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Jeganathan and the politics of power

by Mary Shafer

Pradeep Jeganathan

Pradeep Jeganathan
Photo by Diana Watters

Pradeep Jeganathan


Ph.D. 1997, anthropology, U of Chicago

Professional history

1999 assistant professor, anthropology and global studies, U of M

1995-2000 postdoc instructor & teaching fellow, U of Chicago

Selected honors & awards

McKnight Land-grant professorship (U of M)

Harry Frank Guggenheim Dissertation Fellowship

Robert Boit Prize for Short Fiction (MIT)

James McCormack Award: Outstanding Engineering Research

Selected bibliography

“A Space for Violence: Anthropology, Politics, and the Location of a Sinhala Practice of Masculinity,” in Chatterjea and Jeganathan, Subaltern Studies XI: Writings on South Asian History and Society, Oxford U Press, 2000

On creative writing

“I studied creative writing after disillusionment with science as a way to understand. I still use fictional techniques in anthropology.”

Also working on…

studying global cultures and knowledge in electronic “worlds,” and the relationship of “Webspace “lived-place."

In the movie Die Hard with a Vengeance, the hero gets caught up in a cat-and-mouse game with a terrorist who plants bombs in public places and gives clues to their whereabouts in the form of riddles and bizarre games. Artistic merits of the film aside, Pradeep Jeganathan considers it a good example of the academic issues with which he grapples: questions of violence and social space, of culture, power, and politics.

“In the movie, the very presence of a bomb reconfigures space,” says Jeganathan, an assistant professor who joined the faculty in 1999 with a joint appointment in anthropology and global studies. “Even as the characters try to find the bomb, New York City looks different. The world changes because of the bomb.”

A native of Sri Lanka, Jeganathan came to the University with a remarkably diverse background that includes electrical engineering, creative writing, physics, and mathematics, as well as his chosen field, anthropology. That broad intellectual sweep reflects an insatiable intellectual hunger that cannot be restrained by disciplinary boundaries.

“I ask questions about politics and power in anthropology, which has always asked questions about culture,” he says. “I was fortunate to find colleagues here who are asking similar questions,” he adds, noting that Gloria Raheja, director of the Institute for Global Studies, is a friend and mentor.

The questions he and his colleagues are asking are, he believes, fundamental to an understanding of a world where national and cultural boundaries are increasingly fluid and highly contested. “I came to my questions not because of fad or fancy, but because they're pressing,” says Jeganathan.

Jeganathan's intense interest in issues of power and violence is anchored to some degree in his own history. He has never forgotten the violence he witnessed during the protracted civil war that has devastated his homeland. Yet he separates his academic work from his life story.

“It's easy to reduce intellectual argument to personal biography,” he says. “But in a sense, it takes away from the work. The arguments I want to make aren't just about myself; they exceed that.”

Wrestling with critical issues

Interested in the “question of culture,” Jeganathan never intended to study the violence that was seared into his consciousness.

Yet he was inexorably drawn toward questions that today drive much of his research: Does violence ever have productive effects in the world? Do new kinds of social space arise out of the black hole created by a bomb?

And the issues he wrestles with engage the extremes of power and politics: the relationships between perpetrators of torture and their victims and witnesses, and among pain, confession, and truth.

"I came to my questions not because of frad or fancy but because they're pressing."

—Praeep Jeganathan

“Reams and reams of descriptions of torture have been written,” says Jeganathan, who, remarkably, won a McKnight professorship in his first year at the University in recognition of his immense promise as an emerging international scholar. “And still, the anthropological questions remain: How can something so grotesque be meaningful? How do you hear the pain of the tortured? What conceptual framework do you need? These issues are beginning to be more and more significant."

On his desk, Jeganathan keeps a print of Monet's “The Japanese Bridge,” a visual reminder of a more serene world. And he regularly visits the Impressionists at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where he finds soothing respite from the world of violence that has seized his scholarly attention.

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