Category Archives: Veena Das

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.

Knowledge

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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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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“As if in Mourning for It”: Knowledge of Violence, Violence as Knowledge

Penelope Deutscher

1. An endeavor to take flight from the everyday in which we are immersed will likely fail. But sometimes the everyday flees from us. And one can err, simply by having confidence in the everyday.

Textures of the Ordinary speaks to the dual character of everyday life:  routine, reassuringly habitual and yet constitutively capable of becoming defamiliarized, distrusted, monstrous. In the conjunctions explored by Veena Das in Textures, one consideration of doubt or unease about others is provided by Wittgenstein, for whom a kind of answer might sometimes be available through a reimmersion in the thick detail of daily life. A second order of possibility for looking into someone’s familiar face and doubting all is as it seems is attributed to Gaslight’s Paula Anton. Here, to respond by taking recourse in the practical details of quotidian life can also prove to be a blunder, a denial of what one has begun to know. A third, different possibility is attributed elsewhere in Textures to Sardar Ji, whose many years of marriage with Manjit (a survivor of Partition’s mass abductions), can’t alleviate his frenetic suspicions about the possible deceit her face might be concealing. They are first discussed in Life and Words (2007) in which Das had described the “coming to doubt of relationships that the Partition amplified [as having] a specificity of its own. It could be repaired only by allowing oneself a descent into the ordinary world but as if in mourning for it.”[1]

Das explores everyday immersion in this ordinary so immediate that it verges on imperceptibility while remaining vulnerable to the possibility of its own collapse.[2] Returning frequently to the quotidian lives of women living in the wake of sexual assault and bloodbath, Das’s account of how knowledge of the ordinary is sometimes more available in its breakdown, has given attention to the transformations in daily meaning for women who have survived kidnap, extreme brutality and sexual assault in twentieth century and contemporary India and Pakistan.[3] It’s noticeable that Textures of the Ordinary turns to an intelligence of form and conduct that can be differentiated from the knowledge sometimes attributed to sovereign subjects.

2. We cannot always “assume that subjects are in possession of the knowledge that they are enacting.”[4]  (Nor should one assume that subjects are not.)

Paula Anton, the heroine of George Cukor’s 1944 film Gaslight, has been misled by her lover from the outset. She ought to have been warier of him. But the scenario she has never entertained is incredible: that she might be the target of an elaborate plot to distort her perceptions, drive her mad, and appropriate hidden treasure. When she scrutinizes her fiancé’s face, she sees the spontaneous tenderness and romantic acceleration so marvelously incarnated by Charles Boyer. Paula’s actual situation would require, as Cavell and Das observe, a catastrophic version of doubt extended to the faces on whose affection she relies and to the very fabric of her environment. When a Scotland Yard detective, Brian Cameron, suggests to Paula that her marriage, her husband’s intentions and identity have all been an elaborate fraud, her repudiation takes recourse in their domestic intimacy and the shared roof over their heads:

“You’re wrong, you’re making a mistake. I know him, he’s my husband. I’ve lived in the same house with him. You’re talking about the man I’m married to.”

On what kind of knowledge can Paula draw in these circumstances? On this point, Cameron, who has befriended her, speaks with certainty. He appeals to the counter-knowledge that is the backing, he insinuates, to her continued attachment to the quotidian. He takes his assertion: “you know,” to be confirmed by the form with which Paula repudiates it:

– “Mrs. Anton—you know,  don’t you? You know who is up there?”

– “No.  No.” 

– “Are you sure you don’t?”

– “How could he be?”

3. Knowledge is often lined with the potential of doubt’s friction.

Cameron reminds Paula about one of the forms of knowledge of special interest to Das: it is possible to act in accordance with forms of knowledge that inhabit us, without recognizing them. Cameron undertakes to reassure Paula that she is not mad. But Paula’s earlier actions had also been accompanied by a countering intelligence. Might one then suggest that Cavell’s rendering of Cameron’s role over-emphasizes Paula’s helplessness and the necessity of his intervention? From Cameron’s perspective, his confirmation makes possible her acceptance of the facts and, as Cavell sees it, initiates her turn to her freedom.[5] It unleashes her turn of the tables, her brief, brilliant performance of the gaslighting of her husband, her moment of revenge. But despite her stupefaction, Paula has not been entirely isolated:  her milieu has included her deceased aunt’s wealthy friend, a lawyer, a loyal housekeeper, her own affection for Guardi, her long training with him, her fidelity to her aunt, and her past familiarity with her own capacities. The role assumed by Cameron obliterates those resources, not recognizing the wisdom and forms of community also embedded in them.

