Barney Bate’s book, Protestant Textuality and the Tamil Modern

Cover of Protestant Textuality and the Tamil Modern by Bernard Bate, Edited by E. Annamalai, Francis Cody, Malarvizhi Jayanth, and Constantine V. Nakassis

Hannah Carlan interviews E. Annamalai, Francis Cody, and Constantine V. Nakassis

Hannah Carlan: Bernard Bate’s posthumous book Protestant Textuality and the Tamil Modern is a major contribution to the study of political agency and nation-building, which has, through Habermas, Anderson, Taylor, Warner, and others, long privileged “the press” over “the platform” in the formation of the democratic public sphere (pp. 3–4). Bate demonstrates that this emphasis on print capitalism is both due to the difficulty of studying the unrecorded, as well as Western semiotic ideologies that privilege the denotational functions of language over its poetic ones, leading to an elision of the sensuous, affective, and embodied aspects of speech as social activity. Bate invites us to consider how communicative genres like homiletic oratory, devotional songs (bhajans), poems, and mass meetings together constituted a novel “interpellative infrastructure” of politics (p. 66). Through these practices, previously disparate groups were called into being as a singular political public at the turn of the 20th century in Tamil Nadu. Rather than reproduce the dichotomization of speech and materiality, Bate emphasizes their mutual imbrication. In the Indic context, vernacular political oratory gained semiotic value not merely from its denotational accessibility—an influence of Protestant ideologies of textuality—but from what Bate calls “poesy”: the corporeal, sonorous, musical qualities of speech that are prized in Tamil textual traditions. How might this intervention contribute to broader efforts in anthropology to theorize language and/as materiality, and how might such an approach allow us to decenter Western theories of politics and democracy? 

Francis Cody: I think one of the major contributions of this book is to theorize the realm of oratory as an infrastructure, connecting listeners and providing a channel for the circulation of revolutionary ideas, in the first place. In this regard, of course, Barney was very aware of and interested in the infrastructural turn happening more broadly in anthropology and related social sciences. And there is a longer story here having to do with Benedict Anderson’s original approach to print capitalism as an enabling condition for nationalism that also reflected some of the ways in which the experience of temporality itself was being reconfigured, as you mention in your question. One of Barney’s innovations, then, was to bring the lens of communicative infrastructure that scholars like Anderson, Warner, Taylor, and Habermas were crafting to bear on the study of that aspect of communication which is stereotypically—and in line with deeper Protestant language ideologies—thought of as somehow immaterial. Habermas, for example, was interested in contexts of spoken interaction, like the salon or the coffeehouse, but we learn relatively little about speech itself in his early study of the public sphere. Speech, because of its evanescence in a world without recording technology, has simply not received the kind of sustained attention required to fully grasp how it has interpellated subjects as political agents.  Developing these ideas further would lead us, I believe, into different narratives about democracy, where what Warner once called “utopies of self-abstraction” are not the guiding ideologies of popular sovereignty. But this is not just a question of decentering Western theories of politics. I think this broader project, which Barney was inviting us to explore, has implications for thinking about democracy as such, and is perhaps better suited to understanding worlds in which practices of reading print need not act as a models for building a political commons. Barney’s work in Protestant Textuality and the Tamil Modern allows us to understand how the concrete poesy of language is what might mediate an experience of connection to fellow political subjects in ways that simply escape dominant theorizations of communication in politics.

