For those familiar with modern media, there are a number of short musical phrases that immediately trigger a particular emotional response. Think, for example, of the two-note theme that denotes the shark in Jaws, and see if you become just a little more tense or nervous. So too with the stabbing shriek of the violins from Psycho, or even the whirling four-note theme from The Twilight Zone. In each of these cases, the musical theme is short, memorable, and unalterably linked to one specific feeling: fear.
The first few notes of the “Dies Irae” chant, perhaps as recognizable as any of the other themes I mentioned already, are often used to provoke that same emotion.
Often, but not always. The “Dies Irae” has been associated with death since its creation in the thirteenth century, due to its use in the Requiem Mass for the dead until the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). Its text describes the Last Judgment, when all humanity will be sent to heaven or hell. But from the Renaissance to today, the “Dies Irae” has also come to symbolize everything from the medieval church and Catholic ritual to the sinister, superstitious, or supernatural, even violence and battle—and any combination of the above.
Because of its unique history not only within its original liturgical context but also within later musical genres, this chant has become largely divorced from its original purposes, at least in modern popular imagination. Instead, it now holds a multiplicity of meanings; composers manipulate these meanings by utilizing this chant in a new setting, and thus in turn continue to reinforce those meanings within modern media. Since its use within the Mass, concert music, and films has already been well documented, this blog post explores its presence in an as yet unexamined medium: video games.Chant—monophonic music of the Western Christian tradition—is the largest surviving body of music from the medieval period. Although chant was not written down until the ninth century, it has been continuously sung for over two thousand years. Before the Reformation, chant permeated the musical landscape of Western Europe. But as John Haines points out, chant’s meanings changed in the sixteenth century; to Protestants, chant was a sign of superstitious, even sinister, ritual, whereas to Catholics it was a flawed but holy tradition (112). Chant became ever more confined to the Catholic liturgy; although composers continued to use chant in new compositions, by the late nineteenth century the only chant guaranteed to be recognized by a secular audience was the “Dies Irae.”
Beginning in the late eighteenth century, the text was set in Requiems for the secular stage by composers such as Mozart, Verdi, and Britten. But due to both its evocative text and its memorable melody (often just the first sixteen, eight, or even four notes), the “Dies Irae” chant soon was incorporated into secular instrumental works, where it signified the past, the supernatural, the oppressive, the demonic, and death. No work is more responsible for this than Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, where the chant symbolizes the composer’s own death and the depravity of the demons and witches who dance at his funeral.
The history of this chant, together with its use in film, has been explored by scholars such as Linda Schubert and John Haines. Because the “Dies Irae” was already a well-known symbol of the aforementioned characteristics, and because early silent film musicians borrowed musical ideas from previously composed works, the chant segued quickly into early film, where its symbolic possibilities were reinforced. Thus, even in newly composed soundtracks, composers utilized this chant as an aural shortcut to a host of emotional and psychological reactions, especially (as James Deaville and others discuss) within horror films. It appears in scenes depicting inner anguish, fear, the occult, evil, and imminent death in films from It’s a Wonderful Life, The Seventh Seal, and The Shining to Disney’s The Lion King and Star Wars, in musicals like Sweeney Todd, and in literary works such as Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, but it also symbolizes power and even heroism, such as in this Nike shoe commercial.
The “Dies Irae” appears analogously in video game soundtracks, where it communicates the same symbolic meanings that it does in film scores and concert music. Its recognizability also lends itself to parody, as it did in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yet, unlike in film music, the evolution of its use in game music speaks also to the evolution of game music technology.
In the earlier years of video games, technology could not create continuous soundtracks. The first such was in Space Invaders (1978), although it consisted only of four descending notes looped indefinitely. Additionally, while voice synthesis was used in game soundtracks as early as 1982, reproduction of musical voices was limited even into the 1990s. William Gibbons describes how early systems had a limited number of channels (40); as a result, Baroque-style counterpoint worked well texturally, and reproducing music from earlier composers such as Bach was not only permissible by copyright but also demonstrated the capabilities of their systems (201–204). As such, earlier games were less interested in a monophonic chant, although several (such as Fatal Fury) did use Mozart’s setting of the “Dies Irae.”
The “Dies Irae” chant is first used in game music in the late 1980s and early 1990s, by which point most systems had five or more channels, allowing for improved timbres and sound synthesis. The opening theme song to F-19 Stealth Fighter (1988–92, DOS/PC/Amiga/Atari) subtly references the first phrase of the chant. Composer Ken Lagace sets the first eight pitches evenly in the lower voice before moving them to a higher, rhythmicized register. The chant is accompanied by a consistent percussive element and several higher, chordal voices, which splinter off into fast arpeggios before restating the opening. There is as yet no action, nor is the plot either spiritual or supernatural, so the chant here actually works in a somewhat anomalous way. It heightens the player’s tension through its aural connotations of fear and death, thus setting the stage for the battles still to come in the game itself.
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992, PC) is another early instance of the “Dies Irae,” which appears at the end, when Indiana and his companion Sophia confront the malevolent Doctor. The chant again increases tension but also indicates the presence of evil. Musically, the first two phrases of the chant appear in long, low tones, accompanied by several high, sustained, dissonant pitches. New voices enter, reminiscent of the opening phrase, before the chant returns in full in all registers. The system’s capability for thicker textures allowed the composers to stack the monophonic “Dies Irae” against itself, further emphasizing the threat of imminent danger in this final encounter.
The last of the early case studies is Zombies Ate My Neighbors (1993, SNES/Genesis). These systems featured multiple channels capable of emulating a variety of acoustical settings. The game is a parody of 1950s horror films; the protagonists race through standard horror settings such as malls and castles to rescue their neighbors from demonic babies, vampires, zombies, and other stock creatures. The soundtrack also mimics the musical tropes in such films: chant itself, especially the “Dies Irae,” but also timbres such as tremolo, stingers, extreme ranges, and dissonance. The track “Curse of the Tongue,” which plays upon encountering the final boss, Dr. Tongue’s Giant Head, emulates a Gothic pipe organ. The low organ drone sustains underneath the first sixteen notes of the chant, which sound in a shrieking, vibrato-heavy register. The voices then move in parallel fifths as in medieval polyphony. The “Dies Irae” here brings to mind an entire film genre while also overtly characterizing the final battle against the otherworldly, sinister, evil Head. In this case, the chant works literally to signify the current battle and threat of death, but also parodically to indicate the absurdity of the situation.
The development of video game audio technology allowed first for voice emulation, then voice reproduction. Vocal samples were used as early as the 1980s, but were often confined to theme songs. Yet even after voices were reproduced within soundtracks, it is the “Dies Irae” melody alone that is most frequently sampled, strikingly paralleling its earlier use in film and concert music. When the “Dies Irae” text is used, it is set to newly composed music or borrowed from the Mozart or Verdi Requiems. Moreover, as in earlier media, all that is needed as an aural mnemonic is the first phrase, even just the first four notes, of the chant melody.
For example, two games released for PC in 1999—Heroes of Might & Magic III and Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned—both use just the first portion of the “Dies Irae.” In “Burying the Manuscript” from Gabriel Knight, pizzicato violins first allude to the first four or five notes of the chant (1:25); the full first phrase is then presented in parallel motion in the brass. The remainder of this theme alludes to the first few notes, making the “Dies Irae” a constant presence here and underscoring the secrecy, even the occult nature, of the manuscript in this scene.
Heroes III uses even less melodic material. In the Necropolis, composer Paul Romero uses the first four notes of the “Dies Irae” to underpin the entire theme. The bass plays the first four notes in a low register before seguing into newly composed material, but the contour of that phrase returns throughout the theme. The full chant phrases do not appear until the very end. The chant hints constantly at the overwhelming metaphor of death in this area, as well as to the presence of supernatural creatures such as vampires, zombies, and wraiths.
