Anthropologist Tereza Kuldova, author of many book reviews here on antropologi.info has recently defended her PhD-thesis Designing Elites: Fashion and Prestige in Urban North India". Now she has turned her thesis into a museum exhibition and an edited volume called Fashion India. Spectacular Capitalism.
Researching fashion means researching society and economic systems at large, she explains in this antropologi.info interview. In her case studying fashion means especially studying inequalities.
antropologi.info: So you turned your PhD thesis both into an exhibition and then into an edited volume?
Tereza Kuldova: Yes, that is correct. At the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo (part of University of Oslo) where I work, we were just in the process of restructuring the museum and developing new creative vision for future research based exhibitions, when I proposed to translate my PhD into a visual form.
– I wanted to create an exhibition that is about Indian fashion as much as about Indian society and the context of fashion production, capturing the complexity of the relationships of production and consumption - the opposite of the India: Fashion Now exhibition at Arken, Denmark, where they presented selected pieces by a handful of famous Indian designers on dummies, basically as art pieces, devoid of any social or economic context, a practice I tried to oppose in my exhibition.
– So I went on a curatorial hunt for the exhibition objects to India and spent one month shopping in New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Lucknow and shipping huge boxes of ethnographic artefacts and props for the exhibition to Oslo. In Kolkata I even commissioned life size glass fibre statues of Gandhi, Shah Rukh Khan, and goddess Lakshmi from the Kumartuli artisans. When I got back, I got a team consisting of conservators, photographers, PR expert, project coordinator, graphic designer and handyman to help me getting the exhibition together. I was then responsible for design, texts and the overall concept and organization. But I also got to nail things on the wall and got all messy painting and so on.
– The edited volume of the same title as the exhibition, Fashion India: Spectacular Capitalism, was based partly on a conference I organized in December 2012, The Indian Phantasm, where I invited some of my great colleagues working on contemporary Indian and popular culture, and then I invited some of the authors especially for the volume. However, each chapter is visually represented in the exhibition, so that the book functions as an in-depth extension of the individual exhibition windows and installations.
– It's a book with some catchy titles! Was “Fashion India - Spectacular Capitalism” your idea? What was the idea behind the title of the book?
– Well, it was my idea in a way… In fact, I was reading Gilman-Opalsky's Spectacular Capitalism: Guy Debord and the Practice of Radical Philosophy, while putting the exhibition together and the concept just seemed to capture what most of the authors in the volume were relating to and no less, what I have been researching.
– Spectacular capitalism refers to the dominant mythological understanding of what capitalism is and what it does in the world, i.e. to a "mythology about capitalism that disguises its internal logic and denies the macroeconomic reality of the actually existing capitalist world"(Gilman-Opalsky 2011: 17), such as the classical statements like "anybody can make it if they work hard enough" or "capitalism will eradicate all inequalities."
– What is spectacular about capitalism?
– There is nothing spectacular about capitalism, except for its mythology.
– It was precisely this mythology that I tried to unpack both in the exhibition and through the volume. While we may cynically take distance from such statements, they are some of the most powerful illusions to which for instance the Indian business elites subscribe and reproduce in their everyday acts. I think that each author in the volume addressed some part of this powerful mythology, be it from historical, anthropological or aesthetic perspective.
Samant Chauhan with his collection during the opening of the exhibition Fashion India at the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, 13 spetember 2013. Photo: Adnan Icagic
– How it is addressed in the book?
– For instance, I talk about the notorious meritocratic ideal, and the way it becomes part of the self-justification of Indian elites. The problem with meritocracy is that it systematically legitimizes social inequality by arguing that success depends on the individual's abilities and talents, while ignoring all together the structural conditions of opportunity in the first place.
– Shamus Rahman Khan, in his study of America's elite St. Paul's college, argues that the US lives in an era of democratic inequality, the same applies for India. Democratic inequality refers to a state of affairs in which a certain amount of diversity (few publically recognized self-made men, such as selected famous designers) is combined with the dominant narrative of meritocracy thus creating an illusion of an open society, something that obscures the underlying structural inequalities that are being systematically perpetuated.
– "Laughing at luxury and mocking fashion designers" is the catchy title of one of your contributions. That makes me of course wonder who and what you are writing about!
