Abstract:This conversation, built around themes and questions discussed in Dia Da Costa’s book Politicizing Creative Economy: Activism and a Hunger Called Theatre (University of Illinois Press, 2016), analyzes the terrain of the “creative economy” and explores its ethical implications for national belonging, epistemic justice, and academic knowledge production through the politics of academic journeying. Exploring the possibilities, limits, and risks of the creative economy across multiple personal trajectories and political realms, we offer perspectives on the creative economy as a landscape where colonial histories of violence, academic privilege and positionality, and possibilities for progressive politics become especially visible and critical.
Sarah and Richa: Dia, we are excited to begin this conversation with you as a series of reflections and questions inspired by Politicizing Creative Economy: Activism and a Hunger Called Theater. In starting this conversation, we are drawn in two general directions of thought in relation to the book. The first concerns the possibilities, limits, and risks of creative economy, its ethical implications for citizenship and national belonging, and for projects that seek to work for sociopolitical and epistemic justice. A second direction concerns the place of academia within or in relation to this terrain. We would like to think with you about some of these themes. Given the focus of AGITATE!, however, we are tempted to begin this exploration with a more personal provocation: how do you place yourself and your roles and responsibility in the academy as a diasporic thinker and actor in the context of the stories that constitute this book? What kinds of encounters, trajectories, and investments have brought you to this project?
Dia: Richa and Sarah, I am very thankful for your interest in my work and I am delighted to begin a conversation on its themes. Let me begin by addressing your question about how I view my roles and responsibility as a diasporic thinker directly as a way to talk about the convoluted trajectory of thinking that brings me here. But first, I must say I don’t (yet) think of myself as a diasporic thinker, not least because I spent the past fifteen years trying to come to terms with the possibility that I might not return to India. And, in part also because I had more of a cosmopolitan, upper caste, middle class experience of choosing to come here for education, than I associate with the term diaspora, which to my mind has to do with histories of enforced displacement. Of course, I am part of the South Asian diaspora, and perhaps I was always bound to this destination and label, considering the subjective displacement generated by colonial development discourses that teach you that your life should be otherwise, elsewhere, other than what it is, here and now. But, studying abroad was well beyond what my family background socialized me to believe would be part of my life trajectory, even though my schooling was such that I was surrounded by people who took that aspiration and trajectory for granted. And despite that, when the chance encouragement came, I had the caste privilege, cultural capital and schooling to pursue studying abroad, which turned into living and working abroad. Thus, it is important for me to not erase the specificity of hierarchies and privileges that constitute my ‘displacement,’ compared to that of others.
So to go back to your question keeping this in mind, I am not sure that my journey tells a coherent story, and I don’t know if less than coherent stories have their place. But in some ways, my role and responsibility as I see it is primarily to challenge the structures of savior feeling and mentality that inhere in development and progressive politics, at the global, national, local and individual levels. I see this as my responsibility precisely because I embarked on my education abroad driven by the colonial idea that it would allow me to bring ‘home’ better ideas for development. What I actually learned was that this quest was a colonial one that feeds the structures of savior feeling at the national and individual levels. Practicing intersectional and transnational thinking has taught me the most in this regard. In my research, I have tried to intervene methodologically to deepen ways of thinking about development, colonial capitalism, and globalization intersectionally—wherein the ‘materiality’ of these discourses and politics is understood to be grounded in interlocking structures of oppression. Practicing intersectional and transnational thinking has also taught me the importance of directly probing one’s own history of privilege and complicity within a world of multiple colonialisms. It allows me to consider how those of us with privilege might move from the resilient savior mentality deeply structured into our person towards betraying the structures that assure our privilege within and beyond academia.
I want to try to concretize these thoughts over the course of this interview, and I will share some of the journey that brought me to Politicizing Creative Economy. To do this, I need to share some of what prompted my dissertation research from which my first book, Development Dramas, developed. There are two stories that I recounted in my application for doctoral studies which I believe have been pivotal to the questions and issues that I continue to struggle to understand. The first story goes back to when I was in high school (Class 12) and leaving Bombay by train in December 1992. Bombay was burning in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid which was led by the Hindu Right-wing Bharatiya Janta Party that had mobilized thousands of Hindu activists to raze the mosque to the ground. Leaders of the Hindu Right alleged that the legendary King Ram was born on the exact spot of the Babri Masjid and demolition would enable the construction of a Hindu temple on that site. This claim based on archaeological priority justifying true identity and memory, including violently destroying what was considered an inauthentic history, was antithetical to my socialization in the idea of a secular India, quite apart from the contested veracity of such claims.
