Encoding Race, Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin

Encoding Race, Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin

by Sareeta Amrute

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Encoding Race, Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin by Sareeta Amrute

In Encoding Race, Encoding Class Sareeta Amrute explores the work and private lives of highly skilled Indian IT coders in Berlin to reveal the oft-obscured realities of the embodied, raced, and classed nature of cognitive labor. In addition to conducting fieldwork and interviews in IT offices as well as analyzing political cartoons, advertisements, and reports on white-collar work, Amrute spent time with a core of twenty programmers before, during, and after their shifts. She shows how they occupy a contradictory position, as they are racialized in Germany as temporary and migrant grunt workers, yet their middle-class aspirations reflect efforts to build a new, global, and economically dominant India. The ways they accept and resist the premises and conditions of their work offer new potentials for alternative visions of living and working in neoliberal economies. Demonstrating how these coders' cognitive labor realigns and reimagines race and class, Amrute conceptualizes personhood and migration within global capitalism in new ways.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822374275
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 07/22/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Sareeta Amrute is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington.

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Encoding Race, Encoding Class

Indian IT Workers in Berlin

By Sareeta Amrute

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7427-5



Sitting in a café one early autumn afternoon in the trendy East Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, Marika and I drank lattes in the last warm rays of the setting sun. Marika had her feet propped up on the chair opposite her. An older woman with a flower-print scarf tied neatly under her chin walked by, stopped and stared at Marika's feet, and, with a look of horror on her face, strode on. "Their city just doesn't make sense to them any more. Their world is evaporating before their eyes." Marika gestured toward the woman's receding back. In the old Berlin, chairs were for sitting on, and Marika's feet were a sign of bad manners. Out of place on her own street corner, the older resident of the city simply said nothing and moved on. Much like the way Walter Benjamin moved through the city looking for dialectical images that crystallized a portentous moment of change, Berliners new and old could look to such scenes for a message of the world to come.

Marika's commentary on the scene suggested a kinetic image culture in the city. "I feel sorry for her," Marika said, herself from the Eastern European city Riga, "these old East Berliners." In the Berlin of the new millennium, images were highly politicized objects, their portrait functions always imbued with political proxies, and at the same time, even the most political images could always function as spectator commodities — consumed through viewing practices as signs of the future. The circulating images of Indian IT workers were part of this complex new world, and the viewers of these images were engaged in a street-level semiosis that would try to situate the migrant coder and the new German subject in an emerging economy of signs. The appearance of Indian workers on Berlin streets could be interrogated as an indicator of economic change. A discussion of the circulating image of the Indian IT body lays the groundwork for understanding the racialization of Indian coders both inside and outside the office. Like Marika's feet for the older East German woman, the Indian IT worker was a potent sign of seemingly inexorable transformation.

The archive of images assembled here traces out a subterranean story that ran beneath formal debates on visas for high-tech workers. I collected political cartoons, digital memes, and article illustrations over the course of fieldwork from Internet sites, local magazines, and national newspapers. Some appeared as large, full-color photographs in multipage articles about Indian IT workers in Germany. I noticed others, mostly small cartoons, inserted into the blank space at the bottom of a page of movie listings. Still more surfaced in the humor section of a website dedicated to Indians in Germany, which pulled these images from other sources online (www.theinder.net), the original provenance of which I am unable to trace. Collectively, they demonstrate how Indian programmers were mobilized in statements about a highly unstable future. They emerge out of a particular image culture and reiterate the tight bind between the Indian body, the computer as machine, and exotic cultural practices.

The work that goes on in IT offices, called "business process" or "information technology" and related services, is notoriously abstract. Theories of cognitive labor that developed in part through the example of software work tend to emphasize the abstract or "virtual" nature of this work. Cognitive work, as described by autonomist Marxists, emerges out of the replacement of work by machines, which had the effect of further pushing human labor toward abstract, cognitive tasks, including the manipulation of symbols and the evaluation and refinement of emotions and information. Yet, cognitive work is also concrete. In software work, the materialization of the digital is inaugurated by, for example, graphic interfaces that allow users to interact with the underlying structures of programming, the many artists and hackers who tweak existing software to reveal and take advantage of underlying quirks in the machine, or the many metaphors that software engineers use to describe what they do, such as architecture, triage, slave (to describe the process that receives commands from another), or virus.

