In the Woods

Son of an impractical philosopher type of guy with a taste for literature, I got inured to hard work, privation and stoic life, and all the more importantly, as it will have consequence to the rest of my life, to abstract things, quite very early in life. When I think of my father, now a diabetic invalid, and then of myself, I can’t but think life is too vast  a field for one person to live the entirety of it, but when you choose to live only certain parts of it, that may turn out too narrow to support its own weight that you sink. An economist of an artist–perhaps a flawed one–I don’t like many things about life to form part of the art called my life (for example, I hate earning for survival, detest eating, hate me being wished unmeant and meaningless good mornings and birthdays, the formalities of life such as schools, colleges, universities, jobs, making friends, chit-chats, workshops, conferences, etc.), and I don’t want to go through these processes, and without me undergoing them, I have to pay for it, by ruining my own life, and that is what I am doing, most of the time. That is why I am in a troubled relationship with life.

As a boy, I wanted to become a painter, philosopher, sculptor, dancer, filmmaker. Some sort of artist. But I always wanted to live in the woods without much contact with the world. Then at school, another ambition caught hold of my mind–a scientist. A physicist. Working in the field of energy. I read a lot. Actually a lot. Infatuated. I did not know what formalities it took for one to first go through before one reaches there. You need to pass through a lots of gates, and the gatekeepers don’t let you pass that easily. I took up science at secondary school, where my first ever ambition was shattered. A lot of things happened. I gave up that ambition. Streaks of that desire still swell weakly in me, once in a while. Quite a familiar stranger now. A sleeper in me. Deep sleeper. One thing that has made sleep beautiful for me is this sleeper inside me. In deep slumber, turning over once in a while.

What do you want to do in life? I ask myself. Nothing. Seriously, nothing. I can paint, think, dance, and believe I can still do sculpture. Clay. Wood. That’s just the force of life. Primitive. Like the wind blowing, dogs barking or wagging tails, stone just being hard on the cold ground. They serve no purpose. I have no purpose in life–not just mine, I see no purpose in life and this is making me feel empty. Just purposeless, I don’t want to enjoy life. Gay abandon. Eating around. Sleeping around. Fucking around. No carpe diem for me, please. No advice.

Why is it that humans, at least some of them, want to die when they have nothing to do in life? Do they want some job to do in life? Do they want to be busy? No. It’s not that simple. To exist, to undergo the process of existence in the stark meaninglessness, is a torture. Injustice. It is irritating. But why don’t I just commit suicide? Why not just blow my brains out? I wonder why I don’t do this–kill myself? Seriously. I don’t know. It seems like underneath I am a detective, justice of the law of the universe, that senses something is not quite right and wants to figure this out and fix it. Sort of some buried anger deep inside me. A quiet but burning desire to bring the culprit–if we can call it so–to justice. This is the violence in me. The cool violence. The icy cold stiff die-hard, stoic in me. Waiting patiently. But punching once in a while into the walls, on the floor, breaking my valuables all of a sudden. As if madness emerging out of nowhere. The violence in me.

Art gives me solace. I am an artist. I live as an art. My life is a work of art. There is pleasure in this art, this me. And I am not for show. How does art give me solace? Art distracts me from the meaningless elements of life. I remove parts of life I think do harm to life. Weeds. I live like an editor of life. Artists are editors of life. I edit my life. I live in my edited world. But it is also true that I want to die along with art–this art. This art is too delicate for the wake-up knock on the door. The membrane between the rumbling life and this dream called art is too thin and fragile. But I do not know how I come to the conclusion that death puts everything to rest. What is that logic? I am not sure. No, I am not sure.

I have no ambition in life. That’s true. No ambition. That did not result from any failure or fear of failure or any kind of fear. I just don’t like much about life. But that much of life I like, I want to live that much in the woods. Raising a small family. Raising birds and animals, too, as part of my family. Fish. Feeding them. Flowers. Trees. Farming. Producing my own food. Being part of nature. Dying of snakebite or being tiger-food. Or dying in the lap of my wife, surrounded by my children and grandchildren. Or dying alone in a cold bed. Unseen by any, except fruitflies. That would be a pleasing one. That is the life I am looking forward to now.

Bokeh in Lakeshore Evening

The stirs of life slow down to rest
at sunset—they don’t like the dark much.
The streets, closed malls and parks—
they are left to the homelss, dogs, cats,
lost newcomers and nocturnal tourists.

I sit on a shapeless rock growing out of the sand.
Through the sunset. After the sunset.

Dull sounds of oars hitting gunwales—yea,
I saw some lazy boats off the shore in the twilight.
The sound of water lapping against the shore.
A dog barking at a far distance.
Nameless noises of being wriggling in the silence.
A cat teaching its kitten cat tricks
on the white table at my room verandah.
Idiot. Useless things.
There are more important things.

I have brought my eyes back to myself
and keep them about myself only to sense
almost imperceptible ghostly shadows
coming into their curtailed field.
I look at nothing particular—
I just remain capable of seeing.

I sit on the shapeless rock growing out of the sand.
Through the sunset. After the sunset.

The sounds of a familiar language are brought
by the wind, the wave forms twisted into unintelligible shapes,
into a strange language or a non-language.
Just the voices kept intact as humans’.
They must be walking arm in arm in the sand.
In love. In the breeze. The evening soon to pass.
Long tuned to the silence and pressures in the nocturnal air,
you can sense the presence and absence
of movements around.

My mind sits at the center of the quiet
weaving a thought without an idea in it.
Thought in bokehs of ideas.

My photographer friend would say
this is a beautiful scene.

Dancing in the Dark

Even as I looked, I didn’t see
how it seeped into the port–
the ship of shadows docks
with dancers dancing in the dark
mixing darkness with dance and dancers,
the mix filling the mould
bubbling out sound and silence.

In the absence without pressure,
noiseless sounds ooze out of the ears
to creep for a flash unsensed
before yielding to the yawning thirst.

Failed Man

Failure is a beautiful thing–
the most beautiful but the hardest to live.
A beauty you avoid, an art you fear,
one you like only from a distance
as your negative space.
The best men in the world
are failed men.
They keep failing. Beautiful men.
Hopes crumble down in their laps,
brick by brick–those they laid one by one–
into shapeless rubble heaps,
formless grains of dust and mass of wastes,
in sounds from the mute fall of airborne dust
to the soundless noise
following the crashing of towers
and skyscrappers onto the dust
where the sky begins.
Meaningless until you hear them on a tape
meaningless until you rub
and feel their roughness on the canvas.
Failed men breathe through the wreck,
speak in nonsense–
a tongue of a different frequency range
where sound and matter merge.

Macroscopic View of Madness: Insanity in the Heart of Sanity?

Is it obtainable for a person to be mad and is still aware that he or she is mad? This question, while it hits one of our core assumptions as to madness, is deliberately worded as it is so that we face a conundrum born of our way of thinking making us ask this question as we have asked.

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Self-portrait by Thoithoi O’Cottage

Our core assumption about madness is that “mad people” are different from us because they do not think or are not capable of thinking like us; i.e., to be self-conscious. Let us not be distracted from the issue by “self-conscious,” because the issue with our core assumption is about “difference,” the health of which is determined by the “standard.” Yes, for better or worse, we need standards for us to live in organized ways, no matter how we organize these “ways,” though the standard should not be so fixed to stifle any forces of change (which can never be justly judged beyong wild conjecturing before they have actually transpired into real artifacts). The need for standards seems to be more important in some areas than others; for example, standards of health readings (say, the range of healthy values in a complete blood count test) and health-care procedures (say, the best way known of treating a disease) are more critical than dressing standards of hospitals and the institutions of the police and the army. Our health is more of a primary concern to us than other non-physical (or moral) values (such as the question of wearing sindur or mangalsutra among married women in most of India) because the condition of health directly and immediately affects us (the body) first and our other concerns (which are secondary) are at the mercy of our health. In this sense, some standards are more fundamental than others to the extent of the relatively less basic ones being negotiably compromised for better adjustment in the more primary areas.

The conundrum born of our way of thinking leading us to asking our question at the beginning is that our assumption that madness is a matter of kind but not degree and consequently that if somebody is mad he/she is mad in absolute terms has made it impossible for us to pursue the investigation which would have been initiated by the question correctly worded. The assumption stated as a problem in the preceding paragraph is actually a product of this more fundamental assumption giving birth to the conundrum we encounter now. This conundrum shows signs of us considered mentally healthy ignoring who we consider mad as a generalized mass of madness, thereby creating a binary of we/they, with there being nothing common in between. An immediate discontinuity between black and white.

Our general understanding of madness is of the kind of a uniform solid with no internal variation. If X is mad, and if Y is mad, then our view is X = Y to the extent of their distinct individual characteristics and other readily visible differences becoming irrelevant resulting in their personhood ceasing to be. This death or murder of personhood reduces them to the status of things like molecules in a drop of water or drops of water in the river where you see just the flowing continuity of uniform liquid water, not incalculably many drops or molecules of water.

