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The commodification of violence


Shiv Visvanathan

Shiv Visvanathan

From Partition and the Emergency, to displacement by dams, the Bhopal tragedy, agricultural suicides and riots, we realise that India is a great body that digests violence and is content to live with the logic of it

Over the last few decades, I have spent a lot of time studying violence, trying to make sense of the phenomena. I have worked hard at finding the right language to describe violence. One has tried to understand the various forms of violence and the way to respond to it. As I struggled with my narratives, I realised that one has spent too much time analysing the production of violence. One day I found myself on the back foot when a friend of mine said, “Violence is not merely manufacture, it is a ritual of consumption. Today, in India, it is the spectator and the consumer who thicken the sources of violence. Victims of violence are rarely violent. Studies of Partition will show you that victims of Partition are rarely as violent as those who consume stories of Partition. It is the consumer of violence who is the true communalist. It is the spectator who is truly blood thirsty as he tries to rectify history.”

Consumption and violence

I first thought my friend was exaggerating. I thought to myself: if capitalism can move from production to consumption as a source of action, why not violence? I started going through my files and collected stories about spectatorship, consumption and violence in support of this.

In fact a colleague told me to start with a study of the digital world. I remember two stories in particular. At a local college, a few rich students were returning drunk after a weekend. The security guard stopped them at the checkpoint. The students flew into a rage and smashed his mouth. As the guard staggered off bleeding, one of the students took a selfie of himself and the victim and posted it on his Facebook account with delight and pride.

I was aghast till I remembered another story. A few years ago I was teaching at a computer science institute where students used to spend nights watching pornography. They loved getting together and discussing what they saw. I also discovered none had a girlfriend. They confessed openly that while girls were unpredictable, porn had an enjoyable predictability. Sexuality was preferable as consumption. A real-life relationship required agency while understanding consumption gives you a sense of the real at a distance. It allows violence as repeatability. One can play with the event, rework it, and also look at the combinations. One replays it like a tape and is seduced by its permutations.

I remember when I was studying the Gujarat carnage of 2002, a schoolteacher once rushed to me urgently mistaking me for a psychiatrist. She said, “Look, I have to talk to you,” and added, “No, it’s not about the riots. It is about my children.” I was intrigued. She mentioned that she had two children, a boy and a girl, the first who was 10 years old and the girl about 12. She told me, “They fight a lot. That I don’t mind. Children can be quarrelsome. It is the way they fight that bothers me. Every time my son gets angry with my daughter, he tells her, ‘If you don’t listen to me, I will do to you what Hindus did to Muslim women’. She added, “That I cannot take.”

The banalisation and ritualisation of violence as consumption allows repetition. It even involves a sense of participation; as collective acts of solidarity. I remember another incident where a pickpocket was caught in a bus. Two men felled him and tied him to a pole. As he staggered and screamed, everyone who was in the bus came and slapped or kicked him. The whole event had a bizarre quality to it. It is almost as if such participation creates a ceremonial quality to the act. It is as if consumption and participation consolidates a sense of blood thirstiness.

Sometimes when I read the newspaper in the morning, I go numb. Devastating acts of violence are recorded so impersonally. In contrast, weather reports have a human interest angle to them! Last week there was a small news capsule, of a senior officer who was arrested for molesting a retarded women. It does not make sense but as I do a census I sense that the consumption of violence needs a deeper analysis.

“ People seem to perceive violence like a short-lived piece of chewing gum. Once the flavour is gone, one spits it out and forgets it. ”

I also think of a simple every day event on TV, of a famous television anchor — he utters the line “the nation wants to know” — who carries out his rituals of TV vigilantism by verbally attacking people. People do condemn this yet a lot of Indians gather around their TV sets to watch his ritual executions every day. Even symbolic acts of killing seem to provide people with a deep sense of satisfaction. They get both a sense of revenge and a halo of machismo, like toreadors who have brought down a recalcitrant bull.

