Sharad Chari

Faculty / Academic Staff
historical-geographic ethnographies of capital and livelihood, India and South Africa
Intellectual Biography: 

A student of Berkeley Geography in the 1990s, I inherited an interdisciplinary historical and ethnographic approach to political economy informed by Marxist agrarian studies and development studies. I encountered these fields at the moment in which their anticolonial and Thirdworldist ambitions had been called to account for the actual complexities of tradition (Asad’s critique of Wolf’s Europe and the People Without a History, for instance), for a non-repressive understanding of power relations (via feminism or Foucault) and through the post-national turn (in historical and postcolonial studies). In other words, while a geographer, I am not a product of the extremely metropolitan (Eurocentric and city-centred) 1970s tradition of ‘radical geography,’ but rather of a ‘Southern’ response to it.

[In using this language, I presume that the Comaroff’s provocation of ‘theory from the South’ is both polemical and playful, and that it calls for an accounting of explicit and assumed spatial dialectics in any assumption of theorizing from somewhere, including the global scale.]

The notion that agrarian and Third World sites of research are particularly fertile grounds for understanding the contemporary world is key to my first body of research. My first monograph, Fraternal Capital, is an agrarian historical ethnography of an industrial town which was seen as exemplary of a novel kind of capitalist socio-spatial form in the late 20thc (understood through the neologisms of flexible specialisation, industrial districts and small-firm networks, with Silicon Valley and the Terza Italia as beacons for a new and seemingly virtuous set of relations between capital, labour and state). I argued that that India’s pre-eminent ‘industrial district’ was more clearly explicable through Marxist agrarian studies, and that it had been made through agrarian processes. Key to these processes were subatlern forms of caste/class/gender power over work which were central to decentralized, ‘fraternal’ capital. I ask the rhetorical question “can the subaltern accumulate capital?” as a rejoinder to Fred Cooper’s complaint that scholars of ‘the subaltern’ had little to say about class mobility, or indeed, I added, its relationship to social domination. I conclude with a line of thought from Marx that the accumulation of capital is accompanied by a second kind of accumulation, of wasted lives and environments, the detritus of the commodity form. I pick up this thread in the work I have been doing in Durban.

I followed interdisciplinarity to a postdoc at Michigan Anthrohistory, which deepened my commitment to historical ethnography as a means to use theory to critique a differentiated world. Subsequent time at LSE Geography confirmed my frustration with ‘global theory’ uncontaminated by the messiness of politics and things profane, which periodic research in Durban in affiliation with UKZN Development Studies was a constant reminder of. I am completing a monograph on how people handle the remains of segregation, apartheid and opposition through neighbourhoods adjacent to oil refineries and other industry in South Durban. My interest here is in understanding limits to struggle today as shaped by the remains of various moments of the past. I explore the presence of the past in a landscape saturated by various processes of ruination (distinct from ruins as objects of contemplation), including the planned obsolescence always immanent to capital but also the contradictory and thwarted attempt to make a racial utopia and also to demolish it in revolutionary upsurge. My theoretical inclinations in this period have shifted to a combination of Benjamin’s critique of capitalist modernity alongside the Black Marxist tradition (James in particular) and to the fertile provocation of Black Politics as it shifts and usurps EuroAmerican radical traditions.

I am now at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa and the Anthropology Department at Wits, and I am formulating comparative and collective ethnographic research on Indian Ocean ports. My attention to theory has shifted to real and imagined circulations, always-incomplete circuits of capital, finance, power, labour and critique. As I have said, I take ‘theory from the South’ as as a provocation to think more seriously about spatial dialectics and also of the legacies of anticolonialism in the Indian Ocean region, centred on the colony of Diego Garcia. Spatial dialectics and comparative/ connective research remains indispensible to Indian Ocean ethnography, as is carefully grounded research that pushes against the limitations of ‘global’ (EuroAmerican) expertise and its political and analytical expectations. I say ‘grounded’ but thinking from the ocean requires thinking with circuits rather than with a sedentary metaphysics with stable theoretical or practical traditions. Rather than an implicit core/periphery or North/South relation, I am interested in a form of social theory that learns from circulations of things, people and values. Such a fundamentally spatial-dialectical (rather than place-bound) way of doing theory consciously transgresses the prison of location, to think beyond the historical-ethnographiv situation through insight from elsewhere. This 'thinking across the South' might be what the Indian Ocean ethnographers coop helps craft.

Presentation Title: 
Impossible Origins of Capital: Anticolonial desire and the circulation of value
Asad, T. 1987 "Are there Histories of People without Europe? A Review Article" Comparative Studies in Society and History 29, 3, 594-607. Birla, R. 2009 Stages of Capital: Law, Culture and Market Governance in Late Colonial India, Durham: Duke University Press. Carney, J. 2001 Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas, London: Harvard University Press. Coronil, F. 1996 “Beyond Occidentalism: Toward Nonimperial Geohistorical Categories” Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 11, No. 1. (Feb), pp. 51-87. Hart, G. 1986 "Interlocking Transactions: Obstacles, Precursors or Instruments of Agrarian Capitalism?" Journal of Development Economics, 23, 177-203.