Das does not disagree with Cavell’s characterization of Paula: “Not only individual men are destroying her mind, but the world of men, in its contradictions with itself, is destroying for her the idea and possibility of reality as such.”[6] She makes mention, also, of Jonathan Lear’s account of how structural injustice can impair the imagination:

it is likely that our own possibilities for thought will be tainted by the very injustice we are trying to understand. . . The crippled nature of our thought will be enacted in reflection, rather than addressed by it. Second, in conditions of injustice. . . we suffer deprivation in imagination: we fail to envisage possibilities for life and thought. [quoted in T, p. 201]

But as with the other resources in play in Textures of the Ordinary, Das propels Lear’s comment in a new direction. She invites philosophy to recognize forms of thought that are enacted, even when not articulated, particularly in contexts of sexual violence, abduction, and their aftermaths. But when she draws attention to the tendency to represent survival in terms of women’s muteness, incapacity, and need for external sources of intelligence, she just as importantly points out how a lack of imagination should be ascribed to this type of representation of women. Without questioning the need for state measures, judicial process, and truth commissions, she also directs her critical attention to the cultural imaginaries surrounding national, police, and bureaucratic intervention. The result is a complex exploration of knowledge’s materiality, an argument for more flexible definitions of the forms taken by thought, knowledge, communication, testimony, collectivity, and repair in the wake of violence.

4. Insofar as sexual contracts have often been presupposed by social contracts they may be at once occluded from and palpable in everyday life.

Das has described how, in the wake of Partition, the rescue of abducted women formed part of a national promise to restore them to their families. In the intertwined social and sexual contracts elsewhere discussed by Das, this generated a surplus benefit for the new national government’s identity: to repair a sexual order was to repair a nation, to generate retroactive moral and epistemic authority for a (performatively) reparative government for which the “return” of women to their families becomes the emblem of its care for the nation’s future.[7]

In the face of the many women who did not speak readily about their abductions—and in the face of widely circulating narratives aboutwomen’s silence and inability to act, testify, or defend themselves—the state makes an intervention not unlike Cameron’s seemingly enabling: “You know,” which delivered at the same time the detective’s authoritative appeal to what is known, and that he knows. Das observes a habitual lack of imagination at the junction of the social and sexual contract, in the narratives of restitution, the representation of women as requiring both rescue and explanatory narrative, as passive, incapacitated, silent, as seen in public announcements aimed at families concerning the importance of absolving women of blame following their return, the state’s role as both dominant and protective, reparative and authoritative.

5. That knowledge is often lined with the potential of doubt’s friction is also a resource for forms of counter-knowledge and resistance

This same rethinking of incapacity occurs in another intersection between public institutional resources and domestic, life-threatening violence, and the multiplication of available knowledges, in chapter 6, when the psychically disturbed Swapan confronts a number of possible authorities concerning the epistemology of his madness. Now it is his mother and sister who are exposed to domestic violence at his hands, the former beaten to unconsciousness and threatened with death (see T, p. 189). Their recourse includes negotiation with the local police force, traditional knowledge and psychiatric consultation, the limits of overstretched public medicine, the pressure of authorities within family, the local community, bureaucracy. Here, Das offers a different account of the multiple forms through which subjects are asked to recognize their own madness. Das describes Swapan as situated within nomadic flows between local agents of the state, police stations, hospitals, doctors, and family that she also sees (in the company of Foucault) as an intersection of multiple forms of power and their residues.[8] What she refers to as an intensified real is the result of relays between various positions of authority within the family, the police, local leaders, an anthropologist, medical diagnosis, and psychiatry (see T, p. 179). Without epistemic rupture, it is possible for Swapan’s contexts of treatment to include family authority, the reference to malevolent spirits of local diviners, and the bureaucracy of psychiatric diagnosis and prescribed medication. But the question is what practical knowledge is embedded in, or arises from, this multiplicity itself. The question is not always what one knows, but what is enacted by the forms and intersections of knowledge and multiple modes of power. In Das’s work, the answers can range from: flights of fantasy incorporated into racist characterizations of other peoples, instances of epistemic violence in some conventions and conducts in the history of anthropology, quotidian work of micro-repair through which life may resume in the wake of violence, or attentive responsiveness to family dynamics.

