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Desires of planning and the planning of Desires: Vignettes of a Rape Culture and Beyond: Rijul Kochhar

December 30, 2012

Guest post by text by RIJUL KOCHHAR photos by CHANDAN GOMES

Each person, withdrawn into himself, behaves as though he is a stranger to the destiny of all the others. His children and his good friends constitute for him the whole of the human species. As for his transactions with his fellow citizens, he may mix among them, but he sees them not; he touches them, but does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone. And if on these terms there remains in his mind a sense of family, there no longer remains a sense of society.

~Alexis de Toqueville (Epigraph to Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man)

Friends! You drank some darkness

and became visible

~Tomas Tranströmer (“Elegy”)

An hour is what it took for a band of six males to show a woman, a paramedic, ‘her place’ in contemporary Delhi. Often, in our pathological public places, it takes a mere moment. This case is different because it compels us to think through the limits of brutality of the living; it compels us to confront the limits of our capacity to inflict violence. But the night of December 16, 2012 also confronts us with the kind of cities we are building and the kind of places we want to inhabit. It is a different, by no means less important, matter that this woman—from whatever one has gathered these past weeks through the periodic medical bulletins—has battled to compel us to confront all of this and more, for the pain of her body and the brutality of an experience that she had survived for two weeks, serves a specular role—through it, we bear witness to ourselves, or so one hopes.

Passengers in a DTC bus try and catch a glimpse of the candle light vigil organised outside Safdarjung Hospital. Thousands of commuters became witness to today’s meet – some got down from their buses to join the vigil. Some joined their hands when their gaze fell on the bed of candles. An old woman took out her hair clip that was shaped like a flower and threw it towards us.

Passengers in a DTC bus try and catch a glimpse of the candle light vigil organised outside Safdarjung Hospital. Thousands of commuters became witness to today’s meet – some got down from their buses to join the vigil. Some joined their hands when their gaze fell on the bed of candles. An old woman took out her hair clip that was shaped like a flower and threw it towards us.

Plenty is being written about ‘what now needs to be done’, as well as about the very anatomy of rape. Some have spoken and voiced the outrage that this episode has engendered. Others have commented on the culture of impunity—bureaucratic, legal and familial; some also speak of the symbolic, material and affective construction of womanhood in our times—a construction and a culture that underlie the very construction of our rape society. These are all very valid concerns, and I am glad that we are beginning to think about them. I only wish to add a few points of my own, admittedly disjointed, as I try and think through the miasma of brutality and impunity, as I confront the terrible transformation of a school-bus in Delhi into a mobile site where dark fantasises of phenomenal violence have been enacted, as we all (re)confront societies where women’s bodies for long have been made the objects of a certain kind of politics, a politics if not of death then certainly of dehumanization.

Thesis: Pathological Space

(The idea of the ‘pathological space’ is available as a formulation in Mark Seltzer’s work, though I use it in a slightly different (and simplistic) sense in this essay. See his “Wound Culture: Trauma in the Pathological Public Sphere,” October, Vol. 80 (Spring, 1997), pp. 3-26. I have Anirban Nigam and Deepak Mehta to thank for this reference; they alerted me to it in different ways and at different times).” 

The first thing I want to speak about is the materiality of our urban spaces like Delhi and Gurgaon (for these are also the sites of sustained, planned, civic intervention). These places, their urban architectonics, the way they are built and designed, as well as the vision(s) that imagine them—in a sense, their very materiality—enable certain kinds of behaviors, allows for certain kinds of dispositions, while effacing other more inclusive forms of experiences. You only need to experience Gurgaon—this fantasyland of steel, glass and concrete, or a chaotic example of what James Scott has called ‘authoritarian high-modernist urbanism’[1]—to know what I am trying to get at. For what may be defined as the ‘Gurgaon-style’ of urbanism now has a very fertile logic of its own as it travels far and wide, proliferating into moffussils as well as the national capital of Delhi.

Travel through Gurgaon, as I do sometimes [Warning! Danger expected], explore the rhythms of its nocturnal or even diurnal life, and you will know the disturbing element that forms a part of its DNA. You will find veritable miles of uninhabited spaces, with two points traversable only by the automobile (you will, however, find with alarming frequency liquour shops all along these stretches). Is it any surprise that one sees the emergence of the automobile as the pathological site of mobile violence in such places? Sidewalks, shops, hawkers, pedestrians, habitations (not merely gated-communities) and the vast minutiae of urban experience dissolve into nothingness, for these spaces have been designed to become what Marc Augé has, in a slightly different sense, called ‘non-places’—spaces that are only to be merely passed-by or moved through, not lived in, ‘lingered’ or experienced in the anthropological sense of place-making through investments of shared meaning.

On late Sunday evening, my friend and I found ourselves caught between two units of the Delhi Police while crackdown was at its peak. We were thirsty, hungry, extremely tired and heartbroken by the chain of events that occurred that day. This photograph is of a tear gas shell that exploded right in front of me. I took it while I was trying to run away. We were trying to reclaim a city that we had lost to our complacency and indifference.

On late Sunday evening, my friend and I found ourselves caught between two units of the Delhi Police while crackdown was at its peak. We were thirsty, hungry, extremely tired and heartbroken by the chain of events that occurred that day. This photograph is of a tear gas shell that exploded right in front of me. I took it while I was trying to run away. We were trying to reclaim a city that we had lost to our complacency and indifference.

Is it so surprising, then, that the only marks that inscribe such non-places are the pathological inscriptions—inscriptions that are, more or less, visited upon the bodies of women? The making of productive space is always a collective enterprise, an imaginative exercise in meaning-making that must be buttressed materially. Places that emerge as effected by the templates of the ‘Gurgaon-style’, however, efface that imagination before it even begins, for they allow only very particular kinds of pathological meaning-making, and consequently, imaginations and behaviours. This is because they allow for no sense of shared meaning that is at once social—one infused with a sense ‘of identity, of relations and of history’[2]. These spaces contribute, then, to the emergence of a social and civic void, which must be filled in one way or another. In our public places, one sees the filling of that void with a pathological sensibility and an injurious desire of domination and subjugation—often of women. For these are spaces that find meaning through the deployment of certain forms of masculine identity and relations that are enabled by a pathological emergence of place, an emergence facilitated by peculiar architectonics. In one sense, the automobile and the city in 21st century India share an indubitable bond of pathological symbiosis, each enabling the realization of the terrible element—one that is also highly individualized—that forms a part of the other. What is needed for us to think about is the kind of meanings we invest in our urban spaces—meanings born of experience that already have a certain predisposition and orientation (in this case, pathological violence) because of the material construction of the spaces in which they find genesis. The band of six that sought to show the woman ‘her place’ on that dark December night were, then, enacting a deadly ritual of meaning-making that was enabled by the spaces they all occupy. These are pathological places of design that also spawn particular kinds of violence even as they erase the much-needed civic-life of recognition, respect and mutual pleasure.

I am reminded of Jane Jacobs’ classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), a study of cities from the ground-up rather than from the planner’s totalizing vision top down. It is a study of common people, their experiences of spaces and meaning-making in places, often through the potency of mundane, quotidian activities like walking on sidewalks or conversing with shopkeepers in markets or experiencing the multifarious rhythms of neighbourhoods. It is an important work because it recounts the follies of particular kinds of designs of cities. As we increasingly aspire to the ‘world-class’, it would be worthwhile to remember Jacobs’ lessons from the experience of those ‘world-class’ cities. In emphasising visual orders of simplicity over the complexities of experience, cities like Gurgaon and modern Delhi also erase the vitality of civic life that may emerge out of complexly-shared public spaces—one aspect of that civic life is the mutually pleasurable experience of places, both for men and for women. In doing away with hawkers, shopkeepers, fellow travellers, even pedestrians, these urban spaces not only destroy the ‘eyes-and-ears’ of publics on the ground, they also give rise, instead, to vast, dead spaces that have no logic of the neighbourhood, where people are not on ‘side-walk’ terms but remain, instead, strangers and bearers of threat, and where only impunity may prevail. This is a grave loss, because the cause of simplicity, order and what Scott has called ‘mono-functional’ single use of urban spaces also fosters not a complex engagement with bodies but a pathological exercise of power and simplistic, violent domination on them. The horrors of the experience of this woman and countless others on the streets of Delhi and elsewhere should also alert us, then, to the horror of the spaces we have come to occupy in contemporary times. Travel to Gurgaon, preferably at night (but any time really), and you will indeed experience the unsettling horror of its urban logic—endless roads, not a soul in sight, no contact with others, no complexity in the use of space, visual order but psychic anxiety, the uncanny presence of cars whose insides very few of us would want to explore. Our failure to address the brutal experience of women in contemporary urban cities—into which the architectural DNA of Gurgaon has speedily seeped in—is, in a fundamental sense, also our inability to address the brutal architectonics of our public spaces. This is an architectonics of sprawl, solitariness, inaccessibility as well as a deracinated civic culture in our great outdoors. In calling for police-patrol on all our streets—a demand that cannot possibly be met, even in a police-state—let us, instead, think about the experiential vacuum of our public spaces and public practices, a vacuum that cannot but be filled inadequately by the state and its apparatus’. As Jacobs herself put it[3], “The sum of each casual, public contact at a local level—most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone—is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighbourhood need. The absence of this trust is a disaster to a city street. Its cultivation cannot be institutionalized.”

