Anthropology of Media (course website) -- Ethnographic Writing -- Encountering Experience -- Anthropology and Fiction -- Philosophical Anthropology -- Creative Expression -- Anthropology of the Self -- Anthropological Imagination -- Introduction to South Asia
One problem has been troubling me more than any other: the fate of nature in a human world. How do we perceive, understand, and engage forms of life beyond our own? What does it take to preserve a space for such diversity of life in a contemporary world of overwhelming humanity, inhumanity? There are, of course, parks and sanctuaries that promise to do this for us, like the small one that I walk across each morning to get to work. But I've come to believe that nature isn't just "out there," in the world at large, for us to find, celebrate, miss, or mourn. The force and frailty of things -- the wilting of that limb, this noxious gust of air, that sudden call of a songbird -- are built into the architecture of our own minds and bodies. In this convolution of mind and world, the inside and outside, so much seems to turn on how we think with the worlds in which we find ourselves: our openness to engage whatever beyond us exceeds our knowledge, control, and judgment. Worldly encounters with natural and cultural difference, in other words, are essential to these arts of life and thought. And anthropology, as a science of experience, is helpful in pursuing such encounters with care.
I think that my anthropological fieldwork and writing over the last twelve years has amounted simply to this: a few experiments or exercises in living and thinking with others, with the hope of some insight into the transformative potential of experience. I have explored the worlds of chance and accident in which certain people live, the literary, philosophical and practical traditions that enliven these worlds, and the kinds of stories we can tell about their ecology and aesthetics. My first book, for example, Crooked Stalks: Cultivating Virtue in South India (Duke University Press, 2009, and Oxford University Press India, 2010), examined how the cultivation of soil, plants, and other living beings in colonial and postcolonial India was enlisted to cultivate a moral life among a community of putative thieves. The "nature" cultivated here was both the lived environment of a rural landscape, as well as the ethical character of those who inhabited it.
Last year, I published a Tamil-language memoir with my grandfather, M. P. Mariappan, a 94-year-old retired fruit merchant in Madurai, and one among thousands of Indian refugees to trek from Burma to India during the Second World War. Entitled Mitcham Meethi: Oru Anubava Kanakku (Kalachuvadu, 2012), the book moves back and forth between our voices: between his stories of a century of experience, and those of a diasporic Indo-American grandson who happens to be an anthropologist. At the heart of our dialogues was an essential anthropological problem: What is there to learn and absorb from the experience of others whose trials are so different from our own? An English edition of this project, Ayya's Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India, is forthcoming in 2014 from Indiana University Press.
I am currently midway through a book concerning the creative horizons of a media-saturated present. Tentatively called The Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation, the project relies on close ethnographic work over the last six years with Tamil film directors, cameramen, producers, actors, designers, composers and editors. I am concerned here with the affective ecology of filmmaking: the deep immersion of filmmakers themselves in cinematic worlds. The book tries to convey some of this affective texture through certain cinematic devices of writing, focusing attention on dimensions of experience such as imagination, hope, light, sound, fear, rhythm, time, and speed. As a small complement to this project, I am also editing, for Chennai-based Blaft Publications, a screenplay translation and collection of essays on M. Sasikumar's 2008 Tamil film, Subramaniapuram.
Anthropology is a wildly collaborative endeavor, sustained through the pursuit of many different conversations at once. Race, Nature, and the Politics of Difference (co-edited with Donald Moore and Jake Kosek, Duke University Press, 2003) tracked entangled ideas of race and nature across a wide range of contemporary and historical terrains of power. Ethical Life in South Asia (co-edited with Daud Ali; Indiana University Press in 2010, and in South Asia, Oxford University Press in 2011) explored diverse textual, historical, and quotidian answers to the question of how one ought to live. Another edited book project on "Literary Anthropology" is underway with Stuart McLean and eight other anthropologists, in which we hope to confront some of the central stakes and challenges of experimental writing in contemporary anthropology.
- "In the Event of an Anthropological Thought," forthcoming in Wording the World: Veena Das and Her Interlocutors, 2014
- "In the Light of Experience: An Indian Cameraman," Bioscope, 2013
- "The Time of Anthropology: Notes from a Field of Contemporary Experience," Cultural Anthropology, 2012
- "Imagination: Cinematic, Anthropological," Social Text, 2012
- "Landscapes of Expression: Affective Encounters in South Indian Cinema," Cinema Journal, 2011
- "Anthropology and the Image of the World," Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, 2011
- "Reel Time: Ethnography and the Historical Ontology of the Cinematic Image," Screen, 2011
- "Ripening with the Earth: On Maturity and Modernity in South India," in Handbook of Modernity in South Asia, 2011
- "Interior Horizons: An Ethical Space of Selfhood in South India," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 2010
- "The Remembering Village: Looking Back on Louis Dumont from Rural Tamil Nadu," Contributions to Indian Sociology, 2009
- "Genealogies de la vertu. Pratiques ethiques in Asie du Sud," with Daud Ali, Anthropologie et Societes, 2009
- "Tradition in Fragments: Inherited Forms and Fractures in the Ethics of South India," American Ethnologist, 2008
- "Devoted to Development: Moral Progress, Ethical Work, and Divine Favor in South India," Anthropological Theory, 2008
- "Pastoral Power in the Postcolony: On the Biopolitics of the Criminal Animal in South India," Cultural Anthropology, 2008
- "Cinema in the Countryside: Popular Tamil Film and the Remaking of Rural Life," in Tamil Cinema: The Cultural Politics of India's Other Film Industry, 2007
- "Culture, Cultivation, and Civility in the Tamil Country," in History and Imagination: Tamil Culture in the Global Context, 2007
- "Securing the Rural Citizen: The Anti-Kallar Movement of 1896," Indian Economic and Social History Review, 2005
- "Predatory Care: The Imperial Hunt in Mughal and British India," Journal of Historical Sociology, 2001