions about how speakers determine what kinds of speech are possible and appropriate in various contexts, how they perform authority, and how they anticipate and manage the consequences of their speech. Slam—a performance poetry competition created in Chicago in the 1980s—has become a popular social movement around the world, but in Madagascar it has flourished in a context that includes pre-colonial genres of verbal art that are central to everyday life and to politics. In many of these genres, public speech has long been reserved for elder men. Slam’s insistence on “free expression” thus constitutes a radical break from long-standing notions of the social roles and risks associated with public speech. Treating the concept of free speech as historically and contextually specific rather than abstract and generalizable, my dissertation shows how Malagasy slam poets balance liberal discourses of individual freedoms with notions of responsibility and accountability, dialogic authority, and embodied relationality.

The excerpt below from page 99, then, is not particularly representative of the rest of the dissertation. It’s a bit of a historical interlude that sets up some of the core issues that I examine later in the chapter, so I return to these ideas about linguistic difference and language politics but without this level of historical detail. Most significantly, this excerpt stands out because it doesn’t reference any of my own fieldwork research, or even mention slam poetry at all. Most other sections are based around ethnographic vignettes, poems, and interviews. But this historical section is critical for understanding the heft and significance of contemporary language politics—the dominance of “official” Malagasy (based on the Merina dialect), and the sociopolitical valences of French versus English. This history is critical to understanding the imbrication of language and public speech with contemporary social inequalities and political and economic networks of power.

from page 99:

[…] The British were eager to forge an alliance with the Merina Kingdom, which in turn was eager to further its control over the rest of the island. As Velomihanta Ranaivo’s (2011) history and analysis of language politics shows, the British support of the Merina Kingdom in developing formal education was structured to train the children of elites in the Highlands. She writes that the emergence of Malagasy as a codified language based on the variety used in the Highlands fits into this logic of subtle domination. It establishes the development of the monarchy via church, school, and press—the favored channels of communication and the diffusion of ideas. This domination is systematically worked from the inside using the existing machinery, which had been progressively transformed within a kingdom in full expansion since 1787, long before missionary incursion. (Ranaivo 2011: 72, my translation)

In 1835, the Merina Kingdom’s reigning monarch, Queen Ranavalona I, began a violent campaign of repressing Malagasy Christians, prompting most missionaries to leave the island and bringing an end to the U.K.-Madagascar alliance forged by her predecessor and husband, King Radama I, and to the evangelization of the country. It also likely enabled the French colonization of Madagascar in 1894: with the British gone, France saw an opportunity to invade. They struck a deal with the British in 1890, in which they ceded Zanzibar in exchange for Madagascar. From a less-than-equal partnership with a foreign power, in which Britain had the military and economic advantage over Madagascar yet recognized the sovereignty of the Malagasy Kingdom, the nation was thrust into more than 70 years of forced labor, extreme poverty and famine, massacres, violent repression, racialized debasement, and cultural and linguistic subjugation.

To speak of the linguistic context of Madagascar today, we must remember that “Malagasy,” while technically one single language, is in practice a catch-all term for a wide variety of dialects. One study found that Bara children in the South do not understand the Merina dialect (Bouwer in Larson 2009: 34), yet Larson nevertheless concludes that dialectal differences are “weak” and “never a hindrance to mutual comprehension” (idem). Larson does not provide evidence for this claim, nor does he expound on what constitutes “comprehension,” a concept I address in Chapter 3. […]

Hallie Wells. 2018. Moving Words, Managing Freedom: The Performance of Authority in Malagasy Slam Poetry. University of California, Phd.

 

Harri Englund on his new book, Gogo Breeze

Interview by Ilana Gershon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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William Mazzarella on his new book, The Mana of Mass Society

http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/M/bo25265716.html

Interview by Elayne Oliphant

Elayne Oliphant: As you acknowledge, this is clearly a “theory book.” But I’d like to start by asking you about the powerful historical argument you also make in this text. You give a name to “a liminal period” from 1870 to 1920 in Euro-American social thought: the mana moment. At this moment, the earlier energetic settlement of the rationalist, bourgeois individual saw itself partly undone by encounters between the Global North and Global South as colonial power was consolidated. In this moment between colonial settlements, a great deal of anxiety surrounded new kinds of seemingly “volatile” publics and “vitalist cults” in arts, ethics, and religion. These anxieties induced a series of attempts to understand these energies that appeared both threatening and appealing. Mana is one of the terms that circulated widely at the time—its availability itself an expression of the encounters between the Global North and Global South—in an attempt to address the vital energies flowing in unexpected directions. Could you tell us a bit more about the mana moment as a historical moment and what signs you see that suggest we are encountering another such moment?

William Mazzarella: First of all, Elayne, let me start by thanking you for these searching and attentive questions. The greatest satisfaction for an author is to be in conversation with a reader like you, who is able to bring the text alive in new ways, who understands it as a generative provocation. So thank you for that.

I also like that you have added another settlement to the ones that I name in the book: the bourgeois settlement. This is one of my hopes for the book: that a concept like settlement will encourage readers to find their own instances in whatever terrain of social life they’re exploring. I do believe that this is a generalizable way of thinking about society and history: this tendency that we have, both in discourse and in institutional life, to impose a kind of fixity on irreducible tensions and then to try to live with the symptomatic eruptions that that imposition will necessarily produce. And we know from psychoanalysis, too, that symptomatic eruptions are perhaps the most intimate thing we have—individually and collectively. They can be debilitating and paralyzing. But if we find ways of living with them, they can also be tremendously productive, again for good or for ill. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons that, although I explicitly characterize Mana as a ‘theory book’ I actually think of it as a ‘method book.’ Sometimes people look confused when I say that!)

But to get to the center of your question: what I’m calling the mana moment, roughly the decades surrounding the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, was, in the Euro-American world, a time of tremendous energetic ferment: politically, aesthetically, architecturally, erotically, esoterically. Old empires were giving way; new ones were being born. The rapacious expansion of European colonialism, for instance in the so-called ‘scramble for Africa,’ coincided with the flourishing of an esoteric depth hermeneutics in psychology, spiritualism, and political analysis. One of the central conceits of my book is borrowed from Walter Benjamin’s eccentric historiography. Benjamin believed that potentials embedded in the past could, as it were, ‘flash up’ unpredictably in the present, become actualized in the present in entirely new ways, thus, in a single dialectical leap, changing our understanding of both the past and its relationship to our present.

These kinds of flashes often come to us intuitively: something becomes visible as a hint or a suggestion, at the corner of our field of vision. We follow it, not quite knowing why or whether it’ll turn out to have been worthwhile. Sometimes it’s a dead end. But other times, a whole series of resonances open up across time. By resonances I don’t mean ‘similarities’ in the conventional sense. I’m not saying that our moment, in the early twenty-first century is necessarily all that similar to what our ancestors were living through a hundred years or so ago. Resonances here means that the two moments seem to contain what Max Weber, following Goethe, called ‘elective affinities’: that, in this case across time, they appear to become more vividly themselves through an encounter with each other. The encounter is constitutive in that it actualizes hitherto untapped potentials.

That’s why the argument that I develop in Mana draws on some old texts in order to open up ways about talking about our present. The work I’ve undertaken will have been successful if both those old texts and our sense of our present emerge looking a bit different from that encounter.

Elayne Oliphant: Let’s spend a little more time with this term, “settlement.” Each chapter addresses a potentially insightful dialectic, such as that between the energies of “primitive” rituals and “civilized” publics. You then use “settlement” to describe a process by which the movement of these dialectics is halted, preventing the continuation of the ambiguities and insights their continued movement provokes. I think the term is enormously productive. It effectively points to the itch it cannot fully scratch. The settlement will have to do for now but—as in the case of Israeli construction in the West Bank for example—it is enacted in order to create a “truth on the ground” precisely because it lacks authority and legitimacy. Settlements, in other words, lack solid foundation and implicitly acknowledge their insufficiency, while also enforcing powerful effects (and affects) in the world. What prompted you to use this term and how do you see it in opposition to your “vitalist dialectics”?  

William Mazzarella: I like your invocation of settler colonial ‘truth on the ground,’ and especially how fragile and anxious that truth is. How full of contradictions, double-speak, and slips—in short, everything we call symptoms. The term ‘settlement’ came to me spontaneously as I was writing that part of Mana. But I realized as soon as it had appeared on my screen that it had this political connotation that worked perfectly for what I was trying to say. Namely, that both critical theory and the worlds it purports to clarify proceed in this way: by establishing ‘truths on the ground’ that are provisional no matter how much they claim permanence, that are violent no matter how much they claim that history and progress are on their side.

As to the second part of your question, how do I see the concept of settlement in opposition to the ‘vitalist dialectics’ that I am proposing as a kind of intellectual method? The short answer would be that I see them in generative opposition. What I am calling vitalist dialectics is a way of allowing the movement of becoming that a settlement stifles to find a generative form in thought. Unlike pure vitalism, this isn’t just about about letting things move. It is dialectical because I understand the tension between social forms and social forces to be at once generative and irreducible. It is a negative dialectic, rather than a dialectic that moves toward sublation and subsumption. A dialectic that starts by saying: “We take these tensions to be irreducible.” But also: “We understand that these tensions are what generate vital worlds.”

Elayne Oliphant: In the Introduction, you seem to offer us a way into thinking about the current moment. You acknowledge that, what Michael Taussig has called, the “mana wave called Trump” circulated as you wrote, edited, and completed the text, further prompting you to question “what powers authority? What in us responds to it? How is vital energy turned into social form” (2)? I know that W.J.T. Mitchell had a similar response to these opening words; like me, he wanted to find in it some sort of a political program. If Trump had managed to capture something incipient and translate it into tangible social form, how might those opposed to his projects similarly make use of mana to critique and undo his authority? Or, as I put it to you at the AES conference, why, generally speaking, does the left seem to really suck at capturing, inducing, or participating in vital energies? And what the hell are we going to do about it? So I want to ask you this question again, but I also want to offer you the chance to explain to me why it’s a somewhat misplaced response to your book. 

William Mazzarella: Even almost a hundred years ago, theorists like Benjamin and Wilhelm Reich, who were interested in what we could call the vital dimensions of the critique of capitalism, noted that the political right seemed to be rather better at harnessing the energies of intoxication and collective effervescence for their political projects than the left. Then, as now, it’s as if the left gets too tied up in a pedagogical urge: it thinks that if it can only explain our common situation to us well enough, then it will have succeeded in mobilizing us. But as Terry Eagleton once satirically pointed out: “Men and women engaged in conflicts do not live by theory alone; socialists have not given their lives over the generations for the tenet that the ratio of fixed to variable capital gives rise to a tendential fall-off in the rate of profit.”

At a time of political urgency like ours, we all feel that we need answers. We want to know how to think about our situation, we want to know what to do about it. We are impatient with rumination and inclined toward action. And so if we are told, as I suggest in Mana, that all social and political action and attachment depends on the activation of collective energies, then it makes sense to want to know how to separate, as it were, ‘good mana’ from ‘bad mana’—genuinely revolutionary mana from reactionary or fascist mana. This, after all, was precisely what Benjamin was trying to do in his canonical ‘Artwork’ essay, which concludes by suggesting that we distinguish between an aestheticization of politics (fascist, bad) and a politicization of aesthetics (revolutionary, good).

