The Sensible, the Sensate, and Dissensus: An Interview with Sareeta Amrute

Photo by Wonderlane, licensed under CC BY.

This post builds on the research article “Immigrant Sensibilities in Tech Worlds: Sensing Hate, Capturing Dissensus” by Sareeta Amrute, which was published in the August 2020 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Anar Parikh: You open the article with a detailed description of the landscape: where the bucolic Pacific northwest meets the tech geographies of the Seattle suburbs. It really sets the scene for your attention to immigrant senses and the sensate in the article. Can you start by talking about your decision to use Jacques Rancière’s (2004) notion of “the distribution of the sensible” as a way to frame your discussion of immigrant experiences with harassment and their encounters with the state and extra-state authorities? In particular, how did it help you think through/with theories of racial capital?

Sareeta Amrute: For me, the scene-setting was really important to this story. The sense of driving out of Seattle and into the suburbs feels bucolic; I wanted the reader to feel that up front, but to also get hints of other stories of migration and displacement that haunt these sites. This set-up then could open up onto the scenes of violence and racial harassment that I track in the rest of the essay without allowing the reader to fall back into a position of uncomplicated sympathy with good and proper individuals. These individuals are part of their own stories of internal and external displacements. The use of Rancière’s political theory was quite straightforward: there are very few theories of politics that are at the same time a theory of aesthetics. The aesthetic dimension of politics has always been a key aspect of my work. In one way, we often think about aesthetics and politics as a process of turning on to the glitz and glamor of fascist aesthetics. This is an important line of argument from Walter Benjamin through to current anthropological work on the varied aesthetic forms of domination, satire, critique, and liberation. But there is another dimension of politics and aesthetics that is equally important, and that is how aesthetic forms—like the bucolic scenes of trees, rivers, and mountains—and the way they are organized make certain kinds of subjects and certain models of rights seem natural and inevitable. So, the tech campus set in the idyllic landscape naturalizes a regime of whitened, sanitized private property even as it makes a visual argument for liberalization understood as freedom from governmental interference (though of course the politics of tech firms that occupy these spaces very much intersect with and try to influence governmental policies on immigration, trade, and monopoly capitalism).

Racial capitalism is a key concept in understanding how technology and immigration coalesce around certain key figures or tropes, such as the Indian software engineer, or the girl and woman of development projects for the global South. In its current manifestation, racial capitalism demonstrates at least three characteristics—exclusion, stratification, and surplus value. In other words, race is a marker of three populations that become targets of state and private intervention and drive capitalism’s propulsive energy forward toward new frontiers of accumulation. These populations are those who are not yet included as consumers within the fold of capitalist production and consumption, those who become a source of devalued labor for tech economies, and those who appear as sources of new value creation for capitalist economies. Of course, any given actually existing population or segments of that population may be considered all of these at the same time. Often when scholars conceptualize race and racialization, they focus mainly on exclusion and stratification. But the ways that racialized populations are included as sources of new value for capitalism is just as important. This inclusion may take the form of culture as a commodity, it may take the form of expertise in a particularly exciting new market, it may take the form of commoditizing a genetic marker, or it may take the form of a population for which products are being created that appear to serve that population but do not do so in practice. This last kind of valuation Tressie McMillian Cottom (2017) calls “predatory inclusion.” Regardless of the form, the relationship of race to value creation captures the complex set of desires that suture race to capital. In my article, I use this three-part understanding of race to provide some connective tissue between what we understand as the nature of democratic politics—dissent—and the figuring grounds for how that dissent coheres and is thwarted within these formations. In other words, Rancière’s formulation of democracy as challenging a particular form of governance of public life raises some fundamental questions: who within a given social formation takes up that challenge, and how do they do so from within longer histories of race, capital, and politics that treat race as both a marker of subjection and of subjectification, or as a marker of diminished status and as a container for value.

AP: I’ve been reading about language ideology lately and the way you defined “the distribution of the sensible” as “the way a particular partition of people, places, and ideas is made to seem self-evident to perception” (375) reminded me of Judith T. Irvine and Sue Gal’s (2000, 37) articulation of “iconization” as a semiotic process by which linguistic features become linked to social groups and subsequently illustrative of their essence. It struck a chord for me because both bring attention to how that which is social, cultural, and political comes to be understood as natural, inherent, and inevitable.

