Knowledge, Interpretation, and the Self: Notes on Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology After Wittgenstein by Veena Das

Michael Puett

Textures of the Ordinary is an intensely personal work in which Veena Das invites the reader to join her as she rethinks the key stories, problems, and tensions with which she has wrestled over the course of her life and career. It is a process she refers to as “raking the leaves of memory: collecting pieces of an ethnographic past, recollecting a life lived with texts—literary and philosophical—and in the process allowing myself to be educated, as it were, in public.”[1] 

Das allows the reader to see this rethinking in action, as she introduces each key idea and problem, and then takes the reader ever deeper, layer by layer, into the complex implications that need to be explored. This is true for every chapter but equally true for the entire book, as each chapter builds upon and adds complexity to issues introduced in earlier chapters. It is a tremendously moving work and a work of extraordinary depth. 

One can even call it an autobiographical work. This is true in part because interwoven throughout the book are anecdotes, memories, and stories from the author’s own life:

Because I have imagined my reader in this book as a “you” and not as part of an anonymous third-person public, I have allowed autobiographical moments to seep into the scenes I construct out of my ethnography and out of my life. [T, p. 1]

But it is autobiographical in a deeper sense as well, even beyond these explicitly autobiographical moments. Das has lived her life immersed in low-income neighborhoods from Delhi, in the writings of Wittgenstein and Cavell, in Sanskrit theories of language and ritual, and in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as well as in fragmentary memories from her childhood. These are the worlds in which she has lived, and these are the worlds into which she is ushering the reader to join as she reflects upon, reopens, and reinterprets her earlier understandings. As she phrases it so eloquently:

Readers familiar with my earlier work will see how new aspects of a biography, or of a relationship, or of a neighborhood, dawn upon me as I go back to earlier accounts; or they will see how the passage of time has made certain figures reappear, made to carry a different kind of weight in my thinking now. [T, p. xi]

This intense reinterpretation of the questions and concerns that have been the focus of her thinking for decades is, in a larger sense, the autobiography of the work.

When we think of autobiography, we often think of the form that has become dominant in the Euro-American world over the past century, a form based directly on the narrative arc of nineteenth-century Euro-American novels. It is a narrative in which the author undergoes a set of difficult challenges in her familial and societal life and ultimately finds herself as she works through these challenges and emerges reborn. A coherent narrative resulting in a self-aware, coherent self.

Textures of the Ordinary most certainly does not fit this model. There is no coherent narrative, and certainly no coherent self. Not only are there several narratives, but many of the narratives are fragmentary and contradictory. And not only is there no coherent self, but we are rather presented with the complexities of how a self inhabits an ordinary reality that is itself multiple, layered, and requiring constant reinterpretation.

The book is written in a fragmentary style, involving surprising juxtapositions of different bodies of material, tentative conclusions that are broken off and then reanalyzed later, and, in several of the chapters, conclusions that are not only not final but often provocations and questions to be picked up in counterintuitive ways in later chapters. And the entire book reads as an invitation to the reader to work through these layers of complex ideas, fragmented stories, and sedimented concepts with her. 

This gives the book a textured richness that not only reveals the complex depth of the thinking but also beautifully embodies the themes of the work as well. In a work devoted to exploring the complexities and tensions of ordinary life and the ways in which violence and suffering are woven into the quotidian, Das works us through these complexities, layer by layer, offering brilliant insights but only tentative conclusions.

