have been a fan of Akhil Gupta’s work since 1992 when I first read his insightful paper co-written with James Ferguson—“Beyond 'Culture': Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference"—published in Cultural Anthropology. The piece was transformative for me, as a young political geographer. It provided a way to think about difference that was in tune with the critical spatial theory emerging in human geography at the time.  The difference that Gupta and Ferguson speak of in “Beyond ‘Culture’”, is one founded, they point out, on a rapidly developing post-structuralism used to interrogate the problematic formulations that predisposed anthropologists (and human geographers) to see cultural difference as an “us” and “them” binary rather than as a process.  Their point was that we—that is, those of us interested in understanding the complexity of a socio-spatially connected world—must view difference as a starting point for grasping that complexity.  They wrote:

“. . . if we question a pre-given world of separate and discrete ‘peoples and cultures,’ and see instead a difference-producing set of relations, we turn from a project of juxtaposing preexisting differences to one of exploring the construction of differences [in historical process]” (italics mine, 1992, page 16).

This piece was one among several that helped to put me on an intellectual path that required thinking very carefully about the production of difference and how we as geographers could begin to understand space in new ways; decidedly not the space of a global “here” and “there”, that is an object of critique in “Beyond ‘Culture’”. Instead, it pushed me to consider the ways that all social practices and their entanglements with objects and bodies are premised on constantly unfolding difference, thus requiring a questioning of the ways that the usual conceptual categories for making sense of the world hide causes and effects.  I realize, of course that Red Tape is not the same project as that undertake in “Beyond ‘Culture’” but I want to argue that at least one of the conceptual formulations that populates Red Tape can be seen to lead us down some of the same problematic paths that the former piece warned us against.  And so here I engage with Red Tape through the admonition deployed in “Beyond ‘Culture’” that:

“The ability of people to confound the established spatial orders . . . means that space and place can never be ‘given,’ and that the process of their socio-political construction must always be considered” (1992, page 17).

Before I develop this point I want to make it clear that I see my theoretical argument as a sympathetic critique of an exceptional piece of work.  To call it a “masterful achievement,” as Arjun Apadaurai has done, is no exaggeration.  Red Tape is extraordinary. For me it is particularly so in the very granular way that Gupta uses the banal enactments of bureaucrats—including the routinized things they say, their mundane and predictable practices, and the ordinary objects they employ such as paper and pen—to expose the ways they entrain the “legitimation of violence” against poor people in India.  Gupta’s ethnographic skills are keen and innovative, and they enable him to expose the arbitrariness—in both its positive and negative potentials—that always accompanies the presumptive rationality of the state’s bureaucratic apparatus.  But I want to suggest that the relations at work in Gupta’s case are more than, in his words, contingency.  Indeed, what is at work in any site is a proliferating difference requiring us as theorist-researchers to recognize it and resist the temptation to aggregate it into categories that transcend the minutiae (immanent becomings, as Deleuze would call them, (2005)) out of which it is constituted.  To make this point I first to review the approach Gupta takes to the state and then unfold its problematic foundation indicating how an alternative ontology can open up an alternative way of thinking.

The Idea of the State

Gupta’s approach to the state is premised on an appreciation of the sociologist Philip Abrams and his 1977/1988 essay cautioning against a fetishization of the state; i.e. rejecting the state as a coherent object or entity providing structure to the world.  Abrams writes that:

“Political institutions… conspicuously fail to display a unity of practice—just as they constantly discover their inability to function as a more general factor of cohesion” (Abrams, page 79).

 For Gupta in following Abrams, it is paramount to reject the ideological or mythical unity of “the state”. Instead, one must proceed to effect this rejection by understanding how the “state idea” and “the state system” are mobilized to legitimize rule and domination. In Chapter 2, Gupta argues for the importance of recognizing the state as a collection of dispersed actors with divergent dispositions and agendas, manifesting not only power, violence, or coercion, but conflict and competition as well. In addition, in this chapter, he moves toward establishing a conceptualization of “the state” that provides a basis for recognizing its achievement of legitimacy with respect, especially, to the arbitrariness of its practices and the structural violence that results for impoverished people.

Importantly for geographers, Gupta seeks to align his theorization with jurisdictional spaces in which structural violence is said to be deployed and struggles to respond to it are waged.  He points to the nation and the international system as key territorial categories to reject, but invites us to focus more specifically on the question of at which spatial scale the study of bureaucracy should proceed: “the block? the subdistrict? the district? the regional state? Or should one study the head offices at the center (federal level)?” (Gupta, page 63).  He replies: “The answer depends on the question one wishes to ask about the state, but a large range of questions involves several levels at once.  If one is doing ethnographic observation at one level, how does one know the effects of simultaneous activities at other levels?” (page 63).   In drawing space—especially the central relevance of locale and scale—into his argument, Gupta is attempting to show how a particular conceptualization of the state can be brought into focus and in so doing, how it should direct our empirical attention.  But there is a fundamental contradiction in this formulation in that it ends up reproducing the very reification that Gupta rightfully seeks to avoid.

The Critique

In Chapter 2, where Gupta attends most extensively to his theorization of the state, he leads the reader through a key set of arguments central to critical state theorists. There he provides a detailed and convincing discussion of why we might want to challenge the reification of the state by recognizing it instead as dispersed, ubiquitous, and multiple, yet he falls back into a transcendent imaginary of the state when he identifies attentiveness to the multiple levels of the state as the way to avoid reification. In short, his argument against the reification of the state ends with a reification of space and, more importantly, without providing a way of specifying how a more materialist understanding of state-identified practices, objects, and agents might be conceptually encountered in the world.

