Sasha Newell

Picture of Sasha Newell

Associate Professor

Teaching and Research Interests

Modernities: All of my research has in some way addressed the cultural construction of modernity and its role in identity construction in the global arena. I have focused on in-between cultural spaces in which people consume across culture and migrate between identities. My recent storage research aims to deconstruct claims to modern rationality in the US by demonstrating the everyday transgressions of the person-thing dichotomy in the everyday life of the home. 

Material Culture: Especially in cross-cultural flows or other boundary transgressing situations where conventional value schemas are no longer reliable. I am currently working on storage, which is space constructed outside of cultural classification and so a zone of value transformation. 

Migration: African migrants in Europe, cyclical migration, African perspectives on migration from the home country. I am particularly interested in the ways in which migration can be a form of consumption and the consumption of foreign objects a form of vicarious travel. 

Magicality and Witchcraft: Particularly as these entangle with or infect cosmologies of modernity and North Atlantic rationalities. My most recent trip to Côte d’Ivoire explores digital sorcery and international social media scams. 

Semiotics, Affect, and Efficacy: I investigate semiotics primarily from the angle of their efficacy within socio-cultural action. Performatives, fixative memorialization, contracts, ritual transformation, healing and cursing, money and value transformation. Recently, I have become interested in thinking about the role of affect in semiotic efficacy. 

Urban Sociality and Popular Culture: My Africanist work explores emergent forms of culture that emerge in quickly expanding and highly mobile cities where ethnicities, class, languages, global commodity flows, music, and ideologies of modernity imbricate with one another in creative processes of bricolage. 

Projects

Underlying a diverse range of topics and several regional locations, three broad thematic interests orient my research: the processes of cultural entanglement across a variety of sociocultural boundaries, the relationship between culture and materiality, and the critique of ideologies of modernity and rational subjectivity as tools of global hierarchization. 

My book, The Modernity Bluff: Crime, Consumption, and Citizenship in Côte d'Ivoire synthesized these interests in my exploration of bluffeurs who purchase Euro-American brands and commodities to become more modern, thereby forging a new form of national identity built upon the appropriation of otherness. Bluffeurs are young men without work who make their living off of the shadow economy of the street, where the successful con is therefore a crucial survival skill. Its value is socially inscribed in the act of the bluff, the performance of success, in which social actors spend money ostentatiously, wear expensive brand name clothing, and dance the logobi (the dance of labels), all to prove the possession of wealth they do not have, and which their audience knows they cannot have. Space is hierarchically imagined in terms of relative modernity, with Co╠éte d’Ivoire as the intermediate stepping stone between Africa and Europe, and I argue that Ivoirian migration is a form of indexical consumption through which value is transferred across boundaries between persons, things, and nations. By publically performing success, Ivoirian youth communicate their membership in global modernity and urban citizenship. They display a cultivated taste for authentic name brand goods, a connoisseurship that is always under threat of rupture should they be discovered with a knock-off good. Just as in the game of poker, the Ivoirian bluff can transform economic realities even when all actors involved are aware that they are in the presence of illusive performance. Drawing on theories of performance, masquerade, and mimesis, I demonstrate that Ivoirian bluffeurs disrupt the concept of African "counterfeit" modernities. Furthermore, by considering the relationship between modernity and bluffing, I argue that North Atlantic anxiety around authenticity and imitation comes from the central but suppressed role of counterfeit performance at the heart of modernity itself. 

More recently, I have been researching and writing about a second project in the U.S. concerning material accumulation, affect, and storage space. I am interested in the spaces of the home kept out of sight of their owners and especially the kinds of things kept therein. While dramatically different thematically and regionally from my former work, this project builds upon my interest in consumption and modernity, as I challenge the rationalist understandings of U.S. relationships with material things to demonstrate principles of magicality and animacy concealed in hidden zones of domestic space. Stored things are often embedded within kinship relations and carry social obligations of their own. The affective power of these objects is often impossible for owners to articulate, and yet they feel incapable of throwing these things away, and in many cases can’t even manage to organize them. The project has relevance for the new psychological label of “hoarding disorder” as well as the increasingly global problem of the accumulation of used things.

I have recently returned to Côte d'Ivoire and will soon begin writing about the economy built around social media scams, DJs, and sorcery - a project that will lead me into considerations of new media, smartphone adoption, and blood magic. 

Publications

Book:

2012. The Modernity Bluff: Crime, Consumption, and Citizenship in Côte d'Ivoire. University of Chicago Press.

Articles:

2014. "The Matter of the Unfetish: Hoarding and the Spirit of Possessions" in Hau: The Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4(3): 185-213.

2013. "Brands as Masks: Public Secrecy and the Countefeit in Côte d'Ivoire," in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19(1): 138-154.

2013. "Le Goût des Autres: Ivoirian Fashion and Alterity," in Etnofoor 24(2): 41-57.

2009. “Enregistering Modernity, Bluffing Criminality: How Nouchi Reinvented (and Fractured) the Nation,” in The Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 19(2): 157-184.

2009 “Godrap Girls, Draou Boys, and the Sexual Economy of the Bluff in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire,” Ethnos 74(3): 379-402.

2007.  “Pentecostal Witchcraft: Neoliberal Possession and Demonic Discourse in Ivoirian Pentecostal Churches,” Journal of Religion in Africa 37: 461-490.

2006.  “Estranged Belongings: A Moral Economy of Theft in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire,” Anthropological Theory 6(2): 179-204, editor Joel Robbins.

2005  “Migratory Modernity and the Cosmology of Consumption in Côte d'Ivoire.” In Migration and Economy: Global and Local Dynamics, edited by Lillian Trager, pp. 163-192. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.

Education

  • PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology from Cornell University, 2003
  • B.A. in Social Anthropology from Reed College, 1996