On the margins of politics

I am going slightly out of depths with this post, traversing into the territory of yet-to-be-formed thoughts, which could either be speculations or reflections; responses, or idiosyncratic musings. Part of it emerges with the experience I’ve had so far working ethnographically, and from my previous research encounters and readings; but the other part is deeply contemplative, troubling even. Here, I wish to work with another concept that can be read along with ‘subalternity’ as I discussed in the last post – that of ‘margins.’

Therefore, I would like the reader to be aware of the tentative nature of the thoughts expressed in this post, and the assumptions that guide them, and the delicate nature of the interventions that I make.

I began to think of margins more concertedly after I attended a lecture by Pnina Werbner recently, where she spoke about political revolution in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements in 2011, and the aesthetics of effervescence and despair. She spoke of how such movements needed to be backed by politics so as to materialize the changes that guide them in the first place. Despite apparent failures, she argued that such movements do have an impression on the world: narratives, strategies, and so forth, which steer and shape protest politics in the world. While I am in agreement with her argument, I do think one element that was left relatively under-theorized – and one I think is crucial – is that of the margins of such politics.

I use the term ‘margin’ in a very specific sense in this post. In the first sense, I use margins to denote a space created by social and political forces, but with an important caveat that the social forces I am talking about can be broadly characterized as counter-hegemonic forces. Margins, while hierarchized, are not simply peripheries to an imagined center (I am also skeptical of ascribing a direct spatial link, which I explain below).

To return to the case that was central in Werbner’s lecture, the Arab Spring, one such margin I could think of was how the voices and actions of women protestors and activists were met with hostility and exclusion in some countries. The most notable case I can think of, for instance, is Aliaa Elmahdy in Egypt. More broadly, one can also think of the exclusion and neglect of queer, black and women of color in western feminism; or the exclusion of indigenous movements and narratives in anti-capitalist struggles; or the absence of the voices of migrants and refugees in some no border movements, as operating in such margins.

In the above cases, the margins I wish to outline are not only marginal in relation to an antagonist force, like brutal political regimes or a corrupt postcolonial state (which they are, no doubt). Rather, I want to point out how the political force of such counter movements exacerbates (or in some cases, creates) its own margins. In other words, every politics creates its own margins.

The second sense in which I use the term margins, is concerned with the kind of politics that is engendered in the margins – which is also why I think it is erroneous to conflate margins with marginalization. I feel compelled to reflect on margins in this sense following the rise in student protests in India at the moment, and particularly the question of caste. I want to highlight the tension between the recent and ongoing student protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Delhi, and at Hyderabad Central University (HCU).

In HCU, students have been protesting against the university administration and the government following the death of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student and PhD scholar, who committed suicide in January after being persecuted by the university administration and ministers from the Hindu nationalist party, BJP, for his anti-caste politics on campus. Vemula’s suicide – or more accurately, institutional murder – also reflects the continuing caste discrimination and caste violence prevalent in Indian universities (and in Indian society at large). JNU, on the other hand, saw massive protests against the arrests of several student leaders (who were accused of sedition under colonial-era laws, for shouting ‘anti-national’ slogans). Not only did JNU occupy a more prominent role in the public imagination – for both, bad and good reasons, like hostile media coverage but also international solidarity, and participation of left political parties – some even argue that the JNU protests sidelined the HCU protests. This is especially so since HCU student protests were met with unprecedented police violence which saw very little media coverage, despite being widely shared on social media.

However, when I say the HCU movement – where anti-caste narratives and Dalit politics figure more prominently than critique of nationalism – inhabits a margin, I mean it is in a position that refuses to be appropriated by the larger leftist/liberal narratives guiding the JNU protests. This goes back to how the critique of caste precludes leftist politics in India, since most communist leaders were, and are, in fact upper-caste and privileged Hindus, for whom class struggle was historically more important than anti-caste struggle. This was reflected both in electoral politics, and also in epistemology – from the virtual absence of caste in postcolonial and Subaltern Studies, to an academic division of labor between theoretical Brahmins (the highest caste), and the empirical Shudras (the lower castes).

