Cultural Studies

Q&A with Vanessa Díaz

Vanessa Díaz is Assistant Professor of Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies at Loyola Marymount University. In this Q&A she discusses her new book Manufacturing Celebrity in which she draws on ethnographic fieldwork, her experience reporting for People magazine, and dozens of interviews with photographers, journalists, publicists, magazine editors, and celebrities, Díaz traces the complex power dynamics of the reporting and paparazzi work that fuel contemporary Hollywood and American celebrity culture.

Chapter Two touches on the frustration that paparazzi experience when they are villified by celebrities, the media, and the public. Often there is a negative perception of paparazzi since they take the pictures. Why do you believe paparazzi receive the sole blame? 

There are so many layers to this question. It’s really important to start off with the fact that there is a long history of celebrity irritation with paparazzi. After all, the term evolved from the 1960 Federico Fellini film La Dolce Vita in which the annoying celebrity photographer was called “paparazzo”—Italian for mosquito. The magazines and other media outlets need the paparazzi to be the bad guys of celebrity media, creating the perception that they are solely responsible for the lack of privacy faced by today’s stars, so that the media outlets can position themselves on the side of celebrities, furthering their relationships with the stars they cover.  If paparazzi are the only ones out on the streets gathering the images that the magazines and other media outlets want and, frankly, need to sell their product, the paparazzi are the only ones in the line of direct contact with the celebrities. A magazine editor sitting in his office in a fancy high rise building in Hollywood is specifically and strategically positioned to not be blamed, despite the fact that he may be requesting the photo that the paparazzi are trying to get. Paparazzi are workers operating in the informal channels of an often highly formal media production process, within a hugely profitable corporate system, doing the dirty work for the celebrity media industry. 

Since the demographics of the Los Angeles paparazzi shifted to being predominately Latinx, which I discuss in the book, the media and public discourse surrounding paparazzi has become highly racialized and xenophobic. So whereas there used to be general annoyance around paparazzi work, the language towards and the legal action taken against paparazzi was not anything like it is now. For instance, major news articles from outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and AP have referred to contemporary paparazzi as “illegals,” “pack animals,” “knuckle-scraping mouth breathers,” and “foreigners working on…questionable visas.”

Can you elaborate on the process of deciding the final photos that are published in a magazine?  

The decision as to which photos get published is entirely at the discretion of the staff of the media outlets (reporters may weigh in, but the decision is usually made photo editors, with approval from other senior editorial staff). The decisions tend to be made based on newsworthiness, so whatever is most newsworthy to that particular outlet. For example, the week that Kim Kardashian had her first wedding to former NBA player Kris Humphreys, all of the weekly celebrity magazines featured photos of their wedding, since it was the big (celebrity) news of the moment. When Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were first photographed together as a couple, People magazine bought those paparazzi images as an exclusive (meaning nobody else could buy the rights) and they were featured in a huge spread in the magazine. The magazine knew this story was big for their audience, and for celebrity and entertainment news more broadly, so they invested heavily in these photos since they knew it would boost sales. 

It’s important to note that paparazzi take images based on what is deemed “newsworthy” in the moment, and that has very much to do with what they know the magazines want. So, while the paparazzi do not directly help the magazines decide which photos to publish, their work and their own judgement of newsworthiness in combination with the magazines’ and other media outlets’ decisions themselves impact which images end up circulating. 

How do you believe advancements in technology have impacted the paparazzi industry? 

There are so many ways, it’s hard to know where to even start. Technological advancements have impacted every realm of every media industry across the board. Even when I started reporting for People magazine in 2004 as an intern, the reporting that didn’t make it in the magazine was mostly used on their website just to create extra content, because most people were still not getting their news online. That shifted dramatically over the next few years and media outlet websites started to be the place where news broke. Whereas before it was the printed newspaper or printed magazine that held the breaking news, and stories were held specifically so that they could appear in printed press to break the news, it became customary to break news online first, since more and more people started getting their information online. So, while the internet was exploding, so was the digitization of images, which had huge impacts on how images were shot and circulated. As I discuss in chapter two of the book, in 2001 around fifty thousand digital photos were received by the magazines, but by 2011 that number had jumped to over eight million. Now most outlets receive close to twice that number per year. So that means a lot of different things. It means that there are more paparazzi taking images because there is more demand. It also means that there is an excess of photos that are taken because obviously the images can’t all be published. It means that there is more competition because there are more photos. And it means that photographers, like most other media workers, have to work extremely quickly and around the clock to ensure they get their content shared first. A minute difference in transmitting a photo can mean losing a sale if someone else get a similar shot and uploads it first.  

During your research, when did you make the connection between gender disparity and the sexualization of women reporters? 

I actually noticed this immediately after starting my internship with People magazine in New York, prior to starting my research in this area. I saw it when I covered red carpet events. I saw it in the way that stories were assigned at the magazine. When I became a stringer for the LA Bureau of People magazine in 2005, I saw it even more in Hollywood than in New York. There was always a conversation among the reporters (who I noticed from the beginning were mostly women) about the different ways that employers pressured them into particular kinds of situations with celebrity men. Once I started doing the research for the book and interviewing people about this, I heard more and more stories, many of them extremely disturbing, about the ways that women reporters were asked to handle themselves to help get a story. The most public of the situations is the one I discuss in the opening of the book, Natasha Stoynoff’s assault by Donald Trump. 

You discuss the #MeToo movement in Chapter Five. Why do you believe the #MeToo movement is important, especially within the entertainment industry? 

#MeToo became such a force in the entrainment industry because the type of abuse of power that is often exercised in cases of sexual assault is rampant throughout Hollywood. In fact, Hollywood is full of really serious and egregious abuses of power, abuses of labor, racism, gender discrimination and forms of abuse. And what’s amazing is that the whole image of Hollywood, and its movies, television shows, and celebrities, are all putting on a show for us. That’s what Hollywood does—it produces stories, it produces shows, and it creates very strategic images to draw in audiences, not to turn them away. And so it’s no accident that the kind of abuses of power I’m describing are simply not the picture we get when we look at beautiful glossy magazines like People and Us Weekly. And so I think the Hollywood figures who came forward as part of the #MeToo movement did so to help people see these layers. And so that’s part of what I’m trying to do in the book too—to understand the institutional complexities of the Hollywood-industrial complex, which I discuss in more depth in the book and which helps give us a framework for the level of institutional force of Hollywood. 

 How do magazines play positive and negative roles in the promotion of body image and standards, specifically for women? 

The magazines have the potential to play a positive role on body image and beauty standards, and they sometimes play at least a marginally positive role. But most of the coverage contributes to negative body image perceptions. Across the weekly magazines, there is a consistent focus on stories that celebrate women’s weightloss, regardless of how healthy that weightloss may be. And, often times, the weightloss is focused on women who just have just given birth. So, not only are the expectations unrealistic, they are often unhealthy. As chapter six in the book discusses, many body-focused stories develop out of magazine workers ridiculing women’s bodies. The very climate of the conceptualization of body-focused coverage is negative. Even in the moments where the magazines attempt to confront negative perceptions, like the famous example I use in the book of Tyra Banks on the cover of People magazine, posting in a bathing suit and posing the question, “You call this fat?” Banks is photographed in a bathing suit, looking slim and trim. So, the point of the story is to prove that she isn’t fat, rather than to celebrate different body shapes and sizes. To be clear, it’s not just celebrity magazines, though. American culture more broadly celebrates unrealistic body and beauty standards that are also incredibly Eurocentric. The magazines reflect that. In the moments where the celebration of certain bodies are not reflective of Eurocentric standards of beauty, we often see that it takes place through the celebration of typically non-white features on white bodies, like the Kardashians/Jenners who physically alter their actual bodies. The representation and limited celebration of very particular kinds of women’s bodies in magazine and in popular culture more broadly is troubling. 

