Category Archives: Guest blogger

Notes on peership: A conclusion

This post follows a few ideas I expressed last year, as I started the second year of my MA in anthropology here at Leuven. It was a moment when most of us in my program returned from our respective field sites; reeling from the intensity of ethnographic fieldwork, dealing with copious amounts of field notes, emotions and reflections, wondering if we have enough for a thesis.

I wrote then of the need for ‘peership’ in classrooms: a sense of ‘taking care of our own’ in educational spaces – ‘a crucial support network that enables many of us to get around.’ We called this endeavor, with seriousness and a lot of jest, ‘Peers and Beers.’ We met every couple of weeks, presented our thoughts, spoke of creative ways to write and think through our notes, shared references, helped develop tables-of-content (for a large part!), and of course drink wonderful Belgian beers. Continue reading

Are nuances like curry leaves?

The title of this post – and its contents – was inspired by an anecdote I wrote about in an earlier post in my field blog. Before I proceed, I want to recapitulate it.

It was late-August, and towards the end of my fieldwork. Sanjay, Pankaj, Jagdish,* and I were having lunch in the NGO’s field office in Dharavi. After we finished lunch – a combination of coriander chicken curry and rice, made by Pankaj – Sanjay said introspectively, “We field staff, who work on the ground level, we are like curry leaves.” He asked us if we knew what he meant by that. I shook my head, no. Pankaj said that it is perhaps so because the field staff, like curry leaves, “adds flavor” to the NGO’s work. Jagdish offered his interpretation: because we (the front-line staff), like curry leaves, are chewed up and spit out once the taste or flavor is gone.

Sanjay smiled, and nodded: “Yes, that’s what I meant! A combination of the two!”

I wrote in the previous post why I found this metaphor so intriguing. It demonstrates the reflexivity of the front-line workers – how they are positioned hierarchically compared to the ‘offices’ – and is also a reflection on the kind of ideas and epistemologies they bring forth in their everyday intervention work in the basti (communities). Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The anthropologist as a curious subaltern? Thoughts on precarity and publics

The title of this post is meant to provoke. Or so I hoped, when I first thought of it one night as I was cooking (a very thought-inspiring activity, I must say). I was replaying a conversation in my head that I had with a visual anthropologist from Macau, who was trained in Berlin. Our conversation traced the postcolonial critique of anthropology, as well as difficulties of translating anthropological works for the public. The reason he calls himself a ‘visual anthropologist,’ he said with a laugh, is because the term gives him legitimacy in academic circles (he also gets invited to screen his films at various festivals). I think that, perhaps, doing so gives him room to be more eclectic than what a category would allow.

I wondered: why, when, and how do we call ourselves anthropologists? Of course, there are academic conventions, and institutional structures. But there’s also a sense of belonging to a professional community, a global tribe, if one is pushing the cliché. In undergraduate and graduate programs, we’re initiated into the history of the discipline, into understanding seminal moments (Writing Culture is still fresh in my mind from a course from last year), as well as into the ‘field.’ We are privy to the workings of the discipline; we see how our peers, teachers and institutions (the AAA, for instance) have responded to political questions like institutional boycotts, or Black Lives Matter (not to mention scandals within anthropology – the Yanomamo being another ‘seminal’ moment in pedagogy).

Yet, we are asked, perhaps more so than any other discipline, what anthropology’s relevance to the world is? Very often, it is a question asked in classrooms – both, by students new to anthropology and by those who’ve been here for a while. I do note a crucial difference between asking, ‘How can we be relevant?’ and ‘Are we relevant?’ Both, of course, operate in a similar rhetorical level. But the latter can be particularly challenging.

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On front-lines and ethnography

My previous post was about how ethnography, for me, is a way of being grounded in particular contexts, of getting one’s feet muddied with the nuances and contradictions of everyday life, and building something concrete out of it.

The term ‘front-line’ encapsulates that grounding for me. In this post, I want to demonstrate what the term signifies about the work done by the front-line workers in Dharavi themselves, and then conclude by reflecting on what it means to do ethnography in such front-lines (or, alternatively, front-line ethnography). Continue reading

Groundings, or seeing-one’s-feet: An introduction

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Proshant Chakraborty]

Over the last year or so, I have found that nearly every academic essay I have written for my courses contains a section titled ‘Context & Positions,’ or some such variant.

The first reason for this is obvious – my undergraduate and graduate classes in anthropology focused on reflexivity to a very large extent. We were initiated into the discipline with an emphasis on the fact that our data is ‘co-produced’ with our informants; that there is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ observation, nor are there any ‘Universal Truths’ out there.

The purpose of anthropology – and critical social sciences – one of my professors in my undergraduate class explained, is to ‘problematize the obvious.’ In my MA program, my professor and thesis supervisor underscored that anthropology is a ‘particularistic’ discipline.

