Press one for POTUS, two for the German chancellor

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Sareeta Amrute. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.1.023

Press one for POTUS, two for the German chancellor

Humor, race, and rematerialization in the Indian tech diaspora

Sareeta AMRUTE, University of Washington

In some ways, there is nothing worse than academizing humor. But what happens when jokes are the vehicle for reconciling precarious economies? Anthropological attention has examined humor as a means of nonideological political critique, and as a means of maintaining social relations. Building on these traditions, I explore the jokes that Indian transnational migrant programmers tell about outsourcing and call center work—such as envisioning a world in which presidents are replaced by call center workers—which parody the palpable contradictions of knowledge economies. Humor can be a tool to disrupt what Autonomist Marxists have described as the incorporation of the soul into the heart of cognitive labor. It can also police the boundaries of acceptable behavior. This article uses accounts of the lives of Indian programmers, particularly those for whom Berlin provided passage into the middle class, to closely analyze how Indian programmers maneuver between the roles of racialized, backend, grunt coder and of upwardly mobile global Indian citizen. In examining the joke, this article will show how transnational knowledge work, as a relatively novel economic formation, intersects with recent concern with the ontological status of objects and machines. This article argues that a rigorous understanding of human–nonhuman relationships needs to take into account the “interstitial” forms of connectivity that explain how these relations involve the ordering of people and things against the texture of economic change.

Keywords: software work, cognitive labor, humor, race, India

A joke . . . and like any other injury, you watch it rupture along its suddenly exposed suture.

—Claudia Rankine[328]

Meenakshi, bug squasher

Meenakshi was a bug tester, finding and fixing places where code was malfunctioning, preventing a software package from being rolled out on time, making customers angry. It was 2004; she had been hired as a temporary programmer on the German Green Card by Dash Technologies, a business-processing software company with offices across Europe.

Late afternoon deepened into a Berlin night. On her screen, yellow lines of code against a black background scrolled from top to bottom, while she opened three, then four other windows, copying and pasting snippets of code from one into the other. Her computer dinged loudly and she stopped the roll. Meenakshi was about to squash a bug.

She opened a program called Sublime text, which represents parts of code in different colors to make it easier to spot problems, and pasted a snippet of code into its waiting window. Commands, or directions, displayed in red, strings, or written text, appeared in yellow, and operators, which modify specific inputs, stood out in violet. She scanned the Technicolor snippet, zeroing in on a missing single closing quotation mark. Adding the closing quote allowed the compiler to recognize a series of letters, numbers, and punctuation marks as a string. The quote would tell the compiler to treat what it enclosed as text rather than as command. Meenakshi entered in the missing quotation mark, which directed the program to a URL, and began running the bug-testing sequence again.

Though Meenakshi loved debugging, she knew that testing was not a prestigious job in software worlds. She and other software engineers from India were most often slotted into such backend, non-client-facing jobs when they worked in Germany, the United States, and elsewhere on short-term, project-based visas. Later that evening, Meenakshi recalibrated her relationship to her position as a grunt, backend worker.

She was boiling tea spiced with cardamom, ginger, and anise seeds in the kitchen of the apartment she shared with Rajeshwari in a working-class neighborhood a few U-Bahn stops north of her office. Meenakshi tried to explain to me what being a programmer was all about. “Programming is like cooking,” she said. “You give the computer a recipe, and it follows it.” Surprised at the analogy, I exclaimed, “but you never use a recipe when you cook”. “That’s different,” she added with a wry grin. “The computer is a very stupid cook.”

The computer simply follows the directions, but Meenakshi can look at a line of code and realize the syntax is wrong. In her retort, she cut away the binds that tie her to the computer, asserting her clever superiority. Though not valued as “creative” in the software firm in which she works, Meenakshi feels when she is bug testing as she does when she is cooking. In these moments, she is in control, knowledgeable, and practiced. She uses all her skills to do what the computer cannot, namely parse lines of texts from commands, ingredient lists from directions. Meenakshi is the clever cook, the computer the unthinking automaton.

Fleshy entanglements between human and machine lead in multiple directions. Short-term programmers from India both join and split from the lines of code they write and repair. In this essay, I follow the entanglements and disentanglements between humans and machines that unfold as coding work is materialized in bodies and things.[329]

Materialization describes how actions are congealed. In any given entanglement between humans and things, some aspects of this relationship are materialized while other aspects are dematerialized, that is, taken and made to appear as natural and lacking material substrate. Materialization, dematerialization, and rematerialization happen as action in a social world makes bodies and things. To show how these processes congeal and become undone in the relationship between programming machines and migrant bodies from India, I follow caricatures of Indian programmers circulating in the German-language public sphere, and the jokes Indian programmers tell to “talk back” to these depictions of Indian coders as machine-like executors of low-level commands (Chun 2009). By putting humor at the center of the analysis of digital technologies, I turn analytical attention towards the connective tissue between the immaterial and the material, the human and the machine.1

In an extended analysis of the way images (such as the pixels on a computer screen) render, Georges Didi-Huberman (2005: 271) suggests that pictures both symbolize and disturb. Images display a version of the world, but they also can rend, or tear, a previously given construction of that world. Renderings provide a specific analytic of the way race and technical labor intersect by showing how social and technical articulations are enacted in a particular scene. I take on Didi-Huberman’s dialectical understanding of rendering to track the work humor can do. Meenakshi’s joke, an example of what Glenda R. Carpio (2017) calls “immigrant black humor,” rends a particular software world that uses technical affordances such as text editors to reinforce divides between creative coding and repetitive bug squashing. She opens that world up for continual disfiguration.

Analyzing the process by which software work is materialized and dematerialized leads to an analysis of human–nonhuman relationships that can account for relationships that reduce some humans to machines through the racialization of their bodies even as they gather humans and machines together in new ways (Amrute 2016). Taken together, rendering encapsulates several levels of analysis: how economic forces are made tangible, how human and nonhuman relationships develop through interstitial forms which distill the multiplicities of bodies and things into valuable qualities, and the ability of such intermediate forms to tear a hole in, or rend, a normative construct. As Lauren Berlant (2016) writes of her project on flat affect, humor and humorlessness reflect and stubbornly resist [330]capitalist discipline. But, though humor is central to this essay, it is not my only quarry. I attempt here an investigation of humor as a connective tissue. In other words, I use humor to make sense of what Stuart Hall ([1980] 1996) calls the “articulations” between economies and subjects, on the one hand, and persons and things, on the other (see also Amrute 2014a).