In this sense, the margin is a space of strong and relentless critique against political movements and epistemologies that occupy a center (along with right-wing and Hindu nationalist politics, of course). Far from being peripheral – and I strongly resist that conception – they are spaces of creating knowledge in its own right; a margin that is central in producing political and social critique; one that does not need the validation of the learned Brahmins of high academia or high politics. In that sense, the HCU protests are situated within the Dalit-Bahujan political milieu (the term ‘bahujan’ denotes the majority of people who are oppressed, Dalits, adivasis, minorities) that critiques caste violence, and the appropriation of Dalit politics by upper-castes, most notably, of B. R. Ambedkar (Ambedkar was one of the leading figures of the anti-caste movement in pre- and post-independence India. He was a rationalist, modernist, feminist, and played a vital role in drafting India’s Constitution. His scathing critiques against Hinduism and the Hindu Right, however, have been recently appropriated by both upper-caste progressive writers, and the Hindu Right, which dilutes the critical edge of his thinking, to say the least).[1] Following Walter Mignolo, conceived in this sense, the margin is a space that is challenging dominant, caste-blind narratives by forcing them to change the terms of the conversation and not merely the contents.

As I watched the JNU and HCU protests unfold on my timeline, I realized how marginal I was, and I am, to them; deeply invested as I may be politically and philosophically, but nonetheless, marginal in the sense that I am not materially invested in them (the physical distance being just one). This is how I use the term margin in the third and final sense.

As an upper-caste, I feel a deep sense of ambivalence and unease writing about caste, and expressing ‘solidarity,’ which more often than not risks becoming mere tokenism (or appropriation). Despite my claims to denounce my caste markers, caste has an undeniable materiality that sticks to you: in your name; your habitus; what you read; what you consume; who your friends are; what life possibilities you have; and the limits of your political engagement.

While it is possible to imagine what an anthropology-at-the-margin would look like in the first and second instances, with the question of caste, however, I have difficulty wondering what my anthropological engagement can look like – which is why I have now consciously decided to not engage in researching and writing academically on caste. Of course, I am not suggesting that we become mere bystanders (the conversation should continue, but not on the terms of vaunted academics. I nonetheless continue to discuss caste in personal and public conversations, like this one). By all means, anthropologists, scholars and activists continue to produce fascinating and relevant accounts of caste and caste politics in modern India that challenge the assumptions of how politics and political movements work, and challenge the assumptions, positions of privileged academics invested in the status quo. At some point, however, I sense that despite being an anthropologist, I am somehow still a part of this privileged group of theoretical Brahmins (perhaps this position of inhabiting a privileged margin is something anthropologists face in different political contexts – I would certainly like to hear more from the readers).

What, then, are the possibilities of engagements from such margins of the political? More importantly, what are the limits of such engagements? How can we think of anthropology, public engagement and cultural critique, when we come to be part of structures of power like caste (or perhaps, race or gender) that sticks to us? In my first post, I wrote of the need to get our feet muddied in the ground to do ethnography. It would seem almost contrary that I now advocate for a distance of sorts. Perhaps, in such moments, being at the margins can be about observing a distance (not observing from a distance), and yet somehow finding a way to speak truth to power.


[1] In 2014, Arundhati Roy published an introduction to an annotated edition of Ambedkar’s famous and critical text, Annihilation of Caste (AoC), which was widely criticized by Dalit scholars and activists as an appropriation of Ambedkar (since AoC is already a widely circulated and translated text anyway. Read the critiques of Roy published on the Ambedkarite forum Round Table India, here and here). Hindu right-wing parties like the BJP, on the other hand, ironically claim Ambedkar as a Hindu icon, although he was staunchly critical of the Hindu right.

Proshant is currently pursuing his MA in Social and Cultural Anthropology at KU Leuven, Belgium. He previously worked as a researcher in Mumbai, India, on issues like public health, AIDS advocacy, migration, and gender-based violence.

9 thoughts on “On the margins of politics

  1. I want to point out how the political force of such counter movements exacerbates (or in some cases, creates) its own margins. In other words, every politics creates its own margins.