– This chapter addresses the relationship between designers and village based craftswomen in the chikan embroidery cottage industry in Lucknow, who partake in the production of the high-end luxury fashion pieces, but who resist the patronizing discourses of the designers, who position these women as "poor, illiterate, and in need of rescue" (while positioning themselves as the very rescuers providing precious jobs).
– These women often reverse the assumed dynamics of dependency on the powerful urban designers, by showing the designers that it is them who are dependent on the women's craft skill and not the reverse; showing them that without them the designers are nothing. The village women often mock these designers and laugh at the way they run after money, are always stressed and under pressure, never laugh and so on.
From the opening fashion show at the exhibition "Fashion India. Spectacular Capitalism"
– The city is here opposed to the village, which is paradoxically idealized by the villagers themselves, against all its lacks; the urban poverty which creates real dependency on money with its stress, exploitation and hectic life are increasingly recognized as undesirable. However, it must be said that this is a slightly gendered perspective, as the women appear to idealize the village life far more than men, who tend to focus on the lacks and wrongs.
– The women also often laugh at ideas such as "national pride" or "heritage" and the fact that they are so celebrated within the nationalist discourse and yet remain invisible to the state. So the chapter investigates some of these ironic reversals in the relation between designers and these craftswomen.
– And Paolo Favero writes about How to spend a few hours waiting for a delayed flight in the middle of the night at the Delhi airport and receive an ethnographic enlightenment?
his is a very enlightening and entertaining chapter, where Paolo traces the modern history of Delhi, while reflecting over his own engagement with Delhi throughout his research career - all of this triggered by the newly refurbished Indira Gandhi International Airport, that becomes a material, aesthetic and as such also ideological representation of the current search for Delhi's identity as a powerful global city obsessed with search for and display of "Indianness".
– Paolo then walks us through some of the iconic places in Delhi that reflect these trends. I then describe some of the same process in another chapter of mine in the volume "The Maharaja Style: Royal Chic, Heritage Luxury and the Nomadic Elites".
– What is so special with the newly refurbished Delhi airport?
– The Delhi airport has been then transformed into a glamorous gallery-like, or if you like, Disneyland like, space displaying the opulence of Indian heritage, a clear search for identity within the global order.
The exhibition is based on Tereza Kuldova’s doctoral thesis and research conducted between 2010-12 in Lucknow and New Delhi. The thesis followed traditional hand embroidery from its production in Lucknow, via collaborations with Delhi-based fashion designers to its consumption by Indian elite clientele, thus throwing light on an anthropologically understudied phenomenon of fashion.
– This space can also be read, such as Nilanjana Mukherjee does in one of the book chapters, through the historical lense of the nineteenth century world exhibitions with their temple paviollions, through the royal durbars and the emergence of shopping arcades, all predecessesors of contemporary theatrical fashion shows or miss universe and the like.
– At the Delhi airport, this spatial aesthetics is used to strategically re-brand Delhi as the city of the future global rulers, the hypermodern hub from which poverty or any social problems are photoshopped, at the same time as it re-invents its past in order to project it into the future, thus creating dominant (often branding) narratives of what it means to be Indian, with iconic symbols like Gandhi, traditional handicrafts and so on, symbols that can be easily consumed and displayed in order to show one's belonging.
– You can see these dominant tropes all around, in one space, all bombastically mixed up. Another chapter, by Nemesis Srour for instance looks at the related changing masculine ideal in the Bollywood cinema, that of the powerful, muscular, global Indian, who at the same time remains firmly rooted in tradition, while being the prototypical "consumer patriot".
– What can people who are neither experts in fashion nor in India learn from your book?
– Well, the book is written in an accessible language, and it is accompanied by numerous images, so the readers can get a glimpse of contemporary India through fashion and popular culture and realize that researching fashion means researching society and economic systems at large. It is not a matter of few designer heroes or fashion magazines. To the contrary, it concerns us all in most pressing ways.
– A short/long answer to this would be T. Hoskins's book Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion. I think we all need to understand how this multi-billion industry operates and rethink our wardrobes accordingly.