The train in Bombay in 1992 was bursting at the seams with people desperate to join the exodus out of the city. Unlike those around me in the train, I was not a resident and I was not trying to escape anything. I was there to give an entrance exam for the National Institute of Design and I was simply returning to my boarding school near Bangalore for the rest of term. I felt sad, confused, and somewhat fearful by the distant fires I had seen burning and the stories I had heard in Bombay. My relative lack of fear sitting in the train out of Bombay, however, was directly related to my privileged distance from scenes of death and violence and the Muslim experience of the acute violence of Indian secularism. Many in the train that night shared stories of how they had killed and thrown people into fires. I found myself searching for signs of whether they were Hindu or Muslim. Even at the time, I knew how wrong it was for me to think this, and I felt guilty for betraying my presumed secular upbringing, the very secularism whose death I had been mourning. Beyond this, I had no ability to understand why I was thinking or feeling the way I did. I had not yet learned how to consider secularism as part of the Indian state’s project of Hindu supremacy and violence. I responded by writing about my experience for the school bulletin board, drawing attention to a cataclysmic event that we were not really talking about in classes, despite being in a wonderful, alternative school.
The second story was of a time when women working in factories in a newly industrializing region in western India questioned me at the end of a session in which I interviewed them (as an undergraduate student) about why they wanted development. At the time, I was simultaneously drawn to development as solution to poverty, and critical of its manifestations in people’s lives. I had not yet learned to think about inequality rather than poverty; I had not yet learned about the histories of colonial capitalism that shape dominant development discourses. But after my questions, the women in polyester saris and plastic clips asked me, ‘Why are you wearing khadi if you have education and live in Delhi?’ The home-spun cloth known as khadi was a part of the anti-colonial movement led by Gandhi. Khadi may have been a symbol of anti-colonial nationalism, but in their minds, it hardly exemplified the industrialized development plans mobilized in independent India. Although khadi had long since been commercialized in India, the women I was talking to did not associate it with modernity and industrialization. Nor did they see khadi as the standard, upper-caste, middle-class intellectual’s attire that felt ideal for the Indian climate, as I did. They were likely focused on the greater work involved in the cleaning and upkeep of cotton, I don’t know. I was stumped and I didn’t think to ask them anything more. The women challenged my conceptions of development and modernity by asking me why the caste and class privileged were not using the promises of industrialization (e.g. machine-made clothing) that they (i.e. we) were selling to the rest of India? I didn’t hear their question as challenging my caste or class privilege at the time, nor did I realize that they were also questioning my researcher superiority and savior mentality. I was most struck by the fact that I was neither prepared for a question from them nor cognizant enough to have an answer. I interpreted their question as a challenge to better understand subaltern constructions of modernity and development.
These encounters have long since concerned me. Such is the privilege of Brahmin education—we spend years trying to understand and write about the structural violence we are part of producing and sustaining. Indeed, in some ways, both my books were implicit and explicit efforts to think about what made the India that watched the destruction of Babri Masjid and the India of uneven development, of materially and representationally understood unevenness, possible. Not just that these were possible, but rather what made these phenomena ones which people with religious, caste, and class privilege barely comprehend as a brazen, uncouth manifestation of what is in fact an utterly ordinary violence at the heart of our society?
Richa and Sarah: It is your insistence on systematically entangling the violence of Hindutva and development, and your commitment to confronting the ways in which our religious, caste, and class privileges are deeply implicated in this violence, that makes your work speak boldly across the borders of narrow disciplines, issues, and even historical and geographical locations. In this regard, can you tell us what the journey from your previous book Development Dramas: Reimagining Rural Political Action in Eastern India to Politicizing Creative Economy was like for you?
Dia: The changes in the early 1990s with India’s liberalization alongside the deepening Hindu fundamentalism intensified my interest in alternatives to dominant development discourses and resistance to state violence. My continued belief in helping those in need was now complicated by my belief that there were subaltern constructions of development and critiques of state violence ‘out there’ that I needed to make heard in scholarship. My commitment to savior scholarship was alive and well when I was drawn to studying political theatre among rural Bengalis. West Bengal was an iconic alternative to dominant capitalist constructions of development as the longest democratically elected Communist government. Agricultural workers in West Bengal showed me that this Leftist government had a script of development that was nonetheless deeply classist and patriarchal. These agricultural workers had devised alternative methods of constructing development, knowledge production and democracy with the methods of theatre of the oppressed. I saw the many ways in which farmers and agricultural workers politicized these methods and grounded them in broader and deeper struggles for good education, livelihoods, gender justice, and the right to small farmer agrarian futures within a Leftist state, which is what I tried to represent in Development Dramas.
But there were fundamental omissions in Development Dramas. I had not really attended to the ethnicity and caste of development discourses and politics, even though I made vague gestures to the same. When Tata moved its plans for the Nano car production from West Bengal to Gujarat, I could explain how a Communist-led government was entangled in capital accumulation and development based on dispossession. But I was ill-equipped to understand how normal it was for Indian corporations to be drawn to working with the Hindu Right. Nor did I understand the historical, ordinary and institutional ways in which Brahmanism was at work among the ruling Left and progressive politics in West Bengal.
