The Ethnography of Activism

The Satya Interview with Naisargi Dave

Photo: Kajri Jain
Photo: Kajri Jain

Naisargi N. Dave is an ethnographer of activism. She received her PhD from the University of Michigan in 2006 and is currently an associate professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Toronto. Her articles have appeared in journals such as Cultural Anthropology; American Ethnologist; Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East; Signs; and Feminist Studies.

Her first book Queer Activism in India: A Story in the Anthropology of Ethics (Duke University Press, 2012), won the Association for Queer Anthropology’s Ruth Benedict Prize for outstanding monograph in 2013. For this book, Dave spent years working with activist groups as a participant and an observer. She tracked the efforts leading up to the decision by the high court of Delhi in 2009 that Section 377 of the Indian penal code—which criminalizes acts of homosexuality—was unconstitutional. This judgment was later overturned by the Supreme Court of India in 2013.

While focused on lesbian activism in India and its particular set of circumstances, her book raises many questions that extend to and resonate with other forms of activism. What happens when activism gets professionalized? How do the funding streams of nongovernmental organizations influence activist agendas? What are the set backs and advantages of relying on both funded and unfunded labor? And how do activists bridge the gap between the discussion of rights in academia and how they may or may not manifest in daily life.

Dave’s second book is tentatively titled The Social Skin: Humans and Animals in India, and it explores the complexity of animal activism in the subcontinent.

Sangamithra Iyer had a chance to ask Naisargi Dave about queer and animal activism in India, the distinctions between law and justice, and in taking the long view, what sustains activism.

In your work on both queer activism and animal activism, you trace and identify activist “A-ha!” moments. Could you tell us about your own personal A-ha! moments and how you came to be an “ethnographer of activism”?
The two most relevant A-ha! moments for me were (1) when I decided to become an anthropologist and; (2) when I realized I wanted to write about activism in particular. As for becoming an anthropologist, that was set in motion when I was quite young. As an American child of Indian immigrant parents, I felt that “culture” was the answer to far too many questions—to what one could do, be, or even think. And so I grew up fascinated—and even a bit repulsed, to be honest—by this concept of culture, and its seemingly infinite explanatory force. This ostensibly neutral or pre-given concept of culture was so clearly the product of, and itself an exercise in, power, and I wanted to understand both its force and its construction. So I majored in anthropology in college even though (of course!) I was pre-med. Anthropology became more of a lasting passion for me as I began to realize that I could spend my life writing about the things that were so engaging me at the time: India, sexuality, feminism, and the limitations of “culture.” I started writing about activism in the context of that first project on queerness in India in part because of my critical engagement with the culture concept. I was interested in people who are inventive, who creatively craft ways of being that are not constrained by or answerable to any one or other system of organizing desire.

You describe queer activism in India as more of “an activism of invention than of resistance.” Can you expand on this? Do you see parallels with animal activism?
Radical social politics in the non-West, particularly what we might characterize as “subaltern” politics, are often classified—I think in a way meant to be valorizing—as politics of resistance. But this framing implicitly posits such politics as only and always oppositional. This actually just re-centers the normative, by making all politics about either adherence or resistance to it. And this, to my mind, fails to do justice to what activism, at its most radical and interesting, is about, which is not just a simple call-and-response with the normative, but the invention of new calls and responses altogether. What was interesting to me about lesbian activism in India is that many women who we might call “lesbian” had no idea that such a term or class even existed. For them to carve some path was, literally, to invent a way of being that there were no models for. And heterosexuality itself is often so deeply naturalized that it’s not as if someone can simply say, “ah, that is what I oppose, that is what I resist.” In other words, queerness is not simply an oppositional politics, but a politics of radical creativity.

We can think of animal activism in India as an activism of invention as well, of course. Anyone who dares to think differently about the worth of an animal life, or about the things that we eat or the beings we exploit under the name of culture or habit, is inventing a new way of being in the world. But it is very hard work to not just be oppositional, to refrain from expending all of our energy on responding to what is lobbed. That’s why existing systems of thought are so tenacious, because it is so challenging to think outside of their terms. So animal activists: we need to be able to think beyond the emergencies before us, beyond even the categories that exist for describing ourselves and others—of religion, of diet, of species, of gender—because they are part of the scaffolding of hierarchy and, thus, of human exceptionalism itself. We need to commit to being inventive, and not just responsive.