To analyze humor as articulation, I discuss materializations as making and unmaking kinds of relations among humans and things. Then, I look at caricature to understand how humor renders racialized bodies as natural carriers of value even while Indian IT worker humor talks back to such renderings. Finally, I explore the kinds of rends to the social fabric that these instances of humor accomplish.

Can a computer have caste?

My findings are based on ongoing research on Indian programmers in the United States, Germany, and India. Both Germany and the United States operate similar temporary visa programs for IT labor. The German version of this program, officially termed the Regulation of Work Permits for Highly Qualified Foreign Laborers in Information and Communications Technology, known more generally as the German Green Card, was passed in 2000 and allowed to expire in 2005. It enabled foreign workers with skills in code writing, software testing, debugging, and IT management to enter Germany for one to five years on job-dependent visas. Over the course of its validity, the German Green Card brought in 14,000 IT specialists, over one-quarter of whom were from India.

In my research, I found (perhaps unsurprisingly) that the majority of Indians who worked on short-term programming jobs in Germany were Hindu, upper caste, and from South India.2 The humor they deploy, which divorces them from the machines they operate, also consolidates their upper-class and upper-caste position. Dividing oneself from a dumb machine is also a way of producing expertise over inexpert laborers —as if the machine itself had caste. The machine’s low caste sets off through opposition the high caste of the programmer herself. While in moments of comedy these programmers refuse their racialization as being machine-like, they also consolidate their superiority through tropes that differentiate creative and professional work from unthinking manual labor.

Students of contemporary capitalism often describe the software economies in which Meenakshi, Rajeshwari, and others work as “immaterial” because they produce packets of communication rather than physical objects. Nonmaterial products indicate a broader economic shift in the structure of capitalism from labor on machines in a factory to labor in offices making information, in stores producing smiles for waiting customers, and online building systems for companies’ digital products (Lazzarato 1996; Hardt and Negri 2000; Virno 2004; Dyer-Witherford 2005; Berardi 2009;). Though these theorists identify an important reformulation of value under capitalism, the immaterial labor hypothesis also “constructs a false [331]dichotomy between complex human actions involved in productive processes, all of which entail mental processes and require knowledge, communication, and affect” (Yanagisako 2012: 19). I argue that immateriality and materiality are connected as moments of a process. In other words, rather than classifying software work as immaterial, I analyze how making software seem (and be) immaterial helps solidify the technologies and assumptions that make the industry work across domains.3 It leaves the material to one side, existing as antecedent to software economies, and present only in particular kinds of (raced, classed, gendered, and disabled) bodies. Jokes that make certain kinds of work appear natural do so by materializing such work in bodies that seem thereby suited to do such work. Jokes that confront this naturalization instead work to unpack the structuring conditions of coding as labor in corporate environments.

Dematerialization and rematerialization

Polemics about how to understand nonhuman others, whether organic or inorganic, seem mired in one-upmanship, each thinker outdoing the other in granting the nonhuman agentive dignity. The scholarly hoax in which an invented article about the effects of totalitarianism on German Shephards was retracted after publication in a peer-reviewed journal is surely the apotheosis of this trend (Oltermann 2016; Schulte und Freundinnen 2016). This rivalry to acknowledge the “nonhuman” often neglects careful attention to the means through which such human–nonhuman interactions unfold.4 One way to refocus these energies is to follow how humans and nonhumans are produced through kinds of action in the world (Barad 2003). Attention to how things are materially anchored and are decoupled, and for whom, suggests a range of forms that are intermediate between the material and nonmaterial and produce the conditions of possibility for human and nonhuman intra-actions. Analytic attention to the space between humans and things is particularly crucial for discussions of “immaterial” economies.

At work, programmers transgress the boundaries between human, nature, and machine as cyborg bodies (Haraway 1991) described as the cyborg body. But even while short-term programmers from India are “naturalized” as a kind of machinic intelligence, they work against their reduction to cognitive cogs in the machine of late capitalism (Smith 2009). Comedy, through caricature and retort, joke and parody, operates both to render software work legible through broad divisions among kinds of workers, and to pixelate this work into granular moments that trouble easy summarization.[332]

Stuart Hall, Gayartri Spivak, and Alexander Weheliye elaborate on the term “articulation” to analyze power relations as a contingent formation, which, they stress, could be organized otherwise (Hall [1980] 1996; Spivak 1998; Weheliye 2014). Adding articulation to the ontology of the nonhuman adds a “third dimension” to this ontology, one that is sensitive to the tissues that connect humans, nonhumans, and things. Renderings are a kind of articulation that can address the hierarchies and resistances, accommodations and refusals within particular human and nonhuman economies.

The ambiguous work of caricature

Anthropologists seem to be rediscovering comedy as a site for social analysis.5 Radcliffe Brown’s foundational study of the joking relationship between affines and generations postulated teasing as a way to maintain alliances among groups with diverging interests, where “serious hostility” is defused through socially appropriate joking (Radcliffe-Brown 1940: 197). While Radcliffe-Brown focused on humor as a means of maintaining social order, current anthropologists look to jokes to understand how they destabilize certainty (de Vienne 2012; Bernal 2013: 300 Haugerud 2013; Yurchak 2013). These approaches follow Mary Douglas’ argument that jokes “connect widely differing fields” in a way that “destroys hierarchy and order” (1975: 155) and from Mikhail Bakhtin’s understanding of carnivalesque parodies (Bakhtin [1965] 2009). Comedy juxtaposes ideals and realities in existing social relations, even while it exposes opportunities for imagining things otherwise (Bergson [1911] 1999; Basso 1979; Weidman 2005: 751–52). Anthropologists draw increasingly on theories of the comic that stress how slapstick, the gimmick, black humor, and irony hold open a field of multiple affects and affiliations toward a given world (Freud (1905) 1960; Berlant and Ngai 2017). An account of how humor intersects with knowledge work requires that the multiple relationships between humor and norms be kept in play, rather than be reduced to a position in structural opposition.