– And so even though the stories may appear local, they speak to processes that are global, and you can easily see how what is happening in India is uncannily replicated in our own contexts.
– What kept you studying Indian fashion for so many years?
– Maybe precisely the fact that it is not about fashion - fashion is just a lens, a starting point for understanding commercial cultural, design, art, capitalism, desire, prestige, role of material culture, emerging economies, social networks, various forms of capital, emotion and affect, seduction, sexuality and erotics and so on.
– How is your life after the PhD? Still at the museum?
– Yes, for a while. Since I delivered my thesis on time, which happens to be rare in Norway, I received a one year extension grant – that is when I put together the exhibition and now I turning my thesis into a monograph which should come out next year.
– And what do you plan to do in future?
– If everything goes well, I want to start up a new research project on emerging fashion cities and the relation between India and the Gulf, in particular Abu Dhabi.
– Some last words?
– Come and check out the exhibition in Oslo, it is on until 13th of June
>> My look at Tereza Kuldova's master’s thesis about the Chikan embroidery industry in India: That’s why there is peace
>> Her book review No fashion outside the "West"?
Call for papers or films? Interesting events? Jobs and scholarships? Antropologi.info now has its own multilingual announcement blog at http://www.antropologi.info/blog/announcements/
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So send me your announcements, and I will (most probably) post them.
Currently, there are call for papers for the panels CFP: Economies of growth or ecologies of survival? and CfP: Rethinking assisted conception: dynamics of law, morality and religion at the EASA conference in Talinn, and another one for a conference in Poznań, Poland called International Conference on 'Localities through Mobility. Cultures of Motorway in Contemporary Europe'
Anthropology emerged in a relatively high scientific level in the wider Middle East before it existed as a discipline in the West. Therefore, the label of colonialism often coupled to its emergence must be removed.
This is the main point of an article by Hassen Chaabani in the recent issue of the International Journal of Modern Anthropology.
Although the beginning of the development of anthropology as a discipline is originated in colonial encounter between Western people and colonized peoples and, therefore, coupled to its use in favor of extremist ideologies such as racism, this must not diminish the scientific value of anthropology, he writes.
You won't find many anthropology departments at universities in the Middle East, and its reputation might not be the best. So therefore this article mind be a timely reminder that anthropology has not been a dubious invention by the West. Chaabani sees "the prestige and hegemony of some editors and publishers in some powerful countries" as "one of the factors that could inhibit the development of a real global anthropology".
Hassen Chaabani, who is is president of the Tunisian Anthropological Association, draws our attention to two scholars: Abu Rayhan al- Biruni, a Persian scholar (973-1048) and Ibn Khaldoun, a Tunisian scholar (1332-1406).
Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, he writes, "is considered as one of the greatest scientists not only of the 11th century but of all times". He is most commonly known as a mathematician, astrologer, and historian. But he has also been an anthropologist:
He founded the science of anthropology before anthropology existed as a discipline, and therefore he is considered as the first anthropologist. He was an impartial writer on custom and creeds of various nations and was the first Muslim scholar to study Indian populations and their traditions. In addition he wrote detailed comparative studies on the anthropology of religions and cultures in the Middle East, Mediterranean and especially South Asia. (…)
Living during the high period of Islamic cultural and scientific achievements, Al-Biruni placed a focus on modern anthropological interests including caste, the class system, rites and customs, cultural practice, and women’s issues (Akbar, 2009). Through this modern practice, Al-Biruni used the concepts of cross cultural comparison, inter-cultural dialogue and phenomenological observation which have become commonplace within anthropology today (Ataman K., 2005).
Biruni's tradition of comparative cross-cultural study continued in the "Muslim world" through to Ibn Khaldoun’s work in the 14th century, Chaabani writes:
Some of his books cover the history of mankind up to his time and others cover the history of Berber peoples, natives of North Africa, which remain invaluable to present day historians, as they are based on Ibn Khaldūn's personal knowledge of the Berbers. In fact, he presented a deep anthropological study of Berbers before anthropology existed as a discipline.
Chaabani also writes that the general idea of biological evolution was advanced more than 1,000 years before Darwin by the Iraqi thinker Amr ibn Bahr Al Jahis (800-868) in his book "Book of Animals".
