Omotayo’s book, You Can’t Go to War Without Song

Tayo Jolaosho died on October 21, 2021, months before their book was published in July 2022. We honor their work and memory with an interview with their dissertation advisor, Dorothy Hodgson, about their insights.

Interview by Deborah Durham

Deborah Durham: First let me say how devastating it is that the author themself cannot answer these questions: their book, You Can’t Go to War Without Song, is so full of life, and promise. One thing that struck me in particular about the book was how attuned Omotayo was to the embodied dimensions of performance, from toyi-toying in the streets to discomforts and assertions in South African offices. Their accounts of embodied political activism are so powerful because of their combined intimacy and acute insight. How did Omotayo come to have such intimacy with embodiment and performance?

Dorothy Hodgson: I share your devastation.  I had the honor of serving as Tayo’s PhD advisor and mentor, and eventually their close friend. Although Tayo (who used the pronouns they/them) is no longer with us, I have the benefit of being able to cite their own words to answer some of these questions from their various application letters, personal and research statements, and other sources I have kept over the years. Their words will appear in italics.

Tayo’s extraordinary book, You Can’t Go to War Without Song, draws on their formative experiences of embodiment and performance growing up in Nigeria and later as a playwright, performer, poet, and singer at Simon’s Rock College of Bard, where they started at the age of 14. At Simon’s Rock, they studied music and integrated arts, won a national playwriting competition, and twice received the Division of the Arts prize, awarded by the faculty to recognize significant contributions to the division of Arts and Aesthetics.

In the course of my life, I have had the opportunity to experience the power and importance of the art both personally and within a process of community. Growing up in Nigeria, whereas in many other parts of Africa, the arts are not divorced from everyday life, my consciousness of and passion for the arts was nurtured. I remember how each morning my mother, my brother and I would gather to sing hymns; song and dance would also manifest in the course of our daily duties and activities, in our childhood play, in storytelling, etc. These artistic expressions served as our inheritance as members of a community.

This connection to the arts did not leave me when I came to live in the United States. In fact, it only deepened to the point of my going on to study music and integrated arts at an undergraduate level. When asked why I chose to pursue this course of study as opposed to “something more practical” my response came easily: music and performance saved my life, for me there’s nothing more practical than that. Music and performance enabled me to preserve a presence of mind, a sense of identity and functioned as catharsis for me during a traumatic period of living in a physically, sexually and emotionally abusive home. Singing songs written by others but which nonetheless told my story encouraged me and served as my resistance in that it became a source through which I could express my dissent without fear of adverse consequences. It enabled me to speak my dissent in the presence of my “guardians” but under the protection of someone else’s voice.

What Tayo called their “passion for creative expression” infused every aspect of their scholarly, professional and personal life. Some of my favorite memories are watching them start many presentations- whether their dissertation defense, a public talk, a conference panel – with song.  They would close their eyes, take a deep breath, and start singing with no accompaniment – usually one of the songs dear to the activists they worked with in South Africa. Initially, audience members would be startled, but quickly entranced and moved as Tayo demonstrated their argument – the power of performance to disrupt and shape the world.

Deborah Durham: Following through on that, Omotayo engaged with issues of women’s rights, dignity and ubuntu, and concern with inequality though a variety of expressive media – could you tell us more about their writing and work outside of conventional anthropological ethnography?

Dorothy Hodgson: All of Tayo’s work pushed – and often broke – the boundaries of
so-called conventional ethnography.  Two notable products were what they called “performance ethnography” and “digital anthropology”- explanations and examples of both are available on their still-live website.

As a performer myself, I have a unique opportunity to explore the benefits of ethnographic performance for research and dissemination, including through policy. Towards this, I developed a one-woman show based on my interviews and field notes with South African women activists. The show, “Three Women (Break The Silence),” subsequently expanded into an ensemble piece that examines what it means to find one’s voice amidst gendered repression and restrictions on women’s bodily and sexual autonomy. These themes—of harassment and consent, in particular—have risen to prominence in political debate and public discourse here in the United States and in South Africa, especially over the past two years with the resurgence of #MeToo as a worldwide movement. Being a work of theatre, Three Women highlights these concerns in non-didactic ways, seeking rather to open audiences to further dialogue and inquiry into African women’s lives and varied experiences. Following a staged reading at the renowned Market Theatre Lab in Johannesburg in 2018, the play received a touring production in three South African cities in 2019.

In addition to their powerful show, “Three Women (Break The Silence),” which I had the pleasure of seeing them perform at the 2017 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders and Sexualities at Hofstra University, Tayo was also finalizing a digital anthropology project, “The Freedom Sung Project,” which they described as: an online interactive exhibit built from a digital collection of video footage and song recordings I made during ethnographic fieldwork in South Africa. The collection includes over 120 footage hours of unedited interviews and coverage of collective rallies that countered the invisibility experienced by politically marginalized communities. The online exhibit will serve as a companion site for [my] book … and will feature snippets of interviews with activists, edited video footage documenting protests and performances, select music tracks, images, and analysis.