Constantine V. Nakassis: I would add to Frank’s response (all of which I agree with) that there is also the genealogy of thinkers that include Paul Friedrich and Roman Jakobson (who Paul also claimed) but also A. K. Ramanujan, all of whom were interested in the world-creating capacity of language—Paul as part of his general approach to the anthropology of language, and to poetry per se, and Ramanujan in his exploration of Indic, and Tamil, poetics. This is a continuous through line in both of Barney’s books. What Barney is doing in this book, however, is also reconciling those teachers of his with other teachers of his: Michael Silverstein and Marshall Sahlins (even if neither were on his dissertation committee). Both Michael and Paul were deeply influenced by Jakobson’s writings on the poetic function, though they developed them in different ways. Barney brings those together—poetic function qua metapragmatic regimentation and poetic function qua language’s reflexivity towards, and cultivation of, its own sensuousness—to think about social action (performatively entailing a Tamil people through ritual acts of oratory, mass protest, and so on; something Michael developed an account of) and world-making (performatively entailing a Tamil world filled with Tamil sounds, movements, affects, and qualia; something Paul also developed an account of). Both are central. I always thought that Barney’s dual exposure to these two kinds of linguistic anthropology struck a productive tension in his work; it’s well evidenced in this book. As an addendum to more directly answer the first part of the question, I’d also underline that the question of poetics is an opportunity to rethink the question of materiality, not as opposed to language (language and materiality, language vs. materiality) but as at the constitutive heart of language (which is how Jakobson, Friedrich, and Silverstein, among others, all theorized it), indeed, as the fulcrum between language as an abstract grammatical system (langue) and language as embodied practice in real-time events of interaction (culture).

Hannah Carlan: Bate frames the emergence of a vernacular Tamil public sphere as fundamentally a process of democratization and inclusion. Inspired by Sudipta Kaviraj’s theory of the zero-degree individual—the basis of a generalized public of national citizenship free of caste or class—Bate argues that Tamil vernacular politicians brought previously unaddressed, non-English speaking actors into the political sphere for the first time, particularly during the early Swadeshi (self-rule) movement. Bate mentions the exclusion of Dalits, Muslims, and women in meeting spaces on the beaches and bazaars, and indeed that “most of the activists would not necessarily consider Dalits, Muslims, and women members of the Swadeshi public” (99). The one mention of a woman delivering a speech during the Swadeshi movement is from an upper-caste Vellala woman, but even her speech is lost in the archive. Here, political inclusion via language, or what Bate calls “linguistic Swadeshism” (94), is haunted somewhat by the question of social exclusion. In his brilliant afterword, Sudipta Kaviraj mentions this tension in his Afterword, between the formation of the idea of one Tamil people and the actual social conduct that replicated the exclusion of minorities, while Bate himself notes that the birth of the “modern social imaginary of national citizenship” necessarily relies on particular “elisions and erasures” (109). What might be the limitations of Bate’s framing the birth of Tamil political modernity as a process of inclusion into democratic politics? What exclusions might this reproduce?

Francis Cody:The elisions and erasures that are necessarily entailed when a form of address that aspires to broad commonality takes concrete form are spectres that haunt any democratizing project. The question then becomes: how does marginalization happens? We already see examples of this in Barney’s first book, where the ancient-sounding register developed by Dravidianist political leaders was simply unavailable to many who had never undergone formal education but who nevertheless felt moved by their speeches. Inclusion at the level of address need not mean inclusion in terms of capacity to participate as a representative of the people. And in this sense, we are brought back to an old and vexing question in political theory: whether the representative must resemble those being represented, and if so, in what respect? We can see similar dynamics in Protestant Textuality and the Tamil Modern, even if the styles developed in early political oratory are novel precisely insofar as they fused what Barney would call “culturally and historically deeper forms and aesthetics of language” with the ethics of generalized address inherited from the missionary project. In the new book, a turn away from English and to Tamil as the medium of address already does much of the work of inclusion. But when we look at the songs of Bharathiyar or the ascetic style of Subramaniya Siva, two of the major exemplars of political modernity in Barney’s text, we can also see that they were working through distinctively upper-caste Hindu materials in their aesthetics. And then there’s the obvious point, that is nevertheless central to the whole affair, that all of the orators Barney was able track were men, with the rule-proving exception you note of the Vellalar woman whose presence is attested to but whose words are lost. I tend to read these limits on inclusion as aporias inherent to democratization projects which tend to lead to new fronts of contestation, demands for inclusion, and dissensus over the very terms of belonging. And I think Barney did too, even if he might not use exactly that language.