    This is an important observation that raises an interesting question. Do different kinds of politics create different kinds of margins? I think, on the one hand of creative margins where avant-garde art is born, on the other hand of initiations and camps like those where military training takes place, old identities are shed and new disciplines imposed.

  2. Here are some thoughts that initially came up when I first read your post Proshant (these our just thoughts in a speculative nature, not at all clear ideas for myself!). I was wondering what you exactly mean with margins as not simply being peripheries to an imagined center? While I think I understand the critique behind this statement, and I probably agree with it, I’m trying to link it to my fieldwork experience. In the suburb (not in the American sense) where I did my fieldwork most people expressed a sort of marginal relationships related to the city center (I’m making a direct spatial link here, but this is mostly because I’m trying to work with the experiences of my ‘participants’). I’m trying to understand if it is imagined in this case? This marginal feeling is, among other things, associated to Politics (Capital P to refer to the party-politics in the country), as they mostly feel unrepresented by Politicians who have their Parliament in the Center of the city. Another thought that sprung up relates to your statement that ‘every politics creates its own margins,’ which I agree with. But, what do we understand under politics? I’m asking this because you give an interesting example with the student protests, and you talk about counter movements exacerbating their own margins and the kind of politics engendered in the margins. In my fieldwork I focus on ‘everyday life’ in that suburb and I’m trying to understand what politics/margins can mean in this case. Maybe I’m making a leap because I’m trying to think politics here as not relating to (organized) movements? To come back to every politics creating its own margins, I’m also pondering on how this relates to our self-criticism and not engaging with particular concepts in particular instances and places. To what extent are we creating more distance (unbridgeable gaps?) between ourselves as ethnographers and the people we engage with? Does this imply that critique in certain cases is rendered impossible? In the suburb, for example, when someone tells me ‘but you don’t live here’ (my life history complicates this statement and my position), does this mean I should not engage with life there and try to understand the violences engendered there? Further, does it mean that I have no real right of criticizing in my talks with ‘participants’ (and vice versa) because our different positionalities imply so? As you see I’m still struggling with many questions myself.
    I was recently reading on the epistemic decolonial turn and the critique on the political economy perspective resonates deeply with me as I’m trying to understand how my inclination to the latter perspective has made me miss out on certain issues. In many ways it seems accurate to say that people in Sarajevo, and the broader region live under the regime of ‘global coloniality’ (as imposed by USA, IMF, WB, EU, but also in the other direction by Russia, Turkey, UAE, Malaysia…). This makes me think about the geo-political and body-political location of the subjects that speaks. So while I agree fully that we always speak from a particular location in the power structures, I’m nevertheless contemplating how in my relationship with the field the boundaries often seem very fuzzy thus rendering me nearly speechless.

  3. Hey Jasmin! Just reposting a part of my reply from Facebook, with a few additions:

    First, I think I refer to ‘politics’ as the general and specific exercises of social power towards particular ends (which itself is fairly conventional). But in thinking about the margins that the exercise of such power produces, I think I am also trying to show the shortcomings of the ‘models’ we have of power, resistance, etc.; and in that sense, looking at counter-hegemonic politics shows the inherent complexities of such politics. I am reading a paper by James Holston for a class, and this one particular quote of his, made in the context of disjunctive democracy in Brazil, strikes me as relevant:

    “…the equalities of democratic citizenship always produce new inequalities, vulnerabilities, and destabilizations, as well as the means to contest them.”

    Of course, such margins also come to he spatialized – it’s just, I was writing this, it wasn’t my main concern (I think a lot of urban anthropologists pay closer attention to such spatial margins/peripheries, esp in the global south. I think you are in a unique position to make an intervention in the post-socialist context!) So to return to what I am trying to think of w.r.t. margins, is to attempt to theorize a relationship between space, hierarchy, and epistemology – of which, the margin is a specific iteration.

