Continuing my series of interviews with interesting people I know, this week I spoke with Ben Brucato, a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. You can read more by and about Ben at his website, www.benbrucato.com.
Tell us about yourself and what you do.
I’m a husband and father. I live in upstate New York because it’s where my doctoral program is located. I look forward to moving on. I’m currently a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Science and Technology Studies department. I have taught periodically as an online instructor in the Sociology department at Northern Arizona University, where I earned my MA. I’m about to start teaching as an adjunct at Union College in Political Science. I came to RPI to study with my advisor, Langdon Winner. I’ve been a musician since I was about 10 years old, and have played in all sorts of bands. I’ve been making noise as Clew Of Theseus (and other projects) since 1997 or so. I’m in a black metal band that’s trying to get off the ground. I started a label in around 2001 or so, called Cathartic Process, which releases noise and power electronics. Lately, it’s been a cassette-only label. It’s been very slow going the last couple years, though.
Every academic has a history. What brought you to this arena?
College was the expected thing to do after graduating high school. I intended to go to graduate school right away. Through my activist work, I met and became good friends with Joel Olson. He was just finishing his PhD and trying to find a job. Seeing that process put me off of my intentions to be a professor. I came back to graduate school after a nearly decade-long advertising and marking career. It was soul crushing and I hated everything about it except the paycheck. After the last place I worked was essentially liquidated and my unemployment ran out, I started considering other options. Spending a couple years being broke again changed my expectations. I knew I could go back to school and have a reliable but small income from stipends. It was a way to get by for a few years more than a stepping stone in a career trajectory. It would be nice if it ends up being the latter.
You have a black metal/noise history. What’s that about and does it inform your present work? Do you find extreme music to be helpful to your academic work?
I’ve been a noise artist for a while now. That was always more important to me than my professional life. Now that I’m finding more satisfying theoretical and topical issues to explore in my work, my studies and writing is more personally rewarding. But I don’t think these really inform my work that much. The themes in black metal and noise have me more attuned to the extreme, the pessimistic, and so on. I’m sure there’s something deep inside me that draws me to both fanatical politics and extreme metal, to cosmic pessimism and the bleakest industrial noise. I’d like to offer some more profound explanation, but any real connection is at an affective level that resists verbalization.
It might just be me, but I’m thinking that reports of police brutality are becoming more prominent in public discourse. First, is there evidence to suggest police brutality on the rise? Second, what do you make of the fact that, despite increased public awareness of police brutality and abuse of power, that no pubic representative (to my knowledge) has commented on the problem? Third, I feel that issues of police brutality were softened in the 90′s by TVs shows such as COPS, which forced viewers to watch through the perspective of officers, but that public opinion seems less empathetic to police in the YouTube era. Producers necessarily had to defer to the police to make the show. It’s my opinion that it very much matters who holds the camera. Do you find that the new trend of citizen produced (or edited video) is changing attitudes to police brutality? Or has nothing changed at all?
What counts as police brutality? What would it mean for police brutality to be “on the rise”? I don’t think there are clear answers, and that the terms discussing these have to be tentative, provisional operationalizations. They have to be tied to a context and to texts, to discourses and the places where they emerge. My research is mostly tied to the visibility of policing and its violence. Some researchers have addressed the idea that because police use-of-force is now more visible, the perception is that standard, ongoing police activity – including use-of-force – is becoming more prevalent, more invasive, more violent, and so on. The research on incidence and outcomes of use-of-force by police is incomplete, and there are few longitudinal studies. Without quality, national-level, longitudinal research, most assertions about these things are speculative. I am, however, comfortable claiming that use-of-force incidence remains stable, and I think there is some reasonably reliable empirical basis to support this claim. The bulk of my research is motivated by trying to understand, on the one hand, why the Rodney King beating prompted a national conversation and nearly led to a crisis for the policing institution as a whole. Yet, on the other hand, we are now presented with a new documentary video of a police beating or shooting about every week and without the same national conversation and crisis of legitimacy. What explains this? As I’m finding, there are many reasons for this that work together to explain it. I’d say the most common reaction I hear is that people are becoming “desensitized.” I think that has very little explanatory value. I’m sure it contributes, but that’s not an explanation I spend much time exploring. I think you’re on to something with the reference to COPS, which predates the Rodney King beating. I think we have a “toolbox” of codes and symbols we use to interpret these visualizations and representations of police violence. Reality shows like COPS, and all sorts of other cultural artifacts help people decode these images. Most of our toolboxes are full of lots of white supremacist and classist codes that are used in interpreting these videos. So, the purported objectivity of video – which the intentional and politicized monitoring of police in some ways relies upon – is suspended in doubt, here. The idea that video and cameras will change policing in some ways relies on the idea that these images will be received without any need for interpretation, that “what really happened” will be laid bare, and any reasonable viewer will be offended by the common violence the police rely upon.
I am interested to see the shift in public attitudes toward surveillance that has been occurring throughout the past decade. In the 00′s, there seemed to be a general acceptance that government would use any means necessary to weed out terrorists (for example). Now, it seems that the public is much more concerned about the issue. Do you think this shift can be sustained?
