24 November 2007

More on Nationalist Politics

It's quite amusing to stumble on to this only days after writing the last post. It illustrates the point I was trying to make about how a majoritarian nationalist rhetoric does not serve the concerns of underprivileged sections of society. I'm quoting in length Ania Loomba's Colonialism/Postcolonialism where she's dealing with an extract from a story by Mahasweta Devi:
"In a moving story 'Shishu' (Children), the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi describes how tribal peoples have literally and figuratively crippled in post-independence India. National ‘development’ has no space for tribal culture or beliefs, and the attitude of even the well-meaning government officer Mr. Singh, towards the tribal people replicates colonialist views of non-Western peoples- to him, they are mysterious, superstitious, uncivilised, backward. In other words they are like children who need to be brought in line with the rest of the country…At the chilling climax of the tale, we are brought face to face with these ‘children’ who thrust their starved bodies towards Mr. Singh, forcing the officer to recognise that they are not children at all but adult citizens of free India:
Fear - stark, unreasoning, naked fear - gripped him....Why were they naked? And why such long hair? Children, he had always heard of children, but how come that one had white hair? Why did the women - no, no, girls - have dangling, withered breasts? ... They cackled with savage and revengeful glee. Cackiling, they ran around him. they rubbed their organs against him and told him they were adult citizens of India. ... Singh's shadow covered their bodies. And the shadow brought the realisation home to him. They hated his height of five feet and nine inches. They hated the normal growth of their body. His normalcy was a crime they could not forgive. Singh's cerebral cells tried to register the logical explanation bt he failed to utter a single word. Why, why this revenge? He was just an ordinary Indian. He didn't have the stature of a healthy Russian, Canadian or American. He did not eat food that supplied enough calories for a human body. The World Health Organisation said that it was a crime to deny the human body of the right number of calories. ..."

4 comments:

Mike said...

Sorry for the belatedness of this comment--I've been meaning to say something for a while (but, you know, exams and papers and such intervene)!

What really hits home in the excerpt from Devi with respect to what you were saying with nationalist politics here and in your previous post is the phrase "The World Health Organisation said...". The registering in Singh's brain cells only seems to take place when he is able to go outside the scene he is actually in (where the children are touching him), even when Loomba is emphasizing that in this scene we get a sort of literalness to the metaphor of the child reinstated. In other words, Loomba is saying that Singh here is realizing the true import of his ideas of the tribal by seeing them and being touched by them--but precisely in this touch he has to go to the WHO for the registering of it. While this may seem to be a little more cynical reading of the scene than Loomba gives (Singh can't even recognize what is going on in his recognizing) it isn't really, because it points to the fact that this misrecognition is structured rigorously by the tendency of the nationalist (Singh) to look to "international" organizations that, while they facilitate extremely important work, ultimately are internationalist in the sense that they support only an aggregate of totalized, coherent nation-states. That is, they are not international in the sense that they divide up nations so that internationalism comes *before* nationalism, so that people are citizens of the world before they are citizens. This is leading me back to a speech Gayatri Spivak gave in 1995 (and in a sense still continues to give, in all of her later writings), where she criticizes the UN:

The United Nations is based on the unacknowledged assumption that 'the rest of the world' is unable to govern itself. In fact, of course, no state is able to govern itself, in different ways. And, in the current conjuncture, the role of the state is less and less important. Therefore it is necessary to show, as lavishly as possible, global national unity.

In Devi's story, I think the nationalist uses this "showing," this image of an international organization propped up by nations and unifying them, precisely when his nationalism is challenged by the people who touch him. This I guess just shows how complicated Devi is as a writer, and how frustrated she can rightly be about this situation. This semester I've been taking a class with Spivak, and she has all sorts of stories that illustrate her tenaciousness that are quite incredible! Anyway, this is all just to say that what you wrote is very provocative...

metaphysicallycomplicit said...

I would have replied sooner but I’ve been away of sorts and quite preoccupied with things. I’m sorry.

Internationalism (or inter-nation-alism) presupposes the concept of a nation and can therefore be equally oppressive. This is quite similar I think to what you’re saying through Spivak about international bodies like the UN.

But that also works differently from what you’re saying here: “The registering in Singh's brain cells only seems to take place when he is able to go outside the scene he is actually in.” Singh as a ‘nationalist’, government official and part of an oppressive dominant social body does not have to go outside to make sense of the scene through what the WHO says, he is in fact informed by such rhetoric. This is much the same way as a nation would be informed by the same western colonial discourse that it is trying to overthrow. And just as the condition of the tribal communities escapes Singh (until the denouement) it escapes the national welfare organisations, and in turn escapes international welfare organisations.

By the way, it’s rather freaky though that you should mention Spivak now or choose to comment on Mahasweta Devi. My classes on Spivak begin in around a week’s time and I only recently got my hands on a collection of stories by Mahasweta Devi!

Mike said...

Hmmm... there's a lot to think about here... What you're describing, it seems, is the fact regarding how an intellectual--as Gramsci would say--would react to the subaltern. Or what the difference is between being a bureaucrat and an intellectual... this would be the position of Singh somewhat... I'll have to think more...

And sorry for freaking you out! I found out at the last minute she'd be here this semester and so signed up! The class is on WEB Du Bois and Gramsci, which is just awesome: I bring it up because I am going to type up my notes as the thing goes on, and you seemed interested in Gramsci from your posts, so if you wanted them I could give them to you if it would be helpful! Anyway, back to thinking more about what you said...

metaphysicallycomplicit said...

Du Bois I've not come across during course work but Gramsci - very much so. I studied it as part of a unit on Marxist lit theory. I'm very curious to see what someone like Spivak does with it. I'd be delighted if you could mail them...if it's not too much trouble that is!