April 24, 2016

Everything is Bourgeois

Jacques Ranciere places an absolute faith in the human spirit in the book The Philosopher and His Poor [2004 (1983)]. The dead weight of capital’s attack does not warrant a complete erosion or erasure of the same, he argues. In the corpus of Marx’s work, we find, and Ranciere shows us that the worker emerges as an empty subject, a kind of anti-subject. A dead soul. Someone who is too tired to think, to speak, to feel even. The preserve of art and philosophy is protected from his tainting shadow. Capital progresses by stamping out possibilities of subjecthood of the worker. And the philosopher rises above the founding violence of capital.

Ranciere, on the other hand, says ‘everything is bourgeois’. The horizon of humanness is available to everyone. A philosophical and aesthetic register exists in everyone’s life. The worker especially. Marx’s emphasis on two kinds of subjects on either side of the class divide is at best a crude one, says Ranciere. My joy at reading this book is immense. And yet, my question, as a humanistic anthropologist, is how do we find ways to read and interpret this register of subjectivity? Are we Othering the worker in asking about his separate cosmology? Is this akin to Ranajit Guha’s iteration of ‘autonomous consciousness’? Aman Sethi (2011) and Katherine Boo (2012) find horizons of ethical, aesthetic and political being among the proletariat in ethnography - that heartens our anxiety on the question of the interiority of the worker. They have it too – freedom desire etc., we now know. But my question is – are we using known categories of knowing and being to ask of the aesthetic, ethical and spiritual life of someone whose horizon is completely different. Is Ranciere pandering to our metropolitan guilt? He seeks to liberate philosophy of its current shackles. He says (p.128):

A world of generalized production, of a philosophy furloughed, released from duty. It no longer ahs to stand guard since now there is a new guardian, represented on stage in front of the chimneys on the painted backdrop, but active above all in the wings above to keep the stage itself in good operation: the worker-machinist. Philosophy can enjoy the new form of its leisure; it no longer has any hills to climb, suns to contemplate, or souls to educate. It sings the democracy of productive bodies.

My question for JR is what if it is not an alternate philosophical sensibility that they have, but an alternate to philosophy? Something that has not featured in our vocabulary, something that we do not know that we do not have?

April 16, 2016

Words Words Words

I have been thinking about texts and the charisma they hold in people’s lives. Especially lettered people. Unlettered ones also. But the modern priestly class – historians, literary people, lawyers, academics. I hear the words ‘stay close to the text’, ‘pay close attention to the text’. Texts are in the category of objects. Perhaps they are creatures of a sort. Or are they shadows? I don’t mean ‘text’ in the grand Derridean sense. I mean texts in common parlance. Books. Paper. Graffiti. Why is it that I communicate better on email than in person? Why are we feverishly producing text over morning chai as tweets and status updates? How does one explain the obsession over words – written words? Written on a qwerty keyboard or a smartphone. Look around you and you will see the sky and ground are saturated with writing. Seducing you. Cajoling you. Read. Read. What does it mean to occupy public space without exercising one’s alphabet-intelligence?

A text offers an illusion of certainty. Some version of truth emerges through a text. A billboard declares that happiness will come through mutual fund investment. A tattoo declares that she will love you forever. A text message reveals a hint of sexual enthusiasm. A poem is a failed attempt at building a bridge between creator and interpreter. The creator forever recedes into the horizon. The poem swims in the middle-abyss. And dissolves into word-dreams. Or word-nightmares. As you will. I wonder at the pundit class and their faith in texts – constitution, Koran, Foucault, Upanishads, New York Times. I am growing tired of a wordy world.