The Solitary Reader and the Scientific Public Sphere in Kerala

For three decades now, regional media has brokered public engagement with science and opened a new sphere for political deliberation in Kerala. Tracing the history of Kerala’s scientific public sphere, Shiju Sam Varughese delves on the major shift in the nature of public engagement with science with the advent of new media

Shiju Sam Varughese

Kerala’s regional culture has a great emphasis on reading. Tracing the history of reading habits of Malayalees can therefore be exceptionally insightful in revealing the cultural dynamics behind the formation of a vibrant public sphere in the region. There are two questions which are equally significant in this regard — a) what is the nature of the Malayalee reader? and b) what are the political characteristics of the media-generated public sphere(s) in Kerala? Answers to these questions may help us understand some of the key dimensions of Kerala Modernity.

In Contested Knowledge: Science, Media, and Democracy in Kerala (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2017) my attempt was to ask these questions in the specific context of public engagement with science in the region, and to understand the key role played by the regional newspapers in this regard. The book explores the emergence of individualized reading practice in the 1970s, a cultural phenomenon that generated a new mode of political engagement. The ‘newspaper revolution’ of the 1970s1 was in fact behind the creation of a new culture of reading and political engagement. The solitary reader who engages with politics primarily by way of reading newspapers, was a new cultural figure that transpired during the newspaper revolution. This is not to forget the long history of reading that goes back to the region’s colonial past—the gradual expansion of printing and publication ventures in the region did create a popular culture of reading as many scholars have pointed out. However, this culture was organised around reading as a collective activity. Christian mission compounds (Basel Mission in the nineteenth century Malabar, for example), men’s clubs (remember the ‘club’ in Chandumenon’s second, unfinished novel, Sarada), public libraries, tea shops, and public gatherings cultivated the practice of collective reading. The oft-quoted example of a worker reading out newspapers of the day to fellow workers while they roll beedi clearly suggests the centrality of reading to public culture. That is to say, except for an elite English-educated minority (who read personal copies of newspapers, magazines and books), reading was a collective endeavour for most of the Malayalees until the 1970s. It always happened in public, as a political and aesthetic practice.

By the 1970s, this culture of reading began to change. With the spread of literacy and the growing influence of newspapers in the wake of increased capital investment and advanced printing technologies, subscription of newspapers became widespread. Most small families in Kerala could now afford a newspaper subscription. Reading the newspaper while sipping the morning coffee gradually emerged as a new cultural practice (‘housewives’ might have read it in the afternoons). The crucial point is that, thereafter, newspaper reading turned out to be the primary form of political engagement for most of the Malayalees (even the Malayalees who were members of political parties proudly held the day’s rolled-up newspaper under their arms during political demonstrations). Reading thus became an individual, solitary activity for most of the Malayalees– an activity they could indulge in from the comfort of their homes. At the same time, reading was culturally established as a political act. Thus, in the ensuing decades,  Kerala’s political public sphere became more and more organised around the regional newspapers.  It can be argued that the political public of Kerala was primarily a newspaper-reading public by the 1980s. 

What about Malayalees’ engagement with science in this period? Popular science always had a thick readership in Kerala since the colonial times—a history that began with Paschimodayam, the first popular science magazine in Malayalam language (Basel Mission Press, Thalasseri, 1847). However, in the 1970s, Kerala Shastra Sahitya  Parishad (KSSP) catalysed a deeper engagement of Malayalees with science. The Silent Valley Struggle was a seminal moment in this history. Unlike the political public sphere, which was predominantly organised via newspapers, the main conduit for public engagement with science in the 1970s and 1980s was KSSP, the people’s science movement. Newspapers did report science, but the conditions of possibility for public engagement with science during these decades were largely shaped by the movement. It had its own publications to reach out to the public. KSSP was the agenda negotiator and primary site for public engagement with science.

