Notes from a Disoriented Reader

A review of Orientations: Mapping Studies in the Asian Diaspora, Edited by Kandice Chuh and Karen Shimakawa, Duke University Press, 2001.

OrientationsScholars working in cultural studies are an unruly lot. They spend a great deal of energy patrolling disciplinary borders, falling down on trespassers and ensuring conformity within the field. Some mount raids on neighboring fields for intellectual loot, or claim new territories as their own. They try to regulate their quarrels with political correctness and abstruse jargon. But attacks are not muffled by circumvolved syntax or otiose vocabulary. If anything, they are made even more venomous, as one can articulate in complex sentences what one wouldn’t dare to write in plain English. Liberals are very illiberal when it comes to arguing with each other. Academics of the cultural bent are willing to wash their linen in public, to bring cadavers out of family closets, and to expose the dirty little secrets of the profession, if only for the sake of enhancing their own status. For them, it appears like business as usual. But for outside observers, who have come to associate scholarly pursuit with disinterestedness and gentlemanly behavior, this aggressiveness comes as something of a shock.

Settling scores between Asian Studies and Asian American studies

I didn’t expect to find so much venom, personal attacks, and political bickering in a book on Asian studies. To be true, the book centers on a different discipline, Asian American studies, which in the US context designates the curriculum designed for Asian American students who wish to reconnect with their ethnic roots and affirm their distinct cultural identity within American society. The authors insist that Asian American studies find their origins in the civil rights movement and that it espouses a progressive political agenda. The possibility of a conservative or politically neutral contribution to the field is not even envisaged. The contribution of ivory-tower scholars to the realization of social justice and the fight against racial prejudice is rather thin. One author mentions various student movements who organized campaigns and signed petitions for Asian sweatshop workers and slum dwellers. Another stresses the emancipatory dimension of avant-garde theater played by and targeted at ethnic minorities. Yet another focuses his research on Filipino immigrants and their struggle for survival. And this being the US, there is even one lawyer specializing in “Asian Americans and the Law” studies, which stands at the intersection between human rights approaches, Chinese legal studies, and Asian American critical jurisprudence.

The best way to unite is to have a common enemy. One such enemy—paradoxically, considering the fact that most authors purport to bridge the gap between Asian studies and Asian American studies—is area studies as it is still commonly practiced. This volume is tantamount to a hostile takeover bid over Asian studies by Asian American scholars with a background in cultural studies and a taste for loosely defined “theory”. For Dorinne Kondo, “hegemonic East Asian studies… stand as heir to an Orientalist legacy, permeated by an unproblematized empiricism hostile to ‘theory’, yet blind to its own theoretical presuppositions and its conservative politics.” Rey Chow denounces the persistence of a scholarly tradition of Orientalism among specialists of Chinese literature and other area studies scholars. For cultural critics, accusations of Orientalism, culturalism, and essentialism are the most damning indictments one can make, and the authors of this volume use them in abundance. The enemy can also be well-meaning, left-leaning intellectuals: Karen Shimakawa sees in the orientalist inspirations of avant-garde theater artists such as Ariane Mnouchkine or Peter Brook a neocolonial appropriation and culturalist sampling of pseudo-Asian heritage. Rey Chow make a scathing indictment of the modern Maoist, by which she designates “a cultural critic who lives in a capitalist society but who is fed up with capitalism.” Then the enemy can also be within: Kuan-Shing Chen, a Taiwanese critic and proponent of “Asian Studies in Asia”, accuses his North American colleagues of ignoring the question of US imperialism and of trying to “discipline” Asia.

A community of victimhood

Another way to close ranks is to stress the menace posed by an outside enemy. According to the editors, Asian-Americans face three types of prejudices in the US imagination. They are considered as a distinct and unassimilable body in mainstream American society. They are perpetually associated with their country of origin, and cannot achieve full US citizenship. And they are considered as a threat to the American nation, especially in times of crisis when relations with Asian countries become strained. For the authors, “these are ideas that have effected violence against, and exclusion, disenfranchisement, and internment of, Asians in the United States over the years.” The history of the Asian presence in America is one of victimization, persecution, and silencing. No word is strong enough to characterize their plight: Dorinne Kondo even refers to “a centuries-long history of exclusion, penetration, interimperial rivalry, war, incarceration, even genocide.” (yes, genocide.) Asian-Americans contribute only negatively to the buildup of the US national identity. Asia is America’s “other”, and its exclusion reinforces the wholeness and coherence of Western self-identity. David Palumbo-Liu goes as far as saying that the US nation-state grounds its stability in large part on the successful drawing of the Asian/American line: “Asians are deemed inadequate to America, marginalized or excluded in order to (re)consolidate the nation’s image of its ideal self, which is nonetheless contradicted by its white supremacist ideology.”

Another characteristic of Americans’ alleged perception of Asians and Asian Americans is its heavily sexualized content. According to this view, Asia is forever the mysterious and feminized territory in need of US male dominance and militarized protection. In the cultural cliches conveyed by Hollywood movies and popular novels, Asian men are emasculated and Asian women are hyper-feminized, thereby contributing to maintain unequal racial, gender and class hierarchies. Stories generally favor romances involving white males and Asian females, and the reverse combination is seen as transgressive and doomed to failure. Although most people call for racial tolerance and appear to condemn racism, they never question the racial hierarchy that makes Asian women available to white males but preclude the possibility of a union between white women and Asian men. In addition, as Lisa Lowe notes, “this radicalized constructions of both Asian “masculinity” and Asian “feminity” have tended to elide non-heteronormative sexualities as threats to national integrity or to foreclose such sexualities by placing them outside the boundaries of the nation and the family.” Although sexuality as such is not addressed in all chapters, contemporary academic discourse, as noted by the editors in their preface, is “transected and substantially informed by feminism and gay and lesbian studies.”

Cultural studies fuel discourses and practices that are far from liberatory

The only occasion when the authors refrain to make personal attacks is when they talk about themselves. This they do in abundance, to the point that the whole field of Asian American studies may be considered as a strategy for self-expression and personal aggrandizement. I didn’t like the book Dorinne Kondo wrote about Japan because it was mostly a book about herself. In her contribution to this volume, she leaves all pretense to address social and cultural issues and instead writes—again—about herself, offering “an autobiographical political history”. For her, ethnic studies stem from a “politics of representation”: people who were formerly the objects of representation are now entering the academy and the arts in order to “represent themselves”. The result is navel-gazing and, in the end, the abandonment of academic disciplines in favor of artistic performance. The epitome of this flight into aesthetics is offered by Russell Leong in his “performance text” imagining a dialogue between a sociologist and two queer informants. Postmodern anthropology has taught us to call into doubt claims of authorship and to consider texts as social fictions. Now even the pretense of a real encounter between the ethnographer and social actors is abandoned in favor of imaginary hyperbole and fictitious dramatization.

Perhaps most depressing in this book is the sense of closure one gets after reading all the chapters. The claims of the editors notwithstanding, there remains no place for alternative voices coming from alternative places. America calls the tune, and the new mantra of multiculturalism and diasporic identities is offered as a global remedy that all societies should apply to their own situations. This matters a lot, because what happens in US academia has global consequences. The impact of America on knowledge production on Asia is huge. Cultural studies fuel discourses and practices that are far from liberatory, and that can even reinforce racial prejudices rather than combat them. With identity politics and the insistence on the ethnic component of power relations, an ethnicized vision of society is taking hold, where every group clamors for its own specific rights. The competition among victims create a cycle of accusations and counter-accusations, with no end or reconciliation in sight. This exhibitionary multiculturalism is the post-colonial version of the colonial fair. The rhetoric of multiculturalism inherits colonial categories that divide a population along the dominant axes of race and ethnicity, covering up the history of mixing, cross-influences, and flexible identities that have characterized human populations since the origins. To me, importing the schemes and constructions of Asian American studies to the field of Asian studies is a very bad idea indeed.

The Anthropologist Goes to Bollywood

A review of Unsettling India: Affect, Temporality, Transnationality, Purnima Mankekar, Duke University Press, 2015.

