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Interview: Soumyabrata Choudhury on Our Capacity for Philosophy, Protests and Isolation

What is philosophy but the creation of new forms and concepts, and how does it matter whether this creation occurs in a classroom or on the cold winter streets of New Delhi?

For many of those who, like me, have the unfortunate and somewhat self-indulgent habit of reading philosophy, the proposition that the 20th century saw the birth of a strange and new thesis called the ‘end of philosophy’ would not be something entirely unheard of. If for the greatest philosophers of that century the question was ‘is philosophy possible?’, for us perhaps the question today is ‘are we capable of it?’

Soumyabrata Choudhury’s new book Now It’s Come to Distances: Notes on Shaheen Bagh and Coronavirus, Association and Isolation answers the latter question with an absolute and unconditional affirmation. For Choudhury, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the protesters at Shaheen Bagh showed us that we are capable of creating new forms of association and new modes of politics. What is philosophy but this creation of new forms and concepts, and how does it matter whether this creation occurs in a classroom or on the cold winter streets of New Delhi?

Yet this same year, which began with the doggedly relentless enthusiasm of the protesters at Shaheen Bagh, also saw the onset of a global pandemic which quite justifiably had all of us locked down for many months. It is at this moment, when the whole world is confronted with the brute fact of human mortality, that Choudhury in his book writes about ‘immortals’. What follows is my conversation with Choudhury on his new book, which ranges from Shaheen Bagh and the pandemic to the migrant worker crisis, caste and social distancing, the ritual nature of citizenship and even the relation of theatre to the plague.

2020 has quite certainly been a vastly perplexing year for all of us. It would be erroneous for me to claim that Choudhury’s book has all the answers. What can be said, however, is that it has all the right questions.

The conversation below has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Your first book Theatre, Number, Event was a theoretical work. Your second book Ambedkar and Other Immortals was on a singular figure, and part of something you called an ‘untouchable research programme’. This third book, Now It’s Come to Distances is however styled as ‘Notes’.

This book is purely a conjunctural effect. That conjuncture has many historical structures, but its overwhelming immediacy is that of the virus. The effect of the viral assault is something which goes beyond any kind of spatial reference whether that be the university, the family, the city, and even the nation, because it is a global assault. That’s why we call it a pandemic. This book is an effect out of that. To that extent this book is neither a strategic project nor is it a very specifically and concretely positioned project. Here it is actually something which happens in literally in the void, what I call the impasse. An impasse which is not a university impasse, not a city impasse, or a national impasse, it is an impasse as such. You can take it at the largest level, you can call it global, world impasse, or you can take it at the existential level, which is the impasse of every human being in her concrete situation. There can be no strategy to this book by definition as it is written literally in an impasse.

Soumyabrata Choudhury
Now It’s Come To Distances: Notes on Coronavirus and Shaheen Bagh, Association and Isolation
Navayana, 2020

It is not simply an impasse of “Oh we can’t go out, we can’t do our usual routine things”. I think more significantly it is an impasse of not having the adequate concept for the situation. Then for someone who is a so-called professional of knowledge, I think it is both a challenge and of some interest, that the so-called resources are now suddenly useless. But you experience it not in the abstraction of just a failure of knowledge. You experience it like any other human being, which is existentially.

Even as I felt this crisis, there was something in my situation resisting this kind of a pure impasse. A certain moment, of a specific kind of emergency a fortnight before the viral assault hit us. And that was the conjuncture of politics. For which the name and the continuing reality of Shaheen Bagh, (even when this crisis hit us and we were existentially immediately locked in this impasse) was already liberating us from it, by making this impasse already something which was problematic, making it inconsistent.

 My second question is with regard to your unique concept of ‘immortal’. This is a concept that you have in a sense constructed. I find that with this you are trying to address an ancient but vital philosophical problem, which Plato called methexis or participation- where one asks how the realm of eternal ideas can even interact with empirical reality. You’re saying that there is a kind of truth to Shaheen Bagh, to what is happening there, while other people would look and say this is just an empirical collection of people sitting on a road. You see a truth there, you call this the ‘immortal of justice’.