However, this picture changed in the 1990s with the sprouting of unprecedented environmental problems such as widespread diseases and infections on coconut trees (‘Mandari’) and fish in the backwaters. The environmental crisis manifested in the form of risks became very common since the 1990s. This eroded the belief that a “people-centric science” can resolve problems in the domain of S&T-related decision making, as highlighted by the KSSP. The established boundaries between science as the domain of truth, and politics as the domain of power gradually attenuated, as the risks could not be easily managed with the help of the cost-benefit analysis model KSSP had introduced. Ecological risks demanded a new, critical perspective on science to govern them.  It became inevitable to have a  wide range of technical expertise and  new regulatory mechanisms that are more inclusive of multiple voices and expertise. It is at this juncture that the newspapers offered help to deal with the risks its readers had to address in their everyday life; newspapers (more than any other media) started addressing the risk issues. They presented a wide array of concerns from the public, and nudged experts from diverse technical backgrounds as well as politicians and government officials to respond to these concerns. Newspapers staged debates on the risk issues, wherein, the technical and the political dimensions intertwined in unexpected ways. KSSP, operating within the Marxist-Bernalist framework of science-society relationship, was gradually eclipsed by this new functional significance acquired by the media. 

This novel role of the media as agenda-broker and the main locus of public engagement with science in the emergent risk society of Kerala opened a new deliberative sphere for political deliberation— different aspects of understanding and managing risks were discussed in the newspapers. In other words, the regional press has generated a unique public sphere around the sub-politics of science—a scientific public sphere that deliberated the technico-political aspects of different risks including the rise of cancer cases in the region,  the problem of pesticides in vegetables,  the human cost of Endosulfan spray in cashew plantations in Kasaragod,  the disastrous floods that ravaged Kerala in the last couple of years, the Nipah virus, and most recently, the coronavirus pandemic. The scientific public sphere in Kerala gets activated whenever there is a conflict of interpretation about the meanings of risk, eventually triggering a public controversy over science. Public trust in experts and credibility of scientific institutions appeared to be at risk during the deliberations over such contestations, and new solutions and interpretations have been proposed by scientists as well as lay actors, eventually leading to a closure of the controversy.

My book, Contested Knowledge, explores this new mode of public engagement with science that emerged in Kerala in the 1990s. This has been charted out with the support of thick descriptions of three major public controversies from the initial years of the new millennium—the controversy over a clinical trial in the Regional Cancer Centre at Thiruvananthapuram, public debates over well-collapses and the safety of  Mullaperiyar dam in the wake of a series of micro-earthquakes, and the conflict over scientific interpretation of the coloured rain phenomenon. In this book, I have analysed the discursive structure of the scientific public sphere, and explored the constitution of a ‘scientific-citizen publics’ in the process. The book also explores the social-epistemological characteristics of public engagement with science mediated by newspapers in the last three decades in Kerala, and distinguishes it from the period where KSSP was its main channel (1960s–1980s).

However, there is a major shift in the nature of public engagement with science in Kerala with the advent of new media. In recent controversies, more than newspapers, social media (especially  Facebook) has started hosting public debates. How do digital platforms transform Keralaites’ engagement with science? How does the new media reconfigure the solitary reader? What is the nature of the digital scientific public sphere in the region? What are the characteristics of the scientific-citizen public in the digital world? How do recent social movements effectively make use of new media for their political campaigns? These are interesting questions to be explored. 

About the author: Dr Shiju Sam Varughese is currently an assistant professor at the Centre for Studies in Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (CSSTIP) in the School of Social Sciences of Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar. His primary fields of research are Science, Technology and Society (STS) Studies and History and Philosophy of Science (HPS). He has authored Contested Knowledge: Science, Media, and Democracy in Kerala (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017) and edited (along with Satheese Chandra Bose) Kerala Modernity: Ideas, Spaces and Practices in Transition (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2015; paperback edition: 2017). He can be contacted at shijusam@cug.ac.in

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