A physical copy of the brand new book Digital Keywords (2016) has just arrived through the post. On first inspection, it looks fantastic, and I’ve got the feeling I will be making frequent use of it in my research and teaching. Here are some quick notes on Benjamin Peters‘ intriguingly Peircean essay on the keyword ‘digital’, freely available here (PDF).
p. 94. Digits do the same thing as index fingers: they count, point and manipulate. They count symbols, point or index the real, and manipulate the social world. It follows you cannot understand digits only computationally (as things that count).
Counting the symbolic: the triumphs of digital computing
p. 95. In 1946, Von Neumann’s cybernetics: all signals can be made into digital format via binary code of ‘discrete, symbolic thresholds’: 0 to mean below level, 1 above level. ‘All real signals can be reduced, with certain loss, into digital symbols’.
But careful with digital theorists’ hype, warns Peters, now exacerbated by big data fans: not everything that is, is countable. Computer uber-nerds may see promise of total convergence, but this will never happen, as we’ll see in the remainder of this essay.
Indexing the real: how digits point elsewhere
Digits don’t only compute, they also point (index). Indexing is not an exact science. Digital media incl. fingers, coins, piano keyboards, filing systems, typewriters, electronic telegraph, etc. All are digitally interfaced (via human fingers).
p. 98 Pragmatist and semiotician Peirce distinguished 3 types of signs (icon, index, symbol) unlike ‘Saussurian signifier-signified binary behind the postmodern turn’. ‘Digital media have long indexed the world’, e.g. index in a book sends you to rough – not to exact – location on page.
In Peircean scheme, ‘smoke signals fire by saying, roughly, “Follow me to an ongoing combustion process”. From Austin to Wittgenstein et al meaningful relations necessarily exclude, i.e. structure of meaning is indexical. ‘Digital media… have meaning insofar as they index the world’. An index finger is not the same thing as the object it refers to.
Because they point elsewhere, digits are ‘fundamentally analogic’ (p. 100). Shannon in 1948 info theory launch (strictly computational approach to communication) said real-world meaning irrelevant to the engineering problem of communication, so long as we ‘understand digits as only those things that count’. (p. 100).
… but in fact, argues Peters, analogue and digital not at loggerheads, they ‘coexist quite happily’ (p. 100), e.g. probabilities have indexical relations with a space of possible outcomes, that is to say, ‘all digital messages… are part of a possibility index’.
Manipulating the social: the discontents of digital power
Big data has big data brokers. Social network sites transform ‘our many different selves into one [composite] persona’. Digits ‘manipulate our many social worlds’ (103) and the power to do this is highly unevenly concentrated.
104. To understand digital age it is not enough to understand only numbers handled by digits, as ‘digital media can point to or index all possible worlds, not only our real one’.
104-105. Human hands were first digital medium ‘to don real-world units that apply with probabilistic, and never precise, degrees to all possible worlds around us’. Much work needed ‘to model more equitable and sustainable worlds’.
I spend ages reading and summarising Bourdieu’s mammoth On the State (2014 ) for a journal review – I was even congratulated by a stranger on a Melbourne tram for reading a book instead of a phone – and now I discover that the whole argument is summed up on the back cover. Will have to pay more attention to such things in future.
PS. A friend on Facebook asked me about the quality of the translation. Here’s what I had to say, in case you’re wondering:
The translator is someone called David Fernbach. I haven’t read the original (not that I’d be any good at judging the quality of the translation) but the English is excellent, doesn’t feel awkward. It’s an unusual Bourdieu (at least for me) in that it’s based on transcripts of his lectures, so it’s got that strong oral feel to it. It’s also been painstakingly edited and proofread. I’ve only spotted one typo so far in 381 pages. A labour of love by the [book] editors, Patrick Champagne et al, [and copy editor].
Wacquant, L. J. D. (2004). Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
Notes by Edgar Gómez
Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC)
RMIT University, Melbourne
See other posts under Digital ethnography reading group
Body and Soul, the wonderful ethnographic work of Loïc Wacquant about boxing was the chosen text for the May DERC reading group. Originally written in French, we all agreed that the book captures, in an almost perfect writing style, the spirit of the black boxers from the Woodlawn Boys Club. While writing an ethnography of boxing was not Wacquant’s original idea (he just wanted to exercise and know more about the black community in Chicago), he ended writing two books about it.
The group soon noted the beautiful craft of writing in Body and Soul. As one participant suggested, the book combines three different forms of writing almost to perfection: sociological style, ethnographic style and sociological novella. Body and Soul tells the story of an ethnographer becoming a boxer while using other boxer’s voices to rely on, to learn from. The process of Wacquant becoming a boxer himself is the key of the book since we, as readers, witness what we could call embodied reflexivity. He sweats, gets punched, feels fear and physical exhaustion. This “carnal sociology” is a great example of the process of learning a craft while capturing, theorizing and analyzing this same process. With detailed fieldnotes and compelling arguments that keep the reader interested at all times while unfolding a detailed ethnographic story, sociologically explained, Wacquant was not only able to engage with the community of boxers as one of them but to present box convincingly as an exciting, ritualistic and highly punctuated sport (very much in the sense of Goffman’s theatrical approach).