What is the correlation between celebrity reporting and hard news in the Trump Era? How has reporting and news changed in the past few years? 

In the book, I explain the story of Natasha Stoynoff, the former People magazine reporter, and my friend and colleague, who was sexually assaulted by Donald Trump while interviewing him for the magazine. While I was doing the research for this book, she had confided in me about this experience in both 2011 and 2012 during recorded interviews, with the expectation that I would anonymize everything. Then she came out publicly with the story in 2016. That my research on celebrity media became intertwined in the U.S. presidential race is emblematic of the way Trump has impacted what we understand as news. While there were always blurred lines between entertainment, celebrity, and politics, the distinction between entertainment and news media is not an empirical reality, but rather a function of a public imaginary—that there should be a difference between so-called hard news and entertainment news. The dynamics I talk about in the book are increasingly relevant to media in general, international politics, and to the state of American culture more broadly. 

There is an interesting parallel in how Donald Trump fomented hatred of mainstream news media outlets like CNN and NBC News by relating to White House and national reporters in ways that mirror how celebrities often relate to celebrity media producers, especially paparazzi. He understands how to use the media to generate interest, such as when he revealed his Supreme Court nominee Apprentice-style on prime-time television. Yet he constantly performs anger toward the very media who gave his candidacy, and now his presidency, nonstop coverage. He disparages them as “fake news” and “dishonest.” This behavior mirrors the way celebrities rely on paparazzi shots for promotion while simultaneously performing hatred toward them. For Trump, it is directly carried over from his career as a celebrity. In his book How to Get Rich, he wrote, “If I happen to be outside, I’m probably on one of my golf courses, where I protect my hair from overexposure by wearing a golf hat. It’s also a way to avoid the paparazzi. Plus the hat always has a big TRUMP logo on it—it’s automatic promotion.” Trump references wanting to avoid the paparazzi while in the very next sentence revealing how he uses them to promote his own brand—a celebrity tactic I explore in depth in chapter 4 of the book. 

While Trump has used celebrity media strategically to build his brand, he has also exploited, humiliated, and assaulted celebrity reporters. Since becoming president, he has continued this belligerent behavior in White House press conferences and other media events. Trump has kicked out, verbally bullied, and even banned news reporters and media outlets from his press conferences. His ire has been directed at the corporate media entities themselves, as well as individual media laborers. For example, in 2015 Trump had Univision’s Jorge Ramos symbolically deported from a press conference while yelling at him, “Go back to Univision,” another way of telling the Mexican American reporter to go back to Mexico. This kind of racialization and racialized discrimination is closely linked to the treatment of Latino paparazzi I expose in the book. A 2016 Dallas Morning News op-ed titled “Trump Can’t Treat Press Like Paparazzi” pointed to Trump’s problematic approach with the political media: “Trump may see these reporters as an extension of the paparazzi that hounded him when he was a reality television promoter and real estate mogul. They aren’t. The press pool isn’t about staking out celebrities.” The article insinuates that, unlike political reporters, paparazzi are and should be treated as problems. Trump has drawn no distinction between the celebrity news and hard news outlets that have followed him at various stages of his career. While using them for self-promotion, he has treated the political press with the same disdain that he showed to celebrity media producers— including Natasha Stoynoff. 

Read the introduction to Manufacturing Celebrity and save 30% on the book using the code E20DIAZ.

New Books in September

With summer quickly coming to an end and the new academic year upon us, now is the perfect time to replenish your reading list! A great place to start is with our diverse array of new titles arriving this month.

Diary of a Detour is film scholar and author Lesley Stern’s memoir of living with cancer, where she chronicles the fears and daily experience of coming to grips with an incurable disease and turns to alternative obsessions and pleasures, from travel and friendships to her four chickens.

In Traffic in Asian Women, Laura Hyun Yi Kang demonstrates that the figure of “Asian women” functions as an analytic with which to understand the emergence, decline, and permutation of US power and knowledge at the nexus of capitalism, state power, global governance, and knowledge production throughout the twentieth century.

Abstract Barrios by Johana Londoño examines how the barrio has become a cultural force that has been manipulated in order to create Latinized urban landscapes that are palatable for white Americans who view concentrated areas of Latinx populations as a threat.

In Keith Haring’s Line, Ricardo Montez traces the drawn and painted line that was at the center of Keith Haring’s artistic practice, engaging with Haring’s messy relationships to race-making and racial imaginaries.

In Youth Power in Precarious Times, Melissa Brough explores how youth-centered forms of civic and cultural engagement in Medellín, Colombia, create networks of change that have the possibility to transform and democratize cities around the world.

Abigail A. Dumes offers an ethnographic exploration of the Lyme disease controversy to shed light on the relationship between contested illness and evidence-based medicine in the United States in Divided Bodies.

Examining theater, performance art, music, sports, dance, and photography, the contributors to Race and Performance after Repetition explore how theater and performance studies account for the complex relationship between race and time. The collection is edited by Soyica Diggs Colbert, Douglas A. Jones Jr., and Shane Voge.

Beyond the World’s End by T. J. Demos explores a range of artistic, activist, and cultural practices that provide compelling and radical propositions for building a just, decolonial, and environmentally sustainable future.

The contributors to Indigenous Textual Cultures examined the ways in which indigenous peoples created textual cultures to navigate, shape, and contest empire, colonialism, and modernity. The collection is edited by
Tony Ballantyne, Lachy Paterson, and Angela Wanhalla.

In Cultural Revolution and Revolutionary Culture, Alessandro Russo rethinks the history of China’s Cultural Revolution, arguing that it must be understood as a mass political experiment aimed at thoroughly reexamining the tenets of communism itself.

Animal Traffic by Rosemary-Claire Collard investigates the multibillion-dollar global exotic pet trade economy and the largely hidden processes through which exotic pets are produced and traded as lively capital.

Monica Popescu traces the development of African literature during the second half of the twentieth century in At Penpoint. She shows how the United States and the Soviet Union’s efforts to further their geopolitical and ideological goals influenced literary practices and knowledge production on the African continent.

Bolivia in the Age of Gas by Bret Gustafson examines the centrality of natural gas and oil to the making of modern Bolivia and the contradictory convergence of fossil-fueled capitalism, Indigenous politics, and revolutionary nationalism.

In this genealogy of Hindu right-wing nationalism, Hindutva as Political Monotheism, Anustup Basu connects Carl Schmitt’s notion of political theology to traditional theorems of Hindu sovereignty and nationhood, illustrating how Western and Indian theorists imagined a single Hindu political and religious people.

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Courtney Berger on the 4S Conference

SocialMediaforConferences_Blog_4S

The annual conference of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4s) has gone virtual. We’re pleased to offer some remarks by Executive Editor Courtney Berger, who usually attends the conference.

CBerger_webGreetings, 4S-ers! I am excited to attend this year’s virtual conference. While it has been difficult to miss out on the conversations and connections facilitated by in-person conferences, virtual conferences offer new opportunities. I’m not usually able to attend 4S on the years when it’s held outside of the U.S., so this is a bit of a bonus for me. I’ll be waking up early on East Coast time to attend panels, many of which include Duke University Press authors. My schedule is overflowing with panels that focus on more-than-human worlds (including the viral, of course); trans, queer, and feminist approaches to science studies; race and indigeneity; the environment (especially work on the elements, energy, and toxicity); and data and algorithmic thinking.

