To judge from its first decade, the twenty-first century is no less violent than the twentieth, a century often described as the most violent in recorded history. There is, however, one crucial difference. In the midst of all the violence of the last century — from the genocides of the Herero (1904) and the Armenians (1915); through the Great Terror in the Soviet Union (1937–38), the rape of Nanjing (1937), the Holocaust, Hiroshima, apartheid, India’s partition, Colombia’s La Violencia, Indonesia’s annihilation of the Left (1965), the famines of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge terror (1975–79); and on into the Iran-Iraq war, ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and civil wars of every conceivable type in Africa (Congo, Nigeria, and Ethiopia) — the philosophical meditations on and literary representations of violence were, by and large, composed and discussed with remarkable authority and detachment.
While attending to reflections on revolutionary violence from Georges Sorel to Frantz Fanon (at least Jean-Paul Sartre’s Fanon), one is not exposed to deep cognitive anxieties or moral hesitations. Anger, outrage, and iron-clad dialectic quell doubts. The task ahead, what is to be done, seems clear enough. Theories of violence that achieve their explanatory force by locating it in something so basic as instinct (Sigmund Freud), rationality (Michel Foucault), or rituals of solidarity (René Girard) seem amazingly well composed as their authors interrogate and discipline the dreaded objects of their inquiry. Foucault’s riveting description in Discipline and Punish of the quartering of Robert-François Damiens, the failed regicide, before the main gates of the Church of Paris on March 2, 1757, is a paradigm case of how the modern mind is prone to master the savage objects. Similarly, the sociohistorical accounts of violence by Max Weber, Hannah Arendt, and Pierre Bourdieu, along with the literary-cultural readings of violence by Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Georges Bataille, command our attention through their daring perspicuity rather than through numbing perplexity in the face of catastrophic violence. Consider the certitude embedded in the following phrases and statements: “the banality of evil” (Arendt); the state’s alleged “monopoly over the legitimate use of violence” (Weber); “to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” (Adorno); and the near-obsessive postmodern reiteration of Friedrich Nietzsche’s saying “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”
These phrases and statements have long held us captive, not so much because of the force of their truth (empirical or normative) as because of their aphoristic form, the glimmering insights couched in their rhetoric of authority. What is painful today is not that they are suddenly disconfirmed and falsified but that their light is fading and the shadow of our doubts is lengthening. We now live amid eroding aphorisms, amid traditions of wisdom in ruins. Along with wisdom, we have lost the confidence and self-assurance to interpret, understand, and judge violence, both mundane and spectacular. This collection of essays signals that eroding confidence and sense of loss.
Three essays in the first section engage violence, speaking to the difficulties of understanding and living with the violence of war, crime, and disease, respectively. Nouri Gana’s essay on contemporary Arabic poetry engages Adorno’s dictum frontally insofar as poetry unfolds in the shadow of the Palestinian Nakba (1948), the proximate historical analogue to the Holocaust, and in that of the subsequent Arab defeats, dispossessions, and humiliations leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Through those dark decades, life goes on, violence does not abate, suffering does not cease, and yet Arab poets (Niz?r Qabb?n?, Mahmoud Darwish, Adonis, and many others) continue to write poetry. They write insistently, especially about the impossibility of writing poetry. For them, this is no paradox but a fact of doubled life. So much has happened since Auschwitz — victims becoming killers and reversing those positions again as the genocidal turnstile moves ever so quickly, with no season for healing — that it is increasingly difficult to mark the Holocaust as distinctive and to arrest the lyric impulse once and for all. To know all there is to know about Adorno, Jacques Derrida, and the impossibility of poetry in dark times, after the last sky, and yet to write poetry, as Adonis and Darwish do, not naively, not obliquely, not burdened with reflexivity, but presently, here and now, despite the memories of loss and exile, to forge a tomorrow — such is the destiny of contemporary Arabic poetry and its gift to all, as Gana would have us understand.
Kevin Lewis O’Neill’s essay on the growing practice of “gang ministry” in massively overcrowded and violent Central American prisons, especially in Guatemala, opens with a consciously Foucauldian gesture: an account of the behead beheading of “Gustavo,” a Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang member, by members of the rival 18th Street Gang on his transfer to a different maximum security prison. While Pastor Morales, who had been tending to Gustavo’s soul by inculcating the Christian virtue of self-esteem, failed to abort the transfer and save Gustavo’s life, he and other prison chaplains are still the only ones in a position to mediate between opposing gangs and also between the gangs and an indifferent, corrupt prison administration. Unlike Foucault, O’Neill writes with palpable pathos about the sheer asymmetry between the vastness of material problems and the paltry spiritual solutions to them. The ideology of rehabilitation — aided by the panopticon and other pedagogies — that accompanied the birth of the prison appears to have been long abandoned. In fact, we are now witnessing the death of the prison, since it is being reduced to a camp in many places and a privatized institution in others. With no plausible solution in sight, the agency and the register of care have shifted; pastoral care for the prisoner’s allegedly redeemable soul has replaced the juridical custody of his or her profane and degraded body.