This macroscopic view of madness leads us to a dangerously flawed (wrong and unjust) sweeping generalization about mad people–if X mad and if he/she cannot be self-conscious, then any other X’s cannot be self-conscious. This leads us to the conclusion that if anybody is mad, it is impossible for them to be aware that they are mad.

Is madness actually a matter of kind, not degree? If this is the case, does one immediately jumps into madness (becoming mad all of a sudden) when one becomes mad, and jumps immediately BACK OUT OF madness into sanity (becoming NORMAL) all of a sudden, and there being no continuity between the two “major” distinct states in such a way that this person was X while he was normal first, and then he jumped into being Y (stoping being X) and then jumped out (BACK) into X or (Z, a third person?).

I will dwell on this issue in my another article.

Un/real

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Photograph by Thoithoi O’Cottage (Janakpuri DC, New Delhi, July 2016)

What is reality and how does it relate to unreality? Or asked the other way round, what is unreality and how does it relate to reality? Different languages deal with binaries differently—the concepts labelled by x and y which has an x-y (stem-derivative) relation in one language may realize as a y-x (stem-derivative) relation in another language, if such cases of two concepts, x and y, being represented by the signs of one and its derivative happens to be there; for example, the Manipuri word landaba is derived from lanba, the corresponding English words for which have the derivation relation the other way round—righteous (landaba) is the stem of unrighteous (lanba).

Stem            derivative      morphological process     language
landaba         lanba           clipping                  Manipuri
righteous       unrighteous     prefixing                 English

However, all of them invariably favor one or the other (but not both) ideas engaged in the struggle for supremacy in their conceptual hierarchy. In English, the concept “unreal” is built on “real,” confirming the supremacy of “real” over “unreal.” This hierarchy, unconsciously on our part, determines the order of our questions asked above at the beginning.

Similarly, in Sanskrit “himsa” is more fundamental than its derivative “ahimsa.” This order may not necessarily result from the favoritism toward ideas cultures show in practice, but when attitudes sustain for over a significantly long period of time, they leave a behavioral track in the collective unconscious of a community which condenses into moral codes. At this point, the whole scheme of things in effect (no matter what the design/purpose was originally) proves to have been functioning as a collective moral apparatus upholding certain values while repressing certain others, which is nothing but favoritism in action.

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Photograph by Thoithoi O’Cottage (New Delhi, August 2016)

When we think of reality, we have to try as much as we can to shed the favoritism in our tissues of our own cultural body or cultural psyche so we can arrive at a hypothetical primordial conceptual field in which concepts comingle without a timeline showing their evolution and relative ages. Tying concepts down to the etimologies of their corresponding words the processes of signification have established the relations they have with crams concepts into distict cultural boxes thereby circumscribing the potency of concepts to fill out to their own full extent. But we often encounter situations in which ideas/concepts need to be given equal treatment (something that could be achieved by an ahistorical engagement).

Thinking along this line, the concepts of “real” and “unreal” coexist side by side (horizontally) or simultaneously on different planes (vertically but not in a hierarchical scheme). Only then can we conceive of a conceptual field in which apparently opposite concepts merge harmoniously on the edges even as they maintain the unique properties of their identities.

Sanity, Insanity and Truth

So expansive is the area of our cultural life the transactions of which are processed through language that we hesitate to agree to the fact that there are areas in our cultural life in which language does not figure with the primacy (if it figures at all) generally accorded to it. The works of non-narrative creative art forms, such as abstract painting, music and dance, owe much for their composition to extra-linguistic exercise of the mind. An informed consumer of such a work of art may, drawing on their learning, read certain stroke of the brush or gesture of part of the body as a line or a curve, or the vocal range as spanning four octaves, linguistically giving labels to artistic maneuvers. However, those artistic maneuvers are not linguistic acts. Relevantly here, Birkerts aptly says about poetry and music:

Music can be subjected to stringent analysis, it can be precisely notated, and yet the notations give no purchase whatsoever on beauty. Because while a note can be named, a sound, and from sound a melody, cannot. And with poetry, beauty and mystery begin at the very point where denotation ends (Berkerts, 2012, pp. 76-77).

A mind experiencing a work of abstract art as a consumer functions differently from that of an artist at its creative moment. The consumer mind more often than not thinks about the work of art in a linguistic way. A mind at an abstract creative work does not think in terms of linguistic units (such as labels, meaningful or not) or their minimal meaningful compositions (such as words)—it experiences abstract plays of sometimes retrospectively namable colors, forms, and shapes, etc. Language is only a recent invention in our evolutionary timeline, and before humans biologically evolved to be well equipped for speech, they relied on their non-linguistic faculties—they experienced the world in a more direct sensuous way, visually, aurally, and so on. The pre-linguistic understanding of newborns is also another interesting example nearer to us.

light

Figure 1: A photograph at a slow shutter speed (20 seconds) set to record the trace the movement of fire at the tip of an incense stick. This photograph is untitled. Photograph by Thoithoi O’Cottage (October 2016)

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Figure 2: Tangle of Light. This image, captured moments after the one in Figure 1, was also photographed at the same slow shutter speed of 20 seconds. Photograph by Thoithoi O’Cottage.

Before taking the above photographs, I had certain mental vision of something like a small brand of red or orange light moving in spirals, circles and curves leaving a long trace in knotty tangles—sort of the play of the persistence of vision, something we are unaware of unless we consciously and carefully study this phenomenon. The physical law governing this phenomenon did not concern the vision at all. The vision was about the formal beauty of the movement of the light in space and across time, and experiencing it spatially spread flatly across a page, the twenty seconds compressed into one viewing aesthetic moment, something temporally impossible made spatially possible by the medium of photography. While the physical law governing this phenomenon remains a fact, my vision of the firebrand trace did not have a specific form, and when I took the shots the same brand took different forms which have nothing to do with the photograph’s being titled or untitled.

Creative works of the abstract kind, thus, make no claims—they constate nothing; they contest nothing. It, therefore, stands to reason that such cultural artefacts are free from the responsibility of having to be value-charged. Though they can be subjected even to political studies, they are intrinsically affective and this primacy cannot be pushed aside to accommodate a linguistic claim considered putatively made by them. Foucauldean aesthetics falls along this line, in which, as James D. Faubion (2000) puts,

[t]the literary quest for experimental and expressive frontiers—a mission of discovery that leads beyond referentiality, beyond imitation, beyond “reason,” beyond the established generic bounds of disciplined invention, to the edges of coherence and interpretability just short of madness—has come to a considerable cost: it has obliged literature to share some portion of the fate of madness itself (p. xviii).

Therefore, for our current quest, we would move to areas where language is employed for the content in utterances—to make claims, and affirm or contest anything. In this area of our cultural life, we are “very much at the mercy of […] language” because “the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language” we speak as members of society (Sapir, 2008, p. 209). Without language thoughts and ideas that have distinguished humans from other creatures would have been much rudimentary at best.

Any linguistic act involves the use at least of a minimal meaningful unit of language, such as a full-fledged word as “I” or filler sounds such as “mmm.” As such minimal units, considered at this linguistic level, are meaningful, no act that can be considered linguistic can be performed in vacuum—it always means something, its content. As language disagrees with vacuum, whenever we encounter a linguistic act (an utterance, even when it is in a language we do not know), we, irrespective of the speaker’s identity, try to tie its content down to the facts of the concrete world. Referentiality is the inherent property of language, no matter who the language user is, what the speaker’s intention is, and in what circumstances it is used, because since language is made up of meaningful units (say words) and each of these units derives its meaning from its reference to facts in the lived world, language remains anchored to the world of facts. A person may utter a word, say “apple,” and yet have no need or intention to convey the idea conveyed by the word, but by dint of the fact that “apple” has referents in the factual and conceptual world the utterance triggers referentiality, independent and irrespective of the utterer’s need or intention, in the same way as dictionary entries have meanings. The context (including the speaker’s supposed intention) does only to refine and narrow down the scope of the utterance’s referentiality by contextually limiting other possibilities of meaning. One of my neighbours in Kakching habitually drops in her speech three words—chafu (pot), pena (a Manipuri musical instrument), and various forms of the verb irujaba (bathe)—irrelevantly together consecutively in that order with great frequency (sometimes interspersed with right words in her sentences) before she self-corrects immediately after their utterance. Her interlocutors understand what these words refer to though she does not intend to utter these words to refer to mean what they mean; however, the linguistic competence of the interlocutors ignore these words as contextually irrelevant, at first with surprise, then with a smile, and later with knowledgeable ignorance.

However, in normal circumstances, the referring contents in spoken or written language acts (they are intended) presented as referring have corresponding anchoring referents at corresponding points on the timeline in the actual world. The referents can be factual materially (certain events actually happen physically; e.g., people shaking hands, wars being fought, buildings being built, etc.) or conceptually (some things happen in the mind without them necessarily crystalizing into verifiable material facts such as, wishing if we could fly without wings, believing something to be true irrespective of its actual truth value, understanding things in certain ways than they actually are, etc.), and they may lie in the past or the present, or in the future. The past and the present have actualized referents while the future consists of possibilities which are yet to actualize. Many of the possibilities actualize in actual reality while many others remain virtual reality without actually crystalizing into actual reality, while the rest disappears without a trace.

