Pastoral Power in the Postcolony: On the Biopolitics of the Criminal Animal in South India

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In this article, I argue that a close examination of the government of animals by humans is essential for an anthropology of modern biopolitics: for an understanding, that is, of the many ways in which humans themselves have been governed as animals in modern times. I aim also to work toward a way of theorizing such biopolitics in milieus beyond the modern West. Relying on cultural and historical materials from South India, I call attention to three domains of local biopolitical difference: the particular conditions of modernity that constitute certain human lives as an animal object of government, the quotidian practices of care and struggle through which animals are governed in moral terms, and the cultural idioms through which these lives become visible and intelligible as appropriate sites for the exercise of both power and resistance. The empirical ground of this article is formed by three modes of government of human and animal existence in colonial and postcolonial South India: the management of a population of subjects putatively criminal by nature as organisms of instinct and impulse by means of the colonial Indian Criminal Tribes Act; the contemporary echoes of such policing in the everyday practices through which cultivators and plowmen in the region govern the moral conduct of their oxen; and the persistent postcolonial legacies of a Tamil political idiom of "grazing" or restraining populations of human and animal beings deemed incapable of restraining themselves. The intimacy between practices of care and techniques of control in each of these instances suggests that a close attention to animality may provide a way of resolving some of the constitutive paradoxes of the "pastoral" mode of power elaborated by Michel Foucault.

Editorial Footnotes

In the past, Cultural Anthropology has published several articles on the anthropology of the state. See for example, Aradhana Sharma’s "Crossbreeding Institutions, Breeding Struggle: Women's Empowerment, Neoliberal Governmentality, and State (Re)Formation in India" (2006); Olga Demetriou’s piece on intercommunal politics of spatial relations in Northern Greece (2006); and Catherine Besteman’s piece “Representing Violence and ‘Othering’ Somalia” (1996).

Cultural Anthropology has also published several articles on postcolonial and subaltern studies. See for example, Ana Maria Alonso’s "Conforming Disconformity: "Mestizaje," Hybridity, and the Aesthetics of Mexican Nationalism" (2004); Celia Lowe’s "Making the Monkey: How the Togean Macaque Went from “New Form” to “Endemic Species” in Indonesians' Conservation Biology" (2004); and Donald Moore’s "Subaltern Struggles and the Politics of Place: Remapping Resistance in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands" (1998).      

About the Author

Anand Pandian is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. 

Editorial Overview

In the February 2008 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Anand Pandian translates the metaphoric potency of Foucault’s notion of “pastoral power” into an actual engagement with pastoral practice in south India, materializing theory by “lending flesh, substance and the obstinate force of embodied existence” to our understanding of social control. Pandian offers challenging new insights on the anthropology of biopolitics, arguing that a close examination of the management of animals by humans (glossed over by Foucault) iluminates how humans themselves have been governed as animals in modern times. Pandian’s essay grapples with the tension between “individualizing care” and “totalizing control” in modern forms of biopolitics. The government of animal nature in rural India entails an uneasy combination of care and control, Pandian argues, that merits close attention for the critical insights it offers into the modern government of life.

Combining his field experience in an agricultural belt of Tamil Nadu with historical material from the region, Pandian skillfully sketches three interlinked portraits of human and animal life in colonial and postcolonial India: the construction of criminal human subjects as animal objects of management by the colonial Criminal Tribes Act of 1871; the contemporary traces of this policing in the everyday practices of moral management by cultivators on their oxen; and the persistent legacies of a cultural idiom of restraining populations of humans and animals judged incapable of restraining themselves. Pandian’s analysis of rural India breaks down the paradox Foucault’s theory seems to set up between sympathetic care and brutal control, and details how the virtues and vices attributed to animal subjects by their human masters share resonances with prevailing modern attitudes on human government. The essay will be of interest to anthropologists, postcolonial theorists and political philosophers interested in biopolitics, the relationship between citizens and the state, and in cultural constructions of identity, marginality, and oppression.  

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