The Nomadic Ethnography of Bhrigu Singh

Waxing and waning intensities, territorial and temporal crossings, thresholds of life, bipolar sovereignty, erotics and agonistics, agonistic intimacies, traveling gods, teasing songs, spiritual attachments to life, illegible zones of threat and possibility, intensities deeper than deep play, cultural “settings” and rules of eye contact, erotics, aesthetics and life, divine migrations, a positive frugality of desire.

Bhrigu Singh is an exploratory thinker and, to me, a practitioner of nomadic ethnography. He folds thinkers, gods, and visionaries from different places and times into the visceral life of a poor district in India. Doing so, he seeks to disrupt and move practices of ethnography rooted in territorial modes of historicism, majoritarian traditions of thought, sociocentrism, or the sufficiency of cultural internalism. He crosses thresholds of territory, time, the human/nonhuman divide, and major/minor traditions as he concentrates his attention on lower caste life in one zone of India. He might be said to place a “minor” tradition of European thought—a tradition contesting Majority European traditions from inside its own territory—into close contact with minor thinkers, deities and practices in India. In proceeding thus he challenges the twin ideas that one major tradition is simply superior to the other or that either is intact in itself. For both are challenged internally by minor traditions, and two of those minor traditions cross east/west boundaries in this ethnography. Gods, thinking, practices, and hierarchies all travel in this study, as anthropology does too. His topic is the district of Shahabad as locals, the state, global, and planetary dimensions of life pass through it.

I am, clearly, taken with the adventure Bhrigu Singh pursues and impressed with how he weaves a diverse array of voices into an ethnographic adventure.

Of course, several objections could be posed to this brand of nomadic ethnography: It insinuates the ethnographer too deeply into the practices its studies; it is not objective enough; it is not somber enough; it mixes diverse traditions in confusing ways; it pays insufficient attention to the Indian state as a site of both caste domination and neoliberalism; it does not pay enough attention to the local as a key site of belonging, protection and solace. Why, then, celebrate it as a mode of anthropology and call for its emulation?

Perhaps I can start to respond to that question by noting the planetary condition in which the study is set. A planetary condition that, though differentially, infuses localities, officials, anthropologists, diverse states, global politics, consumption, markets, devotees of different gods, generals, and philosophers.

We inhabit the Anthropocene. This is not merely an era when a former, gradual pace of climate change, ocean current flows and species evolution has been interrupted by the historical intervention of extractive capitalism and communism. Indeed, a critical ethnography of theories of gradualism with respect to species evolution, geological processes, glacier flows, weather patterns, and paleontology would show that there have been numerous changes before, first, the human estate made much of difference and, second, that estate made a radical difference. There were, for instance, the five major species extinction events before the Anthropocene, accompanied by several punctuations in the planetary organization of climate, oceans, glaciers and species life. The Anthropocene, then, is the 200 year period when capitalist and communist modes of political economy have introduced massive infusions of CO2 into several nonhuman self-organizing processes. The pre-human punctuations make the Anthropocene even more dangerous than some early summations of it as a unique intervention had suggested.

This is the contemporary planetary condition, one that makes any study of anthropology, politics, philosophy or economics pitched merely at intersections between local, state and global sites radically insufficient to themselves. Such studies commit the fallacies of sociocentrism and cultural internalism, in that they fail to explore how partially self-organizing, intersecting, planetary processes of climate, weather, glacier flows, ocean currents, and species evolution enter into cultural life at each site. But you cannot study the planetary alone either, so a nomadic anthropology is one that folds a planetary dimension into readings of local, state and global practices as it also folds each of these scales into it.

Bhrigu suggests that some minor gods who travel across castes and territories leave a cultural imprint in part because they amplify local experiences of the contemporary planetary condition. Not only do they do that. They throw out pearls of wisdom about how to enliven the local sense of the new planetary condition, how to reconfigure ascetic practices and aesthetic priorities to speak to this condition, and, most importantly, how to foster a positive ethos of frugality during the contemporary age. This is an ethnography on the way to a local/planetary anthropology.

Bhrigu’s guess is that no puritan ethos from either east or west is up to the task of today. The invocation of puritanism, perhaps, is effective in containing desire in this or that domain only to release it elsewhere in avalanches of divine violence or compensatory modes of consumption. Its piety is grounded in self-denial, lack and inhibition.

Bhrigu’s forays into the sexualities of caste and territorial crossings are not merely delicious in themselves, they may also give clues about how to promote a positive ethos of existential attachment to the abundance of life today during a period when material abundance must be challenged. Erotics, aesthetics, ethics, and politics. Of course, such non-moral sources of an affirmative ethos with planetary bite cannot become consolidated without radical shifts in the infrastructure of consumption, at least in the zones of affluence within eastern and western regions. And those shifts in the infrastructure will not proceed far without significant reforms of political economy. So these three elements—-ethos, infrastructure and politics–are in fact interwoven. Each requires an advance in the other two to proceed far itself.