The general functions involved in referentiality is so common to us that we take most things for granted and we, until we pay attention, do not see the underlying complexities at work when our mind makes the referencing connections. When someone says

(1) This is a mango

and holds up a mango for us to see, we can verify the truth value of his statement (unless we are unaware of the fruit called mango) by checking the truth claim of the statement against our world knowledge—his “mango” refers to the fruit or the species of fruit in his hand. If he rather holds up an orange for us to see and says

(2) This is a mango

and if we know oranges and mangoes to tell one from the other and believe the speaker intends by his “mango” to refer to the fruit in his hand (orange), we encounter a problem of mismatch between the referrer and the referent, and thus we cannot link “mango” in his speech to the factual entity of the orange in his hand. This mismatch triggers a wide range of general judgmental issues concerning the speaker’s world knowledge, linguistic competence, personality, intentions, and so on. Does he (age matters; for example, a very young kid has far less world knowledge than a normal adult) not know the fruits mango and orange when he has definitely heard the word “mango”? Does he not know the term/name by which the fruit mango (or also orange) is known in the language he speaks? Is he a comic or a very argumentative person trying to convince his gullible audience that what he has in his hand (orange) is actually a mango, not an orange? Or what motive does he have for saying the orange in his hand is a mango well knowing that it is actually an orange and not a mango? Is he simply crazy?

Every day we come across true statements like (1) and false statements like (2). Rightly judging the truth value of a statement calls for relevant knowledge or information on the part of the audience, too. Lacking the relevant knowledge or information on their part fails the audience in judging the truth value of statements to accept or reject a claimed link between the referring content and the assumed referent in the actual world. This failure is of great consequence, because in the absence of the verifying knowledge, the audience has to right away take at face value a statement as true, or reject as false without any supporting proof or reason, or they may have to remain in suspension (in doubt or skepticism, or just indifference) thereby negating the purpose of the statement or linguistic exercise, rendering it fruitless. The behavior of the audience is affected by failed or successful linking. How we link the truth claims of statements to their supposed corresponding factual counterparts in the real world not only affects our daily behavior but also changes the course of history, and thus our culture. Truth, falsehood and outright lies have gone into our lives through history, and it is here that the general issues of truth, lie and falsehood, of linking truth claims in statements with their supposed corresponding factual counterparts in the real world become so much culturally important.

Assuming that everybody knows mangoes and oranges, they can tell one from the other and that both the referrer and the referent are right next to each other for easy and immediate verification of the statement’s truth value, we do not have problems of linking when we know both the referrer and the referent as in (1). However, things are not so straightforward and apparently very simple statements of the same type as (1) and (2) can be intractably difficult and do not readily lend themselves to easy and valid linking. For example, investigating and verifying the truth value of “She is his sister” (which is of the same type of (1)) may not be as simple as it seems, if it is not impossible. When we cannot access the verifying factual realities when we want, we are left to be unsure resulting in us just assuming the statement to be true or false (just like in elections when many people just vote for a candidate or the other to avoid wasting vote even when they do not support any of those whom they vote for) most of the time, or avoid getting involved by ignoring the discourse.

Sometimes (or rather most of the time) it is impossible for us to verify the truth/fact claims of every piece of information we receive every day, and when the frequency and volume of information inflow is far more than could be handled, the information, irrespective of its truth value, problematically becomes the constituents of knowledge without value judgment and verification, just as it comes. Once unverified information goes into the make-up of our knowledge, our relevant subsequent belief and practices are based on that knowledge with unverified elements. History and culture are alloys of truths, half-truths, falsehood and lies. In a hurry to keep abreast of events at a runaway pace, all the participants (governments, corporates, the media, and individuals) of the accelerated world cannot fathom most of the information inflow beyond what immediately concerns them on a personal level. In such a world, “the pace with which new threats can materialize leaves no time for hesitation” and nations in the world act on the maxim that “[d]ecisions must be made quickly and efficiently by a centralized and authoritative executive” for “slow-moving processes of deliberation and debate (not to mention investigation) are no longer viable” (Glezos, 2012, p. 2). More than that, these slow-moving processes “potentially threaten our survival” (ibid). In a 2004 New York Times Magazine article, reporter Ron Suskind quoted from what a high-level aide within the Bush administration said in their interview, which rationalized the above worldview and justifying those in power going “from one reckless action to another, always moving too fast to be held accountable for their destruction, lies and illegalities” (Glezos, 2012, p. 2):

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do” (Suskind, 2004).

Real-time war and crisis reporting keeps pace with “centralized and authoritative executives” and constructs a knowledge system in which, at the maximum possible level of objectiveness, what is visible to the eyes is reported as they look like (though reality is not that straightforward and appearances can be deceiving) as soon as they have happened or while they are happening. In the instant and real-time reporting scheme, there is no time for investigation and verification because “the news media which is supposed to exercise […] accountability must itself move […] fast […] in moving from scandal to scandal” to follow the developments at a runaway pace. For example, at the very instant when the First Gulf War officially started at 2:38 am of 17 January 1991 with an aerial bombing campaign on Baghdad,

CNN (the only Western TV network present in Iraq) started to broadcast the unfolding images of military action from the ground. In the following weeks, millions of viewers could watch the war, as it was happening, live on their TV screens (Bruno, 2011, p. 1).

Later in 1998-99, the Kosovo war (or rather Kosovo-Serbia war) was also reported real-time in various ways, and more recently, between late 2013 and early 2014, the Ukrainian civil war, or more specifically the Russian-Ukrainian war (the tension of which has not yet let up considerably), was reported real-time by protestors, demonstrators and soldiers on the front on newer media platforms on the Internet far more efficiently but sketchily and without organization and system. At first sight, audio-visual recordings and photographic images, by dint of their mechanical process of production (Bazin, 1980, pp. 240-241), may seem unquestionably objective in their nature to the extent of the recording subject (the videographer and the photographer) having no agentive role in the data’s value production, resulting in the data being an unmediated copy of the part of the world or event recorded. Such rigid objectivity-mechanicality arguments of the likes of Bazin between the early days of the invention of the photographic camera in the late eighteenth century and the later part of the nineteenth century turned out naïve to later scholars and critics of photography (see Berger, 1980, pp. 292, 294; Damisch, 1980, pp. 289-290; Weston, 1980, pp. 171, 173) and the cinematic medium as forms of art. More recently, critics like Baer (2002), Batchen (2004), Grundberg (2003, pp. 164-179), Kember (2003, pp. 202-217) and Sontag (1973, 2005), among many others, have gone to an impressive extent to study the problems of reality with respect to videography and photography and their unreliability as a means of documentation.

While the arguments of these scholars may help us appreciate the complex nature the relationship between reality on the one hand and photography and videography on the other, our current concern does not require going into those details beyond pointing out the fact that videography and photography can serve diametrically opposite purposes while they report the same event as we have witnessed it in the above-mentioned Russian-Ukrainian conflict, and the infamous Vietnam War (1954–1975), in which individuals affiliated to either side photographed or videographed the events from their own angles. When the news and visual reports of mass destruction, ignominious torture and tragedy of Vietnam War flooded the American mediascape, there was no dearth of news and visual reports of American heroism in action on the front, but Vietnamese photographers, especially Nick Ut, captured more traumatizing scenes of the war in only a very few photographs. Judging the event just by reports from opposite sides juxtaposed in front of us, the third party, we are compelled to believe that each side is a hero or a villain.

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Figure 3: Herioism of American soldiers during the Vietnam War, photographed by an American photographer

Vietnam Napalm 1972

Figure 4: A tragic scene during the Vietnam War. Photograph by Nick Un.

The CNN real-time report of the Gulf War was accompanied by oral commentary by on-the-scene reporters. However, that does not make any difference because even if the verbal statements were supplemented by the live video report or vice versa (or they might be mutually supplementing), there is always the possibility of employing convincing statements and audio-visual data to serve ideological purposes, intentionally or otherwise.