Who was the first anthropologist? Really al-Biruni? A tricky question. Others might point to Classical Greece and Classical Rome, see more in Wikipedia: History of Anthropology (where al-Biruni is mentoned as well). The main point as I see it is that anthropology was developed in many parts of the world, and not only in the so-called West.
I wanted to write this post long time ago. As you might have noticed, there haven’t been any new posts on this blog since the 24th of October last year.
So what has happened?
Well, at about the same time I wrote my last blog post, the most wonderful woman entered my life. Two months later we already got engaged. And in a few months, I hope, we will get married.
So yes, now I am a truly engaged anthropologist! !
Getting married in Egypt is for me a wonderful, but not actually a cheap endeavour. My economic situation forces me therefore to focus on my paid job at the University in Oslo. Nevertheless, I hope there will be some time for blogging and developing the website soon. I really miss it and I’d like to start up again!
In the meantime you can have a look at the website of the new research project by anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen that I am currently working for. It’s called Overheating. The three crises of globalisation.
Here is some of the stuff I’ve written there:
Regularily, new initiatives are launched to make anthropological knowledge more accessible to the general public. A few weeks ago, PopAnth was launched - a highly ambitious project that “translates anthropological discoveries for popular consumption” as they explain:
We take anthropology’s collective knowledge and translate it for mainstream audiences, much in the way that popular science books, tv shows and trivia quizzes make even the hardest of sciences accessible. We strive to provide you with the best of anthropology in a format that makes you go, ‘Wow! I didn’t know that!’ Our cross-cultural stories aim to help you discover things about yourself and the world you live in.
That sounds - apart from the corporate PR-language - good and is exactly what we need more of in the social sciences. And already after a few weeks, there are a lot of articles about a wide range of topics about everything from backpacking, human emotions and Japanese consumers. And yes, they are all written in an easily understandable language. Yeah!
This also applies to the book reviews, where they also chose to focus on books that might be able to attract a wider non-specialized readership like Watching the English by Kate Fox or Haiti After the Earthquake by Paul Farmer.
And they’ve also set up a discussion forum.
But as a look at their first articles also reveals, this project suffers from similar shortcomings as many others we find online. It is a rather Western / US-centric endavour in the sense that the “we” that is invoked and articulated in many articles means “We Americans” or “We in the metropolitan West”. Most of the authors have an US- or Britain-based background.
In my opinion a thematic focus and stronger connections to current issues and bigger questions would benefit the site and attract more readers. The content of the articles seems to be somehow arbitrary, and their focus sometimes too narrow.
Maybe more articles are needed who ask such big questions as Edward F Fischer does in his interesting piece Can reducing our choices increase our happiness?
Another thing that struck me as typical for our time is the cry for attention, the cry for being shared and liked. Big sharing buttons everywhere, one of them even covers parts of the text, and makes it unreadable. And when we are approaching the end of the article, we get attacked by a huge popup with the message “You’ll probably get a kick of these too”.
Two years ago I looked at a similar initiative with a very similar name, and as the title of the post I chose Popular Anthropology Magazine = fail. This journal does not seem to exist anymore. All we see is a post called Welcome to Popular Anthropology Relaunched, but all the articles are gone. But there are ads for firewood and business intelligence software… …
In a blog post at AnthroNow, Manissa McCleave Maharawal draws our attention to an important article in the American Anthropologist that was already published in november 2011: Anthropology as White Public Space?
Here, Karen Brodkin, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson show that there is still a racial bias in American anthropology. Their online survey among anthropologists of color in the US reveals that anthropology has “not done well when it comes to decolonizing their own practices around race”. A racial division of labor within departments, as well as a range of everyday practices recreate white public spaces. Works by minority scholars and their role in theory building are not reflected in the canon.
(Check also some of her articles on AlterNet)
Inspired by her post, I downloaded and read the paper. Here we find several examples for that anthropologists of color (graduate students and faculty) often are treated as second class academics:
In sum, taken-for-granted practices of racially dividing labor mark anthropology departments as white institutional spaces. They include assigning diversity work to faculty of color, while giving it little value for tenure and promotion, and freeing white faculty from responsibility for it. Informal practices that train students of color for a paraprofessional track reinforce long traditions of treating members of subordinated communities as study subjects and native informants rather than as professional colleagues. The message is that minority anthropologists are not full professionals.