It was Jana Natya Manch that helped me understand how normal it was for corporate India to be in cahoots with the Hindu Right. When I was wrapping up research for my first book, theatre scholar Rustom Bharucha suggested that I study Jana Natya Manch (known by the acronym JANAM), the most well-known street theatre troupe in India. JANAM was widely known as the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—which was also incidentally the ruling party in West Bengal until 2009. Its co-founder Safdar Hashmi was murdered by ruling party forces in the midst of a performance in 1989 and they had continued their work against tremendous odds. I was deeply drawn to understanding this political work and their story of struggle and sacrifice, of dogged determination and commitment to Marxian ideology. Despite what I had learned in Bengal, I remained committed to understanding the promise and limits of the organized Left in India. And because of the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, Gujarat was to my mind inseparable from Babri Masjid and the liberalization of the country. I was convinced that I had to foreground the study of the collaboration of the Hindu Right with corporate dispossession-led development in the Gujarat context. Still working with the methodology forwarded in Development Dramas, I searched for instances of non-dominant constructions of progressive politics in Gujarat to help me understand state violence and development there. An internet search introduced me to the tremendous work of Budhan Theatre in Ahmedabad and I looked no further.
Politicizing Creative Economy continued to make a methodological intervention that attempted to ground the trajectories of global discourses in the national and regional structures and histories that give them traction. For me, this included attention to the affective dimensions at play in activist and progressive spaces, because I believed that aesthetic and political power needed to be understood for their visceral power and materialism. But really, PCE is about my fear that creative economy planning was being structured to coopt the creativity that I believed existed in subaltern theories and arguments about development and modernity. And this cooptation entailed the deepening commodification, Hinduization, and casteing of creativity itself.
Through the twelve years it took me to do the research and writing for this book, I also realized that the Marxian frameworks used by JANAM and those with whom they worked on the organized Left were both not the Marx I understood and followed (for e.g., I consider the version of Marxian analysis that drives JANAM’s play Machine in PCE) and nor were they as attentive to the intersectionality of structures of oppression that I was increasingly learning to recognize. Often, I found myself privileging my diasporic education and experience in interdisciplinary development sociology, post-colonial, and cultural studies, compared to the far less intersectional Marxian frameworks that dominated spaces of middle-class, upper-caste, progressive Leftist politics. I deployed analytical frameworks distinct from JANAM’s politics, which militates against my usual research practice. However, I felt that my rethinking of their middle-class, progressive politics was necessary for me to take a critical relation to what I had learned in West Bengal, Delhi and Gujarat over the years.
By contrast, Budhan Theatre taught me to think about caste violence of the Hindu neoliberal state. Their desperate claims to mainstream belonging through their struggles for Constitutional guarantees for DNT communities alongside their devastating critiques of a still colonial capitalist state brought me closer to understanding the factory women who had questioned my privileged capacity to reject the fruits of industrialized development. Their work made me complicate and question my understanding of state formation and violence. Budhan Theatre’s work also taught me that resisting the Hindu Right requires foregrounding caste and religion in ways that didn’t appear to me to be the norm in spaces that were most celebrated as progressive among urban, upper-caste academic and political circles. They have inculcated in me the desire to learn how to betray caste supremacy considering its role in consolidating the Hindu Right and neoliberal capitalism in India.
Richa and Sarah: Your rich stories and reflections give us much to think about, Dia. In working through the contradictions of development discourses and their complex relationships with creative economic visions of artistic practice and citizenship, your analysis remains committed to centering the intersectionality of structures of oppression. What strikes us are the ways in which they are underlined or erased in creative praxis, signaling the deepening of commodification and what you so aptly refer to as the ‘casteing of creativity itself.’ It would be helpful to hear you elaborate further on your reference to the affective dimensions at play in activist and progressive spaces, and how they must be understood for their visceral power and materialism. Also interesting is the way in which you underscore this aspect in PCE in relation to a methodological intervention, rather than say, a theoretical, epistemological, or pedagogical intervention. What is at stake in claiming this intervention as a methodological intervention? Is this also an invitation to rethink politically aware methodology in scholarship?
In relation to this theme, we are curious to learn so much more. For instance, how has the affective power of creative economy discourses impacted your own epistemic journeys, narrative processes, and the kinds of affective politics – made of moments, events, processes, relationships — which shaped the theatrical spaces you immersed yourself in? How do we pick apart the transgressive potential of affect from its manifestation as creative economic optimism? Also, how does the theatrical production of affect in activist and progressive spaces undergird a creative resistance not easily captured or legible through creative economic frameworks?
We share these strands of thoughts here, not with the expectation that you will answer each of these questions. Consider these simply as some invitations to deepen our discussion. Your last response also inspired some reflections and questions on the theme of belonging, but we will come to that a bit later.