Antithesis: Desire

The loss of intimacy in our urban spaces finds its counterpart in the logics of desire that prevails in these places, and more broadly, in our public culture. So, the second thing that I want to say is that we need to have a discussion of desire, of how desire and openness of a certain kind—rather than silences or taboos—actually allow us to engage with and overcome other, more poisonous, notions of how people imagine each other in the world. So, while I don’t support castration for rapists, even if that’s an alluring thought in the aftermath of this horror, I support a conversation about the desires animating these diverging notions. We need a redefinition of our places—in the public sphere and outside—through the complex vocabularies of desire, and not through a silencing or ignoring of that elephant in the room of our subjective lives. For even as the public space and the street has emerged as a pathological zone for women, partly out of warped notions of masculinity and femininity, partly out of the architectonics of spaces and relations, the answer to that pathology must also emerge by taking note of the complex ways in which we engage with complex desires.

Now, I don’t for a moment wish to imply that every desire must find its (il)logical destination of fulfilment, because the emergence of the pathological public sphere in regard to rape—buttressed by the mobile automobile and the urban architectonic of dead spaces in urban zones—is itself, partly, a result of such satisfactions, or their pursuit. But, surely, neither does the answer lie in repression, for the pathological culture of rape is as much a result of the silences that are obtained as well. Are we then not implicated in the splendid world of that discourse that seeks to regulate dress, that seeks to regulate access to places for certain kinds of bodies, that seek to regulate the company bodies keep, and which seeks to control the choices that people make? What, then, are the answers to those pathetic questions—why was she out so late; what was she doing with him; why was she wearing that; why was she drinking; indeed, at times, why was she being? The answer to fostering a viable public culture that does not legitimate rape through its overt or covert practices of pathology is, then, as much in the realm of the material culture of our cities as much as it is in the circulating discourses of desire. For desire is a potent entity, corrosive and therapeutic in its own essence. To me, the fortifying dimensions of desire—one that is mobilized against violence and poisonous notions of the place that women, as human beings, occupy in this world—is eminently productive, which is why it seems to me that we do not speak enough about what men and women really want. It is the slips and gaps in this communicative regime that then allows for other kinds of communication to take pre-eminence, for what happens in rapes perpetrated by men, especially gang-rapes against women, is also a particular kind of conversation amongst men[4]—a brutal conversation whose target, medium and object is the objectified, silenced anatomy of the woman. In erasing desire, we completely ignore what life means in our times, of what it means to be living. It seems to me, therefore, that it is imperative that we reclaim the affective, fortifying powers of desire—the circulating and proliferating notions of choice, agency and wish that are at once also limited and reigned-in through their conversations with others. This, to me, is also a substantive way towards realizing that oft-abused concept: equality, for conversation and respect are also an attempt at transformation.

When we relegate the troublesome entity of desire to a private sphere, or indeed, excise the desire of some (mostly women—especially women who have suffered rape (calling them ‘zinda laash’, etc.)—but also the old, as well as the disabled) completely from our cognitive or discursive registers, we run the risk not only of pathologizing the space of the public, but also of creating hierarchies of life within cultures. This is exactly the fate of our rape-cultures today, cultures where the violation of bodies and beings is as much within the house or the family as much as it is on the streets and in public places. Now, this is for a variety of contradictory reasons: it arises out of warped notions of what others are—sentient beings or ‘things’ that happen to be biological; it is formed at an ellipsis of comprehension, of knowing or avoiding what the subjective desires of others may comprise, even in the aftermath of catastrophic life-events. No matter the reasons, the effects of ignoring the place of desire in dynamic public spheres can only have a miasmic and pathological outcome. It is then not enough to declare that men must be taught how to behave, especially by their mothers—that is too formulaic at best, and unattainable at worst. What is needed, instead, is a complete reformulation of the spaces we occupy—the spaces of concrete worlds and pulsating desires.

Start walking around the city with your pens & notebooks, cameras & camcorders; record these whispers, these chatters. Carry these winds of change in your words, in your photographs.

Start walking around the city with your pens & notebooks, cameras & camcorders; record these whispers, these chatters. Carry these winds of change in your words, in your photographs.

How do we make sense of the week that has passed since the incident on that wintry night, when a public bus became the site of ritualized violation and horrific, terrorising intimacy? For what happened in that hour may also be considered an enactment of a kind of thanatopolitics on a particular body—a ritualized politics and practice that upheld the instinct of annihilation through the treatment of a body in a particular way so as to make it fit for death. For how else would one make sense of the terrible, almost spectral image of the iron-rod involved in this episode, and the unspeakable acts rendered through it—acts, which, outside of testimony, have their remnants only in the effects that they have left on the body, effects almost too unspeakable so as to be hyper-real and fantastical—and thus, now circulating in the realm of whispers and rumour and scandal. Is there not any truth, in the aftermath of what we have seen in that school-bus, to Foucault’s ringing indictment: “For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics calls his existence as a living being into question.”[5] Have we not seen the face of death within?

