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Islam, devotional genres and electronic mediation in Mauritius

August 4, 2016

MauritiusHere comes the ninth (9th) 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.

Eisenlohr P. 2006. As Makkah is sweet and beloved, so is Madina: Islam, devotional genres and electronic mediation in Mauritius. Am. Ethnol. 33(2):230–45.

Fieldwork in Mauritius [Indian Ocean] in 1996, 1997–98, and 2003.

Some scholars have argued that a global “return to religion” intertwined with modern forms of mass communication is taking place in the contemporary world (p. 230)

Recent work on Islam and electronic media focuses on discourses, inclusion and exclusion of different categories of actors. Arguing against technicist tendency to highlight media over social agency and “thus, push societies toward a kind of social change that can be read off from the material and formal setup of media apparatuses (e.g., Kittler 1997; McLuhan 1964)”, author emphasizes that local assumptions/traditions inform process of mass mediation. Need to avoid both technicism and excessive celebration of individual agency/self-determination (p. 231)

Investigation of the circulation of audiocassette and audio-CD recordings of the Islamic devotional genre na‘t and its role in shaping performances in religious speech events known as “mahfil-e mawlūd”. (p. 231)

“The significance of electronically mediated na‘t emerges in the ways in which practices of electronic mediation become part of a preexisting genealogical logic of Islamic authority” (p. 232).

Competition between Ahl-e Sunnat tradition that sees prophet as a spiritual presence and Deobandis (purists) who see this as illegitimate innovation. Na’t devotional performance genre is a key point of contestation between followers of these two traditions (p. 233).

1980s brought audiocassettes, followed by CDs from India and Pakistan and performers in Mauritius produce own collections of na’t supported by Ahle-Sunnat imams. People listen to na’t recordings on the radio to prepare for mahfil-e mawlūd on special occasions and transcribe the text, then photocopy the handwritten notes to distribute to event attendees. Local performers create printed booklets to go with their cassettes and CDs. Audio is considered the actual model to emulate (p. 234).

Imams used to be the main source of na’t in Urdu before cassettes, but audiocassettes have brought “a new popularization of na‘t, making the poetic genre accessible to people who lack the necessary reading knowledge of Urdu”. Authority of accomplished na’t performer is important, becaut na’t is a delicate genre that must be done properly: “The audiocassette recordings reassure many Mauritian Muslims that reciting and appreciating na‘t is not a matter of ignorance about proper Islamic conduct in the diaspora or an unwarranted perpetuation of the ways of ancestors who may not have been very knowledgeable about scriptural Islamic traditions when they arrived as indentured laborers in Mauritius” (p. 235).

Cultural influence: Contrasting proper and correct na’t performance with Bollywood film songs which have ubiquitous influence in Mauritius (p. 236).

Media choices have local meaning: Cassette tapes enthusiastically adopted because spiritual benefit of na’t performer increases with the number of times it is recited and listened to (p. 236). “Here, Mauritian Muslims reshape technology according to a genealogical form of Islamic authority centered on a “safeguarding” of textual and performative transmission through long successions of reliable interlocutors.” (p. 241)

Media change and culture: “Whereas the mass circulation and reproduction of art has been associated with a loss of aura and authenticity in some modern European aesthetic traditions (e.g. Benjamin 1968), here, in the case of electronic voice mediation of na‘t as a genre of devotional verbal art, an opposite dynamic seems to be at issue.” (p. 241). Introduction of new technology does not necessary create “new” fields of cultural and political debate; instead, “audiocassette and audio-CD na‘t in Mauritius demonstrate how new practices of mediation become part of old debates” (p. 242).