SA: It’s probably not surprising that there are echoes of Gal and Irvine in my work—Sue Gal was a member of my dissertation committee! I think their theory of iconization is very useful because of the way it brings together the discursive and material aspects of meaning-making. In iconization, an accent, manner of speaking, type of language, dialect, and so on, become representative through convention of a particular social group. Over time, these markers signify the assumed characteristics of that group. In my own work, I’ve tried to do something similar for visual semiosis. In another essay I recently published (Amrute 2020), I talk about images in advertising posters, how they are iconic, and through that iconicity, how they are made available to particular kinds of defacement. In my book (Amrute 2016), I discuss the kinds of images that concretized a trope of the Indian IT worker for a heterogeneous German reading and viewing public. In this essay, and in the previous article, there were so many things I could not show you directly so that I could protect the identities of my interlocutors. These things show practices of iconization through repetition—like the dog feces I discuss—and moments when visual material tries to break those patterns, though always within an already established frame, like videos of testimony given by victims of racial harassment in town council meetings. We have entered an age of mass surveillance, mass digital recordings, and mass observations of both visible and non-visible indices of the body. In that sense, iconization as a process is now ripe for new and extended elaboration as the frames through which iconization happens and is contested multiply.

AP: I’m curious about your use of the word “entrainment” to describe what happens to immigrant senses (375). Your ethnography reiterates how immigrant encounters—with the tech economy, with U.S. immigration regimes, and with state actors—train their responses to hate, but training and entrainment strike me as slightly different. Whereas training suggests instruction, an explicit honing of skills and behaviors, entrainment has a more fluid, sweeping quality. Is there a way in which Asian immigrants in the tech economy are not only being trained to register, respond, and report in certain ways but also getting swept along by particular currents?

SA: Training is about the practices by which a certain task or way of thinking is inculcated into an audience. Entrainment is about synchronization. Of course, the two are related. Training in the scenes I witnessed was all about creating synchronization between law enforcement and Asian immigrant communities. They were being taught to think of the police as a partner and to act as citizen-witnesses for detecting crime in their communities. This entrainment broke down all the time: in the moment when a Muslim South Asian audience member asked why she was the only one removed from an airplane, in the times when a Taiwanese victim of racial harassment could not get local law enforcement to believe him, in the times when the children of Indian immigrant tech workers were harassed daily on the school bus and there was little that could be done about it, and in the times when community organizers purposefully disrupted those rhythms to propose a new pan-immigrant identity. Here is where we really need a transnational analysis of race in the tech industry, because one of the grounding questions of my research is, what happens in these moments of breakdown? How do they, on the one hand, lead to dissent from the status quo—that distribution of the sensible that holds tech economies and their political forms in place—and how are they recaptured within that particular distribution? A transnational analysis of race in the tech industry shows the ways that the immigration politics of the H1-B and similar visa systems (which are temporary immigrant visas for tech workers and other “highly skilled” migrants) create the migration of mostly upper class, upper caste (in the case of India), and male subjects who enter a field already crosscut by race from a field that already provides them caste (for South Asian subjects), class, and educational privilege. This means that in the tech sector, Asian migrants’ recapture by a particular U.S.-based distribution of the sensible is overdetermined by these longer histories of privilege. It also means though that transnational histories of struggle can become a touchstone for rethinking that same status quo.

AP: This article is quite timely. The past several years have been marked by heightened anti-immigrant sentiments, but they have taken new shapes recently. During the first weeks and months of the Covid-19 pandemic there was a great deal of emphasis on the virus's (supposed) origins in China and a surge of anti-Asian racism that was linked to targeting the perceived carriers of infection. At the same time, we can also see the ways in which Asian immigrants are distinguished from—and distinguish themselves from—other Latinx, Native, and Black bodies. For example, this reporting from a New York–based news outlet highlights the disparities in infection, hospitalization, and death between Flushing and Corona (the neighborhood in Queens, not the virus). Although Flushing is quite different from Seattle’s tech suburbs, this narrative also relies on using education and information as ways to differentiate between Asian immigrants and other Black and Brown communities. How do we reconcile the proliferation of anti-Asian racism against the reality that Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities have already been, and will continue to be, disproportionately impacted by Covid-19?