Deborah Durham: There is, in You Can’t Go to War, a kind of disappointment in the possibility of social movements in such situations of extreme inequality and, for many, lack of basic resources. Movements get routinized; high-level protests generate low-level disputes and tensions; South Africa remains the most unequal country in the world (in Gini coefficient) and, nationally, its infrastructure is increasingly failing everyone. How did Omotayo retain a sense of hope in the face of this?

Dorothy Hodgson: As anyone who met Tayo, even briefly, recognized: they were an extraordinarily smart and gifted person: an accomplished playwright, singer, and performer; a brilliant student and scholar; a compassionate, engaged ethnographer; and a joyful soul. Tayo’s fierce, joyous engagement with the world and search for hope and meaning was also tempered, at times, by despair: not just about the dire situation in South Africa, but the brutal violence of structural racism, sexism and homophobia in the United States that they witnessed and experienced as a queer person of color. Like many people, their despair was amplified by the uncertainties, restrictions, loneliness, and losses of the COVID pandemic.

In the face of these at-times overwhelming challenges, they used their gifts and skills to try to understand the deep disparities of the world and do what they could to bring change – whether through their writing, teaching, singing, yoga, or activism. And they were brave- defying convention at every turn. They actively sought embodied ways to heal, hope and change the world: through learning and excelling at capoeira, becoming certified as a yoga instructor and starting a yoga practice, and in 2020, at the height of racial justice protests amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, founding a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting healing and collective recovery for multiple marginalized individuals and communities. Tayo was also an exceptional teacher and mentor, committed to educating new generations of scholar-activists through engaged, experiential forms of teaching and learning. In all these acts, they embodied hope. I think the dedication of the book sums up the source of their hope: “For our dead, not a moment’s silence, but a lifetime of struggle.”

Patricia G. Lange discusses The Routledge Companion to Media Anthropology

Media is fundamentally about connection. Around the world, life is being lived through mediated artifacts and technologies. Its pervasiveness invites numerous questions for understanding human experience today. For example, how might we disentangle perceptions of our lives’ events from the media through which we experience them? Is it even possible or desirable to hope for such disentanglement? How are the politics of the current moment reified or challenged by currently available media? What should we expect from the emerging technologies of tomorrow, and what should we demand from their design and implementation? As media anthropologists we recognize that understanding contemporary interaction involves analyzing what media is and does for our encounters and societies, and how it impacts what some argue should be a shared reality in an environment under threat.

The new edited volume, The Routledge Companion to Media Anthropology (Routledge, September 29, 2022), collectively tackles provocative questions that revolve around the relationship between media as exchange and issues of inequality, social change, identity, migration, mobility, relationships, and politics. We define media as that which connects people to each other, and to systems and technologies. Early in the volume’s initial conceptualization, we as editors agreed to invoke an intentionally broad definition to invite inclusive reflection on connections between individual interactions and larger socio-cultural systems. Our cover playfully depicts a robot and a television hardly able to process each other, an image which reflects the ongoing confrontation between different forms of media and their changing relationships to each other. We are delighted that the image connotes the wide range of media we set out to explore, including TV, radio, newspapers, gaming, social media, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality.

When initiating the project, we were confronted with a daunting task. How do we organize a staggering amount of research and scholars in a single volume? Part of our inspiration to create the volume was that over the last two decades, numerous significant and dramatic changes deeply impacted the landscape of the field. Although it is possible to organize such a volume in many ways, we elected to divide the terrain into three major parts, “Histories,” “Approaches,” and “Thematic Considerations.” In the “Histories” section, we invited long-term scholars in the field to reflect on the origins of media anthropology as a discipline and how their own work helped establish its terrain. Through these chapters, our volume provides a rich grounding in major themes that helped launch and subsequently coalesce the field. These chapters trace how media anthropology developed as technologies and communication systems changed, and how anthropological studies of indigenous media greatly helped to consolidate the field in the 1990s.

In the “Approaches” section, we invoke the literal definition of the word “approach,” to mean “to come nearer to something.” We intended the material in this section to come nearer to understanding what media actually means and does in specific cultural contexts. We elected to focus on how media may be seen as a type of “Infrastructure,” or may be analyzed in terms of its “Materialities,” its commensurate “Practices,” or in terms of “Interpretations.” Although particular media cannot be contained within single categories, this framework nevertheless proved useful for understanding media’s complex dimensions, as well as the opportunities and complications that ensue from its use in supporting social life. The third part, “Thematic Considerations,” focuses on themes that are pertinent in our current moment in the 21st century, including, “Relationships,” “Social Inequality and Marginalization,” “Identities and Social Change,” “Political Conservatism,” “Surveillance,” and “Emerging Technologies.” Together, these chapters collectively draw attention to how anthropological theories and methods identify inequities and their sources, including old and new forms of marginalization, their causes, and potential inspirations for their resolution.