It is between the “you know” Swapan is asked to recognize, and his delusion, that Das observes a different order of knowledge. It is to be the found in the abyss between the reality whose acceptance would be dictated by the norms of psychiatric health (and would require his recognizing the slim chances of his exiting poverty), and his projection of routes of self-improvement and success (“perhaps now my career will be made”) (T, p. 194).

Here, Das turns to the term “countermaneuver,” which, for Foucault, indicates that sometimes a symptom might be the means of obliging a psychiatrist to listen to the patient (T, p. 176).[9] But Das reads Swapan with Foucault in a manner that departs from the latter’s resources. She identifies an alternative form of practical knowledge in the space between the psychically disordered conduct that intertwines with his ambitious hopes for the outcome of learning English and the grim confrontation that might result from that symptom’s relinquishment. Das makes her own maneuver at this point, “It suggests to me that the patient is not simply offering countermaneuvers as a form of resistance but trying to find ways toward an ordinary realism” (T, p. 197). Cavell’s characterization of Das as appropriating remnants of thought to articulate what otherwise goes silent, could also be described as somewhat under-calculating, (or under-imagining) her interventions, albeit appreciatively (see T, p. 308).  For example, it is by working between Wittgenstein and Foucault that Das foregrounds alternative ways of knowing embedded in a conduct that is neither the countermaneuver nor an unavailability of the ordinary. Indrawing at once on the enfolded national, political, neighborhood, and domestic scenes and forms of thought that may not otherwise be understood as philosophical activity, and on the ordinary language philosophers whose concerns might seem remote from these scenes, Textures of the Ordinary shows how perceptions and insights of both can transform through the conjunction.


Penelope Deutscher is Joan and Sarepta Harrison Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University. She is the author of several books, most recently Foucault’s Futures: A Critique of Reproductive Reason and The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Ambiguity, Conversion, and Resistance, and the editor of Repenser le politique: l’apport du féminisme and Enigmas: Essays on Sarah Kofman.


With warm thanks to Alice Crary and Clara Han for their invitations to respond to Veena Das in symposia engaging Textures of the Ordinary, and to Sandra Laugier and Das for their helpful responses and engagement.

[1] Veena Das, Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary (Berkeley, 2006), p. 77.

[2] Das, “What Does Ordinary Ethics Look Like?” in Four Lectures on Ethics: Anthropological Perspectives, ed. Michael Lambek et al. (Chicago, 2015), pp. 53–126. 

[3] Das, Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology After Wittgenstein (New York, 2020), p. 60; hereafter abbreviated T.

[4]Das, Life and Words, p. 159.

[5] Stanley Cavell, Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (Chicago), pp. 48-51.

[6] Ibid., pp. 50–51.

[7] Das, “Violence, Gender and Subjectivity,” Annual Review of Anthropology 37 (2008): 283-99.

[8] See Michel Foucault, Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1973-1974 (New York, 2013).

[9] See ibid., p. 322.

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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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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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A New Departure in Ordinary Language Philosophy

Sandra Laugier

Veena Das is an anthropologist of exceptional reputation, but for more than a decade she has also been a crucial commentator on Wittgenstein, especially as he is read in Ordinary Language Philosophy (OLP) and by philosophers such as Stanley Cavell and Cora Diamond. She is in fact the most important scholar to inherit Stanley Cavell’s thought, whose variety of interests and themes covered the whole of human life, and it is only suitable that an anthropologist should be the one to do so. Das’s interest in language, in the life of words, in what makes them alive, is what connects her work most deeply to a tradition she is reviving in the most powerful and innovative way.