In giving these reinterpretations, it is not that she is rethinking some of the “theorists” (such as Wittgenstein and Cavell) and rethinking how she has “applied” their concepts to the ethnographic materials, the works of literature, and her childhood memories. For Das, the theories equally arise from the ethnographic work, and the works of those usually labeled as theorists are read, interpreted, and interrogated with the same depth as her ethnographic studies. Moreover, Das sees the philosophical and literary traditions of India as every bit as theoretically rich and sophisticated as twentieth-century Euro-American philosophy. All of these are sources of knowledge, and all are used to reinterpret and rethink the others. It is not just that discussions of Wittgenstein, Sanskrit theorists of grammar, and the painful words uttered by a child from a slum in Delhi are juxtaposed with each other. Each of these are seen as bodies of knowledge, and each are interpreted and reinterpreted through the others:

I treat the philosophical impulses, the anthropological mode of being in a world, literary references that come into the text sometimes unbidden, as well as autobiographical moments, as lying on the same plane in their ability to bring thought into closer harmony with modes of living; it is important for me to see how each of these impulses is able (or not) to receive figures of thought that generate a picture of everyday life and its forebodings, its ill omens, as well as its ability to stand up to these threats. [T, p. 11]

Tellingly, the book has no conclusion, and ends with a horrifying image and quotation, followed by a haunting pair of questions: “Is this the ‘difficulty of reality’? Should thought stop here?” (T, p. 332). It is fitting that the book ends with such a question. This is not a rhetorical flourish: the entire book is written in the form of a groping for answers. It is not just that her everyday is imbued with layers of sedimentation, it is that the author is reaching out and inviting the reader to work through these layers as well. Indeed, the text is composed such that the reader is called upon to do so. Das states the following about Coetzee, but the same point could be equally made about her own book:

An important feature of Coetzee’s novels is that the form of writing seems integral to the task of generating ethical thinking by inviting the reader to form a relation to the novel that is not based on the authority of the author. [T, p. 199]

Among many other questions, Das in a sense is asking what it would mean to write an autobiography that is not committed to a coherent view of the self, developed through a coherent narrative, with a clear ethical drive to celebrate the final achievement of self-knowledge. An autobiography, in other words, that took seriously views of the self, of knowledge, and of ethics that have developed outside of recent Euro-American conceptions.  It is a work of self-knowledge, but one without a pre-commitment to a coherent self and without a sense that such knowledge could or even should ever be final.

I mentioned above that the mode of autobiography dominant today derives directly from conceptions of narrative and of the self found in the nineteenth-century European novel. In contrast, the closest analogue I can find for Textures of the Ordinary is the Mahabharata, a work in which the complexities of the characters and their relationships are developed (if that’s even the right word) through endless fragments of earlier stories that slowly accumulate into a rich tapestry of interweaving lives. The narrative is not singular but rather a seemingly endless interplay of digressions in which minor characters become the key figures that inspire reinterpretations of what the reader thought she previously understood. And some of these digressions become almost texts unto themselves, as when, most famously, a battle scene is interrupted for a lengthy philosophical discussion on agency and ethics.

In such a narrative, knowledge is not obtained through an achievement of coherence.  Indeed, the Mahabharata requires constant rereadings, retellings, and reinterpretations. It lives through the commentaries and interpretations. The reader is in a sense being called upon to undertake these reinterpretations, precisely because the text itself offers no final answers.

This gives a sense of how Textures of the Ordinary works. It is a book that challenges our usual notions of the self, of interpretation, and of the ethics of interpretation and offers us, in practice, a way of understanding how knowledge can be built up through the layers of the ordinary. It is an extraordinary work, focused on an intense rethinking of the ordinary.  Das refuses to give final answers, but she should at least here have the final words:

Why is this book also an autobiography? I do not possess the stories and the fragments I arrive at. Instead, in finding my voice through words that I have had to beg, borrow, and steal, I hope it shows what being an anthropologist, or at least one version of being an anthropologist, is. From yet another perspective, if asked to sum up what the book is about, I might say, after Edgar Allen Poe: it is a mere recounting of household events. Such is my understanding of the everyday and of self-knowledge. [T, p. 27]

Michael J. Puett is Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology at Harvard University. He is the author of The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China and To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China, as well as the coauthor of Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity.

[1]Veena Das, Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology After Wittgenstein (New York, 2020), xi; hereafter abbreviated T.

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