Queer Respites

My first book was about queer activism in India. And because I have no imagination at all, the book was actually called Queer Activism in India (Dave 2012). Now I’m working on animal-rights politics in India, so I will probably call the next book Animal Rights Politics in India. I think my comments build on what Cymene just said, but I actually feel quite differently than Cymene on a few matters.

The first summer that I went to do fieldwork for this new project on animals—and not the summer when I was doing preliminary research and still finishing some things up for the first book, but when the first book was in production and there was nothing I could possibly do to change it, and I was in India to do nothing else but work on the new project—it’s hard to express how happy and excited I felt. And the only word—and I kept trying to find another word as I was preparing these comments, something less . . . gross—but I felt reborn. I felt like I wanted to learn everything about this new subject, and I felt like I could be someone so different in the field and enter into literatures that were really different and just be a different kind of ethnographer. It was amazing, and I was excited.

Now, some of this, I think, is common for any second project, anything that moves from the dissertation project. Just being able to let go of your graduate student voice and no longer being bound by the things you were learning at that time—these things are common to any second project and have nothing to do with moving on from a queer one. But there was something that was different. And I realized this when I was in the field for the new project, and I decided that I was going to take a day off. And it was a Sunday morning—the day I had decided to take off—and I woke up and I felt happy in a way that was kind of amazing and I wondered to myself why I felt so relaxed and happy on this day. I realized that it was because I had never before experienced what it meant to take a day off. In the field, that is. There was something really revelatory about that. Because I realized that, before, even a day that I might have spent alone—not conducting any interviews or doing any archival work or hanging out with any interlocutors—I was still exactly who I was when I was working. (The only difference was that I was by myself in my apartment.) But now, with this project, not working meant that I could be something different. It meant that I could go—and I won’t say, of course, that I could go “be who I really am”—but I could be something different when I wasn’t doing fieldwork. And it was often the case that that “being something different” had to do with my “queer self.” I could go hang out with my queer friends and do the things and have the feelings that that entailed. Again, this ability to be something different.

The revelation for me was this, when I reflected on my Sunday morning happiness: that what I do is not one and the same as who I am. And this was the first time I had experienced that as a truth.

In other words, the possibility of having a day off, the possibility of a day of rest, was what made me realize for the first time that anthropology was work. And this changed everything! Because until that moment, who I was and what I did were completely indistinguishable. And now I could see that this is a job. That anthropology is work that I do. So now, if anthropology is just some thing—not everything—but one specific part of who I am, one of the nice things about this is that it actually gives me a greater sense of control over it. The amount of time I put in is exactly what I get out of the work. Seeing anthropology as a job didn’t diminish how I felt about it, but in a strange way, made me love it and care for its place in my life even more.

Some important things, however, remain the same between the first project and the second. One—and this is where I might depart from what Cymene was saying—has to do with the question of ethical and political proximity to the subjects we work on. I care about queer politics, and I really care about animals. (Actually, I wouldn’t use the phrase “I care about animals.” To be more precise, I care about animal politics.) In fact, I am profoundly, personally invested in what I am writing now. And I was before, as well. But the difference is that with my first project, I never hoped that people would read my book and “become queer” when they read it. Maybe become queerer or think queerer or something like that. Fine, I might have made some people gay, but that wasn’t my intention. If it just so happens that some of you are here today because I made you gay, honestly, that’s wonderful, and I’m really happy about that.

With my animal book, though—if I were going to be really honest—I would love it if someone read the stuff I’m writing now (e.g., Dave 2014) and actually gave a second thought to questions around animal exploitation. I do care that there is some ethical or political effect when someone reads my writing. I won’t say I hope that there is such an effect. I’m not writing deliberately with any consequence in mind. But I care if there is such an effect. What is interesting is that even though I’d say I’m more invested now in the effects of what I write, I feel freer in how I write and what I can say. And maybe this says more about my conceptual immaturity earlier on, but in writing queer ethnography, I had the feeling that at the broadest level of argumentation, some agreements were already in place. I do mean at the broadest, perhaps crudest level, which is to say: “oppression is bad and freedom is good.” At the broadest level, this was the argumentative framework in which we spoke. With animals, though, we don’t even agree on that argumentative framework—that oppression is bad and freedom is good.

And so I suppose what I would say is that, as a queer anthropologist, I feel the freedom to write more queerly than I ever did before.


Dave, Naisargi N. 2012. Queer Activism in India: A Story in the Anthropology of Ethics. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

_____. 2014. “Witness: Humans, Animals, and the Politics of Becoming.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 3: 433–56.