SA: This question relates to my answer to the last one: I don’t think we should aim to reconcile anti-Asian racism and the disproportionate impacts on Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. Rather, we should hold these facts in tension with one another. First, anti-Asian racism has deep historical roots in the United States and has been tied since the nineteenth century to two topics: disease and labor. Chinese migrants in San Francisco for instance were accused of spreading smallpox, syphilis, and the bubonic plague in the nineteenth century, and Asian labor has been constructed at least since that time as alien, replacing native workforces and threatening—especially in the tech economy—white collar jobs previously held by white men. Second, the category Asian, and the definition of what makes a neighborhood “Asian” is itself capacious and contested. In the article you cited, the two neighborhoods picked have Latinx and Asian populations and seem to differ in terms of rates of infection, though are similar in terms of median income. But, a neighboring community, Jackson Heights, has a large Asian population, a similar median income, and has been affected very badly by the Covid-19 virus. What might the analysis of the report have looked like if this neighborhood was also taken into account? If it had been, factors intersecting with but not reducible to race might have emerged as particularly salient, such as the industries that employ residents of these communities, like construction and gig-economy driving, through which residents would have faced increased exposure to the virus. Third, as you suggest, the current formation of race and racial capitalism creates the category Asian as a trope of immigrant success in the United States through such indices as education and class. Looking at the history of this formation, we can actually find its roots in the plantation economies of the British Empire, where the “lines” of Black and Indentured workers were kept separate, and where Indenture itself served as a putatively free replacement for slave labor. Hence the separations among these communities go very far back and are directly related to the question of labor. Fourth and finally, all racial categories, when used as sociological descriptions fail to capture the vast differences within them in terms of histories of mobility, class, language, and so on. This is of course a different story when the categories are used as a way to think about solidarity and alterity, in other words, when the categories are used as a productive analytic of a situation. If a reconciliation of these fact is to be found, it is in the long history of Third World, Black feminist, and Dalit feminist activism that has sought to move through these inequalities toward platforms of solidarity. Ultimately, that work requires thinking about how gender, race, caste, and class articulate a particular social formation and looking for examples of building solidarity not in spite of but through the recognition of the different and uneven effects of power working through these systems. If I may offer some readings that really help elucidate these points, they would be Shona N. Jackson’s (2012) Creole Indigeneity, Tiffany Lethabo King’s (2019) The Black Shoals, Roseann Liu and Savannah Shange’s (2018) “Toward Thick Solidarity,” as well as the collected works of Savitribai Phule (see Mali 2011), among others.

AP: There’s another piece of your article that’s imminently relevant to the current sociopolitical moment: immigrant tech workers’ interactions with the state, including police, in their experiences of racist and xenophobic harassment. In re-reading this article, it took me a long time to formulate this question, and I think ultimately what I am trying to do is diagram how the distribution of the sensible, the sensate, and dissensus relate to one another in the context of the protests that have emerged in the aftermath of a slate of police violence against Black bodies this year. You write that “the distribution of the sensible and the sensate are yoked” in that together they “draw immigrant subjects into an apparatus of rule while registering immigrant exclusion” (9–10), and therefore allows us to understand why “immigrant opposition does not cohere into dissent” (7). What the current moment is asking me to better understand, then, is what is the relationship between the sensate and dissensus? If, as you say, Indian and Chinese immigrants are fashioned as “front-line defenders of a polity that persecutes hate crimes” (7), where do they fit in the contemporary politics of dissent that are calling for a national reckoning with the fundamentally racist and violent premise of the police?

SA: A provisional answer to this question lies in how the state and the apparatus of rule that is the police conceives of hate crimes. Hate crimes are very particular acts with particular definitions of victim, intent, and harm. They in no way address the long history of systemic police bias and violence against Black communities. In fact, the very idea of a hate crime precludes police violence, because the grounds on which police violence might be prosecuted is not hate against a community because of race, gender, religion, or ability—though that is of course what the Movement for Black Lives shows such violence to be—but excessive force, going beyond the violence that is deemed a necessary part of policing. In other words, violent policing is not recognized as a crime against a particular community, although it should be, and on the other hand, hate crimes prosecution acts within the very apparatus that produces the regular murder of Black people by the police. So, to move from the sensible and the sensate, where Asian immigrants perceive racism set against them, to dissensus, where they would build the connective tissue between this racism and the larger racist and violent premise of state itself, would require acting from within the sensate to make the historical connections between anti-Asian racism, labor, and migration, and the long history of slavery in the United States, including the juridical systems that configures these populations differently.