In response to these understandable desires—desires that I too feel every day—Mana asks us to slow down and pay a different kind of attention. This is partly because I believe that there is simply no a priori way to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ mana—such that one could set up an institutional fix that would guarantee that the collective energies that emerge from whatever ritual or political form that one has devised will be reliably salutary. What Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert called “the collective forces of society”—and what I am calling “the mimetic archive”—is in this sense beyond good and evil, beyond economy. Its political potentialities are perennially emergent and cannot be guaranteed beforehand. In a mass democracy we tend all too often to act as if all we need to do is elect the right representative or devise the right kind of occasional process, and then we can sit back and watch things go well. No wonder we are so often disappointed when the great soaring hope turns out to have feet of clay. Part of the problem here, too, is that while we are quite conscious of the energies and attachments that we are bringing to the table during moments that are ritually marked off as “political”—rallies, elections, demonstrations and so on—we tend then to underestimate the mana-work that goes into the reproduction of the banality of everyday life, as well as its tight connection to the more grandly imagined dimension of life that we call ‘politics.’ This, by the way, is why I’m so fond of the kind of work that Katie Stewart and Lauren Berlant have been doing, together and separately, for some time now (be sure to check out their forthcoming book The Hundreds): it gives us a way of talking about the hinges between the most ordinary, fleeting moments and their—for want of a better word—“political” resonances, a mode in which everything is allowed to breathe.

The line that I pick up in Mana, perhaps counterintuitively, is Adorno’s aesthetic theory. I say counterintuitively, because Adorno was, if anything, utterly resistant to any kind of explicit politicization of aesthetic judgment. As far as he was concerned, the minute you subordinate aesthetic production to a political purpose, you’ve turned it into propaganda. And by turning it into propaganda, you’ve actually foreclosed the unique thing that art—as opposed to, say, pamphleteering—can do. But at another level, and this is where it links back into what I’m trying to do with Mana as an invitation to a particular kind of political thinking-feeling, at another level what Adorno prescribes for aesthetic judgment is a radical opening of the sensorium to the historical and political potentials that are embedded in the materials out of which the artworks we engage are made. An encounter with what I would call, again, “the mimetic archive.” Of course the major difference between my argument and Adorno’s is that I want to insist that this kind of engagement is in fact possible in the space of mass culture and mass publicity, not just in the esoteric preserve of autonomous art. Here I want to be quite precise: I am not in fact making a populist argument. I am not saying what so many have: that Adorno was simply a snob who didn’t recognize the revolutionary capacities of ordinary popular pleasures. Not at all. What I am saying is that Adorno actually gives us a profoundly provocative way to re-engage mass publicity, an esoteric approach, if you will, to these very exoteric cultural forms.

And that—forgive me the long and winding road!—gets us back to the question of why, at a moment of political urgency like the one we’re inhabiting now, my advice would be to slow down and pay a different kind of attention. Because it’s only by attending to what I like to think of as the esoteric resonances of exoteric public forms (or let’s say, the ‘inner’ dimensions of ‘outer’ forms) that we will be able to move toward a leftist mobilization of the mana of mass society.

Elayne Oliphant: Finally, you mentioned that you saw this text as the fruit of ongoing conversations (in your mind and in person) with two important anthropologists whose work has powerfully influenced your own: Marshall Sahlins and Michael Taussig. Given your earlier writings addressing the Frankfurt school, theories of affect, and advertising, these two scholars might not be the first two that people think of as orienting your work. Could you say a bit more about how they have influenced the questions you ask and the methods you take up, and how this book engages with them?

William Mazzarella: Yes, thanks for this question. Mana emerged in a mad frenzy of writing across two summers, 2015 and 2016. I’d never before felt capable of writing for more than about four hours at a stretch. But especially in the summer of 2015, there were long periods when it was not unusual for me to write for eight hours at a stretch, pausing only to satisfy the needs of the body. Sometimes I would find myself getting so worked up, so energized—“A certain rush of energy” indeed!—that I would have to burst up out of my chair and kind of charge around the room for a few moments. So something definitely possessed me during those months. Who knows whether that will ever happen again? While it was happening it was both exhilarating and a little frightening. It wasn’t unusual for me to think that I was writing something entirely eccentric, something so idiosyncratic that it would simply not be intelligible—would simply not resonate—with anyone else. For that reason, it was tremendously comforting, if also a little intimidating, to realize that two presences seemed to hover, one at each of my shoulders, during the writing process: Marshall Sahlins and Mick Taussig (I’m not going to tell you who was on which side!). I didn’t really question their felt presence during that time; I just drew some kind of comfort as well as some kind of provocation from it.

