Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary

Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary

by Veena Das

ISBN: 9780520247451

Publisher University of California Press

Published in Politics & Social Sciences/Anthropology, Nonfiction/Social Sciences

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

The Event and the Everyday

IT SO HAPPENS THAT FOR MANY YEARS NOW I have been engaged in thinking and writing about violence and asking what kind of work anthropology does in shaping the object we have come to call violence. I have a picture of this book as some kind of map (or a fragment of one) of the distance that I have traveled since I first realized how much of my intellectual biography was tied up with questions around violence: my journey is not about going forward, but rather about turning back, about collecting words and thoughts that I think of as having forged connections between me and my interlocutors in the field. Two major events have anchored my ethnographic and anthropological reflections, but the book is not about these events in the sense that a historian or a psychoanalyst might construe them. Rather, it narrates the lives of particular persons and communities who were deeply embedded in these events, and it describes the way that the event attaches itself with its tentacles into everyday life and folds itself into the recesses of the ordinary. My attention is captured in this book by both the larger possibilities of phenomena and the singularity of lives.

I was educated into asking these kinds of questions by those who, in anthropological parlance, are my informants-except that the book is a response to them-and so if one has a picture of an informant as one who informs about some prethought questions, then this was not the relation I bore with them. The burden of the book is not to render their trauma visible or knowable in the way in which much fine work on war veterans or victims of major catastrophes has made familiar. I briefly visit those debates, but my concern is with the slippery relation between the collective and the individual, between genre and individual employment of stories. Thus, I asked such questions as: What it is to inhabit a world? How does one make the world one's own? How does one account for the appearance of the subject? What is it to lose one's world? What is the relation between possibility and actuality or between actuality and eventuality, as one tries to find a medium to portray the relation between the critical events that shaped large historical questions and everyday life? Since the two events I address-that of the Partition of India in 1947 and the assassination of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1984-span a period in which the nation-state was established firmly in India as the frame of reference within which forms of community found expression, the story of lives enmeshed in violence is part of the story of the nation. The two concepts that are knotted together in various ways in the chapters of the book are the concepts of the voice and the everyday. I have learned to engage these concepts from the writings of two philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell. On another register, the book, then, is about how these concepts may be received in anthropology for those who want to think of these matters.

It would be obvious that the questions I ask did not simply come my way in the course of my work among urban Punjabi families (intensively in 1973 and 1974 and then intermittently until 1980) who had migrated to India as refugees from various parts of the Punjab during the traumatic riots of the Partition in 1947. Nor were the questions posed quite in this way by the survivors of the riots against the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, among whom I worked for more than a year. I had to learn to recognize these questions as somehow mine, animating my life and work: they were not there because of some textbook formulations on these issues.

In repeated attempts to write a book on the subject of violence, I felt that every time I succeeded in saying something, I was left with a sense of malaise, a disappointment with what I had said. Given that there is a certain air of obviousness with which notions of the everyday and of voice are often spoken of in anthropological writing, I have been amazed at how difficult I found it to speak of these matters. Thus, what I present here is not a piecemeal improvement on what I have written earlier or a filling up of some details that were missing. Rather, having presented a large part of my ethnography in the form of papers, I feel that I want to see my ethnographic practices, my models of reading and writing if you will, as responding to the pressure of questions on voice and the ordinary, or better, the voice in the everyday. As the disastrous violence against Muslims in Gujarat in March 2002 makes clear, the events of collective violence continue to shape the intertwining of experiences of community and state and continue to become more lethal, especially for minorities in India, though the development of increasingly critical practices to counter this is also important to note. I need to find the right distance or the right scale at which this picture might be sketched.


Marilyn Strathern has eloquently addressed questions of scale and complexity within the discipline of social anthropology. As she says, "Social anthropologists route connections through persons. They attend to the relations of logic, of cause and effect, of class and category that people make between things; it also means that they attend to the relations of social life, to the roles and behavior through which people connect themselves to one another. And habitually they bring these two domains of knowledge together, as when they talk about the relation between culture and society." Further, on the tradition of social anthropology in Britain, she adds, "And the enunciation of rules was understood as the moment at which people became articulate about relationships.... Social structure inhered in relationships relevant to people's acts and intentions.... This model could be enacted over and again in fieldwork. The tradition of fieldwork meant that anthropologists learnt about systems by entering into relationships with those whose social life they were studying. Like Saem, the apprentice gained knowledge in the course of interaction."