On the one side truth here is something which is purely objective, given to us through analytical modes of knowing. But by definition historical situations are always in passage. They are passing. So can you have a subject of truth then? Because if the subject of truth is always something which is permanent, then the notion of subject also loses its meaning. If something is permanent, then it is an object, it is only something which can from the outside judged to be true by a subject. Again it is a question of knowledge then, not of something which is a part of the experience of truth. Truth can then only be known, not experienced. Or rather there can be no experience that gives you truth. Hence every truth, if it is permanent, cannot have any subject and hence the question of an immortal doesn’t arise.

But here what we are talking about is the paradox of a historical intensity. Something in the present, something which is living history. And you can talk about it in terms of the immortal (and you are absolutely right there) only if you construct it. Only if you name it as immortal. There is thus a third move to be made, apart from the obvious ones of the object out there and then someone who is simply the natural, empirical support of that experience. Some people are in Shaheen Bagh protesting, in that sense they are the empirical natural support of the idea of Shaheen Bagh. But for this you now need a third gesture, which is that of the gesture of construction. Which is the construction of a concept, the construction of a name immortal. Quite right, quite right, I absolutely endorse that. But this very construction is not outside the configuration that is coming alive in the situation, in that particular context. Even in the construction of the immortal, there is a logic of implication. When one speaks of the immortal one is also in the present in which the immortal is someone you’re encountering. But it is also not something which you can collapse back into a kind of self-identical ethnographic subject, that you say the immortal is someone who radiates that immortality or manifests that immortality. That would make it mystical, that would be essentialising.

Also read: Book Excerpt: ‘We, the People’, Citizenship and Historical Constitution

When one speaks of Shaheen Bagh, one speaks of it very concretely as being an assembly of those subjectified by the laws which they were protesting. But those subjectified by the law were also refusing that subjectivity, so that refusal has to be already an opening up of the situation. So Shaheen Bagh is not simply the purity of the spatial emblem but it is already, within that space, a temporal opening up. And hence spatially also Shaheen Bagh can close off today but it can move into some other space. Because spaces are always contingent if you want mortal signs. But immortality is a construction, a kind of truth, a gamble that something will be thinkable at the very level of what is going on. What is going on will pass but what is thinkable will always be henceforth a new threshold, a new truth as a resource not for the ones who are part of this protest or this struggle, but for anyone. For anyone. So this idea of anyone which I owe to Alain Badiou and his theatre director friend Antoine Vitez is something which I like very much. To anyone. So yes, this is the movement that I was trying to bring out.

In your book you categorically assert that “the truth of our universal history today is a truth of class- and hardly anyone dares speak it”. In the same chapter you also discuss what you call the “global shudrafication of work”. Is there a kind of globalisation of caste? And can this in some way be related to the supposedly universal category of class?

What is happening in India is something which one must concretely analyse. But on the larger global stage the contradictions that have exploded in front of us are definitely the contradictions of class. I don’t think there is any mystery about that. I haven’t said anything new, everyone knows this. But we don’t say it because it entails opposing a global system to which we don’t seem to have any credible or any sustainable political alternative at least in our political imaginations. So when we say class then we have to then speak about capitalism as producing class society and class exploitation. The moment you say that, a political entailment is that you think of a politics which both questions class society but also thinks of the strategies for revolutionising it. That revolutionary imagination is by and large if not totally absent, extremely weakened today. All I did was just say it, what seems to me to be obvious: here is class society. It was always there, but right now it exploded in front of us.

Capitalism of course is also a very devious game just like caste is in a different way. It is a very devious game because it invents new strategies to capitalise those very things that oppose it. One of the major debates is whether caste and class can be thought of at the same level. Indeed they can’t. They belong to very different temporal and structural forms of thinking. But at the same time the genius of capitalism is that it doesn’t simply dissolve all old relationships and forge completely new ones. In that sense capitalism would indeed be revolutionary. But actually it is always counterrevolution in the guise of revolution. It capitalises the most terrible reactionary elements of society as it finds them. So in this case I have tried to analyse capitalism on a global scale in terms of the development of what could be called a service capitalism, or a capitalism of services.

Here I add a particular angle of vision into how things are developing which I call global shudrafication. Insofar as I think of the structures of services in the service industry on a global scale as not just a way of producing profits through new forms of enterprise but also to create new forms of subjective control. These modes of creating subjective control actually find in something like the notion of shudra an extremely pliable and useful set of tools from an archaic temporal plane given in Manusmriti.