And yet to think of rape as a kind of political practice of death (or dehumanization), and not as pathological sexual desire is partly true, and partly the story. It is true insofar as it is claimed that it is not pathological sexual desire that only animates rape—that instead there’s need to think of it as political violence enacted through the sexualisation of women’s bodies as well (as Pratiksha Baxi wrote recently in Kafila, connecting the sexualisation of women’s bodies and the “the projection of cars as objects of danger and adventure.”). The formulation is not so true in another matter, for it completely ignores the entity of (pathological) desire, one that I am claiming must be addressed, tamed and controlled in public and private spheres of our lives via a conversation about, and recognition of, the multiple forms of (other) desire that people must accept and respect with regards the other.

Neither is the story complete, for this formulation of rape as political violence or dehumanization leaves out the figure of the victim—how do we speak of/to this woman, and how do we see her survival for the two weeks in the aftermath of phenomenal brutality, how do we recognize every breath she took, every move that she made, every act she performed, including the purported scribblings on paper, or her testimonies to the magistrate, or indeed her declarations to live? How do we make sense of these mundane, almost unremarkable acts, both biological and volitional—though they are, at the level I am trying to chart here, phenomenally remarkable? What is the grammar of life lived in these weeks, in the aftermath of a catastrophic life-event? Indeed, what is the grammar of this time of individual fortitude and public grief itself? I’d like to think that the two-weeklong survival of the woman (which one had hoped, earnestly, would last longer), her insistence on life rather than death, as a kind of politics too, but one associated with the life-instinct, or Eros. Because, to see her live everyday for those weeks and to receive news of her status—and despite her namelessness, to feel within a kind of reaching-out in the hope that she may affirm life through herself—is a particular form of desire too. For in surviving the politics of annihilation, to see her self recover, testified to a different order of politics—one that was and is markedly desirous of affirming life.

It is here we see, in one way, the power of desire for self-preservation, and it is one way in which the two week life of this nameless woman may be thought—as a politics of Eros, or life realized through the struggle(s) and desires—indeed, the impatient love—to live. I am calling for a conversation on desire because it seems to me that we do not, yet, properly appreciate the complexities of life and the struggle to live—complexities that emerge not only in the aftermath of brutality, and amidst the desires to transcend the politics of dehumanization, but also in the more quotidian aspects of everyday life and its coping mechanisms. It is this desire that we obliterate when we conceive of the aftermath of rape or other kinds of brutality (including disabilities) as a kind of purgatory, a space where one may neither live nor die, but remain a suffering, spectral presence. What we also obliterate through our silence about desire(s) are its janus-faced powers—the power to wreck and enact death all right (and that may be one way to think of the brutal enactments of rape—as a kind of desire to visit deaths upon others) but also the phenomenal power to affirm life. Is that second aspect of the will to life, born partly in response to the former act of dehumanization but also serving as the latter’s antidote, not worthy of our attention? For if we, instead, use the lens of polyvalent desire to witness these phenomenal episodes as the desire to affirm life and live, whatever one’s circumstances, then we see at the end not the mere enactment of deathly politics, but a wonderful capacity to live. Desire, then, becomes the zone of vital life, a zone not only affirming the will to live in the aftermath of brutality, but also the will to challenge the necro-logics of other forms of desire that, at times, animate rape and other forms of violence. It is a zone that we must desperately capture elsewhere too, including in the public spaces where we seek pleasure, company, or indeed, freedom.

Synthesis: Protest

India gate and its lawns are pretty. They are also dead, especially in the times when not populated by crowds of ice-cream eaters, walkers, toy-sellers, boaters, loungers, idlers, lovers, or the purveyors and surveyors of political grandeur that is embedded or emblazoned in its surrounding architecture (one inscription on North Block reads, Liberty will not descend to a people: a people must raise themselves to liberty”—this alone may be a metaphor for the surging crowds on Rajpath). So the third thing I want to speak about is the coming of the crowds to India gate this past week, for reasons of carnival[7], protest and recreation. For the images and words emanating in the aftermath of protests, amidst the stinging haze of tear-gas and the water-canons, as well as the ‘lumpen hijacking’, the violence and damage to ‘public property’, etc., testify to a fear of the crowds, recorded especially in the registers of the established interests of power as well as in the cognitive registers of all of us. But beyond fear, they speak of something else to all of us.

