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Life and Words

Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary

Veena Das
Foreword by Stanley Cavell
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Life and Words
    Book Description:

    In this powerful, compassionate work, one of anthropology’s most distinguished ethnographers weaves together rich fieldwork with a compelling critical analysis in a book that will surely make a signal contribution to contemporary thinking about violence and how it affects everyday life. Veena Das examines case studies including the extreme violence of the Partition of India in 1947 and the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 after the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In a major departure from much anthropological inquiry, Das asks how this violence has entered "the recesses of the ordinary" instead of viewing it as an interruption of life to which we simply bear witness. Das engages with anthropological work on collective violence, rumor, sectarian conflict, new kinship, and state and bureaucracy as she embarks on a wide-ranging exploration of the relations among violence, gender, and subjectivity. Weaving anthropological and philosophical reflections on the ordinary into her analysis, Das points toward a new way of interpreting violence in societies and cultures around the globe. The book will be indispensable reading across disciplinary boundaries as we strive to better understand violence, especially as it is perpetrated against women.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93953-0
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Stanley Cavell

    Veena das speaks of her “repeated (and even compulsive) reliance on Wittgenstein” as playing a role in the philosophical friendship that has developed between us. Beyond the clear evidence for this observation, the truth of it, from my side of things, is further confirmed, if perhaps less clearly, in an early and in a late thought of mine, each expressing my sense of an anthropological register in Wittgenstein’s sensibility, thoughts not reflected in Wittgenstein’s well-known recurrence, in his later (or as the French put it, his second) philosophy, to imaginary “tribes” different from “us.” I would like to mark my...

  4. ONE The Event and the Everyday
    (pp. 1-17)

    It so happens that for many years now I have been engaged in thinking and writing about violence and asking what kind of work anthropology does in shaping the object we have come to call violence. I have a picture of this book as some kind of map (or a fragment of one) of the distance that I have traveled since I first realized how much of my intellectual biography was tied up with questions around violence: my journey is not about going forward, but rather about turning back, about collecting words and thoughts that I think of as having...

  5. TWO The Figure of the Abducted Woman: The Citizen as Sexed
    (pp. 18-37)

    Writing in 1994, the well-known historian of the subaltern Gyanendra Pandey took the neglect of the Partition in the social sciences and in Indian public culture as a symptom of a deep malaise. Historical writing in India, he argued, was singularly uninterested in the popular construction of the Partition, the trauma it produced, and the sharp division between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs it left behind. He attributed this blindness to the fact that the historian’s craft has never been particularly comfortable with such matters as “the horror of the Partition, the anguish and sorrow, pain and brutality of the ‘riots’...

  6. THREE Language and Body: Transactions in the Construction of Pain
    (pp. 38-58)

    In an earlier version of this chapter, I wrote, “In repeatedly trying to write the meaning(s) of violence against women in Indian society, I find that languages of pain through which social sciences could gaze at, touch or become textual bodies on which this pain is written often elude me.”¹ I felt compelled then to look toward the transactions between language and body in the work of mourning, and especially in the gendered division of labor by which the antiphony of language and silence re-creates the world in the face of tragic loss. In the previous chapter, I tried to...

  7. FOUR The Act of Witnessing: Violence, Gender, and Subjectivity
    (pp. 59-78)

    Many recent contributions to the theory of the subject have argued that the experience of becoming a subject is linked to the experience of subjugation in important ways.¹ The violations inscribed on the female body (both literally and figuratively) and the discursive formations around these violations, as we saw, made visible the imagination of the nation as amasculinenation. What did this do to the subjectivity of women? We need to ask not only how ethnic or communal violence was enacted through specific gendered acts of violation such as rape, but also how women may have taken these noxious...

  8. FIVE Boundaries, Violence, and the Work of Time
    (pp. 79-94)

    In contemplating further much recent work on violence I am struck by the sense voiced by many scholars that, faced with violence, we reach some kind of limit in relation to the capacity to represent. Often this argument is staged through the trope of “horror.” We are then invited to consider how human beings could have been capable of such horrific acts on such large scales, as in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. As we saw, the violence of the Partition provides a similar trope of horror in the historiography of India. It appears to me that we render such...

  9. SIX Thinking of Time and Subjectivity
    (pp. 95-107)

    This chapter is a reflection on issues of temporality that surface from the first part of the book as well as a bridge to the next set of chapters in which I try to capture my sense of adjacency to the violence among the survivors in Delhi in 1984. My arguments are not a comprehensive review of notions of time in anthropology—they stem from a very specific issue in the ethnography of the two events under consideration. In the last chapter we saw how Manjit made frequent references to the agency of time. Time is what could strike one,...

  10. SEVEN In the Region of Rumor
    (pp. 108-134)

    Rumor occupies a region of language with the potential to make us experience events, not simply by pointing to them as to something external, but rather by producing them in the very act of telling. In this chapter I try to show how the processes of translation and rotation that we identified work to actualize certain regions of the past and create a sense of continuity between events that might otherwise seem unconnected. Unlike objects around which we can draw boundaries, it is not easy to say when an event begins and when it ends, or for that matter how...

  11. EIGHT The Force of the Local
    (pp. 135-161)

    I want to begin this chapter with a meditation from Deleuze on the nature of the event:

    How different this “they” is from that which we encounter in everyday banality. It is the “they” of impersonal and pre-individual singularities, the “they” of the pure event wherein it dies in the same way that it rains. This is why there are no private or collective events, no more than there are individuals and universals, particularities and generalities. Everything is singular and thus both collective and private, particular and general, neither individual nor universal. Which war, for example, is not a private...

  12. NINE The Signature of the State: The Paradox of Illegibility
    (pp. 162-183)

    Recent formulations on the genealogies of the state have taken inspiration from Benjamin’s discussion on the oscillation between the founding and maintaining violence of law and especially his insight into the ways that the legal form detaches itself from what it is supposed to “represent.”¹ While this approach has been extremely productive in showing the importance of states of exception as lying both inside and outside the law, it also has tended to render sovereignty as if it were best analyzed as a spectral relic of a past political theology. I want to argue, instead, that if we see how...

  13. TEN Three Portraits of Grief and Mourning
    (pp. 184-204)

    I remember these as almost the first words that Shanti said when I met her in her house in Sultanpuri. She was sitting on a bed in a dark room with no windows. Covered with quilts, she seemed to shrink into the smallest space her body could occupy. On one side of the bed was her mother, who had come from Alwar (a nearby town) to look after her. Her unmarried younger sister sat on the floor. An old neighbor, known as the oldamma(mother, old lady), was standing by the door, half in, half out. “What do you...

  14. ELEVEN Revisiting Trauma, Testimony, and Political Community
    (pp. 205-222)

    Toward the end of chapter 3, I alluded to the feeling that I was not able to name that which died when the citizens of the newly inaugurated nation in reclaiming their honor as husbands and fathers were simultaneously born as monsters—or at least that is how the literary figures I read saw the matter. I would like to imagine that this was not a straightforward assimilation of notions of trauma into the historical record in the sense that an unassimilated experience was coming to haunt the nation. I am not saying that there is nothing to be gained...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 223-266)
    (pp. 267-270)
    Veena Das
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 271-281)