Sunday, January 23, 2011

Reading Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines

        I want to situate Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines in relation to two common sense notions (in the Gramscian sense) that are crucial to the dominant structures of the world today. Both operate on the principles laid out by a dominant figure of the time, Margaret Thatcher, when she said, “There is no alternative” to the current structures of global sovereignty. The first notion is that the current structures of market capitalism represent some sort of end of history, that the failure of so-called actually existing socialism constitutes a failure of capitalism’s alternatives. The second is a link to the notions of culture, ethnicity, and nationalism that eventually coagulated into books such as Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations amongst others. This is linked to a phenomenon that Etienne Balibar labels a neo-racism, a ‘differentialist’ racism that operates on the naturalization, even the biologization of culture.

      The linkage between the two can be found in a collapse of the revolutionary movements that culminated in 1968 and even more specifically the counter-revolutionary movement that ensued. The two poles of this revolution can be placed in the following terms. The revolt against colonialism on the part of any number of national liberation movements, Vietnam, Algeria, etc. These all constituted a demand on the part of the periphery to reorganize the world system in a radically more equitable manner. The second pole occurred in the center of the system as workers and students began to refuse the limitations put in place by the labor-capital peace produced by post war Fordism. This put the need for new forms of culture, labor, and even resistance to the forefront in ways that had only been implicit in earlier revolutionary movements. It is important to note that these movements did not exclude existing anti-systemic movements from their critique, seeing their structures as being compromised by their agreements with the status quo.

      The counter-revolutions are equally important. This took the form of structural readjustment in response to the newly independent nations. The heavy costs that came from the damage of colonialism were put on the formally colonized rather than the colonizers. The structure of the loans that were required to make up for this became another way to reclaim control over the newly independent nations. This put the leadership of the anti-colonial struggles in the position of acting as new mediators for this structure of domination. The destruction of the second pole was accomplished by the destruction of the support structure that allowed for the security of the revolting workers and students, the welfare state. This occurred at different rates of speed within the first world, and with various levels of success, but this combined with an attack on the trade unions succeeded in turning the flexibility demanded by those resisting into yet another form of insecurity.

      We are faced with two aporias, one in the positive valiance of revolution, the second in the negative valiance of counter-revolution. The question then becomes how to break out of the structures of thought that make the world that we live in look so inevitable. This is not a simple question. One need only recall Babeuf’s famous statement in 1794; “to re-educate the people in the love of liberty is more difficult than to conquer liberty.”[1] The response to the 1968 revolutions also produced its own casualties, one only needs to recall Nicos Poulantzas and Guy Debord. In effect, I want to read Amitav Ghosh’s work in part as an intervention in this set of crises. The implications can be seen in an essay by Ghosh which comments on the events that led to the writing of The Shadow Lines, “The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi.” The essay discusses the massacre of Sikhs that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. This in turn was a response to the raid of the Sikh’s Golden Temple of Amristar. “When I now read descriptions of troubled parts of the world, in which violence appears primordial and inevitable, a fate to which masses of people are largely resigned, I find myself asking, is that all there was to it? Or is it possible that the authors of those descriptions failed to find a form—or a style or a voice or a plot—that could accommodate both violence and the civilized willed response to it.”[2]

      The question is a provocative one, linking notions of literary stylization narrative structure with both the understanding of history and the possibility of political change. There are two questions that need to be dealt within this structure. The first is the question of collectivity. After all, within the common notions of the individual and the collective it is a bit counter-intuitive to take this narrative, which is so easily placed into the space of individualistic expression. The second will be dealt with later, the question of stylization. To return to the question of collectivity, I want to argue that this occurs because we must conceive of this figure of the narrator in terms of a singularity, rather than as an individual. He is a unique point in an overdetermined collectivity, and only through engaging with that collectivity does his singularity have meaning. At the same time, the acts of self-shaping create possibilities of political change.