As we worked through the volume, we realized that a work such as this may be organized in numerous ways. We therefore chose to supplement the volume with an Appendix that identifies crucial themes that cut across sections. Such themes include: “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” “Failures,” “Games and Gaming,” “Global South,” “Labor and Entrepreneurship,” “LGBTQ+,” “Methods,” “Media Types,” and the specific “Countries” that are represented in the volume. We wanted the volume to serve as a useful teaching tool, and the Appendix is intended to support courses that engage with particular subjects. The volume ambitiously draws from over 40 contributors researching media in 25 countries, namely: Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Namibia, Nepal, The Netherlands, Peru, Romania, South Korea, Sweden, Trinidad, Turkey, Uganda, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Given the breadth of media scholarship, a key goal for our volume was to consider diversity from a number of perspectives. Evocative of media’s connective connotations, the volume itself mediates between different research projects across time and space, and between disciplinary fields, ethnicities of contributors, and research generations. We are deeply grateful to our forebears who carved out a space for dialogue and research in this field, and we wished to continue the conversation. Since the earliest volumes of media anthropology emerged at the turn of the millennium, much has changed in the types of communication technologies available, and the research questions they inspire. Whereas earlier volumes focused on mass media and issues of representation and interpretation, today’s widespread availability of media invites exploration about the materiality, technologies, and emergent practices that are not only widely accessible in terms of media production, but also influence myriad interactions and perceptions about the world.

We as editors did not want to see the volume become a mere repository for prior scholarly work. In addition, given that many fields involve analyzing media, we specifically wished to emphasize the contribution of anthropological theories and ethnographic methods. Therefore, in order to participate in our project, each contributor was asked to explicitly engage with new findings on their media research, thus bringing a new intervention into the field in our volume. Contributors were also asked to directly trace how anthropological theories and methods contributed to their insights. The volume thus contains intriguing ideas and reflections on new anthropological methods and approaches. Given the fine methods handbooks already available, we elected not to focus on methods for our volume. Nevertheless, the invitation to incorporate anthropological approaches produced new insights in method, in areas such as updates on longitudinal research, the idea of money as media, photomedia as anthropology, and content as practice, to cite a few examples.  

To offer a plurality of voices and perspectives, the volume connects past scholarship to future research. We invited chapters from up-and-coming scholars with exciting new projects and research questions. We also incorporated chapters covering new technologies on the horizon. A section on “Emerging Technologies” deals with media that have not yet been integrated into daily life, but are quickly gaining traction. These chapters take a critical eye on how technologies such as augmented reality, virtual realities, and algorithms might be reimagined to serve varied populations. The volume engages in new debates in thorny areas such as surveillance, algorithmic justice, and the ongoing battle for mediated truth.

Today’s research questions in media anthropology frequently revolve around the disruptions of media within larger media ecologies. Rather than produce definitive findings that can be generalized across fieldwork projects, scholarly areas, and genres, the volume instead makes connections between perspectives—some of them opposing—thus enlivening debates in the field. Not all contributors—or we suspect, readers—will necessarily agree on interpretations, meanings, or impacts of specific mediated acts. For example, media anthropologists are often reluctant to engage in “effects” claims, given the many factors that inevitably contribute to social change and worldviews. Our volume tackles this debate head-on with chapters that provide not only discussions of effects within particular field sites, but also invite collective reflection on making claims about media’s impact in the current era of widespread media production and availability. While media is one factor in a constellation of cultural and social factors that shape our experiences and perspectives, at the same time, close readings of many studies—past and present—reveal that exploring the effects of media continues to form a central and defining element of many of our research projects.  

We as editors envisioned a volume that was balanced and circumspect with regard to media’s efficacy. Thus, the subject of media failure is also discussed in several chapters that sensitively explore the instances in which attempts at inclusiveness and connection through media do not serve the very populations that are meant to benefit. Criticality is central to our volume, including analyzing how media is deployed, and who benefits from it. The volume opens a space for sharing differing perspectives on complex and nuanced phenomena. For example, a topic as provocative as surveillance is tackled from several perspectives, including an analysis of the harm of algorithmic, top-down surveillance and its roots in bureaucracy, a motivator that is not always taken into consideration in analyses of algorithms, especially outside of anthropology. The volume also offers forthright exploration of culturally accepted forms of lateral surveillance in religious communities interacting on social media, as well as research on how certain forms of surveillance may serve as plausible pathways to being seen and counted in marginalized communities such as LGBTQ+ groups.

The volume provides informative and timely analysis of the mediated politics of the current moment, including studies of political conservatism. While the field in the 1990s focused on how media served revolutionary agendas, our volume brings together several scholars who study groups that aim to promote so-called traditional values and ideas. Several contributors in the volume discuss dynamics such as strategic ignorance, or our current crisis of facts, specifically analyzing how ignorance is no accident or result of educational lack, but is rather strategically produced for political ends. Processes of supposed spreadibility and symbolic bricolage assist certain political agendas that ultimately yield racist and exclusionary discourses that demand to be addressed.