978-1-4780-0831-6Duke University Press’s new books in science and technology studies reflect the wide ranging and politically relevant approaches found at the 4S conference.  No doubt people will be reading and talking about Frédéric Keck’s Avian Reservoirs: Virus Hunters and Birdwatchers in Chinese Sentinel Posts, which highlights the importance of interspecies relations in managing pandemics. Noah Tamarkin’s Genetic Afterlives: Black Jewish Indigeneity in South Africa attends to the multivalent intersection of race, nation, and indigeneity. Lesley Green’s Rock|Water|Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa examines the interwoven realities of inequality, racism, colonialism, and environmental destruction in South Africa. Louise Amoore’s Cloud Ethics: Algorithms and the Attributes of Ourselves and Others calls for “an ethics of doubt” when it comes to understanding the work of machine learning algorithms. And Cait McKinney’s Information Activism: A Queer History of Lesbian Media Technologies reminds us that the ways that we store, organize, and provide access to information can have wide-reaching political effects. It’s tough not to be able to share these books, and so many more, in person. But you can still get a glimpse of our newest titles through our virtual exhibit and purchase books with the conference discount.

978-0-8223-6902-8_prI’d also like to offer a virtual toast to our two 4S book prize winners: Sara Ann Wylie, whose book Fractivism: Corporate Bodies and Chemical Bonds won this year’s Rachel Carson Prize; and Noémi Tousignant, whose book Edges of Exposure: Toxicology and the Problem of Capacity in Postcolonial Senegal won the Ludwik Fleck Prize. Congratulations! We’re thrilled that their books have received this recognition.

Finally, unlike an in-person conference, where I spend most of my time meeting with potential authors and hearing about projects in the works, this year I will be focused on attending panels and deepening my knowledge of the field. However, I am still eager to hear about your book projects. You can send me an email or submit a proposal through our online submission portal. I look forward to seeing you around the conference.

See a few more of our science studies highlights in yesterday’s blog post. We are pleased to partner with Combined Academic Publishers to showcase our new work in science studies. Customers in the UK, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia can shop their site and save 30% off new titles with coupon code CSF20EASST. Customers in the US, Canada, and Latin America can save at our own site using coupon 4S2020. You’ll also want to check out the giveaway opportunity at CAP’s site for a chance to win a copy of the award-winning Fractivism by Sarah Ann Wylie!

New Titles in Science Studies

SocialMediaforConferences_Blog_4SThis year the annual meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) was to be held in Prague. Like most academic conferences, it has moved online. We are pleased to partner with Combined Academic Publishers to showcase new work in science studies. Customers in the UK, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia can shop their site and save 30% off new titles with coupon code CSF20EASST. Customers in the US, Canada, and Latin America can save at our own site using coupon 4S2020. You’ll also want to check out the giveaway opportunity at CAP’s site for a chance to win a copy of Fractivism by Sarah Ann Wylie!

978-0-8223-7124-3_prSeveral of our authors will be participating in online panels. Noemi Tousignant, author of Edges of Exposure, is presenting a paper entitled “Mutagenic Residues of Senegal’s Peanut Export Economy.” Juno Salazar Parreñas, author of Decolonizing Extinction, is presenting a paper called “Geriatric Ex-Dairy Cows: Caring for Otherwise Expendable Life.” Kalindi Vora, co-author of Surrogate Humanity, has organized a panel entitled “Teaching interdependent agency I: Feminist STS approaches to STEM pedagogy,” and is presenting a paper called “Teaching Technoscience Infrastructures of Care.” And Noah Tamarkin, whose book Genetic Afterlives will be out next month, is presenting a paper entitled “Locating Controversy in Established Technoscience: Debating National DNA Databases in South Africa.”

Wild Blue MediaWe hope you’ll check out these recent titles that we would have enjoyed showing off to you in our booth. In Anaesthetics of Existence, Cressida J. Heyes draws on examples of things that happen to us but are nonetheless excluded from experience, as well as critical phenomenology, genealogy, and feminist theory, showing how and why experience has edges, and analyzes phenomena that press against them.  In Rock | Water | Life Lesley Green examines the interwoven realities of inequality, racism, colonialism, and environmental destruction in South Africa. In Wild Blue Media, Melody Jue destabilizes terrestrial-based ways of knowing and reorients our perception of the world by considering the ocean itself as a media environment—a place where the weight and opacity of seawater transforms how information is created, stored, transmitted, and perceived.

An Ecology of KnowledgesWe have a number of recent books that engage with agriculture and resource extraction in Latin America, placing the non-human at the center of their studies. Vital Decomposition by Kristina M. Lyons presents an ethnography of human-soil relations in Colombia. In An Ecology of Knowledges, Micha Rahder examines how technoscience, endemic violence, and an embodied love of wild species and places shape conservation practices in Guatemala. Kregg Hetherington’s The Government of Beans is about the rough edges of environmental regulation in Paraguay, where tenuous state power and blunt governmental instruments encounter ecological destruction and social injustice. Seeds of Power by Amalia Leguizamón explores why Argentines largely support GM soy despite the widespread damage it creates. In Resource Radicals, Thea Riofrancos looks at Ecuador, expanding the study of resource politics by decentering state resource policy and locating it in a field of political struggle populated by actors with conflicting visions of resource extraction. And in Bolivia in the Age of Gas, Bret Gustafson explores how the struggle over natural gas has reshaped Bolivia, along with the rise, and ultimate fall, of the country’s first Indigenous-led government. Look for an online conversation about these issues featuring Riofrancos, Gustafson, Hetherington, and Leguizamón later this fall.

Also examining agriculture, Alex Blanchette’s Porkopolis immerses readers into the workplaces that underlie modern meat, from slaughterhouses and corporate offices to artificial insemination barns and bone-rendering facilities, outlining the deep human-hog relationships and intimacies that emerge through intensified industrialization. Check out Blanchette’s recent conversation with Senior Executive Editor Ken Wissoker.

One of our favorite conference traditions is the in-booth selfies that our authors often take with their books. We can’t do that this year, so we’ve asked some of our science studies authors to send them in. Check out our book selfie album on Facebook or look for the photos on Twitter this week.

Save on these and all our science studies titles on our site with coupon 4S2020 (North and South America, Caribbean) or at Combined Academic Publishers with coupon CSF20EASST (UK, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia).

Also check out Environmental Humanities, a peer-reviewed open-access journal that draws humanities disciplines into conversation with the natural and social sciences around significant environmental issues. Start reading here.

We invite you to return to the blog tomorrow to read a message from Executive Editor Courtney Berger.

Watch the Teaser and Trailer for Vanessa Díaz’s New Book Manufacturing Celebrity

Vanessa Díaz is the author of the new book Manufacturing Celebrity. She is Assistant Professor of Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies at Loyola Marymount University. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, her experience reporting for People magazine, and dozens of interviews with photographers, journalists, publicists, magazine editors, and celebrities, Díaz traces the complex power dynamics of the reporting and paparazzi work that fuel contemporary Hollywood and American celebrity culture. This guest post by the author introduces the trailer and teaser for her new book.

As a multimedia ethnographer and documentary filmmaker, I always knew I wanted to create a book trailer for Manufacturing Celebrity. The prospect of capturing the essence of the over 300 pages of Manufacturing Celebrity in a few minutes of video was daunting. However, because the book itself is rich with images from my own photography, the photography of the paparazzi I worked with, and material from the magazines I write about, imagining a visual representation of the book was organic. I started developing ideas for the trailer early this year, with the assistance of two research assistants at Loyola Marymount University, Malik Gay-Bañuelos and Steven Uribe. We decided that it was important to focus not only on the main issues, questions and conundrums the book presents, but specifically to highlight the stories of the paparazzo Chris Guerra who was killed on the job and former People magazine reporter and sexual assault survivor Natasha Stoynoff who ground my discussion about precarity in the manufacturing of celebrity. By the time we started to make progress on the trailer’s development, the pandemic hit and we had to conceptualize video production in a new way. I set up the camera equipment lighting in my living room, and recorded my own interview while Malik and Steven interviewed me via FaceTime. Video editor Larissa Díaz Hahn of The Díaz Collective took my interview, original footage shared with me by the paparazzi, images from the book, my archive of celebrity reporting clips, and archival news footage and began masterfully piecing together the trailer. It was a collaborative process and we went through various iterations, with a focus on doing justice to the central themes of the book and, most importantly, the incredibly intense stories of my friends and colleagues Chris and Natasha. The goal of the trailer is to provide an engaged, visual representation of the book that encapsulates in a few minutes what is at stake with the stories I’m telling and why this book matters in this particular moment in history. The trailer shows the ways the book centers on issues of power, privilege and positionality in a way that resonates with the present moment. As the U.S. remains in an uprising focused on addressing systemic racism, and as Hollywood figures remain at the center of controversy due to rampant abuse of power on racial, gender, and intersectional levels, Manufacturing Celebrity breaks down the larger stakes of celebrity culture and demonstrates how the Hollywood-Industrial Complex is part and parcel in the broader systemic inequalities of the U.S. The trailer offers a small taste of the complicated questions and analysis Manufacturing Celebrity forces the reader to grapple with. You’ll never look at celebrity magazines the same again.  