     The importance of collectivity could be understood in negative terms within the book. One could easily imagine Robi playing the protagonist of the Bildungsroman in the book. Robi could be the perfect nationalist protagonist. His development linked to a certain conception of the nation. This comes out of his strong sense of self that is discussed in the book, and parodied. One sees this in the comments that the narrator’s grandmother makes about him. “Watch Robi, he’s strong, he’s not like the rest of you in this country.”[3] However the strength of Robi is shown in the form of the superego in its most idiotic form, an intuitive knowledge of rules, divorced from meaning or justification. Instead of the strong individual of nationalism, we are given a considerably different figure, a weak subjectivity that produces himself within social contexts. I want to link this to the concept of singularity.

      This term singularity finds its place within a Deleuzian and Spinozist framework. It is preconditioned on the conceptual framework that Spinoza lays out in the Ethics. Spinoza argues that “A body which is in motion or at rest must have been determined to motion or rest by another body, which was also determined to motion or rest by another, and that by another, and so on to infinity."[4] The activity or non-activity of any body is overdetermined completely by what surrounds it, and is in effect produced through the interactions with these bodies. The notion of the liberal subject with its belief in an originary autonomy that only is tainted when it enters the public sphere of politics is erased completely. The identity of the singular body can only be understood in the context of overdetermined production of its being. Or to use Felix Guattari’s statement. “Politics comes before being.”

      Moreover, this singularity can only be understood as an assemblage itself, as made up of other bodies combined together. “When a number of bodies of the same or of a different magnitudes are constrained by others in such a way that they are in reciprocal contact with each other, or if they are moved with the same or different degrees of speed in such a way that they communicate their motions to each other in some fixed ratio, we shall say that those bodies are reciprocally united to each other. We shall also say that all such bodies simultaneously compose one body, i.e. an individual, which is distinguished from others by this union of bodies.”

      This is the notion that Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze label an assemblage in their book, A Thousand Plateaus. It operates at the concept of the both the level of the ‘individual’ who is an assemblage, and at the level of the social, which then becomes an assemblage of assemblages. Each assemblage is absolutely unique, a singularity, but the materials that produce this cut across the assemblage of bodies that produces the social. Their uniqueness is not autistic; instead it is produced out of the wealth of the social itself.

      This conversation, although crucial to understanding the ‘individual’ in the context of the social, has focused on the body rather than the mind, which is more crucial in this case. That is not to say that this discussion of the body has been in any sense, a tangent. Instead, it makes a materialist demand upon the act of interpretation. One must always remember Spinoza’s reminder that “the object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body, or, certain actually existing mode of extension, and nothing else.”[5] Nonetheless, to the extent we are dealing with the body, we are dealing with it in a mediated form, in the form of text, and a text that operates in the logic of what Vygotsky and Volosinov would refer to as ‘inner-speech.’

      Volosinov defines this concept in the following terms. “Each person’s inner world and thought has its stabilized social audience that comprises the environment in which reasons, motives, values, and so on are fashioned. The more cultured a person, the more closely his inner audience will, approximate the normal audience of ideological creativity; but, in any case, specific class and specific era are limits that the ideal of addressee cannot go beyond.”[6] Just as our bodies are defined by the complex interactions with others, our individual thoughts are created within an imagined social audience. One that can be read in regards to its approximation of a certain normativity.[7]

     We can see this relationship of the social to a concept of inner-speech in the text of The Shadow Lines in a comment that the nameless narrator states in relation to the other characters desires for an autonomy from the social. “I began to wonder whether it was I that was mad because I was happy to be bound: whether I was alone in knowing that I could not live without the clamor of voices within me.”[8] The unique characteristic of the protagonist and his hero Tridib is that they produce their sense of self within these structures, structures that are in some ways unbreakable. After all, the notions of autonomy and the separation desired by Ila and the Grandmother are just other forms of collectivity, forms that reproduce the society as it is.

      Volosinov doesn’t limit this to the site of individual psychology, which is the site of focus for his colleague Lev Vygotsky. Instead, he links it to the question of stylization; something that has been so linked to a history of the romantic individual. “The stylistic individuation of an utterance that the Vosslerites speak about represents a reflection of the social interrelationships that constitute the atmosphere in which an utterance is formed. The immediate social situation and the broader social milieu wholly determine—and determine from within, so to speak—the structure of an utterance.”[9] This is explicitly discussing the uniqueness of individuated speech, but the question of stylization can moved into a discussion of literature with a great deal of ease. Through the narrator must continually produce himself through the connections and non-connections that he has in the realm of the social and the political. In effect, through trying to understand the experiences that he has went through, the narrator produces a different understanding of the world.