Unusual for many reasons, then, is the last case study: the game Dante’s Inferno (2010, PS3/Xbox360). It is the sole example here to use voices, but the text appears to be newly composed. As John Haines noted, the presence of Latin or pseudo-Latin is in and of itself a trope of the diabolical or demonic, which adds further nuance to this scene (129). The familiar melody is presented by a choir of mixed voices, accompanied by a roar of low brass, ambient noise, and a descant voice singing on open vowels, all signifiers of horror or the medieval. Moreover, the “Dies Irae” is not reserved for a final battle, as in previous examples, nor does it characterize supernatural creatures. Rather, it is the first theme heard in the game, reinforcing not only the medieval setting and the constant presence of death but also the ultimate trajectory of Dante, and the gamer, into Hell.
While the “Dies Irae” has been well studied as an aural signifier within film and concert music, its use in video games has, before now, been largely ignored. As in earlier musical genres, this chant brings to games a host of culturally accepted, musically mediated meanings that allow composers to immediately flesh out a character or scene. In so doing, game composers acknowledge that sound is not just sound, but rather it is (to borrow a phrase from Elizabeth Randell Upton) “a complex interaction of experiences and expectations on the part of the audience.” These experiences are continuously shaped by new compositions, scores, and soundtracks, which in turn continuously shape the audience’s expectations for future works.
As such, game soundtracks, along with other kinds of media, continue to transform the “Dies Irae” out of its original context and into an ever-growing set of pop culture symbols. The chant now signifies everything from the medieval to the present day, from judgment, battle, and death to demons, witches, and the occult. Within games in particular, though, it acts as a “memento mori,” a reminder of the mortality that game characters, and thus game players, seek to avoid through play. As such, it may instill fear in a player, but also suspicion, alertness, tension, even excitement, spurring the player to react in whichever manner suits the individual game.
The iconic status of the opening phrases of the “Dies Irae” chant marks it as a particularly useful polyvalent symbol for composers. Yet the utilization of this well-known trope is not without its problems. As I discuss in a forthcoming article, this chant, and indeed all plainchant, originates in a particular sacred, liturgical tradition. When a chant such as “Dies Irae” is used as a signifier of a general sense of spirituality, or of the medieval, or even of horror, then by default those characteristics are reified, if subtly, as Christian. Moreover, linking a chant such as the “Dies Irae” to the supernatural or the occult serves to perpetuate early modern stereotypes of Catholicism as nothing more than superstitious magic; see, for example, the purported origins of the phrase “hocus pocus.” Such anachronistic uses further obfuscate chant’s continuous role within Catholic (and other) liturgy; it is both a historic and a very modern practice.
Given that the “Dies Irae” is certainly not the only musical means to the aforementioned symbolic ends, perhaps these concerns are not pressing. Still, as Anita Sarkeesian points out, we can enjoy modern media while simultaneously critiquing facets that are problematic. There is no clear-cut way, at this point, to overturn hundreds of years of accumulated symbolic meaning for a musical icon such as the “Dies Irae,” but it behooves us as participants in auditory culture to become better aware of the multiple, and occasionally challenging, meanings within what we hear.
[Other games that also use the “Dies Irae” chant include Gauntlet Legends (1999, N64/PS/Dreamcast), Final Fantasy IX (2000, PS), EverQuest II (2004, MMORPG), Heroes of Might and Magic V (2006, PC), Sam & Max: Season 2 (2007–8, Wii/PC/PS3/Xbox 360), Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (2011, PS3/Xbox 360), and Diablo 3 (2012–4, PC/PS3/Xbox/PS4). My thanks go to VGMdb and Overclocked Remix for bringing several of these games to my attention, and to Ryan Thompson and Dana Plank for comments.]
Featured Image: A mashup of the first lines of the Dies Irae and the Zombies Ate My Neighbors title screen. Remixed for purposes of critique.
Dr. Karen Cook specializes in medieval and Renaissance music theory, history, and performance. She is currently working on a monograph on the development of rhythmic notation in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. She also maintains active research interests in popular and contemporary music, especially with regard to music and identity in television, film, and video games. She frequently links her areas of specialization together through a focus on medievalism, writ broadly, in contemporary culture. As such, some of her recent and forthcoming publications include articles on fourteenth-century theoretical treatises, biographies of lesser-known late medieval theorists, and the use of plainchant in video games, a book chapter on medievalist music in Harry Potter video games, and a forthcoming co-authored Oxford Bibliography on medievalism and music.
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Starting April 2018, read issue #10: Chokepoints!
Migrants gather in “jungles” at the mouth of the Chunnel, awaiting an opportunity to cross from mainland Europe into the UK undetected. Somali pirates attack ships queuing up at the Bab-El-Mandeb strait, a critical passage between the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. A flash crash in the stock market triggers a digital “circuit breaker” that instantly shuts off digital trade until cooler heads prevail. Transcontinental internet connectivity is funneled through bundles of undersea cables, making global information flow susceptible to disruption by something as minor as a misplaced ship anchor. These tunnels, corridors, and cables illustrate how some conduits can become chokepoints, sites where malfunction, blockage, or strategic pressure constricts—or “chokes”—the flows and connections upon which contemporary life depends. Limn 10 brings together anthropologists, geographers, photographers, media scholars, sociologists, ecologists, and historians to explore chokepoints. We ask: When and why do these sites of constriction and connection emerge? How and for whom do they work? And what do chokepoints reveal about the the past, present, and future? Read More
On January 26, 2017, the IKEA refugee shelter was declared the worldwide Design of the Year in a unanimous decision. When I interviewed one of the jurors about the process I was told that they’d chosen the “obvious winner”: the IKEA shelter was high profile, it had featured widely in the media, it was a positive story with a clear social purpose, and it offered a practical solution to the so-called “refugee crisis,” one of the most significant issues of the previous twelve months. The London Design Museum has been awarding the “Design of the Year” for a decade now, celebrating examples that “promote or deliver change, enable access, extend design practice, or capture the spirit of the year” (Beazley 2017). The IKEA refugee shelter seemed to match all of these aims, claiming to be modular, sustainable, long lasting, recyclable, easily assembled, affordable, and scalable. It was installed on the Greek islands to shelter newly arrived refugees in 2015, and it came with the backing of the United Nations (UN) Refugee Agency, who purchased 15,000 units for distribution around the world.
The juror I spoke to explained that the shelter won because it “tackles one of the defining issues of the moment: providing shelter in an exceptional situation whether caused by violence and disaster…. [It] provides not only a design but secure manufacture as well as distribution.” A statement described the project as “relevant and even optimistic,” concluding, “it shows the power of design to respond to the conditions we are in and transform them” (Beazley 2017; personal interview, April 25, 2017, Design Museum, London).
It is easy to understand why this shelter has generated so much interest since it was first announced in 2013. It has received funding from IKEA, a company that has shaped so much of everyday life in the Global North and whose minimalist modernism has populated so many domestic environments. As Keith Murphy points out, there is a social democratic spirit underpinning so much of Swedish design, a combination of simplicity, affordability, and universality that both reflects and promotes a more egalitarian social order (Murphy 2015; see also Garvey 2017). When applied to refugee housing, this has all the makings of positive story. The media are given something their readers can relate to—the experience of unpacking and constructing IKEA flat-pack furniture—and can connect it to a problem that concerns us all: how to house the millions of refugees we see on the news. The IKEA refugee shelter, the story goes, can be assembled in four to six hours with a basic manual and no specialist tools. Everything comes in two compact boxes, much like those that contain your new bed and table from the IKEA store. More attractively, the design arrives with a number of innovative little tricks, including a photovoltaic panel that provides sufficient electricity to power a small light and mobile phone charger. It seems like a heartwarming example of philanthro-capitalism, good design, and humanitarian innovation (Scott-Smith 2016). What’s not to like?