When “history’s actors” engage in creating fast-paced realities pushing the borders of knowledge into newer areas, and when the willing or reluctant propagators of these new realities and body of knowledge (the media and academic institutions) engage in the debates around the acts of history’s actors by multiplying, reproducing the replicas and clones of the new realities in the form of news and critical studies in alarmingly large volume at an alarming pace, the common people are left with no option but consuming what they are fed. They are reduced to consumers of the system constituted by the government, its institutions, corporates and the media (capitalism would be a clichéd and too vague a term) which they feed but makes it look like they are fed by it. When one is reduced to a constant consumer, one can never keep pace with the producer, let alone overtaking it and exchange roles once in a while, if not permanently. Dynamic equality and parity in which there is a two way flow of economic and political traffic between any two sides maintaining a balance is not obtainable in such a system. Thus the common people are condemned to perpetual consumerism in which they are not equipped to be capable of questioning the values of the products sold to them and investigate and verify their truth claims. As space (the site of shape and form) is realized in two senses in painting and architecture (the positive space and the negative space), news (or what is presented to us as knowledge or reality) always has two sides to it—the told and the untold. Openly shared information positively act on the minds of its consumers, while information kept secret or on hold for a calculated period of time act snegatively or passively to maintain the order prevalent while the openly shared information is running its positive rounds. If the withheld information were released while it was actually kept locked inside the closet, it would have affected the knowledge-scape of the world in question in a different way than when it was kept withheld. All this means that what we call knowledge is mediated by some agency and it is their artefact, and we are a controlled product of this agency. In our perpetual condemnation, we consider only the told part as constitutive of our knowledge or what is called ‘truth’ although it has taken that form by dint of the pressure applied to it by the untold part. No shape is possible without pressure acting on it, but the pressure is invisible most of the time while what takes shape or assumes a form is clearly perceptible to us as it is actually taking shape or assuming a form as if magically on its own.

The play of ideology and deliberate ideological inflection in news reports and the politics of speed in these political and media undertakings may not be immediately that obvious to or concern the common people. However, the same principle applies to the undertakings and negotiations in our day-to-day life processed through language as in the simple utterances like (1) and (2). As we do not, most of the time, have access to the corresponding verifying facts immediately when we hear statements, we are left unsure of the truth about the truth claims in those statements. But as we often have necessarily to act on the statements the truth value of which are unverified for the time being or unverifiable at all, we have to have an opinion on those statements as a response for our relevant subsequent actions and behavior to be based on. If we do not commit [at least such a makeshift action], human relations disintegrate and the world’s progress (or change, the sign of life) is stalled. Skepticism save us relatively better from falsehood and lies but it shrinks the space of life into a small island of supposed certainty landlocked by rocky uncertainties. We are not sure what ground we should stand on to claim a value superiority of a skeptic lifestyle with a narrow filed of life over a more open lifestyle with a wider space of life knowledgeably letting in lies and falsehood to a manageable extent.

Falsehood needs to be distinguished from a lie though they can at times coincide. (2) above restated as

(3) This is a mango

can be false but not a lie if the speaker believes that the fruit in his hand is called “mango” while it actually is an orange. The fact claim of his statement is false because his belief that the fruit in his hand (which is an orange) is known by the name “mango.” Then when the statement is false, what is it that makes this statement different from the same statement uttered as a lie? Consider this in such a circumstance as when a malicious adult intends to mislead a special-care kid from his neighborhood into believing that the fruit that he has in his hand (which is known to all people by the name orange) is a mango and says:

(4) This is a mango

While (3) and (4) have or share the same form they are different so that the former is falsehood while the latter is a lie. The same form comes to take on different truth values by dint of the presence or absence of certain motive behind its utterance. (4) has the motive of making somebody believe in something while he is well aware that it is not true and the other person (the kid) cannot at that moment judge and prove him wrong due to lack of relevant world knowledge on his part, while in (3) the speaker, lacking the knowledge of calling the fruit in his hand by its name, calls it by another fruit’s name, but in this false name-assignment, he does not have an intention to lead another person into unwittingly but willingly substituting their belief about or knowledge of one kind of fruit for their belief about or knowledge of another kind of fruit.

Weather forecast statements can be good examples to distinguish between false statements and lies. As we know, weather forecasts, especially the ones made by ill-equipped professionals, such as

(5) There is a heavy rain tomorrow evening.

can often turn out wrong especially when they word the statements quite tightly as in the case of 5 with its absence of words like “expected” (5 would have been better if it was rephrased as “There is a heavy rain expected by tomorrow evening”) which give rooms for probable faults in the data collection and its interpretation, and possible (often unexpected) changes in the atmosphere which may render the forecast irrelevant. (5) may turn out false but not a lie, because the forecast is consistent with the data the scientists have collected, and while there can be flaws in how they collect the data or in how they interpret the collected data, they still believe that the data is right and their interpretation is accurate.

Here we judge the truth value of statements based on the intention of the language-using subject. But in our lived experience, we often find clear cases of outright misunderstanding and interpretations of linguistic acts in various ways other than the utterer’s intention, not in the way of misunderstanding. Swept by the “death of the author” and the myth about the myth of “intentional fallacy,” hard-core post-structuralism does consider misunderstanding obtainable, because in this scheme understanding itself cannot happen in the absence of what is to be understood–intention encoded as meaning in the text. However, in our lived experience, we have our intentions when we make utterances, and we are often understood in unfortunately shocking lights.

Misunderstanding happens when the truth claim T in a statement S referring to a fact F is rather linked by the audience to a fact they assume A. We often try to explain ourselves by emphasizing the link between T and F, but we do not succeed every time we do so. Misunderstanding is a fact—it happens—and we cannot ignore this fact in our study of truth claims in statements. Misunderstanding affects personal relationships and the how we navigate our way through the tangles of life. Cultures differ in how individuals navigate their ways through the social maze. Therefore, how we establish and draw the link between T and F or A or a non-existent fact ϕ demands extensive study beyond the current confines of semantics.

In my attempt to cover a wider conceptual field, the term “non-existent fact” here is inaccurate and thus calls for elaboration. If the T of a statement cannot be verified by F because, in such a circumstance, T actually does not refer to F and for this reason there is no F for this T. Then T in the statement in question refers to a non-existent fact ϕ, presented by the speaker as an F (an actually existing fact) for the audience to establish the link it with T, and as T remains suspended without a fact anchor, it is a lie. For example, if T in

(6) He is my boyfriend

cannot be verified by a corresponding real-life fact of the person referred to by “he” actually being the boyfriend of the speaker or, in other words, if such a relationship does not exist in reality, and if she wants to lead her audience (or interlocutor) into believing that such a relationship actually exists, then it (T) is ϕ (i.e., a lie).

The term “non-existent fact” can also refer to a tentative fact (belief) which has “yet” to transpire into F in a point in future, when the speaker actually believes that the tentative fact may or will crystalize into a real fact. “Will” and “may” differ, and they should be marked appropriately in T. In such a case, T is not linked to ϕ but to ϴ. For instance, if the speaker, when saying

(7) I will be in the studio tonight

actually believes that he will be in the studio tonight, T is linked to ϴ (a tentative fact which has yet to crystalize into a real fact if it ever will). Anything can happen between the cup and the lip, and his mind may change or some other things can happen changing the situation precluding his actually going to and being in the studio at the appointed time. Even then, when he stated (7), T still was linked to ϴ, because he believed (and did not pretend) it would be ϴ. This is not a case like (6) in which ϕ is presented as F to link with T while the speaker is aware that it is actually not the case. Reneging on a promise may be legally liable depending on the kind of promise, but it is not a marker indicating the completion of a sustained act of lying unless the person did not mean to keep the promise when they made it and had in their mind the decision that they would finally go back on that promise. An act of making a false promise is a T-ϕ case, even when it later turns out that the promisor keeps that promise because when we judge the truth/fact values of statements we are concerned with the T-linking (the linking of truth/fact claims of the statements to their referents) at the actual moment of their utterance. Thus, the actual linking of T to ϴ as in (7) is different from the case of reneging.

We have so far been dwelling on the truth claims of statements by people considered normal. We will now turn to the utterances of people clinically certified as diagnosed with pathological psychic conditions, or of people who are socially considered and treated as “affected in the head” (Hillcoat, 2012), which needs to be understood in terms of degrees, not an absolute. We will also examine the verbal behavior of and the truth claims of statements by neurotic patients.

People suffering from psychiatric conditions and other physical conditions affecting the thought processes caused by injury to the brain (excluding aphasic conditions, which are not psychiatric conditions) often have experiences which are not real and not verifiable to others. A mental patient experience a different reality than a normal person’s does, and this leads to normal people expecting no T-F, T-ϴ and even T-ϕ linking in the statements by mental patients. Even though their speech draws on the vocabulary of the language their mentally healthy fellow humans in the same speech community, they do not share the coordinates of fact/truth value verification which, in the case of mentally healthy people, lie in the real physical world. These patients inhabit their own, individual lonely island worlds, and no two such patients share the same world for their experience to be anchored commonly. In the speech of mental patients and mad men, there is breakdown in varying degrees in the link between T and the lived world of the normal people and/or even their own. Normal people, in consequence, think that mad mental patients and mad people just utter words incoherently and these utterances remain floating in the air without coherent and consistent factual anchoring somewhere (even when listeners may not be able to establish the relevant linking relations as in the case of our being unable to fix such a relation when we hear people speak in languages we do not know) and consider such utterances as bogus. Belonging to none of the referential categories relevant to the speech of normal people (T, F, ϴ, and ϕ), the referential categories in the speech of mad men are value-free and relieved of the responsibility of meaning things. When the responsibility of making meaning is stripped from speech, speech is not more capable of doing anything, not even lying. Speech becomes empty strings of sounds. What mad men say is actually constituted by the culture of the people they live among—they speak the language of the normal people (no Chinese mad man in a Hong Kong supermarket would speak Hindi or any other language than the one he knows), they use words from the normal people’s vocabulary, they speak in the same accent as the normal people, and the individual words they utter are imbued with the culture of the normal people who speak the language the vocabulary including those words constitutes. However, when the responsibility of having to make meaning has been lifted from the shoulders of their speech, mad men are left to live in meaningless noise sounding exactly like language. Even when their utterances can be studied linguistically, pragmatically the mechanism of sense making is totally shattered in their speech, except in certain very basic functional utterances expressing instinctive feelings and their gratification such as hunger, thirst, eat, and drink, etc.

