Autumn Number 2019

Lessons Learned

Complicity, Citizens and Violence

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Two lessons learned. I repeat them yet again. The first is acknowledgement of complicity in order to forge a more workable practice. To get there the binary opposition between Socialist and liberal democracy must be undone. These are labels that make acknowledgment of complicity impossible. The binary opposition between constitution-citizenship as working with representative democracyon the one hand and workers' council-Soviet system working with direct democracy on the other,is another divider still hanging around. All of this must be rethought. We must rethink the difference between the citizen and the proletariat, the state and the party; education on the one hand and vanguardism leading to class consciousness on the other; right from the start. We must be able to actively imagine (not just say) that the two sides are folded together. Otherwise there is no lasting change.

Subalternity is not generalisable. Subalternity is ungeneralisable because different diachronies are made synchronic and the language of subalternity is not standard. The subalterns are small social groups on the fringes of history. They are not there as cultural collectibles for foreigners. They are voters. The structure of citizenship gives something like generalisability. Democracy, supposedly accessible to all registered citizens, does not function only on clean elections. Democracy does not function on money raised for campaigning. Democracy does not function without an educated electorate. Education, not just information. Information alone is for the middle class on above. Education in interpreting information. Education not just for income-production, for that sort of education alone feeds the natural greed that feeds the Anthropocene. The poor become complicit with the rich who victimize them.

If the first lesson is learning to acknowledge complicity in order to move forward; the second one is educating children to habituate them to the double binds of democracy: class struggle without competition and what AbiolaIrele has masterfully called "followership:" leaders follow; gender preference coexistent with equalism. And more.

The deep background: Family is complicit with rape, emotional "loyalty" with bribe. This one is hard to learn, but Sophocles knew. "O marriages, marriages, you put us in nature, and putting us back again, reversed the seed, and indexed fathers, brothers, children," laments Oedipus, self-blinded for sleeping with his mother,"kin-blood mingled, brides, women, mothers, a shameful thing to know among the works of man" (Sophocles, Oedipus the King).

My translation is as literal as possible, to show that Oedipus reproaches marriage for the inscription of human kinship, which then makes incestpossi-ble. Sophocles against myth as destiny.

The complicity between religion and secularism is also hard to follow. For the subaltern, institutional religion is the only access to the public sphere. Religion encourages separation from the self. This requires imagination. The imagination has no stability. The human being, naturally selfish and greedy, moves to the security of belief. Once there,"the public sphere" shrinks to "my faith," and uses fear, the other basic human affect, which leads to violence against other religious groups. Mechanical secularism "privatizes" religion. Rather should it learn to see how it is folded up with religion. There will be a small event in 2020 celebrating the brilliant work of my friend Talal Asad. I am preparing myself to explain the complicity between religion and secularism for the occasion. Here suffice it to say that, for holding such views, that religion is folded together with secularism, I have been called a "fundamentalist" by eminent intellectuals.

The idea of complicity or folded-togetherness came to me more crudely earlier. The perception nibbled at my consciousness that colonial subjects like myself were the children of rape by the colonial "civilizing mission," and I found the phrase "enabling violation," which did not become as popular as "strategic essentialism," because it calls for the acknowledgement of complicity as the life of resistance. I found literary representations of this in Mahasweta Devi's Mary Oraon, in Buchi Emecheta's Princess Ayoko. Representations of the general structure are there in Europa and the Bull, Leda and the Swan, the Annunciation, the legends of the conception of Buddha, Ramakrishna and no doubt countless other prophetic figures; in Emecheta's Nnu Ego, in the life of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, in the constitution of the teaching community of Christianised subalterns at my school.

A word about Vidyasagar, since he is such a monumental figure. His life, as written (as no more than a sequence of events and health reports mingled with praise) by his younger brother, started while he was still alive, taught me what complicity and affirmative sabotage looked like in full colonialism (Shambhu Chandra Bidyaratna and Ishan Chandra Bandyopadhyay, Bidyasagar Jibancharit).