For anyone who has actually seen the shelter up close, it looks rather mundane after this hyperbolic description. It has a rectangular floor plan, vertical walls, and a pitched roof. The shelter is fairly small, covering an area of 17.5 square meters, and it is designed to house a family of up to five people. When inside, you can look up and see the entire structure laid bare: a standalone steel frame with imposing horizontal beams, onto which foam panels are clipped. These panels are made from polyolefin, a light, flexible plastic, and they have the feeling and texture of swimming floats. They have been attached to the frame with hand-tightened bolts and brackets, and the shelter has four small ‘window’ openings, ventilation slots, and a lockable door. The main designer described its chunky, basic appearance as the kind of house “a 5-year-old would draw” (personal interview, May 18, 2017, Stockholm). It is, indeed, visually uninspiring, but this is because it is meant to be basic. Like much of IKEA’s product line, it is mass-produced, economical modernism. It is meant to offer a shelter that is immediate, quick, affordable, and easily transportable, staying as close as possible to the price and weight of the main alternative: the tent.
Tents have been the go-to shelter for humanitarian organizations for more than 50 years. The UN Refugee Agency distributes tens of thousands of them annually, and they are still valued for their lightweight, inexpensive simplicity. To be taken seriously as a humanitarian product, therefore, the IKEA shelter needs to be comparable to the tent in terms of price and weight while making some crucial improvements. There are four, in particular, that can be found in this design. First, the IKEA shelter provides increased security through a lockable door. Second, it provides greater privacy through firmer and more opaque walls. Third, it provides improved communication with a mobile phone-charging station. And fourth, it lasts considerably longer: up to four years rather than just one. These improvements encapsulate the basic requirements for dignified living according to the designers, combining security, privacy, durability, and connection to the outside world. These features, the narrative goes, are particularly important given the protracted nature of so many contemporary refugee situations and the likelihood of a lengthy exile.
When I spoke to the designers about dignity, they came back again and again to the same material expressions, which were fascinating in their tangibility and their conception of refugee social worlds. Dignity meant being able to stand up in the IKEA shelter, which is impossible in a tent. Dignity meant having walls that were “knocky”: firmer, more secure, more resonant when tapped, which distinguished the materials from tarpaulin. Dignity meant privacy: whereas silhouettes can cause a problem in tents, the IKEA shelter does not reveal activity inside when the lights are on at night; its material is more opaque and disperses the shadows. Such improvements, however small, allow the design team to mobilize a more expansive, idealistic rhetoric. In its publicity materials, the shelter has become a “safer, more dignified home away from home for millions of displaced people across the world.” It has channeled “smart design, innovation and modern technology” to offer “a sense of peace, identity and dignity.” It is “universally welcoming”, a “home away from home” that balances “the needs of millions of people living in different cultures, climates and regions with a rational production—a single solution” (Better Shelter 2015; personal interview, May 19, 2017, Stockholm, Sweden). Far from being a better tent, this shelter has some revolutionary ambitions. But is it a better tent? Does it live up to its aims of producing a compact, cheap, lightweight product for meeting a basic human need?
The day after the announcement of the prize I sensed a collective sigh of despair among my colleagues working on refugee issues, which was tangible in personal conversations, snarky asides, and exasperated emails. The failures of the shelter were, for many of them, far too obvious. It was meager, limited, with no proper floor, no insulation, no natural light, and with a structure that let in drafts and dust. It had been oversold, under-ordered, and was described as sustainable when in fact it involved flying piles of metal and plastic around the world. It ignored established practice in the humanitarian shelter sector, which advocates the use of local materials and abundant local labor, and, above all, it was accompanied by an insistent triumphalism, with media reports pushing the narrative that an intractable problem had been solved. It had not. Managing refugee arrivals is a complex political issue that requires sustained political engagement, legal reform, and advocacy in host states to ensure investment in welfare and protection. Although these were not the aims of the IKEA refugee shelter, such lavish praise and attention, my informants felt, were a distraction. Many such “innovative designs” have become a fetish, creating a mistaken reassurance that circumstances can be controlled while obscuring a series of more serious, structural issues that remain unaddressed (Scott-Smith 2013).
The most tangible criticisms of the IKEA shelter, I soon realized, came from two opposing directions. On the one hand, there were those who argued the shelter did too little. It was a mean little space, they suggested, that looked like a garden shed or, due to its plastic panels, a chemical toilet. This line of critique usually came from architects, who filed the object contemptuously under “product design” and declared that it involved no architectural thinking at all. Architecture, they pointed out, should respond to the site and local environment, not mass-produce a universal design with no adaptability or control. Architecture should create sensitive and carefully planned responses to specific problems, not ignore basic elements such as insulation, proper flooring, and natural light. Architecture should also be pleasing to the eye. If you took the Vitruvian triad of architectural virtues, the IKEA shelter seemed to fail on every count. Firmitas, utilitas, and venustas was the aim, but the shelter was flimsy rather than firm, flawed rather than useful, ugly rather than beautiful. It was particularly galling for this group of critics that the shelter won not just Design of the Year, but that it won the architectural category as well.
The other type of criticism came from humanitarians. They argued not that the shelter did too little, but that it did too much. It provided a fully integrated, flat-pack solution when this was rarely required or appropriate. It flew in a prefabricated house when there were better opportunities to work from the bottom up. It lionized designers when design was rarely a priority. Unlike architects, humanitarians were working in a context of limited time and limited resources. They worked with the mantra that “shelter is a process not a product,” a slogan that derives from the work of Ian Davis (1978), one of the founding thinkers of the humanitarian shelter sector, who argued that humanitarians needed to focus on the way people shelter themselves. Davis said that disaster-affected communities had their own techniques for finding and building shelter, suggesting that humanitarian shelter should mean discouraging designers and other outside “experts.” The priority should be to provide materials such as wood, nails, tarpaulin, and tape that help people build their own homes. These could be used and reused as people expanded their accommodation. The crucial task, in other words, was not to provide finished shelters, but to support people in their own process of sheltering.
In the middle of May 2017, I took a trip to Stockholm to meet the IKEA shelter’s design team and see how they navigated these two very different criticisms. I arrived at their headquarters on the 11th floor of the old Ericsson building in a southern suburb of the city, and spent some days learning about their brief, their aims, and their ways of thinking. The first thing that became clear was that this was not, in fact, an “IKEA shelter.” It was a designed by a group of independent Swedish industrial designers who had met at college and developed the basic idea in discussion with humanitarians in Geneva. They later received substantial financial support from the IKEA Foundation, which allowed them to refine, test, and iterate the idea, eventually leading to a commitment from the UN Refugee Agency to purchase a large number of units.
As I learned more about the project, it soon became clear that the story of the shelter seemed to be constantly swinging like a pendulum. It was caught between the expansive utopian idealism that so often underpins the announcement of new humanitarian designs and the restricted, mundane implications of their actual implementation. Both types of criticism, in other words, were basically correct: the IKEA shelter is both ‘too much’ and ‘too little’. It is clearly a product rather than a process, so it ends up being overwrought, top-down, and “too much” for aid workers who are skeptical of universal solutions. At the same time, it has been designed to be cheap and lightweight, so it will always be “too little” for those with bigger ideas about what design can achieve (especially as it lacks many of the basic elements that are crucial to architecture, such as proper flooring, insulation, light, strength, and beauty). The formal name for the shelter seems to encapsulate this tension. It is properly called the “Better Shelter”, and I was reprimanded in Stockholm for using the name “IKEA shelter,” which remains in common parlance but has never been formally adopted. This name emphasizes the restricted horizon of improvement. The product aspires to be better, but it is no more than shelter. It idealistically attempts to improve the world, but pursues this by providing basic shelter rather than engaging with a more expansive terrain of housing.
