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

Teh new ethnographeez

I’m in a reading group with sociologists — no, really, it’s been a good experience — and they said to me “it’s been a while since we read any ethnography, why don’t you chose the next book.” Choosing a book for a reading group is difficult : You sort of want to pick something you don’t really want to read, since the reading group will make you read it. But then after all you want to pick something you really want to read, right? Something of general interest that you need to keep up with the field, or maybe a specialist work that you absolutely need to read and haven’t yet. You know what your friends and colleagues are publishing, but then you want to chose a book that stretches your horizons and moves you out of your usual networks.

When I sat down to draw up my list of six or seven books that I really wanted to read, I found it was actually incredibly easy to do so. And as I looked over my list I thought: Damn, anthropology is pretty fracking interesting. Then I thought: well, yesterday I wrote a thousand word post about identity politics but decided not to blog it because it would just piss people off, so why don’t I at least share my reading list with the world (BTW having the covers strangely cropped like that was a complex and principled stylistic choice on my part, not a result of my failing to understand how my blogging platform handles images).

And so, without further ado, some of the most interesting and relatively recent books that I, at least, think deserve to be read: 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.

Continue reading

Around the Web Digest – Week of February 14

I hope your Día del Cariño was full of love of some form – the version of the holiday I experienced in Guatemala pertains to a much wider definition of familial and platonic love than the typical US Valentine’s Day, which makes it easier to get behind. If you want me to feature anything in the digest, send me the link at rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com.

This HuffPost piece on Valentine’s Day looks at how the celebration is increasingly popular among younger people in Indonesia, and how the globalization of consumer culture overlays a deeper globalization of notions of romantic love: Valentine’s Day: A Global Perspective

Anthropology News also responded to the holiday by looking at how breaking up with someone on Valentine’s Day remains more of an unshakeable taboo than breaking up over social media: Achy Breaky Heart 

Continue reading

Why the world needs World Anthropology Day

Today is World Anthropology Day, a global celebration of all things anthropological. The American Anthropological Association beta-tested this new holiday last year as ‘National Anthropology Day’, and we had a splendid time celebrating with delicious recipes and reminiscing about Alessandro Volta (and more). But ‘world anthropology day’ is a better fit, not only because it is more inclusive, but because it helps point out just how tight the fit is today between the world and anthropology.

Anthropology — and I’m using the term here to mean the American version of it that I practice — is just about a hundred years old. It’s been stretched, shredded, critiqued, defended, and expanded on like the Winchester Mystery House. And while there have been a lot of fair criticisms of the discipline over the years, it’s fundamental approach and findings seem more relevant than ever. Partially this is because they have stood the test of time, but partially it’s because the world of today needs them now more than ever.

At its heart, anthropology’s core finding still largely stand: Human beings are a single species. There are not naturally distinct ‘races’ some of  which are superior to others. For most of history human beings have been, on the whole, connected rather than isolated — most of our customs and cultures were borrowed from other places. All human groups must meet the challenge of making a living, but our culture displays a more or less coherent degree or patterning or structure which cannot be reduced to genetic or environmental factors.

Continue reading

Around the Web Digest: Week of January 31

Human life stages are the theme for this roundup, with posts ranging from early childhood to senescence. Send me links to anything you want to see included here at rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com.

To frame the discussion, this post on the blog of the Association for Anthropology, Gerontology, and the Life Course discusses how age is an under-discussed facet of human experience and how childhood is rarely treated like the special category it is: Aged Culture

We begin with birth in this post on Anthropology News, Childhood in the Americas: Part One, which discusses how circulating rumors about Western biomedicine practitioners and their hastiness to proceed to C-sections make Yucatec Mayan women reluctant to use their services.

According to this post from the British Psychological Society’s research digest, when the “mirror test” of self-awareness is replaced by one more rooted in a toddler’s awareness of herself as a physical object, Zambian children outscore Scottish children: Cross-Cultural Studies of Toddler Self-Awareness Have Been Using an Unfair Test 

Continue reading

Paranormalizing the Popular through the Tibetan Tulpa: Or what the next Dalai Lama, the X Files and Affect Theory (might) have in common

What’s the newest and weirdest sub-culture on the Internet, you ask? If you’re Vice Magazine, it’s apparently tulpamancers.

Tulpamancers are people who, through extended bouts of concentration and visualization, produce a special kind of imaginary friend that they call a tulpa. Tulpas are understood to be distinct sentient beings with their own personalities, inclinations and (relative) autonomy. Through various active and passive processes known as ‘forcing’ tulpamancers spend hours solidifying their impressions of their creations as something more than just an ordinary inner voice. (Active forcing means concentrating single-pointedly on the tulpa’s form and features, passive forcing is when the tulpamancer finds ways to bring tulpas into more regular routines, such as through ‘narrating’, where tulpamancers chat with or read stories to their creations). Tulpamancers meet tulpas in imagined environments called ‘wonderlands’, dream or mind-scapes that more fully contextualize interactions and provide a place for tulpas to ‘hang out’ when idle. They also work to perfect ‘imposition’ -seeing, hearing, or feeling tulpas in the ‘real world’ – and may practice tulpa-possession or even ‘switching’, where the tulpa takes over the host’s body and the host temporarily occupies the tulpa’s form in the wonderland.

A tulpamancer’s portrait of his creation from Nathan Thompson’s 2014 Vice article (left). Many have noted the tulpamancer community’s overlap with Brony, anime, furry, and otherkin sub-cultures and have stereotyped tulpamancers as obsessive and socially-awkward nerds. While sub-cultural overlaps do exist, they are partial and shifting, and many tulpamancers object to being type-cast or being lumped with these other groups. Most of the tulpamancers that anthropologist Samuel Veissiere investigated were white, middle to upper-middle class, urban, and between the ages of 19 and 23. Men outnumbered women three-to-one, although roughly ten percent of the tulpamancers Veissiere surveyed identified as gender-fluid.

Continue reading

Walter Benjamin in Palestine

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions is pleased to offer this reflection on a Walter Benjamin conference in Palestine by David Lloyd, ally of anthropology and Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California at Riverside. Lloyd finds that such a conference is “a model…for an alternative to the insidious corporatization of our intellectual and creative lives under the neoliberal dispensation we all confront, wherever we reside, and not only in occupied Palestine.”

Walter Benjamin in Palestine

The law which is studied but no longer practiced is the gate to justice. The gate to justice is study.            

Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka.”1

Walter Benjamin never did go to Palestine. Despite frequent invitations from his friend Gershom Scholem, who emigrated there in 1925, and despite the rapidly deteriorating situation for European Jews in the 1930s, he never abandoned whatever ambivalence prevented him from making a decision he often contemplated. The reasons for that ambivalence are unclear, though his critique of Zionism for its racism was early and prescient. Scholem reported that Benjamin had named, among the three things that Zionism would have to abandon, its “racist ideology” and its “”blood and experience’ arguments”.2 Whatever he foresaw before its foundation about the predictably racist evolution of the so-called “Jewish State”, and however the ugly ethnic exclusivity of such a state would have stuck in his craw, there can be little doubt that Benjamin would have recognized in the current state of Israel and its occupation that “state of emergency” that his last writing recognized to be the permanent state of the oppressed.3 Continue reading

Maha Kumbh Journal during the making of “Kalkimanthankatha – Part 2.

5 Kalkimanthankatha Publicity Photo copy
Still from Kalkimanthankatha.

Saturday, Feb 2, 2013
I think Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” works very well in Kumbh. A post-modern text located in a pre-modern universe. The rupture is generated and almost organic to the film. This second Kumbh Mela of the 21st century is an ancient religious gathering gridded in the cartographic imagination of postcolonial town planners. It is a hybrid universe fatefully fluctuating between primordial impulses and rational compulsions. A pre-modern religious imagination controlled, ordered, and confined within the gridded universe of a Cartesian structure. Here faith is restrained by an eccentric postcolonial Foucauldian governmentality. Here religious belief is tightly fastened by the rational state. Here religion is gridlocked by the panopticon regimentation of postcolonial govermentality.

