Interview by Rachel Howard
What was your main goal in writing about literacy activists in Tamil Nadu? And how did your goals change as you learned more about the site?
I had gone to do research on literacy activism in Tamil Nadu with a deep interest in language and political economy. My graduate education was fueled by the theoretical energy that had gathered around both questions of language ideology and postcolonial studies. It struck me that studying a movement that promised to deliver enlightenment to the marginalized through written language would enable me to address some of the big questions about power, the materiality of language, and temporality that we were wrestling with at the time. More specifically, knowing that Tamil is a language shaped deeply by diglossia, I went to study how learning the written variety was meant to empower people. I sensed a paradox of sorts in a practice that required people to learn a new register of their own language in order to free themselves. But my goals quickly changed when I realized that the difference between written and rural spoken varieties was perhaps not so important in a context where simply teaching people how to write their own name was such a major effort, and where the literacy movement had also reflected upon its own practice so much in its transition from being a revolutionary movement of sorts to becoming a partnership with government. The literacy had also become a women’s movement, somewhat unexpectedly. So, following the lead of my interlocutors, I became much more interested in the practice of activism itself. New and more interesting questions about writing and embodiment, as well as questions about the very practice of mobilizing rural, lower caste women, who are often thought of as the most subaltern, arose from the ethnography as a result.
One aspect of the text I couldn’t stop thinking about is the way in which your project is not just about a literacy movement, but also about activists coming to be “literate” in reference to the communities they live in and work with. How did such an emerging sociality between the activists with the learners, and yourself as ethnographer with the activists, affect the object of analysis? What kinds of interdiscursive practices and exchanges allowed both you and the activists to work on your discrete projects? What were some differences and similarities between your aims?
Among of the most striking, and sometimes disturbing features of my fieldwork was how my presence was used by activists as a means of mobilizing learners to join the movement and attend lessons. You are absolutely correct in emphasizing the degree to which activists themselves where becoming more “literate” about their own communities, but while I was trying to understand this process I was becoming increasingly implicated in it. What emerged in the practice of doing ethnography was a rather delicate triangular set of interactions, where everyone was learning from each other under conditions of radical inequality in social power and with rather different ends in mind. Whereas learners in literacy classes often came as a favor of sorts to activists while also hoping to learn to write their own names, as I describe in the book, activists, following Paulo Freire, aimed to transform themselves in addition transforming the social and political outlooks of learners. And I had come with goal of learning about literacy activism only to be repeatedly hailed as a participant, and even as an activist, which I never thought of myself as being in that context. One of the most interesting experiments I undertook, which I do not write about in the book, was write a local history of the village I was living in, in Tamil, along with my host, the literacy activist “Arovoli” S.A. Karuppiah. Just interviewing people and comparing oral histories about the local temple, for example, elicited wildly different narratives and helped me forge a slightly closer relationship both with Karuppiah and with the learners we had interviewed and their families.
The text strikes a balance between critique of the activists and the movement with clear-sighted descriptions of its successes and failures. What advice would you give to students who work with NGOs and are looking to replicate such a balance?
I think one of pitfalls of this type of work is to give into the temptation to depict activists as either heroes or as mere instruments of powerful structures (be it capitalism, the state, or governmentality) that are of an altogether different scale. I remember discussing the “gotcha” move so common in anthropology of the time with colleagues: that moment where the do-gooders turn out to be working on behalf of much more nefarious forces. And I, like many, really wanted to avoid that. So, how does a writer convey an ethos of critical solidarity between anthropologist and NGO-activist? One good suggestion my advisor gave when I was wrestling with this problem at the dissertation stage was to think about perhaps writing this as a tragedy of sorts; one where the anthropologist is implicated, but not taking center-stage. This mode worked quite well when thinking through the problem of Enlightenment and how my ethnographic narrative would fit into it.
You trace a complicated political history in which literacy activism emerges as a non-governmental Leftist project, only to become part of an explicit state project. Were you surprised by the political alignments you observed? How did the political history of the movement contribute to your methodological approach and final text?
I don’t know that I was surprised as much disappointed when I really got into fieldwork. What had been described to be as a unique rural activist-led Left movement turned out to have been much more routinized and bureaucratized than I had expected. It took a long time, getting to know activists well and going again and again to lessons, to once again see the dynamism that drove the movement despite its having become a state-supported development project. My methodology was profoundly shaped by the fact that I had arrived ten years into the movement, when activists themselves had also been disappointed and written extensive reflections on the roots of this disappointment. They were disappointed with themselves, and the very limits of their own epistemology as much as anything else. So, this became a major theme for me, the production of such reflexive moments in activism.
Can you explain how you understand “reciprocal agency”, and how it manifests in Tamil Nadu? Can you explain what mediating work a concept like reciprocal agency does for competing chronotopes of personhood?
Well, “reciprocal agency” is, admittedly a clunky term. An anonymous reviewer of a recent piece I published on the topic had suggested “co-performative agency,” although I am not too sure that is any better. The idea, which really emerged for me when reading carefully through my field notes and transcripts, is to think beyond the notion of distributed agency and toward an understanding of political or social mobilization that brings give-and-take to the center. Like the Maussian gift, reciprocal agency – where one is acting as a favor to someone or a movement, or in repayment of a debt that is not really compelled as such – works best when the fact of repayment is disavowed. Unlike the Maussian gift, I suppose, what makes agency important here is that repayment is not absolutely obligatory, but is only relatively so. More concretely, no one suffered serious social consequences when choosing not to participate in the literacy movement; but those who did join as learners often did so out of a sense of duty to respond to activists whom they treated as kin. This tells us something about the flexibility of fictive kinship, to be sure. But rather than dissolve the question into classical debates on kinship or Tamil culture, I wanted to push it toward a discussion of the role of obligation in a politics that was framed around the question of liberation. Although a number of activists in the movement came to understand that villagers were coming to Arivoli literacy lessons to help them, as noted in the activist Tamilcelvan’s memoirs, this allowed for activists to both sustain the narrative of enlightening their fellow village at one level, while also recognizing the ways in which they too would be learning about ethics and politics through their activism. This is a dialectic movement of sorts, but in a negative register of undoing, not necessarily the Freirean “humanization” that the literacy movement had long propagated – or, a rather less teleological version than they had begun with.
The signature becomes a marker of personhood for the women learners only after they are shamed by their inability to use it by the activists (who in this case are also acting as agents of the state). Can you discuss how personal autonomy is connected to the signature, and why this might be important for an expanding economy?
In this case, personal autonomy was deeply intertwined with the narrative of state-led development and becoming a full citizen of India. Of course, there is a long history of associating writing more broadly and signature, in particular, with notions of authorship, authority, women’s liberation, economic development, etc. But these discourses were, in some senses, relics of times before the onslaught of digital media and surveillance. To be recognizable by the state now means having a biometric universal ID card (aadhar card), and the sort of post-Nehruvian governmentality sketched in my book has been largely replaced by a biopolitics that has really reduced populations to aggregations of bodies, and where the discourse of active citizenship seems perhaps less and less relevant to many India. Or, where citizenship may mean something else altogether. Literacy and signatures appear less urgent now than when I did my fieldwork, fifteen years ago, as economic thought has largely accepted the fact of a massive “surplus” population that must be mobilized through elections but that need not be taken into account in thinking about what “development” means. This scenario is quite scary, but it should not make us nostalgic for the good old days of high modernity!