The problem of doing too much and too little was powerfully illustrated in December 2015, when the Swiss city of Zurich conducted a fire safety test on the IKEA shelter. The video of the test was screened on the news and subsequently circulated online: it featured a series of terrifying images in which a small fire, illuminating first the translucent sides of the shelter, suddenly engulfed the scene in an explosion of flames and molten plastic. The media picked up on the story, Zurich cancelled its intended use of the shelters for new migrant arrivals, and distribution of the shelter began to slow. This was perhaps the biggest challenge the design had faced since its inception, and the fire test led to more than a year of additional work as the team made changes to the shelter’s design – mostly adjustments to the panel material. During this process, however, the design team found no clear code to work. Fire retardancy standards and testing procedures could not be found in the usual humanitarian handbooks, and so the team felt hostage to unrealistic criteria. The Swiss tests had compared the shelter with a permanent residential building, which seemed unfair (as a tent, which was the closest equivalent, would fare no better), yet it seemed impossible to object when the Swiss fire tests were released. The shelter was meant to be “better,” and the whiff of double standards would drift over the scene very quickly if they argued this was a shelter for a different population. The idea that refugee accommodation should be held to lower standards would not be good publicity for a product so concerned with the promoting dignity.
The fire tests raised a number of questions. Is this a “slightly” Better Shelter? Or is it “sometimes” a better shelter, depending on location and context? And when, exactly, is it a better shelter – in which times and places? One thing is clear: most people would not choose to live in one of these structures because of its obvious limitations. It has no floor or insulation, barely any natural light, and a tiny living space, even if its three or four tangible improvements certainly make it better than a tent. But then again, it should be better, as it costs a good deal more than a tent: currently twice the price of a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) standard family model. Is this a problem? Don’t we expect a better shelter to be a more expensive shelter? Yet how much is too much? What if twice the price means aiding half as many people? Is this a “better” result?
As the IKEA shelter becomes more widely used in different locations, a clear lesson has begun to emerge: that the whole product is deeply dependent on context. It is only “better” in some times and places. It may be “better” when compared with a tent, but not when compared with a Swiss apartment building. It may be “better” in a Middle Eastern refugee camp, but not in a Western European reception facility. It may be “better” when funds are plentiful and refugee numbers limited, but not when refugees are plentiful and funds limited. It might be “better” when there is an urgent need for emergency shelters, but not when there is scope for people to build a home of their own.
The Lagom Shelter
Perhaps this, in the end, defines the wider world of little development devices and humanitarian goods: they are simultaneously too much and too little. They are vulnerable to the charge of being too limited as well as the charge of being too expansive. They fail to tackle fundamental global injustices, but they still make numerous ideological assumptions about human life and human dignity beneath their search for modest improvements. The little development device oscillates between its grand visions of human improvement and its modest engineering in a tiny frame. The humanitarian good balances a philanthro-capitalist utopia with the minimalist aim of saving lives. All of this is encapsulated in the slightly Better Shelter. When I discussed these thoughts with the team in Stockholm, they basically agreed, and reached for the Swedish word lagom to describe their aims. It is tricky to translate, but means something like “the right amount,” “neither too little nor too much.” The Better Shelter is lagom because it has to be viable as well as adding value. It has to negotiate with the critics who claim it is “too much” as well as those who say it does “too little.” The shelter could never please architectural critics because it was only designed as a cheap, short-term home, and it would never please bottom-up humanitarian practitioners because it was too top-down and complete. Lagom captures the search for balance while reflecting a wider ethos of democratic Swedish design.
Yet aspiring to be lagom does not make the central tension disappear. Just like being “better,” being lagom depends on context. What counts as “just enough” depends on where you are, who you are, and what you are doing. Something lagom in Sweden may not be lagom elsewhere. This became apparent just before the Better Shelter was launched, when a handful of units were shipped to Lebanon for a practical test with refugees. On their arrival in the Bekaa Valley, a group of armed and angry Lebanese neighbors appeared. The shelters, in their view, were too permanent. It did not matter that they had no foundations. It did not matter that they could be removed in less than a day. It did not matter that the walls and roof would degrade in just a few years. The structures were too solid, and the authorities agreed. The Better Shelter had become “too much” for the Lebanese political context, just as in Switzerland it had become “too little.” The same features that made it insufficient in one country made it extravagant in another.
So although the Better Shelter tries to be better everywhere, it can never hope to adapt to the infinite complexity of refugee crises and its scales became disrupted when butting up against hard political realities. Since 2013, the designers have been working assiduously in Stockholm to optimize every component: changing the clips and panel material, redesigning the bolts and vents, refining the door and frame. They think an improved product can overcome both the Swiss fire tests and the Lebanese resistance. But what is “better” will always change with context. The Lagom Shelter can only be truly Lagom on the 11th floor of the old Ericcson building in Stockholm. As soon as it moves, the balance changes. Lagom cannot be built into any universal form.
Beazley. 2017. “Flat-packed refugee shelter named best design of 2016”. Beazley Design of the Year Press Release, 26.01.2017. Available at link
Better Shelter. 2015. Better Shelter: A Home Away From Home. Better Shelter Promotional Leaflet. Available at link.
Davis, I. 1978. Shelter After Disaster. Oxford, UK: Oxford Polytechnic Press.
Garvey, P. 2017. Unpacking Ikea Cultures: Swedish Design for the Purchasing Masses. London, UK: Routledge.
Murphy, K. 2015. Swedish Design: An Ethnography. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Scott-Smith, T. 2013. “The Fetishism of Humanitarian Objects and the Management of Malnutrition in Emergencies.” Third World Quarterly 34(5): 913-28.
———. 2016. “Humanitarian Neophilia: The Innovation Turn and Its Implications.” Third World Quarterly 37(12): 2229–2251.
———. 2017. “The Humanitarian-Architect Divide.” Forced Migration Review 55:67-8.
Sewell, Abby, and Charlotte Alfred. 2017. “Evicted Refugees in Lebanon Have Nowhere Left to Run.” Refugees Deeply, September 28. Available at link.
 The phrase “IKEA refugee shelter” is a misnomer. As explained below, this object has been produced by a group of Swedish industrial designers who received financial support and sponsorship from the IKEA Foundation. The formal name for the product is the Better Shelter, but the phrase “IKEA refugee shelter” is still widely used. I continue to use it partly for the sake of recognition, and partly to highlight the intimate connection with IKEA, which is central to the story of this product despite being made distant through several degrees of institutional separation.
 I use scare quotes around the idea of “crisis” here for three reasons: first, because the “refugee crisis” is based on a doubtful claim that the number of refugees in the world today is “unprecedented”. Second, because much larger refugee numbers routinely arrive in developing countries – this situation is only a “crisis” because it has affected the rich world. And third, the crisis has not been a result of refugee numbers, which is relatively manageable, but the political response. If anything, this is not a refugee crisis, but a hospitality crisis.
 The whole design of this shelter emerged in part from UN High Commissioner for Refugees’s (UNHCR’s) recognition that refugees are spending ever-longer periods in camps, and therefore tents are no longer suitable due to their short lifespan.
 For this reflection on the relationship with the Vitruvian virtues, I am grateful to Mark E. Breeze.
 The critics do not even agree. Humanitarians have their biases; architects have theirs. I have written about this tension in the June 2017 issue of Forced Migration Review (Scott-Smith 2017).
 Its previous name was the Refugee Housing Unit (RHU), which made for a popular humanitarian acronym but was never very catchy. The rebrand as ‘Better Shelter’ tried to quash the use of “IKEA Shelter” completely, which is too reminiscent of corporate sponsorship.
 For more on the political circumstances of the “no camp” policy in Lebanon, see Sewell and Alfred (2017).