      Obviously one can discuss the intervention of the political in terms of the biographical as well. I don’t think that the notion that Ghosh wrote the book in a social context is a terribly controversial one, nor is the notion that it was an engagement in that moment, the moment of a particular crisis in Indian politics. What is more interesting is the way he uses self-constitution, at least the literary representation of self-constitution, as a way of engaging in the question of collective politics. In doing so, it cuts across the traditional binary of collective and individual. We will eventually find this leads us to an understanding of the world through an engagement with history as a discipline, but I want to understand the engagement of the narrator in that history as a form of subjectivization, and therefore we will need to take a little detour into Foucault.

      This explicitly returns us to the quote from Amitav Ghosh that started the paper off. Let’s return to one section of it. Ghosh makes the statement, “Or is it possible that the authors of those descriptions failed to find a form—or a style or a voice or a plot—that could accommodate both violence and the civilized willed response to it.”[10] It is a question that points to both the limitations of the current discourse on the histories of violence and the possibility of rethinking that through an act of stylization, through another form, another style, etc. It points to the possibility of thinking of the worst moments of abjection, of subjection in terms that open up possibilities. This question of stylization is also crucial to Michel Foucault in his later ethical shift. Foucault argued that subjects have the possibility of actively engaging in their subject formation, their subjectivization through this act of stylization. This is a way of thinking through resistance as a mode of rerouting and reworking the networks of power, rather than as some mode of abolition or overthrowing of power.

      There is an element contained in Volosinov’s thought that I am going to resist, and that is the element of normalization that is so significant to Volosinov’s conceptualization of subjectivity. As noted before, the structure of the weak subject, the abnormal subject, is one that is non-productive for Volosinov. Resistance can be constructed from a strong engagement with the ideological structures of the society, and more significantly, through successfully reproducing those structures. Foucault points out the possibilities of a resistance that is predicated on failure of normalization, of turning that failure into something else, something that wasn’t imagined in the act of normalization.

     Foucault’s prime example of this is the gay liberation movement. His argument is that far from being repressed, the preconditions of the movement were created in the relations of power that constitute the intersection of medical and legal discourses. He argues that those subjects were able to turn the production of their abjection into a new stylization, a new form of life. For Foucault, the question of sexuality was less important than the creation of new forms of being together. “I think that’s what makes homosexuality “disturbing”: the homosexual mode of life, much more than the sexual act itself…. Institutional codes can’t validate these relations with multiple intensities, variable colors, imperceptible movements and changing forms. These relationships introduce love where there is supposed to be only law, rule, or habit.”[11] The mode of living transforms the forms of abjection into a new subject formation that troubles the system itself.

      The shift that I want to make is from the discourse of the medical and the legal that is discussed by Foucault into the discourse of history. After all, the question of colonialism, and it’s legitimization is frequently tied to the question of time. More specifically, it is linked to a notion of time that operates in a non-coevalent manner. This has been a topic of serious debate for anthropology, but it has had less emphasis in history. I want to look through one such attempt to look at both the problems with the dominant forms of history, and also the ways that the abjection of history contains the possibility of being restylized to produce the preconditions for new modes of subjectivity, both singular and collective.

      Dipesh Chakrabarty points out the deep political implications of the current institutional structure of history today, in his book, Provincializing Europe.

     So long as one operates within the discourse of “history” produced as the institutional site of the university, it is not possible to simply walk out of the deep collusion between “history” and the modernizing narratives of citizenship, bourgeois public and private, and the nation state. “History” as a knowledge system is firmly embedded in institutional practices that invoke the nation-state at every step—witness the organization and politics of teaching, recruitment, promotions, and publication in history departments, politics that survive the occasional brave and heroic attempts by individual historians to liberate “history” from the metanarrative of the nation state. One only has to ask, for instance: Why is history a compulsory part of education in all countries today, including those that did quite comfortably without it until as late as the eighteenth century? Why should children all over the world today have to come to terms with a subject called “history” when we know that this compulsion is neither natural nor ancient?
      It does not take much imagination to see that the reason for this lies in what European imperialism and third-world nationalisms have achieved together: the universalization of the nation-state as the most desirable form of political community.”[12]

       History operates as a discipline to produce a conception of both time and space. As Walter Benjamin points out, “Historicism rightly culminates in universal history”, that is a way of conceptualizing both space and time in the logical of capital, a logic that is both colonizing and parasitic. It operates in the empty homogenous time of the nation and of exchange. The mode of style can be found in the initially oppositional characters of Ila and the narrator’s grandmother.

