Fleeting Thoughts on Fieldwork, Narrative Warfare and Ethnography of Defeat

The nominal subject is North American cotton tenantry as examined in the daily living of three representative white tenant families.

Actually, the effort is to recognize the stature of a portion of unimagined existence, and to contrive techniques proper to its recording, communication, analysis, and defense. More essentially, this is an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.

-        James Agee & Walker Evans, Let us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), p. viii.


Of Dreamworlds and Catastrophe
I have tried to write this book through many different frames – anthropology of postindustrialism, anthropology of urbanism, anthropology of time and history, anthropology of space. All of these framings are true and aid in a safe bracketing of the book in the current classificatory arrangement of the discipline, but they do not get at the very core of what I am trying to say. A review report recently said that I read my material too much through my inner voice. I take this criticism and congratulation, and I dare to elaborate on it. I take my cue from James Agee who calls his writing exercise ‘a dissonant prologue’. So this is, at best, a ‘dissonant prologue’. And at worst, an ululation of collective defeat. Let us now praise famous men, in scholarly tradition and as James Agee would have us do, while navigating lives of others who know history to be prophecy, and live through the present in an attitude of a patient cynicism. And maybe learn a bit of wisdom that is not our own, while we are at it.

Before I get into the thematic and geographic detail of the matter that this book attempts to convey, indulge a bit as I talk through my ambivalent location within anthropology. I promise it will all add up in the end. I used to be junior lawyer fumbling around in Delhi, developing a human greed for social prestige. I chose to pursue this impulse through the lens of intellectual endeavour – life of the mind, as they call it. I was interested in politics and philosophy, and thought studying little people’s lives would be a good way to fit texture into thought. A prestigious university offered me money, and I thought if I took it I could bide time while figuring stuff out. Non-textual thinking and moving through strangeness were things I could always do easily. I learnt, in anthropology, it is called fieldwork. Enough has been said about native anthropologists, and I was clearly one. Because of language abilities, I chose to go to Bengal in search of the field. The field, I learn now in hindsight, was time. My method was not so much verbal empathetic communication, on which anthropologists pride themselves, but training of an innate human intuition. The subject, I learnt in hindsight, was the experience of defeat. All these three elements were animated together on the canvas of land that was administratively marked as Howrah, an urban-industrial district, on the edges of the colonial capital of Kolkata. So Howrah is not a field. It is the useful connective mechanism, canvas if you please, that allowed me to join field, method and subject. It allows me and my willing readers to dream through the chanting of a history of defeat.


The hauntings of history are at the center of the two-hundred odd pages I have written. It is driven, though, by a primary concern about futurity – the impulse to inhabit and straddle times further away, and the fear that historical obstacles will jeopardize it, are at the very core of being in Howrah. Let’s imagine this place for a moment, without a map or other historico-political pointers. Let us listen to the wise and helpless chanting of people that live amidst debris of over a century of capital’s dance: Remaining physically trapped, they scream – I want out. While conspiring to build tunnels along the corridors of history. It is not unlike my fear of spatial incarceration as a bored middle-school kid, in middle-class Calcutta in the 90s. The historical leap, afforded by fantastic friendships, of camaraderie and acrimony with Steve Jobs and dead communists and amoral Bollywood, I believe, made for tunnels out of one’s suffocating terrestrial immediacy. Scale and its play came to shape such an aesthetic and political repertoire.  My attempt in fieldwork was not so much to accurately report what they said to me, but disentangle snapshots of the long conversation they have been having with history, a history whose live evidence lay in the landscape that they called home.

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