MankekarIt’s all in the title. UNSETTLING. INDIA. AFFECT. TEMPORALITY. TRANSNATIONALITY. The key concepts are all listed here, in a sequence that will be repeated over and over in the book, like a devotional mantra. It is, if you will, the anthropologist’s “Om mani padme hum”, the way she attains her own private nirvana. Purnima Mankekar’s objective, as she states repeatedly, is to examine “how India is constructed as well as unsettled as an archive of affect and temporality in contexts shaped by transnational public cultures and neoliberalism.” Each word in this mission statement opens a particular space for ordering the observations that she gathered in the course of her fieldwork in India and in California. Indeed, the chapters of the book hold together by a thread, and this common thread is provided by the words listed in the book’s title. So let me engage with them one by one, in no particular order of succession.

Diasporic subjects and transnational imaginaries

TRANSNATIONALITY refers, first, to the two sites where the author conducted fieldwork, gathered observations, and interacted with her informants. The ethnographic material of which the book is composed was collected through the course of nearly two decades in various locations clustered around New Delhi and in the San Francisco Bay Area, where many immigrants from the South Asian subcontinent have settled. Transnationalism has been defined in anthropology as “the process by which immigrants forge and sustain simultaneous multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement.” Mankekar complicates this definition by noting that diasporic subjects often cannot be pinned down to one place of origin or to one settlement location, as they frequently move across borders and develop modes of identification that are not tied to territory. In addition, transnational imaginaries also affect non-migrants who can only dream of settling abroad but for whom the distant foreign is brought close to home by television programs or consumer culture.

In a more restricted manner, transnationality applies to transnational public cultures as they are studied by the author: Bollywood movies, TV dramas, commodity consumption, ideologies of nationhood, discourses of morality, and fictive identities as in the call centers where young Indian operators impersonate the role of typical Americans. Mankekar treats transnational media as text to be subjected to textual analysis, but also as a practice to be experienced in tandem with her informants. She tells how she is able to break the ice with a busy IT executive by referring to a Bollywood drama, how she brings an Indonesia-born Sikh Indian-American to an old Raj Kapoor movie, or how she discusses gender roles and sexuality with lower-middle class and working-class informants in New Delhi based on TV serials and commercials. Public cultures are transnational because they address or interpellate a public wider than the national community; because they mobilize the forces of borderless capital and commodity fetishism; and because they often picture diasporic subjects while enabling men and women to acquire the capacity to imagine life in other places.

DDLJ, K3G, and B&B

The movies Mankekar discusses are known to many English-speaking audiences in India and abroad by their acronyms or abbreviated titles. “DDLJ” tells the story of young lovers straddling borders and communities to win parental approval to marry. “K3G” is about an adopted son expelled from his rich home for disobeying his father’s marriage injunction and then brought back into the family fold by his elder brother. Bunty and Babli is a road movie about two swindlers who escape from their small town by impersonating rich people’s identities. These stories resonate with the courting of nonresident Indians or NRIs by the Indian state appealing to their investments and skills (DDLJ); they espouse the ideology of Hindi nationalism by producing a fantasy of a reterritorialized Global India in which religious and other minorities are conspicuous by their absence (K3G); or they reflect the increased capacity to aspire of call center operators and other lower middle-class Indian who adopt new names and borrowed identities (B&B). Viewing these movies while reading the book in parallel provides the reader with a wonderful introduction to a fascinating cinematic genre.

AFFECT is a category that is mobilized on different counts. It is a dimension of ethnographic fieldwork, on par with cultural sensitivity and theoretical foregrounding. As Mankekar notes, “conducting ethnographic analysis is itself a deeply affective process and entails an engagement with the entire being of the ethnographer.” She situates her encounters with informants in their sensory and emotive contexts, providing notations on tastes, smells, likes and dislikes. “India shopping” in the ethnic grocery stores run by South Asians in the San Francisco Bay Area involves a whole range of affects, experienced by the author and her informants in intimate, embodied, and often visceral ways. They bring into play “senses of touch, smell, sound, sight, and taste.” These stores provide spaces where community members gather and exchange news about community events, and where new arrivals can learn about neighborhoods, schools, and employment opportunities. They are also places where the community exercises its surveillance upon its members and sanctions “loud” or deviant behavior. All is by no means positive in the outlook and values of Indian Americans, or in the political orientation of citizens back home. In particular, the author develops strongly negative affects towards people who espouse the Hindutva nationalist ideology and who wield campaigns of “aggressive national regeneration” aimed at religious minorities or, more prosaically, against Valentine Day celebrations. The ethnographer’s rapport with her informants is not always based on empathy and understanding.

The political economy of affects

Affect is also part of a political economy of affective labor, affective capital, and affect circulation. Michael Hardt has noted that whole sectors of the economy are “focused on the creation and manipulation of affects.” In particular, affect is constitutive of forms of labor central to the global capitalist economy, as in the transnational service sector where India claims a distinctive competitive advantage. Elaborating the notion further in The Cultural Politics of Emotions, Sara Ahmed conceives of affect as a form of capital. Analogous to the production of surplus value in capitalism, affects assume value cumulatively through circulation. Affective economies are composed of affective investment, affective value, affective circulation, and affective regimes of production and consumption. Affect is distinct from feeling (the domain of individual subjectivity) and emotion (the domain of the linguistic). Affects are generative of subjectivity—of action and agency, the capacity to act and be acted upon.

Mankekar uses these theoretical insights in a fine-grained ethnography of call center operators in a New Delhi suburb. Call centers have become the most visible part of the business outsourcing industry and have been heralded by media pundits and globalists as proof that “the world is (becoming) flat.” Mankekar demonstrates the value of ethnographic writing as opposed to media reporting. She describes affective labor as based on affective repertories – of courtesy, familiarity, friendliness, helpfulness, and, above all, caring. It is also based on the alienation of workers who refashion their only means of production—their own selves, their own bodies—through practices of impersonation and borrowed identities. As the two movie characters Bunty and Babli, call center agents become themselves by becoming others. Their aspirations to upward mobility, glamour, and success is also nurtured by transnational media: they are required to watch Hollywood films and episodes of US television shows such as Friends, and to use them as resources to acquire American accents, adopt American colloquialisms, and learn about the American way of life. They engage in virtual migration through IT-mediated work and cultivate lateral mobility by moving from one employer to the next. But the end of distance doesn’t bring the end of place. The virtual migration of call center agents coexists with forms of emplacement and immobility (and in some cases, virtual incarceration) through technologies of regulation and surveillance.

Nostalgy for the future

TEMPORALITY is the second repertory or archive mobilized, in conjunction with affect, to delineate the production and unsettling of transnational India. Describing the modern imagination as an expanded “capacity to aspire,” Arjun Appadurai suggested that we foreground aspiration in order to “place futurity, rather than pastness, at the heart of our thinking about culture.” Indian residents or diasporic subjects locate India not so much in the past as in the future. In this new regime of temporality, tradition emerges as an affective process that entails “not so much the invocation of a past as the generation of a set of practices enabling subjects to imagine and embrace specific forms of futurity.” Among diasporic Indians who carry India in their heart wherever they go, Indianness is not constructed as static or unchanging but instead is portable and flexible. Similarly, Hindu natinonalists experience “nostalgia for the future”: their longing for a glorified and mythic past combines with an aspiration to march toward a glowing future as moral subjects of Global India. In this sense, “time has agency or, at the very least, a force of its own.” Time combines with affect to shape subject formation and social process.

INDIA is constituted as an archive of affect and temporality by transnational public cultures. What “India” means is very different for each of her informants in New Delhi or in the San Francisco Bay area. Some subscribe to Hindu nationalist discourses of national purity, while others adhere to secularist conceptions of nationhood. Some insist on bounded territory and fixed identities, while others are engaged in transnational deterritorialization processes and multifaceted roles. Diaspora members carry India in their hearts wherever they go, while some individuals construct their own private India with disparate elements assembled through identity bricolage. Second-generation youth express their identity in terms of cultural difference: for these transnational consumers of Bollywood musicals and ethnic productions, “it’s cool to be Indian now”. Food is of particular significance to communities that travel across transnational space. As a mother testifies, “now that the kids are in school, they’re forgetting their Gujarati. But the least I can do is to give them one Indian meal a day.” Some see India as a country of origin, while others identify it as the land of the future.