Relationships appear crucial to Strathern because they are both the objects of study and the means through which anthropologists arrive at an understanding of both abstract and concrete patterns of sociality. Once we comprehend how concrete relations and abstract relations are connected, we begin to see questions of scale and complexity in a very different light. Thus, small-scale societies are not simply those in which face-to-face relations make it easier to grasp social relations in their totality, nor are complex societies those in which there is an absence of face-to-face relations. Indeed, Strathern gives many examples of the complexity of so-called simple societies and calls upon notions of tacit knowledge to show how concrete relations are implicated in the production of new forms of sociality corresponding to dramatic changes in technology.

I take two important formulations from Strathern's attention to relations. First, that concrete relations that we establish in living with others are like shadows of the more abstract questions-that is, we learn about the nature of the world in the process of such living. Second, that we cannot assign a scale to patterns of sociality independent of perspective. Indeed, to be able to establish a perspective is to enlarge the field of our vision. The question, then, is not that of part-whole relations but of establishing the horizon within which we may place the constituent objects of a description in their relation to each other and in relation to the eye with which they are seen. One might also express this in terms of the relation between the subject and the world. (I would like to note here for later discussion that I see the problems of uncertainty, doubt, and skepticism as embedded in the concreteness of relations-if I come to doubt such things as my relations to my parents, the fidelity of our love, or the loyalty of my children, these are doubts that put my world in jeopardy. They are like shadows of the more abstract philosophical doubts about the reality of the world.) For the moment, I return to some initial formulations on the question of the subject and the world.

Let us take Wittgenstein's statement that "the subject does not belong to the world; rather it is the limit of the world." In interpreting this statement several scholars have suggested that the relation of the subject to the world is like that of the eye to the visual field-the eye is not itself in the visual field that it defines. Without going into a sustained defense of my interpretation at this point, I suggest that in thinking of the subject as constituting the limit of the world, Wittgenstein is proposing that the experience of being a subject is the experience of a limit. The world is not invented by me (as the cliche goes), but then how do I make the world mine? How am I, as a subject, implicated in experience, for I take it that there is no pregiven subject to whom experience happens or on whom experience can be predicated? It is Wittgenstein's thought that the subject is the condition of experience. Given that he considers the human form of life as one complicated enough to have language, the question might also be put as one of taking responsibility for language. If the subject is also the boundary of the world, there is clearly no particular point in the course of my life that I can locate as the point at which my subjectivity emerges. Hence it is Wittgenstein's thought that the subject is never closed or done with. Being able to draw a boundary itself raises the issue of the experience of limit. Then how should we see the violence of the events that frame the ethnography-should we regard the violence as that which exceeded the boundaries of the world, as it was known? These are complicated pictures of what it is to make and remake a world, bringing into question the pictures of totalities, parts, fragments, and boundaries that we may have. These pictures are tied up with questions of what it is to write an ethnography of violence-one that is not seen as bearing an objective witness to the events as much as trying to locate the subject through the experience of such limits.


A body of critical theories has emerged in recent years marked by the "rhetoric of mourning." Eric Santner characterizes it thus:

By the "rhetoric of mourning," I mean the recurrence, in so many postmodern theoretical discourses, of a metaphysics of loss and impoverishment. The appeal in these discourses to notions of shattering, rupture, mutilation, fragmentation, to images of fissures, wounds, rifts, gaps and abysses, is familiar enough. These discourses, primarily post-structuralist in inspiration, appear committed to the vigilant and radical critique of what are taken to be narcissisms and nostalgias central to the project of modernity-namely, Enlightenment faith in progress-and the Western tradition more generally. These discourses propose a kind of perpetual leave-taking from fantasies of plenitude, purity, centrality, unity and mastery. Such fantasies and their various narrative performances, whether cast in the rhetoric of totalization or of liberation, are in turn seen as the primary sources of violence in history.

