Author's Roundtable 3: Ritu Birla, Stages of Capital
Guest Writer: Okla Elliott

Thursday, November 19, 2009

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism

Written by Okla Elliott (Comparative and World Literature)

The Graduate Employee Organization strike so filled the air Monday night that the event began with an update from a representative, Michael Verderame, from the English department. Two of the panelists addressed the issue—Zsuzsa Gille dedicating her comments to the GEO’s efforts and Matt Hart beginning with an inspiring description of graduate students’ labor and intellectual value. Proof that their words were more than mere lip service, one of the panelists, Jamie Warren, was a graduate student in History.

Lauren Goodlad, who also mentioned the strike in her introductory comments, acknowledged the challenges we face here at UIUC (and elsewhere in the country), as she pointed out that intellectual exchanges like Monday’s author’s roundtable continue to bring joy to academic life. I will go one step further and say that it is evenings like this for which we are ultimately fighting, and they’re the reason graduate students are already willing to live at near-poverty levels just to be here. As we celebrate the apparent success of the GEO strike, I find myself hoping that the University of Illinois and others like it continue to be the locus of a kind of wealth which exceeds mere material comfort.

Ritu Birla’s Stages of Capital is as much a legal history as a theoretical analysis, a project in post-colonial studies as well as an investigation into economics. Perhaps the most fascinating feature of this wide-ranging book is Birla’s conceptualization of history and jurisprudence as translation. This is an especially apt tactic when one remembers that translators can do more than get the particular words wrong; one can also misunderstand underlying facts.

Birla’s insights into the economics of kinship as recoded by colonial law are among the strongest aspects of the book. The notion of kinship as it played out in pre-colonial Indian economic practice allowed for an extended family that also served as a business network crossing city, state, and (at times) national borders. The colonial translation of this “family business,” however, limited the family economic unit to the more western notion of an estate or residence, shrinking the business network to a single household. And so, getting the cultural facts on the ground wrong, the British translated the Indian family business network into a law that was then applied to the conduct of Indian society, thus changing the facts on the ground (though Birla also explains the back and forth reverberation between the two).

As she recapitulated the main arguments from her book, Birla reinterpreted Ferdinand Tönnies’ well known thesis about the nineteenth-century shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft. She pointed to the specific laws that translated the Western distinction between public and private into a distinction between British-style market capitalism and the “culture” of Indian economic practices. On her view the imposition of the market governmentality and the consequent impact on and response from India’s vernancular capitalists created what we now think of as Gemeinschaft.

One of the joys of the book, for me anyway, is the wealth of specific examples from legal and economic history. Birla offers a nearly perfect balance of archival data, explanations of said data (for readers who aren’t specialists in Indian legal history), and theorizing about how these data came to cause the historical and cultural events they have.

And, finally, I’d like to call attention to a term Birla coins that I hope will find its way into Latin American Studies, African Studies, and other area studies related to post-colonialism: “vernacular capitalist.” The term nicely evokes a palimpsest of the language, culture, and commercial practices of a region. It names, and therefore brings into being, a variation on several pre-existing concepts in a way that I find immensely productive.


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