I think the issue is barely cut and dry. I think there is a lot of cognitive dissonance that occurs here. The less fascist people even have trouble squaring their demand for security – presumably which can only be supplied by the state, and violently so – with their desire for civility and democracy. Then, of course, you have the bold-faced authoritarians who love when cops beat Black bodies, and wish they would more frequently. More recently, vigilante activity seems to be on an upswing, as white supremacists – as they have been wont to do in the past centuries – have joined with state forces in doing this policing, i.e. George Zimmerman. But then there’s the inherent conflict in a class-divided society the police are first and foremost designed to maintain, protect, and administrate. I don’t think more people are aware and concerned as a result of consciousness-raising, more visibility, and so on, but rather as a result of more historically privileged people falling into the working class after the financial collapse. White folks are more frequently on the receiving end of invasive policing, surveillance, and so on. Some of them are quite happy to see the force of a racist regime demonstrated. Some white folks are offended that they occasionally are made subject to it, e.g. at TSA screenings in airports, roadside checks and searches, etc. Suddenly they speak up when the policing that people of color and sexual minorities have been subjected to is inflicted on them. But there are a handful of these folks who have either some class consciousness or moralistic defense of egalitarianism that inspires their feelings of offense as these situations are more widely spread and visible.
I see that you post frequently on issues of public surveillance, but not so much about issues of private surveillance. I personally think that the private sector often gets a free pass on issues of privacy intrusion, despite that the private sector might present as great a threat. Do you think that private sector surveillance has implications for the populace?
I’m generally not that interested in the theme of privacy. So we’re already past an area of discussion that I have much to say about. As for the distinctions between government surveillance and private surveillance, and how the latter contributes to invasions into our lives and affairs, and even the structuring of our navigation and negotiation of everyday life, I’m rather interested, intellectually, and concerned and committed politically. I think any blind spot here is simply a result of the fine-tuning of my own research that more obsessively focuses my attention to state violence and state surveillance. But both policing and surveillance are phenomenon that exist beyond the state, and particularly more so during the processes of neoliberalization. Private prisons, private police, and the like are just the tip of the iceberg.
What projects are you working on now, what should we look for, and where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I’m not so sure higher education will be very recognizable in 10 years. I’d like to say I see myself as a tenured professor, teaching a small load of courses of my own design while conducting smaller but long-term (and funded) research projects. But I think that’s not a very realistic projection even for those who are lucky, well-connected, and have a history of careful planning for such a trajectory. But if I entertain that fantasy a little, you could expect something like this: First would be a book on critical technology studies that takes the work of people like Mumford and Ellul as they were responded to and developed by Langdon Winner, David Noble, Richard Sclove, and others. It would characterize and develop their work, showing its relevance to understanding technology today. There would also be a book on surveillance and policing, focusing especially on the political fantasies and imaginations about transparency. The latter would obviously be based on my dissertation work. Ideally, I’ll be teaching in northern Europe, struggling to learn the local language, and be well along the way toward building a sustainable eco-village.
What’s up with the beard? I’m thinking that it’s a symbiotic living entity.
It’s a habit more than a symbol. Although, the statements it does make (except “I’m a hippy”) are generally ones in which I find more positive than negative.
It’s a reasonable question to which no one really has an answer. I work in a field site located on Lake Victoria, the office of which is based out of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) station on Mbita Point.
We do malaria field surveys and have a large health and demographic surveillance system that has monitored births, deaths, migration and health events of nearly 50,000 people over the past six years.
The goals of the project are to monitor changes in demographics, outbreaks and changes in the dynamics of the transmission of infectious diseases and gauge the effectiveness of interventions.
While I view those as scientifically important, I don’t think that people on the ground experience any immediate benefit from scientific research activities. In fact, I’m pretty sure that, unless they’re getting a free bednet, it’s mostly an annoyance. Of course, we appreciate their cooperation and they are free to tell us to bugger off at anytime.
We are seeing rapid declines in malaria incidence, infant mortality and fertility in the communities we study. This is, of course, cause for celebration. Less kids are dying and people are having fewer of them.
In fact, the shift in the age distribution was so dramatic from 2011 to 2012, that we thought it an aberration of the data: the mean age of 12,000 people rose nearly two years from the beginning of 2011 to the latter part of 2012. Old people died off, and fewer babies were there to replace them, resulting in an upward shift in the age distribution. Cause for celebration in an area where women normally have anywhere from 5 to 10 children, who often end up malnourished, poorly housed and uneducated.
But we have to ask ourselves, how much of this is representative of trends in communities similar to the ones we study and how much is directly influenced by the presence of the research station itself?
A recent article in Malaria Journal documents the positive impacts that a research facility had on the local community:
To make the community a real partner in the centre’s activities, a tacit agreement was made that priority would be given to local people, in a competitive manner, for all non-professional jobs (construction workers, drivers, cleaners, field workers, data clerks, and others). Of the 254 people employed at the CRUN, about one-third come from Nanoro. This has strengthened the sense of ownership of the centre’s activities by the community. Through the modest creation of new jobs, CRUN makes a substantial contribution to reducing poverty in the community. In addition, staff members residing in Nanoro contribute to the micro-economy there.
