Seminar:" Mourning, poetics, and technological change: jute’s affects”

Seminar:" Mourning, poetics, and technological change: jute’s affects” by Prof. Abhijeet Paul


            In this talk, I argue that in jute and other laboring communities of India, machines and technology are not merely functional tools but invested with affects. Remembered and shared techniques and practices of analog and hybrid machine-repair lie at the heart of capitalism and local cultures in India. Even today, the machines from imperial, colonial, and post-Independence times that break down ever so incessantly are repaired and then immediately pressed into production. As a result, the jute economy and community has come to be identified as a perfect example of patchwork. Patchwork has found expression in local memory through ritual, poetry, proverbs, jokes, nautanki, and techno-folk forms in local languages. Although highly expressive in form and appearance, these local traditions have mostly been relegated to the dustbins of history by high and mainstream literary and social commentators from colonial to relatively recent times. But lately, with the advent of new media and digital transmissions, cultural anthropologists, media theorists, and scholars of material culture have begun to pay close attention to these forms and temporalities. In this context, I read Bhikhari Thakur’s 1930s nautanki called bidesiya or ‘being away/foreign,’ which, in its original and techno-folk forms, narrates the uprooting of local traditions caused by giant turbulent machines in faraway factories in late colonial Calcutta. I also read the 1970s poetic work chatkalia dohe, or jute dohe, by a jute mechanical weaver-worker named Gopal Prasad. His doha poetry, intimately tied to local stories of jute machines and techniques of exploitation in modern capitalism, is rooted in the tradition of Kabir’s medieval doha or couplets. Both Prasad’s and Thakur’s poetry mourn the loss of craft, community, family, and home, while suggesting that mourning any kind of loss is a necessary rite of passage for technological change. I conclude that we should not dismiss affective forms as merely spontaneous or popular because they arise from feelings of belonging to communities, which are continuously displaced by capitalism and globalization. In short, jute’s affects provide new vocabularies for grasping life-changing concepts in labor, work, and local technologies in late capitalism and globalization.


        Prof. Abhijeet Paul is a Lecturer in South and Southeast Asian Studies (SSEAS) at UC Berkeley. He also teaches summer courses in Global Studies and in the Berkeley College of New Media, both at UC Berkeley. Previously, he has taught in the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Middlebury College, and Berkeley City College. He finished his Ph.D. in SSEAS at UC Berkeley in 2015 on technology, ethics, and community in jute cultures. Earlier, in 2003, he finished his Ph.D. in English (American Literature) on the post-1950s writings of Kurt Vonnegut and others from the University of Calcutta. His research and teaching interests are technology and ethics, ethnography, social and critical theory, cinema and globalization, philosophical anthropology, media and cultural theory, new media and democracy, South Asian literatures and cultures, comparative literature, American literature, and South Asian studies—premodern to present. He is currently finishing his monograph on jute cultures, technology, and ethics called Patchwork technologies: work, ethics, and community in South Asia. He is also finishing a monograph on anthropology and American literature, titled, Anthropology, materiality, and the fantastic: Kurt Vonnegut’s post-1969 novels. He has published on technology and community, ethics and ethnography, social theory, and seed-sovereignty and biopolitics. Essays on new social theory and Asian dialogues as well as essays on pragmatism, planetary conversations, and post-metaphysical thinking are forthcoming. He has taught a wide range of Anglophone literary and cultural texts and South Asian literature and culture.  He is currently translating an iconic Bengali jute novel, Jagaddal, by Samaresh Basu and directing a docu-feature on jute craft and poetics in Kolkata, now in post-production. He has been interviewed by New Philosopher on work, technology, and ethics and is a regular book reviewer for Critical Inquiry.  

Event Date: 
Friday, 26 October 2018 - 10:00am
Seminar Hall, Department of HSS
IIT Bombay, Powai, Mumbai