This chapter looks at the corollary to such machinic materialization for labor. Outside (and sometimes inside) the world of software work, perhaps no other figure best embodies cognitive labor than the Indian IT worker. Software work is made tangible through imagining Indian IT workers as naturally and culturally endowed with particular characteristics that make them good — often machinelike — new economy workers. Racialized images of the Indian coder also incorporate and produce the contradictory possibilities opened up by a cognitive economy. The images that follow — a handful of the many that circulated in Berlin's newspapers, online, and in magazines — are arranged thematically to unpack how Indian IT workers were imagined, how those figurations helped sketch out the meaning of digital technologies for an uneasy German populace, and what a cognitive economy might mean for the future of work in Europe.

Berlin, Electronic Capital of the Twenty-First Century

In Kreuzberg, the halls of the newly constructed Jewish Museum by Daniel Libeskind stood empty for years — no one could decide what to put in them. The political function of the museum was being fought out behind its façade. The museum opened empty for visitors to see the dark spaces, themselves a monument to architectural greatness and historical tragedy. Elsewhere, communist infrastructures were subjected to a similar treatment. The old parliament building was opened as a party and tourist site in the months before it was torn down; there was too much asbestos, according to popular rumors, to keep it hanging around or preserve it. But that did not stop promoters from selling tickets to see its gutted insides one last time. The Reichstag (parliament) building received a new glass cupola, while across the field the Bundeskanzleramt (Chancellery) was erected. The reunited government inhabited these new and rebuilt state structures under the aegis — symbolized by the Reichstag cupola — of transparency. The city presented a layer of images past and future, images of possible utopias long gone and being torn down, images of a city with a new purpose and a new public image as a cosmopolitan European capital.

Berlin is a highly textual city, inhabited by a highly literate public and producing an informed urban citizen through the plaques, memorials, and informational kiosks that erupt from the topography of its streets. Yet, beyond these official markers of state discourse, Berlin's streets are also graffitied and dirty, murals are tucked into the vaulted archways of building entrances, and layers of posters for political parties and dance parties hang on open wall space. These unofficial visual signs are a complement to official, governmental Berlin. It is in these images, found in the margins of sanctioned discourse, that a volatile discussion of the race of the Indian tech workers could be found. If in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries race was a marker of a stable antecedent; now it was also an unstable sign of future possibilities.

In Katherine Ewing's study of Muslim men in Berlin, she suggests that the stigmatization of Turkish Muslims is tied to the production of values that are taken to be universal but are actually culturally coded. In her striking discussion of headscarves and public nudity, she shows how moral purity in the German context is marked by the absence of coverings, while in the Muslim context it is marked by modest dress. In Germany, bareness signifies purity and justice, whereas covering up (especially in a headscarf) is associated with Muslim male patriarchy. In this milieu, Turkish Muslim men are stigmatized as unjust traditionalists, while German citizens emerge as ethical universalists. Damani Partridge's work on Afro-German culture demonstrates how black bodies are figured as local forms of escape at the same time as, when they are part of debates on migration or asylum, they become unwanted threats to economy and society.

As Ewing's and Partridge's work points out, migrant bodies are crucial to national imaginaries that define liberal German subjects in opposition to the assumed intolerance of male Muslim others and hypersexualized African bodies, respectively. Here, I put the question of racializing migrants in Germany into a productive (and I believe necessary) conversation with the question of changing patterns of work and labor. In doing so, I reveal the way that race is used as a way to figure, and figure out, what a new knowledge-based economy has in store for German working subjects. Unlike the Turkish Muslim man, the Indian programmer sometimes figures as a welcome and comforting "other" who can uphold notions of tolerance and universalism. But the Indian IT worker also threatens German job security by being a machinelike presence that is ultimately unknowable.

