Monica Heller

AAA Executive Program Chair for the 2010 annual meeting in New Orleans


The following is an earlier written version of the interview:

(1)What are you passionate about?
Well, the first thing that comes to mind is chocolate (dark please, and no weirdo adulterations), but that’s probably not the kind of thing that you meant. Intellectually, or intellectually-socially  (I find it hard to separate the two), I would say that it’s the issue of the role that language plays in the construction of social difference and social inequality – generally, but also quite specifically in Canadian society.

(2) How long has this been a passion?
Chocolate? From before I can remember. Might be genetic, might be in utero addiction, might be habitus. The language stuff? A bunch of things. I grew up in Montreal, and just as I was getting old enough to wander around the city on my own, public space became an ethnolinguistic conflict zone between French-speakers and English-speakers, and pretty much every utterance became politically-charged, so that is clearly part of it. But I also come from a family of immigrants and refugees for whom language (and languages) were deeply tied to complicated constraints on life chances, so I was quite explicitly socialized to pay attention to such things. Plus we occupy a social position in Canadian society which doesn’t neatly fit the available categories of social organization; we kind of violate conventional and highly salient boundaries, especially in Quebec. So that of course brings out a lot of interactional boundary work which is a bit difficult to ignore.

(3) What makes you mad?
Being lied to. That really pushes my buttons. Stubbornness (except mine, which is always well-founded, of course). Refusal to see someone else’s perspective. Any of the typical reasons given for why things should be done only in English (it’s more efficient; everyone speaks it anyway; doing things in more than one language costs too much; if we do it in two languages, we’ll have to do it in hundreds of languages, and it will never end; it takes up too much space; so sorry, we wish we could, but by accident it so happens that everyone here is monolingual; we don’t have a budget for it; we’ve never done it; what?).

(4) What makes you smile?
Swimming in really excellent water. A new, preferably slightly crazy, idea. A good hug.

(5) What is someone like you doing being a francophone expert or advocate? Heller????
Oh dear, “expert”? “advocate”? But I see what you re trying to get at. So, yes, the name business is part of the not fitting dominant modes of ethnolinguistic categorization, which obviously have profound social reality still. People who, as they say, self-identify as “francophones” (although not so much in Europe, French republicanism and Belgian and Swiss linguistic boundary-crossing obligent) are always asking me for my life story and constructing their own as uninteresting. So the fit is uncomfortable, which is part of what I like about it, although I do regularly blow my stack at the sweetly innocent othering. It’s uncomfortable everywhere of course, and in that sense I would say I am more of a student of categorization, boundary and stratification processes in which la francité is a key element than a francophone whatever. Why the focus on la francité canadienne? For the Canada part, I think it is a form of staking a claim to living in, being part of, the society in which, for complicated historical reasons, I was born (despite Canada’s famous reluctance to let in German Jews), without giving up the critical distance from nationalism (and especially State nationalism) that comes with the territory of living with the ghosts of Nazism. The francophone part: because of its importance in understanding how ethnolinguistic categories are mobilized to construct class relations in Canada and because it has been the central terrain of production of discourses of nationalism in Canada. Also partly because it is actually easier for me to move in francophone than anglophone circles in many ways. But in many ways my focus really has been on where the boundary is and how to get a handle on it.

(6) Did you ever consider a different profession?
I actually never really expected to be an academic. I have always been interested in doing something concerning the sets of issues I’ve described here, without necessarily focusing on a particular form that activity might take. Besides being paid, so I don’t starve to death. When I was in high school I had thoughts about interpretation and translation, but that was over quickly after I realized that you never get to actually say anything in your own voice, and that a lot of it is women facilitating communication among men, as though we don’t do enough of that already. As odd as it might sound, I expected to work for the State in some capacity; might as well be in the belly of the beast, I figure. But also in Canada we – probably naively – still think the State is our friend. I’m attracted to that tension. I do spend a lot of time in my current capacity doing things involving interlocutors from State and paragovernmental agencies, as well as other stakeholders. For example, at the moment I am a member of something called the Commission de suivi de la situation linguistique, a body which advises the Office québécois de la langue française (a Quebec government agency responsible for implementing language legislation) on research. I think that kind of thing is fairly typical for people in my field, especially those of us who live in places where multilingualism is a political issue – I have colleagues in places like Catalunya, for example, whose lives look a lot like mine.

(7) If you were Secretary General of the UN what would you especially want to achieve (or at least work on)?
Staying sane. The challenge right now I think is that we are working with a global system which is based on the nation-State as the key functional unit at a time when most of what is happening is really beyond the reach of such strategies, both because of the growing importance of sites and spaces at the edge of the limits of State control or outside them altogether (from private enterprise to religious institutions to looser networks) and because so much of what happens requires thinking in relational terms beyond simple State-to-State interaction. The UN is based on assumptions that are getting out of date fast.

(8) Why is a Canadian like you so involved in the AAA?
It goes back to how I ended up in graduate school in the U.S. in the first place, which has to do largely with the fact that training in what I wanted to do (and how I wanted to do it) wasn’t available anywhere else. (There is a lot to be said about why that was the case, but there is no room for that here.) So I first came to the AAA as a graduate student, presenting my first paper at a large (and terrifying) conference (I forgot to breathe and my hands went numb). Over the years I have come and gone; to be honest, there have been times when the US-centredness of the AAA got annoying, or just failed to speak to my concerns. And it is sometimes a bit weird to be part insider and part outsider. But the fact remains that I always learn something at the meetings, which is sort of a basic criterion. More than that, the so-called “service” dimension has taught me things I would never otherwise have learned, and (notably through the commission on engagement with security and intelligence agencies) made me question some of my most fundamental beliefs. As for the details, I was originally recruited to run for a section position by a section president I really liked and figured I’d enjoy working with (which I did) and one thing led to another. I’ve been challenged and stimulated by the work I’ve been offered, and frankly find the people I have been privileged to work with terribly congenial, even when we really disagree. I’m also involved in bodies in Canada and in Europe, so that gives me an opportunity to profit from boundary-crossing, which, as I have said, I really like to do.

(9) Should we just abandon nation-based anthropological societies and establish (or foster) a non-nation-based professional association of anthropologists?
I think it is worth thinking about. Our professional lives still tend to be circumscribed by national boundaries: most funding works that way, and the labour market is still quite constrained by nation-State concerns. I can’t even give a talk in the U.S. for a $100 honorarium without filling out a zillion forms and getting the right kind of visa. Never mind spending three hours at the airport getting full-body patdowns. The conversation on the other side has to be pretty good for all that to be worth it – and I think twice even though I’m white, I can speak English, I’m employed and I carry a Canadian passport, so I’m surely in the category of people for whom border-crossing is the least fraught. But sometimes making things – in this case at least transnational, if not actively a-national professional spaces — happen creates its own reality, and anthropology seems like an obvious place to start.

(10) What is something that only your closest friends and loved ones know about you?
I’d make a really great personal shopper.

(11) What is the silliest thing you like to do that you are willing to tell us about?
The Ministry of Silly Walks, but of course, I don’t think that is silly at all.

Blog at