Category Archives: Anthropology News

The Moon as Metaphor in Migration Research by Elizabeth L. Krause

Chinese migrants are influential players in the Made in Italy fashion sector. They are also perceived as unfamiliar and alien, inauthentic producers of uniquely “Italian” merchandise.

I figure I was seven years old when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I remember being at my neighbors’ house, sitting on their oval braided rug, watching the small-screen TV. I can still picture those fuzzy black and white images of the spacecraft and astronauts. Neil Armstrong uttered his famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I get chills when I replay that moon landing on the internet.

Chinese New Year in Prato, Italy
Youths run through the streets of the historic center in Prato, Italy, during the dragon parade of Chinese New Year festivities. Agnese Morganti

Those chills serve as a sensory sign of what that moment represented: crossing into a new frontier. I imagine my young self’s view of the event was as ordinary as it was extraordinary. The world was full of possibilities. I had just been inducted into a neighborhood gang called Young Rebels, with three painful punches to my right arm, and I had just experienced my first kiss with a boy after our group had wrapped up a game of high jump, sitting at sunset on an old striped mattress intended to soften the fall.

Decades later, that same frontier would soften the landing of a metaphor that referenced an “alienated” supply chain. Indeed, the moon landing came to mind a few years ago while conducting research on migration in Europe with a transnational team. At times, the fieldwork seemed close to science fiction: Chinese migrants had become prominent players in the Made in Italy fashion sector in greater metropolitan Tuscany. These stranieri owned and operated 5,230 firms in Prato, according to Chamber of Commerce data. They spoke of “spiritual insistence” related to the pursuit of becoming entrepreneurs. Who would have imagined such a scenario during the late 1960s era of economic boom and labor struggles?

In December 2012, a fire in the Chinese-operated Teresa Moda factory killed seven immigrant workers, transforming the city into a dystopic post-human rights center of globalization. The tragic event propelled politicians from the far right and center left to join together and claim they cared about migrant rights and well-being. Their solution was to recruit Italians as health inspectors to intensify surveillance of factory safety conditions.

One evening about a month later, in January 2013, my research collaborator invited me to attend an after-party for Pitti Uomo, one of the most important trade shows in men’s fashion. The big event, held in Florence, reported record numbers of buyers, sellers, and visitors. Light shows and Renaissance palaces served as amnesiac elixirs for the global labor behind all those handsome clothes.

The private party took place in a boutique menswear store in a hip neighborhood of Florence. Johnny, the owner, had managed to keep a step ahead of many other Italians who had left production in light of intense global competition. We eventually would visit his small sweater factory in the Medici hills outside Prato. He insisted that he employed only Italian workers except for one phase of production—ironing. He told us that Italians no longer did that work. He spoke about the challenges in the sector and mused about the future. “What would happen if all the Chinese people in the world went to the moon?” he asked. I was taken aback. I did not know what to make of the moon comment. His tone was matter-of-fact. Why the moon? Why could or should they leave the earth? The remark resonated not only as a troubling thought experiment—one with echoes of mass deportation—but also as a radical metaphor of alterity.

The moon stands for other worlds and hence otherness. Migrants are constantly positioned as others in everyday language. Migrants are racialized as others. As non-citizens, they are also doubly otherized: they legally do not “belong.” Temporary pathways may provide belonging through state-sanctioned documents such as residency permits, which require that the “aliens” and their children have ongoing, tense, and anxiety-producing encounters with the state.

The moon comment also points to the centrality of Chinese workers in the fashion industry and raises questions about the consequences that their sudden disappearance would have for the flow of goods, for the very mechanisms of the market.

