Politics, perspective, and composition

There’s something to be said for scholarship in an era of political upheaval. If nothing else, the Trump era and its lead-up provoked in me a somewhat different way of producing scholarly work. In thinking about my own recent publications, I see how the shifting political terrain in American life inclined me toward two new tactics: 1) more attention to points of disagreement that I hold with other scholars and 2) an explicit acknowledgement of some of my own political perspectives.

My newest book, Temples of Modernity: Nationalism, Hinduism, and Transhumanism, will be published in October by Lexington. The book required a methodological alloy, the foremost part of which was ethnographic fieldwork undertaken in Bangalore, India during 5 months of 2012-13, but which also includes historical considerations, literary analysis, and critical reflection on the relationship between religion, science, & technology. The book looks like this, and if you feel like spending a lot of money it can be had at Amazon.

Temples of Modernity cover copy

With a subtitle like that one, it’s no wonder that politics would emerge in the book, but there’s always been political inquiry in my research. This time, however, I expressly sided with a political position or two. Most obviously, I support Nehru’s vision of a united and pluralistic Indian public against attempts to reduce India to a single hegemonic culture.

While writing the final drafts of the book (a fair bit of which was done in 2015 and, especially, 2016 after I had escaped the confines of administrative leadership as Chair of the Council for Faculty Affairs at my institution), it just seemed obvious to me that if one is to describe some political perspectives in motion, then it probably behooves one to be forthright about one’s own political alignment. As such, I took a side. I noted how Nehru was not perfect (he was human, after all), but that his genius included a worthy political agenda of collaboration and inclusion.

In reading the book again to compose the index (which includes my favorite index easter egg to date), I found the overt political stance to be unexpected, even–perhaps especially–to me who had composed the book. As I reflect on how it ended up that way, I cannot escape the fact that the past couple of years in the U.S. have been troubling ones for me. I think that my desire to see my own country as a welcoming place, one slowly marching toward inclusion and justice for all people, led me to valorize a parallel effort that I observed in India. By taking a side in Indian politics, I was at least as much taking a side in American politics.

That makes me wonder how often ethnographers might be engaged in similar efforts to form a political mixture out of their hopes and their observations. Certainly, I did not invent Nehru’s perspective, nor did I invent the scientists’ views of the world that led me to my investigation of Nehru. That all exists quite independent of me. But it looks as though my own process of composition–my writing of the book and the articulation of its arguments–cannot be severed from my desire to see an America where power and privilege get distributed from the few to the many and where the vulnerable members of our population (basically those who aren’t white, heterosexual males) experience the freedoms of self-determination, of safety from persecution, and of opportunity to excel that have, in my observation, characterized my own life.

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