AP: As a grad student working with South Asian communities in the United States, I am especially interested in your attention to how caste is an important feature of this sanitized technocapitalist landscape. Tentatively, I think that the geometry between the sensible, dissensus, and the sensate is germane to the casted dimensions of immigrant senses for South Asian immigrants in particular. Can you say more about how caste exceptionalism—both distinct from and entwined with racial capital—emerged in your ethnography? (I say “tentatively” in part because I am reluctant to use Continental philosophy, rather than Dalit theory and scholarship, as a starting point for caste analysis).

SA: As I mentioned above, caste and tech are intimately related. If we look at the recent Cisco discrimination case, it is clear that caste as a category of oppression is part of the everyday workings of the global corporate tech industry. The reasons for this are both specific to the Indian state and are transnational. Some of the best analyses of this situation are currently being produced by Equality Labs. The geometry that I assemble helps me see how Dalit theory and Dalit feminist activists do much of the infrastructural work of bringing what is felt, seen, and experienced into focus as a driver of dissent. On the other hand, it is equally important to trace how the regime of caste exceptionalism that is prevalent in Indian tech diasporas sediments non-democratic practice. Ajantha Subramanian’s (2019) book The Caste of Merit is a key work here. In my research, caste is a silent and presumed category for many, but not all, Indian software engineers. One thing that many people assume about Indian tech workers is that they are monotonal. While certainly there is a majority of those who practice caste discrimination by claiming to be apolitical and spouting ideologies of meritocracy to avoid confronting systemic and ongoing caste oppression, there is also a vocal and oppositional force dissenting from that position. Those are the people—many of whom identify as Dalit—who are driving the third angle of the sensible, sensate, dissensus triad. On the point about Continental philosophy, I am in complete agreement with your reminder to begin with Dalit scholarship, while I am also deeply aware that Ambedkar, as the author of the Indian Constitution, himself worked with, through, and against a long tradition of Continental philosophers.

AP: Finally, you close with the suggestion that accounting for the sensible and the sensate “can record the fragmented histories of capital-colonial expansion that have shaped local geographies, along with a specific state’s response to capital formations” (397). How do you think that this kind of recording can facilitate the kind “new political expression for immigrant politics” you call for?

SA: Democratic politics too often looks like the spontaneous eruption of discontent. We point to a street protest to locate this unmediated sentiment. I want to point instead to the work that is done behind the scenes to provide the epistemological and affective infrastructures for continued and sustained dissent. That is what I want to point to when I provide an analysis of the sensate—the extra step that is taken between registering dissatisfaction with a particular order of things and democratic dissent. The sensate needs to be recognized, cared for, and developed. I want my work going forward to shine a light on those who are doing that work so that others will recognize the need for it, will recognize the embodied nature of the work, and will make more space for it in their worlds.


Amrute, Sareeta. 2016. Encoding Race, Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

———. 2020. “Bored Techies Being Casually Racist: Race as Algorithm.” Science, Technology, and Human Values 45, no. 5: 903–33.

Cottom, Tressie McMillan. 2017. Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. New York: The New Press.

Irvine, Judith T., and Susan Gal. 2000. “Language Ideology and Linguistic Differentiation.” In Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Polities, and Identities, edited by Paul V. Kroskrity, 35-83. Santa Fe, N.Mex: School of American Research Press.

Jackson, Shona N. 2012. Creole Indigeneity: Between Myth and Nation in the Caribbean. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Liu, Rosanne, and Savannah Shange. 2018. “Toward Thick Solidarity: Theorizing Empathy in Social Justice Movements.” Radical History Review 131: 189–98.

King, Tiffany Lethabo. 2019. The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Mali, M. G., ed. 2011. Savitribai Phule Samagra Vangmay [The Complete Works of Savitribai Phule]. Mumbai: Maharashtra Rajya Aur Sanskriti Mandal. Originally published in 1988.

Rancière, Jacques. 2004. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Translated and with an introduction by Gabriel Rockhill. New York: Continuum Books. Originally published in 2000.

Subramanian, Ajantha. 2019. The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.