Essays & Articles

Becoming-After: The Lives and Politics of Quinine’s Remains

(2021) Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 36, Issue 2, pp. 282-311

This article explores the aftermath of quinine in India. Derived from cinchona, the fever tree, quinine was once malaria’s only remedy—and, as such, vital to colonial power. But it has left grave uncertainty in its wake. Today, little market exists for Indian quinine, but government cinchona plantations established by the British remain in Darjeeling. What will become of these dilapidated plantations and their 50,000 inhabitants is unclear. Crumbling quinine factories and overgrown cinchona may evoke ruination, but these remains are not dead. They have instead become the site of urgent efforts—and a periodically charged politics—to redefine land and life for the twenty-first century. This essay develops an analytics of becoming-after to ask not only, how do empires and human beings become-with world-historical substances like quinine but also, what do we make of life after they run their course?

Connective Insecurities: Chokepoint Pragmatics at India’s Chicken Neck

Townsend Middleton (2020): Connective Insecurities: Chokepoint Pragmatics at India’s Chicken Neck, Ethnos, DOI: 10.1080/00141844.2019.1705369.

This article rethinks the relationship between connectivity and security through an ethnography of India’s notorious Siliguri Corridor – the ‘Chicken’s Neck’. This narrow stretch of territory funnels myriad goods and bodies between India’s ‘mainland’, its North-East, and beyond to China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Southeast Asia. Vital yet vulnerable, the corridor demands circulation and security. This article explores how these fraught imperatives structure– and constrain– chokepoint life and movement. It turns attention to chokepoint pragmatics: the everyday ways of getting through and getting by in the constricted arteries of the present. Chronicling how traffickers and regulators alike ‘work’ the corridor to il/licit ends, the analysis shows how chokepoint pragmatics play upon and ultimately produce connective insecurity. As logistics reformats life across the planet, chokepoint ethnography here reveals the dynamics that render us connected– yet vulnerable– like never before.

Chokepoints: Anthropologies of the Constricted Contemporary

Ashley Carse, Townsend Middleton, Jason Cons, Jatin Dua, Gabriela Valdivia & Elizabeth Cullen Dunn (2020)Chokepoints: Anthropologies of the Constricted Contemporary, Ethnos, DOI: 10.1080/00141844.2019.1696862

This article develops an anthropology of chokepoints: sites that constrict or ‘choke’ the flows of resources, information, and bodies upon which contemporary life depends. We argue that an ethnographic and analytical focus on chokepoints– ports, canals, tunnels, pipelines, transit corridors, and more– recasts longstanding anthropological concerns with the character and consequences of global circulation or ‘flow’. Chokepoints, we argue, are zones of operative paradox– where increased connectivity slows movement down; where the marginal become powerful; where local activities have distributed effects. Thinking with and through these choked arteries, we ask: What do chokepoints do? How? When? For whom?

Provincializing Bengal: The View from Darjeeling

(2020) South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Volume 43 Issue 1, pp. 32-51.

Written against the backdrop of Darjeeling’s 2017 Gorkhaland agitation, this essay chronicles the colonialisations—first British, now Bengali—that undergird this subnationalist struggle. The analysis challenges romanticised views of Darjeeling, presenting instead a case study of internal colonialism. As an exercise in post-colonial thought, it leverages the view from Darjeeling to explore a notable lacuna in our reckonings of subalternity. A place long thought to be ‘above it all’ here begs its own history from below. Heeding Gorkhaland’s call, the essay proposes ‘provincialising Bengal’ as a means to productively address the internal colonialism at hand, and therein rethink Bengal and its peripheries.

Chokepoints: Preface

Co-authored with Ashley Carse and Jason Cons (2018). Limn Issue 10: Chokepoints.

Limn 10 explores chokepoints, sites that constrict—or choke— the flows upon which contemporary life depends.  Malfunction brings widespread effects. At once vital yet vulnerable, why do chokepoints work? What happens when they do not?

The Art of In/Detectability

(2018) Limn Issue 10: Chokepoints.

How do regulators—specifically, customs agents and anti-human traffickers—manage the challenges of in/detectability in their everyday work? This inquiry invites exploration of an inherent paradox: the imperative of circulation through chokepoints categorically hinders the possibility of their securitization and regulation. In practice, the geopolitical impulse to control chokepoints frequently stands at odds with economic desires to maximize flow through them. The threshold of detectability—to borrow a forensic term from Eyal Weizman (2017)—therein figures as both a regulatory-security challenge and a source of imminent possibility for licit and illicit actors. At India’s Chicken Neck, indeed, it is a threshold where lives and livelihoods are made on a daily basis.

“The Afterlives of a Killing: Assassination, Thanatos, and the Body Politic in South Asia”

(2017) Public Culture Volume 30, Issue 1, pp. 85-112.

This article examines how assassinations— and public killings— animate political life in South Asia. Haunting the body politic in spectacular and spectral forms, assassinations remain an unsettling feature of South Asian political culture. Their power, however, lies less in the bare act of homicide itself than in the semiotic and socio-political afterlives these violent deaths attain amongst the living. Setting out in pursuit of these afterlives of a killing, this essay interrogates assassination on the registers of Event, Aesthetics, Sequencing, Forensics, Juridics, Utility, and Temporality.