Dia: The casteing of creativity is something I written about in a piece entitled ‘Eating Heritage: Caste, Colonialism and the Contestation of adivasi Creativity’ for a Special Issue forthcoming (May 2019) in the journal Cultural Studies, for those who might be interested in that part of your question. I am most challenged to think through the question of methodology you raise, with the caveat that a methodological intervention seems inseparable from theoretical, epistemological or pedagogical ones. Feminist theorists have of course long since challenged positivist methodologies founded in the belief in objective knowledge. Feminists have asked researchers to scrutinize our place, power, complicity, life histories and embodied knowledges and the effects of these on our research processes, production and consumption. And they have made explicit that such self-reflexivity is a conduit to better (indeed, more objective) knowledge about the world. But I found the theoretical literature on affect (much of which is grounded in a genealogy of feminist theories) perplexing and in many ways debilitating in terms of methodological practice. Some articulations of affect theory are almost anti-methodological, if that can be a thing. If you read Brian Massumi’s articulation of knowing affect largely in effect (as in, after it has been mediated semiotically), then affect is not subject to research (1995, 107). And Massumi doesn’t tell us much about how the knower knows affect, in effect. Massumi’s theorization of affect seems to me to be disembodied knowledge rather than situated and embodied (a god-trick in Donna Haraway’s terms) despite affect being precisely oriented to knowledge held and felt in the body.
I use this rather blatant example from Massumi’s formulation to make the point that our attention to the visceral power of affect might instead promote a more politically grounded analysis if our methodologies choose to underscore our situated and embodied locations within the knowledge production process. Methodologically speaking, understanding the power of affect is not only about tracing the radical performativity and serendipitous potential of life that exceeds the reproductive structures of colonial capitalism and expected trajectories of transformation (Da Costa 2016, 18-19). For me, understanding the power of affect is also simultaneously about studying the ways in which serendipitous epiphanies can emerge from dominant and transgressive spaces equally, viscerally affecting persons and politics in ways that effectively dissimulate the work of affect in accomplishing discursive and ideological regimes (Da Costa 2016, 20-23).
As I stated earlier, India’s liberalization and the demolition of the Babri Masjid most acutely shaped my coming of age in the 1990s. When in 2004, I first met JANAM with the intention of studying their history and practice, I was even more demoralized given the Gujarat genocide in 2002 and considering George Bush won re-election in 2004. Perhaps it is not surprising then, that I was swept away by the critical force and anger expressed through JANAM’s theatrical production. The rage of conviction in Moloyashree’s voice and clenched fist, Sarita’s giddy enjoyment of her newly acquired ribbon and then her quivering face marking the deep anger of a girl denied simple pleasures, the biting tickle of satirical poetry delivered onstage, the intense relief of being able to laugh at Sudhanva’s utterly caricatured depictions of Hindu Right leaders—all of this fed my soul. JANAM’s fierce and longstanding analysis of the collusion of capital and Hindu Right gave me goose bumps and then seeped into my middle-class socialization to challenge so many prior assumptions, so many previously unrealized verities. JANAM’s slapstick comedy on the Hindu Right made me laugh and I found intense comfort in being able to laugh at the enemy.
Thus, initially, their work felt like a serendipitous gift reminding me of transgressive potential in deeply demoralizing times. I had not yet considered that the politics of liberalizing India and witnessing Hindutva violence in governance and in the public sphere had the capacity to dissimulate a middle class longing and nostalgia for a left politics gone by, as a sensual epiphany and powerful feeling of hope. In other words, the depressing violence of our times had the capacity to make nostalgia feel like hope. Rather than prejudge the politics of either nostalgia or hope, I wanted to make sense of where each was coming from, so to speak, what is hope and what is nostalgia and for whom.
Methodologically then, what being swept away by JANAM’s and Budhan Theatre’s powerful performances have taught me is to subject my feelings and reactions to scrutiny through contextualization and historical analysis. I asked myself: Why and when did I have goose bumps, which scene, which lines, which gesture made me cringe, which ones made me choke back tears, and which ones made me want to throw caution to the winds? How should I square the hope I felt with the anger and disappointment others expressed toward the very same politics? Why nit-pick about varied and uneven feelings among us? Why not nit-pick? Rather than coming from a navel-gazing commitment, because I believed that the seduction of middle-classes into the comforting possibility of transgressive politics is a necessary part of the structural reproduction of Hindutva and colonial capitalist ideology, I subject my gut feelings to scrutiny and question. For me, this meant affect needed to be traced in semiotic and historic relations. The methodological imperative of scrutinizing and situating one’s feelings within the historical relations of domination and subordination of which it is a part, the political struggles and failures within which it is grounded, to my mind, gives the study of affect embodied location and political purpose.
JANAM didn’t appear to subject their nostalgia about the good old days of JANAM or working class struggles to scrutiny onstage. They promoted working class heritage walks, museums, and concerts—representing working class history—without being publicly self-reflexive about the conditions of their choosing to do so, and the limits of such politics. By contrast, Budhan Theatre’s seemingly greater historical grounds for attachment to creative economy discourses, opportunities, and optimism sat alongside their deeply critical and explicitly transgressive performances that challenged not only state and corporate violence, but also the potential violence within creative spaces itself. Budhan Theatre’s public self-reflexivity about the limits of performance performed onstage (which went beyond Brechtian aesthetics) was a crucial intervention that made me realize the vitality of active processes of interrupting and scrutinizing the powers that blow you away. And of course, such public self-reflexivity about seduction, domination, and even the violence of creative economy discourses is entirely absent in the words and writings of proponents like Rajeev Sethi or Richard Florida or government officials like Montek Singh Ahluwalia who promote creativity as development compensation and opportunity for the hungry poor. In that sense, both these troupes, in different ways, taught me why self-reflexivity and critical scrutiny about affect and emotion, might be so important to navigating the difference between the potentially co-opted from the potentially transgressive. The contradictions of colonial capitalism and its co-constitution with Hindutva means that we can never really say that our methodologies can hone in on identifying transgressive creativity in some fool-proof way. This remains, for me anyway, a politics without guarantees, grounded in a commitment to historically analyzing and contextualizing the imperiling seductions within one’s own politics (Nagar 2014, 13; Hall 1986).
