FONDATION MAISON DES SCIENCES DE L’HOMME
190, Avenue de France, 75013 Paris Post/courrier: CS no.71345, 75648 Paris Cedex 13, France
Talk as part of a conference:
FRAGMENTS OF/FOR A DOMESTIC UTOPIA. Ethnographic Notes on How Indian
Royal Descendants Live Together with Servants
Barthes’ utopianesque rather than utopian fragments about living together provide an expansive fantasy of possibilities for the simultaneousness of companionship and solitude, for elimination of conflict by maintaining just the right distance (others-to-me, me-togroup, group-to-society) and thus for production of relative solitude, which Barthes posits as the key to pleasure and happiness (sovereign good) of the individual. If any, it is a domestic utopia rather than social utopia, formulated around the respect for the individual rhythms of the other, and centred on aloneness rather than togetherness per se. It is a domestic fantasy of retaining individuality, while not falling into exclusion, of not being fully swallowed and integrated into society, and yet not being an outcast. Following Barthes’ invitation to do whatever we want with him, I take him on an ethnographic sojourn to an Indian joint household of the descendants of the legendary Nawabs of Awadh, who in the 18th and 19th century ruled over contemporary Lucknow and its surroundings. Hereditary privileges being lost, wealth depleting day by day, the nawab’s family struggles to keep up its royal legacy, to retain at least some of its influence in society, while setting itself apart and keeping in nostalgic seclusion from the rapidly changing society. Their family of servants lives in the adjoining house of the mansion and has been with them for more than two hundred years, effectively keeping the nawabs connected to their (former) subjects, while maintaining their relative solitude of privilege – in reverse, the servants are protected from exclusion, while given remarkable freedom to study and indulge in individual passions. Instead of conceiving master-servant relations in terms of hierarchy, caste, exploitation, conflict, I provide fragments of the household’s harmonious co-existence governed by the corporeal and affective understanding of appropriate distance and of desires of the others, where, contrary to popular belief, transgressions of the rules of hierarchy are common without resulting in conflict, and where even the erotic is distributed through the household in surprising ways. From these fragments of a domestic utopia, I shall abstract a few theoretic fragments for a domestic utopia.