Another crucial benefit for Nanoro and CRUN stemming from their productive engagement was electrification for the area. This was made possible by the mayor of Nanoro leading the negotiations for extending the national electrical grid to the CRUN, and with it, to the village of Nanoro. Electrification spurred a lot of economic activity and social amenities that enhance the wellbeing of the community, such as: (1) improved water supply through use electricity instead of generator; (2) ability to use electrical devices, such as fans during the hot season (when temperatures can reach 45-47°C), lighting so students can study at night, the use of refrigeration to safely store food and the extension of business hours past sunset.
Health care services have been improved through CRUN’s new microbiology laboratory. Before this laboratory was established, local patients had to travel about 100 km to the capital city, Ouagadougou, for the service.
This agrees with my experience on Lake Victoria. The presence of the research facility (built originally in the 1960′s) and the subsequent scale up of research activities has been transformative for the area. As more and more people have moved to the area, a bridge to Rusinga Island has been built, two new ferry routes have been installed, the existing ferries have been upgraded, power has been extended to the area and finally, after years of waiting, a paved road has been built from Kisumu to Mbita Point.
..which brings back me to my initial question. It is clear that the building of research facilities can be a major spur for economic development and economic activity in a previously desolate and marginalized area. In case of Mbita Point, it is possible that these gains can be sustained even following an eventual cessation of research activities and strangled funding. In this sense, field research projects are doing at least some of the world good.
However, the gains which these communities are experience really have little to do with the research projects themselves and more to do with the influx of employment and infrastructure that come with research stations and research projects. This is non-controversial and I’m sure that the locals appreciate it.
But the quality and goals of research need to be assessed. Are the results we are seeing truly representative of communities which may be similar to the Mbita Point of the past? Are we unnecessarily influencing the outcomes of the research and then perhaps inappropriately generalizing them to contexts which little resemble our target communities? From a scientific perspective, this is troubling.
Of greater concern, however, are we claiming that gains against malaria are being made, when in fact, morbidity and mortality in communities we haven’t looked at is increasing? This could result in a dangerous shift away from scaled up ITN distributions or even a total reduction in international funding. If this happens, kids will die.
Which isn’t suprising, given that’s what he does for a living. The NYT this morning had an interesting interview with Milanovic this morning, where he discussed issues of inequality both within and between countries, globalization, national policy and the simultaneous rise of a global economic elite and growing populism around the world.
The context here is that while inequality is rising in wealthy countries like the United States, on a global level, inequality in incomes and lifestyles is shrinking quickly, most due to the rise of China and India.
Inequality calculated among all individuals in the world, as if they were part of one single nation, has been edging slightly downward over the past 10 to 15 years, mostly thanks to very high growth rates in China and India. These relatively poor giants (particularly India) have pulled quite a lot of people out of poverty and into something that can be called “the global middle class.”
That is the key factor behind the decline of global inequality: The distance between their incomes and the rather stagnant incomes of the middle class in rich countries has diminished. Yet global inequality is still extremely high by the standards of any single country. It is, for example, significantly higher than inequality in South Africa, which is the most unequal country in the world.
Obviously, we still have work to do. Many African countries, due to an unfortunate poor hand of geography, internal ethnic struggles and an unforgivable failure of government still sit in the same mess they sat in around the time of independence. For these countries, the future continues to look bleak.
The contrast is between a globalized economy that largely determines our employment and income level, and political systems that remain national. This contrast was not nearly as strong before the 1980s, when national economies were not as interdependent and capital could not flow easily across the borders. Then, countries could more or less design the economic policies that suited them. Today this is no longer the case.
The danger is that these dynamics could lead to populism — a sort of a Luddite reaction against globalization — or to plutocratic rule. We can already see some hints of the latter. Rule of the rich would ensure the continuation of globalization, but it would deprive political democracy of any meaning. If I wanted to be somewhat melodramatic, I would have said that the challenge is to navigate between the Scylla of populism, which would do away with globalization, and the Charybdis of plutocracy. Our defining challenge is how to maintain both globalization and meaningful national democratic systems.
I fear the erosion of political rights of low and middle class citizens that has occurred in the context of rising inequality. I believe that I fear populism and it’s myopic focus on short term solutions to complex problems even more. A response to rising inequality in the US or Europe is not to close the borders or embark on destructive protectionist policies which benefit only a small minority of people.
My feeling is that domestic (US) inequality is best handled through re-distributional policies such as income subsidies, the provision of health care and investments in education and infrastructure. International inequality should be attacked through a combined effort to increase opportunities of movement of people to areas which present economic opportunities, through the encouragement of policies of good governance which reduce onerous and bureaucratic restrictions on economic development within developing countries, an increase in access to capital by individuals and policies which encourage the granting of true democratic rights and protection for citizens, something we don’t see a whole lot of in African countries. Looking at this, I’m realizing the solutions to inequality in in wealthy countries seem much easier to implement.
I know very little about lab sciences. A few months ago, Obokata Haruko, graduate of Waseda University and researcher at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Japan, discovered something “too good to be true.” She found a way of creating pluripotent cells, that is stem cells which can become anything, without the awful side effect of inducing cancer in a vertebrate host. Though my knowledge of such matters is sadly lacking, from what I understand, virae are usually used to induce the cell to convert, which can make the cell unstable, and likely to turn cancerous. Obokata discovered that the cell could be manipulated merely by stressing them with pressure.