Works Cited:
Baer, U. (2002). Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
 
Batchen, G. (2004). Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance. New York, USA: Princeton Architectural Press.

Bazin, A. (1980). The Ontology of the Photographic Image. In A. Trachtenber (Ed.), Classic Essays on Photography (pp. 237-244). New Haven, Conn.: Leete's Island Books.

Berger, J. (1980). Understanding a Photograph. In A. Trachtenberg (Ed.), Classic Essays on Photography (pp. 291-297). New Haven, Conn: Leete's Island Books.

Berkerts, S. (2012). Emerson's "The Poet"--A Circling. (C. Wiman, Ed.) Poetry, 200(1), 76-77.

Bruno, N. (2011). Tweet First, Verify Later? How Real-time Information is Changing the Coverage of Worldwide Crisis Events. University of Oxford. Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Damisch, H. (1980). Five Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image. In A. Trachtenberg (Ed.), Classic Essays on Photography (pp. 287-290). New Haven, Conn.: Leete's Island Books.

Foucault, M. (2000). Michel Foucault: The Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 (Vol 2, Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology). (J. D. Faubion, Ed., & R. Hurley, Trans.) London, UK: Penguin Books.

Glezos, S. (2012). The Politics of Speed: Capitalism, the State and War in an Accelerating World. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Grundberg, A. (2003). The Crisis of the Real: Photography and Postmodernism. In L. Wells (Ed.). Abingdon: Routledge.

Fisher, L., Wick, D., Ellison, M., Benaroya, M. (Producers), & Hillcoat, J. (Director). (2012). Lawless [Motion Picture]. USA: The Weinstein Company; FilmNation Entertainment.

Kember, S. (2003). The Shadow of the Object: Photography and Realism. In L. Wells (Ed.). Abingdon: Routledge.

Sapir, E. (2008). The Collected Works of Edward Sapir. (P. Swiggers, Ed.) Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.

Sontag, S. (1973 (2005)). On Photography. New York, USA: RosettaBooks, LLC.

Suskind, R. (2004, October 17). Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush. The New York Times Magazine.

Weston, E. (1980). Seeing Photographically. In A. Trachtenberg (Ed.), Classic Essays on Photography (pp. 169-175). New Haven, Conn.: Leete's Island Books.

Politics of Happiness

The social sense of happiness is political, and a person’s happiness in society depends on the structure of that politics. Traditionally, happiness is constituted by a fair balance among reasonably good health, a reasonably fair amount of wealth or a fairly good source of regular income, fairly good family life (in which a fairly good upbringing, loving parents, fairly good spouse, children are included), and fairly good relations with social institutions and other individuals, etc. This yardstick is of course general and there are millions of common people who live outside of this fold, such people as orphans, the homeless, people living in perpetual poverty or in ill-health, people who are not married or all other members of their families dead (for example, many lone survivors of the Holocaust). Many of these people are deprived by fate or whatever of most or all of what are considered to make a person happy. For example, Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank, survived all other members of his family–his wife and their two daughters died in German concentration camps. When he was rescued by the Allied Force, he had lost everything that was considered to constitute his happiness–family, wealth, source of income, social relations, hope, and what not? By the common, traditional standard, such people cannot be happy, because by the standarc of happiness only people with most (if not all) of these assets are recognized as happy, and in consequence, people without most (if not all) of these factors do not have the source of happiness.

The concept of happiness is thus an established, received one, and it rests on these happiness factors. This concept favors certain group of people while it disadvantages the rest. Being able to pass as being happy is important for a person’s growth of any kind in a society with an established standard concept of happiness, because one being happy presupposes one’s possession of most (if not all) of the happiness assets, which are most valued by other members of the society. A person well-endowed with these assets is more welcome everywhere in the society’s setting (be it marriage, friendship, employment, health care, recreation, and what not) than a person who has less of these, while a person who does not have nothing or nearly nothing of what is considered to consitute happiness is least welcome, if not unwelcome.

The contitution of social happiness standard as we see in every turn empowers some and disadvantages the rest. It creates a hierarchy, and tends to perpetuate the structure. People usually are cognitive misers and they, rather than spend some thought energy in thinking and critically examining apparently regular things, just receive established ideas about them and thoughtlessly follow the tradition. However rational we are, we just believe nearly everything floated in the news (be it on the Internet or through the traditional media or by word of mouth as rumors, or in all forms)–if A defames B on Facebook, most people take the first report at face value. Thus, how one looks to others (i.e., whether they look happy indicating they have the resources powering their happiness, or otherwise) matters.

Everybody seems to be concerned about their happiness so much in almost everything they do that happiness seems to be the ultimate purpose of all human efforts. If this is the case, are those who happen to fall outside of the established happiness zone due to the faults of their own or others’ (such as lone survivors of the Holocaust or lone surviving victims of natural disasters, or other misfortunes) failed lives which are best put to an end by such means as suicide? Many did not commit suicide during the Nazi oppression in the concentration camps–they struggled to survive. The force of life is strongand tenacious. But many of them who struggled and clung to the last straws of life in the concentration camps committed suicide after their rescue. They were at the extreme end of what’s lying there opposite happiness. Other survivors did further survive that vaccuum of happiness, but it felt unbearably heavy–that broke the backs of lives. Why did these people who did not commit suicide did not commit suicide? What were they looking up to, when everything that consituted what they called life had been snatched from them? What was it that kept them living on despite they were in the depth of the abyss of extreme despair and hopelessness? Were they crazy, to continue to live when their source of happiness (thd purpose of all efforts in life) had been shattered?

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Photographer unknown

Happiness is undoubtedly political, whatever it may be in a social context. The standard is always a composite of variable values, but happiness is constantly valued in life. Most of the time it is better to be happy than not. However, we often find ourselves in situations where we better sacrifice happiness and embrace meaning in life. Meaning and happiness are not mutually exclusory, but in their wild pursuit of happiness humans more often than not mind meaning. Meaning is rich experience, and it covers the whole area of life, far beyond the four protective walls of happiness.

It seems that you don’t have to give meaning to life as if life has nothing of its own, as if life is a vaccuum. Life itself is what is alive and it is worthy on its own, without any extraneous additions. You may say bare life is not worth living, but life (because it is consciousness) itself is meaning, when when you are physically an invalid and other people in your family, despite their love for you, consider it better that you be given euthanasia, for emotional or financial or any other reasons.

Throes of (Child)birth, Smart of Taking Life

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Photographer unknown

A young, recently married woman committed suicide, the News Nation reported last evening.

It was the final rites of a neighbor yesterday–he took his own life successfully in the second attempt after the first about five years ago. His body was found hard and stiff in the rain hours after his last breath, in the dark narrow space between a barber’s shop and a big abandoned car at a small junk yard.

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Photograph by Sally Mann

His brother had tooken his own life, too. I can still hear the sounds of women crying in his family sneaking weakly and quietly into my room one quiet evening in the early 2000s–I was reading (or writing something?) in my always-quiet room which I had turned into an indoor garden with plants collected from deep forests all over Manipur besides the ones I got from professional gardeners and plant lovers including my brother’s father-in-law. His body was found hard and still in his farmhouse (bolted from inside) days after his disappearance. Before he finally could take his life, he had been often seen walking drunk with a poison bottle in his hand. One foggy late-winter morning, he was found asleep on a cremation furnace platform on the cremation ground in my neighborhood. He had a poison bottle in his hand.

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Photograph by Sally Mann

One son of the eldest brother of these suicide brothers had also put an end to his own life a few years before that. He had hanged himself by the neck from the ceiling of his bedroom, survived by his wife and two very small kids–one was just a newborn.

These three later cases are just what comes to mind when I think of suicides I know personally, actually close ones. Just convenient examples. I can make a long list of names.

About the same time, a friend of mine from my neighborhood–a good humorous person–took poison and it was too late when his family returned home that evening.

Suicide is a very regular phenomenon, and the rate is reportedly highest in Guyana (where people reportedly “die like flies” followed by Japan (Brandon Bridglal). In my state (Manipur, India), statistics says, suicide rate is highest in Kakching. I alone have many friends in my town who committed suicide. A couple of childhood friends from Wangoo, too. That village on one lake farm in which I lived my childhood.