We are grateful to all the contributors for providing depth through detailed ethnographic case studies, as well as breath across numerous media, topics, geographical areas, and disciplines. Media is messy and complicated, and the process of analyzing it benefits from the sharing of multiple perspectives, including the many related disciplines—such as media studies, cultural studies, communication, and science and technology studies—that have both informed media anthropology and been influenced by its perspectives and findings.

Our volume mediates connections between the past and the future, between long-term scholarship and new research in this area, between disciplines, and between readers. We recognize that some readers have been researching and teaching media anthropology for quite some time, while others may be just coming to the field. We welcome readers who may be approaching this subject for the first time, as media not only becomes widely available but is increasingly central and frankly unavoidable to address if we as anthropologists wish to understand interaction in contemporary contexts worldwide. We see this volume as an active and ongoing nexus of connection, and we invite commentary and further dialogue on this most fascinating field.

Emanuel Moss takes the Page 99 test

On the 99th page of my dissertation, “The Objective Function: Science and Society in the Age of Machine Intelligence”, the first full paragraph describes how machine learning researchers go about deciding which projects they should work on. Given that the dissertation, as a whole, is concerned with understanding how machine intelligence—data-driven algorithmic techniques like machine learning, data science, and artificial intelligence—produces knowledge and constructs the authority it holds as it moves across a wide range of domains, this page seems a particularly apt representation of the whole. This page also gestures at the idiosyncrasies of fieldwork that allowed me to address these concerns, as the research lab I had found myself working in was particularly reflexive about the work they did. Without the reflexivity of my interlocutors, many of the social processes I was interested in would have likely remained hidden from my view, or at least been much more difficult to access ethnographically. The paragraph in question reads:

“In the sense that most work in machine intelligence involves applying a well-suited technique to a well-posed problem, the exercise these applied machine learning researchers undertook for their research report was merely a highly reflexive version of how machine intelligence is applied generally. Inspired by the horizontal organizational structures common in the technology industry (Scott 1975; Pfeffer and Leblebici 1977), researchers at OTH shared responsibilities and steered many business decisions through collaboration and consensus. The topic-selection process at the lab was emblematic of this. It was run by the researcher whose “turn” it was to write the next report and involved a series of whiteboard exercises in which all lab members would nominate candidates, research their potential as a topic, and then present their favored candidates to the entire team, who would then collectively winnow down the candidates to a few finalists. The report author would ultimately select the topic. The reflexivity of the process these applied machine learning researchers engaged in offers a valuable window into questions that go un-asked and assumptions that go un-examined in more mundane, less research-oriented applications of machine intelligence. The research report I participated in addressed a technique called “multi-task learning” that was first described in the late 1990s (Caruana 1997), but the technique rose to the top of the topic-selection process because it had recently found applications in industry (see McCann et al. 2018), and was more easily integrated with newer machine learning programming packages.”

What this paragraph reveals, for me at least, is that the production of knowledge through machine learning is a collaborative, practice-based process. To fully understand the role it plays in reshaping social worlds requires seeing the many ways it is shaped by organizational prerogatives and industry-specific ways of structuring work practices. But machine intelligence is also shaped by the questions researchers choose to ask, and—by extension—the questions they do not. These situated knowledges (Haraway 1988, Rouse 2002, Katell et al. 2020), I eventually conclude, contribute to the overall conservatism of machine intelligence. Contrary to the trappings they carry in popular imaginaries of technological advancement and futuristic automation, machine intelligence conserves the power of already-existing institutions and it reinscribes social relations of the past into the present and future. Machine intelligence may, on the surface, threaten the authority of powerful actors like judges, doctors, or loan officers by way of automation. But, in reality, machine intelligence preserves the power of the institutions — the courts, hospitals, and banks — that confer authority upon those actors. This is because, in selecting problems, and in addressing them, the work of machine intelligence is to ask questions that extend power, and not to challenge it.

Caruana, Rich. 1997. “Multitask Learning.” Machine Learning 28 (1): 41–75.

Haraway, Donna J. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575.

Michael Katell, Meg Young, Dharma Dailey, Bernease Herman, Vivian Guetler, Aaron Tam, Corinne Binz, Daniella Raz, and P. M. Krafft. 2020. Toward Situated Interventions for Algorithmic Equity: Lessons from the Field. In Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency (FAT* ’20), January 27–30, 2020, Barcelona, Spain. ACM, New York, NY, USA.

McCann, Bryan, Nitish Shirish Keskar, Caiming Xiong, and Richard Socher. 2018. “The Natural Language Decathlon: Multitask Learning as Question Answering.” ArXiv:1806.08730 [Cs, Stat], June.

Pfeffer, Jeffrey, and Husayin Leblebici. 1977. “Information Technology and Organizational Structure.” The Pacific Sociological Review 20 (2): 241–61.

Rouse, Joseph. 2002. How Scientific Practices Matter: Reclaiming Philosophical Naturalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Scott, W. Richard. 1975. “Organizational Structure.” Annual Review of Sociology 1 (1): 1–20.

