Panelist: Anupama Rao (Barnard College, Columbia University/Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioural Sciences, Stanford University)
Title:Violence and Humanity: A (Global) Genealogy
Abstract: My paper addresses the refiguration of 'politics,' and of the political subject in the aftermath of the critique of violence. (I use the latter term as shorthand for forms of thought associated with thinkers like Agamben, Arendt, Benjamin, and Schmitt that challenge the organizing conceits of political liberalism, albeit in different ways.) In particular, my paper will focus on the productive tension between (sovereign) 'exception' and (political) 'universality' — rooted in the specificity of Dalit lifeworlds — to rethink the theoretical-historical concept of 'the human.' My interest will be to challenge the putatively universal reach of concepts deriving from European experiences not so much by provincializing them, as by de-provincializing competing narratives of historical violence and of political subject-formation in order to explore alternate imaginations of the human, and of human sociality.
Violence and Humanity
1) Human rights have become that "which we cannot not want": to refuse them places us at risk of refusing the new universalism of our time.
2) One tends to forget that there are two histories, two conceptions of humanity at stake in this political commonsense. The first is the idea of the 'human' encoded in human rights as a project of global governance and institutional capacity building (with a history stretching back to the League of Nations in the inter-war period, followed by institutional responses to the Holocaust). The other is a genealogy of the "human" that is inseparable from a global history of dehumanization, and which assumes a paradoxical permeability between "violence" and "the human."
3) This latter position, typically associated with biopolitical critique, has been articulated by a diverse group of thinkers—Agamben, Arendt, Benjamin, Foucault, and Schmitt. What unites them is not merely their critique of liberalism, but that each engages in a form of post-Holocaustian thought that addresses the end of 'the political,' as we know it. [Arendt's "End of the Rights of Man," being but the most representative]
4) I don't meant to elide significant differences, e.g., between Foucault's (1980) view of biopolitics as essentially productive—a command to 'make live,' albeit in a highly differentiated manner—and Agamben's (1998) investment in a politics of death predicated on 'sovereign exception,' that is, the sovereign's 'right' to expel some into the realm of 'bare life.'
5) Violence is essential to the narrative of political humanity, albeit differently in each case. For Foucault, via discipline and subjectification, that is, through the bureaucratization of violence. Agamben makes a sharp distinction between "bare life," those who are rendered socially and politically inconsequential, on the one hand, and sovereign power on the other.
6) I wish to emphasize the difference between this focus on the post-political, or on accounts of depoliticization, as opposed to practices of politicizing so-called 'non-political' difference. At stake are different spatial and temporal boundaries of the political vis-à-vis the human, and therefore, different conceptions of the political subject. I have in mind trajectories of organizing around class, race, gender, and caste, each of which reflects a process where new political subjects gain visibility by redefining a negative description as a confrontational identity, so that "the terms of exclusion on which discrimination is premised are at once refused and reproduced in the demands for inclusion." (Scott, 1999:3)
7) Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is perhaps best identified with this practice of negative universality that is distinctive to Dalit political thought.
8) To focus on Ambedkar is to articulate a tension. I want to emphatically locate Ambedkar as a political thinker and theorist of subaltern rights in global frame; that is, as someone who inaugurates a way of thinking for which he provides both ground and frame. However I simultaneously want to underscore his status as an "epistemic individual," a figure around whom are constellated forms of thought that precede and exceed him.
9) The historical Ambedkar is a complex figure. This most incisive critic of Congress was enfolded into the project of lawmaking, making him India's most visible outcaste. A constitutional lawyer, Ambedkar's vision of the future deeply implicated him in an Indic millennial past; his obsessive quest to understand the shared history of the Avarna and the Savarna instead producing his angry realization of the former's invisibility in the Hindu historical. Ambedkar's voice thus comes to us somewhat bifurcated: between the great modernizer who believed in law and the state, versus the powerful critic of Hindu ethics; the author of the State and Minorities, Thoughts on Pakistan, or What Congress and Gandhi… versus the author of Buddha or Karl Marx, Who were the Shudras, and The Untouchables.
10) In this great divergence, the Constitution plays a central, suturing role. The document contains within itself a set of contradictions that are productive when they can be set to work. That is, when the Constitution's commitment to social justice can be set against the protection of private property, or when its focus on the reform of Hinduism (and eradication of untouchability) can challenge more recent commitments to Hinduism as a way of life, or institution of Hinduism's political theology as a grounding geohistorical. Most importantly, perhaps, the Constitution enacts remedial policy on behalf of a demographic majority, as against a social elite. When put together with democracy, understood minimally as elections and universal suffrage (which institutionalize the right to representation), this sets the stage for complex social and political formations that unsettle the status quo.