The idea I use of a fragment shares in Santner's sense of loss and impoverishment but is not directly related to a critique of the Western Enlightenment project. My sense is to think of the fragment here as different from a part or various parts that may be assembled together to make up a picture of totality. Unlike a sketch that may be executed on a different scale from the final picture one draws, or that may lack all the details of the picture but still contain the imagination of the whole, the fragment marks the impossibility of such an imagination. Instead, fragments allude to a particular way of inhabiting the world, say, in a gesture of mourning. I have in mind a picture of destruction, such as that sketched by Stanley Cavell in his writings on philosophy, literature, and film. Cavell takes up Wittgenstein's famous comment-of his investigations destroying everything that is great and important, "leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble"-and suggests that the color that is lent to this abstract conceptual moment is of a particular hue. In his words: "Could its color have been evoked as the destruction of a forest by logging equipment, or of a field of flowers by the gathering for a summer concert or by the march of an army? Not, I think if the idea is that we are going to have to pick up the pieces and find out how and whether to go on, that is go on living in this very place of devastation, as of something over." What it is to pick up the pieces and to live in this very place of devastation? This is what animates the description of lives and texts in this book.


The repression of voice and hence of confession, of autobiography, in philosophy is an abiding theme of Cavell's work. He sees Wittgenstein's preoccupation with philosophy as leading words back from the purified metaphysical voice to that of the ordinary, as a project of recovering the human voice, a voice he sees philosophy as having banished (which is not to say that it is a humanistic project, as if the notion of the human was transparent). Thus Cavell's account of voice is not that of speech or utterance but as that which might animate words, give them life, so to say. Cavell sees the banishing of the human voice in the register of the philosophical as a suspicion of all that is ordinary, as the fantasy of some kind of purified medium outside of language that was available to us. Words, when they lead lives outside the ordinary, become emptied of experience, lose touch with life-in Wittgenstein, it is the scene of language having gone on a holiday. These are the scenes evoked in the theatrical staging of doubt (surely you cannot have this pain), and if skeptical doubt was to be expressed only in such theatricality, then one might be right to suspect that skepticism expresses unnatural doubts. But for Wittgenstein, as Cavell rightly reminds us, the possibility of skepticism is embedded in the ordinary- hence, says Cavell, Philosophical Investigations is written in response to skepticism but not as a refutation of it, for the argument with skepticism is one that we are not allowed to either win or lose. I read this as saying that the question is not about knowing (at least in the picture of knowing that much of modern philosophy has propagated with its underlying assumption about being able to solve the problem of what it is to know), but of acknowledging. My acknowledgment of the other is not something that I can do once and then be done with it. The suspicion of the ordinary seems to me to be rooted in the fact that relationships require a repeated attention to the most ordinary of objects and events, but our theoretical impulse is often to think of agency in terms of escaping the ordinary rather than as a descent into it.

In the register of literature, Cavell asks whether Shakespearean tragedies might not be a response to (what philosophy identifies as) skepticism: "Yet, might it not well haunt us, as philosophers, that in King Lear doubt as to a loving daughter's expressions of love, or in Othello doubt cast as jealousy and terror of a wife's satisfaction, or in Macbeth doubt manifested as a question about the stability of a wife's humanity (in connection with witches), leads to a man's repudiation or annihilation of the world that is linked with a loss of the power of or the conviction in speech?" As I have suggested elsewhere, this theme of annihilation of the world, or of finding oneself within the scene of world-annihilating doubt, is not necessarily tied to big events-I then located the unknowability of the world and hence of oneself in it in the ordinary-for instance, in interactions around witchcraft accusations among the Azande that interrupt the ordinary but are still part of the everyday, or in the pervasive sense that the real could not be authorized in the narratives of health and illness in my ongoing studies of low-income neighborhoods in Delhi. I argued that in these cases we get an intuition of the human as if one of the aspects under which a person could be seen was as a victim of language-as if words could reveal more about us than we are aware of ourselves.


Excerpted from "Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary" by Veena Das. Copyright © 2006 by Veena Das. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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