Past Event

What is politics?

9 September 2016 13:00–14:30

Institute of Development Studies
Library Road, Falmer
Brighton BN1 9RE

In this STEPS Centre seminar, Tania Murray Li, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, will discuss changes in how critical politics are studied and perceived. She will show that capacity for engaging in a critical politics is permanent and broadly distributed, but its expression is often interrupted.

This seminar will cover a broad sweep of issues under the general rubric of building systemic governing.

In the discipline of anthropology, there was once a field called “political anthropology,” with a focus on systems of social organization (hierarchies, clans, kingdoms) and social order. This field has exploded: we now have a politics of everything – a politics of food, gender, the city, land, resources…. As the object of study has dispersed, it has become difficult to discern what the term “politics of” actually signals.

Some theorists declare that we are in an era of post-politics, in which experts rule in multiple domains of life, and we have been convinced that “there is no alternative” to the capitalist system.  Few of us work in contexts where we can say the big questions are settled, yet explicit mobilization to contest inequality and injustice is less common that we might expect. How can we make sense of this?

In this talk, Tania Li will propose a definition of politics that recovers its theoretical specificity. She argues that a capacity for engaging in a critical politics is permanent and broadly distributed, but its expression is often interrupted. Hence we need to attend not only to instances in which an explicit critique is articulated, but also to instances when critical insights are truncated, potential connections are not forged, and individuals do not communicate or organize with others.

Studying something that isn’t there – explicit critique and effective mobilization – is of course a difficult task. But posing explicit political practice as a counter-factual (something we might expect to find), rather than a teleology (something that will inevitably unfold), opens up an important terrain of empirical inquiry. The talk will be illustrated with examples from three sites in rural Indonesia that Prof Li has examined ethnographically.

About Tania Li

Tania Murray Li teaches in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, where she holds the Canada Research Chair in the Political Economy and Culture of Asia. Her publications include Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier (Duke University Press, 2014), Powers of Exclusion: Land Dilemmas in Southeast Asia (with Derek Hall and Philip Hirsch, NUS Press, 2011), The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics (Duke University Press, 2007) and many articles on land, development, resource struggles, community, class, and indigeneity with a particular focus on Indonesia.

Visit Tania Li’s webpage at the University of Toronto

View other STEPS events (STEPS Centre website)

Key contacts

Nathan Oxley

Impact Communications and Engagement Officer

+44 (0)1273 915826


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