Juan del Nido on his book, Taxis vs. Uber

Cover of Taxis vs. Uber by Juan Manuel del Nido

Interview by Diego Valdivieso

Diego Valdivieso:  For those who have not had the opportunity to read your book and have a glimpse of the vicissitudes of Buenos Aires middle class, its taxi industry and how the arrival of Uber was signified and experienced by these actors, could you please summarise the main topics you cover in your work?

Juan Manuel del Nido: In late 2015 I arrived in my hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina to study the taxi industry. Everyone – taxi drivers, union leaders, the city’s middle class – was convinced that, due to the partisan and political make up of the city and the country, Uber would never arrive. But in April 2016 it did! I had by then amassed mountains of ethnographic material on taxis: their laws, governance, economy, infrastructure, sociocultural practices. As the conflict between the company and the taxi industry escalated, I noticed that a certain segment of the city’s middle class – superficially ecumenic, techno-idealist, managerially-minded, anxiously globalist, performatively cosmopolitan – set the tone that defined public debate around the conflict. In that tone, they increasingly naturalised their own reasons and logics and disavowed the reasons and logics of others – specifically, the taxi industry whose workings I had come to know quite well. They were not just political adversaries, but they and their reasons came to be pathologised, written off and explained away; in a way, they stopped counting, even if they were still there and still protesting. I decided then that this would not be a book about taxis or Uber in themselves, or about precaritisation, platform capitalism, the gig economy, but one examining what I call “post-political reasoning”: the logics, rhetoric, and affects through which people imagine, legitimize, and argue for an experience where it is hard, or impossible, to disagree in certain ways.

Diego Valdivieso:  This book may be the outcome of the only ethnographic project carried out while Uber was (crash) landing in a territory. What advantages did this unexpected event bring to your research approach? How did you realise that the unstoppable arrival of Uber was a rich area of research?

Juan Manuel del Nido: It was a truly exceptional opportunity to see abstract logics come to life in a very literal and raw way. Until late March 2016 Uber was viewed as impossible; by mid-April it was allegedly processing tens of thousands of ride requests per day. Before my eyes taxi drivers, judges, federal attorneys and city dwellers began triangulating reasons and arguments that added up to fascinating interpretations of “competition”, “monopoly”, “freedom of choice” and “market forces”, for example, or of the divide between economic and political domains. Drawing from common sense truths, cultural anxieties, urban practices, political conjunctures and other affects and logics, these triangulations would have been entirely speculative or even unpredictable just a few weeks prior. Notions like “competition”, for example, are hugely abstract and ethnographically elusive. I had just spent half a year researching the very relations such notions were reframing – those of the taxi industry, of Peronism, of city and national politics “before Uber”. This knowledge offered me a chance to make anthropological sense of how such abstract notions take concrete forms, something an ethnographer arriving to a place where Uber, or any disruption, has already happened, would struggle to do.

The book was born out of my attempt to turn that luck of being in the right place at the right time into an ethnographic opportunity that I figured others, or even myself in future endeavours, would be unlikely to have: what is it that someone who does not get to see this pivotal break happening is unlikely to capture? On a different level, I was fascinated and alarmed by the fact that, as you say, Uber’s arrival seemed unstoppable. Already anthropologists were critiquing the platform’s precarisation of working conditions, denaturalisation of labour and more, but I do not think then, or now, scholars really asked: how did this come to appear as unstoppable to a certain group of people who are familiar, and may even agree, with our long-rehearsed arguments about labour, precariousness and such? Rather than focusing on denunciation and moralisation, I think we need to produce better ethnographies of how, increasingly, certain ways of thinking – managerial, technocratic, moralised and moralising – are becoming harder to actually challenge, that is, to disagree with beyond the protected confines of our academic seminars.

Diego Valdivieso: Throughout the book you are able to tackle a particular kind of reasoning by focussing on what people see as relevant and the affects, emotions, motivations and aspirations involved in this process. Although you give us some hints, could you share your reflections on how to address ethnographically something like reasoning through logics, rhetoric and affect?

Juan Manuel del Nido: I think it’s about fostering a different ethico-narrative disposition than the prevailing one, aiming to be alert to how things, affects, and rhetoric combine, catalyse or stunt each other, shaping social relations in often quite complex or even counterintuitive ways. To be clear: this is not yet another plea for seeing the world as emergent, contingent, becoming, fragmented, multiple, multifarious and so on, but rather an exhortation to ethnographers to reflect on the difference between pedantic, neurotic and often moralising literalism, on the one hand, and actual critical engagement with our interlocutors and ethnographic encounters, on the other.

