Commitment, Citation, and Context: An Interview with Bharat Jayram Venkat

Photo by cocoparisienne.

This post builds on the research article “Scenes of Commitment,” which was published in the February 2017 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Venera Khalikova and Ned Dostaler: In your article, you articulate a particular mode of ethical reasoning called hierarchical subsumption, which “works to reconfigure potentially contending commitments into a hierarchy of means and ends, such that one becomes necessary to the other.” For example, you show how Vasudevan’s HIV medication was transformed from an expensive impediment to his obligations as a father into a necessary component that affords him the very capacity to fulfill those obligations. Can you share something about the process—in your fieldwork; in writing, reading, and thinking; in conversations with friends and mentors—through which the concept of hierarchical subsumption began to take form?

Bharat Jayram Venkat: I was quite struck when Vasudevan asked to die. And I was struck again by the way in which the clinic staff responded to this possibility. It was not a negation—no, you must live, there is so much to live for—but rather an acceptance that one might think it better not to live, that there were other commitments that took priority over therapy. It was in tracing the style of ethical reasoning through which therapy came to matter as a means to other ends that I began to work through the concepts of hierarchy, subsumption, and also ethical suspension, concepts that I draw from the work of Louis Dumont and Søren Kierkegaard. Given that the essay took time to mature—about five years of revision from its initial drafting—the honing of these concepts has also benefited from the wisdom of many friends and colleagues. In particular, I want to thank Mara Green, who, in reading countless drafts of this essay, brought to bear her own expertise on language, ethics, and embodiment in South Asia (see Green 2014).

VK and ND: While you refrain from analyzing the effects of hierarchical subsumption—that is, the outcomes of the logic of ethical reordering in Vasudevan and Sendhil’s cases—we wonder if you can say something about the distributive effects of hierarchical subsumption as a concept? Here we are thinking, for example, of The Logic of Sense, in which Gilles Deleuze (1990, 6) writes that the value of a philosophy "must first be measured by the new distribution which it imposes on beings and concepts." In what ways, then, did the concept of hierarchical subsumption redistribute the ways in which you understood what was happening in the clinic and elsewhere?

BJV: I like this formulation. I suppose you could say that, as a style of ethical reasoning, hierarchical subsumption operated by redistributing the relative weights of and relationships between a range of commitments within the space of the clinical encounter. As a concept, then, what hierarchical subsumption allowed me to do was to register the ways in which this redistribution took place, a redistribution in which kin-based commitments took precedence over therapy.

VK and ND: Have you observed situations in which people negotiate commitments other than those of being a patient and family member—such as commitments to categories of citizenship, religion, race, class, etc.—in which the concept of hierarchical subsumption seemed to offer insight into the ethical negotiations that were happening?

BJV: Indeed, my essay does focus primarily on the relationship between commitments to family and to therapy. However, kinship and medicine in India are inevitably inflected by the categories and experiences of citizenship, religion, race, class, caste, and so on. For example, Vasudevan’s fear that the other Brahmins in his village might learn of his illness and refuse to allow his daughter to marry into their families, or his concern that the cost of therapy would deplete the dowry that he could offer.

Certainly, we might find something akin to hierarchical subsumption in other situations. But it’s important to keep in mind that there are a variety of styles of ethical reasoning; hierarchical subsumption describes only one. We might want to consider the specificity of those styles, the circumstances under which they emerge, as well as the sorts of commitments that are being weighed and related in each.

VK and ND: In your framing of hierarchical subsumption, what is the role of context—which might just be another word for culture? Are you attempting to describe a mode of ethical reasoning that transcends specific contexts, be it “Tamil culture” or “the clinic,” even if it is always immanent to a specific context?

BJV: Later this year, at the Annual Conference on South Asia in Madison, Wisconsin, I’ll be speaking on a panel called “So What’s Indian about This?” The panel emerged as a way of collectively responding to the fact that many of us had been asked this very question by colleagues in other venues. In part, we want to try to understand what might be at stake in this question. And forgive me if I’ve misunderstood, but I hear you asking a similar question here.