Wacquant ‘s way of taking notes (and presenting them in the book as almost literary vignettes), his immersion in the field, his respect and admiration for the gym’s members and the way he captured the slang were some of the elements that turned a sociological text into a beautifully crafted book.
In our next reading session (Wed 8 June, 12-13.30, B9-2-9) we will be looking at the extensive methods utilised for a ‘network ethnography’ as documented by by Muzammil M. Hussain in his doctoral research on internet freedom stakeholder gatherings in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Hussain, M. M. (2014). Securing Technologies of Freedom after the Arab Spring: Policy Entrepreneurship and Norms Consolidation Practices in Internet Freedom Promotion. (Doctoral Ph.D), University of Washington. Available from https://dlib.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/handle/1773/26059
Wacquant, L. J. D. (2004). Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. New York: Oxford University Press.
Review of The Manchester School: Practice and Ethnographic Praxis in Anthropology (Evens & Handelman 2006)
The Manchester School: Practice and Ethnographic Praxis in Anthropology. T.M.S. Evens & Don Handelman (eds). 2006. Oxford/New York: Berghahn. x + 334 pp.
Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology
Volume 72, Issue 4, 2007
This volume revisits the extended-case method, an ethnographic research strategy developed in the 1940s to 1960s by members of the so-called Manchester School of anthropology led by Max Gluckman. The book opens with an introductory section, followed by sections on the theorisation, history and practice of the extended-case method, and concluding with a coda by Bruce Kapferer. The introduction features reprints of classic texts by Gluckman (1961) and Mitchell (1983); the following section engages critically with the method’s enduring strengths and weaknesses, exploring new theoretical possibilities by way of Heidegger, Goffman, Deleuze and Guattari; the historical section traces the method’s mixed ancestry, including its hitherto little known Chicago connections; finally, the practical section assesses the method’s relevance to contemporary anthropological analysis.
The book accomplishes admirably its stated aim, namely ‘to highlight and critically examine the fundamental features of the extended-case method, in order to advance its substantial, continuing merits’. Its editors and chapter contributors demonstrate that the extended-case method is more than a ‘method’, it is a sophisticated mode of research and analysis arising from the long-standing political, institutional and epistemological concerns of Gluckman and his students. It is characterised by a painstaking ethnographic attention to socio-political processes as they unfold across varied contexts over time, with a focus on situations of conflict, or ‘trouble cases’ as Gluckman called them. Generalisation emerges from the data, not from a prior theoretical agenda. While Gluckman’s ‘The Bridge’ was the inspiration, the method’s masterpieces are Mitchell’s (1956) monograph The Yao Village, in which he followed witchcraft accusations in a single village over a period of six years, and Turner’s (1957) Ndembu study where he first developed the concept of social drama.
The innovation lay in bringing under a unified analysis a long series of events that were separated in time and micro-setting. This stood in stark contrast to the existing (and still common today) monographic practice of ‘apt illustration’, i.e., using unrelated ethnographic materials to support an overarching argument. Countering criticisms from Leach and others that the Manchester approach entailed the obsessive collection of masses of data for their own sake, the Mancunians defended – and still defend – the method for its openness to the messy actualities of social life and capacity to yield unexpected insights.
As Kapferer argues in the book’s coda, Gluckman and his associates were ahead of their time not only in theorising social process; their very ethnographic practice was reflexively attuned to the dialectical process of data description and analysis. Their use of situated analysis and extended cases helped to weaken static notions of bounded collectivity such as village, community or society and created a new anthropological lexicon aimed at capturing the flux and uncertainty of political life with notions such as social drama, social field, arena and action-set (see chapter by Kempny). The implications of this shift are, of course, still being worked out today (see Amit & Rapport 2002).
This book is a timely addition to the ongoing rethinking of practice theory after Bourdieu. As pointed out by the editors, American anthropology has long been besotted with aspects of Bourdieu’s theory of practice but has ignored the Manchester tradition. With its ethnographic grounding, attention to situated process, and stress on the latent potentialities of social interaction for the structuring of social life (cf. Giddens 1984), the renewal of this social anthropological tradition signalled by the present study has much to offer cultural anthropologists in the United States and elsewhere. Undergraduate and MA anthropology students will benefit from the book’s seamless integration of historiography, theory and methodology — three domains that are usually kept separate. For PhD students it should be required pre-fieldwork reading alongside one or two of the classic 1950s Manchester monographs where the method and its theoretical import are best developed (e.g., Mitchell 1956; Turner 1957; Epstein 1958). In addition, those interested in placing the book within its direct line of descent should read the edited volumes that followed the 1950s monographs (Swartz et al. 1966; Epstein 1967; Mitchell 1969) as well as Turner’s (1974) magisterial Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors.
