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Of Fish Knives and Brooms: A Social Reproduction Approach to Solidarity

Tuesday, November 7, 2023
6:00 pm
McGuffey 322

Sponsored by The Grayson Kirk Distinguished Lecture Series

Tithi Bhattacharya is an Associate Professor of History and the Director of Global Studies at Purdue University. She specializes in Modern South Asian History.

Her first book, The Sentinels of Culture: Class, Education, and the Colonial Intellectual in Bengal, was published by Oxford University Press in 2005.  The book looks at the co-constitutive relationship between processes of class formation and nation formation. The book focuses on a very specific aspect of the Bengali middle class’s social history: their obsessive preoccupation with culture and education. The book starts from a rooted definition of education and demonstrates how education and culture were frequently aligned to social and economic power. Class is used as the organizing analytic category to argue that the commentaries about education and being educated in colonial Bengal ought to be seen as key arguments in staking out the territory of a new emergent middle class.

She is currently working on two book projects.  She is editing a volume of essays on gender and labor, under contract with Pluto Press. Mapping Social Reproduction Theory is a collection of essays by leading Marxist scholars and activists who explore the vitality of Social Reproduction Theory as a core component of Marxism and its significance to the concrete political struggles of our time.  Social Reproduction Theory challenges traditional notions of work as inadequately attentive to labor performed outside the points of production.  It insists that economic understanding is incomplete if only involving waged work.  Instead we need to examine how the reproduction of society—within households, schools, hospitals —produces and sustains the economy. Social Reproduction scholars look at both waged and unwaged work as constitutive of the economy. The approach is significant for the Global South where labor remains largely informalized.

She is also writing a history of fear in colonial Bengal. Uncanny Histories maps the role Bengali ghosts and ghost stories have played in reconstituting “traditional” Indian religious thought and in bringing such thought into a new relationship with the science and religion of Europe.  From the mid-nineteenth to the early decades of the twentieth century, new kinds of ghost stories accompanied by new forms of practices about the afterlife emerged in colonial Bengal, which reflected the influence of Western Science and European literary genres such as the Gothic.  Societies such as the Calcutta Theosophical Society (1882) and the Calcutta Psychical Society (1904) sought to employ modern empirical methods to understand death and spirituality.  The literary corollary to such societies was the appearance of unique ghost stories in the vernacular press, which seemed to be loosely modeled on the Victorian Gothic form.  

Both these developments, those in the literary world and in the practical world of Spiritual explorations (e.g. rise in séances and planchettes), marked a sharp contrast from older, pre-colonial forms of thought about ghosts and the spirit world.  Undoubtedly the reevaluation of death and the after-life was in itself a cultural response to a wider set of changes whereby new social processes such as rural to urban migration and generalized Western education, were altering the fabric of every-day life. The new “scientific” understanding of ghosts and spirits, however, was not simply different from older orally transmitted ghost stories. It embodied a highly particularized notion of the after life, one that sought to combine a version of high Brahminical Hinduism with modern science.  

Tithi has lectured throughout the United States and abroad, in Kolkata, Delhi, Belfast, London, Berlin and Amsterdam. Her writings have been translated into French, Polish, Spanish and Bengali.

Although she is a historian by training, she is an activist by choice.  She has been active in movements for social justice throughout her life, and in three continents.

She writes extensively on Marxist theory, gender, and the politics of Islamophobia. Her work has been published in the Journal of Asian Studies, South Asia Research, Electronic Intifada, Jacobin, and the New Left Review. She is on the editorial board of Studies on Asia and the International Socialist Review.

She lives and works in West Lafayette, Indiana, with her partner and daughter, under the strict daily supervision of their cat Cleveland the Valiant.

Tithi Bhattacharya
Tithi Bhattacharya
Associate Professor of South Asian History and Director of Global Studies at Purdue University