Conversely, when I look at nature closely, I see every speck of life–even the tiniest ones–struggling to live against all sorts of odds. Under the microscope, I see microorganisms struggling to live. On the wooden wall panels of abandoned houses in the woods or on the red-brick walls at the base of the foundation of every building where the minimal conditions of life are present, there are always life forms–at least in the forms of moss and organisms so small visible only to the eyes looking for tiny lives–struggling to maintain life.

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Lichens struggling to live on a dead sliver. Photograph by Thoithoi O’Cottage

I see both life and death around me. Struggles to live and to die. The throes of childbirth, and the first cry of the child. The act of taking life, one’s own or another person’s, negating its birth by another person, a life-giver, a mother (with a father).

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A wild creeper struggling to cling to and draw life from dry mountain-flank rocks. Photograph by Thoithoi O’Cottage

To be continued…

Protected: Compromise and dilution in cross-cultural/lingual love and communication

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The Oath, Atheism, and the Law: The Binding Power of the Oath and its Source

And ye shall not swear by my name falsely, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I [am] the LORD.
—Leviticus 19:12

Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
—Matthew 5:33-37

Thought is always a multiplicity (Deleuze and Guattari 15) and no multiplicity, by dint of its nature, is free from its internal componential tensions because no one component has a repetition or, in other words, no two components are the same. These tensions constitute the politics of thought. Thought being the stuff that precludes the vacuum language would otherwise have been, language, by dint of its constitution, is inherently political. It, thus, stands to logic that anybody whose existential negotiations are processed through and regulated by language is consequently political. That probably is why man, as Aristotle claims, is more of a political animal than bees or any other animals—no animal has speech except man (Aristotle 4).[1] Thought itself is political and its manifestation in language through speech makes humans doubly political because

as speaking is always a political act, and speech (and silence) a narrative (meaning that it is strategic, and upholds certain things and hides certain other things, and they are presented in certain order—certain things first and the rest later, or even never), they speak what they say[,] not just to mean what they say on the literal plane (O’Cottage, 2016: 63).

In this sense, the oath, being a speech act, is a political one. In this scheme, religion can be subsumed under the political[2] though for certain reasons as would be clear soon their distinction is better retained. In The Sacrament of Language, Agamben takes as the object of his archaeological investigation the phenomenon of the oath as a linguistic utterance “situated at the intersection of politics and religion” (Agamben 1). The oath is basically a linguistic utterance “guaranteeing the truth and efficacy of language” (ibid 4) or “intended to confirm a meaningful proposition (a dictum), whose truth or effectiveness it guarantees”(ibid 5). Then there arises a serious question: if man can be unreliable because they are not only capable of lying or perjury but also incapable, more than often, of staying true to their word (ibid 8), not to say anything about the unreliability of language itself, then what is it in the oath that has made it considered possible for it to be invested with such a function (ibid 2)? To answer this question Agamben adopts Louis Gernet’s “prelaw,” hypothesizing “an originary phase in which law and religion appear to be indiscernible” (ibid 16). Prelaw cannot be merely a more archaic law, just as what stands before religion is not only a primitive religion; this is a condition that can be imagined only if we bypass the terms religion and law and try to think of an x (ibid 17). It would be perfectly arbitrary to distinguish in the juridical institution prevailing at this phase a more archaic phase in which it would be only a religious rite from a more modern one in which it belongs entirely to law (ibid 18). And in the absence of proof, it would be unreasonable to define the practice as more or less religious, or more or less juridical. However, as the oaths in the earliest documented times were sworn invariably to gods, calling the gods as witness, we have strong enough foundation to conclude that the oath derived its infallible credibility from the gods to whom it was sworn. The oath, thus, is the relationship that unites words and things/actions, whose indissoluble link is guaranteed by the name of god.

Agamben, thus, builds a metaphysics of the name (of god), which identifies in naming and the name “the very event of language in which words and things are indissolubly linked’ (ibid 46): the utterance of the name (of god) “immediately actualizes the correspondence between words and things” (ibid 49), and the oath becomes thus “the experience of language that treats all of language as a proper name” (ibid 53). This name is transformed into a curse if this relation is broken. Blasphemy is a form of oath in which the name of god, instead of guaranteeing the connection between words and things, is extracted from the context and uttered in itself, in vain, expressing thus the breakdown of language and its vanity (Salzani 103). The invocation of gods renders the oath sacred, and whatever sacred being consecrated to the gods and excluded from the world of men, when one swears the oath to a god, one gives oneself up to the god named. The credibility of the oath, thus, is built on the fear of the curse of the god at perjury, and it is generally believed that man fears the curse of the gods and so they prefer to keep their word. The oath thus results from “the conjunction of three elements: an affirmation, the invocation of the gods as witness, and the curse directed at perjury” (Agamben 31).

While the oath archaeologically has drawn its binding power from the testimony of the god or gods named, humans have always had a fundamental problem with this architecture of the oath, and this problem has become a crisis in our time when belief in God or gods has almost irreversibly declined and “‘we live our own collective life without the oath as a solemn and total, sacredly anchored bond to a political body’ (Prodi, quoted in Agamben 1) meaning that “we find ourselves, without being conscious of it, on the threshold of ‘a new form of political association’ whose reality and meaning we have yet to recognize” (Agamben 1). If the credibility or the affirmative potency of the oath is necessarily derived from the testimony of the divine, then does this necessity render an atheist incapable of making an oath thereby immediately outcasting him/her from god and the law (which still necessarily has the parties of a case swear by the scriptures of their religions) and hence from society in general, which in consequence makes him/her free to lie or claim anything without them having to anchor the content of their speech to certain verifiable reality or fact of lived life? When even a believer or a person who is affiliated to a religion can perjure and blaspheme, how sure are we that he/she (an atheist) will remain faithful to his word? If an atheist is reliable at all in this scheme, then where does his speech draw its credibility from? To find the answer Agamben, at one point, looks at the anthropological level of the oath (or rather confirmatory or promissory utterance), “defined by the correspondence between words and actions” (Agamben 21):

This [correspondence] happens not only on the theological level, in that it defines God and his logos, but also on the anthropological level, since it relates human language to the paradigm of divine language. If the oath is, in fact, that language that is always realized in facts and this is the logos of God (in De sacrificiis […] Philo writes that “God spoke and it was done, with no interval between the two […]”), the oath of men is thus the attempt to conform human language to this divine model, making it, as much as possible, pistos, credible (ibid 21).

Here Agamben seems to confer an almost infallible reliability on language. However, whether a person believes in God or not, language is such that “oaths could, if taken literally, signify something different from what the person to whom they were given could understand” (Agamben 8) or something (with a scope of meaning) different from what the oath maker honestly intended. Even if humans were incapable of lying and were perfectly honest, even then language would have surely introduced an interval between utterances and things—utterances cannot have fixed meanings. Thus Agamben, at the end of the book, maintains:

It is perhaps time to call into question the prestige that language has enjoyed and continues to enjoy in our culture, as a tool of incomparable potency, efficacy, and beauty. And yet, considered in itself, it is no more beautiful than birdsong, no more efficacious than the signals insects exchange, no more powerful than the roar with which the lion asserts his dominion (Agamben 71).

With God no more being the witness and language being not reliable enough, Agamben resorts to the ethics of some kind for the oath to be restored because it “regulates the relations among men as much as those between peoples and cities” (ibid 23):

The decisive element that confers on human language its peculiar virtue is not in the tool itself but in the place it leaves to the speaker, in the fact that it prepares within itself a hollowed-out form that the speaker must always assume in order to speak—that is to say, in the ethical relation that is established between the speaker and his language. The human being is that living being that, in order to speak, must say “I” must “take the word,” assume it and make it his own (ibid 71; original italics).

And it is in this ethical relation that the “sacrament of language” takes place precisely because “unlike other living things, in order to speak, the human being must put himself at stake in his speech, he can, for this reason, bless and curse, swear and perjure” (ibid 71).

If we base the question of the oath only on issues surrounding divinity, honesty, and perjury, we would be doing injustice to other areas of life where other issues figure at least significantly. People, with all their honesty, often fail to remain loyal to their words because, as it is often the case, they make oaths in certain set of perceived conditions and then living into the future they often genuinely find themselves in different circumstances in which they can no more keep their words without causing more harms than unwillingly reneging on their promise would cause.[3] Or people often learn and unlearn things, which at least significantly transforms their worldviews. Thus what we once would have died for may become a folly or bane today, in which case it sometimes becomes necessary for us to draw back from the promises we once made. Sometimes, depending on the nature of the oath we took, we find it is unjust to remain faithful to the oath we swore and have to recant:

if it is lawful not to observe an oath with pirates, with whom, as hostes omnium [enemies of all], it is not possible to have a common trust, it would be unjust “to confound by perjury the terms and covenants of war made with an enemy (ibid 23).

