Text(ure)s of Violence
By Rajesh Kumar Sharma
Notwithstanding all our song and dance about the sublime aims of our education, the fact remains that we live under capitalism and our education is the principal apparatus for the production of subjects under capitalism. This implies our deep implication and investment in relations of power of which the dominant motif is oppression.
This is not, however, to discount education as a project of freedom but to face the truth that it is also the site of the most crucial but normally invisible struggle between forces of subjection and those of freedom.
When we mention “subjection” we do imply human beings who get subjected, but it does not follow that there are always human subjects who are intentionally bent on pushing others into subjection. Indeed, a good deal of subjection is non-subjective and – for precisely this reason – more insidious, widespread and hard to resist. The oppressors are often subject to elusive, incomprehensible forces - a kind of gods of yore .
When the virus of subjection has infiltrated the very nervous system of freedom, you need a splintered. polyfinished mirror to catch the spots. You need the mirror of a cracking, fragmented, repetitive, overlaying language that is not scared of doing surgery on itself. Education can heal itself only by doing violence to its informing language. The volcano of violence that erupts in New York today and Godhra tomorrow cannot be frozen into a monument of instruction without first dismantling the myth of education as an innocent adventure.
On violence, the entry in my dictionary (NODE, 1998) reads:
behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.
The additional definition goes like this:
strength of emotion or an unpleasant or destructive natural force.
Whose interests does this grossly inadequate, elegantly crude definition of violence serve? What about the violence which happens when a child is forced to eat and vomit alien(ating) nursery rhymes? When a teenager is served a starvation diet of careers? When soap operas and commercials harass you like mosquitoes in the privacy of your bedroom? When, on a footpath in old Delhi, a chance look at Deepak Chopra’s recipe for finding God raises you to the seventh heaven of bliss? When Cadbury’s range of Temptations overwrites the epic magnitude of Eve’s temptation in your random access memory? When you feel like Kafka’s cockroach in your dehumanizing environment? Or when you don’t even get to know that you are that cockroach –grubbing, on a junky footpath, among stock market news, pornography and commercial divinity for some elusive redemption?
There is violence and there is the myth of violence. The myth is slighter but it overwhelms the reality with its exclusory, defining force in discourse. What we eventually get to see of violence is a sanitized, censored version. With its mediated intensity, which is on a relentless auto reinvent mode, it manages to keep the eye glued to itself. What happens beyond the margins of the myth would not be recognized as violence. The victim would not be empowered to name the thing, to call it violence.
Hence this: education against violence begins after we have violently torn apart the myth of violence, have learned to grapple with the distinction between violence and the myth of violence.
In a way then, the initiatory act of education is an act of violence.
Let us, therefore, set the oppressive violence apart from the enabling violence.
The Gita, inscribed in the peculiar event of its transmission, could be read as a paradigmatic text of education in the way it both performs and confronts violence – the former as a creative, saving act; the latter as a necessary, ambient fact. Without these two that go together, peace is impotency and flight. And the peace of a living, advancing people cannot afford to be that.
Krishna un-makes Arjuna in order to bring him to re-create himself. He makes him see. And the seeing is violent, cataclysmic. It is impossible that without this Arjuna should confront the violence that blows all about him, threatening to tear up the banyan tree of dharma. His subsequent intervention is, hence, predicated on a twin experience of violence: he suffers violent rebirth in order to be able to experience the ambient violence as violence, as violation. He would be denuded of illusions in order to stand before the bare reality of violence.
Education must divest us of illusions and make us see, or it is not education. The seeing cannot happen unless we become self-reflexive. The silent infection of paralysing memory has to be overcome for us to be able to create ourselves anew. A violent rupture with ourselves marks the moment of our initiation into reflexive subjectivity.
The present crisis of education can be located in a conflict of objectives in respect of subjectivity. There is education for reproduction and there is education for re-creation. The first, which is akin to the process of industrial mass duplication and which answers to the imperatives of the economies of scale, aims at reproducing efficiently programmed replicas. The second aims at the subject’s rebirth, the earth-shattering process that opens one's eyes into reflexive awareness and makes him dvija, the twice-born. The continuance of capitalism, however, is best ensured by the reproduction of subjectivities. In place of human beings you have human resources that must be employed and exploited optimally to extract the highest profitability. Education gets increasingly identified with training and the upgrading of economically productive skills. The remaining spaces in the structure of subjectivity are filled up with mass-produced standardized entertainment, “interpersonal skills” and safe political attitudes – and the newspaper wisdom stuffs the head with a dash of “the intellectual”. Whether through affluence or through privation, the serpent of subjectivity just fails to put its mouth and tail together. To the reproduced subject, the reflexive threshold remains elusive.
Yet even a subject forged in the reproductive machinery of capitalism must inevitably exceed the objectives of his forging. The subject’s ineludible humanity must overtake his alienation as a reproduction and haunt and sting him with the dream of authenticity. The dream poisons the media-induced fantasy of this human resource, engendering suffering that persists as long as his humanity suffers violation. The subject’s problem is he can neither shrink to a resource nor buy humanity off the shelf.
The task before education, then, is to either resolve or transcend the contradiction between reproduction and re-creation. However, with resolution ruled out by the very nature of the contradiction, transcendence as an effect of history remains the sole possibility. Capitalism may not have suspected it but in the age of postmodernism when reproduction is trash and creativity (including creative rehashing) wealth, the re-created subjectivity might prove to be more productive than the mere reproduced subjectivity. Authentically reflexive subjectivities may not be in tune with the demands of an oppressive and totalitive global economic order, but these should be harmonious with a dispersive and free world economy. With the world currently poised on the edge of chaos between these two impending orders, the shape of the future may not emerge any soon. But that shape, if it is to house the human being, will critically depend on ideas and actions that are clearly intended to intervene in the course of events to give them direction.