Here are some more quotes from the paper:
Several respondents experienced being actively sought after, only to discover that their most valued attribute was their appearance—so that their university or department could have the look of diversity. One who was so courted discovered that her appointment was tied “to a diversity-related administrative function with little budget or power.”
Those who are held institutionally responsible for the work of creating a more racially diverse faculty and student body are disproportionately minority faculty. As respondents described the amount of time they spent on this work and the consensus of their colleagues that it was their job, we came to think of it as “diversity duty.” –
A racial division of expectations also applies to teaching and advising. Departments often value faculty of color for their ability to teach students of color but not necessarily white students.
Students and faculty of color are often hypervisible as tokens of institutional political correctness but invisible as scholars in their work settings. More specific were reports of white faculty who treated students of color as research assistants and cultural brokers rather than scholars-in-training.
An important conceptual foundation of a secondary track for anthropologists of color is a common assumption that outsider status is the desired norm for anthropological research. This marks insider researchers negatively, most notably marking their knowledge as “folk” or “local” but not“scholarly . ”
Some respondents reported being “valued for my language and cultural insight, not for my intellect”. (…) Another [respondent] described a professor who “wished me to accompany him to Africa to be his go-between with the natives although this would have yielded no advantage to me and would greatly have delayed my ability to complete my program of study… . He wished to exploit me for his gain because of my minority ethnic status.”
(M)any respondents were told that the subject matter of their work, especially studies of U.S. communities of color and patterns of racism, do not belong in anthropology. Several were encouraged to leaveanthropology and move to ethnic studies.
Many departments remain attitudinally white in ownership and decision making about the discipline, undermining what Daryl Smith (2009) calls institutional “mattering and belonging . ” This happens through the continuing pattern of marginalizing the work and theoretical perspectives generated by scholars of color, as well as by seeing proper anthropology and ethnic studies as mutually exclusive. Both practices constitute anthropologists of color as less than full anthropologists. White ownership also happens when a predominantly white department collectively enacts mainstream U.S. forms of race avoidance in dealing with racial issues in departmental practice.
Respondents to our survey encountered resistance similar to that reported in 1973 to scholars of color actively shaping the directions of anthropological thought—and, notably , they mentioned hostility toward critical theoretical perspectives on taken-for-granted aspects of mainstream culture. One faculty respondent reflected, “Neither myself nor my grad school peers of color expected the extreme resistance for paradigm changes … we have all been pushed out of these colleges simply because of this resistance.”
Another [respondent] implicated class bias: “ Tenure requires having no life but [an] academic [one] and a class background that gives you a level of financial support to work.” (…) Class and race bias interact. Students of color are disproportionately from working-class backgrounds, and institutional blindness to the concomitants of class works against them.
Perhaps the biggest attitudinal barrier to ethnic diversification is a belief that being an anthropologist inoculates one against racism (as well as other varieties of social stereotyping). Many respondents urged developing a departmental discourse about race that includes reflexivity. Intersectional thinking is at the heart of reflexivity: for example, recognizing that not all minorities are male (or straight or working class) nor are all women white (or straight or middle class) opens up possibilities for making racial diversity the cutting edge of broader diversification. The lesson is to make critical discourses part of departmental discourse. (…) (D)epartments must hold white faculty equally responsible for improving racial diversity for it to be highly valued.
(T)he heart of our conclusion is embarrassingly obvious. It is this: the defamiliarizing insights and analyses generated from vantage points developed by anthropologists of color are better tools for diversifying departmental organization and culture (among other things) than hegemonic ones, and anthropology departments should embrace them instead of marginalizing them. Alternatively put, anthropology has made its mark on understanding cultures by taking seriously the points of view of those it studies. We suggest it needs to take seriously the points of view of those who are internal others to better understand and diversify itself as well as enhance its theoretical robustness.