It now seems that while all of us at least agree that oaths are meant to be kept, that is, to be confirmed by facts or actions demanded by the oaths, the binding power of oaths is inflected by our understanding of truth, faithfulness, and our moral sense (our weaknesses and strengths), and our changing understanding of the whole situation in the light of all what we know and how we feel about things in general. It is thus thought and then ultimately language that unites and divides people.

The law, nation and culture are also constructs the building blocks of which are concepts constituting language. Coming back-forward, the law, nation and culture are acts of language because the “truths” (in the plural) which the ideas of the law, nation and culture (among other human artifacts) claim to be conforming to are constructs in language.[4] And being acts of language, their meanings can never be fixed, and they are always subject to interpretation. Actually, poststructuralism-informed Critical Legal Studies (CLS) treats legislature dead in the law court and vests the judge with the authority of interpreting the laws written in the legislature and holds him/her responsible for the substantive meanings he/she creates in the act of reading/interpretation. While poststructuralism is not a position of convenience,

it is even convenient and better, with regards to law and its courtroom interpretation, that the legislature is dead because it is practically not possible to reconvene the same assembly meeting which passed the law in question every time its interpretation encounters issues. It is not a matter of inconvenience or unavailability of the lawmakers, but repetition with no difference is never obtainable (O’Cottage 46).

The law, thus, lies in language. It, then, stands to reason that the state is a product of the law (its constitution and the other legal codes surrounding it which together make the whole legal body of the state). In other words, the state is a multiplicity of linguistic acts. With all its intricacies and resisting force, the body of law that constitutes the state along with its other components (territory, population and sovereignty) remains inherently nebulous and volatile and subject to interpretations in myriad possible ways we have been unaware of or unaccustomed to. In fact, this indeterminacy is what propels the law as is the case with any other aspect of life where thought and language form a part. It is this indeterminacy leading to agreement or disagreement on terms that makes it possible for new nations and nation-states to be formed by breaking away from former unions, or for nations or states to merge into larger formations. “Agreement or disagreement on terms” here is crucial because agreement on terms sends communities or nations or states into taking oaths investing themselves in each other’s trust for some common good in the future, while disagreement on terms often leads to wars or preexisting oaths/contracts being affected badly.

Every aspect of humans’ social life (friendship, family, community, nation, state, international relations, and the market), thus, is built on trust (fide), which is fragile because one the one hand we humans can lie and perjure and on the other hand with all our honesty we are often at odds with each other due to the inherent problems of language and to the fact that the constitution of our knowledge and moral sense changes over time.

Agamben opens and closes the book with an observation: our time sees the irreversible decline of the oath and this crisis entails a radical—though unforeseeable—transformation in the forms of political association. Without the bond of the oath that held them together, the living being is reduced to its biological reality (bare life), and the speaking being is lost in an unprecedented proliferation of vain words (blasphemy). He does not provide a way out from this deadlock, but it is certainly not a return to an ethical past. In fact restoring the oath in its most binding and infallible form would not do much good because by nature humans are radical and they cannot be contained in the straitjacket of oaths in the past for the whole of their future. It is actually unfortunate that lies, deceptions, and other forms of falsehood, like truth and facts, have gone into the making of our culture, history, politics, and identity (O’Cottage NP), but this is the hard truth we have to come to terms with, not for us to adopt a cavalier attitude to such moral problems but for us not to lose trust in humanity when oaths are sometimes violated.

Notes
[1] Given that language and thought are two different things, the debate as to which of these is primary despite the mutually causative relation between them is still on. Such modes of thinking as visual thinking and instinctual thinking which are based on sensuous perceptions and pure instincts are more ancient than linguistic thinking; however, such more primitive modes of thinking (if we can ever call the process “thinking”) don’t seem to be capable enough to politicize their modes of living. While the issues surrounding the political status of non-human animals is beyond the scope of this paper, the assumption has been made that it is language that makes human political in the sense we understand it. If any animal species, besides humans, have their own language, there must be certain politics (born of the nature of the language) defining their affairs, but the nature of that politics would certainly be different from the politics as we understand it. In the absence of language among animals and/or in the absence of our knowledge of the existence of certain kind of politics born of their own language among animals, we humans tend to indulge in political anthropomorphism by imposing a politics of our kind on the affairs of the animals.

[2] Religion offers truth claims and presents itself as a candidate in the struggle for power seeking to establish certain “police order” (see Rancière 12-19, 89), which is often a mode of political governance and moral regime, in their own scheme of things.

[3] Such senses as selfishness or reasonableness are our constructs and the grounds of our constructs are not universal. So when one party in a formal agreement/contract or an informally perceived mutual understanding finds with all honesty feels it reasonable to withdraw himself/herself from the agreement or understanding, the other may find it utterly selfish. An appropriate, legally stipulated or morally imposed, punishment (according to the stated or perceived terms of exit) may do some good but it does not undo the damage. So our concern is more about the fragility of assertive statements or oaths (which refer to a past fact and hence confirms an assertion) and promissory statements or oaths (which refer to a future act, thereby confirming a promise), than the consequences of the failure, for whatever reason, of a party to keep their word.

[4] Foucault, in The Politics of Truth (2007), reproduces the a French psychiatrist Dr. Leuret’s account (1840) of how he treated one of his patients, “successfully” making him recognize that he (the patient) was mad (though everybody in the old medicine, before the middle of the 19th century, everybody was convinced of the incompatibility between madness and recognition of madness):

One morning Dr. Leuret takes Mr. A., his patient, into a shower room. He makes him recount in detail his delirium.
“Well, all that,” the doctor says, “is nothing but madness.
Promise me not to believe in it anymore.”
The patient hesitates, then promises.
“That’s not enough,” the doctor replies. “You have already made similar promises, and you haven’t kept them.” And the doctor turns on a cold shower above the patient’s head.
“Yes, yes! I am mad!” the patient cries.
The shower is turned off, and the interrogation is resumed.
“Yes, I recognize that I am mad,” the patient repeats, adding, “I recognize it, because you are forcing me to do so.”
Another shower. Another confession. The interrogation is taken up again.
“I assure you, however,” says the patient, “that I have heard voices and seen enemies around me.”
Another shower.
“Well,” says Mr. A., the patient, “I admit it. I am mad; all that was madness.”
[…] He is not trying to persuade his patient that his ideas are false or unreasonable. What happens in the head of Mr. A. is a matter of indifference for the doctor. Leuret wishes to obtain a precise act: the explicit affirmation, “I am mad.” (Foucault 147-148)

Works Cited
Agamben, Giorgio. The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath. Trans. Adam Kotsko. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011.

Aristotle. Politics. Trans. C.D.C. Reeve. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. What is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. The Politics of Truth. Trans. Lysa Hochroth and Catherine Porter. Sylvere Lotringer vols. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007.

O’Cottage, Thoithoi. Ground/less: A Few Stray Leaves. New Delhi: Library of Springbell Cottage, 2013.

—. “The Lapse of Honesty.” 11 12 2015. Lake Bard: Poetry, Film, Philosophy, Photography, and Cultural and Critical Theories. 11 12 2015. 8 September 2016 <https://lakebard.wordpress.com/2015/12/11/lapse-of-honesty/&gt;.

—. The Aesthetic and the Political: Translations and Critical Essays. New Delhi: Library of Springbell Cottage, 2016.
Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Trans. Gabriel Rockhill. New York: Continuum, 2004.

Salzani, Carlo. “The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of Oath (trans. Adam Kotso).” Journal of Contemporary European Studies 20.1 (2012): 103-104.

A Hole in the Walls of Life

A loan shark (God’s mercy be with him because he needs salvation more than any good person–what would mercy do if it does not go where it is due or wanted?) forced open the legs of a woman claiming after thirty years to be his mother and I heard him say to her:

I came out of that, huh? Now let me get back in there. I hate this world.

That was unbearable.

Life proves shatteringly tough to some. They sometimes imagine the reality of some deus ex machina, some hole or crack in the walls of life through which to escape out into somewhere. Into some cave, be it the same as the one the unconceived are in or something different. Some hole out of life.

Suicide is an attempt to make a hole in the walls of life, leading to someplace nobody knows nothing about. The motive is just to escape the pain felt at the present moment, without knowing what the supposed or imagined refuge (if it really exists, but nobody can testify to its reality) have in store for the deserter. The motive is more of disappearance from the current pains than of landing somewhere. I believe, in most cases sucides do not have time to imagine an alternative world with a different order of things, which is the profession of philosophers and philosophers very rarely commit suicide not because (it seems to me) they look at suicide from certain established religious perspectives and consider it a sin or because they after careful examination and comparison prefer this life to the probable one into which suicides escape, but because they have problems of thought regarding this commitment and what (if any) may follow it.

Damn. Stop it.

Reluctant Liberation? 😁

Hinduism. The end: the end of samskara.
How? By committing karmas without a shadow
that ties you to the ground.
Love, hate, riches, debt–they tie you to the ground.
You are a kite belly-creeping on the floor. Swimming on concrete and stone.