In this universe two men are searching for the tenth avatar of Kalki – the most ambiguous avatar of Vishnu. He is yet to come but he is probably already here. The avatar of Kali Yug. The avatar that will save the world from annihilation. Like Beckett’s Godot, he is here but he does not show up. Why will he show up? For whom will he show up? However instead of waiting, the two men are searching, because they know that he is here. And if he is here he has to come to Kumbh. For Kumbh is the place where all come: it’s a bombed-out, post-colonial, post-partition, post-holocaust refugee-camp of the faithful.

Continue reading

Maha Kumbh Journal during the making of “Kalkimanthankatha – Part 1.

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Ashish Avikunthak]

The early months of 2013 saw one of the largest congregations of mankind in the 21st century transpiring at the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna in the north Indian town of Allahabad. Maha Kumbh Mela, which happens once every 12 years, is one of the most significant Hindu religious gatherings. Millions of devotees assemble to take a sacred bath at a consecrated spot where the two rivers come together. An estimated 120 million people visited Kumbh over a two-month period including over 30 million on a single day, on 10 February 2013.

I, with a motley group of friends and collaborators, spent more than a month in Kumbh, shooting a feature length film called: “The Churning of Kalki” [Kalkimanthankatha] – in which, following on the footsteps of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”, two actors from Calcutta go in search for Kalki, the tenth and the final avatar of Lord Vishnu. Kalki is the most enigmatic of Vishnu’s Avatars, the one who has already been on earth but has never been found. However, there is an outbreak of a monumental war during their quest. The two actors prepare themselves for this war by reading Chairman Mao-se-Tung’s “Little Red Book”.

These are selected ethnographic journal entries together with photographs taken by my collaborators. Continue reading

Infrastructure as Iron Cage

Weber’s metaphor of the iron cage is one of the most famous in all of sociology. It’s certainly stuck with me: I keep a bookmark in my copy of The Protestant Ethic (Talcott Parsons’ translation) at page 181 so I can always turn to the Iron Cage when I need it. Cos, like, you never know when you need to comment on the relationship between capitalism and the pervasiveness of rationalism.

Let’s pop in for a refresher.

It’s 1905 and Weber’s project is to undermine materialistic explanations for economic change by arguing that Protestant asceticism (self-restraint and the denial of pleasures) and the notion of having a calling (showing devotion to God by attending to worldly matters rather than seeking transcendence) laid the foundations for “modern rational capitalism.”

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresitible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. To-day the spirit of religious asceticism – whether finally, who knows? – has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs.

Not ten years after The Protestant Ethic was published, Gregor Samsa awoke to find his soft flesh transformed into the hard carapace of a beetle (see Peter Baehr’s “The Iron Cage and the Shell as Hard as Steel”). Why does rationality behave so irrationally? It is strange when capitalism, which in the contemporary scene so values flexibility and mobility, invents constraints for itself that inhibit the very qualities it thrives on. It can also be more than a little bit funny, if you don’t mind gallows humor.
Continue reading

Around the Web Digest: Week of January 24th

Happy Monday, dear readers! Don’t forget to send me any links to feature here at rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com.

Incredibly (or not so incredibly, given the power of his name as clickbait), there’s another post this week on the anthropology of Trump (“antrumpology”?), this time from a biological anthropology perspective: Evonomics Renowned Anthropologist Says Donald Trump and Alpha Male Chimpanzees Play the Same Political Game

This Leiden Anthropology Blog also uses Trump as an example, using a Daily Show clip to highlight how humor can demarcate social boundaries or comment on them: Humour: A Threat to Society?

Thematically related is this Anthropology Now post that I can’t clam to understand very well (poetry was never my forte): Laughter is Social Glue

Continue reading