The key law of that archaic temporality as it is articulating itself with contemporary capitalism is the law of the shudra as service without resentment. So you have on the one hand service as something which is an economic category and on the other hand a subjective parameter for producing your economic services without resentment. That is, you are both making the person serve and also producing the kind of person the service provider is to become. In caste society it is done as a matter of violent, archaic legal imposition; that this is what you have to become because this is the law and if you don’t then we will have to put you the most terrible violent punishment. This is a punitive category. With capitalism of course it enters into other kinds of circuits, which are circuits of subjectivation through incentivisation, through new forms of affective and psychic colonisation.

In that sense service is something which is a cipher, a kind of key, of producing an ideology of life itself. Service is a way of living life to produce a kind of life, a kind of circle which I find to be really being mobilised for contemporary capitalism, which I call global shudrafication. But this is not something that has suddenly come to reveal itself during the pandemic, it has been a long tendency of the last 20-25 years of capitalism.

Contemporary Indian scholarship on caste has in some ways foregrounded an anthropological perspective on the question of caste, that is as social practice, in a way relegating to the sidelines Ambedkar’s own critique of its ritual logic. You however seek to mobilise this critique of ritual logic. Is there a kind of contradiction between these two approaches?

This is not a difficult one to answer. This distinction between social practice and text is answered by Ambedkar himself. He in Castes in India makes very clear religious texts are not the genesis of caste. What they do is provide certain discursive reflections and consolidations and also certain historical thresholds, a kind of historical ledge upon which caste is placed. But it is true that caste is practised, always practised. It is not possible to find an origin of caste in the sense of something which literally flows from a text, or organically grows from a text whether that be Rig-ved or anything else. Phule didn’t say that, Ambedkar didn’t say that. The relation between text and practice is always dialectical. It is because there is certain practice that a text is produced to consolidate and kind of systematise it, and because there is a text it is repeated. Now it is anthropologically interesting that this repetition in society gains a particular kind of ritual rhythmicity, a kind of ritual disciplinarisation, that takes place through precisely anthropological practises.

Soumyabrata Choudhury. Photo: Navayana website

Now no one is claiming that people read the Manusmriti to then practice the law of the shudra. But the very fact that Manusmriti is a text with no jurisprudence, a text precisely to be enacted in repetition, means that the repetition existed even before Manusmriti was written. So I mean Manusmriti is a consolidation of repetition. There was already ritual, and Manusmriti becomes a kind of particular kind of threshold, a kind of ledge on which to perch this repetition. And then it carries on, through oral memories, through families, and there are many displacements there. I don’t think this is an objection at all to Ambedkar or any understanding of caste as having very strong and at the same time only discursive grid points, transition points in text. Not any kind of absolute origin, that is out of the question.

Also read: Is India Still Searching for Ambedkar?

I actually conduct a kind of anthropology of modern political ritual, what I call ritual citizenship, which is an anthropology of modern political enunciation. When a prime minister keeps making a certain enunciation it is a tremendous anthropological gesture, but at the same time with equally gripping political results. Anthropology and politics are intertwined with each other in our historical experience, absolutely. I don’t think this kind of static distinction between text and practice is of much use or much interest.

In your book Ambedkar and Other Immortals you make a decision to use the word ‘philosophy’ rather than ‘cultural studies’, ‘postcolonial studies’ or ‘history of ideas’. Now almost all major Western philosophers have argued for a deep connection between philosophy and Europe- Heidegger, Husserl, Badiou, Deleuze and so on. You, in this book use the term ‘Impossible Europe’. Is this your way of displacing philosophy while at the same time not denying its connection with Europe?

I’m glad you noticed that. In my first book I say ‘philosophy, only philosophy’. Whether I answer to the name philosopher or not is something which I don’t really want to talk about, because that’s a different question. But I do not particularly subscribe to philosophy as something which is sub-divisible into something which is philosophy of this or philosophy of that discipline. In the university this is something that happens quite frequently. This is okay. This will always be there of course as part of a certain distribution of disciplinary obligations, but this is not what I have ever been drawn to. Either philosophy can be rejected in the name of it being a colonial inheritance but then a lot of those who feel that Europe has a monopoly over philosophy speak exactly in a kind of competitive disciplinarisation. They speak of philosophy as a kind of discipline which has its own Indian origins, its own Indian syllabus, its Indian philosophical masters. But that is competitive and it becomes a kind of mimetic rivalry with the European image. This becomes a bit self-defeating.