That is perhaps why I consciously decided to title this post as ‘Groundings’ – but there is a second reason for it, which is more personal and intuitive, arising from my own engagement with ethnography. It is what I describe as ‘seeing one’s feet’ (which is, of course, a nod to Scheper-Hughes’ idea of ‘anthropology with feet-on-the-ground,’ and ‘barefoot anthropology.’ I will return to this theme in the next few posts). Continue reading

Affect, Attention, and Ethnographic Research: Thoughts on Mental Health in the Field

This year has seen some encouraging openings in a much-needed conversation on academia and mental health (for example: The Guardian, Chronicle Vitae, The Professor is In). Many of these interventions critically tie their findings to the costs of operating in the academy today. While these conditions increasingly impact all of us, here I’d like to try and tie this talk to anthropology – and specifically, ethnographic research.

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The Self at Stake: Thinking Fieldwork and Sexual Violence

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Alix Johnson]

I don’t intend to write about surveillance and suspicion, but then I spend my first five months of fieldwork feeling watched.  I move to Reykjavík for dissertation research a year after being sexually assaulted there; just in time to testify in the ensuing trial.  I schedule my first interviews between witness preparation.  And in the months before he’s convicted, I get used to seeing my assailant around town.  Our eyes meet at bars and we share aisles at grocery stores; I see or sense or imagine or conjure him a few paces behind me while I’m walking home.  But his are never the only eyes on me – my lawyer says the defense attorney will question my character, so I weigh my decisions, imagine defending them in court.  Later, our case is covered by the tabloids.  They describe exactly what he did to me, and I watch people trying to find it in my face.

Meanwhile, I’m meeting with engineers and developers, talking about data centers and fiber-optic lines.  I’m here to study the making of Iceland as an “information haven”: as John Perry Barlow called it, “the Switzerland of bits.”  A proposal for economic and political recovery, many saw positioning Iceland in this way as the path forward from the  financial crash.  So developers build data storage facilities, officials draft “information friendly” laws, and entrepreneurs found startups to manage it.  I want to trace the physical and conceptual infrastructure that allows Iceland to take on this new role.  Assuming technological connections index other intimacies, I am trying to track how debates over Iceland’s “connectivity” raise questions over sovereignty, identity, and place in the world.  My field notes from this period are hard to read now.  Desperately exhausted by the work of surviving, I’m frustrated that this should interfere with my “real” research.  But a year later, I can see something else there: a way of being that shaped the way I see and do my work.
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Waiting for the Future

Call it what you will: an anecdotal and impressionist narrative, or a set of strung-together fieldnotes, collected over years of living and working with people across class lines (in my own home construction sites, in an NGO working in the space of education, in my locality with maids and workers and neighbors) suspended indefinitely in a life of participant observation. The following is a story of the ways in which the future frames us—in both senses of the word.

It is a week before the second spate of massive rains will flood Chennai city, causing the worst flooding the city has seen in 100 years. We are at Home Center on TTK Road in Alwarpet, one of the new home and lifestyle chains which feel much like a localized version of Bed, Bath, and Beyond—down to lighting and layout. We are with my parents and elderly uncle, who is fond of remarking on each instance he finds of facilities and services being “just like in a foreign country.” These days, there appear to be many such.

Back home in Pondicherry, a tiny little “modular kitchen” furnishing, appliance, and homeware showroom has recently opened up, directly across from a housing block, built thanks to the Integrated Housing and Slum Development project sanctioned under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM) scheme. Neighborhoods like this one, off-center from the old heritage “white town,” are very mixed, with more expensive apartments and private homes tucked into unlikely nooks, adjoining slums, ‘low income’ government-built tenements, cow sheds, dhobi ghats (washing areas for laundry), and un-walled private plots by default used as open dumps. I’m walking past with a woman, Selvi, who works as a maid in a house nearby, and lives in the government quarters, as they’re known. We remark on the presence of the new kitchen store. “Do you think of going there to buy things?” I ask, somewhat disingenuously. She laughs. “Us? It’s only people like you who can go into shops like that.” I don’t bother to clarify that it’s not the kind of shop I would really think of visiting. Continue reading

Political Arrangements

The thing about work that stands out most, reading through enthusiastic future forecasts on the one hand and stories of worker distress after the Sriperumbudur Nokia manufacturing plant closure on the other, is how one context obscures the political arrangements that make work possible, whereas the other brings them to light. Work is after all always at base a political arrangement: some sort of transaction with the state that delivers jobs and a promise of the good life to its publics. Perhaps it is that euphoric accounts about the changing workplaces of the future are (naturally?) more concerned with projecting the future, rather than with the mechanics of how to get there. Or that the projected futures of work seem so de-politicized—and that is, in fact, their allure—that the realities of political undergirdings are obscured.