The solution to the problem of reification is not devolving the “thingness” of the “the state” onto lower administrative and jurisdictional levels.  Such a strategy is an analytic displacement that substitutes space as a stable category upon which the multiplicity of the state can be laid.  In order to theoretically recognize “the state” as multiple and differentiated, as instantiated in sites and moments when bodies, doings, and objects come together—for example, in the appeal made by Ramnarain, a lower-caste man, to the local headman to redraw a property boundary that had previously been erroneously drawn—our theory must be situated in and take account of the site of material practice. If we want to recognize the state as dispersed—de-reified and ubiquitous—and as invested with divergent imperatives and authorities, then we must move away from the transcendent abstractions of district, sub-district, village, neighborhood, street, etc, and orient ourselves to the complex materialities of the specific, the particular, and the situated.

The theoretical embrace of a de-reified state requires a spatial ontology that is consistent with its attunement to political difference.  In such an ontology, space is rendered as a differential concept as well, not something that pre-exists as a setting for state-sponsored legibility practices but that is instead instantiated in the very moments and encounters when complex materialities come together around practices, agents, and objects associated with rule, legibility, and force.  And because of this, in addition to the theorists—Foucault, Agamben, and Abrams—upon whom Gupta builds his argument, one would want also to invite into the discussion (at the very least) Derrida, for his casting of “‘spacing’ as a moving, ‘irreducible alterity’” (Derrida, 1981: 81); Latour, for his recognition of the ways that hybrid technologies can enable close spaces to appear distant and far way spaces to appear near; Harvey (1989) for his formulation of time-space compression; and especially, Deleuze and Guattari (1987) for their rejection of spatial statis in favor of “‘intensive spaces’ capable of falling into far-from-stable states or passing slowly through gradiated differentiations” (Woodward, Jones and Marston, 2010: 272-73).   That is, in order to be responsive to the material articulation of difference—something that was at the core of the argument advanced in “Beyond ‘Culture’” and something that haunts the urge to reject the idea of a unitary state in Red Tape—then we must construct our theory to be able to account for the material conditions that unfold among and between bodies and their situated practices.

For example, if we perceive, as Gupta does, that there is an arbitrariness to the common claims, concerns, or tendencies among its administrative functions and practices, we must seek to uncover how these tendencies have come into being at particular sites (e.g. Mitchell, 1999; Agnew, 2005; Kuus and Agnew, 2008), and how they are operationalized in specific moments (Painter, 2008). Accounting for these tendencies requires a methodological orientation that is equal to the complexity it seeks to comprehend.  Feminist political geographers have been at the forefront of attempting to expose the complex specificity of material encounter, challenging reifications like nation, citizen, and sovereignty (Hyndman, 2001; Sharp, 2007; Dixon and Marston, 2011).  For example, the category of citizenship is one that has received much attention as feminists have shown how its articulations circulate through domestic and work sites, informed by gendered and racialized values, hierarchies, and performances.  Like “the state”, “citizenship” is a reification that knows no perfect correspondence in material practice yet its performance is a rule-driven routine of contemporary political life.  Getting beyond the analytically specific, yet calcified category of citizen (or state or bureaucrat or poor person), to the instances of its material enactment in a field of force relations allows a recognition that each encounter is a dynamic one that is instantiated in repetition but as well contains the potential for a rupture.

Importantly, Gupta’s ethnography—his careful ear and eye in the field, his deep commitment to engaging with the dynamisms and repetitions that constitute, for instance, labored interviews of poor villagers by government agents through objects and practices—goes a long way toward accomplishing the kind of methodological sensibility that is required to capture the material difference that unfolds through so-called “state practices”.  Indeed, in a way, Gupta’s methodology outstrips his theory, for his exploration of grounded materialities and the way they cohere within varying conditions is consistent with an approach to the state that appreciates its unfolding as relational, affective, and dynamic.  As illustration, I would point out that in Section Three, its painstaking detailing of writing as an everyday form of state practice—forms, files, registers, enumerations, complaints—is inspired; (see also Miles Osborne’s India Ink: Script and Print in the Making of the English East India Company).  The theoretical orientation that frames the book, however, is absent this openness to spatial difference, relying instead on sub-categories of the nation-state that are just as fetishized as the one they are meant to replace.


So what does my critique have to do with the central question Gupta addresses in Red Tape:

“Why has a state whose proclaimed motive is to foster development failed to help the large number of people who still live in dire poverty?” (page 3);

 a lot, actually.  That is because the theoretical reorientation I am arguing for requires us to approach space as a field of constantly unfolding difference where generalizability doesn’t adhere and specificities produce particular outcomes for the poor across different sites.

There is no contesting that abject poverty is widespread in India. But it is also widely known that poverty is unevenly distributed across the subcontinent.  And I want to make it clear, that by pointing this out, I am in no way suggesting that the poverty problem is relative. I am making a theoretical point: that macro-spatializations—nation-states, states, districts, subdistricts, cities, etc.—shift our focus to problematic abstractions that distract from the particular productions and manifestations of poverty in particular sites.  And by acknowledging poverty as the result of dynamic conditions of production at work in particular sites, we also open ourselves to situated political possibilities that would otherwise seem impossible. In short, if we take difference to be situated and always burgeoning, “we are able to grasp and elaborate productive singularities that can, on their own terms, challenge varying and always different manifestations of oppression or exploitation as they express themselves in the real materiality of the world. . .” (Woodward, Jones & Marston, 2010: 278). 


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