And Bhrigu, with help from Kalli, Deleuze, Tejaji, Zarathustra, and Queen Bee, has made more provocative suggestions about how to proceed on the first front—existential ethos–than anyone else I know. Others, again, may base their hopes on consumer denial and/or sovereign prohibitions. Bhrigu reviews and experiments with living practices that fill life with a surfeit of positive meanings and connections without recourse to material abundance. The point again, is that a positive ethos of frugality both sets one condition for affirmative politics today and enables that politics, if and when enacted, to find receptive responses in everyday life. That is how this text and another essay by Singh together offer a local, engaged anthropology of the contemporary planetary condition. (Singh 2011)

I also appreciate how Bhrigu elides spectatorial questions of pessimism and optimism, turning instead to practices that can possibly speak to urgent needs of the day. For during this time of urgency the assessment of probabilities must take second place to the pursuit of positive possibilities that could speak to the need of our time. So: the pursuit of frugality through nurturing an ethos of existential abundance rather than one of abstinence; engagements with need and possibility over those anchored assessments of probability.

I have plenty of worries about the world. But what concerns do I have about this text? I note one.

Occasionally when talking about living spiritualities, a critical topic in this project, Singh (I switch to the impersonal designation now) places the issue of popular “belief” in the gods in scare quotes. He is interested in what spirituality the gods convey and how it is received rather than in answering the question of whether the gods are figures or realities to the participants. He is not interested in articulating his own “beliefs” here either. I wonder, though. Does Singh here, even as he refuses to adopt a superior stance, slip toward a mode of ethnographic superiority rather than one of exchange and respectful engagement? Does this very distancing tactic fail to foster a relation of agonistic respect with the populace he engages?

Once you break the hold of the analytic/synthetic dichotomy in ethnography and in the social sciences at large you can see how creedal belief and spirituality are essentially inter-involved without either being entirely reducible to the other. My beliefs about, say, an omnipotent god, or the immanent divine, or entering into a mode of communion with being as such enters into the spirituality I adopt. And any of these beliefs may express ambivalence or uncertainty, as it finds variable expression in diverse layers of the culture/body complex. But when considered comparatively, it is difficult to say that some faiths express beliefs while others bypass that issue altogether. For one feature of belief is the ability to compare and contrast it to others. Moreover, an unexpected natural event or a new finding may shock some latent beliefs, forcing believers back to the drawing board. Some Hindus, Muslims, Christians and non-theists may thus find themselves undergoing conversions of belief, in the broadest senses of the words “conversion” and “belief”.

Creedal beliefs are thus inter-coded with spirituality, but neither is entirely reducible to the other. So people sharing a formal creed may diverge on the spirituality with which it is infused. Some, say, fold presumptive love of the world and diversity into their creedal beliefs while others fold, say, secret resentment of their god for being so demanding or of the world for lacking the gods they had expected.

I suspect, for instance, that Singh identifies with several onto-beliefs propounded by Deleuze and Nietzsche, even as he also identifies fervently with the spiritualities each pursues and finds expressions of such spiritualities in a local Indian district. He folds a gratitude for being as such into his onto-creed. Charles Taylor also folds a positive spirituality into his creedal beliefs, but he may not captivate Singh in the same way. Singh could pursue an affinity of spirituality with him across a difference of creedal belief, however, as he might with John Thatamanil in a different way.

The first point in thinking about linkages and distinctions between spirituality and belief is to come to terms with how both color our thinking, actions and interpretation. The second is that when we actively appreciate how a diversity of creedal beliefs can sink into cultural life we are in a better position to pursue a positive pluralist assemblage across those faiths, class locations, countries and age cohorts. The critical assemblage needed during the late stages of the Anthropocene is one in which a large variety of creedal constituencies forge connections across affinities of spirituality.

What would happen if Singh specified his onto-beliefs in relation to the constituencies he studies while actively pursuing positive affinities of spirituality with both them and us? My sense is that his project would be even more engaged and more nomadic. Indeed, I think he is already doing this.

I am aware that the issue posed here is a subtle one and that not only the content but the very meanings of ‘belief” and “spirituality” vary across traditions. My point is only to pose the question of how to think belief comparatively along both dimensions. The issue seems important for those who seek to negotiate positive affinities of spirituality across regions, classes, and faith affiliations.

This, then, remains a debatable issue. But I did not want to express my appreciation for the singular achievement of Bhrigu Singh’s book without posing at least one issue.


Works Cited

Bhrigupati Singh, “Agonistic Intimacy and Moral Aspiration in Population Hinduism.” American Ethnologist 2011; 38(3): 430-450.


William Connolly is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies and Democratic Activism (Duke 2013), A World of Becoming (Duke 2013), Capitalism and Christianity: American Style (Duke 2008).