E. Annamalai: To continue Frank’s response, platform speech has the unique property of inclusion regarding the audience as it does not have any literate threshold. Nevertheless, as Barney’s work shows, the style of the language of the speech may introduce exclusions, which may boil down to social categories because of social inequity in education, for example. The platform speech in the diglossic Tamil is same or closer to the High Variety acquired by Tamil speakers through schooling. Barney dealt with the challenge of the question how the distance of the language, though poetic, achieves persuasion of the audience. There is a need to compare such political oration with the political oration in the intimate language of the street practiced by leaders like Kamaraj and Periyar for their success in persuasion, by which oratory is defined. 

Hannah Carlan: Bate faces the paradoxical methodological challenge of studying the poetics of oratory without any reliable record of it. Indeed, what we do have is filtered through the hostile translations of British colonial police, as they enforced novel legislation against seditious meetings. As such, his chapters center on analysis of genre, form, and ideology, focusing on what he refers to in one footnote as the “communicative ecosystem” of Tamil politics (189). Clearly, he grappled with the question of method extensively, his notes conveying concern for how to represent events that were either rendered through the colonizer’s lens or non-existent in the archive. What might Bate’s approach to studying genre and form reveal about the possibilities and constraints of both linguistic anthropological and historical methods beyond the analysis of recorded speech events or texts? 

Constantine V. Nakassis: This question of method, and the patchiness of the archive, was definitely one that, as I remember, Barney very much worried about. Namely, that in a book about oratory there was little that could be produced as verbatim strips of oratorical discourse. (Put that way, it seems strange, though it’s not at all, of course.) One of the chapters in the book, “Elocutionary Incandescence,” was presented as a draft at the first Chicago Tamil Forum in 2014, both as a keynote and as a workshop paper. And we talked about this issue. I remember him expressing a kind of lament that very little—really, nothing—of the early speeches were recorded unfiltered. Of course, what unfiltered really means is a question of its own, but as you say, all the records are mediated in various ways: they are notes by (non-Tamil-speaking) passersby, short-hand by the police (looking for seditious speech), summaries in newspapers or in government reports, remembrances in autobiographies, and so on. There are no recordings, no verbatim transcripts, nothing that would give us direct access to the denotational text, or the sonic aesthetic text, of the oratory that Barney was so centrally concerned with in this book, indeed, in his career. I remember saying to Barney, though, that this wasn’t a problem for the project but an opportunity. That it was better, in a way, that there were no such records since it allowed, indeed forced, the project to focus on other things, perhaps more important things: things like genre, things like the interpellative infrastructure of oratory (the spatio-temporal organization of such events), of the colonial uptake and circulation of oratory beyond the events of speech themselves, and so on. Barney already knew all this, of course, and I was only channeling back at him what was already implicitly expressed by what he was doing in his analysis (as so often happens). And it is remarkable, in fact, how many interesting things the book deals with and can focus on beyond what could have been recorded in speech events; like I said, I think it is a kind of a trap to think that everything we need to know about speech and its happening is in what can be audio or video recorded, or written verbatim. This is a denotational fetish—but so much is not in the text, and certainly not in the denotation! So, Barney’s case, while unique in certain ways, is also a kind of limit case that illuminates an important point, by which I mean that what had to be the case for him is also the case for all of us who study the social life of discourse: we can’t only look at what can be recorded as communicative action. We are always looking at so-called context, at other events and other texts (like remembrances, police notes, court decisions about speech events), at genres, ideologies, forms of cultural knowledge, and so on and so forth. The object of analysis in Protestant Textuality and the Tamil Modern, as in all linguistic anthropology, is not oratorical speech events qua recordable happenings but the whole cultural complex oriented to but not reducible to those events. And to this point, when you read the book, I don’t think you really miss any such transcribed speech, because the account is so rich and compelling that it makes Barney’s point; and also because all the data sources triangulate to ground his analysis.

Francis Cody: In this respect Barney was self-consciously building on a tradition of history-telling in linguistic anthropology that has always existed alongside those more focused on transcripts. I’m thinking here of Bauman’s wonderful study of the Quakers or Irvine’s work on colonial linguistics, for example, and other texts that became foundational for what would later be theorized as language ideologies or semiotic ideologies, even if Barney maintained some distance from those latter schools of analysis. We might note that this method draws from Subaltern Studies practices of reading the colonial archive as well, which also has one set of roots in Prague School and French semiotics.

