Early-career researchers from the Society for the Anthropology of Work respond to Mythri Jegathesan's award-winning book Tea and Solidarity.
An orienting principle of Mythri Jegathesan’s Tea and Solidarity is an attentiveness to desire, identified as a universal condition of being human. Embedded within an understanding of the human drawn from the philosopher Max Scheler, Jegathesan holds that a human being continues to be human through a process of becoming, moving “from one place of being to becoming another” (p. 37) without end, driven by the combined force of life and spirit. At the center of this process stands desire, which produces the maps that individuals create “to control their social relations, experiences, and futures” and the “shared moral values [that] undergird economic systems” (p. 37). Desire folds these projects of wanting into a process of becoming that Lauren Berlant described as “a drive that…moves beyond its objects, with and in excess to them, with aims that both preserve and destroy them” (quoted on p. 39).
Jegathesan’s book seeks to show how Hill Country Tamils in Sri Lanka see themselves through the maps of desire they project through relations of kinship, work, and aspiration that are enclosed by their external identification with “coolie” labor and with the plantation as an exceptional social form. Naming persons and a community of persons as “coolie” reifies a history and present informed by displacement, projecting an identity that forecloses both current belonging and claims to be at home in Sri Lanka. It also forecloses the legibility of the present as part of a trajectory toward the future that is open to poiesis as self-determination or self-making.
Jegathesan draws on Martin Heidegger’s articulation of poiesis as “the bringing forth, presencing, revealing of something as it emerges from an enclosure” (quoted on p. 38) in order to articulate the poiesis of desire undertaken by the women whose narrative she shares, drawing out their project of what Jegathesan terms an unbecoming. This unbecoming localizes the excessiveness of human desire within the mechanics of poiesis. As poiesis moves beyond enclosure, it emerges as a reflexive infrastucture wherein “the presence of desire itself shifts…the structures that enclose those desires in the first place” (p. 38). In this way, unbecoming names the work of poiesis in rendering desire a force moving against reification of the community’s desire as the desires of workers. As the desires of whom, then? Jegathesan explains: “Through the poiesis of desire, unbecoming coolie is a process of becoming a collective something not yet known” (p. 39).
The place of the ethnographer here is to orient themselves toward this dynamic of unbecoming in the midst of human becoming, by developing and deploying methodologies that generate stories “commensurate” (p. 23) with what Hill Country Tamils want (and do not want) for themselves. In closing the book, Jegathesan shares a figuration of commensuration, wherein the demand of the women she works with is framed as a “pause” (p. 209) in their unbecoming. Here, the ethnographer’s objectification of the place of unbecoming-in-becoming is placed alongside that of the artist Hanusha Sonasunderam’s gesture of commensuration as invitation and challenge:
This woman working on the plantations is the backbone of her home.
This woman is the backbone of the nation.
The women of Sigiriya stand high on a mountain.
These women also stand high on mountains.
The women in Sigiriya have delicate fingers that hold slender leaves.
The women here also have delicate fingers but hold tea leaves.
The women in Sigiriya are women.
These women are women, too.
To see the ladies of Sigiriya, everyone in Sri Lanka goes to that mountain.
They make that place a tourist place.
This place, too, is a tourist place.
But the Sigiriya ladies in the paintings do not have life.
Our women have life.
I am asking those who come here to look at them.
To look back.
To see. (p. 210)
The term commensuration is of special interest here in its assertion of separation—looking back across what and at whom, exactly? Commensuration isolates an uncommonality that becomes the site of the humanistic, feminist, and decolonial work of solidarity. This is how we might understand what it means to be interpellated by Jegathesan’s “something not yet known,” taking inspiration from the use of commensuration as an instrument grounding what appears as an anthropology against enclosure. Commensuration itself functions as an enclosure that is never quite complete in that the contingency, mobility, and excessiveness of desire in relation to which one calibrates the difference commensuration encloses prevents this completion. As a relation of equivalence and a calibration of desire, commensuration stands encompassed by the inherent excessiveness of any demand for equality. In its examination of how ethnographies of and against labor may find their place in a praxis of solidarity, then, Jegathesan’s book carefully navigates the excessiveness of equality as a humanistic desire: its possibilities and its obligations, with respect to what it means to look back.
William F. Stafford, Jr. is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Visual Studies at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. He completed his PhD in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley with a dissertation on the autorickshaw meter in Delhi as an exemplary format of “public” transactions and anchor of a variable ethos of commercial sociality. His current research takes up the meter-mounted panic button to explore architectures of sequester as a spatializing genre of governance and sociality in India. He is coeditor of a Fieldsights series on “Topology as Method” and has undertaken academic, policy, and legal research on bonded labor, forced labor, caste, and the minimum wage in South Asia.