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Tamilnet.com: Some Reflections on Popular Anthropology,
Nationalism, and the Internet

Mark P. Whitaker
University of South Carolina, Aiken
[Courtesy: Anthropological Quarterly - Volume 77, Number 3, Summer 2004, pp. 469-498
Copyright: George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research ]

See also Mark P.Whitaker - Learning Politics From Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka  

[Full Text in PDF]



In this essay I argue that Tamilnetcom, an Internet news agency put together by a group of Sri Lankan Tamils to address the Tamil diaspora and influence English-speaking elites, subverted international news coverage during Sri Lanka's civil war by making "ironic" use of the discursive styles of journalism and anthropology. I also claim that this constituted a particular form of autoethnographic popular anthropology that challenged professional anthropology, and in some ways sought to replace it. In the first two sections of this essay, I dismantle the concept of "the popular" by showing that when anthropologists and social theorists use the term they are often referring to connected but distinct aspects of popularity which should be distinguished:  Baudrillardian market popularity on the one hand, and Habermas Habermasian identity-resistance popularity on the other. I then show how the Internet, given its technology and software, is best seen as market popular in form but identity-resistance popular in content. In the remaining four sections I illustrate, ethnographically, how the creators of Tamilnet com, while deeply embedded in civil war and a world-wide diaspora, recognized this aspect of the Internet and used it-again, "ironically"-to construct a site that advances their own nationalist interests.

From the Conclusion

....And how does all this relate to my larger interest in the perseverance of nationalist projects? As Mr. Dharmeratnam likes to argue, stateless actors seeking to create states for themselves within already existing nation-states that are hostile to the idea obviously face (among others things) two tough challenges.

First, of course, is the threat to them posed by an already existing state's monopoly of force. This threat has been met, in the Sri Lankan Tamils' case, by the excessively violent LTTE, which has grown over 20 years from an unconventional "low intensity" guerilla group using hit and run `terrorist' tactics into a conventional army capable of fighting the Sri Lankan army on its own terms.

This is likely why the LTTE, a genuinely frightening group with a violent intolerance for any kind of dissent, remains yet very popular among Sri Lankan Tamils; many continue to feel its guns are what stand between them and a potentially revengeful Sri Lankan state. Many also feel-and not just Tamil Sri Lankans (Uyangoda 2004:8)-that its guns are also the main reason the Sri Lankan state is willing to negotiate: a suspicion confirmed, it seems, in May 2004 by the willingness of the newly elected, UPFA (United People's Freedom Alliance) minority government to negotiate with the LTTE despite much pre-election rhetoric to the contrary.

But a second challenge to non-state actors, as important as a state's monopoly of force, are the hegemonic and sometimes direct control states generally exert over the media. This media control comes in two forms: within a state's borders via the various forms of direct control a majoritarian state can impose through legislation (i.e., censorship, state ownership newspapers, etc.) or through sheer numerical control of the local market; and beyond its borders by means of the indirect control (as the "official voice") a state has over how its activities are generally portrayed internationally.

The problem, here, for non-state actors is to somehow circumvent this media near-monopoly by creating both an alter-native "local media" and an alternative "official voice." Yet this is not so easy.

Simply creating an alternative "public sphere," which in one sense is what aspiring nationalisms do, and then trying to flood the state or the world with its contrary identity-resistance popularity via "community" owned newspapers and radio stations would not do.

Nationalist discourse of this sort is generally quite opaque to outsiders, and when issuing from an "illegitimate" (i.e., non-state) source, will be oft times dismissed or derided. And, of course, often a little direct oppression can suppress it, at least for a while. So what to do? What Tamilnet.com did when confronted by this problem is really quite interesting: it hooked its train to a completely alternative engine-the market popularity of global capitalism.

By doing this, Tamilnet.com's nationalists were using the transnational power and authority of global, market-based journalism to transcend the local media monopoly wielded by the Sri Lankan state. They simply ascended to a quite different level of political play. By means of this levitation, Tamilnet.com was able to use the different rules and forces of globalization-famously corrosive of national sovereignty in the literature on global flows-against one nation state in order to further their dream of creating another nation state.

Now my suspicion is that something like this kind of strategic sleight of hand is often found in nationalist projects that face the same kind of media near-monopoly. Indeed, a good example of just this was provided by the skillful manipulation of market-based journal-ism by the EZLN in Chiapas, a case that actually preceeded and somewhat inspired the actions of Tamilnet's creators. But, in Tamilnet.com's case, to what extent has this tactic succeeded?

At present, in May 2004, all of Sri Lanka's national newspapers, regardless of language (Sinhala, Tamil, and English), as well as all of the main Western and Indian news agencies reporting on Sri Lanka, use Tamilnet.com reports-despite frequent editorial condemnation of the site. But success is best signalled, I suppose, by opposition. In the eight years that Tamilnet.com has run, both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government have expressed, at times, extreme displeasure with its reporting.

But while the LTTE, recognizing the underlying nationalism of the site, has simply grumbled, the Sri Lankan government, before the cease-fire, twice threatened Tamilnet.com's reporters and editors (those within reach in Sri Lanka) with arrest for "treason," and once hinted, as I said earlier, that "uncontrolled" Sinhalese extremists might be inspired to perform some extra-judicial killing. Twice these government threats had to be turned back by using Western journalists, such as Peter Arnette, and anthropologists (such as myself) to obtain for Tamilnet.com's people the protection of human rights NGOs and international publicity.

And perhaps this strategic consumption of anthropology (and journalism) suggests a new, "ironic," role for our tired, old, "unpopular" discipline to play. However that turns out, one thing is clear: nothing will remain the same for anthropology now that communities have gone online.


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