     Ila has no right to live there, she said hoarsely. She doesn’t belong there. It took those people a long time to build that country; hundreds of years, years and years of war and bloodshed. Everyone who lives there has earned his right to be there with blood: with their brother’s blood and their father’s blood and their son’s blood. They know they’re a nation because they’ve drawn their borders with blood. Hasn’t Maya told you how regimental flags hang in all their cathedrals and how all their churches are lined with memorials to men who have died in wars, all around the world? War is their religion. That’s what it takes to make a country. Once that happens people forget they were born this or that, Muslim or Hindu, Bengali or Punjabi: they become a family born of the same pool of blood. That is what you have to achieve for India, don’t you see?[13]

      Perhaps the most striking figure is that of blood. Ila’s grandmother sees the nation as a production tied to blood. This concept neither avoids the disturbing connection to race and the poisoned legacy tied to the enlightenment, nor can it be contained within that category. The nation is constituted through an act of sacrifice, through an act of excessive violence even. This act both dissolves old conception of race and shows them to be contingent, and creates a new construction of race tied to the nation state. This new construction is no less reified than the earlier versions as that it can be passed down from generation to generation. The act of sacrifice creates an absolute separation even as it exposes its performativity in the act.

      If we get beyond the rather obvious problems of violence contained in this passage, we find a fairly interesting conception of time and space. The delineated space of the nation is created through the march of time through a series of acts that demarcate its borders. This time operates in a linear and progressive manner. The production of the nation is a straight line from A to B. It is a non-coevalent time. England has achieved the production of the nation. India has yet to accomplish this; India exists in the time that England existed some years ago.

     Ila is the ostensible opponent of this schema. The antagonism between her and the narrator’s grandmother is obvious, the grandmother calling Ila a whore and Ila calling the grandmother a fascist. Ila works to construct her identity within the space of a certain mode of cosmopolitanism in opposition to the reified notions of ‘our culture’ that limit her possibilities. She expresses this sentiment strongest after the incident in the bar, where X humiliates her in the name of a certain cultural morality. She screams at the narrator that she desires to be, “Free of you!…. Free of your bloody culture and free of all of you.”[14] The separation that the grandmother desires from the colonizing West is precisely read by Ila as a trap, one that places her in the space of an ‘authentic’ culture that traps her in the past.

      This creates a space and time that runs absolutely coevalent to the flows of modern capital. This can be seen in an interaction with the narrator.
     “To her the Underground was merely a means of shifting venue: it would irritate her to see how excited I got when we steeped on to the escalators; she would watch me as I turned to look at the advertisements flashing past us on the walls, gulped in the netherworld smell of electricity and dampness and stale deodorant, stopped to listen to the music of the buskers booming eerily through the permanent night of the passageways, and in annoyance, she would tug at my elbows and hiss: Hurry, hurry, you can’t stop here, you’ll hold people up. And if I lingered she would snap at me impatiently: For God’s sake stop carrying on like a third-world tapioca farmer—it’s just the bloody Underground.
      And I would say to her: you wouldn’t understand: to you Cairo was a place to piss in.
      I could not persuade her that a place does not merely exist, that it has to be invented in one’s imagination; that her practical, bustling London was no less invented than mine, neither more nor less true, only very far apart. It was not her fault that she could not understand, for as Tridib often said of her, the inventions she lived in moved with her, so that although she had lived in many places, she had never traveled at all.”[15]

      In effect, Ila’s notion of liberation is tied to a notion of space and time that places other ways of thinking about those notions in the space of the non-coeval. To be opposed to the current structure of things, to think of the space as being overlaid with its own histories, its own “netherworld” magic, means to fill the roll of the ‘third-world tapioca farmer”, one step, perhaps from the figure of the peasant. Ila suppresses multiplicity as firmly as the figure of the grandmother. Also, this conceptualization freezes an engagement with the figure of the other. Tridib argues that Ila literally doesn’t travel. “The inventions she lived in moved with her.” She stands in stasis, both in self-conflict and standing still.