The results followed the peer review process, were rejected once, and, after revising and resubmitting, were eventually published in Nature. Soon thereafter, the results were challenged and it was discovered that the images accompanying the paper did not represent the content of the paper and had likely been lifted from her doctoral dissertation. Obokata was disgraced.
Yesterday, an article appeared which claimed that even more improprieties were found in Obokata’s doctoral thesis and that she has formally requested that her dissertation be withdrawn. She supposedly lifted portions of her introduction from the NIH website without attribution and had doctored images. Even some of the chapter bibliographies were suspicious:
Each chapter in the dissertation has a separate bibliography. For chapter 3, there is a bibliography of 38 references even though there are no footnotes in that chapter. The bibliography contains the authors of the material referred to, the title, the journal and the pages on which the original article appeared.
However, the bibliography in question is almost exactly the same as the first 38 items in a bibliography containing 53 reference materials that was published in 2010 in a medical journal by researchers working at a Taiwanese hospital.
It is entirely possible that Obokata is a shoddy researcher. Actually, it’s quite likely given the mountain of evidence against her. What isn’t clear, is how her mentors allowed her train wreck of a career to happen. Research doesn’t occur in a box. I’d certainly be entirely happy if no one at all ever looked at my dissertation again (outside of the published papers from it). But, one would assume that the most egregious of infractions would be caught by her committee members (and her co-authors) before the work goes into print.
It’s worth nothing that Obokata, like a lot of academics, is quite odd. She had her lab repainted pink and yellow, and would don a Japanese smock more characteristic of kindergarten teachers rather than a traditional lab coat. Though I encourage such behavior, I’m not sure that her eccentric style is doing her career any favors at this point.
This incident brings more than a few conflicting ideas to mind.
First, Japan is a terrible, awful place to be a woman in a professional position. In fact, Japan is pretty much just a terrible place to be a woman at all. In terms of women’s empowerment, wages, education and political representation, Japan is 101st out of 135 countries, well under less developed countries like Kenya, El Salvador, Bangladesh and Indonesia, and among the worst in all of Asia.
Once, I remember when I was visiting Japan, a tenured faculty member who happened to be female was tasked with serving us men tea. I was enraged.
Though Obokata is likely less than professional, professionals are made, not born. I can imagine that, given her reproductive capabilities, her mentors refused to take her seriously, and slacked on their most important job, which was to create and nurture a responsible and talented scientist.
Of course, Obokata, though likely a victim of shoddy mentoring, has to shoulder some of the blame. Shoddy mentors create shoddy students, but shoddy students still have to take responsibility for their own actions. But I can’t help but thinking that it’s interesting that a young female is taking the heat for what should be a collective fuck up.
Obokata is currently being eviscerated in the press. After making numerous appearances on television as an eccentric though brilliant scientist, her downfall has brought out the worst. Many are alleging that Obokata slept with her mentors to attain her position (despite being trained at Harvard), following a narrative that women can’t attain privileged positions without having sex with someone. The vile depths of the interweb are even speculating that Obokata will start making porn, a common standby career for fallen actresses and swimsuit idols, again following a narrative that women are never degraded enough.
Does Obokata deserve the brutal punishment she’s receiving? While scientists need to held accountable for their work, given the amount of shoddy research out there, I would say that Obokata is probably being treated rather unfairly. It would seem though, that the extreme nature of her punishment is due to her gender, her age and the fact that she was unlucky enough to appear on Japanese television.
The essence of epidemiologic field trials is the RCT (randomized control trial). A random set of people get some sort of treatment (like a new drug), another random set of people don’t and we compare the results. It’s pretty simple stuff.
The trouble with RCTs is that they don’t necessarily work well when people from the two groups are able to influence each other’s outcomes. As a simple example, a trial of a vaccine which prevents people from getting infected with some pathogen might have impacts on people who don’t get the vaccine, since the number of opportunities for transmission are reduced. This is a welcome outcome (and may even be the point of the study), but it doesn’t help us to understand exactly how effective the vaccine is in the individuals who actually receive the vaccine.
Many RCTs make the (flawed) assumption that individuals are independent entities, following a long tradition of statistical analysis. This is a reasonable assumption to make in some cases, but entirely wrong in others (i.e. most public health outcomes).
Development economists have recently adopted the RCT as a means of evaluating the effectiveness of programs intended to relieve poverty or improve human well-being. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with adopted public health methods to deal with economic problems, as most public health problems have their roots in economics. Jeff Sachs, or course, would argue that many economic problems have their roots in public health problems.
The major problem with RCTs is that while we do our best to control for all of the possible other factors that might impact outcomes given a particular treatment, without a trove of detailed data and prior knowledge of context and contingencies, we really have no idea at all whether and how some public health intervention works. Epidemiology tends to fall back on the “reasonable suspicion” argument, backing up claims of effectiveness with potentially reasonable assumptions of causal pathways. This is clearly quite easy when doing drug trials, where animals models and a century-plus of medical research has given us a reasonably clear pictures of the pathophysiological pathways that might lie between drug and outcome.