Caricatures of Indian IT workers began to appear in popular German newspapers as the Green Card law was debated in the Bundestag. They iterated a tight bind between the Indian body, the computer as machine, and exotic cultural practices, while simultaneously articulating incredulity that a third world place like India could produce digital technology. Even while they rend an ideal of European technical superiority, these cartoons make Indians “safe” by making them so foreign that they lessen the threat to a thus stabilized German identity (Amrute 2016). Such cartoons measured types of foreigners against one another, separating the acceptable from the unacceptable, using German tolerance of Indian, implicitly Hindu (or possibly Sikh), programmers as an alibi for the continued intolerance of Muslim migrants.

The political cartoons, digital memes, and article illustrations I gathered from internet sites, local magazines, and national newspapers exemplify the many ways [333]that the migrant body is used to come to terms with new conditions of labor. Some cartoons appeared as large, full-color, photographs in multipage articles about Indian IT. Others were printed in the blank space at the bottom of pages of movie listings. Still more surfaced in the humor section of a website dedicated to Indians in Germany. The caricatures depicted Indian programmers in three major ways: as backward primitives, as ascetic world renouncers, and as sensualists. The images concretized a welter of fears about how a globalized high-tech economy might unsettle patterns of work and employment within the nation. They did this work by rendering the Indian body hypervisible (Rankine 2014: 49).

Many Berliners whom I interviewed made the determination that these images represented the old-fashioned fears of out-of-date anti-immigrant Germans. Showing them the cartoons, they abjured the sentiment they discerned in these images. A journalism student named Peter who described himself as pro-immigrant said that the Green Card visa should be supported. He read most of these caricatures as mocking the technologically incompetent Germans and saw nothing wrong in them. At the same time, Peter suggested that immigration was a problematic issue because of the ghettoization produced by the lack of education and knowledge of German among Turkish Germans in large cities. His opinion indicated the complicated calculations that divided high-tech from working-class migrants. A Berliner named Aigul whose parents migrated to Germany from Turkey before she was born believed that the Green Card debates would prove important in changing governmental policy toward immigration. She was particularly heartened by activists’ success in changing German immigration law to allow young immigrants to choose German citizenship when they reached the age of majority. When I discussed the cartoons with her, she readily recognized their stereotyping of the Indian programmers but thought it relatively rare. I enlisted her help in collecting caricatures from newspapers and magazines. We were surprised that in the end we gathered twenty-five of them, all playing on contrasts between the this-worldly and otherworldliness, materiality and spirituality, advancement and backwardness.

Another Berliner I interviewed, who was chief research officer at a European-wide institute studying migration patterns, believed the debate on the German Green Card was unimportant given the small numbers of migrants it would attract in comparison with the much larger guest worker and asylum seeker populations. This opinion framed immigration as a biopolitical question written in the language of large-scale demographic shifts, and thereby discounted high-tech software work from its proper domain. The research officer thought the caricatures a distraction from the real work of integrating both immigrants and Islam.

I gather these images together not to index German racism, but to study mass-mediated cartoon images ethnographically—that is, by treating them as condensed signs of anxiety and expectation. Doing so uncovers how the racial imaginary surrounding the Indian programmer becomes a means to work through the problem of neoliberal economies and migration in a liberal state that requires that these problems be approached through displacement. What Freud ([1905] 1960) might have described as an acceptable discharge of negative affect emerges here to interrogate that which is outside the bounds of public humor (the Turkish migrant) and, [334]at the same time, to produce a willing public that accepts a transnational, racialized division of labor.6

The following caricature from the March 2000 issue of Titanic satirizes both the Indian IT worker and anti-immigrant fear (fig. 1). The headline reads, “The Computer-Indians, how far ahead of us are they really?” Beneath the title, the text continues, “Can Germany bear the Computer-Indians? Will they first take our jobs and then our German women?” In a series of exposés designed to mimic the conventions of photojournalism, it showcases hard manual labor, old machines, and barbaric practices to voice incredulity—Indian are not ahead of Germans, but far behind. Each picture is isolated from its context of production even while together they create a collection that claims to represent the truth of the world (Stewart 1992: 162). Outlining each picture in black, the page juxtaposes scenes of backwardness with text that describes computer hardware manufacturing.

The image of the rock breakers in the upper left corner reads like a large-scale painting, with the vanishing point receding into the distance, defining an expanse of men and material set up in counterpoint to the caption, which describes a silicon mine: “All employees wear headscarves, since even the smallest hair can make a [micro]chip useless.” The pictures evoke traditions of European landscape paintings of the Orient, which create sweeping visions of bodies in harems, at work, and in battle. The Indians break rocks, carry boulders on their heads, and work at giant turbines. In the text accompanying the pictures, the turbines are described as “CD ROMS and supercomputers.” The figure in the bottom right corner is captioned as the “Bill Gates of Bangalore”, who “owns the license for the very successful operating system, Caste 2000.” Such pictures extract Indian programmers from the context of Indian higher education, middle-class expertise, and historical development of the computer in India (Amrute 2010; Sen 2016). Instead, manual labor is framed by cognitive value.

Such caricatures voice the racial threat that Indian programmers represent: that they will bring with them to Germany primitive customs and ways of life that are impossible to uphold in Europe. The image also mocks Germans who are xenophobic. The titles and subtitles seem to raise questions about who might actually worry about the “Computer-Indians stealing German women.” Titanic, as a satirical magazine, keeps the possibility open that people like the sociology student who describe themselves as proimmigrant would see in this piece an exposure of the untenable claims of anti-immigrant politics. Yet, under the cover of this mockery it also renders a version of the Indian coder as a primitive individual who could not possibly surpass Germans in technological acumen. As Achille Mbembe (2001) writes in his discussion of Cameroonian political cartoons, caricature, through its gesture toward comedy, masks the power of recursivity to solidify a negative image of a population. This narrative helps naturalize divisions of labor in the office that assign Indian coders backend “grunt” programming that is repetitive and is considered uncreative, like the software-testing work that Meenakshi does.[335]

Figure 1
Figure 1: The Computer-Indians: How far ahead of us are they? Titanic Magazine, 2000. (Reproduced with permission.)