The context of Chinese immigrants in Italy and the hegemony of global supply chains got me thinking about the complexities of value, of the earthly world, of social worlds, and of other possible worlds—utopic and dystopic.

n my book Tight Knit, I argue that the value of the Italian brand is rooted in historical sentiment that is deeply bound up with the myth of continuity with the Renaissance. Having Chinese making the Made in Italy, whether fast fashion or luxury brands, strikes many people as strangely inauthentic. Such a reaction suggests a sense of being unmoored from the familiar. It is akin to the strange feeling one gets when witnessing astronauts float around on the surface of the moon given the absence of gravity.

Migration is not new to greater metropolitan Tuscany. Postwar migration has included regional, national, and transnational movements of people to its cities, as Massimo Bressan and Sabrina Tosi Cambini recount in their ethnographic research on the factory city. A first phase of migration came on the heels of World War II, as peasants abandoned the Tuscan countryside to throw off the shackles of patriarchal power but retain relations steeped in reciprocity and communitarian experience. A second phase occurred during the boom of the 1960s, as migrants from Italy’s Deep South left behind agriculture, bringing southern habits and dialects, and experiencing discrimination as they sought housing and employment. In a third phase, especially since the 1990s, transnational migrants have come onto the scene. The majority originates from China, with most born in the city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province.

As with much popular discourse about immigrants, alien metaphors abound. Common framings point to profound feelings of alienation. The moon comment seemed par for the course when considered alongside such sentiments. Some viewed the Chinese as outright occupiers who did not care about Italian culture, history, or art, let alone the environment or labor rights. Other Italians recognized the Chinese migrants as dwelling in a similar structural niche. “I cinesi siamo noi—We are the Chinese,” one retired Italian sweater maker told me in reference to long work days—“20 hours, 18 hours, 16 hours”—and intensive flexibility in the context of localized outsourcing in the 1980s and 1990s until closing his shop in early 2000. Similarly, one Chinese migrant woman described how the cut-and-sew work was laborious: “Staying here, people tend to become more apathetic, always doing the same thing, always the same, they don’t have changes. Most people have this sensation, that staying here stiffens the brain.”

My brilliant astronomy friends remind me that the space program generated a lot of innovation, from high-tech fibers to observational systems. This includes the recent networked telescopes that captured the first image of a black hole. From the perspective of changing lifestyles, the program may seem like it mostly petered out. Trips to the moon did not become a regular thing. Humans did not set up space colonies on the moon or elsewhere. Space suits did not become fashionable. Nevertheless, the moon landing remains deeply significant as a metaphor for alterity and possibility.

Connecting migrants and the moon serves as a reminder for anthropologists to tune into myriad encounters with possibility and alterity, particularly those forms that serve as tactics of othering under the guise of metaphoric softening. How often do clever phrases, side remarks, or jokes cover up deep-seated xenophobic sentiments? Just like an old mattress might soften a fall, so too can a fresh metaphor soften a racist slur. As powerful turns of phrase that construct discourses, such metaphors may lighten the landing of thought experiments. In reality, their deployment exists within a constellation of troubling ways to sustain migrants as cultural aliens.

Elizabeth L. Krause is professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of Tight Knit: Global Families and the Social Life of Fast Fashion (2018).

Originally published as: Krause, Elizabeth L. 2019. “The Moon as Metaphor in Migration Research.” Anthropology News website, July 12, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1208

Haunting Democracy by Maria Lechtarova

It’s difficult to imagine being haunted in a public space. Regarded from outside, public spaces usually evoke the gathering of large numbers of people; regarded from within, their occupants often do not recognize the space as anything special at all. However, consider public space in post-Soviet contexts, where it continues to be haunted by the machinations of totalitarianism (Harutyunyan et al. 2009) and is always already haunted by histories of surveillance and violent state power, despite nearly three decades of democracy. In this framework, public obituary postings stand as a useful vehicle for delineating the unspoken, ambivalent feelings toward public space and freedom of remembrance that continue to exist in post-Soviet societies.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, obituary postings in public spaces have been a prominent practice of revering the dead across the Balkan peninsula and in many parts of Europe. However, this practice has retained its popularity in some countries more than others. Bulgaria is exceptional in that this practice still maintains a significant presence. This is partially due to the fact that during the Soviet Union, for reasons unknown, Bulgarians retained the right to post their obituaries, known as nekrologs in Bulgaria, in public spaces (similar nekrologs in newspapers, however, were forbidden) (Karaboeva 2011). This ban on newspaper nekrologs, effective from 1944 through 1988 and unique to the country, cultivated a rich nekrolog posting practice in Bulgaria that continues today.

