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‘Discontinuous Interruptions’: bodiliness and pluralities in histories of the Indian Army, 1914–1918

The existing scholarship on the histories of the Indian Army in the First World War offers limited sustained engagement with material culture. This is in part due to the value placed by war historians on first-hand written testimony, one result of which is that the histories of these men’s experiences – to the extent their experiences are recorded in the (public) archive – are monopolised by a Western epistemic lens. Katie’s research instead takes as its starting point the notion of bodiliness: a sense of self that is multi-sensorial, incorporates a spiritual wholeness, and that is embedded in a wider pluriverse that maintains one’s interconnectedness with and indivisibility from the natural world. Drawing on photographs, film, sound, and object analysis, her doctorate project explores how bodiliness was enunciated across plural registers in material culture as a way of researching histories of the experiences of Indian Army recruits during the World War. In order to do this, the project expands the idea of what design historians regard as material culture and how design historians approach material culture as a research category. By incorporating indigenous ontologies that resist the European conceptualisation of the body that dominates design history discourse, and that locate agency beyond the anthropocene, definitions of material culture grounded in objecthood become unstable. For example, primary sources defined by absence – like photographs that illustrate the lack of a built environment, or the absence of certain elements of dress – become relevant, and physical artefacts demand engagement for the intra-active, generative role they play as agentive forces in shaping the experiences of soldiers.

The development of new critical lenses for this project’s methodology is approached by incorporating postcolonial and decolonial scholarship into its analytical framework. It responds to calls for border thinking in academic onto-epistemologies by thinking with otherwise worldviews that are marked by epistemic and ontological difference to the dominant views in the Global North. Drawing on existing research around the notion of individual world-making and bodiliness, the thesis proposes a new conceptual framework of heterobodiliness: the enunciation of plural identities and senses of self within the same body. Katie’s research embraces pluralities and ambiguities, by exploring the potential for material culture (in the expanded sense described above) to contain registers that the historian cannot and should not seek to fully pin down, but which can gesture to the embodied articulation of plural selfhoods. By allowing space for ambiguity, her research begins to address the concern in decolonial work of imposing tropes of subjectivities that do not reflect the lived experience of the people centred in one’s writing. She does not claim to overcome this, but rather sits with the discomfort and challenges this poses to its methodology in researching and writing with decolonial objectives. In this way, the work becomes as much a meditation on the nature of decoloniality as a project with decolonial objectives.

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