    With regard to our in/ability to engage with actors in such margins – and also the ‘privileged margin’ that we students/scholars inhabit (that term was suggested by my girlfriend) – I do think we must try and do two things: (a) be critical of our empathetic models (e.g., friendships in the field), and constantly scrutinize the limits of such empathy; and (b) simultaneously avoid the the theoretical hypochondria that anthropology can often be prone to when talking about power differences (which is the other extreme).

    In the first case, we can often be blind to (or at the least, gloss over) things like white privilege – and thus, we need to listen to such critiques (I would recommend you read Discuss White Privilege’s comments on this earlier post:). In the second, such critique can indeed paralyse the very enterprise of anthropology. Yet, it is imperative that we continue to ground ourselves ethnographically, and follow the good work we’re doing both academically and professionally (which was the topic of my last post). Here, margins, subalternity, and precarity come to be entangled.

    In sum, I do think there is room for engagement and critique, albeit one from the margins of such politics. How different is such engagement from the ‘conventional’ ethnographic ones? I honestly don’t know; I can provide a descriptive answer based on comparison, however (which should be a start). But that’s just the beginning of a conversation that I think is imperative to have. Thanks again for the comment! Let’s reconvene one day over coffee or beers, and continue this conversation. Cheers!

  4. Proshant, can you say a bit more about what you mean by “epistemology.” In my old-fashioned, BA-in-philosophy-a-long-time-ago understanding, an epistemology is a theory of knowledge, an attempt to specify conditions under which knowledge is valid. What I am hearing at the moment is a claim that people who occupy different positions in social hierarchies see things from different perspectives. Those in the center see one thing. Those on the margins see something else. Whether either sees the whole of whatever is the topic of interest is unlikely. Both perspectives have their own blind spots. That is why, as Mikhail Bakhtin pointed out in his famous “Letter to Novy Mir” all cultural understanding involves dialogue.

    I suspect, however, that you have something else in mind.

  5. Hi John. I don’t think my usage of the term ‘epistemology’ is far off from the general philosophical definition of it (for good reason, perhaps!) But in my work, I am also certainly working with a Foucauldian and feminist conceptions of epistemology/knowledge and discourse, and the related idea of techniques and embodiment (currently reading authors like Joan Scott, Irigaray, Butler, Harding and so on; also working with anthropologists like Strathern, Rosaldo, etc.)

    It is interesting you point out the part with seeing one part or the whole – in a sense, that’s implicit in my work when it comes to “knowing” what violence is (don’t have an answer yet). But it is the kind of hierarchies that are produced – privileging one mode of knowledge (the NGO’s) over other (front-line workers’), despite a dialogue between the two – that interests me more.

    With regard to this post specifically, I am trying to hint at a similar dynamic: the lens of colonization (or with the case of caste, Brahminization) of knowledge and experience; the privileging of certain frameworks over others; and the kind of critique and knowledge produced at these margins of politics that refutes validation or co-option by the powers that are; and so on. In this case, although I have not read Bakhtin, I would also be suspicious of ‘dialogue’ since my intervention involves questioning on whose terms the dialogue/conversation is taking place (I turn to Mignolo here, despite some critiques I have of him). I hope there’s a bit more clarity to my thoughts now. Cheers!

  6. Proshant, you write,

    Hi John. I don’t think my usage of the term ‘epistemology’ is far off from the general philosophical definition of it (for good reason, perhaps!) But in my work, I am also certainly working with a Foucauldian and feminist conceptions of epistemology/knowledge and discourse, and the related idea of techniques and embodiment (currently reading authors like Joan Scott, Irigaray, Butler, Harding and so on; also working with anthropologists like Strathern, Rosaldo, etc.).

    You assume that dropping these names will mean something to me. But these are, in fact, names of which I am only dimly aware, and your mentioning them communicates nothing to me about just what it is that you take from the authors in question. That is the explanation I need to be sure that I am not misinterpreting what you are trying to say.

  7. [Updated comment]

    Apologies, John. I didn’t wish to name-drop for the sake of it; admittedly, comments aren’t the best medium for a lengthy discussion (not to mention the specificity of my current work) – I merely wanted to point out where I take inspiration from.

