Hanging out with the South Asia/Technoscience crowd

STS/ South Asia : Forging a collaborative transnational conversation

I’m posting some comments made at the Roundtable discussion at the UT Austin STS-South Asia conference in May 2010. Many participants described it as “the best conference I’ve ever been to.” Indeed, the whole seemed to add up to even more than the sum of its excellently designed parts.  Itty Abraham and the UT_South Asia staff  produced this very special event with  warmth and hospitality; the participants then took everything to another level, simultaneously familiar and unprecedented, stimulating and challenging.

Although we work in / on South Asia for a number of reasons – historical, intellectual, and personal – the context of reception for our work has recently undergone a fairly radical shift:

(1) STS’s “practical” value suddenly been recognized by mainstream scholars and policy makers.

(2) India and China are hot. That is, they are players on the global economic stage; and therefore, as in any great game of information gathering, researchers are needed on the ground, who speak the language, and can gather native intelligence.

How does this change our practice of research? Over the last two decades, we’ve seen a gradual shift from a subject area considered obscure and a geographical region considered marginal to US interests, to a topic that is now popularly recognized as having significant technological, geopolitical, and social implications.

So, as we create a conference on “STS in South Asia,” how do we think about the task of forging this conversation in the US? And how is it different to think about forging it in South Asia, and elsewhere – especially other locations in the global South?

Where? and How?

The “where” of technoscience-related interest is large. Just at this conference, it’s represented by work done in departments of History, Women’s Studies, South Asian Studies, English, Comparative Literature, Information and Computer Science, Anthropology, Sociology, International Studies. And the scope seems to increase daily. Predictably, disciplinary methods as well as blind spots will characterize each approach – so, even though our title implicitly characterizes all these as part of the same thing now (“STS in/and South Asia?”), they will not necessarily converge or become the same thing – rather, each of these trends are more likely to become absorbed into their own disciplines.

I don’t have institutional worries about disciplinarity, in the sense that I think South Asian STS should not worry about constituting itself as a discipline. Nor should we attempt to impose a single methodology on this proliferating scene. But I do have intellectual concerns about interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity has achieved buzzword status, and often means nothing more than the opportunistic citation of individual works from one field in another, rather than a deep training in, and engagement with, multiple traditions of scholarship. We could talk, as well, about how a neoliberal university might enjoy the fuzzy math of counting an individual 3 times under the new conditions of labor. I’ll leave those initial formulations as in need of refinement, through further discussion.

How do we do South Asia – STS work? There are specific challenges in doing work at the multiple intersections that could constitute a project in South Asian STS. Take, for example, the challenge of Area Studies. In the Cold War decades, Area Studies was institutionally powered by State dept funds for language instruction and fieldwork. Critical scholarly positions were taken against particular modes of convergence in State/scholarly interests; but funds were often used in creative and critical ways, sometimes subversive, sometimes openly antagonistic to the funders’ interests – leading to a vigorous and sometimes productive agonistic institutional field of research practice. Funding for South Asia fell off for a while in the late 20th century, but has been rising again after 2001 (Political scientists and others here will know better than me the intricacies of these crests and troughs in South Asian Studies funding). What are the new fault lines of South Asia funding? How will scholars articulate and work through, with, or around them? What forms of research are being encouraged under the rubric of security, neoliberalism, and technoscience? More questions for discussion.

Just as difficult are the research challenges at intersections with no historical connection to Area Studies –informatics, and philosophy, for example. How do students in those fields acquire training in the area of South Asian history, language and culture? There is an emerging trend in such fields to conceive of research projects with no Area Studies training. So, for example, ICT4D involves little or no formal language and history training; a project on Informatics in China or India could easily assume that technology is a universal fieldwork language, sincea social/cultural/ political economic education would seem to bog researchers down in the complexities of putatively irrelevant area studies debates. Projects in philosophy of science – from analytical to Continental traditions – have not conventionally had to deal with historiographical debates, and even less often with regional histories. This tendency is troubling in different ways, and raises different political questions from the ones we have been accustomed to asking during the period of liberal critiques of Cold War politics.

Methodological debates, and struggles over single unitary homes for South Asian STS, in my opinion, are not likely to be very productive; and these debates will sort themselves out not according to the intellectual merits of the case, but along pragmatic lines of funding, disciplinary identities and job markets, and so on.

I think that more productive ways to forge conversations today are around specific stakes – stakes defined within specific economic/cultural/political/historical frameworks. These may be as broad as the traditional historiographic frames (Marxism and nationalism, for example, in Indian historiography) or as specific as the newly configuring formations of Judith-Butler-influenced Affect discussions or the Tiziana Terranova-influenced debates around Software/ Play/Transnational Labour (just two  hints of other trends we’ve heard at this conference).

