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The Light of Knowledge

The Light of Knowledge: Literacy Activism and the Politics of Writing in South India

Francis Cody
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    The Light of Knowledge
    Book Description:

    Since the early 1990s hundreds of thousands of Tamil villagers in southern India have participated in literacy lessons, science demonstrations, and other events designed to transform them into active citizens with access to state power. These efforts to spread enlightenment among the oppressed are part of a movement known as the Arivoli Iyakkam (the Enlightenment Movement), considered to be among the most successful mass literacy movements in recent history. In The Light of Knowledge, Francis Cody's ethnography of the Arivoli Iyakkam highlights the paradoxes inherent in such movements that seek to emancipate people through literacy when literacy is a power-laden social practice in its own right.

    The Light of Knowledge is set primarily in the rural district of Pudukkottai in Tamil Nadu, and it is about activism among laboring women from marginalized castes who have been particularly active as learners and volunteers in the movement. In their endeavors to remake the Tamil countryside through literacy activism, workers in the movement found that their own understanding of the politics of writing and Enlightenment was often transformed as they encountered vastly different notions of language and imaginations of social order. Indeed, while activists of the movement successfully mobilized large numbers of rural women, they did so through logics that often pushed against the very Enlightenment rationality they hoped to foster. Offering a rare behind-the-scenes look at an increasingly important area of social and political activism, The Light of Knowledge brings tools of linguistic anthropology to engage with critical social theories of the postcolonial state.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6902-2
    Subjects: Anthropology, History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-x)
    Dominic Boyer

    It is with the greatest pleasure that I introduce you to Frank Cody’s The Light of Knowledge. In it, Cody brilliantly analyzes the work of the Arivoli Iyakkam, one of the largest literacy movements in the world, which mobilized millions across Tamil Nadu between 1990 and 2009. The Arivoli Iyakkam sought to increase the political participation and leverage of rural women and aspired to help them attain new, enlightened autonomy through literate access to science and knowledge. A range of socialist literacy movements inspired the movement, especially Paulo Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed.” Beginning as a volunteer-driven, nongovernmental project, such...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. Note on Transliteration
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  7. Introduction: Of Light, Literacy, and Knowledge in the Tamil Countryside
    (pp. 1-24)

    People in Katrampatti had nowhere to cremate their dead. Or, as the residents of this small, southern Indian hamlet would put it more bluntly, “We’ve got no place to croak” (maṇṭaippōṭṟatu iṭam illai). The Dalit community of Katrampatti had been allotted a small plot of land some years back to use as a cremation ground, since they were barred from sharing a cremation ground with the caste-Hindus who lived in nearby villages. This land was surrounded by fields owned by the dominant Kallar caste. While the fields were left fallow, no one bothered about the cremation ground’s location. But when...

  8. 1 On Being a “Thumbprint”: Time and Space in Arivoli Activism
    (pp. 25-67)

    I first started to understand the extent to which literacy activism is really a form of cultural work, not simply a matter of teaching people how to read and write, one evening in a seaside village. It turns out that many villagers were taught to desire literacy and they learned a number of other things about themselves and their place in the world along the way. The occasion of my awareness was a street-theater performance by the Dawn Arts Group, a drama troupe that had been organized by Karuppiah and Neela to encourage people to join Arivoli classes and to...

  9. 2 Feminizing Enlightenment: The Social and Reciprocal Agency
    (pp. 68-100)

    Like many efforts to remake the world, the Arivoli Iyakkam led to social changes that no one had expected. Over the course of the Total Literacy Campaigns, activists and bureaucrats were not only amazed at the scale of what the rural district of Pudukkottai had been able to achieve; they were equally surprised at who was participating and leading the way in many villages. Contrary to widespread fears among founders of the Arivoli Iyakkam that it would be very difficult to compel women to meet in public spaces for the purpose of holding literacy lessons, it was men who turned...

  10. 3 Labors of Objectification: Words and Worlds of Pedagogy
    (pp. 101-133)

    Karuppiah conducted literacy lessons in the Dalit village of Katrampatti a few nights every week for about one year. Lessons were held outside, under a dim streetlamp by the side of a dirt road in the center of the hamlet. Some of his students were women he had known well his whole life as workers in the fields and as fictive kin. Some had only recently moved into the village after marrying one of its residents. Many of the older women remembered Karuppiah as a boy, from working on his family’s rice fields. He was one of the few from...

  11. 4 Search for a Method: The Media of Enlightenment
    (pp. 134-170)

    By the time we arrived in the village of Mayakkurichi a large group of people had already gathered in the main square around two young Arivoli Iyakkam volunteers who were standing under the diffuse light of a streetlamp. The women and children of the village were sitting on the ground in a circle. The teenage boys and men were all standing a few meters behind them in the darkness, or sitting on the verandas extending from nearby houses, forming an outer ring. No one noticed as Karuppiah and I walked up after leaving our motorbike under a banyan tree off...

  12. 5 Subject to Citizenship: Petitions and the Performativity of Signature
    (pp. 171-205)

    Petitioning the state became an act of citizenship for Arivoli Iyakkam activists and their followers in a place where such appeals have long been understood in terms of subjection and even servitude. The literacy movement sought to democratize access to this mode of asserting citizenship by encouraging people who would previously have relied on others to write on their behalf to submit their own petitions at the district headquarters. Explaining the changes she had seen since the beginning of the Arivoli Iyakkam, for example, Sundari, a literacy-movement organizer in Pudukkottai, explained, “Before Arivoli, if village people wanted to give a...

  13. Epilogue: Reflections on a Time of Charismatic Enlightenment
    (pp. 206-212)

    In subsequent visits to meet with the Katrampatti Arivoli Iyakkam literacy group, I learned that the Adi-Dravidar Welfare Office had sent someone to their village to inquire about a path to the cremation ground for Dalits. This was one concrete result of having submitted a petition. The official who was sent appears to have noted the survey number of some land that could potentially be used for the purpose of a path and even talked to some of the men in Katrampatti. The women who actually presented the petition at the collector’s office never talked to him. It was only...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 213-224)
  15. Works Cited
    (pp. 225-240)
  16. Index
    (pp. 241-250)