No emotion, but narcissism

I also realise that the consumption of violence deadens the consumer. As we watch a society being subject to violence, we get inured to it. It is as if it is an everyday ritual and somehow you feel people deserve it. We objectify suffering because they seem to deserve it. For example, one can see it in the way we talk of Kashmir or Manipur. We see casualties there as inevitable, logical, and a punishment these societies deserve for bad behaviour. In fact ours is a society where we have begun taking rape for granted or where we even blame the victim for it.

What is even more stunning is a certain narcissism that violence creates. One sees it in well-dressed, well-heeled gangs which misbehave to attract attention. When an old man or neighbour reprimands them, they beat him to pulp, angered by his objection. These male gangs use each either as a mirror, consuming their own violence and viewing it as a sign of potency. In fact, these new VIPs of violence create such events for their own consumption. In Delhi and Haryana, one can come across many such anecdotes.

One consumes violence also in the way we code or narrate it. By reducing violence to a number or as a policy we impersonalise it and even create a false objectivity around it. I remember a speech by a now powerful economist at a seminar on urbanisation where activists were talking about resistance in the informal economy. The prominent economist shrugged it off by saying, “urban planning is about suffering and the planner decides who shall suffer. One cannot avoid suffering; we can at best decide when to inflict it.”

There was something eerie about the statement as if violence was an everyday event, a part of policy and all one had to do was hand it out in pipettes. Fixing a number only banalises and cauterises violence. As Albert Camus, the Nobel Prize winning author, journalist and philosopher — and reflected in the essay, “Reflections on the Guillotine” — realised, statistics do not bleed. As a result, numbers objectivise violence and make it easy to consume. We do not ask what the larger meaning of what 20 million people displaced by dams or ten million people displaced by rioting means. These are no rituals of mourning, no attempt to create a lived memory.

In fact, people seem to perceive violence like a short-lived piece of chewing gum. Once the flavour is gone, one spits it out and forgets it. Similarly, violence gets erased easily as memories rarely last. One sensed this while watching those displaced by the Narmada project protest that the State had forgotten them. As the Jal Samadhi proceeded, the media gave them a few quick shots of attention and then moved on to the politics of the day. The obverse side of consumption is erasure, and banalisation where violence is domesticated, made routine or forgotten. In fact, we get angry with victims who remind us of their suffering. One witnessed this in the Bhopal gas disaster where after a while the survivor stories failed to move us. We treated each survivor as a person out of sync with the inevitabilities of growth.

Calculating the dosage

Assuming calculability and banality make violence easy to digest, in fact, we see it as inevitable, and start calculating the dosages required. Suffering and violence are now subject to calculation. Our ethics contains a core of economics wherein forms of suffering can be calculated and decided upon. War and terror carry these algorithms of violence. They create what social scientists call the micro-politics of violence. Violence is “liveable and consumable”. All it now needs is a cost-benefit analysis, a census of the dead. It becomes another form of problem-solving where it is seen as an externality on a cost to be handled. Such an attitude provides a touch of machismo to our technocratic elite as they plan new wars, new dams and even new security establishments. As we list our roll-call of violence — from Partition and the Emergency, to dams, the Bhopal tragedy, agricultural suicides, to riots — we realise that India is a great body that digests violence and is content to live with the logic of it, happy with conceptual ideas like security, growth and desire which allow us to calculate, consume and erase violence. What was once a scandal, a Dostoevskian story, is read now as a quick calculus and absorbed into the logic of our lives. Between perpetrators, planners and consumers, there is a new complicity; a social contract where violence is consumed with ease, and picked off the shelf in the new supermarkets of history. Pornography and the new games of violence allow repeatability and alteration. My point is a simple one. The new consumerism allows violence to be replayed and enjoyed. Second it marks the end of the storyteller. As abstract number and mechanical repetition take over, an artificial world is created where violence, like a game, can be consumed with ease. The robotisation of the world begins in the mind.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.) 


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