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Chatterjee Lecture 21.2

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tore holst

on 21 February 2011

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Transcript of Chatterjee Lecture 21.2

Last time we rounded the plot and characters in Roy’s novel. One of the things we found out was that the mother in the story, Ammu, went from social network to social network.
As she returns, she has gained two children and lost her formal right to stay in her parents’ house, because she is now the responsibility of the husband’s family.
In her attempt at ‘breaking free’ she has traded in one type of social dependency for another, as the idea of living outside a network is impossible. In the words of the children in the novel, Rahel and Estha, Ammu has no ‘Locust Stand I’ (Pp. 57).
The misunderstanding then becomes a metaphor, as the lack of standing in society, becomes the lack of a standing ‘I’. Apart from pointing to the children’s misunderstanding, the presence of locusts in the metaphor also gives a sense of something being eaten by some sort of menace, given the role locusts sometimes play in destroying entire crops.
What is in fact meant is ‘Locus Standi’, which is Latin for ‘standing’ – to have a legal place in the world. Chacko, Ammu’s brother, tells the children that Ammu has lost her Locus Standi (no doubt in one of his ‘Oxford Moods), and as the children do not understand Latin, they translate it into ‘Locust Stand I’.
Minorities in postcolonial India
Parents house in Ayemenem,
Married to an alchoholic in Kolkata
Stuck in a tea plantation in Assam
stand I
Locus Standi

The question of caste, group identity and ‘gaining a voice within public discourse’ has everything to do with retaining or losing your Locus Standi. Ammu is a divorcee from an intercommunity, inter-religious love-marriage (a marriage that has not been arranged). For the sake of her children’s future, she chooses to live on the edge of the social station she has fallen from. She knows she cannot exist outside the protective structures of her native society, even though it despises her.
In the words of Chacko this means that ‘What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is also mine’ (pp.57), rewriting another proverb
Caste in The God of Small Things
In the same chapter we move to a description of how caste functions in Roy’s opinion. We find two instances of dalits – people of lower caste – wanting to change their standing in society. One instance is historic (pp. 73 - 74), begining with 'Mamachi could remember...'
Roy’s second example of how caste works (pp.69) occurs in the present day (1960ies) where lower caste and lower class workers unite in order to better their conditions. They want a marginally larger paycheck and the lower caste workers do not want to be called by their caste names – which are in fact their last names.
The marker of caste in everyday conversation in India is family names. In a Danish context, you might think about the difference in social status between names like ‘Victoria’ and ‘Brian’. But in an Indian context, you are usually able to pin point to what community someone belongs, as their last name is often directly related to their family’s occupation, religion, community and caste.
To erase the workers’ family name in Roy’s fiction would of course not result in an erasure of their caste. This is emphasized by the reaction of ‘the Cardamom King, the Coffee Counts and the Rubber Barons’. They gather at their prestigious clubs and quote Shakespeare’s famous line from Romeo and Juliet, ‘…a rose by any other name’.
Originally, the quote is uttered by Juliet who is trying to come to terms with the fact that she loves Romeo, even though he belongs to the wrong family. The ‘name’ she is referring to is his family name, signifying the feud between their families, and the conclusion she comes to is that the name of a thing changes nothing about the thing itself.
But then of course, Juliet dies in the end of the story precisely because of the name, or perhaps rather the feud it implies.
If we turn to Foucault, we find the idea that knowledge about something changes the thing itself. The language we use to describe something limits the way we might perceive that thing and its relation to other things. That however doesn’t mean that a social category that has already come into existence will disappear overnight if its name is altered to imply something else.
The dalits are trying to change the thing by changing the name. When the landlords quote Juliet, they are thereby saying: a dalit by any other name will still remain a dalit – even if we are forced to use another word.
Can you change or escape your caste and gender?
What we gather from the examples of Roy is that it is difficult to escape the constriction of caste, gender and other social categories – both as a group and as an individual. Women lose their Locust Stand I, Rice Christians lose their quotas and the dalits their last names, but they still have to interact with social systems that have an inherent hierarchy, which they have to conform to, in order to secure their situation.