E. Annamalai: I would also add that it is also possible to test if the methods of oral history could be employed to study the impact of the oration on the audience. There is family lore about the grandfather or great-grandfather having listened to the speeches at the time they were delivered. (And Barney uses some of that oral history, for example, in some of his discussions.) And, of course, it is not unthinkable that such an oral archive might become available. For example, there is a recently published old political speech supposed to be verbatim: V. O. Chidambaram’s  address at the Provincial Conference of the National Indian Congress in Salem in 1927 (published in Araciyal Perunjcol by Va. U. Citamparanaar, Yappu Publications, Korattur Chennai 600076).

Hannah Carlan: There is a poetic parallelism (if you will) between Bate’s process in writing this book and your process as its editors. Just as Bate pieced together remnants from an 

incomplete and somewhat unknowable archive of political speech and performance, you as the book’s editors became historians of Bate’s archive, piecing together remnants of his papers, presentations, notes, and conversations to produce a seamless and holistic text. I wonder if you felt these echoes of Bate’s method and challenges in your own editorial work, and how it may have impacted your choices or experience of editing the book.

Constantine V. Nakassis: Well, first, I’m glad to hear that you can’t see the seams! Less historians of Barney’s archive—which is bigger than what we worked with for the book—I saw our role as stewards putting on the finishing touches and completing the last steps for a dear colleague. The book would have been different had Barney finished it, of course, because he would have kept thinking, presenting, rewriting, and so on; but my hope is that we brought out the book as Barney had conceptualized it when he passed. And luckily, unlike Barney’s colonial archive, what we had available to us was his own texts: chapter drafts, talks, his notes, published versions of chapters, outlines and book proposals, and so on. In fact, in some ways, the most laborious of tasks was going back into his records (for example, his handwritten notes in his moleskins of every document he consulted) to find and fill out the references in his chapter drafts! In any case, our work involved figuring out, from the many documents that were passed along to us by Barney’s family, which ones reflected his most current and complete plans for the book. And luckily it was already there. Malarvizhi Jayanth, one of our co-editors, was key here in identifying the most recent versions of each chapter, related notes of his for each of the chapters, their placement in the overall architecture of the book (from his most recent outlines and book proposals) and organizing the materials in a way where we all could consult each chapter in that context of materials. And then we simply went through the most recent versions, alongside other versions (like talks) and related notes, to bring the drafts into chapter form. We did this in rounds, taking turns at each chapter; and of course, we brought our own knowledges and suggestions and took it from there. And then we got inputs from A. R. Venkatachalapathy, the reviewers from Stanford University Press, and others. This book is completely Barney’s, with some very small percentage of that channeled through us, the editors, via Barney’s own writings. We were fastidious about marking where we sourced material; but it is all from Barney’s writings related to this project.

Francis Cody: I will just add that one of the things that made it possible was Barney’s own inimitable style of writing which drew directly from the aesthetics of his oral scholarly address.  We took a collective decision early on to use Barney’s own locutions, as we gathered them from his notes, almost exclusively. I have faith that readers who have heard him speak at presentations before will hear the sonic contours of his voice when reading this, and that all readers will get a sense of Barney’s own virtuosic feel for the poesy of language.

Constantine V. Nakassis: Yes, that was an important decision we all immediately agreed on! We had to maintain the feel, the sound, the poesy, of Barney’s voice. And, as Frank says, we were lucky, in a way, both that Barney wrote with that oral feel, but also that many of the chapter drafts were oral talks that he very much wrote for poetic impact. There are some videos of Barney giving talks on the Internet; for the reader who never got a chance to hear him speak, I’d encourage you to have a listen. 

