Leo Coleman is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Hunter College. He researches urban life and the interactions between law, technology, and political ideals in colonial and contemporary India (and elsewhere in the former British Empire). He has published articles on urban solitude, infrastructure, and anthropological theory in academic journals and edited volumes, including a contribution to the Blackwell Companion to the Anthropology of India, and has edited a collection of essays about eating food and sharing culture (Food: Ethnographic Encounters, 2011). He is finishing a book about electrification, urbanism, and nationalism in twentieth-century New Delhi.
Political rhetoric is often said to be literally meaningless—either “spin,” “newspeak,” or a “dog whistle” that conceals a narrow political agenda behind bland phrases. Drawing examples from recent political debates in the US that invoke identity and rights, and with some help from the theories of magic and language of the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, this talk will explore how apparently meaningless language creates social meaning. As we recognize the political force of specific forms of speech, finally, how can we learn to speak, and teach, toward a more open and inclusive political sphere?