Source: Brodkin, K, S Morgen and J Hutchinson (2011) Anthropology as White Public Space? (behind paywall, only available for subscribers)
Some of their findings are also reflected in an ethnography of American anthropology that I blogged about nearly two years ago: Reversed Gaze. An African Ethnography of American Anthropology by Mwenda Ntarangwi - see my post How racist is American anthropology?. I see now that I announced a second post about this book, but it never appeared, I hope I’ll have the opportunity to do that soon!
See also a post from 2005: How can we create a more plural anthropological community? and a more recent post The dubious behaviour of Western researchers sightseeing the “Arab Spring”
There has been some discussion on these issues (including the paper) in a post by Jason Antrosio at Savage Minds: Taking Anthropology, Introduction
Antropologi.info is mainly about social anthropology. So, maybe now it’s time to get inspired by a paper from a neighbouring discipline - archaeology. Lukas Loeb has sent me this paper that he’d like to share with others: The Human Burial of the Abrigo Lagar Velho Child. An analysis of human burial and the understanding of social relations and ancient society.
Loeb is currently a student in the Social Science and Economy Department at the University of Agder, Norway. The paper was written as a part of an anthropology course he took at the University of British Columbia, Canada, in 2009/2010. The course, an Introduction to World Archaeology, provided a survey of world archeology from the emergence of humankind to the beginning of state societies.
What is your essay about, Lukas Loeb?
– My essay is about the human burial of the Abrigo Lagar Velho Child, and the introduction of modern humans in Europe. How we can use a single burial to discover ancient cultures and study their social life by the burial itself and the tools and vegetation surrounding it?
In your email to me, you wrote this is an important topic that you’d like to share with others. Why?
– Many say that the Neanderthals disappeared from Europe because the continent were overtaken by modern humans. My essay discusses the important topic of the modern humans and Neanderthals interacted and that there were some sort of gene flow between these two human species.
Is this discussion also relevant for cultural- and social anthropologists?
– I would say that this discussion is both important and relevant for both cultural- and social anthropologists, this essay discusses and analyzes the burial itself and how it reflects to the religion, social life, hierarchy and status that was present 24,500 BP.
As a bonus: Some links for those who want to know more about your topic?
João Zilhão: Fate of the Neandertals (archaeology.org)
Lagar Velho - the Hybrid Child from Portugal (donsmaps.org)
Thanks for this short interview!
Download the paper (pdf, 421kb)
Academic paywalls: No access to knowledge. Photo: noboder network, flickr
30 US Dollars in order to read a single academic article? Why? Is it about making money? No. “The high price is designed to maintain the barrier between academia and the outside world. Paywalls codify and commodify tacit elitism”, writes anthropologist Sarah Kendzior in Al Jazeera.
She gives a good overview of some important issues that restrict the circulation of knowledge. Most academic articles are hidden behind paywalls. People without affiliation to a well-off university that can afford to subscribe to (often overpriced) journals are denied access.
Many researchers would like the public to engage with knowledge, she writes. But many are not able to pursue that goal “due to the tyranny of academic publishers and professional norms that encourage obsequiousness and exclusion”.
In todays’s academic world, academic publishing is not about sharing knowledge:
Publishing is a strategic enterprise. It is less about the production of knowledge than where that knowledge will be held (or withheld) and what effect that has on the author’s career. New professors are awarded tenure based on their publication output, but not on the impact of their research on the world. (…)
One of the saddest moments I had in graduate school was when a professor advised me on when to publish. “You have to space out your articles by when it will benefit you professionally,” he said, when I told him I wanted to get my research out as soon as possible. “Don’t use up all your ideas before you’re on the tenure track.”
This confused me. Was I supposed to have a finite number of ideas? Was it my professional obligation to withhold them?What I did not understand is that academic publishing is not about sharing ideas. It is about removing oneself from public scrutiny while scrambling for professional security. It is about making work “count” with the few while sequestering it from the many.
Sarah Kendzior is a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera and other media. She has received lots of attention for her articles, among others about the elitist American academia and academics with salary below the poverty line (The closing of American academia) and The fallacy of the phrase, ‘the Muslim world’ where she explains why is time to retire the phrase “the Muslim world” from the Western media.
On her blog she keeps us up to date with her new publications and the reactions she has received.
She has recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis. The title of her thesis The Uzbek Opposition in Exile: Diaspora and Dissident Politics in the Digital Age.