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Making “Bread Money”: The Art and Labor of Turkish Roman Musicians

The Faculty Fellows Seminar held on October 17th was led by Sonia Seeman, Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology in the Butler School of Music. Dr. Seeman presented the group with a series of works that tied together several years’ worth of research and writing on the music and musicianship of Turkish Roman (“Gypsy”) communities. Dr. Seeman’s new project, titled Bread Money–Musical Movement: Narrating Turkish Roman Musicians’ Lives, seeks to offer a that explores music as laboring activity, her person- and family-centered narrative to complement her previous book, Sounding Roman: Musical Performance and Representation in Western Turkey. Seeman opened the seminar first by asking the group what in the readings left them with questions, with the need for clarification, or the desire for expansion, as well as a broader question: what is it we, as academics, narrativize?

Seeman noted that her project began with a reimagining of what goes into research, and what goes into narrative. Sounding Roman had left her with an abundance of stories, relationships, and connections to the people whose music and lives she had researched. Yet she found that only some of these depictions fit into her first book and some of her academic articles. Seeman discussed how she needs to consider her accountability not only to a scholarly community, but to the communities she represents–as well as to a more diverse reading audience. Musician families hold a mythic status for Turkish Roman communities, Seeman noted, and she seeks to both relate the mythic and the everyday realities. Seeman described the project as a “quilt” of stories, motives, and material, some of which were still in the process of being sewn together.

Many Fellows commented on Seeman’s use of the term “aesthetic labor” to describe the work of Turkish Roman musicians. Seeman noted that most Turkish Roman musicians come from musical lineages–musicianship, in other words, is seen as a family trade, and as an aesthetic trade first and foremost. Though music is frequently seen in Western culture as a pursuit of leisure, Turkish Roman musicians see the act as something to make “bread money,” or money that “puts food on the table.” Their labor, though aesthetic, is still skilled labor, requiring years of training and practice, usually from childhood. Some Fellows questioned whether this conception of labor has been shifted even further by technology, reimagining the bounds of music distribution.

Technology was a further consideration for Seeman’s overall project. Fellows discussed Seeman’s interest in expanding her book project into a hyperlinked text, or a larger digital repository and resource to scholars and students. But Seeman noted that she wants to balance providing an open digital archive with creating an immersive and engaging narrative. Such considerations led her and the group to thinking about Seeman’s own place in the narrative. Ethnomusicology, as she noted, often placed the researcher in the position of being a participant-scholar. Becoming part of the cultural landscape was important to Seeman’s understanding of her musician subjects and of the music that they play. But the process of participating, as Seeman noted, additionally opened up new stories, new avenues, and new friendships–all of which, the Fellows agreed, deserved a place in the ultimate story.

Jason De León Delivers Distinguished Visiting Lecture on Human Smuggling Across Mexico

Stephanie Holmes, HI Undergraduate Assistant

The Humanities Institute continued its Distinguished Visiting Lecture Series on Wednesday, October 23 with a visual presentation by Dr. Jason De León, Professor of Anthropology and Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles and Director of the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP). Dr. De León’s presentation, “Soldiers and Kings: A Photoethnography of Human Smuggling Across Mexico,” shared his experience with human smugglers bringing migrants from Central America to the U.S./Mexico border.

Cropped faces, blurred motion and monochrome photos helped tell the story of the men Dr. De León came to know personally. “I’m not here to humanize smugglers. They are human,” said Dr. De León, “I’m just trying to show you their humanity, even in its most disturbing forms.” His presentation focused on how human smuggling is currently organized, what can be gained by using a camera, from a photoethnographic approach.

He discussed the importance of gangs involved in human smuggling, specifically the MS13 gang. He expressed how gangs control the market and, although dangerous, offer the safest way to travel across Mexico and the border. Throughout his presentation, he gave anecdotes of the time he spent with gang leaders and members. These stories span moments where his naiveté proved helpful to moments of sadness from seeing a friend deported – potentially due to his association with De León.

De León briefly mentioned the political factors that have played a role in migration, emphasizing that both the Obama and Trump administrations have put pressure on Mexico to stop migration from Central America.

For Dr. De León the camera served as an important tool in his ethnographic practice to understanding this new world. He shared various reason for why he takes pictures, such as to convey things that cannot be explained through words and to catch things that he could not see with the naked eye. “I am hoping to product new layers of understanding, through the use of visuals that can complement, contradict, and complicate the ethnographic authority that I claim to own,” said Dr. De León. He discussed the importance of framing, effects, and vantage points in photos and how they can affect the photos and the subjects in them.

There was also De León’s struggle with the ethics of representing these men in images, like his friend Chino. Dr. De León shared how there is a social contract created with the people staring back at you in the photo. This affects how he wants to depict smugglers like Chino and the difficulties they face. For example, he discussed the implications of showing the audience the version of Chino who is a solider, a drug addict and enjoys trading women and the Chino who is a “vulnerable youth, caught between violence and poverty at home and violence and poverty on the migrant trail,” said Dr. De León. De León left the audience with many questions about smuggling, the politics and economics behind migration, and the ethics of representation.

