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
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

Watching Our Words by Nina Dewi Horstmann

“It’s creepy, don’t you think?” It’s the day after Christmas, and I’m walking with my sister-in-law Mette through the woods of Central Jutland, Denmark. She described how, just the other day, she had been speaking with friends about their new dog. Now she keeps seeing targeted advertising from pet food companies on her Facebook feed. Knowing that I study surveillance and privacy, she asked me if it could be true: could “they” be listening to her conversations through her cell phone?

Mette’s voice dropped an octave with the question, as if someone might be eavesdropping just then, although the path ahead was empty and we hadn’t passed another person in the last twenty minutes. We strode on, in the cold and I pulled my wool hat down over my ears. The sky above seemed woolen too, thick and close and gray. It hung over us like a cloak, enclosing our hushed conversation as we walked through the still forest.

I explained to Mette how Facebook has applied for a number of patents that theoretically enable the company to use the microphone and front-facing camera on a user’s phone to track their facial expressions, reactions, and ambient sounds, although Facebook affirms that these technologies have not been operationalized in any of its current products. In a recent New York Times opinion article, Sahil Chinoy chose the same word—creepy—to characterize Facebook’s patent applications, which attempt to detect, capture, analyze, and predict intimate aspects of users’ lives.

When I first started my fieldwork on privacy and technology in 2016, privacy was the domain of activists and specialists, the more strident of whom may have been dismissed as conspiracy theorists. However, following the 2018 revelations about high profile data breaches, election hacking, and Cambridge Analytica, as well as the roll out of the EU General Data Protection Regulation, Internet privacy has increasingly become the topic of media attention, popular conversation, and Twitter memes. In addition to unease over the creepiness of targeted advertising and predictive analytics, Internet users are increasingly concerned that their personal data may be leaked.

Ethnography offers a unique aperture for understanding how people conceive of privacy in their everyday lives. What type of data gathering is considered creepy and what is benign? Does it depend on the nature of the information, the context of its use, or the identity of the user? Whereas philosophers and legal scholars have struggled to define what exactly constitutes privacy (Thomson 1975, Kahn 2003), ethnographers can trace individuals’ own understandings of privacy by paying attention to the strategies and practices through which people attempt to construct a border between their private and public lives. This sort of boundary work may include technical practices like encrypting data and deleting Internet cookies and trackers. It may also include social practices like irony, whispers, and pseudonyms. While the nonconsensual disclosure of secrets may disrupt social relationships, there is a long history within the discipline of anthropology that conversely demonstrates how privacy and secrecy are generative for building social bonds, community, and shared identities (see Jones 2014, Mahmud 2014, Manderson et al. 2015, Simmel 1906).

Civil Inattention
Goffman’s “civil inattention” describes how people carefully avoid listening and staring in public, or even pretend to not to notice each other, in order to maintain the illusion of personal boundaries. Rather than a form of rudeness or neglect, Goffman characterizes this inattention as a mode of civility, a way of politely sharing public space. rawpixel/Pixabay

Creepiness gestures at the affective nature of privacy intrusions, an unease that is felt at the level of the body. Data collection becomes creepy when it breaches social norms about intimacy, transparency, consent and trust. While the recent EU GDPR has outlined stricter standards for the collection and storage of personal data, creepiness exceeds legal and technical definitions of data (in)security. Framing intrusions in terms of creepiness rather than illegality, injustice or other rights-based idioms highlights how people often conceive of privacy as a social relation. And an embodied one—as my walk in the woods with Mette illustrates.

While the Internet has provided a new platform for both sharing and collecting personal data, the management of private information in public space is a far older problem. In 1963, sociologist Erving Goffman described how urbanites engage in “civil inattention,” refraining from staring, prolonged eye contact, or eavesdropping when sharing public space with strangers. Ignoring others, in this context, is essential for maintaining social order. Imagine that a couple waiting in the queue ahead of you at a coffee shop is having an obvious disagreement. Their voices grow louder and louder as they argue. What you do? Look away, perhaps down at your phone, pretending not to hear them. To do otherwise—to gawk or listen in—would be an overstep. It would be creepy.

When people characterize data tracking as creepy, they indicate that companies and governments have transgressed social norms about who the designated recipient of information is and who should look the other way. Because we are accustomed to revealing information in public that we expect to be ignored, it is unsettling when that data is gathered and logged. And even though data tracking and surveillance are increasingly automated, commonplace discursive framings continue to imagine that there is a person on the other end who is watching or listening.

The breach of secrets violates social expectations about how information should be managed. To this point, novelist Sally Rooney illustrates the burden of the secret keeper: a secret is “something large and hot, like an overfull tray of hot drinks that [you have] to carry everywhere and never spill.” The content of the secret is less important than the fact that it was shared in confidence. We might say that there exists an obligation to maintain the privacy of one’s trusted companions, an ethical responsibility to protect their secrets. When companies and governments fail to meet that obligation, consumers and citizens lose trust.

Treating privacy as an ethnographic object is particularly valuable for anthropologists because it mirrors the core methodological and ethical concerns of our discipline—how to build intimacy and trust in order to gain access to privileged information, restricted knowledge, and our informants’ personal lives and social worlds. It can also help us reflect upon how we manage our own privacy and which aspects of our interior selves we choose to reveal while conducting fieldwork. Beyond “getting access” as a methodological problem, an ethnographic analysis of privacy and what it means to people brings our own moral quandaries more sharply into view, such as ethical contemplation over which moments and characters we make usable for ethnographic analysis and public consumption. How shall we observe, log, and write about people’s lives without being creepy? An anthropology of privacy requires careful ethical consideration of disclosure, discretion, exposure, and betrayal—especially in light of the discipline’s predilection for revelation, drawing up the curtain to reveal society’s rusty underbelly or hidden, beating heart.

Nina Dewi Horstmann is a PhD student in anthropology at Stanford University. Her research uses ethnographic methods to investigate how technology is applied in political contexts and to better understand the social and political problems that technology attempts to solve. Nina was the 2018 winner of the Society for the Anthropology of Europe’s Graduate Paper Prize for her manuscript entitled “The Power to Selectively Reveal Oneself: Privacy Protection Among Hacker-Activists.”

Originally published as Horstmann, Nina Dewi. 2019. “Watching Our Words.” Anthropology News website, April 24, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1148

© 2019 American Anthropological Association