An Interview with Allegra

The folks at Allegra drew some attention on the Internet recently with their fish out of water story of visiting the AAA annual meetings in Chicago last year. I ran into the main authors of the site, Miia and Julie, in Chicago and was blown away ( ‘wilted under’ would be a better description) by their energy and enthusiasm.  So what is Allegra? How does a website manage to be ‘deadly serious’ ‘tongue-in-cheek’ and ‘sexy’ all at the same time? How does it fit into the Internetoblogosphere? We sat down together for a (virtual) interview recently so they could tell me about their site.

Beware, Internet: Miia Halme-Tuomasaari and Julie Billaud

All up in your internetz: Miia Halme-Tuomasaari (left) and Julie Billaud (right)

What do you hope Allegra can do that other websites out there can’t or haven’t done? Is it something to do with being a ‘virtual lab’? Or are you focusing on legal anthropology in a unique way? Or…?

Apart from ‘Savage Minds’, there are very few academic blogs that have reached the level of visibility that we aim for with Allegra. Anthropologists, especially in Europe, have been slow to catch up with new technologies and when they have, they haven’t used them as fully as they could.  What we want to do with Allegra is to become a platform for experimenting with content and form: hence the idea of the ‘laboratory’. Because the medium of a blog allows us a certain level of immediacy, it is a great instrument for creating conversations. It is also a fabulous way to share one’s writing experience with others.

As we write this answer, for instance, we are playing with the notion of authorship: behind the screen, four hands and two brains are typing and formulating ideas…this is one example of experiments that Allegra would like to develop in order to also challenge the narcissism that is often plaguing the academia.

I’m struck by the beauty of your website, but to be honest at times I have a little trouble finding my way around in it…. the section labeled ‘stuff’ is the blog? Is that the main feature of the site? Maybe you could just tell me a little bit more about how the site is structured and what its main features are?

Thank you for appreciating our aesthetic effort! Making the website look good has been important to us form the start – mainstream academic forms tend to be dry and exclude people who are not acquainted with the discipline. And since we genuinely love anthropology, we are committed to making it accessible to a wider audience. After all, why should we ‘look ugly’ when what we have to say – that is collectively, as a discipline – is actually ‘sexy’ and relevant to people outside the scholarly world who share an interest in understanding the world and the complex ways in which it functions? Thus this is one of the ‘Allegra mottos’: if we wish to have real societal relevance, we need to find ways to make our ideas attractive!

As for the structure of the website, we have to confess that we are not totally convinced by its current efficacy either. Yet its shortcomings are a testament to its operational logic: Allegra really is an ‘organic’ entity that develops over time. What it is today is far more ambitious and exciting than the ideas that initially set it in motion! So, yes, it has grown out of its original design.

We have attempted to clarify Allegra’s categories in the ‘About’ section. And you are right: ‘Stuff’ is the site of the main blog. We called this section ‘stuff’ because we did not want to restrict ourselves to any particular type of content – and also because it sort of summarizes the general ethos of Allegra: it’s done both ‘dead seriously’ and ‘tongue-in-cheek’. For the time being, ‘Stuff’ has featured fieldnotes, interviews, petitions, general observations and what we have called ‘(Slow) Food for Thought’, i.e. ideas that are not yet fully mature, but that we want to share in the aim of creating conversations. One example is our recent initiative to explore ‘boredom’ .

Overall both ‘Stuff’ and Allegra in general are about experiments with different creative ways to fill the ‘Dead Space’ (our own fancy slogan for which we are contemplating securing copyright!) that exists between ongoing scholarly discussions today, and the eventual scholarly publications that, due to the slow pace of things, will appear in a cool year or two. We feel that there are infinite ways in which we can collectively showcase ongoing work, as well as find fresh entry points into already finished projects. A good example of this is  the ‘Allegra Virtual Museum of Obscure Fieldwork Artefacts’ (AVMoFA) What does AVMoFA exhibit? …Well ‘stuff’ that anthropologists collect on their fieldsites but which are not necessarily ‘exotic’ in the traditional anthropological sense. So far, we have in our collection a UN calendar, a rock, a court case, a hair spray bottle, a plush toy and a leaflet. The purpose of this initiative is both to question assumptions about what anthropological research looks like as well as to highlight some troubling underlying notions about museums in general. We are excited to expand our collection – so send us your artefacts at stuff@allegralaboratory.net!