The decentring of power will not translate into the deconcentration of power so long as people are mere points, not engines, in the field of power. Their transformation into the engines of power, the true vocation of human education, cannot be achieved unless they step off the assembly line of reproduction and begin to self-reflect.
This, however, requires de-oppressing the apparatus of education to allow human power to circulate freely.
If the gravity of the matter will allow some levity, I would concede that a great deal is happening in our universities to set the education free. During a recent exercise in academic auditing (!) a team of dons and managers visited the college where I work. I suggested a system of regular interaction between the faculty of the affiliating university and that of its colleges. “We appreciate your point of view. You mean the colleges should function as franchisees of the university. Happily, we are already working in that direction,” the team leader informed me. His earnestness was transparent.
The problem is how to get rid of this bazaar vision of education that has been seeping into the vocabulary of our thought and imagination to fundamentally impair our ability to reflect as educators. At this critical and dangerous hour, can we keep our eyes on what Foucault calls “the microphysics of power” in education? Can we read the fine but gloomy print? Critical intelligence and the power to critique depend on reflexivity. On reading. On reflexive reading. Unfortunately, the text of education itself today suffers from the malaise of diminishing readership, including that inside the academy. As a consequence, we are becoming dead to the anguish of violence.
Violence does not always come as infliction. Sometimes, indeed, it comes creeping as insinuation to inhabit and ensoul people. This happens when the apparatus of education suppresses reflection and incentivizes reproduction. Education has then become a forgery: inhuman, mechanical, duplicitous.
In that event, reflexive reading, the kind that can stand back and contemplate itself, can restore creativity and the transformative power to education. It can neutralize the manipulation of power that moulds people into pliant subjects. Thus it can create the conditions necessary for power to circulate freely. The employment of this strategy of de-oppression, however, requires that we range in the margins and interstices of the text with the patience and ruthlessness of maniacal archeologists. Not really a great price to pay to preserve our humanity.
The Indian education – if we may use this term with a cool conscience – is in the process of change. But how much of the change is really geared to excellence? Isn’t the greater part of it a mere tossing about for survival? We are losing even the sense of proportion that is essential to know the higher from the not so high. Universities and colleges are succumbing to the mean temptations of the bazaar, mindlessly picking up and then throwing into the trash bin courses as well as students. The humanities with their ideals and ideas, for long the cherished space for education to do its bit of self-reflection, receive a guilty and apologetic mention. While the institutions of higher education that should act as bastions of judgement in a period of indirection have either fallen silent or begun to dance and sing to the techno music of faddish idiotologies, the society is back to sheer survival – albeit as a mass of cyborg cavemen. Hence we bask vicariously in the American fantasy of the Spiderman – the creepy insect-god as a nauseating and infantile plastic messiah for the post-9/11 world, metaphorising an impossible double escape into the past and the future. We have our own homespun fantasies too – like Amir Khan’s pseudo-revenge on British imperialism through a moronic reappropriation of cricket and the competitively packaged and remixed versions of Bhagat Singh’s life and thought. Resistance and revolution rehashed for a bored and drugged market.
And yet these are the texts the academy is the least inclined to touch even with a long pole.
Perhaps the time has come to de-institutionalize education at our own end and let it slink into the slums and service lanes of the academy. The emerging dominant paradigm of education is displaying all the signs of being ruthlessly incorporative. For the sake of a peace that is not of the graveyard, we must embrace the tactics of the guerilla. We must rummage every text – literal or visual, cultural or economic, bodily or spiritual – and rip open each sign. For in the manufactory of these signs and texts is our subjection being forged. These signs and texts hide their bottoms under cover of a fabricated economic and cultural-military consensus with global pretensions. The time has come to expose these bottoms. The night has gotten the inkiest ever.
I am not making out a case for academic anarchy. On the contrary, I hold that education in any significant form may not survive the ruin of its institutions. What I am skeptical of is the icy institutionalism that might extinguish the last sparks of that individual and eccentric fire which is so necessary to keep education a/live. Institutional education is a contradiction in terms and education must overflow the institution. The institutions exist to nurture free subjectivities, not to forge subjects. When these begin to compete as the ancillary units of multinational industry and trade, it is time the educators should dig their souls for possible symptoms of complicity. The last thing we can afford to forget is the human being who should be at the heart of any project of education. To institute profits in that place is the ultimate betrayal, the last profanation of education. It amounts to the abandonment of humanity and constitutes spiritual dereliction.
On their part, our institutions of education could go down the history lane to pick up a few lessons. Hopefully, they would be better equipped to fight the spreading dehumanization if they could adequately internalize the critique that is implied in the concept of the gurukul for our times.
The gurukul is not impersonal. It is not institutional. Its scale of values is not derived from the market. It is not a forgery for the production of subjects cheated of their humanity. It is the foundation of the social order yet suitably distanced from that order to be able to deal critically with it. It grows around personal relationships and functions as a community (it does not need a manager nor can it be put online). It does teach the practical skills but it never forgets its principal aim. Which is to teach the people the art of rebirth, the art of self-transformation through reflection.
*Presented at the International Educational Conference on Culture of Peace and Non-violence at Hans Raj Mahila Maha Vidyalaya, Jalandhar, Punjab (December 19-21, 2002).
Rajesh Kumar Sharma
Department of English
Punjabi University, Patiala – 147002