A review of the 2019 book by Amit S. Rai, published by Duke University Press.
Amit S. Rai’s Jugaad Time: Ecologies of Everyday Hacking in India is a thoroughly Deleuzian analysis of a “sometimes elegant, but always makeshift way of getting around obstacles” (p. 2). Jugaad, a Punjabi word that means “workaround, hack, trick, or make do,” (p. x) has been taken up into the “innovation speak” (see Vinsel and Russell 2020) of transnational neoliberal consumer capitalism to mark the competitive strategies of a uniquely Indian entrepreneurial self: an Indian form of “disruptive innovation” or “digital cool” (p. 46). But, Rai observes, “today in ultranationalist, globalized India [jugaad] is both hailed and derided as a characteristically nationalist form of frugal innovation and also possibly mediocritizing habit for shortcuts” (p. x). Thus, while jugaad is partly a popularized do-it-yourself national narrative, it is also disparaged as makeshift and uncouth, frequently associated in India with poverty and criminality.
Rai’s book consists of an introduction, four exegesis chapters, and a conclusion, interspersed with three short “fables” akin to episodes from a science fiction poem. These fables are fantastical imaginings of a world seen through Rai’s theorizing, written like a palimpsest of historical events laid over the 1984 Bhopal industrial catastrophe—in which Rai reimagines the disaster as a source of “convolutions in technoperceptual assemblages” (p. 104), resulting in mutations that allowed people to photosynthesize carbohydrates by just breathing and to extend the life of phone batteries as long as they touched the device for at least an hour a day. Written in the timbre of Deleuzian “diagramming,” and drawing from the geographer Nigel Thrift’s emphasis on performative practice, the book feels sometimes like Italo Calvino’s invisible city of Tamara, where all one sees are signs—but, here, we have Rai’s “paratactical assembling of experimental diagrams” (p. x) and deployment of other Deleuzian tropes. Rai’s book can be understood as part of a vein of non-representational theory-building, defined elsewhere as “resolutely experimental research that eclectically synthesizes the cultural sciences with philosophy, the arts, and humanities…[aiming]… to be an interpretive supplement to the ordinary, a sacrament for the everyday, a hymn to the superfluous” (Vannini 2015: 318).
Along these lines, Rai wants to go “beyond mere critique, argumentation, explanation, correcting, or demonstration toward an urgent and practical reconsideration of the resources, capacities, and affordances that are necessary to hack into and against contemporary capitalist media ecologies” (p. xv). As such, he maps ecologies of sensation and offers analyses of affect of the Deleuzian variety: a “prelinguistic, embodied intensity” (Bialecki 2018) rather than the more common anthropological variety of cognitive-psychological models of emotion. By diagramming the sensory effects of cellphone advertising campaigns, trending “mobile value-added services” (p. 51), the Hindi documentary VideoKaaran, and other examples from Indian media, news, and activism, Rai examines “perceptual machines of autocratic management” that work to create “synergies…in the temporal modulations of work and life under neoliberal habituation in India” (pp. 99–101).
More thought experiment than ethnography, although several interviews are featured, the book is an exploration of Rai’s notion of “jugaad time,” conceptualized variously as a “durational passage from one habituated state to another,” “shifting and emergent capacities” (pp. 17–18), “technoperceptual habituation… [feeding] back into historically variable and also dynamically open ecologies of sensation (pp. xvi–xvii), and more. The book is also positioned as “an extended and sustained reflection on collective practices of habituation, informatization, and counteractualization in pirate economies in India” (pp. xvi–xvii). So jugaad time is experientially a state of becoming—structured by its circumstances and structuring its subjects—and a strategy for resistance, but one that also habituates its subjects to the conditions of the neoliberal entrepreneurial self in India. Rai taps into postcolonial, decolonial, feminist, and subaltern critiques to examine postcapitalist “digital-human assemblages” (pp. xvii), using methodological innovations inspired by Deleuze and Guattari and others, including anthropologists like Elizabeth Povinelli and philosophers like Brian Massumi.
There are excellent reviews of the book elsewhere (e.g., Chadha 2019; Mathew 2020) that summarize its non-representational strategies, but for anthropologists of work the book reads as underdeveloped ethnographically, even though Rai often invokes “ethnographies of affect” (p. 17). His theorization of work, however, is much more inspiring as he explores the integration of digital technology and neoliberalism’s entrepreneurial self. For instance, Rai examines Indian call centers through the film Office Tigers to illustrate “how the embodied experience of affective labor is tied to a new image of communication, creativity, innovation, and time” (p. 87) in the business process outsourcing industry. And through a research assistant’s interview with a young quality control specialist monitoring telecom orders in Mumbai, Rai considers how this worker curates a creative, authentic self through his job, his experience of the city he alternately calls Bombay or Mumbai, and his digital photography. I suppose that Rai could be forgiven for some unfortunate juxtapositions, such as invoking C. S. Pierce’s notion of abduction just after having discussed Indian media coverage of a case of gang rape and murder. Nonetheless, the book is complex and certainly best suited to an advanced reader.
Ultimately, jugaad time in the smart or datafied city is both a mode of resistance, “flouting copyright and resisting the neoliberal integration of labor through a proliferating and at times nonproductive informality,” and a form of habituation to “neoliberal logics of Big Data and risk management” (140). Jugaad, in these terms, becomes a kind of fetish, a joyous life hack that exceeds the limits of what was before but also obfuscates its relations; “in the fetish of the hack as an individualized act of defiance and virtuosity,” Rai writes, “product covers over process” (p. 125). The individual satisfaction of the hack and its cultural celebration frees but also adjusts jugaadus to the flows and framings of neoliberal capital. Researchers of waste, maintenance, and repair or of the Anthropocene will be interested in jugaad and jugaadus, and Rai’s offering is a welcome challenge to the innovation-dominated framings of consumer capitalist marketing, asking us instead to focus on the larger question of “what workaround repurposes our relation to technology and technique itself?” (xiii). With this, Rai seeks to develop “a political philosophy of jugaad as an embodied ethics of becoming in India’s caste- and gender-stratified smart/data cities” (p. x). Even as he emphasizes Indian experiences of jugaad, Rai shows us a way toward wider understandings of how information technologies interlock with contingent and individuated labor to produce the subjectivities of a digital neoliberalism.
In finishing this review, I cannot help but sense that I too have become a jugaadu, fashioning my own makeshift workarounds to fully appreciate Rai’s book—but then again, my jugaad would be an apt tribute to its brilliance. We should all be “jugaading the future into the present” (pp. xiv–xv), as Rai would likely attest, and trying to push the boundaries of what is possible.
Juris Milestone is Assistant Professor of Instruction at Temple University, teaching courses in cultural and visual anthropology. He has worked as a professional sailor, commercial photographer, and aerospace maintenance technician. His academic interests include the critical analysis of design, expertise, technology, and consumer capitalism, with a recent focus on maintenance and repair under the domination of heroic entrepreneurial innovation.
Bialecki, Jon. 2018. “Deleuze.” Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology, January 11.
Vannini, Phillip. 2015. “Non-Representational Ethnography: New Ways of Animating Lifeworlds.” cultural geographies 22(2): 317–27.
Vinsel, Lee, and Andrew L. Russell. 2020. The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most. New York: Penguin Random House.