Sarah: Thank you, Dia, for these elaborations on affect and its complex relationship to feelings of belonging and transgressive politics. One of the things I was most struck by in PCE and in the writings above is the relationship between the politics of belonging and the politics of academic knowledge production, especially as the latter often assists in the discursive construction of “appropriate” forms of subjectivity, agency, and modes of political belonging that obfuscate the messy, troubled, and profoundly unfixed array of subject positions one assumes in response to contemporary institutional hegemonies. As you show, activist theatre is one site where we see the ideologies of neoliberal capitalism, nationalism, and activism sharing time and space in a tense and contradictory way—but sharing space nevertheless. This interdependency, which is by no means confined to activist theatre, invites us to re-envision what alternative spaces, individuals, and sociopolitical futures might look like, as well as the languages we use to describe those spaces.
This said, your ruminations on the importance of self-reflexivity and critical scrutiny when theorizing one’s own relationship to creative economic production make me think much more about academia in and as creative economy. Speaking from my own location within the field of theatre and performance studies (which has been crucially influenced by Leftist political interests and commitments), the stubborn tendency to identify artists and artistic practices on a continuum between reinforcing or resisting capitalism persists, which seems to reify a particular ethical positioning of artists as either heroically critical or unprincipled, duplicitous, and hopelessly compromised vis-à-vis their perceived disposition towards capitalism. This ethical positioning, as I think of it at least, is coupled with an impulse to position our own scholarly work and educational praxis as exterior to creative economic demands. This seems ironic, since academics are all too familiar with the systemic maneuverings, institutional politics, and inner struggles that accompany the labor of educational praxis in an institutional setting, therefore making them primed to tackle the increasingly fluid and ambiguous array of subject-positions and modes of being (capitalist or otherwise) that characterize the present. Affect, too, seems central to our everyday personal and political commitments as thinkers and teachers: inside our embodied classroom politics, in our pedagogical values, in our dependence on the for-profit publishing industry, and in the everyday affective pulls and maneuvering we experience inside academia’s normative modes of intellectual production.
Given this, I wonder if you could say more about how you locate yourself as an intellectual catalyst in/of the creative economy, and how that has impacted your methodological interventions, your pedagogical values, and your educational praxis. I also wonder if you can reflect in this conversation on the ways we might critically scrutinize the affective conditions and politics of our academic labors in ways that allow us to remain grounded and pursue transgressive politics (if indeed that should be our goal?). Also, returning to the question of scholarship, what implications does confronting the “imperiling seductions” of our own locations and politics in the creative economy have for our written labors and pedagogical values?
Dia: At the outset, I can say that I don’t think it is at all tenable to conceive of academia as exterior to creative economy demands. We only have to consider the ways in which we ask students to ‘be creative’ all the time. As I noted in another interview, becoming critical and creative are at the apex of what we strive for in education. However, within the context of contemporary colonial capitalist institutions of education, this often gets materialized as ‘do more with less,’ or ‘represent diversity, but don’t claim belonging or accountability,’ or ‘bring your critique and innovation but not your cynicism or despair.’ Thus, it is equally clear that although the university makes creativity among the highest values of education, that does not make the university a creative space by default. Like any other sector, there are limits on what counts as creativity and sites of creativity within the university. And indeed, the kinds of emotional sensibilities (hope not despair) and attitudes (collegiality not hostility) we are supposed to bring to our work is clearly racialized, gendered, casted and shapes what counts as creativity.
Speaking for myself, I find the affective demands of institutional governance and institution-building quite different from say those that surround the challenge of teaching. I do feel deeply cynical and regularly hostile about what spaces of transgressive curriculum and programming it is possible to create within universities, given funding structures, given the interests that a university seeks to protect first and foremost, given its structures of legal liability, given the land it is located on, and so forth. This makes us all active catalysts, to use your term, of violent forms of creative economy. In terms of transgressive creativity, I don’t see myself as a catalyst so much as a witness to violence, and an occasional thorn in the side of those who would rather not have that violence pointed out or name our own complicity in it.
