Sunday, November 22, 2015

Why its Difficult to See Eye to Eye

- Vikramaditya Sahai

[Editors' Note: This article was published in CRITIQUE Magazine (Vol: 3, No: 2, March-August 2015) brought out by the Delhi University chapter of New Socialist Initiative.]

Photo: Author's facebook page
“Does the university, today, have a raison d'etre?,” asked Derrida in 1983 at Cornell University. Derrida asks of the view of the university and from the university from Cornell, at once located in the romantic sublime on a hill, fenced from a gorge that may provoke suicides. The fence gives the university, he argues, a diaphragm so central to human sight, rather to lower or close our eyes when trying to learn. In the lecture, Derrida asks to be beware of both the gorge and the abyss. If the university was to be a supplementary body to society, to both emancipate and control; the university should, or perhaps could, turn the time of reflection back on the very conditions of reflection to view viewing itself or give time for thought.

The precarity of the university is not only 'topolitical,' as Derrida shows us, it is also with regard to its student body. The student in the university is imagined as in a liminal state between the child and the legal rational adult. This liminality provokes a desire to control not only the student body but also the effects of the university and the affects of its public-ity. The student is to be trained into adulthood, proper – proper today to neoliberalism. The Four-Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP) or its now three year avatar seeks to produce subjects for globalising capital and data. The developmentality of the university continues the work of the anti-politics machine by seeking to check and limit the invasion of counter-politics and the proliferation of counter-publics that may challenge its reproductivity and inevitability, all in responsibility to this liminality. The neoliberal university justifies itself by producing forces that will reproduce - capital and child. The child is the innocent hope of the future. This, however, is not limited to the university alone. 

Counter-politics, too, seems to be haunted by the spectre of the child. The child shapes, as Lee Edelman puts it, the logic within which the political must be thought. The child as the utopian future of heterosexual sex collapses the gap between the real and the symbolic. Queerness, but, aims outside the logic of reproductive futurism. The queer in this framework with its association with the death drive, is future-negating and can only enter the political by shifting the burden of queerness to someone else. 

In the anti-FYUP protests, the image for whom the battle was being faught was often the student of the future who would naively come to the university and be manipulated by its programme. But if this seems too far fetched, let me give you another example. We have witnessed another horror on December 16, 2014 – the killings in Peshawar. Counterpublics condemned the killings of 'innocent children,' much like they had done of the 'innocent women and children of Gaza' earlier that year. Fair enough, but not to this future negating subject. I am not saying that one must not condone these acts in queer solidarity but only pointing to the difficulty of building solidarities. After the Supreme Court judgment striking down the decriminalisation of 'non-normative' sexualities, and because of one's association with the Gender Studies Group of Delhi University, one became some sort of icon within a certain university space. This space would like to believe itself to be liberal-progressive. Due to my gender queer visibility, a lot of folks eager to win brownie points for their liberal-progressive attitudes and often out of well meaning intentions come to me “to talk.” In such conversations either they would complement me - “Oh Vikram! What a beautiful sari!” “Oh Vikram! No one looks better in a sari than you!" - or completely ignore what I was wearing and talk to me as they would to any “normal” man or woman. It is this which manifests in the easy solidarity of identifying LGBT people, which more often than not are gay men, and extending support to them by joining in their protests, inviting them to speak in yours, asking them to write for you, and other such representation, but seldom does the queer figure as central to the thinking through of politics itself, or as critique.

There is another reason for this difficulty of queer solidarity, especially for various left positions. In left feminist imaginations, there has been the bringing in of questions of sexuality through the moniker of reproduction. Reproduction had earlier allowed women to enter Marxist discussions, when not through their contributions to production in the factory or any wage work – say, in demands for equal wages, creches in places of employment, etc. These discussions were extended into questions of sexuality, where sexuality became sex and sometimes, pleasure which became leisure. In both cases, what was added to the framework had to be made apparent before it could be an additive, while the structure and language remained unchanged. If one were to take sexuality seriously, then it cannot be collapsed into the category of sex which could be collapsed into the category of reproduction and so on. If one recognises that even the vibration of the mobile phone could be sexual or eating a banana, forgive me for the cliches, then shop floor is as much a sexual space as it is a labouring one. Infact, it is very difficult sometimes to decipher which activities are sexual and which ones not. Let me put it another way to drive the point home by going to the extreme, in sex work, what is sex and what is work? Unless we work through the concepts we use to make politics happen, queer solidarity would be restricted to what I had derisively mentioned above.

Let me end, however, with a warning. Often we expect to work through our various politics to come to some overarching framework that would reconcile the different pushes and pulls and fill in the various jigsaws till the picture is perfectly seamless. If we remain committed so, we sometimes fail to see what we leave behind and what is productive about difference. So, let me ask you to not be afraid of dissonance in your theories nor what Janet Halley in a book I do not largely agree with but perceptively suggested, taking a break. Sometimes we need to step away from this need for coherent wholes and from world views to do justice to new ones. Sometimes we need to close our eyes to listen intently and learn.

Vikramaditya Sahai teaches at the Department of Gender Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi


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