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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 22

Violence in the age of Empire

Scenario in Contemporary India

Friday 23 May 2008, by Rajesh Kumar Sharma


Dictionaries are notoriously status-quoist when it comes to registering change. They continue to explain violence principally as the unlawful exercise of physical force causing physical injury or damage to a person or property. Decades after the exposure of previously unrecognised forms of violence permeating modern societies in the shape of disciplinary technologies, ideological appara-tuses and discourses, violence continues to be officially defined in extremely restrictive terms. The reason probably lies in the enduring nexus between the state, law and sovereignty.

The conception of violence as the unlawful exercise of physical force is implicitly based on a certain notion of sovereignty. According to this notion, the state is the exclusive locus of sovereignty. The notion of sovereignty thus grants to the state the absolute authority to determine what constitutes, in the law instituted by it, violence and what does not. Obviously, the exercise of this authority would effectively exclude from the legal-definitional ambit of the term ‘violence’ those acts of violence which emanate from the state or from its accomplices. The first requirement therefore is to mount a sustained discursive challenge to the statist discourse of violence. The second is to look beyond the state and the law and to grasp the ubiquity of violence in its myriad forms, such as economic, cultural and social, in the age of Empire (Hardt and Negri).

The World Health Organisation, in its first “World Report on Violence and Health”, extends the parameters of the definition of violence when it redefines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation”. A positive consequence of such a readjustment of focus is the enhanced awareness of the range of violence, exemplified by the WHO’s estimate that violence swallows nearly as many as 1.6 million people every year in our world.

The WHO’s definition of violence firmly brings into the picture “oneself”, “a group” and “community” on one hand and “psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation” on the other. Both moves are of strategic import at a time when the juggernaut of globalisation rolls over and tramples unsuspecting selves (inflicting psychological disorientation through their naïve self-understandings), results in cultural genocide of varied scales and shapes visited on groups and communities that would either join or not join the juggernaut, and spreads new kinds of misery in the name of “development” while postponing infinitely the promise of distributive justice.

Development, as the world has learnt, is not an innocent word. In the interests of justice, a crucial distinction has to be made today between development as a set of economic activities specifically oriented towards people’s empowerment and development as an obfuscating discourse which covers up the contemporary global realpolitik of predominantly corporate economic management.

Implicated in the above illustration is the essential question of language, which can be both the object and the instrument of violence. This is a question that has not been sufficiently addressed outside philosophy and cultural studies. In fact, the WHO’s redefinition of violence at once exemplifies and fails to acknowledge the centrality of language to the question of violence in our times. It extends the definitional scope of violence but does not extend it enough to include the symbolic violence that is ubiquitous to globalisation.

Symbolic violence is not unreal violence. It is a very real violence. It devastates the symbolic structures of a community, the structures that organise its ethos in complex ways embedded in history and locale. It is the violence done to a community’s ways of being, to its peculiar production of meaning-making and meaningfulness. Language, obviously, bears the brunt of symbolic violence.

But it is a peculiar paradox that language also catches, reflexively, the violence being inflicted on it, and lays it bare.

In our time, the perpetrators of this violence are usually assumed to be anonymous and faceless forces driven with the inevitability of what the Greeks called fate. In reality, however, they are very much identifiable. They happen to take the form of institutions, groups and persons, characterised by a pathologically high sense of self-worth and potent self-identities (brand names included) to protect and project. But they weave such formidable illusions of complexity and inaccessibility that the aam aadmi would be left eternally astounded and impressed. Pure inaccessibility is the logo of the new racism, the racism of the democratic elite in the globalising world’s developing economies. Before this pure inaccessibility the aam aadmi is expected to stand in dumb, mindless awe.

By a perverse logic of democratic representation a few persons and groups arrogate to themselves the right to stand in for all people. The ground of their special right to represent the aam aadmi is that that they are themselves not aam aadmi and hence must be the better qualified to understand the aam aadmi’s wants and needs. The farce of their hypocritical position is utterly lost on them because they would not heed the murmur of language that often undercuts their manifest rhetoric. So they speak solicitously of reforms “with a human face”, not seeing that their silly choice of metaphor discloses, below the face, the torso of a demon: of the demon of “reforms” in unreserved and horrid nakedness. And they speak of the “trickle-down” effect of prosperity, smugly advertising their vestigial faith in the hierarchical distribution of wealth. And they also speak of “human resources” without any sense of history and hence without a trace of irony: they can cheerfully disremember the mass commodification of human beings, the mass dehumanisation, which has been deposited in the phrase by the Holocaust. Such history is strictly outside the range of their post-historical sensibilities.

