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Moments from Ethnographic Sense: Composing the Contemporary


Thank you to all of you who joined us on Zoom on April 9 for “Ethnographic Sense: Composing the Contemporary,” featuring Carole McGranahan and Marina Peterson. Composing and crafting were the two key terms we wanted to close this semester with. In thinking about how to write in and through the pandemic, the Ethnography Workshop had the pleasure to invite the two anthropologists. We asked them to share with us how ethnography could enable alternative ways to know and write from the present moment, posing this as “writing from the inside” of our shared condition. In the session, Marina Peterson shared parts of what she had been writing from the inside of her daily life in the pandemic. Each scene was signaled by the events that were happening around her, ranging from the sun to the virus, houses in Texas, and conversations with people. Across these scenes, “I” in her piece was moving away from “consciousness” as, in her quoting Michael Marder, “the exceptionalism of central nervous system.” Her writing provided meditations on how “I can’t seem to find or create an outside.” In these descriptions, the ethnographic did not leave the present permanently. Rather, knowledge was cued, signaled, and made sensible through “I” that “does, moves, senses,” in constant contact with the world around her.

Carole McGranahan presented about how new writing initiatives and communities formed in different times of her life, depending on what was unfolding around her. If anthropology is the “study of human” and ethnography is to “study with people,” she emphasized, “ethnographic sensibility” is such capacity to remain attuned to the “now” we are in. This sensibility is also something that needs to be developed, nourished, and practiced, so that “you can recognize it when you see it.” A series of projects emerged this way in her scholarship, ranging from the blog “Savage Minds” to experimental collaborations through “flash ethnography” as a new genre of scholarship and  “Pandemic Diaries” where graduate students participated in creating seven collections about life in and through the pandemic. At the end, she reflected on her last talk in 2017 at Duke when she was asked to speak about public anthropology. There can be multiple anthropologies; if public anthropology is “to be engaged,” and rogue anthropology “to be enraged,” for pandemic anthropology, she said, we would need “to be in community” which involves “rest as much as action.”

Please watch the video clip for open discussion and more.


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Moments from Death of Senses (Cody Black and Cade Bourne)

On April 2, we gathered for our fourth session which was organized by Cody Black and Cade Bourne. Both Cody and Cade shared their writings along the lines of gigging economy, affective labor, and aural relationality. Cody, who has done his fieldwork with artist-laborers in K-Pop industry in South Korea, discussed in his writing how one media start-up works with the interviewees to catch a human emotion that often moves people to tears and to transform it into a communicable affect on social media platforms like YouTube. Cade, whose research looks at precarious labor of DJs in Japan, examined the potential and limits of the concept immaterial labor in exploring DJing and its product: vibes. We all read both of their works, and posed questions, comments, readings, in terms of how these projects may go forward.


Jieun: I was struck by how much the two projects shared in terms of the tension between process and product, albeit in different contexts of attention or affective economies. And not coincidentally, I kept thinking back to significance of platform along the lines of Tamara Kneese’s work on platform temporality. For Cade, I think vibe is more than “immaterial labor”; vibe seems to me the product-in-process or process-as-product in itself. In this context, labor cannot be solely produced by the laborer’s body— the producers must depend on digitized platforms to be able to produce something at all even before the transactions happen as a point of actualizing value in forms of currency. Their labor itself is digitized. For Cody, how platform conditions what needs to be captured to move the audience to tears within the constraints of production timeline? I feel like both projects have great potential beyond ethnomusicology.

Emily: I found it interesting how complementary the two writings were. The reading was an intriguing experience for me because both of you move in and out sound as something indexical and sound as something affective (more like vibrational energy). Both of you constantly shift between ethnographic details and broadstroke theorization. What if one can think of sound not as a noun but as a verb, in terms of pacing your own attention to the issue at hand? What moves one’s own attention to, for example, vibes and how does one know how to go about giving that vibes presence in writing? I really enjoyed reading both of your works.

Ralph: Given that both of you are interested in materiality and immateriality of certain forms of labor, I was thinking about equipments that are actually necessary for the people you work with in the first place as a material basis. There are many forms of immaterial labor, and for example, coders are equipped differently from DJs. How would this factor in your projects with possible implications for what immaterial labor can be or do?

Sophia: Nowadays, almost all the artists broadcast on many different platforms. What makes DJs or media start-ups distinctive in this historical moment? For Cade, I wonder if there is something in the DJing that makes DJs distinctive as broadcasting artist. For Cody, I wanted to hear more about empathy given other discussions about the role of social media platforms in diminishing empathy. Many works depict the affects of platform economy and its impact on human relationality in utopian or dystopian terms. I wondered if you had thoughts about this.

Shreya: While reading your works, I thought about writing—how does one communicate something like an affect or production, transformation, and music through writing? What are the ways people artistically engage such sensations for giving the reader a space to feel the moment as part of reading experience?

