About Anirban Baishya, Ph.D.: Anirban Baishya is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric, Politics, & Culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Baishya’s research explores the cultural and political significance of digital media technologies like smartphones, selfies, memes, and GIFs, in varied forms like presidential “selfie campaigns” and homemade digital pornography, with specific attention to India and South Asian contexts.
Dr. Baishya’s articles appear in journals such as International Journal of Communication; South Asian Popular Culture; Communication, Culture & Critique; and Media, Culture & Society. He has published book chapters in edited collections like COVID Assemblages: Queer and Feminist Ethnographies from South Asia. He has also served as editor for a number of journal special issues, including two special issues of Porn Studies, the first entitled, South Asian Pornographies: Vernacular Formations of the Permissible and the Obscene, as well as for publications in The Spectator.
In 2020, Dr. Baishya received a Social Science Research Council Rapid-Response Grant on COVID-19 and the Social Sciences. Dr. Baishya received his Ph.D. in Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Southern California. He also holds an M.Phil. in Cinema Studies and an M.A. in Arts & Aesthetics from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and his B.A. in Political Science from Cotton College at Gauhati University in India.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in media and technology studies, and, in particular, begin to study the political and cultural significance of digital media to right-wing populism in India and movements resisting it?
[Dr. Anirban Baishya] I have had a bit of a checkered entry into academia. I did my undergrad in political science, and then I wanted to become a filmmaker. I tried to get into film school, which did not work out, but I learned about the film studies program at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. That is how I actually first entered academia. I got a Master’s in Arts and Aesthetics, which encompassed theater and performance, film, and visual art. I focused on film studies and went on to do my M.Phil. in film studies there.
In that process I started looking at other forms of media that we use in very different ways from cinema. The cell phone began to pique my interest. That was the time when we still had those old Nokia phones, but newer smartphones were also beginning to come into the market, and people were using them in interesting ways. What got my attention initially was how people were documenting the everyday and the cellphone’s use in pornography. The cell phone became this secret camera object that everyone carried, and there were moments of eruption in the form of sex-scandals. When I applied for a Ph.D., my aim was to conduct a research project about cell phone pornography. The cell phone has been central to my entry into media and technology studies.
A year after I enrolled in my Ph.D. program, interesting things started happening in India around the 2014 election. The party that went on to win (the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP) was running, basically, a selfie campaign for Narendra Modi. I had been looking at the cell phone as this object to record the everyday in a very different scenario. But this was not the subterranean hidden camera with people recording homemade pornography; it was people recording themselves to show solidarity with and support of a political leader. My background in film studies led me to think about the other apparatuses of seeing and showing, and, in a roundabout way, brought me to study far-right political formations.
Long story short, this was not the plan at all. The plan evolved as I encountered things while I was conducting research.
[MastersinCommunications.com] As you mentioned, one media form your work focuses on is the selfie — for example, you are author of “#NaMo: The Political Work of the Selfie in the 2014 Indian General Election,” and your current book project is Viral Selves: Platforms, Selfies and Digital Image Culture in India. What are some of the key political affordances your work identifies in the selfie, and are there important ways its political and cultural significance has developed over the course of your work?
[Dr. Anirban Baishya] That publication, “#NaMo,” was actually the starting point of my dissertation, which was called Viral Selves. Although I was interested in politics, I started paying attention to other things that were happening as well. I started asking, “Why is this happening in India today?” Politics was part of it, but there was more going on as well: for example, the booming smartphone economy.
I started paying attention to the companies that produced these phones, how they were marketing them, and what other industries they intersected with. I found the camera phone, which is central to everyone everywhere now, was being advertised in India as a parallel to older technologies of self-making, for example, the “fairness cream.” Fairness cream advertisements used the selfie, but the cell phone also had skin brightening functions built into the app interface. These advertisements foregrounded that specifically for an Indian audience.
This is politics, but it’s not capital P politics. It is small-scale politics, and the smaller changes really till the ground for the political in a different way. Not everyone who is using these phones or these interfaces is participating directly in activism or politics, but this creates the conditions of possibility for that kind of engagement as well.
The larger book project also looks at electoral politics and discusses the 2014 election, but I also started looking at things like protest movements, which is a very different kind of politics. I look at this in three ways: markets, mobilities, and mobilization. In discussing markets, I explore the affordances of the cell phone interface, the app ecology, and also new forms of social entrepreneurship — people who are using the selfie to basically get ahead in the world.