With hindsight, we arrogate recognisable anti-imperialist sentiment to such figures and their associates. And yet we know that in order affirmatively to sabotage the method learned from the enemy so it worked against itself, one must learn how to say "yes, yes" to the enemy. And Vidyasagar did certainly learn, in order to instru-mentalise preservation and revival from within. A child of the impoverished rural gentry, hovering near poverty by the play of gendered custom and the incursion of colonial ground rent, his abject life as a student in nineteenth century Calcutta to receive a Sanskrit education is fascinating in its detail. Once this exceptionally talented young man was called to Fort Williams College, he joined as to a promotion, and was employed by the British Government to instruct incoming members of the imperial civil service in Bengali and Sanskrit. To use that relationship of trust to reverse policy suggestion and preserve Sanskrit education is indeed an example of affirmative sabotage. Vidyasagar did not simply "oppose" Macaulay. Accepting the possibility of that harsh judgment, he wrote a primer of the Bengali language that far outstrips current efforts, and modern grammars of the Sanskrit language. He spent his last years surrounded by Santals, altogether embittered by the results of class-mobility in his group of social origin.

The new Khilafat, Kashmir, withdrawal of citizenship from Muslims, separation of children from parents,the genocidal repatriation of Rohingyas—the list goes on. Everywhere violence and the problem of citizenship. As I said above, we should learn to undo the tired binary opposition between citizen and proletariat. Faced with our progressively disastrous world, most bourgeois ideologues like ourselves do what they can: write op-eds, sign petitions, give talks outside of the academy to persuade, but nothing brings about significant policy change. And I, myself do of course follow my second lesson: continuing research work trying to solve an intellectual problem: is it possible to insert, through teaching and training community-based teachers and supervisors, the children of the very poor, the largest sector of the electorate, into the intuitions of democracy? But nothing changes. Greed leads to greed, religion breeds violence, and rape and bribe continue.

We live in a time of increasing executive power, democracy giving way to absolutism. Of late, I keep reminding myself that the only time Marx wrote on something that happened just 30 years before his birth—the French Revolution—he said that it led to an increase in executive power ("The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte"). And in the same piece he said that the revolution of the 19th century would take its content from the poetry of the future. I am a literary critic, I have tried to justify Marx's remark in "Jukti o Kalpanashakti," forthcoming in a collection edited by Anil Acharya. I imagine also a complicity between the literary (I have explained elsewhere why I cannot use the historically limited word "literature") and the ethico-political. Perhaps it's just the ideology of my profession, but I know that for us to learn to read the literary is to train the imagination to will social justice. So, in this brief piece, I end with a list of some literary representations of enabling violation, and therefore complicity. The Rape of Shavi by the Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta is indeed an allegory of enabling violation. Emecheta racialises gender-in-colonialism and has Ayoko "learn" from her pregnancy-from-rape (think the South African writer J M Coetzee's Lucy in Disgrace who also learns a history-specific lesson—that the former colonizers in a settler colony must now learn to live with nothing). Ayoko learns that her mothers are wrong about the necessity of clitoridectomy, for the white rapist has impregnated her before she is cut. In this complicity, she undoes Clytemnestra's mere oppositional spirit in the ancient Greek tragedy Agamemnon, by cutting through the net that incapacitates the man. (Clytemnestra had captured her husband Agamemnon under a net and left him to die, for having sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia.) Unlike the Greek goddess Athena, Emecheta's Ayoko does not punish the women for putting the man under the net. That is the letter of the law as authority. Emecheta's fiction stages an experience of the impossible: the possibility of justice through an acknowledgement of complicity (Aeschylus, Agamemnon, Buchi Emecheta, Rape of Shavi and The Joys of Motherhood; and Mahasweta Devi, "Mary Oraon").

Toni Morrison is recently dead and in tribute to her I will say that the most extraordinary example of enabling violation and complicity is, as I have often said, to be found in her novel Beloved. Sethe is her protagonist, and Sweet Home the slave labor camp (politely called "plantation") run by the white master Mr. Garner:

Sethe was thirteen when she came to Sweet Home and already iron-eyed. She was a timely present for Mrs. Garner who had lost Baby Suggs to her husband's high principles. The five Sweet Home men looked at the new girl and decided to let her be. They were young and so sick with the absence of women they had taken to calves. Yet they let the iron-eyed girl be, so she could choose in spite of the fact that each one would have beaten the others to mush to have her. It took her a year to choose—a long, tough year of thrashing on pallets eaten up with dreams of her. A year of yearning, when rape seemed the solitary gift of life. The restraint they had exercised possible only because they were Sweet Home men—the ones Mr. Garner bragged about while other farmers shook their heads in warning at the phrase.

This is Toni Morrison, representing complicity with the good slavemaster Mr. Garner in teaching the slaves to withhold justified rape!

Complicit withholding of rape, sustained by education against mere belief, that is all we can hope for. It is a great deal, for all laws fail otherwise.

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Autumn Number 2019
Vol. 52, No. 13 - 16, Sep 29 - October 26, 2019