In early twenty-first-century Germany, images functioned as guideposts to historical reconstructions; the task of Berlin's residents was to find their place and mark themselves out as valid citizens of the changed city. A new bourgeoisie crowded around the former centers of the East, flaunting baby carriages and asymmetrical haircuts; in the West, the old guard wondered what would happen to their liberal enclaves once the government was installed again. Already they could see the radical squats being sanitized. Among these new ways of life, images could be both a fetish and a symptom — both something spectacularly commoditized and something that might, if read correctly, hold the key to underlying dynamics of change.

This manner of treating images can be described as a culture of abduction, a process of understanding meanings that link consequences to both what came before and what might come to pass, to both hypothetical antecedents and future possible worlds. The culture of visual abduction in Germany and especially in Berlin suggested to residents that images have a particular kind of power as signs of possible futurity. In a city that seemed to be always in motion, the practice of viewing images crystallized a particular moment in history and invested in these circulating images a portent of things to come.

By reading off images the significance of the Indian IT worker for this future, German citizens make judgments about their own. In these abductions, the race of the IT worker is key precisely because race had become ambiguous in its own right, signaling both biological givens and extremely malleable proclivities. As befits practices of abduction, images racialize Indian IT workers by drawing on a repository of past images of India and then yoking these notions together to hazard guesses about the future.

The first image, "What the Indian computer specialists have over us!" (figure 1.1), demonstrates the multiple cuts made across the body of the Indian IT worker. The image shows a young couple with a gas station attendant. The man is wearing a turban, shirt, and tie; his wife is dressed in a cream-colored sari with green blouse. Behind them is a gas station; the attendant, dressed in a smart uniform with bow tie and cap, points out something on the paper the couple is reading, which is possibly a road map. This picture has been copied, manipulated, and redeployed, though without attribution. The uniforms, gas station architecture, hairstyles, and color saturation suggest it would date to the 1960s. The image tries to explain what would otherwise remain a mystery: How could India, stuck in the past even by the terms of the 1960s ambiance created by this picture, outpace Germany? Over the map that these three are studying, the maker of the new image has inserted a close-up box of the wife's forehead. Her bindi is the focus of this inset; over its red circle the word "reset" appears in large capital letters. The computer has merged completely with the Indian woman's body. The Indian programmer can "cheat," fixing a computer problem by resetting his wife, the machine.

The placement of the reset box obscures the original images; the gas station attendant begins to look like a son, the group pictured a family of three. The programmer's very family, his conjugal life, is the repository of "the dark arts" of computing. At the same time that the image satirizes the debates on letting Indian IT workers into Germany by wondering aloud what special skill they have, it also conjures frightening images of the brown migrant family in all its recognizable difference. Even while it mocks the impossibility that Indian computer specialists could really have a shortcut to technological greatness, it isolates difference — condensed in the bindi as target practice — and makes of the Indian programmer a body on which to concentrate anxiety, ambivalence, and opposition.

The image that asks, "What the Indian computer specialists have over us!" suggests a three-part relationship between an Indian programmer as model and threat and a European subject who must respond. Either the Indian programmer models ways of laboring that European workers can emulate, or the Indian programmer threatens European ways of life through secret shortcuts that put Indians ahead in the globalization game. In the context of a newly energized Berlin, these images pointed toward uncertainty about and resistance to the future.

