Conference Istanbul 2015 – Report Anne-Lise MITHOUT

Paris-Dauphine University

As a soon-to-be doctor, I found the 26th JAWS Conference inspiring in many ways.

First and foremost, the chosen theme “Technology and Nature” was the opportunity to gather researchers from various horizons (even beyond the field of anthropology) dealing with a wide range of subjects, and to discuss philosophical, ethical, political and social questions. Questions that emerged included, for example, “what is nature and do we have to cling to the nature/culture dichotomy”; “how should biotechnologies be regulated?”; “what is the relevance of seawalls in tsunami-hit Tohoku?”. In addition, a number of panels dealt with gender-related analyses as well as discussions of the stereotype of Japan as a “technology-friendly” society. Organizing such a conference in Istanbul it seemed all the more relevant that five sessions dedicated to Turkish-Japanese comparison were the occasion to get a deeper understanding of the similarities between both countries, especially regarding their relation to “modernity” and to a capricious natural environment.

To me, one of the most fascinating sessions was the panel “Technologies of Gender/Sexuality and Problematization of Human Ontology in Japan”, organized by Yoko Kumada and Satoshi Tanahashi. First, Genaro Castro-Vázquez showed the various technologies of penile cosmetic surgery, highlighting the link between the use of these technologies and the quest for social and psychological wellbeing. Improving self-esteem is the main reason why an increasing number of men engage in such surgical processes, the other purpose being, consequently, to adjust oneself to women’s supposed desires. Yoko Kumada then gave a very detailed account of aesthetic (high-tech and low-tech) strategies used by female sex workers in Tokyo. In this case, it appears that interviewees have three different goals: correspond to customers’ expressed desires and implicit expectations, improve their own body image, and limit the inconvenience of certain practices. The main point of their interventions seems to be the willingness to “use technology to be more natural”, that is, to find a subtle balance between fitting into codes of beauty that shape customers’ desires and looking “too artificial”. Finally, Akitomo Shingae considered the social implications of the development of reproductive technologies for gay male couples. He especially highlighted the fact that, whereas gay couples are often portrayed (and represent themselves) as champions of an “alternative family model”, based on affective relationships rather than blood links, the development of biotechnologies that may, in the future, make possible the creation of ovum and spermatozoon from skin cells (which would theoretically make possible the birth of a baby that would carry the DNA of two fathers), would in fact reinforce the traditional family model based on blood relations and genetic transmission.

Combining these three papers, this session raised several inspiring questions. The first two presentations converged in showing that a significant part of gender-related physical manipulations are conducted not only for oneself, but in order to comply with hypothetical expectations of potential partners of the opposite sex: both papers made visible the part of fantasy and imagination that underpins the use of sex-related technologies. In fact, this is consistent with recent research showing that heterosexuality is often based on homosociality, that is, constructed through information received and discussed with same-sex peers, rather than opposite-sex partners. Moreover, the idea that sex-workers need technology to seem “more natural” was the occasion to discuss how the nature/culture dichotomy should not be a framework for anthropological analyses, as what we call “nature” is often highly culturally constructed. Finally, the analysis of the possibility to genetically create babies carrying the DNA of two fathers left pending the question of the need for a birthmother and of her role and status in the process. 

Another session exemplifying the richness and variety of presentations and debates conducted during this conference was the double session that combined “Sports, Music & Game” and “Place and Relationships” panels. First, William Kelly demonstrated, through the example of sport, how our categories of gender and ability are socially constructed: after arguing that sport emphasizes divisions between categories (men/women, pro/amateurs, able/disabled, our team/other teams etc.), he showed various examples of individuals or situations that stand in the middle of binary categories, questioning their relevance. He then argued that the 2020 Games could set the stage for a convergence of Olympics and Paralympics. Then Susanne Klien gave an account, based on ethnographic research, of hip hop practices in Hokkaido. She analyzed hip hop as a passion that, as opposed to what happens in other countries like the US, is not perceived by performers as a political engagement. She highlighted the paradox of a practice that is experienced as a breakaway from mainstream society and, at the same time, reproduces in its social form the structure of mainstream relationships, especially the culture of seniority. In the following presentation, Michael Facius examined how augmented-reality smartphone apps challenge (or not) the relation of Japanese people to nature. He argued that, far from being a merely consumerist practice, the use of these apps is in fact deeply rooted in Japanese traditional beliefs and pertains to the idea of an environment shared by humans and non-human beings. This first panel was followed by Laura Dales’ presentation of the case of an Italian restaurant in Western Japan playing a structuring social role for the local lesbian community. Considering the etymology of the Japanese term “basho”, she showed that this shared space is a place where relationships, friendships and, through them, social identities emerge. She argued that, even though this restaurant and this community also have significant online activity, the physical place remains central in the building of these relationships. Finally, Caitlin Meager explored social relationships between young women in a sharehouse: she analyzed how this place plays the role of a shelter for these women, a place where they can become their desired selves and be considered by others in compliance with their fantasies (especially fantasies about their dream jobs, while they are facing employment precarity). 

In spite of the undeniable variety of subjects dealt with in this session, some converging points emerged. First, several of these papers made visible the fact that technology, rather than being a brand new object, is deeply anchored in the preexisting cultural background, though this can be challenged by letting the complexity of categorical divisions appear. Moreover, even though technology affects the way people interact, it is often a prolongation of relationships constructed in a physical place and, as opposed to a widespread cliché, people do not need to get online to build a community based on their fantasized selves. In this respect, technology appears more as a catalyst of the mechanisms of culture and human relations than as a radical game-changer. 

This conference was not only the stage of formal scientific discussion. It took place in a very friendly atmosphere, to which the welcome cocktail on the first day and the Bosphorus cruise greatly contributed. These were times of informal discussions, exchanges of academic “tips” and building of new relations as well as reinforcement of former ones. As a new member of JAWS, I enjoyed very much the opportunity to meet again people that I knew from last year’s EAJS conference and to make new acquaintances among young scholars as well as more experienced researchers. I especially appreciated the fact that the organizers of my panel were strongly committed to giving us detailed individual feedback on our papers and encouraged us to meet before the session, especially by organizing a panel dinner on the first day. As the other members of my panel were all experienced researchers, coming from various fields and various countries, it was extremely enriching for me. Finally, this conference had a very beneficial material outcome for me, since my panel organizers asked me to join a publication project in Germany. I did not take part in the tutorial activity, but considering all the friendly feedback and advice I received I have a feeling that I was given the opportunity to benefit a lot from the experience of senior researchers.