7 Oct 2019 5:30pm - 7:00pm Large Lecture Theatre, Geography Department, Downing Site, Cambridge, CB2 1QB


A Lecture series hosted by the Smuts Memorial Fund in association with Polity Press.

Slum Acts in Three Scenes

Speaker: Professor Veena Das (John Hopkins University)

The overarching theme of these Smuts Memorial Lectures deals with the way knowledge that is inordinate, excessive, and overwhelming is secreted into the ‘everyday’ in low-income and poor Deli neighbourhoods with crumbling infrastructures and pervasive violence. While the overall mood in which these three lectures are written swings between anger, fear, outrage — it is also laced with utter admiration, bursts of laughter, and humility on my part. The capacity for friendship with people in these neighbourhoods has enabled me to work in these areas, along with a dedicated team of field assistants, for the last twenty years. The final question I ask is about finding or founding the human, while in the grip of the inhuman.

Lecture 1: Inordinate Knowledge and Self Making

In his signature theme of scepticism and everyday life, Stanley Cavell creates an incisive contrast between inordinate knowledge that is excessive and knowledge that is mere or bare or pale or intellectualized, uninsistent, inattentive, distracted, filed or archived. In this, the first of the Smuts lectures, I look at certain catastrophic events in the lives of individuals within the milieu of the slums in Delhi where I have worked for the last twenty years. I ask what kind of self-knowledge do these events generate? How do individuals learn to endure and to act upon knowledge that they cannot ignore? It is through the texture of these lives that I track how knowledge moves from being pale and bare to dark and filled with plenitude. Without taking recourse to such overused concepts as those of ongoing traumas or resilience, which generate their own forms of concealing, my task here is to ask how our concepts may be made responsible to the experiences that are the stuff of everyday violence in the slums?  What does attentiveness to the forms of self-knowledge and action as encountered in these milieus entail for anthropological knowledge itself?

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