The wonder is that their rape of language goes unreported. Rather, their “malpronouncements” are received and disseminated like oracular utterances, to slowly become the foundational terms of the discourse of country’s new-found modernity. The general deadness to language aborts the possibility of a collective critical consciousness. In a country where most people still look up to the media for the highest standards of language competence, the absence of a society-wide debate cutting across classes gets conveniently identified as a trait of the national temperament, whereas its reasons actually lie in the moral and intellectual failure of those entrusted with the care of language. Between a systematic abuse of language on the one side and a general deadness to it on the other, the ground is thus prepared for the burial of history. Groundless language makes an easy playground for playing games with history.

There is a vital link between language evacuated of memory and history engineered, managed and reconfigured for the sake of compatibility with certain economic doctrines and regimes. Indeed, right under this link lurks the principal target of symbolic violence. If language is the house of Being, as Heidegger said, you can reasonably hope to bomb that house out of existence when you take aim and push the button right on target.

Towards Pattern Recognition

“INDIA is a young country of sixty years.” Manmohan Singh’s amazing discovery on the country’s Independence Day in 2007 left many editorialists and columnists crooning a non-idea like a new Bollywood tune. So history begins anew, albeit with not much of historicity left. Avant-garde disaster economists moonlighting as neo-liberal historiographers find sixty-odd years manageable to account for within the ideological format of the new world order. (Thousands of years of civilisation can unnecessarily screw up things.) And it makes great practical and political sense too: with the threshold lowered (or raised?) to sixty years, history would now begin with our own man, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose bonafide errors can be surely owned up with a good conscience.

But the greater gains of the speculative move of neoliberal historiography are in long-term investment: when you push the unwieldy inheritance of history beyond the horizon of visibility, you are virtually cleaning up the slate of sedimented memories and you are preparing to raise single-brand shopping malls in places cluttered up with bazaars of civilisation where countless cultures rub old and dusty shoulders. You are getting ready to sell your heritage buildings to hotel-wallahs to either recycle or demolish them. And the mercenary inducement does not always wait to find a good enough disguise; it can abruptly break out like a rash of chickenpox on the face of the neo-political. Hence the Ram Setu affair is today a significant landmark not so much even in the epic of Rama’s wanderings as it is in the short history of India’s affair with neo-liberalism. When commerce becomes the pre-eminent criterion in all matters, you should not be surprised if there is tomorrow a survey of all places and structures of religious and historical importance with the obviously rational aim of turning them into profitable enterprises such as leisure resorts and shopping malls.

Time was when invading armies are said to have vandalised the world’s libraries. Now that most libraries have gone digital, let the torches and hammers fall elsewhere.

The sight of new invading hordes flashing their Harvard and London School of Economics degrees may not seem very threatening, but it is a very real sight. History repeats itself in many ways. And lest people should check it out, let it begin in 1947 only.

Even the Greek fates could not have been that vicious. They challenged the defiant man to discover and show his humanity at its best. The latter-day fates do not only erase memory and reconfigure history, they also literally brutalise people, practices, institutions and human relations. And all in the name of a higher rationality inaccessible to aam aadmi. Factories and shops are closed down with the force of a law that has shed even the pretense of justice. Vendors of food and their hungry customers (who reportedly earn as much as half a dollar a day) are supposed to just shut up and disappear. When there is a hue and cry against judicial impropriety, a new propriety of studied silence and stonewalling comes to prevail. When a Minister in the government does some loud thinking about the health hazards faced by the hard-earning young women and men in the BPO industry, the profit-makers howl in protest in their self-appointed role as defenders of lifestyle choices. What was considered to be immoral living until five years ago becomes a lifestyle choice today because you are happily making a quick buck out of it.

Language, memory, history, law, morals. The symbolic violence of our times is evidently not random and sporadic. There is a pattern to it. To begin to recognise that pattern is to begin telling that tale of tales which awaits telling and which holds the promise of redemption in, as against from, history. To tell the tale is to bear witness, to suffer and to act—all gathered into one.

David Riches speaks of “the triangle of violence” which includes the perpetrator, the victim and the witness (quoted in Strathern and Stewart). Depending on persuasion or threat, the witness, it is said, may incline toward the perpetrator or the victim. The triangular division of violence is as neat as any academic division can ideally be, but in reality there is also a zone of ambiguity in which the witness is also doomed to be both the victim and the perpetrator. In these times, we need to see ourselves precisely as such witnesses trapped in a zone of ambiguity. The least we can do perhaps is to call upon ourselves to bear witness to our witness-status in that zone. That may open the way to a better understanding of our own victimisation as well as our complicity in victimisation. The comforting delusion that we are only witnesses, and hence not participants, in the making of the history that is the present, is a rather fragile delusion. No witness box can be a protection against the onslaughts of reality.

Works Cited

HARDT, Michael, and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, New York: Penguin, 2004.
- Strathern, Andrew, and Pamela J. Stewart, Violence: Conceptual Themes and the Evaluation of Actions. polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 5 (2004).
- World Health Organisation, World Report on Violence and Health, 2002 < /violence_injury_prevention/violence/world_report/en/full_en.pdf

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