The second and third cartoons emphasize the otherworldly spirituality of the Indian programmer. They compare Indian programmers as spiritual ascetics and their hapless German employers. In the second image (fig. 2), the turbaned IT worker tells the worried-looking German, “The data haven’t disappeared—they’re off wandering in a search for another computer.” Also published in Zitty magazine in 2000, the third image (fig. 3) shows a computer with a snake emerging out of a basket as its screensaver. On top of the monitor sits a collection of small objects. The caption reads, “Because every monitor has to have figurines, soon there will also be an Elephant God, a happy Buddha and Sikh Smurfs.”[336]

Figure 2
Figure 2: “The data haven’t disappeared—they’re off wandering in a search for another computer.” Bernd Zeller, Zitty, 2000. (Reproduced with permission.)

The second cartoon explicitly compares the Indian IT worker and the German “everyman” by means of bodily contrasts. The German boss is small and confused looking, the Indian worker is turbaned and inscrutable. Between the two figures is the white space of a request, and of an answer. The Indian IT worker tells the joke; the joke shows up the technical incapacities of the German manager. This white space seems to indicate a permanent separation between the two. Firstly, that the German, who is technically challenged, and the Indian, who is technically adept, will be kept apart by their differences, and assigned different roles in an office division of labor. Secondly, that the technical answers the Indian will provide will be enigmatic and spiritual, corresponding to an Orientalist fantasy of what the German national cannot comprehend.

The computer is a mysterious object not easily understood. The computer’s operator is similarly mysterious. The third image displays the everyday ephemera of the office, monitor figurines, replaced by the recognizable tropes of India, gods with many arms and elephant heads, the Buddha, and Sikh Smurfs. This collapse between the programmer and the machine is accomplished almost fully by the screensaver, which fuses the Indian as mysterious snake charmer with the machine as unknowable.[337]

Figure 3
Figure 3: “Because every monitor has to have figurines, soon there will also be an Elephant God, a happy Buddha, and Sikh Smurfs.” Bernd Zeller, Zitty, 2000. (Reproduced with permission.)

The interplay between the truth of the pictures—which present India as defined by manual labor and old machines, as well as fetish objects and spiritual enigmas—and the black and white spaces that enclose and enliven them suggests that the value of “Indian” programmers (itself posed here as a contradiction) can be found in the specialized labor they can do for a firm. While these caricatures destabilize the true identity of Indian programmers, they also call into question the capabilities of normative white (East) German male employers.

The final image (fig. 4) accompanies a four-page, full-color lifestyle article on the prospect of Indian IT workers coming to Germany found in the national newspaper Die Zeit. Surrounding a figurine of Apu, the Indian convenience store clerk from the American cartoon The Simpsons, the text tells the reader, “The first computer experts are already here. But there is so much more that this far-off land can teach us, finally to have good sex, . . . to make more movies with happy ends, and to stay calm through meditation regardless of what happens.” The figure of Apu [338]is a generic Indian immigrant who is highly educated yet employed in a working-class position. He is capable of guile in overcharging his customers, yet regularly dispenses wisdom about cultural tolerance (Dave 2013: 40).[339]

Figure 4
Figure 4: “Learning from the Indians: The first computer experts are already here. But there is so much more that this far-off land can teach us.” Die Zeit, April 6, 2000. (Reproduced with permission.)

Using this figure—and the accompanying captions—to imagine the Indian programmer extends the range of arguments for letting Indians into Germany. The impressions of a West German neighbor of one of the software engineers I regularly visited made this point particularly well. One afternoon, as we were chatting about immigration, she said: “In India spirituality just belongs to the smallest things of everyday life. I have so often wished that here too the people would not be so rootless and distanced from their souls.” By pairing this India with the Indian programmer, the image and its accompanying text defang the alien threat of programmers taking away jobs by arguing that they bring with them a sensuality that Germans lack.

Tolerating such cartoons often serves as a litmus test of one of the pillars of the European Enlightenment: the right to free speech.7 Objecting to such humor can place one outside the norms of Enlightenment rationality, even while the circulation of such images as humor belies how they condense and make possible the continued treatment of migrants as outsiders. But rather than weighing whether to excuse or to ban such images, my concern is in following what such humor does: how it sediments a particular idea of the Indian programmer, how it laminates these programmers and the machines they program, and how it enunciates the fears of contingency that cognitive economies bring with them.

It is worth reemphasizing that not all German-speaking Berliners found these images funny; many were horrified. And these were not the only kinds of humor that rendered the experience of Indian coders while they stayed in Berlin. The full spectrum of humor lies outside the scope of this article, since my goal here is to focus on satires and rejoinders to the racialization of Indians as technical workers. I will briefly give a flavor of the wide range of humor I witnessed.

One particularly memorable outing took place at Sans Souci in Potsdam among a group of Indian and German coworkers, all of whom were women. Neither of the two jokes I recorded in my notebook had anything to do with technology. The first was a joke about a naked statue at a fountain. Walking all the way around the fountain, one of the German women, a thirty-year-old program manager originally from Hamburg, quipped, “I used to study medicine, and I can tell you, this statue is not anatomically correct. They do not hang evenly like that in real life.” The second joke was told by another German woman, about fifty years of age, the wife of a program manager, and interested in Indian culture. She did not speak very good English, so she first told the joke in German and then I translated it into English. “Why do women have Tupperware parties?” she asked, and then answered, “So they can show off their cans [die Dosen].”8 When only half of the group laughed at this last joke, she decided that those who did not laugh were simply not old or married enough to get the joke. In other words, the joke was legible to those who were [340]sexually experienced, according to its teller. These moments illustrate another path of commonality not stressed in this article, the space opened up among women outside the regimes of difference that might divide them at work though ribaldry and assertions of sexuality that are neither about reproduction nor about confession (Ramberg 2014). Such joking happens in the interstices within the consolidation of the Indian programmer as the alter, effeminate, male automaton.

