Method and Ethnographic Impulse in Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology after Wittgenstein by Veena Das

Clara Han

In Textures of the Ordinary, Veena Das invites us think closely on method as that which allows for philosophical texts, anthropological texts, and ethnography to be on the same plane. The philosophical method that Das hones from her mode of reading Wittgenstein and Cavell responds to the problems that arise in the weave of actual lives, lives she has participated in as an anthropologist—lives that mark her life. Rather than assert a dominance of sharp-edged philosophical concepts over ethnographic material, Das shows us how an attention to the life of words—their draining of life and what gives them life—can give critical depth to anthropological thinking. My colleagues in this series of responses have focused on how Textures of the Ordinary continues and deepens Wittgenstein’s way of doing philosophy, such that anthropology might be a continuation of this philosophy. Yet, I would like to focus on the ways in which Das’s method deepens and rekindles ethnography itself. The attention to the life of words simultaneously loosens the impulse to grasp context while inviting us to multiple routes of knowing—to look and see, to pay close attention to detail:

Context here cannot be restricted to what can be carved out from a flux of experiences by the linguistic apparatus of indexical statements; not is it simply the information about location and chronology. Rather, it is oriented to questions such as how boundaries between sense and nonsense emerge in a particular life world and how philosophical grammar and its associative criteria create broader understandings of what is a statement, what a request, what a command, and what an appeal for deferral. Said otherwise, we might say that what is at stake is not simply the meaning of a word but what gives words life.[1]

What are the implications of this method for ethnography? In what way does this method compel anthropology to critically revisit the picture of social life as undergirded by mechanical rule-following or marked by the consolidation of forms of power? I take these questions into the realm of kinship, family, and intimacy. As I hope becomes clear, Textures presents us with the utterly powerful work of re-learning anthropology, unlocking a potential within anthropology such that it might become its “next self.”

The First-Person Perspective

In chapter 4, Das returns to a scene that briefly appeared in her book Life and Words, in which a woman, Sita, utters a dying wish to deny her brother the right to provide the shroud, stunning everyone.[2] Was this the woman’s own voice? To whom were these words addressed? In returning to this scene, Das describes the corrosions of kinship relations that she had registered at that time. Yet, these corrosions were embedded within the give and take of kinship—what Das calls the “aesthetics of kinship.” What Das had not fathomed then was the extent of the anger to the brother. Perceiving that anger again, Das opens up two avenues for thought: first, that familiarity with routines might dull one to the undercurrents or volatility that lay just beneath the surface; and second, that an opacity of experience is tied to the opacity of the self, “is the placement of habit and routines at the heart of everyday life also a way of concealment of the way in which we cannot bring ourselves to actually experience that which is unfolding in our own story?” (T, p. 131).

In discussing this opacity of the self, Das shows us the limits to models of the first person that take a “reflective stance”—taking an impersonal third-person stance on one’s actions—or that give primacy to the embedding of the impersonal third-person stance into the first person. Instead, Das establishes the centrality of the second-person stance for the first person.[3] Where Wittgenstein helps us loosen our grip on the notion of the inner as hidden or private and see how the inner and the outer line each other, Das offers us a searing insight: “The world counts—it has a say. However, how the world counts is somewhat different when we think of the first person as taking a third-person stance and a second-person stance. In the first case, the facts that are to be taken account of are “impersonal” facts. . . . In the second case, I seek someone who can receive the words that give testimony to myself” (T, p. 136, my emphasis).

At stake here is the inhabitation of life with the concrete other with whom you share “this kind of past, this kind of laughter.” (T, p. 138). In this sense, it may be possible that Sita’s words were not addressed to an impersonal third person, but rather the “you” of close kin. Yet, the danger of Sita’s words is that they could bring the undercurrents of kinship out into the domain of publicity. The picture of kinship and intimacy here is neither one of examining a structure of typified experiences nor is it delineating the various plot lines that privilege third-person accounts. Instead, attention to the “you” brings within our view the disorders of kinship, the fleeting moments—moments that might present an opportunity to allow an adjacent self to come into being, moments that are lethal or maddening—that are diffused into our life lived as a whole.

Madness and the Family

Let me bring this discussion of the second-person stance and the disorders of kinship into Das’s writings on madness, family, the state, and psychiatric institutions in chapter 6, where she returns to the case of Swapan, his family and neighborhood, whom we had met in her book Affliction: Health, Disease, Poverty (2015).[4] Das’s ethnography takes place in a low-income neighborhood, and Das pays close attention to the aspirations for education and securing jobs as well as the complex web of relations that mediate actual social mobility via activities on the borderline of the legal and illegal. In this context, the protagonist in madness is not only the individual but the milieu itself—there is a debate between the individual and the milieu. Madness does not stand outside of everyday life, “but is woven into it as a possibility contained within the everyday” (T, p. 175).

Bringing this milieu into conversation with an acute reading of Foucault’s lectures on Psychiatric Power (1973–1974) and Abnormal (1974–1975), Das shifts our focus from the centrality of the psychiatrist in the scene of madness to how madness unfolds in the family: “I want to make a shift in this scene to ask: what happens before the arrival of the psychiatrist and after his disappearance?” (T, p. 185). Foucault sees the family as a crucial institution. It is the hinge between different forms of power (sovereign and disciplinary) while also a junction among the different disciplinary institutions (army, school, asylum). Yet, as Das points out, “a description of madness . . . would require that we tell the story as if the person was located not inside the body but in the network of relations, affects and encounters” (T, p. 185). Different forms of power do not recede from view in Das’s description of madness; rather, we perceive these forms of power differently—not as definitive consolidations but as echoes. The opening of the family to agents of the state and psychiatric confinement secretes residues, “that then morph into contests over the real in which neither the patient nor the psychiatrist are able to prevail” (T, p. 186).

