Lectures

Writing Life No. 15: An Interview with Kalindi Vora

This article is part of the series:
Kalindi’s laptop sits inside her car, which serves as a writing space sometimes.

The last time I spoke to Kalindi in person was at the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) meeting in New Orleans in the summer of 2019. Kalindi and members of her lab presented their ongoing project of establishing feminist science shops across the campuses of the University of California (UC). At the previous 4S meeting in Sydney, Australia, Kalindi had been awarded the Rachel Carson Prize for her multi-sited ethnography Life Support: Biocapital and the New History of Outsourced Labor and its multiple contributions to Science and Technology Studies (STS). Kalindi’s research interests include assisted reproductive technologies in transnational commercial surrogacy, autoimmunity and patient self-tracking and self-treatment, and precarious labor forms.

For this interview, I reached out to Kalindi to discuss interdisciplinary research and writing. This interview is based on excerpts from a more extended conversation carried out via Zoom during spring 2021. In the following discussion, Kalindi shares her experiences and insights from writing Life Support. We discuss the challenges of doing interdisciplinary research and writing about life and sociotechnical systems, among other things.

ALBERTO MORALES (AM): In Life Support, you gift readers with an expansive lexicon to examine labor, capital, and global economies. You write about “the imagination of biology,” “the biopolitics of hypermobility,” and “the biological apparatus of the human,” to name a few. There’s so much analytical affordance with these concepts, and there are many more rich phrases throughout the book. They are wonderful to think with. Other than theory and the social worlds you analyze, what inspires your writing and the concept work you do through writing?

KALINDI VORA (KV): Your question humbles me. I cared a lot about writing in this book. I still care a lot about writing but my focus has changed. The concepts you highlighted share a logic. For example, the concept of “the biological apparatus of the human” uses the poetic possibility of language to bring back one of the methodological points in the book, which is that we need to suspend our need to be empirically accurate in ethnography in favor of being ethically attentive to the dynamics of power that place the person crafting the narrative in a position of responsibility for what they represent therein. Certain kinds of scientific language make an implied claim to be empirically exact. I didn’t find that to be possible or accurate within my research sites. So, for me, “the biological apparatus of the human” has greater accuracy than using concepts like “organism,” “human biology,” or “human physiology” precisely because that would imply the facticity of biology, even as I was critiquing it. The famous genetic biologist Richard Lewontin himself said, “biology is an ideology.” I was also writing it when critical theory was influenced by deconstruction, and we all wanted to take language seriously. In some ways, a poetic logic, which holds space for interpretation or meaning from the reader, perhaps invites the reader to participate in theorizing with me and share in the responsibility of meaning-making. In this way, it feels a little bit more collaborative.

AM: I like that – inviting the reader along through the writing rather than just telling them the theory and events and therefore foreclosing possibilities.

KV: Yes!

AM: But then again, there are challenges in writing or articulating something like “vital energy” – something that’s so present but made invisible. When rereading your work, I did feel that you invite us to think with vital energy. For example, I pondered about all the life support systems that sustain my life and the many lives across the nation. I especially kept thinking of the “essential worker” category today and the extraction of their vital energies to maintain the U.S. economy under pandemic conditions. Yet, their work is continuously rendered invisible by the sociotechnical systems of biocapitalist world economies. How challenging was it to name these things and anchor these terms in your writing?

KV: I can think of two things. One is that I was captivated by the systemic analysis of capitalism presented in Marx’s work. I had the privilege of studying with Angela Davis and taking seminar after seminar on Marxist thought. The feminist critiques of Marx and the postcolonial and the subaltern critiques from South Asia and Latin America became part of the materialist approach behind Life Support’s linking of markets in human bodies, parts, and services to labor markets.

The concept of living labor seemed valuable for thinking about how and why human biology and subjectivity were becoming greater targets of capitalist capture. Still, the problem with the concept of labor within Marxist scholarship is that it is limited to forms of work that produce commodities in the public sector, that is, wage labor. The entirety of the labor I was interested in is, as you say, this kind of invisible, behind-the-scenes, “essential labor” that was escaping those limits. Other scholars who have done work in similar labor sectors instinctively know why we have to talk about the depletion and enhancement of life beyond labor alone. For example, in the book Technoprecarious that came out of The Precarity Lab, which has 11 authors, we spent a lot of time talking about how we were going to refer to people, communities, landscapes, and regions that are empirically depleted by capitalist processes in comparison to other ones that are enriched. We didn’t want to devalue the lives or the cultures of the people in those spaces but needed to acknowledge that economies of exploitation connected these drastically different living conditions, so we settled on the language of depletion and enrichment.