Yanping: I wonder how mental health and changing psychological needs in the pandemic context might be relevant to Cade’s research. I have been following and using “study with me” videos on Youtube. A lot of comments there imply sociality and relationality. So I am thinking about audience as interlocutors in Cade’s fieldwork. Also, do some groups of old audience move to the digital platform, or are there new audience driven by the pandemic stress?


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Moments from Deathscapes; Ethnography of/beyond Death

Thank you to all of you who joined us on Zoom on March 29 for “Deathscapes; Ethnography of/beyond Death,” featuring Tamara Kneese, Sally Raudon, and Benjamin Tausig. This time we invited all the three speakers to speak about death, all of whom approach death from different locations in their own creative ways.

Sally Raudon’s talk was focused on Hart Island in New York during the pandemic. Hart Island is not an unfamiliar name to New Yorkers. Rather, it is very much part of the landscape. And yet, at the same time, it is a place that is kept at a distance symbolically, administratively, and physically. Like many public parks in New York that were once potter’s field, it is a place where poor, unclaimed, unidentified bodies are usually buried. While about 1,500 people are buried in Hart Island annually, both unmarked and unclaimed, the number increased six times during the pandemic due to an urgent need to handle a large amount of corpses, which made the operation of the place the busiest ever since the 1918 influenza pandemic. During this traumatic time, Raudon traces disposal and burial at Hart Island as a process of making identities as well as political communities. From the families who try to restore their rights to the lost ones to the unrecognized caring relationships that are not allowed to mourn properly for the deceased homeless without paperwork, the efforts at forging proper ties with the buried by way of recognition continue, re-making social relations between the living and the dead.

Tamara Kneese discussed digital remains after death, shifting economies of platform, and emerging mortuary practices. Kneese started out with her observations from 2007 when Facebook users pushed back Facebook’s profile policy in their memorializing practices for those who were lost to the Virginia Tech Shooting. Originally targeted for young users, social media platforms have increasingly evolved in terms of how to manage what she calls communicative trails of dead people, digital remains like profile, blogs, emails, and so on. With digital platforms taking up a significant part of everyday life for many people today, human relationships between the living and the dead came to be embedded in corporate-managed platforms, which raises vital points about dying and mourning. Though memorialized in intimate ways, digital remains fall under the control of corporations, rather than regulated by law. However immaterial it may appear, such platforms and death-related services also require human labor, taking up material resources, subject to occasional break-downs. How could we re-imagine and struggle for dying and morning well in a time where death leaves digital remains and estates, if we were to view this reality from multiple angles beyond the corporate solution for death? How can we make social media platforms into a more accommodating place for those who visits the platforms as a grave without a headstone?

Benjamin Tausig’s presentation was informed by American wars in Vietnam—from Thailand that was a chief ally of the US in the region from 1950s and 1970s. Rather than the inner worlds of the soldiers themselves, Tausig is interested in the perspectives of Thai hospitality workers, many of whom were called “rented wife” of American soldiers who passed through the region as R&R (Rest & Recuperation). Death was much part of the nightlife where Thai hospitality workers did auditory labor for American soldiers who themselves faced their potential deaths while young, male, and away from home. In the backdrop of the ongoing dispossession from agricultural livelihood, “rented wives” eagerly studied English to make money, or to marry an American soldier, while most Americans remained disengaged from Thai language. In a song he played to the audience, Tausig invited all to imagine how “rented wives” negotiated the presence of American soldiers—who came to where they live as part of neocolonial wars—”by ear.”

Please watch the video for actual presentations and more.


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Moments from Death and Biopolitics (Sophia Goodfriend and Yanping Ni)

On March 5, we gathered for our third session which was organized by Sophia Goodfriend and Yanping Ni. Sophia shared a paper, “A Street View of Occupation: Getting Around Hebron on Google Maps,” which was based on her research in the summer of 2018. Starting with her own frustration in navigating the streets of Hebron—the largest city in the West Bank—on Google Maps, she considers the tensions of producing cartographic data. While the street views of Hebron show seamlessly stitched images, these rub against borders, checkpoints, or walls that people encounter on the ground as pedestrians, residents, and commuters. She follows Wesam—a Palestinian who walks the city to create user-generated images with a 360-degree camera attached to the selfie-stick—to discuss how the panoramic view becomes a site of contestation in this specific place. Yanping shared the first chapter of her thesis, “Disposable Bodies, Privatized Care” for the workshop. Her work looks at the political economy of care in post-socialist China by foregrounding mine workers who developed black lung disease and the caretakers who look after them. She discusses in this chapter how local mines operate besides official terms of contract, and how family values become mobilized in organizing domestic care when healthcare is dispossessed. We all read both of their works, and posed questions, comments, readings, in terms of how these may go forward. Some portion of the session is in the below:

Comments for Sophia

Anne: This writing reminded me of what Jake was doing with the sky. What is Wesam trying to do? He’s like an artist, but there was also a practical benefit to it, doing cartography. It seems important to keep that ambiguity which blurs many boundaries.

