The Light of Knowledge: Literacy Activism and the Politics of Writing in South India

Francis Cody’s ethnography of literacy activists in southern India is primarily an attempt to come to terms with the engagement of progressive elites with Tamil village society. The work of these activists comes under the rubric of the Arivoli Iyakkam, or “light of knowledge movement.” The express purpose of this movement is to empower poor people in their dealings with the state by expanding literacy. In his recent ethnography of the bureaucratic welfare state in northern India, Akhil Gupta describes writing as the “instrumentality through which bureaucratic domination is exercised over populations” (p. 142)—a sentiment with which Arivoli activists would no doubt agree. As both Cody and Gupta come to understand, however, literacy alone does little to make villagers more powerful vis-à-vis state bureaucrats. Cody bookends his narrative with a discussion of the Dalit community of Katrampatti, whose members are unable to access a cremation grounds which has been reserved for their use but which is unfortunately surrounded by the farmland of the dominant Kallar caste. The members of an Arivoli study group within this community decide that they will construct their own petition, working hard to learn their signatures and taking time from their agricultural duties to deliver the petition to a magistrate’s distant office. During his follow-up fieldwork, Cody discovers that this petition has been successful, but only in a way which reinforces the categories of caste domination. The people of Katrampatti are now required to travel ignominiously to their cremation grounds through a dry riverbed owned by the government.

The ironies of enlightenment only begin here. Having grown out of 1960s communist party politics and a similarly-minded science education movement, the Arivoli Iyakkam had become by the 1990s almost exclusively associated with literacy efforts aimed at women villagers. One activist asserts that “the simple fact of creating a new form of public space for women in villages had a greater impact on social life than the spread of literacy itself” (p. 69). Following a pedagogical model inspired by Paolo Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed,” Arivoli activists create a curriculum whose first lesson hinges on the Tamil word for land deed. The Freirian notion at work is that mastering the specifically written version of this word will allow villagers to position themselves as instrumental actors vis-à-vis the acquisition of deeded property. As is clear from Cody’s ethnography, however, lessons of this type go over like lead balloons. Cody dryly remarks that villagers “perhaps perceived a degree of condescension” in being asked to rehearse a script centered on a document which they could “never hope to have” (p. 120).

Cody is particularly concerned with this sort of pedagogical failure as a source of reflexive engagement by Arivoli activists in their own pedagogical methods. There are several grounds for what Cody refers to as a “certain reflexivity” (p. 130) among his activist informants. First, Freirian pedagogical doctrine encourages dialogue with students, and so opens teachers up to students’ points of view. Second, the distanced (one might even say aesthetic) worldview of the activists involved allows them to emphasize pedagogical process over pedagogical results. While Cody’s description of these factors as the basis for the alteration of Arivoli pedagogical techniques is compelling, it would seem that the forms of reflexivity involved also have real limits. Even at their most engaged and process-based, Arivoli activists maintain a basic (and basically un-reflexive) commitment to spreading the “light of knowledge” among illiterate villagers. In a certain respect, then, readers might ask not only how these activists change their basic pedagogical approach through a process of self-reflection, but how they rather unreflexively maintain their basic political commitments in spite of substantial adversity. In a striking passage (one which describes an outgrowth of the Arivoli Iyakkam known as the People’s Reading Movement), Cody hints at an answer to this question:

…[A] “degree zero” of communication with the subaltern, a true unification of theory and praxis, would always remain elusive for the authors involved…The writers of the Makkal Vacippu Iyakkam could never understand such transparency as a realizable goal, even when it fueled their desire, motivating new attempts at mediation. (p. 167)

Paring down just the final sentence, readers will find the arresting notion that transparency fuels desire. Indeed, the passage as a whole frames the desire for authentic communication with illiterate villagers as unslakable, driving Arivoli activists to constantly duplicate their efforts without ever approaching their goal. My second-hand reading of this predicament is that Arivoli activists are possessed by a series of markedly unreflexive desires that are constituted primarily in and through the performance of caste and class differences.

In order to know more about the sorts of relationships which engender these desire, it would be necessary to have a thick description of the position of literacy activists in a larger social field. Again, the hints provided by Cody are fascinating. Readers are told, for example, that Arivoli activists generally responded to the failures of their pedagogical experiments with a “curious mix of humility and self-confidence” (p. 143). This struck me immediately as an indication of systematically emergent forms of class habitus and social positioning. Cody, however, remains focused on a more depersonalized discursive logic theorized à la Michel Foucault. Along these lines, he characterizes the thinking of Arivoli activists as both fitting the “global pattern of neoliberal governmentality” (p. 10) and exceeding “that which the lens of [Foucaultian] governmentality can bring into focus” (p. 12). One might characterize Cody as involved in an attempt to theorize literacy activism in a manner at once with and beyond Foucault. Cody tells us how such an approach would build on a “reformulated theory of colonial statecraft” (p. 173) which pushes “beyond the paradigm of governmentality to understand how technologies of literacy produce citizen subjects” (p. 172-173). The intellectual space beyond the Foucaultian paradigm is further described as one in which “competing value orientations to political action continually jostle with one another, producing new forms of friction, new forms of social critique, and new articulations of governmental power” (p. 173). No doubt this is a space worthy of further exploration. I would additionally suggest that the topics of desire and social position—topics which appear once and again in the margins of The Light of Knowledge—are of equal importance.

Kenneth McGill, Southern Connecticut State University

Cody, Francis. 2013. The Light of Knowledge: Literacy Activism and the Politics of Writing in South India. Cornell University Press. Read more at Cornell University Press.

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