For me, referring to vital energy was a way to index the cost to someone, subjectively, of living and working in a zone of depletion when other people’s lives and spaces are thereby enriched. I’m not sure I would use the same phrase now, “vital energy,” because I’ve noticed that some readers are thrown off from its political-economic importance because they associate the language with vitalism. However, I don’t have a substitute for it.

AM: In your writing, you draw from different methods of inquiry, including ethnographic, literary analysis, and feminist STS. Can you tell us a little bit more about writing across disciplinary boundaries? What were some of the challenges or even forms of resistance, either internally or externally, that you may have faced in writing across disciplines?

KV: It means a lot to me that you can see that work there and that you appreciate it. I think you have to have done that kind of work yourself to appreciate it. I started graduate school at the University of Hawaii in anthropology, but I was introduced to anthropology through music. I was an undergraduate music major at Wesleyan University, which had a fantastic ethnomusicology component. However, after completing an ethnography-based master’s thesis, I realized that I could not strictly be an anthropologist. The kind of questions I’m interested in connect individual subjective history and experience to infrastructures that carry forward submerged histories that can be difficult to perceive. So in Life Support, I had to show that the path that laborers and then human kidneys take over different geographies had shared infrastructure. You see the latter if you begin tracing it from the colonial allocation of labor and development of the indentured labor contracts responsible for forcing mobility out of the subcontinent as a direct corollary to abolishing slavery in the British Empire. I often show a slide mapping contemporary transoceanic fiber optics cables that carry data-as-labor from zones of depletion to enrichment zones next to a map of colonial shipping routes moving enslaved Africans and extracted resources in the 1600s and 1700s. They’re almost identical to the transoceanic fiber optic cables. The technologies that carry the internet and its datafied human labor and energy are now laid over similar paths to those that go back to colonialism.

To answer the other part of your question about resistance, I was advised in this way by James Clifford, one of my supervisors as a Ph.D. student: If I wanted to be read by anthropologists, I’d have to be more “anthropologist” than someone with a Ph.D. in the discipline. So, when I’ve published articles in anthropology, I’ve been extremely rigorous with reading the scholarship and placing my studies within the bibliography for my research site(s) within the discipline. There are consequences for the choice of transdisciplinarity for a book project, and one is that you cannot devote as much space in your analysis for a single discipline. On the other hand, the reward is that you can have many different kinds of scholars to think and speak with. But it was complicated to figure out who the reviewers should be for Life Support. It took some time and some thinking and some back and forth with my editors to figure it out. The silver lining of choosing to write a transdisciplinary study was that I had to be intentional and clear about my methodology, which made the book better.

AM: When one is doing interdisciplinary work, it can feel like one is doing double or triple the work – in anthropology, ethnic studies, and science and technology studies, in our case, for instance. Speaking about methodology, you propose an exciting way of approaching ethnographic writing. You call it a juxtapositional reading practice. In every chapter, you interweave stories with literary analysis by incorporating literary text, like Stanadayani. How does this approach, on the one hand, enhance your analysis, and at the same time, what sort of argument are you making through this method? It seems like you are doing it very intentionally by interweaving writing genres through juxtaposition as a method.

KV: I can say two things. The first one is in writing about aesthetic texts — literary works that some people might call cultural texts — in addition to ethnography. I needed to acknowledge that there is a whole discipline dedicated to working with these aesthetic texts. So, in terms of your previous question about how you do interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity well, first, you need to respect your audiences and the work of prior scholars in fields outside your own. I needed to understand that there will be people reading this book who care about these texts from the approach of literature, both in English and in their original languages of publication. I needed to know what had been said about them and texts like them. Life Support includes engagement with the work of these literary studies, even when it needed to be placed in the footnotes.

In other words, yes, one of the responsibilities of doing interdisciplinary work is to know what specific disciplines have offered in terms of analysis of your research sites and objects, and that is extra work beyond engaging a single discipline. In terms of the juxtapositional reading practice, when I was in grad school in the first decade of the 2000s, we were trained in the philosophy of deconstruction. The works of Jacque Derrida and Gayatri Spivak were very influential, especially in my graduate program, The History of Consciousness, at UC Santa Cruz. Their critique of power and representation influenced me. The idea that an author is a person who creates a representation of reality that gets to assert a truth claim that the person who’s represented does not get to claim places an ethical responsibility on an author. That brought me to an ethical quandary around ethnography, so a transdisciplinary approach offered a way to address the ethical weight of representation by marking my narrative as one among others rather than as empirical truth.