Read the introduction to Manufacturing Celebrity and save 30% on the book using the code E20DIAZ.

New Books in August

It’s hard to believe that summer is coming to an end but there’s still time to purchase new books to complete your summer reading list. Check out these exciting new titles coming out hot off the press this August!

978-1-4780-0828-6In Information Activism, Cait McKinney traces how lesbian feminist activists in the United States and Canada between the 1970s and the present developed communication networks, databases, and digital archives to use as a foundation for their feminist, antiracist, and trans-inclusive work.

Resource Radicals by Thea Riofrancos explores the politics of extraction, energy, and infrastructure in contemporary Ecuador in order to understand how resource dependency becomes a dilemma for leftist governments and movements alike.

In Japonisme and the Birth of Cinema, Daisuke Miyao reveals the undetected influence that Japanese art and aesthetics had on early cinema and the pioneering films of the Lumiére brothers.

978-1-4780-0943-6Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, her experience reporting for People magazine, and dozens of interviews with photographers, journalists, publicists, magazine editors, and celebrities, in Manufacturing Celebrity Vanessa Díaz traces the complex power dynamics of the reporting and paparazzi work that fuel contemporary Hollywood and American celebrity culture.

In American Blockbuster, Charles R. Acland charts the origins, impact, and dynamics of the blockbuster, showing how it became a complex economic and cultural machine designed to advance popular support for technological advances.

Conceiving of sovereign space as volume rather than area, the contributors to Voluminous States, edited by Franck Billé, explore how such a conception reveals and underscores the three-dimensional nature of modern territorial governance. 

978-1-4780-0839-2In History 4° Celsius, Ian Baucom puts black studies into conversation with climate change, outlining how the ongoing concerns of critical race, diaspora, and postcolonial studies are crucial to understanding the Anthropocene and vice versa.

In Peripheral Nerve, the contributors to this volume reframe the history of the Cold War by focusing on how Latin America used the rivalry between superpowers to create alternative sociomedical pathways. The collection is edited by Anne-Emanuelle Birn and Raúl Necochea López.

In his posthumous book Sexual Hegemony, Christopher Chitty traces the 500 year history of capitalist sexual relations, showing how sexuality became a crucial dimension of the accumulation of capital and a technique of bourgeois rule. The book is edited by Max Fox and features an introduction by Christopher Nealon.

In Infamous Bodies, Samantha Pinto explores how histories of and the ongoing fame of Phillis Wheatley, Sally Hemings, Sarah Baartman, Mary Seacole, and Sarah Forbes Bonetta generate new ways of imagining black feminist futures.

978-1-4780-0959-7Examining the work of Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Solange Knowles, Flying Lotus, and others, in The Meaning of Soul Emily J. Lordi proposes a new understanding of soul, showing how it came to signify a belief in black resilience enacted through musical practices.

In Afterlives of Affect, Matthew C. Watson considers the life and work of artist and Mayanist scholar Linda Schele (1942–1998) as an entry point to discuss the nature of cultural inquiry, decipherment in anthropology, and the social conditions of knowledge production.

In Enduring Cancer, Dwaipayan Banerjee explores the efforts of Delhi’s urban poor to create a livable life with cancer as they negotiate an over-extended health system unequipped to respond to the disease.

In Gestures of Concern, Chris Ingraham shows that gestures of concern, such as sharing or liking a post on social media, are central to establishing the necessary conditions for larger social or political change because they help to build the affective communities that orient us to one another with an imaginable future in mind.

978-1-4780-1083-8The contributors to We Are Not Dreamers—who are themselves currently or formerly undocumented—call for the elimination of the Dreamer narrative, showing how it establishes high expectations for who deserves citizenship and marginalizes large numbers of undocumented youth. The collection is edited by Leisy J. Abrego and Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales.

The contributors to Gramsci in the World, edited by Roberto M. Dainotto and Fredric Jameson, examine the varying receptions and uses of Antonio Gramsci’s thought in diverse geographical, historical, and political contexts, highlighting its possibilities and limits for understanding and changing the social world.

As vast infrastructure projects transform the Mekong River, in Mekong Dreaming Andrew Alan Johnson explores of how rapid environmental change affects how people live, believe, and dream.

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The Biopolitics of Plasticity

The newest issue of Social Text, “The Biopolitics of Plasticity,” edited by Kyla Schuller and Jules Gill-Peterson, is now available.

Contributors to this special issue argue that plasticity—the capacity of living systems to generate and take on new forms—is a central feature of biopolitics. Moving away from celebrating plasticity’s disorganizing and disruptive features in relation to normalizing and dominating systems of power, the authors investigate how race and state power actually depend on plasticity and enlist its malleability and formlessness to govern living populations and individuals.

In these four essays, the contributors propose a critical reckoning with the racial politics of this important concept to ask new questions about how to understand the organic malleability of the body and categories like race, sex, gender, and sexuality.

Check out the table of contents and read the introduction, made freely available.

Q&A with Harriet Evans

Evans, HarrietHarriet Evans is Emeritus Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at the University of Westminster and Visiting Professor in Anthropology at the London School of Economics. She is the author of The Subject of Gender: Daughters and Mothers in Urban China and Women and Sexuality in China. In her newest book, Beijing from Below, she tells the history of the residents in Dashalar—now redeveloped and gentrified but once one of the Beijing’s poorest neighborhoods—to show how their experiences complicate official state narratives of Chinese economic development and progress.

Beijing from Below explores the lives of the urban working class in Dashalar, a neighborhood that borders Tiananmen Square in Beijing. What is the historical importance of the neighborhood, both in the context of your research and in the history development in Beijing?

First, Dashalar is known in Beijing as being a very particular kind of neighbourhood with unique social, demographic and cultural characteristics going back in time that make it “unrepresentative” of anywhere else in the capital. I don’t think this is a very helpful way of thinking about what the study of a neighbourhood—or anywhere for that matter —can tell us. Every place has its own singular characteristics. As a kind of inter-disciplinary historian-cum-anthropologist my intention is never to look for what is representative but rather to think about the kinds of issues and questions that are shared across historical and spatial boundaries. So what does the very specific history and contemporaneity of Dashalar tell us? What issues are highlighted by its history through to the present that prompt reflections on other places and people across time elsewhere?

Dashalar is a small neighborhood of about 1.26 square kilometers just outside the former inner-city walls, southwest of Qianmen, the gate at the southern end of Tian’anmen Square. Its main street runs westward from Qianmen Avenue and is intersected by Meishi Street on the north-south axis. Historically part of the outer city, it has long been known as ‘South City’ (nancheng), To this day, reference to South City is shorthand for the vibrant liminal world of street vendors, rickshaw pullers, street entertainers, gamblers, prostitutes and vagrants of the capital’s “traditional” popular culture immortalized in Lao She’s famous novel Rickshaw Boy, first published in 1937. Dashalar is also often referred as the “eight big lanes” (ba da hutong). Being able to name the “eight big lanes” is a mark of your familiarity with “old Beijing”, as I discovered once when I was wandering about and fell into a conversation with a local man who questioned me about my understanding of the neighborhood’s history. The term itself refers to the eight main lanes of the neighborhood’s red light district before 1949.