Indian settlements and unsettlements

UNSETTLING is a common analytic that hints at the subversive nature of academic writing, politically and culturally. The disciplines of gender studies, media studies, critical theory, or cultural studies are particularly unsettling in the sense that they introduce ambiguity and uncertainty where the dominant ideology tries to impose certitude and conformity. Like many cultural critics committed to a progressive agenda, Mankekar does not take categories for granted. She refuses to essentialize notions of nation, gender, class, or ethnicity, while at the same time recognizing their relevance for interpreting social processes of identity formation and collective mobilization. In particular, she unpacks and decanters the totalizing claims of nationhood. She shows that “unsettlement is intrinsic to the production of India, such that Indian culture is conceptualized as chronically in flux, as always emergent.” India is unsettling as a nation: it challenges aspects of American identity, and is deemed particularly threatening to the self-representation of the US as a technological leader. Outsourcing service activities to India elicits reactions of rejection or even racist slurs, as when Americans realize they have been connected to a consumer service located in India. As the author notes, “we rarely see the same virulence in discussions about outsourcing to Israel and Ireland.”

Unsettling India is also part of a wider project of unsettling nations. India is not the only nation to be constituted and unsettled by regimes of affect and temporality. As Mankekar claims in her conclusion, “I have wished to sketch the contours of a conceptual and political framework that may enable us to unsettle the exclusionary and violent claims of the US nation.” In post-September 11 America, fear and rage against people of South Asian and Middle Eastern origin, in particular those “deemed to be Muslims” (such as Sikh men wearing a turban) contribute to the creation of a nation predicated on the marginalization and demonization of racial and cultural Others. This book is about unsettlement as an ethnographic strategy as well as an analytic. “It is vulnerable to the irruption of surprises, emergences, and potentialities, and to the ineffable, the inarticulate, and the inscrutable.” Traditional conceptions of family, gender, or Indianness are displaced and unsettled by images of sensuality and erotic longing. Even the most conventional romance stories or the most obtuse nationalist discourse carry a twist, a fault line that opens them to the dimension of desire. It is the hero’s respect for Indian women’s sexual purity that makes DDLJ a truly erotic movie. The controversies surrounding Valentine Day in India underscore the greater visibility of romantic love and displays of affection between young men and women. India is constructed and unsettled in the same move. Mankekar revels in revealing these shifts and cracks in the fabric of social life.

The Anthropologist on the Couch

A review of Illusions of a Future: Psychoanalysis and the Biopolitics of Desire, Kate Schechter, Duke University Press, 2014.

Kate SchechterHave you ever been tempted to eavesdrop on a psychoanalyst’s conversation? Not in a therapy session of course: these conversations are private, and they usually take the form of the patient talking and the analyst listening. But psychoanalysts also talk about their trade in professional associations, congress meetings, or interviews. This public discourse is what interests Kate Schechter in Illusions of a Future. As an anthropologist-in-training, she took as her dissertation topic the psychoanalytic community in Chicago, going through their local archives and interviewing key members. Combining ethnography, history, and theory, she went beyond participant observation and archival work: she herself underwent psychoanalytic training, and is presented on the book cover as being “in the private practice of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in Chicago.” According to Dr. Schechter (and here the title “Dr.” refers to her PhD, not to her qualification as a medical doctor), there are three remarks that are often made by psychoanalysts when commenting on the activity of their peers. “Where does she get all her analytic patients?” “It’s not psychoanalysis.” “It’s all about the relationship.” Three mechanisms are at play in these remarks: envy, denial, fetishization. Let us consider each of them in turn.

Psychoanalysts suffer from a bad case of patient envy

Psychoanalysts nowadays suffer from a bad case of patient envy. The majority of psychoanalysts in the United States—and the Chicago practitioners are no exception—have only one or two patients in actual psychoanalysis. Some of them achieve to get a higher number of subjects in analysis—defined as a demanding regimen of intensive, four-times-a-week introspective sessions on the couch pursued over a period of several years. A lesser intensity and frequency means that a treatment is expressly not psychoanalysis but rather psychotherapy. Measured by that rigid standard, most psychoanalysts nowadays only have one or two analytic patients in tow, if any. The other patients who visit them are here for therapy or counseling. They don’t sit on the couch, they don’t consult three or four times a week, and the expect answers to their problems from their analyst, not just passive listening. But psychoanalysts don’t think of themselves as therapists or counselors. They are in the business of getting analytic patients—hence their envy for the analysts who ostensibly attract a higher number of analysands.

So most of what psychoanalysts do is “not psychoanalysis”. How today’s psychoanalysts manage to maintain their professional identity while they cannot practice what they preach is the topic of Kate Schechter’s ethnography. Finding, making, and keeping analytic patients when there are none has become an existential challenge for Chicago psychoanalysts. Some blame the patients themselves: “people simply don’t want to do the work anymore,” says one. “Psychoanalysis is too rigorous for people today; patients want a quick fix, they want symptom relief as opposed to enduring structural change,” says another. Others blame the system: in the era of psychopharmaceuticals, managed care, and cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychoanalysts have to demonstrate value as defined by neoliberal medicine. After World War II, generous medical insurance plans and government programs funded psychoanalysis because it was the only treatment for anxiety and depression that was available. By the 1980s however, with costs in medicine exploding and numerous new and cost-effective pharmacological treatments of anxiety and depression emerging, the psychoanalytic talking-cure has come under attack as ineffective, unaccountable, and wasteful.

Using numbers and coding patients

Psychoanalysts overall take issue with the epistemic universe of managed care and evidence-based medicine. Historically, many psychoanalysts have viewed quantitative and behavioral research with disdain. They strongly reject the categories of the DSM-V, which explicitly excludes psychiatric notions based on Freudian theory. Nonetheless, psychoanalysts have to find ways to negotiate with the insurance companies and managed care organizations that will allow them to preserve their practices and their sense of autonomy. They report their cases using DSM diagnoses and CPT codes to keep records and submit to out-of-network benefits. Some analysts insist among one another that they are doing psychoanalysis but nonetheless code for psychotherapy because most insurance plans will cover psychotherapy (90801) but not psychoanalysis (90845). They use numbers to quantify the frequency and duration of analysis, basically responding to corporatized health care on the enemy’s terms. Some even craft their defense using the audit practices and scientific methods of neoliberal medicine: “We need to start speaking the language of evidence-based psychology,” advocates one. Others remain strangely in between, tinkering with categories and practices, like this analyst who reports having “four and a half” patients under analysis.

Psychoanalysts also have to grapple with issues of deskilling, feminization, and the lower status of mental health professions. One interviewee bemoans this loss of status: “There’s been an enormous change in the whole character of the profession. People used to wear ties. I think someone who is a doctor, someone who’s seeing patients, should.” The fact is that being a medical doctor is no longer a prerequisite to become an analyst. From the late 1930s until a 1989 lawsuit, the psychoanalytic regulating body held firm to the view that psychoanalysis was a medical science and that only physicians should practice it. Now the profession is open to psychologists, social workers, group therapists, family councillors, and other kinds of care providers. The only requisite is that they follow a full analytic talking-cure provided by a training analyst—in fact, analysts-in-training may be the last patients willing to submit to the strict discipline of the traditional analytic cure. Once trained, these therapists offer various kinds of services, from child psychology to group therapy or marriage counseling. They develop these psychotherapeutic activities “in a psychoanalytic way”, based on their training and understanding of the discipline, but for the purists and guardians of the profession, “it’s not psychoanalysis”.

Envy, denial, and fetishism

So let’s sum up. A growing number of analytically-trained professionals compete for a dwindling number of patients ready to subscribe to the whole analytic course: four weekly sessions, the use of the couch, the interpretive resolution of a transference neurosis, a proper termination. Most psychoanalysts practice some kind of psychotherapy that is, by their own recognition, “not psychoanalysis”. They envy those who are able to secure proper patients, and deny that their profession as a whole might be to blame. Another mechanism is at play here: the logic of the fetish, the denial of a feared absence through a replacement with a substitute presence. Fetishization takes the form of the emphasis on the importance of the relationship between the analyst and her patient. This personal relationship was deemed nonessential by the founding fathers of psychoanalysis. What mattered was “transference”, that artificial illness whose resolution by interpretation led to psychoanalytic cure. The analyst’s ostensibly technical work was reading and interpreting the transference neurosis. In more recent years however, the relationship itself has come to be seen by many psychoanalysts as curative.

