Even Hope Has Strict Borders

It is easier to be united in outrage against a singular, spectacularly brutal act of violence than against the normalised, everyday violence of the state anywhere in the world.

Source: Twitter

Source: Twitter

Forward? We’ve tried that before:
Why not regress, quickly
And without stopovers?
~ Günter Grass, What we lack

It is easier to be united in outrage against a singular, spectacularly brutal act of violence than against the normalised, everyday violence of the state anywhere in the world.

The latter not only creates much less outrage than it should, but is often justified in the name of territorial morality. So everyone may unite against the terrorist attack in France, but opinions are divided when people talk, for instance, about Kashmir. There, people find space for taking sides. Though what connects both cases is the question of borders, of national boundaries, where all our values seem to rest and cancel everything else. Even hope today has strict borders, and beyond those borders, it as if hope does not exist.

A new tribalism

The inherent tribalism of civilisations made Walter Benjamin say in his famous Theses on the Philosophy of History that no document of civilisation is complete without its corresponding “document of barbarism”.

Scratch the surface of a civilisation and you will find petty historical sentiments and passions lurking, ready to pounce on you if you fiddle too much with it, or too deep. Modernity has fictionalised the terms of discourse by inventing nations. Nations are also fictions in the name of a larger community bound by what Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities called “print capitalism” among other cultural factors, including collective memory. Scratch the surface of individuals belonging to the so-called community of the nation and you will discover regional and religious sentiments spewing venom. The native today is as aggrieved and angry as the migrant. There are instances when natives have been forced to become migrants in their own country by the devious machinations of a particular community playing territorial politics.

The curse of the nationalist symptom that territorially others people spreads to all politically ambitious communities (even among those who challenge the nation’s discourse). The mini-nationalisms of anti-nationalist struggles are deeply ironical, to be understood symptomatically as pathological limits of the modern condition. Political disputes around the question of territory still lack a good ground for reconcilement. The native and the migrant (the majority and the minority, even two linguistic or religious communities belonging to the same place) don’t share the same values. On the other hand, the citizen – that privileged subject of liberal democracies – cannot claim a superior status against those it declares non-citizens (migrants, refugees).

The edifice of modernity that rests on moral and political ideas professed by the enlightenment and ratified by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as much as the invocation of constitutional morality as a point of closure, doesn’t solve all hostilities: Radical cultural differences and  historically embedded, social hierarchies. The other, being ignored in the political history of every civilisation, has lost its temper and is looking for revenge. The other is no longer waiting for recognition or, sometimes, even for your system of justice. The other is out to sever ties, to erase the self that created it.

Crisis of modernity

Words that behaved and carried meaning
Have turned their coats
~ Günter Grass, Dreaming Ahead

The rationalised myths of modernity are giving way. Modernity fictionalised our identities. We shared certain universal codes (and norms) of aesthetics and politics, holding shared values with others despite our differences. That shared bit is under question, if not already rejected. No one is willing to share anything with anyone anymore. The idea of universal consensus has been bulldozed by power. Salman Rushdie’s aesthetic phrase, “translated men” in Imaginary Homelands was perfect to describe our innovative cultural selves. Not any longer. Today it sounds like a beautiful but feeble attempt to gloss over people’s fundamentalist or racist predisposition. There is currently a refusal of the migrant and hybrid self that Rushdie championed in his novels. There is a growing myopia against translatability. A fascist campaign has managed to convince people that anything that does not divide is a lie.  It exposes a psyche and logic of war: In history, only hate is real; the rest is conspiracy. The politics of revenge carries a secret notebook of historical grievances.

Since none of the problems modernity threw up were getting solved or addressed honestly, some people have concluded that the best way out is to throw the baby with the bathwater – reject all modern norms and create your own: the older, tribal world of logic, power and community. Let us reinvent the herd and spit at the rascal called modernity. Modernity is evil for those who seek the luxuries of old hierarchies, prejudices, repressions. When we say those who kill in the name of religion are simply perverts who misuse the good name of religion, we push the real question of violence to the sphere of interpretation alone. Religious beliefs have sanctioned war and misogyny in history. Similarly, those who commit violence in the name of the nation are not simply those who interpret the nation wrongly. They also prove, as Rabindranath Tagore so clearly saw, the real, violent possibility written into the very idea of the nation. Buddhism is perhaps the only religion whose origins are nonviolent. But violence has been integral to the historical march of all religions. There are, however, shining instances in earlier eras of the other being accorded a pride of place in a religious culture and invited into deep scholastic and spiritual engagement.

Politics of death

In the stone pillars of Hampi one finds a Persian musician carved beside Hanuman and Hindu divinities. It corroborates the “astonishing inclusive capacity” of the ancient Indian culture Jawaharlal Nehru eulogised in The Discovery of India. Today if such pillars are built, the musician will never find place. In the famous stone chariot at Hampi, one finds the carvings of Chinese, Mongolian and Persian travellers. It shows the other history, the history which despite the history of war, was eloquently represented as part of one’s own civilisation. Today, a visit by a Sufi singer from across the border is cause for tension. The West has created national borders, both for itself and the people it colonised. We are all paying for that idea today. These borders, even as they are being virulently emphasised in majoritarian terms, are falling apart economically. Capitalism and jingoism are compatible as long as they serve big business. Terrorism has introduced a new complication into this paradox. There seems to be no way you can stop someone from becoming a terrorist. A terrorist, unlike the designs of the state, kills not in the name of power but death. This politics of death is a new conflict in modernity, which points sharp fingers at the excess of state violence in the last few decades.

Octavio Paz in One Earth, Four or Five Worlds said in the context of the late Ayatollah Khomeini that modernity must learn to speak to its other, “buried language”, which is at once archaic and modern. It is, according to Paz, the “language of a resurrection”. The sacrificial act of terror violently parodies that language and has to be seen as a bizarre symptom responding to modernity’s crimes. It cannot be rejected, wished away or contained by security webs alone, as repeated acts of terror prove. Modernity has been brutalising old, historical relations beyond redemption. Tagore had realised this when he spoke, in Nationalism in the West, on how the nation came in the way of spontaneous relationships: “We had known the hordes of Mughals and Pathans who invaded India, but… we had never known them as a nation. We loved and hated them as occasions arose; we fought for them and against them, talked with them in a language which was theirs as well as our own.” To reclaim that lively relationship in the midst of deep animosities may need us to remember what Benjamin said in One Way Street: The only way of knowing people “is to love them without hope”. This ethical Jewish ordeal sounds infinitely more worthy than the current tide of ruthlessly eliminating people. Hope is such a thing, if we give it up on others we give it up on ourselves.

Manash ‘Firaq’ Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.