Ship. My achor just drags.
Love, hate, riches, debt. All mud.
Nothing holds. They just give way. Such honor.
My anchor cast like a hook. No love bites.
Mouthless. Debt. I love it, too.
Too weak to ground me by itself.
Riches and hate. Don’t give a damn.
Am I a saint? Reluctant moksha?😁

Freedom: Introduction

Why I am interested in the talk on freedom
Freedom has consistently been a nagging topic the whole of my life. Most of what I have been doing which I value most have been either in the liminal realm where the line between the ethical and the unethical, and the legal and the illegal is unresolvably blurred or right beyond standard acceptability.

What is freedom to one is often not freedom to another. Worse, many acts of freedom by some are objectionable or harmful to others. We often fear the freedom of others because the freedom of others often poses a threat to us in many ways. Individuals and groups enter into relationships (be it interpersonal social relationships, individual-individual legal agreements, or community-community or international relations) not only because of love but also because of the mutual fear of their freedom so that they check on each other. It is the prevalent ethical norms and legal codes that decide on such matters, which means that it is mostly the majority that sets the standard, while majority and truth are different categories and may or may not overlap. Every prevalent set of norms and codes is a paradigm and history is replete with evidences of paradigm shifts. It is the powerful and the persistent that set the norms of every new paradigm and maintain them until a new set of stronger forces for a newer paradigm supplants it.

Biologically and psychologically humans sense and hence know what is pleasurable and life-enhancing and thus good to them, or painful, life-threatening and thus bad. However, when human individuals or groups use pleasure/pain against each other for their own individual or group satisfaction (such as the infliction of extreme pain to elicit forced consent or cooperation), judgment of actions based solely on pain/pleasure principle becomes too crudely inadequate.

So, what is it that prevails? Truth? Or might? Or the fittest? We need to look closer into these.

Every new force that supplants an older paradigm originates in a previously unseen, apparently insignificant or minority  space, and they persistently push through all the way up from the bottom to the top where the supplantation takes place. It matters how we look at new forces and new practices and manners propelled by new forces.

What kicked up the freedom dust these days

Recently the whole nation exhibited mixed feelings–most were confused–when some sloganeered on a supposedly controversial note at a students’ cultural program in the JNU, kicking up the controversial dust of sedition and freedom of speech.

The other day, in response to a picture a friend shared on a WhatsApp group with members from a diverse range of religious, cultural and political backgrounds, I posted a few lines which literary theorists may define as absurdist (though I am not an absurdist, nor an existentialist beyond a short extent). I wrote:

God was a squirrel. Some mad dog chased it, ran after it up the tree, squeezed its head to reddish jelly and ate it.

Who the hell knows about god more than the crazy god-eater dog? ABVP? BJP? Confused comrades?

God is useful to a dog.
The flesh is good meat.
The blood is dog-toilet cleaner.
God’s skin is dog-winter fur that can be mothballed in summer.
Part of the skin can go as toilet paper.
ISIS and their other-religion counterparts are dealer in such commodities. Business firms.
We doing theories written by or born of them.

Praise who the fucking god there is/was, eaten or alive.

That elicited sharply opposing responses from some members. Some said people can say what they feel like saying–freedom of speech–though they might not necessarily share my view. One said freedom should be practiced with some principle. I don’t know if he erroneously jumped to the conclusion that I am a practitioner of freedom without any principle. (It’s all principles that we disagree about. Nothing else.) The rest remained silent. The group being not a space for discussions of such kind, I avoided talking about the point–I just said some things just to show that I have a point to make if anybody argued.

The discussion ended there. That was not a discussion in the true sense of the term because the point made in whatever followed what I quoted above was about whether it is right or wrong to say such things, not about the merit of the matter.

It all happened while the JNU nationalist/anti-national issue was still burning, and we were yet to get back to our studies.

The next night a friend in the group raised the question of freedom again in a private conversation–over tea and then dinner, and then a short walk. I have always been wary of discussion starters when people may not have the patience or time to go into the matter to a meaningful extent, because moral/ethical or legal basics are never the topics of easy, short and casual chitchats. With all my high regard for the friend, I believe (while I may well be wrong in this belief) that he has a short attention span for many issues I like and I have tried talking with him about, and I suspected his interest in a talk about freedom, though I know this issue is troubling him, would not last long into that night, probably for that night. Despite that I took up the topic when he asked,

What do you think about freedom of speech? Should people have complete freedom?

I do nearly never have a YES/NO answer to anything, if I believe the questioner is confused about it and they want to know what I believe. My not having a simple YES/NO or a short answer is at least a sizeable honor I give them. I do not give my time to anybody randomly by way of talking. I talk with people who I know have at least some stretch of interest in similar fields, irrespective of their belief or opinion. Yes, I know only a few people in the world–I don’t know the rest of the world. My reply covered both ends of the argument, as I usually do, rendering it self-contradictory sounding:

People should have complete freedom, but they should chain themselves in.

He said I was confused. I was not. I am not. Not that I have an all-satisfactory answer to this issue. There are a lot in that statement.

Why I will write about freedom
The discussion that night was not fruitful. So, I will not reproduce it here. However, this and what happened on the WhatsApp group chat have made me feel like writing about this on a serious note. This post is an introduction to what will come in the next series of posts.

Freedom matters to me a lot, personally. Entrenched beliefs make society possible–they enable the disparate elements of society to operate cohesively. The set of entrenched beliefs functions as the system and when anybody, for whatever reason, falls off the system, they become an anomaly. Is being an anomaly necessarily bad? How do you determine something is good or bad? What are your moral standards? What do you derive your morality from? All cultures in the world have their own sets of entrenched beliefs, and what is right and honorable in one culture may wrong or immoral, or immaterial or even meaningless in another. The laws of one country are different from those of any other. This seems to suggest that anomalies should have a rightful place in the moral and legal world, with much hairsplitting negotiation for some.

A society every single one of whose members abides by the rule one hundred percent would know no growth. For a society to grow, legally and ethically, there should be elements in it that challenge and push the established ethical and legal boundaries. The ideas of freedom, equality and democracy were born of such boundary pushing. There can be freedom yet to be there which we cannot even think of or we find objectionable at the moment. The moral and legal practices we regard as wholesome today would have been downright objectionable if some individuals practiced them one hundred years ago. For a society to undergo change, for the better or worse, (a society cannot remain stagnant), there should necessarily be some anarchist elements in it.

Mixture of Rigidity and Flexibility

The world works on pleasure principle, the instinctive seeking of pleasure and avoiding of pain to satisfy biological and psychological needs. The guiding principle being the basic force every individual is driven by, pleasure turns out to be an intrinsic value, the pursuit of which is all the noises in the world are all about. Even masochism and gruesome forms of indulgence are pursuits of pleasure. Pleasure being a basic value, and the world being made up of things that can give us both pleasure and its opposite pain, we live perennially in a mixed value economy in which pain and pleasure cannot, meaningfully and sustainably, be conceived of independently of each other. Pleasure is positively valuable while pain is negatively valuable.

As pleasure is positively valuable, things that can produce or maximize pleasure derive, though indirectly, positive value from the purpose they serve–pleasure. Whatever produces or maximizes pleasure are valuable to the relative extents they serve the purpose, while those that don’t produce or maximize pleasure are considered not useful or redundant in a utilitarian sense, if they don’t produce pain. Whatever produces pain adds extra value to whatever produces pleasure.

Our senses of economy and economics, politics and government, family and society, all of these, are based on this valuation. A person who gives more pleasure (be it in the form of emotion, food, clothes, sex and other bodily senses, or art) to another person is more valuable to the latter than any other person, depending on what kind of pleasure he/she considers dominant for himself/herself. An economic or political theory that caters to the pleasure-cravings for the more number of the population is more valuable than another economic or political theory which satisfies the pleasure-cravings of the less number of the population.

Religion is also based on pleasure principle. If a religion cannot distribute pleasure equally and evenly to all of its followers, then the religion is configured more for certain sections than others. Ethics also swings on this principle. Its do’s and don’ts are about balancing of behavior among the members of the community that follows the same ethical principles so that the pleasure of A does not inflict pain on B or more. Ethics, thus, is about self-control or self-restraint, because the world we live in is far from perfect and it is fragile in all respects and only the fine balance of self-restraint among its members holds all things together. However, ethics, though this is the best balancing force available to us, cannot make the world perfect, because any ethical setup itself is configured in a way that it cannot distribute pleasure equally and evenly among its followers, indicating the need for its change from time to time.

The world, thus, is changing system in a chaos. It is neither wholly an rigidly established system  nor wholly a chaos. There is crucial mixture of a degree of rigidity or resistance change and a degree of flexibility favorably disposed toward change. Our abstract ideas of freedom and liberty, ethics and morality, family and community, society and nation, law and justice should take this mixture into account lest we should run the risk of either strangulating ourselves with a unnegotiably rigid system  or being given to the chaos of moral and political debauchery in which freedom clashes with freedom at random and at maximum speed possible.