Kate Schechter shows that the opposition between these two logics—the orthodoxy of transference, and the heterodoxy of the relationship—goes back to the origins of the Chicago school of psychoanalysis. I will not try to summarize her history of the debates between the two ancestors, Lionel Blitzsten and Franz Alexander, as well as the constant infighting between their disciples and epigones. Based on archival work, her analysis straddles several disciplines: the sociology of the professions, the history of scientific knowledge, the anthropology of medical care, and psychoanalysis itself. This is not just local history: the Chicago school of psychoanalysis was the most important one west of New York City, and the quarrels between its founders echo wider debates in the discipline. But I found this historical part less interesting than the firsts chapters when the author eavesdrops on psychoanalysts bemoaning the lack of proper patients, the elusive nature of psychoanalysis, and the growing importance of the human relationship between analyst and patient.

Observing the Tribes, Rites, and Myths of Wall Street

A review of Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, Karen Ho, Duke University Press, 2009.

Karen HoIn her ethnography of Wall Street, Karen Ho offers a powerful metaphor by way of a title. “Liquidated”, the book’s title, echoes the memorable advice of Andrew Mellon, US Treasury secretary in the early 1930s, as reported by then President Herbert Hoover: “Liquidate labour, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate! It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High cost of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life.” This advice, of course, only deepened the Great Depression, and its failure led to the adoption of Keynesian policies and massive state intervention. Which confirms the late Michael Mussa’s diagnosis that “there are three types of financial crises: crises of liquidity, crises of solvency, and crises of stupidity.”

“You are fired!”

Liquidity means different things to different people. For the bond trader, liquidity is a fact of life. An asset has to stay liquid if it is to be sold without causing a significant movement in market price and with minimum loss of value. Money, or cash, is the most liquid asset, but even major currencies can suffer loss of market liquidity in large liquidation events. When even safe assets are considered high risk, flight-to-liquidity might generate huge price movements and lead to a panic. For an investment banker, liquidity refers both to a business’ ability to meet its payment obligations, in terms of possessing sufficient liquid assets, and to such assets themselves. If a business is unable to service current debt from current income or cash reserves, it has to liquidate some assets or be forced into liquidation. For ordinary people, being liquidated means to lose a job, which in the US can happen on a brutal basis: you pack your personal items in a box and go. But even then, there are differences: for a banker, the line “you are fired!” means it is time to return the calls of headhunters, while for a CEO liquidation often comes with a hefty severance package or golden parachute.

Liquidation therefore provides a meaningful metaphor of how Wall Street operates. According to Karen Ho, liquidity is part of investment bankers’ “ethos” or “habitus”. Borrowed from French social scientist Pierre Bourdieu, these two concepts refer, first, to the worldview, and second, to the set of dispositions acquired through the activities and experiences of everyday life. They are the result of the objectification of social structure or “field” at the level of individual subjectivity. By using these concepts, Karen Ho’s goal is to demonstrate empirically how Wall Street’s subjectivities, its specific practices, constraints, and institutional culture, exert powerful systemic effects on US corporations and financial markets. Investment bankers live in a world where jobs are highly insecure, and they get paid for cutting deals or trading assets. They tend to project their experience onto the economy by aspiring to make everything “liquid” or tradable, including jobs and people.

When Wall Street takes over Main Street

Downsizing, restructuring and layoff plans are not only business decisions based on economic rationality and abstract financial models: they are the predictable outcomes of a peculiar corporate culture that values liquidity above all else. It is important to note that the people heralding downsizing and job market flexibility themselves experience it firsthand. Investment bankers are constantly subjected to boom and bust cycles and to waves of restructuring, even during bull markets (before writing her PhD dissertation, Karen Ho did a stint at Bankers Trust and lost her job when her team was dismantled). They live their professional life with an updated CV at hand, and are constantly solicited by headhunters and placement agencies. By pushing deals and reengineering corporations, they are projecting their own model of employee liquidity and financial instability onto corporate America, thereby setting the stage for rounds of market crises and layoffs.

While no terrain is considered off limits for modern anthropology, Wall Street is not usual territory for doing fieldwork. As Ho notes, you cannot just pitch your tent in the lobby of JP Morgan or on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and observe what is going on. Chances are, security guards will throw you out in the matter of an hour. Besides, you won’t be able to gain much relevant information, as a lot of what goes on in corporate banking happens behind close boardroom doors or as the result of abstract computer models. Negotiating access to the field is always an issue for anthropologists. In the case of Wall Street, the difficulty is compounded by the culture of secrecy and the strict control over corporate information exerted by financial institutions.

Getting access to the field

In addition, bankers are in a position of power relative to anthropologists. They can humble the apprentice social scientist with their cock-sure assertiveness and technical jargon. For an anthropologist, the challenge of “studying up” and researching the power elite is very different from the issues raised by “studying down” distant tribes or dominated social groups. The way Karen Ho went around this problem of access was pragmatic and opportunistic. She first landed a job in an investment bank to familiarize herself with the field. She then used her university connections, former colleagues and network of contacts to gather as much information as she could. Her field methods included structured interviews, casual conversations, and participant observation at banking events such as industry conferences or recruitment forums. She finally ordered her data into a narrative that described, in true anthropological fashion, the tribes, rites and myths of Wall Street.

Investment bankers form an elite tribe. They are the leaders of the pack, the smartest guys in the room. Their culture emphasizes smartness, hard work, risk taking, expediency, flexibility, and a global outlook. They look down on Main Street corporate workers, whose steady, clock-watching routinization produces “stagnant”, “fat”, “lazy” “dead wood” that needs to be “pruned”. They are the market vanguard of finance-led capitalism, and perceive themselves as exerting a useful economic function. They hang around in the same places: gourmet restaurants, uptown watering holes, week-ends in the Hamptons, and jet-set vacations in exotic locations. Investment bankers form distinct sub-tribes or “kinship networks”: they are the “Harvard guys”, or the guys from Yale, Princeton, or Stanford. Individual employees are not only known and referred to by their universities but are also seen as more or less interchangeable with others from their school. The investment bank is organized into a strict pyramid, with the overall dominance of the “front office” over the “back office” and the hierarchy between analysts, vice presidents, and managing directors. Few new hires ever make it to MD status: Wall Street functions as a revolving door, where organizations are constantly restructured and reconfigurated.

Tribes, rites, and myths

Karen Ho explores several rites that define investment bankers’ corporate culture: the recruitment process, the integration into the firm, closing a deal, getting promoted, negotiating a bonus, and hopping from job to job in an industry that applies a “strategy of no strategy.” Smart students from Ivy League universities do not choose Wall Street as much as there are chosen along a natural path that makes investment banking the only “suitable” destination. They go through several rites of initiation that ingrain in them a sense of superiority, hard work, and professional dedication. Most of Ho’s informants experienced an initial sense of shock at the extraordinary demands of work on Wall Street, though over time, they began to claim hard work as a badge of honor and distinction. A tremendous amount of energy is spent in determining compensation via end-of-year bonuses. As they themselves acknowledge, bankers do it for the money, and the amount they earn determines their sense of self-esteem and their position in the corporate hierarchy.

Bronislaw Malinowski, as quoted by Karen Ho, writes that “an intimate connection exists between the word, the mythos, the sacred tales of a tribe, on the one hand, and their ritual acts, their moral deeds, their social organization, and even their practical activities, on the other.” The myths of Wall Street are the lessons taught in business schools and financial theory courses: the superiority of shareholder value and the relentless pursuit of profit maximization. These myths of origin are not always coherent. Investment bankers and consultants in the sixties heralded diversification and growth in unrelated sectors, before moving to a new mantra of “core business focus” and downsizing. Breaking up the conglomerates they helped assemble in the first place created a whole new source of profit for bankers. Similarly, stockholders were once described as fickle, mobile, and irresponsible in relation to corporate managers. The shareholder value revolution inverted the picture, and financiers pressured companies and their managers for profits and dividend payments. These “sacred tales” taught in business schools are also myths of legitimization: for Wall Street, the role of bankers is to create liquidity, to “unlock” value that is trapped in the corporation and to allocate money (as in the takeover movement) to its “best” use.

