The work of Stuart Hall, cultural theorist and sociologist, has been central to my own intellectual development in postcolonial media studies, as it has been for others engaged with questions about culture and difference, political economy and popular culture, postcolonialism and Marxism. I first encountered Hall, a postcolonial subject himself, racialized in Great Britain, on the shelves of a bookcase in the least-visited section of the British Council Library (BCL) in Mumbai, India. The BCL, that vestige and sign of colonialism and an embodiment of postcoloniality, for a teenager for whom the British raj was a story in a history textbook, was a site to access “high culture.” Indeed, this is precisely how the BCL constituted and narrated itself. Sutured to that narrative, the BCL was where I could access and read Austen, the Brontë sisters, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Dickens, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Byron, in short where I could access Literature and the literary Canon. It was a library like no other at the time—air-conditioned, quiet, well-ordered, and organized, where immaculately dressed women speaking the Queen's English would direct you with a profound sense of gravitas. These books, in this space, on these shelves, they suggested, were important. Thus, even though the story of British colonialism in South Asia may have seemed distant and static to an Indian teenager like me in the 1990s, I had nevertheless learned to think of the metropole as the fountainhead of culture, of civilization itself.
Stuart Hall was not easy to find. He wasn't on prominent display, but rather tucked away on a shelf labeled “Media,” among books about newswriting and television technology. Hall's presence on that shelf, in that library, felt like an aberration, and as soon as I began to read “The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media,” I had a feeling that this encounter was clandestine, unsanctioned by authority. As I continued to engage nevertheless, Hall's work taught me to think critically about difference, about culture, about politics, about the state, and about the media. He problematized the conception of culture I had internalized and enabled me to begin to think about it as shared maps of meaning making. He taught me something valuable not just about race, class, and ethnicity in the British context, but about the modalities through which global power acts in a national context. Most significantly, through his scintillating essays such as “Encoding/Decoding,” “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular,” “The Problem of Ideology—Marxism without Guarantees,” “The Question of Cultural Identity,” and “Representation: Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices,” and his collaborative work “Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order,” to name just a few, Hall enabled me to think in terms of conjunctures and articulations. In other words, he pointed to the ways in which popular media might work, through its affective narratives, to articulate or link disparate and sometimes contradictory conceptions, institutions, and formations into a structure in dominance. Hall's work as well as that of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies and then the work of Black cultural studies taught me to think about the popular as a complex terrain on which the powerfully affective story that gives form, shape, and texture to a conjuncture is both produced and contested. In this encounter with Hall—that is, an encounter between one postcolonial subject and another—he helped me understand Britain and India, imperialism and nationalism.
Subsequently, an engagement with Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961), Albert Memmi's The Colonizer and the Colonized (1965), and Aimé Césaire's Discourse on Colonialism (1972) helped me think about the co-constitution of the metropole and the colony and the Orient and the Occident. And it was via Stuart Hall's discussion of their contributions that I first interacted with the writings of Karl Marx, Louis Althusser, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. It was as a consequence of this engagement that I began to think about popular media in terms of “stories,” and to envisage “stories” first as the medium that gives form to economic and political instances, and second as the sutures that link these diverse instances together into a complex unity or structure. “Stories” are therefore also a significant terrain of political struggle; they are the ground on which hegemony is attained, struggled over, and reinforced. “Stories” are complex, unstable scripts that themselves encode several different stories into a contingent unity. “Stories” as a concept allows us to think in terms of a narrative. Films tell us stories, journalism tells us stories, advertising tells us stories, our political institutions tell us stories, even nonfiction tells us stories; these stories tell us what the world was like, what it is like, what it might be like, and what it should be like. I would suggest that conceiving of power, difference, and the popular in this fashion is a significant contribution of postcolonial media studies, exemplified in the work of a diverse range of scholars situated in disparate disciplinary contexts, including Inderpal Grewal, Arvind Rajagopal, Ravi Vasudevan, Christopher Pinney, David Scott, Tejaswini Niranjana, Purnima Mankekar, and Rupal Oza.
Feminist interventions have been crucial in helping me develop a more analytically rigorous understanding of power, in both its colonial and its nationalist iterations. Chandra Talpade Mohanty's intellectual projects, for instance, have been generative for media studies in providing methodological tools with which to think about power and knowledge, discourse, the appropriation of the local and the particular for the formation of the global, the abstract universal, and identity. The work of feminist scholars like Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Radhika Parameswaran are exemplary here. Joan Wallach Scott, in her seminal essay “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” (1986), laid out a framework for the use of gender as an analytic. I draw on Scott's argument that “gender is a primary way of signifying relations of power” and her call to think of gender as providing a “way to decode meaning and to understand the complex connections among various forms of human interaction.”1 In a similar vein, Susie Tharu and Tejaswini Niranjana comment on the Indian context in their 1994 essay “Problems for a Contemporary Theory of Gender.” By critically focusing on the notions of the “human” on “whom the question of rights” is predicated both by humanist Marxism and humanist feminism, Tharu and Niranjana argue that the task for a “contemporary theory of gender” is to make visible the particularity of the subject that claims universality, to make visible the hegemonic formation “from the perspective of those it necessarily excludes, and reveal its complicity with that which claims to be both naturally Indian and truly international.”2 Postcolonial feminist interventions that have been inspired by the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies as well as postcolonial theory but have also retooled and reconfigured their epistemological horizons have been attendant to just such a call and have highlighted the sexed ground on which colonialist and nationalist projects have been constituted as well as the fashioning of particular social formations.3
The concepts of subaltern—reworked by the Subaltern Studies Collective from Gramsci's writings—and native informant—as theorized in the work of feminist scholar Gayatri Spivak—have also been crucial to the cultivation of a critical reading practice within the field of postcolonial media studies. The provocative work of Bishnupriya Ghosh, for instance, can be considered in this context. The work of the Subaltern Studies Collective has attempted to, in the words of its founder, Ranajit Guha, “promote a systematic and informed discussion of subaltern themes in the field of South Asian studies, and thus help to rectify the elitist bias characteristic of much research and academic work in this particular area” and has played a foundational role in complicating historiography but also the understanding of subalternity.4 In the field of postcolonial media studies, this intervention has led to the theorization of subaltern (or popular) modes of engagement with popular media, particularly popular visual materials such as posters and film and the study of fan cultures. Feminist scholars such as Rosalind O'Hanlon have critiqued the work of the Collective by noting that the recuperation of the subordinated occurs within a modality that defines the subaltern as a “conscious human subject-agent.”5 In other words, this critique points to the ways in which two distinct and exclusive domains are constituted in the Collective, that of the elite and that of the subaltern. Following the contributions of the Collective and its feminist critique and using Spivak's conception of the native informant as a provocation, it has been important for me to conceive of postcolonial media studies as a critical reading practice that uses the presence of the subaltern or subalternity (often as a trace, a fragment) within popular media stories as a deconstructive lever to unravel the specific and particularistic mechanisms of power at work in a social formation. Rather than recuperate or resurrect the domain of the people, the popular and the subaltern, postcolonial media studies must work to reveal the narrative form and structures through which such categories are constituted and precisely what interests are served by such a construction.
Postcolonial feminist media studies has allowed me to move through interdisciplinary spaces and bring literatures that focus on categories such as caste and gender into conversation with bodies of work that explore the construction and resistance of racialization and gendered identity markers. It allows me to read the stories that constitute particular conjunctures with a set of sophisticated conceptual tools and has as such enabled a historicization of both the terrain of the popular and the senses that grasp that which is popular.