The unending spiral of outsourcing

Against the texture of such caricatures, Indian programmers mobilized humor to “sort themselves out” from the calculating machine (Tsing 2013). The jokes told by Indian programmers in private combat the public depictions of them in caricatures and political cartoons. Unlike the hacker wit discussed by Gabriella Coleman (2013), which demonstrates the creative individual who sometimes writes conventional code, programmers’ jokes take aim at the way they have to perform the role of diligent, hardworking, and cheap migrant labor.

In corporate software work, programmers, project managers, and testers bring their personalities to bear on production as resources for creative work. The product of their labor is not easily separated from the act of production. As Franco “Bifo” Berardi writes in his study of office labor The soul at work, corporations buy “packets of time” rather than the labor of workers while at work, and demands on that time “can be mobilized” in unpredictable ways (2009: 193). For Berardi, the cell phone (which I return to) symbolizes this mobilization, since “the ringtone of the mobile phone calls the worker to reconnect” with the office at any time (ibid.).

Scholars of digital technology emphasize the many ways that the incorporation of personalities into production is mediated by material things, from the undersea cables that carry digital signals to the physical requirements that digital labor demands of everyone from Uber drivers to late-night call center workers (Aneesh 2015; Starosielski 2015). Yet, while forms of hard materialization like cables and wires or even biological materiality like the body’s need for sleep are readily recognizable, those discursive infrastructures that connect wires and bodies in particular ways are less apparent. Jokes demonstrate one such materialization, since humor allows for the very idea that surplus value could arise from the semiotic properties of communication to be made concrete, sometimes ridiculed, and always opened up for examination. Moments of materialization that take place when telling jokes often displace and thereby dematerialize other aspects of cognitive labor.

Programmers who were my interlocutors were often frustrated with the emphasis on creativity and yet the legal regimes that prevented their creativity from being exercised. Adi, who at thirty-two was one of the older programmers I met on the German Green Card, was talking about visa laws in various countries in late August 2004. He was originally from the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh but was planning to settle permanently either in Germany or in England. He had trained at the University of Hyderabad and then earned a Master’s degree in Computer Science from the Technical University, Berlin.

One day, Adi received a letter from the German visa office. His project had ended a few weeks earlier and he was looking for a new position. The letter detailed [341]the dates when Adi was issued a residence permit, when he became the responsibility of the case officer, when he lost he job, and when he was interviewed by the case officer working on his visa. The letter went on to detail the extent of the rights to which Adi was entitled to as a temporary tech worker in Germany. The bureaucrat then wrote that Adi’s visa would not be renewed, and outlined the reasons why:

Because of the high population density and the duties of the Federal Republic of Germany toward members of the states of the European Union as well as members of other foreign states whot have taken up permanent residence on federal territory, there is an official interest in controlling the immigration and residence of members of foreign states.

Finally, the letter threatened Adi with extradition, and, in order to assure that the German government was not putting him in any physical danger by returning him to India, it noted that he could be extradited to another country that was “bound to accept” him.

Adi and I parsed the official verbiage as we sat in the apartment he shared with his wife Maya and their young son Krishna in a Berlin neighborhood called Kreuzberg. We talked about the claims made by this particular bureaucrat. Adi was irked by the power that this individual had over his case. Called Ermessensgerecht, which could be glossed as “discretionary authority,” this provision of the law left it up to the case officer to determine whether a visa would be issued.9 It was clear from the language that the bureaucrat could have decided to extend his visa. We focused on the reasons she had given, “the high population density and the duties of the Federal Republic of Germany toward members of the states of the European Union as well as members of other foreign states.”

There was no population density problem in Germany. Newspapers had been reporting for years that the birth rate in Germany was sinking, to the detriment of the country. Unless, of course, as Adi pointed out, she had meant that the “immigrant” population was too high in Germany. This was clearly a political issue, Adi thought. He further opined that the letter revealed the anti-immigrant attitude of most Germans. But he already knew this. He was most perplexed by the seemingly arbitrary decision-making process. He thought that well-qualified technological experts such as himself should be subject to a different, more logical, decision-making process and not lumped together with all other immigrants.

After we finished talking about his letter, he thought for a while and with a quiet smile hurried back over to his desk. He put into my hand a printout of an email he received the previous week, and waited while I scanned its lines.

OUTSOURCING ANNOUNCEMENT, Washington, D.C.,” read the byline:

Congress today announced that the Office of the President of the United States will be outsourced to overseas as of August 30. The move is being made to save $400K a year in salary, a record $521 billion in deficit expenditures and related overhead.

“The cost of savings will be quite significant,” says Congressman Adam Smith (R-Wash), who, with the aid of Congress research arm, the General Accounting Office, has studied outsourcing of American jobs [342]extensively. “We simply can no longer afford this level of outlay and remain competitive on the world stage,” Congressman Smith said. Mr. Bush was informed by e-mail this morning of the termination of his position. He will receive health coverage, expenses and salary until his final day of employment. After that, with a two week waiting period, he will then be eligible for $240 a week from unemployment insurance for 13 weeks.

Unfortunately he will not be able to receive state Medicaid health insurance coverage as his unemployment benefits are over the required limit. “I’m in shock,” Mr. Bush stated, “I thought for sure I’d have some job security around here. I have no idea what I’ll do now,” he further lamented.

Sanji Gurvinder Singh of Indus Teleservices, Mumbai, India, will be assuming the Office of President of the United States as of September 1. Mr. Singh was born in the United States while his parents were here on student visas, thus making him eligible for the position. He will receive a salary of $320 USD a month but with no health coverage or other benefits. . . .

A Congressional Spokesman noted that Mr. Singh has been given a script tree to follow which will allow him to respond to most topics of concern. The Spokesperson further noted “additional savings will be realized as these scripting tools have already been used previously by Mr. Bush here in the US. Such scripts will enable Mr. Singh to provide an answer without having to fully understand the issue itself.”

Congress continues to explore other outsourcing possibilities, including that of Vice-President and most Cabinet positions.

