Lilly Irani, in conversation with Christopher Kelty
(Note: Interview was transcribed, unlike many other interviews on this site which are conducted by email).
Chris Kelty: Let’s start here, because we are in Torrance, CA at a Taiwanese bakery, halfway between where you and I respectively work. You, like me, are stuck across various disciplines. Anthropology, design, media studies, south asian studies…and so on. What’s your strategy for addressing the work you do beyond the disciplines?
Lilly Irani: There’s being between the disciplines and there is speaking to people beyond the academy— to participants or, in many cases, workers themselves. I don’t mean as a public intellectual speaking to civil society, but as an ex-technology worker writing to other workers. Some of my strategy has been to lead with the stories. While writing — especially a few years in — I would fantasize that I should instead write a graphic novel called “Design: A Tragedy.” Each of my chapters is really centered around some story where people are working with the skills that they have, the hopes that they have, the social know-how and the networks that they have. They’re all doing their best, and then they run into some kind of friction or contradiction. These were moments that, for me, revealed something about the structural or institutional forces silently conditioning the supposedly creative possibilities of design and entrepreneurship.
Sometimes that contradiction doesn’t become visible until years into the project. As an ethnographer, what I get to do is hang out with a set of projects and a group of people for 5 to 10 years, and say, “Hey, you’re doing projects every 3 months or every 2 years, I can see how this goes over a long time and I can use that slow attunement to draw out—to tell a story that shows the contradiction.” Then I can theorize it at the end of the chapter. For people who are interested in the theory, they get that laid out at the end of the chapter but for those who are not, they still see a story of friction or failure they are used to naturalizing or coping with. And they see it is not all their fault, but a product of the structures in which they are embedded.
The thing I love about anthropology and the empirical is not positivism but rather the chance to attune to the erasures, erosions, and what falls through the cracks socially or theoretically. We can draw those out into a more public way and invite wider publics – our readers and our fieldwork interlocutors – to ask, “Okay, what are we going to do now?”
Chris Kelty: Imagine for me what it will look like when people in Indian academia read your book as opposed to when those in Euro/American academia read it. What do you think or what do you hope would be a discussion there that would be different—or would it be the same?
Lilly Irani: That’s a good question. I’ll talk about my hopes, and I’ll talk about what I’ve seen happen so far. I think one of my hopes was that—I felt like, when I began to write up this project, one set of reactions that I would get from academics, policy people in South Asia would say, “Oh, yeah, this thing you’re writing about is happening everywhere actually.” Actually, this didn’t happen to me just in South Asia. I had that reaction from people also working in parts of Africa and the Middle East.
There was a lot of support and enthusiasm for having another person trying to unpack what’s going on there and understand where it’s coming from all of a sudden. Academics, however, sometimes reacted by saying “Well, this doesn’t fit the ways that we’ve been doing post-colonialism in media studies or South Asia studies so far. Go to a tier-two city, or study people in rural areas and how they share media in ‘real India.’” That’s super important. But the current moment in India is one where development has become a financial opportunity for the private sector. And all kinds of authoritarian management impulses or even violence are justified in the name of innovation and progress. If we want to understand how the state organizes its actions to stimulate private sector accumulation, and in the name of development and innovation no less, we need to study the work of relatively elite middle-classes who operate in these systems.
Chris Kelty: Your book has a great historical depth to it, but not as a history of something, right? The history is there in order to set up the story of the subjectivity of the people you worked with. How do you think about the role of establishing that kind of existing subjectivity with such historical detail? Why is that important to do, rather than, say, pointing to their speech or to the things that they make, and saying, “Look. See, this is how people are right now.” What’s the value that that brings for you? Continue reading