Francis Cody is presently assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto. He received his degree from the University of Michigan in 2007, walking off handily with the Graduate School’s highly competitive Distinguished Dissertation Award.
Professor Cody’s first book, The Light of Knowledge: Literacy and Activism in Southern India (currently under review), is a work simultaneously of sociocultural theory, meticulous empirical observation, and engaged ethnography. Literacy has long been a key diagnostic of development and general welfare. This is, of course, one reason why the local empowerment campaigns in Cody’s field site in Tamil Nadu, in southern India, have taken it as their focus. But “literacy” is hardly a unitary and straightforward matter. First, literacies are best understood in the plural, as multidimensional clusters of socially embedded practices and cognitive skills, which are woven together in complex and highly variable ways. Second, these practices and skills are inseparable from “language ideologies”—local ideas about language—that mediate how they are transmitted, perceived, accepted, and evaluated. Thus, language is not only a medium of expression but a practical tool that opens or shuts off access to social goods.
In Tamil Nadu, as in many places with long scriptural traditions, the history of literacy is deeply implicated in the dynamic relations among elites and others. Among other things, literacy joins with differences in individuals’ command of varieties of speech to become means of naturalizing and evaluating differences among kinds of persons. As a result, literacy campaigns (as the activists themselves well know) are not simply promulgating a neutral, technical skill. What remains an empirical question, something Cody’s research brilliantly explores, is the extent to which even the most idealistic and progressive activists may unwittingly be playing into the very dynamics from which they are trying to escape.
Of special importance is the way in which Cody deals with the dilemmas his activists face. There is a clear tendency in many studies of activism to allow the scholar’s sympathy with the activists to mute potential criticism of their subjects’ assumptions or the consequences of their actions. Yet another tendency, found especially in studies of development, is to undermine the objects of study through various forms of analytical unmasking or debunking. Cody is sensitive to the twin difficulties his research confronts and is quite forthright about the problem.
In particular, Cody pays a great deal of attention to a central paradox faced by many social movements: how does one reconcile the activists’ democratic interest in the villagers’ own agency with the strong exertion of leadership that the very idea of “enlightenment” seems to demand? What does it mean to compel other people to recognize and take up their own sense of agency? What if that recognition requires that villagers experience humiliation—for instance, feeling ashamed of their lack of education—before they really come to aspire to take up that agency?
These problems are especially important in the case of literacy activism because Tamil-language literacy itself has long played an important catalyzing role in the production and reinforcement of sharp social hierarchies. Some of the most original insights of Cody’s work focus on these dilemmas and the activists’ highly self-aware efforts to grapple with them. This is ethnographic research very much in the spirit of true dialogue with its “subjects” as peers and colleagues well beyond the academy.
Webb Keane is professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan.