Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto in Canada, Francis Cody has been working on Tamil Nadu for over a decade now. He  recently visited the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance to speak about ‘Regimes of Circulation and Mass Mediated Embodiment in the making of a Public Sphere’.

He spoke with Aradhana Sharma about his interest in Tamil Nadu and his work on the public sphere. The Indian Medialogue publishes this interview in two-parts. Below is the first part. 

ARADHANA SHARMA. What drew you to Tamil Nadu and how did you develop an interest in such work?

FRANCIS CODY. I came to south India to study music but got interested in politics and language while I was living there.

Subsequently, a fellowship to study Tamil brought me to Tamil Nadu. What struck me was the centrality of language in the political history of south India, which drew me to my first study and work on literacy activism in Tamil Nadu. I looked at the literacy movement through the perspective of activism.

 ARADHANA. How did this lead to an interest in the public sphere?

FRANCIS. When I started working in literacy activism, my idea was to get everyone to read and write, so that they could read the newspaper and develop an informed opinion of the world around them.

I assumed that people living in villages were not sufficiently aware of what was happening outside. The idea was to make them think as Indian citizens, as opposed to people from a particular caste, etc. That, in many ways, was the aim of the movement. However, people did not learn to read the newspaper. All they did was to learn how to write their names and sign.


But my interest in newspapers continued. I looked at newspaper consumption in tea shops by both people who knew how to read and those who did not. Then I went on to look at newspaper distribution and spoke to a lot of journalists. That interest grew, and since then I have been trying to get a better sense of how the public sphere operates.

Less than democratic, less than national

 ARADHANA. When we speak of the public sphere, what and who else do you see as part of it – if, as you say, it goes beyond the “rational” newspaper-reading public in the Habermasean sense?

 FRANCIS. The question is: what is the public sphere? I got interested in newspapers as they are, in many senses, the archetypal medium for the exercise of democratic debate.

Of course, if you look at any newspaper closely, it is often less than democratic, less than national. A lot of things are attributed to television and to crowds. I thought that by looking at the archetypal medium of public debate and seeing how it is in fact entangled in the production of crowd energy – connected to cable television, connected to the same interests that lie behind cinema – I could acquire a critical edge on the literature of the public sphere. I realized that my interest in the newspapers was useful in this regard.

But it is becoming clear to me that I need to include other things in this project, such as television. And to think about this relationship between a more disembodied public and forms of embodiment that are often disassociated from democratic publicity. The binary is very seductive for some people and is a powerful ideology, so I don’t want to dismiss it and say it is irrelevant.

 Tea shops as modern social institutions

 ARADHANA. Does the building of a public sphere – particularly in rural India, where you have worked – go beyond media institutions such as the newspaper to include other aspects, for instance oral traditions?

 FRANCIS. First, we have to distinguish between different types of institutions that are nevertheless interpenetrated.

For example, political parties are very interesting institutions that on the one hand occupy the seat of power and on the other hand own television channels and have a deep stake in the press.

So, there are different types of institutions.

When looking at non-institutionalised political discourse or public sphere formation (if you want to think of it that way), I don’t know if we necessarily need to think of it in terms of tradition as opposed to modernity in the media. Think of a tea shop, a very modern institution: people did not drink tea even in 19th-century southern India, which makes it a new trend. So, it might also be seen as a social institution, though not an organised one on the scale of a political party or the like. But it is an important social institution and a very experimental space where people try out different things.

Thus, it is more about finding a range of different sites where one can examine things such as political discourses as they travel across different channels and institutions – everything from kinship to teashops to newspapers and more.

Politics of inclusion & the notion of national public sphere

ARADHANA. Your interest has been largely in understanding the Tamil public sphere. Do you see differences in the way it operates, as opposed to a national public sphere?

FRANCIS. One of the most obvious areas of comparison I have begun to study comprises the all-India English-language publications which have their local editions.


I do think a lot about the relationship between English-language and Tamil media. My access to Hindi literature, which is the most studied, is limited by the fact that I do not read the language. But I have been influenced by the work done in the area.

In terms of other differences, we can see that historically things happened at different times for newspapers in the south – in Tamil, Malayalam and even Telugu – and for their influence on life and politics. We see such developments happening in the North now, much later. It may be because of Dravidian nationalism. But the discourse on caste and community is very different in north India. The two political landscapes are very different. There is a similarity, but there is a certain danger in saying that what happened in the south is now happening in the north because the two landscapes are different.

 ARADHANA. How inclusive do you see the public sphere that you are researching to be?

 FRANCIS. It depends on where you locate public opinion-making.

If you do so at the level of consumption, there is something profoundly gendered about how different media have organised themselves. So, even if you look at the debate that I was speaking of about – a debate centred around a newspaper at a tea shop – it is very masculine. Tea shops are not places where women hang out.

Papers that have made a claim to wider readership and persuaded people to subscribe at home have a much more heterogeneous readership when it comes to both age and gender. At the same time, it is less democratic because it is a very private form of consumption. So, there is that level.

Then, of course, there is the larger level at which the political parties set the agenda for what counts for public discourse.

And then there are several things that people know or can talk about, at tea shops for instance, that will never be written down. For instance, in Chennai I could not have given the talk that I have given here because there are certain things that you just can’t say about powerful people.

Francis Cody has researched written language and the social dynamics of collective political action in southern India. In his first project, he channelled these interests towards a study of literacy activism, citizenship and social movement politics in rural Tamil Nadu. A second project centres on the daily newspaper market, tracing the emergence of populist politics through press publicity in Tamil cities and towns.

Through these projects, Cody has sought to develop a theoretical approach towards grasping modes of collective agency that escape our standard vocabularies of community, civil society and governance.

He is the author of The Light of Knowledge: Literacy Activism and the Politics of Writing in South India that was published by Cornell University Press. (South Asia edition published in 2013, Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan).

Aradhana Sharma is a PhD student with Centre for Culture, Media & Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.