Nokia’s presence in the Sriperumbudur SEZ, at any rate, owed to the then ruling DMK’s (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) courtship of the Finnish phone manufacturer, and its success in outbidding other Indian states vying for Nokia business with quite unparalleled monetary and infrastructural incentives. The headiness of that political victory is not to be discounted, for Nokia’s component manufacturers soon joined the SEZ, and Nokia was held up as a symbol of industrialization in Tamil Nadu: along with Hyundai and Saint-Gobain Glass, one of ‘the three pillars of Sriperumbudur.’ The government’s objectives, per the 2006 SEZ act, included the generation of economic activity, employment creation, and infrastructure development. To this end, too, the DMK’s Vallthu Kattuvom Thittam or the ‘We Live’ recruitment scheme aided Nokia’s own initiatives to identify new employees. Companies in the SEZ had been improbably classified as ‘public utilities,’ ostensibly in order to ensure promised infrastructural incentives like water and continuous electricity supply – services glaringly unavailable and not-promised to local communities – but also specifically to ‘curb labor indiscipline’ within the SEZ. The very terms of the arrangement with Nokia, then, specified both the need for employment creation and for labor to be controlled in a terrific concession to the company’s ultimate authority in managing its workers. The needs and rights of workers were concealed by the very eagerness of the neoliberal state to assert its prowess. Continue reading

The future of work is consumption

One hears a lot of exuberant talk these days about the futures of work. Offices will go away, we’re told, or be significantly scaled back as employees work from home or the networked coffee-shop of their choosing. Work will be parceled into micro-units that can be outsourced to hyper-specialists, thus producing a micro-task economy. Mobility and freelancing will become the dominant metaphors of our multi-tasking flex-ruled times—a fallback for conventional job instabilities and a route to more fine-tuned control over life, leisure, and employment choices. Crowdsourcing and outsourcing together will mean that work can be done by lots of dispersed people in lots of dispersed places. Workforces will become 3D: ‘distributed, discontinuous and decentralized.‘ Peer-to-peer networks will replace old hierarchies. The distinction between ‘work’ and ‘social’ will blur, networked collaboration having long since displaced isolated concentration. We will demand of our work and our employers more than we ever did before; we’ll even teach them a thing or two about what gadgets and technologies make work more efficient and enjoyable. In general, millennial sensibilities will rule.

As I suggested in my last post, however, it’s unclear whose futures these are. Only a few forecasts are ever localized for India, but global enthusiasm reverberates disproportionately and faith in the capacity of technology to widen work futures is immensely strong. While it is true that some younger office crowds in the big Indian metros can contemplate and even demand flex-futures shot through with millennial whimsy, bare laboring realities still exert themselves, and forcefully. The contrasts are especially hard to ignore in India, where, all around is also ‘work’ of a very different sort: running in parallel to the more prized but no less regimented office work, there is casual work, self-employment (a category which includes street vendors and domestic workers among others), un- or semi-skilled labor, daily-wage labor on construction sites, agricultural labor that leads nowhere and is seasonal besides, factory work, service work, specialized artisanal work that has long since been downgraded to manual labor and more—all of it low-wage, and apparently bereft of any real possibility of reinvention. Continue reading

An Anthropologist among Future Seekers

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Deepa S. Reddy]

For a few years now, I’ve been working in the space of future imagining—seeking out trends and rationales by which to extrapolate them or use them as jumping-off points as provocations to business, taking inspiration from start-up tech’s drive to search out uncommon solutions to common problems, setting sights on far-off horizons, and generally learning to ask “what if” and wish “if I could..” with impunity.

At first, I found all this quite strange. Wasn’t it more important to be grounded in the present, and to tease out the histories that had produced our presents—and, at most, could produce our foreseeable futures? This is what I had trained myself to do all these years anyway, and what I seemed still to be training my students to do. Contextualizing, explaining cultural forms or dynamics, tracking the social lives of things—this was work much more rooted in the present, with a strong sense of the past that informed and birthed it, than in any future-oriented approach. Of course, such approaches weren’t by themselves anything new. In some form or other, they have been mainstays of disciplines like economics, finance, design and planning, or the environmental sciences, not to speak of political, literary, and religious imaginings—but, far as I could tell, not anthropology. We might have looked to such imaginings as great research material, but only insofar as it led us right back into the configurations of the present. I thought back to the responses of a good many of my colleagues to the Future Studies program we’d once had at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, the first of its kind at the time: the future isn’t here, so how on earth could you study it? (For that and other reasons, the program folded eventually and moved in a fashion to UH’s main campus under the charge of Peter Bishop. It exists still as a graduate program in “Foresight”).