The mobility part flows from looking at the influencer industry. Training centers are being set up that give people a language for using the apps on their phones and participating in the social media ecology. That then leads us to political influence. There is a through line there. While not all of it is explicitly political, politics very much is the root of that project.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Another primary area of your research attends to digital media forms such as memes, selfies, and GIFs. Your work on memes, for example, includes publications like, “The Conquest of the World as Meme: Memetic Visuality and Political Humor in Critiques of the Hindu Right Wing in India,” and “Chronicles of a Meme Foretold: Political Memes as Folk Memory In India.” Could you introduce us to some of the key ways that memes have helped reconfigure contemporary political discourse?
[Dr. Anirban Baishya] I arrived at the GIF through the selfie. I look at them as a family of objects; the “bad” objects of popular culture. The selfie and the meme are objects that are not taken seriously outside of academia quite honestly, but they are powerful forms. Memes are like a capsule delivering an idea without necessarily stating it explicitly. They are also defined by an intertextual movement between text, image, and circulation as they travel through different contexts [e.g., memes reference other texts, and people who circulate them often modify elements to respond to different situations]. Memes can be mobilized very effectively when they circulate as political objects, especially through the use of humor.
My discussion of the “sticky temporality” of memes relates to a specific set of memes, but I think it can be widely applied. I was studying the demonetization fiasco in India in 2017, when the Prime Minister announced that certain old currency notes were no longer valid and all hell broke loose. People started sharing memes satirizing the situation, which now keep coming back as “anniversary objects.” There are certain meme templates and certain key phrases which occur in these memes over time. This is important because, although the meme is about rapid circulation and overabundance, it has a way of resurfacing again at these moments of crisis when there is a sense that the political system is repeating itself.
You might compare the way that memes have reconfigured the political to the difference between reading a newspaper and watching a TikTok video. Memes do something akin to the TikTok video. They are a product of our digital era which is all about fragments: fragmented information and fragments of audiovisual material that are then put together. The meme becomes a shortcut to indicate what the political condition is through text and image without actually spelling it out. That tends to circulate more virally than a headline with 400 words or 500 words below it.
This cuts across the political spectrum. Because of the smartphone market and the rising affordability of mobile phone-based internet in India, the meme becomes broadly accessible, and that makes it such an interesting object in politics today.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You have studied memes as both a key technology of far-right populism in India and as an important part of discourses critiquing the far-right. What does this political elasticity of the meme tell us about its impact on participatory culture, and are there key differences you would highlight between right-wing circulations of memes and memetic discourses critical of the right?
[Dr. Anirban Baishya] The basic structure of the meme is pretty much the same across the right and left. Both camps use the meme precisely because it is such a kind of common language. That is why I think of all memes as meme templates; they are formats that can be used by both sides. What I do see, however, as different, is that the right uses memes in a more organized way.
I think there is a tendency to think of memes as objects that are hastily put together and immediately circulated. But on the right, you see a very deliberate way of organizing around these memes and a very deliberate way of deciding when to deploy memes. That does not say as much about the meme than it says about how the right organizes itself in the digital. I think they have been far more savvy with the digital than their detractors have been.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In 2020, you received a Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC) Rapid-Response Grant on Covid-19 and the Social Sciences. Would you tell us about the project on online hate speech you did through this grant, and your experience conducting “rapid-response” research in the context of a global pandemic?
[Dr. Anirban Baishya] I applied for this grant because I saw that COVID-19 was being weaponized by the right wing in India in very specific ways, where the body of the Muslim was being represented as the carrier of COVID. Muslims were being portrayed as people who were engineering its spread, and this was not just on far-right meme pages. It was also in popular news reports, it was in WhatsApp forwards, it was on Twitter.
Memes and videos were, of course, part of this. There were many kinds of individual objects that were circulating and propagating that message. I used the grant as an opportunity to track that. The Twitter ecology in the time of COVID allowed me to sort of take a deeper dive into seeing how particular ethno-nationalist, bigoted points of view were mobilizing all of these different technologies together.
As for the process of research, when SSRC gave us that opportunity, they acknowledged we would face limitations to doing research and have to find ways around that. Because I was working on digital circulation, I did not necessarily need to be on the ground. However, there were things that I wanted to follow up on which were happening in India, and I had no way of doing that.
