Fields of Relevance: An Interview with Perry Sherouse

The August 2018 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Where the Sidewalk Ends: Automobility and Shame in Tbilisi, Georgia,” by Perry Maxfield Waldman Sherouse, who is an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellow. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Alexandra Vieux Frankel conducted with Sherouse about the roles that different visual media played in his research. The perspectives and opinions expressed in the following interview do not reflect the views of AAAS, the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, or the U.S. Government. 

Alexandra Vieux Frankel (AVF): This article is rich with visual media, from posters to photographs to stills of YouTube videos. The placement of these images alongside your analysis of how they fit into campaigns of shaming drivers and defining sidewalks is especially evocative. Here, the images act as both a source of data and a form of communication of ethnographic knowledge. Could you discuss the multiple roles that visual media play in your research?

Perry Sherouse (PS): Some of the videos, emblems, and images in this article were created by activists and intended for broad circulation. Since visual media plays an important role in their digital and face-to-face activism it made sense to include their materials. By placing such images next to Soviet-era posters, the familiar cartography of Google Maps, and my own snapshots of urban space, my goal was to expose readers to a proliferation of resonant visual forms, rather than to offer a resolution of some kind. Among other things, anthropology is a discipline that brings together all the overlooked, peculiar, banal, or otherwise challenging odds and ends of culture and makes something of them. Scholarly articles of this kind require an explicit argument. By assembling a series of cultural moments or debates, I tried to make an implicit argument, too—or something less formal, like a sensation. As an example, I wrote the winding first paragraph with ponderous detail about the sidewalk in order to generate a sense of mild disorientation in the reader, to create a reading experience that would approximate being led clumsily through a set of obstacles. I approached the writing like making a collage, where bits start to communicate with one another once they are side by side (see Pesmen, forthcoming). I prefer projects in which there is room for serendipity, in which the researcher comes face to face with what matters most to people and then the task is to see how that echoes through other things, over time. I wrote about sidewalks because the dismal frictions on them formed a major object of concern in everyday life in Tbilisi. And that concern, like any dimension of social life, is never isolated. I’ve tried to evoke the ways that it rhymes with other linguistic, visual, and psychological processes. 

AVF: I found the inclusion of Soviet-era posters alongside images that the Georgian Young Greens and Stopkham groups created to shame drivers especially interesting. Could you elaborate on the historical continuities and discontinuities that the Young Greens’ use of this kind of visual discourse engenders, especially vis-à-vis the legacy of state socialism?

PS: State socialism made available a familiar set of discursive forms, interpretations, and counterinterpretations. Repeating, ironizing, obliterating, or ignoring either form or content from these fields can serve a wide range of purposes. As Serguei Oushakine (2018) points out in writing about aesthetic forms that offer “presence without identification,” the purposes to which readily available symbolic repertoires are put exceed a singular ideological account (see also Oushakine 2007). In the case of the Georgian Young Greens and Stopkham, I wanted to evoke the connections to both a range of discursive forms familiar from state socialism and a palette of international activist tactics and slogans, since their work conjures up all of these associations for local viewers. In other words, I was attempting to establish something of the local field of relevance, without providing a singular reading of meanings of these visual discourses. For any particular phenomenon, one could ask: what dimensions of the cultural field matter in establishing the parameters within which different social actors connect signs to their potential meanings? To answer your question about what a visual discourse engenders and for whom, it is necessary to register the social contingencies that connect form and meaning. Members of the Young Greens may not be familiar with the Soviet-era posters in the article, but they are certainly familiar with the genre conventions that structure those posters and with the many residues of socialism. Earlier elements, and their connections to ideologically charged axes of value, form the backdrop for all future engagements. I wanted to capture something of the repertoire of the familiar. What matters are the analogies they make possible. Paying attention to analogy is incredibly important for sensing the hidden structure of experience. 

AVF: In Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt, Lila Abu-Lughod (2004) stresses the role that mass media such as television play in the production of national imaginaries. How do you see activists’ production and circulation of YouTube videos in relation to the production of national imaginaries in Georgia? How might the transnational dimension of social media platforms (see Gill 2017) complicate or inform aspirations to climb up in global hierarchies of value? 

PS: If there were just one way that media related to the production of national imaginaries, there would not be much to say. The idea that scrutinizing media platforms might tell us something not only about the reach of ideas, but also about their very content, remains enticing. This line of thought appears in Marshall McLuhan’s (1964, 7) famous dictum “the medium is the message,” Benedict Anderson’s (1983) argument about the connection between print media and the rise of nationalism in Imagined Communities, and the recent proliferation of research on infrastructures of all kinds. I think we have moved past an era in the anthropology of media in which generalizations about its mystical power are helpful. Ethnographic particularity is required to understand the uneven ways that media collides with politics and identity. And this necessarily requires that scholars pay attention to the ways that linguistic practices both reflect and change social reality. Aspirations to climb up social hierarchies of value are not always clear about how levels of value actually map onto persons, places, and things. This very murkiness, however, can be informative about what equivalences or omissions might be significant.

I understand your question as asking how media platforms, which are not inherently constrained by nation-states, contribute to group feeling and the shape of ideological possibility. In my view, nationalism always includes a contrastive or relational dimension; it is always already transnational. With respect to the term national imaginaries, it is now customary in anthropological arguments to treat concepts (like nation) as multiple, constructed, contested, historically contingent, relational, and so forth, as a way of pointing out that what seems firm and fixed is in fact a cultural achievement. And every cultural achievement could be otherwise. This familiar line of argumentation, however, does not tell us much about the uses to which different concepts might be put in particular scenes of life—such as how nation comes to matter in social interactions. In other words, specifying the role that media plays in stabilizing forms or feelings of national belonging can only be accomplished in the context of particular cases. In the case of YouTube videos produced by activists in Georgia, their language selection (Georgian) indicates the primary audience (Georgians), even as their aesthetic choices and repertoire of references include a broader engagement with, or at least an awareness of, activist approaches beyond Georgia. By contrast, the materials I discussed from Stopkham in Russia were created on dual YouTube channels: one in Russian only, and one in Russian with English subtitles. This speaks to the audience design of their viral content; it is likely that the English-subtitled videos are reaching a broad international audience, but without accessing their YouTube analytics, we can’t know for sure. 

