Corona, Social Disruption and Academic Anxieties


Umar Nizar

umarThe Journal of Extreme Anthropology recently carried a study by an Indian academic on the forced movement of millions of migrant labourers and their families across the states, and mostly into the Gangetic Delta. The domain under consideration, for too long has been infected with the caste virus. The author of the journal article ironically also happens to be an expert on 'post-humanism'. 'Can the subaltern speak?' asks Spivak, but the real question seems to be, 'can the bourgeois listen ?' Will the third world academic community refrain from caricaturing the sufferings of millions of their fellow humans? The exigencies of academic production seem to have subordinated basic decency.

 The fact that caste has been deemed a benign, and less 'extreme' case of anthropological aberration by the publishers of the 'extreme' journal is open to debate. Hierarchical subjugation has pathologized billions of Indians across the ages. Today, the disruption of mainstream society and the possibilities for new forms of cohesion and dynamism that it offered must be put up for analysis.

The pandemic has driven humanity to such a liminal state, that today the entire mass of humanity has been rendered subaltern, with all its agential valences and voids. It seems superfluous to speak of identities in times of such a crisis of colossal proportions. Globally, 'social distancing' has been the keyword. Active social distancing with accompanying ostracization has historically been all too familiar to the caste elite. Thwarting of subaltern solidarities is the basis on which the hierarchical edifice is built upon. The subaltern are thus seeking new modes of survival, in times of planetary crisis. New possibilities, new humanities and subjectivities are developing.

'Dalit Love' is a concept used by the Harvard scholar Suraj Yengde in his magisterial magnum opus, Caste Matters'. Love occurs as a mode of survival in situations of extreme subjugation and abjection that the subaltern in India-women, Dalits and minorities included-are all too familiar with. Thus the social disruption caused by the pandemic has also created the possibility for the precipitation of subaltern solidarities and love. The 'subaltern sublime,' in this case, has been rendered uncanny and 'extreme' with innuendos of possible violence and instigations to anarchy.

'Extreme' anthropology practised in the third world elite spaces of Indian academia, consign such an unfathomable abyss of human existence into a rather too simplistic dichotomy between 'proletarian zombies' and 'aristocratic vampires'-terminology familiar to a student clientele weaned on Harry Potter and phantasmagoria. Their being is denied. The breathing, sweating mass of humanity is relegated to inhuman status. There is a contrast to found with other philosophers of calamity.

Whereas someone like the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben might speak from the radical perspective of European enlightenment humanism, the elitist Indian academia are concerned more with the disruptive potential of what they see as a veritable sea of household helps, a swarm of 'Chottus' and 'Munnis' who are no longer washing their clothes/driving their cars /wiping their floors, but are heading back home, on foot. It was the East German dramatist Bertold Brecht who said 'what is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a new one?'. Similarly, what is the present abnormalized catastrophe compared to the ongoing abominable normalized one?

Being wretched, neglected, ignored and forcibly evicted has been the normal state of existence for millions of subaltern and working class Indians. Curiously, this liminal status has rendered the system functional. The industry of neo-liberal capitalism functions thanks to them. But once that machine grinds to a halt, they are consigned to the outside of their inhabited margins, into the abyss of non-existence. They are deemed worthy of only wandering off into the oblivion, but not in groups. But that moment of supreme caste indifference, also is the moment of solidarizing across group identities. Thus the unforeseen catastrophe of the pandemic, while neutering the elite, gave the subaltern its greatest moment of self-realization. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, says that ''it is only in such extreme situations that an authentic intersubjective community, held together by solidarity can emerge'. Such solidarities are precious for they are essential for forging future paradigms of mutual survival and coexistence.

The ethical conundrum that the pandemic places before us is enormous and here, humanity has mostly been found wanting. 'Society' has retreated. It has retreated from the realm of anthropology, into that of philosophy. It no longer is an objective fact, but a matter for speculation. Politics has been reduced to 'policy'. History, in its comeback, has made epochal interventions in a matter of a few months. The dystopian aura that has enveloped the workers, is diametrically opposite to the orgiastic glee of the Netflix-watching, Kraft-beer slugging middle class elite with their sudden exposure to a global reality that has been a long time coming.

In the so-called 'free world' the shutdown of the social machine has not followed the oriental paradigm of absolute zero mobility. China and South Korea have achieved a certain degree of control over the pandemic owing to authoritarian solutions. The worst of both worlds have been melded, synthesized into one single catastrophic policy whole. The right wing dispensation at the helm in the US, the leader of the 'free-world' is patting itself on the back for having managed to stave off allegations of 'extreme' mismanagement and sectarianism and inhumanity in times of crisis. The orient has been authoritarian but efficient in its handling of the disease. The western states, the 'free-world' on its part remained sloppy in the face of a colossal medical emergency but has kept up appearances of liberal ethos and capitalist sovereignty in the face of humongous challenges. An unfortunate combination of the two - sloppy yet authoritarian - in the handling of the situation would prove counterproductive.

The elites have withdrawn into their cocoons of productivity. The Real issues have to be somehow kept at bay. An increase in academic activity, that of publishing in Scopus indexed journals, is a symptom of the wider malice. Žižek would call this the 'oriental sublime,' since it offers a useless solution to a real problem. Hanging out with Bear Gryllis on TV, a la mode is on the other hand, the possibly useful solution to an unreal situation. In the handling of the pandemic, these two proclivities have synthesised in the backdrop of suspension of social interaction. We have useless solutions (writing articles, this one included), to an unreal situation.



Umar Nizar is a Research Scholar in JNU. His poems have been published in the Ibex Press Year's Best Selection, Vayavya, MuseIndia, Culture Cafe journal of the British Library, and also broadcast by the All India Radio.