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The Game of Pursuit, Or the Chowkidar-Chor Narrative

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अत्तुं वाञ्छति शांभवो गणपतेराखुं क्षुधार्तः फणी
तं च क्रौंचरिपो: शिखी गिरिसुतासिंहोऽपि नागाशनम्।
इत्थं यत्र परिग्रहस्य घटना शंभोरपि स्याद्गृहे
तत्रान्यस्य कथं न भावि जगतो यस्मात्स्वरूपं हि तत्॥

“The snake on the body of Siva, oppressed with hunger, wishes to eat Ganapati’s mouse; him (the snake) Kartikeya’s peacock wishes to devour; while Parvati’s lion (her vehicle) desires to make a meal of the elephant (mouthed Ganapati-mistaken for an elephant): when such is the constitution of Siva’s household even, how can such a state of things be not found in the rest of the world, since such is but the nature of the world?”

Thus Panchatantra takes the game of pursuit as “the nature of the world” and teaches the strategies and tactics to survive and win in the fields of commerce, state affairs and everyday life. If that was true of the ancient centuries of Indian history, what can we say of our own conjuncture. Our daily lives are proof of this, and so is our politics. But Panchatantra’s time had a solace that the plans or evil intentions did not often succeed, and hence the world continued to exist:

सर्पाणां च खलानां च परद्रव्यापहारिणाम् ।
अभिप्राया न सिध्यन्ति तेनेदं वर्तते जगत् ॥

But today there is no escape. We are all chowkidars (security guards), and, therefore, are chors (thieves) – of course, relatively.

I

Games People Play

The chowkidar-chor narrative is an opportunistic discursive instrument to impress upon the public to garner votes. But why does it have an appeal? Because, it is the folklore (katha) of our times, an articulation of our prevailing common sense, as Gramsci would put. It is so organic that it can be called infantile. Why not, even a child finds a voice in this dialectical narrative. Isn’t it the same game of chor-police that children play, where every child knows that the chor and the police are floating signifiers?

This narrative resonates with the psyche of our times. And thus, instead of simply condemning it we must take it as a symptom of the sickness that afflicts our social body or more correctly, a sign of its (un)healthiness. It is only by accessing the materiality of our social body through a critical understanding of such narratives, that we can access the healthy sections of our social body whose nourishment is our only hope. In other words, this narrative is a key to unlock “the healthy nucleus that exists in ‘common sense’”(Gramsci). Its analysis and critical retelling can trigger a much wanted alienation effect in this hyper-immediate responsive world by providing space-time to objectively understand ourselves – the nature of our world. Only thus can emerge the good sense, and the critical sense. It can be a parable for meditations and to develop mediations to grasp the material element of immediate consciousness and spontaneous philosophies of our times.

The lore reveals the stark nature of the neoliberal conjuncture – a near universal feeling of being hunted, and a universal aspiration of becoming a hunter. This game of pursuit-evasion is at the heart of the political and cultural milieu of our conjuncture. Everybody tries to put herself in a position of the pursuer but must evade other pursuers-evaders. “When such is the constitution of Siva’s household even, how can such a state of things be not found in the rest of the world, since such is but the nature of the world?” She can make sense of her existential crisis through such narratives, and learn to live with it. But then, even to transcend this crisis, its understanding is needed, for which what is the better beginning than these narratives themselves – the expressions of this crisis.

More than any institution and organization, it is this narrative that captures and productivises the anxieties of the (post)modern man. An institution lacks the plasticity that an empty narrative or metaphor like this has. The latter can homogenise all experiences by providing them a minimal, but universal form – it adjusts itself to any situation, while an institution must chisel the experiences to fit them.

II

The Neoliberal State

As a parable, the chowkidar-chor narrative further reveals in a condensed form two sequential and defining characteristics of the (post) modern state that has emerged throughout the globe – especially with the recent right-wing assertions. Firstly, it reveals the nature of the neoliberal state in its bare form – the state’s reduction to chowkidari. And, secondly, its gradual disembodiment and dispersal. Besides the chowkidar (an agent of the state) everybody is a potential chor. Thus, everybody seeks to become a chowkidar. Hence, the agency of the state expands. The state universalizes itself by dissolving itself into every individual. We are the state unto ourselves and others.

So, capital attains the dissolution of the state, while communists are still fighting over statist or anti-statist paths. However, this dissolution is attained by universalization of the state. You will never be able to pinpoint the presence of the state, but it is always present in every nook and corner of our being. It is present through our anxieties and alertness, and their institutionalisation. A globally extended and internally-intended lean (re)produced state is a post-fordist state based on self-and-peer surveillance.