That is where the SSRC funding really helped, because I was able to employ the help of a research assistant. He was a journalist [Ayan Sharma, now a graduate student at the University of Virginia] who was writing and reporting on the right wing, and the project became very collaborative. Whatever connections I did not have, Ayan Sharma had. It was really helpful in facilitating interviews. In certain cases, when people were not willing to speak with me, they would be willing to speak with him, so I am deeply grateful for having that support.
On the one hand, I had things that I knew from observation of online data. On the other hand, I wanted to know how people were reporting about this in the press. Not everyone was complicit in this anti-Muslim propaganda; there were people who were writing against it as well. I wanted to know how they navigated that on the ground. That collaborative effort really helped. It allowed me to look at the right ecology at a very particular moment of crisis.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You have written about the COVID-19 pandemic in publications including, “Reimaging the Migrant in the Time of the Pandemic,” and “Through a Drone Darkly: Drone Media as Pandemic Witnessing.” What do these pieces, which tackle very different issues related to the pandemic, tell us about the importance of visual media and visuality during COVID-19?
[Dr. Anirban Baishya] These pieces really came out of that same moment of crisis. COVID did many things: right propaganda online was one, but other things were happening on the ground. As the country went into lockdown, these people who were internal migrants within India were being asked to move back to their villages. They were being put on trains, and, when they could not get the trains, they would walk. A lot of them died on the way. The news reports foregrounded the suffering of the migrants and these images of suffering circulated in a way that I had not seen before in the Indian context.
“Reimaging the Migrant” was a collaboration with Darshana Sreedhar Mini who also teaches in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That piece was really about reflecting on the question “What work do images of suffering accomplish in moments of crisis?” These images strive to elicit empathy, but there are limits to that empathy as well. Sharing those images did not really lead to much action on the ground–towards ameliorating the conditions of the migrants.
That is the core of what we were trying to do. We were asking if the circulation of the image is enough to change what is basically a structural condition. At the same time that these migrants were being asked to move back, Indian citizens abroad were being brought back to the country on special flights. There is a huge discrepancy in the way in which these two demographics were being treated. These unequal conditions spurred us to think about what these images were doing. In a way, they have fetishized the suffering of the migrant without turning into action, raising important questions about what action means in the pandemic.
The piece on drones was really about the second wave of the pandemic in India. I am not sure if you saw those images, but this was a time when dead bodies were basically being burnt on pyres on the street because hospitals and crematoriums had run out of space. I was looking at what particular visual media technologies allowed at a time like this.
Drone videos started emerging globally almost as soon as the pandemic started. You had these very popular, nostalgic videos of New York or cities in India during the pandemic that were set to music. During the second wave, though, drones gave us a very different view. That is when the drone really became a way of countering the official story about the pandemic because the government was really downplaying the number of deaths due to COVID. It became a way of archiving and producing data from above, because the government was not going to give us data. The visual becomes central during the pandemic as a way of circulating images and creating counter archives.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Another central engagement of your work is the nascent subfield of pornography studies. For example, you recently co-edited and co-authored the introductions to two special issues of Porn Studies on South Asian pornographies. Could you introduce us to pornography studies as a scholarly field and discuss your contributions to de-Westernizing the study of pornography?
[Dr. Anirban Baishya] My entry into pornography studies was connected to my interest in the digital. I was still a graduate student when I read Linda Williams’ Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible,” but that work was dealing with a very specific U.S. context. At the time I did not have a language to speak about what pornography does when it becomes digital, and especially when that occurs in South Asia.
Because South Asia is a very censorial context, there is a way in which these things do not really get spoken about, but they emerge in very oblique ways. This is not to say that there is no erotic imagery or there is no pornography at all, but, because of the country’s colonial history and the persistence of colonial laws in the present, there is a certain way in which all of this is cordoned off and does not really explode into public view (other than “scandals”).
The way that you would talk about the pornography industry in the U.S., for example, is very different from how you would talk about pornography in India. You do not have the same kind of organized, explicit pornography industry in India. It emerges in a subterranean fashion, through erotic fiction and risqué cartoons, which are some of the places I have investigated in my writing.