Jieun: “They have to walk around me,” Wesam said—which stuck out to me. He is a “guide” and you emphasized that “thoroughness” as something important in making sense of what Wesam is doing. Your interview at Google also included many important points about cars, “objective maps,” access of “our people,” and so on. Thinking about cars, walking the street, and people responding to Wesam’s walk, something like a point of view may be productive to further this work. In this case, it’s literally a point of view—what would happen if one were to suspend objectivity/neutrality/subjectivity, and instead, to engage something like a point of view to foreground the ambiguity anne was pointing out?

Jake: Wesam is a virtual explorer. I found interesting that the digital here is introducing new forms through which people are getting at something like the taste of the city. In relation to anonymous cars, viewers physically toggling to get the view of the street, and so on, what relationships would be in the making here? To me, it seems like a different type from objective/subjective understandings of space. Resistance is not the term with which Wesam is making sense of what he is doing. I don’t have the term for this, but perhaps something akin to cityhood or city-ness?

Emily: Wesam’s photography is interesting because it’s not only produced by his individual perspective—it also entails his ideas of what his perspective can do, and the places he can access. Regarding cars, I can see some parallel debates in ethnomusicology where people discuss the role of sound recording devices that are sent to places where people cannot physically go. On one hand, there is presumed objectivity/neutrality of recording device like a camera, but on the other hand, the person’s perception can never be fully flattened into such mediated views. Then what happens in this gap? Thinking of cultural geographers who work on map, and how the same place can become different ideas by how it is represented on the map—the ideologies of cartography—I’d be interested in thinking about what story is being told by Google Maps.

Comments for Yanping

Anne: Many families you discuss in this chapter hold onto the “traditional” family values, which seems interesting and surprising to me, partly because this is not the case in Japan where I work. Maybe one way to think about this in terms of going forward is to start with the family. Family seems very important in your work, but it only appears at the end. Before the migrant workers get sick, what is the role/attachment of family to them? How does the family factor in when the miners leave home to work, and what kind of trajectories are there for them?

Cade: Also with the emphasis on family and the “brotherly” relationship between government and contractors, I’d be curious about the potentially familial relationships between the miners and what forms of care exist between them.

Jieun: The chapter is very rich—you’re weaving a lot here, including models, histories, institutional players, and so on. What stuck out to me was “legal society” that the minders were talking about. If they are constantly disenfranchised in terms of both work and care, what do they mean when they refer to “legal society” in this place, or in post-socialist China in general? I’d like to hear more about the trajectories of the families.

Jake: Because care is so central here, I’d like to hear more about how you tracked the caring networks/trajectories. There is a lot of frustration here so I’m interested in how unraveling those types of networks might get at care, or endurance, or a form of life amidst all this.

Sophia: I’d like to hear more about your methods, given that the work for this chapter was mostly done during the pandemic. Maybe you don’t have to do this in this chapter, but I think it may be productive to think about the communications angle as one of the constraints when care (or the care networks) is so hard to access.

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Moments from Death and Affect (Anne Allison and Jake Silver)

On February 19, we gathered for our second session which was organized with the generous sharing of works-in-progress by Anne Allison and Jake Silver. We read both of their works, and shared what came to the mind of each of us, what we’d like to hear more about, and how we can do anthropology when the object of description/inquiry is not so clear as we may assume. I share here the opening remarks by the two organizers, and some portion of the conversations (at the expense of their original richness).

Anne: These are the last two sections in what is a chapter in the book I’m writing on new mortuary practices in an era of downsizing sociality in Japan. The chapter takes on a new genre of business called “companies that deal with the possessions of the deceased” (遺品整理会社) that also clean-up residences where corpses of the lonely dead (people who have died alone and left behind corpses that go undiscovered for up to several months) are found. In the chapter I am interested in the smell these corpses emit that are often what provokes discovery in the first place (by landlords, neighbors, passers-by). The smell of unsociality: being alone, and undiscovered, at death. I invite a discussion of death/the senses/care as they come together in this work performed by manual workers. Quite astounding I find this. And wonder if you do too. And, of course, how to write this, how to ethnographize this, how to “do” this.

Jake: What I’m sharing touches upon affect, atmosphere, and life/death. The portion of the chapter I share with you focuses on jokes—that I kept hearing regarding the smell of outer space. I initially resisted writing about these since they seem far from the realm for “astronomy” or “politics.” Then I came to realize they were important ways in which understandings about the sensuous atmosphere of colonialism and outer space were bleeding into one another. Perhaps the sky harbors things that can hurt Palestinians. The sky can be an enemy. The place—Gaza—is often called as an open-air prison, but the air is not quite “open”—the air is under seizure. How can one make sense of the jokes about the sky when they may be commentaries, aspirations, imaginations that derive from the life under seizure here, in that particular place? Why do people exchange banters about the smell of the moon? I’d appreciate any comment and critique.

