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Aswin Punathambekar

Interview by undergraduate student Evan Binkley (2019). Major: History of Art. Minor: Museum Studies.

Aswin Punathambekar, 2018-19 Steelcase Faculty Fellow, Associate Professor of Communication Studies
A screen shot from the video for the popular Tamil film song, “Why This Kolaveri” (Sony Music India, 2011) that sparked and sustained debates.

Can you tell us a little more about the project you’re working on this year?

My research for “Sound Clouds: Listening and Citizenship in Indian Public Culture” is focused on one particular incident in which a popular Tamil film song became the rallying point for an anti-populist movement in India. This relates directly to my work on two larger projects: a co-authored book provisionally titled The Digital Popular: Media, Culture and Politics in Networked India, and a co-edited anthology on Global Digital Cultures: Perspectives from South Asia.

Why did you choose this particular topic? Why does it interest you?

I am an Associate Professor of Media Studies and the Founding Director of the Global Media Studies Initiative in the Department of Communication Studies. A great focus of academia has been placed on visual culture, but the human experience is intersensorial. Only recently have we begun to think more carefully about sound, not just as an accompaniment, but as a primary means of informing digital media. Related to that, we have digital programs and infrastructures that are not silent. This poses important questions like what does it mean to listen in a political space?

I was always fascinated by the interaction of popular culture and its ability to inform the political sphere. I was initially inspired by broadcast radio. Now the sphere of podcasting and long-form interviews casts an interesting dynamic. The questions surrounding how to understand a podcast have become more and more relevant in today’s world. Is the podcast a genuine or novel form or an enumeration on past styles? How can this change be quantified or measured? In this sense, I see cultural anthropology as a discipline of understanding different sensory experiences.

What have you discovered in your research? What are some of the key takeaways?

I’m trying to make a case for emphasizing popular culture as the setting in which so many of our societal norms and factors are defined. It is not the case that our ideas are only fixed in rational engagement. The way we develop emotion and affective relationships (what it means to be a citizen and a functioning member of a society), so much of this is based in popular culture. So, it is important to consider culture and current events as major disseminators of political thought beyond the regular news cycle.

Scholars have often written about a scholarly color line. The notion that some sounds should be policed and that some sounds should be banned is of great interest. History is almost completely textual, but now historians are trying to understand what it means to capture a soundscape recreation of the past. If we can better figure this out, it would dramatically change the way we think about the past. Sound is generally understood, but we are still working through the particularities.

How does being in this environment with other fellows drive your project? What is one thing you’ve learned from another fellow?

The entire environment within the Institute for the Humanities has been great in shaping the scope of my work. We set aside specific times of the year to look at and give constructive feedback on other people’s work. I presented fairly early on within that cycle, but I found that system to be very integrated and interactive. It was a change from what I had experienced in the past. The wide array of disciplines represented by this year’s class of fellows allows for a multi-perspectival approach to my work. Those suggestions like “you need to explain this more clearly” are of great use, especially in the revision process. One suggestion which has stuck with me in the notion that we are at a point in society where it is no longer unusual to take a sonic angle to work. This process of reshaping and better understanding rhetoric and argument has been very helpful in my own research.

What advice would you give to undergraduates? Why do you think undergrads should study the humanities?

If you are interested in exploring sound further, look for classes that are related to broadcast. Subscribe to the best podcasts and listen to understand how they are telling their stories. Take classes to help you better understand sound manipulation and the process of recording.

I started off as a mechanical engineer. I made the switch into media and cultural studies and work in the field of data analytics, which detects data decisions about current problems. It is important to consider how the humanities and social sciences can help us make decisions about technology and policy to place the dynamics of that nature front and center in the conversation. We are now on the cusp of creating the next AI. As a result, it is crucial to not be worried or concerned about a job at the end of 4-5 years. There is a real surge to understand more than the way technological elements are created. It is now becoming more and more important to know how they interact within the cultural realm.