Following Michael Taussig (The Magic of the State, 1997), we can perhaps assert that the state’s presence expands with its disembodiment. The spirit of the state, freed from any particular form, potentially can possess every form. That’s the Magic of the State in the age of Finance and Information. The state, as a node of capitalist accumulation and regulation, seeps into every societal relationship universally equalising them. They all find their universal articulation in the minimalist relationship of the hunter and the hunted, of the chowkidar and the chor.

III

Internal Relations

न विना पार्थिवो भृत्यैर्न भृत्याः पार्थिवं विना ।
तेषां च व्यवहारोऽयं परस्परनिबन्धनः ॥
अरैः सन्धार्यते नाभिर्नाभौ चाराः प्रतिष्ठिताः ।
स्वामिसेवकयोरेवं वृत्तिचक्रं प्रवर्तते ॥

According to our ancient wisdom, certain relationships are like that of a nave and spokes in a wheel. अरैः सन्धार्यते नाभिर्नाभौ चाराः प्रतिष्ठिताः. “The nave is supported by the spokes and the spokes are planted into the nave.” The nave and the spokes are mutually dependent. This dependence is not external, but तेषां च व्यवहारोऽयं परस्परनिबन्धनम्॥. They are in the relationship of mutual constitutivity. Panchatantra thus explains the nature of the master-slave dialectic. Similar is the relationship between a chowkidar (security guard) and a chor (thief), they constitute one another. Both identities are meaningful only in their relationship. So a chowkidar is himself only in relation to a chor, and a chor in relation to a chowkidar. Hence, the chowkidar must have a chor to pose himself as a chowkidar.

Even if the wheel of relationship turns, which frequently does, the only change will be that the chor will slide to the spokes and become a chowkidar, and the chowkidar will try to cling to the nave and become a chor. Moreover, as the wheel runs infinitely faster in the age of information and as the time-span for completing a cycle becomes smaller, who knows better than our head chowkidar, the chowkidar and the chor become identical.

IV

Chinese Wisdom

The positive opposition in the cycle is caught up in its grammar and its continuity. It can never transcend the binary from within the narrative. The criticism must destroy the enclosures of the narrative freeing the flow of the negative from the chains of positive productivism. The circularity of power can be ruptured only by first recognising its foundation. The great Chinese sage, Lao Tsu provides a hint:

Thirty spokes will converge
In the hub of a wheel;
But the use of the cart
Will depend on the part
Of the hub that is void.

It is in the emptiness and void of the hub that the reason for the nave, spokes and the wheel is found.

With a wall all around
A clay bowl is molded;
But the use of the bowl
Will depend on the part
Of the bowl that is void.

It is only in that void that the rationale for the existence of a clay bowl resides.

Cut out windows and doors
In the house as you build;
But the use of the house
Will depend on the space
In the walls that is void.

It is the space enclosed by windows, doors and concrete walls that gives meaning to enclosures.

So advantage is had
From whatever is there;
But usefulness rises
From whatever is not.

It is this “whatever is not” that must be grasped to unravel the closed circularity of power, which seeks to absorb the negative therein, to positivise and productivise it, enclose it within the dualism of closed circularity.

[Note: Texts and Translations from Panchatantra have been taken from MR Kale (1912), Pancatantra of Visnusarman, Delhi: MLBD. (Reprint 2015) There are variations both in original texts and interpretations in various published versions of Panchatantra, but the narratival tenor and ideas are more-or-less same.]

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Written by Pratyush Chandra

April 20, 2019 at 1:32 pm

Political militancy and the question of literature

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I am no literary scholar. I have neither the qualification nor the inclination to be one. Therefore, I wouldn’t know – and can’t say – how a literary scholar ought to go about his/her business of engaging with literature. However, I can probably talk about what an aspiring militant seeking to engage with the literary can and ought to do.

The question before such an individual cannot be how the literary can serve the political – or, for that matter, how the political can serve the literary. The question, instead, must be; can one approach the literary and the political as two paradigmatic conditions of the singularities of literature and politics, and constellate them as those generic singularities. Politics, as opposed to the political, and literature, as opposed to the literary, is precisely about such constellating of generic singularities. [Here one must be clear that politics and literature as generic singularities, even as they are informed in their determinate instantiations by the particularites of their respective paradigmatic conditions, of the political and the literary, are irreducible to those conditions. The paradigmatic particularity and the singularity whose instantiation it informs are in an asymmetrical dialectic.]

