unsettling India: affect, temporality, transnationality
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Within anthropology, the ‘affective turn’ has animated debates over representation and ethics, but it has also raised methodological anxieties. How does one capture affect ethnographically? Unsettling India offers to address this question by unpacking India not as a cartographic or political entity, but as an imagined, remembered, sensorial, erotic ‘archive of affect and temporality’ (p. 4). Through ‘ethnographic scenarios’, Mankekar ‘… stage[s] particular landscapes of affect and temporality that shaped the lives and imaginations of women and men’ in San Francisco and Delhi (ibid.). These scenes occur in Indian grocery stores, coffee shops, and offices in Silicon Valley, and in call centers and working class homes in Delhi. They are interspersed with cinematic and televisual scenes, emphasizing ‘the intertextual and extratextual modalities’ of Indian public cultures (p. 6). Unlike the author’s first study on state-owned television as a pedagogic tool in producing appropriately gendered national subjects, Unsettling India focuses on a transnational web of objects and images across which an affective terrain might emerge. Mankekar writes in Chapter 1 that, through the ‘irrefutable volatility’ of ethnography, she wishes to ‘deploy unsettlement as an analytic toward a feminist project of denaturalization and unpacking the totalizing claims of nationhood’ (p. 5). This provocation to unsettle through an ethnographic engagement with affect is promising for scholars who study the body, gender, and sexuality in relation to politics, ethics, and aesthetics.
Unfortunately, the book fails to unsettle; instead, it reinforces perceptions of India and Indians. In Chapter 2, some sites of analysis—like Bollywood—are treated in familiar, even dated ways. For instance, representations of desire, sexuality, and family are no longer constrained by the 1990s family-film genre with which Mankekar’s analysis opens. Furthermore, those films, which celebrated heteronormative middle-class Hindu values, now circulate in transnational imaginations via online parodies by Indian and Pakistani fans. Despite her interest in the ‘citationality of India’ (p. 9), Mankekar ignores these citations and their circulations. In Chapter 3, while mapping the Indian grocery store as a ‘sensorium’ (p. 79), Mankekar unreflexively raises tired orientalist tropes in relation to ‘affect’ that includes the smell of exotic spices and an informant recalling the ‘press of bodies’ in markets back home (p. 81). She claims in Chapter 4 to track ‘commodity affect’ through advertisements (p. 114), yet fails to engage with William Mazzarella’s (2003) ethnography on the commodity image that investigates this very relation of image, erotics, and affect. Mankekar’s focus on television serials in Chapter 5, overlooks how true crime dramas and crime news have disrupted the picture of the family as a haven, and disregards social media and online sites of LGTBQ activity that embrace non-monogamous and queer desires.
Despite ‘caution[ing] against reducing diasporic affect to nostalgia or conceptualizing nostalgia in terms of a simple longing for the past’ (p. 87), Mankekar’s analysis does not present the ambivalence she aims to highlight in the working of memory. She writes of women’s diasporic consumption habits that particular soaps or hair oils remind them of ‘home’. But, we are compelled to ask, where or what is home? Herein lie the methodological perils of treating stories that informants tell anthropologists as transparent experiences or access to memory. The reader is left wondering for whom India is the more affect-laden, possibly overdetermined, archive—the informants or the anthropologist?
Public culture scholarship has been foundational for studies of mediation, movement, and locality since the 1990s. Yet at times, it has also obscured the complex racialized history of migration in favor of banal descriptions of globalization, without subjecting its assumptions to serious critique. Mankekar briefly addresses this in her discussion of racism and job insecurity for Indian workers since 9/11, where she advances that Indian workers frequently assimilate to white American values by citing ‘culture’ over race as the key to their success (pp. 93–104). However, she focuses on skilled migrants to discuss the ‘fraught relationship between migration and immigration’ (p. 103) without locating their relatively privileged position within the hierarchy of Indian and South Asian labor in the US. How would understandings of affect, nostalgia, and longing for ‘home’ be unsettled if we interrogated both the official categories and social conditions of labor? We must ask what our scholarship owes—in addition to our informants and fellow scholars—to those whose lives are made vulnerable to the forces of late capitalism.
The choice and treatment of figures in the book (e.g., Bollywood, exotic smells, IT workers, grocery shop owners, call-center agents) seem like familiar American caricatures of India/Indians/Indianness. In Chapter 6, Mankekar writes that for call-center workers in India, disrupting the self through a cultivation of ‘Americanness’ is key to the experience of being unsettled and crafting new subjectivities. Rather than India as the affective archive, is it perhaps America—as one among many horizons of migration—that engenders the affective landscapes in this book? In the so-called post-racial America, how does America’s interpellation of India reinforce the compatibility of ‘Indian’ (Hindu) values with American conservatism? How does it even shape the intellectual framing of India itself? Unsettling India thus—by interrogating India’s complicity with American neo-liberalism—could prove critical to ‘remap’ India (p. 8) and to ‘foreground the processes of citation and elision that these invocations [of India] produce’ (p. 9).