Sheffield Hallam University, UK
Here is the eighth (8th) set of notes under the theme of media and change in preparation for the volume Postill, J., E. Ardevol and S. Tenhunen (eds.) forthcoming, Digital Media and Cultural Change. The notes are taken from a wealth of media anthropological research into this question that has remained to this date largely hidden from mainstream media, communication and internet studies. This research deserves, in my view, to be read more widely across this interdisciplinary area of scholarship.
Notes prepared by Fran Barone (my emphases)
Used with permission.
John Sorenson, Atsuko Matsukoka (2001) “Phantom wars and cyberwars: Abyssinian fundamentalism and catastrophe in Eritrea” Dialectical anthropology 26:1 pp 37-63.
Fieldwork conducted during the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1998-2000 (p. 37).
Eritrean nationalists began war against Ethiopia in 1961. Abyssinian fundamentalists in diaspora reject independence of Eritrea and opposing Eritrean independence became an obsession among those in exile. Ethiopian Review founded by diaspora intellectual community in Los Angeles (p. 40).
Abyssinian [Haile Selassie emphasized antiquity of Ethiopia’s pre-19thc name] cybernauts do not develop new discourses via the web, simply a “ghostly repetition of ‘traditional’ views, echoing long-entrenched opposition to Eritrean independence” and commitment to “resurrecting and reinforcing former relations of power” (p. 39).
Ethiopian Review promotes “fantasy of Abyssinian fundamentalism” and hatred of Eritreans (p. 41). Central theme of fundamentalist discourse is need to exact revenge against those who rejected Ethiopian identity (p. 42).
Long-distance nationalists living in exile from Ethiopia experiencing media images of war and famine either their sense of Ethiopian national identity with membership in ethnic-based groups, or take “refuge in the fantasy of ancient Ethiopia” and “dedicate themselves to the notion of re-establishing the greatness of this shadowy entity” (p. 44-45).
In 1994, Eritreans home and abroad voted for independence, despite Ethiopian opposition (p. 47). Even after Eritrean independence, Ethiopia’s “long-distance nationalists remained committed to the ghost of their dismembered homeland and saw themselves playing a central role in its resurrection” (p. 49).
Border dispute in 1998 between the two countries results in mass, violent deportations of Eritreans from Ethiopia. Long distance nationalists post messages of support on the web, dismissing the fact that many deportees were Ethiopian citizens that posed no threat (p. 50).
“A February 1999 AFP report from Nairobi characterized the conflict as a “phantom war” in which journalists were unable to verify contradictory press statements from Eritrean and Ethiopian offices” (p. 51), with fabricated stories posted to the internet by Ethiopian and Eritrean government propagandists. “Given these unverifiable events and phantom sources, the conflict seemed to acquire the ghostly dimensions that postmodernist Jean Baudrillard once claimed for the Gulf War: Baudrillard asserted the war ‘did not take place’ but only existed in the virtual reality created by mass media.”; yet “first-hand reports did indicate the ghastly extent of carnage in the Horn.” (p. 52)
“On the streets of Addis Ababa and in the diaspora, Ethiopians cheered this devastation as a great national victory. In ferociously-jingoistic postings, Ethiopian cybernauts made it clear that destruction of Eritrea in 2000 was pay-back for Eritrean victory in 1991 […] Ethiopians, including those in the diaspora, responded to these events with joy and demanded even more violence, as indicated by a flood of e-mail messages.” (p. 54)
In addition to Ethiopian and Eritrean government official and semi-official sites, opposition groups and individuals in diaspora operated their own discussions and archives: “Identity issues were central in discussions that flooded Ethiopian websites. Exiled Ethiopian cybernauts were jubilant at destruction in Eritrea and urged the Ethiopian government to recapture it and to inflict revenge”, considering death and slaughter as appropriate punishment (p. 55).
No counter-narrative was developed in diaspora, no postmodern boundary transgression online: “Ethiopians who viewed these developments from the diaspora experienced a renewal of their own fantasies of national identity. Neither the experience of life abroad nor the supposedly boundary-transgressing qualities of cybercommunication created any alternatives to Abyssinian fundamentalism among Ethiopian exiles” (p. 60).
Photo credit: Ivana Kidd
The Malian preacher Cherif Haidara. Photo credit: haraniani dembele
See below a seventh (7th) set of notes under the theme of media and change in preparation for the volume Postill, J., E. Ardevol and S. Tenhunen (eds.) forthcoming, Digital Media and Cultural Change. The notes are taken from a wealth of media anthropological research into this question that has remained to this date well hidden from mainstream media and communication studies. This research deserves, in my view, to be read more widely across this interdisciplinary area of scholarship.