Questions from the floor

Shreya: Jake, I don’t know why, but somehow, the way you talked about the sky reminded me of the forest, or jungle—as space of the unknown with perpetual danger. The potential for extraction and abuse. A landscape of infinite knowledge that demands intimacy. Do you think that there’s something about the expansion of the self in humans trying to prospect and extract from the sky?

Cody: Jake, I liked your invocation of synesthesia (one sense’s automatic recall of a different sense). I wonder what does it actually mean to “feel the sky”—which you’re grappling with in your writing here—to figure out, say, “experience” of the world under certain conditions. In terms of synesthesia, you try to look and feel here. For me, feeling is something tactile, and I wonder in what sense you are connecting the sight and feeling here. Is there something beyond what it means to see in the jokes? Is there something that you’re looking for in regard to how the world is, or can be, “experienced”?

Emily: Why smell? What is it about the smell that provides people something that is out of reach for others, or outside language? I am really interested in the organization of sensorium, and this varies across time and space. So I feel like it can be very productive to think along this line—perhaps synesthesia is one way. How can smell be situated? And also, about affect, people have different understandings about affect, and where to locate it, i.e., inside/outside bodies or elsewhere. So I think the organization of writing here doesn’t have to be cleanly separated.

Sophia: I am interested in the tension between phenomenology and affect. In Jake’s work, the sky seems to be overdetermined by the pervasiveness of occupation as something that is atmospheric. But also, you make connections between these affective encounters with hopeful potential. For me, affect is about indeterminacy, potential features, and (different organizations of) sensorium. But in this specific place, the sky looks so foreclosed by violence. When phenomenology/senses are overdetermined by the atmosphere, what happens to potential?

Cade: I’m thinking back to my interests about transduction in bodies. Could we talk about the place of the biological in the ethnographic? Particularly smell. For anne, the ethnographic seems to be located in the ruptures and affordances of biological processes: Corpses, the biological and physical responses. With Jake, if this can be productive, could the biological be another way to think about how overdetermined mechanisms actually control biologies of people?

Ralph: I’m interested in phenomenology and the speaking subject. Does affect theory—in its phenomenological emphasis—fail to deal with the physiological or the biological somehow? Can they address, for example, blood pressure, heart beats, panic as a physiological response inside your body? I read that both of you deal with the sensorium, and also speaking subjects, extrapolating from jokes, smell, corpses, reaching out to larger theoretical claims about colonialism, enclosure, (un)sociality. To what extent can we depend on the speaking subject to produce ethnographic knowledge? How can the ethnographic encounters be different?

Jieun: In anne’s sections, I was struck by the organization of writing where anne puts the work of cleaners on par with the work of miniature artist. In my work, I think a lot about how to value care laborers, what figures I may discuss to what questions, and so on. I expected to hear about cleaners in this chapter, but not dollhouses. The labor of art and art of labor—the distinction between these two, as anne describes, is not clear in the lives of people. It only becomes compartmentalized when they get to be written. So this was something that caught me. I wonder if you have considered using dollhouses for a different section—for different organization.

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Moments from Death and Rebirth (Jieun Cho and Shreya Maini)

On February 5, the members of Ethnography Workshop 2020-21 gathered for the first session to discuss death and rebirth, which was organized by Shreya Maini (fellow, Religious Studies) and Jieun Cho (GA, Cultural Anthropology). Drawing on Gupta’s article that uses childhood as a critical lens to examine the category of child in developmental models, the session proposed to think about reincarnation beyond the secular-religious divide. How do certain figures become central to (re)imagination of collective futures, in ways that bring together the spiritual and the political? How are senses of time—cyclical, linear, or otherwise—remade in/through such figures to what ends and effects? Given that living through the pandemic has curtailed opportunities for generative interactions in social fields, how can one think of reincarnation or rebirth in light of the current challenge to care for each other?

Shreya began the session by her short presentation on reincarnation in Hinduism. In her work, she engages how people live as reincarnated persons especially through their bodies, rather than general abstraction of karma circulation. Reincarnated people are not only marked by the memory from their previous lives, but also they often live with corporeal traces like scars and birthmarks. Living in and through these bodies, how do they experience past, perhaps less nostalgic than continuous, in ways to shape the contours of a distinctive present? Shreya wants to take seriously the physicality of reincarnation as a ground for thinking beyond the religious tenets of reincarnation. What would this provide for how history, time, and past are constructed, when developmental models often take it for granted that life starts at birth and ends with death?

