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Mapping Impossible Journeys

Mythri Jegathesan, whose book Tea and Solidarity was the winner of the 2020 Diana Forsythe Prize, responds to the early-career contributors to this book forum.

Published onSep 10, 2021
Mapping Impossible Journeys

I would like to use this space to exercise gratitude for what I consider to be incredibly helpful lines of engagement for the anthropology of work and for our field, as introduced by the four reviewers of Tea and Solidarity in this book forum. While I cannot do justice to their individual contributions, I hope to put forth some useful connections for a broader audience to sit with.

I’ll begin, partly because it has been my primary site of work over the past fifteen months, with the question of home. Pooja Nayak’s provocation to see home as that which can be “worth an impossible journey” reminds us to interrogate the conditions of oppression that make such journeys impossible in the first place. How do conditions of impossibility persist and travel—not only in sites where we work as researchers, but also in our writings and academic labor practices, or what Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (2014) called the “imperial university”? Locating the impossible journeys of generations of Tamil workers on Sri Lanka's tea plantations renewed my confrontations with interlocking systems of caste oppression, ethno-nationalism, and state-sponsored violence that have endured the starts and stops of civil wars and state borders in Sri Lanka. Nayak’s phrase is a reminder that such systems of oppression also implicate researchers’ bodies in spaces of knowledge production that are defined by the geopolitics of American exceptionalism, white supremacy, and settler colonialism.

This book, and my work thereafter, has been heavily informed by what both Nayak and Anabelle Suitor refer to as a discomfort with our field. Today and tomorrow, I am preoccupied with anthropology's enduring insistence that its extractive tactics are benevolent when in fact these continue to enact harms. My disciplinary discomfort grounds what William Stafford usefully calls “an anthropology against enclosure.” It began with the writing of this book against one idea of plantation life and industry in Sri Lanka and has now taken me on an unfinished path of repair to consciously avoid the feedback loops of anti-Blackness and gatekeeping that circulate in anthropology today (see Jegathesan 2021).

I find it useful to think about how an anthropology against enclosure might break up what Hannah Borenstein calls the “pull toward coherence.” This pull exists in physical plantation sites of exploitative labor and extractive industry, but it also structures those market-driven spaces that practice “plantation politics” (Williams and Tuitt 2021). These are namely, our universities—places of work that, as Suitor reminds us, remain integral to our futures and projects of self-definition. What spaces of possibility might open up when researchers acknowledge work practices and experiences in academia that are undesirable and unsustainable? What might happen to our conditions of work if, as Suitor suggests, we refuse the university's extractive tendencies? If we accept that solidarity cannot be found in industry or the buyer's markets of diversity and inclusion, then what movements toward coherence might be disrupted if we actively identified those administrative and institutional practices that codify and maintain conditions of white supremacy, settler colonialism, and state-sponsored occupation?

I thank Parker Hatley and the four contributors, Hannah Borenstein, Pooja Nayak, William Stafford, and Anabelle Suitor, for their thoughtful comments and engagement with my work during what has been, for lack of better words, a difficult year. But most importantly, I thank them for providing a forum that encourages a praxis of honesty and discomfort, which we need in order to do meaningful work within anthropology today.

Author Bio

Mythri Jegathesan is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Santa Clara University. She is co-editor of Anthropology of Work Review and researches plantations, work, and gender in Sri Lanka and South Asia.


Chatterjee, Piya, and Sunaina Maira. 2014. “The Imperial University: Race, War, and the Nation-State.” In The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent, edited by Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira, 1–50. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Jegathesan, Mythri. 2021. “Black Feminist Plots before the Plantationocene and Anthropology’s ‘Regional Closets.’Feminist Anthropology 2(1): 78–93.

Williams, Bianca, and Frank A. Tuitt. “Introduction: ‘Carving Out a Humanity’: Campus Rebellions and the Legacy of Plantation Politics of College Campuses.” In Plantation Politics and Campus Rebellions: Power, Diversity, and the Emancipatory Struggle of Higher Education, edited by Bianca Williams, Dian D. Squire and Frank A. Tuitt, 9–47. Albany: SUNY Press.

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