Making ethnography mandatory reading for MBA students

Karen Ho’s ambition is to offer a “cultural” theory of corporate finance. In her view, strategy is produced by culture, and “the financial is cultural through and through.” She constantly emphasizes the fact that investment bankers actively “make” markets, “produce” relations of hegemony and “create” systemic effects on US corporations through their corporate culture and personal habitus. Wall Street narratives of shareholder value and employee liquidity generate an approach to corporate America that “not only promotes socioeconomic inequalities but also precludes a more democratic approach to corporate governance.” Of course, it can be argued that culture does not explain everything, and that Karen Ho’s perspective in turn only reflects the views of a particular tribe: that of the cultural anthropologist. There is also the fact that Liquidated focuses on yesterday’s battlegrounds: the focus is on corporate equity and M&A, which were the high-profile areas everyone could see, while the dark pools of CDOs and over-the-counter derivatives were left completely off the hook. The book was completed in 2008, and the subprime crisis is only alluded to in a coda. But despite these obvious limitations, Karen Ho’s book provides a salutary perspective on the banking world, and should be made mandatory reading for any MBA student or financial PhD before they embark on their master-of-the-universe carrier. Maybe investment banks should also do well to hire their in-house anthropologist.

The State of Exception in East Asia

A review of Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty, Aihwa Ong, Duke University Press, 2006.

Neoliberalism as ExceptionCarl Schmidt defined sovereignty as ultimately the power to call a state of exception to the normalized condition of the law. Drawing on the German philosopher, Giorgio Agamben uses the exception as a fundamental principle of state rule that is predicated on the division between citizen in a judicial order and outsiders stripped of juridical and political protections. Aihwa Ong, a Berkeley anthropologist, offers a milder version of the state of exception: the sovereign exception she is interested in “is not the negative exception that suspends civil rights for some but rather positive kinds of exception that create opportunities, usually for a minority, who enjoy political accommodations and conditions not granted to the rest of the population.”

The neoliberal state of exception creates threats and opportunities

Aihwa Ong is interested in the spaces and identities opened up by neoliberalism as exception–the market-oriented and calculating technologies of government used by otherwise interventionist states in East Asia–, and by exceptions to neoliberalism–the management of populations who are deliberately excluded from neoliberal considerations, either positively or negatively. She focuses on “the interplay among technologies of governing and of disciplining, of inclusion and exclusion, of giving value or denying value to human conduct.”

The book explores how the market-driven logic of exception is deployed into a variety of ethnographic contexts: the opposition between Islamic judges and theologians and feminist groups who also claim the authority of the Quran to challenge patriarchal norms in the Malaysian context; the tensions between online communities protesting against the persecution of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia and localized struggles for national belonging and an inclusive concept of citizenship; the market- and policy-driven strategies of spatial fragmentation that create a pattern of differently administered spaces in mainland China; the ethnicization of labor market pools and of production networks linking both sides of the Pacific Ocean in the electronics industry; the tension between moral education and technical training in American colleges and universities pursuing global strategies, the outsourcing strategies that undermine the foundations of middle-class American masculine identities; the efforts of Singapore to position itself as a hub for accumulating international expertise in the knowledge-driven economy; the demands of NGOs for the biological welfare of foreign maids and migrant workers; and the failed attempts by American companies to instill management thinking and behavior among Shanghainese professionals who pursue their own self-interest.

In doing so, the author introduces many new concepts that may be picked up by other social scientists for further use and elaboration: graduated sovereignty, zoning technologies, latitudinal citizenship, translocal publics, translational identities, global ethnicities, the postdevelopmental state, labor arbitrage, biowelfare, and others. She also critically addresses works by Hardt and Negri, Agamben, Sassen, Habermas, Appadurai, and elaborates on the concept of governmentality as defined by Foucault.

An indiscriminate gleaning of facts

Neoliberalism as Exception elaborates on Aihwa Ong’s previous book, which won the Cultural Studies prize of the Association of Asian American Studies in 2001. There were aspects that disturbed me in Flexible Citizenship: the political militancy, the mix of high-brow concepts and trivial observations, the lack of any historical perspective, the disdain for economic reasoning or statistical observations, the departure from earlier traditions of fieldwork in favor of casual browsing and indiscriminate gleaning of facts. Not only did I find the same defects in Neoliberalism as Exception, but I was baffled to read whole sentences reproduced at full length from the previous book, without any mention that the two essays were based on the same material. Take the following sentence, which I had singled out in my reading of Flexible Citizenship for being particularly inept: “On a palm-fringed hillock stands the Kuala Lumpur Hilton, where attendants in white suits and batik sarongs rush forward to greet well-groomed Malay executives wielding cellular phones as they step out of limousines.” If I were the author, I wouldn’t be too proud of this stereotyped description that seems to come straight out of a popular novel or a fashion magazine. But Aihwa Ong found it worthy enough to include it all over again in one chapter of her new book.

Now why do I care, and who reads anthropology anyway? We should pay attention to what happens in the anthropological field because it offers a rare window into the lives and cultures of people who may appear distant or alien but who share with us our common humanity. Modern anthropologists have rejected earlier models of ethnography which treated local cultures as bounded and isolated, and have welcomed globalization as a formidable challenge to expand the discipline’s boundaries and to include political and economic considerations. Concepts and theoretical constructs used in anthropology also act as a reality check over the ideas and theories offered by philosophers or social critics because they are grounded in empirical observations and a rich methodological tradition. As Aihwa Ong herself acknowledges, “As anthropologists, we are skeptical of grand theories. We pose big questions through the prism of situated ethnographic research on disparate situations of contemporary living”. One only wishes she would have applied her prism more rigorously.

The last reason we should care about anthropology is because of the political uses that can be made of research results. Most anthropologists maintain a healthy distance to the centers of power and they rightly cherish their academic freedom. Some choose to embrace social causes and lend their voice to the dispossessed, the disenfranchised and the voiceless. Others address the works of social critics and offer validations or amendments of theoretical claims from their methodological perspective. As the endorsements by Michael Hardt or Manuel Castells on the book’s back cover indicate, there is a kind of circularity from theoretical texts to “views from the field” and then back to theory. But without a rich and varied ethnographic material, this circularity runs empty and theory leads to more theory without the necessary detour through observation.

A Failed Anthropology Project

Review of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software, Christopher M. Kelty, Duke University Press, 2008.

Two BitsTwo Bits is a failed anthropology project. It does not make it a bad book: it is well-written and informative, and I learned a lot about Free Software and Open Source by reading it. But it does not meet academic standards that one is to expect from a book published in an anthropology series. These standards, as I see them, pertain to the position of the anthropologist; the importance of fieldwork; the role of theory; the interpretation of facts; and the style of ethnographic writing. Let me elaborate on these five points.

Many definitions have been proposed of the “participant observer.” Anthropologists who claim this position for themselves see it as a way to gain a close and intimate familiarity with a given group of individuals and their practices through an intensive involvement with people in their natural environment, usually over an extended period of time. It is different from “going native”: the participant observer usually remains an outside figure, who can provide support and hold various functions in the group but who makes it clear, at least to himself, that the locus of his engagement lies in the rendition he will make from his experience, not in the services or tasks he will have completed for the group during fieldwork. A key element in this research strategy is therefore to gain access to the group but also, perhaps equally important, the exit strategy that will allow the ethnographer to leave the field and return to a more distant point of observation.

“I am a geek”

Christopher Kelty does not make explicit his own definition of participant observation, but he nonetheless fancies a self-image: “I am a geek.” Becoming a geek is an integral part of his research project, and most ethnographic notes or vignettes are devoted to that process. For him, understanding how Free Software works is not just an academic pursuit but an experience that transforms the lives and work of participants involved: “something like religion.” The stories he tells about geeks, stories that geeks tell about themselves, are meant to “evangelize and advocate,” and to convert people to the cause.

