INSCRIBING SUBJECTS TO CITIZENSHIP: Petitions, Literacy Activism, and the Performativity of Signature in Rural Tamil India



This essay examines how activists in rural southern India have sought to reshape the field of political communication by encouraging lower-caste women to submit written, signed petitions to district-level government offices, and so represent themselves to the state. I argue that contradictions between democratic recognition and the will to development that inhere to the political structure of contemporary governance in rural India correspond to tensions within the semiotic structure of signature itself, between constative representation and performative creation. Governmentality and the forms of communication that it requires often rest on the notion that written self-representation constitutes an act of political agency. But the limits of a governmental communicative reason that would conflate written subject and agent become especially clear in postcolonial contexts where the construction of those citizens that would be represented is in fact a product of the very act of representation. It is the narrative of development-as-pedagogy that holds out the promise of a future alignment of communicative frameworks, technologies, and participant roles, allowing for the transparent self-representation of an already-constituted citizen. By tracking the ambivalent experience of one group of women in particular, this account focuses on how the logic of signature as self-representation has served to recontextualize the marginality of petitioners as something within the state's broader field of power.