11) The Constitution is anything but commonplace. Rather, it is an inaugural document that seeks, in Ambedkar's words, to effect a change of "habit and disposition," to effect a conversion whose success will lie in making commonplace and ordinary its radical interventions into the social. These interventions are enabled by the place this document makes for history, which justifies the categories that are called out and hailed by it, in the interest of a future engineered by policy commitments to social welfarism.
12) This is not Ambedkar's Constitution, but it his. Ambedkar saw the Constitution as a political interregnum, or war by other means, in the long civil war with which he was preoccupied. In his account of "Revolution, and Counter-Revolution," or the epochal struggle between Buddhism and Brahminism, the Dalit was no bit player but the primary agon, and the motor of history.
13) Yet Ambedkar does not produce a Constitution for Dalits but imagines Dalit sublaternity as the space from which to generate a form of political universality that will be articulated by this new text of (universal) law, the Constitution. Neither revolution, as advocated by Marx, nor empathetic inclusion, as his immediate adversary Gandhi would have liked, but Constitution.
14) I will focus primarily on Ambedkar's account of historical violence, to explain his investment in writing laws to challenge "the illegal laws of the Hindus." Ultimately this forces us to address the political-theological nature of his historical discourse. I will end with some brief comments about its implications for the political present.
Hindu Historical: Or, Ambedkar Between Marx and Gandhi
1) From Phule to Ambedkar, anti-caste radicals saw in caste society an agonistic social formation. By transposing social conflict onto the plane of historical time, indeed onto the deep time of an Indic past, and later, of Hindu history, they located the social relations of caste in practices of violence and dispossession. More importantly, they made caste the motor of subcontinental state formation. To be sure, these were counter-historical challenges to cultural nationalism's focus on a Vedic Golden Age, and the latter's effort to claim a consensual basis for. But they also index the formation of a systematic subaltern theory of caste exploitation and suffering, to which the Hindu historical was central.
2) Ambedkar's unique conception of the political subject involved a creative reading (and extension) of the Marxian problematic of the constitution of political subjectivity, in this case by addressing caste as a historically specific form of agonism. He posited the Dalit as a Buddhist who bore the brunt of subcontinental violence (and defeat) by Brahminism, a form of detritus life, if you will. The effort to problematize Dalits' historic identity, i.e., to explain stigma, was thus linked to two distinctive forms of redress: political equalization and Buddhist conversion. This implied that contemporary Dalit identity was predicated on 'religious' and 'political' orders of suffering, but this was a heuristic that belied Ambedkar's efforts to think them together by locating Dalit dehumanization in the Indic past, and to disaggregate what appeared on first glance to be the shared histories of Buddhism and Brahminism (as histories of the state). In Ambedkar we find both an extraordinary challenge to Hindu universality, and a critique of analyses privileging the proletariat as a global political subject, and the effort, instead, to think the specific history of the subject outcaste by Hindu history, but emancipated by a new humanism.
3) The Dalit subaltern was the negated and nauseating, if necessary component of the caste order, embodying the dehumanizing potential of caste in its most acute form: she occupied that place of structural negativity that gave to caste its coherence, by uniting all castes in their repulsion of the untouchable.
4) And yet when examined closely, it is clear that stigma could not be valorized in the way Marx had championed value-producing labor. Labor history was embedded within a theory of praxis—varnashramadharma—where (manual) labor defined descent-based existence: shudra labor was performed by shudras because it was shudra labor. This subsumed labor as such under a broader theory of social action, and produced complex obstacles to disentangling labor from the affective discourse surrounding it, pace Gandhi.
5) Like labor, stigma had—indeed it was—history, though with a different set of political implications. The Dalit was outside the frame of contractual liberalism, and the laws of caste and Hinduism devalued her person (and her labor). Indeed, without the prior valuing of Dalit personhood, Dalit labor was fated to be understood as outcaste, or stigmatized labor. The response to this dilemma was not to focus on the troubling anonymity of labor in capitalist modernity (and the possibility of organizing labor for resistance through the general strike). Rather, it required efforts to dissolve the specificity of Dalit identity by bringing Dalits into the domain of commensuration and contract. Universal equivalency enabled Dalits to cast off stigma, and for this, the anonymity of capitalist modernity was to be applauded: the logic of capital abstracted the concrete particularity of labor, but in so doing, it also freed the Dalit from stigmatized existence. Modernity was a requirement for Dalits, not the retreat into subaltern alterity, or an alternate temporality: in bringing Dalits within a field of abstract mediation, the time of capital enfolded them in a global history of dehumanization—Ambedkar consistently drew connections between Dalits, Jews and Negroes, for example—rather than the culturalism of caste.
6) Ambedkar's obsession with the historicity of caste led to his relentless visitation of a distinctively Indic millennial past, accompanied by the effort to disfigure and deface the origin myths of Hindu hegemony. Rather than resignifying labor as geohistorical universal, pace Marx, Ambedkar countered the sacral or divine violence of Hindu society with a political imagination outside itself: the Buddhist demos was equated with the modern democratic state.