Adi explained that, for him, the joke poked fun at all the bureaucratic nation-states and greedy corporations and their obsession with the Indian IT worker. It was about refusing to take the world that Indian programmers operate in too seriously. Because of the hype about the political costs of outsourcing, Adi believed, he was refused a visa extension. At the same time, because it is hype, Adi knew he could get another job. Within two months, he, Maya, and Krishna pulled up stakes, moved to London, and Adi started his own company based on a business-processing application to help firms keep track of their long-term clients.

Adi’s outsourcing parody disfigures a social world—it both renders and it rends, as Didi-Huberman suggests—by pushing to the limit what is possible when value is produced through services rather than material production, and in an economy where competitive advantage is produced by providing these services as cheaply as possible. At a certain point, the joke seems to say, answering a customer service complaint and answering the complaints of state will begin to blur and look the same. This moment of comedy plays up the automation of bureaucracy in its disregard for individual life (Bergson [1911] 1999), and thus demonstrates the extent to which cognitive economies will go in the drive toward lower costs and greater profit margins, making nation-states themselves subject to the laws of surplus value. The formalism of Adi’s outsourcing announcement mimics the formal tone of the bureaucratic letter that threatened him with extradition.

Using the genre of a newspaper article, the joke circulates in a parody of a piece of authentic news; the writerly conventions of journalism produce tension between [343]the reality of the news report and its unbelievable content.10 The unknown author interlards the faux article with “knowing winks” to the audience that heighten the comedic tension in the text.11 The name of the congressman, Adam Smith, is a nod to the author of The wealth of nations, one of the “founding fathers” of capitalism. The copy also pays homage to the rules and regulations that affect nonnational laborers and have become a staple of the experience of diasporic Indian IT workers. It points out why, for instance, the Indian worker is eligible to be president (he was born in the United States while his parents were there on a student visa) and reveals when President Bush’s health care and unemployment benefits will expire (thirteen weeks). The theme of cost saving surfaces throughout, including the small salary ($320) the Indian “president” will make.

For Adi, this materialized black comedy cancels out the sting of the letter from the visa office. He is reassured that it is all just farce, the life of the IT worker is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Adi uses the joke to point out the absurdity of the very economy in which he works.

As in Angelique Haugerd’s study of satire in American anticapitalist activism (Haugerd 2013), this hyperrealistic parody unearths the status quo and the rhetorical tropes that undergird it. Imagining a world only slightly more absurd that the one they inhabit, where stand-ins for POTUS and the German chancellor could be reached via automated call scripts, uses this mode of parodic overidentification to extend the logic of outsourcing, thus revealing its highly regimented ridiculousness (Boyer and Yurchak 2010: 191; Yurchak 2013: 252). This sentiment is heightened when Adi juxtaposes the joke with, in his opinion, the equally ridiculous letter from the visa office. The strict adherence to the form of a newspaper article allows for the content of the joke—the replacement of President Bush with an Indian worker in Mumbai—to appear credible and, in the process, reveals the petty injustices (lack of benefits, race to the lowest wage) of the actual, everyday workings of the software outsourcing industry. Unlike the public addresses in the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert shows that Boyer and Yurchak analyze, this joke circulates within a more limited counterpublic, where its ability to rupture the perceived way of doing things confronts the need to find ways to thrive within the status quo.

Such humor operates on multiple fronts to create adjustments to the uneven politics of the worlds that IT workers traverse. Within the world of corporate IT labor, Indian programmers create their own value through the performance of their future potential. Programmers produce surplus value for the companies who employ them through their coding work. From their vantage point, they can also recognize the devaluation of their labor as uncreative (Amrute 2014b).

Two further jokes explicitly made light of the immateriality of new economies and the immoderate demands such economies make of migrant coders. On an evening after a long week of work in 2004, twelve young people between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-two, some from Delhi, some from Mumbai, most from [344]Hyderabad, sat in a semicircle in Meenakshi and Rajeshwari’s apartment. Over piping hot tea served in flimsy plastic cups, everyone was talking about their jobs in programming, and the conditions under which they worked.

These programmers were from different parts of India, though they mostly came from southern and western states. All were upper caste and most were Hindu. They were about evenly divided between men and women. Among this group, there were significant differences in life course. All except for three returned to India after their short-term contracts were completed. Of the three who did not return, one went to England and two stayed on in Germany. They also differed significantly in their attitudes toward marriage, religious practice, and the future of India. Yet they all came together almost every night to eat and talk together, spending their free time in the meandering conversation Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000) calls adda, where the question of what it means to live in a modern way can be brought to attention and debated.

After a while, discussion turned to what country in the world is furthest ahead in the race to the top. The conversation went back and forth, with people arguing the relative technological and scientific achievements of Switzerland, the United States, Germany, and India. The talk had come to a standstill when Mihir, a coder from Mumbai, broke the silence with a joke. “Three archeologists,” he began, “are digging in the distant future. The first is Russian. He digs 50,000 feet down, finds copper wires, and says, look, we had telephones! The second is American. The American digs 60,000 feet down, finds cables, and says, look, we had fiber optics. The third is Indian. He digs 100,000 feet, finds nothing, and says, look, we had cellular phones!”

The room erupted in laughter and the stalemate was broken. Even when the Indian archeologist digs down the farthest, he asserts that India had cellphones long before any country could have had them. By transposing the solemnity of postcolonial economic and social development into the braggadocio of battling archeologists, this mode of joking reveals a kernel of truth within the humor, encapsulating the ever-present competition to be the most technologically developed.

Within a milieu where the easiest course of action is to invest in competition for the title of most developed nation, this joke refuses to participate; instead it plays with a post-Fordist economy’s contradictions (Carpio 2017: 360). Programmers parody the rhetoric of Indian national advancement, which often explains away India’s problems in the present by recourse to a deep Hindu past with original knowledge of everything from atomic science to plastic surgery.12 The joke makes fun of this Hindu fundamentalist line of reasoning and its relentlessness by quite literally materializing in the dirt pretensions to past advancement, on the one hand, and a cognitive capitalist present, on the other.