Jieun continued the conversation, and shifted the topic of mortality, rebirth, and body to the relationship between modernity, body politic, and nuclear family in Japan. In historical discussions of Japanese modernity, nationhood may be thought as a formation of a body politic around the “two bodies” of kingship and the figure of nuclear family, which constantly shaped moral impetus for nuclear family across different periods as civilized, cultured, and postwar middle-class life. In this history of national rebirth, children have become a developmental project in families as the centerpiece of postwar citizenship. And this change in children’s place has bearings on post-Fukushima politics where “Fukushima children” figure middle-class aspirations, as hauntings of national past, presentist caring efforts, and future imaginaries. In light of this history, how can one address the issues of care, life, re/production, and long-term radiation exposure by focusing on the nitty-gritty of care labor to raise healthy children? How can the everyday places bring us beyond re/productive framework in thinking about post-nuclear life?

Discussion questions

  • We’d like you to think with us what moral/religious/ideological/discursive configurations, figures, figurations may be productive in remaking death, mortality, ending into cyclical life (of a community, family, nation, species, etc.). Who is the figure of interest for you in your field, how is it discussed by people, what’s the history, what is the figure made of, what characterizes the chances and risks of that configured life/death? When do they appear to what effect?
  • And, ethnographically, how to write about (represent) them in our fields when such stories about configured life/death are always on the verge of being made illogical, unscientific, incomprehensible?

Emily: What is a child, if not determined by age and processes of biological growth? In ethnomusicology, questions like why children should listen to a different set of music were asked. Music, in that sense, is definitely one venue where such socializations are set in motion to produce children and childhood. In what ways do your interests in reincarnation/rebirth explode the notions of childhood?

Ralph: It is necessary to think against the homogenization of “the West” in terms of childhood, and also, historicity in general. How can we break out of the East-West framework in our work, in working with people and written texts? The Youtube Video we watched together made me think a lot about other beings than humans. The narrative seems human-centric, and I wanted to throw this out as a question for all of us.

Jake: Both Shreya and Jieun’s researches resonate much with the ethics of care. The idea of transactional or relation networks that are created by care may have potential to remake identity categories that are frequently associated with age. In this covid moment, interestingly, the notion of vulnerabiltiy/capacity seems to be inverted or subverted in some ways, for children are said to be not as vulnerable to the virus as elders are in biological terms. Also, in general, there is a huge look towards children when “humans” (read adults) reached this moment in history. Perhaps we can think of this week’s topic in relation to such questions. We may be in distinctive moments where we can reconceptualize how certain people can do certain things when life and living are made through processes of care.

Cade: I came to think of reincarnation as something that animates social life. And we are in the moment when such interactions for sociality are constantly scaled down, perhaps in the waiting for another moment of reincarnation. Reincarnation may offer productive insights to apply to other issues beyond religious dimension of life (as Shreya is trying to do), to think through the ways in which we come out of the present moment.

Yanping: “Child as a developmental project” resonates a lot with what I encountered in my research. Many women I meet in the context of Black lung disease are care workers, and often for both in and outside their own families. Age-bounded notion of childhood often led people to describe their children in terms of what they cannot do and how they are behind certain developmental norms.


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Moments from Surveillance Regimes: Capitalism/ Race/ Digitality

On November 9, the Ethnography Workshop hosted its last public event of Fall 2020. We were fortunate to have three speakers critically engage the linkages between surveillance, capitalism, and digitality, each drawing on years of research and activism. The event was hosted by our co-director, Professor Ralph Litzinger. 70 participants joined the session. Each speaker gave 15 minutes presentations on how the global expansion of surveillance capitalism in recent decades has had troubling effects on different populations, from Xinjiang to New York City to the US-Mexico border, as well as other places. The presentations were followed by discussion questions. Prior to the event, the fellows in the Ethnography Workshop workshopped selected publications and works-in-progress provided to us by our speakers; their discussion questions opened up the Q and A. For the last forty minutes, we fielded questions from the Zoom chat, and had a lively discussion.

Our first speaker, Brian Jefferson, is Associate Professor of Geography and Geographic Information Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the author of Digitize and Punish: Racial Criminalization in the Digital Age (University of Minnesota Press, 2020). His work explores the intersections of digital technology, the state, and capitalism, and his recent publications look at political geographies and economies of digital carceral technology in New York City and Chicago.

Jefferson opened his talk discussing the history of cybernetics and placed it in the context of racial and penal capitalism. The general idea of cybernetics is that both animals and machines survive and thrive by modifying behavior through information feedback loops. The constant exchange between communication and control is at the core of cybernetic capitalism. In his presentation, Brian traced the material uses of cybernetics from the development of anti-aircraft guns to more recent uses in automation among digital laborers. Credit scores, internet search histories, and geo-location data are cybernetic developments that have made their ways into our everyday lives. His main aim was to show how cybernetic capitalism is embedded in the making of digital carceral networks in urban centers in Chicago and New York.  By linking cybernetic capitalism to racial capitalism, Professor Jefferson showed that although the issue of immaterial labor and digital work is often cast as a new development, it has deep roots in histories of policing, incarceration, and data collection. Surveillance capitalism cannot be fully understood without attention to these racialized histories of incarceration, data collection, criminalization and policing.

