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 second part. The first part is available here.


The language of the English-language newspapers & forms of public formation

ARADHANA SHARMA. You have said that the distinction between crowds and the informed public is not as wide as some works suggest, there being many overlaps. Could you elaborate?

 Francis Cody. To give an example of what I mean by this, if you look at the language that is used to describe crowd violence in English-language newspapers, they often refer to “mobs that went berserk”.

In the very language used to describe that type of action or person, there is a distinction that is obviously being made between the reader of the newspaper and that “type” of person. It is implicit in the sort of language used.

So, readers of the newspaper can see themselves as those who are not a part of that. Very few people would describe themselves as going berserk as members of a mob; it is usually something ascribed to another.

And that attribution is key to building this liberal ideology of readership which encourages one to think of oneself as a universal citizen – as opposed to a mob or interested party prone to passion – better deserving of the normal process of politics.

I see it as a very important reading – and not as hegemonic, and that’s a very important thing. But I think it determines the language we use to talk about other forms of public formation.

I am trying to come up with a language to think about other forms of public formation where this is an important ideology, but certainly not the only one, one that is not already determined by that perspective.

It is a real struggle. I don’t have a language yet, which is why I have turned to political theory, which I think has made efforts to develop such language. But my criticism is that they have not paid adequate attention to the role of the media in producing the very phenomenon which they describe.


An angry mob (?) of workers (Courtesy:

ARADHANA. Your own study and observation, if I understand you correctly, indicate that mobs are not necessarily made up of ill-informed people, including those who do not read newspapers.

 FRANCIS. It is a question that needs to be addressed, but I don’t have all the answers to it.

However, I do believe we can’t assume that people who go onto the streets and take action because they are angry at a particular representation of their leader are necessarily ill-informed, that they don’t know better, that they didn’t read the article in the first place, that it is out of some sort of ignorance. Such assumptions are often built into how events are reported, particularly in the English press.

 Individualised forms of media consumption and street action

ARADHANA. However, there have been other movements which enjoyed a fair degree of mass appeal, such as the movement against corruption, or the one against violence towards against women following the December 2012 rape case, where people on the streets were not reported as “mobs” but as an informed public. Why the difference?

 FRANCIS. There is deep politics in that.

And I think these moments are very important because they showcase the contradiction that you can have an informed public out on the streets because it cares about something.

Whether you agree with the politics of the anti-corruption campaign is a separate issue, but it is very important nevertheless. What happened in Delhi over the last year has laid bare a key contradiction that I have been looking at in this research: that you can no longer make the claim that these are mobs out on the street, right? These appear as people who are out for a reasonable cause, and it is the State that then looks like the unreasonable other.

This is a very important moment, though I have difficulty in seeing where it will lead. But I do think that these are an important and connected set of global events: we do not think of the Egyptian revolution in terms of a mob. Something has changed, and it has to do with the relationship between media and politics at the global level. It is putting to question a lot of the older contradictions in terms of how we think about the relationship between individualised media consumption and bodies out on the street.

Just a few years ago, many of us who were interested in politics lamented that people just consumed news but did not want to go out and do anything about it. This was a common complaint, especially where I live in North America. So it is important that we see the relationship between relatively individualised forms of media consumption and street action; it is by no means straightforward, but there exists a relationship. And I think it helps us to understand things that we might not have earlier understood in terms of a structured relationship.

 The local and the national in the vernacular media

ARADHANA. How do you think the rise of vernacular media affects the idea of a national, imagined “Indian” community based on the consumption of national media? Are they in conflict with each other?

 FRANCIS. That’s the question Robin Jeffry asks in his book on the newspaper revolution, and the answer is a very equivocal one.

Despite the rise of vernacular media, which have a local focus in their reporting with news and information down to the level of the town or neighbourhood, that level of locality somehow does not seem to get in the way of a sense of nationality, in the sense that Benedict Anderson wrote about in his book, Imagined Communities. The two seem to be able to operate together.