The other option of rejecting philosophy is far more interesting and courageous. But within the university that gesture is performed more from prejudice, when people find philosophy to be more abstract, or too much of an indulgence with exotic words. That anti-philosophical rejection is more affirmative when practised by people from outside the university, by activists, by artists, by writers. They would say that philosophy is actually something which blocks the full scope of how our minds, even politics is more creative than philosophy would allow. These are some of the positions that could be schematised as response to philosophy in the negative sense.

I of course do not subscribe to any of these positions. On the contrary I say philosophy and only philosophy. I affirm the singular name philosophy. If it is singular, then its singularity can only be invented through new philosophical figures and names. But the new is a very difficult thing to work with. Michel Foucault once said that it is very difficult to say anything new. Yet the new is always a threshold which transforms the possibilities of our living histories. Even if we are not consciously able to conceptualise them, we are able to invent new forms of thinking and new gestures of life. This threshold of the new, which is neither conceptualisable nor abstract, which is something real, is what I call the impossible. So the impossible is what makes us do what we do. This is my point. The impossible is not what we can’t do. It is the other way round.

When we do something new, when we produce something new, when we say something new, it is the impossible that makes it possible, paradoxically. So philosophy is something which should neither be abandoned nor recreated in a kind of mimetic image of the so called colonial adversary. Philosophy should be a chance, an opportunity to create a singular newness, but to do that one must ask this question: what is the real impossible experience, that threshold, that impasse within which we have to make even a little bit of a breach? The impossible is the real labour of thought, a real gamble of new conceptual names one creates. Which are intra-philosophical: they should not be seen as something like methodological tools or conceptual tools which have to be added to some sort of accumulation of concepts. That would only be scholarly intemperance.

Instead of that, all intra-philosophical newness should be experienced as philosophy, only philosophy. But precisely because they are experienced as new, philosophy’s name would always oscillate between a known name and an unknown impossible that makes every newness possible. So the known name which I take as my concrete historical point of departure to make the encounter with the real possible in this particular situation (because I speak of impossible European in the chapter on the migrant crisis), I take the name Europe as the historical name, and I take the impossible to be what has happened with the question of what I call desire in the history of migratory movements, in the history of displacement of people from one place to another place.

Also read: Ambedkar, Gandhi and the Rise of Subcontinental Philosophy

Economic ideology, economic dogma, from the 19th century and more so now, wants to reduce the possibility of change to a) an individualistic kind of ideology of contentment or satisfaction, consumer satisfaction, and b) make it a function of something like a spatial, a kind of spatial drive to reach (it is there in the American dream) unknown lands, unknown resources. It’s a search for new resources. The new is reduced in economic dogma to resources. Then enterprise becomes the search for new natural resources, under the earth, in the sky, on other planets. The impossible becomes something which is a technological impossibility. What is technologically impossible today, can tomorrow become technologically possible. But I do not mean impossible like that. I mean impossible in the strictly philosophical sense: can change itself be thought without these extrinsic determinants (more resources, more satisfaction, more consumer satisfaction, more trains, more cities)? Can change be thought as such, in itself, without these measurable quantitative and external determinants? Again, this might sounds like change is something in spiritual terms, change is something which bypasses material determinants and actually looks at something inwards. But suppose one does not accept either of these two proposals, and thinks of change politically, what would that mean?

This is what I call the wager of the impossible as different from mere acts of transgression, the mere breaking of the rules of the game where we do something which is not impossible but the impermissible which is merely something which is not permitted. Instead of that we think of the impossible as something affirmative. What is that? Here Shaheen Bagh can actually give us a very lucid and beautiful answer. And after Shaheen Bagh the Black Lives Matter movement in America offers such an option. Which is that when a very specific subject, a Muslim, a black, a woman, even a worker, a farmer, whoever, produces  a certain existential and at the same time collective moment which is full of courage, a kind of experimental physical reality of a new assembly at a new place, in a new kind of dynamic collective, a refiguration of ordinary habits, new dispositions, new bodies as it were, when this happens then is something being attempted outside of that very newness? Does it mean that all of this is just a strategy to reach somewhere else, or that in this very production there is a question being asked, not just between those people who are part of Shaheen Bagh or Black Lives Matter, but a question that is addressed to anyone. Again I return to this figure of speech which Antoine Vitez and Alain Badiou made such good use of, to anyone. And what is that question?