But with issues of human behavior and economics (which is essentially a science which seeks to uncover mysteries of human behavior), the causal pathways are much more difficult to assess and the factors which lie between intervention and outcome are for more difficult to measure. For example, assessing the outcome of an education program on reproductive behavior is really, really difficult without monitoring all of the possible things that happened between the time that a woman attended an NGO sponsored event at a clinic and the time when she chose to use or not use a condom. In fact, we can’t even really verify that she used the condom, since we weren’t around to observe it.
But we assume, and assume to the point of falling back to faith that our efforts did what we intended them to do.
Lant Pritchett, a Harvard economist that I’m a great fan of for his work on economic measurement in developing countries, penned an interesting article on the website of the Center for Global Development seemingly questioning the merit of the RCT as an rigorous and necessary evaluation tool for poverty alleviation development programs.
First of all, the argument that RCTs had, until recently, been used sparingly, if at all, and yet are important in achieving good outcomes sits in kind of embarrassing counterpoint with the obvious fact that lots of countries have really good outcomes. That is whether one uses the Human Development Index or the OECD Better Life Index or any social indicator—from poverty to education to health to life satisfaction—there is a similar set of countries near the top. (In the HDI the top five are Norway, Australia, USA, Netherlands, and Germany. In the OECD Better Life Index they are Australia, Sweden, Canada, Norway, and Switzerland.) No one has ever made the arguments that these countries are developed and prosperous because they used rigorous evidence—much less RCTs—in formulating policy and programs. While one might have faith that RCTs can help along the path to development, RCTs didn’t help for those that are there now.
It is very true that development in the United States occurred without the help of RCTs. In fact, malaria elimination in the United States occurred without any of the complex set of interventions that we’re so desperately selling to malaria-endemic countries. It’s even true that, despite more than a decade of research on ITNs, that we aren’t really sure whether the declines in malaria that we’ve seen all over Sub-Saharan Africa are due to ITNs or just simply due to processes associated with urbanization and development (as in the US). Actually, a lot of research is telling us that the declines in malaria might be false and that we are simply suffering from a paucity of accurate measurement in malaria endemic countries.
And this is where Pritchett comes in. He’s right. Research in developing countries is inherently challenging to the point where the conclusions we draw from research are somewhat contentious at best, and the result of blind faith at worst.
But coarse and incomplete data and loose assumptions shouldn’t discourage public health (or even economic) professionals from doing research in developing countries. While I have issues with the condescending, neo-classical nature of RCTs in economics (another discussion, but can a peasant lady’s behavior in Western Kenya be reduced to that of Homo economicus? ), the truth is that policy makers don’t care about data. They care that people are making the case for action in an impassioned and convincing way. While academics should strive to be as rigorous as possible, the sell won’t happen based on our complex data collection strategies and statistical methodologies. They (and the public) are convinced through impassioned calls for action.
Continuing our series of interviews with interesting academics, this time I have Megan Hill, PhD student and ethnomusicologist at the University of Michigan (Thanks for doing this!).
Starting off with existential questions… I’m Megan Hill, doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at UM. I’m originally from Mason City, a town of about 30,000 people in north-central Iowa.
2. What is your current research about?
My research, broadly speaking, concerns contemporary musical practice in Japan, with a secondary specialization in American popular music. Right now I’m writing my dissertation on urban soundscapes. The concept of “soundscape” is usually used to explore the ways that people create and perceive meaning through sound in the places they inhabit, but it has also traditionally been used in an all-encompassing way, assuming a homogeneous and/or pastoral environment.
My dissertation—Asakusa’s Soundscape: Sound, Agency, Place, and Montage—specifically offers a new theoretical apparatus for analyzing the nuanced ways that people experience sound in dense, heterogeneous urban environments. I’m using the Tokyo neighborhood of Asakusa to demonstrate this. I have chosen Asakusa because it is dense and urban, it has a strong unique identity as a particular neighborhood, that identity is defined by a large variety of cultural categories (i.e. “traditional Japan,” religion, international tourism, low-brow entertainment, working-class Tokyo, etc.), and sound and music are fundamental to the ways that people behave in Asakusa and understand what Asakusa is about.
3. Urban spaces are characterized by often contrasting and competing uses of space. Did you find that there was any impact of location on sounds? Did sounds clash or blend in interesting ways?
Yes, absolutely. Certainly “competing” uses of space happen throughout cities, and all around the world, but I think it is particularly interesting how this plays out in Asakusa because of the particular kinds of activities that go on there. Many urban neighborhoods—NYC’s theater district for instance—are defined by one particular kind of activity, but Asakusa is defined by its particular amalgam of several contrasting activities (those having to do with “traditional Japan,” religion, international tourism, low-brow entertainment, and working-class Tokyo). Because of this, I find that the sonic overlap that goes on there is particularly fascinating, and has particular implications for how people perceive the space. You used the word “competing” to describe the use of urban spaces, but what I see going on in Asakusa is often more like juxtaposition. Contrasting sounds overlap, but because all of them “make sense” within the larger space, the resulting sense isn’t one of competition but one of montage.
For example, there is an amusement park called Hanayashiki which is practically bordering the precincts of Sensô-ji Buddhist temple. The screams of people riding the drop tower and roller coaster can be heard easily from the steps of the temple’s Main Hall, and those sounds mix in with the sounds of rituals that take place in the temple, as well as the boisterous sounds of tourists that fill the Main Hall and the rest of the precincts at all hours.
