Volume 89, #1

Winter 2016


To Bind and To Bound: Commensuration Across Boundries


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Volume 89, #1 • Winter 2016



To Bind and To Bound:
Commensuration Across Boundaries


Introduction to the Special Collection

Joseph Hankins, UC San Diego
Rihan Yeh, El Colegio de Michoacán

ABSTRACT—This introductory essay charts the analytic potential of a concept of commensuration that goes beyond issues of metrics per se, but without diffusing itself into a general metaphor for cultural difference. Commensuration, we argue, is not just a basic psychosocial process, but has also emerged, in the context of “globalization” with its multifarious and wide-ranging flows, as an ideological value in its own right. Explicit negotiations of commensuration, then, have become increasingly fraught, increasingly pivotal practices as group boundaries of all sorts—separating ethnic groups, socioeconomic classes, nations, or “civilizations”—are relentlessly re-erected and re-arranged on the miniscule ethnographic scale of everyday engagements with semiotic forms marked as coming from beyond those boundaries. After laying out the nuts and bolts of our approach, we explore commensuration (and introduce the subsequent collection of essays) via three topical foci: commensuration’s role in securing movement as a semiotic effect; how sovereign power authorizes commensuration and thus comes to be at stake in it; and, finally, the destabilizing and yet productive ways in which failure haunts commensurative projects. [Keywords: Commensuration, boundaries, circulation, authority, failure]


Hefty Dictionaries in Incomprehensible Tongues: Commensurating
Code and Language Community in Turkey

Kelda Jamison, University of Chicago

ABSTRACT—In this article, I consider one aspect of the larger linguistic-political project of rendering Kurdish an “equivalent” language in a world of standard languages: the material contours of text artifacts, and their commensurating capacities. In Turkey, where Turkish has long been the sole officially sanctioned code of public life, the project of asserting equivalence takes place in no small part as a function of an increasingly textualized and widely circulating Kurdish. Inserting Kurdish, both spoken and printed, into ever more arenas—disrupting the expectations of which code goes with which context—has become an ever more central plank in a Kurdish political project. Yet relatively few people actually read the texts in question. The circulation of largely unread Kurdish texts allows us to investigate how material qualities of text objects—shape, sheen, heft, etc.—contribute towards the assertion of particular forms of linguistic commensurability. I examine how textual forms anchor affiliations of loyalty and allegiance to language community, even without necessarily transforming speech practices and norms of pragmatic usage. In the Kurdish project of commensurating codes, the circulation of textual artifacts—stacked newspapers, glossy street signs, hefty dictionaries, paperback novels—works to signal the presence of the genres they are presumed to contain. At least three commensurating processes are at play here: between spoken Kurdish and its textual equivalent; between “Kurdish” and “Turkish” as the orienting codes of their respective language communities; and between “Kurds” and “Turks” as members of those communities, participants in a fiercely contested struggle over sovereignty and resources. At stake in these assertions of linguistic equivalence—the normative purchase of a would-be newly commensurate Kurdish—are politically and socially consequential mappings of groupness, polity, and political legitimacy. [Keywords: commensuration, language community, textualization, Kurdish, Turkey]


Commensuration in a Mexican Border City: Currencies,
Consumer Goods, and Languages

Rihan Yeh, Centro de Estudios Antropológicos, El Colegio de Michoacán

ABSTRACT—In Tijuana, Mexico, across the border from San Diego, CA, dollars and pesos, English and Spanish, US and Mexican commodities circulate apace. Moving beyond both the old fascination with transnational flows and the emphasis on enforcement and prohibition in current research on international borders, this article examines the everyday pragmatics involved in engaging these disparate forms. In multiple contexts and for varied reasons, actors draw them together as sets of commensurables, attempting to claim equivalence between two national regimes of value and thus consolidate their own standing with respect to a range of interlocutors. But even as they do so, their forceful assertions of commensurability feather apart in the face of a persistent remainder which they themselves evoke: the excess value that may attach to US forms, a qualitative difference that seems to fly in the face of comparability. As this inequality emerges in moments of circulation (display, exchange, ascription of possession to others, and so on), it disrupts even the most quotidian attempts at arithmetic conversion, literal translation, or the seemingly straightforward practicalities of purchase. Not all, however, are equally positioned to reap the interactive benefits of either commensuration or the sense of disproportion that interrupts it. By tracking how different subjects move between those two possibilities, the article ultimately opens a novel perspective on the complex interweaving of social difference across the border and within Mexico. [Keywords: commensuration, borders, US–Mexico border, Mexico, currency, commodities, language]

Seeing Strange: Chinese Aesthetics in a Foreign World

Lily Chumley, New York University

ABSTRACT—This paper contributes to a theory of commensuration by examining the discursive production of incommensurability between objects, aesthetics, and practices, and by extension, “cultures” and “civilizations.” Focusing on discourses of incommensurability between Chinese and foreign or Western aesthetics in China, the paper describes situations in which everyday objects—such as camping tables and cloth shoes—are taken as emblems or focal points for negotiations of history and politics. The paper examines the ongoing reproduction of this incommensurability through a series of semiotic processes: first, an historical shift in the vocabulary of everyday objects, in which marked foreignness is replaced by marked Chineseness, and reflections on that history in contemporary film; second, traditionalist performances of resistance to (and repugnance for) Western aesthetics, accompanied by a tendency to deploy markedly Chinese objects as emblems of cultural allegiance; and third, as a synthetic final example, an artist’s lecture on the perplexity of negotiating this incommensurability in art practice. Throughout, the paper reflects on the uneasy categorization of things that are made, bought, and used in China, but which are not regarded as Chinese, and how this cryptocategory implicitly frames the work of Chinese designers who are still called upon to produce a Chinese modern aesthetic. [Keywords: China, art, aesthetics, objects, incommensurability, markedness, double bind]


Wounded Futures: Pain and the Possibilities of Solidarity

Joseph Hankins, UC San Diego

ABSTRACT—In 2006, a small group of Japanese sanitation workers traveled from Tokyo to Chennai, India to meet with a group they saw as potential comrades—the Dalit. Over the course of several days, these groups shared stories of pain and discrimination—the rigors of marginalization told alongside triumphs of resistance. This article focuses on the politics and aesthetics of this solidarity project between the Japanese Buraku peopleᅠand the Dalit of South Asia. Iᅠdevelop solidarity as a project of rendering groups—here, theᅠBuraku and the Dalit—commensurate through theᅠoperation of extendingᅠsympathy. I argue that the viability of political solidarity hangs on theᅠcultivation of a “fellow feeling,” a formative process ofᅠlearning to feel oneself throughᅠthe imagined mediating gaze of another: i.e., the development of a disciplined internal judge of experience. I examine the rules that permit andᅠconstrain that sympatheticᅠtraffic, as well as the moments that lead to itsᅠblockage. This talk complicates notions of circulation and commensurationᅠfromᅠlinguistic and economic anthropology, and it critically engages work onᅠrecognition and vulnerability. The conclusion advances an argumentᅠforᅠsocio-historical connectedness as opposed to liberal sympathy. [Keywords: sympathy, solidarity, commensuration, Japan, social movements, Buraku, India, Dalit]