Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Hybridity in an Arid Field

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Hybridity in an Arid Field

Article excerpt

Postcolonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India. AKHIL GUPTA. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1998; xv + 409 pp.

By any standards Postcolonial developments is a remarkable achievement. A critical and original contribution to the ethnography of the Indian subcontinent and of Third World peasantries more generally, it also decisively shifts the ground on which some key battles in both anthropology and international environmental politics are fought. No one who reads this book will remain unmoved: some will almost certainly be angered by it, but many will find in it a provocative source of reflection. For anthropologists interested in advancing the epistemological and methodological coherence of ethnography, it is a treasure trove.

Gupta has taken on what many have deemed an impossible task: to draw the attention of development experts to the ethnographic level at which the consequences of their interventions for the supposed beneficiaries become apparent. Despite his critical unpacking of the experts' discourse, moreover, Gupta is no wild-eyed postmodernist - if indeed such a creature ever existed outside the rhetoric of ideological number-crunchers. Deeply conversant with agronomics and agricultural economics, he is nevertheless highly responsive to the - literally -- material consequences of rhetoric and symbolism for the lives of ordinary people. While his research focus is largely on the village of Alipur, in western Uttar Pradesh, he is also alert to the larger policies and discourses in which local actions are embedded, and his training in areas beyond anthropology allows him to comment with persuasive authority on the weaknesses of development theory and practice that the vicissitudes of the Alipur villagers expose to his critical eye.

Some discussions of development rather improbably assume a homogeneous body of clients; for the authors of such works, local reception of development initiatives is neither relevant nor interesting except insofar as it seems to frustrate well-intended interventions. For Gupta, by contrast, it is precisely this local response that must be theorized - an insight that closely parallels, but does not precisely reproduce, those of Wolfgang Iser (for example, 1993) in literary studies. Gupta is especially adept at showing what political scientists so often ignore -- that the local tail wags an electoral dog of some magnitude (p. 71). Ethnography, not the statistical analysis of voter returns, tells us, without resorting to tautology, how populism actually works - how ordinary people come to identify with movements that are often the creations of distant intellectuals and politicians. It thus provides a critical perspective on what Gupta, following Foucault, calls "governmentality" (see p. 321), with all the variations in its forms, locations, and associated practices.

"Populism" is one of a set of key terms in this work, brought into fruitful juxtaposition with "hybridity" and "the postcolonial condition." For Gupta, the latter is a condition in which the very possibility of cultural authenticity - fostered by colonialism and nationalism alike - is both placed in question and defended. He also addresses the lability of what appear on the surface to be highly specific discourses, showing how the invention of a populist politics can generate opposition in its own terms. Thus, the rhetoric of Indira Gandhi created its own response in the nationalism of those who, exploiting her failure to translate her words into sufficient and tangible benefits for the dispossessed, championed the response of a supposedly pure, rurally-based, and orthodox Hindu "Bharat" to a corrupt, urban, and secularist counterpart called "India."

This conceptual opposition between rural purity and urban corruption is not unique to the Indian scene. Indeed, it has curious echoes - not explored in this book - with the kind of romantic essentialism explored in the European context by such diverse writers as George Mosse (1985) and Raymond Williams (1973). …

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