Animal activism in India has a unique set of challenges. In Cultural Anthropology, you note the ostentatious meat eating in cosmopolitan progressive circles, where some view animal activists “at best, elite and out of touch with important human issues and, at worst, harboring high-caste, anti-Muslim sentiments.” How do activists respond to these claims? Are you seeing animal activists doing more intersectional work with other social justice movements?
I have to say, I wish we responded better and I wish we did more intersectional work. Part of the problem is that the suspicion people have about animal activists has some basis in truth. There are issues of elitism; of demographic imbalances towards some groups and away from others; of prejudices that are by no means unique to animal activists, but that are shared by some of them. Let me be clear that I think all communities are flawed in this way, but precisely because they are communities: we band together, which entails exclusions; we develop ideologies, which constrains creative thinking. And, again, communities of animal activists are by no means unique in their practices of exclusion: human rights activists, feminists, labor activists, queer activists—all these communities reproduce relations of inequality related to class, gender, caste and religion, and so on. But one thing that does strike me as somewhat unique to animal activists—and I’m generalizing horribly here—is that we are not as self-reflexive and self-critical as some other activist communities are.

If I were to compare the two activist movements I’ve written about and belonged to—queer/feminist activism and animal activism—there is almost no comparison in terms of self-reflexivity and the energy spent on it. I’ve actually discussed this at length before, with Arpan Sharma from the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations (FIAPO). One of our theories about the paucity of self reflection—and this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about myself, including in Cultural Anthropology—is the matter of time and immediacy. If you are an animal activist, there is always something pressing to do. There is always suffering, there is always pain, there is always a life that demands attention. One can see how sitting around being reflexive about our politics can seem like a waste of time, or extremely trivial. But self-examination is absolutely critical to what we do: for our longevity and existence as activists; for the sustenance of our intensity; and simply to make sure that our actions do not circle back and reproduce precisely what we are trying to battle in the world—inequality, exploitation, exceptionalism, hatred, and the valuing of some lives over others.

Of course, there are so many animal activists doing great intersectional work: Abodh Aras in Bombay, getting children involved in animal welfare, or aiding the people who live everyday with animals on the streets; Norma Alvarez and her linking of animal rights and environmental issues; N.G. Jayasimha at Humane Society International asking important questions about our own implicit hierarchies of animals worth saving. There are so many examples. I’d love for us to do more of that kind of intersectional work. Not to show people that animal activists are not anti-human—that entire accusation is ridiculous and a terrible waste of time—but to do the work that activists must do, which is to demonstrate an awareness of how power operates: intersectionally. To both demonstrate and understand that poverty, environmental degradation, the abuse and exploitation of animals, misogyny, casteism and communalism, are not separate issues but completely dependent on one another.

You note that much anthropological literature on animal politics in India focuses on the hypocrisies and the violence of Hindu fundamentalism, but your work hopes to show “other ways we conceive of human animal engagements in India, ways that are not predetermined or fully determined by Hindu nationalism.” Can you tell our readers a bit more about this?
I say in another essay that just because something is true, that must not make it the only truth worth acknowledging. I say this because there is an historic link in India between certain forms of vegetarianism and religious and caste chauvinism. But I think it says a lot about the failures of our own imaginations and our own ethics that we are only able to see things through one perspective, or that we allow a system we claim to abhor—Hindu fundamentalism, in this case—to utterly colonize and dictate our ethics. It amazes me that people justify their own (usually passive) participation in the mass slaughter of animals by saying that eating vegetarian food is Brahminical or right-wing. Certainly we are not so ethically impotent that we allow an ideology—again, one we claim to reject—to define for eternity what an act of eating can mean! In any case, that’s accepting an ideology; it is not a rejection of it. (But this said, I think it’s important for us as animal activists to demonstrate—through intersectional or otherwise capacious politics—that caste privilege and communal rhetoric are part of the same scaffolding that our work must necessarily undo.) The effort in what I’m writing now—and I think this is what ethnography as a genre is good for—is to hold several truths simultaneously and to recognize that our motivations are myriad, and our actions and their effects complex.

Many animal activists and Satya readers came to animal activism after bearing witness directly or indirectly to violence against animals. I was struck by something you wrote, about a related phenomenon—the fear of witnessing—after a woman told you she doesn’t volunteer at an animal shelter because she was “deathly afraid of caring too much.” You wrote: “Is any other politics, I wonder, constrained by such a mortal fear of caring too much, of the heart bursting, the skin thinning, of not being able to rest again?” Can you unpack this fear a little for us? Is it unique to animal activism?
This is something I’ve been writing about as well, a problem for ethics that I call “descent into obligation.” Some call it “compassion fatigue.” I won’t say that this is unique to animal activism, but it is deeply germane to it. And what I mean by the phrase is how quickly or inexorably one act of attention to the suffering around (and even inside) us can cascade into a sort of affective overload, where everything is saturated with significance and everything can potentially make a moral claim on you. The question becomes, once I have opened myself up beyond the ethical boundaries to which I had become accustomed, based on what criteria will I close the circle again? Once I care, how can I not care?