Coming to Terms: Reinserting Research Assistants into Ethnography’s Past and Present

Co-authored with Jason Cons (2014) Ethnography Volume 15, Issue 3, pp. 279-290.

Research assistants have long been central to ethnographic practice, yet the conventions of academic labor have left their roles understated and obscure. Today, the ‘field’ appears neither where nor what it used to be. Ethnographers are exploring ever-new terrains—many of them emergent, unstable, and dangerous. Venturing a new calculus of reflexive thinking, this Introduction engages the research assistant to revisit core ethnographic concerns—among them: research in dangerous places; the ethics of ethnographic labor; the shifting differentials of ‘academic vs. native’ expertise; and the socially produced nature of the ‘field’ itself. As the articles and Introduction of this special issue show, research assistants unsettle conventional understandings of what ethnography is and can be. Readmitted to the conversation, they provide a unique look into ethnography’s current state of play—and glimpses of the method’s future possibilities.

Dynamic Duos: On Partnership and the Possibilities of Postcolonial Ethnography

Co-authored with Eklavya Pradhan (2014) Ethnography Volume 15, Issue 3, pp. 355-374.

This article brings anthropologist and research assistant into mutually reflective critique of one another, the researcher–assistant dynamic, and the challenges of fieldwork in contemporary India. The authors have worked together in the politically charged, ethnologically saturated context of ‘tribal’ Darjeeling since 2006. To realize the potential of their partnership, Middleton and Pradhan were forced to come to creative terms with the problematic legacy of anthropology in South Asia. Working with – and ultimately through – the colonialities at hand, they have pursued a ‘postcolonial ethnography’ replete with new objects of analysis, new modes of study, and new forms of ethnographic connectivity.

Anxious Belongings: Anxiety and the Politics of Belonging in Subnationalist Darjeeling

(2013) American Anthropologist Volume 115, Issue 4, pp. 608-621.

Across South Asia and beyond, the politics of belonging continue to breed alarming volatility and violence. In this article, I question how anxiety informs these reckonings of who belongs and who does not. In Darjeeling, India, anxieties over belonging—what I term ” anxious belongings ” —have fueled a particularly mercurial subnationalist politics, involving recurrent agitations for a separate state of Gorkhaland. Situated amid these interplays of anxiety, politics, and belonging, I identify anxious belonging as a collectively embodied phenomenon—at once historical, social, and pregnant with political possibility. Thinking anthro-pologically about the origins and sociopolitical life of anxiety in Darjeeling, with this article I signal new ways of understanding—and perhaps anticipating—the volatilities that attend the politics of belonging worldwide. Anxious belonging accordingly comes into view as a dimension of and potential for markedly agitated forms of life and politics.

States of Difference: Refiguring Ethnicity and its ‘Crisis’ at India’s Borders

(2013) Political Geography Volume 35, pp. 14-24.

This article critically rethinks the possibilities and paradoxes of identity at the interstices of South Asia. Through ethnographic and historical analyses, I chronicle the varying forms, (dis)contents, and failures of ethnic identity in the geo-politically sensitive region of Darjeeling, India. Refiguring the crisis at hand, this paper asks how certain forms of human difference become viable identities in India, while others do not. Doing so, I locate the crisis not within the realm of identity, but rather its rightful recognition.

Scheduling Tribes: A View from Inside India’s ‘Ethnographic State’

(2013) Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology Volume 65, pp. 13–22.

Venturing into an ethnography of government anthropologists themselves , this article interrogates the bureaucratic inner workings and actual agents of today’s “ethnographic state”. By engaging with the civil servants who verify India’s Scheduled Tribes, I explore the politics of ” tribal ” recognition from the inside out. This perspective lends timely insight into the logistical, political, and episte-mological difficulties integral to the functioning—and current crisis—of India’s affirmative action system. Weighing the demands of ” tribal ” recognition through those that arguably know them best—government anthropologists themselves— this study examines the human dimension (and dilemmas) of the Indian state and its affirmative action system for Scheduled Tribes.

Across the Interface of State Ethnography: Rethinking Ethnology and its Subjects in Multicultural India

(2011) American Ethnologist Volume 38, Issue 2, pp. 249-266.

In this article, I ask how state ethnography deploys, demands, and ultimately instantiates the ethnological forms of a particular multicultural order. Extending recent interests in paraethnographics, I take as my “object” the interface of state ethnography itself. Specifically, I examine an ethnographic survey government anthropologists conducted in Darjeeling to determine the eligibility of ten ethnic groups seeking recognition as Scheduled Tribes of India. Refiguring the proverbial encounter of anthropologists and tribes, I interrogate the real-time dynamics through which both sides negotiate, take up, and take on normative ethnological paradigms—thus actualizing the ethno-logics of Indian multiculturalism within and, indeed, beyond the classificatory moment.