My collaborator, Darshana Mini, and I felt that there was not enough for us to turn to when we wanted to talk about pornography in South Asia. There was a book by Lotte Hoek called Cut-Pieces [Celluloid Obscenity and Popular Cinema in Bangladesh], which is about pornography in Bangladesh, but that was pretty much about it. There were snippets of writing here and there, but nothing in the form of a concrete bibliography to turn to. We felt that the way to respond to this problem was to make people write about it, and that is when we sort of pitched the first special issue of Porn Studies in 2015.
We had arranged a panel at the SCMS [Society for Cinema and Media Studies] conference on South Asian Pornographies, on which we received very good feedback. People encouraged us to think about a special issue and that seemed like a very good idea to us. In the wake of SCMS, we started having conversations with the Porn Studies editorial board, and they were very supportive, in part because they were looking to diversify their content which has been very focused on a Western context. That gave us the space to collate all these scholars who were thinking and writing about these issues in very different ways.
What we found when we sent out the call for papers is that people were doing diverse and interesting work. They were writing about erotic Victorian novels in India, they were looking at archives of paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries, and some people were also thinking about digital media. Once we finished the process of producing that, we felt like we were not done yet. We approached the Porn Studies board again and said, “Let’s do another one.” Having that conversation with the editors was really crucial, because there was not any other space for a volume on South Asian pornography. The two issues are now being published as a combined edited collection by Routledge, which is forthcoming in 2023.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What, in your own research, has critically engaging with pornography helped you explore in media and popular culture, and how does this help shift our scholarly discourse on pornography away from debates over whether porn is good or bad?
[Dr. Anirban Baishya] Of course, there has always been a pro versus anti-pornography discourse in India. I find that discourse limiting, because people talk about pornography as if it is just one thing. The more productive conversation is “What is pornography doing?” and “What does it allow you to do?” You have misogynistic content out there, but you also have people taking up pornographic forms to queer them and discover a new sort of politics through them.
I think it goes back to the ways I also think about other objects. In my research I ask, “What is the selfie doing? What is the GIF doing?” Similarly, we might ask, “What is this pornographic fragment doing?” The ways that media objects produce meaning emerges not from just the content of the object but also from its context. Even with porn, these objects get recontextualized in the digital. I think recontextualization is precisely where we can find very productive ways of participating in different kinds of cultures, whether that is through meme making or creating fragmentary videos. I think I am more interested in that participatory aspect and what it produces as a discourse than the fixed meaning that pornography can sometimes have.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What is the institutional reception of porn studies in communication studies? Have you, or do other scholars in the field, met resistance to your work or had to fight to legitimize the discipline?
[Dr. Anirban Baishya] Personally, I have not felt resistance, but this is partly because this line of my research is secondary to my work on digital media more broadly. When I started applying for jobs, I was presenting myself as a scholar of digital media forms; the research was in my file, but it was not the central focus. But I know that is not the story for everyone. People have had to legitimize their work on porn and work to draw the important difference between researching pornography and being interested in pornography.
From anecdotal discussions, sometimes the work gets looked down upon. That has not been my experience because I foreground other parts of my research, not to disassociate myself with porn studies, but because that is the way my research trajectory has developed.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice to give to students who are interested in the cultural politics of digital media, in studying far-right populist movements in South Asia or globally, or in pornography studies, who may be considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?
[Dr. Anirban Baishya] If your research is about the far right, steel yourself. It is depressing work. It feels like you have to caffeinate yourself when you are doing it. My only piece of advice would be, especially if you are from the Global South, and you are coming from these spaces where these political movements are happening, always think about safety first.
There is a privilege of safety that comes for me at this point, being located in the United States. I know that I would not have been able to do this as a graduate project in India. People are being thrown into jail just for expressing dissent. Even with something like my work on pornography, this would be very difficult to do except for in a few university spaces in India. Think about safety first.
If you are an international student coming to the U.S. and trying to do this kind of work, always have a backup plan. Access to archives can disappear at any moment, sometimes because of political conditions, sometimes because of externally imposed conditions like COVID-19. Then you have to really strategize about how you are going to do that work.
That said, regarding the job scene in the U.S., I think people are starting to recognize the value of this work. There is much more work about the far-right media today than there was ten years ago. The porn studies field has also really exploded in the last 10 to 15 years. The vagaries of the job market apart, it is an interesting time to be doing this kind of work.
Thank you, Dr. Baishya, for sharing your insight on media and technology studies, digital politics, and pornography studies!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.