      This stasis is built upon a strong sense of repression. “For Ila the current was the real: it was though she lived in a present which was like an airlock in a canal, shut away from the tidewaters of the past and the future by steel floodgates.”[16] The constitution of a space of freedom for Ila constitutes a profound act of forgetting. It means the suppression of the events in the world that don’t meet up with this cosmopolitan conception of the world. The most significant suppression is the reality of European racism. This can be read through Ila’s consistent identification with her white doll. Her narratives about the doll, really her, constantly point to the fact that her self-identification is with a white, blue-eyed child. The effects of

      So, in effect, we need to understand the figuration of the grandmother’s nationalism and Ila’s cosmopolitanism as in some way acting as two sides to the same coin. Both create freedom from an act of partition. The grandmother separates herself from the legacies of colonialism and England through the blood of the nation and its production. Whereas Ila produces herself through the partitioning of herself from the ‘culture’ of India, a culture she links to the figure of a ‘bloody tapioca farmer.’ A figure that is profoundly out of time with the circuit of capitalist production. More significantly, both leave a trace or remainder tied to those legacies of racism and colonialism.

       Before I leave this topic, I want to make the point that these two characters are not pathological. They are taking what is available to them to engage in an act of stylization discussed above, but subjectivization always has the possibility of coagulating into new forms of subjection. We can read these two figures that produce such mirroring forms of time and space within the language of failure. The grandmother is an inadequate nationalist subject because of colonialism, or racism, or any number of reasons. Ila is an inadequate cosmopolitan because she is till rooted in her backwards culture, that she is the bloody tapioca farmer out of sync with the world. But these gaps can be read against the grain, in a manner that looks at the inadequacies of the forms of the nation and cosmopolitan capital, a reading that points to the ‘weak messianic power’ that is always in existence against the empty homogeneity of historicism.

      Dipesh Chakrabarty gives a way of rethinking in this manner. He tries to construct a way of thinking through this notion of ‘out of jointness’ that doesn’t place that which is out of joint in the category of the pre, pre-political, national, capitalist, etc. He points to it in these terms.

     This “outside” I think of, following Derrida, as something attached to the category “capital” itself, something that straddles a border zone of temporality, that conforms to the temporal code within which capital comes into being we can think/ theorize capital, but that also reminds us that other temporalities, other forms of knowledge, other forms of worlding, coexist and are possible. In this sense, subaltern histories do not refer to a resistance prior and exterior to the narrative space created by capital: they cannot therefore be defined without reference to the category “capital.” Subaltern studies, as I think of it, can only situate itself theoretically at the juncture where we give up neither Marx nor difference, for as I have said, the resistance it speaks of is something that can happen only within the time horizon of capital, and yet it has to be thought of as something that disrupts the unity of that time.”[17]

       So we are placed in a position where we must see that there is something rich and productive contained within these two characters inability to be the good subjects of the categories that they wish to fill. We need a new methodology, a stylization if you will. The idea of this is not easy as is pointed to in the text. After all, it is the narrator’s desperate attempt to accomplish this that leads to the production of the narrative. The narrator ends with the repeated motif of silence and inability, and explains this in the following terms, “I grew up believing in the truth of the precepts that were available to me: I believed in the reality of space; I believed that distance separates, that it is a corporeal substance; I believed in the reality of nations and borders’ I believed that across the border there existed another reality.”[18]

      I would argue that this act of stylization that the narrative attempts is also attempting to do what Foucault sees as the goals of the genealogist in engaging in an understanding and shaping of history. “ He must be able to recognize the events of history, its jolts, its surprises, its unsteady victories and unpalatable defeats—the basis of all beginnings, atavism, and heredities…. History is the concrete body of becoming; with its moments of intensity, its lapses, its extended periods of agitation, its fainting spells….. Where the soul pretends unification or the Me fabricates a coherent identity, the genealogist sets out to study the beginning-numberless beginnings, whose faint traces and hints of color are readily seen by a historical eye. The analysis of decent permits the dissociation of the Me, its recognition and displacement as an empty synthesis, in liberating a profusion of lost events.”[19]