His engagement with and exploration of Free Software got him involved in another project called Connexions, an “open content repository of educational materials” or a provider of Open Source textbooks. Connexions textbooks look different from conventional textbooks in that they consist of digital documents or “modules” that are strung together and made available through the Web under a Creative Commons license that allows for free use, reuse, and modification. Kelty would like his role in the Connexions project to be akin to an academic consultant, an anthropologist-in-residence that could provide advice and guidance based on his “expertise in social theory, philosophy, history, and ethnographic research.” But that is not how it turns out: “The fiction that I had first adopted–that I was bringing scholarly knowledge to the table–became harder and harder to maintain the more I realized that it was my understanding of Free Software, gained through ongoing years of ethnographic apprenticeship, that was driving my involvement.” He cannot fit into the anthropologist’s shoes because there is no need for one at Connexions. And so he ends up providing legal advice (which, strictly speaking, he is not qualified to do) and doing intermediary work with Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that promotes copyright-free licenses.

Fieldwork is what anthropologists do. But what do anthropologists do when they do fieldwork? The definition has evolved over time. An anthropologist used to hang around in a remote place for a while, getting acquainted with the people, pressing informants with questions, and taking ethnographic notes. In our age of globalization, there is more emphasis on multiple sites, nomadic fieldwork, and de-centered ethnography. People move constantly from one location to the next, so why should the ethnographer be the only one to stay at the same place? Besides, in our interconnected world, something that happens in one place is often caused or explained by another phenomenon occurring in a distant place, and following the object under consideration is like pulling a thread from a ball of yarn. But fieldwork remains a central tenet of the anthropologist’s identity, what distinguishes him or her from scholars in other disciplines who “don’t do fieldwork.”

Hanging around with local hackers in Bangalore

Kelty insists that his account of the Free Software movement is based on ethnographic fieldwork. He gives a few vignettes of his engagement in the “field”: meeting two healthcare entrepreneurs at a Starbuck in Boston, cruising the night scene in Berlin, hanging around with local hackers in Bangalore, and, in the end, getting a position in the anthropology department at Rice University in Houston, where the Connexions project is based. But there is little purpose to these mentions of various locations, apart to demonstrate the coolness of the author and his persistence in becoming a geek akin to the ones he associates with. When it comes to substance, his real source of information is online. As he notes, nearly everything about the Internet’s history is archived. He is even able to track back newsgroup discussions dating back to the 1980s and chronicling the birth of open systems. As a result, the brunt of Kelty’s research presented in Two Bits is either archival work into the history of computer science or consulting work for the Connexions project, not ethnographic fieldwork in the strict sense of the word.

Anthropologists writing PhD dissertations are requested to demonstrate skills in manipulating theory. The canon of works to be mastered is rather limited: a grounding in Marx, a heavy dose of Foucault, some exposure to Freud or Lacan, add a pinch of feminist theory or media studies for those so inclined, and the PhD student is all set. Even by that light standard, Kelty must have flunked his theory exam. He introduces Foucault mainly for the record, but all he draws from the famous article “What Is Enlightenment?” is a quote stating that modernity should be seen as an attitude rather than a period of history. In other words, geeks are modern because they are cool. In another passage, he mentions that the notion of recursive public that he proposes should be understood from the perspective of works by Jürgen Habermas, Michael Warner, Charles Taylor, John Dewey, and Hannah Arendt. Then he stops. Besides the obvious point that eighteenth century’s coffee shops are different from today’s Internet forums, there is no further elaboration on these authors.

GNU (“GNU is Not UNIX”)

Another aspect of theory is the elaboration of concepts. Here, Kelty fares better, but I would still give him only a passing grade. His notion of a “recursive public” is indeed a working concept, or a middle-range theory as social scientists are wont to propose. Kelty defines it as “a public that is constituted by a shared concern for maintaining the means of association through which they come together as a public.” Recursivity is to be understood in the way computer programmers define procedures or name applications in terms of themselves. Popular examples include GNU (“GNU is Not UNIX”), but also EINE (“EINE Is Not EMACS”) ou ZWEI (“ZWEI Was EINE Initially”). It is, to use another image, Escher’s hand drawing itself. But the author does not try to sell his concept too hard: as mentioned, he does not explore the interplay with Habermas’ notion of a public sphere, and he downplays its importance for future scholarship (“I intend neither for actors nor really for many scholars to find it generally applicable.”) One would be at a loss to find other original concepts in the book. The expression “usable pasts” he uses to introduce his geek stories is just another name for modern myths. The notion of “singularity,” a point in time when the speed of autonomous technological development outstrips the human capacity to control it, is only a piece of geek folklore. Visibly, Kelty is more interested in telling stories than building theory.

Some authors define anthropology as the interpretation of cultures. In his book’s title, Kelty insists on the cultural significance of Free Software. Yet interpretation is lacking. By this, I mean that the anthropologist should be in search of meaning, not just facts or fictions. Kelty presents an orderly narrative of the origins and development of Free Software, organized around five basic functions: sharing code source, conceptualizing open systems, writing licenses, coordinating collaborative projects, and fomenting movements. He illustrates each chronological step with various stories, evolving around the development of the UNIX operating system and the standardization of Internet communications through TCP/IP. The result is informative if somewhat lengthy, but the cultural significance of the whole is not really addressed. Instead of wrapping up the lessons of this history, the last part of the book moves to a completely different topic by asking what is happening to Free Software as it spreads beyond the word of hackers and software and into online textbook publishing.

“Berlin. November 1999. I am in a very hip club in Mitte”

Anthropologists are authors, and their writing skills matter enormously in the reception and impact of their works. The style of Two Bits is more attuned to a journalistic account than to a piece of scholarship. This shows especially in the vignettes placing the author in various situations and locations, which create a “reality effect” but do not really add anything to the comprehension of the subject. Lines like “Berlin. November 1999. I am in a very hip club in Mitte” or “Bangalore, March 2000. I am at another bar, this time on one of Bangalore’s trendiest street” may be proper for nonfiction travelogues or media coverage, but they should not find their ways into anthropology books.

Taking On the Anthropologist At His Own Game

A review of Morocco Bound: Disorienting America’s Maghreb, from Casablanca to the Marrakech Express, Brian T. Edwards, Duke University Press, 2005.

MoroccoThere are two types of anthropologists: those who have done fieldwork and those who haven’t. Only the former can fully bear the title of anthropologist. They have been ordained through the same rites of passage: they have been there, seen places, and have come back with the field notes and observations they can subsequently transform into a book. This marks their full entry into the profession: they will no longer have to return to the field for extended periods, as they can revisit the same material from a distance or through occasional visits. Bearing the talisman of their ordination, they can bar entry to the profession to those who haven’t been through the same ordeal. It doesn’t matter that these outsiders may have acquired an extensive knowledge of the anthropology literature or mastered the ropes and codes of the discipline: they are kept outside the tent, and forced to find other disciplinary affiliations. Many find refuge in literature departments, or under the broad canvas of cultural studies. There they may pursue their work in relatively unhindered ways, developing a critical dialogue with other, more patrolled disciplines in the social sciences. They may borrow from the toolbox and writing techniques of anthropologists to develop a view from afar, which they often turn to their own environment and surroundings in a kind of reflexive engagement. For all practical purposes, they are anthropologists in all but name.

An anthropologist in all but name

Such is the case with the author of the book under review. At the time of its publication, Brian T. Edwards was Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Northwestern University. He defines himself as an Americanist–not in the anthropological sense of the word, which designates an ethnographer who specializes in Indian-American societies–, but as a contributor to American studies, a broad discipline encompassing both American literature and cinema as well as the wider historical context of US society and politics. The author contributes to this discipline by discussing American cultural productions, and by illustrating the pregnancy of central tenets of American identity: the notion of the frontier, the issue of race, the ambivalent attitude towards colonization, and the peculiar way America engages with the world at large. His discussion is bound in space and time: it focusses on Morocco from World War II’s North African campaign to the hippies taking the “Marrakech Express” to escape conscription during the Vietnam war. It examines a variety of texts and media: novels, poetry, but also Hollywood movies, musical recordings, anthropology texts, and diplomatic archives.

