modernity and postcolonial violence 3
Analytic attitude, dissent and the boundaries of the self
Looking for me
For us, who deal with human subjectivities, there is a more serious development in the wake of the crisis in modernity. The visions that presumed that individuality should provide the basic unit of social analysis and psychological intervention are themselves under severe stress. With individualism increasingly taking quasi-pathological forms, strengthening individuality no longer looks like a foolproof recipe for health. A few years ago, I was told that in large apartment complexes in some Scandinavian cities, electronic devices were fitted in the toilets of lonely, elderly people. If a toilet was not flushed for a long stretch of time, the janitor came and broke into the apartment to check if the householder was alive. This was a response to instances of lonely senior citizens, deprived of community life, dying in their flats and the neighbours finding out only after the bodies began to decompose and smell. This is individualism taken to its logical conclusion. It is my suspicion that all theories of consciousness — and unconsciousness — will have to learn to look at the individual from a different point of view.
We do not have to give up the concept of individualism. We have seen what reified, overdone concepts of aggregates — such as race, class, nationality and ethnicity — can do. In the last century, mostly deriving sanction from deified or demonised concepts of groups, we killed 200 million of our fellow human beings. Their ghosts haunt all contemporary ideas of collectivity. I suggest that we re-examine individualism in societies where, in the name of individualism, certain basic dimensions of individuality have themselves been subverted. For most practical purposes, individualism has been reinterpreted as self-interest and consumer ism. The Internet now threatens to reinterpret it as solipsism. The advertisement-driven individual ism associated with consumer choice would have frightened even Sigmund Freud, whose individualism always had a Shakespearean dimension.
I once tried to calculate the number of shades of lipsticks on the world market. Within a short time, I arrived at a figure that ran into thousands. It is doubtful if the human retina is physiologically capable of registering that many shades of colour. I presume the width of this choice is partly bogus; it creates an illusion of wider choice than there actually is. It would have been a perfectly innocent illusion if the total cosmetics bill of American women had not over-stripped the total budgets of all the African countries taken together. For the moment, I am ignoring the quarter of a million animals sacrificed every year in US laboratories alone for scientific experiments, a significant proportion of them conducted for the cosmetics industry. This is not a plea to abridge choice across the board; it is a plea to recognise that certain forms of absurd multiplication of choices can have psychosocial costs and can be considered puerile. I am merely taking seriously the activist-scholar R.L. Kumar’s proposition that the rhetoric of wider choice often hides the fact that in modern societies, an individual is increasing ly left with only three substantive choices: to be a tourist, a voter or a consumer. Other choices are usually either secondary or illusory. I am inviting you to extend to the favourite slogans of our times what Philip Rieff considers the heart of the Freudian enterprise, the analytic attitude.
The very idea of the disenchantment of the world, so closely associated with the idea of demystification, is itself reaching the end of its tether. The world is getting so thoroughly secularised that the idea of a fully secular world has ceased to be an attractive dream, except to those still living in the nineteenth century. Two factors have contributed to the growing scepticism towards secularism. First, there is the growing environmental crisis, which to many seems intertwined with the secularisation of the cosmos and the desacralisation of nature and nonhuman life forms. If nothing is transcendent or sacred, the final word on social morality becomes the aphorism of John Maynard Keynes, who crucially shaped some of the major economic institutions with which we live: "In the long run we are all dead." If that is so, in a fully secularised, fully individualistic world, there is no reason why we should leave anything behind for the future. Certainly, institutions structured around self-interest, rationality and hard realism have even less reason to do so. A conventional wit, W.C. Fields puts it more directly and honestly: "Why should I think about the future? What has the future done for me?"
That is why many of the social formations that look like rebellions against secularism turn out to be, on closer scrutiny, the offspring of secularisation. Disoriented by a changing world, they desperately seek meaning in the packaged versions of faith vended by charlatans, gurus and bloodthirsty religious fanatics. I have been studying ethnic and religious violence during the last two decades. One of the most remarkable features of such violence, I find, is the element of secularisation that has crept into it. Religious fanaticism now has little to do with faith, tradition or community. It is a product of uprooting, breakdown of community ties and weakening of faith. Thus, expatriate Indians in the First World reportedly financed — almost entirely — the Ram Janmabhoomi movement that demolished the Babri mosque in India in 1992 and triggered countrywide violence. Likewise, expatriate Tamils have largely bankrolled Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka and the IRA has consistently received funding during the last seven decades from Irish Americans. It was almost as if individuals, feeling increasingly deracinated and uprooted, have taken up causes to battle their own sense of loss of tradition and community ties, and to create what Hannah Arendt used to call pseudo-communities.