I have not studied the early history of the neighborhood but between the late Qing and early Republican eras (roughly between the 1870s and the 1930s) Dashalar was known for its opera singers, teahouses, eateries and prostitutes. It was where court personnel from the Imperial palace (the Forbidden City) at the northern end of the Square went to indulge their pleasures, where aspiring literati travelling from other parts of the country stayed as they prepared for the imperial examinations, and where many Han officials lived, barred from living in the inner city by the Manchu government’s segregationist laws. It was also a place where itinerant merchants from outside the capital crossed paths with beggars and the down-and-out hoping to make a living from the vibrant melée of people traversing the neighborhood.

In the context of the history of Beijing, Dashalar has long been one of the central Beijing’s most densely populated and poorest neighborhoods, with a mixed and mobile population of Han, Manchu and Muslim people. During the Mao years (1949-1976), but particularly during the famine years of 1959-1961, Dashalar was the destination of large numbers of near destitute people from the rural areas attempting to find a means of making a livelihood in the capital. It was also a neighborhood affected by the massive demolition and relocation projects underway from the mid-1950s to enlarge Tian’anmen Square and build the Great Hall of the People and the National History Museum as part of the capital’s construction of its famous “ten great buildings.” By 1965, it was reported that the amount of “old and dangerous housing” had doubled that of 1949. A combination of scarcity, population density, inadequate investment in housing and services, and an overwhelming policy emphasis on productivity repeatedly undermined the designs, intentions and plans formulated for Beijing’s older districts between the 1950s and the late 1970s.The 1976 earthquake further exacerbated the situation, and subsidies to enable people to undertake repairs were woefully inadequate. In all, under a policy of “not letting the roof fall in, not letting the walls collapse, but repairing serious leaks,” the area suffered from extreme neglect.

Between the early 1980s and 2000, the date when the government initially hoped to stage the Olympics, various plans for the old city’s development marked Dashalar for regeneration to “transform [its] old and dilapidated housing”. Dashalar then appeared in another protection plan in 2002 as one of the “twenty-five historical areas of Old Beijing city,” two thirds of the housing of which was graded as dilapidated. Demolition of parts of the neighborhood finally got underway in late 2004 with the widening of its main north-south road axis and the relocation of large numbers of local residents, powerfully recorded in Ou Ning’s documentary film, “Meishi Jie” (2006) While pedestrians had to pick their way through piles of rubble, debris and litter, posters appeared on courtyard doors and walls explaining the government’s concern for local residents. Evacuation orders were put up, and notices appeared urging inhabitants to “say farewell to dangerous housing” (gaobie weifang) in return for monetary incentives offered for voluntary relocation. Enormous billboards displaying computer-generated images of the reconstructed neighborhood celebrated the commercial splendors of Dashalar’s history, and in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, shop owners were ordered to re-furbish their shop fronts with new signage and grey paint, at their own expense. Street vendors and pedicab cyclists were cleared from the lanes as the local government implemented a policy of physical, spatial and social cleansing of the neighborhood. Full scale reconstruction of the neighborhood’s main West Street where I worked only began in the winter of 2008-9, with migrant workers laboring alongside bulldozers late into the night to lay new pipes and wiring in excavated street, leaving a tangle of open wires and piles of rubble in the tiny pedestrian margins left at the sides of the street.

Despite policy intentions of the local Xuanwu government, lack of funds and the demographic density of the neighborhood effectively scuppered plans for infrastructural improvements, and until very recently, no significant infrastructural changes were made there. Local residents continued to live in cramped and damp dwellings, with no sanitation, or even hot water. An official 2005 survey of Beijing’s “urban corners” noted that it had a population of nearly 60,000, with a density of 45,000 people per square kilometer, more than double that of other inner-city areas, with many families living in rooms of less than ten square meters. It was also noted that some 90 per cent of the nearly 3000 “big cluttered courtyards” (dazayuan) in the ten single-story communities (shequ) of Dashalar were “dilapidated housing” (weijiu fangwu).  30 per cent of the local population were classified as “masses in difficulties” (kunnan qunzhong). Nearly a fifth of the population were a “migrant population” (liudong renkou). Until it was administratively merged with the inner city’s Xicheng (West City) in July 2010, the Xuanwu District government responsible for Dashalar was also known as the poorest of the capital’s districts.

Linking my research interests with this brief outline of the historical development of Beijing prompts a number of thoughts:

  • First, the story of China’s massive internal migration from rural to urban areas is a well-known aspect of China’s engagement with global capitalism. In mainstream media and academic terms it is largely seen as an effect of the marketization of China’s economy, the relaxation of controls on mobility, and the privatization of employment and property ownership, and as such is one of the best known features of China’s spectacular urban growth in recent decades. The specific characteristics and size of this recent migration are, of course specific to recent decades. However, the longer historical perspective outlined above reveals migration from the rural areas as a recurring feature of the neighborhood’s history, begging questions—to which I will return below—about the shifting constitution since the early days of the People’s Republic of the hierarchies defining urban-rural relations and the significance of local Dashalar people’s self-identification as “authentic” “old Beijingers.

Second, my focus on a group of people I call urban subalterns in preference to the value-laden category of the “underclass” (zui diceng) widely used in Chinese sociological analyses reveals a lengthy and inherited experience of urban poverty not revealed in dominant accounts of the urban working class of the Mao era as recipients of state accommodation, education and health benefits.

Third, the recent commercial “heritagization” of Dashalar after decades of what the local residents experienced as neglect by the state contributes to a new characterization of “old Beijing” which basically ignores the ethnic, religious, regional and social diversity of Dashalar’s past. The emergence of a “nostalgia industry” accompanying this “re-invention” of an “old Beijing” tradition, and apparent in the quantities of coffee table books of photographs of “old Beijing” is part of a heritage discourse that ignores long-term local residents’ claims to belonging to the neighborhood. In their terms, it basically denies them human and social recognition as people worthy of consideration, and replaces this with what they consider to be a “fake” old Beijing. Nevertheless, local people are not averse to using this heritage version of “old Beijing” as a way of making money as well as an ironic assertion of their historical claims to their own neighborhood. Their collective self-referencing as the real “old Beijingers” emerges as an implicit and ethical demand for recognition.

All this underlines the place of Dashalar as a central site of local self-identifications. It was literally the the only site of social and emotional experience for a number of the people I got to know there, some of whom had rarely, if ever, left the neighborhood. And even though over the years I was working there it was physically and spatially transformed, effectively excluding its long-term subaltern residents from the gentrified delights appearing on their doorsteps, Dashalar remained in people’s memories and narratives as a centre of belonging. The place then is remade, but in its remaking it remains a site of attachment and rootedness. And not only for the people who continued to live there. The only person I knew there who had made it good as a successful local restauranteur and photographer lived with his wife and family in a gated community to the south of the neighbourhood, but Dashalar, the place where he was born and had grown up, centred his everyday activities and his photographic passions.

Finally, I want to say something about the party-state. One familiar trope about the Chinese state gives it a kind of monolithic control over ordinary people’s lives. Historically, the Chinese state has reached into neighborhood life in many distinctive ways sustaining the state’s extension of control under the new communist government in 1949. However, despite the fact that local life in Dashalar was ultimately framed by the policies and structures of the new government, the latter’s attempts to mould its subjects into good socialist citizens whose primary loyalities were to the collective good met with uneven success. On the contrary, my study shows how despite such attempts, the family remained the dominant focus of local people’s efforts and passions.

