Q&A with ‘Risky Bodies and Techno-Intimacy’ author Geeta Patel

Risky Bodies & Techno-Intimacy traverses disparate and uncommon routes to explore how people grapple with the radical uncertainties of their lives. In this edgy, evocative journey through myriad interleaved engagements–including the political economies of cinema; the emergent shapes taken by insurance, debt, and mortgages; gender and sexuality; and domesticity and nationalism–author Geeta Patel demonstrates how science and technology ground our everyday intimacies. The result is a deeply poetic and philosophical exploration of the intricacies of techno-intimacy, revealing a complicated and absorbing narrative that challenges assumptions underlying our daily living.

Today we talk to the author about her book, publishing soon in our Feminist Technosciences series. 

What inspired you to get into your field?

Geeta Patel: I don’t have a field in any strict sense, although most of my friends now would think of me as a literary ‘type.’ I, however, don’t think of myself that way. I compose in visual metaphors, and the way I look at things askance, as though they were transparent and opaque at the same time, is as a scientist who loves poetry.

I grew up in a family full of women doctors, which along with the push toward science if you grew up in South Asia and had even a vestige of a brain, meant I ended up being saddled with science, specializing in the sciences from when I was eleven years old. But I loved all the sciences, particularly ‘the natural sciences’ with the kind of curiosity of many eighteenth-century scientists. In that period ‘scientific’ curiosity leaked out into more than what we would now call science. It embraced poetry, literary prose, questions of politics, the ways in which money and goods moved, finance, drawings, maps, and instruments. A sort of porous curiosity, rather than directed curiosity along blinkered pathways. Eighteenth-century journals, as well as the South Asian magazines of my childhood, had tidbits on science, poetry, politics, fiction, oddities from the ambit of the political, and off-kilter instruments of measurement. This is what I grew up reading and it is was as though they all belonged in the same place and together made sense.

So when I think of what my ‘field’ consists of, it lives at the cusp of all these things. Where more than one intellectual formation or terrain fades into each other, informs each other, pushes at each other, and inflects each other. And a field formation gets taken up in such a way that it makes an assumption in another field discomfiting. One such place I approach/broach that in Risky Bodies & Techno-Intimacy is the technology of time.

What would you have been if not an academic?

GP: Probably a health practitioner, a healer.

Why did you want to write this book?

GP: I wanted to sit with, ponder, think about, and ruminate on the places, moments, pauses, and sudden jolts where I stopped thinking. Where my capacity to envision something else failed me, felt as though it had faded from my grasp. Many intellectuals imagine this as the horizon towards which one ambles, gallops, or comes up against in some putative future. When I was writing my previous book on the Urdu poet Miraji, I came to see it as he had, and how the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had, as that which is inside what we think, visualize, do. The bedrock of belief lives where we come to a grinding halt, and we find ourselves in a double bind—facing what we must let go of, but can’t. How could we, following on Michel Foucault and Marcel Mauss, understand these as technologies that make us who we are, which are the armature of our very ordinary, everyday habits?

I also wanted to mess with what had come to be conventional ways of bringing intellectual fields together. I wanted to make that broaching or bridging awkward—and this is what I practice in Risky Bodies & Techno-Intimacy. What would chemistry do to transgender possibilities in South Asia? What would it mean to transmute the aesthetics of linear time to lay out the gatherings that took on the resistance to a film on sexuality? How would the historical congruencies between these events and the fights over insurance in the Indian parliament give us insights? Allow us to delve into the modes through which financing loss became the conduit to grapple with the political desires that undergird nationalism? In the process how would science emerge in writing about events that might, in some simple way, not be said to be scientific (in the ways we now see science)?

Who do you see as the audience for this book?

GP: Everyone, feminists, science studies aficionados, cultural studies scholars, media studies scholars, finance practitioners, political theorists, literary theorists. In India I have found the audience to include artists, film-makers, fiction writers, poets, and non-academics.

What is your next project?

GP: I have many ongoing projects. One is a book on Ismat Chughtai, in particular on two of her short stories. That book interrogates the lineages of historical realism in South Asia. It brings quantum and relativity as conduits through which I can grapple with the desires that readers ferry along with them as they read fiction and mine it for information. One is a book on 1950s and ‘60s billboards in Mumbai, and I look at what they reveal about advertising, fiscal fantasies, national sentiment, and nationalist aesthetics in post-colonial states. Another is about the long history of pensions and insurance in South Asia. One of the first of its chapters rethinks the eighteenth-century history of capitalism through colonial pensions.

Geeta Patel is associate professor of both Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and cultures and of women, gender, and sexuality at the University of Virginia. She is author of Lyrical Movements, Historical Hauntings: Gender, Colonialism, and Desire in Miraji’s Urdu Poetry.