In my relationship with students, I try to get to know them, their aspirations for their journey, and their challenges. Given the shrunken structures of support within academia, there is very little I can offer. I try to offer my time and commitment to conversations, training, mutual learning, and mentoring. The bar is often so terribly low that students applaud some of us for doing the very basic. Here again, I don’t think I am a catalyst of transgressive creativity so much as treading water. We cannot congratulate ourselves for the creative maneuvers we sometimes make to do the very basic. Surely, such action is more about supporting a structural creativity that reinforces the fallacy that we are doing a good job with teaching and learning than it is about dismantling that system.
And yet, I believe in the possibility of moments of a deeper practice of creativity in education, even when no institutional structures are being dismantled because I also try to approach everyday life in pragmatic terms. In a context that relies on individual merit, empire-building, and accolades for celebrity scholars and teachers, it becomes an act of creativity to resist those incitements. Being told we are good and caring teachers and mentors can be one of those imperiling seductions. I try to remind students that their mentors always gain something in each act of kindness and support they show to students. I selectively nurture those friendships that keep me accountable to the power relations I inhabit so that my students might believe in the possibility of accountability within some elements of academia. (I would not ask anyone to believe in the accountability of our institutions in general.) I regularly pull out of and protect myself from relationships marked by toxic speech and silence to affirm the broader importance of drawing boundaries and reclaiming dignity in the varied sites of violence of the academy. I believe that behaviours like hoarding and competing for students model the hoarding and competing practices so necessary for colonial capitalism. I believe that our academic labours—teaching, writing and speaking—can and must be done in modes and spaces that exceed the inaccessible venues that our job most values. I believe in publicly naming when and how I have been the beneficiary of patronage politics within academia, rather than reproducing the fiction of my merit or that of most people in academia. In other writing, I have begun to follow the lead of others who are naming the North American academy as a casteist institution and my role in making it so. It is easy to see how this is the case structurally speaking, but less comforting to highlight the precise actions of mine that have reproduced it as such. Ultimately, it is crucial to note that I don’t always succeed in practicing all of this because it is not always possible to succeed in practicing all of this—which I think goes back to the important point you make about how we do not get to inhabit a pure political stance or single subject-position within the colonial capitalist present. But nonetheless, these are some of the ways in which I attempt to anchor my work within academia.
Ultimately, academia like any other space of politics is a messy one. Whether it fancies itself as progressive or transgressive or creative or otherwise, it doesn’t get to be a site of purity in the image of what it claims to be or wants to be. I am much more perturbed by the denial or deflection or the cultivated ignorance of the messiness than I am by the messiness itself. I would rather talk about the mess openly as a practical mode of learning our complex location within power and politics than pretend that our words, our theoretical claims, our ideological commitments, or our actions speak for themselves. In that sense, rather than the continuum between heroically critical and hopelessly compromised (which also tends to be a comforting mode of ‘us’ and ‘them’ marking), I would say that there is no uncompromised position at all. But some of us are certainly more compromised and complicit than others. And our position within that hierarchy of complicity is for us to think about and publicly talk about in order to model our resistance against the imperiling seductions of our presumed-to-be individual merit, value, status, success, or even care. I don’t believe that being compromised is hopeless by default. Perhaps, the only kind of hope I am willing to invest in is one that is grounded in studying and trying to be accountable to my complicity and compromises, in relation to the more grand ideas of politics and social change I might believe to be necessary. Without this, I would be willfully ignoring the limits I myself actively and passively place upon the politics of change that I purport to believe in.
Richa: Thank you, Dia, for this honest and reflexive response. You push us to think about the ways in which, not only our academic work, but really, everything we do in relation to the politics of change that we purport to believe in, is deeply messy and necessarily limited. Yet many academic writers, thinkers, scholars, etc., are expected (indeed, we are trained!) to become confident of our beliefs, desires, and actions and we are also often expected to clearly articulate how we are moving in the directions of those same beliefs. As we wrap up this conversation, then, I would find it helpful if we could connect these realities with some of the points you have made throughout our conversation and revisit these connections in relation to pedagogy. When I say pedagogy here, I don’t mean only the work that “we” members of the academy do in our classrooms in universities and colleges located in the U.S. and Canada, but also in other sites of engagement where our work and lives ground us. (Incidentally, I write these words on a Sunday morning on the campus of Savitribai Phule Pune University after many amazing interactions with students, faculty, and visitors here from a vast range of journeys and backgrounds, and as I remotely work from here with my saathis in Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan on drafting a document that summarizes the Sangathan’s expectations from those who come to study with or learn from SKMS in their capacities as researchers, artists, writers, filmmakers, etc.).
I am thinking back to the women working in factories who asked you when you were an undergrad, ‘Why are you wearing khadi if you have education and live in Delhi?’ And then years later, when the powerful work of your saathis at Budhan Theatre brought you closer to the understanding of the factory women who had once questioned your “privileged capacity to reject the fruits of industrialized development.” I am reflecting on these moments in relation to your various entangled commitments: to directly probe one’s own history of privilege and complicity within a world of multiple colonialisms; to struggle against the resilient savior mentality hardwired into one’s person so that we can betray the structures that assure our upper caste and other privileges; to scrutinize and situate one’s feelings within the historical and semiotic relations of which they are a part and in the political struggles and failures within which they are grounded… I believe that these commitments are long-term ongoing journeys that also require us to learn humility–a fundamental ‘prop’ in trying to become accountable to our complicities and compromises, but a prop that is not found in adequate supplies in the academy. Also, those of us who come with privileges often (un)learn painfully slowly and serendipitously, and that learning moreover often requires witnessing the struggles–as well as the unyielding patience–of teachers, such as the women factory workers and the members of Budhan Theatre who taught you.