      The past becomes a way of dissolving the inevitability of the present, of dissolving its force in order to open up the possibilities for something else. As Nietzsche would say, we are drowning in history, and more particularly, history that shrinks the possibilities of alternatives to the moment that we are in. He also expresses an alternative to this approach to history, when he defends the untimeliness of his field, “that is to say, acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time and, let us hope, for the benefit of a time to come.”[20] The act of genealogy doesn’t create the act of reconstitution of community, of its stylization, but it offers the preconditions of such an act.

       The novel engages in this “gray space” of genealogy by a whole chain of associations on the part of the narrator, fragmentary memories that brush up against, disrupt, and act in concert with the structures of official history. These memories travel time and space in ways that disrupt any linear or discrete notion of either. They both acknowledge the crucial ways in which partition creates “new social arrangements, new consciousness and new subjectivities to which it gave rise”[21] to use the words of Gyan Pandey, but doesn’t accept its terms. The act that we are calling genealogy in the lineage of Nietzsche and Foucault is given the name “imagination.”

      We are introduced to this notion through the figure of Tribib, who acts as….. “But of course, among other things Tridib was an archaeologist, he was not interested in fairylands: the one thing he wanted to teach me, he used to say, was to use my imagination with precision.”[22] This notion of precision disrupts its romantic origins. Tridib wants the narrator to understand the complexities of the social, spacial, and temporal relationships that he lives in. For instance, in a story of a snake attacking Ila, Tridib wants the narrator to focus on the structure of the roof rather than the species of the snake or the lizard that chased off the snake. Those were ephemeral details. The roof pointed to the ways in which architecture constructed social relationships.

      This act of imagination wasn’t done out of some sense of empiricism, but as a way of conceptualizing social relations that broke out of the structures of common sense, as a way of breaking up and reconstituting the ways that time and space had been coagulated by earlier formulations. In short, it becomes a way of producing theoretical concepts and recognizing the ways that the world had been constructed by previous concepts.

      “I tried to tell Ila and Robi about the archaeological Tridib, the Tridib who was much more contemptuous of fairylands than she would ever be; the Tridib who had pushed me to imagine the roofs of Colombo for myself, the Tridib who had that we could not see without inventing what we saw, so at least we could try to do it properly. And then, because she shrugged dismissively and said—Why? Why should we try, why not just take the world as it is?—I told her how he had said that we had to try because the alternative wasn’t blankness—it only meant that if we didn’t try ourselves, we would never be free of other people’s inventions.”[23]

       Tridib’s comment points to the contingent and political nature of the given, to accept the world ‘as it is’ means to, in Benjamin’s words “empathize with the victor. And all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them.”[24] The imagination demands that an inventory be created, to use Gramsci’s term, and that inventory should be used to put ‘other people’s inventions’ into question. I don’t think that it takes the next step that Gramsci takes, that of moving towards an inventory of a new national-popular. Instead it holds that question at bay, pointing towards the possibility of, and existence of modes of solidarity that do not originate in that sphere of the national popular, or more importantly, the nation-state.

      This moment occurs in the moment that is so often reserved to explain the primordial and inevitable nature of culture, the communalist riot.

      In fact, from the evidence of the newspapers, it is clear that once the riots had started both governments did everything they could to put a stop to them as quickly as possible. In this, they were subject to a logic larger than themselves, for the madness of a riot is a pathological inversion, but also therefore a reminder, of that indivisible sanity that binds people to each other independently of their governments. And that prior, independent relationship is the natural enemy of government, for it is in the logic of states that to exist at all they must claim the monopoly of all relationships between peoples.
     The theater of war, where generals meet, is the stage on which states disport themselves: they have no use for the memories of riots.[25]

       The first, and most obvious transgression of the riot is that of breaking the spell that the state has the sole legitimate use of violence. The second part of the quotation points out that fact in the fear of the memory of riots on part of the state. But there is another even more interesting maneuver that occurs in the text. That is the argument that the ordinary sanity of people’s coexistence is not preconditioned on the state. By breaking this peaceful coexistence independent of the state structure, it points to the fact that there exists a social bond that is a precondition of the nation state, and one could probably push it farther to include the global structure of capital, that does not need those structures to survive itself.