Image credit: Maa Ke Shan Muhammad Umair Zubair Qadri Mahfil e Naat In Mauritius (daily motion)



Notes on the 12th digital ethnography reading (Lane 2016)

July 30, 2016

harlem.jpgLane, J. (2016). The Digital Street: An Ethnographic Study of Networked Street Life in Harlem. American Behavioral Scientist, 60(1), 43-58.
doi: 10.1177/0002764215601711

Notes by Jolynna Sinanan
Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC)
RMIT University, Melbourne

See other posts under Digital ethnography reading group

In this month’s reading group, we interrogated the idea of the digital street as posed in ‘The Digital Street: An Ethnographic Study of Networked Street Life in Harlem’ by Jeffrey Lane (2016). The article argues that the contemporary street life of Harlem teenagers is characterised by the integration of online and offline communication, and is difficult to comprehend without participating in both contexts.

We noted that contemporary street ethnography can’t simply be conducted face-to-face; we also need to consider multiple forms of social interactions, ‘online’ and examining social media networks and discussing more private communication such as within the home as well phone calls and private chat over platforms such as Messenger. If Facebook is a visual representation of extended networks, does it necessarily translate to meaningful engagement between those in the actual networks? By considering these different forms of communication, we can then better understand how public and private spaces are formed and the norms of conduct in these spaces.

We also discussed the power dimensions of contemporary street ethnography by questioning the role of the pastor, or ‘gatekeeper’ in accessing research participants and the implications of street life as monitored by police officers described towards the end of the article.

The most significant aspect of the article for the reading group was how ethnography and ethnographic writing of ‘the street’ was developed as the idea of the ‘digital street’. For example, in Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson’s edited volume Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, Paul Corrigan’s chapter ‘Doing Nothing’ is an ethnography of street corner culture, which presents data as reporting conversations, describing context as gesture, language and movement as part of the street’s social ecology. We question to what extent, do we lose some of these contextual elements when discussing chats. We pose that other digital ‘gestures’ may be at play.

Lane also employs boyd’s theorisation of ‘networked publics’ to “explore both the net- working of space and the spatiality of the network” (2016, p50) but perhaps not enough is made of the networked elements to bridge the gap between the data presented and the analysis.

We concluded on the subject of how the street may be conceptualized as an ethnographic place in relation to digital technologies and social media. How can we think about how people perform or navigate sociality on the street to effectively analyse how Facebook and private messages compliment or extend these dynamics and interactions? To appreciate the potential social media has to transform the street, we discussed if the street and social media should treated as separate components, to better understand the relationship between the two.

In our next reading session (Wed Aug 10, 2016 12:30pm – 2pm, B9-4-31) we will be looking at the introductory chapter of Yuri Takhteyev’s book “Coding Places: software practice in a South American city”. Available from


boyd, d. (2010). Social network sites as networked publics: Affordances, dynamics, and implications. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A networked self (pp. 39-58). New York, NY: Routledge.

Hall, S. and T. Jefferson (eds), 1993. Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain. London and New York: Routledge

Lane, J. (2016). The Digital Street: An Ethnographic Study of Networked Street Life in Harlem. American Behavioral Scientist, 60(1), 43-58. doi: 10.1177/0002764215601711

Takhteyev, Y. (2012). Coding Places: Software practice in a South American city. MIT Press.

A planet afflicted by a high fever

July 22, 2016

Essential reading on our current global predicament by the anthropologist Thomas H. Eriksen.

The Pluto Press Blog - Independent, radical publishing

The world is ‘overheated’. Too full and too fast; uneven and unequal. It is the age of the Anthropocene, of humanity’s indelible mark upon the planet. In short, it is globalisation – but not as we know it. Leading anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen is the author of a new book Overheating:An Anthropology of Accelerated Change, which is linked with an international anthropological project, centered at the University of Oslo. In this post, he introduces the themes of the book, and the importance of the project.

‘What do the fateful Brexit referendum, the epidemic spread of Nintendo’s ‘Pokémon Go’ game, theOverheating escalating death of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the fivefold growth in tourism since 1980 have in common? The short answer is that they all express symptoms or outcomes of global accelerated change, or ‘overheating’, as I call it in my new book.

It is as if modernity has…

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Benjamin Peters’ (2016) superb essay on the keyword ‘digital’

July 20, 2016

Update 15 Nov 2016. I’ve just realised Tom Boellstorff has also developed a Peircean, indexical theory of the digital, see Boellstorff, T. (2012). Rethinking digital anthropology. In H. Horst and D. Miller (eds) Digital anthropology, 39-60. It may be worth comparing the two.

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’.

Review of Bourdieu’s (2014) On the State

July 6, 2016

Review of Bourdieu, P. (2014). On the State: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1989-1992. P. Champagne, R. Lenoir, F. Poupeau, & M. C. Rivière (Eds.). London: Polity.

John Postill
RMIT Melbourne
17 June 2016

This is a draft. Final version will appear on Allegra Lab

As stated on its back cover, in this book the influential French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) investigates the state’s ‘extraordinary power of producing a socially ordered world without necessarily giving orders, without exerting a constant coercion’. After all, ‘there isn’t a policeman behind every car’. This ‘quasi-magical effect’ of the state, he adds, demands an explanation. In other words, how did the state’s power come about? To answer this question, Bourdieu embarked on a three-year course of lectures (1989-1992) at the Collège de France, now carefully edited by Patrick Champagne and colleagues, along with a brief but helpful editors’ note, two appendices, two bibliographies, and 28 pages of endnotes. Translated by David Fernbach, the English is fluent, with none of the awkwardness so often found in French translations, perhaps owing in part to the oral nature of the original text.

As the editors rightly point out, the importance of this work lies in its gathering in one place of Bourdieu’s extensive, but little known, investigations into the genesis of the state in the wake of his State Nobility (1989). They note that Bourdieu only started using the term ‘state’ in the early 1980s. Having previously worked on the genesis of a number of other fields (photography, art, sociology, etc.), he eventually turned to the systematic study of the state as part of a general theory of social space late in his career.

The book is divided into three sections, each corresponding to an academic year. Year 1 explores how the concentration of bureaucratic resources led to the formation of states. The year starts with a modified definition of Weber’s famous state formula. For Bourdieu, states possess the monopoly not only of legitimate physical violence but also of symbolic violence (to do with prestige, renown, recognition). He then steers clear of two ahistorical approaches to the state: the ‘optimistic functionalism’ of the state as a neutral site for the pursuit of the public good (Hobbes, Locke), and the ‘pessimistic functionalism’ in which the state is a coercive instrument of oppression (Marx). He is now in a position to retrace the invention of public interest – an ‘obligation of disinterestedness’ – and how it was made into official law in opposition to private or particular interests (pp. 48-54).

In Year 2 the opening gambit is a distinction between economicist (e.g. Elias, Tilly) and non-economicist (Sayer and Corrigan) models of state genesis. Bourdieu takes the latter, culturalist path, arguing that over a long period of time ‘state actions’ created a nomos, i.e. ‘common principles of vision and division’ (Durkheim) that shaped the social world through key institutions such as the school, the army, and the official arts. This move takes him to England and Japan, two island nations that demonstrate that cultural archaism and economic transformation can go hand in hand. In both countries, an official, quasi-religious culture (e.g. kabuki theatre) became codified and canonised as ‘authentic’ during periods of rapid industrialisation.

In the third and final year, Bourdieu reconstructs the transition from a logic of dynastic states centred on the royal house to the eventual triumph of a very different logic, that of raison d’etat – a transformation from personal (kin-based) to impersonal (bureaucratic) reproduction. This was a protracted, messy process in which jurists and clerks were crucial to the invention of a res publica and a powerful new space: the bureaucratic field. Contrary to ‘a certain materialist tradition’, he concludes that the state became a ‘central bank of symbolic capital’, with bureaucracy being a meta-field in which social agents struggle over the relative power of other fields across the social space. Today the state is a ‘well-founded illusion’ or ‘theological entity’ whose effects are all too real (pp. 9-13), constituting ‘the form of collective belief that structures the whole of social life in highly differentiated societies’ (p. 381).