Hannah Carlan: With this book and his previous, Barney leaves behind not only a rich tapestry of historical material but a theoretical relevance that extends across ethnographic contexts. Indeed, as Sudipta Kaviraj notes in his Afterword, his arguments are “world historical,” elucidating how Protestant semiotic ideologies have both influenced and been remade by vernacular politicians around the world. He inspired a generation of students who have studied political oratory in a variety of contexts, including Jennifer Jackson, also gone too soon, who examined similar intersections between Protestant missionization and political oratory in Madagascar. As his friends and scholarly interlocutors, what do you hope Barney’s legacy will be for subsequent generations of scholars interested in the study of language and politics? 

E. Annamalai: Putting Barney’s work into a wider context, we might note how the discipline of linguistics moved from the study of textual language to the study of the spoken language; and this was largely thanks to the work of anthropologists of indigenous languages. On the socio-cultural study of language, this change to the spoken medium was absorbed easily. Nevertheless, in the study of the modernity of language, the focus continues to be on the printed word such as creation of technical terms, newspapers and magazines, and prose fiction. One part of Barney’s legacy is how his work brings the spoken language to bear on the study of language modernity. This oral turn can be expected to impact the study of standardizing the speech by speakers from an ethnographic approach to the issue and by moving away from quantification of the use of the standard dialect in social contexts. 

The oral turn is also likely to give a dividend in the study of religious publics, which can benefit from Barney’s study of the political public. Like the speech from one to many on a political platform, there is also a tradition of religious discourse on temple premises in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere in India. This brings in the sharing of religious values. This discourse genre has a long history predating the arrival of Christian missionaries and it is derived from religious texts such as Puranas and bhakti poetry. Study of the creation of a public through the oral language has the potential to go beyond the political. This opens up the contemporary study of a religious community into a study of a religious public. 

Francis Cody:It might sound a little strange, but I hope that Barney’s legacy will be that of providing a model of ethical scholarly engagement with theoretical traditions other than those emanating from the North Atlantic academy. It is a little less conspicuous in this book than in his first, but throughout his work Barney’s research on the poetic, cultural, and rhetorical traditions of Tamil, as formulated by intellectuals in Tamil, allowed him to ask questions that where simply not being posed by those who had not immersed themselves in this hermeneutics. He was not the type to proclaim himself a radical critic of Western modernity, but his method was in fact decolonial in ways that are both subtle and profound. There is no question, in Barney’s work, of using empirical materials from South India to provide “grist for the conceptual mill” of metropolitan theory, as his teacher Arjun Appadurai might put it. He was an incredibly honest, and for that reason, original and generous thinker whose style of working should have an impact beyond the study of oratory or Tamil. 

Constantine V. Nakassis: There are the obvious theoretical, empirical, methodological parts of Barney’s work: a focus on oratory, the link of poesy/poetics and politics, the combination of semiotic theory and historical anthropology, and the deep commitment, as Frank points out, to try and understand and leverage local traditions of various kinds (in this case, the deep cultural and linguistic traditions of the Tamil world, that go back millennia; but also the vibrant academic work being done in modern India) to do a social theory that aspires to the kind of inclusiveness that Barney valued (politically, academically, linguistically, and personally). Deep familiarity with the linguistic and cultural worlds of Tamilagam was so important to him; and so too was sharing his work. (He published and gave talks in Tamil and English.). And it’s fitting, given this and that Barney was renowned for his amazing Tamil, that the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS), which funded the research Barney did for this book from 2008–2009, and his family and friends put together the Bernard Bate Tamil Language Student Scholarship

To all this, I would also add that part of his legacy was his mentorship; and not just of his official students, but every junior scholar he came across. Barney was very generous with his time and energy. He was incredibly supportive. I consider him a super senior, though I never took a class with him. When I was doing my fieldwork we met over a beer in a hotel in south Chennai and he listened to me about my research and gave me all sorts of inputs. And he graciously read parts of my first book and sent me his comments in the mail, scrawled all over the chapters he had printed out. And I know that he was that way with many of us. It’s a real loss for all of us that he is no longer around, but we are happy to have been able to bring out this book, which was so important to him.

This book is available open-access as a downloadable epub and pdf here:

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