If they don’t, they leave themselves vulnerable. In Roy’s novel, we find two transgressors of caste: the high caste divorcee, Ammu and the lower caste Rice Christian, Velutha. They fall in love. This in itself incurs the serious wrath of only Baby Kochamma - Ammu's aunt. But the illicit relation leaves them vulnerable and when disaster strikes and Chacko and Margaret’s little daughter drowns in the nearby river, they are blamed.
The evils of exclusion function via vulnerability rather than outright violence.
Homi Bhabha has written on what he calls the liminal space. It is a space where new social identities can be forged in the urban setting where people of different ethnicity, class, gender age and perhaps caste are forced to live together.
Originally the term is used to describe the space you inhabit in the transition between two fixed states, like from ‘child’ to ‘adult’ or ‘adult’ to ‘old’. But in Bhabha’s view transition happens all the time in the urban, cosmopolitan metropolis – not just when age forces us to redefine ourselves.
We thereby frequently enter into such a liminal space, where we are forced to reinterpret our identity. And our ability to adapt to new situations and enter into this space where ‘the new’ might arise is thereby seen as an important ability.
In our previous lecture we covered the unhomely space, and mimicry. Bhabha’s point is that unhomely or mimicking articulations might be able to create this liminal space where a re-articulation of subject positions is possible and thereby perhaps a re-articulation of identity itself.
When reading Roy, however, we see that the people who are forced or tricked into leaving their stable, legit position within their native social setting, might come to inhabit a permanent liminal space, which leaves them vulnerable. Especially if this leaves them in a state of liminal legality.
A state of in between laws. A state of ‘not quite legal’.
As we move on to the texts of Chatterjee and Gupta we see that this is a key concept to understanding what role minority and majority plays in Indian politics and how we might perceive the people who live on the margin of the postcolonial city.
As we turn to popular culture we get the sense that there’s even money to be made and fame to be gained by being ‘not quite straight’, ‘not quite black’, ‘not quite human’, etc. To transgress the norms without setting yourself completely outside the acceptable.
Caste, quotas and Modernity in India
Dipankar Gupta: modernity is essentially a way of thinking. It is to view all citizens as equal individuals, whose merits should be weighed on the basis of their individual achievements rather than their ability to nepotistically use their families and connections to their own advancement.
To adhere to modernity, as Gupta sees it, gives a very clear path to follow when legislating. The question is if he is right, or whether the circumstances of modernity’s birth and its early incarnations makes it unsuitable for India as a model of development?
In contemporary India you find technological advances and the advent of gadgets, cars and frequent travels abroad. This is not modernity. It is 'Mistaken Modernity'. He therefore doesn't believe in 'multiple modernities' either
To Gupta, to hark back to tradition is to legitimize the oppression of the bad old days. If you do that, you are automatically sanctioning everything from widow burning to the caste system.
Vote-banks and caste
Dipankar Gupta claims that: Castes no longer determine the kind of work an individual can do, but caste identities are still strong. The identification with a caste rather than class, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, language, as a primary marker of identity is thereby still prevalent.
The word ‘dalit’ actually means ‘oppressed’ and was dubbed as a new name for ‘untouchables’ around the time of independence, as it connoted 'struggle' rather than 'submission' and 'hierarchy'.
Caste functions along the lines of difference rather than hierarchy. The hierarchy of castes has only ever been recognized by the upper castes, who wanted a god-given right to make members from other castes perform certain undesirable duties. Members of ‘lower’ castes never perceived themselves as lower, but rather oppressed.
That caste plays a role in Indian politics can be seen from e.g. Uttar Pradesh (a state in Northern India) where the lower caste politician Mayawati has been in power since 2003 to the horror of the middle class. They don’t like her, not just because she is uneducated, uncouth and everything else that the middle class don’t like.
The problem is that she is unfortunately also a megalomaniac. As the chief minister of a state where people from her caste usually doesn’t have access to hospitals and schools because of corruption, etc. she is more interested in raising giant statues of herself in newly constructed parks in the state’s capital, Lucknow. Conditions don’t improve for poor in the state but they vote for her anyway, because they see her as one of them.
Caste thereby functions in Indian politics as vote-banks, where individuals vote for the candidate representing their community/caste rather than the candidate whom they agree with on a number of ideological key issues. Gupta’s correction to this is that alliances between castes are not based on allegiances between castes from the same place in the traditional hierarchy, but rather on how much influence a given party might get from forming an alliance with another caste.
Upper caste parties and lower caste parties thereby unite in alliances in order to gain power. This paves the way for a system of ‘politics by patrons’, which is to mean that individuals vote for a patron, who will bend the rules in trying to favor his or her voters.
This, in Gupta’s opinion, is also the reason why politicians caught with the fingers in the till are never really ousted from politics, because they are merely demonstrating that they are able to navigate within the system and that they will thereby be able to secure their voters a small share of the proverbial cake.
Caste and Quotas
As we learned from Roy’s text, there have been quotas securing positions at universities and government jobs for dalits since independence. According to Gupta, the central problem of affirmative action in India is that it doesn’t function as a transitory phenomenon, which will terminate when a balance has been struck. Rather, it functions as yet another way of ensuring that one’s community or caste gets their cut.
The reason for this is partly that the quotas were not designed to take individual circumstances into consideration. This means that material and social capital on an individual level is not taken into account, when distributing special slots in universities or government jobs. The only parameter taken into consideration is whether or not an applicant is from a certain caste or not.
Dipankar Gupta summed up
Real modernity is based on a set of universal rights given to the individual. As India’s so-called modernity is based on the collective, it fails in a number of ways.

One of these failures is affirmative action, which is based on quotas privileging populations and minorities rather than gifted individuals.
Another is the system of ‘politics through patrons’, where strong leaders are elected into power in order to secure something for his or her voters rather than stability and growth for the whole country.

Therefore caste in politics should be thought of in terms if difference rather than hierarchy. This is not to suggest that there is an equal distribution of power between castes, but rather that alliances shift between castes.
Critique of modernity’s origins revisited
Gupta may have identified a number of problems, but does he necessarily have the cure, when he points towards the set of individual rights based on universal principles, which in his view makes up modernity? Is his idea of modernity perhaps too uncomplicated?
In your second lecture you read David Harvey and David Theo Goldberg’s article on Kant and Locke respectively.
Kant’s ethics pertain to a narrow segment of humanity. His universalism runs into trouble because, as the quote states: it is necessary for Kant that everyone be the same, if the same principles are to pertain to them. And the standard that they (we) need to conform to looks like those of the European, white man of Kant’s age.
The importance of social networks in The God of Small Things
Bhabha’s 'liminal space' vs. 'liminal legality'
David Harvey’s critique of Kant
'Geographical knowledge is potentially in conflict with or disruptive of Kant's universal ethics and cosmopolitan principles (…) …it boils down to this. Either the smelly Hottentots and the lazy Samoyards have to reform themselves to qualify for consideration under the universal ethical code (thereby flattening out all geographical differences) or the universal principles operate as an intensely discriminatory code masquerading as the universal good.'
Therefore the good slave owners of South Carolina (for whom he was secretary) could also justly own slaves as well. Furthermore, they had the right to take or extend their lives as they pleased, because the slaves had forfeited their lives by virtue of engaging in ‘just war’.
David Theo Goldberg’s critique of Locke
In Locke’s famous First Treatise of Government, he advocates that slavery cannot be justified and should be abolished. The exception to this rule are slaves taken by the victor of ‘just wars’. In plain English: instead of killing the enemy, you can make him your slave. As Locke perceived the expeditions to the west coast of Africa to take slaves as a ‘just war’ he didn’t see anything wrong with that.
Locke evaluated whether a given being could be perceived as a ‘human’ by whether or not this being was capable of reasoning. If a person was not capable of reason, there was no need to treat that person as anything other than an animal or a machine. As blacks were widely recognized as having no reason, they fell into this category neatly.
Goldberg therefore states that Chomsky and Bracken doesn’t go far enough when they state that classical empiricism – for which Locke was spokesman – ‘could offer no conceptual barrier to the rise of racism’ (Goldberg: pp.28). What Goldberg is arguing is that ‘the concept of race has served, and silently continues to serve, as a boundary constraint on the applicability of moral principle’ (Goldberg: pp.28).