4. I know that you share an interest with things Japanese. All of us Japanophiles have unique set of events which brought us here. What brought you to Japan?
I started out, in my undergrad at Wartburg College (a liberal arts college in Waverly, Iowa), studying music education. Growing up, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in music in some way, but coming from a fairly small town with few visible music careers (high school band director and church musician being pretty much the extent of things), I decided music ed was the way to go for me. I studied that for two years with moderate levels of emotional investment, but along the way I was exposed to the field of ethnomusicology through one of my professors, with which I became totally enamored. I changed my major to clarinet performance (which allowed me to drop the education courses and add electives in ethnomusicology) at the beginning of my third year. At the same time, my dorm roommate was a woman from Tokyo in Iowa to study psychology (long story) who came to be one of my best friends. Studying ethnomusicological / anthropological theory in the daytimes and coming home to talk with my roommate about everyday things—but also Japanese music and culture—in the evenings basically started me out on the road that led me to where I am today.
5. You spent a year (or two?) in Tokyo. What were you doing there?
I’ve lived in the Tokyo area on two occasions, actually. After my undergrad in 2006, I got a job with AEON (national English-conversation school) and was given a teaching position in Koshigaya, Saitama, about 20 minutes north of Tokyo. I basically used the teaching position and visa as an opportunity to live in Japan and learn real-life things for 13 months before pursuing a graduate degree focusing on Japan. I had a great time learning all I could, talking with my fantastic students, making friends, learning to play the koto, and doing research for a paper on the use of gendered pronouns in Japanese popular music.
More recently, I was living in Tokyo doing dissertation fieldwork. I got funding from The Japan Foundation to be there for a year to study the soundscapes of Asakusa, which I’m now using as the basis for my dissertation.
6. You seem to be interested in people who don’t traditionally “belong.” The examples I’m thinking of are that of African-American Enka star Jero, the perception of soundscapes in Tokyo by a Buddhist monk and even Yoko Noge, a blues musician in Chicago. While I could be entirely off the mark, does the breaking of traditional musical belonging play a role in your work?
Interesting interpretation! You’ve been scoping out my academia.edu profile, I see ;-)
I would say that you’re on the mark in identifying which topics excite me. I tend to admire people and their work who do interesting things that are against the traditional grain, for sure. And I think your observation that those people are in particular abundance in my research is mostly evidence of my personal taste in that way—Yoko Noge, Jero, and also Japanese female singers like Ringo Shiina, Iruka, Love Psychedelico, and Ayumi Hamasaki wielding gendered-language in pop song lyrics in interesting ways.
I haven’t really approached those topics by focusing on that commonality, necessarily. Contemporary ethnomusicology makes use of all kinds of socio-cultural as well as scientific theories to study musical practice (linguistic, structural, literary, Marxist, cognitive and communication, gender/sexuality, performance, and postcolonial theories, as some examples). I think what you’ve picked up on as a trend in my research is my interest in issues of self and identity, though I am not committed to always exploring those from the same approach. My dissertation focuses on individual agency and music/sound as they intersect with ideas about place, for example, while in my other projects, ideas about self/identity have intersected with music and gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, psychology, globalization, and postcolonial culture.
7. Have you met Jero yet?
8. You play a number of instruments. Do you play live at all?
I studied piano and clarinet, each for 12 years. With an undergrad degree in clarinet performance, I played a number of solo recitals, as well as countless concerts as a member of orchestras and wind bands.
I studied koto in 2006-7 and was invited to perform at my local 燈籠流し festival in Saitama with my teacher, which was really fun. I also studied Tsugaru shamisen for about 9 months as a part of my dissertation fieldwork, but I’m still a very rough beginner and have no business on a stage… At this point, I don’t have the time necessary to devote to practice to make performing a reality.
9. How did you find your teachers? I’ve heard that people studying shamisen have to spend the first two years doinng nothing but tuning? Did they cut you slack given your limited time there?
I found my koto teacher with the help of one of my English students. He was the son a friend of hers. I took the bus to his apartment every Friday morning before going to work at the English school, which began at noon. He also taught koto at a local middle school as part of the school’s offerings of “traditional” arts which became mandatory in public schools from 2001 I believe. He is also the member of a small indie band called Shiro Neqo, which includes an Indian sitar and tabla and two vocalists in addition to koto. You can see/hear them here.
I found my Tsugaru shamisen teacher in Asakusa. He owns a restaurant where he—and sometimes his higher level students—perform every lunch and dinnertime for customers. I wanted to interview him for my dissertation research, and when I found out that he teaches lessons too, I asked if I could also study with him. We started out learning how the instrument works, tuning, and practicing a simple folksong right away. I did not get the sense that I was being treated differently than other students. I have also heard the only-tuning-for-two-years story, but I don’t know how widespread that regimen really is.