Programmers recognize that cognitive economies ask workers to continually improvise with what is given to produce creative content for the firms that employ them. The assertion that India had cellphones in the distant past satirizes an economy in which having nothing often seems to be the thing to have, since the absence of a tangible artifact affords opportunity for unending financial speculation. The Indian archeologist who finds nothing cannot but improvise a competitive answer. [345]Just as the Hindu patriot surveying India today turns to a scriptural past as an antidote to historical belatedness, the programmer who is expected to squash bugs or write code on time and on budget has to rationalize complications and missed deadlines.

Another comedic interlude surfaced when a group of Indian IT workers who had become close friends were on the way to one of their weekly expeditions to different parts of the city. A programmer named Mayur Reddy was baptized during a late-spring picnic in Berlin’s Treptower Park with a moniker he would never be able to shed. His phone kept ringing. He was on call with his support team that Sunday and had to be available to answer questions about his company’s product or come into the office if necessary. Each time his phone chirped, he picked it up and walked a few feet away. By the third time, someone shouted out, “Hey, ‘Mobile Ready,’ what are you answering the phone all the time for?” “Mobile Ready” is a pun on “Reddy,” his last name, and it became his permanent nickname. Each time after this when he mentioned his job, he would be teased ruthlessly for always having his “mobile ready” to be “reconnected” (Berardi 2009) to the siren song of his office. Mobile Ready’s fellow programmers endorsed comedy’s demand to leave work behind. As one final example shows, humor that provides a critique of work is counterbalanced by humor that establishes the professional supremacy of Indian programmers established through access to software work.

Of pots and parents

In the winter of 2010, I was visiting my aunt and uncle, Jyotimami and Vikrammama, in the old part of Pune city, in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Their daughter-in-law’s brother and his wife had come for a visit. They were toting a suitcase full of stuff they had brought back with them from the United States, where they live, for family and extended kin in Pune. The contents of the suitcase tumbled out onto the living room floor, prompting the brother-in-law to tell a joke. This gifting, he told us, “Goes too far sometimes.” “You know,” he continued, “parents sometimes ask people to take big things in their suitcases, like kitchen utensils.” And this was not even the worst of it: “Some families send a weekly package of food to their kids in the US, by plane!” He laughed, as he told me, “These parents think their poor kids will starve in the United States without their precious care packages.” I asked how this could be legal, and he riffed, “They probably pay bribes at the airport to get these packages on the planes.”

About four weeks later, Jyotimami approached me as I was packing my suitcase, preparing to fly back to the United States. In her hands was a smallish blue enameled pressure cooker that she wanted me to pack and mail to her daughter when I got stateside. As I made room for the pot, I recalled the joke. I thought now that the brother-in-law may have told the joke in an anticipatory way to prevent Jyotimami from asking him to take the pot in his suitcase. His joke suggested that Jyotimami did not realize the opportunities for consumption her daughter had, and the responsibilities she had in her job as a software engineer that might prevent time-consuming cooking.[346]

Joking can be mobilized to curtail expectations. Parents who FedEx food or push their pots on travelers go overboard from the opposite direction to Mobile Reddy. They express their care in daily fussing, betraying at once their inability to let their children be independent and get to work, and their ignorance about how life in the global cognitive ecumene is truly lived. The brother-in-law’s joke at Jyotimami’s expense acts as a limit on what she should expect of her diasporic, professional family members. Within a social world that makes and remakes high-caste authority, such moves—especially those everyday situational comedies that riff on food—reaffirm upper-caste authority by redefining how that authority is expressed. Intergenerationally, comedy shifts the grounds of that identity from such issues as food rituals to that of entrepreneurial expertise. Comedy here “overwrites” the performance of upper-caste rituals with “modern professional identities of choice” while remaindering lower-caste identity as a trait that supersedes choice itself (Deshpande 2013: 32).

Jokes about work refute popular stereotypes of Indian programmers as high-performing automata. They also dissect a cognitive economy’s demand for the ceaseless time and creative improvisation of knowledge workers. Jokes about family, on the other hand, materialize a kin network so that it will have limited sway over cosmopolitan coders. They distance IT workers from a seemingly old-fashioned national economy and the Indian middle-class family of the twentieth century that supported it, even while envisioning the authority of middle-class coders through the very mode of immaterial professionalism that in other scenes is so ridiculed.

The rendering and the rend

When scholars of materiality address the complicated relationships between humans and things, they often do so with an eye toward including things more fully in the stories we tell about the world. Thinking through how to tell such stories, scholars such as Bruno Latour (2005) argue, requires us to recognize the agency of things in shaping life. While this recognition can provide a richer account of human and object interactions, it cannot do so if, as Tim Ingold (2013) suggests, object-oriented analysis focuses singularly on relationships between things and thing-using humans. Ingold’s solution to this dilemma eliminates the classificatory schema between humans and other animals so as to not favor humans, instead thinking of species as a verb that denote acts of living in the world—humans human, baboons baboon (ibid.). Yet the solution to the imbalance between humans and nonhumans will not reside in ceaselessly widening the scope of investigation to include animals, microbes, fungi, and so on, and their independent relationship to things. Such an approach cannot encompass the interstitial connections between beings and things. In the interstices, processes of dematerialization accompany moments of materialization. To the extent that these two aspects can be followed in analysis, they reveal the longue durée effects of object relations on the landscape as well as the effect of longstanding configurations of power which work through objectification.

Programming invokes these configurations as it moves between screens, views, and functions. Vizualizations, the pixelated images that appear on screens, are [347]points where different bodies and machines meet. Pixelations “describe, hide, and condition the asymmetry between the elements conjoined,” both representing and distorting (M. Fuller 2008: 150). They provide simultaneously broadbrush and granular visions about the connection between humans and things. By centering these renderings in analysis, the ontological approach to human–nonhuman relationships gains connective tissue. The renderings of these relationships on screen show how humans and nonhumans are enrolled in creating particular orderings of the world. Exploring how a human–nonhuman relationship comes to support and suspend a particular world adds a dimension to the otherwise flat relationship between human and nonhuman beings, which is necessary in addressing the ongoing effects of power on bodies.