In the summer of 2016, optimistic about a full-time teaching position at a minority-serving institution, yet unsure about what the U.S. election would mean for immigrants’ rights, I played the Hamilton soundtrack daily. Lin Manuel Miranda wrote the Pulitzer-prize winning musical inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography on the United States’ founding father because, he believed, Alexander Hamilton’s life embodied hip hop. My repeated listenings urged me to assign the musical as homework in my courses.
Colleagues with whom I engage on Twitter provided resources with which to begin. A public historian, Lyra Monteiro, wrote an important review for Public History,“Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,” which provide one key angle of critique. Latinx Theater scholar and SO! writer Trevor Boffone created an online syllabus, #Syllabus4Ham, that provided important critiques of the musical, news coverage of its growing popularity, and initial scholarly analyses of the cultural historical significance of the musical’s popularity. Pedagogically, Miranda’s archival research in addition to his belief that Hamilton’s life embodied hip hop sparked an interest to bring the production to my gender and interdisciplinary studies classrooms. While colleagues works’ inspired ways to discuss the musical in class, post-election coverage and the release of the Hamilton Mixtape provided more material to discuss. Teaching children of hip hop whose lives embody the struggle that Miranda made the central force behind his re-writing of Hamilton’s contribution to United States’ history, I wanted to develop lessons drawing on those relations.
By the spring 2017, I had done preliminary reading on the syllabus Boffone provided and replaced the musical with the Mixtape as my car ride soundtrack. When organizing my syllabus, I assigned tracks from the mixtape against the musical’s soundtrack with the intent of assigning students excerpts in both both my introductory Gender Studies course and Interdisciplinary Research Methods courses, but with a unique twist for each class. Gender Studies engaged with the content contextualized by discussions of immigration and citizenship. I assigned my Research Methods course Monteiro’s critique of race-consciousness of the musical against the mixtape and the musical. While students were in solidarity with Montiero’s argument, I invited them to consider Miranda’s original intent, the mixtape, which may have informed the themes Miranda prioritized.
Few of them had heard of the musical before my class and less had heard of the mixtape. Their limited exposure necessitated historicizing both Miranda’s career and the evolution Hamilton’s, which begins with 2009 Miranda’s White House performance. Miranda, invited by President Obama to perform a song from his previous hit In the Heights, instead decided to introduce his new project, a mixtape based on Alexander Hamilton.
Through discussion, I proposed that the students consider that the production, in 2009 envisioned as an album, served as a strategic catalyst to bring attention to his forthcoming mixtape. That attention evolved into encouraging Miranda to produce the musical; it would take a few more years till the intended mixtape was produced. Even though produced later, I speculated that the mixtape thematically benefited from the popularity of the musical because the musical’s focus on Alexander Hamilton rewrites the context of the mixtape.
Teaching Hamilton the musical and the mixtape felt politically necessary at a minority serving institution in this historical moment of anti-immigrant, and anti-black sentiment. Having, in the past, worked with other youth to mobilize youth empowerment through hip hop, Hamilton provided an avenue in which I could discuss its political potential because of its popularity not only in spite of it. In breaking down Miranda’s cultural and political significance, I summarized the evolution of awards he and the musical’s cast had won as well as the preliminary cast’s reflections on participating in Hamilton, along with what it means to have the success of the musical produce a wider audience for the mixtape.
After more than a semester working with students who grow frustrated with the traditional research paper and because of my own work producing research-based fiction and poetry, teaching the musical and mixtape provided an important example of research-based art. Because some students approach interdisciplinary research methods not understanding the possibilities of the relationship between art and research and some students are unsure of how to connect learning outcomes to their aspiring performance careers, I find teaching Miranda’s work remains necessary. Further, Miranda provides an avenue through which I could relate to students because of our shared interest in music as well as our conflicted relationship with consuming hip hop.
Teaching a student population that is 25% Latinx and who are either directly or indirectly affected by immigration policies, my students related, often quite deeply and intimately, to the message of the song. I watched their faces as they listened, particularly to “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done),” and their kinesthetic responses showcased what many of us ache for our students to experience: wonder, appreciation, and the illumination of insight.
I then guided them to hone in specifically on Puerto Rican rapper Residente rapping about the Mexican immigrant struggle in Spanish, emphasizing how he sonically and rhetorically urges a Latin pan-ethnicity while using his U.S. citizenship privilege to historicize border crossing Mexicans. Residente’s lyrics create an opportunity to discuss Puerto Ricans’ cultural reality of being perceived as immigrants while being legally defined as citizens, all the while calling back to the lyrical connection to the “Battle of Yorktown” from the musical.
I highlighted Miranda’s rhetorical strategy in building a song around one line that contexts changes across either song. The “Battle of Yorktown” centers on the contributions of immigrants to gaining freedom. During the lecture, I drew connections between the lyric that would become a song and the lyric subtly referencing the lack of freedoms for black people who were enslaved in the U.S. I asked about the parallels before explaining them, using the intentionality behind creating and compelling a racially diverse cast to script a narrative about who could and who had built the United States. What does it mean to hear these voices emanating from this cast, telling this story?
Pedagogically, teaching music in either course served the intent of reimagining the purpose and potential of sound, whether from a musical or a mixtape, as a site of critical thinking. Popular musicians’ cultural authority slowly decenters the white fragility I have come to expect from difficult conversations such as the ones Hamilton and The Hamilton Mixtape allow me to have. Furthermore, the call-and-response between the mixtape and the musical work address the silence of the unrecognized, exploited, and/or enslaved labor that continues to build this country. For my students, hearing musicians they like or who perform in their favorite genre, speaking truth to power about poverty, struggle, and not being thought of as good enough shifted not only our classroom energy, but many students’ perspectives.
Teaching the Hamiltons helped my student population make sense of their “invisible” status in the U.S. and want more than what’s expected. They gained something in being able to hear their stories in the classroom—not just read them on the page—but hear them from people who look and sound like them. Hungry for more material that speaks to their disenfranchisement, my students wondered why more songs that sound the complex beauty of our resilience and struggle are not on the radio. They wanted to know how they can ask for more.
Featured Image: Screen capture from “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” remix video
Erika Gisela Abad, Ph.D, is a Queer Latina poet, born and raised in Chicago. She received her PhD in American Studies in 2012. Since completing her degree, she has worked as: a customer service associate and a scheduler at a phone interpreter call center, head counselor for a caddy program affiliated with a high school scholarship fund, field director for an education policy campaign, an oral historian and ethnographer. Since August 2016, she has been a full time assistant professor teaching gender studies. Twitter: @lionwanderer531; @prof_eabad
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“Don’t Be Self-Conchas”: Listening to Mexican Styled Phonetics in Popular Culture*–Sara V. Hinojos and Dolores Inés Casillas
The QUT Pathways to Ethical Data project combines the interdisciplinary expertise of Dr Angela Daly, Dr Kate Devitt and Dr Monique Mann, assisted by Dr Kayleigh Hodgkinson-Murphy, to investigate and promote ethical data practices & initiatives, towards a fair and just digital economy. The team members are co-editing an INC Theory on Demand book on ‘Good Data’ and currently have a call out for proposed chapters for the book, which will be published in late 2018.
Last month, on 22nd November, approximately 50 industry practitioners and academics gathered at Queensland University of Technology’s Gardens Point campus in Brisbane, Australia to participate in the ‘Pathways to Ethical Data’ workshop – known as ‘Good Data’ for short. Collecting participants from across Australia and overseas, as well as from a variety of industry, government and discipline backgrounds, the workshop sought to examine and discuss the complex issues surrounding ‘good’ and ‘ethical’ data practices.