Good and Bad German Workers: Indian Programmers within the Matrix of German Migration Debates

The India that circulates in Germany today first emerged in the nineteenth century. In Germany, Hindu-Buddhist philosophy was incorporated into the tenets of German Romanticism, which posited both an underlying unity of mankind and nature and a unique place for German culture in Europe. Beginning perhaps with Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel and Johann Gottfried Herder, German philosophers, philologists, litterateurs, and theologians placed India on the side of spirituality, sexuality, decadence, escape, indolence, and excess and Western Europe on the side of capital, materialism, rationality, and order. Schlegel turned to India as part of an effort to define Germany within a larger European context and especially against what he understood as French materialism. His writings, along with those of the philologist Max Müller, consolidated a philosophical tradition that placed Sanskrit and Indian Vedic religion at a spiritual, original center to humanity and German language and culture close to it. Schlegel's contemporaries, such as Herder, similarly thought of India as the motherland of humankind.

Later in the nineteenth century, India stood for spirituality even while its valuation varied. While Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, for instance, ranked India in the middle of a civilizational order that placed Europe on top and Africa on the bottom, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe both used Kalidasa's Shakuntala (first German translation 1791) as a model for his own play Faust (1808) and described the East in his West-östlicher Diwan (1819) as a place to which one could "flee [from] current events" and enter "a timeless present." Later philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer continued this line of thought by attempting to synthesize Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist philosophies in The World as Will and Representation (1844).

India was also subject of the speculative politics of empire in Germany where, in the nineteenth century, leaders such as Otto von Bismarck pursued a "German Raj" to answer to and compete with Britain's claim to colonial supremacy. In popular newspaper accounts about, for instance, the Indian Mutiny of 1857, German papers simultaneously denounced British rule in India and upheld the importance of colonial rule on the subcontinent, thereby imagining a better, German colonial relationship. In the late nineteenth century, Karl Marx and Max Weber took up India as examples of anticapitalist places that would be brought into modern industrial capitalism through the colonial project (whether for good or for bad). For Marx, colonialism, despite causing, by his own admission, the death and starvation of thousands of cotton weavers, would nevertheless catapult India into modern industrial capitalist relations as a precursor to overthrowing both colonialism and capitalism. In Weber's analyses, India was a foil for Weber's thesis on the origins of capitalism — as Hindu asceticism looked inward, according to Weber, Protestant asceticism looked toward the world, allowing it to foster capital-creating accumulation. Finally, in the tracts of Nazi philosophers, the "Aryans" of India were mythologized as a superior race of Europeans who conquered Asia, only to be corrupted by its putative "native" populations; thus India served to caution against the corrupting powers of Oriental decadence.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix

Introduction: Cognitive Work, Cognitive Bodies  1

Part I. Encoding Race

1. Imagining the Indian IT Body  29

2. The Postracial Office  54

3. Proprietary Freedoms in an IT Office  86

Part II. Encoding Class

4. The Stroke of Midnight and the Spirit of Entrepreneurship: A History of the Computer in India  111

5. Computers Are Very Stupid Cooks: Reinventing Leisure as a Politics of Pleasure  137

6. The Traveling Diaper Bag: Gifts and Jokes as Materializing Immaterial Labor  164

A Speculative Conclusion: Secrets and Lives  185

Notes  203

Bibliography  231

Index  253

What People are Saying About This

The Moral Neoliberal: Welfare and Citizenship in Italy - Andrea Muehlebach

"Telling an unusual story about the global 'cognitariat' through the lenses of class and race, Sareeta Amrute takes us from close readings of the everyday life of the racially overdetermined Indian IT worker in Germany to a much broader historicization and conceptualization of how and why such bodies (and minds) end up in Germany in the first place. Encoding Race, Encoding Class will make an impact not just on Europeanist anthropology, but on studies of migration, globalization, critical race theory, and the social and cultural dimensions of science and technology. An outstanding and compelling book."

Nishant Shah

"In this pathbreaking book Sareeta Amrute challenges some of the more pedestrian notions around race and technology, showing how race gets encoded in technology, not only at the level of devices and platforms, but at the level of structure, infrastructure, and systemic formulations of the bodies of technology and the technologized bodies of digital globalization. Bound to excite interest from a variety of disciplines, Encoding Race, Encoding Class will emerge as a critical milestone in the landscape of scholarship on the intersections of technology, body, race, and policy."

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