Jokes, parodies, and comedic ironies slow the rush of capitalist labor and make concrete the logics that underpin it. As an affective, embodied practice, humor, like music, provides a venue for shaping personhood and conduct in terms that grasp both the ineffable nature of cognitive economies and the material embodiment of economic form (Brennan forthcoming). Analytically, programmers’ jokes can both be heard for the satirical critique they make of racialized migration regimes and precarious labor conditions, and listened to for the space they clear that remains undecided on how best to engage with these economies.13

Humor reveals the injuries of bodily labor in cognitive economies, where bodies and machines are stitched together imperfectly. Along these sutures, humor reveals a class of bodies that are created just like machines even as those very bodies question the capitalist demand for the ceaseless valuation of their cognitive and affective capabilities. Source code editors like the one programmers use when they bug test render code visible. Retorts on clever and stupid cooks render one vision of humans and things even while they materialize others. The toggle between these renderings and the underlying code happens across a social field, as humans and technologies in their particularity are entangled, disentangled, and fused.


Support for this research was provided by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington, the Fulbright Foundation and the Social Science Research Council. Special thanks go to Kathryn Zykowski, Jennifer Dubrow, Vicki Brennan and the journal’s anonymous reviewers.


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Pour POTUS, tapez un, tapez deux pour la chancelière allemande: humour, race et re-matérialisation parmi la diaspora indienne des professionnels de l’informatique

Résumé : Il n’y a sans doute rien de pire que l’étude universitaire de l’humour. Mais que se passe-t-il quand l’humour devient le véhicule servant à réconcilier des économies précaires? L’anthropologue peut mettre son attention au service de l’étude de l’humour de manière à produire une critique politique qui n’est pas idéologiquement marquée, il peut également avoir recours à l’humour pour maintenir des relations sociales. Suivant ces traditions, j’étudie les plaisanteries que les migrants transnationaux indiens travaillant dans la programmation échangent à propos de la délocalisation et des employés des centrales d’appel - consistant par exemple à imaginer un monde dans lequel les présidents sont remplacés par des centrales d’appel - qui parodient les contradictions palpables des économies de la connaissance. L’humour peut être un outil qui dérange ce que les Marxistes autonomistes appelaient l’incorporation de l’âme au coeur de travail cognitif. Il peut également ordonner les frontières de ce qui constitue un comportement acceptable. Cet article utilise les récits des programmateurs indiens, en particulier ceux pour qui un séjour à Berlin a constitué un accès vers la classe moyenne, afin d’analyser de près comment les programmateurs indiens concilient le rôle racialisé et déprécié de codeur pur et simple et celui de citoyen Indien cosmopolite. A travers les plaisanteries, cet article montre que les professions transnationales de la connaissance, en tant que formation économique relativement récente, ont des convergences avec l’intérêt récent pour le statut ontologique des objets et des machines. Cet article suggère qu’une compréhension rigoureuse des rapports humains/non-humains doit prendre en compte les formes de connectivité interstitielles qui positionnent les personnes et les objets contre la texture du changement économique.

Sareeta AMRUTE is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her scholarship investigates personhood and labor within technological capital and throughout the South Asian diaspora. Her first book, [352]Encoding race, encoding class: Indian IT workers in Berlin, was published by Duke University Press in 2016.

Sareeta Amrute
Department of Anthropology
University of Washington
314 Denny Hall
Box 353100
WA 98195-3100


1. Most theorists of technology and economy fail to notice the processes by which the relationship is mediated. Christian Fuchs (2002), for example, admits that “immaterial mental, and knowledge labor are becoming more and more important, but they are dialectically related to material-substantial production,” yet goes on to define this material level as “infrastructures, modems, computers, fibre optical cables, networks, circuits, wires, data carriers.” The short circuit between the immateriality of labor and the obvious materiality of wires without recognition of what mediates between the two allows for the conclusion that “information” as a creator of surplus value produces “almost no reproduction costs.” Yet the reproduction costs are borne by the raced bodies who have to produce themselves in particular ways. Approaches to the materialization of computing technologies across power-laden geographies can be found in Philip, Irani, and Dourish (2012). Nardi (2015) discusses the ideology of virtuality.

2. Several theorists show that the IT sector is dominated by upper-caste subjects. See C. Fuller and Narasimhan (2007), Adjit, Donker, and Saxena (2012), and Thorat and Newman (2012).

3. I am thinking here of Marx’s statement on the fetish—it expresses both the hidden social relations that govern production, and “what” those social relations “really are” (Marx [1887] 1982: 176).

4. Ingold (2012), for instance, takes the term “multispecies” to task for being bounded by the idea of speciation. However, even banishing species from the critical lexicon will not ipso facto force attention toward the means through which the living and the nonliving are conjoined.

5. See for example, Anthropological Forum 18 (3) (2008), edited by John Carty and Yasmine Musharbash, the May 2013 special issue of American Ethnologist on jokes and humor, and de Vienne (2012).

6. See, for comparison, Lilia Moritz Schwarcz’s penetrating analysis of Brazilian imperial cartoon culture, where “caricature reworked and revolutionized hitherto consensual and naturalized public positions and images” and gave form to “major impasses and contradictions” (Moritz Schwarcz 2013: 316–17).

7. Such a tendency is evidenced by the magazine Charlie Hebdo, which recently opened a sister branch in Berlin. Countervailing this tendency is the German Volkerhetzung (Incitement) law, which legislates imprisonment for those who incite hatred against national, racial, religious, or ethnic groups or individuals, or assaults human dignity by maligning such groups or those who belong to them.

8. Though more traditionally translated as can, as with the English box, die Dose can be slang for vulva: http://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/Dose.

9. Thanks to Kenneth McGill for this reference.

10. For another instance of newspaper parody, see Bernal (2013).

11. The technique Adi uses of juxtaposing the serious and the parody responds to a long-standing vein of humor in South Asia, found in both rasa and zarafat theories of comedy. For more on Indian modernity, colonial modernity, and satire, see Kaviraj (2014) and Dubrow (n.d.). For a discussion of Sanskritic theories of humor, see Siegel (1987).

12. Such assertions have only intensified in Modi’s India.

13. I analogize here Didi-Huberman’s distinction between seeing and looking at, where the former describes analyzing a painting’s components, while the latter signifies allowing something in the painting to “leap into view” that “does not permit of identification or closure” (2005: 268).