Thinking and Thanking: Responding to the Critical Comments on Textures of the Ordinary

Veena Das

I take the pleasure of companionship that these five comments offer me as an invitation to overreach myself. My response then to these careful, critical, and challenging comments is taken from my experience of threading a delicate piece of embroidery in which the thickness or thinness of each thread, its color, the way it loops into other threads, comes to define the motifs that the embroider makes alive. More than one commentator has been struck by the autobiographical tone of the writing in Textures— yet, if one took the story as a defining feature of autobiography (that is, the biography of a person written by himself)[1], I am not moved to offer a narrative within which different autobiographical moments can be made to fit, as Puett, Han, and Donatelli each comment. I want to reflect here more closely on what it means for Puett to say that this is the text telling its story; or, for Laugier to find that description itself becomes akin to raking the leaves of memory; or, for Han to bring into relief the moment when Swapan, the protagonist of chapter 6, finds me in the doubling of the mad professor he meets in the mental hospital with his (the professor’s) capacity to speak English (I imagine) to the staff of the hospital with their smattering of English words, with the mad professor that is me, the anthropologist (“auntie, do you have a PhD?”).

The opening paragraph that introduces Textures reads thus: “This book is composed in the nature of a collection, not only in the sense that it is a collection of essays, many of which had earlier incarnations, but also because it involved a task best described 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 in public.”[2] I did not then explicitly think that what I was saying about Textures was also a way of speaking about the self as a collection, rather in the mode of the Buddhist idea that giving unity to the self is a conceptual construction. This conceptual construction might result from the imperative to supply a narrative, as in the nineteenth-century novel (as Puett notes); or it might be to think of the contingencies through which one’s life might have allowed different texts to find each other (Laugier, Donatelli); or in the way the surge of an expression (“you know”, “no one takes an interest in me” ) reveals the violence of ethnographic authority (Deutscher) or of an appeal to the ethnographer “aunty” to recognize the force of desire that others in the community discount and to make things otherwise (Han).

One task that requires better description from me is to show how reading Wittgenstein and Cavell resonated for me with my experience of texts from Sanskrit, Prakrit, and other Indian languages. Let me give an example. In Textures, I speak of the physiognomy of words drawing from Amrit Lal Nagar’s description of male talk in his novel Seth Bankemal, when the protagonist is heartbroken at the death of his wife and his friend admonishes him for stooping so low as to grieve for a woman, especially as he could have hundreds of other women for the asking![3] But the way that Nagar juxtaposes the protagonist’s inability to reengage with life and the public display of bravado expresses not a “contempt” of women but a concealment of emotions. Now, imagine reading Wittgenstein’s comments: “Meaning is physiognomy”—“The familiar physiognomy of a word, the feeling that it has taken up its meaning into itself, that it is an actual likeness of its meaning.[4] Wittgenstein functions here not a resource for understanding Nagar; each is enriched by the other.

Take one more example. When Wittgenstein speaks of the physiognomy of words, he speaks of the way we experiment with words as we place them in a sentence: This one? No, not quite. May be this? Ah yes—this has a feeling of rightness about it. Wittgenstein will think of this way of coming to words, the feeling of rightness, as a grammatical investigation—words are grown within forms of life. Philosophical grammar is not simply a rule-bound application to a case but the sense of our being at home with words. Now consider what some might think of as a scandalous juxtaposition of a sutra from the great grammarian Panini, whose text Ashtadhyayi,[5] I feel, weaves together technical grammar (rules, say for affixes, or for substitution) with a philosophical grammar (determining what counts as action in the first place). Since the deep case in Paninian grammar, as is well-known, is premised on an understanding of what is action,[6] we begin with a simple case, “Rama is going to the village”: the action is movement signaled by the verb going, the agent is Rama from whom the action ensues, and the village is the direct object. Accordingly, Rama will be declined by the addition of the affix from the agentive case and the village in the accusative case. However, Panini introduces an interesting complication here. Suppose Rama is going to the village but only in his mind? Here the prescribed affix for the village will not be the accusative case but the dative case while the mind is put in the instrumental case. Why did the village now become an indirect object? It is my thought here that Panini’s technical rules are about correct speech, as many linguists understand grammar to be; but there is a plethora of other sutras that force us to think of grammar in the Wittgensteinian sense as telling us what an agent, or an object, or an instrument is. There is also here the physiognomy of words—after all Panini could have said Rama is thinking of the village, but the physiognomy of thinking is quite different from the physiognomy of imagining the whole experience in one’s mind of being in the village with its smells and its sights and its sounds. The dative then blocks the notion of physical movement (the use of road in conjunction with manasa is forbidden), and we learn the longing for the village in our imagination. I could give other examples but will stop here to acknowledge what these comments have enabled me to say.