Now, most of us know from our everyday lives that ethics does not work like this. We claim to care about “humans” (whatever those are), but our hearts do not burst at the sight of all human suffering, which is, of course, ubiquitous. And so we know at some level that an act of care or recognition does not obligate us to, or result in, infinite care. The very fact, then, that we feel we must guard against a descent into obligation when it comes to animals is the result of something far more real and pernicious, which is what I think of as the tyranny of consistency. On what basis, logically, must not wanting to eat the flesh of a pig grown for my enjoyment mean that I must never consume the bodily product of any living being or never swat at a mosquito or always stop to help an animal in distress? If we say there is a logical connection here that is because we inhabit a language ideology that equates all these things as “animals” and all of those acts as “violence.” But also, it is to suggest from within that ideology that every act we perform must be consistent with every other.

Again, we know experientially that ethics—that life—does not work like this. So why does the tyranny of consistency persist? It persists, to my mind, because it is at the very heart of how normativity reproduces itself. Normative morality—we know—is profoundly internally inconsistent. To take a silly example, a person who eats meat (a normative eater, let’s say) can eat a vegetable without that calling into question the entire edifice of his morality. A person who calls herself a vegetarian does not have a parallel luxury. The difference is that normative morality—precisely because it is normative and deeply naturalized—does not have to account for itself. It is only those who act against it, or obliquely towards it, who must always account for the consistency of their actions, lest it nullify the value of every previous or subsequent ethical act they perform. I call that the tyranny of consistency, but it’s also the tyranny of identity—the fact that in order to be politically intelligible we must call ourselves “vegetarians” or “vegans” or—the worst—“animal lovers.”

And let me just say that I’m a vegan myself; I’ve been one for 20 years and at this point will probably always be one. But I also think there’s something ineffective about taking practices and thoughts that I want very deeply to spread broadly—thoughts about the injustice of human exceptionalism and the suffering it breeds—and making those practices and thoughts about me, about my identity, my being, my credo. If you think about it, this is just another way of saying, “These thoughts and practices are not yours; unless, that is, you want to subject yourself and be like me.” Again, this strikes me as ineffective. But the fact that it is ineffective does not strike me as surprising; the tyranny of identity is how normativity is sustained.

I’ve gone a bit far from your question, but all of this does relate back to the problem of descent into obligation. We ought to be able to act as each moment dictates or invites, but instead, we tend to feel that if we do something, we must therefore do everything, and if we cannot, then we might as well do nothing. I spoke earlier about an activism of invention instead of a politics of resistance. An activism of invention finds creative responses to the false dilemma of “if something, then everything, or nothing.”

In addition to tracking entry points into activism, what are you finding with respect to what sustains activists in these fields?
I think the most exciting thing I found—and I’m indebted here to a few activists in particular—is meditation as a form of sustenance. Meditation feels like the ideal creative response to the problem of descent into obligation: a practice that puts you here and now, in the very present, and thus renders you less susceptible, if even for a moment, to the cascade of tenses that is the dilemma of “something, everything, nothing.”

A friend of mine said to me many years ago that “sometimes one can love so much that they destroy the place the love came from.” I thought that was a remarkable lesson. Another thing that sustains animal activists is realizing that truth: being willing to halt the descent, to do those things that seem trivial or indulgent in the larger calculus of things, but that are absolutely necessary to maintain a sense of strength, purpose, and well-being.

What is the distinction between law and justice in both queer and animal activism in India?
Derrida argues that law is what is, but justice is what can never be. This is not a fatalistic argument. If anything, it is somewhat utopian in spirit. What it suggests is that though we seek out law and its reform as a way to achieve justice, law is actually justice’s antithesis: law is rule-bound, exclusive, based on what we (think we) know about the world. Justice, though, is only a horizon, and based on an openness to a world as it might be, to an “otherwise.” In practical terms, the point of making this distinction is not to say that we shouldn’t care about law reform or bettering the system we have. The vast majority of people and beings are very vulnerable to law, and it would be elitist and shortsighted to disregard that fact. But this does take us back to that earlier conversation about reflexivity. The point of making the distinction between law and justice—between what is and what can never be (but must, for that very reason, be pursued)—is so we don’t confuse the former for the latter. That we work within the politics of recognition, the tyranny of identity, to make and reform law, but acknowledge the fact that justice does not speak in those terms—and remain open to new languages, new connections, and ways of being and thinking otherwise.

I wanted to end by asking an open question that you began your book with: “Where do we go now?”
I wish I knew! But I suppose I would want to go back to the question of tense. Perhaps the problem is that we spend too much time thinking about what is next, or suturing the past, present, and future into a militant narrative of consistency, or even of radical transformation, which is actually just another form of consistency. Maybe the answer to the question of “where do we go now?” is the least interesting one: right here.

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