Cultural studies break: Postmodernism and Tea

Ok, go with me here. I used to be in Asian Studies. But really, I just wanted to nerd out over ethnobotany, and I took every chance I could to do just that. Below is a critique I wrote of A Time for Tea by Piya Chatterjee, an ethnography of women and labor practices of tea plantations in India. It is an interesting if frustrating read (half of every chapter switches from ethnography to the script of a symbolic play… if you can imagine that). In my critique you can tell that I’m really a positivist scientist in wolf’s clothing. But it is a healthy exercise to look at the intersection of humans and plants from the fluid, messy, relativistic, human side of things. For a change.

A Time for Tea by Piya Chatterjee

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Postmodernism in A Time for Tea by Piya Chatterjee

Critique

            A Time for Tea, by Piya Chatterjee, is an evocative ramble through the complexities of women, labor, imperialism, and tea plantations. Chatterjee’s ethnography of the common woman is interwoven with colonial and imperial histories of tea. This feminized commodity is produced by a culture of patronage where women and their labor are both “fetishized” and devalued. Chatterjee approaches this subject matter through postmodernism, which colors and permeates her understanding of women and labor on Indian tea plantations. This perspective gives Chatterjee several advantages in consideration. However, as a postmodernist Chatterjee acknowledges problems with the classical positivist route, yet instead of acting as a corrective, she serves to flamboyantly exacerbate the problem.

            In many ways, postmodernism is ideal for Chatterjee and her subject. The postmodernist framework enables Chatterjee to focus on the subaltern, to draw awareness to contradictions, to record primary voices, and to avoid certain problems of positivism. The postmodernist rejection of modern “rational” institutions and their inherent inequalities means that Chatterjee, a feminist focusing on labor practices in a postcolonial society, is right at home. Chatterjee explicitly seeks to write the voices of women that have never been written before, particularly not by the illiterate women themselves. Because of this, she explores the fascinating ways in which colonialism smashed Victorian values and hierarchies into indigenous ones in unexpectedly long-lived ways. As a postmodernist, Chatterjee draws awareness to the many ironies and contradictions that these plantation women experience. For example, women are widely praised as the best, and perhaps only suitable, workers to pluck tea, but their protests of working conditions are taken the least seriously by plantation managers. Union leaders on the plantation act not to empower and organize the people on the plantation, but as yet another authority under which such women are oppressed. Like other postmodernists, Chatterjee focuses on the personal experience of her individual subjects, which allows her to chronicle primary sources. Postmodernism allows Chatterjee to sidestep certain problems of classical positivism. To avoid the orientalist essentialization of plantation culture, she relies instead on cultural relativism. To avoid skewing evidence, she avoids drawing conclusions or stating her argument. But all this sidestepping can itself be a detriment.

            Postmodernism is a reaction to the failings of modernism and positivism. Despite the well established reign of such schools of thought, society and academia are still plagued with patriarchy, inequality, essentialization, and overly-simplistic thinking. To a postmodernist, truth is only relative, language is fickle, and knowledge is non-existent.

Yet postmodernists, like Chatterjee, in practice do not clarify the situation, rather they demonstrate the irrationality by making some more of their own. Language does carry with it baggage and connotation which are themselves in flux. Words must be unpacked and defined so that usage is clear and communication is heightened. These are problems which must be dealt with if any kind of truth, relative or otherwise, is to be gained. Inventing words, without defining them, neatly avoids the problem of baggage. Yet if clear communication is at all desired, then invented words are worse than useless. Chatterjee’s invention of words (“alterity”, “facticity”), bizarre use of known words (picturesque as a noun), and creative use of the “/” (“dis/able”, “im/migrant”), rather than clarifying anything, serve instead to further cloud the issue. The reader must interpret and may give meaning to a word that the author did not intend, which is similar to the problems experienced with normal, unpacked language. The proximity of postmodernist writing and artistic endeavors is clearly evident in A Time for Tea, to the extent that the flash and style of Chatterjee’s imbedded play script and the poetic style of her writing may distract from the subject matter. The entire exercise begs the question: if knowledge does not exist, then what is the purpose of a scholarly work such as A Time for Tea? From the postmodernist perspective, a reader can only go from ignorant to confused – no true knowledge is obtained because Chatterjee cannot clarify or explain with out making a static statement about something which is in flux.

Most postmodernists would agree that rational examination of human culture is impossible because humans are irrational when left to their own devices. They might not however agree that humans are still capable of rationality, if training and effort are put into the cultivation of such view points. Perhaps the difficulty of discerning truth, the hidden baggage of language, and the inequalities imposed by “rational” institutions are in fact due to the failure to actually achieve the claimed rationality. This failure of rationality is what allows Western “orientalist” scholars to essentialize the East as an embodiment of everything exotic, as Edward Said notes. If so, then this is a failure not of positivism, but of the scholars themselves. Rather than strive for such rationality, postmodernism would rather start anew. Yet such an approach can actually exacerbate pre-existing problems, as it does in Chatterjee, by clouding meaning, by sacrificing function for form, and by denying the existence of knowledge of even the relative truth we can obtain.

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