About the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP):
The Undocumented Migration Project (UMP) is a long-term anthropological study of clandestine movement between Latin America and the United States that uses ethnography, archaeology, visual anthropology, and forensic science to understand this social process. In Fall 2020, The Humanities Institute plans to host the Hostile Terrain exhibit, a project facilitated by the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP).

To receive information about the Distinguished Visiting Lecture Series and the upcoming exhibit, please stay tuned to the Humanities Institute’s website and sign up for our mailing list.

Gothic Care and Keeping: Sir Walter Scott’s Stewardship

Samuel Baker, Associate Professor in the Department of English, led the Faculty Fellows seminar on October 11th. Dr. Baker presented the Fellows with a project-in-progress on Sir Walter Scott and “stewardship,” which encapsulates Baker’s conception of Scott’s ongoing influence (and active fostering, during his time) of cultural history. In the manuscripts he distributed to the seminar, Baker argues that Scott, and to an extent, poets like Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, and Ann Radcliffe, each participate in an ethos of “spectral” or gothic care, charging contemporaries and future generations to become “stewards” to British national culture.

This “ethos of stewardship,” Baker notes, pulls together various threads of their contemporary moment to produce our current culture. Scott, an antiquarian, lawyer, folklorist, and Tory, based his literary landscapes off of his studies, seeing himself first and foremost as an editor of antiquarian literature. His literary persona was in turn deeply bound, as Baker argued, to an ethics of care that entreats readers to engage with Britain’s past, and also Britain’s future.

In the seminar, Baker characterized his reading of Scott as “reparative,” citing work by Steven J. Jackson (in the edited volume, Media Technologies) and Eve K. Sedgwick (in her book Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity) on new attention to appreciation. Baker connected Scott’s antiquarian aspirations with the simultaneously “gothic” and “georgic” poetry of Burns and Wordsworth, who likewise mediate an ethos of care for their readers. Baker solicited the Fellows’ thoughts around this connection and thus continued the seminar’s ongoing conversation on audience-specific writing. While Baker admitted he enjoys presenting his research to a broader audience, he usually leans towards more academic and thus more specialized forms of writing. Baker and the Fellows discussed the virtues of “portrait” vs. “landscape” writing, and the Fellows expressed a particular interest in the broader “landscape” question of how Scott has influenced today’s notions of stewardship–whether national, religious, economic, or ecological. They agreed that this topic could speak to a wide range of audiences.

 

Artificial Intelligence and the Medical Humanities: The Ethical Concerns of Data Commodification in Medicine

by Alissa Williams, HI Program Assistant

Dr. Kirsten Ostherr, the Gladys Louise Fox Professor of English, Director of the Medical Futures Lab at Rice University, and an Adjunct Professor at the UT-Houston School of Public Health, gave her talk, “AI and the Medical Humanities: An Emerging Field of Critical Intervention,” at the October Health and Humanities Research Seminar. Discussing the past, present, and future role of artificial intelligence (AI) in medicine, Dr. Ostherr argued that AI and related “datafication” practices are coming to constitute a new social determinant of health, a term that refers to “conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play [that] affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes.” (Datafication is the process of collecting information about something that was previously invisible and turning it into data.) Dr. Ostherr’s lecture was an enlightening take on the potential positive impacts of AI, but also a warning as to how dangerous its reach can become if it goes unchecked. The seminar began with a chronological mapping of AI’s appropriation into the medical field and ended with a call to action for scholars across all disciplines, as well as the public, to participate in the advancement and regulation of AI as it relates to medicine and health.

Prior to 2015, the application of AI in the medical field involved “a lot of speculation,” but “little action” according to Dr. Ostherr. While AI was initially thought to be a threat to the job security of health care professionals such as radiologists, some now see it as a potential tool for making health care more efficient, more effective, and more accessible to historically neglected populations. But AI, especially when combined with datafication, also poses potential harm to patients and others. Dr. Ostherr argues that the health data about themselves that individuals both purposefully and inadvertently make available on social media platforms, websites, and personal wellness devices (e.g., Fitbits) can be commodified for exploitative purposes, largely without the permission or even knowledge of the patient whose data is being commodified. While research into the social determinants of health can be used to promote health equity and health justice, it can also be used to reinforce existing forms of bias and exclusion and even create new ones. For instance, companies can use data about the neighborhoods people live in or even their degree of political participation to deny them health insurance, charge them more for it, or even deny them employment.  Rather than using data to improve people’s health and health care, companies can use it to manage their own financial risks. In other words, instead of making healthcare and its infrastructure more accessible to all individuals, including those belonging to historically marginalized groups, AI and datafication can exacerbate the gaps that already exist by amplifying the biases that helped create these inequities.

On the other hand, however, Dr. Ostherr mentioned two websites in her talk, Hu-manity.co and Doc.ai, that have begun to use AI as a means of enabling patients themselves to monetize the sharing of their data under privacy constraints that the patients choose. Although these websites have not yet garnered a prominent following, they serve as examples of the potential AI has to help develop more positive and transparent ways of using individuals’ health data. Dr. Ostherr believes that the health humanities have a crucial role to play in determining how AI and other modes of information technology are used in the fields of health and medicine. Dr. Ostherr emphasizes that this is indeed a collaborative effort that needs to take place between disciplines in order to ensure the needs of the public are met from all angles with diversity in mind.