    If you are interested, I can share some more lengthier works as and when they are written (you could perhaps read a paper I wrote for a class where I deal with the issue more in detail). At the moment, however, I can offer these very tentative interventions (although, the rest of my comment tried to be a bit more elaborate on what I mean by the relationship between epistemology and margins).

    To summarize: I initially conceived the relationship between these epistemologies (produced by the NGO, and by the front-line workers) as a ‘multi-sited epistemology,’ where knowledge (on violence, gender, inequality, etc.) is spatialized and hierarchized. I have since revised this as spatially hierarchized epistemology (inspired from A.M. Simone). It still is very much a work-in-progress concept. In mentioning the above feminist theorists, I am trying to ground my work in both, ethnographic and feminist interventions concerned with the status of knowledge and the hierarchies between them (global/local, professional/’vernacular’, etc.)

    [Update: John, the particular paper I shared doesn’t have a detailed discussion; my apologies! I don’t have a copy of it online, so if you’re interested, you may read some earlier posts here and here. Once again, I don’t think hyperlinking is any better, or less messier, than name-dropping. I do apologise for the troubles!]

  8. Proshant, no need to apologize. My argument is not directed at you personally but instead at a habitus that, in my view, shows up too frequently in academic discussions, substituting allusions to authors for thoughtful explanation. When, to borrow the language of the business world, I am looking for an “elevator speech,” a few sentences to persuade me that I want to learn more, what I get instead is a pointer to another source that I have to run down and read for myself—without knowing why I should bother. When I was a student taking a class and a teacher did that to me, it was a good thing. I was in school. It was educational. Now that I am old and have dozens of topics about which I would like to know more, I get annoyed. That is, to be sure, my problem not yours. It is also,however, a barrier for anyone who has not had the same teachers and read the same authors that you have.

    I am still stuck with “epistemology.” I assume that you mean a set of rules about what counts as knowledge that allow, for example, Orientalists to dismiss the Orientals’ views as irrational superstitions, or senior bureaucrats to ignore frontline experience as merely anecdotal. It is easy, and frequently valid as well, to criticize epistemologies if this is what we are talking about. Personally, however, I would not rely exclusively on feminist or other critical theory. I would cast a wider net. Two books that have strongly influenced my own views are

    A. Irving Hallowell, Culture and Experience (1955), in which the anthropologist, who worked with First Nations Ojibway in Canada, observed that there is no need for “a culture” to be completely shared. All that is necessary to sustain social life is sufficient overlap in mental models and values to allow cooperation.

    Also, Harlan Cleveland, The Knowledge Executive (1985), in which the author, a distinguished diplomat and educator, notes that while everyone’s having a voice and knowing everything that is happening is a beautiful ideal, it is one that inevitably leads to organizational paralysis in all but the smallest, face-to-face groups.

    I was influenced by them both in writing a paper about how advertising is produced in Japan, in which I myself observed not only that no one knows the whole process in detail but also that there is no benefit to be gained by try to understand everything that goes on as an ad is produced. From a practical perspective, it suffices that the combined efforts of the individuals involved produces something that makes the client happy. How it was made is irrelevant to judging the outcome.

    Finally, I recall a problem presented to my daughter when she was taking a leadership class at the United States Naval Academy. Imagine that you are a junior officer leading a patrol in the jungles of Vietnam. Following a firefight, two members of your patrol are badly wounded and likely to die without medical shortest route back to base is through a certain valley, but your orders tell you to go around the valley instead of through it. What do you do? The missing information here is somethings that a superior officer knows that you don’t. That valley is scheduled to be carpet bombed with napalm.

    Yes, this case is an extreme one, and as lawyers put it, extreme cases make bad law. It does, however, suggest a need to evaluate the subaltern’s epistemology with the same critical eye applied to the superior’s.

  9. Thanks for the share, and the anecdote, John. Of course, I do agree that we should be wary of any romanticized positions when it comes to a difference in power (my fieldwork last summer was partly about challenging many of my positive assumptions about the front-line workers and understanding institutional pressures for the NGO, as well). I’ll keep them in mind as I think along. Cheers!

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