So, there’s a critique of empiricism in the juxtapositional reading practice. That was one reason to bring together fictive or, say, aesthetic texts with my ethnographic narratives. My ethnography is a text, it is a narrative that I created, and I’m responsible for that. It can be problematic for those who write about people who aren’t going to read the work, who maybe can’t because of language differences, and aren’t in a world where those people cannot claim an equal platform. At the same time, the research question was about the interiority of labor, the interior or subjective impact of doing affective and biological labor. I wanted to think about the subjective effects of postcolonial reorganizations of labor and life in India after independence until the present. This becomes available in narratives like the play A Terrible Beauty is Born by Arjun Raina because he was writing from his own experience. It’s like what people are calling auto-fiction now. I think it’s perfect for thinking about this problem of ethnography, which is a representation of reality that blends facticity with other elements. It allowed me to think about subjective experience as a site for analysis without making empirical claims.

AM: How do you manage interruptions to your writing process, whether they are day-to-day micro interruptions or even longer pauses in writing? Sometimes I find that even when I am trying to be the most disciplined, interruptions still arise.

KV: I will try to be very pragmatic in answering this: I try to keep a minimum of one day a week that contains a block of a few hours to write. I schedule around that protected writing time when possible. In between those protected writing hours, I try to spend at least 15 minutes with my active writing project to keep its pulse to arrive at my writing time already engaged in the ideas. I used to be a perfectionist, and I struggled to meet my deadlines. I now send out rougher drafts. I think there’s something to be said for sending them out, especially to trusted peers, because you know your first audience best.

AM: That’s good advice. What does your writing practice look like now?

KV: I write when and where we can! Like me, I know many people who write while we’re sitting in the car waiting to pick someone up from a sports practice or on an airplane flying to an event. I find the in-between spaces an excellent place to write, so my writing environment right now is wherever I can sit down and open my laptop or a notebook for a few minutes without interruption.

AM: How do you answer the “are you done yet” question from those living with you?

KV: I love this question. It made me think about this context right now, where some of us live at work and work in our homes. My laptop connotes a lack of presence to those I live with. I remember a cartoon Donna Haraway used to show in her talks about this. It showed a meeting of dogs analyzing an image of a laptop under the subheading “enemy.” To counter the problem of the laptop as the enemy of physical presence, I’ve started to carry paper notebooks around. Each project has a notebook, and I tried to do preliminary thinking in longhand. Writers say this, and I find it is true: you think differently when you’re writing by hand. Do you find that too?

AM: Yes, I do. I remember purposely doing a lot of handwriting during fieldwork for this and other reasons.

KV: Experimenting with paper, writing on paper, has helped me with the “when are you done” question because laptops really feel like the grind right now, whereas writing on paper feels like something else. So yeah, I close the laptop.

AM: Do you have any non-human companions while you write? Sometimes Luna sits underneath my desk. She is an old terrier-chihuahua mix, and she doesn’t like to go outside much anymore.

KV: I have a lovely garden with squirrels, birds, and hummingbirds. You know what? I used to have rescue cats that were littermates. They would do shifts with me while writing in grad school, but they’re both gone now. I’ve resisted adopting a pet during the pandemic because I know I will again be a poor pet companion since I travel a lot. I think many people will be having some disappointed pets soon as things open up.

Alberto’s writing space in Los Angeles County, California.

Kalindi Vora is Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies and Director of the Feminist Research Institute at the UC Davis. She previously taught at UC San Diego Ethnic Studies. Her most recent co-authored books include Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots and the Politics of Technological Future (2019) and Technoprecarious (2020).

Alberto Morales will assume a Postdoctoral Research Associate and Lecturer position in Latin American Studies at Princeton University in the fall of  2021. He received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, Irvine. His research focuses on interspecies relations, global health equity, and precarious finance in biomedical knowledge production.


About the series

Writing Life focuses on the craft of writing in the social studies of medicine. Amidst the current challenges to making texts, this series invites scholars in our field to take time to reflect, in conversation with each other, on how to navigate and nurture their craft.

Each post in Writing Life delves into the black boxes of writing life, many exploring the specificities of producing texts about the lives of those entangled in illness, care, pain, diagnosis, experiment, research, suffering, and recovery.  The spirit of the contributions is collaborative – an exploration through dialogue. In crafting the posts, authors also explore a research practice central to our fields – interviewing – and the work and art of transcribing and editing other people’s words.

We continue to openly invite further contributions to the series. Please contact series editors Anna Harris (a.harris@maastrichtuniversity.nl) or Denielle Elliott (dae@yorku.ca) to express interest.


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