For example: when the courts struggled, in technical terms, to block Uber’s services from the territory of the city of Buenos Aires, the middle class saw in that technical difficulty evidence that “economic forces” trumped “the political”. One way of addressing this ethnographically, common in anthropology today, is through a “well, actually…” disposition – a literalist deconstruction of an argument, however spurious. Such pedantic literalism increasingly passes for a kind of rigour, and even for a righteous concern with what we understand to be the truth. What I propose in Taxis vs Uber is to take these ethnographic encounters seriously, instead of literally, to produce an actual critique of how they organise knowledge and how they manage to persuade. In the case of this example, a historical distrust in the courts, the government and the union; an unreflexive, bourgeois sense of one’s own agency and what it demands of the world; and a habit of casually crossing jurisdictional borders, all fed into each other in the reasoning of a certain segment of the middle class and give us far richer insights into how it was even possible to imagine that Uber, or its relations, trumped what scholars see as the political – regardless of the technical, moral, or truth value of such a claim. However spurious, this is the reasoning that made it so hard for the taxi industry to even be heard. The capacity of a kind of reasoning to persuade does not depend on a soundness one can cross examine through a literalist sequencing, as it were, but on how affects, practices, materialities and other ethnographic features, truths in a subtler, and in the actually interesting sense of the term, give flesh to that reasoning as they buttress and propel each other. We miss these configurations if we do ethnography with militant (and increasingly, moralising) pedantry.

Diego Valdivieso:  Your book gives fundamental clues to understand the scope of non-expert reasoning and the socio-political consequences that this way of knowing can generate. Beyond the particularities that your analysis of Buenos Aires middle class and the arrival of Uber suggest, what phenomena do you think could be addressed from an approach centred on the distribution of the sensible?

Juan Manuel del Nido: I think it is an immensely generative and underexplored possibility! As Ranciere formulated it, the distribution of the sensible suggests we think of the political as the distribution of parts, roles, and voices in a society or even an epoch, a pattern of differences and proportions whose language we broadly share and where we roughly know our, and others’, part. This distribution is always unequal: parts count in different ways and some parts are there but somehow do not count. Parts, here, is not necessarily byword for class, caste, or any sort of inexorable partitioning of society, but rather particular convergences of bodies, interests, and things in the face of a social question.

Ranciere was thinking about a very big picture, political-system-kind-of-magnitude, but I kept thinking in his terms to understand how different  parts of society – unelected experts, gangs, a globalist middle class, a particular industry, an elite producing the dominant aesthetics – make up a social problem at ethnographic level: a conflict over an app, homelessness, building a house, whatever. An ethnography approached through the distribution of the sensible is one that focuses on what emerges ethnographically as being at stake, a site of contention, as disagreement in the broadest sense of the term, by looking at how voices, people, things participate in the distribution of the senses those stakes can have. What are the material or rhetorical cleavages that catalyse, hinder or shape the stakes? How do different parts consolidate themselves, seek to reframe the terms in which other can participate in the stakes, or to change what counts as a valid argument, or presence, and what counts as noise? Which voices give their tone and grammar to the whole, which ones can share a lexicon with which others and which ones are disallowed?

Political anthropologists might recognise here Jonathan Spencer’s invitation to follow disagreement in their ethnography. In that vein, in Taxis vs Uber I found the distribution of the sensible is a particularly powerful approach to examine the increasing moralisation, pathologisation and disavowal of genuine disagreement in our societies. It is increasingly difficult to disagree and remain a political equal: to disagree is to be an idiot, recalcitrant, morally toxic and be written off, or in Ranciere’s terms, to become those whose voices count as noise, “the part that has no part”. In Taxis vs Uber this was the part of the taxi industry and of whoever disagreed with Uber, but increasingly, all around us, this is the part for whoever tries to claim that a particular question, from public health to migration, from an app to climate change, could be asked in different terms, or answered otherwise.

David Sutton on his book, Bigger Fish to Fry

Bigger Fish to Fry: A Theory of Cooking as Risk, with Greek Examples

Interview by Ariana Gunderson

Ariana Gunderson: You write that “cooking involves a code and its instantiations,” (Sutton 2021, 15). Do you consider the code of cooking to be analogous to linguistic codes? If so, how?

David Sutton: This question is really at the heart of what I was trying to do in this book. Because when I started studying cooking, I was very far from a structuralist perspective, and was much more drawn to approaches to cooking as embodied sociomaterial practice. Much of my work on cooking that was based on my video ethnography, especially in Secrets from the Greek Kitchen, focused on skill, tool use, the kitchen as environment, and other concepts that I adopted from people like Tim Ingold and Jean Lave. But what kept nagging at me was that cooking clearly wasn’t just emergent. We don’t just start out with a random set of ingredients and see what bubbles up; we set out to make something. So the whole dialectic between structure and practice that was so much of my graduate training seemed relevant again, and especially in the form that Sahlins writes about, since his approach is all about understanding the riskiness of all practice. And of course he was drawing from and modifying the linguistic-derived approach Lévi-Strauss. And then of course there was Mary Douglas’s work on food categories. So I think that at first I believed that these new approaches were what I needed to understand cooking, but the book is really about reconciling a dynamic structuralism with a more embodied phenomenology.