Early in the workshop, Dr Kate Devitt from QUT facilitated an activity that asked everyone to order themselves from most to least dystopian in their view of data practices today and in the future. This activity served not only as an introduction between participants but as an introduction to the depth and breadth of opinions held on the practices of data collection, retention, research, and use. Many participants stood around the centre of the line, reflecting the general group opinion that data is neither inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but rather that it’s the structures and practices surrounding the collection, retention or use of data that has an impact on whether the data can be considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
The themes that appeared during these early discussions were revisited in the longer talks given by various professionals in the field. Associate Professor Raymond Lovett (ANU), Dr Donna Cormack (University of Otago Wellington) and Dr Vanessa Lee (University of Sydney) spoke to the group on perspectives of Indigenous Data Sovereignty, identifying the specific complexities in both collecting and using data relating to Indigenous populations. Their discussions paralleled issues raised within the group discussions, namely that good data needs to engage with the community and further consideration needs to be given to data practices that reproduce colonial structures. Following this, a collection of lightening talks paired industry professionals with academics to speak in detail on particular topics such as community wifi initiatives, electronic health records, the ethics of open data and the recent ‘robodebt’ controversy in Australia where the government has badly implemented algorithmic decision-making to identify overpayments of welfare. These talks gave an opportunity to blend industry expertise with a broader academic framework and led to passionate and spirited discussion throughout the room.
The workshop proved to be an informative and valuable introduction to the project – identifying just how complex the issues surrounding data can be. However, while participants were honest about the very real issues and problems currently enmeshed in various industry and government data practices, there was also considerable discussion about the routes available to move towards more ethical data futures.
Following the daytime workshop, the QUT Good Data project team partnered with Thoughtworks’ Brisbane office for a public evening event. After a technical demonstration of bias and discrimination in machine learning, QUT’s Dr Monique Mann facilitated a discussion with special guest Asher Wolf, a well-known information journalist, digital activist and founder of the world-wide CryptoParty movement. Asher spoke about her own journey as an activist and fighter for good information and good data to great applause from a packed audience. A good end to a good day of good data!
Do you want to participate, consider sending in a proposal to the Call.
In the last few years there has been a proliferation of new “little development devices” and practices in places where we might least expect them: at the World Bank and in national development agencies usually associated with the kinds of large-scale infrastructure mega-projects that these institutions pioneered after World War II. Yet the current emphasis on “little” development devices cannot be understood as a straightforward reaction to earlier forms of development policy that used “big” development devices. Rather, if we want to understand the current fascination with little development devices, we need to look at a different moment in international development institutions’ history: the many prominent failures in development assistance that marked the 1990s, such as the AIDS epidemic, the Asian financial crisis, and the “lost decade” of development in sub-Saharan Africa.
If we cannot understand the emergence of these new devices without paying attention to the recent failures of development policy, does that mean that they signal the failure of international development as we’ve known it? Yes and no: yes because many of them have been developed as innovative responses to the failures of development assistance, and no because they are nonetheless still very much development devices aimed at many of the same objectives that have held sway since the mid-twentieth century, including economic growth and poverty reduction.
In fact, although policy failures are central to this story, the part they play is a surprisingly creative one. These failures were profound enough to provoke a crisis of development expertise, leading development practitioners to question their very metrics of success and failure. Over time, these practitioners sought to re-establish the grounds for their authority, reconceiving the object of development—poverty—by forging new metrics of aid success, by developing new techniques for its measurement, and by adopting new devices amenable to this kind of measurement.
Rather than the failure of development, what precipitated the proliferation of these new micro-devices was thus the transformation of development governance through its engagement and problematization of failure, as well as its growing preoccupation with the ever-present possibility of future failures.
Responding to Past Failures
Beginning in the 1990s, there was a lot of talk about the failure of development policies. Some external critics focused on the persistence of extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, while others pointed to the AIDS crisis in Africa, or the sudden increase in poverty in Asia after the 1997–1998 financial crisis. All of these crises had occurred on the watch of the major development organizations in spite of (or, as many critics suggested, because of) their efforts.
Inspired by these crises, both external critics and many of those working in the policy development and evaluation units at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) began to point to various policy failures (Collier 1997; Killick 1997). Staff in the Policy Development and Review department at the IMF, for example, noted that the ever-increasing number of conditions that aid packages imposed on poor countries had no positive effect on compliance, and were significantly reducing borrower governments’ “ownership” of the reforms (Boughton 2003). Meanwhile, the World Bank’s Operation Evaluation Department’s (OED) assessments were pointing to dramatically declining success rates—from 80% to 85% in the 1980s to less than 65% in the 1990s (OED 1994), figures that were of great concern to World Bank president James Wolfensohn.
One of the underlying targets of these criticisms was the policy framework known as the “Washington Consensus,” a broadly neoliberal approach to development that put growth at its core and saw the market as the best way of achieving development goals (e.g., Stiglitz 1998:1). Yet, even as the World Bank dedicated its 1997 flagship World Development Report to the “rediscovery” of the state after two decades of denigrating or denying its role, the report was also very careful to distinguish the World Bank’s present strategy from earlier state-led approaches to development, arguing for the need to “take the burden off the state by involving citizens and communities in the delivery of core collective goods” (World Bank 1997:3). Treating both state- and market-dominated approaches as failures, the World Bank has pursued a middle way between the two, forging new and dynamic assemblages of public and private actors, claims, and practices to simultaneously pursue public goals and private interests (Best 2014a).
Of course, policy failures occur all the time. Sometimes they are perceived as failures, and sometimes they are ignored. Yet occasionally they become what I call “contested failures”: failures important enough to produce widespread debates about the meaning of success and failure and the metrics through which we evaluate them (Best 2014b). The concept of contested failure is connected to what Andrew Barry calls “knowledge controversies,” in which the metrics that are usually taken for granted become, for a time, politicized (Barry 2012).
These are interesting moments when we confront them in our everyday lives. Many of those of us who teach for a living, for example, have confronted a set of exams that fall so far below our expectations that they force us to re-evaluate our conceptions of success and failure (and, at least in my case, to change the assignment altogether). Such contested failures are fascinating moments in politics because the question of what counts as success is both highly technical—involving questions of evaluation and calculation—and normative—raising the question of what we value enough to define as success.
The “aid effectiveness” debate that emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s was a classic example of this kind of contested failure, as its participants responded by problematizing and ultimately rethinking what makes aid succeed or fail. This widespread debate, which included practitioners, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), academics, and politicians, raised important questions about why aid did not seem to be working, and ultimately produced some rather different definitions of what counts as successful development (World Bank 1998).
New Definitions of Success
The new definitions of success that began to take hold from the late 1990s onward were somewhat paradoxical.
On the one hand, the conception of success that began to emerge was far bigger and messier than it had been in the past. In the place of narrowly economic definitions of effectiveness, agencies now sought to pursue a much broader and longer-term set of objectives, recognizing that economic development is inextricably linked to political, social, and cultural dynamics that are often particular to a given country or region. For example, development staff hoped to achieve a much greater level of “country ownership” over the policies that they believed needed to be pursued, seeking to encourage domestic engagement by various stakeholders. Their goal was to build political support for ambitious, longer-term institutional reforms, whether through (at least somewhat) participatory consultations or community-driven development.
On the other hand, the metrics for measuring success became increasingly narrow, particularly as the enthusiasm for results and outcomes-based evaluation began to grow in the 2000s. These new metrics sought to respond to (and reduce) the ambiguities produced by the expanded conception of development objectives by making them more readily quantifiable. If development policymakers and aid ministers were no longer able to point to a school or dam to show where the dollars had gone, at least (the theory went) they could point to a measureable result that affirmed a direct line of causality between policy, output, and longer-term outcome.
Not surprisingly, one of the effects of this drive to make aid outcomes measurable has been to create incentives for pursuing policies that are easier to measure. For example, the “cash on delivery” approach, developed in 2006 by the U.S.-based think tank Center for Global Development, promises to pay a set amount for each “unit” of an agreed result. One pilot project developed by the British Department for International Development (DFID) in Ethiopia pays the government £50 for each student who sits a particular exam, and £100 for each one who passes it. This kind of fixation on measurable results creates a proliferation of policies aimed at getting students in exam seats and bed-nets on beds while driving policymakers away from the kind of complex, messy conceptions of development success that the aid effectiveness debate had revealed to be so important.