Of course, any concept can be drawn out from the world in which it was crafted—in this case, a world that contains not only a clinic in Tamil Nadu but also ethical traditions that emerge out of the history of biomedicine, Tamil kinship, and of course, anthropology. If the style of ethical reasoning that I’ve identified in this essay resonates with what others observe elsewhere, I’d be very glad.

But I want to focus on the other part of your question: the relationship between context and culture. I don’t think context is the same as culture. And in fact, I worry about both of these concepts. For some time, I’ve been trying to think through the possibility of an anthropology that is, in a sense, Frazerian. It saddens me that Frazer is often taught as a false start for the discipline, awaiting course correction from Malinowski. The Golden Bough offers a model of anthropology that is unabashedly comparative, even universalizing. Of course, much detailed ethnographic work still does this, but it’s often concealed or repressed in favor of what might be loosely termed the particular. But I think it’s worth asking: do we really care about what the such-and-such people eat, how they farm?

Don’t get me wrong: in some instances, the answer is a resounding yes. I adore the florid minutiae of the kind found in Malinowski’s Coral Gardens and their Magic, and The Golden Bough is just as full of particulars (of many different kinds) as Coral Gardens. Moreover, Malinowski reveals himself to be just as interested in universalizing as Frazer when he considers the words used in garden magic in order to develop a general theory of linguistic efficacy. To be clear, I’m not trying to stage a rematch between Frazer and Malinowski. Rather, I want to begin to imagine what might happen were we to own up to the comparative or universalizing dimensions of our work.

One possible approach might be to consider what constitutes an appropriate frame of reference, which is always also a frame of comparison. To give you an example: this essay has gone through many versions, and in an earlier one (wisely rejected by American Ethnologist), I had juxtaposed the scenes of the two men in the clinic with other “Indic” scenes of what might be called a willingness-toward-death—for example, a scene of sacrifice under the wheels of the temple chariot at the festival of Jagannath, missionary accounts of which became fodder for Hegel’s claim of an Indian tendency toward fatalism. Unsurprisingly, at least in retrospect, the reviewers did not like this. What did the lives of these two HIV-positive Tamil men have to do with an account of ritual sacrifice in a different part of India, as penned by a fourteenth-century Franciscan? Clearly, I did not do a great job of selling the relationship, relying on the juxtaposition to speak for itself.

Yet, in the same version of the essay, I also discussed Derrida’s writing on the impossibility of sacrificing one’s life for another, in which he works through Kierkegaard’s reading of the binding of Isaac. This was not flagged by the reviewers. It might simply be the case that there was so much wrong with the earlier iteration of the essay that Derrida didn’t quite make the cut. But I can’t help but wonder whether this is, in fact, symptomatic of a broader problem of relevance, context, citation, or what have you. Derrida is self-evidently relevant, but Jagannath is not. And to be fair, perhaps a different kind of reader would have warmly welcomed the bone-crushing chariot of the gods and rejected the relevance of an Abrahamic poststructuralism. But the question remains: on what grounds do we accept certain kinds of juxtapositions and not others? And, along similar lines, does a fear of universals lead us to simply smuggle in our juxtapositions through citations? Because, I would argue, citations are nothing if not implicit juxtapositions.

One response might be to insist that all such juxtapositions require justification, in which case we would have to determine the criteria for a proper justification. Can it be found in the resemblance of phenomena? Does it have to do with geographic and temporal proximity? Or is it about some sort of conceptual resonance? What is it that makes certain juxtapositions “persuasive,” as Marilyn Strathern (1987) has put it, and others not so much?

VK and ND: Are there any pertinent questions that you had to leave beyond the scope of this article?