The choice of the book’s title is a testimony to the author’s cultural deftness. In fact, he borrows it from a Bing Crosby comedy, in which the theme song, “We’re Morocco Bound,” puns on the two dictionary meanings of the word “Morocco”: the name of the country in northwest Africa and, with a small m, a fine leather used in bookbinding. “Like a set of Shakespeare, we’re Morocco bound”, sings Crosby. As the author comments, to be “Morocco bound”, that is, to be on one’s way to Morocco as an American, “suggests that Morocco itself is bound in webs of representations.” The subtitle, “Disorienting America’s Maghreb,” points towards Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism, defined as “a long Western tradition of literary and scholarly representations of a region named (by the West) ‘the Orient’ that corresponds with Western political domination of the land to the South and East of the Mediterranean.” “Dis-orienting” America’s perception of the Maghreb means blurring the boundaries and unsetting the ethnocentrism at work in American perceptions of the Orient. It also means giving a twist or a sense of queerness to American identity by suggesting other forms of belonging not necessarily linked to the nation-state.

Unsetting the ethnocentrism at work in American perceptions of the Orient

As Edward Said pointed out, with global ascendency in World War II, the United States assumed the European mantle of thinking about the world. With a new sense of responsibility in world’s affairs, cultural and political discourse overlapped to project a worldview shaped by historical experience (the myth of the frontier, American Indians, the American century, racial discrimination) and Hollywood scripts. In the 1930s, a spate of popular movies, with titles like The Sheik, Prisoner of the Desert, Beau Geste, or Princesse Tam-Tam, portrayed the Maghreb as the Oriental other. Disembarking on Moroccan shores in November 1942, General Patton described Casablanca as “a city which combines Hollywood and the Bible”. Casablanca was of course the setting of the Warner Bros movie featuring Humphrey Bogart, which concluded with “the beginning of a beautiful friendship” between the United States and French colonialism. For Americans, the background presence of the French was an integral part of the foreignness of North Africa, as French language and viewpoints framed their perceptions of the Maghreb.

Edward Said also noted that American popular attention to regions of the world works in “spurts”–“great masses of rhetoric and huge resources, followed by virtual silence”. Before 1973, when American attention turned more decidedly toward the Middle East, representations of the Maghreb played a leading role in the formation of popular American ideas about the Arabs. Morocco occupied a peculiar place in this setting: with its openness to the foreign and political stability, it had long been a place of fascination and fantasy, attracting American tourists or Hollywood cinema crews. During the postwar period, it offered shelter to successive waves of cultural misfits and eccentrics, from artists in exile or Harlem Renaissance figures to hippies and beatniks.

A place of fascination and fantasy

But the Orient was not only a passive screen for American projections. It modified America’s self-perception–African-American soldiers came back emboldened with a new taste for freedom after World War II campaigns. Representations of the foreign played a special role in rethinking the meaning of American national identity. In particular, Tangier, which remained until 1960 a free port and a tax haven with its internationally administered zone and extraterritorial status, posed a challenge to the hegemony of the national(ist) vision. Hence its reputation of queerness among American journalists and critics. That such a location would be tolerant of homosexuality and the open use of cannabis added to the threat toward the dominant national narrative of the period. Edwards’s reading of William Burrough’s Naked Lunch, written in 1959 while the poet was in residence in the city, emphasizes the sense of subversive potentiality in the international formations of Tangier. Rereading Naked Lunch in its Tangier context highlights its sense of immediacy and political potentiality.

Edwards’s ambition is to “imagine alternative possibilities for an American encounter with the world.” By following American representations of the Maghreb into Maghrebi cultural productions, and in examining moments of actual collaboration between Americans and Moroccans, he operates a rare gesture in American studies by performing the detour through the other. He is not only looking at us looking at them: he also looks at them looking back. Oriental actors are by no way passive subjects: they critically reinterpret American cultural productions, and “talk back” by returning to the sender the postcards and clichés projected on the North African screen. Edwards tracks the debates among Moroccan intellectuals triggered by American cultural productions. He attends to Moroccan recreations of the film Casablanca in touristic waterholes or local artsy movies; he comments the obituaries published in Arabic at the time of Paul Bowles’s death; and he gives voice to local reactions towards Clifford Geertz’s interpretation of cultures. He also describes precious occurrences of transcultural collaboration: Ornette Coleman’s project with the Master Musicians of Jajouka, Paul Bowles’s joint works of fiction with the illiterate Moroccan artist Mohammed Mrabet, or the traces of the informant’s voice in the anthropologist’s discourse.

An anthropological playground

Morocco also occupies a key role in the development of U.S. cultural anthropology. The figure of the anthropologist was a common sight in the Moroccan landscape. He features as a character in several novels by Paul Bowles or his wife Jane. Mrabet, Bowles’s long time collaborator, had been an anthropologist’s informant, and the joint books published based on taped recordings of their conversations are close to ethnographic field notes. Morocco was firmly put on the map of American anthropology when Clifford Geertz set shop in Sefrou in the beginning of the sixties. This, too, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship: Geertz not only revisited the place regularly, he sent there scores of graduate students, who recorded their passage in photographs, books, and articles. In academia, the work of Geertz’s group influenced American anthropology and cultural studies deeply. Paul Rabinow’s Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco became mandatory reading in PhD programs, and his theorization of the comprehension of the self via the detour of comprehension of the other became a central tenet in comparative studies.

In the book’s last chapter, “Hippie Orientalism: The Interpretation of Countercultures”, Edwards takes on the anthropologist at his own game. He draws a parallel between the group of anthropologists working around Sefrou and the hippies who took the “Marrakech Express” and praised Morocco as “a hashhead’s delight.” Of course, Geertz and Rabinow are not quite Orientalists in the Saidian sense, nor did they indulge in the vagabond lifestyle of hippie drifters. But while living independently of each other, both communities’ interpretation of Moroccan culture was “a direction of energies away from another more troubling Orient, that of Southeast Asia.” Despite their avowed radicalism, both groups were blind to the riots and student strikes which hit Moroccan cities in 1965-66 and were harshly repressed by the Moroccan police state, with several hundreds of students killed. The impulse, shared by the hippie and the anthropologist, to gravitate toward the “traditional,” the rural, and the fragmented because it was somehow more “real” or “authentic” than urban Morocco must therefore be seen in the context of domestic political strife and U.S. engagement in Vietnam.

Catching the anthropologist with his pants down

Taking the anthropologist at his word, and through close readings of texts, Edwards even detects hints of ethnocentrism and racial prejudice in Rabinow’s and Geertz’s essays. The detachment of the participant observer is a turn away from more pressing concerns, and the idea that culture is a text that needs to be interpreted rests on the premise that this text first be made stable and detached from political realities. Geertz’s taste for literary references makes him blind to the inherited preconceptions and tainted Orientalism of the authors he quotes in abundance. And he is caught with his pants down in some descriptive paragraphs where he compares the Moroccan landscape to Hollywood movie sceneries and American frontier images. Anthropology, too, needs to be dis-oriented and decentered from the natural tendency toward ethnocentrism.

Thinking Deep about Hello Kitty

A review of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek across the Pacific, by Christine R. Yano, Duke University Press, 2013

Jhello-kittyapanese pop culture is not just a consumer fad or a passing attraction. It has become a research topic worthy of academic lectures and scholarly publications. This interest for new things Japanese was demand-driven and linked to transformations in North American and European universities in the past twenty years. Students enrolling in Japanese language classes or Japanese studies departments grew up alongside anime figures and manga characters coming from Japan. Their early exposure to Japanese popular culture and commercial products led them to request teachings that would reflect their childhood experience and teenage interest. Anthropologists and cultural studies scholars were better equipped to address this new demand than the literature scholars and historians or political scientists that have traditionally dominated area studies departments. Rather than working on texts and archives, they use ethnographic fieldwork as the preferred means of data collection. They are interested in the production and circulation of cultural objects as bearers of meaning and values. They do not draw a sharp distinction between high and low culture, between marketized commodities and authentic creations. For these new scholars, observers of the contemporary should not reject the mundane, the commercial and the transient. Rather, they should pay attention to everyday objects and popular productions as “goods to think with.” By doing so, they are able to notice emerging trends and societal changes that have broader implications for the understanding of contemporary societies.

