Comparative Studies in South Asian Culture and Society

By Rajagopal, Arvind | Anthropological Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Comparative Studies in South Asian Culture and Society


Rajagopal, Arvind, Anthropological Quarterly


Comparative Studies in South Asian Culture and Society

Kemper, Steven. Buying and Believing: Sri Lankan Advertising and Consumers in a Transnational World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Leichty, Mark. Suitably Modern: Making Middle-Class Culture in a New Consumer Society. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Mazzarella, William. Shoveling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in Contemporary India. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Introduction

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to meet with some school children in a mofussil (i.e. rural) area in Madhya Pradesh, India. The conversation turned to the Hindu tele-epic, the Ramayan that had been screened recently, and that had in turn fueled the largest movement to appear in India since independence. This was a movement dedicated to building a temple to the hero of the Ramayan, Lord Ram, by demolishing a mosque that stood in its place. There had been an escalating series of campaigns and rallies, religio-political as well as specifically electoral, declaring that Ram's rights had to be defended, and that Hindus should rise up in his name. During the conversation, a 15-year-old girl remarked, "I am tired of Ram, I want a new name."1 Everyone understood that she was not being disrespectful to the deity who looms large in Indian traditions. Rather, she was referring to the relentless campaign using his name. Although Hindu nationalist publicity sought to derive political dividends from Ram's devotional appeal, her statement indicated that Ram's attraction for her was not religious. Instead, it was, like any other promotional campaign, subject to the vicissitudes of all consumer brands, and requiring something like a brand re-launch in order to restore its old charm. Here was a chauvinist movement that its critics widely regarded as backward and reactionary. Yet the mechanisms through which the movement advanced transformed the campaign's intended object and conveyed their own message; even if the icons were religious, their effect had the ephemeral quality of all publicity, at least on one 15-year-old small-towner. Here we have an example of the criss-crossing of markets and media, politics and religion, local and global forces in rural Madhya Pradesh, unobtrusively reflected in a teenage consumer's choice. Self-contained as it appears to be in the private realm, the remark can be turned outwards to illuminate how this realm moves in a kind of synchronized time-lag with historical changes in the larger world. Taken alone, one is left merely with an unexplained hysteresis effect, the product of forces that are themselves being reshaped by their outcome.

Cultural anthropology has historically preferred to focus on the local and regional, and tended to bracket the global dimensions of its objects of study. Today, acknowledging the ubiquity of "the global" has become a sine qua non. But it is one thing to invoke the globe, and another to understand what it means, especially since prior experience is no reliable guide to what lies ahead. One way of addressing the conceptual challenge has been to focus on the sphere of consumption, which can fairly be said to represent the world of everyday life, and has hitherto changed more slowly than other spheres of life. As markets and media press more insistently than ever against this world, the metabolism of daily life is transformed, producing profuse signs of changes at work. Thus the challenge of investigating and theorizing the global is addressed by treating markets and media as both agents and embodiments of globalization. This is to some extent a practical response to a post-Cold War era where erstwhile assumptions about the sense and direction of historical change cannot be maintained even as a set of cynical reference points. Sartre refers, in Search For A Method, to Marxism as the unsurpassable horizon of our time, that is, as the theoretical possibility against which our historical epoch remains intelligible. …

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