Ariana Gunderson: Might we consider recipe-writing a process of entextualization? Is the moment of recipe inscription a risky one?

David Sutton: On the one hand I have long felt that the moment of entextualization of recipes has tended to be problematic, a claiming of authorship that has often privileged male chefs over “anonymous” female cooks, a point made by Luce Giard, among others. And this appropriation of power often occurs in the process of inscription, whereas oral transmission is still controlled by ordinary women. So it’s risky from the point of view of who gets credit and who gets forgotten. It’s also risky in the sense that a recipe is always a “moment in time,” as Jacques Pepin puts it, the freezing of a process, which is the opposite of an approach attuned to contingency. So inscription is also translation, a translation of an assemblage of experiences; it is doubly risky. Perhaps triply so because in many culinary memoirs the moment of writing down the recipe from an older relative almost always presages impending death. At the same time, I think that the written recipe has a function, at least as a memory jog. Although the more I think about it, I realize that on Kalymnos this function is served by other people, mostly women that share the matrilocal kitchen space, and who constantly remind each other of the ingredients, proportions, and tricks that are involved in each dish.

Ariana Gunderson: Your research has been rooted in Kalymnos for decades, enabling you to examine long-term change and continuity in this new book. What do you see as the connection between an extended period of study and paying attention to small scale change?

David Sutton: I’ve always admired long-term fieldwork and the insights that come from it; I think it provides insight into continuity and change, or “changing continuities” as my mother, Constance Sutton, described it based on her long-term engagement with Barbados. Given that my initial fieldwork on Kalymnos was about historical consciousness, it’s also been interesting to see how ideas about the past change over time, and especially how small-scale change can lead to bigger changes. But small-scale change is important in other ways, in that you can see it happening ethnographically much more clearly than you can see a change, let’s say, from so-called traditional to modern world views. So I’m suggesting that focusing on something like cooking allows us to see the process of change (and continuity) in action, rather than comparing how things were at two points in time and making assumptions about what happened in between.  

I’ve noticed how many social theorists use the metaphor of recipes to talk about various social processes, though as with my comments above, I think the idea of the recipe can be problematic. On the other hand, I like to think about how much of the activity of cooking is similar to anthropology: attention to detail, participant sensing, focus on parts and wholes. Making cooking more explicit as part of our research can illuminate a lot of the social processes that we are interested in.

Ariana Gunderson: In an autoethnographic interlude, you describe recreating your late father’s spinach casserole in search of his voice. This calls up Annie Hauck-Lawson’s use of the concept of food voice to assert agency and the real-world impact of non-verbal, edible communication. Can you speak to how you find the concept of food voice useful in your ethnographic work?

David Sutton: I’ve always liked Hauck-Lawson’s concept of food voice because it can both extend and stand in for other ways that people express themselves. In Greece food voice is expressed at least in part through smell as neighbors pay attention to, and comment upon, the smell of what’s cooking next door. But I think I was most directly influenced by Carole Counihan’s slightly modified use of food voice, or what she calls “food centered life histories.” Especially in her book A Tortilla is Like Life, she uses the concept to get at the very distinct personalities, and distinct life trajectories, of the Mexicana women in southern Colorado that she was studying. I tried to do a bit of that in my previous book Secrets from the Greek Kitchen. In a way I feel like food voice does some of the work for me at the micro-level that gustemology does at the collective level. Both are about exploring peoples’—individual and collective—food-centered world views. I feel that the best ethnography moves between these two levels.  

Ariana Gunderson: Did writing Bigger Fish to Fry change how you cook? Do you hope it will change the way readers cook?

David Sutton: I think it did and I hope it does. One of my targets in the book is the idea of culinary perfectionism, what John Finn calls “culinary fascism.” It’s the idea that there is one right way to do some kitchen task, or one best recipe for any dish. I think there are a lot of lingering problematic assumptions in this approach to cooking, which can lead to things like molecular gastronomists claiming to separate old wives’ tales from scientific truths about cooking. My focus on risk and contingency, I hope, challenges the idea of perfection: in other words, I suggest that, like the Kalymnians, we should imagine good cooking as managing contingencies (material, sensory and social), rather than achieving perfection. Also, I think that the idea that I develop from Sahlins that every reproduction is also a transformation suggests a greater willingness to accept and enjoy the differences and similarities when we cook a familiar dish. I think that if we think about what makes cooking cooking in terms not of a product but of a process of confronting all the contingencies that arise both in and out of the space of the kitchen, and developing our own tricks to deal with these contingencies, to improvise, we might develop a healthier, more equanimous attitude, rather than the more dichotomous one of success versus failure, which can lead to stress and frustration.   

Sirpa Tenhunen on her new book, A Village Goes Mobile


Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: What is so fascinating about A Village Goes Mobile is how effectively you use your long historical relationship with a West Bengali village to reflect upon how the introduction and decade-long use of mobile phones affects social relationships.   Which aspects of your previous research shaped your research foci and your questions? 