Notes prepared by Fran Barone (my emphases)
Used with permission.
SCHULZ, DOROTHEA E. 2006. “Promises of (im)mediate salvation: Islam, broadcast media, and the remaking of religious experience in Mali” American Ethnologist, 33(2): 210–229.
Fieldwork: in the southern towns of San, Segu, and Bamako (Mali) between July 1998 and March 2004 (altogether 19 months) (p. 223).
Over the past 20 years, new religious leaders/charismatic preachers gaining prominence and a “pervasive presence of Islam in broadcast media” has seen “the mushrooming of local radio stations since the establishment of multiparty democracy in 1991” (p 210).
Using example of Malian preacher Cherif Haidara, “attention is devoted to the expanding culture of mass-mediated entertainment and to the ways consumer objects and new technologies for mediating religion define and reconfigure the terms on which Islam “goes public”, that is, comes to (pre)occupy public debate and imagination” (p. 212)
French colonialism and post-colonial period gave rise to religious specialists popularizing “the articulation of an Islamic normativity, formulated in response to the institutions and rationale of the colonial state (p. 213).
Political changes: “Underneath the apparent continuity of Traoré’s 23 years of military and (after 1979) single-party rule, changes occurred in the normative and institutional foundations of politics” with Islam emerging as a powerful moral idiom of “common good” (p. 213). “Other developments, in particular, the loss in credibility of Traoré’s regime under the effects of neoliberal economic reform after the mid-1980s, contributed importantly to the normative vacuum that heightened the appeal of Islam as a credible, alternative normative reference point for public order” (p. 213)
“At present, a range of Muslim actors enter into open competition with representatives of “traditional” Islam and draw on new means and media to do so. These Muslim “activists” lack traditional credentials of religious authority yet capitalize on their European or U.S. school background or their education in the Arab-speaking world to mobilize a large following” (p. 213-214). They seek to “carve out a separate normative space by defining their own role as that of moral watchdog removed from the interested stratagems of politicians” (p. 214).
Changing media landscape: “Whether the sermon audiotapes are broadcast on local radio or circulate among supporters of Islamic moral reform, they have the potential to challenge or subvert official representations of Islam because they circulate along channels that largely evade governmental control”, thereby creating a counter-public (p. 215).
Small media is not always enough, so preachers seek “access to, and the selective co-optation of, state institutions remains a crucial battleground of intra-Muslim controversy” (p. 215).
The “success of these media preachers seems to revolve around the intricate and very particular connection between their styles of reasoning and the technology of mediation they employ” (p. 216)
The partial privatization of the organization of the hajj, formerly controlled by the state, has led to many hajj travel agencies competing by marketing on radio, TV and cars. Preachers can be seen as similar entrepreneurs via cassette and audio recordings. The tapes are both religiously significant for their listeners and as established commodities exchanged for money (p. 217-218).
“Particular technologies of mediation, once embedded in structures of commercialization, do not simply serve to disseminate or broadcast a moral message to a wider constituency. Rather, they transform conventional forms of religious sociality, and […] allow for new kinds of religious engagement and spiritual experience” (p. 220)
Different types of media adjust level of publicness and type of audience. E.g. audio cassettes are “small media” whose circulation is not centrally controlled, so they reach a wider audience and are prized for their intimate nature and voice of the preacher (p. 220). Style and format of the radio programs and recordings is also shaped by popular commercial entertainment culture (p. 221).
That Haidara’s teachings are so popular among people of various backgrounds suggests “that, along with the popularization of religious debate, Islam has become an element of commercial, mass-mediated culture” (p. 221) as a consequence of economic and political liberalization over the past 30 years. Islam no longer plays the same role as a group or ethnic identity, but designates a personal, individual conviction to be professed publicly (p. 221).
Changing notions of religiosity need to be “understood by reference to recent changes in the relationship between state, media, and market” (p. 222): “these movements share some features that identify them as different versions of the same regime of religious practice. They all emerge in response to a combination of historical conditions, such as the challenges to established religious authorities since the colonial period, the weakening of alliances between state and religious establishment, and, very recently, political opening, combined with the liberalization of the media landscape and of the economy. These changes allow for a greater intermingling of religious experience, economic enterprise, and everyday consumption practices” (p. 223).
Throughout the Muslim world, “the increasing engagement with emblems and products of a commercial, mass-mediated Islam does not dilute believers’ religious conviction. […] These new forms coexist with and draw on established notions of religious practice, rather than replace them in any simple, unidirectional teleological development toward “more modern” attitudes” (p. 223).
See other media and change posts…