The book has a unique structure: longer, narrative chapters with direct quotations from residents of Dashalar, followed by brief, analytic interludes. How did you choose that structure, rather than following a more standard monographic format?

I had been thinking about how to structure this book for a long time and consulted various ethnographies (not about China) as inspiration but none really worked. What I wanted was to find a structure that combined a flavor of local life, including its spatial, material and sensory qualities, and the personalities and voices of the people I knew, with detached attention to conceptual analysis. Accordingly, my first nearly final draft was largely structured around the individual families I knew best, and was narrated as much as was possible in the voices of those people. For their narratives, I drew on the recordings of conversations I had made over the years, together with my copious fieldnotes. The narrative structure of the main chapters of the book was, of course, the result of my editorial decisions to find a way to convey their voices in a form that I hope does justice to them and their concerns.

At this point, I was invited to discuss some of the chapters with a bunch of history graduate students, who had read a couple of the chapters in advance. In the discussion we then had, they made it clear that while they enjoyed reading these people’s stories, they would benefit from a bit more guidance about how to interpret them. What were the main themes that emerged from these stories?

My response was to retain the main chapters, more or less as they were, and follow them up with what I call brief analytical interludes discussing what for me were the main themes and questions raised by their stories. The final concluding chapter then collates these themes under other, broader ones, which to different degrees link the specific experiences and stories together.

Is there a story, or chapter, in particular that resonates with you?

This is a difficult one, for they all have their part to play in my analysis.

But I guess, on a human level, the story that touched me the most was the migrant couple’s, whose resilience, determination, dignity and deep commitment to each other as well as their children enabled them to endure unspeakable suffering and social discrimination. The violent abuse they were subjected to by the law enforcement officers and the police constituted a clear violation of their most basic human rights. What kept them going was the desire to see their children, and particularly their son, through higher education. They expected that eventually they would return home to Shaanxi when they could no longer work and would be cared for by their son who they anticipated would marry and have a child there. The tragedy of their story played out, for them, in the mismatch between their expectations and what they saw as their daughter-in-law’s rejection of them. Their son was a deeply loving young man, who on numerous occasions, in front of me, had demonstrated his affectionate respect of his parents. He was torn between his attachment to his parents and his desire to lead a different kind of life, and to bring up his child together with his wife in ways that could not respond to his parents’ expectations in their terms. While therefore, the tragedy was the effect of destroyed hopes and expectations of filial support on the part of the older generation, this story also reveals the tragedy of unanticipated generational shifts in conditions of extreme scarcity and precarity, in which, to paraphrase Lauren Berlant, hope and optimism can produce cruel effects.

The other really moving thing about this couple is that in contrast with others I knew I Dashalar, they never asked anything of me, in either financial or other terms. Their depleted resources left them with virtually nothing, except anguished grief, which they did not hide from me.  For Li Fuying and his wife, my presence and support signified not a source of material support but of recognition of their difficulties and their pain, at a moment when no-one else seemed to be around to offer any comfort. Ultimately, I think they saw my attempts to understand them and my recognition of their grief as offering the hope of repair.

On the level of methodology, your work uses oral history to center the lives of the urban working class, whose experiences are usually not incorporated into the dominant historical narrative. Could you say more about how you think of the relationship between histories from “below”—which often rely on memory, or non-archival sources of information—and “official” histories?

My book combines conventional archival research, ethnographic research conducted in short spurts over a period of years, with an unorthodox kind of oral history. Unorthodox in that I did not sit down to record individuals’ life histories, nor do I refer to their real names. In methodological terms, one section of the introductory chapter sets out how I see the relationship between these three methods.

In brief, I think of them as corresponding with, contrasting and even challenging each other in ways that shed light on the multiple character of history. We all know that the local archival collections available (then) to researchers, and which I was fortunate enough to be able to access, were/are highly selective in that huge chunks of the recent past are simply omitted from the available record. Hence the extent of the famine’s (1959-1962) effects in the neighborhood only emerges obliquely in references, for example, to child health and food shortages in nurseries and kindergartens. The extent of the Red Guards’ violence in the neighborhood is simply absent from the local archive. Nevertheless, numerous other details were telling, particularly when interpreted within the context of my familiarity with the spaces and people of the neighborhood. So for example, one account of “social ills” in the late 1950s, referred to a local woman, formerly a prostitute, who complained about the inadequacy of the cotton rations, and was reported as saying that she didn’t even have enough to cover her behind. I laughed out loud when I read this, so appropriately did it seem to conjure up what could have been the response of Meiling, a woman who had spent three years in detention for prostitution during the anti-spiritual pollution campaign in the early 1980s. So, in this and other instances, the archival sources revealed all sorts of detail that I could make sense of because of my knowledge of the neighborhood. Far from confirming what I had anticipated, namely the limits of lacunae of the official archive, they often surprised me because of their reference to local narrated experiences.

Another point I want to make about doing this kind of “old school” archival research is that the documents themselves were often painstakingly written by hand, with crossings out and spelling mistakes galore….In instances where the document in question was a plea to the authorities for support to do things like finance the building of an extra toilet for nursery children, when the terms of address had to be carefully chosen so as to avoid outright refusal, the materiality of the document gives evidence of the blood, sweat and tears that produced it.

Memories are always slippery, and there is a whole body of literature out there called memory studies. For me, in this book, the value of the memory with all its selectivity lies not in a comparison with, legitimation or contestation of the documented archive, but rather in what it conveys about the remembering and forgetting subject. The flip side of a memory is what is forgotten or silenced, and of course, what is remembered or not does not stay still. Rather the past that is remembered today may well say as much about today as it does about the past. So memory becomes a vector of how people bring together their pasts in a way that makes sense of their presents, and even their hopes for or desires for the future. So memory is tied up with multiple temporalities that in turn unevenly converge with and depart from the discursive narratives of “official” or “mainstream” history.

The final point here I want to make is that claims are often made for oral histories that seem to be imbued with a sense of the moral high ground—that because the oral history can reveal the downside of history that is often excluded from the official or dominant record, that therefore it is more truthful. I think this is highly dubious, as is the whole notion of “historical truth.” The poor and marginalized do not have a prerogative over the oral. Indeed, as many have argued, the quality of the spoken that emerges in oral histories may be far from revealing the interior experience of the speaking subject, particularly the female subaltern subject. Much depends on the historian’s purpose and positionality.

The situation in Dashalar, and Beijing in general, continues to rapidly change. What, in your opinion, do you think the future of Dashalar is?

The future of Dashalar is already there, in the form of its cool coffee bars and restaurants, and its sparklingly modern architecture. But this process of gentrification is still patchy and the new spaces frequented by hip young global professionals obscure the messy alleys and “big cluttered courtyards” behind them. The other aspect of Dashalar’s situation is its appropriation by the commercial heritage industry as part of the “brand” of “old Beijing” that dominates tourist websites of the capital.

978-1-4780-0815-6What do you hope readers will take away from Beijing from Below?

That is a difficult question…because there are too many things I want the reader to take away, but in a nutshell, I think the first thing is the understanding that history is multiple, it doesn’t simply follow a neat or progressive path, any more than change does. While certain aspects of what we understand as mainstream history and change are clearly beneficial to some people, this depends on and is constitutive of the disadvantaging of others. So our responsibility as historians and anthropologists is to try to articulate how and why these often inconsistent but concurrent processes take place.

Beyond giving voice to the experiences of people left out of the dominant historical record, this study challenges a number of familiar arguments beyond my general comments about oral history. Some of these are shared by commentators and academics of China studies. Others make anthropological points that have maybe universal value.

