Mahmudul H Sumon

Anthropologies of Modernity (2005) is an important collection of essays by authors and researchers who have written on modernity, government, and questions of subjectivities in the present we all live in. I say ‘we all’ because the editor of the book, Jonathan Inda, makes it a point to incorporate a discussion of modernity which consists not only the West but the world over. The selection thus incorporates discussions of regions often neglected in the higher echelons of social science discourses. The essayists, in general, have tried some Foucauldian perspectives in their respective chapters somewhat justifying the subtitle: Foucault, Governmentality, and Life Politics. The editorial introductory summarizes the situation well when he writes, ‘the essays gathered here treat modernity not in abstract terms but tangibly as an ethnographic object. Their aim, in other words, is not to come up with some grand, general account of modernity but to analyze its concrete manifestations.’ (p. 1)

The central theme of the book is Foucault’s analysis of modern government. Referring to one of Foucault’s publication titled Governmenatlity, the editor writes, ‘In these reflections, the term “government” generally refers to the conduct of the conduct-that is, to all those more or less calculated and systematic ways of thinking and acting that aim to shape, regulate, or manage the comportment of others, whether these be workers in a factory, inmates in a prison, wards in a mental hospital, the inhabitants of a territory, or the members of a population.’ Looked in this way, the editor notes, we can re-conceptualize modern rule not only in terms of state and its institutions but also in terms of a ‘multiple networks of actors, organizations, and entities involved in exercising authority over the conduct of individuals and populations.’ (p. 1-2) These are pretty useful statements for people wanting to use Foucault’s toolbox in understanding the contemporary forms of modern states we live in today. After a short but useful discussion of Foucault’s art of government and its newness compared to Mechiavellis’s notions of sovereignty, the readers are taken straight away to the contributors of this volume.

Book cover: Anthropologies of Modernity

The first two chapters respectively by David Scott and Peter Redfield are more theoretical and are grouped under the rubrics of Colonial Reasons. Scott in his chapter sets himself off from authors like Partha Chatterjee who has written in the recent past about governmentality in respect to Colonial India. Scott’s argument and point of dissociation concern the need for an understanding of the varied configurations of colonialism. He calls this political rationality of colonial power. Scott wants to introduce a problematic that is ‘not centrally concerned with whether or how power works to include or exclude portions of the colonized, and that in consequence is not concerned with the arrogance or even with the “‘epistemic violence” of the colonialist discourse. (p. 25) Here Scott is perhaps pointing to some of the textual analysis done in the tradition of Said and I suspect he has Subaltern studies group in his mind. Scott’s intent is to unearth the political rationalities of colonial power. For him, political rationalities mean ‘historically constituted complexes of knowledge/ power that give shape to colonial projects of political sovereignty’. (p. 25) Scott is critiquing that aspect of Subaltern studies work which in recent years made some “provincializing” efforts in understanding Indian history and people. The chapter quotes Asad who talks about dominant political power and concomitant changes within modern world in terms of ‘re-formation of subjectivities and the re-organization of social spaces in which subject act and are acted upon.’ (p. 23) So, implied in this Asadian trajectory is that a simple opposition (between West and East) will not do.

A brilliant effort to drag down Foucault to the tropics is found in Peter Redfield’s chapter. In a lengthy essay, the author tried to discuss a historical form of the penal colony he encountered in French Guiana and compared it with Foucault’s work on prison. The essay focuses on both the continuity and modernity of both Panopticon, (Jeremy Bentham’s “simple idea of Architecture”) for a new ‘rational’ prison-based on the principle of visibility, which was not so simple as in Foucault’s reading; according to Redfield, this tended to be a ‘key mechanism of disciplinary formations of power and knowledge.’ (p. 53)

The book is a good example of how Foucault’s toolboxes and methods can be used in common anthropological parlance and here what is productive is the discussion of state and how it needs to be conceptualized in the age of globalization. The chapters gathered in the section titled Global Governance perhaps mark the beginning of a discussion of state in the era of globalization by anthropologists along with some other works. Particularly innovative is Aihwa Ong’s discussion on governmentality in the context of Southeast Asian emerging economies! Apparently, a distant proposal, (Foucault in Malaysia) Ong’s essay is a good exercise of showing how South East Asian states have responded to the increasing pressures from transnational bodies such as World Bank and WTO and generally, relations with the ‘West’ with a mix of governing practices and military repression.

Ong is very explicit in using Foucauldian notions of the art of governance in understanding the South East Asian states, an aspect of governance often overlooked in the discussion of state sovereignty which revolves around the idea of territory and the safeguarding of the same. Her discussion of models of graduated sovereignty in the context of Globalization brings to the fore the growing literature which deals with questions of weak nation-states, and their relationship with the transnational governmentality, an area of interest also pursued by Gupta and Ferguson in this volume. With this Southeast Asian case where the state is still operative and a body to be reckoned with, readers are invited to go across another article by Ferguson and Gupta which deals with the recent additions of the neo-liberal governmentality in Africa. Ong’s is a familiar narrative when we look at some of the Third world country’s/ nation-state’s efforts at trade liberalization and other implementations of the neo-liberal procedures such as ‘good governance’ and ‘civil society movement.’ It reminds us much of what is happening in South East and South Asia. But Africa perhaps is a case in point where the authors get a chance to propose radically different thoughts on conceptions of state and how it is conceptualized traditionally and what we need to do now in the context of Neoliberal Governmentality.

The chapters in this book have deep implications for dichotomies such as local/ global and other conventional specializations in anthropology and other academic disciplines. The authors have pointed to verticality and encompassment, which are perhaps the commonest form of spatialization practices in most ethnographic treatises. Often these have a monographic quality, deeply embedded in a place and time. The general thrust of the book towards an ethnography of neoliberal governmentality is deeply suggestive and may have wide-ranging implications for the practice of anthropology and some other disciplines. It may call into question some of the long-cherished practices of anthropology where the ethnographers are expected to deeply submerge in a particular location of a ‘field’ and argue in favour of extending it beyond the notion of ‘actual’ field. Foucault’s relevance once again can be felt here.

Photo: Sibylle Hofter

Mahmudul H Sumon is Professor at the Department of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University. An earlier version of this review was published in Global South 5, 1. 



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