New Micro-Devices: Poverty, Cash Transfers, and Microcredit
Many of the devices and practices that emerged in the years since the aid effectiveness debate reflect this hybrid character. Although the large-scale, macro-level ambitions of market-led development and poverty reduction remain at the heart of these policies, they are now increasingly pursued through more cautious, smaller-scale, micro-level techniques. This does not just mean that these interventions address the same targets at a smaller scale. Rather, the embrace of these new techniques of intervention corresponds to a new ontology of the object of development.
One area in which we can clearly see this combination of macro-ambitions and micro-techniques is in efforts to reduce poverty. Part of what development researchers and practitioners found so unsettling about the Asian financial crisis and AIDS crisis was how these events pushed huge numbers of people back into poverty, undoing decades of progress. Led by the Social Protection Unit at the World Bank shortly after its creation in 1996, a number of aid agencies began to move away from static conceptions of poverty that generally assumed once an individual or family moved out of poverty they would stay that way (World Bank 2001a). These policy failures forced aid practitioners to rethink poverty on an ontological level, seeing it as a dynamic process rather than a static state (Best 2013). Staff working on social protection at the World Bank sought to redefine poverty as social risk and vulnerability, and to devise a range of more flexible devices in response. This approach to poverty reduction ultimately became a core part of the influential 2000–2001 World Development Report Attacking Poverty, and has been adopted by a number of other organizations, including the DFID and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD; World Bank 2001b).
The logic of the social risk approach is straightforward: in a volatile and unpredictable world where political, economic, climate, and health crises are always possible, poverty-reduction policy needs to help individuals and communities become better risk managers, capable of preparing for and responding to external shocks. Because some risks are covariant (affecting a large community or even the entire national population), traditional forms of insurance may not be effective because they were designed to respond to idiosyncratic risks (such as a single individual’s health difficulties, or a house fire). The state therefore becomes an important part of the solution, but only as one actor among many, resolving problems of market failure, supporting and combining with private sector initiatives, and enabling individuals to become more active in managing their own risks.
Some of the most popular devices for managing poor people’s vulnerability to poverty, including conditional cash transfers (CCTs) and microcredit initiatives, clearly reflect this hybrid public-private, micro-level focus. CCTs are state-provided funds targeted toward very poor populations, particularly women, generally on the condition that they keep their children in school and bring them in for regular health check-ups. The funds are supposed to help poor people respond to immediate shocks, whereas the conditions are aimed at increasing the resilience of future generations and improving their chances of becoming better risk managers.
Microcredit initiatives, which provide very small loans to people who would not qualify for conventional credit, started out as state and NGO-funded programs but have become increasingly market (and profit) driven in recent years. Their objective is to provide poor individuals with the kind of financial credit that they need to actively take “good” economic risks (such as investing in education or an entrepreneurial activity), in the belief that this will allow them to become more active and autonomous participants in the market economy.
As the World Bank’s first Social Protection Strategy’s title made clear, although this approach works at the micro level, it continues to have macro-level development ambitions, even as it reconceives them in more dynamic terms: seeking to transform social protection efforts from “safety-net to springboard” (World Bank 2001a). The Social Protection Unit’s current website builds on this idea:
In a world filled with risk and potential, social protection systems help individuals and families especially the poor and vulnerable cope with crises and shocks, find jobs, improve productivity, invest in the health and education of their children, and protect the aging population (World Bank 2017).
For the many experts and officials at international development agencies seeking to re-establish their authority in the wake of the failures of the 1990s, these new development devices are attractive in part because their promise of calculability. Many CCT programs have been explicitly designed to collect evidence about their effectiveness, and their growing popularity among development agencies is linked to the promise of demonstrating measurable results. After inconclusive evidence about whether it was the cash or the conditions in CCTs that had some positive effects on school enrollment, a growing number of CCT programs have been designed as randomized experiments that test the effectiveness of conditional and unconditional payments (Baird et al. 2010).
In the case of microcredit, calculability plays a very different but nonetheless crucial role: the development of increasingly sophisticated techniques for evaluating and pricing credit risk among the very poor has made it possible for large financial firms to become involved, not only expanding microcredit but also building a new financial industry around the packaging and resale of these loans to foreign investors (Langevin 2017). These firms have managed in some cases to securitize large portfolios of microloans (rather like the subprime mortgages at the heart of the last global financial crisis), translating the often very high interest rates charged to poor borrowers into global flows of investor value (Aitken 2013).
Although these various new development devices hold the promise of measurable results, we should not overestimate their technical proficiency; they continue to face the problem of failure even as they seek to respond to it. In fact, many of these new development initiatives have failed to meet at least some of their main objectives. The evidence on conditional cash transfers, though plentiful, is mixed: they do seem to have positive short-term effects on educational enrollment in particular, but their longer-term effects are difficult to demonstrate, and it is not clear yet whether the conditions themselves make any difference. There have also been some highly publicized failures in microcredit, including a rash of suicides by individuals crushed by microfinance debts in Andhra Pradesh, India, that have reinforced a broader questioning of its capacity to alleviate poverty.
More fundamentally, the tension that I identify at the outset of this article—between a growing recognition of the messiness of development success and a persistent desire to tame and often deny that complexity by simplifying forms of measurement and evaluation—remains itself a nagging source of failure. Many of the development practitioners I have spoken to are well aware that it is nearly impossible to make tidy causal links between a given policy action and a complex series of longer-term outcomes, particularly where there are multiple other aid actors and external dynamics in play. Yet, because they are forced to play the game of measurable results, they have begun to design their policies so that they are as easy to measure as possible, distorting development objectives to make them appear calculable (Natsios 2010).
This emergent micro approach to development assistance remains a paradoxical one: cultivating public goals by mobilizing private interests, pursuing more complex objectives while trying to translate them into simpler metrics, and ultimately courting repeated failure to give the veneer of success.
Aitken, R. 2013. “The Financialization of Micro-Credit.” Development and Change 44(3):473–499.
Baird, S., C. McIntosh, and B. Ösler. 2010. “Cash or Condition? Evidence from a Randomized Cash Transfer Program.” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 5259.
Barry, A. 2012. “Political Situations: Knowledge Controversies in Transnational Governance.” Critical Policy Studies 6(3):324–336.
Best, J. 2013. “Redefining Poverty as Risk and Vulnerability: Shifting Strategies of Liberal Economic Governance.” Third World Quarterly 34(2):109–129.
———. 2014a. “The ‘Demand’ Side of Good Governance: The Return of the Public in World Bank Policy.” In The Return of the Public in Global Governance, edited by J. Best and A. Gheciu, pp. 97–119. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
———. 2014b. Governing Failure: Provisional Expertise and the Transformation of Global Development Finance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Boughton, J. M. 2003. “Who’s in Charge? Ownership and Conditionality in IMF-Supported Programs.” IMF Working Paper WP/03/191.
Collier, P. 1997. “The Failure of Conditionality.” Perspectives on Aid and Development, edited by C. Gwyn and J. Nelson, pp. 51–77. Washington, DC: Overseas Development Council.
Killick, T. 1997. “Principals, Agents and the Failings of Conditionality.” Journal of International Development 9(4):483–494.
Langevin, M. 2017. “L’agencement entre la haute finance et l’univers du développement: des conséquences multiples pour la formation des marchés (micro)financiers.” Canadian Journal of Development .
Natsios, A. 2010. The Clash of the Counter-Bureaucracy and Development. Washington, DC: Center for Global Development.
Operation Evaluation Department, World Bank (OED). 1994. Annual Review of Evaluation Results 1993. Washington, DC: Operation Evaluation Department, World Bank.