I took this photograph just after being dragged by my collar by a policeman. I too would have been beaten up if it was not for the camera in my hand. He was furious because I protested against him hitting a young woman standing peacefully next to me. As you can see we have covered our faces and are running away from the tear gas shells. Our eyes were burning and throats hurting. We dispersed but within a few minutes gathered back. This happened quite a few times today. Many young men and women got injured. But we did not give up, we kept coming back. With each lathicharge we became stronger and less scared. All this while we thought we were fighting for you. But today we realized we are fighting for ourselves.

I took this photograph just after being dragged by my collar by a policeman. I too would have been beaten up if it was not for the camera in my hand. He was furious because I protested against him hitting a young woman standing peacefully next to me. As you can see we have covered our faces and are running away from the tear gas shells. Our eyes were burning and throats hurting. We dispersed but within a few minutes gathered back. This happened quite a few times today. Many young men and women got injured. But we did not give up, we kept coming back. With each lathicharge we became stronger and less scared. All this while we thought we were fighting for you. But today we realized we are fighting for ourselves.

These are crowds that seek to reclaim the sanitized arenas for a messy politics, quite literally. The protests at India gate, then, are an attempt to transcend the problematic architectonics of the city and our civic and political condition. They seek as well as interrogate the silences of desire, by making a spectacle out of the banality of quotidian violence suffered by bodies and affects in the fabric of the everyday (for women, through ‘eve-teasing’, gestures, the gaze; for others in countless other forms), to drive home the point of this violence’s terribly un-banal consequences on whom it is visited. And yet, this interrogation is never absolute—just as no communicative regime of desire can ever be—for the reported presence of molesters in the protest-body, as well as the obvious and visible calls for death, castration and other kinds of acts on the bodies of the alleged perpetrators of the rape remind us of the need to open ourselves up to the polyvalent circulations of economies of desire within and amidst ourselves.

This is the conversation that I have been calling for us to have, for the Janus-faced nature of desire offers us the visibility of a politics of brutality on the one hand, but it also offers a challenge to that singular face—a challenge of volition, agency and the will to be free, as well as a politics upholding the instinct of life. For how else does one make sense of the girl with a placard in hand reading, ‘meri skirt se oonchee hai meri awaaz’ [my voice is higher than my skirt]; how else does one accommodate the alternative calls for mercy or a renegotiation of the blood-lust of those now baying for the annihilation of the alleged rapists? How, indeed, do we see the body of the protest itself—its presence and its claims on the material and discursive technologies of contemporary politics—when that politics is at once so dismaying and at once so brutally inept/ineptly brutal in its responses? Indeed, there is also a logic of desire in the seemingly empty calls of this obstreperous mass-body, “We want justice”, for the spectacles at India Gate testify to a will for negotiation, however inadequately, with the obtrusive, barely sentient political cadaver of our republic. To claim that these are empty calls, or that nobody has a notion of what substantive justice is, is to entirely and badly miss the point. For the mere calls for justice in an overwhelmingly—often banally—violent and also unresponsive system; or the claims staked by bodies to a volitional life surging with its own logic and economies of vitality and the will to live, amidst the desires of death that surrounds them—all of these provide counterclaims to forms of desire that seek hegemonic status. For, at the three levels of the body of the woman brutalized but now seeking the instinct of life to transcend that experience nearing death; the body of the citizen facing the violence of systemic apathy or quotidian harassment in public or private places; and the body of crowds encountering an unresponsive political structure or an architectonic space of pathological relations—we see the comingling of complex claims and counterclaims desirous of acquiring and denying different types of worlds to live in. This, to me, is the awesome power of conversant desires.

In reclaiming the right to protest, the carnival at India gate—with its attendant violence, misadventures, motley bodies, radically opposed views—also affords a reclaiming of the pathological public space that marks our lives. The crowds, it seems to me, are an affirmation of a certain kind of desire(s)—to take charge of a dead, sanitized politics and its architectonics, and offer instead an alternative, both material and philosophical, to that politics and its material spaces of enactment. The ill-defined body of crowds—some walking, some sitting, some clapping, a few merely observing, others milling in a huddle to break the sting of water-canons that is otherwise deadly on the vulnerable bodies of individuals, a few dancing, another lot striking a pose reminiscent of Gandhi’s Dandi-march atop the overturned chassis of a sarkari automobile (an iconic image in its own right!), people escaping the choking poison of expired tear-gas shells, bodies huddling together to repel the sting of lathis, all occupying political ‘surface’—all of these and many more ‘brand’ a politics of death that typifies events of body-brutality like rape (or a political culture that is systemically apathetic) with an alternative will to affirm life—indeed sab ‘theek’ nahi hai! This, to me, is the power of the mass body, for it seeks to reclaim space through desire, and seeks to rekindle the speech of desire by the marking and the occupation of space. In doing this, protests like the one at India Gate—and others elsewhere—mobilize crowds through an occupation of the ‘surfaces’ of political existence; in turn, protests synthesize the dialectics of the pathological public space and the vital logics of the pulsating economies of desire. The result, too unknown to exactly predict, is a volatile flux of bodies and wills, public spaces and the reclamation of non-places, and (one hopes) a subversion of dominant assumptions. With due regard for its other possibilities, one would wish, instead, for an emergence of its progressive, transformatory powers.