Our second speaker, Carolina Sanchez Boe, is currently a Danish Research Foundation post-doctoral fellow at IMC, Aarhus University, at Université de Paris, Cerlis, CNRS, and at SADR, John Jay Center for Criminal Justice, CUNY. Her broader research interests center on the anthropology of confinement, deportation, illegalization, and bordering practices in prisons and urban spaces, primarily in France and the USA. An advocate, para-legal lawyer, anthropologist and sociologist, she has worked for a number of non-profit organizations, including Cimade, American Friends’ Service Committee, Cette France-là, and the Prison Litigation Network. Her book, The Undeported is forthcoming with Rowman and Littlefield, due out in 2021.

Boe shared reflections on her current research project, “Borders Without Fences and Confinement Without Walls: New Approaches to Migration Control Through Electronic Bracelets.” This project studies for-profit and humanitarian motives behind the use of electronic surveillance, such as “ankle bracelets” or “ankle shackles,” for internal border control. Such tools of digital monitoring were once celebrated as a potentially more humane and cost-effective way to manage and even decrease detention. However, as Boe pointed out, the digitization of detention has created new kinds of monetization as multiple players process, trade, and profit from the detainees’ biometric information. Drawing on research in Austin, Texas, she showed how new technologies of monitoring are experienced and embodied, when border control takes over the most intimate spheres, in homes, and on bodies. She also reflected on the use of audio-visual methods to study digital surveillance and the specific problems encountered, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. What do we do when contact to research participants is reduced to communications through cell phones, the very device through which the detained are being monitored by ICE?

Darren Byler is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He researches the dispossession of ethno-racial Muslim minorities through forms of surveillance and digital capitalism in China and Southeast Asia. His first book, Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City (forthcoming, Duke University Press, August 2021) examines emerging forms of ethno-racialization, capitalism and state power in the Uyghur region in Chinese Central Asia. His second book in progress, Technologies of Reeducation considers the social life of surveillance technologies among ethno-racial minorities in China and around the world.

Byler’s talk, “The Digital Enclosure of Turkic Muslims in Northwest China,” showed how the digital enclosure of Uyghur and Kazakh societies in Northwest China produces a form of original accumulation or capitalist frontier making. He argued that these digital enclosures convert the sociality of targeted populations into data while at the same time expropriating their labor – producing an underclass of dependent laborers. What is happening in Xinjiang—the production of unfree workers through the operations of “data police,” “re-education,” “training centers,” and so on—needs to be understood not only as an effect of China’s ongoing “war on terror,” but also as part of the global expansion of surveillance capitalism’s frontier-making. Byler, as well as Jefferson and Boe, emphasized the importance of identifying the global connections of local operations of surveillance capitalism.

For those of you who want to revisit, or missed some parts of the workshop, we have attached here the recording of the whole session. We are grateful that all the speakers agreed to publish the recording. Thank you again to those who attended the event and participated in this provocative conversation about some of the more pressing issues of our troubled times.

Selected references:

– (Link to open-access volume) Jefferson, Brian. 2020. Digitize and Punish: Racial Criminalization in the Digital Age. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press.

– Byler, Darren, and Carolina Sanchez Boe. 2020. “Tech-Enabled ‘terror Capitalism’ Is Spreading Worldwide. The Surveillance Regimes Must Be Stopped.” The Guardian, July 24, 2020, sec. World news.

Click here to see the questions by the Ethnography Workshop fellows.

Question 1.

In a paper we read for this event, Darren Byler brings up the notion of sous-surveillance. This term has been historically invoked to redistribute power within the surveillance encounter: those being surveilled are aware of it and can act accordingly, subverting the system from within. We also see this idea in a different form in Carolina Boe’s work. Brian Jordon Jefferson’s work is much more focused on technical infrastructures that exact surveillance and control over populations. As he writes in his book, punitive web technology keeps the negatively racialized poor in the cities, “but they must remain apart from the centers of conspicuous consumption, labor markets, leisure, residences, and wealth.” Criminalized subjects get ensnarled, he writes, in something like a low-intensity form of Agamben’s state of exception (page 163). So, between these various approaches, there seems to be a tension between complete carceral control and the subversive power to resist digital enclosure. How do each of you understand the relationship between digital enclosure and resistance? Is resistance even the right term?

Question 2.

Could each of you speak a bit about how they would define the current state of surveillance studies?  For Carolina and Darren, what does the ethnographic afford to a study of surveillance that, for example, geography, media studies, cultural studies or sociology doesn’t quite get at?