So my question is: how have you wrestled with these issues in your pedagogy in multiple sites where you work and grow? Are there any anecdotes or examples that you can share with us?
Dia: Confidence and humility are of course unevenly held and nurtured. Whilst graduate school demands confidence (as path to and manifestation of ‘success’), it also actively nurtures a deep lack of self-confidence in many. Those who come with the cultural capital to further nurture the centuries of confidence grafted onto their personhood shine and are held up to shine some more. For other people, their confidence in their backgrounds and journeys are made to not count as confidence because their stories threaten the story about confidence and merit and value that a colonial, capitalist, casteist institution tells itself. In such contexts, I see it as my job and pedagogical challenge to nurture confidence, where I can, in ways that redistribute the structural unevenness of these affects among colleagues and students. Likewise, humility is actively not nurtured in an academic environment that promotes individual empire-building and merit. Again, it is those whose histories are not typically upheld who get asked to nurture their humility because the canon in every discipline constantly reminds them of what they don’t know and how much what they do know doesn’t belong to the canon. By contrast, those whose lives reflect the violence of dominant knowledges simply get congratulated for already knowing and belonging, rather than being demanded that they (we) ask deeper and better questions about the violence of our belonging and how we reproduce it daily. As such, I also see it as part of my pedagogical challenge to nourish more humility in those whose worldviews and knowledges are reflected in the self-aggrandizing mirrors of these institutions.
I have represented this as a stark binary and our subject positions are necessarily more complex, and yet I believe we have to do the work of thinking about the privileges that rise to the surface and ground our lives despite our complex positions and experiences. In the classroom, I deliberately talk about my complicity because in a predominantly white classroom, I am typically not expected to talk about my privilege as a WoC faculty. I do this in ways that foregrounds the hierarchy of complicities rather than projecting a world where we are all equally complicit, and at the same time, I try to draw attention to the complexity of our subject positions that allows no one to be absolved from tackling these difficult questions. I approach this in a biographical mode, often contrasting my own ‘then’ and ‘now’ approaches to a given problem. I want students to see that there is value in remembering how our approaches can and do change over time. The thing I try to nurture then is the humility to learn new ways of not deflecting our responsibility. I think humility is necessary in exactly the moments that we find ourselves going to a place of defensiveness. We have to ask ourselves in those moments: for whom is the preciousness I am protecting so precious anyway? Can I be honest, explicit, public about what exactly my defensiveness directly protects and reproduces for me? Can I refuse the duplicity of complicity talk when it simply gestures toward generalities and costs me nothing? Can we craft conversations on complicity that do not incite rejection on the grounds of methodological individualism and political separatism, and rather find ways of building toward solidarity instead?
The challenges raised by complicity, confidence, humility and defensiveness have applied in varied ways across different contexts of my work. In comparison to the deep and miserable lack of confidence I felt in graduate school despite a supportive supervisor, I felt a surplus of confidence introducing my research interests to Jana Sanskriti—the first theatre organization that I became involved with and did my dissertation research on. I had hand-written a letter to them introducing myself. When I did not hear back, I simply showed up at their door-step. My confidence was really just arrogance and my savior mentality would not let me recognize it as such. No doubt I was beset with a lack of confidence as soon as I got oriented to my surroundings, but my initial presumptuousness became a tale that Jana Sanskriti friends would retell over the years. It was in jest, it was a critique, it was a lesson. I thought I was impressing them with my commitment to take the voice of the oppressed into scholarship on development. I realized over time what they already knew that my commitment to take their voice where I believed it needed to be heard was inextricably linked to the reproduction of the unequal relationships that produced my saviour mentality in the first place. It wasn’t a lesson that I could have planned to learn because it wasn’t a lesson that I knew I needed to learn at the time. It was a lesson about humility that my relationship with them taught me nonetheless. It was also not a lesson that I learned once and for all. I didn’t know how to hear the lesson in their jokes when they were made. I didn’t know how to apply that lesson to other similar but distinct contexts.