If this explanation looks too facile, there is the fact that in all of South Asia, communal riots are becoming a kind of expertise, even a profession. You can organise ethnic or communal violence anytime you like, provided someone gives you enough cash and political protection. You can order a designer riot to bring down a regime or change voting patterns or advance the cause of a political faction. The activists are known, so are their fees and their political patrons. The leaders who deploy these activists are also increasingly blatant about their profession. Organised religious and ethnic violence itself has become one of the most secular spheres of our public life. That is why Mr L.K. Advani, the leader of what many consider the world’s biggest revivalist formation, the BJP Hindu nationalist forces in India, the man who headed the movement that led to the demolition of the Babri mosque, could openly say in an interview with The Times of India, a national newspaper, that he is not much of a believer. As for his own religious sentiments, he added for good measure, he feels closer to Sikhism than to Hinduism.
Advani is no exception. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the RSS, the steel frame of Hindu nationalism, was established in 1925. It supposedly has a million members now. Many of them are believers. Yet, for most of its existence and throughout all its formative years, the RSS has not had as its head persons who could be called believers. The first time the RSS chose a believing Hindu as its head was when M.S. Golwalkar took over in 1940. The earlier leaders were not diffident non-believers; they openly flaunted their disbelief, often trying to show how scientifically minded they were by attacking Hindu rituals and idolatry. They believed that they were fighting for the political cause of the Hindus, not defending Hindu religious traditions. Thus V.D. Savarkar, who coined the term Hindutva and authored what has become the Bible of Hindu revivalism, Hindutva, declares himself an atheist in the same book. Evidently, the violent and venomous furies of religious fanaticism are not always associated with theories of transcendence in our time. They have been direct products of the modern, secular world and the time has come for us to re-examine such fanaticism as the pathology of a modern ideology rather than that of a faith.
At the end, very briefly, I offer two theoretical proposals that might serve as possible baselines for reconceptualising forms of contemporary subjectivity, especially as they are reflected in the idea of individuality. I choose them because both are indirectly relevant to theories of the healthy personality and psychotherapeutic practice.
First, healthy, normal individualism is also possible when the boundaries of the self are not as sharply demarcated in terms of belief, faith or identity, categories that the moderns feel comfortable with. Our deepening cross-cultural experiences demand that we redefine health to accommodate a different concept of the boundaries of the self. Let me give two examples, one of them my favourite. I can confidently predict that there will never be religious conflict between the Shintos and the Buddhists in Japan, for the simple reason that a huge majority of the Japanese are Shintos and a huge majority of them are Buddhists. A similar prediction can be made about the Confucians and the Buddhists in China. Whereas in a country like India, where a periodic modern, scientific census has been conducted since colonial times, the percentages of different religious communities are so meticulously calculated that they always add up to exactly 100 per cent. The Hindus constitute 82.0 per cent of India, the Muslims 12.1 per cent, the Christians 2.3 per cent, the Sikhs 1.9 per cent, and so on.
Yet, when the Indian Anthropological Survey did a comprehensive survey in the early 1990s, not of individuals but of communities, it discovered that roughly 15 per cent of the 2,800 communities studied had more than one faith. That does not only mean that these communities consist of people from different faiths; it also means that the communities include individuals who can be classified as belonging to more than one faith. This is not new for us. I have mentioned Japan and China. Even Christianity and Islam — faiths that have shed enormous volumes of blood to deter mine the fate of Jerusalem over the last two millennia — evidently have other incarnations in the tropics. The Indian survey mentions 116 communities that are simultaneously Christian and Hindu, 94 that follow both Christianity and the various ‘tribal religions’, and 35 that are Hindu and Muslim. Seventeen communities are followers of three religions simultaneously — 11 can be classified as Hindu, Muslim and Sikh, six as Hindu, Muslim and Christian. A colleague of mine has studied the Meos, one of the largest Muslim communities in northern India. They are devoutly Muslim, but also trace their origins to the Mahabharata clans. They have their own Mahabharata that they perform ritually. Even now, some elderly Meos have both Hindu and Muslim names, the way a huge majority of the Indonesians do.
Ashis Nandy, political psychologist and social theorist, is Senior Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi