The Logic of Transformation – Media and the Constitution of the Political
By Laila Abu-Er-Rub
Interview with Ravi Vasudevan and Srirupa Roy, co-directors of the M. S. Merian – R. Tagore International Centre for Advanced Studies: “Metamorphoses of the Political: Comparative Perspectives on the Long Twentieth Century” (ICAS:MP) in New Delhi.
ICAS:MP is one of the “Merian Centres” funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The centre convenes seventy module fellows and ten to fifteen shortterm fellows per year to study the “Metamorphoses of the Political” through six thematic modules: History, Labour, Democracy, Normative Conflicts and Transformations, Gender, and Political Economy. Partner institutions are the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and the Institute of Economic Growth (IEG), both located in Delhi, the Max-Weber-Kolleg Erfurt (MWK), the Würzburg Centre for Modern India (WCMI), the Max Weber Stiftung – Foundation German Humanities Institutes Abroad (MWS) with its German Historical Institute London (GHI London) and the Centre for Modern Indian Studies at Göttingen University (CeMIS). Srirupa Roy and Ravi Vasudevan are presently launching a new research focus within the ICAS:MP research framework which explores how media constitute “the political” and vice versa.
How did the research focus “Metamorphoses of the Political” come into being?
Srirupa Roy: We initially had a discussion among the institutes that eventually became the German Partners, the MWK, WCMI, CEMIS, and the MWS with its GHI London, and then we reached out to our collaborators in India at CSDS and IEG. There was a general consensus that the changing configuration of the political over the past century is a topic of great relevance to many disciplines but it has been surprisingly under-examined, and historical and comparative perspectives on this are especially scarce. We use the term “political” to refer to many different phenomena, and this divergence and diversity in how the idea of the political changes across time and space, seemed to be the most opportune topic around which to convene an international and interdisciplinary group of researchers.
Ravi Vasudevan: The conversation started in Germany, but then it rapidly spread amongst the Indian partners, where it resonated with similar discussions which had been taking place in different disciplinary contexts. These included labour history, political studies, gender and cultural studies. From the 1990s onwards, different disciplines have been posed with the challenge of understanding the logic of political transformation. We need to step outside formal structures of representation, party politics and parliamentary representation to look to other sites to track this. So that is where our understanding of the political emerges: as composed of sites which are not always about politics in a formal sense, but as a series of potentialities which have to be explored, which have a certain dynamic. This inevitably means tracking new sites as other sites give way, no longer retain the force they had earlier. The political erupts at various sites and in everyday life. It could be in households, in plantations, amongst peasants, amongst labourers, taking the form of articulation through religious belief rather than formal politics.
How do you distinguish or define “the political” in relation to politics within ICAS:MP’s research agenda?
Srirupa Roy: We want to expand the understanding of politics beyond the conventional formal institutional domain. Part of our research agenda is precisely to understand how this boundary between politics and the political, between what is considered political, non-political, and pre-political has been formed, contested and transformed in different social and historical contexts. I think part of what the ICAS:MP project has tried to do is to get beyond so-called “non-western” difference and resistance and look instead globally and comparatively. We know that through the long twentieth century there are many “turning points” and “critical events” that index political change (for example wars, decolonization), but the ruptures are different in different contexts. Can we say something bigger about this? What happens if we actually had this conversation globally and comparatively?
Why did you decide to launch the new research module “Media and the Constitution of the Political”?
Ravi Vasudevan: To talk of “the political” without talking of media was a big absence. From early on in ICAS:MP I suggested the very least we must make sure is that media is a dimension of everything we do. We cannot think of politics, communication, the ways in which ideas and imagination circulate without the presence of media technologies. Here we also need to rethink the question of the human: of how the human and technology are entangled in life, as living forms. It is difficult to think of life now without media capacities, and the technologies involved. These existential and philosophical questions motivated the focus on media. The other impulse derived from the observation that the communication of the political is integrally related to media technologies and sensory perception. Media is then critical to the very architecture of how politics happens, acquires a certain force. The ability to communicate, to circulate images, voices, speeches, sounds of all sorts are the phenomena which define life and how life shifts and new horizons take shape. We actually need to think of politics through the media sensory fields humans inhabit.
Srirupa Roy: To be able to have these conversations with media historians, sociologists and political theorists of contemporary media is one of the most exciting aspects about this media module. Again it is part of the project of overcoming the West/Non-West binary through comparative, multi-regional studies. Bringing together a configuration of scholars working on German, European and Indian South-Asian media contexts will generate interesting and I think new kinds of theoretical understandings.
Ravi Vasudevan: Yes, definitely. Social Media is a powerful contemporary technology and political actor all over the world. As Srirupa Roy also said, the challenge is to look at the longer histories within which the data has been configured, the longer histories of computing, of statistics, the way states, but also scientists and entrepreneurs have codified and deployed information. So, the challenge is always to look at the longer genealogies within which contemporary forms emerge. We have actually been working with people who have looked at this relationship between politics, political mobilisation and Social Media, including phenomena such as fake news, fake imagery, doctored videos. So that’s very much part of the critical contemporary media/political landscape, but, as I said, we are thinking of how we can frame such an immediacy in a longer patterning of technologies and politics.
Srirupa, you recently published a website on the Long Emergency under Indira Gandhi (1975 – 1977). Could you tell me more about the project and the reactions to it?
Srirupa Roy: The project came out of the democracy module, but there are close overlaps now with the media module. It reflected the idea I discussed earlier, of mapping various critical events and moments in the political history of the long twentieth century. Indian modern political history in the latter half of the twentieth century is usually talked about in terms of the watershed of 1947 and 1991/92, i. e. post-colonialism and then post-liberalisation as key moments of political change. We were drawn to a different narrative of time and transformation, where the period of the 1970s, the years of the Indian Emergency and postemergency democratic restoration, was a key moment that set Indian politics on a particular, and deeply consequential, path, and marks a true “turning point” of political transformation.
By studying this period, we would not just be filling a chronological gap (“what happened between 1947 and 1992”) but addressing broader and enduring sets of questions of global and comparative importance. Looking at the Long 1970s (the period that we call the “Long Emergency”) allows us to think about the relationship between democracy and authoritarianism. The emergency was a thoroughly constitutional and legal project, and the restoration of democracy following the emergency was done in a way that continued to keep many emergency-era laws, policies, and norms of governance intact. This pointed us to the intertwined logics of democracy and authoritarianism: not as opposites, but as “shadows” of each other. We were pushed to think about the transformations of the political not as zero-sum movement from democracy to authoritarianism or vice versa, but a constant mutation, complicity, and entanglement of these two forms.
In keeping with this idea of the Long Emergency, and the oscillations or modulations between democratic and authoritarian forms, we decided to focus on the story of Indian media during and after the emergency. What happened to Indian media at the moment of democratic suspension (the emergency years) and the moment of democratic rejuvenation (the post-emergency years): what were the convergences and divergences between these different moments? We soon realized that the material we were collecting in individual interviews was unique as an archive, because there is literally no institutional history of Indian media, and journalist memoirs are published in quite an idiosyncratic fashion. Our public digital archive on interviews with working journalists during and after the emergency was an attempt to create such an archive. We also collected a whole lot of other material around the interviews to illustrate and supplement the interviews. We need to go beyond researching state archives to produce and create archives because the political exists in places beyond the formal paper records of the state.
Ravi Vasudevan is Professor at the Centre for the Studies of Developing Societies (CSDS) in New Delhi. A historian by training, he specialises in film and media research, with a particular focus on non-fiction film infrastructures, the film archives and questions of historiography; post-cinema media artefacts and political imaginaries; contemporary stardom and political discourse; and the dispersed urban imaginaries of contemporary cinema.
Srirupa Roy is Professor of Political Science and the ”State and Democracy” Chair at the University of Göttingen’s Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS). Her research interests include nationalism and the politics of identity; comparative-historical dynamics of state formation and transformation; and democratic politics and economic liberalisation.
About the interviewer
Laila Abu-Er-Rub is the Head of Administration of ICAS:MP. She worked eight years as scientific coordinator for the Cluster of Excellence ”Asia and Europe in a Global Context” at Heidelberg University, and holds a PhD in Media and Visual Anthropology for which she conducted her fieldwork in New Delhi.
This interview was first published in print in the magazine Weltweit vor Ort.
Citation: Laila Abu-Er-Rub, The Logic of Transformation. Media and the Constitution of the Political, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.05.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18520.