These things sink in slowly, because in those instances, my confidence and savior mentality have been extremely resilient in deflecting lasting lessons. There have been so many signposts and a few good friends who honestly and pointedly tell me to stop, pause, wait, listen, back up. And yet, I have often hurled myself forward, telling myself that I chose a new and improved road, or that the next conversation will yield a new and improved road. I am convinced that the structure of saviour feeling is a deep-seated hunger in me, it shape-shifts and takes new forms and I find myself manifesting its work over and over again in new ways and sites. I believed that if I think hard enough and with enough care I will eventually find a conversation that feels better or does justice to the dilemmas involved. Sometimes that is a necessary impulse, a humbling and collective commitment to struggle that does in fact yield deeper conversations and insights—and I have seen how this evolves in your work with sangtins, Richa. I have also chosen speech (not silence) sometimes when my words (as an upper caste, tenured professor) will be more likely heard than those in more precarious positions, even if it amounts to ‘translating’ and ‘amplifying’ words. But I also can’t help wonder whether sometimes, searching compulsively for a new and improved road is neither necessary and nor does it come from humility. Rather, it comes from territorializing turf and defending my right to explore my feelings, to take my time walking around my intuition, test the ground beneath my feet and call it my/our journey. In reality, in so many instances, I think my drive, my body, my aspirations literally spurred me to find a way to keep moving forward. Always forward. After all the critiques of development, the progress narrative is alive and well in me. I remember talking to you Richa about this when Muddying the Waters first came out and I saluted your stepping away from your research in Tanzania, and what it might mean to make that part of a pedagogy that we embrace, rather than relate to it with regret. That is, how do we teach and learn how to embrace stepping back as an expression of solidarity rather than only modeling a ‘not giving up’ kind of commitment, as solidarity?
I couldn’t agree with you more: those of us with privileges (un)learn painfully slowly and serendipitously. If we claim to believe in the annihilation of caste, decolonization, and anti-racism, perhaps we need to figure out how to pick up the pace on our learning and leave less to chance. This is not to say that we wish serendipity away, as if we could do that. Nor am I proposing rushing to learn in an accumulative sense. I mean understanding when painfully slow and serendipitous learning is just a series of internally-propelled deflections of change and when learning simply needs to be slow because not everything is subject to the pace of our will to change (in which case, we need to rethink what makes ‘painfully slow’ painful and for whom).
Learning to teach in North America taught me that coming here as a South Asian, it is only possible to be this oblivious to the anti-indigeneity and the anti-Black racism of North America because so many of us Brahmins are raised to aspire to educated, upper-class, English-speaking-whiteness. Early in my career, I realized that I live in North America with others who were taught to think that ‘colonialism is the creation of newer and better cultures.’ I heard that statement from a student in my class at my first job. I was 28 and stunned. I am also certain that I have said things that have betrayed my casteism or Islamophobia or whiteness that has made others feel stunned and breathless with anger. Just as others have done for me, I try to embrace the pedagogical challenge of learning how to witness other people’s cultivated ignorance and intervene in their learning about violence in ways that nurtures in people a desire for transformation. This means learning how not to incite self-involved tears, retreat due to public humiliation, defensive evasion, reactionary dismissal, or compulsive actions that aim to solve the problems at hand with grandiose and seemingly-selfless gestures. I can address that pedagogical challenge better if I commit to absorbing and acting upon life’s ongoing lessons about my own complicities.
That does not mean I always know what it looks like to act on my knowledge of my complicity or that I know what the responsible thing to do is. More likely I don’t know. As I see them, these are learning processes that are marked with more or less conviction at various points, but they are not for me processes driven by knowing with any certainty or foresight what exactly ought to be done. This is less about being immobilized and not doing anything, since we are all always doing things in some alignment with our image of change, and more about the commitment to honestly and collectively question what it is that we are doing and knowing when to stop in our tracks.
Having felt my lack of confidence as a deep flaw and failing in the past, I now remind myself of some of its virtues. Confidence moves ahead boldly with a drive to conquer a challenge, a problem, life itself; whereas, as scholars of critical pedagogy have noted, perhaps we make the road by walking, faltering and pausing along the way. But it is also more than that because what if those roads should not be made at all. There are many who have patiently waited for others, waited for me to learn or realize that not every journey is ours to walk because roads get built in the process. Colonization required making roads, as Ryan McMahon’s powerful film Colonization Road, so vividly captures. As we walk on, following our journeys and trajectories, self-doubt and humility are crucial and give us the time to consider whether our serendipitous and creative learning is making another colonization road.
Da Costa, Dia. 2016. Politicizing Creative Economy: Activism and a Hunger called Theatre. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Da Costa, Dia. 2009. Development Dramas: Reimagining Rural Political Action in eastern India. New Delhi: Routledge.
Hall, Stuart. 1986. The problem of ideology: Marxism without Guarantees. Journal of Communication Inquiry 10(2): 28-44.
Massumi, Brian. 1995. “The Autonomy of Affect.” Cultural Critique 31 (2): 17–28.
McMahon, Ryan. 2016. Colonization Road. Toronto: Decolonization Roads Performance Inc. Available online at: http://www.cbc.ca/firsthand/
Nagar, Richa. 2014. Muddying the Waters: Coauthoring Feminisms across scholarship and activism. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Da Costa, D., R. Nagar and S. Saddler. 2019. “The Perils and Possibilities of Creative Economy: A Conversation.” AGITATE! 1: https://agitatejournal.org/article/the-perils-and-possibilities-of-creative-economy-a-conversation/.