Dev Nath Pathak on his new edited volume, Culture and Politics in South Asia

CaMP Anthropology blog recognizes that information about books from some regions circulate more widely than books from other regions.   To do our part in rectifying this inequality, we asked Dev Nath Pathak to discuss the analytical interventions his new edited volume offers to our field.

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by Dev Nath Pathak

Max Weber was right when he perceived the powerful role of intuitive notions in scientific pursuits. A quest for culture and politics, their interface, and hermeneutic significance, in the chequered cartography called South Asia indeed solicits unbridled intuition. Following this, it could be said that our edited volume, Culture and Politics in South Asia: Performative Communication, published by Routledge (India) is a consequence of conceptual flirting and empirical lusting. It contains several bouts of intuition provoked by the soliloquies of individual scholars as well as conversations among them. And what does it seek to know– what is South Asia, if seen through the prism that collapses the binaries of power and performance, politics and culture, structures and meanings? Indeed the binaries do not exist, and never existed, insofar as it was about what we become though our diverse performances. We become citizens as we participate in the electoral performances, we become ethnos as we participate in festivities in rites of passage, we turn objective as we perform our own empirically sound researches and we are deemed deviant as we enact the Dadaist idea of anything goes. Even though we recognise that the format in which we play our roles entails binaries of good and bad, black and white, oppressor and oppressed, and even bourgeoisie and proletariat- we are performing with the complexity of Bourdieu’s habitus. Our being and doing are too finely intertwined to be viewed in separation. Often one thought that in a controlled performance in a proscenium theatre, the power relation is indubitably clear. Was it so? The relation of the scripted and the scripting always sprang surprises on us. It is just like the relation between structure and agency in theoretical discussions in social sciences, which cannot be mistaken for a linear, zero-sum power game. It is complex and fluid, despite the institutional determinacy and structural clarity most visible. This is very much what Emile Durkheim shows, that the normal and pathological stride together.

The book compiles essays by scholars from diverse disciplinary background, seemingly in conversation through respective empirical instances, on one theme: performative communication. With a clear sense of a trans-disciplinary (that is, post-disciplinary) urge, the book explores thematic domains in the range of electoral politics, diplomatic parleys and international visits of the head of the states, terror attacks, social mobilizations, folk songs, literary genres, political theatre, news television culture, historical significance of photographs, and many examples of identity-politics. The large terrain of thematic examples is however not exhaustive, and meant to reaffirm Shakespeare’s proposition that the whole world is a theatre. The evident lustfulness with variety of empirical cases also adds up to flirting with the key concept, performative communication. The authors follow an idea from the philosophical turf, that a concept ought to be developed like a thing, and provide phenomenological bracketing that Edmund Husserl advocated in order to get back to things.  In this book, flirting with the concept amounts to a passionate cuddling and intimate handling of the taken-for-granted details of the concept. By wedding performance studies with communication and media studies, and insights from anthropology and sociology of performance and communication, the flirtatious attempt delivers a broad sense of what the concept is. In a nutshell, the book renders a shot in the arm, a primer for those who could be provoked and persuaded to undertake a little more dispassionate move toward the concept of performative communication.

But, assuming that no reader is a passive reader, it is envisaged that the readers will empathise with the idea of lightness in dealing with the concept. Also, given the politics of our times, it is imperative to think conceptually while speaking empirically. Hence, the larger trope that is conceptually flirtatious and empirically lustful in this book, in order to arrive at another destined objective- to make sense of the region of South Asia. This is curiously enough not same as the search of South Asia by the scholars of ‘Global South’, for it does not transport all goods to ancient past and all bad to recent times. Instead, the book operates with the assumption that South Asia is here and now, this worldly and other worldly, in physics and metaphysics, in mystical charm and spiritual corruption, in the schizophrenia of tolerance and intolerance, so on. South Asia is thereby a performative category, which shows a Janus-faced culture and politics.


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