BJV: What immediately springs to mind is a question posed to me by Naisargi Dave about an earlier version of this essay, which was: what’s so great about keeping our commitments? I’m still thinking about this, although one possible answer might be: not much. Maybe what is important is not whether one eventually keeps or breaks one’s commitments, but rather, as I’ve argued, that such commitments operate as points of orientation that make possible certain forms of ethical reasoning.

Let me put it another way: commitments can be notoriously difficult to keep. They establish structures of expectation that are frequently impossible to realize. This is perhaps even more the case when what might be required to fulfill a commitment seems nebulous or overwhelming. For example: What does it mean to do one’s duty as a father to his daughter? Or as a son to his mother? This is precisely where ethical reasoning comes in: not simply to ask whether a specific end is good, but to ask how precisely it might be achieved by limited beings in a world riven by potentially competing commitments.

Let me put it another way: commitments can be notoriously difficult to keep. They establish structures of expectation that are frequently impossible to realize. This is perhaps even more the case when what might be required to fulfill a commitment seems nebulous or overwhelming.

VK and ND: In closing, what are you reading at the moment (anthropology or otherwise)?

BJV: Having just finished Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, it’s all that I can think about. The entire world has transformed into mid-century Naples; everyone I know has become a Gigliola or a Lila or a Lenu. The novels are so full of stuff, much of it mundane but none of it boring. Like a pair of shoes! Who knows what dreams might sail away on a pair of shoes?

Speaking of Italy—it’s not a book, but can I also mention the second season of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None? In the first episode, he’s in Modena learning to make pasta from a grandmother, getting schooled in Italian by a little kid, and I thought to myself: this is something I haven’t seen! A brown person making gnocchi on TV! In Italy!

Ansari is Indian American, from a Tamil Muslim family, but he refuses the convenient and expected storylines (for the most part). There’s an amazing episode in the first season in which his character, an actor, is told that you can’t have a TV show with two Indian guys: “Everyone’s gonna think it’s an Indian show.” Ansari’s character, Dev, replies in his typically direct fashion: “You’d never say that about a show with two white people. Every show has two white people. People don’t watch True Detective and go ‘oh, there’s that white detective show!’” Totally meta.

But *ahem* on a more scholarly note, I’m working toward finishing a book on the concept of cure (see Venkat 2016a, 2016b), so I’ve been reading Mircea Eliade, the historian and philosopher of religion who wrote so brilliantly of the idea of radical cure as a return to a time before time. This is an idea that is helping me to approach the work of Georges Canguilhem and Henri Bergson (both important to my thinking) with fresh eyes. I’ve also been reading recent ethnographies of the Tamil world: Anand Pandian’s book on creation in the Tamil film industry and Francis Cody’s book on mass literacy, in which he asks about the legacy of enlightenment in rural Tamil Nadu. I was in Tamil Nadu earlier this year and was able to witness firsthand a spectacular crisis of political succession after the suspicious death of the state’s chief minister, Jayalalithaa (accident? murder? medical malfeasance?). As the aspirants to her throne have fought to claim her legacy, I’ve begun thinking about what it means to inherit, not property, but rather ideology and authority. On a parallel track, I want to think about what scholars of South Asia are prepared to inherit, not necessarily from area studies, but from earlier Indological and Orientalist formations (of which Eliade was most definitely a part).


Deleuze, Gilles. 1990. The Logic of Sense. Translated by Mark Lester with Charles Stivale. New York: Columbia University Press. Originally published in 1969.

Green, E. Mara. 2014. The Nature of Signs: Nepal’s Deaf Society, Local Sign, and the Production of Communicative Sociality. PhD dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1987. “Out of Context: The Persuasive Fictions of Anthropology.” Current Anthropology 28, no. 3: 251–81.

Venkat, Bharat Jayram. 2016a.“Cures.” Public Culture 28, no. 3: 475–97.

_____. 2016b. “Awakenings.” Part of the series “After the End of Disease.” Somatosphere, May 25.