AVF: In preparing these interview questions, I was told by managing editor Marcel LaFlamme that one of the YouTube videos discussed in your article has since been removed. Could you reflect on the social lives of these YouTube videos, the circumstances surrounding any removals, and how regulation of such platforms has informed both your approach to research and activists’ approaches to mediatized protest? In your research, how do you think about the ephemerality of social media in relation to other ephemera of ethnographic fieldwork?

PS: My first reaction to your question is that social media may provide the illusion of ephemerality, but in fact is more enduring (or retrievable) than other forms of interaction that anthropologists historically have used as fieldwork materials. But it is also true that media can be removed, either by the platform for violating terms of agreement or community standards, or by the producers or uploaders for a host of reasons. It can also be edited, faked, reuploaded, or pirated. I’m not sure why the YouTube video you are inquiring about was removed, but now my article has given it a second life as an ethnographic example. More generally, expectations for the lifespan of content on a communicative channel shape what, where, and how users produce and consume media. Some social media applications, such as Snapchat, use the ephemerality of communication as a selling point, whereas others appear to be immutable archives. It is also possible for users to strategically use ephemerality to produce social effects, such as deleting a video in order to attract attention to it. Anthropologists, who spend most of their time treading the waters of social context, must factor in the personal, cultural, and platform-wide conventions for media engagement when selecting materials to analyze.

Recording and fixing ephemera through textual, visual, or auditory means is part of the anthropological project, whether the researcher defines his or her mediating role as one of preservation, critique, amplification, transformation, or something else entirely. I think that it is possible to recognize the ephemerality of all things, including academic work, without turning temporariness, becoming, or unfinishedness into theoretical ideals. As an aside, it seems to me that anthropology, like the business world, has come to treat emergence, becoming, and creativity as possessing positive moral quality, as if these processes are somehow inherently good. But then, in anthropology, escape from the strictures of structure has always been cast as a virtuous pursuit. 

The prospect of social media regulation is a thorny social and policy issue connected with rising concerns about cybersecurity and privacy. During Mark Zuckerberg’s April 2018 congressional hearing following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, he apologized for not taking a “broad enough view of our [Facebook’s] responsibility,” and indicated that Facebook would take a “more active view in policing the [Facebook] ecosystem.” In the social media industry, as new measures arise to monitor and respond to challenges, such as hate speech, fake news, or data breaches, user behaviors will inevitably change, too. Capturing the strategic dimension of social actors’ engagement requires an ethnographic approach that goes beyond the screen. This is one reason why research by scholars like Narges Bajoghli and Vanessa Diaz is so interesting: they take us to the backstages on which consequential decisions about media production are made. 

AVF: Finally, I was struck by the use of tropes of masculinity to shame drivers. You mention that the Young Greens, in particular, link masculine insecurity to “social and environmental disregard.” I am curious about how the politics of gender inform mobilizations of shame. Can you say more about the gendered tropes that appear in these campaigns? 

PS: The organization  iare pekhit made a video in which a thin woman in a summer dress and bright pink high heels exits a Tbilisi apartment, puts on a protective helmet, and walks through hazardous sidewalk conditions: over rubble, uneven pavement, and around a construction site. Arriving at an underpass, she removes the helmet and puts on a gas mask. The video concludes with a screen that states: “A safe walk is my right!” 

Considering this campaign alongside the Young Greens’ “large jeep = small penis” campaign, which stigmatized disrespectful SUV drivers, one could come up with a contrast in gendered tropes of mobility: toxic male drivers vs. feminized pedestrians. Such a simplistic binary is inadequate as an analysis of the way that these organizations might theorize their own gender politics, but because campaigns are designed to capture attention, it is likely that some ready-made cultural stereotypes appear. It is true, for example, that more men drive in Georgia than women: in 2014, the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported statistics on the issuance of driving licenses and ownership of registered vehicles: men hold 71 and 87 percent, respectively. Beyond the typification of the toxic male driver, the “large jeep = small penis” campaign also expresses the gendered dimension of technology (see Oldenziel 1999): the large vehicle is itself a “male” machine. Not all shame campaigns in Georgia or elsewhere rely on gendered language or ideals, but many implicitly do; after all, gender is a pervasive cultural system through which power relations are understood. Shame is a powerful affect predicated on existing social bonds, responsibilities, and ideals, and so its use in programs of social change is not surprising.

References

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 2004. Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.

Gill, Harjant S. 2017. “Censorship and Ethnographic Film: Confronting State Bureaucracies, Cultural Regulation, and Institutionalized Homophobia in India.” Visual Anthropology Review 33, no. 1: 62–73.

McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Oldenziel, Ruth. 1999. Making Technology Masculine: Men, Women, and Modern Machines in America, 1870–1945. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Oushakine, Serguei Alex. 2007. “‘We’re nostalgic but we’re not crazy’: Retrofitting the Past in Russia.” Russian Review 66, no. 3: 451–82.

_____. 2018. “Presence without Identification: Vicarious Photography and Postcolonial Figuration in Belarus.” October, no. 164: 61–100.

Pesmen, Dale. Forthcoming. “Tactics for Working Anyway.” In Tropology: The Figuration of Social Thought and Action, edited by Marko Živković and Jamin Pelkey. New York: Berghahn.