What is striking in Das’s description of madness, however, is that it is not only the contest over the real between the patient and the psychiatrist but also the confrontation of the “mad” person’s reality with other realities—these confrontations are part and parcel of the disorders of kinship. Let me turn to Swapan’s conversation with Das in the first scene of crisis that she describes. The relation between Swapan and his mother had deteriorated to the point where his mother urges Das to broach the question to Swapan as to why he does not want to go to the doctor. Swapan responds to Das in a challenging tone, “Who will take me?” Surprised, Das replies, “I will.” Swapan says: “My problem is that I am not mad. My problem is that no one takes an interest in me” (T, p. 188, my emphasis). When Das further asks what he means by no one taking interest in you, he expresses the desire to pass his tenth exam, and his rejection of his mother’s desire that he work in a factory, “work in a factory” (he emphasizes). . . . But I will not work in anyone’s factory. I want to pass my exam” (T, p. 188). The mother addresses Das directly, emphasizing their financial conditions.

Here, rather than the psychiatrist staging a dramatic stripping of the “as-if reality” of the patient to impose an intensified real, we see the mother imposing the reality of the slums on Swapan’s “as-if reality,” what Das describes as “both quotidian and pervasive—for example, the hope that getting a degree, learning English, will get the person a “good government job,” or, even better, the possibility to become a “film star.” Swapan, in some ways was simply taking the promissory notes of the modern state at face value” (T, p. 189). Swapan’s madness is the milieu’s madness. The milieu contains both these aspirations and the need to overcome them (that is, of acknowledging the reality of the slums). Swapan refuses the pathological normativity in the slums—the reality of the factory job, the intermittent jobs as courier, for example. In this confrontation of realities, we might see again the centrality of the second-person stance in the first-person perspective. That is, Swapan’s desire cannot find a home; his words cannot be received by “you”: “no one”—you, Swapan’s mother, his sister, his father—”takes an interest in me.” 

Ordinary Realism: The Normal and the Critical

Georges Canguilhem posits pathology as the site from which knowledge of physiology takes shape. Disease produces new norms, such that pathology is not the logical contradictory of “normal” but the vital contrary of “healthy.”[5] Yet, in Das’s description of madness unfolding in the family, we see not the normal and the pathological, but rather the normal and the critical. That is, if the normal in the neighborhood might be characterized as a “pathological normativity”, the critical are the moments of crisis when the family may open itself to intervention to the state and psychiatric institutions and in which the neighborhood may be called as witness to the contest of realities within the family.

This conceptualization of disease in terms of the normal and the critical is but one of the routes through which the ordinary is made to appear in Textures. As Das remarks, “the characteristic of the ordinary—that we cannot see it directly precisely because it is before our eyes—means that we have to imagine what the labor of making the everyday appear entails” (T, p. 195). Das’s method of close attention to detail reveals paths to imagining ordinary realism—this is jarring in both its depth and simplicity. It asks anthropology to look again, to ask “how much detail, what kind of detail?” (T, p. 2). In doing so, we open ourselves to an education, and anthropology itself gets a new lease on life.

In closing, I offer a brief comment on Das’s attentiveness to Swapan’s desires, his words not at home. Might describing this loss of a foothold, these confrontations of realities, the madness of the milieu, also be a gesture to invite words home, that is, to this book? In the intensification of his own reality, Swapan makes a series of doubles, one of which is the mad professor and the anthropologist professor, “representing a world out of reach but that could still be intermittently touched” (T, p. 195). In acknowledging Swapan’s aspirations, Das shows how the path to imagining an ordinary realism in anthropology is marked by and in response to actual lives, such that residues of the workings of power might not only produce death but also new ways of engaging life, even if as a “mad person’s reality.” Just as Das writes, “That some, like Swapan will not find their way back to the ordinary leaves us with a melancholy that ethnographic work also inevitably entails when one has to say, with Wittgenstein, my spade is turned,” I might also catch within Das’s attentiveness to desire the flickers of human intimacy (T, p. 197).

Clara Han is associate professor of anthropology at The Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Seeing like a Child: Inheriting the Korean War and Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile, and the coeditor of Living and Dying in the Contemporary World.

[1] Veena Das, Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology after Wittgenstein (New York, 2020), p. 3, my emphasis; hereafter abbreviated T.

[2] See Das, Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary (Berkeley, 2007).

[3] See Das, “What Does Ordinary Ethics Look Like?” in Four Lectures on Ethics: Anthropological Perspectives ed. Michael Lambek et al. (Chicago), pp. 53-126.

[4] See Das, Affliction: Health, Disease, Poverty (New York, 2015).

[5] Georges Canguilhem. Knowledge of Life (New York, 2008), p. 131.

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One response to “Method and Ethnographic Impulse in Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology after Wittgenstein by Veena Das

  1. Pingback: Introduction to a Forum on Veena Das’s Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology after Wittgenstein | In the Moment

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