You can see/hear him here (link is down below) with his band, Ryûjin. His sister is the other person playing shamisen in the video
10. What’s up for the future?
Good question… My husband is applying for academic jobs right now (he will be defending his dissertation within the calendar year), and hopefully something will work out on that front. I will be finishing mine by next spring at the very latest, so I will be applying for jobs come the fall. I’m very open to non-academic positions that would allow me to make some use of my degree (I have a friend who works for the National Endowment for the Humanities, for example), or an academic one that would center on teaching, preferably not in the middle of nowhere. I’m too much in the world of my dissertation to have many thoughts on my next research project, but there’s a lot of music out there!
I’m working on a series of interviews with creative, interesting and amazing people I’ve known over the course of my life who, through whatever series of events, have found themselves in academia. This time, I’m interviewing Dr. Julie Huntington, who I know mostly as the oboe player in the seminal Michigan skronk outfit, Galen but now works on Francophone African literature in NYC.
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Julie Ann Huntington. By profession, I am a professor of French language and comparative literature at Marymount Manhattan College. I also identify as a bicyclist, runner, advocate, writer, noise-maker, thrill-seeker, daydreamer, gourmande, and vagabond.
You’re from Southeastern Michigan, but now live in New York. I don’t know what I missed, how did that happen?
It’s a rather long story… that’s where the vagabond part kicks in. I’ve actually spent more consecutive years in New York City now (going on six) than any place in my life since graduating from high school. My first stay outside of Michigan in the summer of 1996 led me to a picaresque nanny job in a tiny town called Hem working for a psychiatric professional with some anger management issues and a college professor who tried in vain to seduce me with lines like “I see what kind of books you read… I know what kind of girl you are…” At the end of three weeks, we all agreed it was best for me to head to Paris to pursue other paths. With little money, I spent most of my days daydreaming and walking around the city. One day, I ended up wandering into an English language bookshop near the Notre Dame cathedral. After chatting with the owner, I secured lodging with some other ex-pats in a bed-bug infested library in exchange for a few hours of work each day. With little money, I spent much of my time reading books and helping out around the shop. George [Whitman] took notice of this and promoted me, calling me his Cordelia. In exchange for more responsibilities, consisting mainly of book-keeping and listening to George tell stories about lost generation Paris, I got my own room full of first editions and a sublime view of Notre Dame…
Filling in the gaps, I returned to Michigan to finish my BA at Eastern Michigan University in Anthropology and French. At the start of my studies, I had wanted to be a journalist, decided that I was ill-equipped to take on the burdens of truth and objectivity. Degree in hand, I headed back to Paris to consider my options…
I worked as a waitress in Paris in a Tex-Mex restaurant in Paris in 1998 for the World Cup matches and beyond. The restaurant isn’t there anymore, but I still have a scar on my knee from the celebrations. During that time, I decided to go to graduate school and prepped for my GRE exam…
And then you went down South?
In 1999, I moved to Nashville to start an MA-Ph.D program at Vanderbilt. My preliminary intention was to study XX century feminist narratives. As luck would have it, the woman with whom I had planned to work left the university and I had to shift gears. I became interested in issues of language and identity in areas where French was spoken as an official but not maternal or vehicular language. I was particularly intrigued by “noisy” writers who presented multilingual, musical, and otherwise resonant texts to readers. It all started with Ousmane Sembene… In my first year of graduate study, I read Guelwaar and God’s Bits of Wood… It was love at first read…
My interest in Sembene led me to Keur Momar Sarr Senegal in the summer of 2001 where I spent a summer working on a rural development project in coordination with community members and a group of Belgian and American volunteers…
I went back to Nashville and finished my Ph.D. at Vanderbilt in 2005. My work focused on exploring how instrumental literature, non-vocal music, and otherwise noisy phenomena are translated and transcribed into the frames of literary texts as a means of creating spaces for identity negotiation that lie beyond the limits of Western/Northern identificatory paradigms…
I worked as an Assistant Professor of French at Clemson from 2005-2008. While I was there, I spent summers taking students to Ghana on a summer program I created. I also traveled to Martinique and Guyane for research and conferences. I feel lucky to have visited Saint Pierre, Alawla-Yalimapo, Nzulezo by chance as sidetrips on these journeys as they are beautiful and unique places that have informed my work in important ways…
I loved the job at Clemson but was miserable living in small-town and even smaller-city South Carolina. I struggled to be happy there. It just wasn’t a good fit for me culturally…
When I was offered a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college in NYC in 2008, I embraced the opportunity. Regardless of the professional pros and cons of my decision, I am happy with the choice I made. I love working at a teaching-focused job in a city where I feel joyful and inspired…
Since my arrival in NYC, I have spent time away in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and France for research, but have always felt compelled to “come home” to NYC. I’m not sure if this is my forever city, but my vagabond heart is happy here doing what I do for the time being.
I really don’t think I’ve seen you in person in nearly 20 years, at which time you were active in music. Are you still doing music?
Music is a part of my life everywhere I go and I sense that it always will be. Although I don’t have any regular projects at the present time, I find myself collaborating on a few projects every year. Most of these are spontaneous and performance-based. I feel like the energy and logistics of living in New York City foster these kinds of dynamic but ephemeral musical encounters. Some of my favorite NYC collaborations have been with Samuel Consiglio (of Tami on 12 inch and Perfect Weiners and Butts), who I met while dancing at Zoot’s in Detroit in the 1990s. Another performance moment I enjoyed was when I was invited to perform as an oboe-playing cannibal in a play—It Didn’t Have to Come to This by Normandy Sherwood.