  • Rural-urban labor migration in China in the past few decades is a new stage in a longer history of rural-urban migration. At one extreme there are large numbers of successful migrant labourers who manage to explore the entrepreneurial opportunities offered by the market to gain access to urban services, property ownership and family security. At the other are those who are pushed into migration by desperation, poverty and a determination to give their children a better future than their own. The documented evidence of the violent abuse and violation of basic human rights experienced by these (remember the so-called “low-end migrants” forcibly removed from Beijing in 2018) demands greater publicity.
  • Historical narratives and received knowledge.

Published narratives of experiences of the Mao era, and particularly the Cultural Revolution, focus on the educated urban elite of cadres, intellectuals, professionals and students, those for whom there are archival and biographical records of persecution and death, years spent in cadre schools and labor camps, and in the countryside as “sent down youth.” It is through the so-called “victim literature” and its concerns with the suffering perpetrated on the nation’s educated elite, that the Mao era is best known both to Western audiences and to younger generations in China. In this, moreover, there is a frequent slippage between the Mao era and the Cultural Revolution, such that the Cultural Revolution effectively becomes synonymous with the Mao era as a whole. The forgetting and simplification of the different stages and experiences of the Mao era in official historiography reproduces this slippage.

The urban subalterns such as those whose stories I have narrated here —the street vendor of Buddhist trinkets, the garbage collector, the public lavatory cleaner, the illiterate “housewife” and member of the household-based production group—made no claims to a privileged victimhood. They did not have any noticeable social or political stakes in debates about the legacy of the Mao era, nor did they have the educational skills or social capital to record their own, or their families’ experiences.

This contextualization of the Mao era and the Cultural Revolution reminds us that dominant media and academic narratives of both Mao and the Cultural Revolution reveal appalling suffering and brutality, yet which is ideologically framed to correspond with ongoing political priorities articulated by the urban educated elite. The moments which were most prominent in my interlocutors’ stories focused on the famine years more than the Cultural Revolution. Nor did their memories correspond with the rupture between the Mao and post-Mao years which structures the dominant official versions of the recent past, and exercises overwhelming discursive weight in the Western media. Rather, their narratives urge us to remember that the received knowledge endlessly reproduced by our media corresponds—unevenly—with the agendas, explicit or otherwise of the media barons and their governments, and these agendas correspond with ideological and political interests. However the temporalities structuring the memories of the past narrated in my book suggest other priorities, sometimes converging with, sometimes departing from those of official discourse.

  • In contrast with much public commentary on the Chinese state’s efforts to establish an effective legal system, the experience of many including those whose stories appear in this book is that state policy oriented to improving the legal system through the enactment of laws does not in itself lead to greater regularization of social and economic practices. On the contrary, corruption and the arbitrary abuse of power emerge as such predictable aspects of the legal structure as it is practiced at the local level, that in the eyes of those affected by it, such as many of those who appear in this book, they have become associated with the legal system itself. This of course, has more general applicability as a critical corrective to dominant media and political assertions about the efficacy of the rule of law in many societies, including our own.
  • The Chinese state

One of the most salient paradoxes of this study concerns the contrast between a state which was instrumental in shaping the conditions of existence of the people of Dashalar and its apparent absence in their everyday language and activities. The agencies representing the state in the experience of my interocutors appeared in the form of occasional benevolence to obscurity, negligence and apparent absence, and even worse to out and out physical violence and psychological abuse, mostly perpetrated by the local patrol officers and policemen. However, imagining the state as a portentous agent “above” (shangmian), as local people generally referred to it, did not make it external to the embodied concerns of daily life. It penetrated the interiority of people’s homes in the form of the ordering (or disordering) of space, in the anxieties, struggles and family disputes over residential security, in fundamental concerns about health and hunger, in despairing anger, and in abject resignation to “fate,” and very occasionally, in explicit protest. In extreme, but by no means exceptional cases, as we have seen, it attacked the bodies as well as minds of its subjects. In this sense, the state was a profoundly constitutive force at the heart of local people’s social, bodily and affective lives. It was thus intimately terrifying in the extent of its powers.

At the same time, this should not be interpreted as a concurrence with the view of the “totalitarian” state, which I do not think is a useful term. If anything, this study reveals how, even in conditions of close everyday supervision by state agencies, the people targeted for control by those agencies manifest a stubborn recalcitrance, if not outright refusal, to go along with the state’s demands…The image that comes to mind is of someone silently digging in their heels in refusal to go along with the demands of others. What also comes to mind are Scott’s famous “hidden transcripts” as “weapons of the weak.”

  • Exchange, recognition and agency

An anthropological issue. This study has given me a profound lesson in how to understand ethnographic research as a process of exchange. While one’s interlocutors may have a range of instrumental interests in tolerating or even welcoming the researcher’s presence, including gifts, monetary loans, the acquisition of cultural capital and so on, such concerns should not be seen as antithetical to ethical concerns. If I was seen and treated by some of my interlocutors as a source of material advantage, I was also treated as witness to attempts to define an ethical way of living in the ordinary everyday.

This connects with what I understand as the desire for recognition. A major reason explaining my acquaintances’ willingness to share their stories with me was in my view because my interest in their lives signified a recognition of them as human subjects in a world which consistently withheld from them all that the desire for recognition implies: respect, consideration and justice. Long years of having been denied even the basics of human respect occasionally exploded in rage and despair: in Meiling’s vociferous claims to virtue, in Zhao Yong’s loud accusations against the police for infringing his human rights after a minor traffic offence, or in Li Fuying’s tortured memories of police brutality, forcible separation from his wife, and finally his despair when having to face his son’s decision to lead his life in ways that clashed with his own sense of self, as apparent in his hopes and expectations.

Interpreted through the lens of agency, my Dashalar acquaintances’ narrations of their experiences, memories and longings can be thought of as expressions of desires to assert a kind of authority in their lives. Agency here appears not as a “synonym for resistance to relations of domination,” as the late Saba Mahmood put it, but rather a form of struggle on the part of disadvantaged people to claim a dignity in an environment which, objectively, denied it to them. Understood in these terms, the expression of agency can be conceptualized as a search for recognition, not in the sense of identity politics, but, following Nancy Fraser, in a way that contrasts with the customary depreciation experienced by the subject, subordinating her to the impossibility of participating in social life as an equal of others. This is a kind of ethical recognition that acknowledges the subject’s performance of personhood as that of a full partner in social interaction,

Read the introduction to Beijing from Below free online and save 50% on the paperback edition with the coupon EVANS50 until June 30, 2020.

Q&A with Jane Bennett

Jane Bennett is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University and author of Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, also published by Duke University Press.

In her newest book, Influx and Efflux: Writing Up with Walt Whitman, she explores the question of human agency amidst a world teeming with powerful nonhuman influences, drawing upon Whitman, Thoreau, Caillois, Whitehead, and other poetic writers to link a non-anthropocentric model of self to a democratic pluralism and a syntax and style of writing appropriate to the entangled world in which we live.

Your book Vibrant Matter introduced so many of us to new materialist theory—the idea that we as humans are deeply engaged with a more-than-human material world. How does Influx and Efflux relate to the questions you took up in that book?

Vibrant Matter honed in on vital forces overlooked by a picture of the world as divided naturally into passive-reactive objects and active-creative subjects, and it figured the human being as one lively element among others within the complex ecology of human-nonhuman assemblages. It trained a cyclops eye on the liveliness of the ordinary nonhuman entities and processes by which we live—think, for example, of the powerful lure of certain objects and possessions, or of the effects of pesticides or pharmaceuticals on health, or of how you follow the lead of your materials as you cook, draw, garden.

In highlighting a more-than-human vitality, and in pitching its analysis at the grand, even cosmic level of “matter,” Vibrant Matter also cast shade on some other important efforts. These efforts include those defending humanism as an indispensable tradition of inquiry in the face of attacks against it as economically useless; or those exposing structures of (gendered, racialized, capitalist) injustice; or those in search of a philosophy of human agency that accounts for both its assemblage-quality and its capacity to add something qualitatively new to the world.