Three key features of On the State merit particular attention: Bourdieu’s ‘genetic sociology’ method; his central argument about the state as a social reality founded in collective belief; and the unclear role of nations and nationalism in his theory. First, Bourdieu rejects what he sees as the artificial boundaries separating history, sociology and anthropology, and regards ‘genetic thinking’ as the best weapon to combat ‘the amnesia of genesis’ that afflicts most social theorists (pp. 366-370). He cogently takes issue with functionalist theories of the state that neglect to inquire into the conditions that made current state functions possible in the first place. Additionally, he advises historians to take seriously the epistemology of their own craft. Although historical transitions are non-teleological ‘one-way street[s]’ (pp. 39-43), the trajectory of states resembles a funnel in that the ‘space of possibilities’ narrows as time goes by (pp. 116-119). Given that the chasm between historians and social theorists is as wide today as it was at the time of Bourdieu’s writing, there are still valuable lessons here for students and scholars wishing to bridge it.

The book’s collective belief thesis has much to recommend it, too, but it does not give enough credit to people’s critical faculties. Bourdieu suggests that many of the things that today we take for granted, e.g. school timetables, spelling conventions, road signs, etc. are the outcome of state-related struggles between dominant and dominated social agents that were long forgotten (pp. 171-175). However, while this may well be the case with school schedules and traffic signs, I am not persuaded that it applies to the way people think and talk about the state itself – or indeed about its numerous representatives. Research and personal experience tells us that around the world, faith in the state ranges from devout believers at one end of the spectrum to state ‘atheists’ of many stripes (including libertarians and anarchists) through state ‘agnostics’ and other doubters. In fact, Bourdieu shows that wealth redistribution paradoxically helped emerging states to accumulate symbolic capital. Yet this came at a cost, for the state intermediaries in charge of this process found themselves in a position of ‘structural hypocrisy’, i.e. of being able to derive personal gain through their double agency as both state representatives and self-interested individuals (pp. 281-289). All political cultures around the world harbour both folk and intellectual critiques of this inherent corruption of the state system, but these are missing from Bourdieu’s doxic (i.e. invisible to most agents) model of state power.

Arguably the weakest part of the book is Bourdieu’s handling of the question of nations and nationalism in relation to the formation of states. While students of nationalism will find food for thought in many of the lectures, they will be disappointed by his scant attention to the literature on ethnicity and nationalism beyond a nod to Anderson’s Imagined Communities (p. 347) or his commonplace contrast between France’s jus loci and Germany’s jus sanguinis paths to nation-statehood (pp. 350-352). On the other hand, this weakness presents nationalism scholars with an opportunity to design alternative genetic models of the nation-state, particularly in view of the prominence given in Bourdieu’s analysis to old ‘nations’ such as France, England and Japan; precisely the countries that greatly interest non-modernist theorists of the nation such as Anthony D. Smith.

The scale, format, and sheer ambition of On the State make it a challenging book to read, and indeed to review. These are no ordinary, pre-packaged lectures; they form a wide-ranging, meandering, at times disorientating, investigation into the genesis of the state. To move the discussion forward Bourdieu draws liberally from his previous work in Kabylia (Algeria), among Béarn peasants in France, and on housing policy also in France, as well as from a vast set of historical and sociological sources. More than merely thinking aloud, Bourdieu turned his lecture series into a long-term research experiment conducted live before a mixed audience – ranging from sociologists well versed in his work to complete novices –, occasionally pausing to reflect on the scientific and pedagogical difficulties that such an endeavour entails. Whilst admirers of Bourdieu will be fascinated to track his thoughts on a complex issue as they evolved over three years, students and scholars new to this author would be wise to study his more accessible texts before attempting the present work.

On book reviews and back covers

June 5, 2016

I spend ages reading and summarising Bourdieu’s mammoth On the State (2014 [2012]) 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].


Notes on the 10th digital ethnography reading (Wacquant 2004)

June 3, 2016,204,203,200_.jpgWacquant, 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

Wacquant, L. J. D. (2004). Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. New York: Oxford University Press.