On the Ordinary

There are very interesting ways in which the commentaries elaborate on different strands of my argument in both Textures and my larger work to make the ordinary appear, whether modelled on the domestic or on marriage or on contract. Depending upon how we imagine the ordinary, we will imagine the threats to it as coming from related directions, grounded in that imagination of the ordinary. As Donatelli says, I do not take the ordinary to be a mere background to basic rhythms of life repeated through force of habit; instead, I take habit itself to be a condition of creativity ingrained in the “tissues of everyday actions.” Yet the pathological normativity of life in the slums, as I have called it, could make for very blurred lines between what can be absorbed within the normal and what constitutes a breakdown. As Donatelli says, “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.” But attention to such minute gestures, to the physiognomy of words, and to whom the words are addressed (second person or third person?) requires attention to detail and even an openness to surplus description. As Laugier says, the object of description in Textures is life and not a recounting of opinions or description of bounded domains of specific institutions. Hence it is within life forms that the empirical and the conceptual are brought together. As Laugier, Han, and Deutscher all bring out, the empirical does not simply play the role of illustrating a theoretical argument but instead brings forward the nuances of what it is to live in language rather than with it. One important point that comes out in both Laugier and Han’s comments is that that language is used within a life form (meaning is use but use within a life form) but also abused within it (language is on holiday; it is like an engine idling away, as Wittgenstein said). It was Austin who brought out the many ways in which the fragility of context makes words tumble down in directions that might be called abuse: certainly in many cases described in Textures there is a sense that language itself is cursed—but I also argue that such slippages and abuses are “caught” and their poisons absorbed through the particularity of relations between two people with this kind of history, this kind of laughter shared, this kind of betrayal, rather than through a general appeal to norms. It is not that norms are not evoked but that their particular meanings and their force comes from the conversation with the milieu.


Deutscher’s commentary takes us to the different ways in which authority might be established in a relationship and the subtle ways in which skepticism takes gendered forms. Deutscher takes three instances of “you know”—the first is when Cameron, the Scotland Yard detective, appeals to what Deutscher calls Paula’s “counter knowledge” and, using the “you know,” tries to show her that she can trust her own sense of doubts in her husband’s version of things. Deutscher thinks that Cavell overemphasizes Paula’s helplessness and overstates the role played by Cameron. To my ears, he lets her find what she already knows, and if there are resources that they both have, these go back to recovering knowledge that Paula as a child had but seems now distant and vague to her. Perhaps my interpretation is colored by my knowing many women who had the experience of being constantly corrected by a more overpowering figure, male or female. So, I hear Cameron saying a minimal “you know”—he is inviting her to trust herself—at least that appears a more congenial interpretation to me. In a similar vein, my exchanges with Swapan (“what you have is an illness”) came at a point where I am trying to ward off an emergency. If there is an elevation in an appeal to my role as anthropologist, it is offered as an act of desperation to prevent a tumbling into the spiral of violence. I could say more on the way Cavell enabled my words to find life, find breath—he first offered to “trace a line or two of Veena Das’s more elusive thoughts” when he had no idea of my work and when it was faced with a very skeptical reviewer. My interpretation of Wittgenstein’s notion of pain through the idea of acknowledgement did not have any crutches of citational support, so I did not feel any bearing of elevated philosophical authority in these words of Cavell. In fact, I wish I could have done for Swapan what Cavell did for me, but neither the anthropologist nor the double of the mad professor, nor indeed “Aunty Ji,” could do much more than convey to Swapan the legitimacy of the reality of his desire in contest with the reality his mother was trying to impose on him. Clara Han recognizes this kind of failure from her own fieldwork experiences and in the modes of her writing. I too will live with these uncertainties.

As concluding observations, let me say that I am grateful to each commentator for the quality of their listening. I owe a special debt to Sandra Laugier who showed how philosophy might receive anthropology through attention to detail, turning away from the temptation to think that philosophy would have done great honor to anthropology by its “upgrading as philosophy.” Instead, as Laugier says, Textures illustrates and exemplifies the philosophical method Wittgenstein proposes, which is to pay attention to ordinary human forms of life in their unity and diversity, but it also wants to do away with the distinction between ethnography and anthropology. The resolute attention to forms of life and life forms is what creates a path into ordinary ethics for me, as distinct from normative ethics, and into an ordinary realism. My thanks to each commentator for the echoes of Cavell’s words in their writing but equally for their attention to the way that the flesh and blood character of those who figure in Textures create the possibility of continuing to write philosophy and anthropology in company of each other.

This response was written while in hospital during a medical emergency. I thank the teams of physicians, nurses, and staff of Ellison 10 at the Massachusetts General Hospital for their exemplary care and command over clinical expertise. To Saumya, Christiana, and Leigh Simmons—my profound gratitude for including their patient in the discussions and decision-making processes at every step. Thank you all. 

Veena Das is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology at The Johns Hopkins University and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Academy of Scientists from Developing Countries. She is the author of several books, most recently Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology after Wittgenstein, Slum Acts, and Affliction: Health, Poverty and Disease. She has also edited a number of highly influential edited collections, including Living and Dying in the Contemporary World, Social Suffering, Violence and Subjectivity,

[1] Jean Starobinksi., “The Style of Autobiography,” in Literary Style, ed. Seymour Chatman (London, 1971), pp. 285–96.

[2] Veena Das, Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology After Wittgenstein. (New York, 2020), p. xi.

[3] Ibid., p. 154.

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford, 1958), #568.

[5] See Panini, Ashtadhyayi of Panini, trans. S.C. Vasu, (Delhi, 1962).

[6] See V. P.Bhatta, “Theory of Karaka,” Bulletin of the Deccan College 47/48 (1988-1989): 15-22.

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