You see this photograph? I took this when Police action was at its peak. It felt as if they were enjoying all this violence, eager to break a hand or bleed a face. And yet, amidst the fear that was wreaking parade grounds, our young friend and many like her did not lose courage; they held their ground. You can probably imagine how much she put at stake, can you doubt her intent?

You see this photograph? I took this when Police action was at its peak. It felt as if they were enjoying all this violence, eager to break a hand or bleed a face. And yet, amidst the fear that was wreaking parade grounds, our young friend and many like her did not lose courage; they held their ground. You can probably imagine how much she put at stake, can you doubt her intent?

(Pictures and captions by Chandan Gomes accompany this text. Text and image appear together here. The image of the words and the words of the images seek to capture some of the occurrences of the last two weeks. Where one fails, the other picks up.

She has been named variously, and yet she remains faceless and nameless to me. It is in the gaps of her unknowability, and in the power of her struggle to live, that I have written this. I have not amended what was written in the days of profound hope and despair, in a time when she sought to affirm life amidst phenomenal struggle. Those days have ended with her death. That time has begun. –RK)

[1] James C. Scott (1998), Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Help the Human Condition Have Failed, pp. 132-146.

[2] Marc Augé (2009), Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, pp. 52-64.

For the author, all anthropological spaces—“spatial arrangements”—must have identity, relations, and history embedded within themselves (pp. 58). This occurs through 1) temporal itineraries that ‘mark’ history through specific time and events in a space, like collective festivals, feasts, commemorations, etc.; 2) the presence of material monuments that ‘sacralize’ that past but do not do so with an inauthentic sense of display, as by bureaucratic fiat; 3) intersections which have been historically traced by people interacting with each other or assembling together for a purpose; and 4) centres that index power and rule—all of these together define spaces as zones of meaning. In this sense, Gurgaon may qualify as a space with particular forms of identity, relations and history, but of a pathological sort, given its architectonics that emphasizes alienation, segregation, and monochromatic use (as also, the removal of those historically inhabiting such places and their transplantation with new settlers). However, for me Gurgaon and the places modelled on it are also non-places because the peculiar and forced inscriptions of identity, relations and history transform them into a space without shared meaning-making. Instead, in privileging pain over pleasure, alienation over investment, solitude over civic interaction, bureaucratic intervention & brutal forms of transformation in land-use over the historical character of spaces, the transience of experience over rootedness and memories of the past, and the profoundly variant architectonics that efface itinerary, intersections, centres and monuments (or create forced ones through bureaucratic fiat or personal whim), these spaces put into play certain forms of social relations antithetical to a sense of shared, mutual and multiply-invested meaning-making. For Augé, places of ‘supermodernity’ become non-places by simultaneously including and excluding—(thus confusing the sense of intimacy through generic ‘contractuality’ or banal exoticization)—the unique qualities and textures of, and relations with, the locality of places. This happens, often, by the deployment of texts like signboards or generic notices in banks or labels in supermarkets  (see, pp. 97 and 101. On 103, he sums this up: “The space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude, and similitude. There is no room there for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle… Everything proceeds as if space had been trapped by time, as if there were no history other than the last forty-eight hours of news). For Augé, then, most non-places are the ‘traveller’s archetype’: motorways, airports, cash-dispensers, supermarkets, high-speed trains, etc.

I’m trying to develop a more extreme sense of non-places than Augé‘s ‘supermodern’ non-places, suggesting instead that places—veritable cities—born out of the ‘Gurgaon model’ are zones that completely efface (rather than confuse) the sense of the local (however that is constituted: through the matrix of identity, relations, and history, as manifest in the regimes of itinerary, intersections, centres and monuments).

They work by implanting, instead, a curiously sanitized and cognitively disorientating extreme placelessness that is also barely intimate, in part, due to the peculiar materiality of such places—that is, the way they are built. The urban vocabulary of Gurgaon—exemplified by ‘sectors’, zones, ‘cities/townships’ within the city, or names of places born in, say, Hollywood (or other names with no connection whatsoever to their material use) finding material realization here—only contributes to a sense of this placelessness.

[3] See James Scott (1998), Seeing Like a State, pp. 132-146

[4] I wish to thank Dr Deepak Mehta for suggesting this idea to me.

