Q&A with Anthropologist Veena Das

Issue Date: 
March 16, 2015

Veena Das, the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University, is the keynote speaker for a two-day workshop that will explore the concept of wisdom—often considered different from knowledge—in culture. Her talk, to be held at 4:30 p.m. March 20 in the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, is part of a workshop, sponsored by Pitt’s Office of the Provost, Humanities Center, and Department of Anthropology. 

Dr. Veena Das

“Dr. Veena Das is one of the most influential anthropologists working today,” said Pitt anthropology professor Joseph S. Alter. “Her work on human suffering highlights the way in which poverty, stigma, risk, and violence must be understood in terms of the broad social, political, and cultural factors” that encompass those who feel they are not responsible for other people’s suffering. She has studied the mass dislocation of people in the 1947 partition of her native India and the mass killing of Sikhs after the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi. Her research on that topic has interrogated the models of trauma that focus on individual subjectivity and has instead looked at the ways in which everyday life offers methods to contain the effects of violence. Her most recent publications include Affliction: Health, Disease, Poverty (2015) and Politics of the Urban Poor (forthcoming). Das’ keynote talk is free and open to the public, and will be followed by a cocktail reception.

You described your talk as focusing on how the violence that has become part of our life experience jeopardizes the traditional ethical concepts of self-making. What is self-making, and how is it influenced by violence?  

We must do work on the self to make ourselves into moral beings—it’s not a given. The main thing is how the whole experience of violence destabilizes the concepts that we have. When incidents like police beatings or school violence happen—or when violence destabilizes people’s lives in places like Iraq or Syria—how must people improvise their ethical selves? When does violence become so normalized that we don’t pay attention to it? What is the value of human life? We look at a terrorist or a torturer and think, how can a person be inflicting torture and otherwise be living a normal life?  

I have no answers to these questions but use them as points of inquiry. The questions make us rethink our traditional notions of wisdom. One traditional notion is that civilization protects us from atrocities, which isn’t the case. 

Do you believe that people in power, especially, can choose to be complicit to violence? 

Well, what has bothered anthropologists and social scientists is how those who are not powerful can also become complicit; they can even become part of the same ideology that oppresses them. Not just in the extremely overt acts of violence but subtler forms as well. It can make collective action difficult, even on the part of those extremely oppressed. 

What inspired you to begin studying violence and suffering?  

I wouldn’t say I was inspired. I was compelled—I felt these issues needed a response.  

You’ve both criticized and celebrated the university as a place to examine these issues. Can you talk about that? 

There is some enlightened reasoning in the universities. But in history, the university also has been complicit with the state. Nazism had a lot of support from biologists and geneticists at the time. Even today—think about campus rapes, for example. The fact that we’ve only just begun to respond to the issue shows we can remain complicit in violence around us. These are very complex questions.

But the university is not a unitary institution. You get different expressions of ideas, which is good. It means things are contested, and they should be. But we need to work for that open discussion. We shouldn’t assume that the university is already a safe haven.