In other words, an aspiring militant is faithful to his aspiration only when he seeks to equally engage with the literary and the political by struggling against – that is, criticising both theoretically and practically – the pushing of the political into the literary and vice-versa. For such an individual, it can never be about the ‘enchantment’ of poetry against the ‘disenchanted’ arrogance of critical theory, or vice-versa. It’s not even about being even-handed with regard to this binary so that some sort of reconciliation, either additive or aggregative, can be effected between the two, and the binary as the distributive structuring of differences can exist by striking a balance (a golden mean as it were). Rather, an aspiring militant must approach critical theory and poetry as two determinate anthropological-passional registers, and two determinate historical indices, of thinking in its affective (and thus impersonal) singularity. Thinking — we would do well to remember here a la both Heidegger, and Badiou’s Platonist matheme — is that which has not yet been thought and which perpetually resists thought.

So, if it is not the normativity of logos (political philosophy, critical theory) over the literary, it cannot be the poem-as-difference either. For a radical critique of the logos — which is the force-field of identities and within which the subjective experience of difference that is the poem is already always subsumed, thereby articulating the poem as an objective identity (difference-as-identity) – what is required is concept of the impossibility of conceptualisation (logos).

In other words, we need to rearticulate logos as difference in its limit. This is what the matheme, thanks to Badiou’s radical reinterpretation of Plato, amounts to. And that is the reason why I personally prefer the matheme, over Heidgger’s “poetic-thinking”, as a rigorous explication of thinking as the presentation of the void of thought. [It is on account of its rigour that the matheme enables an anticipative-prefigurative articulation of future-directedness, which is much more powerful and radical than what Heidegger’s “poetic-thinking” affords.]

Therefore, both literature and politics as generic singularities are instantiations of that singular affectivity of thinking in its indivisibility. It must be mentioned here that they are generic singularities only in their tendency to mutually constellate with one another as the uninterrupted process of singularisation (Badiou’s “singular-multiple”).

Unfortunately, there are far too many people – including both terrorists of the political, and terrorists of the literary — who miss this only to unreflexively indulge in such stupid and pointless instrumentalism from one end or the other. The former in the name of some kind of romanticised radical political valour, and the latter in the name of the enchantment of poetry and suchlike. And then, of course, there are those middlemen, even more stupid, who have made it their lifework to effect a reconciliation between the two instrumentalist modes so that the binary can continue to perpetuate itself even as their privileged position as oh-so-balanced and oh-so-ecumenical scholars is preserved and reinforced within the system that is this binary.

These middlemen can often be seen neurotically holding forth on the enchantment of poetry for the benefit of those who are engaged in politics, and on the valour of the movemental for the benefit of those who are engaged in literature. Such propensities, needless to say, are animated by the objective reality of capitalist modernity, which is a horizon constitutive of mutually competing particularities seeking to accomplish their sovereignty through such competition.

It ought to have become clear by now, I assume, that I’m distinguishing singularity from sovereignty, which is the particular seeking to institute the universality of its own particularity. Therefore, an aspiring militant who seeks to engage with literature can be faithful to both his aspiration and his engagement only if his activity is informed by the following conception: there can only be singularity, no sovereignty. Or, if, following Georges Bataille, he does decide to affirm sovereignty then he must carefully attend to the conceptual valency of sovereignty in Bataille’s thinking, and discourse, of “transgression” “radical evil” and the “general economy” of expenditure (as opposed to what Bataille calls the “restricted economy” of production and accumulation). If he does that he will see that, for Bataille, singularity is the only sovereignty that can be affirmed.

The affirmation of literature (together with politics) as a generic singularity, if situated rigorously in that context, is not an “art-for-art’s-sake” kind of argument. Not at all. Instead, what such affirmation amounts to is literature is so autonomous, or singular, that it’s not even for itself, to say nothing of being for the political. The autonomy of literature that a militant engaging with literature must affirm — if he’s to be truly committed to his literary engagement, and thereby to his militancy — is not the sovereignty-seeking aestheticised particularity of literature, but literature as the “inaesthetic” (Badiou) evental-process of singularisation in the determinate paradigmatic condition of the literary.

It, therefore, follows that to think the singularity of literature, or, for that matter, the singularity of politics, is to necessarily think them in their respective limits. To not do that would hypostatise the eventality of the singular with the paradigmatic condition, wherein it is determinately instantiated. That would amount to politics as the revolution of the event turning into counter-revolutionary antipolitics of evental revisionism.

Politics then is nothing else save the actualisation/actuality of this mode of thinking singularities in their respective limits. More importantly, it’s such thinking in action. In such circumstances, the only radical possibility before militant politics, as far as literature is concerned, is to demonstrate and reveal, not politics in literature but politics of literature. That is, not the demonstration of what literature says about politics, but the demonstration of politics in what literature in being literature is. More precisely, the politics of literature is literature being the revelation of the formal economy it is as literature.

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