Once the first draft was finished I felt paralyzed. The thought of sending it to anyone felt equivalent to getting undressed in the middle of the street. (It may not be immediately evident to some readers, but this is by far the most personal text I’ve ever published). So I figured that a little aversion therapy was in order: in order to get over my fear of circulation, I was going to have to send it to the two people whose opinions most terrified me—not least because they had been so reliably present, so watchful during the writing. So, along with sheepish cover notes, I sent the draft to Marshall and Mick. To my great relief, they both responded generously and kindly, with a great deal of enthusiasm.

It wasn’t really until after that had happened that I began to think about why it was Marshall and Mick who had shown up, albeit spectrally, in my office while I was writing. It now seems to me that Marshall Sahlins’ work offered me a kind of reassurance that writing this kind of a book was legitimate for an anthropologist. Specifically, I think of Marshall’s Culture and Practical Reason (1976), a book that he wrote when he was at a similar point in his life as I was when I wrote Mana, and a book that, like Mana, is a work of conceptual clarification that doubles as a sort of intellectual autobiography—a way of sorting out one’s influences, engaging in a few intimate polemics (the only polemics that really matter), and figuring out a way forward. And of course both Culture and Practical Reason and Mana, as different as their intellectual commitments in many ways are, end with analyses of marketing.

Mick Taussig has always inspired me with his willingness to think speculatively, to look, precisely, for those resonances between places and texts that open up sudden flashes of unexpected illumination. Now of course there are many points of overlap between the Mana and Mick’s books—the concern with mimesis, with Adorno and especially Benjamin, and the attempt to retrieve something vital from what is too often dismissed as the age of armchair anthropology. So, if I may invoke one of the key dialectics of my discussion in Mana, Marshall’s presence supported me at the level of form, whereas Mick’s drove me on at the level of life. 

Catherine Fennell on her new book, Last Project Standing

https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/last-project-standing

Interview by Janet Connor

Janet Connor: If you were at dinner with an urban planner, maybe not from Chicago but from another large American city, how would you describe your book?

Catherine Fennell: It’s a challenging question because tbbhe topic of public housing is utterly over-determined by public sentiments and an ongoing history of racism that reduce the complexity of subsidized housing in the U.S. to a particular kind of place — “the projects”. These sentiments and this history also tend to paint this particular kind of place as particularly decrepit, impoverished, and black. All this despite the fact that the vast majority of public housing projects in the U.S. provided sound housing to people who fell into a range of economic and social categories. These reductions make it difficult to appreciate the extent to which many Americans’ lives are bound up in the project of state subsidized housing. They also collapse people into place, making it near impossible to divorce the imagined decrepitude of “the projects” from the imagined depravity of their residents. These potent sentiments shape the kinds of questions that often get asked about housing projects and the kinds of debates they anchor.  And they also shape what urban planners learn to recognize as successful housing. And they shape the kinds of urban development interventions that gain traction. So I’d want to be careful about how I set up a book that was always more interested in how such sentiments gather and circulate within and beyond a housing project, than in proving particular iterations of such sentiments right or wrong.

I’d start by sketching the Chicago case: A ten, then fifteen year urban planning experiment that has demolished some 25,000 units in the city’s public housing projects, partially replaced them with smaller mixed-income developments designed to promote mainstream employment, and displaced some 75,000 Chicagoans, many of them impoverished African Americans.  I’d tell planners that this case is worth learning about even if they never pick up my book because this case guided the direction of national policy. More than that, though, it also gets at the heart of why many planners who I’ve met get into planning in the first place: to realize more inclusive cities. Then I’d tell them two more things. First, that I’ve left it to scholars better versed in policy assessment to determine whether or not Chicago’s experiment has succeeded on the terms it set out to succeed. Second, I’d emphasize that there are compelling questions to bring to an urban planning project that have little to do with assessments of success or failure.

When ethnographers show up in housing studies, academics and practitioners alike expect them to be focused on “the lived experiences” of marginalized peoples. Throughout my research, people often understood my purpose as relaying the voices of public housing residents. This focus has done so much good, yet it can reinforce the idea that housing projects have been worlds unto themselves, removed from “mainstream” social and political life. So, I’d explain to the planners that I designed my research to foreground moments in which a range of urbanites collided with a built environment in tremendous social and material flux. This included, of course, public housing residents transitioning out of one housing project on Chicago’s West Side. But it also included their new middle-income neighbors, social workers and advocates, politicians, and even people who assumed that they had nothing at all to do with public housing.  I’d tell them that focusing on people as they collided with the people and things of changing public housing, like the ferocious decay of under-maintained buildings, the unnerving loudness or silence of new neighbors, or the presumed poignancy of public housing residents’ struggles, allowed me to analyze how urbanites might become attuned to the problem of poverty and its alleviation in a “neoliberal” policy climate. This would be a climate in which state and municipal agencies step further and further away from the provision of low-income housing and related services, even as they recruit urbanites in their capacity as neighbors or simply concerned citizens to become more involved in caring for the poor.

Finally, I’d want to offer several concrete cases from my research that presented discrete problems that planners might be in a position to address. I’d do this because problems like a systemic lack of financing for maintenance, a narrow conception of who or what constitutes a legitimate household, or appropriate practices of energy consumption very much impact low-income people who are living within or seeking subsidized housing. My interlocutors leaving public housing want and need these issues addressed in a thoughtful manner, and I see no reason why anthropologists cannot contribute to that.

Janet Conner: Central to the book’s argument is the concept of sympathy, which you describe as “a communicative mechanism whose subscribers invest it with the capacity to extend feelings, qualities, and visceral states across very different entities” (p. 7). How does this concept help you think about the ways public housing residents, social workers, and other Chicagoans who appear in your book navigate housing reforms? Why should anthropologists concerned with questions of communication be interested in sympathy? 

Catherine Fennell: Sometimes it seems that you come to a concept only after pushing against others that seem perfectly plausible but that don’t quite fit the material you’re working with. Late in the process of writing my dissertation I had a conversation with Danilyn Rutherford about my hesitations concerning the analysis of my material in terms of writings on affect theory. Specifically, I was hesitant about how some of this work presented the experience of visceral intensity as something that escaped language. Was this a suggestion that such experience eludes social mediation? If not, how should an anthropologist approach the affective resonances of social and political life? Rutherford suggested that I look at the classic work on sympathy. This was an extremely helpful and generous suggestion and it ended up completely changing my thinking and writing for the book. It helped me move toward a conceptual framework that would be alive to two things. First, it allowed me to foreground the visceral intensities of fraught collisions between my interlocutors, the disappearing built environments of Modernist-Era social welfare projects, and the emerging ones of a “neoliberal” communitarianism. Second, it allowed me to track how social worlds structured by profound racial and economic discrimination realigned the people, places, and things of disappearing projects. What attracted me about the classic concept of sympathy (as articulated by thinkers like Hume, Ribot, and Frazer) is precisely its capacity to accommodate material and visceral forces alongside meaningful coordination.  I don’t consider myself a linguistic anthropologist, but I think that any anthropologist interested in communication could learn something that anchors what we now call affective experience firmly within social and political life.

Janet Connor: Your use of sympathy also allows you to weave together an analysis across many different scales that may at first seem only tenuously related, from the materiality of your interlocutors’ bodies and the buildings in which they live, to feelings of community both within and near public housing, to broader notions of citizenship. Could you explain how you think about scale in this book?

