Re-materializing the Immaterial Economy: Sareeta Amrute’s Encoding Race, Encoding Class

(This occasional post is a book review that comes to us from Alisha Wilkinson and Meg Stalcup. Meg Stalcup is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Ottawa, where she heads the Collaboratoire d’Anthropologie Multimédia (CAM/MAC). Alisha Wilkinson is a senior in the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies at the University of Ottawa. Next year she will work in Peru, before starting graduate work in anthropology. I’m very excited to see undergraduates publishing on Anthrodendum, and hope to see more work like this in the future! -Rx)

All ethnographies, perhaps, contain some mystery: of how humans understand each other, or the way that words and glances, observations and encounters are turned into insights about what it means to be human at a given moment in history. But Sareeta Amrute’s Encoding Race, Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin begins with a proper mystery, a person who has disappeared, and this literally missing body adroitly stages the subsequent exploration of IT workers’ missing bodies in scholarship on cognitive labor.

Global software and service is often thought of as “immaterial,” a traffic of ideas in which effort is a matter of the mind, rather than a muscled arm. Without collapsing cognitive and manual labor, Amrute argues that both are nonetheless embodied ––and formidably marked by social difference, in particular post-genomic notions of race, and class. Drawing on fieldwork conducted between 2002 and 2004 with Indian and German programmers in Berlin, and follow-up visits in 2006 (Germany) and 2010 (India), Amrute begins each chapter with an ethnographic anecdote in which this embodiment is individual, and at the same time evidence which speaks broadly to “life on the terrain of fluid capitalism” (p. 26). The stories of Meenakshi’s desperate job search and Adi’s mysterious start-up are “at once specific to the class of Indian technoelites with whom [she] worked and generalizable as a fundamental condition of life in times of uncertainty” (p. 26).

Even when theorists of cognitive labor are interested in embodiment, Amrute suggests, they tend to posit “a universal, unmarked subject of new economy work—a cognitariat who manipulates signs and symbols through a computer screen” (p. 56). As Part One, Encoding Race, shows in vivid ethnographic detail, however, the experiences of Indian tech workers in Germany are inescapably shaped by “folk theories of cultural difference” (p. 23). The liberal, tolerant notions of race espoused by German bosses and colleagues include particularly “Indian” traits that are assumed to underlie the success of the cast of characters we follow. And those same traits imprint the Indian body in ways that supposedly make them suited to the grunt labor of the IT industry. Their bodies, far from unmarked, are racialized within an office hierarchy that places skilled Germans in the front room from 9-5, and Indians in the backroom doing long hours of coding.

For Amrute, the decision to explore these imposed differences as “race,” rather than ethnicity or culture, follows from the embodied aspects of cognitive labor, since the experience of Germany’s tech guest workers is shaped by racialized perceptions of an Indian body and Indian culture in relation to technology. Race as a conceptual tool allows for an examination of the contradictory and overlapping nature of both race in Germany and the racialization of migrant laborers. That the elite Indian software engineers are also short contract, migrant laborers throws into high relief the ironies of post-Fordism, and the pertinence of their experiences for analyses of the global knowledge economy, neoliberal work more generally, and what is called the Indian New Middle Class (NMC). Amrute shifts in Part Two, Encoding Class, to the reimagining and realignments of technology, nation, and elite subjects currently underway by Germans and Indians alike.

In Germany, Indian engineers are “used as a way to figure, and figure out, what a new knowledge-based economy has in store” (p. 32). A history of fascination with an exoticized, spiritual or sensual India is joined to the possibility that Indian programmers may also have something to teach German subjects about a changed marketplace (p. 47). In an analysis of political cartoons, Amrute notes that there are images in which, “Unlike the Turkish Muslim man, the Indian programmer sometimes figures as a welcome and comforting ‘other’ that can uphold notions of tolerance and universalism. In others, the Indian IT worker threatens German job security by being a machinelike presence that is ultimately unknowable” (p. 32).