7) Violence in history was important to Ambedkar, from its centrality for non-Brahmin and Dalit subject-formation, to the justification of violence-as-law by Hindu scriptures, whether the Dharmashastra, or that key episode in the Mahabharata, the Bhagvad Gita. Though Ambedkar was obsessed with understanding how dharmic violence was rendered acceptable as a form of political ethics for Hindu society, he did not advocate an answering violence in the form of revolution.
8) By locating ahimsa and the ethic of social equality in Buddhism, and by making it Brahminism's primary agon, Ambedkar was explicitly challenging the association of non-violence with Hinduism (Gandhi). But he was also challenging the importance of violence for subaltern action by criticizing the idea of political revolution (Marx).
9) Briefly then, we can note that a (Marxist) narrative of history as the politicization of labor was contrasted with a politics that turned back to two figures from the Indic past: the stigmatized Dalit (Buddhist), as well as the renouncer, the bhikku who found equality in the sangha. It was possible in neither case to use labor as the basis for human commensuration: each was a singular figure, excessive to the logic of equivalence; together they pointed to the presence of Buddhist humanity within the time-space of capital.
10) Ambedkar's political strategy to condense antagonism around the point of rights, rather than touch, invested the state with the protection of its minorities by using law itself to reveal state complicity in the extension of caste power.
11) The effort to balance the ethical and the political within the state, this is the impossible project articulated by the Constitution: it must both assert the force of law, and do justice to the victims of history.
1) Ambedkar is thus an ethnographer of dehumanization, and a theorist of negative or impossible universality. He speaks to us about the unstable dialectic between 'religion' and 'politics.'
2) Unlike standard accounts of subalternity, the arc of Dalit emancipation is neither predicated on the bifurcation of culture vs. capital, nor the succeeding elevation of culture to a form of political subjectivity.
3) Rather, it is the overdetermined presence of caste as a form of Indic 'difference,' that has produced problems for exploring anti-caste thought. The excessive particularization—indeed the provincialization—of caste has allowed European theory and South Asian anthropology/history to ignore the presence of caste radicalism as a particular sort of subaltern political thought, albeit for different reasons. If the former has tended to address caste as a form of non-political difference, South Asian scholarship has typically focused on community and movement-centered accounts of Dalit activism, thus denying to Dalit critique its inaugural role in the constitution of the Indian political. Rethinking Dalit subalternity thus requires attention to practices of political universality that accompanied the experience of modernity by the minority subject.
1) So far, I have explored something like an alternative genealogy of 'the human' to biopolitical critique, where each of the organizing keywords—law, violence, and exception—is importantly (and differently) signified. There is clearly a disjoint between this account of the formation of the political subject, and its contemporary reverberations, between social analytics and social experience. If historical violence gave to Ambedkar's "Dalit" political legibility and material substance, we see today competing arcs of politicization, each appealing to non-congruent models of the Constitution, and each embracing a project of political separation that Ambedkar too articulated, but only in frustration at the realization of the shared and implicated histories of Buddhism and Brahminism, and of "Dalit" and "Hindu." (I take this from Upendra Baxi's elegant formulation of many Constitutions. He counts at least seven.)
2) This, indeed, is where Ambedkar diverges from someone like Fanon, in advocating excerbation of caste contradiction via Constitutional means (rather than its resolution through violence). The contingent consequence of this has been to make exception the route to universality, rather than its subsumption (or negation) by the universal. The fact that it is a demographic majority that is today the Constitutional subject of reservations and redress underscores what Etienne Balibar has called the 'politicization of politics.' The question of whether things go in the direction of universality or exception—and whether such exception has not become the prerogative of those who can opt out of, rather than those who are rendered outside politics—is of pressing concern. And we must respect the specificity of 'our time.' Contingency means that social life does merely repeat itself as a social form.
3) For lack of time, I'll revert to my diagnostic self to note that we are in the midst of two distinct processes, the first concerns caste, and the second religion.
a. With regard to the former, we are seeing the mutual entailments of political visibility and an increased agonism around caste. In some of my writing, I have suggested that even as such violence becomes increasingly political, it increasingly takes the form of the archaic, and appears as a form of ritualized punishment. [Khairlanji] Paradoxically, violence becomes a form of social reproduction and of political communication in this case.
b. The second concerns a different process. It is one that has produced frightening homologies between national and global discourses on (Islamic) terror. And this is indeed where we might productively draw on biopolitical critique, but by replacing the figure of the Jew with the Muslim, and then arguing that terror is the mode by which dehumanized life asserts its right to existence. (Benjamin's divine violence, violence outside the relation of ends and means.) It is this archive of terror that interpellates India into a (new) global history, what the Rand Corporation awkwardly terms the "Crusader-Zionist-Hindu" alliance.