Skip to main content

Please note: this event has passed

Political Communication Beyond ‘Truth and Lies’: Material mediations, crowd politics, and theatrical idiom of political speech in contemporary India

Drawing on ethnographic research in Mumbai, the seminar discusses cash-compensated crowds that assemble for political gatherings—protest marches, road blocks, campaign rallies—in the Indian city of Mumbai. Popular and scholarly discourse tends to dismiss paid crowds as inauthentic, even fraudulent forms of political assembly. This research instead explores cash compensated crowds as instances of political utterance and representation, probing the dueling moral registers by means of which the theatrical character of political life in Mumbai is evaluated: as either political theater or political deceit. On some occasions, cash-compensated mass assembly are characterized as "meaningless" and as "only natak" (drama, theater)—suggesting a normative understanding of what a "meaningful" political rally should be. But in other contexts, we see that it is precisely its very theatrical quality that renders a rally compelling or convincing at all. This talk will outline when—in what contexts—natak is evaluated as a compelling idiom of political utterance, communication, and representation, and when political theater is described as "only natak"—a disdainful dismissal that suggests something is only theatrical when it ought not to be—or indeed is pretending not to be. Taking theatricality and performance seriously as an idiom of political speech and representation, the accounts suggest, may offer one way out of the impasses of post-truth political present where political communication tends to be either evaluated for its truth value or else dismissed as lies. Attending to explicitly theatrical dimensions of political life calls attention to a richer array of ideas and moral-evaluative frameworks.

About the speaker

Lisa Björkman, a member of the project research team, received her PhD in Politics from the New School for Social Research in 2012. So far, she has taken on two big projects. The first is a political ethnography about the encounter in the Indian city of Mumbai between liberalizing market reforms and the materially-dense politics of the city’s water infrastructures, exploring the everyday political, social, and material dynamics that produce and inhabit flows of water through the growing and globalizing city. This project, which was the core of her doctoral dissertation (2011), has resulted in three journal articles as well as a book, Pipe Politics: Mumbai’s Contested Waters (Duke University Press), which was recipient of the American Institute of Indian Studies’ 2014 Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences.

Her second project, which was carried out as a postdoctoral fellow with the Max Planck Institute, extended her previous work on the everyday politics of infrastructural provisioning and access to more explicitly engage with the formal institutions of politics and policymaking. This research, which was carried out in Mumbai over eight months in 2012-2013 in conjunction with the city’s Municipal Corporation elections, involved ethnographic research in a popular (‘slum’) neighborhood, focusing on the role of election-season cash exchange in producing and reconfiguring socio-political networks of power and authority in the city. Probing popular and scholarly debates about urban politics, bureaucratic corruption and political clientelism, she shows how election-season exchange animates intricate, contingent, highly-speculative relational and informational networks by means of which democratic representation is actually produced and instantiated – and political contestations and substantive citizenship claims articulated.