Naomi Schiller (NYU Anthropology & Culture and Media, MPhil 2004, PhD 2009)
Naomi Schiller is a scholar-activist and teacher who lives in the Lower East Side of New York City. She is associate professor of anthropology at Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. Naomi’s research and teaching focus on urban politics, climate justice, visual and media anthropology, and the state. She is author of Channeling the State: Community Media and Popular Politics in Venezuela (Duke University Press 2018). She recently collaborated with Dan Fethke and Jen Chantrtanapichateto to make, On the Line, a short film about food insecurity in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic. Her research appears in American Ethnologist, Dialectical Anthropology, Transforming Anthropology, Latin American Perspectives, and Mass Communication and Society. Her current ethnographic and oral history work explores community activism, social class, race, urban governance, land use, coastal adaptation, and climate change in New York City. She is a member of the Executive Committee of Brooklyn College’s Chapter of the Professional Staff Congress, the labor union of CUNY faculty and staff
Interviewer Cara Ryan is a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at NYU, and graduate of the Program in Culture & Media.
Cara Ryan (CR): It's really nice to meet you again. We met in 2018, right before your book was about to come out you spoke in Faye Ginsburg’s Culture and Media seminar. To start, maybe I could ask you to tell me a little bit about what originally drew you into the Culture and Media program in the first place?
Naomi Schiller (NS): I’m a second-generation anthropologist. My mother, Nina Glick Schiller, is an anthropologist, a politically engaged Marxist anthropologist, so I grew up watching her collaborate and organize. She didn't get a tenure track job until I was 13 and she was in her early 40s. She was, for a long time, on the margins. That was my introduction to anthropology — through someone who was very politically engaged and faced a lot of precarity. I think that was formative to my understanding of what anthropology is and what it's for, and the challenges of the university as a space of and for politics.
I was drawn to the Culture and Media program through my experiences as a Women and Gender studies major at Columbia. I think from a young age I was really interested in thinking about the relationship between gender and power and media representations. I remember looking at teen magazines when I was a kid and that was my first effort to think critically about media representations. I studied abroad as a junior in the Dominican Republic and I started watching telenovelas with my host family. At the same time, I was spending some time in beauty parlors with friends, where I would go to get my legs waxed, which is such a violent experience of getting hair ripped out of your body! And some of my friends were there to get their hair straightened. I was taking classes on Dominican history and thinking a lot about racism, gender, beauty, and power and at the same time watching telenovelas. I think those experiences, alongside the feminist theory I was learning from Ann Pellegrini [now a professor at NYU], shaped some of my questions about media and power.
Lila Abu-Lughod had just come out with her article, “The Interpretation of Culture After Television.” So, I was engaging her work and taking classes with her. Lila had just moved to Columbia from NYU where she had worked for years with Faye Ginsburg. They were collaborating (with Brian Larkin) on their 2002 edited volume Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain. My senior year of college, Lila helped me apply to a Fulbright grant to study television reception in rural Venezuela. I ended up spending a year watching more telenovelas in rural Venezuela and thinking about globalization and corporate media power. After that I came back to the United States, to New York City, and decided to apply to graduate school. The Culture and Media program was just very clearly to me the place where I could explore a lot of the questions that I cared about. I was drawn to anthropology as a project to better understand the world but also critique and challenge capitalism, imperialism, racism, and sexism. I think I was really drawn to anthropology as a way that could bring together scholarship and activism.
(CR): What a rich background, that's so amazing. So you grew up in New York City?
(NS): My mom’s first tenure track job was in New Hampshire at the University of New Hampshire so actually I moved to New Hampshire when I was 13 and then came back to New York City for college and [then the Culture and Media program]. I think the Culture and Media experience of collaborative filmmaking was so formative for me. As you know, you have your own film project but you're working to crew with other people on their films and that was unlike so much of what we're taught to do with single author publications and research projects on our own. It was so important to me to have collective projects that we were doing together and to learn from my cohort about the subjects of their documentaries and to learn to trust each other, to work with each other. At the same time, my NYU experience was really shaped by the political organizing that I was doing as a graduate student, which really helped me bridge beyond anthropology and create relationships and friendships, but also to learn and grow as a scholar as I connected with people in other fields. The US wars against Iraq and Afghanistan were ramping up during my first years at NYU. I worked with other students to protest the wars. I was also active in Students for Justice in Palestine at NYU, which was also such an incredible opportunity to learn from other students. And then, the 2006 Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) strike at NYU was transformative for me in building relationships with people and learning to see myself as a worker and the university as a workplace and to solidify a commitment of trying to bridge scholarship and activism and building a different kind of university. I think the GSOC strike was actually, as weird as it sounds, one of the high points of my graduate career in building something collectively and learning about the neoliberal conditions of the university, but also realizing that in organizing together we could challenge the university to try to make it more democratic and to have a collective voice, and better pay, and working conditions.
(CR): I can say as somebody who came later on that my generation, my cohort, is really indebted to the organizing work that you did. Was your film that you made in Culture and Media related to your field site? I remember from your book that you used a camera a lot in your fieldwork.
(NS): I made a film for my Culture and Media project called Girl Story about a group of young women who wrote and performed spoken word poetry. It was a great, supportive, loving, and creative environment in which to learn how to make film. And I learned so much from Faye Ginsburg, Cheryl Furjanic, Meg McLagan, and Pegi Vail. There was this moment that I’ll never forget in my making my Culture and Media film, where I had edited a scene to accentuate the drama of something that was happening, and I remember showing a rough cut to the women that the film was about and this one young woman called me out, saying, “that's not the way that it happened.” And then I remember, later on, after she had seen the film multiple times, I overheard her telling someone else about that moment, and she explained it in the way that I had depicted it in the film. I think about that moment all the time and the power of crafting representations and how it can shape people's memories and understanding of themselves in particular ways. Faye Ginsburg’s courses and scholarship helped me to understand how media making is a social practice embedded in everyday life and relationships of power — that insight has been a touchstone to me in so many ways.
I took these lessons with me when I studied community media producers in Venezuela. The filmmaking that I learned through the Culture and Media program was fundamental to figuring out how to be involved and understand the process that I was observing in Caracas. I was documenting how people were using media to participate in what I understand as statecraft from below, and trying to figure out the affordances of grassroots media. I was asking, what does making community television do for political struggle and for people's understanding of themselves and their understanding of the relationship between media texts, media institutions, media reception, and power? And I did a lot of collaborative filmmaking when I was in the field, working alongside people where we edited a lot of short segments that broadcasted on the community media channel where I was doing my fieldwork and on some of the state media outlets at the time. I never ended up editing that footage into a film for US audiences. I think a lot of what I edited, the filmmaking that I did, in a weird way made it onto the page and my ethnographic writing. It was sort of an intermediary step that helped me to figure out what to write about and how to do it in my book Channeling the State.