As was the case at the moment of emergence of Subaltern Studies, South Asian experiences can potentially be invoked in both exemplary and anomalous ways. Many of the large debates in theory as well as in applied science and technology could benefit from a deep engagement with South Asian studies, but it remains to us – often single researchers in these specific fields, engaged in debates, online chats, etc. – to articulate the intellectual fault-lines and openings. How can we help each other in this task, when we are spread over such disparate fields? This is not the task of canon-formation, nor of discipline building. It is a much more complicated, flexible, and unstable domain in which we are challenged to make networks of signification and collaboration. If I suggested a minute ago that we are often solitary intellectuals in our specific theoretical and disciplinary contexts, I think in this challenge we can be effective only collectively and collaboratively. How do we do that? That’s a subject for continued discussion, requiring the ongoing task of cobbling together roundtables, chats, and peripatetic addas. For now, I’ll close with a link (via Lilly Irani and Tapan Parekh) that, with a light parodic touch, brings into focus some parts of this complex field of opportunity: http://designforthefirstworld.com/

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3 Responses
  1. lilly says:

    Thanks for posting these questions, zinc. I wish I could have gone to the conference. While the conference was going on, I struggled through another draft of my proposal. Is the conference every year or two years?

    Forging conversations around stakes also brings to my mind the questions of who shares an interest in stakes. What are your thoughts on academia bridging with activists? Academic practice trying to mobilize broader publics?

    One question I have as I think about my own work and the conditions under which I’m able to do it — 5 year time to degree, expectations of committee members, etc — is whether us new comers are going to overfocus on elites, partly because the tacitly values and interests driving our research and relatedly because that’s what is most accessible. I know anthropology (and others) have done plenty of “village studies” but I wonder if there are tactics for tracing alternate paths through fields rather than villager / cosmopolitan. And what kind of preparation / tactics would that call for?

  2. Zinc says:

    Hi Lilly, Yes, you were missed, but you’re part of the larger conversation in many ways.

    Yes, it would be nice if this were a regular conference – but no, it was just a once-off thing, as was Banu and Abha’s MIT meeting some years ago. It’s a huge job to add this “ongoing task of cobbling together roundtables, chats, etc” to the work we already do as professionals in our various fields, and we’re each unlikely to be able to pull it off very often. It’s a bit like that extra unpaid labor thing that feminists have analyzed for decades now. Intellectuals have to shift the playing field, forge collectivities, etc., and when doing interdisciplinary or minority discourses, there are rocks in the playing field in a sense rarely encountered if you’re in a field with a pre-prepared ground (European Intellectual History, for example), and you’re the right kind of knowing subject (one guess for who that was … e.g. see Journal of Women’s History, Spring 2006 for a conversation about women in history).

    As the spring ends, I’ve been squeezing out time to plant some fruit trees (inspired by an ACE thesis project by Shadi Shariat, and this ongoing LA artists project : http://www.fallenfruit.org/ ) The clay soil around here isn’t nice to trees – basically, planting a sapling in clay is like putting a student in intellectual / disciplinary concrete – very hard to grow extensive roots in neighboring disciplines, or wandering deep roots that enable the tree to soar). A friend who learned to garden from her Greek immigrant father recently taught me how to amend the clay soil with rich mulch and compost – a rather difficult and back-breaking job, but one that allows the plants to do amazing things, that they couldn’t in the soil for which they are not the right kinds of subjects. Now one could morph this “alien subjects in native soil” thought into a discussion of how one should only grow native or well-adapted plans – but this really isn’t an environmental argument about about native species in regions, it’s about a particular micro-ecological situation (i guess like all subsistence farming). In a rambling analogy I couldn’t help thinking about how feminists and minority discourse has always had to amend the soil of intellectual discourse in order to have a chance to flourish. Eventually, our roots do hit the clay borders of the ditch edges – but by then they are stronger roots and have a chance of working through the clay. A look at the numbers of women and people of color in high positions in the academy and intellectual jobs does painfully remind us that the soil has been so adapted to only particular kinds of trees for so long, that we have to keep amending the soil to give more radical saplings a chance to grow ..
    OK, this was stretching the garden metaphor a bit – the mind does meander while digging large ditches in clay !

  3. Lisa nakamura says:

    This is one of the most beautiful and inspiring things I’ve ever read, and I want more people to read it. As a Japanese American with gardener parents and grandparents, I could have learned a ton of things about pruning, planting, and growing new plants from slips, but I never did. so I learn from the web and from books, like everyone else. I like so much what you said about women of color in the academy, and how there is an obligation to prepare the ground for people whose roots are still growing. But do you do, though, if the people who seek out your mentorship are consistently white men? New and digital media has a decent gender balance, but often white men are more socialized into seeking your time and help than members of other groups are.

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