Can Christine Yano prove she’s a real anthropologist?

Even so, choosing Hello Kitty as a research topic may have raised some eyebrows in Asian studies departments. Sanrio’s merchandising icon is the archetype of what scholars usually brush off as irrelevant for their studies. The commercially-driven, superficial and childish phenomenon of this kitten figure adorning various consumer products surely cannot be taken as the topic of a serious academic study. It can at best provide a case study for a business class on brand marketing, or an illustration in an introductory course on Japanese culture’s global reach. But certainly no book can be published on such a mundane topic. Or can it? Christine Yano is aware she took risks in choosing Hello Kitty’s reception in the US—what she calls “pink globalization”—as the focus of her study. As a nasty comment gleaned over Twitter puts it, “some years ago anthropologist Christine Yano proved #hellokitty wasn’t a real cat, which made many readers doubt she was a real anthropologist.” Such remarks may have been inspired by the jealousy of colleagues who saw Yano reach popular success, not really in terms of book sales, but through invitations to give lectures, attend fan conventions, and curate exhibitions—all activities that usually lie beyond the ambit of most anthropology professors. Critics may also point to some flaws in the methodology—this is a research-lite, easy-fieldwork book that is overly reliant on Internet sources—, lack of fact-checking—Yano takes at face value the anti-Hello Kitty rant found on a satirical parody website based around a fake fundamentalist Baptist church—and writing style that mixes professional jargon and journalistic catchwords.

How can the author prove she is a real anthropologist while at the same time remaining true to her chosen topic? Her first impulse is to take Hello Kitty very seriously. Her book won acceptance in a prestigious university press series by showing all the trappings of serious scholarship—the footnotes, the bibliography, the references to theory and drafting of new concepts. At the beginning of every chapter, Christine Yano raises theoretical issues by way of rhetorical questions, and then purports to answer them based on accumulated data and complex reasoning. She pays tribute to past scholarship and quotes from all anthropologists who have studied Japanese popular culture—Anne Allison, Laura Miller, Thomas LaMarre, Brian McVeigh, Jennifer Robertson, Marc Steinberg—as well as from many cultural critics and feminist scholars. She discusses key concepts in detail, presenting the genealogy of popular notions such as pink, cute, cool, and kitsch, as well as exotic words such as kawaii, asobi, fanshii guzzu, kogyaru, shôjo, and kyarakutâ. She offers her own theoretical constructs: “pink globalization”, “Japanese Cute-Cool”, “the wink”. She knows that in doing so, she loses some readers along the way—some Internet comments lambast her book as “a boatload of jargon”, and particularly resent her savant references to Adorno and to Marx. But this is the price to pay to gain admission in the exclusive circle of cultural critics and anthropology scholars.

A multi-sited ethnography

More specifically, Christine Yano, who is identified on the book’s back cover as Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, anchors her research in the discipline of cultural anthropology. Her book is what scholars describe as a “multi-sited ethnography”: she didn’t do fieldwork in a single community or location, but collected data and observations in various places, mostly in Hawai’i and in San Francisco, but also in other cities where her professional assignments took her. As she describes it, “Hello Kitty became a research hobby: whenever I traveled to another city, I searched Sanrio stores and fans… Every year when I taught the course on Japanese popular culture, I surveyed students about their knowledge of Hello Kitty.” She also scanned the Internet for testimonies and contacts on her research topic. She conducted structured interviews (thirty-one in total) with various informants: Sanrio managers in Japan and in the US, shop salespersons, Kitty adult fans, goods collectors, and artists. She includes long excerpts of these interviews in her book. Again, this is standard practice in anthropology, where the notes and recordings of the ethnographer are often reproduced in extenso. But this may rebuff some readers, for various reasons that the author herself acknowledges in the following: “some readers may feel that the fan interviews I quote here represent an overload of sentiment, a barrage of capitalist frenzy, a besotted attachment to a commodity. Without apology, I agree, and suggest that these readers skip over the interviews themselves and head to the conclusions I draw from them at the end of the chapter.”

This curious self-denial points to another discursive strategy by which the author affirms her credentials as a serious scholar. At many junctures, she tries to distance herself from corporate lore, marketing ploys, and naive adherence to what Hello Kitty represents in order to offer her own critical interpretation. She responds to critics by incorporating their viewpoint and giving them a voice within her own analysis. For instance, she concludes her chapter on Sanrio’s corporate strategy with the following: “a company ethos of happiness tinged with pink sounds like a hugely naive, manipulative enterprise, and that, in fact, may be exactly what it is.” She devotes a whole chapter on “Kitty Backlash”, reflecting the views of Hello Kitty’s detractors which she mainly found on the Internet. This leads her to her enormous blunder when she takes at face value the discourse of a parody Baptist church that reads the word “Hell” in “Hello Kitty”. Although Sanrio’s cat is primarily a child’s character, Yano focuses exclusively on adult consumers of Kitty products—and even on adult products, such as the infamous Hello Kitty massage wand. She also devotes much place to cultural productions and artistic expressions that play with Hello Kitty in creative and imaginative ways. Art, like anthropology, has a complex and troublesome relationship with commerce and capitalism. In her way, her whole book structure reproduces her ambivalence with Hello Kitty as a scholarly pursuit—from finding Kitty at home in Japan, to following her through global marketing strategies across the Pacific, describing her ubiquity, giving voice to Kitty detractors, and then showing that subversion and, ultimately, art, essentially “get it.”

We find this mix of adherence and critical distance in the juxtaposition of fan testimonies and anti-Kitty hate speech, in the contrast between interviews and commentary, and even in the author’s own writing style, which mixes scholarly jargon and popular expressions. Christine Yano claims for herself the right to write at times like the editor of a girlie magazine, while in the next paragraph using difficult words and complex reasoning like a tenured professor. Like her character, she can be both cute and cool at the same time, and she writes with tongue-in-cheek humor. Her sentences often mix the serious and the playful, the elaborate and the obvious, the obtuse theorizing and the plain reasoning. Even her main theoretical concepts (cute, cool, kitsch, pink, kawaii, etc.) are borrowed from plain language and everyday expressions. This makes Pink Globalization an easier and more pleasant read than most anthropology books published in the same publisher’s series. This also makes it risky business: her theoretical apparatus and critical commentary may lose plain readers along the way, while scholars of a more classical bent may be put off by her choice of topic in the first place. But again, there is a market for critical analysis of Asian pop culture, as evidenced in the many publications that now address the topic, and cultural anthropologists are better placed to claim this market segment for their discipline.

The philosophy of “the wink”

Beyond Hello Kitty, is there anything that non-Kitty fans can take from this book? I mentioned the creative use of simple notions such as cute and cool, the way they relate to ordinary people’s lives, and the value added that theory brings. More than pink globalization, the key concept Christine Yano wants to offer as her personal contribution to social theory is the “wink”. This is, of course, a Kitty gesture: Hello Kitty, in some of her modern renderings, winks at her viewers, thereby complicating the blank stare and expressionless face she is so much remembered for. The wink defines the very fetishism of Hello Kitty. It is a symbol of friendship, playfulness, and intimacy. It creates the possibility of two-way interactions, of double meaning, and second degree. The wink resolves logical inconsistencies—between cute and cool, child and adult, kitsch and art, pink and black. It allows for subversive uses of Hello Kitty. The wink also includes the viewers into the circle of those who “get it” and assume what Kitty stands for. More importantly, “wink as play” holds the power to silence or incorporate Kitty’s critics. In turn, adult consumers wink back at her and use Kitty in minimalist acts of subversion, performing feminity or sexiness. For Christine Yano, the wink is also a theoretical gesture. It is her personal answer to those in faculty committees and scholarly associations who raise eyebrows at her research topic and question her credentials as an anthropologist.