      In effect, it challenges both presuppositions that Hobbes lays out in the Leviathan for his concept of the people, and the contract that he claims acts as the basis for that contract. After all, the precondition of the state within Hobbes’ terms is the war of all against all. The state then comes into being as a plea on the part of the various subjects for protection. This protection must be produced through the transcendental figure of the sovereign. Both of Hobbes’ conceptions are haunted by the threat of civil war, and that threat is always contained in the notion of multiplicity.

       Against this figuration, Spinoza produces another understanding of collectivity, the multitude. This is a concept that Hobbes sees as the primary threat of his conception of the people. For Spinoza on the other hand, “the multitudo indicates a plurality which persists as such in the public scene, in collective action, in the handling of communal affairs, without converging into a One, without evaporating within a centripetal form of motion. Multitude is the form of social and political existence for the many, seen as being many: a permanent form, not an episodic or interstitial form. For Spinoza, the multitudo is the architrave of civil liberties.”[26]

       This form is what is most threatening in the formulation that Ghosh discusses above. It points to the fact that the legal fiction that Hobbes describes is in fact a lie. I want to end on a comment that Dipesh Chakrabarty makes about minority histories. Chakrabarty states, “The task of producing “minority” histories, has, under the pressure precisely of a deepening demand of democracy, become a double task. I may put it thus: “good” minority history is about expanding the scope of social justice and representative democracy, but talk about the “limits of history,” on the other hand, is about struggling, or even groping, for nonstatist forms of democracy that we cannot yet either understand or envisage completely.”[27]

      Where can we find this groping for new forms of community. Perhaps it can be found in the act of the narrator himself. He takes the experiences of his life, and gives them a new form within the narrative. This form breaks away from the assumptions that operate within the common sense, the ones that he labels in terms of accepting the reality of the current situation. But I also think that two of the main romances point to this new form of community the relationships between May and Tridib, and May and the narrator against the relationship between Ila and Nick Price.

      There is a serious critique that is made of the book’s romances, and it is one that I can’t fault. The romances are, in fact, relentlessly heterosexual, and perhaps even a bit boring because of it, but they also function in another register. They continually point to the inseparable bonds that exist in the figuration of the post in the post colonial. They show the profound ties that are produced through the uneven relations of colonial capitalism. In this, there is no escape from them. The question is then how to restylize these irreducible relations into a new form. What can we make out of the ruins of colonial capitalism that doesn’t reproduce its logic? I want to end this piece with an image and interpretation of this act, in the reading of a statue of Queen Victoria in the novel.

      “I remember she cried out—My God!—so loudly that Tridib trod hard on the brakes and the Studebaker came to a sudden halt at the foot of the huge, black statue of Queen Victoria. We found ourselves staring up at her, like Maharajas at a durbar. Tridib and I began to laugh, because it was that stature that Ila’s mother had been named, because she sat just so, with her teacup like a sceptre. We started to explain the family joke to May but got lost somewhere halfway through. And then, at the same time, Tridib and I both noticed that May had turned her head, averted her eyes from the statue and the building.
      She saw us looking at her and threw her door open. Come on! She said. Let’s have a look at that Memorial.
       We went up to the wrought-iron gates and gazed at the odd little dome and stunted minarets. Then she put a hand on my shoulder and said: Let’s go, please, I can’t bear it.
       She had gone very pale. Tridib put his arm around her, led her back to the car and helped her climb in and climbed in himself, behind the wheel. He reached absent-mindedly for the ignition-key, but then he let his hand drop and turned to look at May. She was staring blankly at the dashboard, crouched in her seat.
      He stretched his had out, cupped her chin in his palm and turned her face towards him. May? He whispered. What’s the matter, May?
     Her teeth were clenched; she would not look at him.
     What’s the matter? Tell me.
     It shouldn’t be here, she blurted out. It’s an act of violence. It’s obscene.
     Tridib laughed and tilted her face up. Her eyes were wide open now, looking directly at him.
     No it’s not, he said. This is our ruin; that’s wha we’ve been looking for.
     Then she laughed too, and put her hand over his, turned the palm up and kissed it.
     Yes, she said. This will do for our ruin.”[28]

      The question posed by the statue is how to engage with the ruins of colonialism. May’s reaction is an anti-colonialist one, but one that is still operating on the logic of purity. A logic that is produce within the logic of colonialism itself. Tridib poses another reading of the ruin, one that recognizes that even in the uneven relationships of colonialism, there are acts of translation and engagement. It both recognizes the relationship between the formerly colonized and colonizer, but it provincializes it, and allows for another relationship to be produced in its debris. In that, it is not a solution to the aporia of history, but perhaps it is a way of posing the question.