My ethnographic work in the summer of 2018, sponsored by the Society for the Anthropology of Europe and the Council for European Studies, entailed engaging with employees at funerary homes and organizations where the bereaved commission nekrologs, in order to understand how nekrologs circulate in the public sphere and compete with other forms of print media. Traveling from office to office in Sofia, Bulgaria, and interviewing one employee after another, I was surprised to find that few professionals offering such a commonplace service talked about attributes of the nekrolog other than its dimensions, design, and content. All of the employees with whom I spoke were sincerely confused and slightly stunned that I had an academic interest in this practice. Their relationship to nekrologs indicated to me the significant amount of unspoken sentiment surrounding this ubiquitous practice.

Nekrologs in Bulgaria compete with advertisements for concert events in the public media space. Maria Lechtarova

As media with the socially-codified power to appear anywhere in public, nekrologs have the capacity to haunt the viewer with an omnipotence historically associated with the socialist and post-socialist state. Circulating outside the direct parameters of the law, nekrologs mimic the process of haunting by embodying the autonomy of the state in their deregulated posted presence. In this way, rather than an image of the typical ghost, who broods and lingers in quiet confined quarters of old creaky houses, the nekrolog embodies a distributed force that affects the entire public domain. Through the public nekrolog, haunting becomes a collective experience of remembering totalitarian forces like the Soviet Union through the apparatus of print-media.

Because the families of the deceased decide where to mount the nekrologs, and there are no legal regulations for removing the nekrologs, all living citizens circulating in the public eye hold equal power in observing the nekrolog—or removing it. Given the non-existent codes for nekrolog maintenance in public space, every viewer maintains the right to post or remove any nekrolog they choose. In this way, individuals have the capacity to question the authority not only of memories but also of ways of remembering embedded within the ritual practice of the nekrologs. This process of renegotiating memory happens with each nekrolog that is posted and removed, constantly haunting and echoing the nekrolog’s democratic power to enable its users to choose a particular style of memory that fits their bereavement needs.

Public space becomes a polyvalent field where remembering both intimate personal memories and tumultuous histories of totalitarian public media regulations are rehearsed. Within these polysemous habitats, nekrologs interact with media of various functions, from advertisements to political messages, as their placement orients them to compete for the same observer’s gaze.

In their essence, nekrologs in Bulgaria prompt us to consider how the Soviet past haunts public space. At the same time, the nekrolog medium itself is haunted by the public, who maintain the right to interfere with this practice by removing or manipulating posted nekrologs. In this way, the nekrolog media practices function as an echo chamber for the suspect transparency of democratic government, while also reflecting a totalitarian legacy in the public’s absolute authority to decide the fate of these postings. Nekrologs occupy and elucidate the complexity of democratic public space by prompting us to consider the similarities between the post-Soviet process of bereavement and the deeply engrained habits of post-Soviet citizens’ circulation in public space. Both continue to be haunted by memories of the past, forcibly occupy the gaze, and circulate in a suspect, amorphous conceptualization of a public still embroiled in historical trauma.

Maria Lechtarova is a third-year PhD student in sociocultural anthropology at New York University. Her dissertation project investigates death commemoration rituals in the Balkans.  She was the 2018 winner of the Society for the Anthropology of Europe/Council for European Studies pre-dissertation field research grant.

Originally published as: Lechtarova, Maria. 2019. “Haunting Democracy.” Anthropology News website, May 21, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1171