S. Lochlann Jain’s study of randomized control trials unpacks the ways in which late-stage cancer trials require the subject’s “health . . . to provide for the investigator evidence of efficacious treatments.” Jain is exercised less by the high probability of death than by the phenomenon that is shrouded in silence, the massive and questionable treatment damage. With the prospects of prolonged life, let alone survival, statistically minuscule, Jain dares to ask why, “for decades and centuries, cancer patients have undergone risky and often horrific treatments.” If the patient’s participation is prompted by hope, what sort of hope is it? In most of the fatal categories of cancer, where medical-scientific uncertainty and failure are constitutive of cancer as a disease, the patient knows, contra popularized Nietzsche, that what has nearly killed you does not make you strong; it simply kills you a little later. Yet the patient continues to lend his or her body in pain, subjecting it to further pain, for the sake of generating sufficient data to permit a medical-scientific inference, which is riddled with its own pathos, the counting of the dead. Jain recounts a doctor declaring that “1,050 people would have to relapse before we had [enough] data.” So much for the new gods of science: they too devour their hapless children.
The second set of essays profiles two men, Madanlal Pahwa and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who were brought to trial in the assassination conspiracy case of Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of nonviolence. Ashis Nandy explores the troubled psyche of Pahwa, a young hoodlum turned genocidal Muslim killer. Found guilty of the conspiracy charge, Pahwa served a reduced life sentence and was released in 1964. Nandy located and interviewed Pahwa in the final years (1998–99) of his unremarkable post-assassination life in Bombay. Out of those interviews Nandy crafts a psychological profile, partly speculative, of a citizen-killer, disengaged from the present, who obsessively and incoherently rehearses the motives and justifications of his earlier self. But nothing adds up: neither the romanticized pregenocidal self shaped by the “folk” (local and vernacular) cultural milieu of his boyhood in Pakpatten (now in Pakistan, and from which he was forced to flee) nor the avowed “humanist” postgenocidal self accounts for the descent into a genocidal abyss by a very ordinary, almost shallow, person. Ironically, as Nandy shows, both the pre- and postgenocidal selves hark back to that “folk” milieu, a variable mixture of Hindu and Muslim religious practices and traditions that Gandhi championed so strenuously against all purist ideologues, both religious and secular/modern.
The conspiracy charges against Savarkar, an avowed ideological rival of Gandhi, were dismissed for want of compelling material evidence. However, his role in the conspiracy, if any, remains an object of conjecture and speculation because of his close association with Nathuram Godse, the assassin. Savarkar is better known today as the author of The Essentials of Hindutva, a founding tract in the ideological grounding of the resurgent Hindu nationalism. Janaki Bakhle gives a close contextualized reading of that text, hurriedly written in English around 1921, soon after Savarkar was moved to a mainland Indian prison after being incarcerated for nearly a decade on the Andaman Islands as a political prisoner. Bakhle attempts to recuperate Hindutva as a key text within the Indian nationalist discourse so as to preempt its colonization by the contemporary Hindu fundamentalist Right. To do so, she has to free the text from glib characterization as anti-Muslim and fascist. The task is complicated by conflicting elements in the text — nesting of multiple genres, proliferating rhetorical devices, diversity of themes — which Bakhle maps diligently to argue that Hindutva, by privileging the “love of the land” (ancestral and sacred) that binds people and place, offers itself as a nationalist “love letter.” Whether a non-Hindu today would heed Savarkar’s call to redeem the divided nation, without recourse to magical cartographies and mythic histories that sustain Hindutva as a “love letter,” remains an open question.
The Doxa section begins with a personal statement by and then a brief interview with a young painter, Pallavi Govindnathan, struggling to depict the widespread phenomenon of acid violence against women in Bangladesh. Here we have yet another form of gender violence, sometimes described as a crime of passion, which surely it is not. The drill is simple. A young man, unable to secure the woman of his desire for whatever reason, gets hold of easily and cheaply available sulfuric acid and throws it on her with a calculated intention to disfigure her. Often the young man, if he is punished at all, receives only a slap on the wrist. The victim, however, undergoes a long ordeal — physical, emotional, and cultural — and her sexuality, says Govindnathan, is temporarily extinguished. That ordeal and the woman’s rehabilitation are the challenging themes of Govindnathan’s recent paintings, which she discusses with the interviewer, Poornima Paidipaty.
Also in the Doxa section, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd reflects on the “unfinished” Iranian revolution of 1978–79 in light of recent events: the massive public protests and the brutal suppression that followed the June 12 presidential election, widely seen as having been rigged for the sitting president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the candidate favored by the powerful theocratic establishment. Hurd cautions the reader not to imagine the Iranian prospects in terms of the standard binary: secular/modern versus theocratic/traditional. More is at stake. A third space of politics, nonsecular and nontheocratic, has been in the making almost since the beginning of the revolution itself. Hurd provides a quick genealogy of that third space and invites us to imagine it as something open and improvisational that can house alternative possibilities and nurture different sensibilities, both secular and spiritual.
Finally, in two striking “visual essays,” one from the artist collective JC2 and another from Tess Lea and Paul Pholeros, this issue of Public Culture offers readers a series of provocations about how one might think through these uncertain, violence-prone times. Perhaps it is time to fashion our own aphorisms.