At a universal level does the question of what it is to come together and think together about something like collective happiness, something like collective desire, or something like desire as such concern you? Do you participate in the question ‘what is politics?’ This is not answered by “politics is this, politics is that, politics is to reach a good society, or politics is to make possible something like a distributive system”. Politics is actually the ongoing subjective possibility of asking that very question of others. ‘What is politics’: to extend the question itself, to make the question a possible question for anyone.

Ordinarily this question is understood as based on interests. In that sense desire is reduced to interests. So Shaheen Bagh can easily be reduced to the question of citizenship: include as citizens, retain us within the included list of citizens. I’m not saying that’s not part of the demands, part of the tremendous risks that are taking people to jails and putting them in the worst kind of confinements. On the contrary, that is very much the plank on which these collective moves were made and risks were taken. But what I am saying is that all of this is not the act of coming together of some good or essential citizens. The coming together is that of a people who are anyone, who could not, need not be part of Shaheen Bagh, who need not even be part of the Indian political scenario. People who have in that very moment, when it is impossible to think of anything which is beyond the interests of a particular section of society, made it possible to think of something which is universally imaginable, or something which becomes a project of collective creation.

And I give the name desire to that collective creation. That is brought back in the book to a very concrete analysis of migration. This very large political or philosophical proposal on politics, a speculative proposal on politics, is brought back to the concrete instance of migration. Migrants are not even a political assembly, migrants are not doing anything which is in the nature of Shaheen Bagh, migrants are thought of as an accidental kind of swarm. In that sense migrants would be thought of the very antithesis of a thinking of desire. So migrants would be thought of as closest to the image of the virus itself, as a swarm. You can’t think of the virus as figures of desire. Or, you reduce migrants to that economic-entrepreneurial theory of essentially searching for the good life, for the economically successful life in which there are risks of precarity of course. If I’m not to do either of these things, then the challenge today is to think the migrant not as a migrant merely but as part of the politics which becomes possible to imagine in the very impossibility of what is happening to the migrants in a class society. So in other words, migrants seen as both as being proletarianised and yet deprived of their old political name of proletariat. On that threshold I kind of stop for after all from the very first page I have been saying I do not pretend to go beyond the impasse, I only traverse it. So this is the experience of the impasse all over again.

What do we do about this new normal, this impasse we are in?

What is this new normal? The new normal, when everything is going to pieces, it is being said that this is the only world we belong to. This is the only world. There is no other world to aspire to. No other world to fight for, no other world to, you know, take the risk of politics.

So exactly at the level of this crisis, reconfirm the world, reconfirm your belonging, your loyalty, your enslavement to this world. Now if you can enslave yourself to this world while it is going to pieces, then everything is assured to the power of this world of capitalism, of market society. The new normal is nothing but that. What are the pundits of new normal saying? Every moment they are saying, you know, we will take care of all this. Digitally, through economic schemes, new kinds of educational changes. But don’t you dare say you don’t belong to this world. This is the only world there is to belong to. Don’t speak of another world.

Now what is interesting is that while hardly anyone speaks of another world, apart from a very dreamy way (to that extent we do belong to an age of universal pessimism), yet like I said there are also absolutely uncompromising, absolutely localised rejections of the world as it is. States have generally the same strategy all over, and this happened during Occupy Wall Street, the state would say you don’t like this, give us an alternative. The state and powers in government know that hardly any alternative can be offered by anybody, including the greatest philosopher or greatest inventors of possibilities. The moment there is no possibility to offer as an alternative, the state would very nicely say “Oh there’s nothing, so you see we have to go ahead and do what we do, that’s our work”. But the point is that while all this is happening on the one side, the rejection, the unconditional rejections also keep happening. These are not growing any less. The unconditional rejection of the world as it is, is being affirmed here and now, in absolutely localised ways, including in India. So that’s the point I start from, and in the present situation that’s the point where I am, because like I said it is an impasse, I can’t move from here.

That’s a wonderful way to end this interview. We are at an impasse, but it is important to traverse it, because there are always possibilities springing from this very traversal and repetition. Right now in Delhi it is December again and there are new assemblies. The people are once again assembled.

New assemblies, taking place all the time. Absolutely, yes. Absolutely.

Huzaifa Omair Siddiqi is a PhD candidate at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.