[5] Michel Foucault (1978), The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, pp. 143

[7] I want to recount an incident to contextualize the use of this ‘controversial’ word, carnival. Somebody suggested to me that what we’re witnessing at India Gate—especially in the later days of protest—is a tamaasha or play of sentiments. The person suggested that he had seen boys telling their girlfriends of their wish to go to India gate to ‘see’ the mêlée; he had heard other men wishing to go there to ogle; but he had also heard of genuine anger propelling people to go there, their outrage and horror driving them to a place of collective signification that was at once deeply personal. Instead of dismissing this sentiment as bigoted, I wanted to frame what was happening at India Gate as a kind of dis—play, admittedly one with different perspectives or motivations for those witnessing the ‘event’ taking place there. But the point in seeing this as carnival is to understand precisely these varying motivations, and to accept the circulation of numerous kinds of emotions in a crowd. If a carnival can be defined as a place of excitement and revelry—with its technologies of processions, music, dance, singing, banners, etc.—we do not take away the seriousness of the issue around which bodies have congealed to give meaning to anger or protestation. Instead, we see the ‘occupation’ of space, time and public attention using loud enactments—especially by deploying our bodies—to bring home the seriousness of the issue, in this case the horrific treatment of women in public and private worlds. Carnival, then, becomes strategic because it allows the assimilation of numerous, often divergent, bearers of view into a singular body pulsating with desire, often transformatory desire, but also of other kinds. The power of the carnival is to enable a conversation of desire by the comingling of bodies in a place at a particular time. The technologies of the carnival—display, songs, banners, body-enactments, slogans—only facilitate that conversation of raucous desires by compelling sanitized spaces to confront the raucous, playful ‘other’. Carnivals, then, can have deeply political significance, a fact attested by the traditional enactment of regular, calendrical displays, where a sense of civic engagement is enabled between people of wildly different socio-economic backgrounds. But carnival can also be seen as deeply subversive, a tamaasha, on dominant assumptions, styles or moods.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Ramesh Narendrarai Desai permalink
    December 30, 2012 8:26 PM

    Economic development before social transformation is likely to bring about such results. The politicians in pre-independence days worked more for social transformation. The emphasis on economic transformation in the post-independence era without concommitant social transformation is the culprit. Politicians started their own economic improvement instead of improving both the social and economic development of the masses. Welfarism before faring well economically is dragging the country into high inflation and indebtedness. The whole society, every limb of it, including the government must wake up and take steps that would reduce drastically such incidents.

  2. Kaya permalink
    December 30, 2012 8:54 PM

    I wish your post was written in more accessible language (note: not asking you to dumb it down).

    • January 1, 2013 3:43 PM

      I second that. I like the article, think it has good points to make, but I am reluctant to share it because of the academic language. Some simpler language, some editing, and maybe some subtitles would help.

  3. Vivek Agarwal permalink
    December 30, 2012 11:44 PM

    Let’s push the government to solve every rape case that happened in 2012 and punish the accused within next 3 months. We need some ground work, not just new rules.

  4. seeta permalink
    December 30, 2012 11:57 PM

    absolutely lovely read.
    the (un)relatedness of urban landscapes, of ways of inhabiting, of lives and ‘lifestyles’, especially in relation to the NCR-isation of delhi (noida’s intimidating yet hugely marked/aspired to steel and glass is just that, too) is something i have often thought of myself, but you have put it wonderfully well.
    after all, what is striking about this rape is the kind of brutality and disconnect it seems to indicate, where language breaks down (and so does the social in a sense). not that any such incident is justified at all, but this kind of violence is mostly visited upon a proximitous yet (or thus) absolute other-the dalit, the other/enemy community/religious minority, the bodies of those of an invaded country…
    very evocative and well plotted joining of dots, thanks!

  5. Rohan permalink
    December 31, 2012 12:37 AM

    i did not finish reading the post …. frankly i could not read through it …. its seems like a lot of intellectual sounding nonsense ….. more than anything the opening had already put me off …. to suggest the idea that raping someone or brutally hurting them “puts them in their place” is just abominable …. the writer might as well have said that they took away her ‘honour’ …….. its heartbreaking to see such posts on kafila …

    • seeta permalink
      December 31, 2012 1:08 PM

      those who refuse to even read through a post because it is somewhat long or ‘the opening puts them off’, or form judgements on the basis of what they (want to?) see and not necessarily what is written reveal more about themselves than about those that are writing.
      I dont see why everything needs to be accessible in an easy way. this wave of anti-intellectualism (and rijul could just as easily be writing a photo essay or an affective piece, not even perhaps meaning to be exactly intellectual-you’ll say what about the footnotes, and i will say that to footnote is to indicate to the organic nature of one’s writing, to acknowledge one’s debts, a practice fading from academia too at the behest of publishers and printers’ convenience, not necessarily to mark its intellectualism or eliteness) is completely incomprehensible to me.
      taking the time to read, to enjoy the turn of a phrase or the evocativeness of a word, encountering writing that is different from the pointed, all too accessible yet unwieldy journalism, encountering really the body of words has its own charm, and one that one is hard pressed i understand to take the time for, but it is something that carries with it its own practical and practically applicable disciplines and lessons that i would request those who dismiss too easily to mull over.