And when thinking about the history of nationalism in Tamil Nadu, it actually makes sense that for many people it is easy to be a Tamil nationalist and an Indian nationalist at the same time. The two don’t come into conflict with each other. The Tamil poet Subramania Bharati is a great example of that. He wrote passionately about both. The two can coexist. The history of nationalism shows us that.

And what is happening in the newspapers in terms of intense locality does not necessarily get into the way of building a sense of being part of an “imagined community”.


Logo of Dinathanthi, a Tamil daily newspaper (Courtesy: Wikimedia Foundation)

But I should add a caveat to that argument. In times when there are things like a movement for secession, newspapers do great business by fuelling the flames. If you see what is happening in Andhra Pradesh right now, a lot of newspapers are heavily invested in fanning the flames and building a sense of locality, regardless of how you think about a sense of nationality. Certainly, the Tamil press in its origin went through that. Dinathanthi was about Tamil nationalism and not Indian nationalism. There is another book that talks about the role of newspapers in the Uttarakhand movement.

So, there can be times when it makes sense for newspapers to fuel the sense of locality, but I don’t know if that comes at the cost of belonging to the nation or separating yourself from your neighbour.

 ARADHANA. Taking it forward, it is one thing to say that the media fan the flames to increase circulation by focusing on issues of the day, such as a demand for secession. But if the movement already exists, can we also say that it gets a fillip because of newspapers writing about it?

 FRANCIS. It seems like that: the media are an important part of it. I haven’t followed the Telangana issue enough to understand the role of media houses in producing that effect. So, I can’t comment on that one in particular. But it seems to be an important set of tools in nurturing a sense of community, particularly if it is in a locally dominant language.

 The idea is to get out of the particulars

ARADHANA. Do you see differences in the dynamics of the public sphere in North America and India, and in particular Tamil Nadu?

 FRANCIS. What I can say and hope is that we in North America have a lot to learn from studying what is happening in the public sphere here, because a lot of liberal discourse in North America is disgusted with the public sphere.

They often don’t have a language to talk about it, other than saying that it is conservative and is owned by corporate interests, which is true. All that rests partly on ignorance about what is going on elsewhere. Also, the market has equally determined the direction of our discourse, as of American history and of how newspapers or even television became a mass phenomenon in America.

But I think there are a lot more similarities than people would initially see in the relationships between corporate interest, government and the public sphere. And I feel that looking at those, and trying to come up with an understanding of the public sphere which is adequate for understanding the Indian newspaper market and media environment, will also help me in understanding the broader phenomenon, be it North American or European or from elsewhere.

Another thing is not to think about the Indian public sphere in particular terms. Of course, there are things that happen here and not there, and vice-versa: one is not saying that everything is the same. But the idea is to get out of particulars. It is not just North American scholarship on India that participates in this; Indian scholarship on India also has a vested interest in being particular. It is this sort of collusion on particularisms that doesn’t allow for the building of a large question. Moving away from it, I think, can help us understand what is going on in the public sphere.

 ARADHANA. Is there a public sphere beyond the media?

 FRANCIS. There is a sense in which there is nothing beyond the media.

I mean we live in such a saturated media environment that even when you are doing something out on the streets, the sort of relationship between the virtual and the actual does not work as much anymore. It is already motivated by a media event and is going to become a media event. So we need to get beyond thinking of one as actual and one as virtual.

I do think there is an attempt to say that the body on the street is more real than the one in the newspaper. But we know the body on the street is often there because it knows that it is going to be reported in the newspapers. We can go back to Gandhi’s salt march and say that it became what it was because it was covered by the world press.


Gandhi’s historic march to Dandi in March 1930 (Courtesy: The Hindu)


Press coverage of the salt Satyagraha (Courtesy: )

We are getting a better understanding of the fact that people are performing for the media; they are already in this mediatised environment.

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.