For Brian, situated in geography and information sciences, you show powerfully that the digital carceral state is maintained by racial capitalism. But one could argue that anthropology, as a discipline, while attentive to racism in the history of the discipline, has not paid enough attention, until very recently, to the linkages between digital capitalism, racial capitalism, and the carceral state. Could you reflect on whether you see an emergent inter- or cross-disciplinary space emerging between anthropology and geographers interested in regimes of digital surveillance? What future avenues do any of you envision for researching the sites, practices, and networks that sustain surveillance today?

Question 3.

Each of you brilliantly write and speak about the ways surveillance appears at the nexus of capital, state power, and private technology industries. Byler and Boe in particular center the experiences of those navigating the terrorizing effects of these systems, using interviews with those subjected to invasive monitoring and policing as a way to get at how these systems work, through what networks, and means of enforcement. Jefferson makes it clear that the penal state, while operating as a decentralized network, relies on tech workers to write code, or, for example, staff in the NYPD to track the social media activity of youth in “proto-gangs,” all of which is possible because tech corporations are hired to develop social media intelligence gathering platforms.

This question is interested in the limits each of you may have encountered in your research. Were there tech workers who refused to answer questions? Government officials or police departments or detention centers that classified certain kinds of information? Were there informants intimidated and unable to explain the scope of their experiences? Could each of you speak on the kinds of opacities you encountered in your research, and how you navigated these, ethnographically, or otherwise? Were there things, events, experiences, or other research objects you choose not to, or could not write about?

Question 4.

How far can we go in saying that algorithms create a carceral condition that orients behaviors and creates certain types of subjects as human subjectivity is “digitalized,” when there always seems to be some form of sensory/affective space to fill in the gaps not-yet concerned by algorithmic surveillance? Can such newfound and increasingly intensified forms of surveillance ever render a human completely unable to resist, even when life is subjected to forms of near-torture and engendered with a sense of fearful hopelessness? And in the meantime where such gaps still exist, what new possibilities of sociality and life might emerge in these not-yet surveilled spaces of everydayness; and if they do, how do we show such forms of life are valuable and present even if they often allude our typical valuations of life (i.e., the liberal subject)?

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Moments from Syncopated Resonances

Session One:

Session Two:

Thank you to those who joined our “Syncopated Resonances” event for Session One and/or Session Two, featuring Deborah Kapchan and Cassandra Hartblay. This time, we hosted two sessions for working across different time zones. In Session One, each speaker spoke briefly to their experiences of working through the body/bodies, and we moved onto discussing questions that were raised by the fellows. In Session Two, we watched the recording of Session One for an hour while sharing our real-time reactions in the chat.

Deborah Kapchan has been working on religious practice of Sufi women for a long time, thinking about aesthetics, sublimity, and affect by asking what happens when bodies are aligned through sonic practices of chanting. She discusses in a series of her work, including her chapters in Theorizing Sound Writing, the transformative potential of sound knowledge in what she calls transduction, in forms of listening in particular.

Cassandra Hartblay has been engaging the body from the perspective of disability studies. In her article theorizing “disability expertise,” which the fellows read before the workshop, she discusses how embodied experience of different abilities may be engaged to think critically about the normalizing forces of the designed world and the socialities of bodies in general. She has also produced a documentary play based on her ethnographic interviews, “I Was Never Alone.” In an experimental space, she noted, the difference in bodily capacities may become an opportunity for aesthetic translation.

In Session Two, many people shared their thoughts to the chat as a way to perform syncopated resonances in a virtual setting. The chat can be accessed here as well.

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Moments from Whiplash (with a full recording!)



Thank you to all of you who joined us on Zoom on September 7th for “Whiplash: Anthropology in/of Disaster,” featuring Laurence Ralph and Yarimar Bonilla. Although the event took place on Labor Day, about sixty people joined us and stayed until the end. At the beginning, we asked our presenters to each say a few words about their work as anthropologists; they each spoke about fifteen minutes.

Laurence Ralph, introduced himself as doing an “anthropology of injury.” Injury connects his first book project, Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago, with his second project with black Chicagoans, tortured in prisons by police officers. For Ralph, injury serves as an enduring object of inquiry:

L.R. My works are complementary to my biography. I see myself as primarily doing an anthropology of injury. Not only the violent aspects of injury, but also the transformative potential and long-term effects of injury interests me. In my first project, I studied gunshot wounds. Injury is very specific, different from death or the violated self. And in injury, there is a possibility for recovery and repair. So, I am as interested in injury as in recovery and repair.

Yarimar Bonilla described herself as an anthropologist of “sovereignty otherwise.” Spanning her dissertation project on the French Caribbean to articles on #Ferguson to her most recent edited volume on Post-Maria Puerto Rico, Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm, non/sovereign places have long been at the center of her research. Across variously paced writings—from tweets to scholarly articles to books—she has engaged multiple publics through specific events and broader historical reflections. Such publics are formed across the bounds of what are conventionally distinguished as academic and non-academic publics. The introductory remarks were followed by an open dialogue with our two speakers.

