Carol A. Breckenridge (1942–2009)
Faisal Devji, February 2010
Founder of Public Culture journal
A historian who began her career with colonial South India and went on to become one of the most prominent voices in the study of transnationalism, Carol A. Breckenridge (1942–2009) died in New York on October 4, 2009. Breckenridge wrote her PhD dissertation, on the Sri Minakshi Sundareswarar temple in Madurai, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1975, and went on to teach first at the University of Pennsylvania, then Chicago, Yale and finally The New School for Social Research in New York, from where she retired in 2008. In 1988 Carol Breckenridge founded the path-breaking journal Public Culture with her husband, the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai. Shaping the emerging field of transnational and cultural studies in a decisive way, Public Culture became a major journal for the discipline of anthropology, though it has always published work by historians, philosophers, and political scientists. Rare for a scholarly periodical at the time, Public Culture under the direction of Carol Breckenridge included photo essays and became a forum for the work of young artists, many of whom have gone on to become prominent figures in the art world.
While she stepped down as editor in 2000, Carol Breckenridge continued to take a keen interest in the journal, and in 2006 established the Sister Cities Project, an initiative to bring together Public Culture authors based in the United States with intellectuals in the cities of the global South. Disturbed by the propensity of academic discourse in the U.S. to constitute a closed circle of debate, one that might attract scholars from elsewhere but only on its own terms, Breckenridge’s project called for annual conferences sponsored by the journal in African and Asian cities that would initially result in collaborative work, and at a later stage allow Public Culture itself to be produced from locations outside the U.S. Partnering with the WISER Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, the Sister Cities Project sponsored seminars in South Africa in 2006 and 2007, and from 2008 enabled a multi-sited conference on self-rule and non-violence to mark the centenary of Mahatma Gandhi’s first book, Hind Swaraj, which was itself written on the high sea between England and South Africa. The first of these meetings was held in Johannesburg in August that year, and the second, dedicated to the memory of Carol Breckenridge, in Mumbai towards the end of 2009. The third is planned for New York in 2010.
Even as she was struggling with the illness that eventually took her life, Breckenridge continued to be active intellectually, and indeed to intervene in debates around the issues of transnationalism and globalization in highly original and institutionally effective ways, as demonstrated by her recent founding of the Sister Cities Project. In addition to being a respected scholar in her own right, Carol Breckenridge had always been a kind of intellectual impresario for the many academics she had discovered and promoted, among them some of the most well-known figures in the professions of anthropology and history in particular. Breckenridge’s unerring eye for new thinking and extraordinary ability to foster it will be cherished by her numerous students, friends, and colleagues. These qualities of intellectual foresight and generosity of spirit are evident in the three important edited volumes she published, Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament (with Peter Van Der Veer) in 1993, Consuming Modernity in 1995, and Cosmopolitanism (with Homi Bhabha, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Sheldon Pollock) in 2002.
Survived by her husband and son, Carol Breckenridge will be missed by many not only because of her intellectual generosity and everyday hospitality, but also for the great passion and infinite delight with which she approached the world around her, qualities that led Breckenridge to become a specialist on Art Deco architecture in Mumbai at the same time as she interested herself in the problems of water management both in that city and in New York, the two homes she explored and enjoyed to the fullest in her final years.
University of Oxford