The “New Middle Class” Indian software engineers are, in turn, distinguished from previous generations of middle class (who relied on government service as a way up or to maintain prosperity) by their preference for the transnational techno-economy, and commoditized pleasures. The NMC is also known for “its influence across class as a model for being globally Indian” (p. 109), thus heightening the importance of its characteristics and preferences. Not only work, Amrute argues, but leisure practices and leisure spaces are crucial to understanding a middle class balance of work and pleasure in flux. While leisure activities are shaped by work, they also provide an opportunity to question and challenge the lived realities of precarious, cognitive labor.

In work itself, our protagonists must find multiple ways to reconcile their background and identity as skilled engineers with their status as cheap, replaceable, albeit white collar, guest workers. One of the more fascinating episodes, for example, explores how amidst a putative ethos of open source and open markets, they claim ownership of their labor. Re-asserting individual control comes in a number of ways, including “Spaghetti Code” which is an attempt to make themselves indispensable by producing code that is difficult for others to decipher, due to its lack of commentary and notation. This is an implicit bid to establish themselves as valuable in the long-term, made to the companies which have granted them temporary work status; and a push against the politics of free code which refuses them freedom of movement. Code can move past borders, even though they, dependent on restrictive visas, cannot. The choice to assume these risks displays what Lauren Berlant (2009) calls cruel optimism, an attachment to “the promise of self-fulfilling work and personal expression even when faced with… the impossibility of this vision”(p. 193).

Amrute approaches this “encoding” of class grounded in autonomist Marxist analyses of neoliberal capitalism. Bifo Berardo (2009), returning to Herbert Marcuse’s scholarship, argues that cognitive labor removes pleasure––what he refers to as eros ––  from the freedom found outside the office. While Amrute observes leisure being used to develop skills for the work place, she also sees it as an exploration of alternative lifestyles and identities. Workers getting together to jog before work despite long hours can be seen as a new necessity due to the lack of activity involved in cognitive labor, or as part a distinctively classed form of continual self-improvement: a performance to be recounted to colleagues, “vaulting them above other workers into the body-conscious class of its managers” (p. 146). But counter Berardi’s idea that work consumes eros in this scenario, Amrute argues that this is eros: these activities also constitute a politics of pleasure in the everyday (Chapter 5). Eros can be deployed by cognitive workers in opposition to the colonization of life by labor, and to form an “embodied middle-class imaginary” (p. 149). Drawing on the work of Kathi Weeks (2011), Amrute suggests that these are elements of a critical utopian project, which if limited and imperfect is nonetheless a vital alternative to the logic of capital.

The expressiveness of Amrute’s prose allows what are admittedly complex ideas to become engaging and accessible. This, combined with the strength of her description and the evident timeliness of her subject matter, make Encoding Race, Encoding Class a remarkably flexible text for teaching. It is an ethnography that will work as well in an undergraduate class as a graduate seminar, since it has the clarity and rigor for both. As well, there are a wealth of documentaries and films with which it can be paired (through our library we watched the excellent Coding Culture trio of short documentaries, by Gautam Sonti in collaboration with Carol Upodhya). Knowledge work, internet technologies, and global migration show every likelihood of remaining central to future economies, and this is a book that provides honed conceptual tools for examining how human life will be shaped by work, and leisure intertwined with labor. Topically, the book traverses domains explored by researchers of STS, media anthropology, migration, and South Asia, and, as this ensemble of academic areas suggests, it is precisely this willingness to draw from across fields to produce a compelling synthesis that may endear it to the non-academic. By the end of Encoding Race, Encoding Class, the immaterial labor of IT work has been materialized in the bodies of the migrant programmers, and it becomes clear that the person who disappeared at the beginning did so as part of a complex response to questions which the reader too will have begun to ask.

Works Cited

Berardi, Franco “Bifo.” The Soul of Work: From Alienation to Autonomy. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009.

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Duke: Duke University Press, 2009.

Weeks, Kathi. The Problem with Work. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Rex

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

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