Prior to this event, the six fellows from the Ethnography Workshop read, watched, and discussed Ralph’s and Bonilla’s  continuing engagement with multiple publics. The fellows focused on how this engagement had been done in the format of ethnography and other media, as well as how their distinctive perspectives shaped their intellectual and methodological questions. Their questions for our speakers initiated the Whiplash conversation. We then opened the floor for further questions, which led to many fruitful and provoking follow-up comments from both Ralph and Bonilla.

See what questions were asked from the Ethnography Workshop fellows

1) You both work on current crises (from the police torture case in Chicago to Hurricane Maria & its aftermath in Puerto Rico, to the election of Trump, corrosions of livelihood exacerbated by COVID, and the cascade of police-perpetuated killings against black women and men). You do so as public, activist anthropologists—but anthropology is also a discipline whose history you critique as complicit with some of the very structural inequities you uncover in your work. What, if anything, do you find useful in anthropology that you bring to the work that you do on the present moment as political/public intellectuals?

2) As public anthropologists, what is your positionality vis-à-vis the community? Laurence speaks of letter writing as a third way: a position that joins by “flattening” the distinction between insider and outsider. This also operates in the methodological strategies you both adopt: of fast writing and hashtag ethnography for Yarimar and of crafting letters that are both culled from and shared with focus groups of so-called ordinary Chicagoans for Laurence. But in advocating a hybrid positionality, beyond and between insider and outsider, is this at all akin to what Malinowski laid out so long ago? How does it differ and how do each of you involve the communities you are writing about in terms of the formation of research questions, information gathering, or co-ownership of data?

3) How might anthropology/ethnography be used to de-exceptionalize instances of heightened attention to ongoing histories and experiences of violence and oppression? How do we accomplish this without de-sensitizing white/privileged publics for whom the paradigm shift is most necessary?

4) What do you see, or would like to see, as anthropology’ future? There have been calls recently to “burn anthropology down” due to its overwrought racist, colonialist past, with which it has yet sufficiently extricated itself from. It would seem that, while critical of anthropology, neither of you totally adhere to burning it down. Rather, as put by Yarimar at the end of “The Coloniality of Disaster,” you say that “de- provincializing contemporary US articulations of power, decolonizing diversity, and unsettling the colonial logics of the academy might help us connect two crucial tasks: interrogating long-standing power formations and imagining new worlds.” Might you both tell us what new worlds you imagine yourselves for the future and how you see the interrogation of long-standing power formations as essential to this end.

So many good questions were asked! Although we didn’t have time to answer them all, we share the questions below. Our hope is to continue these conversations beyond the Whiplash event.

See questions from the floor:

Sarah Molinari: how has the pandemic changed how you might approach teaching a course on ethnographic methods? And also, how is it impacting your current projects?

Louise Meintjes: I’m interested in the limits of experimentalism for you as anthropologists. Could you talk about moments you’ve pulled back from risks you thought about taking in your research or modes of representation.

Joe Hiller: Thanks so much to you both! My question is about the role of anthropologists working on the aftermaths of violence, and whether you see promise/peril in justice system-type responses, whether through the International Criminal Court, or maybe a Truth Commission, or some other structure of reparations/redress? Are these useful for the “collective transformation of structures,” do you think? How does scholarship intersect with official justice/punishment systems in the US or internationally?

Diane Nelson: Thank you for all your work and for this – I am interested in the experience, Yarimar, of hiring a filmmaker and how Laurence, you made that amazing animation!

Ralph Litzinger: What about anthropology as a practice of surveillance, and the complex history of anthropology in working with counter-insurgency movements from Latin America to SE Asian to Afghanistan, and in the US as well, and elsewhere. How, with protests in the street, politic violence, from HK to Portland to Kenosha, surveillance is happening at every event. In this context, Big Tech, the architects of this new surveillance regime, have made new billions in the COVID moment, and they are donating hugely to BLM and other movements. How do you see anthropologists best intervening both in surveillance capitalism and in the corporate appropriation of BLM?

Christina Sornito-Carter: I am interested in the question of “temporality” as we talk about “disaster” and critique its invocation as singular events not continuous with structural violence and fetishizing “resilience”, especially as it disproportionately effect formerly colonized and POC communities all over the world. This is a particular interest for me in my work in the Philippine Islands, as I work with ghost stories, everyday superstitions, and healers that reveal both colonial histories and simultaneously anxieties about the future, especially in terms of climate change in Pacific countries.

Wei Gan: Thank you for being here today! I’m wondering about instances in which ethical/moral commitments are at odds between you and the folks you work with. What are the anthropologists’ political, ethical, and critical responsibilities when it comes to communities whose principles and practices might be conventionally classified as “bad’ or “wrong”?

Mary Ebeling: Laurence: Follow up on your discussion about do we need more research and connecting it to your ideas about abolition anthropology…if we are to change the institution, how do we resist the demands of the institution to always produce, to be a “productive subject” of academic capitalism?


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