What we can do to other people is limited by how we define ‘people’.
Gupta’s modernity revisited
Gupta believes that universal rights should be given to all members of society, and thereby disagrees with the fathers of modernity – as indeed most modern scientists do. There is no reason to pretend that modernity hasn’t evolved since the enlightenment era – of course it has. But what Harvey and goldberg are pointing to is that modernity’s universalism were always restricted to pertain to those who conformed to a set of ideals. Those who were deemed worthy of being a part of the nation state. Those who were deemed to be citizens.
Chatterjee shows that large sections of the formerly colonized world fall outside the category of ‘citizen’. Both in the west and the rest, many descendants of colonized peoples live in a state of liminal legality. In western cities the question usually hinges on the right to be in the country as such.
‘Illegal aliens’ do the dirty work in many western cities without being able to assert their universal right, which modernity supposedly has granted them, because they are not formally allowed to be in the country in the first place.
In the mega cities of the formerly colonized world, the question hinges not so much on citizenship as on whether individuals has the right to live where they live and ply their trade in the way they do. Here, we are faced with the curious dilemma that over half of the people living in the postcolonial city are ‘not quite legal’ , because the masterplan of the metropolis hasn’t been able to accommodate them.
Partha Chatterjee’s heterogenous space and time
Benedict Anderson says that the modern nation state functions on the principle of an empty homogenous time, which sets the members of the nation in a simultaneous time-frame.
This problematises the historicist notions that the ‘world’ is progressing uni-directionally towards a better, more modern future. It is also messes with the idea that everyone within the imagined community of India occupies the same empty, homogenous time. Instead, Chatterjee employs the concept of heterogenous time, where different times co-exist simultaneously.
Chatterjee’s critique of Benedict Anderson is mainly a critique of Anderson’s implicit universalism. Chatterjee critiques the concept of empty, homogenous time as being ‘utopian’ because his studies of the urban poor in India makes it impossible to think of India – and to his mind most of the postcolonial world – as existing within the same timeframe.
Chatterjee points towards ideas, practices, beliefs, technologies, and modes of production, which have their origin in a pre-modern society but happily exist side-by-side with so-called modern ditto.
One might of course argue that Anderson only writes that the members of the imagined community of the nation imagines themselves as existing within this simultaneous, homogenous timeframe, and that it might not necessarily be the case in a strictly logical sense.
The question then is if the different stratas of postcolonial societies imagine themselves as being part of the same community – and thereby timeframe?
If we take Anderson’s examples with the simultaneity of fictional characters, we might rightly ask if the illiterate labourers, who are digging up the streets of metropolitan India by hand, in order to put in fibre optics cables for internet connections, even encounter the same fictions as the it-workers who uses the internet? And do they read the same newspapers? Are they up-to-date in the same way? Do they watch the same TV?
‘…One India is straining at the leash. The other India is the leash.’ Amitabh Bachchan is perhaps India’s most popular actor. He is standing in Mumbai, the capital centre of India, on a great new building site, which is supposed to connect two parts of the city with a new expressway. It will make life easier for some of the 22mil people living in the city. The people who own cars.
One might ask, though, if the people who will never drive on this road, because they will never enter a motorised vehicle, which is not a rickshaw, really have the same interest at heart as the people who drive cars?
Is Bachchan trying to persuade poor people that they need flyovers? Is he telling them that they are holding the entire country back, if they think the city’s money could be spent otherwise?
The answer is of course ‘no’. The reason being that those people will never see this video, and if they do, they won’t understand the language spoken. Rather this video is meant for foreign investors and the English speaking part of the burgeoning middle class.
The video is interesting, if looked upon as a way of producing a collective vision for what India is supposed to become – and perhaps already is to some. I would invite you to think of the space portrayed there. A bridge far removed from any of the ‘slum’, which might otherwise encroach on the image of the ‘empty homogenous space of middle class India’.
Almost anywhere in India, a flyover becomes a makeshift shelter for homeless people even before it is built.
And as they collapse, there are often more people under it getting hurt than on it.
Looking at the video, we have to agree with Anderson that some sections of Indian society is struggling to imbibe India with a sense of a shared, homogenous time and space, free from the clamour of the parts of Indian society that doesn’t fit into this vision. On other hand we might also agree with Chatterjee that a heterogeneous perception of time and space might be efficacious, if we want to examine the part of India that doesn't fit the middle class' ideals.
What happens for instance if we exchange the images of western popular culture with images of the Indian transsexual Hijras, who live on the fringe of the Indian cities – often working as prostitutes because their taboo’d transgenderedness renders them completely marginalized?
Chatterjee’s critique of bound and unbound serialities.
Anderson argues that within the nation state – which rests on universalist ideas and thereby individual rights – markers of group identity (ethnicity, ‘race’, gender, language, class, etc.) need not become static (what Anderson terms ‘bound serialities’).
Chatterjee’s critique of Anderson is this: If you are a third-generation squatter or earn your living by an illegally erected stand, then your only way of getting rights is by legalising your status. In India, this can only be done by collective action. The mebers of castes, gender groups, unions, political associations join ranks in order to get recognition and in the process unbound serialities become bound.
To explain this concept, we might turn to Dipankar Gupta's concept of caste. He claims that caste identities are still strong. Reformulated in Anderson’s terms, caste is a ‘node’ that enters a ‘seriality’ consisting of other nodes (political affiliation, ethnicity, class, religion).
As Gupta claims that castes no longer completely determine the kind of work an individual can do, he claims (in Anderson’s terms) that the node of ‘caste’ doesn’t enter into a ‘bound seriality’ with the node of ‘job’.
By defining themselves as a moral group they gain the ear of the local electorates. They are not even considered citizens in the proper sense if they are only individuals. They must have some sort of voice as a community in order to assert their rights. Rights that supersede the normal laws of the society.
Chatterjee writes about how marginalized groups in Kolkata try to enter political society. What we see in the case of the slum dwellers in the railway colony is that they’re trying to petition different people in the local political set up to recognise their status as at least semi legal. Chatterjee notes that they cannot do so by referring to existing laws – as they are there illegally – and must therefore turn from the language of bureaucracy and legislation to the language of politics and empathy.
They gain these rights by pointing to the fact that they exist outside society, not out of choice but because society has made no provisions for them when they first came. That they had no legal way of joining, and dwelling in, the city.
Locust Stand 'I'
Chatterjee, Harvey & Goldberg vs. Gupta
Chatterjee asks, what happens to the universal ideals of modernity and the inclusive ideals of the nation state when such large numbers are excluded from its universalism? He is thereby updating Harvey and Goldberg’s critique of modernity and showing that the same kind of exclusion that happened at modernity’s birth is still happening now, in much the same way.
This is also supported by Arundhati Roy, whose narrative perspective gives an insight into how exclusion puts the individual in a vulnerable position of liminal legality.
Pirate modernity?
But as we move from what ‘modernity’ might mean conceptually to how it usually manifests itself, we find that the people inhabiting positions of liminal legality should perhaps be perceived not so much as being situated on the fringe of modern society, as at the center of alternative societies inside society.
As Chatterjee shows us, it is the poor inhabitants of more or less permanent ‘slums’, who build on land they do not own, who tap into the electricity net and official water pipes if they can, who build makeshift schools and hospitals and swear their allegiance to local slum-lords rather than the corrupt police.
If over half the inhabitants of the postcolonial mega-cities live lives that are in one way or another ‘not quite legal’, the sheer size of their numbers make them a formidable force to be reckoned with.
Consequently we see that what marks these societies are alternative modes of anything from public representation and law enforcement to informal infrastructure and habitation to illegal work and media cultures. It is what Delhi-based social scientist Ravi Sundaram has called Pirate Modernity. This mode of organization is characterized by proliferation. Inventiveness when breakdowns call for makeshift solutions on the spot.
But some of them are also the semi well-off producers of everything from pirated DVDs to fake Gucci bags. Their sweatshops and illegal computer-copy-shops constitute massive networks undermining the multinational economies of brand-based industries. And the people at the top of these networks tend to get quite rich, without ever leaving the so-called slums.
Furthermore they are also the people driving the cycle rickshaws, the door-to-door vendors and repairmen of everyday objects and recyclers of trash. In this way they also paradoxically provide the cities with an indispensable service, which it couldn’t do without.
This mentality can also be seen on official maps of the cities, where what look on the map like vast open spaces in the city have been occupied for the last 50 years by a ‘slums’. This urge to use maps to prescribe what ought to be in the city (rather than what actually is), has been called the ‘Masterplan’ of the city by Ravi Sundaram. He is referring both the actual maps made by architects and city planners in the 1950ies and 60ies, but also to the vision of the modernist city of steel, glass and air, where ‘dark spaces’ of pirate modernity does not exist.
The discourse of urban crisis and the masterplan
Often this part of postcolonial society is simply rendered invisible, as in the video of Bachchan, where all the inhabitants of Mumbai are made out to be fast moving social climbers who will one day own a car of their own.
But when public discourse does try to capture the ‘dark spaces’ of the city in words, it often uses a vocabulary of urban crisis. On the surface this sense of crisis stems from a concern ‘for the city’ but – as Sundaram points out – not apparently out of concern for all the inhabitants of the city. It is thereby hard sometimes to know if the concerned middle calls writing petitions to the courts or articles in English medium newspapers are in fact concerned about, say, ‘ the low standard of health in the slums of the city’ or what this does to the rest of the city.
Cycle rickshaws in Delhi – a semi-legal mode of transportation
A conservative estimate states that there are around 200-500.000 cycle rickshaws in Delhi today. The fact that the city’s traffic police cannot come the number any closer attests to their status as a ‘grey’ mode of transportation. Rickshaw-activists estimate that there are around 600.000. And if you count the people who are assembling, driving, maintaining and renting out rickshaws, as well as their dependants the number of people living of the cycle rickshaw economy could be as high as 5-6mil in a city of 14mil.
A couple of years ago, however, the government used a petition from the concerned middle class calling to ‘clean up the city’ to ban all rickshaws in the old part of the city. The reason was that the slow moving cycle rickshaws were disrupting the traffic, causing accidents, etc.
There is a truth in this. As the roads of Delhi has been widened to accommodate an increasing number of cars, the cycle lanes of the city’s streets have been converted into car lanes, forcing rickshaws to jump traffic lights in order not to be caught among speeding cars.
On the one hand, one might argue that cycles of any kind do not pollute, and are thereby better the city’s environment. The members of the middle class who calls for a ‘cleanup of the city’, however, paradoxically think of themselves as urban environmentalists of a sort.
The people who do not own cars, could of course walk, but many of Delhi’s sidewalks – especially in old part of the city – has been taken up by street vendors, whose stalls force pedestrians into the street. As it is usually the adult male of a family who drives the family’s car, motorcycle or scooter, it is usually women and children who has to make use of rickshaws in order to get from A to B.
What further complicates the picture is that pulling a cycle rickshaw is the one job that any unskilled migrant to the city can uphold. The car-owning middleclass thereby not only see the pre-modern cycle rickshaws as a remnant of an inefficient era, which now disrupts the swift commuting from job to home. They also see it as a symbol of the influx of a rural lower class into the city, making the ‘dark spaces’ grow rapidly.
The siege on the marginalized
As there are only 90.000 legal rickshaw licenses in Delhi and 600.000 rickshaws many rickshaw owners has established a system, where the local law enforcement is paid to look the other way. A system of codes are used – words painted on the rickshaws – in order to convey the message that a given rickshaw is ‘not quite legal’ (the owner has paid up) rather than ‘illegal’ (when the owner hasn’t paid).
The rickshaw economy thereby consists of not only the afore-said group of people living of them, but also the municipal officials, who are paid to look the other way. This means that rickshaw pullers are living in a constant siege, between a city that cannot do without them and cannot feed them in any other way and a system, who uses the fear of the ‘not quite legal’, uneducated rural migrants to pass a legislation that further impoverishes these people, without actually solving the problem.
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