Sirpa Tenhenun: My previous research in Janta focused on gender, kinship and politics, so I was inclined to continue to observe these aspects of culture and society when I started working on the appropriation of mobile phones. Without my long-term relationship with the community I might not have been able to recognize changes, and how mobile phone use, on the one hand, contributed to these changes and, on the other hand, to how mobile phone use was intertwined with changes. I, for instance, could observe how mobile phone use helped transform kinship relationships. I also witnessed how most people could accomplish more in a shorter time by being able to coordinate their activities with the help of mobile phones. However, the most significant economic change in the village since the turn of the century was not due to the use of mobile phones, but to the agricultural policies. Since farming small plots of land has become increasingly unprofitable, young men from small farms use their phones to find paid employment outside the village.

Ilana Gershon: You discuss the fact that most West Bengali villagers did not have landlines, that their only experience of telephony were the mobile phones.  This reminded me of Terry Turner’s discussion of Kayapo videos, that their makers had experienced radio and then video cameras without experiencing all the different media in-between that Euroamericans have.   How do you think this affected people’s experiences of telephony – to never have had an experience with landlines first?  

Sirpa Tenhunen: Villagers who never had an access to a landline phone experienced the ability to use mobile phones as more spectacular than those of us who have routinely been using landline phones before mobiles became available.  This does not mean that the idea of a landline phone did not at all affect how mobile phones were used: initially, when the phone density was low, mobile phones were mostly kept at home and shared by the household members.   However, villagers were able to use mobile phones more innovatively since they had not developed routines of landline phone use. For instance, they frequently used the phone’s speaker to share the phone conversations with whoever was present.

Ilana Gershon: How did the introduction of smartphones affect social organization in Janta?  Did it change gender relationships?

Sirpa Tenhunen: Smartphones were used to strengthen pre-existing identities but they also offered opportunities and technical affordances which challenged hierarchies. Contrary to their hierarchical position, educated young wives and children could become the phone use experts in their families. Low caste people were able to make identity statements simply by possessing smartphones. Digital sphere constructed through mobile telephony was first associated with male-dominated public sphere but it proved much more malleable than the public sphere outside the home from where women are still largely excluded—the great majority of women continue to be housewives despite women’s growing aspirations to be able to work outside the home. The young men pioneered the use of smartphones—if their older models were still working, they were kept in the house and used by the rest of the family, mainly by women, who usually stay at home more than men do. At the same time, few women who moved outside the home for work or study started to acquire their personal phones. Young women now also preferred smartphones, readily discussing the multiple functions of these phones and demonstrating their ability to use them. Most people stored music and films on the smartphone’s memory card from downloading shops instead of browsing the internet independently. I never saw women listening to music on their phone in public places like men do —listening to music on smartphones through the phone’s loudspeaker is used to ascertain the meaning of the public sphere as a masculine space where men can spend their leisure time. The few men and women in the village who have used their personal phones to browse the internet all had a college education. The ability to browse the internet with one’s phone was, therefore, related to one’s education and wealth rather than merely gender.

Ilana Gershon:  What kinds of social relationships or circulation of knowledge changed because phones made it common to have a one-to-one or dyadic conversation, which might have been difficult to achieve before the advent of mobile phones?

Sirpa Tenhunen: Within the sphere of politics, mobile phones provided a channel to contact opposition political leaders discreetly. The use of mobile technology amplified multiplicity by strengthening clandestine political activities and alternative discourses. Women’s increasing access to a mobile phone influenced their relationships with men, but—more crucially— it influenced the kinship code of conduct and kinship hierarchies within families and between kin groups. I observed how phones offered women a channel to express unconventional ideas and exert their will through networking. For instance, a mother could advise her daughter over the phone to not to obey the mother-in-law whose demands were excessive. Thanks to phones, young wives were able to stay in constant touch with their natal families which was unheard of in the past.

Ilana Gershon: One of your findings that I found startling was that mobile phones had contributed to a marked decline in village-level leaders’ power.  Could you explain why this is the case?

Sirpa Tenhunen: Mobile telephony was a crucial factor in the rise of the opposition in West Bengal, where the Communist Party had been in power largely through its network of local village leaders from 1977 until 2011. In 2010 opposition activists related to me how mobile phones help them secretly mobilize against the ruling party. Political activists used phones more to organize party meetings and offer political patronage than to organize spontaneous demonstrations and support. The parties’ power used to be largely derived from their role as arbitrators of disputes: any person who feels that he or she has suffered an injustice can call a village meeting, led by local political leaders, during which a solution will be negotiated between the disputing parties. Thanks to mobile phones, patronage could now increasingly be sought from opposition leaders and from outside the village. When I visited the village in 2013, I found that after the end of CPI(M) rule in the village in 2011, not a single general village meeting had been held to solve local problems and disputes. Mobile phone use had helped amplify translocal political networks thereby reducing the power of local village leaders.  Phone use for political purposes built on earlier political patterns and meanings, but it made politics faster, more heterogeneous, and translocal.