[1] Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed (London: Verso Books, 2003), 367.
[2] Amitav Ghosh, “The Ghosts of Mrs. Ghandhi”, The Imam and the Indian: Prose Pieces (Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher: Permanent Black, 2002.)
[3] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001), 35.
[4] Spinoza, Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 126.
[5] Spinoza, Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 124.
[6] V.N. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. Ladislav Matejka and I.R. Titunik (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1973), 86.
[7] Volosinov holds out the possibility of a genuine “I-experience”, but it is phrased in negative terms. “The “I-experience” actually tends toward extermination: the nearer it approaches its extreme limit, the more it loses its ideological structuredness and, hence, its apprehensible quality, reverting to the physiological reaction of the animal. In its course toward this extreme, relinquishing, in doing so, their ideological clarity and structuredness and testifying to the inability of the consciousness to strike social roots.” V.N. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, 88.
[8] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001), 89
[9] Ibid., 86
[10] Amitav Ghosh, “The Ghosts of Mrs. Ghandhi”, The Imam and the Indian: Prose Pieces (Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher: Permanent Black, 2002.)
[11] Michel Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life”, trans. Robert Hurley in Ethics, Ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: New Press, 1997), 136.
[12] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press, 2000), 41.
[13] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001),
[14] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001), 88-89.
[15] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001), 21.
[16] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001), 30.
[17] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press, 2000), 95.
[18] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001),
[19] Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”, trans. Robert Hurley in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, Ed. James D. Faubion (New York: The New Press, 1998), 374.
[20] Friedrich Niezsche, Untimely Meditations, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Ed. Daniel Breazeale, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 60.
[21] Gyanendra Pandey, Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism, and History in India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
[22] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001), 24
[23] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001), 31
[24] Walter Benjamin, “Thesis on the Philosophy of History”, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, Ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1968) 256.
[25] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001), 230.
[26] Paulo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson (New York: Semiotexte, 2004.), 21.
[27] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press, 2000), 107.
[28] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2001), 170.


  1. I started reading Ghosh with 'The Glass Palace' and that remained my favourite among his works - The Calcutta Chromosome (brilliant work too!), Sea of Poppies and The Hungry Tide. Until I read 'The Shadow Lines'.

    It reads beautifully, like any Amitav Ghosh work. When it comes to using language, he is easily one of the best. Unlike most of his other works, there is much less research as such that has gone in. So he basically plays with different kinds of people - right up his alley being an anthropologist. While there is the narrator who hasn't traveled physically, but transcends all borders mentally when listening to stories from people and from his favourite Tridib, there is Ila, who sees the other end, traveling non-stop dragged all around the world by her diplomat parents. All she seems to know is where the women's room in each airport is, which is her marker for the places. Her life and problems are different and the description of the racist attack by fellow students leaves you gasping. For an avid reader, that passage is pure orgasm as Amitav switches across three different timelines with just one event and its narrative.

    For me, this is by far Ghosh's best work. From what I am seeing with his later works like Sea of Poppies etc, this might even remain so. Not to put down his really good other works, but here he's on a totally different level. These days the amount of research that he puts into the story and the settings in a way inhibit his main strength - people.

    1. I'm largely inclined to agree with your assessment, here. I also really liked The Calcutta Chromosome. What I have been missing from his more recent work has been the engagement with temporality that you see in those two novels. Also, I edited the page to make it a little more readable. The earlier format was a little atrocious.

  2. One of the best books I ever read!
    Covers so many themes, and mind blowing linkage of events over a huge time span.This book really needs attention.
    Amitav Ghosh is may be most lucid story writer of today's India.