      • Sunalini Kumar permalink*
        January 1, 2013 8:42 AM

        Thanks, seeta. I think what’s “abominable”, Rohan, is your inability to understand a simple point – Rijul was pointing to the sickness – i.e, the ideology which seeks to put women “in their places” – NOT subscribing to the ideology himself. If you had taken the care to read the piece properly, then you would have understood. And I agree with seeta, what is this pressure to produce easily-digestible little capsules of ‘information’ rather than a full-fledged essay? Something lovely happens to the mind when one reads and writes with care and effort, something that you, Rohan may sadly never experience.

      • January 1, 2013 3:46 PM

        I think Rohan’s original point is badly made, but it is not a call to produce “easy digestible little capsules of information”. I think just some editing and some simpler language would help make the author’s point more clearly. There is no dumbing down in this, as many a good writer would attest.

  6. Vandana permalink
    December 31, 2012 4:46 PM

    The article may be a tad long but the author has explored/highlighted an important variable/ perspective. And, he was part of the action. That needs to be respected.
    He is right about highlighting the abominable sentiment behind rape is to ‘put her in place.’
    It is a power issue. Why do most of the rapes happen? More often than not because our patriarchs are not patient enough to listen to the response to their own provocation.
    Besides, such things do happen in isolated places and minds which are best ‘constructed’ in big cities and war zones.
    When a community goes through a crisis, it is part of the solution to discuss and explore options and move forward to make a healing change (in this case, effective legal system) for the good of all.
    Let us help in action or spirit and contribute to the knowledge needed to regulate this problem at hand.

  7. January 1, 2013 1:54 AM

    I was reading through some of your posts on this site and I believe this site is rattling instructive! Retain posting.asdf456sd4f6s4ad6f5

  8. Udit Saxena permalink
    January 2, 2013 1:09 PM

    Well a lot has been said about the language, but I do wish it was more accessible. I understood the most commonsensical bit that one is more likely to get assaulted or raped in isolated and empty streets like those of Gurgaon than in a crowded place like connaught place. I guess the writer is sugesting that such places encourage pathological desires. If someone could explain the ideas that I have missed, specially the idea of the “life affirming desire” and how that plays a role in this, it would be much appreciated.

  9. January 2, 2013 2:12 PM

    To some familiar with the tonality of academic writing, this piece has been both intellectually profound as well as incredibly emotive.

    Personally, I’ve leaned more towards a power-based argument in terms of rapes, misogyny, violence against women, and other marginalized groups. But, as this post argued, the spatial nature of power (the word “architechtronics, I believe presents a similar idea), too, is something that cannot be dismissed.

    Increasingly, sanitized spaces are something that have become endemic to the political ideology of exclusion and urbanization; the hallmarks of urban India, what I like to poetically call the “clean, urban facades”, are embedded in a virulent discourse of exclusion. And although forms of violence are pathological (my interpretation) to these spaces, the discourse on rape/violence is animated precisely because of the question of belonging and un-belonging. The fact that the social location of the perpetrators – ‘foot-loose-migrants’, ‘Biharis’ – is brought to the forefront of discourse obfuscates the more nuanced nature of violence that this post argues. And this obfuscation, and selective outrage (although I do, more than in I have in the past, empathize with the protesters and their genuine anguish and emotions) is something we need to elaborate on as well.

    For instance, Partha Chatterjee’s ideas of political and civil society hold considerable merit when it comes to this incident. For instance, yesterday itself, there was a massive protest in Bombay against land scams; there was, if I recall correctly, hardly any outrage by either the bourgeois media (my indebtedness to the left), or the public. I am, I reiterate, not trying to belittle the Delhi protests; but merely pointing out the intersection of class, caste, gender-dynamics that inform our perspective on protests, and thus, of disparate voices laying claim to public bodies. [Although this point was brilliantly expressed in the footnotes; Here's a very tiny coverage, that too, highlighting Medha Patkar's involvement: http://www.aninews.in/newsdetail2/story92500/medha-patkar-leads-protest-against-land-scam-in-mumbai.html; One could also follow @DynamiteTheMoon on Twitter for more details on the said protests]

    That said, I absolutely enjoyed reading this piece. Kafila, by a huge margin, is one of the most sensible and critical spaces on the web.

    Cheers.

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  1. Desires of planning and the planning of Desires: Vignettes of a Rape Culture and Beyond: « Fierce pajamas

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