The Difficult Normality of Anthropology: Veena Das on Philosophy and the Ordinary

Piergiorgio Donatelli

1.

Professor Veena Das has given us a book filled with knowledge, insight, and imagination in the many fields she covers. It is a book that belongs both to anthropology and philosophy. Veena Das is a renowned anthropologist and a great scholar of Wittgenstein and of Stanley Cavell and we touch here the heights to which this combination of learning and inspiration has brought her. The relationship between the two disciplines is not the one which is perhaps most familiar, where philosophy provides a general view of human nature while anthropology is expected to offer examples and applications. In the work of Veena Das philosophy rather finds its natural continuation in anthropological work.

2.

I will begin with a note on her manner of writing, and more specifically on how her more philosophical comments, which are striking in their intensity and depth—offered as a suggested conclusion or a break in the description—are introduced in conversation with her ethnographic accounts. If one of the main concerns of the book is the way in which the description of ordinary lives hosts critical reflection, this is shown in the writing itself, in the way in which a thought that takes over the responsibility to speak from its detached stance acquires its weight and authority from inhabiting this context of description, as a remark that has a life within the conversation with the people whose stories are recounted in the book.

I find this manner of writing an exciting and powerful continuation of Wittgenstein’s way of doing philosophy, in which the voice of philosophy is given an occasion and a place within a conversation about detailed investigations on how words express interests in specific contexts of life. Stanley Cavell has written on this way of writing in the Investigations. He has remarked on the peculiar aphoristic moments to be found in the book (the picture of philosophy as a fly in the fly-bottle, thought skating on slippery ice, the human body as the best picture of the human soul). Cavell writes that at such moments ordinary words “epitomize, separate a thought, with finish and permanence (one might say with beauty), from the general range of experience.”[1]

In chapter 2,  Das says that the issues on which she writes, the lives of low-income people in Delhi dealing with all sorts of everyday problems, may seem banal if compared to the great battles for justice and freedom that are of immediate theoretical and political interest.

Yet, as I sat in dark rooms without windows, or in the shadow and smells of heaps of waste collected from the neighborhood hospitals or factories, with discordant sounds pouring in from the street and listened to stories about what it took to get an official document, or the extent of effort a woman had to make to carry gallons of water perched on the back of a bicycle from a tube well or a water tanker and carry it up a hilly terrain—I would hear the protests of a Beckett character—“you’re on earth, you’re on earth, there’s no cure for that.” I feel that if a conversation between anthropology and philosophy is to have any meaning at all for me, philosophy must learn to respond to the pressure of questions that I encountered in these settings. It is not a matter of some grand gestures of attraction or repulsion that anthropology could make toward philosophy, but a need to respond to the intensity with which the voices in these streets and houses pervade my very being.[2]

This description of how she considers the role of philosophy also illuminates her manner of writing. Philosophical thought is never introduced as self-standing, rather it always responds with its own intensity to the intensity of the voices in the streets and in the houses that inhabit these chapters.

3.

This book brings together many issues that are of great interest to philosophers and especially to scholars of Wittgenstein’s and Cavell’s work and more broadly of a whole tradition in philosophy that takes as the point of departure the lives of people instead of the normative criteria offered in theories and decision procedures. Crucial issues in this area in philosophy such as those of action, expression, form of life, vulnerability, and the ordinary are offered a rich treatment and are given new meaning and potential.

I will pause only a moment to refer to the idea of the ordinary, which is tied to ordinary language philosophy and especially to the work of Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell himself, who leads the notion on a complex journey that reaches American transcendentalism with Emerson and Thoreau. We touch here an aspect of her work that is extremely important. Veena Das is keenly aware of the difficulty of descending into the ordinary—to use her signature expression—without idealizing it and deforming it. An inclination in philosophy, also to be found in anthropology, is that of treating the ordinary as a place of unredeemable normality or misery, as an otherness that haunts us and that may be treasured only in the form of negative critique. Her work on the ordinary lives of people shifts instead the understanding of the ordinary from that of being a mere background inhabited by the mechanical repetition of the basic rhythms of life to a condition of creativity ingrained in the tissue of everyday actions.

From the point of view of this de-sublimized ordinary, Das describes the working of the great dispositives of society, the legal apparatus, medicine, many sorts of technology, religious institutions. She follows Wittgenstein’s difficult lesson here which is that of describing a civilization from the perspective of our ordinary activities. Cavell writes: “My claim is that the Investigations can be seen, as it stands, as a portrait, or say as a sequence of sketches (Wittgenstein calls his text an album) of our civilization.”[3] That a civilization with its blocks and failures may be detected in how our ordinary lives are lived with their blocks and failures is a lesson that we can learn from the modernists, from Freud, Musil, and Wittgenstein, among others. Das continues this project and shows its radicality, which is also tied to the issue of realism, the realism which avoids any temptation of mythologizing. At one point in the book, referring to the experimenting that artists are pursuing around what they perceive as the ordinary (say, urban life in the banlieues in Paris or the trash and debris in Vivan Sundaram’s installations), she comments as follows: “These are works that make us look at life anew, but I feel that the ordinary appears in these works for the other sensibilities to be enriched—the concrete others actually disappear as the artist produces ordinariness as a work of art” (T, p. 93).

The risk thus is to aestheticize the ordinary by turning it into a safe source of interesting pleasures that enrich our lives, sealed though from what could put them in jeopardy. Das is keenly aware of this risk inherent in the appeal to the ordinary, and this is also connected to how she conceives her work as an anthropologist. The notion of life is important here. The life of the people described in this book is a life that Das has experienced and lived: it is her own life with these people. The conceptual and intellectual instruments deployed in the book are part of the author’s life with these people. Their ordinary is also her ordinary and demands that for us as readers it become our ordinary as we engage with her work and are transformed by it.

In a comment on Stephan Palmié’s work, she warns her anthropologist colleagues against making their acts of mediation “disappear in the excitement of encountering ‘radical alterity’ [thus contributing] to the picture of self-enclosed ontologies that are always located at the distance” (T, p. 291). In Das the experience of distance, crucial to anthropology and philosophy alike, is never turned into a way of securing the observer, the thinker and the reader of her place and standing in the world. It is, all the time, a distance that we observers, thinkers, and readers are compelled to discover in ourselves; it expresses the need to rethink our convictions, to check our experience and to educate it.

4.

One final consideration. The appeal to how life persists with its rhythms, the appeal to the normal tonality of lives, to the dimension of the habitual and the familiar, do not work for Das as a defense of the customary, which absorbs the need for reflection, criticism, and transcendence. The issue is crucial and delicate. In defending the ordinary and the role of anthropology, Das works against the idea that the force of critical intellectual tools can be placed outside the life upon which they reflect. This is a familiar note in the Wittgensteinian strand in philosophy that she wishes to inherit. Yet she also does something important and original. Following Cavell’s lesson, she reads the ordinary as a site of routines and habits as well as of exile and skepticism. Exile takes the form of suffering and violence, yet it also signals the imagination of a different and better world.

At one point Das discusses an example taken from the work of Valentine Daniel. In 1977 at the time of the anti-Tamil riots, a Sinhala woman is travelling on a train in the same compartment with a Tamil man. When the mob comes to beat the Tamils, the woman easily recognizable as a Kandyan Sinhalese because of the way she wears her sari, moves over, and holds his hand. This is her description:

Some members of the mob entered the compartment, but the gesture of conjugal familiarity persuaded them that the gentleman was a Sinhala, so they proceeded elsewhere. Daniel (1997) thinks of the gesture of the woman as a sign, gravid with possibilities. But what are these possibilities? From a Wittgensteinian perspective, these seem to be only possibilities of recovery through a descent into the ordinariness of everyday life, of domesticity, through which alone the words that have been exiled may be brought back. This everydayness is then in the nature of a return – one that has been recovered in the face of madness. [T, p. 45]

Exile as violence and evil as well as unexpected generosity and goodness is represented here as a dimension that comes from some other place, yet it is revealed in the detailed life of a gesture. An original and striking thought emerges here. The power that we have to overcome and transcend the present lies in details. Das’s appeal to descend into the ordinary is an instrument of redescription and transformation. It works toward uncovering “the turbulent waters that often flow behind the seemingly peaceful and uneventful everyday,” or it can lead us to recognize an unperceived chance of innovation and change (T, p. 21). The humble gestures of ordinary life disclose the residues of trauma, yet they are also intimations of a better future to come. In the minute and unnoticed fragments of the present we are encouraged to find the echoes of a desirable future.


Piergiorgio Donatelli is professor of philosophy at Sapienza Università di Roma. He is the author of numerous books, including Il lato ordinario della vita, Filosofia ed esperienza communeLa vita umana in prima persona, Il senso della virtúWittgenstein e l’etica, and is the editor of the journal Iride.


[1] Stanley Cavell, “The Investigations’ Everyday Aesthetics of Itself,” in Wittgenstein in America, ed. Timothy G. McCarthy and Sean C. Stidd (New York, 2001), p. 260.

[2] Veena Das, Textures of the Ordinary. Doing Anthropology after Wittgenstein (New York, 2020), p. 60; hereafter abbreviated T.

[3] Stanley Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America. Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein (Albuquerque, N.M., 1989), p. 59.

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