Influx and Efflux speaks to these previously shaded efforts, especially that last one. It returns to the matter of human subjectivity. What models of self and efficacy make sense within a non-anthropocentric ontology? What kinds of “I” and “we” can act effectively, and live well, alongside so many other lively bodies and forces? How to affirm the strange bubbling up of “individuality” within a world of vibrant matter? To pursue these tasks, I use Walt Whitman’s American poetry as my guide. I seek help also from other poetic voices unafraid to name, ride, and “write up” whatever laudable possibilities circulate quietly, even in dark times.

The book’s title references Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” in which the ocean’s flowing in and out refers to everyday movements in which outside influences enter bodies, infuse and confuse their organization, and then exit, themselves having been transformed into something new. Why did you choose to think with the phrase “influx and efflux” for this book?

I am drawn to pictures of the world that emphasize the role of becoming while also thinking about how entities (knots and clots) form in the process. One of the ways to do the latter is to acknowledge the configuring power of metamorphosis—to include within one’s “structural analysis” the arrangements made by rhythms of self-alteration (“influx and efflux”). It is notable also that Whitman’s phrase describes a process operative both in the ocean and in the “I.” The self that emerges in Leaves of Grass is the product of a process that repeats across human-nonhuman borders:

Sea of stretch’d groundswells,
Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths,
Sea of the brine of life and of unshovell’d yet always-ready graves,
Howler and scooper of storms, capricious and dainty sea,
I am integral with you, I too am of one phase and of all phases.
Partaker of influx and efflux I.

—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” (Section 22)

You write about Whitman’s approach to the power of sympathy as a physical force: he saw his poetry as generating a cloud of possibility for abolitionist thought by highlighting the linked value of every body-soul, rather than directly engaging with the racialized violence of slavery in a way that might make people defensive. What might poetry have to offer for us in the polarized and tense political moment we are in right now?

There are loud voices in American politics today avowing hate, racism, guns, patriarchy, xenophobia, greed, extreme inequality, and authoritarian rule. For them, sympathy and empathy are but expressions of weakness. They deny not only their entanglements with other people but also their profound susceptibility to nonhuman forces—preferring to believe that climate change or a viral pandemic is a hoax propagated on behalf of the weak.

Such views have faced a direct, forceful, and high-intensity counter-response—by a militantly pro-democratic opposition to entrenched structures of privilege and domination. I applaud the Left’s use of outrage, revulsion, and militancy in the effort to counter right-wing attitudes, judgments, and actions. Influx & Efflux, however, takes another tactic—it leans into other moods and it relies more upon indirect powers, including wonder at the vitality of matter and a protean attraction to the bodies and things one regularly encounters. It seeks to harness the power of wonder and those vague, ahuman affections (“sympathies”) on behalf of a decent, egalitarian, and ecological public culture. I think that neglect of the energy of protean sympathies has made its own contribution to the rise of the cruel, authoritarian, and earth-destroying politics we currently endure.

It’s not that positive moods and indirect influences should replace the critical orientations and more express forms of opposition practiced by the Left; they are offered instead as a political supplement to them. The rhetorical groove of the book is less calling out and more calling toward, but I don’t think that renders it depoliticized, especially if “political” denotes that which is capable of inducing societal transformation. There is a form of political efficacy that relies upon direct action and intense affect, but there is also a form proceeding by subtle influence and gentler sensitivities—by a force that is only apparently “weak.”

Your own doodles appear on the book’s cover as well as throughout the manuscript. How should readers approach these doodles? What is their relationship to the written text?

People exist and subsist on many planes or registers at once—the conceptual and the spatial, the shaped and the vague, the static and the vibratory, the everyday and the cosmic. Each plane intersects with the others in experience, such that “experience” is itself an overrich mix of impressions, tempos, feelings, and moods. In short, life is complicated. Or, as Paul Klee put it, “It is not easy to orient yourself in a whole that is made up of parts belonging to different dimensions.”

The doodles—as lines and shapes on their way to elsewhere (Klee says they are “out for a walk”)—express, perhaps, one of the many non-linguistic registers of experience. The peculiar experience of agency that comes to the fore while doodling—an “I” that is carried along by a creative process that would not be the same without me and yet carries on whether I am there or not—is one theme of the book. The doodles speak without words to what the process-forward philosophy of the book also tries to pronounce.

One of the questions you explore in your work is what it looks like to write in a non-anthropocentric way. How do you include the more-than-human in your writing practice?

Simply naming and describing the presence of the not-quite human in any given field of perception, conception, reception, or deception is a start. Work to undo the learned tendency to overlook those aspects of one’s encounters that are not apparently useful for pragmatic action. Another tactic is to pay close attention to the verbs you speak—do they insinuate that the humans on the scene have more power or control of the action than they really do? The book experiments with using “middle-voiced” verbs as a way to “write up” a multi-specied kind of agency. Even though the “middle voice” is not marked formally in English (as it is in classical Greek and Sanskrit), it is still present in certain ways of speaking. It designates performances undertaken within an ongoing field of activities, rather than decisions of subjects who enter a field either to do something (the active voice) or to be acted upon (the passive voice). For example, the verbs “to partake,” “to inaugurate,” “to inflect,” and “to attest to” express an efficacy that both receives and twists, an efficacy that no singlet could own.

One of your chapters takes up Thoreau’s attempt to filter the influence of humans out of his life, but maximize the influx of the not-quite-human sparks of the Wild. Is there anything Thoreau might offer for those of us who are spending this springtime physically isolated from other humans?

Yes, lots. Get outside, even around the block. Make good advantage of the official (coronavirus pandemic) directive to avoid people, to eschew anthropocentrism. Now you can notice the intensive swarms of otherwise insignificant things in your immediate vicinity. This practice of attention may slowly expand (even cosmic-ize!) your perspective. You too are, when all is said and done, a minuscule bundle of energies in a cosmic swirl. The news, social media, the internet, and your conventional frame of mind/body all focus relentlessly on the social, political, economic, human-historical dimensions of your existence. But your being is also elsewhere, in excess of those planes or dimensions. You are other-than-human and more than conventional too: you live via and are impressed by a virtual realm that is real even if not expressly overt. Inhabit that more fully.

Read the introduction to Influx and Efflux free online and save 30% when you use coupon code E20BNNTT.

New Books in June

Summer is just around the corner. As this new season begins, we’re releasing some exciting titles in history, art, anthropology, and more. Check out these brand new books arriving in June!

A Primer for Teaching Pacific Histories is a guide for college and high school teachers who are teaching Pacific histories for the first time or for experienced teachers who want to reinvigorate their courses. It can also serve those who are training future teachers to prepare their own syllabi, as well as teachers who want to incorporate Pacific histories into their world history courses.

In Disordering the Establishment, Lily Woodruff examines the development of artistic strategies of political resistance in France in the decades following World War II, showing how artists countered establishment ideology, challenged traditional art institutions, appealed to direct political engagement, and grappled with French intellectuals’ modeling of society.

Pointing out that presumptions of solidarity, antagonism, or incommensurability between Black and Native communities are insufficient to understand the relationships between both groups, the scholars, artists, and activists contributing to Otherwise Worlds investigate the complex relationships between settler colonialism and anti-Blackness to explore the political possibilities that emerge from such inquiries. This volume is edited by Tiffany Lethabo King, Jenell Navarro, and Andrea Smith.

In Trafficking, Hector Amaya examines how the dramatic escalation of drug violence in Mexico in 2008 transformed how people discussed violence and the rules of participation in the public sphere.

Sa’ed Atshan and Katharina Galor draw on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews in The Moral Triangle to explore the asymmetric relationships between Germans and Israeli and Palestinian immigrants in the context of official German policies, public discourse, and the impact of coming to terms with the past. You can watch Assistant Editor Sandra Korn interview Atshan and Galor here.

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