Press one for POTUS, two for the German Chancellor: Humor, Race, and Rematerialization in the Indian Tech Diaspora

Amrute, Sareeta
HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory

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.