The other sections of the website (People, Events, Publications, Spaces) are much more straightforward, even though we strive to experiment with form here too. ‘Events’ features reports on conferences and exhibitions, calls for papers and applications. We try to collect and classify this useful information by city (http://allegralaboratory.net/london-calling/) or country (http://allegralaboratory.net/canada-calling-posts-papers/). ‘Publications’ is the home of book reviews, reading lists, bibliographies, classic texts can be found. In all honesty this remains the section of Allegra that is still very much in the process of gathering momentum (but for which grand plans exist), and we hope to be much more active with this section in the time to come. ‘Spaces’ is a more ‘static’ list of blogs, journals, publishers, and academic networks, as is also ‘People’, which is essentially a database of scholars working in the field of legal anthropology or socio-legal studies more broadly.

Who contributes to the site? 

Allegra is both a collaboration of a broader group of contributors (listed in the ‘About’ section) as well as the ‘labor of love’ of its two active moderators, Julie Billaud and Miia Halme-Tuomisaari. Because our initial idea was to trigger discussions within our small academic sub-discipline (legal anthropology), most of our contributors are legal anthropologists or academics involved in socio-legal studies. However, our interests have broadened over time and we now include contributions from other anthropologists too. What all these people have in common is an interest in the features that give the modern social world its unique shape. What we look for in the future is an ever broadening list of contributors (so do send us your contributions…)

How do you find time to write for Allegra when you are balancing other work (I’m always interested in hearing new suggestions for accomplishing this!)?

From the start, it has been very clear to us that Allegra should not be an extra burden but rather a space where we publish pieces, likely in somewhat revised or ‘jazzed up’ versions, that are in the process of being written for other ventures (namely: academic journals and books). That said, We don’t want Allegre to be a site where new primary academic texts make their first – and exclusionary – appearances. Consequently we ask none of our contributors for exclusive publishing rights. Everything on this website can be recycled (as long as authors are properly referenced) and used for other contexts. What matters is the circulation of ideas – and with our Facebook site and Twitter, we are doing our best to facilitate this!

Thus writing for Allegra is also about learning of more interactive way of producing knowledge, by making oneself both vulnerable to comments and critiques as well as open to borrowings and to the cross-fertilization of ideas. And after all, as scholars writing is OUR work anyway!

Yet, another side of finding time borders on passion: we find time, because this is something we really want to do – or even more specifically, because we write of things that we have to write about!

What sort of future work do you plan to do on the site? Where do you want to be a year from now?

We have big plans for Allegra: we are currently planning the 2.0 version of the website. It would be premature to say more at this stage, but we hope that the new website will be easier to navigate.

One of our key goals is to become a resource site for interviews with prominent anthropologists. Recently, we published an interview with Laura Nader  and another one with Tim Ingold  and we want to publish many more in the future! All contributions are welcome! (And for all junior/aspiring scholars: asking for an interview is actually a great way to get in touch with scholars whose work we find inspiring. So let’s not be shy!)

We also aim to produce videos of important talks and conferences. Stay tuned for our first videos, very soon!

Finally, we want Allegra to be part of conversations around the future of academic publishing by providing practical insights into creative ways of writing and disseminating knowledge.

In short, we believe that Allegra should be more than a simple website and could easily become a network of like-minded academic nomads who desperately need a space to continue their work. With the current transformations of the academia , and the precarious state in which young scholars have been left, it has become urgent to find alternative ways to connect and talk to each other and the broader world!

A group of Allegrians will meet in Tallin in August 2014 for the bi-annual conference of the European Association of Social Anthropology and run a panel on ‘boredom’ (which we hope won’t be boring!) which will explore some of the themes that we have discussed online.  Allegra is not only a virtual space: it is a very physical and lively space too!

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on “An Interview with Allegra

  1. Alex, great interview! I really liked their fish out of water story, especially because I felt that way the first time I went to an AAA meeting. To a certain extent the AAA, SAA, and LASA meetings in North America are all very similar in their overwhelming intensity and size and their piece perfectly captures that feeling.

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