Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Veena Das: The Region Of Rumour

Veena Das is a Professor of Anthropology at John Hopkins University and her 2007 book, Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary, is a profound meditation on the question of why humans subject one another to senseless atrocities. In the chapter titled "In the Region of Rumour," Das attempts to make sense of the Sikh Massacre that followed the assassination of India’s Prime Minster Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984. As Das writes, “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 events in one space-time configuration mime events in another.” This leads her to think of "the social in terms of unfinished stories.”

Das suggests that “panic rumours” perverted "the experience of violence here and now" into a reversal where the aggressors became the victims. Images torn from the anchors of the everyday seeped into the understandings of people, forming an unconscious grammar that produced the grievous events. According to Das, these horrific occurrences could only have grown out of the soil of ordinary life.

(Sikhs @ Camp Shahdara, Delhi, 1984)
These "panic rumours" are conceived to spread. Rather than a medium of communication, language becomes infectious, causing things to happen as if in nature. Rumours combined to create the sense of Hindus as vulnerable and they vacated the Sikh of human subjectivity, replacing it with a demonic madness not worthy of a face. In the memorable phrase of Jacques Lacan, the "other" was transformed into a "fantasmagoria of shadows, of fleeting, improvised men."

(Rosangela Renno, Experiencing Cinema, 2004)
Das's conclusions include:

- an event grows out of everyday life, but the world as everyday is obliterated;
- fear of the other is transformed into the other as fearsome;
- unfinished past events mold the present in new, unexpected ways;
- the perlocutionary force of rumour shows how fragile our social worlds are;
- the virtual is always more encompassing than the actual.

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