Past-ness mattered and was core to the sort of analysis we routinely undertook. It was, it still is, as Appadurai has said, in the closing essay to a collection of already-published papers entitled The future as cultural fact, that “[i]n one way or another, anthropology remains preoccupied with the logic of reproduction, the force of custom, the dynamics of memory, the persistence of habitus, the glacial movement of the everyday, and the cunning of tradition in the social life of even the most modern movements and communities, such as those of scientists, refugees, migrants, evangelists, and movie icons” (285). Continue reading

Dialogs before Suicide – An interview

In 2011, I made a single-shot feature film – Rati Chakravyuh (2013, 105 minutes) that was a summit of my life long engagement with the ontology of cinematic temporality. A “single-shot feature film”, also called “continuous shot feature film” is a full-length movie filmed in one long takes by a single camera. This is one of the most technological challenging, aesthetically provocative and complex cinematic feats in the history of cinema. Only less than a dozen such films have been made.

During the age of celluloid, few filmmakers pushed the ontology of the single-long-shot to the extreme – often shooting a whole canister of 1000 feet of 35 mm film from beginning to end, clocking a length of 11 minutes. Although full-length feature film in a single-shot was not possible, but long shots were methodically sutured by filmmakers like by Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni, Theodoros Angelopoulos, Werner Herzog and many others to create ontology of temporality in the cinematic representation. “Red Psalm” made in 1972 by the Hungarian master Miklós Jancsó stands out as an epic masterpiece of this form. This is an 87-minute feature film made of 26 meticulously choreographed long shots uncovering a history revolution in nineteenth century Hungary. Bela Tarr, a younger contemporary of Jancsó from Hungary also continued the same strategy, making feature narratives with carefully composed long shots.

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Material/Digital Authenticity: thoughts on digital 3D models and their material counterparts

Post by Stuart Jeffrey and Siân Jones

Colintraive and Glendaruel Community Woodland Trust recording cup-marked stones using photogrammetry and RTI
Colintraive and Glendaruel Community Woodland Trust recording cup-marked stones using photogrammetry and RTI

Media forms are constantly calling into question each other’s ability to represent the authentic, and these remediations raise the possibility of the decay of aura, the loss of authenticity of experience. (Bolter et al. 2006: 34)

Over the last decade, we’ve both been thinking about the fundamental problem of how the authenticity of historic objects and monuments is produced, experienced and negotiated. In particular, this has coalesced in our recent work on digital 3D models, where we have engaged directly with the questions raised by Bolter and his colleagues. To what extent does the use of new 3D digital media in the heritage sector result in the loss of authenticity? What do digital 3D models of historic objects do to their physical counterparts and visa versa? How do their biographies intersect? How does participation in their production inform the experience and negotiation of their authenticity?

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Analogue to Digital and Back Again, Part II

By Kathryn Killackey (Killackey Illustration and Design)

This post is part of this month’s analog/digital series and the second post­ discussing my work as an archaeological illustrator in relation to analogue and digital media. In the previous post I outlined my mostly analogue workflow with some digital skeuomorphs and explored the differences between illustration and 3D modeling. Here I’d like to share some ways I’ve recently expanded my use of the digital in my workflow and explored a constructive interplay between the digital and analogue.

I am the site illustrator for Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic archaeological site in Turkey. I started working there in 1999 as an archaeobotanist, and since 2007 I’ve been the project’s illustrator. Every summer I spend about two months drawing artifacts and recording on-site features. Over the years I’ve seen the project transition from entirely analogue recording to a mix of digital and analogue, until it has become almost entirely digital in some trenches. At this point the project employs tablets, laser scanners, and even drones. Dr. Maurizio Forte’s team from Duke University and Dr. Nicoló Dell’Unto from Lund University have spent the last several years testing these digital technologies on site. Until recently my work has mostly been unaffected by this transition to digital, I’ve carried on with my analogue workflow on a parallel track (see my earlier post for some advantages to analogue media in illustration). ­But over the last couple years several situations have arisen where I have had to re-evaluate my approach and consider integrating some of these new digital methods.

For example, this past summer I was tasked with illustrating a large, fragile lump of molded plaster in the shape of a head with painted ochre designs. I sat in front of the head with all my drawing tools laid out, picked up my pencil, and stopped. The plaster feature had already been 3D modeled by Dr. Dell’Unto and photographed by site photographer Jason Quinlan from every angle. What was my analogue pencil and paper drawing going to record that these other digital methods hadn’t already? Why illustrate?

3D Model of the plastered Head (Unit 21666) by Dr. Nicoló Dell’Unto. The model was generated using Agisoft Photoscan pro version 1.1.
3D Model of the plastered Head (Unit 21666) by Dr. Nicoló Dell’Unto. The model was generated using Agisoft Photoscan pro version 1.1.

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