Stiglitz, J. 1998. Towards a New Paradigm for Development: Strategies, Policies, and Processes. Prebisch Lecture. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
World Bank. 1997. World Development Report 1997: The State in a Changing World. Washington, DC,: World Bank.
———. 1998. Assessing Aid: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why. New York: Oxford University Press.
———. 2001a. Social Protection Sector Strategy: From Safety Net to Springboard. Washington, DC: World Bank.
———. 2001b. World Development Report 2000/01: Attacking Poverty. Washington, DC: World Bank.
———. 2017. “Social Protection: Overview.” Available at link.
Image Credit: Consumer pays for her purchase with 1000 rupiah at a market in Lenek Village, East Lombok District, Indonesia. Asian Development Bank.
In Spring 2017, I brought Houston-based playwright/performer Josh Inocéncio to my campus—the University of Houston—to perform his solo show Purple Eyes (for more on the event, see “Campus Organizing, or How I Use Theatre to Resist”). Purple Eyes is what Inocéncio calls an “ancestral auto/biographical” performance piece which explores his upbringing as a closeted gay Chicano living in the midst of the cultural heritage of machismo. Following a legacy of solo performance storytelling aesthetics seen in John Leguizamo’s Freak and Luis Alfaro’s Downtown, Inocéncio plays with memory to understand how the United States and Mexico have influenced his family and his own identity formation. Moreover, Purple Eyes explores the intersections of queerness and Chican@ identity alongside the legacy of machismo in his family (For more on the play, see “Queering Machismo from Michoacán to Montrose”).
During my Intro to LGBT Studies course following the performance, students discussed issues of representation and how many of them had never seen a queer Latin@/x play or performance, with some of them having never seen a live play. Many students picked up on how Purple Eyes foregrounds the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. While these discussions were indeed fruitful, what struck me most was how both classes harped on Inocéncio’s use of different linguistic registers. Put simply, what stayed with them was how the performance sounded. My students obsessed over the Spanish in the play, leading me to question why this group of students at a Hispanic-Serving Institution in a city that is over 40% Latin@ had so much trouble whenever Inocéncio spoke Spanish, or the sounds of Latinidad.
In what follows, I discuss how my students heard Purple Eyes. While the play is predominately in English, Inocéncio often code-switches into Spanish and German to more accurately embody particular family members. This blog adds to previous research by Dolores Inés Casillas, Sara V. Hinojos, Marci R. McMahon, Liana Silva, and Jennifer Stoever on the relationship between the Spanish language and non-Spanish speaking Americans. Indeed, my students racialized the Spanish in Purple Eyes while completely disregarding the German in the play. Why?
Drawing from sociology, racialization is the process of imposing racial identities to a social practice or group that might not have identified in such a way. Typically, the dominant group racializes the marginalized group; i.e. Latin@s in the U.S. become racialized by the mainstream. Even so, Latin@s are not a race, but are an ethnic group. Yet, I argue that non-Latin@ Americans view Latin@s through a lens of race which often becomes a sonic one, in which language becomes one of the most overt identity markers. In terms of Spanish, while many races and ethnicities speak the language, in the United States it is often viewed as a way to mark Spanish-speaking Latin@s as Other. In this way, language plays a fundamental role in shaping mainstream ideas about race. According to Dolores Inés Casillas, “For unfamiliar ears, the sounds of Spanish, the mariachi ensemble, and/or accented karaoke all work together to signal brownness, working-class,” and as Jennifer Stoever argues, the sounds of Latinidad indicate “illegality” in the U.S.
Drawing from the intersections of race, language, and racism, the relatively new academic field Raciolinguistics has emerged as a means to explain how people use language to shape their identity (For more, see Raciolinguistics: How Language Shapes Our Ideas About Race). Branching off from Raciolinguistics, I am most interested in exploring how the mainstream hears languages and racializes what they are hearing. The result is that Spanish is seen as Other, meaning that monolingual U.S. listeners hear Spanish-speakers as inherently different and a threat to a mainstream United States cultural and, more importantly, national identity.
Reflecting Inocéncio’s cultural multiplicity, Purple Eyes features English, Spanish, and German strategically used at different moments in the play to reflect the temporality, positionality, and relationship to language of each character that Inocéncio inhabits. While the chapter on his father is entirely in English, the final chapter focusing on Josh himself opens with a monologue in Spanish in which the performer narrates the events of the FIFA World Cup before finally announcing to the crowd that the epilogue is Inocéncio’s journey of young love and heartbreak on his journey of queer discovery. This moment features the longest extended use of Spanish in the play. The remaining Spanish is sprinkled in as Josh code-switches between the two languages for added cultural specificity.
While some of my Spanish-speaking students appreciated hearing a play that reflected their linguistic identities, monolingual English speakers in my class claimed that the Spanish confused them and made it difficult for them to follow certain parts of the play. After several students echoed these thoughts, a student from Mexico without full fluency in English comprehension told others about how her experiences were the exact opposite. She had trouble following some of the parts in English since she is still learning the language. I then pivoted the conversation to discuss how my English-dominant students approached the play with the assumption that English is the norm and a performance on a university campus should reflect this. Case in point: several told me that the show should have been subtitled.
But what was most telling was the following exchange. After several expressed confusion over the Spanish, one particularly woke student from Nigeria raised her hand and said: “I haven’t heard anyone say anything about the German in the play and not being able to follow the play during the German part.” She then noted how, in the United States, Spanish is racialized whereas German is not. In fact, most of the students did not even recall German in the play. Admittedly, the play features far more Spanish than German, but the scene in which Inocéncio speaks German occurs while dramatizing his Austrian grandmother’s abortion. As Inocéncio (as Oma) frantically repeated “Ich kann nicht” (I can’t), my students had no trouble; to use some Millennial vernacular, it was with Spanish that they “couldn’t even.” Arguably, this is the most intense scene in the performance and one that my students wanted to discuss. That the majority of them understood this scene without fully registering the German, coupled with their confusion over lines spoken in Spanish, speaks to not only how race and ethnicity impact how languages are heard in the United States. German is viewed as familiar and accessible whereas Spanish is immediately heard as foreign, i.e. undesirable, not welcome here.
As the Latin@ population continues to grow and the Spanish language becomes an increasingly present reality in U.S. everyday life, audiences must consider possibilities not grounded in an English-only narrative. My experiences with Purple Eyes are not unique. I have witnessed and heard many stories about audiences at mainstream theatre companies who have struggled whenever a play included Spanish. While I don’t claim to have the answers to address this across the nation, as an educator, I question what tools I can give my students to help prepare them for sonic experiences outside of their comfort zone and, specifically, how they become aware of subconscious racialization practices. What will they hear? And, more importantly, how will they react?
Featured Image: Still from Purple Eyes (Ojos Violetas), with permission from Josh Inocencio who retains copyright.
Trevor Boffone is a Houston-based scholar, educator, writer, dramaturg, producer, and the founder of the 50 Playwrights Project. He is a member of the National Steering Committee for the Latinx Theatre Commons and the Café Onda Editorial Board. Trevor has a Ph.D. in Latin@ Theatre and Literature from the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston where he holds a Graduate Certificate in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. He holds an MA in Hispanic Studies from Villanova University and a BA in Spanish from Loyola University New Orleans. Trevor researches the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and community in Chican@ and Latin@ theater and performance. His first book project, Eastside Latinidad: Josefina López, Community, and Social Change in Los Angeles, examines the textual and performative strategies of contemporary Latin@ theatermakers based in Boyle Heights that use performance as a tool to expand notions of Latinidad and (re)build a community that reflects this diverse and fluid identity. He is co-editing (with Teresa Marrero and Chantal Rodriguez) an anthology of Latinx plays from the Los Angeles Theatre Center’s Encuentro 2014 (under contract with Northwestern University Press).
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Deaf Latin@ Performance: Listening with the Third Ear–Trevor Boffone
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