Starting with “Wittgenstein and Anthropology,” Das offers an original reading of Wittgenstein (and Austin), anchored in the concept of the ordinary and the “descent” into it. Das’s use of Cavell’s essay on passionate and performative utterances is significant for its analysis of human expressiveness throughout the book. Das writes that Austin offers us a way to think of the fragility of human action and that the categories of misfire and abuse (used by Austin in connection with the felicity/infelicity of performative utterances) work to qualify action and its failures. As Austin says elsewhere, “you cannot abuse ordinary language without paying for it.”[1] And early on, Cavell too insisted on the abuse inflicted on language by philosophers.[2]

The relation of use to abuse (a word absent in Wittgenstein) is an important connection between OLP and anthropology. How can language itself be abused (our words and expressions) – who is the abuser? OLP turns out to be a philosophy of non-violence in/to language. Cavell opposes awareness and attention (care) to abuse of language.

Connecting these thoughts to her ethnography, Das offers original analyses of Wittgenstein, by finding their articulation in ordinary situations and stories, including tragic and violent realities. In this way, the book is among the first major anthropological elaborations of an ordinary ethics as alternative to normative ethics.

Anthropology and Philosophy: New Alliances

Textures of the Ordinary proposes a new relation (some might call it a new alliance) between philosophy and anthropology. Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, analyzed in the penultimate chapter, represents a crucial stage in this evolving relationship. Given that philosophy has long claimed to subsume the task of anthropology (as a science of the human), Das questions how anthropology itself can claim to be philosophy— because it illustrates and exemplifies the philosophical method Wittgenstein proposes: resolute attention to ordinary human forms of life in their unity and diversity, that is, to forms of life and to life forms.

It is no insult to anthropology to say that (as a discipline) it was born out of a philosophical concern. The epistemological difficulty is that philosophy and anthropology are related once philosophy begins to turn toward the human in general, as part of the “modern” turn represented by Kant. They grow apart precisely because philosophy, when it takes an “anthropological” tone, speaks of the human in general—without paying attention to the various ways of being human that exist or to the various ways in which humans may be living beings.[3] The Kantian break meant reintroducing the human as a philosophical question independent of metaphysics.

Kant distinguishes “physiological” and “pragmatic points of view on anthropology, that of man “as a freely acting being,” the science of humans as social and political beings, or of human forms of life. Elsewhere, he locates philosophy itself within the anthropology. Except that anthropology is here not conceived of as a domain of knowledge proper; its mission is still a matter of philosophy. Out of “anthropology from a pragmatic point of view” was born the vague domain of “philosophical anthropology,” which reverses Kant’s discovery and instead establishes the monopoly of philosophy over anthropology. Kant’s turn to the human is followed and radicalized by Wittgenstein, by turning to particular human situations. Wittgenstein’s immediate curiosity about The Golden Bough is due to the insight ethnographic material offers as a response to the mounting pretensions of philosophy. Wittgenstein takes the critique of metaphysics a step further, subverting the very concept of philosophical anthropology. And Das takes it yet another step, bringing anthropology home, reading Wittgenstein as a method for conceptual attention to the detail of ordinary human forms of life. 

Forms of Life and Life Forms

Textures pursues an elucidation of the everyday and the various shapes the ordinary takes. One can understand this claim of anthropology through the concept of forms of life that she develops:

Agreement in forms of life, in Wittgenstein, is never a matter of shared opinions. It thus requires an excess of description to capture the entanglements of customs, habits, rules, and examples. It provides the context in which we could see how we are to trace words back to their original homes when we do not know our way about: The anthropological quest takes us to the point at which Wittgenstein takes up his grammatical investigation.[4]

The task of anthropology is to delineate that which characterizes a human form of life, as it is woven into distinct forms of life. This is a matter of description, of saying “what is the case”.

Das’s earlier formulation started with the difference between violence that occurs within the weave of life and violence that is seen to tear apart the very fabric of life.

What Cavell finds wanting in the conventional view of forms of life is that it is not able to convey the mutual absorption of the natural and the social—it emphasizes form but not life. . . . Cavell suggests a distinction between what he calls the ethnological or horizontal sense of form of life and its vertical or “biological” sense.[5]

The theme of forms of life has, in the twenty years since, become central to contemporary thought, especially with the attention now paid to human vulnerability and violence, where the limits of the human and of the living itself are blurred. Das takes Cavell’s remark again a step further: her book provides a total elucidation of this concept of forms of life and a powerful criticism of those who use it as a synonym for “culture”; the violence exercised on women during the partition of India and Pakistan is not a cultural variation but raises the question of redefining what a human life is, the border between the living and the nonliving: in situations of extreme violence, war, or disaster or everyday horror, the very concept of life is destroyed. “The blurring between what is human and what is not human shades into the blurring over what is life and what is not life”[6].

Her attention to forms of life is a way of pursuing and accomplishing Wittgenstein’s ambition of undermining philosophy’s privilege, bringing it back down to the “rough ground” of ordinary life.  It is a project of rearranging the conceptual and the empirical and exploring the limits of thought.  The “texture of life” is neither given nor obvious; it is made of tragedy as well as domestic reality, which is constantly demonstrated in the book. This conception of ethics is close to an ethics of care[7], characterized by a reorientation of morality towards attention to moral textures and to the structural vulnerability of experience. It is in the use of language (choice of words, style of expression and conversation) that a person’s moral vision, her texture of being, is intimately developed and openly shown[8]. Form of life – from the point of view established by Iris Murdoch, Diamond, and Das – is perceived through attention to moral textures or motifs; reality is morally expressive. The capacity to perceive the detail of ordinary life – to grasp “what matters, makes differences, in human lives”[9] against the background of the life form – is a central element of moral perception, which allows us to reconceive ethics as an exploration of details.  

Thinkers who invite us to pay attention to attention try to help us find expressions that will bring out what counts, to account for the emergence of new importance and new meanings, founded in each person, in order to develop grammars better able to describe, hence to do justice, to the concrete reality of our forms of life and to enable us to say what counts (“to say,” “to count,” “to “tell”).

Murdoch summarizes this ethical method: “How we see and describe the world is morals too.”[10]

Descriptions

Description is not “an absence of morality.”[11] It is essential to ethics. Philosophy itself becomes an ethnographic experience. Cavell speaks of the “the uncanniness of the ordinary” inherent in the anthropological tone. This intersection of the familiar and the strange is the location of the ordinary and of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of culture. Both forms of life and life forms require description, even an “excess of description” – what must be described is no longer belief or opinions, or practices, but rather what life is like.

The point of the allegory would then be that the explorer coming into an unknown country with a strange language is a figure of the philosopher moved to philosophical wonder by the strangeness of the humans among whom he or she lives, their strangeness to themselves, therefore of himself or herself to himself or herself, at home perhaps nowhere, perhaps anywhere.[12]

Das’s reading of Wittgenstein is a remarkable expression of the willingness of anthropologists to work with philosophy in exploring, describing, and repairing textures of the ordinary. Describing a life form means looking carefully (as Wittgenstein said, “don’t think, look!”) at networks of relations and institutions and at the everyday forms lives take.  Attention to the everyday is attention to what is before our eyes, what we don’t see because it is too close. As Foucault also observed:

We have long known that the role of philosophy is not to discover what is hidden, but to render visible what precisely is visible – which is to say, to make appear what is so close, so immediate, so intimately linked to ourselves that, as a consequence, we do not perceive it.[13]

After Wittgenstein, philosophy must become a mythology, a clarification and expression of the myths deposited in our language – archaeological and anthropological work. Wittgenstein’s philosophy turns out, Das demonstrates, to be an effort to give sense and significance to a philosophy becoming anthropological. “Wittgenstein’s anthropological perspective is one puzzled in principle by anything human beings say and do, hence perhaps, at a moment, by nothing”[14].

If “the whole mythology is deposited in our language,” the philosopher’s work is to unearth “the great treasure deposited deep down the tree of language”.[15]  Which means that describing is not only seeing but plowing. “We must plow over language in its entirety.” There is violence in this idea, as in Emerson’s motto, “Language must be raked, the secrets of the slaughter-houses and infamous holes that cannot front the day, must be ransacked, to tell what negro-slavery has been”. [16]

Textures offers a perspicuous view of how anthropologists have come to appreciate and to read Wittgenstein. It is a remarkable illustration of Das’s distinctive contribution to contemporary anthropology, and her style of thought, articulating the conceptual and the ordinary, an ethnography and an autobiography. Meanwhile, she brings together anthropology and OLP as the main subversive resources available in the twenty-first century. Textures of the Ordinary opens new avenues in philosophy and enables us to overcome the limitations of core strands of contemporary thought that have proved incapable of shedding light on forms of life or transforming them.


Sandra Laugier is professor of philosophy at Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne and senior member of l’institut Universitaire de France. She is the author of numerous books, including Why We Need Ordinary Language Philosophy and Wittgenstein: Le mythe de l’inexpressivé, the editor of more than twenty-five volumes, and the translator of Stanley Cavell’s work into French.


[1] J. L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia (New York, 1962), p. 15.

[2] See Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge, Mass., 1969)

[3] See Sandra Laugier, “On an Anthropological Tone in Philosophy,” inThe Mythology in Our Language, ed. G. Da Col and S. Palmié. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

[4] Veena Das, Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology After Wittgenstein (New York, 2020), pp. 38-39.

[5] Ibid., pp. 40-41.

[6] Veena Das, Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary (Berkeley, 2007), p. 16.

[7] See Laugier “The Ethics of Care as a Politics of the Ordinary,” New Literary History 46 (2015): 217-40.

[8] See R. W. Hepburn and Iris Murdoch, “Symposium: Vision and Choice in Morality,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 30 (1956): 14-58.

[9] Cora Diamond, “Having a Rough Story about What Moral Philosophy Is”, New Literary History 15 (Autumn, 1983): 163.

[10] Iris Murdoch, “Metaphysics and Ethics” (1957), in Iris Murdoch and the Search for Human Goodness, ed. Maria Antonaccio and William Schweiker (Chicago, 1996), pp. 259-60.

[11]  Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (New York, 1979), pp. 247-328.

[12] Quoted in Das, Life and Words, p. x.

[13] Michel Foucault “Méthodologie pour la connaissance du monde: comment se débarrasser du marx,” in Dits et ecrits (Paris,1994), pp. 540-41.

[14] Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein (Chicago, 1989), p. 170.

[15] Heonik Kwon, “Wittgenstein’s Spirit, Frazier’s Ghost,” in The Mythology in Our Language, ed. G. Da Col and S. Palmié. (Chicago, 2018), p. 95.

[16] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Address on the Anniversary of Emancipation in the British West Indies (1844),” archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/emancipation.html

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Introduction to a Forum on Veena Das’s Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology after Wittgenstein

Starting on Monday, Critical Inquiry brings together, over the course of a week, five scholars – three philosophers and two anthropologists – to discuss Veena Das’s Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology after Wittgenstein (2020)[1], a book in which Das re-turns, differently, to persistent questions in her thought over the course of an entire work – or, we might say, a life. Treating philosophical and literary texts, anthropological modes of being in the world, and autobiographical moments on the same plane, Textures offers us a picture of thought that arises from paying attention to ordinary human forms of life and life forms. Textures thus exemplifies Wittgenstein’s philosophical method and shows how anthropology might be a continuation of this philosophy through an attention to detail.  

The commentaries gathered here will respond to this picture of thought in various, overlapping ways. First, as Sandra Laugier remarks, we see in Textures how Das offers a new departure for ordinary language philosophy. In her abiding interest in life in language and the life of words, Das has been one of the most important commentators on Wittgenstein as read within ordinary language philosophy (Cavell and Diamond). In Das’s writing, we never see philosophy standing by itself, but as Piergiorgio Donatelli remarks, philosophy responds with “its own intensity to the intensity of voices in the streets and houses” that inhabit this book. Thus, the ordinary in Das is never one of an aestheticized ordinary but one lined by the threat of skepticism and marked by suffering and violence. Second, we see how the autobiographical is marked by texts and by actual lives, such that we are presented with what Michael Puett aptly describes as “the complexities with how a self inhabits an ordinary reality that is itself multiple, layered, and requiring constant re-interpretation.” Third, as Penelope Deutscher elaboratesTextures offers us ways to receive how skepticism takes gendered forms while also having us critically engage the various ways authority is established. Yet, as Clara Han discussesTextures also shows us how skepticism comes to be absorbed within concrete relations, thus recasting our understanding and description of human intimacy. As Han notes, Das’s method of close attention to detail reveals paths to imagining an ordinary realism; and in so doing, it gives anthropology a new lease on life.

In her response to the commentaries, we will get a sense of the open character of Das’s thought and the intellectual community that she so beautifully describes as embroidery. We hope readers will find their own ways of taking Textures and these commentaries further in their own research, reading, and lives.


[1] Veena Das, Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology after Wittgenstein (New York, 2020).

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