Catherine Fennell: Again, there’s a tendency in urban studies to treat housing projects as worlds unto themselves. So, research will unfold within the walls of a public housing project, or, researchers will aggregate data collected from discrete public housing communities. This makes sense given how the tradition of community studies continues to inflect urban ethnography, and given just how much patterns of racial and economic discrimination have set public housing projects physically and socially apart from their surrounds. Yet I was interested in how “the projects” had become, as one of my interlocutors put it, “a lightning rod” for debates about the nature of collective urban and more broadly, social welfare and obligation at the very moment state agencies stepped away from welfare provision. So, I needed to find a way to work across a number of scales that I considered relevant to this problem — legislative maneuvers or media spectacles surrounding “the urban crisis,” but also everyday navigation of a changing urban built environment, everything from the discomfort surrounding the strange sociability of new neighbors to the sinking but vague sense that large scale demolition portended massive displacement. Thinking with sympathy allowed me to move across scenes and scales that all foregrounded the problem of how citizens learn to care differently for or just about one another at a moment of state divestment.  I know these shifts of perspective and scale might not sit well with readers who have a clear sense of what the “object” of a study concerning public housing should and should not be. I respect that. Yet I hope just the same my book is a contribution toward thinking about what multi-sited archival and ethnographic work might bring to urban studies and contemporary anthropology.

Janet Connor: When linguistic anthropologists think of publics, we often think of their emergence through the circulation of discourse and textual materials. You discuss publics somewhat differently, particularly focusing on the role of embodiment and emplacement. Could you elaborate on how you understand publics? How methodologically can we as anthropologists study this kind of expanded conception of a public?

Catherine Fennell:

I’ve learned so much from work within linguistic anthropology that centers on publics. Linguistic anthropologists understand that the discursive encounters from which a sense of “belonging” to a collectivity of strangers emerges have some kind of material infrastructure. In other words, that publics are discursive formations that have consequential social and material dimensions. At the same time, it seemed to me that there was even more room to think about that consequential materiality in terms of built form. It seemed to me that thinking publicity through built form might give us a stronger understanding of urban publics — collectivities of strangers who presume “the urban” as a significant frame for social and political belonging. It suspected that such an endeavor would add much to the burgeoning literature on “cities and citizenship.” Now I think that endeavor is even more important because we’re seeing assertions of political sovereignty in the United States focused on “the urban”; consider for instance the “sanctuary cities” debates or moves by some municipalities to issue their own IDs or organizing critical benefits like paid family leave. We could learn much about urban citizenship by thinking through the formation of specifically urban publics. The question of course is how to do this if you’re not going to focus exclusively on discourse, its circulations and its layering.

There’s a strand of work in political theory, geography, sociology, and anthropology that sees public spaces as key to stranger sociability and political debate. I find this work dissatisfying because it takes one genre of public space — the street, the park, the square that would be open to all regardless of “race,” status, creed and so on — as indispensable to robust democratic politics. It seems to me that this approach replicates how Habermas idealizes one historically and socially specific universe of discourse as indispensable to proper democratic politics. I wanted instead to think about how urbanites become attuned to any built form as significant to the lives that they imagine themselves to be leading in common with others. It seemed possible to chart how specific encounters are mediated in some way by built forms that prodded people to re-imagine their relations to others with whom they shared their city. I was actually inspired here by a passing remark that Habermas makes early in the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. “Publicity has changed its meaning,” he complains. “Originally a function of public opinion it has become an attribute of whatever attracts public opinion.” For him, the rise of mass media has diluted publicity’s central purpose — to support “the public” as it articulates collective opinions and critical judgments in the service of reasoned democratic governance. This is a derisive definition of publicity, but its remarkable under-specificity suggests that a range of forms, like speech but also a building, could be implicated in the communicative practices that summon people to collective meanings, commitments, and identifications. I set out in my book to sketch some of those forms.