The suspicious suicide: Toxicity, masculinity, and the political economy of GM cotton in central India.

Talk by Aarti Sethi (Anthropology, University of Berkeley)

Since 1997, over 250,000 farmers have taken their own lives in central India, an agrarian region where farmers have grown cotton for centuries. Today, farmers are mono-cropping genetically modified hybrid cotton seeds, which have trebled the input costs of cotton cultivation. Pushed into downward debt spirals to moneylenders and banks and unable to recoup costs, over a quarter million farmers have taken their own lives. This talk examines a paradoxical set of conversations around suicide deaths in the village. Whereas media, scholarly, and civil society discourses narrate the deaths of farmers as a debt-induced tragedy, amongst themselves, farmers describe suicide as an individual failing, usually on account of alcohol addiction and domestic strife. In this talk, I describe a structure of feeling I term ‘empathy without sympathy’ in which people may place themselves in the position of those who have died but have no sympathy for them. This disavowal arises from the individuation of risk as a structural precondition of farming. Since everyone is trapped in transgenic cotton cultivation, the inclination to isolate death in individual failure, rather than structural compulsion, is an attempt by the living to recover space for sovereign action, as they, too, must farm within this mode of debt-driven cultivation. Empathy without sympathy has rendered the speech of men ‘socially empty’. Even when someone says that they will commit suicide, no one believes them. I argue that toxicity is productive. By consuming pesticides, the body performs the communicative function to supplement for the failure of masculine speech.

Aarti Sethi is an assistant professor at the Department of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. She is a socio-cultural anthropologist with primary interests in agrarian anthropology, political economy, and the study of South Asia. Her research interests broadly focus on the transformation of rural life-worlds and agrarian capitalism. She is currently working on two projects. The first is a book that examines cash-crop agricultural economies to understand how monetary debt undertaken for transgenic cotton cultivation transforms intimate, social, and productive relations in rural society. She is particularly concerned with understanding the specificity of neoliberal agrarian change as a process in which peasant producers worldwide have become the subaltern franchisees of international bio-capital. Her second project, Republic of Readers, explores the relationship between reading literacy and libraries as sites of postcolonial democracy and citizenship. Alongside her research in agrarian anthropology, she is interested in the social life of technology, the politics of knowledge and literacy, the anthropology of religion, the history of anthropological thought, multi-species ethnography, and bringing archives and ethnography together. She has published in urban ethnography, cinematic, media, and visual cultures. Sethi holds degrees in political science and cinema and cultural studies from Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and received her Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University. Before joining UC Berkeley, she held postdoctoral fellowships at Brown and Harvard University. Sethi’s work has appeared in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, The Journal of Peasant Studies, American Ethnologist, and Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, among other venues.

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