The lesson of horror makes it clear that there is no relief from the unfolding logic of capitalist differentiation and dismemberment
Nandini Chandra Delhi
The quintessential image in the recent protests in the aftermath of the Delhi gangrape is the girl atop the streetlight, or else the various photographs of students in militant postures demanding justice. These are uneasy images in so far as feminism itself is an uneasy combination at the present juncture, not misplaced or wrong, but somehow striking a false note. What is false about it? The persistence of a weary gesture towards women’s marginality from the symbolic realm, the realm of law, power and language, as if they were outside and still trying to get in.
All the anger and outburst can then be seen as fitting into the bourgeois rhetoric of women occupying a segregationist space, or a narrow cultural space within the larger symbolic order. Like all identitarian logic, it sets itself up as an implicitly extra-ideological space of critique. This critique is both aimed at the narrowness of the public sphere as well as a bid to enhance it. The bid for entry and equalisation occludes the fact that in the 100-150 odd years since the current public sphere was constituted, women (even if only elite upper caste/class) have become the pillars of this national symbolic order. Having internalised the standards of the system — bourgeois pleasure, bourgeois aesthetics, bourgeois ideals of responsibility — her location of critique is now not all
The appropriate militant response ought to be a rupture of the pieties of the bourgeois public sphere through a sober rage, stripped of outrage and horror, born of accumulated non-surprise and the compulsive banality of sexual violence. The grisly nature of the violence, the evisceration of the girl, should have pushed it towards being recognised as an unusual extreme of sadism which challenges our capacity to see what is common about it. Left groups like AISA have been trying to push this forward.
The mainstream phenomenon returns us to the spectre of women as beacons, carrying us back to 19th and early 20th century bourgeois reforms: taking oaths, pledges, joining street protests, as if till then their existence was shrouded, waiting to confirm the gift of the apparently neutral and open bourgeois public sphere which had the capacity to embrace all. For example, one pervasive sentiment is the irrepressible energy: “If the girls want to meet the president or prime minister, who can stop them from marching ahead?”
The image conjured is that of a heroic disavowal of state power and protocols of public protest which are stringently followed by other beleaguered groups. The photographs reveal them marching, exhibiting a visceral power uncannily similar to the traditional image of women as shakti, incarnating the principle of “if there is oppression from above, there is resistance from below”. There is very little room in this quid pro quo dynamic of spontaneity to factor in the recuperating powers of capital, the inadvertent and paradoxical legitimacy attributed to the State which attacks protesters with tear gas and lathis, but also allows the case to be tried in a fast-track court.
The intermixture of the political and lumpen apolitical, as crowds in big open spaces in the heart of the capital, has become a very contemporary and familiar scene. But it is the slogan of azadi, not merely confined to the earlier demand for equality of public access, but to sexual and spiritual freedom, that leaves no doubt about its implication within a neoliberal logic. One could say that this slogan’s mass appeal lies in demanding a reform of the autocratic and unilateral style of functioning of the neoliberal regime, and asking it to bring in genuine competition. In other words, the utopian dimension of the entire movement lies in its demand for a genuine free market.
For all practical purposes, the free market implied here is nothing but an extension of the public sphere argument — a liberated/libidinal zone within capitalist production in which our social needs are met, or the new leisure industry to escape the oppression of work. In both contexts (the old public sphere or the new liberated public enclaves imagined within late globalisation), one sees a refusal to confront the problem of sexual relations within late capitalism, how the uneven historical mutations of gender roles confront individual men and women with different expectations and different forms of violence. This does not mean that all peasants turned urban surplus population are potentially rapists in a modern city, and those exposed to their violence are invariably women on a faster track of evolution. The everydayness and ubiquity of sexual violence precludes such an exclusionary explanation of victims and brutalisers.
A similar lesson would be the management of sexual pleasure, how to prevent it from becoming too threatening. The cultivation of moderation and management of sexuality work to keep the sexual division of labour functional, reproducing the potential for explosive violence