I seem to know a lot of people who did odd music things, and then moved on to the wacky world of academia. How did you go from music to academia? Do you feel like your particular musical experience serves you well in your academic career?
Coming from a working class family in Michigan, many of my life decisions as a young adult were guided by financial imperatives. From a young age, I understood that work defines so many aspects of an average person’s day-to-day existence, especially in American culture. With that understanding, I followed the path that I thought would lead me to my greatest contentment. In spite of the present states of fiscal and identity crisis in academia, I feel like I made the right choice. Working as a professor is fulfilling in many ways. I learn so much each and every day in my interactions with colleagues and students, but also in my own investigations and explorations.
In terms of music, being a musician definitely helps me to be in tune with the people and texts with which I work. It is particularly useful in the space of the classroom. Playing in collaborative projects throughout the years has helped me become better in listening to and responding to others. I am very student-centered in my approaches to teaching and I often position myself as a collaborator-facilitator-coach when working with students on discussions and projects. One could liken the structure of a lesson to that of a jazz standard. In this respect, there are definite objectives and protocols in place to guide our interactions during class time, but there are also spaces for every participant to voice, interpret, and respond in a multiplicity of harmonious or cacophonous ways.
I became really interested in questions of linguistic, cultural, and regional identities in post-colonial frameworks, particularly as mediated in literary texts. Since there was already a fair amount of work being done on linguistic approaches to identity negotiation and appropriation in literature, I turned my focus to music. Although much work had also been done on the aesthetics and implications of oral genres in written literature, instrumental genres were not being considered to the same extent. I wanted to create a rationale and a vocabulary for considering sounding elements in literature, particularly non-vocal ones.
The book project came about after the series editor, Gregory Barz, approached me about revising my manuscript to give it a more interdisciplinary focus. We agreed that I would take out much of the literary jargon and construct narrative frames around the chapters.
A book in itself is strange because it fixes ideas on the written page, even if those ideas are still being revised, reconsidered, and reconfigured. It is like a time capsule of thoughts. All things considered, I am proud of this work with all of its shortcomings and strengths. In my view it is just the beginning, a point of departure, the start of a dialogue.
What took you to Senegal? In the book it sounds like you just kind of showed up there. While the experiences are obviously amazing (outside of drinking the borehole water: been there, done that), I’m kind of thinking the whole time “How did she get there?”
The decision to spend time in Senegal was motivated by a desire to get a feel for the geographic and cultural spaces and the aesthetic and linguistic protocols I was reading about in the works of writers like Ousmane Sembene and Aminata Sow Fall. I signed on to volunteer with ASREAD, L’Association Sénégalaise de Recherches, d’Études et d’Appui au Développement, an NGO in Keur Momar Sarr, where I lived and worked with members of the local community.
In a sense, I did just show up without any sort of formal agenda. I just wanted to learn as much as I possibly could during my time there about music, language, and culture. For the most part, I let the villagers guide my experience of that learning. This created openings and opportunities I would not have been able to witness or experience if I had come in with a clear itinerary and agenda.
I really enjoyed the cross-cultural, cross-linguistic and cross-disciplinary nature of the work, (and in the Julie-in-Africa vignettes).
Whereas personally, I find it very fulfilling to work across languages, continents, cultures, and disciplines, the work is challenging and not always well-received.
In a sense, interdisciplinary work is destabilizing. It requires critics—both readers and writers—to suspend self-ascribed notions of mastery of their respective methodological approaches and areas of expertise while exposing themselves to alternative modes of analysis and subject areas. Metaphorically speaking, interdisciplinary work is the mixed martial arts of academic work. In this respect, interdisciplinary practitioners develop proficiency in a multiple areas of expertise which they incorporate interchangeably depending on conditions and contexts. Multifaceted, versatile, and dynamic, interdisciplinary work creates opportunities for dialogue and exchange across categories, perspectives, and methodologies. The limits of this type of work is that is simply not possible to be a specialist in all styles. By consequence, interdisciplinary scholars often exchange the jargon and depth of analysis displayed in single-discipline scholarship for the accessibility and interwoven or textured quality of interdisciplinary work with varying degrees of success.
In terms of working across languages, cultures, and genres, there are multiple challenges at work here. The main challenge is that what we conceive of as the academy is still grounded in the geographic, linguistic, and cultural zones of Northern/Western nations. Even when working in scholarship grounded in African locations, critics find themselves faced with the imperative of constructing argumentation in dialogue with critical frameworks created within and endorsed by scholars working predominantly in Northern/Western academic and cultural systems. There is a type of academic hegemony at work here and it is difficult to overcome.
My parents and much of my extended family still live in Michigan, so I come back to visit a few times a year. I would also come back for an epic jam session.
What’s next? Anything new coming down the pipe?
I am working on a second book project examining culinary narratives, folklore, and recipes in contemporary West African fiction. I am also training for the 2014 Boston Marathon.
Julie’s book, “Sounding Off: Rhythm, Music, and Identity in West African and Caribbean Francophone Novels (African Soundscapes) is available for purchase HERE.